Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Inner Worlds, Outer Worlds

A must-see. This is just the first part, but the rest is available on Youtube or on Gaiamtv.com.

Friday, December 19, 2014


8. Is there any part of this book that was most enjoyable to write? Or least fun? 

Well, I already talked about the challenges that presented themselves, so that would be the least "fun"--and that applies throughout. As for most enjoyable, that's hard to say. Since the subject interests me, it was all enjoyable. I suppose if I had to pick a scene, it would be, oddly enough, the crucifixion chapter. Not because that was "enjoyable" to write in the sense of fun and exciting, but enjoyable in the sense that researching and writing it taught me a lot. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die, and the Romans had extending a person's suffering down to art form. Yet here is a man who chose to die in this way because he believed he was doing the will of God.

It raises so many questions for Joseph, who was almost four years old at the time, so he remembers the event although his parents did not let him witness it. He has, since then, however, and as an adult witnessed his fair share of crucifixions. So he's able to describe in detail what happened. And he still can't quite be sure why Jesus' death in this way had been necessary, beyond fulfilling prophecy. He understands the importance of the spiritual Resurrection, but a suffering death like that: why would God require it?

He finds an answer or two, but I don't want to spoil the book for readers. I'll just say it doesn't really have to do with Jesus being a literal sacrifice to God to atone for our sins. To repeat Jesus' words: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He's quoting the prophet Hosea and trying to get us to see God in a different way.

9. How about a couple of easy questions? What are you, personally, reading nowadays?

Well, it's smack in the middle of finals week right now, so mostly I'm just reading student papers! But I've loaded up my Kindle for the break. I've got Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, Dolores Cannon's The Three Waves of Volunteers and the New Earth, and Gag by Melissa Unger. I've already started Michael Tobert's Cryptogram because I just love the Cathars. So far it's been pretty absorbing.

10. Anything in mind for your next writing project?

Not off hand. I'm still a bit wiped out from this last one. Friends who've followed my blog for a few years have said I should do a nonfiction book about recovery, but there are so many of these types of books out there I'm not sure I have anything new to say. I'll just have to wait and see how the spirit moves me. This last time, it happened when I conjured Joseph as a character and then he wouldn't shut up in my own imagination until I finally started writing down what he had to say. It's funny how characters take on a life of their own and become real to you. I actually became fond of old Joseph. I imagine if something like that starts happening again, I'll know it's time to start writing. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014


7. In the Acknowledgments at the end of your book, you list various canonical Scriptures, non-canonical Scriptures and apocrypha, various religious studies scholars, and "streams from esoteric Christianity" as sources you relied upon in writing your book. Most people will easily accept these things except for the last. You list Edgar Cayce, for example, or authors like Dolores Cannon who worked with past-life regressions. Are you willing to believe anything?

I once had a guy tell me, "There's such as thing as keeping an open mind, and then there's such a thing as keeping your mind so open your brain falls out." I got a kick out of that and laughed, but he meant it as an insult, so I know some folks are going to think using sources like that is completely wacky. Things like remembering past lives, or out-of-body experiences or near-death experiences, or physic phenomena, are difficult for scientific materialists. If it can't be proven, then it's superstition. Therein lies the problem: these things are personal experiences, so how does one prove them?

Or, there's the other side of the coin: if it seems to contradict the accepted theology or dogma, if the unexplainable is observed or believed, then it's seen as coming from evil or being caused by a demon.

So it's extremely interesting to me that the Pharisees were forever accusing Jesus of healing or casting out demons in the name of a demon or the Devil.

I'm willing to entertain the idea that perhaps psychic or paranormal or supernatural phenomena are quite explainable: we just haven't found the explanation yet. Today's "magic" is tomorrow's "oh, that's how that's done."

This is one reason the intersection of quantum mechanics and mysticism is an area of interest to me. Physicists are starting to hypothesize about realities that mystics have been hinting at for forever. The spiritual and the scientific are starting to merge in this field. How else can you explain that a person's conscious observation seems to dictate what a particle does? Is that telekinesis, or is it something else? How can one particle seem to know what another one is doing? Do particles have consciousness? Are they telepathic? How can that be?

Is the universe itself a grand consciousness, and is that consciousness what we call God?

In fact, what is consciousness?

I don't have any answers, only glimpses and feelings and speculations, but I'm not willing to set aside a mass of very intriguing anecdotal evidence as a bunch of hallucinations or drug-induced visions or delusions or outright lies. If my character Joseph were to suddenly time travel and appear next to me in this room, and I flipped a switch and turned on a light, he'd call me a miracle worker. So I'd have to explain electricity--or maybe not, depending on whether I can explain it well enough to someone from 75 CE for him to understand it. I suppose what I'm saying is that the possibility exists that Jesus was simply such an enlightened human being that he was able to do things that, to people then and to us right now, seem unexplainable and miraculous.

It is a fabulous and wondrous mystery. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


6. What credentials do you have for writing this book? You're not a priest or pastor or minister, nor even an Anne Rice, whose novels are so popular people were intrigued by the idea of her turning her pen to the story of Jesus. 

Who do I think I am, anyway, writing a gospel? Right? It's a fair question.

Well, the "academic" answer is that I do have an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies (I did a double major in that and in English). Having been brought up in a non-religious household, I totally fell into this by accident. There were distribution requirements for graduation, so I had to choose between either philosophy or religious studies. I picked religious studies for the sole reason that I had a friend, another English major actually, who raved about a certain professor. So, I took her course, and something was awakened in me. I think, now, it was a spiritual craving. But I think back then I would've just said it was an intellectual interest.

I went on to graduate school in English, and then later on I did another master's degree in creative writing. I published here and there along the way, freelancing projects as I got time. I did publish a nonfiction book, a biography, back in 1997.

But the better way to answer this question is to tell a story. It rambles, but I swear it has a point. So here goes. I teach, but I'm an introvert, so I have to admit that teaching wipes me out. Social interactions in general exhaust me. I go home, and I have to take an hour or so to simply recenter myself. Now, I never had lost my interest in religions and spirituality, and over the years I had spent time reading about various spiritual practices, but nothing had ever really stuck. I embraced just about anything as plausible if I saw it helping people--so I have friends who are pagans or witches, friends who are Buddhist, friends who are very orthodox Christian, friends who are Jewish, friends who are Muslim, friends who practice Native American spirituality. There are beautiful things in all of these religions or practices. Still, it was all rather academic to me.

I had never found peace. I knew in my heart I needed to serve others, feel that my work was meaningful in some way, so that need was met in teaching, but I still felt an emptiness, an unsettledness. And the world around me seemed so crazy--get up, go to work, come home, go to bed. Live for the weekend. More than half the people I know hate their jobs. They do them only because they have bills to pay. We spend all this time worrying about the future, too--are we putting enough, if any, money aside? Are we even able to? How will we live? Will social security even be there? Is this what life is supposed to be? Others, meanwhile, are screaming dire warnings that the End Times are near. Religious fanaticism had brought down the Twin Towers, yet I saw the sweetest young woman, a student, at work being harassed and her car vandalized for her wearing hajib. The United States is screaming "freedom," but we are invading Iraq. Nothing made sense to me. If there was God, where was God?

I ceased being able to center myself. So I did the worst possible thing a person can do: I let myself fall into a bottle of booze. Pretty cliche, right? I'd been teetering there on the lip of the bottle anyway for years, and I finally just let go. I lived a good three years of sheer hell and anguish in that dark place. Eventually I thought I was probably going to die, either from a fall or from alcohol poisoning. I just couldn't stop. I could not drink away the unhappiness or drink enough to fill up the big, gaping hole that felt like my heart.

You know where this is going, right?

I'm afraid I can't say, "I saw the Light!"

All I know is that I went to bed one night in a blackout, which was not rare at all, and woke up not remembering a thing except that I had decided to check myself into a rehab and get sober. I apparently had had an entire conversation with my wife about it the previous night, but I remembered nothing of it. All I could remember was that I'd made this decision, and to this day, I can't tell you why.

The other thing that sticks with me is another night, when I was home alone--my wife was working late--and I was drunk as usual, and I realized that I'd had too much and was likely to get sick. I was sitting up in bed, sipping water, fighting to stay awake until I'd sobered up some. I didn't want to pass out and wind up choking on my own vomit. Well, I nodded off. Suddenly, as clear as a bell, I heard a loud voice in my ear: "Wake up!" My eyes snapped open and I looked around, but no one was there. I stayed awake a while and then went on to sleep.

