I Know Fear but Not Your Fear…

I opened Facebook, glanced around, and realized quickly I don’t have the energy to be there right now. I. Just. Don’t.

I closed the tab.

I haven’t been silent though. I’ve called my state representatives, even though I hate cold-calling people. I have to write up scripts in advance to get through such phone calls, and even then, my voice shakes. I’ve attended vigils and protests, even though I get panicky in crowds (and I think the abandoned baby stroller could possibly be hiding a bomb).

I recognize I am a person of privilege. As a cis-het white woman, I understand being discriminated against because of gender, but not because of the color of my skin, my religion, or my sexuality. I’ve had men suggest I wasn’t capable of doing my job because I didn’t have a Y chromosome, men who tried to talk me out of buying a stick shift because I didn’t want to be ‘thinking while I was driving’, and bosses who justified paying me less because I wasn’t the breadwinner of the family–despite the fact I am single and the sole representative of my household.

But no one has described me as an ape or suggested I wasn’t even human.

I’ve had inappropriate advances made on me by people in positions of authority over me. A tutor frightened me so badly I dropped the class. By the time the professor made a sexual advance on me, I’d perfected the art of inflicting pain and making it look accidental. I’ve also had a stalker–I know what it is like to be afraid for my safety–but that was one person. Yes, I am frightened by crowds. Yes, I am uncomfortable walking anywhere alone after dark–I don’t know many women who aren’t. But I don’t know what it is like to have people assume I’m a slut because of the color of my skin, or want to kill me because of who I’m sleeping with. I don’t have a whole class of people looking down on me as I walk along the street, with a single glance assessing my worth as a human being and assigning me to a category of ‘them, not us.’

I can sympathize with those who experience this sort of thing every day. I can tell myself I get it, but I really don’t. What I’ve gone through in my life isn’t even close. It’s like having arachnophobia and coming across a Daddy Longlegs in your house, imagining it’s a Black Widow. It might feel like I know what others are going through, but I don’t. Not really.

I don’t know what the average POC goes through on a daily basis. I don’t know what it is like to be a Muslim or Jew, or a member of the GLBTQ community, or anything other than what I am: a middle-aged white woman. I don’t know what it is like to watch my teenaged boy get into a car with friends and worry that he will be shot simply for being a black male. Or fear I will be attacked because I don’t look a certain way. On a given day, I might get eyestrain from rolling my eyes so hard at someone’s condescension toward me, but that’s usually the worst thing that happens.

I might be treated like ‘the little woman’ but I’m not treated as though I don’t have the right to live.

It’s not the same.

I am a person of privilege.

And as such, I don’t have the luxury of keeping my mouth shut right now. As long as things were inching their way toward better, it was easy for me to be a supporter.

It’s not so easy anymore. It’s downright scary. And the sad thing is, for the first time, I’m getting the tiniest inkling of what it’s always been like for the people I claim to support. Yeah, I could get hurt. Even killed. Something my friends live with all the time.

Things are coming to a crisis in this country. It’s not a matter of right versus left anymore. It’s a matter of right versus wrong. I can stand here and say I voted for Hillary and I believe in universal health care and a minimum wage that lets people afford a place to live. I can say I support marriage equality and sensible gun control and abortion rights and affordable birth control. I can rant about our current government and the death of democracy, voter suppression, gerrymandering, the Russian interference into our elections and the most corrupt administration the US has ever seen, but it’s not enough to believe these things. I have to voice them. Loudly.

I believe that standing up for what is right, saying no to the neo-Nazis, the KKK, and the consumption of the US by Russia is so important, I have to make my voice heard. It doesn’t matter if I’m scared. It doesn’t matter if I might lose readers. Hell, that’s the least of my worries. Frankly, if you don’t feel as I do on these matters, not only will you probably not enjoy my stories, I’d rather you not read them anyway.

Yeah, I know. I’m nobody. A no-name author in a niche genre. I’m sure there are people out there who’d rather I go back to chatting about the upcoming release or sharing pictures of my animals. Believe me, I long for the days when the most distressing thing I had to deal with was book edits and some silly brouhaha on Facebook. I feel as though I’ve been under siege for the last year or so.

So imagine what it’s like to have felt that way every day of your life?

I can’t.

I’m not a brave person, but this is too important. And I won’t shut up.

 

 

Being Broke Doesn’t Mean You’re Never Allowed to Have Fun

This may wind up being a rather disjointed and rambling commentary, rather than a neat little essay on what I find repulsive about the current attitude towards those who aren’t as well off as the 1%–which frankly, is most of us.

I’ve been in tight circumstances for a while now. I started a business right when the economy crashed, ran into some major health issues while self-employed and had crappy insurance, and have spent most of the last decade crawling out of the hole these situations put me in as a result. Things have gotten better lately, in part because I’m finally at a point where my backlist can help pay the mortgage but also because I just paid off the last of the medical bills.

But as these things go, the universe decided to play its little joke and hit me with several personal losses back to back to back. Between those losses, the current state of politics here in the US, and my fears for this country (and the world), it would be fair to say I’ve been struggling this past year. My creativity and my health have taken hits as a result.

Which brings me back to the point of this post. See, when you’re struggling to stay afloat, you tend to grab hold of anything that keeps your head above water. For me, that might be binge-watching old favorites on Netflix, or re-reading the comfort reads of my youth. Sometimes it’s planning a trip (though more often than not, I ended up having to cancel my trips this past year), or going to the bookstore, or buying pretty nail polish.

It turns out I’m not alone in that alone in that regard. A Reuters post indicated that in tough economic times, sales of nail polish went up because it was seen as an affordable indulgence–buying luxury at a bargain price, if you will. Apparently lipstick sales used to rise as well, presumably for similar reasons but also because for many women, their appearance factored largely into their success during a job interview. Even more interesting is that sales of women’s lingerie goes down with a poor economy, indicating a need to practice frugality in an area where one has some control over who will see your undies.

Lipstick sales no longer inversely reflect the economy, but nail polish does. It also is a relatively inexpensive way to lift my spirits. Not just a new shade, but the act of applying lacquer is very soothing to me. Much like drawing in a coloring book.

