Tag Archives: kids

Monday Musings: What Memories of My Mom Have To Do With COVID

My mother’s birthday is this coming Friday, February 5. I’ve written about her before in this space. I’ve marked past birthdays with Facebook posts and the like. But somehow this year, with her birthday approaching, I find myself thinking of her even more than usual.

She would be turning 99 this year, but we lost her long ago — back in the mid-nineties, when my older daughter was just an infant, and my younger daughter was, to resort to cliché, not even a glimmer in our eyes. I won’t bore you with the sorts of general memories I’ve shared in the past — her love of travel and books, her slightly goofy sense of humor, and her passion for progressive causes and social justice.

My thoughts have gone in a somewhat different direction. I wonder what she would be thinking about the pandemic, and the state of our world. I know she would have been devastated by the earliest days of COVID, almost a year gone now, when her beloved New York City was virtually closed, its hospitals strained beyond capacity, its cultural treasures shuttered. I know she would have had nothing but contempt for those who refused to wear masks and failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease.

But I wonder what she would think now. The world is entering a new phase with the pandemic, and I’m not sure what to make of it myself. On the one hand, this is a time of tempered hope. The numbers are terrible, but not quite as bad as they were a few weeks ago. We have vaccines from several drug companies. The protocols vary, but the promise they offer — of limited but effective immunity — allows the optimists among us to envision a time when fear of COVID might fade a bit. Since the pandemic began, health officials have warned against comparing this strain of the Coronavirus to the flu. But if the vaccines work, if immunity can be introduced to broad swaths of the population, COVID might become something we can think as we do influenza: as an illness to be feared, but managed.

On the other hand, our hopes in this regard have to reckon with several troubling truths. First, COVID isn’t going anywhere. Regardless of where it came from, it will probably be around pretty much forever. And the comparison to the flu carries a darker implication. It will continue to mutate, just as the flu does. Already new strains have reached our shores from London, from Brazil, from South Africa. No doubt more are coming. Even now, these new mutations are exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the vaccines. Just as flu shots are somewhat hit-or-miss in their effectiveness, future COVID immunizations are likely to be as well. And COVID is far deadlier than the flu; vaccination failures will have tragic consequences.

What does all of this have to do with my mother? A good question, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Part of it might be this: She used to talk to me about the feared diseases of her childhood. As I say, she was born nearly a century ago, in 1922. When she was a child, penicillin didn’t exist. She was in her thirties, the mother of two small children, when the polio vaccine was developed. I remember once, when I was a kid, a friend of mine got Scarlet Fever, and Mom’s first reaction was to tell me how serious it could be. She almost had to remind herself that by then treatments had become fairly routine. I later learned that she had known children who died of it.

The truth was, my childhood, and that of my siblings, had been made far less perilous by the medical advances of the mid-Twentieth Century. Looking back, I believe that era will be looked upon as a historical aberration. Yes, medical advances continue. But we live in a world that is far more interconnected than it was in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The safety conferred by those advances must now race with accelerated exposures and mutations.

I don’t mean to make this a doom and gloom post. I do think that, by and large, the COVID vaccines will work. Our world will find its way, haltingly, to a new normal that returns to us some of the societal freedoms we’re all missing, while also remaining conscious of the novel threats we face. I’m sad to say that I believe my mother would be less optimistic. She would find all of this frightening, and I wouldn’t blame her. These are scary times. We are fortunate to now have in place an Administration that takes the danger seriously, that relies on science and health experts, and that has no political stake in denial.

That, though, only gets us so far. We need to remain vigilant. We need to watch out not only for ourselves, but also for one another. And that means masking, distancing, getting vaccinated when we are eligible.

Stay safe, friends. Take care of those you love. Take care of those you don’t even know. That’s how we overcome even the most pessimistic of scenarios.

Creative Friday: “Willin'” by Little Feat

This week, for Creative Friday, I offer a song.

Many, many years ago, my oldest brother turned me on to Little Feat, and they quickly became my favorite band. While in college, playing with my dear friends Alan Goldberg and Amy Halliday as part of a group we called Free Samples, we included “Willin’,” by Little Feat, in our repertoire.

I kept playing the song after college, of course, and eventually, when Nancy and I had kids and I started playing guitar for them, “Willin’” became one of my younger daughter’s favorites. There are pauses in the song, and for some reason she found them hilarious. The more I dragged them out, the more she laughed. To this day, in her twenties, she still can’t listen to me play the song without giggling.

In short, this song has been a part of my musical life for the better part of forty years. I recorded this version, including a second guitar track for the instrumental break, a couple of years ago, with my daughter in mind.

