Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Day Seven


David Cassidy is dead.

Denise and I were setting up the above-ground, heated swimming pool for my seven new pet swans1 when we saw him clutch at the branches of the pear tree to keep himself from falling. We ran over and helped him out of the tree and to the ground. He was struggling to breathe, but he managed to whisper two words to me before his heart gave out: “swan allergy.” I have no idea what he was talking about, but perhaps his family or the media will will be able to explain those words’ significance.

Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did, sitting in those freezing temperatures for a week without a bite to eat. Although, he must have known death was a possibility when he accepted the gig, since when I rifled through his pockets2 the only thing I found was a phone number for the “undertaker to the stars.” Two hours later, a hearse from the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel pulled up in front of the house, and we bade a final farewell to David Cassidy.

It took us a few hours to get the heated pool up and running, and I’m certainly not looking forward to our next electric bill, but I have to say: Those swans are mighty impressive. Backstroke, breast stroke, butterfly, they can do it all. I’m unsure if there’s a market for this sort of thing, but I’d bet people would pay to see Michael Phelps race against a relay team of swans.3

To make room for the pool, we moved the bricklaying geese to the basement – they were doing a piss-poor job on the patio, anyway – giving Sonya full reign of the yard once more. Not to worry: the swans are safe. Sonya is afraid of water and won’t go in the pool. She puts her feet up on the railing and dances around it on her hind legs trying to catch them, but all they have to do is stay out of reach.

Then, about an hour ago, a couple policemen stopped by and said we couldn’t keep the parrots on the porch any longer, something about county noise ordinances and a rash of complaints from the neighbors. They were going to let me off with a slap on the wrist, but one of them overheard the parrot mafia don say some rather unkind things about cops, and I got stuck with an unnecessarily large fine instead. I made sure to rattle some cages when I pulled the parrots from their perch on the porch and banished them to the far reaches of the garage.4

Anyway, the bricklaying geese are now in the basement building us some new stairs for the hatch. Two others are working on the plumbing, and I threw the last one down there as well after it wouldn’t let Marcelle come out from under our bed for a couple hours. It’ll probably start creating an uneven tile floor, just like it was doing in the upstairs bathroom.

I don’t have high hopes for any of the geese’s projects. I expect I’ll have to rip out everything they’ve done once Christmas is over and everybody leaves, and start fresh. Wait, they are all going to leave after the last day of Christmas, right?

Right?


1 Just what I needed: more birds! Yay!
2 As is the custom with any dead celebrity.
3 Or, failing that, smoke up with a relay team of swans.
4 I also put the song 867-5309/Jenny on a loop at high volume, to interfere with their Bluetooth conversations. So what if they’re only birds? I can still be spiteful.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Day Six


Damn it, I thought we were done with the birds!

The latest six arrived replete with their own supplies, and had made quite a mess of the living room before I got downstairs this morning. I tried taking their tools away, but they ganged up on me and pecked at my face, so I quickly abandoned that plan. Fortunately, by the time I returned from the emergency room, Denise had directed them to other areas of the house where they could be more useful.

She led the three bricklaying geese out into the back yard, where they are currently building us a new patio. Two others are laying pipe in the basement, and the last is in the upstairs bathroom, laying down fresh tile.


6 AM, 6th day after Christmas.

Their craftsmanship is extremely shoddy, seeing as how they have to do everything with their beaks, but I’m not about to disparage their work. I’ve already gotten enough stitches for one day.1

Of course, Sonya spent the day trying to catch the geese, so in order to allow them to get their work done, we had to tie her to the pear tree. In the tree above her, David Cassidy isn’t looking at all well. I could only get hold of one local doctor who does house calls, and he wasn’t willing to climb a ladder to do the physical. I’ll make some more calls in the morning.

In other news, when I went out to the porch to check on the hens and parrots today, one of the latter had stopped talking. At first I was excited — thinking that perhaps the other three would soon get tired and rest, too — but then I jostled its cage, and the bird fell, unmoving, to the base of the cage. Of course, just my luck, the dead parrot was neither the Verizon spokesparrot nor the gossip girl. No, ‘twas the Norwegian Blue: the stock broker, the least annoying of the four. Someone had nailed him to his perch.

As I carted his remains off to the trash bin, the parrot mafia don said, simply, “So long, snitch.”


1 In case you’re wondering... it’s eight stitches. Eight is enough.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day Five


Finally, a worthwhile gift! Each of the rings was expertly crafted, a beautiful golden brown, with just the right amount of breading. Best onion rings I’ve had in some time. It’s a shame there were only five of them.

The parrots, on the other hand, have been driving me batty. They gave me such a headache yesterday that I had to stick them out on the porch with the hens, where their constant yapping was at least muffled. I also spent half an hour looking for the phones their Bluetooths were connected to, hoping to shut them off (or smash them into tiny bits), but came up empty. The Bluetooths themselves are still going strong, too; the birds must have some covert spot where they recharge them overnight.

Anyway, I thought the Verizon parrot was bad, but the one who spent her time quarreling yesterday has since been chattering non-stop about boys and fashion and mother-sparkling Twilight. Oh, and I’m pretty sure I just heard the head of the parrot mafia calling in a hit.

The hens are finally eating (unlike David Cassidy), though it’s going to be expensive to keep them around.1 I found a tag wrapped around one’s foot that said they only eat baguettes with brie and camembert. Damn uppity hens. They eat better than I do.


1 And even more so for the parrots. Denise hinted that all their calls were being added to my phone bill.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Day Four


We’ve reached day #4 of the David Cassidy hunger strike. He’s beginning to look a little gaunt, and gray in color. Denise thinks he may have snacked on some snow from a nearby branch when we weren’t looking, whereas I contend his only sustenance during his time in the tree has come by sneaking nips of brandy from a flask hidden inside his coat. Either way, we may have to call in a doctor soon. Or a lumberjack.

Nevertheless, I’ve found that I much prefer the silence of his company to the inescapable din now present inside the house. If only this morning’s new additions to our avian menagerie had come with a lifetime supply of ear plugs. I don’t see why anyone would ever want even one of these birds, let alone four. Yet, I now find myself the proud owner of a quartet of parrots, each ceaselessly yammering away on its own Bluetooth.


“Polly want a cracker. And a pizza, for delivery.”

I have no idea whom any of them are talking to, but one seems to think he’s a stock trader. All he ever says is, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” or “Sell! Sell! Sell!” Another is having what sounds like a heated argument with its mother. With yet another, if I didn’t know it was a parrot, I’d swear I was listening to an Italian mafia don discussing the storage of stolen goods. But the last one... the last one I truly despise: There are only so many times I can hear, “Can you hear me now?” before I feel the distinct need to strangle someone.1

I decided I’d try to channel my anger into something constructive, and grabbed some tools from the garage. I’d intended to pry the shells off of those poor little doves so they could fly free, but the moment I tried placing my hand on either one of them, they tried to peck my fingers off. Apparently they’ve gotten rather attached to their adoptive homes. I guess it makes sense, as they do provide decent protection from the cat and dog. Not that the cat’s going to come anywhere near them, with the foursome of parrots squawking their heads off, and Sonya often barking in reply; she’s got herself snugly ensconced in blankets upstairs.

Out on the porch, the hens may be wearing maid outfits, but they sure know how to make a mess. And I think they’ve caught whatever ailment David Cassidy has, since none of them have eaten any of the feed I’ve laid down for them. Interestingly enough, however, it seems that one of them has somehow developed a French accent.2

If I get any more birds tomorrow, I may just have to go out and purchase a real cat to help thin their numbers. Anyone know the going price for a Bengal tiger?


