My First Worldcon

So I attended Worldcon 76, in San Jose, CA. It was my first Worldcon; the last one in my neck of the woods was Reno in 2011, and I was not in a good enough financial space to go to that one.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience, but as a baby writer whose book is not even out yet, it was … interesting.

I quickly learned that most of the writing craft-focused panels were not for me.  They were saying things I already knew. The sort of “theory”-based panels were much better, though I didn’t make it into a few of them due to overcrowded rooms.  C’est la vie.

I learned late on Saturday that the head of my publisher was in attendance, and I tried to arrange a meet, just to shake his hand and say hi, but we weren’t able to sync our schedules and get a minute.  Ah well, there will be other chances.

I attended a panel titled “The Revival of Space Opera,” which included among the panelists my Viable Paradise instructor, Teresa Nielsen Hayden.  I wanted to go talk to her at the end, but I didn’t feel like fighting my way through the press, and assumed I’d be able to find her somewhere else.  Sadly, I didn’t, so I didn’t get to talk to her, which I regret.  Teresa’s one of my favorite VP people.

I did learn that going to a con with my pre-teen daughter is difficult.  Tegan is 10, which presents a problem: the child-focused stuff was too young for her, and she’s not old enough to go hang out with teens yet.  So she spent much of her time being bored, though she did attend her first panel on her own at one point, and enjoyed that.  She felt better once her mom arrived on Friday evening, though daughter spent Friday night visiting her Bay Area-based cousins.  Tegan really wants to be my “assistant” if and when I ever do signings and the like, but I think we’ve both decided she’s not ready for that yet.  We’ll see what happens as she gets older.

What I really enjoyed the most about the Con was visiting my tribe members who came to Worldcon.  Through Beth Morris Tanner, who seemingly knows basically everyone in the SFF field, I also met Karen Osborne and Mary Anne Mohanraj, both of whom were delightful and I hope to see more of in the future.  I didn’t get to talk to all the people I wanted to, but that’s the reality of Big Social Events.  Dinner with my VP crew on Saturday was a high point, for sure.  Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of some great SFF anecdotes, K.G. Anderson is the person to sit with.

I’m delighted that most of my Hugo votes were for the winners, and I gladly give my congratulations to all the winners, even the ones I didn’t vote for.

Now it’s time to get ready for the school year to begin, and keep plugging away on the writing projects I have going right now.

My Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is dead.

It seems almost impossible.  I’ve been reading Ellison’s work for almost as long as I’ve been reading adult books–and I began reading them when I was about 9 years old.  I know I read Paingod and Other Delusions right after my 10th birthday, because that’s when I picked up the collection from where my dad had left it and began reading it. I was hooked from page one. The man who wrote “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktock Man” can’t be dead… can he?

I don’t mean page one of the stories.  I mean the beginning of his introduction.  My edition is the one with “Your Basic Crown of Thorns,” which is a meditation on the nature of pain.  It’s glorious and heartbreaking and beautiful.  It brought me to tears, then and several more times over the years.  Harlan Ellison remains the only writer who has ever done that to me.  And I’ve loved him for it.

Harlan Ellison is part of why I don’t speed.  I read his story, from that introduction to Paingod, about having to go to traffic school, and seeing–and hearing–the scream of a mother who had just lost her young son to a traffic accident.  He said that five days later he could still hear it, couldn’t stop hearing it.  That imprinted on me.  I don’t speed in residential areas.  I get angry at those who do.  Because I read Harlan’s “viscera” in his introductions.

He was always a man who stirred up controversy.  Growing up in fandom means hearing endless stories about him.  I assume most of them are BS, but a few have the ring of truth.  He was acerbic, to be sure.  And that, too, I loved.  Harlan Ellison was a man who wasn’t afraid of telling anyone his opinion, even if he knew it would be unpopular or would anger those he was talking to.

When I found out that my father had died, my sadness was because it hit me that now I’d never know him.  It was the death of dreams. I feel a similar sense of loss regarding Harlan Ellison; I had so wanted to meet him, but could never get to where he was.  And in recent years, I’d begun to realize it wasn’t going to be likely–he was getting older, and had stopped going to cons.  But I held out a little hope.  Now I’ll have to make do with the words he left us. He’d probably think that was as it should be.

Of course, he made mistakes.  We’ve all heard, I’m sure, of the incident in 2006 with Connie Willis, which I won’t repeat here–Google is there, you know how to use it.  I’m sure he made many others–he was, after all, only human.  I’ve seen many people today focusing on those aspects of Harlan.  I don’t think that’s right.  Acknowledge them, yes.  But remember that this was a man who could smith words like very, very few can.  Let’s not try to take that away from his memory.  Let’s stop eating our dead, and instead honor what they did well, and resolve to do better than they did where they fell down.

