Friday, April 25, 2014

"This Life" is "Big" and Hard

It was a hard day today, and all I can do with it is count my blessings and be grateful the complaints I have, the fears I have, are the complaints I have.  The fears I have.

Because the fears I have are the fears of privilege, of the position from which money is what looks like a problem.  Of being fortunate, talented, and stable enough to live on my own terms.  My mom and dad did that to me, and I'll never be able to express the fulness of my thanksgiving.  The fulness of my heart.

Today was hard for reasons other than the way I actually spent it.  The way I actually spent it was at an Administrative Professionals conference, which is an event I've been to for some years, and which seems to get better every year.  We had a little fun with writing.  We got cheered on by nice people.  We stretched all our muscles in our seats and ... listened to some music.

Susan Greenbaum was with us.  I've heard of Susan for years, but - oddly enough, given the opportunities locally - have never seen her live before.  Seeing a musician live in a setting mostly geared toward thinking about work and professional development, not a coffee house or club, maybe heightens just how good music is.  The guy who got us to move our bodies a bit heightened just how good moving our bodies can be, and the sealed-in atmosphere of a day's conference has a way of imbuing something almost like sacred time.

I found out today that one of the longest-running stresses in my life, that No-Love Which Dare Not Speak Its Name (on a blog - as personal as I get here, I do have boundaries) - which was supposed to be resolved ... or, at least, which had the chance of being resolved and I hoped would be - is not at an end.

As I sit typing, the sky is GREEN and dark, and the rain is pelting so hard it's making my front living room window pinkle under its bombardment, almost with the sound rain usually makes on a tin roof.

That sound is my dad's sound, a sacred sound.  Rain, and queer skies, and lightning and very close thunder are heightened, and the green air mystical.

I'm also enjoying the hormonal rush of a lifetime, and getting static news, which can be as bad as bad news, when you have to give it in turn to your mom - to your friends and those who pray for you.  Susan's voice cracked a little, but I did not make it through "This Life" ...

I will make it through mine, though.

I thanked her before I left.  "People must say to you all the time, 'you touched me' - but you made *me* touch something myself, and that's even better."  She hugged me.  She has startlingly beautiful eyes.

By the way?  Susan is 4'10".  And she is just huge.  Please watch the vids.  You know who you are, who I'm asking to watch.  I know you usually don't.  But these were the songs I heard after the no-news, and they help.  Plus, the second one is joyous.  Funny.  It'll make you stop crying after the first one.  It was my gift, today.

There's a lot more to life than the problems I have as someone with a roof over my head, the love of a beautiful cat and a dog, and friends and family I will never hope to deserve.  I've sent a link to this post to you all, and every word of this I wrote for you - because I'm not going to want to talk about things right now, because I'm PMS-ing and tired, because you deserve better than my first emotions, and honestly so does the situation.  Whatever my problems are, they aren't those of someone else on the other side of my coin today.  Whatever my problems are, I'm grateful they're not greater ones.  I'm thankful for hope.  And for MY life.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

In Other News

I've been having FUN (of all things) taking the old butter knife to the dragon again, which is a perfectly daft response to a request for edits on a manuscript already revised something like four hundred eighty seven thousand times.  But it's a wise response when the request comes from someone of the caliber it came from.

It is also exactly the sort of personal mission which provides rather excellent diversion at a time when ... well, shall we say, Life is doing its thing.  Wielding a butter knife at a thousand-foot fire-breather does take one's mind off certain looming stresses, and I am then doubly grateful, not just for the attention from another great agent (one I don't intend to let slip through my fingers this time, if I can help it) but for the boon of the work itself.

The reason it is fun is that I'm not doing anything to restore old work once scrapped.  I'm reinventing.  I come from the generation weaned on reinvetion (reboots), a generation with a lifetime lease on the word "re-imagine".  Some of what I'm doing, far from being a retrieval or recycling (I am really trying to use all the re-prefixed terms I can in this paragraph ... apparently ...), is entirely new work.

It even struck me that one supporting character, who needs some meat on her bones, is indeed the one secret I've kept all the time I have been working on Ax.  She's the only avatar for myself in the work.  I try not to be the precious, over-invested author, living vicariously in my characters (and making them all talented and beautiful beyond description).  But at some point, I consciously decided that I'd use my own physical description for her, and perhaps some personality.  (Emphasis on the perhaps - I have no musical talent, and lost my ability to sing even with mediocre ability years ago.)

What this work has made me realize is that, because she's the closest thing to me I invested in the work, I *shrank* from giving her a real presence.  This was true even before the revision massive campaign of cuts.  And so, it is liberating to actually give her a smile, a breath, a little scene or two.

I had fun, too, reinventing the tale of Basina and the animals - a legend of Clovis' mother, likely invented long after the fact, meant to evoke the degeneration of the Merovingian dynasty.  I told the tale with an oral cadence, with the lilt of a fairytale; it's a short passage, but it puts BLOOD in the veins of the meat I'm trying to hang on my bones.

Oh dear, and my metaphors are REally getting bent like overworked copper.  Time for me to cease musing, hit save, and proably log off for the night.


The History Blog on St. George's day.  (I'm not sure, actually, that "orgy" is the correct term for a grouping of dragons.  However, given that one illustration, I could be wrong ...)

Today at Arrant Pedantry, "I've got a bad case of über it."  (It just is not possible for me to contemplate prepositions without listing all the German ones in my head, in a sort of whishing, whispering, ongoing non-mantra dating back to 1981.  An, auf, ünter, über, hinter, vor, und zwischen.)  The true gem at this link?  You get a NEW WORD today:  mumpsimus.  Yay!  Now, make with the clicky.

Thanks to a link at The Passion of Former Days, please enjoy Curious Anarchy.  This tragedy happens at my house all the time ... though my population is a bit smaller and partially feline.

CONGRATULATIONS to Nancy Bilyeau, on her win for Best Historical Mystery!

BBC News has a gallery of wedding dresses from a variety of periods.  The final three images here make me drool - artfully, gorgeously designed and realized.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"You Don't Understand, You Don't Understand"

The headline is a quote from 9/11, when Zuba called me from her walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and explained to me how I would never, ever understand - "There's no Towers!  There's no Towers!"  My instant response was, No, I don't understand.  I never could, I never would.  But the fact that she reached out to me - from that Bridge, no less, has always been my bridge, my way to at least reach for comprehension.

