Monday, January 30, 2012

Muses and Inky Trysts

I'll admit to literary liaisons with numerous dead authors. Gibbon, Lewis, Hugo, Emerson...Soul mates, long since passed on, whose words reveal kindred spirits that might have perfectly intertwined with mine on a bed of paper and ink. Or on a keyboard, though it's less poetic. I can't believe Calvin Klein made a perfume called "Obsession" and it doesn't smell anything like the library or a used bookstore. They are the  perfect combination of coffee and well worn books, made endearing by their very raggedness. Wouldn't it be nice to get all our lovers on the same page?

I'm currently having a daily flaming tryst with Kurt Vonnegut by reading his biography and re-reading his most famous work, Slaughterhouse Five. Vignettes from a painful, somewhat neglected childhood, the trauma of war, and the cruel tediousness of everyday family life come together and shed light on the troubled genius. I want to hold his hand and tell him everything is going to be okay. I want to tell him I understand him even if his publishers don't. I want to tell him how charming I think it is that he didn't know who Keats was when he was a university professor teaching writing. Funny. In his novels I would be able to do exactly that due to some mysterious time warp or some distracted all powerful being.  He seemed to work it out just fine without me. So I won't build a time machine. One less thing on my to-do list.

Gifted writers use words carefully to give you a little insight into the wounded crevices of their souls. What they won't tell their best friend over a beer at the corner bar, they will scribble on a page and send out into the universe to see if there might be someone, anyone, who feels the same way. Then many years later, there I am on the sofa, in my threadbare Berkeley sweatshirt, savoring the book which I know in my soul of souls was written for me. I don't know why the other 2 million people bought it. The author was toying with them, but then he has to pay the bills. I can overlook his infidelity. I know the truth.

What an author reveals to us in his work is often explained further when the biography comes out. Talented writers and researchers go on massive treasure hunts through interviews that must feel like depositions, personal letters, and other tangible clues. True life stories come forward through the shadows.  Character models and threads of real life become connected and the magic dissipates to expose raw inspiration.We get to share in the, sometimes tormented, creative process. The disappointments. The little victories. Eventually the success. We want to yell at his wife to "leave him alone, so he can write" we want to scold uninterested publishers. We want to sit in the front row of the class at a mid-western university or at Cambridge and  catch the reek of cigarette smoke or the haunting slight scent of pipe tobacco. We want to be amused at the rumpled suit and disheveled stacks of papers. Biographers allow us to do just that.

Biographers--good ones, not the ones who turn out those disastrous tell-alls--help us understand the genius and his muse. The muse isn't so much that wispy ethereal being we picture hovering over the author. Sometimes her lip is busted and she smells like gin. Hanging around with artists and writers is tough work. You think Hemingway had a wimpy muse?  She's limped along next to our favorite writers over the years helping them to slog it out at the typewriter, or on the back of a napkin when things were bad. She's kept them up at night demanding to be heard. When she's inspired the last piece of work maybe she starts looking for the writer who will tell the writer's story--the one he was creating when he wasn't writing.  After all, isn't life just a story in the end?  Biographers get to improve on it. Polish it up. Edit. They give our favorite writers back to us more easily understood and fully fleshed out. Every once in a while you can almost smell the Pall Malls.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Where's Your Exit?

Do you yawn or check the score from last night's game during the flight attendant's safety briefing? You might want to pay closer attention next time. 

Last week I woke up, grabbed some coffee and walked out onto the deck of our cruise ship to see the BBC morning news airing the story of a sinking Italian ship. After an ugly encounter with a rocky coastline, it never actually "sank" but met its demise, nonetheless.

On a cruise leaving the States you will, immediately upon departure, have a safety drill in which you will be required to report to your muster station for roll call. This is where you will assemble to board your life boat in the worst case scenario. They are serious. Cabins are checked. Names are marked off. If people are missing the crew finds them to participate in a "make up" drill. A video about exactly what to do in an emergency is playing as you arrive in your cabin and loops constantly. Last year however I traveled across the Ionian Sea from Italy to Greece with my daughter. There was no drill. We did locate our lifejackets in our cabin, but no other instructions were ever given. There was no video in our cabins. Had anything gone wrong we might have been on our own.

At last count as I write this, there are 11 confirmed dead and 21 missing. In this instance it seems to be the captain's fault. But what, if anything, can passengers do to increase their chances of survival in what are called "low probability/ high impact (or consequence) events? 

The short answer is: To ever think about it. At all. It turns out that you have a better chance of saving yourself, and possibly others if you have mentally prepared. Simply put this means, knowing where the exits are and imagining what you would do in an emergency.

Here's a quote from the web site of the author of The Survivor's Club:

In fact, one of the most surprising things you’ll encounter in a disaster is inaction. Believe it or not, but most people do nothing. They’re bewildered. In a stupor, they wait for instructions.

Experts say that 80 percent of us are likely to respond this way with so-called “behavioral inaction.” Only 10 percent act quickly and decisively. Fortunately, just 10 percent of us act dangerously or counterproductively.

Think back to 9-11. How many people, even when they instinctively knew they should leave the building, stayed behind because they followed instructions to do so?  If your intuition tells you things are really bad, they probably are. Every book I've read on the subject indicates that passivity is dangerous. Sitting quietly and believing placating explanations from those in charge wastes precious moments. But the key to survival seems to be being able to wrap your brain around the concept that something bad has happened and action must be taken. Often passengers in plane survivable plane crashes sit stoically even when clear instructions are given.

“Paralysis seems to happen on the steepest slope of the survival arc—where almost all hope is lost, when escape seems impossible, and when the situation is unfamiliar to the extreme.” ~ Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes--and Why

It turns out some of these concepts play out on a larger scale in economic downturns and  other personal crises. I'm currently reading the new bio of Kurt Vonnegut. After a lifetime of glittering parties and social status, his mother couldn't adjust to her new circumstances after the loss of the family fortune during the Depression. She killed herself on Mother's Day.

“Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a believe that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences.”
–Amanda Ripley, The Unthinkable

Find your exits. Imagine the worst and take a moment to think about what you might do.

This concludes today's safety briefing.

Keep calm and carry on...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

What's on the Nightstand

Okay, I'll admit my reading habits are a little nerdy. I DO mean to get around to The Help and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, but what's at the TOP of my 2012 reading list?

And these two are on the way via the UPS man: 
What's on your nightstand?