Men, Women, Dinners, and Access

I grew up in Fundamentalism with the phenomenon of men and women living under radically different holiness codes. One of the most notable, even to my young eyes, centered on the way men – especially married men – could not be in the room with a woman alone. For example, if the male church janitor was in the sanctuary cleaning up, it would not be considered appropriate for the church secretary (a woman, of course) to be the only other person left in the building.

When I was a teenager, my Christian school almost canceled a planned field trip because some parent of one gender canceled and that left only the opposite gender parent and I’m not really sure because even then it seemed weird to me that people were so worried about parents-without-their-spouses hitting the sack on the backside of a 711 or something.  I think somebody’s wife agreed to take a day off work to go on the field trip and protect the testimonies of all the parents involved.

(Man, if I’d been any more worldly-wise growing up, I would have raised several eyebrows at how often “testimonies” needed to be “protected.”)

When I was in college, my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and started a long march through chemotherapy. As a senior in college, I awoke one weekend to the nightmare that she’d had a stroke once the cancer hit her brain (or maybe it was the chemo; those particular drugs had a habit of triggering strokes) and had been rushed to the hospital. It was bad there for awhile, and I was 500 miles from home, and my parents didn’t really have the money to put me on a plane. So the youth pastor from my home church, a man whom I barely knew because he’d started working there after I went to college, graciously offered to drive down to Greenville from Western PA and pick me up for a quick weekend home to see my mom after she had brain surgery.  Problem was, he couldn’t be in the car with me for the ride home.  In Fundamentalism, that was a deal-breaker.  My agnostic, rock-band, techie brother agreed to do the ride-along job of chaperon, creating what must have been the Universe’s weirdest “buddy comedy road trip adventure” story of the year.

I’d pretty much called ‘bullshit’ on this whole paradigm when the head pastor of the church I attended in Greenville made a point in a sermon and then in a published article of expounding why, if he saw a single woman walking down the road in the pouring rain with groceries, he could not be expected to give her a ride. I don’t have a copy of the article and this was pre-internet, but someone on that side of the fence commented on the general gist of it in a post at TGC.

So this might explain how I went for years without any man touching me ever, even on the arm, even as a hug, even as a goodbye or hello, when I lived and worked and studied in Fundamentalist circles. It explains why, when I joined a PCA church in the early 2000s, I nearly jumped out of my skin when a guy would tap my arm as part of normal conversation. Took me years to retrain my body that human contact is actually healthy and good.

*****
Vice President Mike Pence made a splash in January when it hit the news that he refuses to be in a room with another woman if his wife isn’t present. A lot of people outside conservative religious circles guffawed, but many of us – especially women – rolled our eyes and said, “Here we go again.”

Many people wrote good articles about how this is a form of gender discrimination. I liked The Atlantic’s piece: “How Mike Pence’s Dudely Dinners Hurt Women.”  In a world where men still serve as gatekeepers to power, barring women from the room unless there’s a chaperon around isn’t protecting either of them from wrongful accusation. It’s just keeping women out of the chambers of power.

A friend of mine is studying science at a nearby, large, Research One institution that shall remain nameless. She is a senior PhD student in a STEM field, highly capable and respected by her colleagues.  If she needs to use a particular piece of equipment in another lab, the professor (a man) refuses to let women into his lab unless there are other people present.  Since this student cannot control others’ schedules, she has sometimes lost her slot to work with this critical lab equipment because there were no other people around to “chaperon” their time in the lab.  But it’s ok – some guy got to jump in and take her spot, since apparently religious conservatives are so opposed to LGBTQ+ people that they refuse to consider them when building these holiness codes.

What makes this so galling is the way her science department and university administration cannot see that this professor’s holiness code has become a weapon against women in STEM at that university.  Instead, she’s noted that people are stunned when she suggests anything but admiration for this man “who cares so much about his marriage that he refuses to be alone with any woman who isn’t his wife! Isn’t that chivalrous?! Isn’t it grand?!”

No. It’s legalism, if we want to parse this through the lens of Christian theology.  God never said “don’t be alone with another woman.” What He said was, precisely, “Don’t be an adulterer,” which Jesus intensified as “Don’t lust after another woman in your heart.”  You can’t cut your heart out of your body, guys, so you’re going to have to rely on the Grace of the Cross for your sanctification, not your own rules about who’s sitting in the office after hours. [Please don’t bring up “Let not your good be spoken about as evil.” Not the point of that passage. If we want to play the proof-text game, then let me remind you, “To the pure, all things are pure.” So get your damn mind out of the gutter next time you see a man and woman together in a professional setting.]

And from a professional, “business” viewpoint, it’s sexism. The primary victim of all holiness codes are the women. In the name of protecting something good (marital fidelity), the brunt of the work falls on the women – not to be present if there’s a man doing his job; not to dress in a way that a man finds provocative; not to be available lest he want to rape her. Oh, sorry, I forgot we aren’t talking about the Stanford swimmer-rapist. 

