About Powerlessness

I miss Laser Cat.

It usually comes over me at bedtime, which was when she’d most often have her bursts of affection. It was easier for her when we were lying down; we were less scary, I think, when we were flat and lower to the ground. She would purr and curl up and push her head into my hand insistently, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes before she’d give up.

And when my daughter was upset, she would jump up on her bed and purr and allow herself to be hugged and squeezed and all the other things she would angrily refuse at other times.

My daughter misses her a lot. She’s never had an animal love her like that. She’s never loved an animal like that in return.

None of this takes anything away from the kittens. (They are still kittens, despite the fact that Dexter is HUGE and heavy and looks very much like a grown cat.) Pets don’t replace each other. That’s both the pleasure and the pain of them. We are getting to know the kittens, and they are warming up to us as they age and their play changes. They have moments of being affectionate, but fundamentally they sort of breezily coexist with us. They’re happy, and they clearly feel safe with us, which is nice.

But there is still a gaping Laser Cat-sized hole in my heart. I miss Editor Cat, too. But she was older, and had been ill for a long time. Laser Cat was young, and we should have had her for so much longer. The pain of her loss is different.

Time moves one way.

This is a story of powerlessness. It has a happy ending. But while it was happening, I didn’t know that. I only knew it when it was done.

***

Last spring, my daughter casually mentioned, in the middle of another conversation, that she thought she was having seizures, and I had one of those moments where my brain instantly cast around to find some benign explanation for what she was describing. When my brain hit on nothing, the next step was to freeze. I went for casual, because I didn’t want to freak her out. I knew there were all kinds of reasons this might be happening. I knew I couldn’t answer any of her questions, and that we’d have to see a doctor.

I hit the freak-out point around about the time I called her pediatrician. Her pediatrician is lovely, and spoke calmly while I was crying, and gave me a referral to a neurologist’s office.

***

When she was an infant, everybody was talking about SIDS. There’s been some good research on that in recent years, suggesting that serotonin levels are a big risk factor, that babies at higher risk could be identified and monitored. But when my daughter was little, it was only “nothing in the crib, put her on her back, she might die anyway.” She had her own room, and I would get up frequently at night just to listen to her breathing. She was a terrible sleeper, and despite the fact that I was getting two to three hours of sleep in a row, max, I felt somehow safer when she was yelling for food or refusing to settle down. I used to be relieved when she had a cold, because I could hear her snuffling over the baby monitor.

One night when she was five months old, she slept seven hours straight. I slept, too. When I woke up and saw the sunshine I ran into her room in an absolute panic, convinced she had died in the night. But she was fine.

***

The first thing they did for her was an EEG. It was an interesting, albeit tedious, process, and the worst thing about it was that she was only allowed four hours sleep the night before (she needed to doze off during the test). We stayed up until midnight watching movies. Waking up at 4:00 am was less exciting. We watched more movies in the morning. We bought donuts on the way to the hospital. We did what we could to make it fun.

She’s remarkable, my kid. Every parent says that, and for every parent, it’s true. But she really is remarkable.

The next week in the doctor’s office, they showed us the spiky brain waves that meant absence seizures. The doctor was even able to induce one while we watched. Later on, as we drove home, she expressed irritation at that. Her brain was betraying her. That this could happen to her, and she could not even notice while everybody else did, seemed outrageous and unfair.

***

Seizures are actually not uncommon. One in a hundred people in the US is epileptic. I know this for two reasons: one, my daughter had febrile seizures as a child, and I’m a mad Googler when things go wrong; and two, I had to do a PSA poster for a graphic arts class, and I chose to do mine on epilepsy. The only thing I learned that I hadn’t known already was how common it was.

When she started having absence seizures, I learned all the many and varied reasons they can happen, including that wonderful medical catch-all of “Who knows?” Head injuries can cause them (she’s had a concussion). They can be genetic (nobody in the family that we know of). Benign brain lesions can cause them. So can tumors.

***

They scheduled the MRI as a non-urgent procedure. To “rule things out.” There was nothing to suggest that what she was going through was due to a serious brain issue. She had no change in personality, no coordination issues, nothing other than these moments when she’d just go somewhere else.

Throughout it all, I maintained big, cheerful, everything-will-be-fine momness. But my remarkable kid is no fool, and she knows me. She can pick up vibrations in my mood from halfway across the house. There are no false reassurances with this one.

I held her one night, when she was scared. I told her the truth: that odds were there was nothing whatsoever wrong with her. That this procedure would show nothing serious, that they just wanted to know what was going on. That I worried because that was the sort of person I was, but that if we looked at the facts, everything pointed toward her having a fairly common condition that she would most likely grow out of.

We took her to the hospital. We got donuts again that day. They had room to have one parent in with her, and I volunteered. They gave me poorly-fitting salmon-pink scrubs to wear, and I got to sit in a rocking chair while they secured her on the table and explained the machine to her. She had headphones so she could listen to music. She had a panic button that she could press if she freaked out. The machine was massive, and the opening was tiny. I’m claustrophobic, and I don’t think I could have done it. I smiled, and told her it’d be fine, and she could do it, and they slid her in where she couldn’t see me.

She’s a tall kid, but in that machine, she looked tiny.

I tried to read a book. I don’t remember what book it was now. It was good, and it held my attention. I don’t think I’ve picked it up since. Mostly I got used to the rhythm of the incredibly loud noises, and wept in terror. Not of the machine, not of my tiny child in that massive magnet, but of what they might find in her beautiful brain.

When she got out, she told me how close she had come to hitting that panic button. But she didn’t.

***

I got pregnant easily. This is not to say the path toward trying was simple; but once we got there, it was quick. I remember the positive test, and giving my husband a hug, and having this lurching feeling in my stomach like I’d just been locked into a roller coaster and oh God what had I been thinking getting on this thing. I was certain it was what I wanted. I was certain I was not prepared for what was coming.

