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Sea of Voices, or, A Question of Character

At the Cascade Writers Conference in Seattle, over the weekend of July17-20 2014,I gave an hour-long talk entitled “Sea of Voices”. This is not, exactly, a transcript. More of a “retelling”. But this is the gist of what I had to say at the conference, repackaged for a wider audience.

 

“How many people are in this room?” I asked the audience at my talk, and I saw them start turning around to start counting heads. “No,” I interrupted, “not how many warm bodies. How many people. Let me introduce you to the ones that are currently up here at the front of the room, with me.

And then I spoke, in character, as character, as four of the characters from my own stories. Here’s what I said – here’s what the characters said through me, using my body, my voice:

*

Coyote (from the Worldweavers series)

She called me Corey, in the books. She had to call me something. But you might know me better as Coyote… or perhaps as someone else altogether. You might never know when I am near you. I have many faces.

I am a spirit; I am a god; I am an avatar. I am chaos.

I am a rock in a stream; I do not block the water flow but I act as a dam and I make the water find a way around me if it wants to move forward in its bed. I am a lesson to be learned.

I am neither good nor bad, but I am balance.

I do not plan, because the future comes anyway, but I live in this moment and in it alone and I do what must be done to help the world – and my people – move forward. I am always early, and I am always late, and I am the world’s most trusting fool as well as its most cunning Trickster. I am neither light nor darkness, I am shadow, and without me neither light nor dark exist.

 

Rohese Mazarin (from a work as yet unwritten)

When I first came out of the cloud to speak to this one I introduced myself, I gave my name and my city, I gave my lineage, my history, my past, my credentials for becoming the narrator or at the very least a very important part of A Story. I gave far more than would ever be used – but how else could I be real?

I gave the story of the little girl who knew that in her world she would be without power unless it was the power of pillow talk with a man who could make the things she thought and dreamed of come to pass in her name. The little girl who wanted the world anyway.

The little girl who sat on the rim of the fountain in her father’s marble-paved courtyard and saw the reflection of the moon in the still water… and reached out to take it in the full knowledge that it could not fail to be hers… and watched its image shiver and shred into ripples as her touch disturbed the water.

The little girl who knew even then that the lesson was not that she could not have the moon. The lesson was that the moon was an illusion.

 

Grayson (Gray) Garvin (from “Shifter”, book 3 in the Were Chronicles, Coming Soon!)

I played coy, see. I wandered into the story, late, and stood playing with my hair – I tend to chew on the ends of it, it’s a bad habit I picked up in foster care when I was little – and I wouldn’t give her my name. And so we played Rumpelstiltskin, she and I, and she would ask, are you Jenny? Are you Anna? Are you Vivian? Are you Maggie? And I would shake my head and smile coyly and drop my eyelashes over my eyes and watch her squirm.

Until finally she gave up and posted a poll on her blog asking her readers what my name was – and hey, I couldn’t have that, I couldn’t have her crowdsourcing my name – and so I crept up to her one night as she was just about to fall asleep and wasn’t even thinking about me and I whispered into her ear, “Grayson. My name is Grayson Garvin, But you will probably know me better as Gray.”

She sighed, and slept. But now she knows me. And now we wait for my story to begin. I haven’t told her all of it yet. I am not the kind of girl who gives it all up just like that. I will make her work for it, for every word I say, for every dream I have, for every thing I love or despise – I will make her find out. It’s MUCH more fun that way.

 

Xaforn (from “Secrets of Jin Shei”)

I lived my life by the code of honor.

When I was just a little girl I brought down three bullies, boys bigger than me, because they were torturing this innocent kitten – not just because the kitten was innocent and helpless, although there was always that, but because the kitten belonged to us, to the Guard, and we had a duty to it. To protect it, to save it, to keep it safe and out of the clutches of these impious hands. So I just did it, what needed to be done, without thinking about it – it was instinct, it was something inside me, it was something I was born with and could not be myself without.

They asked me why I did it and I told them – and it was simple – it was OUR cat. And we had a duty to it.

It was only years later that I understood the true lesson of the kitten, that day in my childhood now long gone – on the night I found myself having to choose between the love and duty that I had always given to the Guard who had been my family since the moment I had been left on the doorstep of their barracks in a basket when I was only days old, and my duty to the sense of honor which was the core of myself… and I faced down the Guard because honor called me to do it, in defense of my friend, of the sister of my soul, of someone who was another part of myself, because it was the right thing to do, because it was the only thing to do… because she was MY cat. She was where my love and my duty lay, in the end, even if it cost me my life.

*

I could see the dawning of understanding in the audience as the characters stepped on the stage and took the light and the cue and said their piece. I could see eyes beginning to sparkle. And when I asked, after my last character was done, “How many people do you think are in this room now?” – I could see the original number, the original head count, becoming revised upwards. Into dozens. Maybe approaching hundreds.

We all carry it within us, all the writers, we all swim in this sea of voices which whisper into our ears as we work, as we eat, as we sleep, as we dream. We contain multitudes, That person sitting in the back of the bus having a passionate conversation with thin air? He’s probably a writer arguing with a recalcitrant character who will not do what is needful because they know better (the worst thing is that they usually DO…)

One of the things that these conference attendees came here to find out is how to create their characters – how to find them, how to meet them, how to control them – and all I could tell them was that I did not know, because in my case my characters came out of the ether fully formed and proceeded to find/meet/control ME. I – and I think a very high number of other writers – suffer from a case of mild possession, with the character demanding that I sit down and take dictation, that I tell a story that needs to be told and for which I am the only voice. I am not so much a God of this universe as I am its amanuensis.

Good characters, true characters, are self-aware to a degree that would astonish most people if they stopped to think about it – and that goes for the protagonist of any story and the chief villain thereof as much as it applies to the third spear carrier from the left who may or may not have a speaking part. Even when it feels the most like you – the author – are making all the decisions… if you are listening hard enough, it’s the sea of voices which is steering your craft, telling you which way to go in the currents of story.

They may begin nebulous, like any newborn, but those characters who are worth their salt quickly get past that stage into the classic teenage “don’t tell me what to do!” mindset and then they find themselves walking a largely self-chosen path with the writer only there as support, as a source of information, as a confessional, as a curious companion.

The difference is that, to any story that is being told, the author is necessary; the characters are essential. It’s their story. All YOU are doing is telling it.

The most unforgettable characters who can grace any story are not the ones whom you are trying to change – it’s the ones who are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) changing YOU while you are in their company. Because those characters are going to change everyone, by the time they’re done. They’re the ones the readers will remember long after they close the book in which the characters appears, long after the details of the individual stories are forgotten. These are the characters who step out of their books and live as eternal companions to the people into whose minds and hearts they have crept and taken residence there; the characters who are so alive, so real, that those who have made their acquaintance will be able to tell you with absolute certainty how the characters would act in any given situation which is not remotely within the realm of their original tale. They have breath, a beating heart, a real soul – they may not always have salvation but if they are good enough they will always have an afterlife.

A character like this is a gift, more than any author can hope for when they dip their metaphorical pen into the inkwell and start a tale. Listen for their whispers, when they drift near you in the sea of voices. They will frustrate you, they will anger you and annoy you, they will make you weep, they will make you laugh, they will fold their dreams into your hand and close your fingers around them and tell you to treat those dreams with care. And it is a covenant. This is a promise that you must make them, that you will do right by them, as best you know how. THEY will show you the way.

The best way to find your characters… is to listen. The sea of voices is out there. Its message is waiting for you to find it… when you are ready to hear.

Somewhere in those voices there is one that is speaking to you right now. Meet them halfway. And then watch the magic happen.

FORENSICS 179: WHAT IS THAT ODOR?

