Make It Stop

It is a dark and rainy night here in the Big Apple. No different from many fall evenings, except that videos have surfaced of terrorists threatening Times Square, only a few days after the slaughter in Paris. The city is on high alert, with the much criticized NYPD doing extra patrols and sweeps to try to stop murder before it happens. Tonight, I was followed onto my train by a counter terrorism cop, who visually swept the car before nodding that the train could go on.

I usually resent the police presence in the subway. They stand
with assault weapons across their chest, the business end pointed down.  How easy, I think, for them to accidentally shoot so many, if something goes wrong. They are often young and I wonder how many years they’ve been out of the police academy. They stand for hours, usually vigilant, usually watching. Watching us. Nodding one or two out of a hundred over to their tables, they swipe our bags with little cloths, analyzing the molecules that they pick up for evidence of planned destruction. When it is not my turn for inspection, I slide by them with a resentful glance at the fire power that has become normal to me, because I live in a world of increasing militarization.

This man, who was clad head to toe in thick padding underneath his dark blue uniform, carried only a pistol in his belt. And tonight, he reminded me that the city was under threat, which I had forgotten after my busy day in the office. And yet, I was glad to see him. What a brave man, I thought, to do this day after day. That’s admirable. I took a
long look at his dark brown eyes and curly hair. I took in the intense,
trained gaze, the dark embroidery of his name and unit on his pocket.

I should really work on my will, I thought. Just in case.  You never know.

Today, too, my government began the legislation to deny refuge to 10,000 Syrians. It is couched and marketed with words that make it sound like something different. They called it screening, as though the multi-year screening process that we already had in place wasn’t sufficient. What it is, in reality, is a requirement that a single person sign off on every Syrian that we allow to come here. A single busy person.  In reality, it means that we will deny even the paltry 10,000 that we’ve already promised to help. We will be as bad as Hungary. We will close our doors to the victims of our enemies.

Two hundred and eighty nine people got together in a room today and cast their vote that we should do this, even though every American school child is taught about how the U.S. made their immigration policies stricter for the German Jews during World War II. Even after we knew about genocide, we closed our doors. We are taught about how shameful that was, about how afraid Americans were. And yet, here we are, with an opportunity to redeem our country’s actions in those dark days….and two hundred and eighty nine of our elected officials thought we should repeat history instead.

The worst part, of course, is that this is in response to an attack by French and Belgian murderers. And yet, the call to keep French and Belgian visitors and immigrants out of our country has not come.  It is the Syrian refugees who are being given the blame, as my country seeks to punish the victims of ISIS for something a bunch of Europeans did.

A few months after Baba was born, I joined the local parenting group on Facebook. The main topic of the last few weeks has been how the local shopping mall has replaced Santa’s giant Christmas tree with a
glacier display. The presumption was that the Christmas tree was somehow offensive and that the PC police were at it again. Surely, this was a sign of American values under fire, as those other people had to be accommodated. Christianity, itself, is under fire by the loss of the tree.

I admit to some confusion as to how a Christmas tree, but not Santa, would be insulting. In any case, the outrage was so ferocious that a small tree was added to the display. The parenting group was horrified; how could the mall insult them by putting such a small tree in place?

In the middle of this discussion, one hundred and twenty nine lives were taken in Paris. And then the bigots came straight out.  It’s the immigrants. We need to stop the immigrants, they said.

My husband is an immigrant, I said. He’s worked here and paid taxes for over twenty years. What is your problem with immigrants?

Well, fine, they said. It’s the immigrants who are terrorists. Like the
ones who blew up our neighbors in 9/11.

None of those attackers were immigrants, I reminded them. I know that many people here lost people that they knew, that they loved. But immigrants didn’t do it. Immigrants want what you do — a better life for their children. A safer world. A place where there is plenty to eat.

Next you’re going to tell me what a great president Obama is, they said.  Thank God these governors have the sense to not let Syrians come to their states. You won’t agree, but you must agree that it’s understandable.

But the attackers in France weren’t Syrians! I said. And that’s not even something a governor can do! Does anyone here think at all?

