Madeleine Robins

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.

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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!”

January 6, 2016

The Long and Short of It

Filed under: Money,Movies,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:53 AM

tradingplacesOh, forever ago when I was young and foolish and had just moved back to New York City from Boston, I took a job at an investment bank. I had lived in dorms, or with room-mates, since I left home for college, and I really wanted to have an apartment of my own. And I wanted it within spitting distance of my childhood home in Greenwich Village, which was, on the face of it, ambitious to the point of insanity. So I took a job that paid very well, on the theory that I would work 9-5 and go home and write, right? Except that it was a job that ate my brain on a regular basis: there were days when I came home with my teeth clenched so hard that it took me hours to unclench. And getting any writing done was hard when all I wanted to do was slap someone upside the head. My boss was a truly smart, lovely fellow, and didn’t take himself, or his industry, very seriously. But guys who reported to him were not so relaxed or so enlightened, and they treated the support staff really poorly (which made me the one who had to take them aside and administer lessons in manners and common sense).

But I learned a certain amount about the world of finance and investment banking while I was there. The photo above is from Trading Places, a 1980s comedy about commodities training. And by the time it came out, I knew just enough about that world to understand what they were talking about, in a general sort of way, enough so that I was the first person in the theatre who cracked up at the business jokes.

Last week (after we’d gotten our fill of The Force Awakens) we went to see The Big Short, which I recommend unreservedly. The Big Short is about the housing finance bubble and how it burst in 2008. It’s well written and splendidly acted (Christian Bale and Steve Carrell are particularly good). It finds all sorts of clever ways to explain the esoterica of mortgage finance and how it all went wrong. And bing-bing-bing-bing-bing, it brought it all back.

See, at the investment bank I worked for the head of the brand new mortgage finance department. The–at the time–new idea of putting together large groups of mortgages into a bond made sense because 1) the securities would be made up of excellent, low-risk mortgages, and 2) the traditional default rate on mortgages was historically low. So these were safe, low-risk bonds–and (as my boss gleefully said) “they do good! They make it possible for people to buy houses! Everyone wins.”

Fast forward. I quit the bank so I could get some writing done. I met a guy and got married. I wrote some more books. I had a couple of kids. We moved out to San Francisco and spent a year looking for a new home. Even five years before the housing bubble burst, when we were going from Open House to Open House, there was something disturbing to me about the frenzied tenor of the housing market. There were flyers displayed in the entryways of million-dollar homes that talked about Zero-down Adjustable Rate Mortgages, and I saw people walking out with stars in their eyes and paperwork in their fists. My husband and I, being financially cowardly, eventually made an offer on a house that was a little short of our dream house, but that we could afford (with a solid down-payment and a traditional 30 year mortgage) and here we are to this day.

The disquiet I felt when I saw my fellow citizens gravitating toward San Francisco manses with massive price tags was based, in part, in my experience working in mortgage finance all those years ago. As The Big Short explains, the bonds that resulted from those sales were very often like Sunday’s fish stew at a high-end restaurant: made from the leftovers of Friday’s fresh-caught fish, and probably safe to eat. Probably. And the cynic in me believes that any time something looks too good to be true (like those Zero-down ARMs) it probably is. In The Big Short, the various people who figure out what is going on wind up betting against the market, shorting mortgage finance bonds. They all, eventually, make a bundle.

But as one character points out when his chums are celebrating the fortune their smart move has guaranteed them, each one of the bonds that failed meant families tossed out of their homes, people unemployed, schools underfunded, cities rotting at their cores. Nothing to celebrate.

I watched The Big Short with a sense of inside baseball: I actually understood some of this stuff before they explained it. But they explain it brilliantly.

At the end of Trading Places, the bad commodities traders are foiled, the good guys get rich, and everyone laughs and is happy. At the end of The Big Short some people wind up wealthy, but no one wins because the system is broken.

