30 April 2001

"Whoever said we have only two beings
wrestling within has greatly underestimated
the number by a considerable amount."
    - Goethe

I don't underestimate how many beings are wrestling within me--the number is currently hovering somewhere between fifteen and twenty. This seems to be the maximum number of sentient beings I can sustain at any one time in my life, without becoming the crazy old coot you avert your gaze from while strolling through parks and public places. I generally try to limit my conversations with them to the privacy of my home, with only occasional slips before my family and a few trusted friends. These are people who are not likely to report me to the men in white coats when they observe me staring incredulously at "middle distance," carrying on heated debate with invisible combatants, or reaching out to touch somebody who obviously doesn't exist in the same dimension as I do.

Who are these creatures, and why are they taking up residence in my head, you ask?

They're the characters who populate my stories. As I've gotten better at writing them, they've gotten better (and more persistent) at sticking around after the story is finished, insisting I engage in meaningful dialogue with them, providing them with more insight than they were originally intended to have, and giving them more exposure than the mere few thousand words they are generally allocated in a single story.

I never minded giving these phantasms what they wanted, until Finch showed up. I needed a really nasty, totally unsympathetic villain for a story I wanted to write, and I conjured up Finch. He's rotten, through and through. He beat his wife, tormented his children, whored around, thumbed his nose at society, lied, cheated, and stole at every opportunity. Worst of all, though, Finch was thrilled to be a telemarketer. He made my skin crawl as I wrote him -- the way he acted, the things he said, the things he did -- he was completely repulsive. People who have read the story about Finch unanimously agree. He's horrible.

And now, he won't go away. He hovers at the edge of my consciousness like some demon waiting to show me the path to perdition, and more and more, I find myself oddly unable to ignore him. Finch has the ethics of a hyena, and the instincts of a salt water crocodile. He didn't survive the story I put him in, but he somehow managed to resist my attempts to purge him from my thoughts. I've even found myself welcoming telemarketing calls, just to see if the person on the other end of the line is as coolly calculating as Finch.

I'm interested in Finch, but at the same time, I fear his influence over me.

Excuse me. My telephone is ringing. It might be a cold call.


23 April 2001

"A man who is always ready to believe what
is told to him will never do well."
     - Gaius Petronius

I like living in the twenty-first century, with all the conveniences, labor-saving devices, and astonishing breakthroughs in technology and science. I'm a real fan of progress. I was first on my block to own an answering machine, a personal computer, a cell phone, a wireless PDA. Instant messaging rings my chimes. Really. I'm about as far from Luddite as Buck Rogers was from the Hubble Telescope. With one glaring exception. Automated telephone menus are the devil's own handiwork. I can't stand them. Let me explain.

I've just spent the past several hours trying to navigate a pen maker's automated menu. I have a pen the company stopped manufacturing about fifteen years ago. I am extremely fond of this pen. When I hold it, it feels like it's part of my hand. The pen can be fixed. I need a replacement part. I know how to make the repair. I am willing to pay good money to get what I need. I called the pen maker, sure this was going to be a simple, painless transaction. I was dead wrong.

At every turn, the pen maker's automated menu offered me choices, none of which got me close to a human being, or a replacement part for my pen.

When my digital enemy answered, it spoke to me in a pleasant enough woman's voice. "Welcome. This is the XYZ Pen Company. You are a valued customer. Please listen to the following to help us serve you better..." This is where the fun began. The menu options were laid out, but not one of them involved pen repair or replacement parts. The closest match was "Customer Relations," so I pressed "2."

The woman's voice, now less friendly, stated, "If this is a medical emergency, please hold the line, and a representative will be with you shortly. If you are calling about our premiere product line, press one. If you are calling about other products, press two. If you need to speak to a customer relations representative, press three."

My index finger hovered over the keypad as I considered the instructions. Since when do people calling pen makers for replacement parts find themselves in medical emergencies? And wouldn't somebody in a medical emergency be better off calling the hospital, before the pen maker? I pressed "3."

