Sunday, March 31, 2013
While I write this, North Korea is posturing yet again. If it wasn’t potentially so dangerous, it would be comical. Observing men (apparently) goose stepping in precise rows, in precise time; thousands upon thousands of little toy soldiers, packed into the square. Unfortunately, they are not toys. I also hesitate to call them men. If, that is, by men we mean beings with free will and an individual identity, not simply robots or mindless clones. And really! That puffy little potato head, Kim Jong Un, enjoying his moment in the sun, imagining that he is actually important.
But then, is posturing back really of any use? And, hello, U.S.A., was not flying B2 stealth bombers over the south just a tiny, tiny bit provocative? Wasn’t it intended to provoke precisely this response? What? Has “Al Qaeda” been too quiet lately? Iran not naughty enough? Were the generals and heads of the secret service getting a little bored?
Here’s an idea: let’s stop feeding the potato head’s ego.
At the Dachau Memorial, site of the first Nazi concentration camp, are written these words, in several languages,
Sadly, with human beings, we know that the truth is,
And again, and again, and again... Human beings appear to be constitutionally incapable of learning from the lessons of history. “It’s never worked before, so surely it must work this time.”
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Saturday, March 30, 2013
I have been thinking about the price of books. In Australia, books are very expensive. The long awaited final volume in a long fantasy series is selling in paperback at Barnes and Noble for US$8.98 (about AU$8.62). Angus and Robertson sell the same book online in Australia for either AU$14.99 or AU$16.99 (I am not sure why there are two paperback versions for sale). The price of the ebook is US$7.99 and AU$11.99 respectively. No doubt there are explanations for these price discrepancies; but it would be hardly surprising if I were to choose to purchase the ebook from the US, rather than Australia. By the time shipping is included, the paperback is probably cheaper if purchased in Australia.
The point of this is not to complain about this discrepancy in price, or about the high price of books in Australia in general. It is, rather, to explore the difficulty of placing a price on something like a book, particularly an ebook, which, on the surface, seems to cost next to nothing to produce. It is true that once it is finished, production costs are very low. But should we not factor in the many, many, hours of work that have gone into writing the book, sometimes over a period of several years? Let’s say that someone works on their novel for an average of one hour per day over a period of one year. Would $20/hour be a reasonable rate? I think so, but let’s conservatively set it at around the minimum wage in Australia, say, $16/hour. With just one hour a day for a year, this amounts to $5840. Many self-published books then go on sale at Amazon for anything from 0.99c to $4.99, rarely more. Even at the higher price, with a margin of 70% (which is not always the case), an author has to sell over 1600 books to get their money back, if we actually put a dollar value on the time spent in production. This does not even include any money spent on editing costs, cover design or advertising.
There are, it seems to me, two ways of valuing a single object. The first is to factor in all the costs that have gone into production, including labour and materials, and then add a margin. The second is to permit the market to determine its value: what are people willing to pay for it? The first method of costing does not really work with ebooks, because there is no single product at the end of the process, but, rather, a potentially infinite number of identical products. Thus, one ebook is clearly not worth $5840 plus a margin, although one luxury leather lounge suite might be. So it seems inevitable that the market will determine the value. What value, then, does the market place on something as intangible as an ebook? Certain things add value to a particular book, such as the reputation of the author, or enjoyment of a previous book by the same author. These, again, are such intangible qualities. Of course, whether it is actually a good book will also affect the value. Unknown, self-published, first time authors face a real struggle, because they do not have a reputation. Perhaps, once a book starts to sell and people like it, it will increase in value. Unfortunately, the first hurdle is often getting anyone to buy the book in the first place. Offering the book free for a limited period of time may help to generate a reputation for the book, and others may then be willing to pay for it.
On the other hand, I look at what people are willing to pay for other things and am forced to ask myself, why would they buy that, but not buy my book? People will pay $7.00 or $8.00, or more, for a lotto ticket which will probably give little, if any, return for their investment. They will pay almost $5.00 for a Big Mac, which will give them a few minutes of dubious pleasure (and hospital bills later in life). So I figure that any book I write that is half decent is worth at least the value of a Big Mac. Of course, people may not pay that, but it’s not a bad place to start.
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Friday, March 29, 2013
We are all made of recycled material. All of our constituent atoms and molecules have been part of something else, some time. Carl Sagan once said:
And we, we who embody the local eyes, and ears, and thoughts, and feelings of the cosmos - we've begun at last to wonder about our origins. Star stuff contemplating the stars, organized collections of 10 billion billion billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter - tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and, perhaps, throughout the cosmos.
Yes, every atom in my body began its existence in this star, our sun, or in some other star, sometime during the last thirteen or fourteen billion years. That sounds glorious, and it is. But every atom and molecule of my body has also constituted part of many other things during that time, inanimate objects and animate objects, plants and animals. Parts of me were borne by a Neanderthal wandering the frozen wastes of Europe, by a slime mould under a rotting log, by Socrates, Confucius, Jesus and Attila the Hun. Fragments of me have passed through Asians, Africans, North American Indians, indigenous Australians. Parts of me are being subtracted and added every day.
It is not our genes alone which determine our heritage, in the sense of where we have come from. Our genes simply provide the template that shapes the matter from which we are constructed. And our genes are completely indifferent to the origin of that matter. I may be a “pure blood” Caucasian or Amerindian; but the atoms and molecules that actually make up that blood? Well, they may have been in a pope, or the fæces of a gnat; or, indeed, the fæces of a pope. Fragments of me may have once belonged to a saint performing a miracle; or to a malarial parasite.
So, if you happen to be racist (and no one ever is, of course – just a “patriot”, or a “concerned citizen”), you are never going to wash out that damn spot.
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Thursday, March 28, 2013
I suppose some people write in order to become famous or to become rich. These seem to be powerful motivators these days. To become rich has probably always been a strong motivator, but to be famous? I think that’s relatively new. It is easier today in some ways than it ever was, in the sense that the opportunity for fame (however brief one’s moment in the spotlight) is available to almost everyone, via the internet. Do something really stupid, film it with your phone and post it on You Tube, et voilà. Of course, the competition is also very fierce, and something or someone else is always ready to steal your limelight. And what, in the end, does it get you, anyway? Maybe some money, if you are lucky. Probably a deep despair when the moment has passed.
