Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Are the Little Differences So Hard to Imagine in Fantasy?

A fellow writer recently asked (on an online fantasy site) how people had sex in the olden days, when most people lived in one room cottages or huts. Surely the presence of a couple's children, in the same room, or perhaps even the same bed, would have put a damper on things, he reasoned.

As someone who grew up loving the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, there as a point (sometime around my own pre-adolescent period, probably) when I wondered something similar. How did Ma and Pa have sex when Laura, Mary, and Carrie were sleeping in the same one-room cabin on the prairie?

The answer, of course, is that people in different times and places did not (or do not) share our modern, post-Victorian sensibilities about having sex in front of the children. They probably waited until they thought the kids were asleep and had at it. And maybe, when the weather was fine, couples found ways to steal moments alone together in barns, thickets, haystacks, even churches.

Nowadays, many people think it's immodest, or even potentially harmful, for kids to overhear, let alone see, their parents making the beast with two backs. That attitude has hardly been the norm throughout history. Parents probably didn't sit down with their kids and  have "the talk" back then. Kids simply learned about sex via osmosis (and of course, most people in agrarian, nomadic, or hunter-gatherer societies were around animals a lot while growing up, so they almost certainly made the connection there too).

This article does a great job of discussing sex in the middle ages. In fact, people really weren't as prudish back then as many suppose.

In spite of what some people have been insisting (in light of the recent SCOTUS ruling legalizing and legitimizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states), sexual morality is a very fluid and variable thing across history and cultures.

This question got me to thinking, though. There are numerous fantasy novels that show people living in societies with attitudes where the big things--slavery, torture, sexism, public executions, a rigid class or caste structure--are very different from ours. Yet the things that we have trouble envisioning as writers and readers are often the little, everyday differences (like people mostly living in a single room and parents thinking nothing about having sex while their kids are present).

Imagine a romance or fantasy novel with a love scene where the couple is holding back their cries of passion so they don't awaken their toddler, who is sleeping in the bed with them.

Another example of a fact that freaked me out when I learned (sometime around middle school age, I think) it was that women didn't wear underpants under their dresses until fairly recently. The thought of walking around all day with one's most personal and vulnerable parts open from below, gave me the heebie jeebies.
Fragonard's The Swing: What is this fellow looking at?
Of course, I've since figured out that those heavy skirts and petticoats were unlikely to blow up or reveal one's nether regions, even when it was windy or their owner climbing ladders, but it still feels a bit odd to me. On the plus side, the idea that brassieres didn't exist before the 20th century turns out to be untrue.

One thing that's very hard to relate to is differing attitudes about personal hygiene. I admit I was very relieved to learn that all those tales about how no one ever bathed in the olden days were rather exaggerated (though, interestingly, westerners were at their most foul during the early modern era, not the middle ages), and in fact, clothes washing and periodic bathing have been the norm throughout history, even if people didn't always live up to modern standards of cleanliness.

Given how itchy and stinky I am after just a couple days of days camping, I'll admit that a character who bathes but once a year and never cleans his/her teeth is harder for me to relate to than an assassin who kills people for a living. Brent Week's Durzo Bint? I had more problem with his garlic-chewing habit (I have a very low tolerance for garlic, even in food, and the smell of it on someone's breath makes me physcially ill) than I did his talent for slaughter. No fangirl crush on that character!

And speaking of bathing, anything resembling the Japanese tradition of families bathing together doesn't seem to be something that comes up terribly often in fantasy novels. I suspect that many modern authors have too much trouble stepping away from the notion that nakedness is an inherently sexual condition.

A print of this painting hangs in my hall bathroom.
Another social convention that few modern fantasy writers explore in their worlds are communal latrines. Outside of boot camp, modern western bathrooms tend to have locking doors or screens around the toilets, at least. Yet the Romans had communal latrines and public piss pots where people of both genders "went" in front of one another, and even socialized whilst they did. Especially revolting to me, however, is the concept of the shared sponges.

Toilets are definitely one of those intimate, everyday things with which we like to take for granted. Anyone who has been camping, or traveled in a country where facilities are designed differently, knows how disconcerting it is to adapt to a different way of answering nature's call.

Moving to the other end of the alimentary canal, I also have a hard time getting my head around the idea that toothbrushes seem to be a very recent invention (though unsurprisingly, the Chinese might have had something similar). However, people did indeed have ways of cleaning their teeth in the old days, and some research suggests that tooth cleaning sticks made from some kinds of trees or shrubs do an excellent job of promoting gingival health.

Habits of grooming or beauty aesthetics that are different from ours can be a jolt also. It's hard for me to imagine being attracted to a man with a tonsure, for instance, though those have existed in various times and places in history (and not just for monks). And when I saw the Kurosawa movie Ran many years ago, I was put off by the way the women plucked their brows to nothing and drew fake ones in way above their natural position. These looked odd to me. It's another one of those "small things" that wouldn't be very comfortable for me to imagine in a protagonist in a fantasy novel.

