Thursday, April 30, 2009

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

This morning, on the way back from the rec center, I saw a gull and a crow meet in the middle of the road. In the parking lot to my right, a murder of crows milled about. To the left, a flock of gulls circled the greening field. The two seemed to be ambassadors meeting in neutral territory, stark black touching beaks to snow white. They scattered when I drove through. Another delicate negotiation disrupted by encroaching technology.

David is staying home sick today. Unfortunately a woman in his lab was in Texas last week, in the Austin/Houston area, and is now sick with a severe respiratory flu. She came to work anyway at the beginning of the week, though the manager has now asked her to stay home for the rest of the week.

We don't know that it's swine flu, but we don't know that it's not. She says she doesn't think it is.

Scientifically, it's interesting to watch a pandemic begin. And they've caught this one pretty early, so we get to watch the spread. I've been taken aback the last few days at the extreme measures being taken: New York closing schools, Texas cancelling the end of year athletic events. They're concerned, David says, because of the way the virus is mutating. Maybe so fast and in such a way that many people's immune systems will be unable to handle it.

We're so blase about flu now. It comes and goes. Maybe someone really old dies from it. It's easy to look on the statistic that the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed about 50 million people worldwide and think of that as the bad old days. They were ignorant then, and had nothing compared to the kind of health technology we have now. Maybe there's something to that. If medical help is gotten.

I remember when I was in grad school, a college student died in her trailer of the flu. Just an ordinary flu. But she lived alone and didn't tell anyone she was sick and the fever killed her.

This situation is not an ordinary flu either. What a virus "wants" is to take over your cells and use them to manufacture a whole lot more of itself. Thus killing the host is not in the virus' best interests. But a new virus is like a rampaging toddler -- a newly mutated virus tends to kill its hosts through sheer clumsiness, if you will. Over time, the virus adapts to merely using and abusing the host until it's run its course.

That's where we are right now with this new pandemic: the terrible two's. But it looks and feels just like pretty much any other flu on the surface.

Maybe what she has isn't swine flu and she hasn't infected everyone in her workplace with a highly virulent and contagious new flu. The thing is, we're always scanning the sky for the glamorous terror, the obvious threat. Sometimes it's just quietly puttering around your feet.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bob-bob-bobbing along

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The Robins are really going crazy right now. They sing late into the dusk. Their shrill whistles pierce the pre-dawn sky. Robins hop around in the muddy gutters and in the birdbath filled with snowmelt. Everything is ready to pop. All we need is a few straight days of warm weather and the buds will explode into leaves and petals. This is how we go from winter to summer, in one fell swoop. The robins know it.

Really, it's early yet to expect much. We can get snow all through May and into the first week of June. Yes, we've gotten snow after that, but it's a remarkable occurrence. But everyone is getting restless here, wanting the warm weather. Like the robins, students crowd the university open spaces, determinedly wearing shorts.

People look around and want more. Fancies are turning not just to thoughts of love, but to dreams and desires. This is the season for graduation, for spending tax returns, for making plans to fill the long summer months ahead, thinking that this year they won't vanish in a blip.

This is the time of infinite possibility.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Murder or an Exaltation?

X

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

I caught this pic from the Laramie webcam yesterday morning. And right away thought of this stanza from Wallace Stevens's poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." I referred to this poem before on Easter, though it was stanza V that time. (I don't have to tell you there are thirteen stanzas, right?)

Why do stanzas from this poem flow into my head? I don't know.

In this case, I love the phrase "the bawds of euphony." I've never had much patience with that type. I once gave a friend of mine a copy of Anne Rice's "The Witching Hour" to read and he came back with "don't you think it's kind of, well, dark?" Yes. Yes, it's dark. And dark things are beautiful, too. Euphony is overrated, in my book.

These are vultures.

Turkey vultures, actually. Many people think they're eagles when they see them circling overhead, broad golden-brown wings angled to catch the rising thermals. Nothing so noble. We don't have blackbirds here, like Wallace Stevens had in the low coastal farm country of Connecticut and Pennsylvania. We have crows and grackles. And the black silhouettes of vultures circling overhead.

Sometimes the light is decidedly green.

"More than any other modern poet, Stevens was concerned with the transformative power of the imagination," Poets.org says. Maybe that's why I like his poems. The imagination transforms the mundane, even the pleasant into something more. Some people think that means making something up, seeing something that isn't really there. I think it's being able to see beyond the ordinary that seeks to distract you with its daily dose of dullness.

Go prostitute your euphony elsewhere. I'll take the vultures.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't Know When I'll Be Back Again

Yesterday morning, I propped open our hotel room door to enjoy the sunshine and warm air while I packed. When I wandered out to the balcony, a crane gracefully stalked past, heading through the parking lot to the sidewalk that leads to a little lagoon. Just another pedestrian. Today, the same time of day, but 2,000 miles to the northwest and about 7,000 feet higher up, all I see is the snow falling.

Don't get me wrong -- it's very pretty. But this time of year, during winterspring, it gets old.

I started reading Lisa Daily's book "Fifteen Minutes of Shame" on the plane home. She gave a couple of really useful workshops on publicity at the convention. I'm also liking her book -- kind of a Jennifer Weiner chick-lit deal. But I really loved that her character flew from Sarasota, Florida to Chicago and emerged into a 23 degree snowstorm in open-toed shoes, with her winter coat packed at the bottom of her suitcase. The character reflects that although she looks at the snowflakes on the weather map, she still has a hard time really believing it will be like that.

I see this a lot. Since I spend more time in airports than any human being should. At baggage claim in Denver, travelers in shorts and sandals will stand at the belts while the suitcases gaily circle around, staring in dismay out the glass doors at the snow billowing outside. Maybe not dismay, but consternation. As if they don't quite understand how both of their realities can be true: both the one they left only a few hours before and the one they stand in now.

It makes me think air travel is fundamentally unnatural. There is perhaps something about the way we understand time and place that conflicts with the speed of air travel.

