Science Feed

What's the Motive? Martha Crites

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Debut author Martha Crites is a fellow finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award. She handles the tricky topic of mental illness with great care and intelligence in her mystery novel Grave Disturbance. Here she discusses how motive can shift and change over the course of the writing project.

Martha Crites:

Lisa asks, “What’s the Motive?”

I can only answer, “Motives change.” 

Did I intend to take on the stigma of mental illness when I wrote my first mystery, Grave Disturbance? Not at all. I just wanted to see if I could write a novel. So, in the time-honored tradition of write what you know, I gave my sleuth a job in the mental health field, like me. Not my exact job, but one a little more exciting. Grace Vaccaro is a mental health evaluator who sees people in the field to determine if they need to be hospitalized as a danger to self or others. I now know that writing a novel is a big project, and my motives have changed over time. 

Here’s what happened: When Grave Disturbance was first published, I found myself, like all new authors, needing a little elevator speech to tell about my book. Something like: After a filmmaker working on a documentary about native land rights is murdered, mental health professional Grace Vaccaro realizes that a woman she evaluated may have been a witness. Grace and Liz must sift truth from delusion to unmask the murderer before he kills again.

I had no idea that I would observe the stigma of mental illness first hand when I began to mention my protagonist’s career as a mental health evaluator. People became quiet and uncomfortable at the topic. So, I gave a lot of thought to how to talk about it and decided to mention the issue of stigma up front, at the beginning. Somehow, it helped my listeners find a new lens through which to view the story. 

Since Grave Disturbance came out, I often give presentations at libraries. We talk about how I wanted to portray Liz, the character with mental illness, as fully human, a person with talents and hopes, dreams and disappointments. But more than that, I tell them about my current novel-in-progress, which is now taking the stigma head on. I tell stories about the inspiration for a character in my work-in-progress: Marsha Linehan, the University of Washington therapist who bravely faced stigma by telling the story of her own illness to the New York Times after years of silence.

The result? Now instead of silence, audience members ask questions about psychosis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more. They tell me about their experiences with family members. We have a conversation I never anticipated, a conversation that is helping me form my second Grace Vaccaro novel with a much clearer idea of my motive.

What I love about the mystery genre is that it can combine entertainment with important issues like mental health, homelessness, and the history of treatment of Native Americans in our region–all in a fast-paced novel that keeps the reader turning pages. And afterward we can talk about it.

Review Grave Disturbance on Amazon or Goodreads

Follow Martha Crites on Facebook or Twitter

  Marthacrites

Martha Crites has worked in community and inpatient mental health field for twenty years and taught at the Quileute Tribal School on the Washington coast. Grave Disturbance was a finalist for the 2016 Nancy Pearl Award. 


What's the Motive? Ellen King Rice

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Debut author Ellen King Rice explores the mysterious world of mushrooms in this "What's the Motive?" post. A former wildlife biologist, Rice discusses epigenetics and the genesis of her character Edna Morton, who one day begins to sprout feathers.

Ellen King Rice:

Proteins. That was my motive. Thank goodness for you, dear reader, I wasn’t interested in high fiber at all (your inner life of fiber is, please, Dear God, your business). For years I’ve been curious: why don’t we see people breaking out in feathers? Feathers, after all, are made of the protein keratin. We produce one type of keratin in our fingernails and hair, so why, oh why, couldn’t a ‘mature' lady break out in angelic feathers instead of coarse chin hairs?

From my years as a biologist, I knew that all life is in a state of constant experimentation. We also know that there are ancient pictographs showing people with wings. Is it possible that there have already been people with feathers? Could that be the origin of our angel stories? 

As I mulled over the idea of modern bodies changing to produce a new protein, I realized I would need a trigger for this new pathway. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider before changing into Spiderman. What could I use? 

One day I was making my tortuously slow ambulation out to the mailbox when I saw a flush of mushrooms peeking out from the undergrowth. Hmm. Could mushrooms trigger anything in a person? I went inside, mulling this idea. A few minutes of Internet searching and . . .  Holy Mother of God! Fungi are everywhere! (There are molds in the shower with you when you are naked and alone. Very creepy.) Not only are there millions of species of molds, yeasts, and mushrooms lurking everywhere, but some of the species absolutely have the ability to unspool dormant portions of human DNA. I had my trigger. 

