Love and Courage

Today is Michaelmas. My daughter’s school holds a celebration of Michaelmas every year with a play to celebrate the victory of the heavenly host over Lucifer (God’s apparently a delegator) and a picnic to celebrate the harvest. The play is always adorable with the 7th grade playing the part of Lucifer in the person of a giant dragon who ravages the village, much to the consternation of the 4th grade villagers. The play emphasizes that love and courage overcome evil better than might.

While on the 45-minute drive to the school, I thought about love and courage and faith. I was raised a Catholic. The thing I love the most about Catholicism is the amount of ritual. If you go to Mass, there’s going to be standing, sitting, kneeling, talking, singing, eating, drinking. And there’s the best part – the kiss of peace. You turn to the people around you and say “Peace be with you.”

While I was saying those words and shaking hands and kissing people on the cheek, I meant them. I loved those people. I completely forgot that this one had cut me off in the parking lot, or that one had spoken sharply to me or another one owed me five dollars I wasn’t going to see anytime soon. In that moment, I truly loved them and wished them peace.

Later, I became Buddhist. Let me clear something up for you: there’s nothing in Buddhist doctrine or in Catholic doctrine that says you can’t be both. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a god, nor do Buddhists worship him in the same way that Christians worship God. The big difference is that, while Catholics filter their experience of God through priests and other church hierarchy who put a lot of rules in place, Buddha encouraged his followers to believe only what they could prove to themselves. Catholics have ten commandments and a million other rules, but Buddhists only have one rule: every action has consequences.

If you open your hand and drop something, whether you’re the president or a prostitute, whether you’re a stockbroker or a stock clerk, it’s going to fall. There’s no judgement involved.

Being Buddhist has meant that I now spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of my actions, but nobody is good at that 100% of the time, and every time I make a poor choice and experience negative consequences, I feel like a failure. And, like everyone else, I’m hungry for success. Humans are all hungry. We’re hungry for love, hungry for money, hungry for approval. Starving for it.

Here’s where love and courage come into it: you can’t feed yourself. No amount of staring into the mirror and saying “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” is ever going to fill that hole of doubt inside you. But you can feed other people. Everyone around you is as starving as you are, and the easiest thing in the world is to feed them. You feed them by actually listening when people talk. By paying strangers compliments. By smiling at people. By asking someone who looks upset if they’re okay.

The flip side of only being able to feed others is that when others feed you, you have to open yourself up to the nourishment they’re offering. When someone smiles at you, feel the goodwill they’re giving you. When they compliment you, don’t just say “thank you,” but really feel grateful. When someone offers you that kiss of peace, kiss them back.

Happy Michaelmas, everyone.

The Loss of a Close Friend

On Thursday when I left the house to pick my daughter up from school, I couldn’t find my iPod. I’d had it in the car the night before, but now I couldn’t lay hands to it. I couldn’t find it again when she and I left to go to karate. I came home and looked in my briefcase, my purse, my other purse, my backpack. I looked in the foot wells of the car, in the trunk, under the seats. I looked in that place in the kitchen where all the junk seems to accumulate, on the nightstand next to my bed, in the mess of books on the floor in front of the nightstand. I cleaned the desk in my office. I cleaned the stuff off the couch. I cleaned the stuff off the other couch.

Don’t get me wrong – my house is neither so big nor so messy that a thing as big as an iPod goes missing often. Yeah, I know that an iPod is only about the size of a deck of cards, but do you think that if you left a deck of cards somewhere in your house, you might never find it?

I looked in the onion bin, the potato drawer, the fridge, the silverware drawer, and the drawer in the pantry where we keep screws, tape, hooks, hinges and bits of string. I’ve looked under things, behind things, in things, between things.

In the meantime, I’ve got two audiobooks that I have to hear to prepare for an interview. There are a few podcasts I follow that I now miss. I’ve got a half-dozen audiobooks that I’m reading for non-school purposes. And then there’s the music. If I were stranded on a desert island, I could listen to music continuously for 20.4 days without hearing a duplicate. I’ve got 4.5 days of television shows (nearly all animation), and a whopping 138 days of books. Just over FIVE MONTHS of content.

I didn’t realize how much I depended on my iPod. Because I’m always reading a paper book while reading an ebook while listening to an audio book. Because I’m hooked on Lexicon Valley and SuperEgo and Judge John Hodgman. Because I am like the rest of the world in that I like to clean while listening to music. Because when I’m on a plane and I can’t write anymore, I can always watch more Clone Wars. Or re-watch.

I know from the painful and tragic experience of a family friend that you have to wait 7 years after someone’s disappearance to have them declared dead. How long should one wait before declaring a beloved life partner lost? Would I betray my old friend if I went out and picked up someone new and shiny? How stupid will I feel if I buy a new iPod and come home and the next time I sit on the couch, there it is, under my left butt cheek? In the meantime, I’m dragging my entire laptop around with me so that I can keep up with my schoolwork.

Lord knows what I’ll do when I mislay that.

