Zombie Novels That Aren’t About Zombies

Just in time for Halloween, Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) has published Feedback, the latest in her series of zombie novels. The original books were Feed, Deadline, and Blackout, collectively known as the Newsflesh trilogy.

Sign of infected areaThe thing is, they’re zombie novels, but they’re not really about zombies. Oh, there are plenty of undead, infected creatures roaming through the novels, trying to bite the living, converting them to more zombies, or simply feeding on human flesh. There are brave zombie hunters who defend civilization against the shambling menace with intelligence, courage, and a vast amount of firepower. There are excitement, chase scenes, well-drawn characters, stunning surprises, and all the things that make a good horror-scifi-action-thriller.

So what are these books really about? Not Jane Austen, that’s for sure.

Fear. Okay, you probably expected this one. A zombie novel about fear. But in the Newsflesh books, fear of zombies is the least of it. There are alarming secrets that turn out to be symptoms of big, appalling conspiracies. One of the novels’ underlying messages is that fear can be – is – used to manipulate people and control them. If the threat is big enough, and scary enough, and relentless enough, people will do anything, give up anything, completely change their way of life to avoid the danger.

And people who know that can pull their strings.

Safety. Again, a fairly standard topic for a zombie book. But in this world (and ours), there is no guarantee of safety. All you can rely on are yourself and the few people around whom you can trust – and sometimes not even them. Mechanical defenses have holes; strategies have deficiencies; friends have their own agendas. In the end, you have only yourself and your principles, and maybe a few other people if you are very, very lucky.

Journalism. The main characters are bloggers, who form teams that gather the news, poke zombies with sticks, or write fiction. This gives the author plenty of room to explore how modern technologies have affected news-gathering, as well as the consumer’s desire for real-life action-adventure, poetry, and stories too. Large questions are explored: How far does the public’s right to know extend? Are there secrets that journalists shouldn’t reveal? What happens when the journalists become part of the news themselves? Have no fear (except of the zombies and conspiracies); these subjects operate in the background while the plot continues to rocket ahead.

Politics. The blogger-journalists are embedded with the campaign of a possible candidate for President, which makes the books all the more timely. Politics and zombies may not sound like a fascinating combination, but when the dead are rising everywhere in the world, people look to governments to address the problem. Whether those governments and the people in them make sound decisions, put responsible policies in place, and fund research can affect the outcome for individuals. Anyone who can’t make connections with the current political climate just isn’t paying attention.

I hope I haven’t scared you away from the novels. There are plenty of gore, ambushes, narrow escapes, heartbreaking deaths, and all the other accoutrements of your standard zombie novel, if that’s what you want. There’s even a zombie bear. You don’t have to pay attention to the various subtexts, though your reading experience will be richer if you do.

Not content to stop after writing the trilogy, Grant has revisited the near future, post-zombie-apocalypse world with short stories, novellas, and now the new stand-alone novel. (I say stand-alone, though its plot runs roughly parallel to Feed.) She explores interesting questions: What is this character’s backstory? What would happen in zombies got loose in a science fiction convention or a school? Who was responsible for starting the zombie plague? Is the zombie situation the same in Australia? Clearly, this is a fictional world with lots of room for expansion, despite the definitive ending of Blackout. It’s an impressive piece of world-building.

Grant is a gutsy writer (pun intended). Writing under the name Seanan McGuire, she has even written a novel in which one of the major plot points is Evil Pie. And for some reason, it works. (It’s in Chimes at Midnight, one of the October Daye series of urban fantasies.)

For more about Feedback, the other Newsflesh novels, short fiction, and Mira Grant, see miragrant.com.

Team Eating

I’ve never been any good at team eating. And I’m not referring to those idiotic competitions to see who can eat the most hot dogs in under a minute (which I believe are individual events anyway). Not that I think I would be any good at those, either. I belch too often to get any kind of rhythm going.

A group of friends eating at a restaurantNo, where I fail is at business dining. Oh, I can make it through an isolated lunch or even an occasional dinner. It’s the day-to-day eating events that leave me stymied.

The company lunchroom is as terrifying to me as a high school cafeteria. I never get to sit at the table with the cool kids or even the audiovisual club. And since a tuna sandwich takes approximately three minutes to eat – maybe five, if you have carrot sticks or yogurt, there’s no good way to stretch it out.

