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A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

Slonczewski A-door-into-ocean.JPGGwyneth Jones writes about this book a number of times in her collection, Imagination/Space. She has a conflicted response to it: "Don't do it! was my cry. Don't claim the moral high ground; the sf guys' club will love you for it; doesn't that tell you anything ...? A woman doing just what she's supposed to do, being gentle and nurturing, looking after our spiritual growth, being moral so we don't have to be ... That's not the revolution. I feel differently now, because these are different times. Best feature: A Door into Ocean works like mainstream sf. Okay, it's about the sixties US under the skin, but the skin is proper, sciffy, rich, and strange sfnal skin." (in "(Re)reading for a Chapter on Feminist SF")

This novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award for 1986, which is certainly a mainstream SF credential, and it was eventually followed by three more novels comprising the Elysium Chronicles. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it: "The planet (in fact a moon) is in this case a water-covered Utopia inhabited solely by parthenogenetic web-footed aquatic female Shorans ... whose pacific culture suffers a savage Invasion at the hands of the male-dominated rigidly-hierarchical culture from the neighbouring planet of Valedon, whose leader is called the Patriarch." Sloncewski is apparently a Quaker, and her pacifist beliefs are definitely explored in this novel. What's interesting is that the Patriarch is light years away from and thus invisible to the planets he rules through an intermediary called the Envoy, and so he works as a kind of metaphor for the Christian God that the Quakers also worship. Perhaps Sloncewski's willingness to explore her conflicted feelings about her religion is part of why the novel feels so personal and honest, despite the way it stacks the moral deck in favor of the Utopian female society.

Like a lot of '70s feminist Utopias (cf Russ' Whileaway, Charnas' Motherlines, or Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time) Slonczewski's matriarchy reflects the political division within the womens movements of the time, with more militant factions, some that are more spiritual, and some that are more separatist, for example. Nobody gets let off easily, and a lot of the novel is taken up with the anguish various characters (including the militarist males) feel about the decisions they make. The deep history of the novel seems to be that the Shorans are descendants of people they call the Primes who thousands of years ago destroyed their civilization with "fire," probably of a nuclear nature. This forced them to change their culture and their science. Now perhaps the Patriarch is interested in resurrecting that old technology for his own purposes, or whatever other weapon technology the descendants of the Primes are capable of creating with the new science.

As Jones implies, what makes A Door into Ocean particularly fascinating is that the women of the ocean moon Shora are advanced genetic scientists, using only organic means to manipulate genes and cells. Slonczewski's background as a microbiologist shines through in the marine ecology she creates on Shora, where all life forms are interdependent and healing is practiced through enzymes and specially-bred lifeforms rather than pharmaceuticals and scalpels. (The split is reminiscent of Sterling's Shaper/Mech stories, I guess.) It's a work of hard science, and a highly original one. The only similar worldbuilding I can think of is in Varley's Eight Worlds stories and Gaia trilogy. Slonczewski goes much deeper, to my mind, creating a fully-imagined world that brought me that vicarious pleasure of exploring the alien that I remember from my adolescent encounters with science fiction. The sexuality in the novel is interesting too, with the one relationship that we see most closely being between one of the merwomen and a male (or malefreak, as the all-female Shorans think of him) from the planet that is invading their world. They are biologically incapable of having reproductive sex (in fact they are basically toxic to each other on that level), but the sex they are able to have is smoking hot.

Despite the painful subject of genocide and resistance, there is a joy to this novel that is a pleasure to behold: a science fiction writer in her prime hitting on all cylinders of imagination and speculation. Great stuff, highly recommended.
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Imagination/Space by Gwyneth Jones

Imagination Space.jpegI went through a Gwyneth Jones phase when the Aleutian Trilogy was being published by Tor. Dave Hartwell was her editor at Tor, and I used to talk about her books with him. I went back and read all of her adult SF and fantasy, starting with Escape Plans, and I read one Ann Halam YA book too. My favorites were Divine Endurance, White Queen, and North Wind. In her I found an heir, both literary and feminist, to Joanna Russ. I found the third book in the Aleutian Trilogy, Phoenix Cafe, a big disappointment, and between that and the fact that Tor dropped her after that, I lost track of her career.

