Category Archives: Personal

Feminism again

I’ve been thinking further about some of the issues I touched on in Degrees of Feminism. In particular, what do I think should be private and what public about women’s monthy cycles.

The current status, in my workplace, is that it is all private, but that some people feel that it is an acceptable topic for speculation. By that, I mean that I do not announce where I am in my cycle, and simply ensure that there is a pocket somewhere about me as I go to the ladies’ room when I have something to carry there. But my colleagues often say things about other women – even to me – like “Maybe she’s stroppy because it’s that time of the month.”

These comments are unanswerable without being marked down as a humourless bitch. I try to dismiss them by asking what a given bloke’s excuse is then, but often get “Maybe it’s his wife.” It goes without saying that none of this raises the speaker in my esteem. I am also fairly sure that several of my colleagues could make a shrewd guess about where I am in my cycle, and that they probably say similar things about me behind my back that they do about other women in front of me. It’s a humiliating thought.

The problem is that there is no reciprocity. Men are as prone to hormone-driven irrationality as women, but the consequences are very different. A man who gets aggressive because of testosterone poisoning is seen as competitive and strong, and gets promotions, company cars, and a seat in the executive dining room. A woman who gets aggressive because of oestrogen poisoning is seen as stroppy and unreliable and gets a glass ceiling and sneers behind her back.

But the masculine flavour of hormone poisoning is just as destructive as the feminine variety. The (overwhelmingly male) management team of the company I work for seems to spend all its time and energy in an endless struggle for position. Important decisions are chronically deferred, priority calls are made poorly and later reversed, and status is counted more than quality. The few women who make it to that level are as vicious as the men (that’s how they make it there). It’s a waste, and an infuriating one, to the people whose work lives it affects. I often suspect that that’s half-deliberate, that these men’s feelings of power are enhanced by their ability to waste so many people’s time. It’s a form of conspicuous consumption.

So if that’s the problem, what is the desired solution?

Well, to horribly misquote Martin Luthor King, I have a dream that my children will one day live in a world where they will not be judged by the shape of their genitals but by the content of their character. I want Alex and Fiona to work in an environment where women’s PMT and men’s overcompetitiveness are both grounds for apology. It should be acknowledged that these things occur, but that they are not the norm, not rewarded behaviour.

Chances? Low, since the power structures are populated by people who have got where they are by using their testosterone-fuelled aggression. But men elected to office ended up sharing the vote, so perhaps it is not impossible.

Degrees of feminism

I was recently reading a conversation online between some very committed Democrats and some very committed Republicans. Like many of the readers, I was floored when one of the Republican women called one of the Democrat women an “overemotional, angry, thick-skulled feminist”.

Huh? This educated, enfranchised and employed woman was using feminist as an insult. How does this creature think she got where she is today, if not through the efforts of overemotional, angry, thick-skulled feminists1 like Abigail Adams, Emily Parkhurst, Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt?

I got to feel smugly superior about my comparative enlightenment for exactly one day. Then I found this basket in the ladies’ room of the Capita conference centre, and it made me squirm.


It took me a while to realise why it got at me. It’s not the fact that sanitary products are set out for women to use – though the dynamic of being given them as opposed to buying them one’s self (even from a vending machine) is already a move from the intense privacy with which we deal with these matters.

It’s the fact that they are offered with corporate compliments. If they just left them out for customers to filch, I think I’d be a little easier about it. The implicit attention to menstruation that the sign conveys is, well, embarrassing. (And this blog entry is an attempt to get over that embarassment.)

I hope Fiona is that bit more relaxed about these things when she grows up.

  1. Note that “feminist” in this context means one who believes that women should have equal rights to men. The use of “feminist” to mean “man hating freak” is a semantic hijacking.

