Posts Tagged ‘The California Roll’

I’m All A-Twitter

Friday, June 17th, 2011

So I decide to spend this week honing my social networking chops, and now I’m more social than ever – but also more confused. I started by friending everyone in the known universe (well, in the universe of people known to me) and I’ll friend you, too, if you but ask. I’ve bulked up my twitter feed (@TrueFactBarFact) to almost 200 (well, almost 170) followers. Then I pimped out my Amazon author page, adding photos, videos, news of upcoming events, blabbity blabbity blah blah blah. I think I’ve even arranged for this blog feed to go straight there, so if you’re passionate about reading the same thing twice, why, now you can.

But you know what? It all seems like a great big circle somehow. I point my Facebook friends to my Twitter feed, tweet on Twitter that I can be found here in my blog, blog about my Amazon page, and promote my Facebook presence on Amazon. Goodness! Is it any wonder that I have a big, fat, socially networked headache right now? Meanwhile, my lovely dog, Temp, dozes at my feet, and the only social network he cares about is the one that delivers him treats.

I guess all I care about is treats, too, where treats = presence and, ultimately, book sales. Because that’s what all this social networking is all about in the end. I’ve got books to promote (the new one, DECIDE) and workshops (LIVING THE WRITER’S LIFE in Pasadena on August 13) and, more broadly, my “brand,” such as it is. One thing I’ve learned as an author is that no one promotes you harder than yourself, not your publisher, not your publicist, no one. So if the word is going to get out, it’s up to, well, me to make it so.

It could be a colossal waste of time, of course, but you know what they say: “Self-indulgence is its own reward.” So follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, www.losthours.com. Or, you know, don’t. I’ll be wasting the time either way.

Speaking of wasting time, I just searched losthours.com and it turns out that no one owns that domain name yet. I’m bipping right over to my GoDaddy account to register it right now, because who knows? It could be the big viral breakthrough I’ve been looking for.

Off to Amsterdam tomorrow. Reports to follow.

More later, -jv

The Doo Dah Bookfest

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Hello Campers,

I had a fun weekend here in sunny SoCal, dropping in on the semi-famous Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena on Saturday, and rocking the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday. At the latter I signed a bunch of books and pontificated most punditally on a panel (on writing comedy, natch). At the former, I just sat in the crowd, agog, as tortillas and marshmallows (the traditional projectiles of the Doo Dah Parade flew.

Brief photo essay:

Well, this wasn’t really from the parade, but from my pre-parade breakfast at Denny’s. We live in a perfect world, folks; you can get bacon on your sundae.

Everything old is new again at the Doo Dah parade.

And even dogs get into the act. Meanwhile, at the LATBF…

…I signed books at the Vroman’s tent (note the fan agog in the background — as if.)

…signed somewhat less frantically after my panel appearance.

…a panel I shared with (l. to r.) Don Winslow, Lee Goldberg and Thomas Perry, estimable authors one and all. Thanks especially to Lee for moderating so immoderately.

And so how do you feel about the death of Osama Bin-Laden? Me, I feel, well, not much of anything at all. I can’t see it making much of a difference on the geo-political scene, can you? I mean, it’s not like those with a suicide-bomber bent are suddenly going to say, “Well, that’s over, we can all go home now.” If anything, I imagine it’ll fan the flames.

Oh, like those flames need fanning.

You know what? That’s too bummeresque for a pleasant Sunday night. Let’s go back to the Doo Dah. This here is Snotty Scotty and the Hankies.

And on that musical note, let’s say…

More later, -jv

Lost in the Past

Monday, March 7th, 2011

I’ve been writing a novel set in 1969. There’s no mystery about why: I’m stuck in that era; always have been. The music I listen to, the philosophies I believe in, the major discoveries I’ve made, the clothes I wear (I’m wearing an army jacket right now), my whole entire sense of self is rooted in the 1960s, and I do believe that the tragedy of my life — a thing that has haunted me from that day to this — is that I was just a little too young (and maybe a bit too scared) to be the hippie I wanted to be. So this novel I’m writing is nothing less than an emotional memoir, a wish-fulfilling journey down a path I might have walked. From time to time as I write it, I get very close to something I call “the bottom ache,” which, for me, is where the writer’s true emotions live. When I can get a bit of the bottom ache out of my heart and out of my head and onto the page with all its authentic sour sweetness, I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with my work.

