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Miracles Aren’t Always Good

Posted by Leona Wisoker on March 28, 2017 in grieving, Uncategorized, Writing |

Over the last few months, I’ve put out a couple of blog posts about the process of my mom slowly dying. She’s been fighting lung cancer, and last year it metastasized to her brain. The docs gave her until about Christmas 2016 at best.

I’m fresh out of poetic, meaningful rambles about that.

I’m planning a trip to see her next week.

Yes. It’s nearly April 2017 and she’s still alive. My sister is doing a fabulous job of care-taking, but none of us expected things to … well, drag on this long, to be blunt. I hate myself for phrasing it that way, because I should be So! Happy! That mom is still Alive! Right??

Except not. Mom’s going through the expected cycle of physical and mental decline, just more slowly than expected. I was entirely braced and ready to lose her by Christmas, had all the schedules and structures in place in my head for how 2017 would unfold vis à vis my grieving and helping settle the estate and me getting back into the convention circuit and so on.

(Pause here to laugh ruefully. And a bit maniacally.)

I should really know better than that by this point in my life. The more you plan, the more things go awry. So here we are, and here I go again. Back on the road, hauling editing and writing jobs along to keep me company.

Not the worst life imaginable. I do relish challenges.

It is extremely odd and a bit disheartening to realize that the miracle I wanted was for mom to have a quiet, pain-free, drama-free, and relatively swift journey through the process of dying. Instead, I have the miracle of her quietly, peacefully, slowly living on. It’s absolutely amazing that she’s still here with us. I apparently come from very sturdy, stubborn stock.

Makes me wonder what’s waiting ahead for my siblings, and for me…

 

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Arguments Not To Use With Me

Posted by Leona Wisoker on March 20, 2017 in politics, Uncategorized |

On FB, Twitter, and personal conversations of late, I’ve been seeing the same tacks develop in conversation after conversation. I can predict the curve of the conversation and whether I’ll have to block/cut off the person in question within their first two comments. (I’m being generous.)

I’m going to detail those arcs here, and I’ll probably just start linking to this post as a shortcut to getting into the same argument over and over ad nauseum.

1: “If [favorite person] had been elected/appointed, this wouldn’t be happening!”

This usually comes with a heaping side of “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for that asshole.”

Problem: This always derails the conversation from [problem we can address in real life/real time] into an abstract fantasy world. A specific conversation–about, say, a clueless thing said by an ignorant politician–warps over into Big Picture Talk. Inevitably, I’m accused of things I didn’t say, lined up alongside people I disagree with, and talked down to, if not outright insulted.

2: “The wording on this could have been better, but here’s what [politician] really meant!”

This usually comes with a heaping side of “you just don’t understand how politicians talk.”

Problem: This starts out with an intrinsic assumption that objecting to the politician’s statement is based on ignorance of context. Sometimes, that’s true! But not always. Politicians are supposed to serve the people, meaning they’re the ones who should understand the context of their own statements. That’s a big job, no question, which is why they have aides and researchers and advisors who are supposed to vet public statements and warn the politician about upcoming landmines. This is what they get paid the big bucks for. It’s not our job to understand politician speak. It’s their job to communicate clearly to the public. Inevitably, this comes down to a partisan argument that I’m just looking to bash the politician in question for anything and everything possible, and that the politician should be given credit for all the good things they’re doing. Which, again, derails the point in question into a Big Picture Talk that’s much harder to actually affect.

3: “I came onto your feed and started an argument, and I’m angry because nobody’s listening to my brilliant analytical points.”

This usually comes with a heaping side of “Why won’t you stand up for me? Your friends are being meeeeeeeeean!”

Problem: This conversation is always, ALWAYS between folks from a marginalized group (trans activists, POC, anarchists, bisexuals, etc etc) and a person from a majority group (generally, but not always, a straight white male). The former, who have been dealing with nonsense arguments for their entire lives, are understandably not interested in finding out whether This Particular Person is actually an okay guy. They’re especially not interested in participating in a conversation that will most likely derail along one of the two above lines, because their focus is on getting shit done and saving lives. Abstract arguments don’t work with them. They see an injustice, they want to go after it and fix it, not listen to talk about the last sixteen presidents from the perspective of someone who’s not in the least worried about his or her own personal safety on a day to day basis. Inevitably, this winds up with flounces, angry rhetoric, asshat memes, and *me* getting blocked. Which puzzles me, because…I didn’t start the fight…? But whatever.