Once, when I was in college, I took a morning flight from St. Louis to Denver for a job interview. Then I flew back to St. Louis that evening, because I had exams in the morning. For a day or two afterward I felt disoriented, as if I'd lost a day. Something about the back and forth left me only halfway present, the rest of myself somehow scattered in between the two cities, only gradually catching up again.

I see there's a new pill for jet lag. What can we do about the self-lag?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Do Blond Genre-Writers Have More Fun?

I noticed this at the RWA convention, too: genre writers are way more fun than the literary ones.

As a general rule.

Sure, there's some competitiveness and there are the divas. There's a bit of division between the published authors and the "aspiring" ones. (Yes, it says so on our nametags.) But the published writers are so interested to talk to the lowly aspiring ones. I just spend 2.5 hours at the author book fair, talking to everyone on god's green earth. At least it felt like it. There were purportedly about 300 authors signing, in long rows, each with their displays and stacks of books. And nearly everyone I talked to spotted the "aspiring" on my tag and asked me what I write. In a genuinely interested way; no tail-sniffing involved.

My writer-friend, Chavawn Kelley, invented that term back in 1996 when she and I first started attending readings. We met in a class, Essays on Self and Place, taught by a visiting writer to the University of Wyoming, Don Snow, then editor of Northern Lights Magazine. And we attended a few university-sponsored events. Readings by various writers passing through, that kind of thing. At those, every other person would ask the same pair of questions: are you a writer? what have you published? Chavawn compared it to a pack of dogs, sniffing each others' tails to determine who was alpha.

Granted the first question was necessary in that setting, since our tags didn't say. But the second was said as a kind of challenge. A kind of are-you-anyone-I-should-pay-attention-to question.

I've since become better able to answer those questions. I've been publishing as an essayist for 12 years now. I have a certain amount of cred that keeps me from being at the bottom of the pack, anyway.

But while it's kind of lowering to be back to "aspiring," (RWA doesn't consider you published unless you're published in the genre, which I find an annoying double-standard) I love that the genre writers manage to ditch the condescension. They are enthusiastic and encouraging.

It makes me wonder about the literary clenched-sphincter.

It makes me think it's all about money. The old saw that the fights in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so low. In genre, there's a convivial quality, an idea that the more people who are writing it, the more there is for a growing audience. The market share for romantic fiction is huge. And getting huger.

Or it could all just be that all of these people are pretty much writing about sex all the time. That's got to make anyone happy.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fairy Tale Evenings

The RT Booklovers Convention has been a total whirlwind.

So much so that I (obviously) haven't been posting the last few days. RT is a different kind of writer's gig because there are so many readers and booksellers here. Their enthusiastic presence mitigates the usual stalk-and-duck waltz between the editors/agents and the authors aspiring to be published, or just published better. The e-publishers like Ellora's Cave, Cerriddwen, Samhain and Loose Id are very well represented here. Lots of promotional parties. Tons of shmoozing.

And, of course, a fairy ball. After all, how often you do get to dress up as a fairy for a professional convention?
There's also the Ellora's Cave jungle party, Heather Graham's vampire ball and Dorchester's Splashing by the Shore party, along with countless mixers, pool parties and happy hours.
The challenge with a conference like this, though, is knowing when to say enough is enough. It's possible to be out chatting people up from 7am to 3am. Maybe longer. I've managed not to be out and about during the pre-dawn down-time. One writer I know with a book coming out fretted that she'd "missed people" the night before by being in a less-busy location around midnight.
This is crazy-making to me.
But then, I've never been the girl who went to all the right parties, either. I think you can drive yourself over the edge, trying to be everywhere. Of course you have to network. You have to be visible. You have to be willing to pimp your book. But I believe you have to do it your way, as yourself. Networking isn't just shmoozing as many people as possible; it's making actual connections to people. And if you're always looking over someone's shoulder to see who else you could be talking to, then you jeopardize the nascent connection you're creating right then.
I'm a believer that the universe will deliver what you ask for. Which is why you have to be careful what you wish for. If you are yourself and follow the patterns that are real to you, then you will connect with people on the same path. Then, whether those people become friends, readers or your agent -- maybe all three -- that relationship is based on something you never have to force yourself to generate.
You never know which person holds the opportunities for you. Might as well enjoy the process of finding out. And, along the way, you might find you have something to offer them, as well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chartreuse, anyone?

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I intended to go out and buy a new vacuum cleaner.

Yeah, in the grand scheme, it's not interesting. But that's what Facebook is for: daily inanity. The surprise was, as one friend commented, it became the most interesting thread on Facebook for the day. Lots of people chimed in with their favorite brands and what one really needed in a vacuum cleaner.

I bought my new labor-saving device, brought it home and completed the housework abruptly interrupted mid-carpet by the final, gasping death of the vacuum cleaner I'd been nursing along for years using, yes, duct tape. (Though I thought of it as "new," my mother bought it for me when I started grad school, which I can't avoid knowing was 20 years ago.) I posted a new note to Facebook that I was loving the new machine and was considering donning a frilly white apron and high heels. And I called it "lime green," which I knew was wrong.

What I wanted to convey was the excessive fashionability of my new vacuum cleaner. In a very trendy color of green that I knew I knew the name of. My boss wears it all the time. I even Googled it, looking for synonyms for green, but couldn't spot it. And after all, it's only a Facebook post -- who really cares if I say "lime green" or... well, I knew "chartreuse" was wrong. Ann Taylor! I thought. She's all about this shade of green. I went to her site, entered "green" anything for a keyword to see what they called it:

Pesto. Seaweed. Pistachio.

No, really.

Is anyone else noticing a food theme here?

So, to hell with it, I posted my message about my "lime green" vacuum cleaner, not pesto, seaweed or pistachio. Then we discussed whether pearls go with sweats and no one mentioned whether my vacuum cleaner was a fashionable color or not.

Of course, I remembered it later that evening: celadon!

