Monday, October 28, 2013

Blog Blitz and Oatmeal Cookies (Reprise)


Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the response to my last post was like slamming into the Internet at 120 mph, if the airbag were full of love and blog comments.  (Whereupon it would be called a 'love-pillow', of course, because 'comment-cushion' is unwieldy and 'blog-sack' sounds like something to be discreetly handed to a flight attendant.)

So if you came here from the Blog Blitz: thank you so, so much for visiting, and for all your wonderful notes.  I am steadily working my way through them, and will be on cloud nine million for days to come.  You guys are AMAZING.

Conversely, if you are wondering what the merry hell a Blog Blitz is... you are not alone, because I didn't either!

Here is the deal: the gentleman-scholar DL Hammons, not content with ringmastering WRiTE Club, also devised a wonderful blogging group, subscribable by email, in which everyone dog-piles on a single participant's blog.  The result is catastrophically awesome.  You are a celebrity for a day!  Traffic through the roof!  Comments out the yang!  And really a heck of a good deal: even apart from that one magical day when you are so ecstatically piled-upon, you are visiting other people's blogs as a pile-ee, and subscribing to those you find fun and interesting.  It's a great way to meet new people, broaden your horizons, and be an integral part of somebody's joy, every time you comment.  So if that sounds like even a little bit of fun... sign up and get your Blitz on!

And on a personal note - I was truly blown away by the comments on the last post.  In fact, there is material for about twenty different conversations there, and more amazing (and sometimes gut-wrenching) anecdotes than any one post can do justice to.  When it comes to charity, why DO we do what we do, and think like we think?

Well, based on some of the responses from that last post, here are a couple of aggregated guesses.

It's harder to give when you don't see who you're giving to.  This is probably why the TV commercials take such pains to show actual video of actual hungry babies / destitute families / etc.  This is also probably why it is SO freaking easy for so many of us (and I include myself in this) not to see need in our everyday lives.  When you are safely contained almost 24/7 in your house, your office, or your car, what opportunity do you have to notice the people outside the bubble?  How the dickens are we supposed to see what our own community needs when the system has closed us off into so many coffee shops and Camrys and cubicles?  We're not oblivious cretins - but we live in societies that constantly and actively segregate us from our fellow Earth-persons.

It's harder to give when you feel like it won't make a difference.  This is a big one.  That girl I met had found a family who would take her in as long as she could provide her own food and hygiene.  They would set her up a bank account and let her live there for four months while she looked for work - so it was incredibly easy to want to help her get that one crucial foothold up into a better life.  Much, much harder to do that when you know that no matter how much you give the panhandler at the intersection, he'll be there tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.

It's harder to give when you feel like it won't be appreciated.  Taking care of your sweet widowed grandma who loves you and everything you do for her?  Doable.  Doing likewise for an angry, senile old bat who spits, thrashes, and screams for help every time you have to hold her down for a diaper change?  That's a tall order.  It's hard to feel generous when the object of your generosity is indifferent, complacent, or takes it for granted.  I have no doubt that those feelings multiply with distance - when real living people are reduced to payroll deductions, or checks in the mail.

It's harder to give when you don't understand the need.  "Why would you have kids you can't support?"  "Why can't you get a job?"  "Why don't you just go to the emergency room and make them treat you?"  I think this is where the Golden Rule breaks down - where we end up assuming that the person on the other end must or should have our same set of skills, values, and abilities (and that our understanding of their reality is both complete and correct.)  Obviously people do make poor decisions.  But it would require the omnipotence of an almighty living god to know how much to assign to bad choices or character, and how much is the result of circumstances beyond anyone's control.  And frankly, most of us are hard-pressed just to figure out where we left our keys last night.

It's harder to give when you are scared.  Boy, isn't this the truth.  It's very easy to feel safe letting a tiny 100-pound girl into your car.  Altogether more difficult with a 6'5" Peyton Manning stunt-double.  And on a grander scale - it's incredibly difficult not to tighten your fist when you are worried that you could lose your own security, or when you feel like there's not enough (of money or space or jobs or whatever) to go around.  That's when the hoarding mentality kicks in, and generosity dies.

Of course, the world is full of bright, motivated philanthropists who have not yet managed to eliminate any of these problems.  But I think knowing about them, and recognizing them AS problems, leaves us far better equipped to question our assumptions and actively work against the impediments to our natural compassion.