Being the child of privilege, there is a LOT in this world I will never understand.

(T)he care taken with a black girl’s hair signaled that she was loved and cared for, that she belonged to somebody. Having one’s children out in the world with unkempt, uncombed hair has always been considered a major form of parental neglect in black communities.
Those of us who have “liberated” our hair are quick to think of the continued black cultural investments in long straight hair, perms, weaves and ever-more ubiquitous lace-front wigs, as evidence of a kind of pathological investment in European standards of beauty that will always elude us.

This article is a remarkable look at the heritage and the politics of Black hair in America, particularly Black women's hair.

Beauty and fashion are important.  The choices we make, the looks we project, those fashions or styles or statements we make, passively or not - the things we subscribe to by choosing to literally wear them - have never been trivial, and arguably are more fraught than ever with intention, meaning, and power.

Just ask noted collaborator and anti Semite Coco Chanel, whose fashion house has spanned two centuries now and made billyuns and billyuns in profit worldwide.  Ask any juror who ever let a rapist off based on the altitude of a victim's hemline.  Ask LinkedIn, that purveyor of articles I refuse to even link, tut-tutting the idea of a woman IN SHORT SLEEVES, attempting to give a presentation and expecting to be taken seriously as a professional.  (I am not kidding, this was in my "latest updates" today, and it was not a joke.)

What the United States Army is doing to Black women is unquestionably racially-specific, political, historical, clearly painful.  Please read the Salon link.  It's a great education.

Even for those of us who will never, truly can never, actually *understand*.  Because even if I went through airport security with my hair Jacked Up to Jesus, it would NOT get patted down.  Because there's no Towers, Diane, and no amount of frienship, love, sympathy, and deep pain will ever let me see them now.

The 85k Time Suck

... no, this is not a new game show - but it's just as bad for your time management (if not worse, by several orders of magnitude).  British Pathe' has released over eighty thousand clips on YouTube, y'all.  Don't spend all your time on one category.

I'm struck, when libraries and archives release masses of information (this has got to be one of the largest I've ever heard of), first by what an incredible boon it is for research and learning and those of us writing historicals.  In my case, of course, less so - there are so darn few primary vids on Clovis I, resolution in the years 486-511 was such crap - but there is more to be had, of course, than snowball fights in gigot sleeves and poems.  Second, though, I tend to go to the guitarist at the back of the bar, and how much harder it's going to be for so many to get away with some of the *fiction* of historical fiction.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Fundraisers of Unparallelled Efficacy ...

Janet Reid has a great story about sheep in church.  (Some of the further clicks are great if you're looking for a few minutes' reading.)

Vicious rams on the White House lawns, the most expensive wool ever sold, a flock's connection to the start of WWI, and a silent clip of President Wilson:  The History Blog shows and tells us about sheep at the White House.

Blessings to you on Passover and Easter - may you be with those you love.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Mixed Message Mesmer

This collection of vintage beauty ads is a morbidly interesting study in the many messages women get about their bodies - you're too thin! - you're too fat! - your hands are not lily-white!  No matter the delivery, "You are nothing but the object of someone else's gaze" is the point.

It's all meant in depthless, breathless fun, but the fact is, the archaeological/anthropological breadth in this collection is fascinating from a scientific standpoint, creating an incredibly clear gauge for anyone interested in analyzing the fashion for curves versus uber-thin, boyish bodies (WEAR OUR AMAZING RUBBER GARMENTS SO YOU TOO CAN BE BOSOM-FREE ... "medicated" no less, some of these ...).  I actually had an aunt who took the weight-gain tablets in the fifties.  And even in the 80s I knew a girl who intentionally took up smoking to lose weight, per the now-outrageous come-ons in the Lucky advertisement (though she used Marlboros - it was something of a rule, given we literally lived in Marlboro country ... on a side note - there was a smoking area at my high school; for the *students*).

Possibly the creepiest of a thoroughly creepy lot is the "Chubbettes" ad, which appears to be shilling girdle control garments to a grade school girl, so she can look "yummy" ...

"The heartbreak of dishpan hands" was a real, actual thing, kids.  I remember seeing stuff like that when I was a kid, and the line spawned lots of jokes - though none of those was particularly enlightened.

But the easy winner for offensive sexism is "I suffered from menstrual cramps" (image 25 of 26) - with the picture of the sneering (middle-aged) MAN bitching about how awful it is for husbands whose wives' tribulations apparently turn them into creased-foreheaded, over-the-shoulder-griping grossly wrinkle-necked whinge machines with more opinions than they could possibly have been worth enduring even in the 1950s.  What.  A.  Prize.  Schmuck.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Temps Must Have Dropped ...

... Goss has become NESTLING CAT again.

I am currently being squinted at pointedly by snot-green eyes.  He does not care for my public sarcasm.

'Sawright, though.  As long as I have a cozy flank, he cares for my body heat very much indeed.  (Stupid leather couch; takes too long to warm up.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Space Seed (Khan Not Included)

I searched a number of articles to link for this story, but UK's Telegraph runs away with it, both for USING the phrase "space seed" - but also because they seem to be the only outlet who's used a photo of one of the actual trees grown from seeds which went into space.

What's the real headline?  If you want to know before you click (and you haven't already heard):  turns out, the spaceborne seeds' trees are now blooming six years earlier than normal terrestrial cherry trees blossom.

Special mention:  I love the early-1960s feel of the "cosmic rays" theory of causation here.  LOVE.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Another One

The History Girls have come up with another remarkable figure in history, Levina Teerlinc.  I think an awful lot of us have heard of Holbein, but even having been a Tudor nerd since puberty, I had NEVER heard of this woman, who served no fewer than four Tudor monarchs as a court painter.  Remarkable; as was her very career.  My thanks once again to The HGs.

Even more intriguing is the in-depth comment left by someone who has studied Teerlinc and has some observations of her own.

Gossie Again

Goss has once again run away to go visit Janet Reid, the Query Shark.  I do keep wondering where he runs off to - but am pleased he chooses good company!


Of the most recent four requests-for-a-full I had out (for those of you who aren't querying authors, a "full" means those agents who have asked to read the entire manuscript), I did not get any feedback from three of them.

