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Trio by Sarah Tolmie

Trio.jpgI was reading Sarah Tolmie's fantasy novel, The Stone Boatman, when ron_drummond visited in May, and I waxed sufficiently enthusiastic about it to him that he found and gave me a copy of her other book, Trio, while he was here. Trio is nothing like The Stone Boatman other than in exhibiting the sensibility of a poet. As the jacket copy has it: "A collection of 120 sonnets in eight parts, Trio reveals, frame by frame, a married fortysomething female narrator in love with two younger men -- an intellectual and a dancer -- and torn between the claims of the body and mind."

I remember one of the poems revealing that the narrator/poet was in her 40s, but while I'm also pretty certain that the poems mention that she's in love with more than one man, I don't know that I could have figured out that one was a dancer and the other an intellectual, or, for that matter, that she was married to a third. In one of the poems, as I recall, the narrator/poet explicitly says she has kept the identities of everyone (including herself) ambiguous, if not confused, perhaps so that the reader could identify with all of them. To be honest, I almost gave up on the book very early on, because I found it almost inherently precious and coy, and I wasn't sure I was prepared to read a lot of impassioned poetry about love and sex at this particular juncture in my life. I have read another sonnet sequence -- Love, Death, and the Changing of the Season by Marilyn Hacker -- about the rise and fall of a lesbian love affair, so it's not that the sonnet sequence is repulsive to me as a form of literature. I'm not particularly well-read when it comes to poetry, but neither am I completely helpless.

What kept me going with Trio was the way that Tolmie flipped the gender script in a number of powerful ways. First she made the male body the vulnerable object of specifically female desire. (In Hacker's sequence, the female body was still the object of desire, even if the desiring subject was also a woman.) Tolmie also gives her female narrator/poet a sexual swagger and self-confidence that sometimes becomes mocking or condescending toward her male lovers. I found this irritating, and I was fascinated by my own irritation. Was it a purely defensive reaction? (My guess is that the answer is probably, "Yes.") The way that Tolmie made the female in the threesome -- foursome? I'm not sure whether the husband is the subject of any of the sonnets -- the figure of power and judgment and conquest was very unusual in my experience, and she earned my respect with her stance.

It took me a long time to read all 120 sonnets. Reading poetry is just a lot more work than reading most prose. I didn't reread or give a close reading to all the sonnets, but the ones that captured my attention got more of my time and energy. Again, I'm no expert on poetry, and I can't say I picked up on the over all clusters of imagery. (Karen Burnham's review at Strange Horizons strikes me as astute regarding how the poetry works, and she also points out that the narrator has two children, which is another detail I completely missed, along with the husband. Argh!) Anyway, I was also going to point out that Tolmie uses a lot of internal rhyme or near-rhyme, but it doesn't preclude the more typical couplets of sonnets. Here's one of the sonnets that I liked the best, to give you a taste of her poetry:

The love of a poet is a bullet.
Who can you ask to take it? You could not.
Can't bear the searchlight's glare, the ripping stare,
Admixture of what's wanted and what's there,
Compressed into a foreign object lodged
In the brain. Invasive love: it causes pain.
People flee it without knowing what it means,
Instinctually. The bloodied shell, falling
From its graze, carries a payload of
The DNA, fine, clean, a better print
Than the original. Such is the hell
Of the beloved, unable to tell
What he might have been, unimpeded,
Unenhanced, out of the pathway of her glance.

I particularly like how she follows the hell/tell couplet with the internal rhyme of "unenhanced" and "her glance". On the other hand I'm not sure I fully understand the metaphor of the shell. First of all I wonder if she means the slug rather than the shell, since a shell wouldn't graze what's shot at typically. Also if the slug is a load of DNA, isn't that an image of sperm? Or does she mean an ovum? Or is she talking about how the poet creates an image of the beloved that's superior to the original? I guess the latter makes the most sense: the image of beloved perfection created by the poet can become a painful form of distortion, something the real person can't possibly live up to. Blood is thinner than poetry? (She meditates in another sonnet -- one of the swaggering ones -- on how her poetry is making her lovers immortal.)

Other People's Weddings

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Brig, Matt, Molly, and me


I've been trying to take it easy since I got back from Canada, but I had one more bit of traveling almost as soon as I got home. My old college friend Carl L. was getting married to his old love Kari in Portland on July 23rd. I was feeling so wiped out I almost decided not to go, but then I asked myself, "When will you get a chance to see Molly again?" So it was the reunion of old college friends that inspired me to jump on the train to Portland.

Molly was basically my first girlfriend, and amongst other things we lived in the High House with Carl in I believe 1981. When Carl and Kari visited me on my previous trip to Portland, Kari and I figured out that I had actually first met her at Molly's wedding in the 1980s. Molly was instrumental in bringing Carl and Kari together both back then and in their more recent reconnection. Molly is a writer too and a very good one, and I always expected that she'd have sold a novel by now. We talked about that and about how career and children got in the way, but she also told me that she had finally, after years of trying, found a publisher that was willing to look at one of her manuscripts, so I wish her all the best on that front.

I hadn't seen Molly since our old college friend Brig got married, oh, maybe fifteen years ago? I hadn't seen Brig since then either, and I didn't expect to see him at Carl's wedding, since I had asked Carl whether he'd be there and Carl had said no. Well, it turned out that someone else couldn't make it, which opened up a seat for Brig in the tiny pioneer church where the wedding was held. Brig is someone I went to high school with, but we didn't become friends till we went to the college. It turned out that he was throwing a party later that day for a bunch of old high school classmates and I was welcome to come over and play if I wanted to. I didn't want to. For one thing, it sounded like they would be drinking more heavily than I was up for at that juncture, and for another I'm really not very interested in my old high school classmates. For me high school was a semi-traumatic experience that I happily left behind. Brig was from a social group that I think enjoyed the high school experience much more than I did.

