Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Praise Of Screw Ups

--Adrienne Miller

If there was ever a wrong turn, I've made it. Ever a safe bet, I've lost it. I've made more bad first impressions than good ones. I've run my mouth off when I should have been discreet, and I've frozen up in the clutch.

That's me. I'm a screw up. I wouldn't say I'm proud exactly, but neither am I ashamed. There's an upside to being a screw up, especially if you are a writer. I’ve learned some things that you can only discover when you're taking the long way around. Though I have to admit that, just like everything else, it took me a little while to learn them.

1. Failure isn't the end of world. It’s an inevitability. When you start out to do something new and different, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to give five wrong answers for every right one. You’re going to do a piss poor job until you learn how to do a good one.

But even then you’re not safe. Trust me, no matter what heights you’ve reached scaling your mountain, you are never immune from falling back down it. Maybe it’ll be hubris that does you in--no, I hear you say, no author has ever been guilty of that--or, maybe dumb luck. All I know is that it doesn’t matter. Because as any good screw up can tell you, it’s not the mistake but what you do after it that matters.

2. Life is not an equation. There is no formula for success or recipe for avoiding pain. There are no set of variables that will lead you straight to the winner’s circle, if only you can figure them out. Hell, I’m not even sure there is a winner’s circle.

Life is a crazy journey. A messy, sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic, always chaotic journey.

3. Playing it safe, isn’t. The middle isn’t any safer than the edges. Don’t believe me, re-read lesson number one. The only difference is that if you stick to the middle, you’ll blend in until you fade away.

When in doubt, listen to your heart. Yeah, it might take in you in all kinds of crazy directions, but, I promise you, you’ll have a hell of a time along the way.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

--by Juliet

Most kids start their speaking life with “da-da” or “ma-ma” (or whatever their particular linguistic equivalent may be.)

My son’s first word was “Oops.”

It wasn’t even meant seriously, it was an ironic statement. Here’s the scene: He’s sitting in his high chair. I can’t remember his exact age, but he was at that adorable moment when babies move out of the larval stage, but are still new enough to think that Cheerios are an awesome, exciting taste sensation. So he’s chasing Cheerios around on the tray, since actually grasping those critters with brand new fingers is no easy feat, and shoving them into the mouth is yet another challenge.
I was cooking dinner for grown ups, running around the kitchen and clearly not paying him enough attention (this kid, from the day he was born, has been interesting, but NEVER easy) and when I look over, he quite methodically picks up a handful of Cheerios, and while holding my gaze, holds his hand out to the side and drops them, quite purposefully, on the floor.
Then he goes: “Oops.”

“Oops,” even though it wasn’t an oops at all. At least in the sense that it wasn’t really a mistake…or maybe it was an intentional mistake.

I love that. Sometimes you just gotta let your freak flag fly. Sometimes you want to claim your oops moment, hold it close to your heart, decide you’re going to do something even though you know it’s a mistake from the start.
No, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but then often WE don't make a lot of sense. Public health officials are always stymied by the fact that no matter how much they tell us what we should do, we still insist on being foolish, eating sugar and drinking alcohol and having wild sex. I understand their frustration and, of course, we'll all pay if we become an unhealthy populace.
But there’s something wonderful about the very human desire – nay, need--to go out there and do the wrong thing. Mix things up. Incite something. On purpose and with head held high.

So what the heck, from time to time, maybe we should indulge in that crazy love affair. Quit the sensible job and become a writer. Drop the metaphorical Cheerios on the floor, and just see where they lay.

I figure if it’s good enough for the kid, it’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Did you see this week's article on the shy and how shyness might be an evolutionary tactic? The author talks about two kinds of people: sitters and rovers.

Sitters are the 20(ish)% of the population who are "watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines," and rovers are the remaining 80% who "sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings." Both have evolutionary advantages and disadvantages: sitting will keep you safe if you are slow to walk into a trap, and roving will keep you rapidly acclimated to differing climes which might help keep you alive.

I am SUCH a sitter. I'm shy. This is hard for people who know me to believe because I'm very friendly and it looks like I leap, early and often. But I don't. I may make quick judgements about things and it might LOOK like I'm leaping, but I'm not. I wish I were.

The the article made something clear to me that I hadn't before understood: shy people are worried about negative attention, whereas introverts just prefer to be alone. Ah! The light bulb went on when I read that. I'm not an introvert. I like to be around people. But the fact that I've always been worried about negative attention creates such a conflict that it's hard to decide which way to go sometimes. I like to sit and watch and determine the best, safest course of action so that I don't make a great OOPS and cause everyone to look at me and laugh (like in fifth grade, when the mime wanted me to form a conga-line behind him, but I jumped on his back instead, misreading his clues to my GREAT chagrin). But I also want to make friends and laugh with new people!

I remember as a child, my ultimate fear was being called on in class. I developed all kinds of methods to avoid it: I'd look my teacher straight in the eye, to make sure she knew I wasn't dodging the question and then I'd become suddenly absorbed in the tip of pencil. Was it sharp enough? Oh! Perhaps it needs sharpening! And then she'd say, "Rachael? Do you know?" And I did, I really did know that the answer was Guatemala, but instead I'd get too nervous to say anything or I'd say, "Guh..." and she'd move on. I'd feel the class looking at me in judgment (which they weren't! But I didn't know that then) and I would want to dig a hole to Australia.

When I was in my early twenties, I was extremely self-conscious about my bad skin. I thought everyone was looking at my acne, all the time. IT WAS ALL ABOUT ME. I thought when I walked down a street that the person who turned aside to whisper to their friend was talking about my skin. It was horrible. I died a thousand deaths every time I went outside, to school, to the store.

I'm not sure how I realized this, but I think it was a combination of therapy mixed with time: I finally figured out: NO ONE CARES HOW I LOOK. Or how anyone else looks. People might notice if my hair is cute. They might notice if there's a big hole in my pants and my ass is hanging out. But apart from that, no one really notices, or cares. I look like Rachael most days, and they like me or they don't. How I apply my eyeliner or how my skin looks doesn't matter a whit. If I gain weight or if I lose it -- it doesn't make people look at me differently. I'm still Rachael to them.

I'm still Rachael to me. Sitter at times, rover at others (hello, RWA National! I'll be roving! I hope!), I'm still just me, and I'm not getting negative attention (unless I walk into a pole in the middle of sidewalk, which is a thing I'm prone to do, and in that case, oops -- just pick me up, and thanks, in advance, for choking your laughter back. I appreciate it).

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Biggest Road Trip "Oops" Yet!

by Sophie


I did a really dumb thing last week while Juliet and I were traveling all over creation to promote our new books.

A BAD DAY FOR SCANDAL and HEXES AND HEMLINES are brand spanking new, and we were full of excitement not just about new books but about visiting places we'd never been before. We started the tour in Crested Butte, Colorado and finished in Phoenix, Arizona and hit Texas in between. We set out to find stellar barbecue and glorious vistas and we were not disappointed.

(Check out my personal blog or Facebook page for pictures from the trip!)

me and juliet on the night of the big Ooops before we understood the horrors to follow

When we rolled into Phoenix Friday, we were starting to show the signs of wear. Like my red carryon suitcase (which I believe I bought for one of our first trips together, two years ago!) we were overtaxed, overstuffed, a bit dirty and worn around the edges. Also, it was 103 degrees. This was, in fact, an improvement over the 107 in Tucson the day before, and the humidity was far below sweltering Houston earlier in the week ("It's a dry heat!" everyone in AZ seems compelled to chortle at newcomers) but it was still a bit...shocking.