Some people may write because they have a message to convey, or a point to get across. Among my followers on Twitter are many people who describe themselves as Christian writers, or who claim to write Christian fiction of one kind or another. I guess they want their writing to convey something of that particular message. I am not completely free of this motivation. Not of the Christian variety. But, over the years, I think I have learned a few things, gained a few insights, and these end up in my stories. It is not so much that I want to convert people towards a particular point of view, or teach them anything. It’s just that I want to see if other people connect with these experiences. I love it when I am reading a book and I am seized momentarily by that feeling: “Ah yes, that is soooo true.” So I guess I would like to think that my writing contains something of this multi-faceted, elusive thing called “truth”.
Others, and perhaps most, write because of the sheer joy of creativity. There are those who write a particular book, in a particular style, because that is what happens to be selling in today’s market. It is a business, and they are producing a product for sale. All of us would like our books to sell. But for many of us it is the process of writing itself that is satisfying; sales are a delightful bonus. This is as much because other people like what we have written, and are even prepared to pay for the opportunity to read it, as it is about the money itself. Getting a sentence just right is a very good feeling. In La Peste, by Camus, there is a character, Joseph Grand, who is writing a book. However, he can never get past the opening sentence. He constantly writes and rewrites this first sentence, searching for the correct noun, verb and adjective. As much as one recognises the satirical element here, I could not help feeling that Grand delighted in the process of playing with the words, relishing their different combinations, enjoying the different flavours and sounds that were created by changing a word here or there. I hope I am not as bad as this, but it really is worth wrestling with a phrase or sentence, rewriting it again and again, until the rhythm, sound and feeling is just right. I love it when I sense this in someone else’s writing. This is what, for me, transforms a good story into good writing. Sometimes the good writing is more important, to me, than the story. In this, I sometimes feel that I stand alone.
So why do you write?
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Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Ten things that annoy me, in no particular order and for no particular reason:
1. People who say “absolutely” when they mean “yes”.
2. Beer bottle caps that don’t twist off in your hand.
3. TV commercials.
4. People (and you know who you are) who say “the fact of the matter is…”
6. Dogs that look like rodents.
7. “Reality” TV.
8. People who spell “Michael” “Micheal”.
9. My nostril hairs.
10. People who make lists
11. People who can’t count.
Ok, so I have not been having such a good day today. But here are ten things I like:
1. People who laugh.
2. People who make me laugh.
4. A beautiful turn of phrase.
5. The smell of onions frying.
6. A great melody.
7. The name “Caitlin”.
8. The sound of rain on the roof.
9. Arriving somewhere new.
See you tomorrow.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
I have this very strange experience, from time to time, of wondering how I got from there to here. I should say something about where and when “there” is/was.
There is a square, a courtyard – I’m not sure exactly what one should call it – in the suburbs of Birmingham, UK, sometime in the early 1960s. Let’s say 1964, when I would have been seven years old. It is summer, and surprisingly hot. Yes, it could feel hot during the English summer, when you were out in the midday sun. This square – a quadrangle, perhaps – was surrounded on three sides by rows of flats, three-storeys high. The fourth side was the road. Between the ground floor flats and this courtyard were expanses of lawn, except that on one side was a driveway, a parking area, I suppose, separated from the courtyard by bollards. My memory of details is poor. This courtyard was paved with flagstones. I have the impression that these were pinkish and grayish, but I could have made this up. My sister will probably want to correct this, if she reads it. She was older than I was at the time and her memory appears to be more photographic than mine. Perhaps I am fictionalising this to some extent, but it does not matter.
On this courtyard were two large pieces of play equipment, constructed of logs. At least, they seemed large to me at the time. One of these was an oversized bench which, as I recall, spent most of its time overturned. I’m sure it was never intended to be sat upon. Giants were uncommon in those days. The other was in the form of a ship. I don’t suppose that either of these pieces of equipment would pass muster these days, at least not without ample signage:
WARNING: Playing on this equipment may result in splinters and subsequent infection.
WARNING: Parts of this equipment are situated above ground level. Falling could result in injury.
You would have to be careful, too, not to hit your head on the signs.
This is the there to which I frequently return in my mind. I am there, straddling one of the cross beams of this ship: pale-skinned, with blonde hair and matchstick legs, and wearing plastic sandals (probably with socks). In other words: English. My favourite pastime was to sit on those logs, armed with a magnifying glass, burning words and shapes into those logs, breathing in the acrid smoke, getting badly sunburnt, no doubt, on my arms and the back of my neck. And, yes, I would occasionally burn ants that invaded my territory.
It is difficult to explain why, but this scene has become, for me, the symbol and summation of my early childhood years in England, before we set sail, in February of 1966, for Australian shores. I am alone. I am aware of no sounds, except for my own commentary on whatever mission I may have been undertaking at the time. Were others watching? Did my mother watch from the balcony of our ground floor flat? I imagine, sometimes, our black and white cat, Jimmy, coming to sit with me. But this may, indeed, be nothing more than my imagination.
And now for the here, because it is the getting from there to here that sometimes leaves me slightly dazed. The first “here” during which I really experienced this, was, in fact, another “there”. It was during my theological training that I first experienced the sense of wonder at the transition from there to what was (at the time) here. This was at theological college, in the hills just outside Adelaide in South Australia, surrounded by eucalyptus and bottlebrush. It was during our daily time of meditation, prior to Evensong. I was sitting on the steps outside the chapel when this scene from my early childhood seized me. How, I asked myself, did I get from there to here? How did that little boy become this man? I would use this place and time, this time of immense solitude (not loneliness) as a place of retreat, in which I would spend my contemplative time.
Now I am in another “here”, having moved on from those theological days. Now, my “here” is Cairns, in tropical, Far North Queensland. I am fifty-five years old, and still that image of myself can fill me with… with what? Nostalgia? Sorrow? Regret? Perhaps all those things. But mostly with wonder. Little of the physical me from that time remains today. Our body replaces most of its cells every seven to ten years. Not the neural cells of our cerebral cortex, though. The cells I have now, those still living, are the same as those I had back then. I have carried them with me so far, and kept them reasonably safe. Most importantly I try to keep the image of that boy safe. For some reason, he will always represent the “there” from which I have made the long journey to my current “here”.
