Grief and Book Reports

2 February 2003

All right, so. We had CNN on all morning yesterday, and finally I decided I needed to get away from it. Once they had the press conferences, I was fairly satisfied that it would be repetitive coverage, so Mark and I went and got Macaroni Grill lunch down in Milpitas and then got some groceries, which we sorely needed. And I didn't turn the TV on again until half an hour before dinner, and then I turned it off again.

I talked to my grands for my grandpa's 75th birthday, and it kind of turned into a conversation about their favorite events in the history of the space program. Grandpa was an Eagle Scout himself, so he's fond of reminding me that Neil Armstrong was, too. Grandma wanted to talk about her dad's reaction when John Glenn went up, how much he supported the space program when other relatives complained about the cost. And that nudged me into realizing that despite our idealization of the early days, there were always people who thought it was a waste of money to try to get humanity off this planet. There was never a time when everybody thought it was a totally great idea.

I don't really have that kind of thrill and awe in my memories of manned space flight. I don't believe in NASA, for the most part; I think they're doing the best of anybody right now, but that doesn't mean I think their objectives and procedures are that great. My best space memory, the one that still fills me with awe, was of an unmanned mission: Pathfinder. (It's at the end of this entry here.) Pathfinder felt like progress to me. It was the adult life I had planned to live, watching pictures coming in live from the surface of another planet. And that was beautiful, and wondrous, and awe-inspiring.

I guess my favorite manned space memory is from June of 1983. I was almost five, and there was an American woman in space. That was bounce-up-and-down cool, and yet at the same time, it was how things were supposed to be. And I grew up at a time when I could just take space travel and a rough, more-or-less sort of gender equality for granted. Those were Things People Did -- at least, in our part of the world they did. It was How The World Worked. Mark is three years older than I am, and he remembers the first flight of the Columbia. But for me, it was one of those things that had always been there. With the exception of the hiatus after Challenger, there was no time in my remembered life when Columbia wasn't flying missions. Until yesterday, it was part of the world in such an obvious way that it hardly bore mentioning.

They kept showing the Challenger on CNN yesterday. Like it wasn't already seared into our brains. Like we couldn't see it again any time we wanted, just closing our eyes. Like if they didn't show us again, we might forget that it had happened before.

And I heard the opposite from some people -- I heard the attitude that it had happened before, so it wasn't such a big deal. A person named Timothy Burke said, on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's weblog comments, "A dull ache this time rather than the sharp tang of unforeseen sorrow with Challenger. Somehow after that moment you knew it would happen again someday, the way you know that someone you know will one day say to you, 'I have cancer'. No less painful for it." Exactly. It's a big deal every time. It's worthy of grief every time.

I've even heard the extension of it: more people died on 9/11/01. More people will die in a war with Iraq, soon, from the looks of it. So why bother about seven people? And the answer is: we're human. We are diminished by the loss of one. It matters every single time someone dies, not just every time a shuttle goes. And it matters every time doors of possibility are closed to all of us, and that's worth grieving, too.

And this is different from war deaths and terrorism deaths. As Steven Brust so memorably sings, war is bad. Some rare, extreme circumstances make it necessary sometimes, but it's never, never a good thing. We grieve those dead in a war in part just because we grieve all deaths, but in part because they died in such horrible circumstances. The crew of Columbia died doing something wonderful instead, and that makes it better, and also worse. My folks and I were talking, and Dad thought it would be the worst kind of space tragedy, to be done with all your work and just heading home to your family. But I thought it was better than Challenger, at least, because they got there. They got to go up. They got to do their jobs. They got to be there.

And if, tomorrow, they put out a call for nearsighted anemic spec fic writers with low blood pressure and a tendency to faint, asking who wanted to become astronauts, I'd go, too. You better believe I would.

Well. Enough of that for now, I think. Sometimes you just have to think about something else. My grandpa turned 75 yesterday, and that's pretty cool -- although I think it sounds older to him than it does to me. Which is an odd reversal: there are often jokes about young people thinking 40 sounds just ancient. But in my life, there's always been some relative in her 90s around. Literally always. So 75 is just a reasonable age for people to be, in my world. It's an assumed age. If someone dies before they get there, I would probably consider it untimely. Of course, part of that is that my grandparents don't act old, so obviously anyone their age and younger isn't old. Um, obviously. Well, maybe not any more. But it's been that way awhile. It's a little hard to get used to a change in that regard.

In my cruddy mood on Friday, I read a bunch of YAs and children's books (not sure where the line goes), and I continued that yesterday. It was a good move. I don't have many new ones left in the house, but when I'm done with them, I think the forensic entomology book Wendy recommended will do, or else some Dumas.

I started Friday with Gordon Korman's Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood, which was typically zany, nothing out of the ordinary for a Macdonald Hall book, but fun. Good for my mood. I did some work and then read Diana Wynne Jones' The Crown of Dalemark, which was...all right, I guess...but I felt like she was trying to tie together too many disparate threads from previous books in the series. Maybe I just had too high an expectation of her after falling so totally in love with Fire and Hemlock. I also had a very hard time with the ease of one character's 200 year time travel -- not the ease of mechanism, but the ease of her adjustment. Nobody caught her out on anachronisms, not even in speech patterns. I found that very strange when I consider how different the mores of 1803 are from today's. Or 1603 from 1803. Or...well, maybe there were a couple of 200 year jumps in the Dark Ages that might have been all right, but the society was described as having gone through essentially an industrial revolution in those 200 years. So. It was all right, but not as impressive as some others have been.

