The fact that this is even a question shows just how sex-negative our culture is, don’t you think?  I mean, no one is out there writing articles on “how to talk to your kids about rhinoceroses.”  And look, I’m not putting myself out there as an expert—if my kids hit twenty and can chime in and say, yeah mom, you did all right, then I’ll say I’m an expert.  But after hearing some moms the other day talking about pussyfooting around, feeling awkward, leaving books on their tween daughter’s beds, etc—especially when I know these same women chat with each other about sex—I feel like I might have something to say about this.

Short answer:  you never DON’T talk about sex with them.  Just like you don’t not talk about rhinoceroses.  When it comes up, it’s in the discussion for a bit, and then the conversation moves on.  As all conversations do.  This way sex is never a THING and you never have A TALK.  It’s just…normal.

Longer answer.  Little kids ask great questions.  When we used to take our goats on “dates” with a local stud (his name was Cowboy, no seriously, it was) little Sophie would go along and one day she asked me, “What does licking and climbing on have to do with getting pregnant?”  I gave her a short answer that included the guy getting his sperm/DNA in contact with the girl’s egg/DNA (because we’d just watched a Hulk episode about DNA and had talked about it, so I could piggy back a little) in order to get the whole recipe for making that particular baby into the mom, who cooked the baby until it was ready to be born.  Plus it feels good.  She said, “oh.”  It was maybe two minutes.  The conversation moved on.  That was the start.  Or, ha, I remember little Luc asking me at some point—and I can’t for the life of me remember the context! curses!—“wait, you mean sex feels good?”  Great questions, right?

My point is, in the beginning, kids are not embarrassed.  They ask the right questions.  It’s up to the parents not to mess that up.

So, for those who want a how-to LIST:

1) No embarrassment.  Straight-face.  Laugh.  Give good information.  Never hedge. Never lie or cover up. That way you retain your reputation as a Source of Good Information when they really need it.

2) Start when they are little, with their very first questions.  There is no “when you’re older” or “you’re too young to talk about that.” If you turn them away once, they may never ask you again, like when they are teenagers and need birth control.  You want them to still be asking when they are teenagers and need birth control!

3) At the same time, answer their questions exactly to the degree that they want information and not one syllable beyond that.  Don’t be Over Sharing Mom.  Four year old Sophie did not want Anais Nin to fill her in on the details of goat babies.  (Sixteen or eighteen or twenty-four year old Sophie might need the Anais Nin version–I hope we’re still talking as openly at that point!  THAT is the goal here.)  Pay attention to their cues.  Stop talking before they are bored or uncomfortable.

4) When sexuality crosses you and your kid’s paths (songs, jokes, ads, tv, life, etc, because it’s everywhere),  just naturally discuss whatever comes up.  Movies and tv are great for this, but it can be whatever.  Things that have to do with sex in some way come up all the time.  Don’t avoid them.

Bonus round: The car is a great place for this sort of stuff, because no one is looking at anyone and there is comfortable room for long silences.  But anywhere is fine, getting at it in the moment rather than waiting for A Talk is the best.  Don’t let talking about sexuality get a weird mojo around it.

That’s the basics.

Luc is nine.  Right now he hates anything to do with romance, or sex, or ugh, god, KISSING.  He says, “Don’t say that word!  Say ‘the S word’!”  I respect that.

Sophie is a mature eleven.  She watches anime which is sometimes full of fan service (usually panty shots and boobs, occasionally dream-boat bishounen) and often very strange ideas about gender roles.  We talk about feminism, and portrayal of women, the jokes about wood, body image, “that’s what she said” type jokes, and the strong possibility that those two guy characters are secretly dating.  I remember being eleven, I was trying stuff out on my own, I was interested. The hormones were there.  They’re there for her, too. And I want to be a resource for her, to whatever degree she wants me to be–and not in some awkward, formal “if you have any questions” way, but in a “we just talk about this, it’s normal” way.  Which means lots of little interactions when it isn’t high-stakes (low stakes: not about her, high stakes: about her).  Much easier to talk about tv show characters and hypotheticals (low stakes!) and build up the ease and trust that way.  It’s ridiculously hard if we’ve never talked about it and she’s sixteen and worried she’s got an std.  Don’t wait till then because its too late.

There is a moment when I say something out-loud for the first time that feels a little heart-pounding to me—me who was raised in a home where We Do Not Talk About Sex—and that moment is so important.  It takes whatever it is out of Taboo Land and puts it in Topics Up For Discussion territory.  I have to push through the taboo in myself, just to get the words spoken.  It’s like deflating balloons, though, because once I’ve said it, the weirdness in myself goes away really quickly.

For example.  The three of us were getting ready for bed the other night, brushing our teeth, finding pjs, etc and Luc asked me what I did that day while they were visiting their aunt.  I hesitated.   Because what I did was fuck my husband stupid.  So I was faced with a choice.  I could lie, I could cover, because I felt nervous (throwback to my childhood)—but why do that?  Why lie?  If I do, I’ve installed a taboo, which means maybe in six, or four, or eight years, when Luc has a girlfriend or a boyfriend and he’s getting it on, or thinking about getting it on, he probably will think he can’t tell me about it.  Because I will have set the precedent that We Don’t Talk About When We Have Sex.

So I said, “Your dad and I had some awesome, um, S-Word.”

