Conflict Resolution

Dusting off this blog to talk about communication, conflict resolution, and teaching. Pardon the sneezes.

My last year of law school I took a settlement and negotiation course one semester and a mediation course the next. This summer I took a 40 hour skills mediation course. I want to share a few really useful concepts from this work.

One of the underlying concepts of legal negotiation and mediation is the BATNA – the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. In direct settlement talks, the parties each need to convince the other side that the consequences of failing to settle (e.g. costly litigation) are worse than making a compromise. In mediation, the mediator’s job is to facilitate this discussion, helping it move forward when it gets stuck. The mediator reminds the parties of their respective BATNAs.

The BATNA touchpoint works because it appeals to the other party’s self-interest. In order to resolve a conflict, one has to understand what is at issue for the other party. This is often not what the stated issue is. Let me repeat that: This is often not what the stated issue is. When people argue or are in conflict, there is usually an underlying problem that needs to be solved in order to move forward. The problem is not necessarily related to the conflict. Resolution is achieved by appealing to interests.

Say, for example, that Jane and Rochester agree that Thornfield Manor needs to be repaired and renovated but they can’t agree on what to spend the money on. Jane wants a new gas stove and upgraded plumbing. Rochester wants all new hardwood flooring in the foyers and corridors. They only have enough money for one of those. The issues have now become so contentious that Jane has threatened to move out (her BATNA) and Rochester has threatened to kick her out (his BATNA).

So what’s at stake here?

The conflict about Thornfield Manor has to do with Jane’s desire for a less laborious life and Rochester’s desire to display his wealth. Below that, Jane feels unappreciated for how much she works and wants to spend more time drawing. Rochester feels abandoned by her and is trying to console himself with things. Jane’s interest is in creative time; Rochester’s is in companionship.

They aren’t going to agree about the importance of the stove or the value in installing new floors until Jane feel appreciated and Rochester is reassured that she loves him. When Rochester realizes that a new gas stove will allow Jane to spend more time with him, he’s more likely to agree to it. When Jane realizes that new hardwood floors are going to significantly improve the lighting in the mansion and reduce time spent sweeping, she’s more likely to be amenable to them.

But they don’t have enough money to do both. So what do they do? They compromise. Rochester gets the floors but takes on more of the cooking and clean-up, or Jane gets the stove but agrees to spend the time saved taking walks with Rochester. Alternatively, they come to the realization that Thornfield Manor is much too large for them. They sell it and buy the smaller mansion the next valley over that was recently upgraded throughout.

They aren’t going to reach any of these compromises by arguing the merits of stove versus floors. Jane can swear until she’s blue in the face that the new stove will allow her to make better food, and Rochester can talk about how much value new floors will add to the resale value of the mansion. But since Rochester doesn’t really care about the food, and Jane doesn’t really care about the value of the mansion, neither of those arguments is going to move them anywhere. They have to dig down to the underlying needs to find resolution.

The god in charge of this is Janus. One side of the coin is listening. The other is learning to speak in a way that can be heard. Both parties have to do both, or there will be a power imbalance that gets in the way.

Listening and speaking to be heard in conflict are highly effective when they are self-referential. That is, Jane needs to say both “I hear that these floors are pretty important to you” and “I need the new stove because the one we have now makes me waste a lot of time.”

What won’t work is for her to say, “You need to agree on the stove because when we got married you promised I could have what I wanted in the kitchen.” Even if Rochester made that promise, he’s not going to be persuaded to keep it by being told he is obligated to satisfy Jane’s needs. Jane’s argument about the promise he made doesn’t show him what he gets by agreeing to the stove; instead, it makes him feel like his own needs don’t matter at all to her. He’s going to respond by saying, “You aren’t the same woman I made the promise to. Get the hell out.”

This is where the BATNA comes back in. If Jane’s drawing time is more important to her than time with Rochester, her best alternative may well be to move out instead of compromising. Not every conflict can be settled through negotiation.

None of this pertains to someone who is not interested in solving conflict. If the BATNA is keeping one’s own power, the BATNA is going to trump the negotiation. If the anger or fear (yours or the other party’s) driving the conflict is fundamental to it, that’s going to be really hard to move through.

But for someone who wants to solve conflict, to get the other side to understand and even change, here are some things to remember.

  • Your interest may not be self-evident to you. What you are actually arguing about might not be what’s in the words. If you win the conflict, how does that benefit you? Give that some thought before going in to negotiations.
  • Your interest may be self-evident to you, but it isn’t to the other party.
  • The other party has an interest you can’t see.
  • Feeling heard is a powerful motivator for changing position.
  • Hearing a person is neither agreeing with them nor condoning unacceptable behavior. It is hearing. Full stop.
  • A single conflict can have multiple causes.
  • Ignoring power imbalances will cause things to get stuck.
  • There can be multiple power imbalances, some on each side. These are often expressed with exclusionary language.
  • Saying “I need” can be effective. Saying “You need” is almost certainly going to shut things down.

