Saturday, December 29, 2012

When the lights come down

Photo credit: Slideshow Bob (Flickr)

No one has asked me this question (so far), but if it were to happen, this is what I would say.

The question is:

“When should I take my Christmas decorations down?”

My answer is:

I would wait until after New Year’s Day, because it’s nice to have still it up in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. It keeps the cheer going!

Then, on the first weekday following New Year’s Day (January 1st), start taking the decorations down. If New Year’s Day falls on a Friday or Saturday, start taking stuff down the following Monday.

Photo credit: ReneS (Flickr)

Depending on the complexity of your decorations, it may take a few hours or a few days. It is best, however, to have it all put away no later than January 8th.

Otherwise, it just looks sad.

* * *

This is (most likely) my final post of 2012. Thank you for reading Meandering Mouse this year, and I will be back to tell the further story of my meanderings in 2013. Be safe and let’s all get back together in this space soon!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Being clear on what is OK

"It is OK," displayed on my 2nd Generation Kindle.

Last June, I published an ebook called It is OK. It took some time to grow, but I was proud when I finally formatted it for different venues (Kindle, Nook, Smashwords).

Six months later, I had second thoughts about one of the listings. I went back to the Word file. It wasn’t worded exactly the way I thought it was (I’m the kind of writer who often forgets what I write once I publish), but the spirit of the message was the same.

It went like this:

It is OK to laugh at a joke that contains the word “nigger” – even if you’re not black.

When I wrote this, I was imagining jokes from black comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. Two of Pryor’s albums, in fact, had “nigger” in their titles. Those were the only jokes with “nigger” that I was familiar with.

I hadn’t thought of the other jokes which contain the word “nigger.” The mean-spirited ones told by ignorant people who think it’s OK to judge people based solely on skin color.

Is it OK to laugh at those jokes, too?

It’s not the worst thing one can do, by any means. But I don’t want to imply, not one bit, that negative judgment based totally on race is OK.

And even if you’re not black, it’s possible to tell a joke with “nigger” and not be mean-spirited – for proof, view this scene from Kentucky Fried Movie (1977):

I thought about rewriting the entry:

It is OK to laugh at a non-mean-spirited joke that contains the word “nigger” – even if you’re not black.


Some of the funniest jokes are insulting in some way. Comedy is not pretty, and it’s not often nice, either. Don’t tell me you’ve never laughed at a mean-spirited joke about a politician you don’t like.

Then, I thought about writing it this way:

It is OK to laugh at a non-racist joke that contains the word “nigger” – even if you’re not black.

What’s wrong with that?

People have different definitions of the word “racist.”

My definition is negative judgment of a person based solely on actual or perceived race.

Your definition may be any use of “nigger” in any context.

There’s perhaps no accurate way to convey what I mean here.

So, I decided to just remove the entry altogether – and replaced it with an entry about, appropriately enough, Christmas.

What is it?

You’ll just have to buy It is OK to find out, at the low price of $2.99 :)

P.S. I wish all of my readers happy holidays, whatever one it is – and even if you define “holiday” as a day off from work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A letter to the NRA

Photo credit: steved_np3 (stock.xchng)

I wrote this letter to the president of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre. I mailed it today.

Dear Mr. LaPierre,

Last week’s mass murder of 26 people – 20 of them children between six and seven – in Newtown, Connecticut has broken America’s heart – mine included.

This kind of tragedy, we know, has happened too often in our country before – in Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Texas, California, Wisconsin, Virginia, and too many other places.

This time, it’s different. This time, most of the dead are children.

I am not here to play the blame game – a game in which no one wins. I do want to implore the National Rifle Association to speak up.

The NRA is vocal when it comes to gun rights. Now it’s time to be equally as vocal about gun responsibilities.

To own a gun is to possess the power to kill – not just animals, but your fellow human beings. We would hope that all gun owners take this responsibility seriously – but we’re not there yet.

America doesn’t want the NRA to be quiet, or just shrug and say, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That is technically true, but no one can deny that guns (especially automatic and semi-automatic weapons) make it easier to kill many people at once.

What are we going to do about this?

I would like to see the NRA take a stronger stand against gun violence of all kinds, not just mass shootings but the tragically common one-on-one events, from gang rivals waging war on each other to one spouse shooting the other in a fit of rage. I would like to see the NRA implore its members and all gun owners to follow basic safety rules – and take extra precautions if they know anyone who is mentally ill or unstable.

When good Americans stand up for gun responsibility, it will lessen the chance of terrible events like this from happening again.

Thank you for reading,


Jennie Brown Hakim

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Meandering Mouse Gift Guide (Part 2)

Photo credit: Microsoft Clip Art

In my last post, I wrote about where to find three gifts that make for a cozy bathtime. Now I will top it off by suggesting reading material to go along with it.

Except for the times when I bathe with Two Dogs, I always bring reading material with me when I bathe. I have been known to delay a bath until a new magazine appears in the mailbox (usually Marie Claire or More).

Bathtub reading, in my opinion, should stay on the lighter side – nothing too maudlin, scary, political, or mood-depleting. (In other words, no George Orwell, no Sun magazine, no newspapers, and no Oprah Book Club picks.)

Also, it should be made of real paper. True, the pages of books and magazines might get a little wet, even if you’re as scrupulously careful as I am. However, that is nowhere near as disastrous as dropping an expensive electronic device in the tub. So no Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, iPads, or tablets of any kind, please.

I have known many a book which would qualify as great bathroom reading – but I can’t list them all because you have just eight shopping days left. Here, though, are the ones which jumped to mind first:

Penny Stallings – Flesh & Fantasy, Rock N’ Roll Confidential, and Forbidden Channels. These three books, rich in both photos and trivia, take on Hollywood, rock music, and television respectively. Unlike current tabloids, these are stories about people with actual talent.

Kenneth Anger – Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II. Reader discretion is advised: both books contain full-page photos which are startling, shocking, and sometimes horrifying. And some of the stories may have a casual acquaintance – at best – with the truth. But these are the kinds of books that will keep you in the tub until the water gets cold. (I hope you add more warm water if that happens!)

Then, we have zines. Specifically, K/S zines.

K/S as in Kirk/Spock, as in the original Star Trek’s Kirk and Spock.

The best way I can describe K/S is that it’s Star Trek fiction with a bonus – namely, Kirk and Spock are, ahem, more than just good friends.

Some of the best K/S zines live at Fanzines Plus. This is classic K/S – not just typed out and sent to a fan fiction site, but edited, typeset, printed, and bound – and with terrific illustrations as a bonus. These zines were made to last – and unlike online material, you can take it with you to the bath.

You’ll find anthologies like Naked Times, Daring Attempt, and The 25th Year (one of my personal favorites), and full K/S novels with titles like The Prince, Year of the Ram, and Covert Action. Yummy!

Of course, you get what you pay for. Items at Fanzines Plus range from $18 to $35 (tax and postage included). You may think that’s a lot to pay for fan fiction when you can find it for free on the web. But, once again, these are professional-quality stories, not the jottings of the semi-literate. And haven’t you spent much more than $35 on a gift that didn’t work out – a tacky sequined sweater, a gadget that broke down too soon, an oversized, hard-to-clean tchotchke that was regifted faster than you can say “I don’t think so.”