Juliet and I stopped by the grocery for provisions (by which we mean alcohol and potato chips, of course) and then headed for the beautiful Biltmore Hotel, where the Poisoned Pen Readers' Conference was to be held. We love this hotel - it's one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most stunning creations - but it has a very long, inconvenient parking lot from which one's room is about a ten-mile trek. Of course we didn't need assistance with our bags - we're young! (ish) - and Capable with a capital 'C'! So off we slogged, over the curbs and lawns and paths, threading between casitas and pools and tennis court, until at last we arrived at our lovely room.

Now comes the really dumb part. Keep in mind that i was toting my carryon, an enormous shoulder bag that weighed about 40 pounds before I put the jugs of wine in, a coffee, and snacks - and perhaps you'll understand why, when I dropped the rental car keys somewhere en route, I didn't notice.

Oh, heartless Fate. The next thirty-six hours rolled blissfully by as we did our thing, ignorant of the horrors to come. Saturday night, as we were heading from a bar "meeting" with some of our fellow authors, Juliet casually said "hey, we ought to find the keys before that 5am wakeup call."

And thank heavens she did, or we wouldn't have been able to spend
- 1 hour frantically searching the room
- 30 minutes trying to search around the car in the dark, unlighted parking lot, peering into the windows with only the iPhone for light to see if they were on the seats or floor
- 30 minutes on hold with the rental car's roadside assistance (truly, it ought to be renamed "roadside indifference") before giving up and spending
- 1 hour waiting for AAA locksmith who then spent
- 2 hours breaking into our car, dismantling most of it including pieces that were several feet apart in an effort to get to the lock mechanism, and attempting (and failing) to make a new key for us by which time it was

....2:30am, when a nice nighttime security lady came by to see what was up, called over to Lost&Found (the same one I'd called earlier only to be rebuffed) and discovered that they had the key.

Locked in a safe, which wasn't due to be opened until the 6am shift arrived.

At which time we were supposed to be at the airport.

awesome firepower in the locksmith's van...still not enough

People, I didn't cry. I can't believe it now, because that was a desperate moment, but Juliet kept reminding me that at least no one had been hurt and we weren't in an emergency room or something (she has the patience of a SAINT! Saint Juliet!), and somehow I just kept nodding and going "aahhhhuuuuhhh" which means something like "what the fuck do we do now." Can I just say that I love Security Lady Jamie? She told us to go to bed and she'd start trying to get her supervisor out of bed. We were skeptical - I was fully expecting to have to have the car towed to the airport (extra distance towing fees!) and pay the lost key charge ($208!) but somehow I managed to doze off for a couple of hours at which time -

Phone rings and nice man says Jamie's been knocking on our door but we weren't answering. We leap out of bed and there she is with our key!

So, anyway, we made it to the airport and even had time for a bagel and now here we are, back in our beloved bay area and already the horrors of the last night are beginning to fade away, turning gently into the kind of lore that we'll laugh about for years. But my heavens, did I feel ridiculous!!

So the Pens are going to be Oops'ing for the next two weeks, and I hope you readers will pop in with "oops" moments of your own in the comments - if only to make me feel a little better about all of this.

A final thought to leave you with, courtesy of a little bar we stumbled on in Tucson:

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kaye George: The Story of One

Welcome today's guest, Kaye George. An Agatha nominated short story writer, Kaye is the author of CHOKE: An Imogene Duckworthy Mystery (Mainly Murder Press), as well as A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, a collection of her previously published stories, and THE BAVARIAN KRISP CAPER, available at Untreed Reads. FISH TALES: The Guppy Anthology contains her story, "The Truck Contest". She reviews for "Suspense Magazine", and writes for several newsletters and blogs. She, her husband, and a rescued feral cat named Agamemnon live together in Texas, near Austin. Visit Kaye at,, and

Once upon a time there was one writer who liked to write short stories. She wanted to get one published. She wrote one. She sent it to one prestigious magazine. She got one rejection slip. She wrote another. She wrote many, but didn't get any published. Instead she had one drawer full of rejections slips.

Years went by. The she decided she wanted to get one novel published. So she wrote one. She sent it to one agent. She got one rejection slip. She wrote more novels and got more rejection slips. Eventually, she had one file drawer full of them.

Meanwhile, frustrated with the novels, she returned to writing short stories and got one published. She danced and shouted for joy. Then she got another one published. But she still wanted to get just one novel into print. She wrote more of them and collected more rejection slips.

Years went by. Then, one day, one publisher wanted to see her latest novel. She danced and shouted for joy. The publisher bought her novel and she now has one book for sale!

To stick with the theme, she decided on a one word title. (That's not really the reason, the title has nothing to do with this little piece, but it fits the theme, so I'm going with it.)

How about the song made popular by Three Dog Night, "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do"? That applies to writers, to a degree. A writer, unless doing a collaboration, writes alone. I consider writing one of the loneliest things I've ever done. Until I attend a conference and meet up with all the other writers (All the Lonely People?).

I'll stick one other reference in here. "One small step." We writers take things one step at a time. Writer, revise, edit, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, submit, resubmit, resubmit, etc. If we repeat the steps enough times (waaay more than one!), we might eventually have publishing success.

I hope you've enjoyed my little riff on the number one.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One Day

By Gigi

I'm a firm believer that the idea of "one day" is the enemy of today. You know: "One day I'll write a novel. One day I'll visit Paris." The problem with that thinking is that there's rarely a perfect time in life to do anything.

I'm all for carving out opportunities, regardless of how messy things get. I have very few regrets in life, but they all have to do with things I didn't do. Even when I've screwed up, I've found I'm better off for the experience. That's why in my Carpe Diem post last month, I fantasized about my many ideas for what to do with my part-time sabbatical that begins in August.

My wide-ranging ideas were far too ambitious to fit into one year of part-time work. But how on earth could I choose? I took a step back and looked at what I'd been doing since moving to the Bay Area. From 2002 to 2005, I was immersed in art and design. Since finishing my graphic design program in December of 2005, I've been enjoying my work as a designer for my day job, but I use my free time primarily for writing and a bit of photography. I haven't done my own creatively directed art in the past five years.

That's what I'm going to do with my year: My own art projects.

No freelance work for clients; no trying to break into the professional world of book cover design; no selling photos through istock or Etsy. In other words: Nothing having to do with the business side of art. I've already got the username TheGargoyleGirl on Etsy, so if my projects evolve in the future then that's great, but that's for another time. This year is for my own creative exploration. I'll see where it takes me.

Here's the plan:

1. Keep a sketchbook. My sketchbook from school turned into a writing notebook. I want it all, so this year I'm buying a graph paper notebook for both drawing and writing.

2. Design book covers for books I love. To figure out if this is something I'd truly like to pursue, I'm going to do my own creatively directed study. I'm combining this idea with my earlier overly-ambitious idea of reading the entire John Dickson Car canon. I'll read as many of his books as I realistically can, and I'll design book covers for my favorites.

3. Step away from the computer and design by hand. The computer enables the creation of what you envision, but it can also limit what you imagine in the first place. I set up an art table in the garage last weekend, just like I'd planned to do when we moved into the house in 2009. Two years late is better than never!

4. Take art classes. I love workshops to jumpstart my creativity. Just like writing prompts have kicked off every short story I've written, art classes serve the same purpose. I've already registered for a workshop at the Richmond Art Center.

