Saturday, November 26, 2011

All of Malcolm Gladwell in One Sentence

By a series of the very sort of random accidents that lead experts to make faulty inferences, it happens that I've been listening to and reading a lot of Malcolm Gladwell lately. In search of books on CD for the long drive back and forth to my friend's cabin in North Carolina, I've fetched up at my local library, plying the non-fiction CD section and coming away with Blink, The Tipping Point, and Outliers. As an avid reader of The New Yorker, I've encountered individual essays by Gladwell on subjects ranging from Mammograms to criminal profiling. By virtue of having a mother who loves to read, I've received in the mail a collection of Gladwell's previously published pieces, What the Dog Saw. "What a person trained to analyze such patterns would conclude," we may imagine Mr. Gladwell saying about this, "is that Mr. O'Gorman is manifesting a clear intent to read or listen to all of my work, for some specific purpose or agenda." And then, if we've listened to the author via audiobook, we perhaps imagine him then taking a long, not quite stentorian breath, before adding, "But does it really tell us that? Couldn't the fact that O'Gorman has lately read and listened to a lot of Gladwell bespeak a series of outcomes driven by pure chance?"

This then is Malcolm Gladwell's life's thesis: People in the modern labor market have very specialized, intensely technocratic roles, involving the accumulation, collation, and interpretation of highly complex and noisy data. They are thence so inundated with all this data that they are prone to paradoxically flat-footed conclusions -- specifically, to conclusions that are increasingly disconnected from the messy reality they endeavor to explain. In The Tipping Point, marketing experts invest countless fortunes hoping to foreordain explosive bursts in consumer demand for products, but miss the qualitative (and therefore uninteresting-to-them) role of the hipster opinion leaders on the ground. In Blink, a Pentagon with effectively unlimited resources develops a war game -- in which flip charts and payoff matrices figure prominently -- only to be humiliated by an impish, seat-of-the-pants gunslinger who was hired to pretend to be the other side. In What the Dog Saw, oncologists pore over mammograms searching for tell-tale signs of breast cancer, then misdiagnose the patients in their charge because the flood of data overwhelms their intuitions. This is Gladwell's theology, periodically re-dressed to sell more books; this is all of Malcolm Gladwell, in one sentence: Expertise is overrated.

As a professional academician in a technical field, I am obliged to feel a personal investment in pushing back against this thesis; to pretend that this is not personal would be dishonest. But, okay, just how convincing is Mr. Gladwell's case? Is the world as unknowably heuristic as he envisions it to be, or, ironically, does the very argument he endeavors to build in tome after weighty tome suffer from exactly the flaw he keeps noticing in the thinking of all those supposed experts?

Perhaps the best place to start such an inquiry is with Gladwell's essay about the state of mammography. For it is here as in few other places through his bibliography, the author removes the gloves of intellectual coyness and strikes his target-experts a mighty blow from the hammer of his world view:

Calcium deposits, apparently, are the canary-off-the-perch inside a woman's breast. When a mammogram reveals these deposits, the job of interpreting the picture falls to a highly trained practitioner tasked with determining whether the screening process moves on to the next, more invasive level. The trouble, apparently, is that many types of calcium deposits in breasts are benign, others are sometimes benign, others aren't benign but may be so slow to do damage that noticing them would raise a false alarm, and still others are genuinely malignant but have a nasty tendency to hide behind certain types of breast tissue.

Gladwell's conclusion -- bizarrely -- is that the medical field is suffering from a flood of information, and that this flood is overwhelming its capacity to intuitively do its job.

"Would taking a better picture solve the problem? Not really, because the problem is that we don't know for sure what we're seeing, and as pictures become better we have put ourselves in a position where we see more and more things that we don't know how to interpret. ...The picture promises certainty, and it cannot deliver on that promise."

There are several levels on which this conclusion may be considered, and I'd be ignoring my responsibilities to my own convictions and my own profession if I didn't pay at least a passing service to the issue of Gladwell's own lack of requisite training. He speaks to many qualified persons, to be sure -- The New Yorker doesn't run strops, after all -- but all the while his personal education is as a historian.

He has through a combination of imposing raw intellect, abiding curiosity, and virtuoso craftsmanship, established himself as a renowned writer on highly technical subjects -- bringing to each of them a highly technical, razor-edged belief that all of us are drowning in highly technical data -- but none of this completely nullifies the fact that his own educational background excused him from the grim and gritty process of developing the informed intuitions of a technically educated person, with which that technically educated person might just do a slightly better job of sorting the expert opinions he obtains. (A trained statistician, for example, would recognize that richness of data is very often beneficial, and not deleterious, because it serves to rule in the scientific learning process by ruling other, previously accepted theories, out. Noisy data doesn't make it harder to draw conclusions; it narrows the field of available conclusions and thus makes them far more accurate. Take it from a trained statistician.)

But setting aside the issue of qualification, as we must if the matter is to be considered in anything like good faith, what of Gladwell's conclusion itself? Have we got this right? Because the current state of the mammogram is that it is fraught with contradicting signals about calcium deposits, this therefore means that all future improvements in the technology would only make the problem worse? Malcolm, really?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but in trained intellectual discourse, Gladwell has here committed what's referred to as the fallacy of the predetermined outcome. The fact that previous improvements in mammography have only clouded the issue and reduced the rate of successful diagnosis by adding noise to the data (something the author himself interestingly never quite says, by the way), it therefore follows that any subsequent improvements in mammography would have the same result, further exacerbating the current problem. Our intrepid reporter's too-much-information hammer has left him only able to see a clear cut case of not-quite-information, as just another nail: If mammography is resulting in misdiagnosis of breast cancer, it must be because mammography is overwhelming the practitioner with messy data, and that better mammography will only make that problem worse. kuh-WHACK. The good guys lost the Pentagon's expensive war game because they had too much information. kuh-WHACK. The Getty Museum almost bought a counterfeit statue because they had too much information. kuh-WHACK. A company that sells skateboarding apparel confuses the success of Hush Puppies for a general plan for selling hip shoes, by accumulating too much information. kuh-WHACK, kuh-WHACK, kuh-WHACK, kuh-WHACK.

The irony in all of this, perhaps easily overlooked, is that the error Gladwell commits in the structure of these arguments is the very one he implicitly criticizes each time he endeavors to make it. An unabashed expert and unimpeachably brilliant mind, whose knowledge of the world is nonetheless inescapably limited, has difficulty holding perspective on that limitation for long enough to come to the cool-headed conclusion that he might be in over his head. If our author had been alive during the time of Pythagoras, would Gladwell have considered a sun-centered model of the universe necessary to clean up the bizarre tracks of the planets across the sky, or would all the bizarre behaviors of the planets be just another sighing, head-shaking example of all these puffed-up people's insistence on confusing themselves with too much, too technical information?

True, the modern world fetishes information at the expense of common sense. Absolutely it does. And anyone who knows me personally knows that I am every bit as exercised about the problem as Gladwell, at least when it comes to our foolhardy embrace of pointlessly over-improved consumer technologies. In re-acquiring five or six hundred PC's every year or so, for no better reason than because the new PC's are new, the college where I work places itself at the top of the exhibit list in my own, abiding agreement with Gladwell's notion that the modern world often fetishes information at the expense of common sense.

But you know, it also often does the opposite. Increasingly, in fact, it does nothing in-between. Gladwell is right that the CIA should've been more circumspect about the photos it was amassing of the Iraqi countryside in late 2001 and early 2002, but he'd be wrong if he were to argue, as others have, that
a snowstorm in May is conclusive evidence that the technocrats are wrong on global climate change, or that the current recession is proof that we should dismantle the technocratic stabilization infrastructures of the United States Federal Reserve. And if this commentary seems a bit over-revved at this point, then perhaps it's time to circle this back to the personal stake that I feel in my heart each time Gladwell over-extends what is otherwise a not entirely invalid point about our information-fetishing world.

It's not just that his thesis so brusquely rules out the possibility that the exact opposite problem might be true in each of his examples -- that mammography might actually get better with an improved picture, and not worse -- it's that in making these observations from a position of limited expertise of his own, Gladwell is contributing to an overall cheapening of the value of expertise. And worse, he does so at precisely the time in world history when that erosion of value is poised to do the greatest damage. As a (supposedly) tenured professor who still stands in front of classes full of students, I'll freely admit that most of the intensity of my reaction to Gladwell is driven by the personal sensation of being one of the world's genuinely endangered species. And being made to feel even more so by the writings of someone as clever and highly educated and intellectually curious as Malcolm Gladwell is hardly doing anything for my peace of mind about the future of intellectual thought in this world -- technical or otherwise.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Monday, October 10, 2011

A Slightly Lonelier Lonely Planet

When I was twenty-eight I moved from a rented house with a front yard and a back yard in central Minnesota, to a 1,000-unit gated apartment complex in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Let's just pause for a second to aerate that mental image, before moving on, shall we?)

