Madeleine Robins

August 27, 2018

Scary Abundance, and its Pursuit

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 12:48 PM

GOld ToiletOn Saturday night, spur of the moment, my husband, my daughter, and I went to see Sorry to Bother You, which starts out looking like an urban maybe-failure-to-launch comedy and then becomes, not just sort of Science Fictional, but profoundly weird. I recommend it. But I did walk out of the theatre feeling like “What wasthat?”

And then last night we went to see Generation Wealth, a documentary about… well, not so much about wealth, but about acquisition of wealth, about what drives us as a society to valorize possessions–and often the most vulgar sort of possessions.

Generation Wealth is a series of interwoven narratives about, among others, a former hedge-fund manager who is still on the FBI Most Wanted list for financial malfeasance; a porn star; a plastic surgery addict; a female business exec; a one-hit wonder; the son of a rockstar; and the documentarian herself, Lauren Greenfield. Some of it is funny, some of it is deeply horrifying. It ends… not on a hopeful note, exactly, but on a note that suggests that hope is not entirely out of the question.

The thing that seems clear, watching all these people, is that each of them has a space they’re trying to fill. The hedge-fund guy, for example, is very upfront about his determination–his need–to be the one who wins, where winning is having the most money. He tells a story about sitting with his wife somewhere in the Mediterranean, looking out at yachts in the harbor, and pointing. “That one, that one, or that one. Which do you want?” And his wife telling him “What I want is for you to put your phone away and have a nice dinner with me.” Ow. Apparently it took him years to getwhat she was saying.

Or the woman who went into debt to go to Brazil to get a tummy tuck… which turned into new breasts and a perky butt and a new nose and a neck lift. By the time she got back to the US, she was so deeply in debt that she could not afford to keep her kids with her. As near as I can tell, she may still be paying for it–and there was a deep human cost to her as well.

All of these things had me leaving the theatre wondering what I stuff into spaces in my life. What do I valorize? What do I feel I could never have enough of? Money is nice, but it’s there to make things go more smoothly; stacking up piles of 100s would not, I suspect, make me feel more secure. I would love to be beautiful, and have always felt that it was something of a moral failing that I wasn’t–but it didn’t bother me enough to go for plastic surgery or a rigorous exercise routine or even forgoing a good chocolate truffle. The things I would stuff into the interstices of my life are probably more intangible: I always wanted to be really smart, and really witty, and really accomplished: those were the values that my family venerated. I suppose that, to me, there is no upward limit to how smart or how clever or accomplished I’d like to be–but I’m sure there would be a human cost there, too. It is probably easier to save up and buy a gold toilet.

Wallis Simpson famously said “You can never been too rich or too thin.” I think the ultimate message of Generation Wealthis that Simpson was wrong. The question is, will our society figure this out before we do ourselves and the planet in?


August 14, 2018


Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 5:37 PM

WARNING: do not read if details about tooth problems give you collywobbles.

When I turned 21, my father took me out to dinner and gave me a piece of Fatherly Advice: take care of your teeth. This was more heartfelt even than it might have been, since Dad had, for about 20 years, neglected his teeth, and the bill, in every imaginable sense, had recently come due.

I inherited many sterling qualities from my parents. I don’t know which one gifted me with my teeth (I suspect my father, but he never copped to it) but they are the gift that keeps on giving me grief and taking my money. I am sitting in a Starbucks right now, weighing in on the chances that I can get an appointment with my dentist tomorrow morning. It says something about the state of my mouth that I cannot remember which root canal this will be (if that is, indeed, what I’m looking at) because I lost count after twelve, and that was a few ago.

I am not neglectful of my teeth. I brush and rinse and Do All The Things (okay, I’m weak on flossing because floss gets caught in all my crowns). But every dentist I’ve had in the last thirty years more or less looks in my mouth, shakes her head, and says “I’m so sorry.” One went so far as to tell me that, tooth-wise, I had gotten the fuzzy end of the genetic lollipop. Two sets of braces, mumble-ty root canals (the first when I was twelve and facing down my first set of braces), three implants (one because a tooth that had been root-canaled a couple of decades earlier developed an abscess which I did not feel because there was no nerve…). And a double-handful of dentists, orthodontists, and occasional dental surgeons. I am a well-trained patient, as you can imagine, and can keep my mouth open for an astonishingly long time.

