Living with Fear

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am far more political there than I am anywhere else. You also may have noticed that my Twitter feed looks a bit schizophrenic: I’ve alternated between frothy-mad post-election Tweets, We’re All DOOMED Tweets, and the incongruous inclusion of images of cute puppies and kittens.

Why the flip-flop? Because we are a species are not well-equipped to live with sustained fear.

Bear with me a moment. I don’t often post about politics here, but this is important. It affects us all.

sorrow-and-worry-1434786-1918x1274Most of last week was utterly terrifying to me. I watched in horror as the nation elected not only an Internet Troll, but a narcissistic, racist, fascist, homophobic, misogynistic and completely unqualified person to the highest office in the land. While half the country told me to stop whining and buck up, many others saw the parallels to Hitler (not surprising since the President-elect’s playbook came straight out of Mein Kampf). Too many people have been quick to point out that perhaps it was all an act, and he would temper his statements now that he’s won. You mean like the way he’s moderated his discourse his entire life? I think not.

But by the weekend, I had to calm down. I stopped crying. I went to work. I made unenthusiastic plans for Christmas. Kitten pix crept into my Twitter feed, along with Obama and Biden memes. I wrote a post of encouragement, believing now, more than ever, we need our storytellers. I got offline. I went horseback riding. I ate far more pie, ice cream, and brownies than is probably wise.

When I did go back online, I found fresh, disturbing news. The proposed end of Net Neutrality, a free press, national parks, and Medicare. Plans to make the US a Christian theocracy (which flies in the face of the entire reason this country was founded). People proudly flying Nazi flags. Calls for violence and acts of hatred against women, POC, immigrants, Muslims, and members of the GLBTQ community. The erosion of civil rights. The tight ties our President-elect has with Putin, and evidence Russian hackers interfered with voting. ISIS and the KKK celebrating the election of Trump as President. Trump has thanked Alex Jones for his support–this is the man who reported that the Sandy Hook shootings were faked by President Obama to drum up gun control support. He is promoting his businesses from the .gov website. He is appointing family members to his transition team, and his conflicts of interest are legion and yet no one seems to be able to stop him. And that was just over the weekend.

I recognize I am a privileged person. I’m white, educated, have a good job, and own my own home. Any person who can say, “I went horseback riding this weekend” really shouldn’t have much cause for fear, should they? Well, I do.

Because I am a woman, and the President-elect believes money and power is grounds for sexual assault with impunity.

Because I have family members that are POC.

Because I spent the last eight years climbing out of the economic black hole the Bush administration threw us in, and I know what Trump’s policies will do to the world economy.

Because I fear Trump’s supporters. Those that are not armed and openly targeting the aforementioned list of people in danger, turned a blind eye to Trump’s own statements. And the parallels to Hitler’s rise to power are too many and too frightening to be ignored.

Because I am middle-aged, and already am struggling to pay off medical bills.

Because I don’t know if I’m brave enough to openly fight back.

Because he will now control Congress, the Supreme Court, the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, and the military. Small wonder I believe a military dictatorship is not far off. Laws will be written that will support his power base for decades to come.

Because climate change is real, and we’re already so close to the tipping point that releasing the safeties on regulations terrifies me. It should terrify you too. Along with the EPA, he wants to do away with the FDA. For decades we’ve taken for granted that we can buy a bottle of ketchup and be reasonably sure it won’t kill us. That will not necessarily be the case in the future.

Because this isn’t a debate between left and right but between right and wrong.

Okay. So what do we do about it? Because unchecked, fear cripples and immobilizes.

Deep breath.

First, constant stewing and fretting isn’t constructive in the long run. I can keep sharing angry Tweets (it will probably be hard for me to stop) but face it, his followers aren’t listening. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the electoral college and voting recounts. If by some miracle, the election results are overturned, there WILL be violence on a large scale. If you think the protests against Trump are unprecedented, wait until you see what his supporters will do if the results are overturned.

Chuck Wendig, who writes a kick-ass blog about being a kick-ass writer, penned this excellent post recently: Mourn, Then Get Mad, Then Get Busy. Like him, I find I need to do something to combat fear, otherwise it festers, overwhelms, and cripples.

