latelythe on-line diary of
ralph robert moore
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Copyright © 2001 by Ralph Robert Moore. All rights reserved.
Return to lately 2001
green and gray world
april 7, 2001
As I mentioned in a previous entry, in late fall of last year I showed up for work at the office one Friday, ready for the weekend, when one of my co-workers unsheathed a white letter from a manila envelope. He was acting on behalf of the person I reported to, who worked out of Columbus, and who in fact I never met during my employment with the company (she forever remained a voice on the phone, as if I were in a spy movie).
Our company had been recently taken over, for the fourth time. I survived all the bombings over the eleven years I worked there, while watching everyone else around me step on land mines, but now it was my turn. I was being fired. Someone in the acquiring company performed basically the same function I did.
Most fiction writers don't support themselves full time with their short story and novel sales, and I'm no exception. I've always found it interesting to find out what writers do during the forty hours a week they're not creating fiction. If you've ever been curious about how I support myself, it is in fact through writing, at least, but what's known as technical writing, and specifically medical and legal technical writing. When you start a new job, you're usually given a thick booklet explaining all of your medical and dental benefits. I'm the guy who writes that booklet (although chances are, given the tens of thousands of separate health care plans, the booklet you received was written by someone else).
I enjoy what I do. It puts me in telephone touch with a lot of government officials in state and federal agencies, and also causes me to write in alternative styles. Legal and medical technical writing is very different from fiction writing.
I'll limit myself to two examples.
Although repetition is generally avoided in fiction, it's highly valued in legal writing, because if you consistently use the same term throughout a document, rather than a synonym, there can be no question that you mean precisely that same term. If I were writing fiction, and referring to someone covered under a particular health care plan, I might call them an employee, then a participant, then a covered person, simply to make the writing less repetitious. But in writing a legal document, I would never use anything other than, let's say, "participant", never referring to a participant as an "employee" or a "covered person", because the very use of another term suggests there is some difference between, for example, a "participant" and a "covered person" (because otherwise you would have used the same term). This favoring of repetition, to doggedly repeat the same term over and over again, no matter how boring that makes the text, also leads to a much lesser incidence of pronouns, since it's not always clear to which antecedent a pronoun refers.
The other example of an alternative style is in medical technical writing, which follows general technical writing in that such writing is almost always written in the passive voice, and in fact is far easier to read and to understand when written in that voice.
What technical writing taught me over the years is that some of the most elementary rules of "good writing" (don't be repetitious, don't write in the passive voice) are rules only in the sense that they are breakable. Indeed, since I started technical writing I find myself far less inclined to use pronouns, for example, because they really are empty words. "In the middle of the desert I found a camel. I slung my saddle over its hump" does not keep the presence of the camel in the reader's mind as much as saying, "In the middle of the desert I found a camel. I slung my saddle over the camel's hump.")
Anyway, circling back, I was fired because someone in the acquiring company, who I had occasionally spoken to on the phone, and who seemed like a nice person, basically did the same thing I did. I drove over to Mary's office with my few personal effects (after seeing so many of my friends get the ax over the years and then have to haul out an office's worth of personal furnishings, chairs and paintings and hat racks, I had limited my own personal belongings in my office to a picture of Mary and a crystal globe I was awarded for the quality of my work by an earlier acquiring company), and told Mary I had been fired. She took off for the day. On our drive home we decided to stop to get some fast food to eat, but in one of those synchronicities of the irksome kind, every fast food place we pulled up at was either not open yet or had suddenly gone out of business. We wound up in a supermarket, Muzak and brightly-lit aisles, buying ground meat to make our own cheeseburgers. I looked around at everyone stocking the shelves and thought, These people have jobs and I don't, to test the feeling.
Two weeks after I was fired, I dropped Mary off at her work that morning, a Friday, and turned around in our car to make the long trek out of Dallas, back to our home.
I was happy. I had decided to use this unusual opportunity to write my fourth novel, As Dead As Me, and was making great progress on it. Joe, Mary's dad, whose company we both greatly enjoyed, was scheduled to arrive via Amtrak in a couple of weeks to share Christmas and New Year's with us. I slid a CD into our car's player, Procol Harum's Greatest Hits, an album I hadn't heard in ten years. The songs not only held up, but sounded better than ever. I thought back to what I was like as a teenager, first hearing these songs, comparing that me to the one now driving home, and was satisfied with how my life has gone so far.
Soon after I arrived home that day, after shopping at the local market for delicacies we would cook during Joe's visit, I got a call from the company that fired me. They wanted to know if I would agree to being rehired. After two weeks, they realized they had made a mistake. Things weren't working out the way they thought they would, and a lot of the people I worked with in the company had protested my firing, asking that I be brought back.
