Archive for April 2010
I know how Beethoven felt.
No, I can hear you just fine. I refer instead to his reputed difficulty in coming up with material for compositions. Once he had something, stand back – but that initial jolt of inspiration proved much more difficult for old Ludwig than, say, Mozart, who constantly scribbled his creative ideas in a little notebook he carried around.
[Daddy! He's comparing himself to Beethoven again!]
[Now, listen, son, we've been through this before. You can't go around comparing yourself to the greatest composer who ever lived. You can't even write music. You can barely READ music. This smacks of hubris].
Well, OK, not exactly like Beethoven: not the lead poisoning part, or the deafness part, or the wild hair part, or the alcoholic father part, or the near-suicidal depression part. Or, now that you mention it, the music part. Nor do I speak German. Well we did have at least that one creativity block in common. He did it with music; I, with blog posts.
[Now son, you have to stop that. You're leaving yourself wide open to ridicule.]
I can’t say that a wisp of an idea provides enough material for me to wax ironic, and I certainly can’t turn two words into a masterpiece. But with a few minutes in front of the keyboard, something interesting might happen.
[OK, you've gone too far. That use of the word "keyboard" was deliberate. You're grounded. No posting this weekend.]
Well, it looks like writer’s block has kicked in again, just in time for the weekend. Hmph.
Until recently, I had a part-time job writing content for a series of retail web sites. The pay was half decent, the boss understanding, the coworkers sweet and knowledgeable, and the hours flexible. I couldn’t stand it, so I quit.
Truth be told, I’ve never worked directly under anyone objectionable. I did once work in purchasing for a company whose president decided to assert his power by withholding approval for advance payments for the supplies I had to order, claiming that he had no other tools to make sure his underlings negotiated favorable terms for various transactions. Hey, thanks, pal. Let me just explain that to the suppliers, because they’ll be thrilled to deal with a company that functions purely on spite. But my immediate bosses (I had three during my tenure) did a very good job shielding me and my associates as best they could from the arbitrary changes of direction that emanated from the room at the end of the hallway. That arbitrariness eventually drove me to leave the company in the midst of a recession.
A couple of years later, I snagged a position in journalism, translating items from a Middle East media outlet for a particular audience in the U.S. My supervisor made sure to find me additional work with other projects to help pay the bills. She and the rest of the team worked their tails off and never lost patience. Unfortunately, the owner’s disastrous financial and managerial decisions drove the company to bankruptcy within a month or two of my arrival.
Actually, I take back my original statement. I have worked directly for someone objectionable: I’ve been self-employed for a good number of years. My boss at this job manages time poorly; forgets to eat when he gets busy, adversely affecting my work; and leaves his workspace an unholy mess. Someone should fire that guy, but his boss would make me sleep on the couch as a result, so we’d better not go there. I wonder whether I could arrange for some other company to recruit that guy to a higher-paying job…
Many of us have heard the expression, “When I run the world…” to express objection to some aspect of the status quo; it ranks up there with,”There oughtta be a law…”
In general, I agree with nearly every sentiment contained in such indignant pontifications; they tend toward enforcement of community standards, decency, morals and just plain consideration of others. The real message of the statement resides in the rejection of a bad situation or experience. However, there must be a better way to express it, since it rests on a horrifying assumption. I, for one, harbor no illusions that the world would be a better place if I ran it.
For one thing, I can’t stand soccer. If anyone wants to understand the appeal or effect of pagan idolatry so excoriated in the Bible, just go to any match of national significance south of the Rio Grande. American football fans may make good hooligans, but true barbarian status has so far eluded them; not so for the neighbors to the south. So I’d ban soccer, but that would deprive countless lost souls of the opportunity to waste vast stretches of their lives vicariously succeeding and failing at getting a ball across a line into a net. We can’t have that.
Certain turns of phrase would get the axe, as well. “At the end of the day” would be employed only to refer to the actual end of the actual day. “Literally” would be used only when the speaker meant it literally. Anyone caught using the phrase “peace process” would feel my wrath in the form of paper cuts and lemon juice. And if I caught you trying to resurrect the information superhighway, you’d be sorry you ever heard the term. But while encountering those terms gives me headaches, I can’t see the effort as anything more than Sisyphean. People are just too endlessly idiotic when it comes to beating the living hell out of the language, and it would just be mean-spirited to remove the only chance such poor, pathetic losers have of coming close to a real creative experience.
