Blog

What I’m doing right now instead of writing


This summer has really been kicking my ass.  Theoretically, summer ought to mean more free time.  With no set schedule, we spend lots of time at the beach and at pools and the library and parks, all of which sounds very relaxing, right?
Except that with two small children, trips to the beach and the pool aren’t actually particularly relaxing.  They’re marathons of reapplying sunscreen, distributing snacks, playing Solomon over the most coveted sand toys, and ensuring that nobody drowns.  Not exactly the best time to get lost in writing.  And, even worse, these fun-but-exhausting trips leave me unable to write in the evenings since my energy is completely sapped.

So, despite having no schedule and, seemingly plenty of time, I haven’t actually touched my manuscript since June [shocked emoji face].  It’s the end of July now [double shocked emoji faces].  It’s bad.

Worse, I can feel my attitude toward writing changing.  A few weeks ago, the idea of being able to sit down to write was exciting.  Now it’s mildly terrifying.  This is what happens when you don’t keep pedaling.  The idea of getting back out there becomes terrifying.

I’ve not completely abandoned the prospect of finishing the book, though.  Summer is the perfect time for light reading, so I’ve been reading a lot of books that are similar in tone and style to mine.  I’m not so much looking for help with writing as I am building a list of comparable titles and getting a list of the agents that might represent them (acknowledgements at the end of books are massively helpful in this regard).  This is all wildly premature (I haven’t even touched my book in a month!) but at least it makes me feel like I’m making some kind of progress.

And today I’m making yogurt.  This has nothing to do with writing, obviously, but I figured I should come back to the title of this post eventually.  I’m making yogurt in my lovely new Instant Pot on this cool, overcast day.  No, it’s not writing.  But at least it’s not a complete waste of time.  After all, at least I can eat the yogurt.

Read this: The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay


I don’t normally recommend a book before I’ve finished reading it, but I’m enjoying this one so much that it seems silly not to.  The story is strange and expansive, including a former Marine hunting for a gambler in Las Vegas, a teenage grifter in Los Angeles, and a 16th century alchemist in Venice.  But the whole thing is infused with so much mystery and the sense of another world lurking just below the surface that I’m finding it impossible not to be transported.  I’m finding myself rationing my reading just because I don’t want it to be over too soon.

In many ways, it’s reminding me of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, another book that I adored.  It’s not just that both books feature long, beautiful sections that take place in Las Vegas.  It’s that both books are so confidently written and contain such a fully conceived world that it’s not a question of whether you get lost–it’s a question of how delightfully lost you’ll get.

Guys, I’m getting worried about the men.

james mcavoy split

My husband and I watched Split last night.  It was… fine.  But what I couldn’t get past was how different James McAvoy’s physical build was from other movies I’ve seen him in and I can’t help but think it’s part of a worrying trend.

If you’re not familiar with James McAvoy, he’s that strapping fellow on the left in the picture above.  But he didn’t always look like that.  Instead, I tend to think of McAvoy as the slender Glaswegian actor from both good movies (Atonement) and not so good movies (Wanted).  Usually, he looks more like this:

james macavoy wanted

According to McAvoy, he bulked up for the role in Split using a regimen of heavy duty lifting, consuming 5000-6000 calories a day (the vast majority of it protein), and cut out things like alcohol.  And listen: men, just like women, are allowed to manage and modify their bodies in whatever way they see fit, even if it’s not through conventional or even healthy means.  So I’m not going to suggest that there’s necessarily something wrong with what McAvoy has done, and if he’s happy then my being distracted by the change is not his problem.

However, I worry that this is part of a trend in the way male movie stars have bulked up and dropped body fat for roles in the past few years.  For example, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has always been a big guy, but lately he seems so enormous and muscular as to appear almost cartoonish.  Chris Pratt shocked us all when he shed his Andy Dwyer normal-guy bod for his role in Zero Dark Thirty and has only seemed to get bigger since.  Hugh Jackman was fit when he began playing Wolverine in the first X-Men movie, but for X-Men: Days of Future Past, at 46 years old, he lifted his way into a newer, larger, more veiny physique.  The list goes on and includes Zac Efron (always fit but now even more muscley for Baywatch) as well as Justin Theroux (I guess the apocalypse means more abs?).  It’s hard not to see a trend.

