Monday, April 27, 2009

The Private Hades of Phone Trees

If you've never read "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman... then go, now, read it. Get it from the library, or if they're closed from the book store or heck, spend the money on Amazon. Have it shipped priority. Then read it. I'll wait.

Done? Okay, thank me later for making you read it.

It's been a while since I read it, so the character names are a little fuzzy - except for the name of the dog - but there's a passage in there where it comments on how both demons and angels are sometimes inspiring some of man's inventions, for better or for worse. In particular, one invention is accredited to the hero demon of the book, namely that of what I took to be one of London's least desirable highways. It sounds rather like what I envision the Los Angeles freeway system to be like, only with everyone on the wrong side of the road, somewhat more polite, and with fewer guns.

In short, exactly the kind of thing a demon would design in order wrest the worst from mankind.

I am convinced a demon helped invent the phone tree. I'm not sure when, exactly, we decided it was better to replace actual people with an overly complicated menu of choices that are both unclear and read too quickly. Obviously it came after touch tone phones became omnipresent, which makes it a fairly recent invention I would think. Somewhere down the line, I know, it was decided that a phone tree made sense. It saves time and money, presumably, because less people need to be hired to actually talk to customers.

This is not because most customers are able to achieve a satisfactory resolution to their problem, but because they simply give up before they reach a representative.

Also, those customers who do reach someone have presumably been routed to the representative, who in an ideal world has all of the information about your complaint and/or your account to fully and completely assist you in solving it. Only, in my experience, this never, ever happens. I always end up having to verify everything I just put into the menu, and I'm not really sure that one representative is ever more qualified than the other.

Moreover, wouldn't it be faster to just talk to someone, and have them transfer me? Of course, then I'd be put on hold and have to listen to muzak. Both concepts are, I'm convinced, also a demon's work.

Anyone else smell brimstone?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Perfectly Procrastinating

In a case of "good news, bad news" I have a bit of a perfectionist's streak. And a slightly compulsive attitude towards a number of things... though in a perfect world I would be able to extend that compulsion towards writing, but it only seems to work toward organizing my work space. It's not as if I have count step or fence posts or the like - and I have nothing but utmost sympathy for those people who's lives are so controlled by their compulsions that they have to do that sort of thing to the exclusion of being able to function normally.

In the good news aspect, this means I tend to do enough research to get the details right. (When I'm not just making it up, that is.) The bad news is, I have a tendency to over-research. Not just in my fiction, where I can spend hours looking into something that, if I was being honest with myself and my craft, is only going to briefly feature in what I'm writing and probably merited only a cursory 15 minute investigation... or a question posted to a forum to let other people find the answer for me.

Of course, then I have to deal with all the smart-alecks who proceed to chastise me for my lack of researching skills. Instead of praising me for my ability to delegate, which is what they should be doing.

But it also impacts the non-fiction paying work I do. I tend to over-research, even when I know I have enough to get the job done. It's not even a question of doing the job versus doing the job well, it's just that I get into this mode where I want to know the answers to the point where I sufficiently feel as though I have the authority to actually write about a subject.

I suppose that part of the job description of being a writer is, by default, being a person who ends up knowing a little bit about everything, especially if you write on a diverse number of topics. There is certainly no call to become an expert on any of them, especially when most of the time all you really have to do is consult the experts. Yet sometimes I seem to feel as though I need to know more than I know I really do, and that feeling can make a simple assignment into a much more complex one.

I suspect some of it too is that it becomes a way to procrastinate, without feeling like I'm procrastinating. I'm technically accomplishing something, even if that something isn't putting words on paper. Or far beyond what the words on the paper will need.

I guess I'll have to some research on that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

WWHTT moments

I learned something the other day that would have never occurred to me without it having been mentioned. It wasn't anything earth-shattering, just one of those "huh, who would've thought that" moments. Oddly enough it concerned a community that I had only recently had another such moment about, and it got me thinking about those other societies we see around us but don't ever know much about.

I suppose a little background is necessary or else this won't make any sense. I live out in rural Pennsylvania at the moment, and we have neighbors who are Mennonite. That term may be less familiar, but one I'm sure everyone knows is Amish. They've made enough appearances in pop culture - Hollywood movies, Weird Al videos - that when you mention them to most people, certain images come to mind. The images aren't wrong, by the way, as we've encountered horse-drawn buggies on the road and seen men with beards and dark clothes laboring with hand tools alongside women in full length dresses and mob caps. (My spelling may be wrong on that last bit of clothing. That's how I've heard it said but I've not actively looked it up.)

The first WWHTT moment was when I learned that what I thought was the natural progression of things was actually the reverse. Mennonites are essentially Amish lite - they are to the Amish what the Anglicans are to the Catholics, in a sense. Recognizable as the same basic faith and close relatives of one another, but different enough to be distinct. The Mennonites dress similarly and hold similar values, but are in keeping with modern technology. They have cars, phones (though some rule dictates where this phone must be kept in relation to the house) and electric lights. I had always presumed the Amish came first, but in fact they splintered off to become stricter.

