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.)

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?

One Great Idea From the Misogynist Wing of the Alt Right

Like almost everything you can imagine, and a whole lot of things you can’t, it exists on the internet. The same wonderful, amazing tool that fuels my stories by letting me see locations I’ll never visit and open doors into the minds of others I will never meet, also allows me to find voices that repulse and frighten me. In fact, it allows me to find them easily.

Like most people, I avoid the dark corners of the internet, until my desire to make a character or incident more authentic drives me back to some putrid place. This time, I was trying to do something that seemed pretty safe. I was trying to learn more about Argentine women, because I was writing about one. Flipping through sites, I landed on a blog about how to get laid in Argentina. It seemed to be part of series of posts advising men about how to obtain casual, consensual and free sex in every country on earth. Crass but harmless.

The author advised me that women in Argentina were far too high maintenance and that I would be better off just heading over to neighboring Brazil. Something about the general tone started to bother me, and I filed it away for a possible future blog post of my own.

geniusBecause I’m a news junkie, over the last few days I’ve heard a lot about Trump’s new campaign chief executive Stephen Bannon, who also heads up Breitbart News. I had not heard of Breitbart News before, but according to a wealth of sources it is part of an alternate reality known as the alt right, in which a wide variety of paranoid white-centric ideas are held as truths. I checked it out for myself, and found headlines like “Obama Golfs as Louisiana Floods” and “Texas Voter ID Case Compared to Area 51 Alien Conspiracy” (two actual headlines used today). Okay, I’m going to go with the talking heads.

I also went back to the how-to-get-laid-in-Argentina blog, thinking I might write about it, and lo and behold I found another post there entitled “If Trump Doesn’t Win We’re Screwed.” Hmm. Seems like this guy writes about more topics than effective pick-up lines. It didn’t take much in the way of looking around to find a post called “Ugly Minority Girls Are Winning Beauty Pageants To Satisfy The Diversity Agenda” and to find comments like (I quote the exact words and apologize in advance for any offense) “overweight and obese girls have more sexual partners on average than girls who are in shape, because the same lack of impulse control that leads them to stuff their faces with food also leads them to hoover up cocks left and right” and “homosexuals and bisexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to be mentally ill: their malfunctioning sexual impulses lead to their entire personalities being dysfunctional.”

By this point I was looking for some bleach to clean out my browser. Ick. Yes, people can believe anything they want and they can also share those thoughts with others. But does this blogger seriously believe what he writes, or, like much of the alt right, does he just enjoy shocking people with outrageous statements?

I decided to look further into this. The blogger has a name, Daryush Valizadeh, and he achieved a small amount of infamy when he wrote a post in 2015 suggesting that rape be legalized on private property. His argument was that such a law would coerce women into becoming extremely careful (or paranoid), to the point of never being alone with a man with whom they did not want to have sex. Thus rape would be eliminated. After a lot of criticism, he claimed that he was being sarcastic.

sungazing5The Southern Poverty Law Center follows him due to his “specific examples of misogyny and the threat, overt or implicit, of violence” and you can read their latest on him. (I am happy to provide a link to the SPLC site, but will not link to his blogs.) According to the short Wikipedia entry on him, he is against female promiscuity, which seems a rather odd stance for a man who writes books with titles like Bang Lithuania: How to Sleep with Lithuanian Women in Lithuania and Don’t Bang Denmark: How to Sleep with Danish Women in Denmark (If You Must). I  have no idea what he has against Danish women.

Another odd contradiction is that along with his clarion call for men to be sexually aggressive, he has recently begun to rally his followers to reject globalism and adhere to nationalism. It seems a strange stance for a man who is the child of two immigrants, who has lived in multiple other countries and who writes travel books. Perhaps he is trying a little too hard to merge his philosophies about sex with the politics of the alt right.

I do confess to reading one of his posts from start to finish. It was titled something like “don’t have sex with feminists” and it advised men that the feminist movement could be seriously diminished if males would simply refuse to become intimate with women who held unacceptable ideas like wanting equal pay. (I’m serious, equal pay was the horrible feminist idea that he used as an example.) His plan for stopping feminism is for every man in every bar to respond clearly and firmly to every such statement with something like “then forget it, I’m not attracted to feminists.” He thinks this would make women feel so rejected that they would rethink their silly ideas.

I almost wrote the man to say “Please get all of your followers to do this. Please. What a service this would be.”

Imagine the scene in the bar. He says “Forget it, lady, I’m not attracted to feminists.” She says “Thank you so much for telling me. I’m not attracted to assholes.”

And everyone leaves the bar happy. See, even I can find one idea from the misogyny wing of the alt right movement with which to agree.

 

 

 

A December 1st baby: born to give back?

It’s my birthday in 2 days, and I always felt that being born on the first of the month was a bad deal.

Anyone else: “Hey, isn’t your birthday some time this month?”
Me: “Yeah. It was last week.”
Anyone else: “Oh. Well, hope you had a good one.”