There is nothing quite as uncompromisingly physical as being pregnant. People call it a miracle, which is a misnomer. Miracles are rare. Pregnancy isn’t rare. But it’s transformative, strange, unsettling, uncomfortable. All of these things, even when it’s desperately wanted.

I was so sure I’d feel less worried about her once she was born. I would be able to see her. I would be able to tell she was all right without waiting for her to kick or for the midwife to pick up her heartbeat. If I could get her safely through the pregnancy, everything would be fine and I could relax.

I was a fool.

***

The strange thing about medical results is that waiting becomes a good thing. When you don’t hear in an hour, you breathe easier. When you don’t hear in a day, your heart rate finally slows down. We didn’t hear and didn’t hear, and thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to see the lab report online in five days, before anyone called me on the phone about it.

There’s one word I remember in the report: “unremarkable.” The MRI was unremarkable. My remarkable girl has an unremarkable brain. No lesions, no tumors.

She was fine. She is fine. She is epileptic, and she is fine.

***

I have trouble with powerlessness. I like to think of myself as rational person, but I’m insanely superstitious. When my daughter was a baby, I would never leave her room at 13 minutes after the hour. I never make jokes about truly awful things, just in case. Every morning, when my daughter gets on the school bus, I wave at her until the bus goes around the corner. I tell people I love them when we part. I hate going to bed angry.

But the truth of it is we are all powerless. There are little things we can control, but there is so much that is arbitrary. When something arbitrary happens to us, we eventually adjust. It’s so much harder when it happens to someone else.

I carried my daughter for 40 weeks and 5 days. I felt like I had control. I could eat right, and take my vitamins, and do all the right things. But even then, there was so much I couldn’t do. I couldn’t affect her genetic makeup. I couldn’t affect how she was growing. I couldn’t affect when I went into labor. I didn’t even have much influence over what happened during her birth. All of that was the alchemy of her chromosomes and the physical interaction between the two of us as she grew. Luck. Luck is just another name for powerlessness.

There are a lot of things in life that result from a web of conscious decisions. Sometimes the result is predictable. Sometimes we can’t see the web unless we’re looking back on things that have already happened. It’s a compelling idea, that if we learn to see the web before it’s complete, if we focus on our own part in it, we can change its shape to whatever we want.

And maybe we could, if we could see. But most of the time the web is too complicated for us to understand, and so much of it is assembled without our input. Powerlessness. We can’t know what steps to take until we see the result, and time moves one way. We have to make the best choices we can in the moment, and we still get it wrong.

This story had a happy ending. It was frightening. I would wish it on nobody. But the end is happy. Even with the powerlessness, I find the future looks happy, too.

But I remember that powerlessness. I remember how it feels to need control, and to not get it. I remember the overwhelming urge to bargain, sacrifice, do anything to take control of the situation, and the profound disorientation of realizing what I needed didn’t matter.

I have this sense that the act of embracing powerlessness would be incredibly freeing, that it would allow us to change our lives in ways we can’t begin to understand now.

But I suspect the truth is we’re all, always, too bound up in the web.

 

Review: LOGAN

I don’t really intend to write regular movie reviews. For one thing, I don’t see a lot of first-run films (although The Kid may end up talking us into THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE). For another, when I like a film, I don’t always like to examine my reactions too closely. I like a lot of stuff that’s deeply flawed, and I am left cold by some movies that people rave about.

That said: we saw LOGAN today and…yeah, that was a thing. It entertained me, for its entire (checks IMDB) two hours and seventeen minutes. (Holy cats. I knew it was long, but wow.)

But I feel kind of bad about myself for enjoying the movie. Not full-on must-take-a-shower bad, but bad enough to want to wash my hands six or seven times. The TL;DR on LOGAN is that it’s a well-acted, well-scripted gore-fest with predictable winners and losers, and a somewhat fuzzy moral center.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

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There’s a point in the movie where Laura, the child saved by Logan and Charles Xavier, is sitting in a hotel room watching SHANE (1953) with Charles. We see them watch Shane’s speech at the end of the film:

There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her… tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.

We are led to believe that this is a Theme. That Logan is who he is and can’t change. Except the entire premise of the film is that he can rescue this little girl from what she’s been turned into – and what she’s done – and thus change who she is.

Because she gets to do lots and lots and LOTS of killing. Only bad guys, of course; but those of you who’ve seen SHANE (and wow, that must have been a restored print, because it looked gorgeous) know that he only kills bad guys as well. And at the end of that movie, while I could get behind Mom’s sentiment about “no more guns in the valley” – they were kind of lucky Shane was there with his gun when he was, weren’t they?

It’s an interesting philosophical theme, actually: the line between aggression and self-defense. Most of us would kill to defend our own lives, and the lives of those closest to us; but how wide does that circle go? And would we kill for a cause? Many films explore this theme with intelligence and subtlety, sometimes showing us people on both sides who believe they’re doing the right thing. It’s a theme that can leave us thoughtful, and sometimes unsettled.

There’s no such unsettling exploration in LOGAN. The bad guys are Bad. One of them isn’t even human, apparently: he’s a guy called X24 (also played by Hugh Jackman) who’s apparently some sort of clone who’s taking Super-Aggresion-And-Extra-Healing Potion. He’s the Phase 2 of a project that started with Phase 1, aka X23, aka impregnating a bunch of kidnapped girls with mutant DNA and isolating and training the children from childhood. (The mothers, of course, don’t last beyond gestation.)

To bring home exactly how horrible this experiment is, we get a scene of secret video in which a birthday party given for the children is interrupted by the Evil Scientists who explain that the kids shouldn’t be treated with kindness because they are only science experiments. There’s not a lot of moral ambiguity here. THEY KILL MOTHERS AND ARE MEAN TO LITTLE KIDS. All we need to hear is that they throw away apple pies without eating them, and we have the Deserves To Die Trifecta.