I don't know. Perhaps it sounds crazy. But it seems to me now something out there--something not me--was trying to intervene, trying to get me to snap out of it.

So, I got sober. And a part of being sober, at least in AA, which is where I started, is finding a spiritual practice. I didn't want a religion. I simply wanted God. There are as many ways to find God as there are people, I think. I began meditating. And, ultimately, I joined AMORC, which isn't a religion, but more of a philosophy--really a kind of non-religious, non-denominational mystical path. It's not expected that you'll believe any particular thing. It is expected that you'll find the answers if you ask the right questions and seek within yourself. Jesus became, to me, not a god, but a hero of mine, a man who found a way to God in the madness of his times.

Who am I to try and write a book inside the mind of Jesus? Not me, by any means. No, that's yet one more reason the book is from inside the mind of his nephew, Joseph. Being inside the mind of a human being trying to understand it all, and who finally reaches a kind of understanding and peace: that, I am without question, qualified to write about.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


4. Who is the audience for this book?

People who identify as spiritual, but not necessarily as religious. Those who are turned off by dogma and doctrine and religious intolerance of any kind. The modern-day mystic or seeker. Those seeking meaning in a world that seems increasingly absurd, materialistic, and meaningless. Those interested in gnosticism, the esoteric, who sense or know there is more to the world, more to the universe, than this physical, material reality. Those who wonder, perhaps even those who seek to evolve human consciousness.

Consequently, as my publisher says, the book straddles many stools but doesn't sit firmly upon any single one. For that, I'm grateful Roundfire Books was willing to take a risk with it. It's part literary, part historical, part spiritual, part Christian, even part New Age if one wishes to think about it that way. That sounds like a mess, but it all came together in a way that makes sense to me, despite certain challenges that presented themselves as I wrote it.

5. What sorts of challenges?

Well, there's always the problem of showing instead of telling. I worry that early chapters in the novel contain way too much telling. Really, it's the result of the narrator (who wasn't yet born when his uncle was born) not being an actual witness to much of the story. But he's relaying stories told by his grandparents and aunts and uncles, so when he's telling a particular tale, he'll often create a scene or try to imagine for us what it must have been like. He's also pretty chatty at times and will digress to talk about a side issue he thinks is important. Really, I was trying, as a writer, to break the narrative up, slow it down, add interest. If you take one of the gospels of the New Testament, of course, it's straight telling. You can blast through any one of them in a matter of hours. This book, I don't think, is the sort of book a person can--or will even want to--read in a single sitting.

Being written in the first person, through the eyes of Joseph, also means a certain one-dimensionality to the book: everything goes through Joseph's filter. We don't get inside the mind of anyone else. For me, that's not really a problem, though. The book is as much about Joseph as it is about his uncle Yeshua and the early Church. For we are all Joseph: people trying to figure out what Jesus' presence on this earth really meant, and means.

And choosing the first person was also how I got around--I hope successfully--the sticky problem of the supernatural, or the miracles. It's tough to make a scene believable for today's reader when you have a character healing someone, or turning water into wine, or raising someone from the dead. Joseph believes it because his father and uncle James saw it. He personally knows Simon Peter and Mary of Magdala, and they, too, saw it all. He'll say when he thinks some detail has been exaggerated, but if you accept Joseph as a reliable narrator, which I mean him to be, then you have to at least be willing to entertain that he's not telling tall tales or is absolutely off his rocker. These are wonders and mysteries. I hope I've written Joseph believably enough that readers are willing to suspend any disbelief.

Heaven knows, the book cooked in my head for years and years before I finally decided to take two semesters off from teaching and write it. It's an ambitious book. As such, there will always be parts I think are flawed or that I wish I could've done better. But I can't quibble with it forever--it was time to let it out into the world. 

Monday, December 15, 2014


3. We all know the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and that he has two sisters, Mary and Martha, but in your book, those three characters take on a life entirely different from the Biblical versions in a way some people, particularly Evangelicals, would be offended by. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but are you adding your own politics to this book?

Well, we've been politicizing religion and the life of Jesus since Jesus walked the earth. In more recent times, the Bible has been used to justify slavery, to justify the oppression of women, to oppose interracial marriage, and even now to justify discriminating against gay people. Those things don't mesh well with what I see as the "bottom line" message of Jesus: judge not and treat others as you would like to be treated.

My narrator often grapples with what he thinks at times might be a "lax" uncle--he considers his uncle's refusal to stone the adulterous woman, however, and uses that as a benchmark by which to measure his own actions. "God desires mercy," is a line that comes up repeatedly. So Joseph at times struggles to use his uncle's life to guide him in his own actions.

But in his own life Jesus himself was a political character--he was quite anti-establishment, and for this he was crucified. He criticized the Pharisees for forever adhering to the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law. It's okay to heal on the Sabbath, for example, for that's the greater good. Many of the Pharisees--and certainly not the Sadducees--did not like Jesus because, in their minds, he was just another rabble-rousing troublemaker from the Galilee, a place of bandits and rebels.

As a gay Christian, which I know will be an oxymoron to some folks, it saddens me to see a message of love, hope, joy, and freedom turned into precisely the kind of behavior Jesus rebuked others for. But my narrator, Joseph, tries teasing all of this out, trying to figure out what's ethical and moral behavior and what isn't and how one decides. I won't give away his answer. People will have to read the book!

But as I said earlier, there's very little in the book that doesn't have a real source or story or tradition behind it somewhere. Here, I drew on two. First is the Secret Gospel of Mark. (Folks can look that up if they want.) There's an undeniable homoerotic element to one account in that gospel that appears to derive from the Lazarus story, so in my book, I wrote it this way: Lazarus is confounded after being brought back to life and asks Jesus if he can't spend the night with him. At first the disciples just figure, "Well, he's been dead and might be afraid he'll die again, so he wants to be near the Lord in case he needs to be brought back again." But in the morning when the two men emerge from the room together very late, they can't help wondering if something else had been going on. This offers Jesus a platform from which to speak to the issue of homosexuality--because the canonical gospels, of course, don't say a thing. In his usual fashion, he tells them two stories to illustrate his point. He also uses this as one more opportunity to teach about the nature of sin.

The second source derives from well after the time period in question but is still intriguing to me because it does seem to indicate that gay marriage was accepted in the earlier Church. So, Jesus' story in my book, the story he tells of the two Roman soldiers, derives from this. I'll just link to the source itself, here.

I'm aware all of this might anger some people, but on the other hand, I think ethics challenge us to continually ask, "What's the greater good?" in any given situation.  Since homosexuality is a present-day hot potato political issue, it would have seemed cowardly to me to not address it somehow.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


2. This retelling of the story of Jesus from the point of view of his nephew is unorthodox. The narrator denies the virgin birth; the narrator denies Jesus is the Son of God (or a part of the Holy Trinity); the narrator denies the physical Resurrection; the narrator disagrees with Pauline theology. Is it your purpose to bash the Church?

Not at all. If I have an agenda at all as an author--beyond telling an interesting story--it's to try to cut through all the theology we're all so familiar with and focus instead on the message of Jesus. So often the actual message gets lost behind all the dogma.

The earliest Christians--although they weren't then called "Christians"--Bart Erhman would say the "proto-Orthodox" while other scholars say the Jesus Movement--were much more diverse a crowd than most people think. They all believed different things, had different gospels, letters, and writings, and there was such a mix of stories and beliefs that, ultimately, when the Emperor Constantine converted, he ordered fifty copies of a standardized Bible to be put together for his Church, which was the beginning of a series of decisions made over what was canonical and what wasn't.  I'm oversimplifying the matter, of course, but the point is that this was some 300 years after the death of Jesus. Were the books that got thrown out any less inspired or valid or authentic? And there were a dazzling number of them.

So, I asked myself the question, if anybody knew the true story of Jesus, who would it be? The easy answer: his family. So, I then asked myself the question, what would the story of Jesus possibly look like if a member of Jesus' family had written a gospel? 

So many people don't even know Jesus had a family, beyond his parents, Joseph and Mary. But yes, indeed, he had brothers and sisters. Some people don't even realize Jesus was Jewish--(I've been asked that. "Was Jesus a Jew?" Of course he was.) His siblings were James, Joses, Jude, Simon, Mary, and Salome. It seems that Jude had three sons, so I invented one named Joseph (named after his grandfather), and I rolled with it, setting out to answer my own "what ifs?"

