Thursday, July 22, 2010

Synergy and Geekdom

posted by Nancy

As everyone who has ever watched a sports show (or read or written about one or just gone through a spelling bee in second grade) knows by now, there is no "i" in "team." I'm really tired of hearing this. It has become a cliché.

However, sayings often become clichés because they contain kernels of truth. So does this one. The obvious kernel is that teams succeed because the members subordinate the desire for individual glory to the good of the group. This appears increasingly untrue in the NBA, but that's not what this blog is about. It's about what I got from being part of a team.

Y'all know I have a weakness for teams--Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice League of America, Smallville, Brockmann's SEALs, Dee Davis's A-Tac, Laura Anne Gilman's PUPI. I love groups that meld into families while serving a greater good. Plus reading about hunky guys, brave women, and deeds of valor never hurts.

Teams have been on my mind lately because I just finished Nora Roberts' masterful and totally engrossing Sign of 7 trilogy. The heroes are three boys born at almost the same time on the same day who have been lifelong friends, brothers at heart, and whose innocent camping trip and blood brothers ritual on their tenth birthday unleashes an ancient evil on their town. For seven days every seven years, a big part of the town goes mad, and these three battle to contain the damage.

Two of the heroines are friends who've known each other since college and come to investigate the paranormal upheaval due to recur that year. The third is a woman who's mysteriously drawn to the town. They find friendship, love, and surprising blood kindship as the madness starts early and the danger escalates, building to a showdown that will determine their fates, those of the men they love, and that of the town.

What makes this trilogy so good is, first and foremost, the writing, for which I don't think Nora gets enough credit. She writes love scenes that are intensely emotional without being graphic. Her dialogue reflects the way people talk. Yes, she slips in and out of POV, sometimes for as little as a paragraph, but the important thing, I think, is that the shifts don't feel like head-hopping. They're smooth, not jerky. Of course I also love all her science fiction and comic book references. (I'm currently reading Tribute, in which the hero writes and illustrates graphic novels--how perfect for me is that?) The plot arc escalates masterfully over the three books.

These books deliver a special punch, though, because of the way she draws on folklore, numerology, and metaphysics, giving them her own spin, to add layers and resonance to the world and the problem in a way that is just bloody brilliant. The first book, in particular, is not only scary but look-over-your-shoulder-at-shadows creepy. I gave serious thought to waking the dh up at 3 a.m. to escort me to the bathroom though I ultimately decided to woman up and deal, not wake him up because I'd been reading a scary book. It is definitely a romance, but it tips the hat to some horror conventions.

As a reader, I found myself completely engaged, unable to stop reading even though I'm not normally much for scary books. My heart was breaking as we went into the last chapters of the last book, The Pagan Stone, and I had to see what happened, whether she was really going to pull out an HEA or this marvelous hero would die. As a writer, I got taken to school. The way she set up that ending, kept the suspense and the doubt and the dread growing, was masterful. She also inspired me to hit the library and see what I could find that would give more depth to my own paranormal.

In the process of fighting this curse, these six people become not only lovers and friends but a team, a fact that becomes heartbreakingly clear in the last book. Some of the things I love about the characters in these books and the other teams I mentioned, obviously, are their solidarity, their mutual support, and their affection for each other, even with full knowledge of each other's flaws. Who wouldn't want to be part of a group like that? But I also love the way their individual skills mesh, the way they not only give to but take and learn from each other, the way they appreciate and defer to each other's particular talents.

All of this led me to look back at the years when I was part of a team, officially designated as such. I was even the captain my senior year. No, I don't mean the pep band, though I found out, not long before graduation, that pep band was officially a varsity team sport (no letter, though, alas). I was on my college debate team, fighting with words, sparring over ideas, and I loved it. I stayed involved, traveling to tournaments as a judge for our school when I could (every team is expected to provide one, but you never judge your own squad), for two or three years after graduation.

