Author Archives: Melissa Walshe

Guest Appearance on Origin Podcast

Last week I had the great pleasure of chatting with Bryan Aiello, the author of Compounded Interest, for his podcast, “Origin: Stories on Creativity.” He let me go on at length about the relationship between science and magic in the Sidhe Diaries, the mental trauma of being an unwilling superhero, my philosophy of independent publishing, “failing forward” as a writer, and a lot of books written by great writers. Video below; links to his work, mine, and the books we discussed below that.

Links to Bryan’s Work

Links to My Work

Other Books We Discussed

Wonder Woman Rocks My World

I’ve been sitting on this review until I could see Wonder Woman a second time, and to give people time to see it for themselves. But I can’t hold it in anymore: I have to holler my praises to whoever will listen.

I went to Wonder Woman mostly on principle. I wanted to vote with my dollars for more woman-directed, woman-led action blockbusters, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to adore it. I’d heard an interview that pegged Wonder Woman and the male romantic lead as “equals,” and it made me scowl. “So all it takes for a woman to be equal to a man is divine parentage? Great.” Add to that the sex-object costume and the history of the character as emerging from the aggressively male-dominated world of superheroes, and I was ready to have a lot to complain about.

***Spoilers Ahead***

I do have a few complaints. I wanted way more Etta Candy, for starters, and I found the decision to have the German ball in English with German accents to be jarring. But for the first time in my life, I walked out of a superhero movie feeling like much, much more had been gotten gloriously right than wrong.

Let’s start with the costume.

The original motivation for putting Wonder Woman in a skimpy costume was, at a guess, the same reason most women are shoved into stupid outfits: because men generally like to look at the nakedest woman possible. This movie, however, reclaimed Diana’s lack of clothing for herself. The movie begins on her home island, the home of the Amazons, and follows Diana as she fights for the right to train as a warrior. As you observe the stunning combat techniques of the Amazons (who take out a boatload of German soldiers bearing guns with minimal losses, considering the technological gap), it becomes plain that the costume is functional armor designed to prioritize mobility and the protection of the core.

When Diana and Steve land in London, Steve spends a bunch of time aggressively pulling her cape more closely around her and quickly decides that they need to get her into some proper clothes. When she and Etta are looking at corsets, she wonders about the inadequacy of the armor. When she tries on fluffy women’s clothes, she rips one dress trying to kick, and with that simple, simple action, all of women’s “proper” fashion is revealed for exactly what it is: designed to inhibit mobility and make women less physically capable than men.

Diana’s armor is strength and flexibility: socially appropriate women’s wear, in comparison, is effectively an act of physical violence against women.

Speaking of violence against women…

Diana and Steve go to see his bosses, and Steve tells Diana to wait outside. She ignores him, because she hasn’t been raised to see that kind of bullshit as worth noticing, and walks into a room full of politicians and military offices shouting at each other about the armistice. The mere presence of a woman brings the room almost to a dead silence, except for the one man arguing for peace, who takes his chance to be heard. Diana later adds her voice to his, arguing for the cessation of violence. I had to watch the movie again just to really hear her speak, because I was distracted to the point of feeling queasy by Steve’s physical attempt to remove Diana from the room. His arms are all over her in a way that made me want to slap him…something somewhere between controlling and pawing. Not the way that one physically engages with an equal, but the way one engages with someone who has to be controlled with no regard for their autonomy.

That was the first moment I got a little teary, because THAT is being a woman. Having something to say, and being unwelcome in the room. Having something to say, and being physically coerced into silence by your ally, the alleged “Nice Guy.” Having something to say and not getting through to even your willing audience because they’re so distracted by the manner in which everyone else is trying to shut you up.

That was the first moment when I decided Diana is my hero, because she ignores the attempts to silence her. She doesn’t even waste her energy responding to the nonsense of how hard they tried to shut her out. She is too powerful to find their flailings meaningful and too committed to her cause to be sidetracked. As she finally leaves the room, her focus remains strictly on stopping the war and protecting those who are dying.

And when it comes to protecting those who are dying…

My goddess. Let’s talk, for a minute, about the crossing of No Man’s Land.

Sorry. I needed a moment to collect myself, because just thinking of it still brings tears to my eyes. I cried shamelessly as Diana pushed past Steve, discarded her cloak, climbed the ladder, and emerged from the trenches as Wonder Woman for the first time. Diana isn’t just doing something all those soldiers had failed to do for over a year, she isn’t just becoming a symbol of hope for those dying boys and the villagers hiding with them. She is rewriting the rules of the engagement in order to stop human suffering immediately. And because the groundwork had been laid beautifully, the scene serves to underscore the message around gender. The discarding of her cloak, the decision to ignore Steve’s command, the ascent into forbidden territory is the rejection of male efforts to limit or discount or take charge over female strength.

Diana hasn’t changed the system. She hasn’t even really changed the men around her, as we see not much later when Steve tries to bar her from attending a gala. What she has done is made the choice to trust her own skill and strength in order to do what she believes to be the most compassionate choice, regardless of the risk it might pose to her. And that is why I wept to watch her walk unscathed through the gunfire.

Let’s talk about passion vs. knowledge for a second.

There’s an argument that could be made for the foolhardiness of Diana’s choice in that moment. She acts on pure principle, which looks suspiciously like emotion, and with Steve making the logic-backed argument for not moving yet, there’s an uncomfortable dynamic of Feminine Emotion versus Masculine Reason. That’s a dynamic that plagues the relationship between Diana and Steve, and there are moments it edged on being problematic for me. Diana’s lack of knowledge of the world of men and its workings ends up being something between infantilizing where it crops up as ignorance and installing her on a pedestal where it functions to highlight her commitment to her ideals.