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Carl and Kari dance at the post-wedding reception


The wedding ceremony was beautiful and very romantic, telling the story of how Carl and Kari have renewed their love over the years while other things came between them and marriage until now. Carl is my age (mid-fifties) and this is his first marriage. Kari was married once before and has a 19-year-old daughter (who sang "Amazing Grace" at the ceremony, alone and a capella, which I thought was extremely brave of her). I found the ceremony a little uncomfortable, especially coming in the wake of my trip to Canada, because the love story presented was very similar to the one that Hortensia and I tried to tell when we almost got married following our reconnection in 2003.

Still, I was very happy for Carl, who is a total sweetheart in my books. I hope he and Kari can live out the rest of their days together, happily ever after. I don't know Kari nearly as well but really enjoyed chatting with her on my previous visit to Portland. She seems like a pretty grounded person with a good sense of humor.

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Me and Molly after all these years


It was great to see Molly too, although it inevitably inspired other thoughts about my so-called love life and What Might Have Been. She and Matt have two children, Patrick and Isabella, who were both there as well. I believe Patrick is in his early 20s and Isabella is about to graduate from high school. I look at Molly and Matt and think I couldn't have done what they did. I couldn't have been a father, or at least I never wanted to be one. Why not? Why did I go down the path I took, in which I developed occasional uber-romantic infatuations which rarely developed into any kind of real relationship?

My sister and I have discussed this several times, and she, who has also mostly stayed out of realtionships, says it's a preference we have. There's something to that. I've said before that I don't want a co-pilot. I don't want someone with whom I'm constantly negotiating decisions. I want to be independent and do whatever the hell I want to do without argument.

But there's more to it than that too. There's the romanticism. The idealism. The impossible desire for connection with the perfect soulmate. The resulting disappointment and loneliness. I've learned to live with the loneliness, because the alternative has been self-hatred, and fuck that noise. But there doesn't seem to be any resolution of the conflicting desires -- for independence and for romantic submission -- even at my advanced age.

So the old thoughts and feelings tumble through me endlessly, and the nostalgia of a reunion with old friends stirs up ancient dilemmas.

Blame Canada

As many of you will know, I just returned from a fifteen-day road trip in British Columbia and Alberta with an old girlfriend. I'm not going to use her real name here. If you know who it is, then you know; if you don't, you don't need to know -- and neither does Google. I'm going to call her Hortensia in this piece, because that's a pseudonym I used for her over twenty years ago in a fanzine covering difficult and intimate matters, as this piece also will. Please beware that some of this material is extremely personal and may be more than you want to know about me or her. Still, I will make every effort to be discreet about things that she wouldn't want me to talk about in a public forum, because it really isn't my place to tell her story.

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The view from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island


Suffice it to say that the trip didn't go well, or at least was fraught and difficult, with plenty of good stuff mixed in too. First of all, I don't think Hortensia was prepared for how beat down by the chemo I am right now, and she admitted as much at the end. She was frustrated by and impatient with my lack of spark and my inability to retain information such as directions. We spent much of our time together squabbling and bickering like an old married couple, sparring over my mental slowness and her incredulous putdowns of my failures of comprehension. To say that the romance had long since drained out of our relationship is an understatement. It was already gone by 2009, but the old married couple description is meant to indicate that we are still plenty close in a lot of ways. You have to be close to someone to really get on their nerves, right?

Worse than that, however, was the clash of what I'll call religious beliefs. Hortensia has in recent years developed a fascination for certain shamanic practices and what I think of as a New Age approach to life and health. She hadn't gone as far down that road in 2005, when I decided not to marry her after having agreed to in the first flush of our love affair in 2003, but the difference in religious/philosophical outlook was one of the reasons I came to believe (and she agreed at the time) that we weren't compatible. Now she's *really* into it, and from the moment we checked into the airport hotel where we had a more romantic stay in 2003, she started explaining it to me in great detail. Part of it was that she had just been to the Amazonian jungle in Peru and participated in some ayahuasca ceremonies there, and she was eager to share the powerful experience she'd just had.

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Hortensia had brought back Peruvian textiles depicting the ayahuasca plant and visions inspired by it


I've thought at times in the aftermath of this trip together that she was more interested in her healing process (she's trying to overcome trauma from her childhood) than in my health crisis, but I think it's more accurate to say that she rejects Western medicine and wants me to too. She believes that the shamanic practices she's following are superior to Western medicine, and she has in fact teased me that if Western medicine didn't cure my cancer, she'd drag me to the Peruvian jungle to try a different way. Well, by the end of the trip she was acknowledging that I would never let her do that. It spoke to the distance that had grown between us in the meantime.

