Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Angst of Garfield

I remember as a youngster arguing with a friend of mine about who was the cooler cartoon cat: Garfield or Heathcliff. That friend was Shane Baucom. We were friends before kindergarten but have lost touch, which is sad, but I feel free to drag his name through the geeky murk of the blogosphere because I know he doesn’t touch computers—probably still doesn’t have an email address. If only he were on Facebook, I could just friend him and be done with it—friendship saved in a mouse click.

I digress. I, sadly, was on the losing end of that Garfield/Heathcliff fight. Now, I would argue that Heathcliff, the tougher and saucier of the two, was an allusion to the gloomy and doomed Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights and thus a superior literary creation. But at the time, my primary reason for siding with the alley cat was that my parents bought most of my cartoon books from garage sales and people were dumping the Heathcliff collections like stock in mortgage companies. So after I caught up with the exploits of Garfield a few years later through the discards of other children, I concurred: he was the funnier cartoon cat.

Until, of course, Jim Davis became a man driven to appear in every newspaper in America and so had to appeal the lowest common denominator. His brilliant epiphany? People, on the whole, are slow. Too many characters, too many continuing plotlines, too many running gags, and your audience is reduced to a loyal fan base. So he cut all the side characters (Doc Boy? Lyman? etc.), reduced Garfield, Odie, and Jon to a few quirks, and played the same simple gags endlessly in a loop (you kill those spiders Garfield!)—a strip so easy it’s produced via assembly line. And presto! A super successful comic strip suckfest.

Garfield minus Garfield, which removes the cat Garfield from the strip, has restored my interest in Garfield. As the intro to the site states once the corporate cuteness of the cat is taken out, what’s left is a disturbing and artful cartoon on the existential horror of life. It reminds me of the brilliant strip Red Meat (compare the two below). Except Garfield without Garfield may have an advantage because of seeing the iconic Jon Arbuckle in this new light.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Other People’s Writerly Advice Tip #2

Today's advice comes to us not from some old stodgy book, but from my former professor in grad school Philip Gerard. He gave a reading at the Museum today and will give a reading at the University tonight and stopped by my Intro to Creative Writing class between.

He told my students if they wrote down anything from the class it should be: "Backstory drives present action." He had interesting things to say about how we have to consider what has happened before the story to understand the present scene. I fear that when writers (even good ones) think about backstory it manifests itself in the present action through flashbacks that slow or stop that action. Or--worse--writers want to excuse present action on past events, the armchair psychobabble way. Oh, he was a bad guy now because he was sexually abused then.

I liked better when Gerard told the students to pretend they are movie producers with a set budget when writing a story. So they couldn't just have anyone say anything. You have to pay speaking parts more than extras, so if a character has dialogue that character should play an important role in the story. Don't build (describe) an elaborate set location if you're not going to have action occur there.

I only fear my imagination is impoverished, limiting my budget.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Theater!

Last week was a crazed week of theater and socializing. I like the former and am lukewarm to the other. The theater is great because there are all these living breathing people all around you saying pleasant things to listen to and they have no desire to hear from you. The first was the BareBones Theater Group's Invasion of 24-Hour Theatre Project—a crazy feat where playwrights are given a prompt the night before, auditions are held in the morning, and the play is put on that night. Heather (with nothing to say about bananas) starred (for me she was the star) in one of the ten minute plays. The next play was mid-week: August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at The Actor’s Theatre. Great…long, but great. My favorite line: “Oh, I burned it down!” And then there was the set with a ship in the background, one with sailing masts—I want a ship with masts in my place. And then there was the university’s production of Proof. I’m always amazed at the quality of the student performances. You can tell that I’m beat. That doesn’t even include seeing my friends from Florence, SC, an Oscar get-together, and etc. Etc.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Go Bananas

So I talked bananas with Heather again. She got a leg cramp and said she needed to eat one for potassium. Then, spacing out a little, she said, "I'm going to freak out with the next banana I get. I'll just stare at it, thinking: I've eaten you before...." This led to her telling me that it's easier to open a green banana from the bottom. I call it the bottom--and I'm sure all right-thinking people will agree with me--because the stem is clearly the top of the banana. Monkeys know this trick of opening the banana from the bottom, but see, that's what separates us from the animals--we do things the hard way.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