1 I've tried covering their cages, too, but that doesn’t silence them, either. Once swathed in darkness, the parrots only get louder. I figure they probably all signed up for one of those Night & Weekend calling plans.
2 Le cluck.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Day Three


If I had to guess, I’d say they’re supposed to be French. I mean, I can’t be sure, since I’ve never been able to distinguish French clucking from any other type of clucking – despite all my years on the board of the GPC1 – but I don’t know why else the hens would be wearing those black-and-white maid outfits. They’re certainly not doing anything that resembles cleaning.

We’ve had to sequester the hens in the screened-in porch to protect them from the dog. Now that Sonya has three new walking, clucking chew toys, she’s lost some interest in David Cassidy, especially since he has barely moved the past two days. She’s currently whining and scratching to be let out onto the porch.

Marcelle finally ventured downstairs, too. She isn’t your typical huntress of a cat – she’s been known to be scared by string – but once we deposited the trio of cluckers onto the porch, her curiosity got the better of her, and she spied the doves for the first time. She batted at one a couple of times before it retracted its head into its shell, after which she soon got bored and headed back upstairs.

As for the hens, we tend not to keep chicken feed in the house,2 so I had to go out and buy a large bag of it for them. If we could get some fresh eggs out of the deal, that would be wonderful, but a little bird told me we might need a rooster for that to happen.3 And I’m not buying a rooster.

Of course, with my luck, I’ll find four of them under the tree tomorrow morning…


1 Gonzo’s Poultry Council, est. 1978.
2 Surprising, I know.
3 Actually, it was a rather big little bird that told me. His exact words were: “You’re doing it all wrong, son! You need a — I say, you need a rooster, boy, or you’ll never get eggs!”

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Day Two


Well, this is an improvement. Sort of. There were no new trees planted in the yard this morning, no Wally Cleaver or John-Boy Walton perched up above building a nest. Just a box with air holes sitting under the Christmas tree.

The doves sure are cute little things. Their cooing is adorable, as is the way they poke their little heads out when they’re hungry. I can’t help but feel bad for them, though, stuck in those shells.


Stuffing a peaceful bird into a shell? Not coo.

They have to be cramped in there; as far as I can tell, they have no way to fully stretch out their wings. Walking is also a chore: even if they manage to poke their feet out, the shells are too heavy for them to stand upright. Although one of them has figured out how to maneuver by pulling itself around using its beak, mostly they stay where they are and coo quietly. I’ve been hand-feeding them bird seed and giving them water to drink in a tiny saucer.

Speaking of feeding, David Cassidy still hasn’t eaten.1 Also, despite the freezing temperatures and threat of snow last night, he repeatedly declined our invitations to join us inside.2 In the end, we decided that the least we could do was provide him with a couple of thick wool blankets to help protect him from the cold. He wouldn’t take them from us, of course. We were forced to haul out a ladder from the garage and drape the blankets over his back.

Goddammit, celebrities piss me off.


1 Or spoken. Maybe his contract stipulated a non-speaking role.
2 Sonya wouldn’t come in, either, unwilling to leave her post beneath the man in the tree. We offered her double her usual amount of treats, but she wouldn’t budge. I had to drag her inside by her collar, with her straining against me the entire way. Once locked in the house, she whined loudly at the back door for hours until I couldn’t take it any more, went downstairs, and let her out.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Day One


Okay, so I kind of get the pear tree.

Ever since we chopped down that crabapple tree back in July, the back yard has felt a little empty. The new pear tree fills that void, and I’m certain its bounty next year will be much tastier than those damn crabapples ever were.

What I don’t get — and maybe, as a Jewish atheist celebrating only my third Christmas, this is just my ignorance of Christmas traditions shining through — is why, sitting halfway up the tree, is that guy who played Keith Partridge on the Partridge Family.

Admittedly, I’m relatively new to the holiday, but please, tell me: What does David Cassidy have to do with Christmas?

He’s been out there all morning, but has yet to move from that one limb. At first, Sonya barked at him, perhaps thinking he was some sort of giant mutant squirrel.1 Thankfully, she settled down after about ten minutes, but she has not left her post beneath the tree, nor let her gaze stray from the middle-aged man oddly perched up there. David/Keith hasn’t said a word, nor did he seem at all interested in the plate of bacon and eggs that we offered him earlier. He just sits there, shivering, locked in a staring contest with the dog.

Denise made some remark this morning about Christmas being 12 days long. That can’t be true, can it? She’s just hazing the new guy, right? There’d better not be another 11 like this one; I know for a fact that nowhere on my wish list did I write, “a plum tree containing Greg Brady.”


1 Or maybe that the mailman had hatched some nefarious new plot to penetrate her inner sanctum.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

F My Life

Why is it that every flippin’ time I try to take some frickin’ time off from freakin’ work, I get friggin’ sick? What the frak? It’s like my flickin’ body doesn’t want me to ever fraggin’ enjoy a razzifrazzin’ vacation.

If I only had 6 million mother-filchin’ dollars, I could frappin’ pay to get a healthy new body – they have the frizzin’ technology, for Falk’s sake. Then again, if I had 6 million mother-flappin’ dollars, I probably wouldn’t go to flackin’ work at all, and just take my forkin’ chances with the illness. Maybe without the frockin’ stress, I’d stay florpin’ healthy. Ooh, maybe I can get a froppin’ scientific research grant to test out this mother-fecklin’ hypothesis. Flock, yeah.

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Tis the Season

Throughout the month of December, its songs are on every radio station, its decorations in every window, its sales in every store front: Hannukah. The crass commercialization of the holiday has become so overwhelming in recent decades, it’s no wonder that few people remember what Hanukkah is really all about. Luckily, you have me to set the record straight. Thus, I present to you…

Hanukkah: A Primer

Note: Despite the use of the word Primer, this won’t be a tale of time travel that screws mercilessly with your head. Though I will be providing historical context to shatter some of the common misconceptions about the Festival of Lights, I’m actually referring to the other definition of primer: that first coat of white paint you lay down before applying the color you really want. After all, I need to whitewash all preconceived notions from your head to ensure that they won’t interfere when I paint for you the truth.

I feel I am uniquely qualified to speak on this subject because of my Jew-ish upbringing,1 my two decades as a devout Jewish Atheist, and my aforementioned aversion to the commercialization and materialism of Hanukkah.2 In short, you can be sure that I will remain completely impartial. But enough about me. On to the truthiness!

The Name
The correct spelling of the holiday is Hanukkah. All other spellings are pale imitations, bastardizations created when Jews entered America by way of Ellis Island in the early 20th century. Just as many traditional Jewish surnames were butchered by immigration officials over the years, so, too, were the names of their holidays.

Timing
Hannukah, like all Jewish holidays, arrives on a different date every year. You may already be aware that the length of the Hebrew year varies from year to year, but you probably didn’t know that this is a relatively modern convention, or that it was done on purpose. The calendars initially matched from beginning to end, but in the year 1873 AD the Jewish elders shortened their year as a practical joke to mess with the goyim. It was to be a one-year thing, but they soon realized that it also cut down on persecution: Since most of the Klan were morons, if they didn’t catch people celebrating Purim or Passover or Chanukah on the expected days, they couldn’t be sure the people were Jews, and therefore couldn’t, in good conscience, string them up. This is why, to this day, every two or three years the Jews insert a new month into their calendar. Plus, it keeps the Google logo creators on their toes.

Menorahs
Tradition states that the eight candles on the Chanukkah menorah are symbolic of the time when people thought there was only enough consecrated oil to keep the eternal flame in the Temple at Jerusalem lit for one day, but then, miraculously, another eight barrels were found stashed in a back room. This is a complete fallacy. In actuality, the candles symbolize the eight wise men who lavished Moses with gifts3 upon his birth. However, when the Crusades rolled around, the Jews learned that it was best not to one-up (or, for that matter, five-up) Jesus, so they started circulating the false story about the oil.