There are plenty of other "little things" that have changed throughout history and that vary between cultures. Taboos, habits of personal hygiene and grooming, even table manners (like using fingers to eat instead of utensils). Even though it can be a bit uncomfortable, I think authors sometimes miss opportunities to use these kinds of small differences as a means of reminding their readers that their characters aren't simply modern people wearing costumes. It's challenging, though, because for some readers, the ability to connect emotionally, even romantically, with a character is an important part of the experience of reading.

Feel free to comment and chime in on some of your own blind spots about history. What kinds of small, everyday differences have you tried to incorporate into a fantasy culture? Which ones put you off so much it's hard to relate to a character who practices them?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

An Article on The Lost Legacy of Many Female Fantasy Writers

This is a fantastic article on a topic I've been trying to get my head around for a while--the way great female fantasy and SF writers seem to fall off the cultural radar faster and more completely than male ones.

Most people remember Terry Brooks and other popular male writers from the 70s and 80s, but fewer people seem to remember writers like Katherine Kurtz, or even ones like CJ Cherryh and Mercedes Lackey, who are still writing today.

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I'll post a link to the article here:

Fantasy, Female Writers, and the Politics of Influence by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

And as an interesting aside, did you know that Australia actually has more trade-published female writers of adult speculative fiction (and fantasy) than male?

Britain seems to have fewer, while the US is in between these two countries.

It's interesting how different English-speaking countries can be in this regard, but it does suggest that there's nothing innately different in the abilities of men and women as writers of speculative fiction.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Old Dog Stuff

My husband and I adopted Roxy back in the fall of 2000 to celebrate closing on a house. We already had one dog, Astra, and she was a social pup who loved canine company. But as habitual renters, finding places with even one dog (and a clowder of cats) was challenging.  I remember all too well the pain of falling for a dog and really wanting to adopt him but being told no second dog by a landlord.

So the first thing I wanted to do once we became homeowners was to adopt a dog. I was training Astra in agility by then, so I also looked forward to training a second dog in the sport.

When we went to the Sacramento Animal Care and Services shelter, I almost missed Roxy, since she was in a kennel with three other dogs. Doug pointed her out, and we fell in love at once.

Roxy doing agility: Ann Clayton Photography
She's a border collie-chow mix, and in spite of the bad reputation chows and chow mixes have, she's always been the sweetest, most tolerant dog imaginable. When she was younger, she was a fairly enthusiastic agility partner and won some titles, including a NATCH and a CATCH. But as she became middle aged, her enthusiasm waned. Unfortunately, chows don't have the most athletic build, and the sport was starting to take its toll on her knees and shoulders.

So I retired her and concentrated on doing the sport with Wiley, my kelpie.

But she remained our special baby. After Astra passed away, we adopted a younger dog, Flick. Flick is a bit of a, well, the name for female dogs applies as a commentary on her character. Lovable but mercurial in her moods, and nervous enough we have to be careful with her and strangers. But Roxy, even as she grows old and creaky, never shows anything resembling temper.

And this is part of what's making it so hard as she gets older. With a dog who is so calm and undemanding, how can we tell when her quality of life has passed into the unacceptable. It's pretty clear that Roxy, at 15 1/2, is in her final approach. It's not just because her old peer group of dogs (ones who were in beginning agility class and were at their peak at around the same time as she was) have been dropping like flies lately. She's been arthritic for a while, and her muscles aren't as strong as they once were, but it's gotten worse lately. Until recently, she got enthusiastic about her walks, though they'd become shorter and slower than they once had. And painkilling and anti-inflammatory meds (Adequan and Metacam) seemed to help.

Roxy as of about a month ago.
But over the past week or two, she's been pretty reluctant to get up when she's been lying for a while, and if Flick jostles her (which Flick does often, being a galut), she falls over. She can still get up with help. I've tried one of those dog harnesses that allows us to assist her, but she really doesn't seem to like it much. She's still got a good appetite, but she's not always so keen to get up and out of bed in the morning, even though she's hungry. She's never been one for playing with toys, so that's not a very good gauge of her overall level of enthusiasm for life. She still likes having her ears scratched.

The hardest thing is travel. We cancelled a planned trip this summer because of the uncertainty over arranging for her care (she can't be boarded and needs a live in pet sitter who will be around a lot, but most leave the dogs for 8-10 hours and are only there at night), while Flick must be boarded in a special care program at a kennel that has trainers to work with stranger-wary dogs that can't just be tossed into their twice daily group play mash up. So needless to say, arranging for pet care for a week-long trip is astronomical--greater than our hotel costs would be, actually (Wiley is sitting here saying, "I can go either way, Mom, I love pet sitters and don't mind boarding kennels!")

And we have a day trip to Carson City coming up, because some relatives will be in town there we never get to see. For normal people, popping across the pass for a day is nothing. But with one dog who can't come for a visit because she's not reliable around kids (and so must be day boarded, since we also can't have them in our yard when we aren't there to supervise), one who can come along cheerfully, and one who can't be left home alone for 10 hours but may find the long car ride and extra stress very unpleasant, well, argh! Roxy is coming, but we'll have to be gentle with her.