I began writing The EvoAngel in 2011. It was a stop-and-go process because a very new science was unfolding daily in the news: epigenetics. All DNA for all species has the ability to respond to environmental changes--and the really gobsmacking amazing thing? Once a DNA section is activated or stored, that change can be passed down to subsequent generations. I was writing a gallop through the woods of the Pacific Northwest as a fun thing to do. The more I learned about epigenetics, the more I realized how important it is for everyone to understand this new science. 

Ever beat yourself up? Ever struggled to lose weight, be happy, quit drinking soda pop, or be less anxious? There can be a genetic aspect of each of these struggles--and, even more powerful to know, is that the responsible genetic switches can be jiggled from “on” to “off.” This is huge for mankind. It means that many things that have been regarded as “moral failings” are, instead, part of our cell structure. Furthermore, we don’t have to surrender to the situation. We can take charge and change--and we can do so in ways that will make our descendants healthier and stronger. 

Alas, some of the science is more than a little tedious (Go ahead. Try murmuring “DNA methylation at the Cytosine juncture” into the ears of your beloved and see if you garner anything more than snores.) If I was going to keep readers interest on the science of feathers, mushrooms and epigenetics I clearly needed...lots of sex. Oh, dear. Could I really manage that? Hmm. Villains could help. So might a large adorable dog. 

Buoyed by the reality that barnacles really do have an inflatable penis that is fifty times longer than the average barnacle body, I did my best to add in enough sex, villainy and puppy charm to keep the pages turning.

The end result is a story about an elderly mushroom hunter, Edna Morton, who has sprouted a feather. A trip to the local health clinic exposes her to an ambitious and aggressive physician who wants to take control of Edna and research this new biological oddity. The EvoAngel is a good gallop through the woods of the Pacific Northwest. It is part adventure, part science class, and totally fungi-friendly. My motive is to change the way you see your body and your world while making you laugh, gasp, and blink. All these things go well with a glass of wine and a slice of cheese, so prepare yourself and let’s begin...

Review The EvoAngel on Amazon.

Follow Ellen King Rice on Facebook.

Ellen King Rice photo

Ellen King Rice is a former wildlife biologist whose fieldwork was ended by a back injury. She has reinvented herself as a writer, artist, and chocolate tester. Besides Amazon, her book can be found in Olympia-area retailers Orca Books, Island Market, and Bay Mercantile. She hosts Mushroom Tuesdays on Facebook. See www.ellenkingrice.com for more.

 


Sex-Positive Research for Sexy Mystery 'Bound to the Truth'

The armory
The Armory. 

 In case you missed it, the third book in the Dreamslippers Series has a sexy theme. Cat and Granny Grace must find out who killed up-and-coming architect Nina Howell. Her wife is convinced a libertarian talk show host is the murderer. Following the clues takes the dreamslippers into what in another novel might be labeled Seattle's "perverted dungeon" or "dark underbelly."

 But not in Bound to the Truth. After a decade in Seattle and a lifetime studying human behavior, my position is that there isn't anything inherently dark or perverted about sex. And by sex, I mean the activity engaged in between two consenting adults that may or may not have anything to do with procreation but could include any number of "kinky" behaviors. Spoiler alert: Through the course of the novel, Cat explores a shop selling bondage gear, she and her grandmother go undercover in a sex club, and several characters confer on lingerie and sex toys.

 Readers of the series will know this is not shocking new territory for me. As I've said on social media, book one was about religion and sex, book two art and sex, and book three politics and sex. Septuagenarian heroine Amazing Grace is sexually active and forthright about her trysts; twentysomething Cat is exploring her sexuality as a new adult. These women own their desires and act on them, apologizing to exactly no one.

 HUGE CAVEAT: The sex scenes happen mostly off-screen. This is NOT erotica. This is NOT porn. Sorry to disappoint you. Now, continuing on with the discussion...

 Readers of the blog know I've been highly critical of Fifty Shades of Grey, which utterly fails because rather than challenging its audience in any way, it allows readers/viewers to preserve their judgmental prejudices against the kink world and the presumed "broken" people who inhabit it. They can naughtily dip a toe into the world but then ultimately reject it, just as the vanilla protagonist does. With Bound to the Truth, I wanted to treat kinky people with the respect they deserve, rendering a realism that I hope not only transcends cliché and judgment but results in fully developed characters and concerns. 