The last items below are things I would have done even without a sabbatical, and they're things I'll still do this year:

5. Step up work on my Gargoyle Girl photography. I'm nearly done sorting through my digital files, which was the easy part. It's time to dig into my box of negatives.

6. Write an experimental novel during NaNoWriMo. I'm thinking of trying out the idea I had for a steampunk mystery featuring an alchemist and her pet gargoyle.

 I think my beloved typewriter laptop skin is a sign I should give my steampunk mystery a chance.

Thank you to everyone who weighed in both online and offline after my carpe diem post in which I contemplated what to pursue!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

All Martha Needs Is One Mic

I'm not given to melancholy. The Pens have said that seeing me cry would be like seeing a unicorn.

I see a problem. I fix it. Unless my tears will drop to the ground and manifest a fairy godmother, then I don't bother crying.

But this week has been a tough one, and no, I didn't cry, but I did wallow in self-doubt and insecurity. I wondered what I do I really need to be happy?

I know what I want - I want what JK Rowling has - let's not sugar coat it. But what I need?

In a world where I already count more blessings than 99% of the world's population for having potable water, literacy, my own home, friends, health insurance, free speech, the right to vote, a job, and everything else which makes being a whiner simply inexcusable - do I really need anything?

Lo and behold, the exact week we feature the theme "One" - a song from my youth barreled back into my memory like a nicely wrapped gift from my subconscious to remind me how human I am, to remind me what it is about JK Rowling's success that really appeals to me.

I've always loved this song because it's an ode to minimalism, a cool, modern-day rehash of Thoreau, a reminder that amidst all the grenades life can throw us, we need one, simple thing.

All I need is one mic, one beat, one stage.

All I need is one cup, one page, and one pen.

All I need is one life, one try, one breath.
I'm one (wo)man.

All I need is one mic.. that's all I ever needed in this world, forget cash
All I need is one mic.. forget the cars, the jewelry
All I need is one mic.. to spread my voice to the whole world
(clean lyrics)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Power of ONE

by Lisa Hughey

I’m going to talk about something near and dear to my heart today.

The power of ONE make a difference. I’m a firm believer that every gesture, every action, every gift of our time and attention has an influence on the world.

We have a responsibility to our fellow humans, to our community, to the Universe to give our all. I think we can get caught up in our own lives and dramas and forget the world around us. It’s understandable, it’s human. I also think sometimes it’s easy to dismiss a small gesture because after all we aren’t Mother Theresa, dedicating our life to another’s cause, we’re just a poor schlub with a lot of problems and worries of our own.

But the reality is that there are many ways to make a tiny difference.

My daughter and I are involved in an organization that makes it easy for us to volunteer both our time and our money (what little we have :) ) to various causes. If you can find an organization that has meaning for you, then consider focusing your benevolent attention for one cause. But if that won’t work, you can still do plenty of small things on your own.

Below are a few quick and easy things that you can do with very little time or effort.

Consider cleaning out your closet and giving clothes you no longer wear to your local hospice, church, charity thrift shop. The clothes need to be clean with no rips, tears or stains. These organizations frequently support people right in your own neighborhood. My mother-in-law and my grandmother received hospice help in their states when I lived far away and was unable to be there. Now I donate my clothing and house goods to my local hospice knowing that I’m helping someone else’s family.

If your teenager is having a birthday party, encourage the guests to all bring a can or two of food for your local food bank. Usually if you coordinate with the food bank, you can get a donation container delivered and picked up to your location. Last year my daughter and her friend collected over 200 lbs of food for our local food bank. The number of people requesting aid from their local food banks is up incredibly in our current economic crisis and you might be surprised at some of the people who are asking for help.

Donate old books to your local library, or consider mailing them to libraries in areas struck by natural disasters. If you don’t want to part with your books, buy one book by a favorite author and send it to them. What power to give the gift of reading a beloved author to someone else.

Did you have to change the prescription on your glasses the last time you went to the eye doctor? Donate that old pair to either the Lions Club or Unite for Sight (they distribute glasses in 3rd world countries in areas where people normally don’t have access to or the ability to pay for eyeglasses). I know how good I feel every morning when I put on my glasses and can see. Imagine giving that gift to someone who has been living without ever being able to see properly.

If donations aren’t your thing, consider donating your time to a fundraiser or event. There are so many events that rely on volunteers in order to happen.

If you can, choose an organization that has meaning for you. Go to their website and find out how to become a volunteer. Some to consider: Challenger Baseball, Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, American Cancer Society Relay for Life, Concours d’Elegance (for this particular event the recipient of the charitable proceeds varies by location).

The amount of satisfaction that you will get from a few hours worth of time is immeasurable. Especially when you consider that one simple gesture can make a change for the positive in a stranger’s life.

Embrace the power of ONE!!!


Monday, June 20, 2011

One Way or Another

L.G.C. Smith

That’s an old Blondie song. Kind of stalkery. Full of attitude. Back when Blondie was new, stalking wasn’t much of an issue yet. Lots of people I knew spent large portions of their adolescence driving by the houses of people they had crushes on. I never did that myself. Of course not. Because I am perfect. I know the one true and right way to do…well, everything.

Yep. One best way. I really thought there was such a thing. Sometimes I still kind of wish there was. It would make a writing career easier. Follow steps 1-17, and presto! Instant bestsellerdom. But I’m coming around to the notion that it’s okay not to be able to master, or even identify the One True or Best Way for everything.

In honor of summer finally arriving in Northern California, and with it the first pick of Gold Dust Peaches at my sister’s Frog Hollow Farm, and in memory of my youthful devotion to finding the One Best Way to do…well, everything… here are two ways to make Peach Salsa: The one best way, and another one that works and is a lot less persnickety.

The One Best Way to Make Gold Dust Peach Salsa

This salsa tastes best with the Gold Dust variety of peach. They ripen around the middle of June, and the last ones come in around the 4th of July. Use tree-ripened fruit. Those hard green or mealy things found in so many supermarkets aren’t worth the trouble.
Makes about 8 cups

3 cups peeled Gold Dust peaches cut into ¼-inch dice
2 limes, juiced
1 cup diced white or red onion, 1/8-inch cubes
1 cup raw, peeled and diced jicama, 1/8-inch cubes
1 large poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/8-inch cubes
1 large red pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/8-inch cubes
2 mild peppers, such as Anaheims, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/8-inch cubes
1/3 cup of Serrano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/8-inch cubes
2 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh Italian parsley
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh cilantro leaves
1 Tablespoon finely minced fresh green onion tops
1 Tablespoon green onion bottoms, very finely sliced
1-2 teaspoons kosher salt (to taste)
½ teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
optional: 1 finely diced fresh Serrano chili pepper, or even a habanero, if you want more heat

Before you start, roast all the peppers on a grill, preferably over apple or cherrywood coals, until the skins char and blister all over. Put them in a bowl and cover them with a kitchen towel so that they’ll steam a bit. You can do this a day ahead. When they’re cool, peel, seed, and cut the flesh into 1/8-inch dice.

Juice the limes and put the juice in a large bowl. If the limes are on the dry side, use more. If you like lots of lime, add more.

Peel the ripe peaches, which should be soft, with a paring knife. Don’t do that thing with dropping them into boiling water for a few seconds. If they’re truly ripe, you can peel them easily without that, and you don’t want them heated at all. It diminishes the fragrance and flavor. Remove the pit, slice, and then dice into ¼-inch cubes. Put the peaches (and as much of the juice as you can capture) in the lime juice as soon as they’re cut. This will keep them from turning brown.

