A Learned Reflexive Response

Buckle up.

It’s automatic; so ingrained in our culture, we don’t even think about it anymore, we just do it. Like saying “please” and “thank you”, it’s a learned reflexive response. In other words, it occurs after an association has been made. We associate getting into a vehicle with putting on our seatbelt. Our hands reach for the belt without deliberate intent, even though we don’t have brains in our hands.

If you’ve been around long enough, you remember the days when seatbelts weren’t worn. When the heavy metal buckles dug into your butt and most folks stretched them out and let them hang over the edge of the seat. That was 40 years ago. In 1984, New York became the first state in the nation to require seat belts to be worn.

As someone who lived through that cultural revolution, my memories are that no one wanted to wear seat belts. They were bulky, uncomfortable and made it hard to breathe while wearing them. They were deemed by many to be ineffective; a government infringement on individual rights.

The ad campaigns started when I was a kid, and I grew up seeing commercials with slogans like these:

  • Seatbelts save lives. Buckle up.
  • Click it or ticket!
  • No Belt. No brains
  • Best gift you can give your family is YOU! Please be safe.
  • It only takes one mistake to bring us all down; don’t let it be yours!
  • Safety is a full time job – don’t make it a part time practice.
  • Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.

These slogans helped to change the driving habits of every American (except New Hampshire, which I understand does not have enforceable seatbelt laws). And they continue worldwide, in countries where the culture has not yet acquired the learned reflexive response: https://mymodernmet.com/new-zealand-seatbelt-safety-campaign/  

Sobering, no?

The facemask pushback is not a new phenomena. I’ve travelled extensively in Asia where facemasks are the norm whenever someone is sick or sensitive to pollen (or smog). I didn’t like wearing it at first either. I found them bulky, uncomfortable and made it hard to breathe while wearing them. But after 19 weeks of practicing, I have found I can wear a face mask for as long as I need to, and feel safer when I wear it in public.

Mask up.

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The ‘To Read’ Guilt Paradox and the Pandemic

Over the years, my ‘books to read’ stack has grown from a pile to a stack to an entire bookshelf, and continued to grow until it has consumed several bookcases. And if pressed, I would admit to double-row stacking of said ‘to read’ books within the aforementioned bookcases.

Every time I finish reading a new book, I am brutal about deciding whether to donate it elsewhere or add it to my (bulging at the seams) ‘special keepers’ bookshelf.  The ‘special keepers’ bookshelf is oak with glass-fronted locking doors. It’s where I keep autographed copies from favorite authors, books (and series) so good I want to reread them over and over, and books that are so well-written I want to steal the language or other writing techniques from them.

But books I haven’t read yet? There is no filter. They have no expiration date in my house. I can’t bring myself to throw them out; that would be like tossing out a plant that wasn’t completely dead yet. Whether they’re best sellers, or have a cool cover or are written by a friend or a friend of a friend, I simply must add them to to the ‘to read’ library.  I call it a library now because a-dozen-overflowing-bookshelves-and-two-dozen-unpacked-boxes-full-of-books sounds odd when I say it out loud.

Read faster, I tell myself.  Stop buying more books until you’ve read the ones you already have. I justify my stash by saying that many of these books were gifts. Well, maybe not many, but definitely some.  I’m a writer, after all  Some day I will have my own ‘writing room’ again and I’ll line the walls with bookshelves and I’ll be able to spend my writing days surrounded by books. Words. Ideas. Inspiration.

You can go to the library.  Write there. You’ll be surrounded by thousands and thousands of books.  Yeah, but they won’t be mine, I whisper, selfishly. There is more than little guilt behind that thought.

And then along comes COVID-19.  And stay at home orders.  And looky here–I’ve got my very own private library of books I want to read, all in one place! I don’t even have to leave the house.  Not only that, all the libraries are closed anyway, so who’s the smarty-pants now?

The first book I grabbed by by a new-to-me author, China Mieville, Kraken.  It was good–the perfect magical escape. This morning I spotted a weighty Robert McCammon tome I’ve been wanting to read forever, Queen of Bedlam. McCammon is one of my auto-buy favorite authors. But as I started it, I realized it was a second novel of a character introduced in Speaks the Nightbird. And wouldn’t you know it, I had that one in my ‘to read’ bookcase too! Now I’m ankle-deep in a good story about bad people and feeling pretty darn clever about the depth and breadth of my ‘to read’ pile.

It’s not hoarding; it’s a library.

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Small Blessings

We blessed, not caged. We choose to participate in saving the the world by the mere act of sitting this one out. For a few weeks. Or months.

Our admiration and hopes are for the awe-inspiring health care professionals and scientists who care for the sick and develop the vaccine to deliver to an anxious world.