There are, however, two reasons why this dynamic ends up working in the long run. First and foremost, the movie pointedly demonstrates how Diana’s mother goes out of her way to keep Diana ignorant of the world and its troubles in order to protect her. Her innocence is a scar of a kind of well-intentioned mental violence that parents often do enact against their daughters: barring a girl from the knowledge she needs to engage in a fight the mother thinks she can’t win. Diana’s innocence/ignorance/blind compassion is another metaphorical reflection of my own experience as a woman, and more than that, it is clearly and intentionally explained at the beginning of the movie which, secondly, is a carefully constructed piece of Diana’s hero’s journey.

What Diana needs in order to defeat Ares is the ability to love the world of men regardless of their flaws: by protecting her from the knowledge of how deeply unworthy humanity is, her mother’s sheltering education leaves Diana nearly crippled in the final battle. She is young in this movie: this is her coming of age story. She began the movie with the uncomplicated and blind compassion of a child and ends it with the knowing compassion of a woman.

What actually opened her eyes?

John and I had very different reads on the end of the movie, where Diana flashes back on the scene in which Steve says goodbye. John thought I would be annoyed, because he read it as Diana finding her motivation because Steve said he loved her. So to John, it looked like the critical catalyst was some old-fashioned man-love. He’s right that that would have annoyed the living daylights out of me if I shared his interpretation, but I don’t. How I read that transitional moment is that Diana’s reflections were more about Steve’s comment that choosing compassion isn’t about the worthiness of the people you have compassion for. His words were underscored by his sacrifice, and it was that combination that lit the fire under her.

The fact that he told Diana he loved her was, as with everything else in the romantic subplot, a mildly distracting footnote. I think the movie would have been stronger without the weird boat conversation about reproduction, the brief makeout scene, and Steve’s declaration of love, but because the romance was so thoroughly on the sidelines of the larger story about two independent people trying, in their own ways, to bring an end to war, that final “I love you” seemed appropriately close to irrelevant. What seemed, to me, to change Diana’s mind was how willing Steve was to give up his life to stop the war, even if the people he was saving weren’t worthy of the sacrifice.

The worthiness of the people saved…

One choice John and I both really loved was the decision to set the movie during World War I, instead of II, as in the original comics. In World War II, there’s not a lot of moral ambiguity to the sides. Nazis were gassing children and old people and dumping their bodies in mass graves: everyone else was trying to put a stop to that. The boys taking off their gas masks at the end of the movie are the nominal “bad guys,” and if they’d been Nazis, it would have been much harder to pull off a scene where people from both sides can share a smile of relief that they’re not dead yet. World War I wasn’t personal or moral: it was a stupid waste of life all around, and that’s a message worth reflecting on, especially in times of high partisan tension in the real world.

That, and the value of art.

The movie begins with a shot of the Louvre and ends there. In the middle of the movie, after the saving of the town, Diana and Steve are dancing…sort of…and Diana says something along the lines of, “So this is what people do when they’re not at war.” Charlie’s singing is hinted at having been buried by his PTSD, and Diana draws it out of him. That’s what Diana is when she’s not fighting war: that’s what love looks like when it’s not forced to expend its strength on saving people.

Saving people vs. killing people

Yet another excellent detail of the movie: when Diana is saving people, she’s not just saving one side from another. She’s primarily saving all people from themselves. Her primary targets are always the heavy artillery and the guns. She deals damage out to people too, but in a lot of her combat, it’s entirely possible that she has dealt incapacitating blows without doing lethal damage. One more fine highlighting of the message that people, no matter how unworthy, need saving from war and that the real enemy is those who actively deny peace its day in the sun.

Love is a wrecking ball

Love-based powers tend to be seen as feminine, and all too often, that turns into tropes where women are the fragile sideline healers. Sure, love can manifest as healing. But when Diana is taking Veld in a whirlwind of divine fury: that’s love too. Love is not soft and weak in this movie: love is a sacred meatshield who brings on the DPS. Crumpled tanks, smashed walls, demolished church steeples: that’s love.

A quick note on diversity beyond gender

Wonder Woman was a brilliant story for me, as a white woman. I think it was trying its best to do well by other groups as well, but I would like to know how less well-represented groups felt it did. The Amazons of Diana’s home were diverse in color and clearly powerful. When Diana was running from a black woman at the beginning of the movie, I was afraid that she was running from a servant, but a line from her mother suggests that the woman was actually her tutor: an educated intellectual superior whose services are valued by Diana’s mother who worries the tutor will quit. The historical context of the movie paired with Diana’s background and the story they were trying to shape for her may have put some weird constraints on the writers and directors, but there were hints that they were making at least something resembling an effort to acknowledge the fact that the world is made up of more than just white men and the white women who refused to be stepped on by them. The presence and power of black women on the island was one hint at that effort.

The diversity of Steve’s renegade crew and the fact that they were all given space for their backstories, which called out real suffering, was another hint. What I would like to see in the next movie is more. I don’t see any excuse for them to not improve with the Justice League movie.

On a relation not, I understand what that questionable review meant by calling Diana and Steve equals. They’re not, obviously, when it comes to combat stats. Diana could whip Steve like cream and no mistake. But what this gem does, magnificently, is show a relationship in which a man and a woman are both strong characters with independent agency.That dynamic is one of the things that puts Wonder Woman above a lot of reasonable decent strong female protagonist movies/shows, and Steve sets a standard for how sidekicks should be written, no matter what their race or gender. Steve is an ass about gender and Diana has yet to grow into something resembling a capacity for finesse or subtlety, but they managed to work together without either diminishing the other, and I want to see more of that well-managed tension.

