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?

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Sylvia Plath’s Final Act

I’m finding Sylvia Plath’s second volume of letters, covering the years 1956 to 1963, even more fascinating than the first. These are the letters that take her from happy newlywed to deserted, suicidal housewife. Through it all, almost until the very end, Sylvia’s writing kept coming―poems, stories, essays, book reviews, one novel published and another partly drafted, broadcasts for the BBC. She enjoyed a fair amount of success and recognition, although her true fame was posthumous. In the letters she mostly conveyed happiness and contentment in her domestic life and creative excitement about her writing. Most of her correspondents, even those who knew details of her breakdown during her college years, must have assumed that she was fully recovered and doing well.

Both she and her husband, Ted Hughes, decided to forego stable jobs as college teachers for riskier but more satisfying careers as writers. Sylvia devoted herself to family life, giving birth to two children whom she adored, and supported Ted unstintingly in his writing. His fame was greater than hers, which she believed was proper and justified. Her love for him, by some accounts, could be smothering. She came to realize herself that the loss of her father at an early age had most likely triggered this possessiveness. There were times when she couldn’t bear to let Ted out of her sight, for fear he would disappear forever. Eventually, the pressure became overwhelming. and led to an explosion. After six turbulent but mostly happy years, Ted threw it all over, shockingly and suddenly, by taking up with another woman, and probably more than one. Sylvia’s rage was unrelenting, and strongly influenced her writing from then on.

The most intriguing and ominous of these letters are the ones she wrote from her home in England to the psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who had treated her at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard, during her first breakdown in 1953. These were the letters that Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, highlighted in her introduction to the volume. Frieda had only recently encountered these letters herself. Reading them must have been an excruciating experience, but she insisted that they be included in the volume. Frieda opines that not everything her mother wrote can be taken at face value. There are alternate accounts from other sources of some incidents described in the letters, many of which cast doubt on her interpretations. At the very least, it seems Sylvia was prone to exaggeration. Frieda herself wrestled with some of the worst allegations against her beloved father.

Sylvia’s letters to Dr. Beuscher began well before there seemed to be anything seriously wrong with the Hughes marriage. Perhaps they were mostly intended for reassurance. By the time she wrote the last one, Sylvia was aware that history was repeating itself. She had been reading reviews of her recently published novel, The Bell Jar, and pronounced them mostly “raves,” but she seemed to take no pleasure in that. On the contrary, she described the novel as the story of her “first breakdown.” She seemed to acknowledge that a second breakdown, much like the first, was in progress.

Before the book was published, Sylvia wrote a detailed letter to her British publisher in response to his inquiries about libel concerns. She reassured him that the book was fiction and wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits. Many of her claims that certain characters were entirely fictional seem disingenuous. Anyone who has studied her life would recognize the genesis of those characters … the clueless boyfriend, the perpetually put-upon mother, the romance-writer benefactor, the fellow mental hospital inmate (who eventually did sue the estate), and many others.  Far from making up these characters, Sylvia totally nailed them. She knew she got too close to the truth, which prompted her decision to publish the novel under a pseudonym. In the end, her brutality toward some of the people who helped her through that crisis seemed to give her pangs of conscience, and probably contributed to her distress after the book appeared.

The Bell Jar was not her first attempt at a long work. She tried for years to write a “positive novel,” a happily-ever-after story about her courtship at Cambridge University and marriage to Ted. The novel proved to be difficult because, as she wrote to a friend, she couldn’t get beyond “what really happened.” She had also planned a sequel to The Bell Jar, to demonstrate that everything turned out fine for her heroine, “Esther,” who would find love and professional success. But Ted’s desertion blasted that, and she reportedly burned the only copy of that book in a sacrificial fire. Somehow, she could never refashion her narrative to make it come out better.