You’d think that my usual strategy – bringing along a book – would allow for some first-class work-related eavesdropping. But no. People get suspicious if you don’t turn the pages, and any book worth its tiny paper package of salt will prove distracting right before the team eaters get to the really juicy stuff – and I don’t mean ripe peaches.

If the lunch culture at the office (and here I’m not referring to yogurt) involves dining at local establishments, the problem is even worse. Even if you want to be a team eater, only the truly pathetic will attempt the “Can I come too?” ploy. It works, in the sense that hardly anyone has the meatballs to say no, but it only leads to groups of employees hustling out a fire door that’s not near your desk the next time.

If you’re a brave soul and decide to eat out alone, trusty book in hand, you may encounter the horror of sauntering into a restaurant where a tableful of your co-workers have already gathered. At that point the only thing to do is nod politely while the other diners pretend their mouths are full and wave a cordial fork in your direction. If you’re a grump, you can hope they flick salad dressing in someone’s eye.

But by far the worst team eating events are picnics, cookouts, pizza parties, and other mandatory frivolities put on by the company. These may be billed as voluntary events, but believe me, they aren’t. If you do decide to forego the games of water balloon volleyball or bingo (with prizes “donated” by your suppliers) in favor of retreating to a cool, dim nearby watering hole, you leave yourself open to being the object of whispered, eye-darting conversations in the lunchroom for at least the next month. Plus, you’ll have to avoid making eye contact with everyone else who slunk off to the same watering hole.

What’s the solution? Is there a solution? A number of people I know just read their books and ignore coworkers back. Some eat at their desks, though honestly, you’ve got to get out of that hell-cube sometime or you’ll grow corners.

Maybe the best solution is to take a large batch of brownies – they don’t even have to be home-made – and offer them around. Brownies are a kind of currency that buys you a place at the lunch table. Especially if they’re “special” brownies (depending on where you work, of course). Oh, and mix it up. Cupcakes, cookies, doughnuts – anything suitably sweet says, “Invite me!”

Then feel free to dish about someone else who isn’t there. You’ll be a team eater in no time.

Who’s Stupid Now?

For television commercials to work, someone has to be stupid. (Besides the ad agencies and the viewers, that is.)Sales man

The basic “storyline” of most commercials is this: Someone has a problem. The advertiser solves the problem. And the peasants rejoice.

The person with the problem must be portrayed as a real idiot who can’t solve the problem alone.

But who the idiot is has evolved.

In the 50s and 60s, women were stupid. The poor little housewife was unable to conquer soap scum, ring-around-the-collar, or (my favorite) “house-itosis.” In steps Mr. Clean or that little guy in a boat (never mind the unconscious symbolism of that) floating in the toilet or a giant lumberjack to pat her on the head and say, “There, there, little lady. I can show you how to perform simple household tasks.”

Even if there was no male special effect to provide enlightenment, there was always a male voice-over announcer to dispense wisdom and cleaning products.

That was the paradigm: Men saving women from old or newly invented problems, mostly cleaning-related.

Then came the 70s and 80s, with the liberation of women, who were now allowed to smoke pretty flower-decorated cigarettes and wear slacks while they cleaned.

Men were the stupid ones, who needed to be saved by a female (or female announcer) because they were too clueless and incompetent to wipe up a spill, treat their own diarrhea, or wash a glass without leaving the social horror of spots and streaks. Women to the rescue! All those lessons they learned from men in the 50s and 60s were now boomeranging on the men who, suddenly faced with the reality of household chores that they were learning to “help with” needed the tender guidance of a woman, the house and family expert. She would shake her head in pity at the helpless male and swoop in to demonstrate the mysteries of scouring powder, which is, after all, fairly easy to operate.

Child care in particular left men befuddled, holding a baby at arm’s length and wailing louder than the infant, “What do I do?” A woman shakes her head and informs him. “You wipe the mud off his hands, you lovable dope. And while you’re at it, stuff some green or brown mush in his face so he can spit it on the walls that you have no idea how to clean either.”

My husband despised those years and those commercials. “Why do they always make the men look like boobs?” he would cry. (Women were having their own problems with ads and boobs, but never mind that for now.) He had a point, of course, but I couldn’t muster much sympathy. There were still giant lumberjacks showing up in my kitchen from time to time. Those guys were worse than roaches, which needed a friendly male exterminator to do the lethal deed.