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. Kindly note that the characters and locations in the following essay are fictitious and have been created to represent persons and places associated with a possible crime solved with the aid of an unusual, but real, forensic method.

******

The telephone call was directed to the office of Captain Billy Miller, who was in charge of a police precinct in Gulfax City. Among those he commanded, he was often referred to as Barney Miller, after the popular situation-comedy and character having had that name. Miller sported a mustache that gave him an appearance similar to that of the character, but he lacked a similar sense of humor. Miller’s smile was reserved for off-duty hours and was not often seen even then.

The captain’s office adjoined a squad room containing a meeting table and a number of cubicles. Each cubicle was shared by two officers who worked different shifts. When not out investigating crime scenes and interviewing witnesses, they wrote reports, discussed theories and received assignments from Miller. The incoming call was to advise Captain Miller of an apparent murder of a well-known trial judge, Malcolm Bridger. As the captain hurried through the squad room, he collected two detectives, namely, one Colleen Donovan and one Riley Finch. The three hot-footed it to a police cruiser and headed for the suburbs. The late judge, a recent widower, had lived alone there in a large, Victorian-style house.

Upon arrival, the trio found Bridger’s body resting face-up on the floor of his study before a large, paper-strewn desk. The body was clothed in a light-blue lounging robe. Blood had escaped from a knife-inflicted chest wound, darkening the front of the robe. It appeared that Bridger had tried to defend himself before being stabbed. A.pair of glasses lay broken nearby, and a high-back chair lay on its side. Four depressions in the carpet disclosed the chair’s original position along one side of the desk. Neighbors discovered the body when they had arrived for a traditional Friday-evening card-playing foursome. Bridger had not responded to his doorbell, and his back door was ajar.

Captain Miller was all business and dispensed instructions to his crew of two in clipped, right-to-the-point sentences. After photgraphs were taken of the crime scene a medical examiner arrived and officially confirmed that the judge was dead. The body was then transported to the Gulfax morgue, where an autopsy would be performed. The detectives remained to attend to the business of note-taking. measuring, photographing, collecting and labeling the usual multitude of items that might prove to be important when identifying, finding and subsequently convicting Bridger’s killer. The potential evidence would be submitted to a laboratory for analysis by forensic specialists.

Among the items found near the body was a small, plastic article. Finch immediately identified it as an in-canal hearing aid, and Donavon said that it looked like one worn by her mother. They initially thought it had probably belonged to Bridger and had fallen out of his ear during the skirmish with his killer. Forensic analysis of ear wax (cerumen) adhering to it, however, excluded the judge as having been the wearer; and there was a good chance it had fallen from the attacker’s ear.

The judge had been well-liked and respected by everyone who knew him–even attorneys against whom he had ruled in court. As was to be expected, of course, felons to whom he had awarded prison terms did not generally number among his admirers. That alone substantially expanded the field of those who might have wished to seek revenge for him having reduced the size of their living quarters to a single, unfashionable cell. A recently paroled felon named Fester Sturbic, however, who had, in front of the entire court, strongly addressed the judge by a name not given him by his parents, naturally became a prime suspect.

Meanwhile, research had been directed at determining the possibility of using body odors from armpits and earwax for forensic purposes. It was thought their analyses could reveal persons’ identities, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, states of health and also where they had been and what they had eaten. It has long been known that mothers can recognize their babies by their odors. I can recall that, upon returning home after attending night classes, I was immediately able to determine which of my brother’s children had visited during the day.

In Sturbic’s case, there was evidence supporting a guilty verdict , but it was somewhat inconclusive. In the laboratory, the earwax found adhering to the hearing aid found near the judge’s body and that taken from Sturbic’s ear were separately warmed until each became an odorous gas. Each gas was then analyzed using a technique employing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. The results of the analyses were compared and found to be a match. When added to the evidence found previously, it easily resulted in a stiff sentence for the defendant.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Animal tissues come in four flavors: epithelial, connective, muscle and nervous. Epithelial tissue is relevant to this essay because it lines our ear canals and provides a function of transcellular transport. Epithelial migration acts as a conveyor belt for earwax, moving toward the entrance of the ear (auditory) canal, carrying particulate matter that might have gathered in the canal. It also carries debris dislodged from the canal wall by jaw movements. Epithelial cells migrate at a blinding speed, comparable to that of fingernail growth.

Earwax has another useful application. A build-up of earwax in toothless whales sometimes provides the only means of determining their ages. Blue whales are baleen whales, which have baleen plates that filter food from water. They evolved later than toothed whales and live for an estimated 80 to 90 years. Being some 98 feet in length and weighing some 190 tons, they are not only the largest living animal, they are the heaviest animal that ever lived.

Thomas Sullivan: TWEETING A NOVEL or FICKLE FIREFLIES at MIDNIGHT

Tweets are for Twits.

…and also for visionaries, sages and gods on the verge of creation – i.e. writers in the throes of inspiration. That’s because simple one-sentence summaries are essential for clarity of thought. They are like single seeds full of promise, whereas unpruned gardens can easily bloom into tangles. Getting bloomers down to briefs is…um, as basic as underwear.

So, a tweet-size summary will sharpen and consolidate your wits. And if brevity is the soul of wit, it can also be the thumbprint of a character, the skeleton of a sketch, the pulse of a short story, and even contain the personality of a novel. But take care that this doesn’t come out in some postmortem after all the writing and editing is down on paper; it should be there in the beginning. The very beginning. Even before the birthing of a plot or a plan. It should be part of the inspiration and the conception. You are imitating God, after all, creating humans and their destinies. Should be some passion in there, don’t you think?

Capturing that spark is itself a delicate skill, sort of like catching a fickle firefly in a bottle at midnight. How do you get all the DNA of a character into a verbal stem cell? How do all the chromosomes of a novel fit into an Alpha and Omega Uber sentence? For the sake of uncluttered thinking you need a concise summary statement. The details can come later, but if you don’t get the big perspective up front, you may have trouble differentiating a coherent idea from a hodgepodge of themes, characters and threads of tension to be resolved. Going at it piecemeal – cobbling together details or subplots on-the-fly – is usually the doomed foundation for a tower of Babel, a hybrid plot, and maybe some box canyons and dead ends.

I say this as one who dearly HATES outlining. There was even a time in my life when NOT outlining was a badge of pride – pure vanity – because I saw myself as so lightning quick that my ego got off on being spontaneous. Worse, I sized up people who outlined ad infinitum as insecure souls whose stodgy methods would never achieve quantum leaps of imagination. It wasn’t until I got past the personal statements that I understood the fallacies and benefits on both sides of that line.

The breakthrough came with a commitment to describe each project in a single sentence that takes less than a minute to craft. Now, if I can’t find the all-inclusive words resembling a tweet, I recognize that a book isn’t ready for primetime. The perfect sentence is like verbal sex (sorry, no phone calls): seduction building with passion to a satisfying sense of completeness. An outline follows – you have to plan for the baby. THEN you incubate the inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like to be impromptu. But that is no longer a method I cultivate for its own sake. In fact, all true creativity is by definition spontaneous. Doesn’t mean you have to start by inventing the wheel. The farther up the hill you roll before you put the pedal to the metal, the better mileage you’ll have when you sign and date the final draft. In other words, with an outline in hand you have a failsafe minimum for the result. The book, character, or whatever, will never be less than that. And almost certainly, what you actually end up with will be better than your original outline. Think of advanced planning as a first-stage rocket.

Caveat: the point here isn’t to be wedded to an outline. I used to think of planning as a limitation that would prevent my imagination from soaring. Not so. Nothing says you can’t reshape your plan like Play-Doh, or throw it out and start over, or build on it Lego by Lego. It is just an entry into your list of possibilities that gives you the advantage of the big picture before you launch into the actual writing. And from that perspective you may not only see flaws but new possibilities as well. An outline can and should be organic. And even if it goes out the window, you still have that guiding star – your single sentence – to get it right.