But there are unintended consequences of living in the past as I am. Melancholy frequently sweeps over me as I measure the distance between where I was and where I am. Rue slips in — damn, why didn’t I take the road not taken? Frustration dogs me, for even when I successfully catch a snapshot of the ’60s, I know it’s only a snapshot, a dim reflection, not at all the real deal. And when I miss — when my details are lame and my dialogue flat — when I try to convey real emotion and real event on the page, and know that I’m not coming close, I’m not only burdened by the time gone by but also by the time I’m burning through now, trying and failing, trying and failing again.

Well, it’s what writers do, one of the many things we do: We try; we fail; we try again. And when we succeed, we set harder targets for ourselves. That’s part of the paradigm, and I understand it well. Writing is a “have more, need more” condition. No matter what goals we reach, real writers always need new goals and tougher ones. In this novel, my goal is to go deep and go back. In my dark days I fear I’m missing on both counts.

But I soldier on, because that’s what real writers do, too. I feel like I’m participating in an experiment of a sort: how much melancholy can I stand to feel? At this moment, living in 2011 and trying so hard to live in 1969, I’m feeling it all, every single bit. I’m lost in the past. I put myself there, and now there’s no way out of it except through it.

More later, -jv

What a Press Release Looks Like

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Here’s the official press release for The Albuquerque Turkey. Thought you might like a squiz.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Sarah Breivogel; 212-572-2722

sbreivogel@randomhouse.com

What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas . . . or Does It?

Master con artist Radar Hoverlander is back, and this time he’s hitting up the high-rolling action on the Vegas Strip

The Albuquerque Turkey

A Novel

By John Vorhaus

With the mind of David Mamet, the voice of Tom Robbins, and the morals of a sailor on shore leave, Radar Hoverlander is truly one of a kind, a successful con artist, as good as they get.  THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY (Crown, March 22, 2011) finds Radar and his gifted grifter girlfriend, Allie Quinn, trying to use the proceeds of their latest big con to set themselves up in the straight life for good. But foiling Radar’s stab at a new life is a cast of quirky and hilarious characters who collectively present the opportunity for the con of a lifetime. Go straight or go for the gold? What’s a poor grifter to do?

Living a peaceful, quiet life off the grid with Allie, free of cons, double-crosses, high crimes and misdemeanors, Radar is beginning to see why going straight could be the best choice he ever made.  But now here comes trouble in the form of an oddly hefty lady in red who’s stalking him through the streets of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The lady, as it turns out, is actually Radar’s father, Woody Hoverlander, a master grifter in his own right—but presently on the lam and in trouble, with a Vegas hard guy after him and a $5 million debt to clear. To help him, Radar must break his vow to go straight, possibly losing Allie’s love forever.

Meanwhile, Radar’s hapless sidekick, Vic Mirplo, is somehow drifting higher and higher in Santa

Fe art circles. He’s making big money, the sort of loose money a reckless gambler might spend in
-more-
Las Vegas. So off to Vegas they go, where Vorhaus, author of the Killer Poker series and a poker aficionado who once made the final table at the World Series of Poker, uses his knowledge of the high-roller scene to set the stage for Radar’s next con: reinventing Vic as the ultimate high roller—the Albuquerque Turkey. As he did in his witty first novel The California Roll, Vorhaus brings readers inside the world of con artistry with a character like no other, the sensational swindler and polymath extraordinaire Radar Hoverlander. Combining laugh-out-loud prose with a knack for cleverly twisting a plot, Vorhaus makes Hoverlander’s forays into the world of conning intensely engaging and immensely enjoyable.

Art fraud, casino cons, love, loyalty, and a dazzling array of double- and triple-crosses . . . they all prove that the notion of Vegas secrets staying secret is about as realistic as Radar Hoverlander staying straight. Full of scams, jams, and plans gone awry, THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY is a smart, entertaining caper that’s worth gambling on.