This Just In: Blue People

No, it's not the anniversary of the Smurfs--well, it is actually...the 50th even. No, the blue people I want to talk about are in the hills of Kentucky (or was it West Virginia?) and are actually people and actually blue. This fact, is in fact, old news and not "just in," but was brought to my attention at a Wii party tonight (we all can't be Kevin Keck going to Purgatory). Turns out there was a family with Methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder that turns you the color blue (see the Fugate family pictured).

Monday, February 18, 2008

What You Talking About, Poe?

So I’m researching epitaphs. Why? Because it beats the hell out of writing. Some of course are amusing:

Here lies the body of our Anna

Done to death by a banana

It wasn't the fruit that laid her low

But the skin of the thing that made her go.

Heather tells me, by the way, that NPR told her that the bananas we eat will disappear in 30 years due to Panama disease. I miss them already. She further tells me that bananas are sterile and so are essentially clones of one another. We are all eating one banana. I have to quit talking bananas with Heather because she is blowing my mind.

But getting to the famous epitaphs I find Poe’s: “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.” Why does that make me so sad? Am I the only one who had a morbid teacher who made us play the come up with your obiturary? I can swear the same teacher made us draw a tombstone and write our own epitaph, but you know the betrayer memory…tricky bastard. I was both frightened out of my mind my these exercises in mortality and offended that I could (at some insanely young age) sum up my life in a sentence.

And that’s Poe’s: Quoth the Raven, Nevermore. It’s perfect, some would say. Fitting. But my problem is that it’s cliché. I know you can’t judge that time then from the standards of now. But I can only react now and that’s like Gary Coleman’s epitaph being “What you talking about, God?” Wait, is that his epitaph? No, that’s right, he didn’t die recently…he got married—totally different. Unless you were in a Poe story where death and marriage might be something akin.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

For Mel

My friend Melody Clayton sent me this evocative picture. She's been a great friend since the grad school days. The couch daze. And her husband Alex--encyclopedia of all things cool. They introduced and continue to introduce me to all the good stuff in life.

She's working also on a novel which will be much better than THE NOVEL I've been pecking at. But you should know she's already an atmospheric master short story writer as witnessed here.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Kevin Keck Reading

Went to Kevin Keck's reading where he read from his new memoir Are You There God? It's Me, Kevin tonight at Park Road Books. An enjoyable time. He was in high form, singing a couple songs that are referenced in the book. The excerpt he read tonight was about his visit to the Goth/S&M Charlotte event Purgatory with a self-described "vampire." Hilarious. Sadly it put Heather off Purgatory all together. Baby with bathwater, I say.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Condiments Kill

I have food issues. One really: I don't eat condiments. This simple principle simply pisses people off for no apparent reason to me. And they demand to know why. My reply, "Why would you?" These so-called people clearly didn't grow up on the PSA below.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Found: One Bright Side

Ever get down—down as in blue, not funky. Not because of any one event or because of the people close to you, but because of the minor players in your life who you sense are tired of you, which makes you angry, which then only serves to annoy them more? Then, you say, “Stop looking at me,” and it gets taken out of context.

At those times, I look for pick-me-ups. A person I used to date gave me 14,000 Things to Be Happy About. Unfortunately most of the 14,000 things just depress me: “dress shirts,” “amateur psychoanalysis,” “’Made in Japan’ labels,” “the empty stretches of bun on either end of a hot dog.” Really? These are the best things to be happy about?

So naturally I turn to the next logical text: Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. And found this bit where Voltaire’s father, on finding out about Voltaire’s career path said, “Literature is the profession of the man who wishes to be useless to society and a burden to his relatives, and to die of hunger.”

Now that’s the stuff!