And that weakens the film considerably. I know they were trying to do a lot here, but packs of Black Hats that we don’t care about at all give us only one thing: a bunch of “justified” gross-out death scenes. I’m not generally shy about violence in movies (depending on the type and how it’s used), but it seems filmmakers keep trying to make things more shocking and graphic. If I never see another person stabbed through the head, it will be too soon. Yes, it was disgusting. But…did we care? Were we really shocked, beyond the ick factor? Bad guys! Mothers and children! Apple pies! Kill them all, Logan! What’s taking you so long?

Yeah. I felt manipulated. All movies manipulate, but I don’t like being manipulated into cheering for large masses of death.

There are also a couple of bits of subtext here that nag at me a bit. One is the Purity of Middle America stuff. Our trio (later our duo) runs into bunches of nice people during their drive up country from Texas to North Dakota. Nobody seems to be worried, or suspicious of Logan’s massive number of new and old injuries, or wondering about the little girl with blood all over her clothes. And being nice doesn’t much help them, does it? I could have done without the Redshirt Family with the horses. They were nice, and didn’t deserve what happened, and we already knew Bad Guys Were Bad, so what was the point of this except to get the kid an iPod?

The other is something I notice in a lot of movies, although not all of them: where are the women? I notice this most often in the near-future semi-apocalyptic stuff (like LOOPER): in the future, women are apparently moms (or, in this case, nurses who are essentially mom stand-ins), prostitutes, or both; but nothing else. They are certainly never part of the packs of Bad Guy redshirts. And I understand why Hollywood doesn’t like to do that: we live in a culture that is still uncomfortable with the idea of female combatants, and in films like this the bad guys are intended as nothing but cannon fodder. But I do get a bit weary, sometimes, of the angst-ridden Men Fighting Other Men nonsense that treats women as something to be exploited or protected, but never as people with their own agendas, abilities, and fates.

(And before anybody comes at me with the “muscle mass upper body strength argle bargle blargh” argument: this movie establishes the existence of injectable green goo that makes you invincible to bullets through the eye so save your breath.)

Ultimately, LOGAN was an underdog movie: our aging, ill hero and a pack of children against a lot of big, threatening, beefy guys with guns. We know from the beginning who’s going to win. The ones who don’t survive to the end credits are no real surprise (although my husband pointed out – and I agree – that it might have been nice to have left us some kind of opening for possibly getting Wolverine back, like maybe a pebble moving on the grave or something), but we know, one way or another, that at least Laura is going to do the Sound of Music trek over the mountains into Canada. (This the film does well: establishing that Canada is offering them asylum, without hammering the point home. That’s about as political as we get here.) It’s the kind of movie where adults can drop like flies, and we can be manipulated into grieving for them, but kids and puppies (or, in this case, horses) are all safe.

So why did I enjoy it?

The script has some well-done dialogue, and the actors do nice work with it. Both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman sell their parts with humor and humanity. Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, does an admirable job, especially considering she has no lines until halfway through the film. Boyd Holbrook and Richard Grant have thankless parts as mustache-twirling baddies, but they twirl their twirliest, and I nursed appropriate hatred for them both.

And…okay. Gross-out-fest or not, some of the action scenes were pretty cool. I can’t say it wasn’t fun watching a little tiny girl take out some massive, heavily-armed nasties. The filmmakers did some decent choreography there, having Laura take advantage of her size and quickness to get in close to the enemy. And there’s a scene near the end where she actually runs up Logan’s back to launch herself off of his shoulders. Assuming super-strength and training, her fighting style isn’t that implausible.

I like watching fights. I am never sure whether or not I should be concerned about this.

Rating time:

Execution: 7/10. Well-written and well-performed, but the second act dragged a bit, and there were too many convenience characters. Also, that poor family with the horses. Never accept help from strangers, people.

SF elements: 6/10. I feel like I should grade this on a sliding scale, given that it’s a comic book movie in an established universe; but there’s an awful lot of Convenience Technology here, including a clone that looks just like Logan ready to go at exactly the right time, and a super-potion that wears off when it’s convenient to the plot.

Melodrama: 5/10. Some very nice “family” moments with Logan and Xavier, and also with Logan and Laura. But ultimately the film’s message on connection seems muddled, and its moral stance on murder is flat-out contradictory.

Which gives us 6 out of 10. Not bad, for a potato chip.

Review: ARRIVAL

I am a spoiler junky.

Some of this is efficiency. We watch a lot of movies on Netflix (especially random horror films, which, despite the occasional work of genuine brilliance, tend to skew heavily toward disjointed, unintelligent wastes of time), and I want to know what I’m getting into before I invest my attention. With very few exceptions, good films are still good, even if the story’s surprises aren’t surprising. (I re-watched The Sixth Sense last year, and it’s still a lovely film, even knowing The Big Hook.) In contrast–well, let’s just say Wikipedia has saved me from many an emotional investment that would only have ended in annoyance.

My husband saw Arrival before I did. I had been curious about it; but one has to be careful with highly-anticipated science fiction films. So many of them are beauty without substance, or substance without plot. And I’ve really, really, really hated some that have received critical acclaim (*cough* Ex Machina *cough*). But I kind of love Amy Adams, and another SF film made from a short story–Edge of Tomorrow–is one of my favorites, so I had cautious hope.

And entirely out of character, I studiously avoided spoilers.

My husband gave me a spoiler-free review, which I won’t share here, because having seen it I pretty much concur with him, and I’ll get to that in a bit. I will say I’m kind of amazed I was able to avoid spoilers, because Arrival is one of those movies that you pretty much can’t discuss at all without spoiling something.

