NEA Funding Cut is DEFEATED

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The face of satisfaction

I was away when this became news, but received this email from Mary E. Rasenberger, Executive Director of the The Authors Guild:

Thanks to the outcry of our members, artists, and supporters of the arts around the country, the Grothman Amendment to slash NEA and NEH funding was soundly defeated in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday by a vote of 297 to 114. Representative Grothman (R-WI) introduced the amendment Tuesday night, saying “I thought I would take just one little bit of this spending and kind of come down a little more on Donald Trump’s side.” He voiced support for Trump’s plan to completely defund the organizations, arguing that it isn’t the federal government’s responsibility to provide arts funding; rather, the arts should be supported by private organizations or local government. During the floor debate, Representatives on both sides of the aisle spoke out in support of the NEA. Representative Calvert (R-CA), who chairs the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, argued for the importance of NEA funding, describing an art therapy program for military veterans that has helped them recover from PTSD.

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fiscal Year 2019 Interior Appropriations Bill, and in it approved $155 million for the NEA, an increase of $2.2 million over the current funding level. While artists can breathe a (temporary) sigh of relief, the fact that this amendment was brought to the House floor after the organizations’ funding had been approved is a sign that we must all remain vigilant to ensure that these important cultural institutions, and the arts in general, continue to be supported by our government.

 

Sexism Pisses Me Off

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“We are not amused.”

Okay, so it’s no secret that I have a problem with blogging. I don’t mind it as a means of communication, but the idea of doing it regularly when I really don’t have anything worthwhile to say just seems like a waste of not only my time, but my readers’ time as well. So I don’t do it, and I’ll likely never have a slew of followers because of it, but I’d rather go for content than quantity.

This article from The Authors Guild makes me angry. The gist is that if a woman wants to earn more at her writing, she should publish under a male name. This nonsense has been going on for years, and I’m horrified (but not surprised) that it still stands.

Okay, so we all want to make money. But my sister-writers, if you give in to this, you are part of the problem. We need to help women writers be recognized on their own merits, not hidden behind a male name.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know.

Article Published in JEMA

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I’m very pleased to announce that my article “Return of the Elephant Man,” appears in the most recent JEMA,  Journal of the Elephant Managers Association, Volume 29, Number 1. The article is based on a portion of my book The Man Who Loved Elephantswhich tells the story of Roger Henneous and his 30 years working with elephants at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo (now the Oregon Zoo).

Ursula K. Le Guin

Just this week, I was reading No Time to Spare, a collection of essays by Ursula K. LeGuin and found myself thinking how much I would like to meet her.

On Monday, my window of opportunity closed forever.

Rest in Peace, dear lady. Thank you for your many words. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and laughter and for being honest with your readers. Thank you for Ged, and for Catwings. Thank you for so much.

And there’s this, from the first news article I read of her death:

“At the 2014 National Book Awards, Ms. Le Guin was given the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She accepted the medal on behalf of her fellow writers of fantasy and science fiction who, she said, had been “excluded from literature for so long” while literary honors went to the “so-called realists.”

“She also urged publishers and writers not to put too much emphasis on profits.

“I have had a long career and a good one,” she said, adding, “Here at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.”

We’ll miss you, Ursula.

Profanity & Writing

This blog post is brought to you by the confluence of two things: personal experience and and an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ms. Le Guin’s latest (?) book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, contains an essay titled, “Would You Please Fucking Stop?” In it, she observes “I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked … The imagination involved is staggering.”

What once was a shock word has become a noise to mean intensity. But should it? Or, rather, should it so easily? The word, as she points out, “has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.”

Why do I bring this up?

This week I was hunting online to find possible markets for a story I’d written. One specified that they adhered to a strict PG-13 criteria when choosing what to publish, so submitted work should contain no religion-based profanity, certainly no f-bombs, and maybe not even any shits, damns, or hells.

I knew of at least a couple fucks in my story, so I searched them out. Turned out there were more than a few; enough so I began to wonder how frequently profanity invades what I write (or how I speak) without my even realizing it. The answer? More than I’d like, and more than I’m proud of.

It was a gaming-changing moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I think profanity has its place, but it shouldn’t be overdone. I hadn’t thought I’d overdone it, but I found myself wondering whether my story would suffer if I removed not only the fucks, but the shits, damns, hells, and whatnot … or would it be improved?

Know what I discovered?

The lack of profanity hurt the story not one whit. The characters still were who they were, did what they were meant to do, and lost not an ounce of color or personality in the process.

Was I being lazy in using profanity? Maybe. Going forward, I intend to exert a touch more vigilance when it comes to writing and editing, to make my use of those words–as with all words–thoughtful rather than haphazard.

The work–and I–will be better for it.

No Such Thing As A Comfort Zone

tricksNote: This essay – edited here – originally appeared as a guest blog post on the website of author Stacey Longo.

