The problem with fear

My mother and I had a conversation about fear earlier this week. She said sometimes fear is good. And sure, that’s true. Gut instinct is often fear-based and can save your life. But fear can also be arbitrary, induced by others unnecessarily, or chemical. If you’re like me and you have anxiety and witchily good gut instincts both, it can be very hard to figure out what to do with fear.

There were also all those times I was told not to climb on the playground lest I “bust my head open.”

Learning to skate is really hard physical work. For me, it’s also really hard mental work.

And today, I am so tired.

But that’s because I was awesome.

I went to the rink where I take lessons for their public skate. It was pleasantly unpopulated, and I managed to go from marching around the ice and trying to be less frightened to actual proper skating. Only for like 20 feet at a time, because then I’d get nervous or almost die via toe pick (seriously, I know I’ll be glad for it later, but it’s freaking me out) or get frowny at water puddles on the ice (the rink is on a rooftop under a bubble, and there are sometimes these spots on warmer days).

I did seven laps, which is more than I’ve done at any one time and my heart racing terror thing only happened very briefly once towards the end of the session when I was really tired. I didn’t want to get off the ice. I was so happy. And I’m hoping I can go again on Saturday (different rink) and actually show my instructor this progress on Sunday. I get so jangly sometimes though.

So that’s it. I did the thing today. You can do the thing too. It probably won’t even kill you. No matter what people have said.




The summer with the crayfish

There’s a story I’ve told before, that I’ve been thinking of a lot lately.

The summer after fifth grade, I went to sleepover camp for the first and only time, and I did not know how to swim. The counselors tried everything to get me to put my whole face in the water without holding onto the wall. Nothing worked. And the less it worked and the more punitive it became, the less I was on board with the whole thing. I remember, very clearly, two grown men — or what seemed grown to me, they were probably twenty which isn’t really grown at all — grabbing my arms and trying to force me under the water in the shallow part of the lake as other campers and counselors watched from the dock.

I was ten and wearing a one-piece navy blue bathing suit with metallic puffy hearts on it, but I danced, and I was strong. I locked my legs, and they could not push me under. Which was good, as I was in fear for my life. Not from the water at that point. But from them. One remarked to the other how strong I was, how embarrassing this had become for them, and they let me go. I knelt in the horrible silt and crayfish bottom and then, with something like spite, swam away. On the dock, people applauded, and I hauled myself out of the water in a vengeful fury at their pity.

In retrospect, I suspect that was the summer my best friend and I began to grow apart, although neither of us would notice until years later. But I was feral and embarrassing and the swimming incident which has so stuck with me was one of many indignities of that season.

I’ve been thinking of it because of skating, obviously. But also because of politics. Christine Blasey Ford has just come forward as the woman accusing Brett Kavanaugh of attempted rape, and various corners of the Internet apparently don’t get how such an incident could have stayed with her and be the subject of trauma for so long, such that she mentioned it in counseling in 2012.

But trauma and resultant PTSD, of course, is funny. You don’t necessarily get it from the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone. You don’t even necessarily get it from the worst thing that ever happened to you. It just comes sometimes to some people from some things. (And because on the Internet it needs saying: I absolutely believe Blasey Ford about both her accusation and her personal history and choices around dealing with and sharing the event.)

I have more horrifying stories than the swimming incident, but I don’t really have any closer to my core, that come up as a sort of language that threads through my life, my abilities, my worth, and my sense of self. My contempt for external brutality; my reliance on internal brutality. It is not a traumatic story to recount despite its murky nature. I mean, I did learn to swim because of it, which makes it hard to know what to do with the tale. But if you ask me what I am — about my nature and my wrath — maybe I’ll tell you about that summer and the crayfish if I tell you anything at all.

Today I went to skating — after trying and mostly failing to practice falling in my own bedroom last night before bed — quite afraid that we’d spend the whole lesson on the falling situation. And that I’d have to tell my kind and clever instructor about the cray fish, about how him trying to help me to fall probably wouldn’t work because I have this thing where I hold on for dear life.

But the path was different today.Instead, I practiced marching (and at the end of the lesson got across the ice by myself) and rocking horses and kneeling on the ice so that I could then learn, at least, how to get back up. Some of that I used the wall to practice getting down. Some, I braced on my instructors arms. And it was fine. I didn’t have to explain anything other than my tenacity as I got closer to being able to do this frustratingly impossible for me thing.

