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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Days 69 & 70: Quality ZAMM and Twilight

Days 69 & 70:  Quality ZAMM and Twilight

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 3

# of days left to write 1st draft: 95 

I’m almost done with the first draft of my young adult fantasy novel. I just need to write the last chapter and then it will be complete.

Why am I not excited?

I guess it’s because I don’t think the book is of very high quality.

Well of course it’s not, Eva. It’s a first draft. You’ll revise it, and it’ll get a little better. Then you’ll revise it again and again and it will continue to get better. Knowing you, you’ll probably revise it fifty times, so when all is said and done it will be be fifty times better than it is now.

And besides, what is “quality” anyway?

*   *   *

Ugh. The topic of quality reminds me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I will refer to from now on as ZAMM). My roommate Nikki and I have been reading this book for the past, oh, month and a half. Actually, she just finished it this weekend, and I’ve been promising her (and myself) for the past three weeks that I’ll finish it. Instead, it just sits on my nightstand while I read things like Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Lish McBride’s new young adult fantasy novel (Necromancing the Stone).

In ZAMM, the author (Robert Pirsig) is trying to figure out what “quality” is. How can you deem one book quality and another one trash? Is quality subjective to the person doing the judging (which he calls Romantic Knowledge), or is quality something objective that we can measure (which he calls Classic Knowledge)? In either case, it seems nearly impossible to define what quality actually is, especially when you take into account people of different cultures, experiences, or tastes. He comes to the conclusion that quality is neither subjective nor objective.

THEN he starts babbling about this train of knowledge and how classic knowledge is the engine and all the train cars, and romantic reality is “the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track.” And quality is the track the train is on. Later he announces that quality IS reality, which I find really annoying.

This is why I dislike the book. It makes no sense. And I still don’t know what quality is.

Nikki asked me if I thought ZAMM was a quality book.

It’s an interesting question because even though I have not enjoyed reading it and think the author is an annoying mental masturbator who is mean to his son, I still think it’s probably a quality book.

When she came home today, I told her this:

Broccoli is a quality food. Objectively, it’s pretty hard to deny that it is. But a lot of people don’t like it. They might not have a quality experience while eating it, but they will experience quality results because of the nutrition it gives them. In the same way, I haven’t enjoyed the experience of reading ZAMM, but I have experienced quality results, such as having something interesting to discuss (aka argue about) with Nikki, as well as having things to ponder. Also, other people (such as Nikki) seem to get a lot out of the book and enjoy it, so certainly it must have some subjective quality, even though I don’t find it to have much at all.

This led us into talking about the Twilight books, which Nikki and I found to be, both subjectively and objectively, of terribly low quality. (How many times can you use the description “topaz eyes?” And why are you trying to convince young girls that they should marry right out of high school to a much older man and then have his baby even if it is literally killing them?)

And yet, Twilight had a few quality results. It got people (mostly tween girls and middle-aged women) interested in reading, and reading is more mentally stimulating than passive TV-watching. Plus, the books provide entertainment for those who have short attention spans. For example, I read the books while I was home sick for a week, and I did enjoy them on one level because they were easy to read and entertained me at a time when my brain hurt and I was feeling like total crap. Furthermore, here we are saying that the Twilight books are of such low quality, and yet I read them all. So did Nikki. So what can we make of that?

This led me and Nikki to decide that maybe everything has a little bit of quality. Maybe it’s a scale. Some things have more quality than other things.  Everything resides somewhere on the quality scale, with nothing being a total zero or a total one hundred percent quality.

And instead of the ZAMM notion that quality is neither subjective nor objective, I’m going to say it’s both.  Things can have subjective quality because we like to experience them (like donuts) or they can have objective quality because we know they are doing something good for us physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually (like drinking a shot of wheat grass.) Something can score high on one scale or the other, or both. So, for example, eating fresh picked raspberries is pretty dang high on the quality scale.

Of course, where things land on the subjective axis would be different for everyone.

Of course, where things land on the subjective axis would be different for everyone.

That all leads me back to my novel. How can I enhance both the subjective and objective quality of the book?

Subjectively: Do people think it’s fun/worthwhile to read? Does it make sense to them? Do they think the dialogue and characters are believable? Do they find it surprising/interesting/enlightening? Do they want to finish reading it once they start?

Objectively: Do I use active verbs? Is the tense consistent? Do I make sure not to repeat words or phrases too often? Do I combine scene and summary? Is there a clear conflict and resolution?  Do I shy away from adverbs and the phrase “topaz eyes”?

The objective stuff I can do on my own, and when I need help with the subjective stuff, I can ask my writing group and friends.

But there’s still something missing.  Something that has to do with quality.

Sometimes you read a book that is high on the subjective and objective scale, but there’s something MORE. You get to the end and all you can think is, “that was so good.” You can’t say why exactly, it just WAS.  It was like the book illuminated something about life that is absolutely indescribable, and the author would never be able to explain the feeling you got in words, yet, somehow, through their story, you had this amazing sensation that something important had been revealed to you.  And I think those books are the ones of true, true quality.  Nothing can ever reach 100 percent, but those are the ones that get close. And those books are few and far between.

