Monday, February 28, 2011

The Great Return

We received sudden news this weekend that my Uncle Bud was heading into hospice.

He's at the front right of this picture, taken in Oregon last August. Serendipity allowed my mom's two sisters and their husbands to join us at a B&B on the coast. When I posted this photo of our four men to Facebook, Bud commented "Four jolly gentlemen, all doing their own thing."

In some ways, our family branched early into two ways of doing things. My Aunt Carole married Bud and they moved away from Denver, had four children, became their own nucleus. My mom and my Aunt Karen stayed nearer my grandparents for many years, so we tended to have our own family gatherings. But we got together from time to time.

Now we know that this occasion, precipitated by the wedding of my cousin, Bud's grandson, will be the last for this particular group.

My mom said that Bud has been a part of her life since she was nine years old. My cousin, Bud's oldest daughter, said that we've had him as a part of our lives for 82 1/2 years. However you slice it, this marks the end of an era in our family. The decision not to try to halt the sudden and aggressive cancer with extreme measures wasn't easy for them, but he's surrounded by family and the stories he loved.

So, this is a celebration of a good life drawing to a close. W.L Rusho, author and lover of the wilderness, may you move on to greater things.

I'm including here a wonderful poem from a longtime family friend.

The Great Return

May you have the joy of rising waters
May the awe of ages surround you

May your feet sound soft upon the land
May the sweep of Nankoweep embrace you

May the Great Blue Heron stand upon her bar for you
And the Father of all mountain sheep stand vigilant on his loft

May you run the River true and hoot upon the waves
May you, your family, your friends pass through

And return home, home, and home again.

~Justice Greg Hobbs,
Colorado Supreme Court

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I snapped this picture over ten years ago, as you can see. The date stamp is on because I was doing field work in Bernalillo, near Albuquerque. Sandia Ridge looked so unearthly perfect, I had to take this photo, too, and I kept it all these years, over many laptops.

It's funny to me that today I live just on the other side of this mountain. I'm heading down to Albuquerque for a day of meetings. This has been a week of disrupted schedules and this feels like one more thing.

And yet, how lucky am I?

I might wish my day job - which is a career-type job that my colleagues devote all their energy to - intruded less on the writing. But it's a great job with terrific people. I'm counting my blessings.

See you on the other side of Sandia!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Back Off, Man!

This is one of my long-time friends back in Wyoming. We worked at the Wyoming Game and Fish Laboratory together, along with David. She's still there and I'm betting she'll be Director someday.

That era formed a big chunk of my life. Physiology, wildlife, the community of academic and applied scientists. Like all groups formed around a field of study, we had our jargon, our in-jokes. We once went around a party of Zoology & Physiology types and asked each person there this question: if you saw a dead animal by the side of the road, what would you do with it?

Yeah, see - a lot of you out there are kind of squinting at the screen now and saying, "um, do with it?"

The only people at the party who did not say "take it home and put it in the freezer" were spouses. For years I had any number of dead animals in my freezers, both at home and in various lab spaces. People sometimes asked me if they could put frozen dead animals in the Physiology lab chest freezers, because we always had extra space.

What? They might come in useful.

I still have a bobcat skull that I spent months cleaning.

At any rate, I thought of this the other day when the HVAC guy came. Don't ask - just cross your fingers that our heat-exchanger isn't cracked. He looked at the tag from the gas service showing the very high CO values they'd picked up when we called them and asked me if the gas company had explained what those high values meant. I scrambled for a way to respond and fell back on "We're both scientists, so..." HVAC guy nodded.

It's something I want to say sometimes, like when the dental hygienist is explaining in painstaking detail about gum health - and sometimes getting it wrong - that I'm a physiologist and I already understand about epidermal layers. It makes me wish for a t-shirt like my friend's bumper sticker, back in Wyoming:


This classic line, of course, brought to you by Dr. Peter Venkman of the Ghostbusters. Which should tell you right there that it was being used to justify somewhat un-scientific activities.

Still, it's a great line and an even better attitude.

Maybe I'll get a tattoo...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I have this overly informative scale.

Yes, I weigh myself every day. In the era when I did not (the Dark Years), I accumulated an astonishing amount of weight, seemingly out of nowhere. (You can make zooming space noises with that, if you like.)

On my Excel graph that shows my weight since 1997 (oh, come on - you knew I had one), there's a big gap for the Dark Years. At the end of them, five years later, my weight was up more than 32 pounds. Ugly ugly ugly. Ignorance may be bliss, but it can be hell on the body fat.

I remember buying that scale, in 2002, coming back from a weekend in the mountains. I was starting to get those rolls of fat on my rib cage, you know? The ones where you really can't pretend that it's muscle or hip-spread. We stopped at a Bed, Bath and Beyond and I bought a simple scale that I step onto until I'd cut back on stuffing myself for a week. Thus I don't really know how high it got. Clinging to my blissful ignorance.

That was two scales ago. Now I have this fancy/shmancy one that shows me not only my weight, but also my body fat percentage, muscle percentage, visceral fat percentage, metabolic rate and my metabolic age.

It's the last one that really kills me.

Oh, my weight is still too high - about six pounds over the high end of my BMI. My body fat is in the "overfat" arena, which is tremendously annoying. But, to add insult to injury, this scale tells me, every damn day that I'm three to four years older than I am.