Then came the 80s and 90s. Who got to be stupid then? Both men and women. Who got to save the day? Their children, of course!

Particularly when technology was involved, but also in cases of breakfast cereal crisis, tots and tykes were taking over and bailing out their floundering parents. The kids knew everything and the parents knew nothing. And while there was a grain of truth in the idea that tweens and teens were generally more tech-savvy than your average parent, grown-ups did after all increasingly use technology at work outside the home and were required to know how to plug it in by themselves. But, hey, role reversal was amusing, and the sight of kids shaking their heads at clueless parents would surely motivate people of all ages to buy, buy, buy. (The ad people had by this time discovered that children were a consumer force in their own right and spent their money on more than just bubble gum.)

So, where are we now? We’ve run through stupid women, stupid men, and stupid adults. What could possibly be left?

That’s right. Stupid humans. Apparently all homo sapiens are now so dim that we have to have origami rabbits to teach us how to save money and bears to teach us to wipe our own asses.

Next it’ll be aliens teaching us how to not destroy our own planet.

Wait. We really need that.

Mold and Fungus – Yum!

I understand that eating crickets (possibly chocolate-covered) is a recent foodie thing.(1) I’m in no hurry to try it, despite what I see on the Food Network.

But I must admit that two of my favorite foods are mold and fungus.(2)

Cheese would not exist without mold (or bacteria, or curdling, or the lining of various animals’ stomachs), and mushrooms are fungus, plain and simple. Still, most people would find it odd to see a frittata recipe that said, “Add chopped fungus, then grate moldy milk over the top.”

Blue cheese slices closeupI believe, however, that cheese should keep its origins secret. That is to say, I do not like cheese that reminds me that it has moldy origins. As far as I’m concerned, blue veins belong beneath aging skin, and are not for human consumption. And nothing that smells like old sweat socks, including old sweat socks, should be put in my mouth.

That being said, American, Swiss, colby, jack, muenster, havarti, boursin, mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, gouda, marscapone, provolone, asiago, feta, neufchâtel, paneer, brick, farmer, brie, and the entire family of cheddars are welcome on my palate or in my recipes. In fact, all my recipes contain the instruction, “Add way too much cheese.”(3)

The world should come with too much cheese. I’ve tried to think of a food that isn’t better with cheese, and aside from Asian dishes, all I’ve come up with is ice cream. Now that I think about it, though, I can picture brie and blueberry ice cream being worth a try. Or maybe cheddar and bacon.

I suspect my love of cheese springs from a childhood in a meat-and-potato, cheese-poor home. And when I say “cheese-poor,” I mean “poor cheese” –  Velveeta, those rubbery orange bricks good only for grilled cheese sandwiches and giving pills to gullible dogs.

Photo by Dan Reily
Photo by Dan Reily

The other category of dubious food is fungus. Mushrooms have two marks mark against them for squeamish eaters: They are fungi and they grow in manure.(4)

Our family kitchen also lacked mushrooms, which I didn’t discover until I read Lord of the Rings and learned that they were hobbits’ favorite food. After cautiously trying a few at salad bars, I was a convert.(5) Now I like them raw, marinated, sautéed in butter or wine, or in sauces and gravies – morels, chanterelles, woodear, oyster, cremini, shitake, porcini, or, failing all else, button mushrooms.

These days my favorite fungus is the mighty, meaty portobello. I introduced my husband to these at an Italian restaurant. I informed him that we were having the stuffed portobello as an appetizer, and that he was not allowed to ask the server how many were in an order. I knew his head would explode if he found out that one mushroom cap equaled a serving. When it arrived, imposing and luscious and overflowing with bread crumbs and mold, his taste buds exploded with delight instead.

You may deduce from all this that one of my favorite foods is a pizza with a six-cheese blend and double mushrooms, which I hardly ever get, as my husband is a dedicated carnivore and a fan of veggies.(6)

In fact, I believe mushroom pizza is nature’s nearly-perfect food. I say “nearly perfect,” because it does not contain all four of the food groups: salty, sticky, sweet, and crunchy.(7) Using those criteria, nature’s perfect food is the chocolate-covered pretzel – hold the crickets, please. It contains no cheese or mushrooms, but nothing’s that perfect. You could always eat it for dessert. No, wait, the perfect dessert is a cheese plate.