There were many things about these new surroundings that I didn't like much -- with apologies to Fort Lauderdale -- but for eight months I stuck it out down there (in the deluded hope that I'd eventually come to love a job I'd started without a stick of furniture in my office, and an apartment complex with snotty neighbors and human turds floating in the pool). During this time, I had but one oasis: I'm not proud of this, but as a newly-arrived recipient of 300-channel cable TV, I became hopelessly addicted to an hour-long television show that aired on The Travel Channel every weeknight, called Lonely Planet. ...And yes, that's how sheltered I'd been before this moment. I didn't even know that the show was adapted from the guidebook series of the same name.

Night after night, week after week, month after month, I'd stagger through the front door of my cheerless little poured-concrete cell, pile my lump of parking-garage-access-cards in a careless heap on the kitchen counter, and flip on my television -- thence to watch the impish twentysomething limousine-lefties from Australia and Scotland and Harrisonville New York traipse around in places as diverse as Vietnam, London and The Congo. "Looks like a lot of fun," I'd said to myself so many times that I began to say it out loud. "Looks like they're not too overburdened with stuff, or really in all that much danger," I thought. And then, after a pause to take another pull of beer, "You know, I could do that, too."

The next summer I quit, taping my meager belongings into second-hand boxes liberated from a dumpster behind the neighboring liquor store, and moved to Gainesville, Florida -- for no better reason than it seemed like a smart-thinking and possibly even liberal oasis, bang in the middle of a state I'd come to view as warm, in a country I'd come to view as ordered, but neither of them particularly self-redeeming otherwise. I turned thirty the following year and, in consequence, my father Kerry O'Gorman gave me a very large amount of money with which he'd hoped I might travel across Europe, and which I instead (to his certain disappointment) used to backpack my way across southeast Asia.

I was away for fifty-seven days, missing both Tiger Woods' grand slam and the crash of the Concorde, among rather a lot else. What I didn't miss, on the other hand, was Bangkok and Ko Chang and Saigon and Hue and Nha Trang and Chiang Mai and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I rode elephants and crashed motorcycles. I was robbed at knife-point and driven around unconscious in the back of a cab. I ate, I threw up, I kissed, I fooled around, and I made many trips back and forth to the water closet. I went to hospital emergency rooms. Twice. And if I told you that I didn't imagine myself narrating the scenery for the benefit of a Lonely Planet TV-audience at least once on every single one of those days, I'd be an even bigger liar than I am, generally.

This was, I hasten to repeat, eleven and a half years ago. And in that time very much has changed -- about me, about southeast Asia, and about the people I love. Indeed it would not be a million miles from true to say that the life I have now would be unrecognizable to that doe-eyed greenhorn who kissed his mother on the cheek at the Orlando Airport and waddled down a concourse beneath the crippling weight of his preposterously over-packed bag.

In the years afterward I changed in just the sorts of semi-unexpected ways in which people change over a period of so much time. I grew semi-disillusioned with romantic love, discovered major disappointments at the hands of those who'd been my friends, took a job teaching at the local community college,
bought a house, left my job to try my hand at the university, went back to the college when the university situation proved ridiculous, published a single short-story, became more disillusioned with romantic love, said goodbye to my best friend who passed away from complications of cystic fibrosis, dabbled in a couple of minor heart attacks, got some cats, completed five full-length written manuscripts, none of which is even remotely publishable, became even more disillusioned with romantic love, signed assorted letters of reprimand being carbon-copied to the H/R department of my long suffering employers, wrote a handful of movie reviews, had a vicious and in some ways pointless falling-out with my father (with whom I have not spoken since), got sued for defamation and settled out of court despite not being even remotely guilty, re-discovered my childhood love of baseball, and watched lots, and lots, and lots of movies.

In a way it's the movie-watching that occupies us here, since in 2003, having found myself so consistently less productive with my own writing than I wanted to be, I had my cable disconnected. I've not had a television signal running in to my television in the ensuing eight years, and I haven't missed it more than a handful of times, most of them involving baseball. What I've done with my television instead, is watch movies. Lots, and lots, and lots of movies. At last count, well over 1,000 titles in just the last five years alone, an average of slightly under two-thirds of a movie per night, every night, in that time. And the thing is, you might not find it surprising that a person could grow weary of movies, but I did. No matter how much one adores the motion picture arts, it would seem, there comes a night in every film-buff's life when he just can't face another two-hour-plus investment into freshly challenging and ordeal-strapped characters. At last, earlier this semester, with all that was competing for my negative energy, I just couldn't watch another movie for awhile. I needed a break.

No worries, that: It happens that my local library is improbably well-stocked with DVDs of one-hour programs, most of which had originally aired on public broadcasting. Thus it was that, after my beloved New York Yankees were bounced from the playoffs, I found myself browsing the documentary aisle of the library's DVD archives, gently fingering the spines of Michael Palin BBC productions, episodes of The Prisoner, archaic National Geographic specials and, wait, what's this? Lonely Planet episodes.

I couldn't believe my good fortune: In one fell swoop I'd steal a much-needed reprieve from my self-imposed internment at the Schick Center for Movie Addiction, and relive one of the most joy-inspiring guilty pleasures of my adult life. Grinning un-self-consciously I tipped the entire available assortment into a hand basket and brought them home, not even bothering to feed the cats before dropping the first, randomly-selected disc into the player and pressing PLAY.

So what happens when a man who was twenty-nine the last time he saw one of these programs, watches them again at forty-one? Bad things, that's what.

It's a tautology to which we must all arrive in our time, with our own triggers, but as human beings we do, actually, get older. Televised experiences that we thought at age twenty-nine would be nothing but intrepid, story-inspiring fun, look at age forty-one not just unpleasant but needlessly so. A post-baccalaureate-aged host walks us down a long corridor in Amsterdam, turns a corner, and enters a room with four sets of stacked bunk beds, and the forty-one year old (who remembers not just the scene, but how it made him feel when he saw it the first time) lets out a literal, audible yelp. Another host buys a used car for two-thousand Australian dollars, drives it from Sydney to Adelaide, then later piles himself into a coach-class seat on the most venerated passenger train in the world because he doesn't have the money for a sleeper, and the forty-one year old (who added a neck pillow to his checklist when he saw the scene the first time) lets out an even louder yelp. Everywhere I looked, every episode, every host, every region of the world, I was reminded not of a playful youth spent savoring the joys of austerity and improvisation, but of how alienated and cranky these things would make me feel now, and -- let's be honest -- mostly made me feel even then, anyway.

And that's the thing, really: It's not that I'm so old now that I wouldn't enjoy coiling myself on the floor of an overnight train so that my seatmate can do the same across the seats; it's that I'm now too old to pretend any longer that I'll ever re-invent myself as someone who would. I watched all of those programs in the late nineties, and took the resulting trip to southeast Asia not once or twice but four times, not because I was one of those kids, but because I desperately, cripplingly wanted to be.

For my entire life I've felt the biting and self-inflicted consequences of being this stuffy, old-before-his-time-yet-simultaneously-immature grandstander who takes himself and everything that happens to him too seriously to enjoy such basic human staples as spontaneity and faux deprivation. And for my entire life I've been convincing myself, over and over again, that the next big thing I tried to fix it -- a move, a job-change, a trip to southeast Asia -- would turn me 'round the corner of becoming the person I've always wished that others would think I was: self-effacing, gregarious, unsinkably good company. Watching those programs again the other night I realized not just that I never will turn that corner, now, but that each new failure to do so has only made me crankier and harder to get along with. I'm richer than I've ever been; I've got better friends; I have a job that takes me twenty-five hours a week to do and a three-thousand title movie collection. And I'm angrier, and sadder, and lonelier, than at any previous time I can remember.

Some of this, I hasten to add, is outside of my control. It's difficult to stay entirely sunny and gregarious when the country is sliding down a steep, dark precipice into fascism, one's home electrical system has eaten $20,000 worth of stereo equipment, and one's career is being "progressed" into one great big correspondence program. But that doesn't make the sting of who I've become, when compared with who I'd thought I'd become when first I saw those Lonely Planet shows a dozen years ago, any easier to swallow.

It's not too late, of course -- it's never too late until a person lays down for good. Accentuation of the positive, here, demands recognition of the facts that (a) I'm better at staying on task and putting things away than I was in 1999; (b) I'm (slightly?) less inclined to monopolize conversations than I was in 1999; (c) I've enjoyed a small but gratifying reception as a writer of (thus far uncompensated) film reviews and political analyses and other assorted column-length detritus. I've proven that I can grow in ways I wish to grow, and I've done so by precedent.

But none of that is really the point. The fact that I am not who I wanted to be in some ways, and am in others, or that who I am isn't as nice as I'd like -- all of these are subjects for another column if not a therapy couch. The point is that, watching those same Lonely Planet programs with those same puckish young hosts again over the past few nights, I realized once and for all that, no matter what else I can learn and grow and change and develop about myself, I'll now officially never be one of them, if for no other reason than I'll never be that young. What I will be, for a few more days, is forty-one. And then, for a year after that (if I'm lucky), I'll be forty-two. And so on, hopefully for a while.

And as long as this is true, it's my responsibility -- not just to the self I am now, but to the self I was then -- to do everything, everything, everything in my power, to fulfill as many of the goals I've set forth for myself. In other words, to quit fucking around and watching baseball.