What's unfortunate is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus got buried by the later Church--especially James the Just, because he was actually the leader of the very first church in Jerusalem--because, I surmise, they became simply inconvenient. If Mary was a perpetual virgin, then Jesus couldn't have brothers and sisters. So, they morphed into half-siblings from an earlier marriage of his father, Joseph, or got turned ito his cousins. But historically, it seems pretty clear they were full-blooded relatives because a later Roman Emperor, Domitian, had the grandsons of Jude put to death lest they, too, claim some lineage making them the legitimate "Kings of the Jews."

The earliest "Jewish Christians," for lack of a better way to put it, were known as the Ebionites, so I made Joseph an Ebionite. As devout Jews, they were in conflict with Paul because they believed Jesus had not intended the Law to be overthrown, only for prophecy to be fulfilled. They rejected the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ also because they were Jews: God is One. But they fully believed Jesus was the Messiah. "Messiah" doesn't mean "God": it means "anointed one." Like King David, they saw Jesus as a chosen one of God. You can think of it as an adopted son of god. They did deny a literal, physical Resurrection, but they certainly did believe in a spiritual Resurrection. My book, then, imaginatively presents the story of Jesus from this perspective.

Yes, then, it's unorthodox, but I don't intend it in a disrespectful way at all. I certainly don't intend it to be taken as a literal gospel. It is a work of fiction. But, it's grounded in history and research as any historical novel ought to be, although, as with any work of fiction, I had to take some liberties here and there for the sake of readability, or conflate a few things: but I will say this. There is very little in this book that doesn't have a real tradition or some sort of recorded history behind it. But the focus is very much on how Jesus wanted us to act and not on what we should or shouldn't believe about him.

Jesus said the yoke he offered was easy and the burden light. He offered a simple way for how to live life free of worry, free from a troubled mind, and with a heart full of love and joy. That message is so timeless and so especially relevant today.

Friday, December 12, 2014


1. Are you a Christian?

A student asked me this just yesterday. I chuckled and said, "Now there's a question!"

She blinked at me, surprised, because, of course, to the average person, this is a simple "yes" or "no" matter.

So I had to explain.

I consider myself a Christian, but what I think a Christian is and what the world at large thinks a Christian is are two different things. To me, "being a Christian" means following the teachings of Jesus. Thankfully, they can be easily summed up as "Honor God, and treat others the way you'd like to be treated."

(For "God," in my book, you can substitute "Cosmic Consciousness" or "The Divine Presence" or "Love," or however one chooses to define God. It can be Yahweh; it can be Allah; it can be the goddess Isis. How people define or label God is largely irrelevant to me.)

However, if someone put the standard Nicene Creed before me and asked me to affirm it, I'm afraid I couldn't do so because... well, it's man-made theology in my book. (I mean, it was formed by committee(s), after all. Have you ever sat on a committee? I rest my case. And Jesus never said anything like it, anyway, as far as we know.) So I'd agree I believe in the one god, creator of all, and.... then we get to "whose begotten son is Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified and died and rose again on the third day and ascended back into heaven from whence he came and will one day return to the earth to judge us, and that the holy spirit descends from both the Father and the Son, and so on,".... I just can't affirm all of that. That makes me a heretic, and that means automatically (in many people's opinion) I'm not a real Christian, so I'm not saved, and I'll be going to hell. Thus sayeth the Lord.

But let me explain a little further. I think Paul (a human being, after all) might have got it wrong. Now, faith is great--faith can lead people to do wonderful things. But history has shown us that faith can also lead people to do horrible things.  (You know, like persecute or kill others.) I'm more inclined to think James the Just had it right: "Faith without works is dead."

Jesus put it another way: you know a good tree by the good fruits it produces.

So if somebody stands there and rattles off to me the Nicene Creed and says he believes it, word for word, and then that person turns around and owns five mansions but doesn't help the poor, hurts other people, dumps money into the military-industrial complex, is a racist jerk, and beats the crap out of his wife whenever he gets drunk but insists he's saved because of his faith... isn't that too easy? Why should he be saved and not, say, Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who walked more in the footsteps of Jesus than most of us ever will?

A life insurance policy.

In short, what a person does speaks a lot louder than what a person says. 

Christianity is not a life insurance policy. At least, I like to think that's not what Jesus had in mind.  I think what Jesus wanted is for us--quite simply--to be good to each other, and for no reason other than that it's the right thing to do.

So that's, to me, what a Christian is. Therefore atheists, agnostics, and people of other faiths are invited to the party. And I do try to practice what I preach. It's not easy. I fail. I learn, and then I try to do better. I apologize if I've been wrong. Or I try to make amends and right the wrong if that's possible. But sometimes trying is not enough, and I must willingly accept the consequences of my own failures. I pray for guidance; I ask for help to do better. And forgiveness, I've found, is truly a practice. I continually have to ask for help in letting things go and to love people who've wronged me anyway.

Because that, I believe, is what Jesus would want me to do.

Ultimately, then, the answer to the question is: it depends on what YOU think a Christian is.

Part two: is here.
Part three: is here.
Part four: is here.
Part five: is here.
Part six: is here.
Part seven: is here.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thoughts from Your Friendly Neighborhood INFP Gemini

Now, as an INFP, this is my own personal danger zone. You want an idealist? That's me. Plus, I'm just enough of a rebel to be like an annoying two year-old and want to know "why" we have to do any particular thing.

Why drop bombs on another country when most of the populace has done nothing to us? Especially when there will be "collateral damage"--that heartless Eichmann-ish way of saying "I'm not responsible; I was just following orders; all these dead people are just part of the deal." Who says we can't just talk with whoever is causing the trouble and work out a peaceful solution?

(I can hear the realists snickering at me.)

Have wars ever really solved any problem long-term? Not if you look at the great span of human history. It's the story of one war after another and the rise and fall of empires. Who said it had to always be this way? Aren't we smart enough as a species, creative enough, to figure out another way?

Well, that's a big issue, a global one. All I'll say on this is that if it weren't for the idealists, nothing would ever change.

But there's a flip side to the idealism coin, and that's the continual frustration of shattered expectations. So as I've aged (and since I've given up drinking alcohol), I've also had to face the wisdom of that old AA saying: "Expectations are just premeditated resentments." There are reasonable expectations, silly expectations, and then things that should be relegated to the "hopes" corner. Otherwise, this idealist is going to pick up the tequila bottle and start doing shots just to shut up the disappointed committee of voices in my head.


It's a reasonable expectation that some of my students will try their hardest in my classes. It's a silly expectation that all of them will. It's definitely a hope, though, that I can motivate enough of them to try their best to feel that I've done a good job.

Once upon a time, it was a reasonable expectation that one day I would find a partner I would settle down with for good. It would have been a silly expectation to think that we would never disagree about something, or fight about something, or hurt each other, or go through a rough patch in which we would consider breaking up. Here, I wouldn't even hope for a conflict-free marriage. It's the conflicts and overcoming them that make you grow together, make a history together, invest so much in the relationship that you're not willing to just toss it out like a sandwich that's gotten stale.

My new book that's coming out: I don't think it's wise to have expectations beyond the fact that some people will buy it and like it, and some people won't. It's a silly expectation to think it will sell a million copies and go into ten reprints within the first year and sit at the top of the NYTimes best sellers' list for months on end. That can be a hope, but I seriously doubt it. My real hope is that I'll sell enough copies to recoup the wages I lost taking two semesters off to get it written. And maybe, just maybe, even see a little profit for my effort. But I know better than to count on that.

So here's the thing. Idealism, hopes, are great things. They make us strive for the better. But they're a two-edged sword. If you live your life expecting your dreams and hopes will all come true in exactly the way you've imagined they should be, you're going to live a life of constant frustration. Let life throw some surprises at you. Things that you may not have considered would be good can turn out to be life-changingly awesome. Things that you thought would be heaven on earth can turn out to be hellishly awful. And nobody ever said life should be a state of constant bliss, anyway. Continual contentment is pretty darn good, though.

Try to see the forest despite all the trees. But never forget that, sometimes, sitting and contemplating a single tree is worthwhile too.

Monday, December 1, 2014

For Our Self-Publishing Heroes

I read an interesting statistic this morning. The average number of books sold by someone who has self-published his or her work is--wait for it--a measly 279 copies.