There are two things that shape my own approach to conflict resolution. First, I think that as a species, humans are pretty predictable, but as individuals, people are complicated. I try to avoid reducing someone to a thing driven by a single motive. Second, I believe that most conflict is rooted in fear. Fear of losing something important to identity, of being hurt, of being powerless. When I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in a conflict, I try to see what the parties are afraid of.

Conflict resolution is hard to do. It remains worth trying.

It’s a Good Thing I Didn’t Have a Gun

I wrote this after the Umpqua CC shootings in Oregon. By the time I finished, Umpqua had moved out of the news cycle, so I decided to wait until the next one. I knew there would be a next one. Now I’m posting it, after Planned Parenthood and San Bernadino. Comments are disabled.


There was a moment in my life when if I had had a gun in hand, I would have killed someone (a particular person who had put me in reasonable fear of my own life). I wanted to kill. I was angry enough to kill. I was completely, utterly, taken over by the desire to murder. There was no logic, thought, fear of consequences, any sort of control over myself.

The feeling was terrifying.

It’s a really good thing I didn’t have a gun.


I’m not going to go into the statistics, the numbers. We’ve all seen them far too often. If there is going to be “safe” gun ownership in this country, the responsible and moderate gunowners, the ones who always unload and keep the ammunition elsewhere, the ones with locked gun cabinets, the ones who never let their small children around guns, the ones who know how to handle guns, need to step up to the plate. They need to be willing to pay the price of gun ownership. Mandatory liability insurance (for sellers and for owners), personal property gun possession taxes, ammunition taxes, and mandatory training need to be part of the equation. Nation-wide registration is a must.

If you are a gun owner and believe that gun owners should not be demonized, prove it. Arguing that the problem is not the gun is wind. Show that you are willing to do your share of civic duty to protect others. Make some sacrifices of your own. Fight the ideologues in the NRA and lawmaking bodies. Reclaim moderation. Don’t stay silent. Demonstrate to your neighbors, fellow citizens, and the rest of the world that it is in fact possible to safely own a device designed to take the life of another human being.

Be willing to pay $500 or $1000 a year per gun or more to show that you are one of the good guys. Because if you don’t, you are complicit in murder.


When the Revolutionary War was fought and later when the Second Amendment was passed, the young United States had no standing army. The only way to fight a war was through private armsowners. That’s why the text of the Second reads as it does: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Without a militia, the early Americans had no defense against the British trying to reclaim the colonies, or any other European power seeking to assert dominance in North America. A well-regulated militia is not necessary to the security of a free state when that state has a massive military budget and infrastructure. There is no Constitutional justification in the present era for private gun ownership.

Certainly the founders had fears of a tyrannical government. But the attempt at a weak central government failed miserably. The Tea Party has had its chance – it was called the Articles of Confederation. It failed. That’s why we have Articles I-III of the Constitution, putting limits on the power of a central government. The Constitution has stood for well over 200 years – with only 27 amendments. News flash: The Constitution works. We don’t need to fear federal tyranny of the sort that only weapons can resist.


Guns for hunting? Sure, why not, especially if you actually eat what you kill. But you don’t need an automatic weapon to take out a deer. And you don’t need to keep your hunting equipment loaded at home.

Guns for target practice? Sure, why not. But you don’t need automatic weapons to prove your skill at sharpshooting, and you don’t need to keep your equipment loaded at home.

Guns for self-defense? Tell me your plan for what to do when you hear the strange noise in the middle of the night and are tired and scared. Tell me how you’re going to control your adrenaline and not make a mistake. Tell me how well you think when you’re in actual fear of your life. Tell me how you’re going to shoot well enough to disable the intruder without committing homicide yourself. Because you don’t want to be a murderer, do you?

Do you?


Because at the end, that’s what it’s about. A gun is designed to take a life.

A gun is designed to take a life.

A gun is designed to take a life.


Once, if I had had a gun and known how to use it, I would have killed someone. I probably would have gotten off on a manslaughter charge, or even been acquitted entirely on grounds of justifiable homicide. I was 14, it might not even have stayed on my record.

When I think about that moment decades later, it still scares me and makes me sick. I can only imagine how it would have destroyed me as a human being if I had actually been able to kill instead of just wish for it. The knowledge that I had the internal capacity to kill was and is more frightening than the actual threat to my life.

Are you really really really sure you can be trusted with a gun?


A gun is designed to take a life.

The Problem with Peeple

It’s kind of shooting fish in a barrel at this point to take aim at the new “peeple” app – it’s being panned thoroughly everywhere. But what the heck.

[LATER ADDITION: I’m also seeing speculation that it’s a hoax. If it is, the willingness to believe in the existence of “peeple” shows how disengaged our culture has become and how afraid we are of such disengagement.]

I’m not going to talk about harassment/stalking/bullying issues – the inherent problems are obvious and already well-stated by a lot of people. Similarly the legality of it is another issue. Nor am I going to discuss the problems with ratings systems in general – everyone already knows about ratings abuse on Amazon, why would this be different? What I want to talk about is the illogic behind the app.

From the Washington Post article about peeple: “Co-founder Nicole McCullough comes at the app from a different angle: As a mother of two in an era when people don’t always know their neighbors, she wanted something to help her decide whom to trust with her kids.”