I hesitate to get into an specifics about our disagreement, because I don't want to characterize her beliefs inaccurately or unfairly. To focus on the thing that probably set me off the worst, however, it seemed to me that she was saying that diseases such as cancer are caused by internal conflicts that we haven't been able to resolve. Thus curing the disease requires us to resolve those internal conflicts. To me this is blaming the victim. I mean, it's one thing to say that a smoker brings on their own lung cancer, but it's another thing to say that someone brings on their own breast or brain cancer. To me, it's even worse to say that it's up to the cancer victim to heal themselves by "resolving the conflict." I'll stop there, because there were other things Hortensia said that seemed outright bonkers to me, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

She told me that it was okay for me to dismiss her beliefs as "hippy bullshit," but it's my impression that I said things along those lines that really hurt her feelings. That's why religion, like politics, is such a dangerous topic to discuss. After all, she is pursuing these beliefs in order to deal with long-standing and devastating emotional pain that, among other things, she tried to self-medicate with heroin when she was in her 20s. By calling her beliefs into question -- by outright rejecting some of them as bonkers -- I was challenging the self-healing process that is bringing her so much relief right now. She is genuinely excited about the progress she's making, and I'm genuinely happy to see it, because I know how much she's been hurting all these years.

Which brings up another thing: Making up for lost time. She spent so many years lost to the world that she is trying to jam as much life and experience as possible into the time she has left. From my perspective it seems a bit manic, but I can also understand what's driving her. The agenda for this trip was largely focused on her connections and her needs, and in the past, when I've been less needy myself, this has been a recipe for grand adventures and new connections for me. It was still the case this time around.

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Hortensia (wearing, it should be noted, my Oregon hoodie), Will, and Lorna on Gabriola Island


We spent the first week driving around Vancouver Island in a rented mini-RV visiting old friends Hortensia had made when she was living there while her mom died of breast cancer in 2009. We spent a night with her mom's friends Alan and Carol, which was a bit difficult because Alan is now as deaf as a post and Carol is starting to lose her short term memory. Then it was off to visit Lorna and Will on Gabriola Island in the Georgia Strait, which was a complete blast, because both of them are total sweethearts and were very responsive to my situation. Will invited me to come back and sail with him on his trimaran whenever I want. Lorna was very maternal and pampered me to the max. Unfortunately this was also where my emotional reaction to Hortensia really spun out of control, and I got so angry that I couldn't sleep one night. As I sat in back of the RV spinning through my 3AM despair, I considered returning to Seattle. However, the whole desperate flight-impulse made me flash back to 1980 when I first visited Hortensia in Vancouver, had sex for the first time in my life, panicked, and fled back to Oregon, leaving her feeling abandoned and distraught. I swore that I wouldn't do that to her a second time, come what may.

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Hortensia repairs the sweat lodge


Fortunately this resolution calmed me down for our next stop, which was on the Cowichan reservation in Duncan. We stayed on the property of a medicine man who goes by the English name Fred. At Hortensia's request on my behalf, Fred had invited us to participate in a sweat lodge. I had never done one before, and here's what I wrote about the experience on Facebook:

'Did half a sweat lodge yesterday, lasting two rounds out of four. It was my first sweat lodge, and I had no idea what to expect, although I wasn't encouraged by Hortensia's reply to my question about what to wear: "Well, you're basically being boiled." [NB: After she read my post, she protested that she hadn't actually said that.] So it was incredibly hot and smoky, and it was so dark you couldn't see anything but the glowing rocks. I closed my eyes and felt claustrophobic and tried not to panic. Fred sat me by the door in case I needed to bail out early. The cool thing about that is that because I was one of the last people going in, Fred gave me the job of using cedar boughs to brush off the "grandfathers" -- the hot rocks -- before they were sent into the lodge. So even though my anxious state of mind meant I felt a little outside the ceremony, I still felt like I played my part. I enjoyed listening to the chanting and Fred's various incantations and speeches, and maybe I would have got more into it if I'd joined in the chanting. Afterward I chatted with a few of the participants, particularly the French-Canadian guy (Sylvain?) who had tended the fire, and that was a lot of fun, listening to the jokes and laughter and stories. He told me that one of the women who had participated was a former national Member of Parliament representing a district on the island. So it was an interesting experience, but I think I prefer to take my religious ecstasy served in the great outdoors of the rain forest, the reef, or the ocean beach.'

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The sporty red car


After we left Fred's place, we left Vancouver Island, traded in the mini-RV for a sporty subcompact, and headed for Alberta, where I'd never been before despite the fact that my father was born there. This stage of the trip was all about visiting Hortensia's family. (She grew up in Edmonton after ten years in Melbourne, where she was born.) In fact, when she contacted me after my GBM diagnosis, she told me she'd already been thinking of visiting Canada this year to see Aunt Helen, because Helen's husband, Roland, had just died. We stayed at Helen's log house in the Canadian Rockies near Mount Robson, and it was gorgeous and peaceful up there, as it had been at Lorna's place on Gabriola Island. I'd met Helen (and Roland) at Hortensia's mom's memorial in 2009. Helen was another very maternal person who pampered me shamelessly, although she also put us to work staining spindles for a balcony that had rotted and needed to be reconstructed. After that, we headed to Edmonton, where I finally met Hortensia's big brother, Lyall, who was great. Wonderful sense of humor and sense of centeredness. He's married to a Thai woman and is a Buddhist. We also visited Hortensia's niece, Elizabeth, who had just moved back from Toronto with her four year old son, Dash. I'd met Elizabeth before, but not Dash, and Hortensia hadn't met Dash either. Hortensia and Lyall had dinner that evening with their cousin Wendy (Helen's daughter), but by that time I was completely wiped out physically and emotionally, and I begged off.