Think of that. Say the book took you two years to research and write, then revise, then edit/proofread. Say it's a paperback, as self-published books tend to be, and sells for the usual $12 or thereabouts. You sell 279 copies, so what you get back for your effort is $3,348. But wait! This doesn't include the cost you shouldered to actually publish it (I have no idea how much money that actually is--printing will always cost money. But even an ebook, which is merely a downloadable file of work you already word-processed, doesn't come without costs. I just checked the cost of publishing an ebook for the Kindle on Amazon, and Amazon takes anywhere from 30% to 65% of your proceeds, depending on how you price the book.) Deduct from this the taxes you'll pay on whatever income you get. Also, any marketing costs are totally shouldered by you. Finally, being self-published, your book is not going to be reviewed by any major publications; libraries, large chain bookstores, in fact most bookstores, aren't going to distribute it either (because you don't have a distributor). The bottom line is, people who self-publish typically don't make much money and may even lose money--unless a miracle happens.

You have to wonder why some people choose, then, to self-publish. Well, unless you're pretty good at making a pitch to a publisher on your own behalf, you have to find an agent. And, an agent will NOT take a book the agent thinks won't sell enough copies to be worth the effort. Or, the book has to be so well-written, so astonishing, so unique, or strike the agent in the heart so hard that he or she decides to stake her reputation on it. And then that agent has to persuade a publishing house of the same. I guess we've all heard the story of how all the major publishing houses in Britain turned down Harry Potter, even though J.K. Rowling had an agent who believed in the book. Teeny, tiny Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the book. The first print run was a mere 500 copies. Even the press didn't think it would sell.

J.K. Rowling's story became one of those miracle stories. She got lucky. Had Bloomsbury not picked up her book, who knows? She may have given up and gone ahead and self-published. Then Harry Potter might've been doomed to oblivion because, unfortunately, very few self-published books get taken seriously. Self-publishing, to way too many people, is like stamping the words "This book is such a piece of shit no publisher would take it" on the back cover.

I got lucky. Roundfire Press picked up my new book, but I'm betting the first print run is no more than 500 copies unless there are tons of pre-orders, which I can dream about, but which I know better than to count on. Frankly, I'm pleased that, to date, about 80 viewers have bothered to watch the book trailer, and the book doesn't even have a set publication date yet. Right now I'm sending around emails to certain people whose opinion holds some weight and asking them if they'd like a review copy sent to them when those are ready. It's like beating the bushes. But so far, one has sent back a very courteous, "Yes! This looks interesting." So, always, I have hope--but I rein in expectations. I'm also glad this imprint, which publishes for a niche market, already knows whom to market to. I'll be overjoyed if the book gets a second printing.

But all of this got me thinking about how tough it is to sell a first novel. Query after query; rejection after rejection. It's like Sisyphus forever rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to go back down and push it up again. A person tires of heaving at a big rock against gravity. Therefore I have to admire people who work so hard and believe so much in their work that they'll risk self-publishing just to get their pages out there. These people are willing to hitch their work to a star and pray, and they are brave souls, for nothing hurts more than seeing your labor go ignored.

So today I'm thinking, let's do these folks a favor. If you ever read a self-published work and like it, don't keep that information to yourself. Go on Amazon, go on goodreads.com, and put up a review of the book. More than anything, it's reviews, along with word of mouth, that sells books when some huge publishing house isn't behind you throwing tons of money into marketing. I'm sure there are hundreds of unknown gems out there waiting to be read. And even just one positive review can make a writer's day: they know someone liked their book enough to take the time to compliment it. Even if they don't make much money for their work, at least knowing it's been read and touched somebody can make the effort worth it. Because more than anything, writers write to be read.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's That Time!

Ah, the holidays. Although Christmas decorations started appearing in stores immediately after Halloween, for me the season doesn't really begin until Thanksgiving. That's when the shopping begins in earnest--well, okay, I just fibbed. Now that I think of it, I have bought a few gifts on sale, for who can resist a sale? But you know what I mean. Thanksgiving commences the season of overeating, running up my credit cards, avoiding shopping malls at all costs, and avoiding parties at all costs. If it weren't for online shopping, I'd be a total wreck. I absorb desperation and negative energy no matter how many psychic protective boundaries I build around myself. And let me tell you, "Black Friday" is aptly named. I know the original reason was because that's when companies finally went into the black instead of the red, but lately it seems every year brings some horrid new video of fistfights at Wal-Mart.


This was all so easy when I was drinking. Somebody is rude to me at the store and injures my tender psyche? I'd just come home and toss back a vodka martini. Or two. Or three.

I have to go to a holiday party, and my friend Pat's husband asks me to dance? And it's some old-fashioned waltzy sort of music that I'm clueless how to dance to, so he leads and I try my best to not stomp his toes? Eh, who cares? I can go back to the table and down myself a big ole spiked eggnog. Or two. Or three.

There are twelve people gathered around the table eating, relatives of my wife who all seem to have the name Bruce, and I'm expected to talk about fishing or Texas Hold 'Em poker? Pass the cranberry sauce. Oh, and that bottle of champagne.

This is the time of year I find not drinking to be most difficult. But it's merely stress; I know that. So, I remind myself that for every good time I once had drinking, there was a worse time. And that once I started, I really couldn't stop. Always, always, there was hell to pay the next morning. Let me tell you, it is decidedly not fun to open Christmas presents and smile and say "thank you" when you are trying to not vomit all over the pile of gifts and your head feels like a hundred elves with jingle bells and tiny hammers are inside your skull tapping away at your brains.

So I deal. I remind myself that half the horrors I imagine are inside my own head. I don't have to be "on" every second. No one expects that. And when I get tired, I can retreat, and they will understand. For this weekend, I've already downloaded a couple of movies on iTunes that I've been wanting to see; I'll bring my earbuds. On my Kindle I've got The Red Tent, which I've been meaning to read since forever. And I have some papers I need to grade as well--something I can't get out of, even if I wanted to. No introvert can make herself an extravert.

And no alcoholic can solve any problem by giving in and taking a drink.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Leave Your Footprints Everywhere

You've heard the expression, "Leave no trace."

This applies to hiking in the woods, swimming in pristine waters, climbing a mountain, exploring a cave ... leave it the way you found it.

With social media, the opposite applies: "Leave your footprints everywhere!" Seriously, being online is one big "Kilroy Was Here" written virtually everywhere. But I admit I'm discovering, with pre-marketing a book, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. You're expected to, well, sell yourself. Be OUT THERE. Seriously, my publisher wants to know my Twitter handle, my blog url, my Facebook page, all of it. A part of me understands this. It's good to be easy to find, for interviews, reviews, "your two cents" in an article or a byline elsewhere, for they all help sell books.

On the other hand, another part of me just wants to go jump in bed, pull the covers over my head, and hide. That's the introvert in me, coupled with the person with social anxiety disorder who says, "No! They'll hate me! Make them leave me alone! Wah!" If I were only writing great literature, I could probably get away with being a recluse and lying in bed all day, eating, say, a stick of butter a day like Shirley Jackson or cackling at the top of the stairway and then scampering to my room, slamming the door behind me like Emily Dickinson, and no one would care--but, alas, I'm hardly in their league.

So I guess social media is, in a way, a blessing because I can put myself OUT THERE without having to really go out there.

Consequently, I'm making a big chain of footprints all over the damn place. You can find my Youtube channel under my name--"Joyce Luck"--and I've started organizing videos into playlists such as "Feed Your Inner Geek." This blog feeds directly to Twitter, which then feeds the posts to Facebook. I'm on Instagram, too. And LinkedIn. If you can't find me by using my real name, then try "Hapless Tigger." That's right. I'm now pretty darn easy, beeyotch.

Of course, it also means I'll be easier to heckle or harass, but I'll cross that bridge if I even reach it.

See, that's the other good thing about social media. If it gets to be too much, I can delete, unplug, and vanish and lick my wounds where no one can see me. Or, I can be joyful and spread the love.

I'm wishing for the love. For, really, who isn't?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Educate Yourself on the Keystone XL Pipeline

Ah, the Keystone XL Pipeline. The political spin is that it will help America in two major ways: (1) it will create jobs here and (2) it will decrease our dependence on foreign oil (I guess people are conflating America and Canada, since the company constructing and primarily using it is Canadian, which makes it foreign, but perhaps since the oil would go from the tar sands to the Gulf in a pipeline that traverses our country, folks are thinking that's preferable to relying on oil from the Middle East. Or, TransCanada, the company in question, keeps stressing that some bit of the oil going through the pipeline(s)--it's more than one, people, all linked together--would actually be oil produced in America. The CEO mentions a city in Montana. Oh, and I've also heard a third reason tossed out: that the increased oil supply would lower gas and heating prices here. So, let's take each benefit in turn.

