Faking It


Here’s the funny thing about language: though we speak the same one, it’s so rare that we actually understand one another. We spend our days in constant contact with people who we very rarely get to choose: coworkers, supervisors. And nice though they may be, and well as you may work together, how often do you feel really in sync with them?

We muddle through our days making the best of our circumstances and putting on the niceties that society calls for. But for some of us – and here I’ll single myself out as one of those socially retarded individuals who never quite know what to say and who live in perpetual fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, and ends up as a result standing around looking at people long after a conversation has reached its natural terminus or awkwardly exiting early – those trifles are exhausting. Others, it seems, glide through the world as effortlessly as figure skaters, joking and laughing and shaking hands and hugging, but every time I’m in a social situation I stress out and lock up, hitting the ice less like a figure skater and more like a newborn goat.

I don’t do well with people, generally (well, outwardly I guess I do okay, but in my head is another story). I pretend it’s because I hate everything, and by extension, most people. But the truth is that it’s because I’m cripplingly shy and overwhelmingly insecure.

How did a guy like that end up teaching the next generation to be actors, to get up on stage in front of crowds of people? Easy. It’s an act. On stage, or in front of a classroom, or here on a webpage, I get to play a character who’s like me but who isn’t exactly me. I get to manufacture a guy who isn’t a social mess, who isn’t a walking train wreck when it comes to human interaction. Turns out I’m pretty good at faking it. But at the end of the day? I’m speaking a second language. That air of confidence and easy interaction is not my native tongue — it’s a hacked-together pastiche thinly layered over a perpetually vulnerable underbelly.

But I started this post today by thinking about the way we talk with people, and the way I manufacture speech with most of the people in my life, trying to say the “normal” things or the “right” things. And the reason I’m thinking about that is that recently I’ve had a few encounters where I haven’t had to manufacture anything.

There are a very few people on this planet that I don’t have to speak that second language with — with whom I can speak my native tongue and get along just fine, be understood just fine. I’m married to one of them; unfortunately, the others pretty much all live in different states, so interaction is limited. But when that interaction does come, it’s refreshing. Invigorating. I come away energized, recharged, like I’ve slept for a weekend after a long bout of insomnia.

But I guess that’s why you learn that second language.

Then again, I wonder. I can’t be the only one speaking it. There have to be other fakers out there. I wonder how many times I’ve been fooled the way (I think) I’ve fooled others?

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Pun Without A Cause


If a dad joke gets cracked on a deserted street at five in the morning, does anybody groan?

I’m out for a run this morning. Five AM. Hazy moon floating behind the clouds. Hint of fog hanging in the air. Not a soul in sight.

I round a curve coming around the back of a shopping center, and there, in the middle of the road, a Dark Thing.

Dark Things always give me pause on the morning run — there are coyotes in the area, neighborhood dogs escaped from their backyards. At a distance, in the morning blackness, the shadowy shape could be anything. Usually it turns out to be roadkill, or a sad discarded sweatshirt. Sometimes it’s a stray cat or, in springtime, a rabbit, which bolts for cover long before I get close.

But as I drew closer, this Dark Thing resolved itself first into the suggestion of a shopping cart — which I resolved to move from the middle of the road — and then, when it began to move on its own, into a deer. What’s important is not how I mistook a deer for a shopping cart. What’s important is what I said.

“Oh, dear.”

I couldn’t help it. It just bubbled up and popped out, like a tooth-rattling belch after 76 ounces of diet soda. I was literally helpless.

The dad joke.

How I hated them in my youth. My dad has a bottomless supply of them and would let fly at the slightest provocation:

What time is it? Time to get a watch.

I need to take a shower. Where would you take it?

I’m getting a haircut. Really? Which one?

But in my adulthood, I have assimilated them, Borg-like. They come out as naturally as breathing.

I cringe inwardly when I say them — but I can’t help saying them. Now that I have kids, the part of my brain that would ordinarily stop me from saying these embarrassing, obvious jokes has shut itself down and boarded up the windows like the last man out of a dying mining town.

Why does the dad joke persist? Nobody likes a dad joke, except, perhaps, for the dad saying it. The joke exists, rather, for the sole purpose of irritation. The dad joke’s payoff is not in a delighted shock of laughter, but rather, in the rolling of the eyes, the put-upon sigh, the pained groan, or, best of all, the reflexive facepalm.

And here I am, all alone on the street at five in the morning, saying “oh dear” at the sight of a deer, as if to elicit such a response from the trees. And in the silence that followed? When I realized what I had just done — cracked a dad joke to nobody, apparently for the pure joy of it, for the sake of the joke itself like a truth that MUST be told, the future-seer shouting in the streets about impending calamity even as he knows nobody believes him — when it dawned on me that I have become this thing? That dad jokes are now a part of me?

The groan came after all.

It came from me.

Let the circle be unbroken.