Which is, apparently, passe. I'm such a lousy fashionista. Celadon was probably in five years ago. But you're talking to a woman here who thinks a 20-year-old vacuum cleaner is new. If I could wear the color celadon, I'd still have a bunch of it in my closet. I certainly wouldn't swap it out for the more au courant seaweed, pistachio and pesto. Though, I must confess, I'd probably sneak in a few pieces of the new colors, to smarten things up.

Probably by the time this vacuum cleaner dies, 20 years from now, celadon will be in again. Or just coming into style.

I try to stay ahead of the trends.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dream a Little Dream of Me

I dreamed about Barack & Michelle again last night.

I know -- it's so dumb. But I did. For the second time now. No, I've never dreamed about the President and First Lady before. I've never dreamed about any politician, really. Not even my friend, Pat Kiovsky, and I was her campaign manager when she ran for Wyoming legsislature last fall. All of this makes me sound like a political gal and I don't think I really am.

Of course, I come from an Irish-Catholic family, so political arguments over dinner are kind of a staple for us. I once brought down the house when I was ten and tartly informed my stepfather that he wouldn't vote for Jesus Christ if he ran on a Republican ticket. To which he immediately rejoined that I was right on the money. So, you kind of had to be up on things, just to hold your own conversational ground in our family. But I have a low tolerance for news. Never watch it on TV. Don't read any newspaper. Skim the news articles online.

The first dream, I was part of Obama's team. I was riding around with him in a limo, taking notes, coordinating vague but important things. It felt good to be part of what he was doing. Last night, Barack and Michelle showed up on one of my work trips. I'm a private consultant doing contract work for EPA and they wanted to have lunch with me, to discuss important changes to EPA. I was excited in my dream -- and couldn't wait to call my mom and tell her who I got to have lunch with.

It might be partly because I get emails from them, Barack and Michelle. Also Joe and Cindy. More so during the campaign than now. Much has been said about the innovative nature of Obama's campaign, how they drew us in and made us intimately involved.

I've always scoffed at my mother's affection for Kennedy. Her idealism seemed part of her youthful past to me. I tired of hearing how the assassination affected everyone. But I kind of understand now. I feel so much hopefulness at the changes occurring. I enjoy the conversations, even here in my stalwartly Republican state.

I'm not much of one for idealism, but apparently I'm feeling the dream.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Compliments of the Season

"If he doesn't cut my hair right this time," my mother says, "then next season, I'll find a new hairdresser."

"Next season?" I repeat, bemused.

"In the fall," she explains. "We can't say 'next year' because that's too confusing. It'll still be this year when we come back."

"I know," I say, "but it sounds so..."

"Odd?"

"Aristocratic."

"Well, we are!" she happily replies.

She loves this, that she winters in Tucson and summers in Denver. I remember the winters of my childhood and how she hated the snow. How she'd stand at the window staring at the snow blizzarding down and give a cry of incoherent rage. She especially hated this time of year, when the wet spring snows crush the daffodils under their weight. This has been her new husband, Dave's, greatest gift to her: the freedom to both live in the city of her birth and to escape the winter that comes with it.

Last year she and Dave came back to Denver too early, so they're hedging their bets and staying in Tucson until June 1. Some Tucson neighbors do it by the thermometer: on the first day over 100 in Tucson, they pack up for Michigan. On the first day it hits 32 there, they pack up for Arizona. Our own neighbors, the elderly couple across the street, used to drive their RV down to Arizona just after Christmas and return like robins in the spring. But she has Alzheimer's now, so they stopped going. David's folks are the same: no longer making the annual RV trek to Yuma because their health isn't good enough for the drive. And their pride is too great to let any of us take them down. Instead these snowbirds are grounded in their winter homes.

I think about these people, who spend the winter of their lives in the winter climes. I know it's hard on them. Two winters ago I sprained one ankle severely and the other mildly (falling down a flight of stairs in front of 200 people -- don't ask). I felt so fragile on the snow ice, so afraid of slipping, of the pain, of the danger of further infirmity. For the first time I really felt in the skin of someone less than robust health and it was a scary place to be. The winter is colder, too, every year, and I'm only in mid-life.

Some of it is money, sure. But a lot of it is flexibility, too -- the willingness to move away from family, away from the familiar and to make a new home somewhere else. Maybe it takes more than some people have. It may be easier to give in to the winter, to stand at the window and glare at the snow, than to fight and escape.

But then, there's always next season.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Never Write, You Never Call...

Okay, the heady romance is over. I confess: I've begun to cheat.

It's not that I was ever completely monogamous, especially in the beginning. You know how it is: in the begining you're still trying each other out, not ready to fully commit. I'd kept reading a hard copy book or two, would keep a book with me on the plane, in case the flight attendant decided my Kindle was an electronic device that must be shut off. (Incidentally, no one has made me shut it off through about 10-15 take-offs and landings. I wonder if this is because they don't know what it is or it doesn't look all that electronic?)

But I had committed. All of my recent book purchases were on the Kindle, either via the Amazon store or through other ebook sellers. Then, last night, I put the Kindle in the drawer and started a hard copy book. It felt good, too. Like coming home to an old love. It felt right to be holding my book, curled up in the armchair while the snow fell.

I confess, the in-laws soured things for me recently, what with the Amazon "glitch." I really hate that Amazon may have been censoring and sanitizing, a serious development given their stranglehold on book rankings. I hear people saying they're giving their business to Powells, which has ebooks, too. I might have to see if their formats are Kindle-compatible. Not every ebook is, it turns out. I suspect this situation will continue to improve over time. It seems like new tech starts out very specific and proprietary at first, but then natural market forces move everthing to intercompatibility (is that a word?) over time.

Maybe it's good for us to have a little time apart. It's okay for my Kindle to be just one part of my reading life. I'm beginning to think that any monopoly can't be a good thing. In nature, diversity wins.

In love, I'm a one-man woman, but in this way, at least, I'll continue to play the field.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Font of Useless Information

So, did you guys know there's this whole campaign to ban the use of comic sans?

No, really. There is.

Maybe saying "whole campaign" is a stretch since, so far as I can tell, it could be just one guy representing himself as a movement. But there is a website dedicated to it. Of course, anyone can throw up a website and start a "movement" to ban, say, the use of the color yellow.

