#NoComment #DisappearingAct

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I don’t receive many comments or questions to these blog posts, and with comments it’s difficult to tell how to respond. Like the comment? Comment on the comment?

And, really, no questions at all.

Not that comments or questions would be unwelcome, by any means.  I don’t write things of high controversy, though; I just write about experiences, trying to keep to a topic. Other blogs, other vlogs, they focus on tips, tricks, even the occasional lecture or rant. I try not to do that here; this venue is more like a documentation of my days, whether they bring me magic or mistakes I make. I think of blogging or blogging in the same way I think of memoir or fiction; writing to and reading from to know that we are not alone.

I save the ranting for social media, although, I wouldn’t always call it ranting. Oh, sure, if some idiot tries something stupid on a scooter I come unglued, but for the most part I am flummoxed by social media. Sometimes I shout-out to folks whose books and music and podcasts I love. Sometimes I comment on regular and recurrent posts (I’m thinking mostly of YouTube here, but this could also apply to any of the other platforms).

Rarely I get responses.

I find this silence a bit confusing. (Irony compounds pending the subject matter; I shouted out my adoration for a book about being alone recently and received silence from the author, which seemed too on the nose.) Are those who post the content looking for feedback? Some of them say that they do at the end of their content (“like us, share, send us a comment!” they say, all sparkles), and some of them ask questions at the end of their content and want to “hear from you guys about what you think.” Apparently I rarely think the right thing or say the right comment. Apparently asking questions of the poster is a big no-no, too.

Oh, I get it; trolls could try these things as assault by sarcasm. But other people seem to get ignored, too. If another blue-check verification responds, then, sure, there’s a response, but that’s more of a DM, amiright? I actually have no clue, since I would give my left arm to engage in a conversation about topics I’m passionate about like I used to on platforms. Maybe this fear of trolls has turned folks who post content into silent instigators instead of moderators, but this seems to turn every post of content into…an advertisement.

They don’t really mean, “let me know what you guys think.” They don’t really mean “comment.” It’s cool, distant person…I’ll just like it. I’m not sure how much even sharing has an effect on other people that I pass the content on to…in those cases someone usually likes what I share on LinkedIn, but not so much everything else.

We’re back to the lack of social in social media.

I still “like” things, though; must be nice to see hundreds of thumbs up and hearts when you go back and check notifications, and I don’t mind that contribution. Maybe I’ll figure out the rest of the puzzle on my own. And when someone does respond? Well, that’s pure gold and completely treasured, without trying to take too much of the other person’s time, because I don’t want to pester.

Disappearing act, back into the top hat of the algorithm.

#StoryProblems #NeatTrick

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As previously stated in this blog, I belong to a book club with a local bookseller, held the second Thursday of every month. For the most part I find some kind of redeeming quality in the books that we read, even if the book isn’t a favorite; the individual sentences may be quality prose, or I enjoy a particular character, etc. The only thing that I struggle with is if the writer decides to write a work of fiction or poetry that is so experimental that it starts to lose the whole reason for fiction or poetry:  to be read. My mother pointed this out once when I first shared my poetry with her, poetry that was meant to academically show off: it must be good; I don’t get it. Even though I went to college to study literature in order to write better, that one concept has stuck with me as a writer more than any other that I placed myself in student debt to learn. When I start to grind my teeth at a book, more than likely my teeth are wearing down because the writer just decided to go whole hog academic and leave the reader behind.

I get it; after all, it’s Pulitzer season, and there are numerous other awards that are prestigious enough to try for. How to stand out and put oneself in the running for notoriety? Some of the attempts are:

  • Write a collection of short works that are thinly connected. This method worked for me with Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, but didn’t work so well for a recent work that I read by a former lover of Philip Roth’s. If the connecting thread is too thin, or if the book has to be explained by an afterword, or if I have to hunt down reviews for it online just to be “taught” what I couldn’t get from reading it, then I know I’m not the intended audience.
  • Halfway to three-quarters way through the book to possibly the end, the whole narrative shifts (same character, but different voice). Sometimes the story itself warrants this approach, but it reads more like a trick or a crutch to keep the author from having to write real-life plausibility. In the interest of not hauling an author over the coals I won’t mention the wide collection of books that try and fail at this approach, but Kate Atkinson seems to execute it well.
  • Writing highly repetitive but nearly incoherent prose as part of the protagonist’s “voice” for too long and dragging out ennui to prove a point in the story. It doesn’t take much to bore the reader; don’t abuse that good faith for a century of pages.
  • Break the fourth wall.

Ok, this one is tricky. Do I love the breaking of the fourth wall for some novels, short stories, and poems? Absolutely. There are stories I love because they break rules, because they take down a barrier and nose right up like a loyal dog. Reader, I married him. Yep, the first time I read that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt like the writer sat down next to me and allowed me to sit with something in empathy.

