Monday, October 31, 2011

On decisionmaking...

Why do we make the decisions we do?

I've been wondering about that a lot this week, partially because I've been wearing ruts in memory lane for about 10 days.

You see, last weekend was my 25th college reunion!!!  And Jon and I made the trek back to Williamsburg, Virginia.  I was never very good at taking the advice that Steely Dan gave me, and I DID, after all, attend (and graduate from) the College of WIlliam and Mary in 1986.  

We had a total blast, wandering around the college and partying with friends in Colonial Williamsburg (a place I never had the disposable income to frequent back when I was a student) and kicking leaves and going to a late-night fireworks/open-bar/dinner/dance-party in the Sunken Gardens that was AWESOME!

As I was dancing to a WHOLE BUNCH of Michael Jackson cover tunes at said party, I suddenly remembered a time, 26 years earlier, when I was a student, living in one of the old dorms near to the Sunken Gardens.  

And the Homecoming alumni party was going on REALLY late, and I NEEDED TO STUDY.  Those old fogies just WOULDN'T STOP! I quite clearly remember thinking the words "old fogies."

Now I'm one of them.  Which you could think of as sobering, but I mainly think of as HILARIOUS!

Anyhow, there we were, hanging out in this beautiful place, and I was channelling the Talking Heads and asking,
"Well, how did I get here?"

It was quite a leap from a small mining town (mostly converted to tourism) in the Rockies to go to Tidewater, Virginia, a place I had NEVER BEEN.  So I got to thinking about it.  Why on earth did I end up there?

My EXCELLENT American History teacher, Mrs. Klusman, had gone to Williamsburg the summer I turned 16.  And she brought back all sorts of pictures and raved about how awesome it was...

But that wasn't really why.

Then, when I became a senior in high school, I was inundated with all sorts of promotional literature from colleges ALL OVER THE COUNTRY.  My PSAT scores were high, so everybody except the ATHLETIC places were trying to recruit me.  I had POUNDS AND POUNDS of promo packets from all shapes and sizes of places from all over the country.

Deciding among all that was a tough thing.  And Mr. Fowler, my high school counselor, was little to NO help.  He might have been okay as a football coach (although how would I know?  I only went to half of all the home games and that was only because I played in the band at the halftime show), but his counseling skills weren’t great in terms of helping you make a logical decision about college.

Mr. Fowler thought my scores were AWESOME.  And he really really pushed me attending Smith or Wellesley.  I don’t know why.  Maybe his wife had gone to one of the Seven Sisters or something.  So, okay, thanks to Mr. Fowler and generally being overwhelmed with all the information, I sent apps to Smith and Wellesley.

Which, incidentally, although I was accepted, were two schools that I COULD NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS HAVE AFFORDED.  But I didn’t really know that, at the time.

Add to that, the fact that, despite all my reading, I was a kid in a tiny Colorado town, and the only places outside Colorado that I’d ever been in my life, besides a few trips to Kansas and Wisconsin to visit family, was backpacking down the Paria Canyon.

And the Paria did not have an accredited college.

But I did kind of want to see something different.

So, in addition to expensive Smith & Wellesley, I also applied to the Colorado College, JUST IN CASE I won the Boettcher Scholarship, which provided a full ride to any school in Colorado (and I did not win the Boettcher).


So I applied to William and Mary, almost based on a whim.

The photo I included with this post is VERRRY similar to one that was in William and Mary’s promo pamphlet in 1981.  It was of one of the campus’ old brick buildings and a picket fence next to it.

I REALLY liked that photo. 

That’s why I picked William and Mary.

I remember that Mr. Fowler was less than impressed at first.

I had no idea at the time (and neither did he) that William and Mary was the second-oldest institution in the country, or that George Washington/Thomas Jefferson/etc. had all gone there.  I didn’t realize it was considered one of the best public schools in the country.

I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW IT WAS IN VIRGINIA UNTIL WE MADE THE PLANE RESERVATIONS TO FLY THERE WHEN I STARTED SCHOOL.   (The geography standards people would probably have a field day with that, but there IS a Williamsburg in West Virginia…)

I fell in love. Williamsburg was a great choice and William and Mary was a great match for me.  And I am still in love with the College and the colonial part of town and the wonderful professors and students I worked with!

(To be totally truthful, I sort of hate the New South crap on Richmond Road, where I worked at a sweatshop/pancake house full of ex-convicts the summer after I graduated and it gave me a new perspective on Southern living that was closer to “Deliverance” than I’d received from studying at William and Mary.  And a lot of writing material.  But that’s another story.)

And it all hinged on that one photo, which I can still see, clearly as ever, even through all the years and the many miles.

Decisionmaking…it’s funny!  The power of an image is IMPRESSIVE!

Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Investments in business...

I've just been thinking about the whole rationale for why you invest in marketing and publicity and...well, anything related to your business. Hypothetically, you pay for things because they're SUPPOSED to strengthen your business, right?

