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Month: September 2017

I hate being manipulated. Donald Trump wants a second term as president. So, he’s running his presidency the same way he’s managed his life so far: divide everyone beneath him. He ran his companies that way—pitting each subordinate against the other so advancement depended on the other losing. His current goal: to pit me against you.

To succeed, he has to put our deeply held values in play. We’re Americans—we’re not going to claw at each other over Duke’s or Hellman’s, Wendy’s or McDonald’s. But race, or the flag, or first-responders, yep, that’ll do it. That’s why he tweets, to stir up our emotional reactions. It’s hard to rile emotions with proper, boring governmental action. In fact, our founders designed the country’s governance structure to prevent emotions from flaring (see de Tocqueville). But if you insert yourself personally into a public conversation in a VERY LOUD VOICE, you succeed.

Trump’s game plan to divide us also requires that he fracture the things we use to connect. We won’t fear the other if we see them as on our team. Literally, that was what this weekend’s attack on the NFL was about. Sports are one of the major avenues we use to connect with strangers. When I first heard about the planned protests, I thought everyone should buy game tickets and support the men on the field by taking a knee in the bleachers. That’s exactly what Donald Trump wants. He wants the man next to me to quit thinking of me as a Saints fan and instead look at me as a pinkie, Commie, libtard kneeling. (And listen, y’all, it worked: I got mad at Drew Breese for not kneeling. DREW BREESE, whose Saints led New Orleans into a remembrance of joy after the levees broke. My Lord.)

Unfortunately, Trump’s management style doesn’t work. The companies he managed tanked, until he learned to slap his name on a business and let someone else run it. If we participate in his manufactured divisiveness, our country will tank too.

The good news is, I don’t work for Donald Trump. Neither do you. My livelihood doesn’t depend on staying in his good graces. I don’t have to fight you to keep him happy. If I let him lead me by the nose into more and more extreme positions until we both think the other has lost their damn minds, it’s purely voluntary.

At this point, you might pause and blink—is he really manipulating me? Is my righteous anger being manufactured to serve another man’s goals? But, after a minute, chances are you’ll return to the emotions you brought to the second sentence of this post. You’ll decide your feelings on racial injustice or the flag are too important, and I’m an appeasing Neville Chamberlain. Only problem, you aren’t Churchill. You and me, we’re Czechoslovakia. Pawns. We’re victims of the man who destroyed our ability to connect over the sentence: “How ’bout them Saints?”

We have to resist this manipulation. But how do we do that? How do we break the circuit of emotions that keep us ready to anger, dismiss the other, hate them for not appreciating how important our values are?

You turn to the person next to you and ask, So, how’s your mama?
Or say, I love your earrings.
Tell me what fun things are in your life these days.
You a Game of Thrones person or not a Game of Thrones person?
Would you share the recipe to this green bean casserole?
Can you believe how hot it is?

For this to work, you must actually do it. You can’t intellectually admit that it might be a good idea. (And, please, don’t try to “talk” someone into seeing your point of view—it factually doesn’t work.) You have to experience a conversation with a particular person whom you perceive as fighting against your most precious American values, even if that conversation takes place in your mind with their image in your brain. Afterwards, your brain will untighten, and you’ll seek to find slivers of light into which agreement can slip. You’ll come up with ways to support the other’s values while maintaining your own. I know—where’s the integrity in that?

Go ahead. Give it a try. I’ll go first.

So, Donald Trump—how’s your mama?

The Brain and Writing Contests

As part of my quest to become an amateur neuropsychologist, I have recently read two books on the brain. Even though they were national bestsellers, I am taking the position they gave me insights into the workings of the brain that few others possess. The latest book focuses A LOT on statistics and probability.

