Author Archive: Alex Kourvo

Three Books to Bust Writer’s Block

Three very different authors each tackle writer’s block their own way.

The other day, someone asked me about writer’s block. Did I ever get it? Did I ever blog about ways to cope with it? Did I have any advice for him?

Like I usually do in such circumstances, I recommended a book. Three of them, in fact.

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If you want to know why you’re blocked, read The Courage To Write. Ralph Keyes takes a deep dive into the fears that all writers experience. Why are writers afraid? Because a good novel is an intensely emotional experience. In order to make our readers feel things, we have to feel them too. Few people want to face their own deepest passions and then put them on a page for everyone to read. But Keyes will show you that you’re not alone, and that your anxiety is totally normal.

If you’re looking for the kind of compassionate wisdom an older sister would give you, read Make Your Writing Bloom. Shonell Bacon is frank about obstacles that get in the way of writing. But she overcame those obstacles and is absolutely sure that you can do the same. With a positive outlook and gentle encouragement, Bacon reminds writers why they love the craft so much.

On the other end of the spectrum is Break Writer’s Block Now. Jerrold Mundis is serious about writing, about hard work, and about getting out of your own way to get those words written. He wants writers to stop loading writing with a bunch of emotional baggage and just get it done. Mundis advocates forming a habit and writing no matter what.

So there you go. Psychology, sisterly love, or a kick in the pants. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, one of these should fit the bill. At different times in my career, all of them have helped me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She reviews how-to books for writers at the Writing Slices blog.

The Right Color

The color pink makes me happy.

I have a pink toothbrush. I also have a pink kindle cover and a pink backpack and pink earbuds and scissors. My water bottle is pink. My stapler is pink. My calendar and all my notebooks are pink.

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I don’t wear pink clothes or sit on a pink couch or live in a pink house or anything like that. I don’t live in a cartoon Hello Kitty paradise. But all the small, personal items I touch on a daily basis are some shade of pink, from rose gold right through bubblegum to screaming neon. Why? Because it makes me happy.

The color pink has a joyful vibe full of optimism. It’s a feminine color that always looks fresh. And studies have shown that a soft shade of pink can have a calming effect. To me, pink just looks right. Like, if it’s not pink, it’s the wrong color. I’m always shocked when I see someone walk up to a display of flowers and pick an orange and yellow bouquet to take home. Why would someone do that when there are pink bouquets right there? What is wrong with those people?

Which brings me to this lady.

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I hate Dolores Umbridge for all the same reasons you do: her petty power plays, her casual cruelty, her bigotry. But it goes deeper with me. How could someone who loves pink as much as I do be so evil? Betrayal! After seeing Umbridge on the big screen, I stopped wearing pink so much. Now, most of my clothes are black or navy.

But even she couldn’t ruin pink completely. I still love pink for literally everything else. Once, I was talking to my friend Bronwyn about how delighted I was to find a snap-on shell that made my computer pink.

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Bronwyn said she’d like to get one of those for her computer, but she didn’t know what color to get. I blinked at her in silence. Blinked again, waiting for my brain to catch up. I heard the words she was saying, but I couldn’t get them to make sense in my head. Because for me, there was never a choice of what color computer shell to get. I never make a choice about the color of anything I buy. If it comes in pink, that’s the one I want.

And if it doesn’t come in pink, it’s the wrong color.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She works on a pink computer.

My Neighbor Mister Rogers

He was the best at being human.

As I watched today’s Google doodle, I cried happy tears remembering good things from childhood, sad tears that one of my heroes is no longer with us, and even sadder tears thinking how much the world of 2018 needs his voice.

I remember once—I must have been about four—when we were running late for preschool and my mom was super busy. I don’t remember why we were late, maybe one of my siblings was sick or something. But my mom, frazzled, handed me my clothes in the morning and told me I could get dressed while watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I dressed behind the couch so Mister Rogers wouldn’t see my underwear.

