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Tarot: Spiritsong Tarot

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah, and my gift was this tarot deck I’ve been wanting for a while. And it’s just as lovely as I’d hoped!

Spiritsong Tarot is a gentle deck of intricate, pastel images by Paulina Cassidy. Each card features an animal and a couple of keywords for the card, which makes for easy readings. The focus of these cards is on the positive, which means even traditionally “scary” cards are made kind in this deck. It’s a wonderful deck for someone who is, say, uncomfortable with a reading or having a reading done for a possibly difficult or traumatizing subject. It directs the reader and querent to look at things in a positive light.

Spiritsong Tarot

In the image above, you can see the Three of Feathers, which corresponds to the Three of Swords in a more traditional deck. But while the image for the Three of Swords is often along the lines of three swords piercing a heart, here we have a moth in sunshine, the three feathers below. The keywords are “Release” and “Recovery.” The feathers have been shed.

Likewise, the Death card becomes Transformation in this deck, and The Devil is The Shadow.

Instead of the typical suits, the Spiritsong Tarot uses Acorns (Wands), Crystals (Pentacles), Feathers (Swords), and Shells (Cups). I worried that it would take me too long to understand readings with these changes, but they feel natural and clear as I use the cards, perhaps because of the keywords. In any case, this has become one of my favorite decks already. Its kindness is reassuring, and readings with it feel less like being told what to do and more like being gently nudged in the right direction.

Movies: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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There will be spoilers. I usually try to avoid them, but I don’t think there’s any way to talk about this movie without spoiling some of it, so if you don’t want to know anything prior to viewing, read this after you’ve seen the film.

Imagine there was an address that only two or three GPS systems in the world knew how to get to. Yeah, that’s what this movie starts out being about. Of course, that’s just the McGuffin. Basically, it becomes clear that Emperor Palpatine is still alive and hiding on a planet that only a few of these Sith WayfindersTM can locate. So Rey, Poe, and Finn must go find one so they can find Palpatine and, er, end him, I guess. Before he can raise a new, Final Order and become emperor of the known universe.

Palpatine, meanwhile, has sent Kylo Ren to find and kill Rey because she’s so powerful, etc. etc.

On paper it… seems to work? But then things begin to muddy as Abrams attempts to retcon the things Rian Johnson did in Last Jedi that he would have done differently. Rey’s parentage is finally revealed to be not “nobody.” And Luke (as a Force ghost) chides Rey for nearly throwing away her lightsaber, saying, “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect,” which seems to be a direct rebuke to Johnson having Luke toss said weapon over his shoulder in the last film. Yeah, okay, but the lack of consistency between the last film and this one leaves a viewer’s head spinning. Luke behaves one way in one film and completely differently in the next. Rey is a nobody and then she’s not. Instead of going with the flow, Episodes VII-IX feel like the tug-of-war Kylo and Rey engage in when fighting over a transport ship.

What it says, really, is that one person and one vision should have been in charge throughout. Lucas’ singular vision in Episodes IV-VI meant they were at the very least consistent in tone, if sometimes contrary in small ways. Barring being able to have the same person at the helm for each film, each subsequent writer/director should have taken the baton and run, ideally toward the same finish line, rather than hieing off in random directions.

I didn’t dislike this movie. At least, I don’t think I did? There is no star rating because I’m still trying to suss everything I’ve seen and how I really feel. There were a number of moving moments that gave me chills and just as many that felt nonsensical to me. There is a lot of fan service, some of which I enjoyed and some of which felt shoehorned in to me. But movies—and especially something as big as Star Wars, something that has spanned multiple generations and has avid, ravenous fans—are so subjective. The things I liked will be things others hate, and the things that bothered me will be things others have no problem with. From “who shot first” to now, there will always be debate and dissension.

I will probably need to see the movie one or two more times to figure out whether I actually like it. I loved The Force Awakens from the start and still do. I had mixed feelings about Last Jedi but came to enjoy it more after multiple viewings (though a few of my reservations remain). This one? I really don’t know whether I’ll come to like it more or less over time. Or if it will always be that I like some of it, but not all of it, not nearly. My niggles about Last Jedi felt small compared to my divergent feelings here, so I can’t really foresee how my heart will eventually settle.

I was only a year old when Episode IV came out. It wasn’t until much later that I used to watch Empire Strikes Back on the VCR… a lot. And sometimes Return of the Jedi, though not as often. My best friend, however, was hugely into Star Wars. She and her mother both loved Rise of Skywalker, so maybe I’m just not a big enough fan to embrace everything that’s going on in this film? Then again, I hesitate to compare fans and suggest that some are “truer” than others. There is no wrong or right way to enjoy something, is there?