(1) Although it’s been a thing in many countries for thousands of years. They skip the chocolate in favor of toasting, I believe.

(2) Not the sort that one finds in unsavory locker rooms, though.

(3) It’s about the only way I get calcium, aside from the little chewy supplements.

(4) A relative once had a job picking mushrooms in a cave, a job for which, unsurprisingly, no experience is required. She didn’t last a day. I thought about getting her one of those grow-your-own mushroom kits for Christmas, but restrained myself. Now I wish I hadn’t.

(5) During my Girl Scout days, I would occasionally forage for delectable, easily identifiable morels, but now I indulge in mushrooms for which other people can be blamed, and sued, if I die.

(6) Really, he’ll eat anything you put in front of him, except veal (for ethical reasons). He even taught himself to tolerate okra, which he formerly hated. I don’t understand why he did this, but perhaps it was an exercise in overcoming prejudice, or maybe sliminess.

(7) You can get the crunchy element by making a frico, or by overbaking mac-n-cheese, which I heartily recommend.

The Never-Ending Election

Vote ConceptI’ve been longing for the political season to be over – for the election and the vote counting and the inauguration, so that at least by January, we can all get back to normal life, whatever that is.

Then I realized that this election will never be over.

That’s been the trend with the last several elections. Even after the outcome should have been long settled, the sloganeering and mudslinging continue.

It may have begun back during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when roadblocks were slammed in front of his attempts at health care reform (and is it any wonder, considering that Hillary was put in charge of that instead of beautifying drug-free literate America or something similar?). Then came the calls for impeachment, which Bill prompted by sexual misconduct and lying about it, an age-old practice that no doubt more than a few members of Congress had also pursued. But that was about it for getting anything done that term.

The rhetoric was vicious. Once I was playing a party game in which you had a famous person’s name on your back and had to guess who you had based on comments and questions. The person with the Bill Clinton tag was told, “I hope you rot in hell.”

George W. Bush’s administration was not immune to the plague of hatred, though he had the advantage of calling anyone who opposed him unpatriotic because of terrorism and war and helping the enemy. There was lots of trivia to mock – mispronunciations and shoe-throwing incidents. But there were also more serious accusations that dogged him throughout his administration – that he had stolen the election, even though the Supreme Court said he hadn’t, and the “My Pet Goat”  blank response on 9/11.

And then there came Barack Obama. Commentary and opinions were vicious, both from political pundits and the general public. Some of it was intensely silly – the claim that he and Michelle shared a “terrorist fist bump” and that he had his very own dictatorial flag (which was actually the flag of the State of Ohio, which does feature a large “O,” standing for, well, “Ohio”). But more of it was appalling – comparisons to apes and Hitler, calls for lynching and assassination, and then, when Obama was duly elected, vows from members of Congress to make him a “one-term president.”

Cooler heads called for at least respecting the office, if not the person holding it (though I know at least one person who referred to George W. Bush as “Chimpy McWhistleAss,” then called for respect for “Mr. Obama”). Passing any legislation through Congress proved next to impossible, calls for impeachment were rampant, and Obama was castigated for everything from appointing various “czars” (a common practice and the usual name) to vacationing in the foreign land of Hawaii. Count the number of times he has been called unpatriotic, ignorant, treasonous, tyrannical, obstructionist, poorly educated, racist, Islamic, and evil. I can’t.

So I have not little hope, but no hope that after the election in 2016, the political rhetoric will simmer down. No matter who is elected, governing will be nearly impossible. If Trump wins, his opponents will still call him a failed businessman, tax cheat, and serial womanizer who is unprepared for presidential responsibilities and has stupid hair. If Clinton wins, she will continue to be called a cheat, liar, and traitor, and will be stuck with the nicknames “Hitlery” and “Killary.” There have already been calls for her impeachment before the election is even decided. How can either of them govern with all that baggage to tote?

Will anything substantial be done in the next President’s term in office? Will Congress back down from its obstructionism? Will America be great again or be respected by other nations? Will ordinary citizens stop seeing the government as their enemy and their neighbors as fools? I think we all know the answer to that.

