The irony

How is it that PHD Comics seem to know when I am working on visa applications? Last time, when my visa application was denied*, Tajel was having a similar problem. This time, just when I am about to send my visa extension application off, there is this:

phd102609sWith Part Two here, in which Jorge Cham is deported for not being a “real” doctor.

Also, today the Royal Mail postal workers are on strike. Good thing I didn’t put my application in the mail today after all…

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* Because I didn’t include the so-crucial letter from Sallie Mae that I didn’t know existed until the day I was about to send off my visa appeal. I am duly paranoid this time.

On Human Nature

Somewhere I once heard, or read, (and can’t find it now, alas) “What is man? How like an angel, and yet, how like a devil.” It is based on Psalm 8, but it’s the “devil” part I’m thinking of now, for this reason:

CNN: As many as 20 present at gang rape outside school dance

Seriously? That fifteen people would stand by and watch? What kind of monster would hear that this was happening, and instead of trying to stop it either themselves or by calling the police, goes to watch. For two and a half hours.

In one of the interviews I heard about it, the anchor and the legal expert were trying to determine to what extent the bystanders could be help culpable. The short answer is: they can’t. You are not legally bound to report a crime; you cannot be held legally responsible for watching a crime take place. But at one point the expert said something along the lines that a person could only be held responsible “if you do anything to allow the rapist to continue the crime you are liable” — which would mean, one would think, not doing anything to prevent the crime, e.g. calling the police.

Whatever happened to: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (James 4:17)? I can only hope that there will be enough collective outrage from all who hear of this that something actually might be done to bring justice to those against whom justice must be served, and to protect others in the future.

On Science Fiction

This morning, as we were waiting for more conference attendees to arrive to TOEBI, I stood with two of my colleagues chatting. Somehow the topic of Creative Writing MLitts and PhDs came up. “There are too many of them. It isn’t the same: they shouldn’t get the same recognition as what we’re doing.” The other agreed. They went on for a few sentences more and then I said, perhaps a bit testily, “Writing novels isn’t easy.”

“You sound put off, Chera. Have you tried writing a novel?”

“Yes I have,” I answered. Had I been published? “No, I’m still working on it. But I have been writing since I was twelve.”

However, because I hadn’t been published—an absurd expectation of someone who is also a full-time academic just at the start of her career!—my protest was mostly dismissed. I can assure you that my quality of writing isn’t the same as it was 12 years ago; it has dramatically matured, and it continues to improve. The reason Orion is taking so long is because I have an entire universe to build, and that isn’t easy. And I knew, I just knew, that if I said that I write science fiction, fantasy, and young adult, that I would be dismissed even more. Do you think that writing non-human cultures is easier than writing human? Aliens have to be completely foreign to us and yet still be relatable. I have to master the basics of political theory, broad sweeps of history, and astrophysics in order to make an interstellar, culturally diverse rebellion and civil war make sense. As for fantasy, magic has to have rules, magical beings and beasts have particular traits and shapes—there is, in fact, a canon for both science fiction and fantasy that the writer in either of these genres has to bear in mind when he or she is writing.

The hypocrisy of the prejudice against science fiction is simply ridiculous. Mary Shelley, acclaimed for being the first (European) woman novelist, wrote science fiction. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—science fiction. The Time Machine and War of the Worlds—science fiction. Brave New World—science fiction. Nineteen Eighty-Four—science fiction. There is obviously historical and literary precedent for the importance and academic study of science fiction in the realms of literature, and in their sensitivity to culture and society. Yet we don’t study science fiction after the 1950s, despite the leaps and bounds in its development during the 70s and 80s. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov is nothing like the film; instead it is a collection of short stories, each investigating a different ethical and psychological issue caused by the presence of robots. If you want an incredible book on gender theory, read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, or on political theory, The Dispossessed. Science fiction may not be about the real or the literal, but it is certainly grounded in Reality; science fiction is an exploration of humanity and humanness. How more Real can you get?

This became a defense of science fiction; fantasy shall come at some later date. Perhaps during November, when I will be writing—heaven forfend!—a fantasy novel for NaNoWriMo.