K/S zines are gifts for your besties – if your besties have no problem with Kirk and Spock kissing and, ahem, other things.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Meandering Mouse Gift Guide (Part 1)

In past posts, I have discussed the Misfit Doll and Kwanzaa and how to give to charities (if you want to) and Goody Ideas for the holidays and why Christmas is really about the gifts. In that spirit, isn’t it high time for me to actually recommend gifts?

I’ll make it easy for you in 2012. For great gifts, look no further than your local Trader Joe’s. I see three great gifts that go good together:

This trio of bath salts – no, not the kind of bath salts that make you go cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, but, you know, salts that go into the bath – comes in three crowd-pleasing scents: lavender, green tea, and chamomile. (I sent a picture message from TJ’s to Two Dogs today, saying I wanted these!).

Of course, if you’re heading towards the tub, you can’t forget the soap. TJ’s has you covered here, too, with this Soap Stack of triple-milled lemon verbena soap from France, where so many good things come from. I can think of few gifts so underrated as a sweet-smelling bar of soap. I don’t think it says, “Hey, you stink.” I think it says, “I want you to have a terrific cleansing experience.”

To top it off, TJ’s offers a Dark Chocolate Bar (or Milk Chocolate, for those who like to walk on the lighter side). What goes better with a well-salted bath and sweet soap than a piece of chocolate on a tiny plate? (The bars are 6.3 ounces each; you need not eat the whole thing at once!)

So, here’s a gift to give that will cost less than $20 combined: Trader Joe’s Bath Salt Trio, Trader Joe’s Soap Stack, Trader Joe’s Dark (or Milk) Chocolate Bar.

Perfect for the bath lover in your life.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Everything is NOT my fault (or yours, either)

Photo credit: jetheriot (Flickr)

Derek Sivers was the founder of CD Baby, a site which has been extremely helpful for musicians, allowing them to bring their music to the public directly without the middleman record companies taking their thick slice of the pie. One of those musicians is Two Dogs. We have good reasons to thank Sivers.

One of those reasons is not this recent blog post. Sivers tells us that he was going to tell us how badly his former employees cheated him in his book, Anything You Want. These naughty employees were a mercenary, entitled bunch of turd blossoms.

And then, Sivers realized – hey, it was his fault for letting his company get so out of hand in the first place. After all, he was the president.

That may be all well and good (it is important as a president to keep an eye on company culture), but Sivers takes it a bit further.

We should always blame ourselves for everything that happens in our lives.

Here’s what Sivers has to say about always blaming yourself:

This is way better than forgiving. When you forgive, you’re still playing the victim, and they’re still wrong, but you’re charitably pardoning their horrible deeds.

But to decide it’s your fault feels amazing! Now you weren’t wronged. They were just playing their part in the situation you created. [italics mine]. They’re just delivering the punch-line to the joke you set up.

“The situation you created.” As if you were that powerful.

I have no idea if Sivers actually believes what he says, or is just creating click-bait. It doesn’t matter to me either way – I know that deciding to take personal blame for everything that happens to you is not a prescription for happiness. More people over-blame themselves than under-blame. It’s not a healthy situation, and articles like these need the corrective of critical thinking, like dirty windows need an astringent cleanser.

I prefer taking responsibility only for what you do and letting other people do the same. If someone is rude to me, I do not think “I could have lightened their mood beforehand,” as Sivers says I should. I ignore it, refuse to let it tarnish my self-worth, and if I think of rude people at all, it’s pity that they don’t have more emotional control. (And there’s no guarantee that I could have lightened their mood in any event.)

Even when you take responsibility for what you do, you don’t always have control over the outcome. How many times have we taken actions which we sincerely believed would have good outcomes, only to see them go awry? How many years have we spent learning the “rules” of finding a job, behaving on a date, or staying married, and by the time we are actually in those situations, the “rules” have changed?

Is that really our fault?

Remember the classic Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine”? Commodore Matthew Decker beamed his Constellation crew to a planet in order to protect them from the title object. Instead, the Doomsday Machine destroyed that very planet. A guilt-stricken Decker vowed to destroy the Doomsday Machine at any cost.

If this had happened to me, I would feel guilty, too.

But is the loss of the crew Decker’s fault?

Or did he do what he thought was best (where else could he beam his crew to?), and it just went tragically wrong?

As the bumper sticker (almost) says, stuff happens. We can anticipate and plan for such stuff, but it’s still not under our complete control. We can’t always be superheroes in the stories of our lives, no matter what Sivers says:

Now you’re like a new superhero, just discovering your strength. Now you’re the powerful person that made things happen, made a mistake, and can learn from it.

No. Real human beings are just not that powerful. It’s hubris to think so.

Nobody wins the blame game – no matter where the finger is pointing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Danger: Words

Do you know what a “manic pixie dream girl” is? From my understanding, a MPDG wears polka dot dresses and drinks Hawaiian Punch from mint-green Fiesta Ware and dances on top of dandelions in the moonlight while listening to leaves fall. (I think.)

To more than one person who usesTumblr, “manic pixie dream girl” is a slur. An ableist slur.

You don’t know what “ableist” means?

Let’s explain with one of those word puzzles we saw in the SAT. “Ableism” is to disability as “racism” is to race.

Now, you may think you understand what ableism is. Making Helen Keller jokes. Not installing wheelchair ramps for your business. Mocking people for the mental illnesses that they did not ask for and cannot control.

Is saying “manic pixie dream girl” a mock? Who thinks of mental illness when they see “manic pixie dream girl”?

And what’s next? We won’t be able to say “Beatlemania” anymore?

Another example: some people (especially those on Tumblr) want us to stop saying “that’s so lame” because that’s ableist, too. Never mind that practically no one has used the word “lame” to refer to the disabled since…er…the nineteenth century? (Oddly enough, “that’s so lame” is the replacement for the now-vilified “that’s so gay.”)

Are you cringing yet? Here is one more: some people are upset at the lyric in “Amazing Grace” which says, “I was blind, but now I see” because it implies that being blind is a negative state. (Objectively speaking, it is better to be able to see than not. But that is a post for another day.)

When did people become so afraid of words?

Social activists of the old school demanded much – to be heard, to define themselves, to speak their history as they understood it.

What they did not do was demand the extinction of certain words. Remember Richard Pryor’s 1974 album, That Nigger’s Crazy? Or Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots?

The truth is, life has gotten much better for every group that was marginalized before the 1960s. Who would have thought back in 1960 that someone could be openly gay and still be a successful news anchor or talk show host? Or that courses on transgenderism would be taught in respectable colleges?

But instead of celebrating the ongoing milestones of acceptance, activists are diving further into outrage. I compare it to being lucky enough to be seated at a magnificent feast, but the only words coming out of your mouth are complaints about the crumbs on the tablecloth.

In the absence of real trouble, certain personality types will go in search of offenses to fight against. Now, I certainly do not want America to experience the distraction-eliminating problems that are occurring in other countries. I do know that it doesn’t take bombs or fires or riots to see what deserves our attention and what does not.

Words are powerful. Yet, the human spirit is even stronger. Don’t let the words of a dumbass – or even those of a smart person – decide your worth. And be sure of the intent before you cry “offense!”

This T-shirt designed by James Mitchell, available at We Love Fine, is the best possible ending to this post:

Friday, November 30, 2012

A question for the end of the month...