It's quite possibly the oldest, tiredest cliche in all of cliche-dom, but it's true for every moment with which we gather in our next breath on this rock: Today really is the first day of the rest of our lives. And we, and the selves we were before (assuming for a moment that we kinda like those people, and I have to admit I kinda like that guy watching those shows in that awful Fort Lauderdale apartment), deserve to see us make the absolute most we can, with what we have.

Starting right now.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Francona's Departure Not All That Mystefying (If You've Been There)

By now even baseball refuseniks like my friends know that the erstwhile Manager of the Boston Red Sox, Terry Francona, officially ceased to hold that position on Friday, September 30, 2011. The news broke less than 48 hours after his team became the first in Major League Baseball history to blow a nine-game lead in the month of September, missing the playoffs in suitably eviscerating fashion, when their star closer blew a lead over the worst team in the league and, a mere seconds later and half a country distant, the hard-charging Tampa Bay Rays won on a walk-off home run, to pass the Sox in the standings for the first time all season in its very final instant. The Red Sox players, presumably, were relayed the news of the corresponding Rays' victory literally as they strode down the dugout steps, clearing themselves from a celebration-choked Baltimore baseball stadium in which all they'd needed to do was take two-out-of-three from an Orioles team playing at a 0.350 pace. The storylines were replete with that perfect, baseball-only recipe of pluck, elan, pathos and schadenfreude. "Football is an action movie," I tell the unwilling audiences in my economics classes, disparagingly. "...Baseball is a *horror* movie." Never more so than last Wednesday night.

Indeed such well-positioned pieces for the excruciating thrill of last-man heartbreak and heroics have rarely graced even baseball -- the sport so famous for them, after all, that its only exhibit of ubiquitous literature is a poem about a Herculean slugger who can't manage the otherwise automatic feat of routinely making contact with the ball. Re-tell the poem today, and presumably for more-or-less ever afterward, and some audiences will surely presume the whole thing to be a metaphor for the bulging, even-Yankee-intimidating, 2011 Boston Red Sox. After a then-infamous 2-10 start, the team with the second-highest payroll in baseball had done what everyone knew they would and righted the ship, playing the middle 123 games on their schedule to a paint-peelingly awesome 81-42 record -- easily the best in baseball.

And then?

Well, then this muscular, stare-down juggernaut simply and unceremoniously imploded, finishing its 162-game season with a 7-20 month of September -- culminating with a 4-3 loss to the aforementioned Orioles on a night during which they'd led for basically the whole game, while the Rays (who had trailed the Yankees in Tampa at one point by 7-0), were coming back against a B-list Yankee bullpen to win in extra innings. In the last half of the ninth in Baltimore, after a tension-heightening rain delay that proves once again the extent to which God himself is a baseball fan, the Sox ran out their 97MPH-throwing (and presumably slightly lunatic) closer, Jonathan Papelbon, who got the first two outs without fanfare, bringing his floundering teammates to the two-out, two-strike brink of assuring themselves at least a one-game playoff, before surrendering three straight doubles, the last of which would probably have been scored an error on $143Million free agent outfielder Carl Crawford, had the game been played in Boston. It was a tough play to be sure, but really -- with this much on the line, at this level of professional excellence, and *certainly* at that kind of money -- the former Tampa Bay Ray superstar shoulda caught that one, folks. Point being: he didn't. The Sox lost, the Rays won, and the best team in the American League, talent-wise, rode a pin-drop-quiet charter flight back to Fenway, to clean out their lockers for the year. Mighty Casey had struck out.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a sighing, thunderstruck closure on the book about the 2011 Red Sox' collective impression of Greg Norman(1), Yana Novatna(2) and E.J. Smith(3) rolled together: The story didn't end there after all. Instead, after a day and a half of increasingly galvanized rumor and semi-anonymous speculation, the team's stoic and unimpeachably credentialed Manager, Terry Francona, called a press conference to announce that he would no longer head the team he'd guided to its first (and second) World Series Championships in eighty-six years. The man who'd single-handedly broken the Curse of the Bambino and brought the biggest trophy in baseball to the biggest baseball city in the world, was leaving. The question on the minds of sportswriters from coast to coast was the same: had he quit, or was he fired?

In some ways we'll never know for sure. Francona was at the end of his guaranteed contract with two years' of options left available. By not exercising them, the team's front office could characterize the situation as a mutual one -- Francona feeling drained and winded by the 24/7 hothouse of the Boston baseball media, and the team recognizing that even the man who broke the curse will start to repeat himself in clubhouse speeches after eight years. Perhaps it was just *time*, and perhaps everyone mutually, amicably, knew it. Certainly this is the impression that Sox General Manager Theo Epstein would have had us gather on Thursday morning, in his first post-collapse press conference, given jointly with Francona before the rumors of Francona's imminent departure were confirmed. "[The matter of the Manager's job] will be discussed with owners John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in the next few days, when emotions have cooled and judgment isn't clouded," he said, suggesting that the owners would listen to Francona's assessment of what had gone wrong and who was to blame, before coming to any decisions about picking up his contract options, one way or the other. Cooler heads would prevail. We're all grown-ups here.

The usually narrative-conscious Francona, meanwhile, was sounding ominously dissonant notes from a folding metal chair not three-feet beside him. "Managing this team became challenging at the end," Francona said, ominously. "I called a team meeting in Toronto [after a 14-0 *win* -- one of their few W's in September] because there were some things that did concern me," he added, ominously. "I was frustrated with some of the things that happened," he said. Ominously. Asked to elaborate, the usually narrative-conscious Francona, did: ""You don't need to have a team that wants to go to dinner off the field," he said. "You do want to have a team that protects itself and backs each other up fiercely, on the field."

Not everyone reading these words is accustomed to the empty-calorie ritual of the big-time sports press conference. "I tell my team they have to take it one day at a time," in the business, is code for, "blah blah blah blah blah." By contrast, "We know we've got the heart, and we know we've got the players, now we just have to execute," is instead code for, "blah blah blah blah blah." When a baseball manager says, "We left it all on the field tonight," he is saying, "blah blah blah blah blah," and when he says, "We're going to need quality starts from our rotation," he is saying, "blah blah blah blah blah; can I go now?" For a baseball manager -- under *any* circumstances -- to toss-out the kind of red meat that Francona was tossing, was to invite (and ultimately to receive) massive extrapolation and anonymous rumor-fanning: These guys hated each other, phoned-in their defense, were in some cases badly and increasingly out of shape, and didn't listen when they were warned. There was even talk of starting pitchers consuming beer in the clubhouse (BEER!) on days when it wasn't their turn to pitch. Francona's pleas were falling on deaf ears, and he was about to be scapegoated. Film at eleven.

Remarkably, things would get worse from there. On Friday the owners (minus principal owner John Henry, who'd curiously injured -- of all things -- his neck, in a sailing mishap), GM Theo Epstein, and Francona, met at 10 o'clock in the team's vaunted, hallowed, Sistine-Chapel-like-significant Front Offices at (say it with me) Number Four Yawkey Way. The meeting lasted for about an hour, by which time the news that Francona was leaving was all but confirmed. When he emerged for his second press conference in two days, however, Francona didn't leave the matter at both sides being ready for a fresh start, blah blah blah. He tried to. Goodness knows he tried to. But he didn't. "Some of it may be personal," he said, after thirty some-odd minutes of far more typical, time-to-move-on platitudes. "To be honest with you, I don't know... I'm not sure how much support there was from ownership," he said, somberly, arms crossed in front of his chest. "You've got to be all-in in this job, and I voiced that today," he continued. "It's got to be, everybody has to be together, and I was questioning some of that a little bit."

Not since Gus Grissom had used the word 'scared' has a press corps been caught so flat-footed or been so uncertain of exactly how to play the bombshell news that they were hearing. Francona was being fired in just such a way that the team's top brass wouldn't have to say so; Francona was leaving of his own accord, in a huff, because he hadn't had the support of the owners; Francona was preempting any scapegoating. Some stories on Friday shamelessly carried all three narratives at once. The one thing that was for sure, at this point, was that the decision would be worn by the front office, and that it was a mistake. Everyone agreed on that much.

Perhaps to limit the potential P/R damage, perhaps in the hopes of putting out the fire on the bridge, perhaps sincerely, GM Theo Epstein spent the rest of Friday and most of Saturday weaving a not-carefully-enough worded counter narrative of official surprise -- at the pace, tenor, and timing of what he would have had us believe was Francona's decision. "The ownership team asked Terry to at least wait the weekend," he said, semi-on-the-record, "but perhaps Tito (Francona's nickname) felt that, after eight years, it was time." Asked later if he'd read anything into John Henry's supposed neck injury, Francona first declined to speculate, then added that -- for the first time in his tenure -- he hadn't received a call from Henry over the entire month in question.

With this, the steady stream of competing speculations became a deluge. Just whose idea was this, anyway? Who was being the fragile ego, and who was being pragmatic about a bad situation before it got any worse? Who was scapegoating *whom*? Even today, many of the most well-respected sportswriters and sports-bloggers are painting a confused picture. Some of them have even said so openly. But there's a reason for that: Unlike me, they've never been there.