Things were simpler, I realize, when the only power brokers in the boardroom, the lab, the classroom, or the pulpit were white men. That 1950s demographic profile does remain in many conservative circles, but in general American experience, things have opened up for us ladies.   ….Kind of.  OK, barely….. 😉

But I wish more men were out there expressing the outrage they ought to feel when their religious structures reinforce the idea that sexuality and attraction are uncontrollable forces in the universe; that women are temptresses and men are faithless ever; that a man wants only sex from the women he’s around; that people’s ability to claim any ridiculous thing about your reputation trumps the Great Commandments should you happen to see a woman walking in the rain and you’re the only guy in your warm, dry automobile as you pass her.

As a woman who’s married (19 years and counting) to a man who’s nothing like that, I’m offended on my husband’s behalf that people not only think like this, they celebrate people who do.  I don’t feel any need to track my husband’s movements via his iPhone or think twice about what he’s doing with his genitalia where other humans are concerned. Why? Because he’s a decent human, and I trust him. It’s part of what Love means when I think about my marriage vows.

*****

You don’t get to close your lab “in the name of Jesus.”  You shouldn’t applaud people like Mike Pence who use a non-biblical standard of sexual “purity” in a way that locks women out of the halls of power. It doesn’t matter whether Pence “intended” for that to be the effect. It IS the effect his holiness code has on the women around him.

You shouldn’t cancel your kid’s field trip for the sake of your testimony. (Good grief, who ARE your friends, and why do you keep hanging out with them if they are going to scream nasty things about your reputation the minute you set foot in an automobile with someone of the opposite sex?)

You shouldn’t avoid doing the right thing – the kind and loving thing – because you’ve built yourself a big ol’ holiness fence to protect your personal reputation. Sometimes doing the right thing is going to look rather messy.  At that point, you can either love your holiness code or you can love the person you’re trying to help.  You can’t do both.

To my 20-something self: Make a career plan

This post goes out to all the girls … girls who woke up one day in their 30s and realized they hadn’t ended up where they’d expected, girls who were on a career arc then veered off to raise a family, and girls who expected to be married with kids…until they weren’t.

The talk most of us never got

This is the conversation I wish someone had held with me when I was 24 or 28 or even 31, early enough in my life to grab my shoulders and shake me and say, “Don’t just let life happen to you. Make some decisions. Don’t assume it’s not going to matter.”

Because that’s how I did it, and it kind of sucks to realize in the rear view mirror that I should have–and could have–planned ahead.

My experience is not the norm for yours, but maybe this can serve as a starting place for all you lovely ladies out there who are still trying to figure out your place in this world.

1. You need a plan.

This is what no one told me, boiled down to its simplest form: Regardless of your family status (married, kids, cat lady, divorced, whatever), you’re going to live a long time and do a lot of stuff over the course of your life.  You’ve got 40+ years of life – probably more if you’re in your 20s and take relatively good care of yourself.

What are you going to make out of those years? What would you like to build with your life? What problems do you want to solve?

Or play the “Write your own eulogy” game: imagine you’ve just died, and write out what people will recognize as your greatest accomplishments. Don’t laugh – this is a great way to force yourself to imagine what your future might could look like. *

You don’t have to map it all out. But you can start heading in a direction toward something that holds your attention. Whether you turn that passion into your “day job” to earn income is a different set of questions. But you’ll be happier if you can get your work and your interests/skills/talents to align – even a little.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/MeetAnais

2.  Make it a flexible plan – create room for growth and change.

It was really liberating for me to hear someone say, when I was in my 20s, “You won’t hit your [career] peak until you’re in your 50s. That’s when many of this world’s great minds churned out their best work.”

I know a couple people who are in their 40s and are doing the job they set out to train for when they were 18. Some of those folks are still in the same occupation because they are trapped there due to educational debt or the consequences of some career arcs. But a couple really did know at age 12 they were going to be a lawyer or doctor or whatever, and are happy with it.

That’s a few people.  The vast majority of people I’ve encountered fell into their jobs, or stumbled into a career they enjoyed, or realized they weren’t happy doing one thing, and launched out (despite the risk) to do something better. Even approaching their 40s or 50s.

Knowing that life is uncertain (so eat dessert first!), you need to build contingency plans into your career master plan.

  • Acquire new skills constantly. If the job is meh but they’ll pay for you to train in some useful skill, it might be worth a couple years of relative boredom to gain something that opens doors later.  Or take some classes at a tech college for a couple hundred bucks.  Or go hang out at the maker’s collective downtown and see if you can get some hours painting or building furniture or sewing or whatever. Learn to code – classes on Udemy or EdX or Coursera are often on sale for $20 or even free. YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE NOT TO BE LEARNING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW.
  • Education is usually a good investment, except when it isn’t.  :/  Learn all you can about the job market you’re interested in before committing to anything long-term. [If you earn a masters, do NOT pay full price for one.  Get funding, do a grad assistantship, or shop around for other schools.]  Balance the value of the credential (at any level) with what it will cost you to earn it. For the record, pretty much every adult needs at least an associate’s degree.
  • But don’t let the potential consequences of your choices cripple you psychologically, freezing you into a state where you don’t make decisions about your future. If it seems like a good idea and you can legitimately afford it, go for it!
  • Be willing to trade comfort for experience. It’s nice to do a job that’s easy and in your wheelhouse… until you’re bored to tears with it. Then what will you leverage to move up or out?  Will you have gained any experience or skills that will make you marketable? If not,  it’s probably time to look for something that will challenge you, or get some more education in the field.
  • Keep analyzing your interests and strengths, and get people (preferably older, wiser ones) to comment on your options. Do a career inventory every couple years; check out what jobs are developing in your field. Read job ads. Revise your resume. Apply for a couple dream jobs just to keep your interview skills sharp. Don’t assume things will just stay the same.

