My Grown Up Christmas List

Christmas Day is now only a week away. I have all my shopping done–most of it was competed weeks ago. We don’t go crazy at Christmas in our house anymore. We tend to get 1-2 gifts for each family member, gifts that don’t break the bank. We’ve scaled back on the food and festivities too. In part because our families are smaller now but also because no one seems to have the time, energy, or money to go whole hog for the holidays.

Back when I was single, I had to work hard to get into the Christmas spirit. Why decorate when there was only you to enjoy it? (Especially when you were the only one there to put them up and take them down). I baked cookies just to give them away. I watched hours of Christmas movies and specials because they helped me enjoy my most favorite of seasons, as well as feel a little less sorry for myself when work inevitably decided since I was single and without kids, I needed the least time off. For at least a decade, I worked every major holiday so others could have time off.

Now that I have my own family and get a little more time off, somehow it is harder than ever to find that Christmas joy. Especially since I’ve declared a moratorium on baking because I’m trying to lose some damn weight. Especially because this year has been personally tough on so many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. If I put everything that has happened to me and my family this year in a single story, readers would howl about how unrealistic it was. There is no reason to travel anymore. The kids have their own plans. It’s just us.

Last night, my husband asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t remind him pointedly that Christmas is now only seven days away and anything he ordered was unlikely to arrive on time. Instead, I sort of panicked and said the first thing that came to mind.

Because I’ve been trying to get in better shape, I started wearing my Fitbit again, but it’s an older model, it only counts steps. What I’d really like is one that also functions as a watch. I’ve worn a watch most of my life. Yes I know they are considered passe, but I love watches, especially pretty ones. Also, fewer places have clocks on the walls anymore. I hate pulling out my phone to see what time it is, and new office policy is we must leave our phones in our cubicles during the workday–an effort to curb relentless internet surfing by some staff members, I’m sure. But that means when I wear my Fitbit, I never know what time it is anymore.

So, placed on the spot (because OMG, what can he get with only a week to go??), I said I’d like a Fitbit with a watch function. It’s true, I would like one. But I’ve been eyeing them for a while now and it’s hard to justify the price.

I woke up this morning wondering why I said what I did. Yes, I want to lose weight and get in better shape. Yes, I need to fix or replace my current watch and I can’t wear both a watch and a Fitbit, so my request makes some sense. But honestly, I’d rather have a watch of my choosing than a digital readout on an expensive piece of tech I don’t really need.

But that isn’t why I tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep for very long.

You want to know what my favorite Christmas song is? It’s Grown Up Christmas List by Amy Grant. It’s a beautiful song originally done by Natalie Cole, but the Amy Grant version is the one I heard first, so naturally, it’s the one that feels familiar and right to me.

When she gets to this part, and the melody soars, tears come to my eyes every time.

So here’s my lifelong wish
My grown up Christmas list
Not for myself but for a world in need
No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown up Christmas list

The truth of the matter is I don’t want a Fibit with a watch function.

I have a more grown up Christmas List:

I want to stop losing loved ones for a while. Seriously. Between pets and relatives, I’m facing seven deaths in the family this year. Some were expected. All were devastating. But coming one upon the other as they have, I’m starting to go numb at the wrong times and inappropriately emotional at others.

I want to stop waking up in fear of checking the news. Threats of war, riots, out of control fires, destructive hurricanes, climate change, the threat of the next pandemic, rise of Nazism, the loss of net neutrality, a government determined to cut Medicare, social security, and strip health care from millions while filling the coffers of the rich. My mental health suggests just stop checking the news, but then I am part of the problem, the part that does nothing while our government slides into a totalitarian regime.

I want our government to stop sliding into a totalitarian regime. I want to believe that our checks and balances work, that not all our leaders are complicit in the current mess that passes for government at this time. I want to believe if our president decides to start a nuclear war because he’s cornered like a trapped rat, that someone will prevent him from doing so.

I want our regulations for clean air and water to stay in place. I don’t want companies to have more autonomy and greater rights than individual humans. I want to protect our public lands from destructive strip mining and sacred lands from pipelines. I want to not live in dread of a summer that starts sooner each year and lasts longer each time, reaching new heights on temperature charts. I want an open internet, where traffic to all sites is weighted evenly, and internet providers aren’t allowed to block sites or slow down sites owned by competitors. Where marginalized voices can have their say. Where artists and creators can all be visible, regardless if they are famous or working out of their garage.

