Sunday, July 28, 2013

Suppose Everyone Is Listening

There are a lot of words out there right now about who is listening to your conversations, who might be reading your electronic mail, what part of our freedoms are being violated. There are few answers.

I would speculate that since humans first began communication with a coherent and repeatable set of sounds, somewhat more understandable than grunts, there have been eavesdroppers and tale bearers among us. It isn’t hard to understand why that would happen in the most primitive societies: people like to know what is going on where, when, why, and sometimes how. "How" is included in the journalistic code, but the essential four are what drives gossip, innuendo, and reporting.

We have, in recent months, been made more aware than ever of the unknown listeners in our lives. I remember years ago routinely answering my office phone with the admonition that "this is not a secure line." It seemed necessary, dealing with the media and the public as I did. Today I only use that phrase when I’m discussing something that could be mis-interpreted or that might give a third party the wrong idea about something. The same as saying: "Off the record and not for attribution." For the same reason, I’m careful about what I put in emails, text messages (I may use that route three times a year), and even written information. As a writer I am aware of what words mean and what they can do, how they can be mis-interpreted, and what damage they can do either by intent or accident.

While it may be true that "sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words will never harm me," you have only to look at the face of a bullied child, or an employee following a supervisor’s expression of discontent. It is a wide world in which words live, and we need to be careful about how we channel them.

One of the many signs I had posted in my offices over the years was: "Be Sure Brain is Engaged Before Putting Mouth in Gear." It is far too easy for your thoughts to get ahead of your voice and confuse or anger or hurt the listener. It is still good advice. But back to who is listening.

I once sat as a jury member in the trial of a man who was accused of breaking and entering a residence for the purpose of theft. He was arrested because he had used his driver’s license to open a locked door, and being a bright fellow, left it for the police to find when the homeowner reported the break-in. Well, if you are going to leave your calling card, you must not really understand how information can be used. Today, in addition to driver’s licenses, most of us have electronic signatures for our computers and tablets and pads and phones that are used to recognize us. There are ways of not only finding us, but replacing us with someone who is up to no good, and doing things in our name. Still, it comes down to this: you can find a place to hide only if you cut yourself off completely from the rest of the world. Otherwise you are fair game for others to find and convert to their own use. It is a part of modern life, and I don’t see any really sensible way of avoiding it unless you avoid life altogether.

During WW II there were posters everywhere reminding us that "Walls Have Ears." It isn’t a new thing in our lives, it isn’t going away, and in fact it is probably only going to accelerate. Another saying from childhood is this couplet: "fools names and fool’s faces/often appear in public places." Just consider the stories about people passed over for jobs because of comments they had loaded onto their personal public media pages

If you are going to write your name on a wall, remember that the wall is a public place.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Some Thoughts (and a few non-thoughts) About Writing

Here I am again, ready to tell the world what I think about whatever I’m thinking about, and I’m not really thinking about anything! The problem with setting a regularly scheduled writing objective is that one must satisfy that commitment even when there is nothing to commit to paper in the first place.

So I begin anew each week, thinking about what I have to say that is worth your time to read. That is a real conceit on my part, isn’t it? But of course, we who write for any kind of publishing, have to be somewhat conceited to think that what we have to say is important enough for others to read. This line of thinking is dangerous because when one puts such words in front of readers, you have the opportunity to say, "You’re right!" and simply click the little "x" in the top right corner and go on to something else. So I try to find something that I believe is worth writing about for those of you who are kind enough to read to the end each week, and even to comment on what you read.

This past week I’ve been wrestling with a number of interesting problems in a new story I’m working on. It is another story featuring Lissa King, that dangerous agent who, with her inamorata Stan Morris, confronts evil in seemingly quiet and peaceful parts of northwestern Virginia. This story involves more research than some others, mainly because I want it to feel authentic and the characters are taking me to places I’ve never been. I suppose the most interesting part of writing fiction, for me at least, is when the characters take over the story and begin leading me to places I haven’t been or even thought about. The writing process is like that for me: an idea for a story arrives while I’m doing something else, begins to interrupt what I’m already doing, calls out, claims my attention and we’re off and running. I keep notebooks handy wherever I might be in the house, and one in my pocket when I’m out, because I never know when the next sequence or conversation or a whole story will arrive and make itself known. I don’t know what to compare it to. It has been this way for me for as long as I can remember, and it doesn’t seem to be going away. I think there will come a time when new stories don’t suggest themselves, or let themselves be told even when I can see them. So, even if this seems to be a little precious to you, it is vital to me, that I continue to do what I do.

There are two quotations that guide me in my writing. The first is from F. Scott Fitzgerald: "You don’t write because you want to say something; you write because you have something to say." That in itself should be enough to stop a lot of the words that get printed or digitized every day. It’s easy to put down words. It isn’t so easy to pick them up again if they don’t mean anything. Once a writer puts a word in place it can be almost impossible to lift it up and throw it way, or put it somewhere else. I suppose that is why we have editors.

Mark Twain advises: "The difference between the right word and the ‘almost’ right word, is the difference between lightning and lightning bug." It reflects the difference in weight of words, as in comparing a rock and a pebble. Think "It was a dark and stormy night," as opposed to "It was raining."