Along with the eight candles, typically a ninth candle, called the shamash, is added for good luck. And if, on the last day of Chanukka, you manage to blow out all the candles at once, that Christian kid you hate down the street will get nothing under the tree but a cheesy sweater and matching socks.

Dreidels
The dreidel game is a vast conspiracy among Jews to teach the ins and outs of economics to their children at a very young age, thereby eventually controlling all of the world’s finances. The game is traditionally played on Hannukka with gelt, which are coins either made of chocolate or solid gold, depending on how Jewish your family is. Each player in turn spins the dreidel, and then performs the action corresponding to the letter that lands side-up:
  • נ (nun) - You get a whack on the knuckles with a ruler unless you say three Our Fathers and four Hail Marys.
  • ג (gimel) - Shortened from “gi’mel,” or “give Mel.” Give cousin Mel one coin. If you have no cousin Mel,4 give one coin to the player who has seen the most Mel Brooks movies.
  • ה (hey) - Point behind the other players and yell, “Hey! What in the world can that be?!” While they’re distracted, take half the coins in the pot.
  • ש (shin) - Kick one of the players on either side of you squarely in the shin, then take one of his coins.
Play until either someone has won all of the coins, or all of the coins have been eaten.5

Latkes
Also known as potato pancakes, latkes are made in commemoration of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, when they left with such haste that they forgot the yeast and were forced to eat unleavened potatoes. They are named after Andy Kaufman’s character on “Taxi” because his was the first realistic portrayal of a Jew on national television.6

So, there you have it. You now know all there is to know about Hannukkah. You're very welcome.

Now, what’s this “Christmas” thing I keep hearing about?


1 One whole year of Sunday School, bitches!
2 As evidenced by the fact that I own neither a menorah nor a dreidel.
3 Gold, silver, bronze, frankincense, frankenberry, falafel, tahini, and a pet tiger named Bobo.
4 What kind of Jew are you, without a cousin Mel?
5 This is more likely to happen with the chocolate variety, but anything’s possible when cousin Mel is involved.
6 Before “Taxi,” they were called “vigodas.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Little Help?

This is an appeal to you: my friends, my family, my friendly internet stalkers. Never before have I asked any of you for money,1 but due to recent circumstances I find myself in dire financial straits.2 I only hope that a few of you are feeling generous this holiday season.

You see, over the last few weeks I have been corresponding with an African prince by the name of Admir Alakbar. Because of corrupt officials and his country’s unstable government, he’s had trouble transferring his sizable fortune to America, and he emailed me requesting assistance. I’ve done what I can to help expedite the process, sending cash to cover legal expenses and to grease the palms of those crooked officials, but with each hurdle he overcomes, another roadblock is unexpectedly thrown in his way. To repay me for my kindness and generosity, he has promised to give me 10% of his fortune and bestow upon me the title of my choice: either Archduke or Grand Poobah. Unfortunately, my resources have since withered, which is why I am appealing to you now.

This may sound like a scam to you. Don’t worry; it’s not. I asked him. Admir assures me he’s from Rwanda, not Nigeria, so clearly everything is on the up-and-up.

Anyway, the last permit Admir requires will cost nearly $5,000, but I’ve already emptied out my savings and checking accounts, and the heartless souls at the bank won’t give me another loan. In my effort to help, I have also provided Admir with the other things he has asked for: my credit card numbers, my computer password, my sister’s maiden name, my shoe size, my high-school locker combination, the name of my mother’s first grade teacher, my cat’s social security number, and the complete 54-disc set of Stargate SG-1 on DVD. Yet, he is still shy the $5,000.

If you help me out, I will give you a percentage of my percentage of Prince Admir’s fortune, which he estimates is, and I quote, “$22.4 gazillion dollars.” So, clearly, any money you can give me will not be a loan or a gift so much as it will be an investment. Just think of what you can do with your share of my $2.24 gazillion.3 And if that isn't enough to convince you, I’ll also throw in part of my new title.

Thanking you in advance,
The future Grand Poo of Rwanda


1 At least, not since I requested an advance on my allowance back in the summer of 1984 to play a game of Dig Dug. (Lousy machine then ate my quarters.)
2 It’s a shame that word “financial” is in there, or else I’d get money for nothing (and my chicks for free).
3 That's a lot of games of Dig Dug...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo: An Epilogue

At the beginning of November I set myself three potential goals for National Novel Writing Month — 20,000 words or 20 days writing or 3 completed chapters — each objective easier than the last. So, how did I fare?1

For NaNoWriMo, stringing together 50,000 words qualifies as a “win.” I knew that was well beyond my reach, since I write too slow and procrastinate too much, so I set the bar at 40%, a level I had attained fairly easily the last time I tried back in ’07.

It seems I had under-estimated my ability to procrastinate.

I celebrated birthdays, watched DVDs, played board games, did yardwork, walked the dog, won money at the casino, ate turkey, did crosswords, and on five separate occasions took naps after work. I uploaded 54,000 words’ worth of pictures2 to Flickr. And I made bi-weekly sacrifices to the fiery wheel: During the month of November, I wrote nearly as many words in my blog entries (4,116) as in my novel (4,804).

That’s right: 4,804 words. I aimed for 40% and fell shy of 10%. Pathetic.

My second goal was easier: Spend time on the novel 20 days out of the 30. I reckoned that even fifteen minutes a day was better than zero, and writing regularly would help me keep the story moving forward. Instead, I managed half of that, a measly 10 days,3 and stalled in the story multiple times. To put it in perspective, in that same time period I managed to write 9 blog posts.

And then there was the gimme: My backup backup goal to complete 3 chapters. It should’ve been a cinch. I began the month with 10 chapters left to write, and the knowledge that each of them would be relatively short. Well, they were short. I still only managed to hash out 2.4 of them.

What it really comes down to is this: Blog writing is detrimental to my writing. I suspected as much. I’d formed that hypothesis long before I started at the Wheel, and for years it’s what kept me from throwing my pen into the ring, so to speak. If I spent time writing a blog, I’d spend less time writing my novel, right? So, what did I do the moment I proved my supposition correct? I blogged about it.

Pathetic.


1 Like I’m going to tell you down here in the footnotes.
2 As opposed to Wordsworth on pictures: “Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them.”
3 Not that I had measles at the time. Mumps, sure. And a touch of the plague. But not measles.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reading about Writing


The Elements of Style
by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White





Elements of Elements of Style

Over the past fifty years, many people have praised The Elements of Style as an essential resource, sort of a Bible for writers. Like the standard Bible, it mentions Jesus,1 and some revere it so highly they follow its teachings to the letter. Unlike the standard Bible, however, strict adherence to it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Also, it’s only 85 pages long.

There’s a reason this text is so revered by writers: Strunk and White set forth their rules and principles in a simple, straightforward manner, with examples of unclear, incorrect, or wasteful language placed side by side with their proper (or recommended) revisions. They provide guidelines around usage, composition, form, and style, and also include a section highlighting commonly misused words and phrases. On occasion, they interject little morsels of humor into their advice, but if you’re looking for grammar-related entertainment, I suggest you look somewhere else; The Elements of Style is first and foremost a guidebook. A damn good guidebook, but a guidebook nonetheless.

As I read through the section on usage, my confidence soared, with proper use of the colon my only potential issue.2 My confidence dipped, however, when I hit the section on composition. This was due to the fact that a few of the principles, particularly #14-17, were not always adhered to when I wrote.3 As a minor grammar snob, I was also surprised to find that I had been misusing a few of the most commonly misused words and phrases.4

Of course, both Strunk and White aren’t completely unbiased: Strunk lets his prejudices shine through most prominently in the section on misused words — he reserves an inordinate amount of ire for the phrase “student body,” for instance — whereas White airs his in his section on style. Also, some of their recommendations feel outdated, although this is not that shocking. If Strunk supplied the suggestion, it was originally made over ninety years ago. Even if White only inserted it in the most recent edition of the book,5 the word or phrase has now been misused for over thirty years. Either way, it might very well have been absorbed into the modern lexicon by now, and certainly, the “incorrect” usage of some words can now be found among the accepted definitions in many dictionaries.