Again, I encourage men to live their lives the way they want to achieve their priorities, whatever those might be.  But when there starts to be a trend within a specific group of people (in this case, actors), I start to wonder just how voluntary this is.  Are these men really choosing to live in the gym and eat nothing but protein for months at a time?  Or, in the way actresses have often been required to lose ten or 15 or 20 pounds off an already slender frame to land a role, is getting jacked being presented as a condition for that next starring role?

And in the same way that actresses with enviable and idealized bodies have always presented themselves as either the beneficiaries of good genetics (“Oh, my gosh, I eat so many burgers and I just love drinking beer”) or simply deeply committed to healthy eating and exercise, will these actors start presenting themselves that way, too?  Because just like many actresses were engaging in disordered eating in order to maintain those slender frames, those super-muscled physiques don’t come just from packing on the protein.  Even that wouldn’t be particularly healthy (McAvoy says of his diet: “Instead of eating two eggs in the morning, I’d eat eight. Then a snack of chicken breast. Then two chicken breasts for lunch and a steak for another snack. Then two salmon steaks for dinner.”  It should go without saying that that’s not a particularly balanced diet).  Worse is that many of these men are almost certainly using other substances, many of them of questionable value and provenance, to make the muscle gain easier and more effective.  Steroids and other exercise enhancers don’t just lead to things like shrunken testicles, acne, and sexual dysfunction–they can also lead to things like renal failure, liver cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and heart attacks.

Beyond these specific men who have made the choice to become larger for personal or career reasons, the bodies that we see on television and movie screens normalize what we think bodies in general can and should look like.  Will seeing ripped body after jacked body make men feel dissatisfied with their own normal, perfectly healthy bodies, the same way women often feel dissatisfied with theirs?  And will it drive men to pursue riskier activities in an attempt to achieve what they think is “normal”?  I might sound alarmist, but I spend enough time worrying about how to make sure my daughter grows up with a healthy body image–I don’t need anybody coming along to rip my son’s down, too.

For ages, women have complained that they are held to unrealistic standards.  They’ve pointed out that it’s unfair that what passes for a normal, attractive woman on television is pretty narrow compared to the wide range of body types and shapes out in the real world.  And we’ve pointed out that it wasn’t fair, considering that men aren’t held to the same standards.  I’m worried that Hollywood took the wrong meaning from that.  We were looking for them to give women a break, to present a wider range of bodies as valuable and worthy of love.  We didn’t mean that we wanted them to create new, unrealistic standards against which to hold men.

The cost of fear

2016-07-15 09.34.30 (2)Last week, I started seeing a particular story being shared on social media by a number of my friends.  According to a Facebook post by a mother from Southern California, while at Ikea, she and her children were stalked by two well dressed men who appeared to have no interest in shopping.  She goes on to say that she believes these may have been human traffickers, waiting for a moment when she was distracted to snatch one or more of her children.  Luckily, she and her mother kept a close eye on the children and managed to lose the men by doubling back.  It’s a chilling story, one that plays into every parent’s worst nightmare.

I can’t say whether this particular mother’s story is true.  I wasn’t there and I don’t know her, so like any anecdote from a stranger on the internet, it’s unverifiable.  I can see why so many of my friends and family members share them on social media with posts like A good reminder of why you should always be aware when you’re out and about with your littles.

But whether this post is true or not, it has been bothering me ever since I read it.  Not because it’s made me more aware of a scary possibility, but because I think it’s actually an unhelpful reminder of something that is unlikely to happen.  And I think it’s hurting children and families.

If this were really such a common danger–if there were really traffickers around every corner waiting to snatch nice, suburban American children to sell them into fates worse than death (that’s what’s always implied in these stories, right?)–then you would think that we’d see a lot more articles about it and a lot more warnings from law enforcement officials.  Instead, we just have viral Facebook posts with plenty of conjecture.  Here’s what law enforcement has to say about a similar mother’s fear that her child was almost snatched:

“Human trafficking is a reality in Oklahoma,” said Michael Snowden with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics Human Trafficking Division.

Snowden said stories like this are based on real fears, however, the concern has no basis.

