One Hundred Rejections

A few months ago, I finished writing a manuscript and began sending query letters to agents for representation. After receiving my first rejection letter, I wondered how many of these a beginning writer should expect to endure. The answer that I found, straight from agents themselves, was one hundred.
Ouch.
Since I had already sent one off, that left ninety-nine, which reminded me of the song “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” And that gave me an idea: if I stuck my rejection letters on the wall, at least I wouldn’t need to buy wallpaper anytime soon.

Adding to the masochism of the endeavor is the fact that everyone and their dog have written a book, so that agents are now swamped to the point that many don’t send rejection emails at all. The writer is forced to stew in silence, trusting that the digital pipeline delivered his or her query email to the appropriate inbox and that it was scanned by human eyes and a brain. Ironically, this situation makes the act of receiving an actual rejection letter quite rewarding, and if it happens to be accompanied by a personalized suggestion or positive comment, downright exhilarating! (Thank you agent #30).

The futility of it all reminds me of a “hands-on” marathon I participated in about ten years ago. Twenty contestants were chosen to stand around in a circle with our hands touching a car in the middle, and the last person remaining vertical would win the car or $10,000. A local radio station picked me based on the fact that I had sailed a boat single-handed across the Gulf Stream, which turned into a 36-hour misadventure, but at least I had remained semi-conscious.

Back then, my boyfriend and I were preparing to build our own home. After using an online cost estimator, I came up with a budget of $40,000 for the whole project (which underestimated the cost by a hilarious amount, but I digress). Going into the marathon, I dreamed that I could win a quarter of our future house in one sitting. Of course, I imagined a good quarter, not the one with the utility room and the bathroom. I believed that the odds of winning the contest were in my favor. I was young and physically fit. I had good planning skills. I brought a kitchen timer so that I could sleep during the rest periods they were required to give us to conform to OSHA standards. I selected snacks that promoted digestive contentment and healthful standing.

The contest started at the Mitsubishi dealership in West Palm Beach on a Friday afternoon at the start of Labor Day weekend. It was sweltering, but the heat didn’t bother me because I hadn’t lived with air conditioning for the previous year anyway. As Friday night wore on into Saturday, the contestants dropped out one by one, including a woman who overdosed on some sort of recreational drug and went a little….aggro. My regimen of sleeping and eating during the breaks was working out, but standing up for such long periods of time proved more challenging than I had anticipated. My legs ached and they started to lose circulation to the point that I spent part of my break jogging around the parking lot, which made them feel better. Soon five of us remained, and the car salesmen started a betting pool on who would win. Whenever I looked in the direction of my “supporter,” he waved and gave me a thumbs-up.

When Sunday rolled around, the field of contestants had been whittled down to just me and a woman in her late thirties who was a nurse. By noon she started to worry that she’d have to forfeit because she had to work on Monday. I thought that my victory was sealed because I had nowhere to be on Monday. Since I was living in my truck, I could have camped in that parking lot indefinitely. Later in the afternoon, Mark drove up from the Keys to cheer me on. The sun was unrelenting, and the contest organizers assembled a tarp to give us shade. Time seemed to slow down to jello speed, and the air shimmered outside our little perimeter of shade. The judge sat under the tarp with us and didn’t take her eyes off our hands, which had to remain touching the car at all times. Keep touching…keep touching…keep touching…wow, wouldn’t sleep be nice right now, I thought.

The wind came up and stirred the almost-empty coffee cup sitting on the roof of the car. Before I even realized what was happening, I reflexively lifted my hand off the car to grab the cup before it fell off.

“Off!” yelled the judge, pointing at my hand. I was stunned. She couldn’t be talking to me. Then I looked down at my hand. It was indeed not touching the car. My god, what had I just done?

When reality set in that I’d be leaving the contest with a consolation prize of a boom box and $50, I was devastated. How could I have made it so far, only to f-ck up so horribly from something as stupid as a momentary lapse of concentration? I had just lost a quarter of my yet-to-be-built house.  I felt like I had disappointed Mark, and I was pissed at myself. When the newspaper tried to interview me, I was so tired and choked up that I refused to budge out of my truck.

What made the loss even more agonizing was the damn coffee cup. It wasn’t even mine; it was the nurse’s.

