Monthly Archives: April 2012

Memoirs Made of Dreams: The Contrarian’s Nightmare

Life was happy and, somehow, bland in the oasis of the university campus. Green lawns cascaded toward buildings colored like desert mountains: tile red, yarrow, grays and greens and dusky-sunset blues. But that’s simply to set the scape of the dream, where imagination creates, not mere desert willows, but willows that enliven their narrow leaves and pink blooms, whose pods rattle wildly in the brush of hot wind.

The blandness bled from my mind. This was my life, my dream world: children, husband, and extended family sought comfort in numbers while they tossed bread to absurdly mean geese stampeding around the campus pond. No, this wasn’t the life I had always dreamed of, but the life that filled me when asleep, which is an important distinction to make.

In due time, my father-in-law spotted the name of the game show painted down the sides of the vans, all parked together near our vehicle. We were thus enlightened to the actual purpose of my dream: The Traveling Debate Show, a PBS venture, had finally found its way to the back cactus acres off the NM I 25, and hoards of hopeful locals gathered. They were the best, the brightest, or simply wanted a stab at a TV appearance.

Dad, Dad-in-Law, and Husband mocked the show. The debaters consisted of three groups–the Default Show-Host plants, the Intellectual Elites, and the average citizenry who occasionally conquered the debates, to the chagrin of the PhDs. The three men in my life mocked the show for its falseness, claiming it was an unreality show meant to subvert average people, to convince them they weren’t capable of rational debate, even though average people stuck to arguing the established positions. And still they lost, unless the directors needed to push forward a smart Joe or sassy Nancy to further entrap the viewing audience into watching again and again, rooting for Nancy-Joe-Junior-Jones-Smith-Chavez.

“I want to sign up,” I said.

“You’d better get in line quick, then.” Husband’s voice stung me with its dry skepticism.

Feeling small and silly, I joined the throngs and added my name to the list: — In my sleeping world, I’m an unnamed individual, a blank scrawl on a signature line. With every last drop of sweat-born courage [it was June or July and HOT], I informed the registrar that I chose to enter as an oppositional debater. I would take the Contrarian position, rather than the mainstream one.

“You don’t want to do that,” the registrar said. “Average people don’t sign up for the oppositional position. The only people who win that side are the PhDs.”

Inside, my heart quailed, but on the outside, I insisted. The Contrarian was my archetype. I couldn’t play any role but that one. Being perversely obstinate came naturally to me.

“O.K.,” the registrar said, and he put pen to paper and signed me up, directed me to my debate table where I filled out a myriad of disclaimers while my Default Show-Host waited, bored.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “Average people aren’t usually capable of debating the opposite viewpoint.”

I stared at him–at his clear eyes, brown hair, at the honest and instinctual appearance of his face. At essence, he was the archetypal image of Husband. No, I wasn’t sure at all that I wanted to do this. But I would carry on with it for the perverseness of the venture.

“They’ll bring us our topics in a few minutes. We may or may not get on camera,” he warned.

My contradictory nature couldn’t decide whether being on camera would be a negative or a positive. As my gut cramped, my mind warred between I want to be famous! and I want to be anonymous! Eventually, a harried woman in a lavender suit brought us two slips of paper with our debate topics. No cameraman or equipment appeared, and that fulfilled my expectations, at least. Average No-Name with Default Show-Host weren’t where the action was at.

Much to my non-surprise, the slips of paper were both blank and bore our topics at the same time. I knew as I stared at the little words not written there that I didn’t stand a chance of winning as a Contrarian. I couldn’t debate against these topics. How could I? They were too ordinary, and I would appear a fool.

As dreams go, the actual debate, where the climax of the dream should have played out, was a blur. I lost. But the details of my failure were missing because it was the expected result. The topics didn’t matter, and neither did the syllogisms. After it was over, Default Show-Host pretended that we’d had a good fight to the finish. He practically patted me on the head–in fact, I think he did. He patted me on my golden blonde hair [my hair hasn’t been that blonde since childhood], and he reassured me: “Average people don’t ever win the contrary argument. You did fine.”