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Helen and Hortensia

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The spindles we stained

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Elizabeth, Dash, and Hortensia


Hortensia was intent on pulling the family together. Elizabeth hadn't visited Lyall, Helen, or Wendy yet (only having moved back from Toronto a couple of months ago), and Hortensia exhorted her to introduce Dash to all of them. The family connections have obviously become more important to her, and the deaths of her mom and uncle, not to mention my cancer, have only impressed on her that the living connections can disappear before you know it. As with the shamanic healing practices for her PTSD, the focus on family connections are all about making up for lost time -- specifically that period when her drug addiction meant she lost contact with her family as well.

So the second week was physically trying because of the long drives involved. By the final day of the trip I was basically numb from exhaustion. It was also, perhaps pathetically, emotionally trying because it was all about Hortensia and not about me. I've really wrestled with this, because I would like to think I'm not such a complete narcissist. On the one hand, I think it was a good reminder that it's not all about me and that other people are dealing with serious problems too. I was also happy to see Hortensia becoming so family-minded, which I think is a very good thing. And again, the fact that she is feeling so much relief from her long-abiding trauma is incredibly good news. It was probably good for me to have the attention shifted elsewhere for a couple of weeks, just to break me out of whatever emotional ruts I may have fallen into. However, it's hard to deny that my immediate reaction to the stresses and strains of the trip, including not always being the center of attention, was to become a cranky, petulant, emotionally volatile pain in the ass. I was definitely on my worst behavior, which only added to my feeling that the whole trip had been a failure and a mistake.

With a few days to recover and gain some perspective through venting to friends and family, I'd have to say that a lot of this is an overreaction. However, the estrangement between me and Hortensia seems real, and maybe it was about fricking time. There's another side to all this that leaves me feeling horribly ashamed and pathetic: My need to cling to my old girlfriends so that I can feel that I haven't been a complete loser at the game of love. Well, I can only imagine Hortensia laughing her ass off at that. The reality is, my emotional neediness aside, whatever distance has grown between us doesn't amount to a hill of beans when you consider the strong connection we've established over the years. As she assured me at the Vancouver International Airport just before we parted, I will always be a major part of her life, and despite whatever grievances I now have, she will always be my first lover and the woman I came closest to marrying many years later. But I suppose we're both feeling more relieved than ever that we avoided the marriage trap. Who knows how much we'd be getting on each other's nerves if we really *were* an old married couple.

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Old friends


ADDENDUM: I showed this to Hortensia before I published it, to make sure I hadn't crossed any lines. Here are a few of her comments, which I offer as a counterpoint to my complaints:

I certainly come off as inconsiderate and self absorbed. I'm sorry that is your biggest impression. I guess that after Lorna's I was pretty unsure how to relate to you and went a bit into action mode. My coping mechanism.

Actually, I was expecting it to be worse. I'm sorry you felt I didn't really connect to your situation. I didn't know how to connect when you reacted so negatively to me.

I'm sorry if you felt I put you down for not remembering stuff. I didn't mean to, and I need to look at that behaviour.

You didn't mention the bear and the elk, and, remember, the long driving in the Rockies was so you could see them. Alone, I would have flown to Edmonton and rented a car there to go to Helen's!


Many thanks to Hortensia for her graciousness in the face of my grievances.

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The view of the Canadian Rockies from Aunt Helen's

Health blip

Just a quick note that the MRI yesterday showed that the tumor still hasn't come back. Of course, there's no reason it should have come back, but I always start to worry right before the MRI. It was even worse this time because it appears that kateyule has had further brain surgery to remove some kind of cancerous mass. My thoughts are with her and David.

I've also received news that I've been approved for the Optune 2.0. The main advantage is that it's much, much more compact. I got to see one at the doctor's office yesterday, and not only is the field generator smaller, but the batteries are about an eighth as big as the old ones. It should be easier to carry around, so that's good. Unfortunately the transducer arrays haven't changed, so gluing those to the head twice a week remains a pain in the ass.

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Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler

Lilith"s Brood.jpgNo, I'm not exactly sure why it has taken me so long to get to the Xenogenesis Trilogy. I guess I disliked Butler's first novel, Patternmaster, enough that it took me forty years to get back to her, despite all the acclaim, including a McArthur Foundation Genius Award, in the intervening years. Well, my loss. This is a great book, initially published as three separate novels called Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). In the future (I don't think Butler specifies how far in the future) a starfaring alien race called the Oankali discover an Earth which has been devastated by a nuclear war between the US and USSR. Most humans and other kinds of animal life are gone or severely damaged. The Oankali "rescue" what life remains on the planet and begins to restore the planet to its antebellum state, mostly in the southern hemisphere where the war had less direct impact.

Meanwhile the surviving humans have been brought aboard the Oankali starships. Over a period of centuries the Oankali attempt to learn how to communicate with the humans and to prevent them from killing themselves when they realize that they are now essentially the slaves and study subjects of an alien race. Eventually we are introduced to a woman whose name is very eventually given as Lilith with whom an Oankali of the ooloi gender (the Oankali have three genders: male, female, and ooloi) finally establishes a relationship. The ooloi begins to teach her (and us) about the Oankali and the plans they have for humanity. What they want from Lilith is somebody to help wake up more humans and acclimatize them to their situation.

What we learn about the Oankali is that they consider themselves genetic traders. They travel the stars looking for interesting genesets that they can appropriate to mix with their own ever-changing geneset, although they do have one starship dedicated to Oankali of the geneset they had on their home planet. The ooloi gender is a kind of genetic engineer. They can store genetic information in memory and in an organ that they use for collecting cells from organisms they encounter. When they mate with males and females, they take genes from all three mates (or more, if there are more) and mix them into a new pattern with an optimum outcome in mind. That's what their gender does. They are also capable of fixing genetic problems that lead to disease, but when they discover cancer in humans they consider it not just a problem but, once properly understood, the key to beneficial side-effects such as being able regenerate lost limbs and organs. The Oankali are very excited about the possibilities inherent in cancer.