# # # # #

About the Author:

JOHN VORHAUS is the author of two novels (including the lauded California Roll), two books on writing, and eight books on poker. A veteran creative consultant, he has taught comedy writing in twenty-six countries on four continents, including Russia, Romania, and many other places that are funnier now than when he arrived.

THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY

A Novel

By John Vorhaus

Crown * March 22, 2011 * Pages: 272
Price: $23.00 * 978-0-307-71780-1

www.CrownPublishing.com

You can find John—and Radar—online at www.JohnVorhaus.com/

More later, -jv

Know Anyone in Santa Fe?

Friday, February 18th, 2011

… in New Mexico, that is, not Texas or Spain. If you do, tell them to mark their calendars for Wednesday, March 23, at 6pm. I’ll be doing an in-store appearance and book signing at the Collected Works bookstore there.

Not going to bother with an address. It’s Santa Fe. You either know where everything is or you’re not from around there.

It’s serendipity, really. The Left Coast Crime convention (of mystery writers and their fans) is being held this year in Santa Fe, literally the week my novel, set in Santa Fe, comes out. I’ll be at the convention, of course (be kinda crazy to go all the way from LA to Santa Fe just for one bookstore, and yes I’m crazy but not that crazy). While I’m there I imagine I’ll spend a lot of time answering the question, “How did you come to set a novel in Santa Fe?” For the record, I got the idea when I was vacationing there. Mostly I got the idea that I could write off my vacation as a “research trip.” Mostly, also, I really didn’t rely heavily on first-hand knowledge of Santa Fe. When I needed information, I just yanked it down off the web. Wikipedia, Google Maps, Google Earth… these were my New Best Friends. And in the end, I don’t think the novel lacks verisimilitude. Research is just easier these days, that’s all. You can target your searches so precisely. Why read a whole book when you really only need one fragment of data?

It’s interesting. The novel I’m working on now is set in 1969. Much of my “research” just consists of digging into my own memory. But trust me, if your memory stretches back to 1969, it’s not entirely to be trusted. So I augment with Wikipedia, again, and various other online resources. Aging hippies, it seems, love to archive their past. And it’s amazing how much time you can waste digging up the exact words of that old Tonka Toys jingle…

For boys who like real lifelike toys

That they can operate, too

Attention boys! Tonka Toys

Were made just for you!

And this, for no apparent reason, is a Tonka Toy.

JV in Santa Fe. Tell your friends!

More later, -jv

A Free Read

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Want to score a free copy of THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY? Just click below.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Albuquerque Turkey (Hardcover) by John Vorhaus

The Albuquerque Turkey

by John Vorhaus

Giveaway ends February 23, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Enough to Make a Man go Meatless

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

We had just arrived in Las Vegas, Maxx and I, to celebrate her birthday. This is not a picture of the two of us.

We had made our way to the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

Fortunately, life in Las Vegas is not all heartburn heaven and thunderstruck intestines. There’s also poker, and a whole damn lot of it, plus shops, restaurants (with saner menus one hopes), and tomorrow’s highlight event, a visit to the Pinball Hall of Fame. It’s nice to have a respite in so crazy a place before returning to Managua (so crazy a place) to spend the next month there working on The Blue Door. That’s a tropical place, Managua. They have plenty of hot food. People gawk at what I eat and call tame. But now I know I’ve met my match. Bhut Jolokia, my (sweat drenched) hat is off to you. You are the boss of me.

More later, -jv

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

Maxx and I were dining at the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

For No Reason I Can Think Of

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

… I woke up early this morning thinking about an essay I wrote in 1995 on the organization of the brain. Since I’m a digital pack rat of the first water, it was a matter of mere moments to dredge the essay from the depths of my hard drive archive. To glimpse what was on my mind about my mind some fifteen years ago, just click here.