Back from Worldcon

Martin posted a blog entry from our hotel room, in the middle of our attendance at Worldcon. I agree with everything he said. The con was exhausting, busy, and an intense family experience. Both kids wigged out from time to time, but also had some really good moments. I saw people from work, from our St Andrews days, and from previous social groups here in Edinburgh. And like Martin, I only made it to one event – in my case, an informal discussion on the future of the book, both as a concept and as a physical object. It was a great discussion, with plenty of debate and no actual conclusions. I wonder whether I would have enjoyed all the programme events I marked out and subsequently missed as much (I doubt it).

But I wasn’t just at the con as an attendee and a parent. I was also there as a bookbinder, and it was the culmination of three very intense weeks in that world for me.

As I noted in a previous entry, I spent a fortnight doing the binds for the Guests of Honour. This was more difficult than I expected. Not only did it take longer (of course – everything always takes longer than you expect it will), but it was also more emotionally challenging than anticipated. Unlike at work, I had no human contact to speak of. I found myself intensely lonely at times. I also found that when things went wrong, I was less able to keep a positive outlook and to develop alternative solutions to problems that arose.

Then we had a houseguest. Liza Groen Trombi, to whom I hadn’t even spoken for nearly fifteen years, came to stay with us for a weekend. We had been close in middle and high school, but gone our separate ways after that – me to Scotland, her to singing in a band, managing restaurants, and finally working as an editor for Locus. My instinct, when we got back in touch, was that I would like her again, and I invited her to stay when she was coming over for Worldcon. I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. We spent the entire weekend chatting, and I could easily have spent a week or two more listening to her stories and telling a few of my own. She was patient about the fact that I was still binding (and gave very balanced feedback when things went badly). We rode bikes out to Craigmillar Castle, visited Mary King’s Close, drank whisky, and laughed a lot.

And, finally, the Sutherlands went to Worldcon. I was doing two things at once, as a binder. First off, I was co-ordinating the bindings to go to the Guests of Honour. Most of this involved being ready to meet the Publications manager, Steve Cooper, when he had gaps in his schedule and bindings needed signatures put in, or needed to be delivered to recipients. I got to see a lot of the Secure Storage area at the convention during this phase of things. At the same time, I was entered in the Art Show, hoping to sell some of my bindings.

I had four items entered: Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Hobbit, Frankenstein, and a copy of the Worldcon Souvenir Book. And throughout the convention, I fretted. I went back and back to the art show, checking to see if anyone bid. I worried every time someone had moved a binding. I fussed at Martin (who has the patience of a saint for not throttling me!), at Liza (ditto), and at the boyfriend of the Art Show director, Pat (see previous comments). Two items got bids – the Hobbit and Frankenstein.

In the meantime, on of the Guests of Honour – Jane Yolen – had to go home early for family medical reasons. We arranged a swift presentation to her, and I got a chance to see her reaction to my book. She seemed to like it. (I will post photos of the presentation when I get them).

Thus matters stood this morning. Due to some significant sleep disruptions (thanks, Fi!), my memories of today are best summarised in list form.

  1. Alex and I, along with much of the Young Adult Fan Activities group, dressed up in masks and goggles and assaulted a panel on the Future of Fandom with inflatable weapons. The point was to remind attendees what the future of fandom really looks like, and perhaps to have a bit of fun on the side. Don’t pity the panel too much – they were forewarned, and forearmed with water pistols.
  2. Neither unsold binding sold during the after-auction sales. I collected them and left the Art Show. Then I rang Steve, the Publications manager, who immediately offered to buy the Souvenir Book binding. I was delighted, not only because I wanted to sell it, but because I wanted him to have it. After all the work he’d done on the book, I reckoned he would like something special. I understand he has all editions of Splitting Infinity now.
  3. The person who bought the Hobbit binding – Pat, who had been a friendly face throughout the con – asked me to sign it as the bookbinder. He then tracked down Alan Lee, the illustrator of that edition (and the designer who created the look for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films), and got him to sign the book while I was there. So I got to meet Alan Lee, an artist whom I respect greatly, not just because he does beautiful work, but also because he is so single-minded about doing it. We talked a bit about the binding, and exchanged email addresses. I even got a photo, with Fi in as well:
  4. During the closing ceremony for the convention, the co-chairs not only showed the entire audience one of my bindings, they incited them to a round of applause (mostly puzzled, admittedly) for me for doing them.
  5. I said goodbye to Liza – the only relatively down moment of the day. I miss her already.

