May 11, 2019
I’m baaaack! It’s surprising how time can get away from you when life gets busy. It seems like such a short time since my last blog.
Since my last installment I’ve been taking a class about how to incorporate reading and writing into a high school classroom, and one of my assignments serendipitously reintroduced me to an award-winning science fiction author that I really enjoy reading. Octavia Butler was one of the female pioneers of written science fiction. As a woman, an African-American, and a lesbian, she brought “outsider” elements to the genre that were sorely needed in the 1970’s when she wrote her seminal works. I was peripherally aware of her work, but it was only recently after I chose one of her novellas for my assignment on integrating fiction into a high school biology classroom that I realized how amazingly relatable and revolutionary her stories are for me. She was a science fiction writer, not a medical professional, but her biological research was impeccable. Her stories all seem to revolve around fascinating biological concepts. I found myself mourning her too-early death in 2006 at age 58. This is a woman I would dearly have loved to have a conversation with. I just finished her Xenogenesis trilogy and her collection of short stories entitled “Bloodchild and other stories”. My next stop will be her novel Kindred, and then I intend to revisit her Patternist series. I can’t recommend her work highly enough. It’s thought-provoking, intelligent, and even now almost 50 years later, groundbreaking. Stretch your mind and read her books. You won’t regret it.
February 23, 2019
I’m learning how to be a high school teacher (really long story – suffice it to say it’s my plan B for retirement), and the classes I’ve been taking have helped me realize why I enjoy science fiction so much more than any other genre of literature. We’ve been talking in class about something called “higher order thinking”, which is a skill I’m supposed to teach my students. Higher order thinking is about the “why and how” of things rather than about the “what and when.” Simple memorization of facts can only get a person so far, but it’s pretty much all I did in school throughout elementary and high school. Even my college and medical school experiences mostly involved memorization and regurgitation, which I’ve learned only recently is “lower order thinking.” To function at a higher level, kids need to be taught the process of first asking deeper questions and then finding the answers to them themselves. I think the reason why I love science fiction so much is that at a time in my life when I was investigating deeper questions and had no one to talk to about them, science fiction asked (and to some extent answered) those questions for me. It stretched my understanding and broadened my world view to include endless possibilities, and still does. No other genre of literature makes me think, imagine, and wonder the way science fiction does. The sheer weirdness of it expands my concept of the universe. I like that. It keeps me young.
February 2, 2019
I started reading science fiction and fantasy before I was old enough to care about romance. My scifi reading journey started around age 12 with the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Asimov, Van Vogt, del Rey, “Doc” Smith, and many others- all male. It wasn’t until the age of 13 or so that I discovered that women could also write science fiction. As far as I knew, since I hadn’t done my homework yet about James Tiptree and Andre Norton, every other author I’d read up to that point had been male. And then I discovered Anne McCaffrey, and my eyes were opened. Admittedly, when I first found her Dragonriders of Pern series I thought it was fantasy- at least until I read the first page and realized what she’d created: a virtually seamless blend of scifi and fantasy full of believable relationships and fully-fleshed characters. The books are uplifting and positive tales of dragons and humans battling natural phenomena instead of each other. I wanted to have my own fire lizard so badly I could taste it. My first cosplay at a science fiction convention (at age 14) included a homemade one that was molded to perch on my shoulder. I made it myself out of paper mache and chicken wire, and it looked more like a tiny tyrannosaur with wings, but it was MY fire lizard. (I kept it, actually. It’s still on a shelf in my closet 41 years later.) In addition to her Dragonriders series, which is still being written by her son Todd since her death, McCaffrey wrote several other series of books. My favorites are her Brainship series (about a severely physically handicapped young woman who serves as the “brain” of a space ship) and the Tower and the Hive series, another brilliant blend of fantasy tropes in a science fiction setting, a universe in which telepathy and psychokinesis can be scientifically explained. Her books are full of memorable and likeable characters who fall in love, experience heartbreak, and achieve amazing things. I spent a large part of my adolescence immersed in Anne McCaffrey’s world, and I highly recommend it. Her books are appropriate for teens on up. You should check them out.
January 25, 2019
For the third of my 2019 blogs about authors I think are really awesome, I’ll focus my attention on an amazingly prolific and legendary grand-dame of science fiction, C.J. Cherryh.
I believe my first exposure to Ms. Cherryh’s work was back in the ‘80’s when I discovered The Pride of Chanur and its sequels. In that series Cherryh creates a fierce culture of spacefaring anthropomorphic human-sized cats (literally lions on two legs, complete with family groups called prides and other typical big cat behaviors) and tells their story through the eyes of the comparatively fragile human male forced to share a ship with them. I loved the interaction of human with alien, the realistic character building, and the expert culture creation in these books. The fact that there is no romance in them to speak of allows Cherryh to portray close platonic friendships between individuals who are in no way physically compatible or attracted to each other, and that makes these books unique. They’re emotionally satisfying for me as a reader in ways I don’t get from typical shoot ’em up space opera, in a different (but not necessarily lesser) way than romance is emotionally satisfying. In my view, the relationships between Tully, the human, and his ship-mates mirror the affection between a human and his cats, only in reverse, with Tully taking on the role of the pet in need of rescue and protection.
Many other books written by Cherryh (and there are loads of them) are centered around a similar theme: an isolated human forced to live precariously among members of a dangerous alien race. My favorites of these by Cherryh are the books in the Foreigner series, a still ongoing multivolume series about a human diplomat living among the alien Atevi. It’s a fascinating blend of political intrigue, realistic interpersonal relationships, and science fiction world building. I’ve been reading these books for years. There are 19 of them, she’s still writing them, and they are all amazing.
Ms. Cherryh has won a Hugo award (sort of the Oscars for science fiction, voted on annually at the World Science Fiction Convention) twice for best novel. The two books which won the Hugo award are Downbelow Station and Cyteen, both amazing examples of intelligent “space opera”/ hard science fiction – my favorite kind. Really anything you pick up with C.J. Cherryh’s name on the front cover is going to blow your mind, but you’ll likely enjoy the books that belong to a series more if you read them in order, so do your homework if a book looks good to you and go back to the beginning of the series. You won't regret it, and you definitely will be busy for quite a while. Happy reading!
January 18, 2019
This week’s blog is a continuation of my last one. If you recall, I was talking about authors that I think readers of science fiction and romance might like. Although I do love science fiction and romance, I also enjoy both fantasy and historical fiction from time to time, and these next two authors blend romance seamlessly with their versions of what I’ll call historical fantasy.
The first is Jean Auel. Her Earth’s Children series (starting with Clan of the Cave Bear) is technically historical romance, but she sets her story in the Paleolithic era, so far back in history that (in my opinion, at least) it becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. The main character is a woman who is kidnapped and enslaved by Neanderthals, but eventually (spoiler alert!) does manage to free herself and find love. This series is definitely hot (R-rated at least) but that’s not why I love it. What I love is that the author does a marvelous job creating believable Neanderthal and early Cro-Magnon cultures. I love the fact that her female protagonist is a well-drawn and fully fleshed out character – a strong woman in distress who saves herself, a rare thing in fiction. If you’re not much of a reader, check out the movie “Clan of the Cave Bear” starring Darryl Hannah. It’s not as good as the book, but maybe it’ll inspire you to read the rest of the books.
The second author is Diana Gabaldon. I truly hope you’ve already discovered the TV series on STARZ based on her books. Outlander the series is amazing, and the books are even better. They tell the story of a nurse from the 1940’s (she later becomes a doctor) who is transported to 16th century Scotland (and later France and the British American colonies) via magic through standing stones. Yes, it’s fantasy. But once Gabaldon’s thoroughly modern heroine gets to the 1700’s, the story becomes a totally believable tale of what might happen if a well-educated woman from the 20th century actually traveled back in time. The story is immersive and impressively historically accurate. There is sex, of course. It’s a romance, after all, and not for kids. But sex is only a very small part of the incredible story this author has to tell. As you can see, I’m a huge fan. Unlike most TV shows based on books, the TV version of Outlander is just as good as the books in its own way. But you need to read the books. Trust me on this. You don’t want to miss out on Ms. Gabaldon’s masterful use of language and characterization.
Now that you know what kinds of books I like to read, have you got any book suggestions for me? I’m always looking to add to my reading list.
January 4, 2019
In keeping with my New Year’s resolution to write more blogs, I’ve decided to try to get back into the habit of doing this weekly. This blog is supposed to be about science fiction and romance (not necessarily in that order), so let’s talk about that.
