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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn


cropLet's pivot a bit, just clear out some links.

One of my favourite psychologists, Robert Sapolsky, makes an argument that facebook is like Capgas syndrome, in which the sufferer believes that the people in their lives have been replaced by an exact duplicate. His explanation of the various brain systems involved with recognition and memory that make this peculiar (and very distressing) syndrome are fascinating, but I guess I'll have to read the article another time or two; cuz I'm absolutely not seeing the connection he's advocating between this condition and the different ways people experience their face to face and other (letters, telephone, media) more attenuated ways.

(Honestly, it sounds like he wanted to write about Capgas, which is fascinating, and his editor said, yeah, sure, but you gotta work in something about the way fb is destroying humanity if you wanna get it published. Which sucks, but is, I understand, a fact of life. Go read his books instead, they're cool. I mean, Zebras Don't Get Ulcers —even the title is delightful.)

Hey, today's page is No. 3300. This is my way of celebrating, cuz I'm a bit weird.


cropO hai, now we can take a break from bigotry towards Black people and focus on trans folk instead (bearing in mind, of course, that some are both) courtesy of JK Rowling. Just about everyone else has had more and better-written reactions to this news—after all, Harry Potter was the big engine of modern, internet based fanfic, i.e. writing.

I could've sworn I'd written, somewhere, that, like Charles N. Brown, the for-many-years venerable editor and publisher of Locus (the sf&f book trade mag) I considered the Harry Potter books decent if serviceably written fantasy, particularly the earlier ones, which are firmly based in the British genres of school stories and children's fantasy (of which there are better examples in both by other authors.) But she was writing the right thing at the right time, and it took off.

Good on her! It got kids reading, opened up YA fantasy for lots more authors, and it created a huge fandom that reacted by buying the books and movies and merch but really, by writing.

Fans engaged the books, the films, the characters, and even the worldbuilding through incredibly rigourous critique—both traditional essay type, or more usually, via fanfic, which someone once called “full-contact literary criticism”. Most of all, they created a huge, sometimes contentious, but often welcoming community, especially for otherwise marginalized people, particularly kids.

Because of that community, one of the things I truly appreciated about Rowling was her relatively benign approach to fanfic; that, and the hugely popular films, combined to make a quantum leap from the sort of achievement that Star Trek fanficcers (via zines), let alone Sherlockians, had historically managed to achieve. —I was a part of that, (albeit on the fringes) falling into it nearly accidentally, writing two books back to back during the summer of ’09 that, in retrospect, were more of a celebration of our household's (beginning of) pulling out of the 2008 recession than anything else.

The latter one is still the best novel I ever wrote.

F2tE, also deep into HP fanfic, had urged me to try writing gay characters. I did try, but actually the protags of both stories were trans. And why wouldn't they be? I mean, magic to transform into other animals means that surely just about every curious kid with any talent at all must at least tried switching sex?

(I, personally, do not really feel entitled to claim the label ‘trans’ for myself, though I don't think I'm cis—I liked being called Sir by accident, would go for the X designation on my passport and other forms in a heartbeat & think Mx is a great idea [so, um, mildly nonbinary?]—but my characters, especially the mary-sues [i.e. author inserts], have pretty much been trans in one form or another for about...the last 40 years.)

It's kind of telling that I had to make up laws in my AU universe against sex-switching behaviour, because I couldn't think of any other reason it wasn't absurdly common practise; and the societal mores restricting the Magic Users to being either Wizards or Witches, with no gender neutral term for both, (or someone who was neither) would seem to indicate that the prohibitions were severe.

I was hardly the only person to notice these problems, but I suppose the many trans/queer/PoC/other marginalized folk who did, hoped, as I did, that the author with time would get over the problematic stuff, and slowly improve. It's been a vain hope.

Now, more sadly than ever.

When the world sucks so hard, it's just ...awful that this solace was taken away. —I'm so sorry, for every one of you who has to listen/read/experience this crap. Here is the beginning of a doodle series, the sort of thing I make when listening to frustrated trans vloggers rant over stupid bigotries such as Rowling's.


cropOne of the things I'm really missing this spring (and summer) is camping.

My parents camped on their honeymoon-cum-journey to their new home (specifically, my mom had a job as a speech therapist lined up in a city several hundred miles from her hometown, where she married my dad in front of the huge mirror that still has pride of place at my youngest sib's house.) They camped all during my childhood, with an army surplus canvas tent, the classic white-gas coleman stove, those wretched blow-up mattresses and a big red cooler.

My spouse and I also camped on our honeymoon, and like our parents before us, continued to mostly experience vacations and camping as roughly synonymous.