That’s how real he was to me. His calm, measured voice, and the way he looked at the camera, made me certain he was talking just to me. So of course, I assumed he could see me too.

Have you seen the documentary about Mister Rogers?

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I sobbed my way through that one too, along with the rest of the audience. It turns out that the Mister Rogers we saw every day on television really was the same in real life. He was the best of us. He was the human we all aspire to be—kind, understanding, smart, playful, and seemingly without ego. And he could play piano too.

Along with that intense hit of nostalgia right to my heart, Won’t You Be my Neighbor made me think. What would Mister Rogers say if he was alive today? What would he say about the Nazi rally in Charlottesville? About the shootings in Orlando, in Las Vegas, in Parkland? About refugee children taken from their parents and locked in cages?

Even in the hardest of times, Mister Rogers seemed to know the right words to comfort children—and adults, too. His “look for the helpers” quote got a lot of us through 9/11 and it seems to pop up on social media whenever there’s a tragedy.

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I don’t know what Mister Rogers would say about our current world. But I know he would say it with kindness and empathy. He would teach us lessons about living in harmony with other people. He would acknowledge how important our emotions are. And he would never, ever let us forget that he liked us, just the way we are.

If you need me today, I’ll be watching some old episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Netflix. You’ll probably find me behind the couch.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She’s trying to be a better human.

The Invisible Women of Ocean’s 8

Getting away with it in plain sight.

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(There are mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)

I went to see Ocean’s 8 last weekend and it was a delight. It had everything I love in a movie: a tricky plot, fun dialogue, genuine female friendships, characters who are great at their jobs, and an underlying theme that makes you think.

And the men? Eh, they were there, and yeah, they added a thing or two, I guess. They were more plot devices than actual characters.

Oh, wait… Could that, maybe, have been the point?

The women of Ocean’s 8 aren’t love interests or motivating factors for men. They are the heroes. And they are so, so good at what they do. The heist at the center of the movie—set in the world of high fashion and a fancy ball—is specifically female coded. Men literally could not do it.

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What I love most about Ocean’s 8 was the way the gang uses society’s assumptions about women as one of their weapons. When one of them asks why there are no men involved, Sandra Bullock’s character says, “A him is noticed, a her is ignored.” Women, especially women of color, are invisible, allowing the gang to pull off the heist in plain sight. Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina play the janitor, the dishwasher and the waitress. Time after time, people look right through them. Sandra Bullock gets to play the entitled, middle-aged white woman—another easily-dismissed stereotype. Even in the film’s final act, they use old women as fences. And they get away with it, of course. If middle-aged women are invisible, then old ones might as well not exist.

The only women who are ever noticed—ever seen—are the young and pretty, so why not use that fact as well? Anne Hathaway’s character becomes a magnificent distraction. Every eye in the room is on her while the brown and black and over-the-hill women get on with the job at hand.

And what do these women buy with all their ill-gotten millions? Surprisingly modest things. A business, a production company, a solo motorcycle trip, an apartment. But they all represent the same thing—a woman who is the boss of herself, where she’s in charge.

And maybe, for once, even seen.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She loves being her own boss and is glad she didn’t have to pull off a heist to make it happen.

[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures]

An Open Letter to the Mayor of Ann Arbor

Standing up to Nazis really should be a basic qualification for office.

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Dear Mayor Taylor,

Last fall, Richard Spencer wanted to come to Ann Arbor to make a speech and to recruit Nazis. You immediately gave in to his demands, telling the community that you would not take steps to stop him.

There was a great outcry from the students at the University of Michigan and the citizens of Ann Arbor. Outcry which you ignored. Instead, you gave a tepid press release about free speech and then dismissed anyone who asked you to take a stronger stance.

The fact that Spencer met resistance elsewhere and then changed his plans to come to Ann Arbor doesn’t get you off the hook. It was students who scared him away, while our mayor stood silently by.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. And you, sir, did nothing.

