Sticks and stones…yeah, that’s a lie. Name calling hurts

Last week, I was on a popular news site and noticed an article about a woman being shamed online for being too thin. Right next to an article about a woman being shamed online for being too fat.

Really?  I’m not sure why people think it’s OK to pass judgment on another person’s body. Most people know what they look like and have features they like and dislike about themselves. No one is saying “I had no idea that I had a muffin top! Thanks so much for telling me!” It’s not the same thing as nicely pointing out someone has spinach between their teeth.

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Those that are very thin may want that hourglass figure. Or maybe that person has an eating disorder or is sick and would love to gain some of that weight back. Having someone tell them real women have curves is insulting. What are they? Fake women?

For those of us with excess weight, we know we need to lose it and most of us want to drop a few pounds. Someone telling us we’re lazy and worthless because we don’t wear a size 2 isn’t going to suddenly inspire us to do better.

And just maybe the woman being shamed is happy just the way she is. Maybe she is at what she considers her ideal weight, and she felt great when she posted that picture with her kids at the beach. That snide remark probably ruined her day.

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No matter what our weight issues are, it’s no one’s business. It’s not right for me to comment on a person’s body any more than it is right to tell someone they are a loser if they smoke. Or stereotype someone because of the way they dress. Or make a judgment about them because they have crooked teeth. We all have our issues, some more visible than others. Those issues shouldn’t prevent us from posting our vacation pictures online out of fear that someone will make a derogatory remark.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact that every online retailer courts reviews or if it’s the anonymity of the internet, but more and more, people feel like expressing their every thought and opinion publicly is their right. Even if those words are hurtful. We’re all human and have not-so-nice thoughts. Maybe I see a coworker’s Facebook post and think that the dress she chose for a party isn’t doing her any favors. But there is a huge difference between thinking it and publicly saying that online. All of us with manners know that would hurt her feelings and embarrass her so we’d keep our thoughts to ourselves. But too often, thinking about other people’s feelings goes out the window when commenting online, particularly when the comment is directed at a stranger and there really is no fallout for behaving like an ass.

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I’m often appalled by the viciousness I’ve seen online when it comes to people’s – especially women’s – weight. It’s like carrying extra weight is a deep character flaw on par with kicking puppies and selling drugs to little kids. Or being skinny means you’re a witch. But I wonder, is every woman in the commenter’s life in tip-top physical condition? If the commenter’s mother or daughter was overweight or underweight would he/she want her subjected to that kind of abuse? I’m thinking no.

Can we please start looking at others as human beings and treat them accordingly? Can we agree that a person’s appearance is not the measure of that person’s worth? I’ve met people in all shapes and sizes that are kind and loving. I’ve been treated poorly by people who are drop dead gorgeous as well as by those who aren’t. We all have to learn to live with our exterior flaws or work hard to change what we can; but thankfully, that doesn’t determine how we look on the inside. In that area, we have total control. That’s a choice that we make every day when we decide how to treat one another.

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Don’t judge a book … or the person reading the book

The thread started innocently enough.

I was on a popular book site, in a Christian group, following a thread about reading secular authors. The original poster was looking for ideas for secular authors that were readable without being offensive. I bit because while I have a few Christian authors I love, I read a lot of secular fiction, too. And it’s tough finding authors that don’t use the f-word every other sentence or throw in graphic sex scenes. But, it can also be hard to find Christian authors that I can relate to. Some are so saccharine that I can’t handle it. I know that’s not nice, probably a character flaw. But that’s me.

It wasn’t long, however, before the thread degenerated into judging, snarking about what people were reading that wasn’t “Christian” enough. I had initially thrown out my two recommendations – Harlan Coben and John Grisham – but by the time I returned to the thread to look for suggested authors, no one was suggesting. A hostile few had taken over and were judging. One woman proudly detailed that she had flamed a fellow churchgoer on the churchgoer’s personal Facebook page for reading the “50 Shades” series, questioning her salvation. I was appalled — not by the “50 Shades” reader but by the poster.

Sorry…couldn’t resist a little jab.

I personally would never read that series – first, because it’s not my thing but second, because I don’t think God would want me to. But I don’t think it’s up to me to question a person’s faith by what they choose to read, especially not publicly. I can’t imagine how the churchgoer felt being attacked online, in front of her other friends and acquaintances. I doubt she felt convicted. Probably embarrassed. I’m sure she was mostly offended.

