Today

23 09 2016

hancock-hike-063

It’s today. And it’s always today. Usually I’m so busy planning, coping, doing damage control, and just being busy, that realizing it’s today is like picking my head up out of the debris and blinking at the bright sunlight in confused wonder. I look back at the long, wild journey behind me, and at the long, wild journey yet to come. It’ll keep going, today after today, now after now, until I run out and they cast my ashes to the winds of Agiochook. And still I’ll be traveling, bits of me scattering in a million different directions to become a part of something else.

Those ashes are not really “me” of course. The whole idea of “me” is mysterious. There’s something here feeling, thinking, acting. Cogito ergo sum. But what is it? The “I” that experiences the world does so via this meat-mobile that I drive around. I rely on its senses, its ability to manipulate and cogitate. I could lose an arm or suffer brain damage. There would still be a “me” in here, experiencing the world, albeit not in the same way.

Folks pretty much seem to agree that when the person they’ve known vanishes, as with a radical change in mental state, inability to remember or function, they say that person is “gone”. One can wind up totally incapacitated, bedridden and deprived of one or more senses, but as long as one can still think and communicate, as long as the personality survives, one is still recognized. So at least to the outside world, who I am is a manifestation of the meat-mobile: mostly the brain, but the whole body can contribute to mood and personality. So when this organic vehicle I’m driving breaks down badly enough to destroy all manifestations of my personality, or ceases to run altogether, totally and irrevocably, then I’m gone. Dead. Deceased. Shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, joined the choir invisible and so forth.

We have all sorts of theories and fables about where one goes when one dies. Obviously the physical self is defunct, although many cultures place sacred reverence on the remains, even trying to preserve them as much as possible. Futility. We borrowed all the parts temporarily from the natural world, and when the lease is up, the natural world reclaims and recycles them. Eventually the lease will be up on the planet itself, and the whole shootin’ match will get recycled into drifting star stuff.

But many stubbornly cling to the notion that something else survives–a “soul” that get reincarnated, or goes to heaven–or less pleasant places. There’s no way to prove this isn’t so, and considering the amount of comfort it gives folks, I see no point in trying. Unfortunately, it does lead some believers to make terrible sacrifices in this life in hopes of rewards in the next. I think that’s a shame, but it’s their own business. Unless they use their religious convictions to terrorize others, especially children, with threats of Hell and the like. They can claim that I’ve got no right to interfere with their beliefs, but that sort of abuse is a violation of my beliefs, and I’ll speak out against it every chance I get.

It seems to me that anything you could possibly call a “soul” can’t possibly exist without a physical vehical to support it. This “me” that is aware, that thinks and feels, is utterly dependent on my organic parts. In fact, every day for several hours I become totally divorced from reality. I experience things that aren’t real (at least as I define reality) and have little control over what’s going on. There’s still a “me” having these dreams, and I suppose, when I’m not dreaming I am completely unconscious. I can’t say, since by definition, I’m not aware. My brain ceases to manifest a “me” that can be aware. Seems to me that when the body does its ultimate shut-down, no reboot possible, there can’t be a “me” anymore, either. It’s like asking where the picture went when the projector shuts off.

I’ve been asked how I can stand the idea of death being the absolute end. What’s to worry about? I won’t feel anything–no pain, no suffering–I won’t care or know. This has the effect of making each of these todays that I have at my disposal all the more precious. There’s a limited number of them. Got to make the best use I can of them.

And since only thing that will survive me are the effects I’ve had on the world, I do as much as I can to be a force for good. Every kindness, every accomplishment, has a ripple effect. The more positive stuff I can get rolling, the better. It’s easy for an atheist to live in a world without the reward of Heaven or the threat of Hell. One simply needs to embrace each day as an opportunity, and choose one’s actions based on wisdom and compassion.

Of course, if it should turn out that I’m mistaken and there is an afterlife, I’ll just have to trust that a life based on wisdom and compassion is sufficient to any God or dharma that judges me. If not, then they aren’t worth my worship anyway. I’ve lived a good life and no regrets.

So it’s today. It’s now. What is the best way to make use of it?





