The Practice of Apology

It happens often in the book world–sometimes it seems every other week these days. An author, usually a white woman, releases a book relying on the misguided use of a racial trope. The writing community of color calls her on it. She issues an apology which, knowingly or not, glosses over the real issues, and the community of color responds with more ire. And people look at the apology, and shake their heads, and ask, “How hard can it be to say you’re sorry?”

How hard can it be?

Yesterday I wrote a preface for my book, The Parting Glass:

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(In 2010, when I wrote the first draft of The Parting Glass, I was a good deal less aware of issues of race and cultural appropriation than I am today. Considering myself a fairly decent and enlightened person, I thought drawing on my own experience of life was enough. Consequently, I made some choices for the book that make me cringe when I read it today. The character of John Stonefeather relying heavily on the trope of “alcoholic Indian” is one, as is Timber’s practice of something I refer to as “Native American shamanism,” and even Sage’s role as the sassy Black girlfriend. It isn’t enough to say I didn’t intend to be disrespectful in any way, or that I did draw from and embellish people and situations from my real life. I made bad choices I would not make today, and I’m sorry for that.

I can’t rewrite the book at this late date, and I’m not going to pull it from publication because despite the flaws I’m still proud of it and I like the story of how Caitlin and Timber first met, which is central to the book and unfortunately relies on the more problematic elements. But I have tried to do better since writing this book, and I will continue to do so. It’s important to me that marginalized voices be heard, and that bad stereotypes not be perpetuated.

Thank you for reading this.)

I added it to every edition, and most of them are already available. I did it, not because anyone called me out on the book’s problematic elements–no one has; the book hasn’t a far enough reach to cause a stir of any proportion at all. I did it because as I gained awareness of the issues involved, the fact that I unthinkingly used bad tropes bothered me more and more, until I couldn’t let it go any longer without doing something.

How hard could it be? I’ll tell you: It was hard.

When I wrote the book, from 2010 – 2012, I considered myself fairly enlightened. It was only as I got more involved in social media, and concurrently social justice, that I began to see how very problematic some of the basic premises were. This was after I’d already published the book, and I didn’t want to let it go.

Again, I wasn’t involved in any confrontation; all of the relevant conversations happened in the “what if?” space of my head. What if someone called me out? What if I got attacked? What if? What would I say?

My first instincts were not the best. At least I didn’t dismiss the inner challenge out of hand, but that’s the best I can say of myself. I got defensive. I justified. I told myself, “Yes, but I based this character on a real person and I based this experience on a real experience! I only embellished and made it bigger, so it would be story-worthy.” I told myself since I knew a Native person with substance abuse issues in my past, putting one in my book was okay. Likewise with white people who had studied with Native teachers, likewise with every other problematic thing in the book. I also told myself since the core of the story isn’t about those problematic tropes, it was okay. (Spoiler: It kind of is and it kind of isn’t, and it’s not okay.) I told myself the Native people I know personally assure me I’m a good person, so I couldn’t be doing something really out of line.

After I told myself all these things, I ignored the problem. I said I’d address it if it ever became an issue. And I tried to forget. For four years, I tried to forget. In the meantime, I turned out three more books, each getting a little more aware, and a little more diverse, and a little better regarding the kind of world I want to portray and the kind of world I want to see manifest. It’s been a bit of a challenge, considering the realities of the geographical setting of my book series (rural Colorado, which I know well since I live there). But gradually I’ve added more People of Color, more LGBTQ+ representation, more diverse viewpoints. I hope I haven’t done it too badly.

Currently, I’m rereading my own books to refresh myself on the world and the overall series arc before plunging ahead into book eight. Saturday night, I started The Parting Glass. It’s always been a joy for me to read that particular volume, as it’s one of my favourites. This time, however, I hadn’t got through the first chapter before I started cringing. Could I really have used those tropes in that way? Yes, yes, I did. Wow. I wouldn’t do that now.

A book is a moment in an author’s life; it shows how they thought, what they considered important, and perhaps how they felt at a particular time and place of life. People learn, and grow, and change, and I did all three more than I had thought. I couldn’t bear the idea of someone picking up the book with its problematic elements without my making a public apology. So yesterday I wrote the short preface above.

How hard could it be? It was hard. It took me four years of growth before I did it, and even when I sat down to work I wasn’t sure I could say I was sorry and mean it. I think I managed. And one last time, I came to this without people riding me and demanding I grow all in an instant, while supportive friends of color told me I wasn’t a bad person. I like to think if I’d been confronted earlier I would have stepped up to the plate, but I know myself too well for that. Probably I’d have dug in and become even more defensive, reached for more justification.

This isn’t to say people should let authors alone and not challenge problematic elements in books; they absolutely should do so, because if people stay silent, others never learn at all. When I acknowledge how hard it was for me to come to the point of apology, it’s to say to other authors that I get that it’s hard. AND because it’s hard, we have to practice. Practice listening. Practice saying, “I did a wrong thing, and I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if I offended anyone…” or “I’m sorry, but this is what I really meant…” Just, “I’m sorry. I will do better in the future. I will do my best.”