The Modern Age

My latest job in Special Collections included ‘tidying up’ the pre-1890 stacks. Thankless, and tedious, but I actually didn’t mind much because I saw it as an opportunity to acquaint myself with the stacks. Starting first with philosophy and religion in the A’s, I had fun looking at all the titles and bindings. A Book of Beginnings is one of my favorites. When I reached the biographies, I had to chuckle, because on one hand there was The Lives of Twelve Good Men and directly opposite it across the aisle was Twelve Bad Men. I was also struck by the great sense of the present the authors of these books had. Mostly published in the 19th century, these books had grand titles such as The Papacy in the Modern Age, or The Age We Live In (Vols 1 and 2), and so on and so forth. Histories of the 19th century published with yet 20 years to go! Now that we’ve passed the 2000 mark, I wonder if we have a different view of how to title things: date specific, and more aware that in ten, if not less, years this history book will be out of date and need to be rewritten. A longer eye toward the future, perhaps, without drifting into science-fiction; 1984 has come and gone, and 2000 is nearly a decade ago.

Also, I would say that if anyone wants to understand Western civilization, they have got to read the Bible, just out of sheer volume of commentaries and books written about it. Just think of how many people over the past 2000 years have been writing about the Bible—longer, if we are to include Jewish scholars! For the Essential Western Reader, I would also include the works of Homer, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (perhaps I’m biased), Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. After the 17th-century my perception of What Is Important to Western Civilization/Literature is a little fuzzy, but those works are a good start.

Hope

I am getting better. I can sit upright and breathe through my nose and walk into town, but I am still not well. I am trying to take it easy and actually get well this time—not just “well enough”. I have been unwell so frequently and so persistently this year that my ability to stay positive wavers. I am tired of being ill. I am tired of being medicated all the time. I am tired of trying not to complain. I am tired of feigning normalcy when the alternative would be a very slow, very painful degeneration.

Someday, there will be no more pain, no more illness. There will be eternity to read every book that has ever been written, learn every language that has ever been spoken, visit all the stars that have ever shone, and dance with every angel that has ever spun on that crystal sea.

For today: stubbornness, resignation, and hope.

A Thread of Grace

I am beginning to feel marginally better: each day, at least, I have more energy and coherency than the one before. I have been lucky that the past three days spent in bed I have had A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell to occupy me.

threadofgraceA Thread of Grace chronicles the Italian Resistance and astounding feats of courage and hospitality of Italians hiding Jewish refugees during the latter years of WWII. You never hear about the Italian theater of WWII, which is in part why I found this novel so fascinating. In the Author’s Note, Russell explains some of the research and inspiration involved in this novel, and she says: “It will be eerie, I suspect, for these people to recognize elements of their own experiences mixed with the memories of others, filtered through a novelist’s imagination, and assigned to a character of a different age or gender. What I have written is not real, but I hope they will find it to be true.”

Words cannot express my praise (and sorrow) for The Sparrow, and I admire her skill to succeed in a completely different genre for A Thread of Grace. A Thread of Grace is a macrocosm compared to The Sparrow, with so many characters, and yet not one of them is flat. You will love and hate Mary Doria Russell, because she will make you laugh and cry, make you love God and doubt him; in the midst of terror, she will make you believe that:

No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.

If I can evoke but only a tenth of the pathos she achieves in my own writing, I will have succeeded indeed.

Mercurial adventures

The god of travel hath a sense of humour! Or I have done something to offend him. Or chance has simply dealt me the least-planned trip I have ever had. The jaunt down to London for a training day at the British Library was going to be a sightseeing trip with Katherine: we were going to stay in London, go to Hillsong and Evensong, and a couple of museums. Instead, my trip was, in sum, the following:

  • An unexpected return to Oxford, where I stayed with the Hardins, including helping with Sunday dinner and playing with a very energetic 18-mo old;
  • Wandering Oxford with Bronnie, during which I said a few stern words to unruly geese and shared the enjoyment of certain doors;
  • A day spent meeting other medievalists and early modernists, in which I saw Wulfstan’s own copy of his homilies, complete with notes in his own hand, as well as the only copy of the N-Town plays and the Pearl manuscript;
  • Being talked into buying a new copy of More’s Utopia, one of my favorite books, since my other copy is across the ocean;
  • Reading in a café until a friend-of-a-friend could meet up so I could stay with her, including waiting 40-min in south London because she was delayed by train works;
  • Getting ill—again—thanks to London’s lovely polluted air, despite that I’ve just come off two weeks’ of antibiotics for an earlier bout of sinusitis;
  • Trusting myself to the London bus system to get to King’s Cross for only £2;
  • Insisting to the train’s café person that I didn’t want the crisps and soda deal with my sandwich, but orange juice (“I don’t have any orange juice,” he said. I pointed at a bottle behind him, “There’s some right there.”);
  • Paying for my bus fare back to town with pennies and borrowed change;
  • Being rescued from certain death by bus thanks to Dustin’s timely, “Uh, bus.”