But one of the quality results I got from reading Twilight is realizing that it doesn’t have to totally rock the quality charts in order for people to enjoy it. Everything has quality in one way or another, and even a little drop of quality can go far.

Day 68: Believe! or, Russian Skyping and Expensive Teeth

Day 68:  Believe! or, Russian Skyping and Expensive Teeth

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 8

# of days left to write 1st draft: 96

 

I’m tutoring Sergey again. For those of you who just started reading my blog, Sergey is a Ukranian man who was vacationing on the Cape back in July. I tutored him English while he was here. Now he’s traveling a lot for his job – going back and forth from New York (where his family lives) to Russia to the Ukraine. He asked if I would tutor him through Skype while he is out of the country, and I said yes.

“And if you will like it, I will find you other people for tutoring. My friends in Russia and Ukraine. I think you are the best candidate,” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “That’d be great.”

Perhaps I can make a living just sitting at home on my computer talking to Russians all day. On second thought, that might be too much Skyping.

But I’ve enjoyed talking to Sergey the past two days. We talked about his wife and two daughters. He told me that his daughters still believe in Santa Claus, even though last year they found their presents hidden around the house a week before Christmas. They rationalized that by saying Santa can’t get to all the houses in one night, so he brings presents to some people’s houses early.

“That makes sense,” I said. “Your daughters are pretty smart.”

He shrugged. “They want to believe.”

*  *  *

A few years ago, Nikki told me how she met her husband Nathan. “Well,” she said matter-of-factly. “I wrote down a list of everything that I was looking for in a mate. Then I went out into the woods, and I sat there for awhile, and I asked the universe to send me a man. A few days later, I met Nate.” She made it sound as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Hmm,” I said. “That probably worked for you because you truly believed it would work. You believed that the universe could hear you and help you.”

In other words, I thought, it wouldn’t work for me, because I wouldn’t quite be able to take myself seriously, sitting out in the woods and asking the universe to send me a man. But how could it be that I believed it worked for Nikki because she believed it would, yet not believe that it would work for me because I didn’t? Wasn’t that contradictory?  If I believed that something worked for her, couldn’t it work for me?

Not really. Because when we believe in something, we can make it true for ourselves. We see the world through the filter of our own beliefs. We ignore the facts that don’t fit with our beliefs, or we spin them in such a way that they do.  And so different people with different beliefs might construe the same situation in totally different ways.

“I wish I could believe that asking the universe would work for me,” I told Nikki. “Because I think if I believed it would work, it would work. But I can’t make myself believe something that I don’t.”


All of this has made me think about beliefs. Some people are so strong in their beliefs that nothing shakes them. Anything they see or experience is rationalized through the filter of their belief system. And, in a way, that must be really comforting for them. Their world must make a lot of sense.

As for me, I’m not really sure what I believe.

Just the other day, I said to Stefan, “you’d better knock on wood!”

“You don’t really believe in that, do you?” he asked. “You know if comes from the idea of the wood of Jesus’s cross.”

“Oh, I don’t really believe in it,” I said. “But on the other hand, better safe than sorry, right? I mean, I better just go ahead and knock on wood. The same with heads-up pennies. Will they really bring me good luck – probably not. But maybe they will. Better go ahead and pick ’em up.”

Does that mean, I wondered, that there’s a tiny part of me that believes in things the rest of me doesn’t believe in?

“Are you lucky because you find heads-up pennies?” Stefan asked. “Or do you find heads-up pennies because you’re lucky?”

“Maybe finding a heads up penny makes me feel more confident, and then good things happen to me due to that confidence.”

“No, no,” he said, sighing. “I was referencing Socrates.”

“Oh,” I said. “OK.”

*  *  *

Yesterday I was having an email exchange with a friend about how humans try to impose our desire for meaning onto the world. If you are a mathematician and you believe in logic, you look at the world and see equations and patterns, and thus, meaning. If you are an artist and you believe in beauty, you look at the world and see shape and form and symbols, and thus, meaning.

Since I’m a writer, I look at the world and see stories and characters and metaphors. That’s the way I make sense of the world. In a story, I can make connections and elevate an experience to give it more importance. I can leave things out that don’t fit with the theme. I can choose an ending that makes sense.

You can’t do that in life.

*  *   *

Sergey says his daughters also believe in the tooth fairy.

“How much do they get per tooth?” I asked.

“Five dollars.”

“Wow! Expensive teeth!”

Sergey laughed.

“So do you all have the tooth fairy in the Ukraine?” I asked. “Is that something Ukrainian children believe in?”

“No,” Sergey said. “They saw it on an American television program, and they decided the wanted to believe in it.”

Is it that easy? Can we decide what we want to believe in? And once we decide on that belief, can we make it true, at least in our own eyes?

I don’t know. Because there are some things I’d really like to believe in, but I don’t know how to believe in something I don’t.

On the other hand, I think of the heads-up penny.  Most of me doesn’t believe, but the tiny part of me that does believe wins out.  I always pick up the penny, just in case.