Please tell me how to "exist" a garage.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Read, reread, and think

Photo credit: Microsoft Clip Art

(I was glad to find this old essay, just because it reminded me of books that deserve my rereading.)

Wherever I go to work, do errands, or travel, I always bring a book along. When I am reading, I am never lonely, for throughout my life books have been my truest friends. No matter what time of day it is, no matter where my mind is at, books are at my side, never judging, always helpful - even if to take me away from my problems for a little while.

The words that came from people’s mouths were not always good to me. From them, I learned fallacy: I was ugly. I was stupid. I danced like a rhinoceros. I would never have the joys of marriage. I didn’t deserve the good things in life.

The words of people were untrustworthy. They lied to me. But the words of books speak the truth, even when the label on the outside is “fiction.” It is true that lessons taught from experience remain with you in a way that lectures never can. It is also true that a book can be an experience. It will be impossible for me to list all the lessons I have learned from books in this tiny patch of time. But these four are standouts:

From Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, I learned that a compatibility of souls, not a temporary physical attraction, is the basis of love that lasts, and that you may not get a second chance no matter how sorry you are – so take care in what you say and do to others.

From Elithe Hamilton Kirkland’s Love is a Wild Assault, I learned that a woman’s choice of husband is perhaps the most important choice she will make in her life - and that making a good choice is far, far more difficult than any advice can convey.

From Oriana Fallaci’s The Rage and the Pride, I learned that all cultures are not created equal – that it is perfectly okay, in fact vital, for free societies to denounce and fight back against fundamentalism of any stripe.

From Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, I learned that “whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem and not my problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, and not with me.” I only wish I could have read these words when I was thirteen.

Now it is time for me to write a story which will be water to a parched soul.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The bright shiny happy future

You know what’s great about Netflix? It has so many TV series in stock so you don’t have to depend on your regular channels if you want to see, say, Spock lay the smackdown on Kirk in the original Star Trek episode “Amok Time”. You don’t have to be a premium cable subscriber to watch episodes of True Blood or Penn & Teller’s Bullshit (if you haven’t, watch it! - c'mon, you're not afraid of "strong language", are you?).

If you read a story online which reminds you of a series that you haven’t seen in years, if not decades, you can rent that series and remember why it was special enough to warrant a story – or a shipload of stories, in fact. The Smithsonian website has a section called Paleofuture, or what the future was supposed to look like in the past. One prime example of paleofuturity is The Jetsons, which first appeared on ABC in 1962 (like the Rolling Stones and James Bond movies, it’s been around half a century).

I got to meet George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, and Jane his wife on NBC a decade later. Like nearly all people who watched The Jetsons the first time, I saw it in black-and-white. (I would not live in a household with a color TV until I was fifteen, too old for Saturday morning cartoons.) Watching the series via Netflix means I’m watching the series in color for the very first time. The Jetsons is a show that needs color.

Still, back then I enjoyed The Jetsons almost as much as I did Richie Rich comic books, for just about the same reasons. In the Jetsons’ world, cars took flight, apartments were uncluttered, moving walkways and jet tubes took you places, and no one was poor. (Well, except for the hobo that inherited “The Flying Suit”.)

I did not notice back then that the animation was uninspiring (for Hanna-Barbera, quantity trumped quality), there were more fat people on the show than non-white people, and the number of George vs. Spacely (his bombastic boss) plots were tiresome. (How many times can a guy get fired?) I did not ask what the ground looked like, or what kind of fuel the flying cars used (and where it would come from).

Today, the future doesn’t look so bright from where we are now. Scientists fret that dealing with climate change will be the major task of human beings tomorrow, not building in the sky and riding flying cars. Dystopian future fiction far outsells utopian future fiction – I wonder if any major publisher will even take a chance on a positive future book? Optimism about the future is called folly, denial, living in la-la-la land.

What do I say to that? No one knows exactly what the future will be like. Not scientists. Not authors. Not TV show creators. Not even psychics.

We close our eyes at night and trust that we will open our eyes to the next day. Without that trust, we couldn’t make plans, formulate goals, or live life. If we don’t believe in a good future, we have no motivation to create a good present. If I were a therapist, I would recommend Jetsons DVDs for mental health, not the Hunger Games trilogy.

If you have a Netflix subscription, I say put the Jetsons in your queue in a high spot. If you have to wait, it may be because I’m still going through the series; don’t worry, I’m watching them as fast as I can!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Mouse, the Hedgehog, and the Cactus

(Note: I wrote this as a speech for Toastmasters back in 2003. That is why it starts with “Speaking…”)

Speaking to a group of people is hard enough. Speaking about yourself - well, where do you begin?

I’m going to begin by introducing you to my zoo. No, I don’t have a menagerie of exotic animals in my backyard. (To tell you the truth, I don’t even have a backyard.)

I’m talking about my miniature zoo of three. Two animals and a plant. And I carry them with me all day long. But it’s my mood that decides which one is ascendant.

Who are these creatures? Let’s start with...

The Mouse

The Mouse is me at my best. She’s a tiny playful creature with fluffy golden fur, eyes like two drops of fresh black ink, ears like tiny pink seashells, and a long tail that zings back and forth.

The Mouse jumps upon the cheese of happiness with all four feet. She is always eager for new adventures and old-fashioned fun. The Mouse has simple needs: a little play, a little food, a little sunshine, and a little hideaway with comfy bedding to sleep upon. She does not know the meaning of the word “stress”. Every moment is an occasion for joy. I enjoy being the Mouse best.

The Hedgehog

Next in this little zoo comes the Hedgehog. A small hedgehog, a baby perhaps...but her long spines warn one and all: Stand back. I’ve got too much on my plate, and I don’t need more.

The Hedgehog’s one wish is to curl up into a ball and hide. But the world won’t let her. The world tugs at her quills with a myriad of demands: Get up. Go to work. Fight traffic. Go to the grocery store. Exercise. Do the laundry. Cook dinner. Wash the dishes. Answer e-mail. Tug, tug, tug. Is it any wonder that the Hedgehog has one mood - bad?

Underneath all those pricks, though, is a sensitive soul in need of TLC. If the Hedgehog could hide for a while, it would do her a world of good.

The Cactus

But if you think the Hedgehog is tough, watch out for the Cactus. The Cactus doesn’t want to do anything. As in no-thing. Nada. She is just too darn tired. Plus, she is filled with dull gray ash - no flowers can grow on her.

All the Cactus can do is be still. All of us want to be still at times. But my Cactus has a tendency to appear when all I must do is done...and when I can do what I want.

The Cactus cannot write. The Cactus cannot read. The Cactus cannot watch movies. The Cactus can’t go for a walk in the park. The Cactus can’t do anything. Not even the good things.


Unfortunately, I’ve been having more Hedgehog and Cactus time, while Mouse time is ephemeral [speaker‘s note: that was the word of the day]. Monday through Friday, I’m a Hedgehog during the day and a Cactus when the sun goes down. Even on the weekends, I’m catching up on what I don’t have time for during the week.

For example, I went to the Ducks game on Sunday night [Oct. 12, 2003]. I was a Mouse when I went in and, because the Ducks lost, a Hedgehog when I came out. And because I lost sleep that night, I was a Cactus the following day.

