The Virtue of Trick Questions

My maternal grandparents are sales people.  Literally.  The story of how they met and got together is an epic about travelling magazine salesmen, complete with loved-and-lost-and-found-again elements, nefarious sales managers, and buying a top of the line car with coupons they’d been trading for while on the road.  As I get older, I get more and more details, and it becomes more and more obvious how very much I’m cut from the same mold.  I’m sales-people, too.  I’ve already got enough hind-sight to look back and things and go, “Yeah, that there should have been a clue.  This is just how my brain works.”

I’m also very much a writer, but that’s not something I had to figure out.  It just was.  I have never at  any point seriously contemplated making my living off writing – I enjoy it far too much to turn it into work – but the fact that my brain is wired like a writer’s has always been something I’ve known.

What’s fascinating is looking at how the two things feed and reinforce each other.  I go about being a particular kind of sales person because it’s what appeals to my sense of narrative, to my expectations about how the series of anecdotes that collect together to form the story of my life ought to go.  And I approach writing in a certain way because it’s how my brain assesses the world.  I’m sensitive to a certain kind of problem, and prone to a particular tack for solutions.  Which details are salient to me, which questions are important, how the consequences of a thing play out, my instincts for them are all completely warped by my sales brain.

Here’s an example: I spent a lot of time in high school figuring out where I was going to go to college.  A whole lot of time.  I got serious about the search in sophomore year, and did a tour of nearly a dozen colleges the summer after.  (This was also, conveniently, a tour of hitting all my relatives flung across the coastal Southern states.)  This was great, because it meant that when I figured out that my initial assumptions about what a college I wanted to go to looked like were HORRIBLY WRONG, I had plenty of time to start over and try again.  But it also meant I got really, really good at the college interview process.

Before the Great Southern College Tour, I read up on what one should do when touring colleges and having admissions interviews.  One bit of advice was always that you should have questions specific to the school to ask.  For most of the schools I didn’t really have any specific questions – they were sorta all the same on paper and I lacked all kinds of information for establishing a baseline that I’d need to think of questions.  So instead I came up with one question I’d ask every school.  And then, in my College Spreadsheet of Doom, which I’d developed with a detailed scoring rubric (I was considering about 130 schools at one point), I had a column for recording how colleges did on that question.  It was pass or fail, and worth more points than any single other criteria other than the “Fuzzy gut instinct” column.  One college passed (University of Chicago).  One got partial credit (Queens in NC).  The rest were dismal failures.

This was the question: What do you think of Charles Dickens?

This was a malicious trick question.  “I like him,” is the wrong answer.  “I don’t like him,” equally wrong.  Responding to the question as if I care at all about Charles Dickens is the wrong answer.  The right answer was to use that as an opportunity to talk about English Professor X, or required course Y, or Program Z, or, really, in any way tie the question into an opportunity to talk about something that person liked about the school.  The wording of the question is about a verbose British hack with inconsistent quality that should have prepared us for the way Stephen Moffat likes to abuse us, but what it’s really asking is, “Tell me what’s awesome about you and why.”

You can’t, of course, just ask them that question.  They think they’ve answered it already with their brochures and their prepared spiel.  But that’s marketing.  It’s bunk.   I didn’t care about their marketing.  I wanted them to sell me their school.  I wanted to know, not just that they loved it, but that they loved it for reasons that would appeal to me, too.  I needed to know that the school had enough sincere advocates on hand to train the ones who were good at it into being their recruiters.  In short, I wanted a look at how the sausage of their sales department was made.  It’s the question you ask the customer to get the answer you really need, instead of the one you ask to have them regurgitate what they think they want.

But it’s also a question that delves into the narrative of the school.  Every school has story it tells about itself, and identify for what it thinks it is or aspires to be.  The marketing brochure is the “As you know, Bob,” exposition.  The malicious trick question is the natural point you look for to demonstrate your world-building and character development.  Give your customers the opportunity to accidentally tell you what you need to know.  Give your characters the opportunity to show the reader who they are and how the world they live in works.

Whichever brain you’re using, sales or writing, always look for opportunities to ask trick questions.  And really listen to your answers, and what the answers tell you.

FogCon 2013: The Report

I am home.  I have even been to bed.  It’s wacky.

The short of it is that FogCon was great and I had a great time.  I was also on OMG all the programming ever.  So of course I liked it, because there are few things more fun than making people listen to me talk getting to connect with new, cool people and share conversations with them.

I went to the “Will the ticking bomb go off?” panel and enjoyed it a great deal.  The answer, as expected, was “Yes, in the scenario as constructed, it will.”  More entertaining for me was that about a third of the way through the panel I go, “You know, military interrogation sounds an awful lot like my sales process.”  Two-thirds of the way through the panel Terry Karney, the military interrogator on it, mentions that it’s hard not to buy knives from him. Take that, used car salesmen.

