Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Deep Run the Roots of Fear

So, here's and interesting tidbit for my socially conscious friends to mull over. I'm Jewish. I work in a synagogue, and I interact with lots of Jews. 

Just yesterday, before the announcement that Governor Jan Brewer was vetoing SB 1062, and in light of all of the other states that have tried/are trying to pass religious "right of refusal" bills in the last few weeks, I was having a conversation with someone who expressed, with concern, that the bill was awful, that the situation across the country feels xenophobic, and that Jews could be next.

This is not someone who lived through the Holocaust. Multiple generations removed, has a name most people wouldn't identify as "Jewish" (a completely inappropriate and unfounded standard of identification, but many people do it).

Then, later in the day, someone else, completely unconnected to the first situation, said to me that Jews could be next, considering this situation. Their fear was a kernel, but real. They were worried, if only a little.

To quote Martin Niemöller: 
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Never tell me that oppressing one group of people doesn't have any impact on other groups. Fear-mongering, intolerance, and exclusion hurt everyone.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fear ≠ Fun For All

For the last four days, all over my Facebook feed, I've been seeing pictures of this animatronic devil baby that was unleashed on unsuspecting New Yorkers as a prank. A evil looking baby with bloody eyes in a remote controlled walker.

Yeah, fuck that.

I'm sick of seeing it. It's not funny, and it's pissing me off. Here's why: some of us don't enjoy being terrified. Perhaps I should rephrase that: some of us would rather go without eating for a week than experience that severe jolt of fear. That biological response, that fight-or-flight shock of adrenaline hitting your system? NOT EVOLVED TO BE PLEASANT. I don't get my jollies being scared, and I don't think it's funny when people are frightened for the amusement of others. I think it's an asshole thing to do, frightening others for your own amusement.

 If they are complicit--say, they go into a haunted house, or they buy a movie ticket for Saw 37--then fine, they have agreed to be frightened. If they buy a roller coaster ride, cool; that is complicit. I don't enjoy that feeling, and if that person's explicit consent was not given to participate--before the prank was pulled--then I have a problem with inducing terror/fear/horror as anything other than a means to biologically preserve their lives. As in, if a Mack truck is bearing down on me, you should scare the hell out of me so I move. But if there is no Mack truck, and you frighten me into feeling that my life is in danger... that is not funny. You are being an asshole, AT BEST.

There's enough hardship and anguish in life without someone jacking around with your emotional state because they want to get their jollies watching you squirm, or scream. I have no respect for pranksters whose weapon is fear, since they obviously have no respect for those around them.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Resolutions: Severance & Perseverance

End of a year, beginning of another. Threshold. Standing in the doorway, it's so human of us to look back at what we're leaving, then try to map out where we want to go as we step through. We can only pause so long, stutter-step, like a graduation march for time, before we roll on into the future. So, before I get to where I want the coming year to go, how has this last year been?

Well, I only made one resolution for 2013: be less afraid.


I think that might have worked. Is it perfect? No, hell no. I've never met anyone who completely accomplished a thing as amorphous and ongoing as that with utter confidence that it was over, solved, never to return. But I'm a lot less afraid about certain elements of my life than I was this time last year. I care less about what people think about me. I still have a long way to go before I'm comfortable with where I am in this regard, but I've made some specific strides in this regard this year. I've told a few people that the way they were treating me was unacceptable and would not continue. I've advocated for myself, and by extension those around me, a bit more. My job has been a source of anxiety and depression for me, but this autumn I told them I am leaving this year, and since then, I am much, much more at peace with that environment. (Anxious about finding a new job, yes, but that's a different kind of stress.)

I still feel like I'm not living my own life, but I'm moving in the right direction, now. Momentum is a powerful thing, so I'll try to keep moving that way.

All right, well, looking forward, then. There's been a lot of talk about setting S.M.A.R.T. goals for New Year's Resolutions (read more at, the key being that the goals are difficult and well-defined while still being sensible.

I could live with being difficult, as long as I am well-defined and sensible. (Can you be difficult and sensible at the same time? Or is that a Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy?)