3. Don’t trade away the real future for a “maybe.”

My critical mistake was to assume the future was going to go a certain way.

In my 20s, I “knew” that eventually we would have kids, and then I’d have to drop out of the work force for at least 5 years because there’s no way we could afford full-time child care, and wasn’t that the best way to raise kids anyway? **

That perspective led me to believe my career choices wouldn’t much matter … until I didn’t have kids, and then my passive not-choices became my choices. It’s a hell of a thing to wake up at 37 and realize you don’t have a plan for this Life speeding along.

To be clear – I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve done. I’ve worked as a  teacher, reference librarian, academic coach, graphic designer, and communications/marketing professional. Along the side, I’ve honed my skills in design, writing, cooking, networking, problem-solving and game-playing…. not to mention instructional design, research, and progressive approaches to education.

But if I’d made a plan – an actual plan – when I was in my mid-20s or even my early 30s to target something I’d like to spend the bulk of my time and effort working to fix/make/create, I would have done things differently to prepare myself for the decades to come. I probably would have earned a PhD in my 30s, opening doors in higher education I can only dream of at this point.

I’ve met a lot of women who found themselves single at 30, childless at 35, or divorced/widowed by 40. It happens. If you’re in Evangelical Christianity, you may not even see these women because they’re painted out of the picture in so many churches or sermons. They are seen as the exceptions rather than the norm; yet demographic statistics argue the point that half of us won’t be married by the time we’re in our 40s.

My upbringing within Fundamentalism actively worked against me realizing I needed to plan a career arc for myself; instead, I viewed my work as a subset of my husband’s career (which has been even more patchwork than mine) and didn’t bother planning much for myself. (Not his fault. And he tried to get me to.)

It’s hard to row against the current here – so many forces push women to focus everything on getting married, making babies, and raising them. [If that’s what you want and what you get, great! Enjoy! But eventually, your babies are going to grow up, and you’re going to find yourself an empty-nester.  Then what?]  You need more of a plan than “I’ll figure it out once the kids are older.”

4. Seize the opportunities that appear in front of you.

Serendipity is a central feature of success. Yes, hard work and practice are essential too – your luck doesn’t matter if you don’t have the chops when it comes time to seize the day.

But being “in the right place at the right time” is a thing. Take steps to put yourself in the way of potential opportunities by expanding your skills and networking wth people.

At least a few times in your life, you’ll be staring right in the face of an opportunity, usually one that’s enticing you to take some big risk for an even bigger reward. And I’m here to say, when those opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to say YES.  

We girls are notorious for under-rating our own value and abilities, for hedging our bets because we’re risk-averse almost as a genetic trait. We live with imposter syndrome daily on top of suffering the real effects of gender discrimination in the workplace.  There will be 1,000 voices in your head shouting down a new idea. Go get some outside perspective to affirm the benefits of taking an opportunity when it comes. 

My husband and I became teachers because someone we only sort-of knew thanks to the internet called us and asked us to consider helping him start a high school that was unlike anything else in the community. We said yes. It’s still one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, and it set me on the path of becoming a formal educator.  I was 27 at the time.

In hindsight, we should have probably wrapped things up a few years earlier than we did and moved on to new developments in our teaching careers. We should have looked for the new opportunities that would have stretched us, opened doors, helped us see the bigger picture. Live and learn from my example, young ones. 

5. Do what you must to get mentors in your life. Don’t make career decisions in a vacuum.

This one is hard, because you don’t have a lot of control over whether people further along in life are willing to sit down with you and talk about how they’ve lived their lives to this point, what they’d change, and what wisdom they can share. And you might have grown up in a family that didn’t invest much in you, one that didn’t see you as having potential or much of a future.

But I’ve hardly ever met someone who, when asked with sincere interest, would turn down the offer to talk about themselves. 😉

You can connect to professionals across the globe now using Facebook or LinkedIn.  It’s not weird to write someone in your field an email asking to grab coffee or for a quick paragraph response to a question about how to succeed in that field.  It’s not weird to approach someone a little older than you to see if they have time for a drink and a chat.

It’s not weird to do more than daydream about the things you love doing, and to build the machinery to make that life possible. But it’s going to take a whole lot of work, and there will be times in your life when that work simply won’t be possible (because you won’t have the funds, the time, the energy, or the freedom).

No one can plan your life for you. (If someone is attempting to do so, set some better boundaries or get that person out of your life.)  But you can learn a lot by asking people to share what they learned about #adulting.