One day I’ll swim away. And this time, I won’t even have to be mad about it.

Can I just number these ice skating things? Am I really going to have to think of a snazzy title every time?

One of the problems with wanting to do something and wanting to do it well… and then wanting to write about it, is that I’m a much better writer of personal narrative when things aren’t going well.

Which means I probably should have written about skating yesterday, when I couldn’t find my balance, felt like I couldn’t get any purchase on the ice, and just didn’t feel like I was in a friendly space. You can tell me all day long everyone is focused on their own crap, and that’s true, but there are people who look at beginners as nuisances and people who look at beginners as the future. And often, especially when you do everything you can to stay out of the way and not disrupt other people’s skating spaces, it’s not hard to tell which people you are dealing with. And it’s harder, not to sit there and feel like a fool as you watch coaches with business cards approach and flatter and neg advanced skaters into their business clutches.

Not that I should be one of those people yet; not that I envied the socially awkward moment that then ensued for my observation. But being chosen is always to me, a very dark thing, a sense of being towed down into the underworld. Even when it’s winning. Look, I was in a play about Hades and Persephone when I was in second grade and never really recovered. I played a horse on his chariot, and that, let me tell you, felt like the opposite of being chosen

But today, thankfully, was one of the good days in skating. I did feel like my blades were gripping the ice (different rink), I was with a friend (less embarrassing in a “what does she think she is doing?” way), and we made friends (I may be an introvert, but I’m a gregarious one; the story in my head is always about the people who find me).

A couple in their 60s approached us to offer assistance and advice. They wound up helping me try to get swizzles, and practicing balance, and going around the ice with the man in a Killian hold, just to see what it felt like. Things like that are kind. They can feel like pity, especially when your brain is messed up in the way my brain can be, but this was just kind. I want to skate, therefore it is reasonable that I am learning to skate, and of course I will obviously eventually figure it out. Also, they had a great personal story, but it’s not mine to tell in this forum.

Being reasonable for wanting things is always a peculiar sensation for me. Because I rarely want anything reasonably, but also because my reasonable wantings have been met so often with derision. How do you just exist as a beginner — and as a person — when you’re trapped between those truths? I couldn’t possibly tell you.

Tomorrow, I have my learn to skate lesson. At the end of last week I had hoped to make a breakthrough this week, as I had felt on the cusp of being able to skate (instead of march) properly or at least sure I could march onto the rink tomorrow properly to get to my lesson group. That’s probably not going to happen yet. But I won’t be as bad as I was at the beginning of last Sunday. So I’ll take it.

Here we go again….

Hi, for those new here, I’m a romance and SFF writer who started her career writing about pop-culture and how it makes her feel. I do that particular thing a lot less than I used to, in part because of the success I’ve had with my fiction, and in part because of how female-type people on the Internet are treated when they write about pop-culture and/or their personal feelings. This site has languished as I’ve made that transition — and those boundaries.

In some ways, this is a shame (I have a lot of feelings about the operatic nature of The Assassination of Gianni Versace and what it says about queer life (and also Italian families!) that I’ve never written about, for example). In other ways, it’s freed me up to write about all sorts of things well beyond my own emotions and frustrations (which is basically what women who write personal essay generally get underpaid to pontificate about).

But now I’m back, and I have a new thing to write about. Mostly because I need to. What it will inform anyone else of or entertain them in regard to, I frankly have no damn idea.

Back in January, Erin and I were working on our novel The Opposite of Drowning (2019), and I made the mistake of sending her an Instagram clip posted by Baz Luhrmann of some random Canadian ice dancers performing to Moulin Rouge. If you followed the 2018 Olympics at all, you know, of course, that these ice dancers weren’t random, but were Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

Erin and I found them incredibly distracting. And we procrastinated on The Opposite of Drowning by writing — and publishing — a whole other novel. After the Gold is a romance about a pair that wins Olympic gold and then has to figure out what to do about the rest of their lives. We assumed the project was merely us being self-indulgent. But it got more pre-orders than anything we’d ever written before. Even our award-winning royal romance. And then I, as the marketing brains behind this operation, told people that if we sold more than 250 copies before release day, Erin and I would learn to skate.

We did.

And now here we — and I guess you, dear reader — are.