Stupid House-Selling Stories: STAIRS


We have tons of strangers passing through our house lately. This leads to a strange sense of discomfort and ickiness in general. You come home to find a cabinet left open, or a light left on, or the cat flap locked. And you know that you dealt with those things before you left the house. (Seriously? Who locks the cat flap in a stranger’s house? Who even touches the cat flap? Who has any interaction with a cat flap beyond “oh, look, a cat flap”? But no, somebody bent down, poked at it, and locked it — on both sides, mind you??) Humans have a lot of built-in reality-denying responses (just talk to a Trump supporter), but that stuff is pretty hard to ignore — it reminds you that strangers have been in your home. Poking through your closets. Judging your choices in interior painting. Complaining about your floor plan.

Or, in our most recent encounter, whining about the stairs.

Realtors trade feedback all the time; it’s to their benefit to know what potential buyers think about a house so they can address that concern for future viewers, and it’s therefore also to their benefit to engage in a symbiosis to other realtors. You help me sell this one, I’ll help you sell that one. Makes natural enough sense — you become a positively contributing part of the ecosystem or you get left alone to fend for yourself.

And then we have the following exchange, via text message, which, in a fit of flabbergasteredness, our realtor relayed to my wife:

Our realtor: How did the showing go?

Other realtor: too many stairs

Our realtor: (after thirty minutes of uncomfortably waiting for any follow-ups) Okay, great! Thanks!

That’s it. No exchange of pleasantries. No constructive commentary or disclaimers. Not even a godforsaken capital letter or period.

Too many stairs.

Too many stairs.

My head is a pinball machine of dumbfounded responses. I can’t focus on one thought about this exchange before some other part of my brain lights up with an entirely new concern.

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Actual image of our staircase, as evidently envisioned by the most recent visitor to our home.

Too many stairs.

Our house is occupied. Which means you can’t just “drop in” with your realtor on a fly-by. Which means you need an appointment. You know, so that we can wrangle our two kids and our dumb dog and shoo at least some of the cats outside and spritz some air freshener about so that the house looks livable when you get to it. Which, further, means you had to look over the house on the internet, think to yourself, “yeah, that’s worth our time,” and confirm with your agent, who then confirmed with our agent, who then confirmed with us. All of which means, you had a general idea what you were getting before you set foot in the door. Okay? You didn’t know the state of the bathroom fixtures, for example, but you damn sure knew the house had a second floor, which — unless you’re living in caca-cuckoo land, means it bloody well has stairs.

Too many stairs.

You would have, perhaps, preferred less? I don’t know a whole lot about building codes or suburban planning, but I’m pretty sure stairs in houses are pretty universal when it comes to their rise over run. But, what? instead of the fourteen or so stairs up to the 2nd floor, you’d have preferred four HUGE blocks that you have to climb up like a toddler? Or perhaps, instead, an intricate series of ramps you could hike up in the evening at bedtime and slalom down to catch your morning coffee?

Too many stairs.

That’s literally all she said. I didn’t edit out the rest of the conversation. That was the beginning and the end of the interaction. Nothing about the weird floor plan. Nothing about the ivy-infested backyard. Nothing about the tacky paint jobs in our rooms obviously painted for young children which wouldn’t suit your needs even though you could easily re-paint. Literally not a word, positive or negative, about anything else in or around the house? Evidently they made it through the yard, opened the front door, walked into the foyer, ran smack into the staircase, said “NOPE” and walked right back out.

I mean, I guess if stairs are a sticking point, then once you see the stairs, all bets are off. But that brings me back around (like a tail-chasing dog) to the first thought: why are you looking at this house in the first place? If stairs are the deal-breaker, how did you make it past the listing? Then the pictures (which clearly show the staircase — FROM A MULTITUDE OF ANGLES)? Then the appointment? How did you not pull up to the curb, see that WELL IT’S TWO STORIES SO THERE MUST BE STAIRS, NEVER MIND, and drive back into your somehow stair-free existence?

Too many stairs.

Maybe I’m mischaracterizing the whole thing. Ours isn’t a simple straight-up staircase, it’s got a landing and doubles back on itself, which could conceivably present people with certain disabilities with legitimate problems. I’m sensitive to that. But there I go again — how did they make it to walking in the front door before they figured it out?

Or maybe there’s more to it. Maybe the client loved the house, loved the neighborhood, but just wasn’t wild about the stairs. A weird sticking point, but okay. In that case, the agent made the call to mention only the stairs. Well, that’s a big ol’ cup full of wtf. How about that symbiotic relationship I mentioned up above? A little goodwill, a little quid pro quo, a little bit of genuine help. Tell us, tell our realtor, something that we can use. Something actionable. Something that adds to the conversation. “We liked all the nice, open rooms, but we’re not so sure about the tile in the bathroom.” “We love the kitchen, but the pile of human skulls in the crawl space gave us pause.” You know, we can do something about the house in that case, or we can at least know what to warn people about. I can grind up the skulls. Not a big deal.

Too many stairs.

Seriously?


Scrub Up and Slice In


The revision process for a novel has a series of steps associated with it, much like the stages of grief.

First, you’re kind of enchanted with this thing you wrote, and you spend a lot of time patting yourself on the back: hey look at that neat character I wrote back then, boy that twist was kind of clever, and wow this might not actually be that bad to edit. (See also: my posts from about six weeks ago when I started the current edit.)

