Nothing cool about modest ambitions

I’m attending my first conference of writers of any sort, and it isn’t surprising I am having an eye opening experience. The Science Fiction Writers Association is about to hand out this year’s Nebula Awards, and this is something I’ve followed since I was a teenager. Let others care about country music and Broadway plays; I was interested way back when in who wrote the best science fiction.

The organization has publishing standards for membership, and I only qualify as an associate member. This conference is open to non-members, too, but given the cost and programming, you don’t attend unless you are serious about writing speculative fiction. So I really am surrounded by three hundred people all doing or trying to do what I spend my time doing. It scares and excites me.

It also brings my “why do I write” quandary front and center and forces me to confront the part of my dreams I seldom speak of openly. I already know it is admirable and interesting to not care about making money, or to pretend not to care, as the case may be. Being an artist who is driven to create for the sheer joy of it has great appeal. Greed is ugly. Creativity is cool.

Yet, we also have a cultural fascination with being rich, and everyone admires success. To be driven is admirable. To say I believe in my books and trust they will someday be best sellers is also cool. Who doesn’t like a fighter determined to make it to the big time?

Wouldn’t you know it. I’m not either of these kinds of cool.

It is my impression that most if not all of the other writers at this SFWA Nebula Conference want to be successful, and the more successful the better. Those that only care about the pure act of creating have stayed home, or not joined this organization to begin with. Panels on how to sell one’s work abound and I’ve gone to quite a few of them.

Here is my little secret. I want to make money from my books,  just not a lot of it. I want a modest amount of success. As I move into full retirement, I’d like my writing to be there for me, providing a steady stream of play money while not really changing my life. Neither starving artist nor world famous author suits me nearly as well as mediocre success. That’s what I really want. It’s not something you can tell people.

My books started out on a reasonable trajectory to do just that, by the way, but in the noisy market of ever more sparkly self-published books, sales have already fallen below the level of play money, unless one is willing to count a nice lunch out a month as sufficient play. It isn’t for me. I was hoping for something between a dinner at a really nice restaurant every couple of weeks and a couple of trips a year to somewhere exotic. Maybe both. I’m not selling myself short; I’m going for what I actually want, uncool as it is.

Here’s the problem. The last couple of days have made me aware that I am unlikely to find even this modest financial fulfillment unless I make some changes. Those wiser and more successful at this self-publishing thing have told me it can work if, and only if, I plug myself more firmly into genre sales. I need to define what I write (superhero books? urban fantasy? metaphysical fiction?). Then I need to research what other books in this genre look like and I need covers that look like my genre. Then, I need names for my books that define them as being in my genre. Then I need to reissue them.

No one, at this point, has told me I have to rewrite the books themselves, which is good news because I’m not sure I’d be willing to do so, even as I fear lovers of superheros or urban fantasy will find my books lacking in the dazzle they expect. But maybe not.

I’ll never know if I don’t try. My books have more than met my first three reasons for writing, leaving me entertained, saner and more knowledgeable. Can they also provide me with an unimpressive but noticeable amount of play money? I hope so. Guess I’m going to try to find out.

Speaking of being cool, that ties into my fifth reason for writing. Ironic, huh? How did my muse become so entangled in such contradictory desires? I’ll try to sort it out in my next post.

(Read more about why I write at The Number One Reason I Write Books , My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing and I write because it’s cheaper than therapy.)

 

 

Review: The Three-Body Problem

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the  desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.

If I’d only known then …

I’m making an effort to get out more. Specifically, I’m working to engage with other writers, both in person and online. I want to broaden my base of knowledge before I start on my next writing project, one I hope will keep me happily making up stories for many years.

It occurred to me today, while listening to a woman describe to us how she sold her first novel to HarperCollins, that much of what writers crave to know is “what do you know now, that you wish you’d known then.” We give this advice, and we ask it of others, almost endlessly.

I found myself visiting with the woman next to me, who is on chapter one of her first book. “Who is it you are writing for?” I asked her. It’s a question I wish I’d spent more time pondering, back when I was in her shoes. If I’d only known then how helpful that question is. I tell her so, and she nods in appreciation. She is doing what we are all doing at this meeting –  gathering little grains of information from others to soften our learning curves.

Our speaker is Heather Newton, author of Under the Mercy Trees, a book about a southern family. She lives nearby, and published Under the Mercy Trees in 2011 after spending years writing it. She is now sending her second novel to an agent to market.