 While Fifty Shades served as a sort of negative inspiration, and my writing on this book started as a reaction against it, here's a peep show of my research sources for this book, all positive inspirations.

 News flash to any Emerald City resident who hasn't discovered this yet, but when Cat observes in Bound to the Truth that "Seattleites as a population must quietly be getting their freak on in the bedroom 24/7," that comes from first-hand experience. Enter the city's decidedly online dating scene for two seconds, yes, even as a middle-aged divorcée as I was, and you're immediately barraged with a cornucopia of kinky come-ons. After thirteen years straight of committed monogamy, it was eye-opening, to say the least. If you have single friends who are also dating, you compare notes and see the same. 

 I owe a debt of gratitude to Savage Love syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who not only writes intelligently, compassionately, and wittily on the subject of sex but also launched a brilliantly curated alternative porn film fest. I've attended a couple of Hump Fests, which seemed to both sell out, and I highly recommend them.

 When I wrote as a freelancer for several Seattle publications, I had the opportunity to interview University of Washington sex expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz. A well-respected academic with a long list of accomplishments, the occasion for my interview with her was the publication of her tell-all memoir, which chronicled her experiences entering the dating pool post-50. As you can see from my choice of subject matter and character, Dr. Pepper had an influence. The piece was one of my most popular, too. Originally published in Seattle Woman magazine, it was linked to by Crosscut, where it was in the top ten for traffic that year.

 While I never joined a sex club, I did talk with people who have, and I also toured The Armory in San Francisco. You might recognize the signature building in the image at the top of this post. The Armory is a sort of castle of kink. Tours are open to the public, and knowledgeable guides wearing nothing sexier than street clothes will lead you through many a porn set. The building itself is worth the price of admission even if you profess a distaste for porn; the Moorish castle was completed in 1914, with much of the stone staircases, wainscoting, and impressive corridors intact, not to mention access to an underground cave, Mission Creek running below the structure.

 I also toured the Erotic Museum of Barcelona, but who wouldn't do that on her honeymoon?

 The drag and burlesque communities deserve credit for shaping my thinking on sex. In Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, you can catch first-rate live shows in which respectful, supportive audiences embrace a diverse spectrum of lovely people on stage in various states of dress, dancing in a variety of suggestive ways. Most notably for me is Seattle's Nerdlesque. In fact, I'm still pondering my affection for and confusion over "burlesque Carl Sagan." Affection because he was one of my childhood nerd crushes. Confusion because I'm not attracted to women, but this gal was a dead ringer for my beloved astronomer, so...

 I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Laura Antoniou's mystery set in the middle of a kink convention, The Killer Wore Leather. And Seattle's sex-positive culture in general for its art shows, film screenings, articles, workshops, and overall work toward making sex something that can be talked about without stigma, shame, and danger. If we could free ourselves from those chains, then the ones some people put on just for fun become simply that.

 I hope you enjoy Bound to the Truth. You can pre-order it, and Amazon will magically deliver it to your Kindle on the day of release. Or Barnes & Noble will mystically transport it to your Nook. Or, or, or...

 Now tell me what you think of all this in the comments! What turns you on? I mean in terms of literature, people.

 


Guest Blogger: My Secret Writing Walk, or How Spirituality Guides My Writing Life


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by Alexis Donkin

LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.

I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?

I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.

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Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.

So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.

This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.

I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.

Seriously.

I do that even for social media posts.

As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.

Alexis_fiction

I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer. 

My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).

My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.

 

AlexisdonkinAlexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.

Connect with her here:     Twitter     Facebook     Pinterest     Blog


A Moth and Mortality: Flying Back from St. Louis on the Day of the Massacre

Jun 14, 2016

It seemed to rest there, on the windowsill.

This Sunday I flew back to Seattle from St. Louis, MO. About half way into my return flight, so two hours in, a moth fluttered up out of nowhere and beat its wings against my window glass, then came to rest on the sill. I'd never seen anything like it before. It was strange, watching a moth try to get out--where there was no getting out at all. 

I was still reeling from the breaking news about Orlando. 