Now I get to go back to real life. It’s been a good time, rather like being tossed up and down in a blanket while slightly drunk. In other words, I’ve been to Worldcon.

Holidays and Secret Identities

Do you think Superman ever took a holiday by just pretending to be Clark Kent all the time?

I’m on holiday for a fortnight, and I’m not going anywhere. (That is not strictly true. I may ride my new bike around, and I have to go to the tannery. But I’m not off to the Azores to sun myself senseless.)

Instead, I’m spending a fortnight pretending to be a bookbinder. Necessity is the mother of this particular intention, because I need to have eight books bound for Worldcon and I only got the sheets on Friday.

I need the break. Work is great – I love my job and the people I work with, but I’ve been getting stressed too easily. I’m fresh out of patience, optimism and gentle tolerance, and have been running on waspish comments and sarcasm.

Time for some solitude, some creativity, and some peace. Time to be the mild-mannered reporter and leave the battles with Lex Luthor for someone else.

Good fences make…?

I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of it, but I’m enmeshed in a neighbourhood dispute about the hole in the fence near our house. It may be closed for a time in the near future, between the contracting company’s visit and the vandals’ revenge.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

It’s a major inconvenience, and the means by which it may be done a source of deep anger. But I will remember my Frost and try to take the long view.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

And I must remember to be charitable to my opponents. 😉


Rick Horowitz at Unspun “tagged” me with a questionnaire about books. He thought it would get me blogging again.

The reasons I’m not blogging much aren’t ones that a questionnaire will address. I’m simply too busy right now. I’ve committed to a large number of bindings by early August, for Interaction, the World Science Fiction Convention, to be held in Glasgow this year. I bind in spare bits of time, in evenings and weekends, and this time was formerly blogging time. I will answer the questionnaire, but it won’t get me blogging much again.

My relationship with books is a little more complex than Rick’s. For me, a book is not just a box of words (which is a special enough thing in its own right). I am a bookbinder as well as a reader. Books are things I make, physical structures I love for their own sakes, as well as containers for stories and knowledge. Some of these questions will therefore get two answers, one from me as a reader and one as a binder.


1. Total number of books I have owned

Like Rick, I’m going to take this as “total number of books I own.”

Over the years, Martin and I have acquired and disposed of thousands of books. At one particular point in this cycle, we concluded that we could not shelve all of our books at once, and moved to a “catalogue and store” approach, with most of our books boxed up in our loft. I have some doubts as to the accuracy of our catalogue with regard to physical location, but the quantity listed is about right.

According to our catalogue, we have 2255 books between us. I would estimate that there are about 45 books on our shelves that are not catalogued, either because they are recent purchases or because they are bookbinding books (I’ve never got round to cataloguing that collection).

The next question is whether I divide the aggregate total by two, since the books are community property. But we believe that books are shared wealth – we even have a separate budget in our accounting system for book purchases, which do not come out of our personal funds. So I would contend that I own in the region of 2300 books.

2. Last book I bought

The last book that I bought to read was the Penland Book of Handmade Books. It bills itself as a technical book, but most of the things that it describes the makings of are “artists books”, which frequently do not really match my definition of a book at all.

The last book that I bought at all was a Folio Society edition of The Hobbit. I have been rebinding a HarperCollins edition of the book (for the Worldcon art show, at which the evilrooster bindery will be an exhibitor), and I bought this one to compare the bindability. I suspect that I will not love it as well as I do the HarperCollins one, but as a binder, I learn by doing.

