Things I Can’t Do

I grew up around people who lacked one critical skill: They couldn’t admit there was anything worth doing that they couldn’t do.

daves-gone-insane

I’m a pretty lousy satiric cartoon re-captioner, for instance…

And to some extent, this denial of incapability was helpful. There really wasn’t much they couldn’t do. If you can read and ask questions, you have the skills you need to learn how to do almost anything. That was our motivating ethos.

My mom and dad had never managed a restaurant or casino when they took over a struggling little cantina with some slot machines in the near-ghost-town of Searchlight, Nevada in 1977. But they soon figured it out. My dad had never tended bar and my mom had never cooked for hundreds of people before that experience. Somehow they pulled it off and built the place into a going business in a matter of a few months…

…only to lose it all when my dad learned that handshakes make for poorly-secured business agreements.

When we moved to Phoenix my dad had no experience in wiring rooftop evaporative coolers. He got a book and more or less figured it out without having to pay an electrician. Sure, there was that time when — as we parked in the driveway — we saw a pigeon alight on the frame of that cooler, make a final death-squawk, take a high trajectory off the roof, then go “thump” as its lifeless, smoking corpse landed at our feet. My dad immediately got the ladder and climbed up top to investigate. We nearly witnessed a repeat performance as he grabbed the cooler with both hands then jerked back, swearing (he hadn’t bothered to turn off the power first).

But overall, dad got a passing grade. Hey! The cooler was keeping the house cool–and the pigeons hot. Bunches of them, we later found out.

And so when I got old enough to start working (for my dad), it was all OJT: On the job training. I could read and knew how to use a card catalog at the library and could frame informal requests for help from professionals in a persuasive way. I wasn’t afraid of failing. I learned a lot of about soldering and the difference between RTS and XLR connectors, when not to connect the ground wire on both sides of a signal cable, how to set a compressor curve and how to edit tape (for the millenials out there: Sound was previously recorded on a polyester-based magnetic tape that needed to be physically manipulated with razor blades and adhesive. Brutal, I know). I was only about 15 or so, but I figured it out — bit-by-bit.

My parents continued to believe there really was nothing they (nor I) couldn’t do given access to the proper sources of information. My dad’s universe was composed of three rings: At the core were the creators who had a certain magic (that’s where he resided, natch). Next ring was inhabited by workaday schlubs like bank presidents and pharmacists. The final ring was inhabited solely by people who swept the hair out of barbershops.

That didn’t leave me with too many career choices.

But now, I’m older and wiser. I will readily admit there are things I just can’t do. I understand the premises behind most of them, but I have come to know that my specific aptitudes render me useless in regards to certain things.

I can’t fold fitted sheets. I watched in amazement a while back as a friend carefully tucked the ends together in some way that violated my understanding of geometry. I can’t do it. If she’s not around, those sheets are getting balled-up and shoved into the closet. That’s that.

I can’t keep a schedule, usually. Though this is probably a case of a very focused sort of resistance to regimentation. I seem to know exactly when ski season starts (even if I can’t go that year). As for when the bell rings in the morning at my kid’s school — 7:35? 7:40? I no unnerstan too good. I blame my background as a self-guided homeschooler (teachers weren’t necessary in our world either, of course). My high school classes started at 9:30 or 10 or so, ran until I wanted to take a bike ride or blow something up in the back yard, then resumed after dinner and ran until 2 AM — with the occasional distraction provided by important readings into why TV had to be eliminated or space exploration.

As I grew up, I found after twenty years of trying my best to keep myself interested in TPS reports

and just keeping my nose down and my mouth shut that those things take critical skills that I never developed. I’ve always been good at looking off in the distance kinda vacantly, only to suddenly say “Hey, we should take that thing and turn it upside-down. It might work better that way.” More the half the time I’m right, which amazes some people and kept me in the game. But such things do not a good corporate career make. I lack that corporate gene, I guess.

I no longer disregard the skills of people who can do things I can’t. I’m helpless in some very specific ways.

Please help.

More Influences

So, of course I had to think more about what’s influenced me as a writer, and in life. Once I get on a roll it’s hard to stop.

image

I don’t know what possessed me in my youth to pick up a small volume of the essays of Michel De Montaigne. It was a stuffy little book written by a guy whose name I couldn’t really pronounce. He generally wrote about things that were going on in his head, or things he had read. In that way he was a sort of proto-blogger from the 16th century. Regardless, I fell in love with the mind of that rather dour man who pioneered the form of the personal essay.

