Category Archives: What I Meant To Say

Objects in the mirror are bigger than they appear

I should know better. I really should.

After all, I spent my entire adolescence not fitting the mold of the “perfect” girl. In a world of California girls – tall, thin, platinum blonde – I was short, chunky, dishwater blonde. I was a band geek. Got good grades. In short (no pun intended), I was so less than perfect I took pride in my outré appearance and actively worked to be different.

I spent the years of my daughters’ childhoods trying to convince them the gorgeous women they see in the media don’t really look like that – even Halle Berry has a hair/makeup team and has to be airbrushed. And they in no way represent average women. Most of us – admit it – do not wear perfectly applied make-up even to the post office, we don’t work out at the gym two hours a day to keep our figures – I’m lucky if I walk to the television, and only if the remote is missing. We don’t have personal chefs giving us a balanced nutritional diet guaranteed to keep our skin smooth, our hair shiny, and our butts tiny. How many of you had McDonald’s for lunch three or more times this last week? Don’t worry, we won’t mention names.

Knowing how hard life can be on those who are not perfect, I started early preparing my daughters in case they ended up just average, like their mom. I praised their brains, their accomplishments, and their compassionate works. I gave them positive uplifting books to set their self-esteem. I even forbade Barbie dolls, for gosh sakes.

When my oldest daughter went through her really chunky phase, I avoided mentioning weight, didn’t push the healthy snacks or exercise, and tried to let her know we love her for who she is, not what the mirror shows.

So why am I falling into that societal trap that says women must be thin and attractive, even after they’ve hit 50? After all, I earned these extra pounds – three kids, hours and hours of driving them everywhere, numerous plates that needed to be cleaned, untold amounts of chocolate to help me get through the day. Why do I feel I need a washboard stomach, firm breasts, and a tight butt?

It certainly didn’t come from my now-ex-husband. He liked his women round, he said. Something to hold onto and keep him warm at night. And the puppy I now share my life with thinks extra pounds keep her warm.

My daughters always told me I am one of the better-looking moms among their friends, and I certainly – according to a number of people – don’t look like I’m 50, with five grandkids.

And yet, I go into a store to try on clothes, and stare at the figure in the mirror and wonder who that fat old broad is. Where did she come from?

I grew up with television as a constant source of background noise. With that noise came images of what life should be like – including what we should look like. A patriarchal society, which is what we are, no matter how we try to deny it, tends to diminish the feminine to keep its power. The best way to control women is to brainwash them into thinking their sole purpose in life is to be attractive, because if you’re not attractive, you won’t catch a man, and that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it?

Even though consciously I have rejected that concept since I could walk, deep down – in the subconscious, where I can’t reach it – those images and expectations still wrap themselves in and around my brain, making me self-conscious when I turn sideways.

It’s insidious, this idea of femininity. Everything we see – television, movies, magazines – while they tell us we as females are empowered and “We’ve come a long way, baby!” are actually saying, “But not too far.” The words are there, but, as with children, what they say isn’t as powerful as what we see.

We can tell our children not to smoke, for example, but if we’re lighting up the cancer sticks, the words go in one ear and out the other. Children do what we do, not what we say.

So it is with the media. We hear the words, but we see the thin, beautiful, perfectly coifed image telling us we don’t have to be perfect to be happy. What we hear is empowering, what we see brings those subconscious feelings of inadequacy right into our brains, and makes us vow chocolate will never cross our lips again. Then, of course, knowing we can never look like that, we turn to the chocolate to make ourselves feel better.

It’s vicious.

I’ve been semi-successful with my daughters. Although all three turned out absolutely beautiful (and it’s not just a proud mom talking, trust me); the oldest is unaware of her beauty, and doesn’t worry about her looks. The youngest, 24 and almost out of graduate school, alternates between giggly girl and rough-and-tumble tomboy. We won’t talk about the middle girl, brainiac turned Barbie doll. I’m sure it’s just a phase she’s going through. I hope.

And what about me? I’m still standing in front of the mirror, wondering why I don’t look as good as Susan Sarandon or Sigourney Weaver. They’ve got a few years on me, but still look incredible.

Maybe shattering the mirror is the only way out. It’s certainly easier than shattering expectations.

Why I Want To Go To Mars

The story so far … When we last left the intrepid explorer wanna-be, she was wielding shields against the forces banding against her in her quest to leave the fragile ship Earth for planets in space and beyond. Today, we will watch as she musters her weapons in her fight for self-determination and exploration.

So, how do I explain to those foes who would thwart my desires to leave this planet? What arguments do I formulate and exposate to bring them into the fold?

First, why do I want to go to Mars?

That was the first question Mars One asked. Why do you want to go to Mars? I answered:

When I was a child, I looked at the sky and saw possibility. The stars were dazzling, and somehow I knew there were other worlds, other places to go. Humans always want to go somewhere new — to keep pushing the boundaries, and space is the ultimate boundary to push. Though I was born just a few years too soon to really take advantage of the women’s movement and become an astronaut, I never lost that yearning to keep going up and out, to explore the next planet, galaxy, universe, dimension.

As a sci-fi fan, I’ve read so many stories about Mars and space exploration, but reading it, even though I have a good imagination, is never the same as doing. I really want to do it.

Yeah, right, I’m surprised they didn’t toss my name in the round file and be done with it.

Of course, most people who’ve known me for more than a few years know I was born without the risk gene. You know, that something inside explorers and adventurers that makes them dare anything, try everything, go anywhere. I never got that. I never liked risk, or surprises, or anything that even remotely looked adventurous. Most of my life, I followed the rules, or else broke only the safe ones (you know, like cutting boring classes or walking when the sign said “Don’t”).

I liked the status quo, the regular, the rut. It was safe, it was easy to anticipate (no surprises), and it took little effort to be amazing. Of course, then I had kids, and realized life is anything but safe and boring. Still, I stuck with the normal, the expected – stay-at-home mom, room mother, swim parents, Girl Scout leader. It made life simpler.

An unanticipated divorce shattered everything I thought I knew about life and my role in it – my plans were no longer relevant, and following the rules and doing what you’re supposed to didn’t seem to matter anymore. So why bother?