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Monday, March 25, 2013
I am reminded that today (March 25th) is the Feast of the Annunciation in the Church. For those who have forgotten their Sunday School training, this celebrates the announcement by the angel Gabriel (Gabe, as we like to call him) to Mary that she was just about to experience a little inconvenience, namely, that she was about to conceive a child, without any of the accompanying fun. God did not even take her out to dinner first. So, girls, this just goes to show that even the most reliable form of contraception, total abstinence, is not 100% reliable when a deity wants to have his way with you. It’s also a reminder, kids, that it is exactly nine months to Christmas.
This feast brings to mind two things. First, band-wagon jumping is not a new phenomenon. We see this today all the time. Once Fifty Shades of Gray became a hit, we began to see fifty shades of everything; and probably forty-nine and a half shades of other things. One successful vampire novel, and everyone’s aunt and uncle is writing vampire novels. The Church has been no different throughout the ages. March 25th happens to coincide approximately with the vernal equinox (in the northern hemisphere). The vernal equinox marks the point on the calendar when days start to become longer than nights (again, in the north), so in pagan belief it is regarded as a time of rebirth and fertility. So why not, if you are the Church, jump on this particular bandwagon and begin to identify this with a significant moment in the life of Jesus? It is particularly fortuitous (or clever planning) that this also generally occurs at a time when the Church is preparing to remember the death of Jesus. (Good Friday usually falls after this date, but does occasionally fall before March 25th, and occasionally even on March 25th). This is all very sensible on the part of the Church: don’t fight it, co-opt it.
The Church continues to jump on bandwagons even today, and who can blame it? It’s not surprising that, once the Green movement was well under way, the Church suddenly realised that Jesus was green all along; or, with the feminist movement in full swing, that Jesus was, in fact, a proto-feminist. When life is finally discovered on other planets in this galaxy, the Church will realise that… that Jesus was from Proxima Centauri?
The identification of Jesus with the feminist movement brings me to the second point. Goddesses have been rather popular throughout the history of religion. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, unfortunately, were rather boringly masculine and monotheistic. Some parts of Judaism overcame this by introducing a feminine element into the divine via the Shekinah, a feminine concept denoting the divine presence. Feminine elements of the divine re-enter Islam via the mystical Sufi movement. Christianity had a virgin handy. I am not meaning to be cynical here. There is a strong drive within religion and spirituality for there to be some feminine expression of the divine in people’s lives. After all, motherhood is a very powerful image. The Church could probably have done nothing to prevent this feminine element from creeping back into the Christian tradition; so, rather than fight it, why not use Mary to co-opt it?
All of this goes to show that there are certain things related to human life in the world that give rise in us to a sense of awe and/or fear. Motherhood and birth – these things can still send a shiver down our spine. The change of the seasons – what better to remind us of the fragility of our life on this planet, of how dependent we are on this planet for our survival? And what better time to remind ourselves how we are busy screwing all that up? It’s not difficult to see how religion can take hold. But I make the point again, that none of this has anything to do with a God or gods. These provide a mythical framework with which to understand and deal with these issues. But they are like the stake that holds the young tree upright: once the tree has the strength to stand alone, the stake is no longer necessary.
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Sunday, March 24, 2013
Dream Weaver tells the story of Emari Sweet, a seventeen year old “emo” who suffers enormous personal tragedy in her life, over a very short period of time. As she attempts to rebuild her life, she meets Nick, an apparently “young” man, who is, in fact, a Dream Weaver, one of a number of almost immortal beings. Nick sees it as his mission to heal and protect Emari by manipulating her dreams and memories. As love blossoms between them they battle not only Emari’s inner demons, but also the external demons represented by the Wraith, a Dream Weaver that has chosen a darker path.
Su Williams is an emerging writer, targeting a young adult audience with stories involving young protagonists and supernatural beings. It is, first of all, a relief that no vampires are involved. Ms. Williams writes well, most of the time. In fact, some of the writing is extremely good, with an excellent use of language and imagery. At other times, however, sentences can become a little clumsy and words used in jarring ways, as though she is, perhaps, trying a little too hard. The story is not remarkable, although this is only the first in the series, and the writer is necessarily introducing her “creatures” and taking time to create this world and develop these characters. Having said this, the action sequences are written with a high degree of realism and intensity, with great attention to detail and excellent pacing. In contrast, there are dream sequences which are gently and tenderly constructed and have, well, a dream-like quality. There are sections where the momentum is lost, particularly in some of the sequences between Emari and Nick, which are little too long and tend to repeat the same themes. I think that younger readers (of which I am not one) would perhaps welcome one more “action sequence” to balance out the story. I felt that the author stumbled when she first began to introduce the supernatural element (Nick) into the story in Chapter 8. For some reason this chapter is not as well written as most of the others. Perhaps the author was struggling to make Emari’s acceptance of Nick and his story plausible. As a reader, I felt that she accepted the whole idea of Nick too quickly and too easily, particularly given the trauma she has been through.
The characters are generally well-developed. The story is told in the first person by Emari, and Ms. Williams does an excellent job of painting this young woman’s inner life, particularly her struggle with depression and ideas of self-harm. At times, I felt that the Nick character was just a little too good to be true. Nick’s friend and fellow Dream Weaver, Sabre, is very well drawn and, in contrast to Nick, is much more morally ambiguous. I would have liked to hear more of Nick’s back story, and more about his and Sabre’s history together, but this may come in later volumes. Most of the minor characters, including Emari’s best friends Ivy and Jesse, and the young police woman, Molly, who helps Emari, have strong personalities and identities. Even the young puppy that Emari buys to keep her company is given depth and substance! The only characters that lacked depth were Emari’s honorary aunt and uncle: I felt that they were rather plastic.