The sibilant, mechanical female voice spoke again. This time, she was terse and to the point. "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time. We do not know when a representative will be free to answer your call. There is no point in waiting. If you really feel the need to leave a message, please press one at the tone, and leave your name and number. Somebody will eventually get back to you." I pressed "1" and waited. And waited. When I finally tired of waiting for something to happen, I hung up. Did I mention this was not a toll-free number?

I figured there was a glitch in the system, so I decided to try again. Nobody has ever accused me of being a quitter. I called the pen maker eight times and went through the exact same series of events each time. Naturally, I invariably reached the same unsatisfying conclusion.

On my ninth and final attempt, I tried something different. Right at the start of the litany of call options, I pressed "0" and held my breath. I hoped I would bypass the menu and be switched directly to an operator. My only goal was to reach a human being who could answer my questions, take my credit card information, and ship me a new part.

The gambit was a success. I heard a faint clicking, a hum, and then a sweet, tentative, "Hello? May I help you?" coming from the other end of the line. I explained my problem to the soft-voiced, solicitous young woman. She said, "Oh, of course. You need a new part. Just let me connect you to a customer relations representative." Before I could stop her, I was switched away, and I heard the now-dreaded, "All our customer relations representatives are answering other customer calls at this time..."

I hung up, cursing the pen maker and the automated menu to eternal perdition.

Excuse me. I'm leaving now. I have to drive to the office supply store for a new pen.


21 April 2001

"A man of genius makes no mistakes.  His
errors are volitional and are the portals of
  - J. Joyce

I read the most interesting thing about journal writing recently. Virginia Woolf was commenting on how Ottoline Morrell kept a journal, but allowed as to how the journal was vastly different from her own, filled up as it was with Ottoline's writing about her inner life. The thought of this made Woolf stop and consider that when she got right down to it, she had no inner life herself. However, Woolf's diaries are filled to bursting with her observations of the world around her -- nothing escaped her keen artist's eye. She never skimped or flinched when laying out the patterns of social engagements, the people around her, or her travels through towns and countries. She treated a walk through Kensignton Gardens as seriously and with quite as much thoughtful attention to detail as she did an enormous dinner party in fancy dress, or a reception with a crowned head of state.

But the only places where we find inner life, if we can call it that, are when we read the stories she wrote. She projected everything she didn't find in herself, but found in others, onto her pages.

I think this is something every writer, every writer who's going to make it as a writer, that is, comes to terms with. There isn't nearly enough good fiction in the world, and part of the reason why is because we've been training our writers to look inward, rather than outward, and rewarding them accordingly. It's as if we have forgotten how to look at our heroes and villains and render them accurately with words. We've forgotten, too, how important it is when we create those characters to exaggerate the lines, extend the reach, endow them with the qualities and characteristics we want to find in ourselves.

Excuse me. I have a sudden desire to peer into a mirror.


18 April 2001

"Life is real!  Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal: ..."
     - H.W. Longfellow

I've been thinking about one of my dear friends. She and I recently had a conversation over coffee during which she groaned about her position, one that I had myself occupied several years ago. She has incentive options from her company, and she's praying for an IPO before she's burned to a crisp. She's been dealing with hundred-hour work weeks, sunrise to well past midnight most days, trying to make the IPO happen so she can cash in and go off to have the collapse she feels she earned. Now she says she's debating whether it's worthwhile for her to remain with the company, with the downturn in the general economy.

I asked, "What is it you want from a job?" She told me what she likes most is when she's allowed to "build something." She loves being able to bring people together in a team, but what excites her most is the potential for success. She said her ennui in a job begins to surface after the team moves into a performant state, and she itches for something new. She also said she no longer reports to the company founder, who recruited her.

There is a new vice-president on her horizon, who has half the company reporting to him. My friend commented that this new executive has introduced an unhealthy competitiveness into the company, pitting people against one another, rather than helping them team together. The executive has even made his presence known in the intramural volleyball league, a group that has been meeting for over a year for friendly fun after work. The new guy has so negatively affected the atmosphere, and ruined the sense of fun, that nobody enjoys the games, and actively look for reasons to not participate.

