It’s hard to know exactly what to say when a gentle and diffident woman from a developing country tells you she’s been separated from her 1 year old baby for 3 months because she’s left her home to work abroad, leaving her daughter to be raised by the infant’s grandmother. “We have to make sacrifices sometimes,” she said resignedly, “Maybe I’ll get to see her this week on Skype.” It’s even harder to know what to say when the young lady in question is helping you to make your way out of a hot tub on a vacation where you can eat all you want, and lounge around with drinks all day and do nothing while she works.
I recently had my first experience of spending time on a cruise ship. I absolutely loved being at sea! The ports, the all-you-can-eat food, constant entertainment options, free room service, twice daily housekeeping, and a seemingly tireless bevy of solicitous and friendly staff were pretty easy to take too. And yet, in my self-conscious, bourgeois way, I couldn’t stop wondering about the lives of the crew.
The story of the young mother far from her child was not the only one like it I heard. I tried hard to engage with the people working there in as genuine and real a way as I could. Even so, I couldn’t be sure whether their responses were calculated: whether they found my curiosity intrusive rather than recognizing it as a struggle toward empathy. They were being paid to be polite and friendly to me, and they did their jobs well. Their name tags also displayed their country of origin. While interesting, it seemed invasive. Good service doesn’t require knowing more personal information about them. When I asked about their lives, they were obligated to answer politely, but maybe they’d rather I just stuck to requests for drinks and more towels.
I was told there’s a pool and night club of sorts on the lower decks meant exclusively for the crew. Working 10 hour days 7 days a week plus extra training, I’m not sure when they’d find the time or energy, but I hope they do. I wondered about comradery, and the sense of insularity that might exist between them. Us passengers must seem like transient blobs, here 1 week gone the next, to be replaced by more and more. One night at dinner, when we’d been at sea all day with no port stops, our server asked my friend whether she’d had a good time on shore that day. It must be a very small and narrow world when you work long days with no weekends.
Each evening, the turndown service in our cabin included the incongruous addition of an animal, rendered realistically by the cunning manipulation of a rolled towel, and left for display on the bed. I’m told this textile origami is “A thing” on cruise ships. While impressed by the skill, I thought a lot about the incongruity of people, many of whom likely came from subsistence lives, spending part of their ten hour work days shaping rolled towels into animals for the amusement of replete first world vacationers.
I always made a point to ask staff their names, to ask how they were doing, to wish them a good day, but it never felt like quite enough. Maybe I’m just not a good Darwinian, or a believer in fate. My life has hard stuff too, and maybe every single member of that hardworking crew would rather work 7 days a week for months at a time far away from home, than be a blind woman. Truth is I’ll never know. They’re clearly trained to be polite and cheerful all the time, which creates a pleasant experience for me as a guest, but makes it impossible to gage sincerity. Despite all my self-indulgent ethical dithering, the truth is I’d go again. I absolutely loved being at sea, and although I’d certainly consider doing it on a cargo ship, I definitely enjoy hot tubs and free room service.
Amid all the varied richness of the Harry Potter books, the epigram spoken by Dumbledore in The Philosopher’s Stone, the title of this post, may be my favourite one-liner of the whole series. Teleportation and transforming yourself into an animal are all well and good, but can they compare with the power to console grief, cause a whole room full of people to dance, or make someone cry by singing to them?
Whether we’re being lulled into torpor by elevator music while waiting on hold, led into ecstasy by trance music, or moved to awe by musical virtuosity, our world is saturated with music. I try never to take for granted the fact that technology allows me to hear music from around the world, and play pretty much anything I want, pretty much any time I want. I revel in this luxury, but sometimes I wonder what it would be like not to have it. What was it like for the overwhelming majority of people who lived, or still live in a world where there’s no recorded music, where the only music you ever hear is that made by a live human being who’s right in front of you? Even with this inexhaustible cornucopia of musical opportunity before me, I’m still regularly moved to awe, joy or tears by music. How much more powerful might its effects be if it wasn’t at my fingertips, but only available when there was a live person to make it?