By the time I had dropped off my books at 66 and met up with Jesse to make the trek down and up the hill to our respective homes, I was more than ready to be home. I think being a PhD student has zapped any sense of road awareness I used to have (the alternative explanation being that I’m ill and tired and distracted).

I am very thankful for the hospitality that was graciously offered to me on such short notice. However, I think I am too independent and/or proud to continue my mendicant ways with a clean conscience. I’ll talk to animals and be frugal, but otherwise, I don’t think I would make a good Franciscan. Is there an order that preaches self-sufficiency? I guess not.

Now, to bed early and when I wake up, maybe my brain will have returned mostly to its semi-normal state.

Enemy territory

Being in Oxford during term-time feels like being in enemy territory. Especially when I got off the train last night wearing my bright red Scottish Rival-University sweatshirt. Yeah, there I go being conspicuous.

I was supposed to be in London this weekend, but a quick turn of events required a desperate plea sent to my friends in Oxford, and I am now enjoying the comforts of staying with their lovely family. I hope to do some wandering tomorrow, read, and hang out with Bronnie as her time allows. Then she and I will be going to London for British Library training, and then it’s back north for me.

What I really miss about Oxford are its parks: University Parks and Christ Church Meadow. We don’t really have an equivalent. The Cathedral is lovely, and I enjoy wandering in the cemetery, but I miss trees. I haven’t yet gone down Lade Braes, so maybe I’m just ignorant. I have been intimidated by how far a walk it seems to get there, and whether my knees will thank me for it later.

Scotland seems more austere than southern England: all stone and the shocking contrast of green, with the furrowed brow of Presbyterianism scowling down at you from the peaked rooftops. Our town is smaller than Oxford, we make do with less. But the austerity develops a steelness of character—unless that is simply the result of a Texan-transplant in Scotland, one rebellious spirit compounded with another. Our motto is, of course, Aien aristeuein—‘Ever to be the best’.

It’s all history

Today has just been ridiculous. Running around here and there, I was maybe in the office a total of two hours, where I read articles that were somewhat relevant to my work but not really. My meeting this morning with both supervisors went fairly well; at least, I have something to Do, which is better than not having anything, but it’s not like I wasn’t plugging away at my reading already. The workshop this afternoon went on an hour longer than it was supposed to, which made me miss my meeting with Megan; I left my keys in my office and had to go back to get them; I thought I had bought dark chocolate only to find that it’s actually milk. Good grief. It seems the whole week has been like this, one thing after another.

The best part of today was working in Special Collections: sitting in a big, highly air-conditioned room and wearing brightly colored gloves, sliding into that timeless space where the only sound is the hum of the air-conditioner and the scratch of pencil against paper. For those two hours it was only me and the artifacts; I sorted through the box of manuscripts, handling the black and white photographs of the university with the same reverence I held a Byzantine icon or an Egyptian alabaster jar when I worked at the museum. It’s all history. One of the photographs was taken in front of the cathedral with a large group of people; that one candid moment captured. Who were those people? Is that man holding a pipe? What is he saying? I read a booklet of references for a woman applying for some unknown post. One of them said, ‘I can only think that the rather disturbed conditions under which the students have had to work this last year account for the Division 2’. Another one of her references couldn’t say what she had done at her job because of the Secrets Act. She was fluent in French and German. The year was 1940.

Before tea

I recently explained to some friends that my brain tends to organize words by sounds. This can have some rather amusing consequences. I hadn’t had my tea yet this morning when Neil suggested that gin cures all ills for postgraduates. What I heard was jinn. So while he was wondering why I was staring at my tea with a very puzzled expression, I was wondering why on earth he was talking about genies. Unfortunately, if you were to give me a bottle of either, neither gin nor jinn would avail me.