I am, as you might imagine, very popular in this group. The whole discussion disturbed me so much that I have been really considering if this is a place where I want to raise Baba, knowing that she will come into contact with people who speak so hatefully about people just like her father.  We have been talking about selling our house and buying another in the same neighborhood, but now I am not so sure.

It was inevitable that I would find a news article that showed pictures of the French victims. My mouse hovered over the first picture, but then I had to look away. It is too much for me now. I see Baba in all of them. I think of the mothers that have been gutted by the loss of their children. I feel it too deeply. It is just another story of families torn apart by mass violence, just like the attacks in Lebanon the day before or the shooting in Kenya or the buses and markets that are attacked so regularly that we lose count of the dead.  I have victim fatigue. I can no longer look at the victims of Virginia Tech or Oregon State or Sandy Hook. I can’t even watch the videos that the UNHCR publishes. I can’t read the stories.

Anger comes easier.   Anger is so easy when I see the hate continue. I can only ask why we have a world in which young men become radicalized, in which they are taught to hate so much that they don’t even see their victims as other people. I want to know, to understand, why the world has become a place in which they can see no future for themselves. And then I want us to put systems in place to Make. It. Stop.

It seems so hopeless when all I can hear are my neighbors screaming for blood — the wrong blood.  Can’t we please move past the fear and reach out to each other? Can we please just Make. It. Stop?

November, NaNoWriMo, Some Falling Down

Some time between August and November, Baba changed from being a baby to being a little person — a little person that is brimming with opinions and ideas and curiosity.  I don’t know how it happened, but I suspect the when was sometime around when the plates in her skull fused together, transforming her from mewling newborn into a person.  An actual person, who spends every waking minute trying to find out more, more, more about her world.

Almost overnight, she had a child’s face and head, and a child’s thoughts to go in it.  Two days after she learned to crawl, she tried to stand, dragging herself up on anything that she could grab.  Now that she can easily stand with help, she’s trying very hard to stand without help.   She manages to succeed for brief moments — a few seconds here, a few seconds there.  She’s taught herself to fall, so when her legs buckle, they buckle neatly beneath her, bringing her down onto her rump.

Most of the time.

My writing journey has felt much the same lately.  I’ve had a second short story accepted for publication and I have been holding off on writing here until I have the details to share with you, but it’s been nearly a month now, and the details haven’t come.  So I will share that I hope that things are happening.  The journey continues, but it does so haltingly, a wobbly baby step at a time.

In the meantime, I decided to distract myself with NaNoWriMo, because I have deeply missed first draft writing.  I am working on an existing project — the novel that I began in graduate school — and I have been furiously burying myself back in the 18th century in order to do it.  Trying to write this intensively while taking care of my Baba has been a constant exercise in acceptance of my own humanity.  Although an experienced NaNoWriMoer, I am nearly 5,000 words behind where I should be. I am only scribbling off this post now because today’s writing went well enough that I started to close the gap.  This year, it’s not about winning NaNoWriMo — it’s about getting back to writing something new every single day, which I haven’t done for months.  On a day like today, when the baby slept and the trains were kind, my success fills me with energy.  I want to stay up all night and crow from the roof.  Tomorrow, well, tomorrow is, as they say, another day.

And so it goes.  The days pass and I watch Baba, whose journey feels like a reflection of my own.  In the garden, the leaves turn and fall off of all the bushes and vines that I’ve planted, and I know that they too will be back to their productive summer glory…one of these days.

Easy Come, Easy Go?

Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
Kiera Knightly in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Mr. Bennet treated the matter differently. “So, Lizzy,” said he one day, “your sister is crossed in love I find. I congratulate her. Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions. When is your turn to come? You will hardly bear to be long outdone by Jane. Now is your time. Here are officers enough at Meryton to disappoint all the young ladies in the country. Let Wickham be your man. He is a pleasant fellow, and would jilt you creditably.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

I had planned on sharing the news with you today of my first publication, a flash fiction story about two people who meet in a diner near a college campus.  “The Diner” was due to be published this morning in The Saturday Night Reader, an online and print magazine that specializes in stories under 1,000 words.

Instead, I must share with you the sad news of the end of The Saturday Night Reader, as I received notice this past weekend that they closed their doors for good on Sunday.

Well, okay then.