Yikes. I started writing in 2011 and have written six books since them. I’m certain mine are not of the same literary quality, but I wince when I hear her best nugget of what she wishes she’d known back then. That’s right, she thinks she rushed too much, and sent her first book out before it was the best it could be, squandering opportunities to impress. There is a wisdom in that, of course.

One of the oddities of self-publishing, especially electronic books, is that it can be a never ending process. Hidden typos that reveal themselves can be fixed at any time, and all recipients point forward get the improved manuscript. The first time I made such a fix I felt guilty, like I was cheating by correcting something supposedly etched in stone.

I’ve long since gotten over that. Why penalize myself and my readers for having missed something initially? It serves no purpose.

In my case, my books were born with links to supplemental material, such as music and photography that tied into the story. I thought it was clever and fun, but it gummed up the works for some readers and turned out to be almost impossible to maintain. So, over the last couple of years, I’ve been going back and eliminating the links and the references to them. In the process, I clean other things up too, as I find them, because why not.

I am almost done with this process on d4, the last of the books to contain links. I’m pleased with the result, and will probably do some advertising and giveaways to celebrate this new and improved manuscript. What a shame I couldn’t have gotten this final version in front of my initial readers. Wouldn’t those reviews be better? More copies have been sold?

I can’t go back in time, any more than I can see the future, no matter how often I write about characters who can. Would I have written better books if I’d only known then what I know now? Of course I would. Hell, I’d have lived a whole better life with that kind of knowledge.

Or, at least I like to think I would have.

 

 

When the future becomes the past

 It was the most likely and the least messy alternative. As she realized that, it became a near certainty, and then the wave of time washed over the moment and the soon-to-happen became the now and it then it became the past…

Of all the things I wrote in d4, this is the one scene I remember the best. I feel this wave of time washing over me whenever long anticipated moments finally happen. In that instant, all the worries and fantasies and hopes and dreads suddenly don’t matter because it has happened the way it will and I feel a magic in that transition.

Yesterday, I published One Too. It’s done, it happened, the water has drenched me and moved on and now there is only the story of how it was. I’m still acclimating to the fact.  Readers can find my book electronically and in paperback now (and for Nook and through iTunes in a few days.)

Above right is one of the many iterations of the d4 cover that was not used. This one featured a wave inspired by the excerpt above, but although the wave lasted in my memory, it didn’t make the final cut. I like the lightening bolts and clouds, but the eye in the sky was a bit much. Jen at Mother Spider and I struggled with this cover almost as much as we did with the cover for z2.

Below, are a few of my favorite excerpts from the new book, along with links to the blogs nice enough to host my work last week. I wonder if any of these scenes will stick with me two years later like my image of the wave of time did.

Lola’s quiet moment of gratitude is interrupted by a armed men in a mysterious black SUV on Author Linda Nightingale’s blog.

Ariel explains to her family the ways she can, and cannot, see the future at Readeropolis.

A dour Irish psychic tries to come between Lola and her daughter at Let Me Tell You a Story.

Violeta is frightened during an icy conversation with her boss’s lawyer at The Avid Reader.

A man afraid of the telepaths of x0 decides to stoop even lower to get the information he wants on Author Deborah A. Bailey’s blog.

Lola and Alex make a pact to keep no more secrets from each other at Sea’s Nod.

Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know

We are all human, analog creatures, never completely this or that, and we all slide in and out our of better selves as we make our path in this world.

Every so often I write something I like. I reread it and think I’m not sure where that came from but that’s profound. Then it passes, of course, and I go on writing normal stuff.

I had that experience when the lead sentence here showed up while I recently wrote a post about world peace for my qigong instructor and friend at Flowing Zen. None of us are completely this or that, and it’s worth remembering in our current heated political climate. It’s also worth remembering as we each reach inward, embracing ourselves for what we are.

What I am is a worrier, among other things, and I know in my heart that it is tied to my story-telling abilities. If you want a mind that makes up exciting scenarios from everyday events, well then, you get a mind that sees exploding cars, intricate scams and paranoid plots around every corner.

But there are limits to how much worrying a healthy person can do, and, to be honest, recent events in the international arena have catapulted my concerns to an unhealthy level. That’s where coping mechanisms come in.