In short…

Wonder Woman was the first superhero movie I have ever been to that felt like it was written for me. I felt in my bones the point of making superhero stories, which is a brand new experience for me. Diana is a larger-than-life reflection of how I want to be in the world. I really hope this lovely movie is just one on the leading edge of a wave of movies that do the same for people who are still waiting for their Wonder Woman.

Convention Bingo for Authors

I had the opportunity to attend my first convention as an author this past weekend, with many thanks to Bar Harbor Batman and his cohorts in setting up the first ever Bar Harbor Comic Con. I got the invite to participate in January, and John was an absolute champion of putting together graphics to make our booth look all shiny and professional.

The most exciting work John put together for me was a bookmark based on the preliminary art for the cover of the third book in the Sidhe Diaries, Autumn’s Exile. (It’s almost ready for beta readers, so if you’d like to help me fix it, let me know!) I’ve enjoyed both of the covers John has done for me so far, but I think I like this one the best. What do you think?

Participating in the convention itself was a delightful experience and I just can’t thank the lovely people who bought my books and the people who organized the con enough. It was a day of firsts for me, and I kept thinking I needed a scavenger hunt list or a bingo card of experiences that make a con lovely for an author. So here’s a list of lovely things that happened to me:

  • Got asked for my autograph for the first time
  • Got to enjoy some amazing cosplay. (An absolute standout Hera Syndulla had the table across from us.)
  • Found a bookstore placement for my books (The Briar Patch in Bangor, ME. Local folks, please go spend your book money there. They’re great.)
  • Got to watch multiple dance-offs between Batman and other cosplayers.
  • Sold physical copies of my books for the first time
  • Got to connect with some other Maine authors (Shout out to the Horror Writers of Maine, who were pleasant table neighbors, and Carrie Jones, who is a delight and whose YA feminist twist on gothic romance is definitely now on my to-read list.)
  • Sold my books to people who are not related to me
  • Got to listen to Gigi Edgely talk about working on Farscape and her upcoming movie
  • Sold books to my target demographic (Who are, by the way, THE BEST. I’m not just sucking up. I just loved how, when I explained that beta reading means telling me what they hate about my books so I can make them better, their eyes just lit up.)
  • Had some fun conversations with people about costuming and building props
  • Sold books to people I would not have expected to be in my demographic (Internet high-five to dudes who spend money on books about strong female protagonists–you’re fearlessly riding the wave of positive change.)
  • Was sought out by someone who had actually read my blog and liked my writing enough to put all her raffle tickets on my donated books and decided to buy my stuff anyway. (That flattery will sustain me for YEARS. You have no idea.)

Just nothing but good times, all day long. And the kick in the pants I got organizing for the con means that, (a) we’ve got our act together (the other in the “we” being John, since I would not have pulled this off without his essential help) to sell books at other cons, and (b) I’ve got my act together to offer signed books through my website. So…

Mainers, come see me at PortCon!
Everyone who wants signed copies of my book, you can order them here!

A Reading List for Right Now

I’ve been trying to avoid chewing my fingernails with increasing difficulty as the news piles up. It feels like everything coming out of the new administration requires petitions and phone calls to officials and rallies and marches…and it’s exhausting. It’s hard work to sort out the issues that are absolutely essential from the issues that are the result of the Other Party being in charge, which is probably the point of the onslaught of absurdities. It’s hard work to avoid getting swept up in the vicious polarization that makes communication across party lines fruitless, which makes the situation worse. And it’s hard work to bear in mind that political and social change happen in a historical context and over an extended period of time, which means that we have to think strategically, not reactively.

For myself, I think one of the most sanity-preserving tactics in my toolbox is crafting a reading list. My goals in putting this list together are as follows:

  • Gain some perspective by reading about historical situations that have some relevance of similarity
  • Reinforce my ability for empathy by reading about experiences that are different from my own, especially those of people who currently feel threatened
  • Remind myself that it’s okay, and in fact preferable, to Not Panic

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of valuable reading material, so further recommendations are heartily encouraged in the comments. Topics I would especially appreciate recommendations on are effective peaceful resistance and what’s needed to depolarize the nation. Also: please feel free to recommend topics.

For whatever it’s worth, here’s the list of books (in no particular order) I’ve bumped up the reading queue or decided to revisit.

Books to Read While the World Seems Intent On Burning

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is an author I would generally recommend right now. Particularly Step Across This Line, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in addition to Midnight’s Children. I’m reading Midnight’s Children because it looks at early post-colonial India and the birth of Pakistan. The other books I listed also pay attention to the political context of religious conflict in India, and it is a situation we really ought to (have) learn(ed) from. Beyond the thought-provoking value, which is high, I love Rushdie’s writing because his wit sets the example of the essential relationship between rage and compassion.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

Arendt was a German-born Jewish political theorist who escaped Europe during the Holocaust. Her work doesn’t exactly qualify as “fun,” but it seems important right now to think more deeply about how racism plays a role in the rise of totalitarianism in order to effectively fight the repetition of history. Also worth reading by Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem (in order to consider how a person who sees himself as reasonable and decent comes to perpetuate impossible evil) and The Human Condition (for a broader perspective on political action).

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I read this graphic novel and its sequel for the first time last summer and was immediately struck by the parallels to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (more below). I would consider this absolutely essential reading right now, if nothing else to remind us that (a) prosperous, modern societies can actually be dragged disastrously backwards by bad government to the harm of all and (b) the refugees fleeing from religious persecution and bad governments are JUST LIKE US in all of the ways that matter.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The recommendation to read this has been going around lately, but not quite for the reasons it makes my list. Everyone has been saying, “It could happen to us!” And so it could, I suppose, but the focus of the book is on how the main character and the women around her end up accepting the situation with minimal resistance because they value safety over freedom. It’s a lovely consideration of the psychology of living under a rising tyranny and offers worthwhile insight about what we might watch for in ourselves. For similar reasons, I’ll add David R. Blumenthal’s “The Banality of Good and Evil,” which looks at the Holocaust and psychology experiments in the last century to ask how decent people can become the unresisting instruments of monstrosity.

Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

Yes, yes. We all think of 1984 every time someone mentions “alternative facts” and “fake news” and the fact that Trump has inherited a worrisome capacity for surveillance. But I think there’s more to be learned from reading about Orwell’s inspiration for 1984: his time as a British military officer in Burma. Reading about it in the context of Myanmar’s modern police state is a powerful experience that lends a prophetic quality to 1984. But looking at Myanmar’s progression in recent years after reading this book, one has to take some hope in the notion that tyrannies fall because they don’t work.

Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

This one was just recommended to me this week, and I’m glad it was. It’s not that easy for me to relate to people who are spewing fearful vitriol, at least in part because my life has been pretty safe and relatively stable, economically speaking. There are, however, pockets of the U.S. where the culture and economic reality is quite different, and even if, no, especially if, I disagree with the politics coming out of those pockets, it seems important to acknowledge that many of the people who are endorsing fearful nationalist attitudes are probably scared and hurting…and they are part of the fabric of our nation that needs to be cared for too.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

I’ve had this on my “to read” stack for an embarrassingly long time. It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner about gender identity. We’re living in a world where gender identity is still a fraught issue and the rights of transgendered people are not sufficiently protected. The current administration will probably make things worse, so it seems more important than ever to listen hard to the stories of people who are at risk. (On a related note: High five, Boy Scouts of America!)

Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Another one on the list of books I’m slightly embarrassed not to have gotten around to years ago, Invisible Man is highly praised for its literary merits. Ellison specifically wanted to avoid writing just another protest about racism, but of course, the way race colors (no pun intended) one’s existence is deeply at the heart of the narrative. I often feel at a loss about how best to make the world more equitable, but one tiny thing I can absolutely do is take more time to listen to the stories of people who are not treated as equal.

Good Poems for Hard Times – Garrison Keillor, ed.

The title pretty much speaks for itself. The intro uses the words “bracing and courageous” to describe the content, and I think it’s just nice to have a ready dose of “bracing and courageous” on hand right now.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

I saved this for last because it’s the one I would most encourage you all to read. Looking at statistical data over time, Pinker makes a compelling argument that the world is becoming a safer and more educated place. When we’re dealing with immediate, short-term potential disasters, it’s easy to feel like the world is irreparably on fire, but it’s more likely that we’re in, at most, a little downward blip on a long upward slope. Of course, historical trends are not an excuse for inaction in the face of immediate injustice. Also of course, confirmation bias is something to watch out for. BUT: we can take heart from the historical data and use it to reign in our less productive tendencies to catastrophize.

Return to Philadelphia

We’re wrapping up another whirlwind work tour of Philadelphia. I couldn’t have been more delighted that WordCamp US was held in the same city for two years running. Even though I have stellar bosses who are dedicated to providing time and financing for enriching experiences and incredible food, there’s only so much that can be seen in the time available around soaking in the professional development stuff that’s actually our real reason for coming down here. Last year, I was left wanting more. This year, I got to hit several of the places we ran out of time for last year.

The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.

The Academy of Natural Sciences include a butterfly room that is delightful if you look closely enough.

WordCamp Itself

I’ve got a lot of work and personal action points coming out of WordCamp, but the crossover relevance with my blog audience is probably a bit limited, so I won’t get into the weeds here. I do, however, want to point you to the resource page for Dennis Hong’s talk “The Dark Side of Democratization.” He has a very functional perspective on the challenges of misinformation and communication outside of our own belief bubbles, and he put together a reading list and set of tools that is well worth a deep read and deep think for every single human being.

The Food

If you’re never going to travel to Philly, you may as well skip down this section and head right to The Sights. If you’re planning a trip that involves staying near city center, two notes: (1) Getting good, non-chain coffee before 7am is pretty much impossible. (2) Walking into a restaurant with less than a 30 minute wait is not likely to happen.

Jamonera – Tapas bar. Papa fritas were superb. They put floaty herbal bits in my cocktail that kept coming up the straw, which wasn’t my favorite. Solid tapas, but not amazing.

Old City Coffee – Small batch hand-roasted coffee in Reading Terminal Market. Best decaf I have found pretty much anywhere to date.

Beiler’s Donuts – Fresh made donuts in Reading Terminal Market. Especially good if you catch them warm. If you buy less than half a dozen, you will end up waiting in line a second time.

Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House  – Awesome noodles in Chinatown. Slippery chopsticks and massive noodle piles make this a tricky thing to eat tidily, but well worth the mess.

The Happy Rooster – Accidental find that we ate at because it was literally the first place we found with a free table. Top-notch Brussels sprouts, and generally good bar menu.

Foods on First Diner – Freshest breakfast sandwich I’ve had in a while. Super friendly service, more spacious than average, good decaf. Good sausage. Homefries were a weird hashbrown/homefries mutant.

El Vez – Rumor has it the bathrooms are worth a visit, but we forgot to follow up on that rumor. the Mexcal margarita was awesome. Guacamole, mole enchilada, and mahi mahi taco were outstanding.

Good Dog Bar – Adorable dog photos everywhere. Their signature burger (with a cheese pocket) is supposed to be really good, but we didn’t try it. The spicy tofu was our general favorite.