Recently, I had the good fortune to be in Quebec City with a group of friends. We were walking around La Basse Ville, and a few of us wandered into Notre-Damme-des -Victoires. By great good luck, it happened to be at a time when there was an organist practicing. I’ve written here before about the overpowering force of nostalgia that can sometimes hit you like a jolt of caffeine if you were raised as a regular church-goer, willing or not, and are confronted with churchy content that evokes your past. If you know what I’m talking about, I don’t need to describe it. If you don’t, I could try describing it all day and you still wouldn’t really get it. Sitting in the pew, surrounded by phone-fondling tourists taking pictures, or killing time till their companions were ready to leave, I was overcome by such a moment. Alone amid my friends, who clearly weren’t experiencing this particular moment of pathos, I was submerged by a flood of memories and longings for my dead parents, the security of my long-lost childhood faith, and a longing for the past which, though not really simpler or easier than the present, still has the treacherous allure of safety. It was the music. Churches can be powerful places for people. The fact that the vast majority of them offer music is no coincidence.
Luckily, a church is a place where a few tears mopped up unobtrusively on one’s cardigan will be discreetly overlooked by strangers. A mood of deep melancholy followed me out though, and I found it hard to act normal and happy. A block away, we chanced on a musician playing lively Quebecois folk music. My strong emotion didn’t go away. Instead, it got diverted, like a river changing course to go somewhere it hadn’t been before. The pull was compelling. The group consensus was to go on to have a drink at a café. With cheerful insistence, I asserted my desire to stop and let them go on without me. I sat on a kerb a few metres away, alone and content, listening, clapping along, and applauding after each song, regardless of whether I was joined by passersby or not. I was so grateful to that musician for having been right there, right then, that I was happy to give him at least one fully attentive listener.
After a few songs the musician began chatting with me between numbers. When I said I played too, he offered me the spoons. I’d never played them before, but if you start with a good basic sense of rhythm, it’s simple enough. I took to it immediately, and for the next hour I sat near him, beating out varying rhythms on my knee in time to very old music, played by a very real person who was right in front of me, and I was happy.
Music feels as universal as language, and as necessary as food. Regardless of its ubiquity and accessibility, it can still regularly give me goose bumps, evoke long buried memories, or dazzle me with its poignancy or virtuosity. Well, ok, being able to teleport would be pretty cool too.
Last night, I was part of a group of a dozen or so who got together for the noble purpose of an all-you-can-eat ribs special at a downtown bar and grill. The carnage was well underway, beginning to subside in fact: jokes flew, ideas got passed around, beer flowed, people wandered up and down the table to talk to friends. Around the time when bills might start to appear, our server told us that two gentlemen from another table had, just before leaving, paid the tab for our entire table. 12 Out of the 13 people at our table were blind or visually impaired, which had to be the catalyst for this shocking act of generosity. An extremely rough calculation suggests to me that these fellows must have laid down around $700; they’d included the gratuity as well.
We all sat in stunned silence. What do you do with a random act of anonymous generosity that you can neither politely decline, nor graciously offer thanks for? Of course the simple answer we all agreed on was: pass it on, and we will. You may be familiar with the phenomenon of paying for the order of the person behind you in a drive-through line as an anonymous act of kindness. I’ve experienced this before, and love the concept. This was different though, both in scale and motive. Everyone at our table is employed, or in school with good employment prospects. Obviously we could afford the extravagance of an all-you-can-eat meat fest or we wouldn’t have been there. I know that, in that moment of stunned silence, each of us thought, “That’s huge, but I don’t really need charity because I’m blind.”
Most blind people I know have, at least once, been confronted with the stranger on the street who wants to give us money. I’ve learned to offer only token resistance to this. To us, blindness is just ho-hum, everyday life, but I get that for some people it’s an unimaginable prison, or at least a terrifying devastation. They want to offer compassion, make a connection, or alleviate the stab of conscience they feel for being able-bodied, and for sometimes finding their own lives burdensome. Money is a symbol. It’s also extremely useful. Statistically, blind people are shockingly under-employed, and we rate near the bottom of the income scale relative to other disabilities. I’ve always barely scraped by, so if someone’s conscience is alleviated by giving me money I’ll take it. The only time it really bothers me is when it’s done wordlessly: money thrust into my hand by someone who’s so afraid of me and my life that they can’t even make the human connection of talking to me; but I’m not so fastidious that I refuse.