Peel the onion and cut into 1/8-inch dice. Place the dice in a fine mesh strainer and pour boiling water over the onions for 30 seconds to a minute. Drain well. Spread out on paper towel and let cool. Blot out any extra water. Add to the peaches and lime juice.

Add all the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly without mashing the peaches. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve at room temperature with chips or on burgers. Leftovers will keep in a tightly covered jar in the refrigerator for three or four days.

Another Way: Everyday Peach Salsa

Scrounge whatever ripe peaches can be found. Any variety. Over-ripe. Bruised. Farmers’ market rejects. Whatever. They just have to be ripe. Use four. Maybe five. Or six. Depends on the size and how many you have. Grab a couple of meyer lemons off the tree, or limes, if there are any kicking around. Wash and juice lemons or limes. Wash, peel and cut off bruises from the peaches, and dice them up small. Toss them in the citrus juice. If you don’t have enough citrus, use rice vinegar. Or sherry vinegar. Or champagne vinegar. Not balsamic as the color will stain the peaches, but otherwise, whatever you have in the acid department will work. Wash and dice a raw, unpeeled red pepper, or a poblano, or both. Add a hot pepper if you like that. A little chopped parsley, chopped cilantro, minced garlic, fresh cracked black pepper and kosher salt. Onion if you feel like it. Raw, blanched, any color, doesn’t matter. Jicama if you have it. No worries if you don’t. It’s still good.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why Many Is Better Than One

In his book Situatedness: Or, Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (2002), David Simpson talks about our cultural obsession with identifying ourselves as "azzas." Simpson's own interest in this idea developed through experiences on book tours, when member of his audience would inevitably ask questions that began with "as a": as in "as a Scottish libertarian," or, "as a working-class socialist" (50). In Sullivan’s definition, "Azzas believe that all reason gives way at the stoplight of personal experience. They hold that argument is never anything more than the rationalization of personal experience, and that the most marginal of personal experiences is always the most authentic" (50). Simpson calls "azza" simply "a way of establishing one’s credentials as authoritatively and efficiently as possible."

Ever since I first came across this term, I've been obsessed with the idea of "azzas." While Sullivan holds "azzas" at arms length, not identifying himself with those he studies, I would argue that our culture has long since accepted, even embraced, the "azza." I do it myself, all the time. And because I listen for it, I hear it often, from all echelons of our culture. After all, it's so much easier to make ourselves understood when our audience has some context for us and our beliefs.

Indeed, I disagree with Simpson's implication that "azza" always has to be about declaring some sort of authority over a subject, or one-upping your intended audience. I think an "azza" statement is just as often made to be helpful, or to create a connection, or simply to help define ourselves to strangers.

Which brings me to my ultimate point, which is don't be a single "azza." Now what do I mean by that?

Due to circumstances of career, ambition, and certain phobias regarding commitment, I've done a lot of things by myself. I went to college by myself, in a far away city where I had no connections. I went to Spain by myself. I went to grad school in Britain by myself. I moved to Louisiana and now to Pennsylvania by myself. I've spent a lot of time alone and I've spent a lot of time making awesome friends and I've spent a lot of time leaving those friends and having to start over.

Not that I don't bitch about being lonely. I call my friends and I say, "OMG I'm boooored. OMG I'm going to visit. OMG I want to move."

They listen patiently, and then they tell me what I need to hear: "Everyone needs to pay their dues, and you're one of the happiest people I know. So go read a book or something."

The first part of that sentence is simply a hard fact of life, but the second part always secretly pleases me. The fact is, I am--as far as people can be, and understanding that the nature of "happiness" is a contentious subject--pretty damned happy. And I'm going to tell you my secret.

I refuse to be a single "azza." I've always been leery of joining things: I never wanted to be the president of anything, or really identify myself with things. I was a big theater geek in high school, but then I didn't even try out for our big Senior musical because I just wasn't feeling it anymore. I always liked stuff, and was passionate about stuff, but I never let it define me. I don't think this compulsion, mind you, is entirely based on positive aspects of my personality. I'm sure that a lot of it can be put down to my sheer cussedness, the fact I'm more than a bit weird, and that little commitment-phobia I mentioned earlier.

In the long run, however, a more balanced version of this orneriness has served me well. It's not that I never commit to things, and it's not that I'm not passionate--in fact, it's the complete opposite. I throw myself into everything I do with gusto, and I do things thoroughly and I always try to find enjoyment in them.

What I'm careful never to do, however, is just one thing.

For example, I love being an author. If I were never to write another word, I'd be really gutted. But I'd still have my teaching, and my family, and my traveling, and my friends, and my cooking, and I've always wanted to take up knitting, and I'm currently obsessed with running and zumba, and I really, really want to try swing dancing . . .

I refuse to be defined by anything I do, even the cool things. I'm not just an author. I'm not just a professor. I'm not just a woman. I'm not just from Illinois. I'm not just a closet expatriate forced to live in the middle of America. I'm not just any one thing.

It's probably the age I'm at--right at the beginning of my 30s--but I'm seeing a lot of fall out in the lives of friends and acquaintances who did invest in one idea of themselves, and are now struggling to find meaning in their lives as those investments either fall apart or don't pan out. They're struggling to figure out how to be more than a spouse, once the marriage failed. Or how to accept the idea that their job is just a job. Or how to be more than a parent now that the kids only want them for their car keys. Or how to age gracefully when they were always the Beautiful Youth.

The fact is, all of us will fall. We will fail. We will leave things we thought we loved and be left by those we still do love. We will age and sag. Knees will give out, as will interest, desire, and will.

These losses will leave holes in our lives and in our hearts. But the trick is not to build our lives on any one foundation. Love many things, live for many things, and be open to finding new passions.

We can always take up knitting, and Rachael can teach us. ;-)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

There Can Be Only...Ah Forget It

A couple of years ago when the eight of us were coming up with the idea for this blog, one of the first things we agreed upon was that there would be no hard and fast rules. What ever you wanted to put up, you could put up. If something was weighing on your mind and it didn't happen to fit neatly into that week's topic, go right ahead. Or let's say 12 am on your scheduled day rolled and you were too exhausted by work and family obligations to muster up a post that was as witty and charming and insightful as you've come expect from the Pens Fatales brand, well, then you could take a pass.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is that post.

So instead allow me to offer you this entertaining clip from the guys at RiffTrax (or the old Mystery Science Theater guys, as I will always think of them) as they tear apart The Highlander.

There Can Be Only One!

See, I knew I could shoehorn the topic in there somehow.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

In Defense of Single-Tasking

By Juliet

Do you all remember this scene, from the famous Zen-inspired film, City Slickers?

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No, what?

Curly: This. [holds up one finger]

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don't mean shit.

Mitch: But what is the "one thing"?

Curly: [smiles] That's what you've got to figure out.

I found it out: I quit multi-tasking.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. I’m working on quitting multi-tasking. But I keep getting distracted.

And I'm not trying to single-task in every aspect of my life – after all, it’s wonderful to chat with friends while cooking, or listen to the news or books on tape while washing dishes. I’m a whiz at combining dreaded household chores and I can get a heck of a lot of paperwork done while watching an old movie.

But the other day I was speaking to a friend on the phone and I caught myself checking email at the same time. I cannot listen to someone while I'm reading. I lost part of what she was saying... and she was saying important things.