Even if I kick her.

Oh, it's not as bad as it has been. At a couple of points in time (Dark Months), she had me over 50. We've bargained it down from there. But she still insists that, metabolically, fattily, I'm older than I am.

Otherwise, I'm a youthful person. I come from a family of youthful women. People say I look younger than I am. I admit I have ego tied up in it.

So, while it's nice to see my weight come down, the body fat percentage decrease, what really makes my day is when I lose a year overnight. I feel like Merlin, aging backwards, growing younger.

I'm not really inclined towards anorexia, but I could see wanting to keep working to peel those years away. Erasing the pounds until I'm a sweet, young thing again.

Eh, who am I kidding?

I'll be happy to shake the "overfat" insult.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Day in the Life - Rogue Oracle

We have a new girl on the town. Rogue Oracle is no shy young debutante though. She's sister Word-Whore Laura Bickle's fourth book, the second in the Delphic Oracle series she writes as Alayna Williams.

She seems demure on the surface. Just a sweet, suburban fantasy, with a penchant for fresh herbs.

And lingerie.

She keeps herself spiffed up, with a pedicure for sandal season, because she also leads a secret life.

Taming wild crocodiles!

Consulting with the President and his cabinet.


Russian spy! You think it's an accident this book is about Chernobyl? Oh no no no.

Don't be taken in by appearances. Watch her.

Watch her very closely.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I'm at Word Whores, as I am every Sunday. Talking about Muses today.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bulan Lapar

Okay, I know that's not really how you say it.

My friend on Twitter, my kawan, @Arzai is Malaysian. She's read Petals and Thorns, which gives me such a kick, that this lovely woman all the way in Malaysia has read my story. She kind of shakes her head at my enthusiasm and says that she's certain many people in Malaysia have read it, that Malaysia, after all, is a very big place. But she's the one I know about and I get all pleased thinking about it.

Last night she was teaching me Malay words and phrases on Twitter. I asked her for full moon (bulan penuh), since I knew this would be my morning post. I then asked if Hunger Moon would be bulan lapar, since she'd already taught me that "lapar" is hungry. She didn't think that would be right. Then she came back and asked what "Hunger Moon" means.

I had to explain that it's not really English, either. That the full moon names are English translations of Native American concepts. In this case, the moon itself isn't hungry, but that this is the moon that's full during the time of hunger. It's still deep winter here, I told her, and though spring is coming, it will be a while before the plants grow again. This is the time when stores grown thin.

She said she'd learned something and I realized what a cultural difference that is. Even though our replete grocery stores keep us fed year-around now, we still have those underlying concepts, from our frontier ancestors and native neighbors, that winter is a time of privation. Something those in the tropics don't experience in the same way.

So, here's to the Hunger Moon, that rises over the mountains in Santa Fe and the beaches in Malaysia.

And to the ways we connect, great and small, across our little world.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Signs of spring!

This morning the air even smells of spring.

On a more somber note, I don't know if any of you have followed the news about CBS reporter Lara Logan who was attacked and repeatedly sexual assaulted by a crowd in Egypt during the protests. Jim C. Hines did a terrific blog post yesterday about the news coverage. In a nutshell, CBS treated the story as one about a horrific attack on one of their own and another media outlet sensationalized the reporter's good looks and the lurid details.

Jim makes some really excellent points, so I won't make them again.

What it reminds of though, was when Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie. You remember - young, gay man, tied to the fence and beaten to death. National media covered it. Much discussion of hate crimes and what it's like to be a homosexual in a town in Wyoming. There were a lot of layers to being in the center of a media frenzy like that and I won't go into them all.

What I'm thinking of now is a conversation I had with my boss at the time. I complained about Matt Shepard's death receiving so much attention when another had not. Recall this is a university town in Wyoming - we didn't get much violent crime. A year before, however, Daphne Sulk, a pregnant fifteen-year-old girl was murdered and her body tossed in the snow along a hiking trail above town. Her much older lover - and guidance counselor - was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. No one outside of our town paid much attention.

After all, it's kind of ho-hum, isn't it.

When I pointed this out to my boss, that not all murders are weighted the same, he replied "Well, she was engaged in dangerous behavior."

As if going to a bar and picking up two guys coming down from a three-day methamphetamine binge is a great idea. What happened to Matt Shepard was horrific, but I maintain that if he'd been a woman, no one would have given it much more thought than a sad shake of the head.

Dangerous behavior.

I hate to see that charge leveled at Lara Logan. A woman can be a reporter, but she'd better watch herself. In some ways, I see this as most insulting to men. Do we really believe that men simply can't help themselves? A pretty woman walks by and, golly gee whiz, they're overcome and have to rape her. If only she hadn't been there!

It's a tired argument, I know, but it's frustrating to see that our fundamental assumptions don't change. It's a man's right to seek sex, but a woman who leaves the safe confines of a protected life is engaged in dangerous behavior and gets what she gets.

What I love most about the story is that Lara was rescued by Egyptian women and about 20 soldiers. I wish I could know about that part of the story, the women who witnessed and stepped in to save a foreigner.

I hope that Lara Logan recovers, heals and finds the balls to continue on.

