Category Archives: Personal

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 writes short stories and novels. She writes them 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 writes short stories and novels. She’s trying to be a better human.

Taking a Productivity Break

This is my week to write.

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I need a break. Lately, I’ve had too much internet, too much political news, too many interruptions, too much time in the kitchen and the laundry room and the car. Too much of trying to fit writing into the edges of my life. I’m craving long, uninterrupted hours to be creative. Forget chocolates and flowers and diamonds—a writer girl’s best friend is a quiet room with the day stretching out in front of her.

So I’m taking a week away. Not away from my house—I’m staying right here. But I’m taking a week away from the world. For the next seven days, I won’t socialize or do housework. I won’t read books or the news or the internet. I’ve put an autoresponder on my email and I won’t answer the phone unless it’s my mom calling.

My kids will be gone this week, so I’ll be home alone. I can wake up when I want, eat when I want, and go to bed when I want. I’ll let the crazy news cycle roll on without me for a few days.

I’m just going to write. I have a half-finished manuscript I set aside a few months ago and I’m aching to get back to it. I miss it the way you’d miss an absent lover. I want to lavish it with attention, get to know all its secrets, and write every page until I’m completely satisfied. I want to have my way with this book, and I don’t want to do it on the margins of my life. I want to give this book my full attention.

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I’ve been trying to find a name for this week. It’s not a staycation, because that implies leisure. The words retreat and sabbatical make me think of relaxed study. A friend suggested unworkshop, which I like a lot but it still doesn’t quite fit.

Then I thought of the words “Productivity Break.” It’s an oxymoron. It’s also perfect. I’m taking a break from the world to be more productive.

See you on the other side.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. Sometimes she needs a week on her own to get that done.

[Photos: Bitstrips/Snap Inc.]

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.

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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 writes short stories and novels and has recently started wearing “Notorious RBG” t-shirts.

Can I Have a Hug?

I wish I could have one every day.

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I’m the single mom of teenagers. I don’t get a lot of hugs. My oldest is away at college and my youngest is a busy high school student. They’ll both hug me, but only if I ask. And they kind of think I need a reason, otherwise it’s weird.

I guess we all think we need a reason to hug someone. Usually the reason is that you’re romantically involved. Hugs are reserved for those special few people in our lives, and to hug someone too much—especially someone of the opposite sex—sends the wrong message.

But here’s the only message I want to send: I like you. You’re my friend. You’re worthy of love. I’m here for you. Life is a good and your fellow humans care about you.

That’s the message I want to get, too.

Hugs are important. A warm embrace signals the body to release oxytocin and other chemicals, elevating our moods and contributing to a sense of safety and connection. Hugs calm us down, lower our stress, and might even prevent us from getting sick.

But I don’t want to wait until I’m sad or stressed out. I don’t want to wait until I need a hug. I want preventive maintenance hugs. I don’t need a tight squeeze or a clutch that goes on for days. Just a real, genuine hug. (Not that “London Bridge” thing where your upper arms are in it but your body is not.)

Science has shown that a three-second embrace is optimal for humans. A hug is a tiny, tiny shared moment. It has no agenda. It doesn’t ask anything of you except that you be present for three seconds.

Among my friends, I’m most often the person who initiates the hug. I usually get away with shouting, “Give me a hug!” as we say hello and goodbye. So far, no one has said no, but it’s not like I’ve given them a choice. And I’m also aware that our culture lets women do that, but not men. So I’m trying to be less greedy about the whole thing, to ask for hugs rather than demand them.

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One time, in a park, I saw someone with one of those “free hugs” signs so I threw my bag on the ground to catapult myself into his arms. It was kind of weird to hug a complete stranger.

It was also the best three seconds of my day.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She’s currently hugging a puppy.

[photos: Brad Fults, cs.belgium. Licensed under a Creative Commons attribution  generic license]

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 writes short stories and novels. She writes them 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 writes short stories and novels. She likes to buy herself pretty things, and doesn’t need anyone’s approval to do so.

It Only Took a Year

I did it! I wrote over half a million words this year.

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Back in January, I made a pact with my brother. We each committed to doing 2017 of something in the year 2017.  For him, it was running 2017 kilometers. For me, it was writing 2017 pages (504,250 words).

