Sunday, January 31, 2010
"I am going to tie you to the bed, Colette, unless you tell me to stop. You don't have to be afraid. I've done this many times before."
Jealousy flared up, replacing the fear. Who else had he used the way he was using me?
"So, I'm just another conquest for you?" Ryan looked surprised at my outburst. He sat down beside me on the bed and took my hand.
"No, of course not. You know better than that. You know that you're special."
"I'm sure that you tell every one of your women that."
"But it's true. I knew it the moment I saw you. You have a precious gift, a sexual intensity that you can't hide, though you try. A craving for the extremes of sensation. Overwhelming curiosity and insatiable appetite. The rare ability to surrender completely to pleasure."
His touch was making me weak, but I still tried to resist.
"In the stories, the doms always say that. They know how to push the right buttons. They seduce their victims into thinking that there's something magical and deep about their interaction. When after all, it's just sex -- kinky, perverted, but in the final analysis, just sex."
"Just sex?" Ryan leaped onto the bed, straddling my body, pinning my wrists to the sheets with his huge hands. Then he kissed me with a ferocity that literally took my breath away. His tongue forced its way into my mouth and tangled with mine. He gnawed at my lips, mashing them against my teeth. I tasted blood.
I struggled against him for a moment, then relaxed and let his mouth ravage me. With that release came pleasure so acute that it washed away all thought. I was floating in a sea of pleasure: the tingling in my nipples where his shirt rubbed against them; the sparks flashing across my belly from the pressure of his hidden cock; the exquisite contractions rippling through the depths of my cunt.
I writhed against him, unable to control myself, not caring what he thought or what he did. I opened myself to the pleasure and let it take me away.
"'And if the body does not do as much as the Soul? And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?'"
Ryan had relinquished my mouth and was peering down at me. His long black hair half-obscured his blazing eyes.
I gasped for breath. "Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass." The pleasure had subsided somewhat, but I knew that it lay waiting for me to claim it again.
"Yes. 'Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, the atmosphere and the clouds, and what was expected of heaven or fear'd of hell, are now consumed.' That's what he was talking about, you know. Sex. 'Just' sex."
I nodded. I knew.
"Let me bind you, Colette."
I nodded again.
My bed had no hooks, no attachment points. Ryan simply fastened one end of the rope around my wrist, then threaded it under the bed and up the other side to wrap my other wrist. My ankles he secured in a similar manner. Simple and efficient. I lay quietly, feeling the pleasure trembling beneath the surface whenever he touched me.
Before long he stood over me. I assumed that he was admiring his handiwork.
I had imagined this, but the reality was far more intense. I was helpless, unable to move or escape. Truly in his power. My body was displayed, shameless, available for him to use in any way he desired. I have never been more frightened. Or more excited.
-- From “Body Electric” by Lisabet Sarai. In Yes, Sir: Erotic Stories of Female Submission,edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Cleis, 2008.
The story quoted above is very personal. While the characters and the action are imagined, the central question in “Body Electric” is one that I've considered many times during my five-odd decades. I've had some sexual experiences that could only be called transcendent. They overwhelmed me. They changed me forever. What does that mean? How can I reconcile this fact with the popular wisdom that desire and sexual pleasure are somehow lesser experiences than “love”? The notion that sex is something basic, primitive, animal, and instinctive, whereas love is an expression of humanity's higher nature?
Of course, the sexual experiences to which I refer were not primarily physical. Especially in BDSM, at least for me, the physical is simply a gateway to a different psychic state, a lens that focuses the emotions. Meanwhile, I'll admit that I've always had difficulty separating sex and love, to the extent that I've started to wonder whether the distinction isn't completely artificial.
In my wilder days, I had – I was about to write “many lovers”, but I realize that description will mean different things to different people. So instead I'll say “multiple lovers” and leave you to interpret that as you will. With one or two exceptions that still leave a bad taste in my mouth, I felt that I loved them all. Even with the occasional one-night stands, there was tenderness and warmth. As for the person who introduced me to BDSM—well, I still call him my lover and my master, more than thirty years later, despite the fact that I'm twenty seven years married (to someone else) and we haven't shared a “scene” in almost that long. I love him dearly. Did the lust and excitement transmute to love? Did I have to love him first, in order to trust him the way I did, the very first time we were naked together?
Is there an answer to this question, any more than there's one to Walt Whitman's? “And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul?”
These days I spend a lot of time (more than I'd like) pondering the dichotomy of erotica and romance and trying to walk the fine line between them. Perhaps that line is illusory, too. True, each genre has its own conventions, but are they really different in some fundamental way? I wrote Raw Silk as erotica; it is now marketed, more or less successfully, as erotic romance. In today's romance, the intensity of the sexual connection between the protagonists is a mirror of their love. Not infrequently, the physical communion appears first.
Some erotica authors can write about sex without any overt recourse to love. Remittance Girl and Mike Kimera particularly come to mind. Even with these authors, though, sex transforms their characters. Desire is an alchemy that transmutes sweat and semen, saliva and pussy juice, into something rarer, finer, closer to what makes us human. One of those abstracts that we write with implicit capitals. Beauty. Truth.
Sometimes, too, I wonder if I can love someone without feeling, at some level, desire. I was startled to realize, in my late teens, that I not only loved and admired a close girlfriend—I was aroused by her. Parents, siblings, elderly relatives—okay, they don't turn me on. But there's at least a hint of a sexual dimension in most of my other relationships.
Am I abnormal? Confused? Deviant? Maybe. But perhaps not. So many people travel through life deliberately distanced from their sexual selves. They reject their lust as shameful and unworthy. I've never felt that way. That's one reason I can write what I do without blushing or making apologies.
Sex or love, Ashley asked in his topic for this week. As for me, I'll take both, thank you.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
A Little Red Mustang and a Flight of Stairs
By Barbara L. Corcoran
When I fell 13 feet onto a slate floor on July 18, 2003, the seed of hope had been planted. As everything in my field of vision began turning bright white, I felt the numbness of shock begin to overtake my body, and I thought of Leola’s story. Her influence had already shaped how I would react to both what had just happened to me and what I was about to face.
Why Me? by Leola Mae Harmon, originally appeared in the September 1976 issue of Reader’s Digest, winning the First Person Award. In 1982, her book by the same title was published; and in 1984, the account was retold in a made-for-television movie starring Glynnis O’Connor, Armand Assante and Annie Potts.
Nurse Leola was 23 years old in November 1968, happily five months pregnant, and on her way to work at the Elmendorf Air Force Base Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. She traveled along Tudor Road, babying her car up and over the crest of the hill. Ahead there was an oncoming school bus. Suddenly a truck darted out from behind it to pass, into Leola's lane of traffic. She tried to avoid an impact, but there was no time.
The collision sent her little red mustang over a 12-foot snow-covered embankment. Her seatbelt didn’t hold and she went through the windshield before being thrown back into her seat. The spinning three-pronged steering wheel tore through her face.
Her airway blocked by tissue, blood and chunks of bone, Leola could only wheeze as the ambulance took her first to a civilian hospital and then to Elmendorf, where her co-workers were in shock at the sight of the once-stunningly beautiful woman on the gurney. Plastic surgeon Dr. James Stallings, who happened to be passing by the ER, heard the commotion, took charge and saved the young woman’s life.
Leola Mae had lost most of her teeth, a chunk of her lip and parts of her jawbone, yet she insisted on getting back to nursing just five weeks after the accident. Dr Stallings was not one to be shy about trying new procedures, including rebuilding her lip from her own vaginal tissue. After 40 grueling surgeries, Leola Mae was put back together again.
The intoxicated driver that ran into her pretty little car, took the life of Leola’s unborn child, and did unspeakable damage to this beautiful woman received a $250 fine, 30 day suspension of his driver's license and 30 days in jail.
Leola also lost her husband before her recovery was complete. He could not deal with the extent of her injuries. Leola’s determination, combined with Dr. Stallings’ dedication and skill, kept her going through the pain, depression and physical adjustments she endured as the days became weeks and months and years.
She and Dr. Stallings went on to work together, marrying in 1971, only to divorce in 1976. Sadly, Dr. Stallings took his own life in 1991 after a long battle with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue hindered his ability to work. Leola remarried in 1982 and moved to Punta Gorda, Florida in 1998, where she caught a virus. She passed away in May 1999 of multiple organ failure.
I saw the 1984 made-for-tv movie first. I was lucky enough to later get a copy of the book, which filled a lot of gaps left by the movie. Leola’s miraculous recovery - replayed on screen and on paper, left no doubt that she was more than a survivor. She not only survived against the odds, but she had a terrific attitude as well. Leola Mae's beauty came from within, and in time, it was seen on the outside again.
