Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Letting Go

The art of losing isn’t hard to master; 
So many things seem filled with the intent 
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.  


It’s human nature to hang on. I’ve never been an accumulator of things, and I’m actively stupid about money, but that does not seem to make it any easier to let go. I made Dizzy, my dog, live too long in pain and confusion because I was too sad to let him go; delaying the sorrow didn’t make it any easier, and might have made it worse. I’ve stayed in jobs too long. I’ve lived in apartments too long. I’ve kept trying in relationships where it was obvious to everyone but me that I was wasting my time. I can look back on all these situations and see exactly where I should have walked away, but each new situation is just as hard as all the last ones were.

Last weekend I tagged along with friends to the House of Broel, a unique New Orleans structure that combines an events hall with a dollhouse museum and an exhibit of designer dresses, in a Garden District mansion that was built and expanded before The War. House tours are available by appointment only, and conducted by the home’s owner, Countess Bonnie Broel — the “Countess” is a legacy from her father, who fled Russia during the revolution.

Countess Broel is a small, glamorous, brisk woman of a certain age who distills everything that’s great about New Orleans, and possibly everything that’s great about Americans. She used to live in the House of Broel, and she used to run a couture business from its first floor. Her husband left her just before Katrina, and Katrina wiped out her business. She moved to the property’s carriage house, created a family foundation to preserve the home and its collections, wrote an autobiography and is now selling three of her dollhouses in order to protect the property after her death. She is energetic and gallant and shows no outward sign of mourning the three dollhouses for sale; she cares only that they bring in enough money to justify their loss.

The dollhouses are extraordinary. The website says they “must be seen to be believed,” and that is the literal truth. No description could do them justice. Constructed over a period of fifteen years, they are full of painstaking detail: miniature furniture, rugs, artworks, knick-knacks, and beautifully costumed figures who live imaginary lives in their rooms. Countess Broel told us that she’d begun creating the dollhouses as a project with her young son, and then become — well, she might not have used the word “obsessed,” but that’s the word that seems to fit.

The masterpiece of the dollhouse collection is a vast recreation of a Russian dacha that runs along one full wall of the second floor’s hallway, and stands at least ten feet high. The Countess said she had wanted to imagine what her father’s life had been like before he left Russia, and the result is a combination of Tolstoy and the Arabian nights, topped by an attic observatory with a tiny telescope and astrolabe.

The collection moved me, and the thought that the Countess is starting to sell it off moves me even more. The dollhouses represent so many possible lives, so many imaginary homes that are permanently luxurious and happy, never deserted and never torn apart by storms. But she seems content with her decision, satisfied with the thought of trading these precious creations for something that matters more to her.

This is what I focus on, what is directly relevant to me at this point in my life, as I too contemplate letting go of some things: what, if anything, am I trading those things for? As I let go, is it loss, or is it more like a trapeze I relinquish so I can grab on to the next one? Does letting go of one thing mean I get to keep something else, and if so, what might that be?

I don’t mean to be cryptic, only to find the universal in some specific questions we all eventually have to wrestle with. I’m grateful to Bonnie Broel and her collections for giving me a prism through which to consider them. And I wonder what my own dollhouses might look like.

Photo from the House of Broel Dollhouse Museum Gallery.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On Homeland

It’s fifteen years today since the United States suffered its first coordinated attack on our continent. Fourteen years and eleven months since the United States invaded Afghanistan; fourteen years and ten months since Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act; thirteen years and ten months since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; thirteen years and six months since we started combat operations in Iraq; five years and four months since US forces killed Osama bin Laden.

My 13-year-old nephews and 10-year-old niece have never lived in a time when the United States was not at war. They have no memory of a time when you could drive past or even park in front of the White House. They have grown up in a world of metal detectors and “If you see something, say something.” See what has never been specified, nor has say what, nor has to whom.

In this new world, “what” is anything strange or other — and “strange or other” is proving itself to be the ultimate test of the American ideal.

Last month I had the opportunity to go to Belfast, and through the generosity of a friend took a Black Taxi tour of the political murals in the city’s Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. A steel wall runs through the city, still, dividing Protestant and Catholic territory. Catholics are no longer prohibited from living on the Protestant side — but the murals, and the sectarian flags that fly on almost every lamppost, send the clear message: You are not welcome here.