The trick is to bring the Mouse out as often as possible while respecting the Hedgehog and the Cactus. The Hedgehog reminds me when life is pushing me too far, and the Cactus tells me to rest and renew. Each member of my zoo has a role to play, and my role is to give each one the proper balance. I love all of my creatures, and want to take the best care of them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Unanswerable questions about "Lost in Space"

After that IMPORTANT prior post, here is a piece of cotton candy for you. Because this blog is like that.

1. Why send one nuclear family to colonize Alpha Centauri? Would it make more sense to send a group of fertile couples? Or at least more than one family? What were the Robinsons supposed to do once they got there?

2. Why put them in suspended animation if the trip is going to last only five and a half years?*

3. If this mission is supposed to solve the Earth’s dire population crisis – which affects every nation -- why sabotage it?

4. Why do Judy, Penny, and Will look nothing alike? (Even in the movie, they don't.)

5. Why do they run into so many unscientific characters – pirates, cowboys, princesses, circuses, etc, etc, ad nauseam?

6. Where did they get their seasonal changes of clothes? Why wear the same clothes every day? (Hey, it wasn't Star Trek, in which they wore uniforms.)

7. Smith is a doctor – why is he so fucking stupid when it comes to space?

8. Why didn’t the Robinsons push Smith out the airlock before the end of the first season? (Actually, that may be more pertinent than "Did they ever get to Alpha Centauri?" Not with that derpdoodle onboard.)

* This one has an answer. In the original unaired pilot, the trip was going to last 99 years, a time which warrants suspended animation. Irwin Allen, the show’s creator, was a notorious cheapskate frugal filmmaker. When the pilot was rewritten and reshot, he didn’t want to waste that expensive (and cool) footage of the suspended animation process.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The first issue

Photo credit: flaivoloka (stock.xchng)

…is the question of whether or not life can exist on Earth in the years to come.

Who the President is, the Middle East, China, the Euro Zone, North Korea…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

Taxes, unemployment, business (large and small), healthcare, banks, Wall Street, housing, technology, education…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

Illegal immigration, the death penalty, prison overpopulation, whether or not felons should vote…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

Family values (whatever those are), abortion, rape culture, the mommy wars, work-life balance, who should be allowed to marry…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

Women’s rights, LGBT rights, racism, classism, ableism, any other “ism”…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

Movies, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, talking face-to-face…none of these will matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

All of the words ever written by human beings won’t matter if life can’t exist on Earth.

We are at the turning point right now.

Once upon a time, people flew to the moon and left footprints there. A species capable of such a deed can find ways to save its own future here on Earth. I know it.

It just takes the will.

Find it, Earthlings.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What’s in your B.S. (Belief System)?

Photo credit: joejoe77 / stock.xchng

People all around the world have various belief systems. However, not all belief systems are good for people. Here are some red flags to watch out for.

Does your belief system…

1. Discourage critical thinking, asking followers to have a childlike, trusting mindset?

2. Insist on obedience as a prime virtue?

3. Threaten dire punishments (on earth and in the afterlife) for not obeying the rules?

4. Focus inordinately on sexual behavior, banning certain acts even between consenting adults?

5. Have separate rules for males and females? Does it segregate the sexes?

6. Engage in bizarre and inexplicable rituals (such as pretending wafer and wine are flesh and blood)?

7. Tell followers what they can and cannot wear?

8. Tell followers what they can and cannot eat?

9. Tell followers what they can and cannot read/see/listen to?

10. Encourage or mandate corporal punishment for children and/or adults?

11. Claim that belief system officials have godlike power and perfection?

12. Tell followers that thoughts (not just acts) can be evil?

13. Ban harmless activities (such as dancing)?

14. Say that people who don’t follow the belief system are evil and damned?

15. Forbid followers to associate with non-followers – even family members?

16. Encourage followers to have as many children as possible (in order to create new followers)?

17. Promise a beautiful, fantastic afterlife (which no one has ever seen) in exchange for sacrifice and suffering in this world?

18. Claim that humans are innately evil, and only the belief system can redeem them?

19. Insist on humility and sacrifice on the part of the “average” follower (as opposed to officials), making personal concerns subordinate to the needs of the belief system?

20. Care only about the fate of the belief system, not its individual members, humanity, or the earth itself?

If even one of these characteristics is in your belief system, I advise you to stop and think. Even if your belief system says you shouldn't.(Especially then!)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Don’t you know about the word? Well, the Meandering Mouse knows that you can’t “end the word”

In the past few years, a movement has arisen to excise the word “retarded” from the English language. On websites called “Spread the Word to End the Word”, activists fight against what they call the “R-word,” pleading with us never to use it lest it hurt the feelings of the developmentally disabled.

This movement is, no doubt, coming from a good place in the heart.

It is also futile.

Protesting against “retarded” (and its little brothers, “retard” and the suffix “-tard”) at this point is like…well, I hate to resort to a cliché, but it’s like closing the barn door after the horse has run away and sired enough descendants to fill the Queen’s stables.

“Retarded” does not mean now what it did decades ago. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at three other words which have changed meanings: “moron,” "imbecile," and “idiot.”

In the early 20th century, psychologists developed new terminology for people with mental disabilities. Those with an IQ between 51-70 were “morons.” (70 was the baseline of “normal” IQ; 130 and above was “gifted.”) Those with an IQ between 25-50 were “imbeciles,” and those with an IQ between 0-24 were “idiots.”

(Aside: I shudder at the horror of having an IQ of 0.)

In the decades between then and now, “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” drifted out of the psychologist’s office and into the dictionary of pure insult. That process has already happened with “retarded.” I can’t think of any well-regarded psychological professional who still uses “retarded.” We use better, more accurate terms like “developmentally disabled” and “mentally challenged.”

If you can’t tell the difference between screaming at a developmentally disabled five-year-old, “Shut up, you little retard!” and saying about a temperamental Xerox machine, “That printer went full retard today,” you need to brush up on your critical thinking skills.

If someone directly insults your child with the word “retarded,” deal with it appropriately. If someone uses “retarded” in a context that has nothing to do with your child, let it go.

Just let “retarded” (and its little brothers) go in your own mind the way it’s already run away in real life.

It’s a word, after all, not a bullet.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The gratitude trap

I like being grateful for the blessings in my life.

My husband. My health. Being able to see, hear, and walk. Being able to read complex literature. Living in a quiet, gentle neighborhood. My capacity for optimism. All of the colors in the spectrum. Joe’s O’s on the kitchen shelf, milk and Dole Orange Peach Mango juice in the refrigerator. And so on.

Gratitude is great.

Unless it’s imposed from the outside.

There’s a difference between being grateful for what is and being told you should be grateful for what is. If you are forced to live in your car, and someone tells you to be grateful you have a roof over your head, will it make you feel better?

I think not.

If I had no shoes, and someone told me to think of the person with no feet, I would interpret it as, “Shut up about your problems; I don’t want to hear it.”

Any kind of complaint or lament, no matter how justified, is labeled “whining.”

Gratitude is great.

Unless it gets in the way of better.

I was grateful for my office job until I was laid off three years ago. I had been working outside the home constantly since 1991. In that time, I often dreamed about working out of the home (as a writer). I sold a handful of short stories (and one biography of Medgar Evers), and tried to sell some screenplays, but I never fought that hard because I had the steady job to fall back on. When that was gone, I was on my own. I started working from home and soliciting my own business. So far, I’ve had some victories, but less than I wanted so far.

