Love, family and holidays: a memorable journey

It’s finally officially Christmas in the household.

After a number of delays and assorted other grumbles, we got a tree (a real one this year, thanks to Dr. Doo-Be-Do, who even put it on his Christmas list), got it up and last night decorated it.

Our tradition, which I’ve stuck to through the years, is that we put on Christmas music then Momma hands out each ornament to hang up. That saves the mad dash and grab for the goodies in the box, as we have a somewhat eclectic tree decor.

When we go to Kraynak’s, I admire the heck out of the beautiful trees displayed, in perfect shades of white or blue lights and ornaments, themed beauties that they are, draped in fluff or tinsel or whatever puffy thing is the flavor du jour of the season. But ours isn’t like that.

Ours is kind of a history of our lives. We have a tiny trolley car that looks just like the real thing, that we bought in San Francisco during the first book tour in 1999. We have the pink flamingo we bought in Key West on our honeymoon. Several macaroni-framed school pictures also grace the tree, from preschool right up through junior high, as well as the popsicle stick reindeer K made in elementary school with the cockeyes.

Little Miss’s Nightmare Before Christmas ornament is up, as well as the Grinch and little Cindy Lou Who, who was, as we know, no more than two. Of course, there’s the Star Trek shuttlecraft and the Enterprise, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Neil Armstrong on the moon.  Now if we only had a replica of our beloved Firefly ship…. *sigh*

Moving on through the years, we have the “hat babies” that I bought from some fund raiser M had back in elementary school, when she was younger than her kids are now. There’s the cut-out babies, gilt paintings of little cherubs copied from magazines of the 30’s and 40’s. We have a thick glass book from Germany that we picked up at EPCOT, a series of carousel horses, a red metal tricycle, and several small glass balls traded during various community theatre shows over the years. Miracle on 34th Street, anyone? Four of us did that the first year I was divorced, even K, who got to play a child on Santa’s lap. There’s a delicate clipper ship we bought in Maine the summer we visited B at her Ferry Beach gig, and several blown glass ornaments my mother gave to me, that reflect the lights in a hundred sparkly ways.

Following a tradition I learned from my grandmother’s days of watching Days of our Lives, we also have large red globes with names of each of the family members. We’ve lost several over the years, thanks to many cats and small children, and always try to get them replaced in time for the next year so that even on the tree, we can all be together.

As with the rest of life, we pull together new memories and let go some of the old. Children come to us, grow, learn, and move on to have Christmas trees and macaroni ornaments of their own. Christmas is a time to remember to stop and reflect and be grateful for all we have, have had, and will have.

“Christmas–that magic blanket that wraps itself about us, that something so intangible that it is like a fragrance. It may weave a spell of nostalgia. Christmas may be a day of feasting, or of prayer, but always it will be a day of remembrance–a day in which we think of everything we have ever loved.”
~ Augusta E. Rundell

Confessions of a nerd

Let me be up front about this: I’m more likely a Trekker than a Warsie.

That being said, we experienced a little bit of heaven this week as we first got to bring home the latest incarnation of Star Trek, a movie that goes back, long ago, to a galaxy…no wait. It’s still our galaxy. And James Kirk is a babe. And Spock is a babe. And Karl Urban is AWESOME as McCoy.

Then we finished off the month with a once-in-a-lifetime event: Star Wars in Concert. John Williams’ music is brilliant–and to hear the story narrated by Anthony Daniels in person, from the real beginning this time!–live with an orchestra. Little Miss met Princess Leia, while Dr. Doo-Bee-Do got to have the music as loud as he usually likes it. I was interested to see that there were a number of kids, like Little Miss, who brought headphones to deal with sensory issues. Pittsburgh being an autism center, though, I guess it’s not surprising.

The concert was breath-taking, every minute of it, even the Dark Side encore. Here’s a little taste:

Writers aren’t old dogs

Learning is about more than simply acquiring new knowledge and insights; it is also crucial to unlearn old knowledge that has outlived its relevance. Thus, forgetting is probably at least as important as learning.