In my case, I had fallen down a flight of stairs to a slate floor below. Both arms were broken; I had head injuries; bruised and torn muscles and cartilage. I was in wrenching pain. My heart stopped for more than a minute in the Emergency Room. My boss at the investment firm couldn't understand why I couldn't be back to work the next week. I couldn't feed or dress myself. I lost my job.
At first, I was thrilled that I had survived to have another chance at life. As the first few months passed, the magnitude of my injuries became more apparent to me. I had always been quite independent, yet now I could not bathe myself. I could not open a doorknob or even pick up a pencil. Always my own worst critic, I was about to learn a huge lesson. I was about to learn how to accept my imperfect self. Even more importantly, I was about to learn how to ask for – and graciously accept -- help.
For me, it has been a long process of learning how to sign my name again, complete with triumphs over lifting a wet washcloth; a metal fork; a can of tuna. On one particular day, I was carefully dusting my trophies from the days when I was a champion bullseye target shooter. It dawned on me that with my right arm still unable to straighten, I may never be able to shoot again. A kind of sadness swept over me that only accompanies the realization that one’s life-dream has suddenly fallen out of reach. I tried rationalizing, but the sadness overwhelmed me.
I went to my copy of Lola’s book and read again about her struggle, and chose to focus on things I can do instead of those I cannot. Six years later, I still have physical difficulties, and am experiencing what it is like to have an "invisible" disability. I still lack some dexterity in my fingertips, and it often takes me several minutes to pick up a button or manipulate the earring through my pierced ear. Four months ago, I finally summed up the courage to face the target shooting challenge. I was accustomed to bringing home first place every time. I now have three matches under my belt with two second place awards and one first place award. I believe that with a lot more work, I will one day return to those first place scores.
In the years since my own accident, people have looked at me in amazement after learning of my survival against so many odds. There are times when I cannot lift or move things with my arms, and the pain is a daily occurrence. I tire easily and can accomplish roughly half of what I could in a day before the accident. In spite of my own physical therapist having considerably less than “Stallings’-like” enthusiasm about my case (she told me I’d have to live with my right elbow permanently bent at 30 degrees), I have, on my own, recovered full range of movement with my left elbow and all but four degrees of range in my right.
Many times already I could have given up, but all I’ve needed to do is remember what I know about Leola Mae's endurance. I am forever grateful for her courage. Her story has influenced, and saved, my life. She didn't quit, and her injuries were much worse than mine. She kept a determined smile on her face and forged ahead willingly.
So, with the Authorities on their way to burn my library, who am I to do anything less?
Friday, January 29, 2010
What kind of fire are we talking about here?
Let me get this straight. There is a fire, one that's burning books ala Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and I'm supposed to pick the one book that I would save from said fire? Is that right? Because if it is, I got problems with that scenario.
For starters, what kind of fire are we really talking about here? In Fahrenheit 451, the government has outlawed the reading of books to prevent critical thought and employs fire as the method of choice for dealing with such dangerous material. As much as I love Ray Bradbury and his work (and I do really, really love the man's books; Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my all time favorites), I don't buy this idea at all. Fahrenheit 451 was written back in the 50s, well before the internet and e-books and Project Gutenberg. Now the internet may not be any great bastion of intellectualism, but its main means of conveying info is via text, which means reading: blogs, zines, and yes, books. And there are lots of books available on the internet, some legally, some not. You can buy e-books from Amazon.com, Barnes & Nobles online, and dozens, maybe even hundreds of small independent e-publishers these days. And then there's Project Gutenberg, which offers public domain books for free download. Plenty of great classics there to read. And let us not forget the URLs of those darling swashbucklers who love to post entire books illegally on the web. Argh, me hearties! If the government can't stop people from pirating books by the thousands on a daily basis, what the hell makes anyone think they could successfully outlaw reading altogether? Nuh-uh, not buying it.
So forget the plot to Fahrenheit 451. The government is not going to stop any of us from reading books. Reality TV might succeed, by turning our brains to such mush that we can't even remember the damn alphabet, but the government isn't about play out Bradbury's classic novel.
So if we're not talking about the government burning all the books, what kind of fire are we talking about here? Maybe an act of God? Would some all powerful deity reach out and zap all the books in a fit of pique? If that's the case, then why am I being asked to save that one book? I can't imagine anyone expecting me to do something like that because if it really is an all powerful deity out to destroy all books, then we all no there's not a damned thing I can do to save just one precious volume. Me versus God? One of two things would happen in that fight. Either God would zap my ass too, or we'd all come to our senses and remember that I don't believe in God and thus the whole argument would blow apart like a house of cards in a late summer hurricane. Ain't atheism great?
So with no holy fires from the Almighty coming to rain down on our local library, we are back again to the original question. What kind of fire are we talking about here? A natural disaster? California wildfires gone completely out of control? No, that would only destroy all the books on the North American continent. We need something worldwide and cataclysmic. How about a comet hitting the Earth! No, too cataclysmic. That wouldn't just wipe out all the books; that'd take out all the people too and then there'd be no point in saving that lone book. Think, think, think... Uuuuuuuuuh... massive tectonic shifts across the world that destroy all of civilization without somehow killing all the people. No, even that wouldn't destroy all the books. I mean, if some people survived, then some buildings would probably also survive, and there'd probably be a few books in some of those, and that leaves us with more than one book and those would have survived without my intervention...
Okay, I'm over-thinking things here. Let's go simple. Let's talk about a fire that could happen, but one I hope never will. A house fire. Let's say I burned dinner and my house is now on fire. First off, the one book I would not save would be the cookbook I was cooking from because the house fire is all the fault of that book. That just leaves several hundred other books to choose from. Of course, books wouldn't be my priority. Depending on the time of day... we said I was burning dinner, right? Okay, it's evening then. Evening is when the kids are home. The Hubster might be home, too. So first priority is to save the kids and the Hubster. Now the Hubster is like a walking encyclopedia. The man has two degrees in aerospace engineering and has pretty much memorized every tech book he's ever read. If I save the Hubster, I do not have to save any computer or science books from the house, because those would already be stored in that immense brain of his. So that narrows down the list by about... let's say a third.
The kids, of course, have memorized all their board books and easy readers because you know, kids like to read the same thing over and over and over and over and over and... what? What was I talking about? Oh yeah, kids' books. The kids (and I, since I'm the one who has to read those books aloud over and over and over and over and...) have pretty much memorized all their books, and can recite most of them by heart, so no need to save those. Sure, they have sentimental value, but so do the kids and if I save the kids I'm sure I'll be hearing those stories told to me at any odd moment all throughout the next few years, like at 2AM when the littlest one can't sleep so she climbs into my bed and starts reciting Sandra Boyton's The Going to Bed Book at the top of her lungs. ("THE SUN HAS SET NOT LONG AGO... NOW EVERYBODY GOES BELOW... TO TAKE A BATH IN ONE BIG TUB... WITH SOAP ALL OVER, SCRUB SCRUB SCRUB!")
So, nonfiction? Check. Kids' books? Check. No need to save either of those categories. That brings down the number of books I have to choose from to about one third of the household library.
Now we reach the tricky part. Now we are talking about MY books. MY precious tomes which I have collected over the last several years. Like Michelle and Lisabet, I have had on occasion to thin my library. Honestly, I can't tell you the number of books I've given away. When I knew child number two was on the way, I was forced to give up my office and convert it into a bedroom for child number one. That required a massive thinning of my books, though to this day there is only one title out of all those I gave away that I still remember -- A Distant Soil by Collen Doran. It was a graphic novel, and a damned good one, and someday I'll probably get another copy of it. But it ain't in the library of my hypothetically burning house right now and so not eligible for this discussion.
What is in the library that would I save? Hmm... My first thought is Delusion's Master by Tanith Lee. This was my first introduction to the world of adult high fantasy, a lush book about the demon prince Azhrarn, Lord of Night, who courted a beautiful mortal maiden, and Azhrarn's un-cousin, Chuz the Lord of Chaos, who brought madness upon them both with his brass rattle and the clacking jawbones of an ass. It's one of the few books I own that I have re-read, and of those one of the few that stood up to the test of time. I loved it even more the second time I read it, and the third time I read it, it inspired me to write Demon By Day. So yeah, that's certainly a contender.
Then there's The Gate to Women's Country by Sherri S. Tepper. Now that's a dangerous book, the first truly feminist book I'd ever read, about a world in which women live inside walled towns and men live outside in military barracks. The women provide all the food, clothing, medicine, etc., while the men provide... protection, from other similar walled towns with armies of men quartered outside. The two sexes never meet except on specific feast days and even then they get together under very controlled conditions. Any man who can't handle the rigors and demands of military life outside the town is whipped and chased through a specific gate that leads back into the women's world, where he must stay for the rest of his life. All of this is shown through the eyes of one girl as she grows up and falls in love with a boy on the outside, then runs away with him to fall victim to a startling fate. Sherri S. Tepper writes beautifully, almost mythically, but this particular book had such a shocking -- and fitting -- ending, it was a couple weeks before I could read anything else. So there's another strong contender. However, now that I think about it, I believe I loaned that book to Janice a few years ago and never got it back... Well damn. On to the next book.