I often wonder if I had been bolder earlier in my life, would I be financially secure right now? If I had been reaching for more instead of nesting in gratitude, perhaps I’d have more digits in my bank accounts.

Gratitude is great.

But attitude gets things moving.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Paying for it

Photo credit: brewbooks / Flickr

There are two reasons to give a book a five-star review online:

1. You loved it – for its writing, for its message, for the way it showed you a fact of life that you never realized before – and you feel that others will benefit from a reading.

2. You got paid for it.

As a writer, which five-star review would you rather have?

Or does it matter, as long as the end result is more sales?

What is a writer supposed to do to let the world know about his or her new book? Especially if it’s self-published, without the backing of a major publisher?

Well, telling the people you know is a start.

Informing social media is another.

Calling local newspapers and radio shows for interviews is also a good idea.

Some writers, though, turn to entrepreneurs who offer superb reviews for a price. The New York Times recently profiled one such person, Todd Rutherford, who ran a service called It started with Rutherford himself offering to do one good review for $99. Then, he offered 20 reviews for $499, or 50 for $999.

Orders started pouring in – so much so that Rutherford found that he couldn’t keep up with the demand. So he outsourced some of the work to freelancers, and, as is often the case, paid them a fraction of the “retail” price - $15 per review.

What is wrong with a guy seeing a need in the marketplace and finding a way to fulfill it?

If you’re a reader, you may get tricked by five-star reviews of a book which may be in fact mediocre – or worse. For someone with a small book-buying budget, a mistake can have a painful cost. Amazon does refund ebooks, but no later than seven days after purchase.

If you’re a writer, and you don’t have $999 (or even $99) to spare to buy reviews – or you insist on getting reviews the old-fashioned way, by earning them through word-of-mouth – you may feel that you’re at an unfair disadvantage.

If you write good reviews for pay, you are also in an ethical trough. Suppose you read the book and think it’s not all that. The person who bought your review expects a positive one. It is hard not to give people who pay you exactly what they want – no matter how you feel.

Paying for good reviews introduces duplicity into a system which relies on honest voices (a data-mining expert in the NYT article says that up to one-third of consumer reviews on the Internet are fake). And it is not easy to filter out the paid-for reviews, given that thousands pour in each day.

I have two e-books out in the market, Goody Ideas and It is OK. (You can find out more about them and get links for purchase at my website.) Of course I want more readers, and I want them to like the books and leave good reviews.

But I want those reviews to have roots in truth, not commerce.

I’d rather have an honest one-star review than a five-star review from a paid-for reviewer who didn’t “get” my work.

Remember the saying “nice guys finish last”? In real life, sometimes they do. And sometimes they don’t.

But they do finish with their heads held high.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A meditation on beauty

Last Labor Day weekend, one of my activities was taking myself on what Julia Cameron calls an “artist’s date.” I went to the Bowers Museum to view the exhibit called “Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler to the Stars.”

You know Peter Carl Fabergé for the jeweled eggs that he created for European elites, especially the pre-Revolution Russian royal family. This exhibit didn’t have the eggs that opened, but there were more than enough marvels in store – from egg charms to presentation boxes to bell pushes (used to summon servants) to cigarette cases (some of which I would have loved to given Two Dogs) to table clocks.

(If you are in the Santa Ana, California area between now and January 6, 2013, I highly recommend visiting this exhibit. On the first Sunday of every month, Target sponsors free admission to the museum, a bonus that I took advantage of.)

Looking at these finely crafted objects was a meditation on the nature of beauty. It may be that beauty is less subjective than we think. No matter where we’re from, we can agree that the objects of the Fabergé collection are beautiful. We can also agree that a pile of excrement on the street is ugly. It is difficult to believe the maxim that “everything is beautiful in its own way.” Everything may have a specific purpose, but there is an inevitable hierarchy of beauty.

Some will look for a lesson about getting what you give in the examples above. It took hours of painstaking work to create one tiny Fabergé egg charm, whereas an animal can dump excrement on the street without thinking about it. Yet, we can find cases where the opposite is true. Flowers do not need to spend effort on their beauty, while architects have slaved over blueprints and construction workers have toiled for months for results like this:

This is the Buffalo (New York) City Court Building, which is a good reason not to live in Buffalo.

Take every chance possible to view beauty, whether it be at the museum, the antique store, or your own backyard. It is, I say, one of the best tonics for the soul.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Curb your TV (so you don’t have to kill it)

Quick, name the household appliance that carries the biggest, fattest baggage – think of hard-shell American Tourister baggage, with wheels.

No, it’s not the refrigerator. Or the stove. It’s not even in the kitchen – at least, it shouldn’t be.

It’s the television.

Perhaps you forgot it was an appliance.

Television is our bête noire. We blame it for everything we can think of that’s going wrong with our world, from alienation to obesity, from family breakdown to loneliness, from ignorance to inattention - as if none of these existed before television’s exponential growth after World War II. Pundits give verbal whacks to television, and we nod our heads gravely, knowingly.

We still can’t tear our eyes away from it.

Ever since we were small children, when our parents dropped us in front of the tube to keep us quiet (and then dangled it like a carrot for the rest of our childhood), we’ve been hooked.

We turn it on in the morning and keep it on all day, even though we’re not enjoying what we’re watching. (How much pure childhood joy did you get out of watching the Saturday morning cartoons? Did anyone like Scooby-Doo that much?) When it appears in the waiting room or the checkout line or the gas pump, we have to look even though the output at these venues makes Happy Days look like Omnibus. When we’re at our friends’ homes, our heads crane toward the television instead of our friends’ faces.

Television is hypnotic. It’s got powerful juju. It’s the appliance with WOOOOOO.

It’s still an APPLIANCE.

Think of it like a knife. Or an electric mixer. A knife can slice avocados into thin slices for a salad, or it can deprive you of beloved digits. An electric mixer can turn flour, sugar and eggs into cake batter, or transmogrify your hair into an uncombable mess.

Television is a tool. You use it. It doesn’t use you. (Can’t you feel that WOOOOOO slithering away?)

I can think of three worthwhile things to do with television:

a. Exercise with a workout video.
b. Rent a film from Netflix (or, if you are super-duper-triple lucky, from an offbeat video store in your neighborhood, such as Vidiots on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica) that is not for the megaplex.
c. Paint a picture of a forest with a trail that wiggles toward the horizon on the glass. (Or a portrait of your pet. Content isn’t relevant here.)

Three is my limit. It should be yours, too.

The television can waste your time. Or it can bless your time. It all depends on how You. Use. It. (In that exact order. Feel your thumb wiggling toward the OFF button on your remote control.)

You don’t need to kill your television. Just train it.

Sit, television. Good television!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

One-drop? Gotta stop

According to the one-drop rule, these fellows in the "Star Trek" episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” are ALL black. Does that make sense to you?

Do you know about the “one-drop rule” – the idea that if a person has even one iota of African ancestry, he or she is considered black – regardless of physical appearance?