Her concern is that this executive brings a really cut-throat attitude into the company, a sort of "win at all costs" mentality. Her feelings toward this man are not good, because she's mistrustful of his motives and ethics. She says when things go wrong, he goes hunting for people to blame, and when things go right, he takes all the credit. She says her stomach hurts when she thinks about working with him, and accepting direction from him.

I think she needs to do is figure out why she's willing to remain. If it's because there is an enormous financial gain for her, then wonderful. If it's because she's getting extremely valuable career experience, wonderful. If it's because she wants to outlast a strong-willed predatory executive, terrible.

We drank our coffee, commiserated a bit, and in the end, I told her I hoped she'd be able to make a decision she can not only live with, but one that won't jeopardize her health, mental or physical. She thanked me for the advice, and then it was time to go. Nothing changed.

Excuse me. I need to find myself another cup of coffee.


17 April 2001

"Spring is sprung, the grass is riz... I wonder where the birdies iz?"
    - anonymous

According to that esteemed Missourian, Thomas Stearns Eliot, April is the cruelest month. I believe him.

I decided to take the long way to and from the Library today, given I've been cooped up in the house for the last three days, trying to meet a writing deadline. And yes, there are projects in my queue other than meeting the daily dosage for this blog. The sun was sort of shining, and while it's not warm enough for short sleeves yet, at least I didn't have to wear a winter coat to bear the walk from the house to the car in the driveway. I piled all my overdue books into my trust black bag, donned a jacket, and off I went, hoping I'd get a glimpse of the neighborhood rousing itself from the winter doldrums, readying for flowers and the smell of fresh-mown grass.

Boy, was I ever in the wrong place mentally. Simply stated, the town's a mess.

Left-over sand from the snow trucks lined the gutters and driveways, making the streets unsafe for skaters, bicyclists, and motorcycles (not that there were any of these around, but if they'd been out, it would have been skinned knees and elbows for the lot of them).

The grass hasn't really begun growing yet, so the lawns all look sickly and jaundiced, with bare, sunken patches of dirt and leaves dotting the landscape. Not a flower to be seen anywhere, even though we got crocuses and jonquills this week. It all looked nasty, old, and grubby.

The roads are also chock full of ruts, frost heaves, and pot holes. So much so, that motorists weave in and out of traffic lines like drunken sailors on shore leave, trying to evade the deeper holes, causing consternation among the many nannies and au pairs out parading their employers' little darlings along the sidewalks in strollers. I'm sure it's hard for them to tell at a glance whether the two-ton SUV aimed at the pram will actually swerve back toward the street before it reaches them. My nerves were shot by the time I reached the Library, and I wasn't even walking.

The place was jam-packed with men, women, and teenagers all seeking something -- escape from terminal boredom? Information? Truth? I couldn't tell, because nobody was talking as they scanned the volumes, peering anxiously around to see if they'd lost the chance to borrow something entertaining, or interesting. I dallied a bit, not too keen on getting back out into the traffic right away.

Standing in line at the check-out desk, I overheard a little boy who had obviously been unimpressed with his outing to the Library ask his mother, "Can we get out of this place?" His mother asked if he'd like to wait for her outside the front door. He answered, "I'm not going out there anymore -- this whole town is yucky, Mommy! Can we move?"

She still hadn't answered his question by the time I left. But he was definitely on to something, and he was absolutely right, too. This whole town is yucky.

Excuse me. I think I need to call my mother.


16 April 2001

"If I didn't have writing, I'd be running down the street hurling grenades in people's faces."
   -Paul Fussell

I don't feel particularly entertaining or witty at this moment, so what I want to write about is how writers who sit and wait for divine inspiration often end up not writing anything at all, while at the far other end of the spectrum are those who madly dash off words as quickly as they think them up, regardless of a musely sanctioning. These latter are a curious bunch, cutting a wide swath with their pens, ravaging the literary landscape with debris. These are the people who believe it is somebody else's job to clean it up, make it readable, make it saleable.