I prefer reading (and writing) books containing elements of romance mixed with science fiction. I don’t, however, usually enjoy the work of authors who market their work as “science fiction romance” but instead put out what amounts to soft porn in a superficially “scifi” setting and don’t bother to do the world building necessary to create believable science fiction. It’s not that I’m a prude, mind you. If the book is well-written and tells a good story, a non-gratuitous sex scene (one which furthers the plot) can spice things up. But if plot, characterization, and world building all take a back seat to graphic physical descriptions of sexual acts, I’m generally not very interested. My free time is limited, and I’d prefer not to waste it reading PWP, which is fanfiction shorthand for “porn-without-plot”. (You don’t want to search the term online with kids in the room. Trust me on this.)
Fortunately, there are authors who write the combination of romance and science fiction very well, including excellent world-building, plot, and characterization, with the nice addition of tasteful hotness at times. Some classic favorites of mine are the books of Jacqueline Lichtenberg (later in collaboration with Jean Lorrah). The setting of her books is a post-apocalyptic Earth in which humans have mutated into two distinct species, one of which (the Simes) preys upon the other (the Gens). Since Simes sprout tentacles on their arms at puberty, can kill by draining the life force from Gens, “farm” Gens for this life force, and enslave them, it’s tempting to think of them as the mutant monsters and the Gens as regular humans, but over the course of the books Lichtenberg makes it clear that Gens are also mutants. The life force they produce makes them the complement of Simes, their ideal partners. The dichotomy mirrors the battle of the sexes, and is a totally absorbing mythos. I highly recommend the books. I’d say they’re about PG-13, appropriate for older teens.
A considerably hotter series that rocked my world view when I first read it are the Terre d’Ange books by Jacqueline Carey. (Yes, two Jacquelines, but they’re definitely not the same person.) These books are amazing, but NOT for teens (or even some adults) because of BDSM elements and elements of “alternate history” Christianity which could be offensive to some (so definitely R rated). They’re set in an alternate history pre-Revolutionary France called “Terre d’Ange” in which Christianity did not emerge as the predominant religion. Instead, “Blessed Elua and his companions” become the driving cultural force, their teachings the source of the philosophy “Love as Thou Wilt”. The back story of these books is indescribable in a single paragraph. To give an example, one of “Blessed Elua’s companions” is said to have sold her body for food to feed him when he was hungry, and is revered for this. For this reason, in the Terre d’Ange culture both girls and boys with the desire to be sex workers (a respected and holy occupation) can enter the equivalent of holy orders by joining a “house” at puberty. The various “houses” specialize in different types of sexual pleasure and train their members in their particular specialty. The heroine of the books is a member of a house of submissives, and becomes a spy. You can well imagine where the books might go from there. The main fascination for me with these books is Carey’s completely believable anthropological world building. The bizarre culture makes perfect sense. The whole thing is just mind-twisting. If you’re open minded and enjoy having your preconceptions turned on their heads, you’ll love this series.
More next week! I’ve got a whole library of amazing books. While we're waiting, what books would you guys recommend?
December 28, 2018
I was prepping for CyPhaCon 2019 today and had to send the guest author liaison the link to my website, and I noticed that my last blog entry was in September. Oops. I do have a reminder set on my phone to write a blog entry every Friday, but things got busy in the fall and I started ignoring the reminders. I didn’t realize that I’d ignored so many of them, though.
Thinking about ignoring phone reminders prompted me to write this blog. I’m not sure if you’re having the same problem as I’m having with overscheduling, but it seems to me that being chronically overbooked without sufficient time in the day to do everything I should be doing is something I’ve been struggling with for years. I fully intend to do everything on my schedule. I set reminders to do all the things, and when I set them, I always believe that there’s enough time in the day to do them, but then one thing on the list takes a half hour longer than it should to finish and all the rest of the schedule for the day is trashed. I tell myself that I need to simplify, but then I find something else amazing that I really want to learn to do, and pretty soon I’m taking a college night class, teaching myself how to play the recorder, planting a hydroponic garden, and writing a scifi trilogy while trying to work full time. (Yep. That’s what I have planned for this spring.)
I enjoy my crazy life, and I’m going to blog more in 2019, I promise. But first I have to figure out which things I should stop doing so I have the time to do more things. What do you think? Are you in the same boat, or have you managed to simplify?
September 23, 2018
As I sat trying to figure out what to blog about this week, my husband asked me what my blog page was about. (He doesn’t spend a lot of time online.) When I told him the name of the blog, he half-jokingly said that if I don’t have something romantic to blog about, then he’s falling down on the job. Whereupon he poured himself a diet soda, sat down on the couch, put his headphones on, and proceeded to ignore me while watching TV with the external sound off, which is what he usually does if I’m working on my laptop on the couch next to him. Is that particularly romantic? I think most people would say no. But it’s thoughtful of him to allow me the peace to write. It can’t be comfortable wearing those headphones all the time.
His response made me think. We’ve been married 34 years and 2 months, give or take a few days. Is it really still his responsibility to inject romance into our relationship? He seems to think so. And what exactly does he consider romantic? Fortunately, it’s not the “sweep me off my feet” type of romance, although he did do a pretty darn good job of that for the first couple of years after we met. After 34 years that would get pretty exhausting. No, I think what he’s talking about is the “thoughtful little things” type of romance.
Before you start protesting that mowing the lawn and checking the chlorine level in the pool aren’t romantic, hear me out. I’m married to a man who routinely has to get up at 3 am to deliver babies and do major surgery. He’s chronically sleep-deprived and constantly on call. And yet, the grass gets mowed and the pool is nice to swim in, and most nights when I get up to clean the kitchen after dinner, it’s already done. We’ve just moved back into our newly remodeled house after 2 years of post-flood repair, and every time I look around he’s painting something, fixing something, or unpacking something. The man can’t sit down to watch TV for five minutes without falling asleep (he’s asleep next to me right now with his earphones on), but he’s doing all these things because he LOVES me. And if that’s not romantic, I don’t know what is.
September 15, 2018
I’ve been struggling lately with empty nest syndrome, but not for the usual reasons. My husband and I were forced out of our home by flooding in August of 2016 and have just recently moved back in after a whole house restoration. We’re enjoying our basically new home, but after living with two of my adult children and their various pets in close quarters for the past two years, I’m finding my lovely new home huge and empty with just my husband to keep me company. It’s a profoundly first world problem to have, and I feel guilty complaining about it when so many people in the world have so little.
Fortunately, unpacking and decluttering have kept me sufficiently busy thus far, and although I know intellectually that barring unforeseen circumstances I will never again have any of my children living under the same roof with me, I don’t think it’s fully hit me yet from an emotional standpoint. My youngest just turned 20, but I've also got a 26 year old, and my eldest is 32, so I haven’t had all of my kids living with me for over a decade. Having things happen gradually like this has in some ways made it easier. I’ve been ready for some time to stop doing laundry for four. But I miss my kids. I miss seeing the looks on their faces when they taste something I’ve cooked. I miss hearing about boyfriends and girlfriends and issues at work and school.
I swore when I was younger that I wouldn’t be one of those annoyingly needy old ladies that keep pestering their adult kids and putting guilt trips on them to visit when they've barely got enough time to live their own lives. My mom has been really good about not doing that to me, even though I know she gets lonely sometimes. And so I’ve promised myself that I’m going to invite my kids over, but not get upset when they’re too busy to come. I’m going to stop pestering them about marriage and grandkids and just enjoy things as they happen. I’m going to re-connect with my husband, my friends and my own parents, and continue to seek fulfillment in work and self-education. I’m going to spend every day being grateful for the gifts I’ve been given, no matter what form those gifts may take in the future, and maybe then I won’t miss my kids so much.
What do you think? Are you empty nesting? What’s working for you to fill the void?
August 25, 2018
Every weekday morning at my office we gather at the nurse’s station for a few minutes to prepare for the day. Part of that preparation is the reading of a brief inspirational quote. Friday’s quote inspired my blog this week. It was this: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
Sure, it’s inspirational, but it’s also kind of trite, and didn’t much affect me until I saw the name of the author: Anne Frank. That’s when the feeling hit, and as ridiculous as it might seem on a busy Friday morning at the office with so many more immediate things to be concerned about, I actually teared up and had to go get a tissue.