I hope you enjoy it.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: Why Do We Create?

I just reread my first post of the year, when I first discussed my weekly blogging plans, and my goals for the months to come. I closed the post with “Happy 2020. May it be your best year yet.”

How did that work out…?

This is likely my last post of the year, and my final Writing-Tip Wednesday post before I shift Wednesdays to a slightly broader format. It’s also a slightly longer post than usual; I hope you’ll stick with it. I have posted about a vast array of topics over the past fifty-one weeks, and all of them have dealt with creativity in one way or another. At times, the creative elements of my posts have been explicit and obvious; at other times, when discussing the business and the state of the market, the connections have been less clear. But always it comes back to the act of creating, the process of harnessing the imagination in order to produce… something.

Creativity is integral to who I am, to the life I lead. I consider myself fortunate beyond words in this regard. And I’m not just talking about writing. If you follow my blog or my social media, then you know that I am also an avid photographer and a longtime musician, and I’m passionate about all of my creative endeavors. But I do each of these things for different reasons, and I think this speaks to something all writers ought to consider.

Why do we create?

I like to tell people that I wrote my first book when I was six. It wasn’t much of a book — a few sheets of paper on which I had scrawled a story and scribbled illustrations, sandwiched between a couple of pieces of colored construction paper and bound with yellow yarn. But it was, to my mind, as much a book as all the titles on my shelves. All through my childhood, there was nothing I enjoyed more in school than creative writing. Any opportunity we were given to sit quietly and write was, for me, like the most glorious sort of recess.

In junior high, my classmates and I were assigned to keep a creative journal. For an entire semester, we were to write every night — or as close to it as we could manage — and we were free to write whatever we wanted. I still have mine. I did write every night. I wrote short stories and poems and my reflections on the world as I saw it. I LOVED keeping that journal.

All through high school and college, I wrote. I saw the world through a writer’s eyes. Always, my first thought upon seeing a sunset, or enjoying a meal, or even dealing with emotional problems, was “How would I write this?”

My love of storytelling, of the creative alchemy we perform when converting emotion and sensation into words, still drives me, challenges me, fills me with joy and satisfaction (when it’s not frustrating me and making me want to chuck my computer through a window).

But, of course, my writing is also my job, and I have to think about it as such. That’s fine. I am so lucky to be able earn money doing what I love; I can hardly complain. At this point, though, I write to publish. Anything I work on for any amount of time, I expect to sell. If I don’t, then that piece of writing has…failed in some respect. That sounds harsh, I know, but it’s true. It also sounds mercenary, and that, I fear, is unavoidable. I can be passionate about my work, and also want to make money off of it. I make no apologies for that.

I feel quite differently about my photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have spent years studying photography, teaching myself techniques, making myself see my surroundings with an artist’s eye. I was drawn to photography early in life, in part, I have to admit, out of jealousy. My older brother, Jim, is a renowned and immensely talented painter. He was a bit of prodigy — his talent emerged in his early teens and as passionate as I am about writing, that’s how he continues to be about visual art. I wanted to creative images, too, but I have never been able to draw. Oh, I tried. But I’m terrible. There’s no other way to put it.

When I was thirteen, I asked for a camera, thinking that perhaps photography would offer me a path to visual artistic expression. My early efforts didn’t amount to much, and eventually I stopped trying. About fifteen years ago, though, I decided to try again. I dedicated myself to learning how to shoot, how to see, how to frame. The results have been deeply satisfying. I have sold a few photos and I’ve had work in local galleries. But while I have been pleased by these moments of public attention, I mostly capture images for myself. Nancy and I recently enlarged and framed several of my best images and they are now gracing the walls of our home. I have also produced a coffee-table photo book that I shared with just a few friends and family members. And my computer’s screen saver is a slide show of my best images.

I get as much joy out of seeing my own images in my house, in that book, on my computer, as I have from any sale of a photo. To be honest, I took nearly as much pride in hanging those images as I have in selling a new novel. I do it for me, and that’s enough.

And I feel still another sort of love and pride for my music. I have been playing guitar for more than forty years. I have always been able to sing, and for a while, in elementary school and junior high, I was content to express that talent in school musicals. But at some point I figured out that playing guitar might attract the notice of girls. (As it turns out, guitars weren’t enough. I also needed charm, height, and good looks, none of which I possessed. But hey, I learned to play guitar.)