What all these images I’ve shared thus far have in common is that these are my own nails, painted by myself, all taken within couple of years. Something happened to my nails in the last year, however. I don’t know if it’s stress or an indication of health issues or my generally crappy diet, but I can’t seem to grow my nails out any longer–not past the quicks. They split and peel. They break with normal use. I used to grow long nails so easily, people would ask me what I did to make them grow. I used to have such strong nails, when someone asked me what could break them, I’d smirk and say “Kryptonite.”

All that changed within the last year. Sure, it’s a little thing compared to watching our civil rights erode before our very eyes, the concerns of climate change, the sheer incompetency and corruptness of our government, and oh yes, the possibility of nuclear war. Yeah, poor me. I no longer have pretty nails.

But it’s because of these other things that I feel the loss of my pretty nails more keenly. Painting them was a tiny indulgence that made my day a little bit brighter. So a few weeks ago, I decided to have my nails professionally done.

No, it wasn’t something I intended to have done all the time, but I have some weddings to attend in the not-to-distant future and I wanted to know if I could have nice nails for something like that. I fully expected to hate the process, but instead, I fell in love. Not only did I get my indestructible nails back again (with the industrial strength nail polish used, they don’t chip or break), I also got my pretty nails back again.

There’s not much about me I find pretty or attractive. Losing the one thing I was kind of proud of bugged me more than I realized. I was delighted by the results, and found myself looking at the budget and trying to figure out how often I could indulge. But shortly after I had my nails done, I started getting commentary on the unnecessary expense by various people around me.

Comments on whether the nails were appropriate to my job. How could I possibly do my job with those nails? Comments on how I could possibly afford to have my nails done.

Because suddenly, like the millionaire telling millennials to lay off avocado toast if they want to buy a house, or Jason Chaffez suggesting that if we didn’t buy an iPhone, we’d have the money we need to afford health insurance, everyone had an opinion on my nails.

Let’s set aside the infuriating irony of Chaffez lecturing the rest of us on saving our money to spend on health insurance–someone guaranteed coverage simply by being a member of Congress–I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy an iPhone every month for every year of my life. Because that’s how much my health insurance cost per month before Obamacare: the equivalent of an iPhone. Let’s set aside as well the fact that the last time I bought a house, it was for around $35 K. I sold it a few years later for $44 K. The same house now lists at $150 K–and as an individual with a single income, I couldn’t afford that kind of house payment. So yeah, perhaps millennials could save their pennies–but it still wouldn’t add up to what it takes to buy a house these days.

No, what really irks me is the notion that it isn’t enough that we are barely squeaking by at times, we must suffer for the indignity of being broke too. I know, it’s all relative. I know some people for whom tightening their belt means they will forgo the trip to Tuscany this year. For others, it means making soup out of popcorn because there is literally nothing else in the house to eat. But here’s the thing: if I choose not to have cable TV so that I can have my nails done, that’s my choice. Cable or nails: neither one comes close to a house payment. And if a house payment is completely out of the picture, then why begrudge me a small indulgence?

Especially if that indulgence helps me get by when things are really hard for me right now.

It’s high time we stopped being so judgemental. Be it about someone’s weight, or the books they read, or how they spend their hard-earned cash. Especially by people who want to make these judgements about morals when the truth of the matter is it’s very hard to lose weight when you’re dead broke. Cheez Doodles are cheap. Buying and cooking good food is expensive, both in terms of actual cost, but in time spent as well. It isn’t laziness that causes some people to collapse onto the sofa at the end of the day and not get up again until it’s time to go to bed–working two jobs kind of saps any energy for going jogging or making a week’s worth of meals in advance.

So I say this to you: if you’re hanging on by your fingernails, paint them. Buy that book or DVD you’ve been wanting. Take that special person in your life out to dinner. Wear the nice perfume. Just because you have to pinch and scrimp and save to pay the bills–sometimes to the point of having to decide which bills you’re going to pay and which you must delay–that doesn’t mean you can’t ever enjoy nice things. Maybe your budget is so tight you’re eating popcorn soup–but you can still check out books from the library or go to the free movie in the park. And if you do save up for something nice, something that makes you feel special or makes you smile, by God, don’t let anyone diminish your joy in it or try to make you feel bad about your little indulgence.

Just because you’re broke doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have fun.

Being broke isn’t a moral failing. It’s bad enough to have to struggle to make ends meet. No one should demand we maintain a colorless existence without joy, merely because we fall into the wrong tax bracket.

This image was taken after I had my nails done professionally. Turned out rather nice, don’t you think?

 

Writer’s Block: When to Push Through and When Not

book-gianni testoreToday’s post came out of a conversation I had with a fellow author the other day, and it occurred to me it might be useful to others as well.

Recently, I posted about the struggle I’ve been having to write. I don’t sit and stare at a blinking cursor, which is how I think many people perceive writer’s block. No, instead I come up with a great idea and dive headlong into it–writing madly until I hit the 40 K mark or so, when I suddenly lose all faith in the story and my ability to tell it. As such, it doesn’t really feel like writer’s block, but I think it’s a form of it just the same.

I’ve done this with four stories in the past year. Four stories that I walked away from at the halfway point.

Now, 2016 wasn’t a good year for me. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t good for a lot of people. Living with fear or depression is sapping to one’s creative energy. So is working an exhausting job. But these things were only additional factors in my decision to walk away from these stories. The real issue was that I didn’t believe they were any good. I thought they were fatally flawed and not worth finishing.

The thing is, I think there is a natural rhythm to writing. Most of us experience a lull in productivity after we’ve finished a big project. That’s normal. That’s not writer’s block. Farmers used to let fields lie fallow for a season to allow the ground replenish the minerals needed to grow healthy crops. Now we stuff the dirt with fertilizer and force earth to produce more food faster without any rest.

I’m a firm believer in taking a little break between projects so your well of creativity can restock. Just don’t let that break go on too long, or it represents too much lost time between one story and the next–and these days, like the farmers, writers are expected to produce new works rapidly. An experienced author knows this and doesn’t let that natural lull go on too long or else it becomes wasted time.

laptop-user-1-1241192But what I experienced last year was not a naturally occurring wane in production. So if you hit a roadblock in your writing–think about why you want to bail on it now. The most important question you have to ask yourself is this: is the problem with THIS story or is it with your self-confidence?