3. Last book I’ve read

Atypically, it’s a self-help book. (Usually, I’m too contrary for self-help books). My line manager at work recommended that I read Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzer as a book that had had a strong impact on him.

My reaction to the book was mixed. I already do much of what the book recommends, in particular the effort to understand where the other parties in a heated dispute are coming from. It goes on to discuss the ways to find and highlight shared goals between the parties, in order to find common ground. I see these techniques as part of my goal to be a peacemaker, though I don’t use the cheesy business-speak acronyms that the book does to describe them.

So on the one hand, the book gives away my trade secrets. If everyone follows it, then one of my key skills becomes a commonplace. On the other hand, I’d love to see a lot of those techniques applied to the American political scene, where the victory of one party over another seems to have superseded the goal of improving the common good.

4. Five books that mean a lot to me

1. The Bible

I value this book both because I am a Christian, and because I am a member of the Western intellectual tradition. I don’t blog about my faith (not directly, anyway), and if you don’t realise the Bible’s influence on Western culture, I can’t start explaining it here.

Most of the time, I prefer the New Jerusalem Bible, which is one of the Catholic translations. Part of my preference is because it renders the text in a clear and comprehensible way, and contains all of the “apocrypha” that I want in the book. But my other reason for liking it is that JRR Tolkien was one of the original contributors, and that’s just cool.

For the Psalms, Wisdom and the Song of Songs (and, on some days, the Gospel according to John), I find that I turn to the King James Version. Some of the Bible is best read as poetry, not prose, and KJV has never been equalled as a work of art. In short, Shakespeare trumps Tolkien.

And sometimes, when I need to really understand a passage, I go back to the Greek. I have an Oxford University Press edition of the Greek New Testament that is of use at times.

As a binder, I have a standing policy of not rebinding Bibles. They’re rarely well-bound, because the majority of them will never be read much, and it would be too expensive to bind a 1500-page book on tissue-thin paper in a durable fashion. Add to that the emotional impact of messing up someone’s dearly beloved family heirloom, and you can see why I’m just not keen.

(Having said that, I did do a repair on a colleague’s reading Bible, but on the explicit understanding that it might be ugly as long as it preserved the life of the book. He just didn’t want to recopy years of marginal notes if he could avoid it.)

2. The Left Hand of Darkness

My parents read me some interesting books when I was a kid. Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel was one of them. It’s from the 1960’s and 1970’s trend toward intellectual and philisophical science fiction, and is (in my opinion) the best of the breed. As a meditation on gender, alienation, friendship, and politics, it’s always got something to say to me, after over twenty years of rereading. Having a strong plot and good characterisation is a bonus. Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, one of the two main characters, was probably the first literary figure I ever really loved.

Many people don’t like the book, particularly ones more rooted in the action and war trends more popular in science fiction now. Takes all kinds, I guess.

I’ve never bound the book, but if I did, I think I would design a binding showing a night time snow-bound landscape (it takes place on a world gripped by an ice age). The shapes of the land would echo the double curve of a yin-yang symbol, which is an important image in one scene of the book.

The book is also the source of one of my favourite recipies for dealing with problems: When action grows unprofitable, gather information. When information grows uprofitable, sleep.

3. The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s first novel describes a Californian Classics student who travels to an East Coast university, where he becomes caught up in the activities of a close-knit clique. Since those activities include a recreation of a Greek bacchanal, which culminates in a murder, his social life gets a bit complicated.

Tartt knows her Classics, and her Classicists. Many of the fine touches of the book ring very true, from the students’ spurious pedanticism to their use of fountain pens. The characters have clearly been changed by their knowledge of Classical languages, as I was deeply changed by the study of Latin and Greek. And the author herself shows signs of those same changes, in that the book’s plot works equally well in the ancient Greek cosmology as it does in the modern one.

I haven’t bound this book either, nor thought deeply about how I would do so.