Charismatic Criminals went quite well which, as my first stint at moderating a panel, pleased me.  I made it most of the way before ordering everybody to go watch Luther.  We developed consensus that Lady de Winter is kickass and we’d like more characters like her.  One of my panelists was actually better prepared than me, having printed out the questions I’d sent them as “I’ll probably do something that looks vaguely like this” and developed researched answers for them.

Friday night involved me staying up in the consuite chatting with folk until the clock said it was my usual bedtime.  Since I was in California it was rather significantly past my usual bedtime, and I was concerned about the likelihood of me behaving, er, unprofessionally before my morning panel next day.  So I did something very uncharacteristic and was among the first to go to bed.  The universe did not implode.  There was rejoicing.

The Spec Fic singularity panel was pleasantly lively.  I simultaneously argued that there does, in fact, exist a cannon, while arguing that it can’t be definitively listed and nobody should feel obligated to read it.  There was a bit of push back on the first point, but mostly we all agreed that there are a ton of good books we want to read.

That was followed the Anarchists in Spaaaace panel.  This conversation wandered widely, and didn’t really dig into the bits of it I think it needed to.  Mostly there was a lot of unchecked idealism that I wanted to pull apart and destroy explore further, but there wasn’t time.  Also, this panel had me doing the thing I sometimes do on panels where I want the table to be a bit curved so I can see the other panelists without craning my neck.  Then again, my sofa is curved.  I’m strange.

Where Do I hold my Virtual Sit-in was probably my favorite panel.  There was really good discussion about the nature and tools of protest, the ethics, and the efficacy.  The moderating, Naamen Tilahun, is such a genuinely nice guy that I got to be an insensitive asshole and look like I was just providing balance, rather than being me.  Then again, Nancy Jane Moore ended the panel saying she felt reassured about the current state of protest than she had at the outset, which leaves me thinking I did something wrong.

My last panel (yeah, there’s another one) was the Liar’s panel, which I got put on mid-day to fill in for a panelist who might not be able to make it, who then showed up anyway.  I had no idea what a Liars panel was, but the part where everybody who did went, “Oh yeah, you should do that,” was a little telling.  I did an awful lot of talking about cannibalism and my practices thereof.  There was a point where I was clinging to Vylar Kaftan for protection from Ellen Klages.  There was another point where Vylar was fishing a paper lobster from Ellen’s pants.  I offered a twelve-year-old heroine and her dad didn’t call the cops.  You now know as much about how a Liar’s panel works as I do.

Saturday night featured soaking in the hotel hot tub after running off very drunk high school baseball players with out-loud readings of atrociously bad sex scenes.  I’m pretty sure I get karmic credit for participating in that.

Sunday was a long day.  I had my reading with David Levine and Nancy Jane Moore.  There were three other people in the audience, all of whom were brilliant, attractive people destined for happiness and success.  The cookies were, as expected, still moist and tasty.  There were also just a wee bit spicier than I’m used to them being – I’ve curried peanut butter cookies before, but they’ve never had the opportunity to age four days.  I was a fan of the results.  If the part where not even the crumbs came home with me is any evidence, so were other people.

There was more hanging out in the consuite, followed by dinner (Pho!) followed by packing and chatting with Gary Kloster, my roommate for the weekend.  Then I caught a plane, flew home, and worked a fuller-than-usual Monday.  So, technically, I think FogCon went until about 12:08am CST, Tuesday morning, because that’s when I finally went to bed.  Or maybe that’s not how it works.  I can’t tell, my eyes are bloodshot and full of sand. I think that’s a sign of virtue.  Or an awesome con.

2012 Reviewed

I think it’s safe to say that 2012 will go down as one of the more bipolar, crazy-inducing years I’ve experienced.  I started the year with, effectively, four jobs, two of which made me actively miserable, one which I liked a whole lot, one which I find satisfying, one of which paid, one of which was actively costing me money, and all of which wanted slightly more time than I actually had.  I knew I was being crazy, but the things I wanted to get rid of to make it work weren’t things I could get rid of, and, well, I didn’t want to get rid of the other things.

June brought the deeply uncomfortable realization that I am, apparently, the sorest, most taking-it-personal loser on the planet.  I still haven’t blogged follow-up thoughts about the Recall, because I still can’t do it without descending into a frothy rage that’ll get the FBI sent after me.  I can, at least, be near people talking about politics without needing to flee the room or start eviscerating people.  That’s progress.