Anyway, count me among the converted; I plan to follow the wisdom of this particular Bible. I already picked up my own copy of the ’79 edition for 50 cents at a book sale this past weekend, and I know I’ll be referring to it extensively once I begin the editing phase on my novel. For now, I’ll just leave you with one last bit of praise for Strunk and White, courtesy of Dorothy Parker:
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Rating:

1 Specifically, Jesus’ possessive.
2 This makes perfect sense; I have Crohn’s disease. (Grammatically, though, the problem is my tendency to wuss out and use a semi-colon when I should be using a full-fledged colon. For example, see first sentence in this footnote.)
3 And that sentence illustrates me erring on three of them: 14. Use active voice, 15. Put statements in positive form, and 17. Omit needless words.
4 Such as “due to” in the previous sentence.
5 E.B. White, a former student of William Strunk Jr, took his mentor’s self-published book from the 1910s and added his own insights, publishing updated editions in 1959, 1972, and 1979.



On On Writing

Stephen King wanted to impart his wisdom of writing to the great, unwashed masses (a.k.a. aspiring writers). He also, seemingly, wanted to write a memoir about his early life and his more recent brush with death. But why go to the trouble of writing two separate books? He’d grouped novellas into one volume before, so why not non-fiction, too? In On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft, he sandwiches his writing advice in between the life and times of Stephen King. It doesn’t quite work.

Through the first 100 pages of On Writing, King details, among other things, his first attempts at writing, how he met his wife, and the origins of Carrie. Some of it is quite interesting, but it’s still about him, rather than the process of writing, which is the supposed focus of the book. Though, it helps to explain why I found the book in the biography section of the library.

When King finally gets to the writing part of On Writing, he proffers some useful tips. Likening the writer’s skills to tools in a toolbox, and stories to fossils the writer must unearth, he delivers solid advice on such things as pacing, dialogue, and description. And I expect his suggestions for the editing process and about writing for your “Ideal Reader” to prove quite valuable. Yet, many of his recommendations seem overly personal. While I agree that perhaps the two most important things a writer can do are to write a lot and read a lot, not everyone has the time to do that “four to six hours a day, every day.” Also, writers thrive in all manner of locations; just because he holes himself up in a room with the door closed and shades drawn doesn’t preclude someone else from finding a busy café to be ideal. Likewise, going virtually plotless may work for King, but not everyone is gifted in that way. Some people (myself included) prefer to develop the basics of their plot before they sit down to write, to ensure that everything will tie together in the end. Basically, too much of King’s advice smacks of, “It worked for me, so it’ll probably work for you.”6

Perhaps because his expertise is in writing fiction, or perhaps because he doesn’t like to plot out his books, King lays out his writing advice without any formal structure, making it difficult to reference specific sections quickly. He praises Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, yet may be worse than I am at complying with Rule #17 (Omit needless words). And he tends to relate the majority of his advice back to his experience with one of his own works, though I’m not sure if it’s a marketing ploy to sell more books or if he is simply talking about what he knows.

All in all, I can’t argue with most of the advice King offers. I will argue, however, with the decision to sandwich the advice in between autobiographical texts that provide little guidance in the practice of writing. Even if the word “Memoir” is in the subtitle.

In On Writing, King says that it is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one, and impossible to turn a good writer into a great one, but with hard work and dedication, a competent writer can become a good writer. I feel as though I’m on the cusp of goodness; all I need is a little more practice.

Four to six hours a day should do it.


Rating:

6 This wouldn’t be a direct quote, though, since throughout the book Stephen King makes it abundantly clear that he really really really really abhors adverbs.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks for Nothing (and Everything)

Today, Americans everywhere will be going online and spewing forth the many things that they are thankful for this year. Family, friends, and football will be featured prominently, and everywhere you look you’ll be knee-deep in sap. But as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em (and I can’t; they’re too far away), join ‘em. So join ‘em I shall...
  • I am thankful that, unlike last Thanksgiving, I have yet to drive through the garage door.

  • I am thankful for gorges with rock walls just far enough apart, and water at least eight feet deep at the bottom. (So very thankful...)

  • I am thankful for ninjas.

  • I am thankful for my wonderful group of friends, not one of whom has seen through my ingenious disguise to discover that I am, in fact, their sworn arch-enemy.1

  • I am thankful for my family, without whom I probably never would have existed.

  • I am thankful for organizations such as the Food Bank. I deposited a turkey last year, and thanks to magic of accrued interest, I now have a turkey with gravy, stuffing, a side of mashed potatoes, and a slice of apple pie for dessert.

  • I am thankful for our aquaphobic dog, since “aquaphobic dog” is generally synonymous with “dry, unsmelly dog.”

  • I am thankful for the stupid people of the world.2 If it wasn’t for them, not only would news headlines be horrifically dull, but I’d have much less to write about.

  • I am thankful for turkeys. Without getting three strikes in a row, I’d never break 200 in Wii bowling.

  • I am thankful for the little things in life.3

  • I am thankful for laughter so contagious that it spreads throughout a room in mere seconds, doubling everyone over with giggles and chortles and guffaws so they don’t notice that I’m eating some of their pie.

  • I am thankful to be so full of thank.

  • But most of all, I am thankful for Denise. She made muffins.

1 For I am... Nemesis Man!
2 As long as those dumkopfs remain far, far away from me. No, really; stay away.
3 Smurfs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

And Then She Said Those Three Little Words...

“Center of Excellence.”

In fields such as health or technology, a Center of Excellence is often a place where top minds come together to share their knowledge and experience, and to strive for only the highest standards of achievement.

In the world of business, it’s a buzzword, a catchphrase designed to make something sound more impressive than it is. Affixing the label “Center of Excellence” to a group of talented or knowledgeable people does not automatically ensure that the work they create will, in fact, be excellent. On repeated hearings, the phrase sounds hollow and void of any real substance.

In a meeting today, someone proposed we create a Center of Excellence to help direct our company’s social media strategy.1 When I heard this, I died a little inside. Now, I’m all for getting the top minds together to make the best decisions, but if they’re seriously contemplating calling themselves the “Center of Excellence,” we need to find some better top minds.

I decided to do a little digging, and delved more into the meaning of Center of Excellence. As anyone can see, the center of “excellence” is two L’s. Or, in schoolyard parlance, “double hockey sticks.” However, I have it on good authority that any corporate Center of Excellence would have absolutely nothing to do with hockey. Not even air hockey. Nor would it involve football, turkey, zombies, monkey butlers, unrestrained laughter, skee-ball, ball pits, lasers, wolfsplosions, flux capacitors, hot fudge sundaes, footie pajamas, espionage and intrigue, Bill & Ted, Wayne & Garth, or C. Montgomery Burns.

How can something honestly be called “Excellent,” with a capital E, yet not contain a single one of these things? They might as well call it the Center of Mediocrity.2 At least that way, they won’t be getting anyone’s hopes up... and, if they succeed, they’ll look like geniuses!