UPDATE: Not 30 minutes after posting this, I found my iPod. It’s a 160Gb iPod classic in a thick silicone skin (I drop it a lot). The silicone means that not only does it not break when I drop it, but it sticks to things (like the time it stayed on the roof of my car during 48 hours and 100+ miles of driving). It had fallen between the mattress and footboard of my bed (it’s a big sleigh bed) and stuck there. Until I pulled all the linens off the bed and jiggled the mattress around. I knew that if I just bitched loudly enough about it being lost, it would hear me and get itself found again. This iPod and I, we’re like Sauron and the One Ring.

What Money Gets You

In the past two years, I’ve heard “the rich” vilified. In the past six months, I’ve heard how “the rich” are coddled and catered to. In the past two days I’ve heard how “the rich” are uninteresting and nobody likes them.

Talk about “the rich” is beginning to take on the characteristics of bigotry. Merriam-Webster, would you do the honors? “Bigotry is the state of mind of a bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group…with hatred and intolerance.” Thank you, Merry. Buy you a drink later.

I get that the gap between rich and poor is escalating in this country. A high school diploma is no longer enough to guarantee you a factory job that you can keep for life and pays a wage that will allow you as a single earner to buy a house and send your children to college. But the cost of college has already escalated out of reach of most people, so those who want to use higher education as a ticket to the middle class dream have to first put themselves in debt, so that even after they’ve graduated and are working better-paying jobs, they’re still starting out in the negative.

But who are these uninteresting, coddled, predatory rich people that everyone hates? Are they the people on shows like the Real Housewives franchises? Are they the folks that millions of people watch, read about, whose products they buy, whose lives they support? If that’s what the bigots are talking about, what they hate, I understand that completely. Watching people do nothing but consume is supremely uninteresting and panders to all the wrong instincts in people – a desire to be like them in their grossly unnecessary levels of consumption.

But I’m lucky enough to know some folks who have made a lot of money because they’re smart. They think about problems and come up with interesting solutions and then work to make those solutions available to other people. That’s the hard part. It’s easy to solve your own problems, but other people don’t always know what they want or want contradictory things.

Talking with people who made their money making stuff is fascinating. When your ability to solve problems isn’t limited by the money it takes to build the solutions, you can think big, crazy, fantastic. And they do. Big, crazy, fantastic ideas that become the Segway, antibiotics, pants.

So before you go badmouthing the rich, think about whom you’re disparaging. If it’s one of the larvae that clog the television, chewing their way through the retail forest with their platinum card teeth, I’m down. Consumerism is supremely uninteresting. If you are attempting to distinguish yourself by what you buy, you are doomed to fail. But if you’re badmouthing those people who are out there thinking about the next great thing they’re going to build, you’re missing out.

What Time Gets You

I like to be clean, so every day I go into my bathroom, and I have a choice to make. Do I take a shower or a leisurely bath? If I have to be somewhere soon, I take a shower. If I have nowhere to be and nothing else to do, I might indulge myself in a bath. No one is allowed to disturb me in the bath (unless they’re bringing in champagne – that’s always allowed), and I normally stay in until I wake up because the water has gone cold and my fingers are so pruney they hurt. A bath isn’t something I can rush through. I can’t even start the water running unless I know I have a good long time.

I just got the latest round of comments back on the manuscript I’m working on. My mentor loves the premise, loves the characters, but thinks that I need to get further into the characters. His comment was that the changes I had made to my manuscript were “workmanlike.” I have to admit. That stung. On the other hand, he loves the story so much that he couldn’t keep himself from rewriting big chunks of it – he said he couldn’t resist. What he suggested was that I take a bath in my manuscript. Give myself the time to get all the way into it, so that I can inhabit the characters, play with them, live inside their skins and let them have their own reactions rather than the reactions I’m writing for them.

It turns out my mentor lives alone. His time is his own to dispose of however he chooses, so when he says “it may take you 8 hours to get the first page right,” he doesn’t necessarily realize that I do not have 8 hours in a row to devote to this ever. Between driving the kid to school, laundry, watering the garden, taking the dogs out to pee every hour or so, there is no such thing as 3 uninterrupted hours, forget 8. I would love to be able to say that I’m sitting my office turning out my masterpiece and my husband and child keep coming into my inner sanctum and disturbing me, but that’s not the case. It’s usually me going out into the rest of the house and demanding kisses or tea or a bite of whatever they’re eating.

Virginia Woolf posited that for women to write fiction they needed money and a room of their own. I have both, but what I don’t have is the conviction that it is right for me to use them. So, it’s not a lack of time or talent that’s keeping me from my literary goals. It’s will.

The Anti-Social Network

Today, I told Facebook that I couldn’t play with it anymore. Not anymore ever again, but it’s been getting more of my attention than it should, and I’m a student with a lot of homework to do.

But what do I do with all that stuff that crossed my mind that I didn’t stick on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else? I thought I’d put it here, in one giant list, just so that you know that I’m still thinking, even when I’m not compulsively posting it and then compulsively checking to see if anyone “liked” it.