Then you begin to hate the thing you wrote, because the more flaws you come across, the more glaring they become and the more likely you are to see more flaws. A snowball rolling downhill, collecting more snow and branches and dead moose until it flattens a town.

Then, resignation: the thing is what it is, and no amount of unicorn-chasing denial or grizzly-bear-wrestling self-hate is going to change it, so with steely resolve, you go to work on it. Narrative Surgery. With no training, no qualifications, and no idea what you’re even supposed to be doing, you scrub up and dive in.

The problem is, like an insane spider’s web, every part of the thing is interconnected. There is no such thing as a “minor correction.” The hip-bone is connected to the leg-bone, but in this metaphor, it’s also connected to the patellar tendon, the lower intestines, one and a half lungs and the eye on the non-heart side (which — surprise! — is not the side you thought it was).

You go to make your incision, to correct that one little nagging issue in the third chapter, and blood starts leaking out of the character resolution in chapter eighteen. You try to tamp that down with a little narrative pressure, but that causes a backup in the side conflict while also necessitating the introduction of brand-new tissue in the opening chapters. You set to work rectifying all this, but because you also have a full-time job and for god’s sake you’re only human, your rectifications themselves are flawed and not as focused as they maybe should be because oh my god there’s inkblood everywhere.

surgery-676375_1280

Did I drop my keys in there? I think I dropped my keys in there.

Now you’ve got internal bleeding and contusions popping up under the skin all over the place, and you’re not actually any closer to fixing the problem you set out to fix in the first place, you’re just playing Whack-a-Mole with the fallout from your “fixes.” Worse still, you’re starting to see that the big problem you ignored in the first draft — the one you just stuck a post-it note to your future self on that read YOU DEAL WITH THIS ONE, GOOD LUCK (an actual comment I left for myself around the 1/3 mark of this particular draft) — has metastasized out of control. A broken bone repaired by interweaving itself with all the surrounding tissue. The hive in Aliens that has swollen and spilled over, and now threatens to consume the entire ship. Every blood vessel, every nerve ending, every plot line, every narrative thread seems to run through this one spot, this one tangle of viscera and scar tissue.

And you don’t want to do it. To go to work on this thing will throw the entire project into limbo. The bleeding will be massive, the repair work intensive, the recovery extensive. But that angry little knot, interspersing its evil tentacles through the heart and every extremity of your story, pulses defiantly. Taunting you. And that’s when you realize that you do want to do it, that despite the trauma and triage, despite the emotional and psychological fallout that will surely result, this thing can be saved. It can be made clean again.

So you slice into it.

And as the first gout of narrative blood stain your scrubs, you glance just a little bit further down the chest cavity… and you see another tumor.

Ahem.

So, you know. The edit’s going fine … just fine.

*screams internally*

*dies inside*

*animates self with a straight shot of caffeine to the pleasure center and sheer force of will*

*zombie self continues writing*

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Kicking Myself (Working as Intended)


I thought things were going to calm down in the wake of the musical, but no, life is still zipping along like that length of chain hanging off the back of a semi going down the freeway, striking sparks and scaring the hell out of everybody in the vicinity.

The house is up for sale, and every now and then we have to drop what we’re doing and go somewhere else for a half hour at a time.

I’m back to work on the novel project, which comes with its own particular well of all-consuming gravity.

Then there’s standard end-of-the-school-year stuff: meetings and grading and panicked students banging on your door and the parade of deadlines and activities leading up to summer.

And, oh yeah, let’s not forget the unceasing face-palmery of the current scene in politics, from which there is no hiding, only the sweet release of occasional naps.

It’s the perfect storm of Things To Keep Me From Doing Things Tedious And Easy To Forget, which is exactly what I’ve been doing. Luckily, a few months ago, I created a tool to give myself a good kick in the donk every now and then: my Story Submission Spreadsheet.

There I was, checking my e-mail and firing up the ol’ computer for a perusal of the day’s events ahead of a thirty-minute work session on the novel (that’s about all I can muster these days, alas — and I have to defend it with the wrath of a cornered honey badger), when my spreadsheet automatically opened in my second tab. And there, in bright, glaring red font, was a badge of shame — the day count since my last submission. 36 days. Over a month.

Yuck.

I grimaced and bit my tongue and made to close the browser window … then didn’t. Instead, I reached for my 2017 Guide to Literary Agents.

A quick dive into the listings later, and I’ve got another query out there in the world, another chance for my work to see the light of day, another chance to share some of my blather with some unsuspecting reader somewhere else in the country.

Which is exactly what I intended the tool to do. Shame me into action.

Last time life piled up like this, I went for, oh, I dunno, maybe six months before it occurred to me that my novel was gathering dust waiting to be submitted again … which shields me from rejection letters, sure, but which definitely isn’t moving me any closer to where I want to be.

So. For once, planning ahead and sinking in a bit of time on the front end pulled my back end out of a slump.

Now if I could simply get struck with a bolt of inspiration to help me untie the knots in this chapter of my novel, things would be … well, not great, but maybe a little less stressful.


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