TL;DR: BIG, HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD FOR ARRIVAL. NO, REALLY, I’M NOT KIDDING, BEGINNING-TO-END DETAILED SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

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Two minutes into the film, I turned to my husband with tears on my face and demanded to know: “Is this a dead kid movie?”

“I’m saying nothing,” he replied.

Which was the right answer, because I worked very hard to avoid spoilers, and this is a spoiler that would have made me avoid the movie entirely.

Because yes, it’s a dead kid movie. I’d argue that Arrival is your basic dead kid movie stylishly wrapped in some SF tropes.

This is not to say the film doesn’t work. Overall, it works fairly well. Lots of dead kid movies work well. But Arrival basically uses alien invasion, linguistic misunderstanding, time loops and some fantasy bits masquerading as physics to wrap a story of Appreciating What You Have When You Have It, Even Though You Know You’re Going To Lose It And It’s Going To Be Like Having Your Guts Ripped Out Through Your Navel.

I wonder if the people who tell these stories have children, or if their children are grown and they just don’t remember.

I read Sebold’s The Lovely Bones when I was pregnant. I had no trouble getting through the book, but I remember wondering if I’d feel the same after my child was born. Answer: Nope, in so many ways. I saw Trainspotting when The Kid was 2, and I was shaking and weeping while Ewan McGregor was hallucinating a baby on the ceiling to the familiar strains of “Blue Monday.” We rented In The Bedroom (which is indeed a brilliant film) and I still get a knot in my gut when I think about it. We rented The Sweet Hereafter and sent it back unwatched because oh, hell, no.

So yeah, I have a visceral problem with dead kid stories, and you should probably take that into account when reading this review.

But I do think, fundamentally, Arrival‘s SF elements are primarily misdirection, and for me, that was a bit of a let-down. It’s not so much a science fiction film as a melodrama that uses time travel (more or less) to ratchet up the pathos. And all of the elements, both SF and melodrama, were fairly well-worn, no matter how beautifully they were presented.

The unique angle here (and what I suspect was the core idea in the short story, which I haven’t read) is the nature of the heptapod’s language, and how it affects Louise’s mind. I’m not a linguist, but I do remember learning French in school, and finding it affecting my facility with English. Most interestingly, though, was visiting my parents for the few years they were living in the Netherlands, and watching Sesame Street in Dutch. I knew zero Dutch, but after a few days I started understanding the show. Not a lot, and not in a translating-in-my-head way; but I started to get it. It was weird, and not at all the vocabulary-and-phrase-based learning that had been my only exposure to new languages.

It made perfect sense to me that Louise would be changed by learning the heptapod’s everything-all-at-once-forever language. And okay, fine, that change allowed her to somehow slip outside of time entirely and perceive it as a whole. But that nudges the movie toward fantasy territory for me, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but it was another thing I didn’t expect.

The line between SF and fantasy is fuzzy and much debated. Most readers are happy to have psychic phenomena and faster-than-light travel in their SF, never mind current evidence that neither of those things is possible. I suppose there’s no reason I should draw the line at psychic phenomena, or at the idea that a human, born and existing in our four-dimensional world, should suddenly be gifted with extra-dimensional perception.

In this case, though, I think it bothered me because of my original problem: it’s all misdirection. The entire tale is a shaggy dog story explaining that personal tragedy is somehow worth it (and it’s spun as Louise’s tragedy, which indeed it is, but it’s also a tragedy for the kid, and the way it’s treated here tweaks a little bit of my women-in-refrigerators sensitivity). The story isn’t about alien invasion, or humanity discovering how to cooperate, or a (rather pointed) message about how incredibly stupidly we can act when we’re amorphously afraid.

The story is about how hideous tragedy can be offset by beauty and meaning. It’s not a bad message, but to have the whole thing circle back to that after aliens and betrayal and duplicity and weird language and Louise’s world-rescuing victory at the end is kind of a let-down.

My husband’s take was that Arrival is the kind of SF movie that people who don’t read much SF really love. That’s a tad harsh, perhaps, but I know what he means. The SF bits are pretty well-worn (there are a lot of opportunities to make the old Twilight Zone “To Serve Man” joke during this movie, even though it doesn’t go that way). And while the romance never gets in the way of the best parts of the story–and we all know, especially by the end, why it’s there at all–its inclusion felt jarring to me. When Louise and Ian meet on the helicopter, I was thinking “Oh, they’re doing this? How disappointingly ordinary.” (Y’all know how much I generally enjoy romance in my stories, but the setup here was unimaginative and clunky.)

“So, Liz,” I hear you ask, “was there anything you liked about this movie?”

Well, yeah. As mentioned above, I’m a big fan of Amy Adams, and I think she did a remarkable job here. It can’t have been an easy part to play. Louise is very self-contained, which is necessary, I think, to avoid revealing the entire plot from the start, and it’s hard to make a character like that compelling on screen. Adams reveals Louise’s character in gesture and reaction, and careful delivery of dialogue. There are some actors who can never quite disappear from a film, but I stopped thinking “Amy Adams” very early on in this movie.

And I think the reactions that various characters had to the aliens were well-drawn, even if the point being made was not subtle. Everyone is afraid, but for some curiosity wins instead of terror. And it makes perfect sense that a pack of soldiers would go AWOL, caught up in the idea of duty and dying for their country, based on no evidence apart from the vast amount of things they didn’t know. I also found believable–if unrealistic–the idea that one government standing down would be enough to get the others to follow suit.

And I liked the alien’s message: We’re helping you, because in the future you’ll help us and it’d be nice if you didn’t actually annihilate yourselves like a bunch of primitive jackasses before that happened.

Well, okay. The aliens didn’t say the bit about primitive jackasses. That’s me editorializing. But I think it comes to the same thing.

Rating time!

Execution: 9/10. I think both the beginning and the end could have been trimmed–the end in particular took far too long to sledgehammer the point home–but goodness, it was lovely.

