Friday, July 29, 2011

Rechecking the Sheep.

An artist and a scientist are walking along a country road. The artist stops by a field and exclaims, “Look at those beautiful white sheep grazing in the meadow!”
“You think so?” the scientist asks.
The artist is astonished. “You don’t think they are beautiful?”
“Well, they could be beautiful,” the scientist concedes. “I just don’t know if they’re all white.”
The artist studies the sheep, then says firmly, ”They’re all white.”
“No,” the scientist points out, “they’re all white on this side.”
Imagine a proof scale: 0 for leprechauns/eternal youth; 10 for death/taxes. Now think about where on the proof scale a concept must score before you believe in it. As far as I know, my ancestors never set foot in Missouri, but at heart, I’m a Missourian through and through. Before I trust that something is true, I must have personal experience or significant proof.

While the proof scale serves us well for empirically evaluated things like electricity and pound cake, it is all but useless when it comes to people. We are not perfect, or even consistent. People have even been known to obfuscate and outright lie for personal gain. And yet the urge to trust people is irresistible. We depend on each other for survival. The entire world suffers from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, our psyches split between the desire to trust and the fear of trusting too much.

The other day at the library, a man who appeared to be a good and nurturing father in all other respects (though he could have been a sadistic monster for all I knew) left me in charge of his disabled eleven year old foster son while he went out to his car to get his wallet. He trusted me for a score of 2 on the proof scale: older woman (1) who appeared to work at the library (1). Maybe a 3 if he knew internet volunteers must be vetted by the police. But he couldn’t have known I spent twenty years out of the country. I might have been a raging pedophile in the Netherlands, or even better India, which is where pedophiles go on sex vacations. Hell, I could have been one here in Canada who just hadn’t been caught yet. I’m not, of course, and spent my twenty minutes of custodial duty listening to obscure facts about Willie Wonka and Oompa Loompas while the boy, as open and trusting as his hero Charlie, surfed google images looking for the perfect picture of the Golden Ticket.

Most of us need a higher proof score than 2 or 3. We tippy-toe toward trust, sharing harmless personal tidbits about ourselves, weighing those we receive in return, keeping an ear out for rumor and gossip. Personally, I won’t offer trust for any score less than 9, and I award proof points grudgingly. You’re a heavily decorated war hero turned fireman who regularly risks your life running into burning buildings to rescue puppies? Maybe half a point - if I heard it from a reliable source.

Because I award proof points so sparingly, I am always shocked to learn my trust has been misplaced.

When I decided to try selling my book to a publisher, I had no idea how to go about it. Reluctantly, as anyone who has read my diatribes can attest, I turned to the internet. It took weeks of searching, evaluating, comparing, to find the voices I felt might be trustworthy. Then I spent more weeks reading through their blogs, winnowing out the overly optimistic. I like my advisors to be realists, willing call a spade a spade. Eventually, I settled on four agents and followed their advice slavishly, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. Their advice was sound and it worked.

Earlier this week, one of my publishing gods announced on their blog that their agency had opened an e-publishing branch. This is a pretty hot topic in publishing circles nowadays. Within minutes, the comments section filled with horrified exclamations about conflict of interest and accusations of scamming hopeful writers. I was incensed by this. How could they accuse this agent - this pillar of integrity whose sound advice had set the feet of so many writers, including this one's, firmly on the publishing path - of being a scammer?  I hopped over to the new e-publishing site, determined to collect ammunition that would prove those sniveling, ungrateful whiners wrong.

But I couldn’t, because the dismal list of services offered in exchange for a share of the profits are obtainable elsewhere, either for free or at a reasonable onetime cost. I know this because my writing buddy JR, whose techie chops were just above those of a banana slug when he got started, recently used them to e-publish his book. Devastated, I returned to the comments and read through my former hero’s feeble attempts to stem the tide of outrage, hoping to find some spark of honest explanation.  I found a lot of double-speak and yak-around, the same stuff that drove me out of corporate America into early retirement.

Here’s the saddest thing for me. This agency really does have something worthwhile to offer as a publisher: their nose for a good book. The list of clients they have helped find success in traditional publishing is long. Any book vetted by their agents is probably worth buying for those who enjoy reading in the genres they represent. If they had stuck with that, I’d have awarded them yet another proof point for honesty.  Instead, they chose to sound like every other scammer in the literary marketplace and I am reluctantly deducting  5 proof points from their score.