The ooloi, and I guess the Oankali in general, can also physically merge with other living organisms and can directly stimulate a nervous system, if there is one. One of the things the book explores is the idea of consent, and what it means when a) the being you are consenting to can correct your genetic flaws and make you stronger and healthier, and b) the being you are consenting to can make you feel pleasure greater than any you've experienced in any other way through direct stimulation of your nervous system. The ooloi are capable of understanding your desires on a direct biochemical/neurological level, and within the context of the novel they often understand what an individual human wants better than the individual understands themselves. So is it rape if the ooloi perceives that the human really does crave the level of pleasure the ooloi can provide, even if the desire causes conflict on the conscious level with the desire to be autonomous?

Butler maintains an uncomfortable ambiguity on the question as she slowly explores Oankali culture and humanity's various reactions to it. There's never any doubt that humanity's choices are limited by the Oankali, but as the Oankali merge the genesets of the two species, the resulting new species is more sympathetic to humanity's stubborn resistance to total co-optation. It's also more adept at overcoming that resistance by offering humans the things they truly desire. Are they in fact better at enslaving humans? It remains an open question.

There's a lot going on in this book. It's a novel of ideas that explores gender, sexuality, reproduction, genetic engineering, free will, consensuality, appropriation. Butler is not a literary writer, and her prose is very plain and direct. What she does, however, is follow her premises deep into their own internal logic, which gives them the dreamlike feel of being truly lived in, truly living. The Oankali world seems to unfurl according to its own reality. We start to feel what an ooloi wants, what it craves, and that begins to shift our ideas about what male and female mean. In a way, the focus of the novel is what it would mean for humanity to have an ooloi gender as part of its reproductive process.

But it's a lot more than that. I started off feeling that I'd never read anything like it, and it's true that Butler has achieved something unique here. She has carved out a niche that will no doubt keep her name alive in the field for a very long time. However, early on the Oankali preference for symbiotic organic technology (e.g. living space ships and suspended animation modules) reminded me of Varley's Nine Worlds and Gaia stories. The way that humans are transformed into something deeply, weirdly alien by their encounter with the Oankali reminded me of Cherryh's 40,000 in Gehenna.

Also similar to Cherryh is the way that sex and rape are uncomfortably intertwined. It's impossible to say that the Oankali aren't raping humanity, but it's equally impossible to say that they aren't learning through the process how to give humanity what they really want, which is the freedom to choose their own path, even if it only leads back to self-destruction. There's no simple morality to be derived from the story, as far as I can tell. There's a sense that rape and perhaps enslavement are inevitable and that all you can do is deal with the consequences the best you can.
I've had my latest monthly meeting (which actually happens every 28 days) with the nurse practitioner overseeing this phase of treatment, and that triggers thoughts of an LJ update even though I'm not sure there's much to report. The good news is that I've recovered from the chemo more quickly in the last two rounds, regaining my appetite for real food within a few days of the last dose taken. This means that I've put about half the weight I lost back on, which is good. In the past week, I've walked four miles on four different days. It exhausted me the first two times, but it was better the second two. Yesterday I had the time I spent in the medical center to rest from the first two miles of the walk, so that helped.

I'm "getting used to" the Optune. I put that in quotes because it's an ongoing process that I'm still uncertain about. After one experiment, I've stopped wearing the actual device in public, although I leave the transducer arrays on my head, hidden as much as possible under a hat. I had gotten two more wall cords to use when I'm at the computer or watching TV upstairs, but when I got my usage stats read last week, Mary warned me that I might be turning it on and off too much, which I decided I was doing when I got up to get a cup of coffee or to urinate, or the zillion other little things you want to do when you think you're sitting in one place for eternity. ("Oops, left the phone over on the nightstand!") So I'm back to using batteries during the day when I need to move around the house more, and just plugging into the wall at night.

I've also gotten permission from my treatment team to leave the Optune behind when I travel. I actually took it with me when I went to Portland for Father's Day last weekend, so I could at least plug it in at night. However, when I go to Canada for two weeks next month, I'll be taking the transducer arrays off and leaving everything behind. Part of the problem for an extended trip like that is that the transducer arrays have to be changed twice a week, and that requires a person who has been trained how to put them on. Denys does it here at home, but he's the only person in my life right now who knows how to do it. Eventually my sister is going to learn how, because Denys is going to be traveling himself later in the year and I'm hoping to spend a week with the family in Central Oregon in August.

I got permission to leave it behind when I travel, but obviously the less I use it the less good I get from it. Carrie, the nurse practitioner, said one of the reasons they're willing to let me take long breaks is that it's not the only treatment I'm undergoing right now. There's always the chemo too. I suppose my usage data and ultimate outcome will help them learn more about the device and what kinds of patterns of usage produce what results. One problem with brain cancer is they can't really monitor what's going on with the cancer cells except through looking for aggregates/tumors using the MRI.

Anyway, aside from treatment, my life has been full of visitations. ron_drummond spent a week here before his mother's memorial on the Oregon Coast. The Fishlifters came out for a week following Corflu in May. It's a little bit strange to see friends who are worried that they may not get a chance to see me again, but I remind myself that they're looking at the worst case scenario, where I only survive the average survival time of fourteen months. If things turn out more favorably for me, which seems likely at this point (knock wood! I actually had a dream in which I angrily warned myself not to get cocky about this), I'll see all these friends again, hopefully more than once.