One of my favorite Bible passages is in Romans 14 when Paul pretty much tells us to mind our own business when it comes to other Christians and their walks. It was liberating to know that I didn’t have to worry about what others were doing; I just had to focus on what God was teaching me. I’ve started books and been convicted. I’ve shut off TV programs or movies that are disturbing. I know when God is telling me to stay away from a bad situation. Sometimes I don’t listen – behaving like I did when I was 11 and watched “Poltergeist” at my friend’s house when my mom said I couldn’t – but I usually end up with consequences later. Yes, nightmares. Or setting a bad example for my kids. Or just that feeling of disconnect that comes with not obeying God.

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As a church, we need to get out of God’s way and quit judging so much. It’s not helping. Unless you know that you know that you know that God gave you a word to share with someone, keep your mouth shut. And if you do have a word, share it privately. Public flaming does way more harm than good.

The older I’ve become, the more I realize I don’t know all that much, certainly not enough to judge someone else without walking in their shoes. And normally when I falter and fall back to my judgmental nature, I’m usually eating crow not long after. It doesn’t taste good.

So this is Kitty….

This is a picture of my cat, Sassy, who died this past weekend at age 16. I can’t even describe how much I miss her. Really. After ugly crying a good portion of Sunday, I’ve had tears in my eyes off and on for the past four days.

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My kids named her after the cat in the movie “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey.” Yes, she had plenty of attitude, but I never was a huge fan of the name. So I always called her Kitty. That way I wouldn’t hurt their feelings because she was a kitty, right?

But after awhile, no one called her Sassy except the vet. She’d come running if I called her Kitty but wouldn’t budge for the name Sassy. Of course, sometimes she wouldn’t come at all if she wasn’t feeling it. Like I said, she had loads of attitude. But that’s probably what I miss the most.

I’m sharing this because Sassy was the inspiration for Emily’s Kitty in my books. I added her to the stories on a whim, and now I’m glad I did. It makes me feel like she will still be with me whenever I’m working on my books. And that makes me smile.

I’m not a perfect mom and — wait!– what did I do with the cat?

I read a news article the other day that linked to this heartbreaking blog post, a confession from a mother who accidentally left her child in the car for about 20 minutes on a warm day. Thankfully, the little girl was fine. Poor Mom was the one with the scars.

I give the author a huge amount of credit for sharing this story. I knew before even clicking on the comments associated with the news story that some people – mostly other moms – would be spewing judgment and hate. I seriously don’t understand where that level of superiority comes from. Because I’ve never met a perfect mom.

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I never accidentally left my kids in the car. But I remember plenty of incidents I refer to as “bad mommy moments” when I failed. I can make jokes about them now because my kids were fine but if I think about those moments too long I can still feel the fear and self-loathing created by my mistakes.

Ironically, the blog’s title is “This is Motherhood.” And, yep, it is. Motherhood is full of triumphs and failures, learning and growing. And sometimes those lessons are painful. No one is born with the perfect mom gene, knowing exactly what to do all the time. It’s why we lose sleep and cry and commiserate with other moms. And it’s time we cut each other some slack rather than looking for a chance to stab another mom in the back.

There is a big difference between a mother who deliberately decides to leave her kids at home for the night to go party, and a mom who in a moment when she is tired, overwhelmed or stressed makes a bad call among a thousand good calls. But as women, we beat ourselves up when those bad calls impact our kids. We will be harder on ourselves than anyone else could be. So why do other moms feel it necessary to pile on? Do you think you are really helping the author – who is clearly still processing what happened – by saying “I would NEVER…?” Does anyone really benefit from you publicly patting yourself on the back for your perfection while putting down the author for her mistake?

Um…sorry. You’re human so never say never. It may not be a hot car. Maybe your kid gets away from you and runs into traffic. Or your kid stuffs too many Cheerios in his mouth and chokes. Or your kid wanders out of the backyard when you go to sign for a package from the UPS guy. Or your kid races ahead of you at Disneyland and gets lost….I could go on with a thousand scenarios. Kids are notoriously unpredictable and our society is horribly judgmental. I’ve seen kids on leashes and people judging the parents, but I think, hey, if they know their kid is a wanderer, they are making the right call. But in the eyes of society, you’re screwed either way.