More later, -jv

The Boss of the Brain

Back in 1995, I spent a semester at Northwestern University as a guest lecturer. One weekend, I drove across Illinois to play poker at a riverboat casino in Iowa. There, killing time in a motel room, I wrote the essay you’ll find below.

THE BOSS OF THE BRAIN

Friends accuse me of sourcing information far too cavalierly. They say I don’t really bother learning anything completely, just enough of a concept to twist it and mold it and somehow make it my own. I cop to this. I even go a step further, using bogus bibliographies to make up sources rather than going to the trouble of actually finding them. And yes it’s true, do prefer to do research in my mind as opposed to a library[1]. And when I grasp information, I grasp it lightly, absorbing only enough to get me going on thoughts of my own. Call me a dilettante; I prefer the term “synthesist.”

For example, just now, here in this motel in Dubuque, Iowa (where, for reasons far too arcane to go into here, I was “guest of the day,”) I caught a psychology program on the local PBS station. Had the Spice Channel been free, it might have been a far different story. As it was, I caught a snippet of a presentation on how the brain is organized. Since a snippet is all I caught, I’m a little short on detail, but I gather that this model has the brain divided into various resource centers which are swapped into and out of consciousness as needed, much the way computer programs are swapped in and out of random access memory.

Was this the presentation of a valid theory? Speculation? Or pure metaphorical nonsense? I have no idea, but it doesn’t matter. A theory like this needn’t be the slightest bit true to be worthy of contemplation, not to me.

I’ll try anything on for size.

And then I’ll make it my own.

I start by assuming that there’s such a thing as master consciousness, the “I” of the brain. To extend the computer metaphor to my own liking, I declare that the I is not the central processing unit of the computer but rather the person selecting which program to run when. The end user, if you will.

You wake up in the morning. Your  teeth are all mungy. The sense-resource sends this message to your brain’s central clearing house. The I then invokes various physical programs… “get up…” “go to the bathroom…” etc., slotting them into the working part of the brain as necessary. This makes sense on the face of it. Why retain in an active file on how to brush your teeth at any moment other than the actual time you need it?

So there’s a whole class of information we might label “how-to programs.” How to ride a bus, how to shake a hand, how to type or bounce a soccer ball off your head or catch a frisbee or feed a dog or start an arson fire. We don’t use them except when we need them. But obviously there’s more to the brain than how to do things. There are also memories, available upon demand, but only on demand. In a moment I’m going to ask you to recall something. Until the instant that you see the words, you won’t have the picture in your mind; however, once you read the words, you can’t help but have the picture in your mind. Ready? Here we go.

Think of your first kiss.

Boom, there it is.

I’m in seventh grade, playing spin-the-bottle in Sue Coon’s father’s den. Her father has a gun rack, and I look at it as I kiss her. The irony is not lost on me.

Seems to me that the brain is a good-news bad-news situation. The good news is that there’s all this information (maybe all the information we’ve ever encountered) stored inside, but it stays inside unless we have the proper triggers. Would you have thought of your first kiss just now if I hadn’t brought it up? I wouldn’t. I’m doing my damndest not to think of the Spice Channel.

Okay, there’s how-to programming, and there’s memory programming, and hey look, the two swap files. My how-to file on how to rewire a lamp, for example, contains memory of the time I tried to do the job without unplugging the lamp first. Ouch!

Now it seems that this loose coalition of brain resources is nested: memories within how-tos and… feelings within memories.

When I thought of Sue Coon just now and that fabulous first kiss, the memory came attached to a warm, fuzzy feeling. A whole slew of feelings, actually: fondness for the girl; regret that I have no idea where on the planet she might be now; a sense of loss at the years gone by; a certain smug satisfaction in knowing so much more now; plus hints and fragments of other feelings that flesh out the memory like chocolate hops or cumin round out the taste of a microbrewed beer.

So here’s the “feelings” center of the brain, a rowdy, wild-west region that doesn’t respond to the conscious control of the I, but introduces itself unbidden. You see someone attractive walking down the street, you say “woo doll!” The I may have no intention of saying “woo doll!” It just spills out. And if the I’s spouse is walking with the I, the I would be well served to keep this particular “woo doll!” to I’tself.

