Thirty years ago, I made a promise. I’ve kept it ever since.
I hate wearing a bike helmet. When I wheel my bike out of the garage, I always pause with the helmet in my hand, fantasizing about riding with a bare head, arriving at my destination without a sweaty neck and flat hair.
But every time I go somewhere on my bike, I plop the helmet on my head. Not because I think it will save my life. It probably won’t. Not because of peer pressure. In the college town where I live, hardly anyone wears a bike helmet. But still, I wear mine each and every time I ride my bike.
Because of this guy.
That’s my dad, holding me as a baby. I bet he’d still hold me that tenderly if he could.
When I was in college, we worked together one summer painting houses. I loved hanging out with him, working side by side, listening to the radio and chatting. One day, I mentioned that a few months earlier, while biking to class, I’d fallen off my bike and hurt my knee and elbow. Dad expressed sympathy, but didn’t say anything else about it until the next afternoon.
“You know, I’ve been thinking.” He dipped his brush into the can for more paint and expertly applied a line. “If I bought you a bike helmet, would you wear it?”
I could tell by his expression that this meant a lot to him.
“I’ll wear it every time,” I added. This was the late 80’s. Nobody on my college campus wore a bike helmet. I’d certainly never worn one growing up. I had no idea how hot and uncomfortable it would be.
I wore it anyway. And when I went back to college, I got teased for it. The girls mostly left me alone, but the guys always had something to say.
“Are you wearing that so your brains don’t fall out?”
“Do you just walk around with that on all day like a special ed kid?”
“Did you leave your motorcycle somewhere?”
My campus was ninety miles from home. My dad would never know if I rode without a helmet. I could take it off, ride bare-headed, be cool, fit in.
I didn’t. I kept it on. Every ride. Every time. I didn’t care what the other kids said. I wasn’t wearing the helmet for them.
I was wearing it for someone more important.
And I still do.
No matter what you got your mom for mother’s day, it’s not as cool as what my kids got me.
I have wanted a unicycle for years. I was always delighted to see one-wheel riders in parades and shows. Seeing a unicycle for sale made me sigh wistfully. I watched videos on YouTube and thought “someday…”
Then I came across this quote.
It made me think about what I was capable of. And then I realized why I’d never bought myself a unicycle and why I’d never tried to ride one.
For twenty-five years, I lived with a partner who didn’t think I was capable of anything. He didn’t think I could be a successful writer, or a good mother, or a skilled editor, or an inspiring teacher. Even when I clearly was all those things, he insisted I was not. He second-guessed every independent decision I made and never once told me he was proud of me. When we divorced, I told him I’d be fine. He snorted, “No, you won’t.”
But I am. I am more than fine. In the past few years, I’ve learned just how capable I am on my own. I sold my house and bought another. I dealt with evil realtors and surly bankers and the odd rules of court. My son needed surgery at a special clinic in another state, so I arranged it and financed it. I launched my oldest kid into college. I held my little family together.
Turns out my kids were watching the whole time. And they always knew what I was capable of. So when I asked for a unicycle for mother’s day, they didn’t try to talk me out of it. They didn’t undermine my confidence by asking, “are you sure?” Without any hesitation or debate, they pooled their money and bought me the exact model I wanted.
They gave me more than a unicycle. They gave me a symbol. Every time I ride it, I’ll know how much my kids believe in me. No matter how many times I fall off, they expect me to get right back on again.
I’ve been practicing twenty minutes a day, wobbling up and down the driveway, clinging to the garden wall. Losing my balance, falling off, getting on again. But I’m not giving up.
I’m going to learn to ride this unicycle.
Because I can do anything.
You don’t have to be an artist to make your sign a work of art.
Marches are a regular part of my life these days, and every good protester needs a sign. I used to just grab a piece of cardboard from the recycling bin and throw some words on it. My signs were legible, and my message sincere, but my designs left a lot be desired.
With three protests in April, I needed to up my sign-making game. After all, if I care enough to march, I care enough to make a good sign. The problem? I don’t have much free time, I refuse to buy any new materials like stencils or paints, and I’m terrible at art.
