{when i am crazed, i remember agatha}

WHY must I have Existential Crises at 10:45 on Sunday nights? We even had a long weekend this weekend, I had plenty of time to come unglued about the glacial speed at which my current revision is going — but no. When we needed to be safely asleep and storing up hours of rest against a busy week, I start fidgeting and sighing, and poor Tech Boy says, “So… should I just leave the light on?”

“No… it’s fine, we can go to bed. It’s just that…” Aaaand, we’re off.

My Tech Boy is no stranger to my cray-cray, but rather than rolling his eyes or tuning me out in favor of his book – which, not gonna lie, I might do to me – he actually listens to the words behind the hysteria. He listens until I wind down, and then says a few knowledgeable things which spark something. Somehow, within minutes, I am back on track after spewing invective and doubt all over the room. I grab my bedside pad of paper and pencil, and start scribbling notes. I nod. We discuss. And, finally, much later, I sleep, at last able to actually relax.

Much to my dismay, yes. There’s a moment like this EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

But, then, this is par for the course:

“There is always, of course, that terrible three weeks, or a month, which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book. There is no agony like it. You sit in a room, biting pencils, looking at a typewriter, walking about, or casting yourself down on a sofa, feeling like you want to cry your head off. Then you go out and interrupt someone who is busy – Max usually, because he is so good-natured – and you say:

“‘It’s awful, Max, do you know, I have quite forgotten how to write – I simply can’t do it any more! I shall never write another book.’”

“‘Oh yes you will,’” Max would say consolingly. He used to say it with some anxiety at first: now his eyes stray back again to his work while he talks soothingly.

“‘But I know I won’t. I can’t think of an idea. I had an idea, but now it seems no good.’”

“‘You’ll just have to get through this phase. You’ve had all this before. You said it last year. You said it the year before.’”

“‘It’s different this time,’” I say, with positive assurance.

“But it wasn’t different, of course, it was just the same. You forget every time what you felt before when it comes again: such misery and despair, such inability to do anything that seems the least creative. And yet it seems that this particular phase of misery has got to be lived through. It is rather like putting the ferrets in to bring out what you want at the end of the rabbit burrow. Until there has been a lot of subterranean disturbance, until you have spent long hours of utter boredom, you can never feel normal. You can’t think of what you want to write, and if you pick up a book you find you are not reading it properly. If you try to do a crossword your mind isn’t on the clues; you are possessed by a feeling of paralyzed hopelessness.

“Then, for some unknown reason, an inner ‘starter’ gets you off at the post. You begin to function, you know then that ‘it’ is coming, the mist is clearing up. You know suddenly, with absolute certitude, just what A wants to say to B. You can walk out of the house, down the road, talking to yourself violently, repeating the conversation that Maud, say, is going to have with Aylwin, and exactly where they will be, just where the other man will be watching through the trees, and how the little dead pheasant on the ground makes Maud think of something she had forgotten, and so on and so on. And you come home bursting with pleasure; you haven’t done anything at all yet, but you are – triumphantly – there.”

An Autobiography: Agatha Christie, pp. 571-572)

To think that the woman who crafted Marple and Poirot writhed on the point of her pen makes me smile. That she nagged her husband with her crazy makes me laugh. Some of us have to make several false starts to begin our writing; others of us struggle with slump-y middles, and still others of us are in agonies at the end. All of us are, at some point, an absolute joy to live with. I can never say enough good things about my Tech Boy – when I am pulling out hair and clinging to the side of cliffs, he just starts talking me down.

I think I’ll keep him.

{the apple of the unblushing cheek}

A few weeks ago, Charlesbridge editor Yolanda Scott shared on the Children’s Book Council Diversity blog (CBC Diversity) about working with author Mitali Perkins on her 2010 novel, BAMBOO PEOPLE. At one point, she recalls advising Mitali that her Burmese-born character should blush, when he was embarrassed.

“Mitali gently informed me that the character’s brown skin just wouldn’t redden up like a white person’s would. I felt horrible, stammered something in reply, and let the floor under my desk open and swallow me up. My own cheeks flamed red in ironic retribution.”

It was REALLY brave of Yolanda Scott to share this moment with the world on a diversity website, #1. But, she’s not the only one who occasionally goofs or gaffes and makes gauche statements and social blunders on race and ethnicity. Writers do it too — and it’s sometimes hard to refresh tired body language stereotypes in writing, so good writers are always seeking new ways to get into the topic. Recently, I came across Body Language Success, a website that is all about teaching people tells and cues of body language… and analyzing the body language of public figures.

