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.





The Plunge

3 05 2016

black water

You knew it was coming to this. You tried your best to prepare for it. But nothing can really prepare you for the experience when it finally comes. You didn’t want this. You tried your best, but you didn’t know how to fix what had gone terribly wrong. No matter what you did, it wasn’t enough. So now, here you are looking down into those cold black waters. Right up until this point you kept hoping for a reprieve, for someone to call, “Oh no, dear heart, that’s just too awful! Come back to the fire.” But deep down you knew that wasn’t going to happen. You have no choice. You must do this. You must dive into these frigid black waters and swim to the other side.

At one time you would not have believed you could do this. You lay on the bathroom floor, curled up and sobbing because you couldn’t handle what was happening to you. But you do not know how strong you are until strong is all that is left for you to be. So you picked yourself up off of the floor, blew your nose and splashed water on your face, and went out to face it. You studied for it, learning how to swim, reminding yourself that there is hope and a future on the other side if you can just get there. You’ve got to do this. You have no choice. Perhaps you never did, and this icy swim has always been waiting for you.

But as you look down into the roiling blackness, your confidence and courage fall away. Tears stream down your face. Every muscle resists. Sobbing and shaking, you force yourself forward to plunge into the water. The shock of the cold is unbearable. But you must bear it. You force your arms to stroke, your legs to kick. One the other side you can hear faint voices, the friends who are waiting for you, calling out encouragement. So many people offered to help, at the same time knowing that you had to do this alone. They tried to advise you, but no advice could give you what you need to cross these black, turbulent, frigid depths.

The cold numbs your limbs and your mind. You begin to hear other voices, mocking whispers, telling you to give up, sink, die. Reminding you of all you’ve lost, blaming you, shaming you, tying weights of guilt to your legs. Half-seen terrors brush by in the water beneath you. Logic is gone. Confidence is gone. All there that remains is swimming, moving forward, pushing yourself through the water. Resisting exhaustion, resisting despair, swimming to the other side.





The Family You Choose

25 04 2016

helping you move house

I spent the weekend in Connecticut helping some friends move. Seems like a long way to go, about two and a half hours’ drive. But it was well worth it. I didn’t mind the road trip. Had a good audio book to listen to. And I was going to down to help out some folks who had been good to me. And something very bad had happened to them.

Matt and Tiffany’s daughter Olivia is two. She has the most beautiful smile. You can see the emerging personality, bright and bubbling with a puckish wit. At a recent check-up, she showed a sharply elevated lead count in her blood. If you are a parent, you know what terrifying news that is. You can imagine the parental guilt, even though they could not have known. And then the nightmare that followed, needing to get out of the rental, thinking they had a place to go, only to have it fall through. Chaos.

They faced having to find temporary quarters for half a house’s worth of stuff, plus a place to live. And moving all their belongings in two weeks. The network went into action. A friend posted on Facebook that there was going to be a moving party that weekend, and anybody who could help should come. My impulse was sure, I can do this. No big plans for the weekend. And this was shit that shouldn’t happen to good people.

I swapped shifts with my boss (another good person to whom bad things have recently happened) and hit the road Saturday. When I got there the place as hopping with folks packing and hauling. I recognized some of them from conventions we’d been to. The Geek Squad. Others I’d never met. I jumped right in, figuring out what to do, and spent the day hauling and boxing, playing Tetris. It’s funny how that has become a universally understood verb in the language: “I can fit more into the car if I just do some tetrising” or “Wait a minute, I’ve got to retetris these boxes” or “Do you think you can tetris these bowls in with those mugs?”

At the end of the day we dispersed, most folks going home. We’d accomplished a lot, gotten a box truck full of stuff to the storage unit and got it all packed in. But there was more to be done, and more folks coming again tomorrow. We went to Tiffany’s mother’s house to crash. That’s where they are staying, packed in with their essentials, house plants, and Olivia. Tiffany’s mom, Liz, was already accommodating them, and puzzled over where I could sleep. No problem, I’d brought my sleeping bag and air mattress. All I needed was a few square feet of floor. We figured it out.

In the midst of all this upset, we joked, laughed, gossiped, and play with Olivia. They clucked in sympathy over my domestic woes, and Liz told me a bit about her own marital dramas. She’d been separated for six years and still wasn’t divorced. At sixty-five she supports herself with a collection of odd jobs including landscaping. Her back yard is lovely. In the morning, I arose before everyone else and went out to admire the grounds in the golden slanting sunlight.

