I Rejected Cottagecore Before You Even Heard of It

In case you’re not picking up that this is self-deprecating humor, this is my version of that popular meme where a bespectacled hipster claims that he or she (or ze) was into some obscure thing long before it became a trend.

I’m not really this big of a jerk in real life. Quite.

But I am half-serious.

Eustacia made a lovely post recently, and it was there that I (for the first time actually) heard the term #cottagecore. Here is a BBC article about it. Since the article is by a major news organization, we can assume that it is late to the trend and gets a few things wrong. Still, this will be my source.

Basically (per the article) “cottagecore” is a visual aesthetic that became popular during the pandemic. It involves pictures of cottages, mushrooms, billowy dresses, rustic picnics, maybe gingham, maybe a gnome here or a fairy there. “It is the equal and opposite reaction to the contamination, helplessness and incoherence of our contemporary mise en scène,” says someone in the article. In other words, it’s sort of the exact opposite of a gritty urban fantasy.

As a lifestyle, cottagecore seems to involve things like gardening, sewing, crafting. Practicing self-sufficiency.

Correction: pretending to practice self-sufficiency.

I love the aesthetic. I do. I also love the idea of living self-sufficient. But it’s not really possible to do that in any thorough way, and if you do, you will be working so hard, and suffering so many privations, that your life will not look like a billowy, gingham-clad escapist fantasy. Hence, I can’t help feeling that anyone who takes this cottagecore thing as more than an interior decorating theme — anyone who tries to pretend it is somehow their lifestyle — is actually a poser. Let’s not fool ourselves, friends. I like mushrooms and sparkles as much as the next person, but they are not going to save us in the apocalypse.

I said as much here. Technically, this post was published before the pandemic started, so before cottagecore became a really big thing on Instagram. However, the article notes that cottagecore (as well as “faeriecore,” “farmcore,” and “grandmacore”) have been around since 2018. So I can’t really pull the hipster I-was-into-it-before-you-were move. Not to mention the Amish. And, you know, real subsistence farmers. They beat me to it a long time ago.

A Light, Crunchy Snack of a Space Opera

Keltie Sheffield is a real estate agent. In space. About two thousand years after humanity has learned to take to the stars. She sells planets like you would sell a house, but with a 200-year mortgage, paid off by the buyer’s great-grandchildren. She sells this one planet, which she thinks is uninhabited, but … you can imagine how that could possibly go wrong.

Also, she’s a young career gal who chose this path to spite her parents. Lost in space, she’s rescued by an adorable, gentlemanly military reservist named Grayson, and … you can imagine the possibilities.

At 162 pages, Phantom Planet is light, crisp, and refreshing, sort of like eating a handful of cucumber slices, maybe with a little tzatziki. Also like that, it goes quickly, and sort of feels like it was written quickly. I finished it in about one day. Also like the cucumber, it is really tasty (i.e. fun) and digestible, but it feels like just the appetizer. I got the feeling this book was the setup for a much larger epic. Which it is, as it is one in a planned series called “Galaxy Mavericks.” Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so many bricks lately, but it felt like just a first chapter.

One more cucumber comparison: this book is very clean. There is plenty of budding chemistry between Keltie and Grayson, but spoiler alert: they don’t even manage to kiss. At least not in this book.

Fun Moments

There were a ton of fun and charming moments. I am pretty sure the author gave himself a cameo (as a bookseller, naturally), and I’m now wondering whether he does this in all his books. Also, the scientific disclaimer at the beginning is delightful: “OK, pretty much every area of science probably got bastardized in some way while I wrote this book. Any and all errors were made lovingly for your reading enjoyment.” Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that line!

The food and fashion in Phantom Planet still retain many influences from Earth circa 2020. Keltie enjoys wine and chocolate croissants, for example. The women wear jewelry, which women have always loved to do, but you seldom see it in most space settings. (And why don’t more space opera characters get drunk in space? That seems like such a human thing to do, but this is the first time I can remember encountering it.) And, despite thousands of years of technology advancing, human beings are pretty much the same: there are still phishing scams!

