Friday, January 17, 2014

My book is being published!

I am delighted to announce that Quest Books is publishing my book, "Jane Eyre's Sisters: How Women Write and Live the Heroine's Story." The book is based on my doctoral dissertation, "She's Leaving Home: Recurrent Motifs in Women's Narratives," but has been rewritten for a wider audience and greatly expanded. My premise is that from the 17th century on, Western women (and a few visionary men) have been writing a story about heroines that differs considerably from the Heroic Quest story. The story is consistent, but also changes slightly in each generation. For each time a writer imagines a heroine with more freedom than is typically allowed to women at the time, women use her as a role model to claim that freedom in real life. Then the next generation of writers is free to imagine a new heroine with more freedom -- and the dance continues. Thus, the book does not just discuss the the pattern of the heroine's journey, but how we can use our imagination to expand our horizons.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Heroes

I've spent the last two years writing about heroines. My primary reason for doing this was that I have found that the types of heroines that women write about haven't gotten a lot of attention, compared to male heroes, and I wanted to redress that to the best of my ability. One thing our professors urged us to do in school was to find the gaps, the things that have not been explored, and write about them ourselves. That's what I did.

Inevitably, I suppose, this has led some people to assume that I am anti-men (only, I must hasten to add, a very few people, all men, and all over a certain age). They haven't actually read what I've written; they just assume that a woman who writes about women has to be some kind of extremist. It's no use asking them if a man who writes about men is an extremist; it's no use actually trying to engage them in a rational dialogue. They're in the grip of some defensive fear, obviously.

But it's gotten me thinking about the men I admire who are not like that; the men who "get it" and are not threatened by women who dare to talk about how it is to be a woman in this society. So here's a short list of some of my current heroes:

Sir Patrick Stewart. Forever in our hearts for playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, Sir Patrick demonstrates the same enlightened attitudes of that man of the future. He speaks out both against violence against women and for better treatment for war veterans who suffer from PTSD. He is well acquainted with both, for his father, a hero of World War II, became an alcoholic to deal with the trauma of what he had seen and done, and as a result often battered Patrick's mother. He recently said "People will not listen to you, unless you are an old white man. I am an old white man and I will use that to help people who need it."

Louis CK. Comedian Louis CK first won my heart with his rant about how prone people are these days to ignore what's amazing about life and complain about trivial problems. Thanks to Louis, every time I get in a plane, I quote him to myself: "I'm sitting in a chair IN THE SKY!" and am gratefully amazed that I can do that. Recently, Louis CK did a bit where he talked about the courage it takes for a woman to go out on a date with a man she does not know, as "we're the number one threat to women." He asks the men to imagine "what if you could only date a half-bear, half-lion?" But what I really like is that he then says "you know what's the number one threat to men? Heart disease. Our own hearts." Hmmm. Do you think there's a connection here?

Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith is famous for writing, directing, and acting in films such as Slackers and Dogma. He's also much loved in the "gaming" world, which lately has come under fire for rampant misogyny on the part of gamers. Recently, a woman blogger posted a negative review of one of his films. Smith didn't mind -- he even posted "thanks for the free publicity!" on her blog, knowing full well that any review, positive or negative, generates publicity. But some of his fans were outraged and posted very nasty sexual comments directed at the woman. You can read just how bad it was here. Smith not only apologized to the woman for his fans, but tweeted to his fanbase: "IF YOU LIKE MY STUFF, THEN YOU LIKE AND LOVE WOMEN. And if you like and love women, then LOSE THE (effing) MISOGYNY!" He then wrote a longer piece in which he said ". . . if you like me or my stuff at all, then NEVER express yourself to ANYONE – woman or man – in misogynistic terms. This is important to me. Even before I was married and had a daughter, this was important to me. The Jay character aside, I've always tried to imbue the characters in my flicks with nothing but respect for women. If my movies have made you feel it’s okay to reduce another human being by labeling them a “bitch” or a “cunt”, then I was an even worse filmmaker than I thought."

Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is a best-selling, prolific fantasy writer who is not only inventive and laugh-out-loud funny, but has given us some of the best female characters in fantasy. He clearly likes spunky girls, he's sympathetic towards girls who are afraid to speak up because they're shy or unattractive or fat, and he also has a thing for amazing old women. So we get characters like Tiffany Aching, a 12-year-old witch-in-training who defeats a monster by banging it on the head with a frying pan; Nanny Ogg, a many-times-married, plump old lady who smokes a pipe, drinks, and is the best midwife ever known (which means she gets called on to attend some very interesting births), and Granny Weatherwax, doyenne of witches, who fears nothing because she is the scariest thing around but constantly battles against doing the wrong thing just because she could. She won't abuse her power.

and finally:

Joss Whedon. Writer and director Joss Whedon is responsible for some of my favorite TV shows and films. They are great because the people are real, the issues they deal with are important, and Joss has a gift for wry humor. In all his works there's a young girl with superpowers (Joss created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance). In the TV series Firefly, a kind of "Western set in space" featuring a ship of misfits usually hiding out from the law and taking questionable jobs to survive, he gives us the 17-year-old assassin and psychic River Tam, who fights like a dancer; Kaylee, the mechanic who can fix anything, and Zoe, the former warrior-turned-second in command who can make strong men turn tail and flee with just a look. But what I really love about Joss is how he talks in public. When asked by reporters "Why do you write these strong female characters," he replies "because you're still asking me this question." Joss is looking forward to the day when no one will even think twice about a strong woman character. Recently, Joss gave a speech to a room full of women for the Equality Now movement about how the word "feminist" is the wrong word. You can listen to the entire speech here, but if you don't have 14 minutes to spend on that, here are some of the good bits:

". . . you can't be born an "-ist." It's not natural. You can't be born a Baptist; you have to be baptized. You can't be born an atheist or a communist or a horticulturalist. You have to have these things brought to you. So "feminist" includes the idea that believing men and women to be equal, believing all people to be people, is not a natural state.  . . .

"In the public discourse, there's one word to deal with race. Racism. That is the word. And it implies something very important. It implies something that we are past. When you say racist, you are saying that is a negative thing. That is a line that we have crossed. Anything on the side of that line is shameful. Is on the wrong side of history. And that is a line that we have crossed in terms of gender but we don't have the word for it. People are confronted with the word feminism and it stops them; they think they have to deal with that. But I think we're done with that as intelligent human beings. Being on the wrong side of history in terms of the oppression of women is being on the whole of history, all of recorded history, you're on the wrong side."
So these are some of my heroes: men who are using their power as men to defend and speak out on behalf of women, until the day it's no longer necessary.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Exciting News

I sent the proposal for the book I've written over the last year, based on my dissertation (but with a lot of new stuff), to two publishers the week before Thanksgiving. Although they said not to expect any response for at least a month or two, this week I got an e-mail from the Acquisitions Editor at Quest Books telling me that he likes my proposal and is taking it to the full committee that chooses which books to publish! They will decide and get back to me in January.

So . . . I will know in a month if they are going to publish my book!

I've been e-mailing back and forth with Richard, the editor, and we've picked a new title:

Jane Eyre's Sisters: How Women Write and Live the Heroine's Story

Stay tuned!

Saturday, November 9, 2013


A friend of my niece just put a post up on Facebook talking about how she "collects" people with the same name as my niece; four of her closest friends have the same name.

This is something I've noticed in my own life. I seem to collect Katherines. They go by Kathy, Cathy or Cathie, or Kate. None of them use their actual birth names, but that's true of most of my generation; we're all about nicknames. I even got rid of my birth name legally because no one ever called me by it (except my dad when I was in trouble), and it actually caused problems at times, like when the University of Washington had two records for me under my birth and nick names and could not be convinced I was the same person.

But I digress. Kathies and Kates are big in my life, to the point that when I meet a new one, I'm automatically predisposed to like her. And to be impressed. Have you noticed how often Kate Hepburn and Cate Blanchett play queens? Cathie was my best boss ever and now runs her own business. One Kate is a college professor, the other is a high-powered scientist.  Kathy ran a business out of her house while simultaneously managing a menagerie of enormous teenage boys and big dogs and all their friends and their parents and the neighbors and odd-people-out like me who found a heart-home at their fireside.