We help where we can; where we are able. We offer kindness. A trip to the grocery store for a neighbor. A word of encouragement, a wave of recognition, a smile at a stranger.

And we count our blessings, even the small ones:

  • Sitting out on the balcony in the middle of the afternoon, enjoying the warmth of a spring day.
  • The no-commute commute to work
  • Shorter work schedule because of the no-commute commute
  • A smaller gas bill
  • Social media, which has (in the past) been snerkked at by one and all, is now a nifty way to join distant friends and family for coffee–> or wine–> any time. It’s not incompatible with Social Distancing.
  • Guilt-Tree retail therapy via the internet –> no need to get dressed –> or even buy(!)
  • Reading a book at lunchtime
    • Snuggled in a quilt
      • On my couch
        • With the dog
  • Simply knowing we will get through this

Whatever it takes.  We are all in this together.

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Rainforest: A Working Vacation

I am back from five (not exactly fun-filled, but definitely enjoyable) days at the Rainforest Writers Retreat. A working vacation, if you will; the first writer’s retreat I’ve attended. No, I didn’t finish my current work-in-progress; I didn’t even write a short story. But I wrote words every day. And the rhythm of the day was delightful: wake, eat, write, learn, eat, write, walk or nap, learn, eat, mingle, write, and sleep. At the end of the day (and the workshop), I felt proud of what I’d accomplished. Everyone there was unfailingly kind, polite, and interesting.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to write when you’re at a retreat. No responsibilities. No worries. No noise, no traffic, no schedules, no problems. We had an entire restaurant to ourselves (it was off-off-off season), and so the atmosphere was more like a library with a killer view than anything else. Add to that a nearly palatable vibe of creativity from 30-plus writers, all supporting each other in proximity whilst each of us lived and breathed in the private worlds we’d created and pounded into various keyboards. Someday, we will release these various tales to our readers, but for now, they live only within the writer.

There was a whiteboard where we posted our word counts each day.  I am not a fast writer (never have been), but I was truly inspired at the daily word counts posted. I’m talking 30,000 words in 5 days by the top 3 or 4 authors. Not surprisingly, the highest word counts belonged to the pros–every one there a multiple best-selling author.  It was pretty obvious to me that the biggest difference between their writing speed and the rest of us is largely confidence.  They know how to write a story and no doubt were accustomed to writing to deadlines. I’ll get there someday…

Until then, I’ll treasure the sense of renewed commitment to my craft, and take some of the terrific lessons I learned from other writers there (“It’s not a marathon, it’s a sprint!”) and apply them to my own work.

And look forward to next year…

 

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Solstice 2019: As Darkness Fades?

Solstice is upon us; a return of the sun, the light, and better days ahead. An annual event so important to humankind, it’s been marked and celebrated globally since before the written word: it’s practically instinctive.

It’s a time to rejoice, reboot, and renew hopes and dreams for the future. A time to remember our blessings, forget the past, and celebrate the birth of a new year. For me,  the last few years have been particularly tough, but as with the return of the sun each year, life moves on. A dear mentor once said to me, “We must change or we will be changed.”

To say the world is changing is an understatement, in my view. Whether it’s weather, politics, ecology, economics, or what have you, this Earth is not the planet our parents or grandparents knew. Will we dig in and deny or ignore the signs? Or will we heed the warnings and evolve? Will the coming light enlighten us and bring us together to solve our global problems or will we bicker over resources while the darkness spreads?

I am only one person, but in my world, I am the only person who can decide to make a change. My personal resolutions this year involve doing more for the planet – a smaller carbon footprint, for one.  Less trash, less waste, more reuse, more repair.  For me, less is the new more. And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. School kids are protesting the state of our planet.  There is a whole new generation of activists making their voices and actions known. These children are our future leaders.

My observance this solstice is not only to celebrate the annual return of the light, but to also set my hopes on the return of a more enlightened age of humankind.  We have done it before (the Renaissance; the industrial revolution), surely we can do it again, lest the approaching darkness continue unabated.

Wishing a thoughtful and peaceful solstice to you all.

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Sunday Puppy Pix Fix & The Puppy Love Paradox

The pup I adopted in June is now 16 months old. Merlin has adjusted pretty well to his new life, as have I. We have a regular schedule that he can depend on, regular meals, daily playtime, walkies, games, baths, and grooming every Sunday. He has transformed from a scrawny, fearful, un-socialized puppy into a handsome, cautious (but curious!) teenager who is becoming less shy every day. I love him and he loves me. Unreservedly.

As it should be.

I have previously recounted the story of Piggy (akaFirst Toy), describing how Merlin came to me having never had a toy to play with. It took him a while to figure out that Piggy was his, and it took him even longer to figure out what a squeaker was. But that was then, this is now.