He came up with some pretty stinging little epigrams that have stayed with us through the centuries. Things like:

“We must think quite highly of our convictions to have other men burned at the stake for them.”

Or

“The key to happiness is to not value anything you can’t carry with you as you swim to shore after a shipwreck.”

Or

“I think no more of him for having emerged from the same hole as did I.”

The last was about his brother.

Pardon me if some of these are a little off. I’m doing this from memory.

Montaigne knew solitude, and making the best of it. When we think of the solitary essayist staring out of his window on the grey world during an overcast day, jotting things down with a quill pen in a fit of deep cogitation as the thoughts finally emerge fully-formed, we are thinking of Montaigne and his various spirutal descendants.

But you’re probably not thinking of me. I’m one of his goofy spiritual descendants. I didn’t quite read all of the memo. Something shiny distracted me. All told, I’d probably rather be riding a motorcycle, etching my thoughts into the earth as invisible traces along a moebius-like strip of asphalt somewhere in Western Colorado. Maybe that’s what Montaigne would be doing today as well. I dunno. He’d probably ride a BMW mainly because it seems he could handle being stranded alone in the wilderness better than most.

Another influence on me was Thomas Mann. Mann was hot at one time, but like so many other greats who were read obsessively in the mid-20th century, he’s no longer much in fashion. That’s too bad because the emotional distance and moral confusion of his protagonists play very well against the modern way of seeing heroes. Read Death in Venice or Doctor Faustus and tell me if the narrators aren’t describing the empty hollowness of a world that has lost its grounding. They do this in everything they say and do. More people today should read Mann, especially the part in Faustus where the title character sits down at a piano and starts tinkling away, playing whatever his ear tells him to play. One of his churchly colleagues from the university asks him what it is he’s playing. He says “nothing”. His friend is not satisfied. What was it and where did it come from? Faustus didn’t know. It was just a thing–just a thing he was doing. His more literal-minded contemporary couldn’t grasp how such a thing was possible. It couldn’t possibly exist that way. And there, in that dialogue, you have the way that most people encounter creativity in themselves and in others. The creative don’t know where it comes from, the non-creative can’t imagine how that’s possible. It seems to count as a sort of possession by the devil. In some ways, that’s not a bad way of looking at it.

Then there’s Anthony Burgess, who is best known for A Clockwork Orange,  but also wrote a series of dark comedic novels based on the Enderby character. It’s hard not to see these as semi-autobiographical. Enderby is a gifted and underappreciated poet who is constantly self-defeating. He’s butted along from one situation to another, his talents used and abused by others while he just wants to be alone making the beast with one back. There are multiple efforts to “cure” him and make him a functioning member of society. Doctors try, his bosses and coworkers at his various horrible jobs try, his uptight and worldly literary agent marries him in an effort to make him fit-in. He just bounces along, always a stranger in the world he writes about. There are laugh-out-loud moments in Enderby, but we’re laughing with a certain sadness. One great thing about the book is that it starts with the reader knowing that he achieved what he was after, albeit posthumously. He achieved the immortality he sought, though it’s the lot of poets and other artists to never know whether they have gotten there or not while they are living.   

So those are a few other authors who have influenced me through my life. I suppose I should read happier things. Can you suggest any?

Words and Image ©2014 Bill LaBrie

sadie

Tombstone: Men Being Men

My son and I have an annual tradition: Helldorado Days in Tombstone each October.

This was our third visit to this tourist mecca and staple of old west lore during its high-holy days of kitch. I don’t want to sound like I’m putting it down. There’s nothing quite like seeing a relatively-preserved 1880s town overrun with people who look the part, and many of them put a hell of lot into their outfits and acts.

The re-enactors and spectators come from around the world for a chance to party like it’s 1882–back when Tombstone had a greater population than Los Angeles did at the time. It’s a nice dip into fantasy-land.

Some of the greatest fantasies concern the honor of the men at the time. Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp have been romanticized by history. In truth they were just men who did what they did — as men are wont to do.

Wyatt Earp was not only a legendary marshall and sheriff, but also a pimp and brothel owner.

Wyatt_Earp_portrait

While living in a covered wagon parked next to the Birdcage Theatre and Saloon in Tombstone, he kept house with a common-law wife (also a onetime prostitute), Mattie.

Celia_ann_mattie_blaylock

But of course he was a man about town. He took off to San Francisco with a lovely working girl/saloon singer from the Birdcage named Sadie (whose prostitution licence he personally signed). Together, they moved to San Francisco.