I fear our political system is broken. It was once hoped that the aftermath of 9/11 would bring us together as a nation, but instead we are more divided than ever. What will it take to heal these wounds, inflicted from both without and within? Can anything short of revamping our entire political system, from candidate selection to campaign funding to the electoral college, make us whole again or even patch the cracks?

It would take an extraordinary president, a retreat from partisanship, a calming of the waters, a shift in values – a lot of work from a lot of people who are right now tearing our country apart. Frankly, I don’t see it happening any time soon. But how much more of this division and ugliness can – will – America stand?

Make America Great Again: What Does It Mean?

If you’ve been conscious for the last few months, you’ve heard this slogan from the Trump/Pence political campaign.

But what does it mean?

I’m not a political junkie; I’m a word nerd, so I thought I’d approach the phrase from the perspective of language. I’ll leave the verb out of this discussion (if anyone wants to make a run at it, go ahead). I’ll concern myself with the terms “America,” “Great,” and “Again.”smiling woman with text bubble of american flag

America. What do we mean when we say “America”?

First, and perhaps obviously, we don’t all mean the same thing. Some people define America as “the greatest nation that God ever put on the planet.” But we’ll get to great later. Let’s stick to America for now.

The geography of America really is great. We’ve got those amber waves of grain, mighty redwoods, rocky shores, gorgeous beaches, and a really grand canyon. But that’s just real estate. Without people, all you’ve got is empty space.

So. People. Americans. Now comes some of the language theory. Whatever comes without a hyphen or adjective is considered the norm – standard, real, if you will. Anything with a hyphen or adjective is considered outside the norm and must be defined by that – African- American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American. The language involved implies that true Americans need no hyphen or adjective, and that’s apparently what many people believe –that if you’ve got a hyphen or an adjective, then you’re not really an American, or at least not as American as someone without an adjective or hyphen. Ironically, this means that the original Americans, the people who lived here before the rest of us immigrated, are no longer what is considered standard American. They need an adjective – Native American.

But America is all its people. not just those without hyphens. Immigrants too, which except for the Natives we all are. If the immigrants are illegal, they may not be considered real Americans, but they are part of the American workforce, doing the jobs that other Americans don’t really want because of low pay and unpleasant working conditions – gardening, child care, domestic servants, agricultural workers, and so on. Without their work and their contribution to the American economy, America would be a very different place. Many of them desperately want to become citizens, but even if they do, they’re still hyphenated Americans.

Should they be considered Americans? Right now any of them born in the United States are simply and legally U.S. citizens. The Constitution says so. If that needs to change, so does the Constitution, and that’s no simple matter. What the Constitution really says is to me something that ought to be taught in every American school, in every grade, until the people understand such apparently perplexing concepts as what freedom of religion really means and how difficult it is to change or amend the Constitution. Maybe this was supposed to have been taught, but evidently it didn’t stick with many former students.

For example, the President cannot by himself (or herself) change the Constitution. If anyone wants an amendment that would not grant citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil if they were born to illegal immigrant parents, or to cancel the Second Amendment (to choose two not entirely random examples), there is a long, difficult process involving not just Congress, but the states. A certain number of states must approve – ratify – the new Amendment and have only a limited time to do so. It’s harder than you think. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught in school. No one just waves a hand and takes away birthright citizenship or guns.

Great. All of that leads us to the question of what great means, in the context of America. I think it’s great that America can add new amendments to the Constitution when they think of a great new idea (like Prohibition) and repeal amendments that turn out to be really bad ideas (like Prohibition).

Other things that are great become not-so-great when you take them too far. Strength is great; being a bully isn’t. Free speech is great; terrorist or assassination threats, not so much. (Free speech is another idea that ought to be taught in school. It doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The thing is, you don’t get to be great simply by saying that you’re great. That’s like calling yourself a karate black belt or a tenured professor or a Senator or even a McDonald’s manager. Those are things you have to earn. You have to do great things, like joining other nations in defeating Hitler, or having ideas like “no taxation without representation,” or saying things like “all men are created equal” – and putting them into practice. That’s the tricky part.

Let’s face it, we’re never going to all agree on what “great” means. I may be a great poker player, but to someone else that’s not great, it’s being good at a silly, materialistic game. Another person may scoff at a parent who’s great at planning birthday parties – but that parent is showing love of family and creating something great for others. Is a chef great? Is a food bank volunteer? Is a pro athlete great? Is a high school coach? Many times it’s in the eye of the beholder.