So here’s are the practical things I’m doing:

  1. Paying off debts. I’ve been doing this all along, but now I have to step it up. That might mean cancelling plans made for mental health, and plans made to promote my work. It will mean I have to pick and choose which organizations I need to financially support, but I must knock these bills down as soon as possible before the economy crashes again.
  2. I will support those organizations I feel most important to protect. Your list might be different from mine, but we should all make a list and contribute. If money is too tight, then volunteer.
  3. I purchased a personal alarm and pepper spray for myself and the boyfriend’s daughters. I will be taking a refresher course in self-defense. Call me crazy, but these are proactive steps I’m taking to help mitigate my fears.
  4. Planting a garden in the spring. I have a couple of acres. It’s high time I made better use of them. Time I weaned myself away from a dependence on processed food as well.
  5. I will keep telling stories. I believe our books, our libraries, our access to the great minds of the past and to stories with hopeful outcomes is one of our best, most powerful weapons
  6. I vote in every election, but now more than ever, it is important to encourage everyone you know to vote. Not just in the ‘big’ elections, but in all of them. We must take back Congress. These people are the ones that make the laws in this land. Don’t want to lose your rights? Vote to protect them.
  7. Allow yourself to laugh. Just because you are posting kitten pics, it doesn’t mean you aren’t still outraged. It just means you’re taking a mental health break. There’s a reason why we love the comic relief moments in action movies.
  8. Stand up for what’s right. Don’t allow bullying to go unchecked. Call the police if it’s warranted. Take video. Upload it to Facebook. Spread news of people stopping acts of malice and hate. Not all of us are physically capable of intervening in certain situations, but that doesn’t mean we walk away from it, either.
  9. Support your local library. NPR. The New York Times. We can’t let everything be run by Rupert Murdoch.
  10. Vote with your wallet. Don’t support organizations that promote hate, discrimination, and so forth. Support those companies that have taken a stand against the same.

One of the reasons I loathe post-apocalyptic novels and programs is that I recognize I would be one of the first casualties of such a societal collapse. Why? Because I don’t believe in arming myself with guns, and I do believe in peace, goodness, and mercy. A friend commented on Facebook this morning that ‘mercy will get you killed.’ I understand the sentiment, believe me I do. But one of the things we must consider in the coming years is what kind of person we want to be.

I keep hearing people say we will survive this. I’m not so sure. I don’t even recognize my country at the moment. But I refuse to spend the rest of my life in fear.

Here. Have a cute kitten pic.

atg-sun-copy

Feed the Right Wolf…

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the proverb ascribed to the Cherokee Indians about how each of us has two wolves inside battling for control.

Two wloves proverbA few months ago, inspired by others on Facebook who were making a determined effort to post something upbeat and positive every day, I gave myself a challenge to find three things I was grateful for or made me happy each day. Although I haven’t managed to do this consistently every day (sometimes you just run out of time and you know you should go to bed instead of writing another post…) I’ve kept up with it far longer than I thought I would. I’m on day 47 now. 🙂

I decided not to post to Facebook, however. Instead I’ve been posting these things to my fandom LJ account, so I could friends-lock the entries. Not necessarily to keep anyone out as much as to limit how many people I inflicted with pictures of my animals. On any given day, they *are* what makes me happy and grateful to be alive. 🙂

After a few weeks, I noticed a funny thing–the words “I hate my life” stopped being the first thought on waking each morning. If I was having a bad day, I would remind myself that it wasn’t over yet, and I still had to come up with three positive things to share–and that too, altered my attitude for the better. I began looking forward to drafting the ‘positive things’ post, and wondering what I would share. As someone who has a tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios and view the world as not only an empty glass, but as one cracked and unable to hold water at all, this was a big step for me. I was feeding the right wolf, but it was still weak. Some days, I couldn’t help but pepper my ‘gratitude’ post with all kinds of qualifications, with little Eeyore sighs about the things that had gone wrong instead of right. But I persisted, and I could feel the Good Wolf getting stronger.