SF elements: 7/10. The language angle was interesting, but the rest was tried and true (although very well drawn here).

Melodrama: 3/10. A bit too much stereotyping in the romance department, Ian ends up looking like a jerk for leaving his will-die-later daughter and his wife who then has to deal with it alone, and enough with the dead kid stuff, please.

That comes to 6-1/3 out of 10, which is probably a fair representation of my reaction to the film.

Are You Sure? (Y/N)

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

Don’t do it.

Love,
Liz

…Wait. You need more than that? Oh. Okay.

Dear Fellow Writers Who Have Yet To Publish,

If you love writing and value your sanity, don’t do it.

Love, and really, I mean it,
Liz

I can hear you from here, you know. “Well, of course she’d say that. She’s done it. This is just sour grapes or some competitive bullshit because she knows my book is better than hers.”

Dearest fellow writer, I hope your book is better than mine. I hope it’s Shakespeare or Melville or Butler or Rowling or Gay or whatever massively-selling author you idolize. I hope you are brilliant and productive and creative and beautiful, and that publishing brings you massive success and recognition and love from strangers all over the world.

Spoiler alert: It probably won’t. Even if your book is better than mine. Even if it is better than Shakespeare and Melville and Butler and Rowling and Gay.

And even if it does bring you massive success and recognition and love from strangers, it’s not going to feel the way you think it will.

We are storytellers, you and I. It’s a strong desire, and a motivating one. (It has to be motivating, because damn, finishing a book is hard.) We are storytellers in part because we’ve had stories told to us. We’ve read, some of us more widely than others. We’ve had that window into another world, another mind, another framework. That window has changed us and taught us who we are, and who we want to be.

Maybe we started with Goodnight Moon. Maybe nothing spoke to us until we had to read Clarissa for that college 18th century lit class we only took because nothing else fit into our schedule. Maybe it started when we were 35 and waiting at the airport and the only thing on the racks was Stephen King’s It.

We love being told stories. And you and I, fellow writers, decide, at some point, that we want to tell stories of our own. For all the stories that have made us feel less alone–maybe you and I think that perhaps if we write down our own stories, we can give that feeling to someone else.

We tell stories out of love.

Dearest fellow writers, I tell you this as someone who has been making up stories for 47 years, since before I could write, since before I knew what an adverb was (or why I should use as few as possible): Write and write and write and write. Tell all your stories. Pour all your love into your work. Share it with your friends. Have beautiful bound copies made (there are some places that do very nice low-volume binding work these days) and give them as holiday gifts.

But if you love to write, don’t publish.

There are lovely aspects to it, of course. Beautiful covers. Your name in print. The feeling of seeing your words neatly typeset, like all of the stories you’ve read all your life. The feeling that now you’re one of them. You’re one of the storytellers, the ones that tell stories to strangers, just as you were once a stranger who picked up a book. You belong.

Except you don’t.

Perhaps it’s different for you. Perhaps you’re the sort of person who can walk into a room full of strangers completely relaxed, feeling entirely at home, able to blend in a way that makes other people gravitate toward you, assuming that of course you belong there, even if they don’t know you. Perhaps your name and your cover and your words for sale at your favorite retailer is enough.

And right now, you’re certain it will be. I sure was. I knew exactly how all this was going to feel, how all this was going to go. I was prepared for the inevitable bad reviews, the sales that didn’t go quite where I wanted them to. So many authors I love have had bad reviews, have taken years to build proper sales (if they ever did). Belonging doesn’t mean there are no downsides. The downsides are part of belonging, because they hit everyone.

Dearest fellow writers. I was not prepared. I was not.

There are bad reviews. There are always bad reviews. I don’t read them. (I don’t generally read the good ones, either, although my spouse sometimes emails them to me, and some of my readers are genuinely lovely people, I have to say.) But it’s not the bad reviews that will get you. It’s the conversation. It’s the people at that party you’ve just walked into, the ones you think will welcome you. Fellow storytellers, and fellow consumers of stories. We are all one. We Are The World. We all belong, right?

People will talk about you. And it will not always be nice. People you like will say genuinely awful things. Because being published doesn’t mean you join the party. It means you become a topic of conversation for the partygoers. They are, of course, welcome to say whatever they choose; but they will say it as if you are not there.

Because you’re not.

This is the bit that I know you’re not going to get when I explain it, but it’s not you that’s joining the party. It’s not you that’s dealing with belonging or not belonging. It’s your story. That thing you wrote out of love, that you tortured yourself over, that you polished and perfected and fought with editors over, that you finally found a way to offer to the world. It’s all of your heart and parts of yourself you never knew you had.

And to the rest of the world, it’s just another story. And it does not matter a bit how much the story matters to you.

It’s often true that when authors get successful, personalities emerge. There are a number of personalities right now in the SFF world. Most of them I like. Some of them, not so much. But there’s one thing I notice, even about the ones who are successful to a degree I will never, ever see: They don’t frequent those places where they are discussed. They interact with people in their own spaces, on their own terms. And in all of those other places? They’re discussed as if they’re not there, just like the rest of us.

Sometimes, of course, you hear things that make you say “Huh?” My favorite was bashing into a “review” of my book in a random comments thread, in which the reader had been unhappy with my characters. “People who should know better behaving badly.” I remember thinking, “Do you even know people?” And then I started wondering if maybe software, where I spent most of my adulthood, was just full of weirdos. (It’s a valid reaction to the book, of course. If you don’t like my people, you’re not going to like the story. But goodness.)

That one wasn’t upsetting, really. What was upsetting was that shortly afterward I had to stop reading those random comment threads. Because other people would say things. And they were not always polite, and they were not always about the work. These were people I respected, whose recommendations I had taken. Some of them I had even interacted with. The brutality of the tossed-off remarks was startling. Some of this is just the nature of the internet (and before anyone tells me to toughen up: I’ve been on the net since 1988, and I know from toxic flame wars, children). But it’s a bit like road rage: at a real party, nobody would say those things to your face, even if they were thinking them. And reading that from someone you respect…it does change the way you see them.

