Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Personal

The Elements of Cat Vacuuming


Vacuuming a cat requires only one thing: a cat with zero fucks to give. A cat that stands their ground when other cats scatter to the wind. A cat that cannot be yelled at to get down from there. A cat that ignores what he chooses to ignore. A cat that stands athwart. A cat like that will not run when the vacuum cleaner comes out. A cat like that will sit there and dare you to vacuum them. And then not care if you do. Because running away and giving a damn is just too much work. (Also, they might actually enjoy it, but would prefer it if you didn’t tell anyone.)

Goober has always been a cat you could vacuum. That’s because Goober is serene in his own domain: he is only afraid if he gets outside, or is moved into a new home, or goes to the vet. I’m sad to report that he is now in decline: he’s lost a lot of weight and is looking shakier all the time. He turns 16 this month, and we’re not sure how much longer we’ll have him. But he’ll still gouge your knees if you don’t pick him up, and grab your plate away from you if he wants your food—and yes, he won’t budge if you bring out the vacuum.

He’d probably still punch a dog, if a dog were available for him to punch.

Adventures in Artisanal Snow Shovelling

Where we live is a surprisingly lucky place, weather-wise. Storm systems often pass just south of us, meaning that when bad weather hits the St. Lawrence corridor, or Ottawa, it hits us much less severely, or misses us altogether. Or, because we’re a couple of degrees cooler than the city, we get snow when Ottawa gets freezing rain.

That can mean a lot of shovelling, but when you buy a house in your mid-forties, certain things become novel and interesting that others in your cohort got sick of doing decades ago. Shovelling the driveway is one of those things for us.

For the longest time we didn’t have a driveway, or had a parking lot with plow service: all we had to do was shovel out the car and the walk. Now we do have a driveway all to ourselves, and it’s fairly large: about 30 metres long, and wide enough for two cars. And we don’t have a plow service to take most of it away. So we shovel it out ourselves, by hand. With, you know, shovels.

Jennifer next to a snowbankAround here this is apparently evidence that we are off our nuts. People buy big and expensive gas-powered snowblowers to remove snow from driveways half the size of ours. But for the most part we don’t find it all that onerous, especially if I’m feeling well enough to pitch in. When there’s two of us doing it we can usually get it done in well under an hour.

And we try to do it as quickly as we can after it snows. This often means we’re out there several times a week, or even a day. But there’s a method to this madness. If you’re going to shovel the driveway, you have to be zealous about it or there’s no point. Keeping the surface bare makes it easier to shovel the next time, otherwise there’s rough ice and it’s a pain to clear things off. In order to do it easily, you have to do it a lot.

Greenworks electric snowthrowerThis doesn’t always work, mind. Last year the snow came down so often and so heavily that I threw my shoulder out: it was bothering me for months afterward. Doing it by hand has consequences. So for this season we bought a small, electric snowthrower to handle the heavier snow days. It’s no good on the snow of the kind we had over the weekend (heavy and wet and slushy), but it has come in handy on three occasions so far. It throws the snow further than we can, and that helps keep the berms from getting too steep. While it’s a bit underpowered for what we have, I wanted to avoid a gas model, and the high-powered blowers all run on gas.

And sometimes a combination of wintry mix or freezing rain renders the driveway an unshovelable mass of hard ice, which means we have to break out the ice chipper. On a driveway our size that’s a brutal, multi-day job, one that leaves our arms more or less gelatinous. But the end result makes the next snowfall that much easier to deal with.

The 22-Year Anniversary of My Diagnosis, and Why I Don’t Talk About It as Much as I Might

I imagine that everyone with a serious or chronic illness knows the date of their diagnosis. Mine was January 13, 1998, which is to say 22 years ago today.

The diagnosis was by that point a formality. I’d known something was up since June 1997—I was in constant pain and I had trouble walking and sleeping—and had been talking to doctors and undergoing tests. The previous month I’d received results from a bone scan that suggested a possible diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis—a disease I’d never heard of before, though it turned out that there was a family history of it. The rheumatologist reviewed that family history, the symptoms and the test results and concluded that I had a “textbook case” of AS.