As for me, “my” Harlan Ellison was a deeply honest man who wrote about the horrors and the triumphs of life, and made me think about who I am and what I’m doing here.  He taught me to know the facts behind my opinions, and if the facts didn’t fit the opinions, to change them, and not the facts.  He taught me principles.  Most of all, he taught me that I am not alone, and that sharing my fears and my very self with others would benefit me more than it would harm me.

He also, if I’m being honest, taught me how not to behave as a professional writer.

And now he’s gone.  Goodbye, Mr. Ellison.

Book I’m Looking Forward To: Trail of Lightning

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Anglo who identifies as a Scotsman-in-exile, which is to say I come from a long line of mostly-British-descended people who came here from Scotland in the early days of the US, and I wish they’d all stayed in the UK so I could have been born there.

That said, I somehow picked up a very fierce appreciation of the American Southwest, and the native tribes that live there.  Because of this, I did several classes on Native American literature in college, and read quite a few amazing stories. But in the SFF field where my true heart lies, there’s remarkably little Science Fiction or Fantasy written by Native Americans.

One of my favorite science fiction novels is Roger Zelazny’s Eye of Cat, a story taking inspiration from Navajo traditions. As much as I love that book, though, Zelazny was as white as I am.  He did a good job, but how much better might it have been if it had been written by someone who knew the culture from the inside?

One of my favorite stories this year was Rebecca Roanhorse’s Hugo Award-nominated “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.”  Go give it a read, I’ll wait.

Good, wasn’t it?  SO MUCH going on there.  Well, imagine how happy I was to see that she’s got a novel–first in a series–coming out this month?  She describes Trail of Lightning as an “Indigenous Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Read more about her book at this link.   (Includes B&N Preorder link at bottom)

Amazon preorder page

Rebecca Roanhorse’s website

My Struggle with Mother’s Day

My mother died when I was five.  That means I haven’t seen her, or heard her voice, for 42 years.  Truth be told, I don’t even remember what her voice sounded like.  I try to imagine it as similar to my aunt’s, but that can only take you so far.  The patterns of her voice–her inflections, her unique pronunciations and cadences–are gone forever.

My aunt was too young to take me, and was convinced to allow friends of the family to adopt me.  While my adopted dad did his best, and wasn’t terrible (more on him later), my adopted mother was a monster.  She continually ridiculed me.  I don’t sing in public, despite having a decent voice, because she told me, over and over again, that it was ugly.  Many of my problems with self-image are due to a childhood in her clutches.

Mother’s Day has always been difficult.  How do I celebrate a mom who continually treated me like the unwanted child? How do I celebrate any mom, no matter how worthy she is, when I’m so busy missing my own?

Eventually, I found a way.  And the reason is my aunt.  My mother’s sister took me in when I was 15 and had been basically disowned by my adopted family.  I arrived at her doorstep, deeply broken and completely filled with anger.

But she took care of me.  She was patient, and loving, and she made allowances for my damage even as she refused to accept excuses for my behavior.  She later told me she was terrified every day that she’d come home and find me dead–my uncle kept a pistol, and I could have easily gotten to it–but I would never have done that.  I wasn’t always kind, to her or my uncle, but there’s no way I would ever have repaid their kindness with that kind of trauma.  I knew, even from the depths of my anger, that it wasn’t their fault.  And with their help, I began to heal.

It took time, and work, but eventually I became a functional human.  I owe much of it to my aunt, and the patience she’s shown.  And because of her, I’m able to look around me and realize I’m doing pretty well.

I love you, KJ.

The Ups and Downs of my “Stage Presence”

On Fridays, I allow a few minutes for students to ask me any kind of question they wish.  Sometimes they ask about real world things they don’t understand, like the current Korean negotiations, Trump’s actions, etc.  Sometimes they’re random questions about the world (many of which could be answered with a fifteen-second Google search), and sometimes they’re about me.

Today, a fairly astute student asked if I’d ever be able to speak as an author, given that I’m shy and an introvert.

It’s a good question, but easily answered: I could do it easily, because I’m a teacher.

Of course, even if I do get published, that doesn’t guarantee I’ll ever have the opportunity to speak publicly; debut authors don’t get book tours, and few people would go to attend an event with someone they’ve never heard of, anyway.

But if I ever did get to that tier of writerly success, I could handle it.  I spend, after all, six hours a day “on stage” in the classroom, and I’m one of the more entertaining teachers on campus. My students regularly comment that they enjoy my sense of humor, my ability to make sometimes dull lessons entertaining, and my willingness to look foolish to make a point for them.