Can I tell you how much I LOVE this stuff? I have always been a reader of people — and having NAMES for some of the things I observe is just really, super, nerd-tingling-ly cool. (Okay. I’m fine now.) While this April Fool’s prank is my FAVORITE video on the site at the moment — watching people who CAN blush is high entertainment, let me tell you — I find a lot of really good stuff here that works well with writing.

A minor character in my novel just shouted over a loud noise — which had abruptly shut off mid-word. She’s not going to blush — even if she could, not everyone with fair skin even does that.

The girl mouthed something incomprehensible through the roar.

“What?” Zora leaned forward.

Raising her voice, the girl screeched, “I SAID, WHAT’S YOUR NAME?” The last word was unnecessarily loud, as the blower, which had sounded like a jet engine, cut off unexpectedly. “Sorry,” the girl said, ducking her head. She gave a weak smile. “I’m Kayla, and that’s Jasmine. Are you a freshman?”

Even without that hint of blush, I think embarrassment is pretty well clear, no? Hope so. Until then, I keep hoping for the perfect turn of body-language phrase…

{the fine points of getting it right, or “why aren’t you representing?”}

Dear Store,

So, yeah, yesterday I visited you, and cringed at the massive display of cases of Jamison’s and Guinness, and a countdown clock to St. Patrick’s Day, and now, I have a teeny rant: Thanks, Store, for subtly reinforcing the worn out, hoary stereotype that there’s nothing more to Irish culture than being a flat-out, pishing, green-wearing drunk. Nothing exists in a vacuum, Store, and even your displays helps shape the lens of how people see the world. Your reinforcing a tired old cliché does not serve anyone, and helps to obliterate the record of the myriad brilliant, incisive and influential Irish and Irish-American people that I know personally. Just so you know.

Also, please note I didn’t mention you by name, as you’ve probably not yet gotten my note about it, but next year, if you do it again? It’s ON.


As I’ve no doubt mentioned repeatedly on this blog, representation was one of the BIG Questions that came at me repeatedly in grad school: “Why aren’t you representing,” or, “why aren’t you representing more?” I will admit that for a long time, I wrote stories under the shorthand For some people, when you present a culture as the “norm,” it’s too subtle for them. They want you to exaggerate certain qualities and create a caricature more than a three-dimensional whole. People sometimes don’t even know they’re doing that, and end up exoticizing an entire culture. Everyone Mexican can make tortillas, wears a serape, and likes to nap with her sombrero tipped over her face during siestas; everyone Japanese is a geisha or a kung fu master, etc…

“The Kingdom in Huntress is influenced by Chinese and Japanese culture, but it is not China or Japan. It is a fictional fantasy world…” ~ Malinda Lo, author of ASH and HUNTRESS, in “On avoiding the exotic in HUNTRESS,” from her blog, 2 Sept. 2011.

What I’ve been asking myself is how to represent a culture in a fantasy world without exoticizing it, and turned to author and anthropologist Malinda Lo’s blog for help in thinking it through. Is it enough to set a book in a fictional version of North/Northeast Africa and southern Italy during a fictional Ottoman Empire? I don’t think so, not inherently. Is it exoticizing to take note of the actual clothes, foods, and religious and social mores from the real Ottoman Empire in its heyday, and use that in the book? No, especially if I can subtly include them without making them A Thing. So… what would make this exotic? Malinda speaks of her own work:

“What makes something exotic? It can certainly be philosophy or beliefs, but more often, I think exoticism resides in things you can actually see or hear. Clothing, food, music, architecture: these are the external markers of difference.” ~ M. Lo

So, taking note of that, these are among the things I will avoid: no despotic ruler clichés, no warmongering, fanatical religious Muslims. Further, there will be no untrustworthy, swarthy mafioso types, and while I can’t promise no short, or hirsute, or curly haired, or dark skinned or chauvinistic characters, these things won’t occur because a character is Sicilian. There will be no obsequious, effendi-panting slyly servile types, no Ali Baba and Aladdin, Sindbad or any one of Forty Thieves. No Oriental-ism, with swoopy calligraphy and poufy turban saber-wearing sultans, swathed in mysticism and curly-toed shoes, reclining on Persian carpets whilst being danced for by those sloe-eyed temptresses from the harem. Also, people will wear a color other than black, and not eat only spaghetti.

