Where to buy

Live near Des Moines? Head to Beaverdale Books to find all of my titles.

All three of my novels can be found at this site, which supports local bookstores.

Here is a link for Wrinkles in Spacetime.

Here’s an interview about Wrinkles in Spacetime.

All of my novels are available in Pella at Pella Books.

Here is a Universal Link for Mixed In.

Here is a Universal Link for Lost in Waste.


Cleaner, Greener Labs is self-published and sold here.





Click here for Wolves and Deer 

or here for the paperback.

Click here for Nook.


Or enjoy the first chapter here.


As You Like It

I’ve been doing some water testing for a creek that runs through a local park. You can read about it here. One reason for doing the testing is to determine if the water is safe for people to wade and fish in.

This month, I decided it was time for an arsenic test since arsenic is common in Iowa soil and water. Arsenic occurs naturally and has been known about as far back as the ancient Egyptian and Ming dynasties. It usually occurs in nature as salts and not as a free metal. The first recorded reaction yielding metallic arsenic was done by alchemist Albertus Magnes. Not even a chemist, an alchemist. Let that sink in.

Historical uses include using salts of arsenic as a green pigment and as an insecticide,

Today arsenic is primarily used as a wood preservative, although it’s found in semiconductors and the metal itself is a semiconductor. (Arsenic treated wood will take on a blue or green tint because the preservative is mixed with copper.)

Most arsenic used today is produced by China, Chile, and Kazakhstan.

Why is it toxic? Arsenic, abbreviated As, is the same column as nitrogen on the periodic table and can get involved with biological reactions involving nitrogen in a bad way. We all know it can act as a poison. It can kill slowly as well, causing bladder, skin cancer and other cancers. It can increase cholesterol and mess up your thyroid. High levels in the soil can cause birth defects.

Arsenic in Iowa hasn’t been thoroughly studied but it is concentrated in northern Iowa.

Arsenic as found in food and water has no taste or smell. Testing for arsenic poisoning was tricky until 1836.

Today, testing instruments are used. I’ve put a video of me explaining a similar technique at the bottom of this post. However, this time I didn’t do the testing myself. I sent a water sample off to a lab. It was much cheaper than paying me to run the test.

The results came back this week.  The news is good! No arsenic detected!

This is most certainly As you like it!

This technique is similar to the one used to detect arsenic, but a little simpler.

Let’s not talk about it–or even worse, read about it!

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about biologist Frances Hammerstrom (1907-1998). One thing that struck me when I read her biography was that when she and her husband arrived in Wisconsin to study prairie chickens, the local people shyly asked how they could be married and only have a couple of kids. Many Midwesterners of 100 years ago had no idea birth control was possible. Thanks to the Comstock Act, even talking about birth control, much less using it, had been illegal until 1915.

Birth control and sexuality taught in schools didn’t begin until the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. It became part  educating about sexually transmitted infections. Before that time people maybe read pamphlets or possibly a comic book in which sex or disease was discussed.  Confusion reigned. A roommate of mine told me that all her parents mentioned to her about sex was that her mom gave her a douche bag and told her she was going to need it after she was married. I recall being confused when someone gave me the finger and said it was what happens before babies are born. I thought a doctor had to somehow open a woman to release the infant. And let’s not forget the numerous tales, told by men, of those who got blue balls and were made gay because women who were lesbians wouldn’t have sex with them. Sexual coercion wasn’t discussed back then in case you were wondering.

It goes without saying until the 80s a lot of people were in the dark about sex and birth control. I went to school in the 70s and we all had stories about relatives or friends from high school or people we knew who were pregnant and didn’t even know it. One particular case involved someone who went to the hospital with pains nine months after prom and gave birth to a baby. Fortunately for her she thought it was somewhat humorous that her parents never told her anything about sex and she ended up with this surprise kid. 

Possibly people are familiar with the book or movie Carrie in which the main character gets her period and thinks that she is dying of this horrible disease because their parents didn’t tell her anything. Yep. There were people like that in school. It was the job of the PE teacher to tell them about feminine hygiene. Fortunately, around the mid-century point, science decided that sex was worth studying and people began talking about it as an educational compoent.

I was lucky. My mom wasn’t excited to talk to me about sex but she did give me the book Everything You Want to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. As someone who had a stream of kids two years apart, she was more than happy to advocate learning about birth control. 

Studies of and information about sexuality exploded since the days of Hammerstrom. Sex education in schools has numerous advantages over the “self-taught” method including delaying sexual encounters, decreasing sexual risk taking, and improving academic performance. We’ve now reached the point in the US where most pregnancies are intended. We still fare worse than Canada and Europe for unintended pregnancies.

Sex is a part of life. Most people have sex. It’s satisfying at any age but those in their 20s have the most sex of any age group.  For men, teen boys are most able to have sex.

We need to ask ourselves, why is prudery suddenly rearing its ugly head politically? I’m not going to argue when people should have sex or who they need to have it with, but I do wonder why we have sudden interest in not talking about it.

In Indiana, the long established Kinsey Institute, is facing a funding cut.