My first dentist, Elias Karnoff, had an office on Washington Square North, and played WQXR in the waiting room. This is how I learned to love classical music. I got very familiar with the sound of the drill, the stab of needles bearing novocaine, the sight of Dr. Karnoff’s very hairy forearms. When you’re seven and a grown man’s forearms are two inches from your nose, it leaves an impression. I can’t remember the name of my first orthodontist, a round, bustling woman; I do remember that her receptionist was named Hanne. When we moved to Massachusetts from New York City, I couldn’t have braces long distance, so off they came.

I got my second sent of braces in college, which involved surgery to find and put a lasso around a tooth lodged in the roof of my mouth, to slowly tug it into place. My orthodontist was fascinated by the fact that I was a theatre major, and therefore gave me clear brackets for a while–in time for my star turn as Mrs. Peachum inThreepenny Opera; he even came to see the show, but apparently spent the whole evening looking at my mouth (“Sarah Bernhardt!” he exclaimed on my next visit. “You were great! The brackets didn’t show!”). This second set of braces led, accidentally, to another root canal: in order to put the bands on they had sawed through a double crown at the back of my mouth. “Won’t that cause a problem”, I asked. “Nah,” they said. They were wrong.

At this point I am pretty zen about my teeth. I get checkups, follow instructions, and mostly am okay (I did faint once and break off an upper incisor–the left hand partner to the one which is giving me grief today, but that could happen to anyone). We are fortunate to have dental insurance, which moves these things from catastrophic to merely horrible. So I will go in to see the dentist tomorrow morning (yes! they made a space for me!) and follow directions. In the meantime, there’s always Ibuprofen.

November 1, 2017

Like Penelope

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

Family 1,2,3,4_0006When my peers were taking piano lessons, I was taking weaving lessons. My family placed a premium on the arts and the more esoteric crafts, and when my parents realized that we had a professional weaver living down the road from our weekend house in the country, my fate was sealed. Not that I protested: even as a kid I loved knowing how things got made.

My teacher was a stately octogenarian named Hazel Warren, whom my father had the temerity to call “Hazel-baby.” I called her Mrs. Warren, because, well, I was ten. Hazel Warren was a craftswoman of extraordinary skill–and a fondness for Eisenhower-era colors (mustard yellow, lima bean green, Wedgewood blue). Every Saturday morning for three years I spent two hours with her, learning to weave on a four-frame floor loom.

Mrs. Warren’s weaving studio–a small barn attached to the farmhouse where she and her dapper husband Harry lived–held perhaps half a dozen floor looms, lengths of woven fabric, skeins of cotton and wool. There was a sign over the door with a winged shuttle (in that way that you don’t register the what of something for years, I was well past my weaving-lesson years when I realized what that image was). I don’t remember much about the actual tuition; what I recall is the quality of sunlight on those Saturday mornings, and reaching my toes down to work the treadles that moved the different frames up and down, and (when I got the pattern wrong) having to figure out where I’d gone wrong and undo the weaving. Mrs. Warren was soft spoken and patient, but inexorable. If you messed up, you fixed it. No kissing-it-up-to-God and forging onward.

On one memorable occasion she taught me how to string the loom (up to that point I had been all weaving and no set up). It involved an unbelievable amount of arithmetic, and confused me. In the end it got done: the actual work was long and painstaking–thousands of feet of cotton thread, all threaded through the tiny eyes of the frames–but not technically difficult. Except for the arithmetic. Fifty years later, if forced at gunpoint to set up a loom, I could probably figure it out (except for the math).

Among my peers, if the subject ever came up, I suspect this was just another reason I was weird. But I made placemats (everyone makes placemats), and a set of five ties (I gave one to my eighth grade teacher, on whom I had a bit of a crush), and I don’t know what all else.  Curiously, when we moved up to Massachusetts from New York full time, I had stopped weaving–perhaps we couldn’t afford the lessons, or maybe Mrs. Warren had got out of the business.

But weaving wasn’t done with us. When I was in high school my mother bought a four-frame loom and had it strung with a spring-green wool, with the intention to weave curtains for the living room.  Bear in mind that the entire west face of the Barn was windows, each about seven feet high and five feet across. Weaving fabric for curtains for all of them would have been a breathtaking amount of work, even for someone who had been weaving for years. And it was my mother’s first project. I think, over the next five or six years, Mom managed to weave about two yards of 48″ wide fabric. Ultimately the wool began to crack and break (wool left wound on a loom for long enough is subject to the slings and arrows of climate and light, with predictable results). I cut the two yards of fabric off the loom and it became a shawl of sorts, and a dress-up item when my daughters were of dress-up age.

