Sunday, January 10, 2010

Anyone For a Game of Write-Sweeper?

I did some editing today, trying to get a novel ready for submission to agents, publishers, guys with unlimited access to Xerox machines. I'm not at a place where I can be extremely picky.

As is my want, I edited in sections; finish a chapter, take a break, start another chapter, realize that the first break didn't take and go ahead and have another just to be safe, go back to the chapter, wonder where I left my drink, probably lost it when I went on break better take another so I can go and find it. During these breaks I often pull up a game of Minesweeper and traverse the most deadly grid to ever come in a basic computer package.

I really enjoy Minesweeper, and I'll tell you why. (Oh, you will? In a blog about Minesweeper? You're too kind.) For one thing, Minesweeper is not editing. Quick digression, did you know that the term editing came from the Latin edi: meaning "thing which," an ting: meaning "makes your brain ooze slowly out your left ear?" You didn't? Well, I haven't heard any evidence to the contrary so... yeah, that's where that comes from.

As I was saying, pre-digression, I really enjoy Minesweeper and one reason is that you know when you've screwed up. There's nothing subjective about screwing up in Minesweeper, no "Maybe it could work," or "It's good, it's just not for me." No, in Minesweeper there is success, everybody's doing fine, and failure, the entire world is going up in flame! You have one chance, one. There are no namby pamby extra lives in Minesweeper, no hit points, no health regeneration. You hit that mine and it is game over.

So much of my life is subjective. My day job, which I actually do at night but it's the one that pays the bills, involves working with mentally disabled adults. We try to put as much structure into their lives as we can but each new day is a new game and the rules are always different. There are certainly mines to avoid in this work but you never know what will trigger them. One day asking a guy if he's ready for breakfast will get you the biggest smile you'll ever want to see, the next day the same question to the same guy will get a bottle of shampoo thrown at your head.

If the rules of that job are ever shifting, the rules of publishing are in a constant shake and bake and there's no little girl with a southern twang to help either. Publishers follow trends, agents follow publishers; one agent wants a query, synopsis and the author's life story and the next doesn't want any of that, just a photo and number where you can be reached confidentially. (Actually, that's probably a mine that you should try to avoid.)

I haven't even gotten to the text. Writing a story, be it short or long, fact or fiction, is one of the worst things anyone can ever do to themselves. There's no right or wrong, there's no final authority, you will never know if you have done something good or if trees are just being felled to satisfy your own personal hubris. People you love and who profess to love you back will tell you it's good, but just not their cup of tea. What, you were supposed to make tea too? What do they want from you?

This is why I want someone (Steve Jobs, if your reading this would be a wonderful time to start taking notes) to come up with a word processor which utilizes the function of a Minesweeper game. Feel free to take full credit for the idea, I don't want any proceeds, I just want the first program that rolls off of the assembly line. We will call it Write-Sweeper and it will function in this manner; when I make a grammar or syntax error, the words will blow up; when I use a sentence fragment that is not a part of dialogue or character driven narrative, the words will blow up; when I've written a sentence that, if there were any justice in the world I would be sentenced to death for ever putting down on paper, the words will blow up. I'm sure this means that I will be starting and restarting my project many, many times over but, when I write that 80, 90, 100 thousandth word and my book has come to a satisfying conclusion, if I can look up to the top of my screen and see that little smiley face guy proudly wearing his shades with that smirk of his face, I will know that my book is good.

And I will be pleased.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Preconceptions: More Than Just Cheap Wine and Faulty Condoms

Yesterday I posted question on a website asking people to think of five U.S. Presidents. I then went on to postulate that one of the five was almost certain to be Honest Abe Lincoln, even going so far as to bet that Abe made it into the top three. (I don't want to go into the whole point of the essay here though, if I do say so, it was a lovely piece of writing, choc-a-block with nouns, verbs AND punctuation and should you be interested, can be found here:

As it turns out, it was fortunate for me that I did not put actual money on this bet as only one person had Lincoln even in their top five. (The results seemed to skew towards more contemporary presidents, what that means may be explored in some later blog.) As a result, I have come to learn a rather harsh lesson; not everyone thinks as do I.

