Saturday, September 02, 2017

Short Stories

When he was little, I would read bedtime stories to Oliver. It was board books. Olivier Dunrea's sweet Gossie and Friends books. We're Going on a Bear Hunt. There was one called Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball that I loved reading to him.

He got older, and graduated to longer books. Picture books. When You Give a Mouse a Cookie, stories like that. Or Winnie the Pooh stories. Anything by Mo Willems.

A couple of years ago, we made the transition to Harry Potter. We'd read eight to ten pages every night. We started at the first one and read all the way through the final one, which we finished last year.

That was fun. Because I don't read a lot of the books he reads. He loves Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, but I haven't read those. I read one or two of the Percy Jackson books, but that was it. This way, I got to read what he was reading.

While we were reading Harry Potter, I was discovering them along with him. I was learning the plot twists with him. The horror of Delores Umbridge, the dark secrets of Severus Snape, the nobility of characters like Luna Lovegood and Neville Longbottom. I got to share that experience with him.

After we ran out of Harry Potter books, we've been trying to find something else to fit the gap. He loves Randall Munroe's What If? book, as well as the accompanying blog, so we read out of that sometimes. They're not stories exactly, but he loves the different scenarios.

Lately, I've been introducing him to short stories.

I started with Neil Gaiman's short stories. I have two of his collections - Trigger Warning and Smoke & Mirrors. I've been reading the stories that I knew were safe for him. Some of them were right on the edge of comfortable for a 12-year-old. (I hesitated for a while before I read him "When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, Age 11 1/4." There's a scene of the girl's father striking his mother, and that worried me. He wasn't bothered by it.)

I branched out from there. I found Kelly Link stories and Aimee Bender stories. I read him "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" by Susanna Clarke. I went digging for old stories that I remembered, stories like "Repent Harlequin! Cried the Ticktockman" by Harlan Ellison.

Fireside Fiction has been a revelation - they have an incredible deep catalog of great fantasy and science fiction stories. I need to kick some money into their Patreon.

Yesterday I went searching for James Thurber's fables. We used to have a book - The Thurber Carnival - that had several of those stories, and I loved the wicked little things. He loved them too.

There are some classic stories that he's just not ready for. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson? Forget it. I read him "The Monkey's Paw" the other day and he almost couldn't get to sleep, he was so spooked.

Every time I introduce him to a new story that he loved, it's a victory. Opening his mind to magical realism, weird fiction, is a joy. I'm constantly digging for new stories, new sources. This is one of those things that I dreamed about as a parent - introducing him to the stories and the writers that made me fall in love with fiction.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Catching Up

I saw someone online say that she had finally achieved something that she never thought was going to be possible.

She signed up for automatic bill pay for her utilities.

That's it. Go ahead and look at that for a minute. I'm guessing you had a couple of responses:

Either -

  • You said, "Oh, sure, everybody should do that, it's so convenient." (As in, this is not a big deal.)
  • Or you said, "Oh my god, that's amazing."

My response was the second one. Because signing up for automatic bill pay presumes that when a bill comes in, you are CERTAIN that you will have enough money in your account to pay it.

I'm in my late forties and I don't even know if I have ever been in that position in my life.

I settled my divorce late last year. I'm digging out from some debt from that. I've got bills that I've been trying to pay down for years. I'm paying off student loans from 1992. Debt is something that I have carried with me for years and years and years. Forever. Since college.

The idea that someday, I will be in a position that I can pay a bill as soon as it comes in is like a fantasy. Autopay? That's wild. A wild crazy fantasy.

Except maybe I can actually do that now. Here's what happened. I got a new job last year. My pay jumped significantly. Suddenly, I've got some discretionary income instead of constantly chasing bills from one month to another.

I actually have money left over after I pay my bills. This is wild.

And I'll admit that I bought some furniture and bought some frivolous things. (Yeah, like book cases are wild crazy extravagances. But anyway.) We went out for dinner a few times.

But my real fantasy was, hey, maybe I can finally get caught up on my bills!

It felt briefly like things were crashing down this month. I'm just getting on top of overdue utility bills, and it feels like I'm dealing with a serious cash crunch right now. It's scary, every time this happens, because I panic about whether some major bill is going to come up that I won't be able to cover. Like, the rent. Or the electricity.

So what you do, when you don't have enough money to pay the bills, is you pay a little at a time and you hope someday you're going to have enough money to catch up. Like, if I just pay the past due now, someday I can be in a position to pay the light bill before it becomes past due. You have this illusion that someday, something good will happen and suddenly, you'll be caught up. (Sometimes, this is people fantasizing about winning the lottery. it's about that realistic.)