The thing with writer’s block of any sort (even if you’re still writing but it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of pliers) is that sometimes you’re blocked for a good reason. Either the story isn’t working or you’re trying to force the characters in a direction they don’t want to go. That kind of ‘I can’t write today’ is totally different from the feeling that everything you write is utter crap and you’re stymied because you either keep writing the same bit over and over or nothing at all because ALL THE WORDS SUCK.

In the first situation, sometimes you need to walk away from the story for a bit and let it simmer in your subconscious while you figure out the problems. Or you need to read other stories and watch some movies while you re-charge your writing mojo. Be kind to yourself in these situations. Take the dog for a walk. Do something different. Let your brain unravel the thorny problem as best it can. If taking a little break doesn’t help, then skip that scene and write something else until you can come back to the one giving you trouble. The solution might well have come to you by then–maybe even as a result of you moving on with the story.

If you feel hamstrung in your writing because of self-doubt however, the most important thing is to write SOMETHING. Part of the problem with writer’s block in any form is the belief nothing you write is good enough. You know what? The first draft of anything written isn’t good enough. But you can’t know what to fix until you get it down on paper. I’m discovering that sometimes my first draft is just me getting to know the characters and the universe they live in. That means a lot of things might change in the second draft. And there is nothing wrong with this!

There’s also nothing wrong with realizing something isn’t your forte and not expending any more time or energy on it. I’ve finally accepted that as much as a love a cleverly written short story, it’s just not something I do well. I have spent as much time struggling with a 10 K short story as I have with an 80 K novel. Don’t beat yourself up because you don’t do something as well as other people you know. Figure out what your strengths are as a writer and hone them until they are razor sharp. This is even more important when you’re already struggling to write, regardless of the reasons.

If self-doubt is holding you back–and I believe depression and fear are huge contributing factors to this category as well–sometimes the wise thing to do is soldier on. Will it be your best work? Probably not. But dropping out of things and not finishing things becomes a habit. A bad one. I think this is what happened to me last year, and though I also made a decision to drop out of some projects recently, I think in that case, I did it for the right reasons. Not because I didn’t think the end result would be good enough but because I realized I’d seriously over-committed myself at a time when the demands on my writing time and creative energy are already very high. Saying no to some projects–including ones I really wanted to do–took the pressure off me enough so I could get back to work on the most important ones. It sucked to have to disappoint people, but at the same time, I hope that will serve as a reminder to me in the future not to take on more than I can manage.

Things that sap your creative energy–like an exhausting job, or family pressures, or depression–aren’t likely to go away. You have to learn how to work around them if you want to be a writer. The lovely thing about doing this is that when things are going better, you have the skills to write like a fiend. And if you can turn out decent work when things are crap, think how much better you can do when things are great?

For many reasons, I’ve been debating if I should continue writing, and if I do, what genre I should be writing in. Part of my problem as a storyteller is I don’t have a recognizable format–I like a little of everything! I’m not sure I’d do better in other genres, but other genres are calling to me. The hard part is knowing what is a valid reason for changing and what is self-doubt. Knowing the difference between truly wanting to head in a new direction versus letting the fact that the path has become difficult make you think it’s time to turn around.

So if you’re struggling to write just now, I feel your pain. If you’re thinking about quitting–either on a specific story or the whole writing gig altogether, be honest with yourself as to why you’re thinking about quitting. Figure out if the problem is THIS story versus your writing in general. The action you take will depend on knowing the difference.

In the meantime, I’ve got a bloody story to finish. Catch you on the flip side.

Nothing Left to Lose is Another Word for Freedom

Yes, I know. That’s not how the lyric goes.

I have my reasons for flipping it on its head. In the original song, “Me and Bobby McGee”, the emphasis is looking at someone who seems free and realizing they’ve lost the only thing that really mattered to them. The focus is on the shallowness of the freedom because of the loss.

I want to focus on the freedom aspect.

In years past, I’ve often given the upcoming year a ‘title’ with a goal toward making it so–the year of living Without Fear, or the year of living in Love. Like most New Year’s resolutions, it means well, starts out strong, and then peters out as time, energy, and enthusiasm wane.

I can skip ahead to that part now. I’m already looking at 2017 with an empty tank of gas. I feel as though I’ve already sacrificed and given up so much over the years. I think a lot of us can identify with this. We’ve pinched, scraped, and done without for so long there is no further room to tighten our belts. Many of us are starving: emotionally, financially, spiritually, even physically. Yes, you can be starving and fat–Cheez Doodles are cheap, after all.

Looking ahead, I don’t think things are going to get better. I think they are going to get much, much worse. It dawned on me the other day, I don’t really have to worry any longer about all the things that used to terrify me. Will I have enough money to take care of me in my old age? To pay for health insurance? To rebuild the crappy little house as it continues to fall apart?

No. I don’t really think we’re going to be around long enough for these things to matter.

Things that used to gnaw at my fears like rats worrying bones have ceased to have the same importance. Will the next book release be successful? Am I just wasting my time writing? Should I give it up?

Laughable concerns in the face of our potential future. A future where our own government is dismantling democracy piece by piece and replacing it with something truly horrifying.

But in an odd way, this realization has been very liberating for me. It’s a little like a hypochondriac being cured of his phobia by developing a life-threatening disease. Once you’ve experienced the real thing, all those previous silly fears just fade away. I’ll freely admit, I’m a chronic worrier. Now that I’m staring down the barrel at the loss of everything I believe in, something inside just clicked. I’m like Sarah in Labyrinth when she finally realizes the Goblin King no longer has any power over her.

Yes, the future ahead is uncertain at best and terrifying at worst. I suspect many, many people have no idea how horrible it can be. We’re worried about losing rights, and I think it will be much worse that that. Aleppo worse.

But there are so many other, smaller things I can stop worrying about. Things that no longer have any power over me. And the funny thing about freedom is that once you get a taste of it, you’re no longer willing to walk in chains.

I think the Goblin King and his minions about to take office are going to find us a hard nut to crack.