Honestly, I should think most of these egregious stereotypes would be easy to avoid… the point of adding cultural richness is to place the character right in the midst of the riches, not keep them self-conscious about it, and always commenting on the nubile chick tossing off veils in the corner as she dances, and the smoke of the hookah or whatnot (and really. Must I have a hookah? I think not).

Yeah, you’d THINK this stuff would be obvious… but too many people mess up with exoticism for me to believe that, so, we’ll see.

Writing thoughtfully,

-t

{the WORD: in which we discuss us/them}

But if people didn’t really “see” color, why was I the only one getting asked about martial arts and told I spoke English very well? Why did I always have to play Sulu during make-believe Star Trek at recess? If people still treated me differently, maybe it was because I wasn’t acting enough like everyone else or trying hard enough not to see skin color, especially my own.

Michi Trota on Jim C. Hines’ blog: How do you talk to people about ethnicity and race if you yourself are not seeing race? A really, REALLY interesting piece, too good to miss. Hat tip, Tu Books.


I appreciate the way writing allows me to delve more deeply into certain subjects. Once again, this is supposed to be The Weekend Word, but lately, whatever. It’s Wednesday. The Wednesday Word it is. This time, I’m thinking about Othering within the context of a few things that have happened in my life lately. Please note that I’m not teaching, here, but am writing through this in an attempt to explain the issue to myself so that I, who allegedly want to write about and embrace diversity, can write about it and embrace it both more subtly and more effectively.


Sooo, this Black History Month has been interesting – I have had three very different experiences with responses in my community. After Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, a woman of color approached me after a musical program I took part in with a Caucasian friend, and held forth on how inappropriate it was for us to talk about MLK, Jr’s favorite music, and it wasn’t my fault, because I was young, but I didn’t know anything, and how inappropriate it was for Caucasians to tell “her story.” You know how it is when someone older than you speaks, and they’re on a tear? You just listen. Nobody asked you to speak, you’re an ear, for the conversation – I know you’ve had those experiences before.

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The other experience was working with a Caucasian person who referred to slavery in her talks during Black History Month. She frequently repeated the phrase, “those people,” as in, “Put yourself in the place of those people, and understand the privations they experienced! And yet, they went forth and did these things. Those people suffered. Those people died…”

The third experience was of a young Asian American teacher talking about her experiences in China among the leper colonies – a place she never intended to go, but a place she has been changed and challenged by visiting. She was talking about the lessons that she learned from the people there. She showed pictures of the people with whom she worked – it was a fairly intense and, at times, disturbing presentation. She was not soliciting funds or volunteers, but just sharing her experience with the colony, the country, and the people.

Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Good grief does the “how” matter in this world. How we tell our story – and what we define as ours seems to be based in how we identify ourselves.

I must admit that I’m kind of “meh” on Black History Month; teachers of color often are. There’s an irony just waiting to be voiced – the shortest month of the year for talks on “tolerance” and forced exercises in African American appreciation. It’s… sometimes distasteful. It feels staged, boring, blah. It feels like one month a year, people are making a big fuss over something that happened two hundred years ago (slavery), and corporately and individually ignoring that time during the rest of the year, as if it’s a single episode floating untethered from history. Now, I know many, many teachers try and make it vivid and lively for our children and young adults, but obviously, you can’t embrace diversity if appreciation of differences and background happen a.)half-hardheartedly, b.) with an eye only to North America and c.) consisting of historical, non-contemporary input, and d.) only once a year.

That being said: I didn’t feel my Caucasian colleague and I did badly in talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. I apparently don’t identify strongly enough as a Civil Rights person to feel that someone getting details wrong was making a hash of “my” story – and that may largely because I am not political, nor am I old enough to have been alive or aware in the sixties and early seventies when most of the Equal Rights Amendment and Civil Rights stuff was going on. (I won’t even go into the indictment that “you’re too young” is — no.) More important, though, was the fact that this person clearly delineated to me that there was an “us” and there was a “them” and “they” were messing up “her” tale. Not only was I awkwardly caught in the middle, I was frustrated. Educated, professional people are supposed to be past all that… aren’t they? Obviously, no.

Wknd Word

The second experience was more difficult – because it was so well meant, yet so obviously wrong. It overlaps a bit with the third experience for me. To be blunt, people of other cultures are not here to teach you things. I mean, unless they’re teachers, duh. But, they’ve not been put on earth for you to learn “lessons” of simplicity or grace or steadfastness or — really, anything. So, when my colleague talked about the African slaves, and how they suffered, and how we could take the idea of their suffering and perseverance and apply it to our own lives… She meant well. She meant so well. But, no.