Here in Iowa, we are doing everything from banning books containing sexuality to eliminating requiring health information about HIV and HPV

Here’s the thing about sex in a book: a good book will include emotional content as well as consequences. You can’t get that from a YouTube video or from peers which is probably where kids will go if information isn’t available in school. In fact, most teens have watched porn, some of which isn’t too wholesome. Just in terms of how long it takes to read a book vs watch porn, I’m going to say that a book with sexual passages is more healthy, although I have my concerns about rape as entertainment.

We can assume most parents will talk to their kids about sex. Around 20% won’t do it.  Why won’t they? Parents may carry their own traumas, embarrassment, and cultural taboos.  Some parents try but pass on unhelpful myths. Sex-ed can help start the discussion and lead to a better outcome. Those who want to “have the talk” do should start young and then add content as the child matures. Young as in age five. Here are some tips in case you need them. Good luck. Depending on your school district and the people in your town, you might be on your own.

Iowa’s high cancer rate–environment or lifestyle?

Iowa Cancer Rate—environment or lifestyle?

Why is Iowa the only state with an increasing cancer rate? Compared to other states, we have more cases of almost every cancer except lung. Other than Kentucky, we are the most cancer-riddled state in the union. I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t have an answer. But I want to consider our situation. Someone has to.

What have we got that other states don’t have?

Is it the pesticides? There is a connection between cancer and pesticide exposure, known about for years. Pesticides are associated with higher risk of childhood cancer. The nationwide glyphosate herbicide use map is here. Most pesticide usage is in the form of  herbicides. There’s a Strong link between some insecticides and aggressive prostate cancer. But not a link with prostate cancer and herbicides. You can click on this map and see the insecticide usage in Iowa  get higher and higher, until the study was stopped. In case you don’t want to follow the link, the most intense region of use is NW Iowa.

Cancer is associated with animal agriculture wastes and confinement operations; possibly nitrates play a role. Here is a study correlating it. Nitrate consumption, for example in food such as corn dogs has been associated with an increased cancer risk, although exposure on the skin is not.

Where is Iowa cancer increasing the fastest? Along the Mississippi. Over in Illinois, which has a lower cancer rate than Iowa, some river counties also have high cancer rates. Not like here in Iowa, though. What do we have that they don’t?

Where are the CAFOs? You know, those animal feeding operations. Most are in NW Iowa, near Palo Alto County and vicinity. Iowa’s most cancerous county, the one with the highest cancer rate is Palo Alto Countywhich has several lakes and a grotto.  Illinois’s most cancerous county, Pike County, is home to the most CAFOs in the state. 

Where is the most cancer?

Illinois has around 2,00 CAFOs. Iowa, 9,000. North Carolina has around 7,000. Studies of people who live near CAFOs in Iowa and North Carolina showed an increase in lymphohematopoietic cancers (lymphoma, myeloma, and leukemia). This was distinct for people working with the animals. Leukemia rose for those working specifically with cattle. Air toxins were the suspected agents. A study from Duke University linked numerous health problems to living near CAFOs. Here is North Carolina’s cancer profile. Here are their CAFO sites. There’s some overlap but officials there suspect it is due to  coal ash.

Coal ash certainly carries carcinogens such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Until recently, Pella had a coal burning plant and Marion County has a higher cancer rate than neighboring counties, despite having fewer CAFOs. Coal mining is linked to numerous health problems. Here is a map of Iowa’s known coal mines. (Many have been rehabilitated.) It doesn’t match with the highest cancer counties in Iowa but I have to agree with the North Carolina speculation that coal ash a factor in a high cancer rate. But let’s get back to CAFOs.

The American Association for Public Health has called for a ban of CAFOs, citing nitrates seeping into drinking water as a major concern. Iowa is number one in poop production in the US. Thousands of cancer cases in Iowa have been linked to nitrates from animal poop. Iowa has above average toxic air pollution as well.

You can’t talk about Iowa and cancer without thinking about radon, associated with lung cancer, but not thyroid cancer (see maps and data for radon and thyroid cancer here.) Here is the first of a multi-blog story about getting radon out of my basement. Radon is a problem in Iowa but other states such as South Dakota and Nebraska have higher levels. (see map). 

Arsenic is a known carcinogen and Iowa is laden with arsenic. Where is the arsenic? NE Iowa has greatest concentrations. The correlation between arsenic in drinking water and prostate cancer (which is high in Iowa) has been established. But not all states with arsenic in ground water have high cancer rates (California for example). 

Is it obesity? Iowa ranks 11th in the nation for adult obesity. Get this–pesticide exposure is associated with obesity. Yes, insecticides might be making us fat. They might even be giving us brain damage. (This could explain a few things.) The most obese counties are in general along the Mississippi. Cancer rates are rising here.

Iowa isn’t the drunkest state, but it is number two in binge drinking. This could be due to the many colleges here. Alcohol use is linked with cancer, particularly breast cancer. Breast cancer is linked to pesticides, especially pesticide exposure during childhood and prenatally. You’d think all those life-is-sacred people would care more about this. Iowa’s breast cancer rate is higher than average. It is one of Iowa’s top cancers.  If you aren’t sick of maps by now, here’s a map to prove it. Alcohol use combined with pesticide exposure could definitely be a factor in our breast cancer rate.