Do you like football? Can’t stand the sport myself. Too much sense memory of getting clobbered into mush in neighborhood sandlot games. But lots of people like football, and they cheer when their team scores. Does that cheer come consciously bidden? Does the I send an instruction to the cheering section of the brain? I don’t know. Like I said, I only caught a snippet of the show.

So let’s fudge the question. Let’s say that feelings come to us both bidden and unbidden. If I look out the window now, I see a bright sunny day. I feel regret that I’m not out there enjoying the day. But I feel satisfaction that I’m in here writing. Which of these feelings is consciously controlled? Either? Neither? Both? And how do they relate to the I of the brain? Are those thoughts “me?” Or are they just “part of me?” And if they’re “part of me” who is the whole me, and where is he to be found?

How-to, memories, feelings… now we’ve stumbled on ideas. I understand that some people think in pictures, but I personally think in words. When I’m having an idea, when I’m “formulating a thought,” that thought takes shape as a sentence, or a sentence fragment, or a word. So some part of my brain is constantly processing language. I formulate the thought, “Have another cup of coffee,” as exactly those words. But I don’t formulate the thought, “Drink from the cup,” as words. I just do that. Somewhere along the line between thought and action, the linguistic instruction breaks down. Where? Don’t ask me. I’m making this shit up as I go along.

I seem mostly to think in words when I’m contemplating the future. “I’ll  drive downtown this afternoon and pick up a video. After that I’ll stop at the store and get some food for dinner.” If I don’t formulate these thoughts as words, I simply don’t have them. There’s no picture in my brain of the future except a picture painted of words.

But there are no words attached to the past. Those events all come to me as pictures. The shock of Sue Coon’s lips. The shock of that plugged-in lamp. Think about how your memories come to you. Same as mine? Different? What can we draw from that?

I’m playing with you a little bit here. The thing I really want you to notice is the immense gap separating your memories from the part of your brain that contemplates them. And the huge gap between your linguistic formulation of ideas and the “receiver” that takes that information in. And the overwhelming chasm between your bidden or unbidden feelings and the person who ends up suffering from or thriving under that torrent of emotion. We are many separate people.

What if the brain isn’t loadable programs and an end user? What if it’s more like a royal court. There’s lots of room in that metaphor for lots of advisors, all sorts. Let’s see…

There’s a practical advisor. It tells you to brush your teeth or eat when you’re hungry or run for the bus.

There’s a spiritual advisor. It tells you to believe in God or not to believe in God. It formulates your morality and ethics. It points you to the lucky slot machine.

There’s a historian, the archivist who tends to your memories and makes them available on demand. Fittingly, as this archivist gets older, s/he tends to become more doddering, less reliable. Once I was “guest of the day” at the Comfort Inn in Dubuque. Now why was that again?

There’s the prime minister, planning your day, carrying out orders in your name. S/he goes to work, does a job, picks up Chinese food on the way home. Sometimes your servant is your master; you really didn’t want all that fatty food, did you?

There’s the royal consort, urging you to reproduce.

There’s the queen mother or father, reading ancient edicts from the past. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you miserable loser. Go sit on your throne till you figure out what you’ve done wrong!”

Maybe there’s a rogue minister with an agenda all his/her own. This minister feeds your habits, keeps them functioning in you. Maybe you’d like to displace this minister. Maybe you’d like to behead this minister. But this is a sinister minister, tricky and insidious, using misdirection and subterfuge to keep you drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, smoking crack, watching the Spice Channel, whatever.

Is there a wizard in your royal court? Is there magic in your mind? Do creative gifts come unbidden? Do you wish you could give the wizard more power — or use more effectively the power the wizard has?

Maybe if we allied the wizard with the historian we could start to get a sense of the patterns of our personal magic. We might see, for example, that we got more “magic,” more raw creativity when we wrote in the morning than in the afternoon. The historian and the wizard compare notes, pass on their findings to the prime minister who sends a suggestion to the monarch: Write in the morning; you do a better job of it then.