He made a face.  “Why?” As in, why would you willingly participate in something so GROSS?!

I said, “Because we like each other!  And it’s fun.”

Sophie laughed.  “They are a couple.  It’s what they do.”

Which I was glad to hear, her easy laughing, the normality of her response.

“Whatever,” said Luc.  “I don’t get it.”  And the conversation moved on.

A tiny interaction.  But now it’s in the mix. It could come up again, more easily now that it’s on the table. It’s not a big mysterious secret that Dad and Mom are doing…things.  So maybe it doesn’t have to be a secret when they start, either.

Lots of little interactions where sex isn’t A SECRET build up to sex being just another topic.  If you want it to be easy and normal to talk about sex when they are teenagers, you have to normalize it all along.

Boom.  And that’s how you talk WITH (not TO) your kids about sex.

Sidebar:  I do have a couple of books around, books that I’ve pointed out to them and said, “Hey, I got this book, I think it’s pretty informative and not stupid.  Feel free to look at it if you want.”  They’re usually, “whatever,” and I drop it.  But the books are there, a curated collection, rather than Random Shit Off The Internet.  Sometimes you want info but you want it in private, and you don’t want to have to ask your mom.  That’s cool.  Books are good for that.

So, in case you’re interested, S.E.X. by Heather Corinna is great, with lots of discussion about tricky topics like consent, feelings, choices, plus in depth on physiology, birth control, sti’s, based on solid science.  From the creator of the excellent site Scarlateen.com, which I also recommend.  Another one that is shorter is Sex: a book for teens by Nikol Hassler. Good, more basic than the other one, more of a how-to with information about birth control, safe sex, etc. and less of the psychological.  Plus it’s funny and a bit less of a commitment because it looks small, with not too many pages, and has cows humping on the cover.  No really, it does.

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Short version: Hell yeah, the title says it all, doesn’t it?

Long version: back in my twenties I used to take this Tribal Belly Dance class based on Fat Chance Belly Dance troupe, which was just getting going over in San Fran at the time.  It was terrific, full of muscle locks and precision movements that resulted in a sweat soaked but very fun workout. Tribal is not flowing, floaty belly dance with chiffon scarves; it is muscle isolation and drills and yeah, it kicked my butt, but in that good way that lets you know you’re alive.  Not that I was ever any good at it, but who cares.

Fast forward twenty *cough* years [faints] and I’m, okay, well, I’m old.  And I’ve been having some trouble with wrist pain from Too Much Typing, so I made a standing desk with ergonomic keyboard, yada yada.  I’m standing here typing on it right now, this very post.  Anyway, as I result, I spend a lot more time standing now, doing my thang….

And it’s boring.  I mean, seriously.  My body gets bored.  I guess when I’m sitting, I just forget my body altogether, but standing, it stays…activated.   It starts moving around, shifting this way or that, pelvis this way, that way, scoop, slide, stretch…and suddenly I find I’m doing long forgotten tribal belly dance moves, like, unconsciously, while I type.  Figure eights, hip slides, scoops, belly rolls, up eights, down eights, clockwise, counter clockwise, locks, shimmies.  And yeah, I look like a flaming idiot.

BUT.  After a couple of months of this, my abs are freaking CUT.

TOTALLY UNEXPECTED SIDE EFFECT.  I had no plan whatsoever to get a six-pack at my standing desk.  But how cool is that?  Accidental Abs.

Unexpected Bummer to go with it: apparently having cut abs does not in any way mean that my jumpback will be improved.  And while I do notice an improvement in my posture, I notice no observable change in actual abdominal strength during my yoga practice. In other words: I still totally suck at navasana.  And I can’t do a decent jump back to save my life.  I am ashamed.

Is it the c-section—my secret theory—that keeps me forever from attaining this ashtanga basic, the all-mighty jumpback?  Have I just not poured enough sweat in (even after 5+ years of working it)?  It is physically impossible for me VS. am I lazy: these are the two basic options, with a possible side dish of “give it time” but I’ve done that and nada.  Humph.

I’m okay with this, usually.  I’ve come to peace with my smear-back and my walk-through.  But man, I would have thought carving your core would have translated into freaking LEVITATION.

Nope.

I think I have that affliction where stated goals are never attained, but you get all this other great stuff along the way.

Most days, I’m okay with that.

No, there will be no photo of my new amazing abs on the internet.  So forget about it.  I support you in the process of feeling your loss.  There, there.  But if you want some abs of your own, I highly recommend an hour or two of tribal belly dance every day while you use your computer.  Shockingly effective.

I’ll leave you with the amazing Rachel Brice, tribal belly dancer extraordinaire.  She is a GODDESS.  (Hey, I wonder if she has a standing desk?)

 

Back in the middle of all that snow at the end of February, I turned 44 and on the same day, Sophie turned 11.  Some nice number palindromes there, plus I was exactly four times her age.  We had to postpone our party twice due to snow, but we finally got some friends and family together to celebrate, yay!  Luc and I baked the cake—he is becoming quite the baker, studying with the master, his Great Aunt Carroll.  Here’s my girl and I, plus Luc’s cake:

birthday 44 and 11

After the party, for fun we took a picture of Sophie in one of my old baby carriers.  I was totally into carrying my babies and had a ton of wraps, I’ve gotten rid of most of them, but some I just can’t part with… and I can still do it!  For a few minutes anyway.

sophie in carrier 44 and 11Isn’t she cute???  So HUGE.  For comparison, here we are ten years ago:

sophie in carrier 1 and 35I’m super preggo with Luc in that one.  We were just about to move into the yurt.  I had just finished my first novel.  It’s gone by so fast.