I don’t know.  I’m confusing myself and starting to not make sense. I’m not sure what my beliefs are, and maybe that’s why I think life doesn’t make much sense… But at least I believe I can write a story that does.

 

P.S.  On the topic of “believe,” I always did like this video.

Days 66 & 67: Silver Weasel and Baby Keanu Play Trivia

Days 66 & 67:  Silver Weasel and Baby Keanu Play Trivia

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 14 of my novel, and I finished my short story

# of days left to write 1st draft: 97

 

I don’t know why no one ever wants to play trivia in this town. When I walk up to people at the bar and ask if they want to play trivia, they look at me suspiciously, like I’m trying to sell them a plate full of dead rats. “It’s free and easy,” I tell them. “You just answer questions. You could win a gift certificate!”

Last night, a blond woman with crazy eyes, who seemed surprisingly drunk for 6:45 pm, told me, “no way. No way we’re doing trivia.” She smacked the table, and the man across from her jolted a bit in his chair. It seemed he had been sleeping with his eyes open. “My damn ex-husband liked trivia,” she shouted, glaring at me. “And I ain’t doing it!”

“That’s absolutely fine.” I backed away from her table slowly, my hands raised in defense.

I moved on to two guys at the end of the bar. One was a man in his late fifties with thick, gray hair and an overly-tanned face. He was wearing a suit jacket over a white button-up shirt.  A few too many of the buttons were undone. I would call him a silver fox, except he was not foxy. He only thought he was foxy. He was mostly smarmy, drunk, and rather weaselish, so I will call him the Silver Weasel.

The Silver Weasel sat next to a baby-faced guy in his late twenties who looked slightly like Keanu Reeves from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, if Keanu had been ten pounds overweight and grown a goatee. Baby Keanu was wearing a t-shirt, sandals, and a pair of shiny blue and silver shorts that may or may not have been swim trunks. He was typing on a laptop.

“You brought your work to the bar, huh?” I asked him. “Want to take a break and play trivia?”

“What is it you want us to play?” Silver Weasel asked, leaning towards me and smiling.

“Trivia,” I said.

“We’ll play with you,” he said, winking. “What’s the game?”

“Trivia,” I said again.

It didn’t seem like he knew what the word meant, so I said, “you answer questions about all sorts of things. Sports and movies and music.”

“I know about music,” he said. “I’ll play.” He nudged Baby Keanu. “We’ll play, won’t we?”

“Great,” I said. “What do you want your team name to be?”

“Teammate?” Silver Weasel patted Baby Keanu on the shoulder. “He’s my teammate. We’re not gay or anything, but he’s my teammate.”

“Great,” I said again. “Do you guys have a team name? A name?” I tried to enunciate as clearly as possible.

“The MacMillans,” Silver Weasel said, winking again. “The MacMillans.”

They seemed excited, so luckily I managed to scrounge up two more teams. One was a fairly normal-seeming older couple. They named their team after their grandchildren, so I will call them The Grandparents. The other team was a fairly-crazy seeming couple celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary by doing whiskey shots at the bar. “Sure, we’ll play. Why the hell not?” they said.

I went to the trivia table and started my music. Silver Weasel and Baby Keanu moved to the table directly in front of me. “We wanted to be closer to you,” Silver Weasel explained, flashing a tooth smile.

“Good idea.”  I clicked on the microphone. “All right, Tommy Doyle’s.  It’s time to get started with Team Trivia. It’s free and easy to play, so let me just go over the rules. Every team should have a little pad of paper.”

Silver Weasel held his up proudly.

“I’ll ask a question, and you’ll have the length of a song to answer. Write your answer, your team name, and how many points you want to wager. You can wager one, three, or five points.”
“Oh man,” 25 Year Wedding Anniversary Woman said loudly, “this sounds like school.”

“It’s not hard, I promise,” I said into the mic. “You’ll the get the hang of it. Just wager five if you’re sure about your answer and one or three if you’re not so sure.”

“I’m sure,” Silver Weasel said. “I’m very sure.”

“We’re playing for some prizes tonight,” I said, “so please don’t use your laptops, cell phones, encyclopedias. Just use your brains and your teammates.”

“You hear that?” Silver Weasel slapped Baby Keanu’s arm. “Close your lap top.” Baby Keanu obeyed.

I finished giving the rules and asked the first question: According to Rolling Stone Magazine, who is the wealthiest, most influential entertainer of Hispanic heritage?

Baby Keanu rushed his answer up to me. I glanced at the slip of paper. He’d written Marc Anthony. “What’s your wager?” I asked. “Five, three, or one points?”

“Five,” Silver Weasel shouted. “We’re sure.”

25 Year Anniversary Man brought up his slip. He’d written J.Lo. “What’s your wager?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “My wife did this. I’m just the messenger boy.”

Grandpa handed me his slip. He’d forgotten to put his team name on it.

I wrote down everyone’s points and felt someone’s breath on my neck.  Silver Weasel had sidled up next to me. “Did we get it right?”

“I’ll announce it in just a minute,” I said.

“She’s got a poker face.” He sat back down next to Baby Keanu and they both stared at me, smiling.  “Look at her.  You can’t even read her.”

