Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

The Jerk Store Never Runs Out

The Jerk Store Never Runs Out: A Christmas Play in One Act

The Setting: Early afternoon. The local Post Office.
The Players: YUPPIE WOMAN. POSTAL CLERK DUDE. HOBGOBLIN. Assorted postal customers.

The line is shorter than it was yesterday, when Hobgoblin had to mail a Christmas package to his mother in California. Instead of pushing out the doors the main reception area and into the P.O. box area, it ends at the door threshold. All three customer service windows are open, and it seems as if everyone has two or three packages to send.

HOBGOBLIN [interior monologue]: Wow, that dude’s hair looks just like Nigel Tufnel’s. Oh man! If you’re going to wear jeans without a belt and no underwear, DO NOT BEND OVER! Seriously, dude. I need about a gallon of eye bleach now. Wait, what’s this?

[He overhears a conversation at one of the customer service windows. It seems the YUPPIE WOMAN is having some sort of altercation with POSTAL CLERK DUDE. Her voice has a sharp edge to it that cuts through other conversations, although it is not especially loud.]

POSTAL CLERK DUDE: Would you like any insura–

YUPPIE WOMAN: I do not want to pay anything extra.

PCD: Would you like delivery confir–

YW: I do not want to pay anything extra.

PCD: OK, next package. This will be $39.17 guaranteed overnight, or $7.50 First Class Priority.

YW: How long will that take?

PCD: It’s a two to three day average.

YW: Can you guarantee it will arrive in three days?

PCD: No, ma’am, I’m sorry. We can’t guarantee anything but Overnight mail. It’s a two to three day average.

YW: So it will get there in three days?

PCD: Well, that’s an average. It usually takes two or three days.

YW: So you can’t tell me when it will get there?

PCD: No, ma’am, but like I said, it’s a two to three day average.

YW [her voices rises slightly]: That’s no way to run things. How about if you scheduled me to come to your house and I said it would be sometime during the next week? You couldn’t take the whole week off to wait for me to get there, now could you? That’s just not acceptable. Will it definitely be there in three days?

PCD: Two to three days is the average time. We can’t guarantee the delivery time unless you ship it overnight, for the extra fee–

YW: I do not want to pay anything extra.

PCD: OK, then. Seven-fifty. [He slaps several “Priority Mail” stickers on the package, and prints out the price stamp.]

[YW continues to rant about bad service and guarantees and how this is no way to run a business.]

[PCD takes the package back to the package chute and dumps it in.]

HOB [Interior monologue]: Good job, Yuppie Woman. I hope you didn’t have anything fragile in there, because it’s not going to make it.

PCD: OK, this next package, do you want–

YW: I do not want to pay anything extra.

PCD: OK, that’s $18.75 over–

YW: I do not want to pay anything extra.

PCD: –night, and $4.50 Priority, with two to three day delivery.

YW: Can you guarantee it will be there in three days?

PCD [He is clearly restraining an unfriendly smile.]: The two to three days is average, ma’am.

[The dialogue continues as above, with YW and PCD discussing the relative merits of guaranteed delivery versus a two to three day average. Finally they finish the transaction as YW hands over her credit card.]

PCD: Credit or debit?

YW: Credit. [She takes the slip.] Where do I sign?

PCD: Right there at the bottom.

YW: At the bottom? Where? I don’t see–

PCD: Actually ma’am, it doesn’t matter. They don’t care, just as long as there’s a signature. Sign it wherever you want. [He ties heroically to suppress a sigh.]

YW: Your pen doesn’t work! [PCD silently hands her a new pen. She signs and hands the slip back.]

PCD: Thank you. Have a wonderful day. [There seems to be the slightly sarcastic emphasis on “wonderful.”]

[It is now HOB’s turn. He walks to the window and catches PCD’s eye and smiles widely. They share a “what a jerk” look. They quickly complete HOB’s transaction.]

PCD: Thank you, and have a great day. [He emphasizes “great.”]

HOB: Thanks–you too. [They catch each others’ eyes again and suppress a laugh.]

[HOB walks to the door, shaking his head and smiling broadly. As he crosses the street, he is nearly hit by a speeding SUV, and he has to leap backwards to avoid the water and slush sprayed up by its tires. He notices YW driving. This makes him laugh even harder.]

HOB [waving at the departing SUV]: Merry Christmas!

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What Happened?

I just spent half an hour writing a post about my new book project and WordPress deleted it.  I am very annoyed.  Anyway, I have a new book project.  It’s academic.  It’s about ecofeminism.  I’m hoping to have a contract within the next month.  The book will be due in about a year.  My editor likes me.  That about sums it up.