Another truism that emerges for me from outlining is that it tends to keep me from getting lost in the emotion of the moment. I.e. never trust a mood. Do you ever find that a scene you write at night, after the day has cluttered your feelings and left you raw with stress, reads like crap in the cold sterile light of dawn? Outlining keeps me focused on the purpose of the book and less apt to drift after the collateral emotional damage of a single day.

So, I recommend explicit pillow talk with your muse early on. Light that spark in a single rush of passion. Then savor the long release of your imagination…

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

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The art of time travel

I time travel quite a bit.

No, seriously, I do.

It’s cheap and you can do it whenever you want, really.

So long as you have photographs..

Sometimes, when I take stock of how many photographs I have, it’s alarming. There are albums and albums which my father put together as I was growing up. The earliest one I have in my closet, a precious thing, is the old fashioned kind with thick gray pages on which you pasted the photos, and Dad did this, small old black and white pics to begin with, of my mother pregnant with me and then my first baby pictures (yes the obligatory bare-ass one…) and then me, growing from a shapeless papoose into a chubby toddler – and then, over a series of other albums, into a long-legged pre-teen and then a rangy adolescent, and then a young woman…

At some point the albums peter out and cross over into something more chaotic, just loose photos, hundreds of them, THOUSANDS of them, from four continents, with occasional efforts being made to sort them and categorize them. Most of the time nobody wrote down anything on the back so actual times and dates and locations are sometimes probably literally known to only one viewer – me – because I was either in the shot (at an identifiable age from which I can then map the rest of the details) or, later on, I was the one behind the camera and remember taking that shot.

By the time my father stopped taking pictures and making albums I had my own camera – but my pictures are different from the ones that came before. I take pictures of landscapes and animals and clouds in the sky and flowers in my garden and butterflies and the ocean and snow. My pictures are of the things I have seen and preserved like a solid little memory square in full Technicolor.

But I don’t have many pictures of people. With my dad’s abdication as photographer and archivist, the long line of the family record really all came to a sputtering end, with a few explosions at a handful of times – a bunch of shots from my graduation(s) from University – a bunch of pictures on which I feature from our sojourn in New Zealand – a couple of shots of me from my South Seas adventure – and then one or two here and there, just as proof of life, I am still here and I am still walking this Earth, but nothing like the sustained record that there was when I was young.

A similar chaos exists from the era that was pre-me.

The older pictures, the black and white shots filled with faces I do not know, my grandparents’ generation. Pictures I cherish because of their age and their testimony – shots of my grandparents as young parents, one particularly affecting one with them weeping over the tiny coffin of their second daughter who did not survive her babyhood – my great-uncle’s high-school graduation photo (he was a handsome young devil) – pictures of my mother as a ten-year-old with her hair in wheat-gold braids. But many of these older pictures are already lost to me because I can no longer identify their subjects. Some of them actually have dates on the back – semi mythical ones, to me, like 1936 and 1945 and 1950, the days before I existed – but the people who might know anything more about those pictures are beginning to vanish.

My father, the great photographer and organizer, died last year. While he was still with us I did a time capsule of sorts for him, combing through that chaos of loose photos for ones in which he appeared, putting them all together in a coherent timeline in a separate album.

Here was my father in a rare early picture when he was seventeen. Here he was in his twenties, and then in his late twenties and a soldier in uniform (they had obligatory military service in those days, and he was in uniform for a while, was in one when he met my mother, and it was horrifying, shocking, for her to be seen being squired around by one of the soldier boys, according to the accepted laws of propriety her culture lived by….), and then in his early thirties holding toddler me in his arms, and then in his forties still young and full of gung-ho optimism about the world flying out into adventure under the flag of the United Nations into Africa with wife and daughter in tow – and him in his fifties, and then his sixties,, and then the later ones, in his seventies, thin and spare and white-haired…

I do not have any of him from the last three months of his life. I did not want to remember him like that (as if I could ever forget, seeing it in real life, holding his skeletal arm in my hand as I supported him as he tried to walk…) But there it is, in front of me, pure time travel, me at my father’s side as he traversed the years of his life, the pictures bringing to life this moment or that one, conversations that started with “Do you remember…?”

It’s a time travel that can go in one direction only, into the past, into the things that were, that had been. Into memory. And photos can take you straight there – take a good look at one, and then close your eyes, and you can live the moment again as though all the years in between never were. You can be young again, any time you choose. You can look at a picture and remember joy, or sadness, or triumph, or awe. Time vanishes into a line, into a dot, and it’s all one continuum, and you and your older self hold hands like ghosts and dance across the story of your life.

It did occur to me, when I was putting together Dad’s albums, that it all ends with me.

I don’t have anyone to come after me. No young eyes are looking at these photos, no young eyes that share the histories that the pictures represent. I discovered already, the hard way, how fast those pictures can become just a pile of paper, in the end – when my father died, my mother culled his own vast mess of uncategorized and un-albumed photos, and she only kept a few, a precious few. Somehow the rest of them – the vast majority of them – lost all meaning when Dad went. A handful were useful as pointers… but photos… are a very personal time machine. Without the spirit to drive them, they become dead letters, a dead story, a vanished history, no longer of interest to anyone except someone who might have cared about the smiling face on the pictures in some capacity, or possibly, if that face had been a public figure of some sort, a dispassionate archivist putting together a collage for a museum exhibit, a cold static display.

This is a time machine for the soul. And it looks back, only back. And when the spirit withers, so does the ability to make sense of the time travel, and meaning, and memory.

I still have photos of my grandparents, dead now these twenty years and more. But for me, their meaning lies in the shreds of personality that still cling to them, the ghostly sound of remembered laughter, or a whispered word in their voice.

Dad’s images are still too young, too fresh, I remember him too well living – some of the more lasting images I recall of him are not recorded by camera but indelibly imprinted in my own mind, and these will be the things that cling to his own photos eventually, like my grandparents’ But for now it’s all still too close, too real. The time machine still sputters, fitfully. His hand is not in mine any more but I can still go back in time with him, he is still close enough for me to do that with.

But it will be a year since he left me, very soon. A YEAR. It’s hard to believe. Another year or three or five and the time machine will come to a final stop, somewhere, and everything will be just dust and ashes and memories.

But not yet. Not yet.

There are still a few journeys into time I can take with my father’s soul as my guide.

FORENSICS 178: SOLUTIONS COURTESY OF LIBS

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans.

******
Although the outcome of some criminal cases are decided by one crucial piece of evidence. many are based upon a combination of supporting pieces of evidence. Such a case was one involving a murder in Texas. A major factor was provided by a friend of the murderer to whom the latter had confessed. Supporting evidence was provided using a unique method that promises to be applicable in many other situations.

Moises Sandoval Mendoza had recently turned 21 when he strangled, stabbed and assaulted a 20-year-old mother and school acquaintance named Rachelle O’Neil Tollesone. Mr. Mendoza was a Mexican national living in Farmersville, Texas. Ms. Tollesone also lived in Farmersville At the time of the murder, Mr. Mendoza was awaiting trial for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. He was accused of having been involved in the commission of several robberies at gunpoint in Dallas. He had also been charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly having attacked his own sister in the front yard of the Mendoza home.

According to court documents filed by police, Mendoza had hidden Ms. Tollesone’s body in brush behind his house, but, after having been questioned by police about her disappearance, he had moved it to a remote area and tried to remove her fingerprints by burning her body. Mr. Mendoza later revealed details of what he had done to a friend, Stacy Marie Garcia. Since the information she provided to authorities included details that could not have been known by anyone not somehow connected to the murder, a judge signed a warrant for Mr. Mendoza’s arrest.