4: “You liberals always do [this thing that makes me crazy]! There’s no talking to you!”

This usually comes with a heaping side of “You’re so stupid, you’ll believe anything, why don’t you trust the news sources I like to read?”

Problem: I have read those news sources. I’ve read across conservative and liberal, anarchist and libertarian. I’m quite aware of confirmation bias. There are certain sources I regard with skepticism (Huffington Post) and some I outright refuse to touch these days (Breitbart). That isn’t because of any one current issue. I’ve watched these publications for years now. When I get fired up about a cause or a problem, believe me, it isn’t just the latest clickbait crap that I’m reading. Inevitably, this winds up with me having to block the person in question, because they turn out to be all about Winning the Argument instead of having a reasonable discussion. (Irony being, of course, that they’re displaying the very confirmation bias they’re trying to accuse me of…)

So there you go. Four very simple ways to avoid losing an argument with me before you even get properly rolling. You’re welcome. Go forth and enjoy a good discussion or ten!

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Cook’s Illustrated Vs Milk Street

Posted by Leona Wisoker on February 14, 2017 in cooking, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing |

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I love cooking. LOVE LOVE LOVE cooking. A good cookbook or cooking magazine will drag me down a rabbit hole of researching, searching out ingredients, testing recipes, and begging inviting folks to come over and be test subjects for enjoy my newest dish. Cookbooks have been research materials for novels, as well. It’s much easier to describe a food if you’ve made it yourself!

So instead of talking about romance today, I’m offering you … a cooking magazine review.

I used to have a shelf of over twenty cookbooks. I might be underestimating that figure. *ahem* For various reasons–-the need to slim down clutter, moving about, an unfortunate stint in a mildew-laden environment–-my cooking shelf is now primarily cooking magazines. Specifically, Cook’s Illustrated. I absolutely fell in love with this magazine years ago, and it never fails to teach me something new and interesting.

For a really interesting background on Christopher Kimball, who launched, sold, bought back and relaunched the magazine, check out this article.

Flanked by consistently great front and back cover art, the inside showcases a clean, easy to read format, lots of great sketched illustrations and photos, and valuable side-matter. There are Quick Tips, which features mail-in tips from readers; I’m continually surprised by some of the ideas folks come up with, and I’ve adopted several myself. For example, in the latest edition on my desk (March/April 2017), there’s this tip:

Storing Dry Goods: Paper bags of flour and sugar are prone to tears and holes, so Ward Wood of Bardstown, Ky., transfers his dry goods from their original packaging into gallon-size ziploc bags, which he then labels. The plastic is sturdier than paper and more compact than a hard storage container. Plus, the bag’s large opening makes it easy to measure without making a mess.

I concur. I’ve begun doing this with sugar, and oh lord is it ever easier to handle!

The focus of Cook’s Illustrated is on two things: explaining the science behind a recipe, and reworking a problematic recipe to create streamlined, consistently yummy results. The title of each article lays out the goal clearly. For example (again, from the March/April 2017 edition):

Better Hash Browns: How do you make a crispy, creamy shredded potato cake that isn’t greasy and is a cinch to flip? It starts with a cake pan.

I loved that particular recipe, by the way. Hash browns are one of my quiet favorites, and one of the ways I judge if a restaurant is worth a breakfast visit. I’ll be trying this version as soon as I have the time.

In addition to reader tips and analytical recipe articles, there are also reviews of staples and equipment. “Tasting Premium Extra-Virgin Olive Oil”, “Rating Silicone Spatulas,” and “Equipment Corner”, for example. The Ingredient Notes section talks about many of the items mentioned throughout the recipes of the month: to name only two, “Determining the Age of Eggs” and “Sorting out Rye Flours” were damn useful bits of information for me.