So I had to figure out a way to make a decent sign in less than an hour, for less than a dollar, with zero artistic ability. I’m not saying my method—or my sign—is the best. But it is a cut above my recycled cardboard ones, and looks quite good for the amount of time/money/effort I put into it. Want to make one too?
Here’s what you’ll need:
Poster board (One sheet cut in half to make two signs)
An index card
A ruler or yardstick
Markers, pencil, and scissors
I had all these things on hand except for the poster board. That cost me 79 cents.
Here are some optional things:
Artwork printed off the internet
Here’s how to do it in ten easy steps:
1. Decide what your sign will say. Shorter is better! The experts say fewer than seven words is ideal. My sign for the tax march says “No one is above the law.” That’s a message I think we can all agree on!
2. Measure your space. Now that you know what you want to say, you know how many letters per line you’ll be writing. Be sure to count the space between words! In my case, I was doing two words per line, so my longest string was “is above.” I’d need eight spaces for that.
3. Do the math to figure out how big each letter should be. My poster board was 14 inches wide. Therefore, each letter could only be 1.5 inches wide. (8 x 1.5 = 12 inches, plus .25 inches between each letter for a total of 14 inches.)
4. Make a rectangular stencil out of your index card. I made mine 1.5 inches wide and 2.5 inches tall. That’s the orange rectangle in my photo.
5. Very lightly, in pencil, trace around the index card as many times as you have letters. For me, that was 6 boxes for line one, 8 boxes for line two, and 7 boxes for line three. Remember that the space between the words counts as a box! (Also: I discovered that with fewer letters on lines one and three, I could make those boxes slightly bigger. But let’s pretend for this tutorial that they were the same.)
6. Now you have neat little boxes to make your letters in. Every letter will be the same size and you won’t run out of room. A good artist would simply freehand the letters at this point, but I am not a good artist. I penciled in every letter. It didn’t take long and made me more confident with the markers. Make your letters really thick! Thin ones can’t be read from far away.
7. Color in the words with markers. This is always my favorite part. I love to color.
8. Erase the pencil lines. Also my favorite part.
9. How about some artwork? Here’s my big secret. I simply found an image I liked on the internet, printed it, cut it out and glued it to my sign with glue stick. Done! The sign is ready to be carried to the march. But what about that second piece of poster board?
10. If you want to, you can use the other piece of poster board to make a second sign. Tape the signs back to back, and put a yardstick (or a cardboard tube) in the middle for a handle. Your sign will be more visible if you carry it above your head.
Have a good march! Make new friends. Yell really loudly. Connect with important local organizations. Remember to stay hydrated and always clean up your trash. Peaceful assembly is your constitutional right and speaking truth to power is one of the very best things Americans can do.
Especially when our signs don’t suck.
Please play along as I give my quarterly update.
Back in January, I made an ambitious goal. I would write 2017 pages this year. At 250 words per page, that’s 504,250 words in one calendar year.
This isn’t a big deal to anyone but me. A writer’s secret scribbling doesn’t matter much. Only output matters. At the end of a year, how many books are in reader’s hands? That’s what counts. My brother has been an awesome accountability buddy, but talking about my goals in public helps me a lot, so please play along and ask me all the hard questions about what I’ve been up to the last three months. Thanks.
You: 500k words a year equals only 1400 words a day. Isn’t that low for a professional?
Me: A professional writer would scoff at this, thinking it was way too easy, but I’m not doing this full time. I’m still squeezing writing time around my part time jobs and volunteer work. To make things worse, I’m trying out a new genre, which means I’m a beginner all over again.
You: Okay, so you should be at 126,063 words by March 31. Did you hit your first quarter goal or what?
Me: Yes, I did.
I wrote 126,749 words, which puts me over my goal by nearly 700 words. I had a few days in January where I didn’t write at all, but I put my fingers to the keyboard every single day in February and March.
You: What did you write?
Me: I wrote 107,778 words of fiction plus 18,971 words of nonfiction. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the final numbers, because I was afraid I was spending too much time on nonfiction, but it came out to 15%, which seems just right.
You: Nonfiction? That counts?
Me: That totally counts. I bring a ton of creativity to my nonfiction. Blog posts, book reviews, and class materials for my writing workshops all count toward my goal. So do editing letters. (Those are the three or four page letters I write for my editing clients, telling them what’s working in their books and what isn’t.)