While a fair number of people participated, there was always a nucleus of people who traveled most of the time. My junior year, it was my partner, Maria, and me in novice and Mark and Gordon in varsity. My senior year, it was mainly Maria and me. After I graduated, though, there were Bobby, Brian and Marvin. I have no genetic brothers, but these guys were the next best thing--and an invaluable resource on questions about dealing with their gender, bluntly honest because they trusted me not to quote them and they knew I trusted them to help.

Working on things together created a synergy of ideas and personalities and sparked things none of us could have come up with alone. We would go to rounds during the day, watch each other's schedules, try to grab each other if we knew something about a team our comrades were facing, and then pool ideas and argue strategy over dinner and in the motel at night. On campus, we'd wander into the debate room, toss arguments around, dig into government studies and congressional hearings (talk about dry reading--sand practically filtered out of the pages!), and look for new angles on that year's topic. Geek heaven. While all that geekiness was going on, though, I was learning some important life lessons.

For example, don't let stereotypes suck you in. At a tournament at The Citadel (which was then all male and provided cute uniformed cadets as timekeepers for the rounds), Maria and I discovered that we were to face a female team known to dress in form-fitting clothing. One of them actually wore a skin-tight top that had a big, red rose directly over her left, er, bust. We dressed in business attire, as our guy teammates dressed in suits. Worse, our judge for that round was listed (name changed) as "Jones, Naval Academy." Great, we thought. Just great. We're screwed before we walk in the room.

Oh, ye of little faith! I especially should've known better, as the daughter of a hospitalman chief and a WAVE. Anyhow, we walked into the room, set our stuff down, and turned to greet the judge. And Ensign SUSAN Jones, USN, gave us a courteous smile and a nod. Just like that, we were back to the merits. As we probably would've been anyway, I can say with a more mature perspective. Back then, though, we had the geek girl insecurity common when expecting to face off against sexpots in front of a guy.

I also learned that when you get clobbered, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. Intercollegiate debate, at least in those days, involved putting out as much info as possible in the time allotted for each speech. The faster you could talk--and enunciate, so the judge could understand you--the better. We were pretty good at it. Then, one day, "pretty good" ran into "light speed," and it was game over before we even got to rebuttals. I couldn't write fast enough to take notes, let alone reply to everything they said, nor could my temporary partner.

I remember sitting there afterward, dazed, knowing we had another round in 15 minutes, trying to get the synapses firing, and just getting fog. Eventually, however, a realization penetrated the fog, that if we didn't get it together, we were going under a steamroller again, regardless of whether the other team was even decent. If you don't get any arguments out, you're guaranteed to lose. Somehow we shook it off and went on, and we finished with a decent record even though we didn't make the elimination rounds. We were the only team from our school there, so we had no one to buck us up. I'd never been so glad to climb back in the college station wagon and head home. But it was a valuable lesson. Some people are not just better than you but way better, and you have to learn to deal with that.

I also learned to focus when fighting. It's about the issue. It's not about you. Or about him/her. Winning arguments address the merits, not the perceived or even actual personal defects of the opponent. You shake hands with the other team when you finish the round, just as opposing lawyers shake hands at the end of a trial, because, again, it's not personal.

I have to say guys are generally better about this than women, though there are plenty of exceptions on both sides. With guys, you can be blunt because they are, and you don't have to dance around what you mean and think of the 17 ways someone might decide you were actually being personally insulting so you can phrase your comment to avoid that. You can slam right back at a guy with as many reasons as you like about why his idea won't work, you can get up in his face when he gets in yours and harden your voice like his, and he'll respect you for it. Might use the B word behind your back if you're a woman, but he'll respect you.

Women, as a rule, not so much. Many women take any disagreement personally and then turn it into a personal feud. I'm happy to say most of the women I know are not like this. The banditas, in particular, are a joy to work on problems with--lots of respect for the opinions of others, openness to different ideas, trust that everyone's focus is the group, not her own ego, and unwavering willingness to let the one most skilled or experienced at whatever run with it.

