Best Christmas Ever

For the first time in the fifteen years I’ve been with Scott, the Merriman family Christmas went to hell in a handbag. Best. Christmas. Ever. No, wait! Don’t go away.  It was awful for some! But it slowed things down a bit for the rest of us and created some unique opportunities.

Every year is a winter family reunion. We see all of Scott’s sisters, even though they are scattered around the country. (The few years Susan didn’t come, she was living in a boat in the Bahamas. It would be very hard to hold that against her.)

We’ve grown to a crowd of twenty, and we descend upon go to his oldest sister’s house for a gigantically long weekend. Between one dinner with his mom and another (on a different night!) with his dad and stepmom, we have some three to four days of mad tea party carnival. And every year, it’s fucking amazing.

I stand in awe that Holly can host the lot of us, feed the lot of us, house most of us (our family stays in a hotel; her home and my sanity have their limits), make it all fun, and still somehow maintain her position as a vice-president in a company. I’d be locked in an asylum.

Her daughters are old enough to help. And we all try to bring something. But mostly that means Judy brings a bunch of food from six hours away, our family brings cookies from ten hours away, and Scott’s mom brings popular dinner dishes. Susan lives on the west coast. There isn’t much she can drag on an airplane.

This year, though, Holly and family got a highly contagious stomach bug the day before we were all due to arrive. Susan had already gotten in and so wound up as nursemaid. The rest of us avoided them like we were vampires dodging sunshine flavored garlic.

Caroline was crushed. She’s trapped in a world of expectations that reality can’t match this year. Everybody else adapted merrily on the fly. Judy re-routed to Cincinnati, and we planned two days of slapdash holiday.

Scott’s dad and stepmom live in an apartment, and we would never, if not for necessity, have tried to crowd four kids, one of them Sam, into that small space. But we did it this year. And we enjoyed them more than we dreamed possible.

Poor Holly had tons of food that went to waste because we couldn’t come. The day after we got together with Scott’s dad, the rest of us ate what Judy and Scott’s mom had prepared and exchanged gifts under his mom’s tree. The four youngest cousins (that term being relative, as Judy’s youngest is fourteen and our oldest is eleven) got to enjoy each other in a way they never have. And the adults. We sat still and talked. I could walk away and breathe (i.e., hide with a video game for ten minutes) without guilt.

Tons of other shit went wrong. We forgot half our gifts in Montgomery. Caroline spent several weepy hours proclaiming she had two holes in her heart where Holly’s daughters belong. Sam was … well, himself. And we had so much fun.

Next year, we’ll be back to the usual rumpus, and it will be better than ever for our having missed it this one time. It felt good to take a season off and move more slowly. It felt good to enjoy the family we had and teach Scott’s mom how to Skype with the ones we didn’t. It felt good for once to temporarily shrink the tribe.

The ones who don’t say “Trick or Treat”

2014-10-31 17.51.55Halloween is my favorite time of the year. When else can we go door to door, jeer at and veritably threaten the people who answer the summons, and still be met with candy? Candy! Oh the season of candy. It brings me such joy. This is my Christmas and Thanksgiving. Imagine if I wandered up to a stranger’s house in July, rang the bell and shouted, “TRICK OR TREAT!”Odds on, they’d call the cops.

2014-10-31 17.53.31But there are those who knock on the stoop year round, most particularly salespeople and religious proselytizers. I don’t have sympathy for the sellers of goods I don’t want. They’re lucky if I pretend not to be home while shouting at the dog to prove I am. If we must interact, I snarl at them whether they have invaded the privacy of my home or the privacy of my phone.

But the promulgators of God? To them, I’m nice.

If you know me, you’d expect the opposite. My grandfather once asked, “Are you agnostic or antagonistic?”

“Both.”

But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses or members of the Church of Latter Day Saints come to my door, I open it with a smile.

Why?

Two reasons.

