The Strange Yet True Story Behind the Book, Mr. Wicker

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week and almost exactly two years since my award-winning novel, Mr. Wicker, was published. As many of you know, Mr. Wicker opens with the main character, Alicia Baum, taking her own life. What many don’t know is the extraordinary backstory of how the book came to be in the midst of my own head-on collision with suicidal thoughts.

However, the backstory is more than that. So much more, in fact, that rather than telling the story in interviews, I chose instead to tell it in a series of videos that could be unlocked by solving a chain of puzzles. The prize had to be worth the effort, yes? And this is quite a tale. The puzzles were so challenging, though, that not many people solved them. Almost all who tried got stuck on the third puzzle, never finding the fourth and final video.

And that’s a shame because anyone who is struggling or who has struggled with suicidal thoughts would benefit from hearing this story. It’s about devastation, depression, and the surprising magic that saved my life. So, I’m including the videos here for the world to watch. If it helps even one person, it was worth the pain and hazards of soul baring.

In a time and out of time, in time the ink shall sing…

Video #1

 

Video #2

 

Video #3

 

Video #4

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Three New-to-Me Things I Love

The Little Prince

For reasons that various outlets insist are “mysterious,” this film was never fully released in the U.S. That’s a major shame because it’s absolutely magical. I loved it to pieces, even before I read that director Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda) chose a little girl as protagonist thanks to statements from the Geena Davis Institute of Gender Media about the gender disparity in animated films. Me, I bawled like a baby through this thing, it was so touching and beautiful. I’ve loved The Little Prince for decades. I didn’t want to see yet another version of the book. I wanted to see an amazing new approach to the story, and this film delivers it in spades. It has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and you can watch it on Netflix. I give it five hearts.

 

 

Happy Valley

Stepping continents away from children’s movies, Happy Valley is possibly the best thing to come out since The Wire. A Netflix original TV series for those who love dark and gritty crime stories, this show follows sergeant Catherine Cawood played by Sarah Lancashire. Straight up, the writing, directing and acting on this show is so brilliant, it makes me weep. Lancashire is so convincing as the super tough-with-tender spots Cawood that I have to keep reminding myself that she isn’t a real person. Making this even more realistic is Lancashire’s robust physique. Unlike every female cop on American TV, Lancashire looks like she could really bust a skull and her body is totally appropriate for her age (which is over 50, by the way). I love this character so much, I can’t even. She’s been through the worst and we watch her go through even more terrible events — not perfectly, mind. She makes plenty of believable mistakes yet I love her all the same. The realism of this series is brutal in ways network TV can’t portray.So, if you’re at all a delicate flower, you might want to avoid this series. I give it five switchblades.

Two Dots 

This puzzle game is maddeningly addictive. I even have dreams about it. Every time I think I’ve had it and I’m going to stop playing, I stumble past the blocks and keep going. I’ve been playing it on my iPad, although you might enjoy it on your phone all the same. I’m in the 500s now level-wise, but I think my good pal Scott Edelman is all the way to the end. I’ll catch up! You’ll see! ::shakes fist:: I give it five squares. (You’ll just have to play to find out what I mean.)

 

Some Surprising Astrology of the 2016 Election (SPOILERS!)

Back from SCBWI

I’m fresh back from the incredible SCBWI Summer Convention here in Los Angeles, where we talked nonstop about the craft of writing and business of publishing children’s literature. The SCBWI community truly blew me away. I learned far more than I expected, bringing home over 5000 words of notes, dozens of live tweets from the relentlessly fantastic keynote speeches, and new friends I already cherish.

One of the things I learned at the conference is that as a YA author I’m never, ever supposed to tweet or blog about politics or religion. Of course, I’m about to do both now at the same time! YAAAAY!

I Couldn’t Resist

If you’ve been a longtime reader of my blog, you know that I’ve been studying astrology for over 20 years and that I’ve made some pretty astonishing predictions about elections. My current publishers were actually witnesses to those jaw-dropping predictions when we first met back in 2004. I’ve even made predictions about Obama that have come true, specifically about Sandy Hook. I then had to take a break from astrology because it had been too accurate, and I was obsessing over challenges I saw coming up in my chart. I stepped away until I could focus more on the present than the future.

But now I have returned! I’ve been fascinated by the election and really itching to find out what was going to happen come this November. If I have accurate birth data for the candidates, it’s often quite obvious from their transits what’s happening even a year off while the polls are still bouncing up and down.

The problem is that we don’t have reliable data for Hillary Clinton, and that’s really thrown a bit of a cloud over the magic 8-ball. While folks probably think it’s looking cut and dry, what with Donald Trump soiling his diaper every other minute and ever bigger GOP figures denouncing him, I still think it’s worth examining the day and aftermath of the election.

Election Day

Like I said, usually it’s pretty clear what’s happening to a candidate based on his or her transits the day of and after. It was clear Kerry wasn’t going to win in 2004 because he had disappointment transits and John “I’m Secretly a Cheatin’ Ho” Edwards also had terrible family-oriented transits. Just days after my prediction, and days before the election, he announced his wife Elizabeth had breast cancer.

The transits for this election are a bit murkier, but they’re still quite telling.

Hillary Clinton

No one has reliable birth data for Hillary Clinton. We know what day she was born and where, but not what time. This makes all the difference in the world. When I lived in France, it was during the 2007 election. I didn’t have to be able to speak a word of French to know that Segolene Royale was going to tumble. She had a devastating transit to her midheaven — a very sensitive point in her chart related to career and reputation that you can only calculate with a precise birth time, which was available. Meanwhile, Sarkozy had a gentle Neptune transit to his native Venus. Dude thought the world was in love with him and vice versa.