When learning an instrument, you don’t practice scales because you’re ever going to perform scales for the public. You practice scales because they teach your body the way your instrument works and the combinations of notes you’re likely to find in a piece, so when you are performing you can do the right thing without thinking about it. In a similar way, authors need to practice apology. If and when someone confronts you, don’t react at once. Don’t take it personally if and when someone calls you on a problematic element. Take a breath. Refuse the urge to justify and dig in. If you can, ask for clarification, but realize this may not be possible. When you do respond, just say, “I’m sorry.” Ask how you can make it better, and offer to do so, if that’s possible. If you can’t make it better in the moment or in the near future, promise to do better. That’s it. Marginalized people don’t want our justifications; they’ve heard way too many already. If you have privilege in an area–if you’re white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical–it’s incumbent upon you to listen and do better.

How hard can it be? Hard, and that’s okay. What’s not okay is refusing to learn.

 

 

 

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Sneak Peek of the next Caitlin Ross novel!

So…I kind of accidentally started working on the eighth book in the Caitlin Ross series, The Sun and the Moon. Here’s a brief excerpt to pique your interest! Remember, if you’re new to the series you have SEVEN books to catch up on before you’re ready for this one.That should get you through a major portion of your Goodreads challenge for the year! Enjoy!

(From Chapter Two)
“Timber.”
The sheriff stops to clear his throat, and now he’s positively terrified. They’re on the last-name basis of male buddies, MacDuff and Bruce to each other, seldom more. That Bruce has strayed outside the lines of their well-defined relationship means something is amiss. Still, no good comes of jumping to conclusions; it may not be personal. Perhaps Bruce needs his input on a professional matter. He has, over the years, and sometimes, then, when he has to admit things happen beyond his ken, his habitual composure cracks.
He’s lying to himself, and he knows it.
“Hank.” He grips the other’s hand, hard enough to make him wince. “What’s going on?”
“I need you to come with me, Timber. There’s been…an incident.”
The sheriff’s tone destroys hope. Images flood his brain: a car flipped, Caitlin and the bairn bleeding, dead. His throat dries at once.
“What is it? Caitlin…Sammie, are they all right? Are they—?” Alive, he wants to say, but he can’t get the word out.
“Your daughter is fine. Caitlin is….”
“WHAT?”
He’s aware that, behind his back, every head on the site has turned to look at him. With an effort, he lowers his voice.
“Tell me. Tell me now, fast.” Make the wound quick, like ripping off a bandage, so you can’t feel the pain of skin tearing.
Bruce shoves his hat up to scratch his head. “She’s had some kind of episode in the park, I guess. Hallucinating. Started screaming. Babbling about vines. Or that’s what the mom who called the ambulance said. They took her to Triangle Hospital in restraints.”
His heart sinks when he hears the word “episode;” he knows what this is. What triggered it, though? Surely She wouldn’t have had call to work a great magic in the park. It doesn’t matter; She needs him. Before Bruce finishes the last sentence, he’s halfway to the truck, pausing only at the door to ask after his child.
“And Sammie?” His voice snags on his daughter’s name.
Bruce scurries to catch up. “CPS has her for now. It’s not my jurisdiction, you know, but I knew you’d be working up here. So…look, follow me and I’ll get you to Triangle fast. Full siren all the way.”
The drive to Triangle takes forever, and he can scarce keep his mind on the road. What could have triggered one of Caitlin’s mad events? And Her alone with the wean and him not there to guide Her? Praise all gods for the kindness of strangers! But maybe not the one god. That god whose name it’s better not to speak. He doesn’t know, exactly, what it is between that god and his wife, but he’d have to be deaf, dumb, blind and stupid not to know there’s something. And he knows enough about that god to make a connection between him and Caitlin’s odd spells. Hasn’t he seen them often enough? And hasn’t he seen what the god can do with a drink or a tap of his staff?
Knowing he couldn’t have foreseen it, could not have been there, he still blames himself. Whatever comes of it is on his head, and whatever has to be done about it is his to do.

Writing the Female Gaze

ThePartingMirror_ front_smallI’ve written seven novels in my Caitlin Ross series now, and unless the coming release of The Well Below the Valley changes things, the one that has prompted the most divisive opinions among readers is The Parting Glass. There are a lot of reasons I’d expect this to be the case–my PoC characters rely too much on tired tropes, for example. But that’s not what I hear. Simply put, reader response falls into two camps: Those who like Romance novels love it, and those who don’t, don’t. They see the entire second act, which focuses on Caitlin and Timber’s developing relationship, as a distraction from the main story. If they’ve started at the beginning of the series, which most have, they’ve read three books of magic and action by this point. They want more magic and action, not this icky love stuff, thank you.

This interests me.

When I started the series, I didn’t set out to write Romance. In fact, I set out NOT to write Romance. (I didn’t set out to write a series, either, but that’s beside the point, I guess.) I did, however, have two specific agenda. First of all, I wanted to portray a true-to-life Witch rather than a sensationalized one. As you’ll know if you’ve read the books, I did end up giving Caitlin some extraordinary powers because doing without them became far too complicated and adding them kept things interesting. For the most part, though, I stick to the thought process, actions, and world view one would expect from a long time practicing Pagan. I also wanted to present exceptional Tarot readings, because at the point where I began I was sick to death of every Urban Fantasy author inserting an obligatory Tarot scene when they obviously knew nothing whatsoever of the subject beyond reading the little pamphlet that comes with the deck.