–Gary Ryan Blair ( Mind Munchies: A Delicious Assortment of Brain Snacks!)

I spent the weekend at Context 22, a science fiction/horror/fantasy conference in Columbus, Ohio this weekend, but not to watch the old animated cartoons of Star Trek, discuss the future of filk, or to dress up like my favorite serial killer. I went to forget–and then learn again– how to write.

Since I’ve learned about the Master’s Program in Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, I’ve been dying to go. At my level of ability, after publishing for 35 years, I really get the most from a professional level course. The faculty in the program are highly respected, and you can even commute for mini-sessions on campus and work independently the rest of the time. Heaven.

But in the meantime, a Pennwriters member of the Seton Hill faculty, Timon Esaias, sent a memo to the group, pointing out that many of the faculty would be giving significant two- and three-hour writing workshops at this Context conference, similar educational information without the university price tag.

Believe me, I’m there.

So this weekend I learned about maintaining narrative tension from Lawrence Connolly, who one reviewer has compared to Tarantino;  joined a discussion about the new Young Adult market, what’s in (sex and violence), what’s out (Pollyanna stories) and what’s controversial (everything!) from Ellen Klages, who talked about writing historical fiction and read from her book The Green Glass Sea (which I can’t wait to read); got about the best 15 minutes of hard advice about writing and rewriting fiction I’ve ever heard from Tim Waggoner; and soaked in three hours on point of view from “Norbert and the System” author Tim Esaias.

We left with sheets of references, recommendations and notebooks full of hope. For less than $200. Wow.

Of course, the icing for me was a one-on-one session with Juno Books editor Paula Guran, who critiqued a manuscript I started in NaNoWriMo–her suggestions were fabulous and resonated in my heart of hearts. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to hear what she had to say, but then for her to take the time to inquire about what else I had written that might be appropriate for her line, as well as what I was currently writing (which isn’t a Juno-type book, but she had great insight there too!)–I was floored. In a good way.

She has yet to look at my paranormal manuscript which I’ve submitted to Juno under their regular guidelines; she said she wanted to get through the conference first, and she vets her full manuscripts a little differently.  So, I’ll firmly believe that no news on this may be good news. Stand by for updates.

So I forgot some, and I learned some, and I’m considering some. And Little Miss got an hour in the hot tub, so she’s happy. What else can you ask?

Space: the mentoring frontier

I’ve mentioned before that the Cabana Boy and I met at an online sci-fi RPG. For the uninitiated, that’s a “Role Playing Game.” Although some prefer LARP or groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (of which I was a member back in college), this online group suited me fine.

Maquis Universal is an offshoot of an earlier Star-Trek based group, the United Empire of Planets. Set in a mirror universe from the original Trek, the UEP were generally strong, but evil, and the Maquis were Robin-hood type good guys.

MU however, attracted a broad group of sci-fi aficionados, and quickly branched out from the Trek format to include Babylon 5, Stargate,Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and dozens of others. Other RPGs had firm rules and requirements–all we ask is that people choose a character from any one of the franchises they like, or make up their own consistent with those stories or others. We have Q, anime, Federation, Klingons, androids, AIs, humans, wolves, faeries, ghosts, evil scientists, Doctor Who companions: a virtual creative burst of improv adventure theatre every night.

I am one of the oldest in the group, and when I married the Cabana Boy, we became stand-in “parents” for many of the youngers, most of whom were teenagers back in the late 90s. Through instant messenging services, we got to know these young people, and they us. I think it says something for the quality of these relationships that a number of them survive to this day.

There is something about the anonymity of communication on the Internet that encourages intimacy. Perhaps it’s that one isn’t constrained by all the physical discouragements, or that it’s easier to find those of like mind outside one’s immediate vicinity. While our characters hashed out great space battles, engaged in chivalrous love stories and carried out lives that could never be in real life, we talked about things that mattered to them, like teen life. Boys. Girls. Driving. Bullying. Careers. School. Parents. We worked hard to make sure that the adults who participated in our group were like-minded and would watch out for our little brood of Internet space chicks.