With Mt. Rainier watching over me

16 09 2016

mt-rainier

Thursday, my friend Laura and I caught a Southwest flight out of Manchester heading for the west coast. Laura is about as experienced a traveler as one can be. I just followed her and did as I was told, and all went smoothly. Because she flies frequently, and has all her life, she has an astronomical number of points, so I traveled free. She also paid for the hotel room because, she figured, she would have had to anyway, and having company was a bonus. I felt like the family dog who was told she could go, too. I was the golden retriever with her head out the car window.
me-and-the-tree

We were on our way to Seattle/Tacoma for a quick visit to Laura’s son Paul who is in his last year at the University of Puget Sound. The UPS campus is gorgeous, lovely buildings and gardens, and a magnificent number of trees. The Big Tree, as it is referred to, is a Sequoia, and yes it is big. I marveled at it, remembering books I’d read about the complex ecology supported by these giants. Solitary as it was, this Sequoia was a mere museum piece, a fraction of the whole it was meant to be a part of. Like an Indian isolated on a cramped reservation, doing traditional dances for the tourists.
chandelier-in-courthouse

No I did not visit the Space Needle. We had only two full days there and I had other priorities, like admiring the natural beauty the place had to offer. The man-made stuff not so much. Although I have to admit, the glass art that dominates (including amazing works by Dale Chihuly) blew my mind. There was so much art there. It was like Tacoma abhorred a vacuum—every blank wall had to be decorated, every available space had to be filled. I was enchanted. I do believe that in my next life, I want to be born in Tacoma. It has such a wonderful, diverse, joyful atmosphere. Not to mention green. After the awful brown, dry summer we’ve had, I breathed in the moist, clean air with delight.

Laura and I pose with a whale skeleton in the science building of UPS (no, not the parcel service). Photo by Paul Goudarzi-Fry

Laura and I pose with a whale skeleton in the science building of UPS (no, not the parcel service). Photo by Paul Goudarzi-Fry

One afternoon was taken up with exploring Point Defiance. We walked through the botanical gardens and admired the varieties of dahlias and roses. Yes, the roses were lovely, but I judge a rose with my nose, and these fancy modern prima donnas have no scent. Fully half of the sensual delight of a rose is cradling the blossom in one’s hand, feeling the softness of the petals, and lowering your face to it to take in the delicate, delicious scent. You might as well have a wine with a lovely color and no taste.
point-defiance-wrainier

Neither Laura nor I are big on zoos, so we avoided that and instead walked along the shore. I had wanted to splash my face with water from the Pacific, but had to be content with the waters of the Sound. Close enough. After enjoying my baptism and collecting a few interesting pebbles for my rock garden at home, we explored some of the trails. The woods of the Pacific Northwest are so different from our own in New England. The trees have a different character. The weather is so much kinder and the plant life thrives accordingly. We wandered the maze of trails aided by a map—which confused us as much as enlightening us—and found our way out to the point. It was a sparkling, warm, clear day, so untypical of what one has been told to expect of this region. In fact, we had nary a cloud nor drop of rain our entire trip. We admired the the sun on the water and looked for harbor seals, but saw only gulls. We were disappointed until the raccoons showed up.

point-defiance-raccoonWe saw one, and then another. Laura was quickly snapping photos, expecting them to duck away into the foliage any second. But no, the coons had other plans. A whole family emerged and performed for us, bold as brass, looking up expectantly as if to say, “Hey, human, whatcha got for eats? Don’t pay any attention to that stupid sign about feeding wildlife. Look how cute we are! Don’t we deserve a tasty treat?” Alas, we had nothing to give them, and eventually they gave up and wandered back into the forest grumbling to themselves.

So much was packed into those two days. It was like a banquet, and I took it all in until my senses were full to bursting. We visited Pike Place Market and wandered through the crowds, surrounded by flowers, fresh fish, arts and crafts, jewelry and leather work, homemade soaps and creams with rich herbal and fruity scents, spicy jerky, dried cherries, soft fabrics and bright colors. I bought a lovely skirt imported from Nepal while Laura chatted with the Tibetan woman who ran the shop. We ate roasted corn on the cob and ice cream for lunch, wandering through the historic district with sticky sweet dripping onto our fingers.

