False First Impressions

I am older than the internet, which means I am older than dirt. It also means I had to learn typing (keyboarding to you millenials) on an honest-to-goodness IBM Selectric typewriter. I learned it in the business wing of our high school from Mr. R.

IBM_SelectricCollege-track students in those days didn’t often take business classes, but Mr. R. taught both history and typing at our high school, and I had him for several classes in my teens. Mostly, I did not respect him. I think, in retrospect, that this was a function of my disregard for history, which in my limited experience seemed to consist entirely of the memorization of unrelated facts. My brain focuses on relationships, not facts, and while I was able to find the relationships between topics necessary to earn my A, the whole process seemed tedious and somewhat pointless[1].

Although I have since learned that Mr. R. was a bright man, a hard-working man, and a good man, I in my ignorant youth confounded the dull, plodding, pedantic subject he taught with the teacher himself.  Moreover, Mr. R’s physique did nothing to dissuade me of this incorrect opinion. Mr. R. was obese.

I do not hide from the fact that I am generally considered overweight, and have been so for as long as I can remember. During this same time, I have had any number of friends whose BMI exceeded my own, and really thought nothing of it. In this regard, Mr. R was exceptional.

Standing a full head and shoulders taller than me, Mr. R. still carried so much additional weight around his middle that it was his girth, not his height, which caught your immediate attention. His waist was the widest part of his body, and I remember wondering how his belt could possibly suspend his pants above a pair of hips that were so much smaller in size. His broad neck supported no less than three chins, and his rolling gait suggested a sailor just beginning his first shore leave after a full year at sea. And those hands!

People in my family generally have narrow wrists and thin fingers. This feature has served my daughters well when learning to play the violin. Since the reality we know tends to define “normal”, for me, skinny hands are normal hands to me. Mr. R. did not have skinny hands. Indeed, his fingers were best compared with sausages, and I wondered how he could even bend them, much less use them to do actual work.

My bogus opinion was corrected one day in typing class when my ribbon broke. Unable to finish my exercise, I asked for help, and Mr. R. came to see me.

“Out of your seat,” he said, and I rose. Mr. R. slid into the chair. I craned myself over the typewriter from the side, watching as he extracted the broken ribbon cartridge and replaced it with a fresh one. Then he rolled a fresh piece of paper onto the platen and set his hands on the typewriter keys. Even with his thumbs held close together, Mr. R’s hands were so broad that they spanned the entire machine. Then his fingers blurred.

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs” appeared on the page, and I never saw it happen.

I later learned that Mr. R easily typed over a hundred words a minute, accurately, with a typewriter. These days, my best typing speed peaks out at around a hundred words a minute — on a computer.  The keyboard on a small laptop may be insufferable, but the keys on my 17″ Dell are far easier to use than anything I had access to in the 80’s.

From this brief incident, I learned in a practical way just how deceived we can become when our opinions are based on appearances alone. More recently, it has me thinking about how I can use mistakes made with first impressions to product conflicts in my stories.

[1] For those who would take this as a recommendation to do poorly in history, let me remind you that those who fail to learn in history class are doomed to repeat it.  Learn the material, earn a good grade, and you will only have to take it once.  Moreover, you will have earned the right to mock the whole process in your blog thirty years later.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s

This past Sunday would have been Audrey Hepburn’s 85th birthday. The day before, I had serendipitously   rewatched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which she famously starred with George Peppard.  I didn’t do this because Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous (though she is). I didn’t watch it because she has a lovely voice (which she does). I didn’t even watch it because Givenchy and Hepburn are a match made in sartorial heaven (which they are).  I watched it for the premise.

BreakfastBreakfast at Tiffany’s, like the Truman Capote novella on which it is based, portrays characters who would not be good role models for your children. Hepburn’s Holly Golightly uses her charms to get money from rich men as a means of support, and Peppard’s Fred is a kept man in the service of an older married woman. Despite this, I think there is something moving in the way Fred grows past his situation in an effort to rescue Holly from her chosen lifestyle, and the way Holly clings to hers because she’s afraid of real love. It’s a story I’d love to tell.

At the same time, I don’t want to be writing clichés, nor do I have any hope of matching Truman Capote, so I asked myself what would happen if this tale were gender swapped. What if Fred were the running woman, and what if she wants to rescue a kept man who isn’t sure he wants to be rescued? That question led me to gigolo Harry and young poet Persephone.