What happened last night was more complex. These gentlemen could see that we could afford a dinner out. They could see that we were just a bunch of friends having a good time, out for food and a few drinks. Why then, did they drop roughly $350 each? Given the anonymity of the gesture, we could only guess. I took it not as charity, but as admiration. Maybe, with the eminently practical symbol of money, they were trying to say how glad they were that, despite a serious disability, a dozen or so friends could get together for a not inexpensive meal, some drinks, and lots of laughs. Maybe the paths of the lives that got us all there were so enigmatic or awe-inspiring to them that they really needed some way to say so, but didn’t want to patronize us with awkward expressions of admiration that would just have made everybody uncomfortable.
I wonder so much about the conversation at their table. Maybe seeing the challenges we had obviously overcome in order to be there laughing and enjoying ourselves with friends put some things in their lives into perspective for them. Maybe it was a dare. Maybe they just won $20000 at the race track and were feeling benevolent. Maybe they’d just cheated someone in a shady business deal and were feeling slightly guilty. Maybe they’re worse off than we are, and went into debt on their credit cards because it really mattered to them to do something spectacularly generous for people who, regardless of our normal lives, do have to work harder than most people for most things. We’ll never know. All we can do is not forget it, and try to spread it around. Thanks, whoever you are, it was an incredible thing to do, and you turned a fun night with friends into something even nicer: a memory of anonymous generosity.
During a university course on the roots and manifestations of anti-Semitism, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel. Peculiarly, it’s less the book itself I remember, than something startling that happened while I was reading it. Being blind, I get my reading material in audio. At that time, the most efficient way for me to have access to the book was to have it recorded by a small, local volunteer organization. It’s a difficult book to read. It’s an account of the author’s experience as a Jewish child in Nazi occupied Europe.
What sticks in my memory is a part in the book when the author describes a forced march in winter, to what was likely to be certain death. His father is ailing, flagging, and devastated by grief. Unable to keep up, he is beaten by the Nazi guard. The child is so overwhelmed with terror that all he can feel is anger toward his father for attracting attention.
Audio book readers are smooth, and the production is edited to produce a polished result. During this passage however, the reader was overcome, and her voice broke with grief, pain and the beginning of sobs. The producers of the recording had clearly chosen not to edit out this ineffably human reaction. Instead, they stopped the recording, there was a pause, and then the story was resumed in the reader’s usual neutral tone. Maybe a larger, slicker organization would have made a different editorial choice, but I’ve never forgotten the grief and pain in her voice: such a deeply personal reaction in a context where I was used to consistent impersonality. I think it would be like reading a painful passage in a book, and seeing the page blotched with the marks of tears; it’s an incongruous and unlikely thing that you just don’t expect, and never encounter.
The editorial choice was a tacit acknowledgment of the depth of cruelty and suffering being described by the author. “We must all share and recognize this knowledge,” it seemed to say, “And it would be wrong to hide its effects, no matter the context.” This, I suppose, is why we tell painful and difficult stories. I didn’t like reading that book, and except that it was required for a course, I probably wouldn’t have.
Recently, a friend told me she had watched the film Twelve Years a Slave. She talked about how difficult it had been to watch so much cruelty, and we wondered together about it. Is there some way in which we’re obligated not to turn fastidiously away from the most brutal face of our species? Is it disrespectful to those who have suffered, for us to say, “That’s too intense for me, I won’t watch it, I won’t read about it,”?
I’ve always thought that Amistad must be an incredible story, but I know I’ll never watch the film; it would be too disturbing. I tried to sit through The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile with friends who wanted to watch them, but thankfully we weren’t in a theatre, and I was free to leave the room periodically, which I did: and the less said about by one experience of reading a Steven King novel the better.
Am I a coward? Maybe. I’d very much like someone to answer that question who has endured the sorts of things that terrify me. Fortunately, I don’t know anyone who has suffered such cruelty, at least I don’t think I do. Is it a moral obligation to tour a concentration camp or read about Pol Pot and Idi Amin? As a citizen of a relatively peaceful and safe country, I have the luxury of averting my attention from such things. I’m thin-skinned; I know it. Others can take in those sorts of things without being decimated by them. I can’t, and that’s just how it is. If I am a coward, I own it.
During the trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, it was extremely difficult, nearly impossible to remain ignorant of horrific facts. I clearly remember standing in a drug store, fingers in my ears to block out the radio news, determined that the media, and people’s baser instincts would not force me to know things about dead young women that no one should know. People wanted to tell me, they somehow needed to share these terrifying things, but I refused to hear. If that makes me seem childish or squeamish, I’m ok with that.
