We have all been there – a party, a picnic, a neighborhood event and you are suddenly engaged in a “conversation” that is little more than an ongoing monologue for the other party.
Someone has cornered you into a diatribe that seems to have little to do with you, your interests, or who you are. You never get a word in edgewise and find yourself praying to be summoned to another room or hoping that your cell phone will ring (hint – in a jam just pretend it vibrated). You probably have, half out of politeness and half out of empathy, nodded or smiled from time to time. You realize that this is regrettably some validation or encouragement, but you do so nonetheless. The speaker is unable to discern from any variety of your gestures and mannerisms that you have absolutely no interest in what he (or she) is saying.
Come now, “The Convo Meter!” This is a devise that could be quietly distributed at parties to all guests by our host or hostess ( so as to avoid any suggestion of favoritism). It is a small electronic sensor worn around the neck with tiny directional microphones. It would be programmed with the simple logic that a conversation should be a 50/50 proposition. It monitors incoming and outgoing words. In the ideal conversation, its “needle” would hover around the middle – indicating a true exchange of thoughts, words, and ideas. 60/40, perhaps even 65/35 would be tolerable (this should be a program options). However, as the conversation tilts inexorably towards the relentless verbal domination of the wearer, a series of escalating warnings would alert this drone that the conversation is unbalanced, and had better shut up, listen a little, or simply disengage. Much like a collar for a wireless dog fence, the first cue could be a tone audible only to the wearer, the next, perhaps a vibration, finally absent any signs of relenting, our orator will be delivered an electric shock of sufficient severity to stun him for several seconds and allow his long-suffering silent partner to quietly slip away. Perhaps the shock could be directed so as to temporarily stun the wearer’s vocal apparatus itself – another tech issue.
Anyway just a passing thought. Do you think I would need FDA approval
for this? Cheers.
In my second book, subtitled, Helping Children Overcome Prejudice (publisher’s subtitle, not mine), I wrote about a herd of dinosaurs that learned to accept outwardly different dinosaurs into their herd. With the benefit of some reflection, I have come to think that although prejudice is by no means a virtue, it is only when coupled with arrogance that it is truly a danger. A dear departed friend extolled the virtue of “taking a second look” at a person beyond our first, or even lasting, impression. It is only through such a second look that we can truly overcome prejudice.
One could argue that the human animal was somewhat programmed for prejudice. We evolved in a predator-filled environment in which snap decisions and action may have actually been an evolutionary advantage. Now we have perhaps evolved to the point where open minds and flexible thinking is the far greater advantage. In my immediate past blog, I described an encounter on a subway in which my own prejudices were dramatically overturned by a second look. It may be that we will never truly stamp out prejudice, but perhaps a dose of rationale thought and humility with which we can quickly discard our prejudicial presumption is good enough. Think of any person or organization that perpetuates hate and prejudice. You are sure to find a thoughtless creature that couples its prejudice with a mind of arrogant inflexibility – no second look there. Absent arrogance, prejudice cannot really take hold.
We’ve all heard of writers block. I offer a solution – slow down and observe. You will find stories everywhere and drama everywhere, and even the occasional truly life-changing moment. I call them “magic moments,” a small seemingly inconsequential event that shakes you to the core, causes you to rethink your conceptions, (really misconceptions), and in which your mind is suddenly opened to new, maybe even wonderful, possibilities. I had such a moment on a New York subway of all places.
At the time, I was a partner in a prestigious law firm taking the number Five train from Grand Central to Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. The New York subway is a great equalizer. It is quick and affordable transportation used by all. One could say that, at least by outward appearance and “station,” I was toward the top of the subway food chain. I wore a suit, carried a Coach brief case, and made my living in comfortable confines of a major law firm, in a large office, behind a big wooden desk. I attended “partner lunches” and committee meetings; I travelled internationally; I made arguments in court; I held prestigious positions in the American Bar Association; I lived in the suburbs; if I worked late, I took a car service home. Pretty good right?
As was usual for the downtown ride, I entered a packed train and stood holding onto a post in the subway car. At Fourteenth Street, Union Square, there was a mass exodus. Several seats opened, I sat down, continuing to read a magazine. From the corner of my eye, I saw someone enter the car. He squeezed into the space next to me. He was a homeless person. He wore and old pair of filthy sneakers, torn dirty jeans, a blackened t-shirt, the remnants of an overcoat, and he stunk. He stunk of body order, urine, and heaven knows what else. In 70’s rock parlance, “Aqualung” had boarded the train.
I was immediately uncomfortable and disturbed. Should I get up? Would that be an insult? Might that provoke this wretch sitting next to me? My stop could not come soon enough. I immediately did what I think many of us do at times like this. I mentally began to distinguish myself from the “bum” sitting next to me. He had to be flawed, lesser, maybe bad, or even “evil.” He could only be in his situation if he was in some way lesser than me – a lesser person. And in this, I found comfort. I was somehow “elevated” by this stranger’s demise. I had more, because I deserved to have more. I was better, smarter, cleaner, and certainly nicer. In the space of the few minutes between Fourteenth Street and Brooklyn Bridge, I had constructed my own social order, with me nearly near the top, where I “deserved to be.”
Ah, Brooklyn Bridge, just one more stop and I can extricate myself from this trap. He has not said a word, asked me for money; just sit there – so far so good!
