Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: diversity

Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”

Almost Perfect Except . . .

By Brian Katcher

Brian Katcher is a writer whom one of our usual bloggers, Jan S. Gephardt, met at the science fiction convention Archon 44 (He’s also spotlighted in Jan’s Authors of Archon 44 post). He told this story during a panel discussion in which they both participated. She asked him to share it with our audience, because it demonstrates an issue we also face. The Weird Blog and Artdog Adventures support diversity and representation. As a pair of older, middle-class white women Jan and G. at Weird Sisters Publishing understand an author can confront many challenges when they try to promote inclusivity and multicultural representation in their fiction “while white and straight.”

The Almost Perfect Story

Almost Perfect is the story of Logan, a cisgender boy, who recently had a bad breakup with his girlfriend. He then meets Sage, a new girl in his school, he thinks he’s met the person who’s going to help him move on. When he discovers she’s transgender, however, he is forced to rethink their entire relationship. Can they still be friends? Can they be…more? Almost Perfect won the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature.

This book started out as a short story. I was looking to write a boy meets girl story that hadn’t been done a thousand times, and I hit upon the idea of writing about a heterosexual boy and a transgender girl. How would a relationship like that work? When I showed a draft to my writers’ group, they told me that I couldn’t do that in 80 pages. To make it into a novel or not to bother.

Brian Katcher received the 2011 Stonewall Book Award for Children's Literature.
In 2011 Brian accepted the Stonewall Book Award for Children’s Literature, for his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

Research and Early Responses

Well, transgenderism wasn’t a subject I’d given a lot of thought to, so I turned to the internet for research. I went to forums for transgender people and said that I was writing a book and needed information, both specific and general. Boy, did I get some great responses. And the more I heard, the more I wanted to tell this story. The overwhelming theme I got from older transgender people was the idea of having absolutely no one they could share this with, no one whom they could confine in, and having no idea where to turn or what to do.

I was overwhelmed with the response to the book. The ALA awarded me the Stonewall, I think because I was probably the second YA author to write about a trans character (After Julie Anne Peters’s Luna). Fan mail poured in. I heard from countless transgender people who thanked me for finally telling their story, and praising my research.

Covers for the books “Almost Perfect” and “Luna.”
Two of the earliest books about transgender youth written for young adults, both Almost Perfect and Luna broke new literary ground. (credits below).

Delayed Reaction

However, after a year or so, I started to get blowback. Sure, some of it came from transphobes (The Florida Tea Party tried to get it removed from school libraries), but most of it was from the LGBTQ community. Some of it was taking me to task for poor turns of phrase (I said ‘transgendered’ instead of the preferred ‘transgender’, or having Sage come out to Logan by saying ‘I’m a boy’).

Others didn’t feel that as a cisgender man, it was my place to tell a story like this. But the most overarching criticism was that the story was depressing. Sage is repeatedly used by Logan, assaulted by another man, and ultimately moves away, still trying to live the life she needs to. Why couldn’t she have a happy ending? Why would she fall for a jerk like Logan? Was I trying to say that transgender people are destined to be unhappy and will never find true love?

A snapshot of Brian Katcher near a body of water.
Here’s a more casual photo of Brian. (Brian Katcher).

Brian’s Self-Critique

While I did do my research beforehand, I really should have gotten some sensitivity readers to look at the finished product. There’s no excuse for that omission. While I feel I wrote Almost Perfect with the intention of educating people about how difficult it can be to be transgender, I failed in several respects.

Still, I’ve never once had a reviewer say they didn’t like Sage. More than one person told me the book gave them the courage to come out. And there are at least two women who chose ‘Sage’ as their new middle name. This is my book that gets the most requests for a sequel. Well, it’s the only book that gets requests for a sequel.

Covers for Brian Katcher’s books “Playing with Matches,” “Almost Perfect,” “Everyone Dies in the End,” “Deacon Locke Went to Prom,” and “The Improbable theory of Ana & Zak.” Also Brian’s picture.
If you read Jan’s post Authors of Amazon 44, you might remember this profile image. (Amazon; Brian’s website).

Pitfalls and the Creative Process

When you’re a boring old white straight guy like me, you get into a kind of Catch-22 situation. You don’t want to write yet another book about white, straight people, but is it your place to tell someone else’s story? My advice is to get sensitivity readers, both at the front and the back of the creative process. And be sure to thank them afterwards. If you feel good writing about people like yourself, no problem. And if you’d like to expand who you write about, the world needs diverse books.