Well, not like real geniuses. Real geniuses would have monkey butlers.3


1 Translation: ...to help figure out how we can use things like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs to get young people interested in a stodgy old insurance and financial services company. Like that’ll happen.
2 The center of “mediocrity” is, fittingly, the OC.
3 And lasers.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Deer-Spangled Banner

For at least the past week and a half, my company’s flag has been at half-mast. This isn’t altogether unexpected, since Veteran’s Day was last week. However, during this same period of time, the American flag next to it has flown at three-quarters mast. I’m not quite sure what sort of message management is trying to convey.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from coming up with a few possibilities:

  • It could be translated as: “We care more deeply about our veterans than the United States of America does.” And sure, my company recently came in at #67 on the list of the top Military-Friendly Companies for 2010, but that’s kind of the wrong way to go about touting that fact.
  • Perhaps they’re saying: “we’re weighed down by the $3.4 billion in TARP Funds we accepted” or “we’re slow to recover from a downturn,” though I have trouble believing that after its tumultuous past year, my company still trusts the old maxim “any publicity is good publicity.”
  • Or, maybe all they’re trying to say is: “We’re too busy looking at the big picture to sweat the small stuff.”

Of course, you’re probably thinking it’s obvious: my company hired an imbecile to take care of the flags. I won’t argue that, but I will point out that the meaning is exactly the same as that third bullet point.

And maybe they don’t sweat the small stuff. How else could you explain the design of our bicentennial logo? Back in May, we started replacing the logo on all of our websites and printed materials1 with a redesigned logo containing the slogan “Trusted 200 Years.” This is all fine and dandy, except that back in May the company had only existed for 199 years, and we were in the midst of a recession, so no one had really trusted us much during the previous eight months.

I understand the reasoning behind it. This way, we gets to celebrate the company’s bicentennial (and hype it in the media) for two whole years. Also, “Trusted 200 Years” rolls off the tongue much more smoothly than “Trusted Almost 198½ Years.” After all, compared to the big picture of two centuries, what’s one or two measly little years?

Don’t sweat the small stuff... we have a legal team for that.


1 Yet not on our buildings, or on our more-half-masty-than-Old-Glory flag.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stopping for a Nanosecond

Well, we’ve reached the mid-point of NaNoWriMo, and with over 3,000 words under my belt,1 I decided to take a break today and celebrate the other NaNoRhyMo (National Novel Rhyming Month), for which, I believe, I am the lone participant. So far, I have a dozen entries to share, all written using... wait for it... NaNo meter2:

The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
But now the little spider is in a foul mood,
Since while she was stuck swimming, some pig was killed for food.

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn;
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn.
The pigs in the farmhouse are plotting our doom.
Four legs are nice, but not better than two.

Mary read a little Lamb
And turned as white as snow,
For although Christ himself was pure,
His buddy Biff? Fuck, no.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With tender care and Colin there,
But don’t let his dad know.

Little Jack Horner sat in the corner
Eating a Christmas pie.
‘Twas taken away, and he lost that day’s pay,
But three ghosts set his boss straight that night.

Jack, be nimble.
Jack, be quick.
Jack, kill whores and escape that dick*.

* Dick = detective. I know I’m the one who mentioned whores, but c’mon, people! Get your mind out of the gutter!

A tisket, a tasket,
A golem in a casket.
Young Sam and Joe wrote comic books
Till DC blew a gasket.

It’s raining, it’s pouring,
The old man’s imploring,
“Let the kid fish! No better dish
Than marlin in the morning.”

Star light, star bright,
First time on a space flight.
Towel and salt don’t ease Dent’s plight;
Earth is gone, which just ain’t right.

Hey diddle-diddle, we thought and cared little
Before our Spring Break on the moon.
Then our feeds went dead and it screwed with our heads,
None of us saw our world would end soon.

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who knew not where tickets were stuck at.
He looked high and low,
Far and wide, to and fro,
But the last was found by Charlie Bucket.

In South Central Maine I was born and raised
At the Barrens where I spent most of my days,
Running, and hiding, being bullied by fools,
Sometimes constructing a dam when not at school,
When this one creepy clown who was up to no good
Started killing children in my neighborhood.
There was but one little death and we all got scared;
Instead of Pennywise we should’ve made a date with Linda Blair.



1 I actually keep them inside my computer.
2 For those of you hoping to find Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner among these selections (and no, I’m not apologizing for that punderful title), I must remind you that it’s actually a poem. Thus, it’ll have to remain here, in the footnote:
Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.
Red sky at night, albatross in flight.

"Dog" License

On my way to work Friday morning, I stopped behind an SUV with a vanity license plate. The plate was the type proud pet owners might purchase: The slogan “Caring for Pets” sat in small letters at the bottom, accompanied by an illustration of a dog and cat posing with a red croquet ball on the left. Typically, the center is reserved for the name of the beloved pet, such as Fluffy or Mitzy or Eugene. For this license plate, however, the owner had chosen three letters that most people wouldn’t consider to be a name:

G I R

Only then did I see the two decals, one plastered onto the license plate itself, the other onto the bumper next to it. The first depicted their “dog” in a state of elation; the other showed the same little guy screaming. Upon seeing this, I spent the next ten minutes in my own state of elation, rattling off quotes to myself in the car. Rarely does something make my day before 8:30am even rolls around.

Now, I know some of you are probably confused, wondering how a dog could scream, or why such a thing would bring me such joy (or, for that matter, why I put the word “dog” in quotation marks up above), and that’s a horrendous shame. For instance, if I asked the floor to make me a sammich, or announced that I wanted a barrel of flies and two balls of glue to be my friends, you might have me fitted for a straightjacket.1 But the explanation is really quite simple: GIR is not actually a dog. He is a robot from another planet that wears a costume to blend in here on Earth. And frankly, I’m disappointed that you didn’t know this already.

If you are indeed one of the poor confused saps I’m talking about, this next part is of the utmost importance: You must stop whatever you are doing this very moment — and yes, I mean stop reading this blog mid-sentence — and go watch the first few discs of Invader Zim, or else you will continue to live a sad, baseless existence and never find true enlightenme—why in the name of The Tallest are you still reading this? Didn’t I tell you to go watch the show? Go on! Go!

Now where was I? Oh yeah. I also want a chair made of a cheese, and a table made of cheese, and…


1 Or, maybe you’ve already done that long ago. I probably shouldn’t assume.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Glowsticks 1, NaNoWriMo 0

Yesterday was Day 7 of NaNoWriMo. It was only my third day of writing this month, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that I surpassed 2,000 words and completed a chapter, which for me to do in three days is pretty impressive.

I knew from the start I’d never reach 50,000 words — I write too slowly and edit too frequently for that to happen — but at this rate the only way I’ll even reach 20,000 is by filling page after page with:

All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.
All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.
All work and no play make Nate a dull boy.1

Anyway, to celebrate such a monumental achievement, today I spent the afternoon uploading images of glowsticks to Flickr.

I present to you: Glowstick Mania!


Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I should get back to my novel. After all, all play and no work make Nate stay unpublished.


1 Actually, that’s not a bad idea... if I write that line 4,800 times, I’m done!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The V in November

Ten years before the Wachowski brothers turned V for Vendetta into a major motion picture, I could easily recite what would become the film’s opening lines:
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
Something something something something
Should ever be forgot.
On this date in 1605, Guy Fawkes and his motley band of Catholic conspirators planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament1 while King James I and his motley band of (mostly) Protestant nobles and aristocrats were inside. Alerted by an anonymous note to a Catholic noble warning him to stay away that night, palace guards searched the cellars and caught Fawkes as he was leaving. Only then did they discover dozens of barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath piles of firewood and coal. Throughout the city, people lit bonfires to commemorate the King’s escape from assassination, a tradition which has since evolved into fireworks and the burning of effigies.

Prior to Guy Fawkes Day children would request a “penny for the guy” to raise funds for the fireworks, although this practice has diminished in recent years, likely in an attempt to avoid the incendiary combination of children and explosives. Thus endeth the history lesson.2

So, where did I learn all this? My 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Ludlow. Through this story of treachery, he found a way to impart a little British history and connect with his students at the same time. When he asked you for a “penny for the guy,” you didn’t give him anything that year. But the next year, and the next... Every year, former students sent him pennies as November 5 approached, each coin enclosed in an envelope and perhaps accompanied by a letter detailing college life or whatever the graduate was doing after high school. Mr. Ludlow would read the most noteworthy letters in class, introducing his Guy Fawkes tradition to a whole new group of students.