Last November, I developed a new habit to calm my mind. I already do qigong, which is wonderful for creating calm, and I do a good bit of yoga as well. Gardening helps also. But sometimes I’m sitting at my computer and I read something disturbing and I need a quick reboot without leaving my seat. Sort of an “instant calm.”

And that’s when I play solitaire. I go to the World of Solitaire site, zip through a two minute game while breathing deeply, and somehow I’ve trained myself to emerge calmer. I don’t know why it works, but for me it does.

“Where do you the get the ideas for what happens in your stories?” It is a question I get asked. Okay, I do get many ideas from the things I worry about happening. But every once in awhile, I am able to get one from something that kept me from worrying, like in the scene below.

I got a real kick out of how my psychic hero Ariel finally sorted out a particularly complicated set of future probabilities. I hope you enjoy it too.

She wandered back into the hut she shared with Teddie and Vanida, and sat the kitchen table. She was trying to save the last bit of battery on her phone and her computer, so she aimlessly dealt out a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards that had been provided. She had played the game years ago on a computer, which made it more fun because it was easy for the player to redo moves.

But this would work to relax her. She started the game, doing the obvious first then moving on. Okay, now put the red five on the black six. Wait, which red five? They were identical choices. She went down one path. Not so good. Try the other five. Much better. She’d win going that way.

Geez, this game is like my life with premories, she thought. One choice is insignificant and another makes all the difference and you can’t tell the two kinds apart. And, you can’t tell which of your important choices will yield a good outcome for you because it’s not always about good decision making. Sometimes it really is random.

She kept dealing and thinking and replaying and after awhile she wasn’t so much paying attention to the cards as she was in a sort of trance. Teddie was the Two of Clubs and her mom was the Queen of Hearts and for some reason she was the Nine of Spades. The man who ran Reel News was the King of Diamonds, of course, but there were two of them; no, not really, the Jack of Diamonds was pretending to be the King which made no sense.

The worst of it was that the Ten of Clubs was trying to get that Jack to kill Queen of Hearts who could only be saved by the King but he wouldn’t know it and the Jack of Hearts who was Nell could stop the King of Diamonds but only if the Queen of Clubs who was Yuden did some random thing she probably would not do.

Ariel leaned forward and put her head between her knees and took deep breaths until the dizziness subsided. She could do this, use this, to see the arbitrary combinations and how the little things worked together in ways in she’d never understood before.

She dealt again. And again. A different sense of how events tied together began to connect for her as she used the cards to sort out a complex tapestry that would have confused her logical mind.

After awhile Camille came in and lit the gas lamp, saying nothing. A little later Fernando brought her a sandwich. She mumbled thanks but never touched it. She just kept playing.

Not long after Teddie and Vanida tiptoed by her as they went to bed. Sleep came early in a world without electricity. By then, every card had taken on at least one identity or location or time. Some had many of them. It didn’t matter. After a while the confusion subsided and the interrelation of all of them made perfect sense to something deep within her brain.

(Images shown are from the various victory images used at the World of Solitaire website. They add an extra bit of fun to the game.)

(For a companion piece to this post, see Worry about those you love and write about what you know.)

That’s Why You Make the Trip

img_3402Cinnamon on oranges and cumin on boiled eggs. The inside of a walled city so confusing that it has spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to directing lost tourists. Surfer towns painted in hippie colors and seaside resorts caught in a 50’s time warp as they offer hospitality to a smattering of elderly Europeans.

None of this is what I expected when I came to Morocco.

This is a blog about predicting the future, and over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the unexpected. Three of us have just spent some time in Marrakech, and now as we leisurely make our way to Casablanca we have three nights to spend on the road. One of us wants to simply drive and stop when we feel like it, with no research ahead of time and no plans. Us other two have agreed. For me, planner that I am, this will be a true exercise in embracing the unexpected.

img_3345The first night we land in Agadir, the vacation spot for aging Anglos. Our adventurous non-planner has become ill, so he rests while two of us walk along a boardwalk under the watchful eye of an old but festively lit Ferris Wheel. We order pizza from a Lebanese restaurant on the beach. My vegetarian version is covered in eggplant and is some of the best pizza I have ever had.  Okay, I didn’t see that coming from Morocco. Back at the hotel, I go searching for something to calm the stomach of my sick friend. The kitchen staff barely understands me, but they insist I take plain rice and “water with gas” for him at no charge. They also insist that it will help, and it does.