But it wouldn’t be entirely smooth.  Because here’s the thing: With an audience of fans, I’d be fine.  With an audience of authors or editors or agents, I’d be a mess, talking too fast, trying not to act nervous, and generally trying not to fall apart.  While I’m good at talking to students, I’m crap at talking to peers.  I get nervous when I feel judged, and fellow teachers judge far, far more harshly than students do.

The key is that when I’m teaching, I’m performing.  When I’m talking in front of teachers, I’m not performing–they know the tricks.  I’m trying to get to a point where I can turn that into performance, as well, but it’s difficult.

Reclaiming My Self

Shortly before I moved to Sacramento, my dad gave me brand-new cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, which I wore often at home while working in the pasture or when riding my horse.
When I moved to Sacramento, I kept wearing them, because they were a part of me, and I liked them. But I was pretty mercilessly made fun of for the first half of 10th grade, and by January I’d stopped wearing the boots or the hat.  I had also realized by then that I wasn’t going to be returning to Napa no matter how much I wanted to, and I consciously “released” the trappings of what I had been forced to consider my “old” life and got rid of the boots and hate entirely.
I’ve never owned another pair of cowboy boots, or a hat, even though I grew up wearing them and used to love them.
Now I want some cowboy boots. I have ZERO need for them, and I’m not even sure I’d wear them often, or I’d go out and buy them. But I want them.  I miss the feel of them when walking, either on a street or in a field.
I’ve been doing this with music, too.  Sometime in the mid-80s I stopped listening to the 70s-era rock and pop music I’d grown up with, because it wasn’t “cool” in the circle of friends I was hanging out with.  But now, at 46, I’ve been listening to a lot of Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, Journey, King Crimson, the Mamas and the Papas… the music I remember from childhood.  Of course I’m also still listening to 80s New Wave, and even Kitaro and my beloved Scottish folk music, but I’ve been spending a lot more time with the old stuff.
The older I get, the less I care what people think about what I listen to, or wear, or like.

How’s Michael Doing? Some Good, Some Bad.

I had kind of a meltdown last night.  More on that later, but first, let’s do the categories…

Work

Work is work.  I just came back from two weeks off for the Winter Holiday Break, and yet I feel like I didn’t get any time off.  Kids are both delightful and irritating; some of them are amazing and some of them make me want to quit.  So it goes.

I’m taking an online course to revise my Hamlet unit, which will mean that next year I’ll make more money, but that’s about it on the job front.

 

Home

In early November we put our house up for sale.  We got an offer in about a week, and it was a good one, so we took it.  We also bought a house, and moved in early December.

We’re finally settled in, and I still sometimes look around and realize “This is my house.”  It’s a nicer place than the old one (which was a great house), and best of all we have a pool.  So summer will be freaking amazing, but winter is kind of a drag right now, because we can’t really use the yard at all.

I’ve also got a balcony off my bedroom, which is going to be a really nice thing in spring and summer.

Rewrite

What began as a restructuring of the first few chapters is turning into a major rewrite.  Some plot elements have been thrown right out, and others have morphed into unfamiliar shapes.  But I think it will be a stronger book when I’m done.  There’s an agent waiting for the final version; I’m trying to get it ready by the end of this month, but I’m not sure it will work out.  We’ll see.

Self

Here’s where that meltdown comes in.  Sometimes, I feel like I get so lost in my job, and my family, that I start to lose myself.  And when that happens, it adds to my stress levels.

Here’s the problem with that: I have a health issue that, while not dangerous, is exacerbated by stress.  And here I am with a stressful job, and a willful ten year old, and I’m feeling pretty much highly stressed out most of the time.  I’m very bad about getting what I need, so I tend to lose myself in my various roles, and find I have no time for writing, or doing things I love, unless I end up with the time, but in a messed-up mindspace that doesn’t allow me much creativity.

I’m working on it, but it’s an ongoing process.

Rewrite, Work, Home

Rewrite

Work proceeds.  I was done with chapter one’s rewrite, but then something occurred to me and I had to add a scene or two, so I’m doing that.  It’s going to radically change the end of this chapter and the beginning of the new one, but I think it will go a long way to making the book better.

Work

Teaching is a weird profession.  I love the time with students but I hate the grading.  I hate the endless stack of papers, and I hate the tendency of so many of my students to listen to me, but do precisely the opposite of what I am trying to teach them to do.

Home

My house is a stack of boxes.  Hopefully we sign and get the keys to the new house Wednesday, then move some carloads of small stuff over, then the movers come and help us move the rest on Saturday 12/9.  Our goal is to be completely out of the house and the house cleaned for the new owners on 12/10, but we’ll see.  We technically have until 12/20, but we’d rather not take that long, for their sakes as well as our own.

