Sometimes I wonder why plain wire coat hangers are so hard to find in retail stores like Target or Wal-Mart. You can find the plastic hangers and the wood hangers, and sometimes really thick metal hangers, but not the simple hangers that are made out of a plain old 16-or-so-gauge wire bent into a hanger shape.

You know, the kind that’s cheap, and doesn’t take up much space, and is tougher than plastic hangers and doesn’t break after you’ve hung a coat on it for six months.

Maybe someone at the top of the corporate world decided that selling wire hangers was too dangerous, because women would just use them for abortions?

One time I was looking for hangers in a store, and my brain thought up this elaborate corporate conspiracy, complete with pervasive surveillance and abortion-police keeping files on people:

“Warning, warning. Hanger alert. A woman in aisle P17 has asked an employee where the plain wire hangers are.”

“Commence surveillance on subject. Bring up her internet history, make note of any abortion-related searches.”

“Alert! Subject’s pharmacy records show she takes birth control pills. If she’s pregnant she would undoubtedly be seeking an abortion. Must bar her from all access to hangers. Intercept if she approaches a dry cleaning service.”

“Danger! Danger! She is buying 16-gauge wire from a hardware store!”

“Roger that. On my way, following her home.”

“Do you have a visual on the inside of her home? Repeat, do you have a visual?”

“Roger that. I have her on screen.”

“What is she doing with the wire?”

“She’s… making hangers out of it.”

“…Hmm. This is a devious one. We’ll need to keep extra close tabs on her.”

Seriously, though– plain wire hangers are great. Not only are they the most durable hangers you can get for the money, but they can be used for all sorts of clever household solutions– including this thing I came up with today, when I needed another over-the-door hanging hook and didn’t have time to go buy one:

(I agree they’re probably terrible for abortions, though.)

Hunger strikes: a baffling human custom

Strange things happening these days. This anti-gay-marriage protest is probably the worst thing a hunger strike has ever been used for.

In fact, I’ve often thought about how strange it is that hunger strikes are socially acceptable at all. They’re really just a variation of “I’m going to commit suicide unless you do what I want.”

Usually you end up institutionalized if you say something like that. Does the method of suicide really matter that much?

Sirius and his name

I wanted to name my pet starling after a star, and I picked Sirius, but after living with him a while– and watching some Farscape– maybe I should have picked Rigel.

He’s a greedy little sucker who spends most of his day eating and excreting, and yet somehow manages to be adorable. He’s got much more in common with Rygel XVI from Farscape than, say, Sirius Black from Harry Potter.

(Also got a few Ferengi traits, mainly wanting his food pre-chewed for him. He’s got no interest in my sandwich until I take a bite, then he’s poking his beak in trying to pry my mouth open…)

Save the bees, and a human family too: A good, cheap last-minute gift for people who have everything

Maybe you have some friends or relatives who don’t want any physical gifts, because they know they have enough stuff already. And maybe they’re more concerned about people who don’t have enough.

But maybe you still want to give those friends something, to let them know you appreciate what kind and considerate people they are.

And maybe you only have a couple days left to get them a present, and you only have $30 to spend.

The Heifer Project has been around a long time, giving animals to poor families to help them survive on milk, eggs, and so on. But most of their gifts are outside my price range.

However, I recently found out that they offer the gift of a beehive, for $30. It’s not very easy to find on their website, which is why I felt the need to post about it. But it helps a family pollinate crops and sell honey, and it also promotes the spread of honeybees, which has got to be good for the environment.

Beehive from Heifer International

You can buy it on their website in a few minutes, and print an “honor card” from your printer afterwards, to give to the person you’re buying the gift in honor of. They sell stuffed animals to give with your honor card, but I prefer the idea of giving the card with a jar of honey.

If you only have $20, and want to help a family raise birds for eggs, there are also these options:




Another Christmas tradition

It started when I began to notice that every time I gave my mother-in-law a gift, she neatly folded the wrapping paper and gave it back to me “to use again some other time.”

At first, I confess, I was annoyed. Her intentions were good, a truly laudable desire to reduce waste and promote sustainability. But I didn’t really need extra wrapping paper, and I knew it would get more worn-out and ugly with each use, and it really bugged me to re-use things that were meant to be disposable.

But then I realized– why use something disposable in the first place?

When something’s designed for re-use, I delight in re-using it. And there are lovely fabrics out there, beautiful cloth ribbon, even pretty brooches to hold the seams and decorate the package. All can be found at thrift stores for next to nothing. It was a whole world of creative wrapping-crafts, waiting to be explored!