Just two days before, someone close to me told me he believes that homosexuality is wrong, that Jesus said it is a sin for a man to lie down with a man. When I lived in St. Louis twenty years ago, I was a progressive student activist, and a fighter by nature. My intellect had been forged by the rigors of a Jesuit education, I knew what was what, I was out to save the world, and I'd acquired a silver tongue for debate. Back then, I would have Taken. Him. Down. And I have--over the years, we've had some shut-outs, let me tell you.

But these days I'm more interested in being happy than I am in being right. In our limited time during my visit, I didn't want to spend it arguing about politics. I try to approach such differences with patience and expansiveness. I knew I wasn't likely to change his mind, so I told him I couldn't disagree more but that I respected his right to his beliefs, as long as he didn't violate any laws. I thought it was interesting that he said that if he were a baker he would gladly bake a cake for a gay wedding, as that's business, but that he believes homosexuality is a choice, and the wrong one.

It's hard when someone you love seems to judge others for their love.

I couldn't help but think of our conversation when I read the first reports about Orlando. But on my own social forums, I was speechless. My silver tongue had no words. Then a good friend posted to his Facebook page something beautiful and sad and just right:

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A few nights before that conversation about whether or not homosexuality is wrong, I'd had this strange experience while driving around St. Louis late at night. Like a panic or anxiety attack, I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and my hands went damp. These symptoms coincided with a very clear realization: That I would one day cease to exist. Now it could have been triggered by the heady experience of being back in a part of the country where I practically grew up, having lived there from junior high up through high school, college, and for six years of adulthood. I kept comparing everything to twenty years ago--the city itself, which has changed dramatically, my family members, my friends. I've changed a lot, too, and not just in my penchant for debate. But it wasn't just that. I felt the unfairness of mortality. While I have no regrets about the choices I've made, I think like most people I've spent too much of my life in anguish over being hurt, or angry at those who've done me wrong, or worrying that I'm not good enough or skinny enough or I'm not this or that. There is so much I want to do, and I don't want to waste any more time in a comparathon or with people who don't return back the energy I spend on them or in berating myself for failings, whether real or imagined. Because it could all be gone, the time I have left to do the things I need to do. Like Ernest says, in the flash of a disco ball.

Today I read through some of the bios of the Orlando victims, looked at pictures they'd posted to Facebook and elsewhere. They were all so young, so beautiful. Did they know it? Did they feel it? They stare at the camera, some of them, as if to say, Do you see me?

I assumed the moth was just resting there on the windowsill of my plane, and I looked forward to seeing it flit outside with all of us when we exited. I'd even considered ways of helping it find the front door. But then I saw that it was listing unnaturally, off to the side. Its antennae quivered, then stopped. When it died, it lost its hold on the sill--and fell.

My husband tells me that when the police stepped into the club, there was a cacophony of ring tones coming from the cell phones of the dead. All those loved ones on the other line. Are you there? Are you OK? Please tell me you're OK. Please. I love you.

I think of the yogi's words in a video I've practiced to for twenty years. "Love is what's left when you let go of everything you don't need." Let's do that now, let go of everything we don't need. That's a lot these days, but look at what we'll have left.


What I'm Reading: Capacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw Mystery

Capacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw MysteryCapacity for Murder: A Professor Bradshaw Mystery by Bernadette Pajer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting read that will scratch two itches if you're a lover of history and science. Three if you're also mad for mysteries. Pajer is a skilled researcher who blends historical and scientific facts into an engaging story of murder and mayhem. Through the perspective of the thoroughly likable Professor Bradshaw, readers become immersed in a seemingly impossible-to-solve case. Impossible, that is, unless you're in tune with both scientific detail and the darkness that drives some to extremes, as he is. At times his excessive rehashing of the facts can feel tedious, and the female characters come off less developed by comparison. But this academic sleuth is a compelling, sympathetic guide through a fascinating moment in the history of electrical technology, as revealed through the crimes of the day.

View all my reviews


The $6 Million Dollar Man in Today's Dollars

 

The other day I thought about how much I wish I had a bionic spine, and I remembered that back in the 70s, they totally promised us bionic everything when "The Six Million Dollar Man" debuted on television. Here it is 40 years later, and still no bionic dude.

