Talk Like a Girl

Consider Láadan, a conlang created by Suzette Haden Elgin. The grammar starts out with an essay that I find frankly laughable: that women can’t talk in English, essentially. The idea is that it’s too hard in pretty much any natural language to express the things women find important.

For one thing, it annoys me that what Elgin seems to think is important to women is primarily emotion and God. Then there’s the comment that, for “female” concepts, one must use a phrase instead of a single word, e.g. “sadness for good reasons, but about which nothing can be done”. So what? There are “male” concepts aplenty that need phrases (to make something up that she’d likely think appropriate, “the annoyance of being attracted to a woman who belongs to a more powerful man”), but that doesn’ t make it harder for men to talk about them. She then moves on to the blindingly stupid idea that, merely by learning to speak Láadan, women will change themselves so thoroughly that they’ll change the world too.
I’m not joking; she uses the idea in her series Native Tongue. Being able to speak the “womanlanguage” (no, I’m not omitting a space) makes the grindingly opressed female linguists so nifty that they can manipulate their husbands in the same invisible way their husbands manipulate non-linguists. From there they go on to a series of increasingly silly exploits such as planting undercover agents in nunneries, which end, in the completely incoherent Earthsong, with them discovering how to feed the world on music.

I wish I were exaggerating.

But back to Láadan itself. Having given us the idea of a nigh-mystical power inherent in her language, Elgin goes on to present us with something pretty pedestrian. It’s well enough done, as conlangs go; there are a number of ideas in it that are handy, like a particular sound, the lateral fricative lh (or ll, if you’re Welsh) that can be attached to any word to make it pejorative: with, woman; withelh, contemptible woman (which example, by the way, I have picked because it’s the only word I am sure of, being without my book). But then as one goes through the grammar one begins to notice the weirdnesses. “There’s no word in English for what a woman does during sexual intercourse.” Hell there isn’t; she fucks, or has sex, or makes love, just like her partner. The word in the lexicon with a three-paragraph definition that discusses the “average woman”–a sad sack who refuses to take responsibility for her own life, bewails her lack of control, and overeats to compensate. That the word for ‘cradle’ is derived from the word for ‘vagina’. That Elgin’s taken the good old Newspeak way of making antonyms: there’s no ‘young’, only ‘not old’, and ‘cold’ is ‘not warm’, and so forth. This isn’t to say the problems are unfixable, but I’m not personally all revved up to learn something that’s less useful than, say, Klingon. It may be a fine idea and a decent implementation, but I really can’t see anyone getting past the feminist-dichotomy “we’re utter victims who have the power to change the world” mindset to actually learn the language.

Oh,Be Serious

here’s an odd dichotomy between “taking things seriously” and “having fun” that I completely fail to understand. It’s like the one precludes the other, which seems to me to be entirely wrong.

For example, I’m pretty sure that most people take sex seriously. Does that mean they aren’t having a good time, aren’t enjoying themselves? Of course not. It doesn’t even mean that they are being serious–indeed, I have a hard time picturing someone being serious while engaged in an act as fundamentally silly-looking as sexual intercourse. I’m sure there were Victorians who managed it, and certain whackjobs who still do, but why expend that much effort? Take it seriously, sure; take the appropriate precautions, make sure you know what, or who, you’re getting into. But if it’s not a good time, you’ve missed the point. In the same vein, while sex should be a lot of fun, and can even be very funny, you should be sure that it’s something you’re doing for the right reasons–that is, you should take it seriously.

Similarly, consider a ballerina. She devotes huge amounts of time, effort, pain and attention to dancing, but if you ask her why she’s doing it she’ll tell you that she loves it, that it’s fun for her. She’ll tell you this even as her feet are bleeding.

Or the SCA. Those of us who don’t care for the more anachronistic of the Society’s practices–presenting the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch to the royals in court, wandering through an event in a Hello Kitty! patterned kosode, whatever–are often accused of being “too serious” and “spoiling all the fun”. We, meanwhile, are bewildered by this. Since when does taking something seriously keep people from having fun with it? Our problem is that the fun being generated comes from outside the context of the game, not that the game itself is being made fun; it’s like someone who loves model rockets bringing his pride and joy to a kite-flyer’s convention. While his rocket is fun, and some of the kite-flyers there might even belong to the model rocket club as well, the rocket is not the kind of fun the kite-flyers are there to have. He’d be better off developing a rocket-assisted kite.