During her downward spiral in the summer of 1953, she had written desperate journal entries, begging herself to escape from the quicksand that was her mental state. She knew objectively that she was loved and admired by many, as a nearly straight-A scholarship student at prestigious Smith College, with more publications to her credit than almost anyone else her age. But several discouraging events hit her all at once that summer: an unsettling experience as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, a rejection for a writing course she’d hoped to take in summer school, and difficulty getting started on her senior thesis about James Joyce, a notoriously impenetrable subject. Eventually, she became convinced that she couldn’t write anymore, or even read. Her sleeping and eating were affected. Her mind was a quagmire that she couldn’t dig herself out of, no matter how sternly she ordered herself to snap out of it. That led her to a desperate act from which she was fortunate to be saved.

A similar paralysis overcame her in 1963, as can be seen via her increasingly desperate letters to Dr. Beuscher. Outwardly, she had refashioned her life after Ted’s desertion, leaving the country home where she felt buried and establishing herself and the children in a London flat. She knew she had the makings of a renewed life. She had her babies to live for, and her writing was flourishing in a new way since she’d thrown off her own bonds of domesticity. She cherished some hope that once she had released Ted from the smothering marriage, and established herself as an independent woman, he would be less of a bastard. Perhaps they could even renew the literary partnership that had been so fruitful.

She tried gallantly, but her final letter to Dr. Beuscher signaled that she was losing the battle. Once again, her depression was a quicksand:  “I am scared to death that I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up … I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up .. I am suddenly in agony, desperate, thinking, yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die & be done with it.” She begged Dr. Beuscher for the reassurances that would pull her out of this “damned, self-induced freeze … this ghastly, defeatist cycle.”

Sylvia’s desperation was heartbreaking, and makes me want to cry for her. I wish that she had found the right tools to master herself. It has been speculated that modern psychiatry could have done more for her. Back then the profession was just beginning to explore the possible physical components to mental illness. She’d been referred to a specialist who intended to analyze her menstrual cycle and its possible effect on her moods. That referral, although promising, came too late. One morning, after taking care to protect her children, she turned on the gas. She ensured their safety for the moment, but there was no protecting them from that horrible legacy.

Riverdale Runs Wild

In a fit of nostalgia, I recently watched the two seasons of “Riverdale” that are currently available on Netflix. I thought it might be fun to re-experience my childhood enjoyment of the Archie Comics, which captured teenage life in a small town.  I wasn’t yet a teenager when I started reading the comics in the early 1960s, so they mostly gave me a sense of what I had to look forward to, assuming  my own teenage years turned out fairly normal.  There were characters that represented all possible stereotypes … nice and well-behaved Betty, vampy and privileged Veronica, all-American Archie, lazy Jughead, cool-cat Reggie, dumb jock Moose, and so on. In later years, more characters were added to increase the diversity of the cast.

I identified most with Betty, who had a blond ponytail and  a sweet, innocent-looking face. Although she was friends with raven-haired Veronica, she was uncomfortably aware that “Ronnie” was sexier and richer than she. To complicate matters, they both liked Archie and took turns dating him, although Ronnie was also known to flirt with the more suave Reggie. Would typical teenage dramas like these be enough to carry a modern-type streaming series?

Apparently, Netflix doesn’t think so. (Spoiler alert for anybody planning to watch this). The series begins with a literal bang … the murder of a popular student during summer vacation. His family immediately comes under suspicion, since his parents are a little creepy and his twin sister isn’t known to be a good girl. In fact, it comes to light that she was helping her brother run away from home with Betty’s older sister, who was pregnant with his child, when the gunshot rang out. That’s the mystery that sets all of the intrigue in motion, and then it keeps piling on. During the subsequent school year, more murders and attempted murders pop up. Someone who calls himself the Black Hood is wreaking havoc and sending cryptic messages to the newspaper … and also calling Betty’s cell phone, although she has no idea why she’s the target of his weird rambling. And as if this weren’t enough, copycats terrorists get in the act and strike at various times, such as during a mayoral debate and a school musical.