Sunny Day TommyLately, with the terrorist attacks all over the world, the appalling rhetoric spewed by political parties in response to these attacks, the daily reports of a new mass shooting at a school or church that these same politicians refuse to recognize as domestic terrorism, and the saber-rattling and fear-mongering that is being used primarily to further a political agenda, it’s not that it’s been hard to find things to feel grateful for. It’s that it doesn’t feel right. It feels shallow and self-centered to post chipper updates about how I tamed the feral tomcat, or that Walk a Mile got an Honorable Mention in this year’s Rainbow Awards (something I wasn’t expecting at all!), or that the recently adopted dog has been an utterly delightful addition to the family. And don’t get me started on how feeling pleased over something like discovering I’d been nominated for a Best M/M Author poll on Gay Book Reviews (because that kind of thing never happens to me!) feels like boasting if I share that news–that’s a topic for a blog post another day. Bottom line, it felt wrong to be happy in the face of the unhappiness and tragedy of others.

But here’s the thing: I need those uplifting moments. I need to see funny animal videos or read George Takei’s latest pithy commentary. I need to share my joy over the upcoming season of Agent Carter (hey, at least we got 2 seasons before they canceled it) or the fact that John Scalzi is absolutely besotted with his new kittens. I need to squee with my friends over the things that keep us going every day–the shows we love, the characters we adore, the stories we found spell-binding and empowering. We are BOMBARDED with bad news every day. We need our talismans against evil and hatred. We need to feed the right wolf. That is not wrong or selfish. It is necessary.

My mother called me at a ridiculous hour this morning to say ‘it was all over the Internet that those IS people (as she called them) were planning a major attack on the US today.’ Well, I don’t know where my mom gets her information, probably FOX News. It doesn’t surprise me that the terror threat is high right now–after all, we’re heading into major holiday. But I wonder how this threat compares to the number of people that will be killed in car accidents this holiday week, or how many people have been killed in shootings since the beginning of the year. I tried telling my mom this, and advised that in all likelihood, this report was more fear-mongering by the far right to get her to vote for their candidate. Even if it is true, it is out of my hands and there was no sense in her getting into a stew about it.

She interrupted me. “I just wanted to tell you I love you. In case I never see you again.”

I found myself telling my mother we needed to live every day as though we were under threat of a terrorist attack. Not with fear, or barricaded in our homes clutching shotguns. We need to tell our loved ones how important they are to us every day. We need to share the things that bring us joy, hope, and strength. Fear makes us dangerous–not only to each other, but to ourselves as well. One of the most touching stories that has come out of the attacks in France is that Hemmingway’s love letter to Paris, A Movable Feast, has been selling out at bookstores. People are buying copies and leaving them at memorials in a show of defiance to the attackers.  My eyes are tearing up as a type this. Yes. What a way to feed the right wolf.

The Good ShepherdAnd so because many other sources, both internal and external, are constantly shoving food at my Evil Wolf, the one that believes in the darkness and despair, it is imperative I feed the Good Wolf. It is not shallow or callous or indifferent to the pain of others. It is vitally necessary, or else the wrong wolf wins. I invite you to do feed your Good Wolf too.

Why We Need to Celebrate the Small Successes

I recently came across a post being shared on Facebook. The blog post, written by a former competitive ice dancer, was titled Yes, My Thighs Touch (And I am Absolutely Fine). That post really struck a cord with me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The world of competitive skating places a lot of importance on personal appearance and weight as being major factors in how well you will succeed, so it is not surprising to me to read that blogger Jamie Silverstein has recovered from an eating disorder. I grew up in a household with someone who had anorexia. I know intimately what that is like, what havoc it wreaks not only on your body, but also on everyone around you, too.

What struck me was how healthy and reasonable Silverstein’s attitude was toward her body now. That is something I still struggle with myself, even though I was not the one with the anorexia. I don’t often post pictures of myself on the internet. A) I think that’s asking for unwanted commentary and B) I only have about four pictures of myself that I do not utterly loathe. In fact, one of the few things that can make my boyfriend angry with me is if I go through the photos on the camera after one of our trips and delete all the ones of me. “Those are my memories,” he said once, when I had deleted every picture I was in.