But now, I'm now making enough money that I can see that happening. I can get caught up. It's actually within the realm of possibility.

So this month was the month that I was going to get on top of everything. And then I got hit with a $1000 car repair bill.

So fine. Dammit. I have no credit cards available for emergencies (when you live paycheck to paycheck, your credit cards are always maxed out.) So I used the $1000 I was going to use to pay down the bills this month, and pay for my car instead.

So next month, I'll get caught up.

It all gets overwhelming so easily, especially when my anxiety kicks in. So I'm trying to take it all in steps.

This month, I got caught up on the light bill.
Next month, I get caught up on the utility bill.
The month after that, I start paying those collection notices. (I don't pay them off. I just start payments.)

Getting out of debt is a process. I'm not there yet. Nobody goes from "deep in debt" to "completely caught up" overnight. Sometimes I have to remember that. I'm going to have occasional times when the bills all hit at once and I panic. But I think those times are going to become much more rare.

And maybe, sometime by the fall, I will be completely on top of my regular bills. And I can take one bill - the cable bill, maybe - and put it on autopay.

I'm getting caught up. It doesn't feel like that sometimes, but I am getting caught up.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Now We Fight

This was never supposed to be close.

I expected Hillary Clinton to win handily yesterday. I believed the polls. I believed the maps that said she had several paths to victory, and that Trump had to have a perfect night to win.

So I’m a victim of my own expectations, like many people. We never expected this to happen.

Too many people ignored the heinous nature of Trump and voted for him as “the Republican candidate.” They ignored the groping video and the religious bans and the crypto-fascist talk and the warmongering and everything else. They decided they wanted change, and so they supported him.

This man threatened to sue women who accused him of sexual assault. Millions of people still voted for him.

He told protestors in his rallies that they deserved to be beaten up, and that he would pay the lawyer's fees if his people beat up the protestors. Millions of people still voted for him.

I hate this. I hate that so many people were willing to mark the box for a racist sexist xenophobic pig for president. I hate it.

And let’s be real. So many people could not accept Hillary Clinton as a candidate. Many of them couldn’t support her because of who she was. And many of them, let’s be honest, couldn’t support a woman as president.

When they say “I could support a woman candidate, just not that woman,” they’re saying that the only woman they will support is a perfect candidate who matches their ideals in every way. That person doesn’t exist.

My father has had an American flag in his window for years. He took it down last night. He says he can no longer be proud of this country. It breaks my heart, but I can’t blame him. His heart was broken last night. Our hearts were collectively broken last night.

The media kept portraying Trump and Clinton as equally flawed. “So Trump has declared bankruptcy a bunch of times, and groped women, and maybe raped a child, and is on trial for fraud. Hillary had that email thing!” They are both flawed, but these two levels of flawed are not equal. That’s like saying a paper airplane and a Boeing Dreamliner are equal because both can fly in the air.

And then you’ve got the third party people. The “oh, no, they’re both so corrupt, I can’t support either of them” people. The holier-than-thou voters. They’re no better than the people who said “I could support a woman, but just not that woman.” So they supported Jill Stein or Gary Clueless Johnson.

Look at the vote totals in Florida and Ohio and the other states where Trump won. What would have happened if Gary Johnson had said, like his vice-presidential pick William Weld, “vote for Hillary Clinton because our first priority is stopping Trump?” Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe.

“They’re both equally flawed” is what I heard in 2000 when Bush and Gore were running. I almost fell for it. And then we got George W., and then we got 9/11 and the Iraq war and the war on terror and the PATRIOT Act and the recession. I don’t accept that both parties are the same. I refuse to accept it.

So, because too many people decided they would take a chance on a loose cannon, the country gets a monster for president. And a Republican House and Senate. He can’t do everything he promised to do, but he can do a hell of a lot of damage. For immigrants. For low-income people who need health insurance. For women. For minorities. He can do a lot of damage in that office, and now he has the keys.

So we fight. If Hillary had won, we would have had to fight to push her to the left. Now we’re faced with Donald Trump as our next president. The challenge is clear. We live in a country with deep racism, deep sexism, deep suspicion of immigrants. We need to work to heal that wound.

We need to fight, every day, to protect the most vulnerable people in our society. We cannot give up and hang our heads. Now we need to stand and fight.

Monday, October 31, 2016


Happy Halloween from the West Coast. 