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I Love Umberto Eco

Last night Dorothy and I went to Manhattan to see the Return of the Three Musketeers at the 92nd Street Y.  this was a reunion of Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who had appeared together at another literary gathering a few years ago and took to calling themselves the Three Musketeers, at Eco’s suggestion.  It was one of the most intellectually thrilling evenings I have ever seen, and I could listen to these three brilliant writers argue about literature, popular culture, and bad writing all night long.

We arrived in Manhattan early enough to grab dinner before the event.  We ate at Ecco La on 93rd and 3rd, and, as good as the food was, I cannot recommend it.  It has the worst service I have ever had at a Manhattan restaurant. which is truly unforgivable considering how good Italian restaurants are about as hard to find in the city as pigeons.

Once we arrived at the Y, we stood in line for thirty or forty minutes.  Shortly before we were allowed into the hall, a bustling entourage of lights and cameras noisily stormed through the lobby.  In the bustle, I only managed to see Salman Rushdie before the group whisked away to the backstage area.  After they opened to doors, we got great seats, only six or eight rows back.

Each author read a short excerpt of his work.  In an interesting innovation, Eco and Vargas Llosa read theirs in their own language, with a translated script flowing past on a large screen above them.  Eco read from Foucault’s Pendulum, Rushdie from a soon-to-be-released novel, and Vargas Llosa from a new novel.  After the readings the three sat down for a discussion led by Leonard Lopate, who, sadly, seemed to somewhat superfluous once the garrulous authors got going.

One of the most striking things about the evening was the widely divergent personae the three men exhibited.  Rushdie was all dry, witty confidence, recounting in a lightly ironic tone his experiences in several movies (including the current Then She Found Me, directed by Helen Hunt).  Vargas Llosa, with his dramatic shock of silver hair, appeared stately and calm, befitting a man who, in 1990, ran for president of Peru (but lost).  Eco was a ball of fierce energy, the stereotypical Italian with wildly gesticulating hands and words tumbling out of his mouth so quickly they formed a dancing musical tune.

They began discussing Dumas, and the reasons for calling themselves the Three Musketeers.  Clearly, each author was deeply familiar with Dumas’ novel, and they showed their erudition by making complicated jokes about the characters, the plot, and the parallels between the characters and themselves–who was Aramis?  Porthos?  Athos?  Then Eco, startlingly, asserted that The Count of Monte Cristo was a bad novel.  Although Rushdie and Varga Llosa seemed inclined to disagree, Eco carried his point with boundless energy and enthusiasm, and soon brought the other two to his way of thinking.  He was not saying that it was bad as in unreadable, but that it was not Literature.  Vargas Llosa finally agreed, saying that good grammar did not make a great story, and that a really great story with bad grammar could be a great thing.  Rushdie proposed a difference between great literature and great myth.  Hawkeye, he said, from Cooper’s novels, is a great mythic character, but the Leatherstocking novels are, in his opinion, virtually unreadable (as a Cooper scholar, I have to disagree, but I can certainly see his point).  Eco, bouncing with energy, agreed heartily.

Lopate then decided that he needed to do his job and started to direct the discussion with some questions about a novelist’s place in the social order, politics, and similar topics.  Although I enjoyed this part of the discussion, I wish he had simply faded into the background and let the three authors run with their ideas.  Their unstructured talk was a joy to behold.

Another joy was seeing the audience and their reactions.  The applauding, the laughter, the energy matched that on the stage, and I wished several times that I could have had my students there to watch real writers talking about books and movies and politics to show them how much boisterous fun real smart conversation could be.  It was also a thrill to see who else was in the audience with us.  Two rows ahead sat Richard Ford and Jeffrey Eugenides.  It was a thrilling moment of literary-celebrity sighting.  When it came to the point of the evening when Lopate would read some audience questions, the audience groaned and almost revolted when the first question was almost criminally banal, something along the lines of “how do you write?”  Eco did answer in a wonderfully smart ass fashion: “I start on the left and work my way to the right.”  He was starting to warm to his topic (“My Israeli friend starts from the right and works to the left…”) when Richard Ford shouted, “Next question!”

It was a brilliant evening.

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Tagged and Time

I haven’t had much time to think about blogging or reading or writing or anything else, really.  To give you an idea of what’s going on, I have three meetings this week and at least six next week and four the following week, one of them an all-day thing.  Plus, I’m leaving for El Salvador at the end of February.  At the same time, I have a book review due any day now, and I have been writing an average of three letters of recommendation a week since classes started again in January.  So it is with some relief that I see I have been tagged for three memes, which means that I do not have to think too hard about coming up with a topic so I can keep this blog lurching along.

