Uncategorized

So, You Think You Got Problems?

Posted on Updated on

I dropped in on my friend Becca’s site today – and she claims she forgot to be funny; but, I peed my pants laughing at her lame attempt to not be funny.

I mean, really, what’s unfunny about frizzy hair?  Maybe my efforts to grow a goatee?  Could be.  You see, it keeps coming in in patches, so instead of looking like a sinister scientist who’s creating life from dead body parts, I look like a goat who’s been in a fight with a weed whacker.

Seriously, though, I’m trying not to get ready for Halloween, and that’s scary.  See, my wife thinks its neat to stand by the door and hand out candy to grubby little crumb snatchers from up and down the block who give you the evil eye because your candy’s so cheap, and who insist on trekking across your newly sodded lawn.  You want to yell at them, but since you already have a reputation as the neighborhood Grinch, and your wife’s standing behind you with hands on hips and a stern expression, you just stand there and smile – well, more like a grimace.

Becca, you think you know hardship?  Let me tell you hardship. Try getting up in the morning and finding nothing in the pantry but half a jar of peanut butter but no crackers, and you forgot to put a can of beer in the fridge, so the beer and peanut butter breakfast you planned to eat is with whole wheat toast (gag!) and warm beer (the English will pay for this indignity).  When you’ve faced the problems I’ve faced, talk to me.

I could go on and on; but, my neighbor accuses me of going on and on too much, so I won’t.  Oh, wait; there is one more little problem I just have to share; my wife asked (well, ordered really) me to pick up Trick or Treat candy the last time I went to the store – and, don’t you know it, I forgot.  She thinks its in the pantry. I have just over a week to figure out how to sneak out to the store and sneak the damn stuff back into the house.  Curses!

I hate Halloween.  Bah, humbug.  Oh no, wrong holiday.  Doesn’t matter; hate that one too.

The 20-60-20 Rule of Human Behavior

Posted on

When I was a kid, I remember reading somewhere an article about the ‘Talented Tenth.’  This was a theory that said basically ten percent of the population was responsible for most of society’s progress while the remaining 90% was sort of ‘along for the ride.’  I have to admit that my observations as I matured didn’t do much to contradict that belief; that is, until I started looking more closely at how people behave.

After five decades of watching people in societies around the globe, under all kinds of circumstances from almost idyllic peaceful circumstances to the stench and bloodshed of war, I have come to the conclusion that the ‘Talented Tenth’ theory missed it by a bit.  My observations, admittedly anecdotal rather than scientific, have led me to believe that people in groups tend to fall into a Gaussian distribution (so called for German mathematician and physicist Karl Gauss, who popularized its use to analyze astronomical data), otherwise known as a Bell Curve or normal distribution because of its graphic shape.  Basically, in a normal distribution, the highest point in the curve, or the top of the bell, represents the most probable event or situation, with all possible occurrences equally distributed around it, creating a downward-sloping line on each side of the peak.

So, how have I observed people to sort themselves out in the normal distribution?  Like I said, it’s not empirical data, but it seems to work out to a ratio of 20-60-20.  That is, 20% on what I call the ‘good’ or ‘productive’ side, 20% on the ‘bad’ or ‘dysfunctional’ side, and the remaining 60% evenly distributed in the main or central part of the bell.  I guess you could say we 60% are the ballast that keeps society on a somewhat even keel.

Now, on the ‘good’ side, we have the Einsteins, the Michelangelos, the Mother Theresas, and others who come up with the new, bold ideas; who go where no one has gone before.  These are the people who make things happen for the betterment of the whole society.  On the ‘bad’ side, we have the Hitlers, the Jeffrey Daumers, and the idiots who change lanes on the beltway without signaling, cutting in front of cars so close they cause them to stamp on their brakes, creating massive traffic snarls and sometimes causing fatal accidents.  These are the people who take guns to school and use classmates and teachers for target practice before turning the guns on themselves.

While the ‘good’ side of the bell is busy trying to help society progress, the ‘bad’ side is constantly trying to pull it down.  You might think that leaves those of us in the middle 60% at the mercy of geniuses and madmen; but, you’d be wrong.  Like the ballast in a ship, we serve to keep things from going too far in one direction or another.  The geniuses are often so deep in their vision of the future, they fail to solidly ground themselves in the present.  We dullards of the so-so 60% keep them grounded in reality.  At the same time, our outrage when the ‘bad-siders’ go too far helps to keep society from descending into total chaos.