(As it turns out, my case is not so textbook, or at least the textbook has since changed. A 2012 MRI revealed no evidence of spinal fusion after 15 years, which made a different rheumatologist wonder whether I had AS at all. She retracted that doubt at a later visit when I arrived in flare and she saw how I walked. I suspect that what I have is non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis, which is similar to AS and is treated the same way, but doesn’t involve spinal fusion and doesn’t show up on X-rays. I’ve yet to run my theory past a rheumatologist, though.)

I’ve been living with that diagnosis, with modifications, for more than 22 years. I’ve always been open about my illness (much to my mother’s horror) and I used to talk about it a fair bit—I even ran a blog about it for a while—but lately I’ve been talking about it a lot less. That’s not because I’m doing better, because honestly I’m not (though there still seems to be no sign of fusion). It’s because talking about my illness is, even after all the elapsed time and the care received, still a potentially hazardous activity. Even under best-case conditions, talking about my illness requires a tremendous amount of emotion work.

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A Year of Misguided Opinions: 2019 in Essays

It was not one of my more productive writing years (book reviewing in particular seems to have fallen off a cliff), to the point that I resorted to reposting pieces I wrote years earlier. But I still managed to produce a few new pieces in 2019:

I published three essays on Tor.com this year that dealt with fantasy map design: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?,” “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” and “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?”: the second of these in particular generated a lot of interest, and pushback, mainly from people who stopped reading after the title.

(More articles along these lines will appear in the new year: they’re proving harder to write than I expected, so they’re slow in coming.)

In terms of science fiction and fantasy criticism, I also published one essay on the newly relaunched AE: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” explored the unusual storytelling structure of the first two books. I also reviewed Farah Mendlesohn’s critical study of Robert Heinlein.

(Technically, the above pieces render me eligible for various Hugo and Aurora awards for fan writing and related works, but I have some sense of perspective about the chances of that.)

In terms of maps, I reviewed two books: John Roman’s Art of Illustrated Maps, which came out in 2015 but is now hard to find, but I needed it for my fantasy maps articles; and Matthew Edney’s academic and argumentative Cartography: The Ideal and Its History.

Other essays were more eclectic in subject. “The Enthusiast’s Blind Spot” was nominally about car reviews, but dealt with the disconnect between reviews by enthusiasts and the desires of the buying public. “The Ones Who Walk Away from America” melded my family history with the increasing crazification of American political discourse. “Canada’s Emergency Alerts Are Broken by Design,” which looked for a structural explanation for the complaints about being woken up by Amber Alerts, should have gotten me yelled at more than it did.

Finally, during last fall’s federal election I committed the sin of punditry, with a trio of essays exploring the parties’ election platform and rhetoric: “Status Quo Ante” looked at the Conservatives’ desire to restore the Harper years, “When Federal Politicians Talk About Provincial Matters, and Vice Versa” at politicians’ inability to resist talking about things that are not in their purview, and “Foreign Affairs” at the dangers of offering opinions on other countries’ politics.

Pretzel, 20 Years On

Today is an anniversary of sorts. May 30, 1999 was the date I got back into snake keeping, when I brought home, from a pet store, a young female corn snake I named Pretzel. She wasn’t a particularly large snake, though she wasn’t a newborn, and she wasn’t particularly flashy: just a plain, ordinary corn snake with no fancy colour or pattern mutations.

Twenty years later, Pretzel is still with us, hardly changed from the day I brought her home. The Dorian Gray of colubrid snakes. I was going to say that she’s still going strong, but that’s up in the air at the moment. Right now she’s sequestered in a cage with a nesting box because she seems to be with (absolutely infertile) eggs; last week she had a few seizures that may or may not be related. We’re keeping an eye.

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The Coming of the Loyalists

The Ones Who Walk Away from America

To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.

The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3

Josiah Woodhull House. Wikimedia Commons.Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4

Victoria Claftin Woodhull. Wikimedia Commons.Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.

My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.

So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.

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Meanwhile: Bird Strikes, Ovulating Snakes, Connection Issues and Spoiler Warnings

We have a bird strike problem. Spring is here, and birds are returning in huge numbers. And on a near-daily basis, they’re colliding with our windows. Usually it’s a glancing blow and they fly off, but sometimes it’s worse. Last Wednesday a dark-eyed junco hit hard enough that I thought it had died: it was prone on the ground for an awfully long time, but when I checked back later it had disappeared. Either it recovered and flew off, or it didn’t and was carried away by another animal. A female purple finch hit rather harder on Thursday, and her fate was rather less ambiguous (pictured above).