WHY WHY WHY would you decide whom to trust with your kids on the basis of ratings from people you don’t know yourself? Character valuation – which we all participate in – only works when you know and trust the people whose opinion you are asking. Deciding whether or not it’s safe to ask a neighbor to watch your kids while you run to the store is not the same as asking a reference you’ve never met if your potential tenant paid the rent on time.

The problem with peeple is not that it rates people – we all rate people, all the time, though we don’t assign number values. The problem is that it attempts to shortcut thousands of years of human social adaptation. We are social animals, and we have evolved ways of being with other humans that are by and large successful. Entrusting your kids to someone is something that requires personal knowledge and experience. Trust is about trusting your instincts, paying attention when someone gives you the creeps, following in the experience of friends you trust, evaluating the surroundings. This is all reptilian brain stuff, atavistic survival of yourself and your offspring mode, and ratings can’t possibly take the place of that.

Don’t know your neighbors? Get to know them. Have a yard sale. Offer to take care of plants when they travel. Return their library books, or let them return yours. (And if you won’t trust them with a library book, then maybe you know you wouldn’t trust them with your kids.)


The other major problem is not a problem with the app – it’s a problem with the mindset that conceives of such an app. Its fundamental origins lie in fear. (To the extent that it lies in a desire for salacious gossip, that’s not worth talking about.)

I am becoming more and more convinced that fear is the root of all the other damaging things that happen in our society. Fear of loss, fear of difference, fear of being superseded, fear of being abandoned, fear of being imperfect, fear of failure. To compensate for fear, people engage in hate, exclusion, power-grabs, bullying, abuse, you name it.

The fear that leads to an app such as peeple is the fear that led people to form social groups in the first place: a need for safety, order, predictability, shared resources, etc. But fear isn’t a viable basis for a social group’s continued existence. A constantly defensive posture is exhausting and will eventually destroy the group’s cohesion. The kind of fear that justifies peeple is the sign of a diseased society. There are too many of us, too close together, without the time to personally engage.

I think the peeple app will fail – the digital backlash is already tremendous. Human beings by and large trust other human beings more than they value gossip or paranoia. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be 7 billion of us. But the fact that an app such as peeple could be conceived and receive financial backing is another warning sign of cultural breakdown and decay. (We already have plenty of such warning signs.) Instead of just shouting back at the creators of peeple, it’s up to us to create and affirm positive social interactions so that fear of other good people withers away.

This requires energy and time that a lot of us feel we don’t have. If we don’t find it somewhere, another peeple-like app will try to save us the bother. Be kind to someone today.

Racial and Gender Stereotypes in a Domino’s Commercial

Domino’s Pizza has a commercial that runs between innings on’s “Gameday.” (I would be interested to know if it runs on television at all too, or if the audience is just us people who like to follow a baseball game while we are working and can’t have a radio or TV on.) At first glance, it seems like a pretty innocuous ad: it features a college-age woman (white, but with dark hair and eyes hinting at a bit of some ethnicity besides straight Anglo), a slightly older white woman, a black man probably in his mid twenties, with dreads, and a middle-aged white guy. All of them are using their various mobile devices to order a Domino’s Pizza.

So far, so good: it’s not all vanilla and it has a diversity of ages. But as soon as you start to analyze the commercial, the appearance of diversity falls apart and the commercial is purely stereotypical gender and race roles. Nor are any of the characters disabled.

College-age woman: sitting on the couch in her pajamas, watching TV. When she orders her pizza, the TV is showing a hunk coming out of a swimming pool.

Second woman: she’s shopping for clothes.

Black man: he’s on a football field.

White man: he’s in a fancy restaurant, ordering a meal for another man, who is presumably a coworker and not his gay partner. He’s also the only character depicted with another person in the scene – his dining companion and the waiter.

What we have here are two women portrayed as paying attention to frivolous things, one black athlete, and a middle-aged white man exerting power. He’s also the one who orders his pizza from a watch rather than a mobile device.

Let’s rearrange this commercial:

Middle aged white guy is watching swimsuit babes on TV; college-age woman is on a football field; black man is shopping; white woman is ordering dinner for a man in a restaurant.

Let’s rearrange it further:

Black man is watching a television news program; white man is shopping for something really boring, like underwear; white woman is on a tennis court and sweating; college-age woman is ordering dinner. (Or let’s REALLY rearrange it and have the dinner ordered by a black woman, who doesn’t exist in this commercial.)

If that scenario occurred to the makers of the commercial at all, it was rejected in favor of something that wouldn’t shake norms. This commercial is a perfect example of how sexism and racial stereotyping are omnipresent, in ways that one doesn’t even notice. When people say that racism and sexism don’t exist anymore, they are overlooking this kind of stereotyping, which permeates commercial advertising. The gender and racial stereotyping in this commercial really shouldn’t exist at all after so many years since the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. The fact that it still does is exactly why we need to keep working for real equality.

Pride & Prejudice review, D&D style

I thought it would be fun to do a D&D type book review rubric. At first I thought of assigning new characteristics (plot, character development, surprise and unpredictability, prose, world-building, and narrative), but then I thought why not just try the D& attributes and see what that looked like. Pride and Prejudice was an obvious choice because of its longevity. Plus I like it.

