Category Archives: etc.

On Symbols: Kneeling and Flags

Americans (and most likely other people) are having trouble with symbols lately – establishing what they mean, recognizing them as symbols, and, especially agreeing on what they mean. There is a whole field of study that covers this, called “semiotics.”

(One sign or symbol that almost everyone who went to college recognizes is that a towel or washcloth hung on a doorknob means “People in this room are having sex. Do not disturb.” But I digress.)

Trouble – sometimes serious trouble – ensues when people don’t agree on what symbols mean. To take two examples, not entirely at random, the symbol of the American flag and the gesture of kneeling.

Let’s take the flag first. First, and most obviously, it is a symbol for the United States of America and can be used to differentiate us from all other nations, as during the Olympic parade.

What’s happened, however, is that people have attached other meanings to the American flag. That’s perfectly natural. A symbol means what you put into it. The flag can represent the 50 states – that’s what the stars are there for – but these days it usually doesn’t. It represents bigger ideas or ideals.

Start with the premise that the American flag represents the idea of America itself – not the physical territory, but the ideas behind it (which also have other symbols, such as putting one’s hand over one’s heart or saluting, national pride, possession of territory, and so much more).

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no one ideal of what America is, and therefore what the flag represents. Some people see America as the land of opportunity, the American dream. Others see it as a certain type of political system. Still others equate the US flag with the US military or sacrifice. Some see the flag as symbolizing the greatest nation on earth, while others see it as a symbol of a country that is great in some ways and flawed in others.

Now let’s take the symbol of kneeling. Ordinarily, it is a symbol of respect or reverence. One kneels before God, or a king or queen, or some other person or symbol of authority or power. Pride is taken in not kneeling before what one does not believe is a symbol of such authority. Most Americans will not kneel before a foreign king; some will not kneel when proposing marriage; people differ on whether to kneel before the Pope.

Lately, however, kneeling has come to be seen as a symbol of disrespect, when applied to the flag, the symbol of America. People who do kneel before the flag (or during the National Anthem, another sign or symbol) are certainly flouting the social convention (or symbol) of putting one’s hand over one’s heart or saluting. But who or what are they disrespecting? The social convention or something else?

A lot of this has to do with the variety of things the flag can symbolize. A number of people see the flag as a symbol of the US military and therefore, kneeling before the flag is a symbol of disrespecting service members or US veterans. People often see the flag as a symbol of what America is or means. The problem is that people don’t agree on what that is (or means). Are they disrespecting the flag (the symbol) itself, or America itself, or what America (or some Americans) have done? Are they respecting what America could be, or is?

Finally, it’s noticeable that this clash of symbols takes place largely at sporting events (which can also be symbols of physical superiority, city or state of college pride, or “just a game.”) Sporting events are one of the few places that most people go where the hand-over-heart symbol is used in conjunction with the flag – schools, scout gatherings, and military events being others.

Perhaps it is appropriate that at an event where two sides clash in symbolic conflict, that the players and spectators also clash in what the symbols and signs mean, and what one’s actions in response to them represent or mean.

And everyone forgets that, just as the map is not the territory, the symbol itself is not the thing it stands for. A symbol is in the eye of the beholder.


Magical Magnetic Noses

My cat has a magnet in her nose. My husband does not.

Dushenka is a wanderer. She wandered into our lives one day and decided to stay. Occasionally, the wanderlust still seizes her and she gives the phrase “Door Dash” new meaning. We’ve tried chasing her, with no success. She always comes back after she finishes with whatever she’s doing and strolls right into the house, where we call her “Naughty Grrl” and she remains completely unrepentant.

Then we moved, to a little apartment in a medium-sized complex. For six weeks, Dushenka showed no interest in the outdoors. Then one day, when our groceries were delivered and our attention diverted, out she raced. Naughty Grrl.

This time was even more panic-inducing. We had been in the apartment for only six weeks and we were quite sure Dushenka didn’t know her way around the neighborhood. Besides, it was 90 degrees outside and I pictured her lost and melted into a pitiful calico puddle somewhere, panting and expiring from heat exhaustion.