Francona wasn't fired, and he didn't quit. He had the third thing happen to him that happens to people when their bosses want them gone. He was undermined.

Not since Jimmy Johnson left the then-repeat-world-champion Dallas Cowboys has a set of tensions between a team boss and a team ownership been so well-documented. Here is the granite-countenanced, old-school Francona, picking his lineup on fifties-era hunches and the sounds of the bat-cracks during routine BP; here is the innovation-obsessed, born-again-stat-nerd John Henry -- the man who hired Bill James, the literal pioneer of baseball sabermetrics -- listening to econometrics-based arguments about wins-above-replacement and OPS+. And here, in the middle, is once-prodigy-whiz-kid and now just boring forty-something GM Theo Epstein, trying somehow to keep both the peace, and his job, at the same time.

Worse, at least from the standpoint of timing, news of the Sox' September collapse just happened to be sweeping the countryside at the very same time as a motion picture about the sea-changes taking place in the game, *Moneyball.* And folks, a movie about baseball has never, and I mean *NEVER*, been less fortuitous a development in the already strained relationship between a manager and his boss. Right up there on the screen, for all the world *including* John Henry to see, was Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing recalcitrant, old-school manager Art Howe, refusing to listen to stat-obsessed Billy Beane when it comes time to set the lineups. There is Brad Pitt, playing Beane, enjoying the miserly respect of his miserly owner in Oakland, but prevented from doing what needs to be done by the obstinate Howe. There's even a scene in which Arliss Howard plays a fellow owner trying to lure Beane away from Oakland, bestowing upon him the mantle of a first voice in a new wave of thinking about the game that will drive the old-guard crazy and rightfully so. The owner Howard is playing? John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox.

An organization with a grim determination not to fire anybody in a way that could look ugly faces a unique challenge when it decides it wants to fire somebody. In other places, where the possibility of an ugly incident doesn't faze that much, the deed gets done and that's that; everyone moves on. But in those places where the pretense of a happy family is maintained at all costs, the costs can and do get very high for everyone involved. Gestures go un-made. E-mails go un-returned. Birthday phone-calls that everyone routinely and conspicuously gets, are suddenly and conspicuously selective. Signals get sent. Reactions get calculated. ...The hope, on the part of such an organization, is that the person they wish to be rid of will get the message, and at length that person generally does get the message, though it remains the person-in-question's prerogative to stay put on principle.

My sense of what happened in Boston is pretty clear: Even when it was winning, the team wasn't being managed this year in the way John Henry wanted it to be. Perhaps this began with the 2-10 start, perhaps not, but for the second year in a row Theo Epstein's free-agent signings were washing out in Boston, and on that basis alone the otherwise long-time-Francona-friend had no choice but to undermine his colleague trying to right the ship from the dugout. Henry consulted the Bill James people, who told him Francona wasn't paying attention to the sabermetrics. Asked for an opinion, Epstein equivocated. Asked by Francona to intervene in the unraveling clubhouse atmosphere, Epstein demurred. When Francona asked Epstein to ban beer in the clubhouse -- something only Epstein, with his power to cut people from the roster, could have done -- Epstein let the message sit there in his archive of saved voice mails. Then the movie came out. Then the team started losing. Then the team lost. And then John Henry didn't hurt his neck in a sailboat accident.

And I'll bet money on that last one.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

(1) The only man in history to blow a nine-stroke lead on the back nine of the final round of the Masters.

(2) The only woman in history to blow a one-set, 5-1 lead in the best-of-three-set womens' final at Wimbeldon.

(3) The captain of the RMS Titanic.
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Friday, June 24, 2011

Travel Postcard: North Carolina (PART ONE)

"You're banned from going back there, do you understand me?" said a thick, British-accented voice into my telephone--a voice belonging to my long-suffering friend and colleague Harry, an accounting teacher at the college where I myself teach economics. It was the middle summer of last year.

"Yes," I said.

"--No, you don't," said Harry. "I mean it: You're banned. You'll never go back there again."

"Yes," I repeated.

"--You've consistently abused this privilege, and now you've done it for the last time. You're banned. From now on. Forever."

"I understand," I said.

"NO, DAVID, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND," said Harry. "You *act* like you understand; you're *saying* that you understand; but you're only saying you understand because that's what a person says when someone he's just *royally* pissed off, possibly for good, tells him something, in the imperative tense, and then says 'Do you understand'!"

He took a breath.

"I'm telling you you're banned from going to my place in North Carolina, FOREVER. Do, you, understand?"

I paused. I clasped the edge of the table gently and shut my eyes. "Yes," I said.

There was hardly any point in standing up for myself with one of my closest friends this agitated and calling through a gravely I/P line all the way from Panama. I wasn't happy about being banned from visiting his place in North Carolina -- a mountainside pond with a lazy gravel loop-road and a pair of engagingly different-feeling structures cut into the hill above it, one a big comfortable house, the other a rustic little cabin -- but at that moment my chief concern was the possibility that, if I couldn't calm him down somehow, my friend might actually have a heart attack. Anyone who knows me even a little will tell you that, if ever there were a human being capable of transcending the generally euphemistic expression, "You're going to give me a heart attack," it is I -- and for his part Harry's prideful lack of exercise and his lifelong predilection for beer had left him unusually primed for just such a reaction.

But still it seemed unfair that the two of us would've slid this far down the rabbit-hole of anger and helplessness over something as trivial as a little run-of-the-mill pornography.

For some years before, as Harry took his hard-won summers off from teaching to remove himself to an equally fetching place in Panama, the two of us had enjoyed an understanding by which I would be permitted unlimited access to the North Carolina place whenever it wasn't otherwise rented, in return for serving as the property's de facto superintendent. I would string-trim the steep hillsides and cut the fallen limbs across the loop-road and make sure the plumbing was working properly and clear the submerged opening of the clever little PVC spillway he'd constructed for the dam, and in return I could stay there whenever and for however long I wished, provided nobody with money was in line ahead of me.

To this point it had all worked very well. I've often told my students that the best way to own a boat is to know someone else who owns a boat, and this improvised little saw only gets truer when the boat in question is four acres of taxed-out-of-sight clay and rocks with bad perk and a fractious, spring-fed water supply. In the fistful of years since we'd been granted the entire summer's reprieve from teaching, I'd been to the place perhaps a dozen times, to his two. I'd installed a new water hydrant when the old one had cracked from freezing, and I'd cut and removed a small tree that had fallen across the road. I'd written several bad chapters of a bad book, and almost gotten myself killed in a sudden thunderstorm on a high ridge-line between Deep Creek Campground and Clingman's Dome. I'd cooked some scandalously good steaks over a simple campfire, and downed an immodest quantity of beer. I'd slept inside with the windows all thrown wide open, outside on the deck, and down the hill in a tent. I'd even taken to referring to the place, with a certain class of non-mutual friends of ours, as "My place in North Carolina."

...This last bit surely was my big mistake.

Last summer, at the height of the mountaintop vacation season, I brought some friends up to share the experience with me. This much was harmless enough -- provided, that is, that the friends in question could be persuaded to dispense with the Eternal Struggle For Chopping Dave Down To Size long enough to heed my impassioned pleas that we must leave the entire place "hotel-room clean" when we left. Harry had already explained to me over his skype-phone that a veritable rabble of paying customers were arriving immediately after our departure to stay in the main house, where my friends were.

I relayed the significance of this news in several different grave and leaden language-choices to my friends, both before we left home and after we got there. And the friends in question reacted in that very particular festival of ways that have become a permanent feature of all my friendships: aggrieved ascent, followed by grinning, not-quite-sarcastic eye-roll at my charming insistence on taking myself too seriously, followed by a series of join-ins to help me finish the sentence in unison ("--HOTEL-ROOM CLEAN, DAVE"), followed by all other persons involved conspicuously making it a point of not actually doing whatever it is that I've said so grimly is so important to me so many times, just to prove once again who's really in charge, here.

At eleven-thirty AM on the day of our adjournment to an eight-hour drive back to Gainesville, Florida, there had been a grand-total of zero effort undertaken to leave the main house, where my friends had been staying, hotel-room clean. A dishwashing cycle was absently started at 11:45. The first of two unavoidable loads of laundry were distractedly initiated at 11:50. Floors were still to be swept. The fold-out bed was still folded-out. The television was on.

For a long interval of silence I was too apoplectic to think through exactly how big and complicated the dilemma was, here. I had asked these friends of mine to please, please, just this once, take me seriously, and do this thing, this one thing, this only thing, the one and only thing I'd made it a point to specify over dinner last night and in the car the day before and at lunch the day before, that I need you to do for me, please. And they hadn't done it. As, per, fucking, usual. ...That was all I had for it, at that moment.

