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Posts Tagged ‘Life’

Urban Homesteading: Building a Forest in Downtown

Six years ago, my spouse and I bought a house in a neighborhood that had recently undergone some massive reconstruction. The old neighborhood had such a bad reputation locally that it took several years for my spouse to get his friends to actually agree to come over to the house for game days because they feared for their lives and belongings. But the city invested a lot of money in the area because it wasn’t far from the site of the Wright Brothers’ old house, and it looked pretty bad to disinvest entirely in the neighborhood. 22 million dollars later, all the electric lines had been put underground, many crumbling houses had been torn down, street lights were added, and some homes had been renovated.

Then the housing crash of 2008 happened.

We ended up getting our house for $100,000 LESS than its original asking price. Some of our neighbors were not so lucky, and ended up being immediately underwater in their mortgages. A neighbor across the street moved to Florida and simply stopped paying his mortgage and let the house get foreclosed. Others moved out of the neighborhood only by selling their homes for something crazy like $65,000, when they had paid $165,000 or $120,000 for their homes in 2004/5. For real.

At any rate, in our area this means that a mortgage is actually several hundred dollars a month cheaper than renting. So, understanding that our jobs were uncertain and the economy was shit, we used some money from a book check as a down payment and bought a 3 bed/2.5 bath house here in 2009. We were able to buy the lot next door – which had formerly been a parking lot – for $500 from the city. When we moved in, there was a scary wreck of a house on another lot adjacent that one. It was about a year before it was finally torn down. Here’s a video of the teardown – VERY early shots of yard, so you know where we started from:

It took several years, but we finally got the city to replat the lots around ours so we had a rectangular lot made up of about three different lots totaling about 1/3 of an acre. What to do with all that space? Well, first things first, we put in a lot of landscaping around the house the first two years, then added a garden the year before last:

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This bare lot where the garden is was where there used to be a house. We put fill dirt over it and added these beds. What we decided to do was to do just a little bit every year. So that year we added the trellis and the beds. The next year, we added gravel between the beds. This year, we added another big bed  adjacent the row of berry vines, there. We also put in five trees our first year in the house, which we planted ourselves, and added a lot of free trees and plants donated by my spouses’ family.

This year was a big year, though. After we didn’t get the house on the river we’d really wanted (they were asking way too much, and rejected both our offers. Now that the global economy seems to be collapses, this was certainly a blessing in disguise), I told my spouse I wanted to take some money from our next book check and buy MOAR TREES. If I couldn’t have a house in the woods on a river, I’d make do. So we bought eight trees and had them planted. I bought three more very cheap fruit trees, and my spouse got some old concrete benches and stones from his mom. I bought some bird feeders, and we got all the materials to install our own flagstone patio some time this summer (in our spare time). Next year we will put in two small ponds connected by a stream. Again, remember: do a few things every year, and in ten years you will have your forest. That’s my goal.

So, after all that work over the years, here’s how things are looking this year:

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There’s still plenty of work to do over the next five years, and as the trees and the perennials grow in, it’s going to get even more like a forest, which I love. I’ve already been spending a lot more time outside. Sometimes when shit doesn’t work out, you have to work with what you have and just MAKE it right. I keep being reminded of my grandmother, and all the hard work she put into her own house in the garden to make it what she wanted. I grew up in the freewheeling `90’s, and patience isn’t something I’m good at, but I’m learning that things are far different now. Expectations are different. But instead of giving up and being upset, I’ve decided to see those obstacles and limitations and challenges. If I can’t get a big house on the coast somewhere, or live in some amazing river house, then by god I will MAKE this house what I want it to be. We are very lucky to have chosen this place, and gotten in at the bottom of the market. There is still a potential to build a home in America, but you have to make a lot of sacrifices about where that is and what that means.

So here we are, building our urban forest, and making the dream work.

Surviving an Extroverted World, Pondering the Soft Apocalypse

I hadn’t been to Europe in over ten years, so I was about due. Trips of this length have their drawbacks – costs being one, and exhaustion over the sheer logistics to get there being another. I’m pretty introverted, so navigating the astonishing mob of people en route to other places can be a nightmare.

But if you want to live life to the fullest, well.. you have to do uncomfortable things sometimes.