The next day we move north along the coast, sticking to the small roads that keep us in view of the sea. The surfer town where we stop for lunch has people wearing clothes that fully expose their limbs. Something deep within me wants to stay longer in this part of Morocco, and live on the beach in a tent while I write deep brooding novels that I’m already sure will far exceed anything I’ve written yet. Okay, maybe someday I’ll come back and do that.

img_3371We’ve been advised to be off of the roads by nightfall, but as sunset approaches we are nowhere near a sizable enough town to have obvious lodging for strangers. Luckily one of us speaks some French, the second language of Morocco, and he is able to talk to a young man in the street who sends us to the town’s only open restaurant which also serves as an auberge. I didn’t know what an auberge was, but it turns out that this fairly common form of lodging is somewhere between a B&B and a hostel.

The young Moroccan working at the auberge is quick to offer us local beers. Fresh fish is a possibility for dinner, but when he has trouble communicating the kinds of fish that are available he simply brings me a bucket of everything that has been caught that day and asks me to pick one. Turns out I don’t know a sea bass from a grouper, so I point and hope for the best. We dine gazing at miles of desolate beautiful coastline with a sunset behind the mixture of cliffs and beaches that could fill dozens of different postcards and no two would look alike. My travel companions are generous and let me end up with the room that literally hangs out over the ocean, and I have one of my most memorable nights ever as I sleep to the sound of the sea.

img_3453Our last day takes us north into the greener, more populated and more industrial part of the coast. This time we turn to Lonely Planet for lodging ideas, and at sunset we find ourselves in a traditional Riad inside the town’s walled city but overlooking the lovely Oum Er-Rbia river (which translates as‎ “the mother of springtime”). I get the small bedroom with my own flower-covered terrace and consider what this sort of privacy and beauty would cost me for one night in the United States. I don’t think I could afford it.

I don’t often eat meat, especially when traveling, but for my last night in Morocco I opt for the adventure of a beef tagine, where the meat is steamed in a special clay pot to make it particularly tender. I’m hoping for couscous and vegetables with it and my French speaking fellow traveler tries to find out what else my tagine includes. He finally gives up. “I don’t know what they’re saying. It keeps sounding like prunes and that can’t be right.”

But it is.  I get the most tender beef brisket imaginable served with a mess of very tender stewed prunes on top. It’s delicious. Who would have guessed?

img_3431The next morning I get a final surprise as we try to do a little last minute shopping. We didn’t consider that the market in this town would not be like the markets of Marrakech but rather be a place where men and women buy small treats and cheap plastic items much like they would on a Saturday morning back home at Wal-Mart. Yes, there are more motor bikes than cars, more women wearing scarves loosely over their heads than not, and there is more fresh-picked produce and whole carcasses of animals than I am used to seeing ay my local supersaver, but otherwise this could be the small city I live near now or the Kansas town where I grew up.

Why in the world would you want to go to Morocco? I did get asked that question, and I understood it because I had heard about the pushy sales techniques in the markets and the difficulties for a female traveler in a Muslim country.

img_3363But I went to taste the fig jam and the mint tea. I went to discover the things I didn’t know, like how you can see a dozen or more goats in a tree, chomping on the argan fruits.  I went to see the amazing graffiti painted on the crumbling ruins along the coast, even if I didn’t know that was why I was going.

I went because I didn’t know what I would find.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI see ghosts, It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

Bulletproof

Every so often one finds a song that they really like the first time they hear it, and they still like it dozens if not hundreds of times later. I’ve got a few of those, and La Roux’s “Bulletproof” is one. So when I was assembling my largely-female-indie-artist playlist for d4, I was delighted when my music expert recommended it.

Why so much love for this song? It’s always hard to say why you like something. I’m a “words” person when it comes to music, and the lyrics are just so clever. You’ve met this guy. You know this lady. You’ve seen the dynamics. But it’s more than that. The very concept of being bulletproof appeals to something deep within. It doesn’t just mean being immune to his manipulations. It also means not being afraid of icy ski slopes or catty store clerks or traveling alone. The lyrics speak to me about being stronger; for the next presentation at work, for the next nasty book review, for the next thing that strikes fear into me whatever it is.