STR 12

The novel moves along pretty efficiently and carries its themes well, but it doesn’t do anything extraordinary.

DEX 12

The prose is at times quite nimble, but there are other places where it is more stolid. Not a lot of risks are taken stylistically. Scene transitions and point of view shifts are sometimes awkward or nonexistent.

CON 18

Over 200 years and still a favorite. +4 on heal checks. +2d4 hitpoints after each round in which damage was taken.

INT 16

Smart, funny, sharply ironic, and critical, but not-genius level mind-blowing. +2 for detecting falsehoods and illusions and for tricking others.

WIS 10

The themes of the novel are rather commonplace and don’t offer any newly profound observations about life.

CHA 14

The people who love it really love it. But not everybody loves it; some will turn away. +2 against opponents of equal or lower level, +1 against higher-level opponents.



Sorrow by Catherine Gammon — review


Capsule review: Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books, 2013) is literary fiction which I probably wouldn’t have read if I didn’t know Catherine. That would have been my loss. It is a tragedy, told without shying away from its own darkness, in simple, powerful prose. It takes courage to read but is well worth it. Buy it. Read it.

Full Review:

Catherine Gammon was one of my teachers in my MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh, and she was excellent. I learned so much from her and still hear her voice when I am revising nearly anything. The job search for her position was held during my first year, and the writing students and faculty were all blown away by her prose, which pushed limits emotionally and structurally with nary a wasted word. As a teacher, she pushed me to take creative risks I would not otherwise have done. I had read her first novel while I was in grad school, before I knew her as a person, and kept hoping for another.

When it finally did come out I bought it early and then let it sit on my shelf for well over a year because I was afraid it would be too intense to read while I was deeply involved in my own writing. I was afraid of the intensity because I knew the subject matter was dark (the title alone says it all), and I didn’t know if I wanted to go the places Catherine’s writing would lead me. Last week I finally read it, and was blown away.

The plot line is simple – one of the residents of an apartment building is murdered, and people have to deal with the sometimes devastating consequences. At the core of the narrative is childhood sexual abuse. It is set in New York City during the Gulf War.

The reader is taken into the minds and spirits of several people: the young woman Anita Palatino, who is the central character; Cruz García, the building manager; Tomás, Cruz’s Salvadoran cousin who has come to the US illegally to work and send money home; Magda Ramírez, a widow; Monica Luz, a nun; and Sydney Booker, a police detective. The characters are all in their own ways in pain, sorrowing for what they lost or what they think they will never gain: love, home, family, peace. In the background there is always the murmur of war.

I’m trying to be spoiler free here, which is difficult to do without watering down the review. You know early what is going to happen and why; but the novel unfolds, layer after layer, spiraling down into the darkness, unflinching. Parts of it are uncomfortable and painful. The descriptions of sexual abuse are harrowing; so, in a different way, are Tomás’s memories of El Salvador and Magda’s loneliness.

The horror that lies at the center of the novel is made bearable to the reader by virtue of the prose. It was a page turner for me, not so much because I wanted to know what happened next as because the words led me relentlessly along, like a magnetic force. Simple words, plain words, in simple structure; and inescapable:

He had refused to look, but the image of her burned in his eyes, in his body. Love? He had seen her eyes, black in the darkness, black with desire. He had covered her and covering her had felt her in his hands, under his hands, had felt the touch of her skin.

 Reading, I was reminded most of Cormac McCarthy, who is dark and spare and compelling. Sorrow also made me think of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in terms of plot, psychological probing, and use of language. The novel is intended as a kind of Crime and Punishment; not as a retelling of Dostoevsky, but as a psychological novel where the suspense lies in the internal responses to the act of murder. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, murder is not justified or excused, but the sorrow that can lead to it and that leads from it is laid out bare. And along with it, compassion.


The Vorrh by B. Catling – Review

The Vorrh by B[rian] Catling is an odd book. Not the strangest one I’ve ever read – that distinction still belongs to Moby Dick. (The Vorrh, probably not coincidentally, also includes a character named Ishmael.) It is very worth reading; its imagination, language, and storylines are all compelling. It’s smart, sophisticated, and nakedly elegant; there are words I didn’t know, which is a rarity in fiction for me, and complexity and variation on the themes of cultural memory and of what it means to be human, and the prose has a lushness which in the hands of a different writer would tip into being overwritten but mostly doesn’t here. Adjectives are essentials, not accessories. It also has flaws, none of which are fatal, but the biggest of which left me feeling at the end that the novel had looked into the book it could become and shied away.

The title element, the Vorrh, is a huge, ancient forest somewhere in Africa that exerts force over physical elements – airplanes won’t overfly it because it messes with the electronics, and time and space and memory are all twisted or erased within it. It stands at the center of several different narratives which overlap only a little with each other. It’s hard to say how many different narratives, because as the book progresses new point of view characters get introduced with their own narratives. It reminds me of a chambered nautilus, different portions of it spiraling together yet still separate. The time of the book has its own elasticity; it has a nineteenth century flavor, but some scenes seem to be in the twentieth century. There are anachronisms and myths and magic.