The show only ran for four years, but in the monoculture of the time, everyone watched it. We kids fantasized what it would be like to have superhuman powers, which seemed well within the reach of science. "We can rebuild him," the narrator intones. "We have the technology." This is a great example of what I like to call "hand-waveology." Whenever science is used to further a plot without tackling sticky improbabilities like resource scarcity, return on investment, or actual scientific laws, the writers are sort of waving their hands, expecting us to accept it, no questions asked.

The other thing about the show is that it suggests technology can turn us into a better version of ourselves. Not some clunky inhuman cyborg but a man who's only a robot on the inside, where it doesn't mess up his man-ness, and the robotics only serve to make him stronger, faster, less vulnerable. And all for only $6M. I can remember that sounded like a lot of money back then. It doesn't anymore.

I wondered what that $6M would be in today's dollars, and it turns out it's $29,118,985.80. So the remake would have to be called "The Thirty Million Dollar Man." 

Of course, if they really did try to "rebuild" an astronaut today (LOL), assuming he's given permission to use his body as a science experiment (apparently not an issue for 1970s viewers), and assuming for the sake of argument that the technology actually does exist, it would probably run at least a billion, and there'd be cost overruns and delays. It would cause a huge controversy in a number of areas: government spending, the whole scary robots-taking-over-the-world-thing, the ethics of experimentation, etc., etc. There'd be lawsuits and counter lawsuits. #whyamisocynical #howcouldinotbe #thatisall


Embodying Good Health

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My husband and I, at the peak of our acroyoga practice.

I've been writing weekly wellness articles for a local "movement studio" where students can take yoga, a sensory-based dance class called Nia, tribal belly dancing, and meditation. I'm a member of Embody and can be found there nearly every day. The owner is running a 90-day fitness program, and the articles I'm writing are part of an exclusive newsletter for those who sign up for the challenge.

Ironically, I've been sick nearly the whole time I've been writing these. Along with a number of others I know in the community, I succumbed to a bug that doesn't seem that bad at first, just a cold, but then it takes up residence in your lungs and won't leave. 

The struggle to write about wellness while feeling not-so-well aside, I've enjoyed tackling topics that are near and dear to me. These have ranged from how to create a network of support for your physical practice to the health dangers of sitting. Because I've practiced yoga in studios for about 15 years now, I bring that experience to bear on my subjects. For example, in this piece on the emotional component of integrated movement practices, I reflect on the multitude of expression I've witnessed and experienced in my classes:

Once a woman who reeked of cigarettes plopped down on her mat during a Bikram yoga class and refused to get back up. She lay there, heavily breathing through the rest of the 90-minute sequence, tears streaming down her face. In vinyasa yoga, I've heard people giggling uncontrollably, or making satisfying 'mmm' noises. I once shared a class with soldiers who'd recently returned from war, and there was an audible moan coming from more than one of them. I've seen--and I've felt--anger, sweetness, pain, happiness, struggle, release; in short, the full spectrum of human emotion.

It's something to be tasked with providing health advice to others. As I've researched, interviewed, and thought about wellness issues, I've learned a lot, too. For me the biggest challenge is in the area of self-acceptance. I should give myself the assignment to read my own article on this topic at least once a day, because it's easy to forget that skinny does not equate to healthy and that weight might actually be a sign of health. It's kind of ridiculous that we have trouble wrapping our minds around this since other cultures embrace these concepts naturally. But damn, is it hard not to judge that body in the mirror when it doesn't conform to societal stereotypes.

The best part of writing that piece, by the way, was including my stepson in it. He LOVED the tribute.

Those of you who read my blog regularly know I've discovered the benefits of living close to my food source here in rural Washington, where I've purchased grass-fed, organic beef, pasture-bred lamb, and of course, organic vegetables right from the producer. I've spent more time than most thinking about food due to allergic sensitivities, and it was gratifying to share my insights in the newsletter devoted to healthy eating. I think it really is as simple as these five rules: 

  1. Avoid Food Fads
  2. Eat Close to the Source
  3. Go for Variety
  4. Lifestyle Changes, Not Diets
  5. The Key Is Prep

Since I'm not a biological mother myself, I had to step outside both my comfort zone and my own experience when I wrote about how your physical practice can carry you through the life stages. It was fascinating to hear Embody Owner Christina Wolf discuss how she juggled opening her studio and becoming a new mother at the same time. Because I'm here at life's middle stage facing the aging process myself, that one was more accessible.