I often raise questions in this blog because I know I don’t have answers to them. In this case, I do have an answer: a highly subjective one that applies only to me. I think that, as a mature person who’s read enough, I know in theory the depths of cruelty to which it’s possible for humans to sink. I count my blessings every day for my safe and simple little life, and I’ve decided not to feel morally obligated to take in things that will give me nightmares.
In preparation for the visit of an American friend, I compiled the following guide to being a visitor in Canada. While by no means comprehensive, it’s a start. I figured I’d leave singing the national anthem in French until he arrives.
The last letter of the alphabet is zed. Thus, we refer to the Camaro zed 28, the AIDS drug A zed T, and that immortal southern fried band zed zed top.
Tim Horton’s is the utility coffee shop of the nation. Too harsh of a critique is unpatriotic, and possibly sacrilegious. Home of questionable coffee and acceptable food, it is the stalwart companion of all cross country road trips, and no matter how indifferent someone might try to look when you show up with a box of Timbits, they’ll inevitably have at least one.
Our reputation for politeness isn’t exaggerated; if someone steps on your foot, apologize.
Young Canadian men enjoy playing with dangerous toys and weapons as much as young men from anywhere else, but we like to keep in mind our strong history of peace keeping, and tell ourselves that those toys and weapons are deployed to keep girls safe on their way to school, or to protect voters in emerging democracies on their way to the poles.
Though flawed, we have a deep and powerful affection for our socialized medicine; we particularly like to rhapsodize about it while eating french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.
We really do often end sentences with the word “eh?” It’s a friendly way to invite others to agree with your statement by ending it on a faint note of inquiry, as in, “It’s wrong to go to a friend’s place and have only one beer eh?” Or “It’s really frickin cold eh?” As a historical aside, note the similarity to the Scottish “Aye,” which gets used in a similar way.
Celine Dion and Brian Adams could have happened to any self-respecting federation, and they should not be held against us.
I have a really vivid memory of sitting at the kitchen table with my older brother when I was 17, while he helped me navigate the involutions of the university course calendar. I was dazzled to discover I could take courses in things like the history of the Catholic Church, or Asian mysticism. I clearly remember his bemusement as he asked me, with a mild contempt, why I would possibly want to sign up for stuff like that. Even back then when I was so young and intellectually spongy, I had the intuition that religion was a key that unlocked all other aspects of human endeavor. Its presence is felt in all the humanities, and I felt like I could dabble in all disciplines at once by studying it.
Two of my favourite courses were the history of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia. They didn’t need to be titled as religion, because religion was such an integral aspect of both cultures that history inevitably encompassed it. The most lasting insight I got from these courses was that, for ancient people, things in the real world were not symbols of the divine, but divinities themselves. Later, people might have thought of thunder as a symbol of Thore, or the morning and evening star as a symbol of the goddess Venus. For ancient people, thunder was a god, and the morning and evening star was the goddess Ishtar.
25 Years later, I still feel the same cognitive disorientation when I try to think hard about this. As a devout agnostic, it takes yogic feats of imagination to project myself back not only to a time when natural phenomena were imbued with discrete divine identities, but when such conclusions were not beliefs, but truths.
When did we begin to doubt? Is it endemic for us to question everything, or are there massive swaths of our past during which we were incapable of conceiving the idea that the universe and our own existence didn’t arise from a supreme being? I don’t think even a dyed in the wool atheist has an answer to where the universe came from, but how recent an achievement is it for us to even consider that there’s an answer other than the divine creator? I feel confident that my Neolithic ancestor had no trouble doubting the truth of statements made by people she didn’t trust, or whether her mate would bring back an elk for supper, but was she capable of doubting what the religious specialists in her culture taught about how the world works?
Every civilization feels itself to be the pinnacle of human achievement. We generally feel that our cultures have answered the basic questions of the universe and our place in it correctly. Do you doubt this statement based on observation of our world? If so, it’s because we know more about human history than any culture before us. We have access to a multiplicity of cosmologies and belief systems. We’re on the far side of the scientific method and skeptical inquiry. We value thoughtful critique and the questioning of authority and orthodoxy. This gives us an enormous power that is relatively recent. Without mass media, or contact with people who have a different belief system, how difficult or impossible would it be to shape the world in a way other than that which you’d been taught?