I see his point. That doesn’t change the fact that I have always believed myself to be an unattractive person and inherently unphotogenic. So I am posting this picture here taken of me in my twenties to prove a point. At the time this photo was taken, I was convinced I was the ugliest girl on the planet.

Beach 3_croppedI’m posting this picture because, while I could never lay claim to Super Model status, I obviously was not a troglodyte either. But you could not convince me of that. I’d grown up my entire life hearing how plain I was. How I would need to work extra hard to make friends because I wasn’t attractive. How I would need to be tough and independent because I couldn’t count on some man coming along to take care of me. I wore glasses and braces, therefore, I was ‘doubly handicapped.’ I was as ‘homely as a mud fence’; something I’d never seen but it sounded dirty and disgusting. And I once overheard a neighbor comment to my grandmother how beautiful my sister was, but that I ‘grew on you after a while.’ Like I was mold, or something.

I’m sure the messages I received were not intended to be hurtful. I suspect my mother simply wished for me to be a strong individual and to aspire to be more than an extension of a husband. In many ways, I’m glad I learned this lesson. I do *not* let my self-worth depend on the presence of a man in my life. I studied hard in school, got a professional degree, and work in a challenging career. I have a wonderful relationship with a man that I love that is based on mutual respect. I don’t expect him to ‘rescue’ me. We take turns taking care of each other.

But I do not think I am an attractive person. I’d reached a sort of resigned peace with my personal appearance until the last couple of years, when health issues began to erode my trust in my body. This has also been compounded by the fact that I am getting older. In fact, if there was such a thing as Aging Anorexia, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had it. Every fine wrinkle, every new ache or pain, each tiny suggestion that I am not as young as I used to be is magnified in my eyes. I can go from “Damn, my knee is bothering me a bit,” to “I’ll have to give up horseback riding” to “I’m going to lose my independence” in a matter of minutes. I know it’s not rational. That’s the insidious thing about these wild misconceptions we hold over ourselves–even when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the belief, we persist in holding on to it. When I was younger, I wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough. Now that I’m older, I am not successful enough. I’m packing twenty extra pounds I don’t know how to get rid of, and I would give anything to look like the younger me again–the one I thought was so ugly. And my irrational fear of losing my independence? Well, my independent self was the only thing I was taught to rely on.

Bridge_Abbey resizedKind of ironic, eh?

So this post by Jamie Silverstein really resonated with me. Because here she is saying, “You know what? I’m not perfect–and I don’t have to be. What I am is pretty darn good as it is.” What she is, by the way, is not defined by her body or her appearance. It is who she is as a person.

I do see the value of such self-acceptance, much as I see the BF’s point about not deleting pictures of his trip simply because I don’t like them. But up until Silverstein’s post, I couldn’t really buy into the self-acceptance thing because it has always felt like an excuse: a reason to toss up your hands and stop trying to be better than you are.

It wasn’t until I read this post that somehow a little light bulb clicked on and I realized that if you truly accept yourself for who and what you are, you’re going to try to take better care of yourself. You do this because you care about your body and what you put into it and no, Goldfish crackers and a can of Sprite doesn’t qualify as a decent breakfast by anyone’s standards over the age of twelve.

You know what else I got out of this post? It’s the little goals that count. You know why? Because there are more of them in our lives than the big ones. You might never win an Oscar, or have your book turned into a movie, or be awarded a Nobel Prize. But every day is filled with little goals hard-met and won, and for some reason, because we live in this mindset of Mega-Success or Go Home, we discount the little things as not being meaningful. Not being worth mentioning

Snow_Casey resizedThey are the only things that really matter.

Because the problem with only celebrating the Big Goals, of only valuing the Big Goals, is that we use them as an excuse not to attempt anything. If I can’t lose twenty pounds in two weeks, then attempting to get healthier by making better food choices and getting more sleep and making time to exercise, well, that’s just pointless, isn’t it?

If my next release isn’t the breakout novel that puts me on the top of the bestseller list on Amazon, then why bother writing? If the horse has to be retired from competition before we ever made it to a Three Day Event, then why bother riding her anymore?