I want all of us to be able to go to work, to school, to church, the movies, a concert, or any place where people might gather without fear of being mowed down by a single angry man armed with assault weapons that no citizen needs. That’s not crazy or unreasonable. I’m not saying eliminate all guns. I’m saying eliminate those weapons that belong in the hands of trained military personnel in a war zone. When the Bill of Rights was written, a trained military man could load and fire a musket thee, maybe four times within a minute. It had a range of 50 meters. It was not an accurate weapon–you pointed it at the general direction of the enemy and kept shooting until you got close enough to stab him with a bayonet. Also, when the 2nd amendment was written, there was no standing army and no grocery stores.

When Stephen Paddock opened fire on the concert crowd in Las Vegas from the 32nd floor of his hotel, he fired more than 1,100 rounds in ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring 546 over a distance of 550 meters. Repeat after me: these weapons are not the same. No private citizen should own one of these weapons. No one.

I want our news to stop treating politics like a sports game. Stop giving airtime to the white supremacists because it makes people click on your links. Stop biasing the news based on ratings and financial gain. Oh sure, I realize FOX News isn’t actually a news organization–it’s an entertainment site (check the fine print, you’ll see I’m right), and with the Sinclair corporation buying up TV stations and dictating what reporters have to say on air, this is a faint hope indeed. But hey, it’s my Christmas list. I can put anything on it I want.

Along those lines, I want to lose 20, maybe 25 (Okay, let’s be honest, 30–but that’s never going to happen) pounds this year. I want to get fit again. I want to be passionate about life again. I want to write my stories and love my family and find my bliss once more. Of all the things on my Christmas list, these are the only ones under my control. The only things I can get for myself.

And maybe, given the other stresses in my life, I need to look at overall balance. Maybe I need to spend less time online fretting about things I can’t control and more time writing. Less time marketing and more time writing. Less time writing and more time with the dogs and the family.

Christmas is a week away. There are rumors we’ll be in the midst of a Constitutional crisis by then. People talk of taking to the streets and others boast of how well-armed they are. If I’m having a little trouble getting into the Christmas spirit, forgive me. It kind of feels like our world is going into free-fall. I think our leaders have forgotten the meaning of Christmas. I think a good portion of the far-right would be astonished to discover they have eschewed the basics of Christianity itself and have become the Pharisees.

Maybe a Christmas movie and an afternoon baking cookies isn’t such a bad thing. I can always go for a run afterward.

I suspect I’m getting a Fitbit for Christmas. That’s okay. I know my husband is trying to help me cope with everything we’re going through right now, and like me grabbing onto something I can change, he’s grabbing onto a gift choice to help support that change. It won’t be a surprise. It might not be the most original or romantic gift. It doesn’t have to be those things because it is given with love.

What a Difference 10 Years Makes: Publishing in 2007 vs 2017

I’ve been doing some cleaning up around the house and I recently came across some old journals. I’d gone to a sci-fi convention back in 2007 or so, and had attended all the writer’s panels they held. I scribbled down every bit of advice, every shared experience, every tale of woe shared by the authors on the panel. Believe me, it wasn’t a cheerful or encouraging discussion.

Let’s place this in perspective though: at the time of the convention in question, smartphones had yet to exist. Amazon had just launched its first Kindle (with a $400 price tag) and readers swore up and down it would never catch on. Instead, Amazon sold out of them before the day was out and they were on back-order for months afterward. Google Maps wasn’t yet a thing–and I don’t know about you but I can’t go anywhere without it today! There was also no such thing as ‘the cloud’, if you wanted to save important material, it went on an external hard drive. Heck, I used to back up all my stories to a thumb drive before there was such a thing as dropbox or Google drive!

Youtube was just becoming a thing. No one had heard of a Roomba, much less videotaped their cat riding it to upload it to Youtube. The guy that used the 3D printer to create an arm for his son? Yeah, didn’t happen yet. Virtual reality devices and space travel remained concepts for science fiction. Now my husband has a VR device and space travel is looking more and more possible.

Ten years ago, the main way for someone to get published was through the Big Six (or Big Five now, since the Penguin-Random House merger). Self-publishing back then meant ‘vanity publishing’, and was the mark of someone who couldn’t get published any other way. It’s taken a decade to diminish that stigma, and there are still people out there who refuse to read any self-published work.

One of the YA authors on the writer’s panel spoke of the difficulty in getting published, and why so many authors accepted terrible deals as a result. They wanted so badly to be published that any offer seemed like manna from heaven and was accepted without question. This author explained that she’d submitted a story and had been told by the publisher they loved it so much they wanted it spun out into a ten book series. What unpublished author wouldn’t jump at that kind of offer? But she didn’t really examine the contract details or what the press would require of her. Without fully comprehending what it would entail, she signed a contract agreeing to produce 70 K words every six weeks–and that later books in the series could be written by other people. She was responsible for creating a ‘Bible’ that could be used by other authors to follow the story arc. She told us that she had to write a minimum of 5 K words a day and never had a chance to look over what she’d written–she just submitted it and hoped the editors would catch anything wrong.