French philosopher Michael Foucault defined our Word: “Othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we ‘other’ another group, we point out their perceived weakness to make ourselves look stronger or better.” From Othering 101: “…any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us”. Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.” Author Arjuna Ardagh: “OTHER” |ˈəðər| verb 1. to attribute qualities onto another person, often a celebrity in the news, so as to avoid acknowledging these same qualities within oneself:
[as verb. ] hey, don’t other Clinton, most married men have done stuff like that | I went to a meeting with the Dalai Lama. It was great but people tend to other him by putting him above them.”

So, here you have three ways to look at it – staging yourself as Hero and another person as Victim, staging yourself as insignificant, and another person as Awesome, or ascribing stereotypical attributes to another group. To be honest, I don’t think my colleague was at all trying to rob people of dignity — but in repeating “these people,” as if they were somehow not people like her, she underscored the idea that she didn’t think of them as people like her. See, for me, the horror of slavery becomes that much more central when you fail to divorce yourself from either side of it. When we don’t recuse ourselves from the brutality and the mindless boredom, the depravity and the insanity, really – you cannot speak of it as if it happened to someone else, but you either speak less – which would be a good option, overall- and think more, or you speak more carefully, more thoughtfully.

Writing my last manuscript, I had an instance when an elderly woman was injured. Previously, I had her injured while her home was ransacked for prescription drugs. I mentioned this to Tech Boy, and he… paused.

I have come to know that pause.

“How often does that actually happen?” he asked.

“Uh, it happens,” I assured him. “She doesn’t live in a nice area, she lives in a trailer park, actually, and –“

“Y’know, statistically, that’s probably happened to, like, ten people in the entire United States? But it’s one of those crimes talked about as aggressions from young African American males against Caucasian seniors. It’s one of those trigger-point kinds of inflated statistics that politicians use to make older Caucasians feel vulnerable – and more likely to vote for them. It’s… um… actually, racist. And, when you write stuff like that, you’re, uh, perpetuating racism – Don’t hit me!

No, I didn’t hit him.

I looked.

Recent confirmed news stories have tons of prescription theft stories in them… but they take place between tractor trailers, pharmacies, and warehouses. They involve doctors, technicians, medical stores, and patient relatives. Not one story about little old ladies being murdered in their beds, and their heart meds stolen. Not one.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT IT DOES NOT HAPPEN. Seriously, lambs, don’t come at me with that. I know – it happens to people, you have specific, individual people you know personally to whom it happened. Yes. Okay. Please don’t think I’m trying to take that away from you. But! This crime happens NOT in the numbers that the pass-it-along-via-email, anti-Snopes (I ♥ Snopes! Debunks urban legend, every time) crowd would have us believe. Not in the “Oh, dangerous world!” levels that politicians might apply to make us unseat an incumbent. As always, I owe Tech Boy for his input – he’s a great behind-the-scenes reader and commenter (which is why I’m totally outing him lately), but it just pinged my conscience to imagine what other discrepancies I had passed on, because the Other is so clearly foreign to me – those drug-stealing thugs. They’re not like me – they’re monsters, preying on the poor. They’re not me, they’re y’all. I’m better than that, and I can cross the street when I see someone who might be one of Them.

I so appreciate the correction and realignment of my thoughts, but ouch.

Which dovetails nicely into my third experience. This was an Asian American woman sharing experiences from being in Asia. Surely, she wasn’t Othering anyone, right? Perhaps – but, inasmuch as I thought I wasn’t Othering potential African American drug thieves, even when it’s “your own” it’s possible to misconstrue. Though she was talking about how much she had changed, through her time in China, and how selfish she learned she was, when seeing people with so much less, I am always hesitant when a person infers that they have learned “lessons.” When people don’t treat you as a human being but as a person belonging to a certain group, and then apply their own prejudices and stereotypes about that group to you and then extrapolate what “lessons” they learn from the challenging of those prejudices and stereotypes — well, it’s like having a whole conversation about you, with you in the room, and never speaking to you. It’s like conversing, but being a single person holding up both ends of the conversation. You know how people anthropomorphize their pets, putting human concerns and human words into the mouths of cats, dogs, and wild animals? It’s like that, almost. It’s making of rational human beings a sort of Human Zoo.