I think, in general, young readers will welcome this new franchise. They may, as I indicated early, wish for at least one more action sequence and, like me, find the sections in which Emari and Nick are alone together, a little too long and repetitive. Now comes the difficult part: assigning stars. There are parts of this novel that are extremely well-written, and others not so. My inclination is to give it 3.5 stars, but, as there are no half stars in the Amazon scoring system, I have to ask whether it falls above or below that mark. I generally regard a good book as worth 3 stars, a very good book as worth 4, and an excellent book (of which there are very few) as worth 5. I think, in the end, that I would call this a good book, rather than a very good book, and therefore give it 3 stars. I expect that the next in the series may well earn 4, if Ms. Williams can just sustain the high quality writing for a little longer.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
I received an email the other day. Another one of those emails. What kind of email? Those which inform me that, for some reason or other, I am about to come into a large sum of money. According to some of these, I have won a lottery that I did not enter. According to others, my telephone number (or, perhaps, email address) has been randomly drawn and I have won X million dollars or pounds. In other cases, someone, often in an African nation, needs to offload into my bank account, for obscure reasons expressed in barely intelligible English, huge amounts of money. A lovely couple today, apparently from Great Britain, want to share with me £1,000,000.00 from their huge Jackpot win. At least, I think it’s £1,000,000.00; the placement of the decimal point after the “1” has me a little concerned. Here is the generous offer in full:
My Name is Adrian Bayford, I and my wife won a Jackpot of £148 million GBP August 2012, and have voluntarily decided to give out the sum of £1.000,000.00 GBP to you as part of our own charity project to improve the life of others in your country, We are given 5 million to 5 unknown around the global so if you receive my mail, then you one of the lucky one, all you have to do is contact us back for details. You can also verify our winning £148 million pounds on the below link.
How wonderfully generous of them. Apparently, they believe that Australia is a poor, third world nation. Some might think it is on the way to becoming one. I only think it’s a shame that, you know, being from Britain and all, these people seem to struggle with English. But then, many English people do. Perhaps they should be investing the money into the British education system. Perhaps I should suggest that they give my £1,000,000.00 to that cause?
There are two things about these kinds of emails that amaze me. First, you think they might take the time and effort to actually get the grammar and punctuation correct. But perhaps that’s just the poor, unfortunate proofreader within, cringing.
Even more astonishing is the fact that, somewhere in the world, there are people who actually fall for these scams, er, accept these offers. Apparently there are enough people sucked in, er, smart enough, that it continues to be worth the effort to generate this crap, er, these generous offers. If news and current affairs shows are to be believed, the people who do accept these offers otherwise look quite normal. You know, like you and me. So why is this, if it’s not the plain and simple fact that these people are morons?
Two things occur to me. The first is the dreaded “what if”. I suppose some people are tormented by these two little words. What if, just this one time, the offer is actually genuine? This is a bit like the gambler who believes that this time he is on a sure thing; or the person with an obsessive compulsive disorder who thinks that she should check just one more time to make sure that the iron is turned off, in case, just this one time, it isn’t. The temptation of “what if” may be too much for some people. And, after all, what could possibly be the harm in replying? To be honest I’m not sure. I have no idea how these scams work. But I am not about to tug on that thread of the spider’s web to find out.
The second thing is that perhaps some people are just so desperate that they will try anything. I am less convinced about this. Those who fall for these scams do not appear particularly desperate. They do not live above a deeper and blacker pit of despair than the rest of us. It might have more to do with the fact that many are seeking shortcuts in life, like winning Lotto (or the unanticipated generosity of the Mr and Mrs Bayfords of the world), to lift them out of their particular patch of despair.
I suppose as long as some people fall for these scams, you and I will continue to receive similarly generous offers. But, you know, what if...?
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Friday, March 22, 2013
I have had some interesting discussions (usually online) with other writers about the “best” way to write. Most writers are only too willing to let others know how it “should” be done. I want to say a little bit about how I work, because I think it potentially avoids some problems that arise later.
Quite a few writers suggest that it is best to just write, write and write. Get it all down, get the first draft out, and then go back and worry about the spelling, grammar and other editing issues. Others, including myself, cannot (and would not if they could) write this way. I do not know what is going to happen when I start to write a novel. Sure, I have some vague notion of what the novel is about, what one or two main incidents might be, who one or two of the main characters are. However, very little of this ever remains in the final product. I often get stuck, or things take an unexpected direction. When I am stuck, sometimes it is useful to simply plough ahead anyway; but other times, this will not work, and I need to leave it and let things simmer, ferment and gel in the depths of my mind. When the story takes an unexpected turn, I sometimes have no choice but to go back and rewrite large sections, else there will be serious continuity issues.
However, quite apart from these issues, which might force me to stop writing or to undertake a rewrite, I constantly go back over what I have written, correcting, rewriting, adding material. I would argue that this is why I have much less work to do in terms of editing, correcting and rewriting than do those who write the whole first draft without taking a breath. By the time I reach the end of the novel, I will have been over the earlier chapters dozens of times. It is much easier to pick up errors and inconsistencies in this way, than it is to do the same when the entire first draft is finished: it is done in much shorter sections at a time. Going back and correcting mistakes as I go is much, much easier than trying to do the whole manuscript at once. I am much more likely to detect errors in the plot, and inconsistencies in time and characterization, when I do this as I go, by constantly going back over earlier chapters. It is also so much easier to correct these errors and inconsistencies if they are nipped in the bud at an early stage.
I have often been given manuscripts to assess and/or edit, which I doubt that the author has even bothered to read. I have even seen books already published where this seems to be the case. It is difficult to explain, otherwise, the occurrence of an enormous number of glaring inconsistencies and errors. It seems clear to me that the writer has simply forgotten what they said earlier. This is much less likely to happen if the writer goes back over the material again and again. This is also a useful thing to do when you are stuck. It fills in time that might otherwise be unproductive. It can also, often, be the way to open the path forwards. By doing this, I find that I become so familiar with what has gone before, I become so familiar with what the characters have said and how they tend to behave, that large errors of inconsistency and discontinuity are much less likely to occur in the first place.
This method of writing is why I will always have difficulty when others ask me “what draft is this”. I never have a first draft, or a second draft. By the time the story is completed, much of the book will already be in its fifteenth or even twentieth draft. As a result, the “first draft” is often more polished than the final draft of another writer. This doesn’t mean that the book is good or well-written. And, of course, there are still errors. Of course I still need to proofread and have others proofread. Of course I still need others to read the book and tell me how well it works. But this is all much easier now for me and for them than it would have been.