As far as I know, no one has seriously studied this phenomenon.  If they have, I’d be interested in seeing the results, just to see how far I am off the mark.  But, I think that if one day this is ever studied, my theory will be somewhere in the neighborhood of the reality.  After all, under the rules of normal distribution, it should be somewhere near the middle of the bell.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Easy as Pie – Fighting the Culture War

Posted on

Have you ever metaphor you didn’t like; well I’ve had a simile experience, and the weekly writing challenge has helped me to relieve myself of that burden.  If you’d like to give it a try, check it out here.

Here’s my take on fighting the culture war – or, my ‘clash of civilizations.’

A few years ago, shortly after the tragic events of 9/11, Samuel Huntington wrote an essay on the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’  Huntington’s treatise primarily addressed the potential for conflict between traditional Islamic societies and secular Western civilization.  I have a news flash for the good professor; the clash of civilizations has been going on for millennia, and it’s played out in the arena of cross-cultural marriages.

I’ve been engaged in a clash of culture for nearly 40 years; I’m married to an ethnic Korean from that generation of traditional Koreans.  Our clash begins with the oddities in our personal histories; she’s a Presbyterian who thinks Buddhism is old-fashioned, despite the fact that her late parents were both Buddhist, and I’m a former Baptist, who left that religion when I was a teenager, and, after experimenting with a number of different faiths, decided that Buddhism was the path I was most comfortable following.  I’m a laid back type, preferring to take the middle road, while she’s a complete Calvinist; and a worrier to boot.

A recent conversation will illustrate the course of our perennial bouts.  We were sitting around; me pecking away at my keyboard like a hungry chicken, while she sat with her eyes glued to the screen of the idiot tube, watching some news show.  Now, I can sit quietly for hours, listening to nothing but the pecking sound of my fingers on the keys, lost in the ocean of my thoughts as they crash upon the shores of my consciousness; while she, on the other hand, is like the air that must fill any vacuum it encounters – silence to her is brass, not gold.  She also has a rather annoying habit of starting conversations at random points, often somewhere near the middle of her stream of thought; words bobbing up and snatching at the unwary dragon fly that was hovering above the surface.

“I really feel sorry for those old people,” she said.

She had to be talking to me, because she only talks to the TV during soap operas when she’s upset at one of the characters.

“What old people?” I ask, removing my fingers from the keyboard.

Now, I have long since learned, is the time to move away from what I’ve been doing and pay attention – there’ll be a test, mark my words.

“You never pay attention,” she said.  “Those people there on the TV.”

“Oh, yes, those people.  Why do you feel sorry for them?”

“They still have to work, and they should be retired.”

“Maybe,” I say. “They enjoy working.  Some people don’t handle idleness well.”

“That’s okay if you’re the boss.  Then you only have to give directions. But, if you’re just a worker, you have to take orders and have more responsibility and pressure.”

At this point is where I want to say that there’s far more pressure on the person in charge than subordinates; the responsibility of being the boss is tremendous; but, I don’t.    Instead, I say, “Yeah, I guess you have a point.”

Then, I unplug my laptop, and taking it and my notes, retreat to my Fortress of Solitude; the office I’ve set up in my garage; a place she avoids like the proverbial plague because along with my computer mouse, there is the occasional four-legged variety of rodent running around beneath my desk.  I do this because to do anything else will expose me to the Kryptonite of her criticism of my leadership style, which she thinks is too generous to subordinates, far too easy on people who should be jumping whenever I say ‘jump.’  On those rare occasions when I foolishly engage her in this conversation, I’m drowned in a tidal wave of instructions on how to be a ‘proper’ boss, sucked ever downwards in a whirlpool of dictatorial management advice; until I come to my senses and quietly stroke to the surface to gulp the clean air of silence.

You might ask how I have endured nearly four decades of this culture war?  Easy; I long ago declared an armed truce; a cease fire that is only occasionally broken by cross border sniping, which, wisely, I’m usually the one to take finger off trigger.  The guns are silent now; the news show has been replaced by another of those moan and groan soap operas in which everyone is sleeping with everyone else, and the hero loses in the end.  That ensures the guns will be silent for at least another hour, and maybe, just maybe, I can get some writing done.

