Madeleine Robins

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.

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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.

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October 13, 2015

Writing in (Yet Another) New Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:59 PM
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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.

July 29, 2015

Punching Down

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:26 AM
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PunchUpI saw something the other day that made me really angry, in that “what, were you raised in a woodshed or something?” sort of way. Prolonged, self-involved, privileged rudeness makes me on-beyond-cranky. And as I watched this behavior continue I realized that the perpetrator really had no idea of what he was doing.

I was at a cafe, writing (I have said elsewhere that getting out of the house and away from its distractions is a must for me). There were others there, also working diligently, drinking coffee or nibbling on pastries. I work here frequently enough to know the staff by name; it’s a comfortable little joint.

About half an hour after I get there a man comes in and takes a seat. He’s older than some of the customers, younger than me; wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase (the other occupants are more the beanie-jeans-and-backpack sort). He plugs in his laptop and phone and gets to work. Has a couple of phone calls which he carries on a little too loudly, but that happens.

When he ends a call our waitress goes over to see what he’d like to order. She’s a middle-aged Korean woman, deceptively young looking, petite. Her English is fluent but accented, and her voice is soft. When she asks him what he’d like to order he doesn’t look up, just says “Nothing right now.” A look flashes across the waitress’s face: I think she recognizes that he’s going to be trouble. She asks if perhaps he’s waiting for someone. “No, I just don’t want anything right now,” he snaps. She is barely on his radar, an intrusion.  (more…)

June 16, 2015

A Little Etiquette, a Little Incense, a Little Edge

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:49 PM

RobinsLuckstones276x414I think I was 13 when I discovered, more or less all at once, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, and “romantic suspense,” a broad category that included different sorts of books but generally featured a woman in a diaphanous gown, framed against a brooding manse. There might not even be a brooding manse in the book, but on the cover… (at the same period, SF often had a rocket ship on the cover regardless of actual rocketry in the book). Gradually I fell away from romantic suspense, and from the less able of Heyer’s imitators (I think I was 15 by the time I could tell whether a writer had done their research solely by reading Heyer). But among the other things I found in those books was a fondness for a certain kind of world building that involved manners and rules; societies in which knowing the rules meant you could survive or even game the system.

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June 3, 2015

The Gooey Center

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:38 AM
Tags: ,

gooI am eleven chapters, give or take, into the WIP. Since my books tend to work out to about 20 chapters it is fair to say that I’m half way through the book. And ever since somewhere in chapter eight, I have found myself in a piece of writing real estate that is familiar, if not beloved, to me: the Gooey Center. Also called the Slough of Despond, Did I Suddenly Become Stupid?, or, sometimes, Why Did I Think I Could Do This?

What is the Gooey Center? It’s the point somewhere in the middle of the manuscript where it becomes really, really difficult to move forward.  I have always likened my writing process to a journey: I know where I start out, and I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going, and the process is in getting from point A to point B.  The Gooey Center is that point when I suddenly find myself hip deep in mud on a cloudy day, unable to figure out which direction to proceed, making false start after false start, some of them entertaining enough that it takes me a while to realize that they won’t take me anywhere near where I meant to be going.

The first time this happened, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I would never be able to finish this book. My writing career over before it had fully started! And then, somehow, I found my way out of the bog, got my sense of direction back, and reached the end of the book. And with hindsight and editing, I realized that the middle was no where near as soggy and impassable as I had imagined when I was up to my hips in it.

I’m on my twelfth novel. This has happened to me ten times (it didn’t with my first book, because I had no idea I was actually going to finish it, nor that what I was doing was unlikely at best, and impossible at worse; it didn’t happen with my Marvel tie-in novel because I had to outline the thing so tightly that my hair curled). The Gooey Center appears to come with a soupçon of amnesia, too, because I don’t generally recognize that I’m in the middle of it for some time, which leads me to despair. When I do recognize it for what it is… well, I feel a little less despairing, but deeply impatient.  I look for tactics to shorten my time wading through the Gooey Center, but they generally avail naught. The only solution I have found was to 1) remember that I’ve been here before, and I will get out of it, and 2) just keep writing.