Silly, isn’t it? (And why does it not apply when it comes to Hispanic, Asian, or Native American ancestry?) This bad idea started shortly after the end of the Civil War, when the South, now faced with millions of freed slaves, became hysterical with fear that blacks and whites would mate and produce children “tainted” with black blood. Of course, the one-drop rule was law for decades to come.

Today – in a bizarre irony – blacks are far more likely than whites to insist on enforcing the one-drop rule, because if people who are half-black and half-something else were to call themselves biracial (or multiracial, as the case may be), the numbers in the “black” population would go down…which is not a good reason to hang on to this silly rule.

I could say more, but I will let one of my favorite wisdom brokers, Cecil Adams, give you the last word. Cecil is the columnist/researcher behind The Straight Dope, which has entertained and educated Chicago Reader fans (and many others in syndication and the Web) since 1973. Not too long ago, a reader asked Cecil whether or not Ludwig van Beethoven had African ancestry. Here is Cecil’s reply:

Beethoven black? Sure, why not? If we accept the "one-drop rule" that long prevailed in the U.S., namely that any black African ancestry whatsoever makes you black, and if we further buy the argument sometimes heard that everyone on earth is at least 50th cousin to everyone else – that is, has a common ancestor no more than 50 generations back – then everybody's black, or more accurately, as Santana once put it, everybody's everything.

That is the only logical conclusion to the one-drop rule – a conclusion which will please both white supremacists and black-pride activists alike. /sarcasm

Friday, August 10, 2012

Traffic lights are my friends. Traffic lights are my friends. Traffic lights are my friends.

Photo credit: 13dede / stock.xchng

Age is supposed to make you less afraid of life. For me, it is having the opposite effect. It may be because I understand more than ever what one careless error (by me or someone else) will cost. The more I am grateful for life, the harder I hang on to it.

This attitude has blossomed most spectacularly in my attitude towards traffic lights, of all things. Not too long ago, a traffic light was red, yellow, or green, and I had confidence after twenty-two years of driving that I knew what to do no matter what color was above my path.

Now I am far more eager to see red lights than green ones.

Red lights are certainty. They are as unambiguous as a STOP sign – you are supposed to STOP. Not think about whether or not you will stop.

Green lights are uncertainty. It could be green a few seconds more, just enough for you to cross the intersection…or it could jump up to yellow, warning you that STOP time is imminent.

Imagine a green light far away from you on the road. If you are lucky, it will turn yellow and then red before you are in the intersection…or when you are at least in the middle of it.

What lies between is a strip of road in which you ask:

When is this light going to turn red? Should I slow down or speed up? I can’t afford a $480 ticket (current fine for red-light running in California). Should I slow down or speed up? Oh, no, I can’t help but slow down in anticipation of the red that’s going to come. What if someone rear-ends me? Should I speed up or – yellow light! SCREEECH!

Everyday driving should not be as heart-pounding as a ride on the Thunderbolt (Cyclone, Colossus, Kingda Ka – pick your favorite roller coaster). But the more I drive, the more anxious I get about this. What, besides taking anti-anxiety drugs, should I do about this?

If only the traffic lights would let us know…

Actually, they can. Just not in America.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wait - the Meandering Mouse wrote some books?

That radio interview reminded me of something: I haven't yet told my blog readers about my e-books!

I've tooted the horn on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn - but not here. This is a personal blog, not a business blog, but that's no reason not to write a post about Goody Ideas and It is OK. For less than the average price of a magazine (and with far fewer ads!), these two e-books can be yours.

Here is the text from my press release:

Jennie Brown Hakim appreciates the fact that today’s technology makes it easier for people with ideas to tell the world – right away.

“I have no problem with responsible gatekeepers of media, such as traditional book publishers,” says Ms. Hakim. “But it takes time for a book to get published the ‘normal’ way – more than a year from acceptance to publication date. With e-book technology, a book can get to its audience hours after the final draft is done. How amazing is that?”

Ms. Hakim’s two e-books, Goody Ideas and It is OK, are made for an audience that seeks new ways of thinking. Goody ideas, according to Ms. Hakim, are ideas that are meant to bring nothing but joy. Their end result is fun and happy memories. Most goody ideas have low or even no cost – all you need to bring is imagination.

Some of Ms. Hakim’s goody ideas include making poetry out of collected cookie fortunes, listening to favorite songs at 2 a.m., and having a “Bed-In” like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Each one of her 100 goody ideas can be done alone as well as with others, so the reader does not have to depend on company to play. “I know how hard it can be to get other people to go along. No matter how many friends you have, they may not always be ready when you are.”

It is OK was years in the making – Ms. Hakim started writing what “it is OK” to do in a notebook back in 2006. Bit by bit, the project grew until it was over 5,000 words. At that point, it was the size of a book.

“We receive so many messages about what it is not OK to do,” Ms. Hakim says. “I like the idea of a book which says what is OK to do – and it’s more than you may think.”

Some examples from the book include:

• It is OK, if you’re a gal, if your best friend is a guy (and vice versa).
• It is OK to admit that you don’t have it all figured out – even as an adult.
• It is OK to prefer white rice to brown rice. (The same goes for bread.)

Ms. Hakim also designed both of the book covers using the Adobe Creative Suite. “Book design is another of my creative specialties, and it is a meditation for me. When a book is well-designed, it can’t help but add to the reading experience. Thanks to technology, e-books can be just as beautiful as printed ones.”

Both e-books are now being sold for the Amazon Kindle, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and at Smashwords (which sells books that can be read on almost any e-reader). The links can be found at Ms. Hakim’s site,

These are certainly not the last words from Ms. Hakim, who has written articles for Orange Coast and Vision magazines. “I want to see what reception these two books get, but of course I expect to write more in the near future. I can’t not write, after all.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Meandering Mouse speaks!

Photo credit: Rob Boudon / Flickr

I have some good (goody?) news today. I had my very first radio interview!

Susan Petrella, who runs the Creative Orange County website, interviewed me on Blog Talk Radio this morning. We talked about my e-books, Goody Ideas and It is OK.

Now, if you've never been interviewed on the radio, it can be an intimidating experience. Until you're actually doing it. My advice is to just be yourself, and answer the questions to the best of your ability. I'm so glad Susan was a friendly interviewer.

Want to hear what the Meandering Mouse sounds like? Listen here.

Thanks again to Susan and Creative Orange County.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Bitter taste in the wellwater of the commons

Photo credit: Rotorhead / stock.xchng

For the past week, I have struggled to find words to speak of last week’s horrific tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. The wisest counsel, it seems, was to be quiet rather than say something rash or worse (such as the canard that “an armed citizen would have prevented this” – in a dark, noisy movie theater filled with running, panicked people and where the gunman had body armor and tear gas, to boot?).

Then, I found this article on OdeWire, which is my homepage. Michael Nagler of the Metta Center for Nonviolence wrote it.

I won’t watch violent movies, and I feel that violence is not a substitute for storytelling. If there is violence in a movie, it should have a good reason behind it, and it must never be glorified. Death is a solemn event – but how can you feel it when you watch scores of bodies falling at the same time?

There is, of course, no direct causation between “The Dark Knight Rises” and the shooting in the theater. Gratuitous violent “entertainment” does, however, leave a bitter taste in the wellwater of the commons.

And now, Michael’s essay.

