Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sins of omission

Somehow in my voracious hoovering up of all things Golden Age SFian (as we all know, Bob, the Golden Age is from 12 to 13), I entirely missed Frederik Pohl's work. Sure, he may've snuck in as a short story here or there, since our basement library, where my mother's meticulously organized science fiction shelf—alphabetical by author for standalone novels, year of publication for anthologies and Amazing Stories back numbers—had its share of bricklike Year's Bests. But he never really stuck out (and my habit of ignoring bylines didn't help), so I glided past him with little more than name recognition.

A few years ago, though, Pohl spoke at the National Book Festival, mostly humoring questions about what Robert Heinlein was like and seeing the tent fill up with Neil Gaiman fans hunting for advance seats. He was thoroughly gentlemanly and, though obviously getting on in years, sharp and gracious, not to mention funny as hell. I promptly started haunting the used bookstores, huffing dustmites and getting gleefully confused by his Heechee books; of course if we encountered alien technology, we would spend the first thirty years trying to figure out which bits of it were valuable and which were junk food wrappers. I didn't want to slap the narrator halfway across the room, he used Ya as an initial for the character's Russian wife (too many people would've used Y), and the people in his stories seemed three-dimensional even after they'd crossed the event horizon in black holes. I've been kicking myself about the missed chances ever since.

And now, come to find out, he's got a blog. God bless the future; it's not everything we hoped for, but in some ways it is much much more.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What's up with that thang?

It's something of a relief to find that we're not the only delegation in Morelia who fretted about the local violence. We've been updating our senior staff daily about the state of affairs, and we've quizzed various hotel employees, merchants, and Marcos, the most patient driver who has ever chauffeured American visitors about the city, only to hear that the problems, while acute, do not generally seem to involve the civvies. It's a give-and-take limited largely to encounters between the forces of law and those of chaos; those not buying/selling/trading/transporting drugs or attempting to interfere with same seem to have been left mostly (though, tragically, not always) alone. But even attendees from within Mexico were worried, and most of them have been quite relieved by the situation now that they're here. Things downtown are so resolutely mellow that it's hard to remember that there are concerns.

Morelia has a beautiful soaring 17th-century cathedral in the middle of town, flanked by twin plazas that serve as the center of social life for the residents. On Saturday nights, the town sets off fireworks before illuminating the cathedral's facade and towers, and there is general festivating. In honor of our conference, the town added another pre-illumination fireworks show, this one on Thursday night. The main drag was closed to road traffic, smoochy couples and young families thronged the street, teenagers in vaguely colonial costume handed out fliers for a living history production, and music about the rockingness of being from Michoacán pulsed over the speakers. At a prearranged moment, the lower windows of the cathedral began to strobe red and yellow, the music soared, and fountains of white fire rose from the front gates, then the central facade, and then the towers; mortar shells in the plazas rose into the sky, whistling sharply and exploding into flecks of gold and green. The display went on for about five minutes, everyone craning to see the showers of color directly overhead, and then it was over and we joined a line to get into the cathedral to hear a concert. Nota bene: The Orquestra Juvenil de Morelia does astonishing things; their "Marche Slav" was amazing and the organist's rendition of the "Toccata and Fugue" was masterful.

We were all very chuffed to have gone. But this morning, one of the hosts relayed a story to us that made us feel as though our preemptive worrying had been very small taters. "I talked to an attendee this morning, and he said, why there was nothing in the news this morning or warnings to the members? Because he was out last night near the plaza before the concert, and the police had closed the road, and then he heard shootings! He says this is a very dangerous place." Somehow the flocks of people heading cheerfully toward the explosions did not suggest that perhaps he was overreacting.

Of course, if you are a defenseless pineapple, mango, or jicama root, this is indeed a violent area. The gaspacheros show no mercy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Behind pink walls, somewhere there's a blog

ARGH. I forgot to bring my camera cord, which means no uploading of photos until I get back. I'm taking them like a mad thing, though sadly I did not catch the dyslexic bus labeled "Colectivo Moerlia," being at the time too busy trying to both process the semiotics of a Mexican-style chibi Virgin of Guadalupe helium balloon and not spill my gaspacho, a cupful of chopped jicama, mango, and pineapple mixed with lemon and lime juice and layered with salt, chili pepper, and finely shredded queso blanco, a snack so sublimely juicy and generously scooped that it's served in a cup inside a plastic bag.

TRAVEL IS SO MUCH FUN, Y'ALL. And I shouldn't shout, because it's annoying and it makes the altitude headache (which, fine, I am an outlier for having one at a measly 6,000 feet, but oh God knowing that does not help) worse. But they make the Coke here with pure cane sugar instead of our agrosubsidized corn syrup, and I've seen a dude with a mullet dyed electric blue, and the Key limes stuffed with sugared coconut cost about ten cents. Some shouting is warranted. VIVA!