How about smoking? Iowa is not in the top ten states for smokers but above average. About 10% of smokers get lung cancer and about half of all smokers will get some sort of cancer. It’s a factor in our high cancer rate but not one that defines us over other states.

Age? Yes, our population is older and age is a risk factor for cancer. We rank 16th for percentage of residents over 65. We aren’t distinctively old.

 Radioactive fallout swept over Iowa in the 1950s. This would be a factor, especially for thyroid cancer. It took until 1982 for traces of the fallout to disappear.  This factor Would show up in Idaho more than Iowa. You can use this calculator to determine your elevated risk of thyroid cancer from fallout here.

Lower cancer rates are associated with a high amount of Public lands. Iowa has almost no public lands—only 2.8%. This is just an observation. With so much land privately owned, our environment is beholding to the landowners to protect it and us.

Are we Iowans too lazy to exercise? Iowa Cancer Registry Director Dr. Mary Charlton says our high cancer rate complicated but points to a lifestyle problem. Yet Iowa isn’t one of the top ten most sedentary states.

We also aren’t among the poorest states, but, unlike most, our poverty rate hasn’t decreased in recent years.This is an indication of a state government which doesn’t care to make lives better for the average citizen. And sadly, rural Iowans don’t always get the recommended cancer care.

I haven’t discussed diet yet but rest assured, Illinois eats more hotdogs than Iowans. Iowans are in the top of the states for candy consumption, coming in at number eleven. Sugar isn’t linked to cancer though. There have been few and inconclusive studies linking fast food to cancer. Iowa is #15 for fast food consumption. Pella recently was “blessed” with another fast-food restaurant, and you should see the lines at the drive up window, and the nutrient content of the food! 

The bottom line is that on many levels, Iowa doesn’t look like a particularly healthy state. We have nitrates, pesticides, arsenic, fallout, radon, smoking, coal mines, obesity, and too much hog waste.  Sometimes the answer is “all of the above.” I’m going to go a step further and say we’ve been trained not to worry about our health. Studies of the dangers of agricultural chemicals are not taken seriously. Any attempt to keep pollutants out of the air and water is accompanied by screams from elected officials. We quickly gave up on COVID mitigation measures. We even had office holders refuse to wear masks despite their efficacy. As for CAFOs, we’re number one and like ethanol, we’re pretty much stuck with it.

Iowa has a cancer problem and few care. We just don’t care. The story about our cancer rates hasn’t gotten much traction. Has it been in the Register? Are your friends talking about it? Have our politicians stopped bashing WOTUS and rolling it back? No. They are bitching and moaning about not being able to build on wetlands—which could remove toxins–or fighting for their rights to pour toxins into ditches that will eventually drain to the Mississippi.

And yes, our politicians want to censor information about HPV vaccines, which will prevent cancer.

We vote for these clowns and believe them.  Maybe it’s a lifestyle problem after all. 

Iowa With Half a Caucus

For most of my life, I’ve been an Iowan and a caucus goer. When I was younger, I went to whatever party caucus seemed most interesting. I drifted toward the Democrats because they are more scientifically correct and just plain nicer. When Republicans discussed a candidate who could win despite serious personal flaws, I walked out of the caucus and didn’t come back. They were right though. He won.

I’ve run the Democratic caucus for Ward Two Pella more times than I can recall. Some of this is because I was the default precinct chair. I did it once and no one cared to replace me. Voila. A task for life, or so it seemed. I’ve had coffee with Jill Biden, enjoyed a meeting of education experts with Barack and Michelle, asked an insulting question to Pete Buttigieg. I hope he forgives me.

My car got stuck in half frozen mud at a Kamala Harris event after which I signed up to caucus for her—a day before she withdrew. I rocked out to Muse at a Bernie rally. Being three quarters Dutch, I was interviewed by television and newspapers in the Netherlands.  Like most Iowa Democrats, I took the whole process seriously. Maybe too seriously.  Seeing Iowa slip towards authoritarianism, I wrote an entire Iowa-ag based dystopian novel series. Not surprisingly, some of it has already come true.

As political money poured in, Iowa became alarmingly polarized politically. Sometimes, the Democrats had no candidates running at all in Marion County. Since nobody else would, I ran for office and John Edwards showed up and stumped for me. One of my parents’ close friends made a radio ad against me. After all, he was Christian Reformed, like Betsy DeVos. This had to be a low point for me—realizing even a friend would turn on two of the kindest people in the world.

Later came the Russian inspired Hillary for prison float in Arcadia, Iowa. The person who came up with the float later received a modest, forgivable PPP loan. Lies about that caucus, like the Dean Scream that didn’t happen, refused to die.

Political ads became meaner and gun laden. Political aggression became more common in my hometown. Local Republicans discussed shooting Democrats, after which, assault rifle hunting was permitted. Recently, Trump supporters had a parade complete with a low-flying helicopter. They gathered at a church and someone nearby with a Biden sign got a rock thrown at her window, cracking the glass.