True, to construct the pipeline, there would be temporary contracting jobs given to American workers (about 42,000 people for two years). That's nothing to sneeze at in this economy, because these tend to be good jobs. However, once the pipeline is finished (parts of it are already constructed), even the CEO of TransCanada admits the number of employees needed to maintain the pipeline would be about 50. Fifty is about the number your local McDonald's hires. See here: http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2014/nov/16/russ-girling/transcanada-ceo-says-42000-keystone-xl-pipeline-jo/

Second, there is absolutely no guarantee TransCanada would sell all the oil to the United States. Why should they? Companies exist to turn a profit. So if the company can sell oil to, say, China, for more dollars a barrel, why would they give a cut-rate to the United States? That makes no business sense. Estimates are that US companies might buy about half of the oil, truck it to their refineries, and then resell the oil to other countries in the form of gasoline. Hence all the oil wouldn't necessarily go to Americans even if American-based companies bought it. See this: http://money.cnn.com/2013/09/16/news/economy/keystone-oil/

So that kills reason three right off the bat: the energy companies have no particular devotion to the United States. These companies are multinational. We shouldn't see prices come down much, if at all, because of increased supply caused by the XL Pipeline. Fact is, we already have excess supply and are are already shipping it to other countries in South America. (See article above.) I'd bet we'd continue to do so to keep demand here somewhat high.

So the question is now: why are we even considering expanding a pipeline right through the middle of the United States if it won't benefit us in any major way? Aside from the politicians who own stock in TransCanada and stand to profit when the price of shares go up--I don't really count that; they shouldn't pass legislation on the basis of whether or not it benefits them personally, although you know and I know they certainly do; nothing new there--I really can't find a compelling reason to say "okay" to running a series of pipelines across our heartland. Pipelines fail, things go wrong, humans make mistakes--how many times have we seen oil spills that kill wildlife, fish, and hurt smaller businesses? I'm trying to picture a big ol' pipeline bursting and spewing out tar sands oil (the less clean of them all) all over, say, rich farmland, or bursting near a river and poisoning some city's water supply. Such might--MIGHT--be a risk worth taking if Americans really stood to benefit in any great way from the XL Pipeline, but I'm just not convinced the benefits outweigh the huge negative.

Now, as you can see from the graphic, much of the pipeline already exists in the US. The logical thing to do is to investigate if the existing pipeline has caused any environmental damage, or what the likelihood of environmental damage might be. The environmental impact study requested by President Obama doesn't appear to have addressed that. It appears to have addressed how the pipeline might impact climate change in Canada. Conclusion? Probably not a lot. You can read a summary of the findings here, but it's also available online if you search for it. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/state-to-release-keystones-final-environmental-impact-statement-friday/2014/01/31/3a9bb25c-8a83-11e3-a5bd-844629433ba3_story.html 

That's nice to know, but what Americans are concerned about is our land, our countryside, our rivers, our crops, our backyards, the Gulf. Seriously, I can't find much of anything but speculation. Those who support the pipeline say the risks are minimal. Those who don't say the risks are underestimated.  But, I'm inclined to think other TransCanada pipelines are a decent indication of how this pipeline will behave, and voila! Twelve oil spills in the first year of operation here. Another similar company's tar sands pipeline spilled a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and despite clean up efforts there, about forty miles of that river are reported to still be contaminated. Why would the Keystone XL Pipeline be especially benign over any other? You decide: http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline

Finally, here is another summary of the supposed benefits of the pipeline with additional reasons those benefits are either outright falsehoods or grossly misstated: http://tarsandsaction.org/spread-the-word/key-facts-keystone-xl/

So... will our Congress and Senate continue pandering to Big Oil, or will our senators and representatives take care of Americans and this land we inhabit? I'm skeptical. Lately they just do what the money tells them to do.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Winter Blues Already?

The sun will always rise on a new day. It's up to each of us to make it glorious.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My New Book!

Well, I was silly when I wrote I'd be able to start blogging again once my book draft was done. Is any book ever "done?" After it sat for a month, I picked it up again and started quarreling with the words on the page. Then school started, so this semester I've been teaching, grading papers, and revising my book.

The good news? The book is finally out to a publisher, so now the only changes can be basic copy edits ... so it's time to put this project down.

So saying, here's the book trailer for the new book, slated for publication (tentatively) in spring 2015. Share this trailer widely and freely if you know of anyone who is interested in the subject matter. The video will be updated as soon as a publication date is set.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Holy Shyte, Five Years!

My friends on Facebook are amazing. It's just now past noon, and already over a hundred people have congratulated me on reaching five years' sobriety. Five years. Wow. That's a milestone for sure, especially when I think about what I was like before I quit drinking. I couldn't imagine not drinking. I thought I'd get boring or be bored. I was afraid I'd lose all my buddies. I couldn't conceive of what would give life its "perk" if it weren't having a buzz. Everything was tied to drinking: going to the race track, watching the Giants or Niners on television, preparing a meal (this was tied to "sampling" the wine while cooking and inevitably having to open a second bottle)... you name it, I'd find a reason booze had to be a part of the deal for me to have any fun.

When I checked into rehab at 11am five years ago, I'd had an evening drinking the night before--my last night. I didn't overindulge, at least not by my definition. Still, when the facility checked me in, I hadn't had a drink since midnight, but I still blew a .04. My norm, back then, was probably enough alcohol to poison the average person. It had taken years to build up that colossal tolerance. But, oddly enough, I was reluctant to call myself an alcoholic.

1,826 days later, I have to laugh at myself.

Well, I didn't get boring, and I haven't become bored. If anything, my life has become much richer, so much more layered. I definitely don't miss the hangovers. I know I'm better in the classroom because I'm always fully present. Instead of drinking at nights and wasting my time acting out or picking fights or "writing" something that, the next day, was virtually incomprehensible, I settle down evenings by listening to lectures at The Great Courses or watching documentaries or reading. No doubt that's boring to some, but it's not boring to me. I like using my brain. And, I've written an entire book that's actually readable.

Have I lost my buddies? Some of them, sure. But I let them go, not the other way around. I just have realized drama and negativity aren't fascinating qualities. They're actually a waste of energy. Likewise, I've dropped other friends I didn't think would be in the original group. Sober, I see that certain folks just aren't worth the drain they put on my psyche. Dishonest people are out. Racists and bigots are out. People who think it's amusing to criticize, make fun of, or insult other people are out. Life's too short.

I can't say I've felt their loss. Instead, I've felt more peace of mind. And for every person who's gone, several others have taken their place.

I've found a spiritual life.

I try to do at least one kindness per day, no matter how small.

I've switched on my creativity otherwise by painting or playing guitar, even though I'm not great at either. They both bring me pleasure anyway.

My relationship with my wife is stronger than it's ever been.

What can I say? My life is better, no longer crazy and out of control.  I can't even imagine why I let myself fall into that dark hole of addiction in the first place, but I slipped into it somehow. I'm just grateful I got sick of being there and grateful I had the support of my wife, her family, and enough friends and co-workers who were there for me when I was scared out of my wits. 

 It's been a great five years. Bring on the next five! But, as always, one day at a time.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Something to Think About....

The above list describes the standard make-up of our political institutions in America, that is, our Senate and House of Representatives who are made up of people purporting to represent ALL of us: "we, the people."

Here is a FACT: the above describes exactly 6% of the US population. 

Black people, Asians, Latinos, other people of color, gay/bi/trans people, women, poor people, single people, uneducated people, young people, and the unemployed are not represented in any way approaching parity (or proportionate representation) in the U.S. government.  It never has. It's gotten a teeny bit better, but parity is a long, long way off.

Now, the United States of America is not a true democracy (it never was); it is a republic, but we still like to pretend the people have a voice and that our elected representatives vote as we, the people, would have them vote. But if you consider the above, you realize why they so often don't and instead just vote a party platform that has been articulated and paid for, if you will, by any number of corporate interests. 

Until our government starts to actually look like we do and not just like the 6%, we will continue to have a populace that feels (and is) largely disenfranchised. The two-party system is failing us. We need more electable, viable candidates than just the two dishes we are offered.

But we have to do our part. If we want change, we have to put forth the viable candidates. Otherwise, a lot of potato lovers or pasta lovers will be stuck with having to choose between salad or tunafish the rest of their days.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Dan Fogelberg's "The Reach" (on 12 string)

I always thought this was a pretty song, if a little over-orchestrated on the album. But I have always been afraid to learn to play it because of the alternate tuning (open D).  It was never one of Fogelberg's hits, which is a good thing, because his hit songs tended to be kind of schmaltzy. I prefer his songs that tell stories.