We have just a few weeks to go in the challenge. Next I'll be writing about the histories of Nia and yoga, as well as the importance of sleep and how to keep going once the challenge ends.

There's a true sense of community at Embody. While I've been a part of yoga studios in the past where the owners and teachers pay lip service to "community," but you could practice there for years and not really feel it, Embody's community is genuine. Maybe that's because the small-town setting fosters it naturally, but I also think it's because people here really mean it.

 


Undercover Christians, Part I

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my debut novel, Cat in the Flock, the protagonist goes undercover in a fundamentalist Christian church, where she finds redemption and goodwill amidst hypocrisy and lies. To write this world convincingly, I drew upon some powerful real-life experiences.

First were my familial relationships with fundamentalists, most importantly the in-laws from my first marriage. My ex-husband's family was conservative Lutheran, the type who listened to Rush Limbaugh and agreed with him. We prayed before every meal, even in restaurants. Children in the family were given--sans the permission of their parents--picture books for Christmas that refuted evolution. Once I was invited to join in a photo of all the women in the family, a grouping of  "moms and future moms," as if that was the natural and sole identity of any woman. And no one thought to ask me or my husband about our family plans; it was just assumed.

I remember my then brother-in-law, who is a math teacher, once set up his telescope outside, providing us with a stupendous view of the craters on the surface of the moon. "Whenever I see something like this," he said, "it confirms my belief in the Lord." I envied his conviction, even if I didn't understand it. 

But as certain as the majority in the family were about their beliefs, they were loving and respectful to those of us who didn't share them. They really were Christians in every sense of the word, kind and warm and incredibly giving. They worked hard, played fair, trusted in their God, and comforted each other in times of grief. I felt welcomed by them, one of the family. 

And I knew where they were coming from, despite my liberal/progressive/political college days and young adulthood. I'd grown up in very conservative environments, and while my military father was at best agnostic, my mother was a loyal Catholic who dragged all four of her kids' butts to mass on Sundays whenever she could, without my father's help.

Now there's a huge difference between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, as my former in-laws would be the first to tell you. I remember getting a bit of anti-papist sentiment at family gatherings. One member of the family scoffed at a Catholic friend's offer to light a candle for him, and when I shared stories of my brother playing with the kneelers in our church pews, a family member snottily remarked, "Well, we certainly don't kneel." I had been raised haphazardly Catholic, was never confirmed, and hadn't set foot inside a church in years, but that remark made me want to show up at the next family gathering swinging incense and dowsing everyone in holy water.

But like my in-laws' Christian beliefs, my mother's Catholicism trended toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Furthermore, and she will probably berate me for sharing this, but she became even more conservative in the 1980s thanks to the PTL Club. Yeah, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's shows broadcast like mad in Sacramento, and my mother, left alone to raise us while my father was off on TDY to South Korea, climbed into that clown car and thought for a while she was among friends. But we don't have to judge her for this. Who among ye hasn't been momentarily led astray, especially during hard times?

Unfortunately for me, this coincided with a burgeoning junior high-aged discovery of music, and thanks to the Bakkers, and a silly stunt pulled by Ozzy Osbourne, I came of age only to find that all the most enticing music was now off limits. So the PTL Club made its mark on me.

Still, I credit the Catholic faith with saving my mother during a traumatic time in her life. Her journey back to God is one I deeply honor and respect. And my own political activism was founded within the Jesuit tradition. Like Cat McCormick, I graduated from St. Louis University, and I still hold a great deal of respect for Jesuit education (my own was rigorous and query-based) and the Jesuit tradition of service. 

All of this was in the background as I wrote Cat in the Flock. While my own beliefs, such that I have any concrete ones, sway far from the fundamentalist fold, I admire those who find redemption and liberation through a closer walk with God, however that manifests.

In Undercover Christians, Part II, I'll describe another inspiration for Cat's fundamentalist church undercover work: My husband really did go undercover in the Ted Haggard church. Yes, that Ted Haggard.

 


#FridayPoetry: The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

Namaste

 

The God in Me Salutes the God in Her

 

I’m training to be a shaman, the secretary said,

and it was the third time in three days I’d heard that word.

