Saturday, January 24, 2004

Kurt Vonnegut's rules of writing:

Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time is wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

And then he goes on to add this:

I'm almost sure she [O'Connor] didn't break rule seven. The late American psychiatrist Dr. Edmund Bergler, who claimed to have treated more professional writers than any other shrink, said in his book The Writer and Psychoanalysis that most writers in his experience wrote to please one person they knew well, even if they didn't realized they were doing that. It wasn't a trick of the fiction trade. It was simply a natural human thing to do, whether or not it could make a story better.

Dr. Bergler said it commonly required psychoanalysis before his patients could know for whom they had been writing. But as soon as I finished his book, and then thought for only a couple of minutes, I knew it was my sister Allie I had been writing for. She is the person the stories in this book were written for. Anything I knew Allie wouldn't like I crossed out. Everything I knew she would get a kick out of I left in.

Allie is up in heaven now, with my first wife Jane and Sam Lawrence [who Vonnegut credits with saving his career by republishing his novels when he finally found an audience] and Flannery O'Connor and Dr. Bergler, but I still write to please her. Aliie was funny in real life. That gives me permission to be funny, too. Allie and I were very close.

- from the author's introduction to his short story collection, Bagombo Snuff Box.
Blue Velvet meets Lady Godiva

My library, to my surprise, has the ultra-deluxe with a bag of chips edition of Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet was a seminal movie for me because it was unlike anything else I'd ever seen. But sheer novelty has never gone that far for me because it's like eating a donut - fun for the brief moment, then gone forever. Therefore, when something novel also has substance and meaning, it's a guaranteed white-water rafting trip through a sea of endorphins for me.

I recall walking out of that movie vibrating from the experience. Yet, later on after discussing it over a couple beers, it had left one bad taste in my mouth. The humiliation the character of Dorothy Vallens endures, played by Isabella Rossellini, was hard to watch. It was difficult not to feel shame and embarrassment for Isabella herself, outside of the movie because she had to endure these things - albeit while acting and not for real - to portray them in the movie.

Included in the extras is the review from Siskel and Ebert's show where Ebert expresses pretty much the same sentiment, saying it hurt him to watch those portions of the movie. Siskel told Ebert he wasn't giving the actress enough credit for her own choice to portray the character, nor for her abilities or supposed reasons for doing it. At the time, though, I would have agreed with Ebert, having read the infamous "Male Gaze" essay - since renounced by the author herself - amongst other unintentional ironic infantilizations of female intention and intellect (for instance, the idea that all women who pose nude or participate in sexual performances are being exploited by men, regardless of the woman's opinion on the matter).

However, also in the extras, is an interview with Isabella. She said that at the time, when many had had Ebert's reaction to her role, she felt she had failed as an actress - that she wasn't good enough to carry off the part without people identifying with her personally. Here everyone was worrying about her being exploited and her tender little self being exposed to such fictional depravities. Thus, she felt it was her fault in that she hadn't done a good enough acting job for everyone to get over it and simply empathize with the character and not her. Apparently Siskel was right.

TLD: This brought to mind another incident I witnessed in the recent past. Someone asked a woman who had posed nude for a "men's magazine" if she was aware that men would probably masturbate to her picture. Her response was, "One can hope."
I think men will always be a little over-protective of women in certain ways, no matter how some forms of feminism try to beat it out of us, pun partially intended. We're just wired that way. But when a woman decides to ride on a horse buck-naked through the center of town just for the hell of it, I feel I, at least, have learned my lesson to just relax, enjoy the moment, and maybe toss her a string of beads or something.
A thought

I was behind an SUV today that had a sticker of a bald eagle with what appeared to be either the reflection of - or a badly painted rendition of - the American flag on its face. What was so odd about it was how smeary and abstract the flag looked, and it gave me the unsettling impression of the flag having been smeared or stamped on the eagle's face as though it had hit the bumper of an SUV with a flag sticker on it which subsequently left the mark on its face. I personally like patriotic statements and symbols - always have - but this one just left me with the image or our national symbol bouncing off the bumper of a speeding vehicle, managing to survive, but forever having this bummer of a smear on its face. Ew. Poor bird.
An announcement

I'm happy to report that I've managed to secure gainful employment. Not only that, but it's a job I've wanted for years. It was a nice six months off. (I have had a job since I was 14, and have never had more than two weeks off in a row before.) And I have loved having the time with my daughter. I will miss not having that much time every day with her. It is wonderful to be back at work, though. Happy days are here again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The Time I Was on a Sitcom Date
A Very Special Episode

I called her up and asked what she was doing that evening. She said, "I'm going to a concert. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are playing at [some bar I don't remember the name of]. Wanna go?"