The second WWHTT moment came more recently, when it was mentioned that there are a lot of African-American Mennonites. I've never seen any in the Amish community, and perhaps saying that there are "a lot" in the Mennonite community is overstating it, but they aren't so rare that's it's unusual to meet one if you spend any amount of time among them. Now it mostly seems to be men, as anecdotal evidence suggests African American Mennonite women are few and far between, but they are there where I never would have thought to find them in the first place.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Elusive Quest for Answers

Not knowing things vexes me. Not that I expect to know everything, because quite frankly who'd want to? Some things are much, much better off left unknown, like what that fuzzy, brightly colored piece of something or other that got dropped behind your desk would actually taste like if you put it in your mouth. Or certain smells. (Ah, you never thought of that, you say? You figured knowing everything would just include lottery numbers and when to wash your car so it doesn't rain the next day? Clearly you haven't read enough stories about djinn and what happens when you get your wish.)

Sometimes, though, something crops up and it seems like I should know it. Or at least marginally recognize it. And if I can't do that, then I ought to be able to look it up. Only it doesn't always work that way. You'd think, in this day and age, with all the resources available just from sitting at a computer, that you could find the answer to almost anything. Yet you can't. Some things are just too obscure, or their origins too murky, for you to be able to track them down.

Case in point was a quotation someone used the other day. They didn't attribute it to anyone, but it looked familiar enough to me that I recognized it as a quote. From someone, who said it somewhere. That was the best I could come up with on my own. So, I did what any self-respecting person does in this day and age: I Googled it. (I could've consulted the Wiki gods, but I have discovered they are less useful for things of this nature. You have to be somewhat specific in your supplication to the Wiki gods, or they tend to ignore you.) Only that didn't help.

Turns out either it's one of those things that only sounds like a quote, or it's been used so often by so many it's impossible to trace it back. There were similar quotes on the subject, including one by Mark Twain who had turned up as a possible source for the original quote I was looking for. It was close enough in fact that I began to expect perhaps the one I was searching for was a bastardization of the original Twain quote, only it wasn't quite that close.

Regardless, I never did come up with an answer, and it's been relegated to the back of my brain. Though it will continue to vex me.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Techno Blunder

If a website crashes on the internet, and no one is around to complain, does it make a sound?

I ask because one of the places I use to generate some much needed income seems to be down, dooming me to a middling to nigh insignificant paycheck next week. I can compensate for it the week after, but it's damned inconvenient. Not to mention I have to really hope I don't have much in the way of expenses. (Might be time to take the horses instead of the car. Not that they're cheaper to fill up in the long run, mind you. Horses, especially draft horses, eat a lot.)

I have no idea why they site is malfunctioning, or if it's some combination of my server and their site - though I strongly suspect it's them, not me. Not that it matters, the end result is the same. But it brought to mind all those other sites that are out there, gathering electronic dust and bitmites, long since abandoned by their creators. I suppose eventually someone terminates them, once the electronic rent is left unpaid... but that only covers those sites that do cost money to operate.

Spaces like this one, which are free, can languish for years. (Case in point, this one was neglected two years running other than the shoddy attempt to keep a resolution.) I suspect it's a slow slide into decay. People stop posting, then the faithful readers realize the site's no longer being updated, and move on. Sometimes there is a forwarding address, sometimes not.

Do they take up space in their obsolescence? Does someone eventually have to take them down to make room for other domains? Or do they just sit there until the host server eventually goes down - which presumably it will at some point. After all, no media is permanent, and the next incarnation of the internet or whatever data-sharing method takes it's place will make all of this obsolete. In the meantime, are they like dead trees in the forest, providing a hiding space for the digital wildlife? I have no idea how that would work, mind you, but it makes for an interesting concept, I think.

In the meantime, is their an opening for internet lumberjack? And do I get to wear the cool flannel shirts?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Pile-Up

I procrastinate. I don't mean to, but I do. And with some things it's more disastrous than others. (This is only slightly inspired today by it being the 14th of April - and no, my taxes aren't quite done. The federal ones are, but the state ones apparently require more forms than I have in my possession. Yet.) So this isn't about missed deadlines and that sort of thing. Rather it's about the perceived weight of expectations that seems to build up the longer I put something off.

On the one hand, you'd think I'd have learned by now that simply putting something off does not magically get it done. Never once has anything I've ever been working on ever finished itself while I was studiously ignoring it. Quite the opposite, I tend to have ideas about what else to do with projects even when I am deliberately trying to ignore them. While there may be, according to folklore, little elves that help cobblers, they are apparently illiterate elves. Or else I need to be writing on wooden tablets or something. I don't know, other than they aren't appearing to help me.