One is a very very lovely woman I've met before whom I knew probably was not the right match for me, but you don't not-submit when someone gives the go-ahead - you never do know, in this world.  One seemed to me not really a personality match - and, indeed, I never even heard from her after submission, which from *my* end is a write-off.  Another was the ridiculously delightful Victoria Skurnick, who agreed to an interview on my blog as well (I need to get on that) but who, in the end, really doesn't do my genre, so as much as I adored her I knew it wasn't a good bet, and she was just as kind in letting me down as she was in opening the option to begin with.

The last one, though, whose name shall remain un-mentioned for now as I'm not convinced that book is closed, so to speak, provided nicely specific requirements and the salutation, "Back to work!"

The good news is, I agree with the feedback.  Indeed, during the last revision, cutting tens of thousands of words out of a completely ridiculous draft, I had thoughts cross my mind which reflect similar expectations.  So I'm going back to work - taking the butter knife back to the dragon's lair - and doing what I can to spread a bit of oleo.

The even better news than that is that this should not be a very big job.  It's a matter of some restoration, but not masses of new writing - nor of new cutting.  It's a matter of set dressing, essentially, and - of course - it does mean suspending any new querying for the time.  I won't pretend an excuse to suspend querying isn't welcome - even as sanguine as I am about the process, I don't think *anyone* would call it a pleasurable one.

And so today, back still hinky and kinky, enjoying my clean house, the open windows, a bout of laundry-doing, and the occasional nestle, I'm perusing scenes to see which ones are too free-floating--and SWEATING about my thoughts on which ones are "there" enough.  And, of course, dealing with the impulse to get into other things as well.  "Oh, wait, that character needs ..." and so on.  Some of it I should probably indulge.

But some of it I need to restrain as well - because here is the major thing:  this is not something I have endless time to fool around with.  An editorial agent (SQUEE) *might* care enough about my work to consider it twice.  The last time that happened, I took far too long, and the world changed by the time I got back to the interested party, and it transpired that there no longer was interest by the time I finished with the butter knife.

Part of the process of being a "potential" (published) author is learning, and learning-how-to-do at that.  I learned a lot, losing what I wanted to hope was a Dream Agent.

Not interested in losing another.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Congratulations (again!) to Tom Williams - he unveiled his cover this week, and I was slow to share it here, but it's a good looking design ... AND it's entirely authentic!  I love that in a cover, because it's remarkable how seldom historicals get that kind of graphical respect.

The History Girls have an excellent word or two for Michael Buerk (and an entire industry), on lookism and sexism - and historical beauty treatments - and the hideous catch-22 of women's conformation we still live with today.  The excellence here is that these words can actually be applied beyond the particulars of this one post - which is where good writing becomes great reading.

Finally, I am grateful to Two Nerdy History Girls for sharing this vid (worth a click-through to their post for a bit more on antique automata, with a little background and some other links as well):

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Oh Duck

In the words of Jinkx Monsoon, the phrase of this evening - as it must be, sometimes - is "Water off a duck's back" (to be repeated as needed, which seems to be an awful lot lately).

One of those personal problems one doesn't blog about in public (if one is a little old lady who still prizes, inordinately, the treasure and concept of privacy), which has been doing that silent looming thing so many of the more unspeakable issues in life like to do, is approaching a possible denouement I both desire and find absolutely terrifying.

People are still unemployed.  People I love, and cannot help.

Other people are trapped, frustrated, angry, and hurting.  Others are just hurting - and, by "just" in this instance, sadly we mean they are unfortunately self-absorbed.

This person has little to offer anyone, an unfortunate circumstance given that "may I bring satisfaction and joy" is a chief prayer in my life.  It's one thing to lack satisfaction of my own; it's another thing entirely to watch the people I love most unable to grasp it.

Earlier this evening I didn't get a certain agent, and it bums me out.

I succumbed to dread, irritation, and sadness - but life doesn't offer the luxury to indulge this for long.  Tomorrow is another (golden, eighty-degree) day.  I'm sucking it up.

I'm soldiering on.

Thank goodness for the wisdom of a drag queen.  "Water off a duck's back."  They're designed to shed the stuff - even float across it.  Surely I'm this ingeniously made ...

I'm off to wield a butter knife.  See y'all soon, with more relevant posts.

Designing Men

This article at Business Week tells the surprisingly gripping tale of a long and rewarding relationship in shambles.  The forces at work in this story – creativity and design, a friendship spanning decades, the brutal effects of legal action on a dynamic not only professional, but personal – are the stuff of the best literature we have.  And the building blocks here – fonts, and their design, which make a surprisingly interesting subject – are very much the stuff (literally) of writing.  Jonathan Hoefler almost makes the perfect betrayor, Tobias Frere-Jones his hapless, almost spousal, “victim” in the framing of the history of a relationship (I would say “partnership” – but that is the very point under contention; *were* they partners?) doomed now by lawyers.  And doomed (here is the literary part, kids) by the failure to communicate.  By diffidence and assumptions … the same things that doom so many marriages, love affairs … and partnerships, to be sure.

Font design is an unexpectedly emotional and political arena.  Most of us are aware that Lucida Handwriting makes a poor showing for a business contract, and many people are aware, or at least would not be surprised, that Comic Sans is a bit of a joke in the world of letter design.  But how many of us know that the choice or conception of a typeface design carries with it a raft of subjective baggage?  How many are aware that New York’s Helvetica subway signs , so much a part of the city that people who’ll never go there in their lives recognize the font and the color scheme, raise in some folks a certain suspicion at their institutional strength bordering on the fear of brutality – and in others an almost happy satisfaction with its clean and reassuring simplicity?  How many knew just how strong the movement was, particularly beginning in the 1990s, to create messy, unpredictable – “punk” (hah) fonts?

Aggression and confrontation seem a counterintuitive part of something we might routinely imagine would be as boring as font design, and yet X-treem fonting was a big deal when it began, and its progeny are here to stay, even if their marketability may trump their nonconformity in the end.

Our heroes eschewed the paint-splatter or letters-cut-from-magazines scary effects of “edgier” fonts, but the success of the business that bore their name skirted trends like that.