Second, I wanted to show a realistic relationship between a stable, long-term couple who, though they disagree and even argue from time to time, actually communicate pretty well. That’s why I started the series with Caitlin and Timber several years into their marriage. I wanted to avoid the inevitable “sorting out” period every relationship goes through. In fact, I didn’t want the book to be about their relationship at all. I wanted the relationship to be part of the setting, like the house or the town: an interesting backdrop for events, rather than an event in and of itself.

I had numerous reasons for wanting to do this. I enjoy the occasional Romance, especially those that are well-written and/or have an interesting premise. However, stand-alone Romance novels tend to rely on certain tropes I’m not fond of. Even those with “strong” heroines often fall back on traditional gender roles. The hero may start out as kind of an asshole, at least on the surface, and it’s up to the heroine to pierce his soft center and get him to recognize her equal standing. Disagreements can usually be traced to lack of effective communication. I find this frustrating. I don’t mind when characters have secrets like “Honey, I’m from the future,” or “I conned my way into this social position.” Major revelations require a level of trust not usually present at the start of a relationship. But refusing to share pertinent information because the author needs to sustain the conflict is a sure turn off for me.

I created Timber MacDuff as a man who specifically does not balk at communicating. He has his share of flaws and secrets, sure. But when it comes to his relationship with Caitlin, he talks openly and honestly. He has to, because Caitlin is more than normally sensitive to nuance and hidden subtext. If she fails to call him on obfuscation, it’s because she has her own issues clouding the matter. More, they’re both self-aware enough that they don’t need the constant release of fighting over trivial matters to prop up avoidance of underlying conflict. If Caitlin reminds Timber to please rinse the sink after trimming his beard, he doesn’t take it as a personal affront and need to escalate to the point of a power struggle. He just rinses the sink. On the other hand, if Timber recommends against a course of action, Caitlin may not like it, and she may do it anyway, but she doesn’t question his motives. She trusts he has her best interests at heart, and isn’t trying to exert dominance by controlling her. I made their partnership as equal as I possibly could while grounding it in reality. Caitlin’s forthrightness and practicality balances Timber’s occasional emotional outbursts, and Timber’s wisdom tempers her tendency to take risks.

So what does all this have to do with the topic of this post, writing the female gaze?

With the exception of Demon Lover, which alternates between Caitlin’s point of view and Timber’s, I write the series from the Caitlin’s first person perspective. Being inside her brain, as it were, it doesn’t take long to see that she’s Timber’s equal sexually as well as intellectually. Getting back to The Parting Glass, the first time she lays eyes on him she goes weak in the knees. She thinks he’s hot. She wants him. We see this in other books as well. When the series begins, they’ve been together almost eight years, and the fire hasn’t burned out. She likes looking at him. She makes no bones about it. He has a fantastic ass; it turns her on. It’s not a huge part of any of the books except for The Parting Glass, but it’s there. And I’ve received more than a handful of reader comments leading me to believe that people find this uncomfortable. Things like “Caitlin objectifies Timber too much” and “Timber only exists in this book as a sex object.” None of this feedback, by the way, came from male readers, of which I have several. They all came from women.

Now, I’ve read a great many books where the male protagonist thinks or voices similar opinions of the female protagonist, and unless it’s taken to extremes, very few people comment on this behavior when it’s coming from a man. From a man, it’s flattering, expected, even admirable. I’ve never been criticized for Timber expressing his desire for Caitlin. He can throw her over his shoulder and carry her to bed or say outright that he wants her and means to “have” her, and no one raises an eyebrow. This leads me to wonder if the underlying reason for people’s discomfort is not the expression of desire and attraction in itself, but the fact that it’s coming from a woman.

We all know–or at this point we should know–that most entertainment media caters to the male gaze, the cisgender, heterosexual male gaze in particular. Female characters possess a specific kind of beauty, the big-boobed, small-waisted variety, with or without a shapely booty, depending on preference. Most leading women are under the age of thirty. Even those marooned on mysterious islands without modern amenities or stuck in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse have mysteriously smooth legs and armpits. Male writers of “strong female characters (TM)” dwell on details like the sensation of moving breasts and the slide of silk over newly-washed skin in a way real life women seldom do. Men can be loud, dirty, and combative without much personal consequence, but women can’t. Not and remain “attractive.” A dirty, loud woman is presented as flawed. A woman stepping outside the role of peacemaker is ridiculed; a woman reaching for power falls; a woman acting upon her sexual desires is punished.

But women have sexual desires and urges. Women look at men they find attractive (Disclaimer: I’m speaking specifically of het women). They like butts, and abs, and shoulders. They like bellies and beards and feet. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time around a group of women knows this. Anyone even peripherally aware of the many, many fandoms revolving around shows with gorgeous male stars–Outlander, Supernatural, and Arrow, to name a few of the current ones–should know this. Men can be beautiful. Their beauty takes infinite forms, just as women’s beauty does. People in sexual relationships are attracted to one another. Isn’t it about time to admit it goes both ways?

Caitlin thinks Timber is beautiful. Sure: It’s the first thing she notices about him. Haven’t you ever seen a stranger and thought, “Wow, what a hottie!” I know I have. It’s Caitlin’s first impression, and it’s all she knows. As they come to know each other better, however, she adds to that first impression. He’s smart, talented, a craftsman, a shaman. Caitlin’s attraction doesn’t cause her to discount those things, as it would if she saw him as no more than a sexual object. And familiarity, if anything, deepens her attraction rather than diminishes it. After years of marriage, she still thinks he’s hot. It’s as much a part of their relationship as the magic.