But the last book club selection we had, a book that I’ll throw under the bus called Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, rubbed me the wrong way with its fourth wall destruction. I know why it did; the protagonist/narrator seemed to be poking fun at what a novel is, poking fun at writers, poking fun at tenacious readers, from about two-thirds of the way through the novel to the end. I might have been fine with that, except…on the acknowledgements page the author, no longer behind the mask of the protagonist, did the same thing. It was funny that Mendelsund looped us in for 482 pages, the schmucks that we were to read this. Of course the book is based on Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, didn’t we see it? Oh, and any other references to any other works of literature? Even those directly quoted? Those are all on the reader. They may or may not have happened.

There were people who liked the book; I envied them. And to be honest, I was glad to have the opportunity to read so singular a book; I just didn’t like it. If the author would have cut the damn thing in half and made fun of me as reader, then I might have laughed along. But to have no empathy for his readers and to laugh at them in the bargain for sticking with it? Sure, it’s impressive, it’s probably great art, a neat trick…but I didn’t enjoy the ride.

*****

My day-job skill set (although I am currently between jobs at the moment) is workforce analytics:  the gentle art of forecasting business trend to determine staffing and scheduling needs. I started out with workforce analytics as part of my job as a manager in 2007, and then moved into the analyst role exclusively in 2013. The job requires a great deal of math, and lately, in interviews, I repeatedly get this question:

Why the literature degree?

Analytics, in my experience, has required two major components: why the math is calculated as it is to determine and execute the business need, and how to explain that reasoning to the rest of the team so that it makes sense and so there is buy-in. Analytics is the application of the math concepts, the story problem you had to solve when you were a kid. Analytics NEVER presents the formula to the analyst; analytics always gives the analyst the two trains leaving the station at midnight going in opposite directions. When I read that story in an email, or hear that story from a manager or recruiter, or see that story in the fabric of a seemingly unrelated report, then I have to understand reading/scenario comprehension enough to empathize with the problem for what is needed, solve it, and then explain it again as an easily navigational story problem, with a happy ending this time.

My communication/writing/speaking skills have to rock the world.

Has analytics made me a better mathematician? Absolutely. But mathematics has made me a better communicator. There’s no need to re-invent the story of the wheelhouse, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to explain it so that anyone can get it.

In a synonym, a good novelist is also a good analyst.

 

#ReaderLeaders

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Back in 2004 I was living in Southwest Missouri and suddenly had the opportunity to move to California. My brother was in the Bay Area, still single, and we decided that when I did move we would be roommates. I packed most of my Missouri life in a storage unit and the rest into my car: clothes, cat, notebooks, and books (but just a few because this was a 1998 Chevy Lumina, not a bookmobile). The books were the following:

  • AAA state guides for Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California (this was before smartphones as we know them now, after all);
  • Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (he had just died that May);
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac;
  • Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.

I had no clue how to pronounce the last author’s name at that time, but that’s the book I read first at each hotel on the way west. I would turn the cat out of her carrier, set up her self-care station, go fetch ice and maybe dinner, review the next night’s plan for a hotel from a guidebook, and then crack open Dreams From My Father while I ate in the hotel room. I have had the gift all of my life of finding books that needed to be present for a reason, just when I picked them, and for some reason the narrative of a guy with such a jacked-up name running for Senate in a midwestern state like Illinois spoke to me. The premise only got me started, however, because what kept me reading was that a) the book told a compelling story that didn’t sound like a political resume. It was well-written. I hoped this guy would write again.

Flash forward to later in that month, Sunnyvale, California. My brother and I have a few weeks left in his old apartment before we move into a bigger place across the pool with two bedrooms. I’m sleeping in the living room on my futon for the time being, still looking for a job, and one late afternoon, waiting for my brother to come home to see what he wants to do about dinner, I’m bored and I turn on the Democratic National Convention. I’m not crazy about John Kerry, but I certainly didn’t want Bush the first time, so I’m just kind of listening, kind of not, when a speaker is introduced with a name that sounds familiar, and which I finally know how to pronounce, now. He strides to the mic, and he starts speaking, and it turns out he can speak as well as he could write. The voice is the same on paper and on camera. I’d been watching political stuff for years (history minor in college), but this guy was political to everyone else but me. To me, superficial woman with a preference for poets first, I fell in love with Barack Obama because he could write. That sealed it.

And then some pundit chimed in as Obama left the podium, mentioning something about someday that guy should run for President. I thought that might be too good to be true (with a name like THAT? And he’s a WRITER…), but it was nice to chew on that for a minute, dream on that for a minute.

*****

I’ve never read Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I was afraid (and still am) that Audacity would read like a stump speech, like a campaign publication. Don’t tell me if you’ve read it and it does read like that, even though it probably won’t change my mind. My sister-in-law and I always wondered what kind of job his speechwriters had while he was in the Senate and then President; I liked to muse that they probably played solitaire and, at the end of his term, maybe spent their days watching Netflix, but something tells me he was either keeping them busy with mentoring them, pushing them to develop themselves as political operatives, or making their lives hell by debating their own writing. Even if it was the last option, I would have killed to be on that writing team.