Now, I tutored football players in statistics when I was an undergrad at the University of Virginia. It was a GREAT gig because the tutoring was through the athletic department (rich as Croesus in the academic world) and, back in the dark ages, it paid $5.00/hour. Anyway, my statistics professor recommended me for the job based on my stellar performance in his classes (true story). What I had discovered in studying statistics—a subject everyone HATES—was that men from Ohio say “May-sure” rather than “measure.” More substantively, I also learned that statistics were counterintuitive. If I thought the answer was clearly one thing, I was probably wrong. In reading this book, I’ve learned that statistics are, literally, counterintuitive. Your intuitive mind always goes to the wrong answer. If you want to get the right answer, you have to slow down and use your System 2 analytic brain.The authors of these books call the intuitive brain with its preference for shortcuts and rules of thumb “lazy,” but that seems a little judgmental to me. Expert neuropsychologists can be hard-core like that.

Of course, to become an expert in anything, you must practice. So I’ve been putting myself to sleep at night by figuring the probabilities of winning or placing in a writing contest I entered. (I’m not going to name the contest in case the judge is reading this blog post and is subconsciously swayed by my keen neuropsychology skills.)

To do my analysis, I used a total figure of contest submissions of 600. I used this figure for the sole reason that in the first contest I ever entered, I placed in the top 25 of 600 entries. The experts would call this an unreliable base line, but amateur neuropsychologists frequently are called upon to work in less-than perfect conditions. I proceeded to calculate my chances of winning (too minuscule to report) or placing in the top 25, 15, 5, 3. Figuring these probabilities requires converting fractions to percentages in your head, but neuropsychologists must be able to do this to make everyone else think they are super smart.

Did I mention this is the way I put myself to sleep at night?

Anyway, I did arrive at percentages for each tier. Plus, I evaluated my chances of winning once I landed in each tier. I did NOT assume success in a lower tier has any relation to advancement in the next tier. Of all things, it is statistically incorrect to use your experience of advancement to one point to project how you will advance from that point on. This dynamited my hopeful feeling that if I made it to the top 15, my chances of advancement were greater. Not true. By that point, all applicants have proven themselves superior, which means they have met the basics of grammar, typos, good structure, finely drawn characters, engaging story. Those advancing must prove something else. (This fallacy is akin to a graduate student projecting her stellar undergraduate career will continue in grad school, when every person in grad school has the same stellar undergrad record—to project success, she must identify how she well she will perform on grad school criteria.)

Which brings us to the factor these books say no one wants to talk about. (I know, you’re thinking, no one wants to talk about ANY of this. I’m being more specific here.)

Novels in contests are judged by people. All people have subconscious biases. In fact, our brains share many, many biases of function. We make decisions using common shortcuts and illogical logic and all sorts of other things. The books I’m reading would say at all levels, but particularly in the higher tiers of a writing contest, luck takes over.

By “luck,” they mean a confluence of circumstances outside the control of the individual that work out as “bad” luck or “good” luck. For example, the best novel in the entire bunch might not make not even make the first cut. Say a reader loves a big, sweeping, story with beloved—predictable—plot lines. She gets a submission that meets these criteria. It also is full of typos and grammatical errors (which the rule contest call a real no-no). Another novel is throughly edited but experimental in nature (a harder to follow plot). Based on her belief in the promise of the first novel, she could advance it, as her brain begins to formulate analytical justifications for doing so. Or maybe she uses the shortcut, “My gut just tells me this one is better.” The better written novel winds up in the dustbin.

Luck can also work out well for me, the applicant. For example, maybe my reader reviews my novel right after she’s had a snack. The rest of the submissions she reads at the end of the day when her tired brain defaults to the easier choice: eliminate, eliminate. (Experiments have repeatedly shown this to universally happen even in situations of the greatest importance). Outcome: I advance to the next tier, and a (perhaps) better novel does not.

This realization—lying there in the dark, still not asleep—led me to switch in the dead of the night from statistics to ethics. I began to wonder if praying for my readers’ brain malfunctions to work in my favor was ethical? For example, can I pray that the reader/judge on my novel spent her summers in Memphis with her grandparents and thus adores Memphis where my novel is set? What if her grandfather recently died, and she connected with the grandfatherly protagonist in my novel? If so, she will be emotionally drawn to my novel without realizing the strength of the pull (I chose to believe ethical readers/judges do their damnedest to keep free of known biases). Her brain will then backfill her choice with rational reasons for her selection (the description was stunning, the character unique, the plot gripping.)