And if I’d been a raving Shakespeare/Melville/Butler/Rowling/Gay success, maybe I wouldn’t have cared.

But I suppose my ultimate point to you, dear fellow writer, is that with all of the success that may be awaiting you, you’re not wandering into the party you think you’re wandering into. You’re wandering into some gazebo on the side, maybe full of gold and champagne, maybe full of warm fruit punch and bad lighting. You can watch the party. You can wonder if they’re talking about you, and maybe they are, and maybe every word is lovely. But you are never going to be a part of that. You are a storyteller now, and you’re cut off in a way that you weren’t before you opened your heart and let your stories into the world.

It can be very, very hard to write in that gazebo. Because you can’t go to the party and take your stories back. You can’t stop all those people, the ones you thought would let you in, from talking about you however they will. It’s too late now that you’ve published, and you’ll know it’s happening, and you cannot do anything at all about it. You cannot ever go back to the party, you cannot ever untell your stories.

You cannot ever have those dreams again, the ones where you belong.

And now you know, when you write a story, what’s going to happen to it. You know what people will say about it, and about you. You’ve lost that purity of impulse, the story that grows inside you so big and so complete that it has to come out, that joy of writing for that one person who will just Get It. You know now that you may not find them. That they may not exist. You’re not painting on a neutral canvas anymore, and even if you’re writing only for yourself, you can’t unknow that.

I suppose I’ll get used to it. REMNANTS OF TRUST was finished before THE COLD BETWEEN was published, so it lives in innocence. BREACH OF CONTAINMENT was written in a constant state of anxiety and consciousness of dismal failure. But I wrote it anyway. It’s still being whacked with the editing stick (and I will admit, dear fellow writer, that I adore having an editor, and I highly recommend that part of the experience), but I wrote it and finished it and it ends where I want it to, so there’s that, at least.

But it is a different experience. And I can’t go back. And I’m not the sort of person who’s good at doing the hypothetical “What if I could go back and talk to my younger self?” thing. No matter what I said to that woman back in 2013, when I first started querying, she wouldn’t listen.

You won’t either, dear fellow writer. But I can warn you. What makes you write now, what feeds you, those evergreen dreams of sharing your stories…it’s not going to be like that afterward. No matter what your success, no matter what your failure, it’s not going to be what you think it will be.

You may think it’ll be better. You may be right. Maybe this is just me, just the sort of person I am, just my own particular sensitivities. Maybe it’s just how I write and exist in the world, and everybody else is wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

But I will ask you, dear fellow writer, to think long and hard about publishing before you pull the trigger.

Are you sure?

Are you?

I Protest

There have been a lot of stories about the Women’s March on January 21st. Here’s mine.

I had not planned to go, initially. Boston isn’t an awful drive from here (an hour or so to Alewife, and then the subway, which I enjoy riding), but I’ve gone into town on Event Days before: Earth Day, Gay Pride. And the garage at Alewife (because heaven help you if you try to park in town) is always mobbed, and the trains are full, and I figured the crowds on this particular Saturday would be far heavier than anything I’d seen. I figured the Alewife parking lot would be full. I figured they didn’t need me.

But I checked the web site, and as it turned out, Boston wasn’t the only Massachusetts march. In fact, there was one pretty much the same distance away, but in the opposite direction: Northampton, MA.

Here’s a confession: I get very, very anxious traveling to places I’ve never been before. I worry about getting lost. I have some kind of strange perception thing where maps are of almost no help to me. I have tried, and I don’t think it’s lack of desire to learn; I think there’s just something hard-wired in me that can’t make the spatial translations properly. And I have let this keep me from doing things I otherwise wanted to do.

So when I say that without Siri, I wouldn’t have even tried to march on the 21st, I’m being honest. (And I know Siri isn’t the only game in town, and maybe not even the best one. Fill in your favorite direction-finding technology.) Thanks to Siri, I knew I could not only get where I was going, but back home again.

I brought The Kid with me. She had some questions about protesting, based mostly on what she’d seen in the media. I told her that I would protect her. I told her it was OK if she didn’t want to go.

She thought about it for a minute, and said, “Let me be angry too.”

Northampton was not crowded. We found a parking spot in a municipal lot (note to self: bring more change next time; the municipal lot only took coins), and grabbed a snack on the way to the UU church where everyone was meeting. We passed a guitar shop, and The Kid made me promise we could stop there before we went home.

The church, as it happened, was full to capacity, and for fire code reasons they couldn’t let any more people in. There was a woman directing everyone down the road to the field where the march was going to start. So we turned and walked back down the road we’d just walked up, this time with a group of people going the same way.

What surprised me – and it shouldn’t have – was how many of the people we were heading down the road with were closer to my age than my daughter’s. Many of them were older than I am. This is not a movement of the young. It’s a movement of all of us.

respect

The Kid’s favorite

The field was fairly crowded, but not uncomfortably so (the newspaper later tagged the crowd at 3,000; that seems not inaccurate). And there were so many people, and so many signs. Many of them were the Fairey pieces, gorgeous and iconic; but many were hand-made. There were children, and strollers, and men with families and on their own, and hundreds of pink hats, and political and non-political conversations all around me.

crowd2

We were more or less in the middle of the pack.

We started marching around 11:45. The police had us walk in the right-hand lane of the road, and traffic moved – slowly – in the other direction. At first we walked, but then the chants started, sometimes behind us and traveling up in a wave, sometimes in front of us and moving back. One woman we were walking with had a strong, clear voice; she led chants as well, and my daughter and I echoed her every time.

We chanted “Equal Rights are Human Rights.”