Police and volunteers searched areas around Farmersville for Ms. Tellesone’s body, but it was ultimately discovered in another county by a man looking for arrowheads. A medical examiner was able to identify the burned body by comparing the body’s teeth with Ms. Tellesone’s dental records.

Although the information provided by Ms. Garcia was compelling, the sheriff’s office did not halt its investigation at this point. They contacted a dendrochronology expert with hopes of finding supporting evidence using annual tree rings in what appeared to be partially burned fireplace logs used to burn Ms. Tellesone’s body. Mr. Mendoza had been seen putting similar logs in a fireplace at a social gathering. Unfortunately, the expert found the logs to be of mesquite, a wood that grows so erratically that tree ring analysis would not provide dependable information.

Eventually, a physicist used a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometry (LIBS) technique to analyze logs from the scene where Ms. Tellesone’s body was burned and from those Mr. Mendoza had been seen putting in the fireplace. Trees extract metals and other trace elements from soil, and their presence reflects what metals and other elements reside in soil in their location. Using the LIBS technique, a strong, pulsed laser was focused onto a sample of the wood, breaking it down to form a plasma. As the plasma cooled, atoms of different elements in the sample emitted energy in the form of light. Each element emitted light having a unique wavelength. Each wavelength was used to identify a specific element. The intensity of emitted light was used to identify an associated element’s concentration. The information provided by the technique has been referred to as a chemical “fingerprint.”

Burned and unburned portions of the logs were specifically tested for the presence and concentrations of aluminum, calcium, carbon, iron, magnesium, manganese, nitrogen, silicon, sodium and titanium. The resulting spectra of the mineral contents of both burned and unburned portions of all the tested logs were found to be identical. That indicated they were all from a single tree or from trees in an immediate vicinity.

The combination of the testimony provided by Ms. Garcia and the LIBS data resulted in a death sentence for Mr. Mendoza.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

Thirty-two US states have death penalties; eighteen do not. Six have abolished it during this century.

The term, dendrochronology, refers to the dating and study of annual growth rings in trees. It has often been used to discover ancient climate patterns.

Tree ring comparisons have had a place in forensics since at least 1932, when tree ring patterns in boards used to make a crude ladder were found to match rings in boards found in one Bruno Hauptmann’s attic. Hauptmann was believed to have used the ladder to gain entry to the Charles Lindbergh home to kidnap the Lindberghs’ 20-month-old son.

As an added bit of trivial nostalgia, the superintendent of the New Jersey State Police during the Lindbergh kidnapping affair was the father of the late General “Stormin Norman” Swartzkopf. Those readers alive during the 1930′s or who are fans of recordings of “Old Time Radio” programs might recall Stormin Norman’s father narrating a popular, true-crime radio program named “Gang Busters.”

Thomas Sullivan: STAYING NEW IN THE CLOSET

The larder is full, and so I’m happy to take on some of these questions you’ve so thoughtfully provided over the past several months. As a writer, whatever informs me about people, informs my craft. If it deals with human nature (which is what writing is about), creativity, author questions, or personal interest, I’ll consider it in the mix. When readers take the trouble (and sometimes the hurt) to share, I want that reflected in this column. And whether I include your question or not, please never doubt that I’m extremely grateful for the communication.

Q [Los Angeles, CA]: Are you on something?

A: Gag, cough. Actually, I get asked that a lot. No. Not on something. Well…caffeine can wig me out. Don’t drink coffee, but for a long time I was scarfing down 6-7 cups of coffee-flavored yogurt with Italian black cherries mixed in. Also ate a lot of chocolate. Got to be an allergy problem, my heart going like a trip hammer, chest so tight I felt like I was breathing through a straw. I was in denial – Sound of Mickey Mouse voice shooting out of me like a Gatling gun: “Caffeine? No, this stuff doesn’t affect me at all! I haven’t slept in 12 days!!! Wanna see me fly to the top of that tree?!?” I was eating so much yogurt, I was starting to yodel. Mountain goats followed me home from the store where I was ordering six cases of coffee-flavored yogurt (72 cups) at a time. I have now kicked caffeine cold turkey. Stock tip: do not buy shares of Dannon.

Q [?, OH]: What are you working on now?

A: Just finished a short story (“Hate Me Afire”) for an invitation-only collection and am getting ready to do proofs for a soon to be released new epic novel, CASE WHITE.

Q [Sioux Falls, SD]: Do you read e-books, and if so in what format?

A: Kindle. Was dragged kicking and screaming into e-books – couldn’t very well publish them and not read them – but like most readers I soon discovered how convenient and easy to handle they are. Same with audiobooks, after the very talented Bob Walter read my novels THE MARTYRING and DUST OF EDEN onto disc and downloads. I still read hard copies while soaking in a hot bath at 2 a.m., but there’s a lot of rewarding entertainment in these other formats.

Q [Evansville, IN]: I feel like many people who write you with their problems say they feel, meaning boxed in and dissatisfied except I admit there is no real reason to be. My marriage is good and I earn a good salary in a career I like. My husband doesn’t mind that I’m the principal breadwinner and he says I’m the sexiest woman in the world. He thinks I’m crazy but we just don’t seem to be doing anything with our lives. Does that make me ungrateful or selfish? I don’t want to make too light of this because it’s a serious problem between us.

A: First of all, congratulations! A good salary and the sexiest woman alive – that’s pretty unique. If all your husband basically needs is sex and money, and you give him sex and money, what’s the problem? None, as far as he’s concerned. Everything, from your POV. Unfortunately, it’s not so unique to feel that someone married only part of you. Key phrase in your email: “boxed in…” There. I’ve isolated the problem for you. Can’t give you an answer. Have to say, sounds like it wouldn’t take much to keep the simple aspects of your marriage going. Beyond that, it might have something to do with the quality of your communication, or it might be that bottled oxygen is only keeping you clinically alive when you need actual air. But if you don’t want to hang in a closet, give the door a push, because there might be daylight on the other side. This is where a lot of women throw themselves into motherhood, though you don’t mention children. When men feel there’s something missing they usually find an outlet or a way to go numb (loud TV, quiet bathroom). You sound like someone who needs the opposite of numbness, so maybe you have to create a partition for that part of you. I know that’s scary if you don’t want to define a part of yourself separately from what you thought marriage would be, but then most of us eventually discover we’ve gradually been doing that anyway. You want me to tell you you’re free to do that? Can’t. If that doesn’t come out of you, you won’t be able to handle the independence, in which case you’re better off decorating that closet to your tastes. Nothing wrong with a cozy, secure closet, if it makes you feel…secure.

Q [Huntington?, WV]: I wish I was as happy as you seem to be, and it makes me wonder what makes you mad?

A: Gulp, gulp [downs 6 anger management pills]. Nothing special in my temperament that way – anything that bothers other people can get to me. But I do regard anger as mostly useless. As with the woman in the previous question, wasting life ranks pretty high among things that turn me off, though my reaction is more like dispirited anger. As I recently posted on Facebook: “Nature didn’t create us for our personal benefit. It created us for the sake of life itself. We are each merely a representative of a process. That is nature’s strategy for survival of a species. Beyond that, we are on our own. If you want to thrive as an individual, you must be an individual.” So, my mind boggles and my eyes cross when I see a person paralyzed with doubt, fear or guilt and living out a blueprint drawn up by someone else or society at large. I just migrate away from circumstances that eat up life but go nowhere and from people who drain me that way. Ditto enabling someone’s dishonesty about themselves. That makes me feel like I’m disrespecting them – especially if it’s a case of cognitive dissonance where someone is blindly irrational in order to protect core beliefs. Maybe that’s a kind of hot button, if that’s what you’re asking. Anyone who reads even a little of what I write can easily see that my consuming interest is human potential, i.e. freedom and creativity. Therefore, whatever frustrates that frustrates me. Conversely, vitality and eagerness inspire me, and that’s a good way to avoid/heal anger.