One more thing that it may surprise you to see someone do in space: pray. “Prayer was always important in space. It kept things in perspective for her. A lot of people forgot that and often got carried away” (page 39). And no, this is not just meditation: Keltie is “thanking God,” and she wears a cross necklace. This element is kept very low-key, but it is so refreshing to find in a genre that often assumes that people, in the course of discovering that distant galaxies and alien races exist, will have “discovered” that God doesn’t. Space travel (even in this series, where it’s comparatively easy) is so dangerous, full of wonders, and above all disorienting that we can imagine that prayer would be a very human response and an excellent way to keep one’s sanity. Yet it is missing from so many books in this genre which, consciously or not, wish to portray human nature as mutable.

But What Does She Look Like?

Besides the “this is just the first chapter,” slightly less-than-satisfying feel of this book, which I understand because it’s part of a series, one minor thing bothered me.

We are given physical descriptions of nearly all the major characters, including Grayson, Keltie’s boss, her flight crew, her clients, and her best friend. We are not given a physical description of Keltie. Being able to picture the characters is important to me, so I just imagined her looking like a women from the cover of another La Ronn book I had seen (which is in a completely different genre). About 3/4 of the way through, we are finally told that Keltie has very long hair. Then that her sister is “blonde-haired and skinny and unlike [Keltie] in every way” (p.134). So, Keltie apparently is stout or curvy, with long, dark hair. I still don’t know what color her eyes are.

Maybe this issue is not important to any reader but me. (Maybe it’s even a trend. Is there some rule that we are not supposed to describe the point-of-view character, so that readers can picture that character however they like? I’m asking because I recently read a different book that made this same omission.) As for me, I take cover art very seriously as a clue to how the characters look, and I dislike having to guess and/or revise my mental image of the character partway through. (Especially if you are going to introduce a romance as a subplot.) Please, fellow authors, when you first introduce a character, give us a quick physical sketch, even if it’s just one or two outstanding physical features that can act as a peg to build our mental image on. I’m not saying you have to do the scene where the character looks at herself in the mirror (though if she DOES happen to look in a mirror, and you don’t tell me anything about what she sees, I’m going to be miffed). Just throw me a bone here.

Now … Go Eat Some Cucumber!

Other than those minor quibbles, this was an enjoyable book. There were lots of questions left unanswered that make me want to get the next one. If you like space operas and are looking for a new series to gobble up, check out Michael La Ronn’s Galaxy Mavericks! This would be a good series for libraries to carry because readers will speed through the books and check them out one after the other.

10,800-year-old Gardens in Amazonia

10,800 years ago, Early Humans Planted Forest Islands in Amazonia’s Grasslands

Much in this article is speculation, like the idea that there was an 8,000-year gap between people planting gardens and “full-blown agriculture” (whatever that is). Also, as always, the exact dates.

But this does seem to support the general picture that has been building … namely, that people got to the Americas a very long time ago, traversed them very quickly, and started gardening almost immediately … or perhaps already knew about agriculture before they got there, even if they had abandoned it for a generation or two while traveling. Or, as we like to say around here … (drumroll) … ancient people were already very sophisticated in the earliest records we find of them.

“Prehistoric” Swag

So, we’ve just come through a holiday season, and in the course of the last few months, I have acquired some items that would help me — or you — survive if we were suddenly plopped down in 10,000 BC. It is these that I will share with you today. And by “share with you,” I mean show you pictures. I will not actually give you my swag.

All of these items were gifts to me. (I now have my loved ones trained to give me cave man stuff.) I didn’t buy any of them myself, nor was I sent any of them in exchange for a promotion. Also, outofbabel not be held liable if you should find yourself in a prehistoric situation and these items fail to help you survive. It’s probably a “you” problem.

You Can Talk Good

First of all, your most pressing need will be to communicate. This game will help you learn to speak like a Neanderthal. The rules are: words of one syllable only. So, you can say “Angst,” “Eat,” and “Id,” but not “Ego,” “person,” “animal,” or “democracy.”

It comes with a cute little caveman boy who, if you speak a word of more than one syllable, will hit you with the No Stick.