I sold five stories, joined SFWA, developed a reputation in the office for properties selling after I host Open Houses there, went to four conventions, met a ton of people, almost sold a novel, and invented the coolest job on the planet just in time to take it over.  Also, learned a ton of Spanish, started more seriously dabbling in CS, cooked a lot, cuddled my cat a ton, and got my book-to-shelf ratio balanced.

My sister got married.  What the hell, guys?  My baby sister got married.

I’ve been to New Hampshire, D.C., Richmond (and several other bits of Virginia), Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Toronto, and vast swaths of Argentina.  I took pictures of a lot of it.  I got much better at taking pictures.  I also ate lots of fantastic things.

But this was also the year I kinda noticed that my grandparents are not still the immortal fifty-something’s they are in my head, and they haven’t been for a long time.  Even Grannie, who has never struck me as young, seems to have leveled-up, and watching her watching her sisters deteriorate is rather existentially terrifying.  This rather culminated when Christmas waged it’s ugly head, again, and I got the news that my favorite uncle was in the hospital.  It took three people to convince me that just because I was rational enough to know I was panicking didn’t mean that my decision to give in to said panic was, in fact, rational.  He’s fine, and I get the sense most people are confused about why I freaked out.  It was all in the context.

In the end, I can’t really say I liked 2012.  I didn’t.  I hated whole swaths of it a lot.  There are bits of 2012 I would gladly burn to the ground, and cackle while doing it.  But there was plenty of good mixed in, so the year wasn’t a loss or a waste.  Just a transition.  An ugly, graceless transition, but a necessary one.  The prognosis for 2013 is favorable.  Probably not awesome, but that’s okay.  ‘Pleasant’ sounds really good.


Just about a year ago I mentioned that, in hopes of finding people with whom to play board games and gossip publishing, I’d joined OkCupid.  I figure now’s as good a time as any to share how that’s been working.

First of all, the “Reply to all messages, but honestly,” policy was a really, really good idea.  The only time I didn’t follow it was in the case of somebody who’s profile indicated that my honest reply might provoke to suicide, so I opted to ignore them instead.  My favorite interaction from the whole year goes something like this.

Message From SomeGuyInIllinois: Hey, you look interesting.  Tell me something profound that won’t strike me as cheesy…at least until later.

Reply from Me: Why?  Did I check the dancing monkey box in my profile?

Reply from SomeGuyInIllinois: Touché.

The first couple months I wound up eating a lot of ice cream with strangers. Then I got bored of eating ice cream with strangers and stopped engaging people I didn’t actually have any interest in meeting.

Successes include meeting somebody who’s not a particularly good match, but sent me a message effectively saying, “I think your career path looks a lot like mine, except you’re a year ahead of me.  Crib notes, please?”  He’s an awesome business contact, as it turns out, and has a social circle eerily parallel to the one I already had.  So that magically doubled my pool of people to play board games with.  Win!

Lessons people should take away from my experience:

1) Do not message somebody multiple times before they respond, especially not if they’re marked as a frequent responder.  It makes you look creepy and obsessed.

2) Do not message somebody with a giant form message where you answer a bunch of questions they didn’t ask, then ask a bunch of questions they may well have answered in their profile.  If you must do this, the appropriate response when the person replies, “Er, a form, really?  Doesn’t the note about how just saying we have x in common, let’s hang out will probably work lower the bar enough?” is not, “I DIDN’T REALIZE I HAD TO CONFORM TO YOUR SPECIAL STRIDENT STANDARDS!!”

3) Seriously, people.  You have the big profile and answer all the questions for a reason.  “X is the reason I think interacting is worth your while.  Let’s itneract,” is nearly always sufficient.

4) Don’t ask people personal questions when you haven’t filled out your profile at all.  Don’t reply when they point out that you haven’t filled out your profile at all saying that you’re uncomfortable sharing personal information with strangers on the internet.  It’s rude and hypocritical and apparently provokes me to unkindness.

This biggest thing I’ve learned, though, is that my social life did not collapse when half my friends went back to jobs requiring them to travel for work during the week.  Having four jobs up until June helped – I’m still doing a bit of adjusting to actually having enough time since things have gotten whittled down to sanity.  I’ve effectively been ignoring OkCupid since February, unless somebody sends me a message.  The creepy-worthwhile ratio is started to get pretty whacked out on that, so I’m lifting my “must respond” policy.  I mean, I could keep taunting strangers, but meh.  They’re getting repetitive.

In summary, a totally worthwhile experiment, and “Joined a dating site to look for friends,” gets to go in the wacky-ideas-that-panned-out column.  Also, done now.

Open House Hilarity, or Why I Have Super Powers

Yesterday was a Sunday which meant that, as is common on Sundays, I hosted an Open House.  I did this even though it was over 95 degrees outside and my big, metal, Open House signs are all black.  I did this despite the cloudless sky blasting radiation directly from an unshielded reactor at me.  I did it despite the very real opportunity to just sit at home in the A/C and read.