Unpacking the acronym, goals I set should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-framed. No climbing Mount Everest or going to space this year, as those aren't Attainable or Realisitic for me, for a variety of reasons.

For me, they also have to be ways in which I want to improve, either because they will support long term goals for my life, or because I want to achieve them. If I set a goal for something that meets these criteria but I'm not actually interested in, I might as well toss that overboard right away. I won't maintain interest if I don't actually care about it.

Yeah, there's a reason perseverance is in the title of the post. I have to improve in that regard.

Lastly, these have to be things that I have at least a fair stake in accomplishing. I'm not going to put "publish X short stories," because, frankly, if I had that much control over whether they got published or not, I wouldn't need to put them on a list. Ditto for selling photographs--I don't control whether someone wants to buy them or not. I can only control submissions.

So, here's the list, then. I'm breaking this into three different categories: Writing, Running, and Other.

  1. Write one novel
  2. Finish four short stories
  3. Submit every finished short story (1 submitted so far)
  1. Run a sub-1:30 half marathon
  2. Run a sub 3:10 marathon/qualify for the Boston Marathon
  3. Run a sub-19:00 5K
  1. Record at least one original song
  2. Submit at least 50 photographs to Getty Images (10/50 submitted)
  3. Finish designs for the Arts & Crafts style tallit
I think that's where I'll leave it. While I could keep going, there is such a thing as overcommitting--a thing I've occasionally been guilty of. Besides, three threes works for me.

While I was writing this, a friend posted a picture of fortune cookie papers with pithy, oft-repeated mottos printed on them. and damn if the last one wasn't exactly what I needed to hear right now: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."


These goals don't just happen. They require a metric crapton of work and preparation. So here's the first part of a plan to put my body in the best shape for those running goals: 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There's Power in Them Thar Words

"If God is, it is because he is in the book. If sages, saints, prophets exist, if scholars and poets, men and insects exist, it is because their names are found in the book. The world exists because the book does." 
--Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions, 
trans. Rosmarie Waldrop 
(Middletown, Conn., 1972), p. 31 

If I have a singular, capital-B, capital-S, "Belief System," it is one in the power of narrative, the tidal strength of story to draw us in and direct our paths in life. If I were inclined to the L. Ron Hubbard way of thinking, I would make a religion of story, with rituals of telling and hierarchies of naming, of reshaping and remembering. I'm not so inclined, but neither would I be surprised to see a formalized religion of story emerge in the coming decades*. We are all searching for meaning in life, for purpose, direction; to be remembered, perhaps; certainly to have lived for a reason.

I cannot think of a more distinct endorsement for the power of narrative than the quote above, from Egyptian/Jewish/French poet Edmond Jabès. (Caveat: While I grew up believing in God, I do not any longer. For those of you who believe in God, please understand that I'm not making any commentary here on the value of those beliefs, but rather on the power and value of the narratives that can--and do--drive any number of belief systems.) Throughout his work, Jabès discusses the meaning of words, their power, the value of being inside of a story that we ourselves are writing. In the example above, we get one of the clearest examples of the power a story can have in shaping the world. The phrase "In the beginning, God..." sets a hell of a path in motion, when taken as the pretext for existence. Civilizations have literally risen and fallen over the words that follow, over the stories in that one book. Look at the simple example of the two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, one loved and one cast aside, and the complex, conflicting identities of the peoples that look to them as progenitors, and have not forgotten a grudge older than memory, if it ever happened that way at all. How much has the world been changed by the willingness to belief that a woman gave birth to a boy with no father, who grew up to be a radical voice calling for social reform, got nailed to a cross, and turned out to be the embodiment of a deity? And those are just examples from one set of books, one portion of the many-faceted history of the world. What of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Ramayana? What of 

No, wait, don't dismiss those ideas--people really and truly and deeply believe them. It matters to them. Why? THAT is the question that we must answer, because those narratives are compelling enough to sink roots deep into the psyche, to tap into deep emotions and undercurrents of thought. They have undeniably changed the course of history.

They are words, mere seeds of ideas. "From the tiny acorn, the mighty oak tree grows."

Look how much they matter, these words, these stories.

What we do, shaping stories, can change the world. Never doubt it.


