Who Am I, Again?

As I walk down Highway 9, I can smell the wet-redwood smell and hear the tinkle of the rivulets from the recent rain forming tiny streams that will trickle into the San Lorenzo River all of 20 yards away across the street. I feel awkward, unsteady on my feet, but otherwise fine.

I’m  just passing the laundrette when a car with two people comes toward me from the south. The car pulls in, blocking the parking spots in front of the laundrette, and the driver, a woman in her 50s, smiles at me. Her passenger, a small man with a mustache, doesn’t look at me.

“You’ve been out long enough. It’s time for you to come back.”

I freeze. I don’t know this woman. I’ve never seen her before. I turn and run back the way I came. The woman has gotten out of the car, as though she meant to open a door for me or something, so she has to get back in and start the car back up. I run straight up the street, stumbling over redwood roots and clumps of foliage since there’s no sidewalk. Dashing across the street, I run down the driveway of a house set back from the pavement. The driveway slopes steeply downhill for about 50 feet and the entrance is partially obscured by redwoods, so I hope that the woman didn’t see me.

The morning overcast, compounded by the shade from the redwoods overhead, mean that the house is in shadows except for the kitchen. Through the open door, I can see a man at the table with a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I don’t bother knocking.

“Help me!” I shout as I run across the threshhold and stop myself against the table. “There’s a woman chasing me! I’m afraid of her! Please, you have to help me!”

Cliff put his paper down. He was thin and slight, with a fringe of thin white hair that went from one ear to the other around the back of his head, set off by a deeply-tanned dome up top. He wore a vest and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and had half-moon reading glasses perched at the end of his nose.

He looked across the table at the woman who had just burst into the kitchen. She was in her late 30s, maybe. Fit-looking, long, curling brown hair hanging lose around her shoulders, a face that would be attractive if it weren’t drawn with worry. She was screaming that someone was chasing her. He’d been expecting it. He put the paper down in front of him, exposing the photo of the same woman, taken at a time when she hadn’t felt under threat. I thought she looked pretty, but he didn’t care for her kind of looks. He was all eyes for his wife. I have a weakness for men who are in love with their wives.

Herb came in from the garage. He had heard the commotion and came to see what it was, and he stood in the doorway looking from Cliff to the woman, back to Cliff again.

When the second man comes in from another room, I feel like I have to start over in my story, although I haven’t really said anything. I can’t talk to the guy at the table because, in some ridiculous way, he reminds me of a shoemaker. The second one is fatter, with black, curly hair. The pink of his cheeks make him seem a little friendlier than the dour shoemaker.

“Help me. There’s a woman. She stopped her car in front of me and told me to get in. I’ve never seen her before,” I’m trying to create some kind of flow, some list of the facts that will make these two men understand why what just happened terrifies me, although the longer I stand in this cheerfully-lit kitchen in front of two men with quiet expectation on their faces, the less sure I am about why I was so scared.

“Who was she?” the shoemaker asks.

“I don’t know.”

“What kind of car was she driving?”

“A light tan sedan with white interior, but an older one.”

“Was she alone?”

“No, there was a man in the car with her.”

None of their questions sounds like they don’t believe me. They both look friendly and interested. I think if they thought I was crazy, they would look different, but I’m not sure how. I open my mouth to say something else, but I have no idea what else there is to say.

“I. I. I don’t think I’m … human.”  I didn’t expect to say that. And still the men don’t look skeptical or condescending or even surprised.

Cliff pushed a button under the table. The bookshelf behind the kitchen table slid back to reveal a hidden niche with a phone in it. He picked up the phone and pushed its only button. “Gary? She’s here.”

Herb brought her a cup of tea and took her into the living room. He told her to take a seat on the sofa, handing her the tea once she was comfortable. He kept up a steady stream of soothing words, and none of them sounded like the kind of words one uses to keep a lunatic calm. They were more like the kind of words that one uses to reassure fellow combatants just before a battle.

“We’ll get through this. Help is coming. We’ve got a plan.”

Before anyone could talk about this plan, another woman burst through the now-closed kitchen door without knocking. The woman in the living room, hidden in shadows, froze, but Cliff and Herb regarded the new intruder.

“Hello! I’m sorry to burst in on you like this!” Her bright, cheery smile looked straight out of tv, and she pulled an iPad out of her shoulder bag. The screen showed the woman in the living room, in the same photo as the newspaper showed. Herb moved between the new woman and the kitchen table, and while he was obscuring the table, Cliff quietly folded up the paper like he was done reading it.

“A friend of mine is missing,” the woman continued. “I’m really worried because she needs medication and she’s missed several doses. She’s not well, and we need to find her before something bad happens to her.”