But this year I am feeling pretty special. Someone (who ever decides these things) has decreed December 1 to be Giving Tuesday. What??? Well, according to the Giving Tuesday website

“We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals. Now, we have #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back. On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.”

Think about it. This is a totally cool idea. I mean I know people born on Global Wind Day, Australia Day, International Lefthanders Day and Free Money Day*, but a day dedicated to celebrating generosity kicks butt on all of those if you ask me.

So what am I going to do about it? If you read my posts at all you know that I’ve struggled for the past few months to get the sixth and final book in the 46. Ascending collection moving along. I took a year long break from writing, expecting to emerge at the other end of a cross-country move and job change fully refreshed and ready to create another novel. Instead, I’ve found the blank expanse in front of me more daunting than any blank screen in a newly opened word document ever was.

laotzu121075My advice to others seeking to ground themselves and move on has always been to stop thinking about yourself and do something for someone else. What good is advice if  you can’t follow your own? So tomorrow I have an appointment with a volunteer coordinator in the area who is going to help place me at one or two local agencies who are willing to train me and then use my time and expertise. I’m excited.

If you know anything about my novel c3, you know that I have a particular passion for women’s issues and a strong desire to see my sisters free and confident enough to follow their dreams. No surprise then that I will be looking at volunteering with agencies that deal with some of the worst problems that women face. I’m not naive on these subjects (have you read c3?) but I do understand that I may find myself well outside of my comfort zone. I hope to grow in strength while I help others do the same.

Does the idea of focusing on generosity for a day appeal to you as well? I’m told that one can log onto Twitter and follow the hashtag #GivingTime to join the conversation and learn more. Or go to the official website and check out their video.

Whatever you do, happy December 1.

*If you’re curious, Global Wind Day is 6/15, Australia Day is 1/26, International Lefthanders Day is 8/13 and Free Money Day is 9/15 and yes this day does involve giving away money, so it is sort of about generosity too.

Long Way, Baby

“What were they thinking in 1968?” I ask, as I take a closer look at the faded old newspaper, crumbled decades ago around the dishes that I am unpacking. Still stark in its faded shades of charcoal and cream, it is a relic of communication that I almost never see anymore. The Wichita Eagle. It whispers to me from a place I once lived, and from a Friday August 23 of long ago.

westpointI seem to have opened the paper to the women’s section, although it is tactfully not called such. The feature article (from the Associated Press) gives a slightly breathless account of how “East Coast girls between 17 and 21 don’t have to travel far … to have one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends of their lives.” It goes on to detail the excitement awaiting a girl lucky enough to be invited to West Point for the week-end as the date of a cadet. There are picnics and dances and white-gloved receiving lines. It’s not all glitz, however. The article warns that up to five girls have to share one low-wattage bulb while applying their make-up.

As I read, forty-seven years melt away and I become Sherri Roth, a thirteen-year-old news freak skimming the paper as I search for answers to the burning questions about life that keep me awake at night as I try to understand the universe.

Is my goal supposed to be to date a boy who goes to West Point? The AP writer seems to think so. Hopeful young women looking for a foot in the door are encouraged to contact the Cadet Hostess at West Point to see if they, too, might be included in one of the arranged mixers held throughout the year. I’m not convinced this approach is for me.

slimsThe summer of 1968 is also when Phillip Morris introduces Virginia Slims, a cigarette marketed to young women using the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” I’m only 13 and I don’t smoke cigarettes, but I like the slogan and I wonder if we have come a long way. The Virginia Slims ads sure make me think so. I like how the women in them can do anything.

I think that maybe I’d rather be a cadet at the academy. Frankly that sounds far more glamorous than just dating one. I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since first grade and I’m pretty sure that a military academy education would be a sure fire way to make that happen. I decide to look into it. Over the next year, I will be disappointed to learn that the academies do not even have women cadets.

Sally RideIt will be 1980 before the first females graduate from United States Military Academies. I’ll have figured out long before then that it was the Air Force Academy I should have gone to. I’ll also have learned that women cadets there and elsewhere were not permitted to be trained as combat pilots until 1993, greatly reducing a women’s chance for flying time and advancement.

Sally Ride will become my hero for life when she circumvents that path, becoming an astronaut and the first American woman in space by way of a PhD in physics from Stanford.  I will smile that whole week in June 1983 when she makes her first space flight. This, I will say, is really what constitutes “one of the most glamorous, unforgettable weekends” of any girl’s life.

For more notes from 47 years ago, where 13 year old Sherri Roth reports the news from the Friday August 23, 1968 Wichita Eagle, see my other blogs posts for the How to Get a Standing Ovation Editionthe Vietnam Edition the Won’t You Please Come to Chicago Edition and the Race Relations Edition

Better or worse?

One of the unexpected advantages of deciding to write novels is that even introverts like me find themselves making “writing buddies” online. These kindred souls are often at about the same point in the journey, and they often write in a similar genre and have compatible philosophies about writing and maybe even about life. You might read and critique each others works, you certainly exchange “how to” information and encourage each other, and then you often move on. I remember each such buddy and remain thankful for their camaraderie as I strode into a frightening new world.