It may be that women critique Caitlin’s sexuality and the way she views Timber because women are more overtly aware of sexual objectification, being more subject to it. I think, though, that there’s an aspect of internalized sexism in the act. All too often we still cram women into the virgin/whore dichotomy. We expect our female characters to behave certain ways around sex, to be the one acted upon rather than the actor. A woman who’s up front about her sexuality, who picks and chooses and directs instead of going along, is a challenge to our self concepts and our own relationships with carnality. In claims that Caitlin treats Timber as a sex object, I hear the echo of a patriarchal standard warning us that if we own our bodies and our desires, we must necessarily treat the men in our lives the way women have been treated: as lesser beings, unfit to be equal partners.

When you release a book into the world, you lose control over it. People interpret stories differently than you intended. They project their own issues onto your characters and read deep meaning in the most innocent actions (One reviewer had a real problem with Caitlin not wearing makeup on a regular basis because it was “obviously meant to show she’s superior to other women” and decided that despite Caitlin’s relative insouciance about her appearance “the reader is supposed to know she’s always the hottest girl in the room.”). I know this, and yet the claims of Timber being objectified because his wife likes the way he looks and enjoys having sex still bother me. They show we have a long way to go before women’s points of view become normal and women’s sexuality, in all its many forms, becomes as acceptable as men’s.

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Worst Episode of TV Ever

CW: Fat Shaming, Mental Health Stigma, Spoilers for Season 2 of LOST (if anyone still cares).

I dreamed all last night of people ridiculing me for being fat. What triggered it? I don’t have to look far.

A little while ago, my husband and I, late to the pop culture party as usual, started watching LOST on Netflix. I’d heard the buzz when it aired in the days before Internet streaming, but I’d never had much interest in it. Then I heard Michael Emerson plays a leading role, and since he’s on my short list of actors I would gladly watch read the phone book, I suggested we give it a try.

For the most part, I haven’t been disappointed. The characters are varied and engaging even when somewhat hateful, and the writers apply the Mystery Island trope to good effect. I know going in that some of the mysteries will never be solved and that’s okay with me. Some of the performances are outstanding. Some not so much, but that’s the way it goes.

One of the main characters is Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, played by Jorge Garcia. Hurley has the dubious distinction of being the only fat person among the plane crash survivors. Another, Rose, might be considered fat, but she’s only kind of fat. She’s also a woman in her 50s, and she’s Black, all of which, right or wrong, diminish the impact of her body size on the story line. Hurley is young, and he’s superfat. So I’ve paid particular attention to his treatment.

At first, the writers seemed to avoid falling into the usual traps of portraying a Fat Person. He’s not the funny fat person or the butt of physical humor regarding his size. He’s not unusually clumsy. In fact, the rest of the survivors treat him with respect, except for one character who’s a nasty piece of work anyway and never passes up an opportunity to call him “Jabba” or “Michelin” or any other size-oriented slur that comes to mind. Hurley’s an organizer, often put in positions of trust. He calls out assumptions that he must be hoarding food because he’s the fat guy. Parts of his back story show the discrimination fat people face, like being forced to buy two seats on a plane even though he occupies only one. I remember remarking to my husband that I appreciated the portrayal.

And then.

It started in little ways, in the back story. We see Hurley watching TV and eating fried chicken out of the bucket. Hmm, well maybe that’s not so bad. Eating fried chicken out of the bucket isn’t a behavior peculiar to fat people. The fact that the writers chose to show the fat person doing it was certainly problematic, but it’s not the point of the episode, so let it go. Later, Hurley is reprimanded at work, a fast food fried chicken place, for eating out of the hot counter. Kind of mindlessly, you know, like you eat chips when you’re reading. Except fried chicken. That same episode opens with a dream sequence of Hurley in the pantry of the newly discovered Hatch, where he crams fistfuls of cereal into his mouth, drinks ranch dressing directly from the jar, eats candy bar after candy bar. And here I’m getting really, really uncomfortable. It’s getting harder to let go. I can tell myself EVERYONE has been living on fruit and fish and what they can scrounge for over a month at this point and ANYONE might fantasize such indulgence, but why did they have to make it the fat guy? Why make that choice? It comes clear not much later, when we learn that Hurley is, in fact, hoarding food. That he hides in the jungle to eat chips and ranch where no one can see. That every assumption people make about fat people is confirmed by his behavior around food.

Bad going, writers. And it gets worse. So much worse.

We learn early on in the series that Hurley spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I was curious as to why, all the while praying it would have nothing at all to do with his size or his relationship to food. Well, those prayers were offered in vain. In episode 18 of season 2, we learn what sent Hurley to the psych ward. “Dave” is about the most offensive 45 minutes of TV I’ve ever watched, in so many respects. It combines every single myth about being fat with mental health stigma in ways that left me screaming “FUCK YOU!” at the screen. And all of it is geared to turning Hurley from a fat man unapologetic about his size to one who is properly ashamed.

