22 July 2009

Closer To The Stars Than Ever

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicThat's right; you're looking at a picture of MC Hammer and Jewel. Can you imagine what that duet would sound like? Seriously, one of the most energetic dancers of my generation (second only to the late Michael Jackson, for my money) and the poster girl of the singer/songwriter-coffee house era. And yet, there they stand flashing their million dollar smiles and radiating the friendliness and warmth that has drawn me to each over the years. This picture was uploaded by both artists on Twitter (via Twitpic) within the last few hours, taken after a concert of hers.

Unless you've managed to deliberately stay ignorant of the situation, the music industry is in a state of what sociologists call "anomie," which is where all the norms are suspended because no one knows what to do. Some label executives still fear the digital business model; some are hoping that Guitar Hero and Rock Band hold the key to the industry's future. Are digital EPs and singles the way to go, or should albums still be pushed? Lavish stage shows are cost prohibitive, yet fans will not pay upwards of $50 and content themselves that their ticket money merely paid to get the artist to the venue. Is American Idol helping the music industry nearly as much as it's helped FOX on TV? These are but a sample of issues facing the music industry at this stage of its evolution.

One thing that is undeniable, though, is that technology is both part of the problem as well as the solution. So far, most of the debate has focused on the negative sales impact of digital piracy on the industry but the discussion does not end there. MC Hammer, whose first four years as a recording artist for Capitol Records (1988-1991) were commercially astounding, has recently resurrected his public presence in large part thanks to the A&E reality series spotlighting his family, Hammertime. Having adapted with the times, MC Hammer's online presence is easily one of the most developed of any recording artist. Visit most artists' websites and you'll get a generic bio, tour dates and links to buy merchandise. Hammer, however, updates his page with video (much of it shot himself) and micro-blog statements several times daily.

Jewel likewise has taken a very hands-on approach to her online presence. She has recently begun recording demo versions of songs she is considering for her next album and even posted a video of a solo acoustic performance of one such song on her website. I cannot recall an artist offering such an intimate glimpse at the creative process in real time like this. Sure, I've seen footage of artists in the studio before, but I've never seen an artist record and post a performance of a song during the consideration phase of an album! Imagine Michelangelo circulating sketches of what he planned to paint on the Sistine Chapel, or Shakespeare publishing "Romeo & Juliet" an act at a time.

Will it shape how I hear Jewel's next album to have read, directly from her, that she broke her toe leaving a yacht on which she and husband Ty Murray were vacationing in the Bahamas? No, but having watched her play "Where We Started From" on her guitar will certainly ensure that I feel connected to that song (provided it makes the final album). After all, I'll be able to recall seeing a link posted by Jewel herself on Twitter that took me directly to the YouTube clip of her performance of the song during this demo stage.

What technology has allowed, then, is for artists to exert an unprecendented level of control over their public persona. Previously, artists were at the mercy of entertainment journalists for exposure and had to hope that their message survived to reach an audience. Along the way, image consultants emerged to take charge and ensure that the artist did not say or do the wrong thing. It may have curbed some embarrassing behavior over the years, but it also sterilized our entertainers.

The danger in all this, of course, is that our already celebrity-obsessed culture will further escalate its idolatry of our entertainers. I view these shared, personal anecdotes and thoughts as a way of contextualizing the art being developed by these artists. I feel like I have an understanding of what state of mind MC Hammer was in as he worked to bring "I Got Gigs" to the 2009 club scene, and I feel as though I was there in the hospital as Jewel gave birth to "Where We Started From" on 22 June. Neither is currently available to purchase commercially, though I can honestly say that I have every intention of adding each song to my library the moment they go on sale.

Then again, this is MC Hammer and Jewel we're talking about. They had to do something like this, I suppose. After all, I don't expect we'll be playing "U Can't Touch This" or "Foolish Games" on Guitar Hero any time soon.

20 July 2009

Nature, Nurture, Maturity & Morality

Recently, I had a debate with my 14 year old cousin vis a vis some decisions that someone we both know has made of late. The person in question (who shall anonymous, because it is entirely irrelevant to the point I'm making here) has not, shall we say, had particularly healthy choices of a romantic nature. When I posited that this person has grown up without any real examples of what a healthy relationship is, my cousin responded that it is entirely a cop-out to blame one's environment, that we each know right from wrong. Does any of this sound familiar? I thought so.

While washing dishes a little bit ago, I re-visited this debate as I am wont to do while cleaning. I think most people, if pressed, will confess that they have many chore-inspired epiphanies. Why this is, I cannot say; I only know that it happens. Anyway, I was amused to consider what my 14 year old self would have said concerning the issue. Partly my younger self has been on my mind because of the ongoing, Make Sense of Turning Thirty issue that has played out in this very blog, and partly I've considered the contrast betwixt my younger and current selves because I revisited Eyes Wide Shut the other day to mark the 10th anniversary of seeing it during its theatrical release.

