…Of Everything

A little over a week ago, the paperbound edition of my novel The Breast of Everything launched online, quickly followed by the first digital edition (on Kindle).  To make this happen, I’ve been wearing more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins and every time I take one off there’s another one lurking underneath.  I’ve been graphics designer, webmaster, researcher, publisher, publicist and personal assistant, while continuing to cover my usual roles in the office and with my family.  If someone offered me a choice between a spot in the New York Times Book Review and a vacation right now, I’d actually have to stop and think!

Part of the challenge over the last few months has been making my way through a thicket of technology (it would have been accurate here to say “hacking” my way, but that word no longer conjures up images of swinging a machete through a rain forest—at least not when talking about technology).  I’ve taken on learning, or adding to my skills in, WordPress, Photoshop, InDesign, Scrivener, and the CreateSpace and Kindle KDP interfaces.  Plus setting up some new things in Facebook and Goodreads.

As a boomer with a liberal arts degree, I was awed by the scope of the available tools and astonished that I could use them.  This may all be a yawn to your average high school Junior but this kind of technology wasn’t around when I was growing up.  During college, I worked an entire summer to afford a portable electric typewriter.  It wasn’t only the tasteful caramel color of the case that compelled me; in those days, the pop-in self-correcting and colored-ink ribbons were breathtakingly state of the art.  Five years later, I had the opportunity to learn my first word processor.  It was one of those “dedicated” word processors (before word processing software had been developed for personal computers) that required the floorspace of an L-shaped desk and stored a few dozen pages of text on a mylar disk the size of a vinyl LP record; the dot-matrix printer required another wall and a sound-muffling Lexan hood.  Temp word processing was a great survival job for a struggling actor, so I learned seven or eight of these machines, the size shrinking rapidly over time.  DOS-driven personal computers were next, once they supported word processing software good enough for my own writing purposes.  I taught myself well enough to train others.  I learned my first simple database program because I needed to organize my consulting work and my submissions to playwriting competitions.  These self-taught skills eventually go me hired by my first software company, where I picked up bits of assorted knowledge while working with developers as a user-assistance specialist.

Now I make my living as a technical writer, specializing in what I like to think of as “helpful Help.” Not what you’d expect for someone with a double major in Theatre and History.  Sometimes I joke that I’m something of an end-user idiot savant when it comes to software technology, but the truth is that the essential thing I learned in college was how to learn.

I was lucky that way.  The push towards specialization began just a few years after I graduated.  Instead of going to college to broaden their knowledge and experience of the world, students today go seeking job skills and every other one of them seems to go on to get an MBA in something. With so many complex disciplines to master, professional development training is extremely valuable and it’s great that there’s so much more of this available in schools and in the workforce.  But no specialized work skills can replace analytic thinking, critical thinking and the ability to perform research.

Job skills learned today will be outmoded in less than a decade.  Entire occupations go extinct every year (ask anyone who works for a newspaper).  There’s no way of knowing what the future will bring, but most of us will, whether voluntarily or needfully, change occupations many times over the course of our working lives.  And it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of us will never have an IPO or live in McMansion or live out one of those dream retirements that feature in financial planning ads.

But with a liberal arts education behind me, I’ve been able to adapt to new disciplines, changing times and evolving tools.  I’ve traveled through Tuscany using public transportation, learned to knit entrelac and managed to connect my blog feed from my website to Goodreads. All that, and I get to have the fun of yelling “how can you not know that!” a lot when “Jeopardy” is on TV.

Everything I Need to Know, I Learned From Dark Shadows

I’ve been keeping an eye on the approach of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows movie.  Things have been heating up over the last month or so: “sneak peek” photos showing up online, followed closely by trailers; then the TV commercials and a steady trickle of buzzy web pieces; and yesterday, the true harbinger of imminence, the subway poster.  I always look forward to Burton’s work, but this one’s had me giddy with anticipation.  Understandable in view of my having grown up glued to the show. Then today came the sad announcement of the death of actor Jonathan Frid, the original (dare I say the real?) Barnabas Collins. Coming, as it did, the day after Dick Clark’s passing, it was a cold reminder that my childhood is ancient history. But as I read through the press releases, I realized there was more meaning for me here than nostalgia or general middle-aged angst.