And the loom? It stood, unthreaded, in the front hall of the Barn, for another twenty years, until I sold the place. At which point I disassembled the loom, packed it carefully, and had it shipped out west to California. It is still upstairs–I checked the other day. Perhaps, when I am no longer working a day job, I will bring it down and reassemble it–that in itself may be an interesting task) and find someone to help me string it, and I’ll try weaving again. I remember it, as an activity, with great fondness.

September 25, 2017

Preorder Welcome to Dystopia

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:57 PM


“The Road South,’ written by me with Becca Caccavo (aka younger daughter), will be appearing in Welcome to Dystopia in early 2018. It’s Bec’s first fiction sale, my first collaboration, edited by the estimable Gordon Van Gelder, and including many names far more illustrious than mine (like Ron Goulart, Eileen Gunn, Janis Ian, Yoon Ha Lee, Lisa Mason, Barry N. Malzberg, David Marusek, Mary Anne Mohanraj, James Morrow, Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Harry Turtledove, Ray Vukcevich, Ted White, Paul Witcover, and Jane Yolen).

And it’s available for preorder.

I’ve been looking at the galleys: it’s full of good stuff!


August 15, 2017

All My Bags Are Packed

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:28 PM

No, actually, they’re not. On Thursday evening I’m heading off to Finland (and Estonia! Don’t forget Estonia!) for 10 days for the World Science Fiction Convention, otherwise known as Worldcon. Worldcon is held in a different place every year–last year it was in the midwest, this year, Helsinki. And for the first time in forever, I have not been planning obsessively, I don’t have a complex matrix of schedule and place and so on. And it occurred to me this morning that I’m not really sure why that is. Could be the chaos of my work life at present; could be that I’m still reeling from my daughter’s 3-month trip to Europe this spring (as I write this she’s on her way back to college and I will hear fewer daily reports on the excitement of it all); could be that I never imagined myself going to the Baltics.

For some reason I fix on places with a sort of passion related to (surprise!) reading–England was my first love (if I haven’t told you about my first short story, dictated to my mother when I was 3, in which England played a role… well, now I have). But a lot of my fixations have to do with what I was reading: I went to Greece the first time, not because of the mythology but because of Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael and Moonspinners. I wandered all over Paris the first time I was there, looking for twelve little girls in two straight lines (Madeline) and hoping for Musketeers, or perhaps Edmond Dantès. I have not yet achieved some of my geographical ambitions–Ireland, Italy, Japan, India, South Africa–all of which have, via books I’ve read, a lock on my psyche.

For some reason the Baltic region has no such lock. I’m not sure I have a reading reference for the place. My images of Scandinavia are colored by Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Wallander, Denmark has Hans Christian Anderson to speak for it*, but Estonia? I got nothing. Add to this lack of fictive reference the fact that everyone keeps telling me “Oh, everyone speaks English!” Which is reassuring on the one hand, but a little disconcerting on the other. Why go someplace Other if it’s just like home? But of course, it won’t be. My traveling companions and I are going on a tour in Estonia of one castle and “highlights of Soviet architecture”; you get neither in the wilds of Northern California.

Here’s the thing I’ve been realizing as I wrote this: I’m going with no preconceived notions. No story to fit my surroundings to. Maybe (just maybe) I’ve been resisting planning too much for exactly that reason, because I don’t want to know too much before I get there. Other than my flight and ferry times and the hotels I’ll be in, because really, I’m too old to sleep at the train station.

Be warned: there are likely to be pictures. And stories. Just because I go somewhere without stories to back me up doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming up with some on my return.


*it occurs to me that I imagine Sweden as sleek and modern, and Denmark as quaint and rustic. I suspect neither imagining is strictly accurate.

June 6, 2017

Practice, Practice, Practice: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:59 PM

RehearsalSo you have screwed your courage to the sticking place, and chosen the thing you want to read. Do you just walk in to your reading with the manuscript in your hand, stand up at the mic (if there’s a mic to be had) and start to declaim?

Maybe not.

Okay, then: should you plan to memorize the story and walk in without copy to read from?

Not that, either.