I still love to play — for myself, for Nancy, occasionally for and with friends. Playing for my girls when they were young was truly a joy. I’ve never been very good at writing songs. I tried. I wrote a very few decent tunes in college, but I had a couple of friends who wrote amazing music, and my inability to craft songs as good as theirs, and as good as I thought mine should be as well, frustrated me. At some point, I stopped trying. Today, most of my playing is fairly derivative. I hear a song I like and I teach myself to play it. It’s fun. I get to recreate songs I admire, either for a small audience or for me. The truth is, though, I’m not adding much to the world’s music. I’m just another guy learning to play another James Taylor tune.

And so I ask again, why do we create?

I create stories for my livelihood. I create photos that are utterly original, but only for my friends, family, and me. I create music in order to pay homage to something I love, and to entertain myself.

I have tried throughout this year to gear my writing tips to writers of every ability level and every aspiration. Some of you won’t be satisfied with your writing until you’ve published a story, or a novel, or a series, or a bunch of series. I get that.

Some of you write because you want to craft the best story you can, and if you publish it, great. If you don’t, if the only people who read it are your friends and family, that’s okay, too. The process itself is the point. Your goal is to create the best piece you can.

And some of you take great joy in writing fan fiction, in writing homages to characters and storylines that you admire and want to be part of in some way. That’s great, too.

There is no single right answer to “Why do we create?” No matter where you fall on the continuum of creativity I’m describing here, you can learn to be a better writer, you can take satisfaction in the act of creation, and you can engage in that alchemy I mentioned earlier.

Because there is something truly magical in creativity — in the simple act of harnessing the imagination — something that has nothing at all to do with money or reviews.

I wish you joy and inspiration in all your endeavors.

And, of course, keep writing.

Monday Musings: 2020 is the New 1968

Putting on my historian’s cap…

There are certain years in modern history that stand out as significant all on their own. They are so fraught, so filled with resonance and import, that they become both microcosms and embodiments of the periods in which they occur. They typify entire eras.

Arguably, the most prominent example of this is 1968, the capstone of a tumultuous decade. It began with the Tet Offensive at the end of January — a coordinated and devastating attack on key military and civilian positions carried out by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The offensive gave the lie to all the false assurances of “progress” the U.S. military had been offering about the American war effort in Vietnam. In March, the sitting President, Lyndon Johnson, was nearly defeated in the New Hampshire primary by Senator Eugene McCarthy. Weeks later, on the 31st of March, Johnson withdrew from the race, throwing the election into turmoil. On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in many cities. Only two months after that, Bobby Kennedy, by then the leading contender for the Democratic nomination, was shot and killed as well. Summer saw the chaos of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, with riots in the streets and near brawls within the convention center. In November, former Vice President Richard Nixon narrowly defeated the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, for the Presidency.

2020 will be remembered and written about the way 1968 is. The pandemic, which introduced the world to “masking” and “social distancing,” and exposed anew the anti-science, anti-“elite” biases of a significant portion of the American public, turned the world upside down. The casualty count — total cases, hospital capacity, deaths from the disease — has become a grim daily reminder of our nation’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the problem, and our national leaders’ incompetence and lack of compassion.

The resulting economic collapse sent shockwaves across the entire globe. Here in the U.S., unemployment spiked, businesses closed, the stock market tanked, rallied, fell again, and now is rallying again, even as the pandemic’s third wave ravages rural communities in nearly every state.

The murders of Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd sparked protests throughout the country, and beyond our borders. These protests, in turn, further exposed the problem of police brutality in countless cities. Confrontations between White vigilantes and police on the one hand, and protesters, Black and White, on the other, turned ugly, violent, and deadly.

At the same time, the nation went through a political campaign like no other, with the pandemic curtailing in-person campaigning and complicating the voting process. We saw the historic nomination and subsequent election of Kamala Harris as our next Vice President. And we watched Donald Trump engage in an unprecedented assault on our democratic norms, that were ultimately unsuccessful, but damaging nevertheless.

Then there were the oddities — shortages of rice and beans, toilet paper and cleaning supplies, bread flour and other staples; restaurants and bars closed for a time (and now closing again); sporting events and entire major league seasons altered, reconfigured, “bubbled;” movies and theater and concerts forsaken.

And, of course, we saw more than our share of tragic and untimely deaths, losing Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis, Kobe Bryant and his beautiful daughter, Chadwick Boseman and Naya Rivera and countless others.

Every time we thought 2020 couldn’t get crazier or darker, it did. Stress and anxiety afflicted nearly all of us in one form or another. Isolation became its own epidemic.

It goes without saying that future historians will write books about this year. Our grandchildren will ask us questions about the pandemic.

Here are a few things I’ll remember.