In no particular order, my random thoughts: 

  • I finally figured out why my pedometer keeps showing me working out vigorously at ~7:50 every day. It’s because at ~7:50 every day, I am on a particularly bumpy, pitted and frightening piece of road driving my kid to school. I’ll take it, though. Keeping the damn car on the road is hard work, especially when I haven’t had a cocktail in at least 12 hours.
  • Ontologist: a medical specialist in ontology, specifically in curing it. I envision them sort of like the Guild of Assassins in Pratchett’s Discworld.
  • You know what power smells like? The mushroom funk of money? No. Money has no smell – not anymore. Money is now a plastic card plugged into a convenient fiction. The bordello whiff of perfume with its undertones of crotch and armpit? No. Sex doesn’t have the power you think it does, even if you can thread it in one orifice and out another and do it all day for a week at a time. Once people are sated, they’re just as treacherous as ever. No, power smells like urine. You make someone piss themselves and you’ve got them forever. They’ll never forget it, and neither will you.
  • Is “mimetic verisimilitude” redundant?

By the way, I cheated. I know I said I was staying away from Facebook, but I just had to peek. It’s very strange, peeking at people who know that they’re being looked at, just not by you. Everyone’s looking at each other, trying to catch one another’s eyes and positioning themselves so that the other people in the virtual room can see them to their best advantage. Meanwhile from the outside everyone looks a little alone, a little vulnerable. I closed the door very quietly and went away for a good cry at the beauty and sweetness of it all.

To Tell the Truth

When we talk about writing, one of the most basic dichotomies is “fiction” and “nonfiction.” We tend to think of “fiction” as things that somebody made up, and “nonfiction” as things that happened and are being reported on.

Except that it’s just not that easy.

Let’s say that you go to a sporting event in a big, crowded stadium. The game is over, and as you’re going to your car, two guys in front of you get into a fight. There is scuffling, punching, blood flies. After a few moments, the two men separate and go to their own cars, each throwing hostile glances over his shoulder at the other guy. What can you say about that? You can report the facts (and by “facts,” in this case, I mean “scenario I made up out of whole cloth”). The problem is that each of those guys will come to you and say “That’s not what happened,” and will then explain to you that the other guy spent the entire game winding him up, insulting his team, insulting his wife, his mother, his choice of beers and then, as they were leaving, the other guy started it.

Do you put that into your story? If you choose not to, can you still call your story “nonfiction,” since you’ve chosen to leave out pertinent facts? If you find out that one guy has a long record of convictions for assault and the other guy recently went off his lithium, do you put that in? How about if one participant was Chinese and the other Argentinian? Or that one was 75 years old and the other on crutches? Do you even know if that had any bearing?

The point is that even newspaper reporting, the gold standard of “just the facts” writing, is skewed toward a certain point of view. The reporter chooses from the available, verifiable facts only those that seem most pertinent to the story and leaves the rest out, no matter how much the rest might mean to something like a criminal investigation or a civil lawsuit.

But where nonfiction is concerned with taking all of the available details about a situation and picking and choosing among them to craft a certain kind of story, fiction writers have exactly the opposite job. They start from the story and pick and choose what details to add to support it. This is where verisimilitude becomes critical. Verisimilitude means that a literary work depicts something real, something believable. To Kill a Mockingbird has verisimilitude. The Story of Babar does not.

Verisimilitude is different than the truth, because, to quote the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.” So if you depict Leonardo da Vinci leading a robot army, no one will believe you, despite drawings he made of both armored tanks AND robotic knights. If you portray American cowboys calling police “pigs,” no one will believe you despite the fact that the use of the word “pig” to describe police dates back to the 19th century.

If, as fiction writers, we want to talk about something that actually happened, but “fictionalize” it, that is to say make it seem like something that happened in a different place at a different time to different people so that we don’t get sued or socially shunned or beat up, we have to double back on the whole “make the scene up from scratch” scenario. We have to take a real event, take out telling details of one kind (and we decide what kind that is), and leave in details of some other kind. But then we have to replace the stuff we took out with stuff that we make up, and we have to make sure that the stuff we put back in keeps the story the same. That’s where it gets so, so tricky.

I want to talk about my best friend who skinned her knee roller skating when we were 9, but do I leave in the roller skates or the fact that we’d ditched school to do it and she couldn’t go back to school with a bloody knee, or that her dad beat her for ditching school and never let her come to my house again? (And no, that never happened either.) What do I take out and what do I leave in to create the same story of risk and error and loss without putting either myself or my former friend at risk?

These are the really hard choices we make as writers, and every time I find myself in this situation, I always have to ask myself “why does this matter”? If what matters is that I feel I was unfairly scapegoated as a child, then I can tell that story any number of ways. If what matters is that my friend’s father was an abuser whose only punishment for any infraction was a beating, that’s a different problem to solve.

At the end of the day, it’s down to the individual writer to decide what they’re writing. How much do you want to massage the facts of an event you witnessed and are presenting as the truth? How much do you want to stick to believability when you talk about a fictional meeting between two famous people? How much do you want to protect the people you know in real life when you’re putting them into a story that may or may not have ever happened?