Maybe all the ministers communicate with one another, deal and strategize with one another. Suppose your queen mother relentlessly presented you with a picture of yourself as a fat, ineffectual child. She might go to the rogue minister and say, “Make that monarch eat, make that monarch binge; together we can keep that fat, ineffectual, vision of weakness alive.

Maybe they compete. The royal consort and the spiritual advisor are locked in a raging debate. The consort insists that there is no meaning to life but children; it’s the job of the species to reproduce, full stop. The spiritual advisor says no, if we reproduce it’s God’s will. If we don’t, that’s God’s will too.

So what you’re saying is that if I never find love it’s God’s will and I should just accept that? Speaking as the monarch, I find that argument bogus.

But if I’m a weak monarch, or anyway relatively weaker than my spiritual advisor, I buy the argument and I act accordingly. I accept that it’s God’s will for me not to be loved.

But what if… what if… what if the queen mother is secretly in cahoots with the spiritual advisor? What if the queen mother (who wants to keep me weak) is putting words in the spiritual advisor’s mouth? Am I a smart enough monarch to see through all the intrigues and machinations of my court?

Do I have enough awareness?

The monarch is the one who acts. All this information comes into the brain, but there in the brain someone or something sorts the information and makes a judgment, executes a plan. That’s the monarch. That’s the person in charge.

Are you a powerful monarch or a weak one? Do you listen to your advisors, weigh their input and then make a decision in the best interest of the body (politic)? Or are you reflexive, self-indulgent? Do you let your baseness boss you around? Do you yield to old arguments out of habit, precedent?

“I have not, therefore I must not.”

Alternatively, do you rebel against old voices just because you recognize them as old?

“I never have, therefore I will.”

Or do you get trapped between voices unable to decide?

“I have not, but I must, so I will (if I can.)”

The PBS psychologist had a nice little theory, graphically presenting benign, helpful little packets of information flowing to and from the conscious center of the brain. Need to know what 2 + 2 equals? We’re here to help, master. Want to remember what your first college roommate looked like? We have that information at hand. Don’t know how to cross the street? Just open this file labeled “Street, Look Both Ways Before Crossing.”

That’s a pleasant sorting system, but it assumes that the parts of the brain are all in service of the whole. Not sure you can trust that assumption. To take an unfortunate and unpleasant example, a heroin addict’s whole brain is in service to the one part generating the instruction, “Get more heroin.” Other parts… “kick,” or “get a job,” or “find God”… they’re just voices in the storm.

And even you and I who challenge ourselves to find higher consciousness have hidden alliances at work in our brains. No one is perfect, obviously, and one way to think about how we’re not perfect is to imagine how parts of our brains might be more interested in serving themselves than in serving their leader, the I.

I love doughnuts. But I have high cholesterol, and have been persuaded (by the royal physician?) that eating those doughnuts is bad for me. I have a standing royal decree in my brain: Don’t Eat Doughnuts. Does that mean I never eat doughnuts?

I ate a doughnut this morning.

Some part of my brain (The court baker? The court jester?) overrode that standing command, overruled the king.

Hey, one doughnut’s not going to kill me, right? That’s the argument they used.

But in the name of closing the gap between who I am and who I want to be, I’d like to keep control over those doughnuts. I want my rulings to stick.

How can I contemplate my mind? How can I see clearly the thing I want to see when the thing doing the viewing and the thing being viewed are one in the same? It’s like the ocean asking what’s water? The answer is at once self-evident and inconceivable.

Yet we try. We struggle. We want better performance from our brains, so we seek systems for understanding them. PBS psychologists give us a glimpse of the fragmentary nature of the thing, and suggest that the part in control, the “I” of the brain, is just one small home page in a vast world wide web.

To that I add the metaphor of the royal court because it allows me to externalize my thinking. It lets me see the players in my brain as representations of archetypes of the outside world. I only do this to make it easier for me to understand what’s going on in there. (I don’t imagine literal royal robes.) If I have to go play poker now because the court jester insists that it’s time to be amused, at least I know why I’m going. That is, I know “a” why I’m going.