And then, gradually, a specific and tricky little wrinkle began leaking into my consciousness, and the farther inward it leaked, the more difficult a problem to solve, it seemed: Having stalled on the hotel-room-clean bit for so long, my friends had implicitly guaranteed that, after cleaning the house together, we would also be together at the trunk of the car when the time came to do the packing. I had anticipated that I'd quietly load my own belongings from the cabin while the cleaning rituals were transpiring inside the house -- thus permitting me to surreptitiously bury at the front of the trunk a moderately sized ziploc storage bag of pornography, much of it visible and instantly identifiable through the translucent-blue sidewalls of the bag, as though watching a dirty movie through one side of a pair of 3-D glasses.

Since I couldn't now pack in the absence of my friends' attentions, I couldn't now pack the porn at all. I'd have to hide it. Correction: I'd have to hide it well enough that the incoming customers of the place would have no chance of finding it. Fortunately this would be a straightforward proposition of re-stowing it someplace inside the cabin -- since the incoming party wasn't going to be using the cabin.

Thus it was, in mild but increasingly simmering consternation at the whole stolen-power-chops-Dave-down-to-size business -- as, per, fucking, usual -- that I pulled out one of the drawers in the cabin's bookcase bed, placed the ziploc bag in the bottom of the drawer, covered the bag with my own dirty laundry until the drawer was level to the top with obviously unwashed clothes, and then carefully rearranged the accent furniture in the bedroom, in such a way that this particular drawer couldn't even be opened without moving a moderately heavy end-table and the moderately heavy vase of flowers set on top of it. Then I went to the main house and did all the things I'd said a dozen times it was so important for us all to do. Then we left.

About eleven-thirty that evening when we got home, my message-light was blinking. It was Harry, asking me to call him back on his skype line, so I did. "Just want to let you know, David," he said calmly, almost absently, "that my friends will be staying in the house and cabin a little longer than they'd previously arranged, so you'll have to stay away from the place up there for an extra weekend."

Wait. What? The house and the cabin? The friends were staying in the house, and the cabin? I took a long, steadying breath. "Your friends are staying in the house, and the cabin?" I said, finally.

"Oh yes," said Harry. "Far too many of them for just the house. But it's okay if you didn't get the cabin all the way to hotel-room clean when you were up there just now, because they're going to use the cabin for housing all the kids."

My heart did a little soft-shoe on my small intestines. And if you're thinking that it doesn't belong anywhere near my small intestines, well, you're right: It doesn't. "When are they all due to get there?" I finally managed, barely above a whisper.

"Tuesday evening," said Harry. Two days' time. Forty-some hours.

"I'm going to have to call you back," I said.

"Everything okay up there?" said Harry.

"Yes," I lied, "I just have to call you back. Tomorrow morning okay?"

We agreed that I would call him back in the morning. Frantically I tried to think, but it was in that rootless, bugs-beneath-an-upturned-log kind of way that never actually gets a person anywhere. I could drive all the way up there, in the middle of the night, and all the way back the next morning -- risking an accident or a major breakdown. And anyway there was a key that I was supposed to hand-deliver to a go-between, and I couldn't very well do that if I were on the highway someplace north of Atlanta.

I could ask the daughter of a friend-of-a-friend to go over to the cabin from her place in nearby Bryson City and... well, wait a minute, that's not going to work on any number of levels, now, is it.

Or I could risk it: I could hope against hope that I'd done a good-enough job of hiding the porn, that even a cabin full of fractious young boys wouldn't root around in the drawers beneath that bed, and find it. Which seemed awfully unlikely, at that moment.

The only thing left for it was to come clean. I would tell Harry exactly what had happened, and then I'd ask him if he wanted me to go up there and get the porn, or if he wanted instead to warn the family that their impressionable young children might be about to stumble upon the mother-lode of bad influences. Stealing myself, I called him back, reaching only his skype voice-mail. "Harry," I said in my message. "I'm going to need to keep the key, and hide it up there someplace. Please call me back," I said. "It's important."

I put the phone down. I panted. I thought. Someone would have to feed my cats. It'd be a very long, very ugly drive up there, and an even longer and uglier drive back. What else could I do?

At once it hit me: Another set of friends, Randy and Kana -- a husband-and-wife team of traveling artists with whom I'd shared many embarrassed and apologetic favors over the years -- were at that moment driving back to Gainesville from Pittsburgh. If I could reach them from the road, give them intelligible directions over the phone, and if they could find their way into the cabin using the backup key that was tricky to find and even trickier to use, I could offer them the chance to overnight up there in return for doing me this biggest of embarrassed and apologetic favors.

I called. My friend Randy answered. I explained to him the whole thing. "Let me get this straight," said Randy, not yet openly cackling. "You hid the porn beneath a drawer full of dirty laundry?"

"Yes," I said.

"--And then you moved the end-table and the flower vase so that the drawer can't be opened?"

"Yes," I repeated.

"--And now you want someone to break into the place and take it out, because you still think someone's going to find it?"

"Yes," I said a third time.

There was a moment's pause while the amusement of the situation washed over my friend like an unexpected shaft of sunlight on a grey day at the beach. "You are totally, certifiably insane," he said, finally.

"No, Randy, don't tell him that," said Kana in the background. "Tell him we'll go, and then when we get there we can leave out a bunch more porn on the coffee tables and the countertops where everyone can find it!"

"Wish I'd thought of that," said Randy. "Look," he continued, "just calm down, David. You always do this. You decide certain things are going to happen, then you get yourself all carried away with these huge, long chains of consequences that are all going on inside your head."

"I guess you're right," I said.

"--And you're always way better-off just not taking any action at all," he continued. "Just stay put and everything will be fine." He paused. I heard the highway noise beneath the van. I allowed myself a small exhale. "I mean, for God's sake, David, you've hidden that porn where an FBI SWAT-team couldn't find it."

"Okay," I said and, thanking him sincerely, hung up. It was a wonderful thing, really: For that brief moment I was awash in the same shaft of unexpected sunlight he was. I'd messed up. I'd shown exceedingly poor judgment. But now everything was going to be fine, anyway. I allowed another exhale, this one somewhat less modest. Everything was going to be fine. So it was kind of too bad, really, that at that precise moment Harry returned my previous phone-call.

"What have you done," he said, coolly.

"Well," I said, stammering just a bit with this second sudden reversal. "Okay. I'm going to be completely honest with you about this," I said, "but I've spoken to someone else about it, and he thinks it's going to be okay."

"What have you done," said Harry.

"It's not a huge deal," I said. At once I realized that I didn't quite know how to continue. Verbal articulacy is a two-edged sword for me and always has been: I can say things on the spur of the moment that would come across as too leaden and too stentorian for a PBS documentary, but I can't always actually make myself understood very well, especially on-the-fly. It is for this reason, I suppose, that I've gravitated toward professional teaching. Works kind of the same way that all navymen in the world don't know how to swim. Or at least that's what I tell myself.

"It's just that," I continued, haltingly, "I didn't think your patrons were going to use the cabin, as well as the house, and so I left something in the cabin that could cause both you and I some considerable trouble if it were found."

And with that, my dear and cherished friend of a dozen years, went off in my ear like a small atomic bomb. "ARE YOU INSANE?" he bellowed. "HAVE YOU ANY COMMON SENSE AT ALL?" he screamed. I shut my eyes, wincing a little with each staccato syllable of invective. He was loud. He was profane. He was completely unhinged. It was then that I received my ban.

"Harry, I'm truly sorry," I said. And I was. "I'll make it up to you. I'll drive up there and get it."

"You're damn right you will," said Harry. He collected himself, slightly. "I swear, David, you truly are a galling little twit," he said, his British accent now thick with satisfaction and resolve. "You would have me risk losing that entire property to seizure, just so your friends don't have to watch you load your nasty habits in your car?"

Wait. What?

"Lose your entire property?" I said. "Harry, did you think I meant to say that I left drugs up there?"

"Well, I dunno, David: Isn't that what you JUST, BLOODY, TOLD ME?" said Harry.

"No," I said. "Or at least it's not what I meant," I said. There was a silence between us on the phone. Harry sounded quiet, pensive, ready for anything but calmer, now. "Harry," I began again, tentatively, "when I said I'd left something up there, and it could get us both in trouble, I meant with your patrons--not with the law."

"Oh, Jesus, David, are you talking about pornography?" said Harry.

I allowed that I was.

"Good God, David, why ever didn't you say so in the first place? I think everyone should see more pornography. What else has been going on up there; do we know if we're getting a raise this year? When's convocation?"

We spoke for another ten or fifteen minutes, completely amicably. He never formally retracted his ban, and I never formally asked him to. When the time came for me to retrieve the cabin-key, I drove to the appointed spot and it was there. We've never spoken about this whole thing again, since. I'm sure where he's concerned it would be completely un-necessary. Randy had been right, in the end, as he nearly always is (except when it comes to calculating the jet-lag between here and Tokyo, but that's another column). On this day, he'd been as right as I could ever have wanted him not to be, about anything including how to calculate the jet-lag between here and Tokyo. I'd undertaken a series of radiantly bad decisions, amplified at each turn by a self-perpetuating cycle of ginned-up anxiety until even the most obvious aspects of the thing were as invisible to me as a Klingon warship. I'd acted stupidly, childishly, rashly, and then stupidly again -- and in the end, I'd needlessly jeopardized the sanctity of one of the dearest and most important friendships I have. And all of it for no particularly good reason.