I also learned, I hope, to be a good winner as well as a good loser. In my novice year, the varsity teams told us we could gripe all we wanted in the car going home (and we all did), but we'd better not say a single bitter word or cast a single angry glance on the tournament grounds. We should congratulate people who had beaten us or had finished higher than we had. Making friends on other teams who might give you a tip or appreciate one from you was more important than indulging your disgruntlement. We did make friends, other teams of amiable people we were glad to see and who were glad to see us, to hang out at meals, maybe have a beer, and help each other out unless or until we met across a lectern.

At my first big tournament, they announced the speech competition results before the debate ones. These were events like oral interpretation, impromptu speaking, dramatic interp, and so on. People in these events, guys and girls, had a tendency to squeal and jump up and down--not just a couple of times or for a few seconds but on and on and on--and hug their entire squad before going up to get their trophies (which were often tacky, though that tournament gave beautiful silver bowls to the winners). One of the guys informed Maria and me that we had better not ever do that because such behavior was obnoxious and winners should have a little dignity.

Like I said, blunt. But well intentioned. And when we learned, a few minutes later, that we had won the novice division, we were too blown away, too shocked, to squeal, anyway.

I'm not sure weeping your way through a thank-you speech, as I did at the Maggies, counts as having dignity. It doesn't meet my standards, quite, but I did hold it together enough to get the actual words out. And I did not jump up and down and squeal, hug all my friends in the room, or hold up the proceedings. Yet writing this makes me wonder what my old teammates would've said. One of them would probably have come out with some variant of "Jesus, Ms. Northcott!" ("Jesus, you people!" being one of his favorite statements to make in disgust at an argument) But, aside from doubting he cares much about romance as a genre, I think he would've been happy for me because a win is a win is a win.

Maria and I have stayed close over the years. I mostly lost touch with the guys but have recently reconnected with some of them over Facebook and the internet. Yet the affection I felt for them all has endured, as I hope theirs for me has. Meanwhile, I've been lucky. I found another team, one that won't graduate and split apart, the Romance Bandits. I can't wait to see the ones who're coming to Orlando and, together, drink a toast to the ones who aren't.

When I graduated from high school, my wonderful Latin teacher wrote in my yearbook, "tibi splendet focus," which translates as "my hearthstone shines for you" or, more prosaically, her door was always open. As mine always will be to my former teammates. And to my current ones, the Romance Bandits.

I'm giving away a mystery package of books I'll be picking up at RWA next week (hence the mystery) and a copy of Blood Brothers. So tell us one or all of the following--have you ever been part of a team? Do you have a surrogate brother or sister, a tight bond formed by choice rather than blood? Is there someone you've lost touch with but would immediately welcome?


PinkPeony said...

Hey Nancy!

I guess my surrogate sister is my bff Lisa...we've been buds since the first day the dorms opened. I saw a girl with waist length hair wearing a pair of overalls and a bikini top and thought..who the hell is that? :) I hooked her up on a blind date with my Brit friend and he ended up marrying her. Mind you, I was single and available at the time too!

You took Latin? I still beat myself up for not sticking with it.

flchen1 said...

Hi, Nancy! I adore my sister, and am also blessed to have a few close girlfriends whom I love like sisters. We're at similar stages in life, and it's a joy to have someone whose ear you can bend without question :)

barb said...

Hi Nancy,

I belong to a sewing group and we are all there to help each other with sewing and personal stuff and often do charity sewing.... also my friend Helen is there if needed and someone to talk to and if she needs someone I am there as sometimes you need someone who is not a family member

barb said...

forgot to say congrats PinkPeony on GR have a good day with him

Donna MacMeans said...