Art at Elixr

Art at Elixr

Elixr – So hipster it would be painful if the coffee (pourover) wasn’t phenomenal. The door is flush with the wall in what’s barely more than an alley, so don’t give up if you think your directions are wrong. Great wifi.

White Dog Cafe – Very diverse dog art, including some crazy detailed dogs in human military uniform paintings. One of the oldest farm-to-table restaurants. Brunch was generally stellar, but the Bloody Marys were the standout.

Barbuzzo – We managed to get a reservation for this, and it turned out to be a great final dinner. Great Mediterranean food. The ricotta, the gnocchi, and the budino were the highlights.

Federal Donuts – This came highly recommended: the cake donuts are made fresh in small batches. I tried the Strawberry Lavender. Best cake donut I’ve ever had, but being a raised donut person, I’ll stick to Beiler’s.

The Sights

Night at the Museum

WordCamp rented out the Academy of Natural Sciences for the after party this year, and while it wasn’t easily possible to study many of the explanations of exhibits around all the networking and free food and booze stations ;), it was still incredible. My favorite section was far and away the animatronic dinosaurs. You could say the display approach is a bit goofy or kitschy, but it’s also fascinating to look at how the display creators thought through join articulation, musculature, skin texture, and choices of hair and feathers. Maybe I shouldn’t, as an adult, be quite so wonderstruck by being roared at by big plastic dinosaurs, but the whole thing just tickled me pink. I mean, look at the custom-knit gloves on this Doctor-scarf-sporting dapper gent: how can you not respect the attention to detail that goes into this stuff?

A Morning in Prison

Parapet at Eastern State Penitentiary

The arrow slits in the wall surrounding the facility are just to create the impression of a fortress. They don’t actually go all the way through the wall.

Last year, we hadn’t managed to make our way over to the Eastern State Penitentiary. This is the world’s first penitentiary and served as the model for hundreds of prisons around the world, representing a shift from temporarily jailing people in appalling conditions while awaiting trial and sentences of various corporal punishments to a model of jailing people in solitary confinement as punishment, to supposedly give them the gift of silence and solitude to rediscover their better selves.

The tour is brilliantly curated to take you through the evolution of the prison system, pointing out the problems they were trying to solve and noting the ones the solutions created. Looking at the prison population in the U.S. and, in particular, the spike in that population since the 1970s, the educational experience presented by this museum is incredibly relevant. We were there for several hours and I still only scraped the surface of the stories being told–this one is worth multiple visits. If you can’t make it to the museum, it’s worth reading up on.

Medicine and Monstrosity

The tagline "Disturbingly Informative" fits this place perfectly.

The tagline “Disturbingly Informative” fits this place perfectly.

Our last stop of the day was another one we ran out of time for last year: The Mutter Museum. There is a strict no photography policy in the exhibit out of respect for the dead displayed there. This is not a place for the weak of stomach. Lots of bones, weird deformed pieces of corpses, and various pickled organs. What stood out for me was the struggle between the human need to know more about the body in order to practice better medicine and the human taboo against screwing around with decomposing flesh. On the one hand, you’ve got people with crippling medical issues begging doctors to use their bodies to help find a cure for others. On the other hand, you’ve got the brain of Albert Einstein being taken from his body and dissected without the family’s permission. In between, you’ve got a doctor taking rare saponified corpses from a building site where they were unearthed under a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” pretense of being requested to deliver the bodies to their kin, who could not possibly be known. And somewhere on that scale, you’ve got writers of medical textbooks robbing graves and storing corpses in their own bedrooms for weeks at a time. (I’m looking at you, Vesalius. That’s pretty damn weird even if you did help democratize medical education.)

What has moral precedent: the gathering of information to inform the healing of countless future generations, or the squeamishness of a grieving family?

Christmas Fair at Dilworth Park

Reindeer in the maze gardenI don’t know what Philly is like the rest of the year, but at Christmas time, it is adorable and garlanded and sparkly. We’ve been staying right near City Hall, so we’ve been walking around this little craft fair, complete with a skating rink and a fascinating variety of buskers, all weekend. We finally puttered through the crowds today, and while there’s only so much Christmas shopping I’m willing to do given that I have to shove my bag onto a plane to get home, it’s a festive environment. I particularly liked the reindeer in the generously named America’s Capital Garden Maze, and I think this one captures my sentiment precisely.

Until next time, Philadelphia.

 

Grateful

It’s hard to be thankful when you’re worried and afraid, but it’s also harder to be afraid when you can see the good things that surround you, so…a few thoughts on things I’m grateful for and how I’m showing gratitude.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the kindness of the Wampanoag confederacy, who taught our ancestors how to survive in a strange land when they arrived fleeing religious and political persecution. I am thankful for that kindness. About a century ago, one of my ancestors fled political persecution in Ireland and was able to build a prosperous life in Boston. Not long after that, one of my ancestors came from Quebec looking for economic opportunities and was also able to build a prosperous life. I am grateful for the opportunities they found here. I am going to honor the kindness of the Wampanoag and the open door policies of the U.S. by advocating kindness for immigrants and for the descendants of this land’s original inhabitants, who are fighting hard battles for a decent life.

Here are a few places I’m looking at supporting:

Donate to or volunteer for the International Refugee Assistance Project »
Donate to or volunteer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund »
Help the Sioux protect Standing Rock »
Donate to or volunteer for the Partnership with Native Americans »

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

Going through my feed this morning, I came across an article about making food affordable in the U.S., and this statement gave me hope:

“Despite our political differences, most Americans are united in the belief that our children should not go hungry.” – Mark Bittman

I’m grateful for that hope that we are all united by the desire to see children fed. It’s a very low bar for what civilization should look like, but common ground is something to be thankful for. This is common ground we can all work on, because kids are hungry, even in the U.S. Here’s a small thing John and I are doing:

bumper-sticker_5

We put together this silly little design and slapped it on some mugs. (Dan, I theoretically put it on a bumper sticker, but CafePress is being buggy, so for now: mugs.) Every single penny that we get from sales on this (plus some of our own) will be going to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine. If you want to join us in supporting their work of reducing hunger but want to do so in a more effective way and don’t care for another mug, donate directly to the GSFB. If you want your donation to have a more national impact, consider donating to Feeding America.