“We don’t generally see people snatching children from their parents or women being abducted from a retail store of some sort. Human trafficking is much more subtle than that,” Snowden said.

Snowden said victims are generally coerced over time, often by someone they know or someone they met online.

“These girls are recruited. They’re promised the world and love and those things that are maybe lacking in their lives,” Snowden said.

Snowden said, while post to social media like Kalidy’s are based on real incidents and real fears, the so-called suspects likely weren’t trying to kidnap anyone.

“We would never belittle someone’s fear, OK? But diversion is really a frequent tactic when I’m trying to steal your purse, get your car keys,” Snowden said.

And these scary stories play a little too closely into cultural narratives about what kind of parents the Millennials and Gen-Xers are.  We’re distracted by our smart phones and not watching our children closely enough, right?  Or, like this other viral Facebook post implies, we don’t understand that we’re putting our children at risk of being sold on the (probably fictional) international market for Caucasian children by having Facebook friends we’ve never met in real life.  These seem like they’re actually thinly disguised criticisms of parents, rather than warnings about things that are likely to actually happen.

I’m not saying that children don’t go missing or that horrible things don’t happen to children.  They can and do. In the grand scheme of things, though, there are many greater threats to children than being snatched by a stranger at Target.  For instance, I can’t tell you how many pictures of kids in clearly inadequately buckled or installed car seats I’ve seen.  Those kids are in a lot more danger of death or serious bodily injury than the kid at the park whose mom is scrolling through Instagram.

Worse than that, these posts empower busybodies who feel comfortable getting law enforcement involved any time a child isn’t watched like a hawk.  That’s how you wind up with the police being called because three children were playing in their fenced-in backyard while their mother was in the house.  Or the police being called because a six year old was playing in the field across the street from his house.  Or a mother facing five years in jail for letting her first grader walk half a mile to a park by himself.  If there are bad guys just waiting for the chance to snatch an unattended child around every corner, then calling the police in these instances is rational.  But if there isn’t, then we might be harming children.

Because the other dominant cultural narrative about “kids these days” is that us parents aren’t getting them out of the house enough.  The kids are all winding up obese because they just sit around playing video games and never get outside.  Except that if letting my kids go outside to play in a fenced in yard while I do dishes inside means that child protective services might show up at my house… well, maybe video games are the safer option, right?  That’s not even to mention the damage that we might be doing to our children by never giving them a moment without surveillance.

And as if all that isn’t enough, these sensational stories take away from the children and adults who are trafficked.  According to the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor’s 2002 report, there are an estimated 1.2 million children out there who have been trafficked, but only a tiny, tiny percentage of those children are from developed nations.  These children need advocates, and their advocates need money to combat this problem.  Has anyone ever read one of these stories of middle-class white kids in America being targeted for trafficking and thought, “I really need to donate some money to an organization that helps fight trafficking”?  If you really want to do some good–if you really want to save a child from a fate worse than death–being “aware” when you’re at the grocery store isn’t the answer; giving money to one of the many organizations fighting this problem is.

If at first it’s not perfect…

There’s always been a plot point in my novel that bothered me.  It first shows up in the first ten pages of the novel, so it’s been there since I started writing (let’s not talk about how long ago that was).  It wasn’t an egregious problem–it just didn’t quite work.  But it was necessary to get the characters to the next plot point, so with every edit, I’ve grudgingly left it in.

This morning, though, as I was showering and trying not to be annoyed by the sound of my kids bickering in the next room (they can’t give it a rest for ten minutes while I shower?), out of nowhere the solution to this troublesome plot point popped into my brain.  It’s perfect.  It not only solves this problem, but it solves a couple of other problems further into the book.

I’m mostly writing this to remind myself (and anyone else who might need it) that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect.  Writing is like golf: you want to get it as close as you can on the first swing, but you’re going to get another crack or ten at it.  Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated that I’m not hitting a hole in one on the first shot and I’m tempted to quit.  But you don’t get to be Tiger Woods by quitting any time you’re not absolutely perfect.  