Nancy - LOL - I see the making of an attorney in you even in high school. I did extemporaneous speech competition, BTW. No teams there - just pull a topic out of a fishbowl and start talking. I think it was that training that makes people think I have a clue what I'm talking about - when actually, I don't (grin).

Writing has connecting me to lots of groups and friends that are like family. I cherish them all.

I'm heading to my (cough,cough) high school reunion the weekend I come back from National so I anticipate, hopefully, hooking up with lots of old friends. Can't wait.

Virginia said...

Great post! My surrogate sister would have to be a friend I met when I was five years old. We grew up together, you didn't see one of us without the other and we still keep in touch to this very day. I just sent her a birthday card about two weeks ago. We went all the way through school together.

Congrats pink peony on getting the rooster.

Jane said...

Hi Nancy,
The girlfriends I'm closest to are the ones I met in college and from work. In my old job, we worked as a team and you definitely become attached to them outside of work.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

I have to say that I was a loner during school. I was painfully shy and there were no children around as I grew up, I basically didn't know how to mingle.
When I came to the job I am in now though, that changed. It is all about team work in my current position and basically I am the team leader which is funny considering my early years. I find it frustrating at times when we get some diva action going on because our job just can't be done by an individual, everyone backs up everyone else, it isn't possible to do it alone.

Helen said...

Well done PinkPeony have fun with him

Nancy what a lovely post and being part of a team is great I remember when we did our Frontline Management Diploma at work we were a team of 7 and we supported each other all the way thru that course and it was hard work we often didn't finish work till 400am and had to be back at class at 900am that morning but we did it together and with their support I won Tafe Student of the year and I would never have been able to do it alone.

And as for a surrogate sister that would have to be my BFF Barbara (who is a regular visitor here now) we have been neighbours for about 30 years now and we are always there for each other and always will be we have been thru thick and thin together.

Have Fun

Nancy said...

Hi, PinkPeony! Congrats on the rooster.

Yes, I took Latin but only for two years. I liked it a lot, but Latin III looked repeat a big chunk of Latin II, and I didn't want to go there, so I took another period of band instead. Total geek. *g*

Your bff sounds cool. Isn't that the way, though? Neat guys who don't see what's under their noses?

Nancy said...

Hi, Fedora. It really is great to have someone you can rant to, isn't it? I've been lucky enough to have that at every life stage, and it's invaluable.

Nancy said...

Hi, Barb--A sewing group? How cool! And how great that you have a buddy there. What kinds of projects do you work on? Quilts? Or is it mutual support for individual projects?

I used to be in a writers group that met once a month just to talk. We wrote a wide variety of things--freelance, advertising, fiction, news features--and it was always a fun evening.

Nancy said...

Donna, I never did extemp, but Maria and I both tried impromptu--pull out a topic, as you say, then you have five minutes and you have to speak at least three of them, so a max of two minutes prep. At least, those were the rules way back when. She did more of it than I did. I was okay at it, but she was terrific.

At one tournament, all the topics were lines from Paul Simon songs. She drew "Slip out the back, Jack" and delivered a four-minute monologue on Jack London.

I hope you have fun at your reunion (telling you now since I expect to be brain-fried after National). I'm popping out for a while this morning to meet a woman I knew in high school and haven't seen in 15 or 20 years. We reconnected via Facebook. Its habit of suggesting friends is sometimes annoying, but it sometimes pays off.

Nancy said...

Virginia, glad you enjoyed the post. That sounds like a wonderful friendship.

Nancy said...

Jane, I love that feeling of pulling together, whether for work or for school. It's one of the things I like about the banditas, the sense of common purpose.

The people I'm probably most in touch with date back to college, too.

Nancy said...

Dianna, I was a very shy kid, too, and clumsy, way more bookish than athletic, which I think fed into the geekiness. I still hate mingling, just walking up to someone and saying hi, unless I can find someone who looks equally at sea.

And I hate the diva thing. Hate it, hate it. It just gets in the way of achieving anything. You have my sympathy.