When I was a kid phones were plugged into the wall and you had to sit your butt down and really give the person on the other end of the line your full attention. I know that such nostalgic reminiscences are silly, and I’m not saying I never water the plants or hang laundry on the line while speaking on the phone -- but there’s a lesson in there somewhere. What my friend was saying deserved my attention, my focus, my single-mind.

We're all forced to juggle in this modern life, but very once in a while we might want to hold on to a single ball.
And hold that ball with a lot of style, needless to say.

This is certainly true for writing. Do one thing, the most important thing: WRITE.

Don't talk to anybody. Log off of Facebook. Turn off the phone. For the love of all that is holy, do NOT check email. Focus on your writing, be one with your writing. Single-task for some period of time, even if it's only ten minutes. There’s a beauty to single-mindedness: You get shit done, and done well.
At its core, Curly's Law is about choosing. Choosing to do Just One Thing means you won't be doing lots of other things. Making choices is difficult in our lives, and no less so in our writing. In fact, choosing what to focus on -- line-by-line, scene-by-scene, chapter-by-chapter-- is arguably one of the most difficult skills to hone as a writer.

In fact, a lot of well-known authors suffer from their own success in this regard: they are no longer edited with fervor, and their work suffers because of it. They aren’t forced to make hard choices. (So when I'm wildly successful you'll all remind me that I love to get edited, right?)

Just do one thing, and at the risk of sounding very…Berkeley…be fully present. Be mindful. Full of mind. (See? Very Zen indeed.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rachael's One

One is the first, and therefore, automatically, it's the most exciting.

1. My first kiss. Mine was while sitting on a floor of a Bakersfield family room. I'd travelled from the coast by Greyhound (I was sixteen! What was my mother thinking?) to visit a young man of whom I'd become enamored while, yes, at Bible camp (um, maybe that's what my mother was thinking). I'd just turned sixteen, and I was terrified I'd remain Sweet Sixteen and Never Been Kissed until I was seventeen, with no way to go back in time to fix it, a perpetual John Hughes joke. I can't remember the boy's name (isn't that awful?) but he was 6'6" and very blond. I had to crane my neck when I imagined kissing him. That night, we sat on the floor across from each other (probably because we'd thought we be able to reach each other's lips), and I remember scooting closer and closer, until our mouths finally met. And I thought, Wow. Is this all there is?

2. My first boombox. We lived overseas on the tiny island of Saipan (random fact: I'm one of three Pens who've been there!) when I was a teenager, and I wanted one thing more than anything else in my life--a boombox so I could play the bootleg tapes we bought at the Chinese store in Garapan. I had a whole collection: Tears for Fears, Madonna, A-ha! But I didn't have anything to play them on except my best friend Tammy's boombox, and I dreamed of the time I could have my very own. After I saved up the money and ordered one from the mainland, I drew a picture of the exact boombox I'd ordered to scale and set the drawing next to my bed to pass the two months I waited for it to arrive. The songs I imagined it playing were better than any of the actual songs I ended up using it for.

3. My first apartment. It was tiny, barely 300 square feet, $350 a month. I had one fire, many gas leaks, marching tarantulas, and creeping mold, but I loved that place. Everything in the fridge was mine. It was built hanging off the back of a garage, completely illegal, and the teeny bedroom was on stilts, but I loved the forest of eucalyptus that grew on all three side of the room. I felt as if I lived in a tree house. But I outgrew it, even though I didn't want to, and moved to a larger place in a better location. Le sigh.

4. My first book. That was the best. Nothing took away from it. Nothing detracted from seeing that ARC for the first time. This was one of the best moments of my life.

Firsts are great. But I will propose this: after one, I quite like two and three. And four and five and eleven and 127 and 1252. They aren't like the first one. The other night I came home from work to find my third book's early copies had arrived. I didn't wait for Lala to get home, I just let the dogs out, fed the cats, and opened the package. Then I set a copy on the dining room table for her to see when she got home.

It was not as exciting as the first one. But the joy of accomplishment (it isn't a fluke!) might be even deeper.

I've gotten better at kissing, too.

Monday, June 13, 2011

At The Heart Of It - One Lone Writer

by Sophie


It's become a big part of my outlook to think of the books I write as being the result of teamwork. From the evolution of the idea through the mad pile-on of the first draft, through editing for clarity and later editing for language, to the back-and-forth with the editor to tweak and re-shape, all the way through promoting and marketing, there is no single step that I do without the support, encouragement, and participation of others.

It all starts here, with my friends. A week does not go by that I don't see at least one of the Pens, and I truly mean it when I say I could not have finished any of my books - and that's going back almost 15 years, people - without them.

Then there's my agent, editors, publicists, and the army of people at the publisher, legions whom I'm only now getting a sense of. Authors often moan about the job done by individual members of the pipeline, but the truth is that I don't know how to do any of these jobs and I rely on each to contribute their piece: a compelling cover, streamlined marketing copy, subject matter that will appeal without offending, and so on.

All of this is fine with me. Working this way makes sense to me - my books are much better for the many hands that touch them along the way. I don't understand these authors who freak if someone touches their prose. None of us is that good. NONE OF US IS THAT GOOD - I repeated it for emphasis, because I believe that when we begin to have outsized views of our own abilities, we become brittle and our work suffers.


In the writing day, when I am inching forward with the story, I am alone. Searingly, achingly, echoingly alone. There is only room for one person in the cramped toll booth that is the story place; we stew with our thoughts and our dreams and our darkness and our flashes of brilliance, and we dab and shape and mold, creating the homely thing that is the foundation for the work we eventually hope to create.

I can do this in the company of others - I love to, in fact; in coffee shops or bars with a friend - but make no mistake: the process itself is solitary, no matter how much gossiping I do before, whining I do during, and drinking I do after.

This is, perhaps, the best possible world for the introvert at the heart of most writers. We have to create without the melody of other voices. Later, when the unfurling is done, we can - gladly, full of hope and intent - join the others, find our place at the table.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gigi's Meeting with MacGyver

By Gigi

When I was twenty years old, I experienced the most thrilling celebrity encounter I knew I'd ever have. I met Richard Dean Anderson -- MacGyver himself -- and personally handed him a copy of the MacGyver movie I filmed at age seventeen.

I wrote about the details of the movie itself here, a project I wrote, directed, and starred in with my best friend one summer during high school. We were so sad that our favorite TV show was ending, so for a summer project we put our high school theater tools to good use and made a continuation of the series ourselves, set in the mountains outside of Los Angeles and full of MacGyver-isms.

 Yup, that's our MacGyver Movie, "The Rescue of Mac and Sam," in his hand.

Here's the interesting thing about that experience: Once I gave MacGyver -- er, Richard Dean Anderson -- that VHS tape with my homemade cover, my childhood desire to meet celebrities was over.

Growing up outside of Los Angeles, I had plenty of opportunities as a teenager to attend concerts, music video shoots, Jay Leno episode tapings, etc. It was interesting at the time, and I do think it's cool that I've had my photo taken with my favorite rock stars -- which, to be fair, is much easier to do when your favorite bands are the not-quite-superstars Toad the Wet Sprocket and Teenage Fanclub -- but once I gave my movie to the man I thought of as MacGyver, my childhood hero, what else did I need?

As it turned out, not a whole lot. I never even learned if Richard Dean Anderson watched our little movie (he was wonderfully gracious when he accepted it) but it wasn't really about him; it was about me and my friend doing something meaningful for us. I continued to be enamored with writing screenplays, but I lost my fascination with celebrities. Sure, I'm still going to click on The Daily Dish on the San Francisco Chronicle website, but I was done standing in line to meet someone famous.

