Outraged by the day-to-day fears endured by more than half of his fellow humans

I just came across this description of a male telepath who discovers sexual harassment. Yes, he is a fiction, but he has something worthwhile to say.

Olumiji had spent his adult life carefully cultivating his outer calm. Thanks to receptive abilities that he had struggled with since adolescence, his days were often spent filtering out the wild, uncontrolled emotions of those around him…

His … specialty involved search and rescue. Telepathy was more of an ability to sense emotions than it was a skill at reading minds, and as such, it was a fairly poor tool for locating confused and distracted humans at a distance. However, those trapped by natural disasters tended to be close at hand and to broadcast mental pleas for help quite forcefully. This made them relatively easy for a good telepath to find.

Rescue workers the world over had come to know Olumiji as the tall, thin Nigerian man who showed up after earthquakes, mudslides and tsunamis to offer assistance, and who had an uncanny ability to find barely alive souls in the wreckage. He stayed out of their way and asked for nothing in return, so most wrote him off as a harmless oddball. Some speculated that he may have lost a loved one himself long ago in a natural disaster. In a way they were right. Olumiji had never lost anyone, thankfully, but he heard the cries of the desperate so often and so well in his own head that deep in his heart he felt connected to every human who had ever died yearning to be found.

He had one chink in his armor of outer calm, and he knew that it was born of guilt. As a male in his home country, he had grown up accepting the many casual ways that young women were forced to have sex. From arranged marriages to gang rapes, from bizarre bridal customs to forced prostitution, the horror of lacking ownership of one’s own body escaped him completely—until his own budding empathy let him discover it, and then left him outraged by the day-to-day fears endured by more than half of his fellow humans.

Don’t dress that way. Don’t go out at night. Don’t talk to him. Don’t meet his eyes. Any of it can earn you pain and humiliation and even more fear, and everyone will tell you it was your own fault. Olumiji had been simply astounded.

And for all the people he had calmly rescued and helped since, every time a case came his way where a young woman was put at greater risk, merely because she possessed a vagina, or worse yet, a hymen, he felt a deep burning anger at a world that treated such as “unavoidable.”

“No,” he wanted to scream. “This is not unavoidable. We are better than that. We have to be.”

 

Sisters

My only sibling and I live far apart, so it requires money and effort to spend time together. Life is busy and it’s easy for months and even years to pass without face to face contact.

We’re alike in may ways, but different enough in others that we’re capable of irritating each other in the special way that only family members can.

This weekend, I traveled by car, plane and bus to make it from my remote house in the mountains of Western North Carolina to her remote house in a small town in Western Illinois. We ate, drank and reminisced , which was all well and good, but what matters to me is that we did more. We trotted out some of those differences and used the ways we’d grown apart to help each other.

My sister has more clothes now than I’ve owned over my entire lifetime, but I have got to admit that she really knows how and where to shop. It goes with modern country living that these places are all online, so part of one pleasant afternoon was spent sitting on her couch shopping for clothes. Oh, and for dishes. She’s really good with kitchenware, too.

I’m more at home with my computer, and had fun helping her manipulate music among her various devices. She and her husband have a new boat, which was great fun in and of itself, and now she is hopefully set up to enjoy playlists while she cruises down the river. And she is definitely getting a new mouse and keyboard for Christmas.

She is also one of the few people I know with whom I share my books before they go to the editor. This visit caught her about half way through the draft of my latest novel. I understand that may writers are reluctant to share their work in progress with family members so I consider myself lucky to have relatives who are genuinely  supportive of my passion to tell stories. I’m particularly lucky to have this amazing genetically similar pal to give my stories a second set of eyes.

Is she enjoying my book? Of course she is. She’s my sister. Does that keep her from making  a few suggestions? Of course not. She’s my sister.

Top Requirement for a Superhero

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, for some odd reason I’ve never been much of a fan of Wonder Woman.