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I’ve read a lot recently about “the mental load” that moms carry, those thousand things that are forever running through your mind: I need to make my son’s dentist appointment. Did I sign the permission slip for my daughter to go to the zoo? We need more milk and bread from the store. That credit card bill is due on Friday. All that thinking can take its toll.

I used to drive my kids to school sometimes on my way to work and almost invariably, they would have to remind me to drop them off because I was just on auto pilot, thinking about what I had to do that day. I left the house and followed the path to the office, not the school, even though they were sitting right next to me.

Just last week — and both my kids are at the local college now — I got to work and couldn’t remember what I did with the cat before I left. Usually she stays in our (finished) basement when we are gone because she’s naughty if left alone upstairs. But the last I’d seen her, she was lying behind the couch. It took me a good five minutes to determine if I had put her downstairs or if I’d left, closing the basement door and cutting off access to her litter box. In the end, my son had put her downstairs but I had to really think to remember that because I’d been rushing to make coffee, pack my lunch and gym bag, clean up the kitchen, turn up the thermostat, check the locks, etc.  before heading out the door.

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So, I get it. I do.

So much of what we see online is false. Photoshopped images, Facebook posts gloating about perfect families, Pinterest projects that make life seem wonderfully organized, food blogs with mouth-watering pictures that just aren’t doable in a 30-minute window. But while it’s fine to aspire to improvement, it’s not OK to judge others, or yourself, too harshly. Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad mom. It makes you human. And, conversely, publicly spearing someone else for a mistake doesn’t make you better. In fact, it takes away a piece of your humanity.

This is what happens when I don’t get my book fix…

I’m in between books right now, waiting impatiently for the book I ordered from the library to arrive. That makes me cranky and more than a little obsessed with reading. Hence, my post today.

I just finished reading “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” Ruth Ware’s debut novel, and enjoyed it quite a bit. You can see my thoughts here. But overall, reviews were mixed. One of the complaints I noticed on several reviews was that the characters, including the main character, were unlikable. That’s not the first time I’ve read that complaint about a popular book.

It made me wonder. Is it necessary for characters to be likable in order to tell a good story? Of course, it’s ideal when we love the quirky and fun characters on the page. Those are the best books to read. But will readers keep plugging along if the protagonist is a jerk? For me – here’s an ambiguous answer – it depends.

First, it depends on whether it’s a series or a standalone novel. For a series, then yes, the main character and most of the supporting characters need to have some redeeming qualities. I’m not going to keep tuning in if I don’t like hanging out with these folks. There is one series of books I’ve tried reading but I keep putting off finishing the series because the characters have become insufferable. I love the plots and the writing is perfect, but the main character is arrogant and has too many snobby quirks for my liking. Not that the protagonist has to be nice. I love Sherlock Holmes even though he’s severely lacking in the human interaction department. That’s why Watson is so important to the stories. But in this other series, all of the main characters are annoying. I’ll probably finish the series eventually but I keep finding other books to read first.

My biggest pet peeve with series characters is when they don’t evolve over the course of the series. That to me is a deal breaker because it’s just not real. People change and their experiences make them better or worse human beings. So if a formula works for Book One, I don’t want to see that formula repeated ad infinitum or I’ll quit reading. (Stephanie Plum books, I’m looking at you. But what do I know? These books are still bestsellers.)

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For standalone books, however, I am much more forgiving of horrible characters as long as you give me a good plot. I’m not talking about characters that kick puppies or abuse children being the hero of the story; that’s not going to work. But deeply flawed characters, especially when the flaws are born out of suffering, can be good protagonists as long as they move the story forward. In Ware’s second novel, “The Woman in Cabin 10,” her main character is a hot mess. But that’s the only way the story would work. The plot revolves around a travel reporter who thinks she witnesses a murder on a luxury cruise ship but no one believes her. Heck, I didn’t believe her. That’s why the story works. If Lo had been a Diane Sawyer clone then, of course, everyone would believe her. And if the crew didn’t take this Diane Sawyer clone seriously, the other guests would wonder why. Instead, we see evidence that Lo tends to drink too much, is not the world’s best reporter, and could be suffering from PTSD after a burglary in her home right before she left for the cruise. Would I want to take Lo for coffee? No. But her weaknesses work well with the story.