Some nonfiction doesn’t count, though. I don’t count social media updates or emails. But that other stuff? I bring my A game to things like book reviews and editing letters, using every bit of my creativity, so I add them to my daily total.
You: But editing your own books doesn’t count as new words, right?
Me: Right. I’m only tracking raw output, which is why on some days, I can work for hours and hours and have only a few hundred words to show for it. Editing is time-consuming, but it’s not something that I can skip in favor of new words. That’s not how books happen.
You: But I haven’t seen any of these things. Are you sure you’re not just a poser?
Me: Some of the nonfiction went on this blog and my book review blog. The materials for my writing workshops went to the attendees. The editing letters went directly to my editing clients. Writing doesn’t have to be published to be considered worthy.
You: But what of all this fiction you supposedly wrote? 100k words is more fiction than many writers write in a whole year. Where did it all go? Why isn’t anyone reading it?
Me: People are reading it. They just don’t know I wrote it.
Some of those 107,778 words are still work-in-progress, which will be published later. Some was just for practice, and I won’t be publishing it at all.
But most of it was published. So far this year, I’ve published eleven short stories (about 9k each) under a super secret pen name. The stories were experimental, trying out a new genre, and I’m not comfortable revealing this pen name. So you might have read some of my short stories without knowing it.
I loved writing them. Those stories mean a lot to me and I’m happy that I brought them into the world, even if I can’t claim them.
And by the way? This blog post has 706 words in it. I’m adding those my total for next quarter.
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She likes sticking to her goals.
Some non-writing things that help me write better
Most writers use the same tools to get the job done. We all have a library of how-to books, both inspirational and instructional. We all have computers with useful software. Many of us also have things like kitchen timers for writing sprints. But I use three tools that most other writers don’t. I’ve been using each one less than a year, but in that short time, they’ve become essential.
1. Alphasmart Neo.
Remember these from the 1990s? Before laptop computers became affordable, these little word processors were state of the art. I thought they were outdated, but after hearing my friends rave about them, I decided to try one myself.
The Alphasmart has a keyboard and a tiny screen. You type, the Alphasmart saves your text, and when you’re done, you use a USB cord to transfer the words to your computer for editing. It weighs almost nothing and runs on three AAA batteries that last about six months.
I love it because literally all I can do with an Alphasmart is type. That means no Twitter, no Google to “just look up one little thing” (that leads to hours of browsing), no email. Even better: I can’t really edit on the Alphasmart. Scrolling backward is tedious, and not worth it for more than a few sentences. It’s much easier to just write myself a note in the text, telling myself to fix it later, and then push forward.
You can’t imagine what this has done for my productivity. I’ve gone from 1000 words an hour on the computer to 1500 an hour on the Alphasmart. And I think they are better words, too.
Back in the day, when these were new, they were a couple hundred dollars. Now you can get them used for $35. Amazon and eBay always seem to have a dozen or so, but they aren’t being made anymore, so the supply is finite.
Writing is appallingly sedentary. People always tell beginning writers that the secret to success is “butt in chair.” Unfortunately, that’s also the secret to numerous health problems. But what choice do writers have? We need our fingers on a keyboard, which means we need to be sitting still. Some people use a standing desk, but that doesn’t incorporate movement.
Even worse, I live in Michigan, where the winters are cold and dark. If I want to get out for a walk, I have to use limited daytime hours, which are also prime writing hours.
A Fitdesk solved that problem neatly. It’s an exercise bike with a desk on it. Now I sit and pedal and the more I write, the fitter I am. The pedals are silent, and not at all distracting. I’ve had my Fitdesk for six months, I weigh five pounds less than I did when I got it, and I feel amazing. I’m no longer thinking about what I’m missing by not exercising outside. I just pedal and write.
3. Gunnar Glasses
Although I write on the Alphasmart, I edit on the computer, staring at a screen for hours at a time. My eyes always gave out before my creativity did.
Until I got Gunnar Glasses.
They look ridiculous. I don’t care.
The glasses block the blue light and glare that can cause “computer vision syndrome.” When I wear my Gunnars, I can edit for a full day without eye strain. Plus, I think they are a subconscious signal to my mind. Glasses on? It must be time to work.