In the grand scheme of things, though, the defeat didn’t matter one bit. Sure, it hurt like crap. Yes, winning the dough would have helped out tremendously. But it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle, because ultimately, we still built our house. And this is just like the rejection letters. If you want something badly enough, and if it is meaningful enough, then you will push through the defeat and the obstacles and the feeling-like-crap to keep trying. That could mean self-publishing on Amazon, working on getting smaller publication credits, or joining a writing group. The important thing is not to lose sight of the larger goal.

At least, that is what I tell myself as I sip beer #54 while admiring my new wallpaper.

Joe K.’s Being or Nothingness Revisited: A New (and Bizarre) Interpretation?

In his book The Psychopath Test, author Jon Ronson describes a strange event that occurred in 2008. A select group of academics from around the world began to receive a mysterious book titled Being or Nothingness (hereby abbreviated “BON”) written by a “Joe K.” The book contained 42 pages, half of which were blank, and references from the fields of cognitive science, AI, religion, and literature. Much of the story has a self-referential creation theme, with a description of events occurring in the seven days after the completion of BON. This, along with the many quotes and anecdotes from Joe K. himself, adds an almost humorous megalomaniacal tone. Self-referential or recursive statements are found elsewhere, such as Douglas Hofstadter’s quotation, “I am an endless loop;” the image of MC Escher’s drawing hands, with one sketching the other; and statements such as the one appearing on page 18: “The sixth day after I stopped writing the book I sat at B’s place and wrote the book.” The book in its entirety can be seen here:
http://levishand.wordpress.com/2009/05/04/the-book/
Ronson, after describing BON, went on a quest to determine the identity of the author, who later wrote him a note with similarly bizarre content.

The mystery of BON’s meaning intrigued me, perhaps because my background as a student of cognitive science intersected with some of the content of the book. After finishing The Psychopath Test, I experienced the rush of an “a-ha” moment in which the significance of the structure of BON became clear. However, the next instant my interpretation fell apart. But then, after some online research, came together again in an even weirder way to explain its meaning.

But first, some background. Ronson’s purpose in including this incident in his book was not to imply that Joe K. was necessarily a psychopath, but to show how great of an impact he had on others, as academics came together to try to solve the mystery. Ronson himself traveled thousands of miles to discover the real Joe K., who turned out to be a Swedish psychologist named Petter Nordlund (not his real name, but close). After meeting him in person, Ronson concluded that the guy was quite nutty, and that perhaps there wasn’t much meaning to BON after all. Ronson has spent a chunk of his life documenting nut jobs, so his judgement seemed like it should be on-target. However, the significance of the 42 pages of BON continued to dangle before me like a carrot to the donkey. Perhaps Nordlund was nutty, but Being or Nothingness still had a meaning…just a nutty one.

So here is my interpretation. I immediately thought that the 42 pages of the book were supposed to represent our 42 chromosomes. This meshes perfectly with all the loops and recursion in BON. Chromosomes are made of DNA, and DNA is a double strand that unwinds to reproduce itself indefinitely. Our biochemical “endless loop.” Plus, Nordlund includes the following statement that seems to point to the reproductive element of existence (though by extension you can also substitute “holy” for “sexuality”):
Sexuality is the projection of Being into space-time.
Sexuality is holy.
Family is holy.
Disconnect sexuality from Being, and Nothingness emerges!
Joe K

Then I remembered, embarrassingly, that humans don’t have 42 chromosomes. We have 46 (44 autosomes plus 2 sex chromosomes). My interpretation was off, but I still thought that this idea had merit. A Google search of 42 chromosomes yielded an interesting result [and I will add a disclaimer here that I do not adhere to the following belief system, only that it is consistent with BON]. A new-age cult-like figure named Drunvalo Melchizedek believes that there are three types of humans on Earth that perceive reality differently (as reflected in their different composition of chromosomes). The “aboriginals” still represented by some African tribes existing today have 42 + 2 chromosomes (which, of course is not true…) and believe that one energy, or state of being, connects everything living. Humans from the industrial world, with their 44 + 2 configuration, represent a disharmonic state on the ultimate path of achieving the most evolved state, 46 + 2 (which, coincidentally, is also the configuration of chimps…but I digress). Melchizedek believes that some sort of electromagnetic grid covering Earth connects the consciousness of a particular species. He postulated that in 1989, there would be the formation of a Christ consciousness grid that would allow us to evolve to 46 + 2 chromosomes and achieve a higher unity or purpose as a species.