This is where you offer me a cookie for being a dedicated, hard worker.

I was under the impression that not only was I being particularly diligent in daring the misery that is this particular summer, but I was far more punctual and organized than usual, actually leaving the house when I always mean to as opposed to running back six times for things I’ve forgotten.  This was nice, because it meant I could ponderously contemplate where exactly in the intersections I wanted to put my various signs from the comfort of my air conditioned car, without worrying that I was going to miss people showing up on time or early for the Open House.  This happens.  On my particularly frazzled Sundays, they’ll be the only people who show up at all.

Generally I host from 1-3.  This is a consequence of my arcane deduction that any earlier means I have to set an alarm to make sure I’m up in time to get ready, and any later means I’ll start doing something before hand and potentially get distracted.  Other people check sporting event schedules or whatnot and adjust accordingly.  That’s nice for them; I refuse to let sports dictate my life even in this.

Thankfully, the property I was hosting at wasn’t vacant, so the owners had their A/C running and the place was comfortable when I got there.  I set to, turning on lights, opening doors, making sure I knew all the details of the layout, confirming the total absence of ghosts or dead bodies.  I also did the more mundane things like pre-heating the oven for my batch of “You’ll like me because I fed you,” cookies, putting out a sign-in sheet and info booklets, and hiding my bag of holding Realtor stuff.

The oven beeped to announce it was finished pre-heating right at 1pm.  This is exactly the timing I want on all of my Open Houses, and I rarely manage it, so I was feeling smug.  (My ability to angst over sign visibility is a little absurd.  Or a lot absurd.  I may be absurd.)  I take the oven handle in one hand, preparing to release a blast of 375° into the cute little kitchen, steel myself for the inferno, and…the handle falls off.

And then the door falls apart.

Enter a pair of buyers.

I’m also diligent enough that I don’t cuss in front of strangers while working.  Barely.  I put the cookie sheet back on the stove, throw my hands into the air, then run to the door to say “Hi.”  It’s a first time buyer there with her parents.  They’d like to tour the townhouse on their own then ask me questions after.  That’s great.  I tell them that starting with the basement and checking out the garage would be awesome.  They go as directed and I run back to the kitchen.  Maybe elves have come by and fixed it, or possibly I’m suffering heat stroke and it was a hallucination.

Nope, the oven is still very much, very obviously, falling apart.

Quick investigation reveals that a single screw is responsible for holding both halves of the door and the handle in place, at all one point, and this particular screw has fallen out and become trapped between pieces of the door.  All I have to do is fish it out, push everything together, and screw it back in.

Remember how I was miraculously more organized than usual, and didn’t have to run back to the house for the six things I forgot?  Yeah, that wasn’t because I didn’t forget anything, but because I didn’t remember them at all.  Among the things I did not bring.

1) A plate for the finished cookies.  No biggie, I can use one of the owners.

2) A spatula for transferring the cookies to the plate.  No biggie, my fingers are not so delicate that they can’t handle a hot-potato relocation.

3) An oven mitt.  No biggie I can…er…oh dear.

Did you know that I can fish a 375° screw out of an oven door with my finger nails without audible cussing?  Me either!

The basement and garage were truly fascinating, but let’s face it, you can only stare at a utility room and an empty 2 car garage for so long.  The buyers were upstairs again, and it was time for them to check out the kitchen, complete with busted oven and lamentably unbaked cookies hanging out on the counter.  I got out of their way, fielded questions about the cabinets, and confirmed that yes, all the bedrooms are upstairs.  Would they like to go see the bedrooms?  They would.  No, they don’t want me to come along, they’ll be back in a moment.

Take your merry time.

I actually do keep a screw driver in my bag of holding Realtor stuff.  It doesn’t have a tiny hex head, though, so it was useless.  Cue more fingernail action.  People don’t believe when I say I keep my fingernails long because they’re more useful that way.  Believe me.

Whether the buyers noticed the oven door hanging open, it’s handle dragging on the floor, I’ll never know.  I had the oven fixed by the time they left and well before the next group showed up.  The cookies baked very nicely, and, because this is the fate of Open House cookies, got fed to my roommates and crit group later that night.  (Hey, I need them to like me, too.)

I share this story with you not because everybody seems to get a perverse joy out of watching things go wrong for me, but because there’s an important moral I want you to take away from it.  The moral is this: When you’re planning to sell your house, fix your damn oven!

Those People

“I just don’t understand how somebody could do that.”

I was sixteen, in San Francisco for the first time, and having my first experience with modern hippies.  Or the children of former hippies, at least.  We were talking about Nazis, and Hitler, like all sixteen year old girls do when hanging out in the Sunshine State.