You Can Wear Shoes

Minnetonka has been making wonderful moccasins for years now. They are modern mocs, suited to our need to be able to walk on pavement; they have rubber soles. Also, for the record, they are NOT as warm as boots on a snowy day!

Here is what they look like on.

You Can Visit Wyoming

This silver ring is supposed to represent the outline of the Tetons near Jackson, Wyoming, which, for the record, exists. It is by far the simplest looking of this gorgeous collection.

There is plenty of evidence that people have had pyrotechnology for many thousands of years.

You Can Drink UP!

Yes, that is exactly what it looks like.

It’s a drinking horn.

The packaging copy says, “GOAT STORY was inspired by the greatest discovery of all time — COFFEE! It was back in the 13th century when a flock of goats stumbled upon a bush of berries that made them go loco! Their obviously bored and adventure-seeking shepherd decided to brew the berries — and thank goats he did! Fast forward to the 21st century: that’s when we kick in. We decided to revolutionize coffee drinking and designed this one-of-a-kind coffee mug you’re holding now.”

I don’t know why we are randomly speaking Spanish (other than that it’s fun), and I’m not cool with the near blasphemy … but other than that, this copy was obviously written by a kindred spirit. I do love the “kick in” pun.

If you were to land unexpectedly in the very ancient world, you would be very very grateful to have with you one last, precious, cup of coffee. This item comes with a longer leather strap (not pictured) so that you can sling the hornful of life-giving liquid across your back and always be prepared lest you stumble upon a time portal.

The “Wise” Men as Failed Culture Crossers

The Original Text

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east [or when it rose] and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east [or when it rose] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,/Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,/because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:1 – 18

This passage is found only in Matthew, not in any of the other Gospels.

Notice, if you didn’t already, that it does not say how many Magi there were; they are just plural. It also doesn’t say that the Magi came to the stable, but references a “house.” Given other clues in the text, this incident could have happened as much as two years after Jesus’ birth. Apparently Joseph and Mary had been forced to stay on in Bethlehem for some time. (This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has ever had to deal with a large bureaucracy.) Apparently the housing situation in Bethlehem had improved enough that they had either found a room to rent, or a relative to stay with.

The following is a re-write of a meditation on the Magi that I once wrote for a church newsletter. The original title was “The Wise Men as Failed Missionaries,” but I think their experience can apply equally well to many kinds of culture crossing, including culture crossing for research, medical work, or the Peace Corps, any time we are attempting to do no harm.

The Perils of Crossing Cultures

I did not see The King and I until after I had already lived in Asia. But I had heard about how great it was, and had somehow gotten the impression that it was a fun, lighthearted musical. When I finally saw it for the first time, I was shocked by how darkly and accurately it portrays the meeting of two cultures. The cost, to both Anna and King, is very high indeed, for what seems like a small payoff in mutual understanding.

There is one moment of the kind that we always hope for in cross-cultural exchanges. The King is making Anna show him how to ballroom dance. This romantic activity, so typical of Anna’s culture, is one that she loves, and that could never happen in the culture of Siam. She has been talking about it, and now the king wants to learn. They dance across the stage, with the king concentrating very hard on this new experience. “Again!” he commands. They dance again.

And then, right in the midst of this wonderful moment, everything crashes down. The concubine Tuptim is dragged before the king. She has been caught running away to join her lover. The king has her whipped; Anna tries to intervene; Tuptim is dragged off to her death, and the relationship between Anna and the king is irreparably broken.

Anna brings British values to the king of Siam, and those values literally kill him.

That is how cross-cultural exchanges often go.

The Wise Men, unfortunately, are no exception to this rule. Let’s call it the Law of Unintended Consequences. When people go into another culture, however good their intentions, there is inevitably much they don’t know. So the Wise Men show up quite innocently in Jerusalem and start asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

They did know a few important facts about Jesus – His office, His age (newborn), and that He ought to be worshipped. What they didn’t know was that Jesus had not been born into the current royal family, or that Judea was a political powder keg. They also had no idea how evil Herod was. It’s amazing – expatriats are constantly amazed – at how the same person can know an awful lot about some things, yet be completely clueless about other, equally important, equally obvious things. This is a pitfall of crossing cultures.

