The People Problem

You think your job is widgets.  It isn’t.

Your job is people.  Somewhere along the way, maybe when we stopped growing our own potatoes (and even then, there was family to manage), the output stopped being 100% of the point.  Not that output doesn’t matter.  Not that you don’t touch widgets.  But I’m willing to bet that for 99% of people, their daily work isn’t taken up in units moved from the inbox to the outbox.

Nope.  The bulk of your day is spent in people, nurturing relationships, building influence, listening, talking, arguing, managing feelings, going around so-and-so…  Because work is a social enterprise.  It is the primary social enterprise, given the death of small communities and the waning influence of churches.  It’s where we talk to people, it’s where we express ourselves.  It is the venue that excuses our runway walk through the world with this pair of shoes instead of that, this haircut, this beard, this dress, all of which say to people “this is who I am.”

Let’s face it, you don’t worry about all of that when you work from home, you don’t have to tell the dog who you are.  He can figure that out by sticking his nose in your butt.

Economies are changing.  Everything is changing.  From an input/output perspective measured in widgets, our system for working is super inefficient – because of the people.  People are the problem.  At least from one perspective.

From another perspective, we need our work.  Even the jobs we hate, and not just for the paycheck. We need our work because we are social animals.  We need the connection and it is harder and harder to find elsewhere.

To our detriment.

Childhood

Adults don’t know how to talk to children.  We bend over and ask “what are you learning in school” because once it’s behind us, we think of childhood as a foreign territory: children as being something other.  A separate animal from homoadultus.  We talk to them like we talk to foreigners, slowly and with short sentences.  Occasionally in a louder voice than is strictly necessary.

This is because we were never children.

Sure we experienced learning how to walk, and there was a time when we knew less and our mother called us to get out of bed in the morning and Ms. Johnson spanked us for kicking that dumb boy who said something rude.  But we were never distinct from ourselves, fitting into the category of other.  Maybe you can pinpoint a day when you lost your innocence, but that probably has little to do with your age at the time.

We are the same spirit all the way through.  The same eyes, the same senses, the same memory collection mechanisms whirring away between our ears.  Our experience is continuous.  We are one from start to finish, evolving minute by minute, but never not ourselves.

At three, I could walk into a room and say the one thing that was guaranteed to get everyone with their knickers in a twist.  I talk less in public now for that very reason, because I never know what that thing is going to be and it isn’t good for my bank account, this saying things that everyone is thinking and other people have the good sense not to say.  Sure I’ve evolved.  I talk less in public: that’s growth, isn’t it?

It doesn’t matter when it happened, it happened to me.  The dream of walking up a long flight of stairs in a red velvet queen’s cape.  That was me.  The dream where I found my ex’s cat in a pet store, and the damn thing bit me.  That was me too.  The nightmare of being picked up by a bulldozer and being dumped in a junkyard fire.  That was me.  The reccurring dreaming landscape, a city on a hill and the roads to get there.  All me.

The idea that we are temporarily bodies and permanently ourselves makes sense to me, because the thread that animates this body holds steady and taut, even as the flesh grows around it and then inevitably sags and deflates.

Adults don’t know how to talk to children because there are no children.  We talk to them like monkeys in the zoo: close cousins.  Cute, to be sure.  And they look at us with disdain in return because they know, even if we do not, that we are the idiots who refuse to recognize that they are just like us, just caught in a slightly different bubble of time and mostly free from the burden of paying the rent.

Naked and Afraid

Jennifer Lawrence.  Jill Scott.

Naked.

Privacy grossly violated.

White.  Black.

20’s.  40’s.

The conversations are vastly different.  People dare to criticize Jill Scott, which I find abhorrent.  For so many reasons.

1) We seem to have all agreed that feminine value is in physicality.  As if who you are, character, personality, perspective, accomplishment, kindness, none of that matters.  It’s the packaging.

The point of a gift is getting to the bits that are beneath the wrapping.  And we’re a society that is only interested in the wrapping paper and the shiny ribbons.  No child ever (well, maybe Fashion by Mayhem) got more excited over the paper than the stuff inside.  Just try bringing me an empty Tiffany’s box.  Pretty wrapping paper does not a good gift make.

I’ve been struggling with this a lot over the past year.  Because I’ve bought into it.  I mean, how can you not, when every message that comes in from the outside world is about thigh gaps and crows feet and women over 40 being invisible.

Look, we’re social creatures.  The people who survived were the ones that were best integrated into their societies.  We’re programmed for integrating the external messaging into our internal lives.  So yes, do we individually have the responsibility to reject bullshit messaging?  Of course.  But show me someone who can completely disregard what their society values and focuses on and I’ll show you a psychopath.  It isn’t all on the individual here.