“I can,” I said.  “You’re miserable.  The people you care about are miserable.  People you don’t like, or don’t value, or feel threatened by have what looks like happiness, or the means to happiness, so you take it.  It makes sense.”

I got answered with an uncomfortable stare.  “But that’s evil.”

“So? The part that doesn’t make sense is when they started wholesale killing people.  Slaves are so much more useful than corpses.  That’s the sort of insanity that made the Nazis a special type of bad guy.”

The conversation about Nazis didn’t last much longer than that.

People love talking about Nazis, though, because just about everybody agrees that they are teh mega evils.  I do not disagree.  But they are not inexplicable.  To claim they are you have to make assumptions about the basic decency, inherent compassion, and inner nobility of humans that just aren’t true and shouldn’t last past about the time you quit believing in Satan Claus.  People aren’t inherently nasty and brutish, either – if we were, nasty brutality wouldn’t bother us so much.  People are people, and that means they have things about which they care and things about which they don’t, and they are particularly pliable and prone to self-justification when those things interact.

That was the first time I can remember being startled by somebody not being able to wrap their head around somebody else having a different fundamental moral premise for a situation.  “Maybe it’s because I like writing villains,” I thought.  But then again, why do I like writing villains?  “Maybe it’s because she likes the people where she’s grown up.”  That probably had something to do with it.  “Maybe this is just one of those things where I grew up faster than my peers.”  I’ve been getting told I have the soul of a  bitter old woman since I was four.  That was probably it.

Except I’m older now, and so is everybody I spend my time with, and I still hear it all the time.

“Why don’t those people understand that they’re working against their own interests.”

“Somebody who could say or think that is dangerously insane.”

“Those people are evil.”

And always, a little proud, capped off, “I don’t understand it.”

You know what?  That’s okay when you’re sixteen.  It’s forgivable when you’re twenty.  After that, grow the fuck up.  You are not special because you can’t understand people who don’t think like you.  Not getting it doesn’t make you better than them.  Even if when you label them evil, insane, or stupid, there is no virtue in being baffled.  They understand where they’re coming from, and your confusion doesn’t bother them one whit.  If they really are dangerous and threatening, your confusion helps them, because it means they can surprise you.  When you declare that you don’t understand and expect a pat on that back, what you’ve done is say, “I’m a moron and deserve what I get.”

When you don’t bother to understand them, it means you don’t see the difference between the “freedom fighters” who want to reclaim their homeland and will stop being a problem once they do, and the imperialists who want to have everything.  It means you appease when you should resist, or resist when you should compromise.  It means you have no baseline, no strategy, just a bunch of insipid emotional flailing that gets us nowhere.

“Those people.”  They’re people.  Deal.

Understanding Ursula

It is no secret that from about 1990-1993, I was completely obsessed with The Little Mermaid.    The movie I adored wasn’t quite the movie Disney actually made, but that’s okay.  I’d be a very different person if I were somebody who was obsessed with the canonical version of the movie.  Married, even.

One day, while relating the fascinating plot of this most fascinating of movies to my Dad, who’d probably heard me do this a thousand times and was getting bored of it, he took out is frustration in a very Dad-typical way: he played devil’s advocate.

“So then Ariel goes to Ursula, the evil sea witch…” enthused little Anaea.

“Wait a minute.  Ursula wasn’t evil,” my dad said.

“Yes she was,” I say, stunned because, sure, I’m telling him the story, but I know he’s seen the movie and heard me do this a thousand times.  Also, I know my Dad is far too young to be senile.  Thus, I am very confused at his failure to remember this vital plot detail.

“Ursula was the victim.”

He then goes on to point out that Ursula was, for no known reason, banished to the ugly bits of the ocean, where she hung out doing her own thing.  Then Ariel went to her, made a deal, reneged when it didn’t go the way she wanted, and killed Ursula.  Ursula had been oppressed, then robbed, then murdered for trying to defend her interests.  I was cheering for the wrong team.

This had a rather profound effect on me.  I probably would have wound up obsessed with villains anyway, but we’ll never know.

I was really proud of myself when I rewatched it on a whim many years later, then went back to Dad with arguments about contracts pertaining to contraband being unenforceable, illegal manipulation of a minor, and both party consent being required for contract modification.  “You’re still upset about that?” my Dad asked.  “That was a long time ago.”

Last Wednesday I watched Dark Knight with some of my friends.  It’s my go-to feel good movie, and also holds the record for the most number of times I’ve seen a movie in the theater.  (Five.  I was having a bad year.  I needed a feel good movie)  We get to the scene where Alfred wisely opines to Bruce, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

My friends stared at me rather pointedly.  “Yes,” I said.  “I know exactly how they feel.”