You can spin this any way you want to, but the bottom line is this: you are an elected official who will not stand up to Nazis. You displayed cowardice and lack of leadership when you used students as your human shields, putting them on the front lines of resistance against fascism and violent white nationalism.

Members of the alt-right including members of the Traditionalist Workers Party fight with protesters outside of a Richard Spencer speech on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan

Let’s say it again, with the proper emphasis. You are an elected official who will not stand up to Nazis.

To my mind, this disqualifies you from office. It should disqualify you from humanity.

Now that you are running for re-election, you are suddenly paying attention to those voters you ignored last fall. You’ve repeatedly asked for my vote. You will not get it. The primary is in 60 days, and I look forward to voting for your opponent.

Sincerely,

Alex Kourvo

P.S. If you’d like to argue with me about Nazis, please read this first.

Author’s note: I contacted Christopher Taylor’s office in advance of this publication to ask for his comment. He did not respond.

 

Where Would We Be Without RBG?

So much of where we are today is because of where she was in the 1970s.

On Mother’s Day, we went to see the movie “RBG.” It seems that everyone else in Ann Arbor had the same idea, because the theater was sold out and every seat was full. RBG is a hit. It broke into the top 10 for the weekend, which is almost impossible for a documentary to do, especially when it’s showing on limited screens. But, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, this film is small and unassuming and also amazingly powerful.

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I knew Ginsburg was awesome. I’d seen the memes about the “Notorious RBG” and watched the way the internet blew up whenever she wrote one of her dissenting opinions. But until I saw the movie, I never knew quite how awesome she was.

As the movie showed her early life, I saw many older women in the theater nod knowingly at the details of the sexism Ginsburg endured. She navigated college and law school by keeping her head down and being better than her classmates. She made Law Review in her second year at Harvard while caring for a toddler and a husband with cancer. Just one of those three things would have overwhelmed most of us, but RBG did it all.

Ginsburg spent the 70s and 80s working with the ACLU to fight discrimination. She successfully argued six landmark cases before the Supreme Court, changing the law for everyone. She chose those cases the way she does everything—carefully, systematically, always with one eye on the long-term benefits.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a young lawyer

In the theater, there were several gasps from the younger crowd as a list of laws rolled by on the screen—laws that explicitly discriminated against women. It felt like the best history lesson ever as we watched Ginsburg’s work help overturn them one by one. But this is history that is still alive, still with us, still working for our benefit today. Thanks to one remarkable woman, women everywhere can almost take our rights for granted…. Almost.

We still need Ruth Bader Ginsburg and people like her. We’re grateful she’s still alive, still working for us, still notorious as ever. Which is probably why that packed theater burst into applause when the movie ended.

“RGB” has been rolled out into even more theaters this weekend, but who knows how long it will be showing? You should go see it while you can.

And you should bring your mom.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who has recently started wearing “Notorious RBG” t-shirts.

Ten Conversations I’m Tired of Having About Nazis

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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It usually happens on social media. I’ll post an anti-Nazi meme like this one, or this one. Or I’ll suggest that hey, maybe as a community, it’s our job to bail out antifascists who were arrested while protesting white nationalists.

And then the pushback comes. And it always, always comes from nice white folks—people who look like me. And those well-meaning white folks always, always want me to ignore the Nazis, because they’ve never had to look beyond their own privilege to see why that won’t work.

So here are ten arguments I’m sick of having about Nazis, because it’s time for me to come get my own people.

1. Why are you protesting Nazis? All you’re doing is giving them publicity.
More publicity is a good thing. It’s important for people to know what the alt-right stands for and what they’re capable of. I think what privileged white people are really saying is, “It makes me uncomfortable to read about this in the news.” But rather than sit with that discomfort, they’d like to blame the antifascists for calling attention to the problem of Nazis in our midst.

2. Just ignore them! Wouldn’t it be funny if the Nazis came out and nobody showed up? 
No, it wouldn’t be funny if Nazis came to my town and no one showed up. If we all cowered at home while Nazis marched through our streets, it would mean we’ve surrendered the public square to them. They would then know that they could go anywhere they wanted, do or say anything, and the citizens would just go along with it. I don’t find that funny at all.