Q [Ontario, Canada]: Have you always been a writer? Or did you work other jobs that taught you?

A: Often new writers are frustrated because they can’t just follow a yellow brick road through college into gainful employment with the job description: AUTHOR. “Keep your day job,” they are told. For the record, I’ve worked many jobs, including 23 years as a teacher. There is no sanctioned path to writing as a career, and it’s different for each individual. But I think it’s problematic to try to become a writer by formal training rather than discovering who you are and then writing as a consequence of that. I became a writer (even if the world didn’t know or care) mainly because wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I was being me. A loner – yes – a maverick – yes – full of obscure humor, hard to understand and impossible to love – yes, yes, yes. But I’m also an adventurer, a seeker, someone who needs to grow, learn and discover every day. In a word, my life always feels new. And it slowly dawned on me that I have that effect on other people. I make them feel new. Maybe that’s bad for people who are secure in their groove and just want to stay there forever, but it’s good for people whose groove is a rut. I can see it in their faces, their energy. I’m like a virus and it brings out some predisposed part of others that I like to think of as freedom or a rush not unlike youthful joy. My writing style is just another expression of that – an employable asset the same as in every other job I’ve had. It’s my one universal job skill, the headline on my low wattage marquee. And it’s given me much more than writing. It’s given me lost souls, abiding friendships, meaningful salvations, not a little joy, celebrations, and one very special person whose bright eyes told me for the first time that it was shareable. Maybe that’s the only redeeming thing about my life, but though it undoubtedly relates to my being a writer, writing is the least of it.

There’s no magic like summertime magic! Wishing you Technicolor to dazzle your days and heat lightning to galvanize your nights…

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage or follow me on Facebook:

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Listening to bees

Our world is always full of unexpected lacunae, gaps and hollows that we don’t know are there until we step into one. We twist our ankle, and sit down and examine ourselves for injury… and instead find a gift.

One such gift was a book I received this Christmas, “What The Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story” by P L Travers. Yes, THAT P L Travers. Mary Poppins’s literary mother.

I have to admit that I never read the original literary edition of Mary Poppins. My entire acquaintance with that august nanny came from the Disney movie, and for me she will always wear the rosy-cheeked face of the young Julie Andrews. I never knew that Travers, Poppins’s creator, was not at all happy at the idea of Disney’s adapting her work, and was certainly less than happy with Disney’s interpretation of the story. I was a child when the movie first came out. I remember going to see it with my mother, in an ancient and venerable movie house in the Old Town across the river in the city where I was born. I distinctly remember the cinema, with its red plush seats and fading scarlet curtains on either side of the screen, and most emphatically the movie itself, and its songs, and its marvelous nanny, and the story… and it all stuck with me, labelled “Disney” instead of “Travers”.

It was only relatively recently, with the release of the movie which purported to deal with the relationship between Travers and Disney, which apparently (I never did get to see it) portrayed that relationship as frankly iffy and Travers herself as a bit of a pompous and cold selfish so-and-so who was all but willing to scuttle that great and glorious movie of my own childhood because of her own disapproval of Disney’s vision of it, that I really knew that there was anything here that came before the Poppins movie.

I knew nothing of P L Travers herself before I tripped over this recent movie interpretation of her, but somehow… somehow… I don’t know. I took a step back and thought, ‘Really? That was the way it was?’ And it was about this time that it came to my attention that there was a book out there called “What the Bee Knows”, and the things that it contained. And I desired it. And heaven and earth were moved so that it might be obtained for me.

And oh, the treasure I received.

I kept on reading passages and nodding violently, or feeling my eyes tear up, or simply stopping reading and staring out through a window while my thoughts rearranged themselves into a new and different and yet ever so recognizable pattern.

In one of the essays, ‘The Interviewer’, first published in a New York journal called ‘Parabola’ on the theme of The Creative Response, as recently as 1988 (that jolted me; I saw the Poppins movie back when I was seven or eight years old, which meant in 1970 or so – 1988 seemed WAY too modern a dateline to belong to the woman who wrote the book!) Travers speaks about a reviewer who corners her and says to her, ‘[These books] are not invented, that is why they are so interesting!’ – and she responds, delighted at the journalist’s apparent epiphany, ‘How could they be? You invent motorcycles and atom bombs.’ And then he disappoints her by saying, yes, but so where did you get your ideas…? And he WILL have his answer, and if he does not get it then he will make it up because of course an idea cannot come from nothing or nowhere or everywhere at once – because for men like him, with tidy minds, things must go into labelled boxes, and there HAS to be a specific concrete discrete SOMETHING in the box labelled ‘Ideas, Beginnings’.

But Travers knows better. And has recognized the truth, in other writers, in those that came before her. In an earlier essay, published back in 1967 in the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, she says, ‘These men [AE, Yeats, James Stephens, and the rest] had aristocratic minds. For them, the world was not fragmented. An idea did not suddenly grow, like Topsy, all alone and separate. For them, all things had antecedents and long family trees. They saw nothing shameful or silly in myths and fairy stories, nor did they shovel them out of sight in some cupboard marked Only for Children. They were always willing to concede that there were more things in heaven and earth than philosophy dreamed of. They allowed for the unknown.’

The Idea is the World. The World is the Idea. How gloriously simple an answer to the perennial question that has dogged the heels of writers and other creators over years, decades, centuries. How simple, how elegant, how wonderful.

But Travers doesn’t stop at Beginnings. She tackles Endings too – like, in the same essay about that hapless interviewer, this: ‘…nothing in life is ever really finished. A book for instance is no book at all, unless, when we come to the last page, it goes on and on within us.’ And oh, amen to that too.

She speaks of the process, too, in that same wonderful essay – of the middles, if you will – and how the story is irretrievably tangled with its teller: ‘CS Lewis, in a letter to a friend, says, “There is only one Creator and we merely mix the elements He gives us” – a statement less simple than it seems. For that ‘mere mixing’, while making it impossible for us to say “I myself am the maker” also shows us our essential place in the process. Elements among elements, we are there to shape, order, define, and in doing this we, reciprocally, are defined and shaped and ordered. The potter, moulding the receptive clay, is himself being moulded.’

And yes, this, too. No story I have ever written – no good, true, valuable story – has left me, its writer, unchanged, unshaken. If it does leave me that way then it is not a good or true or valuable story. Again, a simple truth but one which waited for a Travers to put it under the magnifying glass of her insight for its truth to leap at me. Yes, my stories have written me every bit as much as I have written them. How else could a world be?

And then – wonderfully – she picks up on a theme that I myself have written on, before I met her in these pages. The story, as river.

Here’s what she says, in another essay published far later (in 1981) than I had chronologically placed her, in that same journal called ‘Parabola’ from New York, which seems to be a treasure house of these Travers pieces:

‘For, true to its multisidedness, what myth takes with one hand it will give with the others. Anyone able to sit and listen to the bees will constantly find himself reminded of the turbulent groundswell of ancient lore; of what, as St Augustine said, ‘Was, is and will ever be. Ever, yes, and everywhere. The rivers of the world, the planet’s bloodstream, commune with other underground for, in fact, they are all one river – Ganges, that flows out of Shiva’s hair, Shenandoah and the wide Missouri, the trickle of liquid history with London on its banks – all have the same story to tell.’