When I get a story handed to me, and the story says, “Here are the good guys and the bad guys.  The good guys do this, the bad guys do that.  End of story,” I don’t just accept that anymore.  In the final assessment, Ursula was wrong, but that wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as it appeared to be.  Good vs evil is, to me, a fundamentally boring story.  Nobody is evil just cuz, and the truly pure, innocent good guys are generally impractical morons.  The dichotomy is pure fantasy, an expression of our desire to have things be simple and get a reassurance that since there are only two sides, and we’re not the bad guys, we must be the good guys.

It’s also really boring.

There’s a theme to this week’s entries, but it hasn’t quite crystallized in my head yet.  This is definitely the starting place, though.  Hopefully I’ll have figured out where I’m going by the time I get there.

My Baby Sister, Married

One of my duties as my sister’s Maid of Honor was to give a toast during the reception.  This is the draft of my toast I wrote up ahead of time as insurance against rambling or being dull.  I think the actual toast I gave was funnier, but that could have just been because the audience had three hours of drinking under their belts by the time I started.

About twenty-three years ago, Pappa made a huge mistake. He handed me a tiny, cold, lonely thing whose two primary modes of communication were to scream and to smell bad. “This is your baby sister,” he said. “You have to look after her.”

This was a mistake because he should have known that I am not good at sharing my things. My. Baby sister. Pappa, you created a monster.


That makes it rather appropriate that the first words Bobby heard from me went something like, “Hello, defiler of my sister’s virtue and chastity.” He was borrowing my sister, and I did not approve. That’s why he was really thrilled a few months later when he found out I was coming to visit her.

“You do realize he’s not any taller than you, right?” I said after I met him the first time. She rolled her eyes and ignored me.

Then another thing happened on that trip. We got back from being out doing something, and [Sister] ran into where Bobby was playing video games to say “Hi.” From the door, I watched as Bobby held the video game controller in one hand, then made eye contact, carried on a conversation, hugged, and kissed my sister, all without dying. When Jacqueline came back she kinda stared at me. “What’s that funny look on your face?” she asked.

“This expression is approval,” I say. “It looks funny because you’ve never seen it before.”

At that point, I could see where this relationship was headed, so I started dropping hints about how smart people don’t get engaged while they’re still in college. You’ll understand, then, that I was a bit speechless when I get a phone call from Jacqueline. “I don’t have time to talk because it’s I-Con weekend, but Bobby said I had to tell you so you don’t kill him because he proposed and I accepted and now you know.”

To which I eloquently replied, “Oh.”

“I know you said smart people don’t get engaged while they’re in college,” Jacqueline said.

“That’s okay, honey. I never said you were smart.” And then, after a minute for the shock to wear off, I got to the important part of the conversation. “Who’s your maid of honor?”

“Well, I know you don’t really like weddings and you aren’t into marriage, but I was hoping it would be you.”

“Of course I will. You’re my sister.” All mine.

That girl right there in the white dress is my favorite person in the whole world. She is awesome and I love her and I am so, so proud of her. And now Bobby has married her, so that means I have to share with him. And he’s got two sisters who love Jacqueline too, and treat her really well, and I suppose I have to share with them. I still don’t share my things well, but if I have to share my sister, these are good people to do it with. Mildly threatening comments aside, Bobby, I approve of you, and I hope you two have a long, happy life together.

My willingness to publicly endorse my sister’s choice in spouse has nothing to do with the fact that they bribed me ahead of time by giving me a cutlass.

I am so hanging that on my office wall once it gets here.

Weddings and Adventures with Low Standards

My baby sister, of whom I am inordinately fond, is getting married on Sunday.  I’ve been out to Richmond for Maid of Honor duties more in the last eight months than I had in the three years prior.  It’s been interesting, but this last week has been the most interesting.

I’ve always known my grandparents would get excited about a wedding, but I never realized the different ways that excitement would manifest.  Pappa, who’s had Nannie and doctors telling him to lose weight as long as I’ve been alive, actually has – because he wants to look good for the wedding.  The counter in their kitchen that does double-duty as Nannie’s standing desk and Pappa’s repository for whatever is in his pockets when he gets home is empty.  I’ve never seen that counter bare, but it is.  The paneling between the top of the kitchen cabinets and the ceiling which, for forty years has always had a gap where Pappa never finished installing it, is finished.  There’s actual grass growing in their yard, and potted plants on the steps.  These are all little things, but they’re changes in the fundamental details of what makes that house what I expect when I go to see them.  It’s subtle, but weird.