Anne Frank’s book “The Diary of a Young Girl” has been required reading in middle and high school literature programs in the U.S. for decades. I read an English translation, of course, from the original Dutch. You’ve probably read some or all of it yourself. In case you don’t remember, I’ll summarize it very briefly. Anne was a Jewish teenager who wrote her diary and other mostly incomplete posthumously published works while hiding from the Nazi occupation in Amsterdam with her family and a few friends. They hid for two years (from July 1942 to August 1944) in several enclosed rooms, supplied food and other necessities by a few Christian friends and observing total silence during the day to avoid discovery. The stories and diary entries themselves are surprisingly ordinary day-to-day tales written by an inquisitive and intelligent teenage girl. I can remember regretting as I read them that I would never meet Anne. It seemed to me that she and I would have had a lot in common. Her generally upbeat and hopeful stories contrasted with her horrendous circumstances to create a work that at the time really impressed upon me the fragility of human life. After the group’s discovery and transport to concentration camps in August of 1944, only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived. Anne was 15 years old when she died, probably of typhus, in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February or March of 1945. Otto Frank returned to their place of hiding after the war and discovered that his Christian secretary had saved Anne’s writings. After great effort on his part, Anne’s diary, and later several of her stories and an incomplete novel, were eventually published. Her work has been translated into over 60 languages. Millions of people over the years have identified with Anne as I did, and felt intimately through her writing the horrors inflicted by the Holocaust, so that hopefully, assuming humans are in fact an intelligent form of life, such atrocities will never happen again. In 1999 Anne Frank was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. And that’s why I teared up. Because she did improve the world.
August 18, 2018
This week I’ve decided to blog about a subject very near and dear to my heart. Reading.
Every human learns to read these days if they’re intellectually capable of it and not living in abject poverty in a third world country. For some of us, fortunately a minority, reading is a struggle, and because it’s so much work to read things, we’d rather do virtually anything else to obtain information. For most of us it’s a useful skill, done when circumstances require it, and only occasionally, when time and our interests permit, does it become an enjoyable activity. And then there are, the minority for whom reading is a source of joy. The written page serves as a direct download to our imaginations. We see stories in our heads as we read, and read for the sheer pleasure of it, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else.
As a lifetime member of this last group of humans, I spent the preponderance of my waking hours from about age 7 (when I discovered books had chapters) through my teen years with my nose in a book. I read novels in class by hiding them inside the textbook when lectures were boring. I read during school recess. I read during summer vacations and holidays. I read during meals. I read so much that my parents complained about it and forced me to go outside, whereupon I created a reading nook inside the hedge in the back yard and hid so I could read without being disturbed. I have always greatly preferred fiction to non-fiction, the stranger the better, which is why, I suppose, I gravitated toward science fiction very early, but I did read other things as well. I read so much as a child that I completely missed major current events. For example, though I was born in 1963 and presumably watched the news with my parents in the late 60’s and early 70’s (or at least was reading in the same room while they watched the news), I have absolutely no recollection of any news coverage of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, or the impeachment of Nixon. Once I became an adult, I was forced to stop reading quite so constantly in order to do more practical things like go to medical school and raise a family, but even now I still read about one novel a month. Although, truth be told, my preference still usually would be to stay home and read rather than go out and do practically anything else, I have learned that if I want to have a fulfilling life, I’ve got to limit my reading time in favor of direct personal interactions with other human beings.
The reason I’m telling you all this is to give you a clearer picture of my point of view when I say that I believe reading is vitally important both for the imparting of knowledge and for the exercise of the imagination. It is as necessary as breathing for me, and I firmly believe that no one can become a great writer without first becoming a great reader. There is debatably such a thing as too much reading, but my childhood obliviousness to current events was remediable, and quite honestly, I was very happy knowing nothing about the Vietnam war until adulthood. What I did come away with was a larger than average vocabulary and a mental storehouse of wonderful stories I can use as inspiration for my own work.
I’m sure that you have your own reading story to tell. To which group of humans do you belong?
August 11, 2018
I’m still trying to find the time to write the third book in the Sikkiyn trilogy, my husband and I are finally moving back into our renovated house this month after living in our son’s home since the Deluge of 2016, I’ve just volunteered to be academic advisor for the local chapter of my new sorority (alumna initiation rocks, BTW), I’m taking a night class in secondary education classroom management this coming semester (life plan B – long story), plus I’m still working 40 hours a week at my day job. At work, our busiest time of the year is the fall semester. You might say that my schedule is rather full. I was thinking about how I planned to prepare for the craziness this fall, and that gave me the idea for this week’s blog.
Stress. There’s no escaping it. Some of it we can’t do anything about. I find the Serenity Prayer helpful for that. If you’re not familiar with it, look it up. It’s a good one to put up on a wall somewhere so you can see it every day when you’re dealing with stuff you can’t change by any action on your part. I’ve heard it summarized as “Letting go and letting God” (or higher power, or fate, or the universe, or whatever other not-you all powerful force floats your boat). But some stressful things we can definitely do something about. Trouble is, a lot of the things humans seem to do instinctively while attempting to relieve stress only make things worse.
I spend a lot of my time at work counseling college students about ways to combat this problem. I don’t claim to always practice what I preach, but this is what I usually tell them. We all know there’s no way to completely avoid life’s stressors, but when I follow this advice, it usually does help.
1. Do today’s work today. Procrastination will only make things worse. Get a planner. Put assignments, projects, and deadlines in it and stick to them. If you tend to forget to look at your planner, put a reminder in your phone to look at your planner every day, preferably more than once a day. The more you look at it, the more likely you’ll be to remember the stuff you have to do and get it done on time.
2. Divide large projects into smaller ones. If something looks overwhelming, odds are you’ll be reluctant to start doing it. Sit down and break it up into smaller manageable pieces. Do a piece. Check it off your list and celebrate. Do another piece. Check it off your list and celebrate. Rinse. Repeat.
3. All things in moderation. You need sleep. You need food. You need to fulfill your responsibilities. You need to have fun. All four of these important things need to fit into a 24-hour day. Sit down with your schedule and figure out your priorities. Balance the time you’re spending doing each of these four things and adjust your schedule accordingly. At some times in our lives we might have to reduce time spent having fun in order to have enough time to fulfill our responsibilities. This is called deferred gratification, and virtually all successful people are good at it. They have to be in order to succeed. But uninterrupted sleep time and regular meals should be non-negotiable. You can’t function if you’re in the hospital because you got in a car accident or became seriously ill due to lack of sleep or poor nutrition.
4. Learn to say no. It’s tempting to want to participate in everything. For most of us, when our friends and family ask us to join in, our first tendency is to want to do it. But there are only so many hours in the day. If your schedule is so full that you can’t possibly do anything else without eliminating necessary sleep hours or skipping meals, look at your schedule again and simplify it. Say no to what’s unnecessary so that you have time to do what’s necessary.
5. Drugs and alcohol don’t help. They may temporarily make you feel good or give you a burst of energy, but over the long term drugs and alcohol will invariably increase your stress level if you’re trying to use them to combat fatigue or to numb the distress. If you’re getting into the habit of self-medicating at the end of a stressful day or using stimulants to combat fatigue from lack of sleep, it would probably be more helpful to talk to someone instead. A friend, significant other, parent, spiritual advisor, or counselor can help you much more than that Red Bull, six-pack, or joint would, and without the pesky side effects.
What about you? Do you have any stress relieving tips to add to the list? I’m sure the rest of us could use the advice. I know I could. Wish me luck. : )
July 27, 2018
Although I’m not a teacher by profession, I do consider myself an educator. I work for a college health clinic and spend at least half of every work day individually counseling college students about health-related topics, including providing counseling about time management and study skills as they relate to college success. Because of what I do all day, I was dismayed when I found out recently that our local school board has decided teachers in public elementary and secondary schools in our area can no longer grade their students’ homework assignments. In other words, although giving homework is permitted, grading the homework is not.
When I first heard this, I had to think long and hard to find any plausible reasons why anyone would believe this was a good idea. After some cogitation, I came up with two possibilities that made sense to me. Kids these days are terribly overscheduled. By middle school many of them are involved in so many after school activities that they frequently miss out on sleep in order to get everything done. They’re stressed and have no time for unstructured play. I can see how making homework less stressful might give these overscheduled kids more time to be kids. The second plausible reason I can think of is a justice issue. A person who is concerned about giving every child a level playing field academically might be concerned that some parents are more involved with their kids’ homework than others. If homework assignments are graded, kids with highly involved parents who actively help their children with homework (often to the extent of doing some or all of the work for them) have a tremendous grade advantage over kids whose parents remain relatively uninvolved.