The song ended, and I picked up the microphone. “This is just a reminder, guys. Be sure to write down your team name and your wager every time. And I’ll go ahead and give you the answer to question one. The wealthiest, most influential entertainer of Hispanic heritage… is Jennifer Lopez.”

“See, I told you!” Baby Keanu muttered.  Silver Weasel just shook his head.  He stretched his arms behind his head and leaned back against the wall.

I asked the next question. Silver Weasel and Baby Keanu  stared at me. I smiled back at them. I wished they weren’t so close.

“She’s got a great smile,” Silver Weasel said. “Hey, beautiful,” he yelled to me, “your teeth are perfect. They’re so white. How’d you get such great teeth? How’d you get to be so beautiful?”

I shrugged, smiling pleasantly, pretending to do something on my computer.

They were so busy staring at me, they nearly forgot to answer the question. Baby Keanu scribbled something down at the last second and rushed it to me just as the song was ending. “You’re doing a great job!” Silver Weasel yelled.

“The next question seems appropriate,” I said. “The category is Alcohol. And your question is, in what country was Bacardi founded in 1862? Again, Bacardi was founded in which country in 1862?”

The MacMillans wrote down England. 25 Year Anniversary wrote down Texas, which isn’t even a country. The Grandparents came the closest with Puerto Rico. “The answer, my friends,” I told them, “was Cuba. Bacardi was founded in Cuba. That’s OK. We’ll do better on the next round.”

As we got into the next round, I started to wish I had some easier questions. The MacMillans and 25 Year Anniversary were falling quickly behind, and while The MacMillans remained hopeful and didn’t seem to notice when they got questions wrong, 25 Year Anniversary was growing frustrated.  “I feel like I’m in school!” the wife yelled.  “I just came here to eat some wings.”

I picked a question that seemed doable. “What are the two main protein ingredients in the Chinese food dish “Phoenix and Dragon?”” I asked.  “Listen carefully. The two main protein ingredients.”

“OK, so it’s protein,” Silver Weasel said.

Baby Keanu approached the table smiling.  He had written down, “meat.” “Can you be more specific?” I asked, handing the slip of paper back to him. “And you need to write down two ingredients.”  He came back a moment later. He had written, “meat and rice.”

“The answer,” I announced, “was chicken and shrimp.” Silver Weasel groaned, as if he had known it all along.

“These are too hard,” 25 Year Anniversary woman yelled, doing another shot of whiskey.

Keanu wonders, “why is trivia so hard?”

The next question was Geography. “Oh, we’re going to get this one,” Silver Weasel said. “I’m good at this.”

“Which U.S. State,” I asked, “was part of Massachusetts until it voted for succession in 1820?” I looked out at the teams. “So I’m looking for the name of a state. A state that used to be part of Massachusetts.”

Baby Keanu scurried up with his answer. He’d written Rhode Island. 25 Year Anniversary Man had written something that looked like “Watham.” “My spelling is terrible,” he said.

I stared at the paper. Whatever he had been attempting to spell, it wasn’t the correct answer, which was Maine. I wasn’t even sure that what he’d written was a state. Or a place of any kind. Only the Grandparents got it right.

I was beginning to feel like the Alex Trebec character from SNL’s Celebrity Jeopardy. Except my contestants were not celebrities. They were just insane drunkards. Except for the Grandparents. The Grandparents were normal. I started saying things into the microphone like, “just write down the name of a U.S. President.  Any U.S. President.” I gave them hints. “He’s a very famous poet and his last name is what happens when it’s cold outside.” Despite my efforts, The MacMillans and 25 Year Anniversary were falling farther and farther behind.

Then I gave them what I thought was one of the easiest questions. “It’s the cheesiest is a slogan used to advertise what Kraft product?” I asked.

25 Year Anniversary came up to me. “I don’t know,” he said, handing me a blank answer sheet.

“Really?” I asked. “Does your wife know?”

“She can’t spell it,” he said.

“Really?” She couldn’t spell macaroni and cheese? The wife tottered up, unstable in her platform heels.

“Why don’t you just tell me the answer out loud,” I said. “You don’t have to write it down.” I was having flashbacks to my time teaching learning disabled children.

“Say the queshen again,” the wife slurred.

It’s the cheesiest is the slogan for which Kraft product?” I repeated.

“Cheese,” the husband said. “I think it’s cheese.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Kraft cheese,” he said.

“Mac and cheese,” the wife said after a moment of thought.

“Very good! Excellent.” I marked their points on my score sheet.

“I’m the smart one,” she said.

“We forgot to wager,” the husband said.

“That’s OK,” I told him. “I’m giving you all five points.”

I went over to check on Silver Weasel and Baby Keanu. They had gone out to smoke and had missed the question. I repeated it for them.

“Well that’s easy,” Baby Keanu said. “Cheez Whiz.” He wrote it down and handed the slip of paper to me.

 

“We wager five,” Silver Weasel added.

I went back to my table and picked up the microphone. This was getting ridiculous. “Next question,” I said. “In his 1950 writings, what was Alan Turing referring to when he wrote about “thinking machines?””