So, is America’s greatness in the eye of beholders? Are we saying great things but not putting them into action? Do the opinions of the rest of the world count? Because a lot of other people and other countries – and some Americans – seem to think that America falls short in some aspects of greatness. Refusing to abide by treaties we have signed. Quibbling over the meaning of “torture” instead of just not doing it. Not doing right by our veterans in terms of housing, health care, and jobs.

Some other countries are greater than we are in certain areas – mathematically, provably so. Many other countries’ education systems produce students who outscore ours in math and reading. Some unexpected countries such as Estonia and Singapore have lower maternal death rates than America does. Are not educational achievement and maternal health great things, and do we not fall short in them? Or is America always great in all things?

Again. The word “again” implies that there was once a time when America was great, but that we no longer are. It used to be that saying America isn’t great was a serious political mistake, but apparently now it’s okay.

To say “make America great again,” (once we’ve figured out “America” and “great”) we must define a time in the past when America was great, that we now need to return to.

So when was that time?

As a character in Seanan Maguire’s novel Once Broken Faith says, “Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there.”

What about at the founding of the country? Wasn’t America great then? Yes, it was a great time of great ideas to build the foundation of a great nation. But it wasn’t so great for anyone who wasn’t a white, male adult landowner. Those were the only people who had much say in what America would be and what would make it great. Imagine if today no one who rented a house or apartment were allowed to vote; if women were the property of their husbands; if there were no laws against child labor and child abuse; if an entire segment of society suffered the cruelties of enslavement. Not so great, eh?

What about the Fifties? Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best? (Never mind that those were Hollywood fictions, not documentaries, and no more real than The Walking Dead or Modern Family.) Again, not great for everyone – domestic abuse victims, children targeted by sexual predators, drug addicts, the mentally ill (which at the time included homosexuals, according to the DSM, the psychiatric “Bible”, and too many others to name. These are not recent phenomena. We just didn’t have names for some of them then, or kept them behind closed doors, unspoken and ignored.

The Sixties? The Eighties? Any decade – any year – you look at, is a mixture of great things and not-so-great things. Can we really go back to the great ideas, accomplishments, institutions, without going back to the wars, injustices, and problems that co-existed with them? Even if we have learned from our errors so we wouldn’t repeat them (a dubious concept at best), can we really believe that the world – that America – would exist in a stasis of greatness with no new difficulties and horrors to face?

Make America Great Again. It’s a great slogan, until you look at it more closely. As always with slippery language, there’s a lot lying hidden under the surface. Let’s drag it out and talk about what it means, and how we really can improve America.

Wouldn’t that be great?


My Love Affair With Amber

Amber is a treasure, a jewel, a gem that I first encountered over 20 years ago and have been in love with ever since.

Amber is also a hardened old fossil. Amber is special like that.

Sometimes I meet a woman named Amber, and I ask her, “Did you know that you’re named after petrified tree sap?” I usually get the smile, don’t make eye contact, back away slowly reaction.

But amber isn’t just a girl’s name or the color of waves of grain in a patriotic song. It’s a rare and precious thing, a thing that brings beauty and delight, a thing to adorn with and admire.

A gem, by any other name. And my favorite one.

Technically, amber is not a gemstone. It’s not a stone at all, or tree sap, really. It’s tree resin, for all the difference that makes. It’s millions of years old, sometimes contains insect parts, and is therefore famous as an important plot point in Jurassic Park.

amber gold
Photo by Dan Reily

To me, the best thing about amber is that it can be made into jewelry and other decorative items. I began collecting amber years ago, when I first saw some at a science fiction convention (it’s also often sold at Renaissance Fairs). A dealer known as The Amber Fox from Rochester, MI, had cases of the stuff, lovely clear yellows like fine pilsner beer, warm golds like orange blossom or buckwheat honey, lustrous brown and gold mixes, cloudy opaques and translucent wonders. Even a few pieces of deep red cherry amber were on display. They were carved and polished and fashioned into necklaces, earrings, bracelets, animal figures, boxes, and dice.

