A New York State of Mind

It has been said that The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.[1] This may be true, but my experiences in West Sussex (England) imply that our cultural differences go far deeper.

It was my first trip to the far side of the Atlantic, and after an overnight flight, an abbreviated day at work, and a brief nap in my hotel room, I awoke at 6PM local time hungry.  Not merely for supper, which was a secondary concern, but for knowledge.  Here I was in a new town, a new country, a new continent.  I had to get a feel for the place I would be living for the next few months.cigarette

This led me out the front door of the George Hotel in Crawley and down the High Street.  I passed a pub and a movie theater, and ran into my first local.

“Sorry, got a fag?” he asked, and I was sure I was about to be attacked.

For those who only speak American English, a “fag” is a cigarrette.  I already knew this.  I also knew, and gave, the correct response:  “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”[2]  What I didn’t realize at the time was the friendly reality of British culture. Apparently, even at a time when the IRA was actively bombing buildings in London, it was perfectly normal to bum a cigarette from a total stranger in downtown Crawley.

If you are ever in New York, and a stranger says anything to you on the street, be prepared to hand over your wallet.  We don’t talk to unknown people over here unless we want to transact business with them, and on an empty street, that business transaction is most likely a mugging.  The friendly people ignore you; it’s a completely different state of mind.

This wasn’t a unique experience for me, either. I have been chatted up[3] in restaurants, shared Sunday dinner with people I had just met, and been invited by young couples to join them for coffee and to watch Red Dwarf.  I’m an extreme extrovert myself, so I was able to take the whole thing in stride.

Still, I hope they weren’t expecting something more than conversation, because if they were, I left them disappointed.

Photograph © 2005 by Tomasz Sienicki [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.
[1] Possibly said first by George Bernard Shaw, unless he didn’t.
[2] The British, when being polite, will say “sorry.”  Americans don’t do this; I think we avoid anything that implies culpability.  Americans say “excuse me,” presumably because it’s what we want you to do.
[3] I have only ever heard the term “chatting up” on PBS or overseas, so I assume it’s UK English. Language aside, the practice of making small talk with a stranger you’re not trying to date is certainly foreign to my experience.

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Andrea’s Rule

Andrea is my feminist conscience. She is also a friend. For the past decade or so, I have been tossing my story ideas at her to see what sticks, much as an undergraduate might toss spaghetti at the wall to see if it has been properly cooked[1].  This has proven useful over the years, because a lot of my ideas come out half-baked.  I think it’s even more important now that I’m actively doing battle with the Men are Generic, Women are Special trope in my stories.Asimov's Oct/Nov 2014

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has composed a brilliant little piece in the October Asimov’s about a woman struggling to live in the stuffy world of country club golf. I would love to be able to write that piece[2]. Sadly, I am handicapped not only by my inferior writing ability, but also by the annoying interference of a Y chromosome in my genome. I can’t really know how she feels, because I’ve never lived it. Then again, I’ve never been a three-armed alien from the planet Zzax[3], either.

The key, of course, to writing about things you’ve never experienced is research. To research women for my fiction, I read biographies and relevant SF novels and talk with my wife.  And when that turns into a possible story idea, I consult with Andrea.

One tip Andrea gave me has recently become the mantra for my recent stories.  I hereby christen Andrea’s Rule:  When you create a character, ask why it has to be male. Lacking a strong reason, make her female.  This one small act has taken a scimitar to my character design, shifted my plots, and overall made my stories less drab and boring.Andrea's Rule

One side effect of this action has been to make me notice when other writers make the decision to let more characters be women. In Robert R Chase’s contribution to the same Asimov’s, his commanding officer Lieutenant Jansons is a woman.  It’s a valid decision, but I was surprised when (two pages in) she was first tied to a pronoun, and it was feminine.  And perhaps, that’s the point.

As long as people like me are surprised by a generic woman, we need Andrea’s Rule.

[1] My wife would perhaps be a better choice, but she doesn’t really enjoy SF.  She does like spaghetti, but to date I haven’t thrown any of that at her, either.
[2] Not literally. That would be plagiarism, and I don’t do that.
[3] I have no stories pending about this alien.  If you want to write about her, please do.