Yet it is more than the lyrics. The infectious beat and sing along melody is part of what make it all work for me. I found this video from a live performance at the Isle Of Wight Festival in 2010 and it captures every bit of that. I can hardly keep from waving my arms along with the crowd while I watch.

No, I can’t explain why I like this song so much. But I hope you enjoy it too, as well as the short excerpt from d4 showing how I mentioned the song in my book.

She decided to take Friday off work, and Eoin did not object.

“Any special plans?” he asked.

“No. Just preparing,” she said. He didn’t ask for more.

The day turned out to be one of those unusual winter days when the sky is bright blue and the temperature climbs into the sixties. Ariel smiled at her good fortune as she took the little car the company leased for her and headed north out of Dublin, planning to drive for as long as it sounded good, and then to stop and do yoga somewhere along the shore.

Ireland doesn’t have much in the way of sandy beaches. Much of the coast is ancient granite and volcanic remains, and much of its rocky core is old limestone, formed from the remains of tiny sea creatures that led happy lives nearly half a billion years ago, back when Ireland was located near the equator and no mammal had yet set foot on the Earth. Ariel reached for her music, and spent a minute picking her song. She decided on “Bulletproof” by La Roux; it was the perfect choice.

 She drove far enough to find a rocky bit of shore that was deserted, spread out her mat, and worked on clearing her mind. The poses came to her in a random sequence, without thought. The table. The cat. The bow. The plough.

Her goal was to calm down, and gather her strength. To make herself as bulletproof as possible.

Downward dog into a cobra into a sun salute and repeat it again. Warrior poses. Low warrior. Warrior two. Warrior three. She had skills, she had advantages, and she had back-up. She finished her routine concentrating on balance, holding a strong tree pose while she gazed at the far horizon.

She was ready. Now, she needed to go do what needed to be done.

You can also listen to or buy La Roux’s “Bulletproof” at Amazon.

A radio wave is that long?

emsRadioWavesOne of the things about writing magical realism, at least the way that I do it, is that you are always trying to explain mystical, magical things in terms of believable science.  I am fascinated by this fuzzy boundary between the astonishment of the enchanted and the astonishment of what modern science tells us.

I had great fun learning more about the simple radio waves that keep me so entertained while I drive, and then tying this information into my theory of how precognition works. Enjoy the excerpt below, taken from a conversation held when my prescient hero Ariel first meets the Inuit Siarnaq, who shares her gift.

Then when you are done reading, let NASA tell you a few surprising things about radio waves.. 

“So we must be tuned to different frequencies!” Siarnaq continued on, pleased with his discovery. “You understand science. You understand radios.”

“I studied them in school, don’t remember much.”

“Well, I work a lot with radios. They are an important part of communication here in my world. Do you know how long a radio wave is?”

“Long. Like maybe feet long.” Ariel was pretty sure of that.

“You people still know what AM radio is?”

Ariel rolled here eyes. “Yeah. It’s the stations you turn to for sports.”

“Okay,” Siarnaq agreed. He pointed out the window. “The waves for AM radio are like from here to that building down the road.”

“Really? That big?”

“Your FM radio waves?” he went on. “More like just from me to you.”

Ariel got the analogy. “So I’m an FM radio seeing things more closely and you’re an AM radio seeing things further away. How cool is this? What are other waves? Microwaves? Longwave radio? Are there other kinds like us, but in other frequencies?”

“I don’t know,” Siarnaq shrugged. “Lots of other Inuit tell the future, but they all use tools for their fortune-telling, and no one seems as sure about their predictions as I am.”

Would you be illiterate?

booksThere was a time, a mere few hundred years ago, when most adults could not read or write. Literacy was the domain of the rich, and of others with power, like clergy,  healers and scholars. And while the ability to read did not automatically confer power, it was a stepping stone of some value.

Fast forward four hundred years. Even today, denying any group a basic education is equivalent to denying them power in society. But the world has grown far more complicated.  Along with flush toilets and stain removers, we have new kinds of literacy. Computer literacy, for starters. Older adults who refuse even the basics of email and cell phone usage are slowly relegating themselves to the sidelines. On the other hand, those of any age who bother to learn the basics of nutrition, medicine, law and even geography are better equipped to navigate life. Knowledge isn’t power, but it is one of the prerequisites. We choose ignorance at our own risk.

moneyYet of all the types of literacy we can benefit from, none seems to be more intimidating even to intelligent, educated people than the one that ties directly to power: money itself. This amazes me.