Beyond those major policy obstacles, I know that my administrative skills leave something to be desired. Within a day and a half of my assuming the mantle of authority, the world would fall behind on its gravity and magnetism payments, making any policies moot as everyone perished from asphyxiation and exposure to cosmic rays. So we’re better off with me sitting right here by the computer instead of out there, making an absolute mess of things. At the end of the day, the literal mess already in place remains preferable to the alternative.
If by some chance you’ve been in suspended animation since about 1983, you might want to brush up on a few issues so you can regain some semblance of functionality.
To wit: the Walkman is so passé as to qualify as an antique. A cheap, dime-a-dozen antique, but an antique nonetheless. Nowadays we prefer any one of a number of mp3 players, which -
Right. Em-pee-three. Computerized, digital file storage; there’s lots of digital media. No, not finger painting. Digital, you know, as opposed to analog? Digital doesn’t only refer to -
Look, we’re not talking the same language, apparently. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. No, I’m not mocking you; that’s a line from The Princess Bride, a 1988 movie. Yes, I’ll put it aside for you. We have it on both VHS and DVD, so you can -
DVD. Digital Video Disc. Yes, yes, that word again. It’s a much more efficient way of storing movies, and it doesn’t degrade over time like VHS tape; no, no one uses Beta. Good Lord, what millennium do you inhabit? Hello? Beuller?
Sorry, that was also from a movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 1986, I think. What, you think cinema ended with The Godfather? I got news for you, McFly. There’s a -
McFly. 1985. Back to the Future.
I’m sorry, I really have to exert more self control, be the master of my domain. Pompous? No, that’s just a catch phrase from Seinfeld, a 1990s comedy series about, well, nothing. You had to be there, I’m told. Yes, well, I was there, and I’m pretty sure I’m one of the few who realizes it wasn’t really funny at all, like I’m one of the good guys in The Matrix, and -
Matrix. A 1999 sci-fi adventure film. Hey, calm down; there’s plenty that hasn’t changed:
The Cubs still haven’t won a World Series since 1908 or so. Someone named Assad is still running Syria. The fastest land mammal is still the cheetah. A motley crew of idiots still believes the moon landings were faked, and a similar group sees a massive cover-up of events surrounding the Kennedy assassination. The US military is involved in a land war in Asia (sorry, another Princess Bride reference). The Rolling Stones are still touring. And Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead (Oh, you got that one!).
You know, maybe you can actually explain something or two to me, since you were around then: what’s the appeal of bell bottoms?
We often hear that a certain combination of people, ideas and objects constitutes a recipe for disaster. But has anyone actually gone to the trouble of developing such a recipe?
Don’t answer that; we know the situation. Once again, the task falls to yours truly to explore the unexplored, dank areas of the human psyche, such as Marmite. Come to think of it, Marmite frightens yours truly, so we won’t go there this time. Yours truly is quite happy not to have that task today.
OK. A recipe for disaster, followed by variations:
1/2 cup plutonium
5g (about 1/8 tsp) uranium
1 Japanese port city
Process the first two ingredients in a centrifuge until pure, approx. 3 years. Detonate at 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit over Japanese port city. Serves 45,000-60,000.
1. Process for only 6 months. Before detonation, add crumbs and ice cream, making sure to smear some on the outside of the container. This is also known as a dirty bombe.
2. Fiddle with the presentation. For example, instead of a drop-type formulation, try garnishing with pieces of sugarless gum and serving as the perfect dessert to your launch. This variation is known as the Trident missile.
3. Sprinkle shiitake or porto bello right after serving, making sure to fluff up the fungi as much as possible for the most convincing mushroom cloud.
4. Garnish with mugwort and serve from very close. This is known as a Chernobyl.
Like most people, I find it difficult to work while someone looks over my shoulder. This usually extends even to the mere presence of another human in the room, not necessarily one paying real attention to my activity. As I type this, however, another human stands right next to me, and the text on the screen in no way aims to elicit a reaction from her.