It could have been the tiara, way back when, or the silly skirted costume. This original heroine was before my time, but her image lingered, and it made her appear to me like a secretary out of the 40’s hustling to get her really angry boss a cup of coffee.

More likely it was the goofy boots and lasso I saw as a young girl. This modernized Wonder Woman had a faintly Texas air about her, and I wasn’t big on cowboy stories. Was I judging her by her appearance? Sadly, yes. I didn’t know much else about her, though, because although I read comics and watched superheroes on TV,  somehow her stories were never there. Her image was all I had.

Then I became a teen-aged feminist, and Wonder Woman became a sex object. Well, not totally I’m sure, but her outward appearance took a sharp turn, so once again I wasn’t interested in her. I preferred my heroes not to look like that they were prepared to do a lap dance in some sort of kinky bondage strip club.

Finally, I outgrew superheros for a long while, as I tended to the challenges of life in my own real world. It was only when I picked up my laptop and started to write books that I discovered how much I had missed heroes with superpowers.

Didn’t give Wonder Woman much thought though, until I caught an interview with the director of the upcoming movie. Really? Someone is making a movie about Wonder Woman?

It sounded interesting, and I went. And I loved it. Not because she was a woman, though that was nice. Not because she was strong and heroic, which of course she was. And not because the whole rest of the movie was basically done with taste and class, though I thought it was, too.

I loved it because she had what I need to see in every hero I appreciate. She had heart. Compassion. Kindness. Ethics. Morals. A desire to make the world better. All those things that all the guy heroes I liked had all along, and maybe she had it too but if all you get is an image and an occasional bit in a fight scene, then there is no way to show that heart is there.

I walked away loving her concept of “it’s not about what they deserve, it’s about what you believe.” That’s a great way to run an army, a country, or a world. In fact, I like that idea so much that all my other blog posts this month will be about letting beliefs shape actions.

I love superheroes. And, I love it when women in fiction are strong and capable. But, my favorite hero of them all is now Wonder Woman.

(For more Wonder Woman inspired thoughts, see Believe, It’s About What You Believe, I believe in appreciating those who protect us. All of them, and Believe in Tomorrow.)

 

 

And that’s the way it was, June 30, 1940

Young people will find role models where they can. I remember two of mine. The independent professional woman Lois Lane, and the fiery red-headed reporter Brenda Starr. I was eight or so, and I read the Sunday comics every week, and watched the kids program “Major Astro” most days after school.

Of course “Major Astro” had five or six programs, and the comics were full of stories, but all the other young women featured in my entertainment world seemed to do nothing but silly things. Only Lois and Brenda had adventures. They were reporters.

Ten years later I headed off to college to major in journalism. I didn’t particularly want to write for a newspaper, and in fact was poorly suited to asking anyone questions they didn’t want to answer. But I wanted to be independent and fiery and have adventures, you know, so even though I’d long since stopped caring about either of my heroes, I landed in their profession. Go figure.

I suppose it’s a good thing that Major Astro didn’t run Wonder Woman features  or I might have joined the army instead.

This year, I’ve fallen in the habit of reading about what happened today in history, because it is a calming antidote to the chaos of current events. Imagine my delight at discovering that seventy-seven years ago today, “Brenda Starr” the cartoon strip by Dale Messick, first appeared in the Chicago Tribune. More surprising to me was that Dale was a woman, and she originally tried to sell her newspaper on a cartoon strip about a female pirate. When that failed, she opted for her red-haired reporter instead, and for forty years she wrote and illustrated the comic strip, always fighting to keep Brenda as an adventurous woman. Two hundred and fifty newspapers carried her work at one time.

Lois kind of fell by the wayside for me, given how obsessed she was with superman. But Brenda, something in me still admires her and wants to be her.

(For more segments about June days from long ago, see That’s the Way It Was June 10, 1947, June 15, 1984, June 18, 1972, and June 28, 1888.)

