The Official Karen©, setting the record straight. Please read my post on Medium:
The Official Karen©Speaks Out on Racism
World changers needed for one-day assignment.
CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY.
Are you a US Citizen who wants to make the world better? This one-day job assignment takes place on November 6, 2018.
March to your local polling place and VOTE. Position is unpaid, but the rewards will benefit you and future generations.
Note: Recurring duties possible as future elections occur in your area.
You’re probably too young to remember when classified ads made a clear distinction between what was “women’s work” and which jobs were for men. The practice was outlawed in 1975. That legislation was but one tick in the timeline of women’s march to equality.
The 19th amendment granted women the right to vote on August 18, 1920. On November 2 of that year, more than 8 million women voted for the first time.
It was a long battle from the start of the women’s movement in 1848 and the ratification of the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920. The battle even turned violent from time to time–most notably on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1912.
Eight thousand women gathered for a suffrage parade in the nation’s capital. Dignified and determined, the procession was led by lawyer Inez Milholland, astride her horse, Gray Dawn. Women from all walks of life came to participate. The long-activist suffragist “Pioneers” led the charge. They were followed by working women in uniform: nurses, farmers, homemakers, doctors, pharmacists, actresses, librarians, and college women in academic gowns. The women wore sashes proclaiming “Votes for Women” and pinned jaunty gardenias to their lapels.
As they marched, men ridiculed from the sidelines. Up to 10,000 people came to watch. Many were drunk, crowding the procession. Women were grabbed, tripped, and assaulted. The injured languished, waiting for ambulances which had been blocked by the unruly spectators. Policemen stood by, indifferent to the violence.
“There would be nothing like this happen if you would stay at home,” said one cop to an injured woman. Over 300 women were injured and 100 hospitalized by the time the day was over.
More than one hundred years later, the battle still goes on. The Equal Rights Amendment proposed in 1972 never passed. It died in 1982, falling short of enough states to ratify it.
The Paycheck Fairness Act (and similar legislation) which would guarantee women equal pay for equal work continues to be filibustered in Congress.
It was only last year when thirteen men sat down to decide women’s health care issues, like whether insurers should have to cover pesky things like mammograms, birth control, or maternity care. They wound up cutting Medicaid, which covers half of all US births and went on to gut access to birth control for 62 million women.
It wasn’t until the 1900s that women across the United States could own property, take out patents, and keep their own wages.
As recently as the 1970s, a woman could not get a credit card, could not refuse sex with her spouse, nor could she report sexual harassment in the workplace. Landlords could refuse to rent to women, bosses could refuse to hire pregnant women, and judges could refuse to allow women on their juries.
As recently as 1988, women couldn’t obtain a small business loan without a male cosigner. One borrower had to resort to having her minor son co-sign for her before the bank would grant the loan.
Crazy laws still exist on the books. In Florida, an unmarried woman can’t parachute on a Sunday. In Michigan, a woman must provide permission to cut her hair, and in Waynesboro, Virginia, it’s against the law for a woman to drive a car on main street unless her husband is walking in front of the car waving a red flag.
And, on a more serious note, it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind–except in North Carolina, where she cannot rescind consent and call it rape, even if an encounter becomes uncomfortable, painful, or violent. And in seven US states, rapists have parental rights.
The takeaway from all this is that the fight for equality is far from over. Some days it seems like women’s rights are eroding as fast a shoreline in hurricane season.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act allowed women to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes. But in 2000, the Supreme Court invalidated those portions of the law permitting victims of rape, domestic violence, etc. to sue their attackers in federal court.
What gems the current Supreme Court has for us, we can only imagine.
Maybe you’ve made up your mind and have inspiring candidates to vote for. Or maybe you’re only voting against beef-witted louts like North Carolina congressional candidate Mark Harris, who believes it is a wife’s duty to submit to her husband.
Look, I get it. Sometimes when you look at your options, it seems like a case of the ‘lesser of two evils,’ which is never an exciting reason to march to the polls. Politics is a greasy-gross-cesspool of greed and corruption, and that’s on a good day.
Campaign finance laws enable special interests to steer legislation. The two-party system thrives on divisiveness and pits us against one another to promote their high donor agendas.
The thing is, it’s not going to change–not without people like you. Today there is one tangible step you can take to make a difference:
Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.