Of course, in case of a house fire I would definitely want to grab my dad's book. Not one of the ones he actually got published, but the one he wrote and never published. My dad is the ultimate humorist. He makes up these wild tales about fictional family members that leave anyone who hears them laughing so hard their sides hurt. There's Uncle Herbivore and Cousin Osty Perosis, and a slew of other guffaw-inducing characters that could only have come from my dad's warped brain. Yes, I'd be sorely tempted to grab the slim volume of stories that he wrote and printed out and gave me, but then I also know he still has them on disk at home, and it's my house on fire here, not his, so I could probably get another copy very easily. Eh, put that one down as a maybe. Dad's not going to care about me saving books anyway, so long as I get me, the Hubster and the grandkids to safety.
Maybe I'd save Bone, by Jeff Smith. I've never read a better graphic novel. Or I should say, novels. There are ten in all, comprising a fantastic tale about Fone Bone and his cousins Smiley Bone and Phony Bone and their adventures with dragons and princesses and little old ladies who race cows (the volume entitles The Great Cow Race is hysterical!). I discovered the Bone books last summer and started buying them one at a time and reading them to my kids, who also promptly fell love with the books. Of course, I'm only allowed to save one book here, and Bone is actually ten. Hmm... There is a collected works volume; it's got the original black and white artwork but it's only one book so I could save that. Oh, except I don't own the collected works volume, and besides, it doesn't have the prequel story, Rose, illustrated by Charles Vess. Okay, not Bone then. Sorry Jeff Smith. I still love your work though!
All right, I've debated and debated and debated and finally made my choice. I know exactly which book I'd save! But all the while I've been thinking about it, my damn house has been burning down around my ears and most of my library is upstairs, while I'm downstairs in the kitchen with the dinner turning to charcoal in the oven. Thus I am forced to choose from the very limited set of books I have within reach right at that moment before I die of smoke inhalation. I grab the nearest book and run outside the house where my tech and science library (in the form of the Hubster) awaits with my children's book library (in the form of my kids). We flee to safety with my one precious book clutched to my chest and after the fire trucks have come and dowsed the flames and left our home one giant soggy mess, and after I know all my precious books including Delusion's Master and The Gate to Women's Country and Bone and my dad's unpublished greatest works are nothing but sodden ashes, then I look down at the one book that I saved.
And smack myself in the head as I realize I grabbed the one book I said I would not save at the beginning of this hypothetical scenario; the fucking cookbook that caused me to burn down the house in the first place. Because that was the only book in the kitchen when we started this nonsense.
Did I mention I don't like this week's topic one bit? Did I mention that?
Eh, forget it. You people figure out what books to save. I'm going to actually read now instead.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Fire & Ash
by Ashley Lister
There has only ever been one important book in my life: certainly only one that I’d risk my life to save from the flames.
That comment reminds me of something I once watched a TV priest say. He was discussing material wealth, and its genuine lack of worth. Talking directly to the host he said, ‘If your house was on fire, can you give me the exact financial worth of the first three things you would save?’
Of course the host hesitated and admitted that there was no way of putting a financial worth on his wife, children or pets: apposite proof of the priest’s point. Personally, I'd reached a value £4.73, but that's just me.
And I’m digressing and in danger of sounding serious. As I say, there is only one book I consider important enough to save from the flames. However, reflecting on the subject for this blog, I appreciate there are some other titles that I would have to consider and I’ve included them here, simply because I can.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchet & Neil Gaiman.
This hilarious novel is probably my all time favourite title. Pratchet is renowned for his sense of humour. Gaiman has a dark mirth to his writing. Together they have created a brilliant novel that simply sparkles with wit.
IT by Stephen King.
Stephen King was the first ‘grown-up writer’ I read and his name was certain to appear in this short list. Admittedly, I didn’t know which title to pick. I spent four years at college with a copy of The Stand in my back pocket (I had big back pockets in those days), and I can relate anecdotes about the nerve-wrenching agony of waiting for the individual monthly release of The Green Mile when it came out in chapbook form. However, for its breadth of imagination, and for the richness of the characters involved, I think IT ranks as my number one favourite King title.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
I grew up reading this title. I’ve probably owned a dozen copies of the book having ‘leant’ them to friends who then went on to lose/eat/steal them (please delete as applicable). Adams (now, sadly passed on) couldn’t structure a sentence. However, the wit inside his words showed a perfect blend of humour and imagination.
The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Chinese military philosophy that’s as relevant today (in every walk of life) as it was when it was originally written 2,500 years ago.
Any title by Ashley Lister or one of his pseudonyms.
I’ve written maybe thirty novels under pseudonyms, two non-fiction titles under my own name, and many articles and short stories under a variety of different names. If it came to saving something from the flames my ego would not be satisfied unless I made some token gesture at saving my own creations.
Which is where my answer finally comes into play. The one book I would have to save – the one book that would probably be saved ahead of family and most pets, is the current work in progress.
There are plenty of books that have been written. I’ve written several of them myself. But there is no book more important than the one I’m currently working on, even though that title differs from month to month.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
I shut down shop for a while and go over to the book rack euphemistically called “Relationships”. Come on folks. That’s where the Fuck Books are. You know - Fuck Books? Anne Hooper’s Kama Sutra. Make Love like a Porn Star. Five Hundred Hot Sex Positions to Do Before You Die. How To Drive a Man Wild in Bed. How to drive a Woman Wild in Bed. How to Drive Common Barnyard Animals Wild in Bed. Those books. I love Fuck Books. Useless information most of it, unless you’re a rock star or maybe married to an adventurous spouse. A few books on How to Still Fuck Anyway Even If You’re an Old Fart, which I should probably read if I can ever haul one to the cash register without wearing a bag over my head. “She Comes First” by Ian Kerner, a genuinely useful book I really like about how to perform cunnilingus really, really well. And then there’s the erotica shelf which is what I really came over to see. I’m not lacking for erotica anthologies, God knows, but I always want to see –and yes! – it’s the one I’m in. The one of only two printed on actual pulp wood paper that has me in it. I set down my notebooks and the paperback of “Dead Until Dark” I’m going to buy, pop out the anthology book and start thumbing through the contents page. I feel a presence in the air on my right and turn to look. There’s a couple of boys standing next to me, watching the old dude look at the dirty books. I try to ignore them, but they’re watching me as if I were an Ivory Billed Woodpecker sitting on a fence post.
“You like that book?” says one with a smirk.
I look up from the contents page. “Huh? Whadya say?”
Now that’s the real me. When I get nervous about speaking in front of people, someone always says “Just be yourself.” Well, being myself is what I’m being right now. That would be me sitting in a corner away from people with a haphazard stack of books and a coffee pot looking up every few minutes and grunting “Huh? Whadya say?”
“Well, kid.” I say with a kind of Walter Brimley growl. “I’m looking for my friends here. See that?” I put my finger on the contents page, with a swell of pride. “See, I know her. And this one here - I know her pretty well. She’s my good friend and she's helped me with my own stories. I know this guy too. This guy here I know a little bit. I know most of these people and – “
I tap my finger under my name. "See, that guy there, well that’s me little buddy. You can look it up.” I put the book in his hands and take a second to savor the dumb founded look on the kid’s face as I stride briskly towards the cash registers.
As I glance back over my shoulder the kids are laughing their asses off over me. Aw, go to hell. Can’t blame a guy for trying to get a taste of it anyway.
This is a good day for me, one I’ve marked off on my pocket calendar. Because today Charlaine Harris is at the Columbia County Library, to sign books and say hi to her fans. They’ll hand out the admission tickets around six o’clock. I decide to pop over around one to drop off some books and check the DVDs. The librarians know me by name, which is a mark of pride for me.
As I hoof it across the county library parking lot, I discover the sidewalk in front of the library building is filled with camp chairs and people huddled under blankets with styrofoam cups. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my friends and I would stay out over night to get tickets for some big name band. But – this is a writer? Goddamn. Does she have groupies too?
I ask some of the folks at the head of the line when they got there. Ten o’ clock in the morning. There are only going to be three hundred tickets available, and these are serious people. Where are you from? Birmingham? You mean Alabama Birmingham? Shit.