My son went trick-or-treating on Sunday - a lot of the local businesses host their own candy-gathering festivities. Two things happened that reminded me how very lucky I am. First: my kiddo goes up to a bucket of candy that a local business left in front of their closed door. There are two pixy-stick type things in the bucket. Another kid walks up at the same time. My son picks up one of the sticks, and hands the kid the other one. He explains to me simply: "This one was bent."

He kept the bent one, and gave the other kid the undamaged one. 

I don't coach him on these things. He just decides on his own to do the kindest thing. He is a kind kid at heart. It makes me so happy to see this in action.

Second: he got two fortune cookies from a Chinese restaurant during the trick-or-treating, and gave me one. (See: kind kid.) This is what the fortune said. 

"A beautiful, smart and loving person will be coming into your life."

I thought immediately of my partner of nearly three years, this wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman who is helping me raise my son and her daughters. This amazing, warm-hearted, ferociously smart, wickedly funny person who came into my life like a gift from the universe. 

I sent her a picture of the fortune and said, "it came true already!"

Life is good right now. As much as I complain about the day-to-day - the petty nuisances of work, bills, politics - life is good right now. 

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Writing for My Audience

I'm writing a book.

I'm writing an actual honest-to-god book. 

I started playing around with a book idea a few years ago, during NaNoWriMo, and got about thirty pages into it. And then my life got complicated, and I couldn't find the hour every night to sit with my characters and write. So the book got tucked away in the virtual file cabinet of my Google drive.

And then, a few months ago, I told my son, "so I'm working on this book."

"You are??"

And I told him what it was about, and he was very interested. It's sort of a kid's book, although there are parts of it that are weighty and complicated, so it's a complex sort of kid's book. 

Anyway, I read him a few pages. We still do bedtime reading every night, and that night, I read him a bit of my book. 

He loved it. 

So I read him some more of the short mini-chapters I had written. He ate it up. So, what the heck, I started working on finishing a scene that I had been playing with. Read that to him. He giggled at the right spots, and at the exciting parts, I could hear his breath growing shallow. 

Then I came home from work one day, and he said "dad, did you write any more of your book?"

"No," I said, and I could just tell how disappointed he was. Not in me. He just wanted more of the story. 

So I wrote another five pages the next day, at work, during my lunch break. I brought in my personal computer, and wrote a blue streak. My colleagues kept asking me what I was doing, and I kept ignoring them. (I'm probably getting a reputation at work.)

I'm writing a book. I have over sixty pages done now. So it's not just a little hobby. It's getting to the point where it's developing a structure, and the characters are starting to breathe and to inhabit my dreams.

I bit the bullet and downloaded Scrivener, so I could properly manage this thing as a real book.

I walk down the street now and think about scenes. I imagine how my main character would react to different situations. I take pictures of buildings and imagine the scenes I could place in them. 

I'm reading a wonderful book right now, called All the Birds in the Sky. I started thinking about this miraculous work of fiction that Charlie Jane Anders breathed into existence, that I was holding in my hand, and then realized that my book could be that. That the chapters I'm writing could be chapters in a published book. My prologue could be a prologue in a bound volume. I don't know how to describe the feeling. But for the first time, I realized that the book I had in my head could actually become a book that people purchased and read and gave to their friends for birthdays. My book is becoming real. This could happen. 

My son just finished fifth grade, and they did a little writing project at the end of the year where they asked them questions: what they learned, what their favorite part of the year was, who their favorite author was, questions like that. 

When it came to the question about his favorite author, my son wrote my name. I was his favorite author.

My son listed me as his favorite author.

Tears are in my eyes right now. I studied creative writing over twenty years ago, and I'm finally writing for the first time since I graduated. And my son is reading it, and encouraging me, and he's suggesting scenes and characters to me. My son is helping me breathe this book into life. 

I'm writing this book now for him. It might get published someday, and I'll be delighted if and when that happens. But right now, this is his book. I'm writing it because he is my audience, and he is the greatest audience I ever could have imagined.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I Wonder

Note: full-size version of the above map is here: 

We were driving to church one Sunday, and we were talking about Mexico. My son has been thinking a lot about Trump and his goddamn stupid wall idea (I've talked to him a little about the man, but he's also seen Trump's name online a few times). And I mentioned how Mexico used to be a much larger country - all the way up to the southern edge of Oregon.

"But that all changed after the Mexican-American War. And that's a whole different story."

Time was, he would have just moved onto another subject. But this time he turned back to me and asked this:

"I wonder what that story is."

He was curious.