It’s been ten years since this group solidified. Some players have gone and new ones have joined. The core group is the same. Young people who we saw through pimples and dating are now getting married and having babies of their own. They’re graduating from college. They’re out in the work force. They’re serving their country. They’re getting ready to become pilots. As a cyber-mother, I have the opportunity to be proud all over again.

Within the last week, two of the young men I’ve known all these years have both mentioned to me their appreciation for the care and listening ear I’ve provided. I’m gratified to know I’ve been a meaningful part of their lives. They’ve certainly been part of mine.

So for Jordan, Jon, Sebastien and Jen, Mike, Dacie, Tim, Trina and John, Jeff, Brian, Luc, Matt, Robin, Stacy, Chad and Yolanda and the many others who’ve come and gone,  we wish you a safe flight out there in the black. Remember, you always have a place to come home and people who care about you.

As we enter our 10th year, Maquis Universal is accepting new players. Those wishing to participate in an online sci-fi community where seat belts are optional and anything can happen are invited to fly by and check us out.

Paying the piper

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

Star Trek’s Spock

Humans want things.  We want to travel and have new experiences. We want to be loved. We want to be successful and have good self-esteem. We want to have tasty things to eat. We want… it’s a multiple choice answer. Pick one from column A and one from column B and so on.

In what is probably a fortunate coincidence, what we want is limited by our resources. While I want to be on an around-the-world permanent vacation, my clients would find it somewhat inconvenient. So I’m here, earning money to take occasional journeys to warmer lands.

This need to be able to afford our wants also contributes to other lucky moments like the fact that you don’t come home totally covered in tattoos from the night you were on the Bowery drunk enough not to care, and the situation that everyone isn’t driving Hummers just because they come in pretty yellow. Or that people remain faithful to their spouse or significant other, even though they see someone else who catches their momentary fancy.  Wants have costs.

Out of all the hoopla about Nadya Suleman and her “Octomom” status, I guess this is what tugs at me the most. She wanted children. Lots of children. She and her husband divorced because they couldn’t have children, and she conceived her first six with the help of a sperm donor. In listening to her interviews, she seems confident that she could care for and be an excellent mother to her children, no matter how many there were. She studied and received a degree in child and adolescent development, and so she should be as prepared as any woman for motherhood.

Now I always wanted children, too. But I got through college. Then I had two. I went through law school and then had another. I picked up others through marriage, and then adopted my current three when I had a stable home and plenty to offer them. I’d like to think I can care for them and be an excellent mother, to the extent its possible with their issues.

Children with autism and other developmental disabilities require more time than your average child. Significantly more. Nadya apparently admitted in an NBC interview that two of her first six children had some form of autism and another has ADHD. Given that anyone has 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, the amount of extra care to be given to these special needs children will suck time away from those remaining. It’s almost impossible to do in a two-parent household, but as a single mother? Very challenging.  Those costs are starting to mount up.

So what could she have been thinking, a single woman on welfare who says she wants to be able to provide her children with all the time and attention each needs, to have herself impregnated with more? Even given that she didn’t expect to have eight viable babies, what is the cost of this want?

Not counting the financial cost to the state for the actual delivery and extended specialty care (horrifying) or the anticipated ongoing dole of state benefits to support 14 children (again, horrifying), but the potential for more special needs/special care children as is often the case with premature multiple births, not to mention the emotional investment to care for just the eight children– What about those she’s already brought into the world? The ones, like mine, who need so much investment to accomplish what others seem to do so effortlessly?

Can she really say she cares so much about each of them when she’s relegating them to some limited few-minutes’ window of her time each day? If that?

I can’t judge the truth of various statements people have made, like the claim she did this to get her own reality show or get rich quick with the money she can earn exploiting the children through photos, etc. If she really is the concerned mother she claims to be, we would have to hope these are only false rumors.  Certainly there has been plenty of talk about it and will continue to be.

All I can do is wish those children well, hope Ms. Suleman takes advantage of the genuine help being offered to her, and hope the ultimate costs of such decision-making discourage others from indulging their wants. Because having 14 children to deal with day in and day out may not be as pleasing as wanting them.