I had thought I’d come back around ten minutes to six and pick up a couple of easy tickets at the front desk from some desperate looking geezer hoping to fill the hall, and then find something to do until seven, but this shit – I had no idea. My plans are shot and I’m terribly humbled all of a sudden. I’m used to forlorn looking authors at card tables, but this is the big time. This is what it really looks like when you’ve arrived at the Promised Land.
I come back around four o’ clock and the line is all the way around the damn block and halfway to Atlanta and back. Holey Moley. What must that be like? To have people who want to see you so bad, travel all night across two states to tell you how much they love your characters and ask questions about your stories.
Charlaine Harris is the author of several popular series books, including the Sookie Stackhouse vampire novels which became the hit HBO series “Trueblood”. I’ve seen that series on DVD and I love it. She’s not quite a heavy hitter in the league of Stephen King or J K Rowling, but she’s way up there among the gods someplace. If you’re a Trueblood fan you’re a Charlaine Harris fan. I haven’t even read her books, I bought the “Dead Until Dark” to get her autograph and hang on her ear a few minutes over coffee and see what I could learn from an accomplished writer in the flesh. Maybe bask in her vibration or something. I asked my kid if he’d like to come along and meet “a real writer” (as compared to his dad) and he said no. Not his idea of an exciting evening.
I take my place in the cold and damp behind a group of housewives and young Goth girls in black, chattering away. A couple of people in vampire capes walk by. The lady in front of me is a cheerful, garrulous woman in her forties or so who has read all the Stackhouse books and is very excited about meeting Harris. The temptation is enormous to tell her with bashful modesty that I – Me? Oh, why ma'am, now that you mention it, yes, well I do write a little bit I suppose. . . Does it show? Ah ha hah ha! Must be the beard, and yes, can you believe it? I have a vampire novel in the works! Just a little novel, nothing really, Ah ha ha . . yeah. . . but this little fantasy quickly withers in the face of her enthusiasm over Harris. Still for the next hour or so we shiver together in the cold talking about horror movies, vampire novels and what works and what doesn’t. I keep the writing thing to myself but I ask her all the writerly questions I would have asked Harris about what makes a story so good, and I get some good answers from a reader who knows what she likes.
We get our tickets after about three hours or so of standing and by the time the doors open the line is way past the requisite 300 souls. Half of this bunch won’t be able to get in. That’s fan love.
Charlaine Harris turns out to be a great speaker, funny, insightful, a chunky cheerful broad in the spotlight who reminds me a lot of Lavonne, my step mother. I could hang out with this person, I think. She’s having a great time, she loves her fans and lord have mercy do they love her. She describes her day and she works hard. She writes full time in the morning, breaks to talk to her agent (An agent! What must it be like?) answer mail, and then back to work again in the afternoon. She has a contract for three more Stackhouse books, not to mention her other four or five series, and Trueblood is signed up ahead for four seasons.
After the speech, we lucky three hundred line up to get our books signed. The line is painfully slow. There is a feeling in the signing room which reminds me of my old religious days, when you’re in the presence of the great spiritual master Lord Humongous and everybody speaks in deferential hushed tones and watches you as you come in. She takes my paperback and a big Sharpie marker.
“Could you make it out to - “
“Okay. Um . . can I get a picture with you too?”
“Sure!” So we do that.
Back in my house, in the upstairs guest room I have four cheap fiberboard book cases, sort of nouveau K-Mart I guess, sagging precariously under books of every kind. When I visit someone’s house I often gravitate towards their books because I think you can see inside someone’s head a little bit by what they read. This is usually true. When I enter this room I feel like Solomon entering his harem of five hundred wives. Among the books are old lovers, read roughly and joyfully many times. Some virgins never touched at all. Some only a little and left behind. I love them all.
I put “Dead Until Dark” on the middle shelf right next to “Lolita”, the shelf above the shelf where all the Fuck Books are, where the paperbacks are stacked three rows deep, just down the street from my Ray Bradbury and Robert E Howard books. I guess I’ll read it someday.
Among my harem of books, if I could be any writer it would be not be Charlaine Harris, or Stephen King or even J K Rowling. They are all worthy, immortal, popular and adored by millions. Not to mention filthy rich. No, if I were to sell my soul to be one writer it would be Vladimir Nabokov. If I could save only one book it would be “Lolita”. If I could write only one book, it would be "Lolita". It is perfect in every way. If I could have my way every novel, every short story, every grocery list I write would be “Lolita”. It is the perfect novel. It is perfect in language. It is perfect in premise. It is perfect in execution. Lolita is a love story, not a romance. These are not the same. Romance is expected to follow a required formula with some innovations. It is expected to turn out well. Love stories are free form. They usually don’t turn out well. Love stories make love look bad for everybody. Lolita is a story of the destruction of a soul, a doomed one way love affair between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl. Yes, there is sex, what amounts to the serial child rape of poor Dolores Haze. This all takes place off stage, only hinted at here and there. That’s not what the story is about. Lolita is about the destruction of a soul by the obsessed fantasies of Humbert-Humbert, a man she cannot fight against. And yet the language is esquisite on every page:
“ . . . Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. . . “
At the end of the horror, when she has fled and then contacted him because she needs money he breaks through his obsession and begins to love her as she is:
“ . . . Somewhere beyond Bill's shack an after work radio had begun singing of folly and fate, and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult rope veined narrow hands, and her goose flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!) hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby already dreaming in her of becoming a big shot, and I looked and looked at her and I knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth or hoped for anywhere else,. . .”
The glory of it. The beauty of this horrible wonderful book. I don’t know if people will still be reading Sookie Stackhouse a hundred years from now, but as long as love goes wrong or even perversely wrong, people will love this book. If I could have a choice between the line of fans around the block and the pleasure of writing as powerfully as this book, even if no one ever read it – I would still choose this book. I would have no regrets.
editor of the Chicago Tribune Magazine of Books as quoted in "The Lolita Case" in TIME magazine (17 November 1958).
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Books, books, books ... and even more books
It's hard ...
So I can only imagine the struggle of having to pick just one book. It's like the interview question, if you were stranded on a deserted island with just one book, what would it be? Um ...
I don't even know where to begin to narrow down my bookshelves to just one book. Most of my favorites are parts of trilogies or small series with set ending points.
What I do know is without authors, there would be no new books. The lose of any work of art, be it a painting , a symphony, or a book, is a detriment to the world. Yet the lose of creativity would be much much worse.
While we may never see a repeat of the abilities of some of the masters, new ones will arise in time, so long as we nurture the crative spark within us. So rather than risk all to save one book, which would probably by the one I happened to grab off of my shelf in a moment of panic rather than one selected with deliberation, I would let them be taken.
I would then commit my life to recreating what I could, and writing new stories, hoping that it would help keep creativity alive within the human condition, so that future generations will be able to enjoy their own masters of the arts.
Monday, January 25, 2010
To Quit Reading...Cold Turkey
She doesn't see this every time. She can screw her eyes up six ways to Sunday and with the help of her not very helpful glasses, she can do just enough to write a check or review a bill. That effort costs her, and afterwards, she has to "rest" her eyes for a while, leaning back with her eyes closed, battling vertigo.
I would estimate she has a couple thousand books in her house. Stacked haphazardly in bookshelves, closets, her nightstand holds an increasingly dusty stack of brand new books slowly getting older. I think she's managed to slowly work her way through a couple paperbacks... especially heartbreaking to me, as I used to watch her whip through at least one book a day. It's from her I inherited my love for books and freakish speed at reading.
It wasn't even the stroke that did it, although she has a permanent and random case of vertigo from that. No, it was the chemo and/or radiation, exactly which I'm not certain. The treatment that spared Mom's life cost her a huge part of it.
She misses them, her books. She refuses to discuss it, in mourning, I think. People still give them as gifts, and she's gracious, but doesn't share her pain. Her favorite (and only) hobby...cut off completely.
She was the first person I thought of when this topic came up. How to choose? Lisabet very neatly summarized my own feelings on the topic. I'm probably up there close to her 5K books, while 10 years behind in age. I racked up over a thousand on Goodreads in 6 months, so it's most likely even more than that. And to choose one... a Sisyphean task to debate the merits of each one I've read..and haven't yet read.
So the choice of one to save, I would defer to my mom. In hopes that someday, she'll again be able to pick up her choice, and read.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Five Thousand Books
By Lisabet Sarai
In 1953, the year that I was born, Ray Bradbury published his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 . In his fictional world, television reins supreme and books are considered dangerous and subversive. The state maintains crews of “firemen” whose job involves searching out and burning any books they find. Fahrenheit 451 concerns a fireman named Montag who is, in some sense, seduced by the books he is tasked to destroy. He begins by saving volumes from the fire, one at a time, and hiding them in his home. By the end of the novel he is a fugitive taking shelter with dissidents who commit books to memory in order to save their contents for the future.