I try to be aware of my preconceptions. I know that I have a tendency to assume, unless otherwise informed, that people posses traits similar to my own. For instance, should someone tell me they'd recently given birth and give me no other details I would naturally assume that their new child was a white, somewhat dumpy male in his early thirties who was disappointed with the newer seasons of The Simpsons but not yet willing to write them off. (I'm joking of course, oh, but we do have fun, don't we? Yes, we do.)

But I do tend to assume. As a right handed person, when I see someone who I did not know was left handed writing with their left hand, I'm generally surprised enough to comment. "Oh," I typically say in the genial manner I have of saying thing, IT'S GENIAL DAMMIT, "you're a southpaw?" (I say "southpaw" because I'm a fan of the film Rocky as I have preconceived you are as well.)

But these preconceptions are harmless enough. I can't imagine someone being hurt because I think Lincoln is among their top five presidents or I'm surprised at their manner of writing. It's the other preconceptions that I try, and admittedly sometimes fail, to curtail.

For instance, I am not one to shy from profanity (The Hell you say? No it's true.) I believe that words only have the power that we give them and I refuse to fear language simply because it may invoke images of a saucy or unsavory nature. (Of course some words have a history which transcends them from simple communication to symbols of hate, pain, suppression and those I do avoid.) But I know that some people hold strong opinions about such words and I try not to use language which might offend them when other words will suffice. Like I said, I'm often unsuccessful in this endeavor.

I'm hesitant to invoke the name of Dr. Phil, I don't think he'll add a lot of credibility to my arguments and there's a reason I refer to him as a guilty pleasure (I mean really, where do they find these people and why are they all so willing to say this stuff on air?) But he has made one point that I find very accurate. It's all about expectation. To use his analogy, if I give you something to eat and tell you it's salty, even if it's the saltiest thing you've ever tasted, you can pretty much handle it. But, if I give you something and tell you it's salty and it turns out to be even mildly sweet, you're going to have a strong reaction because you were prepared for the salty flavor. We base our preconceptions on our experiences and then expect that everyone has shared these same experiences. As it turns out, not everyone grew up in a small, North Carolina town called Hayesville, been the second of four kids and spent much of their childhood very involved with their community theater. I know, I was shocked as well.

Ultimately, I guess I'm saying that I thought I had this whole preconception thing under control but, as my presidential inquiry pointed out, maybe I have a ways to go after all.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Just Because I Used a Word, Doesn't Mean I Meant It

I just got off the phone with my good friends at Charter Communications who are very concerned that I am receiving the optimum in Internet capabilities. I thought that was very considerate of them.

The snag we ran into during our conversation was that when I informed them that I was perfectly happy with my current Internet provider, the operator said, "I completely understand," before continuing with her scripted sales pitch (for that, I came to fear, was the true nature of her call.)

I repeated to her that I was happy with the service I had and she repeated, "I completely understand," before continuing.

Now, it seems to me that there would be a myriad of responses to an unwilling customer such as myself, and I must admit "I completely understand" is one of them, but I fear it is not the best. Perhaps something along the lines of "ah, but you haven't heard about this..." or maybe, "you may think you're satisfied, but you don't know about..." I may still not be sold on your idea, but at least I would be unable to refute your premise. Saying, "I completely understand" not even a partial understanding but a complete understanding mind you, and then immediately demonstrating that you do not at all understand, tends to undermine your argument.

This little Tet-a-Tet concluded with me saying, "Obviously you don't completely understand as you are still attempting to sell me on your package," which elicited a, "Well, I'm just trying to do my job," response before telling me that Charter appreciated what business I'm already giving them and then hanging up on me.

Now, without even going into the oddity of calling a person at his home, doing a terrible job at selling him your product and then yelling at him when A: he is actually an active customer with your company and B: the response he gave really didn't deserve your ire (I imagine she gets far more verbally abused on almost every other call), this was a very poor excuse for a social interaction.

