Pictures of You by Beth Winegarner

I recently went to Georgia to visit family and came home with an armload of photos, kept by my aunts and cousin, many of which I'd never seen before. A bunch of them are from my mom's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood -- a time of her life she rarely talked about, and we never had much of a window into. 

She grew up in rural Georgia in the 1940s and '50s, and came to California in the mid-1960s, where she met my dad, got married in 1967, and had me and my brother in the 1970s. Although she kept in touch with her family back home, especially her sisters, we just never knew much about them. (I started corresponding with her sisters, my aunts Annie and Donna, later on in life, especially after mom died in 1996.)


Here's my mom (left) with a friend. I'm guessing she's about 5 in this photo. I love her ultrablonde hair, knobby knees, dress, smile. I've seen that same smile on my daughter's face. 


My mom went to nursing school after graduating high school. She trained at Piedmont Hospital and also a couple of months at Milledgeville Asylum, the biggest and one of the most notorious mental health institutes in the state of Georgia. Here she is in her nursing uniform -- I think this was at the very beginning of her training. 

I came home with many pictures of my mom just having a good time. Here she is on the beach, sunning her shoulders. That looks like a camera by her side. 


This one was surprising. We knew our dad had done some amateur racing, but had no idea our mom was into it, too!

This one's probably my favorite. Mom looking modern, happy, confident, carefree, chic. I wish I could ask her about the day this photo was taken. 

Some Excellently Named Ancestors by Beth Winegarner

My great-great-grandfather, Zachary Taylor Jones (third from right) with his many, many,  many  children and a few other relatives, Roswell, Georgia.

My great-great-grandfather, Zachary Taylor Jones (third from right) with his many, many, many children and a few other relatives, Roswell, Georgia.

I have been spending a lot of time on lately, trying to unravel a few family mysteries and, in some cases, seeing just how far I can follow the genetic threads backward into time. There's a funny, almost spooky feeling I get when I'm tracing ancestors into the 1600s, 1500s. I imagine what their lives were like -- living in one small patch of country for most of their lives, marrying young, having lots of kids, and winking out at an age where most of us are just getting started. 

Maybe it's because I'm a writer, but I am a sucker for an excellent name. And there are some excellently named people in my lineage. Such as:

Littleberry Gann
Lady Christian Barley
Barnabas Benton
Seaborn Bourn
Orpheus "Offie" Bradley
Dorcas Buss
Russell Reno Purcell
Thomas Marston "The Seagull" Green
Asbury Coke Jones
William Grover Cleveland Jones
Ursala Puddington
Comfort Puddington
Alpha Smith
Blanche Warburton
Eura Winegarner

If these people hadn't existed, I would want to invent them. 

Here I Go Again by Beth Winegarner


In light of the news that ABBA is working on new music for the first time in 35 years, I thought I'd share an odd set of ABBA-related connections that my brain makes when I see or hear certain pop-culture moments that really have nothing to do with ABBA. 

So, you know this scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, where the elves arrive in their shiny armor and Elrond transforms from an elegant elf-about-Rivendell into a fierce military commander?


I can't watch it without thinking of Hugo Weaving (who plays Elrond) and his performance in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert


It makes me wish that Elrond and the elves would break out into ABBA songs when they arrive in Helm's Deep. I know, I know, maybe it's not the most appropriate time for ABBA -- after all, the whole team of Middle-Earth good guys is currently overwhelmed by orcs -- but still. All that shiny gold armor. All that long, flowing elven hair. It could work.

And that leads me to the next thing that regularly makes me think of ABBA: Blind Guardian's song "Bright Eyes," off their album Imaginations from the Other Side. Just take a listen and tell me you can't imagine the ABBA cover version of this song. Fool, just another, fool, just another... 



Heavy by Beth Winegarner


But what makes metal "heavy"? Good question. It becomes a particularly difficult issue when you consider that rock fans see a huge difference between the word "heavy" and the word "hard." For example, Led Zeppelin was heavy. To this day, the song "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" is as heavy as weapons-grade plutonium. Black Sabbath was the heaviest of the heavy (although I always seem to remember them being heavier than they actually were; early Soundgarden records are actually heavier than Sab ever was). Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City

I first got into heavy metal music by way of Led Zeppelin and Guns N' Roses roughly in 1987, and in those early days, I allied myself with hard and heavy music about equally. It wasn't until I got around to falling hard for Black Sabbath in the early aughts that my affections began to lean decidedly in the heavy direction. It helped that sludge metal was coming up at that time; I discovered bands like Baroness, Kylesa and The Sword. But I also pled allegiance to some decidedly non-metal (but undeniably) heavy artists, including 16 Horsepower, Woven Hand, Patrick Wolf.