Obviously, you want to practice some, but not to the point where your own words give you a dreary feeling of familiarity. And you want to set yourself up so that reading is as easy as possible. For me, that means printing out a copy of whatever I’m reading in larger than usual type (or, if you’re reading from your laptop or tablet or, ebook, blow the image up a little larger than usual). This is simply good sense: who knows what the light is going to be like where you’re reading? What if you find yourself squinting or bending over your story trying to read it? Why make life more difficult than it needs to be. If I’m doing a reading I generally try to keep the type at 14-16 points.

Then there’s timing. It is pretty much certain that when you’re reading you’re going to speed up. Adrenaline will do that to you. Fear that you won’t be able to read everything you’d meant to read in the time you have can be a factor too. But trust me: no good comes from speeding up. So you read your work aloud to get a sense of how long it takes to read… and then add 10%. Practice reading at what will feel like a glacial pace: if you record and play it back you’ll note that you don’t sound slow–you sound pretty normal. So rehearsing will get you comfortable with the pacing that works for you and your listeners.

Another thing–which may be peculiar to me, but I doubt it–is that in reading your piece aloud you may find infelicities, places where another word would work better, things you might want to change. Reading the text aloud before you have to do it in front of an audience means that you can catch those things, and be less prone to whip out a pencil in the middle of your reading and annotate.

You rehearse your reading for your own sake. You rehearse your reading for the sake of your audience. Cause you want your audience to love your work and want more of it.

February 2, 2017

Doing the Smart Thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:42 AM

mark-greenOver at the Book View Cafe last week, Alma Alexander wrote about characters doing, as she put it, “eye-wateringly dumb” things in order to advance a story, and she isn’t wrong. Watching characters do dumb things for no reason is painful, exasperating, infuriating. But what about characters who do the smart thing, the thing that their knowledge, training, experience leads them to do… and it goes sour?

A few months back I was asked, as part of promoting my part in Whitehall, the serialized drama about the court of Charles II, to write about my favorite episode of TV, “the one where…”. And I wrote about 90s doctor drama ER, and an episode called “Love’s Labors Lost,” the one where every decision seems to be the right one…until it all goes to hell.

I love medical history, medical drama, Untold Stories of the ER. The more medical the better–and the first few seasons of ER, before they jumped the shark, are my jam. But even among those seasons, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” is indelible. I remember watching it and thinking “I didn’t know you could do that on TV.” (more…)

August 17, 2016

Walk This Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:48 PM

Crowded_StreetI walk–more or less–the way I drive. I stay on the right, pass slower moving people in front of me on the left, and do a lot of passing. I am not particularly patient about people who–for lack of a better term–walk while rude. I wish I were more patient–it would make me happy to be more virtuous. But honestly.

What constitutes walking while rude?

  • Walking in a group that spreads across the width of the street, forcing people coming up behind them to slow to a stop, and people coming in the opposite direction to pull over until the crowd passes.
  • Stopping in doorways, at the top of stairways, at the top or bottom of escalators. I have no problem with people who stop in the turnstile to get into Muni or BART–if you’re not used to the system, confusion is understandable. But stopping to check your Facebook status while standing in entrance to the mall argues a degree of obliviousness that tempts me to a smackdown.
  • Not being aware of the (relative) speed and ability of the people around you. That little old man with the cane? He’s not going to be able to dodge real fast when you shoulder him out of the way. Conversely, wandering aimlessly in the center of the sidewalk without regard that some people around you are moving faster is not considerate.
  • Streaming across a street, ignoring the cars that are waiting to make a turn. This one drives me particularly crazy: the war between drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians is particularly fierce in San Francisco, but SF has a lot of streets without traffic lights, and there’s a tendency for pedestrians to act as if giving a car a chance to play through is giving quarter in the battle. At least once a day I stop at a corner and wave a car or two through; and sometimes a pedestrian coming up behind me will charge right into the street–don’t let that car through or the Terrorists Will Win. Sigh. (more…)

July 11, 2016

Parallax Views

Filed under: Family,Memory,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:54 AM

speedometerThere’s a lovely moment in The Avengers (the movie, not the TV series of blessed memory) where Black Widow and Hawkeye are on Park Avenue just below Grand Central Station, fighting off hordes of scary aliens on flying Jet-Skis. They’re just about overwhelmed, but fighting gamely on, and Widow says, “This is just like Budapest all over again.” Hawkeyes quirks an eyebrow: “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

That’s families right there.