As an American Catholic of Irish descent, I felt those flags as a warning.

I always knew, growing up white in the South, that the Confederate flag was offensive. But until I saw the green flag commemorating the centennial of the Battle of the Somme, and the white Ulster Banner, and the blue UFF flag, I did not understand that the Confederate flag is not just a symbol, but a message. That message is: this is our country, not yours. This is our history, not yours. You are a trespasser.

What could possibly be more un-American than that? The United States was founded as a nation whose citizens are bound not by ethnicity or any inherited attributes, not by religion, not by economic status, but by mutual commitment to shared ideals — those ideals being not only life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, but the right of every citizen to participate in government, to own property, to move freely within the country, to speak without fear of government reprisal, and to expect equal justice under the law.

New American citizens swear to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” The very first amendment to the Constitution specifies that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is literally in the DNA of our nation.

With the few exceptions of entirely pure-blooded native Americans, all of us are descended from people who chose that American ideal and were lucky enough to find welcome here — or from people who were brought to this country without their consent, enslaved, and left to survive as best they could after liberation. To pretend that the descendants of willing immigrants and the descendants of enslaved people experience the United States in the same way is delusional — but we can still move together to embrace that ideal going forward, can’t we?

Regardless of how we got here, we’re all Americans now. And being American has nothing to do with your religion or your ethnicity or your socioeconomic standard, but with whether you agree on the fundamental rights of humanity as laid out by our Constitution.

This ideal has been a beacon to the world for 240 years. If we let it be chipped away because of the actions of 19 terrorists fifteen years ago, then they won after all.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

On Storytelling and Tragedy

This morning, as the East Coast wakes up to realize last night's news from Paris was not just a terrible dream, I am thinking once again of W.H. Auden's poem about Bruegel's painting of Icarus, "Musée des Beaux Arts." I know I've written about this before.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Today I have laundry to do. I have a ticket to Georgetown Basketball's home opener, and was planning to get there early enough to snag a Jack the Bulldog bobblehead. I have a ton of work to do before I flee the country next week: a newsletter to write for one client, a Wikipedia bio for another, four (!) manuscripts to be edited, and the usual social media stuff, which includes promoting a client's book event, happening tomorrow.

It all feels a little trivial, and yet that is exactly what it is not. Like Brueghel's ship, we have somewhere to get to, and sail calmly on. And the book stuff, especially, is not trivial, because storytelling in situations like this is what heals us and keeps us going.

In the days to come we will hear stories of kindness and heroism. These will be the stories we remember, the stories that survive. We repeat the stories that remind us of our best selves, we create the stories that describe the world as we wish it could be. Nothing, nothing is more important than that. We can be better than we are. The story does not end, as long as we keep telling it.

Tell someone that story today. Tell yourself.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Social Media for Readers — The Basics

A while ago, I posted a list of basic social media guidelines for authors. This morning, looking over a few clients' social media feeds, I feel the need to post some guidelines for readers.

Before you get all indignant and worked up, I'll reassure you: I think it's wonderful that social media lets readers connect with authors. As a reader, I love being able to keep track of upcoming books and events via my favorite authors' Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. I know authors who have built hilarious, caring communities online, and when it all works well, it benefits everyone. I know lots of authors who have made personal, in-real-life friends among readers via social media.

As in any social setting, however, missteps are bound to occur. I'm willing to give the vast majority of people the benefit of the doubt, and assume that when people do say or do something inappropriate, it's not from malice, but because they don't know any better.

All of the following guidelines are based on the fact that social media interactions are public. Having someone you admire Tweet back at you, or reply to a comment on Facebook, can feel like getting a gold star —literally, because that's how you mark a Tweet as a "favorite." That feeling of being noticed, recognized, acknowledged and rewarded is what we're all on social media for. It's lovely, isn't it? There's nothing like it. But this interaction happens on a platform that is open to the entire world. It's not a kiss behind a closet door; it's a high-five on a football field. Therefore, rule #1 is this:

Do not make a comment, post a link or share a photo that the recipient would be uncomfortable receiving in a public place that includes his or her parents, spouse, children, employers and clients. Any public figure's social media account is his or her virtual office. Social media is a dangerous place for private jokes, even with the people you're closest to. 