My financial education began several years ago when I was laid off by the company I worked for for two decades. Along with the expected problems, I found myself with a 401K plan that had been quietly growing in the background. Lucky me. I had the option of leaving it where is was, but I was far too pissed off at the company to leave any of my money in any thing that bore their name. So silly anger inspired me to learn enough to make a roll-over into an IRA. That wasn’t the end of it though. Most of the funds in the IRA were still in the hated company’s stock, which was now doing very well given that Wall Street always loves a good lay-off. So, I sold the stock.

bankersI quickly discovered that the investment community was (1) quite good at finding people in my shoes and (2) quite persistent about letting me know how well they would treat me and my money if I would just turn everything over to them. The louder they clamored, the more cautious I became.  I figured that if so many people wanted to handle my investments so badly, it had to be a very good deal for them. Which meant it probably wasn’t a particularly good deal for me.

Slightly paranoid contrarian that I am, I decided to learn to handle my own investments. I figured I had two years of college calculus. I could explain special relatively to my sister. If all of these guys calling me could all understand investments, so could I. How hard could it be?

Well, I made a lot of stupid mistakes. The good news was that I made them in little tiny increments, because at least I knew that I didn’t know much. I made baby-sized bad investments and itty-bitty good investments. Yes, I did make only a pittance off of stocks that did great because I’d only invested a pittance to begin with. I let a lot of cash just sit there doing nothing while I made spreadsheets and read a lot of stuff I didn’t really think I cared about on the Fidelity and Motley Fool websites.

27-Courage-Quotes-14I did sign up for some services that make recommendations for individual investors. Some were so much of a rip-off that they ought to be shut down. Others were useful and I began to pay a little more for their more elite recommendations. I learned to hold my nose at terms like “preserving wealth” and to buy stocks in companies I didn’t like. I learned to sell stocks I did like. I played with stops and limits and then I experimented with short-term trading. I tried basic options investing, learned how to by higher risk corporate bonds all by myself, and checked out index funds. As long as I only used a little money at a time, and kept track of absolutely everything, I discovered that I could learn a lot.

So. I wasn’t rich before I started and I’m not rich now. I think for all of my effort I about match what the S&P has done over the seven year period that I’ve been doing this. That is fairly remarkable, considering all the dumb mistakes I made. I could well have pissed away what savings I did have, but caution and variety were my friends.

high-frequencyBut wait. I’m way richer in one way. I’m now literate about money. Me, who always thought the stuff was kind of evil even though I liked to spend it. What’s more, I find that I understand the politics of money better. I get how those with wealth can make more wealth and not even realize how easily they are doing it. No evil intended. I get how our system is skewed toward the investor. I get the reasons this is good, and the reasons why this makes our society increasingly lopsided, and allows some of those who are talented and hardworking to still be barely able to get by. I’m not powerful, but I’m literate in a language of the power, and that matters.

Why mention this on a writing blog? Not to brag; I hope there is no bravado in this tale of me stumbling along powered in part by mistrust and in part by anger with a former employer. Rather, I want to share a second facet of this that baffles me.

What I know makes its way into my writing. You’ll find geology in x0 and physics and anthropology in z2. And you’ll find a fair amount of information about wealth in y1 and some basics about the the stock market in d4. Some readers could do without this sort of thing, and I respect that. I do try to keep my fun facts short and relevant to the story. Other readers seem to enjoy them, which is nice. I’ve received praise for my bits about the South Pacific, about anti-depressants, about the sex trade, and the Buddhist path to enlightenment. Only the stock market seems to leave people cold.

“I skimmed over it.” “I don’t understand that stuff.” “I don’t care about money.” It seems that readers, both friends and total strangers, have the biggest block of all when it comes to learning about the financial world. I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest teacher. But the same people who gamely followed along with entanglement theory and immigration law had a much harder time opening their minds on this subject. That’s cause for concern.

In a world with increasing income disparity, and with the jobs that create wealth the fastest coming from the financial sector, doesn’t it behoove us all to understand that “sector” a little better? I think it does. It’s not that complicated to learn. And while the ability to understand investments will not automatically confer power, it will be a stepping stone of some value. Knowledge isn’t power, but it is one of the prerequisites. We choose ignorance at our own risk.

You don’t need to know this stuff because you have a little money to invest. You need to know this because your world is increasingly run by those that do.