Despite these reasons, I still believe that not grading homework will prove to be a mistake. Yes, kids are overscheduled, but I feel strongly that the way to solve this issue is to limit extracurricular activities, not to eliminate the incentive to do homework, especially in middle school and high school when homework (if assigned correctly) serves as training for the study skills kids will need to succeed in post-secondary education. Many of the young adults I see for academic and “focus” issues in the college health clinic where I work are not succeeding in college primarily because they lack the self-discipline and organization skills necessary for independent study at the college level. Students learn skills by repetition, and complex skills are best learned by breaking them down into smaller manageable tasks which should be evaluated for completion and correctness prior to moving to the next task. Teachers can still attempt to teach these skills without graded homework, of course, but without any incentive to complete homework I’m afraid many students will simply not do it. This new policy, in my opinion, does our kids a disservice. By the time the exam comes around (the only graded assignment), a student who hasn’t done homework is less likely to have learned the material, resulting in a failing grade without homework grades to buffer it. I feel badly for the high school students who will arrive at college or trade school without the study skills and self-discipline necessary to succeed. What do you think? Is grading homework useful to students in elementary and secondary school, or do you agree with the Lafayette Parish school board that it’s unnecessary?
July 20, 2018
I’ve been obsessed with written science fiction and fantasy since my early teens. About the age of twelve, I think, is when I discovered the writers of the Golden Age of Science fiction like Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague De Camp, Poul Anderson, and James Tiptree, Jr. I branched out to fantasy authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson, and Piers Anthony, then moved on to more modern authors who wrote a pleasing combination of the two, such as Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson, and to anthropological science fiction by Margaret Atwood, C.J. Cherryh, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Later I discovered Catherine Asaro, Julie Czerneda, Lois McMaster Bujold, and many, many others. (I would highly recommend you look up every name I just dropped and read something written by them, BTW.)
I think I’ve read at least one work of fiction in every conceivable subgenre of science fiction and fantasy since then, and although I’ll pretty much read any well-written piece of fiction I can get, I have, over time, identified specific elements of fiction that I prefer. Although I’m also a great fan of scifi media in the form of movies and TV, my favorite written science fiction tends to lack a lot of the elements one might associate with popular “scifi”. Space battles, chest-exploding aliens, and space armor pretty much leave me cold. My favorite stories center around how people interact with each other in environments different from my experience. In short, I love character driven science fiction.
When I started writing in 2005, I started with fanfiction. I was told by more than one critic that my stories resembled “Loveboat in Space”. (This was not meant as a compliment, although I personally really enjoyed Loveboat as a kid.) Apparently, it was strange for me to want to pair up everybody and the dog (literally) with a romantic partner while writing Star Trek fanfiction. That’s when my interest in the blending of science fiction and romance really took off, I think. But It’s hard to find well-written romance stories that are “science fictiony” enough for my taste, and almost impossible to find science fiction with really meaningful adult romantic elements, mainly because today most successful science fiction is written for teens, or at least edited so that it’s not inappropriate for a 13 year old. Modern science fiction novels geared toward adult audiences are less common, and although they occasionally have sex in them, they’re usually also bloodily violent and completely lacking real romance of the mushy happily-ever-after sort that I enjoy. So, I decided to write my own story that was real science fiction and real romance combined. I’m still writing it – volume 3 of the Sikkiyn trilogy is in the works as we speak. I just need to find an agent and a new publisher. When that happens, you guys will be the first to know.
While you’re waiting, check out the authors I mentioned at the beginning of this ramble. They’re amazing. Most of them will have books in your local library, and some of them still have books in print that you can order for your home collection. Happy reading!
July 13, 2018
Happy Friday the 13th! In keeping with the tradition of the day, even though it’s probably a very bad idea, for my blog this week I’m going to try my luck explaining to anyone reading this why I have no idea if the confirmation of the current administration’s proposed new appointee to the Supreme Court is going to be a good thing or a bad thing. Predictions of the reversal of Roe vs. Wade abound online. Whether they are dire predictions or hopeful ones depends on the political slant of the source. The world is so polarized over the issue that my views will probably offend everyone at least a little bit. Call me an equal opportunity offender.
First of all, I understand both sides of the debate from an intellectual point of view. For many people Roe vs. Wade is about retaining bodily sovereignty. I get that. A woman should have the right to say what happens to her own body. For many other people Roe vs. Wade is about legalizing the destruction of human life. I get that, too. Fetuses possess everything that adult human beings possess from a genetic stand point. They are human (or potentially human, if you prefer).
But this is not an intellectual debate, it’s an emotional one. You can tell that any time the subject comes up. People get angry. Feelings get hurt. This is not something people seem to be able to step back and look at objectively because the intensity of emotion varies with the person’s experiences and beliefs. Competing ethical principles often create polarizing arguments. People on each side of the debate so firmly believe in the rightness of their position that they cannot understand or empathize with someone who holds the opposite to be true.
My love for my children (and for children in general) and my Catholic faith have given me such a horror of abortion that I personally know I would have never chosen abortion for myself under any circumstances when I was capable of bearing children. Not rape. Not a threat to my own life. There is no circumstance I can think of in which I would not have chosen the life of my unborn child over my own. But I have never been poor, abused, or subjugated. That is my emotional reality. That is my choice.
For a woman who is fighting for independence, emotionally or sexually abused, or trying to improve her lot in life, I can see how her horror of being forced to limit her bodily sovereignty, lose her independence, or remain in poverty might certainly outweigh her reluctance to end a life, especially if she doesn’t believe that life to be of equal value to her own. Abortion could seem to her to be the only way out of a life of crushing poverty and subjugation.
But here’s the primary question. Does the government have the right to force a choice on someone? Are there some moral imperatives which a government should enforce over the objection of certain of its citizens? There is precedent for such imperatives. In the US and in most civilized nations I cannot kill another human being unless they are deliberately attempting to kill me and I am defending myself from imminent death. To do so in other circumstances is a crime punishable by life in prison, or even death in some jurisdictions, no matter how compelling I personally believe my reasons to be.
But what if the woman being forced to give up bodily sovereignty and possibly her future economic or professional success doesn’t believe that a fetus is a human being in the same sense that she is a human being? Should the law take this into account and allow her to use her own judgement about what is more important? There is precedent for this as well. In some countries, even today, women are not considered human beings in the same sense that men are human beings. Should we allow the people who believe this way to use their own judgement, or should the law force these people to treat women (and possibly even fetuses) as full human beings despite their beliefs? I’m hoping that everyone reading this would say yes to the law for at least the first of these. I understand that the second is controversial, and is in fact the entire crux of the matter.
I’m a scifi geek. I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale. I know what dystopia could await us if we go too far with this, but The Handmaid’s Tale is fiction, and there’s got to be a compromise. I believe that access to affordable birth control is one important step in the right direction. Despite being Catholic, I’m all for birth control as a necessary “lesser evil”. Few of us are cut out for celibacy. No woman should be forced to get pregnant if she’s not ready to get pregnant. But in my view, once she’s pregnant, she and her partner (let’s not leave the men out of this) are responsible for a new life, and they should be equally responsible. By a trick of biology, she’s the one to bear the first 9 months of it, but that doesn’t let him off the hook. And if they’re not ready to be parents for emotional or financial reasons, or want nothing to do with each other, open adoption should be better accepted in society and easier to do. I honestly don’t see the logic in a woman aborting a child because she can’t bear to give it up. That just does not compute.
The reason this is such a polarizing debate is because there is no right answer. There is only the answer that is least wrong. And in my opinion, every person has to judge for themselves which side of the debate is least wrong for them.
May 26, 2018
I went to see the new Star Wars movie Solo yesterday and really enjoyed it. It occurred to me afterwards that one of the reasons I liked it so much is that it was exciting and interesting, yet I didn’t have to sit through any offensive language, bloody gore, or on-screen sex to get to the story. (Unlike another recent popular comic-based release which shall remain nameless… the Thumper principle, y’all.) Of course, it’s a family movie, but it made me wonder why more movies geared toward adults aren’t similar. Why must so many adult movies be violent and profane? What happened to the movies from the 40’s and 50’s with clever dialogue unmarred by four letter words every five seconds and plots where nobody dies a violent death on screen, even in the murder mysteries and horror flicks? Has all of humanity become so jaded that we need cursing, sex, and blood to feel entertained? Or is it just U.S. culture that’s that way? And it seems like the more of it we see the more we expect, and the less interested we become in stories without on-screen sex and ultra-violence in them. And the more twisted sex and violence we see, the more ordinary it becomes and the less we’re disturbed by it when we see it in real life. Kids are growing up seeing all of this, seeing all the adults around them treat it as normal and natural. Is it any wonder that they prefer hyperviolent video games to what they’re learning in school? Is it any wonder that porn sites are the most popular sites on the internet? We become what we put in our brains. Garbage in, garbage out. Are we becoming a more violent and sex obsessed culture because of the media we consume, or is this shift in media content simply a reflection of a culture which increasingly glorifies casual sex and violence as acceptable behaviors? What do you think?