I can see why others might want to leave the rewriting, editing and correcting until the first draft is complete. At this stage they want to know if they are on the right track, and it is at this stage that they want others to read the manuscript. Why do the polishing if the whole thing is crap anyway? I understand this. But I also think it is much less likely to be crap if I do the rewriting as I go. What often make a manuscript crap are precisely the inconsistencies and errors that abound in a first draft which hasn’t been polished along the way. It is rarely because of the overall plot or storyline, at least in my experience. If a writer is worried about the basic plot and storyline (if they even have one, when they start writing) perhaps they need to discuss this and bounce it around before they start writing.
Not everyone can, or will want to, work this way. Different methods will work for different people. I can only point out what I see as the advantages of this approach. Others who have not considered it might like to try it.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Every so often I find myself blogging about blogging. My blogging is an entirely selfish activity. I write what I want to write about anything that I feel like addressing at the time. Some of these really strike a chord with people, and when I post a link to them via one or other of the appropriate Reddit forums they take off like a rocket. I don’t try to be controversial, although I sometimes do try to address issues that we don’t like to face. Of course I have my own particular biases and bandwagons; but part of the point of this blog is to be open about those. I don’t try to be politically correct; I don’t try not to be either. As much as anything, this is my thinking room. Writing things down helps to clarify my own thoughts on a particular issue. I know that some of the things I say are of very little interest to anyone: these receive very few visits, and that is fine. I am not aiming at a particular market, although if I do write something that I think will appeal to a particular market, then I do launch it in that direction as much as possible.
Although occasionally I do write a post that takes off, I do not acquire a huge regular following as a result. A really popular post can be followed the next day by one that almost no one reads (like this one, for instance). Perhaps this is because the subjects I address are so variable. Sometimes what I write is intensely personal; sometimes I write about writing; sometimes I touch on broader philosophical or political issues; sometimes I touch on a very topical issue. Because there is no particular theme at work here, I cannot expect a dedicated following. What I write one day might interest you, but what I write the next probably will not. Nor do I particularly want a following. That starts to get a bit weird, doesn’t it? Of course this would pander to my ego. But I know, first of all, that any such popularity would not last; and, secondly, that it would be silly, as all such “celebrity” is ultimately silly. You only have to look at the number of people who are famous just for being famous to recognize that.
Having said this, I am, of course, quite pleased when something I have to say strikes a chord with other people. Perhaps I am not so weird and alone as I sometimes feel.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
I have the kind of personality that is very skilled at sabotaging me. And “me” gets very annoyed sometimes. There are few things that I do well (see! there it is!), but even those things that it might just be possible to say, when measured by some external, objective standard, that I do, in fact do well, are quickly reduced to rubble by this sadistic personality. I do not know where this homicidal (or suicidal) internal voice originated, but I know that I have never been able to silence it for long. Perhaps it has something to do with the Anglo-Saxon environment in which I was raised, and which has little tolerance for boasting. There were always plenty of external voices to put me firmly back in place (somewhere in that ineradicable class system); these external voices easily become internalised, which I suspect is the plan. I think this has something to do with becoming “socialised". Alternatively, perhaps it has something to do with my own specific upbringing, which probably sneaks into my fictional writing here and there. Wherever this malicious voice comes from, it is never far behind any apparent success I have.
If I had painted the Mona Lisa, this inner voice would be telling me, “It’s a bit small, don’t you think?” And when millions upon millions of people continue to flock to see it, this voice would be telling me, “They can’t see how you failed to capture the light the way you wanted it in the top left corner. What would they know?” If I were Michelangelo, just having finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? “You missed a spot there.” And the David? “The head’s a bit big, don’t you think?” No matter how much other people might praise my success (oh, and this voice just wants to make it absolutely clear the I did not paint the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel, nor did I sculpt David), this inner voice always knows better. It knows that what I have done isn’t up to scratch; and never can be.
Of course, the annoying thing is that the damn voice is correct! No matter what I do, it could always have been done better. There are always a few small cracks into which the roots of this voice (ok, a messily mixed metaphor, I know) can creep and, ultimately, tear the edifice down.
And then there are Persian carpets. It is said that a fine Persian rug will almost always contain intentional imperfections, because only God can be considered perfect. This represents, of course, the most appalling arrogance: the assumption that something a human being makes will only be imperfect if the imperfections are intentional. I will not use this argument to defend against the flaws in my achievements (my inner voice would not let me). Anyway, voice, I am not out to achieve perfection. Perhaps, though, you could let me enjoy, just for a few moments, the sense that I have actually achieved something worth achieving, before jumping in with a catalogue of its flaws.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
I do not feel comfortable when people ask me to pray for them, or for a situation in the world, or when they offer to pray for me. There are many things about prayer that disturb me. Actually, they more than disturb me: they offend me. To understand why, let me present a hypothetical, but entirely plausible, situation.
Imagine that I were involved in a multi-car collision on a highway, in which several people were killed, but from which I and my family walked away unscathed. It is natural, under those circumstances, to offer some kind of spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving. Many of us, even those of us who do not believe in God, may do this, given the circumstances. I understand this impulse, and I, too, would feel, if not gratitude, at least relief that I had not been injured. However, once the initial moment has passed, and I have had time to reflect on this from a safe perspective, I ask: what, if taken literally, does such a prayer imply? Do I think that God has intervened on my behalf to spare me? If so, why did he not also spare the others? Was there some special reason why I was spared? Am I better than the others in some way, or more important? Has God made some kind of decision, along the lines that we are sometimes forced to make in a hypothetical lifeboat situation? We have one lifeboat with room for only ten people, but there are fifteen of us: who do we leave behind? Does God have particular criteria that make some people more important and valuable than others? Or does he simply draw straws, in which case there are no grounds for considering myself more highly valued, and no grounds for gratitude. Looked at in the cold light of day, a prayer of thanks to God hardly seems appropriate. Are the families of those who were killed also thanking God, for “taking them” into his care, for preventing their ongoing suffering? Are those who face long months and years of painful suffering also thanking him, for “the opportunity to grow”? It seems to me that the concept of gratitude becomes completely meaningless under the weight of these qualifications.