I'll be following her career with great interest.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Karma

Okay, I'm going to take a leap and say something that no one will like or agree with.

Oh, wait - I do that all the time.


I don't think book pirates are such a big deal.

Yes, pirates offer Petals & Thorns for free download - I've seen the links from Google Alerts. No, I don't go look at them. I don't send take down letters. I don't mention it on Twitter or really give it much thought at all.

This is why:

I think I've said before here, that if I were asked to put a name to my religious/spiritual affiliation, I'd say I am a Taoist. I believe in individual responsibility, that we reap what we sow, that what goes around comes around. Everything is about the exchange of energy, the natural balance of the universe.

Money is only a symbol, really. Our paper and electronic dollars in the US are based on gold. (Yeah, I know - not so much anymore. We won't go there.) Gold is pretty; it makes for nice jewelry, but really it has no intrinsic value. Gold won't keep you alive in a blizzard. However, because we all agreed at some point in time that gold is nifty stuff, you could trade some of your gold to live in a warm hut someone else built and cook some meat from a rabbit someone else killed over a fire burning wood someone else cut.

Of course you could go out and do all these things yourself: you could cut wood, build a hut and stack firewood next to it. You could kill and clean your rabbit and cook it over the fire (or your carrots, whatever). If you don't have time to do all that, or if you really suck at snaring bunnies or digging up carrots, you can trade with someone else. Over time, we substituted tokens in lieu of direct trade: I'll give you this piece of gold (or vial of salt or packet of saffron) which you can give to someone else for whatever they have that you want.

So, for a storyteller, someone gives us tokens so we can keep fed and housed while we sit at home and make up stories.

Yes, I hear you now. If people steal your stories, then you can't keep fed and housed. It's much easier, I freely admit, for someone like me who's getting a pile of gold tokens for other work I do. I don't depend on those stories to keep me alive yet.

The way I think of it is, money is just a stand-in for the exchange of energy. A balance of their efforts and mine. If someone downloads my story, reads it and loves it, then I believe that they do pay me. They send little happy feelings of gratitude out into the universe for me. Can I quantify this? Of course not. Is it still valuable to me? Yes yes yes.

I believe that we all know, on some visceral or spiritual level, what we owe to other people. And I believe we're driven to repay it, on whatever level we can. Sometimes it's a pay-it-forward thing. The good feelings I generate in one person gets passed on to someone else, who then passes it along. I get paid in thousands of ways in all the tiny blessings of life.

Are there jerks out there who just take? Of course there are.

But, I've learned in life, as I'm sure most of you have, that people will do nasty stuff to us that we may never see justice for. I've had my share of people undermining me, stabbing me in the back, what have you. I've been involved in court cases where I paid money to people who didn't deserve it, simply to extricate myself from the situation. We all have.

And we all have to find a way to let that stuff go, or it poisons us.

I believe in Karma. I trust that the universe will take care of it. One of the people who's wished me the most ill in this world is a miserably unhappy person. It's sad, but I also think that's what happens.

We all get back what we put out into the world. I truly believe that. The best part is, the universe tracks this for me, so I don't have to.

I just sit in my little hut and write the stories.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If I Can Make It There...

Crazy Gym Lady: He's a lawyer, so he doesn't do things like Excel.

I haven't been doing Crazy Gym Lady quotes lately, because I'm trying to practice tolerance. Which, for me, means not paying attention to her. But I couldn't resist this one.

There's been a lot of discussion about the RWA National Conference coming this summer. Mainly people being aghast at the costs. It takes place in New York City, so prices are higher. The hotel rooms are $211/night for double occupancy, which seems to be shockingly high to many people. The registration fee is higher, because the hotel costs are higher.

At this point, people start working their budgets. They look at outlay and profit. Investment and return. I see a lot of people discussing whether they'll sell enough books, or get a high enough advance to justify the outlay. If you're responsible about your finances, this is what you do, you weigh your cost versus your benefits.

The problem is, attending a convention like this brings mainly intangible benefits.

The success gurus all say that, if you want to be successful in your field, you should hang with the very successful people in your field. They advise to do whatever it takes just to be in the same room with the millionaires and billionaires. Now remember, these are usually people giving advice on businesses like real estate, investment banking, stock brokerage, entrepeneurial ventures. They regard the opportunity to get a 30-second piece of advice from one of the giants as invaluable. From being around them, you learn the realities of their lives and their business. So you actually know whether a lawyer uses Excel. Unfortunately for aspiring folks in these fields, it's very difficult to get near the giants. They are simply not accessible, much less willing to give even less than a minute of their time.

It seems to me that people don't recognize the opportunity RWA offers this way.

The millionaires in our field? They show up. They give keynote addresses. Susan Elizabeth Phillips gives an annual workshop on the secrets of writing a bestseller. I sat in the bar next to Nora Roberts while she had drinks and discussed the business. She also offers a seminar where people can ask her anything at all. Linda Howard chatted with me in the elevator. These are our millionaires, hanging out in the hotel bar and offering advice freely.

This just doesn't happen in other fields. Even other genres.