Soon my nose prints were all over the glass cases. And soon I started to buy. I started out small, with earrings. Since then I’ve bought many more earrings, a variety of necklaces, some pins, and a bracelet and ring for special occasions (amber is too soft to hold up well where it will be bumped or scratched, though a minor scratch can be polished out with toothpaste).

Photo by Dan Reily

And the collection includes three special items: a carved amber rabbit and a box made of tiny amber squares that my husband bought for me, and a carved amber bear that I bought for him. Both of us had to save a long time to afford them and they are among our most precious possessions.

We don’t own the most expensive kinds of amber, though, nor green amber, which I don’t particularly like. Amber is more expensive and valuable when it contains insect parts and especially when it includes whole insects, trapped at the moment of their death and preserved for millions of years in gorgeous stasis.

Amber is also more valuable when you have a whole room made of it. One was constructed in St. Petersburg, Russia, but it disappeared during World War II – stolen by Nazis, hidden so well that no one has found it, or destroyed in transport either to safety or to Hitler. In the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, a replica of the room has been made. Images of it are too spectacular to describe – mirrors and lamps amplify the colors and textures. The primary item on my “bucket list” is to travel to St. Petersburg to see it.

I love and collect other gems and semiprecious stones, both jewelry and carvings. Forget diamonds being a girl’s best friend. My best friends include malachite, amethyst, garnet, lapis lazuli, blue lace agate, sodalite, iolite, unakite, hematite, rose quartz, moss agate, and aventurine. But amber is my true love.

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.



I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.

Muse Blues

Where do you get your ideas?

It’s a question most writers have heard. And struggled to answer.

Those of us with blogs or columns get our ideas from daily life – family, news, travel, and what’s going on in the world around us. For example, I’ve written about ratatouille, possums, education, books, toilets, advertising, bipolar disorder, ghost towns, grocery shopping, and feminism, to name a few. Subject-specific blogs get their ideas from (duh!) the subject matter – recipes, medical conditions, politics, or whatever.

But sometimes the muse eludes us. It’s not writer’s block, exactly. That’s when you know what you’re writing about, maybe have even made a start at it, but hit a blank wall. This is the blank sheet of paper phenomenon, or Creative processthese days, blank screen. It gapes. It mocks. It snickers. It yawns. You rack your brain for amusing anecdotes, clever observations, strong opinions – anything at all worth writing about.

We’ve all been there.

But what can we do about it?

First of all, do not ask any friends or relatives, “What should I write about?” Ninety-nine times out of hundred you will get either “I dunno” or something exceedingly lame. That’s why you’re a writer and they’re not. Don’t ask a writer friend either. You don’t want to take an idea that she or he might want to use later.

Look at pictures. These can be snapshots of yourself, nature photos in National Geographic, or other sources. I belong to a photo service that I use to find the illustrations that accompany my blogs. Sometimes I browse through them and see if something strikes me. Mystery writer Sue Grafton even goes to secondhand shops and buys old photos from other people’s abandoned shoeboxes. It worked for Ransom Riggs, too.

Go somewhere. Really, you’ve looked at all the stuff in your house a million times and it’s just not speaking to you any more. Walks in nature often work for Thoreau-types. People-watching in malls and cafés (and, frankly, eavesdropping) can work too. Go to your basement or attic and see if that stirs memories as well as dust.

Read. Read a novel. Read the newspaper. Read your Facebook newsfeed. Someone else’s thoughts can trigger your own. Agree, disagree, explain, apply something to your own situation or town or friends. Read your old blog posts. Maybe you’ve changed your opinion, found a better recipe, or seen a follow-up news story. “Bathroom books” full of trivia and weird facts are good for topics to explore further.

Do research. This is for the truly desperate. You’ve spent all that time staring at a blank screen, and there’s not much left before your actual or self-imposed deadline (if you have one). Treat your topic like you would a research paper in high school or college. How many for-profit prisons are there in the U.S.? Are we the only country that has them? What about the time an elephant was electrocuted? What was up with that? How many raisins are in a box of Raisin Bran? Calculate the size of a “scoop.” (Okay, that was a dumb idea, but you get the gist.)

Google writing prompts can be fun too. Simply enter your name and a verb in the search box and see what Google suggests. One that I got was “Janet has a secret daughter.” Topic: If I did have a secret daughter, what would I want her to know about me? Other prompts: Janet shoulda known better. Janet is a party pooper. Janet loves jewelry. I could write 650 words on any of those.