Last week I finally got fed up with feeling cranky and unmotivated all the time and decided I needed to do something about it. Being the thrifty (cheap?) introvert that I am, instead of seeing a therapist I started with a search for a free cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) app for my phone. Free apps of this sort are usually research tools for some study or other, and I like the idea of contributing to research (Did I also mention that I’m cheap?), and CBT is one of the few types of talk therapy that’s been shown in scientific studies to actually work for depression and other mood disorders. These studies were done with in person-therapy, not apps, though. And after a week of trying the app I chose to start, I can see why. The app shall remain nameless since I learned from Thumper that if you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.
Things started off pretty well with a basic mood screening questionnaire obviously designed to make certain that I had no plans to off myself or anyone else. Once that was out of the way (I did screen negative for both, BTW), the app proceeded to guide me through a short educational session about CBT and the importance of journaling. I then, against my better judgement, committed to check in with the app three times a day (it wanted 4, but that would have been too disruptive at work). The check-in required me to rank my mood on a scale of 0 to 100 and journal about why I felt that way. This was interesting for about two days, and then it became a royal pain in the you-know-what. I’m still trying to do it, but quite honestly, now it’s making me more aggravated and moody than I was before I started the thing. I’m thinking that perhaps my over-education is the culprit. I know too much about the process. It’s said that doctors make the worst patients.
So now I need to decide whether I can force myself to keep doing what feels like unnecessary busy work when my mood issue is mainly caused by having insufficient time to do the things I’d rather be doing because I have so much unnecessary busy work. Or maybe I should just bite the bullet and pay money (yikes) to see a real live therapist who I’ll actually have to talk to. My inner cheap introvert says I should give the app some more time. I’m not sure if I’m going to listen to her or not.
May 6, 2018
I’ve been inspired this week by the recent defeat of a library millage tax in my community to blog about why I think public libraries are important. I’ve heard people make the argument that with the advent of the internet, brick and mortar libraries are becoming obsolete. They argue that libraries are luxuries for the intellectual elite, that more up-to-date information can be obtained with a Google search than is present in any library, and that the state of the economy these days requires voters to think twice about using their hard-earned money to finance things which they feel have little concrete and practical benefit to the community. These are the same people who see no reason to maintain community investment in the arts; those who will tell you that books are obsolete in the multimedia age, and that “no one reads books anymore”. In my view, those who make these arguments completely fail to see the main purpose of public libraries.
Popular US culture is wrapped up in the here-and-now, so firmly so that the current generation has little appreciation or knowledge of past history or of the richness of human culture. Parents and teachers do their best to introduce children to the resources available to them, but modern culture devalues the acquisition of knowledge, and very early in life many young people decide that learning is a waste of their time. Even when their interest is piqued by something and they seek more information, an internet search of the topic often provides an overwhelming amount of information, only a fraction of which is pertinent or even accurate, and so they are often misinformed. Without the guidance provided by trained individuals (like librarians, historians, and other experts in their fields of study) it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In my view, libraries are depositories of human culture, oases apart from the ugliness of the rest of the world where anyone, young or old, rich or poor, of any race, religion, or ethnicity, should be able to go to find something more for themselves. Whether their “more” is self-improvement literature, information about a new skill, a seminar about a subject that affects their life in some way, a chance to enrich their own life or the lives of their children with classic literature and music, or simply the opportunity to escape into fantasy with a good book depends on how they choose to use the services of their local public library. In any case, I personally believe that giving every individual in my community the opportunity to do this is one of the best uses I can conceive of for my hard-earned tax dollars.
April 22, 2018
About four times a year since my novel came out in 2014 I have attended various regional weekend science fiction/fantasy/comic/anime conventions as an invited guest to hawk my book and host discussion panels for attendees. I can’t say that they’ve been a resounding success from a book marketing standpoint. In fact, my average number of actual books sold at each one of these conventions has been about 4, not counting later e-book sales. Occasionally now, after about 4 years of doing this, I get smiles of recognition from attendees and the rare inquiry about when I might have another book published (or even better, asking when Sikkiyn the movie is coming out) but in general most attendees still just give me a polite smile, grab a piece of candy from the bowl on my table, and make the excuse that they “don’t read much” to justify why they don’t even pick up the book to have a look at it. I’m okay with it, actually. I realize that a 412 page science fiction novel without pictures isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
You might wonder, then, why I’m still bothering to go to these things, and the answer, honestly, is because the panels are so much fun. Seriously, where else could I find an entire room of people who are eager to talk about writing, reading, and viewing science fiction with me for an entire hour at a time? We brainstorm story ideas. We talk about our favorite books and TV shows. We commiserate with each other about the shows that were canceled and the screenplays that have yet to be filmed, but really ought to be. In short, I go because that’s where my comrades are: human beings who, like me, use at least half of their head space at any one time thinking about things that might be, could be, or should be. Scifi conventions are where I find my fellow dreamers.
April 14, 2018
I’m one of those naïvely emotional people who, when asked what she would wish for when given three wishes by Aladdin’s genie, would give “world peace” as my number one wish. I’m also one of those coldly rational people who would immediately regret that wish and hunker down waiting for the destruction of all humankind (because, logically, if there is no one left to fight, we would by default have “world peace”). So…yeah. I’m very much a right and left brain kinda gal, hence my preference for reading and writing a blend of scifi and romance.
Sometimes my tendency to balance on the border between rationality and emotion gets me odd looks, especially when I’m interacting with a person who is functioning at one extreme of the spectrum and I show my opposite tendencies, but usually (at least in my opinion) my ability to see both the emotional and the rational in a given situation stands me in good stead.
Right now the news is blowing up over the air strikes on Syria. Some people are indignant that the US is getting involved in something that is “none of our business” and worried about Soviet retaliation and escalation of conflict. They believe that the US should not be risking the lives of Syrian civilians with air strikes of any kind. I can certainly see their concern, but for me the rational argument trumps the emotional one (no pun intended). Sitting back and doing nothing will change nothing. Men of violence neither respect nor heed admonishment not given from a point of strength. If we allow our fears of retaliation and accidental “collateral damage” to tie our hands, violence will triumph over rationality. We’ve only got one planet to live on (at least for now). If the human race as a whole is going to survive, we must control the genocidal tyrants among us.
March 16, 2018
There’s a social media war going on prompted by the Parkland school shooting that has me scratching my head. On one side we have the #walkout camp, in which young people who are quite understandably afraid and angry about being the targets of murderous and mentally imbalanced individuals are trying to convince the adults around them to do something to keep them safe. The adults in favor of this protest believe that they are encouraging a spirit of reformation and civic involvement in their children by allowing them to participate, and are viciously attacking the opposite camp, accusing them of victim blaming for pointing out the obvious: children, teens especially, are cruel to peers they perceive as different, and bullied psychologically-at-risk teens can behave in violent ways when they don’t receive the support they need.
On the other side is the #walkup camp, composed of teachers, parents, and concerned adults who are attempting to create an environment of love, mutual respect, and safety at their institutions by encouraging a change in campus climate. I’m not seeing a whole lot of public negativity from them, but I can imagine that they are likely not thrilled by the idea of their children missing school to congregate in public places, risking exposure to more violent public protests. Because this gun control thing has gotten out of hand. People are angry on both sides, and we are not setting a good example for our children when we publicly interact with each other in violent ways over this issue.
Some people believe that no one but the government and its representatives should have access to firearms of any kind, but that’s not what the US constitution says. Others believe that private US citizens should have the right to own weapons designed for maximum firepower because they’re afraid that someday, somehow, the US government is going to be taken over by a tyrant and we’ll all have to defend ourselves. I don’t think that plan is particularly practical given the existence of attack helicopters and missiles, but looking at the current state of affairs in the US, I can see why they’re afraid. There are those who want to use the already limited funding each state has allotted to public education to pay for armed guards in every school and metal detectors at every entrance. And some believe that having volunteer teachers trained in firearm safety and carrying concealed weapons on school grounds is a viable option to keep their kids safe. Most teachers I know are teachers and not police officers partially because they are lovers not fighters, and they are not comfortable carrying a firearm. That’s why they’re trying to change the climate of the schools to promote inclusion and acceptance. That’s why they’re asking for more funding to hire more counselors and other trained mental health professionals so that kids at risk for violence can be identified and get the help they need.