Of course, my dream self shrugged the loss aside and buried the smallness I felt. I shrank inside my Wal Mart clearance rack t-shirt and convinced myself that the topics were wrong, that going against an instinctual male would never merit me accolades, that I still possessed a deeply intelligent half to my psyche. I was still a true Contrarian.

As I write this account of my dream world, many obvious interpretations leap out at me. And yet, I wonder if the true meaning is hidden in the same way that the PhDs were hidden throughout. In my imagination, I’m able to conjure a vision of the Intellectual Elites, with their dry shirts and sharp, wicked eyes framed by wire glasses. But they aren’t in the scape. Nothing in my mind brings them to life–no rattles of pens or the shaking of paper leaves, or the seeds of oppositional knowledge meeting the desert wind.

At the finale, I left the debate show, and the extended family went off for barbecue, and I followed along behind them, unsettled. A piece of me is still left in that dream.


Have We Castrated Christian Fiction?

The other day–for no apparent reason–I researched the functions of the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex. Okay, my research wasn’t entirely random, but sprang from an article I’d read, which theorized that behavioral traits are related to the right or left dominance of the amygdala and the OFC. Already aware that behavioral traits don’t necessarily have gender associations, I asked myself, “But aren’t male and female amygdalas different and, if so, how does this relate to personality and the differences between male and female thought processes?”

Due to this admittedly small project I embarked on [which should actually be as big as the sky, but I was at work that day], I ran across this timeless statement by Nobel Prize-winning author VS Naipaul: ‘[VS Naipaul] felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said’ (read more at this UK Guardian article).

I also stumbled, yet again, on the Gender Genie, which is an online tool used to determine author gender. The Gender Genie is notoriously bad at guessing gender, most likely owing to the simplicity of the algorithm. Its approach is one of by-the-number uses of male versus female words. In regards to my own writing, my nonfiction nearly always merits a male rating, while my fiction is split. I’m not alone in this–just try throwing in excerpts from famous authors, and you will realize that spotting author gender is far more complex than counting male versus female words [for example, J. K. Rowling is decidedly male. I’ll bet you wouldn’t have guessed that by looking at her pretty face].

And then I remembered Patrick Todoroff’s latest blog post Targets and Intentions, in which he defines his reading audience as male, and his writing as masculine. I know what he means by masculine fiction and, yet, at the same time, I don’t have a clue. For example, I enjoyed his book Running Black, not for the action scenes–which, for me, I can take or leave–but for the ideas. I read speculative fiction to explore ideas, such as man-becoming-machine through the use of nanobots.

Conversely, I know what feminine literature is–but how can I define it?

What is the true differential between male and female literature if language clue words aren’t the key to recognition? Why can I almost always spot author gender? What is my brain detecting? For a start, let’s put aside the notion that men and women are exactly alike. You can cast aside gender stereotypes–I don’t mind. But, please, for the sake of argument, let’s admit that men and women are different. I’m not exactly the most “feminine woman” according to gender stereotypes. I’m withdrawn and unfriendly, relationship avoidant, not a natural nurturer; I don’t have a clue what to do with my hair, my fashion sense is completely lacking, and I don’t have curves. And I’m sort of “autistic” as far as emotions go.

However, I’ve been married for nearly nineteen years, and I now know without doubt that I must be female [yes, bearing four children with little to no trouble has convinced me. And aside from that, I don’t get my husband’s mind AT ALL]. In addition, I’m reasonably certain my writing sounds feminine. And why is that, I’d like to know?

In this online PDF, I discovered a fascinating study on this very topic: Gender, Genre, and Writing Style in Formal Written Texts. This quote begins to get at the heart of the difference between male and female writing: “Thus, one main locus of difference between men’s and women’s writing is the way the people, objects, collectives and institutions are presented. In particular, since we will see that it is specifically pronouns that refer to animate “things” that are used with greater frequency in female-authored documents, our results are consistent with earlier findings that
men talk more about objects, while women talk more about relationships (Aries & Johnson 1983; Tannen 1990)” (a link to the full text).