In Portland last weekend I drank beer with Dan and Lynn Steffan, and I had coffee with my old college friend (and housemate), Carl Lesher, and his fiance, Cari. Their wedding is in July, and I hope to make it to that. I'm so happy for Carl, especially since I had a very favorable impression of Cari, whom I apparently last met, very briefly, at my old girlfriend Molly's wedding back in the '80s. In the meantime I'll be going to Canada to see Sharee for a couple of weeks in the first half of July. We'll be bopping around Vancouver Island in a rented RV for the first week, then we'll rent a car to drive to Edmonton to visit her brother, niece, great nephew, and maybe her aunt who lives on Mt Robson along the way. I haven't seen Sharee in seven years, so this will be something particularly special. It's always an adventure to hang out with Sharee.

So this latest phase of treatment has become more routine, and I'm still managing to live my life in the nooks and crannies of recovery. My abilities, both physical and mental are diminished, but at least I'm having some fun, by gum. Well, in between the bureaucratic paperwork anyway. (The latest is an application for SSDI.)

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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

Winged Histories.jpgLet me start of by recommending that you read Abigail Nussbaum's review of this novel at Strange Horizons, because I think she understands what Samatar is up to far better than I do. In particular, I can't do any better than her concluding comments: "There is too much here to sum up, and the book contains its own contradictions. Almost every statement that it makes—about fantasy, about gender, about identity, about language—is contradicted elsewhere. This is, perhaps, to be expected from a story about the insufficiency of stories, whose characters find their freedom by refusing to be characters anymore. So it’s perhaps inevitable that one would finish this novel feeling both thoroughly satisfied and eager for more, desperate to talk about it and convinced that it can’t be properly discussed. It is—and this, again, comes as no surprise—a major and important work of modern fantasy, and also a meditation on how fantasy is, perhaps, insufficient for all that we want to say."

With this as preface, let me back up a moment and say that I reread Samatar's first novel, A Stranger in Olondriaa, in preparation for reading The Winged Histories, which is not a sequel or prequel but is set in the same secondary world. I loved A Stranger in Olondria just as much the second time as I did the first time; it instantly became one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time. I found The Winged Histories much more difficult, even as I enjoyed very much re-immersing myself in this invented world, with its ornate history full of surprising nooks and crannies, and also in Samatar's sensuous, poetic prose, full of taste, smell, and tactility. Her characters also remain sharply drawn and complicated in very human ways. A Stanger in Olondria is a more focused story, with a single central narrator, although his narrative does come to include the narratives of two other important characters, both women, one of whom is also a narrator in The Winged Histories.

At the end of A Stranger in Olondria, a religious war breaks out between the followers of the orgiastic cult of Avalei and what I described in my review as the more penitential cult of the Stone. The Winged Histories is more or less about that war, but it complicates it by connecting it to a history of political empire-building in Olondria which is essentially a struggle for power between three different ethnic groups whose main point of commonality is that they all speak the Olondrian language. There are four narrators of The Winged Histories, all of whom get their own chapter. Part of what I found difficult about the novel is that I couldn't keep the history straight, and beyond the three cousins at the center of the power struggle in the current war, I couldn't follow the references to members of older generations and their relationships with each other, despite the family tree provided at the front.

It also doesn't help that within each chapter, the narrative seems to be constantly shifting forward and backward in time and breaking into fragments of language (often Oldondrian or other invented languages of the secondary world) that echo and recur in a lyrical way but weren't clearly linked otherwise in my mind, leaving me feeling lost much of the time unless the stories being related in the fragments were about the three cousins. Fortunately three of the chapters are narrated either by one of the cousins or by a lover of one of the cousins (all four narrators, by the way, are women), so other than the one orphan chapter from the point of view the forlorn priestess of the Stone, Tialon, whom we also meet in A Stranger in Olondria, most of the book was actually more focused than I sometimes felt it was. It does build to a climax as well, where the story of the three cousins comes to a kind of resolution, albeit and ambiguous one.

Anyway, Abigail Nussbaum was obviously able to follow the story better than I was, so my problems with it may be a reflection of my current state of mental disability. One thing Samatar does here that I found fascinating is to create a mythology of monsters in the prehistory of Olondria, which appear to be a typically rationalizing Just-So story for a conquering people who want to claim that they brought civilization to a world of uncontrollable barbarity in legendary times. Samatar is doing something more similar to Tolkien in creating her own mythology and languages, but whereas Tolkien is ultimately pretty clear that the stories in the Middle Earth mythology are true, Samatar is more coy and only at the end reveals that the mythology refers to something real. It's quite a spectacular transformation when it happens, in more ways than one. As Nussbaum indicates, however, there's an overarching sense in the book that words don't suffice, so the apocalyptic finale felt strangely unsatisfactory, unlike the perhaps more romantic ending of A Stranger in Olondria. Actually, both novels end with a tragic realization that love, like words, doesn't suffice, although we can't help but try to express ourselves through them anyway, so maybe the two books are less different than I thought.

Whatever the case, Samatar remains a fascinating writer who uses words in ways unlike any other contemporary writer I can think of. She's a unique voice in the modern fantasy field, challenging herself, the genre, and her readers with a complex literary sensibility that resists genre conventions. The Winged Histories didn't seem quite as successful as her first novel to me, but there was plenty of pleasure in the reading of it and exploring more of Olondria.