On my TAFF trip in 2003, however, I did manage to pick up a British paperback of her next novel, Bold As Love, which I'd heard her read from when she taught at Clarion West in 1999. (I wouldn't have remembered that date, except she mentions it in the acknowledgements to the novel, where, alas, she also refers to the Crocodile Club, which is actually called the Crocodile Cafe. Ah well, a very minor error in the grand scheme of things.) So as part of my ongoing project of reading mostly books by women, I finally pulled it off the Pile a couple of weeks ago. Alas, I found it completely impenetrable -- which was also true of her first two novels, now that I think of it. I didn't care about the characters and couldn't keep some of them straight, I couldn't figure out the political factions, I couldn't distinguish the different bands or which characters were in which band. In short, I found it completely incomprehensible. On the off chance that it was the chemo causing the confusion, I consulted with the temporarily-retired fishlifter, who I knew had had some problems with the book too, and she confirmed that she had had many of the same problems I was having. Worse, she told me it was the first in a five book series, not the diptych I expected. I gave up on it at the point.

I was considering the semi-retired fishlifter's recommendation of another novel by Jones called Spirit when I recalled that I had one of Jones' non-fiction books on my Pile. Since I'd been vaguely feeling that I've been reading way too much fiction lately anyway, I started reading Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics, which was published by Aqueduct Press out of Seattle. Two days later, I had read the whole thing. Although I had read some of the excellent reviews and essays on her website during my period of infatuation with her writing, I hadn't heard that in 2008 she had won a well-deserved Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of science fiction scholarship. She turned out to be an heir to Joanna Russ as an incisive critic and reviewer as well as an author of self-critical feminist science fiction.

However, at first it seemed like a bad sign when the first essay in the book -- "What Is Science Fiction?" quoted extensively from the book I'd just bounced off of, Bold As Love. But I admired the essay greatly for not trying to pin the origins of SF to one book or one literary movement. Instead she cites multiple roots in the Gothic (expecially Shelley's Frankenstein and Stoker's Dracula), travel writing of the ancient past (e.g. Herodotus), the Romantic concept of the Sublime (citing Burke's essay on the subject), and the more modernist genre of the Grotesque (e.g. Kafka's "Metamorphosis"). I love this kind of genealogical, very literate, influence-spotting approach to genre history, so this was a perfect essay for me.

Another favorite piece was "Postcript to the Fairytale", subtitled "A Review of The Two of Them by Joanna Russ." This is one of Russ's most slippery, shifting, difficult works of fiction, and Jones does a brilliant job of tracing Russ's wrestling match with the contradictions of exercising power as a woman in a patriarchal society and her resistance to the common feminist urge to retreat into fantasies of female superiority. Like Russ, Jones is not much for the easy answer, and she is as pointed and balanced in her criticism of feminists as she is of sexists. Of course The Two of Them is partly about the ways women are complicit in their own oppression. Jones sees her own complicity too in brilliant passages like this:

The story behind the fiction, the story of a generation, always starts the same way: I was a girl-child in the fifties. I was attracted to the alien culture (indubitably alien!) of a set of books with rockets on the spines. Maybe I was influenced, though I didn't really know it, by my mother's memories of the halcyon days of World War, when women's work was needed outside the home and she had a life. Maybe I felt her unease, though she never talked about it, at being socially engineered back into the kitchen and the negligee. (Maybe I called this "not wanting to be like my mother.") The books were exciting and adventurous, and there were plenty of tomboy girl characters. I didn't know they were there for decoration, I thought it meant the genre had a place for me! So I ran away with Science Fiction, to start a new life. And here I am, still happy to be dressed in long underwear, with my raygun, but sorely disillusioned about those tomboys ... And then the story divides. The unregenerate tomboys keep their rayguns; the alpha female fans create a female, womb-friendly space within sf; but aren't both playing by the rules of the boy club? The Two of Them examines this dilemma, with illustrations. (p.48)

Jones is frequently provocative. Her essay about the links between horror, sexual arousal, and science fiction is called "String of Pearls," which although derived from a work of criticism, it is a work of criticism about pornography, which leaves the sexual suggestion intact. Her essay on video games connects that industry to the science fiction field in ways that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, although that likely reflects my own lack of interest in video games. She provides fascinating insight into her own working methods as a writer, specifically in "True Life Science Fiction: Sexual Politics and the Lab Procedural" about tagging after a female molecular biologist, Dr Jane Davies, while researching her novel Life, which is about a non-Darwinist concept of evolution.