The rest of us have to pick gingerly through this junk as we seek out readers, agents, editors, and publishers for our own work. I do feel sorry for the agents and editors who are sitting buried under the fat piles of badly conceived, poorly executed prose and poetry.

Don't get me wrong -- the sparkle and dazzle of an inspirational flash is something perfectly wonderful. However, those who have the habit of referring to themselves as "idea" people rather than "detail" people might be better advised to find other lines of work. Writers who don't finish what they start, don't polish what they finish, aren't actually writers. The divide between the poet and the poetaster is deep and wide, and there is a good reason why more than 90% of the writers who submit stories receive regular rejection. Real writers know that once the inspirational flash finishes, the work actually begins.

I know a woman who considers herself a fine poet. She feels she's in constant communion with her personal, private muse. She never goes anywhere without a pen and pad for jotting down her ideas and inspirations. The little note pads are filled with images, shards of her creative consciousness, which she later breaks apart into lines she labels "poetry," even though there is no reflection or reworking brought to bear against the raw words and phrases. She never really finishes anything she writes, nor does she ever submit her work anywhere, and as a result is unpublished, except for classroom chapbooks.

This same woman has often told me she expects her work will be "discovered" after her death, and she fully believes she'll be the "Grandma Moses" of poetry one day. She feels that all she needs is some person to "organize" her poetry, making it palatable to the public taste. Maybe so, but I don't want to bet my bottom dollar on it.

I think Fortune does favor those writers who are willing to do the work, pay the dues, and through dint of mindful effort, make the world sit up and take notice of them.

Excuse me. I hear my Muse calling. I'm sure the charges are collect.


15 April 2001

"Oh, well, perhaps one has to be very old before 
one learns to be amused rather than shocked."
      -Pearl S. Buck

It's still unseasonably cool in my neck of the northern woods, and I've naturally been thinking about warmer climes. Say, like southern California, where my house might one day take a slushy header down a steep embankment into the ocean, but I'll never have to wear mittens, gloves, hat, and coat to shovel myself out of it.

There's just one small catch -- I don't think I can afford it. Currently, I live in a relatively small town (population=21,000, houses=7,200) where the average house costs $370,000 (these are Taxachusetts dollars), and the average income is $100,000 (I'm sure more than one person works in almost every home). Even with these enormous numbers, people seem to have enough scratch to periodically re-paint, landscape, and re-model, so as to keep the values up and themselves happy in their middle-class enclave.

Be that as it may, I've just stumbled across a startling fact. Woodside, California, a tiny (population 5,600) town nestled in the Silicon Valley duked it out with the state over the law requiring at least sixteen "affordable housing" units. The rent charged for a one-bedroom apartment had to be $870 or less in order to be compliant with the law. The citizens of this rich community thought it over, and finally reached what they felt was an equable solution: local horse farmers are now allowed to subdivide their barns into one-bedroom apartments for the cash-strapped, low-income seekers. In this fashion, the community would be spared having to use precious town real estate to accommodate people who they clearly think of as unsavory elements.

Works for them. If not in the spirit, certainly in the letter of the law.

Like I say, I'd love to live in a warmer place, but somehow the California sunshine doesn't feel quite as hospitable as I expected it to.

Excuse me. I have to put on my hat and gloves.


14 April 2001

"Integrity is a matter of considering the
consequences of every action and of never
being drawn mindlessly into anything."
    - Anonymous 

Diogenes once traveled the streets of Athens in broad daylight carrying a lit lamp aloft in his hand.

While not precisely a luxury, lamp oil was expensive, and burning it while the sun shone brightly was beyond extravagance, the act of a madman. When approached by some curious folks who wanted to know the cause for his seeming insanity, Diogenes calmly replied, "I am looking for an honest man." Honest men in Athens at the time were apparently rare enough to require such extreme measures to detect them.

I think we've finally found an honest man in the executive offices of the Coca-Cola corporation, and the only illumination required was a brief press announcement.

