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I wrote the following response to a comment left by [livejournal.com profile] halfshellvenus to my most recent LJ Idol instalment (wherein she asks why I would name a character "Fremd," i.e., "Strange"):

Ha! In quick succession:

My first reaction: "Gee, I hadn't thought of that!"

Second reaction: "Hey, if Frank Herbert could use terms from Hebrew, Arabic, and Latin in Dune..."

Third: "Wait a sec... Who says anyone speaks German in this world?"

Fourth: "'Strange' as a name? Well... why not?"

Confession: I named the fellow Fremd so as to be able to sneak a phrase that approximates the topic's pronunciation ("Fremd shame on" [~= Fremdschämen]) into the text.
The first was my "gut" reaction.

My second reaction is pretty defensive, almost certainly the product of that ready supply of insecurity possessed by all who aspire to write for the entertainment (or edification) of others. There was a time when I would have gotten this far in my thinking, whereupon I would have ceased further reflection and mentally "dug in," confident of having "defended myself" to myself.

Permit me to digress... I very long ago figured out that, for a writer to "defend" anything he or she has written—be it the name of a character (or, closer to home for me, a sentence of translation)—is a non-starting proposition in general, and an even less attractive idea when communicating with others. Why? Well, that's a subject for its own post, but the short answer is that nobody gains and the writer loses from such behavior.

In any event, the reasoning of my second reaction actually fails because Frank Herbert did not just fabricate expressions like Kwisatz Haderach from the ether. (Granted, neither did I choose "Fremd" by rolling dice, but there's a difference nonetheless.)

The third reaction is still a bit defensive, but a lot less so. And it shows a bit more creativity in terms of examining the situation from new angles.

The fourth reaction was where, ideally, I would have arrived immediately after the first in an ideal world. But the important thing is: I got there.

I tip my hat to [livejournal.com profile] halfshellvenus for her comment, and to whatever it was that caused me to get so analytical so early in the morning!

Cheers...

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In 1978, I enrolled in Hayes B. Jacobs' course on writing nonfiction articles at Manhattan's New School for Social Research. I did this so as to have something to occupy my mind while Galina took her ESL course upstairs in the same building. If I learned only one thing from that course, it was that the only true path to becoming a writer lay in writing. Not in taking notes, not in making outlines, and not in taking courses, but writing. Jacobs had a standing assignment for his class: submit a piece of writing each week. He went through all submittals with a sharp editor's pencil and provided constructive comments and suggestions. His frank approach to the business of writing has stayed with me.

I will be the first to admit that I averaged about one submission every 2–3 weeks during that course, but that was probably three sigmas above the average for the group. The course of two-plus Idol seasons has helped me fall into a weekly writing rhythm that, sadly, I would lose once Idol went away. Maybe things are changing, I don't know, but the following represents a treatment of the very first idea that came to mind for the 'is the sincerest form of flattery' prompt.




Hilton paused by the pairings just long enough to catch sight of his board number before continuing on through the door of the community center where the county's annual chess championship was being held. It wasn't that he liked being late to everything, but that he liked doing what had to be done to be on time even less.

When he got to his board, Hilton stopped and stared at his opponent, and experienced just the slightest tinge of déjà vu. The previous year, Hilton had been paired with this same snot-nosed kid, who had been rated in class D and who, despite that, had given Hilton a proper shellacking with some sort of off-the-wall gambit opening. The game was a considered such a great upset victory for the kid that it had even been published in the county newspaper. People still kidded Hilton about it.

So here he was, a year later, still rated in class A (that no-man's-land between class B and expert), paired against this kid whose rating was now knocking on the door between class C and class B. The color assignment was the same, too, and the kid had already moved his Queen pawn up two spaces and punched his clock.

Hilton put his stuff on his chair and went off to find the tournament director.

"I think you made a mistake in the pairings, Wes," said Hilton to Wes Smith, the TD.

"What do you mean, 'a mistake'?" said Smith.

"You've got me paired against that kid again, with the same color assignments!"

"And the 'mistake' would be—?"

"You can't do that. It's against the pairing rules."

"If this was the same tournament, it would be," explained Smith. "But this is the first round of a new competition, and first-round pairings are pretty straightforward: top half plays the bottom half, and colors alternate. Your pairing was spit out by a computer, uninfluenced by human hands." Smith paused for a second and gave Hilton a close look. "Hey, don't look so glum! Look at this as an opportunity to exact your revenge. Same opponent, same colors. You've got a shot at showing everyone that last year's result was just a lucky break for the kid."