As a comparison, here’s what I had to say about it, in my introduction to the anthology called “River” which I edited a couple of years back – part of an earlier essay, entitled “There Is Only One River”, which I wrote for the e-zine ‘St Petersburg Gazette’ on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death. This is what I wrote:

 

“I was born on the banks of the Danube – when it is already an old river, muddy, treacherous, full of shifting sandbanks and sucking mud and terrifying whirlpools. This was the river that held my own imagination.

I was told stories about it when I was barely a toddler, of the years when the winters were so diamond-hard that the ice on the river was thick enough to bear sleighs and horses and they had sleigh races, complete with thundering hooves of iron-shod horses, up and down the frozen river. The river which ate life during the war, when the invaders took the local residents out onto the ice and pushed them under, sometimes still alive, for the crime of being who and what they were. The river which threw out bright glints when the summer sun hit the water lapping at the muddy banks, or the deep green depths where sometimes the clear water lingered; the river whose bottom was trawled by great bewhiskered catfish whose smaller representatives you could see moving sluggishly in a large tank at the marketplace and you could walk up to it, point to the fish you wanted, and it would be expertly extracted and brained and decapitated and wrapped up for you while you waited – but I, even as a child, knew that there had to be bigger and wiser catfish in the river who had lived there for a century or more and were far too canny to get trapped into that death-tank.

I was told that when my grandfather was a child the river was still clean enough to drink from. When my mother was a child it was still clean enough to swim in (and you probably wouldn’t catch anything too bad if you swallowed a mouthful or two). By the time my time came, you’d probably catch seven different kinds of dysentery from the thing, and it smelled of diesel, closer to the main quay where the boats tied up, and, further down the embankment, of soft squelching ripe river mud, the kind that would suck the shoes off your feet if you wandered too deep into it. The mud hid things that were known as bikovi, a kind of seed pod which was distinguished by sharp spikes – three of whom at any given time served as a steady tripod on which the thing rested and the fourth pointed straight up, sharp and solid and sturdy enough to drive through the sole of a shoe. One didn’t walk barefoot on the shore – at least not where there wasn’t open sand – without paying close attention to where one stepped.

I loved my river with a great love. The Danube which was not blue, not here, and never was. It does not matter. I worshipped the great brown water flowing swiftly by. I loved the ramshackle fishing boats pulled up on the sandbanks out where the river was not constrained by concrete or great levees. I loved the forests of cats’ tails and other water reeds that crowded its shallows, wading out into the stream. I even loved the sharp seedpods which I took such care to avoid. I loved the way it looked, the way it smelled, the way it flowed through my own veins, like blood and memory.

I was, still am, in a sort of superstitious awe of the thing. When I returned to the city of my birth in the aftermath of the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, the one that had taken out ALL the bridges that bound together the parts of the city on the river’s two banks, the only way across was by crowded ferries which often had standing room only and were stuffed with as much humanity as they could carry… or by cockleshell boats plied by private enterprise, which would take you across for coin, like the ferryman across the Styx. We did that, my mother and my aunt and I, one time, and sat in the little wooden boat as it was flung across the river by the good offices of a tiny outboard motor. I remember sitting on the wooden seat in the boat, next to the edge, with the boat low enough in the water that I could, if I wanted to, reach out a hand and trail it in the water as we crossed the river.

And I tried.

I put out a hand and spread out fingers that trembled… and I could not make myself touch that holy water. Holy, to me, for so long. I had been warned against its whirlpools as a child and now there they were, swirling brown and oddly innocuous right next to my boat… and I could not touch them. Because the legends I carried in my heart and in my spirit told me that there really WAS a river god living here, and that he was drowsing, and that my touch might wake him, and I would pay the price.

The great river. The old river. The river of dreams, and of power, and of eternity, flowing like time.

[Mark Twain’s] gift to me was to realise eventually that there was a way to make something into an archetype that transcended the mere quotidian. My Danube would have been a stranger to a Twain riverboat, or a black slave running away to freedom; the Mississippi would have equally been a stranger to sleigh races on ice, or to the specific kind of water reeds that grew on its banks. But I like to think that the catfish of both rivers would have found a common tongue between them as they slipped past the archetypical waters of all rivers and of all time. And I like to think that some day, if I find myself with my toes curled into the mud of the banks of the old downstream Mississippi of the Twain stories, I will instinctively be watching out for sharp seed pods which could not possibly be there.”

 

I can’t help thinking – hoping, perhaps – that P L Travers might have picked up a copy of my own essay and found something to recognize in there, just as I found hers to be treasures of the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar.

As I said, I have never read the actual story of Mary Poppins, in print, in P L Travers’s own words. Perhaps I really owe it to her, after all these years, to go back to those words, and hope that they carry the same kind of richness that her essays have given to me over the last couple of weeks that I’ve been dipping into this collection.

Nothing, as she said herself, is ever finished. And now that I’ve closed the cover of this book… it only means that I am urged to go on, go further, and find other books that speak to me, books by this literate, insightful, amusing, poignant, wise sister in words whom I found between these particular covers.

I am learning to listen to bees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

FORENSICS 177: MYSTERIOUS MURDERESS

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans.

******
It was a warm April day in 2007. Smoke drifted lazily from open windows of a parked patrol car as Michele, a 22-year-old policewoman, sat enjoying her favorite cigarette, a Gauloise. Apparently on a lunch break, she had driven to a park in Heilbronn, Germany and parked under a shade tree. Sitting beside her was her partner, Martin. It was the first time he had joined Michele on patrol. It was also his last. While parked, both officers were shot in the head. Martin barely survived. Michele did not.

Police found little evidence to help with their investigation of the shooting, only bits of DNA lifted from the car. The only information it provided was that the DNA had been deposited by a woman. It was ultimately discovered, however, that the DNA matched that found at the scenes of a number of previous crimes. The crimes included the strangling in May 1993 of a 62-year-old woman with wire used to hold a bunch of flowers. Matching DNA was found on the rim of a teacup. Matching DNA was found in March 2001 at a house belonging to a 61-year-old antiques dealer. He had been strangled with garden twine. In October 2001, matching DNA was found on the remains of a cookie in a trailer that had been broken into. During the same month, matching DNA was discovered on a syringe found by a 7-year-old boy in a wooded area. This led the authorities to think the woman they sought might have been a homicidal drug addict.

Within the period between finding the DNA of interest on the syringe and finding its match in 2007 at the scene of the shooting of the two police officers, it was discovered at the scenes of a series of crimes including bank robberies, home invasions, vehicle theft, a bombing or two and burglaries in France and Austria as well as Germany. Interestingly, Bavaria, which comprises a fifth of the area of Germany, reported no crimes believed to be related to the unknown woman.

In February 2008, the bodies of three Georgian car dealers were pulled from a river near Heppenheim, Germany. DNA matching the DNA of interest was found in a car used to transport the three bodies and driven by a suspect involved in their deaths.

Meanwhile, the unknown woman suspected of being the source of the DNA of interest had become known in the media as The Phantom of Heilbronn and The Woman Without a Face.

Altogether, the DNA of interest was found at some 40 sites. A hundred or so police officers had become involved in the woman hunt. By January 2009, a reward offered for information leading to her arrest had risen to 300,000 euros. One optimistic police chief even announced in April 2008 that they were “closing in on her.”

Efforts to find the Phantom of Heilbronn suffered a jolt when the French discovered a charred body believed to be that of a man who had sought asylum and then disappeared back in 2002. His fingerprints had been taken when he had applied for asylum. In an attempt to identify the body, a DNA sample was taken. Surprisingly, it was found to match that of the DNA of interest. A second test was performed using fresh testing implements, and no matching DNA could be found.