But above all, be true to your own creative process. Find a character you and your readers can fall in love with. Remember, you’re never going to please everyone. But when those one star reviews come in, make sure they’re because of your hackneyed writing and unoriginal plots, and not because you misrepresented someone’s culture. And if someone has a problems with how you present someone, listen.

Brian and the cover of “Almost Perfect.”
Here are Brian and the cover of his book Almost Perfect. (Credits below).

IMAGES

Many thanks to Brian Katcher for the photo of him accepting his Stonewall Award, the cover image for Almost Perfect, and his author photo. Learn more about Brian at his website. Read his book reviews (and support the review website if you wish), at For Every Young Adult.

Many thanks to Books Bird for the Stonewall Award image, and to Amazon for the Luna cover image.

This is a photo of the complete painting, “Oak Park Halloween.” It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.

Rejoicing in Our Differences:

Lucy A. Synk’s Oak Park Halloween

By Jan S. Gephardt

“Rejoicing in our Differences” is a new series of larger-scale paintings by my friend (and frequent XK9-painter) Lucy A. Synk. The theme also could be an unofficial motto for Weird Sisters Publishing. Yes, Lucy, G., and I are all white women of a certain age. You might not look at us and instantly think “diversity!” But all three of us are creative types who both value, and seek to nurture and celebrate, diversity.

Privileged in some ways? Certainly. It comes with the skin, whether we like it or not. Had it easy? Well, we’re all women. We’ve spent decades bumping into patriarchy, in male-dominated creative fields (name one that isn’t), and earning lower wages than men. Make of that what you will. But diversity isn’t a contest. And this isn’t a story about who’s more “oppressed.”

It’s an invitation to celebrate, to ally with others, and to spend a little time rejoicing in our differences. In the spirit of the season, please spend a little time looking at Oak Park Halloween.

This is a photo of the complete painting, "Oak Park Halloween." It shows several dozen children trick-or-treating in Halloween costumes.
The full painting Oak Park Halloween, 2019, by Lucy A. Synk.

Every Painting is a Journey

Lucy’s journey to creating this painting took her through job changes, moves from state to state, and a bout of homesickness for a beloved place she’d had to leave. For a while she had an illustration job in Chicago, and she settled happily into the suburb of Oak Park, Illinois. There she found friends, a compatible faith community, and a place of architectural and natural beauty.

Even after she had to relocate, the fond memories lingered. And they fed an idea for a painting. No, a series of paintings. In 2018, before SARS-CoV-2 had even hinted at darkening our horizon, she began to build on her ideas for a series of paintings that explored the many ways in which the United States has ample reason to rejoice in our differences.

As she says in her artist’s statement, “Even more importantly than providing entertainment or decoration, art should also inspire, teach, and encourage people to think, wonder and grow. My work often has symbolic or fantasy elements without fitting any single category but reflects my search for unity in the diversity not only of my own interests, but in the plurality of American culture.”

A Sharp Break with Disunity and Hatred

Oak Park Halloween draws on Lucy’s memories, but it’s not meant to be taken as history. The painting was specifically inspired by one particular Halloween in her diverse, family-friendly neighborhood in Oak Park, IL. But the painting does not portray any specific street or group of people. She was hoping to evoke a feeling of Halloween fun that many can relate to and enjoy.

In today’s political climate, that almost makes it a radical protest painting. “Rejoicing in our Differences,” as a message, cuts sharply counter to the majority of things we see in the media these days.

As I write this, they’re doing jury selection in Georgia, for the trial of three men who are using a fugitive slave law from 1863 as their defense for killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. White supremacists are going on trial in Charlottesville, VA, for civil rights violations stemming from a the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that led to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. And hate crimes are at a shocking high.

But just because Americans don’t seem to be rejoicing in our differences right now, that doesn’t mean the message isn’t important. Some (me, for instance!) might say it’s more important now than ever. That said, let’s walk through Oak Park Halloween.

From Lucy’s original drawing through color images and roughs, to a black-and-white tonal study, the painting’s development went through many steps.
You might notice a bunch of changes to details through these varied steps in the development of the painting. The black-and-white tonal study at lower right was done to check contrast and value range. (Images are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

How do you Paint a Crowd Scene?