See, she’s not yet three (“Daddy…my nose is running”). That changes things. Aside from the sheer cluelessness of the preschooler set, one derives no joy from getting a rise out of the visual eavesdropper (I can use BOLD, ALL CAPS WORDS TO BRING ATTENTION TO THE FACT THAT SHE JUST PICKED HER NOSE AND SHOWED HER WORK, but she will not react) by revealing all sorts of compromising information on screen (SHE CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MONET AND RENOIR, OR BETWEEN BYRON AND SHELLEY). (OK, BAD EXAMPLE).
Which is not to say that little kids don’t know what’s going on around them. We have a recording of the 1985 King’s Singers album The Beatles Connection, the first track of which is their a capella Penny Lane. Upon hearing the first few lines, said toddler said, “They sing Submarine.” The King’s Singers don’t even have a version of Yellow Submarine. How the hell did she do that?
In the cluelessness and ignorance, however, lies a fabulous blessing available mostly to teachers and parents. Ten years ago I worked as an English teacher for adults, and the greatest moments of the day involved one of the students “getting it.” It provided special gratification when that student struggled overall (many of my students were not, to put it charitably, the brightest drawers in the deck) – that moment of comprehension, and the look on a person’s face when it strikes, make for thrilling experiences.
So it is with gratitude and anticipation that I interact with certain clueless people. The terminally clueless are a different story, and we shall save that for a time when I feel like ranting.
There once was a blog from Nantucket
That spewed forth as if from a bucket
Whose readers incanted,
“We’ve read what you’ve ranted;
Where the sun shines you now can go stuck it.”
The blogger, nonplussed, soon reacted:
He created, proofread and redacted
Reams of scholarly lore
Such as not seen before
Well, not by a PC, but a Mac did.
This did piss off the IBM crowd
Who did flame him with flames hot and loud
But he saw it all coming
And typed right along, humming
(His data’s safe; it’s in the cloud).
When the story broke in that day’s news
(Depending which outlet you choose)
The predicted reaction
Of the far-right-wing faction
Could be scripted by dolts: Blame the Jews!
There seems to be some uncertainty out there among the twelve or so readers of this blog as to the nature of certain posts. The one about my escapades involving a roll of raffle tickets in particular seemed ambiguous in that regard, as emerged from a discussion today with the person most responsible for the existence of this blog.
Said interlocutor found that post laugh-out-loud funny, whereas I, the author of the post, happened to view the thing as the only one, so far, completely devoid of intention to induce laughter. Clearly, I do not understand humor.
I resolve, therefore, to establish some basic rules for determining whether a given post is funny. The presence in a post of one or more of the following indicates that the author has employed humor, and you must react appropriately:
1. The word “weasel”. Use of “weasel” in a post unmistakably indicates humor, or at least an attempt thereat.
2. ALL CAPS. CAN YOU THINK OF A SINGLE INSTANCE IN WHICH ON-SCREEN SHOUTING IS IN ANY WAY NOT LAUGHABLE?
3. Intentional mispeling. Self explantory.
4. References to the 1980′s sitcom Small Wonder.
5. Like a frog caught in an eggbeater, the use of jarringly inappropriate similes.
6. Bone-crushing exaggeration.
7. Gibberish. Who in their right mind rejunkel narb?
8. Uncomfortably intimate references to someone’s bathroom habits, such as the way you reuse dental floss.
9. More than one occurrence of the phrase, “rotting llama carcass” (I actually introduced that phrase to the internet back on January 18, 2006, but do I get credit? Noooo; Google doesn’t even find it, but I managed to dredge it up).
10. Use of the word “Noooo.”
There are other indicators, of course, and perhaps we shall devote another post to them. Just as soon as I get this rotting llama carcass out of the way.
