Wednesday, July 27, 2016

No sh!t, the Ice Bucket Challenge actually worked, because of course it did, jerks.

I go to twitter today and see, next to the tragic news about Syria, this story about how "The Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Worked."

No shit, I say. No shit, it worked, and all you assholes who complained about the sheeple with their pointless viral video campaign for charity look like...well, assholes who complain a lot. 

As someone who worked for a few years raising donations, let me explain why. 

I spent hours each week calling potential donors for my small women's college. Some were on a yearly donor list; some were on an occasional donor list; some were cold calls to people who'd never donated. 

Some of the callers were absolutely lovely. Some were busy and donated just to get me off the phone. Some were interested to hear the news updates but didn't want to or couldn't donate. Some people on the inactive list were happy to donate at whatever level they could manage.

And some were horrible. You would not believe some of the abuse I got as part of that job. Well, maybe you would. You're reading this on the Internet, after all.

Because, whaddya know, people don't like to be called up and asked for money. They feel pressured, or their dinner got interrupted, and then they threaten to get your phone number and stalk you at home and harass your family. (Yes, that happened, though to be fair it wasn't the alumn herself...it was her husband or boyfriend or father or somebody.)

BUT, but, but, if you make it a fun game, something they can volunteer to participate in that is silly and fun and doesn't feel pressuring, they're a lot more open to giving. I know, right? Shocker. 

And if you come up with a genius idea like the ice bucket challenge which encourages people to tag their friends, you don't even have to spread the word yourself! Because it's all part of the game and people will do it for you because they want to. 

Anyway, I hope that explanation of why "The Ice Bucket Challenge Actually Worked" was sufficiently sarcastic and condescending to explain why to all the too-good-for-this sarcastic, condescending asswipes who bragged about not helping a worthwhile charity for a horrible condition because they didn't want to follow the mainstream.

Good day. I say, good day.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Diverse Reads Review: Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly

Harmonic Feedback is a YA Contemporary novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who loves music. As a musician, it was gratifying to read a book about teens who love making music. One of the characters is a pianist, so that was awesome. Even more awesome was finding a book that represents disability in YA literature. Since my own sibling has ASD, I was looking forward to reading this book. 


Summary

16-year-old Drea has lived everywhere with her mom, who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and drags Drea across the country with her. This is especially hard for Drea, since her Asperger's Syndrome already makes it hard to have friends. Deciding that being lonely is better than rejection, Drea loses herself in her music: producing mixes and manipulating sound with her computer and collection of guitars. 

All that changes when they go to live with her grandmother. Drea must navigate the social minefield of high school while she deals with having real friends, and possibly a boyfriend, for the first time. 

Review: 4 stars! FYEAH!


I had a few problems with this book, but let's get to the good stuff first!

Harmonic Feedback felt like an honest portrayal of what it's like to be a misfit. Drea's symptoms are pretty mild, but even when she's coping well, she is constantly thinking about what her life would be like if people "knew" about her. She doesn't want to be defined by her disorder, but struggles to communicate with neurotypical people who don't know how to make adjustments to how Drea thinks, speaks, and acts. Drea also has to deal with social awkwardness, ADHD, and anxiety. Reading Harmonic Feedback was genuinely stressful. The descriptions of panic attacks had my heart in my throat.

A lot of this book is about not putting people in boxes. Used to being put in a box herself, Drea starts to do that with other people. She's standoffish and assumes everyone else is a "normal" jerk, because that's easier than approaching people and being rejected. She's forced to question that way of thinking when it comes to Justin and Naomi, her friends and band members. 

The author has ADHD and has a sibling on the autism spectrum. While "Asperger's Syndrome" is now a dated diagnosis (it's since been lumped in with Autism Spectrum Disorder), Harmonic Feedback is a thoughtful and honest portrayal of a character with AS who's just trying to live her life.

And now for the bad...spoilers abound.

On Justin



After Drea accuses Justin (our love interest) of being Mr. Conformist with his Nike shirt, he dresses as a Goth the next day -- mimicking her style in order to mock her. He thinks it's a big joke.

Of course, what he doesn't know is that Drea makes her own clothes because she's poor. Drea also processes sensations differently and can't stand the feeling of jeans -- hence all the skirts and velvet and general "goth girl" look.

So the rich kid Justin goes out and buys a whole new outfit specifically to mock this girl who doesn't fit in because he thinks she maybe sort of made fun of him. It's part of the book's message about not putting people in boxes, but damn if I didn't hate Mr. Love Interest for the rest of the book. 