In his topic for this week, Garce asks us to put ourselves in Montag's place. What book would you save, he asks, if the firemen were knocking at your door? Would it be Shakespeare? The Bible? Plato? The Origin of Species? Catcher in the Rye? Alice in Wonderland?
I've been thinking about this question for weeks, ever since the theme was posted. Finally, I've come to a conclusion. I wouldn't try to save anything.
You may be a bit shocked by this response. I'm an author, aren't I? Don't I love books?
Of course I do. There are only a few things that I care about more deeply. While working on this post, I figured out that I've probably read more than five thousand books during my lifetime. This estimate is based on the fact that I read at least two books a week. I've been reading for fifty odd years. That works out to 5200 books, and that's probably an underestimate, considering the fact that I spent eight years in undergraduate and graduate school where my reading rate was likely quite a bit higher.
I love the excitement of opening the cover of a new book, the breathless approach to the first few paragraphs. What will this story reveal? What emotions will it evoke? What insights will it kindle? I love pulling an old favorite off the shelves, too, leafing through and re-reading, reliving the experience of my first reading or discovering new depths.
Ultimately, though, books are not things. Yes, they take up physical space (way too much!) and have mass, but their importance, their impact, has little to do with this. Books do not really exist until they are read. Their essence lies in the fact that they change the reader.
Books are like food. They exist to be consumed. And to provide nourishment.
A shelf full of volumes means nothing by itself—it is mere potential. Only when I interact with a book does it become valuable and real. In the reading, I may acquire practical knowledge or spiritual wisdom. I may be introduced to foreign vistas or fantastic characters. A book and I have a relationship—maybe lifelong, maybe a one-night stand—and like all relationships, I emerge from the interaction a different person.
This is why I can't choose a single book to save. I'm the sum of those five thousand books with which I've shared my life. Some had more impact than others, but how can I identify which were the crucial volumes, the ones that made me who I am? Every single one had some effect.
Somehow, too, I believe that even if all physical books were burned, they'd live on in us, the readers. That is actually the moral of Bradbury's tale. Destroying physical books does not quench the fire of literature. Humans are story-tellers. We will re-tell the old tales and create new ones for as long as we persist on this planet.
When I moved overseas seven years ago, I rid myself of perhaps eighty percent of my material possessions. It was a painful process, deciding what to discard and what to keep. The sheer weight of my things turned out to be oppressive. In this process, I sold or gave away hundreds of books. Even so, we shipped at least twenty five boxes of books to our new home.
That experience changed me, however. I want to live more lightly from now on, to escape the tyranny of my worldly goods.
I still read constantly, but I hold on to very few of the volumes I consume. After I've read them, I pass them on. I don't need to have them on my bookshelves. They've taken up residence in my mind and heart, where no one can destroy them.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
One Drop Raises the Ocean
I'm always happy to guest blog when the subject is giving. Whether it's giving time, giving cash, or giving head. Doesn't matter. Giving is sexy. Generosity is sexy. Helping others is sexy. Selflessness is sexy.
Seriously soak-the-panties sexy to me.
And who doesn't want to be sexy? Feeling sexy is energizing. It puts a bounce in the step and a twinkle in the eyes. It boosts self-confidence and makes the imagination soar. Plus, there's some major good karma involved. Do unto others, and all that jazz.
I could tell you that I pump huge amounts of blood, sweat, and tears into the charity anthology series Coming Together because I want to be sexy and, really, that's not terribly far from the truth.
If we are totally honest with ourselves, we recognize that our actions are ultimately driven by self interest, even altruistic endeavors. I do what I do—give what I give—because it makes me feel good about myself. It mitigates my shortcomings, keeps my karmic account in the black, and alleviates my guilt when I spend more than I should on things made of leather or stainless steel. Making others happy, relieving pain & suffering, seeing a smile, hearing a groan of ecstasy all fuel my sense of self-worth.
That logic applies to charity as well as erotic fiction. Combine the two, and it's a double-sexy-whammy. Coming Together not only makes a difference in the lives of people who are suffering in the face of disease or natural disaster through its charity fundraising but also gives its readers a pleasant diversion and makes them feel good about supporting a cause.
The authors and poets who contribute to Coming Together are the sexiest people on the planet. Bar none.
And what better time to be sexy? Look at the world around us. There is never a shortage of illness, poverty, or natural disaster, but there is often a shortage of compassion and generosity.
We can tip that balance. We can be the change. No matter how small, or how seemingly insignificant, our sexy efforts matter.
One drop raises the ocean.
~ Alessia Brio
Friday, January 22, 2010
Bits and Spurts
I've been lying about all week, caught somewhere between being sick and just being tired after a long weekend. I've barely read anybody else's posts this week, and until this moment have had no idea what to say on today's topic. Charity, it's a great thing, right? And I should be able to say lots about it, only I'm the poor sucker who volunteered to be the last blogger of the week, and I'm not sure what I could add to what's already been discussed.
We do give to charity in la casa de Madden. The Hubster is a federal employee, and participates in an annual program that deducts a certain amount of money (pre-tax) from each paycheck to give to the charities he names. We decide together, each year, what those charities will be. In addition, the man is Catholic, and as such tithes to his church. But these are really the Hubster's charitable donations, not mine. Yes, his money is my money since I am the stay-at-home parent and have thus sacrificed a regular paycheck to take care of our family at home. But still, that old feeling of "I have no money of my own" rears its ugly head whenever I talk about charity and finances.
When I had a day job, I used to give regularly to a couple of charities - Amnesty International, ASPCA, Alley Cat Allies and my local PBS stations. These were things I believed were worth donating to, and my beliefs are strong enough that we still donate to these organizations thanks to the Hubster's paycheck donations. Then there was the volunteer work I used to do. Usually it was just small things. I'm not Catholic, so rather than sit through Mass I used to volunteer to work in the church nursery, until I decided my kids were too much of a handful to deal with in addition to someone else's offspring. My only other "big" stint at volunteer activity happened before we had kids, Hubster and I volunteered to train at the local Red Cross as Emergency Services reps. If someone's house burned down in the middle of the night, we were the folks who would help them find a place to stay and help replace some of their goods. We were never actually called upon to do this, thankfully, but we were willing and ready.
These days, my good deeds are pretty sporadic. Once or twice, I have volunteered to serve food at the homeless shelter my husband's church hosts once each year. I have bought clothes and toys for children in need and dropped them off at the local Y or Salvation Army whenever I chanced to see their signs for donations. But it's all few and far between. Again, I have no steady paycheck, so it's hard for me to donate my own money. As for volunteer work... well, with two small children and the demands of my writing and graphics work, it's hard to find time to breathe, let alone volunteer for one more thing to do.
Last weekend, that exhausting weekend I referred to at the beginning of this post, I was at Marscon, a local science fiction convention. I went as a writing guest, and brought with me a stack of books to sell, including Alessia Brio's "Coming Together: With Pride." I made sure to explain to anyone who stopped by my table what Coming Together was all about, and pointed out that there were other authors who were there as well with other volumes of the books and promo materials too. We pimped those books hard, and I think Sapphire Phelan may have sold the copies she had. All for a good cause!
In addition to the books I brought, there was also this collection of Star Trek plates I had. My mother had given them to me ages ago, a set of eight plates with various Star Trek characters painted on them, and matching mugs. I love Star Trek, but for the life of me I never understood why my mother bought me plates! What was I supposed to do with them? Hang them on my walls? Eh, no. So when I arrived at Marscon this year, I brought the plates with me, still in their original boxes with their original certificates from whatever mint they came from. I handed them over to the convention's charity auction for the Humane Society. "I have no need for these," I said. "Please sell them to a good home." I was told Sunday that the plates went for around $50. The convention was grateful, and I was please that I could do something, anything, charitable while reclaiming a bit of space in my china cabinet.
So my charity happens in bits and spurts; a short story given to Alessia here, some plates donated there, a little time helping out when I can. I am not Bill Gates, able to donate millions of dollars to helping the world. I give what I can, when I can. And maybe that's what counts. I hope so.
If anyone here would like to make a donation to a worthy cause, please consider taking a look at The Boom Effect, an auction in action dedicated to Sonic Boom, daughter of Tee Morris, author of "Morevi" and the Billibub Baddings mystery books, and his wife Natalie. Earlier this month, Natalie passed away unexpectedly. A group of friends have gotten together to create a trust fund for Sonic Boom. Many authors and artists have donated their works and other items for sale. Yours truly will be offering a signed copy of Future Perfect plus a crocheted ninja (that's right, I'm going to crochet a ninja; don't ask how, just believe). The auction will be held on line 27 February. That's in just a few weeks. Consider giving what you can to this cause. Even a small donation will make a huge difference in the life of one little girl.
