The Smartest One in the Room

Transitioning out of academia is messy. I’ve spent a lot of time (and words here) grappling with some of the transitions: figuring out what kind of job you want, wrestling with how to get it, coping with the emotional fallout of quitting. These are food-on-the-plate issues. There are less immediate challenges, too. I was reminded of one of them when talking to middle school students about the jobs I’ve had. The students’ questions led me to tell them a bit about the summer I worked in a canned food distribution plant, where even my partial college education put up barriers between me and my coworkers. That challenge—being the “smartest one in the room”—is one that comes up again when you leave academia.

“Smart” is relative as all get-out, mind. It comes in many flavors. Not all of them present as the ability to articulate difficult concepts and wrestle with abstract problems. School smarts are just one kind of intelligence. Still, it’s the kind of intelligence academics spend years cultivating…and displaying As you progress from high school to undergraduate to graduate study, you’re surrounded by an ever-increasing proportion of high achievers, of “schmott guys:”

Schmott Guy Hat

Aren’t you glad your regalia isn’t this extreme? (Image copyright Phil and Kaja Foglio, http://girlgenius.net)

Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if I hadn’t gone across the pond to United World College of the Atlantic. The place opened up my world in more ways than I could possibly discuss in one post. On today’s, point, though, I was suddenly and obviously not the smartest person in the room. Almost everybody at the school was the product of national application processes in their home countries. (At the time, the U.S. sent around 120 students into the UWC program—half of them to the domestic branch in New Mexico.) It wasn’t as though the process was based purely on academics, either; the program prizes community service and independent projects. They’re looking not just for good students, but for the right people to promote the program’s mission of international understanding.

It was a comeuppance for me, one I probably would have gotten when starting my postsecondary education. Getting it early, though, and in the kind of environment where nobody was a jerk about it, meant a lot. Occasional language barriers aside, I was suddenly in an environment where I could talk to anybody about nearly anything. Unless the conversation got especially esoteric everybody could keep up with me. That was novel. I grew up in rural Idaho and went to a tiny high school. I took it for granted that I was the smartest person in the room—often including teachers in the mix. (I was right only to the extent that 16-year-olds are always right.) At UWC-AC, learning I was not always the smartest person in the room was as exciting as it was frightening.

The excitement and the fright had largely worn off by the time I was working on my PhD. I’d gotten used to rarified air: UWC, SLAC, graduate school… If you stay in academia, you linger in that rarified air. Leaving academia means sliding out of it, back to where things are murkier in pretty much every way. Staying in often means continuing to grapple with impostor syndrome , especially those first few classes you get to run completely on your own.

If you get out? You might sidestep impostor syndrome, but you’ve still got to find ways to deal with the problem of being the smartest one in the room (or not). How do you balance your abilities and accomplishments with situational needs? What exactly does it mean to be “with a PhD” rather than “a PhD”? That shift means more than the way you market your degree. It also involves the way you identify to yourself and to others. If you’ve spent a decade or so of your life cultivating academic intelligence, how do you take that back into the world?

I’m a failed academic. Sort of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I am out of the professoriate. Some of them are systemic (precarious employment for minimal compensation sucks no matter how much you love your job). Some have to do with realizing that my priorities don’t match the ones the job requires (my non-academic life is pretty important to me). Some of the things the job requires, though, are just things I’m not that good at. When you become a postac, it’s easy to focus on all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do better.

None of that makes you less smart.

You might not go as far as sitting down to catalog your skills and accomplishments, but take a step back to remind yourself that you are smart enough. You’re probably also good enough, and it’s likely some people like you. (Reminding yourself of these things in front of a mirror in Stuart Smalley’s voice voice is optional.) It’s okay to be the smartest one in the room as long as you avoid being a jerk about it. That situation is going to be a lot more common in the “real world” than it is inside the Academy.

Own your strengths but remember to ask questions. Focus on solving problems rather than winning arguments. (That might be the biggest shift from the graduate seminar to the real world: trouncing people in arguments doesn’t count for much.) As in writing, show, don’t tell. Focus on using your skills—and yes, your smarts—to act rather than to act out your identity. That’s the practical difference between “a PhD” and “with a PhD:” doing smart things is much more important than being the smartest one in the room.

Way-Back Wednesday: Manifesto from an Angry Young Composer

As I continue to work on my novel and prepare a long-form essay about leaving academia, here’s another piece of non-blog work. I wrote this one as a master’s student in composition and music history. Looking back, I find it’s actually a pretty reasonable precursor of my doctoral research. There are all sorts of things “PhD me” would tell “new grad student me” about sociology and power structures and different kinds of capital. PhD me, though, is much less in tune with the aesthetic and creative issues that drove me back then. You could probably predict, too, that I was headed for musicology—why else would I put so many references in a manifesto?