The first is simple. Viewed up close, both groups suffer from stereotyping, most keenly the unreasonable assumption that the only thing they ever want to discuss is God and that they will only befriend those who share their beliefs. Horseshit.  I have friends who belong to both churches. I went to a Latter Day Saints Halloween party this week, and nobody said “God,” “Jesus,”  “Joseph Smith,” or “Why in the hell is your son dressed as Wonder Woman?”. Please believe me. There are a couple of Bible Baptists back home (one of whom conducted my sister’s burial service) who spend far more time trying to convert people than anybody I know who might have traveled house to house with a tract. (And Sam’s Halloween costume has gotten praise from all political and religious corners, for the record).

Besides, Jehovah’s Witnesses contributed hugely to the freedom of religion in the United States.  If not for the bravery of the Gobitis and Barnette children in the 1940’s, I might have to stand for mandatory pledge salutes today.  To them, saluting a flag was a form of idolatry. Because they endured outrageous hazing for refusing to do it, the Supreme Court was forced to reverse itself and permit people to sit the spiel out.

That has saved me a lot of hassle in my life. To me, the words “under God” violate the separation of church and state entirely. (In case you’ve been living under a rock or reside in Canada, where this shit is irrelevant, “Under God” was added to the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Thank you, Senator Joseph McCarthy and fanatics everywhere.)

The second reason is less concrete. I am kind to the people who come around my neighborhood to say “God’s a Treat” (or something equally cheesy) because I understand that call to proselytize. It’s not a religious compulsion for me, but I exercise it regularly. The ultimate joy for a fiction writer is to draw readers so far into an imaginary world that they want it to be real. I won’t say “believe”, because I’m as agnostic about the “suspension of disbelief” theory as I am about anything. But if I can completely absorb a reader in that way, I’ve accomplished something. I’m not really so different from the ladies and gentlemen handing out copies of The Watchtower.

When they traipse up, I don’t talk long. I don’t want to chat about God, I’m not up for a conversion experience today, and I’m not going to put any missionary in the position of defending the indefensible. (I’m referring to homophobia. Even if I could be persuaded on religious grounds, I wouldn’t join any group that forbade homosexual behavior. For one thing, not all adherents of the faith support that doctrine. For another, I get all high and mighty myself with a gigantic “who the fuck do you think you are?” attitude if I have to deal with anybody who does support that.)

But I thank them. Even if they come at an inopportune time, forcing me to answer the door with Sam in a headlock while clutching the dog’s collar, I thank them. Because by carrying their words, their worlds, from door to door, they have helped expand the freedom of religion to include my freedom from religion.

I don’t have to agree with them to respect them, and living, as I do, in the deep South, that’s something I appreciate more every day. The Amway guy can Am-scray, but the Witnesses are okay. They are among the few strangers who don’t have to say “Trick or Treat” to get me to answer the doorbell.

The Change

 

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Nutshell

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How We Ruin Our Children

A few days ago, I read an excellent article about how to be a good parent. Mere hours later, and courtesy of my Facebook timeline, I read another excellent article that said exactly the opposite. Shortly, it became clear that one of the most important things I could do as a blogger was publish my own parenting advice. And since I’m such a good fucking parent, I didn’t feel any need to research this shit. After all, the people whose advice I had read hadn’t done so either, and their page views were in the quadzillions. (I’m sure this had nothing to do with their pieces appearing on HuffPo and the like.) So. Without further ado, I bring you the Jester’s Guide to Parenting.

FuckingKids

Stressors and dressers

“I’m going to chop my left arm off with my dresser drawer.” My daughter holds herself in a Karate Kid meets Chubby Checker pose. “And put it in a sling and die.”

It would be funny, if she weren’t so damned serious.