The Business Week article documents the dissolution between these men with an almost leering set of insinuations about how much more the relationship was than a business arrangement.  “Divorce” is the word in the headline, and the very silence on the more personal aspects of a friendship which clearly goes back a very long way is suggestive in much the same way Victorian mores were on the topic of love which dare not speak its name.  The breathy description of Mr. Frere-Jones is heavy on pathos, casting him as a betrayed wife, and perhaps a bit of a naif or at least too delicate to be a Real Man in real business.

The entire crux of the article comes down to this:

One place where Hoefler has never referred to Frere-Jones as his partner is on any kind of contract.

At this point, I divorce myself from the engaging tale of a wronged woman (who happens to be a grown-ass man who signed, apparently, any number of legal documents NOT making a legal business partner of him, over a span of fourteen *years*) and have to consider agency over emotional outrage.  Frere-Jones, whatever his complaints, whatever the “promises” and expectations un-met – signed up to have them un-met.  His legal autonomy is no less than mine, he didn’t bother to know what he was signing up for – or he blinded himself wilfully – and the fact is, he appears very much to have participated in the truth of a situation which, no matter how often he and Hoefler teamed up to depict it otherwise publicly and for market reasons, he *could* have understood, perhaps truly did, and certainly had the responsibility to.

I’m no fan of the old “suck it up, Buttercup” school of writing off complexities in human relationships – but, as a feminist in particular, I’m not persuaded by “but but but”, “was gonna”, “coulda/woulda/shoulda” and “I THOUGHT” as legal arguments.  This is where the portrayal of Frere-Jones strangely feminized role as victim of his partner in this “divorce” falls flat.  It’s hard to see where Hoefler actively deceived F-J.  Flim-flammery and fraud are not the same thing, and Hoefler might not be the man I care to invite for tea – but, then again, neither is F-J, and the pair of them are both (so to speak) consenting adults.  With legal autonomy, and the power of their signatures.  If Hoefler took advantage – Frere-Jones let him, and could have done otherwise.

And that’s where the literary story gets *really* interesting, for me – because it’s so much more unusual than “bad man betrays wilting violet” at this point.  Frere-Jones isn’t Ingrid Bergman, pallidly and exquisitely being gaslighted by a paper-thin bad guy.  He made poor choices, he is a legal adult, and he didn’t get what he “thought” was his because he set no requirement that he should … I mean, you do not marry Henry VIII hoping he’ll change or you’ll be The One.  And Hoefler never even beheaded anyone.  I’m pretty sure.

Frere-Jones says that he agreed to this because Hoefler was always promising to formalize the partnership soon.

“Soon”, of course, is a word without legal basis.  It’s no way to have a child, plan for retirement, or conduct business negotiations – and what we have here is a negotiation.  Mounted with passive-aggression and self-interest and cross purposes – but a business negotiation, nonetheless.  The Elizabeth I-style prevarication and the failure to materialize, of a supposed mutual expectation, doesn’t change that.  The friendship doesn’t change it.  The strange framing device of this whole tale, in the trappings of some sort of unfulfilled union of a far more intimate kind, doesn’t change it either.  It may make the story more prurient, and sell Business Week advertising (using restrained, beautifully-immaculate fonts and graphics), but it ain’t journalism and it sure isn’t the truth of the story behind these two men, their business, their fame, their shared success – and their ultimate parceling out of what now can no longer be shared.

It’s a fascinating story, for a lot of reasons (design has never been my strong suit, but it’s always appealed to me), but I feel very sure it’s not quite exactly the story BW has told.  What IS fascinating is why Frere-Jones expects to be exempt from the requirements of personal autonomy and business the rest of the world has to deal with.  What IS fascinating is why Hoefler felt it was necessary to get more than the man he saw as being so valuable he proposed, when they were still semi-rivals, that they should join forces?  What were the dynamics at work, that the personal relationship had less weight for him than the potential business gains he saw in hooking up with Frere-Jones in the first place?  How strong and how deep *was* their friendship, after all?  Was it emotionally unequal?

Was there any of this behind-the-scenes folderol, with BW’s obvious (and also rather passive-aggressive) implications?  If so, what of that – does it matter, if they had a sort of intimacy which “should” have begged questions of the legal ramifications of their contracts?

In short:  Who? Are?  These characters?

Plot bunny it, kids.  Or maybe follow Henrik van de Keere down a different rabbit hole.  Or just throw a word or two in the comments, about your feelings toward Wachovia Celeste or the photos of these men or whether they SHOULD have gone DIY and messy with their fonts, for a buck.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


What an odd little day it was in the context of HR.  My new employer has had more than one opening come up since I've been there, which would suit Mr. X remarkably well.  Somewhat as a tease, I've sent him several listings - but I've also been keeping my eyes open for a few others I know.  Today, I reached out to three people I know (other than him!) about different possibilities.

At the same time, I've received a come-on via LinkedIn.  My first instinct was to shut that down flat, but I told them to tell me more; I certainly know enough candidates, obviously.  Even if I'm happy and blessed, that's not enough - I'm like my mom in this; I love to make connections for people.  In a professional context, this is about as rewarding as human activity gets; if I put someone onto a job they actually got - and were happy with? - wow, what a remarkable feeling.  One of the best friends I ever made at a job (five positions ago) is the BEST networker I've ever seen.  She quietly connects people to jobs over and over again - and she herself is one of the best admins I've ever known.  She put me onto my gig at the utility company some years ago, and I've watched her hook people up time and again with various people she knows.  What she's done, and for how many people, who can thank her for their very LIVELIHOODS (I could, for a couple years there myself - and am still grateful).

What a thing that is to put into the world, to give to someone.

If even one of the connections I've thrown out to the winds ever came to that for someone, it would be such a blessing.  If several did ... what gratitude.

Images as Sources

Researching the WIP takes more than reading; it takes a lot of *looking* as well.

Queen Amalsuntha of the Ostrogoths

One of the things this image did for me in stepping beyond Clovis and Gaul, into the lives of his sister, niece, and grand-niece, was to free me from the irksome presumption that the stars of contemporary histfic all have to be beauties by contemporary standards.  What it did *not* do for me was to indicate that the great eyes here were a symptom of, perhaps, Graves Disease, or provide an exact replica of (for one) Amalasuntha’s actual appearance.

Empress Theodora
Image:  Wikimedia

If you take a look at the bust of (most likely) Empress Theodora, she has a similarly wide-eyed look.  It’s not much of a cup of tea for all modern viewers, but the repetition of a feature like this in art is likely less an indication that everyone in a given period of history suffered from thyroid issues than that this was a standard style in depictions of the period.