I said sure.

This girl, you should know, looked like a brunette Farah Fawcett, so as we made our way into the place (she had some sort of big important person pass, so we were ushered past the line), heads turned, and not just because we were getting in ahead of everyone. I think that was the first time I heard an actual wolf whistle that was meant.

We sat and had a drink or two before the show started. She excused herself more than a few times to go to the restroom and stayed there long enough to complete every conceivable task one might have, but my training at that point prevented me from inquiring if anything was wrong; you know, in case it was - possibly necessitating an embarrassing explanation.

Then I thought I caught a glimpse of her over the bar sitting at a table over on the other side, with another guy. It was very hard to see them where they were ... and then it dawned on me; they were very hard to see on purpose!

You laugh at things like this when they happen in a sitcom, but it's a little difficult to come to the conclusion that it is actually happening for real. Imagine if Mary Ann walked up to you on the street one day and coyly suggested that Ginger wasn't the only spice on the Island - I think you get my drift. Your rerun memory collides with your sense of déjà vu, which ends up giving you kind of a mental wedgie.

She came back to my table, and made nice nice for a while, then excused herself again. The guy across the way sat alone whilst she was with me. But, sure enough, that brunette mane was evident at his table moments later.

Well hell.

Next time she came back, I asked her outright, "Are you here with another guy?"

There was a pause while she tried to concoct some sort of bullshit story. The eyes really are the window of the soul. I could detect her going down her little internal terminator list*, rejecting the options there. I believe that she considered about four before she realized she had no other choice than to fess up.

*In the "Terminator" movies, we often switch to Arnie's point of view as a robot and watch him select from a drop-down menu of possible responses.
"Yes," she said, "but I'll have you know that I already had this date planned when you called."

"What freakin' difference does that make?" I asked, "You could have just said you were busy!"

"Well, I didn't want to hurt your feelings." (We were supposed to be dating each other exclusively, btw.)

"And the humiliation of being on a date like this was the better option?" I practically yelled, drawing some attention. "Does he know I'm here with you?"


"Wonderful. I'll even bet he's over there getting big yucks over how clueless I am. Maybe we should alert the bartender so he can enjoy this little tableau as well!"

Then she said, "Well, the other guy is the DJ here, so everyone who works here has probably figured it out."

The expression on the bartender's face was a tad too smirky, so he probably did know. The barmaids would suddenly avert their gaze as I checked around. Dear God. I suppressed the urge to look down to see if I was naked, too, just in case I was really in a vivid nightmare.

I had read somewhere that you never abandon a date, regardless of the situation, because it's beyond rude, somewhere in the karmic vicinity of shooting her dog or replacing her shampoo with Nair. Still, I imagine the person who came up with dating etiquette hadn't been marooned in the midst of a polygamous date from hell where the entire staff's entertainment for the night was seeing one's pride ripped away with like a cosmic bikini wax.

"Can you catch a ride home with the guy?" I asked after a big gulp of my drink.

She said she could. As I left, I understood how a cat must feel when a cruel kid had tied some cans to its tail.

A couple days later, she called and wanted to talk. I was somewhat interested in what she might have to say, as I couldn't imagine what I would say were I in her shoes. Hell, I wouldn't have called ever again, so this might be worth the time.

Just as I had opened the door to leave, the phone rang. It was B_____'s (name changed to protect the guilty) best friend. She informed me that I was walking, essentially, into a trap. (Evidently a sitcom isn't over until the credits roll.) She said I was going to get jerked around and B_____ intended to apologize and ask that we try again, all the while intending to date around behind my back (but more carefully, of course) until she decided if she really loved me or not. She said she didn't know why B_____ was being so dishonest and cruel, but she felt I didn't deserve to be treated this way, hence the warning. And, of course, I hadn't heard this from her.

I was already pissed off enough and had no intention of dating someone who had so little respect for anyone, including herself, that she would do what she did. However, the fact that she was going to try to play me sent me over the edge.