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Lucky Man Review

So I finished reading Lucky Man by Ben Tanzer, proprietor of This Blog Will Change Your Life. I was expecting the same whimsy and optimistic humor from his debut novel that I enjoy from his blog. But I was gently and pleasantly disabused of this notion as the book went on. It is funny, but also sad and strange and surprising and many other engaging ‘S’ words. I was especially impressed by his range of emotion and for his clever plotting. As the novel went from coming-of-age to On the Road-like road trip, I was happy to bum along, expecting it to end in the requisite literary epiphany, but I was excited by the deft turn in the book’s conclusion. Lucky Man makes me eager for more from Tanzer.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We're you weary of the 10th of February?

More great Anonymous v. Scientology. Okay, maybe not great, but better than reality TV.

Scenes from the London protest:

And finally a parody:

A Book Saturday and the Sad Literary South

So we got back from Borders. I know, support your local bookstore. My local bookstore closes at 9:00, sadly. I didn't buy anything because I'm busy reading Bowling Alone (for the teaching), Lucky Man, and American Tabloid. But Heather bought Derek Walcott's The Prodigal: A Poem (that's right--one poem 105 pages long) and Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth (a werewolf mystery novel...written in blank verse). Poets are funny.

I did spend some quality time reading Oxford American. Unfortunately, I didn't see anything by two of my favorite writers, regular contributors Wendy Brenner (my professor from grad school) and Jack Pendarvis. But I read some of David Payne's essay on how the publishing industry hates Southerners Maud Newton's blog tipped me off to. Reminded me of Pinckney Benedict's succinct summing up of this point. Must we fight the Civil War in letters? Though I know a writer who attended a New York writers' residency and got the cold shoulder after they found out he lived in Atlanta (for my money as hellish an urbane place as you can get). But on the other hand, we are cornpone idjets down 'ere.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

An Anonymous Code

They're back, and this time it's boring. Anonymous released another computer-synthesized voice but with less of the epic feel or foreboding. This one is about...rules. The code of conduct for the February 10th protest of the Scientology hangouts in big cities like London.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Your Etiquette Advice from Some Old Books I Found

Today's etiquette advice comes from American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness 1884 (Rand, McNally & Co.):

If you are a visitor be careful to keep your room as neat as possible. Do not let garments lie scattered about promiscuously.

I wish I had read that before I promiscuously decorated my hotel room at AWP. This has been your etiquette advice from some old books I found.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

I May Hate Myself

Aside from all the AWP craziness while in NY, we went to Koreatown and got Pinkberry. I may now be obsessed. I hear it was featured on The Hills, which makes me nauseous. But not nauseous enough to stop longing for Cap'n Crunch covered Green Tea yogurt (not pictured). I'm thinking of forming a petition, a letter writing campaign, a million strong Facebook group to get one here. If that fails, I will buy my own franchise. Or I might just write about it on my blog...

5 Random Things from AWP

  1. Joyce Carol Oates was a Phi Mu.
  2. There is a thing called a haibun, a prose poem ending in a haiku.
  3. I made a fool out of myself trying to meet Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network.
  4. John Irving gave me the evil eye when I recognized him coming back from the gym in his track suit.
  5. One panel made me want to write a story about a dying grandmother who was hooked on meth and LSD and dreamed of her dead dog. It would end with the grandmother dying and the dog waking up to realize it was only a dream.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Escape from New York

I'm back from the AWP conference in New York City. And though I'd love to yammer on about the writerly goodness of it all and the cool city fun, I'm exhausted so I'll just list what I'm returning with:

1. A signed copy of Money by Martin Amis (He said he knew a "Craig"--I presume that means he doesn't want to know another one)

2. An unsigned copy of Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners (She was sick most of the conference, but I met Gavin J. Grant at the Small Beer Press table, and he was a great guy...though he kept raising the prices of his books when knew I was interested).

3. A copy of The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant (Grant said everything on the table was half price until I picked that up and then it was everything except the anthology)

4. A copy of the awe-inspiringly designed Ninth Letter magazine (My friend Eric Vrooman has a brilliant piece of satire in this issue in the form of a water bill)

5. A copy of roger, an art & literary magazine (I'll be in the issue coming out in May...I think).

Those are the goodies, kiddies. Now if only I didn't have to teach and could just read my head off...