As if a celestial Medusa were slinking slowly toward the city, the tendrils of the celebratory fireworks dripped through the night sky. Transfixed by the metaphorical Gorgon’s incendiary countenance, the rooftop spectators failed to notice a lone, darkly clad figure slinking through the alleys of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. That is, until he tripped over a lose cobblestone, and, yelling a string of profanities that would make a sailor blush, crashed through the aluminum fence around a construction site and tumbled into a pile of wooden beams, causing it to collapse and rivaling the fireworks in noise produced. The neighbors gathered round as a shaken, bruised and dusty figure crawled out from amid the rubble and, refusing onlookers’ offers of assistance, hobbled away in shame.
Welcome to my life, embellished only a bit.
I slip off curbs. I walk into poles and walls. I trip over my own shoes, whether or not I’m wearing them at the time. I also once passed out from banging my elbow against the kitchen wall, but we shall save the details for some other time. Really, the narrative above could describe a typical evening for me, but for the fireworks and profanities.
Fortunately, I have a supportive spouse who never fails to say just the right thing, make just the right gesture as I wallow in pain and disgrace: a wildly unsuccessful attempt to suppress laughter, and a statement along the lines of, “You’re pathetic.” What else can I expect, really? It’s pretty damn funny when it’s someone else.
I do wish the someone else would occasionally be Mr. Ahmadinijad.
Sneering at the infidel Westerners on CNN, the President of Iran raised the marble phone receiver and spoke a single phrase: “Begin now.” With the smile on his face only slightly more pronounced than usual, he rose from his richly appointed chair and strode toward the restroom. Mahmoud Ahmadinijad inclined his head imperceptibly in salute as he passed a life-size portrait of Khomeini. In that split second, the front of the President’s shoe caught on the edge of the elegant rug running the length of the room, sending him sprawling across it like awkwardly caught pizza dough.
Yeah, the Middle East needs more slapstick.
In case you were wondering, no, I have not selected specific keywords for the meta tags of this page. But let’s consider that idea for several moments, shall we?
All done? Good. Please have a seat over there in the corner, and enjoy a Big Gulp or something. Anything to keep your mouth full will do, though we do recommend against steel wool. We’re running short on that. Yes, the bathroom is just over there, too. No, thank you; you go ahead and finish those 32 fluid ounces of Sprite all by yourself. I’ll just sit here and shake my head sadly.
I used to live and die by the keyword. Within seconds, I could consult the latest keyword research tools and tell you which terms would serve you best if you were trying to establish an online presence relating to, say, cucumber-shaped basketballs, or perhaps a new scent for the interiors of luxury cars, with a hint of herring. I spent hours each day writing content to help specific pages achieve search engine result prominence, and wisely formulating headings, titles and php filenames to get the best SERPs.
Well, no longer. I am content to let this blog wallow in obscurity, though I do concede that wallowing in chocolate would be preferable. Obscurity allows me to engage in literary shenanigans that a writer with greater (read: any) exposure simply could not afford to consider. Could Stephen King get away with – OK, bad example. King could get away with anything at this point. Could Dan Brown – no, wait. Dan Brown is Exhibit A that people will accept all sorts of feces disguised as literature. Say, this position is tougher to rationalize than I thought.
Let’s see, now…ah! Obscurity allows me to ignore the white noise of popularity and focus on my creative efforts, allowing me to develop as a writer, eventually earning recognition as a… as a…
OK, I’ll come clean: I willfully neglected any and all semblance of SEO because I remain an unrepentant, lazy pig who has always ridden on the coattails of others, and, if precedent serves as any indication, will nevertheless find success.
They key to that success, of course, lies in redefining the term via shockingly low standards. Once upon a time, literate society confined itself to the upper classes, the educated, and every written word came laden with a shared context of unspoken meaning. At this point, you can deem a success any sentence that contains fewer than three misspelled or misused words.
I blame Obama. Not because I have anything close to a clear grasp of his policies, but because so many prominent people seem to be doing it. Come to think of it, it appears that the vast majority of people blaming Obama for their ills don’t have a clear grasp of his policies, either. So I’m in good company. No, scratch that. I’m probably in very unpleasant company. Excuse me, sir, could I borrow that white hood for a moment? No, that’s fine; I’ll wait till you finish your bottle of Jim Beam. Oh, are both of those your teeth? I commend you, sir. Commend. It’s a good word, a compliment. Compliment – no, not like ketchup; something good about you. Right. Glad we cleared that up.