 

What to do when characters develop a mind of their own

Posted on

The one thing that you can be sure that all writers have in common is that at some point we have read a book or article on the writing craft. One thing that I have encountered a number of times in reading about writing is the statement that it is not true that characters can take over a story.

This is usually accompanied by detailed instructions on outlining a story, whether it’s a short story or novel, before you begin writing. I suppose if you happen to be a WWO, a writer who outlines, this is probably true. I don’t know what applies to WWNO, writers who never outline, because I fall somewhere in between. I usually start with a fairly clear idea in mind as to where I want the story to go, who the characters are, the nature of the conflict, and the setting. I write a concise description of the main plot, make a list of the characters, and even sometimes make a time line.

In most of the stories I write, things go according to plan. But, on occasion, things take a turn that I have not planned for. Because I tend to write serial stories, novels and short stories, I try to carry over the main theme from story to story. Sometimes, though, either readers who have taken a particular liking to a character, and offer compelling justifications for their views, or the characters themselves, turn my nice neat story line on its ear.

About a year ago, for instance, just for fun, I wrote a short story about an urban kid with money problems. He’d borrowed money from a loan shark and couldn’t make his payments. This particularly story had a postal theme, so I gave it the title, “Dead Letter.” The plot was simple; my protagonist was trying to lay low to keep from getting his legs broken, so he changed his name and moved. Unfortunately for him, the Post Office tracked him down by delivering a letter sent to his old name and address to his new digs and, you guessed it, the loan shark found him.

I ended the story with a shotgun blast through the door and him being slammed against the wall. Fortunately, I didn’t specifically say that the shot had killed him; I preferred to allow readers to come to their own conclusion. One perceptive reader, though, had taken a liken to my character, Louis Dumkowski, and sent me an email asking if I could do a follow on story bringing him back to life. While I don’t normally make such drastic changes because of just one reader, her email was so sincere, I decided to take a crack at it.

Since I hadn’t actually killed Louis, in the second story I had him regain consciousness with a chest full of splinters from the door, which had absorbed almost all of the buck shot from the shotgun. Now, of course, I had to give him a new challenge, so I put him on the run. After all, if the loan shark learned that he’d failed, he might try again. Doing the second story got me interested in Louis’s fate, so I did a few more, putting him in one crazy situation after another. Some readers liked it, and kept asking for more.

Louis matured a bit, but only a bit, from story to story; mostly with the help of his high school buddy, Cleatus Washington. And I finally wrote a confrontation story, with Cleatus convincing Louis to face the loan shark. That led to some more humorous situations as the loan shark, a superstitious street punk named Vinnie ‘the Enforcer’ Williams, was so freaked that he hadn’t killed Louis, he hired him to collect loans. For good measure, he hired Cleatus as well.

A couple more stories had the two of them encountering customers, and developing a conscience. Well, Cleatus developed a conscience, and drug Louis along, which brought me to the last story in the series – or at the last one that I’ve written.

My plan was for Cleatus to convince Louis that they should stop bleeding the poor people in the neighborhood and get into a more decent line of work. My plan was to have a confrontation with Vinnie, perhaps with a bloody nose or two, but with Louis prevailing in the end. As I wrote, I could see the story in my head like an old black and white B movie, and the dialogue was clear in my head. The problem was, these two reprobates didn’t want to say what I’d planned for them to say. And, when Vinnie appears near the end of the story, the confrontation just didn’t seem the way they wanted to go. He’d been around them so long; well, actually, he’d been spending most of his time soaking up Jack Daniels and coke in the local bar while they did all the work, but his earlier nearly religious superstition, and the fact that he was sponging off his uncle, didn’t make a fight logical. What the characters wanted to do, in fact, was become respectable and liked members of the community. So, I just let the movie play out, and the three of them end up shaking hands and deciding to begin helping the community – for a profit of course; they didn’t totally change their mercenary ways.

The response to “Outside Parcel” was immediate. One reader expressed pleasure that the guys were trying to go straight, and looked forward to their new adventures. As for me, I’m just curious to see what they might get up to the next time I sit down and start typing.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the adventures of Louis and Cleatus, check out “Dead Letter,” “Return to Sender,” “Unclaimed Package,” “Rural Free Delivery,” and “Outside Parcel” at http://www.fictionwritersplatform.net.