And if you don’t fully enjoy something, are you less of a fan? I don’t think so. I think discernment, and thoughtfulness, are not bad things. This isn’t a “with me or against me” situation. If you don’t love something 100% that doesn’t make you a “hater.” As the Force shows, there is light and dark in everyone; it’s how you wield it that matters.

I may, after one or two more viewings, or even after some more thought and discussion, revisit this review. I may even be able to decide on a star rating. Until then… may the Force be with you, and with us all.


Fan fiction note: How many people are going to write a story in which Ben impregnates Rey with that last little bit of life force? Like, an extra life in there maybe? For all we know that’s how Anakin happened…

Movies: Jumanji: The Next Level

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Awkwafina
Directed by: Jake Kasdan
Screenplay by: Jake Kasdan, Jeff Pinkner & Scott Rosenberg from the book by Chris Van Allsburg
Sony 2019
PG-13; 123 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

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As far as entertainment goes, this one is entertaining. What more could anyone want really? Except to have an excuse to look at Dwayne Johnson for a couple hours? (Or Karen Gillan if that’s more your thing.)

The story this time around begins as our friends from the previous film, now all off in college, are planning to meet back home for the holiday break. Except Spencer is reluctant. He and Martha are on a “break” and he’s feeling like a loser compared to… her Instagram feed, I guess? Wanting the confidence he felt when being Bravestone in the Jumanji game, Spencer makes the questionable decision to go back in. (Because he apparently went and took the console from the school and secreted it in his basement.)

Of course, the game is broken, so… when his friends go looking for him, it grabs Spencer’s Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s friend Milo (Danny Glover). The humor then becomes derived from trying to a. find Spencer in the game and b. get two old men through a video game.

I suppose the true fun in watching these movies is watch actors trying to act against type by pretending to be very different personalities. Sometimes it gets a little too close to impersonation (Johnson’s DeVito has some sketchy moments), but overall the entertainment value is consistently present.

While I still enjoyed the first one more, I think that’s surely because it was so surprisingly delightful. Once expectations are set, it’s always more difficult to meet them. I also found the premise for this one—that is, Spencer’s reason for wanting to go back into the game—flimsy at best. Although in the first few minutes of the film we do see that he’s having a hard time in general (lame job, mean boss, it rains on him and his suitcase handle breaks)… The movie fails to earn its catalyst. It’s actually the friendship between Eddie and Milo that begets touching moments, and those are totally merited.

Overall, another fun installment that leaves the door wide open for more to come.

New Story Published!

My one and only publication for 2019!

Every year on White Day in Japan, Nolan and Dane meet under “their” cherry tree. For just that day, they spend time together. The rules are that they cannot ask anything too personal. Nolan isn’t sure why he continues to go, or what kind of relationship to really hope for. When an accident sends Dane to the hospital, Nolan must make a quick decision: abandon Dane to the care of the doctors or go with him and risk learning more than he’s supposed to.

Please go have a read! Though I will warn potential readers that this one is one of my gay love stories. Nothing explicit, since I don’t write that kind of thing, but if you’re not into guys in love, maybe skip it.

Rules Need Not Apply

I have a Master’s degree in Writing, Literature and Publishing. I worked in publishing for ten years and have been writing and publishing my own work for almost as long. But today, when I posted a question about which of two names I should possibly use for a new project, a old, white man responded with: “My writing books say…”

Patronizing? Absolutely. Mansplaining? Yup. And completely useless. Because how-to writing books are for losers.

Yeah, I said it.

Let me tell you a story about when I was learning to read tarot. I bought every book about tarot that I could find, and every time I read a spread, I’d check the books to see what each card meant, trying to suss meaning from what was in front of me. I was trying to follow “rules” but it wasn’t working. Then one day I just read a spread on my own. It was intuitive. It came easily. The cards made sense. The how-to books had been a buffer between me and the natural flow. They’d been a crutch to me because I’d been too afraid to try on my own.

Grammar has rules, ones you should stick to… mostly. Writing has rules, too, but they’re better learned from actually reading than from a stack of manuals. Why? Because I’ve found that people who write based on how-to advice produce stilted, dry prose and often terrible dialogue. Writing isn’t math, despite the use of the word “formula” being tossed around now and then. You don’t learn the rules and then apply them universally, not if you want to write anything with actual heart and emotion—basically anything compelling and, well, good.