A thrush lost its encounter with a window last fall as well.

We’ll have to do something about this: we have a lot of birds around here, and I don’t like being responsible for reducing that number. The house is surrounded by trees, which the windows reflect very well, especially on sunny days, and especially in spring and fall when there aren’t leaves to provide some shade. A friend has suggested ultraviolet window decals as a deterrent, and we’ve received some other suggestions on how to reduce bird strikes. Until we get those set up, at the very least I’ll have to keep the curtains shut on sunny days.


Pretzel has refused to eat three times in a row. She’s our oldest corn snake, and almost certainly our oldest snake overall: I acquired her nearly 20 years ago, in May 1999, and she wasn’t a baby when I got her. When an old snake suddenly goes off her food, that’s usually a sign that the end is near. But not in this case, I think. She’s all soft and expansive in the belly, which tells me that the old girl is actually full of eggs. Pretz was always one to lay lots of eggs, to the point that she was gaunt and hollow afterward; I stopped trying to breed her nearly a decade and a half ago, because her eggs weren’t hatching any more and I didn’t want to put her through that for no reason. She usually laid her eggs in May, so we’ll see soon enough if that’s what this is. I expect she’ll be back on her food after that.


Our Internet connection troubles may finally have been solved. Cable crews were in the area on Thursday and pinpointed our house as an issue for the neighbourhood’s signal quality. We’d previously noticed periodic and persistent bandwidth losses, usually in the evening, that seemed to have no identifiable cause and were resistant to all fixes. The culprit in both cases was the last few feet of coaxial cable, which couldn’t be easily replaced because it was routed underneath the front porch. We found a way to reroute the line into the basement, where I moved all the networking gear. Because the troubles were intermittent, it’s too soon to say whether the fix is actually a fix: the dog has to fail to bark, if you follow my meaning.

One reason why the crews were in the area is that our cable company is in the process of offering significantly faster download speeds in our region. Right now we have 15 megabits, the fastest speed they had on offer. Not bad for a small town. Now they’re offering 30- and 50-megabit downloads in my area, and the crew told us that 100 megabits should be available by next month or so. I always want the fastest speed on offer, but with the troubles we’d been having I wasn’t sure there’d be much point in paying for bandwidth the line couldn’t handle. Now though? Bring on the megabits.


I may be changing my mind on spoiler warnings. Saw Avengers: Endgame on Friday night. I’d planned on seeing it unspoiled, but I made the mistake of visiting the movie’s Wikipedia entry a few days before release: the page had a complete (and accurate) plot synopsis. Wikipedia editors were unrepentant on the Talk page, pointing out that the movie had already been released in some markets. Which strikes me—as someone who’s generally been pro-spoiler—as a dick move.

I’ve deliberately spoiled myself going into movies and I’ve gone in unspoiled, and there are pros and cons to either method. I’ve always felt the spoiler police were being excessive. (Spoilers about sports results, or decades-old movies or books? Get a grip.) I do think that going in unspoiled requires a certain amount of Internet hygiene: avoid fan sites, discussion boards, anything related to the thing being spoiled. I just didn’t think that Wikipedia was one of the sites that needed to be avoided, especially four days before the movie launched in North America.

Passages

Delbert F. Seely, Jennifer’s grandfather, died on May 30 at the age of 97. He’d had severe Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife, and Jennifer’s grandmother, Phyllis, died in 2013, but apparently wrote much of this obituary. Before Alzheimer’s got them both they were major figures in Jennifer’s life; she was the only granddaughter, and as such, I’m told, he had a soft spot for her.

My uncle, Paul W. Prosser, died on June 3 at the age of 69. Here’s his distressingly brief obituary; I have no other details. To be honest I hadn’t seen or spoken with him in nearly 20 years—not since I moved away from Alberta—but while I was living in Edmonton he and his family, who lived in nearby Spruce Grove, were a great support, and I owe them a lot.

House Anniversary

It’s been one year to the day since we took possession of the house, and we’re still working out its quirks and features.