Times change.  Common wisdom becomes folly. Our circumstances, our needs, our goals, have all the permanence of those funky bubbles we blew through plastic rings when we were kids. So now I’m out in meadow, walking around all my other sheep, checking to see if they are still white on the other side.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

PTSD – The Writer’s Friend

I’m crap at parties. It’s not that I don’t like people. Most of them are quite nice. Some of them are downright lovely. There are a few who… well, this isn’t a rant, so let’s just ignore those guys.
The party problem lies - as all my problems do - in me. I don’t make a good first impression. No matter how hard I try to retain names, they evaporate from memory as soon as I hear them. My small talk is nonexistent and my large talk tends to be embarrassingly unedited. I have a loud, raucous laugh – my American co-workers used to call me the Canada goose – and a distressing habit of gesturing expansively when I talk, sloshing anyone brave enough to engage me in conversation with red wine, since Merlot is my grape of choice. As a result, I prefer to hug the wall in a large group of people and deflect attention by studying the books on my host’s shelves.
Given these social deficits, holding a launch party for SISTERS OF THE SARI seemed like a really bad idea, especially since such gatherings are usually held in bookshops, giving me plenty of attention deflecting material to work with. But I reckoned without Velma, who rings the little dingers at the high end of the table in my hand bell group.
Velma is one of those people who thrives at parties. She has a great sense of humor, always says the right thing in the right way and is admirably tidy when it comes to holding her liquor, at least in the literal sense. Due to her enviable social talents, Velma knows just about everyone in town, including Anne and Dave who run TITLES, our local independent bookstore.
A while ago I got an email from Anne, saying Velma had dropped by TITLES and they would be delighted to host my book launch. It would have been churlish of me to refuse their hospitality.  (Churlish is a wonderful word, isn’t it? It’s from the Old English ceorl which meant free man.  Presumably, back then, free men were quite rude.) Accepting the inevitable, I cruised the internet for book launching advice and was happy to learn that unless the event is for a mega author like J.K. Rowling, most book launches are attended by family and friends at best. I don’t know many people here in town and those I do know had already read the book. Figuring I could handle the two or three people who showed up, I donned my spiffy new, and empoweringly purple, author’s outfit and headed out to the bookstore last Wednesday evening, heartened by the heat and humidity, which did terrible things to my hair but was likely to discourage increased attendance.
The first person to arrive was a man I didn’t know. Fortunately his name was Adam, easy to remember because he was the first man. We chatted, while I defaced the title page of his book with my signature. When Adam moved on, I found myself facing two more people I’d never seen before. So much for internet wisdom. I managed to remember their names long enough to deface their books as well.
The store filled rapidly. The cash register chinged constantly as Dave and Anne rang up sales. Joe, their assistant, scurried to set out more chairs for the reading.  Anne’s sister Lynne manned the drinks table, lubricating the noise level in the room with wine until the walls seemed to vibrate around me. I signed books until my hand muscles, sadly out of shape since the invention of the keyboard, began to cramp and the letters of my name blurred into illegible nonsense.
While resting my hand, I looked around the room and realized I’d seriously underestimated the number of people I know in this town. Yes, there were a handful of strangers like Adam, who had bought the book a few days before and enjoyed it enough to want it autographed, but for the most part, the room was filled with faces I could already assign names to. The biggest contingent of familiar faces came from the library where I volunteer. The librarians were out in force, as were some of my regular interneters. The local writers’ group was well represented, and a few of my fellow hand bell ringers dotted the room. This did not bode well for the reading portion of the evening’s entertainment. It’s one thing to embarrass yourself in front of people you’ll never see again, totally another to tank in the presence of those who will have to spend the next several weeks avoiding the topic of your most embarrassing moment.
When I ran out of books to deface, I looked around the room again and noted it was almost empty. Great!  Everyone was leaving and I wouldn’t have to do a reading after all. If there’s one thing I dread more than parties, it’s public speaking. I’m not alone in this. Apparently, public speaking tops death on the list of things people fear. I headed over to the drinks table, intent on finishing whatever still remained in the wine bottles before the last stragglers drained them completely. 
But no one had actually left. They’d just moved to the back of the room to claim their seats for the reading. I began having vivid, PTSD style flashbacks of my one public speaking fiasco from high school. Putting down the Beaujolais bottle, I trudged to the back of the room and certain doom.
Anne coerced Velma into introducing me, which pleased me in a serves-her-right kind of way. This whole thing was Velma’s fault and I liked the idea of her having a share in the suffering. Unfortunately, it turned out that among her many social accomplishments, Velma has a natural talent for extemporaneous public speaking, making her a tough act to follow.
For all the bad press PTSD gets these days, it has one redeeming quality: memory suppression. I remember walking toward the lectern. Then there’s a static-y period where it felt as though centipedes were holding a convention in my stomach. The next thing I remember clearly is reclaiming my abandoned bottle of Beaujolais and slugging back two quick ones to kill the last of the centipedes.   
As people were leaving, they told me they enjoyed the reading. Now, as I said before, most people are quite nice, so it’s possible they were just being polite. But since I had no coherent memory of the event myself, I chose to believe them and went home happy in the knowledge I won’t be avoiding my friends for the next few weeks. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011


If you are looking for ways to perk up a dull afternoon, allow me to suggest a new game I recently invented called Crone-Tipping.