Source: Among Friends – A Blog for Women https://hcfwomen.com/2016/07/25/we-the-people/adulting-2/

 

Not gonna lie:  adulting is 99% making it up as you go and hoping this isn’t going to be a colossal failure.  On the other hand, I’m thrilled to be an age where I’m ok with that. Haven’t died thus far (from my own stupidity) and hopefully won’t die till cancer gets me (it’s in my genes; I’m resigned), this in-between time is mine to play with, and I’m glad to say I finally have some goals in mind to shoot for.

If we know each other IRL and you want to grab coffee and talk about planning your own career (regardless of your gender), please don’t hesitate to reach out.  My door is open. Plus I really like coffee. 

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*If I were do this exercise now, because really there’s no reason not to check in on one’s life goals every few years, this is what I’d write:  “Lori left behind a legacy of creating opportunities within education for many who would have otherwise dropped out or given up. A respected instructor at several university centers of teaching and learning, she mentored hundreds of faculty into better teaching practices and ways to support struggling learners. Thanks to her work, thousands of students attained their educational goals and graduated.  She also worked to simplify educational processes, clarify messaging within the educational world, and unite disparate departments into holistic teams working for the best interests of students.”

** I’ve always loved Ursula LeGuin’s assessment of how women can juggle parenting and a career in writing. One person cannot do two full-time jobs and make it work. But two people can effectively juggle three jobs, and that’s how she and her husband made it work:

You can read the full interview at this link from Interview Magazine.

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Not sure America had a mind to lose…

In a long article in this week’s Atlantic, Kurt Andersen builds the argument that America’s teetering march toward extreme individualism and non-rational thinking were pushed over the edge by the relativism of the 60s, and here we are now as a result.
“How America Lost Its Mind” (The Atlantic)

“In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”

I always raise an eyebrow at arguments like this. For every Thomas Jefferson who was cutting the miracles out of his Bible because they didn’t make sense to his rational mind, weren’t there a ton of other 1700s-era Americans who got off the boat and headed straight into the wild Appalachians so they could get away from the long arm of the law and being told what to do in a structured, reasoned society?

Andersen seems to argue that the 60s injected a dose of relativism so extreme that the American experiment hasn’t been able to recover. Coupled with the rise of the Internet to amplify the craziness, we now find ourselves in a “post-truth” society.

While the breakdown of our political discourse seems to be new compared to the past 75 years, should we forget McCarthyism and the Red Scare that threw America into a frenzy in the 50s? I’m reading a biography of Oppenheimer which discusses how one of the greatest physicists who ever lived was destroyed and defamed based on zero evidence and a lot of terror about Communists taking over. The rhetoric of his trial could easily fill a Trump speech; just swap out some of the names.

I’m more and more convinced that the vitriol and racism and lack of compromise that we’re seeing isn’t new. It’s not like we’ve regressed to lower life forms in the past 24 months from a state of enlightenment. As a people, we never really changed. Certain legislation drags us forward into being less ugly about it (e.g.: Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education) but Americans have been like this in many ways since our founding. We’ve always been about “doing our own thing,” though perhaps more people agreed on what “that thing” should be on the national scale at certain times more than others.

Andersen seems to write from the center-left position but he does so smugly, in a way that grates on me a bit.  Most of the time, I feel like he’s grinding an axe and proud of himself for letting you tag along.

I did appreciate this part of his critique of the GOP:

Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. I have some libertarian tendencies, but at full-strength purity it’s an ideology most boys grow out of. On the American right since the ’80s, however, they have not. Republicans are very selective, cherry-picking libertarians: Let business do whatever it wants and don’t spoil poor people with government handouts; let individuals have gun arsenals but not abortions or recreational drugs or marriage with whomever they wish; and don’t mention Ayn Rand’s atheism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction.

Perhaps our politicians were better men at one time, but I don’t think history is going to support that thesis either, really. Corruption comes and goes at all levels of government; I think at times it’s more obnoxious than others, but there’s no way to escape the truth that money is power, and power is the key currency within politics.

I’m not a pessimist; I do think our nation can choose to be better than this. But it’s not just a political discussion. Many of the fears driving people to support men like Trump (even when Trump’s policies work against the best interests of poor and middle-class whites) stem from a coming economic disaster that will hit the less-educated very hard, especially men who have formed the bulk of the blue-collar work force.  Very few people are writing enough about this.

It would help if our pulpits emphasized loving God and neighbor above pursuing culture wars in Jesus’ name.  But that’s a rant I’ll leave for another day.

Newspring without Perry

Last night, Newspring Church met offline with its congregants to discuss the future of the church without the rockstar fallen from grace Perry Noble. I haven’t kept up with the church’s pastoral drama in the past year, but I stumbled across a Twitter live-blog last night of the meeting, and it’s worth noting a few things.

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First, it’s notable to me that Perry crashed and burned as hard as he did.  I wouldn’t say that every megachurch pastor will meet this fate, but Francis Chan articulated recently the way that power and fame begin to chew away at the foundation of your soul. (I recommend reading his remarks.) When 100,000 people are watching your hologram preach on Sunday, you are being tempted by Power. And Tolkien taught us well that only the most humble can carry such Power without it corrupting them – and even then, the burden of it leaves wounds that may never heal.  I’m genuinely sad for Perry Noble’s fall from grace; I hope that he finds peace, healing, and restoration.