Finally, my stop, Fulton Street. I rose from my seat and proceeded toward the opening door. Then, I felt it, what I dreaded, a tug on my suit jacket. It could only be “the bum.” It was him of course. I turned. I anticipated only the worst. Did he want money? Would he curse me? Maybe try to provoke me? Almost reflexively, I reached into my trouser pocket in the hope that a few coins would make him go away. Our eyes met (his were bright startling blue), and he said in gentle voice, “sir, your phone.” And in his outstretched hand was my cell phone. It had slipped out of my pocket as I sat. He handed it to me with a wide, largely toothless smile. My eyes were suddenly opened. In that instant the kindness and gentleness of this stranger washed over me and through me. I experienced a simultaneous rush of joy and shame. I managed to blurt out a quick “thanks” and hurried off the train.
In that one or two seconds of interaction - three words and a smile - every supposition and arrogant assumption that had lofted me through my ride downtown came crumbling from beneath me. They were all wrong. A person I had moments ago relegated to subhuman status was instantly revealed to me as strikingly real, feeling, human, and humane. He certainly was nice; me, maybe not so much? How could anyone” nice” so easily disdain another on appearance alone? It was all at once a terrifying and wonderful revelation.
I could close this anecdote with countless quotations and clichés about books and covers, judging not lest we be judged, etc. Suffice it to say that this lesson will never leave me. My eyes had been opened to new possibilities and my heart opened to compassion – and in what seemed to be the most unlikely of places. It was a truly wonderful and magical moment. So before we relegate any person to some lesser status by some notion of worth or station, remember:
It may be that in the sight of Heaven, you [or I or we] are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child
A Few Writing Tips
from Rick Alimonti
If you are taking the time to read this; thank you! I would like to share with you some writing tips and techniques that work for me. I hope you find them useful.
1. Develop and keep your own style. We are all influenced by what we read. There are volumes of books the purport to tell us “how to” write. Although they are not without their value, they must all be taken with a grain of salt. For example, I like to use repetition in some of my writing. It establishes a rhythm, and then tension when the rhythm is broken. These excerpts from The Fix-It Shop illustrate.
In the first excerpt, our character, who cannot walk without crutches, wonders about his family’s true thoughts about him after they have gone to his brother’s little league game. I use “he wondered” repeatedly to set a rhythm.
Tommy wondered if perhaps deep down his family preferred not to have him along. He wondered if he was really a burden. He wondered if it was awkward for them to watch Jake sprint around the bases and to cheer for Jake while he sat there with them in his wheelchair like a stone. He wondered if his family might feel free to cheer a little louder and a little longer when the “family cripple” was not with them.
In this second excerpt, our character practices piano. I use “he played” in a similar manner. Note how this phrase repeats until the final sentence, at which time the break in the rhythm at “And as he played it . . . “ adds emphasis.
His eyes remained closed, and the music flowed through him; his only conscious thoughts were of emotion, memories, images, and sounds. He played to the rhythm and creaks of the swing in the yard as Dad pushed Jamie back and forth, to the hiss and thud of the metal press in Dad’s shop, and to his annoyance at Jake and his teenage friends. He played the smell of his favorite dinner wafting out the open window in summer and the thunder of the airplanes that used to fly over the house. He even played the silence in the sky now that they were gone. He played sadness, his sadness as he watched the world revolve around him from his wheeled prison. And as he played it, his sadness left him. It left him as if it had run into the piano, through the strings, and into thin air.
In both instances, editors and publishers wanted to delete the repetition. I refused, and I stand by my decision. I think the repetition works.
2. Write for yourself. Although I suppose someone could create a composite of what makes a book sell well and produce a series of cookie-cutter successes, this is not what writing is about. It is only in finding joy in your writing that you can then share it with your reader. If you are writing for your reader rather than yourself, it will not be genuine, and it will not work. That is not to say that you should ignore your reader as you write. In fact, engineering ways to manipulate and intrigue your reader are critical to telling a good story. However, the heart of your writing must be the story you want to tell. You must, first and foremost, write from your heart and mind in a manner that is pleasing to you.
3. Write about what you know. Unless you feel compelled to write a story from another time and place (See tip 2), you will be much more productive if you draw upon your own life and experiences in your writing. If you, like me, have limited time to write and other jobs and avocations, than you probably really need to write – not research your writing - when the time allows. We all have a wealth of life experience and memories on which to draw. Enjoy them, add imagination, embellish, add mystery, tension, intrigue, fantasy, and you will have a story.
4. Just Write! You may have some time to write and nothing to write or say – the oft-cited “Writers Block.” Don’t “skip it,” waiting for inspiration. Sit down with a pad, computer, whatever, and just write. It can be notes, jottings, themes, anecdotes. Eventually something will grab you, and the writing will follow. Write when time allows; something good will come of it!
5. Capture your thoughts. I wish I did this more myself. Almost every day, elements of stories and themes for stories surround us. We are surrounded by joy, tragedy, humor, and irony. We observe these dramas daily. Much like the dream we are sure we will recall in the morning, if we do not write record these items, we will lose them. Many cell phones have a memo or note feature. Just a few words will preserve these thoughts and they will be there for you when following tip four.
6. Know Grammar. Take the time to study proper grammar. There are really not that many rules, but adhering to them will make you a better writer. Also, no agent, publisher, or even reader will give much thought to a manuscript replete with errors.
7. Love Editing! What? Did he say love editing!? You bet. Your story is done – maybe even in the second or third draft. Can it be better? In addition to grammar checks, does your prose soar? Do you love every word? Can your sentences be improved? Made crisper, cleaner? Samuel Clemens said it best: The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
One thing to really look for is overuse of adverbs. With such a rich variety of verbs available, we can often dispense with adverbs. Why run quickly, when we can “dash” or “dart” or “speed.?” Why “think long and hard” when you can “obsess?”