I honestly don’t know where I am going with all of this, except to illustrate how easy it is for GOOD, WELL-MEANING PEOPLE – people like you and me, us, even y’all – to take for granted who we are, and who we perceive others to be, relative to our identity. It’s easy, to, even in a well-meaning way, misidentify who surrounds us, and place ourselves above or below them mentally, away and apart from them emotionally. And yet, if we’re to embrace our diversity and strengthen who we are… we’ve got to do better. Period.

This one is going to take some work.

As always, thanks for thinking with me.

{the seldom-seen girl}

Hark at the beauty queen, here. She swanned up and asked for her picture to be taken. Cheeky insouciance in a feather boa. This girl is my goose-bumped (it was March in Scotland – and, if you look at the people in the background, you see COATS. Despite the dry day, it was not really warm enough for that romper, but I think she’d just made it in Home Ec) patron saint: She Who Must Be Amused.

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You’d be wise to read the whole piece yourself, but I can summarize: Rebecca Rabinowitz says fat kids are seldom seen as just themselves in literature, and consequently feel invisible. In our lit, as in our society, the fat = shameful conflation persists, largely because the shame bit is carried along by those of us who aren’t a projected “normal” size, and it’s got to stop. That’s a few of the ideas in the piece in a nutshell.

This is such a blind-spot topic – because it’s something that’s constantly there, but like racism in certain parts of the world, it’s something you drink in with the water from the time you’re a child, so it doesn’t seem abnormal. (We always wonder how the folks who have the segregated proms could do that – but if it’s normalized from when you’re a child… well…) Large folk are automatically either victim or bully or threat – never just themselves in a story. They’re the Problem Child, Issue of the Week, Lifetime Movie character you don’t want in your novel. Even when it seems like we’re trying to portray large people as sympathetic, it sometimes comes across as such an effort. In writing a character in A LA CARTE who was fat, but was vexed with her weight, and spent a somewhat inordinate amount of time worrying about it, I wanted to write about a girl who had a handle on her problems. She worked out when she was frustrated. And she ate when she was unhappy. True to life, yes; this character had a lot of insecurities and hang-ups – but I’m still sad that I didn’t know better and take the opportunity to subtly preach some acceptance. I should have handled that better. But, my own confession is I don’t handle the idea of “acceptance” as well – I truly thought (and it was gently inferred to me) that I should be “setting a healthy example.” Mental health, I guess, doesn’t count.

After reading an article quoting a 2006 interview with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, and contrasting his “we don’t want fat people wearing our clothes” position with H&M’s subtly introduced size 14 swimsuit model, Rabonowitz’s words echoed in me again. They sounded even more loudly after discovering Militant Baker’s response to the idea that some brands aren’t for people over a size 10 (via Sorrywatch). When I see the cute, snub-nosed Militant Baker chickie with her curvy size-18 body assimilating the status-group norm for sexy bodies for her own transgressive use (Oh, how I love sociological vocabulary) it makes me laugh – but sigh a little, too. She shouldn’t have to make a point that a CEO should have already known.

Which leads me back to my patron saint. While I don’t at all consider her fat, plus-sized, or anything but a regular teen girl, I know that I also don’t see “normally.” She’d be on a plus-sized page, were she in a magazine. Well – so what if she is considered plus-sized. I think she’s adorable. Her smirk, her come-hither boa, her hands-on-hips, and in-your-face ‘tude. She’s everything she should be, and viva that verve.

Nine, Maybe Ten Good Things

  1. The middle grade novel is done, at last, and out it goes, synopsis written, shoes tied, face washed, on Monday. Calloo, callay! O, frabjous day! Thank you, God. NOW I feel like my brain is back online for the first time since — sheesh, October? — and can resume revising my science fiction novel…
  2. I am being interviewed by someone named Capillya. The name is undeniably awesome.
  3. I SAW MY FIRST SNOWDROP TODAY. WOOT!
  4. Yesterday, the sky was blue for seven hours straight.
  5. The Little (Bro) got his passport this week, which means the week after his Senior Trip to San Diego, he’s going to come and slouch around my house and eat all of my food for a week. Nice, huh?
  6. The Niecelet – whose Scottish name is Ms. McFlea-McFly, is coming with him. She explains that she does not slouch. Nor eat nearly as much. This is good.
  7. Did I mention the snow drop?
  8. Another good thing: plum-apple sauce. And the ease of making such. And eating it out of the jar, by the spoonful.
  9. The CIA has pictures on their Flickr (Wait – seriously. Let’s take a moment. The CIA has a Flickr account!?!? …Because???) of something like the Bug thingies in my science fiction novel. Yeah, I know!! How cool is that?
  10. Just…swimming. And indoor pools with foggy glass ceilings on a cold morning.
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DID I MENTION THE SNOW DROP???

