A Tribute to “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else”

The cover of "Very Far Away from Anywhere Else"

Ursula K. LeGuin died this week.

I met Ursula K. LeGuin once when she visited my local library. I did not talk to her individually, but I was in the same room with her, and I heard her speak. I was quite young at the time, and though I had already the Earthsea books and the Catwing books (cats! with wings! I’m not sure why the Catwing books are not more popular), I think at the time it had been more meaningful for my father, who had been reading her novels long before I was born.

Later, when I was in high school, I read some of the Hainish Cycle books, as well as The Lathe of Heaven. I was awed and impressed by The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven, and I also enjoyed Planet of Exile (City of Illusion was a DNF for me).

When I was eighteen years old, I moved out of my parents’ home for the first time and lived in Mountain View. There is an awesome used bookstore there (I hope they are still there), and on a whim I picked up “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

Unlike Ursula K. LeGuin’s most famous works, “Very Far Away from Anywhere Else” is not speculative fiction. It’s a contemporary story (contemporary to the 1970s, that is). It’s about a teenage boy who meets a teenage girl, and they get along better with each other than they do with anyone else they know. Nope, it’s not an original plot. However, what really stood out to me was all of the subtlety put into the story, especially how they were navigating the social expectations placed upon them, and trying to figure out what they actually wanted rather than following social scripts which did not necessarily work for them.

A moment which I remember especially sharply is when Natalie’s father, who is a conservative and very religious Christian, is assuming that Owen and Natalie ~must~ be having sex, and how his conservative Christian mindset actually encouraged him to fixate on sex.

When I was eighteen, I did not consciously identify as ace or aro, but I was already aware that I was different in some way. I think graduating from high school and living away from my parents raised my awareness of this difference, since I was obviously mature and independent enough to be a girlfriend and it was becoming increasingly improbable that I was ‘just a late bloomer’, yet I wasn’t interested in being a girlfriend.

And that’s when I read this novella.

That was more than ten years ago, and I’ve become fuzzy on the details, so I looked for summaries on the internet to jog my memory (I remember how I felt while reading the story much better than I remember the story itself). That is how I discovered this personal reflection.

I will be the first one to say that The Dispossessed is probably Ursula K. LeGuin’s greatest literary work (not that I’ve read all of her novels, but it’s the best of the ones I’ve read, and a lot of other people seem to point to that one as being the best as well). But reflecting back on my experiences of reading LeGuin’s work in the light of her death, my mind goes back to “Far Away from Anywhere Else” as meaning the most to me. It relates more to how I try to navigate my life than The Dispossessed does.

Though I cannot guarantee that anyone will like “Very Far from Anywhere Else” I definitely recommend it to anyone who reads this blog. I especially recommend it to anyone who is wondering about why people make such a fuss about Ursula K. LeGuin yet do not like reading speculative fiction.

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Identity? What’s That?

This is a submission to the January 2018 Carnival of Aces.

If one is going to distinguish between ‘labels’ and ‘identity’ rather than conflate them, then I have this to say – I find labels a heck of a lot more useful than ‘identity’. Whatever that is.

Yes, I know, I sometimes speak of myself as ‘identifying as asexual’ or something along those lines. When I say that, I mean ‘self-label as asexual’.

Labels are communication tools. They are imperfect, but they also work, at least sometimes. When I ‘identify as’ something, or rather ‘self-label’ as something, I’m trying to communicate a message of some kind.

Alternatively, labels can also be useful as analytical tools, such as trying to understand other people’s behavior. I have found putting some people in the ‘allosexual’ category and some people in the ‘asexual’ category very useful.

Independent of an intention to communicate something, or to interpret other people’s behavior, I’m not sure I identify as anything beyond ‘I am what I am’.

Recently, I’ve come to think that this might be a reflection of my own personality.

I’ve recently taken a couple of online gender tests, such as this one. On both tests I got similar results – I am ‘undifferentiated’ and have low levels of both masculinity and femininity (if I had high levels of both masculinity and femininity I would be ‘androgynous’). I suspect these tests may not be compatible with my personality because of the way they are set up. For example, in the test I linked, one has the options of agreeing/disagreeing on a scale of five (with the center being neither agreeing nor disagreeing). Guess what? On most of the ‘questions’ I picked the center option. For example, one question asks whether I’m ‘likeable’? Ummm, how would I know that? That’s something other people know about me, not necessarily something I know about myself. I answered ‘neither agree or disagree’ but if there had been an option ‘wtf is this question?’ I would have selected that instead.