One thing we know for sure about Clinton is that she has a pleasant but very minor Venus transit, the sort she might have if she went to the museum that day and had a nice cup of tea. She also has a minor “lucky” transit, the sort you might have when you get a break on a parking ticket.

However…she has a slower but bigger transit that the famed astrologer Robert Hand might consider her big win. Uranus will be forming a trine to her natal Saturn. Here’s what he says of people experiencing it:

Whatever your motivation, you will win favor from your superiors, because they can see that you have balanced hard work and discipline on one hand with innovation and originality on the other. For this reason you may get a promotion of some kind now, which will bring you greater power and authority. But even if you achieve a new position, you are not likely to cease working for change within the system that you are part of. You will continue for some time, perhaps always, to work for reform and new ways of doing things, but always in the practical manner that got you there in the first place.

I mean, some would say this sounds like Clinton to a tee. (YMMV, ‘natch.)

And in the aftermath, she’ll see greater power and transformation in her relationships as transiting Pluto sextiles her natal Venus. All else aside, these two things alone make me think she’s going to tromp Trump.

Donald Trump

As usual, this guy is kind of under cellophane. Unlike Clinton, we’ve got great data on him. Clearly something is upsetting him that day — big time. But when Uranus transits one’s natal Moon this way (which is the transit in question), one could argue it’s a “good” upset, like general excitement. (Chelsea Clinton has TWO major transits of this nature, one potentially quite negative.) And since the moon represents public image and Uranus sudden changes, this could easily be “You’re Hired!”

Well…except there’s a curious minor transit. His natal Mercury (representing his thoughts) moves into the 4th house, which is the lowest point in the chart, the part that rules family and home. Why would his thoughts enter that realm if he’s just become President of the United States? Atypical, I think.

What I was expecting to see was either a transit to his midheaven (see Segolene Royale) or some influence on his ascendant, which at 29 degrees Leo is LITERALLY conjunct a “royal star” — in this case, Regulus. If ever anyone was born feeling entitled from the crib, it was him, rich family or no. And since transits to the ascendant indicate a change in interaction with the world, as well as his sense of royalty (ahem), we’d know if he’d been crowned or dethroned. But no such transit exists barring an exploration of progressions, etc.

He Might Even Quit

Of course, there’s talk that Trump will quit before the election even happens. That’s a possibility as he has a major “breaking free” transit right this very second. If he doesn’t, he certainly wants to. And soon. There are simply too many restrictions in being a presidential candidate for him to cope. We’ll see if he cracks. If he does, we’re looking at another candidate’s transits and then that would change everything.

Everyone Else

As I mentioned, Chelsea’s got some seriously insane “big sudden change” transits that day, mostly to her relationships and values. That might be due to becoming the first person in history to have had both a mother and father as POTUS. They could also, unfortunately, be related to her being beyond upset about a Trump win and her doing something foolish about it (but I can’t imagine that). Her dad, Bill Clinton, is having some nice party transits. But then, whenever I picture Bill Clinton, I see him as “The Clinton” playing his sax in the Animaniacs opening. Bill is and always has been the party, kids. Some things never change!

The eyebrow!

And then there’s Tim Kaine, who doesn’t seem to even be in this election. It’s like, “Are you even with us, Tim? Are you hiding back there playing the harmonica or something?” (Don’t get me wrong. I like the guy.) It’s not until sometime in December that Tim’s whoopass transits hit. Hard. I don’t even know if they’re entirely good. They look pretty badass, but he could be bruised deeply in the process. And then coming up on Inauguration Day, he’s experiencing a really big event: his second Saturn Return. For many people his age, this is the runup to retirement, a time of letting go of job and activities they’ve known all their lives. But since it’s Tim and this coincides with Inauguration Day, I’m really hoping Saturn is bringing more responsibility, which is something Saturn lurrrves.

Pence? Another one with partial data. I’d rather not even try.

Bernie, for what it’s worth, has a major wooo-pahteee-hooo transit on Inauguration Day. It’s like a big wedding transit, really. He’ll be feeling the Bern as he dances the night away. Celebrating a GOP defeat? Or indulging in Democrat schadenfreude? You decide!

The Aftermath Clinches It

Tim Kaine’s badass transits aside, Trump will be suffering a major depressive episode. Transiting Saturn will be crossing his natal Moon. Looks like his massive ego will be smarting from the loss. Here’s what Robert Hand has to say about that:

During this time you may withdraw from others, have difficulty in relationships — especially with women — experience depression and feel quite inferior to life’s demands. The best way to deal with this is not to take it all so seriously. Your perspective is warped, so that small matters seem too important. Do not make final decisions about your emotional life now. Wait until you can see more clearly what you have learned from this time.

He’ll also have a less powerful “optimism” transit, but not anything big enough to counter the above-mentioned blow. A second, similar transit carries into Inauguration Day. However, there’s also evidence of a big bankruptcy during that time, something that will really hit his wallet, which like the rest of the predictions in this post, wouldn’t surprise anyone.

And Then There’s Our Aftermath

Even if Clinton wins, the big mess of ugly that has lifted its slimy head and brandished its rotting fangs isn’t going away. I’ve been telling people that, given the rollout of Trump’s transits, if he stays in the race, he’s going to drag out the results as far as he can. He’s already just announced that, if he doesn’t win, he’s going to declare the election “rigged.”

But it’s the people who brought him this far that worry me. The previously unacknowledged pustule of racism, homophobia, and misogyny that’s been festering in the GOP for lo these many years has finally burst and sprayed its contagion across the land, bolstered by internet echo chambers. The Comments Section — that font of ignorance and vitriol that spews under news articles and Facebook posts alike — found its king and raised him high on their many, many, many shoulders. They’re not going to hide under rocks or behind blank avatar icons anymore.