A strange, but appropriate, hero

The Captain has become quite enamored of Forrest Gump.

He read the book, then watched the movie, and even had his hair cut the same way as Forrest this weekend. (Just what I would have picked for a seventh-grader. Just.)

Of course, as always, he’s dropping bits of the script: “Stupid is as stupid does, sir!” “From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!”  “My name’s Forrest, Forrest Gump.” “When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went.”

Actually, between the two boys, the fact he just “went” and the fact that Forrest got shot “in the butt-tocks” and mooned LBJ were just the best parts ever.

Part of me is wishing like hell he’d picked a different new hero. But another part of me is cheering him on. After all, though Forrest has little to no social skills (though he is very polite), though he takes everything people say literally, though he does things his way, sometimes very impulsively, though he doesn’t understand nuances and subtext and many other things– he succeeds!

He survives Vietnam. He becomes a millionaire in the shrimp business. He finds love, has a child, travels the world playing Ping Pong, has a beautiful house and all the things we expect to have.

Why wouldn’t the Captain relate to such a person?

I remember reading several columns back when we first got his diagnosis about the Star Trek character Data, an android, and how many people with Asperger’s related to his constant struggle to understand the social side of humans. He tried to learn humor by programming himself to tell jokes–but he didn’t understand why they were funny. He found it difficult to relate to members of the opposite sex. He tried to teach himself small talk, as it was something that was expected of humans, and they seemed to do so naturally.

Here’s an example, from the Internet Movie Database:

Lt. Commander Data: [voice-over] Friendly insults and jibes – another form of human speech that I am attempting to master. In this case with the help of Commander Geordi La Forge.
[he walks into the hairdresser salon where La Forge is having his hair trimmed]
Lt. Commander Data: [voice-over] I consider Geordi my best friend.
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Here for a trim?
Lt. Commander Data: My hair does not require trimming, you lunkhead.
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: What?
Lt. Commander Data: My hair does not require trimming…
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Lunkhead?
Lt. Commander Data: I am experimenting with friendly jibes and insults. It was not meant as a serious disparagement.
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Well – just don’t try it on the captain.

Later examples of the same sort of character are Odo, on Deep Space Nine, and the holographic Doctor, on Star Trek:Voyager. Both were outsiders who attempted to fit in with the humans around them, though ill-equipped to do so. I find these characters more like our children than the officially Asperger’s diagnosed Jerry Espenson on Boston Legal.

Do I want the Captain to believe that despite the drawbacks of his diagnosis, he can fully succeed, even excel, in life?  Of course.  So bring it on, Forrest.  Just remember that smart is as smart does, as well.

Three More Hours a Day? Maybe? Please?

I’ve been a fan of science fiction as far back as I can remember.

My favorite tv show as a child was Lost in Space. (Now I just gave away my age…) Then the Trek franchise began. I read Heinlein and Norton, Tolkien and Herbert, L’Engle and Spider Robinson and dozens of others I don’t remember any more. In college we were visited by the Star Wars phenomenon and I found Anne McCaffrey’s dragon series, which I’ve continued to read to this day, even now that her son’s taken over the crafting of those exquisite novels.

So it should come as no surprise that I enjoy writing SF as well. I’ve written one space opera entitled Horizon Shift, about a captain who nearly loses his ship and has to rebuild to survive, collecting a crew of odd characters. I have a couple of vampire novels, an inter-dimensional fantasy, a Next Generation novel that actually got some compliments from an editor but didn’t feature one of the regular cast as the star, so they turned it down.

But the one that’s on my mind today, Triad, features three strong women, each a commander of a faction, who find they need to work together to survive, despite their enmities and varied agendas. Those women are fascinating, one a broken princess, one a conniving bitch, and the other a devoted career woman who’s lost her child because of it. I wish I could stop everything else for a week or so and take the time to revisit it, update it, polish it again and send it off.