Is it okay to throw rice at weddings?

wedding

When I planned my own wedding a decade ago, it was common knowledge that you couldn’t throw rice at weddings.  After all, the birds would come down and eat it and it would expand in their little stomachs and then the birds would explode.  So, we gave our guests little satchels of birdseed to throw as we walked back down the aisle after getting married.

But, in the intervening years, it’s occurred to me that the idea that birds will explode after eating uncooked rice is… weird.  After all, the tradition of throwing rice (or oats, or other grains) at a newly married couple to symbolize showering them with prosperity, fertility, and good fortune has been around for a while.  You’d think that people would have noticed if after a wedding there were lots of dead birds lying around in the vicinity.  Birds suddenly dropping dead is the kind of thing people from earlier ages definitely noticed and attached symbolism to.  So, is it true that birdies will explode if and when they eat uncooked rice?

Nope.

According to Snopes, this idea has been around for a while, ever since advice columnist Ann Landers advised her readers in 1988 not to throw rice at weddings for the sake of the birds’ health.  The USA Rice Federation was not too pleased by this (I love how specific lobbying/advocacy groups are and how seriously they take any and all threats to their products).

“This silly myth pops up periodically, and it is absolutely unfounded,” responded rice expert Mary Jo Cheesman at the USA Rice Federation. Many migrating ducks and geese depend on winter-flooded rice fields each year to fatten up and build strength for their return trek to northern nesting grounds.

Uncooked, milled rice is no more harmful to birds than rice in the field, Cheesman said.

If you’re not inclined to believe what this shill for Big Rice has to say, there is an actual scientific exploration of the issue.  From Snopes:

[I]n 2002 University of Kentucky biology professor James Krupa put the matter to test with his students, conducting experiments that he eventually published in the April 2005 edition of the journal American Biology Teacher under the title “A CLASSROOM EXERCISE FOR TESTING URBAN MYTH: Does Wedding Rice Cause Birds to Explode or Were Ann Landers, Martha Stewart & Bart Simpson Wrong?”

One factor Krupa and his students measured just how much rice actually expands when soaked in water. They found that soaked white rice expanded in volume by 33%, which might sound like a lot, but not so much when compared to ordinary bird seed, which they found increased in size by an even greater percentage (40%). If a 33% increase in volume of ingested rice could cause birds to explode, then bird seed should be turning even more of them into avian bombs.

Krupa’s group found that instant rice, both the brown and white varieties, expanded considerably more (2.4 to 2.7 times its original volume) than plain white rice when soaked. Instant rice isn’t typically the sort that people throw at weddings (because it’s costlier and more difficult to buy in bulk), but nonetheless the experimenters tested the possibilities by constructing models of bird crops from thin plastic and wet paper and filling them with instant rice. Although a paper bag filled with soaked instant white rice ruptured in about 15 minutes, none of the avian crop models burst.

Krupa’s students prevailed upon him to also test the exploding rice theory on real birds, an entreaty he finally acquiesced to because he felt their previous experiments had sufficiently demonstrated that no birds would come to harm through the process. He agreed to try some rice-feeding tests with flocks of doves and pigeons he kept at home, feeding 60 of his birds a diet of nothing other than instant rice and water for one day and monitoring them for any ill effects. He found that none of the birds showed any obvious signs of pain, discomfort, or distress; none of them exhibited ruptures or other injuries (including explosion), and none of them took ill or died.

So, no, you don’t have to forego the rice for the sake of the birds.

However (Of course there’s a however), that doesn’t mean throwing rice at weddings is a good idea.  Many churches have rules prohibiting the throwing of rice at weddings, as it can create slip-and-fall hazards for guests on hard surfaces like stone steps, and cleaning the stuff out of grass is a bitch.

So, there you go.  You learned something new.


Like what you read?  Follow me on Facebook or sign up for my newsletter to be sure you don’t miss a thing.

Oh, the insanity!

Wedding 179Writing a novel that revolves in large part around the planning of a wedding involves a lot of reading about weddings.  And the articles never cease to amaze.  If you follow me on Facebook (you should follow me on Facebook!), you may have seen this gem I shared a couple weeks ago.  And now, from The Washington Post comes this beauty about a million dollar wedding and a lawsuit.