In talking with a friend about the novel I’m working on, I remarked that one of my main characters is a religious devotee, and that, as a main character should, she’s someone different by the end of the novel than she was when it began. Not having given details, I was initially startled when, later, my friend said something making it clear that she assumed this character had gone through experiences that had made her question her faith. I had been thinking in terms of the ancient world, where my novel is set. Understandably, my friend had been seeing character development through the lens of the luxury of doubt. The fundamental truths of the world aren’t up for debate or even consideration by my ancient heroine. I wasn’t sure they could be.
Am I doing a disservice to the human mind by limiting it in this way? Perhaps cynicism is built into the human spirit. Surely ambitious or acquisitive priests in ancient Egyptian temples had motivations other than the enrichment of the soul, but were they skeptics of the identity and nature of the divine? These are, of course, unanswerable questions. As a historical fiction writer, these kinds of questions are some of my favourites. We can guess, we can extrapolate, we can conjecture, but in so many respects, when considering our ancestors, that’s the best we can do. I feel confident to say that imagination is endemic to humans however, and I like to think about how that’s one thing we’ve all had in common, even if I can’t be sure about so much else.
I know that not being a sighted person, the following observation isn’t worth much, but I really hate it when you’re in a group of people who are all having a good time, and the camera addict makes everyone freeze while they play with their device for 5 minutes to get the perfect photo. The magic is completely gone by the time they’re done, as is the fun of the moment. Lately however I confess to some hypocritical obsessiveness in a similar vain. I’ve taken on a month long project called the AudioMo challenge. It’s a self-governing challenge to post a clip of audio every day for the month of June. I’ve been walking around carrying a portable recording device, and gaging every experience based on whether or not I could generate fun or provocative audio out of it.
I have a liking for challenges that make me exercise my creative muscles and produce something entertaining or stimulating. Like Twitter or Facebook, it’s possible to use this venue to talk about breakfast or your pet peeves, but I feel creatively obligated to raise the bar a bit for myself.
It’s made me think more critically about my auditory landscape. Of course as a blind person, hearing is huge. In thinking about this, I generated a fun post offering an audio tour of the sound effects I’ve trained my computer to use in order to give me information about what it’s doing. This made me think about how I manipulate the sounds in my environment in a similar way to how sighted people decorate their space with visual art or colour.
I created a few posts from audio recorded during fun stuff like dragon boating and nature walks. Here’s a 10k walk on the Leslie Street Spit in 10 minutes or less.
I did a few innovative posts combining some of my musical instruments with effects generated by audio editing software. My favourite of these is here, and my second favourite, a triumph of audio manipulation of wind chime recordings, is here.
So far, producing a post a day hasn’t been an undue stretch, but I’m closing in on day 18, and I’m actually scrambling a bit for tomorrow’s post. I have an ace up my sleeve though: we’ve ordered a binaural microphone which should arrive any day, then I’m set for the rest of the month! I admit it, I’m starting to get a hint of empathy for people who see the world through the lens of a camera. At times I’ve deliberately stopped myself from fussing over my audio recorder. I’m passionate about living in the moment; and determined never to let the urge to document overpower that passion. I’m dedicated to seeing out the month of posts in style, but it will be a relief when it’s done.
I just got chided on an email list for taking the name of Jesus Christ in vain. If you feel I deserved it, then you won’t care about the provocation. If you’re indifferent, then I’ll state in my defense that it was an expletive in response to a lyrical and detailed description of eating something that’s still alive.
But do I need a defense? For the sake of my continued acceptance in the group, which I value, I offered a perfunctory but adequate apology. Really though, am I bound by the stricture of the Ten Commandments when I write? He began his email by assuring us all that he believes in freedom of speech: a wildly hypocritical statement he contradicted by telling me which types of speech he doesn’t think should be used freely. What if I want to write to the list about something that violates another of the Ten Commandments. Do I need to be careful not to offend anyone by admitting to putting another god before God, or coveting my neighbour’s wife?
This made me think hard about what language usage would cause me to take action and write asking list members to be more courteous. It’s a tough one. I guess remarks that demonstrated hate or contempt: sexist, racist or homophobic remarks would trigger my object reflex. To me, such language can cause real harm by tacitly enabling others to accept attitudes and behaviour that harms others. How does the careless use of a title some hold sacred hurt anyone? I don’t know.
In the end, offending people is something I generally avoid unless I perceive a good reason not to avoid it. In this case, arguing the point was only going to label me insensitive and politically incorrect. (Interestingly, the phrase politically incorrect was coined in the Soviet Union to describe speech or writing that showed a lack of proper deference to the Communist Party.) I badly wanted to start an energetic debate, but didn’t. This email list isn’t about that.