By the time the last fateful caucus rolled around, I, a precinct captain, was paranoid as heck. So yes, I admit, I didn’t use the app. I hadn’t been trained on it and the e-mails about it seemed like phishing schemes. In my opinion, the caucus process went smoothly. The reporting stumbled, in part due to jammed phone lines—thanks, Republicans. For better or worse, the Democratic caucuses in Iowa are first no more. Meanwhile, a trail of people more interested in winning than practicing democracy are coming here to eat corn dogs, but half as many corn dogs will be consumed.

Now here we are banning books, ignoring science, and torching public schools. We’ve fallen into the abyss, an example of how not to do things. We might even allow loaded guns in cars. The Democrats are smart to get out. Give others a chance!

Did the caucuses wreck my state? This place was once a heaven. Now, our poet laureates can’t even sing about it. I can’t blame the caucuses for some of the decisions we’ve made here. The last election wasn’t even closely predicted by the polls in some cases, so not everyone is happy about the state of the state.

The easy solution, for those who don’t like extremists, is to move to ranked choice voting. Quite a while ago, I worked at a college where we had elections to committees. Some sort of malaise swept the place. I’ve forgotten what. People fell into two camps. Opinions were divided. I’ve forgotten what divided us but I clearly recall what brought people together. The math department advocated for a change in voting strategy. We switched to Approval Voting, in which voters could select multiple candidates of whom they approved. The rancor and polarization dropped and the results were more palpable.

Ranked choice voting is another sensible alternative approach. If Alaska can do it, so can other states. The question is: are we sensible?

Below: I pose with Jan Postma of de Telegraaf. It was fun meeting him. Believe it or not, we both have ancestors from the same area of the Netherlands.

Queries: advice for the searching

I came to the novel writing late in life, having enjoyed what I was doing as a human being. I was satisfied with my life and with an occasional published short story.  I didn’t want to tip the balance. Sadly, the short story market mostly evaporated. I took the plunge and began a novel. Many writers struggle with depression, some of it might be induced by the writing profession itself. After all, only trouble is interesting. Fortunately, my worry-wart grandma along with being a chemist gave me enough lessons in foreseeing trouble.  When I returned to writing, I could do it with minimal disruption to my mental health.

I finished my first novel around the same time as my mom died. The tolling bell of death reminded me of the slippage of time. I wondered if I’d ever live to see the novel published or enjoy a writing career.

You could say I jumped into publishing my novel with death sniffing at my heels. I had no idea what I was doing. Thankfully, I had publishers willing to take a chance with my work and now, ten years after, I’ve learned a thing or two.

When I took up novel writing, I had no idea how to go about getting my foot in the publishing door. I’m too careless of a proof-reader to go it alone and I like editorial feedback. I read advice about writing a query, done after the whole novel was written. In a nutshell, a query is a letter of inquiry, asking if the recipient would like to see some or all of the novel. It should include these elements:

The title, word count, genre or category, how it compares to published novels.

The pitch or hook which describes the story and the most important aspects of it.  If the recipient is looking for romance, describe the romance for example. This is usually 150-300 words.

A little about yourself to convince the agent or editor you aren’t a one-hit wonder.

Before querying have a polished manuscript ready to go. Until I found a publisher, I paid for both copy editing and proof-reading. You should know what the agent or editor is looking for—their Manuscript Wish List.

You should never have to pay to submit your work.

Author Lauren Connolly advises making a personal connection. She says, “I found attending in-person events helpful. The first year I put a book out, I was focused on self-publishing, but at a romance conference I happened to sit next to a literary agent. And we had a nice chat and she gave me her contact information. A year later when I had a book deal offer, I reached out to her asking about representation. She remembered me, and I think having a face to put to a name was a big help. Making personal connections and showing that you’re ready to put yourself out in the writing world is a good way to show agents and editors the passion you have not only for your writing but also the writing business.

Lauren brings up a reality I had difficulty facing: being an author is a business and you need to be ready to commit to selling yourself and your work. This is tough if you’ve been trained not to bother people or ask for things, as I was at my previous job. She gives another bit of advice, yes you can submit to publishing houses and agents at the same time. Lauren says, “There are plenty of publishers that accept un-agented submissions (like City Owl), and if they offer you a deal you can request some time to seek an agent to represent you. You certainly don’t have to do this, but the fact that you already have an offer makes their job easy, then you have someone to negotiate your contact, and they can shop your future work for you.”

Author Emily Hornburg adds,” Etiquette would be if you get an offer from an editor or publisher, request two weeks before you say yes or no so you can reach out to the other people you’ve submitted to. Email those…you haven’t heard from yet and let them know you have an offer and when you need to know by.”

For my latest query, a new series, I won a query critique from author Em Shotwell. Her advice was this: “The query’s ONLY JOB is to make the reader request the pages. You want to keep it snappy and short—but leave them wanting more.” She helped me with a problem I have with my queries. My books have comic elements, but when I query, I’m business serious. 

Here’s the finished query:

SNAKES IN THE CLASS is a 68K novel and Book One in a series set at Manster College, for humanoid monsters.  I plan to have the series follow the same characters, led by gorgon Professor Gormley Grimn, as they struggle between being monsters, fitting in with humans, pacifying the fickle demigods, and claiming an education for themselves and their students. 

At Manster College, monster professors guide students in the fine art of fitting into human society–easier said than done. 