The book's only queer character, Naomi, also gets a "put in her place" moment brought to you by Justin. After she tells him she kissed Drea, Justin scoffs and asks: did she think she was the first straight girl to kiss another girl for shock value? Naomi responds by saying, how do you know it was for shock value? We were alone, and I don't put my identity in a box. 

But Justin (our rich, straight, white male love interest) just says that Naomi can't possibly be queer because he has excellent gaydar and he would know. Her identity must meet with his approval and belief in order to be valid.

Yeah, on second thought, fuck Justin. 

On female friendships vs. romance

Justin is at the center of most of my problems with this book. If this had been a book about Drea and Naomi and their friendship of opposites, I would have liked it a lot better. But Justin comes between them, and together he and Drea make Naomi feel like an inadequate third wheel, which leads to the book's tragic climax. 

I guess I'm disappointed that this started as a story about a female friendship and ended up ruining that with a romance. Hell, if this had been a romance between Drea and Naomi, I would have been on board. But the book is littered with other examples of people picking their love interest over their friends, and the narrative does nothing to trouble that. Drea describes female friendships in the most derogatory, sexist way you could imagine: overhearing girls gossiping about each other in bathrooms, friendships being defined by backstabbing and hatred, how girls always turn on you, how Drea doesn't want to mix with those "common denominator" girls...

And OK, so Justin does have some redeeming qualities. He's a pianist. He has an autistic niece. He cares about family. He's nice to Drea once they get to know each other. He's also one of the few male characters you'll find, especially in YA, with rape as part of his backstory. I should just take the book for what it is. 

But there's also an anti-drug message running through the novel and that only makes me hate Justin more, if possible. 

On Drugs and the Bury Your Gays Trope

Justin, our Mr. Love Interest, has a drug-riddled past. But because his parents are rich, he got rehab and a second chance in the main plot of Harmonic Feedback. Our privileged straight male love interest gets to be redeemed, while Naomi, who also struggles with drugs, has to be punished with an overdose and death. 
Yeah, Harmonic Feedback kills off its only queer character with an accidental overdose because the narrative had to punish her somehow, and the characters were reading Go Ask Alice in English class so...the author wanted that tie-in? I don't know. Even the circumstances of the overdose felt massaged to get the "punishment" ending. Someone says that a meth dosage that can make one person tweak can give another a heart attack, and that's all the explanation we get. 

Naomi, a junkie who is dating a drug dealer, apparently didn't know that. Which I don't buy. The narrative doesn't even let us wonder whether it was really a suicide via deliberate overdose. That would at least give her some agency in the narrative. But, no. She's just a plot device. She's disposable because she's not part of the romance, and extra disposable because if you have no black characters to kill then it's time to Bury Your Gays. 

Conclusion

Despite all the negative things I just said, I really encourage you to read Harmonic Feedback and decide for yourself. The writing is phenomenal. I particularly liked how Drea describes music. And you know I think it's good because I dislike first person, and I rarely praise a first-person narrative voice this highly. It's up there in my top three with first-person character voices I just loved. 

Morality tales about drugs aren't really my thing; in my opinion, we already have Crank or, if you must (sigh) Go Ask Alice. Even Go Ask Alice presents a more nuanced and compassionate narrative about teen drug use than Harmonic Feedback. HF's harsh outlook on drugs and drug users comes partially from Drea's objection to her own medications: she would give anything not to have to take meds, so why would someone who's already "normal" want to alter their state with drugs? 

It felt like Harmonic Feedback was not just anti-drug, but anti-all drugs, even prescription drugs that could help Drea. In this book's view, anything that changes your authentic self is a bad thing. In that light, I'm willing to forgive the book...a little.

While I could barely stomach Justin and only ended up liking him by the end of the novel, I have to admit the romance was a good read. It was about Drea discovering herself and her boundaries, mental and physical, and learning to let go with another person. Because so much of what Drea feels is intense due to how she processes sensations, the sensory writing and focus on how feelings connect to the physical was just...wow, inspired.

And despite Naomi being a plot device who falls victim to the Bury Your Gays trope, she was a vivid character who acted as a great foil to Drea. Their friendship, though it ends tragically, is genuine.

Welp, that's my review. My feelings are mixed. If you've read it, let me know what you think in the comments. 

I tried to write a story with a gender-neutral protagonist

I wrote a horror story today. 