{time for some Poe}

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(Since with the Cybils and all, I have gotten to be “rubbish,” as they say here, about putting up my Poetry Friday subs, I am just slapping them up when I can. PF today is at Jone’s Blog. Check it out!)

Writers tend to stand on the periphery of things — observers, chroniclers, wallflowers. It’s a known fact that I am an odd duck, but every once in awhile, it really strikes me: Man, all these people know all these ABBA songs. And I don’t. How did I miss knowing each and every word of Dancing Queen?

That was my most recent odd-duckish observation, during chorus rehearsal the other night as we started learning a medley from the musical/movie, Mamma Mia. Hearing those songs was somewhat amusing — the Italian word in a Swedish song sung with a Scottish accent — but it was a telling moment as well: this might be my tribe, but once again, I’m sort of in my own rondavel, as it were.

Last night made me think of this poem. Dr. Hardcastle read it to us in junior English, and I loved it then. It reminded me of a sixties song we learned in junior high chorus — about being a rock and an island. It also made me a little sad — as E.A. Poe, whose failed romances are the stuff of much of his poetry, and the strange and sad circumstances of his demise are the stuff of legend — well, it looks like he had an awkward childhood, too. It gave him lots of fodder to write, but … ouch. Good grief.

Of further interest, this poem has been featured in two recent Cybils SFF reads — one even was about Poe, through some speculative fiction miracle of intradimensional travel. I think mostly the poem was included for the angst factor, though. Imagine coming across this for the first time, and thinking, “Yeah. Exactly.” Although I didn’t “get” the ending when I was a teen (and arguably, none of us really “gets” everything of Poe’s), I thought this was my paean to the shallow world around me.

Yeah. I kind of make myself laugh now. Odd duck that I am, though, I still love this poem. And, it’s still kinda me.

Alone

by Edgar Alan Poe

From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were; I have not seen

As others saw; I could not bring

My passions from a common spring.

From the same source I have not taken

My sorrow; I could not awaken

My heart to joy at the same tone;

And all I loved, I loved alone.

Then- in my childhood, in the dawn

Of a most stormy life- was drawn

From every depth of good and ill

The mystery which binds me still:

From the torrent, or the fountain,

From the red cliff of the mountain,

From the sun that round me rolled

In its autumn tint of gold,

From the lightning in the sky

As it passed me flying by,

From the thunder and the storm,

And the cloud that took the form

(When the rest of Heaven was blue)

Of a demon in my view.

{cheater, cheater, pumpkin-eater}

Man, I wish this was about pumpkins. Then I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about the time I’m wasting thinking about this when I could be finishing my MG novel I was hoping to get done before Thanksgiving. (Vain hope, there. Ah, well. It will be better for the additional time I took, right?) This is not about pumpkins, but about cheating, or as we called it in my undergrad college, academic dishonesty. (I do love a euphemism.)

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A very recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, allegedly written by a “Shadow Scholar” who writes admissions papers, term papers, theses papers and dissertations for college and university students, got me thinking about my own educational experiences. Whatever you might think of the article, which is about the writer’s experiences in churning out these papers, he or she brought up a point that resonated with me — and reminded me of my own teaching days. He wrote that he’d hated high school, and had hoped that college would be the free exchange of ideas, blah, blah, blah, but it turned out to be the same thing – grubbing for grades, pressure, etc.

No, I have no sympathy – but I kind of understand. A little.

I’ve said before that when I was teaching high school I thought teaching English would mean that I would have those Brilliant Exchanges, and that I’d have a mini Dead Poets Society thing going on. While I had transcendent intellectual moments (hah!) in college, thanks mainly to a couple of really personable professors who led me to think, mostly high school and college was just a lot of work — I learned stuff, and sometimes it was exciting to discover things. But it was work, with long stretches of drudgery in between.

The Shadow Scholar seemed to resent that.