Persephone is young, but she has lived far more than a girl her age should be forced to do. Her mother’s business partner, Alex, had insisted she call him Uncle Alex, but subsequently tried things that an uncle shouldn’t do. When it became apparent that no help was coming from her mother, Persephone renamed herself Pip, lied about her age, and joined the crew of an interstellar freighter.

My story begins with Pip taking a job as resident poet for wealthy landowner Isobel and her seventeen cloned daughters on a distant planet. There she meets Harry, who was hired to provide entertainment and genetic material for the young women in the family.  It’s the closest thing I can conceive to Holly Golightly’s café society lifestyle, justified by my claim that truncated telomeres will keep cloning from being useful for multiple generations in a row.

Because of her background, Pip wants to rescue Harry from what she interprets as an abusive situation. Isobel, on the other hand, has invested a lot in keeping Harry and his genome intact, and doesn’t want to lose that. I find myself doubting that either one will ask what Harry wants.

For my own part, I think I have a pretty good handle on Harry’s emotional state and motives, but Pip’s are tougher for me. Harry doesn’t have any experience with “normal” romance, and is going to make dumb mistakes. Would she run away from him as well, or would she react in anger? What kind of words or actions would be most likely to set her off emotionally? That answer will drive the events of my plot.

Either way, I don’t think it’s going to end in a Hollywood happy ending, the way the movie did.

Communications Breakdown

“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”

–Cool Hand Luke

In my many years of work in software development and IT, I have worked with companies that manufacture cruise ships, gas and oil drilling platforms, automobiles, and turbines. One key capability I have often been called upon to develop and deploy are redundant control systems–groups of computers that interact to insure that a single hardware failure cannot trigger a loss of control.disney-magic

The typical mechanism used in redundant systems involves failover. In server redundancy, for example, there is an active primary computer and one or more secondary computers monitoring it. When the primary computer fails, the secondary computer begins doing the job of the primary system.

The difficulty in designing software for redundant servers isn’t the case where failover to the secondary system occurs, or even the case where control is returned back to the primary system. The real difficulty occurs when both systems remain online, but communications between the two servers is lost. In that scenario, the secondary server may try to take over while the primary still has control, possibly leading to overall loss of control or even equipment damage.

Miscommunication between the characters in your story can be used to cause a similar loss of control for your protagonist.  The problem isn’t her failure, or the failure of her partner–its the fact that their parallel attempts to assert control may interact with each other in unexpected ways. For a control system, this is bad. For a writer in the middle of a story, it’s ideal.

How are you taking advantage of miscommunication to add complexity to your stories?

Meet Serafina, Part 3 (religion)

This is another in a series of posts about a character I am developing for my novel-in-progress, Power of Boston.  For the rest of this series, you may want to read Part 1 or Part 2 as well. Your comments as always are appreciated.

To work well within the plot of my story, it is essential that Serafina have high regard for her personal modesty. At the same time, it is vital to me that she not be perceived as a victim.

The story of The Girl in the Skirt convinced me that women who wish to live differently can run into conflict with their associates because of the way they dress. I have seen similar conflicts in the lives of Christian women who favor long skirts and eschew jewelry because of their views of modesty.  I think Serafina is that kind of woman: different by choice.

On the other hand,  Serafina is a bit of an action hero, and a capable fighter. She would not consider it practical to wear a skirt. How then, would I demonstrate her modesty by the way she dresses? The answer, I think, is hijab. While many seem to think that hijab is a symbol of opression, those who wear it by choice seem to be proud of it, and for some, it is even a feminist symbol.  The fact that some will misinterpret it, or insult her because of it, only adds substance to her character.tumblr_l97doy8OII1qcamkko1_r1_500-147s22q

This then leads to the question of what faith background Serafina should have. I don’t think I could effectively tell her story if she were a Muslim, but I don’t think that’s essential. When I visited Japan, I found there were many nominal or cultural Buddhists, and I am convinced that most Americans are cultural Christians. I therefore see no reason why Serafina couldn’t be a cultural Muslim.

Serafina’s father came to the US to work as a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. His parents, worried that he would be corrupted by American culture, convinced him to marry before he left home for his new job. His wife (Serafina’s mother) is a conservative Muslim.  Like her father, Serafina is more of an agnostic, but she learned modesty from her mother.

The question I have, however, is whether this will be best for my story.