How many times have you (or I) walked out of a contemporary music concert thinking “this or that piece was well-constructed, but it didn’t really do anything for me.” Craftsmanship does not equal quality. Style doesn’t equal content. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Too often, I think, composers write to show what they know, to show off this or that theory or technique that they have developed/adopted/adapted/refined. The worst cases in my experience are often serialist pieces wearing their tone rows on their sleeves. You listen to the first twenty seconds and have a fair idea of how the next twenty minutes will go. In the very worst cases, you’re actually right.

The development of music theory as an independent discipline has produced a variety of interesting new ideas about what music is and how music works. These ideas, though, are completely divorced from any sort of context. Music theory becomes a game of numbers, not of sounds. Numbers alone do not make good music.

Yet many composers insist on mastery of theory and numbers. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I ignore set theory or serial technique or even (gasp) “common practice” tonality. Composing music requires some way of understanding and structuring sound. Theory is a good way to do that. Learning music theory gives the composer tools.

It does not give the composer music.

Mastery of theory and other compositional techniques (formal balance, orchestration, et cetera) does not automatically lead to good music, let alone great music. Writing music to display one’s mastery of theory leads, at best, to mediocre music. The composer must control the tools, not be controlled by them.

(my) Good music has something to say. It needn’t be a profound philosophical statement. Existential angst doesn’t make for good music to any greater extent than music theory does. The composer can be saying something as simple as “this is beautiful” or “have you ever really heard cracking ice?”

“Emotional” content is not automatically something to say. Listen to good movie scores in context (with the movie). There’s your proof, if you need it, that music can be used as a tool to stir emotions. Writing emotionally loaded music of that variety is ultimately just as craftsman-like as producing a competent neo-serial work.

As Modernism took over cultural authority from Romanticism, much was made over the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Modernism praised the former and distinguished it from the latter. The sublime, by this line of thought, is vast. It is the ineffable, the brooding purple mountains glowering against the sunset. To create a sublime work of art is a form of escapism. Flee the trials of the everyday and take refuge in the delights and terrors of pure emotion. Modernist beauty, on the other hand, aspires to what T.E. Hulme poetically calls “dead crystalline forms.” It is an art of geometry, proportion, of clarity and balance. (For a more thorough description of the beautiful versus the sublime, see Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act or Authenticity and Early Music.)

I believe that good music cannot dwell wholly in either of these camps. Life has sublime moments, but it is not made of them entirely. The excesses of Late Romanticism pretended that it was, and created towers of stacked thirds and unresolved dominants that eventually toppled under their own weight. But life is not dead. It is not still, nor is its motion wholly the precise, ordered motion of Modernist machinery. There is room and need for both the rational and irrational in music.

All this comes around eventually to showing what you know versus saying what you have to say. The modernist path has led to ever more precise, more crystalline forms (reaching their stereotypical apex in the works of Milton Babbitt). Emphasis on rational thought and structure forced more and more detached thinking into music. (It is no coincidence that when Babbitt was creating compositional machinery to control every aspect of a musical work, John Cage was turning his compositional machinery over to chance operations. “Total” control and “non”-control produced works that are, on occasion, strikingly similar.) This detached thinking accelerated the growth of music theory and its place in composition. More theory and more rationalism led to a music of display: contrapuntal technique, serial technique, you name it. To be taken seriously as a composer, you had to show that you knew your stuff. You did this by writing pieces demonstrating your mastery of “new” theories (serialism was hardly new in the 1970s). The legacy of that is composition focused on complexity, on demonstrating that one has the knowledge to produce and control that complexity.

Instead of the product of knowledge, music should be the product of thinking. Pondering, if you prefer, for pondering is not so loaded with rational modernist connotations. Think and feel your way to the sounds and through them. Don’t discard your knowledge; while craftsmanship isn’t a free pass to writing good music, it is a necessary step. The necessary balance is not inherently one of form or content. The necessary balance is one of cold construction and the unruly chaos of indulgent feeling. Somewhere in that balance, there is something to say.

That something is the serious side of music. Earlier segments of the manifesto state that music should be fun. I have hardly forgotten that, but it’s a discussion for a different moment.