At least, I thought I was over it. Fast forward a dozen years, when I started attending mystery writer's conferences. At a convention last year, I saw Aaron Elkins on the attendee list. If you're not familiar with Aaron Elkins, he writes an amazing forensic anthropology mystery series featuring "skeleton detective" Gideon Oliver. I love these books. I've loved them since I was a kid. I knew that if I met Aaron Elkins at the convention, I would completely freak out.

It turned out he had to cancel, so I never learned if I would have freaked out in his presence or not. When I thought about my reaction to this near-encounter with a minor celebrity, I realized there were a few more authors who I'd probably become either speechless or a babbling idiot in front of -- and they're all writers who made a great impact on me when I was a kid.

I've discovered some great authors as an adult, as well, but I don't have the same gut reaction when I think of them. They're people who write amazing books, who I'd be happy to meet and tell them how much I love their books, but I doubt I'd be tongue-tied around them.

Is there something magical about the celebrities we latch onto as we're growing into ourselves? Whatever it is, I hope you'll forgive me if you run into me at a mystery writer's convention and I'm a babbling idiot because I've just spotted Aaron Elkins.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Martha's Celebrity Matchup

Years back, my husband and I were on vacation in New York City. We were strolling down some famous shopping street in Manhattan. We were likely either on our way from or our way to Serendipity 3 for the Frrrozen Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate as I insisted on enjoying it every day of our trip, sometimes twice a day.

I looked up and saw the cutest puppy. I grabbed my husband's arm. "Oh my god!! Did you see?" I expected him to make fun of me for pointing out a ball of fluff. He's into sleek race dogs who double my height on hind feet. But instead he squealed right back, "Yes! I know!"

I asked if we could get a dog like that and his forehead furrowed. What dog, he asked. That dog we just fawned over, I said. He didn't know what I was talking about - he'd been fawning over the dog's human attachment - celebrity designer Isaac Mizrahi.

Mizrahi vs Dog
Winner: Dog
Runner up: Husband...for Out-Pop-Culturing Me

And so goes most Celebrity vs Random Non Celebrity Item matchup for me.

Canoodling with Jon Hamm post comedy show or dinner with friends?

Checking out James Franco at his mom's local theater production or, um yeah, dinner with friends?

Chatting up Aziz Ansari about how much I loved his set or gelato?
(Although for the record that was one of the funniest live comedy shows I've seen ever hands down ever ever ever ever ever and if his cousin who is the subject of his comedy was there I would have stayed to hang out with him no problem.)

I love pop culture celebrity. I encourage it. I buy celebrity magazines and follow the gossip and watch award shows and remember senseless things about who is dating who and am enthralled by celebrity social networking battles but for me, it's just another show. In the distance.

I think it's because as much as I love singers, I don't want to be a singer. As much as I love movies, I hate the idea of acting. As much as I love comedy, I don't want to be funny on stage.

Show me a talented writer, though, and that's a different story.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

the negative side of celebrity

Topically, Anthony Wiener (the politician) is in the news. So many thoughts bombard my brain on an almost ten minute interval that it is impossible to convey. are my completely random ramblings.

It's fascinating to me that as authors, trying to find a common audience in readers, we can troll over into the how and why of engaging a reader and how to find our audience.

Originally I was going to talk about how as a writer, I have had moments of complete weird fan girl weirdness, and have gushed embarrassingly at wonderful, amazing writers. But, sadly, it's already been done. Yes, I have appropriately, and inappropriately, fawned over NYT and pre-NYT best sellers (of course I have absolutely predicted that they would be NYT best-sellers before that happens--because they are in my mind - AMAZING!!)

As authors we instinctively know (or a good friend informs me that we have somehow inadvertently passed) the bounds of good behaviour. And then we are unassailably embarrassed. However, the reality is that writing that touches our heart...whether beautifully enscribed or rawly penned, is the source of our richly earned fountain of emotions. All we can hope is that we have justly and accurately portrayed those emotions. And that our words eloquently and justly evoke our readers. As a writer, my goal is to provoke readers to think and react beyond a level of compassion that they have exhibited before. If I accomplish this goal then I as a human being and as a writer, have made the world a better place.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Celebrity Nullification Factor

L.G.C. Smith

I don’t know any celebrities. I told my sister Sarah what our topic is this week, and that everyone else in the world either knows or has met interesting celebrities, or has meaningful thoughts related to the topic of celebrity, while I have nothing. She laughed.

Now my sister does know, meet and deal with celebrities of all sorts, including Hollywood A-listers, rock stars, billionaires, politicians, and even royalty in the running of her famous organic farm. But I don’t know them. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin never walked into my shop. Bill Clinton didn’t eat one of my peaches out of hand at Chez Panisse. Well, I know Al, my sister said. Sure, but Al, her business partner and ex-husband, doesn’t count, no matter how many times he’s been referred to as a celebrity farmer. I mean, come on. Seriously?

What about Alice Waters, Sarah asked. Okay. I have met Alice Waters. So that’s one. But she’s a foodie celebrity. That doesn’t count.

Sarah arches an eyebrow at me. And what about all those NYT bestselling authors I know?

Well, there aren’t that many of those. They're professional relationships. Except for the ones who are friends, and they don’t count.

She snorts. Just because I know someone that doesn’t disqualify them as a celebrity.

Actually, yes, it does. Because I possess the Celebrity Nullification Factor.

My sister forgot about that. She shouldn’t have. I got it from our mother.

Here’s how it works: I am five years old. I am wildly jealous that Darilyn from across the street has pretend high heels. This catapults her to the pinnacle of neighborhood super-stardom. I beg my mother for high heels like Darilyn’s.

What do you want those for, my mother asks with disgust. They’re cheap. They’ll break in two minutes. You’ll just fall in them.

The shoes are beautiful. They sparkle. They are crystalline plastic flecked with pink and purple. I will take good care of them. They will never break. I will never fall. I want to be a star like Darilyn.

Why? My mother demands. If I get them for you, your sisters will want them. They’re too little, but they’ll cry and scream and probably take yours and ruin them. Do I want to suffer that horrible fate? Wouldn’t I rather go to the zoo?

Well, now that Mom mentions it, yes, I would. Watching the giraffes eat peanuts with their long purple tongues is tempting. And my siblings can’t ruin that. Mom knows when to press. It’s up to you, she says.

It also works like this: I am nine years old and have been exiled to a stinking tropical island in the Western Pacific. We don’t get any good TV. We get The Rosary Hour. All of us Protestant kids learn the Hail Mary by heart. But we do get Tiger Beat magazine at the PX. We brought our Monkees records from the States with us. We LOVE the Monkees! But the Monkees will never play a concert on Guam. The only famous person who visits Guam that year is President Nixon. I did see him drive by in the motorcade. He was more wrinkled than in pictures. WE WANT THE MONKEES!

My mother argues that the Monkees are just regular people. They aren’t that special. Yes, they’re cute. Lots of people are cute. Look at all the cute people we know! If we want live entertainment, we’ll go see my friend Blanche’s mother’s Polynesian Dance Troupe. Music! Dancing! Fire! Yes, the Monkees are famous. That doesn’t mean anything. They could just as easily be famous the way Charles Manson is famous. Fame doesn’t make anyone a good person. If we focus on being good people and being good friends, we’ll be happier than we would be if we went to a Monkees concert. Just you wait, she said. You’ll see.