Built against the edges of the Vorrh is the colonial city of Essenwald, the older portions of which were imported from Europe and rebuilt brick by brick. Essenwald survives by logging the Vorrh; in one splendid line, Catling describes the logs as carcasses, which really brings to bear the idea of the forest as alive. The city of Essenwald has its own strangenesses; whether this is inherent or is the influence of the Vorrh is not made entirely clear. I don’t want to go into detail here, because spoilers. The storylines (with one notable exception) essentially consist of people leaving Essenwald or its vicinity and going into the Vorrh, or following someone who has gone into the Vorrh. Things happen.

The novel is imbued with the grotesque. A blurb on the back from Jeff VanderMeer describes it as “like a long-lost classic of Decadent or Symbolist literature,” which is apt. It had me thinking about Baudelaire. Most of it is written in an omniscient narrative voice, which again has a nineteenth century feeling – the contemporary author it most reminds me of is A.S. Byatt. One chapter includes a carnival, and there is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the book: it is in some ways a freak show. Catling uses a lot of body imagery, including destruction and twisting of the body, some of which is downright disturbing. His imagination goes into creepy places that I won’t soon forget.

It is also a novel about colonialism. Catling signifies this in the very beginning with a quotation from one of the more horrific passages from Heart of Darkness, describing the natives as “bundles of acute angles.” The journeys into the Vorrh should certainly be taken as parallel to Marlowe’s and Kurtz’s journeys into the Congo, into the “heart of darkness,” but they don’t overlie perfectly. Conrad’s novel, lacking the supernatural elements of Catling’s, is simpler and maybe rawer. In The Vorrh, the forest exerts its own power on intruders in a way that Conrad’s Congo never did, even upon Kurtz. The primal nature of the forest is superhuman and can’t be colonized.

The colonialist aspect of the book is somewhat problematic, though. (Perhaps depictions of colonialism never can be anything but.) Only one of the point of view characters is a native black African, and though he was the character whom I most sympathized with – he seemed to be the most decent person of the bunch, as well as the most ordinary – he may in some aspects be a cliché. I think Catling sees the Africans as people in a way that Conrad never did – particularly telling is a scene about a visit by a tribesman to a museum where he sees the sacred objects of his people displayed – but the book still has a Eurocentric flavor to it and elements of Othering. On the other hand, when you’re writing about culture clashes, you’re writing about the process of Othering and what comes from it. It’s a pretty complicated issue, and if Catling had tried to tell more of the story from the point of view of the black Africans, he might have fallen into the maw of cultural appropriation. In addition to this, there is a difference between colonizing a forest and colonizing a people. The Vorrh “wins,” but that doesn’t mean the native Africans do. I think I would need to reread the book carefully to have more well-developed thoughts on this, so I leave the discussion here as a marker.

The novel could also cause cognitive dissonance for feminists. The female characters are well-developed and feel as real as the men, with independent thoughts and judgments and actions; they are also primarily caretakers. They have sexuality without lengthy descriptions of breasts; yet the sexuality of the book is overall a male (cishet) sexuality. There are more descriptions of penises becoming very large than I was interested in, and the scenes in which female orgasm occurs are largely described from the point of view of the watching male. The women are not victims of the male gaze, but they are certainly subject to it. There were also some rather detailed descriptions of guns which gave the book a more masculine flavor than it would otherwise have had. The reader blurbs and the section epigraphs were all by men.

Structurally the book held my interest – the different narratives were different enough that they did not get confused, and there was mostly internal coherence to each. The book includes several chapters from the point of view of Edward (or Eadweard) Muybridge, the nineteenth century photographer famous for showing that all four feet of a horse are off the ground at one time. He also developed early techniques of motion pictures. Some of the most disturbing scenes in the novel involve his photography of a black woman, who seems to give consent but is also unmistakably a subject of white male manipulation. (Without digging deeper than a superficial internet search, I can’t say if these scenes are real to Muybridge’s life or fictional.) His narrative was interesting and grotesque in its own way, but it never linked with the stories of the Vorrh. Technically this is a flaw, but generally it worked for me. I’m not sure why. There are thematic and symbolic connections, mostly related to light and seeing and the representation of the body. In a novel about grotesqueness and the human body, it seems appropriate to include a narrative about a man who was interested in how we see the body in motion. Muybridge is in his own way an explorer. His story in relationship to the rest of the book has a figure/ground illusion quality to it. But a reader who seeks structural tidiness will be disconcerted by the inclusion of the Muybridge narrative.

The novel’s biggest failing lies in the achievement of its ambition. I’m reminded of a scene in Harry Potter where Dumbledore says that because he is greater than most men, he makes few mistakes, but the mistakes he does make are correspondingly greater. The Vorrh tries so much and goes in so many odd, powerful directions that it can’t ultimately live up to all of them. I read the first few chapters slowly, getting grounded, then around chapter 6 or 7 got into Can’t Put It Down mode. But about 80% of the way through, the book lost its edge for me. Things began resolving neatly, without tragedy, and it puttered to a halt. The intensity, the imagination and weirdness of the novel, are dialed up so high from the beginning that it is perhaps inevitable that they peter out. It reads like a book that is seeking to explore the dark, tragic places of human beings and then finally flinches from what it sees.