They will have lost the battle, but not the war…

Interview on Shriekfest Radio Thursday Night

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 12.17.16 PM

Tune in the evening of Thursday, June 23 to hear Founder and Festival Director Denise Gossett from the renown Shriekfest Film Festival interview me on Shriekfest Radio!

Date: June 23, 2016
Time: 7:00 p.m. Pacific Time
How to Listen: Go to the Shriekfest website, scroll halfway down the home page, and select the Shriekfest Radio headline. It’ll take you to the page where you can listen live.

I’ll be talking about Snowed, my upcoming horror suspense novel for teens, as well as new short stories and other exciting news. Don’t miss it!

A Love Letter to My LGBTQIA Friends

Dear Friends and Others,

I love you.

In third grade, my tomboy friend Deborah asked me if I knew what “gay” meant. “You mean happy?” I asked. So innocent. She replied, “No, it’s when two men…” her voice trailed off. “You wouldn’t understand.”

I didn’t. But I liked Deborah. I knew she was different, but I liked her all the same.

In high school, my friends Jonathan and Philippe were openly gay/bisexual. I’d had a brief crush on Jonathan in 8th grade, but something told me it was not meant to be. Although I became “born again” in my teens, it didn’t affect my affection for them. When they invited me to go dance with them at Bojangles, the gay dance club in Sacramento, it was so incredibly tempting. If it weren’t for fear of my parents, I would have been there in a heartbeat. Despite the teachings of the bible, I knew who they loved wasn’t a choice. This was how they were. And although I’m sure I said some ignorant things from time to time (and probably do still do), I really did love my friends.

Decades later, I sat with Jonathan at a park around midnight in my old neighborhood, talking about the bullying we both suffered at school. I asked him, “Was school worse for you than for me? It must’ve been.”

Staring at the cigarette dangling between his fingers, he whispered, “It was a nightmare.”

I love you, Jonathan. And all of my gay and lesbian friends. My bisexual, trans, queer, intersex and asexual friends. Even those I don’t know. I love you. I care about what’s happened to you and what’s happening now.

A few years ago, my friend’s teen daughter came out as asexual. I confess, for the first few seconds I had a sort of inner parental type of panic. Is she okay? Has she seen the doctor? But those thoughts were quickly drowned out by feelings of love and acceptance. She’s okay. She doesn’t need a doctor. She needs love.

It’s what everyone needs.

When I was a contractor working at the FOX lot in 2005, one of the employees there was transitioning to female. I saw her every day from my desk as she went in and out of offices down the hallway. I wanted to tell her that she was amazing, fearless, fantastic. But I didn’t want to scare her, to make her think I was invading her privacy or fetishizing her experience. So, I said nothing. I never knew her name.

But she really was amazing, fearless, fantastic.

And loved.

Sunday morning, I woke up to the news of carnage committed by a man boiling over with hate and violence. I cried because he’d tried so desperately to destroy a community I love. It felt useless posting anything on social media because it would get lost in the torrent of political rants and the overly simplified memes that Facebook favors. When I saw my friend Travis later that day, I hugged him hard and took his hand. In that moment, I realized how much I care about him and his boyfriend, and I felt some hint of the terrible agony they must be experiencing. Of being hated and unsafe. I know because I’m a white straight cis woman. I’ve been stalked, threatened, attacked. But not like this. Never like this.

If I could shelter you all from the hate and violence, I would. I’d wrap my arms around you so the bullets could bounce off my skin. But I can’t. Instead, I will fight beside you and, more importantly, I will try to listen to you. From what you’re saying, it sounds like you need to know people care. The word “compassion” in Latin means “to suffer with.” Please know that I’m here suffering with you.

And loving you.

Always.

Love,

Maria

4 of the Dumbest Things Done with Swords in Film and Fiction

(SF Signal originally published this guest blog post of mine on October 22, 2014. Since they recently announced that they’ll be calling it quits and taking down the site, I’m reposting the article here. Enjoy!)

Everybody loves swords. Writers and readers alike enjoy a bladed tale because of the mystique this ancient weapon wields. I’m a big sword lover myself. Last year, I wrote a blog post that went viral called, “Why I Hate (Most) Photos and Drawings of Women with Swords.” In the post, I outline my qualifications to speak on the subject, which include many years of studying stage combat with top Hollywood fight masters and four years in the art of Shinkendo. I’m also a veteran author and screenwriter, so I understand the challenge of balancing fantasy and fact when creating an entertaining story both for both fiction and film.

But too many writers and filmmakers are unaware of the realities surrounding bladed weapons. Most of what they know about swords they learned from the movie Highlander and in turn they propagate those fallacies in their work. That’s like learning about planes from the movie Flight. Here are a few facts about swords that, if heeded, could actually create better stories.

1. Warriors Training or Sparring with Sharp Blades

I know what the writer is trying to convey: they want to show that one warrior is a better fighter than the other before actually putting them in battle. So, if Character A cuts Character B in training, it shows that Character A is more badass. Or maybe it foreshadows that Character A will have a personal edge, so to speak, over Character B. This is extremely impractical in reality because sword edges are easily damaged. Even a good sword can get chipped when it comes in contact with another blade, effectively destroying it. (The same goes for unsharpened weapons, but I would be more forgiving of that scenario. In fact, many Western Martial Arts groups spar with unsharpened swords.) This is why the vast majority of sword-wielding cultures used wooden weapons for these purposes.

“It Is Known”

For example, the Song of Ice and Fire books and Game of Thrones TV series sometimes do a great job on this point. When the Black Brothers are training, they often use wooden swords (although not always). The books and show fail entirely on this point, however, with Arya. She has the most easily damaged weapon, yet she’s always training with it. Training in The Last Samurai is far more realistic. It depicts how the samurai trained with wooden swords called bokken or bokuto. Even today in Shinkendo we train with bokuto, saving our katana for tameshigiri (target cutting).