This takes me back to my college days for sure. How old am I? Well, it was before CDs and the personal computer were common. We'll just leave it at that.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

As with anything, there are always multiple sides to a story and several ways of looking at a conflict. But assuredly, no conflict would ever exist without two opposing sides. "It takes two to tango," as the saying goes. Things simply don't happen in a complete vacuum.

And this is how I view situations like the one that has been unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I think "The Truth" of the matter lies between the two extremes. Here are the extremes: on the one hand, all cops are racist and will kill an unarmed black man for the sole reason he is black, and if you disagree with this, you are a racist; on the other hand, all cops are good human beings who harbor no racist thoughts or stereotypes, never fire unless absolute right is on their side, and if a cop shoots a man, it has nothing to do with his race, and to play the "race card" is a form of reverse racism.

If you agree with either of these extremes, I cannot dialogue with you. You've got to be willing to insist responsibility falls where it actually does, which means keeping your mind open and carefully considering both sides of the story.

Now, I happen to be a white person, so I don't pretend to know what it's like to be black in America. That's an experience that is not mine. But, as a lesbian and as a woman, I do know what it's like to have stereotypes flung around about me that aren't even remotely true and to have the law not always give me the same freedoms as others. I also have watched the backlash that occurs when our rights begin to be acknowledged and we begin gaining equality: the majority group fears losing its privileged status (often not even being aware of its privileged status) and starts complaining about "reverse discrimination," "quotas," "preferences," and the like. I also know what it's like to be subjected to a double standard all the time; as an example, women are supposed to be both virginal yet sexually experienced, to dress provocatively but not be a slut. It's a strange balancing act that's impossible to attain, much like the American standard of beauty--blonde, tall, super skinny, big breasts, a flawless face, a curvy booty--is something that is basically unachievable without starvation diets, extreme working out, plastic surgery, and tons of make-up... and even then..... only about 3% can attain "the perfect look" because we just don't have the genetics. But we beat ourselves up or allow ourselves to be shamed when we can't do it. I understand the frustration and weariness of impossible expectations and unfair judgments.

So, I "get," in some small way, the African American community's anger. They've made strides since the civil rights movement, just as gay people have made strides lately in regard to gay marriage, but if you think the America they live in is the same as white America, you're uninformed. Black people are disproportionately represented in Congress and in state and local legislatures. They are disproportionately represented in the media (compare the number of black television families to white tv families). Flip through a mainstream magazine such as, oh, Parenting, and count the number of black versus white people. Folks, "white" is constantly fed to us as the norm. So, naturally, there will be things that crop up such as Ebony magazine or BET (Black Entertainment Network), in order to plug the gap and offer some media more relatable to that audience. (The inevitable response from some white people will be, "We don't have an Ivory magazine, or a WET (White Entertainment Network). Isn't this racist and divisive of them?") No, it isn't. Virtually EVERY channel is the white entertainment network. Virtually ALL magazines have a majority white audience in mind. Disproportionate representation is the key term here. And though there are, certainly, some black police officers, they are outnumbered by white officers. So if a cop trolls through the 'hood, chances are really good it's a white guy: one more white guy in a position of power and authority.

The way of the world is this: cops tend to go where they expect trouble to be. Where is trouble to be found? Usually in low-income neighborhoods; there is clearly a correlation between high crime areas and poverty. (As a white woman, you wouldn't catch me walking through a poor neighborhood alone at night, whether it was a trailer park, the Mission in San Francisco, or the projects in Ferguson, MO.) I'm not saying "it's not crime; it's poverty"--there are plenty of poor folks of all races who don't commit crimes. But poverty is a factor. On the other end of the spectrum are white collar crimes, committed by people who normally aren't poor and desperate and which are not violent, but usually a LOT more money gets stolen than, say, the value of a box of Swisher Sweets cigars. But how often are these crimes prosecuted, or how often does a Wall Street banker get taken down with anything other than a smack on the wrist? The scales are not balanced. Not yet.

Day in and day out, black folks see white little Johnny in college get busted for a bag of weed and Daddy getting the kid off with a fine and community service. Meanwhile, black little Jerome gets busted for a bag of weed and gets the book thrown at him. The one place where black folks are more than disproportionately represented is the prison system. If you think it's because black people have a racial commitment to crime, then your head is in the sand. It has everything to do with racial profiling, a justice system that is often institutionally harder on one race than on another, and we could argue all day long what came first: the chicken or the egg. Fault-finding is more complex than that, especially nowadays with private prisons and a prison lobby. When prisons become for-profit, profits can grow only by incarcerating more people. Those who can afford to hire the expensive team of attorneys are the ones who don't take a maximum sentence on anything. But one race is no more genetically likely to commit a crime than any other race. You wouldn't know that, though, by looking at the prison population.

But the bottom line is this: when an unarmed black guy who was acting like a punk swiped a box of cigars that couldn't have cost more than six bucks was accosted by a white police officer and the guy began mouthing off, did he deserve six bullets and death?

That's why Ferguson, MO, is mad. They're tired of it.

It's called freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

Okay. That's one side.

Now here is the other side, as well as I'm able to construct it, because there is a lot of baloney being posted and tweeted and reported. It appears there was a convenience store robbery and this young man was involved. (And he's a big dude.) The officer stopped him and a friend jaywalking a few blocks away from the crime and the fellow treated the officer with disrespect. Whether he actually punched the officer or tried for his weapon is currently UNKNOWN. (How the rumor about him breaking the officer's eye socket, etc, got started and disseminated can be found HERE.) In any case, the officer felt threatened, so the officer fired. Not just twice, as they are trained to do initially before reassessing. Since he emptied his weapon, he obviously did not feel the threat had been neutralized after two shots. It has yet to be determined whether the officer was overreacting or panicked. It has yet to be determined whether the officer felt threatened for the sole reason the young man was black. But what remains a fact is that the young man was not armed. So, to some it looks like police brutality taken to an extreme, but the officer felt justified, and since right now we just can't know, the officer may very well have been in the right. Race may indeed have nothing to do with why he fired.

Now, I have a tendency to defend the police because they have a difficult and dangerous job. Also, one of my best friends is a cop, and my wife is an ex-cop. They are not racist people. But, officers are trained and trained and trained some more on officer safety. They will protect themselves. So, even if you've done nothing wrong and even if you're sure the cop is being a jerk to you, if a cop tells you to stop, put your hands in the air, lie face down, or do the Macarena, if you don't want your actions to be mistaken for a threat, you should do what the officer says.

Michael Brown very likely did NOT do what the officer said. No, he probably was carrying in his psyche a lot of anger over the fact that white cops always pick on black men and he wasn't doing anything but walking in the street, and why was this officer shouting at him like he had committed a felony, so he did not keep his cool.

What you have is a highly charged situation in which one guy felt singled out because of his race and the other guy felt threatened and his badge disrespected, and those two things don't mesh well. Now a man is dead and some people are having appalling reactions. The officer's life has been threatened. I see white people saying ridiculously insensitive and stupid things. The bigots are overjoyed!

And all America is busy getting emotional and taking sides and blaming whatever the opposing side is, depending on their viewpoint. This is a fruitless endeavor. What we SHOULD be talking about is how to stop these things from happening at all. 

So, how do we prevent things like this? Follow the law, sure. If you break the law, you break the law; be prepared to pay the consequences. But, as with all things, also try to understand the other person's side. I'm reminded of a student I had a few years ago who was a foster mom to several African American kids, and she happened to be white. She was not at all racist. But one day she was in a Mountain Mike's Pizza Parlor and observed a woman who happened to be black steal something. When an employee who happened to be white accused the black woman of the theft, my student piped up and shared what she had seen. The black woman's response was to accuse her of being a racist: "You're just saying that because you're white and she's white!" My message to black folks is this: You're right; things sometimes happen because some people are racist, and I know you're tired of it. But not everybody is racist, so use that as your starting point until that person has given you good reason to believe otherwise.

If you think this is funny, YOU are part of the problem.
And to white folks, stop whining about the race card being played. If the shoe were on your foot, "it's my race" would be your knee-jerk reaction too. And as for using the looting and violence and rioting in Ferguson as fodder to feed racist sentiments, you should know that no matter what the situation or group, there will always be bad apples in the barrel. Stop using the bad apples to describe the entire group. Most people protesting in Ferguson were peaceful, anti-violent protestors who were just as appalled by the looting as anyone. Remember the Occupy Movement? Lots of protestors were peaceful demonstrators, but the rioting white anarchists got all the press. The press goes where the story is.