Imagine our surprise when 20 minutes or so later, she showed up on the doorstep (where I had put a bowl of water). I opened the door and Naughty Grrl strolled right in, as usual.

Admittedly, this story is not as dramatic as the ones about dogs whose families move away and track them down across the country. But it did get me to wondering. How did Dushenka find her way back?

Apparently, it has to do with the magnet in her nose.

Note that we didn’t put a magnet in her nose. It seems it was there all along. Scientists have discovered that various animals such as trout and migrating birds have in their nasal cells a mineral called magnetite, which, you might have guessed, is magnetic. Evidently, it allows them to sense magnetic fields such as those surrounding the Earth. How do salmon find their way every year to where the bears wait for them? Magnetic noses. (“Magnoreceptors,” if you want to get technical.)

Dushenka’s nose is tiny and pink (I have only ever seen one tinier and pinker, on a cat named Julia). You’d think there wouldn’t be room for a magnet up there. But apparently, it’s standard equipment.

Human beings ought to have the same sort of device lurking up their nasal passages, but we seem to have evolved away from that. There are tiny magnetic particles in the ethmoid bone in a person’s nose, but not enough to make a difference. Or at least not for some people.

Despite the fact that men are supposed to have a better sense of direction than women, my husband can’t find our car in a parking lot, or do that thing where you make three right turns to get back to where you started, or read directions in reverse in order to get home from an outing. He used to be embarrassed by this, but I think it’s comforting for him to know that he’s merely magnet-deficient and therefore (probably) more highly evolved. Or I as I think of it, topographically challenged.

Why don’t I get him a GPS, you ask? I did, but he never even installed it, much less used it. No, he prefers a human GPS (i.e., me) to go along with him whenever he has to trek to somewhere new. The magnets in my nose seem to work just fine, even though they can’t give directions in the voice of Han Solo.

Soon we’ll be moving back into the house where we lived when Dushenka came to us. I feel confident that when she inevitably makes a break for the great outdoors, her marvelous magnetic nose will bring her right back to us. Where we’ll tell her yet again that she’s a Naughty Grrl and she’ll flop down to rest up until her next expedition. I just hope Dan doesn’t get lost trying to chase her down.

Beware the Deadly Cow Farts

You may not have noticed, but that bastion of social liberalism and cutting-edge science, Burger King, has taken on the issue of global warming, by directing its attention to the proliferation, not of carbon emissions, but cattle emissions.

Cow farts. (And cow burps, lest we forget.)

How does that work, exactly? It all goes back to methane, a notoriously stinky gas. Human farts are largely nitrogen, with at most a 10% content of methane. Cow farts, on the other hand, according to a Danish study, produce “enough methane per year to do the same greenhouse damage as four tons of carbon dioxide.” That’s one hell of a lot of farts. And they’re 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide is. (Carbon dioxide is also a component of human farts, but not enough to make a difference. See how educational this blog is?)

Actually, as an article in the well-respected journal Gizmodo tells us, the methane produced in the intestinal tract of cows may contribute even more to greenhouse gases than the transport industry.

How do cows produce the methane that escapes from either end? It all starts in the cows’ first stomach (they have up to four, depending on how you count). Cows chew their cud (wadded up grain or grass) and send it on down the line to stomachs two, three, and four, and then out into our atmosphere.

“In actuality it’s not as much the farting that’s the problem,” the Gizmodo article continues. “Cows’ burping and manure contribute more methane gas than flatulence.” But cow farts make better headlines. Even the Burger King ad mentions farts first. And it’s the first time I’ve ever seen farts called out in a commercial. Oh, they’re implied in gas relief product ads, but Burger King has taken a giant step by actually naming the problem. After all, isn’t that supposed to be the first step in solving one?