I needed a break from the other stuff I was writing, so I wrote this. I like it a lot. But I ran into a problem early on: what gender is the protagonist?

I couldn't decide. And I was on a writing roll, so I didn't want to stop and take the time to decide. I figured that if I wrote and the need arose to identify the character by name, or have others identify them, or have them use the bathroom, I'd decide then. Perhaps some other aspect of the character would reveal itself to me and I would determine gender based on that. 

It was a horror/supernatural story, but it was also a revenge story. Both those genres tend to have tropes strongly associated with gender. As I wrote, it became less about discovering the character's gender than it did about the exercise of writing a character who had no specific gender. This character could be male, female, or nonbinary. Perhaps they are nonbinary. I don't know. 

I didn't really want to deal with the particular issues that would arise from tropes in this kind of story if I picked a gender. But also, I sincerely didn't know what gender the character was or should be. I tried not to let it affect the writing. 

Writing gender-neutral scenes is way harder than it sounds.

It's far easier in first person, at least. As long as the character was alone, it was easy to write without gender. The challenge began when I introduced them to other characters. Male characters. Teenage boy male characters hanging out with booze and drugs and having a good time.

Because people treat men and women differently. They treat nonbinary people differently still. And people of different genders tend to react to certain situations in a way that acknowledges or signals their gender. 

I didn't want to decide the character's gender, but I found myself wondering: did I unwittingly give this character male privilege in "his" interactions with these other boys? Are the other characters treating them in a "neutral" way or is there some signal that "she" is a girl? Does the fact that the character doesn't worry about their safety when they get into the car with the bad guy signal that they are a boy, not a girl or nonbinary? Or is the character so focused that they don't care? Would readers be willing to believe that a brother could be close to a sister, or would they gender the protagonist a girl by default because they believe women form stronger bonds? When the protagonist cries, would readers believe they are a girl?

I'm probably overthinking this. 

My point is that so much of what we assume about character development and appropriate character behavior comes from a gender baseline. Maybe I'm just more aware of this. Or maybe I'm just prejudiced in some way, I don't know. I know that boys can cry and girls aren't always close to their sisters. But I also know the stereotypes -- and trying to write without invoking those stereotypes was hard.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Examiner is gone (and so are all my reviews)

Well, this is frustrating.

Examiner.com was a crowd-generated entertainment/opinion/"news" site where I reviewed books. I reviewed books there since college, and while it didn't exactly make me millions I enjoyed it.

In June I got an email from Examiner after a long break from the site. It offered an incentive for returning writers through the end of June. I figured, hey! Why not? and wrote them some bitchy reviews (and few nice ones as well). What was really nice was the fact that they'd updated their quality standards since I'd left. 

One of the reasons I left was the subpar content; I was putting a lot into these reviews for very minimal rewards while other people wrote 200-word, highly biased, often grammatically incorrect pieces about dog abuse or celebrities and made hundreds-and-more dollars a month. When I returned to the site, I was one of the contributors whose content was consistently high-quality. I thus wasn't subject to the new mandatory review process. I could write when and what I wanted. And after publishing an audiobook review, I got someone from a publishing agency asking if they could add me to their review email list thing. 

In fact, Examiner was the main way I got attention from publishers and authors for my channel and this blog: they added me to mailing lists and sent me ARCs to review. I decided I was going to write a lot more reviews and put a lot more effort into them. It would be great. 

Except that a month after they sent the email to woo former contributors back to the site, Examiner announced they would be closing. Their parent company, AXS, would turn the former Examiner into a ticket sales and music entertainment site. Music and entertainment examiners whose content categories fit the new brand have mostly been able to stay. The rest of us, not so lucky.

Which is, I guess, fine. Online news has changed, blah blah blah, get with the times, blah blah. Only I found out about this too late to save any of my reviews, and that's my work down the drain, thousands of words with no way to recover them, and I'm pretty cheesed off about it. 

"Contributors should take steps to secure their content" and "Examiner is not responsible for content" well OK, maybe I should have checked my email every five minutes like everyone else on the planet. But from what I gathered from iMediaEthics.com, there wasn't much time between the announcement and the disabling of the Examiner site. In June they were promising rewards to returning writers; on July 1st, you could no longer post. 

More seriously, Examiner fucked up by sending an email halfway through July reminding writers to write an article in order to retain their active Examiner status. Usually I start publishing halfway through the month when I get that reminder email. So I saw that, went to Examiner, and found it'd been changed to AXS. And that all my content is gone with no way to retrieve it. 