As with any good work of criticism, I come away from it with a list of other books I now want to read. Jones provides not one but two lists of top feminist science fiction, and I've already started reading Joan Sloncewski's A Door into Ocean, which she mentions more than once, not necessarily disparagingly, as an example of "a female, womb-friendly space within sf" and has long been on my big list of books I'm interested in, largely due to the advocacy of a feminist writer-friend of mine. Indeed Jones' Life now seems like the next novel of hers I want to try, but based on this collection I'd also like to track down her previous non-fiction collection, Deconstructing the Starships. I thought Imagination/Space was completely fascinating and riveting, and I'd like to read more of the same.

Long tail

I had an MRI and visit with my new neuro-oncologist yesterday. The MRI once again revealed that the tumor hasn't returned yet. My conversation with Dr. Taylor was an eye-opener to such an extent that I decided to sleep on it before sharing it with anyone other than my family and housemate.

I had some questions about survival rates, and in the course of asking I rehearsed the survival stats I was given in the beginning: an average of twelve months for people who don't take treatment, fourteen months for those who do, thirty percent survive at least three years, and only ten percent survive at least five.

"That sounds like the statistics for the whole population of people with glioblastoma," Dr Taylor said. "You need to look at the statistics for those like you who have the IDH1 mutation." She said they are now seeing that the IDH1 mutation makes a pretty significant difference in survival rates and that between having the mutation, the methylated MGMT gene (which is apparently highly correlated with having the mutation), being relatively young (under 60), having gotten most of the tumor out surgically (achieving 95% resection of the tumor is apparently more common in people with the mutation, and Dr Silbergeld seemed very confident that he had gotten as much of the tumor as humanly possible), and having survived the surgery in very good health, both physically and cognitively, she thought it was likely that my survival time would be on the long tail.

I don't know what that means exactly. I'd say it's still likely that the cancer will eventually kill me, but this still feels like a reprieve. My radiation oncologist, Dr. Halasz, was willing to say that all my favorable factors would likely put me in the 10% who live at least five years, but Dr. Taylor is saying something significantly different, to my ears. But what, exactly? That I have a strong chance of living for quite a while with this beast? I told her that my mom would be insufferable, because she's been saying this all along. I was going to be that guy who survived for twenty years and died of a heart attack, not cancer. I kept telling her she was in denial (at least in my internal dialogue with her), but maybe her optimism was correct all along. She's certainly feeling pretty smart right now.

"How was she able to understand?" Dr Taylor asked.

"She was a transcriptionist in a Pathology lab for a number of years."

"Ah, so she can actually read the lingo."

"Better than I can anyway."

The article about the mutation that I linked to echoes some of the stuff that Dr. Taylor told me while amplifying other things. They now think that the mutation occurs in some people when a lower grade glio moves up a notch. It also sounds as though one of the main helpful features, which is how I understood the positives of the methylated MGMT gene too, is that it works well with radiation and chemo to improve the body's ability to kill cancer cells. One section of the article talks about a study in which "the median survival in the IDH-mutant group was 163.4 months (13.6 years)". That was for one subgroup in the study. For another subgroup with the mutation the study showed a median survival rate of "118.7 months (9.9 years)." I can't say that I follow much of the technical discussion distinguishing the two subgroups, but either of those medians is far better than any median survival I've run into before. Of course this was one study of about three hundred people with GBM, 113 with the mutation, 222 without.

The article also says treatments are being developed to specifically target GBM patients who have the mutation. Again, the discussion is too technical for me to follow, but it all sounds pretty hopeful, which I assume is why Dr. Taylor was willing to be so optimistic right to my face. I feel torn between wild optimism on my own part and cautious skepticism. No doubt I'll need to read and discuss it further, but damn if I didn't immediately start thinking, "Maybe I *will* get to see Celine grow up!"

In other news, I started round eleven of chemo last night. Only one more after this one. I'm excited that chemo will soon be done, so I'm just feeling giddy in general today.

The Tao of DARS

DARS Gang.jpg
With Tom and Kathy at a Washington State DARS conference in Ellensburg probably in the late '90s (Photo by the fourth member of our team, Susan)

Yesterday I cleaned out my desk in Schmitz Hall, and amongst other things I discovered this photo from a long ago work conference. December 31st was my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm now officially retired, and I've specifically applied for a disability retirement, although that hasn't been approved yet. This, however, is the story of how an English major ended up working in the Academic Data Management Office. Not that my trajectory is all that unusual for the early days of the Information Revolution.