I met Annie Proulx six or seven times, easily. She lived near my town and occasionally attended literary events. Every single time she was reintroduced to me, she acted like she'd never seen me before in her life. And this was not a big town. My friend, RoseMarie, and I were working up a great idea for an anthology about bars in the West. I asked Ms. Proulx if she'd be interested in contributing. She laughed in my face. Then glanced at some of the people she considered to be "real writers," sneered and walked away.

Yeah, she's a cantankerous type, but she wasn't the only Big Name Writer to behave this way. When people get to be Very Important, they can become this way. Wanna-bes in their field are only so much dirt beneath their feet. They're not going to help you.

Not like in RWA.

I included the photo above from two years ago at the convention, because these two fabulous authors, Jeri Smith-Ready and Cynthia Eden, became my friends. They're not in the millionaire crowd yet, but they're headed that way. They weren't the Mean Girls, hanging only with the successful authors. And I know they never will be. They received help along the way and they offer help. Which is what it's all about.

This kind of thing? It's beyond price.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Blue Coyote

I had this dream, you see.

I was inside the house and David stepped out onto our patio, with his hands outspread. He was warding off the coyotes, I realized. There they were, streaking through the draw just below us. Only they were blue. Blue like jays.

The coyotes have become an odd subconscious symbol for me. I love to see them, in all their wild and beautiful glory. I'm also afraid of them. Not for myself, but for the cats. One day - the day of this photo, actually - one had a fresh-caught bunny dangling from its mouth. The coyote happily tossed the dead rabbit about. And I pictured Isabel in its place.

I can't deny Isabel and Teddy the joy that going out into the sun gives them. And yet I fret about them being unsafe. It's the eternal push/pull of suffocating what we love by keeping it safe.

And yes, I know I've written about this before. I said it's become a major symbol for me.

The blue coyotes, though - they were different. Both more fantastic and more dangerous. How David could hold them off, I don't know. I'm just grateful he could.

Perhaps that's my valentine today, to David, the man who keeps us safe from the Blue Coyotes.

(Thanks to the amazing and fabulous Tawna Fenske for saving my whiny behind and helping with with this pic. All hail Queen Tawna!)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kiss and Tell

I'm over at Word Whores today, talking about my first kiss.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Use It or Lose It

I'm starting to feel a bit done with winter and cold, so here's a little slice of beach in the Dominican Republic for us to gaze at longingly.

Tell me again why we don't all live in the Caribbean?

I know, I know - we couldn't all fit on those little islands.

And we have these lives here, full of technology and working and Many Things To Do. Like email. Which is the topic of a little rant I'd like to share today. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'd like to stand up at the front of the room and say:

There is no excuse anymore for not being able to use your email.

There I said it. I know you've all been thinking it, too.

For a long time, the newfangled technology of the interwebs was optional. It started out as the province of antisocial geeks who lurked in dim little rooms lit only by computer monitors. Then the hip, young people starting using it, flinging superficial nonsense at each other across cyberspace. But I'd like to point out a glaring fact: we've had email, in one form or another, for over 20 years now.

It has become a standard method of communication for all businesses. Like it or not, email is as integral to our society, particularly our professional society, as cars and traffic are. Not knowing how to use your email is like not knowing what a red light means.

You can choose to be a Luddite, sure. Go find a lovely Caribbean island, hang on the beach, never look at the interwebs. It's a deliberate choice. However, if you want to be online, email is the first, most basic skill to master.

I bring this up because the online chapter that I'm part of offers workshops. Online writing workshops of various types. People see them, sign up for them, and then inundate us with complaints that they're not getting emails. This usually has to do with spam filters. Every email provider is different how they do it. But they all try to weed out the crap you don't want from the sparkly stuff you do want. The spam filter is not a person, though, so the email user has to be intelligent enough to know what the spam rules are, and how to check to see that there's no good sparkly stuff getting sent to trash.

Seriously, this is like knowing what side of the road to drive on. If you're going to take your little car on the big internet highway, you have to know this stuff.

I know, I know - a lot of people are older and stars know it's not easy to keep up with technology. At 44, I already feel a bit of sting here and there when I have to learn a new database or find the tool I need on yet another, more complex iteration of Word. My mother, however, who would kill me for revealing her age, can handle the internet technology. She is in no way a geek and never has been. She knows how to find her spam folder though.

So, I'm officially declaring that not knowing how to work your email is no longer an excuse. If you choose not to drive, fine. But, if you do, please take Driver's Ed. Learn the traffic laws. Practice. Don't go careening around the internet, crashing into other drivers and complaining that you don't know how to drive.

*end of rant*

Meanwhile, I'd like to leave you with the song I'm currently hooked on. It's kind of sad, but it speaks to something I think we all feel at one time or another. I find it very moving. It's from Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, an album I've been listening to all week.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sunsets, Lenses and Second Opinions

This is the same sunset that I posted a picture of on Tuesday. I took the two photos only minutes apart, but with different lenses.

I would say that I was being a good kitty and practicing to see what different lenses would do, but in truth, I forgot the telephoto lens was on there instead of the broader landscape lens. Some of the difference is that the telephoto lens focused in on a smaller part of the sky. But you can also see that the longer focal length (shorter focal length? My college physics professor is shaking his head) changes the perspective so that different shapes and colors predominate.