I don’t need these three things to write. Give me a pen and a piece of paper and I will happily write anywhere. But I like having these tools.
One helps me write faster.
One helps me edit longer.
And one makes me happier while I do it.
Who wouldn’t want that?
About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is not a sponsored spokesperson for any of these products.
The world has changed, and so have my reading habits.
Until recently, the books I read looked like this.
I was a heavy science fiction reader. I think what I liked most about it was the challenge. Not that the books themselves were hard to read, but that the plots and themes always challenged my worldview. After all, the best science fiction shines a spotlight on today’s world. They’re either metaphors for current events, or asking a very specific question. And that question is always: “How would life be different if this one little thing was changed?”
I absolutely required this of my science fiction books. I wouldn’t finish a book that simply reinforced my preconceived notions. How the book made me feel was less important than how it made me think.
Now? Not so much.
In the last few months, we’ve all been bombarded with bad news upon bad news, and it’s getting worse. I’m worried about the future all the time. Books that once seemed like harmless thought experiments now read more like predictors of doom. Even light, funny science fiction has an edge I can’t deal with right now.
What I’m looking for in books these days is an intensity of feelings and a guaranteed happy ending. I think my mind wants to experience emotions in a safe way. I want to feel deeply without getting my heart broken.
So I wandered the library shelves, flipping through memoirs, reading the jackets of mysteries, looking at the covers of literary fiction, and avoiding the horror shelf completely, until I finally found what I was looking for.
A romance novel.
It isn’t just that I crave escape, because all novels offer that. Even my big idea science fiction novels are full of heroes and adventure and other worlds. But romance offers the specific kind of escape my heart needs right now. Romance novels are full of love and sacrifice and doing the right thing for the sake of another person. Every hero and heroine ends up a better person than when they started, and love really does trump hate. Every. Single. Time.
So now the books I read look like this.
The world is still crappy. I’m still fighting against the bad. But I’ve found a safe place for my emotions to go. Thanks to some wonderful authors who write about love, books have once again become my happy place.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. Her TBR pile is overflowing with love.
Just because you’ve got nothing to hide doesn’t mean you’ve got nothing to fear.
You’ve got spies in your house.
You let them in.
The day you bought a smart phone, an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or a smart remote for your TV, you placed an always on, always listening device in your home. Even Siri is always listening for her name, meaning she’s always listening, period.
You don’t care. You think “I’m not that interesting” or “I’ve got nothing to hide.” But there are three problems with that.
First, if you think that surveillance programs are only there to catch bad guys, think again. Second, the “nothing to hide” argument puts the burden on you to prove your innocence. Constantly. “Why are you so worried about privacy?” law enforcement will ask. “are you doing something you’re not supposed to?” Third, you’ve given up the choice of what you share and when. Are you okay with the government reading your email? Out loud? In public? How about searching your house and car and body any time they want? Why not publish your bank balance and parade around naked while you’re at it? After all, you have nothing to hide.
Everyone is probably breaking some law at some time. I speed. I also routinely run the bullshit stop sign at my corner unless there’s a car coming from the other side. Chances are 100% that you, too, break the law in ways big and small.
And we all have tracking devices in our pockets, meaning government officers know, or can easily find out, what we did. Since they can’t arrest everyone, laws are selectively enforced. Marginalized groups such as young people, minorities, immigrants, and the poor are the ones who get arrested for stuff we all do.
Your friends, your colleagues, your children, your children’s friends. I guarantee at least one of them has something to hide from the government. Not because they are doing something illegal or wrong (technically, we all are), but because of selective enforcement.
We can’t do anything about selective enforcement. And in most cases, we can’t live without the spies in our pockets. But at least we can minimize the harm they do.
One easy step you can take is to encrypt your text messages. Instead of sending plain texts, that are easily read by anyone with a search warrant (or in many cases, without one), you can easily encrypt your messages, so that no one but you and the recipient can read them.
Think of it as herd immunity. Journalists and human rights activists around the world encrypt their texts, for good reason. But the problem is, simply encrypting texts by itself can throw suspicion on someone. However, if we all encrypt our texts, it becomes the new normal. Nothing to see here, journalists and humans rights activists and young people and minorities are simply doing what everyone else does.