I found myself wondering if I could possibly identify with this wildly enhanced version of Betty, who still has the ponytail but not the innocence. I guess I could, if I suspected my dad was a serial killer, and especially if I had managed to develop sufficient journalistic skills while working on the school newspaper to enable me to uncover some horrifying clues. And maybe if I came to realize that I, too, harbored a certain “darkness” within that could compel me to commit murder for the greater good … even if my intended victim were someone I had thought for a short time was my long-lost brother.

Some comic relief is provided by the irate principal of Riverdale High. He has ample justification for his daily temper tantrums and habit of summoning kids into his office to hear his diatribes. His school is hardly a well-oiled machine; it’s barely a school at all. Most of the kids (except maybe Moose and Reggie and a few gang members) are obviously smart enough to solve complex mysteries that baffle even the chief of police. They’re at an age when they should be thinking about college and taking demanding AP classes in preparation. Even the formerly lazy Jughead has been reconstituted as anything but that, although he sports the same trademark wool cap in every season and situation. He’s probably the most complex of the revised characters, an aspiring writer and crusader for good who is also a gang member. He’s dating nice-on-the-surface Betty in this scenario, but since his dad used to be the leader of the pack, that side of his nature  is never far from the surface.

Schoolwork at Riverdale High is an afterthought, if that. I never saw any of the kids do a lick of homework, although they sometimes tell their parents they have a lot of it. That’s just a handy dodge, it seems, to avoid supervision at home. Once left alone in their rooms, they’re free to get on their computers and phones, not to write themes or work out math problems, but to exchange the latest scandalous news and clues. Nor do the kids adhere to any curfews, as they always seem to be roaming the streets in the dead of night. Once in a while they do sit in a classroom, but the lesson at hand never grabs their attention. How could mere schoolwork compete with their real dramas?

To put it mildly, this is quite a new take on an old classic. There is barely enough time for all of the red herrings introduced in every episode to be chased down. Did the producers go too far in turning what used to be innocent entertainment totally on its head? Or are they just having some fun by pulling our legs?

Corralling A Hot Mess

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts in my semi-illustrious self-publishing career. I have finally disposed of a story that has been cooking inside my brain forever, that has kept on haunting me even as I set it aside and went forward with other unrelated novels because they seemed to come easier. I’ve somehow corralled the scraps of this tale that have lurked ever since I first began to entertain an imaginary friend in childhood. That “friendship” has persisted well into middle age. She still hangs around, advising me and leading by example, since she possesses all the aggressiveness that I lack. She’s the leader of the story, a composite of strong women I have known and admired, while the character based on me is the follower. The story has always been called “Sycophants,” even as it went through revisions too numerous to count. I fear it’s a somewhat self-deprecating title that pegs my heroine, Imogene, as less than heroic, although she does manage to conquer a few demons here and there.

The outlines of Sycophants came to me during my college years in the early 1970s. I was an introvert who tended to gravitate toward the take-charge personalities in my dorm. My college was in rural Maryland, a very pretty spot, but I often longed to escape to New York City, over 200 miles away. A previous novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, published in 2007, dealt with college roommates Sara and Imogene as they embarked on a road trip to the big city. Their mission was to bring back the homegrown band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake, now a famous rock star, to perform at the annual Homecoming concert. Sycophants is a sequel to that novel, in which the original characters have grown up and are now laying the groundwork for their fondest dream, a movie production company. My blurb describes Imogene as a country girl by birth who determines to leave the farm where she grew up and join her former roommate in this exciting venture.

I’ve “finished” the manuscript for this story a few times before, only to abandon it as awkward, uncontrollable, and illogical. In short, it was a hot mess that wouldn’t seem to cool down. For starters, I didn’t know enough about the movie business, and what would be plausible in a do-it-yourself situation in the late 1980s. So I began to read numerous books about all aspects of film-making. I presented the first chapter to a critique group that gave it a real beat-down, leaving me incredulous as to how I could have made so many missteps in just twenty pages. Since traditional publishing was the only real option then, I queried a few places. A few literary agents admitted to liking the concept, but that was as far as it got.

