NaNoWhyMo?

NaNoWhyMo

Somehow, I seem to have convinced myself to take another punt at NaNoWriMo.

November is 12 hours away. I have an unstable character list (the list is unstable, not the characters), some scrappy research, and the whisper of a plot. Also small children to parent and a job.

Twice before I’ve forced myself through the blunt force creative trauma of 50,000 words in a month, in 2010 and 2013. So the attempt rate is dropping, but that’s a pretty limited data set. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo in those years, and languishing somewhere in a subfolder are the PDF winner’s certificates to prove it.

But both those times, I’ve failed.

2010’s Fantastic Damage (El-P was on repeat) was a desperate smushing together of several long-dormant short story germs. Reader, I did not go back and read it. Or maybe I did and have blanked it out.

2013’s Untitled Longer Project (oh, the mystery!) was a split-hair-over-the-50-thou of preamble and backstory to the novel I wanted to write. But I was deflated by the insipid inconsequentiality of the effort, and after a few weeks of attempting to right the thing, I let it sink to the bottom of my bottomless draw of false writing starts.

You see where I fucked up, right? The first time, it was in dismissing the attempt without even re-reading the thing. The second time, in feeling like the work done was a waste, rather than necessary groundwork to excavate whatever it was that should have been written.

So that’s two valuable lessons learned, albeit at a tortoisal pace. This year will have the immeasurably tougher constraint of working around that parenting business, but on the plus side this year’s idea-nugget feels more viable.

Providing the re-read is done clinically, with a reader’s eye.

Providing the NaNo word dump is sifted carefully, with an honest appreciation for what works and can be built upon.

The point is not so much whether or not I reach 50k. It’s getting teeth stuck into the idea.

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The Long Ships and Viking Textiles

TheLongShips

In which the hero, Red Orm, adventures and swashbuckles through assorted lands, returning home to cement his legacy. The Long Ships is the English collected version of Frans G Bengtsson’s Röde Orm sagas, the first volume of which was published in Sweden in 1941.

I first read this in 2013, but have been thinking about it recently because of the brouhaha over the supposed Viking “Allah” textile. Earlier this month, a mildly interesting news story broke of research claiming that Viking burial clothes unearthed in Birka, Sweden, which supposedly had the name of Allah woven into the fabric. (The altright and their far right chums went nuts: “how dare you say all Vikings were Muslims” etc.)

The research was debunked in an illuminating tweet thread by Stephennie Mulder, a Professor of Islamic Art. (Again, the altright/far right went nuts: “see, this proves there were no Muslim Vikings” etc.)

So, Red Orm. In the early part of the saga, as a youth in Skania, he’s captured by Vikings, who are in turn captured by Andalusian Muslims. After a few gruelling years as galley slaves the Vikings eventually become bodyguards to Almansur, the de facto ruler of the Cordovan Caliphate.

During this time, Orm assumes leadership of the Norsemen largely due to the fact that he’s the first to learn the Arabic spoken by their masters, and thus the conduit of all communication between the groups:

Orm always afterwards used to say that, after good luck, strength, and skill at arms, nothing was so useful to a man who found himself among foreigners as the ability to learn a language.
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

When Almansur asks if Orm and his men will worship Allah, the Skanian responds with calm practicality. In the gloss given to his men, Orm adds that conversion will earn them better treatment, that going against their lord’s wishes wouldn’t be a smart move, and that that they can quit worshipping the foreign god when they return home. He puts a different slant on it for Almansur, but one that’s equally pragmatic and no less honest:

“We men of the north do not worship our gods except in time of necessity, for we think it foolish to weary them with babbling… Perchance it may be that our gods wield but little power in this land; therefore, lord, I for my part shall willingly obey your command and worship your God while I am your servant.”
– I. The Long Voyage, p57-58

Later in the saga, Red Orm converts to Christianity, again for practical reasons. But it takes a while to win him over. The process starts in the first volume and isn’t concluded until the second:

“St. Finian’s bell helped you, too,” said the monk; “and now that you have seen what the saints can do, even for heathens, would it not be a wise thing for you to start believing in God and become Christians?”
Orm said that he had not given the matter much consideration and that he did not think there was any urgency about deciding.
– I. The Long Voyage, p99

So at different times, Red Orm is a Norse pagan, a Muslim, and a Christian. (Noah Harari notes in Sapiens how polytheists have no issue with incorporating monotheistic deities into their worship, believing every situation calls for its own god.) Certainly the reader always feels that Orm treats these religions with a non-nonsense cynicism, and in every case he approaches his worship in a fair dealing spirit. When he converts to Christianity, he gives “a large sum for the protection and luck that I expect to receive”.

Stephennie Mulder started her epic ‘Allah textile’ debunkening by noting that the Vikings had “rich contacts w/Arab world”. Later – it’s an x/60 thread, folks – she underlines the importance of getting such a story, however niche, correct in the current policitical climate. The Islamophobes hopping onto the thread, obviously, crowed about “lies” and “propaganda” from those famous bedfellows/co-conspirators, academia and the mainstream media.