This is not a reason not to read the book. I suspect that if I were to reread it, I would see shades of complexity in the ending(s) that eluded me. I am also personally drawn more by the macabre than by redemption. Many genre fantasy books end with someone losing/forsaking magic and power (Off the top of my head: Ged in Earthsea, Bran in The Dark is Rising sequence, Frodo and Gandalf leaving Middle-earth, Merlin becoming a hermit in Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books), and I’m always kind of disappointed when the more than human is supplanted by the human. What I see as The Vorrh losing steam someone else might see as a triumph of humanity.

What the novel does offer me is a revelation into where my own boundaries are. What limits does Catling transgress that I don’t even see because I’m not close to them? It makes me as a writer feel that I am tame and safe and solid and gives me impetus to push forward in ways that I haven’t risked yet. The Vorrh takes chances and strips away ordinary ways of seeing and stretches my thoughts about the world, and all of those outweigh its flaws immensely. Writers should read it, to learn where they could go and to get the impetus to push themselves there. Readers who are not writers will find it challenging and compelling and thought-provoking. The strangeness the novel depicts is a strangeness that pushes one outside one’s comfort zone and will haunt the memory for some time after the book is closed.

Istanbul – the Practical

I spent five days at the beginning of June in Istanbul, being a tourist. I had a great time and came back with lots of ideas and thoughts. Below is my post of all the things I wish the guidebooks or online sites had told me before I went — I’ll write about the imaginative aspects later. Right now, not all the place names are correct because I didn’t use the Turkish alphabet – I will make edits a little later.


Drinking water: CARRY IT into museums and sights! Water fountains don’t seem to exist. I refilled a water bottle from a tap in a restroom once (in the Archaeology museum), which was chancy – I drank some tap water with no problem but pretty much everyone drinks bottled water, which is cheap and plentiful.

Walking: I walked nearly everywhere. Streets are cobbled and often with narrow or non-existent sidewalks. Have good shoes.

City - iphone shot 017


Tipping: carry small bills for this purpose. The three restaurants I ate at where I ran my debit card returned the card to me with a receipt with no line to add a tip. The second time I asked how to leave a tip and the waiter was like, “It’s not necessary, you can if you want,” which was contrary to what I had read in my guidebook (it said 10%), so I remain somewhat baffled as to the necessity. It seems an appropriate thing to do, though.

Dogs and Cats: feral animals roam the streets. All of them were well-behaved, and none caused problems (although I did hear a few cat fights at night and witnessed a daytime mating). The dogs mostly lay on the ground and slept. Some of them have tagged ears. The locals mostly ignore them. But if you have a dog/cat phobia, or a small child who will want to pet every animal it sees, be prepared.


Milk: Turkish milk tastes like liquid yogurt. Very sour.

Sultanahmet Square: Avoid it like the plague. Take side streets to get from one attraction to the other. There are tour guides everywhere, and they won’t take No for an answer. It’s like going into a car dealership when you don’t even want to buy a car. I probably got it worse than some people because I was a woman traveling alone, but by the end of four days I was being almost rude b/c I was sick of being harassed.

Related to this, the restaurants in the tourist sections have people ready to leap on you if you stop to glance at the menu. Most of them serve pretty much the same food, especially if you are a vegetarian. For some reason one of the “American” dishes is always pepper steak. However, the portions are good, and the food was tasty. When I asked for a take-home the first night, the waiter looked like he had never heard of such a thing, and they jury-rigged a container out of tin foil. It was a cheese appetizer and made an excellent breakfast the next day, but after that I ordered less food and ate it all at the restaurant.

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Calls to prayer: I was staying fairly close to a mosque (it’s hard not to), and I was awakened at 10:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. by the calls to prayer. They use loudspeakers to broadcast. After the second night I slept through them, and I actually liked hearing them because it felt so untouristy, but it startled me immensely when I was sleeping through my jet lag the first night.

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Grocery: I had a nice flat with a very small kitchen (no microwave, just basics for other kitchenware). There were numerous “corner-store” type markets, which all had fresh fruit and vegetables, some dairy, and lots and lots and lots of packaged snack stuff. And alcohol. Not much in the way of actual food. I found a grocery on my next to last day, more or less by chance. It was somewhere around Yerebatan Cd. and Alaykosku Cd., but I can’t find it on Google maps and I didn’t mark it on my own. It was small, but it had meat, produce, spices, basics stuff you would need to cook with. I think it was the Greens chain, but it’s not marked on the map. I know, I shoulda took a photo.

Airport (Ataturk IST)arrival (international): My plane got there around 7:00 p.m. and it wasn’t very crowded at all. Passport control line, then baggage claim (baggage claim is a large area, it may take some time to get your bags depending on how far you are from the carousel), then customs. Customs consists of everyone walking through a wide open door that says “Nothing to Declare,” while the bored customs agents sit there. Took no time at all. On the other side of customs there is a rather overwhelming horde of people waiting with signs to get their shuttle passengers. I had a shuttle arranged, so I don’t know how difficult it was to get a taxi or take public transit. I did not see an ATM anywhere to get cash for the shuttle. They may be located down by the public transit area. Or I might have just missed them – I was pretty tired at that point.