A no-peeing section of the pool

Once upon a time, you could specify whether you wanted to sit in the smoking or the non-smoking section of an airplane. It was a choice between between being surrounded by smoke or merely having it waft by you in smaller doses. Incredible as this now seems, the rationale for being able to smoke cigarettes while in flight was a common one: what I do shouldn’t affect you, so get over it and let me make my own choices.

But the problem is that my choices sometimes do affect you, and my viewpoint often depends on whether I’m the doer or the one dealing with it. I want to be able to lead my own life and not consider you. On the other hand, I don’t want you to be able to shoot off guns near my property, litter in the street or keep roosters next door. (I don’t mind your chickens, but I’m not listening to that damn rooster for six hours every morning.) You get the idea. I want all of my freedom and your good behavior, and we all feel that way.

So, as a society, we must compromise. In the Unites States we err towards personal freedom; it has been a cornerstone of our culture. Recent fear mongering has pushed some of us into demanding that all new-comers “act like us,” which, if you think about it, is a very odd demand. Anyone who acts like themselves is behaving like an American, aren’t they, here in the land of individual freedom?

Some areas are less open to compromise than most, even in the U.S.,  particularly those that involve caring for our common safety. My right to dump my toxic waste, to create fire hazards, or to drive as fast as I like all collide with your right not to die an timely death. Yet, reasonable people can and still do disagree about where these lines should be drawn.

The one area in which we are unarguably linked together is in the realm of insurance. It doesn’t have to be that way. We could live in a world in which if your house burned down, or you were in a traffic accident, or you were diagnosed with cancer, then you and your family were simply screwed. End of story. The 90 percent of us for whom everything was going well would feel bad for you, we really would, but hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

But that’s not our world. Some enterprising people came up with the idea that if we all paid a little into a pot called car insurance, or home-owners, or auto, or health, or life, then the lucky people would keep paying into the pot and get little to nothing for it. That’s right, the lucky ones. The unlucky would get back far more than they put in, but as they dealt with illness, devastation and loss, they would not be rendered penniless as well. And, of course, the insurance salespeople and their companies would make a nice bit of profit as well. It has been a wildly successful idea.

Consider that insurance is quite contrary to the American concept that my choices don’t affect you. Once we agree to insurance, we agree to be part of a larger pool. So enter health insurance. Like life and auto insurance, some people are deemed higher risk than others and not everyone pays the same. However, if payments (commonly called premiums) are allowed to deviate so wildly that those most likely to use the insurance can’t possibly afford it, then something in the system is out of whack. And it is.

Perhaps part of the problem is the cost of the medical care itself. We may have evolved a system in which we simply spend so much on our health as a society that even when we spread out the costs, we still can’t afford it. Maybe it is because of more expensive procedures and medicines, or a bloated system supporting too many employees, or individuals or institutions demanding a larger profits. Maybe it is a little bit of all of the above.

Maybe part of the problem is the health insurance industry, too. Has this group become too large for us to sustain or has the cut demanded by the insurance industry itself become too high?

Perhaps those with little need for health care now ( young single healthy males) would rather pay far less or nothing and not worry about the needs of families and aging until they have families and are feeling the effects of aging themselves? That’s understandable, when viewed through the eyes of ones own needs.

I say males, because women have additional health needs based on their reproductive systems. Contraception, check ups, prenatal care and childbirth are issues for the vast majority of females. It might be easy to say, well, that’s your dumb luck but not my problem. And in fact, some of the modifications being proposed to health care in the U.S. do say exactly that, to females, to those who are older, to those with pre-existing conditions or mental health needs.

But is that a wise thing to say? I once had a similar argument with someone who had no kids and therefore didn’t want to pay for public education. “Don’t you think that living in an increasingly ignorant and illiterate society would make your life worse?” I asked. “And do you really want to grow old depending on these people you refused to educate to keep your groceries coming and your lights on?” Public education benefits all of us.

So does basic health care for everyone. Contraception? Prenatal care? Whether you are male or female of any age, do you really want to live in a world with more unwanted children? More unhealthy children? A world in which those needing help with drug addiction or mental health issues cannot get care? By carving out pieces of health care and making them expensive add-ons, we bequeath ourselves a society that is worse for us. Not for those other people. For us.