I don’t even know where to begin with this. The episode opens with chipper Libby running down the beach, Hurley panting in her wake. They stop. Red-faced, Hurley hangs his head and says “maybe I could stand to drop a few pounds.” Libby lauds him for trying and assures him “these things take time! You didn’t gain the weight overnight; you won’t lose it overnight, either.” Later, when he reveals his food stash to her and describes his relationship to food as a burden and a sickness, she says, “If you want to change, change.” I wanted to punch her in the nose.

Hurley, however, takes her words to heart. He destroys his food stash in an ecstasy of tearing open packages and dumping jars, shots redolent of “Fat person finds liberation from the chains of eating.” Unfortunately, he finishes just in time for the rest of the survivors to discover a mysterious supply drop. Oh no! More cereal to challenge Hurley’s insufficient willpower. As he stares with dismay at the palette of boxes and jars, he catches a glimpse of someone unexpected: An old friend from the psych ward. And that’s when things get really awful.

Flash back to Hurley in the psych ward, talking to his doctor. The doctor asks how the diet is going. Ugh. Right off we get the message: Hurley’s in a mental hospital because he’s fat. They don’t need to say it in words. The implications are clear. Hurley says he had chicken breast and salad for lunch: Look, I’m trying to be a good fat person! Some more chat, and then the doctor says: “You’ve been here two months, Hugo, and you haven’t made much progress!”

Let me pause to convulse laughing. The writers have just shown they did NO RESEARCH WHATSOEVER into inpatient psychiatric treatment. My very first thought upon hearing this line was, “Wow, Hurley’s mom must have really good insurance!” The facility depicted is a rambling Hacienda-style building with lots of open space, private rooms, and wide windows in the shrink’s office. That is, it resembles a high-class rehab facility, NOT your typical inpatient situation. I’ve been in a number of psychiatric hospitals. They’re usually cramped and feature shared rooms and shabby furniture. Psychiatrists don’t conduct therapy or interact with the patients much beyond prescribing medication. They don’t generally have spacious on-site offices. They meet with patients wherever–in the common room, in an activities closet. Nurses and techs do the day-to-day stuff. Staying two months without making progress is unheard-of. Even when I was a teen, most people’s insurance kicked them out after 30 days. I think we’re supposed to believe Hurley’s in his late twenties, so it’s a stretch to assume his mom’s insurance even covers him. And I doubt the fast food place where he works offers a great mental health package. The last time I was inpatient, charges ran to $10,000 A DAY. Who’s paying for this?

Moving on. There’s some more talk between Hurley and his shrink. The eponymous “Dave” is mentioned. The shrink implies Dave doesn’t want Hurley to change. In the next scene, we find out what this means. Hurley goes to the facility’s basketball court (more laughing), where a game in in progress. All the players are wearing pyjamas and bathrobes. Not only is this just plain in accurate–most places insist on patients wearing street clothes as a way of maintaining “normalcy”–but the bathrobes have dangling belts. REALLY? You don’t get that in a mental health facility those would be verboten? ANYTHING a person might use for self harm or suicide attempts is strictly regulated. We weren’t even allowed to have shoelaces. Belts are right out. Way to show you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Anyway. Dave’s at the basketball game. He’s loud, abrasive, and nasty. He calls people names. But for some reason he and Hurley are friends. Dave demonstrates this by talking Hurley into eating tacos. Oh, I see. In Hurley’s case, “change” is defined by “staying on his diet” and Dave’s not wanting him to change is equal to talking him out of this “healthy choice.” The same thing replays later, when Dave encourages Hurley to steal someone else’s graham crackers instead of sticking to his afternoon snack of celery. He also talks Hurley out of taking his meds. Hurley, by the way, is being given clonazepam, brand name Klonopin, which is an anti-anxiety medication. There are problems with this that I’ll get to in a minute. Meanwhile, the shrink appears with a camera and tells the guys he needs a photo of them for the bulletin board.

This is where my husband turned to me and said, “Dave’s not real.” Oh, fuck. Of course he’s not. He’s…what? The personification of Hurley’s relationship to food? The voices in his head that hold Hurley back from achieving what he otherwise might, i.e., becoming not fat? It makes some sense of the fact that Hurley would be hanging out with this absolute douche nozzle, but speaks volumes about what the writers actually think about Hurley’s size. In any case, Dave is an hallucination, and if that’s so CLONAZEPAM IS NOT THE RIGHT MEDICATION. Hurley’s doctor should know this. He should be treating Hurley for a mental illness, not for being fat. But fat, apparently, is all the doctor can see.

In the present. Hurley goes to Sawyer, the con-man-cum-pack-rat, to see if he has any clonazepam in his “stash.” Sawyer responds with a typical jab at Hurley’s size. Hurley loses it and proceeds to beat Sawyer to a pulp while screaming, “Jabba! Michelin! Stay-Puff!”. My husband and I cheered, but when the two are separated and people ask what happened, Sawyer only says, “He just went crazy!” I don’t expect Sawyer to own up to his insults, but I would have liked SOMEONE to tell him, “Well, you had it coming, asshole.” Of course, we don’t get that because crazy fat guy is just crazy. I mean, if he didn’t want people to call him names, he should just lose weight, amirite?

In the last flashback, we learn how Hurley ended up in the hospital. He stepped onto a crowded deck, which collapsed under his weight, and a person died. Guilt and trauma caused him to suffer a catatonic episode, during which, his doctor points out, “You stopped speaking. You stopped sleeping. But you never stopped eating, because eating is how you punish yourself.”