The Batman Massacre: A Response

Posted on July 21, 2012

I want to make an offer to my fellow Americans who are, like myself, reeling from the worst “random” shooting the country has ever seen. My question: Have you had enough? Because if you have, I can tell you how to stop this kind of madness. I know that’s a bold claim, but this is not a time for small measures.

We cannot fix this tomorrow, because we didn’t cause it yesterday. We have been building up to this domestic holocaust since – to take one milestone – television was made available to the general public at the conclusion of World War Two.

If you are still with me, you are prepared to believe that it was not a coincidence that this massacre took place at the scene of an extremely violent, “long-awaited” movie. Psychologists have proved over and over again that – guess what – exposure to violent imagery produces disturbances in the mind that must, in course of time, take form in outward behavior. The imagery can be in any medium, nor does it matter whether on the surface of our minds we think what we’re seeing is real or made up. This is a natural, scientific law. Exactly who will crack next and in what setting is nearly impossible to predict, and in any case it’s ridiculous to try to run around stopping the resulting violence from being acted out after the mental damage has been done. The only sane approach is not to do it in the first place.

As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman pointed out in his book, Let’s Stop Killing Our Kids, the video games that the Army uses to prepare ordinary men and women for combat, in other words to wipe out the normal empathy and inhibitions against hurting others that we’ve built up over millennia – a process known as civilization – are the very same games our young people buy across the counter throughout the country.

Of course, there are other factors. At some point we will have to talk about readily available weapons; at some point we’ll have to realize that a nation that engages in heartless drone warfare, torture, and extrajudicial killings cannot expect to live in peace. But until we liberate our minds from the endless pounding of violent imagery I fear we won’t be able to think clearly about those factors (or for that matter anything else).

With rare exceptions, film and video game producers will not stop turning out these dehumanizing products as long as there is profit to be made from them – and not enough sophistication about culture or the human mind to warn us about their dangers. But there is a way, one that has worked well on the small scales on which it has so far been tried: don’t watch them. Captain Boycott had the right approach.

Right now police have been posted at theaters where this same movie is being shown – still. But ask yourself, what are they protecting? Is it perhaps the belief that violence is just entertaining? People, tell me when you’ve had enough.

Link to original article.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Killer Pizza from Kobe Bryant’s Butt

(Note: Since I wrote this piece in 2003, I have tried the pizza of KPFM. It’s great. If you should ever find yourselves in Escondido or Oceanside, and you have a pizza jones, get your Earthling behinds over there for some far-out fantastic pizza. The rest of this piece is astoundingly silly. But summer is the time to write and read silly blog posts. If you have a problem with that...go eat some pizza! And you know where, too.)

Image of Kobe from luzer (Flickr) / Image of pizza from nruboc (stock.xchng) / Everything else all me!

A friend and I were in Oceanside, California on Memorial Day weekend, searching for a Baskin-Robbins to help feed an ice cream jones. We found a shopping center anchored with a Stater Brothers, but no B-R. What we did find was Killer Pizza From Mars.

The owners took the Mars theme to the limit. Life-size plastic statues of aliens stood in the window like a department store display: E.T. and Jar-Jar Binks (sorry, Star Wars fans), the big-brained dudes from Mars Attacks, and the Alien alien (now, why would you put that in the window of an establishment that sells food???)

The place was packed. Was the pizza any good? I don’t know. My friend and I had a Klondike bar and an ice cream sandwich, respectively. We were looking for ice cream, not pizza.

But this is one example of the importance of standing out in the business world. If the owners had called their pizza parlor, say, Oceanside Pizza, would I have even bothered to take a picture of the sign? Would we have even thought about going inside, contradicting our hankering for ice cream? I think that those who sprinkle their restaurants with some sci-fi magic, who go the extra mile to entertain the customer, deserve to be rewarded.

If I were to start a pizza parlor, I would take a page from the Killer Pizza From Mars playbook. I would give it a name nobody will ever forget. But I’m going to be a little more realistic. I don’t know of any pizza that ever killed anyone, and I prefer my pizza a bit warmer than -81°F, which is the average temperature on Mars. So I’m going to call my pizza parlor Our Pizza Tastes Better Than Kobe Bryant’s Butt.

Now, I have never tasted Kobe Bryant’s butt. And I don’t ever want to. I don’t even want to be within ten feet of it. Twenty feet, more likely. Actually, let’s make it thirty - give or take. I prefer give.

Why Kobe Bryant? Because he’s a guy all of us recognize. And he’s a guy a lot of us just don’t like. We will probably never know whether or not he raped that girl. But the evidence is clear that he is a grade-A bunghole. Remember that public apology, in which we didn’t hear much apology? The only reason he was “disgusted with [him]self” was because he got caught in a painfully public way.

But where does the butt come in? Let’s do a little exercise. Reach behind yourself, shove your finger into your underpants, scratch the crack of your butt, then sniff that finger. (P.S. Be alone when you do this exercise.) That is what Kobe’s butt most likely smells like. That is not what any pizza coming out of my kitchen will smell like.

I could name my pizza parlor Our Pizza Smells Better Than Bell Peppers, but for some reason unfathomable to me, people actually eat those evil mo-fos. On their pizza!

I will not only have one person taking pictures of my sign. I will have hundreds, every day! It will be like Academy Awards night outside my pizza parlor, 24/7. And those who want to see the sign might, just might, want to step inside, and if they are hungry right now they will sit down, and if they will be hungry later they will pick up a take-home menu so they can order a pizza and mount the box on the wall for the amusement of guests, and if someone has an ice cream jones I will have a cooler filled with Klondike bars and ice cream sandwiches, and I will have a life-size plastic statue of Kobe, in his Laker uniform, with red horns sticking out of his head, reaching down in his shorts and scratching his butt.

(Um, that might be even more gross than the Alien alien.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Trouble with Used Books

(Note: I wrote this piece in response to an article in the September 2005 Writer’s Digest, “At What Cost?” by James Grippando. Unfortunately, I could not find a link to the original article, and I don’t have access to my original copy - if, in fact, I still have one. The only action I can suggest if you want to read “At What Cost?” is to order a back issue from Writer’s Digest. You don’t need to read it, though, in order to “get” this post.)

I have not been this worked up over a Writer’s Digest article in years, not since the days when it was heavy on the text and light on the pictures. (This is why I am writing this long past the time I should be in bed.) The new/used book dilemma is one I face off with every week, and it’s as slippery as a puck bouncing just out of reach of a hockey stick. This is an intractably gray issue.

Few are those who have the unlimited funds to buy any book they wish to read new, or the unlimited space to keep every book they buy. People who love books just can’t throw them into the trash when they’re done with them, so we need the used bookstore (or the used book webpage) for the dual boons of purchasing text at a discount and finding a home for books that are ready to move on.

But a used book, unlike Harry S Truman’s buck, does not stop at just one “here”, and this is where the trouble starts according to James Grippando. As a book passes hands along the used-book chain, it ups the numbers of those who will never buy that book new -- and thus never give a cent to the author who wrote those precious words or the publisher who took a chance on them.