London is a mad, bustling place, and had the same sort of cost/benefit issues for me that NYC has. My spouse and I spent five days or so in London doing all the usual tourist things, and also managed to sneak into Pornokitsch’s launch party for The Book of the Dead, which was a fine time. I’m not going to mention folks we bumped into this trip because wrap-ups of the “I met X and X and…” variety always exclude someone, and often make me sorry for all the folks I missed. I also know that I, for one, am always saddened when I’m forgotten in someone’s wrap-up. And due to the number of folks I spoke with this trip, it’s inevitable I’ll miss someone.

Though London is fun to visit, I couldn’t survive living there in the crush of people. Small spaces filled with people are anxiety-inducing for me, even getting in seven miles a day of walking to burn off adrenaline. We did all the tourist things you’d expect – the Tower of London, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and lots and lots of time spent navigating the underground to get where we were going.

It was a relief to hop on a train to Brighton and roll up to our hotel, the Granville, which was right next door to the con hotel and half the price(!!).  After the snooty, elitist tone of the World Fantasy Convention’s communications, I expected an awkward, annoying con that actively sought to boot people out for a variety of plebian infractions. Instead, I had a lot of conversations with folks who *also* felt they were unwelcome at the con and who all said, “Fuck `em” and came anyway. So hey, we all felt unwelcome together!

1453404_10152000458346473_804623708_nThe programming descriptions were, sadly, laughable. My spouse opened up the programming book and made an exclamation of horror at the panel descriptions. “Why is Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman! – on a panel about whether or not comics are important? Is this 1975?” Pretty much all of the panel descriptions had this same tone-deaf, “We’re stuck in 1975!” vibe to them (of course, I can’t imagine a panel in 1975 saying there weren’t any women writing epic fantasy but Leigh Brackett, but I digress), so I encouraged him to just look at who was actually on the panel and decide to go based on the panelists, not the descriptions. The panelists would all just talk about what they wanted to talk about instead of the weird panel description.

For the most part, this seemed to be what happened, and most folks who attended panels seemed happy with them, even if the programming itself was a little thin (I think even ConFusion, which is a rather small con, has more programming than this WFC did).  

What saved WFC for me were the number of wonderful people in attendance. The con space itself was a labyrinth, but there was so little programming that once you’d run around it a couple of times, you could figure out the layout. I had a great time meeting new folks both at the parties and in the twisting hallways, and even got to have lunch with my Del Rey UK editor, Michael Rowley. I hadn’t had an editor lunch since 2007 when I first met Juliet Ulman after she initially bought God’s War for its prior publisher, so that was nice and “real-writer-like.”

I admit that one of the most uncomfortable parts of WFC, for me, was seeing how many people treated it expressly as a networking opportunity. I mean, yes, it is, but these folks had lists of folks they needed to meet and connect with for strategic business reasons. I felt a little overwhelmed by that, because I was mostly still at the “Oh, lovely people from Twitter I’d like to chat with, this is great!” place, and the strategic way a few writers approached the con weirded me out a little. I just like to have a good time. Maybe that’s not smart. Maybe I should be smarter. But I like making real connections instead of forced ones. It leaves off a lot of pressure.

I had a lot of people tell me they read my blog, which was nice (I’m sometimes astonished at the stats for the bigger posts, now), and one very honest young fan who said they’d read the first 100 pages of God’s War and couldn’t get into it, but they were looking forward to the epic fantasy, which looked like a book that would be much easier to get into. I admit I do hope the more reader-friendly epic will serve as a gateway drug to the God’s War books.

Though Brighton was less busy than London, Brighton was very much a work event for me, so I was very happy on Monday to hop on a train and head north to Edinburgh. The train ride was lovely, and our B&B was even lovelier. I didn’t believe there was a B&B in the world that could get 45 5-star ratings. But after staying there, I totally understand why. It’s a private home with just one room, and the owners – Stewart and Stephanie – were just lovely, wonderful people. B&B’s can be awkward, especially when you’re the only guest, but my spouse and I felt comfortable with our hosts immediately. They cooked a hot breakfast for us every morning, and their 16th century riverside house was… well, exactly what you would expect a 16th century riverside house to be. Lovely, lovely. Can’t say enough about how amazing this place was, and you should all check it out if you plan for a stay of any length in Edinburgh.