I think the researchers may be on to something. Again, to connect myself with my gender, I have to admit that I write about relationships because I don’t understand people, and I’m desperately attempting to crack their codes. So even as an outlier among my gender [at least I feel that way], I’m still focused on what makes people tick. Yes, I know, I’m not the voice of collective womanhood. I’m simply connecting my experiences with this research, seeing if the pieces match.

Although I haven’t come to any hard and fast conclusions, except to generally concede that men are more object-oriented and prefer action, as well as being more aggressive than women, my overly active imagination suddenly wondered if this is the problem with Christian fiction and why authors such as Mike Duran are perpetually critiquing the Christian publishing market. Read this article of his as an example: The Christian Fiction Market Reflects a Dangerous Worldview Shift. Perhaps his real gripe has nothing to do with a focus on materialism over spirituality, but a focus on the complexity and nuance of relationships over the revelation of spirituality in real, objective terms.

Maybe the truth is that Christian fiction has been castrated and can’t tolerate masculinity.

Hear me out for a moment–I, unlike VS Naipaul, am not belittling feminine literature. Using femininity as an insult is as reductive as criminalizing masculinity. But could we create balance in this, please? Can we bring the men back into the fold? Or is Christian fiction too far gone for that?

****Because I’m obviously a terrible communicator, I’m editing in my actual conclusion. Highlighting the psychology and complexity of relationships through literature is both spiritual and intelligent, but it appears to be a feminine trope. I doubt anybody would argue with the claim that Christian fiction is largely composed of this model. So why are we afraid of a masculine model [perhaps because men don’t buy fiction, she said in a very small, feminine voice]?


Dr. Gillilander & the Double Blind Reviewers

It’s no secret that Dr. Gerald Gillilander DPPM PB [Doctor of Psychiatric Pet Medicine, Physio-Biotamist] has recently defended himself against charges of unethical practices regarding his experimental subjects, as well as the way in which his studies are reviewed–or, shall we say, the way Dr. Gillilander treats his reviewers at his extensive grounds right here in the city of Austin.

This reporter braved the rumors on the wind and drove to the dreaded research facilities to investigate the accusations for herself. Upon entering the drive, I stumbled on an unknown aspect of Dr. Gillilander’s shame: the man on his knees, clutching at a woman’s left leg while she attempted to climb into a Toyota sedan. The distraction of an unknown vehicle gave the woman the impetus to strike Dr. Gillilander with her sensible heel, slam her car door closed as he reeled from the attack, and then peel off down the drive.

Quickly, I leaped from my own vehicle, snapping at my cameraman to follow. I knelt beside the weeping scientist, who wore a white lab coat with a yellow polka-dotted bow tie.

“Alma,” he wailed. “Alma come back.”

The bells dinged in my head. Alma was the name of his wife. I took his hand. “Did your wife leave you, Dr. Gillilander?”

“She’s suing for custody of Caroline.”

“Is that your daughter?” I patted his hand.

“Our terrier. Our baby. The one we raised together. Who are you, anyway? And why is that camera in my face?”

“My name is Julie Swisher. I’m a reporter for the Austin Chronicle, and I’d like to get your side of the story.”

He shook his head, and his shaggy hair trembled. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “I don’t allow reporters here.”

“You’ve had an awful lot of bad press lately, Dr. Gillilander. Don’t you think it’s time to tell your side of the story?”

“No. You’re a woman, and I’m afraid I can’t listen to your questions. I’ve heard all the female command frequencies my pituitary gland can take in one day.”

“What if my cameraman and I switch places?” I asked him.

Reluctantly, Dr. Gillilander agreed, and he stood to his feet while Antwerp, my videographer, showed me which button to push for go and which to push for stop. Then I explained to Antwerp that a good journalistic interview resembled a natural conversation, only with poignant, leading questions.

Antwerp rubbed his hands eagerly. “So show me the chimera creatures,” he said to Dr. Gillilander. “I wanna see the ones that are three-fifth human. Do you think they should get the right to vote? Some people argue they should.”

“I treat all of my subjects ethically,” Dr. Gillilander shouted. “We use the democratic process right here at the ranch.”

“Don’t get bent out of shape,” Antwerp said.