Second, I’m glad to see a humbler Newspring tone from the leadership, based on this reporter’s observations of the meeting. Pride doesn’t look good on anybody, especially a church, and Newspring always had a chip on its shoulder about being the biggest and the mold-breaker.  Humbling itself to follow the wisdom of more experienced church leaders wasn’t their strong suit.  They were happy to be the outlier.  Problem is, lone wolves get eaten — and that’s just as true for a church as it is for a person.  This was a very fundamentalist streak within the Newspring culture (I’m not saying they’re fundamentalist – they aren’t), for Southern Baptists in general tend to have that “you can’t tell us what to do” streak of American individualism in their DNA.

 

The pastors who spoke mentioned that they are moving to a group leadership model — or as we Presbyterians call it, “rule by a plurality of elders,” a much stronger and healthier church leadership approach. It sounds like the leadership are trying to move forward together, slow their roll a bit, and trade growth in numbers and dollars for actual development. This is good. They want to see shepherding group growth over butts in the seats — also a much-needed change in emphasis. Having Perry Noble as the hood ornament of a giant machine was never a good idea. I’m glad his departure didn’t wreck more than it did (though there’s been quite a bit of damage).

 

I’m not saying everything here is 100% comforting – there’s still some of the rally feel (like when they talk about how much money they gave to community projects last year), but that’s true of every church.  Also, I’m not certain they’re theologically grounded enough to provide more than the barest surface-level preaching.  Newspring’s model has been “get your friends here and we’ll introduce them to Jesus,” and they’ve been effective at that (though the sacerdotal smell of it makes me cringe). But the model worked well for what it was intended to do: get people to church. That was Newspring’s mission: get people saved, not necessarily do the hard work of discipling them (IMO). Hopefully that will change.

Probably the biggest red flag to me continues to be Newspring’s disparaging of theological education (another Southern, fundamentalist characteristic in their culture). Did you catch the comment that moving to a  group of preaching pastors reinforces the idea that preachers don’t have to go to seminary to be able to preach?  Interesting remark given that preaching pastor Clayton King is an adjunct faculty member at Anderson University’s nascent divinity school.  Ignorance and good motives can carry a man only so far in the pulpit. At some point, people need to be taught Bible content, theological frameworks, and pastoral care.

I wonder about the future of Newspring College.  Newspring has spent years now discouraging young people from getting a seminary education and jumping into ministry after a year of training on their campus. The NS College website notes that students will carry a heavy load  in the Newspring services, including the big Christmas Eve and Easter productions. This bothers me. It looks like a farm for unpaid labor that will produce a lot of really young, really underprepared 20-somethings to throw into ministries around the world.  But I’m willing to live in peace with Newspring on this point. Formal education has never been a critical element of the Gospel, and for some minority groups, it’s a discriminatory practice that bars them from leadership positions (see: PCA). There are far worse things a 19 year old can do with a year of his life.

I haven’t been to a Newspring service in a long time. I still appreciate the energy they put into their services, their heart-felt intensity. I understand why so many “churched” people fled their churches to join the Newspring movement in the mid 2000s. Most churches aren’t feeding their congregations much in the way of biblical content, and when “church” boils down to being a social club, it’s easy to get bored with the one you’re in and leave for the one that’s got better facilities, a great show, and fun leadership. But church was never supposed to be about those things…. I think the New Testament model is much more about “doing life together” around the Word and sacraments and prayer.  You can’t do that via a once a week meeting; doesn’t matter how big or small the operation is.

Newspring is an arm of The Church, and though I’ve often disagreed with their emphasis and practices, I have seen them preach the Gospel to people who need it and love many types of folks who would never be willing to step foot in traditional Evangelicalism. All Evangelicals can learn from that. For this reason, I defend Newspring’s right to exist, to muck around and make mistakes just like all churches and denominations do. Have they “done damage” to the “cause of Christ”? Well, in the minds of some, they certainly have. But show me a church or denomination who hasn’t.  Much of the Newspring hate around here seeps out of old wounds, back when a very arrogant fast-growing church sucked thousands of people out of other churches’ pews.  Doesn’t mean I’m not going to recognize Newspring for what they are: fellow believers, brothers and sisters in Christ.

So I wish Newspring well and hope that this painful year bears good fruit in bringing their leadership to greater wisdom and maturity.

Hugo 2017: The Highlights and Reviews

I threatened a few days ago to post reviews of the Hugo pieces that I found worthy, and here I am to deliver the goods.

NOVELS
Honestly, every novel in the Hugo nominee list this year is worth your time. I didn’t love each of them the same, but at least none of them wasted my time like a few have in the past (*coughs* Seveneves, I’m looking at you). I’m not here to write full reviews; you can find great ones everywhere.

