Sunsets, Lenses and Second Opinions

This is the same sunset that I posted a picture of on Tuesday. I took the two photos only minutes apart, but with different lenses.

I would say that I was being a good kitty and practicing to see what different lenses would do, but in truth, I forgot the telephoto lens was on there instead of the broader landscape lens. Some of the difference is that the telephoto lens focused in on a smaller part of the sky. But you can also see that the longer focal length (shorter focal length? My college physics professor is shaking his head) changes the perspective so that different shapes and colors predominate.

It’s common advice these days to always obtain a second opinion on medical diagnoses. In fact, articles recommend that, if your doctor doesn’t like the idea of you getting a second opinion, then that’s a big red flag. Patients can be misdiagnosed 25 to 50% of the time, depending on whose numbers you look at. Is this because 25 to to 50% of doctors are idiots? Well… Okay, no no no, it’s not. It’s because everyone brings a different lens to the table. Where one person sees the whole sky, another sees just one peak against a wash of crimson.

This is why having a writing group or multiple critique partners can be very important. It’s not that half of them could be flat wrong. (Well, depends on the CP, eh?) It’s more that each reader sees the story through a different lens. What’s a glaring problem to one, another breezes right past. It’s important to carefully consider the feedback a reader gives you, just as you would a medical diagnosis, but it’s equally important to evaluate it in context of how other readers see it.

I was in a writers group for many years where one member would change every single thing anyone criticized about her story. We worked mainly short stories and essays in that group, so the revision process was fairly fast. She brought the same story back to the group several times, looking for that perfect, thumbs-up moment. Finally, on somewhere around the fourth time she brought it to the group, someone pointed out that, as a critique group, someone would always find something for her to fix. This idea she had in her head that at some point we would declare it scintillatingly perfect would never occur. That only she could decide when it was done.

In the end, only one perspective is the definitive one: whichever sings to you.

The Pain Box

I love the intensity of the color in these begonias, though it’s hard to capture. An ongoing effort to replicate what my eyes see.

In photography class, though, I learned that we can never make photographs that come close to what our eyes see, because our eyes are so much more sensitive and sophisticated. I suppose I knew that, but it’s important to keep in mind.

I was talking with a writer-friend yesterday about writers groups and people who’ve come and gone in our lives. She mentioned a gal who’d been in her group and had quit writing when she was “thisclose” to getting an agent.

I said I think that’s the most difficult time.

It reminds me of a scene in Dune, Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel. It’s been a while since I read it, so forgive me if I get the details wrong. As a test, the young hero has to place his hand inside of a box. He’s told he’ll experience excruciating pain in his hand, but if he can withstand the pain and keep his hand in the box, he’ll receive a reward he’s seeking (I forget what). If however, he tries to pull his hand out, a blade will slice his hand off at the wrist.

Most people can’t take the pain and give in to the desire to pull their hand out, losing it forever. Our hero, naturally, overcomes the fear that his hand is being destroyed as it feels, and emerges victorious.

It’s one of those scenes that makes the reader feel good about ourselves. We like to think we’d be like the hero. We would know that our hand is okay and why would you give in and yank it out, if the certainty is losing your hand? And yet, deep down, we all know how really hard it is to persevere when fear and pain become overwhelming.

This is why the “thisclose” is so difficult.

The proximity of great reward somehow makes the pain of rejections and setbacks just that much worse. It’s really difficult to stay there, with your hand in the box. At some point, losing the hand altogether, so you don’t have to wait and suffer a moment more starts to look really attractive.

That’s why people quit a lot of things. And yes, giving up on a dream is a lot like losing a hand. Oh, you’ll live, but you’ll be missing a vital piece of yourself. Something you could have used to do something special.

To all of us with our hands still in the box? Cheers and steady-on.

Pretty Please

Email is a funny thing.

And can be an annoying thing, which is where all the rule-making comes from, I think. I belong to several online loops for writers. I’m even president of one–a deeply ironic development since I hadn’t belonged to the group all that long before I was elected. Every day I discover something else I didn’t know. Yesterday, in the course of conversations with our webmistress, who is trying to take our site from pitiful to adequate, we discovered that there are a whole bunch of standard emails being directed to people we’ve never talked to. Along the lines of — and it’s going to someone who isn’t the secretary and may not even be a member anymore.