Hilton grumbled as he walked back to his board. The kid has played his Queen pawn up two, just as he had the previous year, almost as if he was challenging Hilton to respond with the the Queen pawn up two from his side of the board, just as Hilton had the previous year. Then, instead of continuing with a standard double-Queen-pawn opening, the kid had veered off into a back-of-the-book gambit by pushing his King pawn up two squares, as if offering it to Black for free.

Hilton had accepted the pawn, whereupon White offered yet another pawn, which Hilton had captured, too, after which Hilton found himself in the middle of a violent and short losing battle. After the game, Hilton had cracked open his opening reference, which informed him that the variation the kid had played was sharp, but fundamentally unsound, and that Black ought to emerge from the opening phase of the game with a marked advantage. That had been the extent of Hilton's research into the opening, as he was running late to an appointment.

By the time Hilton had settled himself on his chair in the here-and-now, almost 10 minutes of his allotted time had passed. The face of the kid across the board from him was as expressive as the surface of that same board on which the pieces stood. Hilton tried to put the clock's ticking out of his mind as he thought about his first move.

"Okay, if I don't push my Queen pawn up to meet his, it'll be as if I'm admitting that I'm afraid of his opening skill, so even if I beat the little twerp" and here, Hilton interrupted his thinking process.

"What am I talking about? Of course I'm going to beat the little twerp, there's no doubt about that!" Hilton smiled a little at this point.

"Where was I? Oh, yeah, if I don't play the Queen pawn like I did last year, folks won't talk about my win, but about how I avoided the kid's opening, despite the fact the kid's opening stinks."

Then Hilton's eyebrows jerked up slightly as a new thought came to him.

"Like it or not, there's the psychological angle, too. If I don't push the Queen pawn, that'll probably boost the kid's confidence and make him think he's already got me on the run. On the flip side, if I do push the pawn, he'll have to figure I've done my analysis and that I'm totally ready to take on his inferior opening setup, which'll force him to play some other move, which means—bingo!—we're in that part of the opening manual that I almost know by heart."

Hilton all but sneered as he pushed his Queen pawn up two spaces and punched his clock, which now showed 15 elapsed minutes. Without hesitation, the kid reached out and pushed his King pawn up two spaces, then punched his clock, restarting Hilton's.

"Oh, for—!" thought Hilton, as his heart sank very nearly to his feet.

"I knew it! I knew it! He's trying to play the same gambit. I tell you, this kid's got a lot of nerve. He probably knows this opening backward and forward." Hilton pursed his lips and let his breath out slowly through his nostrils.

"So, what do I do now?" he wondered.

Hilton was not the kind of player who did well in sharp, open games, which is why he was still a class A player. Sure, given the position on the board, he could still transpose into an opening that would avoid the kid's ghastly gambit—the French and Caro-Kann Defenses came to mind here—but none of those openings were very much to Hilton's preferred style of play. Still, they were preferable to that gambit.

As Hilton pondered what to do, the word went around the room that he—one of the top players in the county—had now spent nearly 18 minutes of his hour and was still deciding on his second move. Players rose from their boards and wandered by to see what was going on.

"Are they coming by to see if I'm getting my ass handed to me again?" wondered Hilton. The thought didn't help calm Hilton's inner chess player, who was still hard at work mentally cursing the fact that he had pushed the Queen pawn on his first move.

Suddenly, realizing that he was wasting valuable minutes of thinking time, Hilton decided that he would not take the proffered King pawn, so he pushed his Queen Bishop pawn up one square, creating the classic pawn structure of the Caro-Kann Defense.

With this move, the crowd around the board started to break up. One player was heard to whisper, as he headed back to his own board: "A move like that—choosing not to play into your opponent's strength—that's got to be the sincerest form of flattery!" His friends nodded in agreement.

Meanwhile, back at Hilton's board, the kid was already reaching out to make his next move. Neither he nor Hilton realized it, but the kid had already won the game; what was left was simply a matter of technique.


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It's not often that I am struck by lightning twice in one week as far as writing is concerned. The following story was inspired by an email exchange with [livejournal.com profile] emo_snal, whose entry for this week's LJ Idol I found very entertaining.

* * *

"Now, that's what I'm talking about!" said Humbert, with a smile, as he inspected his bodyguard's new threads.

"Yeah, well," said Sal, obviously unhappy, "the new duds fit like a glove, nobody'd ever guess I'm armed, but I can't draw my piece as fast as I could with my old getup."