Josephine-Sarah-Marcus-c1881

Estranged wife Mattie moved to Colton, California in hopes of reuniting with Wyatt, but the telegram she expected to get from him never came. She moved to Pinal City, Arizona in hopes of returning to her former trade, but when she found the town nearly vacant after the silver rush, she took an overdose of laudanum (an opiate) and alcohol and killed herself.

The picture of the woman at the top 0f this article is posted in the Birdcage Saloon today and is said to be of Sadie, taken by a famous local photographer at her request and given to Wyatt as a gift to keep him company when she was working or away. That’s been discredited as a story (the picture’s been traced to an NYC novelty company and was published 1914), but it’s fun to think it might be her.

Anyway, it made you click the link, didn’t it? ;-)

There’s more reality in Tombstone than meets the eye.

Poem: Self-Cannibalism

“Self-Cannibalism”

You’ve freeze-dried the joy heard
First from a crackling car speaker,
Packaging your life’s magic inside
A Lucite puck for modern display.

A million’s not a million as time goes by
And villas in Nice don’t get cheaper.
You said it best when you first spoke,
But Inland Revenue says no.

Pull out the charts and spool up the masters,
Some session men booked from seventy-three.
Playback the old tracks that yet remain perfect
As you chomp on your own flesh yet again.

If You Do This, Stop?

If you do something like this just stop? It’s really bad?

To any middle-aged men who "upspeak": You should dress the part? Really? I'm serious? Dress this way?

To any middle-aged men who upspeak: You should dress the part? Really? I’m serious? Dress this way?

It gets really annoying listening to you? It’s like you’re not sure of what you’re saying? It sounds like you’re asking permission to speak? Ten year olds do that, and that’s OK? But you’re — like — thirty-five or something?

Women tend to to this and we accept it? We really shouldn’t? But we do? We’re now tending to accept it from men? It’s spreading like an infection? Maybe this is a symptom of overparenting?

There’s something else to keep in mind? The more you use that inflection, the less you actually will believe in what you’re saying? I’ll bet there’s some neuro-hormonal effect that a rising accent has on one’s brain? When you turn every statement into a question, you’re probably making yourself suggestible in many different ways? And, if you’re like most people you don’t need that?

And anyway, It makes me want to smack you?

Thank you?

Poem: Second Spring

“Second Spring”

Freeze first yields to thaw
And the mornings abundant
Only to reclaim from anxious hands
Its eternal due.

The spring comes again–
This time it’s stronger.
Celebrations are muted:
We’ve seen this before.

But deep in the earth
The expectant kernels
Cast off their mourning
And rise, finally, without shame.

In hearts, as in furrows,
The life gives its notice
That time has now come
At long last.

flowers-phoenix-condo-lights

Words and Images ©2014 Bill LaBrie

Have We Lost Our Minds To Google?

Transactive memory doesn’t get enough attention. I think we’re too distracted to give it its due.

transactive-memory-society

That’s interesting. It’s interesting in many ways.

When a team or a couple or a family really begins to “click” it’s because the individual members have had enough shared experiences to have established a shared conscious and even subconscious. They have a shared mind.

Meaning? Whatever members know relative to that group/family/couple is actually shared among the members. They are insufficient on their own. That synthesis (arising from the knowledge bases of the individual members) constitutes a participation in a common mind. The best teams/couple/families have that intimate sharing thing down pat. It’s like a key-lock combo.

When we talk about family bonds or loyalty to teams and groups, we’re talking about that shared mind. It’s give-and-take.  It takes an investment of each members’ commitment and time that can’t just be purchased. That’s why it’s deeply-valued, and never forgotten once experienced.

You left a part of yourself behind the line on that McDonald’s team when you were 17. Trust me. You guys were beautiful.

Seriously, after I had thought about it a bit, I realized that what we call “mind” in general is a shared experience — one that arises only when there is more than one participant. A baby’s consciousness only clicks in when he or she is aware of another, and only insofar as the child is aware of the other.

It’s a very fundamental experience, this common mind.

There’s been some research on this communal shared mind between/among close friends and partners. It explains why divorce in the case of a real marriage is so devastating, and why long-time marriage partners tend to die in quick succession. Our knowledge (and therefore really what constitutes “mind” to us) is always spread out among at least two and possibly more people. The minimum unit is two, however. So stable personal reality is formed only when you can openly and fully share your thoughts with one other person and form a bond with them at some point.