4. The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin

This was a gift from my friend James, the first Christmas that I knew him. We were both twenty at the time, and the poet’s angst and faintly defeatest style suited us. He is the master of taking away almost all that he gives the reader, with lines like this from An Arundel Tomb

…the stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love

Another example of what I mean is from Talking in Bed:

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Although I’ve grown up since then, some of what Larkin says still works for me. His poem The Importance of Elsewhere is one of my two favourite mediations on being an expatriate. And I often reread No Road, usually as a counterweight to Robert Frost’s Mending Wall.

5. The Craft of Bookbinding

This book, by Manly Banister, was the bookbinding book that got me into the craft. It was one of two that Martin gave me one Christmas, and it was the one that convinced me that an amateur with woodworking skills could bind books and make bindery equipment. It also showed the difficult parts of binding, unlike many beginning books, which never get past the “learn this in half a day” level of techniques.

It was only later that I discovered that Manly Banister was a pulp science fiction author and fanzine editor.

5. Tag five people and have them do this on their blog

I’m not comfortable doing this, because it feels like placing an obligation on others. I’ll tag one person: Mark, we’ve already discussed this. Can you put a link in the comments section when you’ve done it?

If any of my other readers (whoever you are) feel like doing it too, again, put a link in the comments.


4-hour Flu?

You’ve heard of 24-hour flu. But these are modern times; everything is speeding up. No one has time to do things slowly. And, apparently, flu viruses have caught up to the trend.

Suddenly, at about 7:00 last night, I started shivering uncontrollably. I was already feeling wintry and depressed, but those are primarily mental effects. This was most decidedly physical.

I simply couldn’t get warm. My muscles started to ache, and my joints became sore. By about 7:30, when Fiona was ready for her feed down (time change, you know – she usually feeds down at about 8:30), I was feeling nauseous as well. So I took her into bed with me and fed her, and we lay there in a little pool of warmth while Martin put Alex to bed.

I was hallucinating by that point. I remember listening to them reading Sitting Ducks, in which the line “and suddenly the sky was full of ducks.” Suddenly I saw the ducks as being like autumn leaves, as though one could walk through a pile of them and kick them (non-cruelly) into the air in thick clumps, which then separated into individual flying birds. They filled the sky with gold.

After Martin got Alex to bed, he came for Fiona and I went for a hot shower. I shivered as soon as I got out of bed, though I was still fully dressed. Even the scalding hot shower couldn’t warm me up. It took a mug of hot broth and a hot water bottle to stop the shivering.

At the same time, Alex was screaming and crying hysterically in his bed, sobbing so hard we couldn’t extract from him what, if anything, hurt. He finally settled on it being his ear, and we gave him some Calpol. But I don’t think he was actually awake through either of the two iterations of screaming; I don’t know if his ear really hurt, or if he dreamed it.

When Alex was finally settled, and Fiona (who had awakened with the racket) was down again, I went to my bed. The shivering had passed off, and I was feeling fevered, so hot that the duvet was uncomfortable, my pyjamas unbearable, and my pillow too warm. I tossed and turned and drifted into a sleep full of fever dreams.

When I woke up this morning, I was fine.

The Inevitable September 11 Post

Like most bloggers, I find the events of September 11 an almost irresistible topic. I’d like to write about some of them now: the factors that led up to the events of the day, some of its consequences. I’m going to touch on people, religion, life and death. It’s a story that spans continents and decades.

But it’s not about bin Laden. No, nor is it about Allende. This predates both of those events.

One day, the Catholic society at Stanford University needed some paperwork collated and stapled. The committee members roped in everyone they could ethically coerce: roommates, friends, acquaintances. Among them was a tall lanky guy from San Jose, with thick brown hair that showed red when the sun shone on it and clear blue eyes. Another of the staplers was a vivacious girl from Southern California, with rich brown eyes and dark hair. The students talked while they worked, and these two hit it off. The Palo Alto sunshine seemed a little brighter, the campus a little more beautiful, by the time the work was over.