I ran this ethical dilemma past my sister, and she said it would be unethical if my biases prayers involved death. Fair enough.

In any event, even if I get into the top 3 finalists, it hit home that—after all that success—my chances of winning would still be only 33%. Terrible.

Ultimately, as I drifted off to sleep, I concluded that predicting success in a writing contest is pretty near impossible. Unless, say, Neil Gaiman entered. Then I’m pretty sure he would win. Even an amateur neuropsychologist can tell you that.

My Brain on Statistics

Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner

A friend recently said she has read Young Adult novels all her life. When another friend asked why, she said, “I find them more honest.” When I return to Memphis, I am carrying with me in the trunk of my car as a gift to my friend the novel, Almost Paradise, by Corabel Shofner. It makes me smile to think I will have introduced my friend to Ruby Clyde Henderson, and now I’m doing the same for you.

I must confess: I read a snippet of Almost Paradise when the novel was in the works. Corabel is my cousin’s cousin, no blood kin of mine, but she labels us “leap cousins,” which I love. At some point on the long road we call “getting published,” she shared parts of her writing with me. Ruby Clyde’s voice—Lord help me, it jumped off the page and grabbed ahold.

Now, such a wonderful voice could be hard to sustain. Or not supported by the plot. Or turn sappy at the end when it comes time to wrap things up. Without the other structural elements in place, voice is nice but not enough. The book will collapse of its own weight. Almost Paradise has all these necessary things, plus wonderful secondary characters, humor that never gets stale, and unexpected plot twists. It is simply delightful.

Okay, to be more specific: Ruby Clyde is twelve years old. She was born when her father was shot during a robbery, and her mother, witnessing the shooting, gave birth prematurely. This history affects her in ways gradually revealed as she tries to extricate herself from a situation that is humorous only because of Corabel’s deft telling. I believe the story is Middle Grade (which might be a subset of Young Adult?), but there is nothing babyish about it. We should all be so lucky as to have the wisdom of Ruby Clyde.

The story takes Ruby Clyde from a campsite in Arkansas to the rolling hills of Texas. It involves a bad boyfriend, a nun, and cowboy boots. It’s Southern. I don’t want to give any more away, except there’s a pig named Bunny. The folks at Farrar Straus Giroux (one of the Big Five in New York City!) knew a winner when they saw it, and I’m so glad they did. Thank you, Bel, for bringing Ruby Clyde into the world.

How to Garden with Distinction

My sister lives in a neighborhood with a replica of Mount Vernon.

The houses are big and solid. On one lot, a developer razed a house and put up two modern “high-end” houses. They look cheap as hell. I bet the other houses hate the interlopers.

Some of the houses have brass plaques sponsored by the Raleigh Historic Association. Strategic ivy climbs facades, pea gravel softens driveways. Mt. Vernon has a “Service Entrance Please.” In every house, the garbage cans have their own niche.

I love the neighborhood, how thick and solid the houses are. It’s not flat; unlike Memphis and New Orleans, Raleigh has hills. I walk and admire the stately allees of crepe myrtles and the formal triple-deep shrubs. I tut-tut the scraggly pines and skimpy cast iron plants. It’s like walking in a park from the early 1900s. Porte cohere is a word not out of place here. The whole damn neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In this neighborhood, my sister has a vegetable garden in her front yard.

Okra and pea plants

 

The front yard garden curves behind double crescents of deep luscious grass.

The iron fence gives a sense of order to those walking the sidewalks.

 

Hidden inside are paths for people, baths for birds, and flowers for caterpillars hoping to become butterflies.

The secret path from the parking pad to the front porch.

 

The entire yard is a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

“Give me your tired creepy-crawlies, your thirsty winged creatures”

 

This evening as rain sprinkled our heads, my sister and I headed into the garden and harvested the crops.

Silver peas, okra, peppers, and lemon balm

For supper, Tom will make cornbread, and we will eat vegetables from a garden nestled beautifully in my sister’s front yard in the most exclusive neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina.

George Washington would have been so proud.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon 

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