Phantoms

After

After

The pain relief was immediate. I woke up from surgery, and even though my nipples were on fire, I couldn’t sense the nerve where my shoulder connects to my neck. I’ve known that joint by heart for years now. I had reached the point where I thought it didn’t hurt when I simply knew where the junction was, as opposed to feeling pain radiate outward from it. Even the chest fire was mild by comparison, the sort of pain I used to associate with nursing, intense cold, and drastic hormone shifts.

But, as with any surgery, breast reduction came with a few unexpected complications, the largest of these involving physical sensations. The doctor correctly assured me the fire would be gone within hours, because breast tissue has few nerve endings. But my chest gurgled and glurped for days as air pockets shifted and liquid drained. It didn’t hurt, but I could sure feel it happening. I didn’t lose any actual feeling, after all.

And then there was the other thing. The doc migrated my nipples north without ever disconnecting them, so they were the same as ever, but in a new position. Before, they hung to my belly button. Cramming them into a bra used to mean relocating the lowest bits by a good six inches. Not any longer. No cramming for me. But my breasts are having a bit of an adjustment to their new home.

You know how people who have lost had a limb or digit still sometimes get sensation in it? Well, I didn’t lose much tissue or many nerve endings, but I’ve still got that problem. Phantom boob syndrome, I suppose you’d call it.

There was a particular feeling that I only experienced when I wore nursing bras. When the supporting bra structure pushed too firmly against the underside of my breast, while my nipple chafed against fabric at exactly the wrong height, it meant one thing. My breast had crept up in stealth mode and disengaged the cup security hook to flop free and dangle loose in my shirt, usually leaking milk everywhere.

It’s been years since I’ve nursed, but I’ll never forget what that felt like.

I’m used to having my breasts curl under in my bra, so the most sensitive bits are a little sheltered from fabric contact.  But my new boobs chafe. Plus, the nipples are far higher on my chest.  Add to that the fact that I have to wear a bra twenty four hours a day for the first six weeks, and I’m a walking recipe for sensory chaos.

Every once in awhile, I’ll notice my chafed nipples rubbing against my bra from their new vantage, six inches higher than the old one, while I feel pressure along the band line. And I’ll have a moment of panic that I can only curb by sticking my head in my shirt to ensure that neither prisoner has escaped into the wider world.

I’m always shocked when both of them are resting happily where I put them in the first place, directly inside the bra, nipples forward, sagging not. They, I presume, are sniggering to each other because they can still taunt me, even if they can’t make my back hurt.

Crime Writers (A Rant)

Really 3If someone said “Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men,” how would you respond?

Fuck you.

Probably, then I’d walk away.

If I didn’t. If I stayed and kept chatting, I’d add something like this:

Seriously. It’s the twenty first century, and you appear not to notice how offensive the phrase “nothing against women” is, or how it suggests, right off the bat, that you find the women’s works inferior. Also, you are an idiot if you didn’t notice you’re talking to a woman mystery author, so you are implying that you have no desire to read my work at all because it’s sure to be inferior to a man’s writing. So why should I waste my conversation on you?

If, perhaps, the statement came from a student-type or someone who I thought was asking out of ignorance, someone who might be willing to change a viewpoint or attitude, then I might give the more didactic answer.

By ‘crime fiction’, you seem to imply ‘hard hitting thrillers’. Are you sure they’re all men? Are you sure it isn’t just men in the forefront of your mind? And are you sure you’ve read enough women crime writers to know whereof you speak? Consider the things you enjoy in crime writing and look closely at those genres. There are women scattered throughout.

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers are rather hard to dismiss. And what about Margery Ellingham and Ngaio Marsh? (Why no, Ngaio wasn’t a man. Please, don’t confuse author with character.) Modern example? Patricia Cornwell, anyone?

Consider the attitudes that shape your expectations, then go pick up one of their books. Compare them to their male counterparts. Do the women flinch from hard hitting things? I think not.