2. Folding Blades “Thousands of Times” While Forging

Thanks to Highlander, almost every nerd in fandom thinks that, for a sword to be “good,” it must be folded a bazillion effing times during the forging process. The truth is that the quality of steel can depend more on its source than the forging technique. Most steel can be homogenized and strengthened by a few folds at most, but it might not need any folding at all depending on the steel’s source.

I get into the details in my blog post, “George RR Martin and the Valyrian Steel Problem,” but it only takes a few folds to homogenize the worst steel. Which means Valyrian steel must be really crappy.

Create a Magical Special Sauce Instead

A sword of special strength and quality might instead have some kind of special sauce in the alloy. But if it’s a fantasy story, why not add some spells? Kira’s katana in the MTV series Teen Wolf has supernatural properties to explain its resilience. Or how about Michael Moorcock’s famous Stormbringer? It’s actually a demon that takes the shape of a sword. Why not create something imaginative rather than something based on a misconception?

3. The Self-Cleaning and Self-Sharpening Blade

A warrior must keep the sword blade clean to preserve the integrity of the metal, and whet the blade to sharpen it when it gets dull with battle. Yet few writers ever address the difficulty of doing this in a medieval military campaign, much less a zombie apocalypse. They just pretend that swords clean and sharpen themselves. I can understand leaving out this part as boring, but we see and read about characters resheathing their swords after a fight repeatedly without consequence.

The Truth About Body Goo

The reality is that it’s nasty to get body goo in your scabbard. The scabbard is very hard to clean, and even a little blood will quickly rust the blade. The warrior would carry special oils, cloths and other implements to clean his or her sword before resheathing it, which wouldn’t be until danger was long gone. Even if the warrior manages to keep it clean, extra items like a whetstone are needed to keep it sharp. And while sharpening a blade might not be rocket science, it takes practice to learn to do it properly.

Zombies vs. Butter Knives

This problem plagues innumerable books, graphic novels, films and TV shows. One of the most popular examples is The Walking Dead. Michonne is a problematic character in many respects, her lack of katana maintenance being one of them. While some argue she could have learned to use the blade through trial and error, there is no way she could learn about its maintenance that way. It’s hard to chop off a zombie’s head with a rusty, oversized butter knife, which is what she’d have in short order. An inability to properly clean and sharpen a sword should have serious consequences. In an apocalyptic story, finding supplies to maintain the blade should be as dire as finding ammunition for guns.

4. Drawing a Katana Strapped to the Back

It’s physically impossible to draw a katana from its saya when it’s strapped to your back.

Period. Full stop.

I don’t care if your character has Marfan syndrome or is a Samurai spider-squid-human hybrid. You just can’t. You’d be dead before you got it free. Even if you could somehow, you would quickly destroy the saya. As you draw a katana that is properly attached to your belt/hakama, you press the non-sharp edge against the inside of the saya at hip level or else the blade cuts into the saya on the inside. If the blade repeatedly scrapes the inside of your saya, you would very soon see a crack; the saya would then be useless. Even if you modify the saya (which is what they do surreptitiously in certain TV shows), that maneuver would not only be extremely difficult to achieve over the shoulder, it would be outright dangerous to perform near your face. (It’s also, of course, impossible to resheath the weapon.) If you need a character to store the katana on his or her back while traveling, fine. Just remember he or she won’t be able to use it.

Artistic Liberties

Artists are the primary source of this problematic perception. They rarely research proper sword use. They think it looks badass to have two katanas crisscrossed in a halter on a warrior’s back, so that’s what they draw. Please remember that those are two damned useless blades. At the very least, that character is going to get kicked in the nuts before that blade is out.


“It’s just fantasy, Maria. Why don’t you relax?”

Even worlds with magic and the supernatural should have internal logic. Many writers like myself research these things and try to get it right because we respect both our readers’ intelligence and our own. Yes, world building can be painstaking. But if everyone in your world had unprotected sex without ever getting pregnant, wouldn’t you have to explain that? Yes, you would. Similarly, you should explain why your sword doesn’t need maintenance, doesn’t get damaged during fighting, or needs five million “folds” not to suck. The answers could actually enhance your world. Personally, I think scarcity makes for much better suspense in a story. The threat of loss or damage means there’s more at stake, which is way more interesting.

Because what if it’s your character’s enemy who has a sword that never loses its edge? Wouldn’t he or she want to steal that sword and conquer its precious secrets?

That could make some good storytelling.

 

Even Steve McQueen Gets the Blues

When I was eight years old, my parents dropped me off early on a Friday evening to spend the weekend with my Greek godparents in Long Beach, California. It was the first real quality time I’d have with them. My Greek godmother Angie — that is, my nouna — was a spicy, jet-set woman with red hair, a crooked nose, and an impish grin that revealed a dazzling gold tooth planted towards the back of her jaw. Angie was married to a gentle guy named Ike, a Greek Jew from Salonika (Thessaloniki), who was technically my nouno even though he was Jewish. They lived in a two-bedroom condo in a bleached out complex. When not hugging and smooching, they were yelling across the apartment at one another in a language I didn’t understand.

That night after dinner, I squatted on the living room floor by Uncle Ike’s elbow as he sat in his sagging, cracked-vinyl easy chair, watching sitcoms and lustily devouring sunflower seeds. Uncle Ike’s hair splayed out from the sides of his head like Albert Einstein. For the first time, I saw him without his sports jacket, relaxing in his stained wife beater that was wrinkled beneath the shock of grey curls on his chest. His short socks sagged on his skinny ankles, and the print of his shorts blared louder than the television.