And this brings me back to my initial irritation with Mr. Christian, and the list, which is essentially about imagination. There’s an ongoing discussion thread that in my opinion has frequently descended to intellectual bullying, and once outright cruelty, to one of the members who seems quite unsophisticated. She hasn’t objected, so I haven’t on her behalf. Why does someone object to the careless use of a couple of words that don’t harm anyone, but remain silent in the face of public ridicule of someone who seems unable or unwilling to defend herself?
It’s a really big world, with lots of mean, harmful, dangerous and cruel things going on in it. Does me using words the Ten Commandments forbids add to the meanness, harm, danger and cruelty in the world? I don’t think so. Choose your battles, and the issues you bring your energy to. I don’t want to distress people for no good reason. I could have chosen another expletive, and will in future. Maybe distressing people brings more meanness into the world, but I’ll just say it: I have judgments about some of the things people choose to feel distress about.
Insects are creepy. I’ve been watching quite a few documentaries about them lately, and each one only serves to affirm my certainty that they weird me out. In my on-going, intermittent quest for self-knowledge, I ask myself why I’m writing a novel that involves researching, pondering, getting insights into, and writing about a form of life that makes me squirm and twitch with discomfort. So far I don’t have an answer to this burning existential question, but I go on anyway.
In one memorable excerpt, bees ganged up on a vicious hornet who was scouting out bee hives. If the bees could kill the scout, their hive wouldn’t be decimated by the scout’s hornet pals. Instead of stinging the hornet however, here’s how the bees did it in. They surrounded it, and vibrated their abdomens, thus creating heat. The hornet can survive temperatures up to 45c, but the bees can survive temperatures up to 47c. The bees vibrate until the hornet dies of heat exhaustion. Some of the bees die too, but they’re quickly replaced, and the scout can’t go summon its mates to destroy the hive.
In another segment I wish I could forget, the action shifts to central Africa, and a “mating column of flies,” sorry, I just have to say that again, “A mating column of flies,” as it rises from the surface of a lake. Caught on a gust of wind, the “mating column” is blown towards a village, and swamps it, covering and smothering it with millions and millions of tiny little…, I can’t go on. As I was gagging in sympathy with the poor, terrorized villagers and thinking the whole thing couldn’t possibly get any more revolting, the hearty and resourceful villagers came out in force with nets and began scooping the flies out of the air.
Apparently, half a million flies can be compacted into a paddy the size of a hamburger, and grilled. This tempting morsel contains seven times the protein of a beef burger. By this point I was curled up in a ball with my arms over my head and my lunch threatening to make a second appearance, but my chattering monkey mind couldn’t escape the horrifying truth: on an outrageously overpopulated planet with an uncertain future to say the least, what makes more sense, husbanding huge forest-destroying beef cattle, or harvesting protein out of the air. Of course I’m no ecologist, so I don’t know the ramifications of trying to feed the world on bugs, but having raised the question, I’m having trouble setting it aside, and believe me, I’ve tried.
If you’ve read a particular one or two or three ) of my previous posts, you may know that each year on my birthday, I try to do something I’ve never done before. Although it’s fully 10 months away, my current plan is to eat insects. I’ve already planted the idea with a friend of mine who’s passionate about sustainable local food, and asked/challenged her to make this happen for me. I could just go buy chocolate covered crickets or something, and I will if I have to, but I’ve let her know I trust her to source quality ingredients, and present me with something intriguing and provocative. Exactly what it will provoke is unclear. I’m curious about insect flour. I hear it’s indistinguishable from grain flour in recipes. My ideal birthday offering would involve a few delicacies, only one or two of which contains alien DNA, oh sorry, I mean insects.
Why is it so revolting? It’s all a matter of what you’re used to I suppose. I made the mistake of asking a Portuguese friend over dinner once whether she’d ever eaten anything that was still living. I got a spirited answer that made me wish I’d stuck to talking about TV shows or gossiping about our friends. Food is largely about conditioning. Part of the insect thing for me is that, though I eat meat, I eat select parts of animals, not the animal in its entirety. Rationally there’s no reason why one is ok and the other isn’t, but emotionally, one’s normal, and the other is hideously wrong, and I’m really clear about which one is which. For the purposes of my research, it’s insects in their role as pollinators that I’m focusing on, and that’s really pretty cool. As a fiction writer however, I don’t have the luxury of treating this role out of context; like eating a bug, it’s all or nothing.