“I’ll show you, if you don’t believe me. But this video only gets released at my say so. Understand?”

Both Antwerp and I nodded eagerly, and I made a mental note to edit out the camera jags caused by my natural journalistic enthusiasm. We followed Dr. Gillilander to a cluster of prefab metal buildings that hummed from the use of enormous fans on their roofs.

Dr. Gillilander unlocked one set of rolling garage doors and pushed them up. Unwittingly, I gasped at the sight of the disfigured creatures, who cowered at the sudden burst of sunlight. But as my eyes focused on them, I realized what Dr. Gillilander meant by ethical. Each pen resembled a cozy living room and bedroom space, complete with computers and televisions. One pen, belonging to a creature that appeared as a dolphin with legs, contained a library, mainly composed of Shakespeare. The creature–a he?–wore the same style of glasses as the good doctor, and he held Macbeth in his flipper hands.

“Good afternoon, Dr. G,” said a creature who resembled either a sasquatch or a humanzee.

“You see?” said Dr. G. “They’re perfectly happy. They vote on meal choices, and I’ve even allowed them to organize.”

“Organize?” asked Antwerp.

“Yes, they belong to the Chimera Creature Union.”

I could tell Antwerp was impressed with that. Antwerp was an outspoken union sympathizer. He seemed to have forgotten about the leading poignant questions, however.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Dr. Gillilander, if you’ll allow me just one question.”

The doctor stuck his fingers in his ears. “I can’t hear you,” he said.

I kicked Antwerp’s anklebone, and he yelped.

“Um.” Antwerp gazed around, then stared up at the giant fans that washed the strong animal smell away.

“What about the reviewers?” I asked.

“What about them?” Dr. G shouted, and the humanzee-sasquatch growled at me.

“What about the accusations of kidnapping and bodily harm of prominent Russian scientists?”

“I’ve only done what was necessary for the proper journals to accept my work.”

“Yes?” I prodded, directing the camera intently at his face.

“I change their cage liners twice a day. I give them fresh food and water.”

“Show us,” I said.

He walked us over to the next building and paused, his hand at the padlocked door.

“The video is only shown at my discretion,” he reminded me.

“Of course.”

After unlocking a series of chains, padlocks, and fingerprint-encoded sealing devices, he threw open doors, gates, until finally we entered the inner sanctum, where famous–and missing–scientists writhed on tables, punching words into keyboards with the help of electric shock collars. One looked up at us, startled by our footsteps, if I could even safely use the word look. He was missing both eyes, as were all the white-coated lab dummies. They were double-blinded.

Nary a poignant question occurred to me. I swept the mess of mangled reviewers, my camera hand shaking.

“I’ll have to confiscate that,” Dr. Gillilander said. “Released at my discretion, remember?”


I turned on my heels and booked it, Antwerp close behind. We raced from the lab of horror back to my car. Breathless, I handed Antwerp his camera and slid in the hot car interior.

“We’ll make history,” I panted. “I might win an award for journalistic achievement. I might even become the next great documentary videographer.”

“Um,” Antwerp said.

“Do you think you could speak in words?”

“Um, you forgot to push the go button,” he said. “But don’t worry, I’ll back you up on this.”

For more Dr. Gillilander, click here: The Gillilander Pituitary Scale of the Male out of Eden Complex


MapWriter 9.0 Error Log: Compatibility at 10.0

With each fit of coughing, stars burst behind Abigail’s eyes. When Nurse Jane hooked her body to machines, when her lungs breathed at Nurse’s will, Abigail’s thinking conjoined with the computation. Her mind reverted to machinery, a computer of stars drawn as constellations. Her daydreams, which scrolled right to left, frightened her.

Abigail drifted deeper into an ether of whipping beasts: scorpions, dragons, serpents. Despite her fear, a calm permeated the drawing out of her soul into the cosmos. Her essence slowly leaked away before her internal machine crashed. She spluttered and reigned in her vitality. No outside force could exert itself on the formula, except Nurse Jane.