Further elements in an ongoing conversation:

I don’t have some magical resolution to offer on the issue of listening versus hearing, nor on coping with opened ears…I caught myself wanting to transcribe the squeaking of a particular door in the library the other day. The point about horses and water is a good one. I want something clever to say about putting carrots in the water (or apples, because all the horses I’ve known have preferred apples to carrots), but I don’t have any substance to match the analogy to. Upon reflection, I believe that part of my argument is about leading the water to the horse. Too often, “art” music pools in the concert hall, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a horse will come along. If the horse actually stops to drink, that’s cause for celebration. Music that goes (to get back to one of my favorite terms) is water that flows or springs up someplace closer to the horse and doesn’t wait for the horse to wander by or for someone to lead the horse in.

Reflection has also led me to believe that my statement about “saving music from itself” was unnecessary hyperbole. I didn’t even mean it at the time, at least not the way that it came out. I am most interested in saving my own music from itself, from getting tangled in too much theory and too much academic scene. There are times when I just want to buy a banjo and sit on the sidewalk and play and tell stories. But I theorize a bit much for that. A product of those reflections on saving music from its academic inclinations appears above.

As this is, after a fashion, a conversation in letters, allow me to jump to a different point, the point that the last volley closed on: immediacy. “Does the immediacy, or physicality of a performer’s presence make something more musical?”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t that immediacy or lack thereof makes something musical or prevents it from being musical. It is that immediacy and uncertainty create engagement. It’s just as true for a circus act, theatre, or sports as it is for music. Not many people watch recordings of old baseball games. (I admit that some do, and that the correspondence is not exact, but this isn’t an exercise in rhetoric yet. Never mind the question of watching baseball games that are recorded and end up on your television a fraction of a second later.)

I can’t say that electroacoustic music or symphonic music or any other kind of big/boxy music is unmusical. There are incredible electroacoustic pieces and there are incredible orchestral pieces that take full advantage of their respective media. Immediacy is not a criterion of musicality per se. I believe, though, that it can be an important advantage for music.

Much of music exists in the space between people: the space between the composer and the performers, the space between one performer and another, the space between the performers and the audience. Music lives in those spaces, not on a printed score or on a recording. [I point out as an aside that pure electroacoustic music changes these spaces considerably, virtually eliminating the space between composer and performer and, as mentioned elsewhere, transforming the space between the perform(ance) and the listener. This is by no means an automatically bad thing.] Scores and recordings are useful. The best recordings capture some of the lightning of those spaces (although the slicker the production, the cleaner and more thoroughly edited the recording, the smaller and less meaningful the spaces become).

Music that goes aims at revitalizing spaces. For the space between performer and listener, immediacy and a dose of the unexpected can be vitalizing agents.

Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”


“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”

New, Improved (?)

I started this blog in something of a hurry, intent on getting something up to establish my presence on the web. That meant grabbing a WordPress theme (Wu Wei) and slapping words into it. I enjoyed Wu Wei’s minimalist aesthetic, and didn’t tweak it beyond altering the color of the header text. It was time for that to change. Among other things, I wanted more information “above the fold.” (I am charmed that this newspaper term has transferred so smoothly over to the world of screens.) Wu Wei shuffled lots of things to the very bottom of the page; the new theme (customized Suits) gives me a proper sidebar. I also wanted some color and a stronger visual identity for the blog. As a bonus, the newer theme should also make Walking Ledges a little more friendly for those of you who follow it on phones or tablets.

Expect more (probably small) tweaks as I dig into the .css and make this a little more my own.

Six Years Later: In Memory of My Father

Six years ago (almost to the hour as I type this), I was sitting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about to get on a plane to Boise. I know that, but only because I know the date and remember when that last direct flight left. At the time, I was skimming the surface of everything, because getting past the surface meant hurting and confusion. It had only been a few hours since I’d been sitting at my computer, swapping virtual crafting items on WoW with my brother, when he abruptly typed “you need to call home.” That was weird, and I asked some question about it. My brother re-iterated that I needed to call home. I did.

My dad was dead.

Aside from hugging my infant son a little harder than he liked, I sort of managed to hold things together for forty minutes until my wife got home from work. I needed to get back to Idaho more urgently than I had ever needed to get anywhere. I made phone calls and booked tickets. I remembered to find somebody to cover my music history sections. We packed in a hurry, and left in such a hurry that we forgot our dress clothes for the funeral. (Our landlord was kind enough to go get them the next morning and overnight them to Idaho.) Surface things. We got to Boise and…went to a hotel right next to the airport. As much as I wanted to be home, it was nearly midnight and the roads were icy. Nobody was in shape to come pick us up. We went out to the house the next morning when my brother and aunt came in.