I am going to begin with the one that seems easiest, which is the meme that comes from Dorothy.  I have to list ten signs that a book was written by me.  Since I have written a book, I can easily do this one.  Here we go:

  1. It’s a novel.
  2. It moves from a very realistic to bizarre, Gothic fantasy.
  3. The tone is relaxed to a fault.
  4. The narrative plays clever games that too frequently make that deadly transition to stupid.
  5. There are academics in it, and they come to bad ends.
  6. It is set in a place I have lived, like the Bronx.
  7. It reads like a bad Stephen King knockoff.
  8. The grammar is impeccable.
  9. The formatting and document design are first rate (I used to be a tech writer).
  10. The title–how do I say this?–sucks.

And that’s it: the ten signs that the book you are reading was written by me.  By the way, if you do find this novel, let me know so I can start getting my royalty payments.  If you haven’t been tagged, jump in and play.

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Stephen King Plagiarized Me!

In 1992 or ’93 I wrote a poem called “Lanakila Homecoming,” in which I described some storm clouds looking like “brains thinking bad thoughts.”  In Stephen King’s Duma Key, published in 2008, he says:

The thunderheads stacked up, huge flatboats black on the bottom and bruise-purplish through the middle.  Every know and then lightning would flash inside them, and then they looked like brains filled with bad ideas.

Looks a little close, doesn’t it?  Mr. King, just tell your publishers they need to publish my novel and all is forgiven.

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Identity Crisis

I haven’t written here much lately, largely because my blogging persona is facing an identity crisis.  I do not know at all what I want this blog to be.  Do I want to be light and funny and social?  I can do that, but my dark moods lately seem to make that a Sisyphean task.  Do I want to be more learned and scholarly?  Probably not, because I have to do that in my regular life.  Do I want to be more of a jock and write about my cycling?  That seems to be more than a little limiting for me, and I know I can’t do that as well as people like Bike Snob, the Fat Cyclist, and Aki.

This entire year has been one big black hole of bleh and my writing, especially my blogging, has suffered as a result.  When I spiral down into these moods, I feel like the only way to make things better is to burn all bridges and start fresh, but I already did that with blogging and it didn’t exactly work for me.

Part of the problem is that I am feeling a little overwhelmed this semester.  I am teaching two new courses, and, although I did prep in advance, nothing can take the place of reading the new texts again.  Some of the novels I am teaching in my elective I haven’t read since grad school, over ten years ago.  I have the criticism down, but I need to re-read and make sure I know the texts well enough to talk about them for three hours every week.

One thing that might help is a trip I’m taking in a month.  In December, a friend and colleague asked me if I wanted to join a campus-sponsored trip to El Salvador.  Every spring break, my school sends a delegation as a service learning opportunity and several faculty members go along as chaperones.  Our service project this year is not definite yet, but in the past, students have built houses, cleared fields, and done other things of that sort.  Because another prof dropped out at the last minute, I was able to take his spot on the roster.  Since the school is paying my way, I decided to go.  To show what a big deal it is for me, I’m going to be missing the first race of the season because of the trip.  I think, though, that I’ll come back feeling more energized and grounded.

So I guess I don’t know where I’m going with this.  If you feel like watching me wander around for a while and try to figure things out, drop by and read every so often.  I’m sure to make a fool of myself, but that won’t be anything new.

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Food, Sex

Here is the article on food writing.  I hope Martha’s people don’t read it or I’m in trouble.

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Bloglily tagged several people to explain how they plan, especially how they plan their writing lives.  I can make this very simple:  Plan?  I need a plan?  Who said anything about a plan?

For a while when I was little, my mom worked while my dad was trying to go to school, so my dad also took over many of the household duties.  I remember him making up the weekly plan on the calendar that hung in the kitchen.  It was fairly simple, but even so, all I remember is the meal planning.  He planned out every meal at the beginning of the week and printed the menu on the calendar.

It was probably part of his officer training, because my dad loved plans and planning.  He made charts and graphs and had separate notebooks with color-coded tabs and plastic inserts and different colors of ink and on and on.  He made little organizational things on 3×5 cards (and no one on god’s green earth has ever loved a 3×5 card quite as much as my dad did), laminated them, and pinned them to his cork board.  I think my dad was always a little sad that he did not have to plan a major invasion of a country involving fifteen different military powers, marine forces, a navy, and artillery.

Here’s the thing, though: he liked the planning much better than the execution.  That nifty menu calendar?  We followed it for maybe two weeks, while he continued to make the plans for another two before he tossed it out in frustrated depression.