In another ten years maybe we’ll take a picture of Sophie carrying me in the wrap!

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Forget a room for every kid: in the yurt we go by the 21st century axiom of a computer (and an internet connection) for every kid, as just basic life gear.

To this end, last year we built a gaming machine that…turned out to be Luc’s machine.  And after a year of being very cool about taking the old, lame computer, it seemed clear that it was Sophie’s turn to have a new, blazing fast computer.  She isn’t quite the gamer that Luc is, but she puts in hours a day doing her artwork using Photoshop for digital painting.  And two computers would mean no more scratching each other’s eyes out negotiating for time on the good machine!

HELL YEAH.

Like last time, we used Pcpartpicker.com to assemble a list of components and to track their prices over time.  When the total dropped under our budget ($700) we pulled the trigger.  Here is the pcpartpicker page for our new machine.  That site is so awesome!  You can look at other builds, read reviews, compare prices.  Really a terrific resource.

Parts!  Once they all came in the mail (mostly from amazon) we just waited for a good day for digging into the project.  Nothing like a snowstorm to clear your calender.

2nd computer 1

Assembling!

2nd computer 2

That’s Luc and me putting in the video card (we got a nice one, WOOT).  We chose a tiny (micro-atx) case because of limited space under the desk—side effect, it was tricky getting things in.  Small hands were a big plus.

Here are the insides: SPAGHETTI MONSTER.  Yes, I hang my head in shame at this, and can only say in my defense that, in this tiny case, you can’t run any of your cords behind the motherboard, so they all end up under the drive bays.  Oh well, when we turned it on, it worked (we cheered), and that’s the main thing.

2nd computer 3

Here it is in its shelf under the desk.  Sophie say the blue lights give us ambiance.

2nd computer 4

And here we have the dueling machines.  No more fighting over turns, plus they can play each other in games with multiplayer modes.  HUGE WIN.2nd computer 5

We have friends who are “anti-screen” and I really like them, but man I don’t understand that line of thinking.  Limiting computer exposure seems like dolling out a huge handicap to people growing up these days.

Plus there is this focus on the device, and an ignoring of the activities being done on the device.  They see “screens” when the activities can be as diverse as reading a book, drawing a picture, talking on the phone, playing a game, etc etc.  If a gal did all of those things in one day (happens all the time), someone might say, wow, they did a lot.  If she did it all on a computer, a screen-phobic person might say “too much screentime!”   Yet, if she had done the same activities using a paperback, a sketchbook, writing a letter, and playing cards, would that say person say, “too much papertime!” ?

Why this preference for dead trees over pixels?  Look at the activity and the mind and happiness of the person doing it, not the interface, that’s what I say.

Anyway, hopefully these computers will last the kids for a few years.  Although even in one year, I can see the difference in power between the two machines.  The tech is advancing so fast.  Indeed, I’m super excited about the HoloLens and similar devices, and how other wearables are coming along.  It’s Marvel’s Ironman style computers (holographs you manipulate with your hands) only you wear goggles to see what you’re doing.  Very cool!

I suspect that in ten years such holographic glasses will be the standard interface, and “screentime” will be a moniker of the past.  Parents will have to freak out about limiting goggle-time I guess.

Listen, if there is any downside (what are the fears, addiction, social backwardness, isolation?) to kids having unlimited access to what they want to do (computer, video game, art supplies, books, tv, movies, manga, yada yada, we see them all as part of an array of Stuff To Do around here) then my kids ought to be exhibiting those problems.  But they don’t.  Therefore, screens aren’t the cause of those problems.  Basic logic.

GAH, one more rant: I hear parents struggling to find the right amount (an hour a day? three hours a day? none?) of computer time for their kids, but to that I say NO.  Wrong question!  The question isn’t the amount, it’s WHO IS DECIDING THAT AMOUNT.  And for whom.  You can’t figure yourself out if you can’t decide for yourself.  Better to get to know what works for you, on your own, when the stakes are low.  Not when you’re suddenly released into the wild at 18 and trying drinking for the first time.  Let ‘em figure out their own “right amount.” Don’t presume to know someone else’s “right amount.”

Okay, enough soapbox.

Have fun!  Learn!  Make cool stuff!  Go at it full tilt if that’s what you love, the interface is not important. Playing is learning!  That’s my motto.

I’ll leave you with one of Sophie’s recent drawings, done on the new computer with a Wacom tablet.  She loves making characters like this from scratch, designing their clothes, their expressions.  Each one takes many hours of work.  Actually her work ethic on these (self-chosen) projects is amazing.  (How would it help her to keep her from her chosen materials by limiting her “screentime”?)

girl with ears and scabard on backSO CUTE.

Edited to Add: I inadvertently made a huge addition to this in the comments (about ipads), it makes a good continuation of the computer rant, if you’re so inclined to hear more.