It's common advice these days to always obtain a second opinion on medical diagnoses. In fact, articles recommend that, if your doctor doesn't like the idea of you getting a second opinion, then that's a big red flag. Patients can be misdiagnosed 25 to 50% of the time, depending on whose numbers you look at. Is this because 25 to to 50% of doctors are idiots? Well... Okay, no no no, it's not. It's because everyone brings a different lens to the table. Where one person sees the whole sky, another sees just one peak against a wash of crimson.

This is why having a writing group or multiple critique partners can be very important. It's not that half of them could be flat wrong. (Well, depends on the CP, eh?) It's more that each reader sees the story through a different lens. What's a glaring problem to one, another breezes right past. It's important to carefully consider the feedback a reader gives you, just as you would a medical diagnosis, but it's equally important to evaluate it in context of how other readers see it.

I was in a writers group for many years where one member would change every single thing anyone criticized about her story. We worked mainly short stories and essays in that group, so the revision process was fairly fast. She brought the same story back to the group several times, looking for that perfect, thumbs-up moment. Finally, on somewhere around the fourth time she brought it to the group, someone pointed out that, as a critique group, someone would always find something for her to fix. This idea she had in her head that at some point we would declare it scintillatingly perfect would never occur. That only she could decide when it was done.

In the end, only one perspective is the definitive one: whichever sings to you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Social Huh?

A while back, this publicist for one of the Big 6 contacted me.

Not about me, alas, but about her client, Ms Thing, a big name author who had an Exciting New Book coming out. I happened to be president of a special interest chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) that is especially interested in the genre Exciting New Book was in. Publicist Gal asked if we'd just love to put up an ad on our website for Ms Thing and her Exciting New Book. In exchange, she'll send us a copy of Exciting New Book, so we can read it and talk it up.

Now, RWA is a big writers organization. Upwards of 10,000 members last I checked. One of the rules for all RWA chapters is that, as a non-profit organization, we can't be in the business of selling books. This is an IRS thing and no one messes with the IRS. So we can't post book covers or ads for our own members on our chapter website, so as to avoid the appearance of being a mall or bookstore and thus competing with for-profit businesses. Ms Thing, incidentally, is not a member of our chapter.

This might be somewhat arcane, but I kind of thought a publicist wanting to use social media like a chapter website or blog hosted by an RWA chapter, and where RWA is pretty much synonymous with romance in publishing, would know this kind of thing.

Okay, no. So, I'm a nice person. (Oh, hush up. I try to be a polite person.) I explain this to her, but I make her an offer. Our chapter has hundreds and hundreds of members (somewhere between 500 and 1,000, last I checked), who read and write in this genre. I offer to host a special chat for her on our site. Ms Thing could hang for an hour, answer select questions, talk up her Exciting New Book and give a copy away. This would really be the idea way to expose her to a whole bunch of people at once, who would then buy and talk up her book.

This would be an effective use of social media, to my mind.

Alternatively, I offered that Ms Thing could put something up on our chapter blog, a short article or what have you.

Publicist Gal emails me back and informs me that Ms Thing is Far Too Busy to do either of these things. It was a fairly snippy thanks, but no thanks. She says maybe she'll send me a copy. If she had, our blogmistress could have given it away there at some point.

But no.

I really wonder if Ms Thing ever even knew about this conversation. Was she really Far Too Busy to spend an hour chatting with a potential audience of hundreds online? People who, if won over, would likely talk it up to hundreds more? What struck me most was that this professional publicist was attempting to use social media in such a ham-handed way. I know it's a rapidly changing world and it's not easy to keep up, but Publicist Gal was clearly still thinking in terms of billboards and magazine ads.

Now, maybe Ms Thing is bigger than that. Maybe she didn't need us, which would be lovely for her.

Still, I think the lesson is, even if you are lucky enough to be Mr or Ms Thing, and you have a Publicist, I would be looking pretty carefully at how they're handling social media. Really, the whole idea of social media is personal contact, not interaction via your publicist. I realize not everyone is good at this, but having your publicist engage in personal contact on your behalf is, um, not really the point.

That's it for today. I'm afraid I'm Far Too Busy for any more of this bloggity stuff.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ritual and Repetition

On yesterday's post about making writing sacred, Marcella commented that she was working on this and that she thought ritual and repetition were key.

Oh yes, yes, yes.

If we're going to continue to use religious practice as a model, that is absolutely the method used worldwide to create sacred space. I think it's useful to look to religious and spiritual practices because, regardless of your personal beliefs, they are the ways people approach raising themselves up, trying to be the best they can be.

Almost all spiritual pursuits rely heavily on ritual and repetition. Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. Hasidic Jews have prayers for every moment of the day and less conservative branches of Judaism still use repetition, such as the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, or simply observing Sabbath every Friday evening. Catholic Mass has followed the same ritual for over a thousand years. Protestants attend services at the same time every week, following the same pattern. Buddhists meditate in certain ways at certain times. Even the less structured practices like Taoism incorporate repetition with arts like Tai Chi.

What ritual and repetition do is set the stage for what we'd like to have occur. Both spirituality and creativity come from a part of us that must be coaxed out and given a safe place to bloom. Whether you think of this as shutting down the left brain so the right brain can be heard, or quieting the conscious mind so the subconscious can operate, really doesn't matter. What you're doing is creating the practice, so the rest will follow.