After some negotiation, I agreed to return, but one of my stipulations was that I would now work from home, rather than having to report to an office each day.
Working from home deserves a column on its own, but I'm not going to write that column this week.
What I do want to write about is the extra free time working from home gives me.
I wake up at four o'clock each morning. I make coffee, feed the cats, and wake Mary up at four-thirty. We watch the local morning news, sipping coffee in bed, smoking, letting the cats rub the sides of their faces over our knuckles, then get ready for work, leaving about a quarter to seven.
Now that only Mary drives into work (my commute is a roll out of bed), I have an extra hour to myself each morning.
When I was a teenager, I preferred late night to early morning. I thought the world was in those hours more mysterious, more forbidden, lit only by car headlights. Parents didn't want you staying out that late, in the wildness and winds of the late evening, black hands clicking past eleven.
As I got older, I came to appreciate the early morning hours, that darkness just before dawn, when the house is filled with silence, no breath from the world yet against the drawn blinds, chairs and tables in the quiet downstairs rooms more stationary than ever.
If you get up that early, standing next to the coffee maker, looking out through the wide window, you get to witness the world waking. No sunset can ever compete with a sunrise. As the rays shoot laterally across the green land, through the slats in the blinds, turning the rooms into lined paper, you hear the outside stir and return. There's no sweeter sound to me, no greater optimism, than the first bird songs of a pastel morning.
After Mary leaves for work, taking our car, after I wave goodbye to her from the back door, and walk out into our attached garage, which is now so empty, just an accordioned pack of Dorals on the big cement floor, I could sit at the bottom edge of the rumpled bed, hearing again about overnight murders on TV, but that's too lonely, like floating in a space capsule two thousand light years from home.
So instead I've been picking up our digital camera, holding it in both hands like a big button, and wandering around our early morning neighborhood.
Like everyone else, I've taken a lot of pictures over the years. Mostly of Mary, cats, vacation spots, and food we've cooked. The pictures of Mary have come out reasonably well, and sometimes they've actually captured a facial expression I associate with her, but most of the cat pictures are out-of-focus and red-eyed, the vacation pictures filled with too many extraneous details, steel lamp posts and yellow parking lot curbs, the pictures of food we've cooked making our meals look shapeless and bloody.
These recent mornings, though, I've taken my time, walking down a wet, gray country road, few cars passing this early, stepping off the tar onto the damp grass to lower my height, knees slowly going out sideways, to frame a shot of a cow pasture, sunken stream cutting through a green field, muddy road twisting behind a stand of conifers.
I've been lucky to choose this particular time to take photographs. This area of northern Texas, subject the past few years to a dry, brittle drought, orange and yellow flames in the trees, has been this Spring flooded with rain, riverbeds swelling, moss growing on branches, lawns receiving so much downpour blades quickly turn from green to blue.
There was a period in my life, during my early teens, when I turned painfully shy. I tended to keep my face tilted downwards, watching sidewalks or carpets while other people spoke, hands kept mostly in my pants pockets, my gestures, when I'd pull my hands out, awkward and graceless, as if my limbs were twice as long, floating. I got out of that eventually, but of course a part of it always stays with you, like malaria. Some of my joy now is to be temporarily alone and survive, to be by myself on a wet street, early in the morning, anonymous, not caring anymore that cars sometimes honk angrily as they whizz past, annoyed I'm doing something at that hour other than going to work, grateful to be walking where others drive, so much more slowed down, just me and the sun half-emerged from the horizon.
Sometimes, when I'm blocks away from home, when I've found a particular tree and lake tableau I want to capture, recording another of the images of this green, wet month, as I'm standing off to the side of the moist gray pavement, with its mustard yellow dashes drawn down the middle, looking down at the top of the digital camera in my hands to see how many shots are left, like checking the meter on an oxygen tank, a morning breeze will blow through me, my body turning into a dotted outline, dissolving above the side of the road into molecules of cool air, memory, bird chirpings, the taste on the tongue of coffee, nicotine, wavering back as the breeze subsides, as I reassemble, looking back down that wet, dark road passing between the green grass on either side, alone in a green and gray world.
After so many decades of starting a weekday getting ready for work, sipping cold coffee, trying to get my hair right, rushing out the door, sitting in multi-colored traffic, bored by the radio, my morning now starts with me alone with the world, walking through it, step by step, stopping, bending my knees, flicking a flash that blinks against gnarled, black limbs, the disappearing infinity of damp, emerald pastures, the rippled reflections of bare branches, overcast sky, leaning me, floating in a stream.
Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me.