"Don't worry about that," said Humbert. "Dressed like this, we show the world that we're, you know, worthy of respect. You know how I work. By imitating the big bosses, we flatter them and show them what we're all about." Humbert paused to relight his cigar. "With time, you'll get used to the new clothes. You spend some time on the range, your speed will come back, too."

"Whatever you say, boss," said Sal. "Anyway, what's our destination for the evening?"

"I need to go over to the plaza to meet with Fontaine," said Humbert. "He and I need to talk."

A cloud fell over Sal's face, but he said nothing. Fontaine was the big boss and not likely to be impressed with anything as mundane as his and Humbert's stylish new clothes. Still, a job was a job, so he entered the limo and took his seat next to his boss, the up-and-coming head of the Southside rackets, for the short ride to the plaza.

When they got to the plaza, the limo stopped just long enough to let the two men out and then drove off silently. Humbert relit his cigar while Sal looked around, ever alert for threats. The plaza was traditionally considered neutral territory for the city's gangs, whose armored limousines stayed clear of the plaza, except to pick up or drop off passengers.

Two figures detached themselves from a doorway in the building on the opposite side of the plaza and began to cross the broad expanse of the plaza toward them. Humbert and Sal walked out to meet them.



"Good evening, gentlemen!" said Humbert as he and Sal came up to Fontaine and Viggo, Fontaine's bodyguard, near the center of the plaza.

"Yeah," said Fontaine, which sounded more like a grunt. "Let's skip the small talk and get down to business. Have you considered the proposition I made a couple of days ago?"

Humbert spread his arms, which set off his new clothing to maximum advantage. "Well, if you insist on talking business, let's get to it." He looked over at Viggo, whose expression was as unreadable as that of the cobblestones beneath their feet. "In the final analysis, it's a question of respect. I respect you, you know that. I do everything I can to imitate you, because you are an example to be emulated." Humbert pronounced each syllable of the last word with emphasis. He continued: "I mean, you know, my motto's always been: 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.' So I really don't think your proposal regarding my moving up in the organization is acceptable. I was hoping for something a little—bigger."

Fontaine took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly. He reached up to rub the bottom of his stubbled chin and said: "It's settled, then. Okay."

A heartbeat later, a gun was in Fontaine's hand. Sal, who had been watching Viggo, had just enough time to grasp the butt of his weapon before Fontaine blew a hole in his chest. All of the birds in the plaza took to the air as Sal's body fell to the ground. There was a look of surprise on the corpse's face.

"You've got to understand," said Fontaine as the muzzle of the gun moved to cover Humbert, "that in my world, guys like you—as small-time as you are—pose a real threat. Today you want this, tomorrow, you'll try for the whole game. So I've got a motto, too. You want to know what it is?"

"You double-crossing—" began Humbert, and then trailed off with an unprintable epithet. His gaze shifted from Sal's body to the weapon in Fontaine's hand. Then he glanced toward Viggo, who had also drawn his pistol.

"Well, I'll tell you," said Fontaine, "my motto is: 'Killing upstarts like you is the sincerest form of flattery'." Then he started to laugh, and turned to Viggo to share his little joke.

Viggo's pistol erupted and the back of Fontaine's head disappeared in a spray of blood and brains. A second corpse fell to the ground and the whisper of distant wings again filled the air.

"For a moment, I thought you were waiting for an engraved invitation," said Humbert to Viggo.

"I couldn't risk shooting him while he had you covered, Mr. Humbert," said Viggo, making no move to threaten with or put away his weapon. Viggo understood that he was now officially a loose end, and wanted to live long enough to enjoy the money he was to receive for betraying his boss. "I waited until his gun came off you before I shot him."

"What would've happened if the gun hadn't come off me?" asked Humbert. "What if he just decided to shoot me?"

"I would've seen his knuckles whiten as he started to pull the trigger. I would've gotten him in time, but it would've been a tougher shot to make."

The ringing of a cell phone interrupted their conversation. It was Viggo's. He answered it, listened for a moment, then put the instrument away. "Payment has been received, Mr. Humbert. Thank you. It's been a pleasure doing business. You'll never see me again in this town." He withdrew quickly, and soon was a small speck at the edge of the plaza.

Humbert paused to relight his cigar and then looked at Fontaine's body. "So you went against the rules to put one over on me, and I went against the rules to put one over on you." Humbert puffed once more on his stogie, and said: "And I won." As he turned to walk away, Humbert said, to nobody in particular: "It's like I said, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'."


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Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.