As, per, fucking, usual.


Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Characterization

People who know me or even just know my writing will cheerfully tell you that an essay under this by-line and entitled “On Characterization” should be about as credible as an essay written by Adolph Hitler and entitled “On Peaceful Coëxistence.”

And they’d be right: In a weak moment I could perhaps make a list of the writerly sub-skills that I am occasionally able to pull off, but crafting richly nuanced and believable characters (along with, apparently, short and to-the-point sentences) would not be on that list under even the most charitably chemical-tainted of circumstances.

No, what I do are fiddly little puzzles that nobody has any reason to care about. I can do a story in which each segment is titled with the name of a different landmark from the city of Chicago, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “This was a clever idea, Dave, I just didn’t find any reason to care about these characters.” I can do a complex little nesting jobby in which the omniscient narrator is revealing key aspects of the plot through a series of Mapquest directions, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “Couldn’t these same things have happened to anybody?” I can do an elaborately outlined travel narrative through Southeast Asia in which the stops along the trip manage to echo the chronology of the region, from French colonization through the Boxing-Day Tsunami, and when I show it to my local writers’ group they say, “Why did you make such a fuss about how they made your eggs? Why didn’t you just order whatever the locals were having?” No matter what I’ve tried, it seems, I always end up with the same feedback. And this, you understand, has been going on for years. Something had to give.

Late last summer I pulled a book from my ancient to-read-someday pile, on the subject of developing believable and interesting characters in one’s writing—an actual how-to book, if you can even imagine such a thing(*). For the rest of that summer I read it cover to cover and took copious notes, eventually collating them into a sort of “flowchart” for ensuring that, whatever my fellow writers said about my first subsequent submission, it wouldn’t be that they didn’t believe the characters. For ten days I lugged around my battered old laptop, assiduously pounding away on that first short story in the life and times of the new-and-improved-character-writer Dave O’Gorman. I printed eight copies, passed them out at workshop with a beaming smile, and, two weeks later, was told by eight people in unison that the only thing that didn’t work about the story was that they couldn’t believe the characters. So, okay: something else had to give, apparently.

I took a semi-enforced hiatus from generating new fiction—concentrating instead on a series of film reviews, political commentaries, and a handful of commissioned assignments including a trio that I haven’t actually finished yet. But as a community college professor with summers off, I knew as last fall turned to winter and winter turned to spring that the business of working all of this out wasn’t going to leave me be indefinitely. We write, as Oscar Wilde put it, because the idea of not writing is even more unbearable. Thus it was that, having turned in my final grades at the end of last week, I sat down before a hundred-day expanse of almost completely unstructured time, and found my thoughts turning once again to the issue of why I was having so much trouble ridding myself of this particular nettlesome priest.

I decided (more or less without conscious premeditation) to journal in complete sentences about the subject, and to keep at it for as long as it took to get me somewhere: at times coaxing out tiny passages geared to specific aspects of the problem; at other times speaking to myself in the second-person, as if describing to some unseen other the proper procedures for faux-painting a kitchen. When I could bring myself to feel some sort of corner being turned, I would try again. There would be another new story at the end of all of this and, if that one didn’t work any better, there’d be another one after that. And then another. None of which was exactly what I’d planned for my summer, but none of which was going to do itself, either. I was at it for seven solid days. This is what I would seem to have learned:

To begin with there is the question of scaling the inquiry at the correct power of magnification. A book about fashioning believable and compelling characters will only prove as useful as the decision-making that led to the choices of those characters in the first place. And here, it would now seem, is where my troubles have consistently begun:

For the most part, my fiction has tended to be far too intimately connected to the incidents and travails of my own life—the old write-what-you-know saw, run amok to an extent that any reader who knows even a little bit about me already is summarily yanked from his suspended disbelief by the droning realization that I’m essentially schilling for myself. And the thing about that is, there’s no point in trying to flesh-out characters who came into their existence through such means. Read and apply the lessons from a book about believable characters with this for your starting-point and, instead of a story about you, what one ends up with is a story about a gilded you, which, depending on the audience and the specific prose, can be even worse.

More generally (and Thornton Wilder notwithstanding), writing with the explicit intention of getting one’s audience to see something in a particular light—even something not you—is inherently a losing proposition: people don’t see anything the way you want them to when they sense you wanting it, for one thing, and for another it’s not a million miles from being the exact opposite of best-practice in fiction writing, a sort of, “figure out what you want to say, and then say it really loud” convention that is doomed to defeat before the character-helping how-to authors of the world can even have a say.

I’ve been told this by others, of course, but the temptation for me has always been to dismiss this type of “workshop critique” on the grounds that workshop isn’t double-blind—and to be fair there is at least a grain of truth in that counter-argument: A story based on the contents of my own closets will be less obviously so when it’s read by someone in Pomona than when it’s being read by someone in my own living room. But that kind of reaction is also importantly dishonest, not least because it sells the reader in Pomona short. Most of us who read even semi-avidly are capable of sussing out the melodramatic over-investment that naturally flows from such questionable intimacy on the part of their author. (“I’ve decided we know each other well enough now that I’m gonna show you my poetry!”) For my part, five of my stories have enjoyed any kind of reception, and four of those are based not even remotely on anything that ever happened to me or informed any of the values and perspectives I carry around in person.

The counterexample is also informative here, though: A meta-narrative in which a cautiously successful writer and young father is trying to wrest from himself a salable piece of fiction, while continually distracted by the emotional needs of his young son, and by his own penchant for fixating on expensive golf clubs. This one hasn’t been published, but it does seem to work in that grand and elusive sense that so much of the rest of my stuff does not; yet it’s also, in a lot of ways, a story about me. I’m not a dad and I don’t play golf, but I do distract myself easily, write with intermittent capacity for self-improvement, and angst a lot about the extent to which my relationship calculus is fraught with divisions-by-zero. So what’s the difference? Why is it that this particular story-about-me seems to work, where so many others seem not to?


Not every reader is also a writer, but nearly all among us distract ourselves too easily, act with intermittent capacity for self-improvement, and angst a lot about the extent to which our relationship calculi are fraught with divisions-by-zero. A story in which the protagonist experiences those same self-doubts will have an immediacy—a currency, in both senses—that a three-hundred page southeast Asian travel narrative in which the author spends seven consecutive breakfast tableaux squawking about the manner in which his eggs were prepared, will not. The characters in a story and the basic motivations that place them in conflict simply must be universal—either in the sense that all of us have felt these same tensions in our own lives or, at the very least, know someone else who has felt them. (If I told you how much time I spend thinking about the immediate cachet of “Master Shake” from Aqua Teen Hunger Force you’d probably stop reading, but the point stands: We may not act or even think like he does, but all of us have known someone who fits the type.)

Having crafted a universal character or two, the job then becomes that of putting them in a universal situation—of crafting a tale that, in its overall premise, will echo that universality. This is of course a lot easier said than done. Indeed it might be the single-sentence reduction of the entire task of fashioning a compelling story. So I suppose it should have surprised me less than it has that so many different voices have said so many different things, about it.


Most of our daily interactions, it seems to me, come down to accurately sizing-up who has the power, who thinks he has the power, and how to thread the inevitable differences between the two without resorting to fisticuffs. If the guy who on at least twelve separate occasions has told the story of an overloaded elevator in Hong Kong, turns to the guy who has expounded perhaps three times on the comparative economics of driving vs. flying, and says, “Dave, you tell that story once a week!” the choices available to our drive-vs-fly protagonist do not actually include defecating in Mr. Hong-Kong Elevator’s tofu triangles, no matter how tempting. Thus do the natural tensions of such a situation form the currency of our investment in what will happen next—they tell the story, in other words. Meaning that the narrative flows from these tensions, and not the other way around.

Broad consensus seems to exist for checking the power box through dialogue. Indeed of all the things that have been said to me (or written where I can find them) about improving one’s writing craft, no one statement has carried more tacit agreement than the principle that dialogue in storytelling must always be about the exchange of power. People do not ask and answer each other directly in good fiction: If Kevin says to Megan, “What time were we expected over there?” Megan can say a lot of things in response (“Aren’t you ever going to throw away that stupid watch?”), but in a good piece of fiction the one thing she will never say is, “Seven-thirty.”

Speaking selfishly, a fringe-benefit of deploying dialogue in this fashion in my own writing is that it would place an implicit governor on the temptation to tell too much of the backstory, since most of the power imbalance between two people is the result of their backstory/-ies in the first place. If I’m getting the power imbalances across to my readers through dialogue, then, I would seem to have left myself far less room for discursive exposition about who these people were before we all walked in on them.

So far so good, but of course a story consisting of dialogue-based power imbalances between universal characters is… well, that’s a soap opera, last time I checked. If the characters themselves and their motivations, their root conflicts, have to be universal, then the issue of how to set them in motion against each other and/or their environments in a compelling way would seem to be about imbuing them with something more interesting.