There may be a degree to which you can let such a portrait inform your description of a character, but there may also be a good deal of freedom from such a source as this, the latitude in which you (or I) can create a character who is of constrained beauty, but perhaps not outright ill a la Marty Feldman.  Or perhaps she is.


The coin image is perhaps the most curious one, to my eye, because its exaggerated proportions – typical enough, for the tiny and inexact medium – call to mind a very old woman indeed.  The wizened-appearing flesh between bulbuous features, though, is deceiving:  Amalasuntha died at the age of only forty.  Though this was certainly old enough, in Late Antiquity, to put her well beyond the youthful blush of a beautiful princess, it seems unlikely that as queen she necessarily took on the appearance of extreme age.

It’s possible this again was an artistic convention – portraying the queen as aged in order to invoke veneration; downplaying her physical appeal (or delicacy) in order to emphasize her power, position, or charisma as opposed to her charms.

It’s possible, too, that the convention was propagandistic in another way – Amalasuntha was highly unpopular with her own Ostrogothic nobles, and the image could have been minted in caricature, an unspoken insult, by those who must serve her, but had control of the mints.

It’s also possible the limited medium of a coin disallowed realism, beauty, or any of the above theories with highly subjective messages (though we all know, do we not, that the craftsmanship and arts of the time were exquisitely beautiful, and we don’t buy into the whole “people of the past were a lumpen lot of mouth-breathing dullards without skills”, right?).  It’s possible we just had an unskilled craftsman on the job the day they minted coins in the name of the regnant queen, daughter of Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths.  Possible.  But, given Amalasuntha’s own Roman education, the cosmopolitan nature of the world she lived in, the wealth at her disposal and the importance, at this time, of any public statement – particularly one literally showing the face of the monarch, a woman already fighting against prejudices from all sides –

… I’m going to venture to guess there’s something subjective here – whatever that may be.

Image:  Wikimedia

One of the other things images of a historical character (or images of other people from a period) can do is to illuminate the style of a period not only in terms of its clothes and headdress and personal decoration, but what was most important societally in the setting.  When I was much younger, I could look at medieval art and see very little detail, and be fine with that.

Now we have not only costume blogs and papers, and those who study and write about not only surviving artifacts, grave goods, and descriptions, but the two- and three-dimensional art of a period, and who write about the minutest of details, who bring to life the way we dressed, the way we carved beads, the way we dressed our hair.  These things are invaluable to understanding the physical manner of life as it was once lived.

Theodora's 'do
Image:  Wikimedia

Susann Cokal, an authoress of my acquaintance, has talked about wearing a corset and eating period food in her research for Mirabilis and Breath and Bones, and many authors and actors make this sort of physical preparation a part of creating a character.

I cannot say I care to do this with, say, garum.  Dedication is one thing, but I see little need to make the research for my novel into a late-period episode of survivor, eating stuff that grosses me out, for the dubious pleasure of being able to minutely describe exactly what rotted-fish-sauce actually tastes like.  I leave the satisfaction of such knowledge (which, let's face it, may be about as “authentic” as the paleo diet) to those who post recipes for garum or what-have-you.

And yet, the level of insight and detail we can find in truly analyzing artifacts and images which appear to the casual observer to have little detail is in fact astonishing.  To those who make a profession of studying ancient hair dressing methods, or indeed cooking – to the costume bloggers who can take a centuries-old portrait practically down to its skivvies by detecting construction methods from imperfect drawings or even unfinished works, I and all authors working in the world of information access owe an indelible debt of gratitude.

It is possible to flesh out the textile or cosmetology of the world we must build, as authors, to a remarkable degree.  Indeed, for all I joke about archaeologists and poop, the mere matter of breakfast does not elude our grasp.  In a scientific age which can pinpoint Otzi’s social status and particular stomping grounds from the last meal in his stomach, scatalogical studies are positive boon.  I can tell you that King Clovis likely ate a great deal of seafood and possibly enjoyed beef (a very high status source of protein, the latter), but probably did not indulge much in pork, which tended to be an inland livestock, more to be found in forests than in the Salic grounds of Belgica Secunda, where the king grew up.

I know, too, that Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, was in a part of Italy rich in marshes – and it’s possible, from there, to get a feel for the air (I grew up in swamp land), to evoke some idea of the way the marsh grasses might have sounded – to extrapolate from the geography, some of the diet and trade and people of this city.

I can look – truly look – at the relief sculpture above, and study others’ scholarship of course (that debt of gratitude) and consider how important pearls were in the makeup of both costume and toilette – and perhaps even the symbolism of each garment, each jewel.  I can also tell the difference between a chiton and dalmatic, and describe characters’ dress appropriately, from the Roman world to the Ostrogoths – and even create tension in the “other-ness” we can demonstrate in display.

Amalasuntha seems to have used her son’s upbringing to send messages about status and her royal expectations (and prerogatives) – and I can even deduce she may have worn red shoes.  I can make a point of her shoes, in much the same way I once made a point about a character by the way she brushed her hair – or another, in the way he loses touch with the day-to-day and loses touch with the way he sleeps, dresses, and ablutes, over the course of a story.

I can build a world one stitch at a time.  I can cover my characters in a thousand stitches … and draw from them each of their stories.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Most of these one star book reviews will make you want to shoot yourself (or, perhaps, their "authors") in the neck.  Some of them are slyly hilarious, though!  Thank you, Zuba, for sending me down this rabbit hole!

Kristi Tuck Austin has some words on rock stars and authors - and no patience for the reticent writers who ignore and short-shrift their fans.  Me neither, lady!

18th century France is NOW - in San Francisco.  A great piece again from The History Blog, with videos worth a look if you're curious about how to move your gilded historical salon across a couple continents and an ocean.  The clips on gilding and wood carving are the best, short and illuminating.  So to speak!

Finally:  Gossamer would like to assure you, "It's all all right.  You'll be okay.  Promise."

Just needed to get a photo in, keep the visual interest.

Monday, April 7, 2014


Just two quickies tonight:

One, a collection of fashion watercolors spanning a very interesting period in costume history, as rendered by the lady who wore and admired these clothes.  As primary sources go, witness testimony in such a form as this is impossible to beat.