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Sophie: “Hey, Mom, what’s the difference between a snow man and snow woman?” Luc: “SNOW BALLS!” And he throws three of them at me.

snow 2015

Our pond, frozen enough to sit on

Down here in North Carolina, snow is rare and exciting, and today was the day, the snow of the winter.  The kids rushed out first thing, still in their jammies, coats hastily thrown on top, me hobbling out behind, afraid of falling on the slick ice.  “Mom! Mom!  IT’S SNOOOOWWWW!!!”

“Here, take this walking stick,” said Luc, skidding up to me with a board, part of a dismantled hammock.  I took it, grateful, thinking, You know, hammock weather is really more my style. 

“Too bad we don’t have shoes with cleats for you,” he added, slipping and sliding away.  “Then we could walk up cliffs!”

To which Sophie added, “Stay on this tire track, it’s softer!” as she whizzed by, Henry galloping ahead, pulling her behind like a sled.

“Be caref–” I started to say…but naaa.  She’ll be fine.  And I trudged after them, taking pictures.

For the past ten years, going out into the world with them, I’ve always been the one with more experience, more knowledge, more physical strength, more money, more power.  Not so, today.  Foreshadowing of things to come.

TerrariaIt was a strikingly familiar feeling to a couple of days ago when I sat down and played Terraria with them for the first time, starting a new character (I named her Sriracha), letting them show me the ropes of mining and monster hunting.  I gave Siri giant, spiky pink hair so I could recognize her more easily on the screen. Because I’m old and the dang characters are like, sixteen pixels high.  “How do these controls work again?”

The kids have been playing Terraria for over a year, their characters are all OP (over-powered) and they’ve got mad skilz.  While I attempted to walk/bounce up a cliff they buzzed around me, killing a goblin army, giving me weapons I couldn’t figure out how to use, crafting me armor for my safety.  “What’s this shiny stuff?” I would ask, poking the ground, while their characters jumped and darted from here to there on the screen, “Mom! Look at this! Mom, put on this meteorite armor!  Mom, here’s a spear, and eat this heart crystal!  Mom!”

Me: “Um, I think I fell in a hole again.”

They really, really loved that I was playing with them.  “You’re so adorable as Sriracha,” said Sophie.  And Luc want4r to take care of me, it was very sweet.  “I got you a rainhat, Mommy, so your hair won’t get wet.”  Meaning an in-game hat, of course.

“But that will cover my pink hair….”  And how will I know which blip is me?

Honestly, I’ve been happy in my role as tech-support all these years, but I’ve done very little actual gaming. I’m suddenly smacking my palm to my forehead about this.  I run the Minecraft server, I install games, I look-up walk-throughs, I’ve even built computers.  But actual playing…not so much.  I don’t have time.  And anyway, I get stressed out instead of have fun.  It’s just not my scene.  [whiny voice is whiny]

But they liked it sooooo much…..

I begin to see that it’s like going for a snow walk—it’s rare and the kids adore it.  It’s great when I help suit them up and have hot chocolate waiting for them when they get back, but they really love it when I’m out there with them.  And how many more years are they even going to want to play with me?  I think…I’ve just got to do it.  I’ve got to become enough of a gamer so that I’m not just tech-support.  I need to get on the field.  While I still can.  While I’m still invited.

I can do this.  I used to love gaming when I was a kid, Jump-man and text-adventures and and…Pong.  (Again with the old.)  Yeah.  I can do this.

I’m going in.

Taking a snow bath.

Taking a snow bath.

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The work-in-progress novel is coming back from the editor this weekend.

I’m a nervous wreck!

My first round of beta-readers (pre-editor) have been largely positive, and the editor got a better version of the manuscript than they got, so…I can hope.

(Can’t I?  A little bit? I can hope I don’t need to RETHINK MY ENTIRE LIFE?)

But to editors, I always say…
hit me as hard as you can
…and I mean it.  Don’t worry about my feelings, I insist. I need to know all the broken parts. Before the book is published.  While I still have time to FIX IT.  That is, before the public shaming of the dreaded [hushed whisper] 1 Star Review.
i'm not nervous at all

I’ll get the email, with its .doc attachment and lunge to open it….

Will it be one of these?
mind blown
…or one of these?
throws away computer
stomps on computer
?
One always hopes for one of these…
crazy dancing
…yeah, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that’s just wishful thinking.

I haven’t written anything new in 2015.  SHOCKING. Instead, I’ve been on some kind of sabbatical where I READ ALL THE THINGS, at least, all the things written by Samuel Delany. I’ve already mentioned Dhalgren, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand here on the blog.  But how about Babel-17…amazing! Empire Star…amazing! Motion of Light in Water…yeah, yeah, you get the idea.

It’s hard for my little writer-self to take in. What’s the freaking point to writing anything at all when someone can write like …that?

Whatever.  It’s not like I’m giving it up (can’t, it’s like hypergraphia or something).  So, start the count-down. I’ll be losing it, in some fashion, in just a few days.

I should probably start drinking now.

P.S. Several people wrote to ask me how the dentist went, oh you funny little readers, I love you.  It was fine, I have perfect teeth, the dentist always says, “What are you doing here? Go home.”

And my wonderful hygienist, Hilda, bless her, was SHOCKED when it was revealed that I am about to turn 44.  “Get out!” she said.  “I thought you were just out of college or something!”

“You DID NOT,” I said back, “You practice that face in the mirror for your difficult clients, don’t you!”

“I do NOT,” she said.  “You don’t look your age at all.”

“Look at these wrinkles!” I said, pointing. “And these!”