I admit to feeling a special kinship with Samatar, because her mother was Mennonite (her father was a Somali Muslim), she grew up in Indiana, where I was born because my dad was attending Goshen Mennonite College, which is where Samatar got her own undergraduate degree. (My sister attended Goshen College as well.) Her next book is said to be about Mennonites who immigrated from Russia to Uzbekistan in the 17th century. Sounds fascinating to me, and I really hope I get a chance to read it.

Trying a new hat on

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Dork alert!


Well, it's been a busy week or so in the cancer treatment saga. I was supposed to start my third round of chemo last Wednesday (May 25th), but my platelet count dropped too low, so the chemo was delayed. The interesting thing to me is that the platelet count had been fine (barely) the week before, but dropped after that, which indicates that the previous round of chemo I'd taken at the end of April was still at work. Or maybe it just takes your body a while to respond to the effects of the chemo, I don't know. Anyway, I had my platelets counted again yesterday, and they had jumped from under 90 to over 110. So I started round three of the chemo last night.

Meanwhile, I also finally got approval from my insurance company to use the new Optune technology for treating glioblastoma multiforme. Here's a short description of how the technology works. Basically the device creates low intensity electromagnetic fields that are applied to your brain via transducer arrays glued to the scalp (which has to be shaved), and these fields interfere with the mitosis of the cancer cells, preventing tumors from forming or spreading. Originally it was approved to treat GBM after tumors had recurred following normal surgical, radiation, and chemotherapy treatment, so it was a last ditch treatment when all other treatments had been tried. The results have apparently been so good however, that the FDA has approved it to be used before the tumor has recurred, during the second phase of chemotherapy that I'm currently undergoing.

Well, obviously a cutting edge high tech device like this is catnip to my science fiction friends, and I was pretty excited about it too when I first heard about it. But the more I learned about it, the more anxious I became. It's a complicated piece of equipment, with lots of parts, and in particular keeping it powered is a pain in the ass. There is a way to plug it directly into a wall outlet if you're going to be stationary (e.g., when you're asleep), but it you need to move around, you need to attach it to a battery. (They recommend that you apply the tumor treating fields for a minimum of 18 hours a day, seven days a week, so they prefer that you sleep with it on. This allows you to take short breaks during the day, e.g when you need to take a shower -- with a shower cap to keep the transducer arrays dry.) The batteries last three to four hours, so if you have to take that into account if you're going to be traveling, etc. There's a backpack for holding both the field generator and a battery, so you can carry it around with you, but you constantly have to be aware that you're tethered to this thing.

Perhaps even more of a pain is the application of the four transducer arrays to the scalp -- both sides and front and back. Both Denys and I concluded after watching the training video that I wouldn't be able to do it alone, so somebody who has been trained (which at this point is just Denys) would have to be there to help me. The woman who came out to show us how to use it thought I should be able to do it myself, since my head is large enough that the arrays shouldn't overlap in ways that require trimming, which is hard for patients to do themselves. However, I'm unconvinced. First of all, the arrays have to be applied in a slightly differently place every time, although in a fairly regular way (basically just a pattern of moving forward and backward so that the arrays aren't always glued to the same part of the scalp), and it would require me to be able to see the back of my head. Without an elaborate mirror set up, I just don't see how it's possible without somebody helping me.

So now I feel that I'm tethered and dependent. Obviously going out in public with the backpack, the bandages on my head (even if under a cap) and cords dangling between is going to draw attention. I'm basically feeling very uncertain and anxious right now, and it will take me a few days of living with this to know if I can stand it. Even minor things like taking off and putting on a shirt become more complicated. By the time we had finished the training session yesterday, I was mentally exhausted, but aside from getting irritated at having to carry the backpack around and wrangling the cords, living with the device overnight went okay. There's a fan on the field generator, and I think I need to set it somewhere while I'm sleeping that isn't so close to my ear as where I had it last night, but other than that I seemed to sleep okay.

Still a lot to figure out. Mary, who was the trainer and who will come by periodically to download the database that tracks usage statistics), advised that we change the transducer arrays every three or four days, and recommended that we choose a regular schedule of every Tuesday and Saturday. So Saturday is the next big milestone. When I take the old arrays off, I have to clean my head, reshave it, wash it with rubbing alcohol, then apply the new arrays. The arrays get a little warm too, and Mary said that exposing them to direct sunlight will cause them to malfunction, so I have to wear a hat or other covering when I go out. If my scalp sweats, it can loosen the arrays, so I have to be careful about that too. Hair stubble can both loosen the arrays and cause them to run hotter, because it takes more power to, um, transduce the fields when the arrays aren't in full contact with the skin. Lots of little details like that to worry about until I get a better feel for how this all works.

Maybe it won't be as bad as I fear. I'll be curious to see whether I'll be allowed to take longer breaks from using it, for example during the long trip to BC to see Sharee that I'm planning for next month.

Meanwhile I've also gotten a barrage of paperwork from my long term disability insurance company, so the bureaucratic nightmare isn't quite completely over. It's mostly stuff like direct deposit of checks and getting me signed up for SSDI so that they can pay me that much less, but it's all kind of a pain in the ass, especially when I'm feeling a little pissy and anxious to begin with. Just trying to take it one form and phone call at a time.

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More presentable?

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The Stone Boatmen by Sarah Tolmie

The Stone Boatmen.jpgI picked up this fantasy novel at the last Seattle Potlatch on voidampersand's recommendation, and I didn't know much about it or the author before I started reading it. Within a few pages I looked the author up to confirm my suspicion that she was a poet. She writes prose like a poet: spare, careful, precise, and a little precious. The imagery is strong, and everything feels highly symbolic and subtly ornate.

