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


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.

Knowing Your Limits

8 04 2016

Reality CheckMy post-Boskone proclaimation was pretty bold. Perhaps it was a tad ambitious. But it’s a bit like writing a first draft: You dump it all out there in wild eloquent profusion, and then begin the task of trimming and developing. As I polish off Week 1 of my library management course and get at this week’s blog, I am settling into the realization that maybe I can’t do it all. But that’s okay.

We women are prone to attempted superwoman. Much has been made of the “second shift”, the working women who come home and then tackle all the housework that has been our more traditional role. Somewhere between total exhaustion and nervous breakdown, we face the fact that “having it all” simply isn’t a reasonable goal for most of us. Especially if we haven’t the financial resources to hire somebody to pick up the slack, whether it be a housekeeper or a nanny. So we need to figure out what is truly reasonable, what fulfills our deepest needs and priorities, and what can be set aside. For some of us, that is devoting ourselves to being a domestic goddess. Shut up, old school feminists; if a woman really wants to prioritize the roles of wife and mother, she has that right. Leave her alone.

If, on the other hand, she wants with all her heart to be a professional writer, astronaut, or archaeologist, or manage a fortune 500 company, or be a career politician, she should go for it. Just lose the shame of not being a stellar housekeeper or the ever-available soccer mom. It’s up to each of us to manage the dance, to find a partner willing to help out with the domestic necessities and parenting, or to settle for just having a cat and a home that looks—ahem—lived-in. It doesn’t matter how we do it, as long as everybody involved is satisfied with the arrangement.

Now then, how shall I figure this out for myself? What are my priorities? And how many of my multiple goals can I reasonably achieve, keeping in mind that if one tries to do too much, one does none of the tasks well? I turn to my marvelous empowering collection of lists and spreadsheets.

First of all, I must earn a living. So, I must keep up with the library management course and pursue my goal to become a library director. I also cannot give up the writing that is my life-long sense of identity. Therefore, I will keep up with my Concord Monitor articles, which serve the dual purpose of fulfilling my need to write and earning me bucks. All the stuff that brings in cash here and there, even if only gas money, must stay until something better comes along. So, Boscawen writers group, check. (Besides, I really enjoy this gig.) Heritage Commission webmaven, check. (Also have the bonus of enjoying working with these folks.) Conventions…well, maybe not. Unless I can make them at least break even; I’ve got to sell enough books to balance out the expense if I’m to justify it. Yes, publicity and connections are important. Conventions are fun and energizing and useful in so many ways, but right now, I’m in survival mode. Conventions are in the “good to do if I can afford it” category.

Awake Chimera sequel: back burner. I just can’t focus on a new creative writing project right now. Too much pressure, emotional stress, and demands on my time. Maybe when life stops being so blasted real I’ll be able to sink into prolonged imaginative reveries again.

Archimedes Nesselrode screenplay: Stroke of brilliant good fortune! Just as I was wondering how in the name of all that’s holy I was going to manage doing this, By Light Unseen Media approached me with an offer to buy the film rights. I get an advance, and someone else much more savvy and connected than I gets to do the work. Oh, those beautiful unexpected coincidences in life!

So, I can switch my focus to something much easier—revising an existing ms. for publication. I have Eloise and Avalon, an SF novel that has already been through round one of beta readers, and got back-burnered as I got focused on other stuff. I was in touch with my publisher about something else and asked if he was open for submissions. Wheee! Within a few hours, I have a release date, publicity, and a cover artist lined up. Man, that was fast. I’ll keep you all posted.

I now must overhaul my spreadsheet to reflect these changes. It’s all starting to look more doable. As always, at the bottom of the list are domestic chores. Ugh. Well, hell. Got to keep the place habitable. But it’s time to get serious about delegating some stuff. Of course, I’ve told myself that before, and it somehow never gets done. This is in the category of “Well I’ve always done that” and “They won’t like it” which is all part of “I hate asking other people to do things”, a subset of “I hate making waves and causing upset.” But that’s a whole other bucket of worms. At least I know I have a problem. That’s the first step towards dealing with it.

Oh, and this blog. Yes, I have on my spreadsheet to post something every Friday. I’ll try to keep to that unless the sky falls. Because…well, just because.

Drifting on a Restless Breeze

1 04 2016
Misty Spring Morning

photo by James Samuel

I am in a strange space today. I don’t know whether it is the unseasonable warmth, the stirrings of spring outside in the smells, songs of the birds, and the emerging flowers. I don’t know if it is an effect of this long siege, or just some subtle shift in the mysterious chemical soup my brain steeps in. It has been building over the past few days, a mixture of restlessness and an inability to focus on tasks at hand. The urge to pack my tent and backpack and disappear into the mountains (not a wise choice—I have obligations this weekend, and besides, they are predicting snow).

Earlier this week I had an incoherent and thoroughly baffling email from a feature writer from a state magazine which will remain nameless which a.) presumed I was married to Marek Bennett (I’m not) and b.) made vague noises about doing a feature on us. In the ensuing exchange, I found myself so annoyed at the individual’s scatter-brained approach and lack of professionalism that I scolded him for being a git and refused to call him until he explained himself clearly. Not surprisingly, he dropped me and found someone else to inflict himself on.