Neither man said anything, and both kept their faces pleasantly neutral, but as Cliff came around the table craning his neck like he wanted a closer look at the picture on the screen, he pulled a gun out and took a shot at the woman. His arm had been in motion and his shot went wide, the bullet hitting the wall behind her and to her left. The woman’s smile disappeared and she shoved her hand back into her shoulder bag, dropping the iPad and bringing out a pistol of her own, Herb had ducked behind the door to the garage and was shooting at her from there. Cliff crouched in the hall doorway. The woman was backing into the doorway she had just come in, but it was a mistake. She was exposed, and before a dozen shots had been fired, she was down. Where had the guns come from?

When the shooting stops, I get up off the couch. The woman’s body doesn’t look right. There’s whitish goo puddling on the floor, and swirls of oily black, and the skin around the bullet holes looks like burned fabric. The men are good shots – there are seven bullet holes in her.

“You okay?” the shoemaker yells from the hallway leading off the kitchen.

“I’m good. She grazed my arm, but it’s fine. You?” the fat one yells. I’m glad he’s not hurt.

“Never touched me. They’re lousy shots.”

The shoemaker comes back into the room and looks at me. “You should go back into the living room. There’ll be more of them.”

I bend and pull the iPad from the woman’s bag, but when I try to turn it on, the screen is locked so I can’t see it.

“Here, let me have that,” the fat one says, taking it gently from my hand and leading me back into the living room. I’ve just sat down when the man with the mustache comes in, gun drawn. I’m afraid to move, because I know that I’m in shadow, so as long as I’m still, he won’t see me.

The mustache man comes in, but before he can fire a single shot, the fat man, hidden in the shadows of the living room, shoots him three times in the head. Before he goes down, the mustache man turns and looks the fat man in the eyes, his face expressionless. He raises the gun, then falls over the body of the woman. I know that I should feel something about this. It’s not natural to be in a position like this and feel nothing. But apart from a confusion about who these people are and why they want to kill me, and I presume they do want to kill me, I feel nothing. I continue to stay absolutely still, and the two men talk so quietly in the kitchen that I can’t hear them.

From outside, more shots. It occurred to me to wonder how long it would be before the police showed up. The two bodies lay in the doorway,  and Herb and Cliff had to sort of hop over them to get out the door. From inside I could hear voices, but because everyone was yelling back and forth, it was impossible to tell whether they were friendly or not. The woman was frozen, standing next to the couch, not even daring to turn her head to look around her. Only the occasional flicker of light against her moist, slick eyeballs betrayed their movement from the bodies in the doorway to the curtained window.

Through the window, only a sliver of the view shows through. The drapes are a golden color, and they frame the green of the shrubs outside like the filling of a pie oozing out when the golden crust is first cut. Flashes of color cut in front of the green and I get ready to duck, or to run, or to do whatever I will need to do, even though the woman is dead and I’m not sure that if someone I don’t know comes through that door I’ll know whether they’re friendly or not. Something nags at the back of my mind. Those things in the doorway. I can’t even call them “people” or “bodies” anymore because they look like nothing but machines. Am I like them? One of them? Are machines self aware? Does my computer miss me when I don’t open it up? Does my smart phone think I’m stupid? If I’m one of them, why did they want to kill me?

Did they want to kill me?

When Herb walked through the door, she almost burst into tears. She stumbled out of the living room, fell into his arms, stood there, weeping and shaking for a long moment. Once the crisis was past, he stood her back up and helped her sit down at the kitchen table. Cliff came in, followed by Gary. The men carried the bodies into the garage, saying nothing as they worked. When the bodies were gone, the woman stole back into the kitchen and sat down at the table. She snuck the paper open, looking for the picture of herself. It was buried deep in the B section of the paper, on page 8.

I’m still not sure what I’m reading. I see my face, but I can’t make out the words. It’s like trying to read in a dream, where you know that it’s writing, but the letters morph, or they’re unfamiliar glyphs or they’re in nonsense configurations. But there’s my picture. It’s me. And I can’t understand why I’m seeing my picture and, at the same time, seeing me sitting at the kitchen table, looking at my picture. Is the me standing a few feet away being watched by another me who sees her seeing me seeing the picture? How far out does that recursion go?

The men aren’t back from the garage, and I can’t hear them talking or working or anything. I think it might be time to go. She folded the paper and left it on the kitchen table, shutting the door behind her as she went.

How to Stand Poised on the Brink

Right now, I’m in the middle of a large project, and there are a bunch of folks helping me out with that project. At the same time, there are big things going on in Santa Cruz. Specifically another TechRaising, which will happen this weekend at the Cruzio offices on Cedar.