I can go to WayBack and take a screenshot of a list of my reviews, but there's nothing more recent than 2015. I can use WayBack to find the last update to the general book review list, but the links to the reviews themselves haven't been archived. Which makes an archive of a list of content you can no longer access pretty fucking pointless for a service that advertises itself as preserving "free knowledge for everyone."* Even my grad student research skills proved useless. (If anyone has any suggestions, though, I will owe you cookies and/or alcohol, forever.)

I can at least use WayBack to get a list of the reviews I've written. Maybe try to recreate them. Who am I kidding? I don't want to do that. The thought of doing that much rewriting, some of it for books I don't even remember that well, is literally nauseating just to contemplate.

"But Laura," you say, backing away nervously as I make gagging sounds, "maybe you should calm down. You've made, like, what, 30 dollars from Examiner? Ever? Why do you care so much?"

BECAUSE I WROTE THE WORDS AND THE WORDS ARE GONE. Oh, sure, some of that's my fault and I could have prevented it had I saved my content in time. I suppose they're legally entitled to do whatever the fuck they want with contributor content. I clicked the terms and conditions box, after all. When I got booted from the ezine BrightHub.com during a spate of downsizing, they actually kept my articles. Which were still up there generating pageviews for them. Some of them on the front page of the zine. Which I think is kind of shitty. 

But perhaps the Examiner thing upsets me more because Examiner has always pitched itself about being contributor-oriented, powered by local writers writing local content. Even the shittier, highly biased content was kind of inspiring, in a "we value everyone's opinion who has taken a writing 101 course and also here's this community, forums, and tutorials to help you improve because we genuinely care about writers. But when we change hands, we'll delete all your content and offer you no way to retrieve it. Oh, you were on vacation in early July like HALF OF FUCKING AMERICA? Too fucking bad! Should've checked work email instead of relaxing with your families, suckers!"** 

I suppose that after a string of weird and/or bad freelance experiences that placed very little value on the work writers do, I'm particularly fed up. And not just because after June this felt like a "LOL PSYCH" moment by Examiner/AXS. I didn't make any kind of money from my book reviews, but at least I could have saved and published them elsewhere. Like here. And now I can't, and I have to change my blog's "Reviews" page because fuck me if AXS will get a single click from this website, and--

tl;dr: I'm just really pissy and pissed off about the entire thing.




*WayBack, I actually love you, even if you are a little creepy, and I'm sorry.
**Obligatory disclaimer that Examiner obviously didn't send me an email like that. This is just my imagination of the kind of logic that must have happened there.
 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Writing as Self-Punishment

Do you ever do something ridiculous? Of course you have. Don't lie.

And then you're laying around the apartment feeling like a terrible person and a fool and while you're not really motivated to do anything, you have to do something to keep your mind off the thing you did and the associated guilt and the mounting boredom. 

Well, at least I do. But then I was like, do I even deserve a distraction? Shouldn't I just wallow in how big of an ass I am? Why let myself off the hook by doing something I enjoy?

I decided to write. But not work on the things that I enjoy writing. Not my personal random projects or anything fun like that. Nope, I went to the copywriting site I work for and did a few assignments there before sinking back into pity-party gloom. 

Then I thought to myself, hey, you're a dorp, but you don't have to be a lazy dorp. Might as well get something productive out of all this downtime. Oh, you don't like it? Haha, fuck you, because you're not supposed to like it! Think of this as your punishment. An atonement! You have to do something useful to make up for your mistake. 

Here's my big secret: I have a pen name. It makes me money...kind of. To be fair, I don't put a ton of effort into it. I was bored and wondered what would happen, so I set up an account and published a couple of stories. But even so, Amazon sucks. Kindle Unlimited sucks. You get suckered into joining KU so that you can't distribute your stories to other markets, but without the KU algorithm, good luck getting any of your stories seen by buyers on the world's largest ebook market. It's a bit of a catch-22. I understand it's even worse for people who write shorter fiction, because KU pays by pages read and not number of stories bought. And the buyers have to actually read your stuff for it to count at all, which is fucked up. Whereas before KU, you could sell your 8-10k short story for 2.99 and still get 1.99 in royalties no matter what.

With all that in mind, I was outlining a longer romance story for my pen name as part of my "write multiple genres, see what people like" experiment. I don't even like romance, but the genre is popular. There's a fairly steady formula to follow which can help me plot, because I am not all that great at putting together short plots. 