I’m seeing a third camp occasionally make an appearance on social media, and it makes the most sense to me. There’s no reason why peaceful public protests and changes in school climate can’t co-exist. There’s no reason why we can’t allow children, teachers, and parents to follow their own consciences and do what they believe is right to increase safety in schools throughout the US. And there’s no need to castigate or vilify another person who is only trying to do what’s right in their own eyes for their own safety or the safety of their children. That’s why I’m firmly in the #walkoutwalkup camp. Let’s compromise, people. Our kids are dying. We’ve got to do something about it.
March 9, 2018
It seems to me that every day the news is getting more and more negative and violent. I suppose it could simply be that as technology allows us to communicate with a global community we are seeing news items about atrocities that have always been present in the world, only we didn't know about them. But it also seems like modern society glorifies the shocking and horrifying and ignores the goodness in people. The media gives us more of what we want to see, and we click on the gory stuff first. Why do we do that? Why are the stories of war and violence intrinsically more interesting than the stories of people being kind to each other?
I think the answer lies in the human desire for novelty. We're adventurers by nature, not satisfied with the familiar. Unlike animals, imbued with instincts which prompt them to do things the same way season after season, generation after generation, humans have evolved to our present states emotionally, intellectually, and culturally because we enjoy experimenting with newness.
So here's my challenge for you. Be a mover and a changer where you are. Stop glorifying the negative. Instead, flood your personal interactions with love. Love is universal. It doesn't have a nationality, color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, political ideation, or agenda. Love is treating each person with respect, even when we disagree with them. That type of love isn't new, by any means. People as varied as Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King have spoken about it for centuries. But it's so different from the prevailing cultural mores almost everywhere that it might spark people's curiosity. You probably think I'm unrealistically naive, but I still believe that the novelty of radical love has the power to change the world.
March 3, 2018
I see a lot of opposing groups in the news these days: right wing vs left wing, Christian vs Muslim, black vs white, too many more to count. The most interesting pair, though (in my humble opinion) are the moral relativists vs the moral absolutists. "Who the heck are they?" you might ask. "I've never heard of those guys." Well, that's because they probably don't even know who they are. But you'll see what I mean in a minute.
Moral relativists may aspire to a personal creed, but that creed is for them alone. They don't presume to impose it on anyone else. To them the "rightness" or "wrongness" of a particular action depends entirely on the point of view of the person performing the action. Even something commonly accepted as wrong (like lying, stealing, or killing) isn't necessarily wrong to the person performing the action. Moral absolutists, on the other hand, believe in a specific set of moral laws which are inviolable and unchangeable. For them, excuses and points of view have no bearing on the rightness or wrongness of an action. Rules are rules, right is right, and wrong is wrong. And this allows them, in their view, to dictate to other people how they should behave. Laws are externally enforced moral absolutism applied for the common good with the consent of the voters. A certain amount of moral absolutism is necessary for a functional society, but when absolutism goes overboard, we get oppression and totalitarianism.
You see where I'm going with this now, I hope. In any given personal encounter, a moral relativist is likely to think a moral absolutist is closed-minded and bigoted, while a moral absolutist may consider a relativist to be degenerate and amoral. And although two moral relativists will probably get along fine, two moral absolutists with differing sets of moral laws are more likely to try to kill each other than to co-exist.
Here in the US we are increasingly becoming a society of moral relativists. I believe this change is inevitable because it allows persons of drastically different upbringing and standards of behavior to coexist. If I'm responsible only for my own behavior and I don't try to change yours unless it directly infringes on my right or the right of those I care about to behave as we choose, then presumably we'll get along better than if I try to force you to behave in a way you don't believe is right. This is true moral relativism. The moral absolutists of the world, in my opinion (even the ones who insist that everyone must be "politically correct" without fail and outwardly LOOK like moral relativists) are a holdover from the past, when humans thought they had discovered everything there was to know about everything. How can they be certain that they are right and that everyone else is wrong? I don't believe they can. The more we learn, the more we discover our ignorance. The universe is infinite. There is room in it for all opinions.
February 16, 2018
I envy people like professional athletes, dancers, musicians, and artisans who are able to pursue one goal without distraction until they achieve excellence and feel fulfilled by doing that one thing better than anyone else. Whenever I try to do the same, I end up falling short. Since childhood, whenever I’ve wanted to learn to do something cool that I don’t know how to do yet (like play the piano, for example), more often than not I’ve been so busy doing so many other things that I can’t stop doing (because I’m very stubborn, and I finish what I start) that I don’t have time to become expert at any one thing. There are so many amazing things that I want to do in this one life I've been given that I can’t choose just one, and there are not enough hours in the day to become an expert at everything I want to learn to do. So, I settle. I do my best (which with sufficient time and effort is usually good enough, if not stellar). Unfortunately, the older I get, the more responsibilities I acquire that I can’t just stop doing, which leaves me with no time to add anything new unless I give something up. And because I’m a perfectionist, it grieves me to give up doing something until I get at least reasonably good at it.
So, here’s the deal. I plan to continue doing things that I am at least reasonably good at for right now, as time permits, both things that I must do because I’m obligated to do them and things that I enjoy doing (for balance, because I’ve got to do fun stuff occasionally or I’ll go nuts). I’m saving the rest of the really challenging and time-consuming things that I’ve always wanted to do for later, and I’m taking excellent care of myself. I take my meds (thank you, genes for essential hypertension), eat (mostly) healthy food, exercise, get enough sleep, stay as close to ideal body weight as a post-menopausal woman with a sedentary job can manage, and I have just started meditating daily to reduce stress, since stress is associated with early heart disease. Why am I spending time and energy doing all this stuff when I just said there aren’t nearly enough hours in the day to do what I want to do? Well, I’m 54 years old. I’m probably going to retire sometime in the next decade. And when I retire I will have the one thing that I’ve been craving since childhood: free time. When I have that free time, I intend to be in excellent health (at least for a sixty-something year old), so I can play with my grandchildren (assuming my kids cooperate with producing them—none are in evidence yet), travel the world, read the books I have no time now to read, and write more novels. I might learn to play the piano, go back to school and take art and music classes, or maybe even get a master’s degree or PhD just for the fun of it. (Yeah, I’m one of those weirdos that loved school.) Perhaps I’ll study Japanese or Portuguese or German and then use what I’ve learned to talk to people in my travels. I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to do, but I’m getting ready for it. Because life is too short, and I’ve got a long list. It’s not a bucket list, though. When I’m done with it I won’t be ready to go; I’ll have just made another list.
February 10, 2018
In my novel Sikkiyn and its upcoming sequels I use genetic engineering as a plot device, hypothesizing that in order to adapt to colony worlds in distant star systems, geneticists will transform their descendants into individuals better able to live in varied environments by creating different human subspecies with varied physical and mental characteristics. In my stories, future humans are more accepting of differences, and learn from childhood to relate to other people who may not look like them or think like them. I believe that due to the melting pot phenomenon brought about by the ease of worldwide travel, we are in danger of losing our rich global cultural heterogeneity. Differences, in my view, should be celebrated, not looked upon with suspicion, even differences that at first glance might seem to be deficiencies.
I read an article recently highlighting the fact that Iceland has very nearly eliminated Down Syndrome. In fact, there are only 2-3 babies born per year with Down Syndrome in the entire country. At first glance this would seem like a good thing. I mean, don’t people with Down Syndrome have medical issues, and aren’t they burdens to society? So, it’s good that scientists in Iceland have figured out a way to prevent the syndrome, right?
Only that’s not at all the truth and absolutely NOT what’s going on. Iceland has implemented universal prenatal screening for Down Syndrome, and 100% of women who screen positive are aborting their babies. The reason 2-3 babies with Down Syndrome are born in Iceland each year is because the screening isn’t 100% accurate. No medical test is. And I’m not just picking on Iceland. They’re just the most dramatic example. Worldwide there’s an increasing tendency to abort “imperfect” children, throwing them away as if they were a cake that failed to rise, reasoning that we can always try again to “get it right”.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the ethical dilemma. It’s a practical question. Do we bring a life into this world that will not contribute to society as a whole? Do we want to use our resources to provide the assistance that this individual will likely need for the rest of his or her life?