I particularly like the Kitchen Notes section, featuring pro tips generally related to the theme of the issue. “What Is It?” is the star of this part, in my opinion: an odd, usually antique gadget is unearthed, researched, and explained, along with notes on whether it holds up to today’s equivalents. (Sometimes the answer is resoundingly it’s better than modern versions!)

The front cover clearly lists all the major articles within, making it simple to pick out the magazine with the recipe I’m looking for. The Table of Contents offers a cleanly organized list of where to find what; the Index, at the back, offers both text and photo listings of the contents. If you can’t remember the name but do remember the photo that headed the recipe, this is a huge win.

So okay. I love Cook’s Illustrated. I think you got that loud and clear. But wait. Because now there’s Milk Street, created by the same guy who’s behind CI.

There are already lawsuits over Milk Street. Check out one story about that here.

Another one here.

I will note that while I’d heard of America’s Test Kitchen before, I’d never been particularly interested. For whatever reason, it just didn’t catch my attention. Looking over their web site and at their books today, I still don’t feel compelled to check them out. I don’t know why. Perhaps I’m simply (and unfairly) equating any cookbook with “America” anything in the title with boring and bland food. Maybe it’s that the current feature image of two blond white ladies in aprons is prompting only an epic shrug from me. Given the current political chaos, picking out two white women to represent “America’s Test Kitchen” seems dreadfully tone deaf to me.

I also find it particularly ironic that I have such an indifferent reaction to ATK, considering that it is literally the home of Cook’s Illustrated. And yes, Christopher Kimball is a rich white guy.

But still.

Without knowing any of that lawsuit stuff beforehand, I finally sat down with my promo copy of Milk Street and was enchanted.

Milk Street is like Cook’s Illustrated 2.0: still no ads, still featuring great photos, a starkly simple layout, but with a drastically narrower focus. The recipe articles are streamlined, without all the detail that can occasionally feel tedious in CI. Instead of a single recipe taking up two or three pages, here there are sometimes multiple recipes on a single page. There’s a lot more text, and it feels like a smaller font; it’s definitely a busier visual overall, with less white space than CI.

Equipment reviews have been ditched, as have the Kitchen Notes, tips from readers, and a great deal of the side matter featured in CI. Instead, Milk Street has a small book review section that covers both fiction and non fiction: the reviews are short but solidly written. In the initial issue, Kimball covers “The Food & Wine of France” (Edward Behr), “Sweetbitter” (Stephanie Danler), and “Land of Fish and Rice” (Fuschia Dunlop). I’ve added those books to my TBR list, of course. 🙂

Kimball is, unapologetically, using Milk Street to position himself as an ethnic cuisine bridge-builder between the world and Americans who don’t already have harissa and pickled mustard seeds in their repertoire. It’s not a bad position to take, and I think he does it reasonably well.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, I’m not going to subscribe to Milk Street. For one thing, money is tight: if I pick up this one, I’d have to ditch Cook’s Illustrated. For another, given the uproar and lawsuits, I’d rather hold off until the fuss settles out. I suspect that either the content and layout of Milk Street will change significantly to satisfy the complaints, or the magazine will quietly go under as a way of ending the lawsuits.

I’m definitely hanging on to the promo issue. It’s damn good. Better than Cook’s Illustrated, in many ways. I’d recommend asking for the sample copy, for as long as that option is open. (If you’re interested, Cook’s Illustrated also offers a free sample copy, so you can try them both and see which you like for yourself!)

But for now, in an either/or situation, I’ll stick with Cook’s Illustrated for the reader’s tips, equipment tests, and thorough explanations of how each recipe went from original challenge to final result.

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Dragging Out Dusty Posts

Posted by Leona Wisoker on February 13, 2017 in Uncategorized, Writing |

Going through my folders in search of another blog post entirely, I came across this one and decided I really ought to repost it. Not sure just when I wrote this, but it still holds largely true. Minor edits to bring it up to date have been applied. Enjoy! 🙂


The Creation of Uniqueness

I’m often asked what made me decide on a desert setting. My usual response involves a blank stare and a fumbling attempt to make “I haven’t the foggiest” sound like a rational answer. (I didn’t know I’d ever need to answer that question, so I didn’t keep notes!) On better days, I talk about how my writing group, many many years ago now, complained that my story was set in a boring, Standard- Euro- Medieval- White World.