That's it from me this week. Go out and do good, or at least as good as you can.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Charity also ends at home
I seldom give to charities.
I can put forward a list of arguments as to why I rarely give, starting off with the financial argument that I’m a writer: I don’t have enough money to give to charities, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.
I’m typing this blog into a fairly recent purchase – a PC that was brand new when I bought it two years ago. The software on the machine was the most expensive I’ve ever bought (the new version of Office that adds an ‘x’ to the suffix of every file just so the rest of the world can’t access my files any more). I’m well-fed. I can afford a bottle of beer when I care for one, a bar of chocolate whenever I don’t need one, and I drive a gas-guzzling car to the university centre where I spend some of my working week.
So it’s not that I can’t really afford to make a donation. I live in a comparatively wealthy country and I’m comfortable (if not affluent) with some disposable income in the back compartment of my leather wallet.
And it’s not that I’m without empathy. The recent situation in Haiti is heartbreaking. Global crises (whether they’re famine, war or ‘natural’ disasters) are always distressing and I honestly can’t imagine the cataclysmic devastation of such an event. I’m genuinely scared to contemplate the life-changing upheaval of such catastrophe because I know it would seriously hurt.
But still I seldom give to charities.
My decision is not political. I was around in the 80s when Live Aid was trying to raise money to help put an end to famine in Africa. It was a worthy cause, although many participants and politicians tried to make it political. It’s almost worthy of the darkest satire to show fat politicians in designer suits and chauffeur driven cars talking about the politics of being hungry, as though they know what that condition is like.
But that sort of exploitation and band-wagon-jumping is not why I rarely give to charities.
I could say it’s because I don’t trust charities. I’m not talking about the occasional tabloid scandal, where a charity boss has been found to have their fingers in the collecting jar. That’s human nature and forgivable. Also, such crimes happen so rarely it’s barely worth mentioning.
I also have no qualms about the 5-15% administrative costs that are removed from the intended source of each donation and given to the fundraisers. We all have to make a living and those who work for charities deserve something for their valuable time and effort.
And I’ve got no great qualms about the government taking their tax cut from charities. Admittedly, I don’t trust governments. And I do wonder why neither charities nor governments try to rectify our universal misconception that charities don’t pay tax. The cynic in me wonders if the governments think this myth makes them look benevolent whilst the charities know that donations would suffer if contributors learnt their money was lining the pockets of the tax man.
But that’s not the reason why I so rarely make charitable donations.
As I said at the start of this blog, you’ll think me a bastard by the time you’ve reached this point – and you’re justified in that opinion. I seldom make a financial donation to charities and my excuses are pathetic in the face of all the human (and animal) suffering that charities struggle to eliminate. Admittedly, if I’m in a position to invest time or effort to help an individual improve their lot, I will happily snatch that opportunity – and I have done whenever the occasion arises.
But I don’t make a habit of giving to charities. And I know that each of the reasons I’ve listed sound like the wheedling selfish excuses of an uncaring man who is trying to hide his personal greed behind intellectualised smokescreens.
My only genuine reason for not financially supporting charities is that I don’t have the time to invest in learning about the structure and ethical policy of each institution I’m potentially supporting.
I was once devastated to learn that I had (naively) contributed money to a cancer charity that advocated and funded vivisection. Instead of paying money to help someone live, I’d invested money in helping an animal to die. I was genuinely devastated.
I’ve contributed to Christian charities (which I won’t name here) who reportedly endorse discriminatory practices against gay and lesbian employees. Where I thought I was giving money to help a good cause, it seems I was paying to perpetuate bigotry, inequality and injustice.
This uncertainty about where my money is going, and what it is ultimately funding, is the sole reason why I prefer to invest my time in helping an individual or a cause, rather than handing over cash to support someone else’s efforts.
Charities do good work. I am not disputing that fact. I could quibble that there are too many of them – an estimated 1.4M charities in the US and more than 170,000 in the UK. But I’m convinced there are a lot of good causes that require support. The majority provide relief and aid with an even, ethical and conscionable approach. The causes that have been mentioned this week by my fellow bloggers here at the Grip are undoubtedly worthy. The bloggers here at the Grip (not including myself) are a wonderful bunch of people and I sincerely believe them when they speak of the good works of various charitable institutions. They’ve written some hugely emotive pieces on human suffering and shown the ways that charities can respond to them and alleviate some of the devastating impact caused by personal and international disasters. If you’ve been moved by anything that they’ve written this week I urge you to make any donation you can afford to match their selfless generosity.
Please don’t be swayed by the arguments of someone who is a self-confessed, selfish bastard.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Her Ferocious Heart
I think about Panama a lot these days. Someday I’d like to go see it again. If we get a little back on our taxes I know I’ll send my wife down so she can spend time with her mother and bring me back a big bag of Panamanian coffee beans. Chencha, my mother in law, is in her mid seventies now, and she has any number of health problems that could carry her off suddenly. But she has a way of chugging along. She’s a tough woman. People always make mother in law jokes, but actually we’ve always gotten along pretty well. Partly because we have a language barrier. We don’t have enough Spanish or English between us to argue about anything.
I first met Chencha at Madison Square garden around 1982 when I was getting married to her daughter along with a couple of thousand other people. That was a different time. My first impression of her was of a stout, shy person, a very working class latina woman with Chinese eyes and the deference for manners that is so much a part of Caribbean culture.
Chencha was born and raised in a little fishing village in western Panama called “Playa Chiquita”, which means something like “Little Girl Beach”. Her father was a Chinese national named Asan Yap who prospered in the grocery business and had several kids, three girls and three boys. Panama was going through hard times and as so often happens elected a right wing President, who managed to convince the people their problems were not the result of corrupt government, certainly not, but in fact were being caused by the presence of too many foreigners. With a wingnut rhetoric that would have given Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann a wettie, he whipped his countrymen into a lather about “real Panamanians” and how the country must be turned over to them and wrested from the hands of greedy foreigners, including those who had lived there for generations. Not counting the gringos of course.
Asan Yap, along with every other foreign national in the country that could be hunted down, was packed off on a fast boat to Hong Kong leaving Panama for The Real Panamanians. He never saw his children or business again. Oddly, Panama’s fortunes did not improve.
Chencha met a handsome young teacher and part time boxer named Santiago “Santy” Agnew and they were married in a common law marriage which was the norm for country folks. No marriage license or formalities other than a church wedding before God and family. They had two children, my wife and her older brother Chaguin. Santiago left them all for another woman, my wife followed him to America to drag him back home by his ears and years later our paths crossed, but that’s another story.
Chaguin’s wife died.
Then his daughters died all but one.
Then Chaguin died.
All of this happened in the space of only a few years. In 1995 as Chaguin lay dying and Chencha was in despair we packed up and moved to Panama to see what we could do to help. I became an immigrant on a tourist visa in a strange land without a job, without language or friends or money. Chaguin and his family all perished from AIDS. They were not drug users. They were not “god cursed sodomites” or whatever the TV evangelists like to call them these days in the name of Jesus. I find it impossible to control my temper when I hear people speak smugly of AIDS as a righteous disease that targets “fudge pushers” and “fags”. Chaguin was not gay. Neither were his little daughters who were born with the disease and wasted away slow and painful before they even had the chance to know of such things. Most people who die from AIDS don't even know how they got it. This is a hard world and that’s the way it is.
The last surviving member of Chaguin's family was a girl named Daniela and Chencha kept her alive with tough love and the free “socialized” medical care that the far right in our country seemed determined to deny to the rest of us. Daniela was my son's playmate for many years. Chencha kept Daniela alive by sheer bloody minded stubbornness and fierce love until Daniela was fifteen years old beating all the odds. But eventually she went home to be with her family, at least I like to think of it that way. In her last moments she said she saw her father standing by her bed calling her name. That's what they told me. Goddamn, I hope that's true.
Santiago lived with us in New York City and later in Panama as he deteriorated from Alzheimer’s. We kept him with us, and in spite of his abandoning his family and despite all the cause Chencha had to absolutely hate him, she joined in with us taking care of him from beginning to end. Eventually he died too. It was quite a place there for a while. An adolescent girl dying from AIDS. An old man in diapers dying from Alzheimer’s. And for a while at least no dough, Joe. It changed my view about a lot of things without my even knowing it.
After we moved back to the US with a good job, Santiago died. We were hoping his American social security check would go to his widow Chencha as a just offering for all the suffering he had caused her during their lives. But there was no marriage license, they were married in a church in the way that was typical of their culture. America is The Land of the Legal and the Home of The Lawyer. No paperwork, no money. Chencha was destitute. Panama doesn’t have a social security fund in the same way America does. So we took it on ourselves and every month we send several hundred dollars to help her whether we have it to spare or not. We always manage.