The various manuscripts for Sycophants have a storied history, grinding through all kinds of primitive technology. I typed it on my first computer, purchased around 1987, a Kaypro which had no hard drive and could only store ten pages at a time on floppy disks. Over the years, as the available technology evolved, I transferred it to each new computer. There were times when the ideas flowed smoothly, and other times when they got tangled. I started from scratch more than once.

Now I’m done with it … at least for the moment. I had what I thought was a semi-decent rough draft by May 2018. I reread the whole thing to make sure it was minimally coherent, at least to my own eyes. My current critique group, a much more helpful bunch than the previous one, had beta-read it a few pages at a time, making many useful suggestions. However, that system didn’t allow for an overall assessment. I found that the story hung together, but that the language needed either tightening up or fleshing out in numerous places. I went through the rewriting process at least five times between May and October.

Finally, after farming out the cover design and line editing, I decided to publish directly to Amazon for the first time. My previous four novels were published by iUniverse, and received the Editor’s Choice designation. The last two of those novels, Let’s Play Ball and Handmaidens of Rock, went through the full developmental edit process, which I found thorough and professional. This time I went with only a line edit, not the full process, simply because I had rewritten it so many times myself that I just couldn’t face doing it again. I was something of an editor myself in my Federal government career, and I critique other writers’ work on occasion, so I’m not totally helpless in that area. Still, this feels something like walking a tightrope without a net. But having decided that perfection is the enemy of progress, I determined to let  my “life’s work” fly. At least I’m confident that the professionally designed cover reflects what the book is about … amateurs and semi-amateurs trying to worm or pay their way into the movie business.

But in Amazon’s system, is anything really finished? The files are always available to be unloaded, revised, and reloaded. To my disgust and chagrin, there were a few errors that I didn’t catch until I had the published paperback in my hands. Formatting errors, as long as they’re few and far between, don’t trouble me much. That seems unavoidable, with all the format changes that a manuscript has to go through to be readable on various devices, as well as ready to print. At least the story seems to flow and cohere as well as I could make it. The one thing that made me break out into a cold sweat was discovering that I twice used the wrong name for a minor character. I cursed myself, while wondering if anybody else would notice or care.

I’m sure many of my fellow authors have stories churning in their heads that they can’t seem to finish, but that won’t let them go either. These days it’s fairly easy to go “live” with your books, whether they’re perfect or not. Do you ever get to the point where your work is absolutely finished, and never to be touched or altered again?

A novel about film-making can’t exist without a video, so here’s the link:

If Roseanne Were A Novelist

I was a longtime viewer of Roseanne Barr’s original television show, which ran from 1988 to 1997 on ABC.  The early years of the Conner family, with Dan and Roseanne struggling to make a living and raise three kids, were by far the best, in my opinion. The stories were funny and true to life. The parents, besides working various blue-collar jobs, were brave and foolhardy enough to start their own businesses. The two daughters, beginning as an early teenager and a pre-teen, and the younger son, went through all the normal growing pains: dating, social awkwardness, peer pressure, the beginning of menstruation, birth control, and even masturbation. All of it was believable and sensitively done.

In its later years the series began to lose its attraction for me … slowly at first, and then totally. Changes are inevitable in a series as long-running as this one, as the kids grow up, acquire partners, and face more adult issues. Still, I’ve heard speculation that some of the more startling changes corresponded with Roseanne herself acquiring more control over the story lines. She has been very honest over the years about her struggles with mental illness. Reportedly, she spent ten years working with a therapist to integrate her multiple personalities. That was no doubt a courageous battle. But since she was, by her own admission, not always in touch with reality, she might have been smarter to allow the network authorities veto power over some of her more bizarre creative decisions.