Interestingly, the Hasidic Jews hold that it's not necessary to believe. The Hasidics say you must practice. If you practice, belief will eventually follow, because practice creates faith.

What does this mean for the writer?

Yeah, I know you don't want to hear it. I didn't want to hear it either.

That's right: write every day. Write at the same time every day, if you can. Set your rituals and follow them, ahem, religiously.

Maybe you're more Hasidic and take your many times a day to write, just a bit. Or more like a Muslim, with carefully orchestrated sessions throughout the day. Maybe you're more Catholic, like me, and observe the practice in one long session every morning.

Regardless, if you want to create a sacred space for writing, this is the way to do it.

Believe me, I know how hard this is. I know most of our lives do not accommodate any kind of daily ritual, especially one that requires peace and silencing of all the tumult.

That's where the sacrifice comes in. KAK said yesterday that she pictures me like a Valkyrie, destroying anything that threatens the sacred space. It's a good analogy because I am that fierce about it. I think we have to be. If we aren't, before you know it, the temple is full of merchants and money-lenders and there's no room for anything else.

I always liked the line from Jesus Christ Superstar: "A temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves."

If there are thieves in your temple, then yes, kick them all out.

Find your ritual and repeat as necessary.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing as Sacred Space

I got to talking with my writing buddy, Laura Bickle, last night. She's gearing up for the release of Rogue Oracle, the second in her forensic Tarot series that she writes as Alayna Williams.

Dealing with the selling end of stuff is not so fun. Especially for those of us who were never really inclined to be marketers in the first place. Those occasional writers who also love to find more and better ways to get their books out there are blessed with a lucky combination of talents. However, most of the time, the personality and skill combination that makes us good at sitting by ourselves, dreaming up stories is not ideal for the high-octane racetrack of American supply and demand.

It's a challenge.

As we discussed her plans, I made an offhand comment about at least keeping the writing time sacred. The word struck her, because she'd never thought of it that way before.

I tend to think more in terms of the sacred, perhaps because I was a religious studies major in college. The commonalities among religions across the world fascinated me and I searched out those those themes. The sacred is that which is consecrated, from the Latin sacrāre, to devote. It simply means "reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object." Other definitions carry ideas about deities or the divine or the holy. But in its purest sense, the sacred is about devotion.

Not many of us starting writing for the money. We write first and foremost out of love. Love of the stories we've read, longing to tell stories of our own. If the writing itself isn't kept sacred, it can get eroded by the clamor and tumult of the world.

It's not easy, to keep the writing sacred.

It requires sacrifice, a word that comes from the same beginnings as sacred. We all know there's no such thing as something for nothing. Sometimes keeping the writing space sacred means giving up a pleasure, like computer games. Or relinquishing the idea that we can be everything to everyone. Sacrifice is painful, by definition.

Sometimes I think of it as, to create the sacred space, I have to destroy what's occupying that space. It might be something I really enjoy. An overriding idea through many spiritual practices is that greater sacrifices yield greater returns.

That's what creates the sacred.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Label Me

I've discovered I'm really bad at labels.

You know, like choosing labels for the blog posts. Like on yesterday's post, I wanted some kind of label that would reference the way I fret over the animals, the small and the weak. I know it's one of my themes that I revisit, but how do I summarize that in a word or two? That's why I write the meandering story about the several things coming together. It doesn't quite gel into a word or two for me.

I mean, scroll down and look at my label list at the bottom of the blog (you don't have to - it's a mess). I have hundreds of labels, I'm sure. So much so that I suspect it's worthless to try to find anything through my labels. Hell, I can't find what I'm looking for in that enormous label cloud.

I even created a spreadsheet now (you know how I love my spreadsheets) where I put in each post, which photo I use and the labels. Theoretically this should organize me. I've tried imposing a moratorium on creating new labels, to try to force myself to stay within the 972 I already created. (No, that's not an accurate number - I guessed. I'm not counting them.)

Oh, and look, I created a new label today: labels.

It's like a sickness.

I think of this when I see agents make scathing remarks about how they don't understand how authors can possibly not know what genre they're writing. Now, we all know agents specialize in scathing remarks. It's pretty much a tool of the trade. But it always makes me want to stomp my little foot and whine that it's really hard.

No, Tawna, I mean difficult.

I totally get why categorizing by genre is important. As a reader, I look for sections in the bookstore. The marketers need to know how to telegraph the story's promise. Agents use it to target particular editors. I understand that there are genre conventions that establish the contract between the writer and the reader. All of that makes perfect sense.

But ask me to identify genre for a story and I fall apart.

It's not just my stories, either. I've practiced and worked at identifying what genre a book or movie falls into. It rarely clicks for me. It's like trying to describe a person in one or two words. He's a Western guy. She's a New Yorker.

The storyteller in me always wants to take it a few steps farther. He wears a King Ropes ballcap, stopped hunting years ago and carries a dog-eared copy of Napoleon Hill in his pocket. She'd leave New York, even with all its promises of glittering success, if it wouldn't seem like such a concession to everyone who said the city crushed girls like her.