How to play:
Approach an old lady on the street and say “Hey! I saw you.”
·         5 points if she makes a noise that can be characterized as a squeak, shriek, squeal or includes the word “police”
·         10 points if she darts out into traffic to escape from you
·         -10 points if she whacks you with her cane or shoves her walker into your groin
·         50 points – the score that inspired the name of the game - if she keels over in shock
Tips to maximize your score:
·         Display all your perforations and/or tattoos
·         Get as close to her as possible and delay your move to lull her into a false sense of security and maximize the startle effect
·         If possible, wait until she is performing some embarrassing act

The game is based on the human female Lookcycle, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time. Jungians believe the Lookcycle has its roots in the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone that permeate mythology in all cultures. In a recent and unscientific study, I have produced the following definitive list of Lookcyle attributes that can be used by Crone Tippers to identify appropriate victims subjects.

Phase I, also known as the Look-at-me phase is characterized by the following identifiers:
·         Tight clothing in one or more of the following categories: miniskirts, tube tops, halter tops, short shorts
·         Midriff baring
·         Teetering when observed in conjunction with high heels
·         Unusual makeup such as green eye shadow, black lipstick, black nail varnish
Women in the Look-at-me phase, although excellent subjects for the ever-popular evening game of Pick-up, cannot be tipped.

Phase II, also known as the Don’t-look-at-me-too-closely phase, can be assessed by traits such as:
·         Camouflage clothing like scarves, tailored slacks, loose-fitting tops
·         Restrained makeup in natural colors
·         Crow’s feet, sometimes hidden by designer glasses with ornate frames
·         Dyed hair exhibiting no more than 1/8 inch of roots, usually arranged in a tidy and practical manner.
Women in the Don’t-look-at-me-too-closely phase are not suitable for any game and should be avoided as they may assume you are initiating a game of Pick-up. Extricating yourself from the situation could prove difficult.

Phase III, also known as the What-the-heck-no-one-is-looking phase, is the Crone-Tipper’s target demographic. This phase is defined by the following characteristics:
·         Saggy, body-obscuring clothing in dull or mismatched colors
·         Facial characteristics such as: wrinkles, wattles, jowls, liver spots
·         Teetering when observed in conjunction with orthopedic shoes.
·         Grey, white or improbably colored hair showing grey roots.

Women in the What-the-heck-no-one-is-looking phase are difficult to spot because the human eye slides over them. They are downers, visible reminders of what is to come for younger generations. Your mind edits them out of awareness and who can blame it? Hell, I don’t want to see them either, and I’m one of them.

Pseudo-invisibility gives us phase III’ers a sense of safety and freedom.

We no longer bother to avoid the awkwardness and hassle of construction sites. Hell, we could walk right through them without raising an eyebrow, let alone a wolf-whistle. (A few years ago in Amsterdam, I got a little drunk and stumbled into the red light district around 11 PM one night. I stumbled out an hour or so later completely unscathed after walking along some of the darkest alleyways in the seediest part of town. Not even the drug-dealers approached me.)

We sometimes wear the same outfit two or three days in a row, confident that even if someone became aware of our sartorial carelessness, they would not assume we’d had a night of wild sex with a guy we met in a bar and didn’t get home to change clothes. What self-respecting guy would be caught dead talking to an old lady in a bar?

We no longer worry about bad hair days. We have bad hair decades. We could style our hair with pinking shears and it wouldn’t make the slightest impression on passersby.

This is why, when you initiate a game of Crone-Tipping, you score points. We crones are so accustomed to being ignored, we are shocked when someone not only sees us, but actually talks to us.

How did I come to invent this game? Well, just after lunch one day last week, I was standing on a corner downtown, waiting for the light to change and attempting to extricate an errant parsley flake from between my teeth. A shirtless young man with a perforated chest and the tell-tale scent of a midday toke was also waiting for the lights to change. We stood side by side in silence for almost a minute, then he suddenly leaned toward me and exclaimed “Hey! I saw you!” He scored five points. He’d have scored fifteen, but the light changed just as I leaped off the curb to get away from him, nullifying the traffic points. He apologized very nicely for scaring me, and explained he’d seen my picture on a poster. (No, not that kind of poster. This one is an advertisement for the local launch of my book next week.)  