Alas, there is no story in a non-violent demonstration.

We will never get past race or civil rights issues in this country until things actually are, in reality, truly equal in terms of opportunities, rights, and privilege. One day people really will be judged not by the color of their skin, or by whom they love, or by what religion they practice, but by the content of their character. Until then, we can only dialogue and listen and hold our tempers and stop making ourselves into each other's victims and try to see the other person's point of view. It's more than okay to learn and to change your mind about things. It's also an honorable thing to accept responsibility for your own actions.

There's an expression for it. It's called "growing up."

Friday, August 29, 2014

See This Heart?

It's just for you. I hail the divinity I see in you. You are a wonderful, remarkable human being who has incarnated here for a purpose. Let us all see the glory who is uniquely YOU.

Never forget who you are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Learning "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin

I grew up on this song. It's kind of neat because it does two things: the bass notes go down, while simultaneously the arpeggios take the treble strings up. So you have to pay attention to two things at once as you're playing.

Still, it's not really all that difficult. The trick will be learning to play it seamlessly without the long pauses while I check the tabs (I can't read music. It's like math to me. My brain freezes.) It'll take learning it by heart, basically, but that in itself shouldn't be too difficult because really, we're just talking about something like sixteen bars of music, some of which is repetitive.

I'm just taking a breather after knocking out a second draft of my novel. The fall semester starts in about a month. Ack! Right now my book is being considered for representation by an agent, but I feel pretty sure she'll want some changes if she even agrees to represent it and try to sell it to a publisher. I've had to put it away for a while because every time I read it, I see flaws and the whole thing seems contrived to me.

Anyway, so for the moment I'm skating. And, learning songs on the guitar.  Too burned out from writing to blog much.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunrise at Sacred Lake - Traveler Photo Contest 2014 - National Geographic

Sunrise at Sacred Lake - Traveler Photo Contest 2014 - National Geographic

Dear Readers, if you like this photo I've submitted to this contest, please click "like" on the link. I think the remarkable thing about it is not just the sense of place (those mud brick walls in the foreground are over 3,000 years old) but it was one of those moments in which the lighting was just right to catch the reflections of the palm trees in the lake. Even though I took this photo with my iPad Mini and used no special lenses or equipment, it still turned out to be "postcard pretty." There are so many excellent submissions that it's hard to compete, but I'm hoping if I get enough "likes" that the judges will at least take a second look and perhaps will at least consider giving me a "merit" acknowledgment since I wasn't using pro equipment and nothing but my eye. No retouching, no color enhancement: it's exactly as I captured it. 

I appreciate your support!

Friday, June 13, 2014

My New Hero!

First, I want you to watch this video of this remarkable young woman:

Okay. Now Anna doesn't have what we think of as "stage fright" or "just nerves." Stage fright is something most of us get, butterflies in the tummy, maybe shaky knees or hands, dry mouth--all of which are just physical symptoms of too much adrenaline shooting into our bloodstream. It's your age-old "fight or flight" response wired into all of us. With stage fright, unless you're super nervous, most people can't even tell you're nervous, but once you get into your performance or speech or whatnot, you calm down, your symptoms go away and you're off and running just fine.

This video touched me deeply (and Howie Mandel as well, as is clear, because he understands phobias, having OCD and several phobias himself) because I have social anxiety disorder. This is a little different from Anna's disorder: hers sounds like panic disorder that can get so extreme she becomes agoraphobic, and then the fear of leaving her own house depresses the crap out of her (which is totally understandable). But I want people to understand how totally debilitating an anxiety disorder really is.

Therapy can help only to a certain extent. You can be taught tips for coping with fear, but at the end of the day, you already KNOW your anxiety is all in your head and no amount of people saying "It'll be okay," "I'm here," "Buck up," "You just need more confidence," and all the usual platitudes DO NOT HELP. Not really. Support from others helps way more than just being told to get over it and that it's all in your head, but you just cannot shake the knowledge that even though it's all in your head, it is totally REAL to YOU. The kindness of others helps, but it does not cure.

I can't explain Anna's disorder precisely because I'm not Anna, so I'll explain mine in the hopes of helping you better understand. Looking back on my childhood now, I can see quite clearly that signs of it were there, but I kept them to myself, thinking secretly that I was just a big pussy. I was afraid of giving speeches in classes (easily written off as stage fright). I was afraid of parties and social things (easily written off as introversion and teenage awkwardness). I was afraid to call people on the phone (just thought I was neurotic). But as I got older, things got more serious. In college, social situations became okay because I was of legal drinking age, so I got through social situations by drinking (too bad that this coping mechanism later turned into alcoholism). I got a car. But, I was terrified to pump gas in front of other people and so would organize my life so that I could go to the gas station to pump gas when people I knew weren't around. Now, THIS I knew was abnormal. But I could not shake the fear that people would think I was doing it wrong and would make fun of me. And then a horrid thing happened, that "thing" we all fear. I was in Omicron Delta Kappa (a campus leadership fraternity) and the day came to tap others in the college into the fraternity. I picked two people I knew. I figured I'd have stage fright but I wasn't ready for the overwhelming panic attack the minute I opened my mouth in the first class. Two words came out and my voice sounded so reedy and thin to me that I just flipped. I read a paragraph and was stammering and was shaking so obviously even the professor said gently, "It's okay, it's okay." I stopped and said, "I'll start over." I don't know how I got through it. I just kind of blacked out. When I finished, I was humiliated, embarrassed, and felt like a total fraud.

The next one went better. I went into the classroom and asked if I could use the lectern, so I had that crutch to lean on and remembered to take deep breaths at the end of sentences. So though I think people could see I was uncomfortable, it probably just came off as "a little nervous."

Later on, the friend I'd tapped in the first class asked me, "What happened?!" and I'm like, "I don't know." That's the thing. You just don't know when a crazy panic will set in. And so you start fearing the panic attack itself. Will I have one? Will I not? 

After that experience, it was really tough for me. To this day, I cannot do public speaking without a lectern to hide behind if I have to stand. Sitting is better because then I don't shake. In graduate school, on days I had to give papers, sometimes I just could not bring myself to go to class. That is how debilitating the fear could get. I'd call my teacher and say I was sick. This was only temporary, though, because I'd still have to give the paper in seminar the next time. The only thing that got me through is that we were always seated.  Most of the time I gave papers and nobody could tell I was nervous. But let me be clear: it was not stage fight that was causing the fear. What was causing the fear was the unshakable conviction that one day, at some point, everyone would hate what I had to say, or that I would say something stupid, and that I would be judged harshly. If I happened to look up and see someone looking at me with a puzzled expression, that could be enough to send me off into black-out land.

At this point, I was still thinking I just had bad stage fright. But after grad school, I got a job as an editorial assistant and then was rather quickly promoted up the chain to editor, then Senior Editor, and finally the company President offered me a job as an evaluation consultant for the state of California, which would have doubled my salary--AND I TURNED IT DOWN. The only reason I turned it down was that the job involved going around to school districts and doing a lot of public speaking. That did not sound like an opportunity to me: it sounded like a nightmare.

But I didn't like working for an educational test publishing company anyway, so I quit this job and went back into college teaching. By this point, I was a full-blown alcoholic, so social situations did not bother me. Teaching made me nervous the first few days of classes but the phobia wasn't so bad there. It's because students aren't my peers. But I could always hide behind the lectern anyway. And half the time I was hungover enough that my brain was more focused on remembering what I wanted to say than it was on "what are they thinking of me?"

Then the day finally came. I'd been feeling--I don't know--"flat" as of late. I had a class in which I had two students in the back who would not shut up and a very bright girl in the front who thought she was too smart to be at community college. This kind of stuff is very typical but for some reason this one class was starting to get to me. So the day came, yes. I was walking across campus towards the building the class was in, and I got hit with a total panic attack. I'd had them before, but this one was bad. BAD.

You can't breathe. You feel like you're having a heart attack, as if two hands have grabbed your heart and are squeezing as hard as they can. Knowing I was having a panic attack, I started thinking, "Calm, calm, calm" to myself and taking deep breaths. I calmed down enough to wait for class to start, then walked into the room and told the class quickly, "I'm unwell today, so class is canceled," then walked out and got the hell off of campus as fast as I could. And I went home and cried. And cried. And cried some more.

This untreated anxiety had caught up with me. Teaching was my job, my love (next to writing) and I could NOT start being afraid to go to my own classes. So, finally, I admitted to myself this was not standard stage fright, and I sought help. It took exactly one session for the psychiatrist to diagnosis me with social anxiety disorder. It is, in a nutshell, the fear of being judged. Or not a fear. It's a PHOBIA about being judged. He told me to stop drinking (the alcohol was only making it worse at this point) and put me on medication.