We must get up and take that in, the wind that lets us live.

When I got a puppy, who is high on my obvious things I’m grateful for list, I did not expect to find myself grateful for the difficulty of owning a dog. For every manic greeting, for every snuggle, for every game, there is twice as much boring waiting. Waiting for her to poop, waiting for her to get tired of playing fetch, waiting for her to be done playing at the dog park. I’m willing to do the waiting: sometimes because I know it’s important for her well-being, and sometimes because I just want her to be exhausted enough to let me watch Outlander without interruption. Whatever the reason in the moment, these periods of waiting are necessary and routinely inconvenient. They have taught me the value of inconvenient boredom. This year, in the course of waiting for Ivy to poop, I have seen more stars and more fireflies and more sunsets and more sunrises than in the last ten years combined. At least. Being stuck there between the scatalogical and the cosmological, I’ve been learning to better appreciate the little vacations from mundanity that pop up in unexpected places. Of all the things about my dog I’m grateful for, that one takes the cake.

This might get second place:

img_20160928_213321923

Sooo many cozy nights of being bracketed by Kali and Ivy.

I don’t have a nice, linkable action point on this one, but I guess…I’m trying not to talk myself out of a chance to grow just because a thing seems hard or time-consuming or tedious or scary.

Each of us can work to change a small portion of events.

I’ve been feeling powerless watching the bad news stack up, but I got an email yesterday from the parks director in my town. I had done a little research this summer about creating a dog park here and approached him about the idea. He was very receptive, but had been quiet for a while, so I wasn’t sure where we stood. But today Ivy and I went with him to look at a lovely site where we will have a dog park next summer. He got the right of way permissions squared away, has approached some sponsors for fencing, and has put the plans in motion to complete the necessary infrastructure to access the spot. I’m grateful for the affirmation that sometimes, sometimes, making changes to our local communities can start very effectively with the simple act of saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if…”

There’s a lot for me to be grateful for today–this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope the same is true for all of you. Happy Thanksgiving.

How to Cope with a Scary, Scary Government

I offer no defense for this country in light of the election results last week. I’m wrestling shame myself because I can’t help but wonder where else I should have spoken up or acted to change the outcome. No one is ever happy to see their candidate lose, of course, but when the winning candidate has been endorsed by a hate group, chooses a known hate-group leader to lead the building of his cabinet, and is supported by full-party control of the house, senate, and inevitably Supreme Court majority…well. The worry goes beyond fear for the strength of the economy. Everyone who is not a cis-gendered straight white male of moderate prosperity is justified in being afraid for their civil rights and their safety in the world this government could conceivably shape.

None of this is breaking news. I’m saying it here only by way of laying the groundwork for what I hope is useful to my friends who have been expressing a sense of helplessness and despair. “How do we stay informed as citizens without going crazy?” That’s what I’ve been hearing in the middle of everything. “How do we get through this?” I don’t have a definitive roadmap, but I’ve been listening hard over the last few days, and I have gathered a small collection of ideas from wiser people. Here they are, for what they’re worth.

Say “We’ll stand together,” but please don’t insist “It’s going to be okay.”

Unless you’re the above mentioned white dude, it just might not be okay this time. (Remember the Trail of Tears? The Japanese internment camps? Bad administrations can literally kill their own citizens and legal residents.) If you are a white dude, or anyone who is in a decent position to potentially weather the oncoming storm, be an ally, not a tranquilizer. Listen to why people are afraid, and in the course of listening, keep an ear out for things you can do to help people know that they’ve got support. The immediate fear that’s been emerging for many folks is personal safety, and I mean right now, not in some hypothetical worst case doomsday scenario. Here’s how you can help:

Let’s take a moment to consider non-complementarity.

The anti-harrassment guide linked above is based on the idea of non-complementary behavior having power to shift an interpersonal dynamic dramatically. When we, as humans, meet violence, the complementary (and instinctively easy) response is to push back in kind. This pattern tends to escalate confrontations, making a bad situation worse. If someone comes at us with aggression, however, and we have the strength of will to not react with fear and anger, we have a better chance of finding a peaceful path through a confrontation. Some ideas to get the non-complementarity thought process churning:

  • When you want to rage at a family member for voting for bigotry, instead, try to figure out what they’re afraid of that led them to think voting for Trump would be in their personal best interests. Remember: people who feel safe and well-fed are a lot less likely to lash out against those around them, so there might be some genuine basis of fear behind the willingness to either endorse bigotry or pretend it’s no big deal.
  • When you see stupidity and violence in the media, don’t react with angry Facebook posts. Instead, figure out what can be done to help the victims or prevent a repeat of the incident (whether it’s finding out which non-profit is set up to make a difference or writing to your representatives or showing up to form a supportive wall around someone who is at risk), and then talk about that on social media instead of spewing forth more angry fuel for the rage-fire.

Look for the helpers.

