Boneheaded Bureaucrats

Let me start by saying I spent many years behind bureaucratic desks myself. Like all of us paper-pushers, I was fairly insulated from the public I was supposed to be serving. I worked in a high-security building that became increasingly difficult, year by year, to enter without credentials. Phone systems were a maze for anyone on the outside to negotiate. Apart from this kind of insulation, there are rules and regulations, unique to each agency, that limit the bureaucrat’s ability to act on the public’s behalf, at least with any speed. Mountains of red tape are required to accomplish anything in government.

Now that I’m retired and on the other side of the wall, I have to say I’ve never been more frustrated with bureaucrats who have stood in the way of my accomplishing what have always been routine but necessary tasks. Maybe I took on too large a challenge by trying to renew my driver’s license and get a passport in the same year. I’ve come up against something new, the federal REAL ID Act, which puts upon the citizen the entire burden of proving he or she isn’t a hostile alien. I never dreamed it would be so difficult for a native-born American like myself, who has only been outside the United States twice in my life, to prove this. I worked for the Federal government for over 35 years, and had a top secret security clearance for the jobs that required it. I’m now an an annuitant, and on Medicare, for heaven’s sake. I’ve renewed my driver’s license countless times before, and the passport I had years ago was easily obtained with just a hospital record of my birth. But now, it seems, everything has to be super-official and sealed.

It has been like pulling teeth to obtain a certified copy of my birth certificate from the office of vital statistics where I was born, Washington DC. The main obstacle is having been born in 1952, apparently a year in which birth certificates were not routinely issued with all the necessary formalities. Certificate of this age tend to be in fragile shape, or don’t have a raised seal, or are lacking some information. Abstracts have to be made, a process which I was told would take two weeks. Try two months.

While I was struggling with this, my older brother, born at the exact same hospital and to the exact same parents, received his passport with no problem at all. His birth certificate, issued in 1947, apparently had been endowed with the requisite raised seal. In a nice Catch-22 situation, it turned out that having the passport in hand would have eased my license renewal process.

In order to prove my legitimacy, I’ve had to come up with documents that literally didn’t exist when the new requirements went into effect. They had to be recreated in a way that I can only hope will satisfy bureaucrats of various stripes. I got periodic updates from a well-recommended third party I enlisted to handle the matter. These ran along the lines of  “Sorry, but this process takes time.” Their refusal to give exact timetables is aggravating when you’re up against your own deadlines. Meanwhile, in a desperate do-it-yourself attempt, I searched three different databases that supposedly have millions of vital records. They enticed me to apply for access by claiming, during a test run, that my maiden name turned up several matches. Once in the systems, the same name came up zero. What’s with that? To be unable to find written acknowledgement of your existence is downright chilling.

I’ve tried to use what writer’s eloquence I possess, through emails and phone calls, to try to get the relevant bureaucrats to listen to reason. It’s not like appealing to a business, which depends on a customer’s good will and future patronage. I was able to break through some barriers when I made those non-refundable hotel reservations by mistake, or when I had to talk my way back onto social media sites that locked me out for no apparent reason, or when I finally got an appliance store to deliver a hard-to-obtain dishwasher after three cancelled deliveries. But now I’m dealing with bureaucracies, not businesses. The law makes them utterly inflexible, and they don’t need my good will. It doesn’t seem to matter that it’s not my fault I was born in 1952. Lately, a dark suspicion has occurred to me: that these processes are less about security and more about harassing and inconveniencing certain classes of people who don’t tend to support the dominant political party.

How much more of a US citizen could I be? My paternal ancestors helped to found New Amsterdam in the 1600s. A great-grandfather on my mother’s side was friends with and worked for Theodore Roosevelt. I have a photograph to prove it … but how would I convince a bureaucrat that the handsome man sitting beside TR is really my great-grandfather? At times I get irrationally angry at my parents for not making me as “official” as my older brother. I know having two children is twice as hard, but you still have to properly register all your kids, not just the first.

Postscript: After further effort, I was finally able to get past the irritating rotary phone systems and communicate with real humans, which has made me feel immensely better. Flesh-and-blood people, as a rule, really do want to help you. I talked to one on the phone who assured me that she would put the necessary copies of my birth certificate in the mail without further delay. They have arrived, and have actual signatures and seals that make them look official. A few days later, an in-person visit to the local department of motor vehicles went off fairly smoothly, despite time wasted standing in the wrong line and in front of a lady whose driving privileges were in jeopardy because she had misplaced her social security card. So as of now, I haven’t given up on ever driving or traveling again. As I’ve had to learn as a writer, you can’t be a quitter. If I hit further snags, I’ll persevere, even if it means suing somebody or starting my own movement.