That, and especially the fact that the charred body was that of a male, finally led authorities to conclude that the female Phantom of Heilbronn was just that: a phantom. They determined that a woman in a factory that made the swabs used to take DNA samples had apparently touched them, leaving her DNA upon them. Reportedly, the cotton swabs used to collect DNA samples during the hunt for the Phantom of Heilbronn had been sterilized, and that removes bacteria, fungi and viruses. Unfortunately, it does not destroy DNA. With one big poof, that left some 40 investigations dangling in midair.

******

A case semisimilar to the foregoing case involved the murders of two women that also had investigators scratching their heads.

Autopsies of bodies of persons whose deaths are caused by foul play or unknown means are naturally more rigorous than those performed on bodies of persons that died from natural causes. They include scraping and clipping fingernails and analyzing material found beneath them. Such an autopsy of a woman brutally murdered in London yielded biological material that might have been clawed from the murderess by her victim.

DNA from the material was found to match that of DNA archived in the National DNA Database. Given the information provided by a DNA comparison, it seemed apparent that the woman whose DNA was in the archive had most likely murdered the “victim” under whose fingernails the biological material had been found. What made investigators just a bit suspicious was the fact that the woman whose DNA had been archived had herself been murdered some three weeks before the victim she was suspected of murdering had been murdered.

The victim’s nails had been painted in a unique, leopard-skin pattern and her nail clippings and those of her suspected murderess had never been taken out of laboratory storage at the same time. Furthermore, the nail analyses had been done several weeks apart and by different analysts, so there was little chance of the clippings having been intermixed.

Although the autopsies of the two women had been performed at the same mortuary, they had arrived weeks apart. The body of the suspected murderess had been kept in a freezer for a few weeks while detectives completed an initial investigation. It was then removed from the freezer so that a pathologist could take additional nail clippings. The nail clippers used had been cleaned and then used again to clip the nails of the victim the following day. They were eventually found to have DNA traces of three different persons.

A lesson having been learned, the recommended nail clipping procedure is now to clip nails with disposable clippers and to place them in an evidence bag with their associated clippings to ensure they are used only once.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

The service weapon and handcuffs of the murdered policewoman, Michele, were ultimately found in a camper van used by two supposed neo-Nazi terror cell members to flee following a bank robbery. They reportedly committed suicide as police approached and were subsequently held responsible for shooting Michele and her partner, Martin.

In early January 2009, one euro was reported to have been worth 1.3946 dollars. 300,000 euros would thus have been worth 418,380 US dollars.

Reportedly, more than 99 percent of DNA in a human is identical to that in other humans. It is the remaining DNA that provides us with our individuality. The probability of identical DNA being found in two unrelated persons has been estimated to be less than one in a billion.

For readers who enjoy large numbers, average humans have an estimated three billion DNA bases in their genomes.

Thomas Sullivan: IF ONLY…

“Most people are afraid to win.”

You couldn’t have come up with a statement I disagreed with more. It was a time in my life when I could taste world records and Olympic gold in swimming and water polo, and I certainly wasn’t afraid to win. But here was Doc Counsilman, friend and Olympic swimming coach, a man whose empirical judgment I admired profoundly, stating it unequivocally based on his research.

I chewed it up and down and came out with the interpretation that winning means you now have to protect what you’ve won, which puts you on the defensive. Instead of having a goal in front of you, you have a laurel in the rearview mirror to maintain. Big difference in motivation. You’ve gone from a desire for winning to fear of losing. Hence, the fear in the first place that Doc was citing, a sort of fatalistic preview of being “the fastest gun in the West” wherein you can no longer win anything but only try to hang onto your victory, defend your conquest, or just stay alive against all comers.

My analysis back then barely scratched the surface, I believe now. Sure being King of the Mountain is tough, but fear of failure is much more subtle and nuanced than that. It happens at every level of endeavor however small. We indulge that fear in order to defend ourselves against surprise, shock, disappointment. It happens in the minutia of life or on a grand scale that robs us of happiness, careers and relationships. It happens to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, lovers and friends, children, doctors, sales people…it happens to writers. Fear of failure.

I remember when I was pitching Little League baseball, we had a first baseman who would never move in front of a ground ball, never position himself for easy fielding. Instead, he would wait for the ball to reach almost alongside him, then make a spectacular dive for it. He rarely caught anything and sustained a lot of scrapes and bruises, but no one could say he actually failed. He was avoiding a circumstance where he should win – should catch the ball. Instead, he created a circumstance where if he did catch a ball, it was against the odds and therefore a triumph without risk of at-fault failure.

I don’t know if he actually fooled anyone else, but he fooled himself. Probably no one who saw through him wanted to copy that strategy. I know I didn’t. My mind was made up not to be phony in competition or reaching for a goal, not to fear trying. I don’t think this was some sort of philosophical revelation, but it was a key awareness that guided me somewhat randomly into a lot of pluses in my life. Discoveries and adventures followed, avoiding conformity that would lead to mediocrity, not being intimidated out of my dreams, daring to romanticize – all things that disposed me to be a writer and (more importantly) a thinking, creative person. Creative traps like “writer’s block” have never psyched me and my unintimidated imagination seems to be on steroids. But it wasn’t until Doc Counsilman’s research that I extended the “Eureka!” moment of Little League baseball to realize I was the biggest coward in the biggest area of life there is. Because if fear of failure happens to butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, it also happens to romantic idealists.

Trusting love was never on my radar. I’ve written about this before, so I’m not going to go into it again, but there is nothing more vulnerable than a cynic, and the Gods of Irony saw me for what I was and licked their chops. The thing of it is, most people are more sophisticated by the time they play that game. Most people hedge their bets, call up their defenses proactively, put sandbags around their high ground – protect themselves. I was too dumb for that, and so I was failure tested in the extreme – and rewarded in the extreme. And that was the final piece of confirmation I needed to get past fear of failure forever. Because most people are so afraid deep inside that they will fail or that they are unworthy or that they will be hurt, that they effectively block the highest levels of fulfillment, truth and peace within their reach.

There is no downside to failure unless it is the failure to act.

But the failure to act is exactly where most of us go when our dreams are at risk of not coming true. Not by design – no, hardly that. We get to first base, so to speak, and put on the glove, and dive too late to catch the ball. We tell ourselves that the obstacle is outside ourselves, because it is too painful to admit that it is inside ourselves. So it becomes just another hurt we can blame on things beyond our control, another painful experience assaulting our tender hopes in a disappointing world.

We feel we have no control when in fact we do. We revert to instincts that tell us to hunker down and wait until the horrible stress of actually having control becomes moot. While our minds tell us we live secure and free in a modern world, we trust reflexes of caution that are a million years old in evolution to freeze us in place until fate settles it. Unfortunately, there is no expiration date on cautions that once had survival value but are now useless. Worse than useless, they become impediments. If you want to move forward, you have to sort through them and throw them out yourself. Sometimes choice is a choice.

The most common self-destructive obstacle to success I know is something I call the IF ONLY accomplice to fear of failure. If only this hadn’t happened or that, then I would’ve done this or done that. Have you ever known someone who only commits to boldness when it’s too late? Like my first baseman who waited until the ball was about to pass on by, they wait until some effective blockade is in place before they pay lip service to what they would have done IF ONLY? Avoidance, denial, procrastination, rationalization, practicing extinction – these are incestuous kin to IF ONLY. This is guaranteed failure based on the illusion that you cannot lose if you never take life’s chances. Au contraire to that. Failure by omission is failure in the extreme, because it’s the failure that never has to be.

Doc Counsilman had it right. Thanks, Doc, because it’s now a cardinal perspective on people for me, a great truism I accept in principle. I consider fear of failure to be useless, a sure way to become a no-show for your own life, a thing to be conquered. As a writer and a creative person, I’ve learned to turn IF ONLY into WHAT IF. I’m still dumb in a lot of ways, cowardly, but I’m also confident that I can find a workaround to almost any problem, and I know that the way forward will inevitably be IN me – the way I choose to think.