This is nothing to what most people have to deal with re caregiving for kids or seniors in their human families (especially special needs family members), since we can at least go out and leaver her for 3-4 hours at a time, but since Roxy is "only" a dog, people tend to be less understanding when we say that traveling is challenging right now

So we're making a vet appointment later this week for assessment and hopefully suggestions about how to keep her quality of life acceptable, and also, when to know that it isn't. In her case, if it gets to where she just can't walk anymore, I think we will know it's time for sure. There are carts and so on, but I don't think one would be comfortable or easy to adapt to for a dog her age.

The hardest part is not simply being to ask them what they want. Doug sometimes jokes that Roxy is still alive because of her separation anxiety issues (this was something we had to deal with when she was a pup, though it became manageable as she matured). She simply doesn't want to leave us. But in all seriousness, when do the aches and pains of being so old overtake the pleasure she derives from our company? I wish we could ask her.

It's the hardest thing about having animals.

Monday, June 1, 2015

That's Not For You, Flick!

I haven't blogged for a bit, and one of the reasons is that this is actually my 100th entry, and I was hoping I would have something marvelously significant or insightful to say. But I really don't. Just as we were celebrating the end of classes a week and a half ago, we had a bit of a medical scare with Flick, the youngest (and greediest) of our three dogs.

Doug had commented earlier in the day (it was Saturday afternoon) that she seemed to be eating something in the side yard. Well, we keep our trash bins over there, so I simply shrugged, assuming that she'd gotten something that fell out when we were emptying the kitchen trash. A couple hours later, he let the dogs out again, and told me that Flick had something green, and he couldn't tell if it was something from the kids' birthday party next door and showed me this. "Do you know what it is?" he asked.
The remains of the block Flick was eating.

Something about this stuff gave me a bad feeling, so I googled, "What does rat poison look like?" And lo and behold, several pictures of very similar green or blue-green blocks popped up. Not good. So to the emergency vet we went.

They made her vomit and fed her activated charcoal, and gave us the run down. Without knowing exactly what brand and formulation it is, we needed to treat for the three kinds of poisons used to kill rodents in California:

1. Bromethalin, which causes uncoupling of oxidative phosphorylation in liver and central nervous system mitochondria. This results in a reduction of ATP in these tissues, and ultimately ends with an inhibition of ion channels that causes potentially fatal cerebral edema (brain swelling).

2. Anticoagulants, which cause animals to die from internal bleeding.

3. Cholecalciferol, which is vitamin D3. This toxin leads to something called metastatic calciferation, most notably of the kidneys, heart, GI tract, and liver. It typically causes death by renal failure.

The details about the different kinds of rat poisons and their toxicity are detailed here for anyone who wants to learn more.

So we got to go home with subcutaneous fluids (and instructions to make sure she drank lots and lots of water) to flush out any and all of these toxins, but especially to keep her kidneys happy in case it was cholecalciferol, two more doses of activated charcoal to absorb any toxins remaining in her GI tract, and a month's worth of vitamin K to counteract any anticoagulant effect if it was one of those kinds of poisons. We also got to make three repeat trips for blood work to make sure her kidney and liver values are good, and when she finishes her vitamin K, we are to return to the vet to make sure her clotting factors are good.

We're calling this Flick's "thousand-dollar snack."

Flick has already forgotten her unusual snack.
The good news is that a week and a half out, she's doing well. She's a nervous dog, and not always as gregarious as we'd like with strangers, but she seemed to weather her treatment with good humor (better humor than most of us probably would if we were peacefully enjoying an unusual snack, and someone gave us a shot that made us puke and made us drink this black slurry and kept poking us with needles).

The bad news is that we have no idea how this block (at least one, possibly two) of rat poison ended up in our yard. I don't keep or use rat poison anywhere on the premises. It's possible that someone in the neighborhood is using it loose (outside of the locking, plastic traps for which these blocks are intended) and a rat or some other critter dragged it into our yard. It's also possible that some truly horrible human being is tossing blocks of rat poison over the back fences of people who have dogs.

We have, as far as we know, good relations with all our neighbors, and we don't leave our dogs out to bark at all hours, and we always keep them on leash and pick up after them when we walk them. So I don't think anyone would target us in particular. If it's intentional, it's most likely a random wacko. But it's still pretty disquieting, and we're checking out the yard on a daily basis, and checking out the side yard by the back fence before we let the dogs out.

We put fliers up around the neighborhood (and talked to everyone who shares a fence line with us) to let people know that this happened. As upset as we are about what happened and the cost and hassles associated with treating Flick, this could have gone a whole lot worse if Doug hadn't noticed her eating something strange.

A reminder to other people with "furkids" to keep an eye on what they're doing and that it's probably not safe to leave pets out in the yard unsupervised these days, even for short periods of time.