Stressed Out and Hating It

I’m stressed out.  Others notice it, too.  Some think it’s because of my job.  They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re also not entirely correct.

The truth is, I’m like the stress version of the Hulk–I’m always stressed.  Everything stresses me out.  I feel like I’m always on the verge of a breakdown, always ready to rage at whomever is nearby over everything that has irritated me that day.

It’s not healthy.  I know it’s not.  But I can’t help it.  And then I start freaking out that my stress is going to set off my arrhythmia and I’m going to feel even worse if I go into afib. You might guess that doesn’t help the stress levels.

The truth is, I wasn’t made for the real world.  I should be spending my days at home, writing, taking care of the house.  But instead I not only work (as is necessary), but I chose a career where I’m constantly dealing with teenagers who think they know everything, and who expect me to treat them like adults when they won’t behave like adults.  A career that is nearly universally hated in this country, where I’m constantly judged by people who don’t know the first thing about what I do but feel they have the right and the knowledge to critique me.

Okay, maybe it’s a little bit my job.

That Time I Yelled At My Kid in Public: A Story of Parenting In Progress

I haven’t been posting much, because aside from “Where I am now in my interminable monkeying with this new project I haven’t actually gotten ready to write yet,” I haven’t felt like I had much to say.

And then I remembered that one of the things I most love about Harlan Ellison–and yes, I get that he’s made mistakes, he’s still a brilliant writer, let’s move on–is his ability and willingness to expose his viscera in his introductions.

Well, if he can do it, I can, right?  I guess we’ll see.  So here, have an anecdote from an incident that happened a few years ago, and why it illustrates what I most love about my family:

Sometimes, parenting is hard.  Sometimes it’s even harder.

When my daughter was five or so, she and I went camping with my family–my aunt, my uncle, my sisters, and some family friends who are basically family.  Tegan did great the first day, on the drive up to the campsite, and she had fun that first night, but on the second day she got hit with a bout of “I want my mama.”

Now, Tegan is what most people would call “stubborn,” just like her mom and I, but which experts would call “Holy fuck, she must be Scottish!” She started needling me about how she wanted to go home, because she wanted her mom.  She just Would Not Stop.

At first, I was able to reason with her and handle it, but it got difficult really fast.  I was feeling overwhelmed by being the sole caretaker of her, being unable to relax, and dealing with her nearly-constant demands for this or that.  And after a good long while of hearing “I want to go home!” I was ready to burst.

Once more, I tried to reason with her.  Mama was having some quiet alone time, and we needed to let her have that.  We were having fun, and if she would just relax, and put her socks and shoes on for me, I’d take her to the playground, and we would have dinner, and then go to sleep, and we’d see mama tomorrow.

She was having none of it.

And finally, I snapped, and screamed “Knock it off!”

Now, when I say I screamed, I’m not telling you I raised my voice, and I didn’t yell.  I outright screamed, in a five year old child’s face, to knock it off.  At the top of my lungs.

Yeah. Parenting fail.

As soon as I did it, I knew I’d fucked up.  Her little face was in tears, and I was feeling like the biggest shithead in the universe, and the worst dad ever.  I couldn’t even dare to look away from her; I knew everyone would be looking at me in horror.

And then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and my aunt said, gently, “Take a breath,” and steered me back to everyone else.  And my sister Blair, took my daughter, and said “Hey, let’s go play and give dad a minute.”  And my sister Brooke handed me a beer, and said “Sit.”

Nobody lectured me.  Nobody said anything, except “It’s hard, sometimes, huh?” And I talked about feeling overwhelmed, and how I wasn’t sure how my daughter was going to grow up without hating me, because I just don’t have patience.  And the family friend told me stories about her losing it at her kids, and that they turned out pretty good (which they did).  And when Tegan came back, I gave her a hug, and she sat in my lap until it was time to eat, and gave me kisses.

That was the first time I ever really lost my temper with my kid.  I wish I could say it was the last, but that would be a lie.  But when it happens, I do what I did then–I apologize for losing my patience, and for making her afraid, and then deal with the actual problem.  I’m getting better now and heading off that kind of loss of temper and cooling down, but that’s a thing you learn over time–I wish I’d known it then, but I was still pretty new at the whole “parenting someone who can walk and talk and has her own mind and personality now” stage.

I just talked to Tegan about this incident–and she has no memory of it at all.  But she remembers other times, and she knows that my temper is a lot like hers–sometimes it gets the better of us, but we keep getting better at controlling it.

My daughter and I are super close.  She’s lost it at me, I’ve lost it at her, but when it happens, we handle it.  And we heal.

And the thing about my family that story illustrates is that we’re there for each other.  We don’t talk about how close we are, and we don’t generally say shit like “Family is Important,” but when the chips are down, we are there for each other.