Po po po po,” Uncle Ike muttered, grinning at the onscreen antics. (That’s Greek for oh dear oh dear.) As he leaned back in his creaky chair, that’s when I noticed it: numbers drawn sloppily across his forearm. I had never before seen a tattoo, much less one like this. I stared, unable to imagine why Uncle Ike would have such a thing, especially since the Old Testament had admonished us against putting a “mark” on the body. My mom and dad had converted to Judaism from Greek Orthodox just a couple of years earlier. Thanks to that jerk Leviticus, I wasn’t even allowed to wear the tattoos I found in Cracker Jack boxes.

Naturalization application for my Uncle Isaak "Ike" Hagouel.

Notice that he indicated he has “no visible, distinctive marks.” Poor Uncle Ike!

Uncle Ike continued watching the television, spitting out the seed shells, unaware of me staring at his arm. Or maybe he was and he chose to ignore me. I wanted to ask him about the tattoo, but I somehow sensed that my questions might ruin his otherwise perpetual good mood.

After I’d gorged on cartoons the next morning, Uncle Ike took me to the nearby park where grizzled immigrant men hunched over wooden tabletops, studying chess and checker pieces. “You want to go play?” He indicated the wasteland of leafy trees and damp grass.

Although dressed in shorts and t-shirt for shenanigans, my bookish self didn’t really think much of the outdoors. I shook my head, pointing to the backgammon board under his arm. “I want to play that.”

“What, this? Is backgammon. Somet’ing for old men.”

“Can you teach me? Please?” I loved playing board games with my overly competitive father and my spoilsport babysitter. For my birthday that summer, my parents had thrown me a party at the local pizza parlor. After everyone had left, I’d cried because all I’d gotten were dolls instead of games.

Uncle Ike squinted, his upper lip curling. Just as I thought I’d annoyed him, his lips pulled back into a great smile. “I teach you backgammon. Come.”

We sat at one of the benches — cool against my bare, chubby thighs — and he opened his backgammon board. I gawked at the two marble mosaics of the Star of David embedded in the wooden box. Uncle Ike acted as if it were nothing special. We played numerous times that morning, tiny dice tumbling over the Stars as we dumped them from the velvet-lined cup. I eventually won. After lunch, my nouna took me to the beach, where I collected stinky little seashells that gleamed like jewels. I was starting to really enjoy my time with them, even though they didn’t have kids for me to play with.

That is, until that night. Long after my nouna had tucked me in the guest bedroom, I awoke to the haunting sound of a man weeping. It had to be Uncle Ike. I lay there frozen with horror as my uncle wept in the master bedroom down the hall. My aunt was talking in Greek, pouring her undecipherable yet soothing words over him. I was so direly embarrassed that I said nothing the next day, pretending that I had slept through it.

Sunday evening, my parents came to pick me up. On the way home, I brought up the midnight weeping. The subject plunged the interior of our golden Pinto into a murk. After a few moments, my dad spoke.

“Your Uncle Ike has nightmares because he was in a concentration camp.”

“Really? What happened?” I still knew little about Nazis, and mostly just from TV shows like Hogan’s Heroes and Wonder Woman.

With a grimace, my Dad told me that Uncle Ike’s family had been wealthy Jews living in Thessaloniki when the Nazis took everything away and started shipping Jews to work camps. The Greek Orthodox Church resisted the Germans and assisted the Jews, but they couldn’t help everyone. When the Nazis found the strong 20-year-old Ike, as well as his younger sister and parents, they shipped the entire family to a work camp. Ike immediately tried to escape, but they caught him. As punishment, they forced him to watch as they killed his family. More motivated than ever, he tried to escape again. This time when they caught him, they emasculated him.

“What does ‘emasculate’ mean?” I asked.

My dad shifted nervously as he shot a pained look at my mom. The amusement on her face seemed to say, Way to go, Steve. Can’t wait to see how you dig yourself out of this one. At last he said, “It means they hurt him so that he couldn’t have children.”

So this was why they had no kids! Anyway, the Nazis obviously didn’t watch many Steve McQueen movies, because according to my Dad, Uncle Ike then recruited a teenage boy and together they broke out for good. Still, to this day my uncle had nightmares where he woke up screaming, banging his head on the floor, the headboard, the walls. The crying had been a tame event in comparison to what my nouna usually encountered.

That night back in my own bed, I thought of my sweet Uncle Ike and that ugly tattoo, wondering how anyone could suffer so much and be so cheerful.

Uncle Ike died many years later, yet long before my nouna. I had just moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco when that spicy redhead finally exhausted her zest at 85 years of age. The day she passed away, I stood beside her hospice bed in the very bedroom where my uncle had been crying. It was my turn now to mourn in that room as I held her withered hand.

A few days later, a family friend named Sophie called me to the apartment. She was the estate executor. The blinds were drawn and small ceramic lamps cast shadows in the corners. It seemed considerably dimmer without the savage twinkle of my nouna’s gold tooth.

“What would you like? You get first pick.” Sophie indicated the surrounding furniture. I couldn’t bring myself to select anything. My nouna had given me a ring before she died, asking me to think of her as I wore it. That seemed more than enough for me. Sophie swept open one of the closets and removed a gorgeous old woolen coat from the 1950s with a lush fur collar. She held it against me and made happy noises about the way it looked. I agreed it was beautiful and took it.

But just before she closed the closet doors, I noticed the wooden box high up on the closet shelf. I pointed, my heart fluttering in the sickly heat of grief. “I’ll take that.”

backgammonbox“An old box?”

I carefully withdrew the box from where it was crammed between a wad of rag towels and several dusty knickknacks. When I wiggled open the thin brass latch, the box opened to reveal the Stars of David embedded in the board. One of them was chipped but still lovely.