What evidence is there from Nordlund to support this interpretation? First of all, in his note to Ronson, he states that “21 years have passed since the event-now it is up to us.” I’m not sure of the year that Nordlund wrote the note, but Ronson’s book was published in 2011, so it is possible that the note was written in 2010, which represents 21 years after Melchizedek’s “Christ Consciousness” year of 1989. Also, in BON, there is an excerpt from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from when the computer has determined the meaning of life, and it is the number 42, the so-called chromosomal “starting point” of humanity. Finally, on page 19, Nordlund writes that B. was not perceiving reality correctly until he picked up BON, and reality perception relates to Melchizedek’s ideas on the three types of humans.

The question still remains as to whether Nordlund meant to convey his belief system literally or metaphorically. Did he intend BON as a Christian viral marketing program? A hoax? A product of mental illness? Or a legitimate call to academics to work towards a higher unity of purpose to serve mankind? Nordlund’s use of the pseudonym Joe K is instructive here, if he is referring to Joseph Knecht of The Glass Bead Game (who is also quoted in BON). Joseph Knecht, who achieves one of the highest positions in Castalia, an ivory-tower-like entity, eventually begins to question his loyalty to the institution. He sees Castalia as a haven for the intellectually gifted who choose to withdraw from the larger problems plaguing society outside its boundaries. Knecht eventually leaves Castalia against the wishes of the heads of the order to serve the community. Perhaps that’s what Nordlund was asking his recipients to do as well, which wouldn’t be such a nutty wish after all.

But after thinking about BON for awhile (a bit too long, actually), I’ve “looped” back to the conclusion shared by most recipients that Nordlund was angling for converts. The book is basically a story of B. who regains his childhood faith and presumably escapes a fate much worse (hell or a meaningless existence, etc). Statements such as these support this idea:

“He who denies the Trinity will lose his soul
and he who tries to understand the Trinity fully will lose his mind”

“Only but not turning it into an idea,
‘to create a living and free world,’
will a living and free world be born.”

Nordlund is arguing against a cerebral, rationalist approach to problems and an embrace of faith instead.

Hmmm, after spending so much time thinking about BON, I’m looking forward to reading a simple Grisham novel or something….

Here are some links to other forums discussing the book:
http://ask.metafilter.com/106639/Is-this-viral-I-received-a-strange-book
http://levishand.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/a-tenuous-chain-broken-reprise/

An Interview with Lucy, a Cockroach with an Extraordinary Life Story

Val: First of all, please tell our readers how you became trapped in the kitchen window between the glass and the screen.

Lucy: Readers? You have readers? Other than your mother and the fifty-three spammers who tried to post links to their websites on your blog? I’ve got news for you. I don’t think spammers read your content.

Val: Ouch! I’m beginning to see how cockroaches have earned their reputation as pests.

Lucy: Touche! Okay, back to my life story. As a wee cockroach, I could easily pass through the openings in the window screen. Then one day, my body had reached the point of no return. I was too large to slip through.

Val: Wow, that’s almost allegorical, don’t you think?

Lucy: Absolutely. It should serve as a warning to everyone not to live beyond their means–of egress, or anything else.

Val: So true, especially in these tough economic times. Which brings me to my next question: Are you a Democrat or Republican?

Lucy: [laughs]. Well, I rely on handouts from others to survive [editor’s note: Lucy is fed table scraps]. So I’m a Democrat. However, please note that if I represented a corporation in need of a handout, I would be a Republican. It is all a matter of perspective, and power.

Val: Yes, yes. Looking ahead to the future, and the fact that yours is so constrained by your circumstances, do you ever regret not having the opportunity to live like a normal cockroach? You know, the whole “find a mate and leave a bunch of offspring” paradigm?