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is a striking novel with a strong female lead, a far-future world with interesting social structures, mathematics-as-magic, and a galactic space war on a grand scale. This book really grabbed my attention. It doesn’t easily slip into any identifiable story category, though I’d say the two-person (protagonist/antagonist) relationship that drives the main character’s plot is critical to the book’s success. I’ve already ordered the sequel.
  • Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer kept me turning pages, and I nearly listed it first on my Hugo ballot. (The honor went to Ninefox.) Palmer is a University of Chicago historian, and this book reads like an 18th century Alexander Pope was transported forward a few hundred years. She imagines a future world that isn’t shot to hell, and I found that refreshing considering the shitstorm that is 2017 after the hellfest of 2016. Her world offers us a view of what rapid transportation could do in helping humanity develop new “nations” not organized around geographical location. Imagine aligning yourself with people who pursue your same vocational goals — and even better, imagine reorganizing the central family unit into an extended collection of “relatives,” both blood-related and not, who come together to live in collectives centered around common interests. Sign me up, I’m ready to join a ‘bash!
  • The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin continues her fantastic series that earned her a Hugo Award for the first book, The Fifth Season, last year.  (One of my favorite reads of 2016.) The sophomore entry expanded the story yet stands tall in its own right, building more of the world and giving us even more characters who face difficult ethical choices. The overarching tale offers commentary on issues of race and climate without (to me) being preachy. The series continues to defy genre categorization – is it sci-fi? fantasy? does it matter? Speculative fiction it is, and a great example. Start with The Fifth Season if you’re jumping in.
  • All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, tells the story of a computer engineer and a witch in San Francisco. Another genre-bender, this novel goes down easy with snappy dialogue writing and a good examination of the conflict between science and the metaphysical. I can’t say this novel asks Big Questions, but it does offer a good view of the microcosm of conflict among people with different goals and values. Plus, she clearly lives in SanFran and peppers the book with lots of local details.
  • A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers’s second novel after her strong debut The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Not wanting to jump in on book two, I read both this spring. This series is like Firefly and Star Trek having a baby in John Scalzi’s trunk: There’s all the ensemble camaraderie of Firefly (down to the female engineer), the thrill of space and battle and Big Questions of AI vs human intelligence, and the snappy dialogue writing of Scalzi. At times it was almost annoying – like Chambers is trying so hard to emulate her hero Scalzi that we’re losing her voice at times. She’s a young writer, and you can feel that in the writing. But she shows much potential, and I look forward to reading more entries in this series. Chambers will come into her own rapidly and probably have a very successful career, drawing in many people who would walk straight by the piles of hard sci-fi in bookstores. My main criticism of both books is that she tends to be preachy. Hopefully she’ll relax about that.
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu wrapped up my ballot. I had such high hopes for this book, having enjoyed The Three Body Problem in 2015 and swept off my feet by last year’s The Dark Forest. Unfortunately, I can’t say that I loved or even liked Death’s End. I can appreciate some elements of the storytelling – the three fables in the center of this giant novel were a wonderful plot device – but I hated most of everything else. Liu is an ideas man; he doesn’t really write characters. That emerged as a major weakness as he tried to wrap up his idea-fest-turned-novel-series. I hated the ending too. When I get to the end of a 600 page book and feel like I wasted my time, it makes me angry.  All that aside, I’m glad Liu’s books were translated for an American audience, even if this one is at the bottom of the list for me.

SHORT STORIES
Finally the drama of the Puppies controversies is over, but the short story category was still a bit weak.  On the upside, I can link to a few of these since many are published digitally nowadays and publishers sometimes make them generally available since they were nominated. I’m listing my top picks here (in the order I voted for them).

  • My top short story pick ended up being NK Jemisin’s “The City Born Great,” posted at Tor.com (full story here). Jemisin lives in NYC and she infuses her love for the pulsing City into this story, but with her typical genre-bending twists. Is it sci-fi? Is it urban fantasy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron” by Amal El-Mohtar is available in full on the Uncanny Magazine right now. This is a fairy tale polished to a gleaming brightness, turning cliched plot points into a thoughtful look into a friendship between two women, each imprisoned in their own ways. I’d happy read this story in a lit class for the sake of the ensuing discussion.
  • Carrie Vaughn’s story “That Game We Played During the War” drew me in and held me from start to finish. Full text here. It’s not a complex story, and it’s not a stunner, but I really enjoyed the interpersonal nature of the tale. Also #chess.

The other three nominees in this category were very weak. “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers” seems to be trying too hard (IMO) to establish itself as a TIME MANIPULATION STORY.  *shrugs*  But it’s not a bad read.   Second, though I loved Brooke Bolander’s entry in last year’s Hugo (one of my favorite stories ever), this year’s “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” was a huge disappointment.  It just…. *sighs*…. too preachy; too little plot; too little of anything I want to read. A revenge story, barely.

Finally, I don’t even want to waste words on John C. Wright’s “An Unimaginable Light.”  Wright is the darling of the right-wing Rabid Puppies, and after shoving him down our throats for the past few years, a change in the Hugo nominations process served as a barrier to having to read much of him this year. Thank God. The man apparently can’t devise a plot worth more than two shits (this is my assessment after three years’ of nominations of his drivel).  Honestly. If you’re going to put someone forward as the poster boy for conservative man-centric science fiction, for the love of pete, could you at least pick someone who can write?  John C Wright is an embarrassment to writers everywhere.