I went to my local Savers and picked up some brocaded red and green satin napkins and tablecloths, and a grab bag of assorted fabric ribbon in a variety of colors. And the fun began.

It was easier than I’d imagined! Two napkins could combine to wrap a medium-sized gift, one napkin sufficed for the smallest, and a tablecloth (folded a few times if necessary) could handle pretty much all of the larger sizes. If a length of ribbon was too long for a particular package, I didn’t have to cut it and reduce its potential for reuse; I could just make loops of the excess and tie them together again and again, creating a handmade bow.

So if I give you a wrapped present this year, feel free to give me back the wrapping to use on future gifts. And if you don’t want to, feel free to keep it and use it on your table– or give it to your local thrift store, or pass it forward as the wrapping on the next present you give!

I Was a Child Sexual Harasser

(Edited on 12/18 to make my own viewpoint clearer.)

So, there’s a lot of talk about this little boy who kissed a girl’s hand without her permission, and got suspended for sexual harassment. People seem to be outraged about it, for various reasons, and given my own experience with discipline as a child, I’m a bit baffled.

Is it an outrage because the kid did nothing wrong? No, he did something wrong– he kissed a girl without permission. Someone has to tell him that’s not okay.

Is it an outrage because he’ll have a record of sexual harassment for the rest of his life? No he won’t– as far as I can tell from the articles, no legal charges were brought against him, that was just the language used when punishing him. It will be on his grade-school disciplinary record, but that is not going to follow him into adulthood.

Is it an outrage because suspension is a harsh punishment for a child who didn’t know he was doing anything wrong? Maybe, but according to news stories, this boy had harassed this girl multiple times before, and whatever the teachers had done to try and discourage him, it wasn’t working. They may have seen suspension as a last resort. (Of course, maybe I’m influenced by the fact that suspension never seemed like a big deal when I was a kid… I got suspended a LOT, and my childhood self always felt that it couldn’t be a very severe offense if it was punishable by getting a day off school.)

Let me tell you something about my childhood. I was a socially awkward, often disruptive and badly behaved kid. I’ve talked about it in my book and in speeches. Because I lacked impulse control and understanding of social rules, I did the same sort of thing this kid did. I hurt, offended, and yes, sometimes kissed other students without their permission.

Often, I got suspended for it.

Often, the words “sexual harassment” were used when suspending me.

And I survived. I am now a law-abiding, kind, thoughtful, empathetic, and relatively successful adult.

Punishing children for sexual harassment is not a new thing. I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s.

It is not unfairly singling out boys. I was a girl, and the kids I kissed were often male.

It does not label you for life as a sex offender. I had a disciplinary record in school, but no one looks at your elementary school record when deciding anything in your adult life.

And it does not ruin your life. In the best cases, it can make kids realize they’re doing something wrong, and turn their behavior around.

Yes, kids don’t necessarily understand what they’re doing. But that is what discipline is for.

Not all disciplinary actions are helpful, of course. But telling a child it’s wrong to steal kisses, and using a suspension to drive the point home, is perfectly reasonable.

I helped write one of the best books of the year, apparently

This is How You Die, the collection that published one of my stories, has been listed on the AV Club’s best books list! I’ll try not to let it go to my head.

Last Christmas

Last year, I was killed in a tragic car crash on Christmas Day. Thanks to my organ donor card, you received a life-saving heart transplant… only to die in another crash on December 26th. Luckily for another heart patient, you also had a donor card. #ParaphrasedSongLyrics

Breathing in a Balloon: The economy when you’re thinking in pictures

When I visualize the economy, I think of a big air-filled balloon we all live in. We float around, breathing in, breathing out, the air flowing from place to place. It’s possible to imagine a world where we could get by without air, but here in the world of this balloon, we all need air to live.

We’re all part plant and part animal in this balloon, because after we breathe air out, anyone else can breathe it in and get the same benefits we got from it. The air passes from person to person, circulating. The whole thing should be a self-sustaining system.

Lately, though… there have been lots of people building additions onto the outside of this balloon, little extra bubbles. Air savings accounts. Now this is fine in moderation, if you have a nice small bubble, just big enough for you. It sets aside a bit of extra air in case you need it later. But some people are taking it to an extreme, making big bloaty bubbles sprout on the outside of our balloon, which begins to look like an inflated rubber glove with hundreds of big fat fingers.