I first saw the "ban comic sans" manifesto in one of the offices I visited this spring. That's one of the interesting parts -- okay, maybe the ONLY interesting part -- of visiting a different cubicle farm every-other week in different parts of the country: seeing what people post on their hollow fabric half-walls. I should post some on here, actually. It was particularly interesting over the course of the election year, to see what people in different regions were het up about. But I digress.

Anyway, the ban comic sans manifesto -- and I'm 99% sure they're serious and not just really good at deadpanned satire, but I'm willing to entertain correction there -- explains that the font (you knew this was about a font, right?) "comic sans" was created for cartoons and has enjoyed this extended life for which it was never intended. The people excited about this are the typesetting nostalgics.

Me, I've never cared about font that much. Except, hey, yes I use comic sans in my email and IM. I picked it long ago (15 years ago?) because I liked the way it looked. My only other opinion on font is when people make you use Courier, which is a nonproportional font and is thus ugly and inefficient for an electronic age, IMHO.

I have one friend who's written about her father being a typesetter and the smell of ink, but I'm not sure she cares so much about font. Another friend gets really excited about font and spends a fair amount of time on which ones have which little doodad (I know there's a real term for it -- I forget what it is, this is how much I don't care) at the top of the "l," say.

We all need our causes, I suppose. And far be it for me to say someone's cause is, well, insignificant in the grand scheme, when I have a special place in my heart for frivolous enterprises.

But I just keep thinking about bread & circuses.

I said something about bread & circuses to someone the other day and she didn't know what I was talking about, so I think it bears repeating, just in case. The phrase was coined by Juvenal, a Roman satirist, referring to the observation that the people won't care about politics as long as they get food and entertainment.

This is such a pivotal time. There are so many really important changes underway.

And we're concerned about a font?

(P.S. I tried to format this in comic sans, but blogger won't allow it!)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If You're Happy and You Know It...Or Do You?

I once asked my martial arts teacher a question about emotions. This isn't as odd as it sounds, because it was a kung-fu school and we spent a lot of time talking about chi (life energy) and how emotional energy is the battery for everything we do.

So, I told him how, when I'd lived alone in grad school, I'd sometimes go a whole day or two without seeing anyone. Especially if I was holed up in my apartment on the weekends. This was before all the connectedness of email and Facebook. The world reached me only via my landline, the tv (which I never turned on) and the radio (and I only listened to music). What I'd found was that I wouldn't notice I was in any particular emotional state, unless I happened to make contact with another person. Then I would discover I was irritable or depressed or happy, by the way I interacted with them.

His answer was that I "downloaded" the other person's emotions. That I absorbed what they were feeling and that I had to learn to differentiate my emotions from theirs. This led into one of his typical rants about how this was yet another reason for us to shun the world at large and stay away from the contamination of the mass mind.

Obviously, I don't completely agree. About so many things. Which is neither here nor there.

I think there is something to this, sure. I do think you can pick up on what other people are feeling. If the energetic thing is too woo-woo for you, then suffice to say that we're really good at picking up subconscious cues from each other. Our pets perceive our feelings and intentions. David knows what state of mind I'm in from the moment I walk in the door. If you're a reasonably empathetic person who pays attention, you'll pick up on what the people around you are feeling.

But I don't think that's what I experienced in my living-alone days. I think it has something more to do with context. That it's hard to define something without a point of reference. For example, our visual system works through edge-detection. The receptors in our eyes and the neurons that connect with them respond to the contrast between one color and the next, or one shade and the next. Our visual cortex assembles images from all the lines and edges, then fills in the middle.

Maybe emotional states are like this, too. I might drift through a day or a weekend in an undefined dream. (Okay, yeah, this may be particular to me, being kind of a dreamy gal.) When I encounter someone else, I'm no longer just a wash of being -- now there's someone else and there's a line between us, created by our differences, slight or great. Suddenly I have a point of reference.

The rest is just filling in the middle.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gloria, We Hardly Knew Ye

Is anyone else noticing the whole waist/hip thing?

By anyone, I mean the gals, because I really don't think guys do this. So, if you're a guy, feel free to skip today's post.

But gals, the whole waistline-drop thing seems to be getting stranger. Never mind that we really can't find any slacks, jeans or even skirts that fasten around our waists -- and if we could, we can't wear them because, hey, we might have to concede to being in our 40s, but we still don't REALLY want to look like refugees from the 80s. Even if that's exactly what we are.

My mother will testify that I'm famous for keeping clothes forever. It's the sentimentality. Throwing away a loved outfit is tantamount to throwing away all the good times had in that outfit. So, yes, I still have some of the clothes I wore in high school. A couple of sweaters. A few party dresses from college. None of the lower-body stuff because, let's just say, my hips did not stay teenager narrow. But I was the girl whose friend told her she was the only person she knew who looked good in designer jeans (Gloria Vanderbilt, with an embroidered gold swan on one hip pocket and a similar gold cursive "Jennifer" on the other.) The waist buttoned around the narrowest point of my body, which meant the jeans stayed there, whether I was standing or sitting.

But the dropped-waist thing -- they move around all the time! Sure the slacks will drape nicely over my hips while I'm standing, sitting in their comfortable three inches below my belly button. I went to all drop-waist slacks and jeans after I had my belly-button pierced. Believe me, you have to do it. Thus do vanity piercings drive fashion. So, standing around, looking cute is fine. But when you sit, they kind of creep up and flop around your waist like an Ace bandage gone wrong. OR they slide down further, showing your thong and butt-cleavage and... no, no, no.

Okay, compared to Amazon censoring homosexual books on their website, this isn't a big deal. Lots of people have been talking about that, though. Is anyone discussing the millions of women out there whose pants won't stay put? A can of worms there, I say.

I'm starting to understand why older women start to wear those mu-mus.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is It Just Me?

Sanity is a relative thing. Ask Paula Alquist.