Repeated screams of “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG ASSHOLE!”

The shrink shows Hurley the picture he took, proving Dave isn’t real. Dave shows up one last time, to convince Hurley to escape. There’s a shitload more wrong with this scene, including the common room window being secured with a padlock for which Hurley has conveniently been able to steal the key and the locked grate not being wired to an alarm. Of course, along the way, Dave encourages Hurley to pick up whatever food happens to be lying around, and the whole escape attempt seems to be motivated by a desire for cheeseburgers. Dave goes out the window, but Hurley, with his new, magical knowledge that Dave is an hallucination, refuses.

On the Island, in the present, Hurley tracks down Dave, who asks him what happened after he didn’t go out the window. Hurley replies that he “got better;” after a couple weeks he was released, he got his old job back, he won the lottery. Dave replies, “Yeah, right,” and tells Hurley none of that ever happened, that he is, in fact, still back in the hospital, catatonic, and ALL of this is another hallucination. This was the most realistic part of the episode to me. In my worst times, I have similar thoughts. Maybe I never left the hospital. Maybe I’m in a padded cell back in Michigan. Maybe I never went to college, got married. When those thoughts hit, I breathe and think, “If I were hallucinating, I think I would hallucinate a better life than constant poverty and wretchedness.” Hurley, however, lets Dave lead him to the edge of a cliff where, Dave assures him, all he needs to do to “wake up” is throw himself off. Just in time, Libby appears! She asks Hurley why he thinks the Island isn’t real, and he tearfully admits that “In real life, a girl like you would never like a [fat] guy like me.” She kisses him! Yay! She really likes him! And Hurley immediately goes on a diet to be worthy of her (we see this in subsequent episodes). Can I please barf now?

As I said above, this episode disgusted me. It was repulsive on every level imaginable. How difficult can it be to give the fat guy a back story that doesn’t involve him literally being in a mental hospital because of his size? Apparently too hard for the writers of this series. And it angers me on a personal level, as a person with a history of eating disorders and a troubled relationship with size and food. Perpetuating these myths and stereotypes does a huge disservice to all kinds of people. When food and eating is involved, often that is ALL mental health providers can see and that’s what they treat. The treatment for anorexia? Eat more. The treatment for Bulimia? Just stop. For Binge Eating Disorder? The same. “If you want to change, change!” Looking at the surface as it is colored by societal expectations and assumptions about food prevents providers from finding the source of issues, and even causes them to dismiss issues as irrelevant. Hurley had a fucking psychotic episode! Losing weight isn’t the indicated treatment. It never is and it never will be.

With all the problems in this episode, probably the worst thing about it is that it’s meant to evoke sympathy. All the back stories are.  They’re a line on the characters’ experiences and the situations that brought them to this place and time. We see Jack’s troubled relationship with his father and the breakdown of his marriage; Locke’s inability to let go of his own desire for a father figure, which has numerous tragic consequences; Kate’s run from the law; Mr. Eko’s past as a crime lord. We even feel some sympathy for Sawyer, for fuck’s sake! But Hurley? The great tragedy in his life is BEING FAT. He’s worth $156 MILLION and no one believes him because HE’S FAT. He doesn’t feel worthy of love because HE’S FAT. There are a zillion ways the writers could have chosen to tell his story that had nothing to do with his size, but they opted for the usual. I can almost see them sitting around in the planning stages saying, “Hey, we gotta cast one really FAT guy so we can show how terrible it is for him to be FAT!” I sure hope Jorge Garcia got a lot of money for this role. And the bitch of it is, most viewers will buy it. They won’t question why we aren’t seeing Hurley losing the love of his life or playing in a rock band or working in a high tech industry, because fat is all they can see. Just like the doctor portrayed in this episode.

If you’re new to LOST and thinking about watching, give this episode a miss. There’s no redeeming quality to it and it doesn’t tell you anything new. If you’re a writer, for the sake of all the gods, DON’T DO THIS. Don’t succumb to stereotypes and do your fucking research if you’re depicting things outside your personal experience.

That’s all.

 

Don’t Go Trad

Lately I’ve stumbled across a number of articles, like this one and this one, about the perils of self-publishing. To be fair, because I do always try to be fair even when I don’t want to be, many of the articles point out valid problems and their writers, in theory, explain why it’s not the path they would choose. In theory. In practice, they present a narrow and one-sided view of the practice, focusing on the worst stereotypes of self-published authors as lazy hacks who clog social media with constant promotion.

I could write my own article about why no one should ever take the traditional publishing route. I might make points like this:

You have to spend a disproportionate amount of energy on pitching and querying. Writers do what they do because of a drive to tell stories, and part of telling stories is sharing them with others. If you go trad, you can forget being able to do that. Someone else gets to decide whether or not your story is worth sharing. Often more than one person, because if you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, you still haven’t got a book contract. It takes a special skill set to be able to hook and agent and/or editor, and it’s not one most storytellers are born with. You have to learn it. Despite helpful Internet resources, most of the learning is through trial and error. Meanwhile, the story you wanted to share isn’t being shared, and any new ones get placed on the back burner. Traditional publishing actively prevents you from doing what you set out to do in the first place.