Personally, I think that taking a thing seriously makes it easier to have fun with it. Somewhere in the back of your mind you’ve got to believe that Denetia Silverblade, paladin of Pelor, is real and important, because otherwise she’s just a bunch of numbers on paper. Nothing she does will make you laugh (or cry); nothing that happens to her will mean anything. And in that case, why not just play Parcheesi?

I’ll grant that there’s such a thing as taking it too seriously. People who believe every sexual encounter heralds Twoo Wuv (or communion with Deity, or whatever), ballerinas who ruin their health for their art, those famous, apocryphal idiots who berate newcomers for bad garb, kids who get despondent because their character was killed: these are people who are taking their respective games too seriously. They need to lighten the hell up; they have slipped from “taking it seriously” to “being serious”. But their opposites–the casual lecher, the girl who refuses to practice before her recital, the once-a-year-get-blasted-for-two-weeks SCAdians, the every-campaign-turns-into-farce gamers–aren’t any better.

I guess, at this late point, I should define what I mean by “taking it seriously”. It’s pretty simple: respect the rules of the game. If the rules of the game say that everyone must wear a blue hat, and you hate blue, you have two choices: respect the game and the other players by wearing a blue hat anyway, or don’t attend that game. A person who takes it seriously wouldn’t really consider showing up in a red hat, as that wouldn’t be within the rules. (I am deliberately excluding cases where your true purpose is to change the game, as that is a different kind of serious.) Basically, find out what kinds of fun your game is structured to facilitate, and have those kinds of fun. If there’s some other kind of fun you like better, go find the game that promotes it, rather than trying to shoehorn it into a game it doesn’t fit. Someone who takes chess seriously wouldn’t expect a chess game to provide the same kind of fun as listening to an opera, but that doesn’t make the chess game not fun; it makes it not an opera.

Pick your game. Take it seriously. Have fun with it.

If You Want Something Done Right

Why the hell do people pick up crafts if they’re not even going to try to do them well?

The reason this has been on my mind lately is the current popularity of knitting, which is plagued by a person I call the Perpetual Beginner. The PB annouces, breathlessly and (usually) with a lack of spelling, puncutation, or grammar, that she (it’s almost always she) has finished her 50th Fun Fur scarf, and was thinking of moving into something a little more challenging–does anyone have an easy pattern for a washcloth? No lace or anything, she’s still not too sure of her tension and doesn’t want to mess it up with yarnovers.

I want to make it clear that I’m not bashing people who knit simple things competently–my mom, for example, who’s done a lot of scaves lately as presents for her friends. Or the woman on the SCA tabletweaving list, who does yardage trim for sale: in her case, she’s using nonperiod techniques because that’s the only way she can weave fast enough to make it cost effective (and since only extreme geeks like me know the difference, and any tabletweaving is better than no tabletweaving, it’s not a big deal :)). Or those who use craftwork as essentially a meditation aid; simple is clearly better there.

The people I’m annoyed by are those who have done the garter-stitch scarf. 10,000 repetitions of the same simple movements later, they still don’t have–or claim to not have–enough control to maintain an even tension, enough skill to follow a simple cable pattern, enough savvy to realize there’s more than one way to do a decrease. They get on bulletin boards and ask ingenuously why their stockinette stitch is curling to the knit side; they want to have their hands held through the process of converting an in-the-round pattern into a flat one, because they know knitting in the round is just too hard (despite the fact that they’ve never actually tried it). OK, I respond, you are clearly too stupid to be allowed to breed. I realize I am a mutant, but I taught myself to knit lace at the age of approximately 10–surely a grown woman can handle knit three together?

It annoys me because these people are using their perpetual beginnerhood as a reason not to challenge themselves, while simultaneously burbling about how creative they are. Creativity does not lie in making endless permutations of the same thing; creativity is in stretching the boundaries of what you know and can do. It’s fine to feel a great sense of accomplishment upon finishing your first garter stitch scarf…but not your hundredth. On your hundredth, you should say, “Thank heaven that’s done, my niece’ll love it, time to do something interesting”. Or perhaps “That was a great movie; too bad the subtitling was out of synch.”

“Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.” In other words, if you’re going to invest your precious time into a thing, do it right. Swatch. Use a second needle to make the satin stitches lie flat. Get the best quality materials you can afford. Make sure your letters slant at the proper angle for the hand you’re using. Try substituting ginger, practice your scales, check that the hem is even, cut a piece that fits, rip it out and do it again.