It is far worse news for them than it is for me,  of course, but I must admit to a deep disappointment.  After so many years of writing privately, it was a great relief to have a story sell so quickly after I started submitting.  To finally be able to call myself a published author was a validation that all of this time and effort actually was leading me somewhere.  I know that I will get there again, but I need to grieve a little first.

So there.  That’s the grieving done.

One piece of writing advice that you hear over and over again is that you need to have a social media platform to have any chance of success with traditional publishers.  This is because the publishing industry is struggling enough (thanks, Amazon!) that taking financial risks on unknown authors is harder to do.  Having a successful social media platform tells a publisher how many fans the author already has, which lets the publisher make a guess at how much money they might make off that author.   It’s just business, baby.

Other than this blog, I had held off on spending time developing any of this, because it felt like I was wasting time that would be better spent writing.  But with a publication pending, I finally set up a Twitter feed and set myself to learning about marketing.  It…has been an interesting learning curve.  After nearly a month of “interactions,” I still haven’t figured out how to get meaningful conversation and contacts out of it, even though I gain new followers daily.

My greatest puzzlement has been my followers — the first of which found me before I had posted any content.  I quickly discovered the game of Twitter, as it applies to the writing community, which is to follow lots of other writers so that they will follow you back.  We all win from this — we all appear to be very popular.  But does it translate to book sales?  And, when you follow thousands of people, how do you get any meaningful content out of the Twitter feeds that you read?

I admit it.  Social media does this introvert’s head in.  Won’t you be my friend/reader/mutual followee anyway?

So here’s a serious question for you Twitterers and writers.  What tactics do you use to make social media worth your time?  How do you turn the constant chatter (or the loudest-chirp contest) into something that works for you?  Did playing the follower game translate into professional success?

While I puzzle over the mystery that is the modern world, I’m back to working on polishing some more short fiction for submission.  Stephen King gave a piece of advice in his book On Writing that I have kept close to my heart over the last few months.  If you have enough work submitted, then it doesn’t matter when the rejections come — you still have hope for the fate of the submissions that you’ve yet to hear back on.

So, cheers, Stephen King.  I’ll clink this glass to yours as each rejection comes in — after all, I’m one of your 971,000 nearest and dearest “friends.”


Human Moments, No. 5

The boy is tow-headed, in the classic sense, his hair blonde in the way that you only see on young children.  He crowds in to the park bench with his brother, who might have been a twin, and his small sister.  They all stare at Baba, from ever-decreasing distances.

Baba, for her part, stares back at them.  She hasn’t had much experience with children that can walk, and she finds them interesting, nearly as interesting as standing up.  The girl, a curly-headed two-year-old reaches out to touch Baba on the face, while her brother repeats his question impatiently.

“Is it a girl or a boy?”

“She’s a girl,” I say, uncertain how to navigate this minefield of children.  Near me, his mother shakes her head, while his sister pokes Baba in the cheek.  “She’s pretty!”

“But she’s wearing blue!”

Really?” his mother asks him.  She stands a few feet away, ready to swoop in the second her daughter crosses a line.  We had met just a few moments before, strangers bonded in a quick alliance against greater numbers.  “Really?  You know we’ve talked about–”

“I like blue very much,” I say quickly.  “I’m a girl, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” he says, looking at his brother for confirmation.  The other boy nods, shoving his hands into camouflage pants pockets.

“I would even say blue is my favorite color.”

He digests this for a moment, then speaks again.  “But, are you sure she’s a girl?”

“Yes,” I say, laughing.  “I’m pretty darned sure.”


Where Do You Buy E-books?

When I moved in to my neighborhood seven years ago, there were three independent book stores, which fell like dominoes that year.  Then Borders Books & Music by my office turned into a bank, while my beloved Strand Annex notified its loyal customers that it was combining with its parent store uptown. The loss of the Strand Annex really hurt, because I was in the habit of spending my lunch hours browsing through stack after stack of stories.  Some of my most memorable books came off the dollar pile there — short story collections from the 50s, post-apocalyptic survival novels, books recording art exhibitions long since forgotten.

Browsing seems like a lost art now, since it is difficult for me to drop into a nearby book store, even though I live in one of the most populated places on the planet. Every New Yorker knows that the song goes “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” so I admit a great anxiety for the future of book stores everywhere.