 

No Such Thing as a Comfort Zone

“So,” says She Who Must Be Obeyed–aka SWMBO or, for ease of reading, Swumbo–otherwise known as the Fearless Leader of our writers’ group. “I’m putting out an anthology of scary stories by Connecticut authors in October.” In addition to being a writer, she is also a small press publisher. “I’m lining up several authors, living and dead.”

You’d have to know her to appreciate my momentary frisson, and the fleeting image that whips through my head of her in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York, dragging Mark Twain from his grave by one leg.

“I want two stories from each of you.” Focused on her laptop, she speaks to the air.

“Okay,” says Dan. He probably has a tattered Navy sea bag in his attic packed with so many stories that all he needs to do is dust off a couple and submit them.

“Okay,” says Terry, although it’s beyond me how she finds time to write with the work schedule she keeps.

“Okay,” says John, with only a slight outbreak of perspiration along his brow. He has so many irons in the fire that I’m pretty certain he doesn’t sleep more than an hour a night.

“Um …” says I.

Swumbo’s right eyebrow twitches, although her gaze never wavers from the computer screen. “Yes?” The frost in that single word warns, “Be careful where you tread, bitch.” It’s enough to make Sauron reconsider invading Middle Earth.

“Well,” I say, being the sort of fool who presses on where angels fear to go, “I don’t know if I’ll have time. I’m in the middle of revisions on the elephant book and need to make that my priority.”

I’m not weaseling and she knows it, but neither is she buying it. The eyebrow climbs a fraction higher. I can almost hear it creak.

“I can try.” Now I’m dithering. Swumbo has that effect on people. “I just can’t promise, and I don’t … really … write … horror.” This is true.

But.

Swumbo doesn’t give a rat’s toches. Slowly, like a leviathan stirring in its primordial ooze, she lifts her head and fixes me with a gimlet eye.

I wilt. “I guess I could rework an old piece.”

“Fuck you,” she says without rancor. For Swumbo, this is a term of endearment. “Just do it.”

#

Horror writing scares me. Yeah, I know … duh. What I really mean is that it intimidates me. The writing of horror requires, I believe, a gentle hand on the tiller. I don’t go in for the slash-and-burn, splash blood on the walls variety, but give me subtlety and I’m hooked. One example that comes immediately to mind is Stephen King’s The Shining. I tried to lay that book aside when the terror became immense, and failed spectacularly. I couldn’t not read it. That stinking story kept me up all night … and several nights afterward.

If I was going to write two stories for Swumbo, they needed to be my best work. Otherwise, I’d no business being in the craft. And if you aren’t a writer willing to challenge yourself, said a little voice at the back of my mind, why bother?

Damn it.

One of the thing I like best about being a writer is the opportunity to push boundaries–mine as well as those of other people–and conquer new territory. And here I was quailing at the thought of trying my hand at horror? Shame on me!

Somewhere, somewhen, I’d read that Stephen King conjures up the things that scare him when considering subjects to write about. I thought about vacant  houses … dolls … clowns (well, we all know that one has been done up tight with a pretty bow) … nightmares … ghosts … vampires …

And then I remembered the house I’d grown up in, a 200-year-old former way station; a house so old that the attic beams bore tree bark and were held together by hand-forged spikes. The field stone cellar had a dirt floor and smelled of ancient dust, an odor like the grave. Cobwebs draped the ceiling joists. Shadows loomed in the corners where oddments of family junk were stored.

I walked closer; afraid, yes, but willing to take a look at what was piled there. A bone emerged. It was a slender one, a fibula maybe, but enough to build around, enough to stand on if I could only find a foot …

It took several weeks, but in the end Swumbo looked at me after reading my submission (“The Cellar,” Tricks and Treats: A Collection of Spooky Stories by Connecticut Authors) and smiled with pride. “I knew you could do it,” she said.

I grinned. Better yet, knew it.

At Odds with the World

bookcoverNote: This piece–written at the behest of host John King and here re-edited–appeared May 2015 on The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life.

At Odds with the World: How Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” Changed My Life

I was eight in the winter of 1965; the youngest of three daughters, raised essentially as an only child since my much older half-sisters had escaped years earlier–one into marriage and child-rearing, the other to college.

My parents weren’t bad people, but their lack of interest in parenting in general–and me in particular–was inescapable. At family gatherings I bobbed at the edge of things, a scrap of generational flotsam beneath the notice of all but the most teasingly abusive older cousins. Lost without realizing it, unanchored as only an ignored child can be, I might in time have easily drifted into bad company and worse behavior were it not for Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

I came to the book by way of the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim. With Christmas looming, grade school excitement had ramped up to uncontrollable levels. In a bid to curb our exuberance and retain what little remained of their sanity, our teachers decided to forego the usual lessons in favor of a seasonal movie. I remember our class being marched across the hall to join the students in another room, sitting two-by-two on desk tops as other children packed into chairs lined up in the aisles. The lights dimmed and the projector began its soft tac-tac-tac-tac as the reel unwound. The opening chords of sepulchral music, dismal and foreboding as a funeral dirge, silenced any stray whispers. Mesmerized, I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge unfold.