My first job in the Office of the Registrar, which is currently located in Schmitz Hall, was a temp clerical job in the Graduations Office in 1988. The supervisor there, Virjean, liked my work well enough that when a credentials evaluator position opened up in the office in February 1989, she hired me. The cred evals processed graduation applications, which meant we determined whether students had completed their degree requirements and could be granted a degree. So in four years in this position, I became thoroughly familiar with the University's undergraduate degree requirements.

A few years after that, around '91 or '92, the U bought a license to the Degree Audit Reporting System (DARS), which was a software package that allowed schools to encode their degree requirements, feed a student's classes into the system, and let the program determine whether the degree requirements had been fulfilled. Since I was familiar with the degree requirements and was considered a pretty smart guy, in 1993 I was given the job of implementing DARS from the degree rules side. Susan (who took the photo above) was the COBOL programmer in charge of installing DARS on the mainframe and figuring out how to feed the requirement "encoding" and student records into the system.

The mainframe version of DARS came with screens for entering the requirement encoding, but the mainframe team was short-handed in those days. They didn't have the bandwidth to implement the entry screens. The first stage work-around was to have me manually create text files in which each line and each position within each line was mapped to the DARS data structure. Needless to say, this wasn't a very user-friendly solution. So they decided to have me develop an Access database with forms that allowed me to enter the data in a more intuitive way and then export it into a flat file like the text files I'd created earlier. I don't think I had any knowledge of Access at the time, or if I did it was just a couple of entry-level training courses that introduce you to the concepts of tables and queries, forms and reports. I'm not sure why they thought I'd be able to figure Access out on my own, other than they thought that I was a smart guy with good analytical abilities.

So I spent six months learning how to use Access, including how to write procedures in Visual Basic. This was definitely one of the strangest periods in my working life, because I was essentially being paid to learn. I spent all day, every day, reading Access manuals, trying to figure out how to do what I needed to do. Eventually I developed a database with data entry forms that allowed me and others to encode the degree requirements for DARS in a relational database and export them into flat files for upload to the mainframe every night. If there was any kind of error in the data, the upload would abort. However, it worked well enough that eventually we were able to hire two more encoders to begin the job of putting all of the UW's undergraduate degrees into the system. I also developed a diploma back-order database for the Graduation Office, and I was pretty darned pleased with myself.

The first woman we hired to encode turned out to be mentally unstable. She had scars on her wrists from previous suicide attempts, and she tried to commit suicide while she was working for us too. The story she told us of that attempt is actually pretty funny in a morbid way, because everything she tried failed, including closing the garage doors and starting up the car, only to have it run out of gas. Anyway, it was less funny when she accused me of emotional abuse, and we had to go through a long, painful process to determine that I wasn't actually being cruel to her.

I think by that point we had hired Tom, who was a gay man from Minnesota. He was tighter with his money than anybody I know, except for maybe my brother's friend, Steve, who funnily enough is another Lutheran-raised Minnesotan. Tom's partner loved opera and had hundreds of CDs that he loved to listen to at top volume, which got on Tom's sensitive nerves. So, like my Mom, who insisted that they add a room on their house in Crooked River, so that she didn't have to listen to Fox when my half-deaf father had it on full-blast, Tom and his partner had a grandmother apartment separate from their house where Tom's partner could listen to loud opera to his heart's content.

Eventually, much to everyone's relief, Kimberly moved on to another job, and we hired Kathy to replace her. Kathy was a much more down-to-earth, no-nonsense person who was also taking care of her sick mother. Things in DARSland stabilized for a while until Kathy's mom started going downhill and Kathy had to look for a less demanding job so she could spend more time caring for her.

I'm not sure why I went into such detail about these folks, other than to give some context for the photo. In the meantime, because I needed to pull in representative students to test our requirement encoding against, I learned how to write queries against our student data and started to learn the structure of the relational data warehouse of the mainframe flat files. I even took over the creation and maintenance of the official degree codes for the university, because I had become so familiar with them through using them in DARS. Also, once we hired Maggie to replace Kathy, we were well into the maintenance phase of DARS, and I started to lose interest in the project. While we were in the implementation phase, it was the first time that I had ever felt I got my greatest sense of fulfillment in life from my job rather than from my hobbies and pastimes. This was also the point at which a client-server version of DARS came along, and all my Access work was scrapped.