Of all the things in the world that there are to draw, people are by far the hardest, especially for untrained artists. Even trained ones can have difficulty. We come pre-loaded with a lot of ideas that have nothing to do with how humans (or other things) look in objective reality. Which is why the proportions in kids’ drawings are so frequently distorted.

And if you think one human is hard, just wait till you tackle a crowd scene!

Take another look at Lucy’s painting above. Yes, it is a tour de force. But how does an artist manage a crowd scene? It’s kinda like eating the proverbial elephant “one bite at a time.” Except, in this case it’s drawing (and then painting) one small group at a time.

Five children in costume have arrived on the painting-viewer’s “front porch” for trick-or-treat.
The brother and sister in front portray Marvel’s Black Panther and one of his elite Dora Milaje, the Wakandan royal guards. We have a Vulcan Starfleet Science Officer from the Star Trek Universe to the front girl’s left. The child in the red hoodie portrays Coco, from the movie of the same name, and the girl in the purple witch costume might be portraying Hermione Granger. Since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, in this pre-Covid painting, these children wear face paint, rather than masks. (Image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

The Porch Kids

In the front-center of the composition, a group of five kids appear larger than the others, many of them staring directly at the viewer. They’re there to both center and focus the painting, and to invite you into it. The idea is that they’re standing on the viewer’s porch, awaiting your interaction and generosity.

As the most prominent group, they also are the most diverse, in keeping with the overarching theme of rejoicing in our differences. Since kids normally trick-or-treat in friend groups, how might these kids have met and formed friendships? I bet you’re already imagining a story for them—exactly as the artist hoped you would.

Lucy did a lot of research to create each group in the painting. Many of the costumes are based on DIY (do-it-yourself) outfits she found online, or combinations of them. She also took some important (pre-Covid) safety concepts into consideration. For example, since masks tend to obstruct kids’ ability to see, these children wear face paint, rather than masks.

A collection of drawings, a color study, and a tonal study for the “Porch Kids” group.
These are just some of the developmental sketches and studies Lucy worked through for the “Porch Kids” group. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Fantasy and Science Fiction Elements

Lucy and I met at a science fiction convention. A deep, abiding interest in these genres continues to be an important part of our lives, even outside of the field. Oak Park Halloween isn’t meant to be a “fantasy genre” painting in the way that some of Lucy’s work has been. But with fantastical elements dominating popular culture, of course she made sure there was broad representation for many beloved stories.

Thus, you’ll find Star Trek, Star Wars, the Marvel Universe, the DC Universe, Dr. Who, and others among the more traditional witches, vampires, fairy princesses, and caped heroes. Lucy also came down rather heavily on the side of DIY costumes. Not only did she want to avoid infringing copyrights, she wanted to celebrate parental ingenuity while “rejoicing in our differences.”

Five different details from the painting show a variety of costumes.
From left to right, (1) The Jedi Knight and his little sister (on the Tauntaun) portray characters from the Star Wars Universe. The child with the pink bag is meant to be a vampire. However, her tiny fangs do not show, since her whole body is only 7” high. (2) A little astronaut, in the actual painting about 3½” tall, wears an orange, NASA-style jumpsuit. The artist is inspired by all the little girls who yearn for such future careers. (3) The child dressed up as the T.A.R.D.I.S. is based on a popular DIY costume concept that proves particularly confusing to her observer—a nod to Dr. Who, as portrayed by “Tenth Doctor” David Tennant. (4) A toddler enjoys a first Halloween, guided by Dad. The DIY costume uses glow sticks to create a light-up “stick man” from a black, hooded onesie. (5) Wonder Woman and her parents Hippolyta and Zeus are based on the artist’s great-niece and her parents, for whom themed family costumes are a tradition. (All images © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Getting the Details Right

Having been an “inside observer” of the two-year development process from early sketches to finished painting, I can tell you a lot of thought went into those houses across the street. Based on architecture in Oak Park IL they might be, but none of them is an exact portrait of an existing house. As with the kids they host, they are “of the general type.” But each one tells its own story.

You might be surprised at the care given to small details, such as placement, size, and color of the moon. The exact moment of twilight, and how to paint it, inspired another spate of thinking and second-guessing.

For an artist, the light has to be just right. If it’s off, or if a shadow falls wrong, the illusion fails. We often hear about the “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary for a reader to self-immerse into a story. But to appreciate a painting we also need to willingly suspend our disbelief that this collection of light and dark color splotches “is” the frozen moment in time it purports to be. One wrong shadow or highlight can ruin it.