The whole online-group thing has this impenetrable quality that way. It’s like this huge underwater octopus –only there’s something more like 300 tentacles–and you can only see fleeting glimpes of the eye or tips of the tentacles now and again. The surfacings are when people send email. I love it when I can IM with people because I have a better sense that I can grasp them. At least it’s a real-time interaction, more or less.

Anyway, I emailed one gal asking who she was and what was her niche in the group, which turned out to be this whole sub-group I didn’t know about (reference: every day = something I didn’t know). She wrote back — yay! not everybody actually answers — with a detailed, complete message. I was hammered under a day-job deadline, so I popped her email to the webmistress, fully intending to write the woman back later. As it should be, she and the webmistress engaged in email conversation on the mechanics of what each needed — and I got a reproving note to let her know when I cc or forward her emails.

Does this strike you as odd? It’s this whole loop etiquette thing. You’re not supposed to forward anything off-loop without permission. This wasn’t on-loop, but I did have a vague idea that many of these ladies expect that as a courtesy. They also have this deal about when and how to “clip” the original message, so the emails don’t get so long — it has to do with reading on digest. Now I use email all the time. I’m on email all day. I work in an office in Wyoming with people in Boston, New Hampshire, and Florida. Unless I’m on the road, all of my business interactions are virtual. And it’s interesting to me that the professional email rules are different than those developed by these social groups. My work email gets archived for three years and can be used as evidence in a court of law, for or against me.

I’m keenly aware of what I write in emails and make sure that if, say, my boss or ethics officer, were to show me a copy of one and ask me to defend the content, I can. The fact that any of my emails can be forwarded, cc’d or bcc’d is a given. Asking a client to notify me if any of my emails are forwarded or cc’d is beyond the realm of possibility.

What I’m coming to is, I suspect it’s a generational thing. The older generations — the Boomers and the Silents — have been understandably appalled at the informality of the internet and the consequent lack of universal etiquette. I think some of these writing loops were established by people like this, the presidents of their chapters, the esteemed leaders. There’s a bit of the ladies’ society, junior league aspect to the romance writers collectives. The thing is the Gen X’ers and my cohorts — I forget what group I’m in… something like the straddlers between the Boomers and the X’ers, have been using email for pretty much all of our working lives. It’s just another tool.

I understand why people want to try to tame this animal, to break it to the harness of polite society, but it will never be the embossed, hand-written thank-you note. (Yes–horribly mixed metaphor.) I’ve been having computer issues with my personal laptop, as you know. Turns out my hard-drive tanked (ten days after the warranty expired). What with one thing and another, it took a month to get it fixed. (See? and I never ranted about it!) I’d been viewing my personal email all that time on the work laptop, but when I fired up the personal laptop again, it finally pulled all my personal emails from the server. There were nearly 1,500 of them. This does not include junk mail or anything work-related.

It gives me good perspective on why I have no patience for “netiquette.” Give me an email with all of the back and forth retained, so I can save one copy of the entire correspondence. No, I’m not going to pause and think to let you know that I forwarded your information to the person who needed it. I can see where the laments come in here, how our fast-paced society has done away with the measured grace and manners of the past. But it has. The world turns and times change. I think it was a Boomer who said that.

True Grace

Yesterday I received an email from one of the writing groups I’ve joined. I don’t think I’ve met the woman who wrote it, but she sent it to everyone who’s on the email list
for the group:

Last Thursday I had a doctors appointment at [ ]. I expected to discuss new treatments. Instead she told me there was nothing more they could do for me. She estimates I have about 3 months. I’m totally at peace with pending death. I’ve enjoyed this group.



I found myself near tears at this. Heartbroken and unutterably moved at her grace in sending this out, as if it’s just another thank-you note. I picture her like that: the kind of woman who sends you a thank-you note for the lovely lunch and mentions again how pretty your blouse looked. I’ve changed her name here, because I feel certain she’s not the sort of woman who would want her business all over the internet.

And yet, I felt compelled to share it. Perhaps how we face our deaths is the final measure of how we approach our lives. My great-aunt had little cards prepared — stamped and pre-addressed — to send after her death that said, “you’ve received this card because I’ve died.” She went on to tell us special things and asked us to remember her in happiness. My favorite professor declined extreme treatment for his cancer so he could spend his remaining days in the classroom.

So here’s to your “adios,” Grace. May your last months be filled with love and art and beauty. And may you be remembered in happiness.