My Slight Brush With History

César E. Chávez

The man my father told stories about as we sat around the family kitchen table became a legend, a leader of people on a quest for equality for all. I was still new to school, in second or third grade, I had four younger siblings, and life was one of ease and privilege.

My father was a physician/pediatrician who practiced in the town of Fresno, in the central valley of California. In the mid 1960’s, he was one of the few doctors in the area who still made rural calls, sometimes driving fifty or sixty miles away to see patients.

On one of those visits, he met a passionate man who convinced him to come out to a strike encampment (I think it was near Delano, but it may have been closer to Fresno). The non-violent people striking, farm laborers looking for decent wages, had been strafed by crop dusters, and had inhaled a lot of the toxic chemical. My dad worked with his people, providing health care for a period of time, until the fight moved on to a new front. We boycotted table grapes for years afterward, and we lived in the middle of grape growing country.

I still remember listening to the story my father told around the kitchen table about César E. Chávez, a magnetic man with a passion for freedom and life who refused to counter violence with anything except non-violence. He influenced my father, who later dove into a brand new science and became one of the world’s first neonatologists.

Of course, the memories of a small child are nothing compared to the rich history of the man, César E. Chávez. If you don’t know who he is, shame on you. Ask your kids. Today, he is taught alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Today he would have been 87 years old.

FAT SHAMING – Another Form of Bullying

I was talking about this with some women the other day. We’re all full-figured women who’ve lived our lives on the heavy side of the scale, rather than the lighter, and each of us had horror stories to tell.

I shared a story of going through the cafeteria at school during the second grade, and being dished up a portion much smaller than those around me who had all paid exactly the same amount of money. When I asked why I got less, the lunch lady smiled sadly and said, “You don’t really need that much, now do you?” This from a woman shaped like a potato dumpling. I turned bright red, the others around me laughed, and I started packing my own lunch, sitting by myself to eat until I found some accepting friends.

I still not comfortable eating in cafeterias or buffets. I feel myself turning bright red as I gather my food as fast as possible, imagining the people ahead and behind me to be judging my choices and always finding me a greedy glutton. Even in restaurants I try to be seated in a sheltered booth or hidden nooks.

In the fourth grade, I already outweighed my teacher. How do I know? Because she decided she would weigh each student, post their weight, and use those numbers to show children how to find the average weight of each person in the class. For shitz and giggles she jumped on the scale too, adding her paltry one-hundred-ten pounds to the mix. After every other student in the class had been weighed, she called me up. To her credit, she had her scale discreetly hidden from class view, but I was having none of it. I told her I wouldn’t do it, an extremely assertive statement for me. She threatened to call my parents and give me a ‘C’ in math, a subject in which I’d always received ‘A’s. I sobbed, telling her I didn’t want to do it, that the other kids would make fun of me, but in the way of adults in authority she had her way, insisting my weight would make a ‘huge’ difference in the class average.

For the next two weeks I stared at a graph filled with pieces of masking tape, every student’s (and the teacher’s) weight written on masking tape, displayed on one full wall of the class. When we each had to add our tape to the board, I had to place my little square all alone in the highest right hand corner. Because the wall graph was so large, I had to pull a desk over to the wall and climb up to put it in the right place. The teacher was so pleased she even invited the principal to admire it, and I blushed when she threw a look right at me. Whether it was sympathy or judgement was difficult for me to decipher when I was nine years old, but by then I’d already learned to assume the worst.

I never felt the same about math after that. What had been challenging and exciting became threatening and difficult. My growing fear of math eventually turned me away from career choices because I was sure I would fail statistics.

Were the lunch lady and the fourth grade teacher bullies? I’m sure they would not only reject that accusation, they’d become defensive and offer excuses for how and why it was for my own good. I’m sure in each of their minds, at the time, it didn’t seem like that big a deal to them. But here it is a half century later and both incidents are still fresh in my memory.

It is my opinion that both women were bullies, using their authority over me as a child to humiliate and publicly shame me in front of my peers. Their actions didn’t help the school or students in any way, but both times I was directly injured.

The cafeteria might have saved a penny or three by shorting my plate each time they served me, but since I was unwilling to go through the lunch line any more and began bringing my own lunch, all they did was lose a paying customer. The damage done to my psyche was far greater than any financial reward reaped by that judgmental lunch lady.

I’ve never forgiven my fourth grade teacher. The rest of that year was a nightmare of humiliation for me. The kids teased me, of course, but I was the daughter of the local pediatrician. All I had to do was remind them that my father had seen them naked, and they pretty much backed off. And after a while my naturally funny personality made a place for me in the social hierarchy, and my diligent intelligence earned me respect from both students and teachers.