Professor Gormley Grimn didn’t choose the Gorgon life—the Gorgon life chose her…sort of. Born a human, Gormley led an uneventful existence until graduate school, when she was cursed by the jealous fiancé of her study partner. Her only recourse was to leave her behind her husband and son and become a professor of chemistry at Manster College, teaching young Gorgons, trolls, and other monsters. It’s a passionless and secluded life…until she falls into a lusty affair with Dean Ormr Snaakemon—half smooth-skinned man, half smooth-scaled snake, one hundred percent hottie. They tell themselves snakes don’t get attached, but the attraction is undeniable. Besides, Gormley is overdue for some fun—and Ormr is more than happy to oblige. They even start partying with the trolls at the local bar!  Life as a cursed Gorgon finally doesn’t seem so bad.

 A hostile intruder from the Purity League suffers a fatal mishap in Gormley’s chemistry lab. Seeing financial opportunity from an anonymous backer, the President Reaper insists Gormley tutor her Gorgon students in the art of “civil defense”.  There’s a problem. Gorgon powers don’t work as described in classical mythology. Instead of turning instantly to stone, men are more likely to have accidents such as falling onto soda dispensers and getting attacked by stray dogs. It doesn’t matter, anyway—Gormley is far from an expert wielding the ancient powers. And even if she did know how—she isn’t sure it’s the right thing to do. That is, until her long lost son appears. It turns out he is a were-coyote. The Purity League wants to stamp out all monsters. Should Gormley stick with her no-killing-just fit in principles, or join forces with the Knobbers—a group of demigods, including the woman who cursed her? And is Ormr going to stay by her side, or is he a snake in the grass?

Snakes In the Class is playful with a heat level of 4.  Think: The Adams Family with mythological creatures, and an even spicier Gomez and Morticia

 I’m happy to make any changes you find necessary to reach readers. Thank you for taking a look and I hope you enjoy it!

Catherine (Cathy) Haustein

author of Lost in Waste, Mixed In, Wolves and Deer: A Tale Based on Fact, and Cleaner, Greener Laboratories for Analytical Chemistry and Instrumental Analysis,  Wrinkles in Spacetime



I’m glad to have the query stage behind me. It took a few jolts of Vietnamese coffee to get me this far. Now, on to write Book 2. And many thanks to my editor, Danielle DeVor.

Inside view of a brief moment of purgatory

This week, I found myself in author purgatory. I’d finished my manuscript and submitted it to my editor along with a synopsis and a pitch.  The manuscript I’d labored over for a year, put my heart and soul into, was out of my hands. It’s a feeling nearly as confusing as empty nest. 

This book, Snakes in the Class, meant a lot to me. I previously published a satirical dystopian series set in what was once Iowa, thanks in part to the governor of Iowa’s shady ways. It sells steadily but not smashingly.  For this next novel series, I moved to comic Dark Academia… similar to Wednesday, but for adults. Since I’d been a professor for most of my life, this book was 100% my mind looking for a meld. How did I get here?

A year ago, my publisher put out a call for their authors to consider writing a monster book set at a college–a mature contrast to the old familiar monsters in high school. I was happy to oblige. Except, this one is told from the professor’s point of view, not students. Is it too dowdy? Not “college” enough when told from a more mature point of view? I worried.

I’d taken other risks including having the leading man be half snake (the bottom half). Thanks to my spring 2022 Short Story Writing class for that inspiration! Is it too weird?

The waiting was torture. You’d think after five novels, I’d be used to it. I’m not.

I don’t have an agent to reassure me or to negotiate my contracts. How did this happen? I was looking for one rather half-heartedly (because I liked my day job and it’s difficult to get an agent) when I saw an advertisement on duotrope.com looking for novels. I sent my first one, Natural Attraction (now out of print) to Penner Publishing and it was purchased in a “nice deal.” Nice deal means an advance of less than 50K.  You need to get an agent for a bigger deal. Here are some truths about getting an agent.

My next novel, Mixed In, was accepted by City Owl Press, sent to them after they opened a one-month window for un-agented novels. How did I find them? On Twitter. They were seeking a dystopia without vampires or zombies. I had one ready—a dystopian satire that’s a cross between Idiocracy and Handmaid’s Tale set in the near future in what was once Iowa. There’s the rub with writing a novel—you write it without any assurance someone will want to publish it. Writing what publishers are looking for is a big advantage but the landscape can shift. Dystopian novels got less popular once Trump was elected. He brought the dystopia. And some of my dystopian novel nightmares are inching towards reality. Despite this, I finished a trilogy, trying for an upbeat ending. Dictators fall after all.

My worry was unfounded! I just signed a contract! Now my editor and I can go through it together as the first step in its journey to publication.  And of course, I need to start on the sequel.

Snakes in the Class is a Dark Academia. Think Lessons in Chemistry plus The Addams Family set at a college for monsters in a small, midwestern town. Out this August—in time for back to school!

Can and should authors avoid sexism?

Cheater man cheating during a marriage proposal with his innocent girlfriend

For quite a while, I’ve gotten incensed at the story of Medusa—seduced or perhaps raped by Poseidon and turned into a monster for breaking her purity vows. It’s an example of an early story promoting hostile sexism. 

As far as ancient stories are concerned, the examples of sexism are endless.