On the other hand, maybe these gender tests are spot on in measuring me. Maybe I have a more pronounced tendency toward not defining myself than most people. Maybe that even extends to my gender. Yes, I identify as ‘female’, but why? It is just because everyone tells me I’m female, and I don’t have a problem with that because my ‘true’ gender is undifferentiated, and I’m so used to it that it jars me whenever someone marks me as male. Or do I have some innate sense of femaleness that would exist independently of other people’s evaluations? I don’t know, and honestly, I don’t care much because either way it would not make much difference in my life.

When I share travel photos with other people, one of the most common questions I get are ‘why aren’t there any pictures of you?’ (I rarely take photos of myself while travelling, and when I do, it’s sometimes just to please my family). Though I don’t say this aloud (or at least I don’t phrase it this way), my thoughts are ‘if you want to see me, I’m right here, but this waterfall isn’t here, so look at my photo.’

Waterfall on Delate Creek in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, Central Washington

Some people say they take selfies because they want to ‘prove’ they were in a place. I’m generally uninterested in proving that I was in a particular place (though on the rare occasion I take photos of myself while travelling, it tends to be in places like the USA/Canada border, so maybe I do have a small ‘I was here’ impulse). For me, travel is about experiencing a place, not experiencing ~myself~ in a place. It’s about the waterfall, not me.

Anyway, how does this relate to asexuality?

Asexuality is relevant to me primarily in how it affects how I relate people, whether in direct interaction, or indirect interactions such as reading a book written by another person. When I’m in a cabin at least 10 miles away from the nearest human being, and I have no means of communicating with another human being (let’s say that remote cabin has no cell phone service and I didn’t bring any books with me) asexuality is not relevant to me. It’s still part of who I am, but in the absence of other people, I feel no need to differentiate my (a)sexuality from the general amorphous mass of ‘I am what I am’.

So, yeah. I am what I am. Which happens to be ace.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 3

So, as I mentioned in Part 1, I now have a new mattress.

Why is portability one of the features I most want in a bed?

One reason is that I relied on a portable bed this summer, and I grew to like it. I’ve gone on backpacking trips before, but never for an entire month before, so I settled more into that way of sleeping. My ‘sleep system’ (sleeping bag + sleeping pad + tent + “pillow”) needed to be portable because I was literally carrying it with me for hundreds of miles (my pillow, by the way, was whatever I had on hand which I could put in a stuff sack under my head. Usually, it was my rain gear. I used to use paperback books, and in the future, I think I’ll go back to paperback pillows).

When my sleeping bag is in the compression sack (shown on the left in this picture), it is slightly smaller than a basketball. The sleeping bag weighs about 2 pounds (less than 1 kg), though the compression sack itself adds a few ounces. The compression sack means the sleeping bag only takes a modest amount of space in my pack, leaving more space for other stuff. The silver/yellow thing the middle of the picture is my sleeping pad, which weighs 10 ounces (about 280 grams). Since the pad takes a lot of space, it rides outside of the pack, not inside. This sleeping bag + sleeping pad is a very portable ‘bed’.

Between July 24 and August 29, I only slept in beds for three nights.

My bed at home, as I described in the first post, turned out to be even less comfortable than my sleeping bag. So why was I sleeping in the bed rather than my sleeping bag?

In a broader sense, both my travels in Japan and my backpacking trips have given me a taste for simplicity in my beds. Bed frames? Not necessary, and a hassle.

The other reason I care so much about portability is that, sooner or later, all beds have to be moved. I had to move out all five of the mattresses and the bed frame, and except for the lightest of the five mattresses, I needed help. And my dad is the one who helped me. He is currently transitioning from able-bodied to disabled. He was capable of helping me this time, and I’m grateful for that, but I cannot depend on him in the future. I could also ask neighbors to help, but I would prefer not to depend on them either. Thus, it made sense to get rid of this bed now, while my dad is physically capable of helping me, and to replace it with a bed I can move all by myself.

By the way, my dad has been talking for at least half a year about replacing his own bed, and portability is also one of his top concerns.