Just yesterday, I got into the old discussion about paper books versus e-books.  I read both, depending on what’s at hand, but increasingly, it is digital books that available.  I do still order books to be shipped to me, from time to time, when the book is something special, or illustrations are an important part of the text.  But with shipping fees being what they are and the nearest book store is an out of the way forty-minute drive,  digital books are accessible books.

And yet, I’m invested in publishing and writing remaining a profitable industry.  While Amazon is notoriously exploitative of writers and publishers, I bought into their system for convenience when I bought my first Kindle. But I’ve finally reached the moment where my conscience won’t allow for it any more.  I decided I wanted to support a real book store, a place where people can go and look and feel and touch books. Some of my best memories as a teenager happened while browsing the shelves of Barnes & Noble in a mall that is now closed and gone, and I want the next generation to have that experience too.

I finally gave into my want-not-need longing for a modern e-reader.  I bought a Nook, thinking that at least my new book purchases would support Barnes & Noble — an actual brick and mortar book store as well as a company that has fairer practices for publishers.  Then I discovered that you cannot download ebooks that you purchase through their store; they will deliver them to your Nook, but you cannot download them anywhere else, including your computer. If you later decide that you wish to use a Kindle or a laptop or a tablet that is not from Barnes & Noble to read your purchases, then you’re out of luck.  If Barnes & Noble stops selling the Nook, again, you’re out of luck. This is not purchasing books — this is borrowing them at full price.

Although my profession makes me think more about technological disaster than most people, it’s not crazy to be suspicious of the perils of allowing your bookseller to store all your books for you. While painstakingly downloading my library from Amazon (book by book, as Amazon provides no other method), I’ve repeatedly hit the message that the title I want to download isn’t available.  Once, while on a downloading frenzy, I was even logged out of my account.  I’m sure that was accidental…or am I?

I’m not looking to pirate my books.  I’m simply interested in being able to transfer my property between any e-reader that I choose.  I want all of my books, no matter where I buy them, to work on the same device.  I finally got this worked out with my current set of e-books after fiddling with removing DRM for a few days so that I could put my Amazon purchased e-books on my Nook.   (This method has worked well for me.)

I am admittedly the sort of person who, repeatedly and willingly, makes her life more difficult for the nebulous sake of principles. I want authors and publishing houses to be paid fairly. I want to support book sellers. I want to also own the books that I buy. This doesn’t seem like such a strange desire.   So, what to do?  How do I buy e-books?

After doing a lot of reading, I’ve settled on a combination of direct purchases from publishers that offer DRM-free books and using Kobo to purchase books that are not offered in a DRM-free format.  Buying DRM-free books directly from the publisher has its obvious advantages, while Kobo is an online marketplace that facilitates e-book sales for independent book stores. If you’re inclined the way I am, you’ll do your shopping through your favorite book store and, presuming they’re a Kobo affiliate, follow their links for your purchase so that some of your money goes back to the little guys.  You can find a list of Kobo affiliated book stores here.

Kobo delivers its books in .epub format, which can be read in Adobe Digital Editions.  As a Linux user, I’ve set it up Calibre to scan for .epub books and automatically remove the DRM.  I have to manually transfer new books to my Nook (which Calibre makes simple), but I get a a DRM-free copy for my efforts.  If I ever decide to buy a different e-reader after the Nook, all of my purchases will transfer to it without hassle.  Its a little more work, but let’s me sleep a little better at night.

I think what we will see as the e-book market matures are more marketplaces like Amazon Kindle Unlimited, where book are rented like DVDs. But what will that mean for authors? Will they see royalties for every rental? Or will it become even harder to make a living as a writer?  With the death of brick-and-mortar book stores and decreasing funding for local libraries, how will the next generation learn to love books the way that we do?

On Being a Real Writer

writingThere are days where I spend my time marvelling at the coincidences of the universe.  As I’ve struggled to turn away from my news feeds, to stop reading story after story of human beings being awful, to try to convince myself that art has value in a world filled with such suffering, I received a notice that one of my stories has been accepted for publication.

Just  like that, I will go from being an aspiring writer to a published one.