I said before that I grew up on Dark Shadows. It might be more accurate to say that Dark  Shadows helped to raise me.  Chronically terrified, introspective and eccentric (I was past 30 before I grasped exactly how eccentric), I was not a happy child. We didn’t have Goth or Emo kids in those days. It might have been easier for me if we had but, as I hit adolescence, everyone around me seemed fearfully confident and optimistic.  Everywhere I looked, it was all bounce and shiny hair—except for people in 19th century novels (which, yes, I was reading at that age) and on Dark Shadows. The family at Collinwood were a mess, and that mess was bred deep down in their DNA.  The plot stretched across centuries and involved a melancholy vampire and (later on) a Byronic werewolf, a brittle female doctor and a sultry witch, ingenues in jeopardy and a Golden Age Hollywood matriarch, a Renfield-like caretaker and children with a creepy touch of Turn of the Screw. The black and white setting for all of this was a gothic mansion on the rockiest coast of Maine, all fog and crashing waves, the one place on TV that wasn’t drenched in California sunshine. Even the music was haunting; I can still whistle the theme.

It was a soap, of course, but oddly educational. There were plotlines that derived from some pretty classic literary sources. Fan magazine pieces on the actors led to additional, wider reading (Frid was a Shakespearean actor, Grayson Hall had been in Night of the Iguana). And of course there was a lot of information on the paranormal and other intriguing areas of exploration. Astrology was all the rage back then, but it was Dark Shadows that gave me the courage to buy my first Tarot deck, and it was through Dark Shadows that I heard of the I Ching. The world Dan Curtis created had all the thrills of a ripping yarn, and I could feel pleasantly smart at the same time. But more than all of this, Collinwood was home.

When I was introduced to Dark Shadows, one long dull summer between childhood and teens, I was invited into a world where I somehow seemed to belong—and I was pretty desperate to belong to something, to not feel so very much alone. Thanks to those weekday afternoon half hours, following some often-miserable school days, I learned that it was okay to be different; maybe not easy, but okay. And that nothing is ridiculous if you care enough about it. A lot of what I learned in adolescence still lingers, but the best of what I learned I learned from Dark Shadows. 

The Ukulele Diaries

With daunting days ahead (I’ve loaded myself up with ambitious plans for 2012, mostly to do with self-publishing some of the work that’s been mounting up in my personal slush pile.), I felt a strong need to kick the year off with off with something unequivocally positive.  So today I bought a ukulele.

Hey, what could be happier than the sound of a ukulele?

And it’s easy to sing with.  I’ll only need a few cords to start strumming well enough to back myself up, much easier than the guitar that I spent high school and college trying without success to wrangle. Plus, it’s small and cuddles next to your heart — and unlike other things that can be described that way, you’ll never have to worry about putting it through college or where it might be going at night with its friends.

Ukuleles remind me of Meet Me in St. Louis, and music of the Roaring 20’s.  Bette Midler did a lot to push the ukulele out there but it’s only in the last couple of years that this little stringed instrument has made a major comeback (not the only time the world has finally caught up to Bette!).  I’ve been getting a big kick out of watching it, and sometimes toying with the idea of buying one for myself.  But I’d tell myself not to be silly.  What did I need another hobby for, especially a musical one?  Sadly, my aptitude for making make music is negligible (it’s that math/music/language gene; I just don’t have it).

A few months ago I stumbled onto Amanda Palmer’s In My Mind Which I couldn’t stop listening to, and then couldn’t stop singing.  It’s kind of a perfect anthem for times of change.  The more I sang it, the more I realized how much stronger I would sound (it’s a song that makes you want to sound strong) if I had my own uke to strum, instead of relying on Amanda in my mind’s ear.  When I wandered into the Zooey Deschanel/Joseph Gordon-Levitt New Year’s Eve video this week, I guess that was the final push I needed.

So last night, when I was thinking how much I needed to do something to start the year off right, the obvious answer popped right out: buy a ukulele.  And today I did.  I found a beautiful ukulele online that asked me to bring it home.  I know, it seems crazy to buy something like this online, but most of the ukulele bloggers out there (uh-huh!) were all for it.  When the local Sam Ash turned out to be closed for the day, I decided to take it as a sign. 🙂

It should arrive in 7-10 business days.  I hereby promise to pick it up regularly, even if only to strum a few chords.  Especially on tough days, because I know it will always make me smile.  No one could possibly be unhappy while playing the ukulele, right?!