Of course, this is no exact science, and that is PRECISELY what marketers and publicists and people who sell you advertising count on to keep their own businesses afloat.

For instance, years ago, when I published two children's picture books through Snowbound Press, I invested $12,000 on a publicist. He came highly recommended. He was very, very nice. And my good friend Lydia also spent a similar amount on him to promote HER children's book.

Unfortunately, publicists are not typically paid for productivity. They are paid up front, for their hypothetical connections (which may often be imaginary or inferior to your own connections, to be honest with you).

Nice and highly recommended though Adam was (and I don't think I'm letting the cat too far out of the bag with just a first name there), he GOT FEWER PRESS REVIEWS FOR MY BROTHER'S BOOK THAN I DID FOR MY BOOK WHEN I WAS HANDLING PUBLICITY OUT OF MY DUSTY, SPIDER-INFESTED BASEMENT ON AN UNPAID BASIS.

AND THIS WAS AT A TIME WHEN MY BROTHER WAS HEAD OF STORY ON A MAJOR DREAMWORKS ANIMATION RELEASE. Really. His name on the credits actually showed up BEFORE the movie. And they were in letters LARGE ENOUGH TO READ when you freeze the DVD. It was a big deal!

Whereas, when my book came out, I was famous for NOTHING other than a doctoral dissertation that was so esoteric even I have trouble remembering what it was about, and a bunch of research reports on standardized test validity and assessment systems that nobody bothered to read (OBVIOUSLY, or this No Child Left Behind garbage would not have been such a complete and utter flustercuck).

And I still got loads more press, awards, and sales for my book than the $12,000 guy did for my famous brother's book.


Not a good business investment, that.

Of course, times change. Businesses change. And so what you invest in will change as well.

Now, with my new business, I am VERY happy, because I found something that really works.

The photo is representative of part of my job--getting good reference photos for the portraits. To a large extent, the quality of an animal's portrait is dependent on the quality of the photograph I base it on.

And I have been plagued with photography situations this past week involving squinty cats, bad light, an unfamiliar camera, dogs who WILL NOT PERK THEIR EARS UP, NO MATTER WHAT, and all sorts of twitchy animals who WILL JUST NOT LOOK AT ME BECAUSE I HAVE A CAMERA IN MY HAND.


Squeaky rubber chicken.


Happy Friday!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On the resilience of dogs...

This is Oreo.

He's a 4-year old purebred Cocker Spaniel, and I got to know him a little better because his owner, Melinda Elkind, won a free pet portrait of him in a drawing I sponsored over the summer.

So a few weeks ago, I traipsed over to Oreo and Melinda's house to take some photos for use in the painting.

Oreo is a very pleasant dog. He has good social skills. But he's not one of those dogs who immediately is ALL OVER YOU, giving you the hard-sell like he's Orphan Annie and you're a potential adoptive parent.

Maybe this doesn't happen to you, but it has happened to me MORE TIMES THAN I CAN COUNT. I'd go to a party, and usually there'd be a new baby there (to be fair, this happened MUCH MORE when I was a bit younger).

Now MOST women are very BABY-oriented, so they would get sucked into the baby's orbit like the additional moons and assorted space junk that get sucked into orbiting Jupiter.

I am not like most women that way.

Sure, I like babies as a rule, and I will politely admire them, because, generally, they're very cute. But PLEASE DO NOT ASK ME TO HOLD ONE. They seem very pink and fragile, I never quite know how to support their necks (which seem disconcertingly weak relative to their enormous HEADS), and they are nerve-wrackingly susceptible to irrational crying jags. Plus they are FULL of all sorts of liquids that are apt to come OUT at any time from a dizzying variety of bodily apertures, and these liquids are not the sorts of things I want on my clothes.

I am the person who zooms out of the swarm around the baby at the earliest possible opportunity, looking for the family dog or cat and/or the bar, not necessarily in that order.

And what would inevitably happen at that point is that the dog immediately would attach himself to me. I'd start to pet him, scratch him behind the ears, talk to him, etc. And then he WOULDN'T LET ME STOP. He'd try to crawl in my lap or show me the latest awesome trick he'd learned. And every time I'd try to rest my hand or wash my hand or deposit the dog hair in a wastebasket or go somewhere for a drink refresher or the bathroom, there he'd be, following me and begging for more attention.

So that was the long way of saying OREO IS NOT THAT KIND OF DOG.

Like I said, he was very polite to me, a relative stranger (although he does take his watchdog duties somewhat seriously), but he's clearly not interested in selling himself like those needier dogs. He was well-behaved; Melinda let him off-leash part of the time and he did not flip out and start running for miles, just because he COULD, like some other dogs I could mention. He was a good boy!

Then Melinda told me about his background.

You see, Oreo is a rescue dog. When Melinda got him, three years ago, he was a year old, and had spent most of his life in a crate. The woman who owned him did not know anything about dogs, and her two children basically spent their time POKING at him through the bars of the crate.