For the last two months I’ve been going skating with friends on the weekends. This has meant dragging myself around the wall, anxiety attacks, and that time my partner fell down and fractured her ankle on her very first occasion on the ice. Despite all of this, I love it and would actually really like to be good at this thing (I have a long history of embarking on difficult and difficult for me endeavors and finally, eventually, getting pretty decent at those things — including fencing, horseback riding, and general aviation.) A few days ago, frustrated with rentals, I bought a pair of really expensive Riedell’s that fit amazingly and make me very happy.

Today, I had my first Learn to Skate lesson in which my main achievements were not crying and learning to march across the ice. This actually meant I was able to get on the ice during a public session without my friends and try to practice something correct I’d been taught. So I did that. Five whole laps before I decided my body and my mind needed a break.

In kindergarten (I was five, and the youngest of the class), Mrs. Nabokov (yes, that was really her name; no, I have no idea of any relation) called my mother to kick me out of ice skating lessons because I was too scared. Which, honestly, considering my parents wouldn’t let me climb jungle gyms in playground because I would “break my head open” should surprise no one.

Today, all I can think about is my fear that I’ll get kicked out of lessons again, because aside from those small achievements, I was too scared to do the thing you kinda have to do on day one, which is learn to fall. I just couldn’t make myself do it, and I don’t know how I ever am.

So welcome to my blog, which is, as it ever was, about my pop culture obsessions. Now they just come with knives strapped to my feet. I’m going to write about this in public because I enjoy doing so, because it is a way in which I defuse my fear, and because it is a tool that helps me stay stubborn. Because the situation is this: I love this thing that I am both very bad at (totally okay) and super afraid of (way less than useful).

Consider this a training journal, although maybe one less about ice skating and more about someone just trying to be alive.

An inch

When I was fifteen, I spent a summer at Yale University and dyed my naturally dark brown hair black. When I returned home, my father and I had a fight about it.

“It’s my hair!” I said.

“No,” he said. “It’s not.”

Did he mean my hair belonged to him? or to God? or to society? Or was he just saying a reflexive and nonsensical no in the face of a teenager that had triggered a somewhat irrational alarm in him?

I never received clarity from my now-late father on what he meant. But the story — a bit funny, a bit awkward, a bit sinister — is one I’ve come back to over and over. My autonomy is my everything. It always has been. It always will be.

People who have known me a long time may side-eye this. What about that disaster of a relationship in your 20s? What about that BDSM thing you went through? What about Miss Hewitt’s and rich husbands? What about all the things you have tried to give yourself up to?

“A congenital defect,” I say.

One I shared with my father.

Like me, he was an obsessive and a seeker, even if we obsessed on and sought different things. Unlike me, he was not a queer and girl-like creature, ordered to perform a life of being a perfect possession. Sometimes, you must go deep into a thing to realize it will always be ill-fitting, that it will always be a form of poison.

Every year on November 5, I write about Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I write about coming out or politics or medical horror. I write about love or cadence or grace. I write about surviving the 1980s. Or I write about right now.

Last year, I wrote about the election that hadn’t happened yet. This year, I need hardly tell you what has.

So this year, I am writing about autonomy. I am writing about how so many of us — whether we pay attention to it or not — live our lives like we belong to our parents or our partners or our children or our jobs or our biology.

I am writing about how often this way of living is not the positive these are my people, this is my community, this is where I find home, but instead how often it is this is what limits me, this is what little I am allowed, this is the box and the pain and the punishment of what the world has made me at the hands of others.

All we have is right now. All we have is ourselves. Sometimes that seems lonely and like very little. But it is also power and freedom; possibility and resistance. It is ambition. And it is war.

2017 has chosen to be a certain way. So be it. I too — and in fact all of us — can also choose our own ways.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

Well, hi there, maybe you found this blog because of a thing about Snape

Hi! If you’re reading this it’s possible you’ve recently found my oft-neglected personal blog because of recent articles in Broadly, PinkNews and TeenVogue about a fan theory that Severus Snape is trans.

These pieces reference a post I made on this blog about how JKR’s character has many female associations in the text. That’s pretty cool someone read my thing. But I don’t think I deserve to take credit or blame (although why blame? if a theory doesn’t work for you, discard it and move on!) for this fan theory, and in the interest of full disclosure, it wasn’t where I was going at the time. But if people want to build on things I’ve said to get there, I’m okay with that too.