NOVELETTES
Again, a few of these are worth pointing out, if you can find them to read them. Novelettes are just long short-stories; you can read them in a single sitting, though you might realize your butt is tired by the time you’re done. (Contrast this with Novellas, which kill your butt if you try to read them straight through without at least getting up to get more coffee.)

  • “The Tomato Thief” by Ursula Vernon shows what a master storyteller in folk tales and Native American culture can do in a science fiction/fantasy setting. It doesn’t matter if this tale is alt-reality or near-future; it’s a great example of the power of simple tales.  Read the novelette at Apex Magazine.
  • I really wanted to vote Carolyn Ives Gilman’s story “Touring with the Alien” #1. Man, it was so close. Maybe I should have. This could have been a pedestrian walk through a boring, tired sci-fi concept. Except it wasn’t. It was fantastic. Thoughtful. Provocative. One of the better “intelligence” and “alien” stories I’ve read in a long time. Clarkesworld Magazine has the full novelette available online.
  • “The Jewel and her Lapidary” by Fran Wilde is an example of fantasy writing that I can get behind. I really enjoyed this tale, mostly because Wilde built a world where some gems have power, and the way the people adapted to handle the risks and rewards of that power was genuinely fascinating.  If she has more stories in this world, I will read them.  Read the introduction at Tor.
  • Also in the category of “fantastical folk tales” is “You’ll Drown Here if you Stay,” by Alyssa Wong. Cool story.  I put it 4th, because I felt the others were stronger, but still a great read for those who enjoy the way traditional folk tales (and their structure) blend well with science fiction and fantasy. Read it at Uncanny magazine. 

The other two stories really aren’t on my recommended list. “The Art of Space Travel” is a people story; it has almost zero connection to speculative fiction; I’m not sure why it was nominated.  Memo to people: Just because your story includes an astronaut doesn’t make it science fiction. 

NOVELLAS
Still reading this category – I didn’t enter Hugo votes because I didn’t get a chance to finish these. Will return once I’m done and offer a couple thoughts, if I find something worthy.

GRAPHIC NOVELS
Man, some great writing here! I recommend reading each of the Hugo nominees. They were all good.  Monstress Vol 1 was my top pick, but it was genuinely hard to pick a favorite when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the story for the Black Panther tale, and so many others were interesting and beautifully drawn.

RELATED WORKS
This is the category for everything that isn’t fiction…. like Ursula LeGuin’s essays, Neil Gaiman’s essays, a personal memoir from Carrie Fisher, and more.  Dive in and read, especially Le Guin and Gaiman, if you get a chance.

I voted in other categories like Dramatic Presentation, Short Form and Long Form, and some of the editor categories, but I won’t bore you with those here.

Bottom line – this year’s Hugo nominees are worth your time!  Even the weaker categories (short stories) offer fiction worth reading. So if you’re out of beach books and want something good for August, hit your library or bookstore and help an author eat next month. 😉

It’s Hugo Award season!

Yay! One of my favorite seasons.

hugo_award_logoFor a couple years now, we’ve been reading the Hugo nominees and voting on the awards. I don’t have any illusions that my vote “matters” much more than my political vote matters here in South Carolina, but it’s fun to be part of the process (and Hugo nominees don’t flood my airwaves with horrific ads).

Overall – and I’ll start posting specific reviews of individual works shortly – this has been an excellent Hugo season. Granted, the past couple years were pretty rough when the various “Puppies” groups (Sad/Rabid) hijacked the nominations with their “slates” of primarily white/male/power fantasy/old school science fiction.  It’s not that their nominees disagreed with my worldview; it’s that their nominees were terrible.  Like, the writing quality was just appalling. If you want your fiction to resemble an alt-right paradise, knock yourself out. But don’t expect me to give you the time of day if you can’t construct sentences and plots above the level of a high schooler. (With apologies to high schoolers – some of mine wrote waaaay better than those guys.)

Happily, after the “E Pluribus Hugo” adjustment to how things get nominated and voted on for the Hugo Awards, this year’s slate of nominees has been really good. I loved 5 of the 6 novels, and all 6 were worthy of nomination. The short stories were solid; the “Related Works” category includes essays by Neil Gaiman and Ursula LeGuin for a refreshing change after a couple years of terrible crap from the Pepe-loving crowd. Next up, I’m reading novels, novelettes, and graphic novels. Might not get to the ancillary content, but that’s ok…. the bottom line is, if you want some good summer reading, check out the Hugo 2017 nominees!

*****

I’ll just treat this like a grab-bag of content, since it’s been a while since my last post.  Honestly, there’s a ton of great stuff to read, watch, and play right now, and it’s been hugely tempting for me to consume content rather than create it.

I wrapped up my play through of Mass Effect: Andromeda (my review stayed essentially the same) and need to play the last chapter of The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC, which as a game add-on is better than most of the games I’ve played in the past couple years. (My review of Witcher 3 is here.) Thanks, CD Projekt Red, for ruining pretty much any game I’m going to play in the next decade with your ridiculously high-quality writing.

I’ve also returned to the siren song of the Steam Summer Sale to grab Stellaris (like Civilization, but in space, and different, sorta) and Firewatch (haven’t played it yet so no spoilers) and Undertale (which everybody says is amazing but I can’t figure out what the hell is happening in the first level and I just feel stupid).