Then he vanished.

But a letter came before the plot of their story could be diverted from its course, before she forgot him, before he became a might-have-been. He had been an alternate for a course of study in France, and one of the students had a medical ban on travel. She read the airmail letter (the texture and sound of the thin, crackly airmail paper held a nostalgic quality for her for years afterward), and all the ones that followed it. But their relationship was new, and contact dropped off.

He came back just before she herself was scheduled to go abroad, studying in Germany, so they had a little time to re-establish their connection. Then she went away. And this time the correspondence didn’t drop off. The letters got longer, and deeper, the two opened their hearts to one another and discovered, as fortunate souls do, that the more they gave of themselves, the more they had to give. They must have suspected, early on, that they were engaged in something serious. By the time she returned, they knew.

So on September 11, 1966, they married. It was a date that was significant only to them and their families, passing unnoticed in the headlines of the day.

They joined the counterculture and grew their hair. She got pregnant in time to keep him from being drafted. They loved being parents, loved their son. Soon they had another baby, which may have eased her grief at her mother’s untimely death from breast cancer. They bought some land and built a cabin on it, though they never ended up living there. They moved around a lot, working at various jobs, raising their kids and enjoying the glory of youth. They lived in a commune for a time. He bought a printing press; she painted. They worked on cars and raised their kids. Her father passed away.

Eventually, they both ended up in law school. For each of them, in their own ways, the practice of law was a vocation. And their other vocation grew as well – they had two more children when their first set was reaching adolescence. He lost his father to prostate cancer. The older kids went to college just as the younger ones were starting school. Their second child, a daughter, even went to Europe during university, studying for a year in Scotland. They visited her when they returned to the Continent for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Their elder children each married, and have since had kids of their own. His mother died suddenly, of a stroke, earlier this year. The younger children are both in their twenties, one currently studying in Prague, the other living in the Bay Area. The consequences of that September day flow on, in the lives of us their seven descendants, our spouses, our friends. For us, in the family, this is still the real September 11.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.


Alex wanted to go to our local play park today. Usually, we take the bus to play parks further in town, where there’s rather less broken glass and rather more takeaway coffee.

And rather less grafitti. Our local playpark is a hangout for teenagers after the little kids go away. I have some sympathy – there really isn’t a lot else to do in Gilmerton – but I do wish they’d leave the permanent markers at home. (Not to mention not wrapping the swings over the top bar of the swing set .)

As Alex was playing, I was idly reading the grafitti. There was a lot of “love” stuff (RM + KS 4EVR and its ilk), and some “fan” writing (EMINEM, HFC). The third class of inscription, the “insult” inscription, was also well represented. (name obscured) is a fat geek who muckz around wi an even bigger geek and Jonathan is a fat pie eater, for instance.

But among what I presume to be insults was REECE IS TIDY. There was also, just to be confusing, REECE IS UNTIDY. Two or three other people were also labeled as “tidy”, though only Reece seems to be untidy.


Unlikely friends

I was mowing the lawn this morning when a survey-taker came by. He caught me at a good moment – just finished in front, but disappointed that the sun wasn’t well out in the back garden yet. Fiona was asleep in her Happy Chair in the porch, while Alex was zooming around and poking the gardening fork into the ground in random places. And I have sympathy for survey-takers who come by in person, having collected signatures for a political cause one summer long ago.

So the long and the short of it was that I was willing to have my brain picked for a quarter of an hour on telephone companies. The survey taker didn’t know by whom he was employed, but the nature of the questions causes me to think it was TalkTalk.

My favourite question: If telephone companies were people, how willing would you be to be friends with (insert phone company name from a list of five or six he was asking about)?

My answers were disappointing, I think – I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with any of them. Not even the company we get our service from. But it made me wonder, in this era of corporate persons, whether we will ever be pals with companies rather than people? Then what? Could you marry a corporation?