Genuine character cachet must also flow from uniqueness and paradoxes, the things that make these the people to whom this story could only have happened; they must be interestingly multifaceted. Moreover, those additional facets have to be quintessential to both the character’s identity, and the story, rather than just pasted-on to check this box. A sheriff who keeps accidentally shooting himself might be funny, but he’s still really just a sheriff—unless at the precise moment of dénouement he shoots the steel-toed boot his wife finally insisted he wear, and the bullet ricochets into the skull of the bad guy.

And you know, maybe even then, come to think of it: Paradoxes or quirks or some other form of multidimensionality that is conceived specifically to provide a narrative payoff like this are often successful, but they are successful in a formulaic, college-literary-magazine sort of way. In order for these facets to really pay off, in the sense of making a serious contribution to the form, the reader must be taken to a new level of understanding by them. Universality gets the character’s foot inside the reader’s sympathies, but dimensionality is what makes the character’s plight not just unique but important.

One of my favorite examples of this point-counterpoint approach is that of Lorrie Moore’s maestro short-story, “Real Estate,” in which an empty-nester housewife in a sputtering marriage passively agrees to her husband’s plan to buy and renovate a tumbledown mansion in the middle of a soulless housing development. Doesn’t get a lot more universal than that, surely, but when the house is infested with crows the protagonist takes up recreational pistol-shooting. All this while a young man on the other side of town displaces his rage at his crumbling romance by breaking into peoples’ houses and forcing them to sing songs. When, during his break-in to the fourth or fifth house, he hears a loud crack—as if someone had knocked something heavy from a bookcase—it is only as he senses himself losing his balance and tumbling forward toward the floor that we realize exactly whose house this is, and what has just happened. Fucking brilliant. (The dialogue-as-power-exchange box is checked, too, if you’re keeping score at home: The conversations between the protagonist and her husband are fraught with lines like, “This is the house. I can’t believe you don’t see it.”)

Keeping these paradoxes relevant is about economy, too—indeed more than any other single aspect of fiction is about economy. The oft-overused axiom “show-don’t-tell” finds its purchase in fleshing character dimensionality, since it is the attribute of story construction of which the writer is likely to be the most conscious and most agenda-driven, and thus at greatest risk of resorting to telling. We have to “get” that the characters are multifaceted and interesting, without being told that they are interesting.

In an accident report I’ve been reading, the pilot of a twin-prop flight to the Bahamas finds himself in a life-and-death emergency after one of the engines spins out and disintegrates. The landing officer in Marsh Harbour patches him through to his station director in Fort Lauderdale, who tells him to “apply best-climb power, bank to the good engine, stay calm and fly the airplane.” To which the pilot replies that he “has already done all of those things.” …Is it just me, or can you almost see the out-of-date hairdo, the mirrored sunglasses, the shag mustache? The fumbled, poorly concealed panic? I mean, gosh: all he said was that he’d already done all of those things—why is it so revealing of his character? Because it’s both compact and unexpected: instinctively we were waiting for him to say something more akin to, “Okay, is there anything else you can tell me,” not bleep-you-very-much.

Indeed if it can be accomplished, the best way to map these three aspects of character—the universality, the power imbalances, and the paradoxes—would seem to be to figure out the paradoxes even before the power issues, and let the power issues take care of themselves organically as a direct result. I am at this very moment mired in an unpleasant conflict with someone whose own eclectic backstory contributes every bit as much to his decision metric as mine does to mine, and—here’s the thing—it is precisely because of our quirky backstories that the two of us find ourselves in such protracted conflict. I never had a problem with the guy until I had a reason to know anything about how different his past experiences are from mine.


To this point it wouldn’t seem that all this thinking about characters has contributed much of anything new, but it is this question of sequence where it would seem that things started to get real for me in my thinking about all of this. Having built a recipe that starts with presentation of a universal character in a universal situation, layers-on paradoxes, and proceeds to dialogue that is all about power, the table would now seem to have more-or-less set itself for something big to be placed directly on it, and for peoples’ unique differences to signal the reader that not everyone will be leaving with all of his chips. The differential transformability of the key players—the acute issue that will form the pivot of the entire story—is something that would under this rubric happen not because I had set myself to writing that story, but because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that could happen between to these people.

This, in hindsight, is how my much-complimented story about the homeless guy came into existence inside my head. First I knew I had a main character who, despite appearances to the contrary, has a lot of universality (go for it, or keep things comfy?); then I knew what made him interesting (he can paint, he’s tender during and after the act of love, he’s improbably attached to a stray cat); then I knew with whom he’d have a set of differences (the gallery director and the girlfriend, both of whom push him in ways that accentuate his own inner uncertainty); and then, only after having understood each of those things, did I know on what basis the story would turn. I didn’t start the story out with that set of intentions, but that’s the order in which they unfolded, and that’s the order that led to the one story of mine that people like.

To instead start a story as I often have, with the narrative pivot figured out before the people to whom it will happen, and to then try to make those people interesting and believable, would seem to be to set one’s self up for failure—at least if my experience is anything to go by. My travel narrative didn’t work because the root conflict borne at the character’s heart wasn’t universal; my story about the woman who dreams of her husband abandoning her didn’t work because the power imbalances weren’t clear. My novel about the town of bad-behaving Rotarians didn’t work because the big gotcha at the end didn’t utilize sufficiently unique character traits. My story about the guy who shoots himself on the other guy’s lawn didn’t work because the characters were shoe-horned into the pivot instead of the other way around.


The worst thing about all of this is the amount of time that would seem to have been wasted on the way. All those tedious, pretentious little puzzles I’ve been fashioning with so little success owe their existence to what seems now to have been a fundamental misapprehension about what it was that I’d been trying to emulate. Seeing how cleverly this can all work—seeing the young home-invader shot in the empty-nester’s bedroom, and knowing all at once that her pistol-shooting hobby was both immediately relevant to my interest in her, and the thing that set us inexorably on this path—I’ve been instead fumbling around with devices that appear cosmetically to be just as clever, but without actually serving any constructive purpose to the craft. Meanwhile the cleverness I’ve been admiring in my favorite stories has fit the model described here, in every case: A character with a universal concern, made economically unique through short bursts of multidimensionality, resulting in power imbalances with other multidimensional characters, leading directly to the only pivot-point the whole thing could have been leading to that whole time.

…Now all I need is a deck of cards, huh.

Dave O’Gorman
(“The Key Grip”)
Gainesville, Florida

(*) Seger, Linda, Creating Unforgettable Characters: A Practical Guide to Character Development in films, TV series, advertisements, novels and short stories. Henry Holt (1990), New York.
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Friday, March 4, 2011

A "Public" Challenge to Myself

Ten days of unbroken creative productivity stretch before me this morning, with no plans to travel, tackle household projects, or work in the conventional sense of fulfilling obligations having to do with my job. My plan instead, much as it would be if I were traveling to a writers' compound, is to generate creativity in all the manifold varieties that have interested me of late, from revising existing short- and long fiction, to generating new stories, to uploading movie reviews to YouTube, to finishing the mock-up copy of a new board game.

The problem is, I haven't in the past been all that adept at leveraging large blocks of un-competed-for time, into the things I'd like to do -- it's always been easier when the act of creating meant that some sort of icky-work was being given the finger. It's a very real concern, though heaven help a person if he tries to articulate it to the five-day-a-week crowd, whose retinas are likely to detach from the force of the involuntary eye-roll. Creative aspirations mostly don't inhabit enough authority to permit leaden concerns about low-productivity but -- here's the thing about that -- it's only because most creative aspirations never translate into production. At all events, what galls me already on this very first morning of the ten days, is the prospect of waking up next Monday having wasted them.

What should the goals be?

Well, it might be worthwhile to start with what they *shouldn't* be: I'd love to say, "upload ten movie reviews and re-write ten short-stories," but, c'mon, we both know that isn't going to happen. Clearly the permission I've recently given myself to flit from one, quarter-finished project to another, with utter self-indulgence, has helped to generate a lot of new material. But, equally clearly, the more ambitious things I'd like to do aren't going to wear well in the absence of an ability to sit down and tune everything else out. A happy medium between the permission to flit and the need to get "serious" would yield the most satisfying results. If only it could be found.

There are always short-stories. There are good ones and bad ones, new and old, experimental and linear. None of them will ever find their ways into even the most lightly circulated, all-on-line literary journals, if I don't polish and mail them, at some point. Moreover, in one of the creative arts' most personally frustrating paradoxes, it turns out that having a small assortment of successfully published short-stories is all but essential to those seeking introductory credibility in *completely* *different* *fora*, such as full-length fiction, narrative non-fiction, and literary criticism. Just what it is about a person who has proven that he can write a 3,000 word story about a girl being pushed around by her father, that merits the reading of his 110,000-word travel narrative through eastern Europe, I won't presume to ask. Any more than I have already. At all events, getting a few stories to the point where they might not embarrass me from someone else's slush-pile is an outlet that carries the potential of two-for-one progress.