My trajectory has only continued heavierward from there: Subrosa, Alcest, Woman is the Earth, Pallbearer, Samothrace, Lycus, Agalloch, Red Sparowes, Marriages, Rope Sect, Ides of Gemini, In Solitude, Tribulation, thisquietarmy, Russian Circles. This music is like a soft, fluffy blanket, enveloping me in warmth. 

What I look for most in this heaviness is sound that you feel more in your guts—or at least your molars— than in your ears. A low-end sound that shakes you to your foundations. I hear it in Apocalyptica's old song, "Kaamos," and in Russian Circles' song "Vorel," particularly at the 2:48 mark:

Whenever I hear it, I see myself as some massive, powerful creature -- the 50-Foot Woman, maybe, but with more clothing—stomping my way through obstacles. 

But it didn't dawn on me until very recently that there's a relationship between the heavy music I adore and this heavy body I live in every day. Sure, it might be slow at times, but it's also massive in all the right ways. It's strong. It's sensitive. It's sleepy and deep. There are excellent hiding places. It's soft and safe, and it has its own raw intelligence, even though it doesn't always feel that way. It's off-putting, too, and there is a certain layer of protection in that. 

Yes, I Love Heavy Metal by Beth Winegarner

Image from a T-shirt designed by Philipp Rietz, and sold by Threadless. Click the image to buy the shirt!

Image from a T-shirt designed by Philipp Rietz, and sold by Threadless. Click the image to buy the shirt!

It's a common scene: the topic of music comes up, and everyone mentions the kinds they like most. And then it's my turn.

And they say: "Heavy metal? You like heavy metal?"

In some ways, I understand. The unshakeable stereotype of the heavy metal fan is a white guy in his teens or 20s with long hair, ratty jeans and a bad attitude. You know, like Billy Hargrove, Max's sociopathic older brother in Stranger Things. (By the way, you should totally read my friend's takedown of Billy over on Metalsucks.)

I resemble this stereotype in almost no way. I'm quiet, female, and prefer stretch knits, florals and cute animals. I'm also professional, in my 40s, and a mom. I sometimes wear band shirts, but not often enough to call it my personal style. But other people's reactions sometimes leave me feeling like I have to assure them I'm not sullying myself with something gross and unseemly.

The surprise most often comes from people who do not listen to heavy metal, and who may not be aware just how broad a category of music it is. Or they may not know that metal fans tend to be smarter and geekier than average, and that the music tends to have a calming effect on fans. Maybe when I say I love heavy metal, they're imagining this: 


When the bands I most listen to look more like this: 

(No disrespect to King Diamond, whose influence is both massive and undeniable.) Metal is beloved for its intensity and majesty. It makes everything sound more epic. It transcends the mundane. Guitars and vocals soar, or they descend into the depths, meeting you where you are. Some of it's challenging and complex. Some of it's subtle and melodic. There's a lot to explore. And, yes, I love it.

The Song I Was Writing Is Left Undone by Beth Winegarner


The world lost a special lady yesterday. I met Kathy when I was in high school, and dating her son. She was so unlike my own mom, I'm not sure I knew what to make of her at first. But I quickly became fond of her plainspokenness, sense of humor, and tendency to tell stories about her boy. Where my mom was fairly middle-of-the-road, Kathy was "cool." She'd been part of the hippie generation and never gave it up. She was a devoted Deadhead, a quiet pagan and had ridden a motorcycle when she was younger. Until I met her, I didn't know moms could be like that. It embarrassed my boyfriend some, but I was impressed. 

She always made me feel welcome in their home, where my boyfriend and I spent many hours hanging out, making out, listening to music and lazing among the redwoods. I'd just come out of a traumatic relationship, and in some ways their house was a sanctuary for me. There were crystals and goddess figurines here and there, and little pots of fragrant amber, the smell of which still reminds me of her. Although I was often a wreck then, I felt safe there. 

Where my mom was protective, Kathy was permissive. She kindly drove us to many, many concerts in Sonoma County and even San Francisco, where my mother wouldn't take me and was too afraid to let me go with friends. She let us listen to Metallica and other metal bands on the car's cassette player; I remember her responding with curiosity (and some amusement) the day she took us to Berkeley and I bought a copy of Soundgarden's Louder Than Love on tape, which we listened to on the way home. The whole family had worked at the Northern California Renaissance Faire since my boyfriend was a little boy, and I joined them for two seasons, learning to make ribbon rosettes for her feather fans, hanging out in their gypsy wagon and wandering the paths through the woods. 