The last two years of the series, in particular, could be a case study in how not to wrap up a long-running television show. It was apparently Roseanne’s idea to have the Connors win the lottery and become instantaneously, fabulously wealthy. That’s the development that lost me as a regular viewer. It simply wasn’t realistic, and not something any ordinary person can relate to. Later, the famously weird final episode of the series finished the job of blowing up everything that had been relatable about the early show, and pulling the rug out from under its loyal viewers. That was when the Roseanne character revealed herself as her own creator, and declared that she had taken the liberty of rewriting her life story to make it turn out “right.” She enumerated various “true” facts that she had altered: that Dan Conner had died of the heart attack he had supposedly survived; that the two daughters were actually married to each other’s husbands; and that Roseanne’s mother, who had discovered she was gay in the course of the series, wasn’t the family member who evolved in that way. Instead, it was her sister Jackie, practically a heterosexual nymphomaniac throughout most of the series. All of these were excruciatingly clever twists that made absolutely no sense.

I watched the recent reboot of the series out of curiosity, despite my discomfort with Roseanne’s tendency toward political ranting. Having been an extreme leftist not all that long ago, she took a violent swing in the other direction. Apparently, at some point during the Obama administration, when she was thinking of running for president on the green party ticket, she’d become convinced that the incumbent president was out to get her personally. That outburst of paranoia should have been a clear indication that her mental illness was not entirely under control.

Yet before her latest full plunge into racism, her eccentricities were bearable. Although extreme right-wing views are tough for us progressives to swallow, most of us are willing to listen to them as long as they can be related to real-world events and struggles. Certainly the Conner family continues to have more than its share of such hardships, but is that enough of an explanation? It would have been helpful if Roseanne’s character had explained her views, instead of spouting wild conspiracy theories and insulting those who disagreed, in imitation of a certain president we know all too well. Maybe that more nuanced view would have come to the surface in time, if she had been allowed to survive on the show. Instead, she was fired, and her character was killed off.

My real problem with Roseanne is bad writing. She may have acquired more creative control over her original show, but she never developed the mentality of a novelist. That requires a writer to envision the big picture, and to discard any plot twists, however clever, that don’t serve that purpose. That’s what we have developmental editors for. In order to revive the series (renamed “The Conners” after her departure), she had to blow up much of her original vision, backtracking on many of her questionable creative decisions. For example, Dan didn’t really die, the Conners didn’t really win the lottery, the daughters kept their original husbands, and her sister was not gay.

It’s too bad the imaginary Roseanne had to die. Even at her ornery worst, she was the central character, the one vivid  point around which all the plot craziness swirled. The real Roseanne might have saved her alter ego by apologizing sincerely for her blatant racism, and preferably closing the twitter account that got her in trouble. But her many explanations for her hate-filled diatribes were contradictory, and her attitude finally became defiant instead of apologetic. Hence, the overdose of painkillers that killed off her character.

Those left behind have their interesting points. The two daughters are continuing the combative relationship they had as kids, while repeating many of their parents’ experiences with under-employment, parenthood, addictive behavior, etc. It seems sister Jackie was brought back mostly to serve as Roseanne’s liberal counterpoint, since her backstory from the original series has been ignored so far. DJ, the son, has an inter-racial marriage to a military spouse, which seems to have dramatic potential. Dan’s dry-wall business is still going, barely; his use of immigrant labor has come up as a topical issue. But none of this is as interesting as Roseanne herself. I wanted to learn what became of her in the long run. Would she evolve back to someone more sane, believable, and admirable? Given her volatility in the past, anything would have been possible.

Karma Is Better Than Revenge

 

I can safely say I carry a fair amount of baggage from my school days. I had the typical tough times that are bound to happen to introverts who struggle to navigate social life. School is where we discover the purpose of cliques. They are invented to make the insiders feel good about themselves by excluding others. Now that I’m old enough to have some perspective, I realize there’s no point in sweating the old school cliques. They have a way of breaking apart of their own accord. Besides, they provide all kinds of writing fodder.