Rather than yet another childish yarn with animals, contrived bits of danger, and a happily ever after resolution, this story had meat in it; hearty food tough to chew and swallow, but more real than anything I’d ever experienced. Though I was terrified by Jacob Marley’s wailing spirits and the Ghost of Christmas Future, dismissive of treacly Tiny Tim (far too good to bear any resemblance to a real child), and amused by kind-hearted Bob Cratchit and the boisterous, holiday-loving Fred, my heart belonged to Scrooge. From the first “Humbug!” his transformative journey hit me where I lived. Here was another soul at odds with the world, adrift and alone. His story offered me the opportunity to examine my own life through his lens, and it laid clear the choice of paths I might follow.

But it wasn’t until I read the book that I discovered gravy for the film’s meat. I’d watched the movie, but I immersed myself in the words, reveling in my new-found friend, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching covetous old sinner.” In the story of that doomed soul, redeemed not just through the kindness of others and their belief that somewhere inside him lay a beating heart, but also by his own marvelous discovery that he deserved–and desired–a happy life, I found the resolve to move beyond the bare bones of my world and (so I hoped) avoid my own lonely corner of a cemetery.

A Christmas Carol has become such standardized holiday fare that it seems a homogenized lump, barely noticed by most people. Scrooge is perceived as nothing more than a one-dimensional cut-out of a man; a simple villain redeemed by goodness when, in fact, he is the fabled Hero of countless legends, enduring three trials to gain his reward. Scrooge is Everyman. He is us, our imperfections laid stark against a backdrop of Victorian England. In him we glimpse the possibility of our own salvation, a chance to repent, an opportunity to make-over our mistakes and create a different sort of life.

Like all of us, Scrooge is molded by experience and self-perception, constantly balanced on the cusp of choice. Which path to choose is the question that overtakes him again and again, but it’s never so simple a decision as that of good versus evil. Scrooge is not an evil man; he is damaged beyond repair or so he believes, hidden behind walls of his own creation in the misguided notion that retreat and seclusion will spare him further pain.

Rejection is the theme that fuels Scrooge and the thread that united him with me. Having been rebuffed and disappointed so often (either in truth or in perception), he would rather turn his back first than give anyone the opportunity to get close. Dickens paints the picture well: “The cold within him froze his old features, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him …” and goes on further to describe Scrooge as edging “his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”

Small wonder I felt a shiver at our first encounter.

Any sort of parable runs the risk of dry boredom. For a moral story to work, it must engage its readers in ways they don’t at first comprehend, drawing them in, teaching without seeming to. How better to do that then to engage our imaginations by bringing a world and its inhabitants to vibrant life? Dickens’s wintry London isn’t merely cold. “The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed and turned to misanthropic ice.” Jacob Marley’s face, appearing in place of the door knocker, is no vague image but “… had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.” The Ghost of Christmas Past, rather than being a solitary image we might easily dismiss, is a figure ” … fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body …”

Dickens set his story at Christmas in order to draw a stark contrast between the perceived general goodwill of that season and the dismal psychological prison where Scrooge hides, but it’s hardly a Christmas tale alone and remains, in its simple truth, a story to be recalled and celebrated at any time of year. In fact, it may be that the tale is strongest out-of-season, when the lesson it teaches isn’t hidden within the ornate trappings of present-day Christmas.

Scrooge, redeemed, does not second-guess his transformation or question the events of that propitious night, but accepts that “Some people laughed to see the alternation in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset … His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

THE END

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To paraphrase Dickens: “Howard was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

Funny thing about this piece is, it was only as I was recording this, hearing my voice speak the word’s I’d written, that I realized it  was more about my father, Howard Limbacher–dead three years at that point–than about Scrooge or me. That epiphany brought some much-needed insight into why my dad had behaved the way he did; why he kept not only the world, but also his entire family, at arm’s length; why he lashed out, intent on causing hurt before he could be hurt; and how broken his perceptions were of the people around him.

I don’t know the reasons why he was the way he was, although I have my guesses. His mother was caustic; haphazard in the love she showed her children (if it can, indeed, be called love). I suspect abuse of one form or another. It made Dad withdrawn, while at the same time yearning for love and friendship. He wanted to trust, but couldn’t. I think he was monumentally lonely; insecure; depressed, his self-esteem nil, and deeply hurt by life. I wish that, like Scrooge, he could have found his way past all that to reclaim the life that was his for the asking.