There are so many things I learned from her, small and large. After a few years of trying in vain to understand how to drive a stick-shift car, I figured it out one day while watching her lift her foot slowly off the clutch pedal in her battered hatchback. I learned it was okay to shrug off beauty norms, to be a plainfaced and round woman and still be in love with life. She showed me that it's okay to become a grownup and still adore rock and roll. 

We lost touch when her son and I broke up but, as often happens in the age of Facebook, we reconnected a few years back. She knew my mom had died when I was in my early 20s. I don't know if that's what motivated it, but she often left kind, loving remarks on my posts, when I wrote about my mom or shared my daughter's latest antics. I was so grateful for those comments and the motherly warmth that came with them. I'm glad she got to become a grandma to two beautiful boys, to see her son transform into a kind and loving dad. I just wish she'd gotten more time with them, and they with her. 

On Media Style Guides, Inclusive Language and "Political Correctness" by Beth Winegarner

Photo by Flickr user  r. nial bradshaw .

Photo by Flickr user r. nial bradshaw.

My first paid journalism job was working as a copy editor for the Daily Californian, the student-run newspaper at UC Berkeley. We had a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook -- the copy-editor's Bible -- that we shared at the desk, but each of us was issued our own copy of the Daily Californian's style guide. 

It covered all the things the AP Stylebook didn't, including names and titles particular to the school, but also a number of terms related to ethnicity and diversity that were more respectful and inclusive. For example, it required us to use the terms "Latino" or "Latina" instead of "Hispanic," recognizing that "Hispanic" improperly centers the Spaniards who colonized Central and South America. It said to use "African American" where appropriate, and Native American instead of Indian; you get the idea. These are common terms now, but they weren't in the early 1990s, when the guide was written.

I've worked in a handful of other media organizations since that worked hard to use the most respectful and inclusive language possible, going beyond what the AP Stylebook recommends. And some nonprofits have developed additional media guides of their own, including GLAAD and the J-School at San Francisco State University.

There are, of course, critics who decry "political correctness" and associate the use of such language with some sort of abhorrent "liberal agenda." But one of the roles of journalism is to inform people, and the purpose behind style conventions is to make sure that a piece of reporting is clear, whether you're reading it in the San Francisco Chronicle or The Economist. If we can all agree that the word "tree" refers to a large plant with a trunk, roots, branches and leaves, then we can probably also agree that "Native American" refers to someone whose ancestors lived on one of the American continents before explorers arrived from Europe. The point of a lot of this terminology is not only to be more respectful and inclusive, but also to locate the most neutral language possible to describe someone or something. And the point of standardizing such language is to make sure readers understand what a word means, wherever it might appear. 

This week, I was editing an article in which the writer had begun several sentences with "he or she." Fifty years ago, it would have only been "he," and I appreciate that the writer wanted to be more gender-inclusive, especially since it was an article about members of a profession that isn't as male-dominated as it used to be. But, not only is "he or she" clunky -- especially when repeated several times -- it doesn't leave space for folks who don't identify as "he" or "she." I replaced each one with a singular "they," which worked easily in context, works grammatically, and doesn't give the impression that only "hes" or "shes" can pursue that line of work. 

Even the AP Stylebook folks are beginning to embrace it

Language shifts regularly, both as new ideas come into being and as formerly marginalized voices gain visibility and access to the shaping of that language. We are far from finished, and terms we use now might be seem dated or harmful in 20 years. I'm personally thankful for that first style guide, and the fact that it put me on a life-long path of considering these issues. 

A Splash of Red by Beth Winegarner


The house next door to ours is getting a makeover. This is very common in San Francisco -- heck, it's really common on our block, where several houses have been remodeled in the six years we've lived here. When we moved in, ours was one of the nicer-looking houses on the block; now, it's one of the shabbier ones by comparison. But the refresh of our neighbor's house feels different.

When we moved in, Novelle was one of the first to welcome us to the block. She was friendly and chatty, and always found a way to work into conversation the fact that she'd survived a bout of cancer and could die at any time. She wore her frizzy gray hair long to the shoulders, and favored big glasses, comfortable pants and sweaters. If you bumped into her outside her house, you had to prepare for a chat that could last upwards of an hour. And, even though you needed to get inside to put away groceries or tend to the kids, you were fascinated enough to want to stay and listen.