I leave you with a final thought attributed to Hans Selye, who identified stress as a medical condition: "Facts from which no conclusions can be drawn are hardly worth knowing."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Snake Oil

Are dress codes a symbol of social health? Did we move from respect for others to loving only ourselves? Those are questions that I consider whenever I think about how we dress and what that means.

I’m not thinking about teens and their age-old need to be identified with peers and not stand out in their own crowd, while at the same time separating themselves both from their juniors ("Look, I’m not a baby anymore!") and their seniors ("Look, I’m ME!"). That’s a natural process that certainly isn’t new. No, what I’m thinking about has to do with things like hats and gloves and the difference between work clothes and "Sunday best."

When I was growing up, and where I did that, no boy wore a hat in the house more than once. In the presence of ladies (never "girls" or "women") a hat had an almost mechanical feature that lifted it off the head of the wearer if one chanced to meet a lady outside, and flew either to a hat rack or to the owner’s side when inside. Gentlemen wore hats outside, but never inside for any reason beyond some relationship to work, such as house-painting. There are even those of us who remember mechanics wearing dress shirts and ties under their coveralls when diagnosing a poor-running car. Were those the good old days?

And what about today? The ubiquitous "gimmie" baseball cap so beloved of advertisers already had a place in my list of things I could do without, and if you have read the essays in my book, Mixed Freight, you will already know how I feel about those [Hats Off!, Page 29]. But since I wrote that essay ten or so years ago, there has been another shift in how we dress.

Before I get into that, let me add a "full disclosure" caveat: I live in a very rural part of America, and seldom visit major cities. Where once I didn’t even own a pair of jeans, I now find them to be my first choice when getting dressed (second, really, because I start my day in hiking shorts most every morning year-round.) But I digress. I seldom wear a suit and tie, and I guess I’m old enough to get away with wearing "play clothes" if I want to. But again, I digress.

What I’m really having a hard time with is politicians and corporate CEOs, the supreme white-collar workers, wearing $5,000 suits, with probably $100 white dress shirts, and no tie. I find that insulting. Just who do these hot shots think they are kidding? A guy in a suit and dress shirt and no tie on the factory floor? You know he’s management from the soles of his handmade loafers to the top of his $100 haircut (or ten-times more expensive hair piece). And how about state visits? Wandering around some politician’s ranch, or sitting in a gilded audience room in a stately office, surrounded by reporters and translators, fashionable dark suits and tie-less white wing collars open at the neck: what does that say about those guys? Are they trying to make us think they are really working? Have you ever seen a farm hand mucking out a barn in a coat and tie?

If you believe they’re just one of the boys, I’ve got a nice bottle of snake oil with your name on it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

History - Better Read than Dead

I read a lot of history because I’m as interested in the past as I am in the future, and history tells me as much about one as about the other. I especially like first–person accounts of events, of history written by someone who was actually a part of it, even if the story is told as a novel.

Recently I picked up a couple of books written by a well-known (at the time) journalist, later an officer on General Pershing’s staff in France. The first book describes his visit to France during the second year of the war. The other is from his perspective as the public information officer for the American Expeditionary Forces, as our WW I effort was known. In reading about the preparation for battle, the battles themselves, and the effect of war on not just the soldiers but on the civilians in a country at war, I began to think about how and why men, especially, volunteer to become warriors.

When I read something authentic, real and true, I often stop, step back and try to put myself into the story. How would I respond to the circumstances and situations described by the author? Where would I be if I were part of not just the story, but the time and place, as well? I’m no longer a young man, not even a middle-aged man so that, I realize, changes my perspective about war and warfighters.

When I was very young, and living through what we called World War II, my heros were the young men stationed at the Army Air Corps replacement depot that had been built in our town. Some were men who had flown in combat, others were still waiting to be sent overseas. More than a few were permanently stationed at the base because their skills, though highly important to the war, were not combat skills, and they could not be spared. Playing with the other pre-teen kids in the neighborhood, some of whom had fathers overseas (my own had been a year too young for WW I, and several years and two kids too old for WW II), we more often played at soldiering than old games like Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. We imagined ourselves dedicated fighters, and hoped that if our time came, we would be in the thick of it, on the ground or in the air or afloat, shooting our way to our country’s safety, throwing grenades, firing canon, shooting other planes out of the sky. We would be in the thick of it, and always survive.

We were finished in Korea by the time I was draft age, but I did manage to get to the next one, in Viet Nam. By then I was a professional filmmaker, and that is what I did there. Though I was issued a sidearm I was seldom at risk, given the places I was filming or sending my crews to film. I was in my 30s by then, and saw war through a different lens, as it were.

Now, when reading about our soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines, I find myself wondering, if I had been in whatever war the book is about, what kind of assignment I would want; what has the least risk, the highest survival rate? That is where I would want to be, to have the greatest chance of coming back to the life I would have left to go to war.

How different from childhood, from youth, when I would have wanted to be in the army, in the infantry, maybe airborne, but not a pilot or a sailor. But then I didn’t understand death. In fact, I didn’t understand life. I’m still learning about both, but I’m at least advanced enough to know which I value most.

I think the world would be different if the people responsible for declaring war then had to do the fighting.