Paul and me with a Mt. Rainier photobomb.

Paul and me with a Mt. Rainier photobomb.

We went out for breakfast and dinner, and I did my best to sample as many unfamiliar dishes as possible. Of course I did have to have salmon, and it was every bit as savory as I had hoped. We sampled exotic desserts and tried all the local wines. I got to meet Laura’s cousin, who also lives out there, and visited with Paul, whose company and antics I enjoy enormously. By the time we boarded the plane in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, I was nearly comatose from the combination of jet lag, short nights, and the wild kaleidoscope of experiences ricocheting through my head.

But I was fully awake to appreciate the glorious spectacle of Mt. Rainier rising above the fluffy clouds lit by the morning sun as we passed in out airplane. Rainier dominates the Seattle/Tacoma area. I kept looking up and seeing the snowy peak floating almost mythic in the distance. Before I had taken this trip, my hiking buddy Mary had sent me photos of Rainier, including the one at the top of this article. Most folks would think of museums and urban attractions (like the Space Needle) when going to Seattle. Mary thinks of mountains and trails and places to camp. Someday I want to go back when I have more time to explore those trails and campsites. And get closer to Rainier than just waving from a distance. I love my mountains, the ancient and venerable White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mt. Washington boasts the worst weather in the world, and Backpacker Magazine counts it in the top 10 most dangerous hikes in America. It is not to be sneered at. It is old and scarred, crafty and curmudgeonly. The mountains of the west are young, vigorous and still growing. They are high and haughty and full of themselves.

And I think I have fallen in love with that bold, youthful appeal. Thank you Laura for making it happen. (And for taking these wonderful photos!)





Live Free or Ride!

2 09 2016

LiveFreeOrRide_FrontCover

At last, the long-awaited, next installment in New Hampshire Pulp’s campy and incredible anthologies has gone to the printers. Look for Live Free or Ride, coming soon to a bookstore near you!

Edited by Elaine Isaak, this rip-roaring, wild and woolly collection features stories by the awesome Dan Szczesny, the extraordinary William Ivers, the multi-talented Judi Ann Calhoun, the delightful Margery Harrison, the remarkable Jim Breyfogle, the astute Troy Ehlers, and more, including yours truly. Yee haw!





Growing Roses

26 08 2016

Sunrise Rose

Greetings, dear readers, I’m back. To cite the Grateful Dead album, What a long strange trip it’s been.

But to quote Ethel Merman:
You’ll be swell, you’ll be great.
Gonna have the whole world on a plate.
Starting here, starting now,
Honey, everything’s coming up roses!

It required a great leap of faith to take plunge into cold, dark water of unknown depth, but I finally had to make a choice: Stay sick and miserable or take action. I had no idea how terrifying, emotionally wrenching, confusing and intimidating it would be. I also had no idea how remarkably well I’d make the transition. It is surprising how strong one can be when strength is your only option.

And here I am, waking up every morning with a sense of gratitude and optimism. The struggle isn’t over by any means. Each month I crunch numbers and break out the champagne when I find I’m still solvent. (Yes, my months of sobriety did me a world of good, but my problem was never with alcohol, just with how I used it. I’ve learned a lot, the hard way, and I now have an excellent handle on the difference between use and abuse.)

I am rediscovering me, by myself. I’m relearning not to censor the expression of who I am, learning to be fearless. I am no longer afraid of the effect what I say and do will have on the person I am dependent on, constantly nervous about the repercussions. Mostly, because that person I depend on is now me. I need apologize to no one for who I am. I no longer need to feel ashamed and broken. Or helpless. Damn, I can do this!

Not really alone, of course. I have two adult sons (and an honorary daughter) who are helping make this possible. I have dear friends who have pitched in, mostly in small ways that are collectively enormous. Friends are the family you choose, and I’ve chosen damn well. We look after each other, help each other out when we can, commiserate and congratulate, laugh together and bitch together. I love you wonderful people!

