Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What My English Teachers Gave Me

Eons ago, in a misty, neon-drenched time called the late 1980’s, I was a mullet-headed teenager in a high school classroom.  I wore the same jeans every day, my high-tops had holes in their soles and all I cared about was goofing off.  In my morning English class, as a daily classroom assignment, we had to write from a prompt on the blackboard.  I was tentative at first; the prompts were a little hackneyed and junior-high, and I better things to do like ignoring adults and letting my grades slip.  After a week of toying with the chore, which needed to be done the first thing in the morning, I took to it like a puppy to your favorite sock.
Within a month, my journal entries were longer and more detailed.  I titled them and kept table of contents.  I wrote essays and jokes and stopped caring about the prompts.  I made my own prompts.  I read some journaling to friends.  I got attention.  I think I got a girlfriend from that attention.  Writing was everything.  I knew I wasn’t that good; I didn’t have the discipline and I certainly was not well–read in high school.  But writing kept the ideas stirring.  I was in love with the process.  It was all by hand in those days.  Just me and a pencil.  After the school year was over I have to buy my own notebook and keep going.  I soon learned that choosing a pencil was a ridiculous idea; most of my old stuff is nearly faded away.  I switched to a Papermate black pen.  (Papermate’s require less force than Bic’s and I hold my pen like a lefty).  After I got my perfect pen/paper combo, I wrote every week for the next ten years. 
Before I graduated, I had two more English teachers take notice of my scribbles.  First I was singled out as exceptionally organized in my class essays, and then they complimented my maturing style.  That’s all I needed.  Combine that with my first reading of The Catcher In the Rye, a book my young brain was convinced it could write, and writing became an integral and deeply inseparable part of me.  My ego and my innate need to ‘get it out on paper’ were off to the races.
I’ve never been published.  Almost no one has ever read me.  Outside of college, there has been no editing or review.  I write this today because even though it hasn’t earned me a dime and probably never will, I don’t think I will ever stop writing.  I can’t.  It’s my other brain, my other arm.  I can’t function properly without sorting it out on paper or a keyboard.  
I filled ten notebooks before I moved to computers.  I have no idea how many words that might be.  I don’t know how to how much time and patience and frustration and overall silliness that translates.   I know the finished books, half-finished books, the script, the poetry, and the whatever sits in my journals in the last nine years is just over half a million words. (Thanks, Word Count.)  Maybe that means nothing at all.  Maybe no one will ever read it.  Truth be told, they could all use some polish.  It used to hurt a little.  But you know what I did?  I wrote about that, too.
My English teachers introduced me to a method of staying attached to the world around me.  It’s as if another sense is involved; one that interprets sensory input and records it while still reliving it.  It is my brain at work and on vacation.  Books were coal for this fire. Reading taught me how to relax and breathe.  I sipped information and art rather than shotgunning it through a face-hole.  When I’m done with a book, I have a new array of themes and ideas and vocabulary.  I don’t need to learn the lesson.  The journey to the end was the point of it all.
I can think clearly because I write.  I organize my thoughts on the fly; I outline as I wash dishes or walk my dog.  The most amazing thing writing has given me?  Therapy.  When emotions are crooked and broken and when you truly feel on the cusp of stupidity or insanity, writing always gives a perspective.  For free.  Your subconscious is allowed to come forward and tell you if you are okay, if you are whining, or if you just need to shut up and watch cartoons for a while. Another human is a nice substitute, but every person has their limit of how much of your crap they can take.  Writing has no restrictions.  You can keep going as long as you need to.
Now I have a stack of notebooks and a My Documents file full of stuff.  I can look back if I feel the need.  I don’t just remember the events in my life; I can remember how I felt at the time. The minute details; the bills that were due, the temporary worries, the bits of joy and appreciation of my children are all there.  You don’t need these things, but when you are in the process of working things out, it’s helpful to have shadows from the past who figured out how to press on.  I love reading an old story and not remembering even writing the thing.  Who is this character?  Why would I set a plot in Chicago?  Who is this female character based on? Where’d the talking goat come from?
It all came from me at some point.  I was just working out some things.
I would not have had this in my life without someone telling me to write it all down.  It’s that simple. They’re called English teachers and professors, but they are your reading and writing coaches.  They give you a few basic tools to learn how to listen and think. If used correctly, these tools are powerful and wonderful.  They become necessary.  They become a part of you.

Monday, August 27, 2012

#116 - Noooooooooo!

I repeat: Noooooooooo!

Turn to the dark side here.


I wonder why I feel the need to personalize all of my creative endeavors.  I realize that this element has kept me from commercial success, or at the very least, a few more readers or listeners.  But that's what I do.  All the essays, stories, podcasts, articles, poems and whatever I write when i'm bored always have something I need to say to myself or the world inside.  I don't try to impress.  I try to connect.  Nobody pays for that.  And apparently, not many people read it, either.


Good stuff coming.  I have to go learn things now.


Monday, August 13, 2012

#115 - Hug Each Other And Say 'Champ'

Albuquerque + script + acting + not much else = Good.

You can go full measure right here.


Sooner or later, you stop feeling self-conscious about sounding like an old man.  Complaining about the weather is about as old-fart as it gets.  But it happens every year.  So be it.  I'm hot and I'm cranky.

I'm is an essay-writing mood but there's nothing at the tip of my brain today that's worth 900 words or so.  It'll come to me sooner or later. Maybe when I stop sweating.