Friday, August 14, 2009

In haste, for I am laggardly and sick of packing

Is there any DNA evidence that The Park Bencher and I might be sekrit Siamese twins? Because I'm starting to wonder. She has yet to post any woebegone moans about missing the chance to see Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, and Paul Krugman at the same Worldcon party, which one can only assume was epic and healed hundreds of undeserving Canadians, but E-doppelganging.

The postponed-for-swinely-flu trip to Mexico is back on, and I leave tomorrow. Concerns about violence in the state, which is earning itself a name for drug-related shootings, have been somewhat assuaged by the assurances that the bullets are targeted at authority figures who've had the nerve to interfere with local entrepreneurial efforts and have studiously been aimed away from tourists, which, I think you will agree, is among the most conditional reassurances ever. Nonetheless, we have agreed to endeavor to avoid finding ourselves in a position to make any trouble for the area businessfolk, or indeed to involve ourselves in their endeavors or draw their attention in any way. Don't mind us, we'll soon be gone.

Y'all be good.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The things we carried

Turns out it's a good thing that I'm on my new kick of not leaving the house without a bullet-proof layer of SPF Avogadro's Number, because mosquito-repellent toxicity can maybe get me instead.

I spent six weeks during the summer before senior year working at an archaeology field school in Alaska's squashy bush country. Taiga, or huge flat stretches of land where the permafrost level is about 6 inches below the surface, is mosquito-breeding heaven: With almost no hills to speak of, drainage is minimal, and water that doesn't make it to one of the slow-moving rivers ends up pooling in large shallow ponds on top of the frozen zone, broken up somewhat by muskeg, a squodgy mass of vegetation that has been described as feeling like wet mattresses. Mosquitos breed there in astronomical numbers, providing a bountiful food source for the local avifauna and attacking anything warmblooded without mercy. 

Most of Alaska's wildlife is at least somewhat protected by thick bushy fur, so given the choice between trying to find a landing place on a bear's snout and diving for unprotected human flesh, the average Anopheles alaskabastardicus will invite three million of her fellows to join the Homo sapiens buffet. Oh, and due to circumstances beyond our control, we spent a night and most of two days without a netted outhouse. Our bare bums must've seemed like Christmas to the skeeters, and we all swiftly lost our senses of humor about bites in private places. We spent the six weeks in a permanent haze of Deep Woods Off, pure deet smeared on our clothes, and incense-like smoke from mosquito coils, which contain some sort of insect neurotoxin that probably doesn't do much good for humans. From where we sat, slapping incessantly at the bugs, going without some sort of chemical protection would've been the road to madness. Even our two vegans weren't above cheering the deaths of our hungry tormentors.

Obviously deet isn't really good for you, though it was the lesser of two evils. As we packed up, one of the other students grimaced, "I have a new baby niece to meet when we get home. Better hit the sauna for a few days first; if I touch her now, I think she'll shrivel up like plastic in the microwave." We did end up spending quality time in the McGrath firejumpers' sauna, trying to sweat out all the toxins in the haze of menthol-oiled steam (and the story about how that evening involved meeting various locals whilst mutually nekkid was funnier after the fact). Maybe it worked: Sarah's niece survived her first encounter with her aunt.

I'm still going with sunblock. Should the fates call me back to the bush in high summer, too, I'm still bringing the Off.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

It's not a tumah

Hey, guys, know what I'm going to be a lot more careful with in the future? Sunblock. 

As a responsible if reluctant adult, I went in for my annual dermatology check-up so that no Japanese Fighting Moles can steal a march on me. I don't tan for fun, but I rock the pseudo-Victorian pallor that is my birthright without always slopping on some SPF or pulling on a hat, and of course there's the tiny fact that I let some irresponsible types nuke my chest for a few weeks.

ANYWAY.  A few weeks ago, I noticed an oddly textured patch on my left cheek, and when the dermatologist took a look at it she announced that it was either a very odd-looking oil gland or an early basal cell carcinoma. I glared at her: "And by basal cell carcinoma you actually mean an early-stage, surgically treatable tumor with clear margins that'll be no problem at all to resolve, RIGHT?" She blinked. "Right." "Okay then. Biopsy that sucker." "You're not...upset?" "What, over something that'll be easily got rid of? No." And, oddly, that wasn't a lie; give me something uncomplicated with an easy solution, and I'm a happy camper.

The most unpleasant part of the biopsy was the anesthetic, because for some reason our hindbrains react poorly to the sight of a needle anywhere near our faces, and because even with a skilled needlesmith (as the nurse was), lidocaine itself burns like fire. Four slightly abraded minutes later, I was out the door, wishing that beauty spots were still de mode, because on whom, exactly, are those peach-colored bandaids inconspicuous? 

The office called the next week to say the magic b-word, and if the phone slipped out of my hands because I'm bathing in SPF 45 these days, who is to blame me?