We chanted “No Justice No Peace.”

We chanted “Black Women’s Lives Matter.”

We chanted “Trans Women’s Lives Matter.”

And I felt, for a little while, like we might be OK after all.

We didn’t stay for the speakers. My lack of change meant I had to move the car, and my mapless anxiety liked the idea of getting away before the big flood of traffic. We did stop at the music store, where my daughter told me she wanted to learn guitar – not that acoustic stuff, which she calls “boring,” but electric guitar. We asked a few questions of the shopkeeper, who was unfailingly polite to the out-of-town newbies, and I told her we could look into getting her lessons.

And then Siri took us home.

In the days afterward, there has been pushback on the protests, from within and without. While I think there are certainly issues local organizers can work on – accessibility being a big one; I saw one woman on a scooter, and although she managed, I don’t know that there was a lot of specific effort made for those who were not as ambulatory as the rest – I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Do it better next time includes next time, and I think that’s critical. There must be a next time, and a time after that, and another.

Does it change anything? On a national level? I honestly don’t know. I suspect we’ll see changes designed to make assemblies like this more difficult, or even impossible. As much as I despair over the actions of this administration, the most alarming changes are to transparency and the right to speak. Protesting might just make them work harder to shut people up.

But I’ll tell you: I felt stronger that day. I felt less despair. I was still angry, still shell-shocked by moving through the looking glass overnight. But I looked around at the others, and at my child, chanting at the top of her lungs, and I thought maybe, just maybe, it was OK to hope that what’s happening to our nation is temporary.

Is that naive? Probably. But sometimes naiveté is what it takes to get me out of bed in the morning.

Keep yelling. Keep fighting. No matter what.

greaterthanfear

 

All About Toad

This is Marmalade, a.k.a. Toad:

marmalade

“I hate all you people.”

Yes, it’s one of those serendipitous photographs. Most of the time she looked like a perfectly normal, vaguely annoyed cat. She was a beauty, really; she’d sometimes get knots in that coat, but it was silkier and smoother than the coat of many long-hairs I’ve known. And all the color: black and brown and gorgeous orange and bits of cream here and there.

But she was not the friendliest pet on the planet.

She chose us, as animals sometimes do. A few days before the 2008 ice storm, she showed up on our doorstep, thin and covered in bloated tics, hollering her lungs out. We took her in, warmed her up, and gave her food and a litterbox. We took her to a vet, who removed the tics, checked for a chip, gave her a bunch of shots, and sent her home with us. We called a couple of no-kill shelters in the area, but they were full. We put up some flyers: no response.

rescued_toad

Scrawny, just-rescued Toad

So she was ours, and I was leery at the start, because she was so non-social. Not like a feral cat—she’d clearly lived with humans before, and not only because someone had declawed her—but like an animal who preferred the company of no one. She was not a lap cat, she did not like being picked up, and although she liked, on occasion, to be petted, she would not put up with it long. And when she was finished accepting whatever attention you paid her, she would let you know, with a loud, constant, Siamese-level wail that didn’t seem to require any breathing on her part. She was, perhaps, part bagpipe.

To my daughter, who was less than five when Toad joined us, she was just another big fluffy kitty. She would pet her, and pick her up, and listen to her howl. When Toad howled, my daughter would talk to her lovingly. When Toad was really done, she’d bite—but gently. A mama telling her kitten to knock it off. Some cats, I have found, seem to understand about young humans.

When my daughter got older, Toad would greet her in the morning, jumping up on the bed and purring, succumbing to a little affection. At night she would jump up and stay on the bed until my daughter went to sleep. If she woke in the middle of the night, Toad would go to her to check.

This is what is missed the most: Toad’s routine. Her caretaking. Her grumpy, howling, resentful caretaking.

People describe her as an unusually bad-tempered cat. I suppose she was. My old Siamese could be a grump, but she was nothing compared to Toad. I loved that about Toad. She took what she wanted, and when she was done, she let us know. She’d insist if she had to. She knew herself, and her tolerances. She let us take care of her just enough, but no more.

pedestal_toad

If you stare at this picture long enough, she looks like a head on a pedestal.

I think one reason I’ve mostly had cats instead of dogs is that I love this aspect of the feline nature: “Sure, you’re upset, fine, here’s some rubbing and some purrs, now stop making that damn noise because shouldn’t you be feeding me?” That utterly unabashed self-centeredness. Genuine affection, but no neediness.

Or almost none.

The best guess for what got her is FIP. There was no way to test for it while she was alive, but all of her symptoms fit: digestive issues, lethargy, jaundice, paralysis. We treated symptoms as best we could, but she faded so fast. I fed her through a tube for a week and a half, and in the end she couldn’t even keep anything down that way. Ten years old, and we had to let her go.

I’ve lost pets before. That’s the life of a pet lover: unless you get a tortoise, you’re going to be saying goodbye to them. I lost my Siamese eight years ago, and there’s still a gap in my heart. But Toad was not my cat, not really, although I took care of her at the end, feeding and medicating and cleaning and taking her to and from the vet. She was my daughter’s cat, and that made it so much worse.

There’s an instinct that parents have to spare their children pain. You try to explain the world to them, in hopes that they won’t make the mistakes that you did, that they won’t go through the same awful experiences. You can know those experiences shaped you, made you stronger, made you a better person; but you wish, somehow, you could give your child all of that shape and strength without the pain.

I couldn’t do anything about this. I couldn’t save a cat my daughter should have had with her for many more years. I couldn’t save this animal who comforted her when she was sad, who was a companion when she was happy, who grumpily got up with her in the mornings and waited for her in the afternoons. I was powerless to save my daughter from the agony of swift and meaningless loss.

She will be stronger for it. And more compassionate. And more loving toward the pets—and friends—she has now. I remember my own childhood losses. I remember how they felt. So easy to see, in retrospect, that the pain meant I knew how to love.