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Edinburgh itself was much more my pace. We did a lot of walking – up to Edinburgh Castle, across town to the base of Arthur’s Seat (though not up it – next time!) and through many gardens and winding places. We even stopped by The Elephant House, the coffee shop where Rowling wrote Harry Potter, which has an excellent view of the castle, and did an underground tour of some old vaults. We did much of our shopping here, since I was very careful of our budget the first two-thirds of the trip. Once we got to Edinburgh and still had money, it was time to do all the gift-buying. Mostly, Edinburgh was me recharging and having a real vacation after the madness of London and socializing in Brighton. I was talking to a wonderful young woman at the Pornokitsch party in London and admitted I was an introvert, so these events were few and far between for me. Her eyes widened in disbelief and she said, “YOU’RE an introvert??”

What can I say? I’m good at faking it.

For me, social events are like theater. This was one of the greatest gifts that taking high school theater gave me: the ability to pull on the “Chatty author” role and step into it, like stepping onto a stage, and then step out of it to go recover afterwards. I’m severely introverted in a way my spouse is not, so it was interesting to go back to our room and compare notes after social events. I tend to obsessively go over interactions afterward and figure out how I could do better or prepare better for them afterwards, and flog myself for every mis-handled communication. My spouse can just go in and be himself and have a good time. I try not to self-censor when I’m in a conversation – I basically just pull down my filter and resort to loud and friendly – but afterwards I pick over things obsessively. Perhaps this is not entirely normal, and I did start to wonder if maybe I had some severe social phobia because I’d been so anxious and exhausted the whole trip. But then we ran off to Edinburgh where the crowds were gone and the pace was slower, and I found myself totally relaxed. I think that sometimes we think that it’s we who are broken when it’s simply that the pace of life, perhaps, that we find ourselves in just does not suit our temperament. Sometimes it’s not us that’s broken, it’s the environment. I am simply much better suited to a rural pace of life and smaller parties.

But America, in particular, celebrates extroversion and it’s extroverted people who get ahead. I figured this out early on, and I’ve had to work out how to step into it when I need to in order to succeed in any way. Alcohol does indeed help, as it dampens the obsessive over-analyzing, but I’m capped at 3-4 glasses at a time due to my illness, so I can’t have a roaring good drunken time quite like a used to.

Pushing extroversion, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing, because different types of jobs require different skill sets. One disastrous example is when they moved away from hiring introverted, analytical, conservative folks to give loans and manage money at the big banks and instead hired on extroverted, risk-taking, exuberant sales folks. The implosion of the US’s financial infrastructure was only a matter of time. Sales folks are great at many things – but taking the long view and weighing long-term risk generally isn’t one of them.

Most writers tend to lean toward introversion (though I certainly know a few who are very outgoing) because being quiet and observing the world, then making sense of it, tends to be a skill that goes along with wanting to step away from people. It’s harder to catalogue an event when you’re inside it. Being able to step away and make sense of it is a gift.

Our trip back to the US ended up being much better than the trip in. We had a rollicking train ride back in from Edinburgh where we chatted with a group of men from Glasgow headed to Newcastle for a birthday party (they brought a small liquor arsenal with them), a backpacker from DC, a student from China, a businessman from Nottingham on his way to an interview, and a couple from Kuwait who were on holiday. It was an astonishing mix of folks with really interesting stories, coaxed out of them (and us) by the backpacker from DC.

It was this surreal mix of wonderful company that symbolized the trip best for me. My spouse had never been overseas, and he’d come back from parties in Brighton and say, “I talked to someone from Finland, and Russia, and Scotland and Italy… all at the same table! That would never happen in the US.” This trip was wonderful for the epic mix of folks – the fascinating conversations, the different perspectives. We get so stuck in the US, so wrapped up in our own bullshit, that it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other world out there, one with different expectations and experiences. There’s a world much better than the one we have, a world on a different track.

Tricia Sullivan said something very interesting at the Apocalypse panel at the con, and to paraphrase, it was something like: When we talk about apocalypse what we’re talking about is the end of a very specific kind of living. It’s the end of the nine-to-five commute to an office where we sit for eight hours every day, and pick up our groceries at the corner store. But it’s the end of the world for only a very small subset of folks. When our little version of what we consider civilization crumbles, millions of people will simply go on living the way they always have.