The Importance of Play to Your Creativity

dscn3989Toward the end of October, I was all set to write a post about how much fun I’d been having lately. I was anticipating an upcoming release, working on final edits for another, and completing a WIP on a deadline, and yet I’d taken a couple of Saturday afternoons off to play rather than work on these things. I had a charming post in mind about the benefits of play to your creativity.

And then the November elections happened. I won’t sugar-coat it. I was devastated by the results. The implications of the impact of the new administration are staggering on so many levels: personally, financially, emotionally, environmentally… I could go on. I struggled to finish my projects. I began stress eating–and have probably gained ten pounds, I’m afraid to look at the scale. I stopped coloring my hair (and at the moment resemble a skunk with the two inch wide streak of gray running down the middle of my scalp). I’m not  sleeping, and when I do manage to catch a few hours of sleep, I have nightmares.

Writing a cheerful post about the benefits of play to your personal creativity seemed not only frivolous, but pointless as well. Instead of writing about the importance of having fun to energize the writing process, I wrote about why we need our storytellers more than ever. Instead of sharing pictures of me playing with action figures or planning my next cosplay, I wrote about living with fear. Recently, I read a post about how we as creators should keep our mouths shut about politics unless we were political writers. That’s fine if you wish to do that. If you’re concerned about losing readers because of sharing your beliefs. I’ve been turned off by artists who have revealed their true selves to social media, so I get it. But let me say for the record if you don’t buy my works because you revile the things I believe in, well, I doubt seriously you would have enjoyed them anyway.

And let me tell you this: we ALL have a stake in the future here. Regardless of our sexual orientation, our gender, our economic status, our religious beliefs, our age, our ethnicity, our belief in science and education, our status as US citizens… because we ALL live on this planet, and the upcoming administration will put all of that at risk. Not just the part where the cishet white males in the 1% tax bracket live. And given the rampant lying and corrupt inaccuracies coming from the upcoming administration, there needs to be visible and vocal protest every day, otherwise they will continue steamrolling over the rights of everyone.

But that brings me back to the importance of play. Yes, it took me a while to see that. There are two points I want to make here. The first, is that while we all know to be successful as creators, we must be disciplined about working at our craft every day, there are reasons why we still need to read and watch other works, and yes–play.

I have a very good friend who, because we live on different sides of the country, we only get to meet up once a year. However we email each other. We send each other cards and gifts (okay, most of the sending is on her side because she’s awesome like that). And we pose pictures of our action figures in scenes like storyboards and send them to each other.

steve-respondsTwo weeks before the election, I spent 3 or 4 hours posing action figures with props against different backdrops in my yard. I wasn’t conscious of the time. I didn’t stop what I was doing and check my social media platforms every few minutes. I was engrossed and having fun, playing with dolls outside on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. I can’t tell you when the last time I’d had so much fun by myself had occurred. Probably the previous winter, when I spent hours in the snow posing action figures in an epic battle between the Abominable Snowman, Queen Elsa, and the Wraith.

The following weekend, I sorted through my costumes, trying them on and determining which needed more work before the next cosplay event. For someone who goes to conventions once or twice a year at best, I have a lot of costumes. And the afternoon I spent dressing up, attempting to master Peggy Carter’s hair and makeup, was another delightful day spent.

agent-carter-red-dress-and-shoesHere’s the funny thing. I ‘should’ have been writing. I have a limited amount of writing time each week, and wasting it playing with dolls or dress-up should have made me cringe. But it didn’t. Those weekends stand out as some of the happiest, most relaxing in memory–that didn’t take place on vacation, that is.

Even more astounding, by letting my mind play all afternoon, I woke up the next morning with the solutions to sticky plot points ironed out, as well as on fire to jot down some new ideas for different stories. Creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It needs fuel and fertilizer. It needs oxygen and freedom to grow. And the best part: it’s self-perpetuating. The more you play, the more creative you become.

Which brings me to the second point: as I’ve said before, we need our storytellers more than ever. Chuck Wendig has written some fantastic posts about how to create art and make cool stuff in a time of trouble, as well as the need for hope. That is true for all of us as creators, but I say this as well: it’s true for all us period. We need our heroes. We need to believe that good will win in the end. We need the courage that comes from emulating our heroes and the relief from fear that comes from a few hours of play, be that coloring, or making crafts, or dressing as your favorite kick-ass character, or reading, or writing, or whatever. When you realize that J.K. Rowling’s Dementors are a metaphor for depression, or that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was heavily influenced by his experiences in WWI, then you realize that we’re all political animals in the end–and we all need hope.

 

 

The Value of Your Tribe…

the-gang-is-all-hereFor some time now, I’ve suspected the need to categorize people into Us and Them is something that’s deeply ingrained in human nature. When you think about it, survival pressure has probably selected for those of us who have the ability to organize ourselves in communities, since those who live in groups have increased survival rates. But the flip side of this benefit is the tendency to see everyone that is not Us as Them. It’s as though we’re constantly playing a game of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” only the consequences of saying “You don’t belong” has gone far beyond kids sorting themselves into Jocks and Nerds. That process itself is not innocuous either: there are real consequences to bullying and being ostracized. But that’s just one end of a spectrum that includes racism, homophobia, misogyny, sports team rivalry, and more.

john-and-rodney-hanging-outIn the past, not being part of a tribe could get you killed–but the process of sorting you into a tribe can be an anxious one. I think J.K. Rowling got it right when she depicted the competition and tension between Houses at Hogwarts, and the concern Harry had about being sorted into the ‘right’ house.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the rhetoric I heard on the television and radio was all Us against Them. So much so, I stopped listening to commercial radio altogether. I have to rely on friends (and YouTube) to introduce me to new music and artists because I simply couldn’t bear to hear what was coming out of the announcers’ mouths. For the most part, I stopped watching the news as well. I still have a fairly low tolerance for both, and mostly listen to my iPod.