Because that’s the thing about stories and textual analysis. We all see different things and we all find different talismans, friends, and mentors in the ghostly true unreal people found in books. Snape was/is a super important character to me and helped me navigate a lot of stuff around a difficult childhood, a sense of exile, and the repercussions that had on me both good and terrible.

Anyway! These days, I’m mostly a romance novelist (go to if you’re curious), who writes all sorts of characters including heroes and villains and sometimes even bisexual, genderqueer people like me.

(which is to say, I did not declare Snape’s gender in the original piece, I was interested in a textural pattern I noticed that perhaps influenced the characters relateability for some female readers, and of course played into the long-standing tradition of queering the villain — which is both a thing that has been a matter of oppression and a way we have historically used to circumvent prohibitions against telling queer stories)

If something I wrote helped you get to trans Snape and that’s awesome for you? Awesome! If something I wrote makes you go grrrrrrr argggggggggh and have your totally different Snape theory? That’s cool too.

So what do I think of Snape? I think he’s a character we keep grappling with, and I think that’s what matters. Always.


A thing about encouraging the media to do better

Y’all see that Trump presser today? Where he threatened BuzzFeed, argued with a CNN reporter, and basically called everything that doesn’t praise him fake news? Meanwhile, reporters there to ask questions seemed flumoxed on how to proceed — asking too many things at once, allowing Trump to weasel out of questions, not taking up the deeply salient questions of a reporter when he was ignored by Trump, and struggling, often on whether to soften questions in hopes of potential increased access. A lot of reporters tried valiantly, but on the day after  a day with ninmajor breaking stories and with a confounding entertainer who does not adhere to U.S. political norms, it was sort of a hot mess.

And that’s just one day! How do we make sense of a news media that covered an FBI announcement about Democratic emails that amounted to nothing, but has seemed to go soft on Trump and Russia in the midst of an oft confusing and hostile relationship between intelligence services and and incoming administration? Everyone is screaming about Fake News, no one can keep up on the real news, and Americans have largely lost any understanding on what journalists can and should do (hint: when interpreting, interpretation should be clear; the ideal of neutrality is not a real thing; journalists are not stenographers but must contextualize facts; audience service does not mean providing audiences only what they want to hear). Journalism is a risky profession that helps to safeguard democracy around the world. Good journalism is aggressive in investigation, thoughtful on possibilities,  and cautious — but not timid– in conclusions.

Anyway, a friend just texted me asking how to encourage the media to do their jobs in a political climate that is rapidly violating all sorts of norms. The answer to that is really long and involves multiple types of action, so I said I would write this up.

Context to the below is I’m a former AP journalist, with a degree in journalism, who also has a day job related to media analysis. I speak only for myself.

What you can do as a consumer of news media without talking back to the news media:

1. Stop saying “Mainstream Media” when discussing news content. No one knows what this means anymore . Some people use it to mean liberal bias. Some people use it to mean print media. Some people use it to mean non-cable TV media. Some people use it to mean non-Internet media. No one can agree on what it is, so when talking about the media critically, don’t use the term, just define the specific media or category of media you mean, otherwise the stuff you’re saying isn’t super helpful.

2. Stop saying “Fake News.” Say what you mean — satire, propaganda (foreign? or domestic?), doctored email, leaks, rumors, lies, websites pretending to be for newspapers that don’t actually exist, opinion outlets, partisan think tanks. Be prepared to say why something is what you describe it as.

3. Get your news from multiple sources. This includes from multiple platforms – TV, print, internet, and as widely across the political spectrum as you can stand.

4. Read foreign English-language news about the U.S. and the rest of the world. This doesn’t just mean going to, this means foreign language news media with English language editions. You can find these on every continent. I rotate through English language editions of papers in Germany, France, India, the Middle East, and Africa over the course of the week. Google is a wonderful thing. (If I make a list it’s going to be wildly incomplete and I don’t have time. Google. And if you make a list let me know and I’ll add a link to it).

5. Trace stories back to the original reporting. Okay, so you found out about something from a partisan newsletter, a friend’s Tweet, or even a Wall Street Journal article that references another media source. Google the original reporting and read that. Media can be a game of telephone. Get the first story. Read follow-on stories that go more in depth across other media, but don’t rely on tertiary sources.