Roommate snobbery is particularly up close and personal. My freshman roommate at college made a point of breaking up with me in order to join a “popular corner” in the hall and snare a supposedly more congenial roommate. She must have thought she had it made, but in fact the “popular corner” didn’t last very long. Her second roommate shocked her by moving out abruptly. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard this breakup produced a major crying and screaming fit. I couldn’t have invented a better example of Karma if I tried, so I told the story fairly straight in Handmaidens of Rock.

Do mean kids ever regret their meanness in middle and old age? Or are they still basically the same people? I certainly have regrets about times when I could have been nicer, which I hope demonstrates some growth as a person. Looking back, I realize that there were certain schoolmates from whom you expected meanness, and others from which a snub came as something of a surprise. One girl in particular sticks in my mind. I apparently made a faux pas at a social event when I presumed on our former casual acquaintance. I had never thought we were friends, exactly, but I hadn’t realized until that moment that we were enemies. I suspect she was acting out of a real fear of losing her own place in a clique that she had barely gotten into. She was not very attractive, and I had noticed before that she was insecure around these so-called friends. I wonder if she ever reflects now on how shallow her behavior was.

As a writer, I have crystallized her into a type. There isn’t much point in imagining some horrible fate for her, which wouldn’t necessarily make for a plausible story. Sometimes real life  … Karma, if you will … takes care of things just fine. This woman, for some reason, writes more updates to our college alumni news column than anyone else in our class, and includes more detail than could possibly interest a casual reader. None of it is particularly newsworthy, which seems to underscore her need for reassurance about her life. Reading between the lines, I’d say she’s much the same person she was all those years ago. She’s not terrible, just ordinary. Maybe that’s punishment enough. She’ll never know, but I’ve used her as a lifelong example of how not to be.

I never contribute to the Alumni News myself, but I read it with fascination. Naturally, most contributors use it to pump themselves up as much as possible. But if you happened to know that person long ago, and remember what her goals and expectations were, you can sense discontent between the lines. There are also certain classmates who cry out for praise, like the one who has made a career of working for non-profits. I can’t help remembering that this particular girl had trouble showing kindness when confronted face-to-face with an individual in need. Why is that so much more difficult than showing compassion for an entire culture or a class of people? I can also remember some notorious Bible-thumpers who would cut you dead most days, but mindful of the need to build up some brownie points with God, were willing to pray for you.

 

School cliques are to be expected, but workplace cliques are worse. I didn’t really encounter this in a toxic way until late in my Federal government career, but it finished me as a truly engaged employee. I have spent the 4.5 years since my retirement pondering what went so wrong, when I had always been conscientious about my work and believed passionately in the agency’s mission. My downfall began about ten years ago, when a new supervisor arrived in my office and hired two “senior” analysts who were much younger than I. The supervisor was so nice on the surface that I thought I might as well try to live with the situation. I was edging toward retirement anyway, and living with it would be easier than trying to find another position, which would mean competing against younger candidates who were automatically favored. But the five years I spent with this dynamic turned out to be a humiliating experience, as my three so-called colleagues formed a clique that I was systematically excluded from.

From what I hear, many aging Federal employees go through this winnowing out process. The agencies have their ways of getting rid of older workers while trying to sidestep accusations of outright age discrimination, which would be illegal. They just ignore you as much as possible, and relegate you to grunt work when they can. I wouldn’t have minded that so much, as someone has to do the routine tasks, and I was still getting a nice paycheck considering how little substantive work I did. In fact, I would be a fool to complain about Federal employment at all, now that I’m happily pensioned off. But it would have been much more satisfying to work for my money and utilize my true skills, as I did when I was young and “promising.” And I would have preferred not to have my nose rubbed in the entitled behavior of the office elite, who were doing essentially the same work that we ordinary drones had done for years, but simply made more of a fuss about it. I believe the sort of grade inflation that was practiced then is beginning to have serious ramifications. In a new and much more challenging technological age, the agencies are crying out for specialized skills. I’m guessing that after years of overspending for nothing special, my office doesn’t really have the budget to compete for the true hot-shots it needs.