I look forward to it every year; for many years, it was really the only time I felt free to sketch and paint watercolours, typically of the flowers, mushrooms, etc. all around us. I even camped, by myself, when I went to the Louisville Gathering (the ISGB's annual gathering of glass beadmakers). It was lovely, though some people asked if wasn't I afraid of being alone? Oh no, sez I, that's just horror movies (which I mostly don't watch) being shot in state parks or national forests cuz it's cheap. It's really quite safe to go camping.


It's quite safe to camping if you're white. I had of course been aware, for some time, that historically, blacks didn't go camping back in the 50s and 60s, when my parents first started; I'd heard of the Green Book, and some resort or other where you could, sort of, go camping While Black, but with the onset of greater equality, it had gone defunct.

But I thought things were mostly better now. (“now”, in my perception of ever more rapidly passing time, is anything from about the last thirty years or so, i.e., when I started to truly experience life as an adult.)

I certainly hadn't realized that Camping while Black was still unsafe well into the 1990s—at least, in Michigan, which hello, is not a southern state. (Or that Howell, up to this point linked in my mind as merely the home of the rather dull and unprofitable art fair associated with Howell Melon Festival, was at that time (late 80s) a hotbed of KKK activity! There's that white privilege again, the luxury to be totally, completely oblivious.)

This sucks. There's a special balm in hanging out in a peaceful forest, that I can best describe as my soul, or spirit or subsconscious just ...unrolling. Unfurling in ease. Nothing, but nothing so reliably causes the stresses to drop away as hiking on a forested trail; this has actually been confirmed by research.

Research has also confirmed that the many stresses exacerbated by racism have led to generally higher levels of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure in the Black community, just the sort of thing that would be soothed (by people who into nature, which admittedly is not everyone!) by camping. It really galls me that they don't feel safe to do this lovely thing that brings me so much joy.

(Oddly enough, art, though it's engaging, doesn't typically function the way blissing out in nature does: too demanding. But I can, sometimes, forget future worries and the like, when focused on it. Especially when attempting to master new techniques, as with this week's series of peony watercolours.)


cropHuh, stalled out again on Thursday.

A friend of mine called me up to do that coronavirus check-in thing that I, tactless creature that I am, have mostly been too oblivious self-centered to do.

During our convo, she asked me if I had any idea why her son thought she would object to his participating in a BLM protest; her only worry, really, was that he might get hurt and since the kid lives & was planning to protest in [Big City] in which police violence had so worried f2tE, this was a perfectly valid concern.

I cautiously enquired whether she was still a Trump supporter. Yes, she replied, she thought he was doing a good job. (Okaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy...)

So ever since that conversation I've been trying to figure out how to phrase, in such a way that it would reach her, the following:

Well, you see, from a progressive point of view, to which the BLM is broadly aligned (let's leave the problems Blacks have with liberal whites aside for the moment, acknowledging that it's an issue) Donald Trump is a sexist, racist, and appallingly corrupt vortex of unfillable need for adulation, a pathetic human being desiring above all to be the strong-man dictators he admires (such as Putin); and who would like nothing more than crush the movement with military (& unconstitutional) force.

Moreover, those same liberals’ understanding is that while the GOP tolerates Trump, the elites of both parties are under no illusions that Trump is not erratic (& getting more so) and incompetent to the point of barely being able to function as a figurehead, (e.g. stay on message, i.e., at least go through the motions of pretending to be sorry for a man's death in the face of a highly stressed nation or do a simple photo op without screwing it up royally, etc) never mind actually govern (hello, coronavirus!); or that the GOP has doubled down, hard, on their Southern strategy, by not disavowing Trump (many fine people on both sides.) because the pols get judges and the super-elites get millions in tax breaks.

So, inasmuch you're not just holding your nose and saying, but, ‘The Stock Market, I mean, Economy!’ but actually claiming the guy's doing a good job—signalling, you're all in, and have been, ever since you picked 45 back in the primary—why, how can you blame the kid for assuming that you would actually align with Trump's horrifically racist views?

Some months or more likely years ago I was very struck by a post in which a Black person wrote the following, (broadly paraphrased from memory, the stuff in brackets or parentheses added by me):

When someone [Black] criticizes you [for saying/writing/doing something racist], stop with the defensiveness, and pay attention, because they are giving you a gift.

“A gift!”, you screech. “This stings. It hurts. (Here I am, doing my best to be a good ally/white person/blah, blah, blah, why can't you give me a cookie be nice?)”

“Yeah, well. We hurt all the time. They are being nice, because they have taken the effort, amongst all that pain and stress, to tell you that you've screwed up. That means, they haven't written you off. They don't waste their time, otherwise. That means, they think there's still a chance that you might learn, and do better.

“So listen. Pay attention. Learn. Do better.”