  1. I think Serafina’s relationship to the Ethiopian community at large will add depth to my story, but the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. Do Christian and Muslim Ethiopians in the US interact to a significant degree?
  2. If Serafina’s parents come from the Muslim community in Addis Ababa, do I need to discard Amharic as her second language? Being able to focus on one language will greatly simplify my research.
  3. How would the more conservative family members react to the fact that she is
    1. working as an executive with authority over men,
    2. habitually dressing in trousers (pantsuits), and
    3. is still single at the age of 34?

I have no intent to let Serafina back down in the face of those conflicts, but I want to understand them so she can confront them accurately.

Meet Serafina, Part 2 (career)

This is another in a series of posts about a character I am developing for my novel-in-progress, Power of Boston.  See the category with that title for more posts (and more questions) about the characters in that novel.
350px-John_Hancock_TowerThere are probably a dozen or so people in my history to whom I would assign the label “boss”. Of these individuals, perhaps the best manager I have known is a woman named Donna. Despite her obvious ability to manage projects and personnel, Donna was often burdened with the additional responsibility of planning our company social events.

It’s possible that this is simply a case of people who get things done being asked to do more, but my gut tells me that the real reason she was assigned this role was her gender. I never asked her how she felt about this, but  I think the job was beneath her, and I think it was insulting.

When I think of Serafina, and the way she feels about the men with whom she works every day, I cannot help but think of Donna. Serafina began her career in personal and plant security, and did her job well. Somehow, she eventually found herself the job of personal bodyguard to Julian Nebo, the eight-year-old son of company president and owner Vance Nebo.

I’m sure that the elder Nebo is convinced that this decision was the right one for all the right reasons — Serafina is careful and focused, and well able to keep Julian safe. Some of her coworkers, however, would have seen her as nothing more than a glorified nanny, and that had to be insulting to her.

Twelve years later, Serafina is 34, and Julian has grown from a wild and irresponsible boy into a wild and irresponsible young man. She was promoted years ago to manager of personnel security, but somehow she finds herself pulled back into situations where her team can’t cope with him, and she ends up having to “babysit” him.

The question I have oustanding is whether or not it’s plausible for Serafina to continue to respect Vance Nebo because of his authority, even while thinking of his son as an irresponsible child. I also wonder how that would color her relationships with other coworkers, both within her department, and with her peer managers in other departments.

Ladies, here is your chance. Unwrap for me those times when you or your friends hit your heads on the glass ceiling. How did that effect your other work relationships? Is it just men who bear the stigma for disrespecting a woman like this, or do women do it to each other as well?


Meet Serafina, Part 1

My novel-in-progress, Power of Boston, is a near-future SF thriller about a woman thrust into authority at Chaldin Energy and confronted by a villain who wants to destroy her reputation, her company, and the lives of thousands. While developing my ideas for this story, I encountered Serafina, the protagonist of my story.

power-linesOriginally, I had planned on letting Serafina be an Italian-American, hence the name. As I have gotten to know her, though, I think that she is most likely of African descent, that her parents came to the US from Ethiopia, and that she was born to them here. The problem is, I don’t know Ethiopian culture well enough yet to tell her story properly. To that end, I’d like to toss out a few questions for consideration, and see what I can learn. To keep this post from getting too long, I’ll break it up into as many parts as it takes for me to know Serafina properly.

  1. I originally chose the Italian name “Serafina” because a serif is a particular kind of angel — beautiful,  powerful, and sometimes scary. The boys’ name “Melaku” means Angel in Amharic, but I don’t know if there is a feminine equivalent, or if it carries the same undertones.  Would Ethiopian parents have named a US-born daughter Serafina?  If not, what equivalent might they have chosen?
  2. Serafina is a high-ranking executive in a US-based multinational corporation. Would her extended family be more likely, or less likely to accept this than an outsider would? What demands might they make on her that would conflict with the responsibilities of her job?
  3. Personal modesty is important to Serafina, but her work requires her to wear a pantsuit most of the time. How might she demonstrate her conservatism by her clothing and accessories?  Is a headscarf appropriate? How might the fact that she is unmarried (and not seeking a spouse) affect the way she dresses for work?

My research is ongoing, but I covet any comments you may have on these initial questions. In future posts, I hope to discuss in greater detail Serafina’s relationship with her co-workers, her family, and any romantic interests she may encounter along the way.

Thank you.