Summersfield Johnston, Jr., aged sixty-eight, made the news a few days ago when he announced his intention to step down from the executive position he's held for slightly longer than a year. A former CEO of Coca-Cola, Johnston returned to an executive office in January 2000. Now, however, he wants out, and makes no bones about why.

Johnston was quoted as saying he's "old and tired," and that the past one has not been the most pleasant year in his life. I've been an executive myself, in an exponentially smaller company, during a time when the economy seemed on the rise. I do not consider that time as being particularly pleasant in my own life, so I can only imagine what it must be for a man in Johnston's position. After all, he is accountable to the shareholders and the Board of Directors for managing the profits and income derived from producing, marketing, distributing, and vending endless bottles, cans, and kegs of soda pop around the world. The weight of the world's thirst for Coca-Cola rests squarely on Johnston's old shoulders, and he wants out from under it.

Imagine a world where every man in a management position is as honest as Johnston, and as willing to confront his own limitations. Why, we might begin to see better training programs and succession planning at executive levels. We might find that record-keeping and corporate histories become more important, if smooth transitions are to occur when men and women decide they are too "old and tired" to continue fighting the political battles, planning the marketing campaigns, or defending the product against competitive encroachment.

We might also discover that the resulting wave of honest self-assessment is truly the pause that refreshes us.

My hat is off to Mr. Johnston.

Excuse me, I need to go quench my thirst.


13 April 2001

"A woman's time of opportunity is short,
and if she doesn't seize it, no one wants
to marry her, and she sits watching for omens."
   - Aristophanes

My mailbox had a surprise in it today, a business-sized window envelope addressed to me. The return address was empty, except for three US dollar signs, big, in currency green. The postmark was metered, bulk-rate pre-sort, stamped from Omaha, Nebraska. I don't know anyone in Omaha, and I've never met any Nebraskans in my life. I turned the envelope over in my hand, and saw the back was imprinted with "You're going to like this!" in the same currency green as the return address dollar signs. Intrigued, I opened the envelope, anticipating something good.

It was good, all right, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. I dug right in.

First, out came a three-page, doublesided, single spaced typewritten letter. Above my address on the first page, in a 28-point handwriting font was printed, "Trust me, R.B., if you need money ... it could pay you to read this letter!" The typewritten letter that followed was peppered with quotes from the "Contemporary English Version of the Bible," each relating directly to following some precise instructions for getting an abundance of cash into my life. The letter informed me I was soon to find myself "basking in an extended period of Prosperity and Good Fortune, starting on or around June 6, 2001." The date was underlined for emphasis.

The letter went on to describe how the writer was struck by a vision of my astrological chart aligning itself in such a way as to guarantee me untold wealth, enough to end all my money woes forever, and then some. I was treated to a description of a magnificent old stone mansion, an excellent library filled with priceless books, a shiny black Beemer in my driveway, and a happy child on a brand-new bicycle. Why, in just a matter of weeks, I could be as happy as "Marguerite K."

Who is Marguerite K., you ask? Why she's a woman the writer predicted a "lucky period" for, after which she won $10,250. The same kind of lucky period I was about to face.

To help me jumpstart my good fortune, the writer offered to send me, free, my very own "mystical and powerful Cross of Fortune," and all I have to do is order my "Forecast for a Life of Good Fortune" for only $19.95 (plus $4.00 for shipping and handling). Said Cross of Fortune purports to be "an exact replica" of one that has made my benefactor's own good fortune possible. In fact, the writer used "astrological skills" to figure out the six numbers on a lottery, and personally won one million dollars. There is an illustration of the cross, which looks an awful lot like a lowercase letter "f," along with descriptions of the symbols inscribed upon it -- a "Seal of Bethor," a Nordic "Gilch," a Scandinavian "Feon," and all twelve symbols for the Zodiac. On the facing side of the sheet is the "Prosperity Confirmation Form for R.B." I'm supposed to fill in the form with my date of birth, my place of birth, the time of my birth, and my intentions for the money I'm going to be getting. There is even a coupon to cut at the bottom of the page, a "personal money-back guarantee of satisfaction to R.B. Bilateral," telling me if I am unhappy with my forecast, or if the weeks following June 6, 2001 don't improve my luck, all I have to do is send back the forecast, and my money will be completely refunded. The Cross of Fortune is mine to keep, no matter what. I wonder if it's real gold?