So as I was saying, I resolve to continue refraining from even the most rudimentary SEO for this blog. You people desperate for my, uh, wit will know where to find me. I’ll be in the corner over there, working on a Big Gulp.
I do not wish to win the Pulitzer Prize.
I find it hard to explain why, really. Perhaps my deeply ingrained iconoclasm forces me to spurn the symbols of established cultural authority, much in the way a two-year-old puts shoes on the wrong feet; perhaps the sour grapes of overwrought metaphors have sucked dry the potency of coherent ideas; perhaps three consecutive clauses beginning with “perhaps” will do. Fewer than that leaves the reader unsatisfied, while more than that leaves the reader asleep, if not thoroughly annoyed. Why annoy the reader with mere monotony when so many more powerful peeves lie at the writer’s disposal?
Take speling mistakes. In our fast-paced, SMS world, fewer and fewer people consider spelling of much importance: if the recipient knows what I mean, I sure won’t waste my precious time poking a few extra keypad buttons just to make the text conform to some dictionary’s idea of orthography; scads of other people’s Facebook statuses await my “liking” them – don’t put rulz in my way. But the people who do still give a rat’s patootie for proper spelling make it known in no uncertain terms, as if it trumpets some ineffable virtue (it does; I can point to several studies establishing a correlation between, well, it’s ineffable. You’ll just have to know what I mean). So for sheer impact of annoying writing techniques, as measured in consequent sentences of elitist indignation, egregious spelling errors pack a wallop, even if their focus remains narrow.
Alternatively, you might consider sentences that
Or entire paragraphs. When you make the reader jump abruptly from idea to idea – or, better yet, cut something off in the middle – the effect can only.
Language evolves; pronunciations and standards change, unlike my socks, which only means I’m several steps ahead of you in the annoying department. What got someone’s literary goat in a previous generation might not do so in modern times, and not only because that someone died decades ago. Once upon a time, “I could care less” would evoke shock at the speaker’s flagrant disregard for logic; now people employ it without irony or consequence. Your peeving must continually follow the latest developments in that evolution. If there exists a way to make your writing give the reader the feeling of a particularly fearsome wedgie, find it. If not, create it (I’ll wait while you adjust your underwear).
In other words, while the Pulitzer committee wastes its time seeking out the writers whose work reveals essential truths about the human condition, inspiring hope, wonder and passion, comparatively few people will ever feel the impact of those works. But in a single week, I can piss off more people than those authors can shake a stick at. I can even use prepositions two sentences in a row to end with! Who has a greater impact on humanity, the one who inspires or the one who enrages?
Your epidermis is showing.
Last Sunday afternoon the kids were sitting around the kitchen table, and we got into a discussion about animals. I found myself explaining to them that mammals are animals that nurse from their mommies when they are young. The five-year-old noted with some surprise that people are mammals, and we proceeded to further explore the class characteristics.
Not all mammals have hair, I explained, but most of them do, and almost all animals that do have hair are mammals (hairy spiders were later mentioned as an exception). At that point, said kindergartener observed, “Grampa doesn’t have hair, but he’s a mammal.”
The following exchange took place in our car:
Wife: Grandma is going to meet us at home. Who wants to go now?
Nine-year-old: Me too!
Five-year-old! Me three!
Two-and-a-half-year-old: Me two and a half!
I was an unholy terror as a child. My parents must rank as saints, because despite the aggravation and frustration I put them through, especially as I approached my teens, they still love and support me unconditionally.
I did some horrible, horrible things. One particularly shameful episode comes to mind.
My older brother and I were once helping to clean out a classroom at the end of a school year, and we came upon a whole roll of raffle tickets. Jackpot! we both thought – once a year the fifth graders put on a carnival, the proceeds from which went to charity. Each activity or treat could be had for a ticket, which those students would sell in the week or so leading up to the event. Naturally, having a limited budget and frugal parents, seldom did I or my siblings manage to get our hands on more than half a dozen tickets, while our better-off classmates, of whom there were many, piled up prize tickets and gorged on Entenmann’s chocolate donuts.
