Wednesday, January 23, 2008


This week the members of the practice list on the Internet Writing Workshop have been submitting their versions of fiction, mostly fiction, based upon the assignment to focus on dissimulation. It sounded simple enough: "In 400 words or less, create a scene in which a character, in the course of conversation, says one thing while thinking another." It is another way of saying 'hypocrisy.'

Francis Bacon wrote, back in the 15-1600s:
There be three degrees of this hiding and veiling of a man’s self. The first, closeness, reservation, and secrecy; when a man leaveth himself without observation, or without hold to be taken, what he is. The second, dissimulation, in the negative; when a man lets fall signs and arguments, that he is not that he is. And the third, simulation in the affirmative; when a man industriously and expressly feigns and pretends to be that he is not.
Some IWW list members wrote of business deals -- "I've got a bridge to sell you..." That kind of interactions or as we say in Florida, "I have some prime 'lakefront' real estate to sell you..." Others turned to thoughts of love, relationships, blind dates and all of the mixed messages those can engender.

My thoughts flew to the church and the dissimulation between word and deed often seen in the members of the flock -- after all, they are humans striving for perfection. Too many, I fear, fake it till they make it....

And then there is what I call 'mama speak.' Mothers and their children. Children of any age, but particularly teens and young adults and not so young adults. Mothers who never raise their voice, always smile, gently chide, yet the child feels the crack of that whip, the guilt, the zing of mother's disapproval behind those 'encouraging' words.

Especially in advertising we should be aware of the term dissimulation. I wonder, looking back, who was the first to tell people that we must drink bottled water, that it is purer, safer, more sophisticated, more fun? Perhaps it was the same advertising firm that told us we were sexier, more worldly, more mature, stronger, if we smoked cigarettes.

Now in this season, this long season, of presidential politics, we should be looking for the dissimulation -- the chasm that gapes wide between the words spoken and the thoughts, actions, truth behind them.

Bacon also had encountered such politicians. Evidently in his day there was an alternative, I'm not sure there is today. They all seem quite talented at dissimulation. Here's what Bacon said:
Dissimulation is but a faint kind of policy, or wisdom; for it asketh a strong wit, and a strong heart, to know when to tell truth, and to do it. Therefore it is the weaker sort of politics, that are the great dissemblers.
How sad.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Uncommon connections

For the past three days I've been surrounded by the most amazing scientists and researchers who are dedicated to finding a cure for a variety of motor neuron diseases. I've heard about gene mutations, stem cell research, genetic studies, repositories, registries, rat studies, worm studies, flies and pigs studies -- separate not together. And zebra fish -- an excellent form to study because you can see right through them -- you can see the mutations.

It was that same transparency that our kids liked when we had a couple aquariums of tropical fish. We could raise guppies by the hundreds, it seemed. Couldn't keep a black molly alive to save us. And zebra fish -- we discovered angel fish love to eat them. But for the brief time we could watch them, we stared in fascination at their see-through bodies behind the stripes.

My husband's younger brother was equally fascinated with tropical fish and that's where our interest began, with Tommy's collection of salt water and fresh water fish.

The irony hit me as I sat in the lecture hall and listened to a discussion of familial ALS study using this species of fish that Tommy had at one time raised. Because, you see, Tommy was the first in the family to succumb to that very disease Familial Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or the inherited form of Lou Gehrig's disease.

He enjoyed the fish and they may eventually provide a cure for the disease that took Tommy's life at age 18, just barely 18. It rather reinforces the patterns of our lives and how everything is connected. It also makes me wonder why we don't see those connections. Maybe we need to think with a different perspective. If Tommy could have just seen in 1970s that this fish might hold the secret to his cure -- we could have saved thirty years of deaths and dying, suffering and wasting that the disease brings.

If onlys don't get us very far and eat up hope along the way. So I stuff that back in the dark recesses of my brain and focus on the bright scientists who did see the value of these fish and I pray that they figure out the twisted origins of the dreaded disease before another family member dies.

The zebra fish, flies, pigs, even worm studies remind me that we don't know where in nature we might find the next cure. So maybe we should preserve the nature around us -- we never know when we'll need to unlock its secrets to save our lives.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Messages hidden in printed pages

Where was I in 2002, when Andy Andrews wrote his New York Times best seller: The Traveler's Gift? Good Morning America endorsed it, telling all of their watchers to "READ THIS!"

I was watching Katie Couric, I suppose. Now that was a waste of time. But as I learn from Andy's book, "It was my choice, my fault, and my thinking." And it is up to me to take control of my life and make the decisions, correct those that are faulty and find the life, the success I want.

Interesting how this book came to be in my hands. I shelve books at the local library twenty hours a week. A lot of books pass through my hands, some fall down onto my head, others jump off the shelf, but rarely do I bring them home with me. Today, when I shelved another book near Andrew's book in the 813 section, I was caught by the title. No not the 'Seven Decisions that determine personal success' that is printed above the title, but rather the 'Traveler's Gift' portion.

It may be a Gabaldon thing and the whole obsession I've had lately with a young English woman traveling from the 1940s to the 1750s that the term 'traveler' brought to mind. Of course this was in the nonfiction not the fiction section of the library, and that may have been what motivated me to read the flyleaf blurb:

"Forty-six-year-old David Ponder feels like a total failure. Once a high-flying executive in a Fortune 500 company, he now works a part-time, minimum wage job...."