The answer was computers. I thought it was obvious. I really hoped it would be obvious to the contestants. Right now the Grandparents had a forty-point lead.

25 Year Anniversary couple stood up and walked over to me. The husband handed me their answer. “Baby doll,” the wife slurred, “we jus gotta go home now. But we’re gonna come again next week. We had so much fun.”

Her husband started pounding on a nearby bar table like it was a bongo drum. I wondered how they were getting home. Neither of them should be anywhere near the steering wheel of a car. They stumbled out the door, and I looked down at their answer. They had written “Back to the Future.”

“Well,” I said into the mic, “we’ve lost one of our teams, but that’s OK. Everyone’s a winner here, and now we just have to play to see who comes in first and who comes in second.”

The Grandparents came up to ask how many points they had so they would know what to wager for the final question. “Well,” I said. “I didn’t want to say it into the microphone. You guys have 56 and they have 13.”

“Oh,” The Grandparents said. They seemed pleased.

After the game, I gave the Grandparents their first place gift certificate. “Are you guys local?” I asked. “You should come back next week.”

“Oh no,” the wife said. “We’re just here on vacation.”

“Too bad.” I smiled and walked over to the MacMillans to give them their second place certificate.

“We were so close,” Baby Keanu said. “I totally thought we were going to win.”  I’m not sure how exactly he thought that, but at least he has confidence going for him.

Silver Weasel tried to give me a hug. He was sweating through his suit jacket, and his breath smelled of sour beer.

Baby Keanu smiled at me. His downy cheeks were flushed pink. “That was really fun,” he said. “You’re pretty. We’re gonna do this again next week.”

“Oh good,” I said. “Please do come back next time.”

So I’ve got 25 Year Anniversary and the MacMillans promising to come back next week…

I need to get some easier questions.

 

P.S.  Please please please come to Tommy Doyle’s in Hyannis, MA at 7pm every Wednesday for Team Trivia.  It’s free and (somewhat) easy to play!  $3 drink specials.  We always need more teams.  Obviously.

Day 65: Robotic Penis and What I Really Want in a Man

Day 65:  Robotic Penis and What I Really Want in a Man

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 10

# of days left to write 1st draft: 99 

Back in June, when I was still in DC, I got an okcupid message from a guy who said, “that picture of you strangling the kid is hilarious!” He also mentioned a few things about dyslexia and math – two of my areas of interest.

So I wrote back. “Thanks so much! Too bad I’m getting ready to move to Massachusetts or we could have talked dyslexia and math. Have a great summer.” That was it. I never met him in person or spoke to him. There was only this brief exchange between us.

Until now.

This morning, I had a message from the guy that said, “can we be okcupid penpal friends or something?” He said that he had read this article and it had reminded him of me. He hoped I would enjoy it.

So I clicked on the article.

It is about a comic book superhero from the early nineties named Codpiece who has a gigantic robot penis. This penis is also sort of like a really fancy Swiss army knife. It can morph into a pair of scissors, a power drill, a cannon. There’s also a punching fist that can erupt from its head, and, of course, he can use it as a laser beam. With this super penis he is able to defeat evil, which mostly comes in the form of prostitutes. Comic books are strange.

Even stranger… why did this guy send me the article?

Let’s be clear. In my okcupid profile I in no way mention any of the following: comic books, penises (robotic or otherwise), prostitutes, codpieces, or the early nineties.

The way I figure it, there’s one of two things going on:
1. This guy is some sort of weirdo with an interest in comic book/robotic penis porn, and he sends articles about Codpiece to various girls, gauging their reactions to see if any of them might share in his kinky fetishes.

2. There is something about my personality (even coming across in my okcupid profile) that makes people think, “hey, this girl seems really random, so I’m going to send her this random thing.”

I’m thinking that it is the second option, and I guess it’s sort of true. I like being strange and random. In addition to the picture of me pretending to strangle a child (which is, by the way, hilarious), there is also a picture of me with a zebra and one of me on the flying trapeze. I used to have a picture of me wearing a mullet wig on my profile, by my old roommate, Kristin, made me take it off because she said it might attract “the wrong sorts of people.”

No children were actually harmed in the taking of this picture.

I guess the thing is, I don’t mind that this dude emailed me randomly with a link to an article about a robotic penis man. In fact, I kind of like it. (And not in a dirty way.) I just like when random, weird things happen to me. It makes life more interesting. It also makes my life more ridiculous. I guess the question is, am I getting to old for random ridiculousness? Is it time for me to settle down and stop seeking out the random and the weird?

For example, let’s talk about the first year I lived in DC. I was dating the nicest, kindest, most reliable guy in the whole world, and I would ask him things like, “so, what’s the weirdest or most f—ed up thing you’ve ever done?”