2)  When did it become okay to be an asshole just because you can?  Bullying is universal, and the higher you fly, the more engaged a certain segment of society will be in shooting you down, but really, people.  Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.  Kindness is free, and it is never wasted.  If you can’t be nice, be silent.  It isn’t that hard.

3)  Why is it that we’re only having this conversation about the female body?  Not that men don’t feel the same pressure about their externals, but I don’t think it is to the same degree.

4) By any standard (except the thigh-gap one) Jill Scott is a beautiful woman.  And even if she didn’t have that smile, or that velvet skin, or the body of a goddess, she’d still be beautiful.  Because that’s a woman who has shown up for life, made mistakes, learned from them, and chosen to offer up the best parts of herself to the world through music.  Of all the people who want to talk about her body, what have any of you contributed to art, culture, or the comfort of people you’ve never even met?

Have the courage to build something yourself before you tear someone else down.

5)  Beauty is a social construct, and it reflects two basic functions of survival: surplus and fertility.  When only rich people could afford the calories or the leisure to carry a few extra pounds, then plump arms and full faces were beautiful.  Fertility, or the appearance of fertility, well, that doesn’t need to be explained.  The species must be propagated.  Perhaps the fertility thing can’t be changed, but there was a time when a good character was at least as valuable as good bone structure.

We could have that again.

Supply and demand, people.  The entire culture will shift to sell us what we choose to buy.  Imagine if we refused to buy magazines with people on the front who were mean?  What if assholery were as “unattractive” as crows feet or stretch marks, or five extra pounds?  We could make that happen, dollar by dollar.  Johnson and Johnson would stop selling us anxiety if we stopped buying it.

So yes, it is true that we are social creatures and we take social censure to heart.  But we are also part of the society, and we can turn that power around.

Word Strategy

Language is a tool.  We use it to arrange the world in our favor, to remember, to be remembered, to connect, to understand, to learn, to teach.   I have a hard time conceptualizing what being human would be like without language.  We’d be no more than amoebas bumping into each other.  Language is our only means of escaping the boundaries imposed by the macro-impermeability of our skin.

We use words to get what we want.  Or to try to get what we want.  But we tend to do it badly, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that make us feel safe, are not the words we mean.

The cafeteria in our building has gotten dismal, so I walked across the street for lunch.  I wasn’t there to see the sparking incident, but I got the aftermath: two grown men yelling at each other even as the distance between them increased, with one guy yelling behind him “you arrogant sonofa…” and the other waving his hand and saying “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

News flash:  when you start insulting someone, they stop listening.  If your point is to vent your annoyance, go for it.  If your point is to communicate something meaningful, you might as well keep your mouth shut because all of the incoming channels shut down as soon as the attack begins.

Think of every person in the whole world like their own little mobile castle, fully armed and prepared for siege.  They walk around with the gates half-open, but a guy standing behind them ready to pull up the bridge over the moat at the first hint of a threat.  Words are the emissaries you send across the space.  As long as those words feel safe, the gate stays open.  As soon as the words become threatening, the bridge goes up, the gates go down, and while you can certainly lob some doozies over the wall, and they can create some lasting damage when they land, you aren’t getting behind that gate again until you can prove that you’re safe.

In my professional life, I talk about the author’s obligation to avoid creating resistance.  As a writer, you create resistance when you make it painfully obvious to your reader that the voice they are hearing in their head as they read is not their own.  You do this in any number of ways – by breaking the rules of suspended disbelief; by having atrocious grammar or spelling errors; by ignoring the logic of the world you’ve created; trite language; making your reader feel stupid…  I’ve just realized that the list of ways to create resistance in your reader is impossibly long to document.

As a user of words, you have two choices: bump along as you were using the words you are comfortable with and confused as to why you aren’t getting through, or get strategic with the realization that, to get what you want, you’re going to get a lot further when the other party is receptive and the only way you can influence his/her receptivity is by doing your damndest to avoid creating resistance.  You’ve got to be willing to put the work into thinking about it, thinking about what you are comfortable saying, what you mean, and between the two, which is going to be easier to receive on the part of your conversational partner.

Is it manipulative?  Yes.  But everything we do is manipulative.  Manipulative doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  Besides, when in the midst of a relationship negotiation, saying what you’re comfortable with is as much of a manipulation as deciding you’re going to say what you mean.  If threatening to leave feels authentic, but you’re saying it because you want him to beg you to stay or because you’re terrified he’s going to say he wants to leave first…  well, that’s a manipulation.  So what happens if you kill the adversarial posture and say what you mean.  I’m hurt and I’m scared and I want to be connected to you.  Are you vulnerable?  Yes.  But no more vulnerable than when you were throwing word-bombs and hoping he’d hug you in response.  At that stage, it is going to hurt anyway.  You might as well say what you mean.