To fix that, I started asking the Big World questions: where and how life developed, who the various gods were, what happened to atheists, who the vegetarians were as opposed to who raised cattle (and where to find bacon, cheese, chocolate, and coffee–very important items to the development of civilization, as far as I’m concerned!), why humanity had moved from point A to point B, and why nobody had done the equivalent of the route-to-China schtick.

(Short answer on that last: I was feeling lazy and didn’t want that complication. I knew that wouldn’t fly as a reason, so I had to come up with a plausible reason why travel to date had been restricted to the one large continent. That reason is not mentioned anywhere in the Children of the Desert series, mind you, although it is hinted at during the end bit of Fires of the Desert. I may or may not reveal it in subsequent series, or in special mini-stories along the way. But it’s in my Secret Background Notes. Mwah.)

Back to the question of uniqueness. Essentially, I referred to the many excellent guides scattered across the Internet about the worst fantasy mileu tropes, cross-checked my writing against those, decided which ones needed changed, inverted and rearranged what I could, and came up with plausible reasons to keep the rest. There was no point to developing a totally unique inn and tavern setup, for example, or a different kind of beer, wine, or tea. Those are backdrop items that really don’t need a whole lot of tweaking to work, and if I messed with that basic trope, I risked distracting the reader from the action. Instead, I focused on the strange creatures like firetail birds, gerhoi, desert lords, ha’ra’hain, and ha’reye, along with the cultures and characters, to make the world stand out.

In Guardians of the Desert, the servant/kathain cultures from north to south are set in sharp and deliberate contrast. In the south, the servants see themselves as a valued part of a noble household, and kathain–personal servants to desert lords–are highly respected. In the north, servants are often little more than disposable creatures to kick when one is displeased, and kathain, as such, don’t exist–the closest equivalent is a high-class prostitute, which is hardly a respectable profession in northern eyes.

Likewise the views on women in general are very different from one culture to another; however, the south is hardly innocent of misogyny. Darden and F’Heing Families are, overall, less than kind to their females–but they are willing to accept women who fight past the preconceptions and prove themselves strong enough to run with the boys, if you will. That’s not quite as progressive as Aerthraim or Scratha Families, which are matrilineal and ruled by women, but it’s considerably better than the (currently) rigidly patriarchal Northern Church rules.

Religion, as Deiq observes in the opening chapters of Guardians, has run through some interesting permutations over the years. The southlands began with a very different attitude toward the gods than what they have today, and the northlands are even more muddled–which I plan to explore in more depth in the next series.

That next series, by the way, will return to that original manuscript that set everything in motion. I’m tremendously excited about the prospect of fixing what was broken with that book–and about the prospect of working with Tank as he matures, walks out of a seriously unhealthy relationship, falls in love for the first time, and staves off a civil war in the northlands. Oh, and he discovers he’s a father, too, which totally screws with his head in all sorts of ways.

But before I get to that, I have to finish the Children of the Desert series, which is now five books (it started out life as a trilogy). On the good side, four of the books are already written; Secrets of the Sands, Guardians of the Desert, Bells of the Kingdom, and Fires of the Desert. So you can enjoy those while you wait for book five–and I’ve begun putting out some short side-stories to help fill in some of the rich background and backstory driving events in the main books.

Ah, but I still haven’t answered the question of “what made you choose a desert setting?” Well, I truly had very little developed by way of world building when Idisio first strolled onto the page. When Scratha grabbed him, and I asked myself what made Scratha so ominous, the term “desert lord” just sort of showed up on the page. So I had to develop a desert culture that would have feasibly produced someone as catastrophically bad-tempered as Scratha. Then I had to figure out why Alyea would go south with such scanty knowledge as to what she was facing (besides being young and easily manipulated, that is); developing the immense suspicion, plots and politics between north and south kicked off a whole new set of details and questions.

I suppose at some point it began to seem like something of a shame not to use all this amazingly cool information I was putting together. So Scratha threw in the towel and went south, dragging Idisio and Riss along.