One has to assume they don't expect people to whip out their checkbook every time they place a call. Do they actually train their telemarketers to talk over their customers with a gratuitous "I completely understand" when the customer tells them they aren't interested? And this idea that I should feel bad because I wasn't responsive enough when she's doing a job that I didn't hire her for and would, in fact, rather she not do. In the words of hack comedians everywhere, what's the deal with that? I imagine a bank robber being put in handcuffs shouting profanities at the police officer who says, in a voice suggesting he's fighting back tears, "I'm just doing my job, why you gotta be so mean?" (Yes, I realize that in this particular analogy I am, in fact, the bank robber. I'm okay with that.)

I guess the point of this particular ramble is that, if you're going to call me to sell me something I don't want, at least have a vague grasp of the meaning of the words that you use. Oh yeah, and just because it's your job, that doesn't actually mean I have to buy from you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Take That, Inner Child

Wow, the word "Inner" looks really bizarre in writing. I've never noticed before.

Anyway, to the blog!

I realized today that Christmas was less than a week away. Not exactly a feat of mental gymnastics, I'm aware, but it was a realization just the same. With that realization came another thought, which went a little something like this, "Remember when knowing Christmas was around the corner was cause for a change of underpants?"

It's true, I grew up in a house that, from the day after Thanksgiving until the new year, was decked out floor to ceiling and stem to stern with wreaths, nativity scenes, Santas galore and, of course, a big ole tree with a train underneath. (I think this is one reason I don't care much for New Year's Day, it generally meant work undoing all the decor.) The thought of the presents alone was enough to send me into palpitations but that wasn't all. I loved all of the Christmas specials; Frosty, Rudolph and that lot were wonderful but I also loved all of the Flintstones' takes on A Christmas Carole (I think there were three in all) the Very Brady Christmas, and anything else that plopped a tree in the midst of characters I knew and loved. My mom baked all manner of delicious stuff; fudge, sugar cookies, party mix, etc. which she kept replenished all month long. Even church became enjoyable because first we did a pageant and then we had a midnight service on Christmas Eve and I got to stay up for it, all the way to MIDNIGHT!

Yup, there's a little kid somewhere way in the back of the bus that is my psyche screaming for joy that our next stop is Christmas. The problem is, there's a curmudgeonly old driver who can clearly see the potholes. Decorating is work, the presents are just more things I have to find space for in my overstuffed house, the specials are trite excuses for selling me razors and jewelry, the cookies and fudge are empty calories which I certainly don't need (but will likely have none the less) and I stay up all of the way to midnight most nights anyway. Suffice to say, the guy at the wheel has successfully shouted the little boy into his place, "Sit it down, and shut it up. I will turn this holiday around RIGHT NOW!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that I can see the strings holding up the marionette, if you'll pardon the peculiar metaphor. I can't imagine a sadder prospect than a grown man who still leaves cookies out for a jolly old elf who will never come. It is my time to manipulate the puppet, to pull the string so that little ones like my nephew can have the sort of magical holiday that I once had. But I do feel that I owe that little kid in the last seat something. After all, if not for him, I wouldn't be here. So, this Christmas I'm going to let him come a few rows up. I'm going to find the magic in the wreaths hanging on people's doors, the wonder of a stop motion reindeer taking flight and amaze myself by the fact that I get to stay up all of the way to midnight. I don't know how successful I'll be, but I'm going to give it a shot.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

There Is No Spoon

To my knowledge I have never bent a spoon, or any flatware for that matter, with naught but the power of my mind. Also, if we are truly trapped in a very complete, never crashing, entirely virus-proof computer program, I can't see the matrix. (If at this point you still don't get my reference, stop reading now and go directly to your video store to rent The Matrix and only The Matrix. You may be tempted by sequels but resist.)

Though I have no psychic abilities and cannot see the world around me for the facade that it surely is, I do have my perceptions and, ultimately, isn't that what it's all about?

I remember being five or so and hearing some people debating where wind came from. At the time I thought that was the strangest debate I'd ever heard because to me it was obvious from whence the wind came; it was windy when the trees waved. If there was a light wind the small branches would flick around stirring up just the slightest bit of air. In a hard, blow the shingles off your roof gust, the trees practically bent over double. It made perfect since. When I was hot I could flap a piece of paper and stir up a breeze and the trees could just do that on a far grander scale.

I can't overstate here how certain I was about my theory. I'd seen this with my own eyes, every time there was wind there was some motion in a tree. I'd done my own experiments with paper. I doubt I knew what a scientific journal was at the time, but had I known, I would have been ready to publish.