Sketches and color studies of houses and the sky.
Sketches and color studies offer a glimpse of Lucy’s decision-making, and the thorny question of how big and where to position the moon. (All images © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk).

Homes that Harbor no Hate

As I noted above, each of the houses “across the street” tells its own story. I like to think of them as the “Hate Has No Home” House, the “Welcome to All” House, and the “Teal Pumpkin” House. Each embodies a sub-thread of the overall “rejoicing in our differences” theme.

The house at upper left in the painting, with a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign at right.
The yellow house at upper left in the painting is haunted by a fairly traditional group. We have several princesses, ghosts and a pumpkin-head. Some might recognize the sign in the window as a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign, shown at right. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. Sign by Hate Has No Home Here).
The house portrayed top-center in the painting. Next to it is a quote from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement: “In this series of paintings, I am expressing my love for America and its wonderful diversity. In these dark times there has been so much negativity, I wanted to express the joys of everyday life. Good memories from happy times and hope for a future that we will not only preserve and protect but grow into a deeper and better people.”
We have Batman, the Cowardly Lion, another witch, and assorted other traditional costumes at the middle house. The host couple in the doorway are a mixed-race pair, typical of a growing number of American families. The group on the sidewalk to the right portray an assortment of Pirates of the Caribbean. The quote is from Lucy’s Artist’s Statement about her “Rejoicing in our Differences” series. (Image © 2019, and words © 2021 by Lucy A. Synk).
The house at upper right in the painting, alongside a poster about non-food treats that are fun.
The children at the house with the orange gables in the painting’s upper right include a portrayal of Princess Leia. Note the Teal Pumpkin on the porch, which indicates that this house gives prizes suitable for children with food allergies. Rejoicing in our differences includes making a happy, accepting place for everyone, even if they face special challenges. (House image © 2019 by Lucy A. Synk. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest).

Rejoicing in Our Differences

Lucy certainly recognizes that her “Rejoicing in our Differences” theme asserts an aspirational goal. But then, she’s lived a life of diverse inputs and challenges. She started with a BFA in Drawing, Painting, and Photography from a small college, then pursued an art career that included a stint at Hallmark Cards, freelancing as a fantasy artist, and work as a natural history illustrator and muralist.

“My work has always been very diverse, spanning multiple mediums and subject matters,” she says. As both natural and human history has shown, diversity makes a system stronger, even if not everyone is comfortable embracing differences. The most vibrant, creative, and innovative times and places have come at a crossroads of cultures, when diverse ideas and viewpoints make new ideas possible.

As Lucy wrote in her artist’s statement, “In these dark times, there has been so much negativity.” Perhaps you’ll agree that we’d do better to meditate on what Lucy calls America’s “wonderful diversity.” Based on that, “Rejoicing in Our Differences” may be exactly the medicine we need.

IMAGE CREDITS

Oak Park Halloween, the painting, the studies, the sketches, and the detail images, all are © 2018-2019 by Lucy A. Synk, and are used here with her permission. All rights reserved. The “Hate Has No Home Here” poster design is courtesy of Hate Has No Home Here. The “Teal Pumpkin Treats” graphic is courtesy of University of Utah Health Care, via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

A balanced reading diet

We’ve all heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” The idea behind it is that what we put into our bodies affects the health of our bodies. We’ll be healthier if we eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. But I think that can be extended to our reading diet as well. What we put into our minds by reading affects how we think. Thus, “you are what you read,” far more than we may realize. If we’re wise, we’ll cultivate a balanced reading diet.

This photo still life shows a beautifully-staged breakfast of figs, yogurt with granola, and tea, next to a magazine open to an article by Zadie Smith titled “New Books.”
Three feasts in one: visual, gustatory, and literary! (photo still life by Juliette Tang, via Food52)

How we understand the world

Our teachers and families may have taught us that balanced nutrition keeps us healthy. Whether we actually eat a balanced diet or not, we’ve probably heard of the concept. But, a balanced reading diet? What would that even look like?

For this discussion, I won’t debate whether listening counts as “reading.” Audiobooks and podcasts? Ebooks and online materials? Print books and publications? Different delivery mechanisms, but they all deliver ideas. Same goes for fiction and nonfiction. They simply are different ways to transmit ideas.