Events took on their own direction and momentum from there. I had to run fast enough to keep up with the weird stuff I was writing, and provide rational or at least plausible reasons for it to be happening. So the best answer I can offer is this: I didn’t choose the desert setting. It chose me.

But it’s been a damn fun ride so far–and certainly a unique one!


The Children of the Desert series is currently available in both print and ebook form through ReAnimus Press. Samples of my writing from those and other projects can be found here. Feel free to catch up with me in real time on Twitter–but be warned, my feed is largely political at this point. 🙂

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Race in The Children of the Desert books

Posted by Leona Wisoker on February 10, 2017 in Uncategorized, Writing |

One of my self-challenges in recent years has been to update my writing to match my growing awareness of racism. I routinely pull up old, unpublished work for an overhaul and cringe at the assumptions I didn’t even know I was making at the time.

By way of example, I’m going to start out by talking about Kingdom of Salt, the as yet unpublished story that actually launched the entire Children of the Desert series (I’ve told that story elsewhere, but I’m unable to find it; the digital goblins have made off with it for their own obscure purposes. I’ll recreate that as soon as possible). That book has been through ten years of steady upgrades at this point, and I’m still finding issues I missed. I’m happy with the changes; it’s definitely a stronger story, more complex and nuanced compared to its origins as a white Euro-medieval pastiche.

Tank, the redheaded mercenary (and deliberate Kane homage), started out as a relatively carefree, if intense, kind of guy who basically liked to fight and fuck. Readers of the series to date already know that’s gotten way more involved: Tank now has a Tragic Backstory involving heavy childhood abuse; being “rescued” by folks who wanted to use him for their own, less sexual but considerably more dangerous agenda; and a proven ability to use his enormous anger as a psychic weapon.

He’s half-southern. He considers himself to be southern, but with his red hair and freckled skin he can pass for northern anytime he likes. His father is a northern sailor with a lady in every port, his mother was a drug-addicted southerner who genuinely loved Tank’s father–as much as she was capable of loving anyone, at least. (That part, by the way, is a cynical nod to one of my guilty-favorite songs, “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl“.) Tank’s never met either of his parents; his mother died when he was a baby, and he hasn’t gotten around to searching out his newly discovered father yet. He tends to view the concept of “family” with intense distrust, in any case, so he’s in no hurry to hunt down blood relatives.

In the initial versions of the story, Tank was completely northern–which I now realize I was using as a synonym for “white”. It logically followed (in those versions) that southerners were “black”. I had a number of problematic structures in place, just based on that division alone. All of my Admirable Heroes were white, for one thing. I didn’t even realize that until I went back and took a hard look at particulars.

I’ll pause here and suggest anyone rolling their eyes at the word “problematic” take a few moments to read this Storify of a series of hard-hitting tweets by Elexus Jionde.

I actually started reshaping that part of the narrative long before I started educating myself about racism*, because the implied timeline of genetic drift didn’t make sense. Humanity started in the south; there was a catastrophe/diaspora, and a large portion of the population moved to less dangerous lands in the north. Fast forward oh, somewhere between five hundred and eight hundred years later, and the population in the north is white but folks in the south are black.

I remember sitting back to look at that for a while, scratching my head and going, uh…. no. That’s just…not possible. I came up with a behind-the-scenes, as-yet-unrevealed reason for some of the physical changes, but for the most part I started making sure the characters showed a wider array of appearances and backgrounds. So Alyea, in Secrets of the Sands, developed into a young woman caught between the pressures of her mother’s northern ideals and her father’s southern heritage. The conflict between north and south came to life as a heavily political situation: heritage (not genetics–here’s a breakdown of the difference) became a prejudicial factor, and religions split along various schism lines.

The slave trade, as it developed in our real world, never happened in Children of the Desert. The folks in the south are heavily distrusted and looked down on as “barbaric” by folks in the north, but that’s grounded in political, religious, and superstitious reasoning. Folks in the south, in turn, consider themselves stronger, smarter, and more tapped into reality than “ignorant” northerners.