I'm terrible at not getting defensive. Like so much of this website, this page is a reminder...not for my friend, for whom I've still not figured out to frame this communication, but me.(2)

I wished I'd saved that little essay; but mebbe if I had, I would've promptly forgotten it.

(As it happens you practise not being racist, just like you practise art. And speaking of practise, here are some watercolour sketches.)

(1)Some wag characterized the current administration sharply and succinctly: We're experiencing the 1918 flu pandemic, the 1929 Great Depression and the 1967 Riots all at once. Heck of a job, Donnie.

(2)Specifically, when someone with less power than you takes the trouble to criticise, listen: I hope it doesn't need to be said that abusers, who have more, are obviously gonna gaslight their victims.


cropIn tracking down the original link for yesterday's page about trees, I found another link about racism and its effects on urban design. —I live in a small town that is about a third black, and much of that history is mostly still erased (none of the history I'm going to discuss makes any appearance whatsoever on the city's wikipedia page, for example.)

I live in the midwest, relatively near one of the termini of the railroad routes documented in Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration; but even before that, my little town, back in the 1800s, was literally the state's epicenter of Black Culture, agitation and history. Frederick Douglass lectured in a downtown building now selling artisanal clothes; f2tE lives near the most historic church of our town's Black Community; our town sent volunteers to the Civil War.

All is not rosy, however. Once upon a time, Black folks lived distributed throughout the city's five wards; the color line (still de facto as late as the 1970s) gradually restricted them to one, on the southeastern end, where the bulk still live today; and, like the cities documented in the Citylab article when the eastern exit for the interstate was installed, the thriving black business district was torn apart to make way for it. —I'd like to think that the planners didn't deliberately destroy this community, now documented in a few signs onsite for the bits that remain, but merely razed it because those people in the way had the least amount of political clout to resist. Now? I don't know.

There are other inconveniences written into our geography, such as the fact that there is not, really, a way to walk downtown south of “Main Street” from the NW side, where I live: that is because there is a large block of land, originally an orchard, then made a neighborhood for fearful whites who designed it, basically, to have only one way in and out, so you can't really traverse through it, because they didn't want black people to be able to walk through it. (It's now mostly black, an irony not lost on the historian who discovered this.)

Freeways are really destructive for communities: I still recall the long, hard battle white suburbs of Detroit fought against the northern (sort of) ring road, I-696, for precisely this reason. Though they ultimately failed to prevail, they did wring some concessions, such as wide, park like bridges, noise abatement, and the like, that, needless to say, the black community here was unable to muster. —Before our dear uni upgraded their power plant to make ongoing noise, I could hear the freeway that broke our city's black business community in the dead of night, even though it's well over a mile from my house. (So imagine how the mostly black folks living in subsidized housing, located practically on top of it, must feel...) I have, on average, gone to the main, big branch of our district library less than once a year, because it is on the other side of the freeway, and there is really no safe way to walk or cycle over the bridge. It's great that the cute little local (& very historic) branch gets stuff in a day from there, but I miss being able to browse the big collections.

We have two roads, one going north and other south, into and out of town from that exit, with several residential streets between, some of which have aggressive speed bumps to discourage through traffic. But why would people trouble with them, with these other, faster (i.e. no stop signs) more direct routes available? Oh, someone living there explained, because cops pull (black) people over when they're driving on those, so they detour through the neighborhoods; and then the (white...?) residents, in order to discourage the additional (black...?) traffic, asked for speed bumps.

As someone who detests through traffic coming through my street, I get it. But all this could be avoided a) by not pulling people over for Driving While Black and b) strengthening public transportation for everyone (meaning, white people would have to share trains and busses and subways with PoC, the horror...but, yanno, there are ways to give people greater comfort and privacy without just throwing hands up in the air and declaring it impossible.)(1)

It took a trained historian to find—and a community oriented library branch to fund, provide a venue and publicize—these injustices. They permanently scar our city. I watched, for years, while our Oakland county prosecutor, L Brooks Patterson did his best to destroy Detroit. He hated it. (Still does, evidently.) —Yet, ever so slowly, Detroit is coming back. (So is my city, which hit its nadir in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was in school.)

The Renaissance of Detroit actually started about a decade ago; and the disbanding of the Minneapolis Police Department, with a tentative roadmap for a more community activated process, gives me hope (even though I wouldn't be at all surprised if it crashes and burns, they revert back to cops, lather, rinse and repeat over multiple iterations before finally settling on a more humane approach. Progress is often slow.)

That said, there's still a long slog ahead.

Speaking of which, I saw some improvements in today's watercolour. But it to represents provisional improvement, and a long slog ahead.