My brother and I had different families. We grew up in the same household, had the same parents, shared many of the same incidents, and yet our memories, and the emphases of those memories, are very different. I was the older, the girl, shy and anxious, early on coopted to be my mother’s support and caretaker. My brother, the younger, the boy, the artist. My father, if you had asked him, was equally delighted to have a daughter as a son–but he wanted to teach my brother all the boy things (many of which I really wanted to learn myself). Without thinking about it, my parents fell into many of the ways of thinking about gender that their generation (and my own) accepted. We were, without malice, treated differently, occupied different ecological niches. Different families.

This meant that each of us missed things the other thought were pivotal.  He has whole bundles of memories that I only very slightly remember (there’s almost a joke-book’s worth of my father’s jokes that I cannot recall at all). On the other hand, he did not realize that my mother was drinking until I left for college, because that hadn’t been what he saw from his vantage point. We would have grown up to be very different humans anyway, but the divergent narrative threads is something that surprised me deeply when I first noticed it as an adult.

For a long time I thought my family was weird this way, that other families had a single track of programming. But the older I get, the more see this is the case with everyone’s families. A friend of mine, eldest of three kids, had a very different childhood, and a way different relationship with her parents, than the two younger. Even the perspective of adulthood hasn’t kept them from some very Rashomon-like conversations.

Parallax is the difference, or apparent displacement, of something, depending upon the viewer’s position relative to the seen thing. Per Wikipedia, “A simple everyday example of parallax can be seen in the dashboard of motor vehicles that use a needle-style speedometer gauge. When viewed from directly in front, the speed may show exactly 60; but when viewed from the passenger seat the needle may appear to show a slightly different speed, due to the angle of viewing.” Rashomon, cited above, is a good example of parallax memories: a Kurosawa film in which four different people tell their version of the same incident. Each one is telling their truth, as they know and believe it.

My brother and I have reached a point where we accept that the other had a different experience of our lives growing up. Still, it’s disquieting to find that something that loomed really large in his past was barely a speed bump in mine.

March 26, 2016

Be Like Joe

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 1:27 AM

Joe and Julie

Joe and Julie

So there I was on Saturday at FogCon, hanging out with people (including BVC’s Kit Kerr, Nancy Jane Moore, and Laura Anne Gilman) and I got a call from my older daughter. A mother knows her child, and even at the age of almost-26, there’s a note Julie gets in her voice when Something Is Wrong. “Hi, Mom.” It’s hard to explain the tone: lower pitched, slower than usual, maybe a smidge of rue.

“Whassup?” I ask. I’m in the hallway, people are talking loudly, and, oh, yeah, the hallway is in the basement of the FogCon hotel, which means the mostly-excellent cell reception gets a touch dicey.

“I just thought I should tell you that Joe’s car was stolen today.”

Okay: Joe is her boyfriend, and Rover, the car, is their only means of transportation other than shanks-mare or public transportation, in an town where a car is pretty necessary. Julie is job-hunting. It’s not the best possible time for this to happen. Really, there’s NO good time for this to happen. And then there’s the: what does this mean for me, or require of me, or, you know: what.

“So what do you need from me?”

There’s a long pause, then she sighs and says “I just thought you should know, because, you know: parents and all.” So I express my condolences, express the hope that Rover will come home again, wagging his tail etc. We exchange love and I hang up and go back to what I’m doing. And later in the day I check in on Facebook, where all news is exchanged, and Joe mentions that his car was stolen. And their friends all condole, and give good advice, and Joe says thanks.

And then, about an hour later he posts: “I am warm and loved, and I have a roof over my head. In light of everything that has happened today, I still stand fast in my affirmation: Best Day Ever™”

Pretty much on the bad days and the good, when he’s angry or sad or sublimely happy, Joe will manage to point out that the day is the Best Day Ever™. As Julie pointed out to me this afternoon, “… it’s mathematically sound! I mean, literally each day is a culmination of ALL the good things that have ever happened in your life, but with the added potential of NEW good things!”

Rover was found in a nearby city today, somewhat the worse for wear. There will be the expense of getting her out of impound, and making repairs, but it’s still Joe’s beloved car, and it still doesn’t mean buying a new (old) car. All things considered, it could be worse.

What I love is that even on Saturday, Joe knew that. Even Saturday was the Best Day Ever™. Joe is officially one of my heroes, and I intend to internalize Best Day Ever™ if I can possibly do so. As Julie says, “Order now to receive an extra refill cartridge of PERSPECTIVE!”

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