The brain is a funny thing.  I read the email with the understanding that it would be a rejection, because it was only my second response out of the submissions that I made last month.  When I saw that it was an acceptance, the achievement suddenly became so much less worthy than when it was out of reach.  It must be a terrible magazine, I thought, if they’re taking *that* storyThey must accept just anyone.

But they are not a terrible magazine.  It is not a terrible story.  The magazine did not somehow adopt lower standards just because they want to publish my work.  I worked hard for that 1,000 words of fiction, honing it and whittling it down into something much better than what I started with.  I did the legwork and figured out a few appropriate markets, then worked to format it appropriately and submit.  (Lesson learned: if your story is on the verge of being flash fiction, make it so.)  There was quite a bit of discovery, which required new approaches and hard work.  That alone is a reason to be proud.

Artists are, of course, famous for their struggles with self-doubt.  What we do is so subjective that perfectly good pieces of work can be undervalued for centuries before they find the right audience.  Likewise, we’ve all seen art with astonishingly poor craftsmanship become bafflingly popular.  With the advent of social media, it’s certainly obvious that success in the publishing industry often is as much about having a magic number of followers than any inherent artistic merit.  With the accessibility of self-publishing and the many online web magazines, it also feels like there is just so much more of everything already out there.  If you go looking for books written around a certain person or topic, there’s likely to be five or more, published in the same year.   I’ve often wondered if it’s even worth publishing, as much as I like to dream about a life where all my financial worries are taken care of by my writing.  Is publishing just adding another voice to the already shouting crowd?  Where does my voice fit in?  How will I know if it’s any good, when popularity matters more than artistry?

Yet, I want to write as well as I can.  I want to give back stories to the world, because I have enjoyed so many.  The kindest thing that a stranger has ever done for me has been to create a three-hundred-page world where I can lose myself for a few hours.  I want to pay that forward.  I know that to get to that point, I need to start sharing my work with larger audiences, so that I get the feedback that I need to keep improving my storytelling.

This first publication is just a start, a small story in a small magazine, with a small payment.  (More details to follow, when the work is actually in print.)  But it’s more than that too — it’s a validation that my writing can be more than a hobby, that there are professionals out there that think it has merit.  This is a tremendous thing.  Later, I’ll worry about that dream of the luxurious house in the woods, where I sit in the loft in front of the huge bay window and write my stories, which naturally flow effortlessly into a perfectly complex first draft.  It’s a beautiful daydream, but it is just dreaming.  Getting my work out there, networking with other writers, keeping a blog — this is the reality of where I need to be right now.

The next steps are in progress.  I’m already working on the rewriting of the next story that I’ll send out into the world.  On Sunday, I’m meeting with a new writing group that focuses on literary fiction, which is usually code for, “No vampires or ghosts here, thank you.” (Will they love or hate my magic realism?  I don’t know!)  The meeting place is very nearby — my current favorite writing cafe, as it happens — and the group is new, so I am hopeful that it will become a regular resource for me.  Certainly, it will be helpful for me to have the deadlines imposed by meeting with other writers, since finding time to write new fiction has been very challenging since Baba came along.  And yet, it feels like years of work are finally coming together for me, as my daily life becomes so much more writerly.

And how will I celebrate my first publication?  Well, I sure hope it’s by getting published again, very soon.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

thegoodthiefThe Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year.  It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion.  Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing.  As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies.  Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you?  It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home.  Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage.  Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins.  And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?

When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions.  But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin.  “I’ve never been to India.”  He bunched one of the blankets behind his head.  “You better get some rest.  We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”

The boy took a step back.  “But you said–“he began.

“I know what I said.  Didn’t you listen?  What did I tell you before we went inside?”

“You told me not to say anything.”

“And what else?”

“To learn.”

“We needed a place to sleep.  And now we have it.  I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us.  It’s as simple as that.”

Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so.  Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on.  They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for.  But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers.  When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.

The frogs were out.  Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking.  Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor.  Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path.  The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all.  Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely.  Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.

“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.

Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness.  “Fishing,” he said.

It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable.  She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home.  Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had.   Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction
Subjects: adventure, christianity, coming of age, family, industrialism

Tales of an Ordinary Bird

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