As if that wouldn't be enough to convince me of the writer's good intentions, and the veracity of her skills and talents, also enclosed is a copy of a news article titled, "Astrologer Solves Case," by "Gary DeVille," profiling the writer's involvement with the "Wickliffe, Ohio" police department in solving a particularly nasty crime. The article says that the writer studied with a "well-known English astrologer, Prof. Reynolds," while living in England thirty years ago. She's obviously been at it a while, and knows what she's doing.

The letter ended with a caution, telling me to keep this to myself, lest others become jealous of me and my good fortune, which is just around the bend. Confident of my complicity, the writer ends, "I'm so excited for you, my dear! You really deserve this."

She's right. We both do. In the meantime, I'm grateful she gave me something to write about. Maybe it's an omen.

Excuse me, but I have to go dig up my birth certificate, so I can send along the hour of my birth, and wait for the money to come rolling in.


07 April 2001

"Be what you would seem to be --
or, never imagine yourself to be otherwise
than what it might appear to others
that what you were or might have been
was not otherwsie than what you had been
would have appeared to them to be otherwise."
   - Lewis Carroll

For the faint of heart who can't bring themselves to slog through the subjunctives above, it's not to worry. I'm thinking about online identity today. Specifically, I'm thinking about how easy it is to assume an identity, attributes, and characteristics one might not have in the real world.

Who hasn't heard the horror stories about dirty old men hanging around children's chat rooms, hoping to make meaningful contact with pre-teens by assuming the mask of somebody known as "Jingles," or "LittleBoyBlue?" Or the middle-aged women tarting themselves up online for hot young studs, parading themselves around as nubile, pneumatic young things, just itching for...well, let's just say, they're looking for someone to scratch what itches them?

But the masquerade isn't just about sex, it seems. Entering a forum for discussing anything is "truth optional." People leave their humdrum routines and mediocre credentials at the doors, assuming plumage they've not earned the right to wear. The posturing can produce some interesting results on occasion. In a forum for aspiring writers, a flame war recently erupted when an interloper appeared. The invader took the time to check out the various offerings from the forum members, then showed up in the main forum and announced, "You are deluding yourselves. You lack talent, wit, imagination, and skill at writing. You flatter yourselves unduly, and you ought to take a look at the world of writing more closely."

The collective membership went crazy, leaping to their cyber-feet instantly, posting wild, heated invective, casting aspersions against the interloper, who, truth be told, didn't show a great deal of common sense, having ignited the flames and then remaining to be roasted by them. Person after person posted, "You don't know what you're talking about," in response to the critic. This back and forth began escalating, until finally one poster, a member who was clearly a leader in the writing forum, well respected for his opinions and his style, challenged the interloper directly.

"What gives you the right to say such things to us? Who are you, to tell us we don't write too good? If your such a grate writer," he wrote, "then surely you could do better than tell us we are no good. I have a doctoral in grammar science, and you made mistakes in speling and punctuation all over your pitiful posts. You, sir, are a fraud and a bad person, to say the things you did." He went on for several paragraphs in this gist, until he finally ran out of steam and topped. He received acclaim from the other members for having put the interloper "in his place" with the elegance of his arguments.

Mr. Pot, please meet my friend, Doctor Kettle. Notwithstanding I think this man meant to say "doctoral degree," the spelling and grammatical errors peppering his post belied his assertion. I wonder if there is such a thing as a doctoral degree in grammar science. Now there's a scary thought. 

The interloper gave up his battle, and went off to wage war elsewhere, presumably with men and women who were willing to consider him a fair judge of good or bad writing.

But really, who's to say whether the writing was good or bad? Out in the cyberworld, each person has the ability to invent himself (or herself) with every word, with every image.

Out in the cyberworld, all the wolves wear shearling coats.

Excuse me. I have to get "baah-ah-ah-ck" online.