But I still remember the pain.

I woke up that first day after Toad was gone, and I thought of all the times she would greet me: jumping on the bed, walking halfway toward my head, purring, accepting a few pets before she jumped down, lashing her tail, impatient for her breakfast. Such a lovely cat, with her bright green eyes and gorgeous tortoise shell fluff. So annoyed with everyone, always. So annoyed with needing affection. So annoyed that she loved us.

floofy_toad

That cat left us weeks ago. The animal we kept hoping to get back was already lost to us. The time that passes between recognizing your animal is suffering and recognizing that you need to let them go is the span of realizing that the only thing you can do anymore is help them hurt a little less. After everything they give, you have to help them. They are creatures of feeling, and we owe them all of our love and compassion.

We took her to a medical facility full of people she knew, people who had cared for her and been kind. They put in a catheter, which was undoubtedly unpleasant; but after that she was curled up on a piece of my husband’s clothing, surrounded by the smells of home, with me petting her and talking to her with my familiar voice. She dozed off. I stroked her. She died, and now she is gone. She will always be gone.

We have curled around each other, me and my little family, and we will survive. We will have this shared pain to remind us that we can count on each other, that we will hold each other up when things are hard. That’s good, right? That’s a small grain of not-awfulness in all of this.

Someday, maybe, it won’t feel so hollow.

 

Listening to Critiques

(What? A non-political post?

Why, yes. Because despite the chaos surrounding us all, writing is still my job, and I still love doing it, and today I’m going to write about it.)

Like most writers, I’ve got an uneasy relationship with critiques.

As a writer, you understand, when you’re writing with publication in mind, that other people are going to read it. (That’s the point, after all.) And you know they’ll have thoughts about it. And in this day and age, when it’s easy for them to share those thoughts, you know that people are going to say stuff publicly about your work. Back when I thought I’d self-publish the book that later became THE COLD BETWEEN, I sent it off to betas and said “Be as honest as you can, because people are going to eviscerate me on Amazon either way.”

Oh, naive me.

Critiques are a different thing than reviews. Reviews are written by readers for readers; even negative reviews can be informative. (I’ve bought a lot of books based on the content of negative reviews.) Critiques, on the other hand, are a way for you, the writer, to discover potential weak points in your manuscript, allowing you to correct them before letting your baby bird fly.

A lot of us get critiques not from professional critics (such as editors), but from family, friends, or fellow writers. For those critiques, there tends to be a common denominator: most readers want to identify a problem by telling you how to fix it. Which sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s the way any reader thinks about a part of a story that’s not working for them: tell it to me this way instead. (Writers in particular are fond of doing this.)

The trouble is, for the very reason any book with a critical mass of readers will get some negative reviews, you’re likely to get contradictory advice from your critics. And if you try to make every change suggested, you’re going to end up with a Frankenbook made up of a germ of your original story and a bunch of unfamiliar things that other people wrote.

The only way to get anything useful out of a critique is to figure out the underlying issue.

This isn’t always easy. If someone writes you a critique and says “You need to make a joke here,” it’s not clear if they’ve been disturbed by pacing, tone, or lack of character development.

And this is the hard bit. Because you, as an artist, must sit down with this piece of your work and allow for the possibility that there is actually something wrong there.

It’s easy to say “That’s silly. This isn’t the time for a joke. [Critic] doesn’t know what they’re talking about” and dismiss the whole thing. But every reader’s experience is a true one. Your critic may not have articulated their issue in a helpful way, but they have given you valuable feedback on their reading of your story. And it’s worth your time to take seriously the very real possibility that they’ve pinpointed something that needs improvement.

This is something that takes a lot of practice–or at least it did for me. I was probably in my mid-20s before I could hear a critique of a piece I loved and not have the knee-jerk response of “Hmph. What do they know?” I gave a short to a friend of mine once, and after a few paragraphs he said the beginning was slow. I told him to trust me, and he finished the piece, and said that he loved it–but his initial response was just as valid as his final one. Moreover, he was right: the beginning of the story was filler, and my ego got in the way of my seeing that. My reader may have loved it in the end, but he properly identified a major flaw.

fixable flaw. That’s the other thing to remember: your non-professional critics are not taking random potshots at your baby bird (unless they are jerks, in which case: new critics). Unless they’re pointing out something systemic about the plot, they’re showing you something you can change to make your work better and stronger. They’re doing you a favor.

But it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

I have, on occasion, chosen not to make corrections based on critiques. I think a long, long time before I do this. I can only think of four major bits of feedback where I chose to hold my ground, and I’ve had a lot of critiques at this point. But all four times, I spent a lot of time working to understand what the reader was saying, what they might have been responding to, what the cost to the story would be to make a correction that would work for that particular reader. I chose with my eyes open. I still don’t think, in any of those situations, that I was wrong–or at least, I don’t think the story would have been better told with those changes.

This is the thing about critiques: you have to be receptive, and you have to recognize that your readers’ experiences are valid. But you need to have enough of a sense of your own story, of the way you’re using prose, of the precise response you’re going for, to decide when to listen and when to ignore. And if you’re going to ignore, you’ve got to have enough self-awareness to know why you’re doing it. If you’re ignoring because you get where they’re coming from and you’ve decided it’s okay with you that they’re uncomfortable–even if it means you’ve lost them as a reader–you’re probably coming from the right place. But if you’re inclined to ignore feedback because your feelings are hurt and you want to shrug off everything that critic has said, you probably owe it to your story to take a break, step back, and consider the possibility that your critic has hit on something important.

Past a certain point, quality of writing is a subjective assessment. Not every story is going to work for every reader. With critiques, you’ve got to learn how to be both objective and subjective: objective enough to really listen to what your critics are telling you, and subjective enough to know when to ignore them.

It’s very possible no writer has ever hit the balance quite right.