So that’s how I invented the game of Crone-Tipping and why I’m temporarily relegated back to Phase II of the Lookcycle.  

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Fancy Yourself Creative?

Me too. I have some bad news for us.
I recently read an article on the creative process. Until I read this article, I thought creativity was a good thing, but it appears there is a very fine line between Bren-the-imaginative-eccentric and Bren-the-flat-out-fruitcake.
Behavior is determined by a combination of sensory input and memory. We take in information, compare it with our previous experience and perform actions based on the results. At any given moment, there is an enormous amount of information coming in over the sensory channels, most of which is unimportant. I doubt the ivy patterned wallpaper in my kitchen, the chirpy bird in the apple tree, the hardness of the chair I’m sitting on, or the smell of my breakfast pizza crusts will in any way improve this essay. Similarly, the bulk of my memories are not useful right now. I don’t have to know where I put the snow shovel for at least another four months.
To prevent mental overload, nature has provided us with latent inhibition - the ability to filter out familiar input and unimportant memories and concentrate on behavior appropriate to the current situation. This has incredible survival value. When I encounter a large, hairy animal in the back yard, I want to do a quick flick through the zoological database in my brain, not feel the grass between my toes and remember that night I got drunk in Algiers.
Scientists have made a correlation between cognitive disinhibition, a reduced ability to filter out the unimportant, and creativity, theorizing that it’s the off-the-wall recombination of input which occasionally produces new ideas. E=MC2, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, Star Wars, all fabulous results of cognitive disinhibition.
However, all this good stuff comes at a price. Reality recedes along with latent inhibition. Schizophrenics also score highly on cognitive disinhibition tests. The more strange spaghetti you throw against your mental walls, the weirder your inner décor gets.  
The other morning I was walking into town for my shift at the library, thinking about the conflict between two characters in the next novel, imagining their dialogue.
He: Paranormal stuff is bullshit.
She: Fine. Come up with an explanation you like better.
 He: You’re involved in this somehow. Revenge?
 She: Well of course. That makes so much more sense. I burned down a clinic in Mexico and murdered four innocent women to pay back a twenty year old grudge against a woman with a brain tumor.
A bevy of older women who were power-walking toward me stopped suddenly, then scurried across the street. Apparently, if I throw enough spaghetti at my mental wall, my charming little habit of talking to myself when I’m alone devolves into a public argument with my other head.
Given the precarious nature of my sanity, I’m now wondering if novelist was a wise choice for a second career.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fifteen Minutes

“In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”  – Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)
Last week, I had my first public appearance, a book signing at Costco. Appearance may be too strong a word here. Most of the customers seemed embarrassed by my presence, looking quickly away when I smiled at them, edging their carts around my table as though the pile of books surrounding me were nuclear waste. On one side of my table, a stack of picture frames depleted rapidly. Apparently, the good citizens of this suburb of Toronto were in desperate need of wall decoration. On the other side, a man gave demonstrations of nonstick cookware. I envied him his license to attract attention by performance. I had nothing more to sell than my signature and sat there with stiffening cheeks - at both ends - for the longest two hours of my life.
Two days later, during my coffee break at the library, I had a chat with Jason, the intense, energetic young man who works behind the counter at the library café. He was more intense than usual that day, excited about the upcoming performance of the Dream Players, a group of physically and mentally challenged people who put on a show every year. Jason had worked with the group as a volunteer over the winter, helping them write and choreograph a musical. To support him, I hauled friend Wen out to see the show the next night.
We were blown away by the performers. They loved being on stage. They sang their songs (not always on key) and danced their dances (as best they could) and performed their skits (with assistance from offstage prompters), soaking up attention from the audience and beaming it back out at us somehow intensified. As the show progressed, their joy infused the room with emotions much stronger than appreciation of art or talent. What we felt was admiration for their determination, amazement at what they had achieved, awe at the power of the human spirit to overcome limitations and realize a dream.  We whistled and shouted and clapped. We gave them a standing ovation at the end of the show, partly to reward their efforts, but mostly to bask a little longer in their moment of triumph.
I think, deep down, we all want our fifteen minutes in the spotlight, to perceive the value of our achievements through the eyes of others.
Sitting at that table in Costco, I felt like an unwelcome intrusion, an obstacle in the aisle between house wares and groceries to be navigated around with annoyance. This is not the reward I envisioned for the two years of effort I put into achieving my fifteen minutes.
Sitting in the audience watching the Dream Players, I felt like a willing contributor to an experience greater than the sum of its parts. I felt this so strongly, I’m applying for a volunteer position with the Dream Players this fall when Jason leaves for Toronto to work on his master’s degree. Next year, I hope to take my bow, like the one Jason took, at the end of the show. That’s the fifteen minutes I really want.