Airport (Ataturk IST)departure (international): It took me about 40 minutes on a Sunday morning to get from Cankurtaran to the airport with no traffic, via taxi. The taxi was about 15 lira more than my guidebook said – I don’t know if I was getting ripped off or if the guidebook was wrong. I got there at 9:00 a.m. and had plenty of time for my 12:00 flight. However, I can see that at a more crowded time it might be longer. You have to go through security to enter the airport, then check-in (can self-check), then passport control, then security again.

Bathrooms in public places: I found them all clean, but often there was no TP. Grab a handful from a roll or some paper towels before you go into a stall. This seems to be the norm. Some of the toilets require you to pull up a plunger on the top of the tank instead of using a flush button. Turkish toilets are round with a deep trap at the back, instead of a curved bowl and gentle trap. They all use way less water than American toilets and are quite effective.


Topkapi: The lines for the Royal Treasury and the Chamber of Sacred Relics were both extremely long by noon. I decided I didn’t want to stand in line for a long time just to look at jewelry, so I skipped them. But if you are interested, do that first upon arrival when the palace opens at 9:00. I spent most of my time in the harem, which was fascinating. Totally worth the extra admission cost.

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Blue Mosque: It doesn’t take very long to see, but if you want to get there before it’s crowded, get in the front of the line at least half an hour before it opens. Shortly thereafter it is packed with people taking selfies on a holy site.

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Aya Sofia: Also good to get there early. It doesn’t take a lot of time either. You can see both the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia in the same morning with no trouble. (The mosque is closed to visitors Friday mornings, though.)

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Aya Irini: On the Topkapi grounds. This was nice and quiet, perhaps not worth the admission fee if you weren’t using the Museum Card. It was set up for a summer music series, so I didn’t really get to experience the feeling of it as an ancient church – it had seat, electronics, etc. There was netting draped above the audience chairs and the sound equpiment to catch the pigeon droppings and feathers. The entrance is old and steep and interesting, and it was nice and cool on a hot day.

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Little Aya Sofia: This is down a side street which gets you away from the more touristy parts of Sultan Ahmet. It is small and slightly musty and felt more like a place of worship than the Blue Mosque. It was a good place to go to when I wanted some quiet (until a tour group came in). The art is not as spectacular as the other sights but is still interesting.


Basilica Cistern: Wear good walking shoes. The floor is slick. It’s a fascinating place, My guidebook said, and I heard someone telling the ticket seller that her hotel had said, the Museum Card was good there, but they refused to take it. Said they’re private, not run by the ministry. I paid my 20 lira. It was cool and dark and ancient and had fish, and I loved it.

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Ferry: It took me about half an hour to walk from the Cankurtaran section to the Eminonu ferry for a Bosphorus tour. I just followed the tram route from Sultanahmet Square and it took me right there. I took the long tour ferry up to Yoros Castle and had a good time – the climb to the castle is steep, and the land around it has been taken up by cafes, but the views were good and we had full access to the ruins, which is not always the case apparently. There was a dig going on and land was roped off, but when the guy saw me walking around with my camera he let me go through. There’s a clean bathroom (donate a lira) off of one of the cafes.

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Theodosian Walls: I took the tram from Sultanahmet Square to Topkapi Kavsagi, walked around the walls for a while, crossed the street to the other side and walked around some more, got some nice pictures of the city. Then I took the tram back from the Pazartekke station. Easy. The walls on the south side of Turgut Ozal Millet Cd were in more disrepair and had homeless tents. I was not confronted by anyone – didn’t even see anyone – fairly early on a Saturday, but I was a little wary. On the north side the walls are right up against a neighborhood. Parts have been restored, and there’s a nice-looking café that seemed to be frequented entirely by locals.

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Grand Bazaar: I fled after about half an hour because my throat was hurting from the cigarette smoke. I didn’t see that many people smoking, but there was a definite Essence of Tobacco to the air. Don’t go in if you’re sensitive. It would be absolultely impossible to shop there – the stores are packed with merchandise and quite identical to each other. If you are looking for interesting stuff to buy, try the Arasta Bazaar on the southeast side of the Blue Mosque. It’s quieter and has better and more intriguing goods. I didn’t buy anything at all, but if I wanted to that would have been the place.


Guilhane Park: Restful, green, filled with people but not overly crowded, nice trees and lawns and quiet. Highly recommended for introverts.


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Happy Independence Day

It’s been ages since I blogged. Life. Lots of writing.