One thing about weddings is that, at least in the United States, they are largely tied up with affluence.  Wealthier people are more likely to get married and the cost of a wedding, on average, is over $26,000 (or a couple thousand dollars more than the cost of a 2017 Honda CR-V).  This wedding, though, was something well outside of the average.  From the article:

The lavish June 2015 celebration for 250 guests in the garden of their Southampton estate was gorgeous. The bride wore Oscar de la Renta. There were 3,500 white roses individually studded into the lawn, a five-course dinner beneath massive chandeliers of greenery and a seven-tier wedding cake.

The mother of the bride commissioned monogrammed napkins for each place setting, as well as a custom fabric for the tables and the flower girl’s dress. There was a beachfront rehearsal dinner. The reception included a specialty cocktail served in an ostrich eggshell; the after parties offered a Calvados and cigar bar, plus hot chocolate and brownie stations.

A week later, the couple exchanged vows in a small candlelight ceremony in the 16th-century chapel at the family chateau in the Loire Valley, followed by hot-air ballooning the next morning. Both ceremonies were featured in Brides magazine last year with the headline: “This Couple’s Multi-Day Wedding in the Hamptons and in France Will Blow You Away.”

Sure, why not.

According to the planner, the parents of the bride never mentioned the word “budget” (the parents dispute this), and she therefore thought that she had free reign to spend as much as she liked, including paying for wedding service with her own funds, expecting reimbursement.  All told, she submitted a bill of $3 million, including “$45,000 for her staff to work the wedding, $48,000 in travel expenses, $38,000 for lighting, $10,000 for the videographer, and more. All those little wedding favors add up, too: $4,300 for totes, $5,000 for T-shirts, $1,000 for hangover Tylenol pouches.”

Things got so bad that, according to the father of the bride, they nearly cancelled the wedding just a few months before it was scheduled to occur (obviously, they didn’t cancel but the parents of the bride maintain that the wedding did not go off as well as they had hoped).

These loving parents (said the father: “I think there are people who prey on people’s love for their children, they prey on their vanity, they try to take advantage of it.”) say they planned to spend about $1 million on their daughter’s wedding, which is a crazy amount of money to spend on a wedding any way you slice it.  I get wanting to have a fun, fancy party but, well, a million dollars just seems excessive.

But underneath this story of excess, and of people who I would say are excessive but still (plot twist!) have limits, there’s a story about every goddamn wedding in America.  It seems that everyone (well, every normal, middle class person who wants to get married but will definitely have to utter the word “budget”… A LOT), starts planning their wedding with the words, “We just want a small, low key wedding.”  And a year later, two slightly frazzled-seeming people are left wondering how that small wedding turned into a lavish affair with things like “uplighting” and “chocolate fountains“.  As the article from the WaPo notes: “Adults go their entire lives not caring about table linens, and suddenly they’re fighting about whether napkins should be white or ecru. Costs spiral out of control because you simply must have that food truck for midnight donuts.”  Or the party bus to get your guests safely to their hotel.  Or the vintage Bentley limousine.  Weddings make us all crazy, and they somehow separate even reasonable, intelligent, savvy people from their money with alarming efficiency.  The aforementioned article is just the same phenomenon on a much grander scale (seriously, monogrammed napkins for 250 people for a single dinner?!).

Do you have a crazy story about your wedding?  A story about how you got talked into paying for some ridiculous item for your wedding?  An expense you wish you’d sprung for but didn’t?  Please share in the comments.*

*Beware telling writers anything because we are irredeemable thieves and will plunder your life to fill our fiction.  You’ve been warned.


Like what you read?  Follow me on Facebook or sign up for my newsletter to be sure you don’t miss a thing.

 

Ripping Out the Seams

I knew pretty quickly that I had made a mistake, but I pressed on anyway, sewing two more seams and hoping that the finished product would be fine.  Instead, continuing on seemed to make the error worse.  And now I was faced with the depressing task of ripping out several hundred stitches, recutting a couple of pieces, and continuing on. Honestly, I put the garment on a hanger, hung it on my “work-in-progress” hook, and ignored it for a couple of weeks.