The tickets remained in my brother’s closet at home for several years, and I seldom thought about them. But in eighth grade, I realized that year’s carnival presented me with the last opportunity to get a more substantial taste of the action. So on the morning of the carnival I stuffed the roll of tickets, however many thousands there were, into my backpack and anticipated the unlimited delights that awaited me. Gushing with excitement, I even distributed dozens of them to classmates.
Unfortunately for me (or fortunately, depending on how moralistic you want to get), I neglected to consider the color issue. That year the fifth graders sold blue tickets (or perhaps red, or maybe even green), whereas I brought yellow. No one noticed initially, including me, but about fifteen minutes into the fun, as a particularly perplexed fifth grader was attempting to explain to someone three years her senior that she could not accept what she thought were last year’s tickets, the principal strode in and, with the angriest expression on his face I have ever seen, marched across the gym to me and dragged me back to his office, where the erstwhile beneficiaries of my newfound generosity had already been forcibly assembled. Once they fingered the ringleader, the principal let them go.
It hadn’t even occurred to me that my actions constituted theft or fraud. I made good on the estimated loss I’d caused, sat through some stern lectures and actually felt guilt.
But, truth be told, my escapades paled in comparison to some of my junior high classmates’ capers. As a group, we probably caused more aggravation, damage and career changes than anyone before or after us. At some point during sixth grade, the administration vowed not to take us on any trips anywhere for the next two years. They kept that vow until the traditional eighth-grade trip to Washington, D.C.
In seventh grade, one perennial troublemaker decided it would be funny to chuck a compass out the classroom window. No, not the magnetic implement to indicate direction; the sharp implement to make circles. The compass point sent a poor kindergarten girl to the hospital with stitches in her nose. Said troublemaker was promptly expelled.
In sixth grade, a fellow wannabe thought it might impress the cooler students if he put Alka-Seltzer tablets in the hot water urn that the teachers used. At the time, at least, Alka-Seltzer warned pregnant women against ingesting it. Our math teacher was pregnant. I do believe the pregnancy and birth turned out fine, but we had a scare; she was quite a popular teacher (and for some reason she didn’t return the next year…).
Other less dramatic events colored those several years, including the teacher who told my parents she was at a complete loss, because I wouldn’t shut up, I talked back and fomented open revolt, but scored highest on all the exams and breezed through the homework. Interestingly, hers was the only homework I ever did consistently. Ever. Consequences be damned – if I didn’t feel like doing assignments, I didn’t do them.
I need to remember that with my own kids now. Wish me luck.
Just like any other self-absorbed wannabe, I occasionally vanity google. My first such exercise occurred in 2005, with subsequent occurrences about once a year since. Each time, it seems, more and more of my doppelgangers have come into existence. It’s vaguely creepy, especially since until that first time, I’d always thought I was unique, considering how uncommon I thought my surname was. But with the proliferation of alter egos, the time has come to set the record straight regarding my real identity:
- I did not write a guide to thoroughbred horseracing back in the 1960s. Trust me.
- I do not live in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest. In fact, other than a weeklong trip to San Francisco and Anaheim when I was in preschool, the only time I ever went as far west as Pittsburgh was to change planes on the way to Orlando.
- I am not, alas, the son of a wealthy South African furniture magnate.
- That page on IMDB under my name belongs to someone else.
Whew. It feels good to clear that up. Next time, maybe we’ll address the rumors about you and those goats.
The process of finding a title for this blog has concluded. Several powerful brains have coalesced the vapors of existence into any number of candidates, but initially, none jumped out and yelled, “Pick me! Pick me!” And yes, before you ask, we already dismissed The Vapors of Existence. Too highfalutin; we prefer a title that expresses the down-to-Earth, existentially flawed beauty of the human condition, à la The Sewers of Hoboken, or Why Drinking Orange Juice Right After Brushing My Teeth Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Although we considered soliciting suggestions from y’all, we feel quite capable of producing torrents of too-clever cerebral phlegm on our own, thank you very much.
Hmm. Torrents of Too-Clever Cerebral Phlegm. That one has potential.
And now that you have that image planted firmly and slimily in your brain, we can proceed.
But we settled on a different one in the end. Onward.