Last night I volunteered at an event billed as a “prom” for individuals with special needs. There were over 160 “special guests.” Each one was paired with a volunteer ”buddy” for the evening whose job it was to watch over their partner and make sure they had a safe, fun experience. It had all the components you’d expect of a high school prom: teens (and adults) dressed in suits, ties, and prom dresses, a couple of photo stops, a DJ and a dance floor, snacks and drinks, and crowns and tiaras for the “kings and queens” of the prom – every special guest got one – with 1500 balloons dropped from the ceiling for the grand finale. I attended, anticipating tragedy and pathos and steeling myself to remain smiling, and found once I got there that it was impossible NOT to smile. The irrepressible joy emanating from every attendee had me laughing all night. They ate with both hands, they danced with abandon, they vogued for photos, they hugged everyone in sight, treating everyone in the room as if they were long-lost best friends they’d waited their whole lives to meet. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe that’s what individuals with Down Syndrome and others like them can contribute to society as a whole. There’s not enough joy in the world. There’s not enough love without them.
February 2, 2018
A friend of mine (male) recently suggested that I should do a blog about why men should read romance novels, and that got me thinking.
Why should anyone read romance novels? For the most part, traditional heterosexual romance novels are highly predictable, usually something along the lines of:
1. Boy meets girl
2. Boy and girl are attracted to each other but for some reason they can’t/won’t be together.
3. Despite this, they can’t stop thinking about each other and fall madly in love in a ridiculously short period of time.
4. Optional sex scenes while all this is happening.
5. Something happens to remove the obstacle and, presto, they live happily ever after.
It’s a formulaic and highly unrealistic template, but some of us are addicted. What’s the appeal? Why is romance the largest category by far of fiction published on Amazon?
I’ve heard it argued that because women tend to be less visual than men, romance novels with hot sex scenes are just the female version of porn. That argument does have some merit, but it wouldn’t explain the popularity of less explicit romance novels. My personal opinion is that the readers who read heterosexual romance novels (and yes, they are predominantly women) are searching for fantasy interactions with men that they aren’t getting in real life. Yes, some of them are sexual interactions. How else would you explain the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey? (That’s a whole other blog right there. And no, I haven’t read it. I don’t want to read it, not because I’m a prude, but because I’m highly allergic to bad writing.) But what I’m mainly talking about are the loving gestures, manly chivalry, and unbelievable understanding of the female psyche that every male romantic interest in these books seems to have in spades. These authors are obviously very successful at bringing the fantasies of their readers to life. Otherwise, why would they sell so many books ?
So, why should you, if you are a man in a relationship with a woman, read romance novels? My response is what better way to discover what women really want in a relationship? The next time your wife or girlfriend reads a romance novel and enjoys it, ask to borrow it when she's finished with it and read it yourself. If some of what goes on in the book is stupid and unrealistic, at least the two of you can laugh about it. Ask her why she liked the book so much. Maybe it was the sex, maybe it was the fact that the hero seemed to listen when the heroine voiced her hopes and fears and knew just what to say in response without minimizing her concerns, or maybe she was excited by the way the hero took charge of the situation and protected the heroine from harm. Perhaps the part she most enjoyed was when the heroine took charge herself. Who knows what you might find out? Women love talking about that kind of stuff, guys, and romance novels are a lot cheaper than a therapist.
January 20, 2018
I’m back after the holiday hiatus with a blog about social media. Have you noticed how addicting it is? Have you ever decided to check Facebook or Twitter for a couple of minutes, blink, and suddenly realize it’s been an hour and you’re still obsessively checking to see if someone’s responded to your latest post? Turns out there’s a scientific reason for your inability to stop checking over and over again. It’s called operant conditioning. Psychologists in the past hundred years or so have done experiments on both animals and human beings proving that certain behaviors can be strengthened by rewards or punishments, and they’ve found that the strongest behavioral changes are caused by something called “intermittent reinforcement”, a situation in which rewards are given for certain behaviors, but at unpredictable intervals. For example, rats that are fed a pellet of food every time they press a lever will learn to press the lever to get food. They will press the lever a lot when they first learn what it does, but eventually they will only press the lever when they are hungry. On the other hand, if they’re fed a pellet of food when they press the lever only sometimes, the frequency with which they press the lever will not decrease. Since the rats have learned that pressing the lever doesn’t always result in food, but sometime it does, they’re kept in a constant state of insecurity and will keep pressing the lever even when they’re not hungry just in case it doesn’t work next time. In other words, rewards that are not a sure thing increase behaviors even more than rewards that are predictable. It’s the same response that makes gambling so very addicting.
So how does this apply to social media? It's simple. A response to one of your Facebook posts or your latest tweet is the “reward”. Oddly enough, it works whether the response is positive or negative. The key seems to be that you feel validated because someone noticed you. And since you can’t ever predict when or in what way someone will respond to one of your social media posts, these responses are classic examples of intermittent reinforcement. So, the next time you’re checking Facebook over and over again waiting for someone to “like” one of your posts, if you think of yourself as a rat pressing a lever looking for a reward, you’re not that far off. Are you addicted? Have you ever tried to disconnect from social media for a day? How about an entire weekend? Was it difficult? Some scientists believe that social media, smart phones, and the internet are actually changing the way humans learn and interact with each other. What do you think?
December 15, 2017
As a both a physician and a writer of fiction, my free time is pretty evenly divided between reading medical journals to stay updated with my day job and writing down the weirdness my imagination comes up with at odd hours. That leaves precious little time and/or brain space to keep up with the latest public cause celebre. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m offering for why I had no idea what “net neutrality” was until I looked it up today. I’ve been seeing the term bandied about on Facebook a lot since yesterday, when apparently net neutrality was “defeated” and everyone began to freak out.
I did some research and found out that a law was passed during President Obama’s administration granting the FCC the power to regulate the prices that internet providers are allowed to charge for services and preventing them from charging more for faster or better service. It hadn’t been implemented yet, and yesterday (December 14th) it was repealed. The law was supposedly intended to prevent internet service providers from starting to bundle and sell internet services the way the cable companies are doing with cable services. When I read this, my first emotion was dismay. Will I have to start purchasing “internet bundles” to maintain my access to Facebook and Twitter? Then I noticed that the same reaction seemed to be the ONLY reaction I was seeing on Facebook, I started to wonder why I wasn’t seeing ANYTHING about exactly why the law was defeated, and that got me curious. Somebody out there was in favor of repealing the law, otherwise why would the change have been enacted? Where was the opposing side in this debate? So, I did some digging.
Net neutrality is a concept that’s very appealing. The prevailing idea amongst the pro-net neutrality crowd seems to be that if the government (ie: the FCC) steps in and prevents the evil, greedy internet providers from charging more for better service, that means that we’ll all get better service at no charge, ie: free internet. And the “good guys” like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix will be able to continue to give us content at little or no cost, and everything will stay just the way it is. Those who are pro-net neutrality are pro-government regulation of an industry that has to this point remained a free market system, regulation that in their view needs to be put in place to prevent internet providers from doing bad things they say they have no intention of doing and have not yet done (but COULD do if they wanted to.)
BUT the pro-“repeal of net neutrality” sources will tell you that major internet users like Netflix, Facebook and Twitter NEED faster broadband than the average joe to function properly. They already pay more for this premium broadband service, which provides income to the internet providers, which gives THEM the resources and incentive to upgrade and innovate. We ordinary mortals reap the benefits when our neighborhoods get fitted with tech which gives us faster service too BECAUSE the internet providers are getting paid for their innovation by the big internet users (like Facebook and Twitter and Netflix), who are pro-net neutrality not because they’re the saints of the internet, but because they're for-profit companies, and it would greatly increase their profit margin if they didn't have to pay those higher costs for faster broadband and innovative technologies. The new law (which was just repealed) would have made it illegal for the internet companies to charge them more than anyone else. The huge internet users want the internet companies to be forced by the FCC to provide their premium broadband service for the same cost as everyone else’s more ordinary service. Unfortunately, new technology and innovation requires capital. No money means no progress. And if the largest users of the internet stop paying more for premium service, the internet service providers lose money, along with their incentive to expand and innovate, which means less service for everyone.
So, which side is right? What do you think?
December 8, 2017
At my day job I speak frankly to my patients about sexual behavior for safer sex counseling purposes. After all these years of talking to people about exactly what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, I should by all rights have developed a liberal view of sexuality, but that’s not the case. Although I’m perfectly capable of being objective and nonjudgmental with other people, the combination of my southern Catholic upbringing and the tales of woe my patients frequently tell me when I have the “safer sex” discussion with them have made me quite conservative in my personal outlook about sex. Although I would never presume to tell anyone else when, how, or with whom they should be physically intimate, for me sex belongs within the confines of a committed lifelong monogamous relationship. Anything else, in my view, cheapens the value of it and turns it from a blessing into a health risk.