For a system as vast and vexing as the human mind, no metaphor can serve in the end. That would be like the ocean, contemplating what’s water, saying, “Well okay, the ocean is like a puddle, only bigger.” Yes it’s true, but is it useful?

Only if the ocean can look in the puddle and see some reflection  of itself. And only if the ocean can turn that information into action.

Do you suffer writer’s block? Do you wish you wrote more hours of the day than you do? Put the problem to your royal court. See who takes what kind of stand on the issue.

Your historian may hold you back by point out your dismal track record; you’ve never been the kind of writer you want to be. What makes you think you’ll get there now?

Your royal consort may be against the whole idea: “If you follow your dreams, where does that leave love?”

That nasty rogue might just want to subvert your effort for no other reason than s/he can. “I’ll show you who has the power in this brain.”

And maybe, deep down in the dungeon of the castle, there’s an ex-advisor who’s long since fallen out of favor. This advisor was a sad and pathetic creature who used to whisper “I’m no good. I don’t deserve.” You locked this advisor in chains in the basement. You put bars on the door and reinforced the walls. You order the royal musicians to play pretty music in your head so that you don’t have to hear this advisor’s plaintive wail.

You’re convinced that you’ve silenced that voice.

But how can you be sure? Maybe the rogue is sneaking down food (doughnuts!) Maybe every time you fail to live up to your expectations as a writer (or artist or athlete or crosser-of-the-street) you’re actually doing it because your advisors are conspiring to keep that little voice of failure alive in your head. How will you deal with that?

Take off the chains, that’s a start. Bring that advisor back into the royal court where you can at least keep an eye on him/her. Listen to that voice, acknowledge it… and then consciously, proactively refuse to yield.

You can’t say no to a voice you can’t hear.

So listen to all your voices. Seek consensus if it suits you, but remember who’s boss. There is only one listener in your head; the rest are just talkers. Let the listener be the decision-maker too, and you’ll end up doing what’s in your best interest.

As an exercise, should you so choose, visit the royal court inside your head and give names to your advisors. Jot them down. Don’t be afraid to paste labels from the real world: Some of the most powerful voices in our heads are our parents’, our friends’, our lovers’. Other voices come from our own expectations of ourselves. For instance, I have one advisor whose job is to do nothing but remind me that I’m supposed to be famous one day. No matter how many times I tell myself that that voice is invalid, old programming, the voice remains. So I acknowledge it. I list it and I listen to it, but I don’t give in.

And if you’re a writer, don’t forget that the characters you create all have their royal courts too. Keep this in mind and your characters will naturally become more interesting and colorful. We imagine that our characters are monolithic wholes, but they’re not, no more than we ourselves are. Everyone, real or imagined, is a coalition, and sometimes the coalition can get very shaky indeed.


[1]Or what passes for a library these days, i.e. a bookstore.

Back in the Soup

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

“Back in the soup” is an expression I’ve often used to describe the exasperation I feel when returning home from overseas work, vacation, or other extended travel. It’s often a function of nothing more than, well, mail: the bills that have piled up, and the checks that, somehow, haven’t arrived. There’s also the laundry to be done, work contacts to re-establish and, of course, work to return to. Whether I’ve been working overseas or just (as now) on vacation, it always seems a little like fantasyland out there, but back here it’s reality. And it can make me feel like I’m, well, “in the soup.”

It’s the price I pay for travel, of course. I know that, and embrace it. Still, it always takes me a few days to shake off the former routine and establish the new regime. I find myself extensively stalling for time: doing busy work; writing random emails; this blog post. Mostly I’m just reacquainting myself with my desk. But it doesn’t fit right and it doesn’t feel right. I’d just gotten used to a beach chair. But hey, let’s call this what it is: a luxury crisis. If I didn’t get to go to groovy places like the Bahamas, I’d never have the hangover that comes with day one back in the soup.

So let’s bid the Bahamas a fond farewell with a smile and a photo.

It was a great trip, a wonderful battery-recharge, and now it’s on to the next adventure.

Even if that “adventure” is only paying the bills.

More later, -jv