BK proposes a possible fix – changing the cows’ feed. Some suggested solutions have been attempted in other places, such as jacking up the cows’ feed with garlic (to be honest, I don’t know if this is what Burger King intends to do), which seems like it would at least alter the aroma and maybe make their burgers taste … well, different; and housing cows in giant plastic bubbles, which was dismissed as inhumane. (I’m not making this up.)

This is not a new problem. Back in the 70s, when I took Carl Sagan’s class at Cornell, he told us that greenhouse gases were produced in large quantities by “the rumen of ungulates,” which is delicate science-speak for cow burps and farts. As freshmen, we thought this was hilarious. (Why was Carl Sagan, who was teaching astronomy, talking about greenhouse gases? Because he was Carl Sagan. But I digress.)

It’s sobering to think that that noxious barnyard odor is not just repulsive, but also harmful to the environment. It’s also sobering to think that Burger King has been seriously contemplating the problem of cow greenhouse emissions. And I’m not sure how long the ad agency that produced that commercial will last with them. Though I, for one, would be curious to see a follow-up commercial on how their strategy is working out.

I would also be fascinated to be driving through farmland and see a herd of cows roaming the fields encased in giant plastic bubbles. How would they eat? What would happen to the methane when the cattle were released from their containers, as surely they must be at some time, if only to shovel their solid emissions.

I guess we should all just be grateful that the average cow diet doesn’t contain a lot of beans. Good for your heart, maybe, but not for the atmosphere.


If you want more details on the subject (though I imagine you don’t, really), go to

Gravity Is Not My Friend

Unfortunately, as the saying goes, “Gravity is not just a good idea; it’s the law.” That may be true, but I am seriously considering a career as a lawbreaker, an avocation as a scofflaw. I might even argue the point as a lawyer.

Gravity, while one of the most powerful forces in the universe, is not nice to those of us living on Earth. Oh, I know that gravity keeps the moon in place and creates tides and other really neat things. But for the creatures living here, it has its disadvantages. And by creatures, I mean people. You and me. Particularly me.

First, let’s take weight. It’s that darn gravity that causes us to weigh what we do. The moon’s gravity is only 1/6 of Earth’s. Therefore, on the moon, we would weigh 1/6 of what we do now. That’s why astronauts get to jump and bounce on the moon and give the illusion of floating. The moon still has gravity, but it’s not nearly as annoying.

It is possible to achieve zero gravity on Earth, but you have to ride the “Vomit Comet” to do it, which I, for one, am not willing to do, even if they would let me. (It’s an airplane that makes steep inclines and steep drops that leave the humans inside suspended in midair for a few moments, just long enough to see their breakfast also suspended in midair.)

(Incidentally, there’s been a lot of speculation about what zero-g sex would be like. From my extensive research in science fiction novels, I gather it would be awkward, difficult, and counterintuitive. If I ever have the chance to find out for certain, I’ll be sure to let you know right away. It’ll be the first thing I do, after.  But I digress.)

No, the problems with gravity are for we, the Earth-bound. Aside from the weight issue, there are the aging issues. Gravity pulls on our no-longer-so-firm tissues and causes them to elongate. This is noticeable in the skin (particularly on the upper arms and neck) and, need I say, in the boobs. You wonder why your chest is starting to migrate to near your belly-button when you take off your bra? It’s gravity’s fault you’re not perky anymore.

In my case, it’s also gravity’s fault that I’m as beat up as I am. My childhood nickname was “SuperKlutz” (this was in the days before self-esteem had been invented) because of my ability to accomplish such feats as falling out of the car with both feet still in the car. I also managed to fall off the monkey bars, landing on my head on what was then considered to be reasonable playground surfacing, i.e., asphalt. Some people say this explains lots, but never mind that now.

At my age, gravity takes my least little misstep and turns it into a trauma. Just the other week, I wiped out on a short flight of concrete steps, despite using a cane at the time, and bruised my leg, skinned my scalp (which bled like an SOB), and produced a massive goose egg on my forearm. The goose egg has ebbed some, but it left a hideous bruise that has still not resolved to a proper skin tone. I glance down and think, “Wait! I don’t have a huge birthmark there!” And even if I did, it likely would not be turning entertaining but appalling shades of dried ketchup, soot, teen hair-color, and pea soup as I wait for it to dissipate. It resembles either a tornado sky or a very overripe, much-abused eggplant.