Two, the use of asbestos for its fire retardant properties goes back significantly farther than you might think.  In Byzantine wall paintings, for example.  Yep, one more thing we didn't invent in the twentieth century, kids.

Mere Exposure - and Unflattering Fashion

I have long been confounded by the staying power of genuinely unflattering fashion.  Inverted box pleats over the belly, shag mullet cuts, poorly-conceived hem altitudes of all sorts, or WAIST BANDS ON BLOUSES (seriously, stop this right now - along with sublimation prints and gladiators).  Why do these things become popular - and how is it some things stay popular?  Sagging, boys:  twenty years now, and counting - when's this finally going to (you should pardon the pun) become un-hip?

Listening to NPR on the way home, a stray sentence that "this happens in fashion" in this story got me thinking - repetition not only takes us out of objective reality (where flattering fashion is clearly definable), but can inure us over time to things that initially we dislike.  When everyone's wearing a bouffant and dead-lipstick, we stop seeing how ageing the look is.  When the Macarena is everywhere, even hating it becomes a habit rather than a fresh sensation.  Music becomes a part of us, and we welcome its associations, the way it removed us from standard time once before, or the way it distracts us from standard time now - and clothes can do the same thing.

Growing up, I'd look at pictures of women in the 60s, and was mystified at how seriously geriatric they looked.  Loni Anderson and Farrah Fawcett were, for me, the first, most stunning example of how transformative fashion can be.  Photos of them from "before my time" (during their early, bouffant years) appeared to me strangely geriatric - and their looks a decade later, seemed to me *younger* looking by far than those early, stiff head shots.

But bouffants were repetitive, and forced their way into standard-issue fashion, though hardly anyone was the least bit better off for wearing one.  They became an accustomed repetition, like the Macarena, like political ads, like snark and extruded "food".

By our mere exposure to anything, we come to accept it, and by repetition, we come to accept it as part of the furniture.  Beloved or not, we can be inured to how ugly double-knit box pleats are on a perfectly nice figure, or what a complete pain in the behind gladiator sandals are to put on and wear, or how irritating That One Pop Song is (I won't subject you to mere exposure to that song title again ...), even as we find ourselves singing it brain-worm style for *days on end*.

Mere exposure and repetition can induce in us the magic of sacred time, as through music - but it has its negatives, and those go far beyond bad fashion.  Mere exposure to some truly awful things blunts their negativity.  But mere exposure to each other can be marvelous.

Go find a new person to expose yourself to - see if it doesn't shift ... well, someone's reality!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Aww Poop

It might surprise a lot of people just how much time archaeologists spend on caca.

THAT House on the Block

The yard is badly in need of mowing right now - not only has spring finally arrived, but we've had a great deal of rain, so (where Penelope hasn't worn it out running along the fence - which will save me some weed-eating!) it's a bit thick.  I won't say "lush", because what's really thick right now is the early-spring growth of rubbery purple weed flowers, which tend to be clumpy and fail to live up to the suburban ideal of pure green grass.  My neighbors' homes have a lovely growth of Easter grass right now, but my place is not the beauty of the block.

It wouldn't take much work, nor much time - but since Wednesday I've had a fairly severe case of instant allergies, and mowing the grass, no matter how community-minded it may be, just is not on my list, even though in actuality I'd kind of like the time outside in a wonderful breeze, and the exercise.  Note to intrepid suburban kids anywhere:  if you showed up at my door right now, I'd gladly pay you to take care of this for me, providing gas and mower personally.  Just sayin' - if you want a buck, the scruffy house on the block might be for you.

Today is the first day I've had open windows, and I did start the meds on Wednesday night.  I think it's helped, at least as far as beginning to fight the overarching symptoms of seasonal allergies - itchy eyes, SNEEZING - but the more immediate symptoms - sore throat, congestion, laryngitis - are tenacious.  They spawn further symptoms of their own - mouth-breathing, for instance, which then leads to chapped lips and feeling dehydrated, which leads to constant water-drinking, which leads to feeling bloated.  I'm almost fascinated at the daisy-chain of cause, effect, and annoyance - but, honestly, I don't actually feel as rotten as, for instance, I sounded this morning at nearly ELEVEN a.m. when my mom called and I was still half-zonked on nighttime cold/allergy pills.  Oops.

A bit of high-cacao chocolate being my preferred caffeine delivery method, I induced Godiva therapy after talking with her, and have done a lot at least upstairs.  On the main floor, I need to shove enough furniture out of the way to remove The Winter Rug - yes, it's a stupid idea; dusty and heavy-breathing-inducing (and if I can't mow the grass, how can I move a 200-pound rug?), but it's my idea and I'm all into it.

And here we have the point of this post.  I've written here many times about what it's like living alone, but the underlying issue is almost cultural.  The nuclear family ideal, and its analogue, Living Independently, make "going out on your own" sound like the way we're all supposed to structure our lives.  Living Independently, of course - that thing where we're expected to leave the nest at eighteen and live on our own until we create our own nuclear family with McMansion, starter-spouse, 2.38 children, and 2.38 cars - is the shaming device we use against such adults as have to go home to mom and dad for one reason or another.  I internalized Living Independently really early, and am not ready to give it up (the idea of living with my mom if, G-d forbid, she were ever widowed again, for instance, is beyond my ability to tolerate).  But it comes with its price.  And its fears.

It's not just the daily inconveniences, when I have to do EVERY last thing in the world that needs to be done, and perpetually fall short, by the estimation of an awful lot of people who see fit to have ideas about what needs to be done in my house, personal life, etc.  My finances, far from being my own as an Independent Woman, are the subject of MANY people's speculation and advice - and not just people I consider to be close family or friends.  "You should buy a such-and-such car" is the easy expectation of people I hardly know with whom I casually mention I have been looking.  Of course, mentioning such a thing is guaranteed to bring that on, but I don't even have a wife I can hide behind to demur on the more insistent suggestions of people who apparently know my needs better than I do ...

So it's an odd thing.  The more independent we are in the society I happen to have grown up in, the LESS autonomy people ascribe to my way of living.  People give advice to any and all, of course, but it *feels* like the advice to a single woman has a special insistence.