 

Putting your mother’s fears to good use

Ariel is in her mid-twenties and is adept at yoga. I’ve practiced a much simpler version most of my life, and only recently begun to explore the art more. I’m now taking classes, learning to breathe better, to chant, to try harder positions, and to be open to the unexpected.

There was such a surprise on Friday. “We’re going to go back to when you were in the womb.”

“We’re going to what?”

Apparently I was attending a class for a branch of yoga that believes that we inherent issues from our ancestors in general, and from our mother in particular during gestation. In fairness, maybe all branches of yoga believe this, I’m not sure.  Anyway, the goal of today’s session was to heal some of the problems arising from our pre-birth experiences.

“That’s ridiculous,” the cynic in my head says.

“Oh be open,” I reply. “Give this a try.”

As my breathing slows, becoming deeper and more regular, I recognize that I do know quite a lot about my mother’s state of mind when she was carrying me. She was afraid, very afraid that she would lose me. She’d had two miscarriages already, and she and my dad had begun talking about adoption.

I feel her fear. I breathe. I tell her it’s going to be okay, I will be her first child.

zig ziggler 2But wait. She’s scared about more. She’s scared that I will be born, and will change her life in ways that do not entice her. She’s never particularly liked babies, and she feels bad about this. She has a job she loves, directing the content at the local radio station.  She’s good at it too, and obviously will be quitting soon. Some guy not half as capable as her will take over, and get to do all day what she loves.

She adores my dad and their dates, she loves to dress up and fix her hair to look like Liz Taylor and go out to dinner and have “highballs”. She likes trying to be glamorous, she’s driven to have a lifelong love affair with my father. A baby is not going to make that any easier.

Oddly enough, I am not at all bothered by her ambivalence at my arrival.  It makes sense to me. When I had my own children, I was conflicted about work and child-raising, but I had choices.  She has none and it seems a shame. I understand why a part of her dreads my birth. I want to tell her that much of it will be okay.  She will come to love me, she will do a reasonably good job of raising me, and decades later we will be friends. She’ll never get back her career, but she will keep my dad’s love and do many other interesting things.

I tell her that I think she should let go of the guilt about the way she feels. Unfortunately, I also know that wrapped in that guilt is another layer of fear. She is afraid that her lack of enthusiasm is somehow causing the miscarriages. She is driven to please my father, and having children is very important to him. If she loses me, she strikes out for that magical third time. She will be deemed not capable of producing his child, as they move on to adoption. The adoption will really be for him, because she is even less excited about the prospect of raising the child of another woman than she is about raising her own. But she will do it, for him, even though she is afraid that she will do it poorly and that he will think less of her because of her failures.  So much fear, so much worry.

“It’s really going to be okay,” I tell her. “You’ll have a second daughter eighteen months later.” I know that problems in that pregnancy will convince her not to try for more, but my father will adore his two children and be content. Raised in a highly patriarchal rural culture, he will insist that he has the perfect family and he will instill confidence in his two daughters and give them every opportunity. I will benefit greatly.

“See? It’s all going to be okay,” I assure my pregnant mother.

“You never lose the emotions that overwhelmed your mother while she was carrying you,” the instructor says. “But you can learn to work with them, and mitigate them.”

Seriously? Okay, maybe I am a little inclined to worry. I do fret a bit about all the possibilities. In fact, when I wrote about Ariel’s premories and how the futures she sees the near fringes of probability cause her distress, I was thinking about my own tendencies to imagine less than likely possibilities and get concerned about them. “You know, a tornado could come through and blow that thing over.” That sort of thing.

Good grief.  Am I life long worrier because of my poor mom? That seems a very unfair thing to lay at her feet.

True voice 7Of course, all that worrying about the outliers is where my stories originate. Every plot, and every plot twist, comes from the same part of me that frets about finding a bear in the woods. The instructor has moved on and in fact the entire class is moving into the restful meditative savasana pose that finishes each class.

I know that I am now supposed to clear my mind. Let my thoughts turn into wisps of clouds that move on in a bright blue sky. But I have one thing I need to say first.

“Mom. Just in case this guy is right and you’re the source of these crazy worry stories that fill my head and my life and my books, I just want you to know that I’m putting all those fears of yours to really good use. So thank you.”

That’s it. On to wisps of clouds and blue sky and total relaxation.