This young woman looked exhausted. And you could see in her eyes that the joy of writing had become a drudgery of pounding out words that she scarcely cared about any longer. Her take-home message was about reading contracts and standing up for what you believe in, but when asked if she would do it again, she said yes because she was published. Wow.

The guest of honor had even harsher words for the industry. He spoke of how publishing houses used to be run by people who loved books, and for every mega-seller like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and one moderate best-seller, the firm would carry eight mid-listers. In his opinion, that was all changing. When he began writing, the expectation was that once you had one hit seller, sales from that first book would help produce others in the series. Now, every book had to sell in the stratosphere, and each book you wrote had to outperform the one before. Publishers were getting greedy, and demanding greater production with no care as to the content. Authors could no longer get by on writing one book every year or so. The guest speaker, by the way, was George R. R. Martin.

Another writer agreed with him, saying that she’d known many authors unable to live up to the ‘outsell your last book’ production model who’d been dropped by their publishers and had re-invented themselves under a new pen name with a new press–which meant dividing their original audience even more and having to build from scratch again. And with the number of Big Publishing Houses getting fewer and more interconnected, finding a new publisher wasn’t as easy as it sounded.

I basically came away from the panel thinking I’d never be a published author.

And yet I am.

In 2013, I was one of the authors at a sci-fi convention on a writer’s panel, giving advice to eager wanna-bees in the audience.

What changed?

Remember that list of tech I mentioned? Yeah, the one that has had the biggest impact on publishing is the Kindle–or e-reader in any form–but face it, Amazon has been the largest driving factor here. Amazon put e-readers into the hands of thousands, and then has nearly singlehandedly created the self-publishing industry by making it so darn easy to do. Advances in tech have also made it possible for people to make cover art, format stories, promote newsletters and so on–and if you can’t do these things yourself, the Internet has made it possible for you to find the skilled services you need. (Another reason why we need Net Neutrality, damn it!).

Now I’m not saying Amazon is the Great Hero here. The rise of e-readers has made it possible for me to become published because the rise of small digital presses meant someone would take a chance on a no-name like me. But that same juggernaut has slowly crushed a number of these small presses over the years because many of them can’t compete with the behemoth that is Amazon. I’m just saying that as a company, it revolutionized the way we read–making books more accessible, making self-publishing an option many didn’t have before, and also freeing the industry from standards set by a select few as to ‘what will sell.’ But I also believe that Amazon will grind us all to dust if we let it. That’s why though I use Amazon and KU, I don’t rely on them alone for sales. I distribute to other outlets when that KU wave crests. I support my local B&N (sadly, B&N’s website TANKS compared to Amazon’s–ordering an e-book from them is a huge PIA in comparison) and independent bookstores too. Once Amazon has ALL the publishing market, we’ll discover Amazon isn’t really a publishing company. They sell e-readers. Authors aren’t their priority.

But they have made it possible for me to be a published author. Something that never even seemed remotely possible in 2007.

The Death of Net Neutrality: The Impact on You as an Author or Artist

With everything else that is going on these days in US, it may seem like the battle for Net Neutrality is not such a great priority. After all, the sitting President is facing impeachment and his entire administration, as well as the elite of the GOP, are looking at charges of knowingly working with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the last presidential election. Then there are the charges of money-laundering, as well as corruption and collusion on such a grand scale it is breathtaking.

While nearly every day the Trump administration commits yet another unthinkable act, at the same time, alarming legislation is being forced through Congress: bills that strip Americans of their health insurance, or defund women’s organizations and public schools. Bills that suppress the right of some people to vote because they might not vote for the GOP, bills that set back civil rights fifty, sixty, seventy years. Bills that protect our environment and public safety are being overturned. Regulations put in place to protect us as investors or when buying a home are being overturned. Irreplaceable national parks and natural resources are being targeted for development. Unpopular bills are being called to a vote in the middle of the night in order to avoid full participation by members of Congress and in the hopes of eluding the attention of the press.

When it comes to all the things wrong with the current administration, as well as everything we need to be fighting to protect each and every day, I’m barely scratching the surface. The problem is there’s a fresh scandal relating to the Trump administration popping up almost every day, and nearly every day there are fresh calls to contact your members of Congress and share with them how angry and upset you are about their policy-making of the moment. It’s enough to make one give up out of sheer fatigue.

Believe me, they’re counting on that. So stay salty, my friends.