I’ve also discovered that writers who’ve armed themselves with “rules” often never get far in their projects, largely because they worry so much about whether they’re doing it “right.” That’s the problem with these books and this idea that there is a wrong and right way to put words to paper. I’d say some things work better than others, but even then that doesn’t mean if you do it differently it’s somehow incorrect. In any case, I always tell people to write first. Only after it’s written should you worry about fixing anything that isn’t working. If you worry about it being correct the first time, you’ll paralyze yourself. First drafts are meant to be edited. So are second, third, and fourth drafts. Writing isn’t about getting it right the first time. There is no correct answer to your story. YOU get to decide what’s right for it, for your characters, etc. That power can be scary, but once you learn to wield it wisely, it’s also very liberating.

Writing rules don’t account for personal writing style. And many writing books are old and don’t apply to newer, more modern methods of writing. Some things about the craft are eternal, but much of the business is fluid and ever changing. That’s why books written in the 80s sound so different from books published in the last couple years.

Going back to my tarot example, there are hundreds of various decks one can use. Mostly, they all have the same cards (there are, of course, exceptions). But a Queen of Cups in one deck might look and feel very different from the Queen of Cups in another. While some of the core meanings of the card are the same, depending on the deck (and the reader), you might intuit very diverse meanings. That is to say, not all possible meanings apply all the time. Nor do all writing rules apply universally or with equal weight to every story.

Find your voice. Find your style. Write. And only after having written, go back and figure out what does and doesn’t work and which rules to apply.

Books: Columbine by Dave Cullen

I can tell you where I was when the ATF laid siege to the Branch Davidian compound. (I lived in Texas and was in high school.) I can tell you where I was when Oklahoma City was bombed (still in Texas, freshman year at uni, was at my part-time job). But for whatever reason, I cannot remember hearing the news about the Columbine massacre. I still lived in Texas, worked a different job, was applying to grad schools… Those things were happening at that time, but as for the exact day and how I felt when I heard the news… Blank. I watched Peter Jennings every night after work, so I must have heard, but I cannot for the life of me remember any details.

Even after the fact, my understanding was sketchy. I recall “Trench Coat Mafia” being tossed around and then hearing that wasn’t actually a thing. If you’d asked me the names of the perpetrators, I couldn’t have given you an answer… not a correct one, anyway. If you’d asked me how many victims, I might have pulled out the correct answer, but I can’t promise that, and I certainly couldn’t have told you any of their names.

So did I read this book to put all that to rights? Not really. I read it because I watched a YouTube video that recommended the book. The video made me realize how little I actually knew and made me curious to learn more. So I grabbed the book from my library. It wasn’t always easy to read. I mean, it’s well written and moves at a good pace, but the specifics can be hard to hear (so to speak).

Cullen is thorough. He discusses what everyone thinks they know about Columbine and how much of that isn’t accurate. Of course, I didn’t even think I knew much, but it was very interesting to see the incongruities, how rumors became reported as “fact,” and few people ever learned the truth once the media blitz ended. There were people involved that I found difficult to like, though Cullen strives to report objectively. There is a lot of information, a lot of names, but he does a good job of bringing clarity to the morass.

That said, one has to keep in mind this book was written in 2009, so I don’t know if there is more up-to-date information available now. At the time of publication Sue Klebold had said very little publicly about her son Dylan, one of shooters. I’ve since seen a Ted Talk with her, so I know she’s become more open. Still, this is a really good place to start if you have any interest in the subject. If you like psychology or true crime, too, this is a pretty good read. I zipped through it, and it gave me a lot to think about.

IWSG: December 2019

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I was thinking about this the other day, and then a friend emailed and I thought about it some more. The fact is, I write very unfashionable gay fiction. (Not all my books feature gay characters, but many do. Here’s a handy guide.) That is, I don’t write steamy m/m sexy stuff. And I don’t write angsty oh-my-god-i’m-gay stuff where someone is just realizing or has to come out or has their first ever gay experience or whatever. I write gay relationships that are… normal? Average? I write them like I write heterosexual relationships, and that’s for a reason. I have a lot of gay friends, and their sex lives are not entertainment. They have a lot of the same relationship issues as any straight person I know. Being gay isn’t that big a deal for most of them now that they’re out. So… Yeah. I made a semi-conscious decision to depict these characters and relationships not as some exotic, erotic “other” but as ::shrug::

Anyway. It seems like people want to read about gay lovers as something exotic and erotic and melodramatic. So I’m way off trend. But whatever. I’ll do my own thing. (Assuming I ever write again at all. Still not feeling it.)

Still trying to place this one short story… The only thing I wrote all year, and who knows if it will ever see the light of day? Am I feeling insecure? I don’t think so. Lately I feel very zen about my lack of ability to write.