On the masculine side, it's Steves. Steve, Stevens, Stefan, Stephan, even a Stephe who allowed us to call him "Steffi" for years before finally telling us that it was pronounced "Steve." When I lived in Boise, there was a time when my boss was Steve, my doctor was Steve, and I was seeing a counselor named Steve. Good guys all; guys who took care of me. 

That might surprise some folks who think of me as this incredibly independent woman. But Stella Gibbons, who wrote Cold Comfort Farm, knows what I mean. She says of her heroine that "Like all strong-minded women, on whom everyone flops, she adored being bossed about. It was so restful." Steves take charge, which means I don't have to. Restful indeed.

 My favorite "Steve" story is the Steve who got out of his car, got as far as the first step up to my house, realized something was wrong with it, went back to his car, got out tools, and fixed the step before he ever entered my house. That's a Steve for ya.

So it's probably no great surprise that my favorite married couple are - you guessed it - Kathy and Steve.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why I Don't Fear the Zombie Apocalypse

I read an article the other day about how the zombie apocalypse so beloved of movie-makers today can't actually happen: because Nature will take care of it. Think of all the bugs, birds, and predators whose main job is to eat carrion. Nature's got a very efficient housekeeping service at work all the time that turns decomposing materials - like your zombie - into compost in no time.

This tied in with something I've thought a lot about: what will happen to our pets if a pandemic wiped most of the human race out? Horses will be fine; they'll get out of their confines and roam free in herds. Goats, pigs, cattle too. Cats will do very well in the wild for the most part, although the coyote population around here will soar for a while as the fat overbred ones get culled.

I think dogs will suffer the most from losing their humans, not just physically but emotionally. But eventually, they'll form packs and learn how to be wolves again. And if the pandemic in fact turns people into zombies, dogs will come into their element. How many dogs do you know who can pass up a stinking corpse? Even if they don't eat it, they will pull it down and roll in it. Over and over, until the zombie is mashed flat.

So, no, I don't fear a zombie apocalypse. Man's best friend will be on the job.

Friday, September 27, 2013


I love the comedian Louis C.K., not just because he's funny, but because his humor is about the reality of how people are. I wrote a while ago about his rant against people who were always complaining when "life is amazing!" In that rant he gives the example of people who complain about how long they had to wait on the tarmac before the plane took off and the lack of Wi-fi on the plane, instead of being amazed at the fact that "you're sitting in a chair IN THE SKY!" Ever since hearing that, every time I fly I think "I'm sitting in a chair IN THE SKY!" And I am amazed.

Louis has a new rant in which he explains why he won't buy his kids smartphones. He has several objections, including the commonly expressed one that it disconnects people from each other when they don't make eye or voice contact. But his main complaint is, he says, that it prevents people from having those moments where they realize that they are, when it comes down to it, alone. We all have these moments. They can ambush us without warning. The trouble is, says Louis, we are so afraid of them that most of us immediately scramble for something, anything to distract us from that feeling. Texting someone in that moment is no different from running for something to eat or something to drink or whatever we use to protect ourselves from simply feeling sad.

The problem with that, he goes on to say, is that IF you can in fact sit with this sadness that seems innate to being human, really let yourself feel it, it will change. Yes, you might feel awful for a few moments; you might feel terrified or that life has no meaning; you might find yourself on your knees sobbing like a baby. But if you let this happen, the next thing is often that suddenly you feel great! You feel cleansed, you feel a sense of release, and from out of nowhere, happiness enters in.

I know that bad feelings don't last if you let them well up and overflow. They DO last if you try to keep the lid on them. I'm not talking about venting to others; there's now studies that say that if you vent anger on others it actually makes you MORE angry. I'm talking about just allowing yourself to feel bad sometimes and not trying to do anything about it. If you can do this, the bad feeling will go away, often in a matter of minutes.

I knew this. But then Louis said something I'd never thought about before: that people who spend so much time & effort trying to avoid feeling bad are also preventing themselves from feeling really good too. Because often what happens when we let ourselves feel bad is that "true, profound happiness rushes in!" Once we open that door to the feelings we've been repressing, it's not just the bad feelings that well up, but also joy - a joy that has nothing to do with what we have or what happens to us, but just simply bubbles up out of nowhere and surprises us.