When I was little, I remember my Dad coming home from work, generally in a ratty mood. Granted, that’s somewhat of a permanent state with him (!), but right as he drove into the driveway, we kids snapped to and got the heck out of his way. And my mother, with her gift (?) of interpreting some of my father’s more incomprehensible moods used to say, “Well, he’s tired. It’s called ‘work’ for a reason.” Somewhere along the line, people have gotten the idea that nothing should be work, maybe. Nothing should tax us, or make us irritable or tired. And when it does, we should be able to pay someone to alleviate the pain. After all, it works with doctors — if we eat too much, there are umpty-hundred pills on the market to make the stomach pain/indigestion/fat go away. Just ask your doctor!

I wasn’t that great of a student. I was mediocre at everything, neither that great nor that bad. I have a mediocre soul as well, I’m sure, and I don’t want to appear self-righteous as I say this — but it never occurred to me to cheat – to buy a paper from the campus go-to geek for writing everyone’s stuff, or from a company. First off, I would never have been able to afford it — those things cost between $500-a grand. Second — it was foreign to me to trust someone else with MY grades. No way, no can do. I am putting my ethical base, the thing within me which would simply rise up and shriek, THIS IS SO WRONG third, because I don’t want to judge. I know people did this – I must know people WHO did this, although they never said. Unlike a lot of brainy and less-than-socially adept people in high school or college, I was never approached to write people’s papers, or if I was, I was too dense to know they didn’t mean they just wanted a few pointers, or to study together.

Which is a kind of laughable synopsis of my entire educational/social experience right there…

Graduate school was an amazing experience. I took an 18th Century Lit course from a professor who had just published a book on the topic. I found out after the class had started, and I muttered a lot of, “Oh, crap,” going in. And yes, it was grueling. Not only was I required to turn in three peer reviewed drafts of every single paper at whatever random time the professor announced a paper check (this was probably to prevent that term paper purchasing, but I didn’t realize that at the time), I was required to take over the class one day and lecture on one of my paper sources, and endure a fifteen minute Q&A session afterward, in which the professor was also invited to ask questions.

I thought that I might die.

It was intense. There was sweat and blood involved, and possibly weeping and gnashing of teeth. It remains the most cherished memory of my time at Mills. I. was. awesome. I fell in love with the topic (how much do you know about female 18th century poets? How much does anybody?!), and I have the props from my Vessels of the Poets lecture still to hand, thankyouverymuch. (Yes. I used props. Come on – I once taught elementary school. Be nice.) And it was almost an afterthought that I passed that course with distinction in that course – because I loved the experience of having to ride out on that edge where it was up to me whether I stood or fell. (I even took another class from that professor, knowing how she worked. Glutton for punishment? Maybe. But truly: it was amazing.)

Last year, Tech Boy had the immensely frustrating experience of catching a student copying great swathes of work from online articles without giving credit. He worked with the student for weeks, trying to explain why this was unethical and unacceptable, and when he made no headway he finally met with his university supervisors — and the student passed anyway. Apparently this happens a lot. Plagiarism, academic dishonesty – call it what you want – it’s prevalent in not only academia, but in fiction — remember our outrage at Kaavya Viswanathan, or more recently, the German girl who wrote a novel based on someone else’s blog and claimed she was merely the forebearer for a new generation of writers?

Is this …really who we are? No, seriously. I am asking. I’m a hermit – I can’t claim to know what people are like in the mainstream. Is this us?

I find that I want to talk to the Shadow Scholar. I want to discuss cheating with anyone who has ever cheated. I want to sort of …get what it is to need to do that. And I think I want to look at that against the larger background of who we are as a society. Are we all thieves and liars now? Are we all moving toward a place where “cheater” is no longer a game-ending, fists-flying, schoolyard taunt?

Who are we now? And, where does that leave those of us who don’t cheat, and don’t know how?

/ ramble

{further along the road in the winter of our discontent}

Finnieston 248

The sad thing is, I really love bookmarks.

I have tons of them. Some of them were saved, seriously, from Weekly Reader book orders in grade school. Some of them are left over from when I was teaching – thin slips of colorful plastic with a handy pop-out square to hook over the pages. Educational companies sent reams of bookmarks to my students. I have several of the perforated kind, you pop them out of sturdy cardstock, and voila – your page is marked.

Some of my bookmarks are museum quality. Aquafortis got me a metal one in Italy when she tagged along on the Artist’s sabbatical trip. It looks like a marble mosaic of water and fish. My agent sends me one with each new contract – and his are really nifty carved wooden ones from his various travels. I have tons of the most artistic, unique and beautiful bookmarks, ever, and do you think I use any of them? No, I do not.

Which is beyond pathetic.