Nothing is permanent, and I know shit’s gonna happen. I’ll have to deal with crises and traumas, because that’s how life rolls. But shit is impermanent, too. It eventually turns into fertilizer, the stuff that helps things grow. Like me. And all the shit I went through with the implosion of my marriage has turned into some incredible fertilizer.

I’m growing roses.





The Parable of the Good Dog

26 07 2016

There once was a dog, a smart and pretty dog, who could do many tricks to please her master. He praised her and took good care of her. She was a good dog.

Then the dog grew old and could not perform her tricks as well. It became difficult to dance on her hind legs and hop in circles as she used to. She tried, because she wanted to please her master. But there were days when her legs hurt and her hips ached. He was dissatisfied with her performance and grumbled. She kept dancing the best she could until the pain became unbearable. She hung her head and looked sorry, because she knew her master was disappointed in her.

Her master tried to cajole her into performing her tricks for him. He explained how important it was that she dance on her hind legs and hop in circles, because it pleased him. A dog was obliged to please her master. After all, he took care of her. When reason and persuasion didn’t work he scolded her, called her a bad dog, a stubborn dog. He grew angry, shouting at her. Why wouldn’t she perform her tricks for him anymore? She had always been a good dog, a loyal and devoted dog. What was wrong with her?

He punished her and threatened to get rid of her if she didn’t shape up and start pleasing him the way she used to. She was frightened and ashamed. She didn’t want her master to get rid of her. She tried to do the tricks she could still do, like fetching his slippers and bringing him the paper. She hoped that would be enough, that he would see she was still a loyal dog, a devoted dog, a good dog.

But it wasn’t enough. Her master didn’t care about papers and slippers. He wanted dancing. He stopped showing her any affection at all. She longed for him to pet her like he used to, to praise her and tell her she was a good dog. But she was afraid to go to him and ask for the love she craved, because she was afraid he would again demand that she dance, and she would either have to refuse him, force herself to dance in spite of the pain. Either way he would be disappointed in her and turn away to read his paper, not even looking at her.

She kept on bringing his slippers and his paper, because she loved him and hoped that maybe he would see she was still a good dog. It did no good.

Every day she grew more withdrawn. When he didn’t ignore her, he yelled at her, telling her how disappointed he was in her and what a bad dog she was. She felt her love and devotion beginning to wither. Perhaps she was only a dog, but she had feelings and needs like any other living being. Sometimes he would talk to her, telling her again and again how important her tricks were to him, and how everything would be all right if she would just be a good dog and dance again. She did not know how to make him understand.

The endless abuse ate her spirit. The master who had once loved her and praised her and taken such good care of her had turned on her for something she couldn’t do anything about. Her devotion didn’t matter to him. The only reason he had been good to her was because of her tricks. She hated herself for not being able to perform anymore.

She began to hate him.

There came a day when she snarled and snapped. He tied her in the yard and would not come near her. He told her that she had given him no choice but to get rid of her.

She spent her days laying with her nose between her paws in misery.

Then one day he came to her and he wasn’t angry. He was smiling and friendly. He had been to the market to look at dogs and had seen one that caught his fancy. Even if that one didn’t work out, there were plenty of others. One of them would surely be able to dance the way he liked. This had cheered him up and made him feel charitable. He praised his old dog and told her what a good dog she had been and how much he appreciated what she had done for him. In gratitude, he was going to make sure she had a good home where she would be properly looked after.

He expected her to wag her tail and be happy. He was baffled when she just sighed and lay with her head between her paws in misery. He went to pet her, and she growled, low in her throat. He could not understand why. What was wrong with her? He had praised her, talked nicely to her, and promised to make sure she was properly looked after. Surely she could understand that he needed a dog that could dance. Why would she begrudge him that?

“Ungrateful bitch,” he muttered, walking away.

The old dog closed her eyes, her heart broken.

Then her nose caught a strange scent. She lifter her head, her nostrils twitching. Several dark shadows were moving in the woods. Yellow eyes flickered. To her alarm, a pack of dogs emerged, trotting towards her. She growled, her hackles raised, but the other dogs made friendly signs. She allowed them to approach. Some were old, like her, with greying muzzles. Others were young, hard-muscled and agile. Two were quite large and one was very small.