It’s all right to not be good at a given thing. It’s OK to mess up because you’re still learning. What’s not all right is to be bad at it, and not care that you’re bad at it. If it’s something you just can’t learn, fine. Go do something else you can learn. Chirping mock-ruefully about how hapless and incompetent you are doesn’t cut any ice. Improvement does.

I’ve Got a Use for This

I’ve picked up the Neverending Tablecloth again, despite the fact that there’s a sock sitting around here somewhere half-done. In part I was inspired by another box from California, which included the book that the pattern’s in–I had forgotten how hard these patterns were to decipher, too, as the language varies between spelling every little thing out in excruciating detail and assuming that you’ll understand a vague allusion to “the last one”.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about the decorative versions of fiber art. Knitting, for example, can make perfectly functional things: sweaters, socks, bags. Of course it can also make frilly and decorative things like wedding ring shawls and beaded purses, but when it comes right down to it knitting is a Useful Skill. Other things in this category include weaving, crochet, sewing, netting.

Tatting really isn’t Useful. Everyone can live without lace edges on their pillowcases and snowflake Christmas ornaments. Even the Tablecloth would be more useful–that is, more likely to protect the surface of the table–if it were solid cloth rather than lacy. Tatting’s tougher than your average lace, making it theoretically suitable for garment construction, but nothing made solely of tatting is going to be particularly warm, protective, modest, or anything other than decorative. Indeed, the kind of dense work you’d have to do to make a useful tatted purse would really defeat the purpose of having it be tatted at all; you’d be better off using the thread to crochet with. I suppose one might make a tatted dishcloth…but then who would use it? The big techniques here are the various laces–tatted, bobbin, needle–beading, and embroidery. These are things you do to prove you had the leisure to do them, or have to prove you could afford to buy them.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for pretty for the sake of pretty. I think it’s a shame that the world today has so little concern for making things attractive; I think there’d be less graffiti if more walls had murals, and I’m highly in favor of whoever it was who decided that the lightpoles in my neighborhood needed to have flowers painted on them. There’s definitely a place in my worldview for embellishment.

But this, I think, is the reason that some techniques are never going to be big: in order to embellish something, you have to have a functional object first. A length of lace, no matter how beautiful, isn’t going to do any good without a dress to put it on; a pair of embroidered gloves is great, but you have to have the gloves first. And there are only so many pincushions, bookmarks, eyeglass cases, needle books, and wall hangings one person needs to own. A bridge-table cloth with the symbols of the suits in tatting is not an item that any sane person would consider a necessity of life; a pair of socks might be. There’s a great trade in “useful items to embellish”, like baby’s bibs made of evenweave fabric for the crosstitchers.

I do believe I’ve stumbled upon one of the reasons crafty people have a reputation for giving away their work: their own walls are already covered in Teresa Wentzler dragons, so to keep enjoying their craft they have to find other people to take the results. It also likely has something to do with the Victorian tendency to embroider or attach lace to anything that didn’t run away fast enough–here were all these middle- and upper-class women with nothing much to do but nonessential needlework, and after a while they started running out of obvious things to do with it.

I’ll Do It My Way

The following is going to sound elitist and judgemental, for the very good reason that it is elitist and judgemental.

Pennsic is not a pagan festival.

It’s not a frat party, either, nor a Gay Pride day, nor a science fiction convention, nor a leather group, nor even a Renaissance faire.

This being the case, there are a number of things that are inappropriate at Pennsic. They include, but are not limited to, the following: public drunkenness, day-glo orange clothing, ray guns, vampire teeth (if not in the context of a play or the like), headdresses with antlers on them (ditto), lightsabers, fairy wings, 18th century pirate or gypsy clothing, cellular phones (if you are not a doctor or someone else who needs to be on call at all times), pagers, instant-message gadgets, small kilts, Victorian corsets, S&M gear, and jack o’lanterns made from pumpkins.

The rules are that Pennsic is an event of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and that you’ve got to make an attempt at pre-17th-century clothing. If you don’t want to follow the rules, that’s fine; don’t come to Pennsic and you won’t have to.

Now, I am not saying that every single thing you posess must be handmade out of period materials, nor that people with glasses or wheelchairs should leave them in camp (though I should point out that I’m pretty damn nearsighted myself, and not being able to recognize a friend at a distance is just one of those things I live with every year). If something glaringly modern is necessary for your health, that’s peachy; if you really feel that wearing fabric that doesn’t breathe is the way to go in a Pennsylvania August, more power to you, though the chiurgeons probably don’t agree with you.