The thing that makes this novel stand out is the highly original nature of the world it's set in. It's not remotely like generic Fantasyland, and it's not really like any other fantasy world I've read about, although there are aspects of it that reminded me of Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria. Part of this similarity might by stylistic too, since Samatar is also a poet writing a fantasy novel, but part of it is just how different the imaginary worlds are from anything else I've encountered. I've seen The Stone Boatmen compared to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels too, but I have to say that I didn't see it myself. But what I was going to say on this point was that it also strikes me as poetic, in the sense that poems are often about themselves and their own uniqueness. It's almost avant garde in the way it tries to avoid being generic, and yet it also avoids the incoherence that avant garde works can suffer from their lack of connection to anything familiar, at least for an audience unattuned to their individualistic meaning.

Anyway, it's a little difficult to summarize what The Stone Boatmen is about. It's about three cities that are all across oceans from each other and long out of contact although all were founded by the same civilization. One city specializes in rituals, one in poetry, and one in visions, and the deep matter of the story is how each of these things is a type of pattern-finding or meaning-communication. It's a multigenerational novel, with almost every chapter being about a new character who is a descendant of the characters in the previous chapters. It goes at least five generations deep, maybe six. If the story does have a similarity to standard fantasies it's in the way that it's mostly about the aristocracy. In the beginning a ruling family marries into a lower class fishing family, but after that all the characters are from the upper class, with basically unlimited resources to pursue their talents.

All the characters have talents, mostly falling into the three foci of the three cities. Another way that The Stone Boatmen makes me think of Samatar's novel is that both take religion seriously. In The Stone Boatmen this comes in the form of both ritual and vision. Perhaps the poetry functions as a kind of sacrament too. There is no overt religion with a church and gods, however, unlike in Samatar. (There are priests, but no theology to speak of.) Tolmie seems to be trying to tie everything together in the final chapter, but I confess that I'm not sure I understood her argument. It may have been an attempt to rationalize the visions of the future and the deep past that some of the characters experience in terms of pattern-finding. There are a number of twins in the story, and the final seer, Fjorel, observes that they are both identical and yet unique, and that this is true of classes of things in general. She has a revelation about this that may amount to realizing that the similarity of things is true through time, and this allows us to see into the past and the future. However, as I say, I'm not at all sure I understood the revelation.

This is also a non-genre story in the way that nothing much happens. There are adventures of a type, but not much in the way of swashbuckling. Characters and their relationships change, sometimes surprisingly, but it's not really a story of character either. Ultimately it's a story of discovery and ideas, and while I found it a little slow-going at times, I really appreciated the attention to detail and the strangeness of the whole endeavor. The uniqueness of the world is reason enough for the visit.
Well, I have received a check in the mail and have been told another is on the way, so I think it's now safe to claim that the problem of my long term disability insurance policy has been resolved. Some of you who have memories too good for your own good may remember that many months ago, I contacted the UW Benefits Office to inquire about prospects for my early retirement due to terminal cancer. The first person I talked to delivered the glad news that I had been buying optional long term disability insurance all these many years of employment at the UW (something I had forgotten I was doing), which qualified me for a benefit of 60% of my salary while I was considered disabled by the cancer.

When this person hadn't sent me the paperwork to file a claim on this LTD policy a week later, I called back, only to be told that the policy had actually been cancelled when I took a couple of months of leave without pay in 2002 and had never been reinstated. I was devastated by this turn of news, as you might imagine. I wrote back asking for documentation of my decision not to reinstate the policy upon my return, and I heard nothing back. Eventually I wrote an email to the assistant director demanding an explanation for how my file had been misread originally and demanding that a different benefits officer be assigned to me. When I hadn't heard back two weeks later, I called the assistant director, who basically told me he had passed my email along to the director. He said he'd remind her that I was waiting to hear back.

Weeks passed, and I started looking into hiring a lawyer to intervene. I had no idea whether I had a legal leg to stand on, but I wanted to find out. Eventually a friend hooked me up with a lawyer who was willing to help me pro bono (yay, kind-hearted lawyers!) to write a letter asking for a copy of my file. I mailed this letter while I was in California recuperating from radiation treatments in March, and when I got back home I found a letter from the director of the Benefits Office in the mail. The irony, as it turns out, is that she had mailed her letter the day before she received mine.

What her letter explained to me is that the whole time they were failing to respond to my request for documentation, they were consulting with a state office about the situation. What they ultimately decided is that it was their error that the policy hadn't been reinstated for me upon my return from leave. Still, there was the matter of thirteen years of back premiums owed on the policy. If I was willing to pay part of the back premiums, the UW would pay the rest, and the policy would be reinstated. Hallelujah! I was more than willing to agree to this deal. So the back premiums were paid, I filed for benefits, and two days ago I received a call from the insurance company saying that my claim was approved. So it appears I will have income to replace my salary if/when I choose to retire.

Well, I'm a happy boy on that front, although, as with all other good news in my life these days, my happiness is tempered by the fact that I may not have long to enjoy it. However, it does make aspects of whatever time I have left a lot simpler. I understand why the Benefits Office couldn't let me know that they were trying to figure out whether my policy could be reinstated, but I sure wish I could have avoided all the anxiety of wondering what was going on and trying to find a lawyer, etc, etc. Still, all's well that ends well, I guess. Now I just need to figure out my post-retirement health insurance situation, and maybe the bureaucratic nightmare part of my ordeal will be over. A boy can dream!

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