Nothing never started gets better.
Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.
As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.
Nothing never started gets better.
(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)
What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:
Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.
This almost never happens.
Okay, it maybe happened once.
Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.
Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.
I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.
The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watching—just do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.
Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.
This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.
Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:
Nothing Anything you never start ed gets any better.
Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.
So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.
Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.
You can’t improve what you don’t write.
There is a ghost, beside the river, behind Czech Village.
If you go there now, you’ll find tree stumps marooned in pools of yellow sawdust. You’ll find haphazard stacks of logs, and a litter of branches too small to collect. You’ll smell pine resin and see broken streetlights and find curb-cuts to phantom garages down roads that end mid-block. You’ll see abandoned houses with windows full open to the winter air.
And if you come this spring, you might find crocuses to split the snow on scrubby vacant lots, or daffodils sprouting from now-defunct gardens. You might spy Hungarian tulips volunteering from the sides of vanished sidewalks, or remnants of flower beds in these lost lawns.
Czech Village is—Czech Village was—a small neighborhood. It was roughly fourteen city blocks nestled next to the Cedar River levee. The neighborhood was populated by last-century single-family homes and one single strip of commerce along the northwest border. The commerce is still there.
But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.It looks like Main Street USA—as long as you squint and aren’t too particular about the peeling paint and mismatched park benches. It could be small-town anywhere, but for the Slavic lettering and Czech flags. You can still go there and find a dark bar stool at a neighborhood tap and hide out for an afternoon. Or, you can sample the local hipster brew while your bike is at the bicycle recyclist. There’s a bandstand, an Artists’ Sanctuary and enough junk shops to satisfy just about anyone’s flea market itch. And before you head out, you can to pick up a dozen kolaches and a loaf of marble rye from a bakery that’s been under the same name for nearly a hundred years. But the one thing you can’t do in Czech Village—at least not any more—is live.
It’s not our fault.
2008 was a year of walking away, a year for final visits and unsaid goodbyes. In Cedar Rapids, 2008 was designated the Year of the River, and our river—well, she rose to the occasion. 31.12 feet to be exact, which was nineteen feet above flood stage and eleven feet higher than anyone had ever seen.
Embed from Getty Images
Maybe you saw us on the news—our downtown a full story deep in swift current. Our river swelled to more than 20 city blocks wide for miles on end. It was a few years back and it’s hard to keep track—what with the natural disaster of the week competing for your attention—so we’ll understand if you’ve forgotten. We haven’t.
It was 2008 and all of us as a nation were in the depths of the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And then—here in Iowa—it started raining.
People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat.A wet spring ramped to a drenching finale in early June, when the storms began dumping inches at a time across the Cedar River basin. The active weather pattern flung hail, tornadoes and thunderstorms at us daily. On June 9, 2008 seven inches of rain fell in the northern Cedar River basin. The record crests made their way downstream: Cedar Falls, Waterloo, Charles City. Vinton. Urbana. Palo.
Tuesday, June 10th, people in Cedar Rapids were optimistic: we’d been through floods before. The USGS called for a crest of 21 feet on Thursday. Floodwater spilled onto Edgewood Road.
Wednesday, June 11th, Cedar Rapids ticked past the 1993 record of 19.27. Folks snapped photos from the bridges downtown until the city came out and closed them. The Weather Service upped their prediction to a Friday crest of 22 feet and the Czech Village was evacuated as water creeped up out of the storm sewers and made its way up lawns.
Thursday June 12th, heavy thunderstorms dumped three inches of rain on a weary and water-logged town. Revised predictions called for a crest of 24.7. Then, a railroad bridge weighted down with gravel-filled cars snapped. Water that had been creeping up inches an hour raced up by feet. People who meant to carry out a few things more things from their Czech Town homes had to be rescued by boat. Someone called the National Guard and by Thursday night, sandbagging efforts at one local hospital (nearly a mile from the river) ceased, and the hospital was evacuated.
The river crested Friday the 13th at 10:15 am. Czech Village would never be the same.Embed from Getty Images
In the late nineteenth century, an iron bowstring bridge was constructed at Fourteenth Avenue, and the homes and commerce of the east bank spilled onto the western shore of the Cedar. Immigrant families, letters in hand, came to join their kin in a chance at a better life. Old women in babushkas, babies with moon faces, women with their work-chapped hands; barrel-chested men with ruddy faces, swinging lunch pails stuffed with goulash as they crossed the bridge to their factory jobs. They were working folk, with names like Sokol and Jiruska: hardy people with strong frames, proud cheeks and easy laughter.
The neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb.The years went by. Some stayed for generations, raising their families in the black-earth flats of the west bank. Others moved on, and the neighborhood became the sort of place where an industrious type could grab a rung in the American dream and start their climb. Kids grew up in the ever-growing shade of the city landfill, climbing the levee barefoot to skip stones on the river. Young mothers hung laundry with babes on hip. War widows put kids through college on the wages from factory jobs. Nickel by nickel, folks bought back the title from the bank and meant to live their lives out there. Old folks tended gardens in their mortgage-free homes. They were small houses sure, and the windows leaked winter and the list of to-dos was never done. But they were theirs.
And then the flood—and who knows where all those people went? Perhaps some were lucky enough to snag one of the affordable-housing remixes that sprouted up in Oakhill-Jackson. Folks moved out, moved on. Even those that meant to stay, one by one gave in to city pressure, or to the desolate feel of living in a ghost town.
The Assessor’s website tells the story in three acts. Pull up any property from Seventeenth to Twenty-first, from A Street through the low-side of C. First photo is a fresh house, the bushes lush and the white paint glinting in the sun. Next, the same house with horizontal stripes, like a convict on death row: the porch askew, the windows boarded. And then, nothing but a skinned lot, the grass worn away where they filled in the basement and tossed on a handful of grass seed.
In January, the City came out and sentenced every living tree with an orange X. In the span of a week, they flattened them—left the trees lying on their sides, their sections strewn across the vacant lots. A truck picked up the haphazard cords of the more valuable cuts. And then they were gone: A diesel belching black smoke rolled in, and in the space of a day, a wood chipper and erased those century-old trees, log by log. Every last one: Sugar maples and walnuts, pin oaks and blue spruce, and one graceful white locust as elegant as the May queen. Crows held protest on the ground where the trees were supposed to be, blasting black complaint at the passing cars.
It’s going to be a levee. And trees have no place in levee plans, or so I’ve heard. But not until 2018 or 2019. I guess how it all plays out remains to be seen. It’s brought to you by the same planners who masterminded the one-way dead end streets in the downtown and the whole back-in-angle parking debacle.
Until then, there’s still time to see the ghosts. Look for tulips to volunteer this spring and resurrection lilies in high summer. The city will mow, but determined hands planted those flowers. They’ll come back—at least for as long as they can. As long as they can find the light.
To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.“I used to live right there,” I tell my kids whenever we drive down old Lincoln Highway. They nod, bored, because I say it every time. It’s a medical building now—what used to be a 1900 Craftsman-style home with a giant field-stone porch. Stuff like that, it happens more and more, the older that I get. Homes and buildings and even neighborhoods now exist in only memory. To my youngest, the flood is prehistoric. But I’ve been around long enough to know: sooner or later, everything is lost.
I’m gearing up to officially do NaNoWriMo this year–that November Wordfest where writers commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. I’m planning to finish my novel The Kwan Factor once and for all. For all working parents contemplating a similar feat, here is a reblog from last year with seven tongue-in-cheek tips on finishing NaNoWriMo,
It’s November 26th, do you know what your word count is? If you’re competing in NaNoWriMo you undoubtedly know what it is now, what it was yesterday and what you are aiming for tomorrow.
NOTE: if you’ve already won NaNoWriMo, congratulations! This post won’t be of any interest to you. January is just around the corner so you’ll want to get busy polishing that manuscript for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel contest in 2015.
Okay, great. Now that the overachievers are gone, let’s talk.
Writing is hard. Work is hard and so is that overtime job turning runny-nosed static-urchins into productive citizens. But we love a challenge (obviously) and so here we are: X days left of NaNoWriMo and XX,XXX words to go.
So, in the spirit helping frustrated and exhausted writers everywhere survive the 50,000 words in November challenge, I’ve pulled together this concise list of handy tips:
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aka My Manifesto to Aspiring Writers
For me, reading merits hazard pay. I have to steel myself. And not because I hate reading–heck, before I started writing, I often devoured a book a day. But since I started writing, reading has turned into something else entirely.