You’ve all seen this before, I’m sure, but let’s take a beat and watch it again:

Whether you’re watching the news in shock during the aftermath of a disaster, or whether you’re bracing yourself for a possible fight to simply maintain civil rights at the current level, this advice is good. Don’t waste your precious self on shouting insults down on the people whose actions infuriate you. Instead, look for the people who are doing good work and sing their praises loud and wide. Support them as you can. Emulate them as you can. Take heart and take hope from good actions. Yes, you need to be informed of what’s going on, and I’m sorry that sometimes being an informed citizen is painful, but you can make the situation a little better for yourself and others by putting as much energy as you can into hunting down the evidence of the helpers and shining light on them. Here’s one concrete idea:

  • Christmas time is here: the annual season of spending every last penny and (for some folks) borrowing a few to make the holiday special. Is there a better way to give hope and shine light on the helpers than to save a human life from terror and deprivation in the name of a loved one?

Speaking of shining lights on folks…

There’s no wrong time to champion beauty. Everyone’s day is made better when we share wonderful art, music, literature, humor, anecdotes of human goodness…you get the idea. Minorities always have to work harder to be heard, even in good times, so why not show support and solidarity by making a point of looking for great art, etc. by threatened minorities? When you find work you love, don’t be quiet about it–signal boost the evidence that these people who are in danger of being kicked to the curb are people who make the world around them better. They enrich our lives. Be the shoulders they can stand on to let their beautiful voices be heard.

How do you stay sane while staying informed right now? Be an ally. Practice the hell out of non-complementarity. Focus on the helpers. Amplify the voices of the vulnerable. A complete solution? Of course not. But I’d bet good money that you’ll feel a little calmer and a little more empowered if you work some of these ideas into your coping strategy.

Enlightened self-interest, people. It all comes back around to enlightened self-interest.

#FinalElectionThoughts

I’ve been light-handed with how much I talk about politics online this election cycle because I don’t want to get into the mud with complete strangers on the internet, but before the Election Day, here are a few things I’ll take a stand on.

You’re voting for more than the president, folks.

Laws and policies that impact you are set by your town, county, district, and state. Folks who enter politics at a local level and do well can go on to be elected for jobs with more widespread influence. Don’t half-ass your voting decisions for the small potatoes.

The information age makes educating yourself easy.

If you still don’t know what’s on your ballot, you should educate yourself: http://www.vote411.org/

If you don’t know where or when you’re voting, you should educate yourself: https://www.rockthevote.com/get-informed/elections/find-your-polling-place/

If you’ve been relying on click-bait headlines to shape your opinions, you should check the key facts informing your vote: http://www.politifact.com/

And now, for my soapbox.

I am a firm believer in what I’ve taken to calling the church of enlightened self-interest. The single pillar of my belief is that we all do better when we help one another do better. Compassion warms the giver and the receiver alike. This is not a revolutionary concept, but it’s not an intuitive one for our lizard brains, which want to see life as nothing but a zero-sum struggle for resources. Even so, I think it’s the most important belief to cultivate in ourselves, so I’ll just ask you to run your voting choices through the filters of “Who might this hurt?” and “Is this the most compassionate choice I can make?”

Finally: VOTE.

That is all.

The Madness Begins. Again.

Aaaand….once again, it’s that time of the year in which I miraculously blog more frequently than is sane because I’m avoiding doing what I’m supposed to actually be doing: working on my current NaNoWriMo project. That’s right, folks! It’s National Novel Writing Month and I’m descending into madness once again.

I’ve got a pretty clear idea of my plot, my characters, my voice, my world…it should be a fun one to write. Space hobbits. (More on that later.) And yet, what I’ve managed to accomplish in my scheduled window of time this afternoon is setting up the Facebook page I’ve been meaning to set up for a year and a half; messing around with Tumblr to once again ponder whether it’s a good social media space for me; and completely reconfiguring my writing tech.

The last one I’m actually excited about. One of my issues with writing and editing is that I work on two different machines. Most of my writing gets done on my PC because I’ve been using specific writing software and because the keyboard is bigger. Most of my computer time, however, ends up being on my work machine, since I work from home some of the time. Which means that if I want to get writing work done, I have to switch machines and deal with the antique slowness of The Beast. Sometimes that’s good, because I can’t do much else but write without crashing the machine so the distractions are minimized, but sometimes I want to be able to just duck into a coffee shop after work for an hour for a quick session, and not being able to access my files slows me down.

Some of you may be eagerly waving your hands in the air shouting, “Google Docs! Google Docs!” I am, however, distrustful of the degree of control Google already has over my content because I’m a paranoid misanthrope who fears the worst of everyone…which I might be able to get past if I had had anything other than trouble with using Docs in offline mode. I need something that’s reliably workable offline, works across incompatible operating systems, and ideally gives me something like version control.

I’ve been afraid to leave my fancy writing software (FWS) behind, but given that I am not willing to pay for two different versions of any of the FWS, I’ve had to strike out and think creatively. And in the process of chewing over this problem, I’ve discovered a tool that is ridiculously more functional than the FWS for world-building and continuity management. Friggin’ databases. I haven’t gotten comfortable enough with the code to be working sans-GUI, but I’ve been loving AirTable. For those of you who do not hover around the edges of the web-building world, this is basically a series of interlinkable spreadsheets. There are volumes upon volumes of words written on structuring data sensibly in order to avoid shooting yourself in the foot, so I’m not going to try to explain that process here, but I will say that this is hands-down the best kind of tool I’ve found for keeping track of crazy things like fictional species traits, con-lang details, character descriptions, etc. Vastly superior to any of the writing software I’ve worked with to-date, especially for series, because you can maintain a single base that works as a little personal wiki for everything in the series without having to flip between book files or worry about data integrity. Solid gold.