My supervisor formed a tight bond with his two young princesses, indulging in all kinds of junkets, “retreats,” and lunches. Guess who had the privilege of covering the office when they weren’t there? After a while, my nice-on-the-surface supervisor began to ghost me. It’s taken me all this time to figure out that’s what he was doing, and that there is a word for it. He was still polite whenever I confronted him, but he ignored me as much as he could. The first time I noticed this was on the day I came back from a long-awaited and deserved vacation. As I listened to him visit with a colleague, and ask her about every detail of her weekend, I realized he had no intention of acknowledging my existence until he absolutely had to.

Sometimes I wanted to scream in the hallways, “Don’t you people realize that some of your best workers have gray hair?” I don’t know if it’s a generational thing, but none of my younger colleagues seemed to have a work ethic comparable to mine. They expected to be rewarded for everything they did, and balked at doing anything extra―I was the one available after hours when my supervisor got desperate. One time, when I confronted him about a meeting I had been excluded from, although I had worked on the project supposedly under discussion, he was forced to admit that the “meeting” had been a bonding thing, not about business. So it was clear: I was excluded because I wasn’t in the friend zone.

I used parts of my upcoming novel, Sycophants, to try to work out this dynamic. My heroine, Imogene, is excited to be hired by an entertainment production company, only to find that her immediate supervisor is determined to relegate her to the position of office drone. Her frustration grows as she is expected to cover for continual junkets taken by the supervisor and his favorites, and is excluded from closed-door meetings where the really creative matters are discussed. But Imogene accomplishes more by attending to her own interests, and spying a little, than she would by lashing out … and as usual, the clique nurtures the seeds of its own destruction.

Likewise, my real-life supervisor eventually lost control over his cozy group. One of their junkets turned into something of a disaster. They flew into Chicago ostensibly to visit an agency training center, at a time when an autumn snowstorm was bearing down on the city. On top of that, O’Hare Airport was a mess because of computer failures. After they came home from that misadventure, the clique seemed a little less unified than before. Eventually, it fell apart. I guess the princesses thought their benefactor could have exercised a little more creativity by taking them on some pretext to visit the Honolulu office.

It was a fine time to sit back and let Karma reign. Even with a writer’s imagination, we don’t have to conjure up mayhem for our adversaries. I didn’t really want their plane to crash while trying to leave Chicago, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have benefited. But I was amused to learn recently that an old co-worker of mine, who is going through much the same nonsense that I endured, is fighting back in a way I lacked the courage and energy to do. It seems her supervisor hired a friend for a position that should have gone to her. She has filed a grievance, to be followed possibly by a civil suit, alleging both racial and age discrimination. I know that “friendship” discrimination is even harder to prove, but something tells me that this time there might be hell to pay.

Rewriting Tragedy

I get frustrated easily. It’s a flaw I keep trying to work on, but it’s been a lifelong battle. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for anger, but there are also many “small stuff” things that you’re not supposed to sweat so much. Those include slights and conflicts far in the past that can’t be altered now, but that continue to generate grudges. Add to that the trivial day-to-day things that I take too seriously, and can do very little to alleviate, like the bumbling of my incompetent sports teams, and the inevitable stupidity of politicians. These feelings are silly, self-destructive, useless … unless you happen to be a writer.

Writers can make use of everything. We have our best fun re-imagining things that went sour and turning them into something quite the opposite. Almost anything can be rewritten to give it a satisfactory resolution. A sports fan like me can transform disappointments into triumphs like magic. I can make my team win, even if their real-life performance fell short. Baseball is my favorite sport, not only because of the athleticism and skill it requires to play at a high level, but because each individual game is full of mini-dramas and seemingly little things that can turn a result around. Games lost in this way are no tragedy for a fan, but sometimes a capricious turn of events can shadow an individual career forever after.

