Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sparkle, Shine and Scarcity

And now back to shiny things…

Because the story I am writing involves the theft of a fabulous ruby necklace, I have been reading books about jewelry. One very entertaining book, Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden, focuses on the role of gems in history.

I had heard the story about DeBeers and “A diamond is forever” before—even before my daughter informed me that Adam, who Ruins Everything, had ruined diamonds for her. Stoned provided more details: the relative unimportance of diamonds early in our history, the difference that improved cutting techniques made, and the way that DeBeers turned them into something everyone wanted with clever advertising and choke-hold on the supply.

I hadn’t heard the story about Spain flooding Europe with New World emeralds and drastically reducing the value of their own crown jewels. Nor had I realized just how scarce, and prized, pearls once were.

The relationship between scarcity and value is interesting. I am sometimes amazed at the things we can create now—the materials, the finishes, the new techniques. Beautiful things are widely available to us. In fact, we fail to notice quite how many treasures we have because they are so very available and cheap.

For example, I have a bracelet I like--stretchy, silvery, and glittering. Now, my mom isn’t into jewelry. She has very little of it herself and no idea what is currently in stores. She saw me wearing the bracelet and asked when I’d gotten it. From her tone, I think she expected to hear that it was a special anniversary present. Instead, I said, “Six dollars at Walmart.”

Sparkly stretch bracelet glitters like diamond in the sun.
Diamond tennis bracelet or kid's costume jewelry?

Someone more familiar with today’s little girls would have recognized the style right away… but does that make the bracelet any less beautiful?

It’s not a rhetorical question. If you glance at it, think “cheap costume jewelry”, and look away… certainly you appreciate it less. But I think it’s fabulous. I hold my wrist up to the sun and watch it glitter. It isn’t durable (I’ve broken the stretchy cord on several already) but it is pretty. And what attracted humans to gems in the first place, if not their color, translucence, and sparkle?

And the bracelet is just the beginning! Little girls’ wardrobes are full of sparkle and shine that I would have begged for as a child, had it been available. (I did have shiny black patent leather shoes…)

We also now have the ability to synthesize precious stones—rubies, sapphires, diamonds. They are no less attractive for having been made in a lab, and there are many more of them to go around. Apparently some fancy watches have a crystal (the glass front of the watch) made of colorless synthetic sapphire! Imagine that—they can make a cylinder of synthetic sapphire wide enough for a watch face, and then slice off pieces of it. What else can they do?

Well, they can make a diamond ring. That is, a ring made of diamond, not a ring set with a diamond. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d find in a Richie Rich comic book. I couldn’t find out whether the diamond was natural or synthetic, but it seems like an odd and perhaps even wasteful way to cut a large diamond, which makes me think maybe it was synthetic.

It isn’t just gems that are shiny and beautiful and increasingly available. When I was in my teens, I bought postcards with what we would now call “holographic foil” on them at a science museum. I paid at least four times what regular postcards cost—maybe it was more than that. They were special! I taped them up on my wall for my friends to admire. Now I throw away used Christmas wrapping that would put those postcards to shame.

I could give further examples, but you get the idea. We have shine, glitter, and vivid colors enough for old-fashioned royalty.* Do we feel like royalty? Apparently not—everyone else is just as shiny, glittery, and colorful as we are.  And yet…wow.


Till next post.

*Admittedly, we’re a little short on actual gold—never found that Philosopher’s Stone—but we have a lot of really good gold-colored paint and foil.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Death of a Fraternity Pledge, Milgram on Authority, and Jump-starting a Car

There was a story in the November Atlantic about the death of a fraternity pledge after hazing . The article made me think about a lot of things (“Why do people do these things?” was one), but in particular I was reminded of Milgram’s famous experiments on authority. I’ll get to why in a moment.

In case you haven’t heard of the experiments, or need a reminder, Milgram wanted to investigate obedience to authority: how so many people could have done terrible things and claimed they were just “following orders”. So he brought people into a lab, one by one, introduced them to someone who was supposedly a fellow subject, and then had them test the other person on a list of words, administering increasing electric shocks for every wrong answer. Actually the other person, who was hidden in a booth, wasn’t getting shocks at all. It was just a recording that was answering. The recording would make a lot of mistakes, then start complaining that the shocks really hurt, insist on being released, protest that he had a heart condition, scream, then finally… silence. How far would the unknowing subject go in giving shocks, if the experimenter (in gray lab coat) were sitting nearby and insisting that the experiment must continue?

A whole lot farther than Milgram ever dreamed. Subjects might get very upset as their supposed partner started to complain, then scream, but when the experimenter (the authority) said to continue, most continued. Two-thirds continued all the way to silence.

Now on to the story of the pledge. I’ll keep it very brief. During hazing, a very intoxicated pledge opened the wrong door and fell down a flight of stairs. When he was retrieved, there was blood, apparent head injury, and other signs that he might be seriously injured. The members of the fraternity did not call 911 until twelve hours later, at which point he was unnaturally pale and cold and unresponsive—and even then they waited until they had tidied up a bit.

I’m not going to comment on the terrible things people do in order to cover their own rears. I want to make a different point. While the brothers were “attending” to him initially after his fall, another member came in, saw him, and got very worried. That member insisted they should call for help. He was quite literally pushed away by one of the others.

He was worried enough that he went to a higher authority, the vice president of the chapter, and told him what was happening. His concerns were dismissed and he was told that the other brothers knew what they were doing. And that, apparently, was that.

