What We Can Do

Reading Lyz Lenz’s latest newsletter (“Thank You, Dads of YouTube” ) brought me to the edge of tears.

It wasn’t her success at fixing her washer that got me. It was the fact that a woman much younger than I am still grew up surrounded by the belief that there were things women couldn’t do.

As someone old enough to remember how important this issue was in second wave feminism 50 years ago, it breaks my heart to know that so many people are still growing up with these stunted beliefs.

I don’t doubt that it’s true. It’s why I hope to teach some more self defense classes if we ever get enough of a handle on the pandemic for me to feel comfortable in a room full of people learning to yell “No.” Way too many women still believe that the fact that the average man is a little stronger than the average woman means they can’t protect themselves.

Spending half my life in the martial arts watching small people kick the asses of big people did that one in for me. I want to make sure other people know it, too.

We did make legal progress in the second wave, though the recent outrageous action of the partisan hacks on the US Supreme Court in nullifying the right to abortion by allowing a clearly unconstitutional Texas law to take effect is damaging legal rights as well.

(I was in law school when Roe v. Wade was decided. That was also a Texas case and I have met the lawyer who brought it — she was also my state representative back in the day.)

The same hacks also dismantled voting rights laws. It is not just women under attack in our society.

The extremist attacks make me angry, but the fact that so many women are still buying into the myths we fought to overcome in the 1970s is what breaks my heart. Continue reading “What We Can Do”

Manners for Writers

Manners are important. I’m not talking about not chewing with your mouth open (though please, don’t). I’m talking about that old stalwart you heard when you were a kid: Don’t be a Brat. Don’t talk back.

Really: someone on Amazon doesn’t like your book? Pound a pillow, burn her in effigy, but resist the impulse to get on line and explain in detail why You are Right and She is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. It’s a losing game, I promise you.  The best you can do is say “I’m really sorry it didn’t work for you.”  Silence is even better.

Don’t Talk Back to Editors. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but sadly: no.

Case in point. An acquaintance of mine, years and years ago, wrote a novel.  Friend, who liked my mother and valued her literary judgment, sent her a copy of the manuscript and asked if she knew any editor who might be willing to look at the book.  So far, so good.  This is how careers get started.

My mother, ever helpful, read the manuscript, was dubious, but sent it on to one of her best friends who was, in fact, an editor at a Major Metropolitan Publishing House.  And the friend, because she loved my mother, read the book. And sent back an eight page letter to my friend, explaining why the book was not commercially viable, and giving detailed feedback about what problems needed to be fixed in order to render the thing more commercial and, therefore, more publishable.

Think about this: this editor took the time to read the manuscript and give pages and pages of useful feedback to the author on a book that she had no interest in publishing.  She did it because she and my mother were friends.  And what did my friend do?

Fired off a letter explaining the ways in which the editor was Wrong Wrong Wrong.

Now, even if the editor had been wrong (and, at least in my opinion, she was not), what my friend should have done was say “Thank you so much for your time and professional expertise, for which I did not pay a dime. I will take your cogent suggestions to heart, and hope to submit the revised novel to you at a later time.” After that, she could have gone home, pounded that pillow, burnt the effigies, whatever made her feel better.  But writing a tantrum-like letter to the editor was dumb in a Big Dumb Way.  Not only did she burn that particular bridge; she burnt a lot of bridges with one fell swoop.  Cause editors talk to each other.  They go out to lunch, they call each other, they email, and you can bet that if my friend submitted a book to someone who mentioned her name to my mother’s friend the editor, the feedback would not have been stellar.

This doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for your work.  If someone says “we want to publish your book, but we really want the protagonist to be a lizard,” it’s perfectly reasonable to say “You know, that’s not the book I wanted to write, and while I appreciate your viewpoint, that’s a dealbreaker for me.”  But don’t tell an editor that your therapist, your writing workshop, or the guy who makes your latte at Starbucks think your book is a flawless work of genius as it is.  It’s the editor who’s going to have to persuade the company to spend money buying the book, and publishing and advertising the book.  Anything you can do to make yourself look like someone she wants to work with is a good thing.