Sophie sighed. “It’s too bad they never had kids.”

Tears blossomed in my eyes. Just a godchild, I thought. But I realized I could carry their blood in more ways than one…

 

Son of man, keep not silent, forget not deeds of tyranny. Cry out at the disaster of a people, recount it unto your children and they unto theirs.

Yehuda L. Bialer

The Real Problem(s) Behind France and Its Rising Radicalization

I meant to write this blog post after the Paris attacks. I only bring it up because I often find my acquaintances have a limited understanding of the problem that France and its immigrants are facing. (If you’re already aware of this, good for you. Spread the word.) When I was living there nine years ago, I did touch lightly on the subject in an article I wrote for Thomas Roche‘s now-defunct ErosZine. Given that the violence in France and other European countries is only escalating, I want to talk about what I learned living there about what’s driving Islamic radicalization.

I’m afraid it’s going to tarnish the Tour d’Eiffel a bit. So, hold on, Francophiles.

Juste Moi (Just Me)

Please keep in mind that this is my point of view based on what I learned when I was living in France, as well as being in a relationship with a French educator for a few years. It’s by no means the definitive explanation for France’s woes. However, if you can appreciate insights from a person who’s had a foot in both countries, this is for you. I’m talking about this because I think we Americans can learn quite a bit from what’s happening in France to prevent future bloodshed in our own country and foster true peace.

Also? MURDER IS WRONG. I’m not in anyway apologizing for terrorists. I’m just providing some insight into what’s inspiring disaffection. Whatever it is after that that ignites homicidal shitheadedness is something else entirely.

The Surprising Problems with Egalité

“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou La Mort” — Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Death. That’s the national motto of France. As Americans, we can dig it. While France’s revolution was inspired by ours, it’s important to understand that France’s version of “egalité” or “equality” is very different from America’s. In America, you can believe whatever you like and (theoretically) not be discriminated against in various settings for expressing your beliefs. However, in France’s version, while you can still believe whatever you want, your faith must remain entirely private. That means you can’t wear anything that reveals your religious beliefs. For egalité to work, France secularism demands that everyone look the same. I know that sounds strange to us Americans, but that’s how everyone in France can appear equal before the state. As a result, the country bans people from wearing overt religious sentiments, such as headscarves and veils — a huge problem for French Muslims, as discussed in this great LA Times article, “In France, extreme secularism.”

Before Americans get too high on their horses about this, keep in mind that America, too, at times legally curtails the practice of religion, such as the use of peyote by Native Americans, the Santerian ritualistic killing of livestock, and Mormon polygamy. At one time, Mormons were considered terrorists or at least agitators. No small amount of blood was shed over conflicts with their communities, such as in the 1838 Mormon War.

Parlez Vous Français, Petites?

What’s not discussed in the LA Times article, nor in many articles on the subject at all, is that a lot of newer Muslim immigrants, especially second- and third-generation youth, are not learning French. When you have a country like France that values language above all else, this is a very serious problem. If you don’t know French, you’re simply not considered a citizen.

While living in France, I got to know a French high school teacher who taught in the Paris suburbs where the 2005 riots happened. She shared with me her daily challenges dealing with these youth who, due to language issues, are often at least two years behind in schooling. She said they simply didn’t care to learn French or any of France’s customs, citing religious conflicts. She often called them on their hypocrisy: they were fine with watching secular movies and listening to secular music yet they refused to learn Voltaire because he was an atheist? Yeah, right. Turn in your damned homework, kid.

calmez-vous-et-parlez-francais-3Another problem this teacher faced was that, even if they had some literacy, those same students couldn’t write a simple essay supporting an argument. I explained to her that one understandably has trouble effectively analyzing or constructing arguments if one has been taught to accept a thick bolt of religious ideas without ever unwinding it — I knew this from personal experience as a former Christian Evangelical. (The French find Evangelicals to be deeply weird for lots of reasons, by the way.) It’s a skill deficit that poses yet another stumbling block to education, albeit not as initially problematic as the language barrier. But still.

French people told me that older Muslim citizens — those in their 40s and up — tended to know French and integrate more easily. I never got clarification as to why this was the case. It does, however, line up with what M. G. Oprea writes in the Federalist: “In the 1980s, second-generation North Africans tried to blend in with mainstream French culture. They wanted to get into clubs, to drink, and to dance. They just wanted to be ‘French.’ Today, things are different.” (Her article, “How France Grew Its Own Terrorists” is mostly excellent, although I’d hardly blame France for the violence. Please refer to my earlier note about homicidal shitheads.)

Unemployment and Discrimination

By far, the language issue isn’t the only thing holding back Muslim immigrants and their children. While French people might in fact be favorably disposed to Muslim immigrants, in hiring practice, they can be outright racist. An Arabic name on a job application, especially from someone in a certain age range, means the applicant probably doesn’t know the language and therefore disrespects French culture. The results are devastating to the employment prospects of French Muslim youth in particular.

Out of despair, rage and poverty, some youth turn to crime. A friend of mine in Aix, a young woman named Aurelie, told me she’d been “jumped” (assaulted and robbed) numerous times at night leaving work, always by Muslim youth. She was ready to boot out every single immigrant, but sadly never acknowledged the vicious cycle behind the crime.

Hello, Irresistible Force? Meet the Immovable Object…

If it sounds like Muslim religious requirements and France’s secularism are in solid conflict, they are. Both contribute to the growing disaffection and radicalization happening in that country. I love my country and its melting pot values, but I don’t expect France or any country to unravel its culture in order to accommodate immigrants the way we do (and the way I hope we will continue to do after the next election). I also sympathize with minority groups. They shouldn’t be either ignored or demonized just because they’re different.