Fast forward 15 years: this election has been one of the most polarizing Presidential races I can recall. People are drawing lines in the sand and standing by their candidate no matter what. In fact, at a recent gathering of friends this past weekend, we had to declare a ‘no politics’ rule. Not because I don’t think we could have discussed the current race without coming to blows, but mostly because we’re all so sick of it and we were there to get away for a few days. But the subject of Us against Them came up, and it struck me that this mindset was so deeply rooted in all of us that probably the ONLY thing that would unite us as one people on this planet would be the threat of an alien invasion or the threat of another pandemic–which is a nightmare for another day.

oh-captain-jackSometimes, in my fear of the hatred and hostility I see out there, I forget the value of having tribes. The importance of finding *your* tribe, the place where the people get you. The people with whom you can be your real self.

I had that experience this past week. Once a year, I get together with some friends for what we call “Squee Weekend.” We come from all over the world to laugh, talk, watch movies, drink wine, eat food, and share what we love and the things we are passionate about. Over the years, the group has grown in size and expanded from a long weekend to a full week. We joked about how the name would soon become Squee Fortnight, and then Squee Month, only to grow into Squee Season, and so on.

Most of us are writers. Some of us knit. Others do crafts. Others are whiz bangs at computer tech. It’s rare that I come home without having learned something about a new-to-me social media platform, or how to podfic, or discover a fantastic story because someone shared it with the group.

raincheck-bookmark-decoratedThe best part is that because the group is so organic, we can gather in the main conference room to discuss topics of interest (such as some of the things I learned at Writer’s Police Academy this year) or we can subdivide into smaller groups to watch a television show or brainstorm with someone about the story we’re working on. The person on my left could be filling in the pages of a coloring book while listening to the discussion on the degree to which sex is necessary to romance stories, while the person on the right might be pulling up a link to an editing website they wanted to share. Someone might be upstairs baking brownies to bring down later, while another group might be sitting around the fire discussing stories they wish someone would write. One of my friends is a talented crafter, and every year she helps me create decorated bookmarks to give away at conventions. Another is into journals, another into jewelry-making, and so on. I can sit with someone and learn how about their passions while having meaty conversations about the art of storytelling.

A few years ago, a bunch of us were sitting together, clicketedy-clacking away on our laptops, when one of the Squee Members looked up and said, “Ah. The sound of my people.”

on-the-gateWe all laughed, but it was because it was true.

That is not to say that there is never any friction between the members of your tribe. You put a bunch of writers in a room together and they are torn between socializing with people who understand the writing process and the frequent need to go some place quiet and decompress for a while. And though we are all walking the fine line between being introverts and extroverts (because anyone who shares their art is an extrovert to some extent), we have strong opinions and tend to bridle easily on certain subjects.

That said, when push comes to shove, we still recognize our tribe when we see it. It’s like that Firefly episode, Safe, when the villagers wanted to burn River at the stake for being a witch. You cheer when Mal demands her release, saying, “Yeah, but she’s our witch.”

Wraith Photobomb

Wraith Photobomb

I can’t think of many people with whom I could announce I’m going outside to take pictures of action figures, only to have someone say, “Let me get my camera and join you.” Maybe it’s a little weird for a middle aged woman to be rolling up her jeans so she can wade in the pool while re-enacting a scene from a television show. My particular brand of weird isn’t everyone’s brand, either. But a tribe mate merely nods and tells you when the brownies will be out of the oven.

The only bad thing about Squee Weekend is the depression that comes when it’s over for the year. The link between us is elastic, however, and stretches across time and space as we make our way home, only to pull us back again the following year. Because, yeah. Our tribe.

 

The Elephant in the Room that the Diet Industry is Ignoring

elephant--freeimage.com

elephant–freeimage.com

At the beginning of last month, I posted a little rant about an article I’d read, which suggested ways in which the ‘average’ person could easily lose weight throughout the day. I found the article so ludicrous, so not in keeping with the daily lives of most ‘average’ people I know, that I felt I had to say something.

I got that off my chest (with a fair amount of bad language on my part), but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. You know, the diet industry has a vested interest in making us feel bad about our appearance. So-called fitness magazines frequently feature models so nonathletic and frail-looking it’s hard to believe they could complete a single set of exercises they’re depicted performing. Their articles claim to help the reader to lose an unbelievable amount of weight in a ridiculously short period of time. Again and again. At some point you have to wonder if these ‘tips’ and fad diets were so successful, why does the next magazine come out with a new suggestion the following month? In fact, you have to kind of admire the whole set up: let’s make people feel bad about their appearance and then let’s persuade them to spend lots of money trying to live up to unrealistic ideals, only to have them fail and come back to spend more money. Clever, eh?

I read a statistic today from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and that said two thirds of every American are either overweight or obese. Why does this seem to be a uniquely American problem? I would have to say it’s multi-factorial. It probably has a lot to do with the abundance of fast food and processed food, both of which are cheaper than fresh clean foods you have to prepare yourself. One of the things I discovered on a trip to the UK was how much healthier much of the food is there. For one thing, they don’t allow all the additives that are considered a matter of course here in the US. Then there’s the difficulty of finding the time and energy to prepare healthy food when you’re always on the run. Not to mention exercising, for heaven’s sake.

Just this morning, I took an online ‘test’ to determine my ‘metabolic age’ based on a few questions. Of course, once I took it–and received the information that I was metabolically six years older than my given age–the whole thing was designed to scare me into buying into some program guaranteed to reverse this terrible condition, probably for three easy payments of only $19.99 each.

I think all of these health and fitness recommendations overlook one very important thing: the level of stress most of us are under every freaking day. It’s all very well to talk about willpower and increasing your metabolism, of getting up early and working out before breakfast, or eliminating all carbs, no wait, eliminate all meat, no… scratch that. Anyway, the one thing most of these lose-weight-fast and improve-your-health-in-12-easy-steps programs seem to overlook is that most of us are walking around with adrenal glands the size of cantaloupes from all the stress we’re under.

sleeping cat freeimage.com

sleeping cat freeimage.com

I don’t know about you, but I have to fight hard to get seven precious hours of sleep a night. You know what they say about lack of sleep? Among other things, it makes it easier for you to gain weight. Lack of sleep also ravages your immune system, and driving while sleep-deprived is every bit as reckless as driving while under the influence.