Lucy: Whoa! Just because I can’t find a mate doesn’t mean I won’t be able to leave offspring. Four out of ten female laboratory cockroaches can reproduce asexually. So, one day, if I am, in fact, a female, and the same trend holds true for wild cockroaches, and I’m a member of that lucky minority, I may leave behind a tribe of “Lucettes” who can escape this pit. I will be able to experience my freedom by living vicariously through them. As far as a mate goes, Mark told me that he almost caught an albino cockroach to throw in here with me, so there is always hope that I’ll find my soul-mate. Although I’d like him to know that cockroaches turn white after molting, so it is likely that he did not find a true albino.

Val: Ah, very interesting. I will tell him.

Lucy: I’d like to turn the tables and ask you a question, if that’s okay.

Val: Sure, go ahead.

Lucy: And I hope that you don’t mind me revealing that you are a total slob, but I’ve noticed that you readily kill the roaches in your kitchen, yet you spare my life. Why is this?

Val: I don’t know. I have empathy for you. You somehow represent the human condition. We are all free to do as we wish, yet to embrace total freedom frightens most of us. We choose to live a life bounded by conventions and our fear of the unknown. Not many of us think outside the box, or live outside the box, and you represent, quite literally, life inside the box.

Lucy: Yet you aren’t nice enough to actually get me out of here.

Val: There is too much risk that you would flee into the kitchen. I’d prefer that you didn’t nibble my apples ripening on the counter, thank you.

Lucy: Okay, well, I believe I’ve become institutionalized by now, anyway.

Val: Lucy, you’ve been an excellent guest. And you are the most charismatic cockroach I know.

Lucy: I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not, but thank you. I’ve enjoyed this interview.

The Middle Ground

One day as I cycled home from work, I passed a field overgrown with shaggy Brazilian pepper trees and sable palms. From out of nowhere, a swallow-tailed kite shot above the tree line in a completely vertical ascent, banked into a sharp turn with a slight flick of its forked tail, and dove in a near free-fall back down below the trees. I watched this graceful and dramatic display in a state of awe, then envy. If only I could fly like that.

Not a swallow-tailed kite, but close enough for illustrative purposes!

As I turned my attention back to staying within the confines of the bike path, I noticed the building to my right, across the street from the field. It was an old age home.  Residents lounged in the shadows of the front porch, some stooped over on benches, others in wheelchairs with their attendants. At the time, my grandmother was in a home not unlike this one, and I began to wonder what they were thinking. Had they admired the kite’s acrobatics too? Then it crossed my mind that perhaps they were watching me. I considered the possibility that they might long for what I took for granted—mobility. Suddenly I saw myself occupying the middle ground between the kite and the elderly, and I was thankful for what I had. Still, I felt somewhat guilty that it took a comparison to a group less fortunate than me to realize this.

I try to keep the lesson from this day in my mind as I encounter life’s inevitable aggravations. Sometimes it is difficult. However, when I take a deep breath and decide to focus on the most important details of the landscape, my perspective becomes a little higher…not unlike the swallow-tailed kite’s.

You Can’t Judge A Driver by His Monster Truck

Wheeee!

One afternoon as I cycled home from work, a horn honked behind me. I glanced at my rear view mirror, which revealed the grille of a large red pickup truck bearing down on me. “Oh, great,” I thought with a sinking feeling. The previous week, a guy in a dually truck jacked up with huge tires had leaned out the window and shouted, “RETARD!” at me from across the street. I suppose that the pink streamers my boyfriend fashioned, as well as the silver pinwheel he stuck on the back of my basket (similar to the ones that the pig in the Geico commercial holds in the air as he rides on a street luge screaming “Wheeeee!”) didn’t do much to boost the sophistication level of my ride. Still, though, I’d rather look visible and silly than not.

As the red pickup truck passed me, I braced for another uncomplimentary remark. Instead, the driver, a good-looking man in his thirties, waved and gave me a thumbs-up. Clearly, you can’t judge a book by its cover, or a driver by his monster truck.