So then there was...let me see...oh yeah, Tamora Pierce's Page, in another series of cleverly named books. I enjoyed it, but the story arc of this book as separate from the series was almost nonexistent. I heard at a con this fall that the Alanna books had been written as one book and then chopped up, and I think that worked better there than with this series. (Maybe I should reread them and find out.) For one thing, I think the series story arc was more compelling in the Alanna books -- more magical and more active. More exciting. So it could carry individual books through without as much individual book story arcs. (Although I think the individual book story arcs were also stronger in the Alanna books -- again, I'd have to reread to make sure.) For another thing, the way they were chopped gave one book to Alanna's years as a page and another to her years as a squire, and then the last two books were running around doing adventurous nifty things. But with the Keladry books, the first two books are dedicated to her time as a page, the third one will be Squire, and we won't get to running around doing adventurous nifty things until the last book. And while Keladry's training is all right, I don't think it deserves three-quarters of the series.

I read another Tamora Pierce novel yesterday, Briar's Book, the last in the Circle of Magic series. That series seems to be all individual book story arc and almost no series arc at all. It was fun. Pierce is one of those authors whose foibles show up abundantly after a chapter or two, so they're not any more bothersome to me after two books.

Anyway, so the last book I read on Friday was Eva Ibbotson's The Secret of Platform 13. Yuck. It was one of those children's books where you can always tell who the good guys and the bad guys are, because the bad guys look bad. They're often fat and always ugly. And if you spot someone who's thin and kind and bright-eyed and mistreated, you automatically know who the real prince is going to be, even if there's been a mix-up; there's no suspense to it, because you know that there's no way an author like that is going to have the unpleasant person be the real prince. (Naturally, no royalty has ever been unpleasant in behavior or appearance.) There's not even a way that the unpleasant person will be the real prince, but the king and queen will decide to have the thin, kind servant boy inherit anyway, in a non-primogeniture sort of a scheme. No. Blood Will Tell, and there's no point in you being nice to the fat kid and the kid with the funny nose, children, because they are clearly bad people, or they wouldn't look like that.

I don't know if this annoys me more in children's books or in adult books. David Weber has an unpleasant habit of it in his Honor Harrington books, which is part of why I stopped reading them. Anyway, this one even had a hag as a character -- but she was a disappointment to her hag family, being pleasant-looking. Yarg.

Another little earthquake. 4.2. Huh. Interesting. And also kinda spooky. It is one of my goals to get out of here before The Big One, since there seems to be no doubt that there will be another Big One here within the next 25 years.

Anyway. So. Oh yes, the rest of the weekend's reading: I read Lloyd Alexander's The Arkadians yesterday, which was amusing and fun. And I started Peter Dickinson's The Devil's Children. I haven't read any Peter Dickinson besides the short stories in his water elemental collection with his better half (I usually dislike that term, but Robin McKinley is cool enough to be most people's better whatever-fraction).

Oh, and I noticed that other people have the same foible that I try like mad to edit out of my work: their characters keep starting things. "Name started to verb." Or "Pronoun began verbing." Stop it! Stop starting! Just verb, for heaven's sake!

This is probably an unfortunate way of phrasing things, since I tend to insert "[noun]" or "[verb]" or the like when I want to talk about something inappropriate to work on Scott's work e-mail. He does it in a more round-about way, telling me that he's "going to talk to a person about a thing" when he's looking for another job. Same idea, though.

The other piece of writing advice I have for right now is: befriend people who know stuff. It's nice to just be able to e-mail somebody and say, "Hey, what about this?" And have them write back with all you needed to know about flaming arrows or vehicle braking systems or cold-weather camping. Especially if you have no desire to find out about cold-weather camping, just to take a totally random example.

We also watched a couple of movies this weekend. I know, we haven't been the most useful people in the world. I have gotten work done on Dwarf's Blood Mead, though -- most of it is just that it looks like I've been doing nothing because children's books are a fast read. That, and I really didn't do much after 2ish on Friday -- I needed some time to just be. So I took it for once. Anyway, we watched "Gosford Park," which I enjoyed, although I wished I felt comfortable having it louder -- there were lots of asides, but I didn't to blast the TV and disturb the neighbors, so I had to listen very, very carefully. (I'm omitting a long grumble about the neighbors and their total lack of reciprocal courtesy. You may thank me.) We also watched "Big Trouble," which I never would have rented without Amber's recommendations, but dang, was it fun. It was just what we needed, a very silly comedy that wasn't a very stupid comedy. I would generally say that I'm not a big Tim Allen fan, but I loved "Galaxy Quest," and "Big Trouble" was pretty worthwhile, too. So maybe that's changing. I don't know. Maybe I'm just not a big Tim Taylor fan, and he's not playing that persona so much any more.

My to-do list is getting eerily short. This is because most of the items on it are huge. But still. It's a bit frightening. It's almost to the point where I'd be uncomfortable doing stuff, just because then I'd have no list.

Ha. No. Just kidding. (Didn't mean to scare you, Mom and David.) I'm always able to come up with more stuff. There will never be an end to the list.

And in our cereal this morning, we got a Cheerios car just like Marty-boy's. I think that is all I have to say for now. I think that it's enough.

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