Merlin has acquired quite a few toys, over the past few months. He accompanies me to the pet store now (having bravely conquered his fear of the double-automatic doors and myriad of people and dogs in PetCo), and has even been able to pick out his own.

In the beginning, all toys were sacred. He dragged them ALL to his bed and lay them, when he wasn’t actually playing with them. He delighted in doing this, and it warmed my heart to observe him ‘herding’ his toys.

Recently, I have noticed a difference in how he treats some of his toys. This is different from the behavior of my previous dogs and their toys. My previous dogs (all Australian Shepherds and a Corgi) preferred to disembowel every and any toy they could sink their teeth into. Rowan did have one stuffed animal (Pony Puppy) that she carried around for years, and would let none of the other dogs near it. But I think that was because Pony had a pressure sensor inside it that neighed every time it was picked up. I think Rowan thought of the ‘neigh’ as a puppy squeal, because she carried it around like a puppy. Over the years, the neigh began to sound more like a moan, and then disappeared altogether, but by that time, she’d lost her hearing (along with her interest).

Anyway, back to my point. Some of Merlin’s toys get the exact same disembowelment treatment that my previous pack bestowed on their new toys. You can see from the picture, that (from left to right) Foxy, Big Dub, and Wubbie all seem to have met a similar fate. Big Dub and Wubbie (actually, Big Dub and Wubbie are the same toy, but in two different sizes) in particular, have each had all 6 of their legs chewed off in the first week. But they are extremely popular, mostly because their squeakers are still functional, and are still presented to me regularly in anticipation of a good came of catch.

However, there are three toys that, while they are played with every bit as much as the um, mutilated toys, they are in nearly pristine condition. The are (from left to right), Beastie, Purple Squirrel, and the now legendary Piggy (aka First Toy).
Note the near pristine (if somewhat grimy) condition of Piggy in particular, who sleeps in Merlin’s crate every night. And Beastie was the first toy Merlin ever picked out at PetCo. Purple Squirrel, who has 3 (count ’em THREE squeekies inside) is by far the MOST played with toy in Merlin’s flock, with Big Dub holding tough in second place.

I don’t know if Merlin has ‘favorite’ toys or not, but it seems to me that he has two categories of toys: those he chews on and those he doesn’t. I couldn’t figure out why. All the toys have squeekies. All are mouthable and small enough for him to carry around. But after taking pictures of the toys this morning, I was struck by something I hadn’t noticed before–none of the chewed up toys have faces. Oh, foxy had a face for about 20 minutes when he first arrived, but it was a toothy growly face. Wubby and Big Dub don’t have faces at all.

But Beasty, Purple Squirrel, and Piggy all have smiley faces.
And thus is my theory of the Puppy Love Paradox.

Have you smiled at your dog lately?

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Old Habits Die Hard: Remembering Good Old Days

A friend of mine reposted about a writing contest sponsored by Dream Foundry the other day. As I always do, I pulled up the link to see if the theme parameters were something that matched a story I’d already written or if it was something intriguing enough that I wanted to write a new story for.

Everything looked good. Any speculative fiction considered, check. No entry fees, check. Entrants retain all publication rights, check. Anonymous submission to ensure fairness, check.

The wheels were churning until I caught the eligibility clause: “A beginner is somebody who has not yet demonstrated professional-level proficiency as determined by the market wherein they work.”  SFWA members specifically excluded.

Aah. I’m out, then.

An odd, mixed-up realization flooded through me.
I’m not a beginner anymore. No way, no how. I’ve got a SFWA card and everything, so it must be true. Those days of looking for writing contests are over. I’ve critiqued writers workshop submissions. I even ghost-copyedited a major speculative fiction e-zine for a few months.

But I don’t feel like a pro.
I’m not making my living as a full-time writer, I say. I haven’t been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, or even invited to the Hugo Loser’s Party. I’m not on anyone’s best-seller list or pushed in any “Year’s Best” anthology.  I’m not a ‘name’, like King, LeGuin, Martin, Norton or Simmons. And the thing is, that stuff may never happen for me.

It doesn’t matter. I yam what I yam, and that’s a pro. Gotta keep writing. keep learning, keep growing.  This is the real deal. This is the dream I wanted, manifested.

This post is not meant to be self-aggandization or a poke about turning pro or feeling sorry for anyone.  This is an observation that beginning writers do have legitimate publication opportunities that are targeted exclusively toward them. Keep writing and take advantage of them whenever you can, because after a certain point, your writing will progress, and you won’t be a beginner anymore.

And you may find that you’ll think of these days of angst and striving to get ‘good enough’ never really end.  They just become the good old days.

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