When I was a young man I thought I would dedicate my life to making the world a better place. My intentions were good. My companions were fine people. And we had faith, boy, did we have faith. It just didn’t work out. My messiah failed. I wish I could do it over. I can’t. It was all a waste in some ways as far as making the world a better place. We just managed not to fuck it up any worse. What little I’ve learned about compassion I’ve learned from Chencha and her ferocious heart, not from messiahs.
Compassion is the great religious ethic of Christianity and Buddhism both. The ideal of Christianity is that Jesus was a divine man who shared our sorrows and felt what we feel and paid his dues the same as us. So he has credibility, in a world where divine justice has so little credibility. Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and all attachment leads to suffering. In Buddhism the highest virtue is compassion, the willingness to take on and share the suffering of others. You don’t learn compassion from being successful. You learn compassion from failure. Sometimes not even then. You learn about generosity when you don’t know where your family’s next meal is coming from and someone helps you out. Good people helped us out. You learn about the preciousness of life when your only son and your grandchildren are all dying in your arms, slipping away one by one.
When I look at my life compared to what I set out to do as a young man, it doesn’t seem to amount to much. Nothing I did with such earnestness has stood the test of time, its all been undone. But there is Chencha, Chencha and her ferocious heart. The stuff she did didn’t stand the test of time either, they all up and died in spite of her tears and her prayers. She deserves better. So we take care of her. God isn’t going to bless me for this. God doesn’t give a flying fuck one way or the other. But when I send off that money each month, no matter what is happening with our own finances, I feel like I’m still connected to the idealistic young man who thought he was going to do great things.
You start out as a child loving just about everything you see, and as you get older the things you love number fewer and fewer until finally there's not much left. You can’t save the world, that's what you find out. But you can take care of a small piece of it. That small piece becomes your link to whatever is still decent inside yourself.
It’s my offering to God if God’s watching. If God isn’t watching, which is what I suspect, well, you take care of whatever's genuinely sacred and some of that is family. You just do it. Just the way Chencha did. That’s old school.
(I'll also donate $1 to Mercy Corps for every person who posts a comment to this. Scouts honor. Maybe God is watching. Who knows.)
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Make a difference in your own way ...
Like my fellow Grippers, I tend to look at charity and giving from two view points - local and worldwide.
I am horrified by the devastation in many different countries, all brought about in many different ways - nature, war, poverty, political unrest, and so on.
For me, I have always had to balance what I would like to do to help - bring about world peace and a utopia - with what I can do.
A few years ago, I picked out my "charities" and started donating, and I have held to them ever since. Every year, I figure out what I can give, saving what I can along the course of the year, and I decide which of the charities gets how much.
I give to the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Foundation, and Conservation International, to name a few.
"We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can't speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees." ~ Qwatsinas (Hereditary Chief Edward Moody), Nuxalk Nation
I admit it, I am a bit of a tree hugger. As a biology major, I have been exposed to a lot of information about the planet, ecology, and the need for conservation of species. Which is part of why I have chosen to send my donations towards such efforts. The other reason is very simple - I want my grandchildren, and my grandchildren's grandchildren, and so on, to be able to admire the beauty of a tiger pacing, to smell the sweet scent of a orchid, to snorkel and have a manatee come upon them to play.
Species matter! And the preservation and conservation of species is important, which is why I was thrilled to be selected to take part in the Coming Together: Al Fresco anthology to benefit Conservation International.
Each species plays an integral role to the health of the ecosystem in which it lives, and the planet as a whole. One professor explained it very simply. The planet is a game of Jenga. We can remove blocks here and there, and it will still stand. A bit shaky, but it stands. Yet there will come a block that will destabalize it to such a degree that the tower collapses.
We tend to focus a lot on the things that matter to us as humans; Aids research, breast cancer, heart disease, relief efforts. And I do not disagree that there is a need for such. In fact, I also support such efforts when I can. But the planet, and the species on it, matter too. Which is why I give what I can to aid conservation efforts; money, time, and support.As for my local charitable work, I volunter at a nature center which helps to rehab injured wildlife. It is messy, smelly and in some cases disgusting work since I am cleaning out cages, helping change bandages and cutting up mice and rats for the injured raptors to eat (since that is what I tend to do when I am there - work in the raptors room). But when I leave, I always have such a sense of doing something that matters.
After all, how many people can say they have been glared at by an injured redtailed hawk that is sitting in the backseat of their car in a pet carrier (was transporting him to the center for treatment), or dive bombed by owl and hawks and the occasional falcon while taking them food. I've also stood inches away from an owl and shoved bites of chopped up rat into its mouth, and helped to keep an eagle from biting another of the volunteers while we checked his wounds over. (Just to name a few highlights LOL)
My husband and our daughter also help out. And I was so proud to hear my daughter say she felt good about volunteering her time on Saturdays to help out. She wishes she could go more often, but she is seriously limited on how many hours she can give, due to her age.
I think that is what it all boils down to in the end. Whatever cause or charity we decide is worthy of our time and money, regardless is it helps local vets with medical supplies and food, or feeds millions in a foreign country, or if it contributes to the research being done on a disease, or protects the planet - we are giving what we can.
We are making a difference, in our own way.
We are teaching the next generation they can make a difference.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” ~ Baba Dioum
Monday, January 18, 2010
...But At Times Widen Your View
Charity may begin at home...but for me, sometimes I need to widen my view.
Like Lisabet, I had been prepared to come into this topic discussing my own fashion of contributing back to the society in which I live. And I discovered an interesting thing about myself; almost all of the causes to which I've leant support have been ones with mostly a local or regional impact.
I've contributed my time to tutoring children who need help with reading, volunteered to SOLV (Stop Oregon Litter & Vandalism) clean-up days, and planted trees on Earth Day in local parks and wetlands. I've donated food to the Oregon Food Bank, donated blood to the Red Cross, and supported local women's shelters with donations of interview suits and clothing. I've given computers to be recycled, revamped and sold. I provide coats in the winter, toys at the holidays, and stuffed animals to the police and fire departments.
All good causes, and I don't regret a single one. But sometimes I "forget" there is a whole world full of people who endure a daily struggle for basic needs. And a tragedy like the the ongoing recovery in Haiti just knocks me off my safe and secure stance. Very humbling to remember how blessed I am and that I can extend my help to outside my own little sphere.
Is there an event or story that really caused you to do some self-examination? Like Lisabet, I am going to add $1 to my Mercy Corps donation for every answer or observation I receive in reply to this post. Thanks for the idea Lisabet, and thank you in advance to commenters.
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Beginning at Home
By Lisabet Sarai
Michelle added her topic of “Charity” to our Get A Grip calendar a couple of weeks ago. I had intended to write about my experiences writing and editing smut for good causes, through the Coming Together series and the I Do anthology, which benefits the fight for marriage equality. Then came the Haitian earthquake. Suddenly altruistic erotica seemed almost trivial, although Coming Together has organized collections for several disasters including the southern California wildfires and hurricane relief.
Like many people, I've been stunned by the images of devastation and death coming from Haiti. Nature's cruelty has never been so apparent. In the best of times, many Haitians barely survive. Poverty, disease, violence and fear are Haiti's legacies from decades of dictatorship and a century of environmental pillage. Now to suffer this, on top of everything else--it is almost too much for me to grasp.
It is a gorgeous day here where I live, bright, sunny, breezy and pleasantly cool. I'm sitting in my comfortable apartment, typing on my laptop and enjoying a cold drink. In an hour or so I'm off to a university party. Haiti seems like a bad dream--but like a nightmare, I find that it haunts me. Whenever I begin to relax, I remember the multitudes--wounded, homeless, robbed of their families and their livelihood--on the other side of globe. A cloud crosses the sun.
I live in Asia. I was here during the 2004 tsunami, and I remember feeling the same way. I recall that terrible New Years Eve when everyone wore black. I feel helpless. What, after all, can I do? I've made a donation to Doctors without Borders (Medecins sans Frontiers, or MSF), but what is money in the face of such trouble, especially the meager amount I can afford? A part of me wants to hop a plane and fly to the Caribbean, to help with the rebuilding. To hold the hand of some woman who has lost a child. To cook and serve food to the many who must be hungry.
Practically speaking, I can't do this. But money seems like such a pale substitute for the personal gift of comfort--human to human.
I was thinking about this and came to a heartening conclusion. If I can't help a Haitian personally, I should reach out a hand to someone closer to home. I believe that we are all connected, that we share a spark that makes every person worthy of love and respect. And though I'm not traditionally religious, I remember Jesus' comments that to assist the least of his creatures was equivalent to serving him personally. (If I were religious, I could find the Scripture quote, but I hope you know what I'm talking about.) In some mysterious but I think real way, showing compassion in one part of the world will ultimately have positive effects somewhere else.