How They Can Come Together

Given that France’s immigration issues and patterns are tied directly to its colonial history, with the vast majority of Muslims coming from North Africa, France has to take at least some responsibility for how they handle these particular immigrants. They can’t just dig in their cultural heels and say, “This is not French and therefore not allowed” because, hello, these folk are French. France has a terrible history of simply not dealing or indulging in outright denial. Therefore, something must change around the current version of secularism. I think France is strong enough to handle it. Hell, man, they let in evangelical Christians and Mormon missionaries whose sole purpose is to do the one thing that most French people hate: proselytize. They can figure out how to handle their citizens wearing headscarves. Further, employment discrimination needs to be dealt with in the courts and laws, not just with nice sentiments in flimsy polls (referring back to the LA Times article). And if the headscarf ban seems misogynist, it kinda is. France is pretty crap when it comes to women’s rights, which is a whole ‘nother blog post.

That said, everyone in France needs to learn French to be literate, educated, engaged citizens that can compete in the job market and fight for their rights. Some soul-searching needs to happen around what the true integration barriers are. (And kudos to the high school teachers who are calling kids on hypocrisies.) How can everyone integrate with the culture in a positive way? Sure, there are always going to be family and belief conflicts as kids grow and make their own way, regardless of country or culture. But pretending to eschew education in favor of religion when you’re really just lazy should be called out. Too many kids are following the siren’s call to extremist violence for anyone to let that shit pass.

There must be some flexibility on both sides, though, to solve the problems of integration. This isn’t about just ISIS versus the general population. Anti-semitism is also on the rise in France, with growing violence against Jews from primarily pro-ISIS and pro-Palestinian factions. (Check out the horrifying photo in that Vanity Fair article I linked to. Drawing a swastika on the Statue de la République is both about as anti-French and anti-semitic as you can get.) French Jews are leaving France in droves, which is heartbreaking and shameful to France.

Francois Hollande had a good idea when he introduced increased employment aid for low-income youth. Ironically, the more conservative Sarkozy also had a good idea that was thoroughly blasted: funding the construction of mosques so that Muslims felt more included. Neither solution is or was enough. Both France and its Muslim population need to do more for one another if the two are to embrace. Until then, the answer to the question as to whether one can be both Muslim and a French citizen remains dangerously uncertain.

“The Question”

As mentioned in a previous essay, my parents were syncretists. (Or should I say syn-cray-tists?) Picking and choosing whatever they liked from each Judeo-Christian religion we visited, they held contradictory beliefs without apparent conflict — that is, until their teenage daughter confronted them one day. (That would be me.) I was 16 at the time of this incident, and we were all supposedly evangelical Christians.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And by innocent, I mean no one in my family.

 

The Question

 

Emily drops me off at my home in Cameron Park one Saturday afternoon after I spend the night at her house.

“I’m home!” I call out, letting my backpack slide from my shoulder. The odor of spicy taco meat wafts towards the front door like plumes of alchemical smoke from a medieval Mexican lab. I silently beg God that the cheese is done because the grater never fails to slice the flesh from my knuckles.

“Hello Mawee-ah!” my father squeals in a girly voice. He careens toward me in his dingy brown polyester pants and oyster white dress shirt spattered with food from last night’s dinner, not to mention fresh dribbles of this morning’s coffee. He wants his “kiss,” which means squashing a slobbery, noisy smooch on my cheek as he makes noises like a squeegee on muddy glass. I reluctantly offer my cheek, putting up a hand between him and my burgundy sweatshirt. While other teen girls cut their sweatshirts Flash Dance–style so that they drape off one shoulder, I’ve re-sewn mine into a Renaissance-style bodice. It laces up the front through metallic grommets with a leather thong over an indigo Academic Decathalon t-shirt that I’ve slashed strategically atop the sleeves and in the cleavage. This is my style: New Wave Renaissance Nerd Princess.

My father, an unworthy peasant, continues. “Did you eat lunch with Emily, Mawee-ah?”

“Yup!” I plow down the hallway towards my bedroom at full tilt, as if I could possibly escape The Question.

He abruptly ceases his baby babble, face darkening as his jowls sweat violence. “What did you eat?” he growls. And now, The Question: “Did you eat pork? YOU DIDN’T EAT PORK, DID YOU?”

Every time I leave their presence and return, The Question hits me like Chinese water torture. Did you eat pork? And every time he asks, I usually brush it off with a breezy “No.” To which he consistently responds, “Good! Because pork is a damn dirty meat! I don’t want any daughter of mine eating it.”

But this time the flint of impatience strikes my flammable teenage hormones and I explode in fiery defiance. “Yes! I ate pepperoni and sausage pizza! So what?”

My mother emerges from the master bedroom with a basket of laundry. She’s a domestic chameleon, her butterscotch slacks and vanilla blouse blending into the walls and carpet. “Awwww, Maria! You didn’t!” The way she says it, you’d think I had announced I’d spent the night at Emily’s robbing banks and shooting heroin.

“I did! Because I’m a born-again Christian, saved by the blood of the lamb, and the bible says I can eat whatever I want!” My bible study is about to payoff. Maybe.

“I’ll show you what the bible says.” My father stomps into the family room towards the lamp stand by the couch where his weathered King James Bible sits. On top of his bible squats his Inter-Linear Greek-English New Testament with Commentary. He loves reading the Greek in low, dry whispers, relishing his arcane knowledge over our monolingual ignorance. He could be making it up, for all I know.

Down the hallway, Danielle’s bedroom door flings open. She explodes from her adolescent alcázar. It wavers with the haze of cheap perfumes, Michael Jackson’s music pulsating within. Great feathery earrings swing from her swarthy lobes as she wades into the fray, heavily glossed lips ready for argument. “Dad? Dad! There’s nothing wrong with pork!” she yells.