So, did I conquer my own demon? Yes, for a while. And I guess I’d do it again, if only to come to where I am now. Because truth and knowledge are the sole proof I can have that I took the journey. I have won by creatively reaching for the stars. I have avoided losing. My ticket is punched and I am onboard for all points ahead!

Being creative means learning how to seize the initiative. You are, after all, inventing, breaking the mold, filling a void where nothing existed but your vision or dream. Before you can move into the positive territory of actually creating something in life, whether it’s a book or a relationship, you have to eliminate the negative – the fears. But as in everyday living, the human propensity to make gestures of effort without solid commitment is always there, going hand-in-hand with IF ONLY.

A few months ago I posted this quote on Facebook: “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.” – Yoda

How does that comport with my sentiment above that the only failure is the failure to try? It’s a critical distinction that some won’t get, because to “try” is often just a back door to escape, if your heart’s not in it. The absolutes in life are black and white. Try can be tentative, not a commitment but rather a contingency. Decisiveness is what wins the day and makes the play. But its decisiveness to TRY with full honesty and expectation of success, not a gesture of effort to avoid being tested. Ask my first baseman.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

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“I want my life to be extraordinary”

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Just yesterday, flapping around the Web as you do, I tripped across this article

It’a about “anomie”, and they define the term like this:

Anomie, which literally means “without law” in German and French, was defined by Durkheim to be a state of “normlessness.” ….in times of social change and upheaval, clear societal standards and expectations for individuals vanish. Without “clear rules, norms, or standards of value” people feel anxious, rootless, confused, and even suicidal. Life in an age of anomie can often feel empty and meaningless.

Hm.

A little further down, we get this:

I have a friend who is endlessly lamenting that he wants his life “to be extraordinary.” But when I ask him what that means, he shakes his head, and says, “I don’t even know-it’s just this feeling that haunts me all the time.”

Life is a search for meaning. Sometimes, all too often in fact, we don’t even consciously realise that this is what we are doing – but we pursue things, and accomplish things, and aim for things, and want things, that will *add meaning to our lives*. We search out mates we believe will complete us in some deeply esoteric way that we never fully understand (and therefore many of us fail to succeed at this, long-term; the contemporary solution is divorce and a going of separate ways but not THAT long ago divorce was a social stigma one could not easily admit into one’s life and manner of existence and lots of our forebears stuck it out in failed relationships which lasted DECADES…) We choose careers we believe will fulfill us – but for many of us the major choices come at a time when we are still too young to know our own minds, and some of us will wind up going to college, getting multiple degrees in a discipline, and then chafe for years at working under the constraints of that discipline until we either drop in the traces or else find the courage to change horses midstream, as it were, and begin to pursue an existence more congenial to what our adult and fully formed selves find fulfilling as opposed to the callow young things we were at 16 or 18 or even our early twenties.

I don’t completely agree with everything that the article which started me thinking about this actually says. For one thing, it’s from a site which is blatantly called “The Art of Manliness” – and the female experience begins to diverge from that “art” almost immediately. If our grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought for votes, and our sixties-mothers (or ourselves) fought for freedom, those of us walking the Earth today are far from able to bury the weapons and declare the fight over. Far too many of us are still stuck on the “lesser human being” level. Far too many of us are dismissed or denied, our achievements buried, our prospects far less stellar than those of our male counterparts no matter HOW good we are in a discipline shared by both minds.

Take science. How many pre-21st century female scientists of high achievement can you name, off the cuff, just like that, RIGHT NOW? (No, OTHER than Marie Curie…)

Here’s a short list. There have been other worthy candidates added in comments, if you scroll down. How many of those names did you know? How many did you, as your eye slid over them, actually recognise – an “Oh, YEAH” moment – but would not have thought of yourself if you had been asked to give a list of ten names without looking at at encyclopedia or, well, a website?

How about space exploration? How many people know who the Mercury 13 were, and what their aspirations were, and how they ended up? How many female astronauts can you name, even today…?

Take literature. There was ONE Jane Austen. Before they became famous in their own right, the Brontes wrote under male names (Currer Bell, anybody…?)Male names were used to make sure that publishers took their works “seriously” and that the reading public accepted them as being written by the kind of human being who was thought, at the time, to have an actual MIND. Having one of those was frowned on, for a little while at least and in the right circles of society, if you were a girl. Some other 19th century examples of this were Mary Ann Evans (whom you might know better as George Eliot) and a lady who rejoiced in the mouthful of a name that is Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin, Baronne Dudevant (better known as George Sand). Isak Dinesen, who wrote the sublime “Out of Africa”, was actually Karen Blixen. And if you think that we’re past this in the 20th century and even the 21st, we’ve just changed the nature of the beast a little. The Harry Potter stories may or may not have sold like the hot cakes they did if the author’s name on the cover was JOANNE Rowling rather than J.K. – and there are lots and lots of examples of those “ungendered” author names out there (D.C. Fontana, S.E. Hinton, J.A. Jance… I’m sure you can add to this list without too much trouble…)

All of these women wanted their lives to be… well… extraordinary. And all of them were to a greater or lesser degree tramelled by the “normalcy” of their times.

It is far more acceptable today than it has ever been before in herstory (the female version of HIStory) that a woman has a vocation which she can turn into a career – that a woman can work at a job because she wishes to do so and not because it’s a minimum wage sloggery thing that she is forced to do because her children are starving – but even so there are invisible strings attached, and the glass ceiling has a nice hard crack on it, perhaps even large enough for a few to crawl through, but it is very much still there for the rest. And a woman really DOES have to be twice as good and work twice as hard to be considered half as good as a man, in many disciplines. I’m lucky enough, myself, to be born into a time where the idea of a woman writing a book is not as actively foreign as it used to be – if I had been born in the times of an Emily Bronte I too might have put my hair up under a cloth cap and found a boy’s name and soldiered on incognito. My life might have been extraordinary, in those terms, but it would have been a life that would not, in a certain sense, have been my own. It would have been borrowed, it would have been stolen, it would have been faked.

But it doesn’t have to translate into a stellar accomplishment of any sort at all, really. If I say I want my life to be extraordinary… well… I just mean that I want it to touch other lives, in some meaningful way. In my own case, I may do this through the books I write, and my life is filled with extraordinary moments – every time I get someone walking up to me at a con, or writing me an email, and telling me that they loved something I wrote and that it had changed them in whatever small way it was able to do this, that’s a luminous and extraordinary moment for me, and I string them down my days and my years like pearls and wear them proudly. But some people are gifted enough for their mere presence, for the brushing past of another’s existence in whatever minute manner that might be, to be extraordinary – for them to be remembered, for them to be loved. I could not go to my grandmother’s funeral – it was in another country from the one where I was living at the time that she died, on another continent. But I saw the pictures from it. Her casket was surrounded by people, by people who mourned her loss, the fact that she was no longer amongst them. Everyone came, everyone whose lives she had been even the tiniest part of. People whose only link to her might have been a conversation. But she was that kind of woman. She existed, and her mere existence made her life extraordinary.

I would do well to accomplish half that much.

I want my life to be extraordinary. I’ve filled it with love, and with rich experience, and with books and with a sense of wonder; it now remains to translate that, to transmute it, to leave it behind in some tangible or intangible form – a book, or a memory – and to enrich someone else’s life with a sliver of it, a kernel, a piece of grit, something around which they can build their own pearl.

I want my life to be extraordinary.

I guess I will never know if I fully succeeded in achieving that. Nobody is given to do that – the verdict on a life well lived often comes way too late for the one who did the living of it to know. But some day, somewhere, I want somebody… to remember my name with love. THAT would make for an extraordinary life. That alone. Right there.