I also want very much to continue to review movies on YouTube and, more specifically, to hone my still-clunky approach to the point that a full review can be devised, written, filmed, and uploaded in a single day. (At the moment each review takes between three and five times that much time -- a tempo that will devour everything else I'm trying to do and leave only a tiny and lightly watched YouTube filmography in its place.

I've lately been thinking about another "series" of blog columns, not unlike the countdown of my hundred favorite movies from two summers ago, this time ranking various travel destinations I've either seen, or plan to see. This is a bigger project than it sounds, though, as the countless thousands of you-must-see-this-before-you-die places out there would have to be archived more-or-less exhaustively, then somehow ranked despite the fact that I haven't seen them all, then photo-documented (largely using google images), and then, of course, written about. It's a fact I mention far too often to my ever-shrinking circle of friends that the list of my hundred favorite movies ran out to 135,000 words -- roughly twice the length of a standard trade paperback. A big commitment to make in service of something unlikely to be read even by most of the personal support network who dutifully plow through all the rest of the crap with which I've been so cavalier about cluttering-up their minds.

The full-length manuscripts are harder to face, of course, and even more so because there's more than one of them. Should a person who has in his possession a fractious first-draft of two different travel narratives, two different novels, a full-length historical commentary, *and* a textbook, really be giving himself permission to spend the next ten days flitting from genre to genre, from medium to medium? Or does such a person risk waking up fifty-five years old at the end of those ten days, and no closer to the unwavering macro-goal of conventional publication? For that matter -- with the recent news that Border's, too, will be largely disappearing over the next few months -- does the goal of conventional publication even make sense anymore, if it ever did? Will there even *be* conventional publication, by the time any of these full-length documents are truly ready for the healthy skepticism of a double-blind audience? I wish I knew: The eye-roll factor isn't small here, either, but the fact of the matter is that a decision in either direction, with respect to working on the full-length stuff, could result in a deep regret at having squandered the window.

At the other end of the legacy-vs-immediacy spectrum, what of the political blog commentaries? There has rarely been a more fallow time in which to write about the grave and rapidly deteriorating state of the political narrative in this country, but on no small level is this also the problem: I haven't written hardly any political pieces over the past -- what, year? -- precisely because the genre is so fallow with pulsating outrages that to write about any of them would cripple my humor for the rest of the subsequent day. On the other hand, of all the writing I've ever tried to do, this is the one area where, when I was doing it, there actually was an anonymous, not-doing-me-any-favors following. If ten days' creative efforts were instead to lead to ten days' copious production, and zero audience, would it really be production, or just masturbation?

This is a non-rhetorical question, and one for which I think both potential answers have merit. Creative effort for the sake of itself can be thought of as the only "true" creative effort (and the only motive that leads to good work, since it isn't hamstrung by pointless nods to some unseen "market"). The analogy that often gets made is to playing the guitar -- in that the owner of a guitar can derive rather a lot of personal satisfaction from playing only in his own company. Hence the movie-reviews on YouTube. Nobody's looking at them, and I can honestly say that I don't care: Their one-man audience likes the way they're coming out. On the other hand, few among us can say with total self-honesty that they would find themselves fulfilled after-the-fact by a creative resume that had never enjoyed the validation of a formal third party. In this respect is writing far closer to composing music than it is to playing. Sure, if I compose a symphony that no one else ever takes sufficient interest in to play, I've still made something -- at least on paper. But have I really fulfilled the goal with which I set out to ruin a hundred and twenty pages of score? Probably not.

None of these various possibilities are actually being tackled either by angsting about them, or by typing these very words of angst, of course. (Just thought I'd beat someone else to it, thanks.) Without further ado, then, here is what I consider to be a realistic, sufficiently multifaceted, and yet weighty enough set of goals, that fulfilling all or most of them over the next ten days would leave me satisfied that I'd proven to myself once again that I can, in fact, sit still and make something.

1. Final revisions of four existing short-stories. Make no mistake: That's a lot. Indeed I have often felt that the job of revising a short-story is, if anything, more taxing than the job of revising a full-length document -- since any single word that doesn't belong in a short story, or belongs but needs a synonym, or jars in any other way, will call disproportionate attention to itself. If a really good novel is a cathedral to the writer's talents, then a really good short-story is a Faberge egg. Still, they're not going to revise themselves, and I have specific-enough ideas for how to fix, and where subsequently to market, four specific titles of mine (Cat-Bus Bill, A Walking Tour of Downtown Chicago, Swisstime, and Tripticks), that dropping four-dozen envelopes in the mail on March 14 would leave me feeling like the week had been an unqualified success, even if I hadn't done so much as a load of laundry in the meantime.

2. Four new YouTube movie reviews, uploaded.
The question of whether there will ever be a YouTube subscriber following for my pretentious, synopsis-heavy dronings -- about *existing* movies, you understand -- is probably at this point a settled one. But you know, I can't help myself: I just love talking about the movies I love. There's another benefit, too, quite aside from the palette-cleanse this radically different activity offers when the sound of my own short-story voice becomes more strident company than I can bear, in that it's one of the few activities chronicled on this list that is emotionally *POSITIVE*.

Most writing is dire, even when it's not being written by someone who is mostly dire in his real-world interactions, the way I am. By protecting some space over the coming days for an activity that celebrates my deep and abiding respect for the world's great filmmakers, I'll be giving myself the chance to think optimistically about all the human race might be capable of, even after destroying the Wisconsin teachers' union.

3. Completion of the board-game prototype.
Only a few close friends know of the idea I recently devised for a board game -- because, of course, this is the outlet that carries with it the highest smirk-quotient. It's not quite as bad as inventing an alternative-fuel car engine in my basement, but then again I don't own a basement. Still, one of those close friends is improbably well-connected to some folks who've made a lot of money on a board game of their own devising, and anyway the chance to step away from the computer all together and play with tag-board and an exacto knife carries the thrilling appeal of a total gear-shift, *and* the chance to take for a spin my insurance policy's emergency-room deductible, at the same time.

4. Re-outline All-American Town.
Of all the full-length documents I've ever created, this experimental fiction manuscript wins the contest for Most-Likely-to-be-Published, going away. There's only one small problem with that observation: In its current form, it is a self-humiliating *mess*. It needs a new plot, new attention to characterization, new characters, basically it needs to be re-written from the ground up. To do so over the next ten days would be impracticable all by itself, but to map out the plan for doing so is by no means out of reach, and best of all this too can be done without the use of a computer.

5. Final revisions to the first chapter of both travel narratives.
No one who doesn't already know me will probably ever see either of my travel narratives; the genre was one of the first casualties -- at least commercially speaking -- of the internet revolution. Why would anyone pay fourteen bucks to read my bland, dishwatery descriptions of the un-exotic places I've been, when they could read someone else' s for free? Well, I don't know the answer to that one. But I can't help thinking that there is one.

Over and above those same, affirmative reasons for wanting to write about travel as with movies, both of the travel manuscripts happened quite by accident to feature prominent and intensely personal through-lines. Each of them is, in other words, the one thing that travel narrative so often isn't: A story. And if almost no travel narrative is being published anymore, the same cannot be said about narrative memoir that tells a good story. Just as revising the short-stories affords the chance to force-multiply the same time by creating something *and* advancing my bibliography, so does working on the travel narratives afford a double-whammy of scratching the itch to talk about those experiences, while simultaneously bucking a bad trend in what used to be a scrumptiously enthralling genre.

6. Final draft for my inaugural "moth" submission.
A local friend of mine approached me recently about co-founding a Gainesville-area installment of "the moth" -- in which people from the community gather to read and listen to short, non-fiction accounts from their own lives, in the spirit of, say, David Sedaris. I am of course deeply honored to have been asked to share in the administrative duties of such an undertaking (indeed one could argue that nothing on this list is as potentially fulfilling as carrying-off such an event and then watching the whole thing from the front row). But over and above this honor is the prospect of dragging out from the dark recesses of my own hard-drive a series of narrative shorts I've written over the past several years for an out-of-town equivalent called "Lip Service," and seeing if a slightly less restrictive word-count might render them a little less fractious and unreadable. I'd like, specifically, to have my own selection for our as-yet-unscheduled first show, buttoned-up and in the can by the time I go back to work.

What to make of such a list? Well of course the first thing to make is a pretty-big laugh, since there's no real way that all of this could even remotely be tackled in a mere ten days. But as those who harbor equally insistent compulsions to make things outta nothing would know, a funny thing happens when one makes lists like this with an explicit awareness at the outset of just how impossible it will all be: It ends up not mattering, as long as the list serves as a continual reminder that, as ever, the clock on the wall is ticking.

I've never been good at losing track of time; indeed the inability to do so often gets squarely in the way of... well, everything else. But lists like this one offer another of the happy media this column seems now to have really been all about. Yes, there are all these things that I'd like to do, the list reminds. Yes, there is less and less time to do them in, even now. But no, that is not itself sufficient reason to waste any more, spinning in the sand about how much has passed and how little is left. After all, nothing will get crossed-off by fretting over how it could possibly already be eleven o'clock on the morning of the first day. Or, by the time I've spell-checked this, eleven-thirty. Nothing will get crossed-off by fretting over that, either.

Wish me luck, everybody.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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