Then it was shower, get dressed, chug a cup of coffee while the others got going, and then off for another day of sorting and packing. More folks showed up. It was now cleaning out closets and figuring out what could be stored and what would have to be thrown out because there just wasn’t a place for it. I would have been sitting on the floor weeping at this point. But they both kept going, doggedly pushing through. A box o’joe and assortment of Dunkin’ Donuts sat on the stove. We followed orders and worked. A very confused and annoyed chinchilla watched from its cage in the corner. Someone was supposed to come pick it up that afternoon. Chinchillas are nocturnal and we were disrupting its beauty sleep. Whenever someone passed by the cage it looked up with half-closed eyes and a an expression of WTF.

Mid-afternoon, we had done the lion’s share. There was still stuff to do, but it could be dealt with in the days remaining by Matt and Tiffany. The great moving party was winding down. Matt thanked us for coming with heartfelt sincerity. The fellow next to me said, “We’re family. We stick together.” He was no blood relation to any of us. He was talking about the tight-knit crew I am privileged to be a part of.

Friends are the family you choose.





Divorcing Alcohol

15 04 2016

Dear-alcohol

It’s been about two months since we called it quits. Might have been a bit longer than that; I can’t remember the exact date of my last drink. So I calculate it from the Boskone convention in mid-February.

My counselor describes it as a relationship. Me and alcohol. We’ve been together for a long time. We’ve had our ups and downs, but mostly it was fun. We had a lot of friends in common. We’d all get together and party. We had some bad times, too. Alcohol sometimes did me wrong. But we made up and kept going. Because I could always turn to it in a crisis. It was always there to comfort me when I felt miserable. But it wasn’t a healthy relationship. Alcohol would commiserate while I felt sorry for myself. But it never actually helped me to solve my problems. In some ways, it made my problems worse.

Finally I had to accept the fact that it was a toxic relationship. It was holding me back, keeping me from dealing with my problems, preventing me from growing and realizing my full potential. I was too dependent, relying on alcohol instead of myself. And yet I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I was scared to face life alone. All the friends we had in common – would they reject me if I broke up with alcohol? How would I cope without alcohol’s support? We’d been together so long, shared so many good times. Wasn’t there some way to work it out, so alcohol and I could still be together?

It was hard accepting the fact that it was over. I had to let go. Alcohol and I had to go our separate ways.

Now, here I am, two months later. My friends are still my friends. I am able to function just fine without it. I feel better, more clear-headed, less depressed, less afraid, more self-confident than I can ever remember feeling before. I am glad I made the decision and I’m determined to stick with it, in spite of the difficulties.

Because sometimes I miss it terribly. I think of all the fun we had. I see other folks enjoying its pleasant company, and I feel left out. In some ways it was such a good relationship. It was part of who I was, and I’ve left that part of me behind.

But with distance has come perspective. I see what alcohol does to people, how they act when they’ve had too much. I see how their judgement goes, how their behavior changes, and it can get very ugly. When I was there too, just as intoxicated, I didn’t see it. Now I do. Dear god, was that what I was like? How embarrassing. It isn’t funny at all. It’s pathetic.

And yet I haven’t lost my love of a good party. I’ll be going to one in a couple of weeks, and I know alcohol is going to be there, too. I feel both anxious and eager. When drinking just gets people loose and laughing, it’s definitely a good thing. That’s the fun part, and I can share in it without drinking myself. Silly and crazy? Deal me in.

I just don’t want to be around when the ugly comes out. I know the abusive relationship one can get into with alcohol. I know how it can gaslight you, twist your thinking, make you paranoid and depressed. How it can release the demons, bring out the worst, turn an intelligent, friendly person into a slurring, staggering, swearing, angry golem. Or a gibbering, sobbing, helpless idiot.

A casual relationship with alcohol is harmless. But don’t let it become too intimate. Don’t let it charm you into marriage. It can eat your life. And you might not even realize it, because superficially, everything seems okay. You think you are coping fine. I did. I was sure my marriage was happy. It wasn’t until the crisis hit that I realized how dysfunctional it really was, and divorce was the only answer.

No hard feelings, alcohol, but I’m better off without you.








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