By this point, my knowledge of student data structures and Access query writing were good enough that in 2007 I was moved over to a job in the Academic Data Management Office essentially writing ad hoc queries as well as running stored queries and processes that more knowledgeable people had written. Eventually through a process of attrition through death, retirement, and post-Great Recession layoffs, I became the last person standing on the data side of the office, which also included some non-data functions such as desktop support. I always felt like a total imposter, because I didn't know how to write SQL from scratch, but I kept reminding myself that nobody knew the underlying data structures better than I did. By the end of my career in that department I was *the* go-to guy on the campus for questions about which tables had which student data and how to join the tables. If I didn't know the answer to the question, I knew who did know the answer. Needless to say, this stuff wasn't written down anywhere, and our data dictionary was always a work in progress. So I guess I earned my keep despite my lack of SQL proficiency.

And that's the long-winded story about how an English major ended up in a semi-technical job. Aside from my knowledge about the data structures, accrued over time, my other important skill was the ability to problem solve in a methodical way when things weren't working. I was good at analyzing where things were breaking down and then working my way toward a solution by a process of elimination. At least one person I worked with who was far better at SQL than I had no ability to trouble-shoot, because when she started getting bad results, she always jumped to the idea that there was something wrong with the underlying data rather than accepting the more obvious possibility that there was something wrong with her SQL. Of course she was also mentally unstable, so there's that.

Anyway, needless to say this career path was not anything I had in mind when I earned my English degree and started looking for work. But I wandered along the way, going with the flow, and found my own idiosyncratic path.

Name Plate.jpg
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The X Factor by Andre Norton

Norton X Factor.jpgI guess I'm done with crime novels about psychologically bizarre characters, so I'm not going to read the last two novels in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the '40s and '50s omnibus. I got one chapter into Margaret Millar's Beast in View and thought, "I can't take any more mental illness!"

So I retreat to some comfort reading: Andre Norton. The X Factor is classic Norton. Like Kilda in Dread Companion, Diskan Fentress is the child of a three-year marriage contract between a Survey scout who was soon reassigned to another planet and a planet-bound mother who was unable to raise him because she died during his birth. So he was raised in a government creche. Unlike Kilda, she had no mentor to look after her, and Diskan became an outcast held in contempt for his mental slowness and physical clumsiness. So a typical orphan/outcast protagonist for Norton, and soon he's jetted off to an unexplored alien planet, where he undergoes a survival ordeal while exploring ancient abandoned ruins and encountering a race of sentient furry aliens (the brothers-in-fur) who see potential in him where his fellow humans saw only disability.

Norton likes nothing better than to have her characters wandering around lost in an underground labyrinth of ruins. Diskan finds allies, both human and alien, to wander through the ruins with him, and eventually he discovers the talent within himself that only the aliens could see before. Once again, a human protagonist in a Norton novel survives either by becoming alien or by learning from aliens. There are archeologists also trying to understand the ruins, and Jacks (basically pirates) looking for buried treasure. It's a survival adventure with some great action and a coming-of-age story, and I found it very satisfying in a comfort-reading kind of way. Norton takes me back to the Golden Age of science fiction, which is the age of twelve.

I know that Norton eventually made contact with fandom even while she was still living in Cleveland, where she lived until 1966 -- the year after this novel was published -- and where she knew Harlan Ellison, for example. If she didn't understand that it was a proud and lonely thing to be a fan, her love of ostracized-alienated protagonists seems ready-made to appeal to the fannish subculture.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Blunderer.jpgI've long been interested in Patricia Highsmith, largely because of the number of films based on her books, including the excellent Carol (based on Highsmith's The Price of Salt.) Now that I've read one of her crime thrillers, however, I'm not sure I'm going to like her books. The Blunderer was her third published novel -- a crime novel about three repulsive characters being cruel to each other. I admit the structure is quite interesting, but I found the execution a little repetitious.