And it reminded me that as the US slides into despair and infighting, as the US’s influence continues to recede and our infrastructure crumbles, well… the rest of the world will continue on. Because they invested in other things. Because they saw a different future. Because they’re building something different. And that heartened me. The collapse of one thing just means the rise of something else. Societies need to be able to adapt to change. The ones that do it best will thrive. The ones that don’t: won’t.

And on that chipper note, I’m going to get back to writing my Umayma noir book. Because there’s nothing more inspiring to a writer than not writing for a few weeks.

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Hiding About, With Bonus Creatures

Have gotten more done on new book in three days than I have in four weeks, which I suppose is the sign of any good writing retreat. I’m somewhere in North Carolina, enjoying very Pacific-Northwest-like weather. I also have limited access to wi-fi (mostly self-monitored, but the wi-fi really is kinda spotty), hence the radio silence.

Also, they have these crabs here. Enjoy some crabs.

Yes, I am Writing.. In a Crap-ton of Other Places

Yes, yes, so I am behind on posting here. So chop my head off.

However, there has been no lack of posting in other venues. Check it out:

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Amazon Book Blog

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Night Bazaar

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I promise. There will be real content here soon. SOON I TELL YOU.

What’s On Your Bookshelf: Why I’m Still Holding Out On Buying an E-Reader

The local Books & Co. had several Nooks on display the other day. I’ve resisted e-readers for lots of reasons, but mostly because of Amazon’s weird “You bought it but we can take it away” thing. If I download a book, I want to download it like a PDF. A file that’s mine. No DRM. The idea that Amazon or a publisher can suddenly decide to retract something already given scares the anti-censorship fiend in me.

And yet… and yet.. I have too many books. I’m tired of moving them. And sitting in bed curling up with a 800-1000 page book isn’t really cozy. It’s awkward. Carting it around on a plane is even less cozy. Reading from a slim e-reader seems so much easier. 

But I’d also like to actually be able to, you know, read it. I love the color Nook, but the backlight kind of bothers me on that version. But I’m not sold on the non-backlight because if I can’t read in the dark on an e-reader without and extra light, what’s the point? And why am I paying as much for an e-reader as I am for a laptop? At that point, why not just read books on a laptop? And that’s just no fun. And why should I pay extra for Wi-fi? 

That said, I realize how much easier life would be if I could fit all my books onto a hard drive… but also how easy they would be to lose. Knowledge is great. But it’s also hard to hold onto.

I suspect that I will always buy really good books in print. The kind of books you really love and cherish. The ones you want to have signed by authors. Or the ones with really important information that isn’t likely to go out of date soon.

But there are other kinds of books – the popcorn reading, or the 8-book sagas, or the 12-book history compilations – that will just be easier to read and forget about or read and easily access on an e-reader. I love books, but the more junk I get bogged down in, the more I realize just how many of them I can live without. There are only so many books I love at any one time.

When book and movie libraries both move totally digital, I expect to have a couple bookcases of prized books, and that’s it. The more times you move, the more you appreciate having a clutter-free life. E-readers help with that. But I don’t love the technology enough (and it’s not yet cheap enough) to make the switch.

I’m a notoriously late adopter. I resisted getting a cell phone until I live in South Africa, and then I ditched it again for four years in Chicago.  I didn’t get a proper one again until 2007?

The e-reader will be the same. All the cool kids will have them, and stare at me wide-eyed when I talk about how much space all my books take up, before I finally find something that really turns me on.

Homesteading in Dayton, Ohio

I lost my last job because of the banking crisis, but despite that week of terror, I’ve been largely shielded from the recession. I was beyond lucky to get offered a job after being unemployed a week. Health insurance freak-outs subsided soon after. 

All around Dayton, stimulus money has inspired tons of construction projects. There are new parks, newly paved and repaired streets and highway projects, and abandoned buildings being torn down. There are even a couple new tech buildings being built. The local university has been taking advantage of the crash to buy up property, including the enormous old NCR building, and is making the south side of the city a regular university town.

Few of these buildings are full anymore.