Now let’s consider intercessory prayer, a situation in which we ask God to intervene on our own or some else’s behalf to bring about a particular situation which would not, presumably, come about without such an intervention. Suppose I pray, following the above accident, that the insurance company will agree to repair my car, rather than write it off, which would result in a considerable financial loss for me. What precisely, if we pray to God for this, are we expecting God to do? Are we expecting him to interfere with the assessor’s neural pathways, in order to change his thought processes? Do we expect God to do this indirectly, via some other event in the world, which will influence this person’s thought processes? I will not go into the implications of this for causality, except to point out that if God “causes” the assessor to experience something similar in his own life that influences his decision, the problem is simply pushed back one step in the chain of cause and effect. Clearly, to my mind anyway, any direct intervention by God in the thought processes of the assessor would be a serious violation of that person. And then there is the outcome. If the outcome is not what I expected, I then proceed to thank God for bringing about an outcome that was clearly better for me than the one I envisaged. Again, we are back to a gratitude that is meaningless under the weight of qualifications.
If prayer has any effect in the world at all – and billions of people would doubtless argue that it does – it is in this: it is in the change that it brings about in the thought processes, perceptions and behavior of the pray-er. If I pray, it changes me, not God, nor the world around me, nor anyone else in it. Of course, taking time to quietly reflect on a situation, entering a meditative state to allow our minds to clear and our unconscious processes to work, requires no supernatural intervention, nor any belief in the supernatural. If this were all that people meant by prayer, I would have no problem with it. Unfortunately, it is not.
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Monday, March 18, 2013
“People” often say that material things don’t matter. But, once again, “people” are wrong. That’s because, many material things are not just material things. It is very difficult to separate so arbitrarily the material from the spiritual. By “spiritual” I refer to the less tangible aspects of reality: emotions, value, purpose, beauty, love, relationships and so on. I am not referring to anything specifically religious.
The material and the spiritual cannot be so easily separated, because material things are often invested with spiritual qualities. A souvenir, even a cheap, tacky souvenir, is not just a thing. The very word “souvenir” indicates this: it is the French word for memory. A souvenir is worth more than its dollar value because it is a link to a place and time which was important to us. It is the physical hyperlink to our memories. And our memories are more than just factual recollections. They are those, but packaged with emotions and sensations and relationships. So if we lose or break a souvenir, although we might say that it doesn’t matter, that it was only a silly, worthless, material trinket, it was, in fact, no such thing. We say this precisely because it is not true: we are trying to protect ourselves from a deeper, more significant loss.
Material items can also become the link between us and a person from whom we are separated, or who has died. The loss or breakage of such an item touches us very deeply, as much as we might try to convince ourselves that it doesn’t.
Finally, an item for which we have worked and saved very hard to be able to finally buy is, again, worth much more than its mere monetary value. Into that item has gone our investment in time and energy. Attached to it is the anticipation of its final acquisition, and the joy of that long-awaited moment of ownership. These things are not only “things”. They are a projection of ourselves, our effort, our history, our life, into the world. This is not materialism. This is not ownership and possession for its own sake.
Someone I know received a small amount of money as an inheritance when her mother died, and with that money she bought an item, a “thing”, that she treasured. When that item was broken, this broke more than a “thing”. Don’t ever tell me that material “things” do not matter.
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Sunday, March 17, 2013
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Friedrich Nietzsche
This is one of those sayings. It is tossed around in any situation in which we face a challenge, whether that be some kind of made up challenge (a weekend “boot camp”, a TV weight loss program, or any other TV “challenge”), or real life struggles. Perhaps even worse, it is often used in the context of challenges that God, via Life, has supposedly laid upon us. Good, down to earth, homespun wisdom, right? Sound theology, correct? No! There are two very fundamental things wrong with it.
Firstly, the last thing I want to hear when I am facing a potentially life threatening challenge is that what won’t kill me will make me stronger! The point is, it just bloody well might kill me! So, dead or stronger, dead or stronger. Hmmmm. Here’s an idea. How about I forego your silly challenge, God, Life, Fate, NBC – whoever sent it to me – in favour of staying alive. I can live with not being stronger; I cannot live with being... well, dead!
The second thing wrong with this statement is this – and I think you’ll agree that this is crucial to the whole argument: something that does not kill me can sometimes (and, perhaps more often than not, does) make me weaker! I was run over by a car, my pelvis was crushed. I have to spend six weeks in plaster, in bed. Am I stronger at the end of this process? I somehow don’t think so. Oh, wait a minute. You mean that I am emotionally stronger! Well, no, actually. Now I am terrified of crossing the road, and I break out in a sweat when I see a nurse. I am, as they also say, “scarred for life”.
Am I stronger because my uncle abused me when I was a child? Because I was bullied in the playground? Because my parents were killed in an accident when I was five? Because I was captured and held hostage by terrorists? Because I did two tours of duty in Iraq? Probably not, actually. But, of course, there is no way of ever knowing, is there. We can’t go back and try life again without these things happening to us, can we.
I suppose this saying is really a coping mechanism, although it sometimes sounds like a sales pitch for suffering and hardship. We like to think that things happen to us for a reason, although they probably don’t. We can, of course, take the opportunities that life offers in order to learn and grow as people. One of the things we might well learn from pain, suffering and hardship is that “what does not kill us also does not necessarily make us stronger”. This is a useful thing to learn. It also helps those of us who perhaps don’t feel stronger for having battled adversity for years on end, not to feel, in addition, guilty: that we have somehow failed the challenge. What have I been doing wrong, that I am not stronger now? Nothing, actually.
This is just one of those sayings, that is more like propaganda than wisdom.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
I have never been very good at the whole social etiquette thing. I’m not talking about which knife to use at a Michelin Four Star Restaurant; I can’t even afford to breathe the air in one of those. They only go up to three stars? Oh well, there you are. I obviously should have known that. Nor am I talking about pulling out chairs or opening doors for women. That, I just don’t do. I am talking about the more general stuff, such as taking a bottle of wine when I go for a meal at someone’s house; sending thank you notes when someone sends me a gift; buying gifts when one is supposed to (there are these things called “birthdays” and “Christmas”, apparently; plus a whole bunch of others). I never quite know the correct thing to say in a particular situation. You mean, when someone asks me how I am, I shouldn’t reply, “Well, since you ask, I’m rather depressed at the moment, and my haemorrhoids are playing up something shocking”? (I had a German colleague in Switzerland who actually thought you meant it when you asked him how he was. How weird is that!)