The basic set-up is that the story opens with a man murdering his wife at a cross-country bus stop. We then switch to the protagonist, Walter Stackhouse , who is a lapdog to his neurotic harridan of a wife, Clara. I guess I should say the novel is about four repulsive characters being cruel to each other, but Clara really only interacts with Walter, not the other two main characters. One of those two is Melchior Kimmel, an obese, mostly blind dealer in collectible books who is suspected of being the murderer of the wife that we saw in the opening chapter. Walter visits him through some bizarre compulsion after Clara dies under similar circumstances, although apparently by suicide. The fourth protagonist is the police detective, Lawrence Corby, who starts investigating Clara's death and then becomes fascinated by the Kimmel case, too. Like all the other characters, Corby has an ugly and possibly psychotic personality. He hammers at both Walter and Kimmel, including physically torturing the latter, in an attempt to get them to confess to the murders.

And that's pretty much the material of the novel. These four characters go at it over and over, chewing on each other like a dog on a bone. That's the part that I found repetitive after a while. Highsmith repeatedly soaks the reader in these charged episodes of people being psychologically (and sometimes physically) abusive to each other, while Walter blunders from one idiotic misstep to another under Corby and Kimmel's pressure. What's interesting is that who is guilty and who isn't almost becomes moot after a while. Everyone is guilty, at least in their own minds. Desires and paranoia and dominance games abound. Highsmith keeps it interesting enough with the intricate, submerged parallels between the Kimmel and Stackhouse cases, and then by capping it off with a satisfyingly bloody, apocalyptic ending. But I found it a slog to get to the ending.

On the other hand, this does make me more interested in The Price of Salt, since the movie is intricately psychological in its own right and isn't a genre crime novel. This one may have suffered from the demands of genre.

Eyewitness to mystery

I'm just back from my second trip to Rockaway Beach on the Oregon Coast with my friend Kristal. Kristal is a breast cancer survivor whom I met at the beginning of the year through my co-worker Abi. Kristal has been a huge support to me while I've undergone treatment, accompanying me on long walks to help me keep my strength up, and sharing her own harrowing treatment stories. The chemo she went through not only took all her hair and eyelashes, but eventually her fingernails too. In the beginning Abi was usually part of the outings, but eventually she found a boyfriend, and Kristal and I started walking and talking on our own. Then one day she invited me to join her on a day trip to Lummi Island, and I felt that something was beginning to happen between us.

Not long after that she invited me to join her on a two-day trip to Rockaway Beach to celebrate her birthday. I wasn't sure what her intent was, but I took it as an opportunity to get to know her better. So I asked her a bunch of nosy questions including why she had invited me. She told me that she just liked me and thought I'd be fun to hang out with in one of her favorite get-away spots. Fair enough. However, my own affection for her was starting to change in response to getting to know her better: her camera-shyness; the way she obsessively listens to the same music over and over (currently Bon Iver); her dysfunctional family background; her love of poetry; her desire to enjoy life to the fullest while she still can; and her mad skills as a photographer.

So I was the one who pushed for another outing to Rockaway this month. Last time we hit the coast on November 8th and then watched with horror as America elected Trump as president. That really ruined everything, including our attempt to escape the world for a little while. This time would be better, we hoped. Unfortunately, despite all the signs that she wasn't interested in me romantically -- the lack of physical affection, the way she immediately deflected any flirtation or expressions of affection on my part -- failed to penetrate my silly heart, and I started feeling frustrated by her unresponsiveness and emotional distance. Eventually I started feeling pretty grumpy and alienated about it. I woke up on Friday in a foul mood, thinking I didn't understand her or what the hell was going on. I walked out into the front room before sunrise in order to stew upon it in the dark and spotted the three-quarters moon hanging over the trail from the cottage to the beach.

2016-12-16 Moon Path.jpg

It was like the beginning of a pirate movie, or a gothic thriller, or an A. Merritt super scientific adventure. I felt that I had suddenly been transported into a much larger, more glorious universe, where my romantic confusion was a piddling bunch of bullshit that had been blown completely out of proportion. I threw on some warm clothes, raced down to the frigid beach, and felt myself in the presence of an archaic power much more ancient than life or love and before which I was completely helpless. Which I think is Kristal's goal in these trips to the ocean: to connect to a deeper sense of mystery and awe than we generally experience in our day-to-day lives, and that is a particularly healing solace to someone with death by cancer looming over their future.