We all have to pick our battles. I only have so much time, money, and energy to devote to an outraged resistance. There are some bills and regulations I care more about than others, and I’m sure your list doesn’t look the same as mine. That’s perfect. This way we cover all the bases. But there are some things that we shouldn’t let slip by us out of outrage fatigue or because we don’t think it’s that big a deal.

This is one of those times.

So why is Net Neutrality a priority for me? What is it, and why should you care about it?

Okay, I’m no expert here. There are better sites, posts, and videos that can explain this issue with greater depth, clarity, and precision than I can. The way I understand it is that companies like Verizon and Comcast are carrier services that provide us with Internet access, much like the water company provides us with water for a fee through a system of pipelines they own. As it stands now, the pipes are all the same ‘size’. Information flows freely across the board. It doesn’t matter if I want to look at a small blog or the Huffington Post, because I’ve paid my fee to the company, everything comes down the pipe at the same speed.

Verizon lobbied hard to have this changed back in 2013, to be able to establish big and little pipes, to have the right to slow down or speed up information based on how much the owner of the information was willing to pay. Think about that for a moment. Now the owner of the pipeline wants to decide who gets the water first, as well as how much and how fast. In 2013, Verizon sued the FCC, saying the organization didn’t have the legal authority to insist on Net Neutrality. The FCC blocked this move by re-designating ISPs so they were subject to tighter regulations.

But now Trump, the GOP, and the current people in charge at the FCC want to change this regulation. The newly appointed head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, used to work for Verizon. See where this is going? Do me a favor: from now on, when you read the word ‘regulation’, replace it mentally with the word ‘protection.’ Because that’s what it is. Laws put into place to keep companies from establishing practices that might be unfair or harmful to us, the consumer.

If we lose Net Neutrality, Comcast, which owns Yahoo, could say to you, “If you use our internet carrier, you have to use Yahoo as your search engine and email service. You can use Google if you want to, but you have to pay additional for it.”

Big companies such as Netflix and Hulu would certainly be able to afford to purchase more bandwidth, but what if Verizon started its own entertainment service? They could conceivably slow down the streaming of any competitors unless you paid an additional fee to get it at the same download rate as their preferred site.

Not only that, but without Net Neutrality, your internet provider could determine, much like a television company, what sites and information it would make more readily available. Suppose your child is researching climate change for a class project–but only the sites that deny climate change are loaded first. Anyone with a vested interest in getting out their information ahead of someone else’s (and the money to do it) will influence the reporting. We could see the Internet turn into FOX News.

It could also greatly impact freedom of speech if a provider decides to block unpopular points of view or someone with a lot of money pays to have their views take top tier. Right now, marginalized voices have a platform and the ability to be heard by anyone interested in what they have to say, same as any major outlet. Yes, this has allowed certain right wing organizations to foment and organize their followers, but it has also allowed for hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to gather and march in support of women’s rights, immigration, and science, among other things.

What does this have to do with you as a writer, artist, photographer, or anyone who creates original content? How does this affect you as the small business-owner? Well, it’s simple. Remember when you had dial-up? Remember how long it took to load a site? How do you think the loss of Net Neutrality will affect you when your website takes over five minutes to load because you aren’t a major publisher with a big budget to pay for more bandwidth?

When I first began publishing my stories, Facebook was a great place to meet other people and share content. If you were an author or artist of any kind, a Facebook presence was (and still is) considered mandatory. After the stocks went public in 2012, Facebook gradually began implementing policies that altered its usefulness as a platform for small artists and publishers. It used to be Facebook was like my old LiveJournal account–I saw everything my friends posted in the order they were written. Now, half the time I don’t see the posts of friends and colleagues unless they’ve paid to promote them or enough of my other friends have commented so that Facebook deems it worthy to show me. If I post something with a link in it now, Facebook hides that post more often than not. At one point, I had an author page with over two thousand followers, yet whenever I posted something to that page, maybe fifteen or twenty people tops saw the post. I could pay to promote the post or buy ads, but the people with the most money who already have recognition get priority when it comes to the visibility of their posts.

And that’s exactly what will happen to our websites if we lose Net Neutrality.

I’m linking to John Oliver’s video on the subject here, not only because he does a great job of explaining the ramifications of losing Net Neutrality while also making the subject funny, but he tells you what you can do about it too. As of May 18, 2017, the FFC has already ruled in favor of doing away with the earlier regulations. As you will see from John Oliver’s video, you can go to the FCC website to register your complaint, but the process is deliberately cumbersome and frustrating. Fortunately, he created a more convenient process! It’s a long video, but it’s definitely worth watching.

 

Here’s an update on the response of Internet to John Oliver’s request. This was filmed prior to May 18, 2017, but the site that takes you to the FFC page in question is back in service again. Now we only have until mid-August to voice our dismay and how this will impact our businesses.