It’s easy to ignore or simply not see other things. I visited the pharmacy downtown yesterday during my lunch break, and discovered that Chik-fil-a, and Roly Poly in courthouse square, and the Quizno’s across the street, had been closed for some time. I’d known Quizno’s was done for awhile, and I figured Roly Poly was coming (they have terrible service), but Chik-fil-a was a surprise.

See, the big skyscrapers downtown are far from full right now. Some of them are totally abandoned and up for auction.

I came home last night to find that the city had finally torn down the two houses due for demolition across the street from our house. This was after they’d finally gotten to the house right behind ours last week. Our neighborhood is wide-open and spacious, and it reminded me in that moment of Detroit. They’ve got a similar issue in many of their neighborhoods. So many houses have been torn down that they’re looking for people to do something with the old lots. Abandoned lots that nobody’s doing anything with aren’t making the city money, and aren’t inspiring people to stick around.

I remember telling J. at one point that we should totally go out and “homestead” in Detroit, where if you call the police there’s a good chance they won’t come and if your electricity goes off, it may not come back on again. If I didn’t have to worry about where my drugs would come from, it could be fun.

Turns out, I kind of like this option better. Easier access to drugs and all. See, Dayton still functions, despite the complaints you see piling up on the City’s Facebook page. Everyone I’ve dealt with at the City has been pleasant (even if not always competent – but that was one person out of half a dozen), and genuinely interested in helping people grab up and develop land. There is opportunity here, even if it sometimes seems like the world is dying all around you.

There are things I like here. I like that it’s a bike friendly city. I like the 2nd Street Public Market that’s open year round and has an awesome deli that serves lobster bisque (if I close my eyes and don’t think too hard, I can pretend I’m at Pike’s Place Market in Seattle). I like that we’ve got a bunch of rivers, and parks. I like that there’s a boxing gym right downtown, even if I still haven’t managed to get there. I like 5th Street’s bars and restaurants and funky feel. I even like the Dayton Dragons field, even though I could give a crap about baseball. It just looks nice. I love the art institute. And the summer festivals are killer. It starts with the Strawberry Festival, then the Lebanese Festival, the Greek Festival, Octoberfest, and so many more, and as many county fairs as you’d like to go to.

Now, it’s not like I’m going to write a love letter to this place. When I came home yesterday and looked at the flat, filled in lot where our haunted house used to be, I dreamed once again of spring when we would be able to start planting five million trees on our combined barren lots. I miss the mountains, and big trees, and the ocean. I miss road trips to Reno and Bend, OR and Timberline Lodge.

Taste of home: 2nd street public
market is open year round

But I’m also under no illusions about how everyone else is struggling through this recession in big cities where rent is always over $1,000 and mortgages are often over $2,000.

My quality of life out here is a lot better than it would be if I was trying to scrape together $1,200 for a two bedroom in Portland and shelling out hundreds a month to cover gas. Today, I live two miles from my job and a mile from J.’s school. The longest commute we have is J’s 20 minutes to Centerville when he’s working nights at one of the school’s branch campuses.

With all my student loan payments, I don’t know how I’d live very well at all in a big coastal city. But out here? Out here I have a house for $541 a month, a car that’s paid off, and I don’t generally worry about how to pay for groceries. It’s not such a bad place.

Now that our prior place is all rented out, we can even afford Christmas, which was looking iffy there when we expected to be paying mortgage + rent in December. Life was not going to be fun. Now we’re getting back our deposit, too, and Christmas is fun again.

There are very few places J. and I could live well on what we make (particularly with the amount of debt I’ve wracked up traveling and getting degrees over the years). I’m not in love with Dayton, but I like that it lets me live that hazy half-dream of The Good Life on a budget.

Revenge of the Blogosphere: Haters & Comment ModerationRevenge of the Blogosphere: Haters & Comment Moderation

I started this blog back in 2004 as a place to mouth off about my life. It was a natural extension of the long and winding emails I was sending out to groups of friends. Back then, only the “cool kids” were on the Internet anyway, so I didn’t feel so strange about posting things in public. Geeks and freaks stilled ruled the net. It was pushing into the mainstream, but I can guarantee that nobody at my day job back in Chicago Googled me in 2005 or even 2006.