Thus, I ended up in Fairbanks, Alaska, a land of vast landscapes and bone-chilling cold. Of adventure and surprises and nothing ever goes as planned.

And I like it here. While surprises still shake me up a bit, especially the big ones, I find I roll with them better. I even – gasp – thrive when my back is to the wall and I have no choice but to fight. My mind starts racing faster, my creativity goes into overdrive, and I have energy and attention and the will to make things happen. I guess that’s what they mean by adversity making you stronger.

So now, adventure is no longer a dirty word. In fact, it’s a word I’m beginning to be quite fond of. But I know at my age, the real adventures – those here on Earth – are beyond me. Most of what’s left is for those younger and stronger and far less risk-adverse (or maybe I should say getting-into-real-trouble-that-might-be-painful adverse). That leaves outer space.

Yes, I know it won’t be easy or even fun. I know the dangers are high, the risks enormous, more so than anything I could do here on this planet – but I also know that with high risk comes greater rewards. Dust and radiation – bring ‘em on. Living in a tin can with 99 strangers in a highly stressful environment – no problem. Leaving Earth and everything and everyone I’ve known – well worth it.

Because I will be one of the first Earthlings to see the Red Planet up close and personal.

I will watch my feet sink into the reddish grey dust, see it puff up about me, coloring everything with its rosy hue. I will walk past mountains and canyons carved by ancient geologic forces, just like those on Earth but different, because the background will be different. Instead of looking up at a red dot in the sky, I’ll be looking up at a blue marble, watching it in awe, knowing how small it is, even as I believe it is bigger than anything else.

Yes, I understand – intellectually and emotionally – I will never see my kids, parents, siblings, and friends again. I will not have a furry companion keeping me safe and warm at night. I will be dependent on strangers to watch my back and help me survive. And they will be experiencing the same thing, depending on me for survival.

Maybe I’m not articulating this well. It’s such a powerful want I’ve got – stronger and more all-encompassing than any feeling I’ve known or imagined. Trying to explain seems as futile as trying to explain why I keep breathing in and out – because I must. Because I should. Because, finally, I can.

I’ve always believed science is the key to making us better human beings – to cracking our superstitious, mythological thought processes. And the ultimate science — the ultimate rationality – is to leave this planet and let science take us someplace else. Someplace not made in the image of a mythological omnipotent being who is a little confusing with his/her requirements. Some place where humans can truly be the beings we are meant to be – at one with and part of the universe, rather than attempted masters of.

So, I’m going to finish up my application, including the (ugh) 3-minute video. I’m going to try to put into words the why. I know what I can contribute – that’s easy. All adventures need to be recorded for posterity – blogged and tweeted and facebooked and print-booked so everyone knows what and how we did it. That’s how I make my mark on the world – words.

As to my grandchildren hating me, I prefer to think they’ll understand – after all, kids have that sense of awe and wonderment until it’s beaten out of them by parents, school, and life. Kids believe it’s possible to go to Mars – and what’s more, they don’t understand why not. Why not go to Mars. Why stay here when you can go somewhere else? What’s the point of life if you just stay put, letting the water fill up and boil around you?

So, when I do the video, I’m going to tell the Mars One people I’m going because of my grandkids – so they don’t spend their lives doing what they’re supposed to just because they are supposed to. So that maybe, when given a choice, they’ll drop everything and climb into a tin can with a bunch of strangers, flying off to who knows where and what, just because they can.

I Want to Go to Mars

Humans have always stared up at the sky. We look at the stars and wonder what’s out there, who’s out there, how far it goes.

Ancient peoples populated the sky with gods and heroes, mirroring the land below. They developed myths to explain forces and happenings they didn’t understand – lightning, thunder, earthquakes, rain. Before science, these myths helped them cope with a world they couldn’t control, forces that often seemed hell-bent to destroy them.

As we came to understand things, as our scientific knowledge expanded and we developed tools to help us peer ever farther into the universe and see further into the past and closer to the beginnings, the gods and heroes receded, remembered now only in the constellations we have named after them, but our fascination with the sky has only gotten bigger and more enthralling.

The modern age has seen us set foot on the moon, our lonely little satellite. The photos from that moment – seeing our “little blue marble” in the vast black that is space – changed how we looked at the world and ourselves forever. No longer could we consider ourselves the center of the universe (although I realize some people have never really lost that viewpoint), the masters of all we survey and beyond.

As our instruments have allowed us to look farther afield, we discovered our nine planets (yes, I still consider Pluto a planet – take that, Michael Brown) are only the bare fraction of the planet population – we have discovered thousands of worlds around hundreds of suns – big, small, rocky, gaseous – even “diamond” – worlds, some of which could conceivably hold sentient life. Our vision has literally widened, and we are that much more humbled.

We now have people living in space, in a station we built. Machines we have crafted are cruising the universe, observing planets, taking measurements, photographing nebulas and supernovas and other phenomenon the ancients never imagined. We sent two contraptions on a one-way trip to leave the universe we know, to bring us knowledge of what might be out beyond our imaginings. They are close.

On Mars, one of our neighbors, and the only planet we know that might once have harbored life of some kind, we dropped two tiny rovers, named appropriately Spirit and Opportunity, to explore the red planet and bring us closer to leaving this fragile world we seem hell-bent on destroying in the name of progress. A mission designed to last a few months has expanded as those little machines pushed on past their original mission, their original limitations, and kept going – years past their expected demise. We’ve learned so much about the planet. Many of our preconceived misconceptions have been shattered, and the possibility of life besides us is even greater.

So we sent another probe, designed for more intensive experiments, named Curiosity, to gather more in depth information. Curiosity’s launch and landing captured the imagination of the world, as people who dream of exploring the vast infinite space out there realized how far we have come. It has been an amazing journey, as Curiosity sends us pictures that shatter our idea of a planet we only “know” through the imaginings of science fiction writers. Topographic and other studies have given us an amazing picture of our neighbor, and shown us how very much like our planet it is – mountains, valleys, stream beds, river courses, ice-bound pole, wind – not the bizarreness Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined. We are not unique, we on Starship Earth.