Tomorrow is Independence Day, so I want to post a few passages from one of my favorite SCOTUS cases, 1942, re salutation of the flag. The opinion is by Robert Jackson, who is almost my favorite justice ever:

Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good, as well as by evil, men. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, but, at other times and places, the ends have been racial or territorial security, support of a dynasty or regime, and particular plans for saving souls. As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. [p641] As governmental pressure toward unity becomes greater, so strife becomes more bitter as to whose unity it shall be. Probably no deeper division of our people could proceed from any provocation than from finding it necessary to choose what doctrine and whose program public educational officials shall compel youth to unite in embracing. Ultimate futility of such attempts to compel coherence is the lesson of every such effort from the Roman drive to stamp out Christianity as a disturber of its pagan unity, the Inquisition, as a means to religious and dynastic unity, the Siberian exiles as a means to Russian unity, down to the fast failing efforts of our present totalitarian enemies. Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism [p642] and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.


“Starship Cooties”

I should have been working on my WIP, but instead I wrote this. It speaks for itself:




We were losing the war with the Bugs, so as soon as I turned sixteen I signed up to fight. The recruiter told me that after three months of boot camp, I’d be in space on the front lines, fighting my ass off. The recruiter was right.

The Bugs weren’t really compound-eyed, six-legged, tentacly aliens, of course. That was what the government had wanted us to think, but then someone had figured out that the government was releasing the same doctored photos over and over, so we knew they were just drumming up insectophobia to get everyone on their side. No one knew what the Bugs actually looked like. Maybe they were mutant lab rats wreaking vengeance for hundreds of years of experimentation, or maybe they were a collective AI, or maybe they were cute fuzzy sad-eyed mammals that we would all just want to cuddle if we knew who they were. We kept calling them Bugs, because we didn’t care if we hurt their feelings.

At boot camp I was introduced to my gun. I named it Jane, after my mother. Jane was all power and sleek lines, gleaming coal black with enough laser force to rip out the foundations of a building from 500 m. away. When Jane fired, the recoil was orgasmic. I would have stayed on the range for hours if I’d been allowed to.

Sure enough, after three months we shipped out. We were put in a kind of suspended animation, where all our body functions slowed down and our brains were flooded with tactical plans and information, so that when we came out of freeze we’d know much more about the Bugs and the battle than we could possibly have learned in six weeks of consciousness.

When we woke up, we were in orbit around a small planet that looked a lot like Terra, only the Terra of a thousand years ago, before all the overcrowding and pollution. Looking at it, I understood for the first time why people were nostalgic about the past. Why they wanted to preserve everything they could. Yeah, mankind had really fucked things up pretty good. And now we had the Bugs, who were invading our territory, destroying what was left of our culture, ruining everything that was noble and good, raising their hind legs and pissing on what we had worked so hard to achieve. I felt righteous. I stroked Jane and whispered, “Soon, baby.”

Before the drop, we were briefed by the Captain. We were all in awe of the Captain, who never cracked a smile, never fraternized, and had no apparent weaknesses. Military regulations didn’t allow the Captain to go into personal combat, which was a disappointment to all of us. (We were scornful of the boys in Ops; they stayed in safe orbit, pushing their buttons and flipping their switches and moving their mouses while our lives were on the line.)

The briefing room smelled like adrenaline. Everyone was leaning forward with excitement as the Captain showed the plans. We were laying an ambush. The Bugs liked this planet for their training missions because it was so Terra-like; we meant to wipe out one of their boot camps, so to speak. The scene of battle was a city. We would be fighting on streets and from wrecked buildings, with sniper fire on both sides. Jane and I had been hoping to be assigned sniper duty, but we drew Brute Force. Our job was to walk the streets and fire at anything and everything on ground level that moved.

As I was waiting for the drop, it occurred to me the Bugs must be a lot like us. The tactics we were deploying wouldn’t be much use against giant lizards or robot battalions. They had to be of similar size and physiology, or a Terra-model wouldn’t work so well for them either.

The drop was a hell of a lot scarier than I had expected. Simulations didn’t prepare you at all for the real thing. Cold, and dark, and intense pressure in my chest that felt like I was being crushed and a different pressure behind my eyeballs that made me feel like I was going to explode. I was sure that when it ended I was going to be a mass of gelatinous flesh and pulverized bone. But when it ended I bounced right back to normal.

The city looked like a typical Terran city, with skyscrapers, potholes, overturned vehicles, downed wires. The air was unbelievably fresh. I thought that if I died today, at least my lungs would be happy. Then I heard the sound of something crisping with electricity and I smelled burning flesh, and I saw that the grunt beside me was dead.

I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that. I remember smoke, and crouching, and broken glass reflecting the sunlight. I remember my ears aching with the noise despite my helmet. We were hopelessly outnumbered. The Bugs came from everywhere. They looked just like us, a little heavier, a little taller on average.

I fought hard, but I was finally surrounded with three other recruits and two seasoned vets. Jane had run out of power a long time ago. I stood silent, wondering what the Bugs were going to do with us. Then one of them flipped his face mask up. I was shocked. He looked like an ordinary human male.

“We’re going to win,” said the vet next to me.

“What?” I said, astounded.

“All right, bitches, all of you take your helmets off,” she said.

We did.

The Bugs collapsed like dominoes. Every single one of them. I stared while I rubbed the spot between my breasts where Jane’s strap had chafed.

“What – how – I don’t understand,” said one of the other recruits. She sounded as puzzled as I felt.

“Girl cooties,” said the vet. “It works every time.”

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