141f21cc5a2b69d81f9835ce4bc33238ba5e070aNetflix released a little series called GLOW and it was a laugh and a half for sure. Yes, it really is based on a little-known 80s era women’s WWF show called “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” and yes it packs in all the 80s nostalgia you can handle. Because GenX is now in the driver’s seat when it comes to nostalgia-driven media and ad campaigns, and I can feel a whole lot of 80s/90s throwbacks in our near future. *tips hat*

Oh yeah, movies! Summer has been a bit dry, but I really enjoyed Baby Driver (as did everybody else, if the Tomatometer is to be believed) and looooved Wonder Woman. Check out this cool piece on Wonder Woman’s WWI setting by the folks at War Is Boring. I’m looking forward to the Valerian film and Dunkirk, for very different reasons.

Even music has been on point lately. I should probably write a separate post about seeing U2 in Chicago a couple weeks ago, playing Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary.  Absolutely worth the trip. Led me to look up 80s era U2 videos and gape at their baby faces. Apple Music led me to a couple neat albums in the past few weeks. Looks like their service is finally coming into its own with a good recommendation engine. *fingers crossed*

#u2thejoshuatree2017 #livemusic

A post shared by RameyLady (@lorojoro) on Jun 4, 2017 at 8:04pm PDT

The Backstory: Reborn for the 4th of July

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

When I was a teenager, I watched Born on the Fourth of July when it finally showed on TV. I doubt my parents would have let me watch it if I’d asked them for permission, but they weren’t around at the time and I thought it was a war film, so I watched it. The story disturbed me deeply for a long time.

I gaped at the screen as the soldiers shot up a Vietnamese village in the haze of war (and bad decisions). I watched as Ron Kovic, the central character, fell apart after the war was over, screaming in rage at his disability and his broken life. We didn’t talk about PTSD in my household. My dad considered the Vietnam vets ‘soft’ – too fragile to handle war like his Korean buddies or World War II relatives had done.  I didn’t know how to process Kovic’s protest at the RNC – in my life, Republicans were good guys (though my parents’ relationship with the political parties was a lot more complicated than I realized). It was a provocative film that hit me when I wasn’t at all used to being provoked.

I was raised in a sheltered environment by parents with strongly conservative viewpoints on most issues. B4J challenges the American mythos surrounding war, military service, and veterans even as it plays into the stereotype of Vietnam vets as baby killers and mentally ill.

At the time I had no background or preparation for handling the ideas that I had encountered, whether it was the sex, the language, or the attack on the simplistic view of America as entirely good and right (always on the winning side, always the righteous side). And I didn’t feel like I could really talk to my parents about it, since some of what bothered me so deeply was the content that they would have banned me from seeing in the first place.

So it lodged deeply in my mind and I tried not to think about it, though the ideas would surface occasionally and create an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It would be decades before I learned enough history to come to grips with how Vietnam altered  American consciousness of the late 20th century; how film is its own rhetorical form, demanding assessment and critique and a recognition of the storyteller’s own bias; and how Americans tell ourselves myths about our own heroism to bury our national guilt that we should be feeling about our own nation’s imperialism and oppression.

Kovic reminded me of one of my brothers’ friends, a man whose name I’ve since forgotten, who showed up at our house one day in a black T-shirt, aviator sunglasses, and a cowboy hat.  Visitors were rare, so this hard-drinking, hard-smoking man stood out. He was older than my brother by at least a decade or two, and nothing was ever quite right for him after his Vietnam service. My dad closed the door after they left and felt sorry for the guy, hoped he’d find his way eventually. The vet was dead (as I recall) a few months later, the victim of a collision with a semi that sheared off the top of his convertible.

My relationship with America grows complicated as I grow older. A nation is more than the sum of its citizens.  I now begin to understand those few places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about evaluating nations (dividing sheep from goats) as if that is a separate process from judging individuals.

I choke up at a booming fireworks display overtop “God Bless the USA” even as I tremble in anger at our callous destruction of Native peoples because our leaders believed God and political power were on the side of our “manifest destiny.” We like to paint ourselves as the hero in every picture, perhaps because America is barely a teenager in nation-years, and we’re too stubborn or arrogant to listen to the older nations around us.  My Italian grandfather fled one of those old nations to start anew in America a century ago, where he drank heavily and beat his wife and abused my dad who grew up in abject immigrant poverty. Yet here I am, a college graduate, thanks to the sacrifice of my parents.

With the upstart hubris of a Silicon Valley start-up whiz kid, America  blazed forward in the 20th century – and we’re unwilling to admit in the daylight that we might have gotten a head start over the rest of the developed world by not hosting two bloody and destructive world wars on our own soil, as if our own wisdom and not geographical realities had the most to do with it.

I’m proud of my nation and appalled, and those two feelings churn in my stomach – ever more so in 2017, this ridiculous, stupid year. Perhaps I’ll rewatch Born on the Fourth of July this holiday weekend to see if its effect stemmed from my adolescent naiveté or the power of its story. This time around, I know too much about the world to be shocked. I’ll just be sad.

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