Do say hello, let the author know if you liked the latest book, ask about upcoming events, post photos taken at public events, ask questions about the book and the characters (respecting concerns about spoilers, below). Do understand that most authors have a full-time job other than writing, so maintaining social media networks might be something they have time for only after everything else — after they've gotten home from work, met their daily word count, had dinner with their families, put the kids to bed, etc., etc. Please be understanding if timely responses aren't always possible.

And a few corollaries:
  • Spoilers. Personally, I don't care about spoilers. I was lucky enough to see both The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense before anyone told me the endings, and if someone out there still doesn't know that Keyser Soze is [REDACTED], I don't feel responsible for keeping them in the dark. But basic courtesies apply, especially in situations where a book's publishing date varies by countries. Social media is international. If you wouldn't have wanted to know before you read the book, don't mention it in a public electronic forum without marking it as a spoiler. How do you do that on Facebook or Twitter? Good question. You could try starting the post with the word SPOILER in large angry letters, then hitting a couple of returns before posting the meat of your comments. Or you could ask the page administrator to set up a private area for discussion; Facebook lets you do that. Or you could wait a year.
  • Corrections. It happens to me, too: errors in spelling, punctuation, timelines, geography, word usage, etc. jump off the page and sometimes pull me out of the story. I hate when that happens. But it does happen, and in a book of 125,000 words, it might happen more than once. (And as I always say, most heart surgeons would be happy with a rate of two errors per 125,000 words.) If it really, really, really bothers you and you think it might bother other people too, it might be possible to correct the text for the paperback edition or the e-book. In that case, the polite thing to do is to send an email to the author via his or her website. Almost every author on Facebook will have a personal website that lets you do this. Better yet, send an email to the book's publisher. Leaving these corrections on someone's public Facebook wall, or Tweeting them in the public newsfeed, is the online equivalent of standing up in a cafeteria and announcing that someone has a mysterious stain on their trousers. 
  • Promoting your own book/services. It's rude to promote yourself on someone else's professional page or news feed, regardless of the circumstance. Don't do it.
  • Demanding quid-pro-quo. Following someone on Twitter or Facebook does not obligate them to follow you back, or to like your page. If you're following people on Twitter or liking their pages solely in an attempt to get likes and follows for yourself, you're doing social media wrong. You might benefit from my earlier post
  • Harassment/Stalking/Trolling. Everybody on social media knows someone who's left a network because it became too unfriendly or scary a place. Some people, sad to say, actually enjoy that. If you're a troll, you know that you are, and this post isn't for you. You already believe the world's a rotten place, and you want the online community to be just as rotten. Know this, though: most of us disagree with you. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Angels Unaware

Yesterday, I stiffed Jesus. And I maybe, possibly, was the victim of a con artist. Both of these things may be true.

I had gone up to New York for a couple of days to see people who were in town for Thrillerfest, the annual gathering of the International Thriller Writers. It was a good time, but a lot of travel for a relatively quick visit. New York was hot and crowded and I have lost another small chunk of my field of vision, so just getting around the city is tenser than it used to be: I walk in front of people, I can't see people who are right in front of me (hi, Mark!), and that kind of concentrated socializing is exhausting when I'm used to spending days alone in front of a computer.

So when I got off the bus last night in Arlington, trudging into the Rosslyn Metro for the last leg home, I was tired and cranky and even a little bus-sick. A large woman about my age, dressed nicely with some dramatic eyeliner, was sitting with a cane right outside the Metro entrance.

"Excuse me," she said. "Do you live here? Are you from here?"

"Yes," I said.

"Can you talk to me for a minute?" she asked, so I stopped.