And now, we prepare for the next step – to send people to the Red Planet. Not to drive by and take shots, not to stop, take a breather and a step, and return – but to land, build, and stay.

Mars One, a consortium of people and businesses who realize the next step for humankind is to leave our little home and go west (okay, up), are recruiting people to man their planned mission to Mars, people who are eager to explore new worlds, seek out strange new life, to boldly go where …

And I want to be one of them.

When I learned that, as of May, more than 78,000 people had applied to be one of the 100 astronauts, I was really bummed. While my application is in process, what chance does a middle-aged broad with no science background, whose only talents are talking and writing, have among 78,000 people, probably most of whom have engineering, science, medical, or other technical backgrounds? What chance when there are probably thousands of younger, more able people begging for a chance to leave the blue for the red?

I posted this thought on Facebook, not realizing the shitstorm I was about to unleash. And by shitstorm, I mean among my family. See, I have three daughters, all grown, one of whom has this idea that family should stay close and accessible, and by family, she means her mother (me). Apparently, my move to Fairbanks was bad enough – now I want to leave the planet? What kind of a mother am I?

The conversation went something like this:

From Facebook:

Libbie Martin, Friday at 10:39 am near Fairbanks ·

Just found out 78,000 people have already applied for the Mars One flight. What’s the chance they’d pick an old broad whose only talents are writing and talking? Sigh.

Cori Ove Well, someone is going to need to write about the trip, right?

Holly Swift I think it would be cool to visit, but that’s like the rest of your life. I don’t think I could handle that.

Libbie Martin Holly, at my age, the “whole rest of my life” isn’t really that many years. Besides, it’s MARS.

Cori Ove Umm Mom, if you take care of yourself, you have at least 30 more years of life, if not more. That’s a pretty damn long time!

Eric Ove So…Alaska just isn’t quite far enough from civilization, eh?

Libbie Martin Eric, it’s MARS.

Cori Ove I forbid you from going to Mars! How will your grandchildren EVER see you?

Libbie Martin Umm, Cori, you cannot forbid me anything (although Bama said you would). Wouldn’t the grandkids be proud of their grandma for being an explorer? Besides, I’m sure there will be teleconferencing by then.

Eric Ove Pssh, everyone calm down, the chances of any of us being chosen to go to Mars are so slim, they are nonexistent. People colonizing are supposed to be able to work on the machinery and data collections via computer interface as well as be able to fix the computers. Only the best, brightest, and most socially awkward people are allowed to go.

Cori Ove They would probably hate you for leaving them forever! Go explore somewhere else, somewhere you can come back from!

Libbie Martin Way to support your mom-in-law, Eric.

Cori Ove Sorry, his first job is to support me!

Libbie Martin But but but Cori, it’s MARS.

Cori Ove And if you were just visiting I would be 100 percent supportive!

Libbie Martin But Cori, it’s MARS.

Cori Ove Visiting only! And that’s final young lady!

Eric Ove Woohoo, indoor living and dust all over! How often do you think Earth will send care packages?

Jen Stutesman Be sure to take Vitamin C with you. Don’t want the crew doing a Bova.

Libbie Martin Oh, yeah. C, D, the whole alphabet. And chocolate. Gotta have chocolate.

For the nonfamily among you, Cori Ove is daughter #1, Eric her husband, and others are friends.

My mother also weighed in, though not on Facebook. In a nutshell, she thinks I’m nuts. Certifiably so. And no one understands why I would consider doing such a thing. It means I have to articulate – to them and myself – why I want to go to Mars.

Next time: Why I Want To Go To Mars

Living in Fairbanks not for the faint-hearted—or prissy

Soon after I finished the unpacking of about 200 boxes of books after moving to Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2005, my roommate and I found ourselves needing to find a new domicile. Through no fault of our own, we were evicted because the landlord had other uses in mind for the house.

When you’re on a month-to-month lease with that clause in the contract, you don’t have much choice. So we began to look for a new home. That’s when I began to realize how very different Fairbanks is from the rest of the world.

According to figures (from the 2000 census) supplied by the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and the North Star Borough’s Department of Research, there are 82,840 people in the borough, 30,224 in the city proper. There are anywhere from 189 to
384 rental units available during any one month in the Borough proper; a smaller number in the city alone. Most rentals are apartments, which, if you have a dog (I did) or don’t like living like rats in a maze, brings the available housing way down.

Them’s the facts, and when you’re looking for a place to live, facts are vital.

In my experience, when looking for a house, you have certain parameters to fill: cost, location, size, restrictions. And that goes for house-hunting here, but there are a few—how do I put it—modifications to one’s expectations that become necessary.

Our first consideration was cost, so that gave us a (very short) list of places to consider. I wanted to stay close, so I wasn’t forced to purchase a vehicle before I was ready. Rents in the Borough run anywhere from $350 to $1,700; the city median rent is $1,200 (median being the exact midpoint of the group of numbers). That’s pretty steep when your take-home pay averages about $600 every two weeks. And it doesn’t include utilities, travel, food, or other necessities.

So, we did what people in our situation usually do first: we looked in the classifieds.

Here’s where my first modified expectation came up.

There were actually lots of cabins listed for rent, many quite cheap. Well, this wouldn’t be so bad, I thought.

I noticed many were described as “dry.”

Well, that’s a plus for me. I certainly hate living in a leaky, wet house.

But wait—you can’t really rent a leaky house, so then I thought maybe it meant the building didn’t sit on a creek or river, and didn’t flood during breakup.

Well, again, that’s good. Having lived through a few “high-water” autumns in California, I’d had more than my fill of water to the hubcaps and splashing through puddles to get to work. I said as much to Mr. Roommate.

Imagine my consternation when he, after guffawing ‘til he cried, told me what that appellation really means.

“It means there’s no running water,” he said.

“No running water?” I repeated dumbly.

“No running water.”

Now, I ask you, as a civilized society, how can one live without running water? I don’t even like “roughing it” for a weekend—what in the world would I do on a regular basis?

It makes sense now, why there are showers at grocery stores, Laundromats, and truck stops. Not for the long-haul truckers or visitors stopping in town for a few weeks. Not for campers who don’t have the dough for a cute little cabin or a fancy RV bigger than some of the cabins we looked at.