I suspect what makes a good agent is the ability to condense a story to its key element and target the right market. What makes a good writer is the ability to spin a story, an entire world or universe of people, from something minute.

It's the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Not all of us are good at both.

Dammit, I just created another label.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This morning we hit -20F. Our little adobe house isn't meant for these temperatures, but we've gotten by just fine.

I find myself worrying about the birds and the wild animals.

It's silly, I know. I should worry about the homeless people. About the poor living in poorly heated places and the kids going to school with too-thin jackets. But I have this thing where I fret about the animals. I wonder how the birds make it through the night and I'm relieved to see them in the morning, puffed up with indignation against the cold, clustering around the feeder. They know how to make it through the night.

It's not like I can do anything to save them anyway.

Another feature of the Las Vegas strip are the rows of people handing out the little cards advertising the hookers. They have this technique where they pop the cards against each other, making loud clicks that draw your attention and they hand you the card. You have to get good at tuning out the sound - and the row of dour-faced men offering the cards - or you never get anywhere.

They mostly tried to hand them to David, though they'd give 'em to me, too, if I let them. As we walked down by the Mirage, enjoying the warm sunshine, I asked David what was on the cards. I'd so carefully not looked at them, that I then wondered. Pictures of girls, he told me.

We stopped by the fountains at the Mirage to admire the many kinds of palm trees in their landscaping. What? We like palm trees. Paddling around in the water was a duck and two very new ducklings. David was surprised they'd hatched in January. Some tourist guys tossed bread at the ducks, laughing as the little things tried to gobble the stuff down.

I confess I fretted about them. Did they hide when Mirage does its volcano effects? Would some idiot feed them something poisonous or try to play with them? I blew out my breath and let it go. The ducklings lived before I knew about them and I can't sweep in and save them anyway.

As we got near our hotel, David started accepting the girlie cards. Like a wave, the grim-faces turned to smiles and the guys happily handed him cards. Within seconds he had a handful. I asked why he started taking them and he said "I thought you wanted to see them."

So, we drank wine in our pretty hotel room, watched the sunset and flipped through the nearly 50 cards he'd acquired in the course of crossing the street. We talked about which girls were pretty and which poses looked sexy and which not. Then one card caught my eye. Kari, thin, red-head pale and with a glassy-eyed, lost look on her face.

"She looks way too young to me," I commented.

David took the card from me. "She looks strung out on drugs, is what she looks like."

She probably is. And she might be legal and she might not. I wondered where in all that tumult of noise and lights she might be. And I realized I fretted about her like I worried about the ducklings. There's something about the small, the young and the weak dealing with a frequently harsh world that tears a little piece from my heart.

I meant to save Kari's card. David threw them all away and I formed the idea that I should write about this and go dig the little card out of the trash. I could scan in her picture and tell this story. I fantasized that someone would recognize her, save her, perhaps. Then we checked out before dawn and I forgot in the flurry.

In the end, I suppose, as for all of us, it will be up to her to save herself. As it's up to the birds to survive the cold snap and the ducklings to enjoy their bit of tropical paradise and avoid the dangers.

Still I remember Kari's face and send hopeful thoughts her way.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Everybody Has One

I thought about posting snow pictures, but with an arctic storm covering 2/3 of the country, I figure we pretty much know what snow looks like by now. It's a very chilly -6 in Santa Fe this morning. Very cold for us!

The other day on Twitter, an aspiring writer mentioned that she finally saw Avatar. She noted that the plot was weak, but the special effects were good.

This irritated me.

Avatar may be many things that one wouldn't like in a movie. The 3-D thing gives a lot of people headaches. You could say the plot is a recapitulation of many other stories. You could be a biologist like me, and pick apart whether the whole "plug-into-each-other" neurophysiology is at all feasible.

Yeah - biologists can geek out, too.

But don't go around saying the plot is weak. The plot of Avatar is classic. It runs like clockwork in the movie. It hits every emotional note perfectly and plays into a number of classic themes. Sure it feels cliché in places. You know the saying that things become cliché because they're true? Exactly.

It's really the perfect plot.

Now, I understand if a writer's aspirations are not to write a story with a classic plot line. Stars above know I'm terrible at sticking to a classic plot line. But it would be foolish of me not to recognize a strong plot when I see one. That's part of knowing my craft. If I were to pick apart the craft in writing the Avatar screenplay, I'd likely go for characterization. The characters are arguably not complex or well-rounded. They have simple, strong motivations. They are there to drive the plot, not to reveal the subtle nuances of human nature.

This reminds me of my brief stint teaching writing at a local community college. I should say straight out that I don't think I'm a very good teacher. Patience has never been my forte. I like teaching writing workshops just fine, because everyone is there to learn. I'm really quite terrible at convincing someone to learn when they don't want to.

Thus only one semester.

At any rate, I was given a syllabus and pre-determined reading list, which consisted mainly of Best American Short Stories from several years before. Now, we all recognize that the "best" is a matter of opinion. They're stories culled by mainly academic literary magazines from thousands of submissions, then nominated from a year's worth of issues by the editorial staff, whittled down by a group of newly graduated interns, usually from MFA programs, and finally chosen by a "celebrity" judge, Famous Writer Person. A lot of opinions in play there, with a very particular set of filters.