These air-hoarders don’t actually use most of the air they set aside in their bubbles. From time to time, one of them might start a business that pumps a little bit of air back into the main balloon, but for every little bit it pumps in, it pumps more back into that air-hoarder’s bubble. And the bubble gets bigger and bigger, just sitting there not being breathed.

As time went on, the hundreds of people who had huge bubbles on the outside of the balloon gathered so much air into them that there wasn’t enough air left in the main balloon. It got small and soft, like a balloon that’s been leaking air for days, while the air-hoarders’ bubbles stayed fat and shiny. Things got tough for the millions of people who lived and breathed inside the main balloon. Some people went around feeling faint all the time. Some actually suffocated to death.

When they complained, sometimes the only answer they got was, “You’re just not trying hard enough to get air. Anyone can have enough air if they try hard enough.” But the less air there was in the balloon, the harder it was to round up enough for yourself, especially when there were hundreds of millions trying just as hard as you, and only enough air for maybe two-thirds of them to breathe comfortably.

It got to a point where people were panicking about the lack of air. Finally most people agreed that there was a crisis.

The government did some things that didn’t help at all, like pumping a bunch of their air in to fill up some of the air-hoarders’ bubbles that had started to leak air back out into the balloon.

The government also did some things that kind of helped a little, like using a magic machine that could create air out of thin nothingness. They made this air and let it loose into the sagging main balloon. Some people said, “That’s crazy. If you make air out of nothing and add it to what’s already in the balloon, there will be too much inflation, and it’ll ruin our whole system.”

And logically that should have been true, but this wasn’t a logical situation. In this crazy illogical situation, it didn’t hurt to add air to what was already there, because a lot of the air that was already there didn’t count, because it was locked away in the air-hoarders’ bubbles, and couldn’t be affected by anything out in the main balloon.

This doesn’t mean that the choice to make air out of nothing was a great choice. It wasn’t the best thing they could have done, but the fact that it didn’t ruin things just goes to show how crazy the whole scenario was.

And so the crisis got a little less terrible. People weren’t panicking as much anymore. The air-hoarders didn’t learn the lesson that their hoarding was ruining the balloon. After the worst of the crisis passed, they just kept sucking more air out into their bubbles as if nothing had happened, as if they couldn’t even see how the air in the main balloon was getting thin again as they continued.

People went on feeling faint, and people went on suffocating. When they complained, sometimes the only answer they got was, “If you don’t have enough air to breathe, then don’t breathe so much! You can survive on less than you’re breathing.” But those same people didn’t say the same thing to the air-hoarders, who were the ones who were really taking a lot more air than they needed.

This really is the imagery I get when I think about the economy. I think in pictures, especially when I’m trying to understand a complex system. And to visualize this system, the soft sagging balloon with growing, swelling bubbles on the outside is the picture my mind makes.

Seeing this picture in my head, it’s incredibly hard not to conclude that the logical solution is for the bubbles on the outside to release their air back in. It’s simple physics. I can’t imagine anything that would work better.

When somebody says, “But the big businesses are creating jobs and putting money into the economy!” I don’t know how I can make others see what I see. As the businesses get more profitable, my mind’s eye can see the bubbles swelling, and I can see the relative amount they’re pumping back in, and it is not enough to help.

When someone says, “Poor people are a drain on the economy because they’re accepting welfare when they don’t need it!” I am baffled, because I can see the tiny, tiny puffs of air that welfare is directing at the poor people in the balloon, and it is practically nothing compared to the big fat rubber-glove-fingers that belong to the air-hoarders.

When someone says “Anyone can become rich if they try hard enough,” I try to picture every person in the main balloon getting really industrious and working hard to build a big fat bubble-account. I try to picture it, but the math doesn’t work– there are too many of them, and not enough air left in the main balloon, and they each end up with just a teeny tiny soda-pop bubble that would barely last them a day.

Am I seeing it wrong? Is everyone else visualizing a different picture? Or are most people not thinking in pictures at all?

The Second Mango, by Shira Glassman: A Book Review

Full disclosure: I didn’t receive any gifts in exchange for writing this review. However, the author is a dear friend of mine, and she and I were sharing and proofreading each other’s writing back when we were college kids, so I can’t promise a purely objective review. I will do my best to be honest, though, and I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t like the book!