Slavery does exist in this setting, but in two distinct forms: honorable and dishonorable (the latter being the katha villages where Tank grew up). Honorable slavery involves a limited-time punishment of working off a criminal offense (what we would call indentured servitude). The south, by and large, doesn’t bother with jails: either you work off your misdeed, or you’re executed. Minor northern criminals are often sold off to southern slavers (called machagos)–not a legal transaction, these days, since the north does have jails, and is developing a reasonably balanced legal code under the current king. But that option, whether legal or not, is an ingrained custom, so it isn’t going away any time soon. Besides, honorable machagos make sure their slaves have actual crimes to work off. (On the other hand, unscrupulous ones . . . don’t.)

There is no explicit history, in this series, of one set of humans seeing another set of humans as subhuman based on appearance or heritage.

On the other hand, the remnants of the ha’reye–a very, very long-lived species who existed long before humanity evolved–do see humans as, well, subhuman. Lesser. Inherently inferior, regardless of heritage or appearance. Useful for specific purposes and completely disposable outside of those instances. There are as-yet-unrevealed (but heavily implied in the series to date) human political structures keeping that hierarchy in place.

This all developed before I started paying attention to racism. Which means I’m still picking bits of grit and shit out of what I’ve written. At the end of the day, I think the series is okay as a beginning. I can do better, and I will do better. I still have too many “northern-passing” characters like Tank as Heroes who save southern (darker-skinned) folks. That’s a real issue (take a look at children’s literature for a few examples of that) and I can’t just plop darker skin on a main character by way of fixing it.

Pausing again here. Have you seen the SyFy adaptation of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books? Did you realize that while the characters in her books are explicitly dark skinned, the TV series had almost entirely white actors? Here’s what LeGuin had to say about that.

Stop and think. If Hollywood is willing to do that to a multiple award winning, white author like LeGuin, how much influence are black creators trying to tell their stories going to think they have? Tell you what, you don’t even have to think too hard about that question. Here are some hard numbers.

Coming back to my own writing, in the series to date, the interactions have all happened within a sharply defined geographical area: south of the complicatedly dangerous Hackerwood**, below the line of which north and south heritage is, for all practical purposes, heavily intermixed. In Kingdom of Salt, though, the action moves north of the Hackerwood, and into more “purely northern” territory. While technically part of the northern kingdom, the people here are politically far more independent–-and much more distrustful of southerners (read: anyone with southern features). This is the area where racism might logically start rearing its ugly head. This is the story where I apply what I’ve been learning, modified for the world I’ve built.

This is also the story where I absolutely must hire a sensitivity reader. I should have done it long ago. I’m absolutely positive I’m going to screw up dozens of small things I didn’t even consider. I’m positive I already did, in the existing series. All I can do there is offer a sincere apology, and all I can do for the future is commit to doing better.

Much like my hopes for 2017: may everyone out there “do better”! Hold on to whatever you have, folks, and keep on trying. We’re all making mistakes and finding out about our flaws, every day of our lives. Keep writing, keep singing, keep dancing, keep working–and keep challenging yourself. Always, always challenge yourself.

It only hurts when you land….

VERY IMPORTANT NOTES

First and foremost, please do comment on this post. Tell me if I’m getting something wrong, or right, or if you’re just confused on a point. I know I’m going to screw stuff up, as I said. I want to know about it asap and fix it.

Now, about those asterisks:

*That does not mean I’m doing it right. I’m not saying this as a “pat me on the back and gimme a cookie” moment. I developed a world without our version of racism; well, there’s also no King Arthur, no Jesus Christ, no Zeus; Sophocles probably would have loved arguing with the teyanain, but on the other hand they’d likely get bored and kill him sooner than later. The closest version to Christopher Columbus, Cortez, or Da Gama is a madman who found a path through a forest filled with horribly dangerous creatures**.

** The Hackerwood is a gigantic belt of dense forest filled with horribly dangerous creatures. It’s a three day trip to get from one side to the other, and there’s only one road to date. Creating that road, and the way stops for travelers, took a lot of work and–-let’s call it bilateral cooperation. 🙂 Another road isn’t gonna happen any time soon, since the alliances that allowed for that initial attempt have fallen apart.

Related post currently in development:

Behind the Scenes About the Cover Art for Children of the Desert Series, and Common Racism in Cover Art (the final title will be less unwieldy, but that’s the base concept).

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