It’s free and seamlessly replaces your usual texting app. You need zero tech know-how to use it. You send texts just like you always do. If you’re messaging someone who also uses Signal, it encrypts the message. If you’re texting someone who’s not using Signal, then a regular message goes out as normal.
Signal uses strong, tested end-to-end encryption tools, which means that even if a court order demanded it, the developers of Signal would be unable to deliver your messages to the government. It’s not that they’d refuse to do it. They simply couldn’t.
You can’t afford to be passive about this issue. Not now. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for the most vulnerable among us. And with free, simple, and seamless apps that will help, there is no excuse not to.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She sends as few texts as possible, and encrypts every one.
It was a long, hard, necessary journey.
Last weekend I wore my pink hat and joined 500,000 of my new best friends at the Women’s March on Washington.
It wasn’t easy to even get there. At the very last minute, our bus company canceled some of the contracted buses. They left eighty people behind. Our bus seats were the narrowest ones I’ve ever seen, and the bus lacked things like power outlets and temperature control. The door wouldn’t fully close, so we froze up front, while the back of the bus quickly warmed to ninety degrees. Nobody complained, since we considered ourselves lucky to get on a bus at all. We left Ann Arbor at 10:00 Friday, planning to drive through the night and arrive in DC early the next day.
At 3:30 in the morning, our driver pulled to the side of the road and we glided to a soft stop. “I don’t want to scare you,” she said. “But we don’t have any brakes.” We were somewhere in Pennsylvania and the GPS showed no towns for miles. The fog was so thick we couldn’t see the next mile marker.
I called our bus company and spoke to someone who sounded like a college intern on her first day. She didn’t know where we were and didn’t know how to help. Luckily, our bus driver was a miracle worker and somehow found a mechanic to drive to our location in the middle of the night to fix our bus right there by the side of the road. We got going again, but we were two hours behind. So we took a vote: stop for breakfast, or drive straight through to DC? We overwhelmingly chose to drive straight through. We gave up sleep, food, and coffee in order to get there on time. This is how much we wanted our voices heard.
As hungry and tired as we were, just being in DC lifted our spirits. Everyone we talked to had a story. We met two senior citizens who’d been protesting since the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam war. They’d each had three hip replacements, and yet were willing to be on their feet all day for this. We gave our granola bars to a trio of college kids from North Carolina who’d decided to drive up at the very last minute, not stopping to pack food. We met someone who’d come from Colorado and was at the march alone.
We were all different, and all united by one thing—the determination to grab our country back. Our bus driver gritted her teeth and guided our rickety bus through the DC traffic. “If you’re on my bus, I’m going to get you there,” she said. The women with the artificial hips knew they would be in incredible pain the next day, but endured the trip anyway. The person from Colorado, with no support from family or friends, still made the trip.
Husbands marched with wives. Sometimes three generations marched together. Moms brought their kids.
Cell towers were overloaded and none of us were getting news or social media. We had no idea how big our march was, or that demonstrations were happening across the country and around the world. We didn’t get the scope of it until later. Cheers broke out on the bus ride home as people pulled up aerial photos of DC, Chicago and Denver. We all looked up our hometowns. “They had six thousand in Ann Arbor,” someone said, passing around a cell phone. “They marched in Copper Harbor!” someone else cried, showing us the picture.
Back in Michigan, I removed my shoes and peeled my sticky socks off my feet. I napped and showered and went out to get groceries. My pink “pussyhat” had become a natural part of my wardrobe by then, and I wanted to keep wearing it. As I filled my cart, five people stopped me in the store to tell me they loved my hat. I couldn’t stop smiling. For the first time in two months, I felt proud of my country.
As I was checking out, the cashier asked me about my hat. “I saw them on the news,” she said. “But where did you all get them?” I told her that my best friend had knit mine. I explained that the hats were all homemade. Every single one.
“That’s amazing!” The cashier held out her arm. “Look! I have goosebumps.”
I knew the feeling. I got goosebumps several times at the Women’s March. I’m not kidding myself into thinking it was perfect. It wasn’t. It was very white and very straight. Parts of it were amateurish since this kind of political action is new to most of us. Some people will pat themselves on the back and not do anything else to fight this dangerous administration.