To add to the indignity, when I do fall, that mean ol’ gravity keeps me stuck there on the ground. I need to strengthen my leg muscles, I guess, so I can regain a standing position if my husband isn’t there to swoop in and hoist me back to vertical. (Actually, sometimes I can do it and sometimes I can’t, and I’ve never been able to figure out what makes the difference.)

A cane I have gotten used to. Riding scooters in large home improvement stores with concrete floors is also acceptable. But, so far, I’m resisting using a walker, though I suspect it will eventually come to that, sometime in the distant future when I’m truly old.

Unless some clever scientist figures out how to dial back gravity just a wee bit or my next house is on the moon, of course.

Acting My Age

I read all those posts about what women over a certain age shouldn’t do – wear message t-shirts or leopard prints, for example – and promptly ignore them. I have a great collection of t-shirts (including a Deadpool one) and leopard-print flats and a leopard-print bathing suit. If I stay away from a style of clothing, it’s because I don’t like it (the “cold shoulder” look comes to mind).

What I’m trying to say here is that I’m really bad at acting my age. My main problem is that I don’t know what age I am.  I mean, I can remember what year I was born and do the math. But fortunately, everyone else seems confused about my age too.

For a long time, I was often mistaken for younger than I am, which is a good problem to have. The first time someone called me “ma’am,” I had to look around and see who was standing behind me. It turns out the greeter was just a southerner who had been brought up to use “ma’am” as a polite form of address for any woman with any kind of authority. I was a cashier, so I had the power of exact change to wield. 

I’ve also been disconcerted when trying to buy a drink. Once I was in a bar and asked for a beer. The server asked for my ID, but the goggle-eyed look I gave her earned me a hasty, “Never mind.” I did have my hair in braids that day, but I was well into my 20s at the time.

And I know that cashiers in supermarkets are required to ask for ID even if the beer-buyer looks to be 90. But I still find it puzzling. “I have underwear that’s old enough to drink,” I tell them, mentally adding, “and if you don’t believe me, I’ll show it to you.”

Now, however, that doesn’t happen. To the younger generation, I am evidently a crone. Once I was in a tiny accident – it barely knocked the “I” off my Saturn Ion. But the other motorist seemed in quite a tizzy that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I assured the young man again and again that I was fine. I may have seemed a bit disoriented because I couldn’t find a pen and paper to take down his insurance info. But he kept insisting that I go to the emergency room to be checked out because, as he put it, “you’re elderly.”

At the time, I was 52.

I admit that I have not aged well. My apparent age is not helped by the fact that, after two back operations, I now sometimes walk with a cane. And I haven’t bothered to get my hair “done” since long before the pandemic. 

But in my head, I am 35, tops. I’ve been told that everyone’s mind stops picturing them getting older at some point and forever after thinks they’ll look that way. I expect to see myself in the mirror looking 35, and am always disappointed when I don’t.

This is different from having an inner child, which for a long time I didn’t believe I had. Turns out that was because my inner child is an inner teen. She’s an outlet for all the things I never did as a repressed adolescent – painting my nails, flirting, spending money on ridiculous trinkets. Sometimes I let her out to have her fun for a while, but then I have to put her in a mental box and sit on the lid.

One needs only so many Deadpool t-shirts, after all.

Primitive Blogging

I know it’s going to be the modern equivalent of “I walked 30 miles to school in the snow. Uphill. Both ways.” But a lot of us are going to be saying, “I had to use floppy disks to add software to my computer. The printer was dot matrix. The monitor was one color – either amber or green,” and watching kids gawp in disbelief. (There’s a song with the line, “We programmed in ones and in zeroes. And sometimes we ran out of ones.” But I digress.)

At the moment, however, I am experiencing another sort of primitive computing – my environment.