I didn’t remove all of the mattresses in one day. I peeled them off, like layers. One of the reasons they did not go in one day is that they have to be stored in the front room or the basement, and it took time to find space for all of them.

Two of the mattresses were western-style futons. And both of them had evidence of mold. Yep, I had been sleeping on moldy mattresses. One of those futons is older than I am – my dad says he had it before he even know my mother. Futons, even with good maintenance, generally will not last more than twenty years, and my dad admits that he did not maintain them properly.

Another mattress was a feather mattress which is just about as old as I am – my dad bought it when I was born. Like the futon mattresses, it had not been properly maintained, which was why it was all clumpy and generally not very useful as a mattress anymore. It is possible to restore feather mattresses, but it also has a tear which leaks feathers, which would have needed to be repaired before restoration. Plus, it probably has some flame retardants in it, albeit a lot less than foam mattresses (my dad said the reason he chose a feather mattress was that he thought it would probably be the less toxic than other types of mattresses, and sadly, in the 1980s, he was probably right). Ultimately, it was in such bad shape that it was not worth saving.

I was a bit concerned about what gross things I would find *under* my bed after I removed the mattresses and bed frame. I was relieved that it turned out to be more interesting than disgusting. I found old pieces of homework from when I was in high school.

Anyway, back to futons, mold, and maintenance.

One of the things I learned from camping is that live humans are humidifiers. If you put a live human in a small enclosed space, unless it already has an extremely high humidity, the human is going to dramatically increase the humidity. This is why condensation is such a common problem in tents.

If you put a live human on top of a futon (or any mattress, but I’m talking about futons now) then you have basically put a humidifier on top of the futon. The futon is going to suck body moisture from the human. This is why it’s generally recommended that (western-style) futons are places on slatted bed frames, or frames designed for futons. With a proper frame, the air below the mattress will allow the moisture to escape. But if you put the futon on a hard surface – like a floor – then the moisture will be trapped. And trapped moisture invites mold.

Back in the day, my dad didn’t think it was important to put the futon on a frame, so he just put it on the floor. He says that he remembers being surprised by how moist it was.

And my new shiki futon is made almost entire of cotton – and cotton tends to absorb and retain moisture even better than most textiles (which is why many long-distance hikers consider cotton to be the fabric of death, not ‘the fabric of our lives’).

Oh, and I am not using a bed frame.

On top of all that, I live in a building built in 1908 in San Francisco.

I am going to deal with this the Japanese way. Traditionally, futons are rolled up or folded during the day so there is more living space. Ideally, one would air-hang the futon every day, but few people do that. Even the process of rolling/folding the futon when it’s not in use helps it dry out. Rolling also stretches the cotton batting which helps it retain its shape. I plan to periodically flip the mattress, and once in a while (as in, maybe twice a year) drying the mattress outside in the sun.

It takes me about 10 seconds to roll the mattress, and 5 seconds to unroll it. That’s a quarter of a minute of labor per day.

There is my new mattress, rolled up, next to the goza mats (note: my mattress is inside an old mattress protector my family purchased in the 1990s – since the old mattress protector is still good, I saw no need to replace it. Besides, the Chinese characters fit the washiku aesthetic. The new mattress is the color of undyed natural cotton).

Another step I’ve taken is that I am not putting the mattress directly on the floor. I’ve gotten some igusa goza mats. Igusa is a type of rush grass which has been used in Japan for centuries. Though it can trigger allergies for some people, it’s nontoxic and biodegradable. It has a distinct smell (which I like) and it pulls moisture. Thus, it will take some of the moisture out of the mattress, and when the mattress is rolled and removed, the igusa can release the moisture back into the air.

I was originally thinking of using tatami mats instead of goza mats. But tatami mats have a few problems:

1) Nowadays, most tatami mats contain particle board, and most types of particle board release toxic fumes. I’m not always against particle board, but I don’t want it where I sleep.
2) The traditional tatami mats which are filled with rice straw instead of particle board are very heavy, and thus not so portable.
3) Tatami mats, especially high quality tatami mats, are very expensive.
4) Tatami mats, like futons, require good maintenance, otherwise they will also get moldy. I remember once staying at a place in Japan with nasty tatami mats. They were so nasty that I was allowed to walk on them with my shoes on (this is almost never permitted in Japan). I did not mind because I got a private space with a permanent roof over my head for just 800 yen per night (that is about 8 USD per night). It helped me appreciate what happens when tatami mats are not maintained.