Now, of course, I face a whole new realm of etiquette: online etiquette. Take Twitter for instance. There seems to be this whole if-I-follow-you-I-expect-you-to-follow-me-back kind of etiquette. Some, in their online profile, make it very clear that if I were to unfollow them, they would immediately unfollow me. How can I be expected to bear up under the weight of such threats! And then there is this whole “Thank you for following me”, “Thank you for mentioning me”, “Thank you for retweeting me” crap. I actually succeed in feeling mildly guilty if I don’t thank everyone for mentioning me. In fact, I don’t thank anyone for mentioning me: does that warrant a trip to the confessional? I do kind of, sort of thank people for following me, but only because I want to tell them to buy my book or hire my services as an editor. I have a sneaking suspicion that they are doing the same thing; that they don’t actually love me, and are not actually rapturous disciples of mine. Perhaps I should banish such evil thoughts. And then there are those who, in barely suppressed italics and bold face, assert that they DO NOT READ DMs (for those fortunate enough to be out of the know, this refers to “direct messages”). And there are even those who expressly forbid the sending of DMs. Of course, this only makes me want to send them a DM, just to piss them off. One imagines squads of digital police arriving at the door, fully armed with delete keys.
So, if you follow me on Twitter, I might not follow back; if you “like” my Facebook page, I still might not “like” yours (and even if I do “like” it, that doesn’t necessarily mean I actually like it); if you read my blog, that doesn’t mean I will read yours.
No doubt the breaching of such rules of etiquette by someone like me sends some people into paroxysms of rage. I am probably at risk of being pummelled by exclamation marks, bold face and block capitals. Has anyone yet invented an emoticon for “the finger”. I’m sure they must have! There isn’t one among my Skype emoticons. It would be a welcome addition.
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Friday, March 15, 2013
I have, from time to time, been accused of being “too logical”. I am reminded of this, having recently been watching a British comedian, by the name of David Mitchell, on TV. I think that he is very funny, but also, most noticeably, he is frighteningly clever and cuttingly logical. He is able to see immediately the logical flaws and inconsistencies in what others say.
I used two adjectives in the previous paragraph to describe David’s intellect. I said that he was frighteningly clever and cuttingly logical. Intelligence in another person frightens us. It intimidates us and makes us feel inferior. A defensive reaction in the face of this threat is often to belittle the importance of intelligence. “He is too clever by half.” “She is too smart for her own good.” If someone is gifted in a particular way in which I happen not to be, the safe tactic is to diminish the importance of that gift.
Logic is cutting in two senses. First, it cuts to the heart of the matter. Second, it cuts the ground from under us. Because of this it is also cutting in a third sense: it cuts through us. It can be very painful to have a cherished belief or idea sliced apart by logic.
Such cutting logic is sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. Statements are sometimes made that are not intended to be logical theses, and it is not appropriate to respond to them as if they were. The problem is, though, that some of these not-intended-to-be-logical statements are presented in the guise of logic. How is a logical person expected to know? Advice to logical person: assume a statement is not intended to be logical. In my experience, most statements are neither logical, nor intended to be, even when presented in the guise of logic. This includes my own oh-so-logical expositions too, by the way.
There is a difference between illogical statements and non-logical statements. This is an illogical statement: All criminals are human beings, therefore all human beings are criminals. Even if both claims in that statement were determined, empirically, to be true, the statement would remain illogical, because the “therefore” does not hold. This is a non-logical statement: I feel like shit today! I guess the difficulty arises when an illogical statement is made with a non-logical intent. No wonder communication is so difficult!
There is clearly a place in the word for quick, clean, logical thinking. Irrational beliefs and claims deserve to be challenged, although, perhaps, sensitively rather than cuttingly. More cuttingly if they claim to be rational. There is also clearly room in the world for the non-rational, which should never be challenged on rational grounds. The world is a richer place because of the abundance of the non-rational. My preference for one kind of food, or music or art is never rationally based. Any claim that it is should be challenged by rational logic.
As a final aside, I wish that I were half as clever, quick-witted and logical as David Mitchell.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
I have been observing, recently, what a powerful force is bias. I have no doubt that we are all biased to one degree or another. Not only do we slant what we say to emphasise a particular point of view, but we only see and hear what we want to see and hear. On top of which, we also interpret the things we see and hear in a very particular way.
Politics is one obvious area where this occurs. It is particularly evident in Australia, where the political parties have such very similar policies, which shimmer and shift as public opinion changes. To use an analogy from statistics, I suspect that the variance between individuals within a party is equal to, if not greater than, the variance between the parties. What this means in simpler language is that you could probably shuffle the members of the parliamentary political parties around randomly, and it would make little difference to either the appearance or policies of those parties. Yet people still manage to get excited about the “differences”, and cling to belief in a particular party as though their lives (or, indeed something, anything) actually depended on which party was in power.
The bias of the supporters becomes clear when a statement made by Leader A of Party A gives rise to vociferous and energetic objections from supporters of party B; however, the very next day, when Leader B of Party B makes an almost identical statement, supporters of Party B cheer enthusiastically. Followers of Leader A will complain that the media give more time to Leader B; while in the next room, followers of Leader B claim the opposite. An actual study would probably reveal that the time given to each leader fluctuates from day to day and week to week, but eventually evens out. It may not do so, of course, but no one bothers with such objective evidence; and supporters would claim that it was biased, in any case.
I find all this generally amusing, and occasionally irritating. Could it not be that both sides of politics have something useful to say? We are not, after all, following football teams here. Do we have to constantly fall prey to this apparently innate human tendency to see everything in black and white? Is this not one of the main causes of all the problems that we face in society?
My problem in all this, of course (and my particular bias shows its petticoats here), is that in Australia there is, in fact, only one side of politics, and it is all to the right of centre. So the very “centre”, if that lies between the parties, is eccentric. There is, unfortunately, no longer any major political party in Australia that represents my views. This makes voting very difficult indeed. Yes, I am certainly out of step with the current mood and the dominant culture. As far as I am concerned, that is the only sane and healthy position to adopt.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
In these blog posts I have made no secret of the fact that I do not believe in God. I used to be a practicing Christian. Indeed, I used to be an Anglican minister. I stepped onto that path because of a number of experiences that I would broadly describe as “mystical”. I do not believe, any longer, that these experiences point to any supernatural entity. They are part – a very important part – of our human nature, akin to our appreciation of beauty, poetry, music and other equally “useless” things. But they have nothing to do with religion per se.