I once read that having a no-smoking section in an airplane was like having a no-peeing section in the pool. Exactly. Those of you who want really low premiums for a health care system that provides you with almost no services, you can go stand over on that side of the pool, and just pay for what you need. The rest of you, well, you stay on this side here and do the best you can with this broken system. And if you just can’t help getting a little pee in the water, I’m sure those folks over there won’t mind.

Hey, everybody. Make sure you don’t swallow a gulp of water when you swim.

 

 

Choice. A good thing?

I came across two wildly different pieces of information, and their juxtaposition sent my brain into cartwheels on the subject of having choices.

choiceConsider having no choice. I read the Economist most weeks, because it is one of the better ways to keep informed about the world outside my home country. If you’ve read my books, you’ve noticed that I am fascinated by the rest of the world. I also consider myself somewhat informed, so I read the following from the Feb 25 2017 issue of The Economist three times.

In a 2012 household survey … more than half [of Indian women] said they could not visit a shop, or even a friend, without someone else’s approval … and 52% thought it normal for a husband to beat his wife if she ventured out without telling him.

2012? Half the population? But I know women from India who live in the US, and my writing and the internet have combined to introduce me to women who live in India now as well. This doesn’t sound like their reality. The article adds

For wealthy and middle-class Indian women, freedoms have steadily grown.

Oh, right.  Those are the women with whom I have contact. In fact, those are generally the women with whom I have contact here as well. Both education and the influence of others work to increase a woman’s freedom. I wonder what percentage of poorly educated women in remote rural locations live a similarly constrained life here?

Then I came across this.

While people like having choices, too many options makes settling on one specific choice difficult. There is a technical term to describe this problem: the excessive choice effect (ECE). The ECE refers to the inverse relationship between the number of options and the ability of a person to make a choice. It is most famously related to a study involving jam. Authors Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that consumers more likely to purchase jam when presented with six choices than when they were presented with 24 choices.

jamIt was part of a newsletter from the American Association of Independent Investors. If you’ve read d4 you know that I handle stock investing for myself and other family members, and so I’ve subscribed to a wide variety of newsletters on the subject over the past decade or so. Most make money, but mostly for the people who write them.  However, the AAII aims to provide “unbiased, actionable investment education” often playing the role of a sort of “Consumer Reports” for the individual investor. Here, they were trying to help the non-professional navigate their way through mutual funds. (There are an awful lot of them out there.) So I checked out the jam story, and apparently it is true.

I have always believed that having no real choice about what you can do is the very definition of misery. The essence of happiness is the freedom to choose the alternative you believe is best. You may choose to defer your happiness, or to forego it altogether to aid or please another. You may choose to do something difficult; you may choose to take a nap. When circumstances beyond anyone’s control give you a lousy set of choices, that might make what you pick all the more valuable to you.

growing-bolder-8To artificially restrict anyone’s decisions (visit a sick friend and get beaten, or don’t) is to artificially limit their joy in life. No, you can’t study to be a doctor because we say so. No, you cannot try to run a marathon, because I don’t like the idea. This exertion of control, this limiting the potential of others with arbitrary rules, is of course not confined to the experience of women. However, women have far too often been on the losing end of it. On this blog and in my life, I cheer on the women who have found a way to regain their options.

But what an interesting idea that we also don’t like to have too many choices. At least when it comes to something trivial like what cookie to eat, a half dozen options are good. More important decisions like what career to pursue or what mate to choose presumably warrant having more than six to pick from. But can we suffer from choice overload even then?

Maybe what we all want is enough meaningful choices, in all aspects of our life. We don’t like being forced to pick among things that don’t matter that much to us. Ask anyone who has recently had to plan a wedding and pick from dozens of nearly identicle type-fonts. And yet, we rebel deeply against not being able to choose the things that matter most to us. Of course we do.

