Friday, January 15, 2016


Last night I was thinking about the great posts from my colleagues this week about David Bowie, trends, and creativity. I was wondering what I could add to the conversation. And then I turned from the sink and encountered the fixed green-eyed gaze of my cat, Harry. As you know by now, Harry fascinates me. In part because we have become involved in a game of predicting each other's next move. He's more difficult -- one moment he is sitting under the coffee table dozing, the next he is dashing through the house. One moment he is meowing his apparent distress, the next he is cuddling up with his sock filled with catnip as if he hadn't a care. The one thing I can predict about him is that several times during the day or evening -- when the mood strikes him and I am sitting down -- he will come and leap into my lap. If my hands are in his way, he will meow to get my attention. Then he will settle down for a nap, and I will not be able to move without being heartless and disturbing his sleep.

But what is more fascinating, and what I was thinking about last night, is that Harry has adjusted to my unpredictable predictability. I am awful at keeping an eye on the clock. I forget to feed him on schedule. But last night -- as he does every night -- he started to watch me as soon as I got up to wash the dinner dishes that I had left in the sink. I do that every night without fail -- with a scene from the Mary Tyler Moore show playing in my head. Rhoda is staying with Mary because of a problem in her apartment. She has told Mary that she will wash the dishes. But she leaves them in the sink to soak over night. Mary creeps out of bed when she thinks Rhoda is asleep to wash the dishes. I'm not a neat freak, but I wash the dishes every night (a lingering fear of cockroaches in an old house even though I've never seen one). Harry has learned that in spite of my erratic concept of bedtime, I will go to the sink and wash the dishes as a part of my before bed ritual. And then I will pick up his dish, wash it, and serve him the snack he has before lights out. Every night -- whether it is 11 o'clock, 12:15, or after 1 a.m., Harry fixes his stare on me when I begin to wash dishes and as I reach for the sprayer to rinse, he strolls into the kitchen and sits down in front of the refrigerator.

There is a phrase that isn't used any more -- "You can set your clock by him." I've heard a character say it an old movie as the prosperous banker in his three-piece suit walked by, heading to his place of business, or a suburban father waved to his neighbor as he backed out of his driveway for his commute to his office in the city. It was a phrase used to describe characters who were predictable in their habits. But there is also predictability in the chaotic sprint of  Dagwood, the comic strip character, who is always late. The mailman never seems to learn that Dagwood will explode out of his front door, knocking him over as he races to his waiting carpool. But, then again, the detectives on Law and Order never learned that getting creative (e.g., sticking a toothpick in a keyhole to keep a suspect out of his apartment until the search warrant arrived) was likely to produce evidence that would be suppressed by a judge. Just as predictable was the annoyance of the prosecutor, Jack McCoy -- less so that of Lt. Van Buren (who was predictable in that she would stand up for her cops when their strategies seemed to be the only reasonable thing to do).

As writers, one of the aspects of a character's personality that we might consider and exploit in our plotting is his or her predictability. In fact, as we are developing our characters, we might build in those aspects of predictability that other characters depend on. It could be that this character is always punctual -- maybe even arrives early and waits for other people -- is always smug when other people arrive a few minutes late. Maybe at some point in the story, another character (our protagonist), annoyed by this smugness decides to arrive early for their Thursday lunch date. And discovers that her friend is not waiting and becomes increasing alarmed as their meeting time arrives and passes. Or, maybe this friend has been plotting a murder and assumed that our protagonist would be late as usual. But this time she isn't, and she, thereby, becomes a less reliable alibi and maybe even a danger.

In real life, my friends predict that I will be late if I have some place to be before mid-morning. Even with the best of intentions, I have a difficult time getting to where I need to be. When I have a really early flight, I'm afraid to sleep the night before. A few months ago, I almost missed a flight to Seattle (en route to an Alaska cruise) because I -- something I had always feared I would do -- set the clock alarm for p.m. rather than a.m. And then, so tired from being awake during the night, slept through the ringing of the phone as my friend who was leaving for the airport tried to check on me. It was only hearing the end of her voice mail message as she called from the airport that woke me up and sent me scrambling.

I should say that later in the day, I have no problem being on time (or much less of a problem). I try to design my life so that appointments that I have to travel to are after 10 a.m. I teach in the afternoon and early evening. If I were a character, I, the writer, could use that contrast between morning me and afternoon/evening me. Saying I'm not a morning person would be "telling". "Showing" the difference could well be an important plot twist. What if I, the character, had decided after that near-miss of my flight, to change my morning habits. Suppose I decided to start getting up at seven and going for a walk -- which might well put me some place I would not ordinarily have been.

In criminology, there is a theory about "routine activities". Some crimes depend on the routine activities of the would-be victims (e.g., leaving home, walking to the bus, depositing money at the ATM). This is a kind of predictability that we as writers also often rely on in plotting our books. But we might also give occasional thought to how our characters feel about their routine, about their predictability. What would happen if a character decided one day to shake up his or her routine? What might motivate that decision? And what might happen if he or she did?

I think I'll take a different route to the office today. Maybe tomorrow, I'll get up and go to a little diner I noticed for an early breakfast.

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