Being published traditionally can make you a condescending ass. Sure, there are nice traditional authors out there, ones who are open and accessible, and willing to help a person starting out. There’s also a lot of jerks who think they got where they are on merit rather than the serendipity of having the right manuscript at the right time combined with class, racial, and appearance advantages that make them easily marketable. These guys strut around like they’re the gods’ gift to literature and give condescending “advice” like, “Keep plugging away and you’ll get where I am some day.” Do you really want to risk being one of them?

Gatekeepers are subject to societal prejudice. You know 89% of books published are by white, cis, male authors, right? If you’re a woman and/or person of color, or another marginalized identity, your chances of “success” in a traditional climate plummet. Even if your book gets picked up, you’re apt to hear your character “isn’t relatable” and asked to make changes. Traditional publishing is giving lip service to diversity right now, but the industry hasn’t taken a great many strides. Why fight that fight?

I did my apprenticeship. Can people in traditional publishing please do theirs? I’m 53. I’ve been writing since I was 7, and I wrote my first novel at 12. Yes, it was an achievement for a child, and yes, it was derivative and the language was less than elegant. I’ve improved since then. I’ve been an avid reader since before I started writing, and I’m fully capable of learning from what I read. I understand pacing and dialogue and how to use words. I go over my work relentlessly, making it the best it can be. On the other hand, I don’t know about some editors. I’ve read traditionally published books with hundreds of pages of purposeless exposition stuck in the middle of a story, and ones with so many typos and grammatical flaws I wonder how it got printed. One series I like very much used the word “yolk” instead of “yoke” for three volumes, leading to phrases like “the yolk of slavery.” Really, I don’t have it to trust an industry person half my age, with little or none of my experience, to direct me how best to tell my stories.

See, I could write this post. I could refute every single point anyone has ever made about self publishing. But I’m not going to. I know that not every path works for everyone, and even our definitions of “what works” differ. Traditional publishing is a valid path. Self publishing is a valid path. Some people earn vast amounts of money in each. Most don’t and never will. Except in the case of a few, writing is not a calling that leads to riches (though hope springs eternal, and all that).

Inevitably, these articles about why not to self publish are written by people who have been traditionally published, who seem to have a limited understanding of why people choose one route over another. Often they strike me as “protesting too much,” of dismissing self publishing not because of its real flaws, but because the writers have doubts or questions about the path they’ve chosen. Have your doubts; that’s fine. Please stop thrusting them on those of us who have chosen differently. Thanks.

10 Novels that Informed my Paganism

Yesterday I stumbled across this post on Patheos. For those of my readers who don’t click links, it’s the first part of a list of 22 books that, according to the author, have influenced and defined Modern Paganism (Part 2 hasn’t been posted as of this writing). Having read all but one of the books included in this installment, I think it’s an interesting list so far. But it doesn’t resonate with me or my experience, so I decided to do a list of my own.

The following are books I discovered as a young reader (under the age of 25). Only one is specifically Pagan-centric. Mostly, they slip their Pagan themes into the margins and between sentences–in my opinion, a liminal space highly appropriate for such things–where they contribute to the way the authors constructed their worlds. It’s only later, reading as an adult Witch, that I look at what I absorbed, and laugh, and think, “Well, no wonder I turned out the way I did!” I recommend all of them highly, and I hope if you’re interested, you’ll check a few out, no matter what your religious bent.

In no particular order:

earthseaThe Earthsea Trilogy, by Ursula K. LeGuin

This is the first of LeGuin’s books I ever read. I loved Fantasy and Mythology from an exceptionally young age and eagerly consumed all I could get my hands on. Earthsea had everything: Magic, a school for Wizards, Dragons, and numerous quests. It hooked me from the first page.

From the very beginning, the trilogy serves up a substantial helping of philosophy along with its engaging plot. The magical system is all about balance; in fact, this site’s header, “To Light a Candle is to Cast a Shadow” is a direct quote. The wizards can’t simply do anything they like. Taking energy from one place removes it from another, and every act has consequences. The protagonist learns this to his sorrow when he works a spell out of ego and unleashes a horror. This was my first introduction to the concepts of Karma and the Shadow Self, as well as the idea that sometimes the better part of wisdom for people of power lies in acceptance rather than action. Another bonus is that the main races populating Earthsea are Black and Brown people, although this is rarely shown on the books’ covers and never, to my knowledge, in any of the film productions of the novels.

facesTill We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

My 8th grade English teacher recommended this book to me to keep me busy when everyone else was working on a grammar program I’d already finished. It’s a retelling of the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche, which has its reflection in many fairy tales, and it’s the first book I ever read that turned a familiar story inside out by telling it from a different point of view. In this case, the point of view is that of the usual antagonist, Orual, the ugly sister of the beautiful Psyche.

Till We Have Faces has a lot to say about the nature of the gods and the nature of knowledge and responsibility. It shows that everyone has a story and everyone’s voice deserves to be heard without flinching from the truth that individual stories can and do come into conflict. It also addresses the harm conventional ideas about beauty does to women, the tragedy that can result when people treat others as possessions, and the need to open one’s heart to both love and grief in order to gain true wisdom.