So what? It didn’t have to be perfect. It had to be done. This isn’t the end. This is the beginning. And with a new pair of socks on my feet, a bright pink hat on my head, and goosebumps on my arms, I’m ready to march again.
Writing 2017 new pages this year? Why not?
A few weeks ago, my brother asked me what my 2017 goals were. When I said I didn’t have any, he asked me, “Could you do two thousand seventeen of something?” The question intrigued me. It seems like such a huge number. But spread through an entire year, it comes to just over five and a half per day. But five and a half of what?
My sister joked that she wanted to nag her children 2017 times, but was afraid she’d go through her allotment in a single month. A friend I spoke to later said he wanted to pet 2017 dogs.
They didn’t take this challenge seriously, but my brother did. He’s committed to running 2017 kilometers this year. As for me, I immediately saw how it could be applied to writing, and right there, on the spot, I committed to writing 2017 pages this year.
Then I did the math. Let’s assume 250 words per page. In order to write 2017 pages, I’d have to write 504,250 words. Okay, huge number.
But is it so huge? Really? 40,020 words a month. About 1400 words a day.
And you know what else is huge? My ambition. Lately, I have been coming up with idea after idea, with no clue how I’m going to write everything. I don’t just have three novels I want to write, I have three series in my head. They’re all pulling at me saying “write me now, now, now.” I’m also working on a set of linked short stories and I want to try my hand at a new genre and suddenly, writing half a million words this year doesn’t sound like a challenge so much as what I simply must do.
Of course, that’s half a million words of rough draft. Those words will have to be edited, and if I want to publish them, I’ll have to either send them out to publishers or format them for indie pub, which is time-consuming either way. I’ve taken on two part-time jobs, and I volunteer at my kid’s school. I’m also going to be involved in some political campaigns, since Michigan desperately needs a new governor. Fitting all this writing into a busy life? That’s the true challenge.
Does anyone want to join me? Not just writer friends! Anyone can do this. If you’re trying to eat healthier, how about 2017 servings of vegetables and fruits? Or 2017 glasses of water? If you’re trying to be more positive, how about giving 2017 compliments? Could a seamstress sew 2017 seams? Could a photographer take 2017 pictures?
What I love about this is that it focuses on the positive. It’s not about giving up a bad habit or trying to lose weight or save money. It’s about doing.
Let’s do this.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She’s glad she’s not running 2017 kilometers this year.
[Photo: Ilya Lobanov | Dreamstime Stock Photos]
I don’t trust our country to do the right thing. I’m not buying it. Literally.
Things I’d planned on buying in the next six months:
A dining table
Gutters for my house
Service people I’d planned on employing:
A gutter installer
A landscape company
Things and services I’m actually going to buy in the next six months:
In fact, I might not buy any of that stuff for a year or more. I’m joining the protest economy.
People who look like me, people with the same privileges I have, elected a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic rapist as our President. And gave him lots of friends in congress to play with. They will hurt people who don’t look like me.
My peers claim they aren’t racist or sexist. They say this election was about “smaller government.” They say it was about “the economy.” That is a lie. They voted out of hate. And that hate has put me and my family in jeopardy in countless ways. I will probably lose my health insurance. My brown, queer children fear for their very lives.
My peers claim this election was about “bringing jobs back.” If jobs come back, it won’t be on my dime.
I’m not hiring anyone to fix my gutters or to deliver a new table or sell me a computer. I’m opting out of this economy as much as possible in the coming year. I won’t buy anything I don’t have to. This includes movies, restaurant meals, and even books. If my rake breaks, I’ll duct tape it together. If I lose my umbrella, I’ll get wet. I hope my family likes donations to charity for Christmas because that’s the only gift they’ll get from me.
This capitalist country is racist as hell, and I’m going to leave it the only way I can, by removing myself from it economically.
And the money I’m not putting into our broken system? That’s going to three places: Planned Parenthood , EMILY’s list , and the Sierra Club. They are doing the work I want to see done, and the only work I’m willing to pay for right now.
[Photo credit: © Ridiculousbroomstick | Dreamstime Stock Photos]