I wrote a letter the first year, and only mailed pennies perhaps two years more, but I’ve never never forgotten the fifth of November. Maybe it’s time I look up Mr. Ludlow, long since retired, and restart the tradition by sending him a penny. Not by mail; that’s so last century. But perhaps he has PayPal...


1 I mean, of course, the British Houses of Parliament (for it is in London that our scene lies).
2 By the way, the word “guy” is derived from Guy Fawkes’s name. Therefore, Sloth owes much of his popularity (“Hey you guys!”) to a failed 17th-century assassination plot. Thus endeth the etymology lesson.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Flickrween!

National Novel Writing Month is, as the name states, all about writing. So, to celebrate the first day of NaNoWriMo, I spent the afternoon editing photos from last week’s Halloween party and uploading them to Flickr.1


These images from Halloween ’09 are the first I’ve uploaded to Flickr, but with thousands more to sort through on my computer — and numerous upcoming photo opportunities throughout the holiday season — others will surely follow. Though I may post about them if they’re interesting enough, I’ll also keep a link to my Flickr Photostream over in the right-hand column for easy access.

As for the writing thing, there are still 29 days left in November. I’ll get started on that tomorrow.

Probably.


1 What, you expect all my procrastination to be productive? You don’t know me very well.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Batman Doesn't Belly Dance"

When you attend a Halloween party with a Comic Book / Cartoon theme, you’re going to run into your fair share of heroes from Gotham and Metropolis.1 Batmen and Supermen are fine and all, but I’m not the type to choose a mainstream character or snag my entire get-up from a costume shop. Besides, I wanted a costume no one else would duplicate. With an award for “Most Obscure” up for grabs, I went very obscure.

I became the Escapist.


I’m the one on the right.

Never heard of him? Don’t feel bad; neither had anyone else. He’s only appeared in two publications, and the first of those was a novel. In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, two young cartoonists in the ’40s create the Escapist to profit from the popularity of Superman as America enters the golden age of comic books. Their hero roams the world looking to cast off the chains of tyranny and free oppressed people everywhere.

Thankfully, the Escapist’s second appearance was in comic book form. Otherwise, I’d have had no idea what he looked like.

If you’re wondering, the chains are real. I got them at Lowe’s. The hair isn’t. The wig was the only part of the costume procured from a Halloween store, but it looked genuine enough to even convince people who’d met me before that it was my real hair. The key is made of foam, the mask cut from a fat quarter of fabric, both items purchased at Jo-Ann’s. The rest of the Escapist’s wardrobe was furnished by Target.

So, after everyone I talked to at the party had to ask who I was supposed to be, it came time for the awards section of the evening. As expected, I was nominated for Most Obscure... and then lost out to a member of the Justice League.


Who is this? That's the Question.

Admittedly, I’d never heard of the character before. He looked familiar enough, and was confused throughout the night for either the Blank from Dick Tracy or Watchmen’s Rorschach.2 It was this confusion that netted him the award.

I’m not bitter. If the award had been monetary in nature, perhaps I would be, but instead I am merely amused. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some enslaved people to liberate.


1 The final tally from last Saturday: 3 Batmen, 3 Robins, 2 Batgirls, 2 Clark Kents, 2 Supergirls, and 1 Lois Lane. Oh yeah, and one villain for them all to fight: The Riddler. Two, if you count Hanna Barbera’s Dirk Dastardly.
2 Here’s some trivia for you: Originally, the Question was going to be in Watchmen, but Alan Moore was denied permission to use his name, and thus Rorschach was born.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Think of It as 50 Pictures

One commodity has long eluded the effects of inflation. For decades, the going rate for a picture has held steady at one thousand words. Looking at it that way, writing 50,000 words during the month of November should be a breeze. That's, on average, only 1 2/3 pictures a day. Pretty easy, right?

You try it.

I’m not being facetious. I’m saying: Try it. Really.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.1 For those who participate, the goal is to write a novel in 30 days. That prospect may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be; no one will judge you if you don’t reach the 50,000-word plateau, or if your story doesn’t turn out as masterful as you had imagined. It’s a first draft, after all. Get your ideas down on paper and see where they lead you. You can always go back later to refine the writing.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice, and on both occasions I’ve fallen far short of 50,000 words, but I still think of each one as a success. For my first attempt in 2006, I talked of 50,000 but set myself a more realistic goal: 17,500 words, or about two hundred more than my previous longest (unfinished) work of fiction. Not only did I achieve my (lesser) goal, making the story my longest to date, but I fell in love with the outlandish tale I was creating. For the first time, I truly felt like a writer.

I kept at it. The following November, I took a break from that novel to start a new one, and bested my previous year’s tally by a few thousand words. I kept at that one, too, for a little while, but inevitably I was drawn back to the other tale.

Three years later, I’m still hard at work on that same novel I began in 2006. I did revert to my usual glacial pace after that first month, but I’m inching ever closer to a completed first draft. Earlier this week, I even surpassed the 100,000-word threshold.

I’m planning to do NaNoWriMo again this year, but once again with my own goals. I won’t be starting a new novel or striving for 50,000 words, but I will be striving. I may aim for 20,000 words, or 20 days of writing out of 30, or 3 completed chapters. Even if I don’t reach those targets, I still succeed, for I will have written.

You don’t have to play by their rules; just use this as an impetus to get you going. If you have an idea that’s itching to get our of your head, stop thinking about it and start writing. Hell, if I can do it, it can’t be too hard.

You try it.


1 As opposed to the Nanorhino, scourge of microbiology students everywhere.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My Shortest Post Ever!

Official diagnosis: Bronchitis.
Told you it wasn't the heinie flu.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Eh, I’ll Procrastinate Tomorrow

I have long been a major advocate of putting off work. I’d always get it done, and on time, but pen wouldn’t hit paper (or finger hit keypad) until the last possible minute.

In middle and high school, I almost never started a paper or project – no matter how large – until the night before it was due. I then ascended to the level of Master Procrastinator during my first semester of college by regularly beginning papers for one English seminar about 1-2 hours before the class started. Nor did I stop procrastinating once I left the cozy confines of academia. Bills get paid on the last possible day. The litter box isn’t cleaned until it stinks to high heaven.1 Hell, just two weeks ago, I uploaded my 10 Top 10s for 10/10 post with under 10 minutes to spare.2

My thinking has always been this: If the deadline isn’t looming, I can be doing something more fun. That could mean watching a DVD, playing an online game, taking the dog for a walk, or any of a hundred and sixteen other possibilities. The best distractions are always the ones that have nothing to do with the task at hand. So, imagine my surprise last week when I realized that for the past two months, and for the first time in my life, I had begun practicing Productive Procrastination.

It wasn’t that I was mowing the lawn or doing laundry as my procrastinatory activity. Yes, such tasks would indeed be considered productive (particularly by my fiancée), but it was more than that. Somewhere along the way, I began choosing diversions that would undoubtedly have a positive impact on the very thing that I was delaying.

In this case, I am delaying writing my novel. Coming up with the ideas is fun. Having written entertaining material is fun. However, the actual process of getting the words on the page can be quite difficult, and at times disheartening. In the past, I would find solace in activities similar to those I mentioned earlier: movies, games, and the like. Yet, since I started this blog back in August, such instances have become rare.

Sometimes, to procrastinate from my writing, I write. It’s not fiction and it’s not for my novel, but by composing posts for this blog I am now writing more often than I did previously. In doing so, I’m honing my craft (and if anyone other than friends and family were reading this, I’d also be developing a fan base).