You wouldn't be the team leader if you couldn't lead, though, so you must be good at meshing even if you don't like mingling!

Nancy said...

Helen, how terrific that you won Tafe Student of the Year! The management training team you describe sounds like a joy. It's sort of what sensei does with black belt candidates, encouraging them to work together and help each other.

gamistress66 said...

My best friend growing up. While we rarely see or talk anymore since we live very different lives in different areas, she's still my sister in my heart and always will be.

Kim in Hawaii said...

Aloha, Nancy! I grew up as a only child, so I was eager to join teams once I left home. First I was a member of a sorority - a team seeking academic achievement, community service, and cute guys. After college, I joined a really big team - the USAF. For twelve years, I worked on many teams (CONUS and overseas, US and NATO) to promote democracy and preserve peace. Once I married another USAF officer, I switched teams from active duty to military spouse. And that's why I enjoy the "teams" in romance - local RWA chapters, bloggers, etc - because they demonstrate the same teamwork I demonstrated in the military.

See ya'll in Orlando!

CrystalGB said...

My best friend from college. We don't see each other much but the bond is always strong. She will always be my dear friend.

Nancy said...

Gamistress, you're lucky to have such a long and close friendship.

Nancy said...

Hi, Kim--You've really been in a lot of teams, one after another. I've had some ROTC students in my classes, and they seem to have a wonderful camaraderie already.

Nancy said...

Crystal, I feel that way about some of my college friends, not just my teammates. We don't often see each other, but that close feeling endures.

Louisa Cornell said...

Yay Pink !! Your new BFF is the GR. What will you do with him today?

I have to say that all of my writing buddies and mentors are like family to me (including all of the Banditas and Buddies!)

And my two fabulous mentors - La Campbell and the Divine Diane Gaston - are the absolute best. They listen to my troubles, offer advice and commiseration and most of all encouragement. Two of the classiest dames I know!

But the person with whom I have the strongest bond and the best teamwork is my critique partner. We have been critiquing, IMing and burning up the telephone and cell phone lines for almost five years now. The funny thing is we will meet in person for the first time in Orlando next week.

She really is my BFF and the sister Fate forgot to give me. She keeps me sane (as much as possible) and motivated (Critiqzilla the Great)and we laugh and cry together sometimes on the same day. I really wouldn't be where I am on this writing journey without her.

Nancy said...

Louisa, I love Critiqzilla! Sounds as though y'all have a lot of fun.

EilisFlynn said...

As I sit here in a hotel room above the line snaking to get into San Diego Comic-con, yes, I can truthfully say that I am part of a group. Interlac, where you and I met, and a much larger group, who comes to these events, and a smaller group, BECAUSE THERE'S NO WAY I'M GETTING INTO THAT LINE! Heck no. I'm going to breakfast, meet old friends (who also come to Comic-con), and then reluctantly join the 145,000 other attendees.

Minna said...

My surrogate sister would have to be a friend I met when I was in elementary school. A week didn't go by when we wouldn't have visited each others homes. And we've been there for each other through the good times and some really bad times as well.

The Rembrandts - I'll be there for you (Official Music Video) - Friends Opening

Nancy said...

Eilis, I'm going to ComicCon someday. I swear. Though considering how the 40,000 at DragonCon give me a certain level of heebie-geebies, my mind boggles at facing almost four times that number.

I wouldn't get in that line, either. I pass up panels at DragonCon because I just won't spend 2 hours in line. Let me know if you hear anything good, though!

Nancy said...

Minna, that sounds like a wonderful friendship!

runner10 said...

Hi Nancy.
Interesting post. I have formed some close relationships at work. We don't have the choice who sits next to us, but the girl next to me has become a very close friend. I have been lucky.

Nancy said...

Runner10, thanks. It is lucky when someone you meet by chance turns out to be great, isn't it? I'm so glad your desk neighbor turned out to great rather than not-so.