Over time, I learned that she had worked for the author/journalist/activist Jessica Mitford, and was a psychotherapist who saw clients in her home. She told us that before we bought our house, and before the man who sold it to us, the house was owned by Nicomedes "Nick" Martinez, who had worked as a legislative assistant for Sen. John Burton and hosted lively dinner parties. It made me wish the walls could tell us all the San Francisco political secrets they might have absorbed.

Over the past year, Novelle grew thinner, but never let on to us that she was dying. In some ways, she seemed more energetic and purposeful than ever. A couple years ago, she'd had the front of her house re-done; workmen pulled down all the vines that had grown over the front of it, tore up the failing staircase, removed the shingles whose paint had faded to pink, nailed up new shingles and rebuilt her front stairs. At some point, though, the work trailed off, and went unfinished.

Earlier this year, I went outside one afternoon to find Novelle and three of her friends across the street, looking at the front of her house. She called me over and showed me a plank of wood with several colors of paint on it. "Which one do you like?" she asked. "I need to pick something for the front of the house." I can't remember all the colors, now; one was black, and another was a bold, deep red. I chose that one. "That's my favorite, too," she said. "I'm a painter, and it's one of my favorite colors to work with."

Novelle died in August. We found out when her son, who has the task of emptying her house and getting it ready for sale, told us one day while moving some of her belongings out onto the curb for passersby to pick through. On another day, he put out a deep red velvet chair, the fabric worn bald on the armrests. My partner pulled it into the garage for me. I haven't figured out what to do with it yet, but I'm glad to have something that she clearly used and loved.

Over the past two weeks, painters have set up scaffolding in front of her house, although it was days before I saw what colors they were using. This week, the shingles have gotten their new look: dark red paint, just as Novelle wanted, with a dark gray trim. Her son could have picked something more modern -- it's what would fetch a higher price from potential buyers. But I like to think that, somewhere along the way, she left specific orders to paint her house that color when the time came.


Fool Pirates With This One Weird Trick by Beth Winegarner


In recent weeks, I've sent out more than my usual share of copyright violation notices, otherwise known as DMCA takedown requests (named for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects artists' copyright online). The same guy keeps posting free PDF downloads of my books -- on different domains, but with the same page designs, etc. And sometimes his domains resolve to other domains, or show the book-download page for 30 seconds and then redirect somewhere else, as if I can't figure this stuff out. Anyhow, I've emailed him twice, ordering him to stop offering downloads of my books, and twice he's taken them down. Not that I expect this to be the end of it. 

I don't know how many people -- writers included -- realize that this is now part of the business of writing. Setting up alerts for your book titles, discovering who's offering them as free downloads, emailing them to tell them to knock it off, repeat until fade. 

Maggie Stiefvatar definitely knows. The author of the Raven Cycle series and, more recently, the Ronan trilogy, played a trick on would-be pirates -- and on people who were downloading her books from them -- and it wound up driving more people to shell out for her actual books and e-books: 

I was intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle, and so I began to work with one of my brothers on a plan. It was impossible to take down every illegal pdf; I’d already seen that. So we were going to do the opposite. We created a pdf of the Raven King. It was the same length as the real book, but it was just the first four chapters over and over again. At the end, my brother wrote a small note about the ways piracy hurt your favorite books. I knew we wouldn’t be able to hold the fort for long — real versions would slowly get passed around by hand through forum messaging — but I told my brother: I want to hold the fort for one week. Enough to prove that a point.

And it worked. Perhaps more writers and publishers need to try Stiefvatar's trick. 

The Six-Legged Spider by Beth Winegarner

Photo by Flickr user  Kristy Johnson.

Photo by Flickr user Kristy Johnson.

For the past several weeks, we've had a number of orb weaver spiders in our yard. They build their webs in all sorts of improbable places: between two thin branches on a shrub, between the rosemary bush and the tea-rose bush, between one of the trees overhead and a stalk of dry foxtail grass in the dirt. 

The one spider who has stuck around the longest only has six legs, four on one side, and two on the other. It's missing two back legs on one side. I've never seen a spider missing legs like this before, although I'm sure it must happen -- amputations and accidents happen throughout the animal, insect and arachnid kingdoms. 

As I write this, the six-legged orb weaver has built its latest web between two of our clotheslines. It's been windy and rainy the past few days, but the spider isn't bothered. It's still there, ready to catch whatever flies into its web. 

I have to admit, I'm inspired by this little creature. It's missing a full quarter of its limbs, but it has built several webs in the yard, moving to new spots as it needs to. It's not giving up. It's just as able as a spider with a full complement of legs, and even more persistent.