OK, that sounded like a downer, so yesterday. Old news.

I skimmed to the part: "But an extraordinary experience awaits David Ponder. He finds himself traveling back in time, meeting leaders and heroes at crucial moments in their lives...."

That's probably what grabbed me. I remember wondering, "Just who would I turn to for advice if I could ask anyone throughout history?"

Sadly my mind went blank at that point. Who would I want to advise me?

Eleanor Roosevelt comes to mind, yet I'm not sure she wasn't as much a pawn as anyone and she couldn't stand up to her own mother-in-law and her husband cheated on her with his secretary and for heaven sakes he was crippled from polio.

I'll admit that I'm only on the first of the seven decisions that determine personal success. But I am nodding in agreement with the author's choice of advisers: Harry Truman. Nothing truer was ever written or spoken than: The Buck Stops Here.

Yep, a real tough love kind of statement for all of us who want to protest and say, "I'm a victim here -- it wasn't me who invested in junk bonds, sold the company to someone who gutted it, caused the jobs to disappear...."

Our choices or failure to choose still speak for the way we live our lives. Accept that "The Buck Stops Here" and then make your choices.

I particularly like the statement in the book that says:
"From this moment forward, I will accept responsibility for my past. I understand that the beginning of wisdom is to accept the responsibility for my own problems and that by accepting responsibility for my past, I free myself to move into a bigger, brighter future of my own choosing."
OK, it sounds a bit Polyanna-ish. But there's merit and reason and most of all, there is hope in this statement. Hope can be in short supply when you live like a victim. Of course it is also a good way to live if you don't like to take responsibility for your own actions.

Funny how books seem to appear all at the same time and their diverse messages converge into just what I need to hear.

Today's books are as diverse as any could be. The next is a book of poems for children. "Water Music" by Jane Yolen. She captured my attention with her first poem:
"Reflections". Only eight lines beginning with "Water is a magic mirror...." and ending with "What is up is down, What is far is near; A truth so fragile Only Eyes can hear."
Poetry makes me think in new ways, look at things differently, consider eyes that hear. How is this connected to "The Traveler's Gift"? Darn if I know.

Sometimes the bits of information fit perfectly and I can see exactly what I am meant to learn. Other times, it takes a bit of pondering -- like David Ponder must do as he travels toward truth. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that I need to look at my life, things, events, people in a new way and see how they reflect upon me and how I reflect upon them.

The third portion of my truth trilogy was found in Donna Tartt's novel "The Secret History."

After a beautifully written page and a half, the narrator comments:
"I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home: circumstances which, to me at least, presented sound empirical argument for gloom.... I felt things would doubtless continue in this depressing vein as far as I could foresee. In short: I felt my existence was tainted, in some subtle but essential way."
I realize how this fits with the first book, that sense of helplessness, victimization, being caught in a web that holds me stickily in place and won't allow me to escape.

Perhaps the most fun of this exercise is discovering that random books brought together can present you with a new perspective, surprise you with unexpected revelations or at the least, introduce you to new authors. It isn't necessary to work in a library to do this exercise. Peruse your own book shelves and choose a few books and passages. Maybe try it at one of the book stores or when you're visiting the library -- let your hand stray and follow its lead.

This journey doesn't stop here for me -- I plan to finish reading "The Traveler's Gift" and buy a few copies to give as gifts. And I am totally committed to reading as much of Donna Tartt's writing as I can -- she has such an exquisite voice. And I will be reading and rereading and sharing the poems, even if they are for kids.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Five things to improve the new year

The year has dawned anew and here we are with all of this possibility before us. Twelve months to use or waste. So in an effort to make the best use of this time I have attempted to get started off on the right foot.

1. I don't think I laugh enough. So I'm including as many books and authors in my reading list who make me laugh. Two such authors are Mark Schweizer (The Alto Wore Tweed, The Baritone Wore Chiffon, etc.) and Steven Hockensmith (Holmes on the Range mystery series).

2. I think I spend too much time answering emails. I have suspended memberships in online writing groups so that I might spend more of my time practicing the art of writing, rather than learning about it. I have so many things I have learned, now it is time to give it a try. This is the year I complete the novel and send it off for good or ill to hopefully be published.

3. My world is too small. I need to explore more. I haven't quite figured out how I will do this, but maybe I'll begin with small steps -- check out the new coffee house down the street or make sure I have at least one day a week (or a month) where I do something new or different or use a different perspective. To that end, I hope to use my camera more. A camera has a way of capturing truths we otherwise miss. And hopefully photos will remind me of special things and I can translate them into words.

4. I need to get connected. When we have an emergency, I have no strategy or back up or contact person. It is time to build my network and find my community where I am at, not just long for the community so far away.

5. I would like to live more in tune with the words of Max Ehrmann (1927) as he wrote in his Desiderata:
  • Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.
  • As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
  • Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others; even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
  • Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit.
  • If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
  • Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
  • Keep interested in your own career however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
  • Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism
  • Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.
  • Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
  • Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
  • Do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
  • Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
  • You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
  • Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
  • With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
  • Be cheerful.
  • Strive to be happy.
I wish you all a happy and healthy and blessed New Year!