Early in April, our older daughter, who lives in Brooklyn, and who was living alone in the bleakest days of New York’s early struggle with COVID, texted me about what it was like living in the city at that point. All she heard, she said, were sirens. “It’s eerie because the streets are otherwise dead. Sirens are the only sound.” Except in the mornings, she added, when all the churches rang their bells. Haunting.

Our younger daughter contracted COVID in September, and I will never forget my fear, my feeling of helplessness, my awareness of the miles between us and the impracticality, even danger, of going to see her and care for her.

The news that Ruth Bader Ginsberg had died hit me like a gut punch, and prompted a very real concern that Trump’s replacement, whoever it might turn out to be, would help him steal the election.

I went to bed on election night, thinking that Trump had probably won. The counting of absentee ballots in key states hadn’t yet started, and though I had read enough about the “red mirage” and the “blue shift” to know what to expect, the numbers looked daunting. Waking up Wednesday morning to renewed hope was one of the highlights of the year.

For me, personally, this was a year of physical problems that reminded me of my advancing age. For the first half of 2020 I dealt with debilitating pain in my shoulder that made even the simplest tasks agonizing. The pain is much reduced now, but it’s not yet gone entirely. It was also a year of emotional struggles, though I’m hardly alone in that regard. Anxiety, panic attacks, stress, professional worries: I had enough of these for five years, much less one.

But amid all the sadness and worry, there have also been bright spots. Nancy and I have enjoyed our time together and have truly never been closer. I have made nature walks a feature of my daily routine, allowing myself to birdwatch each morning, and use my camera more often than ever. I have played a lot of guitar (when my shoulder allowed it) and have learned a bunch of new songs. Even with Major League Baseball’s regular season disrupted, and despite the odd spectacle of stadiums filled with cardboard cutouts, the postseason was terrific and rekindled my passion for the game.

Finally, I know this will sound hackneyed, like the worst sort of cliché, but it’s the truth: I feel that I will enter 2021 with a new appreciation for things that I took for granted most of my life. Time with friends and family, the simple pleasure of sitting in a restaurant with my wife and daughters, the opportunity to think once more about travel. We have a long distance to go, as a nation, as a global community. But I believe 2021 will start us on a path to a new normal, something different from what we knew before the pandemic, but something also more comfortable than what we’ve been through these past nine months.

That, in any case, is my hope.

Wishing you a wonderful week.

Monday Musings: The Hardest, Most Wondrous, Most Creative Thing I Do

Interesting title for a post, right? Makes you wonder what this week’s essay might be about.

Spoiler Alert: The post has nothing at all to do with writing…

Parenting is hard. It’s hard when our children are newborns, and we’re operating on three hours of sleep, feeding and changing diapers with mind-numbing regularity. It’s hard when they’re toddlers, and we find ourselves trying to reason with tiny beings who are willful and eager for any form of independence, but not yet ready to face the world without guidance and protection. It’s hard then they’re adolescents, and they are ready to push us away, but still figuring out the nuances of adult life and their place in it. And it’s hard when they’re grown, and we still want to protect them and nurture them even though that’s not really our role anymore.

I love my daughters more than I can say, and I want — have always wanted — desperately to do the right thing. Always. But there’s this huge complicating factor in being a parent: We’re human. We are flawed. We make mistakes. We say foolish things or lose our temper at inappropriate times or allow our own tensions and worries and problems to interfere with the relationships that mean more to us than any others.

A friend of mine from college, who had her first child several years before Nancy and I had our first, once said to me, “Parenting is an exercise in letting go.” That’s gold, right there. Wisdom distilled to its very essence.

Yes, parenting is indeed an exercise in letting go. It’s knowing when to let that toddler wander a bit, and when to rein her in. It’s knowing when to push the pre-teen or teen to open up, to talk to us and let us in so that we can help, and when to leave it to her to work out her own issues, her own life. It’s knowing how to be a friend to our adult children rather than Mom or Dad.

I would add that parenting is also a constant quest for recalibration. What worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today, and today’s answer doesn’t have much of a shelf life either. From the moment they’re born, our children are growing, developing, becoming more and more themselves and less and less reflections of us. To borrow a cliché, change is the only constant.

We try not to burden them with expectations, though that’s hard at times. We certainly don’t want to turn them into mini-me. We want them to be their own people, to develop interests and talents. We love their quirks, their originality.

Because here’s another thing about parenting: It’s wondrous. It is a voyage of near-constant discovery. Hard though it is, it’s also so very much fun. Our children make us laugh, they amaze and astonish, they give joy and pride and, yes, entertainment, repaying us ten-fold for what we have given them. For every difficult moment, there are twenty great ones. It doesn’t always feel that way, and in the depths of the hardest times, it can be difficult to remember, or anticipate, the good. But I can tell you that from the most trying moments of parenting have come some of my deepest connections with my children.