With a heavy sigh, I dove into said romance story. While I didn't finish it as planned (because I just can't help adding dragons and making everything epic in length. Seriously, it's a problem) I did get a lot written. The idea that this was somehow my punishment for doing the bad thing was way more motivating than I expected. Like the adult equivalent for writing lines. I mean, why not use all that self-hatred for something positive? Guilt-writing is better than not writing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Soggy and Chlorinated

Physical therapy, hooray. This is going to be a long post. 

I've been trying to get into the physical therapy clinic again for ages. I first went...oh, a year or two ago, for land therapy. I did my exercises. I did the exercises at home, did the stretches, and everything. Things were marginally better for a little while, and then they weren't. I was still in a job where I had to stand for eight, nine hours a day, and then go to physically active classes on my days off, and it was killing me. I tried new shoes. Shifting positions. Everything. Nope. Still I was going home exhausted and in pain, the underlying problem only exacerbated by my work. 

On school days and days off and days where I had to walk, or sit, or stand, or get up, or bend down, or crouch, or lie on my back, or do literally anything at all, I was in moderate to severe pain. It became a buzz in the back of my brain, a constant pain hovering around a 4 at the beginning of the day and growing to an agonizing 8 or 9 as I lay in bed struggling to sleep. 

Under that constant pain, your brain functions at about 70% because that 30% or so is always dedicated to distracting yourself, suppressing the pain, and getting through the day. Scheduling times to go cry in the bathroom for five minutes until you can pull yourself together and go back to class. Until you're doing after-work grocery shopping and your brain goes "nope sorry" and the pain crashes down and then you're holding the side of the vegetable rack trying not to fall and screaming very, very quietly. But not wanting to get a cart because you worry people will look at you funny, since you're a twenty-something person and nothing is visibly wrong. 

So understandably, everything was suffering: my performance at school, my performance at work, my mental health, my physical health, and all that. Hence the year or so off. 

I thought taking time off would help in a more immediate way than it has, but progress has been slow. I was glad to get away from the academic environment, including the profs who told me that there was no place in theatre for people who weren't physically fit/able and that I would just drag the company down. That was...ouch. I mean, they were right, but ouch. 

I then had to pester and beg and wheedle my GP to get back into physical therapy, to ask for a sleep study (insomnia! yay!), or for a gastroenterology appointment (stuff! things! Idk but it's pretty miserable! woo!) or even for something for migraines. 

See, I made the mistake one time of admitting that I felt depressed because, well, wouldn't you be depressed in my situation? People with chronic pain often kill themselves. I've never been suicidal, but I get why some people would go there. She refused to do fucking anything until I saw a psychotherapist. 

At this point I was willing to do anything, so I did. It sucked. I felt worse. I stopped going, because fuck that noise, at which point my GP became even more difficult to deal with. I did finally get her to treat my migraines. She pestered me into going to psychotherapy again. The new lady was a bit more helpful, but eventually concluded that all that pain was in my head and I was making things worse by worrying about being in pain, which made the pain seem worse when it happened, and so on. 

And I'm like? No shit? My entire life has become either being in pain or being afraid of being in pain. No one can function at top capacity like that. And the people who were trying to make things better for me were actually obstructing my path to the physical therapy treatment that would have improved things or at least made me feel like I had more control over my own improvement. Meanwhile, all the time I spend waffling back and forth and scheduling appointments where nothing happens is time that I have to take off from work. 

My GP recommended cutting out lactose and gluten in case I have an allergy, which is hilarious because I live on a limited fucking budget and am not about to do that unless I know for a fact that it's needed, because I can't afford to. Yet she refused to do tests for either of those things, which my insurance would have easily covered. Speaking of insurance and things I can't afford, I'm on a fucking timeline to figure all this crap out. Thanks to the ACA I can be on my parents' insurance until I'm 26. I'm 24. 

BUT TODAY I went to physical therapy. It was splashing around in the pool for a bit doing exercises and stretches. And finally, hanging in the water on a pool noodle while my spine got all nice and stretched out. 

So I'm feeling soggy and chlorinated but also hopeful. In the pool, it doesn't feel like I have a body, which is fantastic, because I really hate my body. And to top it off, my well-meaning but obtuse GP is moving and leaving the practice. I'll probably end up with a new person who may or may not be just as bad but at least it's another opportunity. 

Fuck you, gravity. Pools are awesome.