Having made that clear, I want to emphasise that this does not mean that I reject everything in the Christian tradition as pointless or harmful. This is true of other religious systems also. Consider the Bible, which is the religious text with which I am most familiar. People who reject the teachings of the Bible completely, or regard them as totally irrelevant for today, are essentially committing the same error as Biblical fundamentalists: they are failing to understand the text of the Bible within its cultural and historical context. The writings that we now call the Bible were written over a period of some two thousand years, many starting life as oral traditions. Earlier writings have undergone various revisions at various times. As with any text, they reflect the values, beliefs and circumstances of the day. There are some Biblical teachings that we rightly reject today. There are others that retain some value, when they are properly understood. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, is not easy to understand, and we are foolish if we think that we can simply sit down and read it, without any historical and cultural background. Some things we will get; many, if not most, we will not. The danger is that we think we do. Whether we like it or not, the Bible requires careful historical and literary study in order to fully understand it. The same is surely true of any historical text, whether religious or not, written long ago in one or several ancient languages. Again, we are foolish if we do not see this.
I would be equally foolish to reject some genuine wisdom, simply because of a prior prejudice against the Bible. It contains human experience and reflection on that experience, much of which remains relevant, much of which no longer is. It records and interprets an important part of human history, and we would be foolish to ignore it completely, and dismiss it all as nonsense. Of course we know things now that the authors did not know then; of course it reflects many values and beliefs that we no longer share; of course there are errors of fact and history; of course there are inconsistencies. It reflects a long period of history and the ideas of many people in many different times, places and situations.
Properly understood the Bible can be a source of wisdom, as can the writings of Plato, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Confucius and the unwritten traditions of indigenous peoples. We can learn from all of this; but we need to understand it. And, we must admit, this usually requires the guidance of scholars.
As usual, an interpretation of the Bible as somehow divinely inspired, or, even worse, dictated verbatim by God, obscures its true value for us today. It alienates people. As a result the baby is thrown out with the bath water. And remember, even when the Bible gets it wrong, this can still provide us with a useful starting point for thought, discussion and debate.
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Tuesday, March 12, 2013
I have a very poor memory of my childhood years. I was recently reading a blog by someone, reminiscing about their schooldays when they were just ten years old or so. They were able to recall such detail! I have nothing more than a few vague impressions of my childhood, with the exception of one or two key moments that stay with me.
I must admit that I wonder, sometimes, if people really do remember, or whether they tend to confabulate. Could it be that they mix a few vague memories with things they have been told by parents and siblings, with the aid of a few photographs, and constructively fill in the gaps with a little creative writing? Of course, people will never be persuaded that that’s the case, and it may not be. It is something beyond the realms of proof. But there are motivations for the conviction that these are genuine recollections that make me a little suspicious.
First of all, they certainly seem real to the person. We tend to trust our mind, whether it be with regard to the immediate perceptions that it is processing, or the images from our past that it is presenting to us. This is a good first principle on which to base life. It would be a very chaotic life if none of our perceptions or memories could be relied upon. Yet we know that both our perceptions and our memories can be mistaken. The suspicion that our memories are not as picture perfect as we would like to imagine is strongly reinforced by the fact that people recall the same events very differently. Memories are selective and they are subjective. They are also subject to reinterpretation, reevaluation and even rewriting in the light of later experiences. They also tend to fade over time. We do not like this, so we try to fill in the gaps.
The other motivation for believing that our memories are accurate is the oft-repeated claim that we are our memories. Fortunately, I don’t believe that this is true, at least not completely. I stand to be corrected by experts here (not by Hollywood or other fictional accounts of memory loss), but I don’t think that memory loss automatically results in personality change. In other words, despite a loss of memory, Jack remains Jack and Jill remains Jill, at least to a large extent. I am more than my memories. This is good news, because, despite the fact that people make statements such as, “We will always have our memories”, and “The only thing I have left is my memories”, neither of these statements is entirely true. Age alone brings memory loss, and Altzheimer’s even more so. It is comforting to know that I remain even if my memories do not. Something of me remains, at least.
There is certain to be a spectrum amongst people with respect to their ability to remember the more distant past. No doubt some have excellent recall, while others, like me, have very poor recall. Unfortunately the claims of someone to have excellent recall will rarely, if ever, be provable. I will, therefore, hold just a smidgen of scepticism in the corner of my mind. Nevertheless, the recollections make for good stories. Some of us even confabulate for a living.
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Monday, March 11, 2013
A nurse sits with a dying patient, holding her hand. She, the patient, is an elderly woman, alone in the world, far from home, having been transported down to the hospital from the far north of the state. The nurse sits there. He should be preparing medication. He should be filling in case notes. He should be checking on other patients. But he is not. He is choosing to sit with an old woman about whom no one cares, who will soon be dead anyway. How very inefficient!
An artist sits in front of an unfinished painting. She sits… and sits… and sits. There is housework to do. She should probably be “working” the social networks. She forgets an appointment with her agent. After three or four hours she works for half an hour, perhaps an hour; adds a few brush strokes here and there. It is finished. She looks upon her work, and it is good. But she is very inefficient.
A minister sits in the chapel. He should be visiting the patients in the hospital, ticking the names off the list. He should be preparing his report for the diocese. He should be attending the ward meeting on level six. But he had an argument with his wife that morning, and they parted in anger, his children witnesses. He is fuming and aching inside. He cannot face the patients, the staff, the ward meeting. He sits, breathing in what he perceives to be a healing spirit. Eventually he calls his wife. They talk, they cry, and eventually they laugh. And he is ready to face the patients, two hours behind schedule. Such inefficiency cannot be tolerated.
Brian tends to be a little slower than the other workers. It takes him longer to stack the shelves. First he has to decide what is what, and where it goes. Then he has to make sure that the items are aligned just so. This is not at all efficient.
Joe, though, is efficient. He gets the job done very quickly. It doesn’t really matter if the finish on the window frames is not quite right. It’s good enough; they won’t even notice. And he manages to clean up most of the mess. The dust on the floor over there in the corner isn’t very noticeable. He is finished with enough time to get to the next job. Enough time, not too much time. Enough time, that is, if he goes just a little bit above the speed limit. Not much, just enough.
It would be nice to live in a world with much less efficiency.