Then there’s the average work day in America. You think it’s eight hours, right? Well, I can’t tell you the last time I worked nine to five. More like eight to six or longer. A forty hour work week? Don’t make me laugh. I’ve worked sixty plus hours a week for years and I didn’t get paid overtime because I was on salary, not hourly employment. Add to that the fact the job itself is stressful, and you get the triple whammy: you’re eating junk food on the run and you’re eating to keep moving AND your own stress hormones are both demanding you eat more and storing everything you eat as fat. When your entire day is one long ‘flight or fight’ mode and you do neither, the constant influx of cortisol in your body with no outlet does bad things to you. And this makes it ten times harder to do anything about your weight.

Unfortunately, stress in America seems to be a way of life. Our work day and work week is not likely to get any shorter. Our jobs are probably going to remain one of the biggest sources of stress in our lives. Most of us are also trying to balance raising a family and taking care of elderly parents as well. And I’ve said it before but the thing so many ‘experts’ seem to overlook is we’re all starving: emotionally, physically, financially. We’re all pinching and scraping and sacrificing–and to come home at the end of the day and deny ourselves something else seems like asking too much.

But you have to. At some point you have to say, “You know what? Yes, I probably deserve that second helping of lasagne, but I also deserve better health. And I have to choose.” At some point, you have to accept that your job/family life is stressful and that it’s not likely to change–but how you react to it is under your control. You can manage your stress in other ways besides eating. Meditate. Walk the dog. Ride bikes with the kids. Hell, talk to the kids, for some other reason than to tell them to go clean up their room. For me, watching less television, spending less time on social media, and spending more time reading and doing quiet activities helps.

But cut yourself slack on the nearly Sisyphean task of losing weight. Because like any other goal you seek to achieve, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to have good days and bad days. Toss out the diet and fitness magazines, ignore the latest fad trends. Remember that most of those magazines aren’t even depicting images of real people–they’ve been Photoshopped into unrealistic standards.

Take a deep breath. Maybe the most important thing today isn’t the number on the scale or whether your thighs rub together when you walk. Maybe it’s the fact you made someone smile, or you played with your dog, or you solved that really challenging problem at work. Let’s not make your weight one more thing to stress about. It’s not the most important thing about you.

Dear Entertainment Industry: A little hope, please?

candle by Q8y_dream Flickr Creative Commons

candle by Q8y_dream Flickr Creative Commons

Sometime toward the end of last year’s television season, I quit watching most of my shows. I work in an incredibly stressful profession. I describe it as life and death in a microcosm every fifteen minutes. I come home at the end of the day totally wiped out, with barely the energy to walk the dogs and cobble together some sort of dinner, which is often the first chance I’ve had all day to sit down and eat a meal.

One of the things I look forward to are my ‘must-see’ television shows, when the BF and I can relax, kick back on the sofa, and watch the next installment of whatever thrilling drama the entertainment industry has to offer.

But toward the end of the last mainstream television season, several things happened at once: many of my favorites went on hiatus or were cancelled. Of those that remained on my watchlist, many had become too intense, too dark for me to enjoy. I realized that 99% of everything I watched was incredibly violent. Storylines went from captivating to grim. Combined with my increasing anxiety over the upcoming elections and what the outcome could mean for the world as a whole, I felt as though I had to stop watching television and movies. At the end of the day, I didn’t need to be devastated by the death of characters or the destruction of everything I loved.

I took a hiatus. I read books. I watched old favorites. Thanks to the wonders of Netflix, I could re-watch old television shows that managed to entertain without nearly destroying me in every episode. I listened to music. I took up meditation.I walked the dogs. I began riding horses again. I wrote stories–a lot of stories. Sometimes when I heard friends discussing their favorite shows around the water cooler or on Facebook, I felt a little left out, but for the most part, I enjoyed my quieter evenings.

As the current fall TV season crept closer, I found myself getting excited about the returning favorites or the new possibilities. I watched a few episodes I missed in order to catch up with the season premieres, and I settled in to watching the first eps of the season.

After two such attempts, I complained to the BF that everything was horribly dysfunctional and dystopian. No one could be trusted. Teams betrayed each other and were broken up. Leaders were replaced by people that were evil and dangerous. Friends were forced to choose sides. Beloved characters were angry and vengeful. And I’m sick of it.

Worse, it’s not fun.

No, seriously, some of the franchises I’ve loved in the past have become so unrelentingly hopeless and dark that I Just. Can’t. Even.

Look, I get it.  We tend to write stories that reflect how we feel, and examine our fears and concerns. The mythology of werewolves is believed to have risen out of a need to explain serial killers. I recently read a study somewhere that suggested certain kinds of fiction arise in certain types of political atmospheres–and surely the rise of dsytopian and zombie apocalyptic fiction is a reflection of how angry–and terrified–so many of us are right now.

Hope: Steven Snodgrass Flickr Creative Commons

Hope: Steven Snodgrass Flickr Creative Commons

But I need hope. I need the possibility of a future that is better than my fears. One of the reasons Star Trek has had such an enduring fandom over the years is because Gene Roddenberry’s vision of our future was more hopeful than nearly every other sci-fi universe out there. In Roddenberry’s universe, we overcame our worst failings and inclinations. We solved the problems of how to feed people and create clean energy and how to embrace diversity without being terrified of it. Star Trek is about sending the best and brightest out as ambassadors for the human race. Sure, they were flawed, but week after week, they got the job done. Better yet, they inspired generations to be the very best human beings they could be, in the hopes that one day, they’d be good enough to be considered for the Enterprise crew.

At the risk of sounding like someone’s cranky old granny, I want that in my entertainment again. Sure, you can give me adversity to overcome–that embodies great storytelling to me. Yes, there must be conflict, otherwise it’s boring. But give me that happily ever after–or happy for now. End with a note of encouragement, a candle lit in the dark against the forces of evil. Maybe you don’t trust your team mates in the beginning because you don’t know them–but show us that trust building over time.

Because otherwise, you could end every story with “Rocks fall. Everyone dies.” And in a world where it seems increasingly likely that this is our future, I want a little fantasy, please.

So give me hope.

 

Dear Weight Loss Experts: Tell It Like It Is

I had to laugh at this post I ran across this morning: 14 Easy Ways to Lose Weight All Day. I admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of things. Easy weight loss! Sign me up!