Goza mats are much cheaper, are primarily made of igusa (rather than being igusa filled with particle board or rice straw), are lightweight, and are easy to air out. Yes, I had to spend about a hundred USD to get the goza mats, but if they help keep the mattress in good condition, it’s worth it. And I like having some barrier between the mattress and the floor.

And the goza mats I bought were made in Taiwan, the only place I’ve ‘lived’ outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. I think that complements my made-in-San-Francisco mattress very well.

(Update: after less than two months of using the goza mats, I discovered one of them had some mold. That was fast. I cleaned it with vinegar. Meanwhile, my mattress shows no signs of moistness or mold. Maybe the goza mats are doing their job and sucking the moisture out of the mattress?)

Does my new mattress contain any flame retardants? What’s happening to my old mattresses? What about my pillow? These questions will be answered in Part 4.

(Spoiler: my new mattress does contain a flame retardant, and I’m actually okay with that.)

Sixth Year Anniversary Post

As of today, this blog is six years old. To quote the very first paragraph of my very first post on this blog:

I had been thinking about starting a blog for years. However, I never had ‘enough time’ to maintain a proper blog. Finally, I realized that I will never have ‘enough time’ to blog, so if I am going to blog, I have to do it now, when I don’t have ‘enough time’.

Six years later, not having ‘enough time’ still has not stopped this blog. Huzzah!

While I was writing and posting that very first blog post, I was reading the novel Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ for the very first time. Since it was only the second book I had ever read in Chinese, my reading speed was very slow, and since it is more than 1500 pages long, it took a lot of time to read. I spent about 2-3 hours per day reading, and it took me several weeks. On top of that, I was also spending about two hours a day studying Chinese in other ways, such as watching the classic Taiwanese TV show Meteor Garden, so that I would develop my listening and speaking skills, not just my reading skills.

The first time I read this novel, this was the edition I read. I preferred the editions which came in smaller sizes and only about 250 pages per volume rather than the editions with thicker books and fewer volumes because a) the smaller volumes were easier to carry around b) I was not confident in my Chinese reading skills at the time, so being able to complete a volume faster (because it was much shorter) gave me an extra motivation boost.

The fact that I was reading Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ and studying Chinese (as well as working at my job, sleeping, taking care of chores and errands, etc.) was one of the main reasons I did not have ‘enough time’ to start a blog. Somehow, I started this blog anyway.

At the time, I would not have predicted that I would be referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so often in this blog, even six years later. Heck, the post which was published yesterday mentions Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. Meanwhile, I rarely (or even never?) reference Meteor Garden in this blog, even though that was the TV show I was watching when this blog started.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because of the Jin Yong Jolt? Partially, perhaps, but if that were the case, I would probably be referencing The Deer and the Cauldron, which is without question the most WTF???!!!! of Jin Yong’s novels, even more often. Yet I rarely mention The Deer and the Cauldron in this blog.

Do I reference Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ so much because I headcanon the protagonist as ace? That definitely has a lot to do with it, but I also have brought up Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in a lot of posts which aren’t about asexuality.

Something about this specific novel really stays with me in a way that few novels do, and it’s been reflected in this blog for six years.

Oh, and I recently watched the 1983 TV adaptation of Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ. That means there are going to be even more blog posts referencing Shén Diāo Xiá Lǚ in the near future.

Odyssey of a New Bed, Part 2

The simplest of all beds is the ground. But what is ‘the ground’? That depends on where you are. ‘The ground’ could be soil covered with dry grass, a sandy beach, a slab of flat rock, etc.

While there is no doubt that ‘the ground’ is the cheapest, simplest, and lowest tech bed of them all, there are three main problems. The first problem is cleanliness, though that is going to depend on what ‘ground’ we are talking about, as well as how much one cares about ‘cleanliness’. The second problem is that the ground may be hard and apply a lot of pressure to certain points of the body, which can especially be a problem for side sleepers (and even ground which is initially soft may compact over time). The third problem – and this is the doozy – is that the ‘ground’ is a heat sink. In warm temperatures, that’s not a problem. In cooler temperatures, it’s very uncomfortable, and in cold temperatures, lying directly on the ground can cause hypothermia and death.