Verbal communication evolved for survival reasons. Humans navigate our world better when we understand it (or think we do). Because of our experiences and influences, we accept some ideas, and reject others as unhelpful. The ideas we keep and use guide us when something new happens. They determine how we understand the world.

What’s in your reading diet?

For me, a balanced reading diet consists of some nonfiction and some fiction. Some of my reading/listening focuses on contemporary issues and news. Other reading/listening is more timeless. And a lot of it, because of the culture in which I live, reflects a white-dominant perspective. I have to make a special effort to find other perspectives.

Portraits of two Black 18th-century writers, Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley from editions of their books.
Portrait engravings of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley from 18th-century editions of their books. (British Library)

That’s why I think it’s important to talk about this during Black History Month. Because for a white person like me, it’s all too easy to get caught in a dominant-group-exclusive perspective. It’s way too easy to ignore other’s experiences.

But white people who cocoon themselves in a “white-perspective-only” bubble render themselves clueless and unfit to influence community affairs. Ignorance leads to dangerous blind spots. Demographic shifts place white people in a majority group that’s dwindling. The privilege many of us take for granted today—and defend with savagery, in some cases—cannot last.

Why do we need a balanced reading diet?

My sister spotlighted some pitfalls of a whites-only perspective in her post last week. Her “tale of two histories” gave a vivid glimpse of why separate is not equal. Nor is it balanced. Nor respectful. And certainly not wise.

People from minority groups have no choice but to pay attention to others ideas, needs, and priorities. If white people don’t develop a wider understanding of the world, we’ll have a far harder transition when we become part of a “majority minority” nation.

Long before that happens, we need to wise up and start rebalancing our inputs. Granted, a minority of white people—and seemingly a majority of one major political party—have embraced a leader linked to white supremacy. They have committed themselves to the “white bubble.” That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to. Or should.

A young man sits on the floor between two bookshelves. He has a book open on his upraised knees and several other books open on the floor beside him.
(uncredited photo via BuddyMantra)

A balanced reading diet prepares us for the future

If we want to prepare ourselves to help create and participate in a more equitable world, we have work to do. We need to learn about white privilege, if that’s a new concept. For those who’ve lived in the “white bubble,” we have to practice before we can perceive the privilege that surrounds us. We also need a willingness to understand how our privilege actually hurts all of us—yes, even those who enjoy the privilege.

We need to ground ourselves in non-white experiences, to keep our thinking lives balanced. Learn about microaggressions, and why their relentless barrage is so destructive. One of my teaching classes included a book titled We Can’t Teach What we Don’t Know. We can’t teach, and we can’t live, in more adaptive ways without broader understanding.

Why seek a broader understanding? We owe it to ourselves, if we value the ideals of a resilient democracy. We’re at a crossroads. Unless we work with other Americans to build a national identity that embraces diversity, we’ll limp into the future diminished and wounded by internal strife.

Recipe for a balanced reading diet

If you want to build a balanced reading diet, I’d recommend several things, but first a guiding principle: just as a balanced diet incorporates a variety of foods, a variety of information sources build a balanced reading diet.

Logos for two great podcasts from NPR, “Code Switch,” and “Throughline.”
Two great podcasts from NPR, Code Switch focuses on culture and current events, while Throughline offers insights from lesser-known history. (Logos via NPR podcast listings)

News and commentary

Study up on antiracism, especially if you’re not sure about claims that white people enjoy a privileged status, or why that might be a problem. Authors who are persons of color can speak from a place of authority on this topic. Podcasts I’d particularly recommend: Code Switch and Throughline, both from NPR.

If you’re lucky enough to have a local newspaper—or at least a broadcast station that covers local news—listen to it or read and support it. Local media keep local governments and other centers of power more accountable.

Likewise, get your national and international news from a variety of well-regarded sources. Include at least one national newspaper, and a news source from a foreign country, such as Reuters or Al Jazeera. Don’t rely on just one source for everything! And make sure you can distinguish straight news from opinion.

This image provides a montage of book covers for works by Black authors, giving a glimpse of the recommendations list in the article.
TED speakers offered their recommendations for 62 great books by Black authors. (TED Ideas)

Don’t neglect fiction

Both nonfiction and fiction offer new windows on the world. Fiction is arguably one of our earliest forms of meaning-making, so don’t dismiss it as useless and frivolous. It is primal. (And, serious novels aside, sometimes we urgently need frivolity in our lives. Fiction has you covered there, too!)