“Un-un,” she said, getting back to work.  “I’ve got people in here all the time in their forties who look like they are in their sixties. Rinse.”  But she still looked surprised as she vacumed out my mouth with that sucky-tube-thing.  “Honey, you look fantastic.”

“May the angels sing your praises to the heavens,” I said. Well, more like, “aa dee angees seen ya payz to da heabens…”

My fragile ego needs all the help it can get right now.

 

This isn’t really a review, just a rant, because I’m stalling.  I’m supposed to be getting ready to go to the dentist but I’m writing this instead.  Don’t tell the hygienist.  There is this great line by comic Steven Wright that I always think of when it’s time again for a dental torture visit.  He says, in that totally deadpan voice of his, “My dental hygienist is cute.  Every time I visit, I eat a whole package of Oreo cookies while waiting in the lobby.  Sometimes she has to cancel the rest of the afternoon’s appointments.”  I’m kind of in the mood to follow his advice.

Which brings me to the rant.

I finished reading Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany last night in the bath—and nearly threw it across the room when I realized it’s only the first half of the story, it ends on a cliffhanger, and it will probably never be finished.

WHY, WHY YOU DO THIS TO ME.  An amazing, brilliant, complicated, weird, eye-popping, thought-provoking, hard to read at times, gorgeous, BOOK.

But it’s ONLY THE FIRST HALF!

GAHHHHHHHH.  I suppose I’ll have to go get a goddamn copy of Review of Fucking Contemporary Fiction 1996 to read the goddamn mystery chapter of the unpublished sequel (that’s the only place it appeared, from what I can glean in my googling), even though it sounds like reading it will probably only piss me off more because it doesn’t really answer any questions. Or so they say.  SCREW YOU MR. DELANY for making me CARE SO MUCH ABOUT YOUR GODDAMN CHARACTERS AND WORLD and then hurting them so awfully at the end of Stars, only to ABANDON them to live out their miserable lives in your head, where I can’t see them.

Big MEANY.  Stingy!  Cruel and unusual punishment to readers, that’s what this is!

[panting]

And here’s the weirdest thing.  Even so, I still wholeheartedly recommend Stars in my Pocket as one of the best Sci-fi books I have ever read.

The book basically takes a can-opener to your brain, with its ideas and images about aliens and culture and identity and so much moreand then leaves your skull-lid all hanging open, ragged and jagged, to tear at the edges of your pitiful life, oh the suffering of a cliff hanger.  Oh oh oh.

Seriously, it’s really that good.  Even with only being half the damn story.

Jo Walton, a terrific writer herself, has this to say and I completely agree: “Samuel Delany is intimidatingly brilliant, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is (arguably) his best book. Even though he’s been one of my favourite writers since I was a teenager, and I’ve read all his books multiple times, I try not to re-read him when I’m writing because he sets such a high standard I feel that I might as well give up now.”  (The rest of her review is here.  It is excellent and gives a good sense of some of the more amazing content of the book.)

Yes.  That.  Imma go lie down and whimper for all the “writing” I have ever attempted.  I am ashamed.

MAN I just…I’m so…UNRESOLVED.  I have CLOSURE ISSUES.  I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO RAT AND MARK.

Sob.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want.  Just look at poor Mark Dyeth.

Oh god—was this the point?  To leave the READER (me!) hanging like this, unfulfilled, in just the way that Mark is left hanging?  So that I can feel the same (or at least an echo) of his misery?

TOO CRUEL, MR. DELANY.  TOO CRUEL.

(See my actual review of Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and my musings on his Dhalgren.)

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ThroughValleyNestSpidersShort version: incredible, astonishing, I loved it.  It’s difficult, but worth the effort.  Not for everyone.

Long version.  Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders by Samuel Delany (author of Dhalgren one of my favorite books) begins with young Eric Jeffers, a gay, white kid from Atlanta, raised by his black step-father, about to turn 17, moving in with his white mother in a rural, coastal Georgia town.  On the way, Eric meets Morgan “Shit” Haskell, a black, 19 year old, illiterate, self-described pervert, and Shit’s white father, Dynamite, a meeting that changes Eric’s life.  Soon he begins working with Shit and Dynamite as the town’s garbage men, at the same time becoming their lover and friend.  I don’t think I’m giving any spoilers to say the rest of the 800 pages takes you through Eric and Shit’s lives together on into old age, beginning in the year Obama was elected, and finishing in our future, some time in the late 21st century.

The scope of the book is astonishing.  The subjects it tackles—racism, sexuality, morality, aging, religion, memory, being marginalized, I could go on—are hard and deeply explored.  After 800 pages I was left with a feeling that, as a whole, the book is about what it really means to live a human life: the tragedy of it, of aging, of living through the changing times, changing technology, changing cultural expectations, of seeing everything and everyone around you passing away, of day to day life through wave after wave of change.  But especially, the beauty of it.

Honestly, it’s also one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.  I sobbed at the end. Real, ugly crying for the last fifty pages that made it hard to see the words, and then for a good while after I just threw my head down on the table and wept. For the next few days I walked around feeling like I was a different person.  No, I am a different person.

That’s damn hard to pull off.  That’s rare.