3. All you’re doing is making them mad.
Upsetting Nazis is a good thing. Besides, they’re already plenty angry. Perhaps this well-meaning person is telling me not to provoke the Nazis, which sounds a hell of a lot like victim-blaming. Like the abuser who tells his victim it’s her fault he hit her, because she made him mad. And please, miss me with your respectability politics.

4. The Nazis just want attention. Why are you playing into their hands?
No, they don’t just want attention. They want my children dead. That’s not an exaggeration. My children are mixed-race and queer. According to the alt-right and their ilk, my kids should not exist.

5. But what about freedom of speech?
Nazis and the KKK are calling for ethnic cleansing. They advocate domination of one group over another by violent means. This is not free speech, it’s hate speech. The US supreme court has ruled that this kind of hate speech—the kind that is inciting violence—is not protected under law.

6. All they wants to do is share ideas! Can’t you debate the points on their merits? 
It’s adorable that someone thinks that Nazis want a civil debate. But more importantly, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and it doesn’t mean a guaranteed platform. Straight, white, rich men often mix these two things up, because up until now, they could say anything they wanted without pushback, and they always had an arena in which to say it. But these days, the alt-right will show up to an event with a dozen supporters and come face to face with a wall of hundreds of protestors. And suddenly, they start squawking that their freedom of speech is being infringed somehow. Nope, we’re just using our own freedom of speech to shout louder.

7. But you’re trying to silence the alt-right! That makes you the fascist!
This is propaganda, pure and simple. Nazis love to brand all antifascists as dangerous extremists. They use that to create a convenient cover for their own, more dangerous, extreme views. Remember: hate speech is not protected speech, antifascists have the right to speak out against Nazis, and ignoring Nazis will not make them go away. Besides, when has “they’re just as bad!” ever been a valid argument?

8. As Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
First, Voltaire never said that. Second, how nice for you, that you can defend Nazis. How nice for you, that your skin color protects you from them.

9. But why should we fight the Nazis? If they’re being disruptive, shouldn’t the cops handle it? 
Let me tell you what happened when Richard Spencer and his Nazi brethren came to Michigan State University this week. Hundreds of protestors showed up. They were peaceful, but they made noise. They made their presence known. Police, wearing full riot gear, lined the streets hundreds deep. As soon as Spencer and his followers arrived, the police took the Nazis in small groups and escorted them into the building. Sometimes, the cops would put the Nazis into their cars and drive them through the crowds. Basically, the police acted as the Nazis’ personal bodyguards, while beating back protestors with their bikes and their clubs. The police “handled” it by protecting the Nazis.

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10. Now you want me to help post bail for the protestors?
Yes, that’s what I want you to do. All of us in the community should do that. These brave young people were arrested for trying to stop Nazis from recruiting.
Arrested.
For trying.
to stop Nazis.
From recruiting.
Over twenty people were arrested. You know what the most common charge was? “Failure to obey a police officer.” I don’t know about you, but that sends a chill down my spine. The message is clear: obey the Nazis’ bodyguards, or else.

You know what the others were arrested for? Trespassing (it was a public place), disorderly conduct, and obstructing police business. A few were arrested for peeing in public. Only two were arrested for having weapons, and it’s not specified what those weapons were. (Water bottles and rocks qualify, if the officer felt “threatened” by them.)

We should be sending a clear message that Nazis are not welcome in our towns, and if they come here, we will protest them, and if we can’t protest them, we will support those who do.

Have you ever wondered what you would do if you lived in Germany in the 1930s or in America in the 1960s? That’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it right now.

And I know what I’m going to do.

Update: One week after Richard Spencer came to Michigan State University, he posted a YouTube video in which he said he was rethinking his whole approach, because anti-fascists were shutting down his speeches. He is no longer going to try to recruit or give speeches on college campuses.