Which brings us to the third thing about parenting: It is the most creative endeavor I have ever attempted. And I spend a lot of time on creative endeavors. It is yet another cliché to refer to child-rearing as an act of creation. But that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about creativity, about problem-solving, about thinking on our feet and innovating — emotionally, logistically, temporally, culinarily… You name it, at some point we’ll have created it.

I started this post in a moment of reflection on a parenting moment that I probably didn’t handle as well as I should have. Even now, after twenty-five years of being a Dad, I still get it wrong nearly as often as I get it right. But writing this has helped me remember that mistakes are part of the process, that getting things wrong — on both sides of the relationship — often lead to conversations that make things better. And that if we’ve gotten the important things right from the outset, the underlying love endures and strengthens despite our flawed humanity.

Wishing you a great week.

Monday Musings: Random Thoughts About Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. It is, and has long been, one of my two favorite holidays of the year, along with Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the coming of spring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions revolve around family-style meals that are steeped in tradition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I didn’t always love Thanksgiving so much. When I was a kid, Turkey Day seemed nothing more than a gift-less dress rehearsal for Christmas. The food was similar, we saw the same relatives. The chocolate treats on the table were basically interchangeable, except for being shaped like turkeys rather than Santa. But, again — and I really can’t stress this enough — there were no presents! And also no tree.

Somehow it became a tradition in our family to pull the same prank on my poor, beleaguered mother year in and year out: At some point during the meal, one of us — usually my sister or me — would go over to speak with her about something we had contrived. And in the course of the conversation, we would slip a dinner mint into the cranberry sauce on her plate. Don’t ask me why we did it; I honestly don’t know. But we did it every year.

By the time I was in high school, we were having our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations either at our house, or at my aunt and uncle’s house — Turkey Day at one, Christmas at the other. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas, despite being Jewish. A lot of Jewish families did — it was a form of assimilation rooted in social pressure and prejudice.) But in the earliest years of my childhood (and in the years before I was born — I am the youngest child in the family, even the extended family, by quite a few years) we used to drive into New York City to celebrate both holidays at my grandmother’s apartment. Our Gram was a pistol. Funny, irreverent, fiercely loving, independent, strong-willed. She was all of 4 foot 10, but she dominated any room she was in. Even after all these years, when I think of Thanksgiving, the first image that pops into my head is that of our family gathered around her table.

Gram had a few friends who used to join us for Thanksgiving each year. Many of them had been friends of the family for so long that we were expected to call them “Aunt so-and-so” even though there was no actual blood relation. One of these friends was widowed, and she had remarried to a man named Milton, whom we were to call Uncle Milton. Uncle Milton was… Well, how do I describe him? He was old, as one would expect of the friend of a grandparent. But he was also somnambulant. And, looking back on it, I think he used to get pretty hammered at these dinners. We would arrive after he and his wife did, and he would already be well into his cups. We would go to say hello to him and, invariably, he would say, “David. Good to see you. Mind if I don’t get up?” He said this to everyone (although, as far as I know, he didn’t call everyone David…). He never got up, at least not until it was time to transfer from his comfortable chair to the supper table.

Milton became the butt of many, many family jokes. I am not proud of this. None of us are. But it’s true. When we would play 20 Questions, one of us would always devote a round to the poor man. “Is he dead or alive?” “Yes.” “Uncle Milton!” At some point we heard that Milton had fallen and broken his hip. His wife had called him for dinner and he had, against his own better judgment, gotten up. He pushed himself out of his chair and just sort of kept going… When sometime later, we got the sad news that Milton had died, we all wondered how anyone had been able to tell. I know — this is just terrible. Cruel, disrespectful, inappropriate. But, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m laughing as I type it all out.

Nancy and I have had extended family to our home for Thanksgiving now and again, and for a while we used to share the holiday with another family here in our little town. But our favorite Thanksgivings have been the ones we’ve had with just our daughters, and there have been too few of those in recent years. Our older child has lived in New York since going there for college in 2013. We’ve probably had only two or maybe three Thanksgivings with her since, and we miss her every year. Our younger daughter is still in college and will be coming home this year, with her boyfriend. They both had Covid earlier in the semester and, according to the public health experts Nancy works with at the University, should still be immune and will present no threat to us. It will just be the four of us for the holiday. Quiet, safe. We’ll Zoom with our older daughter at some point, and also with my brother and his wife, who are alone as well, and will be Zooming with their children and my sister-in-law’s parents. Needless to say, this is a strange year.