Like my father, my pubescent sister has one volume for everything: raucous.

“You be quiet!” he roars.

The volume in the house cranks up as the two of them squabble, Danielle defending my position without any better argument than simply repeatedly shouting, “We’re not Jewish!” Of course, they never ask Danielle what she eats. She and her friends probably go to Long John Silvers for plates of greasy popcorn shrimp and juicy crab legs drizzled with butter. Unlike me, she’s also allowed to listen to rock music – that is, if one can call Michael Jackson “music.” Meanwhile, I have to hide my 45s of Annie Lenox, Pink Floyd and Iron Maiden in the album jackets of Brahms and Grieg to play whenever my family leaves the house.

“You go ahead and look that up. I’ll be in here with proof!” I dump my backpack on my bedroom floor and close the door. I then pull my New International Version bible off the bookcase shelf where it lives with my mother’s religious books, and collapse on my bed.

I’ve known this fight was coming. Thanks to my father’s penchant for violence, I’ve avoided the confrontation as long as I can. My heart now jackhammers in my chest as I anticipate something just short of Armageddon. Sick of the hypocrisy and ignorance, I am going to prove to them that the Jewish food laws don’t apply to us and then maybe — just maybe — my father will stop annoying the living hell out of me with The Question.

I examine the passages in the bible I’ve highlighted and memorized. Although quaking with apprehension, I briefly fantasize about an idyllic dinner at Sizzler ordering shrimps with my steak and potato.

The shouting between my sister and father stops. After a moment, someone knocks on my door.

“Come in.”

My father shambles in without even a bible in hand. I wonder what’s up, as he’s never knocked in his entire life and loves dragging out that Inter-Linear book for no reason. It feels unfair to duel an unarmed opponent, but I figure it’s his theological funeral. Of course, it could be my literal funeral.

“What’s this about you eating pork?” His gruffness is shockingly subdued. Still, you could have swapped the phrase “eating pork” for “smoking hash” or “cutting class.” Disappointment paints pouches under his eyes, his gaze strafing the walls rather than meeting mine. He enters the room and shuts the door, plopping down on the sagging edge of the bed.

I point to the bible lying open before me. “Dad, it says right here — ”

He grimaces. “I don’t care what it says. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“Yes, it does! In Romans chapter 14, verse 14 it says, ‘As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.’ And then he says, ‘But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.’”

I reign in my enthusiasm for a moment to avoid stumbling into the next verse, which says, ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.’ I leave that out because I don’t consider my family to be “brothers,” and “love” rarely figures in the father equation. Besides, verse 16 follows, which somewhat undermines the previous verse. It says, ‘Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.’ I take this to mean merely that I shouldn’t eat unclean meat in front of people who are offended by it and that I should defend my actions when called on it. But I want to end the quote on a strong point, not one that seems to concede to my father’s bizarre obsession.

My line of reasoning clear, I bravely knot my thread of logic so that it can’t slip: “So, according to the bible, for you, it’s unclean. But for me, it’s not! And as long as I don’t eat in front of you, I’m acting in love. That’s what the bible says.” Although I wait with triumph for his concession, I also keep one eyeball on the window as an escape route.

“Maria, Maria.” He wrinkles his nose, his glasses nudging upwards. “The Old Testament lays out the food laws for a reason. It’s forbidden to eat unclean meat. Pigs and cloven-hoofed animals are filthy.”

Actually, cows have cloven hooves, but they chew their cud and therefore remain on Moses’ menu. Since my father is from Chicago and neither of us has ever seen a real live cow except in a field from the car window, the error is understandable. I let the error slide in favor of addressing the more egregious issue.

“Don’t you see that we’re Christian now and we don’t have to follow those laws?” I tear through the pages to 1 Corinthians, chapter 10 and read out loud from verse 25. “’Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, The earth is the lord’s and everything in it.’” I drill a finger into the page and turn the book towards him.

A tap on the door. “Ah, Maria? Steve?” My mother pushes open the door slightly, peering inside.

Jabbing a thumb at her over his shoulder, my father slides off the bed. “Listen to your mother.” He shuffles out as my mother ambles inside.

Stunned by his denial yet undaunted, I gear up to pitch the argument to my mother, although I know from many a debacle that the fabric of her reasoning is badly frayed. But since she’s here, I figure I might as well try.

“So what’s going on?” Her face lights up with excitement as she lowers herself onto the bed. She probably enjoys being included for once in an “intellectual” discussion between my father and I.

I show her the passages I showed my father and make the identical argument, which I end by saying, “Paul said it! It’s right there!”

My mother shrinks up into herself, folding her arms over her bulging abdomen. She squints at me as she doles out what will go down in history as the least scholarly response ever uttered: “But honey, Paul was the least popular of the disciples.”

Um.

“Nobody liked him,” she continues. “So, in other words, we don’t have to listen to him if we don’t want to.”

“Nobody liked him?” My mouth drops open and my mind somersaults as it attempts to follow the corkscrew logic. “He wrote, like, half the New Testament! I’d say he’s pretty seriously important!”

“But he wasn’t that important.” She turns up her nose with apparent indignation. The statement seems to clear up things for her. Standing from the bed, she digs her hands into her hips in her signature pose. “Are you having lunch with us? Or did you eat already with Emily?”

“I ate, Mom.”

“Oh. Well, then help me with the laundry.”

My mother’s logic has me hog-tied. My hopes of ever escaping The Question spiral down the gorge of insanity. I’ve been denied a rational discussion and, with despair, I realize I’ll only ever have peace once I leave the house.

That won’t happen soon enough.