I used to have a nice study. Large desk with drawers and cubbyholes. Printer stand/file cabinet. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Many pieces of artwork on the walls. The lighting wasn’t quite what I might have wanted, but, hey, you can’t have everything. I had a window for natural sunlight and an overhead room light.

That was in the days when we had a house, and the house had three bedrooms. One of them was my study and the other was my husband’s. He kept his computers, TV, DVDs, fossils, and who-knows-what-else in there. (The third, naturally, we used as an actual bedroom.) It was perfect, or as nearly as one is likely to get.

Now, and for the next couple of months, circumstances have forced us to live in a one-bedroom apartment. The bedroom, again naturally, is used for sleeping, which leaves me for a study – practically nothing. I can’t set up my computer in a corner of the bedroom because A) the room is too small, and B) my husband sleeps days, when I most need to compute.

What does that leave for a study? The utility room, where the water heater lives and the washer and dryer are supposed to go. There’s no room for an actual desk, so my husband constructed me a rustic platform from four totes containers with three planks balanced across the top. It’s just wide enough for my computer and keyboard (though the Mac does get to jostling a bit when I really get going typing). The planks are long enough to hold the printer, too. I have a proper desk chair, but not much else. Except boxes of belongings that we have nowhere else to store. It’s a claustrophobic existence.

(My husband’s “study” is the breakfast bar and a kitchen stool. No fossils except a couple of desiccated potatoes that need to be escorted outside.)

Unfortunately, with my makeshift desk taking up so much room, a laundry setup is out of the question. We’re back to scrounging for quarters so we can do laundry in the complex’s communal facility. And I make my husband do that. I’ve read too many true crime books about women who were killed in their building’s laundry room.

There’s also the noise. The water heater makes strange gurgles at irregular intervals, which breaks my concentration, and my husband watches TV during my prime working time (our schedules are just a wee bit peculiar). Which wouldn’t be so bad, if he didn’t watch the Screaming and Explosions Channel. (I think we get it on Roku.)

And then there’s the smell. Gentle floral scents wafting through my room with a quiet hiss every now and then – to cover up the scent of the litter box, which I also share with my utility room, our two cats, a scooper, and a whisk broom.  I’m not sure whether the air freshener is beneficial to the cats – or to me – but I try to pretend I’m walking past the beauty counter at a posh department store and trying to avoid the perfume snipers.

This is the environment in which I must do not only my blogging, but my transcription work till the end of August. I suppose one can get used to anything for a couple of months, especially if it means money still comes in, but one thing I know for sure – the litter box is NOT going to be in my new study once I get one.


Food, Felons, Films, and Fire

When couples drive somewhere, usually the man drives. When families watch TV (assuming that they have only one TV), the father or the kids control the remote.

My husband and I subscribe to the first paradigm unless we are driving a long way, when we switch off on the driving chore.

But when it comes to the TV remote, the battle is on. I try to get him to get the snacks so I can get first crack at the remote. Sometimes I think my husband hides the remote in his side of the sofa just so he can get to it first. Our TV actually requires the use of two remotes. That’s when things can get ugly.

The problem is our different taste in viewing. We do have things in common – neither of us likes sports, or news, or celebrities behaving badly. But Dan likes classic films of all sorts – Jimmy Stewart and Judy Holliday and The Thin Man and John Wayne and Topper – as well as action and science fiction films full of mindless, high-tech violence.

I, on the other hand, am addicted to cooking shows and crime shows. I never make any of the recipes (or commit any of the crimes), but I find them soothing. Cooking is an everyday activity that involves creativity and pays off with a lovely meal. Crime, alas, is also an everyday activity that only occasionally involves creativity and pays off with just desserts. The closest thing we’ve figured out to a film that will satisfy both of us is Arsenic and Old Lace (the best movie about serial killers that I know).

So there Dan is, reaching for the remote to turn on Turner Classic Movies  or SyFy, while I am grasping, trying to get first dibs for The Food Channel or OWN. What to do?