We've created a world in which "failing" to live independently is shamed and unnatural (natural as multi-generational living was for thousands of years before the 20th century), but doing so carries not only its own judgments, but also the fears and perils that go with ageing with no partner, no family, nobody in the home.  It's not a minor price to pay for the pride and accomplishment of living on our own terms, and it's something I wrestle with all the time.  The responsibility is both a matter of pride and chagrin - and, while I think I may be unable ever to be the person who'd blend again with my mom, or a geriatric roommate situation a'la The Golden Girls, I'm hardly gratified by the prospect of the next twenty or forty years of what it *really* means to be on my own.

Pride wins, with me (... apparently ...), but it's not because I never think about whether I could be wrong.  I've fulfilled some of the expectations of my upbringing, and it's beyond me to honestly imagine anything I'd change.  But that doesn't mean I think I've done everything just right.  Life *shouldn't* feel like it's gone exactly right, I think in a way.  If we felt completely righteous and satisfied - what would there be to work on in ourselves, or for others?

And who's going to do the dusting, with me here blogging?  A good question.  And I'm off ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Quick Costume Change

Two short links for those who enjoy the costuming posts ...

First, Two Nerdy History Girls takes a look at the 18th century mask.  Sunblock, identity protection, emblem of prostitution - tool of feminine deceit (men who don't get what they want have always found a way to turn women who won't give it to them into whores) - name your function, they are a curious device no matter how we slice 'em.

Second, an American Duchess has an interview with Cathy Hay, who has designed some of the most remarkable historical-inspired dresses you could ask to drool for.  Anyone who *counts the threads* in sewing clearly means business about the work.  Just beautiful:  fragile magic indeed.  Cathy's Peacock Dress project has helped to raise $20,000 for a Haitian orphanage ... just in case anyone thought historical costuming was frivolous.

Except the Admin

Throughout my career, I've lived under the caveat, "except the admin."

What I mean by this is, I go to meetings about employee engagement or corporate structure, or participate in training and so on geared to the widest possible swath of a given employee population - and, almost always, the target as envisioned by committee can be defined as "everyone who works here from execs to analysts - except the admins."  Administrative support is always just to one side of whatever is being discussed, always just outside given parameters of training, discussion, expectation, what have you.  I don't think I've ever even SEEN a performance evaluation which relevantly expresses the nature of my job nor provides for development.

It doesn't particularly bug me, but I have brought it up before at meetings throughout the years - "you are interested in diversity but there's always this 'except the admin' configuration" - "this training is not relevant to my job, but there are things that are which are not addressed and should be" - "there is no on-boarding process for admins" - and on and on.

April marks Administrative Professionals Month, and we just completed Women's History Month and right before that was Black History Month.  During each of these months every year, there are voices saying "I'm more than the month (or even the day) you've assigned me for relevance" but these are always ignored.  The fact that Women and Admins fall right next to each other isn't lost on me either - it's no accident that every year when I attend Administrative Professionals events, if there's a man involved at all, he's probably a speaker and not anyone employed in "assisting" anyone for a living and by title.

So it is perhaps odd - and it is certainly maddening - that throughout my entire life, whenever I have heard a story about equal pay for women (happy April Fool's everyone: this is a relevant topic after all) *I* have mentally pronounced the marginalizer:  "Except the admin."

Women don't get paid as much as men in comparable positions.

Admins don't get paid as much as ANYBODY, period.  Ever.

Again, I signed up for it, and I am not starving.  But it's a galling and absolute fact that my chosen profession is seen as less "professional" than others, across the board.  I didn't get an MBA, I didn't go to Wharton, I don't travel for meetings (indeed, if  I can help it, I don't participate in meetings at all except to implement them for those poor souls who must).  I bring, in short, less "value" to an employer.  I worked at one place once, where it was all but explicit that admins were nothing but "OVERHEAD" and were a painful necessity.  This was very heavily part of the office culture.

I don't make $.80 on any man's dollar.  I make $.60 to ANYONE else's dollar.

One of the aspects of being an admin is that, in many jobs, we're the ones who know what everyone's pay is.  And I've never known anyone in any group ever who made even within a 20% margin of as little as I did.  Indeed, it's often as much as a 50% jump between my solitary salary and the next-lowest-paid member of a team.  There is nothing whatever unusual in that.

All this is not to complain, oddly enough, that I don't get paid what I should.  If I have a complaint, it is that people imagine what I do is "menial."

I actually ran across that word just this past week, on LinkedIn.  Some frothy article or other about job seekers - and a commenter who listed herself as an EVP, telling the supposedly heart-touching story of her youthful executive aspirations, subsequent wife-dom and widowhood, and how when she came back into the workforce she had only "menial" CSR and admin work for options - oh, but (let the music swell now) she told the world to stuff that MENIAL work and now she's an EVP.

People like this, who believe my work is "menial", perpetuate a classist and heirarchical culture in the workplace which is entirely inappropriate to the actual efficient running of ANY organization.  Without us "menials", our friend the EVP - and any company as a whole - would not survive for one day.  There isn't an industry, service, nor office which can be run without administration.

One of the difficulties I had in leaving my last job was the degree to which my team understood and valued what I provided for them, objectively and subjectively as well.  Several of them were in the habit of calling me "Goddess" - which might be a patronizing joke in some quarters, but which was a clear marker of their deference to my armament in service of their goals.  One of my executives happily called me Madam Secretary when he realized my relationship to the term, and it was a mutually agreed-upon title of respect.  He even looked for a long time one April, trying to find a card for Admin's Day or Week or whatever, that had the word on it.  "Do you know how hard it is to find a card with 'secretary' on it instead of admin?"

I still have the card.  I still use the gifts he gave me, too.  They were as much appreciated as I was.

I've had jobs where I wasn't given recognition and appreciation.  One, in fact, I lost on March 31 some years back.  I always remember it as the lousiest April Fool's joke ever - "they even got the DATE wrong."  But in fact I was glad to be out of there; I'd been looking for months before they fired me.

And even there, one of my bosses paid me a personal visit one day, to express his outrage that I'd been laid off.  Many of us had, but to my knowledge I was the only one he reached out to like that.

What I do is important.  What I do:  I really love.  You can have your paychecks and your meetings and your TRAVEL, all you non-"menial" types who don't get what I do at all (and who think there's something wrong with me for doing it).  People like that I am immensely grateful I don't have to work with.