Granted, very few of us (hopefully) encounter someone who is trying to Gaslight us, a now famous derivation that means to deliberately attempt to convince someone that they're insane. And yet, what with everyone trying to get their own way, it seems a lot of folks out there won't take it amiss if you begin to doubt what you know.

I think about it like this: we walk around with an idea of what the world is like inside our heads. It's built of how we think and feel, what we believe, what our families believe. We're all kind of existing in our own bubble worlds, a separate parallel universe for each person. Thus the world is teeming with alternate realities, some based on thought, many based on emotion. Every time we try to talk to each other, we're communicating with an alien civilization.

I try to remember this when I have the "am I crazy or are they?" moments.

All it takes is one conversation where someone tells you what you did, usually months ago, that doesn't match what you remember occurring. Or worse, ascribes motivations to you that you're certain you never had. I've known some people who rewrote history on purpose, recasting events in a light more flattering to themselves. I've known others so passionately invested in their position that they come to believe what they want to be true. It's understandable. I think that we all do this, to a greater or lesser extent.

Which is the crazy-making part.

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living. I think this is what he was getting at. If you can't scrutinize yourself and your life, there's no way to know if what goes on in your own little universe has a reality that others can recognize or is simply a conglomeration of a fantasy of what you want to be true. There's an old device in fairy tales where there's a mirror that reflects how a person truly is. Usually only the "pure of heart" can face themselves in that mirror. I suspect this is something we have to do, every moment of every day: face ourselves in the mirror and see what's there. If you flinch away, it's because something has crept in. I don't think I know what purity is anymore. Other people will be happy to chime in with what they believe is selfish or sinful or simply against the rules. Some of those people take those beliefs to insane extremes.

If you can face yourself in the mirror without flinching, I think that's a good start.

Did anyone notice the lights dimming?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Bunny Trails to You

David never knows when Easter Sunday is coming, he says, until three or four people ask him on Friday what he's doing for Easter. Of course we're doing nothing in particular for Easter, since we never do. He likes to report the grumpy answers he thinks up, usually Easter-inappropriate activities. I'm the only one who ever hears them.

It's not that we don't like Easter. It just doesn't mean anything to us. The kids are grown up, so we don't do Easter baskets. We try to keep candy and refined sugar-somethings out of the house, so we don't gnosh that way. It's not springtime here, so there's no celebration of that aspect. We no longer consider ourselves Catholics; arguably, we never did. And, for whatever reason, this is usually a busy time of year for us, so we almost always have Easter Sunday as a breather day -- to catch up on at-home stuff.

Now, if we lived somewhere with a decent Easter brunch, I'd probably do that. I love a champagne brunch. But what I love best is the afterwards, the lazy buzz on a Sunday afternoon of bubbly in my veins and enough food in my body to last the day. Like this bit from Wallace Stevens:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

There's something to be said for the "just after." Many of the people who ask what we're doing for Easter are hitting the road to visit family. And they look pressured. It's a difficult holiday, being confined to Sunday and working folks needing to be back at it Monday morning.

My friend, Julianne, just posted that it's "an oddly gray sky in Laramie this morning. The grackles are puffing their chests and making that funny sqwak sound in the cottonwoods."

What am I doing for Easter? I'm listening to our black birds. And to the moment just after.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Giving and Perceiving

I've always been a joiner.

Not sure why. I don't feel much of a religious call to service or an obligation to volunteer. But I've long been a joiner of service groups. On some level, I do feel like these groups fill a need. On another, I think we're often just bashing our heads against the wall or filling a bucket with such small drops as to be negligible. Arguably I do it for the social interaction: I like getting to know the people involved and working with them on projects. In many ways I believe the only true charity is anonymous charity -- when you give and no one knows that you have. Volunteering in a service group seems to me so full of ostentatious giving that it can't really count as true service.

This reminds me of a study on vampire bats I read a while back. (I know -- you were thinking the same thing, right?) The study found that vampire bats who were fortunate enough to feed on a given night would share blood with bats in the roost that weren't able to feed. It's a crucial bit of sharing because their metabolisms are so high that the bats can't go more than a couple of nights without feeding or they'll die. The study pondered if this was an example of true altruism. In general, it's thought that altruism does not exist in nature. Most animal behavior is driven by perpetuation of the indivual or, more precisely, the individual's reproductive potential. The researchers attempted to determine if the donors gave blood only to close relatives, which didn't seem to be the case. Eventually they concluded that perhaps the behavior was to perpetuate the entire colony.

An online friend of mine told me that I'm a really sweet person. This is noteworthy because I can't recall anyone who knows me in person who's called me sweet. One friend told me I have so many edges that I'm practically a cube. But the gal who called me sweet said so because I read her work and gave her writing advice. And because I continue to read and give feedback. To me, this isn't sweet. I certainly don't always tell her nice things about what she's written. She says that she's grateful that I take the time. I think, well, I can help, so I do.

And it doesn't hurt.

Maybe that's part of my edge: I'm just not into giving until it hurts. If I can give, I will. If I don't have the time or the energy, I say no. More often I say "later." This is self-protection. Lately, a couple of people in volunteer organizations I belong to have been unhappy with me that they're farther down on my list of things to do. Worse, they've begun to harangue me about it. Now, I have a lot of deadlines to manage and I like to think I'm reasonably good at it. I have a pretty simple approach: I work on what is due the soonest. Logical of me. I also work on the stuff I'm paid to do first. Mercenary of me perhaps. I'm also easily seduced by the more fun things, so they tend to work their way up in priority ahead of their time. Frivolous of me, I'll admit.

The thing is, I find I really hate being pressured to do something I volunteered to help with in the first place, especially if I don't see the fire. Everyone has their comfort zones, I know. There are people in this world who panic if a deadline is a week away. I'm one of those who slides the deliverable into the email five minutes before COB Eastern Time on some occasions. When I'm being paid, I do things their way -- I figure that's part of the deal. But when I'm giving, I find my altruism dries up if I feel forced.

Maybe that's how it works for the bats, too.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sand Between the Toes

I finally made it to the beach yesterday.