No. They’re for residents. People who have homes but NO RUNNING WATER.

One question: how do you wash dishes, floors, dogs? I realize now my colleague who brings in her dirty dishes isn’t just cheap or dealing with recalcitrant plumbing. She’s dealing with nonexistent plumbing.

Okay, I’m willing to pay a little extra for a hot shower.


Another parameter when looking for houses is bathrooms. Now, in California, where I’ve lived most of my life, the biggest question is: How many bathrooms do you want? And the corollary: Full or half baths, a shower or a tub.

Foolish me, expecting it to be that simple here.


Here, when you consider bathrooms, you don’t ask how many, or full or half—you ask, “Inside or outside.”

I never imagined, when living in California, I would have to decide if going to an outhouse early in the morning when it’s 14 below zero was worth paying a few hundred dollars less in rent.

But it wasn’t a difficult decision. Nothing is worth going to an outhouse early in the morning—at any temperature.

Once we established the parameters—running water, inside bathroom—we started looking in earnest. One thing I’ll say about Fairbanks: It’s an eclectic place.

And I mean that in a nice way.

We looked at big, rambling houses more than two people and a dog need; we saw one place smaller than my childhood closet, going for twice what we’d paid for the two-bedroom we were living in. We saw trailers: Double wide and hard to distinguish as trailers to ramshackle tin boxes I wouldn’t use for a kennel.

Architecture styles ranged from cute log cabins, snug and tiny, to old houses euphemistically called “fixer-uppers.” Nice little bungalows, tacky little trailers, roomy ranch houses.

And I came to appreciate the gamut of living places—even the “dry” homes with outhouses attached in back.

Because a range of residences means a range of personalities, a lot of cool people to get to know. I hate that most urban places have become so similar—cookie-cutter neighborhoods looking just like every other neighborhood, no imagination, no creativity. And the rising popularity of covenants that ban everything from RV parking to painting houses something other than beige is disheartening.

Fairbanks isn’t there—thank goodness. And the variety of living places reflects the variety of people living here—tough, competent, a little rough around the edges, but always interesting and creative. In most places in the Lower 48 (or “Outside,” as we like to say), the word “eccentric” is a pejorative. It describes weirdoes and strange people who look different and act different and are just not like you.

Here in Fairbanks, “eccentric” means “resident of Fairbanks.” I mean, you have to be a little crazy to live in a place where summer lasts about 3 minutes, and winter is interminably long and dark and very, very cold (we had a month of minus-40 or colder temperatures that year). When heating fuel costs $4 a gallon, and it’s not an option – if you don’t heat your home, your pipes freeze just before you and the dog do.

Fairbanksans are tough, independent, and, admittedly, a little odd. I fit right in. We care less about appearances and more about character. We don’t care how much your clothes or car cost – can you field-dress a moose and gill-net salmon? (I’m still working on those two things). That raggedy guy in the moose-blood-stained Carhartts with the long, scraggly beard sitting on the bench over there? Outside, he’d be considered a bum, and probably thrown out of the park. Here, he might be the richest guy in town. Who knows?

We’re starting to get some of those covenants and neighborhood associations and other nonsense, in town. Mostly because the military brings people in from Outside who are used to that. They like orderly streets and beige houses and manicured lawns. The rest of us? We move to ramshackle cabins outside the city limits, haul water (or have it delivered), and take our trash to the dump once a month. We get a fired sled dog, and then another, and another, and another … and the next thing you know, we’re running the Yukon Quest with borrowed and rescued Alaskan huskies.

When I mentioned to my mom that I might get an ATV with a plow attached for next winter, so I don’t have to pay to have the snow removed on my steep, dirt-driveway, she looked at me with horror.


“Well, I don’t want to pay the neighbor to plow, and we have to keep the driveway clear.”

She looked at the dog, and shook her head.

“Next thing you know, Calypso,” she said to the husky-heeler mix, “She’ll be getting a snow machine and running the Iron Dog.”

Fairbanks does that to you – gets you out of the normal and into the special.

Who needs running water when you have that going for you?


It takes real-life work to grow a kid up

Parents are funny things – we all seem to have the same fears regarding our children.

We bring these little humans into the world, knowing full well human beings are not easily molded and shaped. Yet we persist in seeing these little people as extensions and reflections of who we are, and try to turn them into something they might not want to be.

Then, when we are sure the phrase, “Do you want fries with that?” is going to be the entirety of their business lexicon, we despair.

“What will people think?”

Don’t lie – you know that phrase has crossed your mind more than once in relation to your kid(s). Us big human beings, having sworn we would never, ever be our mother (or father, as the gender case may be), turn around and try to make “Mini Me’s” out of our babies. We see them as an extension of our values and beliefs, so if they screw up, we think the world is pointing a finger at us and yelling, “J’accuse! You are a BAD PARENT!”

I don’t know about you, but I think I’d rather be a serial killer than a BAD PARENT.

A casual conversation with an acquaintance when my kids were younger got me thinking. He was despairing about his 15-year-old son’s lack of motivation, dislike of reading, and general ne’er-do-well attitude. His mind was filled with visions of his progeny either living on Dad’s couch for the next 30 years, or spending weekends performing community service for the law enforcement community.

I relate and empathize with him. Because for a long while, I had a daughter who’s entire vocabulary revolved around the motto, “High potential, low achiever.” There goes that finger, wagging in my head – “Bad parent!”

She didn’t get the concept of “homework” – the teacher assigned it, she didn’t do it. Or she did it, but didn’t turn it in. Her punishment for teachers she didn’t get along with – not doing the assignments. That’ll teach ‘em. Her GPA was lower than – well, it was low. Leave it at that.

I fought, argued, demanded, yelled, cried, screamed, grounded, ordered, ignored, and cringed at the thought my daughter might end up being the queen of food stamps. When she asked to take on a part-time job at age 17, her parents hesitated. Her grades were okay, but she’d never been one to smoke the academic community and her participation in family activities and chores was nil. Would a job make her even worse?

But we caved in the face of her resistance (pouting and slamming doors can wear down even the best of us). And she became a McDonald’s diva.

And I am finding it was probably the best decision we have ever made, even if we made it by default.