One of my students was terribly upset by one of the stories. No, I don't remember which one offhand and I don't think it matters. She pronounced the story garbage and said she could write something better. I pointed out that her strong emotional reaction indicated that the story had accomplished something powerful, even if she didn't enjoy reading it. She insisted that, no, it made her angry because it was so badly written. I tried to explain how many people had assessed this story. It might be many things, but badly written was not one of them. She finished with "that's my opinion and you have to respect that."

Well, okay.

Sure, everyone gets to have an opinion. We live in the age of easily shared opinions. For better or worse. What I did not say to her was, while I recognized her take on this story, that I didn't have to respect it. I didn't particularly enjoy the story either, but it wasn't valid to say it was garbage. An opinion based on nothing more than emotion is, well, just spewing.

I walked out of Avatar wishing I'd written that movie.

Not just because of the money, which would be lovely, but because of the reaction of the people around me. The movie had been out for months by the time I saw it and the theater was packed. We streamed out in a mob with people in tears, shouting, exclaiming, waving their hand. Rarely have I seen an audience so moved.

It's easy to disdain the successes. To cry pandering, to make snarky comments about the sparkly vampires or silly blue people. More difficult is to see what they did and how. To recognize why they touch people instead of complaining that people shouldn't have liked it.

That's my opinion, anyway.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Guy in the Pink Suit

In the Las Vegas trip recap yesterday, I told you the saga of us trying to eat outside at The Restaurant that Shall No Longer Be Named because they made me mad.

Still, when the manager got involved, he magically cleared a table for us right at the rail in a prime people-watching spot, as our lovely waitress noted. I don't remember it being so prevalent before, but now that there are such better sidewalks between the casinos, there's an unending stream of people walking up and down the strip. Not a population to waste an opportunity, other people dress up in various costumes and entice the passers-by to pose with them for a tip.

One guy had a big snake. Another dressed up (barely) as a mostly naked Trojan warrior. There were Star Wars characters, cartoon characters and variations on fantasies. (See aforementioned mostly naked Trojan warrior.) Right by our table was a couple dressed up as Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Tigger kept taking off her costume head, revealing a slightly dumpy, very displeased looking young woman. Pooh - a slightly dumpy, not very prepossessing guy, it turned out - kept trying to coach her along. She would put her costume back on and wave from time to time.

But she was clearly not into their money-making scheme. The nearby Cookie Monster/Elmo duo were doing far better.

David and I watched this for some time and we agreed this would be a miserable way to try to make money.

Then came along the Guy in the Pink Suit. David snapped a pic of him for me. It's not great, but it's the best we could get without drawing his attention. This was his "costume." White slacks, pink shirt, pink tie, pink sports coat. He affected a New York Italian accent and manner. He worked the crowd with a "Hey, how ya doin'?" shaking hands and shmoozing the women.

We weren't sure what his angle was. Pooh and Tigger had stuck up a hand-lettered sign saying they did pics for tips. The Guy in the Pink Suit carried a little gym bag and mainly talked to people. We speculated he was a pimping a show or a club. We asked the waitress and she said she sees him all the time and has no idea who he is. The others, she said, pose for pictures - though that sign is new. She wrinkled her nose at the hand-lettered sign. I said I thought the sign was a little tacky and she said yes, that she doesn't have a sign around her neck saying she waitresses for tips. As for The Guy in the Pink Suit, she really didn't see him getting tips.

At our leisure, we watched him. For every ten, twenty or thirty people who passed him by, refused to shake his hand, gave him suspicious or mean looks, one would smile and talk to him. Once he got the smile, he'd talk them into a photo. He picked out the women - usually the moms no one paid attention to, or the gussied up young women looking for admiration. We could hear him saying how beautiful they were, kissing their hands, slipping a familiar arm around their shoulders. When they tipped him - which they sometimes did - he kissed them. Usually on the cheek, sometimes on the lips. If the woman was part of a couple, he'd talk the male companion into a photo, too, where they'd mug for the camera and act like Wise Guys on the strip.

The remarkable part was how he put himself out there and took rejection after rejection, never losing his energy and spark. Sometimes five or ten minutes would go by before someone would accept his gambit.

I couldn't do that, I said.

And then I realize, I do.

All writers do. Perhaps I should expand that to all entertainers. We offer a smile, a handshake, an offer to amuse you for a moment. And most people walk by with a turned-away face or an indifferent scowl. Every once in a while someone smiles. Will you get a tip? Maybe yes, maybe no. Sure, once you get the starring role with the twenty-story high billboard of yourself, you don't worry about it so much. Until then, though, a lot of us are busking on the streets.

Tigger girl had a cute costume, but she didn't know how to work it. Or didn't care to. This guy took a pink jacket and turned it into a character.

More, he turned it into success. I'm sure I saw a couple of bigger face bills change hands.

After we finished eating, we went out front, so I could get my photo and my kiss. David had the camera and the $5 bill ready. Just as we got out there, The Guy in the Pink Suit gathered his gym bag and headed down the street at a good clip. I guess it wasn't meant to be.

Every time I send a query now or read a review, I'll think of him and how many times I saw him face rejection in the course of two hours.

And how he immediately turned to the next person.

Hi, Beautiful! How ya doin'?
Related Posts with Thumbnails