Now, I want to be clear. This guy is the closest thing to a hero in the entire sad episode. He recognized that the pledge was in danger and he tried to get the brothers in charge to call for help. When they wouldn’t, he went over their heads to someone with more authority. The police who reviewed the tapes (yes, most of what happened was caught on security cameras, no audio) apparently referred to him as the Good Samaritan.

But notice what he didn’t do. When appealing to two levels of authority didn’t get any action, he started to doubt that action was needed—even though he’d been sure enough after seeing the pledge that he went over his brothers’ heads. He didn’t call 911 himself.

Now granted, calling 911 would have been risky. If the pledge wasn’t actually in danger, he would no doubt have gotten his brothers in trouble for nothing (there was surely some underage drinking going on, at the very least.) 

But he had been trying to convince them to take that very risk a little while earlier. Instead, he let himself be persuaded that they must know what they were doing by someone who wasn’t even on the scene. He was a good guy, but in the end, he went along with the authority.

Now back to Milgram. I don’t know what Milgram’s subjects were actually thinking, but I imagine some of them may have thought, “This guy is in charge—this is his experiment. He must have taken precautions to ensure no one gets hurt. He wouldn’t let me continue if he thought there was any danger—would he?

“Would he?”

But enough of internal injuries and dangerous electric shocks. Let’s talk about something more ordinary, something a lot of people have experience with: jump-starting a car battery

The instructions in every manual and on every set of jumper cables tell you to attach the last clip to a metal part of the car, not to the battery. It’s a safety thing. There’s a small chance that vapor from the chemicals in the battery has been collecting above the battery and a nearby spark (such as might be caused by attaching the final clip to the battery) could ignite it. My husband always says never to attach the last clip to the battery.

But no one else I know takes that precaution. I was involved in a jump-start some years back (at least my car was) and the guy who was attaching the cables wanted to attach the last clip to the battery. I protested. He assured me he was a mechanic and had done this many times, … and I caved to his authority. I caved despite having read the instructions clearly printed on the jumper cables, despite having heard my husband tell me repeatedly that the last clip should go on a metal part of the car, and despite the fact that I had absolutely no evidence either that he was a good mechanic or a safety-conscious one.

It’s really hard to resist a (supposed) authority.

Till next post.

[Quick side note: there is less and less metal available to which you can attach the last clip. After the incident with the mechanic, I promised myself I would be firm next time. So the next time I helped someone jump-start her car, I insisted on doing it correctly and we were unable to get the car started, despite trying the clip in several locations. Later she got someone else to help. They attached it to the battery the way you aren’t supposed to do, and her car started right away.]

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Writing a Mystery Without Murder In My Heart

It’s November! Finally it is National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo. This year, I am trying to write a mystery--adult, not middle grade or young adult. I need 50,000 words by the end of this month, and a beginning, middle, and end.

Tea cup on scalloped white napkin with necklace and Christmas card.
Tea, jewels, and Christmas--all part of the story.

I’ve tried to write mysteries before without success. Somehow my mind doesn’t work in the right way for plotting a clever murder (and how the murderer will nonetheless fail to get away with it.) I have the same problem with heists and other criminal plots. I love to read books with ingeniously carried out crimes, but I draw a blank when I try to think one up myself. I think other authors must look around them, wherever they are, and notice potential murder methods. As in “Hey, look at the spike on that beach umbrella. I wonder if you could kill someone with it, then put the umbrella up so no one would notice the blood on the spiky bit.” And other such thoughts.

Okay, so apparently I can come up with a murder method, at least a weak one. But it doesn’t happen easily or spontaneously.

There’s another, more serious, problem. I don’t really want to write about a murder.

I have no difficulty enjoying mysteries in which one (or two or three) people are murdered. You’d think it might bother me, but it doesn’t. Granted, I avoid the really dark, disturbing varieties of murder mystery, but I don’t read only the humorous or cozy variety, either. One of my favorite series is the one with Inspector Gamache, by Louise Penny, which is serious but not overly dark.

So why doesn’t murder bother me when I read a mystery? I suppose it’s sufficiently unreal, and so entirely expected, that I don’t take it to heart. And yet, when I set out to write a story in which one of my characters kills another one, it feels different. To make sense of the murder, I have to have a character who is so dark or so desperate that he is willing to kill. And I have to have other characters who can be suspected of being that dark or desperate. Suddenly it all feels much too serious—a world I don’t want to live in long enough to write about.

It could be partly that I have been very lucky in my family, neighbors, and co-workers throughout my life. I haven’t had a lot of experience with the kind of people that make you really want to kill them, or the kind of people that leave you scared for your own safety. Mostly I meet those people in fiction—and then I do see red and want violent things to happen to them. Maybe if I had to live with such people, I would be more interested in putting those people in a story and either killing them off in a painful manner, or meting out justice to them after having them kill someone. Or maybe it’s got nothing to do with that. I really don’t know.

So I’m not writing a murder mystery. At least, I don’t think so. The plan is for a robbery to take place, but lots of things could change over the course of the month. Somehow I’ve already gotten 10,000 words in (which is a speed record for me, I think) but I haven’t gotten much farther than introducing my cast of characters. That theft better happen soon or I won’t have a story.

Cat sniffs the teacup on the white napkin near the necklace and Christmas card.
The cat investigates. Not in my novel, however.

Till next post.