Fairy and folk tales are filled with sexism—from princesses being kissed (or more) without consent to wicked older women jealous of youth and beauty, leaving the protagonists with no female role models, only men to turn to. The stories we grew up with aren’t great examples of how women should be treated in society. Do fiction authors have any obligation to tell different stories?

Internalized sexism teaches us how we view ourselves in the world and it comes from the stories we tell about each other. It can affect academic performance, create shame, make women doubt their competence, and give misogyny a boost.  

I never considered how much we internalize and accept misogyny. It’s so prevalent we can’t even recognize it in ourselves or others. It wasn’t until I wrote two historical novels that I realized how often women, such as Queen Victoria, can be sexist and oppose rights for other women. Author Clare Tomalin does masterful job pointing out the misogyny woven through history in her numerous biographies. Many times, other women perpetuate this sexism.

I can thank a psychology prof for introducing me to the various types of sexism prevalent in society, meant to promote female subordination. 

For those who haven’t recently taken a course, and in case this type of information gets banned politically, here’s a run down:

Hostile sexism has one goal: To keep females subordinate.  Women who step outside this box are resented and punished. Hostile sexism takes the form of harassment and violence against women. Women are seen as beings who seduce and deceive men. (Sirens for example.) It can be seen with sexist insults or comments on women’s sexuality. 

These views are most often held by people with lower economic status and who perform manual labor. Some of this is thought to be because these types of jobs and social circles are less integrated, keeping people uncomfortable and stereotyping of each other. 

This type of sexism can slyly manifest itself in story telling with a lack of female characters. Thus, a good way to avoid this sexism in your writing is to show men and women working together as equals. 

Another common manifestation of this sexism is normalizing rape. Rape happens and we need to talk about it but think twice about having it as part of a plot line aka entertainment. Yes, you want to make your male villains bad but is this the only way to do it? These scenes not only make rape seem normal, they might even encourage it! Try finding another way to spice up your plot. Please stop dramatizing rape.

More socially acceptable, benevolent sexism is defined this way: benevolent sexism is hostile sexism pretending to be nice. It might involve chivalry, comments about beauty, delicacy, and purity. It sees woman as compliments to men (not equals). However, even this seemingly nice form of sexism can undermine female confidence, autonomy, and options in the world. Consequently, it’s also a nearly invisible social force that perpetuates gender inequality

This type of sexism is much less dependent on social and economic factors and is more a result of up bringing. Educated women in particular are less likely to appreciate benevolent sexism. Ironically, boys learn hostile sexism from those around them while girls learn benevolent sexism from their contemporaries. To counter it as an author, mix up the jobs your characters have, show them sharing parenting duties, and add a non-puritanical sex scene here and there.

Ambivalent sexism sees some women as deserving and others as threats. Women who accept benevolent sexism are often “recruited” by a hostile partner. As long as they fit his expectations, they can be safe and even successful. Ambivalent men see women as something you “can’t live with and can’t live without.”

In the ambivalent world, women might be seen as being superior to men (saintly, caring, long-suffering), or in contrast, as too easily insulted. We see this in the anti-abortion movement. Bad woman are irresponsible and have abortions. Good women do not. 

Sexism is behind male rage and behind the anti-abortion movement. It’s linked to environmental destruction. People who don’t care about mother earth are also likely to not care about women in general. These sexist people win elections in my home state. It’s oppressive, which is why I wrote a dystopian series

Sexism is behind how older women are treated by society with “gendered aging” being one of the worst prejudices around.  Getting older in human society gives women a lot of shame and guilt. Loss of looks means lost social currency and 80% of older women are treated poorly at work. Therefore, a challenge for authors is to write older female characters who are taken seriously, enjoy what they are doing, are relevant, and have self-confidence. Stereotypes to avoid include sagging breasts, being wicked, and being self-sacrificing. Keep in mind that older characters have rich experiences and have had time to process them. 

 How much sexism has filtered in to your everyday? Click on this link to take the ambivalent sexism quiz. 

It’s pretty darn hard to shake sexism out of stories. Having it in there is realistic. Sexist characters are bound to pop up in your fiction. My question for myself is: how do I not make them protagonists? How can I move a plot forward without women being raped, rescued, or kidnapped? How can I show men and women working together and women supporting each other? We’ve got centuries of myths and fairy tales to overcome. I’m not sure I can do it (thanks to internalized misogyny) but I’ve got to try. Are you with me? 

Do you still go to church?

It’s Sunday in my small town. It used to be said that the only traffic jam we had was when people went to church on Sunday mornings. But there’s no traffic jam. There’s barely a car on the road.

Religious affiliation in the U.S. is declining. Churches are left scrambling–what to do with their building? What to do with their remaining people? In a desperate attempt to find new, younger, church members, our state legislature passed a bill to give public school money to parents so they could pay private schools, many with religious affiliations. These people, of course, are Republicans, which gives a big signal as to why some people don’t want to go to church anymore. You might not be a Republican, but you’ll have to deal with them, and here in Iowa, they’ve done enough damage. They are so mad about groups of people who might not be Republicans that they are doing things like underpaying nurses at the U of Iowa hospitals. Some want to ban books and get upset about gender. They might litter their yards with signs connecting Trump with Faith. Here in Pella, many displayed both Trump and the religious private school affiliation. I’m from a religious family but politics sullied religion and Trump made the hypocrisy all too clear.