Books: Rejection Proof by Jia Jiang

So many of my writer friends and colleagues will say things like, “You just need to get your 100 rejections!” They love this book. So when I saw it at the library on a NaNoWriMo display, I picked it up. And honestly, while some of it was interesting, I don’t think it really applies to the form(s) of rejection writers face.

Jiang wanted to be an entrepreneur. He was so miserable not being an entrepreneur that his wife gave him six months to go do just that. He gathered a team to develop an app. But when the investor they pitched it to ultimately declined, he was devastated by the rejection. So Jiang decided to make himself “rejection proof” through a kind of exposure therapy. He launched a “100 Days of Rejection” campaign, actively seeking to be rejected by making wacky requests of people. If he got used to hearing “no” maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much.

This book follows Jiang’s rejections—many of which weren’t. Jiang dives into the psychology of it, the ways to get “yes,” and how to politely reject someone without hurting them. But there are some flaws in taking all this and applying it to something like querying a manuscript.

  1. Jiang says to ask “why” when someone rejects you. Usually the reason isn’t personal, and you can feel better about the “no.” However, it’s pretty common knowledge that, if you don’t get feedback with a rejection to a query, you’re not supposed to pester by demanding to know why. I guess you could still email back and ask, but don’t bank on a response. Agents are often too busy for that, and they may not even remember exactly which book was yours to begin with.
  2. Jiang’s requests were for things he didn’t particularly expect—or even want—to receive. Like a haircut from a dog groomer. It’s a lot easier to laugh about and walk away from a “no” you never really wanted. And while, yes, I understand and even do believe the mantra that you should not be attached to outcomes, that you should only focus on what you can control, that’s not always entirely possible. “Hope springs infernal,” I always say. If we could turn off our hearts, our wants, we would. Life would be so much easier that way!
  3. Jiang became famous pretty early on in his experiment when a video he made went viral. He went on national television. Clearly he got a book deal. His fame most assuredly had an impact on everything that came after. So I’m not sure he can say he’s faced rejection in the same way an average no-name has. If people around Austin (where he lived at the time) recognized him, if they saw he was videoing them, they were possibly more likely to be agreeable to his requests. If I were to become abruptly famous, even for those fifteen minutes, maybe I’d have a better chance at a book deal, too.
  4. “Everyone has a number.” Jiang says that you just have to keep asking until you get a “yes.” That’s a nice idea, and it’s true. But the fact is, for writers at least, you may never get a “yes.” I’ve queried some manuscripts upwards of 100 times and never gotten anywhere. Yes, even after tweaking both the query and the manuscript. Sometimes, no matter how nicely you ask or how patient you are, it isn’t going to happen. Not to bring anyone down, but false hope can be more painful than reality sometimes.

This is a fairly quick book to read, though mostly anecdotal. Jiang goes through various rejection attempts and talks about what he learned from each of them. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, though. And I’d say a lot of what he discusses is more applicable to, say, sales and marketing than someone trying to get their book represented.

I will say, in the chapter on how to say “no,” I wished agents would read it! Jiang writes about how “yes, but” is harmful, as is “unfortunately.” Almost every rejection from an agent, form or personalized, is designed that way. “This was interesting but unfortunately…” I’d much rather have a direct “no thanks, here’s why” than be told they liked it and yet, for some unknown reason, don’t plan to accept it. I realize agents think they’re being kind, but it’s really not.

Do I recommend this book? Eh, maybe. Do I think it’s a great resource for writers seeking to beat rejection? Not really.

Books: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

I went into this one thinking only that it was mostly about the Harvey Weinstein case. But it’s actually about a lot of things. While the first two-thirds of the book does focus on Farrow’s investigations regarding Weinstein’s sexual assaults, the underlying current is about how NBC squashed the story, forcing Farrow to take it to The New Yorker instead.

There are apparently any number of reasons NBC News behaved this way. 1. Because Weinstein threatened legal action. (The reason many other news agencies had dropped the story at various times in the past.) 2. Because Weinstein was a friend of a few of the upper management guys. 3. Because NBC had its own history of sexual malfeasance that it didn’t want exposed, and by reporting on Weinstein it may itself come under scrutiny and be accused of hypocrisy.

Bottom line seems to be that supposedly objective journalism was buried by a wave of unethical, biased behavior.