06 April 2001

"There is no calamity greater than lavish desires.
There is no greater guilt than discontentment.
And there is no greater disaster than greed."
      - Lao Tzu

Get 'em while they're hot! Be the first on your block to own one of these! Hurry, before it's too late!
I've been online recently, having a look around a popular auction site. I confess, I don't understand the attraction of online auctions--grainy, out of focus digital images notwithstanding--and I have a hard time figuring out why anyone wants to buy other peoples' old stuff. I decided I wanted to know more about this cultural phenomenon. I selected an item to observe over the course of a week--a box of old pens, just to see what might happen. The opening bid was $5.00.

The layout of the screen and the way the "closing" items--things in the last hour of bidding--are highlighted ensures a frenzy in the final moments, regardless of the material value of the offering. Day by day, as the box of pens climbed higher on the page, nearer to the final gavel, the bidding became more vigorous and more frequent, with the dollar amounts suddenly jumping from $5.00 to $20.00, to $50.00, each minute adding an additional $20.00 or more to the bid.

When the auction ended, and the item closed, the winning buyer agreed the box of miscellaneous old, broken pens was worth $240.00. The sale was "as is," as are most of the auctioned items.

I think most of what gets sold is of questionable value. It occurs to me that people are frequenting online auctions now, instead of taking Saturday and Sunday afternoons to frequent flea markets. Erstwhile bargain hunters scour the online site for "collectibles," ranging from porcelain pigs to samurai swords, in hopes of finding a treasure among other people's trash.

Not so long ago, the online auction was newsworthy because a painting a seller found in his garage was attracting international attention from serious art collectors. Bidding slowly accelerated until there was a fast stream of bids, with the amounts measuring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Everyone was thrilled. That is, thrilled, until the ruse was uncovered.

The seller put his painting up for auction with a purposely vague description of the item. He carefully picked his words, hoping to catch the eye of discerning buyers. He wanted the buyers to believe they were bidding on a bona fide work of modern art by a recently acclaimed artist. Interest mounted as the bidding began. The seller had help, too, in the form of a friend willing to use multiple login accounts as his "shill." For more than a week, every time somebody put in a bid, the shill logged on and outbid the legitimate buyer, until the dollar amount began to attract attention from others who were not as knowledgeable about contemporary art, but sensing something dramatic was happening, were willing to join the frenzy.

My guess is many of these people have the same mentality as the men who bankrupted themselves willingly in Holland, buying tulips at the height of the bulb frenzy several hundred years ago. Regardless, in the space of a few days, the price of the painting was up to nearly a quarter million dollars. As the auction drew toward its end, however, the auction site owners, suspicious of the activity and the unnaturally high dollar amounts, stepped in and investigated the seller and the bid activity.

The seller's little plot unraveled when the shill was uncovered. To make matters worse, the painting was identified as a crude forgery. The serious collectors were outraged. The seller and his cronies were banished forever from the site, and new policies and restrictions were immediately enacted to forestall any further fraud upon the online community.

Frankly, I was surprised by the uproar. After all, this is the Internet we're talking about. The wild and woolly Web, where it's every man for himself, and caveat emptor is the rule of the day. These people weren't being fooled by Sotheby's or Christie's, or any other reputable auction house--they were trading on a site originally designed to facilitate the buying and selling of Pez dispensers and Beanie Babies. Anyone hoping to find a cheap Serrault or Monet ought to know better than to search for one in a place full of Scooby Doo commemorative plates and Franklin Mint coin sets.

It's occurred to me that had the hucksters been a little brighter and a little less greedy than they were in laying out their con game, they might never have been caught at all. However, greed and impatience got the better of them, as it always seems to in matters of petty thievery, and the plan collapsed under the weight of the significant bidding.

Christie's and Sotheby's are safe for the time being, and the online auction rolls merrily on its way, with Capodimante figurines, boxes of broken pens, and commemorative coin sets making for a brisk, happy, and for the most part mindless, business model.

Meanwhile, we'd better hurry. Time's wasting, and things are going, going, gone!