I once mentioned this problem to my then-editor. “Ah,” he said sagely. “You’ve spent the first number of pages opening up doors, leaving yourself terrific stuff to work with, making all sorts of choices possible. And now you have to narrow down your field of vision and select which doors, what choices. Of course it’s daunting to have to do that.”

So that’s my mantra, which I share it with you: When you find yourself bogging down, take a look at all the interesting options you’ve left your characters. Me, I’m wondering if all my entertaining false starts could be knit together into something resembling a story.

May 20, 2015

Fixing the Future?

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:51 AM
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pinBecause my husband works in the film industry, we sometimes get to see early screenings–or screenings that are remarkable because the director is there, or we’re in the company of other film tech people, or just because it’s a great theatre. Last week we got to see Tomorrowland.

There’s a song by Aimee Mann called “Fifty Years After the Fair,” about the 1939 World’s Fair, which includes the line “How beautiful was tomorrow…” And Tomorrowland starts out at the 1964 World’s Fair, and evokes it beautifully: the landscape that looks like the cover of a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the crowds, the rampant product placement… As a kid I went to the fair a handful of times, and believe me, they got it just right.

And then things move to the now, and aside from a dearth of flying cars and soaring spindly architecture and the gosh-wow of future tech we were promised (personal jet packs! video phones!) we all know what now looks like. And by the standards of 1964, it doesn’t look so hopeful, what with climate change and political unrest and overpopulation and… heck, the UN just suggested that if we want to keep the human race a going concern, we should all become vegan, like, right now.

Tomorrowland is, in fact, a fable about hope and despair.

My fabulous 19-year-old came to the screening too. And she laughed and hooted and cried at the right places, but it also opened a whole closet full of anxieties and outrage for her, which both recalled my own 19-year-old self and reproached my somewhat older, current-model self. The protagonist in Tomorrowland–the one who comes down firmly on the “how do we fix it” side of the equation–is a girl of my daughter’s age. What my daughter came away with, among other things, is that my generation and the ones that followed it have not only not fixed the problems we found when we reached adult-hood, but have left things worse than we found it, and now it’s up to her to fix it. Her and her cohort.

I remember this. The threats are not the same, but the song is.  When I was 19 the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real; civil rights was an ongoing struggle (and the term referred only to African-Americans–other ethnicities, and the complex web of stuff that is gender in our society, was barely on the radar); we were just beginning to understand the havoc human presence was wreaking on our ecosystem; and–oh yeah, as a younger acquaintance said to me some years later, “you had that war.” I am not an activist by nature, but I felt the weight of my generation’s responsibility to fix all the stuff that was wrong. Being a science fiction reader and writer, I was perhaps a little more ready to see the human race poised on the edge of “if this goes on…” So I do all the non-activist things I can: recycle and compost and use public transportation and try to be mindful about, well, everything.

I’m not convinced it makes a difference, but I keep trying. I remember knowing that it was up to me and my peers to fix the mess the world was in. And some things have, in fact, improved (I could make an argument that the current crop of know-nothingism and racism and sexism is a sign of progress, a reaction those improvements by people who just can’t stand leaving the old ways behind–but we’re down to a lot of wires, and there’s too much to do to spend time indulging those fears).

I didn’t want to leave the people who come after (emphatically including my kids) a mess to clean up. She’s much more of an activist than I am, but that spirit of activism is being dinged by the seeming impossibility of the tasks before her generation. Yes, this sounds familiar. I suspect every generation coming up has felt something of the same thing. All I can do, aside from telling her that her feelings are real and valid (but not an excuse for doing nothing) is to promise that, as long as I’m here, I will do my best to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her.

April 22, 2015

Tidings of Comfort

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:09 AM
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Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Louise Tiffany, by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Note: I chose this painting because I liked it. It was only after I’d typed in the painter’s name (Louis Comfort Tiffany) that I realized I’d doubled up on the entendres. Pure serendipity.

With a to-be-read pile that stacks up to the sky and threatens my continued survival (it’s on my bedside table, and in an earthquake it would surely topple over and mash me flat) it perhaps makes no sense that I sometimes have to stop what I’m doing and start comfort reading. And it’s not always because I need comforting, in the “world is too much with me, gimme my blankie and my thumb and I’ll be in the corner” sense. So why?

