Monday, May 18, 2009


"One of my life’s firmest principals has been this: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us."

--Stephen King, from On Writing

Oh, the shame of it all…layers and layers of pure, unadulterated shame. Readers, I’ve been had again by my own personal arch nemesis, and, what’s worse, my adversary bested me using all the usual tricks. Nothing new in the arsenal, no unforeseen twist or shocking spin—I simply proved myself more gullible than a third grader in a bad lunch swap.

Regular Readers know of my propensity to fall victim to severe bouts of hypochondria. You may even recall the 54 I once scored on the Whiteley Self Test for Hypochondria. (In the interest of perspective: a score of 44 +/-11 indicates a positive result; 55 represents the Top Score). If you’ve been with me since the beginning, you’ve met Dr. M, my long suffering General Practitioner, and been introduced to The Crazy Herb Lady, my wonderfully eccentric homeopath.

I used the above phrase “since the beginning” in acknowledgment of the fact that I haven’t blogged much about my hypochondria recently. Graduate School was many things, but one of the most beneficial was its ability to keep me focused and, frankly, too busy to respond to the taunts and insults of my Inner Hypochondriac.

But I’ve had a full 10 days of near-complete inactivity preceded by a nearly 3-week stint of moderate occupation which apparently rendered me ripe for the picking when a visit with The Crazy Herb Lady--a long overdue (haven’t been in nearly 2 years) check-up in the interest of continued health and vitality-- took an unexpectedly grim turn. Seems I have some frankly alarming systems on the fritz, due no doubt to my breach in medical vigilance during my graduate studies. And—bam, gotcha—just like that hypochondria captured my metaphorical flag. And I didn’t even know it.

I spent a couple too many days in a semi-fog of anxiety, gloom, and general dread before I realized I’d been played. It was as though I walked right into a trap. Almost invariably, my most gripping episodes of hypochondria have unfolded during “lulls”—times when I have just a few too many unstructured hours in the week. Often this happens in May, as the hustle and bustle of the school year ends and before summer hits its full stride. Something will seem a little off, a symptom will appear—some seed, something real enough to give structure to an impending certainty that my anomalies signal outcomes on the far awful end of the range of possibilities.

A cough? Lung cancer, guaranteed. A burrowing tick? A rampant case of highly aggressive melanoma. Stomach ache? Colon or ovarian cancer, if not both.

It goes down like this every time. And I fall for it. Again and again, each time convinced of merits of my new symptoms, solidly certain that it won’t turn out as good as it did last time. Or the time before that. Or that.

Never scoring well on those portions of standardized tests which call for pattern-recognition prowess, I floundered for some time before recognizing the blueprint. But I’ve got it now. Really. My nemesis may have no shame, but now that I know how the fiend presents I can implement some early-detection screening. Because it would really be a shame to let myself get fooled again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Organizing the Corner Shelf, Part 1

My stint as an avid reader was severely hobbled almost two weeks ago by the sudden and sobering realization that I’d deceived myself into believing that I was far closer than I really was to completing a project I heard alternately referred to as a “work sample” and the more chilling “masters thesis.”

It was easy to keep turning page upon page of leisure material when I thought of this project as a benign and friendly “work sample,” a simple accounting of what I’d been doing over the preceding months. Hearing the project later labeled as a “masters thesis” proved somewhat of a literary show stopper.

With the capstone project now just a fading memory, I’m back with a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t in my recent corner shelf selections.

I was excited to read Sarah Dessen’s YA bestseller The Truth About Forever after a high school student favorably compared my writing to Dessen’s—a fact that I probably wouldn’t have admitted prior to actually reading the book, thinking it unseemly to compare myself to a New York Times best-selling author in a public forum. However, after reading the book, I’m not feeling nearly as flattered by the remark as I formerly may have been tempted.

As discussed in The Portable MFA (a current corner shelf pick), when it comes to fiction, questions perform the all-important function of engaging the reader-- and the sooner the better, if you want your reader to keep turning pages. Trouble was, Dessen’s novel didn’t prompt much in the way of inquiry. From the dust cover forward, I had a pretty solid bead on what I’d find clear through the final paragraph. I found myself on page 177 before any real complication presented itself, and made it fully to page 315 until I felt so much as a flicker of real concern. I understand that it’s a character-driven novel, and I’m fine with that, provided I’m invested enough in the character to really care.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t.