And when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.
John D. MacDonald said it best—and not as Travis McGee, but in a preface to Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. I first read it more than three decades ago, but I hear the echo to this day. It was one of those moments when a writer rose off the page, cupped a hand to my ear and leaned close enough for me to feel his breath as he whispered. It was lightning clear. A bolt, a connection, a current passed. I sat up straight, eyes wide. Because when that sort of thing happens—when you know that writer has reached you—it’s wondrous. That thing writers can do—climb off the page and grab you, tickle you, caress you…to understand you in a way that no one else ever could. That’s what it’s all about, baby.
So about Mr. MacDonald’s preface: among the many wonderful things he wrote to aspiring writers, he said, “You read everything with grinding envy or weary contempt.”
Grinding envy: check
John Green writes contemporary YA. Mildly gritty, authentic YA, and when I’m not busy hating him, I like to imagine his characters would hang out with my characters, when my characters weren’t being expelled.
John Green also writes shimmering, emotional, compelling YA, with gracious good humor and effortless aplomb. My kids have caught me laughing hysterically at one of his passages, only to find me sobbing four pages later. And it’s times like that when I think what the fuck, dude. What did you just do to me? I mean have enough trouble keeping forward momentum, what with the mom-gig and the day job. Did you have to make it so hard by making it look so easy?
John Green probably doesn’t mean to crush my spirit (maybe that’s just a perk, or why else would he keep doing it?)
And maybe it’s not John Green that sparks that ache in you—the one that kindles that envy-measure: maybe it’s Faulkner, or Maya Angelou or even Dan-fucking-Brown.
You close their book and think: It’s hopeless.
I can’t do that.
Cause they had that voice-thing going, and that lovely translucent metaphor, and that heart-pounding tension and then you pull up your own manuscript and—
The cursor blinks.
So you poke at a few words from that scene you wrote yesterday, but the shine has worn off. And was that the most tired line of dialogue you’ve ever written or what? So you delete it and try to think of the next scene, but then you remember you really have no idea how you’re going to pull it off—how to get your protagonist to the intersection of plot and plausibility, and just as you’re about to slam the lid of your laptop closed—Stop.
You’re doing it. That comparison thing, and it does you no good. And even if you don’t believe me, you have to stop because you have a duty.
Don’t compare apples to oranges
And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.
You heard me right. There’s a reason you feel called to do this, why you get up early or stay up late, why you keep putting words down in the face of astronomical odds. Why it itches like poison ivy between your shoulder blades if you don’t just friggin’ write.
It’s because your own unique set of circumstances and your particular talents are going to enable you to say something that no one has ever said before. Or, at the very least in a way that no one else has said it.
The Great Gatsby has been said—but your story hasn’t.
If you are called to write, it’s because you have a unique message for someone. A message as myriad as the sum of the days of your life that have brought you to this moment. A reason for doing as unique as any random collection of 100,000 words.
What message you have, I don’t know. And maybe you do. Or maybe you only think you do.
But in the meantime, you have a duty to be there, be present, try hard and do your best. And doing your best means reading other writers. You have a duty to challenge yourself, to be brave. Just periodically vomiting words on the page doesn’t make you a writer any more than being a drunken, self-absorbed womanizer makes you Hemingway. And you’re not Hemingway. Because he’s an orange. And you’re an apple. A very special apple.
Now stay tuned for the second part:
Don’t compare apples to apple pie
You’re going to reach someone
When you read Joe Bestseller of the NY Times bestseller list, or N. Ational Bookaward, remember you are reading something that has been through 1, 2, 3 drafts. plus forty-eight revisions; a book that has been vetted by industry professionals, including multiple editors and proofreaders plus a literary agent or two.
Look, if your first draft doesn’t suck then you’re doing it wrong. And if your second draft doesn’t suck then you’re probably still doing it wrong.
The odds are (n)ever in your favor
And since we’re being all honest here, there’s one more thing: if you’re aiming for the bestseller list, or hoping to crack a six-figure advance on a debut novel, the odds are not in your favor.
However, the odds are very good you’re going to accomplish the real reason why you’re doing this. Which you probably don’t even realize. And it’s small and it’s simple:
You’re going to reach someone.