And for that matter, is it only women who write heart-warming cozies? Can’t a guy pen one of those?(Hint: If you said no, look more closely.) Think about the society that forces one gender to justify its presence in any field and make an effort to be part of the solution. Otherwise, it sounds like you have quite a lot against female crime writers, and you’re on a one person campaign to insult them all. And if that’s the case, kindly refer to my first answer and fuck off.

www.sistersincrime.org/BlogHop

#SinCBlogHop

@SINCnational

This post was written in response to a prompt by the Sisters in Crime, a marvelous writer’s organization of which I am a member. Yes, you have to pay to join. That’s OK. It’s more than blog hops, and quite worthwhile. They gave us lots of options, but practically invited me to rant with that one! And I’m shouting out to a couple of other fine writers here.

As usual, I haven’t figured out the rules yet, but I’m participating anyway. I can’t tell who is supposed to tag whom and when, but take a gander at a couple of other fine authors.

Don’t miss H.A. Somerled, author of technothrillers Angel’s Code and Angel’s Betrayal, who was the one who got things rolling for me with this hop! She swears she once scared Hugh Jackman, but I don’t have the inside scoop. She resides @HASomerled on Twitter, and on her eponymous website.

And check out Elaine Powell (not related), author of #1 Amazon bestselling historical thrillerThe Fifth Night. You can find her @empowellauthor on Twitter or on her site, which also shares her name.

 

How Not To Be

DSC_0288I had a performance review this week at my real job. It was. Simple predicate, no nouns to follow. Was. There are things I can change, things I’m doing well, the usual. I’m not perfect, but I’m doing my job, and I know where I stand. I teach online, so it’s one of the few times a year I make verbal contact with my employers.

But, telephone or not, neutral/positive or not, it was a meeting. And meetings? Oh God, they bring out the worst of my social anxiety.

Now, I’m not talking about parties and conferences. Those get me squirmy, but at a party, at a conference, I can find a job. I’m the random parent who co-opted the cake table and started offering stranger children juice. I’m the person who snatched all the pamphlets so I could hand them out. Because bewilderment from others is so much less painful than the anguish of not knowing when to speak or what my lines are.

And I’m not talking about presentations. With a script, I can pull those off. I don’t enjoy classroom teaching. I talk too much, and mine is an interactive subject. I don’t know how to seal my lips. When I taught in person, I left every day feeling a weight lifted because I didn’t have to talk anymore. (Only by then, I was so wound up, I couldn’t stop.) Still, I can come in with notes and cover the right material. It is a manageable thing for me.

But at a meeting, I can only play guessing games. Often, I’m expected to chime in. Or maybe I’m expected not to chime in. Maybe you want me to say, “OK” at two minute intervals to show I haven’t fallen asleep. Perhaps, the whole purpose of the meeting is to impart information, and I just need to shut up and listen. Only somehow, I missed that memo.  (I always missed that memo).

I’m the person in the back of the room who just asked the most inane question and won’t let the topic go, because I’m missing all the other people’s cues that I’m off track.  I panic in meetings, and I don’t know what will fly out of my mouth. Or, online, off my fingertips. (Because I type way too fast, and “enter” is far to conveniently reached.)

My employers would like me to attend online meetings once a month. You’d think this would be easy. I don’t have to say anything, there’s nothing face to face, and nobody is looking at me. But I cannot be quiet in a meeting. Do you feel the extraordinary pressure of silence as strongly as I do? I’d rather volunteer myself for a thousand activities than endure a full minute of uncertainty. Should I say something here? I don’t know. Is she pausing for questions? Why isn’t anybody asking a question? Should I ask a question?

The very thought made me break down and cry.  I can’t do meetings because I can’t tell the important information apart from the unimportant, and silence makes my skin crawl. We figured out a workaround for the present, though I’m honestly not sure how long it will be practical and possible. And I do not know what I’m going to do if I have to attend a meeting once a month. I attend meetings as rarely as possible, because I lose days of productivity to the emotional recovery.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was going straight out of the phone-in performance review and into a face-to-face meeting with the kids’ principal for something she swore wouldn’t be a big deal. I knew it would be. I was right. And even if it hadn’t been, it was a meeting. A second meeting in one day. It was one I’d had no chance to prepare for, even though I’d had all weekend to dread it.  One where absolutely anything could have come up. And oh baby did it, for our older child. (I’ll send details privately to the interested.)