To really pull off a character-driven novel, the author has to work doubly hard to render a compelling character—because, let’s face it, the protagonist now has the burden of carrying the whole story. Oh, I’ll admit to a baseline level of general concern for protagonist Macy, and I’ll concede that the cast eclectic New Friends she meets through her accidental catering job had a lot of literary potential. Based on early impressions of Dessen’s cast, I might have been tempted to say that the novel committed no greater crime than to be a member of the rabble The Portable MFA fingers for “introducing a wonderful character, but little drama or action.” However none of Truth’s characters quite make it to wonderful status, due, I would argue, to never reaching full development.

I got a taste of who these characters might be, and the shame of it is, I might have really liked them. Dessen effectively employed the technique of giving all her characters unique, instantly identifiable mannerisms—and promptly brushed her hands and called it a wrap, at least in the case of the support cast.

But what I found most disturbing was that Dessen’s idea of bringing her character out of a prison of perfectionism and grief to ultimately embrace life, in its flaws, imperfections and uncertainty relied so heavily on the late night party scene. Perhaps what’s most puzzling is that the party setting almost seemed gratuitous—the New Friends who introduce Macy to the party scene come off as offbeat, quirky kids that you wouldn’t expect to find at a kegger anyway. You picture them as independent, free thinkers that wouldn’t fit the stereotype.

And the big truth about forever? Is simply that--brace yourselves—it’s always changing, as in “for any one of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now” (p 135). Dessen’s weak spin on the death as a catalyst for life theme fell flat for me, largely as a world view issue. Viewing forever as a concept that bridges this world and extends into eternity makes it tough to see through to what was probably her real point: live in the moment, the future is uncertain.

I’ll post some (shorter) comments about my other corner shelf selections in a later post. I’m not really accustomed blogging book reviews, but there was a fair amount of interest when I posted the link to my original corner shelf post on facebook, so I thought I’d continue the thread.

Spoiler alert for next week: look for a swift unraveling of literary commentary and a return to our Regular Programming (long awkward silences followed by equally long posts documenting various fiascos) as I begin the month-long finale of my masters program. Five weeks until I drink my coffee from the alumni mug!

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pots and Plans

Today I performed my penultimate act at The Office. Regular Readers may be shocked to learn that my days of jammed copiers, botched filing, and general clerical mayhem have run their course, effectively drawing to a close an entire subplot here at Running With Letters. Readers may also find it fitting that I spent my second-to- last shift building an office blog. Endless days of editing, formatting, and jury-rigging an online newsletter using a program no one in the office really knows-- and is meant for designing print publications, anyway--ended poorly when the communications department feigned a near total lack of knowledge of our department and said they couldn’t possibly convert our humble file into html in less than 4-6 weeks.

Dr. S. lamented that there must be a better way—and let’s face it, when you’re talking about posting 6-month-old news online, there’s ALWAYS a better way—which led to what may be my first, last, and only bona fide good Office Idea—why not blog? So I spent an hour or so making attractive little posts out of all our newsletter items. From now on, the new Graduate Assistants will be able to post news, hot off the press, in seconds flat. Tomorrow I’ll type up some instructions on how to keep it rolling—passwords and the like—and just like that, my days as a Graduate Assistant will be over.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll be lacking in material here on this blog—just as The Office subplot draws to a close, an exciting new possibility may be waiting in the wings. It seems--in what could prove to be the world’s shortest job search-- that I may have stumbled upon a part-time Art Job at a most desirable locale! I almost hesitate to even mention it at this early stage, but it’s hard to avoid the topic as this post finds me surrounded by a heap of application-esque paperwork…

…second only in mass to the potted plants huddled in sad little clusters around my property, following a foliage-buying binge last weekend. These plants—several purchased in a mini-binge the previous weekend and already languishing—were to have been planted on Sunday afternoon. However, in an Uncharacteristically Responsible decision I opted to spend an hour typing research before going out for a long, sunny stretch of gardening which I saw extending into the evening hours.

Unfortunately for a sad group of limp limas, teetering tomatoes, and peaked peppers, this hour of so-called responsibility may prove fatal, as that single hour I spent typing represented the final moments of stable weather we Virginians last saw. The skies went suddenly black and poured with a vengeance. The sun re-emerged, then dissolved into torrential rain, dark skies, and odd mists, which have persisted in a loop of continuous Instability. We lost a full quarter hour of a particularly intense episode of House on Monday, as our local weather man gave a street by street breakdown of various apparitions of hail, wind, and potential tornado activity. The weather man eventually stopped talking, although I saw no change in atmospheric conditions that should have prompted an end to his newscast.

Which leaves us waiting, the plants and I, to see what comes with the sun, or wind, or mist tomorrow.


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