“The Second Mango,” by Shira Glassman, is a fantasy story about (as the author says) “a gay woman, a straight woman, and a dragon.” The gay woman, Shulamit, is the young queen of Perach. The straight woman, Rivka, is a warrior from another nation. The dragon is a shape-shifter that can be either dragon or horse, and provides transportation as the two women travel together, seeking a potential sweetheart for the lonely Shulamit.

The account of their journey is interspersed with flashbacks to the passions in each of their pasts: Rivka’s star-crossed love for her late mentor Isaac, whose vow of chastity prevented anything from happening even before she lost him… and Shulamit’s long-ago romance with the palace cook Aviva, who nursed her through sickness, won her heart, and then left. Despite their differences, Shula and Riv find they have an uncommon amount in common.

The story, however, steers clear of the expected tropes. This is not a tale of a lesbian convincing a straight woman to explore gay love; the plot goes in another direction, which I think turns out to be far more satisfying. Things work out in a way that I never saw coming, even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense.

There were some aspects of the surprise ending that seemed perhaps too convenient, but then, this is a world of magic and mysticism, where it’s easy to imagine a kindly personification of Fate smiling on the heroines. They certainly deserve it; I liked them both from the beginning.

I also loved the characters of Isaac and Aviva in the flashbacks. Rivka and Isaac have a very entertaining rapport, and Aviva’s voice is adorable, constantly finding weird and random ways to describe things. (I guess this is one more thing Shira Glassman and I have in common. I too have a weakness for bizarre speech patterns, although Draz’s speech in my book “Kea’s Flight” is a different brand of weirdness.)

The approach to social issues is also very fresh and original. Shulamit is wealthy and sheltered, Rivka is a skilled warrior who supports herself. Shulamit is a lesbian in a country where such things are barely talked about; Rivka belongs to the expected sexual orientation. Rivka grew up shamed for being born out of wedlock, and never got to know her father; Shulamit grew up with a loving father but then lost him in a tragic accident. Their struggles are different, but the story never implies that one struggles more than the other, or that one’s concerns are more valid.

It also breaks many rules about what character traits are “supposed” to go together. The lesbian loves pretty dresses and jewelry; the straight woman carries a sword and dresses in men’s armor. The seasoned warrior is a virgin; the sweet and sheltered princess has experience with physical intimacy. Both are far more complex than the archetypes of fairy tales.

Shulamit’s complexity contains a few more interesting factors. She is a bit of a geek and bookworm, with great talent for figuring out puzzles. And, unlike any other heroine I’ve seen in an adventure novel, she suffers from debilitating allergies: some foods are indigestible to her and make her violently ill.

Having a somewhat sensitive digestive system myself, I was initially concerned that the book would contain some distasteful scenes. Such issues hit close to home for me, and I can get very uncomfortable reading about them. But I needn’t have worried. By the time the story happens, Shulamit has gotten very good at managing her condition. Though her need to avoid certain foods becomes very relevant to the plot in some places, the worst events are all in the past, and are mentioned quite discreetly.

And I have to admit it’s wonderful to see a heroine with a disability, even one that’s considered “mild,” such as food sensitivities. As a girl who grew up diagnosed with various mild disorders, I had a shortage of relatable role models in popular culture.

No Disney princess even wears glasses, not even the book-loving Belle. Little girls with less-than-perfect vision learn early that they have to get contacts or eye surgery if they want to dress up convincingly as their fairy tale heroines. Girls with allergies must similarly feel that there’s no one in the world who has faced the same troubles and succeeded in life.

Shulamit breaks with tradition here, and unlike heroines “cursed” with a disability, like Disney’s mute Little Mermaid, Shulamit doesn’t need to break her curse to have a happy ending.

The title, “The Second Mango,” reminds me of the struggling author in Agatha Christie’s “Mystery of the Spanish Shawl,” who was writing a story titled “The Second Cucumber” just because he thought the words sounded interesting. I imagine Shira Glassman having similar inspiration. The title is certainly intriguing, and while it does tie in to a market-shopping scene that forms a significant point in the development of the heroines’ friendship, it feels as if the story was built more around the title than vice versa. But then, the book is partly about playful words and food metaphors, so it doesn’t seem so out of place.

Yes, this is the author’s first novel, and in some ways the writing shows this. But it also shows a creative and clever mind, and a skill for delicately beautiful descriptions of food, flowers and nature, which often have a charming old-fashioned feel that hearkens back to the prose of Jane Austen or Lucy Maud Montgomery. And, as someone who has been allowed a sneak preview of the sequel, I can say with certainty that this new author is getting better and better.

“The Second Mango” is available from Prizm Books.