No, there won't be any "life's a beach" titles or comments. Just the sheer pleasure of escaping from the strange veneer of Orlando to something that feels raw and real. To me, this is Florida.

Now, I know a lot of people don't like the beach. They think it's silly and boring and there's nothing to do but lie around. I know quite a few men who think this way. Fortunately mine is not one, because I really love a beach.

Two of the gals I work with went with me and didn't get there until late. We finished our work around noon, had lunch with the client and headed back to the hotel to swap our pumps and laptop bags for bikinis and sandals. By the time we stopped at the store and acquired sunscreen and beach towels, it was 3pm. So we arrived at the beach around 4:30, just as the sleepily sunbaked people were trailing away from it, pouring down the access ramps like so many towel-wrapped children ready to be bathed and fed dinner and cocktails.

But the declining Florida sun pumped warm and friendly. The ocean welcomed us with tangy blue swells. It soothes me, just to touch the water and be near it. To let the undulations of it move me. Sometimes I fancy I can touch every life touched by the interconnected oceans, as if it's still the primordial soup that flows through us all.

Maybe it is.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Magic Kingdom for an Authentic Florida

Orlando can be disconcerting.

Not just the Disney area – though that long strip of International Drive is a strange blend of Route 66-flavor liquor stores and road stops, interspersed with every party-meal franchise restaurant imaginable. Along with the theme hotels and cartoon signage. Theme parks have proliferated in the area, like so many clones grown from the dispersion of tourist-dollar spores. There’s Sea World, Aquatica, Wet and Wild and Disney Beach. Epcot, of course, Dinosaur Land, Holy Land. Every theme imaginable has its park.

But what gets truly disconcerting is that the housing developments have a theme-feel. It’s hard to put your finger on the quality of it. They seem self-consciously pretty, with vast expanses of common areas that might accommodate a carnival at any moment. Even the downtown is composed of pretty buildings in shining glass and pastel colors. Each has an unusual, frisky roofline.

That’s when it hit us – nowhere were the sagging warehouses, the depression era buildings that have been desultorily rehabbed. Everything is of a certain era and aesthetic. It creates a sense that everything is a fa├žade, that nothing is truly authentic.

When we were in Lincoln, Nebraska, I wrote about our debate over the aesthetic – or lack thereof – of the West. And I don’t like the lack of care that comes from that, the ugliness by default. The magic kingdom approach, though, seems like a relentless glossing of reality.
After passing downtown, we glimpsed off to the side a lake in a park. A boathouse and pavilion sat reflected on one end. It looked to me like old Florida, in its Spanish splendor. It could have been another facsimile. Old Orlando City Theme Park: come listen to the old-timey flamenco bands and eat cotton candy and get your Ponce de Leon souvenir doll, ride the fountain of youth waterslide!

Even in a glimpse, though, it had a feeling of age and authenticity, in a place where little else does. It managed to be beautiful, also.

A friend who grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee turned down a job in Gettysburg because she said she’d never again live in a tourist town. Tourism kills the soul of a place, she said. When I asked her why, she couldn’t explain it better than that.

I suspect it has something to do with creating an appearance to temporarily please. There’s no pay-off in substance when attracting tourism. All is for fleeting pleasure, not for long-term sustenance. In some ways, that kind of calculated prettification is as unsatisfying as leaving things ugly because it’s not worth the effort.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Curls and Girls

My hair is developing waves in it. While this may seem like a minor point, it's significant in that I've, for the past forty years, had bone-straight hair. Unless I chemically altered it, which I spent a fair amount of time and money doing.

It's especially noticeable down here in Tampa, the humidity antipode to Laramie. I'm down here with three other gals who typically make up my work team. Two of them are about five years older than I am and are full of "change of life" advice. One's theory is the "curlier as you age" theory. Up until now, though, she's been all about the "gray hair has a different texture and thus is curlier" theory. But, since, I have only a few silver hairs, right at my part, she's generously revised her theory to include my drift to curliness with regularly textured hair.

And I don't mind the waves. Kind of different.

What I do mind is the whole "peri-menopausal" thing. A medical type recently informed me that peri-menopausal includes the 10-15 years before and after the actual Pause. Which means, for those terrifed to do the math, one can have perimenopausal symptoms for, yes, that's right: THIRTY YEARS.

Has anyone else noticed that this comes out to at least a third of a normal life?

I don't buy it. To me, this is like the "we've been dying since the day we're born" view of life. Just because something is a certainty in the future doesn't mean it's already in process. You can move towards a thing without being it. And once you've moved through an event, you don't have to carry it around with you, the tattered remains of it like streamers hanging off your limbs.

Change of life, fine. It happens. Hormones shift, our bodies change. Different physiological priorities.

Now can we move on?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

White Horse Optional

My friend, Laura – and old friend from high school recently rediscovered on Facebook – asked me to help her come up with a “headline” for her Match.com profile. It’s basically dating-twitter. 140 characters to advertise who she is and what she wants.

Of course I said yes. I love to find the right words to describe people. I asked her if she was looking for true love, sex and fun or babies and the white picket fence. I expected her to quibble with me, to equivocate over what she might want now versus later. But no.

True Love, she promptly replied.

So I ran with it and we came up with this:

Waiting for the fairytale. Blonde belle seeks prince among men. White horse optional.

I wondered if it would be too much. I’m clearly interested in the fairytale ending, be that what you really wished for or not, but I know a lot of people out there (read: men) have issues with the female ideas of happily ever after. Can’t say I blame them really. What reasonable man wants to get mixed up with a gal who thinks she’s a princess and it’s his job to rescue her and take her off into the sunset? The thing is, we don’t really think that. We’re big girls now.

That’s why the white horse is optional.

By the following day, though, Laura reported 229 page views on her profile, 35 contacts and one verified hottie who says he owns a white horse. She’s talking about holding out for the full luxury package after all.