On the verge of tears, she told me a long and complicated story I had trouble following. She had gotten into a car accident that morning; she had gone to work, on a Saturday, at a Department of Commerce office in north Arlington. She had recently moved to this area from Atlanta, and was living with her mother in St. Charles, MD, a town so far from DC that I might not even call it an exurb. The bus to St. Charles wasn't running on the weekend, she said, and she was stranded. She needed $89 and change, an oddly specific number, to get a cab driver to take her home. She didn't have access to her bank account, which was in Atlanta. She had bone cancer, she said, which was why she had the cane.

I had a dollar in my wallet. I told her so. "There's an ATM right in there," she said. "I'll pay you back."

I remembered a time I had been stranded at an airport at the end of a trip, without enough money to get my car out of airport parking. My parents had bailed me out that time, and the manager of the airport hotel had let me eat at the breakfast buffet while I waited for the money to hit my account.

"I can give you $40," I said.

She walked with me to the ATM, and I took out $60 — that's what the ATM quick-withdrawal option dispenses, so I just hit that button. I gave it to her with my business card, and she said she'd pay me back. I wished her luck and went down the escalator to catch my own train. She had told me her name, but I can't remember it.

This morning, I wish I could. I wonder whether and how she got home. And I wonder why I didn't just give her $100. I could have. It's not money I can easily spare; a freelancer's life is a constant scramble, and this is the first year in 15 years of self-employment that I have any breathing room at all.

But, but, but. Jesus talked in parables, but on this question, he was absolutely clear. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

It's actually none of my business whether this woman was truly in need, or a scam artist. She presented herself to me as someone in distress, someone in need. She asked me, personally, for help. It was in my power to help her and I did it halfway. 

I don't feel great about this. I want to be the person who would rather get ripped off than turn her back on someone in trouble. I have tunnel vision in more ways than one, and I don't always see when the people closest to me need help and can't or won't ask. I'm going to be thinking about this encounter for a long time, and wondering what a whole-hearted response to that woman would have been. 



Sunday, July 05, 2015

Because America (no, really)

My younger sisters and their families came up to Washington to celebrate Independence Day this weekend. It's something I had come to take for granted in the years after college, something that was at best irrelevant to me and at worst an inconvenience (tourists on the Metro, traffic, loud noises from fireworks I couldn't see). But yesterday morning we all headed into our nation's capital in the pouring rain, hoping to see a reading of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives.

A woman on the street told us the reading had been cancelled for security concerns. I hope that's not true, and I couldn't find anything in this morning's paper to confirm that. Nevertheless, the line to get into the National Archives wrapped around the building, so we worked our way over to the part of the Mall where the Folklife Festival would be starting in another hour or two.

We had forgotten about the National Independence Day Parade, which was starting from 7th & Constitution at 11:45. It takes a while to get a parade that size organized, so we walked among floats and bands and people inflating giant balloons. The rain backed off, and everyone seemed happy to be there. The bands had come from all over the country — it's an honor but it's also hugely expensive, and I wondered how many bake sales, car washes, wrapping paper drives, etc. had gone into those appearances.

In our neverending political cycle, we hear angry people talk about "taking this country back." As I walked past a float sponsored by the Sikhs of America, I wondered, not for the first time: back from whom? Back to what?

The Sikhs were walking the Smokey the Bear balloon, and a Vietnamese-American group was walking the giant American eagle. One float carried clowns (Coulro-Americans?) and another carried cloggers. A Chinese-American group marched behind a man on horseback, dressed as the Lone Ranger. The Salvation Army Band led things off, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness followed about half a mile behind. I've never felt so American in my life, so joyful to be part of this nutty country where we are bound not by genetics or heritage or history, but by belief — belief in the self-evident truth that all are created equal, endowed by the Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Start with those, and the right to walk down Constitution Avenue holding a giant inflated orange lizard goes without saying.

This country has never been about "back" to anything. The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution would have mocked the idea of "returning" to anything. They set out to create something entirely new, and they expected that it would continue to evolve as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

I empathize more than I want to with some of the people who talk about "taking the country back." Some of them have been friends of mine since high school or college. They did everything the way they were supposed to: they stepped up and took responsibility when they might not have wanted to, they went to school and applied for jobs and paid their taxes, and watched other people get chosen and promoted above them, including some they consider stupider, lazier and less qualified. Today's Republican Party offers them the fantasy of a time when they could reap the rewards of that struggle, but the ugly truth is that time never existed. The 1950s era of prosperity? Funded by the GI bill and VA housing loans, with a top income tax rate above 90%.