Sometimes my mind is too full of Other Stuff™ to be able to fit in someone else’s new worlds and ideas. Sometimes there’s something in that much-read work that I recognize will help me unpick a writing problem of my own. Sometimes it’s just been a Day, and I want something reliably cheery, or chewy, or full of whatever quality I think I want in that moment. I was thinking about what books make my comfort reading list, and which, over the years, have slipped off it. (more…)

April 8, 2015

Raising Feminists – The Fairy Tale Edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 11:59 AM

Cinderella-AndersonThis weekend my husband and I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. We’d been meaning to for a while, and though we missed the exhibit of Walt’s massive train set (my husband has a 7-year-old boy’s love for trains) the rest of the museum was pretty cool. Lots of tech stuff, lots of original art, lots of “making of” information and displays. Because my husband is a recording guy, he ate it up with a spoon. And because I’m a story guy, if you will, I ate it up with a spoon too.

And it reminded me of raising the kids. We have two daughters. And I told them approximately 2,763,421 bedtime stories (some nights I had to tell more than one), many of them based on fairy tales.

We had a lot of books of fairy tales–my extremely foxed, beat up copies of Andrew Lang’s Red, Blue, Yellow, and… Olive? Fairy Books; Hans Christian Andersen’s stories; individual picture books of Cinderella and Rapunzel, and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and Rumplestiltskin, and… let my husband read No Fighting, No Biting for the 1476th time. I was the go-to parent for fairy tales. And we inherited from my sister-in-law a bunch of the books made from Disney fairy tale movies: Cinderella and Pinocchioand Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

The thing is, in reading Lang, or the Disney versions, I noticed each time that they are sometimes a little, um, regressive. What’s a mother to do?

I made a policy for myself, fairly early on, that if I was reading Cinderella I would not sugar-coat. I read the version where the sisters cut off body parts. Why? Because frequently this would lead to discussions about what body parts one might be willing to cut off in order to marry a prince. I suggested I might be willing to cut off my nose, but my older daughter nixed that. “What will hold your glasses up? And besides,” sternly: “You can’t marry a prince. You’re married to Daddy.” And my daughter announced that she was not going to cut off any body parts at all, thank you very much, prince or no prince. That’s the spirit, kid.

And we got into conversations about why the sisters were so desperate to marry the prince, and whether Cinderella was equally desperate–there’s almost nowhere you can’t go, discussion-wise, with a smart five-year-old girl who is trying to put off lights-out. This led to discussions about what Rumplestiltskin was planning to do with the baby he was taking in trade for all that gold he spun, and why the witch in Rapunzel wanted the baby rather than, say, a suitcase full of gold.* When we read The Twelve Dancing Princesses we noticed that in one version the hero takes the youngest princess to wife as his reward (while the illustrations in our edition made it clear the eldest was expecting to be the prize). “Of course,” my daughter noted. “The youngest one is the nice one. The older ones were mean.” Even in princesses, manners count.

With my younger daughter, many of the same questions arose. But because she is a very different person from her big sister, she was always most interested in whoever in the story had the hero role. She did not, she assured me, want to be a boy. She just wanted to be the boss of the adventure. So we read Mulan and Aladdin and The Lion King, and she would tell me what she would have done if she were there–depending on her mood, she would either enact bloody vengeance or explain things to the bad guys until they surrendered in self-defense. Younger girl was more interested in being part of the action than in being a princess.

And of course they watched all the movies. But because there’s a five year gap between the two girls, they didn’t necessarily watch them at the same time.  When older girl was about eleven, she wandered through the living room where her sister was watching Cinderella. “This is kinda a stupid story,” she announced to no one in particular. “He wants to marry her because she’s beautiful, and she wants to marry him because he’s a prince. What are they gonna talk about?”

And I, listening in from the kitchen, raised my hands to the heavens in a gesture of YES!

__________

* These discussions led to my writing Sold for Endless Rue, an historical novel mapped on the Rapunzel tale, because I really did wonder why the witch wanted the baby.

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