After six months in fast food, she decided “Would you like to super size that?” is not the key to success or even happiness. Suddenly, college looked really good to her, and she began researching in earnest. Her homework was done before it was due, and her grades climbed (a
3.4 GPA looks really good after a 1.3, believe me).

And it wasn’t just school that benefited. Although chores didn’t get done in a timely manner without nagging, she became much less like a pouty teen and more like an adult. It’s hard to define where the changes are, because a lot of it has to do with her attitude towards authority – represented by me – and family and life in general. She was much less me-centered than I remember being at 17. And I actually caught her reading Time magazine and watching The Discovery Channel – and there was no school assignment attached to either.

Isn’t that a ‘grown-up’ thing, this wanting to be informed about the world, just to be informed about the world?

She’s gotten a great sense of money and what things cost – not just the monetary price tag, but the man-hours involved in any endeavor. You can’t talk that kind of lesson into a kid – he or she has to figure it out by themselves. Some kids never do.

So that spectra of a skeleton hand shaking in my face and the eternity in Mommy Dearest purgatory is fading.

And now, I get to watch the remake – she has three daughters, one of whom has the same pouty teenage face (she’s 6) and a “don’t tell me what to do” attitude. Pass me the popcorn – this is gonna be good.

The Cynical Generation

I often wonder where my cynicism comes from. It certainly isn’t a sign of age, because I’ve had this view of life since adolescence.

Where did I go wrong?

Where did we go wrong?

After all, we were the generation that was supposed to change the world, to make it better for everyone. To end all dividing lines-racial, gender, sexual preference-and create peace and harmony.

And instead, we are responsible for MTV, SUVs, and “Who Wants to Marry A Millionaire?”

When did the path to making the world better become the road to riches? When did we discard the helping hand, only to replace it with finger-pointing and road rage?

This isn’t just me facing 50 in panic. Many of “my generation” sit back and ponder on the changes we were supposed to make, and didn’t.

Where did we lose our way? When did we lose sight of hope? What good have we done in the world?

Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, one couldn’t help but feel mankind was not hopeless. Our teachers, aunts, and uncles kept telling us “all you need is love.” And we believed it.

So, what did happen to “my generation”? Where did we make that wrong turn?


Vietnam is what happened to us. No matter our age, if we were alive in the 1960s, we were touched by that war. We had fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons who were in it or ran from it or died from it. Vietnam changed the way everyone looked at everything.

Growing up in the television generation as I did, it’s hard not to remember the grainy foreign images, the body bags piling higher and higher, the faces of people who were there, or knew someone who was there, or worse, knew someone who never came back from there. This was a powerful shaper of my perceptions.

Yes, I was young, being one of the last Baby boomers born in 1960, but since the U.S. was in ‘Nam until 1975, I was shaped by it.

I think I was more torn by it than most of my fellow teens. By the time Saigon fell, I was well into my teen years, living in San Francisco with an uncle who visited Canada for a few years, and another who grew “funny plants” in his bedroom, and many relatives who were very anti-government and –war, vociferously so, I might say. But I spent my first decade of life as a military brat. Duty, Honor, Integrity, Follow orders no matter what, all that glory b.s. military brats are raised on. It’s still ingrained in me all these years later, so you can see it was a powerful influence.

But I also have a mother who was very much against the war, very much for peace and love and the other mantras sung at the time. When we moved to San Francisco, I was surrounded by an entire neighborhood of people who felt like she did, and who looked askance at anything that reeked of military precision.

Small wonder I’m ambivalent about life at this stage.

If you believe, as I do, that we held onto so much hope and promise until 1975, then the answers as to where we went wrong are clear, but not so easy to iterate. Not without getting sloppy and sentimental and maudlin, and I’m not that old yet.

It should come as no surprise that I turn to books in this crisis of faith for answers. They are hard to find. But not impossible.

And I found some in the least likely source-Stephen King.

King, pop horror hero, is known for his gruesome visions and lengthy tomes. Not a place many of us would look for answers to life crises, you think?

In a novel, Hearts of Atlantis, King explores the questions I’ve been asking myself for years. I always thought I was the only one who might have these questions, or else, the only one brave enough to question what we’ve become, those of use now running the planet.

I was wrong. King explores the entire question of who we were before Vietnam, and who we all became after the green of the jungles had faded into dim nightmares and cold night sweats.

And he managed to put into words what I never could.

Speaking of what he calls “the legacies of the Vietnam experience,” King says:

“We were the generation that invented Super Mario Brothers, the ATV, laser-missile guidance systems and crack cocaine. Our idea of a major lifestyle change is buying a dog. The girls who burned their bras now buy [them] from Victoria’s Secret…we like to watch…movies, video games, live car-chase footage, fistfights on The Jerry Springer Show, Mark McGwire, World Federation Wrestling, impeachment hearings, we don’t care we just like to watch. But there was a time…when it was really all in our hands…”

And without holding back, King tells us exactly what happened to us: “It had been in [our] hands, [I am] quite sure of it. But kids lose everything, kids have slippery fingers and holes in their pockets and they lose everything.”

We did have it all, and now we don’t. We are a generation who despises who we are and what we’ve become, even as we scramble to become more of what we loathe.

As King’s aging Boomer character Sully says, “We had an opportunity to change everything. We actually did. Instead, we settled for designer jeans…tickets to Mariah Carey…frequent flier miles…Titanic…and retirement portfolios.”

And we never really left Vietnam.


Guest Blog #2- Casey Burk

The end of line for us


It seems that when I need people the most that is when they disappear. When I cry out for help, I get no response. Everyone is too busy or too far away, too caught up in their own lives to have time for an old friend. When I’m happy and content with my life and don’t need any help is when they are all happy to be there and have a spot in my life. It seems like the work it takes to help a friend when they are down is just too much for people to handle. Or is it the company I chose to keep?

When I was young, friendship and its meaning were so different than what they are today. My best friends were the ones who let me play at their house or shared their junk food from their lunches at school. The title of “my best friend” changed from week to week. The weight of any problems in my life wasn’t placed in their hands because I had my parents for that. We all just lived blissfully riding our bikes, thinking we would be friends forever. Who knew growing up meant losing important people in your life?