See, I had gotten cocky.  I made a dress for my daughter that came out cute and that she loved.  She wanted another dress and it occurred to me that I could make a jumper, a sleeveless dress designed to go over a long sleeve shirt and worn in colder weather, with the same pattern.  All I would have to do is step away from the suggested fabrics (all light and drapery) and move to something heavier and stiffer.  “That should be easy enough,” said I, the newbie sewist.

So off we went to JoAnn Fabrics, where my daughter picked an adorable denim with sparkly pink butterflies on it.  She was thrilled.  It was a fairly heavy denim, but I was still pretty sure that it would work.

And it did, right up until I started finishing the collar.  See, the pattern instructions call for you to use a fusible interfacing (a material of variable weight and stiffness that you fuse to your fabric with an iron) to give a bit more form.  In this case, it ensures that the neckline looks smooth and crisp, and on the dress I made before, using a light, cotton broadcloth, it worked perfectly.  But this isn’t light, cotton broadcloth.  This was moderately heavy denim.

So, when I went to sew the denim now made even stiffer by the interfacing to the dress, it was instantly a problem.  There was no give.  I wasn’t 100% sure what the problem was, but I knew there was a problem.  Rather than stop and figure it out, though, I pressed on, finishing the seam.  

It was even more clear that there was a problem when I tried to turn the collar over and top stitch it flat.  Even with the liberal application of an iron, the damn thing wouldn’t lay flat.  And when I went ahead and top stitched (because I somehow thought stitches would make it better–did I mention I’m a noob?), It got orders of magnitude worse.  It puckered and rippled in a weird way.

It was clear that this was not a wearable garment as it was.  And I was pretty sure that I knew what the problem was–the interfacing.  There was nothing to do but rip out the two seams I’d seen.  That’s hundreds of stitches.  Not only is ripping out seams tedious, it means undoing work.  And that’s depressing.  So I put the garment away.  

Yesterday, I picked it up again.  I actually wanted to get started on a dress for myself but, again like a noob, I had ordered the wrong size pattern.  The only thing to do was pick up this dress again.  And the only thing to do about that neckline was a complete redo.  And so I did.  I went through the tedious process of tearing out stitches one at a time.  

So, is this all just a boring story about me screwing up at a hobby.  No.  There’s a writing connection.  More than once, I’ve realized that I was making a mistake as I worked on a piece of writing. I might be three thousand words into a section that isn’t working.  But deleting several days worth of work is depressing, and so, more than once, I’ve tried to keep going, pushing on to five, eight, ten, or twenty thousand words of the wrong direction before finally giving up.  It’s depressing and it makes it tempting to put the writing away, rather than make the necessary changes.  My suspicion is that more than one would-be writer has a half finished manuscript in a drawer that they’re ignoring because they know they need to, well, rip out a bunch of seams.  

But ripping out the seams can feel good.  When I finally bite the bullet and highlight those pages that aren’t working and hit CTRL+X (or copy pasta into my purgatory file, because every writer should have one of those), it feels good.  And when you get going in the right direction, it feels great.  When I finally got those seems ripped and cut new pieces, I felt pretty good.  When I get around to sewing them together, I imagine it’ll feel great.  

Ultimately, with any creative enterprise, there will be a fair amount of trashing and starting over.  It’s never not heartbreaking.  But it’s necessary to create anything worthwhile.  Shying away from it will only harm you.

More sewing!

God, this is turning into such a sewing blog.  I am so sorry.

Just had to share these pajama pants I made for myself.  Good lord, they are loud.  You know what else they are?  Maybe the most comfortable things I have ever put on my body.  Seriously, in a few minutes, I’m supposed to go out to dinner with my loving husband and, well, if I didn’t love him so much I’d be seriously considering staying home to wear the most comfortable pants that have ever existed.

Actually, this does relate to writing, because you know what makes writing easier?  Wearing pants this freaking comfortable.

(Though I probably could have picked a subtler print)

The care and feeding of your writing self

Look what I’ve got in my hot little hands!  It literally came out today and I was of course first in line to get it at the library.  In fact, I’m still at the library–I couldn’t wait to share.

For a writer, reading is an essential part of maintaining and developing the craft.  For me personally, it’s an essential part of staying sane.

I’ve been dying for this book to come out basically ever since A Gathering of Shadows ended on a complete cliff hanger.  Finally, I get to find out what happens next!