I’m one of those people you probably hated when growing up. For most of my adult life, I’ve been at an ideal weight with little effort on my part. I could eat pretty much whatever I wanted and lived off cheeseburgers, Pepsi, and peanut butter crackers. I didn’t live for food–it was just something I ate when I got hungry. I didn’t even know what cellulite was until I hit my mid-forties. My hair grew so thick and fast, my stylist would jokingly tell me to stop putting Miracle-Gro on it. Lest you think I was one of the popular girls or thought I was the next Cindy Crawford, not true. I hated me too. I’d grown up hearing how homely and unattractive I was, thanks to Coke Bottle Lens glasses and a set of teeth only a gargoyle could love.

The point is, however, when middle-age and changing hormones finally caught up with me, I could no longer eat what I wanted and I hated everything deemed healthy. I’d never had a weight problem before, and so I didn’t know how to cope with the sudden spread. Hence my fascination with fitness magazines and diet information–most of which gets tossed out when said tips include things like eating Greek Yogurt and red peppers as a mid-day snack. BARF.

So, despite knowing better, I checked out the post. I found it full of helpful tips designed for women who live alone and don’t work for a living. Things like: 7 am: Do 2 minutes of jumping jacks, calisthenics, followed by 7:15 am cook a hearty breakfast, and 7:45 am hit the gym for some weight lifting…. I had to laugh because in this magical household, dishes don’t need to be washed and the gym isn’t a 20 minute drive away and there are no critters to feed or kids to put on the bus.

So I thought I’d create my own version of this advice post, with a more realistic outcome.

6:30 am: Hit snooze on the alarm. Because sleep is a damned precious commodity that you get very little of these days. You ignore the cat patting your eyeballs to see if you’re awake and hunker down under the blankets for ‘a few more minutes.’

7 am: Look at the clock and jump out of bed cursing. Leap around the room as you find clean clothing and dress in 2 minutes flat while the dogs bark and spin in circles in anticipation of breakfast. Feel good about your adrenaline rush. Remind yourself you’ve pre-made your lunch and that you have time to accomplish all the things you desire to do today.

7:02-7:30 am: Feed all the living creatures in the house except yourself. Walk dogs. Scoop litter boxes. If you leave up the baby gate to the litter box area, you can combine this activity with hip flexor stretches, but be careful not to fall over the gate and injure yourself. Pause to clean up vomit in the living room from the species of your choice.

tired-dont-care-despair-steve-carell-the-office-gif7:45 am: Consider cooking yourself a hearty breakfast but recall you haven’t been to the store yet this week and unless you can make an omelet out of cat food, you’ll have to settle for cereal. Convince yourself cereal is what you really want. Get bowl out of cabinet only to have work text you that they’ve added an extra appointment and now you have to be there a half hour earlier than expected. Swipe some peanut butter on a slice of bread and head out the door. Grab your previously prepared salad and your healthy snacks to take with you, feeling virtuous that you planned ahead.

glazed-doughnuts-recipe10 am: Completely and totally ignore the break room stuffed with baked goods: doughnuts glistening with glazed sugar. Fresh snickerdoodles. Bagels with cream cheese. M&M’s. You can eat your apple when you get a chance. Pat yourself on the back for being so virtuous. Of course, you aren’t going to get a break because you’re double booked this morning, but at least that will keep you out of the break room.

12:20 pm: Stomach growling, you wonder if it is close to lunch time yet. Realize you’re well into your lunch period but won’t be able to leave the building for the much-needed mental break. Eat your salad at your desk, (the first chance you’ve had to sit down all day) shooting surly looks at the constant interruptions to take this call or field this question. Vow you will take your full break tomorrow and actually leave the building.

the-little-shop-of-horrors-giant3 pm: Full-on hangry now. You’re Audrey from the Little Shop of Horrors. Work-stress has used up all your available blood sugar. You take a couple of bites of your apple but get interrupted. When you finally come back, the apple is brown. You say ‘screw it’ and get a doughnut. You stuff the whole thing into your face in a single bite because THAT’S ALL THE TIME YOU HAVE TO EAT IT.

6 pm: You’re just getting home. You now must feed all the living creatures in the house except yourself. You gauge the temperature outside to determine if it is too hot to walk the dogs. You know you must walk them before you eat or it ain’t happening. You love your dogs. If it weren’t for them you’d never get any exercise at all. But there are times when you wish they were cats and scorned the idea of exercise, period.

7 pm: Now suffering from decision fatigue (yes, that’s a real thing), you say SCREW IT and fix too much food for dinner. You try to stay healthy but that’s not what you want. You want meat and potatoes, damn it, with a whopping big dessert and a glass of wine. Hell, you’ll pour the wine right into the dessert. While eating dinner, you catch up on the day’s emails. You know you have a writing deadline but there simply isn’t any brain power left over from the day’s work.

8-10 pm: You watch two episodes of CSI:NY on Netflix, a show you didn’t like when it originally aired but now you’re too fried to give a shit and you don’t want to watch anything you care about.

10:20 pm: You take the dogs out one more time.

tiana-bed-flop10:30 pm: You get ready for bed because SLEEP IS A DAMNED PRECIOUS COMMODITY YOU GET VERY LITTLE OF. You pull out all the stops: shut off the electronics a hour before you want to close your eyes, take benadryl, take melatonin, take pain meds. You lie in bed hoping you don’t wake your partner because there is NO position that is even remotely comfortable. An hour later, you’re still awake but you’re hopeful you might fall asleep soon.

12:01 am: The phone rings. You have to get up and deal with the potential work-related emergency. This time, you don’t have to go in, but your chances of falling back asleep now are nil. You take a book out into the living room to read on the couch for a while. You try not to fret over the upcoming elections, climate change, and your own future. Or, if you don’t have a job that puts these kinds of after-hours demands on your life, insert your favorite teenaged family emergency/sick kid crisis here.