I won’t rehash the next few days. People filled up the house. I made it through the eulogy without dissolving wholly into tears. My son—a week short of his first birthday—charmed everybody and reminded us all that life goes on. It did. Soon enough I was back in Minnesota trying to catch up on Spinoza and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and teaching Renaissance polyphony. I cried. I worried about my mom. In the arbitrary way that songs get stuck to events in our heads, The Killers’ “Tranquilize” (featuring Lou Reed, who’s now dead too) stuck to me for the next few months.

We get good at the surface things. It is how we make it through our days—commutes, work, the dirty dishes in the sink. Looking past surfaces isn’t always the window to desolation it was that night six years ago, but I still miss my dad whenever I think of him. The first time I visited my mom’s house after she’d moved to Nebraska, I walked through it after everybody had gone to bed. And I cried and cried because there were pictures of my dad and some of his things, but there was nothing of him there. It was a house he had never set foot in, and he never would. The pictures were only there for the rest of us.

Both of my parents read to me, but it was my dad’s books that hooked me. I may have gotten the words from my mom, but my stories owe a lot to my dad. I tried his Louis Lamour westerns. The Hobbit really got me, though. He read it out loud over weeks of bedtimes when I was little. I read it myself around second grade and, the following summer, cajoled my grandmother to find me a copy of The Two Towers, since I had only brought The Fellowship of the Ring to California with me. From there it was off to the races bookstore, and soon after to the keyboard to try my hand at my own stories. My reading habits were more like my mom’s: I read fast and often skip around (habits that carry over to my writing). My dad didn’t read like that. He read slowly and meticulously. He always read the end last. He digested books.

Years later I’m still working on digesting his absence. I feel it a little every time I have to drag my family out of bed in the morning (I was just as hard to get out of bed when I was a kid). I feel it when I cook something I’ve never cooked before, or when I’m trying to explain something that I picked up in years of watching him at home and at the restaurant. Tonight I walked my sister-in-law through roasting pork loin and potatoes, and a pan of brussels sprouts. We tested the doneness with our fingers, and I had to dig for an explanation that was clearer than “it feels done.” I think he would have appreciated it.

I also think he would have liked to come visit us here. It’s easy for me to imagine taking my dad downtown and sampling food trucks before catching some live music. I can almost hear him in our living room, holding forth a little too loudly on something he’d seen on Food Network. I remember him reading Green Eggs and Ham to his infant grandson and know his granddaughter would have charmed him to pieces. I know how enthusiastic he’d be for the stories I’m working on.

Mostly, though, I just miss him. I just miss him.

Pulp Fiction Redux: Swords, Sorcery and Fritz Leiber

“This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the end and black comedians for all eternity…”
—Fritz Leiber, preface to the 1973 printing of Swords and Deviltry

The towering barbarian Fafhrd and the nimble Gray Mouser are as iconic a duo as Batman and Robin. They ought to be more iconic, even, since neither exists alone. (Never mind that the small one hasn’t died any more often than the tall one.) The pair are the most enduring creation of Fritz Leiber (1910-1992). Leiber contributed short stories to Weird Tales and other pulp publications before the Second World War. He was influenced by Lovecraft’s mythos, and later by Jung and Campbell. He introduced Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in 1939, in a story called “Two Sought Adventure,” but his first books were collections of horror and science fiction shorts. He won a Hugo for his sci-fi novel The Wanderer, and went on to collect other Hugos, Nebulas, and a host of lifetime achievement awards. He’s also one of the progenitors of urban horror. Influential dude.

Fafhrd and the Mouser were conceived as pulp heroes along the lines of a Conan or an Elric (though they predate the latter). Leiber co-created them with his friend Harry Fischer, though Leiber ended up doing the lion’s share of the work after. Fafhrd and the Mouser were, like so many other pulp fantasy heroes, creatures of short stories. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, when Leiber was sorting out early stories for book publication, that they had a proper timeline and the chance to operate in longer forms. The books started coming out in 1969, and kept coming at irregular intervals until 1989, a few years before Leiber’s death.

Aside from being a duo, what made Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser different? For one, they were funny. Leiber’s writing is tremendously clever. A publisher’s blurb calls it “dry wit,” which is apt enough. The stories are the kind of funny that leads consistently to grins and seldom to laughter. Compared to anything by Howard and most of Moorcock’s work, the F&GM stories might as well be stand-up comedy specials. The titular heroes drink too much, fall down, trick their enemies, trick each other…the swordplay and thefts and games with capital-D Death might be the story, but it’s hard to separate them from the fun the author—and often the characters—are having.