Peace, Sister, they said.

Who are you? the old dog asked.

We are the dogs with no masters. We are the dogs who dance only to please ourselves. We run free and fight together against our enemies. Together we howl in the moonlight and hunt for our food. We huddle close when the snows fall to keep each other warm, and lick each other’s wounds when we are injured. When the sky is bright and the breezes mild, we play together in the fields and chase butterflies. Come with us.

I cannot, the old dog said. I am old and unworthy and tied to a tree. I am a bad dog.

We care nothing about age and worthiness. And there are no bad dogs.

With that, a mastiff with strong jaws began to chew the rope. She made short work of it and soon the old dog was freed.

Come with us, they said again, and be a dog with no master.

The old dog was afraid because she had never been on her own. How would she care for herself without a master? And yet, these dogs had no masters and feared nothing, for they had each other. Their eyes were bright and their bodies strong. They knew how it could be done, and lived well.

I am too old. I cannot learn.

How can you know? Run with us and see!

What else was there for her? Nothing here, surely, abandoned by her master, alone and unwanted. She breathed in, and out, once.

I will come.

And so she left with the pack and learned new ways. She hunted with them and howled in the moonlight, took comfort with them in the cold and frolicked with them when the sky was bright and the breezes mild. She lived well.

Because always they reminded each other that they were all good dogs.





Guest blog: Writer L.J. Cohen

23 06 2016

[LJ Cohen is a novelist, poet, blogger, ceramics artist, and relentless optimist. After almost twenty-five years as a physical therapist, LJ now uses her anatomical knowledge and myriad clinical skills to injure characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. She lives in the Boston area with her family, two dogs, and the occasional international student. DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space), is her sixth novel. LJ is a member of SFWA, Broad Universe, and the Independent Publishers of New England.]

DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space). Click to find on Amazon

DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE (book 3 of the SF/Space Opera series Halcyone Space). Click to find on Amazon

I wrote my first complete novel in 2005 and if you’d asked me what message the book contained, or what issue it explored, I would have given you my best deer-in-the-headlights expression. It was just a story. One that had been kicking around my head since I was a teen. One I finally had the drive and the discipline to sit down and write in my 40s.

Eleven years and eleven novels later, I actually have a body of work to examine and a better sense of my own process. And while I don’t consciously set out to write a book with an overt message, my subconscious always has other plans.

There seem to be three related issues that emerge from my stories: identity, trust, and choice. I am able to put my characters in situations where they are forced out of their familiar contexts and where they find themselves challenged on all three fronts. While this can be true in almost all literature, speculative fiction can reflect current society while not seeming to directly confront it. Speculative fiction is stealth fiction in that regard.

Identity

We live in a world where identity can be a fraught issue and where each of us lives at the intersection of many different identities. Some are given to us by virtue of where we are born, others by genetics, still others by accidents of geography. And then there are the identities we choose for ourselves.

When I look at my identities, I can list a string of them: female, cis-gendered, heterosexual, white, suburban, agnostic, Jewish, New Englander, American, middle-class, post-college educated, liberal, feminist, nerd. And this is definitely not an exhaustive list. Some of those identities fit better than others, some may change over time, other likely not to. Many are identities that emerge either through opposition to my surroundings or in concert with them. The ones that I feel have more validity are the ones I have either fully accepted or chosen for myself.

In my fantasy series, Changeling’s Choice, Lydia Hawthorne is pulled from her suburban life into Faerie where she discovers she is not a typical teenager, but a Fae changeling. While the trope is a familiar one, the story is not: it is one of identity and who has the right to determine it. How Lydia identifies herself is critical to the outcome, not just for herself, but for everyone around her.

My SF series, Halcyone Space, begins with each of the main characters in the ensemble cast enmeshed in their lives on a small space station. They must forge themselves into a crew when the derelict spaceship they have hidden aboard wakes up from a forty year sleep. One of their challenges is in deciding what to keep and what to discard in terms of their prior identities. And it is a matter of survival because if they can’t figure out how to work together, the ship will kill them.