As I got older, I began to realize that the friends I chose to have in my life would become so important to me that I started considering them my family. In high school, I distanced myself from my real family and put all my time and energy into my group of friends; my true family. After all, they were the ones who I spent all my time with, they knew what I was feeling and what I was going through. I turned my parents and sisters into strangers, telling myself that they would never really understand me and didn’t care about me the way these friends did. I had to learn the hard way that “friends” are just temporary, family is forever. Whenever I would stumble and fall, it wasn’t this stand in family that helped me back up, it was my real family (well, some of my real family). Even after I distanced myself from them all and alienated myself from them, they were always there. How many people can say that about just a friend?

This still holds true to this day. I have invested a lot of time and energy into some friendships that I thought were going to last forever. Being friends with someone for 8 years should give you an automatic in for a lifetime friendship, right? I make all kinds of effort to keep them alive, but get nothing in return. When there is a crisis or when someone is feeling down, I am there in a heartbeat with a beer and a shoulder to cry on! Even if I’m not feeling well or have to drive an hour to get there; it didn’t matter to me. If my friend is in trouble, I am there. When it’s been way too long since we have seen each other, I am the one who makes the trip to them, never the other way around. When I need them, I get every excuse in the book as to why they just can’t get to me, but maybe next time. It’s exhausting.

It’s taken me some time and a lot of heartbreak to realize that these friends are not going to be the ones that I can count on to be there for the rest of my life. As much as we may feel like family at one point or another in our friendship, that bond just isn’t going to be there forever. They won’t be the ones who are always there to catch me when I fall. Sure, they may be there for my kids birthdays or for a night out on the town once in a blue moon, but that’s all I should expect from them. I have to remember that they don’t really have any responsibility towards me or my life. When they are ready to move on and keep our friendship in the past, I have to let them go. As much as it may hurt and crush me at the time, I have to remind myself that I was lucky to have them in my life at one point, and that there are at least a few people who have no choice but to stick around.

When the Puppet Master Becomes the Puppet

All acts of creation are labor. Really. Even though it might not look like it, creation takes a lot of energy. It drains the creator, takes something out of him or her. Even acts of creation that seem effortless – something has been taken from the creator. The laws of nature insist – you can’t make something out of nothing.

When I finished my first (published) novel, it felt like it had taken forever, but I had only actually been working on it for about four years. But they were long, hard years. I can tell you the exact date and time I typed “The End” on the last page: Tuesday, October 25, 1994, 12:22 a.m.

The elation I felt at finally putting those last two chapters together, at finally finding the direction I wanted to go and making my characters go there, at finally finishing something that had occupied my life and mind for so long, is indescribable. The only other times I felt like this was when my daughters were born. Then too were the soaring highs, the feeling of major accomplishment, of having done something so remarkable and miraculous that it could never be matched by anyone else. That’s quite a feeling to have.

And of course, soon after I finished the book, there came the shattering depression that comes from finishing a major project that has occupied your energy for so long. This is also a feeling only understood by another creator.

This project was in the making much longer than four years. I started the book when I was much, much younger, and soon discovered I wasn’t ready to write it yet. It deals with things I didn’t understand in my ‘teens and 20s – loss, grief, and remorse — emotions I hadn’t yet experienced. I had to put it aside and wait until I was a little older, a lot wiser, and much more accomplished as a writer to take on the themes I had chosen.

When I finally decided I had attained the years I needed, I looked at the idea with fresh eyes and began to outline where I would go. Like a good writer, I came up with character sketches, giving depth to the people who would be walking through my story. I researched the places they would go, the activities they would conduct, the timeline they would inhabit. I did all the things the books and courses teach you to do.

I was ready to write. And like any good writer, especially one who is an obsessive-compulsive, overachieving perfectionist with control freak tendencies, I followed my outline and fully expected my characters to follow it, too. I worked hard to make things work smoothly, to get my characters to do and act as I wished. I walked them around the set like a good puppet master, and for the most part, they obeyed my wishes and commands, and life was very, very good.

As I wrote, of course, I saw things I hadn’t planned on – little things that change as life changes – but being a good writer, I was able to incorporate them, into my overall master plan, integrate the new people my characters met, add new settings and ideas that introduced themselves to my characters. I was feeling very good about myself at this point, and my project. I was accomplishing something. I was creating!

About halfway through the book, when my main character was beginning to direct himself to the ending I planned for him (a very messy suicide by handgun on Christmas Eve – that’s the despair I didn’t know about before), I began to experience some problems. Minor things, to be sure – Jack (the impending suicide) started thinking things I didn’t put into his head. He started examining his life in ways I hadn’t told him to. His dreams and fears and regrets took on new life, became so much more than I made them. The characters Jack interacted with also became more than I had created. Jack’s past began to take on a more insidious shadow – it became real. It became so real it made him begin to see himself in a totally different light. And it gave him ideas …

Jack saw himself in a more three-dimensional way. Gone was the self-pity and blame that was supposed to lead him to his ultimate destiny (decided on by me, the writer). He started seeing the flaws in his characters – flaws I had created but kept hidden from him, because too much self-examination on Jack’s part might ruin my plans. And he began to see the other people in his story – his life – as more than one-dimensional objects who were hampering his desires. Dear God, he began seeing them as … PEOPLE.

I’ve been writing for a very long time, but this was the first time my characters took on serious lives of their own. Oh, sure, I’ve had characters suggest new aspects of themselves to me and give me ideas for new directions. But they’ve always asked me tentatively, hesitantly, whether we could try something different. My characters know I am OCOPWCFT, and until then, never had the nerve to confront me on this type of issue.

Then along came Jack. As he grew stronger in his sense of himself and where he had been, he began to re-examine where he was going. And it became obvious to everyone except me (convenient blindness, I suppose) suicide was not where he wanted to go. Or where he should go.

Suddenly, about a year into the project, when I thought we were sailing along, Jack balked. No, wait, “balk” isn’t the right word. He stopped. Dead in the water. Wouldn’t move. In any direction. Said, “No way. Uh uh. Not a chance.” And as hard I as tried to push him back into righteousness, as much as I struggled to get him to realize I was the creator, he the creation, and my word is law, he was the original immoveable object. A sword stuck in granite. Dead stick. Not going nowhere.