It’s like my uncle explained to my ex husband: you can be right or you can be happy.  You can use the word strategies that you are comfortable with (and most of us are comfortable with a defensive verbal posture) or you can set your comfort zone aside and say what you mean.  When it comes to love (of whatever variety), I think the connections are way too critical to risk.  Tell your truth as gently and as honestly as you can.  If you lose, you lose, but at least you lost on your best effort.  I think that’s better than losing on a half-ass attempt.  If you lose on half-assed, don’t you always wonder what you might have gained if you’d simply told the truth?

No regrets.  Whatever it takes to get to no regrets, do that.

The Argument Before the Argument

Words are vehicles for transmitting bits of yourself into someone else.  I bet you can think of something nice that someone said to you ten years ago.  I bet you know that person’s name, maybe what they were wearing at the time, and what their face looks like.  Similarly, I’m pretty sure you can look back ten years and see someone who said something hurtful to you.  Words are immortality, in a way, because so long as someone remembers our words, we live on.

Yes, so many of our words are throw-aways.  We talk about nothing and everything.  We talk to keep the air full of something.  We talk to remember that we exist.  And it isn’t always possible to know which words are going to be kept and which ones will vanish.  Not every conversation is a keeper.

But those conversations that are intended to be kept, the ones that make or break friendships, or love.  I want to talk about the words that we use in those.

Over the past week, I’ve talked to a couple of people contemplating serious conversations with people they love over the state of a relationship.  The pre-conversation conversation starts with “can I say this?” and then something comes out that I know has been considered and edited and rearranged for days, if not weeks, if not years.

And always, these things that we want to say are a hand extended by reaching around the shield.  Comments that give and take in the same breath.  Designed to hedge the bet about how the other guy is going to react, or to manipulate the other side of the conversation.  Part posturing, part supplication.  We’ve all done it, we’ve all been on the receiving end of it.  And it is maddening.

With one friend, we started out with “why do you hate me” and ended up with what she really wanted to say, which was “can we try this again?”  “Why do you hate me” is easier to say.  It is less vulnerable.  There isn’t the possibility of a “no” at the end of it.  It is demanding rather than giving, it seeks an outcome rather than saying what it is.  There’s not much by way of honesty in it, unless you count the honest desire for engagement behind it.  “Can we try this again” is straightforward.  It opens you up for a clear, clean “no.”  It is vulnerable.  It admits a wanting for something that you might not be able to have.  But it is also distinctly lacking in coercion, manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, or attempts to control the outcome.  It’s terrifying.  It’s impossibly vulnerable for someone who has been hurt – and we’ve all been hurt.

I saw some back and forth over text from another friend.  “I know you’ve moved on…” one party said.  Well, did they know that?  Or was that a defense mechanism and a backhanded way to ask “have you moved on?”  And the conversation disintegrated from there until no one knew what the other guy was saying because the words that were being used hadn’t been born clean.  The words were stuck trying to carry too much that was at odds with itself.

We all plan these conversations.  We argue before we argue, working out strategy about how we’re going to play the different aspects of our position, using our real pain in manipulative ways to orchestrate the empathy in our favor. It isn’t like you aren’t thinking about how to have that conversation already.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is going to hurt either way you go about it.  All of your fancy words and making the meaning double up on itself until no one can tell which is sincere and which is sarcastic; even your manipulations, trying to nudge things in your favor, even that is going to hurt.  Negotiating relationships hurts.  Full stop.  It’s scary.  And there is no way to protect yourself from the terror, at least not if you want an authentic connection.

From a writer.  As a writer.  As someone who thinks about using words well all the damn time.  Really.  All the damn time.  Play that conversation out.  With every iteration, push your words closer to simplicity and closer to the naked truth until you can get to the plainest words there are.  Words that don’t try to shape the other person’s answer.  Just the words.  Remember: this is someone you love.  This is someone you believe you need in your life.  This is someone who makes everything better when they’re in the room.  They fart sunshine and shit glitter.  You can’t stop thinking about them.  It’s been years and you’re still missing them.  They’re still all you can see.  The first thing on your mind in the morning; the falling asleep breath on your pillow holds their name.  Start with the truth, and let the truth set you free.

I miss you.  I love you.  I want you to be happy, and I want to be a part of your happy. What can I do to make that happen?

Under Water

I started swimming a few months back.  My rationale at the time was something about realizing that I’m not getting younger here and I need to do something to show the universe I’m trying to stave off the ravages of decrepitude some 30 years down the line.  Apparently, swimmers are physiologically about 18 years younger than their non-swimming counterparts – who comes up with these statistics – and I’d like to hedge my bets as much as possible.  I’m officially at the age where I’ve got to start that nonsense.  So I started.