The truth of the matter is that most of us will never be bestselling authors with Hollywood banging at our door begging to turn our story into a movie. We’re not going to the Olympics. We’re not going to be Super Model thin or Super Model pretty and we’re not going to be ridiculously wealthy.

But I wrote and published a novel within the last six months–and I really don’t know many people who can say that. The Boys of Summer is my first independently published novel. Yes, I made mistakes, but I am damn proud of that work and it is getting some fine reviews. I might not have ever made it to a 3-day with my mare, but I have participated in a riding clinic taught by an Olympic coach with her. And tonight, I climbed the ridge behind the house with the dog trotting alongside. The sun was setting behind me, and the pale ghost of the moon was rising in front of me, and there was row upon row of mountains in varying shades of purple and blue all around as far as the eye could see. I felt as though I was looking at a photograph of the ocean, and the mountains were waves caught on film. That made me one of the richest people on the planet.

redbud resizedYou know what else celebrating the small successes does for you? It keeps you here in the moment. It anchors you to the present. It’s what makes you feel accomplished when you crank out 1500 words at the end of a brutally exhausting day–and count that as an achievement instead of berating yourself for not having written more. It’s recognizing that the most important thing you could be doing right now is acknowledging the dog that just placed his head in your lap to be petted. There is no room for regret or fear for the future when you are living in the moment. Animals do it all the time. The walk that the dog is on right now is the best walk ever. I want to learn how to hold such moments in my heart for longer than a few seconds.

Denying ourselves the value of the small successes sets us up to be disappointed again and again. Because it’s like saying that unless you can climb the sheer cliff face without using any finger or toeholds, without pausing on a ledge to catch your breath, that you’re not really a mountain climber at all. We’re lying to ourselves when we discount the small successes. We’re telling ourselves that the Photoshopped image of success is the real one and that if we were without imperfections, we could have that life too.

The best part about celebrating the small successes is that they are different for each of us. Everyone of us has the potential for a small success. Maybe you went for that walk after dinner when you are normally too tired to get off the couch. Or you finished that home improvement project you’ve been working on for weeks. Maybe you walked away from that doughnut. Maybe you ate the doughnut. It could be the thoughtful gift you mailed off to a friend who’s been down, or you said no to that drink, or you decided to see a counselor, or your gif is being reblogged on tumblr, or you called your mother, or you’re just having a Good Hair Day.

Recognize those moments for what they are: a great beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds. They are what life is all about.backlit clouds resized

Because I could spend the rest of my life mourning what I am not. I’ve already wasted a lot of time doing that. To continue to so so will only prevent me from being what I can be.

The Devil is in the Details

 

I love researching background material for a story. I know some people view it as a necessary evil; still others handwave around it and hope no one will call them out on their lack of factual details. I’m one of those people who really gets into a subject, wanting to know more about it, taking the research well beyond what is necessary to the story.
But there’s a fine line to walk between learning enough about the Battle of Britain in order to lend authenticity to a particular story and getting lost for hours on Wikipedia. And sometimes the obsession with getting the facts exactly right can get in the way of the story telling itself.

I’ve seen writers never progress off the second page of their story because they spent the last four hours trying to fact-check a minor bit of background detail—something not essential to the story at all, but because it was so important to the writer to get the facts straight, they never finished the story. I have to say, if you can’t find the information quickly and easily, it’s time to ask yourself just how important is it that you verify this fact in the first place? If you can’t find the answer, will the answer matter to anyone else?

I’ve also seen writers suck the life out of their own stories with a pedantic need for verisimilitude. There is such a thing as artistic license, and as long as we don’t use that as an excuse for shoddy research and bending the facts to fit our story needs, sometimes it’s better to go with convention than the actual truth. Take for example, the “murder board” as it is depicted in the average cop drama. I have it on good authority (a former homicide detective, teaching a writing course on murder stories) that the murder board—that white dry erase board where the detectives post pictures of the victims and suspects, draw time lines, and write up important facts—doesn’t exist.

Yep, you heard me. Doesn’t exist. At least, not in the form that we know it.