Seek out authors from a variety of backgrounds. As influential novels of the past have shown, sometimes the best way to explore an idea is to wrap it in a riveting story.

That’s my recipe. What do you think? Do you have a balanced reading diet? Please comment below! What’s on your “must-read” list?

This quote-image features the silhouette of a young boy and the William Godwin quote, “He that loves reading has everything within his reach.”
A classic quote from Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. (GladReaders)

IMAGE SOURCES:

Many thanks to CASSIEM and Food52, for the photo still life by Juliette Tang, as well as an enjoyable article and several more photos by Tang. I appreciate the British Library for an interesting article on some of its holdings by 18th-century Black authors, and the illustration of the portrait engravings of Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley. I’m grateful to BuddyMantra for the uncredited photo of the young man in the library, from Pallavi Dutta’s article about “30 Things Only Booklovers Can Relate To.” Thanks also to NPR podcasts, Code Switch, and Throughline, for their logos, and to TED’s “Ideas” for the illustration and the article on “62 Great Books by Black Authors Recommended by TED Speakers.” And finally, I also want to thank Glad Readers for the Quote-image featuring the quote from Mary Shelleys father, William Godwin.

Several signs promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

Rethinking policing on Rana Station

Rethinking policing has always been an important part of my world-building  for the futuristic world of my science fiction novels. Recent protests and calls to abolish or defund the police have given me fresh material to work with. But they haven’t changed my plans for the series.

Jan S. Gephardt’s current “XK9” books are “The Other Side of Fear,” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
At the time this post went live, these were the “XK9 books” available. Cover art for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk; Cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

Balancing reality and fiction

One of the joys of speculative fiction is that you get to make up your own world. That makes it possible to explore all sorts of thought experiments. How would this or that work out, if this or that other thing happened? The challenge that comes with the joy is making your world believable.

I wanted to combine my love of science fiction, dogs, and mystery stories into a science fiction series. 

But I couldn’t assert spontaneously sapient, talking dogs (sure, that’s believable . . . or is it?). No, they’d need to be engineered and equipped. Most people probably wouldn’t do that for a pet. Contemporary smart dogs are already sometimes too smart for their own good. Plus it would be expensive, and take a long time. My fictional dogs needed a job that required the development. I already knew I wanted to write a mystery in this futuristic settingso K9s–police dogs–were a natural choice

A German Shepherd places its paws on a computer keyboard in a police station office. The meme reads, "Saw bad man, bit same. End of Report."
They aren’t using computers yet, but dogs are smarter than we think. (GSCSafety/Donna Clayton/Pinterest)

I set my story on a space-based megastructure built on designs actual rocket scientists thought might work. My canine-cognition, robotics, and other research led me to other extrapolations. I hoped I’d figured it out so my readers could suspend their disbelief, and enjoy the story.

Reality and fiction in policing for Rana Station

But how to portray the police? I knew from the start that TV and movies were no guide. They tend to show cops as good-guy protagonists. They’re frequently wildly erroneous.They often glorify, erase, or excuse terrible misconduct for the sake of drama. 

My original goal was to portray a style of policing that a real police officer could read and think, “yes, this is right. This is how it really works.” 

Never having been a police officer or worked in that world, I had a lot of learning to do. But the more I’ve learned about the way it really worksthe less I think it fits with the rest of how Rana Station is conceived

Several signs held by protesters promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

The society on Rana Station is yet another thought experiment. This one is steeped in my roots as a teacher in urban schools. I built it on understandings from working on my Master’s degree in Multicultural Education. As one of my characters says in a later chapter of What’s Bred in the Bone, Rana’s “governmental aim is to support the realization of each and every inhabitant-being’s full potential.”

The rest of the surrounding universe looks more like systems we’re unfortunately familiar with. In some ways Ranans themselves don’t live up to their ideals. In others, they do better. Part of the fun is speculating about what might happen when social systems, values, and priorities collide.

Rethinking crime 

One thing about humans: crimes happen. People screw up. They fight. Greed gets the best of them. Con artists run their scams. Passions rise, and sometimes people die. There are plenty of cases to solve, even on Rana Station

But a society built on respect for everyone, and dedicated to supporting their achieving full potential, isn’t going to criminalize many of the things our society uses the police to address.

Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017.
When murders occur, they must be investigated. Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017. (Uncredited/Tampa Bay Times)

Addiction isn’t illegal on Rana Station. People can have small quantities of controlled substances. But authorities regulate potentially dangerous substances and try to stifle smugglingSapient-trafficking is illegal pretty much everywhere (but which beings are sapient?).

Digital thievery plagues everyone. Rana’s “second-story men” (and women) sometimes intrude on residence towers. As in Chapter One of What’s Bred in the Bone, people sometimes get mugged.

Assaults, rapes, and murders do still occur (although there are lots more conflict mediation efforts on Rana Station than in the USA right now).

And the XK9s, along with their human allies, are on the case.

Rethinking policing in more ways than one

But a social system designed to support every inhabitant-being reaching their full potential would not look like our reality. That means not only is the agriculture different. The schools are different. Ranan mental and physical health-care infrastructure is different (to name just a few).
And Ranan policing is different, too.

Today’s “defund” advocates demand some changes that already were planned features on Rana Station. Even before our collective consciousness raising on police use of force. For instance, police won’t be the first responders called for most mental health crises. Mental health professionals called “Listeners” will. Many current “de-criminalize” issues are handled outside of the justice system on Rana.

Police prepare to clear a camp set up by people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, in 2017.
The criminalization of poverty reaches an extreme when it comes to people experiencing homelessness. Police prepare to clear a “homeless” camp in San Francisco, in 2017. (Judith Calson/San Francisco Public Press)

Readers of What’s Bred in the Bone may recall that the Orangeboro Police Department has a STAT Team (for “Special Tools and Techniques”). I originally called them a “SWAT” Team, but “Special Weapons and Tactics” recalls the old-fashioned militarized unit of contemporary practice. That’s not what I intend to portray.

In very special circumstances some SWAT-like tactics may be needed. Think sharpshooters, or psychologist-trained negotiators. But Ranan STAT teams also embrace what we think of as search-and-rescue,  bomb squads and communications and surveillance specialists. They’re known for saving lives, not kicking doors.

Rethinking police mental and physical health

One major area where my police research appalled me is the real world of police officer/first-responder stress. Rather than write in generalities, I’ll share a summary of an all-too-typical case study. This one’s from the March 2016 AA Grapevine, but unfortunately none of it seemed unusual, or out of step with other cases I’ve studied. 


Erika J.’s story

The writer was a young woman who’d wanted to be a police officer since she was in high school. Right at the start of her first rookie year she had a “suicide by cop” call. Although it was devastating, she felt compelled to “lie my butt off” to the department psychologist so she wouldn’t lose her job

There are so many wrong things, just in that one element of her story.

From the beginning, this young employee understood if she was honest she’d be fired (like most people, she needed her job). She didn’t feel supported, and that pattern continued. Later promoted to detective, she was “the only police officer in town assigned to juvenile cases.” Not surprisingly, the caseload overwhelmed her. She asked for a reassignment after six years, unsure how many more autopsies of abused babies she could handle. Her request was denied.

So she “boarded out” and qualified for a promotion. Later, as a now-sergeant with a 3-month-old breastfeeding infant, they denied a reassignment that would make it easier to care for her baby. “I was told to quit whining and do my job.” There’s more. But if you’re like me you’ve seen enough already. It’s really not surprising this woman developed a problem with alcoholism. The way she was treated–by her brothers (and sisters?) in blue–ought to be criminal.

Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork.
Stress and feelings of isolation can build up for cops if they’re not given adequate support. Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork. Only 5% of South Dakota officers are female. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

So many wrong things

Instead, it’s not uncommon. She probably got more grief because she was a woman (way to diversify, people!!). But male officers don’t get much less pressure. That old-school police culture is toxic, no matter who’s on the receiving end. As other pressures in society build virulence, police officer suicides have hit an upward trend.

Cops also work long hours with few breaks and little access to healthy food. That’s why you see so many fat officers after they’ve been on the job for a while. They’re usually not so much lazy as stressed-out and overextended. You won’t be surprised that police officers are at 30-70% more risk of sudden cardiac arrest than others, when thrown into stressful situations.

It’s not an acceptable reason, but it’s easy to see how some officers grow jaded, callous, or abusive. That kind of job environment is practically a formula for inappropriately-displaced aggression. Give that human powder-keg a racist system to work in, a history of oppression, and a gun, and you have a police brutality offense just looking for some “uppity” brown-skinned person to trigger it. 