I was disappointed when he didn’t have a satisfactory answer. All he could come up with was, “I smoked pot sometimes in college.” So I started digging deeper. “Have you done any other drugs? Gotten arrested? Do you have any bizarre family secrets? Strange fetishes?” No, he didn’t have any of that. I broke up with him and then dated the following people:

1. A boy who, on our third date, randomly suggested that we go to the Korean Spa at one o’clock in the morning, which we did. This involved me sitting naked in a hot bath with some overweight Korean women and then meeting up with my date later (now the both of us wearing orange spa outfits) so that we could lie on some hot clay balls and then briefly brave the “ice room.” We tried to actually sleep at the Korean spa, but there were no more sleeping mats, the floor was cold, and old Korean men snore really loudly, so we left.

2. A guy who was playing the ukulele at a bar and randomly asked if he could sit with me and my friend, Laura. He then proceeded to tell us his life story which involved a lot of bouts of homelessness, and he was currently living in someone’s living room. I was interested in him specifically because he was playing the ukulele and wearing a funny hat. Turned out (surprise, surprise) that he was pretty crazy, and when I stopped seeing him (after our second date) Kristin was sort of afraid that he was going to steal our dog and hold it ransom until I agreed to go out with him again.

3. A boy who, on our first and only date, wore those horrible toe sneakers and offered to give me a hand massage while we waited for the clown show to start. Yes, we were going to see a clown show, and yes, I let him massage my hand. I think that’s all I need to say about that.

My point is, I gravitate towards weirdos, and/or weirdos gravitate towards me. Why? As always, I think it comes back, at least in part, to writing. Random, weird things are fun to write about. Random, weird people make great characters.

But Korean Spa boy actually ended up hurting my feelings pretty badly. And I ended up hurting Ukulele Boy’s feelings pretty badly. And the toe-sneaker man was just plain freaky. Random weirdness has its perks, but it’s not all I’m looking for in life. And although amusing anecdotes are fun to write about, they don’t keep you company at night or fix you soup when you’re sick or comfort you when you’re feeling confused.

When you’re writing a story, it’s can be a great idea to make the characters weird or have them do crazy things. The thing is, I can make that happen on paper without making it happen in my life. Slowly, slowly I’m starting to realize that I need to stop dating random weirdos. I need to date someone kind-hearted and thoughtful. Someone who encourages my writing without becoming my newest crazy character.

Of course, I don’t want to totally give up on random weirdness. So this stable guy of mine better be able to join me in the occasional random adventure.

Me in a mullet wig. I hope this doesn’t attract the wrong sorts of people.

P.S.  I’m not opposed to getting random messages about random things, so please feel free to send me links or comments about robots, prostitutes, the early nineties, or anything else you can think of.

Day 64: Science, Math and Philosophy: Why Oh Why?!

Day 64:  Science, Math and Philosophy:  Why Oh Why?!

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 9 on my novel and I worked on my short story

# of days left to write 1st draft: 100 

Yesterday Nikki and I listened to the Radiolab on “falling.” It was great, and I highly recommend it. In one part of the podcast they talked about gravity. Newton, they said, came up with the laws of gravity. Using these laws, he could predict what would happen to objects, but he never knew WHY gravity existed or what it was exactly. Einstein came along and tried to explain what gravity was and why it existed with some crazy mumbo-jumbo about space-time being curved and that curve being gravity. OK, Einstein. But why? Why is space-time curved? Why is the curve gravity?

I read somewhere that when kids are in that annoying why-stage, they don’t really want to know why. They’ve just learned that “why” is a word they can say to make an adult keep talking. It’s a fun button for them to push. Because no matter what explanation you give, someone can always ask why, and there’s always more to try and explain.

*   *  *

At dinner last night, I was talking about how apparently it’s not just the people at the gym who say, “you’re all set.” The people at the liquor store and the grocery store and the library say it, too.

“Is it a Cape Cod thing or a Massachusetts thing or a New England thing?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Nate said. “But I always here people around here say ‘it is what it is.’”

“Yeah.” Nikki nodded. “They do say that a lot.”

I shook my head. “That’s just because you’re around old people all day. That’s what old people say.”

Today I applied for a job to write math curriculum content for middle and high school. I had to send one of my favorite lesson plans, so I sent a Trigonometry lesson I am particularly proud of called “What is a Radian?” This is a lesson I wrote that makes high school students use pipe cleaners, scissors, and tape to demonstrate that there are 2 pi radians in a circle.

Don’t let their eye-rolling fool you: high schoolers love pipe cleaners. Break those babies out in your Trig class and the girls will start making pipe cleaner bracelets and the boys will start making pipe cleaner penises. There will be some flirtatious smacking at each other with pipe cleaners, and possibly a fight will break out over the “best” colors of pipe cleaner, which, in my experience, is usually green.

So I sent off the “What is a Radian” lesson and rode my bike to the library, gloating to myself along the way about how great I am at writing lesson plans. And then, suddenly, a thought stopped me cold: why are there 2 pi radians in a circle? I mean, I know that there are, and I know how to demonstrate that there are. But WHY?

Thankfully, the answer came a moment later. A radian is an angle in a circle that cuts off an arc the length of the radius. Pi, of course, is equal to the Circumference divided by the diameter. Since the diameter is twice the radius, if we divide the Circumference of a circle by the radius, we get 2 pi, which is why a circle has 2 pi radians. Whew. Problem solved.

But wait.

Why is pi equal to the Circumference divided by the diameter?