Sometimes, instead of writing, I read… about writing. For my birthday, I received a subscription to Writer’s Digest, and I’m also currently delving through Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Through these and other sources, I’m collecting copious tips to improve my plot, characters, pacing, etc., as well as gaining insight into how to best undertake my eventual search for an agent. At some point, I might even learn how to be concise.3

So what if I’m not writing my novel at this very instant? It’s all part of my master plan to improve as a writer, which will be readily apparent when you get to read my final manuscript. I’ve always been a procrastinator: I can’t change that. But I can change how I procrastinate. Why not let it work for me?


1 As opposed to low heaven. I have absolutely no qualms about offending the olfactory senses of the lesser gods.
2 Yes, I’m fully aware that if you look at the time stamp, it appears I had 22 minutes to spare. I’m not sure if Blogger records the time when it first auto-saves, or if its clock is simply off by 15 minutes. Either way, I hit “Post Now” at 11:53pm. So there.
3 Doubtful.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowing Me, Mine is Probably Obtuse

Over the past few weeks, I have unabashedly subjected my friends and co-workers to the cough that wouldn’t die. It all started about a month ago with my biannual sinus infection. Luckily, that coincided with a planned week of vacation, and I shed the malady quicker than usual.

Or so I thought.

Within the week I had developed a dry, hacking cough. After a fortnight, the cough had morphed into a wetter, more phlegmish version of itself,1 which it has remained to this day. However, other than my occasional need to hack up a lung, and perhaps a slight drop in energy levels, I’ve felt fine.

I certainly didn’t feel sick enough to go see the doctor. Besides, the last time I went, back in February (when I’d been done in either by food poisoning or a virulent flu bug), my physician saw me for a grand total of one minute and simply told me to “rest up, and drink plenty of fluids.” Of course, I was charged full-price for such sage advice.

So, yesterday, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I consulted WebMD.

If my self-analysis is correct, I have a little ol’ thing called acute bronchitis.2 This might help to explain not only my extra-cheesy title for yesterday’s post, but also the horrible pun contained in the preceding footnote. (After all, I’d never stoop to such depths if I were in full health, now would I?)3 As for acute bronchitis, it’s rarely contagious. There are no antibiotics to prescribe. And it tends to go away on its own after a few weeks. I just need to rest up, and drink plenty of fluids.

Only this time, my doctor isn’t getting a dime.


1 As opposed to Flemish, which could have been disturbing in its own right. Exhibit A: The works of Hieronymus Bosch.
2 Aw, aren’t you a cute little bronchitis? No, no you’re not. God, no. Ew.
3 Um, don’t answer that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finally, A Mystery I Can Sink My Teeth Into


The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an expert when it comes to poison. She spies on people, picks locks, and takes other people’s property. She lies to the police. Oh, and did I mention? Flavia de Luce is the heroine in this particular story.

She is also eleven years old.

It’s interesting to me that Alan Bradley, at the age of 70, became a first-time novelist by enlisting an 11-year-old girl as his narrator, and that the tale unfolds in England, a country he had never visited prior to completing the book. Nor was this the book Bradley set out to write; he was in the middle of writing a standard detective novel when Flavia showed up and hijacked the scene. Shortly thereafter, he scrapped that story and started anew.

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Flavia de Luce discovers a body in her family’s garden. Lacking confidence in the local police, and not squeamish in the least, she sets out to find out what happened before the cops do. Unlike the last book I reviewed, this one plays out more like a traditional mystery, albeit with an unorthodox protagonist. And unlike the one I reviewed before that, the many analogies Bradley peppers his narrative with all make sense. Indeed, they’re often quite reflective of Flavia’s eccentric personality.

It’s certainly entertaining fare, but Bradley does take liberties at times. In a couple of instances he conveniently has Flavia’s memory fail in order to keep certain details a mystery, a technique which likely wouldn’t be as tolerated if the detective character wasn’t a child. Some of the adult characters open up to Flavia, and — surprise! — they share the very information she needs to propel her investigation forward. And precocious though she is, Flavia seems to know much more than an 11-year-old should about all sorts of topics. Perhaps this is because of her high level of intelligence, her copious reading, and the blissful lack of reality shows in 1950, when the story takes place. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was because she was written by a 70-year-old.

The mystery itself isn’t really anything to write home about.1 It has its twists and turns, as well as one or two unexpected moments, but with the clues Bradley provides along the way, the intrepid reader will have it all figured out before the big payoff comes. Nevertheless, it’s enjoyable to follow along as Flavia pieces it all together, because one rarely knows what she’ll do next. That’s also why, when the sequels come out (The Weed that Strings the Handman’s Bag arrives in March), I’ll be transporting myself back to 1950s England for yet another piece of pie.

Rating:

1 For you youngsters who may not know what this is, ‘writing home’ was something people did before the advent of e-mail. For you youngsters who may not know what that is, ‘e-mail’ was something people did before the advent of texting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Give That Man a Medal

Much has been said over the last few days about President Obama winning the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Many people are of the opinion that he doesn’t deserve the award, to which I say: They’re absolutely right.

I wholeheartedly believe in Obama’s ideals and his vision, and I hope he'll be able to achieve most of what he has set out to do. However, the selection committee has bestowed this honor upon him only eight and a half months into his presidency, based more on his intentions and the world’s expectations than on his actual accomplishments. This isn’t only premature, it’s also unfair to the candidates with far greater achievements to date, those who don’t have the backing of the U.S. Treasury and might actually need the $1.4 million prize to help further their cause. I’d say the selection committee put the cart before the horse, but that wouldn’t be a particularly apt metaphor. It’s more like they gave the cart and the horse credit for traversing the whole of the Oregon Trail without ever setting foot outside of Missouri.1

Wait a minute... I’m two-thirds of the way into the first draft of my debut novel. I’ve already fostered exceedingly high expectations for the book among friends, family, and co-workers by merely divulging a few minor details.2 And once my masterpiece is finished, I intend to take the world by storm. So, why haven’t they handed me the Nobel Prize for Literature yet? Or, at least a lesser prize like the National Book Award? It hardly seems fair.

Obama hasn’t yet earned all of the acclaim he's received, but he’s just getting started. Over the next three (or seven) years, he’s sure to undertake initiatives far more worthy of the Peace Prize than anything he’s done so far. Of course, when that day rolls around, they’ll give it someone else.

I’d stake my Pulitzer on it.


1 Will Obama even be able to overcome the obstacles ahead? In another month, he might fail in his attempt to ford the Colorado River and lose 2 axles, 167 lbs of food, 3 sets of clothing, and Hillary (drowned).
2 Political assassination and invisible monkeys.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

10 Top 10s for 10/10

  1. City of God (Cidade de Deus, Brazil)
    Kids dealing drugs in the slums of Rio. Simply astounding.
  2. Amelie (Le fableux destin d’Amélie Poulain, France)
    Quirky, imaginative, and hilarious, with amazing heart. (And Audrey Tautou.)
  3. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Germany)
    Before the fall of the Berlin wall, no secrets allowed.
  4. Rashômon (Japan)
    One story, four differing viewpoints. Akira Kurosawa at his best.
  5. Infernal Affairs (Mou gaan dou, Hong Kong)
    A groaner of a title, but better than Scorsese’s remake.
  6. M (Germany)
    And the world is introduced to the magnificent Peter Lorre.
  7. Oldboy (Oldeuboi, South Korea)
    The second twisted installment in Chan-Wook Park’s revenge trilogy.
  8. Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, Japan)
    The only movie listed in which people turn into pigs.
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Mexico)
    A little girl's imagination runs away with her. And us.
  10. The City of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus, France)
    Ron Perlman, former circus strongman, saves children from mad scientist.
  1. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
  2. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  3. Mom’s Marijuana: Life, Love, and Beating the Odds, Dan Shapiro
    Not just here because Dan’s my cousin. A phenomenal read.
  4. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  5. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson
  6. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers, Mary Roach
  7. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis
    Competitive Scrabble players are really really really really weird. Really.
  8. Maus & Maus II: A Survivor's Tale, Art Spiegelman
    His father's survival of the Holocaust, with Jews as mice.
  9. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
  10. Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell
    A whirlwind tour of presidential assassinations: Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley.
1 I wonder if the books without subtitles get picked on.