*Actually, the Australian Aboriginal belief in the Dreaming may be one of the closest examples I've seen of story and existence being closely interwoven, though of course there are references throughout many other texts, including the speaking of creation in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and the logos reference that starts off the Book of John in the New Testament.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mind the Gap

We writers are people. We like to share our successes, we like to hide our failings, our faults, our less-than-perfect moments. Especially online, as we each work to build an audience and reach out to readers, it can be hard to talk about the difficulties and struggles. But there's another group of people who might read this, too: less experienced writers.  And they NEED to know how hard it can be.

Today I'm going to talk about the gap.  First, let me let Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio's "This American Life" and a fine storyteller, explain:

So, that's the gap. I'm in that gap. I have been for about two years. I am closer now than I have ever been to breaking in, and I know it. That's makes every setback harder to take, worse to struggle through, because my backbrain starts telling me I haven't made any progress, that I'm a hack, that I will *never* make the jump.

Now, my forebrain knows this is a heap of rubbish. But emotions, unfortunately, they bubble up out of that subsurface stew in the backbrain, and they get to simmering on that disappointment and despair, which kicks in the cycle of not working, not writing, depression, and it gets harder and harder to do the work to push forward. 

I need to say this, because it's happening to me right now. I need to say this, because it's happening to other writers, right now, too. And I need to say this because it *will happen* to countless others along the way, many of whom have no idea that this is part of the struggle to get where we're going. Campbell isn't as popular as he once was, but I have to see my self as the hero of my own journey, and this is the belly of the whale. It goes deep, and it goes down, and it is dark and foul-smelling. And I have to persist through it. So I will. That doesn't make it any easier, but it does mean it won't last forever.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rules of the Road

So, yesterday was a long run, 20 miles. No matter how fast you are, 20 miles is going to put you on the road for a long stretch of time, with not much to do but think.

Yesterday, as I came up to an intersection about a mile into the run, the light turned green and the walk signal came on, so I kept my pace and started to cross the street. The driver of a minivan decided to gun it and turn right in front of me, despite having had a red light for a couple of seconds already, and despite the fact that several of us were visibly beginning to cross the street. (I should also note that the driver slowed down, but never stopped.) I prefer to communicate that this is unacceptable, so I rapped on the side panel of the vehicle with my knuckles to say "Hey, right here, could have hit me! We saw you run that red light!"

About half a mile later, I came to another intersection with a light. Again, the light turned green just as I was approaching. I kept pace and started to enter the street, noting that the car that had been waiting at the light was turning left and would intersect my crosswalk. I then noticed that the walk light was NOT lit, so I backpedalled, holding out my hands to the driver in apology. Once they had turned and no one else was in sight, I crossed.

I tell these two stories in light of the conversations/debates/arguments that have been happening lately within the SF/F writing community, about the SFWA bulletin and the lapses in judgement regarding the depiction and discussion of gender equity. Every civilization requires a mutual recognition for certain shared rules, laws, and behavioral guidelines, in order to establish proper social interaction. I trust I need not quote the Code of Hammurabi or Aristotle's Politics in support of this point.

That said, those rules of interaction change with the society. Some are more flexible than others, some are situational variant, and some are generalized guidelines, perpetually in flux.

It strikes me that a great deal of the controversy over the recent blunders in the SFWA Bulletin (issues #200, #201, and #202) has to do with how we read and react to the rules of the road. For instance, when the driver of the minivan ran the red light, I was well within my rights to communicate that I recognized and disapproved of her choice, and that it had endangered me and others in my society. Likewise, when I began crossing the road without the correct signal, I could have just continued across the street, ignoring the signal and forcing the vehicle to stop from hitting me. I'm in a crosswalk, right? Per Minnesota state law, the onus is on the driver of the vehicle, which has more power to do harm.*

Except, that's not a responsible approach. Because as soon as you start to say that something is barely breaking the rules, or that those rules shouldn't apply in this situation, you start to say that your interpretation of the situation and the rules is more important and more valid than the rest of the society you are participating in. So I agree, wholeheartedly, with Ben Rosenbaum's post about situational and society awareness. If Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick want to sit around in private space to discuss the relative physical merits of a woman they once knew, fine. But there needs to be a recognition that, when speaking from a place of established power (as long-established, male authors writing for the official publication of THE professional organization for SF/F writers and artists should more or less concrete, for purposes of this discussion), to be aware of audience, cultural shifts, and most importantly, forward looking responsibility to the genre.