I went to a church which had a big church fight twenty plus years ago. Why were some people mad? I’m not sure but most turned out to be conservative. One reason cited was the minister saying the church should be more welcoming to gay people. Another item people had a fault with was praying for peace. The angry in the congregation took their money and left. What did this say? Even God couldn’t escape the long fingers of the well-moneyed.

The issue of gay rights is sometimes a turning point. One person I spoke with had friends who came out as gay. They expected the church to come around and lovingly embrace these members. Instead, the church got more conservative. The pastor even compared gay marriage to beastiality in a sermon. It came off as cruel. The person didn’t want to stay silent, couldn’t do it. They left the church and the denomination, moving to a “social justice” church. (According to Pew, affluence and secularism contribute to accepting homosexuality even though gay people aren’t necessarily affluent. It is more a sign of security.)

One person became disenchanted with spiritual dancers in church –seeing them as young girls in nightgowns writhing around sexually in a church which wouldn’t allow gays to perform in any capacity.

Like schools, churches had to adapt to covid. This is when many pastors found out how much misinformation their parishioners absorbed on a constant basis. One pastor had an uphill battle in his request for people to wear masks. The no-masks won. One outspokenly anti-mask octogenarian ended up with covid, spent months in the hospital, and was out in time to attend the minister’s good-bye party–without a mask. Feeling that churches are “too germy” is another reason people avoid going there.

“Churches don’t show love and culturally, the mean aspects of Christianity are taking over. Secular people are nicer,” is one thing I was told when I asked.

Allegedly, “alienation” isn’t the only reason people are leaving churches. Church isn’t the marriage market it used to be. Being home surrounded by technology is considered fun. Others have become comfortable with “caving.Gym membership is also down. Possibly, people are finding that belonging to something that gives you a strong sense of identity in reality, stunts your ability to belong to the human race. This could be due to the authoritarian flair some memberships rely on.

Some simply stop believing. One person told me “it’s hard to take a book that has a talking snake literally.”

I don’t have the answer to this. The internet is filled with stories of people who have lost their faith and gotten it back. However, fewer young parents are raising their kids with religion. The studies show, these kids will be just as moral. Which brings up the question, without some sort of manufactured crisis, will many people even want to use school vouchers for a religious school? I honestly hope not.

Science stories of 2022 Part 2: Mendel’s corpse to Molecules to Star catching

  1. Mendel resurrected. When I read about Gregor Mendel being dug up and his genes sequenced, I considered finding a job as a soothsayer.

In my first and now out of print novel, monks and Mendel play a small role. The novel is set in 1872 a time when the field of biology was exploding with perception changing information. You see, before Czech botanist and friar Gregor Mendel showed that both male and female pea plants contributed equally to the offspring, people thought that the male contributed more. They even thought that a tiny person was inside sperm. Yes, men were the seed and women were the dirt. But Mendel’s experiments contradicted this. Although he didn’t achieve fame during his lifetime, when his studies were found, they supported the popular and controversial theory of evolution. Darwin said that sexual selection and survival determined the fate of a species and that diversity helped a species survive. Mendel showed how the diversity comes about—through sexual selection and genetic recombination. This is one thing people didn’t like about Darwin back in the day. People are equal and diversity is good? It made them feel too guilty about exploitation.

Adding to the connections with my writing, my most recent novel revolved around Isaac Newton being dug up and “reconstituted.”  

Right up my alley, the story about raiding Mendel’s casket for DNA is one of my top stories. The whole article is worth a click, especially if your knowledge genetics history is a little rusty. One interesting finding was that Mendel may have had epilepsy. He carried the genes for it. Mendel was a big guy with a huge brain. Like Newton, he suffered from bouts of “nerves.”  I’m not sure if there is a sexy Mendel novel in my future but his “resurrection” supports the notion that diversity contributes to the survival and richness of a species.

2. Molecule of the year. I admit, I’ve always found fluorine a little scary. Maybe it’s the atomic symbol F. Or the fact that F2 makes bleach look like a baby lotion. Or maybe it’s because no kind of birth control worked for the researcher I knew doing fluoride chemistry. It’s kind of a surprise that F8Cwon a molecule of the year beauty contest. It beat out some new magnetic materials for the prize (of bragging rights.) It can capture electrons so might have a use someday but right now, it’s kind of quirky—a characteristic that attracts chemists like catnip.

3. How cool is fusion? We’ve all seen a fusion reaction. It’s what’s happening on our sun. The lovely, clear light of the stars are also fusion. So, what is it exactly?

It’s a nuclear reaction which right off the bat makes it special. Most day to day chemical reactions are not nuclear reactions. They involve the outside of the atom, the electrons. Electrons make up most of the space of an atom. They are fairly easily removed with energy. Static electricity and its dramatic counter part, lightning, are example of electrons being moved by rubbing, not liking where they are, and shockingly returning to their place around atoms.