But look, before I can recommend this book (which I do!) you have to sign this informed consent.  You need to know: there is a ton of sex in this book (however much you just imagined, times it by a factor of ten), that’s tons of gay sex, and that’s fine, but then it starts to get…weird. Sexualized mutual nose picking, piss drinking, shit eating, incest, beastiality, taboo language, nail biting—

Wait, whoa…what?

Therein lies one of the primary tensions of this book. Yes, I can say unreservedly, that this book is one of the most beautiful I’ve read.  Even as the language alternates between sublimely beautiful and gaggingly difficult to read.  It eases up, changes significantly in the second half, but it’s there all the way through.  There is something to gross out everyone here.

I’ve read Dhalgren over and over, I love it, each reading gives me more. So I was stoked to learn Delany had written another monster-sized novel.  But after TVNS came out and I had read a few reviews…it took me months to work up the courage to read it.  Nose picking? I thought.  Shit eating?  Seriously?!  Why they hell would Delany put that in a book?  And then…he must have his reasons…?  And then, to hell with it, if Samuel Freaking Delany wants to write about nose-picking and all the rest of it, I want to know why.  So in I dove.

I think TVNS is aware of this difficulty.

In the second half of Eric’s life, he is given a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, and proceeds to spend the next forty years reading it over and over.  His early attempts are comical and recognizable (to me, anyway) the way my eye will slide off sentences in difficult books, sentences that I can see are written in English words, but for which I have zero comprehension. Eric says it took the first decade of struggling with Spinoza just to learn how to read it.  I think that’s true for TVNS, too—well, not the decade part, maybe, but the first hundred pages or so.  For example, in that first encounter between 16 year old Eric and 19 year old Shit in the Turpens truck stop restroom, the vocabulary, the group sex, whoa, it’s shocking. (Me: he’s doing what? They said that? And now he’s doing what?!) and I had to keep rearranging what I thought was happening because the Standard Narrative for those sorts of events is, well, A BAD THING IS HAPPENING.  But TVNS refuses every standard narrative.  That’s the point.

The first fifty pages were the hardest for me.  It got easier (although the book keeps upping the ante all the way through) as I went.  Probably I just got better at reading it.  The last pages are like light.

Try this.  When I was maybe thirteen, I was at a friend’s house, hanging out, bored, and in a giggly, showing-off fit of “let’s do something,” she showed me a copy of one of her older brother’s porn mags (an actual paper porn magazine! I’m getting old.). It was “Jugs,” an issue devoted to especially large breasts and wow, it kind of freaked me out, even as it fascinated.  I remembering feeling shocked and kind of dirty and intensely curious, as in, Is this for real?  Guys like this?  Why?

Parts of reading TVNS were not un-like my thirteen-year-old-self looking through that issue of “Jugs”…somebody else’s porn.  Sexual, sort of, but not a turn on, a little disturbing, strange, interesting as the shock wears off.  Only TVNS doesn’t stop there.  Next came compassion, humor, questioning.  Love.

Jo Walton did a thoughtful review (of TVNS, not Jugs) over at Tor that I highly recommend, and in the comments, someone wrote, “It’s odd that people are resistant to reading about characters who engage in sex practices they would not themselves indulge in, and perhaps even find discomfiting, when they would not balk at reading a book with a character who murders or violently destroys whole planets.”  Yeah, good point, why is that?  Delany himself has happily called TVNS a book at the intersection of sci-fi, literary fiction, and pornography.  One of its main themes is something like there is no normal.  Maybe it’s desensitization, maybe its just how much I came to love Eric and Shit.  But yeah, the weird became less weird for me as I went along.  So Delany keeps adding more, new weird….

I think that uneasy feeling is another part of the point.  Whether it is the sex, or the language (the swearing is intense but even more so, the regular (and rather fond) use of the word nigger), or the incest, or the shit/mucous/piss consumption…getting through that material is part of what changed me and made the ending so powerful.

Because I do feel changed.  My perspective, my perception, my self-acceptance.  This is a life changing book.  And the ending is amazing.  The pay off in those last 50 pages is profound.

Man, that sounds like hyperbole.  Sorry.

Interestingly, this morning I picked up my old copy of Delany’s essays, About Writing, many of which I have been unable to penetrate before—that eye sliding thing.  I found them very easy to read this morning.  Have I taught myself how to read Delany?  At least a little?

Sidenote: everything, every weird sex act in TVNS is consensual.  There is no non-con, no rape, and consent is taken seriously by everyone, especially around the younger people.  This isn’t a book about mean people doing mean things to each other.  That’s another part of the point.

And here’s the thing: At the end of the book, none of my thoughts were about the fetish-y sex.  All of that had ceased to be important in any of the ways those parts of Eric’s story were so loud and overwhelming in the beginning.  By the end, the particulars of what got them hard had become fairly inconsequential to me.   Maybe being in relationship with Eric and Shit for 800 pages, exactly as they are, and coming to accept them—and they are wonderful people!—is part of the book’s transformative power.

Switching gears now away from the loud and “nasty” parts (Shit’s word)….

A “normal” novel, meaning, the vast majority of the novels I’ve read, has a certain shape: an inciting event propels a protagonist with wants and needs into confronting (or running from) a problem she has with meeting those wants and needs, often in the form of an antagonist.  There are a few try-cycles where the character does different things to solve her problem, these succeed and the problem gets bigger, or the character fails and tries again, the stakes increase, right up into the final showdown where the problem is finally resolved (in some fashion) and the character gets (some of) what she wanted (or possibly doesn’t, if its a darker book), growing and changing in the process.