Monday, August 6, 2012

#114 - That Place Is Fantasmatron

Horseradish. A wonderful, ass-kicking ingredient.

Show 114, your order is ready.  Show 114, your order is ready here.


I'm still mesmerized by the Olympic athletes. The dedication, the sacrifice, the pain.... the weird bonnet-like swim caps the men on the water polo teams have to wear.  Is it a sport, or a floating Princess Leia lookalike convention?


August makes me want to give up.  It makes me feel slow and old and beat.  I fight through it every year.  I guess therein lies its merit.  It keeps me strong; so I can enjoy better, cooler, sweeter months of the year.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

My British TV Invasion

 In March of 2011, I started streaming episodes of the revamped and updated version of Doctor Who.  The original series was never that appealing.  I realize like all things this old that purists will profess that the original run, especially when the portrayal of The Doctor was Tom Baker, was better in some way.  Well, good for them.  My few glimpses of the old show when I was a kid left no pleasant memories.  The show was cramped and dark and cheap to an American kid weaned on Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
So many good things were said about the new Who I wanted to give it a go.  I really enjoyed it.  I was a fan of 9th, 10th and 11th doctors, but we all know that the Tenth was the best.  David Tennant, dressed in a casual suit and sneakers like an early eighties new wave guitarist, ripped through space and time with intelligence, humor and well-written dialogue.  The old villains were alive to placate the purists, but the story arcs and time-travel twists and turns were so modern in pace and reverence for solid sci-fi. My daughter, eleven at the time, hopped on board as we watched five series in a month or so. 
It is my responsibility in an essay like this to relay why I was so drawn to this mainstay of British television.  It’s still unclear.  I know there was this feeling of it being wholly different.   Themes and pace are so outside most of American TV.  There was no sense of repetition or blatant pandering to the slower members of the audience.  You have to keep up.  In fact it has a lot in common with the best of American TV like The West Wing, Deadwood, Lost, and deal old Firefly. Imaginative and quick.
My wife, an experienced chef, was also diving deep into the 3,000 or so programs by Gordon Ramsay, specifically the ones for the BBC.  Ramsay has many American shows and he’s well known, but something about the British shows was a little more interesting.  I’m not a person who things that just because we revere some British accents as eloquent and elevated that the Brits are automatically smarter than Americans.  (Have you seen the depths of bad British sitcoms?  Somebody’s watching those.) But there are nuances.  There are less safety restraints.  Like The Doctor was allowed monologues about crumbling civilizations or the quasi-technical feats of the Tardis, Ramsay is allowed to be honest. When he is screaming about a chef who is too lazy at his job, you agree that it’s the chef’s fault and he deserves the tirade. You aren’t coddled by British TV.  You are responsible for your own emotional reaction and acceptance of the material.
I sampled Spaced.  I was not as enamored by the show as much as the movies Pegg and Frost have put out.  There was the British Office, and I know I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed the American version better.  I also loved Extras, which was technically an American show.
Recently my wife and I caved and sought out Downton Abbey to see what the fuss was about.  American drama is entering a new age with shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter and Boardwalk Empire among others.  These are well-written artistic serial dramas of movie quality in a time of reality TV. I wanted to see this PBS show that was nominated for awards alongside of them.
Never in my life would I have imagined that a TV show about the class struggles of servants and the noble family they serve in a giant estate in World War I-era Britain would keep my interest.  But we are into it.  It’s right up there with the meth-cooking cancerous high school teacher and the serial killer blood expert. 
Again, it is what the show isn’t that pulled me in.  The pace was slow.  The accents took time to get used to.  The plots weren’t dire. The world might as well been a Japanese colony on Mars. I had nothing with which to relate.  As the episodes go, you felt for the characters, you invested in all of the mini-plots and you learned to truly despise Mrs. O’Brien.  It is an entire village of characters completely constrained by antiquated social mores and you feel even better to live in a freer time and a freer country.  (At least I do.)
In Downton Abbey, there are servants wanting to break free of the shackles of thankless labor, and rich, privileged elite looking for purpose.  Everyone longs for something and nearly everyone waits an eternity for a chance to have sex.  I’ve never seen this sheer amount of sexual repression in one show.  It’s brutal.
Okay, but why am I now watching Top Gear?  I don’t care about cars.  I don’t even like cars.  I think of them like dishwashers; loud, wasteful, just a means to an end.  But I watched an episode a scant three weeks ago, and now I’m digging deep into eleven seasons of a car appreciation show.  If I take a step back, I think I know why.
Like Ramsay, the hosts are honest.  They are encouraged and expected to review these cars and crap on the ones they despise.  They argue, and they assume the audience is on board.  I’ll never drive 99% of these cars and I’ve only seen a handful in real life, but I’m vested in what happens on the show.  And so is my daughter!  Why?  She’s twelve now, and about as interested in automotive technology as Katy Perry is in a grey pantsuit.
We’re fans.  Not sure how, but we are. 
If you haven’t sampled what England has to offer for any reason, ignore your prejudices.  Just sample something.  They aren’t all hit shows, but I guarantee you will be surprised. I don’t want to say that if you want sophistication you’re only option is British TV.  That’s not true.  But they have different flavors.  Just like food, it’s important to refresh the palette and be adventurous.  Even if you’re just watching some TV.