Rethinking policing in a better way

Ranan culture doesn’t put up with any of these ways of doing things. They are stupid, counter-productive, and deeply destructive. Excuse me while I’m “unrealistic,” and explore a better way.

We need to ask why our own contemporary society puts up with those stupid, destructive ways of doing things. Must we abolish the police and start over from scratch to get rid of rampant, racist old-school police culture? If so, it might be a better way of rethinking policing than many people believe.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers of my books are from my Jan S. Gephardt’s Artdog Adventures website. Many thanks to Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation, via Donna Clayton’s Pinterest Board, for the K9-making-a-report meme. I’m grateful to The Hill, for the photo of the “defund” protesters. Many thanks to the Tampa Bay Times for the photo of the murder scene investigation. I am grateful to Judith Calson of the San Francisco Public Press, for the photo of the police outside the “homeless camp.” and thanks also to the Mitchell (SD) Republic and photographer Sean Ryan for the photo of Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean at work.

Independently together

The Artdog Quote of the Week: 

My vision of Strength in Diversity has everything to do with people from different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, and life experiences coming together to pool their collective wisdom.

That is, in fact, also the essence of creativity: drawing ideas from a range of sources and putting them together in new ways. Only through that process can we innovate, develop our potential and make progress toward a better world.

This attitude does not mean I’m a pie-in-the-sky idealist who just wants to sing Kum By Yah with everyone else in the world because of the overflowing goodness in my heart.

And I don’t espouse my ardent belief in the vital importance of social justice out of some ambition to be politically correct.

No, my primary reason for affirming the importance of a diverse and interconnected society is that I firmly believe it’s my nation’s best route to a strong, positive future. It will take the intelligence, and the fortitude, and the creativity of ALL of us, to get ALL of us out of the messes we’ve made.

As allies, not enemies, we need to think independently together.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Inner Journey Outfitters, via Pinterest, for this image.

Who and where are the “Good Cops”?

This week’s Artdog Image of Interest is a Video:

Today I’d like to share my little platform with a guy whose Internet identity is “Mike the Cop.” He’s part of the Humanizing the Badge organization, which is doing its part to share a perspective on law enforcement officers that we don’t always get from the media.

If we’re genuinely interested in exploring the extent of our diversity, then this is ALSO a minority who should be heard from. So if you’re willing to listen, Mike has some concise, true and important things to say about “Good Cops.”

VIDEO: Many thanks to Mike the Cop’s YouTube channel for this video, to Humanizing the Badge for helping me find it, and to the vast majority of our law enforcement officers, who serve every day and do their best always to be good cops.

One but Many

Artdog Image of Interest

This design project was originally made by a student for her yearbook, and posted on her DeviantArt page. I think it captures the idea well.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Samantha Li for this image.

We are America

I was sent a video on Facebook the other day that seems the very soul of my theme for this month. It’s part of the “Love has no Labels” campaign from the Ad Council. I thought I’d share it as a follow-up to my 4th of July post.

There’s not a lot I can add to what John Cena says in the video, except to endorse the message wholeheartedly. 

We can only be our best United States of America when we are a whole USA. The great thing about this country is the rich diversity of all of us, because our diversity gives us such deep and amazing range. 

VIDEO: Many thanks to the Ad Council and YouTube for this video. Thanks, guys! I couldn’t have said it better myself! 

America’s “Secret Sauce”

Today’s Artdog Image of Interest:

During the month of July my Quotes of the Week and Images of Interest will explore the idea of “inclusive patriotism,” inspired by a recent column written by Robert Reich. I found an awesome opening-post image from the talented designer Ben Karis-Nix, to express my take on the theme.

strength-in-diversity

For the record: I support and believe in the ideal of a United States of America where people from everywhere are welcome, and where everyone has a right to speak their mind, get an education, and follow their dreams.

I believe in the ideal of all citizens having the right to vote, to eat regular meals, have adequate shelter, and receive adequate health care.

I dream of a USA where no mentally healthy person feels driven to build fences of fear and razor-wire against foreigners, arm him- or herself to the teeth for self-defense, or bar refugees from desperately-needed safe haven.

I believe that the United States has always been stronger because of its diversity, its deep reservoirs of cultural richness, and the cross-pollination of ideas, and I believe that a change of course to make our land less open, less free, and less inclusive is a change of course toward decline and destruction.

Feel free to disagree if you wish to leave comments, but please keep it civil.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Ben Karis-Nix for the use of his very cool image!

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