So I told him some of the story. Not all, but some. I told him about how Texans pretended to be happy immigrants to Mexico, just hanging out, enjoying the land, until there were enough to make a scene. And how the Texans declared their rights weren't being honored. And then the American army interceded, and then the war, and then the claiming of California and Arizona and New Mexico as the spoils of war.

He listened intently. He didn't say much. He asked a couple of questions, but mostly he soaked it in like a sponge soaks in water.

He's turning eleven soon. He's right on the cusp of middle school, right in that awkward sweet spot of tweenhood - not a child anymore, but not yet a teenager. He's changing. And one of the ways he's changing is the conversations we have.

His mind is expanding, and his curiosity is growing along with it. He's been so interested in so much lately. I find myself having the most unexpected conversations with him.

  • He's interested in Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman president, and he thinks it's odd that we've never had one before. " I wonder why that's never happened before." So I explained to him how it wasn't until recently, relatively speaking, that this country would even accept a female CEO or take a woman politician recently. "Remember, Obama is the first black president," I told him. "that means that after two hundred and thirty something years, our country finally was able to accept that a black man could be the leader. We finally evolved to that point. We might be ready as a country to accept a woman president. We might have finally evolved to that point."

  • Slavery. That whole concept perplexes him. A few years ago, he would have kept it simple. When he was little, he would have said something about the lessons on Martin Luther King Day, how black and white people should be treated the same. But he keeps turning over the question in his head, and he asks me sometimes. "I wonder how people were so dumb that they treated people as slaves."

    I've approached it a few ways. I've talked to him about how people (white European people) didn't see black people as human. I've talked to him about the economic benefits of slavery, how the South became an economic force on the backs of slave labor.

    I've talked to him about the similarities between how slaves were treated then, and the way Trump and his ilk talk about immigrants now. The dehumanization. The casual acceptance of treating some other group as less-than. He listens and thinks and listens some more.

This is my son now. He asks questions. He wants to know more. I can have these deep conversations with him now because he is so obviously interested. He's trying to make sense of the world, of politics, of hatred, of othering. He wants to know the real story.

I'm going to be honest. I love having these conversations with him. I love that he's curious. I love that I can have deeper, more complex discussions with him now. But at the same time, history is messy and heart-breaking, and I know this because he struggles sometimes with it. He is troubled - as he should be - by the sometimes dark, sometimes barbaric, sometimes horrific history of our country.

We were standing on the beach last weekend, talking about slavery (as you do). He said suddenly, "I wish I could go back in time and change the past."

"I know," I told him. "I wish the same thing. But our history is our history. And it's important that we know what happened, and we're honest about it, so that we never make those mistakes again."

"I hope we don't," he said solemnly.

If he is any indication of his generation, we won't.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Maybe I'll Just Take a Nap

You don't know what you're doing.

You're going to screw this up. 

You're going to fail.

There's no way you're going to get this right.

Anxiety is fun, because these are the things that go through my head when I'm planning dinner sometimes.

Anxiety is not like a voice in your head, whispering gently. It's a voice shouting inside your head, and the voice echoes off your skull and reverbs, and it screams all of the thoughts you don't want to think.

I was literally planning dinner tonight and I almost broke down in tears because I was convinced

  • I didn't know how to cook anything
  • I was going to burn whatever we ate
  • I didn't know the right things to cook to make my partner happy
  • I was going to disappoint her 
  • I was going to disappoint her kids
  • I used to be good at cooking, but now I'm lazy and she's going to resent how lazy I am.

Anxiety is hard to explain to someone who doesn't experience it. It's not just feeling nervous about tough decisions. It's feeling nervous about small, inconsequential things. What kind of coffee should I get? Is this a good shirt for work? Which tv show should we watch before we go to bed?

My breathing gets shallow. I find it hard to think. I can't respond to questions because of the swirl of emotions running through my head. My heart begins racing. I can feel it racing, right now, just writing about this.

Sometimes, I just think I'll take a nap and when I wake up, everything will be better. Or, different, anyway. Sleep is a coping mechanism. (Sadly, it's not an option at work. Usually.)

I take medication that makes it possible to get through the day. I take Wellbutrin. Before that, I took Zoloft. Before I did, I had panic attacks that would cause me to stare at my phone for hours, sweating bullets, knowing that I had to make phone calls and being terrified that I was going to screw them up. So I did nothing. I sat, paralyzed, overwhelmed.

Happy ending: I did make dinner, my partner was happy, the kids ate, the end. All is well. I got through it.