Growth and prosperity have always, always been driven by the people who bring something new to the party, who don’t do what they’re supposed to, who challenge received wisdom and are willing to take a risk. Some of those people were marching in yesterday's parade, and I was proud to be cheering them from the sidewalk.

Friday, June 12, 2015

(Almost) All My Controversial Opinions in One Place

I’m on social media a lot for both pleasure and work, and the temptation to speak my mind about things other people will disagree with sometimes gets overwhelming. Rather than post things 140 characters at a time, I’m putting them all up here to 1) get them off my chest and 2) make myself a handy target for concentrated outrage so I can ignore it all in one place.

In no particular order, here goes:

The story of your life is about what you pay attention to. Pay attention to the people and things you love. Ignore the people and things you don’t. Fix what you can. Say yes as often as possible. Start every disagreement with the thought, “Could I be wrong here? And what are the consequences if I am?”

We should all live as our best selves, whatever we believe that to be. The overwhelming press coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition makes me feel I’ve been trapped on an airplane next to someone who wants to tell me about her hysterectomy. It is none of my business. I didn’t ask, and I don’t want to know. Please let me get back to my book. Do you mind if I put my headphones on?  

None of my business is a good way to get through life, except when you see someone in pain. Other people’s pain is everybody’s business. Other people’s joy is not, especially if it doesn’t interfere with your own.

Humor is based on shared assumptions, because it’s about surprise and inappropriate juxtapositions. When you ask, “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” you're really asking, “Don’t you share my assumptions about how the world’s supposed to work?”

We need to reinstitute mandatory national service: two years for everybody between high school and college, no exceptions except for profound disabilities. It doesn’t have to be military service alone. People could choose health care, infrastructure, education, community policing, sanitation. But we must have a system that brings people from disparate parts of our society together for a common goal, and shows people the work that goes into keeping it all running.

We need to have a national conversation about why we have police, and what we expect from our police forces. Some places probably need to disband their current police forces and rebuild them from scratch. Same goes for the prison system. No private citizen needs an assault weapon.

My personal pro-life credentials are pretty hard to challenge, but I don’t want to live in a society that enforces laws against abortion.

If you didn’t like a book, you didn’t like it. That’s fine. I don’t care for most seafood. That does not mean seafood is bad. I’m not going to go online and post one-star reviews of seafood restaurants — why would I do that? I’ll just go to a steakhouse instead. Bookstores work the same way.

Nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention. Boredom is exhaustion, depression or laziness.

We all start from a position of ignorance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either. Until we admit our ignorance, we can’t learn what we need to know.

If Fox News or MSNBC is your only news source, you’re keeping your world very small. That can feel like a safe thing to do, but the bigger world and the broader conversations are happening without you.

 If God is infinite, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, our feeble human brains aren’t big enough to comprehend the true and complete nature of God. Sorry, we’re not. Every attempt is an approximation. I have my way, which is about feeling part of the community that produced me. You have a different way. God is big enough to welcome us all. If God can walk the earth as a living man — which I believe — God can also be a many-armed woman, or a bird-man made of gold. We can’t know. The whole point of faith is that it isn’t knowledge.

Most of what we can know comes down to ratios and patterns, things we identify as recurring. Color charts, musical scales, units of measurement.

Spelling counts. Vocabulary matters. The way we speak changes the way we think. We can feel things we have no words for, but we cannot know things we don’t have words or symbols for. Our names for things change the way we see them. The first time I heard my nephews say “firefighter” when I would have said “fireman,” I almost cried.

Because this is true, we need to be careful about the words we use for terrible things. Inconveniences and annoyances aren’t traumas, they’re part of life in the mosh pit. If you call a single unwelcome remark “harassment,” you are interfering with justice for the people who are truly harassed. Poison's in the dosage.

Last but not least, “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” Repeat that. “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.” One more time: “I disagree” does not mean “You’re wrong.”

Thanks, I feel better now. Feel free to disagree in the comments, which will be moderated.