Enough to send a writer into despair. And I went, like any good writer thwarted in her master plan. Right into surrender. I quit. Stopped the book, said, “Okay for you, Jack.” I told myself I was waiting for him to decide where he wanted to go. Let him make the hard decisions, I told myself. See how tough it is. He’ll come running back so fast … I waited. And waited. Patiently (really) at first. Then impatiently. Finally, I threw a temper tantrum, yelling, “To hell with this. I never wanted to write this stupid thing, anyway!”

Months later, when my writer’s group started getting on me to accomplish something, I took it out again. I took a deep breath and opened myself up to Jack’s explanation. And I found Jack had taken that hiatus and grown up, become a much more interesting character. He was a person, like one of my own children (who also never listened to me). He knew where he was supposed to go, whether he wanted to or not. I was skeptical, not the least because I wasn’t sure I had the talent to take him there. But I had already invested so much in this man; I said I’d give it a try.

As I suspected, his direction was much more complicated than my original idea. It involved much more thought, emotion, and energy. It was probably one of the more difficult tasks I’ve set for myself. It involved delving into Jack’s psyche, his emotions, which should have been easy, since I gave him life. But the other characters – while I created them, Jack set their direction and made them what they were becoming. So I was meeting new people while I tried to get them to go where I (actually, Jack) wanted them to go. Stage directing isn’t easy – now I know where the phrase “herding cats” came from.

In the end, Jack knew more of what he was doing than I did. I wanted to take the easy way out, avoid the emotional growth necessary to finish this book and get Jack where he should get to. It’s funny how that happens sometimes. We believe we are doing the manipulating when in fact, we are being manipulated without knowing it.

I learned a great deal from Jack. As he is a better person than when he began, I am a better writer. And the book is a much better product than it would have been had I gotten my way.

In the creating, I lost more than energy. I lost my arrogance. I lost the sense I am God when it comes to writing. In fact, I am just another character who is being manipulated as I manipulate. I am a creation of those I create.

My First Sale (or, Flattery Will Get You Everywhere!)

As I revel in the ongoing success of my recently published book, I can’t help but think back to the first time I sold a piece of writing for publication. Actually got money for words that flow automatically from my brain through my fingers onto a page whether I want them to or not. The first time I realized I actually had something going for that “writer thing” I’d always wanted to experience.

I’ve been a writer since I was 11 years old. Okay, since I was two, but at age 11, I actually wrote something that didn’t have to be burned. I still have that poem; I’m not too embarrassed to show it to people, because it showed something–I’m not sure what–but it is very special to me.

Anyway, I wrote whenever and whatever I could. Poetry, plays, prose, book reports… If I could get a piece of paper and put words on it, I was a happy camper. I even wrote extra credit book reports and essays tests, just to be able to express myself on paper.

And I was an artiste (to be said with a highly nasal tone in the voice, indicating snobbery and a hoi polloi attitude). I was never going to make money with my talent, my art; I was going to give it free to the world, because I had something important to say.

Writing was also a way to diffuse some of the misery and loneliness of a chaotic Air Force Base childhood and outcast teenage life. I never had to show my real self to people, because I was able to keep all the negative emotions in check by writing about them. After all, I was a good soldier. When I started going to a “normal” (i.e., non-military) school, I found military bases are quite cocooned and secure from the real world. Again, writing helped me endure the loneliness and anguish of being the new fat kid (even after five years, I was the “new fat kid”).

I took writing classes in high school and college, survived deplorably untalented teachers, including one who, jealous because his writing career had never taken flight, shot down every student who showed any promise or stick-to-itiveness. Many of those impressionable teenagers never did get over the trauma of his words; they have never written again, and that is a great loss. But I was stubborn — no one, especially not a broken-down English teacher in a San Francisco public school, or a college professor whose idea of a nifty poem was one that focused exclusively on his daughter’s toilet training (three pages worth!), was going to tell me I couldn’t do it. I knew I could. I knew I was good. I just had to convince someone else I was good, that’s all.

I sent my first poem to a literary magazine as part of a college course assignment. It was a good poem, I thought; unfortunately, the editor didn’t agree. However, while the other members of the class got form rejections, photocopied and stamped with a name, I got a handwritten (not typed) note of about two pages, telling me exactly what was wrong with the poem. And, telling me I had real talent and should persevere. I was hooked.

Not only am I an artiste, I am an exhibitionist. I want to be the center of attention. What better way to have people notice you than to get yourself published? I was game.

But I was also lazy. And busy–with graduation, marriage, moving, career, and then, children. I never got around to sending any more poetry out, although I did rework the one that started the whole thing.

Then I spent three years cooped up in a small house with two very small children. My brain began to melt. It was the consistency of the mush I fed the baby. I knew I had to do something. Again, I turned to writing. And this time, I plugged into a writer’s group. Even if I never sold a piece, I was surrounded by authors! My idols.

But I did get marketing ideas. And, wonder of wonders (because I’m still lazy), I began sending poetry out. And I began receiving acceptances! No money, but who needs money when your work is being read and appreciated by discriminating audiences everywhere (well, at least in several small towns, anyway)? Besides, I am an artiste, remember?

Then one day, Fate walked in the door of the writer’s club and whacked me upside the head. Fate in the round form of Jon Herron, Publisher of Midnight Zoo, a magazine of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, my favorite reading material. He gave an interesting talk, and I stuck around afterwards to talk to him, which was slightly out of character for me; much as I like being in the spotlight, I’d rather do it vicariously through my writing — never in person. But I stuck my neck out and introduced myself. And wangled an invitation to submit directly to the head man himself. As every writer knows: when you’re given an in, grab it and run for the touchdown!!

So I sent him a short story and a poem, coincidentally the one rejected by the literary magazine and reworked according to their two pages of suggestions.

The story was sent back–rightfully, I should add. In retrospect, I’m kind of sorry I used my real name on it, because now everyone knows how abysmally bad I was then. But the poem was accepted. With enthusiasm. Wow. Excitement. I was a professional–because along with my contributor copy was a check for $6.00. Masses of money to a poor poet.