Her eyelids fluttered open to the blurred sight of the shadowy place, once her office, now a sickroom with hospital bed and whirring motors. Across the room sat her workstation, where, for years, she designed software for interactive LifeMaps. In fact, she was the last living member of the original team of designers. But soon she, too, would die, and her knowledge would pass to the younger generation. How sad that her own creation couldn’t save her, when it continued to rescue so many others. How sad that when she upgraded to the latest model, the 9.0, her Life Path options ended at the same cavern: death. Her map was unable to provide adequate medical advice.

She understood the limitations as well as the capabilities inherent to the LifeMap system. She understood the importance of genetics, intelligence, history, and life experiences in the LifeMap database. At her fingertips—or at the fingertips of herself only months before—she had access to the inner workings of millions of people. She encoded adequate and lifesaving medical, relational, and familial advice. When she programmed LifeMaps to guide people through life, she didn’t act as prophet, but as scientist. People were like machines—coded with strings of information that overlaid their irrational cores.

Ironically, she would need a more sophisticated model to save herself. She knew that. While she was still able to move around with the help of an oxygen tank, she created a prototype of the 10.0 map. Then she collapsed, unable to apply it to her own 9.0 database. And Nurse Jane took over the programming. No, Abigail didn’t imagine the old nurse with the puggish face was actually called Jane. The name sounded accurate, plain, and Quixotic in its precious way. As she was Abigail, so her servant was Jane, Jane of the enormous bosom, over which hung a tiny gold cross.

If Abigail could have cackled at Nurse, she would have. But she couldn’t summon the breath. And so Jane checked and adjusted the machinery, and knelt to chant and cross herself. Abigail caught the words “protect and keep her soul” as her essence drifted again, the icons scrolling right to left with unknowable numerical values attached to them. Abigail’s soul oozed through the ether, infinity chattering at her to enter the Dark Matter.

She started again and yanked herself back, as though her personhood were attached to a lead. For no rational reason, remorse consumed her. Her eyelids floated open, and she searched for Nurse, but Nurse had gone, perhaps to her own room for the night. The night-duty wench would enter at some point, and that scrawny thing didn’t have a name, didn’t deserve one, as far as Abigail was concerned.

“I want Jane,” she spoke, or tried to. She heard shuffling and assumed the wench had entered. “Ask Jane to forgive me.”

Abigail had acted like a beast to Jane in the early days, when she still had strength—Jane with her drab hair and body odor, who consistently refused the single gift Abigail offered her. No, Jane didn’t need her LifeMap, not an old model or a new one. God ordered Jane’s steps. Abigail felt stung by the refusal—her life’s work, rejected by a smelly nurse. She called Jane smelly to her face, as though she were a child with one last rallying cry: You stink!

Now she wanted Jane’s approval. Religious people didn’t approve of Abigail because Abigail and engineers of her ilk played God. No, not God—she didn’t play God, didn’t speak prophecies, didn’t know anything but science. God didn’t exist. He was far away from here, across the Dark Matter, never there for Abigail as he was for the Janes of the world.

A voice whispered at her from the direction of her workstation. Nobody was allowed near the computer, where she kept protected files and safeguarded the people encoded there. She wasn’t dead yet, and the LifeMap company had sent someone to pilfer her work. With one last fit, she yanked herself free from the machines. She hacked and searched for oxygen. She sucked in hot, dusty air, and jerked herself off the bed.

She was surprised at how light she felt, how easy it was to cross to the other side. Nobody was there. The computer itself had spoken, lit its own buttons. Save yourself, it said. What did that mean? She touched the screen, which flashed in response. After the rows of apps loaded, she scanned them until her fingers touched the 10.0 prototype. She touched it, and the screen turned blue.

“Go,” the machine said. “Hurry. The door is unlocked.”

“I can’t,” she said. “I have to encrypt the files.”

“Encryption complete. Go.”

“Then what? What will my next step be?”

“You’ll know.”

Would she? She was the programmer, after all, but she didn’t know everything. She touched her bare neckline, where she used to wear her grandma’s cross for tradition’s sake.

“Good bye, Jane,” Abigail said, and in her nightgown, she slipped from the room, down the hall, and through the kitchen door.