(1)But what about people who don't like sitting in close quarters with strangers? “Suck it up, buttercup,” only goes so far, especially for introverts/women who don't wanna cope with manspreaders (& worse)/quiet people who detest noise/additional subsets to which I belong. Well—this is a problem that can be nicely solved with money. When I rode the shinkansen (really any of Japan's trains, but especially the bullet trains) we had these lovely seats with plenty of room, tray tables, charging outlets, wifi, etc. Nice windows, too, for looking outside. They provided enough privacy and comfort that I preferred them even to being driven by someone else, because the benefits—faster travel, greater comfort, on-board toilets, being able to stand and stretch—far outweighed the downsides of having other people in the car. But, of course, everyone in Japan, not just poor PoC, travels on its trains, so they make them nice.

Being crammed in like sardines, however, for more than a few minutes, suuuuuucks. Granted, it's gonna take some effort to get USians to be polite while talking on their cell phones, or even chatting on public transportation; Japanese whisper while on Shikansen doing the former, and take care to be quiet for the latter—but we could certainly make an effort to insist on such etiquette— provided it were applied equally, to the rich old white businessman as well as the young, boisterous poor kid of colour.


cropOne of the links I found while doing the Black Lives Matter intros was a much smaller story about planting trees in Detroit. I grew up in Detroit(1) and have vivid memories of the many elm trees lining our street: the rippling shadows during the summer as the breeze drifted through them; the whine of cicadas (that I thought was some sort of mysterious factory—I didn't realize it was animals) and the truck that came through, annually, with its swinging nozzle, spraying poisonous grey gas in what would prove to be a vain attempt to kill the beetles responsible for Dutch Elm disease.

So many trees are gone now—the chestnuts, which, when lost, were thought to have a major impact on the Appalachian mountain folks’ independence, contributing to their having to take the dangerous mining jobs; the elms; and now Emerald Ash Borers are decimating those. I've returned, a few times, to that old neighborhood, and green cathedral arch of trees shading the old homes are gone, making the place desolate and harsh to my eyes.

So why, having lost these gracious trees (which in addition to gentling the harsh summer sun also pull pollution and cool summer temps) would people turn down free trees? Yet, when offered such, many Detroit residents did. Some of their concerns wouldn't be obvious to people living with properly functioning local governments, which plow the streets in winter, and remove dead trees on city property (the strip between sidewalk and street, where these were to be planted.) Taking down a large tree can easily run to four figures, not the kind of money people living in my old neighborhood could easily find. I have unfond memories of the wizard attempting to remove a large limb with a chainsaw, never mind a whole tree. Like most people we simply lived in hope that the trees would not drop branches (or fall entirely) on our cars (or worse, homes) during the inevitable ice storms.

But their real complaint was that none of the would be do-gooding environmentalists asked whether, in fact, the residents wanted trees. And most fascinating to me was what the writer called ‘competing heritage narratives.’:

A couple of African-American women Carmichael talked to linked the tree-planting program to a painful racist moment in Detroit’s history, right after the 1967 race rebellion, when the city suddenly began cutting down elm trees in bulk in their neighborhoods. The city did this, as the women understood it, so that law enforcement and intelligence agents could better surveil their neighborhoods from helicopters and other high places after the urban uprising.

The city was chopping down trees at a faster clip at this time. And the city was flying helicopters over their homes at one point—to spray toxic DDT from above on the trees. However, the government’s stated reason for the mass tree-choppings was that the trees were dying off from the Dutch elm disease then spreading across the country. These were competing heritage narratives of the same event—the clearing away of trees in the 1960s. The two narratives are in conflict, but it was the women’s version, based on their lived experiences, that led to their decision to reject the trees today. It’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.

I've been posting a lot of NYT links because I currently have a subscription, so it doesn't cost me extra to look at a lot of articles. But one headline I barely bothered even to click because it was so self-evidently obvious to me—something along the lines of COVID-19 and BLM being separate narratives. They weren't, the writer said, because racism is so deeply entertwined with the much poorer outcomes PoC are having with the virus. —And so it was here: I'd pretty annoyed too, if the city came in, bulldozed the sapling I already have and the garden I've planted just so they could install some tree (without consultation on the species or location) without discussing the matter first.

But add in a history of discrimination, and, well. It's not that these ladies want to see racism in every encounter they have with white people, any more than I want to see sexism in my interactions with men. It's that we can't escape those suspicions because of past, bad history.

In this case, some progress has been made. More people were brought in to act as liaisons, folks who actually lived in the neighborhoods. I'd like to think, next time I go to see my childhood home, or the house I lived in Detroit, shaded by the trees they once had.

Today's peony is not, however, a tree peony.

(1) Technically I grew up in an ‘inurb’ of Detroit; but later when I did move into the city—about 4 or 5 miles due west, iirc, of my childhood home, it was pretty similar.