It was a blisteringly cold winter day, and my anger literally steamed up the windows. I sat there, listening to her do exactly what her buddy said she would do, as we gazed over a view of the city (neither of us wanted to be in a public place for this). I noticed for the first time that her nose bobbed whenever she talked, which would seem cute had I a single warm feeling for her, but now it made it hard not to burst into an acidic cackle. By the time she finished her monologue on forgiveness and second chances, I was so livid I bet my eyes would have glowed in the dark.

I said I wasn't interested in a relationship anymore. The exact words I used elude me. I know I didn't curse, at least.

Then she said, "Well, then, maybe we can be friends."

I had once seen a comedian who offered what I think is one of the funniest possible responses to that particular, much loathed, proposition. He said one should bellow, in response, "NO! LET'S JUST BE ENEMIES!"

I wussed out (we were in her car and it was a long way back) and merely said, "I could never be friends with someone who did what you did to me."

After a pause, she said, "I see." And that was the last time I ever saw her.

This episode (heh) was a watershed moment in my life. It soured me enough on dating that I dated infrequently in the decade between that moment and when I met my wife. I think other people would have defaulted into misogyny/misandry, but I've never been the type who extends blame from the offenses of one person onto the rest of their general type. But I certainly would rather have remained single than put up with that kind of crap again.

TLD: The only significant relationship I had during those years was the wonderful and healing time I became an "older woman's" "maintenance man." That was more like being drafted than being dated. Boot camp was educational to say the least, and my subsequent time in the service was enjoyable. I would have reenlisted for another tour given the opportunity, but I think she was getting too attached, and I was gently retired back into civilian life. Being the pet of a sweet and benevolent but confirmed divorcee/bachelorette was fun! I recommend it heartily to any young, lonely guy. All the myths and legends of the benefits of being with an "older woman" are true. Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.
Eventually, I met my wonderful wife, who had faced her own dating waterloos and was as cautious as I. Along with finally finding someone (thus, leading me to believe there is someone out there for everyone), I was saved from a life of, "No! I'm NOT gay!" Which had already become a bit of a nuisance. The modern world does not believe in the confirmed, and heterosexual, bachelor, alas.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Martin Luther King Day

...In honor of the great Martin Luther King, may he rest in peace.

(If you are reading this, on this day, at work - shame on your company! (Save for those that are open on every holiday, of course.))

His death is one of those few events that changed the course of history and the tone of the character of our nation, joining this short list:

The Revolutionary War
The Civil War
Lincoln's assassination
World War One
The Great Depression
World War Two
Kennedy's assassination
(MLK's assassination)
The Vietnam War
9-11 Terrorist Attack

So, this is our day to remember him, to mourn the loss of what he may have accomplished, and to understand the legacy of fear and mistrust achieved by his murder.

Yet, we would not have come this far had he not been there to guide us, if even for a little while. At least we can take comfort in that knowledge. It is not an entirely a solemn day.


Calpudit's similar thoughts.

"I understand why Bush has such high approval ratings. Hell, he's done everything I expected him to do: The economy's in the toilet, we're at war, and everything's on fire." - Wanda Sykes

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Heart Hotels

I've always loved that song by Dan Fogelberg. It really nails those times in your life when you drop back from the world and take time to reassess yourself and your place in the world. (Plus, it's one of the prettiest singles ever released, imvho, and the Prophet 5 (synthesizer) solo is one-of-a-kind.)

I've been doing that kind of living inside myself, reassessing stuff lately after a brutal year. Good freakin' riddance to 2003, I say.

I've also just finished a grueling round of several interviews with entire conference rooms full of people for a position, which included providing samples of previous work and doing exercises on the spot, etc., which has been tiring to say the least. Since the job market is so tight, everyone's cautious, so they tend to throw the kitchen sink at you. These folks even made a point of including their more difficult personalities in the interview groups to see how I'd handle rude and inappropriate questions. (For example, one guy asked if I wanted the job for sole reason that I didn't have a job right now. No matter how one might protest otherwise, the conclusion is in the question, so you've lost any possibility of a believable response from the start. And, no, he didn't believe I wanted the job because I wanted to be in the kind of position, even though it's the very thing I've been doing for a decade now, and am eminently qualified.)

So, apologies for no posts, but by the time I have a free moment these days, my mind is already ground to mush where I can just muster enough energy to watch a sitcom or a light movie. I'll get back on the horse soon, though. Got several things in various stages of completion.

But for now, there are too many windows in this old hotel...