Last July, in a fit of summer self-indulgence, I purchased two hardcovers at the same place on the same day: The Interruption of Everything by Terry McMillan and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella. (It didn’t hurt that they were both 20% off at the Barnes and Noble.) Those two books were leisure-time fun - until I was finished reading them, at which point they became clutter. As a dutiful daughter, I called my mom and asked if she wanted to read these books, because she is retired now and her reading budget is even more restricted than mine. She said yes, and I put them in a box headed for Las Vegas - a little annoyed with myself for not adding them to the cash-for-books pile. That was before I read this article.

If I had taken these two as-close-to-new-without-actually-being-new books to the used bookstore, the manager would have accepted them with no hesitation - and with remuneration for me, no doubt. These books are on the bestseller list and would have been out the door seconds after going on the shelf. But then those buyers would never buy the books new - and would then likely resell them online.

Grippando warns that if buyers keep choosing used books over new, “publishers may well be able to publish only those authors who can make the bulk of their advance in the first few weeks of hardcover publication. That means fewer authors will get published, and in turn, fewer choices for readers.”

Those words grabbed the writer side of myself and shook it fiercely - the hand you bite may someday be your own, it warned. The reader side of myself stared at the tall stack of books I was about to exchange for cash at the used bookstore, slightly relieved that most of them were out of print. (But then I see a copy of David McCullough’s Truman, purchased at a UBS for $6.99 when a new softcover would have been $20. Damn, damn, damn. Perhaps I should buy 1776, while it’s still 30% off, to make up for it.)

Oddly, Grippando made no mention of real-life used bookstores like the one I’ll be going to, nor of public libraries, nor of informal book exchange groups such as Bookcrossing (which is about leaving books in public places for others to pick up and read) - all of which also potentially bite into new book sales.

Should we feel guilty about buying anything at the used bookstore which accepts in-print books for resale, because there we can also find books that are no longer available new? Should we feel like we are stealing something if we check out an in-print book at our public library, the holy temple of readers? If I put a Bookcrossing label on my book Medgar Evers and leave it on a park bench, am I stabbing myself in the back with the flagpole that hoists the banner of reading?

Perhaps used bookstores and online sellers should not sell used hardcover books until six months after their release date (maybe less for paperbacks, and one month for category romances). That would eliminate the dilemma of going to the Amazon page of a certain book I’m looking for and seeing this:

$23.00 list price
$15.64 Amazon price
80 used and new from $3.25

I see the mass-market paperback in the Barnes and Noble today. I think I’ll get that instead.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A holiday is a holiday, not a shoppertunity

Not too long ago, I went to a shopping center to visit a store I shop at regularly. On the way out, I saw this sign.

I had to read it twice, because I couldn’t believe it the first time.

Yes, that’s no typo – this store is going to be open on the Fourth of July from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., more or less its normal operating hours. Which means that some of its employees are going to miss Fourth of July fireworks this year. Period.

Really? Is retail so desperate that it has to cater to the douche canoe* who just has to have that dream object at 9:30 p.m. on the Fourth of July?

You hope that whoever is working there is getting double time, at least. But they may not. (Double time pay is not a requirement for private businesses.)

Have you noticed that stores which used to be closed altogether on the Fourth of July (and other major holidays) are now open for business, often for most of the day? I remember when the stores were closed and neither we nor the economy suffered much. We just planned ahead and bought what we needed in advance because we knew that we couldn’t go shopping on the holiday.

Is it really that hard to plan ahead, people?

You really don’t want to be shopping on a holiday. Retail employees really don’t want to be working on a holiday. A holiday is just that – a holiday from the rigors of everyday life. Not another occasion to buy more stuff.

So let’s buy today and kick back tomorrow. Send retailers a message that staying open on the Fourth of July isn’t worth the trouble.

What is a summer after all without some lazy days?

* Yes, I know these are not nice words. But they are words that fit someone who thinks, “Goddammit, my dudebros guzzled up four thirty-packs of Coors, so I got to get some more before we sober up.”

What do I think of “Going Down with Janis” now?

I finished re-reading the book Going Down with Janis, thirty-one years after I read it the first time. What do I think now?

Meh. It may be another thirty-one years before I read it again, if at all.

Not because it’s a terrible book – it wasn’t like watching in adulthood the Sid and Marty Krofft shows you loved as a kid. It just felt like a been-there-done-that trip, which is not an optimal reading experience.

When I first read it, it was like anthropology – looking into the lives of exotic creatures, in this case people who use hard drugs. Hanging out with drug users – whether or not you use yourself – is like hopping on board Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Only you don’t end up in Disneyland.

After my first reading of Going Down with Janis, I searched for biographies and autobiographies of drug users – and that story got tired faster than knock-knock jokes. It’s a story with only two endings: death, or recovery into a life with a fraction of the thrills it had before. (Nothing wrong with being drug-free, but it’s more enjoyable to be sober yourself than to read about someone else being sober.)

I’m now into other kinds of stories – not the fanciful lifestyles of the rich and famous, but about people with difficult decisions to make. People who prove the principle that everyday life contains drama enough.

The 1960s did contain beauty, excitement, and a new freedom to take risks. Then and now, they are better experienced with a clear head.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The weird couture of the Disney Princesses

If you give a meandering mouse a cookie, she will accept it, eat it, and be grateful. The end.

If you give a meandering mouse an inch of thought, she will take it and run as far as she can. Not the end.

A thought which has been unspooling in my head lately has to do with “people” who are familiar to most of you reading – Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty as interpreted by Walt Disney’s team of artists.

Many critics decry the main impetus of their stories – happily ever after doesn’t come unless a prince falls in love with you. Many counter-critics insist that these stories are classics to this day because women are hard-wired to desire domestic stability.

I just want to talk about their clothes.

No one in medieval times ever dressed like Snow White. What is with the bare arms and the pumps with the little bows on them? And no head covering?

When contemporary creators make historical worlds, they know their audience is people alive today, not those alive then. If one wrote a historical romance set in the American South before the Civil War, the heroine and hero had better be against slavery – or at least change their minds by the last page – or no mainstream publisher, large or small, will touch the book. This is also why Snow White appears as if she could easily rub shoulders with Andy Hardy in Carvel.

Next is Cinderella (my personal favorite, BTW). What year is this movie set in, anyway? Lady Tremaine (the stepmother, to non-Disney fans) wears mutton-leg sleeves from the first decade of the 20th century, while her daughters Druzilla and Anastasia sport giant trailing bustles from the 1870s.

At home, Cinderella wears a simple dress whose length (or should I say shortness?) would have been considered obscene until the 1920s. When the Fairy Godmother comes around, what have we here?

Have you ever seen anyone wear a dress that looks like this in any time period? (No, seeing Cinderella at any of the Disney parks does not count.)

On to Sleeping Beauty. Although her tale appears to be firmly set in medieval times, the dress she wears in the forest is anachronistically short.

When she gets into princess gear, just like Cinderella she has a fairy-tale-cum-Jetsons motif.

And it’s blue – most of the time.

When Sleeping Beauty reappeared as a founding member of the Disney Princess lineup, her dress is pink. Why? So Cinderella’s dress could be blue – unlike in the movie, where it is white. Or perhaps silver. (FYI, that is one unflattering blue – Cinderella, of all people, deserves much better.)

What does the attire of fictional princesses have to do with the way the world turns? Not much. Still, it’s something I have to think about.

Why? Because the meandering mouse mind moves in mysterious ways – and also dreams of wearing pretty dresses, even if they are out of time. (My prince has already come.)