Okay, so I’m making some excuses here. But seriously, women’s health magazines–this is my life and I don’t even have children. It discounts those of us working full time jobs (and that seldom means 9-5 these days in the US) while taking care of elderly parents, young children, or both. It ignores the fact that most of us are so over-extended, so stressed, and so tired, there’s only fumes left in the tank. Your articles, while chipper and enthusiastic, aren’t even remotely realistic. I’d like to see a post that addressed some of these things. That’s all I’m asking. 🙂

In other (happier) news, I’m the featured Author of the Month over at the Paranormal Romance Guild–check out my interview and the reviews there!

 

Dear Internet: I Want My Life Back

cell-phone-2-1525544-1280x960Periodically, I decide I need to break up with the Internet.

It usually comes after a week fraught with huge blowups among my circle: meltdowns and high drama, like the exposure of a catfisher or outrage over someone/something that is Absolutely Wrong.

More and more these days, it comes as a result of feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the future of my country and the planet as a whole, especially when we’re constantly bombarded with images and messages that tell us to be afraid, be very afraid.

As Internet Addictions go, I don’t think my case is too bad (though isn’t that what all addicts say?). Sure, my boyfriend jokes about how I reach for my cell phone first thing in the morning, but that’s about a morning ritual of checking messages and my Twitter feed that allows me to spend another ten minutes or so in bed before I have to get up. No, really.

I don’t have Facebook on my phone. I don’t have a tablet. With the exception of Twitter, I don’t check any of my social media platforms on my phone–that waits until I’m seated at the computer.

But I do spend hours every day at the computer, circling social media sites looking for something interesting to read or start a conversation. I get online to ‘catch up’ and ‘unwind’ and the next thing I know, I’ve wasted most of the evening. Would I have been more productive if I’d stayed offline? Hard to say. Probably. But most days I’m so fried when I get home that faffling around on the internet is about all I’m good for.

Earlier in the week, I read this post by social media guru, Kristen Lamb. She talks about the fine balance between maintaining a social media presence online and losing five hours of your life to LOL cat videos. She has some good things to say about the way mindless tech use can kill your muse (not to mention your life in general). I read the post, nodding along, knowing I needed to institute some of the same measures mentioned. My friend Shira Anthony calls her tactics “Ninja Facebooking”, which is to log in, share some information, comment on a few posts, and get out again before the time sink effect kicks in. It’s a smart way of handling things, I think. By the way, she’s got a great new release upcoming up that’s available for pre-order now–Take Two from Dreamspinner Press. You should check it out.

Pokemon HoundsYesterday, while I was out with the dogs for a short run, I almost walked into a couple coming from the opposite direction. I looked up just in time before my muddy dogs and I plowed into them and I was horribly embarrassed that I hadn’t been paying attention. Why had I been so oblivious? Because I’d opened a game on my phone (ostensibly with the purpose of deleting it, only I started playing it instead) and I wasn’t even aware of their approach until it had almost become a social disaster.

Lately, I’ve been noticing just how much time I spend answering emails, sharing posts and tweets, and participating in online conversations… and I seriously believe that I do this far less than the average person. I’ve been noticing how much of the evening is devoted to sitting on the couch beside the boyfriend while we both tickety-tap away on our devices–me on Facebook or Live Journal, and him on Reddit or playing games. Just the other day, I met a man with a toddler who had very little verbal skills, but he was a demon on the smartphone. His little fingers flew over the screen, scrolling through images until he found the video he wanted to watch. The kid probably knew how to work his father’s smartphone better than I know how to use mine. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. Perhaps it is a matter of trading one skill set for another, exchanging one form of learning for a new one. However, I can’t help but wonder about the scores of young adults I know with crippling social anxiety, and whether the willingness of the younger generation to put every aspect of their lives online for public scrutiny has anything to do with that.

I met with my critique group this morning, and toward the end of our conversation we began discussing how much online presence writers need today. Where the boundaries are. How much should we share. How much time to spend doing it. That sort of thing. To my surprise, my group members seem to think I’m some social media whiz-bang. We were discussing the success of my latest story, and my friends gave much of the credit to my marketing skills. I had to make the squinty–face at them because I’ve been doing about the same thing as always on the media front–the surprising success of Fool’s Gold was probably due to several factors but I don’t think my ability to ‘work it’ on social media had as much impact on sales as decisions I made on pricing and which platform to offer it in.

Yes, I post to Facebook and Twitter regularly, and I share other people’s posts, too. Yes, I post to the blog semi-regularly, but then I *like* writing blog posts. Nothing has changed in that regard since my previous book was released.

But I agreed with much of what they had to say. It resonated with many of the things I’d been thinking lately.

computer-keyboard-1188763So I sat down here with the firm resolution to write the Internet a Dear John Letter. I wasn’t going to ‘take a break’ because I found being online overwhelming. I wasn’t shutting off my browser so I could finish a WIP. I was going to make a full-fledged declaration that the Internet was bad for me and I needed to be strong and walk away. To take that time and spend it more wisely. To reconnect with the living things in my life on a daily basis. To live my life before I woke up one day and discovered it was over.

And then I read this post by The Bloggess, who put things a little in perspective for me. And I remembered that my online life has allowed me to stay in touch with people I’d never see otherwise. I’ve made friends all over the world. I’ve traveled to meet up with my online friends, too. Hell, I met my boyfriend online, and next month will mark eight years of our being together. We had a blast playing Pokemon Go together at a local street festival a few weeks ago (just wait until he finds out I caught a Pikachu!), too.

Even my critique group, with its bicoastal and international membership, originated out of online communities and we ‘meet’ via Skype. Last weekend, I attended Writer’s Police Academy–an organization I learned about from friends met online–and I met up with fellow authors there. I’ll be posting about my experiences at WPA in the future, but the point is I’m not going to be breaking up with the Internet at all. The Internet and social media aren’t inherently good or bad. They are tools, that’s all. And like any tool, we need to learn how to use them appropriately and with common sense.

I wouldn’t carry a hammer to a wedding (it’s not Game of Thrones, peeps!), nor out horseback riding or to the grocery store. But if I need to fix a fence or replace a board, I’m going to use one. Be smart. Turn off the device from time to time and check out the world around you. Don’t walk into hikers or off cliffs or into bears because you weren’t paying attention. Pay attention. Life is worth it.