And if you read this far, thanks hugely for humoring me through this epic double navelgazing extravaganza.  Regular programming resumes next time!

Let he who has never eaten a cookie... cast the first block of government WIC cheese.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Spiritual Meditation on Oatmeal Cookies

I took a young lady shopping today.

It wasn't a planned exercise.  I don't know her name or how old she was.  But when you meet somebody who's sobbing outside the post office because she is absolutely indigent, hasn't eaten for two days, and can't even find the bus stop to beg for a ride, you start to re-evaluate some things.

Anyway, we ran a couple of errands, and once we got the essential bases covered, we stopped at the CVS so she could pick up a few extra supplies.

It wasn't very much.  Shampoo.  Advil.  A box of feminine things.  Some juice.  Red candles, because as she said to me, she loves to read, and lighting a candle makes it special.  A bag of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and a tray of oatmeal cookies.

Looking back on it, it's interesting to me that little chocolate candies and oatmeal cookies counted as needful things.  And the more I think about it, the more I appreciate that.

Because really, sweets are literally bonus calories.  They are by their very nature something extra, something custom-made to please you.  And when we give them to ourselves, or to someone else, we're sending a message.  You are valuable.  You deserve to feel good.  You are more than a body to be kept alive.  You are a human being, and you are loved.

That's not really news, of course.  I don't know of any culture that doesn't have treat-sharing occasions encoded into its social calendar.  But when you are on the giving end of the cookie, it seems like the more distance there is between you and the recipient, the harder it is to do the giving.

You know what I'm talking about.  Helping out somebody in your family, office, church - that's easy.  You know them.  Of course they're Good People.  Ditto those adorable tots on the angel tree at the mall.  How much less enthusiastically would we buy trucks and dolls and paint-sets every year if the little card didn't come with names and ages to humanize the recipients - or if we were just asked to put money in a slot, and didn't even get the benevolent-patron vibes that come with picking out the toy ourselves?

And more than that, how easy it is to resent systematic, institutionalized giving - where you don't even get to choose what money you put into the slot, because Uncle Sam's taking it straight out of your paycheck.  How easy it becomes to grind your teeth at the thought of those ungrateful takers spending your money on candy and alcohol and things they don't even need!

And so we tighten the rules for welfare and food stamps.

Appoint ourselves judges for who deserves what and when, or outsource the judging to worthy trustees - churches, charities, politicians.

Stuff the care packages ourselves, give the bum food instead of money (who knows what he'd spend it on?), meticulously organize can drives so everyone can enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling of deciding for themselves whether the shelter-people will have chili with or without beans.  Because we are responsible individuals proven capable of managing things, and they will have our generosity on our terms or not at all.

To be clear - I don't mean to imply that we fortunate folks are closet assholes.  I truly believe that humanity as a whole trends toward radness.  And charity organizers would be silly not to use whatever techniques yield the best possible results for their cause.

But I do feel like we (in America at least) pour an awful lot of anxiety and effort into making sure that no anonymous moocher ever gets an undeserved cookie... when we would just as passionately, instantly, eagerly give them a whole entire box, if only we could meet them in person, as a person. 

And I wonder if the cookie's not actually an extra goodie at all - if treats, and having the means and freedom to treat your own self, aren't really, critically essential to the entire idea of caring for another human being. 

Apologies if this post comes off as self-aggrandizing backpattery, by the way.  Or a thinly-veiled political screed, or indulgent privileged hand-wringing.  I don't mean it.  Sometimes this blog is just a repository for thoughts that I would like people to know that I had, just so you can pick up my slack in case I get hit by a truck before I have a chance to act on them.

On that note: must look up French hip-hop artists, there ought to be an Angie's List for freelance manuscript editors, and haggis nachos need to be a thing.

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Five Delightful Things

Just what it says on the tin: this list is both self- and writing-centered, and contains up to 78% unrefined enthusiasm byproducts by weight. 

1.  I took my first-ever advance check to the bank this week.  Dollars are happy things!  But I gotta tell you, "I Are Real Writer" vibes are far, far happier.  And the money, in turn, led to

2.  Me posting an ad for an honest-to-God for-real conlanger (that's short for "constructed-language-er", I believe) to create honest-to-God for-real languages for my books - and getting whomped by interested applicants.  I am so, so stoked to finally be doing this.  It's so fun and expensive and makes me feel like a million bucks.  Is this what it's like to get a makeover? 