I'm willing to believe that what they did in issue #200 was akin to me running out into the street without the right signal. It was ill-conceived, inappropriate, and likely unintentional--though that last may be more egregious than it sounds. But still, I've never met someone who doesn't make mistakes; they, too, are part of how we interact with each other.

It was that, instead of backpedalling and apologizing, as when I realized my mistake in running, in issue #202 they figuratively stood in the crosswalk, flipped off the oncoming car, and yelled "You're trying to run me down! I have every right to run here!"**

This does not for good society make.

I believe there have been misinterpretations and misjudgments on many fronts in this debate. Threats of death, dismemberment, rape, bodily harm, and physical or psychological torture*** are never an acceptable form of discourse. Calls for people to step down, or be fired, do have their place--and I understand Jean Rabe has done just that today.  As I say in the comments section of  my blog, if you cannot be courteous, be civil. Yes, there are times when the blood must rise, when a point must be made, or defended, strenuously. But for communication to happen, both sides of any disagreement must see, admit, and accept the humanity of the other side, even if they cannot accept in any way the other's point of view on a particular topic.

We must move forward together. And I mean every single word of that sentence.

*To be clear, lest this be misinterpreted, this metaphor is NOT intended to suggest that the women and men who responded to Malzberg and Resnick's dialogue of “lady editors” and “lady writers,” how they looked in bathing suits, how they were “beauty pageant beautiful” or a “knock out” were in any way doing the wrong thing. In their metaphorical experience, the car may have continued moving until it bumped into them, or revved its engines as if suggesting they were in the wrong. It's not a perfect metaphor.

**Also, it should be clear that, based on the power dynamics of the situation and the long history of ill treatment of women in speculative fiction and SF in particular, these men were in the driver's seat of the vehicle, not acting as the pedestrian, in this metaphor.

***This is not intended to be a complete list of modes of unacceptable discourse.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Someone is Wrong on the Internet: Me

Somedays, writing is hard, and some days it is easy. Today it’s hard, though not for the reason I more commonly experience, when my brain wants to be doing something else.

Today writing is hard because I was wrong, on the internet. And I have to call myself out on it.

The details are unimportant, aside from the fact that a friend raised a point that I misunderstood, which made me raise an eyebrow, and then before I paid attention to what was going on, I had launched into full on Educate Them mode. Because, you know, I Know All About It, and clearly they did not.

Wow, hubris.

My friend was kind, clear, and tried to be patient with me. I patently Did Not Get It. I pursued the argument, not the understanding. And in the process, I treated a friend like they were somehow less than me.

THAT is where I was most wrong. Who cares about the content of the discussion? In a month, I likely won’t even remember what we were talking about. But I will sure as hell remember that they asked me to stop, re-read the whole conversation, and consider one simple fact: I was making the assumption that they knew nothing about the topic.

You know what they say about assuming. That was a hard mirror to look into.

I’m writing this, because the internet is seductive. It allows distance, abstraction, to a degree that can be dangerous. Just this weekend, I had a conversation about seeing friends in person, and how important it is to get those conversational cues from tone of voice, facial expression, body language. Those are missing on the internet. And that means that we—that I—must be more vigilant about listening to the people we interact with. Because to not listen fully, to assume that someone else does not know enough, is to treat them as less than we are. That’s dehumanizing.

That’s appalling. I can’t believe I treated someone else like that, never mind someone I actually care about. But I know I’ve done it before, even if I can’t point at specific examples. And I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s not a proper way to treat other people.

Look, I’m not suggesting that everyone is an angel, that everyone is equally knowledgeable on every subject—far from it. What I am saying--insisting on, really--is that I don’t know what another person does and does not know, so my default should be to treat them with respect. And I’m saying it out loud, to y’all, both because I want to be accountable for it, and because I doubt I’m the only person who has made this particular mistake.

Thanks for listening.