Perversely, the more I put things off the worse they seem. It works almost exponentially, where the more I put something off, the harder it becomes to go back to it. Inevitably - and this is also something you'd think I'd have learned by now - it's never as bad as it seems when I finally do get to it. In fact, in most cases it works much better than anticipated, and the ideas flow and things get put down on paper (or the digital equivalent thereof), and suddenly those days of avoidance seem as wasted as they really were.

And yet
, I do it anyway. Constantly, with all sorts of things. I can make deadlines, don't get me wrong, but in the holdover from my college days this seems to mean doing them at the last moment. Perhaps part of the problem is that I almost always pull it off anyway, and know in the back of my head just how long I can wait to accomplish something on deadline. Though, again, that's an "almost" always, so those times when I haven't made deadline should have taught me not to wait so long.

For those things without deadline, I can seemingly procrastinate endlessly, leaving them gathering digital dust in their various folders. Even those have a deadline of sorts, because eventually they either have to be finished or I will have to give up on the ideas ever becoming a published story. Which seems a waste after all that effort put into them.

Even if for some of them it's mostly been effort ignoring them lately.

Friday, April 3, 2009

April Showers Bring Lots of Mud

Okay, that's not how the saying goes, but despite only being three days into the month that's the way it feels. Of course, around here the calendar is no indication of season anyway. They're calling for snow again overnight. (And I wonder why I'm having trouble keeping my daughter cold-free when we've had several days when the temperature fluctuated by around thirty degrees from low to high.) The only upside to all the muck and mess, especially out in the country, is that eventually it does lead to all the pretty things of springs.

While I could wax poetic about the flowers and such, ostensibly this is a writing-oriented blog and there is a writing-related point to it. I've lived places and visited places where the seasons didn't change much, where you had flowers blooming pretty much year round, and while they were nice, they lacked something. At least to my mind, the flowers here are nicer because we have to endure all the foul weather to get to them. It makes the transition out of Winter into Spring more appreciated (regardless of the fact that I can never remember whether the seasons should be capitalized or not) and the flowers seem prettier for having not seen them for months.

The finished product of a story is like that, too. (See, told you there was a point.) While I'd like to be able to sit down and just churn out a story, I think the finished product has a bit more satisfaction to it from having had to endure the whole process. Not that it wouldn't be tempting to trade in the process for instant completion, mind you, but there have been plenty of times where the process has taken the original story in a different direction. Had there not been that shift in direction, the new story that emerged might likely never have bloomed.

Have I done the metaphor to death yet?

Likewise, those stories that I have managed to just crank out from start to finish don't ever seem to read as well - not just to me but to others - as the ones that took more time to germinate. I think you have to put up with the rain, the mud, the occasional Easter snow, and all the rest, before you get a garden full of blooms.

And with that, I think the metaphor's well and truly dead. Time to go look at the flowers.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inspiration of the Road

There's a red bench off I-90 (I won't say where, but if you're traveling in the right direction through the right part of the right state you can't really miss it) that never fails to inspire an idea or two whenever I pass by it. I haven't yet taken the nearest exit to fully investigate it, but it's on a trip I make often enough that I suspect one of these days I will. It's an incongruous piece of furniture that looks wholly out of place where it is, and eventually here I'll take more about it in another post, but it's not the bench itself that I'm focusing on today.

Rather, it's those moments of inspiration I get from being on the road. Somehow taking a trip by car seems filled with much more possibility than going by air. (Or by train. Which I enjoy, and I suppose I ought to round out the vehicular trifecta here with another entry on train travel.) I am always tempted when I pass by the exits I'm not getting off at, to make that exit anyway and see where it goes. Mostly these are the more rural exits, the ones that just seem to veer off the highway and disappear. Exits that are bombarded by Walmarts and McDonald's and gas/convenience stores hold much less appeal.

To a certain extent I suppose that's just the general lure of the unknown. I've always been one to explore, and seeing as I lack the money for real travel (or just the guts to strap on a backpack and venture over the land for parts unknown) these road trips offer a vicarious approximation. Prepackaged rest stops tend to take away some from the experience, but it's always interesting to see what other people are traveling along your route that day. I am more often interested in places than the people that inhabit them, but will confess that people are interesting, too, and certainly come with their own stories. Even if I have to make them up.

So it never fails that, even if nothing concrete emerges from the trip, it does manage to stimulate my imagination. That "what if" factor that I think all good writers have in their brain often goes into overdrive I pass the little places that seem full of character (and might just as easily be boring and mundane if I got the real story behind them - like the bench) and I wonder about the history of the place or the people. What brought them there - literally or figuratively - that has led them to be in that spot in that moment.

And sometimes a more concrete idea will take hold, and I get to fully create that set of circumstances.

After carefully fictionalizing it so I don't get sued, of course.