Which brings me full circle. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even under these extraordinary circumstances. I find the concept behind it, simple though it is, remarkably affecting. Of course we should take a day to ponder those things for which we are thankful. Yes, we should do this daily, but the fact is we are too often consumed with the demands of the day-to-day, the fraught emotions of a world that seems to careen from one crisis to another, the necessities of work and the obligations that sometimes keep us from appreciating fully the importance of family and friendship. A day of Thanksgiving is, it seems to me, just the tonic we need, this year especially, even as the exigencies of the pandemic limit how many we ought to have seated around our tables.

And so please allow me to close by thanking all of you. Whether you are a stranger who has read one of my books, or a friend I have known for years, or a relative who sat with me at our Gram’s table, I am glad to have you in my life. I wish you a joyous, safe holiday.

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The Quickening

Okay, writers, raise your hand if any of your characters have ever done things you didn’t expect. Yeah, I figure that’s most of us. Now raise your hand if your characters have ever done things you really didn’t want them to do. Yep. Also most of us.

Of all the things I tell non-writers about what I do for a living, this is the one that always draws the most interest, surprise, and skepticism.

“But they’re creations of your imagination! You control them. How can they surprise you, much less disobey you?”

I control them?! Hah!

At the end of the first book of Winds of the Forelands, a series I intended at the time to be four books long (it wound up being five), one of my characters told me she was pregnant. I swear. I typed the words, sat back, and said aloud, “Freaking hell, she’s pregnant.” Except I didn’t say “freaking.”

I had the other books planned out. I knew where the plot was going and what the character arcs for the rest of the series were supposed to look like. There was no room in there for a kid. None.

“So,” a non-writer might ask, “why not delete that sentence from the manuscript and write something else? They’re your characters, inhabiting your world, right?”

Well, yes, but no.

Because while I didn’t want her to be pregnant, I knew as soon as I typed the words that she had to be, that it made far more sense with all that had come before. And the rest of the series, as eventually written and published, bears this out. It was a much better story with the child than without her. I just needed to be led there, and my character did that for me.

There is an old term, coined originally by midwives — the quickening. This is when a fetus begins to move, showing its first signs of life in the womb. And that is the term I use to describe the evolution of a character from a creature purely of our imagination, to a person capable of making decisions that surprise us and help to shape our narratives.

At my very first DragonCon some twenty-plus years ago, when I was still the newbiest of newbies, I got into an argument with a VERY famous fantasy writer about this very thing. (We were on a panel — this was in front of a crowd.) I won’t give this person’s name. Some of you have heard me tell the story, and so know. The rest of you have my apologies. But this was a BIG name, one of the very biggest. And this person swore up and down that we are the gods of our worlds, the masters of our stories, and if our characters were doing things we didn’t expect then we were doing this wrong. And at last, in my frustration, I said what I believe to this day to be the single wisest thing about character development I have ever offered: If you write them like puppets, they’ll read like puppets. (I patched things up with the Big Name afterwards. This person was gracious and kind, which is why my vehemence, and the implied criticism in my remark, did not wind up ruining my career.)

The quickening is a good thing, a great thing. When our characters begin to behave in a way that feels independent, as if they have agency and will and spirit, they become more real to our readers. They go from being words on a page to being three-dimensional beings.

Now, of course, they really are words on a page. And I have no doubt that someone versed in the workings of the psyche would tell me what is happening has nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the mechanics of my imagination. At the moment of the quickening, they would likely say, my belief in my characters and my comfort with them reaches a point where they begin to work on my subconscious and influence my thinking about my narrative and my world. Whatever. It’s much easier to say that my characters are surprising me and guiding me. Because that’s how it feels, and in all ways that matter, that’s what’s happening.

I can’t think of any advice that will help you get to this moment with your characters. I would guess that most of you get there on your own, in the normal course of writing your stories. The truth is, the moment when our characters begin to surprise us is the moment when writing becomes really fun. When I’m writing and enjoying the process most, I don’t think so much as I describe things my characters are seeing, and document things they’re doing and saying. Writing dialogue becomes more like stenography — I’m writing down the conversations I hear in my mind.

But I will offer this — to carry the childbirth analogy a bit further…

Dealing with characters who have come alive in our minds is a bit like parenting. We want to give them the freedom they need to become the literary equivalent of living, breathing people. We want them to grow, to be independent, to have that agency I mentioned before so that the stories we’re telling feel organic and true and immediate. At the same time, though, as with real children, we don’t want to give them absolute free reign. That big name author was right in part: This is still our creative work, and while characters have to be allowed to take our stories in unexpected directions, they shouldn’t take over entirely. We wouldn’t want a five-year-old running our household, and we don’t want a fictional character, or even a set of them, making every meaningful decision in our narrative. Put another way, we don’t want to stifle the character’s growth, but by necessity we have to maintain some control.