Outside, the topography of the land struck her. The world was astonishing in its blues, greens, and browns. To the east, the sun rose over a rugged mountain chain. She stepped forward into the lightening day, away from computers, away from machines, in a place where breath entered her lungs as a matter of course.

The ground lit up beneath her: “Welcome Home, Jane. For forgiveness, keep to this path.”


Medicine As a Speculative Art

Today I’d like to take a detour into a subject that’s fascinated me for years: medicine. I love the nitty-gritty, the gross, the bizarre, the historical. Although most of my studies and reading are stuck in what I call the Long Eighteenth Century (mid 1600s to about 1830), I’ll read any book that appeals to my obsession with grossness. At the same time, I’ll read both fiction and nonfiction, but I prefer nonfiction.

I especially enjoy reading accounts from history, as in Frances Burney’s mastectomy letter to her sister, Esther, which details her gory surgery. The victims of these early mastectomies could do this, of course, because they were wide awake throughout the entire procedure. For heaven’s sake, Burney could feel the knife hit her breastbone! Can you imagine? The description is enough to set my teeth on edge. I’m dutifully thankful she wrote it down for posterity. A fictional tale that begins with a horrific mastectomy, much like Burney’s, is Nicola Morgan’s Flesh Market. The book is a fine piece of historical YA fiction with a medical theme, if you don’t faint during the initial surgery description, and can get past Morgan’s writing style, which is engaging, but fraught with fragmented sentences.

I’ve read so many great pieces of historical medical advice involving rabbits, some great spoofs on doctors, and journals such as Samuel Pepys’–which detail the plague year–alongside fictional accounts–Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, for example. A modern novel, not worth much in my opinion, is Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders. I also enjoy compendiums of information such as Theories For Everything and Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History’s Deadliest Killers.

But what is most fascinating to me is the way in which medical science hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Doctors steeped in today’s practices mock new ideas; alternative doctors still espouse outlandish ones. Despite anesthesiology, modern doctors seem to find new ways to torture their hapless sick subjects, and sometimes their torture works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Throughout medical history, this has always been the case. Study the above image of early mastectomy tools. The seventeenth-century writer Mary Astell suffered through a mastectomy and died two months afterward. Almost a hundred years later, Burney’s mastectomy was no more advanced in its methods, but Burney lived for almost thirty years after the event.

A while back, I stopped reading daily articles on modern medical topics, especially on alternative therapies. I stopped this practice because I felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of information. I grew tired of it, and especially tired of the arguments between alternative ideas and mainstream ones. Recently, however, a friend lent me a book called Earthing which is about the great! wonderful! cure of walking barefoot and sleeping “grounded” in order to access the negatively-charged electrons from the earth. I like the idea of it and consider it a no-brainer that walking barefoot in nature is good for health. However, the book barely scratches the research surface before devolving into personal anecdotes of how this method helped even the sickest RA or MS patients. I don’t disbelieve these anecdotes, nor do I believe them. Keeping an open, yet skeptical mind is fundamental to who I am as a person, and when it comes to human suffering, I hope for the best.

But you can guess what mainstream medicine thinks of earthing. They hate it. They mock it. By the way mainstream doctors conduct critiques, you’d think ad hominem arguments spring from the hardest, most fundamental core of science. And the way they completely ignore valid double-blind studies if they’re published in the wrong journals or espouse the wrong/not accepted conclusions is just sickening, to be honest [I’m not sure what the cure for science disgust is. Maybe more ad hominem arguments?].

What I’m left with after all this is wanting to create my own monster from the wreckage of hundreds of years of medicine–be my own Frankenstein, as it were. Why not? The very idea that electricity can give new life to sick people is so galvanistic that I’m simply galvanized to write about it. I can imagine it now: I, Dr. Jillenstein, will force a mainstream doctor to walk barefoot through the grass! She will then transform, beyond my wildest nightmares, into an earth-muffin, Sedona-dwelling acupuncturist who wears a hood to hide her bee-raper bag. She will call me God and herself Eve, and I will have to run, flee from her until I can run no more and am forced to come face to face with the horrific visage I’ve created. And will I have the nerve to drive a crystal through her merciless heart? Stay tuned for the exciting denouement.