Another friend of mine was devastatingly dumped by the guy she’d invested in. He told her he loved her one day and the next that he hadn’t loved her in a long time. He was surprised she didn’t know that. It took her a while to pull herself together and a while longer to date again. But she hasn’t found IT again. Now she’s spending time with a guy she’s been, by her own description, “dating by default.” When I ask her about it, she sounds like she’s not convinced she can do better than that.

I want them both to have the happily ever after. I’m a believer in true love. I never expected to have it and here I’m nearly twenty years with a man who’s a better companion to my life than I ever thought possible. He’s added a richness and intimacy to my life that my girlish fairytale endings didn’t know to include. I like that he tells me he’s become a better critical thinker from being around me. I especially like that he’s someone interested in becoming a better critical thinker. He’s a prince among men.

Romance stories are often criticized for ending at the moment of the Happily Ever After, be it the wedding, or the exchange of vows of eternal love or what have you. The thing is, if you do it right, once you ride off into to the sunset, you get to live there.

And that makes so many other things worthwhile.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Perfect Something

I've come to think that people who get excited about having perfect pitch are assholes.

Is that too strong?

I mean all my life I've been hearing about perfect pitch and how those who have it are these kind of fragile nobility, both blessed with this extra faculty, but also cursed to suffer in a world of cacophony. That's the obnoxious part. Clearly I have issues with my lack of inherent musical talent, but I don't feel like I bear a grudge towards those who have it. Most of the time I feel grateful that they're out there, making music for me to listen to. And to sing along with. Remorselessly off key.

But the whole perfect pitch thing seems extraneous to that.

I spent some time in my life working on auditory neurophysiology, so I know something about sound and how the brain processes it. And there are interesting studies on what is now called absolute pitch. (See? Someone besides me got annoyed with the "perfect" judgement.) The most interesting aspects of absolute pitch are that people either have it or do NOT have it -- there's very little middle ground. The graph to the right is from the study linked to above. The authors of this study indicate that the probability of scoring above the vertical line by chance alone is about one in a trillion. The middle-ground folks, they theorize, are well-trained and have taught themselves to identify tones. If you're interested, you can take the survey and test on their site. My pure tone score? 4.5. Right in the upper left corner of that box down in the "don't have it" end of the graph. Interestingly, my piano tone score was 10, which means my harp teacher managed to teach me something.

The reasearchers say there's genetic predisposition -- if it runs in your family, you're likely to have it. There's also the learning aspect. If you started music lessons by the age of seven, you're also more likely to have it. And if you have siblings who were taking lessons while you were growing up, you're even more likely to develop absolute pitch.


A lot of fantasy/magic stories like to tie perfect pitch to magical ability, as if there's a certain keenness to their minds the rest of us lack. And people like to tie high IQ to absolute pitch. To me though, this is like tying IQ to spelling ability.

I'm a compulsive proofreader. I can't help it. Misspelled words stand out on the page to me like they're in bold type. Obviously a lot of this is learned, but I've also felt like this is an inherent ability. Kev commented on my words & music post the other day, saying that, as a programmer, he literally can't read content until he's first scanned for syntax errors. I also heard of an editor so accustomed to proofing on-screen that, when she first started reading on the Kindle, she found herself compulsively proof-reading.

The thing is, I can't imagine the book where magic is tied to proof-reading and spelling ability. It's frankly just not romantic enough. Though I suspect much the same mechanism is involved. Penelope Trunk at Brazen Careerist likes to rant about the tyranny of the proofing-nuts. She even hints that perfect spellers have borderline Asperger's syndrome and cites a documentary about it. (Interestingly, the absolute pitch survey also asks about family history of Asperger's syndrome and autism, so maybe there are links.) Certainly no one is going to go around talking about being a tormented soul, bombarded by typos in a perfect world.

Though I sometimes contemplate volunteering to edit the menu at our local Chinese place. So far I've resisted. Can't figure out a way to offer without sounding like an asshole.

Seems like a good behavioral guideline to me.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reading Time

I'm so amused that I have to share.

I bought an ebook yesterday from Fictionwise for my Kindle. This is one of the sites that sells ebooks and emags, that ISN'T Amazon. (I know -- who thought it was possible?) Fictionwise seems to be a pretty decent site, though I paid more for this ebook than I have for any so far. They promised me a 50% rebate, but I couldn't figure out how to do it and finally decided it wasn't worth $7 to me to screw around with it any more. A little bait & switch-y there, but so it goes. Along with the traditional book information, they give this:

Available eBook Formats [MultiFormat - What's this?]:
Adobe Acrobat (PDF) [895 KB], eReader (PDB) [317 KB], Palm Doc (PDB) [312 KB], Rocket/REB1100 (RB) [278 KB], Microsoft Reader (LIT) [277 KB] - PocketPC 1.0+ Compatible, Franklin eBookMan (FUB) [306 KB], hiebook (KML) [699 KB], Sony Reader (LRF) [364 KB], iSilo (PDB) [259 KB], Mobipocket (PRC) [322 KB], Kindle Compatible (MOBI) [379 KB], OEBFF Format (IMP) [450 KB]
Words: 96890
Reading time: 276-387 min.
Microsoft Reader (LIT) Format: Printing DISABLED, Read-Aloud ENABLED
Adobe Acrobat (PDF) Format: Printing DISABLED, Read-Aloud ENABLED
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED

My favorite part is the offered "reading time." I suppose this kind of thing is inevitable in a culture where every minute is squeezed for maximum effect. But, is it just me? This seems like such an odd quantification for pleasure reading. I mean, sure, when I was in college or grad school, I figured out my approximate reading rate, so I could plan how long a particular text would take me to get through. Like I would any job. As a consultant, I have to be very good at knowing how long, in terms of billable hours, a given project will take to accomplish. Both by me and anyone on my team. What I do for work or schooling, though, rarely applies to my leisure time.

For those who don't want to do the math, the reading time suggested here varies between 250 and 350 words per minute. My reading rate is generally around a page a minute, if I'm being pretty direct about it. We already discussed here the whole "paragraphs as mountains" concept and that "industry standard" for genre is 250 words per page. Denser works have more words per page. I find it really interesting that the supposed industry standard for genre matches the bottom end of Fictionwise's reading rate.