I realized that this was true for me - that when I let myself feel bad, it wasn't just that the bad feelings would pass, but that they would be followed by good feelings like hope and excitement. And that often I would have a new insight or get a new idea about what to do about something.

So from now on, whenever I have one of those moments when I feel all alone, I'm going to let it happen. I'm going to open that door and see what happens, because it's going to be good!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Humanities and Competency

My mom is a fabulous cook. One of the things that makes her so good is that she doesn't always stick to the recipe -- or, in fact, need a recipe. From her I learned to be inventive in my cooking, to try something new, and to make a dish with odds-and-ends. When I shared a house with several other people while in my 20s, I often chose to cook on the weekend and make a meal out of whatever was left in the refrigerator.

I was also raised on boats. I grew up on an island and we spent most of our vacations sailing. I was allowed to sail our tiny Penguin by myself when I was no more than 7 or 8 years. I don't remember ever having a sailing lesson. I just remember sailing. When I was 14, a good friend got a flattie sailboat for her birthday, plus sailing lessons. After she'd completed the sailing lessons, we took her boat out. I was amazed to find that while she knew the names of everything on the boat and the theory of sailing, she lacked the innate sense that I possessed of knowing when the sail was properly adjusted. I tried to explain it to her, but words failed me, because what I was trying to convey was how it felt to be pointed up into the wind at the best angle, and I knew that not with my mind but with my body.

I have another friend, an engineer, who understands the physical principles of automobiles perfectly. When she bought a car, she did extensive research and bought a safe, reliable car that also handles well on the road. But I won't ride in a car that she's driving, primarily because she lacks the ability to read the traffic around her and anticipate problems before they occur. That's not something you can teach in driver's ed.

I have several more examples I could give of people who study the theory of something until they know it cold, educate themselves on the equipment and make sure they get the best, and then . . . are mediocre at actually doing it. More than theory and education are needed, and sometimes practice isn't enough either.

There's a lot of controversy now about doing away with the humanities in school. A lot of people think that the humanities are superfluous today, not useful for daily life. In fact, many are now arguing that the sciences are the only thing we should be teaching -- that the social sciences like psychology are also useless. (I'm not sure if they include education itself, the social science of teaching, in that condemnation.)

The humanities are, after all, about art. Art is, for most folks, like dessert, while science is the real "meat" of knowledge. (To carry the metaphor a bit further, the social sciences are like vegetables?) We love dessert, but it's not necessary to the diet. And if you have too much dessert instead of eating your protein and vegetables, you might get fat and become unhealthy . . . that is, unable to earn a living or contribute to society in a "meaningful" way.

I disagree with this view. Because as I thought about the people I know who are really good at something, it's not just because they know everything about it. It's because they bring something else to the actual job performance, something I would call flair. There is an art to how they do what they do. They bring something extra to the equation, a certain je ne sais quoi that amazes everyone else.

This flair is not intellectual and abstract. Nor is it superfluous at all: it's embodied and pragmatic. When my teen friend and I ran into a squall while out sailing, I was the one who got us back safely, because my flair for sailing helped me handle the boat in those conditions.

But where does flair come from? When I thought about all the people I know who demonstrate flair in what they do, I realized that all of them had some artistic training too, and usually from a young age. I may have grown up on boats but I also grew up hearing beautiful music and was encouraged to sing at a very young age. You can't sing intellectually; you have to feel it. I'm sure there's a link between my ability to feel when the boat is pointed to the exact right angle to the wind, and my ability to hear harmonies. I don't doubt that my mother's ability to put ingredients that will taste good together comes from her artistic sense.

Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist, was a man with flair. He was an artist as well who drew and played percussion in a samba band. He often remarked that he saw parts of mathematical equations in different colors. When I worked in a hospital, I found out that many of the surgeons also sculpted, while the internists were musicians. I don't doubt that sculpting gives a surgeon a flair for surgery, or that music helps a doctor "hear" what is going on in a patient's body. (My father, a pediatrician, and my own internist are both singers.)

So there's my argument for at least one reason why we need to keep the humanities in our schools.Let's keep the humanities so that kids can learn how to do things with flair. Let's free them from mediocrity and allow them to be brilliant.