You’re going to reach out through the page, take one reader by the hand, and lean in close enough to for them to feel your breath tick against their ear as you whisper…
Because that’s it.
That’s all there really is. The point of everything, the purpose of every collection of words written since the beginning of time. That’s what writing is: a vessel. A vessel to pass a message from one person to the next.
So stop with the comparing already. They have their message and you have yours.
Read more, compare less. Write and repeat.
Chop chop darlings—you have work to do.
I think about suicide all the time.
But there’s no need to panic on my behalf and I’ll tell you why.
My father never took his grandkids fishing. He never helped them put together a homemade radio. He wasn’t there when I brought my adopted daughter home for the first time or when my son was born. He didn’t dance with me at my wedding, or snap photos at my graduation.
He never did any of these things, because when I was sixteen years old, he took his own life.
Since then, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the subject of suicide. About what he must’ve felt to make such a decision. About what that choice has meant for his friends and his family.Suicide leaves family members a legacy tainted by a nearly unspeakable act. and survivors are left to assemble a puzzle with half the pieces gone. For those left behind, every good memory comes encumbered with the crime. Think of Robin Williams, for example, a man whose life was dedicated to making us laugh: now his every credit is accompanied by a sad footnote.
Suicide leaves a lifetime seeded with landmines. For me, simple, well-meaning questions like, “Where do your parents live?” and “What does your dad do?” leave me with the heavy lifting of a painful truth.
My dad doesn’t do anything.
I rarely talk about it, and never bring it up on my own. When pressed, there is always that long awkward silence when I’m forced to brandish the grisly truth. People shift uncomfortably, not knowing what to say. I always used to wish I’d remembered to lie. “My dad? Oh, he’s retired. He has a condo in St. Augustine.”
But I can’t lie.
And I’m not going to hide.
As the author of a book that touches on the subject of teen suicide, I have been remiss in speaking about this publicly. Suicide is the third most common cause of death in young people. At the time I wrote HitList, it seemed I could hardly turn on the news without hearing of another tragic death: the burgundy-haired beauty with almond shaped eyes that was slut-shamed online. The ethereal boy who came out on Facebook, only to be harassed and bullied by his former friends.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the parent of one of those kids—to lose the person who matters most. In writing HitList, one of the things I hoped to do was show all faces of the tragedy, in order to encourage a dialogue and to discuss ways suicide might be prevented.
An editor at one of the big five publishers praised the writing in HitList, but declined to publish on the grounds adult readers might find suicide “unpalatable”. And it is. But denying the reality shuts down a dialogue. Because talking about suicide is an important step in preventing it. We cannot fix the things we deny, or prevent the things we refuse to discuss. Suicide is not a dark secret to be borne alone, but a real, preventable tragedy that is happening all the time. Every thirteen minutes someone commits suicide.
In the United States, September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a campaign to promote resources and awareness in suicide prevention. You can do your part by knowing the warning signs of suicide:
If you’re concerned about someone, reach out. While many people worry that broaching the subject of suicide might cause someone to be suicidal, in reality, talking openly can save a life. If you happen to be wrong, all you have done is shown the person how much you care. And if someone opens up to you about their pain, listen, be non-judgmental and do whatever you can to help them find the help they need.
My dad didn’t reach out and left no note. This was ages ago, in the midst of the 80s farm crisis and his small business relied on farmers. And it must’ve seemed futile and he must’ve felt like a failure. He never got to see that his business legacy survives to this day and his inventions and name live on.
Whatever it that got him to that point hardly matters now. And that’s the thing about life—it passes. Many of us—maybe most of us—have crashed against a wall of despair, failure, embarrassment or shame; suffered feelings of futility or overwhelming sadness, or gone through dark times of persistent hopelessness. But on the other side of that wall—and the other side is always there for those brave enough to climb it—is life. Sometimes punctuated with helpless laughter, footnoted with brief bouts of glory, occasionally boring, but faster than you realize—Life.
If you’ve lost someone you love to suicide, remember them today in love and kindness. And if you ever, Ever, EVER, EVER find yourself contemplating suicide, reach out. You matter more than you’ll ever know. Though the pain in your path may seem unbearable, you won’t know all that you can become if you don’t carry on.