So, what does this mean for me now? Other than a potential picture book (copy-write pending, don't get any ideas) I think it proves that seeing shouldn't always be believing. Maybe the things that I'm dead certain about are things that, seen from a slightly different perspective, might not be as clear. Maybe what I think of as empirical evidence is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Maybe, even though I can see, touch and eat my cereal with it, there really is no spoon.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Kingly Gift

I read yesterday that Stephen King paid to transport a whole bunch (the article was more specific but I've slept since) of soldiers home to Maine for Christmas before they have to deploy overseas in January. First of all, bravo to Mr. King, of course. I doubt that the money put him in any sort of financial bind, but it would have been just as easy to tell them that they were on their own, he paid his taxes and that should be enough to transport the troops wherever they needed to go. Are there no prisons, no workhouses? Sorry, Dickens moment.
Ultimately, he didn't do that, he stepped up and he deserves applause for it. I'll wait while you clap at your computer.

Ready? Okay!

The really interesting part of the whole story though, was that he was asked for thirteen thousand to bring the troops home but he refused to do that on the grounds of thirteen being unlucky. Instead he gave $12,999 and his assistant added the extra buck to round it out. Publicity stunt? Possibly, it does give the story a twist that a simple wealthy man who aids those in need story would not have, but I think it goes a little deeper.
First of all, as a fan and avid reader of Mr. King I know that he has said many times how much he dislikes the number thirteen to the point of avoiding addresses which add up to the wicked number. Those who have read or even seen the movie version of Room 1408 know that he has thought of this before. Also, even if you can consider this a simple publicity stunt, why go this way. It's Christmas, wouldn't it have been more appropriate to send each soldier his ticket in a stocking? That certainly would have garnered more notice than deducting a dollar due to superstition.
No, I think that Mr. King was joking out of one side of his mouth while breathing a sigh of relief out of the other.
Which makes me wonder, how much do I let superstition affect my life? I certainly knocked on my share of wood throughout the day. I refuse to say things out loud lest they come true, or don't come true depending on the desired outcome. I don't worry about spilling salt but I typically walk around ladders rather than under them. I can't remember the last mirror I broke but I'll guarantee that if I should shatter one today part of me would be wondering about the next seven years.
I suppose as long as I'm living my life with out too much interruption my mild superstitions shouldn't bother me, but just to be sure, maybe I should go knock on some wood.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Blognaugural

I'm going to do my best not to make this a blog about blogs. I think by now we are all well aware of the wonder that is wed logging and throwing yet one more voice into that noisy high school cafeteria that is the Internet only to reiterate that which has been said I know not how oft seems a bit silly.

That said, this particular blog is about blogging.

More to the point, it is about this particular blog, my blog, A Fool and his Words. The title came to me when I was commenting on the responses to, you guessed it, a blog. (I don't want to get into the pretzel-like logic that had me commenting on another person's blogs comments, if you've ever been on the Internet, I'm sure you understand perfectly.)

Many of the responses seem to be righteous indignation shot from the hip without a moments consideration, a regurgitation of things heard and read by people who believe fully the things they hear and read so long as it in no way disrupts their basic outlook on life. My comment about these people was that "A fool and his words are soon parted." Eh, sound familiar? Clever twisting of an old cliche' perhaps?

At the time I meant it to be pejorative, of course. I was reading the responses of people who did not share my basic outlook on life and therefore assumed them to be foolish reactionaries. I, of course, would never fly to MY keyboard after reading opinions which differed from my own and slander the author of those opinions. I would never read a fully thought out, well presented argument and respond with a simple invective simply because I did not agree with the person making the point. I would never sum up the ideas of a group of people with a cleverly turned yet ultimately hollow phrase such as, "A fool and his words are soon parted."

Uh oh.

Okay, I'm as bad as everyone else. But I'm trying, I'm trying to take life a step at a time and see things less as black and white. My goal for this blog is primarily to entertain. I hope that I can bring a little pleasure into the life of anyone who might stumble across the pages and tarry a while over my words. But I also want to always remember that, ultimately, I am only a fool and these are only my words.