I think the highlights of this week, one of the stories told in years to come about the crazy days leading up to the big day, will be about my bridal shower gift to my sister.  I gave her a two day trip to Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, complete with overnight hotel stay.  Her weekends are Sunday and Monday, so I told her we’d go the Sunday and Monday before her wedding, to get her out of the house and give her a chance to de-stress.  My logistical planning skills were at their best: I checked to make sure Busch Gardens is open on weekdays, but didn’t check that specific Monday.

As it turns out, Busch Gardens was open during the week at the beginning of April (for Spring break, I guess?) but on our specific Monday, was quite closed.  We found this out on Sunday, before heading down there.  Woops.  That’s me, brilliant at details.

This turned into one of those secret blessing scenarios, because it was cool and cloudy on Sunday, which meant that we managed to ride everything in about four hours, and spent the rest of the day going back for seconds.  A whole extra day would have been dull, methinks.  Sis agrees, so accidental victory.

My favorite part of the trip was when we got to the hotel.  There was a very tall, largish man at the desk talking to the desk clerk.  She looked flustered, was apologizing, and saying that she’d take care of it just as soon as she could get a translator to help.  Tall-guy didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t yelling or otherwise being grumpy, so I decided to pry a bit after he left.  It turned out that the desk clerk needed to talk to her head of housekeeping for some reason, but said housekeeper really only speaks Spanish.  “Where is she from?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” the desk clerk said.  “El Salvadore?”

“Oh. I have no idea whether or not I can understand an El Salvadoran accent.”

“Maybe Colombia?”

I’m okay at Colombian accents, or at least the ones I’ve been exposed to, but really I wanted to get to my room, make sure there were no down pillows in the room (my sister is violently allergic and there’s been past hilarity wherein my hotel preferences tried to kill her).  Of course the room was full of down pillows.  I call the front desk because I am not going to treat my sister to misery and sinus congestion a week before her wedding and get no answer.  So I go downstairs.

I didn’t get an answer because the desk clerk was trying to call me, desperate for somebody who can translate for her housekeeper.  I’m about to make a big stink about them screwing up the “Feather-free room,” portion of my reservation, so I figure I’ll see if I can do a favor for the desk clerk.

Pause a moment for background.  About ten years ago I was very, very good at Spanish.  My accent was great, my conversational skills fluid, my ability to deconstruct and analyze literature satisfyingly mediocre.  I am not that good anymore.  By a long shot.  But I still have plans for going to Argentina (and failing that, Mexico), this year, so I’ve been brushing up and trying to get back into shape.  This is the only reason I said anything – the last few years attempts to communicate in Spanish mostly succeed in embarrassing me.

The desk clerk hands me a phone without any introduction or preamble.  So I stutter into the phone and say something meant to be, “Hi, I’m Anaea, and Raschonda wants me to translate for her,” and actually came out as, “Hi, I’m Anaea, and Raschonda wants me to oh look this sentence is now making an ass of me.”  Translate?  Not a cognate in Spanish.  Didn’t stop me from treating it like one!  My brain knows better.  My tongue is a moron.

The poor housekeeper must have been through this before, because she rolled with it.  The next sentence was supposed to be, “That twelve-pack of diet coke and bottle of rum you found in that room?  You need to bring them back.”  This got turned into, “That…thing…and the rum…need to return.”

I have no idea what the housekeeper said in response.  There were words.  I’m sure they were grammatical.  They were not parsed.  Which led to, “Er…¿qué?”  When I still didn’t follow I confessed, rather guiltily, “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”  Raschonda thought that was a translation.  “We talked about this before she left.  Tell her the guest is here and he’s angry.  She needs to bring back those things.”

“The guy is angry and wants his things.  Can you bring them?”  Except I mixed my you’s all over the place.  My inner language editor?  Murdering me after every phrase.  At least I’ve brushed up well enough to be actively aware of how much I suck?

Magically, the housekeeper either figured out I was a moron, or switched to gringo-friendly vocabulary by happenstance, because she was fabulously comprehensible for the rest of the conversation.  She complained that she was already home and in the middle of something.  I told her Raschonda was getting desperate.  She said she’d be there in half an hour.  Communication achieved!  Problem solved!  Give me foam pillows!

I got back to the room and my sister had no idea what an ordeal, a challenge, a veritable triumph I’d been through.  “There was a guy here.  He opened every individual pillow to see if they had feathers,” she said.

Whatever was going on in the room while I was gone, probably just as epic.  Less triumphant, though.

Canvassing Stories

“Hi.  My name is Anaea and I’m a volunteer with the Madison Southwest…”

“Don’t want any!”

I mildly enjoy canvassing.  The weather’s been nice, and it’s a good excuse to go walking through neighborhoods, house by house, and see what different segments of the neighborhoods look like.  You can tell when you’re on a street full of rental properties versus young couples versus older people nearing or in retirement.  The rental properties feel shabby even when they aren’t, and the older people have immaculate yards full of gorgeous bulbs.  My Realtor brain goes nuts for studying neighborhoods at this level.  I learn more in an hour than I do on dozens of property tours.