That’s the problem any more…so often writers complain about writer’s block–I’ve got writer’s diarrhea or something, so much to say and do with my writing, but no time to do it. The urban fantasy that’s the current WIP is progressing well for a first draft, not up to my NaNoWrimo standards , but moving steadily ahead–I think it’s nearly 30K words now. I’ve got one project in intense editing, about a third of the way through–it needs 10,000 more words cut and condensed. I’m trying to keep up here and also at Firefox News, where I intend to have several articles a week published, if I can find the time.

Tonight’s article at Firefox is an interview with author Keith R.A. DeCandido, who was gracious enough after I met him at the writer’s conference to grant the time for my questions. This man is a machine–three to four books a year in addition to his editing work and anthologies. AND he plays percussion in a band, and finds time for a fiancee and two cats, as well as martial arts training. Hard to believe. He has me in awe.

Well, I’ve heard I got the runner-up slot as the Writer in Residence at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming in September–so if the first place winner loses her crown for any reason, I’ll get a free cabin for a week of solitude solely to write. Maybe then…

Meantime, I’ll keep exploring the wild and wonderful corners of imagination in space and on earth. If you come along….be sure to fasten your seat belt. Maybe bring a map too. Just in case.

Reading the whole book

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. ~St. Augustine

It’s finally spring. I know this because we have tonight celebrated our annual spring ritual: setting the Christmas tree ablaze.

For years now, we have stashed the Christmas tree to dry out through the winter, and then set it upright in the fire pit to light it, bringing joy to the entire pyromaniac bunch. The carcass burns bright in an incredible heat, illuminating the whole yard. The neighbor’s yard, too. Sometimes, the neighbors threaten to call the fire department. This year we don’t have any, so it was all good.

Sitting around the fire as it burnt down reminded us it was time to plan the summer vacation. Mindful of the 600-mile garage sale, we thought about other trips that might please the group. Little Miss was lying wrapped in a blanket some 20 feet away, under a sheet her father had clothespinned to two trees. “I’m in a tent!” she insisted. We agreed the annual campfest at Cook Forest State Park was de rigueur, though we might prefer a cabin rather than a tent this time.

There are other summer vacations I’ve loved over the years, but I know they can’t be recreated. In 1999, Daughters B, K and I drove across the country in an old gray Ford Tempo on a tour to promote my divorce book. Only the book’s publication was delayed.

It was summer, so we went anyway, planning to meet a number of people I knew from the Internet during the trip; through Kalamazoo, MI, where the gun my ex-husband insisted I take along “for protection” was stolen; on to Chicago; went to beautiful Wall Drug (which I love, tacky as it is!) and the Mitchell Corn Palace. With a quick stop at Devil’s Tower, we continued to the rattlesnake-infested state of Montana (no, really! They have signs at the rest area warning about rattlesnakes!) where we visited my ex-sister-in-law in Missoula and went white water rafting on the Clark Fork River.

Driving through Idaho was some of the prettiest country I’d ever seen–too bad it snows seven months of the year. Seattle was an eye-opener–literally–as there were coffee shops in each block! We spent a day at Pike Place Market and watched the fish-tossing amid the beautiful summer flower bins. South through Oregon we could see Mt. Hood in the distance as we hit the Oregon Coast and its tide pools, fascinating to our young travelers. We spent the night in the redwood forest with its banana worms and evening starfish along the beach.

Farther south was San Francisco and a bridge I’ll never forget, before we met some Internet friends in Monterey and did the 17-mile drive. From Big Sur we turned east, traveling through the high desert at Barstow to the electric view of Las Vegas, where we of course hit The Star Trek Experience. (There’s a picture of me with a Klingon… somewhere.) We crossed Hoover Dam and came south into New Mexico, where I fell in love with Santa Fe, and might have stayed if I didn’t have the girls with me.

Oklahoma and my friend John, the arch at St. Louis, my grandmother’s farm in Indiana, all passed as well. It had been three weeks–but three weeks likely never rivaled in my lifetime. Maybe we’ll top it this year–but I doubt it. That was a trip with great companions and great memories.

As Dave Barry says, “That’s the wonderful thing about family travel: it provides you with experiences that will remain locked forever in the scar tissue of your mind.”

Where have your favorite family vacations taken you?