November 26, 2015

Thankful and Grateful and Mindful

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:36 AM

ar-lobster-02Tis the season of giving thanks. Or perhaps of giving gratitude. I’ve been thinking about this some–not least because Thursday is the American Thanksgiving, which really should not just be about food, but somehow always is (OK, maybe a smidge about the Macy’s parade, and in some households about football, or not killing Uncle Pete who always arrives drunk and has unfortunate opinions), but because I listened to a piece on NPR about a Japanese discipline of mindful thankfulness, which sounds like something I want more of in my life.

(more…)

October 13, 2015

Writing in (Yet Another) New Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:59 PM
Tags: , , ,

I got invited to do a cool thing!

(Okay, part of my delight is that I don’t think of myself as being part of the cool crowd, and therefore, being invited to do a cool thing plucks at my deeply-buried high school nerd self.)

A few months ago a writer of my acquaintance asked me if I’d like to be involved in a Serial Box project. “Serial what now?” I said, with my customary aplomb.

It was explained to me: Serial Box is a new venture that takes as its model the episodic novels of yore–or more contemporaneously, seasons of TV: a work of fiction with new content released every week, written by a team of writers, to create a satisfying episode and a satisfying “season” arc.  (more…)

August 24, 2015

It’s Not Easy Being the Little Dog

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:00 PM
2015-02-01 15.41.33

Ready for my close-up…

Emily, seen left, is 9 1/2 years old. She weighs 48 pounds, almost all of it muscle and fur (plus a little drool). She is a large fur-shedding machine whose chiefest joy is playing catch. And food. And playing with her humans. And food. And cuddling. And food. Like, say, most dogs. I point out to her, on occasion, that I remember when she came home with us and was a Little Dog. And she glares at me, because, I truly believe, in her mind she is The Little Dog, and all things that do not lead to food, cuddling, or playtime, are attempts on the life and sanity of a dog so tiny, so minuscule, so defenseless, that the heavens weep to see it.

I have mentioned to her, more than once, that she is an Elder Statesdog. That she should be beyond fear of the vacuum cleaner and the sound of distant firecrackers. She is not convinced. And in the way of children and dogs, she deeply, profoundly, dislikes change. And in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a rich vein of change to deal with.

First, my younger daughter, who was home for several months from college, departed for Florida and her

I am very little.

I am very little.

school. Since Daughter is the only one with whom Emily is permitted to sleep, this was a very very sad thing for Em. She wandered around the house, disconsolate, with an air that said clearly: “WHERE’S THE SQUISHY ONE? THE ONE WHO CUDDLED ME? WHERE IS SHE?” And there was nothing I could do except pet her lavishly. It didn’t help that shortly before the Daughter left, Emily had got into an argument with some foliage at the park and torn a hole in her side that required sutures and the prolonged wearing of a T-shirt (an alternative to the Cone of Shame). So there were all kinds of things changing to upset the Little Dog’s equilibrium.

Note muscly butt. Hips easily dislocated by tail wagging.

Note muscly butt. Hips easily dislocated by tail wagging.

And then Mama went to Worldon in Spokane (it was smoky but swell, thanks). And Suddenly one of the Little Dog’s remaining people had disappeared. When I returned Sunday night I thought there was a very real danger that Emily would simply dislocate her hips with the tail wagging. Everything was OK! The change was undone!

Today I started a new job. (Yay.) Which meant that for the first time in a year, I’m out of the house reliably from 9-6. When I came home this evening she was excited (and hungry, since she’d been getting dinner earlier). When Dad came home she was just as excited (and immediately produced The Toy and required interaction). For a little while she was not the Little Dog, she was the Dog of Joy. Particularly when Daddy engaged and started tossing the Toy.

But what of tomorrow? When I go to work again? And the day after? And

In the lap of luxury.

In the lap of luxury.

the day after that, when the fact that Mama is out of the house five days a week until way past her idea of dinner time has settled in? I am pretty certain that Emily will feel ill-used. But she’ll get over it. She’s more resilient than she knows. And really, she’s got it pretty good. Even if she’s not allowed on the bed, there’s always the couch.

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