Now, I should have been tickled silly at the opportunity to be interviewed by a major glossy magazine. I should have been polite, cooperative, and eager. But the fact that this guy knew literally nothing about me except the “Freelance Philosopher” tagline, and wanted to pose me in front of some sort of faux-Greek pillars or something (would I be required to wear a toga?) turned me off. I lost the chance for some free publicity. And part of me wrung its hands in anguish over the missed opportunity. Yet, on reflection, I found I really didn’t give a damn.

I’m looking over my ambitious spreadsheet, and murmuring, “What the hell?” How much of this do I really need to do, and how much of it is stuff I just have this vague urgent feeling that I “ought” to do, because it’s expected? Because it shows I’m a “serious” writer? What am I trying to prove, and to whom?

Well, the Archimedes Nesselrode screenplay project just got a whole lot simpler. A colleague of mine who is way more professional and savvy than I has expressed an interest in buying the film rights to it, and collaborating on turning it into a script. She already has the software, the contacts, and has paid the dues to join a professional organization. Hooray! All I have to do is consult. In the wildly remote event that we actually sell the fool thing to Hollywood (odds of this somewhere between the likelihood of me getting an agent and being blown up in my bathtub by Islamic extremists) we split the proceeds 50/50. (BTW, I know this woman and her credentials are excellent.)

The sequel to Awake Chimera? It’s a wonderful idea, a smart move professionally, and I’ve had some great material supplied by a fan/friend. But I don’t know if I can do it. Not right now. I don’t feel the sort of inspiration I’d need, the kind of 24/7 obsession that I feel when I’m fully engaged in a writing project. I want to do it, but the muse is busy elsewhere.

And I’m in a strange space. If there is a 24/7 obsession haunting me, it’s the awful domestic situation I’m stuck in and can’t resolve due to factors outside my control. I am doing what I need to do to get where I need to go; I’m on the road. But it’s like sitting in a traffic jam. There’s nothing for it but to wait patiently and amuse myself as productively as I can.

We can control our actions. Sometimes it’s difficult, and sometimes it’s damn near impossible to keep strong emotions from leaking out into our behavior despite our best efforts. But we can use logic and reason to keep us from doing stupid, counter-productive and damaging things most of the time. However, our feelings are, for the most part, outside our control. There may be things we can do that can affect those feelings—going for a walk, contacting a friend, writing it all out in a blog—and get ourselves back into a better space. But certain sorts of emotions and moods are too powerful to ameliorate with all the usual strategies. Nothing to be done but carry on the best we can until it passes.

Unless it doesn’t. And even if you know it must, because all things do, while you are soaking in the brine of such a mood it feels as if it will be like this forever.

Today my spreadsheet said I needed to post a blog. Voila. Now, what next?

What next?

Getting Yourself an Ism

25 03 2016

click on the image to play the audio clip

As I was fielding comments from my last blog, I suddenly recalled the scene from Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You. Grampa shows remarkable prescience when he goes on his mild rant about “ismmania”. Communism, Fascism, voodooism. Whenever somebody has a problem, they just go out and get themselves an “ism” and it fixes them right up. He concludes his monologue by muttering, “Nowadays, they say ‘Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.’”

Aside from the almost spooky anticipation of the US government’s military stance in general, and the Republican front runners’ bellicose saber-rattling (the leading Democrat isn’t much better), I find the bit on “isms” to be very interesting. We humans love classifying things so we can turn abstract thoughts and complex practices in nouns that we can wave around and point to. Instead of spending several minutes to an hour (or more) describing a very complicated system of government and economics, we can just say, “Communism” and be done with it.

Last week I talked about Feminism. And in the course of writing the blog, as well as reading and answering the comments, I realized how hopeless it is to communicate anything of significance by merely referring to “feminism”. It is a bit like referring to “God.” The word means something different to damn near everyone. Ask someone to define “feminism”, and you get responses that run the gamut from highly positive to highly pejorative. People equate feminism with man-hating, with fighting Patriarchy, with female solidarity, with the liberation of both sexes from stereotypes, with a struggle to make women equal to men, or to make them superior to men. Each individual is convinced that their definition of feminism is the correct one, the most accurate and insightful, and is the one everyone else should accept. We essentially become Humpty Dumpty, insisting that when we use a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

This is true to varying degrees with other “isms”. Take the raging controversy around the term “Socialism”. Like feminism, the word evokes a wide range of reactions from positive to negative, and further questioning reveals a tweaking of the definition of socialism that pushes it in a positive or negative direction. What does the word really mean? Humpty Dumpty aside, we’d first need to agree on an authority we all respect to arbitrate the dispute. And if you have studied etymology and the history of language, you realize what an intricate dance takes place between actual usage and prescriptive definition.