There’s some fun stuff that comes with blogging. I remember going to a Wiscon the year after I started and how people came up to me and introduced themselves – total strangers – saying they read and followed the blog. It was… weird. As a writer, the cliche is that everybody asks you, “Where do you ideas come from?” In the blogging world, the first thing other bloggers ask you is, “How do you deal with negative comments?”

Blogging is a great way to prepare yourself for when your first book comes out. If you haven’t started a blog and you want to be a writer who actually engages the world, I highly recommend it. Because, if you’re lucky, you’ll say plenty of things on your blog that make people who don’t even know you hate you. And people hating you, for a writer, is a very similiar feeling to people hating your book. So you’ll grow some thick skin real quick.

It’s funny that people who read your posts get far more personal in their attacks than people who read your fiction. If you’re lucky, they engage with your actual argument, but more often, they feel it’s necessary to personally attack you. Which is weird, since they don’t, you know, know you. But blogs are far more personal spaces than books, in part because of the fiction/nonfiction divide and in part because there’s not the status confirmed by mega-publisher standing between me and the reader. We read stories differently if they’ve been published vs. unpublished. I expect published stories to be better. It doesn’t mean they are. But I have different expectations. The web has become a great equalizer, and it means there’s no longer any ivory tower for you to hide behind when people throw stuff at your crappy arguments.

Now, there are all sorts of things I can infer about a writer from what they write. But I don’t know that I’ve outright called an author a woman-hating faggot, for instance, because of something he’d written.

But when you’re loud and offensive and explicitly tackling feminist issues on a blog, the odds of a day going by in which you’re not called a man-hating lesbian go up the more you post. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a man-hating lesbian. There are certainly women I find attractive, and certainly some men I strongly dislike. And I suspect the vast majority of people in the world find some women attractive and strongly dislike some men, and vice versa. What gets me is how this stuff is brought out to silence the speaker. To invalidate what they’re saying. You could have the best argument in the whole world, but one scream of “man-hating lesbian” and some weirdo thinks they’ve cut you down.

Um, no.

See, here’s the thing, folks. If you choose to live publicly, you have to deal with the haters. And there will always be haters. Far more haters if you have an explicitly political blog. They will send you nasty emails and threaten sexual violence and call you gay, because this is about the extent of the scary stuff they can think of.

That’s the good news. Because if it you know how to throw a good right hook and don’t find being gay offensive, the world is your oyster.

Yes, really.

I’ve gotten all sorts of hatred spewed over here in the six years I’ve been posting to this blog. Thing is, all everybody talks about is the bad stuff (look at this post, even!). What we fail to talk about (and what nobody ever asks me about) is how to deal with the *good* stuff. I’ve had fan letters and thank-you letters and some really good stories about folks who changed their lives because of a personal story I shared here. I’ve had letters and comments that literally leave me speechless (or word-less at least). In the face of strong, heartfelt emotion I always have trouble responding, and it’s no different with blog comments.

We continually focus on the bad. I know a handful of female bloggers who’ve deleted their blogs due to harassment. That’s a tragedy. I understand it, sure, but it’s a tragedy nonetheless.

When you start thinking about quitting, pull up the good conversations. The fan emails. The amazing comments. Remember the lives you’re making better.

And just know that harassment comes with the territory. Harassment means you’re doing something right. It means you made somebody uncomfortable. It means you’re freaking them out and shaking up their worldview. It doesn’t mean you need to shut up.

When people ask me how to moderate comments, I actually find it to be a trivial question. It’s not about how to moderate comments. It’s how to have the courage to keep talking when everybody wants you to shut the hell up. Hatred is exhausting. And we focus on the hatred, of course. We give negative comments three times the attention of positive ones, which always makes it seem like there are more than there really are.

The kind of blogging I do, I realize after my long hiatus, really is about courage. I was worried all the time about what people would think. I was worried about strangers at cons. Stalkers. Potential employers. Work colleagues.

But there’s also a lot of good that comes from it. A lot of people who find some value in it. Who take courage from it.

And that makes it all worth it.

You have to figure out what’s worth it for you, too. I don’t envy the bloggers who’ve been targeted with hate campaigns from the big conservative or MRA blogs. I don’t envy folks with exes who stalk them via their blogs. I don’t pretend that “just ignore the haters” works in every instance. But the majority of the time, what we need to go forward is, simply, courage.

And a willingness to hit the “delete” button.