Of course, those two incidents stand out in a life of humiliating moments when people decide to either fight my arguments and constructs by tearing down my looks, or decide I just don’t feel bad enough about what they perceive to be a personal failing. They were the first bullies, but they were in no way the last.

Is it true that learning to handle the bullying made me who I am today? Possibly, but just imagine the me I might have been if no one had ever judged me solely based upon the shape and weight of my body.

Fat shaming has been around for too long. It is dehumanizing and cruel, based on the false social construct that slimmer is better than fatter. It is the last refuge of those who cannot create a winning argument. In other words, fat shaming is for losers.

Peculiar Writing Tips

Stipula Etruria Fountain Pen Spread

When it comes to tricks of the trade for writers there are many, many suggestions out there. Here I’ve collected some of my favorites from around the web, and added some of my own.

Some of my favorites excerpted from Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds – Ten Stupid Writer Tricks (That Might Actually Work):

The WTF Code: Sometimes you’re writing and you hit a part in the story where you’re just like, “Nope, no fucking idea what happens here. Maybe they fight? Maybe they make love? I’m envisioning an orangutan for some reason.” Or maybe you reach a portion where you need more information (“Note to self: research the sewer tunnel layout of Schenectady”). That’s okay. Leave it blank and drop a code you’ll remember right into the section, a code that will specifically not be duplicated anywhere else in the text (WTF2013, for instance). Then when you complete the first pass of the manuscript, just do a FIND for all instances of YOUR SEKRIT CODE and hop through your many narrative gaps and chasms. FILL AND SPACKLE.

The Dictionary Of Superfluity: As you write, begin to collect what you believe are instances of so-called “junk language” that you seem likely to use again and again. This might be any word that seems to bog down the flow of a sentence – actually, very, really, effectively, just. Slap that shit in a list. When it comes time to edit, do a FIND and look for instances of all these nasty little word-goblins. Then stick them in a bag and burn them. (You can also do this with words that may not be junky but that you find yourself overusing — “For some reason I really seem to like the words ‘turgid,’ ‘clamshell,’ and ‘widdershins.’”)

The One-Sentence Description Exercise: Practice honing your mad description skillz by looking at someone and describing them with a single sentence. (And not a sentence with a half-dozen hyphens, colons and semi-colons, you little cheater.) Maybe it’s a celebrity — Tom Cruise! Maybe it’s that poor homeless down by the train station who looks like a bunch of half-full garbage bags lashed together under a pile of dirty rags. Alternate version: make it a tweet-length description, 140-characters only. Similar! But different.

I liked these from copyblogger’s 8 Strange Rituals of Productive Writers:

Try writing horizontally.  George Orwell, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Winston Churchill, and Marcel Proust were all famous for churning out pages while lying in bed. Novelist Truman Capote also wrote everything in longhand in the horizontal position. Don’t forget, proper rest is crucial to creativity, so if you’re already there, why not grab the laptop and give it a try?

Write at a time of day that suits your productivity.  Honoré de Balzac would get up at midnight and drink black coffee well into the next day. Flannery O’Connor only wrote for two hours a day.

Take a walk or bike ride without a destination in mind.
Charles Dickens and Henry Miller both used to wander around Europe trying to get lost, a technique that psychologists say can foster creativity.

And a couple of my own:

The shape of the text: While others have suggested you print out a page of your story to make sure there is variety in size of paragraphs, I put my own little twist on it. I cut and paste pages of text to a new document with extra wide margins, and shrink them to font size 4. Then I eliminate any spaces between lines, and all indentations. Finally, I center and highlight the text then stand back to look at it as a shape rather than words. Here’s an example from my YA novel, The Boxer Rebellion:

Brent Howard heard a familiar voice right behind him shout, “faggot” and “cocksucker”. He cringed, afraid to turn around.
It’s finally happened, someone’s figured it out.
It was his deepest, darkest fear coming true. Every muscle in his body locked rigidly in place and his thoughts slowed to a crawl. Only his breathing sped up.
As the laughter began he stared at the locker in front of him, paralyzed. Sweat beaded his brow while he listened to jeers growing louder and louder. He wanted to cover his ears to block out the sound, but he didn’t dare. The laughter grew even stronger, and now he felt the jostling of other students as they jockeyed to get a glimpse of the faggot cocksucker.
They aren’t looking at me. No one’s staring at me. They’re looking at someone else, laughing at someone else.
A half second later his frozen muscles melted and he finally turned around. Relief flooded him as he saw over the heads and shoulders of the gathering crowd a skinny little guy, the ‘faggot cocksucker’, rising from the floor, brushing at new jeans.
He didn’t recognize him, but Brent knew his attacker; it was his younger cousin, Julian, who had moved in with his family to play hockey at Tranquility High. He’d been sharing Brent’s bedroom all summer, getting in early practices with Coach Morgensen’s yearly hockey camp. One day Julian was going to play for the U of M, and later with the Wild. It was all but a done deal.
Brent laughed uproariously along with everyone else at the homo his cousin had chosen to pick on. Look at him kneeling there, his face all red and trying desperately not to cry, the little wimp. Stupid pervert had it coming, they all did, those damned queers.
He wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t gay. Brent felt his heartbeat slow and his breathing ease. He had to get control of himself; there was nothing for anyone to find out because he simply was not, once and for all, never had been and never would be, gay. He might think about good looking guys once in awhile and imagine what it might be like, but he’d certainly never done it. Thinking about doing something isn’t the same as actually doing it, right?
What a relief. What a close call.
The physical appearance of your characters: Yes, you’ve probably run across the advice to take pen to paper and draw what you think the character looks like, but if you have limited drawing abilities like me, you may want to try something a little different. I collect swatches of cloth, scents of cologne or spices, cut out images found in magazines or online, and other small bits of sensory clues. I also cut and paste all descriptive passages I write to a separate document kept for just that purpose. I refer and add to it constantly, assuring continuity. For Penelope of The Boxer Rebellion I kept a ponytail holder, a bit of cotton gauze, a covered button, and a cotton ball with the perfume Anais, Anais. Since her physical condition deteriorates over the course of the story, I made sure to cut and paste all references to Penny in chronological order in my Character file. In that way I made sure she wasn’t soft and round when she should have been haggard and gaunt.

What are some of your unique writing tips or techniques? Do you have to have exactly three oreo cookies before you start, like one of my friends? Or have you found some incredible organizational trick that would benefit any author? If so, please share your ideas here.

We Won!

One year ago social media was suddenly covered with red equality signs. The simple symbol spread quickly, including supportive pictures posted in impressive numbers, and people from all walks of life began to discuss marriage equality, tell their stories, and more importantly, listen. Here is just one of them.

Katherine Forrest’s speech:

My brothers and sisters, I am 74 years old and on this momentous day in the history of our community I speak on behalf of my generation.

Katherine Forrest

My generation was told that our sexual orientation made us criminals. That we were mentally ill. We were thrown out of our families. Thrown out of our churches. Thrown out of our jobs. Thrown out of the military. We were forced into therapy to cure us. We were institutionalized. We were beaten and killed on the streets of our cities.

Until we said no. Until we said no at Stonewall. Until we said no in San Francisco. Until we said no in cities and towns all across America. We came out of our closets. And so many of you here tonight have paid a heavy price for leading us out of those closets.

We showed our faces to America. We said, “LOOK AT US.” We are your sons and daughters. We are your brothers and sisters. We are your mothers and fathers. Who we are has never ever been our problem. It has always and ever been your problem. We have the right to be treated equally under the laws of our own country. We all deserve the right to marry. 

Because we showed our faces to our country, this day has arrived. No matter what those nine people on the Supreme Court decide, our country has looked into the faces we showed them and our country has decided.

My brothers and sisters, we have won our country.

We have won this war.

~ Katherine v. Forrest, at City Hall in Palm Springs, CA, Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Twilight vs. The Hunger Games vs. Harry Potter

As an author of YA fiction, I’m always interested in what makes a particular book or series a success, and I’ve come to some conclusions.

I read the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers because of it’s extraordinary financial success, and the almost immediate movie options. I wanted to see why kids liked it so much, and I’m not talking about follow the crowd kids, I’m talking about sane and sensible kids headed for college on work scholarships.

After reading the books – not my favorite series, I must admit – I started talking about them with the kids who loved them very much. Their pleasure they took in the books was described in numerous ways but always wound up as Sanitized Gothic Romance.

The romantic notion of vampires was there, based as always on the psychological thrill of rape, but in Twilight the blood suckers deny themselves unrestrained pleasure in exchange for imperial self control. The noble werewolf was also present, as self sacrificing as ever, but now additionally a protector of humanity. If that’s not cleaning up monsters, I don’t know what is.

The teens I talked to wanted clean, heady, sexual tension, with an ever present danger based solely upon self control. Stephanie Myers’ generated great success by writing an intense Goth relationship built on incredible physical desire and the conflict with social convention to not give in to that desire. She added the on-again, off-again hunger of Edward the vampire to consume his beloved Bella, which created a lot of sexual tension.