I’ve been involved in one way or another with the folks who put together TechRaising for something like four years, but it hasn’t been a “we’re technical people, so we should get together and do technical-people things” kind of relationship. It’s been a “how are your husband and kids? we should have lunch soon” kind of relationship where we talk about who’s got chicken pox and who’s kids are struggling in school and where can a girl get a decent haircut in this town? We’re friends. Busy, yes, but friendly.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, the reason that successful people are successful is not just that they’re smart and driven (although they are that). It’s that they are in places such that, when an opportunity arises, they are able to take advantage of it. I’ve seen people that I know and love pass up wonderful opportunities, saying “I’m too busy,” or “It’s not really my thing.” To me, that’s a limitation of thinking that keeps people from achieving amazing things.

Yesterday, I decided to put together a TED talk to present at the next Santa Cruz TEDx and it turns out that one of the folks I was talking to about something else is a sponsor and wants to help get me in. After that meeting, I went to a coffee shop to pass some time before I met my family for dinner, and while I was there working on a piece of fiction, another friend came by with news about starting a magazine and said “I want you to write an article for it!” I told him about the TED talk, and he was wildly enthusiastic.

On a normal basis, I don’t consider myself any kind of special. But days like yesterday, where all the work I’ve done, all the relationships I’ve built, are paying off in unexpected ways, lead me to believe that there is a “right” way to success. That “right” way is to say yes to everything, all the time. Because even in the very worst case, you will meet wonderful people and do amazing things, and that’s not even a little bit bad.

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?

In the Air

There’s the group of people you see at the baggage check-in. You scan the crowd, wondering how many of them will be on your flight. How many flights can one airline have leaving one airport at the same time, after all? There’s the young couple with a baby and far too much luggage, the rich older couple with no baby and far too much luggage, the gaggle of scruffy students, a whole herd of businessmen in indistinguishable rumpled dark suits, carrying either a laptop or the Wall Street Journal.

You move through the airport check-in process in this instacrowd of fellow-travelers, beginning to bond with them in preparation for the flight. Oh, good. The couple with the baby will be on this flight. There they are at the gate, handing the baby Cheerios which it flings onto the carpet in a 4-foot circle around them. Most of the students aren’t on this flight. This is the time of year they’re all heading toward somewhere coastal, and you’re not. But most of the businessmen are with you, ensuring that you will both not have to talk to anyone on the plane and that you will not get to use at least one armrest.

Now it’s a matter of narrowing down who’s going to sit near you. Not the baby. Please, not the baby. But it’s a couple. The man and woman each pull out something to read and talk neither to each other nor you. You sit by the window and put your jacket over your head and think that you might sleep for the two and a half hours it’ll take to get there. Maybe more. It’s raining now.

You won’t sleep. The plane jumps up and down in the air, a prop at the end of a string held by a small child bent on childish entertainment. The captain does not turn off the “fasten seat belt” light, and you wish that there were more straps to keep your head from hitting the seat every time the plane dips. The flight attendants can’t serve beverages and are still sitting in their fake little seats, their fake smiles rigid on their faces. The baby is hysterical.

The feeling of falling, powerful every time the plane dips, then less so as it recovers, comes on and does not stop, although no instructions have been issued by anyone. The sounds of the plane’s engines are being drowned out by the sounds of the passengers wondering what’s happening, gasping at each new jolt, someone near you has begun crying softly.

You take the jacket off your head and see that it’s the woman next to you who has put down her book and is now snuggled into her partner’s chest. He has wrapped his arm around her and is stroking her hair, looking around the cabin for someone to do or say something. The captain comes on the overhead to say that you’re experiencing “extreme turbulence” and that any passengers not in their seats should return to their seats at once and buckle up. He is going to land at the nearest airport.

The plane is going down. It’s below the clouds now, and you can’t see much out the window because the rain and ice are pelting it so hard that the windows are curtains of water. You hope there’s an airport below you to catch you.

There isn’t. The pilot announces that he’s making an emergency landing, and barks at the flight attendants to do something airplane jargony. The flight attendants do not move. There is nothing for them to do.

The jolts come harder and faster and it’s difficult to tell exactly when the plane hits the ground, except that the noise coming from the other side of the plane is the loudest thing you have ever heard. Even so, is this really happening to you? Things are being thrown around the cabin – women’s purses, paper coffee cups, magazines, and you wonder who will clean up the mess. The seats at the front of the plane suddenly seem to be going uphill, like you’re at the back of a roller coaster heading upward. People are screaming, but now the noise has a distant, tinny quality to it. Someone has gotten out of his seat, and he flies into the air and lands two rows back on top of three people who scream and try to push him away. A section of overhead bins toward the front cracks, breaks, falls onto the heads of the people below it who put their arms over their heads and scream. And now you’re wet and cold because the plane is sideways with a large hole in it where the rain whips in. You’re all still moving. The plane is still skidding along the ground, and it seems you’ve all been strapped to a bullet fired at the ground for an impossibly long time. You feel both weightless and leaden, and you can’t tell whether you’re breathing.

And then the cataclysmic noise stops, and all you can hear is the rain, and people crying. So many people are crying.