Going back to Grampa Vanderhof, it is also true that when people have problems they tend to try to find an “ism” to solve it. Often it is religious: Buddhism, Paganism, Evangelism, Mysticism, Mormonism. It can be political: liberalism, conservatism, Libertarianism, or Marxism. It can be more general: pragmatism, optimism, pacifism or activism. We adopt an “ism” and become an “ist”.  A Taoist or a Fundamentalist.  An environmentalist or a hedonist.  A nihilist or an anarchist.  When we meet someone new, it is easier to just say, “I’m an Atheist,” than it is to explain how you acknowledge that it is impossible to prove the existence or non-existence of God, but you have become firmly convinced that the evidence indicates non-existence, and although you acknowledge the possibility you could be wrong, you are confident that you aren’t.

Or you might say, “I’m a classicist,” and you’d have to explain anyway.

Sometimes it’s not a term you’d ever self-identify with, but it’s convenient short-hand to describe what you think of someone else, like an egotist, narcissist or racist.  Sometimes the term has a different suffix form. You can become a vegetarian or a humanitarian or a skeptic. You can embrace self-actualization, or macrobiotics, or dianetics. You can declare yourself to be homosexual or bisexual, bipolar or autistic. In our constant struggle to understand who we are, what we believe, and what others are and believe, we clutch at the short-cut of isms and their kin. Even though a single word can hardly capture the subtle variations, nuances and complexities of the underlying concept (they may share broad traits in common, but if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one) and the meaning of words can twist and morph with usage, we just can’t do without these terms, even if we use them at our peril, and at the risk of having our true meaning misunderstood.

Grampa Vanderhof, in that same speech, mentions Lincoln, quoting him, “With malice towards none and charity to all.” That, dear readers, is an aphorism. It’s an “ism” we could all do well to embrace.

Not Merely Boys with Vaginas

19 03 2016

My will is as strong, and my kingdom as great.

My will is as strong, and my kingdom as great.

I’ve been a feminist from way back, and I have watched the evolution of the movement with interest. The spotlight is upon us, especially in light of the rise of women candidates for public office, including the most powerful position in the country, if not the world. Of course, other countries have had female leaders for decades. Iceland is a particularly interesting example. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became Iceland’s first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian head of government. With a presidency of exactly sixteen years, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is the longest-serving, elected female head of state of any country to date. It has been argued that the power of women in Iceland has had a profound effect. After all, they arrested and jailed their bankers when their economy collapsed; they didn’t bail them out and perpetuate the criminal travesty.

A good number of feminists would like to see Hillary Clinton become our first female president. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, in her introduction for Hillary Clinton at an event in New Hampshire, told the crowd, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” This caused a furious blow-back from younger women (those in my age bracket took exception to it as well) who bristled and responded that they weren’t going to be dictated to by anyone for any reason, and hell was precisely where Madam Albright could go.


It was at Boskone, having lunch with a good friend of mine, Richard Ristow, that I came upon a pivotal insight about the new feminism. We had just been to a panel discussion of the movie Labyrinth. Much was made of Sarah’s final speech to Jareth: “…for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me.” It was seen as a strong feminist statement. In particular, it was the assertion that her kingdom was as great as his that captures the essence of what many woman see as modern feminist goals.

Old school feminists sought equality by playing a man’s game by a man’s rules, and proving they could be as tough and hard-assed as any male. That largely meant sacrificing or compartmentalizing particular feminine traits. These traits were seen as weaknesses because men considered them weaknesses. In order to succeed in a man’s world, a woman had to think like a man.

This may have been necessary to break into that world and grasp the power that men monopolized. But it was a faustian bargain. Women often became the very thing that they hated most: an oppressor, lacking in empathy, disdainful of sentiment. The new generation of feminists don’t want to become merely boys with vaginas. They have recognized that, like Sarah, their kingdom is just as great. What they value, what they consider important—compassion and charity and gentleness, the needs of families and children as opposed to power and wealth, cooperation instead of competition, honesty and integrity instead of skilled and ruthless deal-making, warmth instead of cold calculation—are great and vital strengths, not weaknesses.

The Madeleine Albrights don’t recognize this. Blind obedience and loyalty to one’s own are divisive qualities, typical of the patriarchy and the military. They are not conducive to intelligent self-government. Voting for a candidate purely because she is a woman is as mindless as voting against her because she is a woman. It also perpetuates the hostility between the sexes, the “us vs. them” mindset. It denies that men can be allies, that they, too, can embrace classically feminine strategies. This new feminism seeks to liberate men as well from the harsh, insensitive and destructive roles traditionally forced upon them.

Men, as my friend Richard quietly and beautifully demonstrates, can be feminists, too.

In the final analysis it isn’t about penises and vaginas. It’s about minds and hearts. It’s about goals and priorities. It’s about what really matters and where our focus as individuals and as a nation should be. Life can be cruel sometimes, and can demand the classic male traits of aggression and unsentimental pragmatism (particularly when dealing with a heartlessly patriarchal opponent). But if self-interest, suspicion, power, and toughness are all we are allowed to bring to the governing table, if the blind loyalty, fear and obedience to authority of the gang are how we run our institutions, if the traditions of patriarchy—whether enforced by a man or a woman—are perpetuated, then feminism has failed.

Our kingdom is as great. And today’s women—and men—are recognizing it.


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