Of course, we could take turns, which is no doubt what a mythical mom would suggest. Or we could just watch whatever the faster person finds, which is what we usually do. Or we can change the channel when the other person goes to the bathroom. (Innocently: Oh, were you watching that?)

I do admit that it can be tedious to watch 11 or 12 cooking shows in a row, or four or five gruesome murders. But I get twitchy when I have to devote two uninterrupted hours on a movie with screaming and explosions or (possibly) women with irritable, high-pitched voices arguing with big lugs. And when there’s a festival with an actor that he particularly likes and I never heard of, well, then I go to my computer and blog, which he considers antisocial (although it is probably the most social activity I engage in).

Part of what saves our marriage is that we have vastly differing schedules. Dan works third shift and watches The Fifth Element when he gets home and I’m still asleep. I watch Forensic Files while he’s fast asleep in the afternoons. It works fine, as long as he doesn’t turn on the Screaming and Explosions Channel when I’m trying to have a nap.

But (I hear you ask) aren’t there any programs that you both enjoy, that you can watch together? Or is your entire life a tale of remotes that pass in the night (or, well, the afternoon)?

Sometimes we can agree on a movie or turn to our collection of DVDs for something like Chicken Run that we both enjoy. (Yes, we’re serious intellectuals. Can’t you tell?) And there’s always House or Star Trek. But we have found one show that we get together for every Wednesday evening.

Forged in Fire.

For those not in the know, Forged in Fire is a competition show in which smiths make knives and swords, often with unexpected challenges thrown in (no power tools or rusty tools as source materials). Eventually, the final two contestants are sent home to make some elaborate blade, which is then tested in some fairly gruesome manners, until one of them wins $10,000 and bragging rights.

I’m sure you can see how this resembles Chopped, say, or Snapped. Forged in Fire satisfies my need for competition and creation, with a little gore thrown in for good measure. It gives Dan the old-timey pursuits that he loves, with men he can identify with whacking things with hard objects or sharp edges.

It may not be what marriage counselors recommend at couples bonding sessions, but it works for us.


When I Grow Up I Wanna Be a Colorista

Remember when everyone was having their colors done and what you wore depended on whether you were Summerfall Winterspring? (Bonus points for getting that reference.) I don’t think people do that so much anymore, but I do know there’s a whole lot of money to be made in the world of color. And I don’t just mean adult coloring books, which were a thing, but I think are over.

For this to make any sense, you have to know about Pantone. Pantone is a color system that allows people to make different shades out of their basic components: black, red, yellow, and cyan. (Cyan is a fancy word for a certain shade of blue.) Those are the colors that make up all the other colors that appear, for example, in magazines, in clothing, and just about everywhere else. 

Pantone has a spiffy color wheel that shows you all the Pantone colors and the formulas that make up each one. Even better, once a year Pantone gets to pick a “color of the year” that everyone will be wearing and splashing all over their products and signs and so forth. This year, they got a little boring and chose a color called “Classic Blue,” which admittedly has the advantage that pretty much everyone is able to wear it, except maybe springs.

But where color really gets exciting is in the realm of paint swatches. My husband and I were recently picking out all-new colors for our house, and, let me tell you, Sherwin Williams has Pantone beat all hollow. The SW color book is several inches thick, with seven different shades on every page.

What’s really fun is the names for the colors. I imagine a group of coloristas sitting around and thinking up names for all the swatches. My study, for example, is going to be painted a color called Armagnac, which is a rusty sort of clay color. (Armagnac is also a kind of brandy or cognac. Some might say that I’m entirely likely to splash Armagnac all over my walls, but they’re wrong. That stuff is expensive. But I digress.)

Most of our other choices were pretty obvious. The living room is going to be lime granita, which you can probably figure out is green of some sort, though what it has to do with the frozen fruit treat I couldn’t say. The bathrooms are going to be sumptuous peach (I’m sensing a fruit theme emerging here). The kitchen will be sleepy hollow; the bedroom will be sunny veranda; and my husband’s study will be breaktime.