Having figured out the general tracking piece for all of the complex world-building stuff, the FWS had two benefits left: note-tracking and place-finding, and the solution to both is currently the same tool that I was just dissing thirty seconds ago…Google Docs. I’ve been finding that the easiest way to organize the multiple edits coming in from various sources has turned out to be a central “punch list.” This is a term from construction referring to a list of all the little fiddly things that have to be dealt with to wrap up a job, but my company uses it for website construction and I find the principle to be sound in book building. Basically, I start with an outline and just keeping adding to it: thoughts on themes I need to hit more intentionally, places I need to fix, facts that need checking, research questions I need to answer, opinions from other people that require some consideration, and so on. Instead of creating this document for the editing phase (which is what I did initially), I’m filling out the outline as I go. Each chapter gets a quick synopsis once it’s written and includes a notes section on things to revisit and comments for thoughts I want to be able to scan. Now, as long as my manuscript is labeled to be consistent with my punch list, I can use the punch list to keep track of what information is where in the book and just use “Find” to pull up the chapter in question.

That functionality removed, literally the only thing I need my actual manuscript-producing software to do is record characters. That means I can use whatever will output a format compatible with two systems: which means either .doc or .txt. Plain text doesn’t use rich text formatting like bold and whatever, but it DOES save html markup, and since I will eventually need to put a bunch of stuff in html anyway in order to format properly for an ebook, I’m really just forcing myself to produce a cleaner copy of the code while I’m writing. Pretty undistracting for me, since I work with html on a regular basis, and pretty learnable at the level I’m talking about for anyone who’s curious.  (Seriously, shoot me an email if you want a list of html codes you’re likely to need and resources for finding the rest. I have this documented for my own sanity and I’m happy to share.)

Yes, I know, moving to plain text means that I’m losing the spelling and grammar check functions, but that’s no big deal. My FWS currently actually stinks at those checks, so I have to run my stuff through Word anyway, which is just as easy. Either that, or I can buy some proprietary review software (which exists, but which I have not tried and therefore remain neutral on at the moment).

The final piece of my tech stack for this project is key for allowing me to work between machines, and it solves another problem that is easy for any writer to accidentally run into, to tragic effect: backups. (PSA: Back it up daily!) By using file-sharing software with version control (i.e., the ability to upload a new version of the file) and syncing enabled, I can keep both of my machines consistent with one another just by saving the file. I was thinking of getting super fancy and setting up a Github repo, but I looked deep inside my soul and realized that I am a remora in the tech world, not a shark, and I don’t quite have the code teeth to set that up. Still, if you can work with Git at all, the version control flexibility has some darn nifty potential, so it might be worth a try for you codeshark-writers out there.

The endless process of decision-making having been described, here’s a summary of my writing tech stack:

  • World-Building: Database GUI (AirTable, for now)
  • General Planning: Cloud-based word processing (Google Docs, for now)
  • Manuscript Writing: Plain text editor (Sublime, JEdit, etc.)
  • Editing/Review: Best tool for the job (Word, for now)
  • Backup/Version Control: File-sharing tool (Dropbox, Box, Github)

Okay. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got space hobbits to annoy.

Autumn’s Sister is live!

Autumn's Sister CoverAt long last, Autumn’s Sister is up and available for purchase! It’s been a slog. I finished the first draft of Autumn’s Sister before I had finished publishing Autumn’s Daughter, and since then, I’ve completed the draft of the final book in the trilogy, Autumn’s Exile; a couple hundred thousand words worth of episodes for a serial science fiction thing; and a novella. I don’t tell you this to brag on my work ethic, but to demonstrate that I’ve gotten some practice and storytelling experience under my belt in between drafting and editing Autumn’s Sister. This increased experience translated to waves of loathing and discouragement that made the editing process difficult to push through: I fully intended to publish this book a year ago, and you can see how well that worked out.

When I published Autumn’s Daughter, I also wrote a bit about my perspective on why self-publishing is worth doing. Two books in and two years later, I’m feeling a little more conflicted. Self-publishing is exhausting and lonely. You have to be a bit mad in the manner of Don Quixote, tilting at the massive indifference of readers with many better-marketed (and many just plain better) books to choose from. I’m not sure if I’m mad enough to keep it up indefinitely, which is why I’m going to be shopping the aforementioned novella–it’s at least worth working through the ropes of the traditional publishing industry to see if there is help and support to be had from more experienced people.

I still stand by the value of self-publishing in democratizing art and making room for more experimental work like this little oddball series. The Sidhe Diaries are a bit weird in general, especially Autumn’s Sister, which is a fantasy book focusing on a character with scant magical abilities living in the real world for most of the story. Where Niamh’s story in Autumn’s Daughter was a more typical “changeling princess” plot, Birdy’s story is about recovering from trauma in solitude. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that my beta readers were not, by and large, pleased with how I chose to wrap up this book. I would bet that most publishing houses wouldn’t be either, and if you read it, you may be upset with me too.

But here’s the thing: I stand by this ending. I won’t explain why here, since not many of you have read it yet, but after feedback from my wonderful beta readers, several rounds of edits, and some deep contemplation…I stand by it. I hope the final book will give clarity to my choice, and in the meantime, I hope you’ll let yourself share in Birdy’s uncomfortably limited knowledge of the sidhe courts and how it frames the mayhem she’s been dragged into.

Requisite “support the author” spiel : )

  • Here’s the link to buy Autumn’s Sister. Reviews (good or bad) are very helpful in improving how Amazon understands my books and are deeply appreciated!
  • If you haven’t read Autumn’s Daughter, here’s the link to buy that one. I’ve dropped the price to $0.99 (as low as Amazon lets me go), and you can add the audiobook for $1.99. Reviews are also deeply appreciated on this one.
  • If you have the interest in being a beta reader or would like to hear about new books and other writing ventures, I’ve got a mailing list for that, and I’d love to include you.