I'm sure there are people who sit around and figure this kind of thing out. All part of product development and placement. Still, as much as I believe I'm jaded and cynical now, things like this continue to surprise me. Which probably shows my enduring naivete in the face of the world's attempts to toughen me up.

Despite it all, there's a part of me that's still the little girl who always had her nose in a book. The girl who picked out the thickest books on the library shelf, because they would last longer. I want to immerse, to lose track of time, to slow down in the second half, so the story won't end too soon.

Let my reading be timeless, please.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fractals and Obituaries

Kalayna Price is disappointed in the pattern of her days.

Kalayna, one of my online friends (again someone I've never met in person), posted the above on facebook this morning. She, like many of us, is a writer who also works at a "real" job that pays her actual money. She often posts comments at the beginning of her work day, remarking on the fact that she'd rather be writing. She reports on how many words she wrote over her lunch hour. She's driven and pushes hard for the brass ring we all want: to make enough money writing to quit the day job.

So I know what she means about being disappointed in the pattern of her days. Especially when a few days or a few weeks vanish with not enough writing accomplished. You begin to feel this vague desperation that nothing will ever change, that you're not trying hard enough, even as something inside you whimpers that you're already pushed as far as you can go. Maybe it's like this for everyone who is pursuing a goal.

There's this whole idea of fractals related to time-management and the pursuit of goals. A fractal is a mathematical construct that demonstrates the concept that very small patterns are echoed in larger patterns. Thus the outline of a pebble is reflected in the outline of a mountain range. So, the idea is, the pattern of each day will create the pattern of your whole life. If you spend 5% of your day dorking around on facebook, then 5% of your entire life is -- yeah, you got it.

You can play with this idea, but I can tell you right now: it leads to depression and obsession. One way to explore it is to track your time. Just brace yourself for the results, is all I can say. Then, you try to reapportion your time so that bigger chunks are spent on the things, say, you'd like to see mentioned in your obituary--were you to have the opportunity to see it, which you won't of course. This is where the obsession comes in. You'll find yourself scorning the "wasted" time spent on non-obituary-worthy things like sleep and meal preparation. You'll start parsing out, minute-by-minute, who is wasting your time, which means a chunk of your life, multiplied fractally.

Oh yeah, I've been there. And it's not pretty.

I love to read obituaries. Mostly I'm fascinated by what family and friends consider to be the salient details of their loved one's life. "Active in her church," "was happiest fishing in his beloved mountains," "adored her grandchildren." Rarely do they reflect a life journey. They might list degrees and accomplishments, books published and prizes acquired. More usually it's a genealogical record of parentage, marriages, divorces and progeny, with a few personal details thrown in, to liven it up.

My point is, none of us know what the pattern of our lives will be until it's complete, and then we'll be too dead to see it. And clearly, unless you get a great biographer interested in you, no one's going to write anything interesting about it, either.

Days are a random increment of time. A coincidental product of the way our planet spins. Some days we write thousands of wonderful words, other days not at all. Some days we spend in the sun with a margarita by the ocean. Others are spent working on what someone is willing to pay us to do. All of these things make up our lives, in rising and falling waves, constantly changing in amplitude. The pattern of my days now are not what they were like when I was 12 or at 32. I suspect at 62 they'll be something else altogether.

I trust that what they'll be is the flowering of what I do now, not an echo.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Multiple Identities

Many writers use pen names in the genre world. Some are just deviations or abbreviations of their day-to-day names like Chuck Box writing as "C.J. Box." Others use multiple names for the various "types" of stories they write, like Jayne Ann Krentz who uses that name, her married name for contemporary romantic-suspense, her maiden name, Jayne Castle, for paranormal romance and Amanda Quick for her historic romantic-suspense. She gave an interesting talk at the RWA National Convention about how she'd destroyed the "Jayne Castle" voice for a while, because readers wouldn't buy it. She later resurrected the name with the upsurge in interest in paranormal romance.

So, I can see the point: Chuck picks something that looks good on a cover. Jayne uses several names, to guide readers to the kind of story they like to read.

But it starts to get silly in the world of online writers loops. Maybe it's complicated by the fear of internet stalkers thing. But often someone will have an email address like bethwrites@whoosies.com and then her IM avatar will be called Stella, Queen of the Night. Then she'll email you and say her name is really Mary Beth Jones, but that she writes as Angora Conch. It splits my skull, I tell you. Especially if I've only met her online and have managed to recognize bethwrites and Stella as the same person, but she wants to hook up at the RT convention, but her name tag will probably say Angora.

I know, I should talk. But I'm only Jennifer for legal stuff. Everything I've written is as Jeffe Kennedy. My email address is my name, at my domain name, which is my name. My avatars are all some version of Jeffe. I contemplated seperating my fiction and nonfiction selves with a pen name, but all my stories feel like a part of me. I want them all to belong to the same name.

It's interesting to me, because the literary types rarely do this. Oh, they'll do the Chuck Box thing, or like I did. But, as a "serious" writer, your name, your self, is your copywrightable product. Much was made for some time of making sure you got the yourname.com domain, since your name is your product.

Of course, there's the element of fantasy in the world of romance. Readers escape into it, so it's natural that the writers do, too. Everybody wants to be the spy or the superhero, with multiple secret identities. But there's also some obsfucation involved. Anne Rice wrote BDSM stuff as A.N. Roquelaure and another novel that toyed with pedophilia as Anne Rampling. Perhaps it's a nod to the Puritanical whispers in our culture, the urge to hide behind an alternate identity. Though the trend these days seems to be to proudly acknowledge all pen names, which to me begs the point of having them in the first place.

Of course, the most interesting part of any spy or superhero story is when the secret identity is revealed. Noteworthy that it's also the crisis point when the hero is brought down. Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "To thine own self be true and it must follow, as the night follows day, thou canst not be false to any man."

I wonder sometimes, if the secret identity makes one more true or more false, inside our skulls.
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