The ones that have me puzzled are sleepy hollow and breaktime, both of which are shades of blue. I would have thought a color called sleepy hollow would have been a muddy, ominous gray and breaktime would be the color of coffee, but no.

Most of the colors in the SW book have sensible names like decisive yellow and daisy and lemon twist, but others are a bigger stretch. Just going by names, how would a person know that “restful” is teal, “baroness” is purple, and “serape” is copper?

Personally, I would like to be one of the coloristas assigning names. No classic blue for me. I would name colors with interesting-sounding but indecipherable names like “lollipop,” “sharknado,” and “bubble wrap.” Imagine painting your kitchen “cheap perfume” and then trying to find curtains that match. Or convincing your 12-year-old that “diagonal” is a perfectly charming color for her room. “Bowling ball,” “cat’s nose,” and “overripe kiwi” would be entertaining too. Then there are the possibilities of adding adjectives to actual colors: “apathetic red,” “responsible puce,” and “sprightly brown.”

Sherwin Williams would probably fire me on my first day, but even one day as a colorista would be pretty sweet. (Idea! A paint color called “sweet patootie” or “sweet chariot” or “sweet substitute” or … !)

Filk: The Typo That Lived

Say you’re attending a convention in a nice hotel. (It doesn’t matter what kind of convention. You could be sales reps or Civil War buffs or Young Republicans.) You notice strangely clad people, both young and old, cruising the hallways and crowding the function rooms. Among them are people dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers, elves, and vampires.

Suddenly you realize that you are sharing the hotel with a science fiction convention. You pick out a normal-ish person wearing a badge and inquire, learning that your suspicions are right. Your informant smiles and tells you that the odd-looking people are “mostly harmless.” Not quite reassured, you continue on your way.

As you pass one of the function rooms, you hear singing. And instruments playing. You can pick out various guitars, a keyboard or two, perhaps some drums or a banjo. And is that a Sousaphone? As someone opens the door to enter, you glimpse a circle of people surrounded by an audience. A woman finishes singing a ballad. Then the entire crowd breaks into song, singing something they obviously all know but you have never heard before. It seems to be about Apollo 11.

What you are witnessing is a filksing.

Filking is a tradition among some science fiction aficionados. Legend has it that the name came from a typo of “folk” on a program, and it just stuck. Defining filk music is more difficult. Many have tried and many have disagreed. But at heart, filking is science fiction music.

That said, the influences on filk are many. Like folk music, it is usually (though not always) accompanied by acoustic instruments or sung a capella. Most of the songs are created by the performers themselves.

The themes of the songs are usually (though not always) based on science fiction and fantasy books, movies, media, or games; science fact, especially the space program; and geek culture generally, with room left over for outrageously bad puns, folk music icons like Stan Rogers, and Scottish ballads. Some use traditional tunes, others are wholly new, and some are parodies of popular songs. There’s even a sub-category of filk called “ose” (for ose, ose, and more-ose), featuring songs about berserker Viking warlords mourning their dead hunting hounds.

That said, the variety of possible songs is impossible to catalogue. Songs at a filk-sing can range from “Telly-Taley Heart” (Poe to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart”) to “Truck-Driving Vampire” to “Madame Curie’s Hands” to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” to “Beware the Sentient Chili” to “The Cool Green Hills of Earth” to “God Lives on Terra.” Throw in a little Gilbert and Sullivan and Queen’s “39,” and you’ve got a filk!

The closest most non-SF people have come to hearing filk music is listening to the songs of Weird Al Yankovic or the Dr. Demento radio show, if they haven’t accidentally wandered past a filk room in some hotel. Actually, there are even a few all-filk conventions, where the music is the main attraction and not a sideshow. (FilkOntario and the Ohio Valley Filk Fest are two.) At these gatherings, awards are given out, songwriting contests are staged, and the “dead dog” (late Sunday song jam) can go for hours. There you will also find themed filk rooms among the convention spaces, ones devoted to individual performers’ concerts, drum circles, or tributes to departed songsters.