Shaman. Where we work, stock brokers 

have claimed the word rainmaker. 

 

She believes in fate and omens,

someone to watch over us, 

send us signs, make the pain 

mean something.

Her god tells her three times

to buy a house in Bremerton, across the Sound:

First in a dream, second through a friend, third in the paper. 

 

But she would have to take a ferry each day.

Her god doesn’t say anything

about the bankruptcy.

It is the mortgage broker

who tells her she can’t get a loan.

 

She fluffs auras for extra money, her own 

in need of polish, care from kind hands.

She gives me her bleeding pages

because she thinks I am a poet,

sent from her god to bandage wounds. 

I am to show her the path to poetry, to words

claimed in one fast breath

chewed in another.

 

No one ever watched over me, 

or I wouldn’t know her pain

so intimately. The gods inside us

were small as sesame seeds,

straining to listen 

for the word Namaste.

 

Or maybe they were big gods, after all—

an array of radio telescopes,

so large only a vast desert could host them.

 


What I'm Reading: Larger Than Life

Larger Than LifeLarger Than Life by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very moving, intriguing story - a fantastic bridge into a lot more to come. This short work is a good intro into a story about three generations of women driven by their love of science and their love for each other. I look forward to reading more.

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What I'm Reading: Weed the People

Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in AmericaWeed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America by Bruce Barcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly important book. Barcott does an exemplary job of outlining the repression and misinformation perpetrated by U.S. authorities on the subject of marijuana's effects and its validity as a medicinal aid. His reporting becomes most poignant over the travesty of justice that has been our criminalization of marijuana users. Well-researched, the book's nonetheless a brilliant, and at times, hilarious page-turner. And make no mistake: Barcott doesn't pull any punches. A reluctant experimenter and skeptic himself, he argues caution for teens, whose developing brains really are not suited to handle the drug, and offers a warning to an industry that could let its cavalier attitudes ruin the grand experiment.

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Why You Should Always 'Keep Looking Up'

Palau looking up

 After battling jet lag and a formidable language barrier, conquering a few annoying ailments, getting scammed at an ATM, being yelled at by an indignant Catalan waiter, and finding ourselves in the middle of a street protest, we could have called our honeymoon a disaster. We could have moped around like a couple of Mericans, wanting our money back or cutting our trip short. But we didn't.

Instead, we kept looking up.

It's a valuable and simple message, "keep looking up." PBS' Jack Horkheimer, AKA "the star hustler," used to sign off every episode of his show with that mantra. The man could rock a Members Only jacket AND knows his Betelgeuse from his Van Allen Belt, so he's worth paying attention to, even posthumously.

 

It's a good thing we took ol' Jack's advice, or we would have missed the Palace of Catalan Music. Or in the local tongue: Palau de la Musica Orfeo Catalan.

I was twice moved to tears by sights in Barcelona, and this was one of them.

Especially for a structure as old as the Palau, which was finished in 1908, it's full of whimsy, as if a pastry chef dancing to the music of "Fantasia" were let loose in a concert hall with a bag of icing. Life-sized pegasus horses emerge from the corners. Chandeliers tilt at jaunty angles. A row of musicians are rendered half in bas relief and half in 2D on stage, as if the drawings have somehow come to life. Those who perform here describe hearing these musicians behind them.

Palau X rosettes

Palau pegassus

Palau X chandelier

Palau X musicians

And above it all, a globe of stained glass, like a giant sun, illuminates everything, allowing natural light and color to make the theater glow.

Palau X dome and sweep

Like La Segrada Familia, the Palau exists solely on private donations, and also like Segrada, it is an example of the cultural pride and passion for the arts that exemplifies Catalonia. The grand choirs of the turn of the last century were the inspiration for its creation, and a roster of world-class performances continues to fill the space with sound befitting its visuals.

I'd go back to Barcelona just to see a concert there.

By the way, I once saw Jack Horkheimer, the star hustler himself, in person. I lived in Miami at the time, and he was the director of the planetarium there. I'd noticed his Member's Only jacket in front of me in line at the Winn-Dixie, and when I walked outside, there he was. It was nighttime, and you know what he was doing?

Standing there in the parking lot, looking up.