When Obama left office I forced myself to accept two probabilities: that the next Democratic Presidential candidate or series of candidates would also write or have written books, and that they would be written in such a way that I wouldn’t want to read them…unless I was suffering from insomnia.

*****

In addition to being a writer I loved to read and listen to, Obama also had this nifty trick of being a passionate lover of literature. Every so often the press would report on his visits to independent booksellers in the DC area and what he bought from them; most of the list was literary fiction. I occasionally would pick something from the list to read just to get a feel for his preferences, and I enjoyed his selections even more that I enjoyed his writing. He was the Writer/Reader Leader, always looking for ways to broaden his mind with fiction, and I loved that he got that.

*****

Here is just a starter list of 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates who have written books. I am probably missing some; this list is from Rolling Stone, a January issue this year:

  • Kamala Harris
  • Joe Biden (although undeclared, for the moment)
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Julian Castro
  • Beto O’Rourke
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Cory Booker
  • John Hickenlooper
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Howard Schultz
  • Pete Buttigieg

About that last guy…with the unpronounceable name…

*****

Other people, a great deal of other people, had reasons for why Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to be elected President. The biggest reason was he was black, and there was general talk that the country was not ready for a black president, especially a black President with an Islamic-sounding last name.

Again, about the country being ready for things, and that last guy…

*****

When all of the Democratic Party started firing up their list of candidates back in December and January, I watched with interest. I picked favorites, even on a ranking. I liked the idea of Kamala Harris because she was from the Bay Area, she was a minority in more ways than one, and she was a treat to watch in Senate hearings. I liked what she said on Twitter about the Dreamsicle in Chief, too, so, if you asked me in January who I’d pick, I would have picked her. I also liked Cory Booker (although I’m not fond of his interviewer interruptions) and was a big fan of Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 congressional race. To be honest, I would have been fine with any of them. I was happy with all of them, but not…excited.

I didn’t read any of their books. I knew them all except the last guy, and he was a mayor, so THAT’S not likely, right? I stuck with my list.

And then toward the end of February and beginning of March that last guy, the guy with the funny name who was “just a mayor” started showing up on my book publication news feeds. He was in my literature stuff. Something about how he could speak Norwegian and read Norwegian. Something about how he taught himself to read and speak Norwegian because of a novel.

Full stop.

So there are others, I thought. There are others like Barack Obama and they are running for President, too. I tried not to hope too hard; surely this Norwegian stuff was a stunt? But no, Pete Buttigieg, who already was fluent in SIX languages, wanted to learn Norwegian because he couldn’t get any more novels of one of his favorite Norwegian novelists in English, so he taught himself Norwegian to read the rest of the books.

As if that weren’t enough…Pete Buttigieg did his college thesis on the foundation of another novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

And…God help me…

Amazon’s Kindle has this neat option where you can sample a book (sometimes the first chapter, sometimes less, depending on the publisher), and I loaded the sample of Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home. I was raised about two and a half hours east of South Bend.

That goddamn book is like going home. In the opening chapter Buttigieg talks about his first winter in South Bend as mayor, for about a paragraph, and then he flashes back, to winters and the city in his childhood. I am old enough to remember the Blizzard of ’78, and even though Buttigieg is a decade younger than I am, he relates the narratives of people who remember it, too. THE BOOK STARTS OUT WITHOUT HIM. He is a storyteller, he is telling someone else’s story, and he truly conveys that story is important, even before it is his.

Okay, okay, so the guy can write. I pulled up some YouTube interviews, and watched them with a collection of other interviews of Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders. The best, most entertaining, and easiest comparison is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Same interviewer, different candidates. With everyone but Buttigieg you get the feeling there’s a canned answer for the question asked (in the case of Booker he gets so eager to answer that he often interrupts the end of the question), and the canned answer is sort of close…

Buttigieg just answers the question. Even better, he gets lots of practice, because he gets the same questions from everyone (with a little straying from Bill Maher, but I expected that). And even though he gets the same answer, he never sounds rehearsed. You get a feeling of patience, and maybe an underlying hope of expansion (maybe THIS person will be edgy and ask me something else, fingers crossed), but he never rolls his eyes in disgust. Even better, when he’s in a panel setting he does not jump in like everyone else on the panel; he waits to be called on. (If nothing else it should be interesting debate behavior.)

Here’s what I can’t bring myself to do, yet, because I’m afraid to pop the bubble of adoration I have this Writer/Reader; I have not watched any speeches of his. Lots of interviews, no speeches. Will he be able to do it again? Can my superficial love of all things literature bail me (and Buttigieg) out one more time?

Oh, I hope so, she writes, knowing empathy follows fiction. And empathy is sorely missing right now.