ExcaliburExcalibur by Sanders Ann Laubenthal

I read this book about the same time I read the previous two. It’s a marvelous adaptation of the Grail Quest to contemporary Mobile, Alabama, which contains elements of Gothic novels as well as Fantasy. Working with both the historical idea that Iron Age Welshmen “discovered” the New World and concepts of reincarnation, it reexamines the definitions of betrayal and redemption. It also has a large number of kick-ass woman characters, which was quite unusual for a book of its time. One of them is an eccentric aunt who lives in a castle and wears medieval garb on a daily basis because she feels like it. I wanted to be her.

This is the first book I read where active magic and Tarot cards played a major role, and I can say without a doubt that it led to my becoming a Tarot reader.

princessThe Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

George MacDonald was one of the predecessors of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, a Scottish Presbyterian minister and professor who was once driven out of his kirk for heretical ideas–or so the story goes. His original fairy tales are some of my favorites. This children’s book starts out in a familiar way with a naughty princess climbing a mysterious stairway, and proceeds immediately to turn every story of the type on its head. Princess Irene meets her “grandmother,” a virtually immortal woman who, with her spinning wheel and “moon lamp,” as well as a tendency to be young or old as it suits her, is a clear stand-in for the Triple Goddess. She sets Irene on a quest which will have repercussions for everyone around her and end a threat no one will talk about.

I love this book because it makes an eight-year-old girl the hero of her own story and shows that girls are brave, steadfast, and capable in their own right. Irene doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued; she gets dirty and does the work even when the people around her don’t believe in her.

curdieThe Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

I didn’t initially like this book as much as I liked its predecessor, but I found a beautifully illustrated edition in the library book sale and read it for the pictures. It follows about a year after The Princess and the Goblin, and concerns the further adventures of Irene’s companion, the miner boy Curdie. At the beginning, things don’t look so good for him, but an encounter with the Crone in the guise of Irene’s grandmother teaches him the value of believing the impossible, and the task she sets him shows that scratching the surface of reality always reveals a deeper truth. More of a Hero’s Journey than its companion, The Princess and Curdie still features an array of important woman characters from all walks of life.

horseThe Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge is better known for her adult Gothic Romances than her children’s books, of which this is one. Set in Edwardian times, this is the story of the orphaned Maria, who’s sent to live with her eccentric uncle in a mysterious, cursed manor. Before long, she sets herself to the task of righting past wrongs and settling old grievances.

The Little White Horse features a host of amazing characters both human and animal, as well as a plot full of puzzles and magic. It’s gender balanced, with a thirteen-year-old female protagonist and many supporting woman characters. One of the things I like best about it is that, although there is a prophecy involved, Maria grasps her fate with both hands. She does what she does because it’s the right thing and because she wants to, out of love, not to fulfill some cosmic destiny.

valeriansLinnets and Valerians by Elizabeth Goudge

Linnets and Valerians shares a lot of themes with The Little White Horse, but it’s geared towards a younger audience. Once again we see the young protagonists–four brothers and sisters this time–abandon the conventional for the magical in the form of an eccentric uncle in a manor house with an equally eccentric staff. And once again, there’s an old wrong to be righted and dark magic to confront.

Both this book and the previous show how getting away from societal norms and opening the mind to magical thinking, as well as connecting with nature, can lead to changes no one ever expected. They do share a flaw, which is the trope of the “magical disabled person,” so if you read them or recommend them to children, this is something you might want to bear in mind. Since they were written in the 40s, I don’t mind it as much as I might in a contemporary work.

moonheartMoonheart by Charles DeLint

This is the breakout novel from the virtual inventor of Urban Fantasy. There are books of his that I like better, with themes that resonate more closely, but this was the first DeLint I read. Set in contemporary Canada, it explores the way lives are connected over time and the consequences of unintended action. It’s chock full of both Celtic and Native American mythology. (The latter is a bit appropriative by today’s standards, unfortunately.) One of the things that I love about it is the way it shows music and other acts of creation as magical in and of themselves. Most of the characters don’t have any special powers; they’re just ordinary folks in extraordinary situations. Along the way, they learn banding together and supporting each other is the best way to create the world they want to live in.

the king must dieThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

This retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of my favorite books of all time. Mary Renault was exceptionally skilled at tackling old stories from a sideways slant that both made logical sense and gave them new life. Here, she’s infused the Hero’s Journey with humanity and perspective to explore the nature of sacrifice and the power of consent.

One of the things that makes this book important from a Witchy perspective is the way it deals with the conflict between Matriarchal, earth-centered traditions and Patriarchal ones, showing the flaws in both systems. You can root for the hero at the same time as you cringe at some of his decisions. It teaches the importance of valuing people of all genders for themselves and not dismissing the identity of any.

avalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Since the revelations of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a perpetrator of and apologist for child sexual abuse, this book has become a controversial inclusion in any list. It’s still the book most responsible for my identifying as Pagan and claiming the word Witch. To my memory, it was the very first novel that took a male-centered mythology, in this case the Matter of Britain, and retold it from the points of view of the women involved. It was the very first book I read that came out and said “God is a woman, too, and women can be powerful in matters of religion.” In the mid-eighties, if you asked a Pagan how they came to the path, The Mists of Avalon was almost always one of the deciding factors.  Bradley herself later dismissed Paganism as hypocritical for various reasons–e.g., she thought a “fertility religion” had no business taking a pro-choice stance. But there’s no doubt she wrote a powerful paean to woman-centered spirituality here.

That’s my list. I hope you’ll check out some of the titles. Happy reading!