So today I resolve to give what I can of my time and my capabilities to my neighbors who might be less fortunate than I am. I'm not as helpless as I thought. Every kindness, every gesture of love or support, anywhere, adds to the sum of goodness circulating in our world. We're bound into a chain of love that transcends distance.
Maybe that sounds hokey or ridiculously innocent. But that's what I believe.
Meanwhile, here's what you can do. Leave me a comment. Tell me your thoughts about how we can help Haiti recover or your feelings about my post. For every substantive comment other than those by other Grippers, I'll donate another dollar to MSF.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Commitment To Making It As An Author...
By Claire Thompson
Ok, so it’s Thursday, and Devon asked me to please have this to her as early in the week as possible. Like all rocky roads, mine is no exception, paved as it is with good intentions! But good intentions don’t write books or sell them either. Good intentions don’t get things done.
So, I have a bunch of kids at home (the number is always rotating, I can hardly keep track, they are all over sixteen, none of them fully independent, all of them money-sucking slobs), a disabled spouse who doesn’t work, two shedding dogs, a cat and one bathroom. I work a fulltime job for a school district, and then there’s my real career – writing!
Oh, oh, oh, I am a lucky girl because I love to write. I don’t just enjoy it or do it well (though I hope I do!), I freaking love it. No. Love isn’t a strong enough word. I eat, breathe, sleep, dream and wake it. I couldn’t not do it. Writing is what I do, a part of who I am, a very key, core part. I couldn’t imagine life without my laptop, my dirty mind and my stories.
I follow a lot of chat groups and blogs where folks are lamenting the fact they have no time to write, or they have been polishing up that one manuscript for the last five years and know that soon, soon, they are going to work up the courage to submit it. You know what I say to this?
Just do it.
Gosh, that sounds easy, but I have always maintained, and still believe, once you make a decision, the rest is just details. And once you decide, damn it, I am going to be a writer—a published writer!—that is the key. The rest is details. Admittedly there are lots of details.
The main number one thing, up and above any kind of blogging, advertising, chatting, posting, dreaming, is to write. Every day that you can, every spare minute that you have, sit your ass down and get those fingers flying. Buy a digital Dictaphone so you can tell yourself your ideas while driving or in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Skip those stupid TV shows and all the time-wasting crap you do after work (Dishes? Laundry? Making dinner? Delegate, baby!). If you’re too tired after work to write, get up early (I aim for 4:30) and write then, when you are fresh and the world is still.
Yes the marketing is important, but not nearly as important as you might think. The real key is getting with a publisher who has a good distribution network, and getting your name out there by getting your books out there! The old adage – “write your story and the market will find you” IS true, at least to a point. If you have a good, compelling story to share, and it’s distributed where folks who want that kind of story are hanging out, it will sell!
Yes, it’s good to blog and chat and post and all that stuff, but only to a point. If that’s what you’re spending your time doing, instead of writing, you are missing the boat! Do that stuff after the book comes out, and even then, limit it.
What about advertising on review sites, stuff like that? I have personally found that advertising does not make much difference. I have tracked a book before and after an ad went up, for example, and noticed no difference in sales. Good reviews do cause a small increase in sales for a while, though I haven’t noticed that bad reviews negatively impact sales (not that I ever get them, ha, well, hardly ever! Groan).
The main thing is that you have a good book to sell, and a place to sell it. Sounds simple and guess what, it is! With ebooks and the Internet, the world has been split wide open and made hugely accessible. There is still lots of room for a good writer to break in, and pretty easily.
So, all you aspiring authors, stop reading this blog right now and go write! (and don’t worry, I wrote this during my day job, so I’m not taking time from my writing! (and don’t tell!))
Claire is a multi-pubbed erotica and erotic romance author with over 50 titles in ebook and print. She recently went "indie" with her imprint, Romance Unbound.
You can connect with Claire at:
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Friday, January 15, 2010
Knowing when to walk away
Does anyone here remember the motivational posters that were so popular back in the late 1990s? Maybe they're still popular. Maybe they were popular even before then. I don't know. I just recall that in the late 1990s, when I was hip-deep in my first and only corporate job, the office I worked in was wall-papered with the damn things. All those posters with images of stunningly beautiful nature scenes and the pithy saying underneath, meant to inspire us drones to give our all to the gods of the J-O-B. I hated the damn things. I already gave my all for the J-O-B, and because of it I spent far more time locked away in a tiny cubicle lit by nauseating florescent lights than I did in the great outdoors pictured in those posters.
Not long after the motivational posters came out, some comedic genius came up with the "de-motivational" posters. Now these were funny, painfully so in most cases, because they held far more truth than the originals they were making fun of. The one that still sticks with me showed some poor schmuck on his knees at a running track, his face a cataclysm of agony and frustration. Beneath the picture it said, "Winners never quit and quitters never win. But if you never quit and you never win, you're an idiot."
I think that was about that time I started seriously re-considering my corporate career.
I've walked away from a lot of things in my life time. When I was eight, my mother signed me up for dance lessons. I started with ballet, and by the time I was 13, I was taking gymnastics, jazz, and point too. Point was excruciating. I couldn't bare to slip my feet into those hard-toed shoes and try to balance on tip-toe. After a year of struggling with bleeding toes and ingrown nails and infections, I told my mom I was done, more than done, with dance and I never took another class again. Considering at the time I was taking four classes a week, and that most of my social life came from the dance studio, that was a hell of a thing to walk away from. I don't recall ever looking back though, and my feet were grateful for it.
From dance I went to band. My favorite cousin played the French horn in her school band, and I just had to play too. I had a good ear for music, so I signed up for my school's marching band and spent the next few years struggling to play as well as everyone else. You see, I had the ear for music, but not the mouth. French horn demands a hell of a lot on the muscles of the lips and face. Some days, an hour of class would leave me with a throbbing mouth and cracked lips. Not a pleasant way to go through the rest of the school day. Plus I always got so damned nervous during auditions and exams that I bombed every single time. I was the worst French horn player in the school, and I knew it. By the end of my junior year, I figured I'd suffered enough, so I didn't bother to sign up for marching band the next year. When my instructor found out, he laid into me like nobody's business. "You're a quitter!" he screamed at me. "A lousy quitter who can't commit and can't finish what she started! And you'll never amount to anything, ever!" You better believe I never looked back when I walked away from that conversation.
It was another 12 years before I was ready to quit something else. That was the corporate job I hated so much. Sure, the money was good; I got lots of raises and bonuses and nearly doubled my salary during the four years I worked there. But while I was getting well paid for 40 hours a week, I was actually working 80 hours a week. And I hated the job. I was good at it, but it was boring, sterile, and at times very degrading. The Hubster understood, fortunately, and we eventually made arrangements that allowed me to quit that particular millstone and once again walk away.
Looking at all this, it might seem like I've made a habit of quitting. But I also have a habit of committing. I completed both my bachelors and my masters degrees, which was no small task. I completed four years of Army ROTC and got my commission in the Reserves, in spite of the fact that I hated ROTC and definitely did not want to join the military. Of course my ROTC scholarship came with an 8-year commitment to the Reserves, which I also completed and then went beyond by a few years.
I have committed to this and committed to that. I have started some things and walked away from them, and started other things and crossed the finish line even if it meant I had to limp several miles to get there. Why finish some things and not others? Pain has a lot to do with it. I have a limit for how much I'm willing to suffer for a cause. Dance, band, and the J-O-B had become intolerable in my eyes, thus they went. ROTC and the Reserves were pretty intolerable too, but in those cases, I had no choice but to finish what I started. My dad refused to help pay for college unless I joined ROTC and went into the military after school.
I have to admit, my days in ROTC and the Reserves did not kill me, but my memories of those times do put me in mind of yet another de-motivational poster. "That which does not kill you can really fuck you up." I keep that in mind any time I confront a situation where staying means more pain than it's worth. I do not hesitate to look at a situation and ask, "Is this really what I want to be doing right now? Is this really worth the agony and frustration?" When the answers to these questions are 'no,' I know it's time to walk.
I can tolerate a great deal of pain and suffering. Hell, I have a husband and kids and I've decided to make a career of writing. You know I can handle pain. But only for the right reasons. Sure, winners never quit and quitters never win, but sometimes we all get into games that just aren't worth the effort to finish. When that happens, it's time to smarten up and just walk away.
I'll be at Marscon in Williamsburg, Virginia, all this weekend, presenting discussion panels on science fiction erotica, so I won't be able to respond to comments until after I get back. I hope everybody has a great weekend!