As a Washington Nationals fan, I’ve never quite recovered from the “tragedy” of Drew Storen, the one-time closer who “should” have salted away a victory in the National League divisional playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He would have done so, if he had gotten the benefit of the doubt on two borderline pitches that could have been called third strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5. After failing to get the calls, he went on to lose the game, and the Nats lost the series in a year when they were arguably the best team in baseball, all primed to win a championship. The shadow of that loss seemed to stay with Storen, and history repeated itself eerily in another divisional series two years later. I’m convinced his whole career, at least in DC, would have taken a different course if he hadn’t been “cheated” in 2012 by an umpire who inexplicably narrowed his strike zone at the end of the game. As it is, Storen became a something of a punching bag, a symbol of failure in local sports lore. He was cut loose from the Nationals, and has been mostly wandering around in the wilderness ever since. The Nationals lost two more divisional series after his departure, and some of us still find a way to blame him, as if the stench of failure he left behind still hangs over us.

That sports tragedy is nothing compared to that perpetrated by (and on) Bill Buckner, who played for five Major League teams from 1969 to 1990, won a batting title in 1980, was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981, yet continues to be a national joke owing to a single fielding error he made while playing for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, he picked the worst possible time to commit that outrage. According to Wikipedia, Buckner is “best remembered for a ground ball fielding error in the tenth inning that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, a play that has since become prominently entrenched in American baseball lore. Buckner’s error epitomized the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ of Red Sox fans, and he soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base.”

Overall in his career, Buckner was a reliable contact hitter and wasn’t prone to making fielding errors. The importance of his mistake was exaggerated; it did not, in fact, cost the Red Sox the World Series that year, although many fans believe to this day that it did. Buckner’s chronic ankle problems might have hindered him in getting to the ball in question, and the fast runner who had hit it might have beaten it out anyway. Untimely injuries, and opponents who happen to be a little luckier or better at a given time, are frequent hazards in baseball. It should also be noted that the Red Sox went on to blow a lead in game 7 of that World Series, so there should have been enough blame to spread around.

Buckner didn’t last much longer in Boston, as the fans continued to act ugly in 1987 although he was playing well. He and his family were harassed with death threats, and the news media was making too much hay from the incident to let it go. It took years for the fans and Buckner himself to develop some perspective on it. When he returned to Boston’s Fenway Park as a free agent near the end of his career, most fans seemed ready to “forgive” him. After his playing days ended, he involved himself in several businesses, did some coaching, and made television appearances in which he willingly remained the butt of that eternal joke. It seems that one fluky error defines him more than a respectable major league career spanning 22 years.

Baseball fans are particularly prone to heartache, since there are so many close-call losses. Sometimes the loss is so gut-wrenching, a matter of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory at the last second, that it seems impossible to move on. We declare that this is the worst defeat ever, that we’ll never recover, that we must shun our favorite players until they rouse themselves and give us a reason to watch again. Luckily, unless the fan in question is the kind of nut case who spews death threats, perspective tends to return by the next day. That’s fortunate, since it gives us time to prepare for the next heartbreak that is no doubt just around the corner.

So why do I stick with something that causes so much “pain”? Well, the wins can be euphoric, and the losses can be rewritten. I attempted something like this in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, in which the long-awaited championship run of the local baseball team parallels the blossoming lives and loves of the fraternal twin sisters whose fortunes are entwined with the team’s.

How I wish political realities could be rewritten as easily. The results of the 2016 US presidential election are difficult to put into perspective as yet. Rewriting the results seems next to impossible while we’re still experiencing the tumultuous aftermath, and have no way of knowing how much stranger it might get in the next two years. But as the lies and outrages multiply daily, some form of escape seems necessary. I long to see a work of fiction that portrays a Trump-like figure and his abhorrent enablers finally plummeting to the humiliating defeat that they so richly deserve. In fact, I’m half inclined to give it a try.