Widowmaker

EKGITammie Painter recently posted about the health risks of writing, primarily due to inactive lifestyles. One week later, I got first-hand evidence to confirm this post. Yes, it was a STEMI heart attack triggered by a 90% blockage of the LAD artery.  Depending on whom you ask[1], that may or may not be the Widowmaker, so named because it has caused a lot of women to lose their husbands. The event has necessarily delayed my writing, and I think this issue is important enough to deserve a few thoughts from the inside, presented in no meaningful order that I can discern.left-coronary-artery

  1. A heart attack can surprise anybody.  I don’t  drink heavily or smoke at all, I eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, and have always had excellent blood pressure and decent (though not stellar) cholesterol levels.  I even started regular aerobic exercise two years ago, and I’m relatively young (not yet fifty).  I’ve been watching for this kind of thing for over a decade due to family history, yet it caught me without warning, and my friends were surprised that it happened to me, too. It is dangerous to assume this can’t happen to you, because it can.
  2. A support system really helps.  I spent a significant portion of the first day after my STEMI in tears – and not because of pain.  The support I received from our friends during this past week has been overwhelming. Yes, I have missed work — and writing — for a duration I would have considered unconscionable in the days before my attack, but they really did hold things together for my family while I was out of operation.  Oh, yeah, and my wife is awesome.
  3. Dealing with the risks in advance is worthwhile. All things considered, I am doing well after my heart attack. My hospital neighbors with compounding issues like diabetes or nicotine addiction have had it far worse than I.  Despite my reasonably good pre-STEMI health, I find myself frustrated today by how weak and slow my post-heart-attack body seems to be, even when I “feel” good.  They tell me this can improve, but even so, I look forward to taking multiple medications every single day for the rest of my life in order to avoid another attack.  If you think it’s annoying to eat right and exercise today, consider what restrictions could be applied to your life if you don’t.
  4. Trauma may have a delayed emotional impact.  I was mentally aware of what had happened to me from the start, but its implications seemed more like an annoyance for days after the event. I was actually more worried about my wife’s state of mind until a nurse in the PCU[2] pointed out the obvious:  that I could have died, and it was legitimately a big deal. Only then was I ready to apply myself 100% to my own recovery.

Moral of the story:  unless you’re looking to transition into a permanent career as a ghost writer, you need to take a hard look at your own life and do those things today that will protect your life tomorrow.  And if you know someone who has gone through a traumatic event (patients and relatives both apply here), give them the time to emotionally understand what has happened. We don’t all process things at the same rate.

[1] My doctor says the term “widowmaker” should only be used to describe blockage of the left main coronary artery, whereas it was my left anterior descending artery that was blocked.  Honestly, I don’t care if I’m being imprecise, because I’m not a doctor, and they’re both bad news.
[2] The PCU is the “Progressive Care Unit”, where they send you after you’re stabilized in the cardiac care unit, and before you’re ready to go home.  I told my sister that progressive care is just like intensive care, but with a livable minimum wage.  I was being facetious.

Photo “EKGI”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Photo “Ha1”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Reputation

My new Mars story isn’t done yet, so I’m not ready to write about how I did it. While you wait, here’s a brand-new anecdote from the Mostly True collection.wbhs2

Every class has one student known by his negative reputation instead of his name, and some have more than one. Unable to excel at education, he strives to be known for rebellion instead. He may become the class clown, taking foolish risks to gain attention. Other times, he lashes out in violence.

As a high-school freshman (9th grade), my crowded course schedule placed me in gym with a class of 8th-grade students. This wouldn’t happen in most school districts, because most districts don’t teach 8th-grade classes at their high school. Ours was different. Eighth-grade students were using the gym in my only available calendar slot, so I was assigned to their class.a bubbler, or water fountain if you don't come from Massachusetts.

This left me in the unexpected role of “big kid.” I have never been athletic, and to this day I cannot truly comprehend the idea of being a threat to anyone in gym. Still, I was the outsider, older than everyone else, a clear target for the Worf Effect. And I drew the attention of the class tough guy.

We were in the locker room after class, he and I, jostling for position at the bubbler (water fountain). I was not a selfless child, and probably did something to provoke his ire, but the response I got was entirely unexpected: without a word, he punched me in the head. And I–

Did nothing.

Okay, to be honest, that’s not entirely accurate. If you’ve ever taken a haymaker to the left temple, you know it hurts. And while he didn’t knock me down, he did surprise me. And I just stood there, looking at him, while tears of pain filled my eyes. After a few seconds, he took his drink at the bubbler, and life went on.

Looking back, I wonder why this day lingers in my mind when nothing ever came of it. I didn’t hit him back. I didn’t meet him after school to settle things at a time and place when school discipline wouldn’t be invoked. I didn’t even change my standing in gym class, because I’m not a jock, and never will be. But despite all this, the memory of that day still haunts me.

Maybe it haunts me because I’ll never know what would have happened. I tell myself I did the right thing, that he led a tough life, and had probably been beaten on by tougher people than I. I tell myself that I was the “big kid” at that bubbler, and social standing being what it is, I had nothing to gain by a fight, while he had nothing to lose.  But I also know it hurt, and I tell myself I could have punched him back, and won.

Science is beginning to prove that it’s not the larger-than-life personalities who make the best leaders. For men, however, social ranking is still achieved by a Rambo-sized physique or a Napoleon-sized ego.  Ninth-grade boys desperately need to feel like a man, and society tells our boys that violence is a quick way to get there. But I did nothing. The adult in me knows I did the right thing.

The 9th-grade boy in me still doesn’t know.