Directly engaging with Nazis works.

How to Talk to a Woman with a Broken Computer

There’s a right way and a wrong way.

Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.

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After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby.  Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.

It never happened.

A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.

He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.

The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.

It never happened.

Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”

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Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.

And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.

Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.

Now let’s hope they clue in others.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor who works on a macbook with a newly installed hard drive.

I Don’t Need His Approval

A pretty ring, quick thinking, and the best moment of my weekend.

I went to a great science fiction convention last weekend. I learned new things, got inspired, and hung out with friends old and new.

At one point, I wandered into the dealer’s room, which was filled with geeky things for sale. I admired the Firefly and Star Trek t-shirts, flipped through some awesome-looking books, and ended up at my favorite jeweler’s table, which was my ultimate destination all along. I was pretty sure I’d be bringing a new ring home with me.

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As I tried on rings and chatted with the jeweler, a man sidled up to me and inserted himself into the conversation. This would usually be an okay thing to do. People are very friendly at cons and we enjoy the small talk. But this guy was interrupting a nice conversation between two women, and he was critiquing my choice of jewelry.

I ignored him. I ignored him hard. No eye contact. Shoulders turned away. I was going to buy myself something pretty, and I didn’t need him to tell me what that was.

Then the “conversation” took a weird turn, and my new “friend” told me that he was surprised that a woman would buy a ring for herself. That’s when I quickly paid for my selection, slipped the ring on my finger, and got out of there. I recognize negging when I hear it, and I didn’t want to give this guy the satisfaction of a response.

I sat on a nearby bench and took out my phone. A moment later, he was standing in front of me. “Well?” he said. “Let me see the ring you bought.”

I was wearing it on my middle finger and I should have flipped him the bird. But I held up my whole hand instead.

“Very nice!” he said. “I approve.”

And that’s when I had my best moment of the weekend.

Because usually things like this make me tongue-tied. I usually think of the right thing to say hours—or even days—later. Not this time. This time, the right words came immediately out of my mouth. I even nailed the tone of voice. Not mean, not defensive, just completely deadpan. Just telling it like it is.

I didn’t even look at him. I kept my eyes on my phone. “Don’t need your approval, buddy.”

There was a moment of surprised silence as he backed away a step. Then another. Then he turned tail and fled.

Honestly, I was not trying to be mean or put him in his place. I was simply stating a fact. But it got me thinking. Why do men do this?

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Why do they assume their opinion is always welcomed and their approval always needed?

Why do they insert themselves into conversations and talk over women and mainsplain things to people who know more than they do?

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Why do they think random women can be negged into interacting with them?

And could they just…you know…not?

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is an editor-for-hire. She likes to buy herself pretty things, and doesn’t need anyone’s approval to do so.

Nerd Nite

“It’s like the Discovery Channel…with beer.”

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Once a month, nerds gather at their favorite bars to see a trio of 20-minute talks about…well…everything. It’s called Nerd Nite and it happens in cities all across the country. Because I live in a college town, and our Nerd Nite is sponsored by our library, we get a wide range of topics. I’ve attended talks about the science of LED light bulbs, how to critique architecture, and why fruit flies love cake. You never know what you’re going to get at Nerd Nite. Sometimes it’s history, sometimes it’s physics, sometimes it’s…me.

In October, I was a featured speaker at Ann Arbor’s Nerd Nite talking about everyone’s favorite science fiction genre—cyberpunk!

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Cyberpunk was everywhere in the 1980s. It started in science fiction, but it influenced fashion, movies, comics, games, advertising, and architecture. After a decade of high-tech, neon-colored, future-looking pop culture, cyberpunk just…went away. Or did it? Could cyberpunk stories still be with us, hiding in plain sight?

Our awesome Ann Arbor District Library taped the talk for their collection, and you can watch the video right on their site.

So if you want to see me nerd out about the genre I love best, here’s the video you never knew you needed.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor. She loves seeing people nerd out about their passions.

[Photo: Lara Zielin]