If you venture into the dealer’s room, you can buy tapes or CDs of your favorite performers (many now sell downloads online as well), and even t-shirts promoting their albums. In the hotel’s restaurant, you may run into a party or an awards ceremony or just a bunch of brunchers wearing nametags. In the hallways, you may find room parties overflowing their rooms, or impromptu jam or practice sessions.

Mind you, this tour of the filk world is not comprehensive – and maybe not even accurate. I’m sure to get comments from the filk community saying, “That’s not the way it is” or “You left out X.” But as an introduction for newbies, it will have to do.



Living Like a College Student

A few weeks ago I wrote about how we were moving, and in finding a new place to live, I thought we might have to live with college students (“Stuck in Our 60s” Now we have moved, and I find that instead, we are living like college students.

Back when I first went to college and moved into a dorm, there were certain things that were de rigueur. Cramming a life’s worth of belongings into half a room, whether dorm or apartment. Using stacked milk crates as either a bedside table or a dresser. Building a bookcase out of bricks and boards. Trying to share one small closet with another person’s entire wardrobe. Record albums stashed in the ubiquitous milk crates or banker’s boxes.

Well, we found our new temporary place to live, and it’s quite a bit like that. We moved from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment. That’s a lot of stuff to move, much less fit into one-third the space.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) the only pieces of furniture that came with us were the bed and a TV set. The living room is too small for a sofa anyway, so we bought two collapsible camping/stadium chairs and a wooden stool to use at the breakfast bar. It’s hard to snuggle up on stadium chairs, but at least the bed is queen-sized.

Most of our belongings made the journey (about two miles down the road) in totes, those wonderful plastic containers, about the size of two milk crates. They make up most of the rest of our furniture – TV stand, bedside tables, coffee table. Even my desk is a riff on brick-and-board, consisting as it does of two stacks of two totes each, with three sturdy boards across as a desktop. We did manage to bring along a desk chair, which, surprisingly is at just about the right height. My “study,” however, is located in the utility room, where a washer and dryer ought to go, but don’t. I share it with the water heater and the cat box. My husband’s “study” is half the breakfast bar.

The rest of our belongings, including all our furniture and nine-tenths of our possessions, currently reside in a crammed-full storage unit. In two and a half to three months, they will be released from their confinement (and so will we). It is devoutly to be hoped that a proper moving truck and some husky young workers will accomplish the transfer of all that accumulated stuff to our rebuilt, three-bedroom house. This recent mini-move was a do-it-yourself affair, involving the rental of two U-Haul trucks and the capacity of our Ford Escape. And many, many trips.

Our new apartment complex is quiet, not packed with college students, very near the entrance to the highway (so Dan can get to work quickly), and has a laundry facility that will make up for the lack of one in my study. I work in my jammies, anyway, so I don’t have to be washing and drying work outfits or much else besides t-shirts (my other fashion choice). As a matter of fact, all the clothes I expect to need for the next three months were packed in one suitcase. And Dan wears a uniform to work, so he doesn’t need much in the way of clothing either. And while he may not have his own study, he does have a small patio, where he can commune with his assorted plants and bird feeder.

As for the books and record albums, electronics have become our friends. My computer has iTunes, we both have iPods, and there are any number of devices around that act as e-readers, from my cellphone to a tablet to an actual e-reader. This obviates the need for thousands of linear feet and who-knows-how-many pounds of reading and audio material. Our collection of DVDs is much reduced as well, easily able to fit inside one of the many totes.

Do we love our new apartment? No. Does it meet our needs? Not really. Can we tolerate it for three months? We can tolerate nearly anything for three months if, waiting at the end of it, there is a newly rebuilt, two-story, three-bedroom (well, one bedroom and two studies) home with all new furnishings.

I won’t say it’s going to be easy, but if there’s one thing my husband and I have learned to do during our life together, it’s to drop back five and punt. We’ve been punting a lot over the last year, but this time the goalpost is at least in sight.