Being a brat, obviously, is not.

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This was originally published at Book View Cafe.

September 11

Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks here in the United States. Many people will give pious speeches and talk about “never again.” Perhaps there will be a reading of the names of the 3,000 people who died in the attacks.

I wonder if anyone will talk about how little we learned from the experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I was profoundly affected by those attacks. I lived in Washington, DC, at the time. My sister and her family lived (and live) three blocks from where the World Trade Center used to be.

I spent a couple of hours trying to get in touch with my sister that morning before it finally dawned on me to call my parents in Texas. My sister and her family were fine and so was their building, though they weren’t allowed to go home for a month. And I explained to my parents that the Pentagon was actually in Virginia so that I was not at risk.

Though I worked about six blocks from the White House. I’ve always thought the plane that went down in Pennsylvania was headed for the White House.

Anyway, I walked home that day, all six miles, because I assumed that anyone attacking Washington, DC, would take advantage of the chaos in traffic and public transit to do even more damage. And then I stared at the TV for the next couple of days.

Like many people, I wanted to do something useful after the attacks. There was a lot of talk of organizing neighborhood groups that could help people in the event of emergencies. Those emergencies would include disasters and pandemics. (Cell phone use was not widespread in 2001.) Continue reading “September 11”

Zen Yoga Writing practice?

A confession: I like to read at bedtime. In this company, that’s nothing unusual. All the sleep hygiene experts say not to, that beds should be used for sleeping and only one other activity. What do they know? I find something deeply comforting about curling up with a good–but not too exciting–book. Perhaps it evokes memories of my mother reading aloud to me, or it’s just “me time.”

Often I include in my nightly reading a page or two of something that stretches my mind. I don’t mean that in the intellectual sense, for I definitely want to be quieting my thoughts, not forcing myself to think critically. I try to choose books that get inside my brains and stretch them gently in unexpected directions, like mental yoga before settling into my comfort reading.

An example of this kind of reading is Natalie Goldberg’s LONG QUIET HIGHWAY. Goldberg is a writing teacher, essayist and novelist who is also a long-time student of Zen Buddhism. I was introduced to her work years ago with her WRITING DOWN THE BONES, and had always thought of her as a teacher in the style of Julia Cameron: “Morning pages,” keep the pen moving, let your thoughts flow, that sort of advice. LONG QUIET HIGHWAY is autobiographical rather than instructive. I was deeply moved by how she put together mundane, specific details in ways that brought tears to my eyes. More than that, she has gotten me thinking — or rather, feeling/sensing — more deeply about the role of writing in my own life. Yes, it’s a pleasure and an obsession; yes, it’s my occupation, how I earn my living.

  • Mountain Pose: Could it also be the lens through which I view the world? Sure, no problem; every new experience is grist for the mill. That’s the easy answer, just as the plot skeleton is the easy description of a story. As a writer, I know that storyness is much deeper than plot. Can I use that same insight to listen more deeply, look beyond appearances, appreciate the interwoven complexity of my community and environment?
  • Dancing Shiva Pose: How about writing as a spiritual practice? Um, isn’t that a bit pretentious…or is it? Is there something moving through me, speaking through me, when I write from my heart? Can I shove my ego as well as my intellect out of the way? Speaking of intellect, and ego, and mind…
  • Pigeon Pose: Could writing help me become better acquainted with my own mind? The way my thoughts sometimes behave like grasshoppers on steroids? The phrases and connections and story elements I use repeatedly, without intention? The cycles of feeling I’ve written something fine, only to plummet to the certainty it’s all drek, that I can never get anything right?
  • Corpse Pose: Is writing a way of stilling my thoughts and becoming fully present–through words, are you kidding? Ah, those moments when it feels like I’m not making up these words, they’re coming from somewhere else, I’m just a lens, a focal point through which light passes.