Trust

Trust is another issue that seems to thread through every one of my stories. I think it emerges because of the bombardment of voices and messages we endure. From the time we are small, we are overwhelmed by external pressures that seek at their worst, to manipulate us, and at their best, to teach us. But few of those voices help us learn to trust ourselves. It is my strong belief that trusting self must happen before we trust others.

Nearly all of my characters find themselves in situations where they need to learn to shut out external voices and trust themselves to make a critical decision. And once they succeed in trusting themselves, they need to learn to trust their companions. The concept of interdependence and the importance of trusting relationships form the core of every one of my novels.

Choice

One could argue that there is no story without choice. We read to see characters exercising agency in whatever settings and situations they find themselves in. In all of my stories, characters need to make difficult choices in stressful situations. And those choices are related to how well they’ve been able to navigate their way though the issues of identity and trust.

Early on in DERELICT (book 1 of Halcyone Space), Ro makes a choice not to tell Jem that she’s planning on running a computer program he’s created in real time, rather than in a sandbox. Because she is wrestling with her sense of self and hasn’t had any experience trusting others, she lies to him and comes very close to permanently destroying their nascent friendship and working partnership. Her actions set the stage for all four of the main characters being on board the broken space ship when she inadvertently triggers it to blast off. It is not until much deeper into the story that Ro is able to allow herself to rely on the others and it is at that point where they begin to rescue themselves.

I’ve been told I write ‘small stories’, and if small means character-based narratives where much of the conflict comes from internal rather than external factors, then I am guilty as charged. While I set my stories in either fantasy environments or futuristic ones, they are all, at their core, very human tales. I hope you enjoy them.

[L.J. Cohen writes a blog and a newsletter. You can find her on her homepage at ljcohen.net. You can also follow her on Twitter @lisajanicecohen, or track her down on Goodreads and Facebook.]





Aspiring & New Artists: Just Say No.

12 06 2016
Author & artist w/ an MFA in comics, small herd of cats, strong geek tendencies & a love of ska-core.

Author & artist w/ an MFA in comics, small herd of cats, strong geek tendencies & a love of ska-core.

A guest post from Angi Shearstone

In over 25 years of professional art, as an award winning artist, not one single “for exposure” gig I accepted resulted in any more than a wet noodle and more people expecting my art for free. Not one single bonus sausage, and these were some pretty awesome projects, let me tell you.

These “work for free” attitiudes aren’t ever going to change unless we change them.

If these new publishers can’t raise money for art, do they have money for editing, publishing, printing, marketing? Conventions? Does your percentage come before or after they’ve earned back their printing expenses, and will they be open and transparent with all these numbers so you know they’re playing fair?

Do they have experience with ANY of that? Do they have any reputation or contacts in the business? Do they even have a business plan? Because far more often than not, folks like this have the same business model as the underpants gnomes.

Why should an artist be as enthusiastic about these projects as these brand-spanking-new full-of-dreams publishers are? Why should an artist move aside their own projects, use their own SUPPLIES and SOFTWARE and SKILLS they spent a lot of time and money developing to accommodate something that will mean less to them than their own projects?

I do not know one single illustrator or creative person who doesn’t already have a slate of projects of THEIR OWN conception that they can work on… on spec & for free for themselves until the end of time. They squeeze all that in between their Actual Paying Gigs, and all the extra things they have to do to run their business.

You want your comics illustrated? Hire an artist. You don’t have the money? Kickstarter it. Or IndieGogo, or Gofundme, or whatever. Even a pittance is less of an insult than this.

Stop pretending art isn’t worth your money.

I don’t pretend, say, editing isn’t worth my money.

I don’t pretend bookkeeping, or filing my taxes, or changing the oil on my car isn’t worth my money.

You want your car to work, you pay a mechanic. You want your taxes done, you hire H&R Block or something.

You want art, pay an artist.

You want my art, you pay me.

Until then, I’ll be over here, working on spec for MY really amazing projects that I have come up with myself, and figuring out how to pay for the extra help I need in bringing them to fruition.

You want exposure? I want to pay the bills, and I assume all of you do, too.

People die from exposure, by the way.

Find out more about Angi’s artwork. Art is priceless – but that doesn’t mean it is free.