2020 The List and the Lesson

Hoochie mamma, what a year 2020 has been. So many unimagined events, so much atrocious behavior, stress beyond belief. Like slime from a dark lagoon, the sludge not only clung to us individually, but to our communities, our states, our nation, and the whole world.

For many hunkered down at home, entertaining cat videos and streamed movies provided a brief distraction.  For me, the greatest escape lay within the words and worlds of fiction. And since I have the luxury of an entire bookcase dedicated to books I haven’t read yet, I counted myself lucky this year.  Here is my list of the most memorable:

FAVORITE NEW (to me) AUTHOR SHORT STORY: I’m not a big fan of short stories, but this year I dedicated myself to catching up on my backlog of unread collections. I read a ton of short stories, most of which were previous ‘Year’s Best’ or award nomination collections. Many of these came to me as courtesy copies, some I bought because I follow the genre.  And while I know this author personally, I had not previously read her work until I found it in the 2014 Nebula Awards Showcase. Kat Rambo’s brilliant award-winner, Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain, is an unforgettably moving story that works on so many levels for me. It is both completely alien and at the same time a parable of the human experience.  The world-building is unique and presented in a way that seduces the reader into buying into the cultural taboos, goals, and hopes of the main character, her world and culture. Hands down, this is one of the best short stories I have ever read.

FAVORITE NEW-TO-ME AUTHOR: I am always seeking out book or author recommendations at classes and conventions.  Who better to ask for book recomendations than another author? In this case, the new-to-me author is Larry Watson, and the novel is Montana 1948. This is not a science fiction or fantasy setting, but a gritty out-of-time world, where cultural attitudes were in a different place than they are today, but then again, perhaps not. This year of 2020 has forced us to face the the ugly racist underbelly of America. With an author voice that is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy or Larry McMurtry, yet completely unique. Wonderful characters and an impossible situation. I will be reading more of Larry Watson’s work.

FAVORITE CLASSIC: Every year, I make it a point to read a few classics–this year was no exception, and I happened to have an excellent stack to dig into. I read two Ursula LeGuin novels this year (I think I’ve read most of them now): The Lathe of Heaven, which was brilliant, and my favorite of the two, The Word for World is Forest, which is my absolute favorite of all her books. Although I did not pick these stories for their subject matter, I cannot help but note all three previous entries have at their core a seed of racism, cultural bigotry, and injustice. Maybe it’s the year 2020 that made these tales resonate for me so strongly. I think it’s a combination of the author’s skill with characterization, world-building and the emotional depth of the tale, topped off with a resonant (and in this case, just) ending.

FAVORITE READ BY FAVORITE AUTHOR:  Choosing a single work this year from such a plethora of great reads by my favorite authors is a good problem to have.  Thing is, my tastes are pretty eclectic.  I mean, how can you compare Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (a boy, a carnival, and fortune telling) to Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun (an airline pilot & cannibals) to the American Sherlock Holmes?  I’m speaking of the amazing Robert McCammon Matthew Corbett series.  I read the first three volumes (roughly 900 pages EACH), back-to-back.  Great titles: Speaks the NightbirdQueen of Bedlam, and Mr. Slaughter; great setting (the British American colonies), and oh-so-devious plotting and diabolical characters. Some categorize McCammon’s work as horror; I wallowed in it. A wonderful, engrossing series–each one better than the last.  You can be sure I’ll be spending my tax refund on more of that series.

THE LESSON: Even within a pandemic year there are blessing to be found: Read good books. You don’t need to limit yourself to a specific genre.  There are good books in every genre.

PS: Regrettably, I didn’t see Thor Ragnarok when it was in the theaters. But watching it at home this year, I couldn’t help but think the Led Zeppelin’s 1970 The Immigrant Song is the BEST theme song ever.  Beats the Jaws theme by a landslide.

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Nuggets of Joy

As I glanced out the window Thursday night, I was struck by the beautiful colors of a zinfandel-red sunset. I stepped out on the balcony for a better look, and could see a thin crescent moon adding it’s own illumination to the scene. It was so lovely, I had to stop and take a picture. I stood there  for another 10 minutes, marveling that I could’t remember the last time I’d seen such a lovely sunset.  An interlude of quiet joy.

And three days later, that quiet joy is still with me. In spite of all the heavy hits to humanity that 2020 has brought us, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are still small joys to be found:
– A friend’s delight in a perfectly brewed cup of tea from a new electric kettle
– Catching sight of a bird or bit of nature you’ve never seen before
– A new baby, new puppy or the charmingly-naughty antics of a pair of ginger kittens

The universe continues on. The earth turns. The sun rises and sets on another day. It’s not that things aren’t tough (or even horrible) for many, but we go on. As we must. There will be no single thing that will change things for all of us, so we must look a little harder to spot the small miracles happening all around us every day. Eventually, the momentum will turn, and as with the seasons, change will come.

Until those better days arrive, savor the glorious colors of fall, the sounds of your favorite music, the smell of hot chocolate, a good story, or the gentle hand (or paw) of a loved one. Don’t forget to appreciate the little things that bring you joy.

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Word of the Days

Propaganda.

By definition, it is described as a systematic effort to use information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. According to Bruce Lannes Smith, Coauthor of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion, “Propagandists have a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these, they deliberately select facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and present them in ways they think will have the most effect. To maximize effect, they may omit or distort pertinent facts or simply lie, and they may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people they are trying to sway) from everything but their own propaganda.”

Other terms related to propaganda include hype and spin. Advertisers use it all the time; think the ‘Pepsi Challenge’ or ‘Where’s the beef? ‘ ads. The use of an admired actor or character to promote a product. Or taking a quote or data point out of context. Images (of happy families, national icons, or even puppies) can be used to imply a connotation or persuade the target audience that an idea is wholesome or patriotic. Even the media is often accused (by both sides) of being partisan, using the same set of facts to sway opinion.

Lenin defined “propaganda” as the reasoned use of historical and scientific arguments to indoctrinate the educated and enlightened; he defined “agitation” as the use of slogans, parables, and half-truths to exploit the grievances of the uneducated and the unreasonable.

Scarier terms include brainwashing, disinformation, and psychological warfare. George Orwell wrote a book about it.

There are less than 60 days to the election.

Word.

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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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