My brother won the challenge. So did I. In fact, we both finished a week early! I finished my 2017th page on the 24th and he got his last steps in on Christmas day. We are proud of each other. And proud of ourselves. And really, really tired.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the challenge, so I’ll answer as many questions as I can here.

You: how did you keep track of how many words/pages you wrote? Did you count each one?

Me: At the end of each writing session, I did a quick word count and jotted down the total in a spreadsheet. I also kept track of what time I started and how long I wrote.

You: Did you learn anything from these spreadsheets?

Me: I learned that I average 1000 words an hour of rough draft. (That does not count editing/proofreading/publishing.)

I also learned that I was wildly inconsistent in the first three quarters of the year, with no set time of day to write. I put words on the page 6 or 7 days a week, which was good, but lacking a routine is how I fell behind in quarter three.

You: If you were behind in quarter three, how did you catch up and also write so much you finished a week early?

Me: In November, I took a class taught by the incomparable Becca Syme. The class changed my life. It sounds like an exaggeration, but I’m serious. This class changed my life.

The class was called “Write Better, Faster,” but really it should have been “learn how your brain works so you can get out of your own way.” It was the most gentle of instruction, but it kicked my ass into gear like nothing else. I learned how look honestly at my own process, know my strengths, and figure out what could be changed and what couldn’t. At the end of November I had a workable action plan, and the moment I started implementing it, the words started pouring out. This past month has been the most productive of my entire career and I’m happier too–probably because I’m working with my natural tendencies instead of against them.

You: So you took a nice class and you got your priorities in order, but readers only care about the finished product. Did you publish anything this quarter?

Me: Yes, I did! My co-author and I published two novels, Twisted and Zoners. Twisted was a reissue of an earlier novel, but Zoners is all new.

You: Anything else?

Me: Blog posts, book reviews, classroom materials for the workshop I teach and a monthly newsletter for readers. My co-author and I also wrote a fun short story exclusively for our newsletter subscribers.

You: How many words in this blog post?

Me: 568 words. Combined with the other words I wrote this week, it brings my total to over 509,000 words (2037 pages) for the year.

You: Awesome! What’s next?

Me: Well, today is my birthday. I think I’ll celebrate it by taking a nap.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She’s looking forward to good things in 2018.

All Is Not Lost

The darkest part of every story is also the most essential.

There comes a time in every story, about 75% of the way through, where the heroine gives up. She feels utterly defeated because try as she might, she can’t find a way to achieve her goal. She’s beaten and knows she’s beaten.

This is called the all-is-lost moment.

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It’s the moment in ET: The Extra-terrestrial when the little alien dies. It’s the moment in Inside Out when Joy is lost in the memory dump. It’s the moment in Mad Max Fury Road when Furiosa discovers the Green Place is gone.

It’s in every novel, every movie, every short story. Even children’s books include it. Three-quarters of the way through Where the Wild Things Are, Max discovers that being with the monsters doesn’t make him happy, and he longs to be where someone loves him most of all.

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This is a necessary part of every story. It’s the dark before the dawn. There is an important reason the heroine needs to be brought to this low, low point. She has tried, and failed (so far) in her quest because she hasn’t changed. She’s still trying to solve her problems using old methods, and they aren’t working anymore. She can’t achieve victory until she learns the lessons the plot is trying to teach her. Heroes don’t want to change. All-is-lost moments force them to change.

Can you imagine a novel or movie without the all-is-lost moment? It would be terrible. The heroine would either achieve her goal without any self-reflection or internal change, which would be trite, or she’d keep using the same old methods and never get anywhere, which would be pointless. In fact, the entire story would be pointless without that crucial moment of character change.

And of course, right after this dark night of the soul, a plot twist happens, the heroine finds a new way of dealing with the problem, and faces it head-on. The more horrible the all-is-lost moment feels, the better the climax of the book. Overcoming that failure is huge. It means the victory wasn’t handed to the heroine. She earned it.

I’ve been experiencing an all-is-lost moment myself lately. Here we are 75% of the way through the year, so it’s arrived right on schedule. I made an ambitious goal for myself this year: I would write 2017 pages in the year 2017 (which is 504,250 words). And for the first and second quarters, I was right on track. And then I tried to shoehorn a bunch of big projects into my already-full life. I took on several freelance editing jobs at once, ramped up hours at my volunteer job, tried to edit a couple of my own manuscripts, all while doing home improvement and social activism and working around my kids’ strange summer schedules and staying glued to the 24/7 news cycle.