Although “clean” romance novels exist, I personally find them excruciatingly boring. On the other hand, many modern romance novels glorify the sexual act for its own sake and, in my opinion, put the cart before the horse. Although I’m fully aware that a large percentage of the population these days would disagree with me, being physically intimate with another person before committing to a relationship with them feels wrong to me. Does it make more sense from a strictly logical point of view to try the merchandise first before you’re stuck with it for a lifetime? Probably. But it’s certainly not romantic, in my view, to look at it that way.
In my opinion, well written sex scenes add an extra dimension to a story that might be dull without them (given the fact that most romance novels have predictable linear plotlines). The unresolved sexual tension that usually precedes such scenes keeps the reader’s interest. When I write romance, I write for my own sensibilities, building the relationship between my characters so that when physical intimacy does eventually happen, it merely confirms the fictional emotional bond I’ve already created between them. I suppose you might call it the “sweet before heat” philosophy. Adding scifi elements and multiple sub-plots ups the ante and makes the story a lot more attention-grabbing—at least for this scifiromantic. What do you think? What motivates you to keep turning the pages of the books you read?
December 1, 2017
In keeping with my previously established “better late than never” philosophy, I have decided to use today’s blog to talk about National Novel Writing Month, better known to its participants as NaNoWriMo, a nation-wide group participation activity which takes place once a year in the United States during the month of November. Every year for 30 days straight thousands of people who enjoy telling stories put fingers to keyboards (or pen to paper) and attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. I say attempt because, although 50,000 words is a pretty short novel (about 166 pages at 300 words per page), it’s a LONG writing project to complete in one month, especially if you’ve got other things to do that can’t wait. I have participated in NaNoWriMo for 5 years now and have yet to break 11,000 words, primarily because my brain shuts down after 12 hours at work (Fall is the busiest time of the year at a college health clinic), and I can’t function without sleep. So why, you might ask, do I participate in this event when I know it’s impossible for me to meet the writing goal? Here’s why:
1. I enjoy encouraging young writers.
Although there are a couple of people over 40 like me in our local Nano group, most of the participants are teens and young adults. I feel useful when I share my experiences with fellow writers who are just starting out, and spending time with younger writers refreshes my motivation to write.
2. I enjoy socializing with other people who like to write.
Spending all day in a library conference room on a Saturday nibbling on sandwiches, drinking tea, and bouncing plot ideas off people who are genuinely interested encourages me as a writer and allows me to socialize. I would probably be able to get more words written sitting alone at home, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Writing is an activity done in isolation. NaNoWriMo is an exception to that.
3. I believe in the NaNoWriMo philosophy.
The whole idea of the NaNoWriMo event is to encourage every person who has a story to tell to put that story in writing, regardless of their educational background or perceived writing “talent”. I agree with the premise that everyone is a potential writer, that writing is a skill which can be learned with sufficient practice, and that it’s never too late to start.
Nano ended yesterday for 2017, but I’m already looking forward to NaNoWriMo 2018. If you have a story to tell, why don’t you plan to join me?
November 24, 2017
Happy Black Friday, y'all. I hope it you had a good one. Personally, I've never understood the appeal of it. But then, I've always hated shopping. I would love to be able to find everything I need online and have it delivered. Well, except for books. Books, I could shop for all day.
My love affair with books has been going on as long as I can remember. I have no recollection of a time when I didn't prefer the company of a book to virtually anything else. In fact, waiting to read my latest book until after I'd finished doing my homework, a decision I can remember forcing myself to make as early as 3rd grade, was my first real exercise in self control. Throughout my childhood I averaged up to 3 novels a week during school, 8 or more in summer. In high school I really didn't notice that I wasn't being invited to any of the parties because I was perfectly happy at home riding dragons on Pern, travelling with Thomas the Unbeliever, and giggling over awful puns on Xanth. I wasn't much interested in boys my own age, or girls for that matter. We didn't really have much in common. I preferred older people I could have conversations with. People who had read the books I had read. People like my school librarian and the adult members of our local science fiction club. A member of the club brought me with her one day to a Dungeons and Dragons game she attended weekly with a group of friends, and I became the youngest member of the group. We created new stories every Sunday, made up as we went along, and it was glorious. One of the group was young man six years older than I was who paid a flattering but respectful amount of attention to me and bore a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve as Superman, complete with that little curl in the middle of his forehead. We were good friends for 2 years (until I turned 18), at which point he asked me to a New Year's party, and the rest is history. It's been 37 years since that party, and I've been married to my own personal Superman for 34 of them. You could say that my love of books, particularly my love of literary science fiction, allowed me to find a real life lasting relationship. How's that for a scifiromance?
November 17, 2017
I should start by telling you that this week's blog contains spoilers for the newly released movie Justice League, which I just saw tonight. So if for some reason you've managed to avoid seeing the dozens of internet articles and Facebook posts about Henry Cavill being one of the primary actors in the movie, and are therefore completely unaware of what that says about a certain character from a previous movie being only mostly dead, stop reading now and come back after you've seen it. For the rest of you who are sticking around, I'm going to give you my honest opinion as a hardcore scifiromantic.
First, I should say that I love superhero movies. I love the larger than life aspects of them, all the lovely muscles and superpowers and "saving the world" and stuff. I can even usually overlook (with some griping) the gobbledygook that passes for science in them, but there's one thing about them, and scifi movies in general, that never fails to disappoint me. I suppose it's because directors of superhero and scifi movies usually believe that their target audience expects explosions and bloody battles and would be bored by romance and meaningful conversations, but as much as I love the action, I always find these movies seriously lacking in emotional depth. I want to see more interpersonal interaction. I want to see relationships develop.
There are exceptions, of course. I have found scifi, mostly in literary form, that does both scifi and romance well. Some authors that come to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey, Catherine Asaro, Julie Czerneda, Zenna Henderson, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg. (See a theme yet? Lots of estrogen there.) But for the most part it was my frustration with the superficiality of interpersonal relationships in scifi that got me started writing fiction. I want dessert with my entrée, and I want them both served at the same time. So I suppose I can say that it's movies like Justice League, in which the only even remotely romantic interaction was between Henry Cavill's wooden portrayal of the Man of Steel and his ever-patient tough gal Lois (in a very brief, nearly cameo appearance by Amy Adams), that spurred me to write scifi stories with more depth of feeling. I have hope that there is an audience for them, and that those of us who love scifi but are left unsatisfied by battles, gadgets, and explosions will have our day.
November 10, 2017
Welcome to my first ever actual blog post.
Well, not really. I did post an excerpt of my work back in 2014 on Wordpress.com, but it wasn't a rambling personal account like this one, and isn't that what a blog is supposed to be? I'm guessing you're probably wondering why I'm just starting this blogging thing now (or maybe you're not, but I'm going to tell you anyway). The main reason is that my first novel just went out of print.
Yeah, I know. I'm doing it backwards. Blogging is supposed to draw readers who will sign up to get my posts and eventually hopefully buy my book...yada, yada, yada. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that anyone who is reading this might be interested in what I have to say, and I want to share my experience with fellow writers. Here's what I learned as a neophyte novelist under contract with a small press publisher these past 3 years, in no particular order of importance:
1. Be patient
I initially submitted my first novel to a larger publisher who took manuscripts from authors without an agent, but then got impatient with the glacial speed with which they were considering my submission. I gave up after 18 months, and now regret that decision for numerous reasons. Not that I was badly treated by my smaller publisher - far from it. I simply wish that I had stuck it out for a while longer.
2. Do your research
I chose my small press publisher based on a recommendation from a relative who'd published a book with them. I read her book, liked the way it was done, and signed the contract. I should have read more books from the same publisher. My publishing staff was likeable, friendly, and helpful, but not nearly as experienced or as skilled as I'd hoped they'd be at editing, formatting, and cover creation.
3. A pronounceable title is essential
No matter how cool your title is, if no one knows how to pronounce it, you have a problem.
4. A cover that shows the reader what the book is about is even more essential
A generic stock photo doesn't cut it, even if your publisher insists that it's all they ever use.
5. Make sure your manuscript is perfect when you submit it.
Don't assume your publisher will fix it. Once you sign that contract you may have no control over the quality of the editing you get.
6. Free your schedule
Writing the book is the easy part. Effectively marketing a book takes hours and hours and HOURS of your time. If you're not ready for a part time job added to your already busy schedule, don't expect to sell many books.
Needless to say, the past three years have been a learning experience for me, and I don't regret a minute of it. It was a fun ride, and I hope to do it again at some point, hopefully with a larger publisher. I see many queries in my future.