Books like “Girl on the Train” and “Gone Girl” have also found success even though the cast of characters is largely unlikable in both books – but the plots still work to the point readers overlook the characters’ flaws. At least for most readers. If you look at the negative reviews on both books, “unlikable characters” is usually cited as a big reason why.

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It’s a fine line for authors. If they create a character that is too good and always makes the right decision, then readers will call that character a Mary Sue/Gary Stu or complain the protagonist is bland. But make the character too unlikable and readers may reject the book altogether. It’s subjective, really, at what point the character becomes too unlikable. I’m normally a John Grisham fan but quit reading “The Chamber” when I realized I gave not one iota about anyone in the book. Not caring whether someone is executed or not is kind of important to the momentum of the story so bailing out made sense for me.

So what do you think? How important is it that you like a book’s characters? Any favorite characters you love to hate?

And remember, my books are still on sale this month at Smashwords. Check it out here.

Happy Reading!

It’s summer reading time! Sale at Smashwords and an excerpt from Book 7

Hey all,

Hope your summer is going well. Just wanted to let you know that my books will be on sale for the month of July at Smashwords as part of its annual summer promotion.

“Vengeance is Mine” and “Flesh and Blood” will both be FREE! all month, and the other four — “Buried Truth,” “Foul Play,” “In the Presence of My Enemies” and “Extreme Measures” — will be 50 percent off.

You can find my books here on the Smashwords site and the discounts are good all month.

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Bookbub Blog

And…. just because I’m finished with round one of editing, and I’m super excited to share, here’s another excerpt from the upcoming Book 7:

I started the Jeep and went back to work. Bill was in a meeting so I went to my desk and started cranking out other work, any work that didn’t involved murder. When I saw Bill go back to his office, I got up and poked my head in.

“Got a minute?”

“Sure.”

I closed the door. “It’s about the Potter case.”

“And the door is closed. That’s not good.”

I told him about my discussion with Potter. When I was done, he sighed. “This isn’t good.”

“I know.”

“I agree that we need to wait for the competency hearing to see what the finding is. This could all be a delusion.”

“I know.”

“You can still cover that. Then we’ll go from there. I’m not telling the publisher anything until we know where we stand. Maybe Potter will plead guilty on a deal and it will all go away.”

“He’s still talking about defending himself so I’m not sure how likely that is. But we can hope.”

He nodded and let out a deep breath. “Well, go home. Enjoy the weekend. When’s the hearing?”

“Not next week. The week after.”

“Let’s lay off this in the meantime. I don’t care if we get scooped by the Manaqua paper. I’d rather be careful and have Pence sitting in the witness stand or getting sued rather than you.”

“Me, too.”

I wished him a good weekend and left, going back to my desk to gather my things before heading home. I had my Saturday rotation duty tomorrow and planned to finish up a few things then. I was glad to not be thinking about Potter and his crazy world for the next few weeks. I had let some work slide, and it was time to catch up.

The Saturday shift was pretty easy. No odd ball stories that came in, just the usual obituaries and police blotter. I got home just after one, having stopped at the grocery store, gas station and car wash on the way. I threw in a load of laundry and was working on my bills when my cell phone rang. It was Brian.

“Hey.”

“Is this Emily?”

It was not a voice I recognized. My stomach dropped. “Who is this?”

“It’s David. Brian’s brother.” I could hear something in his voice, a wariness I didn’t like.

“Oh no. What’s wrong? Was he hurt? Is he okay?” My voice squeaked, and my hands were shaking.

“Physically, Brian is fine. But…”

“What’s wrong?”

More to come later. If you want to check out what I’ve been reading — and I read a lot — visit my author page on Goodreads for some suggestions. Happy summer reading!

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He did a bad thing; is redemption possible?

A few weeks ago, I checked out the movie “Passengers” from the library. I knew it had lousy reviews and had read some backlash against the movie’s premise but since it was free and I liked the actors, I figured what the heck.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want any spoilers, then better skip this blog post. If you’ve seen the movie or don’t care about spoilers, then read away. As a side note, the movie isn’t very good. Can’t really recommend it, but there is a question at the heart of the movie (hence the spoilers) that has nagged at me since watching the mostly forgettable film.