So he would snap at people.

And I can't blame him, really, given his life experience.

But apparently he had bitten TWO people and was scheduled to be put down. Melinda was one of his last chances. And she took him in.

It was not easy, I'm sure. She said that, when she first brought him home, he wanted to constantly be up on tables, coffee tables, chairs, etc. But once her husband established that HE was the top dog, Oreo fell into line. Sure, he still indulges in the occasional criminal act (usually involving a food theft of some kind) but he seems to be a lovely pet!

I came away rather amazed at his resilience. I would never have guessed that he didn't come from a stable home and happy puppyhood. But I am constantly horrified and amazed by the many idiotic and cruel ways in which people mistreat their companion animals. And I am always humbled by the incredible grace and resilience of many of those animals who bounce back and are again willing to offer people their love and trust.

We, as a species, could probably take a lesson from that.

I don't know that Oreo was ever technically in a shelter, but, thanks to the ASPCA, October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month! If you're in the market for an animal companion, please plan to adopt a shelter animal this month. There's more information at the ASPCA's website.

Think about it! You, like Melinda, will not only be getting a great companion, you'll be saving a life!

Monday, October 3, 2011

On civic responsibility...

I got this piece of mail a few weeks ago, notifying me that I MUST appear tomorrow at the courthouse for jury selection.

It makes it quite clear that, if I choose NOT to fulfill this civic responsibility, my alternative is to appear in a courtroom under quite a different set of circumstances. Or to pay all sorts of unspecified fines and fees.

Both of these alternatives are quite STICK-y.

I can handle a little bit of stick, you know? But generally, I appreciate there being some CARROT ALONG WITH IT.


Well, to be fair, I guess I get DISCOUNTED PARKING in the parking structure downtown. But that, in my opinion, is not much of a carrot. It's more of a moldy old turnip, especially when paired with the added necessities of waking up 3 hours earlier than usual and driving downtown during RUSH HOUR and paying for parking in a PLACE I DON'T REALLY WANT TO BE ANYWAY.

But I guess I'm just pouting, because, after all, it's my opportunity to fulfill my responsibility as a citizen. Even though I'm self-employed, and, if you're self-employed in Colorado, "you must compensate yourself for the first three days." (The theory is that most trials only last three days; after that the state pays all jurors $50/day).

Compensating myself for the first three days of time spent hanging about with criminals and lawyers (which, mathematically speaking, are overlapping sets, a belief that...hmmm...JUST MIGHT exempt me from jury duty) is not much of a carrot in my book.

I understand civic responsibility. I really do. I vote. I try to stay REASONABLY well-informed on the issues, at least as much as one CAN, given how unreliable and biased almost ALL current "news" outlets are.

I even READ those multi-page blue booklets that come out in Colorado prior to every election, the ones that hypothetically summarize the pros and cons of each measure in exhaustive detail. Unfortunately, from years of being an expert researcher and policy advisor, I also know how BIASED those summaries are, and how much the devil is in the details of policy implementation. So I don't trust much of what I read.

But I do think the "corrections" system is grossly mis-named and based on arbitrary and dysfunctional laws. So I'm not sure that the greatest good here is for me to sit for three or more days on a criminal jury listening to arbitrarily selected bits of information so a group can come to a fairly arbitrary decision that will not, in all likelihood, rehabilitate the criminal or recompense the victim. Especially when, instead, I could be doing something CONSTRUCTIVE. Like painting peoples' pets and building my business.

But it's my civic duty to go along with it (as I have been reminded by the BIG STICK wielded by the state). So I will have to show up.

But honestly, ever since I have gotten this summons, whenever I think about it, NINETY-FIVE PERCENT OF MY ATTENTION IS IN HOW I CAN GET OUT OF IT.

But that doesn't quite seem workable for me.

So I've got a different list. Along with possibly flogging my PhD. (somebody told me once that lawyers don't like people with advanced degrees), I'm thinking about talking about religion and my cynicism about politics and the justice system.

Princess Leia will be my last resort.

And, of course, I will SUCK IT UP if I HAVE to. But I'm really hoping that I won't actually be selected.

The last time I was summoned for jury duty (and dismissed), I was not painting puppies or writing kids' books; I was writing a series of very dark, macabre short stories.

This is a partial summary of a short story, the treatment of which I wrote WHILE I WAS IN THE COURTHOUSE WAITING ROOM,about a juror who avidly WANTED to do her civic duty (which, of course, demonstrated that she was not HUMAN, but instead was an odd life-force sucking vampire). After the first trial (which went very long and ended with violence and all 11 other members of the jury aging about 10 years in 2 weeks), this woman came out looking younger and plumper and sleeker. And then she kept coming back, with new IDs, serving on new juries, sucking out their life forces, and coming out younger and younger every time. I will spare you the ending (there was a bit of a twist) but it was NOT PRETTY AT ALL.

Maybe it will not be so bad. But does anybody else feel this way?