I miss you, Dad.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://www.afsp.org/
Every Day Matters: http://www.everydaymatters.com/suicideprevention/
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/suicideawarenessmonth/hp
I was on the road last week, and found myself with three burning questions: Why do hotel pillows have the relative density of year-old Melba toast? Why are conference rooms super-chilled to 283 Kelvin? And, most importantly, where are all the women?
I can tell you where they aren’t: at the AIM Heartland Developer’s Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. Call it the Burning Man for geeks, except nothing radical happens, and the debauchery is generally limited to wearing cargo shorts to the workshops: Look dude, I left my khakis at home!
The AIM HDC is an annual event where software developers gather to exchange ideas and learn about emerging technologies. As such, I would have predicted it as a representative sampling of developers in the Midwest.
What I found in terms of the ratio of men to women was distressing. At best it was 8:1 and sometimes as bad as 40:1. Even more disturbing was number of young women (in this case I mean women under thirty). In my time at the seminar, I spotted only three twenty-something women out of six-hundred participants.
In the department where I work—a department largely populated with seasoned IT professionals—I’d guesstimate the ratio is around 5:1. They don’t hire fresh college grads there, but I wrongly assumed the number of women entering the field had remained steady.
How wrong I was.
In 1984, 37% of the students pursuing a Computer Science degree were women. However, since 1985, the number of women pursuing Computer Science degrees has declined. Post-2007, that number has been flat at around 17%.
Why the gender gap? I found plenty of hypotheses online, but I decided to find out what the women in IT thought. So between seminars, I walked around and asked female developers why there weren’t more women in technology.
The answers I got ranged from a mystified shrug, to a woman who evangelized on the importance of early outreach in elementary school.
Other reasons I heard:
All of which made me go back to the participant who said, “By the time girls reach high school and are making career decisions, it’s too late. They’ve been shunted out of math and sciences.”
Well that’s silly, right? We all know girls are just as smart at math and science. And even Barbie can be a Computer Programmer, or so said Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer by Susan Marenco. Well, actually, that book said that Barbie can only be a designer, and that she needed Steven and Brian to actually do the coding. Marenco faced a lot of wrath over that book and it was subsequently withdrawn. But this was released in 2013. It’s 2013 and this is the message that still gets out to our girls?
Not exactly, according to the State of Girls and Women in STEM http://www.ngcproject.org/statistics. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, more girls are taking pre-calculus and algebra II than boys, and females enroll in science course at similar rates to their male peers.
But it is in engineering, physics and computer science where the gap shows up. Boys were six times more likely to have taken engineering classes.
It’s perplexing. For one thing, an engineering degree affords the opportunity to earn a better than average salary. While the median starting salary for an Arts and Humanities graduate is $36,237, those in Engineering degree start out at $64,367. And Computer Science graduates can expect a starting salary around $58,500. Is the salary higher because it’s a male-dominated field? I can’t help but wonder. But I say–let’s find out. Let’s break the gender gap in computer science and engineering by encouraging our girls to pursue technology.
The guys at the HDC in Omaha would approve. Because frankly, their odds weren’t good.
Generally, I’m inclined to keep my opinions to myself, or to veil them in metaphors wrapped in allegories that are woven into a plotlines. But I have to confess this whole Ashley Madison thing pulls my ripcord.
As a writer whose favorite hobby is turning technology loose on hapless characters, recent events have given me a chance to watch idle conjecture unfold in real-time. And it’s been sad. And scary. And unsurprising.
For anyone not familiar with the story, Ashley Madison is a dating website that caters to those seeking extramarital affairs. Call it the Facebook of infidelity. Ashley Madison members paid upwards of $400 in fees pursuing adulterous liaisons on the site.
In July of this year, a person or persons calling themselves The Impact Team threatened to reveal Ashley Madison member information unless Avid Life Media took the site down. True to their word, in mid-August The Impact Team began releasing user data, including customer names, addresses and sexual preferences.
Since that first data leak, the breach has been linked to firings, resignations, blackmail, identity theft, and most tragic of all, suicide. Avid Live CEO Noel Biderman stepped down on August 28, and all over the world people were rightly (and sometimes wrongly) revealed as cheaters. Marriages fell apart, kids got confused, in-laws got irate, and divorce lawyers everywhere put down hefty deposits on next year’s BMW.
“Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the Impact Team said, and many echoed this righteous sentiment.
But as Glenn Greenwald put it: “[I]t’s worth remembering that the reality is often far more complex than the smug moralizers suggest.”
Every victim of the hacking has a story, a reason. A family. We’re talking about real people, real families, living real consequences. As one who has spent most of their life in the shadow of a family suicide, I can say that no family deserves this.
But I bring this up not because it’s wrong to extort, blackmail or bully (although I could write a book on it), or to tell you that hackers are scary and that the internet is a dangerous place filled with hackers and trolls and lies–but instead to talk about a larger phenomenon that’s happening before our very eyes, something too big for us to fully comprehend yet.
Paper, you had a good run
Five hundred years ago, if you were wealthy enough to have servants and fortunate enough to be able to read and write, you might have been able to send and receive messages cross-country. Just a smidge more than 100 years ago, the first tentative radio signals reached across the Atlantic. Contrast this with today, where information travels to the furthest reaches of the world in a nanosecond.Embed from Getty Images
Our amazing internet is faster than the telephone, more powerful than print, able to reach remote locations with a single click. And it’s not just for personal communication or entertainment. A giant information cloud rains down on us 24/7.
None of us ever has to wonder how many movies Wes Craven produced or if the local theater is doing a revival this weekend. We don’t need to read maps or know phone numbers or remember appointments—or spend one unoccupied moment, thanks to our smartphones and the rapidly growing market of devices being developed to satisfy our information itch.
It’s a small exchange too: devices are cheap, and apps and web tools generally have one small price: we tell them about us, and they tell us everything. Give us everything. We happily oblige though, because we need it. Last week a friend of mine was hurrying through Manhattan to catch a flight at LaGuardia when his Moto X bricked. “Worst thing ever,” he said. “I can’t believe I made it.”
Indeed. How did we manage? A question we often ask ourselves when we’re standing around during the intermission of Washington Middle School’s production of Our Town, while dialing up the current score on the Vikings game.
And so each of us willingly carries around what amounts to personal surveillance device: complete with camera and GPS, containing our personal information: our hopes, our dreams, our lives. A social media dossier is now attached to everything we do, from applying to a job to meeting and attracting a mate.
And we’re only now beginning to realize: What happens in Vegas stays on Instagram. Forever, and ever and ever.
Once something becomes data, getting rid of it is difficult, if not impossible. Data can be duplicated, screenshotted, archived or spidered and cataloged forever. The Library of Congress has started saving tweets as part of America’s historical record. And I don’t even want to think about what the NSA is up to these days. And here’s something else to consider: how many of those Terms of Service do you actually read?
Yet all of us are willing subscribers, eager to trade our personal slice of data for any convenience. Meanwhile, webbots and screen scrapers mine the cloud, looking for vulnerabilities. Eager for something to use.
And while you might find it hard to sympathize with Lothario McCheaterson and the Ashley Madison debacle, this breach illustrates again the ease with which data can be high-jacked by anyone determined to obtain it.
There are no shortage of information breaches on the news. Nearly 2 billion accounts have been compromised since 2004. And you don’t need to be a victim of identity theft to know it won’t be long before simmering privacy and security issues go full boil.
But still, wouldn’t it be cool to have your needed groceries automatically delivered to your door without you even having to crack a list? And to have them remember to include balsamic vinaigrette, which you only just mentioned to your spouse in passing? And isn’t that creepy? But so worth it, because it makes our lives better and easier. Up until the point our identities are stolen or our health insurer removes all references to Ben & Jerry’s from our grocery lists, in the name of “improving our lives.”
So what happens when your medical record is compromised and you’re turned down for the job you’re after because of that 2012 prescription for Prozac? What happens when your mortgage loan is rejected because of your flip remark about running off to Bimini on Facebook? And what about when you can’t get life insurance because there is just way too much Lana Del Ray on your Spotify?
No, the risk isn’t just from hackers wearing black hats, breaching networks in the dark of night. We face just as much peril from the boardroom deal between your bank and your health insurer.
The right to individual privacy has always ground against the needs of society. If some nutjob was plotting to incinerate the Ben & Jerry’s freezer at your local market, it’d be good to know about it, right? If someone means to harm us and we could stop them by knowing their plan, it’s a good thing, no? But the waters quickly muddy when you realize the endless number of scenarios and realize there is no gold standard in the war between privacy and right to know.