These are the things you don’t notice when you tour the house for the first time, or even during the inspection. I’m amazed at what now seems conspicuous, even glaring, but that we missed completely when we were buying the place. For example, the floors. They’d obviously been redone since the house was built 30 years ago, but it’s clear now that that work was done not too long before we bought the place, and it had not been done well: there were problems with the transition pieces and the doors that wouldn’t close, which we had fixed almost immediately, and the carpet in the upper living room/dining room has been causing all sorts of problems with bookshelf stability that we’re still trying to engineer a permanent solution for. More subtle things have since emerged: baseboards that don’t line up, mismatched paint patches, that sort of thing.

But things like this are fixable, and more to the point we can live with them in the meantime, so they don’t bother us too much. We’ll get to them eventually.

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A Year of Misguided Opinions: 2017 in Essays

My most popular opinion piece in 2017 was actually something I wrote in late 2016: “Opposition in the Age of Gish Gallops,” in which I argued that the Age of Trump required focused and strategic action from his opponents. A year later, much of what I feared has come to pass: I see a lot of blanket opposition to everything at once and not much focus, while Republican unity seems stronger than I’d hoped.

Over on The Map Room, I tackled a different kind of controversy: the Peters projection. I argued that the debate over the Peters projection was increasingly irrelevant, because wall maps were increasingly irrelevant; the future is online, and the Internet, for better or worse, uses Web Mercator. I also wrote a major piece on fantasy maps, my first in four years: “The Territory Is Not the Map” was partially a book review and partially an observation that when we talk about fantasy maps—when we talk about good maps and bad maps, for example—we’re talking about the geography of imaginary places, not the maps of those places.

In “Are Conventions Necessary?” I took a hard look at the usefulness of science fiction conventions; the piece got a lot of attention, some of it even from people who took the time to read it. (A lot of Twitter critics apparently did not.) It got an order of magnitude more page views than any of my reviews of science fiction or fantasy novels, which says something; meanwhile, my Star Wars essays (“The Lightsaber Black Market,” “The Rebel Alliance Has Terrible OpSec”), while fun to write, sank without a trace.

Speaking of book reviews, I posted nineteen of them this year: fourteen here, five at The Map Room. See this page for links. (I didn’t publish any reviews on AE this year, simply because AE didn’t publish anything at all this year. As far as I know their relaunch is still in the works, and if all goes well I’ll have reviews there in the new year.)

Finally, I wrote two essays of local interest that were widely shared by my neighbours. “J’y suis, j’y reste” was posted on the day we took possession of our house, and traced the path we took en route to becoming permanently ensconced here in Shawville. “The Latecomers” looked at the curious fact that three of the five candidates for warden were recent arrivals—including the winner (and now the Pontiac MRC warden) Jane Toller, who as Jane Pitfield once ran for mayor of Toronto.

I suppose each of us could ask one another how we ended up in this neck of the woods; their stories would probably be as roundabout as mine.

J’y suis, j’y reste

“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”

That was the then-mayor of Shawville, watching me walk gingerly through the mud during the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon become the village’s day care centre. It was the fall of 2003 and I was covering the event as a reporter for the local newspaper. For various reasons I lasted all of five months in that job, but it gave me a crash course in the town, the surrounding countryside and the MRC du Pontiac in general.

Yes, I was from the city—I grew up in suburban Winnipeg—but Shawville, a town of some 1,600 people, most of whom anglophone, about 75 km northwest of Ottawa, seemed somehow familiar. I spent a lot of my childhood staying with my paternal grandparents in Hartney, Manitoba, a village two thousand kilometres away and about one-third the size. But there were some similarities: both communities served as service centres for the surrounding farms. And both had demographics that tilted elderly. To me, it felt like moving to Shawville was like moving in with elderly relatives with whom you had to mind your manners and steer the conversation away from politics as much as possible, but apart from that you loved each other to bits.

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Elopement in Situ

On Friday, September 4, 2015, Jennifer and I got married at the courthouse in Campbell’s Bay, Quebec. My father and some of our closest friends were in attendance, but for the most part we didn’t tell anyone. It was an elopement of sorts, only without the travelling to Las Vegas.

Here’s how it came about.

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