The quickening is magical and affirming and inspirational. It’s that moment in Frankenstein (or, if you prefer, Young Frankenstein) when the doctor cries out “It’s alive!” It carries our storytelling to another level, transforming writing into something akin to discovery. But we must always remember that it does not absolve us of our creative responsibilities.

Enjoy! And keep writing!

Monday Musings: How Are You Doing? How Am I Doing?

How are you holding up?

No, really. I’m asking. I’m asking you, and I’ve been asking myself over the past week or so.

This is a remarkable time we’re living through. Obviously, I don’t mean remarkable as in “This is great!” But remarkable as in, “We’ll be talking about this, and recovering from this, for years to come.” It is fraught and troubling and disorienting and challenging and, well, insert your own adjective here. I tend to be a news junkie; I rarely tune out the world. But I know many people who do, who prefer to keep politics and social issues in the background except for those moments – Election Day, for instance – when they feel they need to tune in.

Right now, though, we are living the news on a daily basis. There is no escaping it. There seems to be no distance between the world and our lives. There’s a direct line from those Covid maps on CNN and MSNBC and the cloth masks we put on to shop or go to the bank. Nor does it help that the Administration, which has failed utterly to develop a strategy for combatting the pandemic is, nevertheless, more than happy to exploit it in the most cynical ways possible for political gain.

But I have addressed those issues in past Monday Musings, and I’m sure I’ll do so again in future ones. Today, I’m focused more on the personal costs.

How am I doing? Thanks for asking. As I say, this is something I’ve been asking myself recently.

I’ll start with this: In all ways that matter I’m fine. My family and I have been fortunate so far and have avoided the virus. I am also fortunate in that I’m self-employed and have resources to fall back on even as the publishing industry has ground to a halt. I’m white, upper-middle class, and I live in a relatively isolated area. For those who are non-white, who lack financial security, who live in cities or crowded suburbs, all of this is far, far worse.

That said, I find that I’m struggling. I miss my kids, who I haven’t been able to see in months because of Covid concerns. Our older daughter is supposed to come pick up our old car tomorrow – our first time seeing her since December – but even this visit will be brief (just the evening) and distanced. Our other daughter we haven’t seen since March, and even that is far too long. I also miss my brother and his family, who we likely would have seen at some point this summer or fall.

I honestly don’t mind masking at all, but I miss seeing people – friends and even strangers. I miss going to a restaurant or bar. I miss travel. Problems of privilege, I know, but I’m being honest here. I really miss conventions – hanging out with friends, talking shop with fellow writers, interacting with fans. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Calgary for a writing festival. A couple of weeks from now I am supposed to be in Atlanta for DragonCon, a highlight of my professional year. I work alone, and most of the time I enjoy delving into my imagination each day. That’s my job. These days, though, it feels particularly lonely.

I walk every day, but I miss my more vigorous workouts at the gym. And because I’m dealing with an unrelated medical issue that is affecting my shoulder, I have had to cut way back on my home workouts as well, which I find deeply frustrating, even depressing.

Mostly, I am weary of thinking about the pandemic, about the politics of the pandemic, about the logistical gymnastics we all have to go through for even the most mundane of errands because of the pandemic. This is exhausting – and way more so for those who have compromised immune systems and/or belong to at-risk groups. It would be terrifying if we had no health insurance, or lacked faith in the medical professionals in our area. Again, I recognize that I am very fortunate.

(And this, by the way, is what makes the Trump Administration’s mail-system machinations and its blindly foolish insistence on opening schools — just to name two of its worst offenses — so insidious. We are, all of us, dealing with heightened emotions, tensions, apprehensions. I can hardly imagine being the parent of school-aged children and, on top of everything else, worrying now about sending them to school.)

I get mad at myself when I am less productive in my work than I would like to be, or when I let everyday chores slide. The truth is, I should be cutting myself a bit of slack. We all should. The stress induced by this particular moment in history in unlike anything I’ve experienced in my lifetime. To my mind, it is rivaled only by the aftermath of 9/11.

I am, in the end, tired of it all. And I’m tired of whining about it. But for all of us who care, who take the threat as seriously as it merits, this is hard. I have no answers, no wisdom to dispense. As I said, I’m struggling, too. I do believe life will get better. I won’t say I expect us to go back to the old normal, but I expect the new normal – whatever that looks like – to be far more enjoyable than this.