And when the prize is as vast and valuable as our collective information, expect things only to get more complicated. And the only thing certain is that we are all at risk.
Mira! Mira la tormenta.
Which reminds me, I wonder if Netflix still has Terminator 1 and 2.
And while I’m generally unqualified to give opinions on matters of taste and culture, I have to tell you about last night. You see, I was fortunate enough to attend A Midsummer Night’s Dream, perfected. That’s right–423 years after the original production, Janet Schlapkohl’s adaptation, performed by Combined Efforts Theatre has nailed it.
I admit I’ve never actually had the pleasure of seeing MND performed up until last night, but it is difficult to imagine a more delightful adaptation, a more picturesque venue, a more splendid series of scenes or more heartfelt performances.
On satellite, Eastern Iowa looks like a child’s leaf-rubbing: ghost-green fields patchworked by Christmas-velvet groves, with veiny rivers worked all through. To get to The Country Camp, drive down a ribbon of hardpacked gravel, up a dirt driveway and then turn north at the horse pasture to park. Next, get out of your car and marvel at the number of vehicles there already. As you make your way past the horse barn to stage one, look around and realize–Grant Wood wasn’t making it up–Iowa really DOES look like that–except it’s golder and greener and fresher and oh-so-astonishingly real. It’s late July, and the air smells like tall corn and cut alfalfa.
Iowa weather is fickle, but we were fortunate last night–it was clear and the temperature landed somewhere between shirtsleeves and tank tops, with the humidity hovering in that sweet spot that makes Iowans quit complaining about the weather long enough to complain about the caucuses.
As we waited, we were serenaded by a chorus of cricketsong and hen gossip, smelling cotton candy and an abundance of that lemon-meringuey Bug Soother that Midwesterners pass around at outdoor gatherings as if it were a party favor. And then, showtime.
Expect no curtain call at The Country Camp. Instead, Ms. Schlapkohl has the audience move from set to set, taking advantage of meadow, farm and woods as a backdrop, and using everything from chairs to logs to railroad ties for audience seating. Act I was accompanied by barn swallow acrobatics and Act II was held in a shady cathedral of spruce and red cedar–the sort of wooded copse that lies on the edge of every Midwestern farmyard. Inside, it smelled of juniper and pine needles. Beneath our feet, a loamy carpet peppered with cedar seeds, and overhead, a canopy of birdsong. The far side of the woods featured a circus train of walkways and ladders (no doubt enjoyed by Country Campers) which provided a marvelous backdrop for Fairyland. In the meadow beyond, a pair of monarchs improvised an amorous ballet, while the sinking sun gilded a perfect swell of prairie.
Spectators may find the need to lean around the weathered trunk of a cedar tree in order to catch all the actors, but this in no way affects the enjoyment of the show. From that enchanted Fairyland in scene two, Act III is enjoyed from a clearing suitable for frolicking in flower wreaths, where the audience may grab a chair or perch upon a log instead.
But about the show–and that is what this is supposed to be about–Combined Efforts Theatre is a disability-inclusive theatre troupe based in Iowa city, Iowa. It was founded in 2002 by Janet Schlapkohl. I couldn’t begin to list all the delightful performances last night–being of only limited acquaintance with the play–but Josh Sazon was mesmerizing as Oberon. The role of Nick Bottom was played with comic abandon by Derek Johnson and Lark Cristensen-Szlanski played a sweet and wry Margaret of the Mead House. My personal favorite was Pam Michaels Meyers with her delicious dose of snark as Hippolyta. In addition, the show featured a host of entertaining Athenians, winsome Fairies and hilarious Mechanicals. Ms. Schlapkohl’s version is a slimmed down and kid-friendly version, with a tang of present-day, the performance of which was complimented by the occasional graceful interception of the missed line.
I realize now that this was not just a review of MND, but of rural Iowa and Grant Wood and a reminder of how grand and great the world can be. And that even in the midst of dark tragedies and frantic headlines there are oases of peace and calm and beauty. So my advice to you is get thee to Iowa City if you are anywhere close. There are only two more chances to enjoy this wonderful show. I have to think the Bard would approve.
My heart still sails at the thought of it.