May 25th, 2006

In 24 hours I'll be halfway across the country via airplane (barring unforeseen catastrophe), on my way to Wiscon. This delights me in so many ways I'm just about to explode from the sheer coolness of it all - not least of all because OMG ALL THE COOL KIDS ARE THERE, but also because it appeals to one of my intellectual soft spots: the cross-pollination of expertise. I've been thinking about this subject an awful lot lately because it's something that interests me a great deal.

I first got to pondering intellectual cross-pollination back in college, in an 18th century lit class taught by one of the most superlative lecture teacher's I've ever had the joy of knowing. The situation was this: in some old play, there was a passing reference to the use of mouse-skin false eyebrows as a commonplace cosmetic accoutrement. My fine teacher expressed some reservation on this point - because to the best of his knowledge, no one ever really used real skins of real dead mice on their foreheads; and he was unaware of any other reference to this technique. But he was fair enough to admit that he might be wrong, and he invited anyone to contribute evidence to the contrary.

This tripped a little lightbulb in the back of my head. I'd seen a contemporary historical mention of mouse-skin eyebrows before - I was sure of it. So with a little digging around in my personal library, I turned up (with a gleeful cry of "Eureka!") the short story "Madam Crowl's Ghost," by Joseph Sheriden LeFanu. Though the exact text escapes me now, the story included a reference to this prettifying practice to make it abundantly clear that yes, rodents were was well-known to beauticians in the 1700s.

I brought the book into his office, shared the story, smirked when he went "EWW," and was patted on the back. Ah, the shared moment of academic discovery! Why, we were the scholar adventurers!

But since I have a pretty erudite audience in some respects, I'm willing to bet that several of you (at least) read those paragraphs and said to yourselves, "Selves, of course they used mouse skin eyebrows in the 1700s! What ignorant professor wouldn't know such a thing?" Well I'll tell you - a man whose expertise had become as focused, powerful, and in some respects as narrow as a laser beam. That's who. This was a man wouldn't have read a horror novel if his life depended on it.

I ran into this disconnect between the disciplines quite regularly in graduate school too, when I found myself out of the private christian education system for the first time in my life. Though one of my teachers was once a nun, not all of her coworkers were quite so well versed in the scriptures; and every once in awhile, I'd encounter a literary reference to an obscure parable or verse that no one else in the classroom seemed to get - not even the teachers. It wasn't because they were stupid and it wasn't because I was smart - it was simply because they didn't spend sixteen years in Bible school, and I did.

Of course the laser-pointer of expertise doesn't limit itself to academia. A few months ago I was reading Death's Acre (by William Blass and Jon Jefferson), and in it we learned that one of the foremost forensic scientists in the world was unaware of a significant skeletal difference between the knees of black and white men. It took an expert in orthopedics (who was taking one of his classes) to enlighten him. She assured Dr. Blass that "everybody knows" about the structural difference; but Blass didn't know about it, and until he did, he was missing a piece of information that would prove quite valuable to the identification of decomposed bodies. Behold, the merging of disciplines - and what sweet music it makes!

Now, sometimes, I wish I could revisit my days in christian school - with the perspective I've gained since my studies under the cross. I'm occasionally reminded of the gaps created by my own upbringing and the set of assumptions that came with it.

For example, a few nights ago I was reading a book on various and assorted forms of divination, and I encountered a breakdown of divination methods discussed in the Bible - everything from dream interpretation to the casting of lots, and so forth. (If you approach these things from outside the assumption that God was guiding the outcomes, they really do look suspiciously like ordinary fortune telling.) Also in this book there are multiple references to non-Hebrew divination techniques, including one that had always confused me - the shaking or polishing of arrows.

In Ezekiel (Chap. 21) you can read of a Babylonian king who performs a bit of inexplicable weirdness. Depending on your translation, he pulls arrows out of a bag and either shines or shakes them (I suspect mistransliteration somewhere along the line). Then he looks at the liver of a sheep, but reading entrails is as old as campfires and rocks so that's not a big surprise. At any rate, I'd always sort of wondered what the passage about the arrows was talking about, and no one I ever asked knew what to tell me.

Well, thanks to a naughty pagan book on practices forbidden by my Judeo-Christian upbringing, now I know. To "shake" or "shine" arrows ("Bolomancy" or "Belomancy"*) was to perform something like a scrying version of pick-up sticks, and it was once quite common.** Cool. Now I know.

So. Back to my original point - if in fact I had one: Wiscon. I like the idea of the cross-disciplinary interaction - feminism and science fiction, writers and readers, fans and folks from different backgrounds with different areas of specialty. Back in my olden undergraduate days (from that same marvelous professor mentioned first above), I encountered a definition of "Wit" - (to paraphrase) "the striking together of two different ideas, in such a manner that the sparks illuminate truth."

It's a definition that can be applied to so many things, really - and I think it works best of all when wise-persons from different fields share a room, or a hotel, or a convention. And this is one reason I'm looking forward to this weekend with such rabid anticipation. Let the sparks begin!


* Though these terms may also apply to the shooting of arrows into the air to divine from their landings.
In my little fortune telling book, there is also an extensive discussion on the acceptance of palmistry and the mark of the beast - which drew conclusions I sometimes found to be far-fetched, but sometimes were downright interesting. In Proverbs 3:16(KJV) Wisdom is described as a being a woman with the - "Length of days ... in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour." Might be an allegory. Might be a reference to having good lines on her palms. There's no telling - but it's certainly an interesting way to come at the text, isn't it?

Second post. Hurrah!

And for those of you who are less interested in long rambly thinky crap from yours truly, here's a flash cartoon of headbanging little drummer people. Superlatively cute and clickable.


Pre-con squealies

Okay - this is it. Last time I'll be online before WisCon.
I sign off now, and wish you all the best.

Wisconsin, here I come!

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