The stories are also profoundly strange. Moorcock sent his heroes traipsing across worlds, fighting extradimensional wizards they’d mistaken for towers, and wandering fantastic landscapes with a dose of psychedelia. Leiber keeps his locations mundane, if somewhat baroque. Even though Lankhmar, F&GM’s home city is an exceedingly odd place, its internal rules are straightforward. The strangeness in Leiber’s stories is typically internal. Rather than tripping through worlds, he sends his heroes tripping through their own heads. The two are repeatedly afflicted by spells that mess with their minds. They spend time underground and in the air. There’s a whole species of person with visible bones but invisible flesh. Lots of rats and magic potions, too.

I could go on for a while longer about the cool things in the Lankhmar stories, but I want to spend some time on the big one. Accept this list as a set of interesting curiosities: Lankhmar (the city) is important in that it’s one of the first urban fantasy settings, never mind that it’s a hive of scum and villainy to put Mos Eisely to shame. Leiber and Fischer helped develop a Lankhmar game that was published in 1976 by a fledgling company called TSR. There’s the usual squicky racial othering (Mingols?!), but it isn’t nearly as bad as the works of the earlier generation. Leiber also did more than just solidify the concept of “sword and sorcery” fantasy fiction—he probably coined the term himself.

Here’s the big thing, though…and it’s big enough to merit another quote:

“I confess I find it strange and somewhat distasteful to be forever sending other men on adventures, rather than setting forth on them myself.”
—Fafhrd, The Knight and Knave of Swords

That’s where Fritz Leiber has taken us by the late 1980s: his iconic Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser have grown up, become middle-aged. In their last (published) adventure, they discover their young adult children, make a kind of peace with their wives, and become, of all things, businessmen. This is, I think, one of the more extraordinary developments in fantasy fiction: Leiber lets his heroes grow up. Their adventures have consequences. Their dalliances have quite literal consequences that show up with identifying birthmarks.

This was a huge deal for pulp heroes, even though by the late 80s other authors were writing fantasy novels with developing heroes. For the heroes of sword and sorcery, time just didn’t happen. It might have passed, but seldom in a definite way. Stories could be logically sequenced. They existed, though, in something pretty closely resembling Bakhtin’s epic chronotope. Places and events were interchangeable. Characters did not interact with each other or their environment in ways that changed their being. Elric was always Hamlet with a demon sword. Conan was always a noble thug. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though…they changed. We get origin stories. Origin stories that make sense, even. Those happened back in the 70s. The Gray Mouser and Fafhrd grow and develop, even though they’re tangled up in perfectly pulp-y schemes. Even in the sequence of short stories, we get something like a novelistic chronotope.

The bemused distaste with which they end their adventures is as cool and worth celebrating as the fact that they began them as “the greatest swordsmen ever to be.”

The works of Fritz Leiber are widely available. White Wolf published a four-volume set of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were published in the mid-90s. That’s out of print, but there are many used copies of Leiber’s seven-volume set (the published order), as well as e-books (though I’ve heard that the e-books diverge from the published copies in places).

2013 AMS breakdown, and moving forward

Musicologist Phil Ford is smart. In my limited encounters with him, he’s also smart about the things that matter. Assuming you’re not a musicologist and don’t care about the particulars of last weekend’s conference, skip down to his fifth point. His discussion about blogging, and more particularly the points he builds out from there about improvisatory scholarship and the necessity to do what one person can do, are worth keeping in mind as we engage in our myriad projects.

A particularly striking way of describing something many of us have felt in recent years: “…it occurred to me that the old Soviet bloc represented a kind of Tyranny 1.0: it was afraid of the truth, and so worked to suppress it. The United States in the present age has figured out a better system, a Tyranny 2.0: it, too, fears truth, but has created a system in which the truth doesn’t matter.”

Dial M for Musicology

I’m back from AMS, which means I should write an AMS wrapup post. No—I get to write an AMS wrapup post.

Things that happened:

1. I got stuck in the aptly-named Dulles airport for seven bloody hours, waiting for a 40-minute puddle-jumper flight that was delayed by mechanical problems. But as luck would have it, Jim Buhler (University of Texas at Austin) and Andrea Bohlman (UNC Chapel Hill) were there too, and had the opportunity for a leisurely talk with two old friends—an enforced opportunity, yes, and in a context in which one is stripped of all agency and basic human dignity, but still, it was nice. For the rest of the AMS, dinners/drinks with other AMS friends, old and new, were for me (as for most, I guess), the highlight of the meeting.

2. My book was for sale at the Oxford booth. Wow, that’s weird, seeing your book…

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