—J. de La Fontaine
(Le corbeau et le renard)

Hannibal was an unusual crow, as crows go, not just because he had a name—which would have been enough to distinguish him from almost all of his fellows—but also because he had spent his early years in the care of an old man, a woodcutter named Hans, after having fallen out of his nest as a baby. Carrying a piece of smelly Limburger cheese in his beak, Hannibal alighted on a tree branch and looked back, toward the depths of the forest where few men had ever ventured. The smell of the cheese was quite strong, which was instrumental to his plan, here in the part of the forest where the scent of men was pervasive.

The young fox following Hannibal emerged from the depths of the forest and looked up at him. The fox had been following the crow for quite some time.

"Hallo, dear sir!" said the fox, addressing Hannibal. "Good day to you!"

The bird blinked down at him and said nothing. The fox continued: "I could not help but notice what a handsome and good-looking bird you are. In fact, if your song is anywhere as beautiful as your plumage, I dare say you would truly be—the Phoenix of this forest!"

On hearing these words, Hannibal—as if to demonstrate his beautiful voice—opened his mouth wide and let drop the cheese. The fox ran up to his fallen prize, put his foot on it as if to keep it from running away, and looked back up at the crow.

"My good sir," said the fox. "Know that each flatterer lives at the expense of those who take him seriously. But do not be angry with my, my friend. Consider your newly increased knowledge to be worth this piece of cheese."

In reply, Hannibal took off in a huff, looking backward at the fox as he flew away. "Caw!" was all he said. The fox turned his attention to the Limburger.

All at once, there was a sharp sound of a tree branch breaking and Hannibal cried out in pain. The fox, with the cheese in his mouth, turned his head in time to see Hannibal fall with flightless wings onto the forest floor on the far side of a stump and a rock that aptly framed the hapless bird as it tried to rise.

"Oh, how now!" thought the fox, considering the prospect of a two-course meal. "This is my lucky day!"

So, with the cheese in its mouth, the fox dashed with blazing eyes toward the helpless bird.

SNAP‼

As his front paws hit the ground just past the rock, the fox had the impression of the forest floor rising toward him, and then a set of powerful jaws of neither bone nor flesh closed on his forelegs with relentless force. He tried to move, but couldn't. The pain was almost more than he could stand.

With a flutter of wings, the crow—healthy and uninjured—alighted on top of the stump. The cheese, which had fallen out of the fox's mouth when the trap had sprung, was in the bird's beak. The beak opened, and the cheese dropped onto the top of the stump.

"What ho, there, fox?" said the crow. "My name is Hannibal."

"But—" said the fox, and Hannibal could hardly hear him. "That sound—the fall—"

Hannibal opened his mouth and the sound of a breaking tree branch came out of his mouth.

"You mean that? I was taught to make that sound by the woodcutter Hans, because people in the forest would cover their heads when they heard that sound, and that made Hans laugh. He also taught me how to fall from the sky like a wounded bird. 'If a hunter shoots at you and misses,' he used to say, 'it's best to let him think he got you. Putting on an act is the sincerest form of flattery, because that way, the hunter will take his time making his way to you, and meanwhile, you can get away.' The woodcutter even taught me to stack rings of different size on a stick, and to do it so no ring was bigger than any ring below it. Let me tell you, that was hard! But I did not mind learning these tricks, because in exchange the woodcutter Hans gave me my name, Hannibal. Don't you think it's a handsome name?"

The pain in his legs had dulled somewhat, but the fox still could not move. He was bleeding, and thirsty, and very hungry. "Yes. Very handsome—now that you've had your revenge, why don't you go away—leave me alone?" said the fox.

"Oh, I couldn't do that," said Hannibal, "not just yet. And truly, revenge was not my purpose, believe me. You cannot imagine how long it took me to observe the men in this part of the forest, and to understand how they emplaced the thing that holds you here, what happens to the animals the thing catches, and how often the men return." Hannibal bent down to rip off a tiny bit of cheese, and ate it. "Then I had to figure out how to get you to do what you did, which resulted in you being there and me being here. It was all like the ring game, but much harder!"

The sight of the crow eating the cheese made the fox's mouth water. "Hungry—please—food—a bite—" he whispered.

"No, sorry," said Hannibal. "I've got to make this cheese last a while longer."

With the light slowly fading from his eyes, the fox looked questioningly at Hannibal. "Last? What for? What happens then?" the fox seemed to be asking.

"You die, of course," said Hannibal, as if replying to the fox's look. "Didn't you know we crows are scavengers?"

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