And discovered that it is paying crazy dividends for my sense of mental balance.  My mentor mentioned that symmetrical movement helps the brain hemispheres get re-organized, which is good for an overall sense of balance, but google doesn’t seem to be coughing up any research to back that up. It sounds good, if nothing else.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the meditative breathing.  It forces a rhythm, and, come to think of it, it forces deep breathing as well.  None of this shallow breathing nonsense.  There is a lot of research on the connection between how we feel and our physiological presence.  If you want to appear more confident, go to the bathroom and stand in a victory pose (arms up in the air like you just won the Marine Corps Marathon) for a while.  You can be in a good mood or smile, or you can smile and change your mood.

It’s working on a lot of levels, then.

Intense rooting in the body: don’t drown, don’t drown, don’t drown.

Zazen-like counting: reach 1, reach 2, reach 3 and breathe.  reach 1, reach 2, reach 3 and breathe.

Being so busy trying to remember how many laps you’ve gone thus far that you can’t think about anything else, thereby breaking whatever patterns of thought you’d been stuck in: was this lap 7 or lap 8?  They all look the same!

Symmetrical movement, perhaps balancing out the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Movement-induced endorphins.

Alone-time.

Oh, and the part where I found a muscle yesterday and I didn’t even have to go looking for it.

I know I’m not the only one in the world with a propensity for anxiety and a distaste for exercise.  If my motivator were to be a bean-pole, I’d have quit by now, for sure.  But if anyone else out there is running out of xanax and wanting some feel better that doesn’t come in a pill…  I’m suggesting you give the pool a shot.

Just not my pool.  There are plenty of people at that one already.

 

The S-Word

Strangers reading the book – well, any of the books – makes me happy.  People I know reading the book makes me nervous.  In part because of this pervasive rumor that authors write themselves into books.  Unfortunately, some of us do.  I’ve seen several author interviews where they talk about how the main character is just like them – same occupation, same racial composition.  This lends itself to a confluence, or an assumed confluence, between the author and the story.  It is a legitimate conclusion to draw in some cases.  However, it just isn’t the way it works for me.

This question gets to a question of legitimacy:  can we legitimately write from the perspective of people who aren’t us?  Or is the only legitimately-tacked character one that is you with a thin veneer of obfuscating details?  Can I write a convincing man?  Am I allowed to have a character with a different racial composition?  Am I presuming too much?  How much imagination am I allowed to have here?

Because the whole book is the product of my imagination and a bunch of critical insights and suggestions made by my editor and my story consultant.  As mentioned elsewhere, the book does betray of my aspirations: I’d love to be an old lady like Morrigan, or to drop everything and wander across the country like Willow, or carry around half of Ianthe’s bravery.  I admire Miles and his clinical logic.  I have grudging respect for the compromises Warren makes.  There are few characters in the book that don’t have something that I like or would like to have myself.

But I’m not them and they’re not me.  Where this becomes most uncomfortable is what happens when we get to the sex part.  Because people in the book have sex.  And yes, I imagined up the sex, and then I wrote it down.  But that doesn’t mean that what happens in the book reflects what I have done, what I want to do, or what I could be talked into doing given a nice enough bottle of wine.  Human sexuality is critical for creating well-rounded characters.  For people to live and breathe on the page, they’ve got to have all the same dimensions of someone that you’d meet in the real world.  That includes sex.  And not everyone experiences human sexuality in the same way.

I’m writing The Camellia Reckoning.  I’m writing sex scenes for Miles.  If you met me, you’d know I’m not Miles at all, but here I am writing about what Miles sexual history might look like.  What would it take to get someone that analytic to lose control?  I don’t know, I’m not that logical.  But I have to figure it out because I wrote him and now he’s got a life of his own.  His fantasies are not my fantasies.  What it takes to push him over the edge isn’t what it takes to get me there.

When you write, when you’re in the state of flow, your ego kind of fades away.  All those boundaries and memories and opinions that make up an identity get lost as imagination and empathy settle in and let you cross the dividing line between yourself and someone with a history that is not your own.  Coming back to yourself can be disorienting.  Then you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the hell just happened and what went wrong in your life that you can come up with this twisted little scene – sexual or otherwise.

Honestly, I don’t know where this shit comes from.  But if you know me in my real life and you’ve read the book…  assume nothing.  If I ever get around to book signings and interacting with book clubs …  still assume nothing.   No single character is a self-portrait and there is no scene anywhere in the book that is autobiographical or has a direct correlation to things that I have done, will do, want to do, consider doing, refuse to do, or think about doing.  This isn’t 50 Shades of Grey where I have turned an extended sexual fantasy based on some other book entirely into a trilogy.  Honestly, there’s not that much sex in the book, even with the reviewer that said it is Hunger Games, X-Men, and 50 Shades rolled into one.

I mean, I should be so lucky.  All of those franchises were incredibly successful.

Still, don’t get any big ideas.  I’m not Willow, and you aren’t Ven.