TVNS does not follow this shape.  Eric says it right out at one point.  He says about some young people he meets who have been to Mars and back (I haven’t talked about it much here, but this IS science fiction, and the world-building of our near-future is fascinating), “They have stories. (I guess other people mostly do.  I just have a life….”

Right.  There is no plot here.  This is Eric’s life. Instead of plot and try-cycles you get layers upon layers of moments, building up like sediment.  Someone reading the first one or two hundred pages might give up in frustration saying, nothing happens! But the emotional whammy, the textured experience of all those layered memories by the end, it’s tremendous.  A totally different way to shape this thing we call a “novel.”  And that whammy couldn’t have been achieved, I think, any other way.  Because life isn’t a story.

And unlike stories, even in a good life, which Eric has, there isn’t a happy ending.  Don’t get me wrong, Eric IS happy.  He has a great relationship with someone he loves, he has work he enjoys, he’s part of a vibrant community.  The world happens around him (much of it in our future), sometimes to him, and he makes choices, but nothing bad really happens here, no major events, beyond the death of friends as he get older, or aging itself.  That’s what I mean: the best possible human life still ends in the loss of everything you love, and then you die.  Full stop.  Living a long and happy life, with people you love, and dying of old age, that’s the best outcome we wish for as humans, right?  (Unless, maybe, you’re Achilles and you wish for fame and honor, instead…)  But the best we can hope for…and it has this shitty, terrifying, sad end!

Who invented this system??  What a stupid ride!  I want off!

This is the material of this book.  Not a story.  A life.

And believe me when I say I can’t tell you about the book—I mean, I AM telling you about the book, but you have to read it, experience the effect of the words, to get what it is offering.  It’s experiential, not informational.  That’s why there aren’t any spoilers.

TVNS took Delany seven years to write.  When most writers I know are working hard to create multiple novels a year, to create stories that draw in a reader and hold them tight, with likable characters and compelling events (all of which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to go about writing), Delany is doing something different, a hard book that puts up obstacles the reader has to overcome in order to become the person that can receive the nuanced and powerful impact of the end.

Other themes….

samueldelanyDelany works masterfully with time—Eric really feels like a 17 year old kid in the beginning, and a 90 year old man in the end, plus all the stages in between.  Plus the way time goes so slowly when we’re young and so slippery-fast as we age.  How the world around us changes, in sometimes bewildering ways—technology’s advance, the falling down of buildings, the passing of businesses and structures that once were part of our daily life, all of that is in here in such a visceral way—oh and the crazy-making part of the passage of time: that all we have to go on is our memories, and those are fleeting and subject to significant erosion.

And what’s it like inside a 70 year relationship?  Having read this I feel like I understand things about my Grandma and how she faded so quickly after the death of Granddaddy after nearly 70 years of marriage.  I wish I had read it years ago, wish I could have known these things earlier, for her.  So many stories are written about the beginnings of relationships, the first times, and TVNS is that, too.  But what about what it’s like after forty, fifty, sixty years?  My husband and I are at twenty years now, and I saw us in Eric and Shit as they hit their forties.  I liked that; there aren’t many stories about twenty-year marriages that aren’t boring, depressing as hell, divorce stories.

One of the biggest experiences of the book is what it’s like to grow old—not just to be old, but to be young and to gradually become old.  To be surrounded by people who weren’t alive when you were doing your thing, who see the era of your childhood as “history” and somewhat mythical, people who get it all wrong, but think they know better.  The physicality of it.  The way thinking processes change.  The wisdom and the foolishness.

Another one: FOOD.  So much food!  And described with such detail and direct experience.

I was struck on this reading (when I got to the end, I turned it around and started reading it again, how strange to return to those early shocking scenes with nostalgia this time) by the parts about long-term marriage, the parts about aging, and even the parts about living in a Southern, coastal town.  I grew up on the North Carolina’s Outer Banks, very similar in look, feel, and culture to the Georgia island that Eric and Shit live on.  The way Delany describes the change of one of those thin islands from dunes and trees to a developed town sooo matches my experience of watching my childhood island change over the last forty years!

Other readers (or me, in later readings?) might draw more from the explorations of race, or the parts about being a gay man.  Or the philosophy of Spinoza.  Or the near-future technology, which is drawn so believably it feels like reading history.  Or other facets that just went over my head.  There is a lot here.

Delany’s descriptions of the sky and sea are gorgeous.

Eric says, “So little of life is direct experience…Only an instant of it at a time.  That’s all.  No more.  The rest is memory.  And expectation…and memory is what so much of time’s failings had struck away.”

So.  Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.  Beautiful and terrifying.  A masterful piece of fiction.  Not for people who just won’t be able to get past the “nasty” parts (that’s Shit’s word).  Difficult going at times, in different ways for different people who will be squicked by different things, but SO WORTH IT.  Huge payoff in the end.

Thank you so much, Mr. Delany, for writing this, and for Magnus Books for publishing it.  You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been moved to thank a publisher before! But I can imagine this book was not an easy one to publish. Not a slam dunk, best-selling, airport reading book.  I hope it stays in print.

Thinking of that, hmm, I bought it as an $9.99 ebook (a steal!) but maybe I should get a paper version, in case of the zombie apocalypse.  I don’t want to risk losing my copy.

