Friday, January 27, 2012

Cog People

I expect to do a review/rant on my experience at the Austin Community College in a few days, in which cog people will feature. I thought it would be a good idea to define my (made up) term first.

A cog person is anyone who is part of a machine. They lack the authority and/or the intelligence to cope with any situation that isn't coded into the machine's operating system. Much like an old computer that locks up if you try to run more than one program at a time.

A classic example is the menu of choices when you call a corporation. 'For Accounts Payable, press 1. For Customer Service, press 2. To express your hatred of our existence, press 3. To speak with our lawyers, who have a multi-million dollar retainer to talk to customers like you, press 4. For confirmation that you will never ever get what you actually want, press 5. To hear this menu again, press 6. Thank you for calling Evil Bureaucracy Inc.'

But if you have a problem that doesn't fit any of the menu choices, you're stuck in an endless loop of being transferred from one department to another until you can get a supervisor or manager on the line.

The problem is that cog people really are people. It's not really their fault that they can't help you. It's the system that works against you, not them personally. Which means that after getting frustrated, irritated, and generally much too warm under the collar, you then feel guilty for being so angry at a harmless human being.

It's the machine that hates you, not the clerk, cashier, or phone-answering-person.

As far as I can tell, ACC hires no one who does not meet their rigorous requirements of cog-hood. No one has the authority to do anything that can't be done by rote. It's a scientific miracle. The whole system should have exploded or just fallen apart years ago, yet it continues to devour students alive, semester after semester.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Day I Die

Toastmasters International is like Boy Scouts of America, but for adults, way cooler, and only about public speaking and leadership. No campfires or s'mores.

One of the regular meeting activities is Table Topics. The Table Topic Master (I love the titles in this club!) asks a question to the room at large, and then selects an audience member to come up and answer the question, speaking one to two minutes. Surprise! Totally impromptu speaking opportunity. Great fun.

One of the recent questions was "If you could plan the day you die, what would you do?" This really caught my imagination. Since I wasn't called on, I'll share my thoughts here.

If I could plan the day I die, the first thing I would do is schedule it for a day eighty years from now. Which would make me 99 the day I die. Sounds good.

I'd get up early and watch the sunrise. I'd call my grandkids. I'd have pancakes for breakfast, and I wouldn't stint on the butter and syrup. I'd finish reading any book I was in the middle of reading. I'd pick out what clothes I want to be buried in. I'd call my executor and let him know where the will is and who I do not want to speak at my funeral. If I had any unfinished writing business - incomplete but almost finished novels - I'd decide whether to finish it for publication or not. Probably not, but presumably by the time I'm 99 I'll have super l33t ninja writer skills, and finishing and publishing a novel in an afternoon will be no sweat.

Then I'd pack a picnic lunch and go out with my husband in a canoe. We'd row out into the middle of the lake and eat our sandwiches (thick ham and sharp cheddar) and watch the birds and the reflections on the lake (maybe my husband will want to do some fishing - who knows). We'd talk about all our adventures, what-happened-when and do-you-remember. We'd watch the sunset change the sky, and because the lake will be so calm, it'll be like our canoe is floating in the sky.

When the sun sets and takes the color with it, I'd kiss my husband, and then I'd die.

It's going to be interesting to see how different my life turns out from what I plan.

Friday, January 13, 2012


I've heard people say - mostly on movies, but sometimes in real life - that control is an illusion.

I swallowed it. I assumed that meant that I had no control. If control is illusionary, than reality must be uncontrolled.

I control when I go to bed. I control when I get up. I control what I eat. I control whether I act on my moods.

I still believe that I don't control every aspect of my life. I don't control whether people like me. I don't control whether someone hires me. I don't control whether I'm successful.

But I control how hard I try.

Therefore, lack of control must be just as illusionary as total control.

This makes me feel so much better about life.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Opinionated Opinion on Profanity


I was just reading a post by a writer I respect (largely for his professionalism, not because he writes in my genre - as far as I can tell, he doesn't) when I came across this thought:

If you have a problem with profanity, get over yourself or change your career. (Paraphrased.) Implication: you can't write (well, of course, because who would bother trying to write poorly?) without using profanity, either extensively or from time to time, like a strong seasoning.

Um. No.

First of all, I'm strongly Christian, and I've been raised not to use profanity or even the kinda-sorta-dirty-but-not-openly dirty words that refer to other words. I do use substitutes, such as drat and darn, but I don't consider this a good thing and I'm working to change that.

Secondly, I agree with this person: "Profanity is the effort of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully." - Unknown to Google.

Who wants to seem feeble-minded? You do? Alright, start using profanity in every sentence. If you don't have anything to say, spew out a few swear words. Everyone will think you're a crude, foul-mouthed fool who can't shut up, but hey, you'll be known as a forceful person! Hooray for you!

Profanity is not forceful to me. It is shocking, filthy, destructive - but not forceful. When I think of forceful, I think of a hammer. An engine. A river. Something with energy and strength as an inherent characteristic. In other words, a noun.

How many swear words are nouns? How many are USED as nouns? It's all verbs and adjectives. (PS Don't actually share your profane vocabulary with us. We don't need to know. Thank you.)

But apparently this man, who I do respect in other areas, thinks that writing needs some profanity. Most likely to add 'force' and 'strength' to the narrative.

This is completely unnecessary.

Take, for example, a short section from the beginning of the Pixar movie Up. It's a movie for children. No profanity. That means that there's nothing forceful, right?

But I consider the best and the most forceful part of the movie to be a small section that has no spoken narration or dialog. The story is moved entirely by the actions of two characters - newlyweds - and the music. It's similar to a silent Charlie Chaplin film. The audience is clearly shown two excited young people deeply in love, happily building a life together, who decide to have children. They're shown decorating the nursery. And then immediately from that bright, happy scene we slide to a dark hospital with the couple in a lit doctor's office. The music has changed. The woman is bent over, sobbing; her husband has his hand on her shoulder and his head is bowed. The doctor is holding a clipboard and is telling them something.

I've seen this same scene four or five times now, and it still moves me to tears.

No words saying that the baby is dead. No words saying they can't have children. No profanity saying they can eff each other forever, and it will still be hopeless.

Watch that opening scene and tell me it isn't forceful. Watch the whole movie and tell me that it doesn't touch on anything except happiness and light.

Maybe some people will rely on profanity to make their writing 'forceful'. I will not be one of them. I am still a learning writer; I know that I can improve greatly. But I will never use profanity as a prop to fake emotion and force when I can't convey it in other ways. Profanity dulls feeling. It is not forceful; it is poisonous. It will not be used in my writing. If my characters ever want to curse the situations I force them into, they can keep it to themselves.

Is that forceful enough for you?