“We’re a community organization going around our local district in preparation for the upcoming gubernatorial election.”

“You’re wasting your time.”

Last summer, when I was spending about 20 hours a week just on phone banking, my brain was threatening to dribble out my ears.  One evening, I’d been home about ten minutes and was hanging out downstairs to keep from stalking Sylvie while she finished up cooking dinner, a college kid showed up at the door, canvassing for some progressive charity something something.  He clearly had a long spiel that was going to end in asking for time and money, and since it was getting late, I didn’t want him to waste time at our door when the neighbors might well actually help him.  “We’re exhausted and over-committed to causes already.  Good luck, but we can’t help you,” I said.  He stalked off, snarling, “Be that way!”

“I’ve just got three quick questions for you.  First, are you registered to vote?”

If you’ve not seen me irate in person before, you’ll have trouble picturing how quickly that kid pissed me off.  “Wait one minute,” brain-dribbly, exhausted me said.  “That is not okay. Now you’ve irritated me and you ought to be making friends.”  He protested that I’d been rude by not at least letting him spend the five minutes talking at me.  It’s possible that would have been more decorous, but it it wouldn’t have been kinder.  I was more zombie than human at that point, and when I’m home my roommates consider me the official house representative to strangers at the door.  Also, Sylvie was cooking dinner, and I wasn’t letting her out of the kitchen until it was done.

“Good.  Do you have a current, valid photo I.D. you can take with you to your polling place?”

I probably spent six minutes arguing with the kid about three minutes arguing with the kid about which one of us had been rude before I pointed out that it didn’t matter whether I’d been rude.  He’d knocked on my door, asked for my time, and planned to ask me for a favor.  I had no obligations to him, but he had obligations to his organization, to his cause, and to me for bringing them to me.  He was entitled to squat, and if he couldn’t accept that from somebody suffering activism-induced brain-deadery, he had little hope of accomplishing anything.  He stomped away.  He probably called me a bitch, but was at least smart enough to do it quietly that time.

“Do you mind telling me which way, Republican or Democrat, you’re likely to vote in the upcoming gubernatorial election?”

“That’s none of your business.”

It doesn’t bother me when people slam their door in my face, or tell me to fuck off, or want to know exactly who I am and exactly which group I’m with and precisely whose side I’m on before they’ll talk to me.  I’ve just interrupted them during dinner, or while they’re mowing the lawn, or were otherwise going about their business.  I’d tell me to fuck off if I caught myself at the wrong time.  I really don’t understand the people who are bothered by it.  You’ve got three hours and 60 doors to hit.  Everybody who slams the door is somebody you finished with quickly, and who we don’t have to go back to.  That’s way better than somebody who isn’t home.  Besides, they’re absolutely right: It isn’t any of my business.

“Do you mind telling which way…you’re likely to vote…”

“Oh, we’re a teacher household.  We’re getting rid of Walker.  And I always make my kids vote, and they’ll be getting rid of him too.  Are my kids on your list?”

The group I working with is affiliated with the Obama campaign and getting a lot of their resources from there, but all of the work they’re doing now is for the recall and they understand that once they switch over to campaigning for Obama, I’m gone.  They seem confused about why somebody willing to spend as much time working on the recall as I am won’t touch Obama, but they roll with it.  What I like is that since they’re a bit ad hoc, they don’t give out the horrifically bad scripts phone banks are always full of.  They just want the answers to their questions.  They expect you to ask about which way people are voting first, but I never do.  That’s starting by asking for a favor when you could start by offering a service.  Because “Are you registered to vote,” can be followed by, “Oh, here’s the information on how to get registered.  Once open registration is back, we’ll send somebody to do that for you, if you like.”  “Do you have an I.D.?” can be followed with information about the requirements of the new Voter I.D. law, in case the injunction doesn’t hold up.

“Democrat, of course.  You’re not out for Walker, are you?”

Canvassing is a really great way to observe how different segments of society interact with the rest of society, too.  Several times now I’ve realized that I’m asking for a young son as opposed to a husband because the woman at the door is mom-aged, black, and very concerned about why I’m there with a clipboard asking after her son.  And you can see the moment she believes you that you’re just asking about voter registration, because she relaxes and becomes one of the friendliest people you’ll talk to that day.  I have a sneaking suspicion those houses get skipped a lot.  Or, at least, skipped by benign people.

“I’m not sure.  I usually lean Republican, but if the Democrat’s a good one, I might have to vote for them.”

“Have you considered Arthur Kohl-Riggs for the primary?”

The best part of canvassing, though, is when I have an excuse to go off script 🙂