Funny creatures, aren’t we?

Am I writing sexist science fiction?

daxI’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager; longer than that if you consider wanting to be the chief science officer on the star ship Enterprise as a sign of early feminism. And yet, like other like-minded authors of speculative fiction, I struggle with feminism in my writing.

My first problem is that I define feminism as the radical notion that women are people. This means that some of them (women, or people if you prefer) are foolish. Some are selfish or incompetent, and a few of them are downright mean. All of them have flaws. I believe that to make every female character, or even most of them, models of virtue is to not treat my female characters as people, but rather as carriers pigeons for an ideology.

I recently stumbled on an online group discussion about a book I read years ago. Dreamsnake (a multiple award-winning 1978 science fiction novel written by Vonda McIntyre) defied the stereotypes of the genre way back then by putting a gutsy lady hero in the middle of a broken world. I wanted to like this book so much. But I didn’t, at least not all that much.

dreamsnakeThe main character Snake seemed two dimensional to me. She was everything a feminist hero should be, which was great, and she was never anything else, which kind of bored me. The rest of the women in her post-apocalyptic world were equally unwavering in their strength and capability. There may have been exceptions (it has been many years since I read the book) but my lingering impression was of a cast of characters carefully crafted to make a point. Interesting, but not engaging.

So, my female characters are all over the place. Most of my protagonists are strong women, but my novel y1 features a gay male shape shifter, and his friends.

I remember being so excited when a blog called The Future Fire agreed to review the book, and being so disappointed when the reviewer remarked “I do have to say, I am not really impressed by the depiction of women here. Of the two main female characters, one is shown to be foolish and unstable (where have we seen those words before?) and the other a child-like creature who runs from one daddy figure to another.”

y1-final-smallNo, I wanted to scream. That’s just two of the characters. What about capable Chloe? Resilient Raven? They are just as important to the plot. But of course one of the things you have to learn when you write books is not to scream at your reviewers, even in your own head, no matter how much you think they are missing the point. You just try to make your intentions more clear in the next book.

The other problem I have with my own sense of feminism and writing, is that I want my world to feel real to my readers. Sadly, our cultural stereotypes are internalized from childhood whether we like it or not, and they color our sense of what is believable. A writer can easily have one top surgeon at the hospital be female, and I think a good story ought to have a few of them. However, if the writer insists on making well over half of the doctors female (and more than half of the nurses male) then today’s reader will struggle to settle into the plot. This works fine if gender is supposed to play part in the story, or in the world-building. But if it isn’t, then you’ve got a bright light shining where you don’t want one, and you have to choose between making your point and engaging your reader.

A while back I read a fascinating article on a blog called Mythcreants entitled Five Signs your Story is Sexist.  This wonderful and helpful post included such gems as

“Patriarchy conditions us to think of men as normal and women as special exotic creatures. That’s why in many stories, particularly stories written by men, characters are only women if the storyteller thinks they have to be.”

Excellent point. If every female in the story is someones girlfriend, sister, daughter or mother, I think a good storyteller should seek out a few other characters and change their gender. You know, the helpful bartender who notices something that saves the hero can be a girl, and no, your hero does not have to fall in love with her. She can even be an old woman.

Here is another gem.

“Because most of us have a very skewed sense of what ratio of men to women is normal, the only way to ensure equal representation is to actually count them up and tally the total.”

This is an exercise well worth doing. While I think that a writer may not be able to achieve “equal representation” without making gender an issue in a novel meant to be about something else, I bet writers of all genders will be surprised by how far we all lean towards predominantly male stories. Yes, we can lean less that way and still tell a tale that sounds like it is real.

I’m already working on the novel I hope to write after I finish my 46. Ascending series. My protagonist will be a she, of course, and I already know that she will be smart, capable and kind. That part is easy. Now I’m working on what she doesn’t do well, developing the ways in which she is vulnerable. To me, those traits will be what makes her story interesting, and also what makes her fully human.