Because the knowledge and painstaking research of specialist professors is nothing compared to the unshakeable certainty of one who has watched Kirk Douglas in “The Vikings” (and who will no doubt simply rewatch “Spartacus” if they ever need to dismiss Mary Beard’s in-depth knowledge of the Roman Empire).

The Long Ships has long been praised for its historical and indeed historiographical (um wait while I look that up) accuracy. And since it was published in 1941, I think we can safely discount the possibility of it being a propaganda ploy of the SJWs. The knowledge of Viking ties to the Arab world, and even the notion of Vikings converting to Islam (#notallvikings) is old news.

Old news or not, The Long Ships is a blast. Röde Orm (orm = serpent) himself is an enduring hero: canny, witty, and wise, his bravery never outstripping his common sense or ship-smarts. It’s a fun, wry read, with the worst of its scorn reserved for literary folk, Orm knowing enough about men not to argue with poets concerning their respective merits.

He would have hated Twitter.

 

Mysteries of the Dragon Gate

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Looming incongruously over the E4 just south of Gävle is an impressive development bearing the name Dragon Gate. We’ve driven past it once or twice a year since moving to Sweden, on our way north from Stockholm during the summer. Even from road level it looks odd, a massive grey non-sequitur, cheap concrete Chinese architecture hulking up out of the forested sides of the motorway. What the hell *is* it??

Finally, this year, we got to stop there and have a nose around. (A very fringe benefit of a driving with a car seat-averse infant.) The place is a spectacular misfire of an investment. Work started in 2004 on what might some day have been a grand Sino-Swedish cultural hub, with a hotel, restaurants, a museum, and – if Wikipedia (Swedish) is to be believed – a Shaolin temple and kung fu school.

DragonGate02

Instead it became a shotgun wedding of reckless Chinese development and painstaking Swedish beauracracy. Fruitful, not so much. The first phase of building was completed in 2008, some of which was accomplished without planning permission. Now, the hotel and restaurant building stand unpainted and grandly unloved in the middle of acres of paved emptiness.

Signs hand-painted on bedsheets hang askew. The restaurant runs on a skeleton staff (full disclosure: we didn’t eat there, terrible missed opportunity). The gift shop, stacked high with kitsch and tchotchkes, is unstaffed and even lacking a cash register (I guess you pay in the restaurant). Outside, the lofty statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin shows compassion by averting her gaze from the epic folly behind her.

DragonGate03

In recent years, there were two attempts at a grand opening for the hotel, both dogged by rumours of the projects abandonment. But the owner – a Chinese businessman who made his fortune in the mosquito repellant business – has so far been content to keep the venture afloat. At the height of summer, such as when we visited, the Dragon Gate can be seen to entertain as many as tens of people, wandering incredulously from one enormously misguided construction to the next. All of them wondering what on earth happened here. Pondering where all those copies of the terracotta warriors might be hidden. And hoping that the plan to install a live panda never comes to pass.

Warning: Parental Language

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As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?

 

Scrubbing the Likes

Do you delete your old social media posts?

These things were meant to be ephemeral, right? Blips of consciousness that would be gone in an instant.

But the value of Facebook, Twitter et al – their market value – is of course based on retaining all that instantaneous, inconsequential information. Accreting an ever more detailed data picture of you: your life, loves, needs and desires. Your political leanings

Which is why FB and Twitter make it ball-achingly hard to delete those old posts. The “post” button is large and easily accessible, the delete option hidden in sub-menus and shrouded in a mass of confirmation pop-ups.

And deleted posts have a habit of lingering, depending on how you search for them. My Twitter profile currently shows two pages of tweets, but the counter tells me I still have 1,200 of the bastards, lingering out there like the half-baked nonsense that they were. Are.

My old posts are embarrassing, mildly, but offensive to me alone. They ARE inconsequential. But I still believe that if they’re ephemeral, they should eventually disappear, like a fart in a gentle breeze. Deleting them though, takes ten times as long as making them in the first place.

It feels vaguely psychotic, going through and unliking friends’ updates, deleting tags on old party pictures. It’s obsessive, a collosal waste of time, and feels like the world’s most passive aggressive gesture – if, of course, your friends were even to notice. I *hope* none of my connections regularly audits the likes on old posts to see who has retracted their previous tiny endorsements and affirmations.

And it’s one thing to delete a like of a funny status update. Birthday wishes, well, will they really be missed? Congratulations on a birth, that’s a little harder. And messages of support after bereavement? That one I have trouble with.

The fast track of course is to delete your account. But while I’m happy to delete an entire blog (and they do all get deleted, sooner or later), abandoning an FB or Twitter account would mean losing all those connections – connections which would be a huge pain to remake when setting up a new account.

I don’t know what the answer is here. Am trying to wean myself off that g–d– Like button. (Woo.) Otherwise I’m stuck in a timesuck loop of manually deleting old posts, which I hate, but not quite as much as leaving all that data up there for FB in particular to monetise.

Seriously, can’t we just start paying for this shit? $0.99c a month? Hell, I’d pay the full dollar if it came with a bulk delete button.

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…