Beth said...

Nancy, I loved Blood Brothers! It's a great series for all the reasons you mentioned *g*

And as I've mentioned, I also adore 'teams' and one of my current favorites is the group from Leverage. What a fun show :-)

Loved hearing about your team experiences!

Kirsten said...

I'm part of a small knitting group. We give advice and opinions. Swap patterns, drink tea and chat. First it was all small talk but the longer we knew each other the more personal we got. I think of those ladies as a sort of surrogate family.

Nancy said...

Beth, thanks1 Oooh, another person who has read this! Yay! Glad you like my analysis. Maybe we can talk about it. I'm so jazzed by that trilogy!

Never woulda guessed, wouldja? *g*

Nancy said...

Kirsten, my mom was a knitter. I think she would've liked to have a circle of friends like you described. None of my friends' moms knitted, though.

Susan Sey said...

Hi, Nancy!

Oh, I wish I had just a thing. Friends--friends who feel like family--are harder & harder to come by as we get older. Especially when the kids are little & we're devoting so much time & energy to raising them. Anything I've got left over I owe my husband.

But I can't get greedy. I have three wonderful sisters, and a handful of friends I love. For now, I'm good. :-)

Pat Cochran said...

My particular "teams" go way back
to the ancient days. My first team
is my nine siblings, of whom seven
(all over 60)are still living. Six
of us live in Houston and when the
call goes out, we are there! The
next team became an entity when we
graduated from HS in 1954 and some of us became the Reunion Committee for our class. Our gathering last year was our 55th. The next and
still existing team is known to some as the Terrible Trouble Trio. Pam, Fran, and I are just that
when we stand up for what is right!
The most frequently seen group is
our immediate family. All eighteen
of us gather 2-3 times monthly for
birthdays, holidays, or just for
giggles! BTW, most of the 18 are
"graphic novel" and GN hero fans!

Pat Cochran

Nancy said...

Susan, making friends does get harder, and it's really tough when you're running after little ones.

After they become more self-reliant, though, it gets easier again.

Nancy said...

Pat, what cool groups you belong to! It's nice to hear from someone else who likes graphic novels.

flchen1 said...

And Nancy, I have to say that I love being able to blab books and many other life topics with the Banditas and buddies--it's very fun to know that you'll be heard and understood here in the Lair ;)

Pissenlit said...

I suppose my best friend is my surrogate sister. We may have totally different tastes in music(at one point, we had that in common), movies, books, clothes and a bunch of other stuff but we snicker at the same jokes, know what the other is thinking, make awesome partners with a tendency to win in games and are always there for one another. :D

Nancy said...

Fedora, I'm glad you like our sort of eclectic approach to blogging. It's not everywhere I'd actually post a blog about my geekish tendencies, either!

Nancy said...

Hi, Pissenlit--It's great to be in sync with someone that way, isn't it?

Anonymous said...


Lady_Graeye said...

I have many people who are consider family but aren't really family. One person I am extremely close to is my friend Blythe. She is my surrogate daughter. Her mother passed away when she was 14 leaving her with elderly grandparents to care for her and her brother. She just come over and stayed. She was a perfect fit into our family and still is.

catslady said...

Well I belong to bowling, bocce, and dart teams and a card club where we play with partners. It's been a wonderful way to make friends. But my first thought was my husband - we've been together 41 years and technically we're not related lol.

catslady said...

Oh I wanted to add I'm so glad this blog is working again - it was black all week for me. Don't know if it was my problem or everyone's.

Laurie said...

I've been on two teams: a track team in HS where you participate more as an individual I was also on a softball team for several years which illustrates more of a team effort. I had a lot of fun doing both sports.

Close friend besides family -a girl I met in college, MaryBeth. We still get together every summer. E-mail regularly. She's as close to a sister as a real one is. We've been there for each other in all the ups and downs life throws at you. Our friendship has lasted for 34 years!