Why is it, when I need a bookmark, that I have a headband? Or a sock? Or an ink pen? Or a rubber band? Or the paper tab from the end of a tea bag? Or an eraser? Or a hairpin? Why can’t I just use the sixteen bookmarks stacked neatly on the bookshelf? Would that simply be too convenient???

::sigh::

T's Biker Boots 6

It snowed yesterday in the hills above the city. We’re not sliding through slush just yet, but it is so, so cold. I’m grateful that I found boots before the weather turned the corner.

It’s strange, but when I first moved here, I was somewhat aghast at the Glaswegian habit of not wearing a coat. Now, yes, I’m from California, therefore I wore flip-flops all through November when I was in college, because winter didn’t get serious until January or February. Here, though, I find like some of the hardcore population, I’m pushing the opposite direction. I am grumpy that as soon as ice starts to stick to pavement and underpasses all day that I will have to retire my cardigan. So far, I haven’t put on a coat since last April. Crazy, isn’t it? It was 36°F the other morning as I hurried to my chiropractic appointment, and I was wearing my cardigan, and nothing else. (Well, strike that. My cardigan and PANTS and a sweater and BOOTS and things, but no coat. This is my point.) Granted, it’s a nice cardigan, it’s knee-length and all, but seriously, at what point do we see our breath smoking in the morning air and think, “Nah, it’s just not time for a coat yet”? When we have lost our minds, that’s when.

I have been in this country for too long.

Cranberry Orange Bread 3

There’s something hypnotic about swimming in the rain. I’ve never done it without a roof between myself and the drops, but the “bath” where I swim these rain-whipped mornings has a glass roof, and I stretch out into my very sloppy backstroke and watch the water slide down.

It’s meditative.

I’m a person who actually is very bad at all of that yogic stuff. Meditation, downward-facing dogs, breathing deeply, being in the present — but ever since my friend Jennifer bugged and bugged me into swimming, I’ve found that I can actually get out of my head every once in awhile – which is really necessary these dark winter days. (YES, little voice in my head. I know. Technically, winter does not begin until December 20th or so, but I’m already writing you postcards from the edge. Think you could just let the nitpicking go already? Thanks.) Maybe it’s because I’m still half asleep at ten minutes to seven, but in the water, I can think of everything that is stressful, without feeling the stress. I can do worldbuilding, and let it slip away without worrying that I haven’t committed my character’s new name to pen and paper. I can think of my family, and light metaphorical candles for them while I go back and forth and back and forth. Swimming laps, it doesn’t matter, for once, that I’m not getting anywhere.

(I have no idea why a treadmill doesn’t have the same soothing effect. Perhaps it’s the puffing, and the sweat?)

Baking hasn’t got the same effect, either, at least not for me, but it seems to work for Tech Boy. I am happy to report that my friend J-Dawg sent us Tootsie Rolls, after reading my bemoaning of the sad lack in this country, and Tech Boy found cranberries! We now have six bags stuffed in the freezer, and he has made the most tasty cranberry orange bread.

Seriously: sometimes, it’s just the little things.

I may be treading water on my middle grade manuscript – no closer to the end than I was last week (and why am I so anxious to finish? Where do these artificial deadlines come from?), and I may have too many “emotionally isolated” characters in my SF novel and have to revise, and I may have reams of revisions to do for my paid project and am waiting on my editorial letter again, but I have cranberries and Tootsie Rolls. A little bit of bitter and sour. A little bit of sweet.

I tell you, my life is complete.

{cosmic notations}

Periodically, my life enters the Twilight Zone. Or, in this case, the Goldilocks Zone.

You’ve heard about it, by now. The planet twenty lightyears away, which has a good potential for human habitation. One paper described it as the “Goldilocks” planet — not too hot, not too cold, just right to support life.

The Gliese star has been known for awhile; NASA identified it way back in 2007 or earlier. The big news now is that they found a planet orbiting the star that is tidally locked to the sun (weird to think of galactic, system-wide tides!) — one side always in the light, one side always in the dark, and the strip down the middle – a temperate zone habitable by humans. Just like the moon only shows one face to the Earth, the little planet will always show one face to the star.

This is good news. Especially since I picked Gliese 581c out of NASA’s website as a place to base a fictional Earth colony I started writing about in December of 2008. It seemed like a reasonably close place for humanity to explore and colonize after the Moon.

I have written sixty thousand words on this story since January… getting to know all about that red star, and imagining what life would be like with a pink sky. And eventually, we might know.

The coincidence both thrills and amazes me …and slightly freaks me out.