And that was that. I thought. Some months later, I got a call from Mr. Herron. He explained the magazine was looking “for a few good men (or women),” writers of exceptional talent and ability, to work on the staff of Midnight Zoo. Hey, I was hooked after “exceptional talent.” I said yes.

Two years later, I became the Managing Editor, after going through Staff Editor and Senior Fiction Editor. And a funny thing happened – in the course of reading other beginning, hopeful (and sometimes very talentless) writers, my own writing began to improve. As did my energy – I sent more items out for consideration.

I got personalized rejections from some of the big name mags in the genre. The more time I spent writing and editing, the more opportunities I had to write and edit for others. I got to hang around with writers. And, most importantly, I was in the position to give another struggling writer the chance I was given: the chance to really see what a piece of writing is all about–its potential and possibilities. If the editor (who’s name is long since forgotten, but who’s generosity of spirit makes him a candidate for sainthood in Writer’s and Editor’s Heaven) hadn’t taken the time (and I know what a precious commodity time is to magazine editors) to write me an encouraging note as he ripped my poetry to shreds, I might never have gotten up the courage to submit to other publications. And I would never have introduced myself to Jon. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today–and I can’t imagine any other place I’d like to be.

While my day job isn’t the writing career I envisioned (I used to wear a shirt proudly proclaiming me a “Pulitzer Prize Winner in Training,” and my journalism career at the Chicago Tribune is only a distant dream I once had, I do write almost every day. I get to tell stories about other people and write blog entries, Facebook posts, tweets, and articles. I am recognized as a writer, which is all I ever wanted to be.

Life is good.

E-books will never replace the printed word for this bibliophile

They say e-books are the wave of the future. Well, this reader would like to disagree.

Granted, they are more portable and lighter than books. As they become more popular, the title list expands rapidly. As Kindles and Nooks take over the planet, and iPads rule the land, more and more e-books are being sold. Print is dead. So say the pundits and youngsters.

Course, they been sayin’ this for years. Given the scarcity of resources, the cost of printing, the difficulty of getting books published these days unless it involves a celebrity, sleeping with a celebrity or really gruesome crimes (preferably involving a celebrity), among other reasons. And besides, print is so 19th century — why waste time reading a book when you can get all the information you need from the 24-minute evening news, or – better yet – scrolling through an Internet site with flashing graphics, guaranteed to take only 10 minutes out of your day?

I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t now. Not just yet, anyway. For one thing, according to my publisher friends, more books are being published (the old fashioned way) than ever before. No longer are writers at the mercy of an amorphous corporation passing judgment on their precious words. With self-publishing, on-demand publishing, and even Amazon and Google getting in on the act, we writers have more opportunities to put our words out there than ever before.

Those of us who view reading as more than just a way to gather information find the pictures words put into our heads more attractive than J.J. Abrams’ imagery; books are so much more than just printed words on a page conveying a message.

For me, books have always been companions, trusted friends I can turn to when the cold world outside is just too mean to take. Growing up as I did in a military family, the library was always the first place I’d find when moving to a new base. The kids and teachers changed regularly; Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and Charles Dickens’ Scrooge never did. In a world constantly beset by change – often intense and sudden – a familiar face was always welcome.

Later, books became ways to learn about things I couldn’t experience first hand. I haven’t been to Australia, but reading the history of that continent, I can understand how hardy souls would be forged on a prison island.

Books were also a way to alleviate boredom. Back in the “old” days, there wasn’t 24-hour television programming. And there were very few programs that could be called “children’s shows.” There were always hours in the day unfilled with chores and homework, so reading kept me from going insane or taking part in sports games, which might have hurt my self esteem and turned me into a serial killer.

E-books do not convey the sense of familiarity and friendship the printed page does. There’s no page to turn, so no sense of accomplishment, especially when wading through a massive tome that’s — to be quite frank – really boring. That can be discouraging.

Printed books have a smell familiar to every reader. It’s an almost intangible odor of history and excitement and lives lived. It helps clear away the dull film caused by every day living, and opens the mind up to new places and people, and renews and refreshes a tired brain.

Sitting at a desk and turning on a computer just doesn’t do it for me. Besides, I spend all day at a computer, staring at words. Why would I – for fun – pick up a tiny screen at home and squint at little words after doing that all day? For those of us who spend our entire lives working at a computer, scrolling, inputting, searching – honestly, that’s the last thing I want to do in my “leisure” time. If I stare at a screen, I want Sean Connery on it.

Books are convenient, for the most part. When I was driving children to doctors and practices and school, there was always down time. I could throw a book into my purse or stuff a paperback into my pocket and pull it out, open up to where I’d stopped, and read until interrupted. Then I just put a bookmark in, close the book and get on my way.

And though there are now amazing devices that eliminate the need for a bulky, slow computer, there’s still the need for charging and powering up and all that nonsense. By the time you’ve gotten your Kindle warmed up and found the page you were on, I’ve already read two chapters in my “analog” paperback.

The idea of snuggling on the couch on a cold night — with a fire roaring, the dog sleeping on my feet, and a good, solid printed book in my hands — is pure heaven to me. It reminds me I have a life and mind beyond the office, that my brain is still working on something besides groundwater assessments and grammar checking and other people’s resumes. It gives me life beyond the office, and gives me ideas to use in the office.

My children and I had a tradition long ago – whenever there were two of us in the car waiting for another, we’d get a book and read it out loud. We took turns choosing books, and kept reading, even as one or the other would leave and return. They’d pick up the back-story through whispered comments from a sibling or by context. We would huddle over the book, take turns with the pages and the reading. It gave us a sense of bonding leaning over a screen would not have. And it gave us a sense of the past – our history as human beings –a blinking cursor cannot.

We did the same thing during power outages – a flashlight, blankets, and the five of us huddled together on a couch, forgetting the darkness, the cold, the storm outside – caught up in the adventures of Charlie and Willie Wonka, or crying over Lad the dog. It forged a bond and closeness that remains to this day.

So let the young folks have their Internet news and e-books. My house will continue to be a repository for all the printed books I can lay my hands on. Just don’t light a match, okay?