The Twilight movies were inevitable because of the ‘fairytale’ aspect of it – the diamond glittering skin, the ability to fly and run faster than the wind, to hear whispers from afar. Look how many TV series have been launched recently, all concerned with the same kind of drives as base human beings, but dressed up with the fairytale ambiance. Myers did that.


When I heard about a new runaway best seller in YA called The Hunger Games long before the movie release, I expected to find more of the same. I was very (happily) wrong. There is no sexual tension in the story, which is so unlike YA lit these days as to be remarkable in that aspect alone. (CW execs – PLEASE take note.)

The book grabs you with an act of selfless love (saving her sister by paying the tribute with her own life), and keeps you racing for the next chapter as Katniss develops character, cunning, and style in direct challenge to staying alive. Along the way she faces and overcomes bullies, defends the weak, demands honor for the disenfranchised, and ultimately flies in the face of unimaginable power – and wins. Our heroine leads the ‘have-nots’ in revolt against the ‘have-everythings’, a position that resonates all too well with modern youth. Yes, many YA books have the same tropes, and many more to be written will as well. Suzanne Collins gave us one of the great ones.

Author Suzanne Collins connected with a youthful audience who’d grown up on ‘reality TV’. The format of the games themselves, to be watched and judged by an invisible audience, rang true with modern kids in a new way. The fate of the warriors was ultimately up to the viewers, a circumstance which has become status-quo for present-day talent searches.

Perhaps most importantly, today’s kids are ready to accept a strong, healthy, physically gifted, clever, and inventive female character, as long as she’s as deeply flawed as they feel themselves to be, of course. Every teen, even the boys, identify strongly with loyal, trustworthy Katniss.


J.K. Rowling gave us an incredible world, peopled with wondrous things, and intricate plots that eventually tied everything (and I mean everything) up neat and tidy. Her literary skills are far and above better than 97% of modern writers. She is a gifted and talented author, completely unique. Looking to discover what made her Harry Potter series so incredibly popular should stop short at: She gave us a hell of a story with memorable characters in a truly gifted writing style.

All of these YA authors had incredible luck. Some were placed in the right place to be supported by those who could move their books forward. Others built their popularity solely by word of mouth. They all became parts of merchandising plans that tied to enormously successful films. And yes, the authors each reached different levels of literary accomplishment, which in the end mattered very little to the financial bottom line.

What do these three series have in common? They immerse the reader into a personal relationship with their characters. YA authors need to write strong, sympathetic characters in order to capture the attention of teen readers.

Fred Phelps – Unwilling Gay Ally

Fred Phelps hated fags. I don’t think anyone can dispute this fact. He was nearly rabid on the subject, and some have suggested that he was tossed on a sea of madness for decades.

It was this very craziness that made him such a valuable ally in the fight for gay rights. He and his family church became instruments of change in the culture war over acceptance of gay rights.

Phelps’ ugly persona, almost a caricature of fanaticism, held a mirror up to people who had casually denounced gay rights as special rights, or voted against gay marriage because they vaguely thought it was icky. While gay activists held civil conversations with everyday people, as more and more closeted people came out to their friends, families and co-workers, as prominent politicians, celebrities, and artists voiced their support, Fred Phelps flaunted the ugliness of bigotry back in their faces.

As votes were held people who had never had to think about it before confronted their knee-jerk reactions to gay marriage. On one hand they saw the happy faces of joyous people celebrating legal wedding ceremonies, and on the other they were confronted with ugly striped signs shouting judgmental messages. One side said LOVE IS LOVE, and the other side said GOD HATES FAGS. Which message is more appealing, really?

And the tide began to shift. I felt it and watched with relief as one by one states agreed that having two separate classes of people in America is unconstitutional. As court after legislature have come to their senses, so has the public because the idea of being as horrifically uncivil as the Westboro Baptist Church is much more uncomfortable than accepting that Anna and Eve want to marry, and Patrick and Bill are adopting.

So thank you, Fred Phelps (a phrase I never expected to use). If you hadn’t spread your virulence far and wide, we’d still be battling one court case at a time, and trying to persuade one representative or senator after another. We’d still be taking one step forward, and two steps back. But now, because of the ugliness of Fred Phelps and his family church, Americans are choosing to side with LOVE instead of HATE.

Off you go, Fred, a true servant of your God, an instrument in the battle between good and evil. Too bad you were the face of evil, but you can tell it all to Judas over a drink at Hell’s Bitchin’. He felt a little used in the end, himself.

I’d ordinarily send someone off with a wish that they rest in peace but for Fred Phelps, not so much.