Until then, please know that I am wishing all of you good health, simple joys, moments of peace and laughter and love. Stay well, be safe, take good care of one another. We will get through this.

Photo Friday: Fifteen Years Ago Today

Today’s Photo Friday images were captured exactly fifteen years ago — August 7, 2005. We had moved to Australia for the year only days before, leaving the States on August 1 and arriving at Sydney Airport August 3 (it’s an International Dateline thing). After taking a few days to settle into our home in Wollongong, along the Illawarra Coast south of Sydney, we went up to the big city to explore.

Erin, our younger daughter, who was all of six at the time, wanted to touch the Sydney Opera House. It wasn’t enough to see it, we had to touch it. Hence the picture of Nancy, Alex, and Erin doing just that. And, I’ll admit that, after snapping the photo, I touched the Opera House as well. It would have been bad luck not to.

We had a glorious day in Sydney — we visited museums, shopped, ate out, got ice cream, walked across the Harbour Bridge. Several months later, as our memorable year Down Under was drawing to a close, we returned to the Opera House to see a magnificent production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been fifteen years.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.Family at the Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House and family

Monday Musings: Thinking of My Dad on Father’s Day

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about my Dad for today’s post, and I find myself struggling.

I’m surprised, because it’s not for a lack of affection or great stories. I loved my father and I miss him all the time. I hear his voice and laughter in my head every day – bits of advice that remain relevant, remembered jokes that still make me smile, a strange surety – utterly at odds with my well-practiced agnosticism – that he sees my daughters growing up and is as proud of them as I am.

There’s a ton I could write, but everything I think of feels trite and well-worn. I’m sure I’ve said all of it before in Facebook posts and previous blog entries. And yet…

My father was born in 1919, lived through the Great Depression, lost a brother to World War II, married my mother half a year after V-E day (almost to the day). He supported Wendell Wilkie in the Presidential election of 1940 (although he would have been too young by a month to vote) and very nearly lost my mother when he confessed this to her before their wedding. Never again did he vote for a Republican for President.

He was caring and generous, devoted to his family and friends. He loved a crass joke, but he took great pride in being gentlemanly – a product of his upbringing. My grandmother demanded no less of both her sons, just as my dad demanded no less of my brothers and me. I remember in high school he and I drove my girlfriend back to her home – I sat up front and she was in back. We pulled up to her house, and he turned around and said, “M____, you stay right there until he gets your door for you and walks you in.” Which, of course, I scrambled to do.

He loved sports, and he especially loved watching sports with his kids. I was the youngest sibling by far, and so, long after my older brothers and sister had left for college and life beyond, I still lived at home. I had six years “alone” with my parents – a mixed blessing at the time, a treasure trove of memories now. Dad and I would watch some sort of game almost every weekend: football, hockey, basketball, tennis, golf, and, our favorite, baseball. We would guess what play was coming and then, after, talk about why we were right and the managers were wrong. Sometimes we rooted together. Often, if I got to the television first, he would ask me, “Who are you rooting for?”

“Team A.”

“Okay, I’m rooting for Team B.” Just because.

Like my mom, Dad, through his example, taught me so much about what it means to be a parent. The phrase has gone out of style, but it was truly apt in this case: He was the product of a “broken marriage.” My grandfather was a philanderer. Egotistical, self-centered, more interested in his professional status than his personal integrity, he left my grandmother when Dad was eleven years old. Almost as soon as the divorce was finalized, he married his (wealthy) mistress. Soon after, Dad went to visit his father and new stepmother. He tried to greet my grandfather with a hug, but grandpa stopped him at arm’s length and said, “You’re old enough now that I think we should greet each other with a handshake.”

Years later, Dad would tell me that story, adding, “I knew that I would be a good father, because I knew from my father all the things not to do.”

Dad was affectionate – demonstrably so. He hugged and kissed all his children. He doted on my mother. He cried at movies and was perfectly willing to put his sentimentality on full display. Without possessing the modern lexicon, he understood instinctively that modeling masculinity and strength for his sons meant being gentle and loving, honorable and generous, supportive and wise. In this regard, he was an anachronism for his generation.

When my mom got sick in the early 1990s, my father threw all his passion and energy into caring for her. Her illness consumed him. We always thought that Dad would live forever – his mother, my Gram, lived to ninety-one. His father lived to be 103. But after Mom died, Dad had nothing left. Two months after her funeral, he was diagnosed with Leukemia. He died a year later.

I have no trouble celebrating Mother’s Day and basking in memories of my Mom. For reasons I can’t explain, Father’s Day is much harder. Maybe because it’s a day I should be able to share with him and can’t.

I miss you, Papa. I wish there was a game on.