It’s Wednesday. You’d think I’d be better by now. But I’m not.

In fact, if you need me, I’ll be gibbering over here in my corner with my laptop, grading papers and trying to prioritize my notes. Send anti-anxiety medications and strong alcohol please and thank you.

What Happened Until Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

On Jury Duty: Point Four: What Happened to Innocent Until Proven Guilty?

After shot. Sorry. I only have on a bra in the before shot. Ill text it to interested parties with no embarrassment whatsoever, but I do not believe it needs blogging.

After shot. Sorry. I only have on a bra in the before shot. Ill text it to interested parties with no embarrassment whatsoever, but I do not believe it needs blogging.

What the fuck happened to innocent until proven guilty?

People don’t grasp the law. I don’t mean the fiddly bits even lawyers barely understand. I’m talking basics. If I am ever arrested, God save me from a jury of my peers.

In any criminal trial, the defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the prosecutorial team. The defendant need not prove innocence. The prosecutor must prove guilt. The judge reminded the jury pool of this as the selection process began.

And yet.

Through their answers, numerous of my peers revealed they clearly presupposed the defendant’s guilt and considered their own presence a technicality.

That guy’s ass was in a fucking sling.

One potential juror said his religion forbade him from judging his peers, and then turned right around and said something to the effect that owning up to your crimes and accepting the consequences was best. Another got up not once but twice to say that repeat offenders shouldn’t be released. We knew almost nothing about this case, particularly not whether the defendant had prior convictions of any kind! The defense attorney followed up, repeating the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra, but it was obvious it didn’t sink in. (Hell, at one point, the prosecutor followed up with this reminder to no avail.)  Neither of these two individuals was ultimately chosen, but they were only the most blatant.

It was the kind of trial that all but invited the presupposition of guilt anyway. Obviously, I can’t talk specifics. But fill in the blank with the topic of your choice. It was the kind of case that , when presented by a newspaper, makes the reader shake the head and say, “yup, happening all the time”. All we were told was the nature of the trial and its overarching theme, but that was enough to send potential jurors into conviction mode.

We knew almost nothing. But it seemed so easy for some to forget the presupposition of innocence.

Moreover, though the case had nothing whatsoever to do with race, there were inescapable racial overtones. The prosecutorial team was a bunch of white guys. The defendant had only a lawyer. And they both were black. Five powerful looking white men on the left. Two black guys on the right, only the lawyer fully dressed out. No, that’s not going to influence a jury. Not at all.  The jury pool itself was more racially mixed, but that front-of-the-room divide was disheartening.

The judge trying the case was not the same one involved in the jury selection ,who was white. I don’t know the trying judge’s race. Plus, I’m sure the prosecutors will call black witnesses and the defense will call white ones (though the prosecutors had a mile long list of potentials while the defense gave few names). So there may be a better visual balance during the actual trial. I hope so. But during the selection, I can’t help but feel like the jury was affected by the appearance of the black defendant and black lawyer against an all-white prosecutorial team.

Maybe juror responses would have sounded the same if everybody at the front of the room had shared a race. Maybe my skepticism is my bias.  Whatever the reason, many in the pool revealed through their answers their ignorance of a basic legal principle.

I felt guilty when I left. I was grateful not to be selected. The trial is scheduled to run long, and it would have caused us pick-up-drop-off hell with the kids. But I also felt like I was one of the few people in the room who understood the very concept of impartiality. I hope there were fourteen others. And that those were the people selected.

Because I repeat, guilty, innocent, whatever, that defendant’s ass is in a fucking sling.