If you’re getting down to your deadline and nothing else has worked, there are two more solutions. One is to ask one of your blogging buddies to do a guest post. The guest doesn’t even have to write something new for the occasion – an old post from his or her blog will be new to your readers. Then later, you may be able to return the favor and write a guest post, expanding your readership.

The other last-ditch option is to re-post something you wrote when you were first starting out. Maybe you had 50 readers then and 600 now. That means that most of them won’t have seen the piece. And some of them hold up quite well, or will with just a few tweaks.

And once you’ve chased down your muse and found something to write, don’t let her get away again. Write down good titles or one-line drafts. Save the URLs of interesting news stories. Keep digging in that attic, or whatever worked for you this time. Or try a different suggestion.

If all else fails, take Hemingway’s advice: Write drunk. Edit sober.

Political Noise

USA Flag Man YellingA friend of mine recently started a Facebook page called Political Noise. I wish he hadn’t.

Oh, I don’t mind that he (mostly) keeps his political rants on a separate page from his puns, movie reviews, and discussions of pop culture. What I mind is the title. There’s already too much noise in politics.

So much noise that the signal can’t get through.

Wikipedia defines signal-to-noise ratio (or SNR) as “a measure … that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise.” Think of an old-fashioned television set or radio.  When there’s too much static, you can’t get a clear picture or clear sound. At most, you get a snowstorm of non-information or a meaningless buzz.

That’s what’s happening in interpersonal communication these days as well. It’s worse because this is an election year, of course. It seems that whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention. The content – the message – has become irrelevant.

In fact, the content has dwindled to nothing. Words that no longer retain any meaning are flung at the heads of those who are supposed to be recipients of the message. Patriot, citizen, terrorist, liberal, fascist, tyrant, and other, cruder, forms of common words no longer have denotations (agreed-upon definitions), but only connotations (emotional content). Linguist S. I. Hayakawa nailed it back in 1941:

[W]e discover that these utterances really say “What I hate (‘liberals,’ ‘Wall Street’), I hate very, very much,” and “What I like (‘our way of life’), I like very, very much.” We may call such utterances snarl-words and purr-words.

Then there’s the problem of who’s supposed to be receiving the message, the snarls and purrs. Sadly, the answer seems to be, only those who already agree with you. Try as they might, nay-sayers’ voices will not be heard – certainly not understood. This is “preaching to the choir,” not an exchange of ideas. Multiple viewpoints not welcome.

We are all shouting across an abyss and can neither hear nor be heard. The only response is an echo.

If ideas are not in play, surely facts must be. Alas not. Facts are fungible and loaded with political opinions. Want a fact about climate change or voter suppression or welfare, or, god help us, guns? People on both sides can rustle up some statistics from somewhere. There is always a scientist who’s an outlier, or is funded by someone with an agenda. Cherry-picking and rhetorical fallacies (strawman, slippery slope, post hoc ergo propter hoc, appeal to the common man or to authority, etc.) have become Olympic-level sports.

Not only is this cacophony damaging, it is counterproductive. No one convinces anyone of anything by shouting at them. The goal isn’t really persuading anyone else – you can’t do that by telling people they’re evil and stupid. The only goal is reinforcing oneself and one’s own worldview – intellectual masturbation.

I do not think that the situation will change for the better once the election is over. I can’t believe that people will stop, take a step back, and lower their voices or the heat of their rhetoric. The only solution offered for noise is louder noise.

Some of us wish for clearer signals, less interference, a volume knob not that begins at 11. Less shouting and more hearing. Listening. Thinking. Considering. Compromising. Maybe the secret is asking questions instead of yelling slogans. What do you suggest? Why do you think that will work? Whom will that help? How can we best use our time, our resources, ourselves?

I’m not a little old-fashioned lady asking for a little old-fashioned civility here. Empty politeness is not the solution. Real work is – the extremely hard work of true communication. Sharing ideas, not screaming them. Trying solutions, instead of dismissing them. The mental work of trying to understand; the physical work of acting locally; the emotional work of finding common ground; the spiritual work of valuing one another. These are ways to get signals through the noise.

If what we really want to do is communicate, not pat ourselves on the back and vilify others, that is.