BrianRushBrian Rush was one. I liked his fiction; it tended more toward sword and sorcery fantasy than mine and it impressed me that while he was clearly a guy, his tales included strong believable females who had parts in the story that went well beyond merely love interest or spirit guide. He also writes a small amount of non-fiction, published and on his blog and I have enjoyed some of it at least as well.

Working full time and writing part time doesn’t leave room for a lot else, so I don’t communicate with these folks very often now. Yesterday I had occasion to read Brian’s blog. Looks like he has done a lot of writing lately, which is great, and lo and behold there he was posting about one of my favorite topics: Are things getting better?

I was once asked if I had a time machine and could go anywhere in history, where would I go? Well the first answer is that I would never under any circumstances get into a time machine, and if you want to know why you will just have to read my novel z2. But if forced into one at gunpoint, I’d set the dials for the future. There really isn’t a time in the past in which I would care to live.

raising13My family was incredulous at my answer. (I should point out that this was a discussion being held over Thanksgiving dinner). We had people at the table lined up for ancient Greece, Victorian England and somewhere when the druids were running things in Ireland.

“You have no idea what horrible things you might be heading into,” I was told. This is true. In the past the air was cleaner, the food was natural, and nobody checked their cell phone fifty times a day. We also had scurvy, slavery, open sewers, and societies in which religious tolerance was considered the work of the devil.

“Hello,” I said. “Has anyone noticed that I am female?” “Good point,” my daughter said, catching on quickly and reconsidering her one way ticket to the Italian Renaissance.

“There has not been a single point in history of which I am aware in which I would have been granted the rights, opportunities and respect that I enjoy today,” I elaborated for the rest of the group, whether they wanted to hear it or not. “Not that today is perfect. It’s just somewhere between better and a whole lot better.”

I said something like that anyway. I do believe it, too. In spite of the many stupid things we continue to do as a species (and my new book d4 coming out in two months is about this very subject!) we are improving. Learning. Becoming more tolerant and compassionate. Optimism is hard to maintain when you pull out the magnifying glass and examine the day to day news. On the other hand, it is impossible not to feel, when you step back and look at history.

Brian apparently agrees. He has written a great series of four blog posts about why he chooses not to write dark fiction beginning here and ending with this post on optimism. He concludes that “today, fewer people die from violence as a fraction of total deaths than ever before. Famine and epidemic have both declined as well. The general trend is that things have gotten better, and barring a collapse of civilization, we have every reason to expect that they will continue to get better. Take someone from 500 years in the past, pop him into a time machine to the year 2014, and his first impression on seeing the world of today would be that he had found Utopia.”

Well said, Brian. I’ll take my chances with implanted chips, genetically engineered food and climate change any day, as long as I get to be a full-fledged person when I get out of my time machine. Give me the freedom to be what I choose, and I can always use my influence to fight for a better world.

My Secret Life

I know that when I arrive at the office in the morning, I look more or less normal. I’m a few minutes late, car keys still in my hand as I give the receptionist a half-apologetic wave and head back to the small cubicle that is my home for about nine hours a day, four days a week. I fire up my computer, get some coffee, and start to do the things I am paid to do. It’s not so bad. The work is mildly entertaining, the pay is good, the coffee acceptable. I do hate the windowless cube, but I’m luckier that most. I have a secret life.

I’m late because when I woke up this morning, a young man from Romania took time out of his own busy life to post a review of my novel z2. It was a very short review, with five stars at the top and the remark that my book was now “officially among” his favorite SF books. His favorites? Do you how many are out there? How many great ones? My whole life I’ve wanted to write science fiction and now somebody says this? I think they could put me in a cement box for the next nine hours and I’d survive on the joy alone, and I am really claustrophobic.

Green 1Yes, I know that reviews are meant for fellow readers, not for the authors. I do get it, and so I will keep the joy deep inside myself. Seriously, though, how can I not care at all?

I’m also late because a young woman in Indonesia won my novel c3 in a giveaway and took the time to write an almost 1000 word review and posted it this morning. She gave me five stars as well, and used my novel about young women who triumph over human traffickers as a spring board to look into the problem in her own country. Her research fills most of the review and it is impressive.I hear a possible advocate for better education and enforcement in her voice, and I am proud to have written something that has moved her to feel so passionately. I have tears in my eyes and I want to thank her for listening, for caring, for getting it, but of course I cannot do that.

Writers are not supposed to respond to reviews. It makes perfect sense. Reviews are to alert other readers about what is good and bad about a novel. Who in the world is going to write one if they risk getting in an online argument with the author for doing so? I certainly wouldn’t. So, no response.

Instead, I sit in my cube and sip my coffee. I check my office email then I move on to the project at hand. Few people here even know that I write books. Today, I’m smiling inside, thinking of two random people across the globe who I have managed to touch against all odds. It’s a secret life, but it keeps me very happy.