Or it works like this: My grandparents—my DAD’S parents--went to Hawaii to visit my aunt while my uncle was stationed there, and they went to all these special places and they got to meet DON HO and JACK LORD. This is all they talk about for the two years after we got back from Guam (where the only famous person we saw was our creepy president). I love the story about how Don Ho kissed my grandma on the cheek. My grandma loves this story. Her eyes crinkle up every time she tells it. She glows when she tells how her daughter set it up, how she was bold enough to approach a celebrity because she knew it would make her mother happy.

Later, my mother and her sisters express deep horror at the prospect of having been singled out at a club or concert or whatever it was. It would be so embarrassing. Plus, those poor celebrities, never able to have a moment’s peace. How would we like it if strangers were constantly barraging us with requests for photos and autographs? Or kisses! Yuck. Leave them alone, for heaven’s sake. It’s only decent.

After the steady application of these lessons over a period of many years, I gradually made the Celebrity Nullification Factor my own. There is no celebrity too lofty to make me stare. Not that I would recognize one anyway, being so busy minding my own virtuous business. Any of you celebrities out there who feel the need to feel like regular folks (there’s such a glut of that), just swing by my place. If I know you, you can’t possibly be a celebrity.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pens About Town

Yesterday, Juliet and Gigi were featured at the NorCal chapter of SistersInCrime's spring showcase. Fans gathered at M is For Mystery in San Mateo to hear our gals read their latest masterpieces. Gigi read from her story "The Shadow of the River," featured in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology. Juliet read from Hexes and Hemlines, the latest in her witchcraft mystery series, out Tuesday!

Gigi, being riveting

Somebody was a little crankypants about having her picture taken

Gigi with authors Pat Morin and Michelle Gagnon

Juliet charming the crowd

Friday, June 3, 2011

On V.S. Naipaul: or How To Cope When A Celebrity Behaves Like A Twat

Yesterday, the Nobel Prize winning author, V. S. Naipaul, said a lot of very stupid things about women writers. As an English professor, as a woman, and as an author, these comments obviously pissed me off. I ranted a bit about them on Twitter, and they helped set the tone for what was a really bizarre day for me, yesterday.

That said, one of the things that bothered me was seeing tweets, Facebook comments, and online commentary in which people expressed the idea that they will either no longer read Naipaul, or that they will refuse to start reading him. In other words, they've dismissed him as a writer because, when it comes to women, he's a first rate twat.

And yet, he's also a celebrity--and not just a celebrity, but a celebrated intellectual, a Nobel laureate, even a knight! How can he get something so utterly wrong, and be right about anything else? And does that mean he's not worthy of anything he's won?

The fact is that really, really intelligent people can have enormous blind spots. They can be awesomely intelligent in many, many realms--but be ludicrously stupid when it comes to particular issues. Naipaul is a great example of this sort of shortfall: before he harangued women, he'd made offensive comments about Africans, various former colonies, former-colonials in general, and the overweight, to name but a few.

So what do we do with our celebrities, especially our intellectual celebrities, when they reveal their hidden depths of twatocity? Do we throw out the baby, the bathwater, the tub, the water, and the rubber duckie?

My problem with this stance can best be summarized in two points, which I think are mutualistic of one another.

First of all, Naipaul isn't saying anything that I don't hear, all the time, as a female writer and reader. Men and women constantly ask me, "Would a man enjoy your books, or are they just for women?" Think about everything that statement implies, people. Have you ever asked the ticket booth person at the movie theater, "Will a woman enjoy this action film?" And yet, in discussing Naipaul on Facebook, a very funny male writer friend of mine talked about how, upon buying tickets to a movie for him and his wife, the boy behind the cash register warned, "You know this is a chick flick, right?" On the other side of the cultural spectrum from the spotty teenager, meanwhile, Brett Easton Ellis warns that "women can't direct," as they lack "the male gaze."

In other words, across the cultural spectrum, women are dismissed every day as artists. We write "books for women" and enjoy "chick-flicks," and it's our own brothers, husbands, sons, friends, neighbors, and/or colleagues who are doing the dismissing. We even do it ourselves! I've heard myself saying, "Yes, it's written by a woman, but I think you'll like it," or, "I hate chick-flicks." I think I'm being either helpful or honest, but what I'm really doing is pandering to cultural stereotypes about the efficacy of female art (which such usages suggest is specific) in comparison to male art (which such usages suggest is universal).

So Naipaul isn't alone, and--at least to me, as a woman--he's not the scariest shark in the waters. Give me a hundred Ivory Tower academics making vaguely feudal pronouncements over the spate of active politicians in office, people with actual power, currently trying to strip away women's reproductive health rights or redefine rape.

Secondly, I think the stance of refusing to read Naipaul because we disagree with his personal politics means we cut off any insights we might gain into his character, empathy for why he's gone on such a silly path, and any understanding of how his particular prejudices are part and parcel of why he's considered a genius. We're never going to understand prejudices, be they racial, religious, or gender-based, unless we engage with those who embrace them. Nor are we going to understand how people benefit from having such prejudices in our society, unless we explore their thinking and how their thinking fits into the world they live in. Think about it: Naipaul has been given the greatest awards a man can win in Western society. Instead of assuming he's won them despite his politics, I think we're better off assuming he's won them because of his politics.

We need to understand how those politics work, if we're to combat them. And boy, are we living in a day and age where women have a shocking amount to combat.

Don't get me wrong: I can understand not wanting to financially support Naipaul. To be honest, I'm probably not going to put him on a syllabus, or buy his own work myself. That doesn't mean, however, that it's not available in libraries or on the shelves of friends.

Furthermore, as women and as rational thinkers, I think we owe it to ourselves not only to understand the enemy, but understand why that enemy is considered a genius, and how that "genius" is intertwined with his plethora of prejudices. For, while I wish Naipaul was just a kooky writer living in antiquity, as some have dismissed him to be, I think he's very much of his time. And while we've come so far, ladies, we can't assume we get to rest on our laurels.

Not least because those laurels keep getting given to men like V. S. Naipaul.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

For The Love Of Shatner

--Adrienne Miller
Unlike Juliet, I’ve never been hit on by a celebrity, nobel prize winner or not. The closest I’ve gotten to greatness is when I passed the guy who played Owen on Torchwood in Disneyland. I wasn’t quick enough with the camera so, yeah, I understand that, according to the laws of the internet, it didn’t officially happen.

That wasn’t the only time I’ve been in the presence of a celebrity though. There was the time my mom and I went to a Star Trek Convention. Yeah, I’ll give you a second to stop and soak in the geektastic nature of that sentence. My mom and I went to a Star Trek convention...and it was awesome.
Of course, it was only fitting as my mom was the one to introduce me to Star Trek. Starting when I was very young, she and I would snuggle up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and watch the classic series. Maybe it was the bright colors of the uniforms, or maybe I was just born a sucker for stories of good triumphing over evil, but I was hooked. 
But even with our love for all the of the series (except for Deep Space Nine) we aren’t really hard core fans. I don’t own a Starfleet uniform. My mom doesn’t have scale model of the bridge set up in her spare room. And neither one of us speaks a lick of Klingon. Even so, a few years back, when I heard about a Star Trek convention coming to a nearby city, I just knew we had to go. The kicker: Shatner and Nimoy would be there. Together. 
And I love me some Shatner. Young Shatner. Old Shatner. Doesn’t matter. The man is a combination of pure charm, hypnotic overacting and unapologetic self awareness all rolled up into a bundle of pure awesomeness. There was no way I was missing out on that.
"One of the advantages of being a Captain is being able to ask for advice without necessarily having to take it."