  1. 13
  2. 42
  3. π/6
    After all, who doesn’t like a nice slice of pi?
  4. -4442
    Eight six seven minus five three oh nine. Good times.
  5. A googolplex
    No way in hell am I typing all those zeroes.
  6. 5,318,008
    This one’s for Gabe. Just flip your calculator upside down.
  7. 232
  8. i
    i never had any imaginary friends. Just an imaginary number.
  9. n2
  10. “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” performed by Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein
    What? It’s a number. A musical number. (I never stipulated.)
2 Not really meant as a footnote. (n squared is awesome!)

  1. Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
    Absolutely perfect. My only complaint: Watterson retired way too soon.
  2. The Far Side, Gary Larson
    The gold standard for the anthropomorphization of animals. (Especially cows.)
  3. Zits, Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott
  4. Pearls Before Swine, Stephen Pastis
  5. Dilbert, Scott Adams
  6. Fox Trot, Bill Amend
  7. The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder
  8. Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller
  9. XKCD, Randall Munroe
    Only online, the Holy Grail for math and science geeks.
  10. Anything other than Zippy the Pinhead
Note: I made this list prior to discovering Basic Instructions.

  1. Jets with friggin’ lasers attached to their heads. Duh.
  2. Laseroff™ brand laser repellant
  3. A well-placed anvil
  4. Remote-detonation remora
  5. The entire Spanish Armada (preferably before 1588)
  6. Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli
    Why him? When you think about it, it’s patently obvious.
  7. Point behind it and say, “Hey, is that a wounded sea lion?”
  8. Here’s a hint: Sharks are ticklish.
  9. Double-barreled squirrel launcher
  10. Your pal Hemo, the hemophiliac
  1. Nat
    Reserved for family only. Sounds weird if others use it.
  2. Nate
    Simple, yet effective. Only my darling sister would say otherwise.
  3. Nate the Grape
    A take-off on the old classic. It never really caught on.
  4. Nate the Skate
    Courtesy of my middle school librarian. Not used once since.
  5. Wilson Kid
  6. Knewt
    The K is silent, but you’re supposed to pronounce it.
  7. Snooty McWilsonpants
    Sure, I could have put "Nate Dogg" here, but why?
  8. Nathar (of the Hill People)
  9. Natest the Greatest
  10. Cap’n Bill
    I’m not a captain, nor is my name William. Discuss.
  1. Firefly (2002-2003)
    Superbly written space western with stellar cast. Fox really blows.
  2. Carnivàle (2003-2005)
    Carnies during the Dust Bowl. Like little else on television.
  3. Invader Zim (2001-2003)
    Gir is, quite possibly, the best character ever written. Doomidoomidoom.
  4. Spy (2004)
    The. Best. Reality show. Ever. Nothing else even comes close.
  5. Sports Night (1998-2000)
    You don’t need to like sports to love this show.
  6. Freaks & Geeks (1999-2000)
    Back before Apatow hit it big, his shows never lasted.
  7. The Critic (1994-1995)
    Two fewer seasons than Duckman, if you can believe that.
  8. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
    John Cleese managing a hotel. Really, what could go wrong?
  9. Dead Like Me (2003-2004)
    Mandy Patinkin leads a band of undead soul suckers. Kinda.
  10. The Powers That Be (1992-1993)
    'Twas laugh out loud hilarious, with a side of politics.
The State and The Office (British version)? Sadly, neither qualify.

  1. Democratic Republic of the Congo, 50 pts.
  2. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 39 pts.
  3. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 38 pts.
  4. Czech Republic, 35 pts.
  5. (tie) Central African Republic, 35 pts.
  6. Mozambique, 34 pts.
  7. Republic of the Congo, 33 pts.
  8. Kazakhstan, 30 pts.
  9. (tie) Kyrgyzstan, 30 pts.
  10. United States of America, 29 pts.
Bonus trivia: My cat hails from a 25-point country.

  1. Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky (22:29)
  2. Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, Arlo Guthrie (18:37)
  3. Allegro Ma Non Tanto, Concerto #3 In D Minor, Sergey Rachmaninoff (17:21)
  4. Tetragrammaton, The Mars Volta (16:42)
  5. The Lightning Strike, Snow Patrol (16:28)
  6. Goodbye Sky Harbor, Jimmy Eat World (16:14)
  7. Monolith, The Beta Band (15:49)
  8. Finale: Alla Breve, from Concerto #3 In D Minor, Sergey Rachmaninoff (14:33)
  9. Third Eye, Tool (13:47)
  10. Miranda That Ghost Just Isn't Holy Anymore: A. Vade Mecum, The Mars Volta (13:10)
3 Wherein “greatest” is not subjective, but refers to track length.

  1. Spruce Goose Chartreuse
  2. Desert Island Maroon
  3. Mister Pink
  4. Seared Umber
  5. Let’s Make a Teal
  6. Marty McFly Yellow4
  7. Green with Ivy
  8. I Don’t Give a Flying Fuchsia
  9. Blue-Green Aquamarine Turquoise Sea Breeze
  10. Clear
4 This could alternatively be called “What Are Ya? Yellow”

Disclaimer: These lists are, of course, just my opinion. Obviously, I haven’t seen or read everything under the sun. And I may have accidentally left something off one of the lists. But most likely, if you don’t see your favorite book or movie or show or whatever listed above, that’s because it sucks.

Oh yeah, and to quote Columbo, just one last thing.5

5 Every description / footnote shares one characteristic. Kudos if you noticed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

I've Had a Few

Regrets? Mine have always come with a silver lining. Yes, I wish I’d spent a semester studying abroad in college, but if I had, I’d never have taken the Advanced Drawing course that led to, among other things, my excruciatingly detailed life-size self portrait.1 I rue the day I broke my hand, but by being forced to take the bus to D.C. rather than drive, I made a good friend out of the deal. Even my brief encounter with the mossy precipice back in August netted me a camera upgrade and this fancy new blog.

However, my latest regret, which I have been lamenting these past few months, will likely never have a moment of redemption. In mid-2007, my company’s stock price peaked at over $100. Then, with the company linked financially to every big-name firm that went belly-up during the 2008 crash, the stock dropped precipitously throughout the year, bottoming out below $3.50 on March 6, 2009. I had a chunk of money set aside that I planned to invest in something, and I knew I should jump at it, but I just couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger. I’d already talked myself out of buying at $29 and $19 and $9. What if it dropped further? What if the company imploded and I was left with nothing?

In retrospect I clearly should have taken the chance, but as they say, hindsight is always a show on CBS with Andy Rooney. Today, our stock sits back up at $29 and continues to inch higher. If I’d made the plunge back in March, I’d have already octupled my money. Octupled. I could kick myself for being so stupid. And it’s not just about the money. By hesitating on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ve probably also ruined any chance of retiring when I had originally planned.2

Obviously, money isn’t everything. I’ve got great friends and family, a decent job, my health, and I haven’t nearly plummeted to my doom in over a month. Nevertheless, if I’m ever going to become a multi-bazillionaire, I suppose I’m really going to have to finish writing that novel. I’d be working on it right now, except…

Octupled?! Stupid, stupid, stupid!


1 In it, I’m holding a rubber chicken.
2 Next Tuesday.