Some of my favourite metaphors and similes that draw from the insect world:
- a fly in the ointment, to describe a party-pooper
- being bugged by something, like the way I feel when cigarette smokers poison me while I’m waiting for the bus, or trying to enjoy a cold drink on a patio
- an anthill, to describe the subway station during rush hour as I applaud myself for working at home
- a fly on the wall, as I would like to have been when the first person discovered civet coffee was something to write home about
- A beehive of activity, which is the way I’d describe the polar opposite of my dream work environment
- Nit-picking, which describes the polar opposite of my dream boss, ok, I don’t have a dream boss
- mind your own beeswax, although admittedly this refers more to insect husbandry than insects themselves
- worm your way out of that one, worms are insects right?
- that’s a real hornet’s nest, like how you might describe a case of competing human rights issues
- more nauseating than a quarter pounder made from a million mating flies, ok I just made that one up, catchy eh?
This post has adult content, so if you’re under 18, pay close attention; just kidding, I’m supposed to say avert your mouse and go read my post about my robot vacuum cleaner.
Recently, I participated in a discussion on an online book forum about sex in literature. The take-home message was that, while some people like it, many consider it vulgar, obvious and cheap. A distillation of the argument against seemed to be that it’s not necessary to write graphically about sex in order to advance the story, and alluding to sex, or communicating sexual content with veiled, suggestive prose is more professional, and will lead to greater respect as a writer. You won’t have had to read many of my blog posts to know which side of the debate I weighed in on.
A distillation of my position was that sometimes passages are included in a narrative simply because they’re beautiful, fun, or well-crafted. How much does detailed landscape description advance the plot? Generally not much, but if it’s well written and engages the reader into the world of the story, then it’s all good.
When my partner read the first 4 chapters of the novel I’m currently working on, he asked, “Was it hard to write about sex without describing it?” I guffawed, then replied that it wasn’t; I get that it’s not always the right thing. Beltane, my first novel, is brimming with sex, which if I do say so, as have others, is fairly nicely done. I’ve heard other authors say that writing about sex is difficult. I’ve never found it so. I’m pretty sure I know what this means, but I find it almost disturbingly easy.
How do we know when sex scenes are badly written? First of all, because they don’t move us, except to laughter. A useful first precept I heard once was: avoid metaphors or nicknames when referring to sexual organs. This requires deftness, as slang can read wrong, and medical Latin can ruin the mood. The book I’m currently reading has several detailed sex scenes, and every time the writer refers to “Her deep well,” I cringe, but the three syllable Latin alternative wouldn’t really work either. After some time of trial and error, I found myself opting for brevity: the sense of “Her deep well,” can be fully communicated by simply writing, “Her,” or “herself.” Try formulating a sentence with the unnamed author’s phrase, then replace it with mine; you’ll see what I mean. This also lends intimacy, embodiment, and a more visceral feel. Someone I follow on twitter suggested, if you’re having a drab, depressing day, go read the one star reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey. The suggestion itself is so entertaining that I haven’t even followed it yet, and I’m still constantly amused.
How do we know when sex scenes are well written? Not laughing is a good start, a visceral response is a great sign, and feeling drawn in rather than alienated by the language is key. Possibly my most enduring favourite piece of erotic writing is The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. It’s a kind of religious love poem a little like the Song of Solomon, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s really really old. It depicts a randy, potent goddess looking for some action: and she finds it. It uses metaphor boldly and to excellent effect. It’s so powerful because it connects the physical act to something deeper. In conventional literature, even if that deeper thing isn’t true love, forging some link between the purely physical and something transcendent is what can make an ok passage remarkable.
Depictions of sex in music are a crude but useful barometer. I instantly hate any song that refers to sex as dirty, nasty or knotty: positivity is key. As a devoted feminist, I’m also really sensitive to gender politics in song lyrics, and have no trouble identifying why something offends me. Just for fun, here are a few of my favourites.
It may be true that a graphic sex scene in a novel is not essential to the story, but a well-written one will still tell you things about the characters and their relationship. These may be things you already know, but sex and intimacy are powerful ways to communicate, both between the characters involved, and between the writer and the reader. Comfort levels notwithstanding, sex is important.