This is a photo of the corner of the bedroom where I roll out my goza mats and mattress right before I cleaned the walls (the walls look whiter now than they do in this picture)

The floor of my bedroom is not exactly the ground. It is made of hardwood, is above a basement room full of (unheated) air, which is on top of the foundation, which is on the ground. However, even though it’s removed from the ground, the floor of my bedroom is still enough of a heat sink that sleeping directly on it in cool/cold weather is not going to happen.

Unless one lives in a climate where it is always warm at night, one has to sleep on a surface which is not a heat sink. There are basically only two ways to do this: heating, and insulation.

There are of course multiple ways to heat a sleeping surface. One could heat the air around the sleeping surface. However, it is generally most efficient just to directly heat the sleeping surface, such as in the traditional kang bed-stoves of Northern China and Manchuria (which are typically made of brick or clay) or traditional ondol floors in Korea. When the sleeping surface is heated, one wants a surface which can retain heat for an entire night, hence the preference for brick/clay/stone/etc.

Yang Guo lies on the cold jade bed, and Xiaolongnü prepares to sleep on a rope.

In a novel I sometimes mention in this blog, there is a ‘cold jade bed’ which, though very uncomfortable, will develop one’s nèigōng (inner power). I’m no expert of traditional Chinese medicine or martial arts, but my guess is that the body is learning to resist the heat sink effect of sleeping on a cold stone bed and thus building nèigōng. This is, of course, fiction; in real life this is a recipe for hypothermia.

Jade beds are real. I’ve lain on a jade bed in Dragon Hill Spa in Seoul, though that was in a heated bathhouse. There are also heated kang beds made of jade (which I am sure are extremely expensive).

So that’s heated surfaces. What about insulation instead of (or complemented with) heating?

I know that some people who camp in forests create ‘beds’ out of duff (fallen leaves, pine needles, cones, etc.) which is a very low-tech type of insulation. A higher-tech type of insulation commonly used in camping are portable sleeping pads, which may be made of foam, or inflatable air pockets (essential a small air mattress), or polyester, or any other lightweight insulating material which will insulate even under the weight of human being. If one does not need great portability, and has a wider choice of materials than forest duff, then there are a lot more possibilities for insulating material.

This is the only place I’ve ever done ‘cowboy camping’ (so far). ‘Cowboy camping’ is sleeping outside without a shelter. The white thing in the center-left is my groundsheet, and the silver-yellow thing in the center of the picture is my foam sleeping pad. The sleeping pad was the main insulation I had from the ground this night.

Another thing one can do is to lift the bed up so that there is air between the sleeping surface and the floor. Air is an insulator, so this helps, but if the air flows it’s also going carry heat away as it flows. Thus one either needs to trap the air (this is what an air mattress does, and foam with air pockets does this too) or use an insulator which is not going to flow away.

My new mattress is an excellent insulator. It provides all of the insulation I need to avoid losing my body heat to the floor of my bedroom, and it also does not flow away and take my body heat with it.

That leaves the problems of hardness and cleanliness. And a bed needs to provide something else – support. Most types of ground provide excellent support, but if one is not sleeping directly on the ground, then support may become an issue. While the rope which Xiaolongnü in the picture up there sleeps on is an extremely simple bed, it does not provide nearly enough support, unless one has superhuman qīnggōng like Xiaolongnü (wuxia fiction is not known for having realistic depictions of sleeping technology, okay? Pity, I’d be curious to try out the addictively comfortable bed in Happy Heroes, though it’s probably a good thing that best does not exist since I might never want to leave.)

Generally, firmer surfaces provide better support, and softer surfaces provide worse support. Furthermore, a surface which contours to the body provides more even (and thus better) support, and a surface which does not contour to the body provides less even (and thus worse) support. Ideally, one would sleep on a firm surface which contours to the body.

My new mattress provides a lot of support (which ultimately comes from my bedroom floor) while contouring to my body better than the floor would. However, while I think it strikes a good balance, it’s not perfect.

And as I mentioned in the previous post, because it’s easy to roll up and only about 30 lb (14 kg), it is a very portable mattress.

Why is portability an important feature to me? What disgusting discoveries did I make when I removed the five mattresses which formed my old ‘bed’? What will I do to keep my new mattress usable for years? The answers to these questions will be in Part 3.