The people I *do* work with are still learning just what I have to give.  I'm learning my way around what I can provide and even improve.  In the end, it's a nice time to celebrate my little "month" (or week or day, or whatever anyone gives and/or calls it).  The weather's just getting warmed up ... and so am I ...

Talent Drain

When I left my previous job to come to my current position, it was a difficult decision not least because I was a public servant.  My job gave me a lot of pride, and even though it didn't occur to me consciously every day, the fact that even my telephone said I was "serving America's economy" was never lost on me either.  I loved my team, I got stressed about my work, but the initial love affair I had that had me telling people "you're going to have to pry this job out of my cold, dead hands" never actually truly ended.  It just became distracted, divided, and overridden.  Fear for the future is fear for the future, no matter now much reward you get from a day's work, and I was afraid.

Though my reasoning at the time was not precisely accurate, it IS true that with subsequent changes at my old department, the likelihood they would have been able to keep me is almost unthinkable.  My reasoning was based on old assumptions, but the outcomes were what I feared, and so the move was the right thing for me.  In short:  my group got smaller.

It might have been possible for me to stay in public service, to find a new niche in the same world - but I had to take care of myself, and the interviews I had there didn't promise exactly what I need.  And so, I left.

I happened to leave for a wildly different culture and employment, but it also happened that someone I'd known at Public Service Employer had pre-departed me for this place.

Today, I met a third person who's left that public service world for this new employer.

This is, for those who haven't heard of it:  talent drain.  It's the depletion of human resources in public service, which has occurred over a period of years of screeching that public servants "get" too much (as defined by those who get it all).  There has been a systematic insistence that government, civil, and administrative employees serving our economic and civic institutions are a drain on our economy - and the end result at this point is budgets so constrained that the men I worked for for my years at that job got not one raise - not only during my tenture, but even predating me by a year or two.  These are people dedicated to preserving the financial well being of the entire nation - and they're not starving - but we're doing nothing to "incent" (to use the corporate-speak term) their continuing service.  These are people who do what they do with no mean measure of pride and ambition, even if that ambition does not translate to the sort of thing coveted by those politicians and blowhards so eager to point fingers at MY former coworkers as entitlement junkies.

During my three and a half years in that job, our senior executive used to talk about retention of talent.  He went to pretty great lengths to see a project through and still maintain the talented team who implemented it - and, whether I turned my coat and left or not, whether I had faith or should have or not:  he was not wrong.  He would talk about the ridiculous waste of recruiting a team of the stellar talents our group brought to the table, and not holding on to those people.  And, whether it scared ME or not, I know to a unique degree just what he was fighting against in terms of budget constraints.  I saw some of the sacrifices asked, and I saw Isaac walk away from the stone.

I thought I might be the sacrificial goat at one point ... but I walked away too.

And that is the shame of it, the true pity of the sacrifices made by an entire, gargantuan nation's worth of *human* resources, who have been constrained and restrained from growth and held down by our economy's more difficult passages.  That those who could strengthen our important institutions are squeezed out - that the governments and agencies and infrastructure which once ran our country from the bottom up  have been denuded of the strength and talents of people like the woman I knew here before I left to come work here - like me - like the new person who's come over the wall - like that one guy I'd love to see "do better" than he can where he is.

There is a saying at my former employer.  "You don't get rich working working for *****."  I always followed that up with, "Yeah, but you don't get poor either."

That was true.  I wasn't suffering from penury - only from fear.

But life with no hope of riches - indeed, yes, financial wealth as much as the personal (it HELPS, it is relevant, it's not greedy to want to be able to fix up one's house, or buy a new car after ten years in an old one) - is a hard prospect most of us can't sustain.  I couldn't stick with it.  I'm not alone.

How long can our institutions go on, losing those talented teams and individuals who dedicate themselves to service?

How long can we forgo hiring the thousands of entirely deserving, and driven, and intelligent people who've been unemployed for so long their futures are tapped out?

How is it okay, for a nation so invested in pride ... to humiliate and to shame - and to drive out (... to drain ...) those who make it truly run?  Not the politicians, but the WORKERS, the servants, those whose pride is paid in fear and scorn and less and less hope of real reward?


Today is the made-up birthday for little (hah - HUGE) Miss Penelope, most beloved of baby girls.  She is theoretically two, though it's likely she's two and a month or possibly a bit more.  But she's my delight and my dear and my April Fool, so a big happy birthday to my puppy today.

Deliciously, today is Edible Book Day.   Well, they ARE among the most nutritious things we can consume - have you eaten a book today?

On this day (well ... depending on how you view the way we count dates!) in 527, Justinian I officially ascends as co-ruler with his ailing grandfather, Justin I.  Justinian plays a role in my WIP, though whether he'll actually appear remains to be seen.  Justinian was the subject of Procopius' salacious "Secret History" - but, let it be said, he'd already married the courtesan Theodora before his elevation or accession (later in 527).  So he did apparently have something of a taste for the wild side ...  He presided over riots and plague, built the Hagia Sophia, and in 535 his reign (and the world) was literally darkened and chilled for a period of years, kicking off that interminable period in history some ignorant folks still insist upon calling "the Dark Ages."  Talk about an April Fool's joke ...

Empress Theodora may have enjoyed Veneralia on this day, a festival and worship of Venus, goddess of love.

A very different Theodora indeed, the Saint, has her feast day on this day.  She shares it with St. Walric, who has two feast days.

April 1 is Islamic Republic day in Iran, and Fossil Fools day in North America.

Not so far from where I live, the Battle of Five Forks was fought in 1865, days before Lee's surrender on April 9 at Appomattox.

Apparently, Ali McGraw's birthday is today.  I grew up with one particular aunt who said I looked like Ali McGraw (this would have been in the early 70s, at the height of her success).  Certainly there are worse things to be told, but I have never been able to see a resemblance.

It's also Susan Boyle's birthday.  Happy returns to the lady who proved you don't need to be twenty-two, skinny, and blonde to get SOMEWHERE as a singer.

Happy Birthday also to Traci Lord.  Her actual, real birthday.  Joke was on them, wasn't it, Traci?  Ahem.

Deaths of the day include Scott Joplin and Marvin Gaye, and John Forsythe, known to my generation largely as a voice in a little speaker box.

And, finally.  Oh, April Fool's Day.  I love you.  Because I am going to tell myself these are jokes.