So, in they go – clumsily, conspicuously, perhaps with a large entourage. Foreigners, especially wealthy foreigners, always stand out. They are called before the king. And he is actually able to help them! His scholars point them to Bethlehem. He tells them a pack of lies about wanting to worship Jesus too, and they may sense they are being manipulated, but they are not sure exactly how. Everything is so different from what they expected.

Against all the odds, they do succeed in their mission. They find the newborn king. They worship Him. They deliver their carefully guarded gifts. They even manage not to go back and tell Herod where He is (by the grace of God).

They go back to their own country, thrilled to have met Him … and rightly so. They had gotten to meet the Messiah. It was the experience of a lifetime, and they had sacrificed a lot for it. I realize that I have made these godly men sound a bit foolish in the summary above. Of course they were not fools. I am just trying to highlight that, on a human level, their visit caused a lot more problems than it solved. The Bible hints – and I hope it is true – that they had no idea of the way events were unraveling in their wake.

For the story goes on. Herod does not care that he cannot find the exact child. It does not bother him to murder all the male babies in an entire town. And it does not bother his soldiers to obey him. The holy family, who thought they would just be in Bethlehem a while for the census, now are refugees in another country. And other families in Bethlehem fare much worse. Horror and tragedy! All triggered by the wise men.

If we were the wise men, and if we knew the whole story, we would be dismayed. We would throw up our hands and say, “What a horrible mess we’ve created!” Perhaps we would say, as Anna said, “I wish we had never come.” And then perhaps we would ask, “Have we done any good at all here?”

I think many culture-crossing, would-be do-gooders ask themselves that same question. “Am I doing any good? Does the small amount of good I am able to do, come close to outweighing the harm that I accidentally do? Is the small amount of good that I sometimes, by the grace of God, do, proportionate to the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that I and others have invested in order to get me here?”

I don’t have answers to these questions. In the case of the wise men, it is dangerous to weigh and compare, because soon we will find ourselves weighing and comparing the incarnation of God, and the brutal death of dozens of babies and toddlers. To what can we compare either of those events? They are not currencies that can be converted with some kind of exchange rate. There is no scale for these things. It is wrong to compare. So perhaps it is wrong to ask these questions.

I do know one thing. Despite how it might seem to our human wisdom, the wise men were supposed to be there. Both the slaughter of the innocents and the holy family’s flight to Egypt were foretold in prophecy. And God sent the star to guide the Magi to Bethlehem. They were supposed to go; they had a role to play. In their case, their role was worship. God did not send them there to change the world or to do some good with their wealth and their wisdom. He sent them to worship. And they did it, and they have gone down in history, and so have the innocent toddlers whom Herod slaughtered. Laments are sung for them, still to this day.

In that fabulous tome about culture crossing, The Poisonwood Bible, missionary kid Leah, who up to that point has been all in on her father’s attempts to transform the local culture, has a low moment when she realizes that her family, by their presence there, is putting a lot of burdens on the community but contributing nothing. “We should not have come here,” she intones. And she presses Anatole, whom she will eventually marry: “Should we have come here? Yes or no.” And Anatole says, “You should not have come here, but now you are here, so you should be here. There are more words in the world than yes and no.” I can’t think of a better way to describe usually disastrous cultural exchanges.

Misanthropic Quote about Old Age

Miss Mary had been able to draw a map of the United States from memory, known the entire periodic table by heart, taught school in a one-room schoolhouse, brewed healing teas, and sold what she called fitness powders her entire life. Dime by dime, dollar by dollar, she’d put her sons through college, then put Carter through medical school. Now she wore diapers and couldn’t follow a story about gardening in the Post and Courier.

Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, p. 60

Awesome Regional Artist Alert

Aaron Barrettt, Stone Bear, Rigby, Idaho.

Check out that carved antler! It is awesome! It reminds me of those amazing mammoth tusks that Chinese artists will spend decades carving into elaborate scenes.

Also, the artist … standing beside a life-sized grizzly that he carved … holding his baby son? I am getting serious The Strange Land vibes here. Oh, wait … most of you haven’t read it yet … soon, soon.

This art is so local that I might be able to visit it in person. If I do, I’ll give you a report.