There are murder books, a case file where all the pertinent information concerning the crime is kept for working access, including crime scene photos, autopsy reports, and witness statements. No doubt with the ability to scan important documents and the push for more and more organizations to go paperless, the murder book will eventually be replaced by other means of record keeping. But that ubiquitous white board that makes its appearance in almost every episode of your favorite weekly police procedural television show is a fabrication.

Why use it then? Because it allows the show’s writers to share important information with the audience in a manner that isn’t information dumping. It puts names to faces and posts them in front of us. It provides a framework around which characters can ask each other questions—again, for the audience’s benefit, sometimes even having a eureka moment when they piece together the final bits of the puzzle. Not to mention creating a focus for dramatic shots of the lead actor staring morosely at the board in a half-lit room, cradling a cup of coffee.

So should we as writers, knowing that this is a convention for story-telling through television and movies, eliminate the murder board? There is one very compelling argument for continuing to use them in our stories. They are used so widely on television and in the movies that the audience expects them. To not use them feels like you haven’t done your homework. That you didn’t research your topic thoroughly enough. Ironic, isn’t it?

Because I love research, if I’m not careful, I’ll spend weeks reading and watching videos in order to get the right background for the story I want to write. If I’m not on a deadline, well, no big deal, I can wallow in my background details to my heart’s content. But I have to watch out and make sure I don’t use ‘research’ as an excuse to avoid the harder task of writing. So I’ve developed some personal guidelines which you may find useful.

1. Resist stopping every five minutes to look something up on Google. If you’re working on a first draft and you know you need to fact-check something, mark it with an asterisk and come back to it. If it is a minor background detail like what sort of weapon your hero would carry or what year penicillin came into widespread use, you don’t need to let it interrupt the flow of your writing. I know, I know! You think it will only take you a second to look it up, but seconds can turn into an incredible time sink when you are in first draft mode and your brain eagerly latches on to any reason not to finish that paragraph you’ve been working on. Focus on the story first and research second. You can do it! Resistance is not futile.

2. Determine how important the background research is to the story and allot the correct amount of time to it. If you are writing a WW2 story that takes place 24 hours before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you’d best have all your facts straight. Getting that wrong, either with anachronisms, or factual errors, or simply not having good feel for the mindset of the average person of the time—all these things will be woefully obvious if you don’t research the material thoroughly. A good rule of thumb: the more important the background is to the story, the more time you should spend on it. Your character dreams that he’s a rodeo clown and wakes up because a bull slams into his barrel? Yeah, you can probably get everything you need to know through a quick search on Google. You’re writing a story in which the main character suffers a spinal cord injury that completely changes his life? You’d better know what you’re talking about. You’ve chosen a condition that will affect every single aspect of your character’s life now. If you aren’t intimately familiar with your subject, it will show.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. The more realistic your setting, the more factual you should be, but if you’ve built a world where magic and the mundane co-exist, you probably don’t have to spend hours determining if your character can or cannot have access to aspirin unless the whole story hinges on this fact. And even then, there’s a place for some handwaving in such a world because you’ve already bent the laws of science and nature by having magic be possible.

4. You’re there to write first and foremost. When you get big and famous, maybe you can pay someone to fact check for you, but for now, you’re doing everything yourself. If you spend too much time on the non-essentials, you’re wasting valuable writing time. Mark it, come back to it in the editing phase. And remember, most people aren’t going to care what kind of shoes your character is wearing unless your story is set in a time before shoes were invented.

Bottom line: do your homework, but be smart about it. It is secondary to the story, not the story itself.

My latest story, Lightning in a Bottle, is part of the Olympic-themed M/M anthology from MLR Press, Going for Gold. I wrote about my own sport, eventing, which meant short of a few facts to check, I didn’t have to do a ton of research. Now I’m looking at writing a sequel, which means I have to learn a whole lot more about competing at the Olympic level—something I will never do myself. Which means, gosh darn, I have to do some additional research. I’ve already bought the eventing DVDs from the Games, and a book on training for the sport from my favorite eventing coach, and…

What’s the subject that you enjoyed researching the most and how did you end up using that information? Inquiring minds want to know!