Can a character in a book or movie do a really bad thing but still be redeemed in the eyes of the audience? According to those generating the backlash to this film, the answer to that is no. But that’s what’s bothering me. I see this attitude a lot. Take, for instance, the child who fell into the gorilla pit in Ohio, forcing zookeepers to shoot the gorilla to save the child. The backlash against the parents was absolutely brutal. I don’t know these parents – they could just be the worst – but objectively, I know my kids have gotten away from me in the time it took me to compare prices on two items at Menard’s. (Hysterics ensued. It was a bad day). Most of my friends and family members would say I’m strict and responsible. But things happen to everyone. Can these people be good parents who made a mistake? A very public and horrible mistake to be sure, but should they be crucified for it? So many posters online seemed to think so.

Which brings me to the movie. Chris Pratt’s character Jim is awakened early from the 120-year hibernation that should take him to a colony on a new planet. He spends a year trying to wake the crew, contact Earth, fix his predicament, followed by acceptance and then depression. He is so low that at one point, he contemplates suicide. The premise is eerie. I’m a card-carrying member of the introvert club. I was home alone for Mother’s Day weekend and it was the BEST GIFT EVER. But as much as I love being alone – and I really do – the idea of being alone from now until the day I die is pretty darn depressing. I don’t think God created us to be alone. Even the Unabomber-types that hole up in the mountains have the option of going into town for supplies and having at least a little human contact if they want it.

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So Jim, at this low point, decides to wake up Jennifer Lawrence’s character Aurora. He comes across her archived footage about why she chose to make the trip. She’s fun and smart and pretty. Jim feels like he’s found a lifeline and he grabs it. He knows what he’s doing is wrong; he agonizes over the decision but ultimately, he makes the selfish choice, never telling her what he’s done. They fall in love, blah, blah, and eventually she does find out and she hates him. Like completely hates him. I was prepared for one of those plot points where characters do bad things and are forgiven immediately so the film can progress. Their sins are never addressed. I didn’t feel that here. She calls him a murderer and tells him she doesn’t care why he woke her. I think the story gets her reaction pretty spot on.

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But from an audience perspective, I can’t just dismiss Jim as a perverted stalker. It’s kind of like cannibalism. We’d all love to believe we’d never be like the Donner party, but survival and self- preservation are tricky things. We do what we have to do to survive even if those things are terrible. I think we’d all like to believe if we were in Jim’s shoes, we’d be noble and die alone, but I can’t say definitively that I would be that selfless. My experience with human nature hasn’t shown me oodles of selflessness from others, either. So when people say, “I would never…” I’m kind of skeptical. I mean people will run over an old lady to grab a $99 TV at Walmart on Black Friday so I’m not buying that these same people would die alone out of a sense of nobility.

At the movie’s third act, the two have to work together long enough to survive a long and kind of unbelievable ship malfunction and resurrection scenario. In the end, Jim receives access codes that will allow him to use the medical unit in the ship’s hospital to put Aurora back in hibernation. This time, his act is selfless. He never suggests they flip a coin to see who should go back to sleep, even though he risked his life to save the ship. He could have chosen not tell her about it. They are on speaking terms again and he doesn’t try to milk that. He just says he can put her back to sleep and he’s willing to be alone. He always knew what he did was wrong but he’s at a better place. He’s not willing to make that mistake again.

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Aurora chooses to stay with Jim, realizing she loves him. And the hate directed at this decision online was pretty bad, saying her love couldn’t be real. So back to my question: can a character find redemption? Literature and film are full of them but it seems to me our culture today is less tolerant of imperfections. The anonymity of the internet allows us to bask in our own self-righteousness and cast stones with impunity. After all, no one will know about the time your baby rolled off the changing table or you cheated on your significant other or stole a candy bar at the store. And it sure feels good to cast the blame on others to boost our own spirits. It’s sad, really. It’s like empathy is dying off faster than newspaper jobs.

Like I said, the film was pretty bad from a plotting and realism point of view, but the question at its core is still making me think. I’ve done some horribly selfish things in my life, and I wish I could say I never will again. But that’s not likely. We’re human and at times we’re horrible. But not usually in a vacuum, horrible for the sake of being horrible. We often behave badly because we are hurt or desperate or afraid. We have our faulty logic and emotions that sometimes kick in and lead us astray. Since we all contain these same shortcomings – and like it or not, we do – I wish we could also find more empathy when we see bad choices in others, rather than just spewing hate.

So what are your thoughts? Am I seeing this all wrong?