Oh dear.  That I can’t answer. It’s simply one of those mysterious truths of math. It is what it is.

This seems to be the eventual conclusion when you do the two-year-old why-why-why thing with any question. For example:
I should wake up earlier.
Why?
So I have more time to write.
Why?
So I can finish this first draft of my novel sooner.
Why?
So I can work on revising it and start querying agents.
Why?
So I can try to get it published.
Why?
So that I can become a published writer and hopefully be able to either make my living writing or at least get a job teaching creative writing at a small liberal arts college.
Why?
Because that’s what I’ve decided is important to me and will help me feel a sense of accomplishment in my life.
Why?
Because. Because that’s just what I’ve decided.

It is what it is.

*   *   *

Asking why is very important. It’s given philosophers something to argue over and people something to freak out about for generations. But there’s no end to it. For every level deeper you go in an explanation, there’s always another layer. Can you ever truly get to the center of any question – to the place where all is understood and you can finally stop asking why?

Maybe there is no center. Maybe we just keep falling into the abyss, like getting sucked into a black hole.

Yesterday I was talking to my friend, Chris, on the phone about my novel. I was explaining all of the villan’s motives. “And he does this because…” “And why he does that is…”

“Don’t give away too much of his motivations,” Chris said. “Let some of it stay a mystery. More interesting that way.”

It’s true. We never know the whole explanation of anything. If we did, we wouldn’t be able to ask why, and what’s the fun in that?

A picture of Baker’s Pond in the morning. Why? For no reason.

Days 62 & 63: Midnight Snacks at the Mausoleum, or, How to Be More Creative

Days 62 & 63:  Midnight Snacks at the Mausoleum, or, How to Be More Creative

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: none on my blog, but several on a short story

# of days left to write 1st draft: 101

Last night I had a lot of vivid dreams. When I woke up in the morning, there was a fully formed joke just sitting at the top of my brain like sea foam. I scraped it off and hoped it wouldn’t melt away before I could recite it out loud. I hurried into the kitchen. “Nikki,” I said, “my brain made up a joke while I was sleeping.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“What happened to the library when the Kool-Aid factory exploded next door?”

“I don’t know.”

“All the books got red.” I made loud ha-ha noises to encourage Nikki to laugh.

“Did you make that up?” she asked.

“No, but my brain did.”

How does your mind make such leaps?

The brain is an amazing thing. You go to sleep, and it just keeps right on working, sifting through all the little Lego pieces of stored information and memories, combining them in funny, strange, surprising, and frightening formations.  It’s sort of like the way I imagine that Beck writes songs.

Today I was at the gym, and several Beck songs came onto my ipod. Let me list some lyrics that stick out in my mind:

“midnight snacks at the mausoleum”
“karaoke weekend at the suicide shack”
“like a paper tiger in the sun”

Sometimes it seems like he’s just picking words out of a hat and putting them next to each other, and yet so many of his lyrics conjure up such incredible images and feelings, it doesn’t seem random. It seems meaningful. I mean, karaoke weekend at the suicide shack – can’t you just picture it?  Wouldn’t it be a good writing prompt?  Oh man – don’t steal that!  I’m going to write a story about karaoke weekend at the suicide shack!

Again, the brain is an amazing thing. Especially when it’s being creative.

So how do we encourage our minds to be more creative? To combine words and ideas and images in new and surprising ways? I’ve heard that the best places to be creative are the three B’s: bed, bath and bus. These are times when you’re not consciously thinking about anything in particular, and so your brain might start doing what it does when you dream: combining different Lego pieces of information in different ways. According to neuroimaging, this happens in the association cortex, which seems to be the place in the brain where creative ideas are born.

So in order to be more creative, get lots of sleep, keep yourself clean, and get into some sort of moving vehicle, whether it be car, bike, train, bus, boat, or motorcycle.

And, I’d like to add another suggestion of my own: go to the gym. Or do some sort of solitary exercise. I think that’s another time when you aren’t consciously thinking of anything and so your brain can relax and start doing the Beck thing, sifting through ideas and sticking random thoughts together to see if they might work.

I know that today I was at the gym, and somewhere between my bicep curls and my sit-ups, an idea for a short story came to me. That’s what I’ve been working on today. I’ll go back to my novel tomorrow.

In closing, here is a Beck song that is one of my favorites for its lyrics. I just think it’s beautiful and moving and creative.  As good as any poem. In fact, I think Beck might be my favorite poet.

“Orphans”

Think I’m stranded but I don’t know where
I got this diamond that don’t know how to shine
In the sun where these dark winds wail
And these children leave their rulers behind
As we cross ten leagues from a Rubicon
With matchsticks for my bones
If we could learn how to freeze ourselves alive
We could learn to leave these burdens to burn

Cast out these creatures of woe
Who shattered themselves
Fighting a fire with your bare hands

Now my journey takes me further south
I want to hear what the blind men sing
With their fossils and their gypsy bones
I’ll stand beside myself so I’m not alone
And how can I new again
What rusts every time it rains?
And the rain it comes and floods our lungs
We’re just orphans in a tidal wave’s wake

If I wake up and see my maker coming
With all of his crimson and his iron desire
We’ll drag the streets with the baggage of longing
To be loved or destroyed
From a void to a grain of sand in your hand

Day 61: I Fail at Poison Ivy

Day 61:  I Fail at Poison Ivy

TODAY’S STATS

# of pages written: 12½

# of days left to write 1st draft: 102

This morning Nate and I took Zeus on a walk. Zeus is a rather high-maintenance dog, and since I’m going to be taking care of him on my own next weekend, when Nate and Nikki go out of town, Nate wanted to make sure that I was aware of his quirks.