Today she confirmed that she just wants a traveling buddy, not a boyfriend. I've been on the other side of that divide, so who am I to pout? Well, a human being, that's who, but I hope the pouting doesn't last long. It turns out I very much do understand her and what the hell is going on; I was just in denial. Why waste time on minor riddles of the heart, when there are much vaster mysteries at work? Mysteries that can open me like a can opener and swallow my innards whole in an eyeblink. It happened to me last December, in fact. My world and life have been transformed for the worse, but it's still full of beauty that takes my breath away. I yearn for love, but I've always made do with a sense of wonder. Meanwhile, I hope that Kristal and I can continue to console each other for the shitty bad luck we both ran into when we ran head first (or breast first, in her case) into cancer.

2016-12-16 Moon Ocean.jpg

POSTSCRIPT: I know that at least one of you saw a post I put up briefly after the November trip. If you saw that one, I ask you to pretend you didn't and restrict your comments to this one.
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Mini health update

Because not everybody reads Facebook or sees all the posts there. By the way, today is the anniversary of my brain surgery. That means I've survived a year already -- longer if you consider the fact that I clearly already had the tumor when I had my first seizure in early August 2015.

My last MRI, which was on November 30th, once again showed that the tumor has not returned, huzzah! I started my ninth round of chemo that night, and finished it the next Sunday. Three more rounds to go.

This has been my worst round of chemo of the nine. Two days after my last dose, I started struggling with nausea, but after getting a break from it on Thursday, it came back with a vengeance yesterday. Usually by this point in the cycle I'd be getting my appetite back and starting to take long walks again. It could be that the chemo in my body has built up to a saturation point. I'll talk to my new oncologist about that when I meet her later this month. The last three rounds have actually been increasingly difficult, nausea-wise, but the first time I thought it was because I didn't take an anti-nausea pill before the first dose and woke up in the middle of the night feeling horribly sick. I thought maybe that primed my body to react to the chemo with nausea. That continued to be my theory when last time the nausea hit me the day after my last dose. Now I'm beginning to think there's something else going on.

We'll see what the oncologist has to say. Friends are pointing out that I can quit the chemo if it's making me miserable. It's a good reminder, but I'd rather gut it out if I can. I got there with radiation too, but I stuck it out to the end.

Anyway, that's about it for now.

ETA: I've been reminded that today is the anniversary of surgery to remove my tumor. Not one I'm going to be celebrating, as much as I'm glad that the tumor was removed.

A friend also posted a pointer toward this article about cancer, fragility, and racism, which I have mixed feelings about, but it includes some great bits of quoted poetry.

From Whitman's "Song of Myself":

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

And this from Tracy K. Smith's "Duende":

If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.

"Love tossed into the ecstatic void." Story of my life, and it hasn't been a bad one.

End of an Era

1990ish Graduations Office Halloween webres.jpg

I just got a call from my HR rep saying that Friday is my last day as a University of Washington employee. I'm feeling slightly shocked, not only because I was expecting more warning than that, but because it's the official end of a major part of my life. I worked at the UW for 26 (nearly 27) years, starting in February 1989 (not counting a year of temping for what they still called the Steno Pool before that). Not quite half my life, but pretty damn close. I've known it was over for at least a year, but now that it's come, I feel suddenly naked somehow. Not that anybody ever understood when they asked me what I did and I tried to explain.

I did a lot of things over the years: graduations, residence classification (for tuition purposes: are you in-state or not? A job I hated, because people would actually cry if we denied their applications), a brief attempt at supervising (fail!!), implementing the degree audit reporting system (huge success!), and finally various flavors of data management (widespread fame and acclaim!). Anyway, above is a photo from more innocent times (circa 1990, and a Halloween, whichever year it was) with the old Graduation Office, which has gone through a number of name and personnel changes since then. On the left is Fred (who tried to call me just as I was starting this round of chemo, so I haven't gotten back to him yet), Virjean (the supervisor), Barbara, Pat, and me. I haven't missed work one iota, but I'm feeling a pang now.

Since I know she follows this LJ, I just wanted to thank Virjean for hiring me, mentoring me, and putting me to good use over the decades. With apologies to Matt S., you'll always be my favorite boss, not to mention a fine human being.

This probably deserves a deeper dive at some point, but I wanted to spread the news.

P.S. Notice the dumb terminal and the IBM Selectric on the right side of us, both of them mine. To my left, but hidden from the photo, was a PC running DOS 6.0, as I recall.