The convention was every bit as awesome as I had hoped. Row upon row of vendor tables hawking every tacky little bit of merchandise that a geek girl like me could ask for. I even got to see my mom swoon a little when she met the guy from 2001: A Space Odyssey, though she denies to this day that she did.
Then it was time. We pushed our way into the crowded ballroom to watch Shatner and Nimoy speak. We clapped at the pre-show clips. We cheered when they came on stage. Then they started talking...and were dead boring. I don’t mean a little yawn worthy. I’m talking bor-ing. Two old friends up on a stage talking about nothing in particular. Awesome if you were one of the two friends, but if you happened to be one of the other several hundred people in the room you were left feeling, well, more than a little out of the loop. 
Fifteen minutes into it my mom turned to me and says, “Do you want to go?” I nodded, and we walked out of the room and away from the very thing we had driven two hours to see. 
Over a consolatory corn dog, we figured it wasn’t their fault.  Nothing wrong with them. No, we were the idiots who had driven all that way expecting to see Kirk and Spock instead of two regular guys filling time on an empty stage. They’re actors who are best when scripted, not court jesters performing on demand. My mistake. 
We made our way home a little disappointed. But I have to say, the disillusionment that one of my favorite celebrities was nothing more than mere human like everybody else didn’t diminish my love for William Shatner. 

How could it?

**Update**- My mom just texted me to say that the actor's name was Gary Lockwood, and she most certainly did not swoon. (She totally did)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hanging out with Octavio Paz

by Juliet

"Merece lo que sueñas."
(deserve what you dream)
— Octavio Paz Libertad Bajo Palabra

I did a stint as a faculty wife.

Not just a faculty wife, mind you, but in Princeton, New Jersey. We moved there when my husband won a position as Full Professor, the pinnacle of many a hard-fought academic battle. He was over the moon, but for me the town seemed like the set of a Hollywood movie, complete with shady streets and a town square ringed with quaint stores…but ultimately empty, unreal, a hollow shell. Princeton was small town life meets old-money snobbery, both of which I was unfamiliar with and never quite figured out.

Suffice it to say: this California girl just didn’t fit in.
This is what I was *supposed* to look like. I didn't.

But one thing I’ll say for the place: I met a lot of superstars. Princeton is home not only to the university (with some great gargoyles, *nods to Gigi*) but also the Theological Institute and the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Einstein hung out). Add to this the Ivy League sheen of the Princeton name plus a short fifty- minute train ride from NYC’s Penn station, and you get a LOT of really interesting people passing through.

Just a few of the celebrities I met, some of whom I actually drank with late into the night: Cornel West, Cindy Crawford, Henry (Skip) Gates, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, Brooke Shields, David Duchovny, Richard Gere. And a whole slew of Nobel Laureates.

It’s stunning to be strolling along Nassau Square on a sweaty NJ summer afternoon, licking ice cream drips from your arm, and look up to see you’re about to walk into Maya Angelou. She was just as gracious and comforting and…otherworldly…as one might imagine

But my biggest celebrity moment, hands down, was when I attended a university cocktail party for Octavio Paz. For those of you who don’t know him (Gah! You should know this man!!!) Paz was a prolific writer, poet, and political activist from Mexico. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990.

Besides writing amazing poetry and culture-shifting essays, he worked as an international diplomat, spoke out against governmental atrocities, helped define the Mexican cultural character and weighed in on politics and art, saying smart things like:

"I don't believe that there are dangerous writers: the danger of certain books is not in the books themselves but in the passions of their readers."

“Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life"

Paz is a cultural hero to most Mexicans, akin to mixing Clark Gable with Martin Luther King, and then tying up that package with some blingy rock-star awesomeness. Mexico loves its poets. Octavio Paz

So my husband and I walk into the cocktail party – me, no doubt, inappropriately dressed (did I mention how I never managed to fit in, exactly?) As always when socializing at P'ton, I was mentally girded for battle. The university was the kind of place where one might wander about in beautiful rooms, studying the art on the walls (in order to avoid awkward conversation) and realize you were looking at a framed Bill of Sale for a human being. A receipt for a slave auction. Things like that threw me. Everyone else always seemed unfazed. I never did get used to it.

Anyway, we walk in and I see a very short, very old man surrounded by a clutch of fawning admirers. My husband goes to get us each a glass of wine while I try to blend in with the wallpaper.

The little old man’s gaze meets mine. He smiles. I smile back. He leaves the throng and comes to stand next to me.

And then he starts coming on to me. I kid you not. The man was fifty years my senior, and several inches shorter, but no matter. He was charming and courteous in that gentlemanly, old-school Mexican way. He said he was bored talking about himself, he’d been doing it all his life. He wanted to know about me and my life. He told jokes, slung compliments, made astute, witty observations about the star-struck folks at the party (he wasn't the only celeb in attendance.)

We laugh. Then I look up to see my husband approaching. My (now-ex) husband was a hard-scrabble, ambitious Mexican immigrant, often possessive and jealous.
I braced myself. Would he make a scene? Though my husband was happier than I was in Princeton, he didn’t pick up on subtle social cues like I did. At the end of the day, despite his brains and education, he had been raised in a poor, working class, immigrant home. And now he saw exactly what was going on: that Octavio Paz, the author of the famous, groundbreaking study of Mexican identity, Labyrinth of Solitude, was making a play for his wife.

If a person were to make a scene at Princeton, publicly embarrassing a distinguished world-class author like Octavio Paz, a person could do some serious damage to his university career.

But my husband simply handed me my glass of wine, shook hands with Paz, told him what an honor it was to meet him…and then walked away. When I caught his eye from across the room, he quite literally threw up his hands.

Apparently, if Octavio Paz wanted me, he could have me.

Later, on the way home (no, I did not *sleep* with Octavio Paz. Get your minds out of the gutter, people!), my husband told me there was no going up against a cultural icon like Paz.

And since I can’t leave this essay without a taste of Paz, here’s one of my favorites:

A través

Doblo la página del día,
escribo lo que me dicta
el movimiento de tus pestañas.

Mis manos
abren las cortinas de tu ser
te visten con otra desnudez
descubren los cuerpos de tu cuerpo
Mis manos
inventan otro cuerpo a tu cuerpo.

Entro en ti,
veracidad de la tiniebla.
Quiero las evidencias de lo oscuro,
beber el vino negro:
toma mis ojos y reviéntalos.

Una gota de noche
sobre la punta de tus senos:
enigmas del clavel.

Al cerrar los ojos
los abro dentro de tus ojos.

En su lecho granate
siempre está despierta
y húmeda tu lengua.

Hay fuentes
en el jardín de tus arterias.

Con una máscara de sangre
atravieso tu pensamiento en blanco:
desmemoria me guía
hacia el reverso de la vida.


I turn the page of the day,
writing what I'm told
by the motion of your eyelashes.

I enter you,
the truthfulness of the dark.
I want proofs of darkness, want
to drink the black wine:
take my eyes and crush them.

A drop of night
on your breast's tip:
mysteries of the carnation.

Closing my eyes
I open them inside your eyes.

Always awake
on its garnet bed:
your wet tongue.

There are fountains
in the garden of your veins.

With a mask of blood
I cross your thoughts blankly:
amnesia guides me
to the other side of life.