Speaking of which, mad props to the Language Creation Society and David Peterson in particular, who's taken so much time out of his busy schedule as the reigning Supreme Conlang Overlord to help make my want-ad more than a series of ignorant grunts and squeals.  (Writer-peeps, holler at me if you think you might be in the market for conlang services - I've now got more fantastic contacts than I know what to do with!) 

Yes, I'm breaking the first rule of Fight Club.
I am okay with that.
3.   Write Club 2013 will crown its champion tomorrow, which is going to be great no matter what.  I've already said plenty about why I love this contest, so I'll just add this: I have had more fun over the past four months, met more awesomesweet writers (and CRITIQUERS, good gravy!), and actually-literally-for-real upped my game because of this humble little game - it's unreal.  The book that comes out next year is going to be better because I got to do this.   And I want so badly to bring this action over to DFWcon somehow.  (Check out my latest post, by the way, if you're find yourself flagging: Five Secret Advantages of the Unpublished Writer.)

Look at this cover, you guys.LOOK AT IT.
4.  There are only two weeks left until The Golden City comes out and I get to read it!  Not gonna lie, y'all - I will probably go whole-hog navelgazing bananas about this book in pretty short order.  I am SO EXCITED to see another astonishingly underused historical setting brought to the fantasy aisle, and treated like more than a convenient slapdash shellacking for the plot.  (I've also had the privilege of swapping fishman-fistbumps with the author, and the fact that she's kind of excruciatingly rad doesn't hurt either.)

5.  As God is my witness, I am WRITING AGAIN!  Take that, responsibilities!  The fig of Spain for thee, sleep schedule!  Lick my lemons, adulthood - I'm base-jumping to Narnia and you can't stop me!

You need to have things trying to stop you so that you can get a better sense of how fast you are going as you smash through them.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Psychological Portrait of Deschutes County, Oregon

Today, I'm writing from a town called Bend.  It's in central Oregon, the site of this year's Thompson Tour.

(Long story short: instead of getting together at Christmas, when everything is crowded, closed, and/or seething with winter plague, we gather the clan in the fall, at a different place every year.  By spending the money on travel instead of presents, we can see all kinds of fun and interesting places, and nobody has to cook!)

I've ventured out from my North Texas hobbit-hole a fair few times now, and let me tell you – there is really something special about going out west.  It's not because the nature out here is somehow magically better than anybody else's nature.  It's not necessarily some epigenetic American pioneer fantasy, either.  I think maybe it's because the ratio of earth to civilization is still so high here, even after all the Manifest Destiny and Go West, Young Man and Get Your Kicks on Route 66 of the last three hundred years.  Look here:

from Wired Science, and more specifically, NASA's Suomi NPP Satellite
Isn't it striking?  Out here on the left side of the country, the constellations of our towns and cities are still – even in the year 2013 – such sparse little specks in the vastness of the world... and you can't stay here long without feeling that.

It's frightening, really, to drive up roads that close for snow six months out of the year, and wonder what it would be like to break down in a blizzard and find yourself helpless, miles from any other human being.

image courtesy of my sister's enormous phone

Or to sit by a still lake, your phone at zero bars, and imagine how long you would go unfound if you suddenly had a heart attack.

taken by me
I have a taste for that kind of fear.  Even experiencing it in this safe, limited, touristy way pulls you back through thousands of generations of humanity – to people who huddled around fires in the dark, hoping to get through the night unnoticed by the things that lived outside the light.

Actually, I think that's one of the Western's most powerful attractions.  It's the only genre I know of that centers on a place – and more than that, a place so immense that it affects every living thing within its boundaries.  You had better step lightly and stay wakeful, it says, because nobody is coming to help you if you can't.  It's not horror – there's nothing malicious about it – but a place so vast and ageless as to be almost incapable of noticing you.  Human emotions like love and hate have their opposite here, in hundred-mile stretches of geological indifference.

sister again
Of course, while I-the-individual am tiny indeed, we-the-species are not, and it's dangerous to forget the power we have to alter our planet.  Still, in many ways, coming here feels like going home to my parents' house: we are bigger now than we were even a thousand years ago, and maybe even slightly more mature... but it's good to visit every now and again to remember where we came from, and to reflect on our smallness.

...and again.  No, I don't know how she does it either.
Happy birthday, me.  And thank you, Earth, for letting me live on you.

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.