I’ll leave you with Shit, a hilarious, wonderful, kind person: “Would you at least call me a goddam motherfuckin’ piece of mule shit, so I’ll know you care?”

The missing chapter 90, inadvertently left out of the book can be found here.

Jo Walton’s review for Tor. Shaviro’s review.  Paul di Filippo’s review for Locus.

And an interesting interview with Delany about the book….

 

Just when I finished the big draft of the new novel and sent it off to the editor, out of the blue, BOOM, repetitive stress injury! I think this devil had been waiting in the wings, biding its time before slamming my little twig-wrists like twin bolts of fire shooting up my arms.  Dangit.  At least it was nice enough to let me finish the draft.  But yeah, it’s become quickly apparent that my days of sitting curled up in my bed with my laptop are over.

What to do?  There’s writing, yes, but also surfing, Japanese, blogging, publishing, paying the bills—you know, how we use the computer for… just about everything these days. Hey computer, go wash the dishes for me, would ya?

So, I spent a couple of days reading about ergonomics and carpel tunnel while icing my wrists and taking ibuprofen and just generally feeling like an idiot.  Because it turns out typing while curled up in bed is about the worst possible position for wrists, not to mention my neck, which has chronically hurt for years.

But I emerged from my research with A Plan.  Which I quickly enacted.  Because I can’t Not Write.  That’s just…not happening.

Here it is:

 standing desk 1

Standing desk!  That’s an old oak dresser I’ve had since I was a little tiny girl, as in, a toddler.  I think my dad built it.  Or maybe refinished it?  Add a milk crate—very DIY—topped with a leather desktop that SuperCoolHubby has had around forever, and wa la!  The adjustable laptop stand lets me dial in just the right monitor height for when I am wearing my around-the-yurt clogs, and the dresser/milk-crate combo seems to be the right height for my keyboard by sheer magic.   Add to this a split keyboard and a wireless vertical mouse and BAM.  I’m in business.

Once the acute inflammation stage of my injury passed and my wrists weren’t on fire anymore, I tried it out.

#1 Right away, results: the neck pain and stiffness, which I had just taken as a given of life, is GONE.  Worth the price of admission right there, baby.  Huge win.

#2 The hands and wrists are better, for sure, as in NO PAIN.  But I also haven’t put in any long sessions because…

#3 My feet hurt.

Why does something always have to hurt!?

It isn’t bad and I think it is more building up muscle sort of hurt than damage hurt.  I think my feet will get used to it.

But, no wrist pain, that’s a yay! right?  Even if it’s inconclusive until I do an actual writing stint of a couple of hours on it….  standing desk 2

I find I shift and stretch a lot as I work at this desk, which has got to be better than sitting there like a lump, solidifying in my bed, no matter how cozy the bed is.  Plus I tend to surf less at the stand up desk, which is good for my time management.  I buzz over, get some work done, then move the heck on.

Big test: I’m going to start trying to write on it in the next few days.  Fingers crossed.

But now I’m thinking…treadmill desk.

AmIright?  Sitting is the new smoking!  Treadmill desks are IN.  I just need an old craigslist treadmill I can DIY mod and stick under this stand.  Maybe…?  Cardio while I work!  This is soooo happening….

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My little guy, Luc, 9, is hilarious.  I’ve done a couple of posts on Luc-isms over the years.  He constantly says things that surprise me.  For example, the other night, lights out, I realize I’ve forgotten to turn on the alarm and say into the dark, “Can you turn on the alarm?  I forgot.”

Luc answers in superhero voice: “I will find it using…my sense of smell.”

I…would never have thought of that.

He’s also always seeing things I miss.  Like the other day in Whole Foods he pulls me down to whisper solemnly into my ear, “grass roots…begin to grow.”

“Wha–?”

Finally I notice this enigmatic phrase is printed on the wall as part of a “history of organic foods movement” display.  His delivery turned it into some kind of spy phrase, for which I am supposed to have the encoded reply. Serious, even deadly.  Now we whisper this to each other frequently.

Or this, in the shoe store, buying boots for Sophie last month, he calls, all urgent excitement, “Mom!  Mom!  Come here!”

I walk over.  “Yeah?”

Whispered intently: “LOOK.”

I see shoes on display, customers, chairs.  “Um?”

He points.  “Foot mirror.”

HAHA—he’d zeroed in on the short, angled mirror that reflects people’s feet, presumably in the shoes they are trying on.  I had barely registered that the thing was there.  He spends several moments admiring his feet in different positions.  “This is awesome. I never knew I needed a foot mirror.”  He’s always got a different perspective.

His favorite question is, of course, who would win.

“Who do you think would win, Hulk or Yoda?”

I have to be ready for these at a moment’s notice.  “You know, actually, I don’t think those two would fight. I can’t see either one attacking the other.”

“Well,” he says.  “They are both green.”

HAHAHA!  So true.

Sophie, my eldest, has her own moments of comic genius.  Like last night:

Husband, flipping through Netflix options, “I think this show may be a bit too intense for the kids, what do you think?  Maybe when they’re bigger.”

Sophie: “What, you mean your balls?”

Oh my god, we were laughing so hard.

Isn’t laughing at silly stuff like this just the best thing EVER?  It seems to me you’ve just got to salt your life with as much silly laughing as possible, the more the better, or else what’s the point?

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