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Are Your Characters Despicable?

I requested reviews for my novel Sycophants, published late last year on Amazon, so it’s time to take some flak. Overall, the reviews aren’t bad, and much of the criticism is couched in compliments. Almost everyone thinks the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and the story flows reasonably well. It’s the characters that seem to give critics heartburn. I meant to make them reasonably flawed, like real people. So how did some of them, even ones I don’t think are so bad myself, turn out downright despicable to more than a few readers?

The novel poses some questions about the nature of friendship. Can a relationship possibly be healthy if one of the participants possesses most of the charisma and power, possibly encouraging something that borders on hero worship? In Sycophants, there is a basic imbalance between the co-heroines, Imogene and Sara. They are former college roommates (as depicted in my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming) who team up years later for a movie-making venture. They pick up where they left off at school, with Sara the leader and Imogene the follower.

In their new situation, Sara is the boss of a production company with headquarters in New York City. Imogene has been hired not for any particular qualifications, but because they are old friends. Imogene jumps at the opportunity, having become disenchanted with the mostly clerical jobs she has held in the publishing industry. Her marriage to a young lawyer, also an unequal partnership,  is on the rocks. Somewhat naive and unprepared,  Imogene finds herself scrambling to gain a foothold in the high-powered company. She does manage to benefit from her business association with Sara, as she earns a decent salary, plays at being a publicist, and works toward acquiring some credits as a screenwriter. But there’s no way she can catch up to her friend.

It isn’t that Sara is the worst boss in the world. In fact, she is fairly generous in putting up with Imogene’s early miscues, for which another supervisor advocates firing her on the spot. Still, the super-busy Sara blows hot and cold. One moment she might chide Imogene for overstepping her authority; in the next breath, she might exhort her to develop more of a backbone. There are limits to how much Sara can prod Imogene toward success; the neophyte will have to do that herself.

I never intended Sara to be “despicable,” although she does tend to collect “sycophants” through the force of her personality. Her older brother Jake, a fading rock star, is the one who uses that word to describe his sister’s  relationships. He’s offended when Sara proposes to salvage his career by putting him in a movie, although his grumbling doesn’t prevent him from accepting her help.

Not every reader finds this friendship weird or the characters totally unlikable. Some comments fell along the lines of “flawed, not perfect, just as in real life.” Some thought the chemistry between Sara and Imogene had potential. Others felt the need to refer to the “friends” in quotes. To paraphrase one reader, “These people might be realistic, but I’m glad I don’t know them!” They are pegged as users, especially Sara. “Friendship to her is a one-way street,” another reader says, adding that Imogene is too much of a wimp to avoid being her prime victim. Why, these critics demand, can’t Imogene learn to stand up for herself, benefit from experience, and take responsibility? (I had hoped the story demonstrated her doing more of those things as time passed).

The most extreme reaction came from a reader who professed to like the writing, but not the book. She admitted to being predisposed against the “coming of age” genre (although that’s something of a stretch, as my characters start off in their late twenties, having left college about eight years before). For this reader, sycophantic behavior equates to being obsequious and brown-nosing. She concludes, “I’m not sure I’ve ever despised characters so thoroughly.” I’m kind of flattered that I evoked such a strong reaction, even if I didn’t exactly mean to!

I can understand why readers take Imogene to task for bad choices. One observes wisely, “Working for a good friend isn’t always a good idea; neither is blaming your husband for your career failures.” It’s always incumbent on authors to get readers to care what happens to their characters; not caring enough, as one critic says, tends to slow down the reading. Sara’s company is stacked with ambitious people besides herself, and blind ambition tends to make them all unlikable from the start, even before they get to be out-and-out sycophants. Imogene is also taken to task for assuming that her husband is cheating on her and acting accordingly, without real proof (although her suspicions turn out to be true).

To sum up, they are “all shallow, money-driven users with no redeeming qualities. No true villains but no heroes either.” It was suggested that if I had put in a few “true villains,” it might have made the “minor villains” seem less bad. I did introduce an armed kidnapper, but he might have come off as more deluded than evil. And maybe the perpetually drunk minor musicians, who are prone to settling their artistic differences with their fists, served more as comic relief.

Once in a while you get a criticism that you actually like! One reader thought I was emotionally distant from my characters, more in the vein of 19th century literature than modern writing. As a former English major who often prefers the old style myself, I really can’t get too upset about that. If it means my book is somewhat “literary,” I’m all for it.

I’d be interested to know how many of my fellow authors have taken a similar trip with their characters. Have you set out to make them realistically flawed, but perhaps gone too far and accidentally made them despicable?