More generally, the sight of a bicycle inspires a range of emotions in people. Mostly, it inspires people to jam down on the accelarator pedal so they won’t have to wait for my slow meanderings across the intersection. And while some of the comments are negative, as the retard example illustrates, or the time a lady in a rusted old carcass of a car screeched out in a ragged voice, “Get a job!,” overwhelmingly, the comments are positive. When I cycle through the parent loop of an elementary school, the little kids “ooh” and “ahh.” Once I heard a parent comment to another, “I’d like to see more of those bikes on the street.” When I cycle through an economically depressed part of town, the men and women on the largely black side shout, “You go girl!,” while the whites from the trailer parks wave and say hello as they walk their dogs. Occasionally, a curious driver will ask me a question about my bike. Even if I start my ride in a grumpy mood, I am far more likely to be in a good mood by the time I arrive at work than if I had driven, no doubt due to combination of endorphins, fresh air, and the positive comments of others.

Nerd Among Rednecks

Soon after my boyfriend and I bought land in central Florida for our house-building adventure, I moved to the area to begin filling out paperwork. He would join me later, after we received the building permit. I didn’t want to waste money paying rent to live somewhere else while we built the house, so I decided to squat on the property as inconspicuously as possible, an activity we dubbed “stealth camping.”

On the first night, I pulled into the lot with the headlights off and wove into a clearing among the many pine trees. Back then, the neighborhood was semi-rural, but there were still several houses nearby, resulting in a good chance that one of the neighbors would eventually discover me. I waited uneasily for awhile, listening to the calls of the whippoorwills and watching the beams of moonlight shift through the trees. I started to relax, but then a rapping at the window jolted me to attention. A boy wearing a baseball cap stood outside, waving a flashlight on the ground. He looked about fourteen. I rolled down the window and said hello.

“Whatcha doing, rutting?” he asked.

Rutting. I had just finished my graduate program in biology, so when he said that word, I imagined bucks with long antlers strutting their stuff in front of females during the mating season. Just three words into his first sentence, I was utterly lost.

“Rutting?” I said.

“You know, off-roading.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed, relieved that I now knew what he was talking about. “No, my boyfriend and I are going to build a house here.”

“Oh okay,” he said with a shrug. “See ya around, then.”

After he left, I realized I was completely out of my element; I was woefully unqualified to be a redneck. I did not own a single piece of camo clothing. I immersed myself in nature quietly, without the roar of an internal combustion engine from an ATV, swamp buggy, or airboat. I didn’t hunt gators, nor had I ever eaten gator meat. I was wary of the confederate flag, and skittish at the sight of firearms. I did want to play the banjo when I was six years old after watching Kermit the Frog in The Muppet Movie, but I had a feeling that wouldn’t count. Besides, the banjo was more hillbilly than redneck. My only saving grace was that I drove a pickup truck, a decision based more on necessity than desire, but no one had to know that.

From previous experience living on a boat and sailing to the Bahamas, I had discovered that the best strategy to adopt when immersing oneself in a different culture was to keep an open mind and a good sense of humor. Plus, I did like BBQ and beer….

Several months later, Mark moved up and we began to build our house. We attended several of the neighbor’s parties, where I learned the art of starting a fire redneck-style. Contrary to my conservative beliefs, it was not an event to be considered carefully, with regard to the possibility of torching your property. Instead, it was a celebration of man’s singularly greatest triumph, and as such, privy to going over the top by either producing a fireball or a ring of fire like the one that Johnny Cash sang about. Both techniques require copious amounts of lighter fluid:

The kid who asked me about rutting also had a thing or two to teach me; namely, a sport I never heard of before:

Eventually, I found that the neighbors could benefit from my nerdy skills too. I fixed their computer once, and took photographs at their wedding, including this one:

I also made t-shirts for their friends. One of them posed in front of his large 4X4 truck with his pit bull and requested the slogans “Git ‘er Done” and “Hawg Dawg” as captions.

Despite the initial cultural gap, the neighbors are always eager to extend their hospitality, including the beer and BBQ. You couldn’t ask for any better neighbors than that.

Side note: lest anyone think I use the term “redneck” pejoratively (ie, Mom), let me assure you, I don’t. I mean it in the most positive, Jeff Foxworthy type of way: a pride in one’s country roots; the ability to live off the land, independently of cushy conveniences like grocery stores; and a spirited, kick butt, hell raisin’ approach to life. Most of us can stand to benefit from a little more get ‘er done in our own lives.