We’ve all seen fanciful atomic images where the electrons swirl around in shells or favored paths. Most chemical reactions involve those electrons hopping about or sharing their spaces to make bond. When this happens, the heart of the atom, the nucleus, remains intact. The nucleus is what gives an atom, an element, its identity. When the nucleus is changed, the atom becomes a completely new element. The energy that holds the nucleus together is tremendous and this is released in a nuclear reaction.

Most types of atoms are far too stable, too held together with energy, to do anything like this. Electrons are flighty. They’ll move. Change the nucleus? Most elements say no thanks. I like who I am. Elements in the middle of the periodic table are most likely to refuse to participate in nuclear reactions. Take a look if you want. There’s good old iron right in the center. But iron rusts you might say. It does but rusting is an electron reaction, not a nuclear reaction. It’s more of a hook-up between iron and oxygen than a change in identity for either element. An iron nuclear bomb or reaction would be in the realm of the unbelievable. Also unbelievably devistating.

Nuclear reactions as we know them occur with the extreme elements–the very small or the very large. Fusion squeezes together the smallest of the elements, hydrogen, and makes helium, the last massive inert gas. It takes much less energy to hold together the helium than the two hydrogens. The reaction releases so much energy that of course, we’ve made bombs from the process. They are ignited with a fission bomb. But to make a non-bomb and get the energy out is much more difficult.

Fusion reactors have to essentially put the sun in a jar. The payoff is massive energy that has simple by-products: helium and an energetic neutron. But is it all it’s promoted to be? Atomic scientists have doubts. But this year scientists in California created a non-bomb reaction that made some energy without blowing the container to smithereens. It’s progress towards a clean energy future. Unlike Mendel being dug up, this story was perhaps bigger than it needed to be. But I couldn’t resist giving a lesson in chemistry, and being not too tall, I like it when small things get a big reaction, so thanks for reading!

Science stories 2022 from the quirky to the personal. Part one: private items

Every science journal is rolling out a list of the top science advances of 2022. I’m going to review my favorites.

  1. Male birth control. Humans are a complicated hormonal mixture. Female birth control pills work by mimicking pregnancy hormones and prevent the release of an egg. Giving males hormones has been a bust—the men gain weight, get depressed, and have elevated bad cholesterol. Now, a non-hormonal male pill is on the horizon. It works by messing up vitamin A, which plays a role in cell growth. Apparently, a little damage to Vitamin A sensitive proteins stops sperm production. Congratulations to the University of Minnesota for this pioneering work.  
  2. Being an anti-prude, sex studies top my list and finding out that snakes have clitorises was a breakthrough.  Long standing prejudices against female animals is as old as the Bible. One of these biases is that female animals don’t need to enjoy sex. It was believed that female snakes and birds have “lost” their clitorises in an evolutionary sense.  This lead to the idea that sexual coercion or even rape was natural in the animal world. Finding that female snakes have two clitorises to match the two penises seen in male snakes shows that both male and female snakes evolved together and have mutual attraction. It would be nice to drive a stake through the Mars vs Venus idea and support the many factors, including female choice and pleasure, are at play in sexual selection which has been so successful in promoting diversity in species.
  3. Playing defense. Plan B is not an abortion. No matter how you slice it, some people have been driven mad by the thought that somewhere out there could be a homeless fertilized egg. At last, scientists are getting ahead of the game and releasing what everyone should know, but doesn’t want to. Plan B prevents ovulation. It’s isn’t causing a none of your business abortion.
  4. In another defensive move, American Medical Association called out the Supreme Court.   The AMA and more than two dozen leading medical organizations believe abortion is “safe medical care that is a decision to be made between the patient and the physician, subject to the physician’s clinical judgment, and the patient’s informed consent.” They said the “Supreme Court’s opinion would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine, and potentially criminalizing care.” We all know that invasion of privacy is in the realm of authoritarian dictatorships.  The Supreme Court has been shoved upon us by the Federalists. They are not a scientific organization.
  5. When it comes to health, Iowans are not too savvy. Our covid death rate remained high and our vaccination rate was low compared to many other states.
  6. Cooking and cleaning are bad for you. These activities release airborne toxins. Frying is particularly dangerous, which makes me feel better about my short stint (was it one month or two?) as a fry cook when young. This might seem like bad news but hey, give yourself permission to skip the New Years scrubbing and frying and enjoy yourself!
  7. Feminine hygiene and hair products demystified. The life expectancy for US women is decreasing. There are many theories as to why but one thing is true—female products & their chemical content haven’t been carefully studied. One example of this is hair products, used for decades. These have been found to be a culprit in inducing some breast cancers.Another long-used product category finally getting some attention is period products. A vagina is a sensitive area as you probably know. It’s highly permeable. This means, what goes in is bound to have an effect both locally and on the reproductive system as a whole. You might think these female hygiene items are simply natural cotton but they contain thin layers of plastic  (which can release microplastics) and sometimes dyes and colorants. Some such as cups are plastic and might be dyed. Many of these are not proven to be safe. Neither of these studies were new in 2022, I wrote about one here but they are finally getting attention. This year.  the state of New York has ruled that the composition of period products must be put on labels. With increased scrutiny, manufacturers might be more careful about the health effects of their products. Now, consumers can make choices which are more informed.