I have no easy answers, but I will be watching myself–my self–more closely as I write. And who knows, I might even achieve a new literary Downward-Facing Dog.

Goodness, Sweetness and just a touch of ratbaggery

Firstly, let me wish you all a happy and healthy and good and sweet New Year.

Rosh Hashanah starts very, very soon in Australia (I’ve put a delay on publication, so that it’s on Monday for most of you, but it’s already Monday afternoon here) and I’m furiously trying to get everything done in time. Lockdown, oddly, makes everything harder. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said “But of course it makes things easier.” I have apple and I have honey and I have mooncake in lieu of honeycake. I’m meeting my mother and her BFF and one of my BFFs online in a bare few minutes. My friend is a cantor and we’re going to have some music.

What makes this Rosh Hashanah special is my friends. One friend found me an apple. Another found me some honey. A third went to considerable length to get me mooncake. Even though I’ll be alone… I won’t be alone.

The downside is the number of people who want things from me today and tomorrow (sorry, but I can’t do these things) or, worse, the half-dozen different people who, just this week, have sent me invitations or reminders for events on my Day of Atonement.

To be honest, I’m not that observant. The more difficult people become around me because I’m Jewish, however, the more I stick to my special days. Holding gorgeous science fiction events (three of them! three different organisations!) on my holiest of holy days will make me stick to what I was taught as a child and even to fast and to pray. This has been the case ever since primary school. So many people have wanted me to be less Jewish or even not Jewish at all, and every time they express this or encourage me to be Christian or to eat pork or simply to work after sunset on days like today… I discover my Judaism all over again.

I do wonder what my religious views would be if I didn’t encounter antisemitism so often, or the limited toleration that I’m facing now. That limited toleration means that I make my mother happy, by doing the right things. This is not a bad outcome.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe, celebrate or don’t celebrate, please have a wonderfully good and sweet year. For anyone who, like me, will be fasting (at least as much as the doctor permits) then well over the fast. And for all of us, may we get through this pandemic well and safely and emotionally intact.

What Condition Our Condition Is In

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.”

— Mickey Newberry

What with fires, hurricanes, other storms, heat waves, the ongoing pandemic, and outrageous laws targeting reproductive and voting rights, our condition is headed for the ICU. And that’s just in the United States.

I could rant about any and all of these things, but there are plenty of other people doing that. Instead, I want to make a point that might be getting overlooked as people deal with our many crises:

The normal that we thought we had doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t go back to the way things were, because that isn’t going to solve any of our problems.

Or as I put it in a senryu this week:

We keep making plans
for the way we wish things were,
not the way they are.

Take the hurricanes. The new levees held in New Orleans, so some flooding was prevented. But there were communities that didn’t have levees yet that were inundated. Plus the investor-owned utility “solutions” for making sure the city would still have electricity didn’t work — power is still out all over the area.

And none of that work stopped the damage in New York City, where people died in basement apartments due to flooding.

We can’t just respond to hurricanes by building a few levees and pretending we’ve addressed a complex problem that is getting much worse due to climate change. We have to look at preserving what’s left of barrier islands, to set up power systems based on micro grids and batteries, to stop building in areas that will flood repeatedly, and generally to approach the whole problem in a multifaceted way.

Otherwise, we’re going to end up with a lot of climate refugees within our own country. Continue reading “What Condition Our Condition Is In”

Politics in Families

Blaine A. White, Creative Commons

Okay, we’re living in a moment when politics are… a fraught subject. I listened the other night as my 25-year-old daughter and my husband–who are not actually on opposite sides of the fence–had a 45-minute conversation fight discussion exchange about something. My daughter has admirable patience when talking with people of opinions that do not march with hers. With  her parents (whose politics are not far from hers at all), well  the word “scolding” comes to mind. But we are her parents, so there’s that.

The fraughtness of politics within families sometimes has less to do with opinions than with family dynamics. This is one reason why I almost never talk politics (or religion) with my brother. He and I are so far apart on the political spectrum that it’s hard to believe we share any DNA at all. Continue reading “Politics in Families”