So, with that model, I don’t trust plans.  I think plans are the tools of the devil.  As a teacher, I should be very good at plans, but, luckily for me, as a college teacher, I do not need to hand in lesson plans to anyone.  Instead, I have my syllabus, which lists everything we are going to read but allows me a lot of space for contingencies.  The world revolves around contingencies.  Things might happen.  Things might not.  You have to be flexible, ready to roll in a different direction at a moment’s notice, and I, winging it without a plan, can do just that.

Take today.  In my American Literature class, we are finishing up the semester with Emily Dickinson.  Instead of assigning specific poems, I told my students to read through most if not all of the poems in the anthology and choose some that they wanted to talk about.  Because of this, I had to be ready to talk about anything and everything.  I prefer to work it that way, though, where I can rely on my background training to get me through the class without too many crashes.  And the class went great–one of the best in the semester, in fact.

My writing follows much the same path.  i know where it is going, and I may even go so far as to make a little list of all of the things I want my writing to accomplish.  If it’s an academic article, I’ll list the main points I want to cover or the salient points of my argument.  I call this an “outline,” though my outline is to real outlines what a one sentence synopsis is to an entire novel.  Maybe I would be a better writer (and certainly a more disciplined one) if I wrote from a more detailed plan.  But I just can’t do it.

I know I promised the 7 weird things meme, but for some reason, I’m getting stuck.  At one moment everything about me seems completely weird but in the next moment it all seems completely bland and boring.  I’ll keep thinking about it and post it soon, though.

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More Whining

My writing is gasping.  My teaching is imploding.  My cycling is flatting.  My reading is lacking in adventure.  Essentially, nothing has gone at all well for the last three months.

Deep breath.  I took everyone’s advice and did what I knew needed to be done.  I gave up, perhaps temporarily, on book #2 and started book #3, which I guess means that book #2 is no longer book #2 because book #3 is book #2.  I hate this, but it is probably the right thing to do.  Book #3/2 terrifies me.  I know that I will either finish it or it will kill me in the process.  Never before, not even writing my dissertation, did I ever feel so much anxiety about writing something while simultaneously feeling such a compulsion to write.  So I started the next book today, and I don’t know if it will work, since it is such a deep, close subject and the thought of messing it up nearly paralyzes me.

Teaching.  One student has boundary issues.  Needs a filter.  Tonight she shouted, “No, you’re wrong!” when I was trying to explain a point about how Poe creates his characters’ psychological states.  When I try to stop her long look-at-me answers to my questions, she ignores me and keeps talking, even if I have gone on to the next point.  Talking to her after class has not helped, so thank you anyway for the suggestion.

Cycling.  One ride in two weeks.  Legs:  flat.  Lungs:  not interested.  Heart: not in it.  Bike: noisy.  Roads: squirrel-infested.  I nearly crashed twice because of suicidal rodents darting in front of my bike.

Reading.  BO-ring.  I can’t get into anything new, so I’m back to re-reading old King novels that I have already read ten or more times.  The thought of going to a bookstore makes me cringe.

What happened to me?  I don’t recognize this person writing right now, and I can’t find the real me anywhere.

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My writing is dead. I’m hoping this is a temporary condition, as I have to write as part of my profession, but for the moment, my writing is just lying there in a corner, not moving, and I see some big old vultures circling overhead. I haven’t touched this blog in over a week. Why? I have a lot to say, I think, but just can’t make myself write.

My attempts to get my second novel going are meeting with intense resistance. The first thousand words took well over a week to write, and if you remember my progress last year (nearly two thousand words every day), you know just how bad it is. Right now, it’s on life support, sucking oxygen through a tube, and just sucking in general.

I think at least part of the overall suckage of the second novel is that the third novel is getting impatient. As I was finishing up the first, I figured out what the second and third would be about. Book #2 appeared in my head more or less complete, and I knew where it would go and how it would get there. But book #3 is troublesome. It has been rumbling in some darkened nook in my mind for more than twenty years, and I think it’s threatening to explode. But I don’t want to write it now. It scares me. It worries me. I don’t think I’m big enough to do it. But in the meantime, book #2 has become so terrified by the noises book #3 has been making that it trembled and collapsed into catatonia.

At the same time, I have gone back to my dissertation and figured out a way to take it in a new direction and write something based on those ideas but bringing modern popular culture into the mix.  This project could have both popular and academic appeal, and I like the idea of writing for a general audience as well as my specialized academic audience.  I’m not all that worried about this book, though, since almost half of it is already drafted in one form or another and the other half would be both fun and easy to write.  For this book, though, I would need to find a publisher first and then write it, and the thought of sending out more queries right now make me queasy.

All of this has worn out my writing muscle. I need a good muse massage.

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