There’s more, of course. The fact that Weinstein paid for surveillance of the journalists pursuing the story as well as the women being contacted to come forward. Not your typical PI stuff, but black ops-level with ex-Mossad agents and the like. The book also addresses the breaking of the Matt Lauer scandal and NBC’s continued scrubbing of things like Wikipedia. But the title, Catch and Kill, refers to American Media, Inc. (AMI) and The National Enquirer‘s practice of buying rights to people’s stories and then never publishing those stories, thereby protecting powerful men *cough*Trump*cough*. Basically, you catch the story, buy the rights, and kill the story. So, for instance, someone who wants to sell her story about being sexually assaulted by Big Name Guy has the rights bought by AMI and then AMI never runs anything about it. Meanwhile the woman has no recourse because she has signed something that promises she won’t give the story to anyone else.

Overall, this book is about how unethical journalists protect bad people. Which in turn keeps those bad people in power so that they can continue to profit from their bad behavior. And, by trickle down, so do those unethical journalists.

As someone who started out in journalism, the moved on to film, and finally ended up in publishing, this is a very engaging book. It reads like a thriller. But I can’t say whether the average person would find it interesting or truly understand the implications. I’ve read a lot of reviews saying that Farrow’s ego is too big, that he’s painting himself as a hero here, that he should have left NBC sooner when he realized what they were doing… Maybe. I don’t know. I didn’t read the book that way, but I can see why some might. And his ego doesn’t change the basic facts of the story.

It can be difficult to find good, unbiased news coverage these days. AMI and FOX seem to be hard right, and there are a number of outlets that lean the opposite direction. In a world of increasing noise, sussing out the truth gets harder and harder, and a lot of people don’t have the time or energy, or maybe aren’t interested enough. They want to be spoon fed. They want to read about celebrity breakups rather than about sexual assault. Or maybe they only care about assault if it’s salacious and/or involves big names.

In any case, I wonder if I dodged a bullet by leaving the film industry. I was lucky enough to work for a female producer and be surrounded mostly by women. Perhaps that saved me a lot of trouble. Having been forced to resign a job because of having a baby seems like a small issue compared to what many others have gone through, though I recognize that’s a false equivalency. This isn’t about which women have had it better or worse; it’s about power being applied against women and a system that supports that. We’d like to think that system is being dismantled, but let’s be honest: even if it is, it’s a very slow process that won’t continue unless the foremen stand watch and make sure every nut and bolt comes out. And who will be those foremen? We’ve had a lot of lip service over #MeToo, a lot of token committees created, etc., but has anything really changed? I have to wonder.

It’s Early But…

I don’t anticipate much happening between now and the end of the year. Which means 2019 was a singularly unproductive year for me in terms of writing. I wrote one story that I have yet to place anywhere. (Lots of places still considering it… Here’s hoping it finds a home.) That means I didn’t publish anything this year. And I’m really no closer to finishing or publishing anything any time soon, either.

What I did accomplish this year: a house move + renovations. That ate up a lot of time and energy. Plus a new routine with the kids as now they are going to three different schools which means juggling a lot of drop-offs and pick-ups. We had a big family vacation, too. And we adopted two rats (one of which passed away) and a python. For the record, that leaves our menagerie at two cats, a rat, and a snake.

In short, my life is largely focused on the domestic these days. On the up side, I read a ton of books this year. My goal was 18, and I’m at something like 76. Of course, a lot of those were manga, but I regret nothing.

I was looking at my personal year for next year. For those who don’t know what that means, in numerology one can calculate a Life Path number using one’s birthdate and then a yearly number using the month and day of your birth plus the year. My Life Path number is 6 and my personal year number for 2020 is also 6, so that should be interesting. A 6 year focuses on (again, some more) domestic concerns. Which means I may not do much writing next year either… If you’re curious about your personal year or Life Path numbers, there are many different calculators online to help you. Just Google “personal year calculator” or “life path number calculator.” It’s entertaining if nothing else.

Yeah, in terms of my “career” 2019 feels like a waste. But I moved myself and my family into a better overall situation, so I think that’s totally worth it. Next year I have a couple vacations to look forward to, and any house stuff will be relatively small by comparison. And while the first half of the year will be more of the crazy juggling of kids’ schedules, the next school year should be much more manageable. The kids will still be at three different schools, but at least one of those schools will be much closer to home, meaning all three schools will be within a 10-minute drive. (Right now, one school is 20 minutes away, meaning I’m in the car at least 80 minutes a day, not counting any other driving.)

The only thing I’m really hoping for as far as my writing goes is to find a place for this story. If all else fails, I suppose I can self-publish it… Maybe combine it with a couple other stories for a mini anthology. Sometimes stories seem more doable than bigger works, though I’ve always found short pieces harder to write in general. Maybe this will be a good exercise for me and help me hone my skill. Who knows? In any case, I don’t plan to push things. Forced writing is usually not very good. Here’s hoping my muse finds my new address soon so we can get back together and get to work.

Author M Pepper Langlinais