What I am saying is this: if you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game. There are other places where you can get roaring drunk with a crowd of buddies; there are other places where you can wear your Titania Queen of the Fairies outfit. Find them. Stop cluttering up my game with them, because in my game they don’t belong. Any why, you ask, should my game take precedence over yours? That’s easy: because my game is the one the description of the event says we’re there to play.

I suppose I’m just tired of people who treat wearing garb as equivalent to paying the gate fee: something you do to get in, because the inconvenience is worth it, rather than part of the fun.

I should like to point out that I have no problem with pagan festivals, frat parties, Gay Pride days, scifi cons, leather groups or Renfaires. But there are things that are perfectly fine in one context that are wrong in another, and assuming that Pennsic is just like a pagan festival because they both involve camping while wearing non-everyday clothes is going to lead you into a lot of problems–ask me sometime about Cat and Tiger, two of the less compatible campmates I’ve dealt with in my time.

So here’s the deal: a utility kilt and a tie-at-the-neck shirt is not an attempt at garb. Sorry. Neither is a baby-pink satin dress with built-in bodice, black lace trim, and handkerchief hem. Dressing like Captain Jack Bloody Sparrow may look cool, but it’s not medieval (nor particularly authentic to real pirates, though that’s beside the point), and neither are any of the various outfits worn by hobbits, Rohirrim, dwarves, elves, or Gondorians. A broomstick skirt and sports bra are also right out, aside from being immensely tacky. Do not wear your leather loincloth, no matter how ripped your abs. Do not wear your bellydancing outfit out of camp; I don’t know enough to know whether it’s period, but I do know you wouldn’t have been wearing it in the street, not with that much skin showing–unless you’re a whore, that is. Do not wear your Green Man hat, do not wear your pentacle or your triple-moon headband. Do not stop in the middle of the market to make a call. Do not make fun of people who don’t want to try your latest attempt at flavored alcohol poisoning. Do not lead your significant other around on a leash. Do not claim that I am spoiling your fun, as what you are calling “fun” is what I am calling “contrary to the charter of the event”.

(Digression: I was going to give the Tuchux a bye, because they aren’t playing the SCA’s game and have never claimed to, and besides they found the site, ‘way back in the mists of time. But then I thought about it, and it occurred to me that gratitude is great, and is probably a fine reason for them not to get an invitation to the world a few years ago when That Thing With Vlad happened, but there’s an old saying about when in Rome. The Chux can wear all the rabbit bikinis they like…in their own camp. Out in public they should dress like civilized people.)

Some people have said that the SCA’s greatest strength is its inclusiveness, and to an extent that’s true. What perturbs me is that “inclusive” seems to have been defined as “having no right to enforce or indeed posess any standards”, and that’s not OK. It’s time for some standards, and while I don’t imagine that I’m going to manage to change the world (or even the SCA), I’m going to say right now that I’m done looking the other way, making excuses, and tolerating the assholes who are spoiling my fun, thank you very much.

Does this mean I’m going to accost newbies on the street, telling them their garb sucks? Of course not. Unlike the many stories of the dreaded Garb Snark–an extremely rare if not actually mythical beast–I am not interested in going out of my way to be rude to people. Not to mention that most of the people in bad garb aren’t actually newbies; they just don’t care. I’m tired of it. New Age political correctness to the contrary, some things are better than others, and one of the things that is better is playing the game you volunteered to play. If you don’t want to play it, you don’t have to; but if you show up in armor, expect to get hit.

A Who What Now?

One of the jobs I’d like to apply for in the county requires both a cover letter and a writing sample. Cover letter I can do, no problem, but what in this context is a “writing sample”? Am I to philosophize upon the transmutation of lead into gold? Should I try to explain some complex process, such as creating a D&D character? Should I write about why I want the job (and if so, isn’t that the realm of the cover letter, explicitly requested)? Or maybe they want my musings about office management. I have no idea, and no way to find out, really, which leaves me unable to apply for the job despite the fact that I have the required degree in “Communications, Political Science, Journalism or related field”.

Things That Make Me Cry

  • The Lady of Shallot, Loreena McKennit
  • The Highwayman, same singer
  • Some Kind of Hero
  • Christmas in the Trenches
  • Lady Jane
  • Embarassing as this is to admit, Balto
  • Titanic, at least the first time I saw it.