And, like any plucky fictional heroine, I decided I could do that without making any changes to my life. In addition to writing, I would edit, teach, volunteer, and parent. I would also still have coffee with my friends and socialize on the internet and read the newspaper and ride my unicycle. I’m not exactly sure where I thought the extra hours would come from. Something had to give, and I stole time from the two places that could least afford to lose it: writing and sleep.

I got cranky, and my daily word counts got smaller and smaller. I slid further from my writing goals with every passing day. My editing jobs went really well and I’m proud of the other work I did but the cost was high because I gave up the wrong things in order to achieve it. I should have cut down on house cleaning and Twitter, not on writing and sleep.

I’m staring my quarterly word count total in the face and I don’t like what I see. I only wrote 458 pages this quarter, which is 46 pages short. 458 pages is a ton of writing, and I know I should be proud (I am!) but I also know I could have made my goal if I’d spent my time wisely.

Things aren’t hopeless. I still have three months to make up the difference. But I’m seeing what a blessing the all-is-lost moment can be. It’s forcing me to change. The next time a big project comes in, I’ll have to make better choices, because the world keeps turning and we all have 24 hours in a day. How I use those hours is up to me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. She is learning how to prioritize writing and sleep.

[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures and Harper & Row]

Alex’s Three Rules for Life

Three no-bullshit rules for happier living.

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Do you have rules for life? I have a lot, although most of them are common sense and many are more like guidelines than actual rules. But I have three unbreakable ones.

1. Leave useless lectures

I love a good informative presentation. I seek out opportunities to hear smart people say smart things, and TED talks are my jam. But I’ll leave any presentation that consists of the speaker reading the slides out loud. I’ve walked out of three important meetings this year and will happily walk out of more. These meetings were billed as “essential” and “attendance mandatory,” like the one about college scholarships and the one about a big field trip for my kid.

But this is a hard limit for me. If the presenter is doing PowerPoint Karaoke, I’m leaving. I know how to read. I don’t need anyone to do it for me. But what about the question-and-answer period that always comes at the end? Isn’t that valuable? No. The questions are always super specific and come from people seeking an exception to the rules. No one asks a question seeking clarification. They all want a dispensation.

Fun fact: one hundred percent of the time, the lecture I’ve left has either included a handout or a website with all the information on it. There is never any downside to walking out of a purely informational meeting because the information is always available elsewhere.

2. Never keep a folder of papers

People love to give me those shiny cardboard folders filled with papers. I got my taxes done with a new accountant. She gave me a folder. I hired a realtor to sell my house. She gave me a folder. I got a new insurance policy. It came with a folder. My doctor, my banker, my lawyer…in fact, it seems that anytime I hire someone, trying to deal with them adult-to-adult, I’m given a folder, as if I were a child still in school.

I have my own filing cabinet and folders don’t fit in it. Besides, ninety percent of what’s in the folder is crap and the other ten percent can be found online. I can’t stop people from giving me folders, but I don’t have to keep them. I take out anything with my signature on it, file it in my own filing cabinet, and immediately recycle the rest of the papers and the stupid folder too.

3. Don’t photograph events

Every time I go to a show, a play or a concert, especially one my child is in, my phone/camera is powered off and in my pocket. I came to the event to experience it, not to document it.

I’m a parent of two musicians. My kids have been in multiple concerts every year since fifth grade and I’ve adored every single one of them. But I don’t have photos to prove it. What would be the point? Music is auditory. Plays are a story told in time. They can’t be captured by a static image. Besides, studies have shown that taking photographs can keep us from forming detailed memories. Do I want to hear the music, or do I want to stare through a three-inch screen trying to get the perfect picture that I’ll post to Facebook and never look at again?

I take photos of my children after the show. They look amazing in their band tuxedos and after the concert, they are relaxed and happy. But during the show, I sit down, shut up, and listen to the music.

These three rules for life have eased my way and made me happier. I’m thinking of adding a fourth rule: delete all voicemails without listening to them. My mom still calls me sometimes, so that one isn’t absolute. But for everyone else? Text me.

About the Author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and is working on a science fiction series. The first of the re-issued books will be out this fall.

[Photo by Sholeh used under a creative commons 2.0 license]