“Zeus isn’t good with other dogs,” Nate told me as we sat on the front stoop. Zeus rolled happily in the grass, waiting for us. “He’s sent boxers and rottweilers to the vet. And he might take off after something and run straight into the road.”

I nodded. I’d heard all of this before. I knew that I was supposed to avoid other dogs and keep a pocketful of treats with which to bribe him into good behavior.

“Oh,” Nate said, “and poison ivy. Make sure he doesn’t roll in poison ivy.”

Oh dear.

Zeus wearing his doggy-life vest

I don’t know why, but I cannot identify poison ivy. I was a Girl Scout. I went to camp. I’ve spent time hiking in the woods. My mother’s backyard is apparently full of the stuff. And yet, I cannot seem to figure out what it looks like.

We harnessed up Zeus and started walking down Main Street. “Is there any poison ivy in here?” I asked, motioning to the underbrush where Zeus was headed.

“Yeah, there is,” Nate said, and I yanked on Zeus’s leash.  Nate pointed to some three-leafed green plants about the size of playing cards.  “That’s poison ivy,” he said.

It looked so normal and innocent.  I never would have noticed it.  We turned down Owl Pond Road. “That’s not poison ivy, is it?” I asked, pointing.

“Yeah,” he said, “it is.”

“Oh.” These leaves were bigger and tinged orange. To me, they looked nothing like the other poison ivy. I decided anything with three leaves must be poison ivy, no matter the size or color.

We kept on going, and I saw some three-leafed plants up ahead. “So that’s poison ivy, too,” I said confidently.  “Leaves of three.”

“No, that’s not.” I wondered if Nate was starting to think I was a complete idiot or possibly half-blind. “See how the edges aren’t smooth?”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. I don’t know why I can’t identify poison ivy.”

“Maybe it’s because you’ve never gotten it really badly,” he said.

“Oh no.”  My chest puffed up with indignation.  “I have.”

This, apparently, is poison ivy. Not that I would know.

When I was seven, my family and I moved to Vinton, a white-trash town in southwestern Virginia. Our house was a crummy, little one-story ranch, but it sat on the edge of a big, beautiful woods with a creek and wild turkeys and a crazy old hermit man who lived somewhere among the trees.

A lot of the other kids in the neighborhood weren’t allowed to play in the woods because their mothers said there were copperheads in the creek and poison ivy all over the trees.  Oh, and because of the crazy old hermit man.  But my mother was of the whatever-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger mindset, so my brother and I spent a lot of time in those woods.

I don’t know if I rolled in poison ivy or picked up some leaves and rubbed them all over me, but one day towards the end of second grade I broke out with the worst case of poison ivy imaginable. It was all over my body, all over my face, down my throat, up my nose, on my eyelids. It was horrible. I lay in bed all day with a fever, oven mitts on my hands to keep from scratching. When I woke up each morning, my eyelids were so swollen I couldn’t open my eyes. I ate sharp things like chips to try and scratch at the poison ivy down my throat. It was so awful, and apparently looked so bad, that when my mom tried to send me back to school a few days later, my teacher shook her head and said no way, I needed to go back home immediately.  I was scaring the other children.

I told Nate this.

Then I marveled at my own stupidity.

I know firsthand how truly, truly awful poison ivy can be. And yet, still, I cannot identify it in a line-up of plants. I’m really not a stupid person, so I don’t know why I have this mental block about recognizing something that has the potential to cause me serious harm.

The thing I’m realizing, though, is that I often don’t learn from experience in all sorts of ways.  I move places, expecting that a change of scenery will solve all my problems.  (It doesn’t.)  I go out with people who have hurt me before, thinking it’ll be better this time.  (It isn’t.)  I decide that taking that third shot of tequila is a great idea, even though it never has been in the past.  I have made the same mistakes again and again. It’s like I can’t recognize the warning signs, even though I’ve seen them before.

In fiction, characters are always learning from experience. They go through some terrible ordeal, or they make some sort of journey, and at the end they are changed.  They’ve learned something. I’m the opposite. I have some sort of terrible experience, and then I have it again a year or two later, just to see what will happen this time. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me.

Right now I’m writing a young adult book, and I’ve got to make my character learn from her experiences. Maybe I need to first figure out how to do that for myself. And I’m going to start by learning how to recognize poison ivy.

In an attempt to do to this, I just took the following Poison Ivy Quiz, and these were my results:

Your Score: You got 12 right out of 20 questions, for a score of 60 percent.

You did poorly and may want to learn more about poison ivy.