Excuse me. I have to place my bid.


02 April 2001

"Write as often as possible, not with the idea of
getting into print, but as if you were learning
an instrument."
    - J.B. Priestly

P.T. Barnum was right. There is a sucker born every minute. Worse, all the people who recognize this is true are also likely to follow W.C. Fields' advice, which is to never give a sucker an even break. 

The result is always the same: the gullible and the greedy, joined in an unholy knot.

I have been thinking about the various writing contests sprouting up all over the place. I'm thinking I should start one myself. I will sponsor a contest for essays and stories up to 1,500 words. I can offer cash prizes of $500, $250, and $100 for the top three entries, no promise of publication of any sort, charge $20 per entry, and then just wait for money and manuscripts to roll in until the contest deadline is reached. I can decline to name the "judges," and I can tell people if they expect to get the winners' list, including the "top ten finalists," they must send a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

This little enterprise would probably net me a considerable profit, if only 600 people entered. The winners would walk away with bragging rights, and I would have about $11,000 in my pocket.

Lest anyone think this is extreme or greedy, let me point out this is precisely what one man is currently doing online. He's set up a contest with himself as the sole judge. Entries are to be stories no greater than 500 words, and the writer's intent must be to "please" him. His decision is final. Anyone may submit entries, at a cost of $25/entry. He will pay out $5,000 to the winner, $2,500 to the second place, and $1,000 to the third place. In the event he receives fewer than 1,000 entries, he will scale down the prize money based on percentage.

He also says people shouldn't worry about how he can make money offering such a wonderful prize. 

No wonder. He's going to keep two-thirds of the money he collects for himself, regardless of the number of entries. If 1,000 people submit entries, the total payout is $8,500. This means $16,500 stays in his pocket. His effort for about three weeks' worth of reading (at 100 words per minute) calculates out to about $150/hour of his time. Not a bad billable rate.

Who is this generous soul? A man who claims to have written a few books, and offered "countless" writers encouragement and advice in their careers. I searched for his books, but couldn't find any, either in print or out. Why should anyone trust his judgment? Why, because it's his contest, you big silly.

And who will send this man money, you ask? People who fancy themselves something they're not, farther along and better than they actually are, people who are interested in having their little egos stroked by those who are determined to milk them out of hard-earned cash. The contestants hand over cash, in the hopes of competing and winning against somebody really good -- while entries might come from the blue-haired lady who dispenses lottery tickets at the corner convenience store, they might also come from Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, or Dean Koontz.

The proliferation of contests has been so great in recent years, it is now possible to submit the same 2,000 word story or 50-line poem to ten places at once with perfect assurances no conflict over who owns rights to what will ever arise. Nobody will ever know, and the one-man operation is unlikely to ever check. Witness what happened with Amazon/PEN's Short Story Contest in 2000.

The winning writer did not actually qualify for the $10,000 prize, having been published already in a large-circulation journal or press. Some thoughtful journalist pointed our the error a few days after the awards were announced. Apologies were made, a new winner was selected, and $10,000 more was thrown into the pot. The contest organizers decided they could not in good conscience take away the money from the disqualified writer, as it would be "too cruel." Yeah, right.

Many contests also shield themselves from criticism or litigation by calling the entry fee a "reading fee." This term sounds somehow more dignified, doesn't it? It also makes the contestant feel good, because there is an implied contract--for a fee, there is an assurance the entry will actually be read, no matter how lacking in craft or imagination or talent.

I'm sure there are legitimate contests, but I believe they are few and far between. It's kind of sad, too, thinking about how the proliferation of contests actually ensures a lowering of literary standards. Most contests aren't "impartial," and the "judges" are often as not drawn from last year's creative writing classes. Baby editors, cutting their critical teeth on the soft mash of mediocre fiction and housewifely hopes.

I believe if these would-be writers used the money they regularly spend on contest fees for enrollment in writing classes and the purchase of instructive texts about the craft of fiction and poetry, they would find themselves enriched beyond pizza and beer.

Excuse me. I have to go plan my contest.