And thus began my journey of trying to "fix" myself. The first medication did not work, but that's probably because I didn't quit drinking. Long story short, it took getting sober and playing around with several kinds of medication to get my anxiety under control. What works: 30mgs Cymbalta daily and .5 mg ativan and 10mgs propranolol taken 30 mins before a class or something anxiety-producing. If it's the first week of classes, I take 1mg ativan and sometimes 20mgs propranolol, but I will then come home and sleep. Every three years when I know there's going to be a classroom observation of my teaching (a PEER JUDGES ME--boom! That's the RED button!), I take the double meds the entire month, or at least until the evaluation is over, because they don't tell you what they're coming in. God, what a nightmare that is for me, LOL. Nobody knows I suffer from this except those I've talked with about it. I try to not use my disorder as an excuse to be treated differently. But I do still tend to avoid things like departmental retreats and parties because I can't stay medicated all day long. I have to be careful because ativan--a benzo like valium or xanax--is highly addictive.

But here is what I'm trying to say, because I don't want this post to be about me. I want you to appreciate what this young woman, Anna, has done. She's gone from crippling bedridden anxiety to standing on a stage and playing guitar and singing in front of thousands of people in a situation in which all eyes are on her, judging her performance. That is REMARKABLE to me. It's akin to someone who has been lame just a few months before getting up and running a marathon in record time. So I say "good for her!" She's my new hero. This young woman has her destiny under control, and I wish her all the success in the world.

Learning to laugh at yourself helps too.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Good Lord, I've Lost My Mind

I woke up this morning with sleep paralysis and had to just lie there like a frozen slug until my limbs could move again. Have you ever had that? It's not a lucid dream, because you've woken up at this point, but you're still experiencing "dreamy" remnants, and the freaky thing is that you can't move.

And, what a dream I'd been having, too.

I was back at Penn State, only not as a grad student this time but as a part-time lecturer with exactly three classes. One was a 7am class, but I didn't realize this until after the fact. See, I'd gotten the job like only two days before. Some man called me and hired me. So I dropped everything (apparently I didn't have a job) and went with my girlfriend (who in the dream was actually a real woman I started dating while I was at Penn State 25 years ago, and we have long since broken up, but we were back together in this dream, yet we were the ages that we are now). We had to make haste to get to State College because school started the next day. We drove all day, and by some miracle of fate, we had a halfway decent flat waiting for us and unpacked everything from the car and fell, exhausted, into bed very late, so I overslept.

Panicked because I knew I had an early class, I hopped into the shower and was showering, noticing what a remarkable shower it was because it was on the corner of our building and I could see outside to the right, all the houses and people walking on the sidewalks and some nice trees, and I could see directly in front--more houses, maybe a little shop or two, and more people, and they were looking up at me--and I realized at this point If I can see them, they can see me--so with horror I realized I hadn't drawn the shower curtains, which in actuality were nothing but ruffled window curtains. I yanked them closed, finished my shower, got dressed, grabbed my bag and hustled out of the house to make my way towards campus.

Now it has been a long time since I was in State College so the place was very different. All I knew was that the campus--and it's a sprawling one--was down directly in front of me. So I just went forward, taking what I thought were shortcuts through buildings rather than making turns at streets,  figuring I'd figure out where I was on campus when I reached the campus. So I reached the campus but everything was changed. I had no idea where I was. So I began walking through buildings trying to find something familiar from where I could deduce the location of my department. I thought, Find Old Main to get your bearings but there was no Old Main. Instead of Old Main, it seemed the center of the campus was a gothic looking medieval castle.

It looked exactly like this one.

 "Boy, that's changed," I said out loud, and some woman looked at me as if I'd just said, "Please join me in a Satanic ritual."

So I was still trying to find my department and realized I'd forgotten what department it even was. For some weird reason, it wasn't English. I had it written down in my bag somewhere, so I slipped into another maze of a building and finally found a bathroom except neither stall had a toilet where I could sit and sort through my bag (which wasn't a purse, but a bag. A little duffle bag. With strings.)
Like this.

I got out of the bathroom and there was a friendly looking chubby guy who looked about my age, so I assumed he was a professor, so I just flat-out asked him: "Do you know where the Geology Dept is?"

He was annoyed by my asking this question as if, of anybody on the planet wanting to know where something was, someone in Geology should, but his face softened and he said, "This is History. Go out that door, turn to the left, go down four buildings and it's the fourth building."

I was on my merry way when it occurred to me that how in heaven's name had I exited the bathroom remembering what department I was in when I hadn't known it going in.....but never mind.

I had the building. Now to find the room I was supposed to be in. I wandered into some random room and it was a group of grad students being lectured to about how to teach. But a man with Coke bottle glasses on the other side of the room saw me and waved me over. Actually it wasn't the other side of the room. It was more like the room had a partition in the middle and was two rooms in actuality, but the partition was open. He was sitting at a round table and seemed to know exactly who I was, sight unseen. I leaped to the conclusion that he was the guy I'd had the phone conversation with, so I sank into the chair next to him and immediately apologized for being late. I'd gotten lost in the maze of a campus. He merely shushed me from giving apologies and said it was okay. He'd only wanted to me to give me my official schedule. He handed me a piece of paper and stood up and simultaneously the class on the other side of the partition was done and they all stood up. So I stood up.

They all left and I looked at my paper.

My first class was at 7am (missed it!) Then there was this class at 10am I was standing in, and even though I wasn't a student I was supposed to participate in it. Damn, no pay for that. It was only a half hour thingy, though. Then there were a few more hours before my next class, which had some weird name that had nothing to do with geology but with feelings. And then at 3 o'clock I was supposed to show up at the Campus Police Station.

Happy happy joy joy! I actually knew where that was. It was about a hundred blocks away but I didn't care--at least I finally had a destination I knew where it was. Why I had to go there I had no idea, but, whatever. (And I knew where it was from real life because I once gotten stopped by campus police for a burned-out taillight and had been given a fix-it ticket so had had to go there to provide proof I'd gotten it fixed. Never mind that they'd taken my license and had a look at it and given it back and not even noticed it was expired. True story.)

I was terribly hungry, so I decided since I had a few hours, I would try to find my way back home and grab a bite to eat.

So I found my way home, noting I'd really taken the "long cut" by wandering through Administration and all those weird buildings and all I had to do was cross the street at the corner that had the Starbucks. Well, and the Quiznos on the opposite corner, because frankly every corner has a Starbucks. If I kept straight up a few blocks, it stopped being "College student bar and junk food land" and turned into heavily foliaged comforting homes land with a few shops and there was my house! So I jogged up the back steps and into our flat and was in the kitchen looking at how there was nothing in our refrigerator when I heard a flapping sound and looked over and saw a huge fish on the floor outside of our fish tank.

Mind you, we hadn't brought a fish tank with us, nor set one up, but there it was.  And this poor little fish--actually he wasn't so little; he was sort of Oscar-fish sized--clearly had a problem. Don't you think?

Now there was no way this fish could have jumped out of the tank since there was a cover on top, so I went to investigate. And I discovered a corner had a large hole. This defied all logic since water should also have been pouring out of the hole, not just a clever (or stupid) fish escaping via this method, but you know how physics is. The observation of something seems to make it so, so now that I'd realized water should be coming out, that's exactly what happened. Water started pouring out of the aquarium. Never mind that I didn't even know where this damn aquarium came from. I stuffed the fish back in the hole, grabbed the two split sides and shoved them back together and was standing there helplessly, holding them in place, trying to save all the fish from a certain floppy gasping death, when my girlfriend arrived.

We glued the sides of the aquarium back together and I dug out my schedule to show her. I still had no idea what the 7am class was, but she knew exactly what the "Feelings" class was. "Oh, that's an easy one to teach," she said. "You just give them an emotion and tell them to act it out."

"Shouldn't that be an acting class?"

"No, it's a pysch class. Only everybody who takes it is mentally challenged. It's meant to teach them how to express their feelings. In a healthy way."

What this had to do with geology was beyond me, but I was beyond hungry at this point. I started digging through my duffle bag and discovered a sort of "welcome" kit from the dept that had all kinds of coupons for food at various restaurants. There was one for the Starbucks. So I figured I'd grab a bite at Starbucks, go show my class how to emote, then walk down to the police station.

And that's when I regained consciousness, unable to move.