I discussed this extensively with this one PhD who had based a lot of her dissertation on it. It’s fascinating when it shows up in little, dull, drab ways that constitute love.

“Honey, when did we buy that dryer? I can’t find the receipt.”
“March of ’09. It was just after Jimmy went to camp the first time.”
“Thank you!”

Ok, so now. . . . what happens when your partner turns you away and tells you to Google whatever you’re asking because that’s all they’d do and they’re busy with their own things?

What are the implications when our fellow human mind partners are no longer acting as mind partners? Has the “communal memory” become a database hosted on the cloud and accessible through handheld computers?

What are the implications for human relationships and longevity?

Have we lost our minds to an advertising-supported spy eng– I mean search engine?

Reader Complaints About Modern Fiction

Instead of using a Facebook forum to do a PROMO PROMO PROMO BUY BUY BUY on my new book this weekend, I pulled a fast one:

image

I asked the participants what they didn’t like about modern fiction.

Fellow authors: These people are your market. They’re the heavy-users: The ones who rip through 2-3 books a week.  They are the bread and butter–the following who will make or break your attempt to not go back to work at the tire store or whatever.

And here’s a sampling of what they said:

–Drop the “innocent girl meets billionaire” thing. Done to death. Just drop it. Forget it. Blah.

–“Pathetic” characters. Pathos is a good tool. If it gets overused, the result is a pity party for Patsy (or whomever) and that gets boring. Because, after all screw that whining bore Patsy (or whomever).

–“Unbelieveable” scenarios, plots, characters. This needs to be interpreted a bit. Han Solo is a believable character even though he’s a spaceship captain with a bigfoot-thing as a co-pilot because he acts in ways with which normal humans can identify. His boldness, snideness, vulnerability to Leia, occasional affection make him stand out like a 3D figure (in Carbonite!):

image

However, if you’re writing a story about a husband who suddenly is revealed as a serial killer with no prior suspicion on the part of the wife for the 20 years of their marriage, you’re going to have to explain why she’s stupid. Or you can go to work in present-day Hollywood where that sort of thing doesn’t seem to be a career detriment for a screenwriter. And you know what? Both roles were played by Harrison Ford. Just realized that. Hmm.

–“Repetition”. I said “repetition”. “Redundancy” — in other words. You know: Doing the same thing over and over and over again. 50 Shades has been written. Don’t redo it. So has that vampire thing. And that dystopian YA stuff. All done. Do something different. Authors in those genres are now not only ripping off other writers, they’re starting to cannibalize themselves. The market is diluted. You are an indie player with minimal overhead, you wildcat! Take a chance. Do something different. Change something. There are plenty of imitation Nicholas Sparkses out there. Write your own story. Can it have vampires and zombies? Sure, why not? But let them be YOUR vampires and zombies.

–“Erotic” fiction even for women loses its punch when it’s all structured the same. Apparently far too many works in this genre are structured like “virgin girl meets guy> 2nd date missionary sex with big orgasm> perfect blowjob (with no prior experience) > third act where they kick out the jambs and do a full-on rodeo”. Innovation is clearly called for here.

Other things mentioned: Books-in-series taking too long to be released, weak female characters who are all weak in the same way, and “spunky” female characters who are too much like obvious counters to the weak-female stereotypes.

Anyway, I am pretty confident that success lies in going where others haven’t gone before, or at least not recently. Thus, I suggest a story about an everyman who is actually a Gryphon.

image

It’s time for the Gryphon to rise again.

Maybe he’ll rise from a tire store.

image

Happy writing!

IMG_0886

What are Your Phases of Life?

What are your phases of life? What have the been? What will they be?

IMG_0808

It really doesn’t matter much what you call them. There are clinically-accepted standard terms like childhood or adolescence. These are generally nebulous and ill-defined. You deserve your own names for your own phases. It’s your life after all.

I prefer to think of mine as:

Innocent Infancy, when I was smiling all the time. Everything was beautiful and fun.

Bill-Highchair

Lost and Confused Childhood, when basically everything sucked, including my haircuts and upholstery:

billkid

Hateful Nerd-Dom, when I knew more than anyone else (if only the bastards could see it):

menmrshea Confused Careerism, when I thought I wanted a Porsche 911 despite hating everyone who drove one:

billchicago

Collapse:

millerbeertruck

Recovery:

IMG_1736

and Artistic Bliss:

groovy
S
o what are your phases of life? What have they been? What shall they be?