6. Understand the actual media relationship with objectivity/neutrality.  Media in the U.S. are not legally required to be unbiased. In fact, the idea of “unbiased” reporting is a convention of network TV and big-5 American newspapers in the mid-late 20th century. Historically, and in the 21st century, American media and those in many democracies around the world have specifically been organs of particular viewpoints. For heaven’s sake, The New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton to talk trash about his rivals. Media neutrality is not, and cannot be, a real thing. What is the neutral viewpoint? That of a white straight cisgender Christian man with a traditional U.S. university education? Are reporters from other demographics less considered neutral? To consume and evaluate news you need to know: 1. Your own biases, 2. Our cultural biases in defining neutrality, 3. The actual objectives of any news organization which can range from “as neutral as possible” to extreme partisanship.

7. Bias your news exposure towards outlets that provide access to source materials/documents.  This allows you to evaluate news interpretation for yourself.

8. Observe and note patterns of portrayal Who discusses what issues on a given program? Are people impacted by a particular issue given the opportunity to speak to a particular issue. Is crime framed on a racial basis? Are women relegated to discussing only lifestyle issues?

9. Make sure you consider local news too. I don’t watch a lot of local news, but I’ve started to recently. It’s helped me understand the sentiment so many people have of America facing lots of problems even as crime has dropped and employment has gone up. Local American news is about fear on every axis imaginable. Just like fashion magazines sell women products they don’t need lest they fail to get a man; local news sells us fears only they can solve. Yes, it’s true, “if it bleeds, it leads,” but news doesn’t have to be like this. I’d encourage you watch this video from Ulrik Haagerup on the “constructive news” approach he implemented in Denmark. Constant fear-based local news reporting in the U.S. contributes to the extreme polarization we face on race, politics, and the urban/suburban/rural divides, and it’s something we need to address.

10. Read journalistic review and criticism, such as Columbia Journalism Review to understand how the media is struggling with itself right now.

What you can do as a consumer of news media by interacting with the news media:

Okay, by now, both from reading this and your own experiences with the media, you probably have a sense of what you’re watching and what you want the media to do. But how can you encourage the media to do those things?

1. Social media makes news outlets and journalists accessible. Misleading headline? Tell them. Unclear writing? Tell them. Need more details on a thing? Tell them. Like their work? Tell them. Learned something new? Tell them. Have gratitude? Say thank you.

2. Most newspapers and broadcasts have a public editor or ombudsman, whose job it is to evaluate coverage and determine if the publication is meeting a public need. Think coverage is unclear? biased? or inadequate? Contact this person via email, phone, or snailmail. I have looked and looked for a comprehensive list of these people/contact addresses and can’t find one. If you’re aware of one or create one, please let me know and I’ll add a link here. If you cannot find a contact for a public editor then just contact a more generic point at the media outlet.

When contacting about coverage, be specific. “Your coverage is biased” is not helpful. “I watched the PEOTUS press conference today and felt your news outlet could have asked tougher questions” or “Many people don’t know what the Alt Right is, please make it clear in your coverage this is a loose affiliation of groups that support white supremacist agendas” is helpful. You must clearly articulate what’s wrong, what you would like them to do, and what action you might take (will you unsubscribe? will you subscribe if coverage improves? Do you own a business that might stop advertising with them? Do you teach a class that uses news sources in the curriculum and you might go elsewhere?).

Be aware that the contact that takes the most effort is the contact taken the most seriously. Email doesn’t take as much time out of an employee’s day as a phone call or paper mail.

3. Support media you like with $. Let them know why you subscribe and what you think they are doing right.

4. Are you an expert? Join the mediaI mean it. If you know about a thing, make sure you’re registered with a speaker’s bureau. Write and submit op-eds (you get paid for those, unlike letters to the editor). Realize expertise is a broad concept. Make yourself relevant based on demographics, where you live, your creative life, a thing hat happened to you, your day job, whatever. ACA saved your life? You’re an expert. Have family that has fled fascist governments? You’re an expert. Have a disability? You’re an expert. Been harassed because of your identity? You’re an expert. Scientist? Expert. Teacher of any sort? Expert! Religious professional? Expert. Author? Expert. Super into Star Trek? Expert on pop-culture and the future we envisioned vs the future we’re getting. Everyone is an expert on something. If you can’t figure it out, ask your friends, they totally know what you’re an expert in. Write stuff and submit it. This is another case of, someone else needs to make relevant lists here — let me know and I’ll update this document.

Got stuff to add? Or stuff that’s relevant? Comment/link and I’ll add as appropriate. Thanks!