I went into Eyes Wide Shut having been told it was an artistic triumph, that it was brilliant, etc. I walked out of the theater in that Chicago mall where my friends and I saw the film on vacation convinced that the whole thing was really just an overlong excuse to put some flesh on the screen. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I have come to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the film. As a 20 year old guy with precious little dating experiences, I grew impatient with Tom Cruise's performance as Bill, wanting him to get on with things. My 30 year old, married self instead sees the depiction of a man coping with the unforseen devastation of his wife's confession that she would have discarded their life together to act on a lustful impulse had she had the opportunity. I cannot fathom experiencing that in my own marriage, and so where my younger self was bored, my current self stares in empathetic anguish at Cruise's masterful performance.

Getting back to the point at hand, I considered that my 14 year old self would have quickly sided with my (our?) cousin on the issue. He was a much more black-and-white, judgmental guy than I am. He had little sympathy for the circumstances that influence how people's lives can divert them from where they intended or desired to be. He almost relished the idea of people paying maximum penalties for their errors, because it confirmed his thesis that doing the right thing ought to earn a reward and doing the wrong thing ought to similarly bring about consequences.

My cousin argues that we somehow know right from wrong, and that that inner guiding voice calls out to us regardless of what we have been taught or exposed to in our formative years. I think my younger self, again, would have agreed with this. After all, he did not grow up around drug abusers and he knew that substance abuse was wrong. Surely, there are no people out there unaware of this fact; ergo, anyone who uses gets whatever they deserve. Sounds like right and wrong and justice to me, I would have said.

Social conservatives share this worldview, and dismiss the more accepting, liberal approach as naive and destructive. "Spare the rod, spoil the child," they say. And yet, I have to ask: How do they raise their own children? I would suspect that, time after time, they re-iterate the household rules, they try to lead by example, they give lectures and other disciplinary measures as needed to reinforce their childrens' understanding of the expectations placed on their behavior.

But why?

If we, in fact, know right from wrong inherently as they insist, then surely that is all wasted effort? Aren't their children hard-wired to already distinguish right from wrong? Of course they aren't; they must be taught what behaviors are accepted and which are not. Why, then, can we not acknowledge the role that failure to properly instill these guidances in a child played to lead one to poor decisions as a teen or an adult?

I am not so leftist I believe these unpleasant conditions ought to excuse one from the consequences of one's actions; rather, I challenge the judgmental nature of those who wish to ignore the relationship between past and present. Maybe it's the historian in me, but I cannot isolate an event in the present from those that precipitated it. I consider it necessary to properly understand a situation; why is it naive to pursue such a level of understanding prior to passing judgment on someone? More over, can we not agree that the failure to provide healthy guidance and role models for our youth is directly responsible for unacceptable choices made later in life? That is, after all, why we try to teach our youth right from wrong; why are we so harsh toward the youth whose parents did not and were unable to provide those things for themselves?

My younger self would say I've sold out, that I've become a wuss. He'd say that I'm guilty of philosophical treason to ourself and that I am not the person he ever wanted to be. On the former point, I would certainly agree with him. I just don't know that he would be experienced or mature enough to pass that judgment on me.

iTunes Essentials

As I indicated in my June playlist post, I've recently begun exploring the iTunes Essentials playlists. These are constructed around three basic themes: 1) Artist-specific, 2) Year or era-specific or 3) Mood-specific. Each list varies in length, but the two most common sizes I've seen are 45 or 75 songs, broken into sections: The Basics, Next Steps and Deep Cuts. Theoretically, the relevance of a song to the playlist theme is suggested by the section in which it appears. For instance, if they had an MC Hammer list (and I'm a bit bothered that they don't), one would expect "U Can't Touch This" to be among The Basics, a cut from the Funky Headhunter album in the Next Steps and "This Is What We Do" from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack among the Deep Cuts. Get how this works? Good.

Now, what I've been doing is printing their lists and then constructing as much of them as I can with what I already have in my library. I've completed several so far: George Strait, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Gary Allan, Dixie Chicks and Waylon Jennings. I'm one song shy of completing Toby Keith ("A Woman's Touch") and two shy of Tim McGraw (a pair of cuts from his ignored eponymous debut album). I have yet to complete any of the year or mood-specific themed collections, though I've gotten as many as 62 of 75 on one list ("Contemporary Country").

Why would I, who has a long track record of diligently compiling my own playlists, defer to something manufactured like this? There are two reasons. Firstly, they are a measuring stick for my library. I took some small measure of pride in knowing my Waylon library is developed enough that I could completely create their 75-song playlist (even more so since I was able to take many of the songs from their original albums rather than the subsequent compilations from which iTunes selected them).

The other reason I have been fascinated to explore these lists is that they are guiding me as I re-visit the 1990s and begin exploring music that I had previously ignored. I can't say why, necessarily, but I have of late been drawn to compiling a collection of songs that I recall hearing on the mainstream, Top 40 radio stations that played in kitchen when I worked at Cracker Barrel in the late 1990s. Some songs I recalled; others I'd forgotten entirely until reminded by their appearance on the year-specific lists. I don't intend to track down all 225 songs on their 1998, 1999 and 2000 lists, but they have been helpful to me as I work to expand my own library.

I do have some remarks concerning the lists I have seen so far, and I wish there was a convenient way of bringing these to the attention of someone at Apple. Firstly, there are a handful of instances of song duplication within a list. For instance, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven" appears within both The Basics and the Deep Cuts sections of the Kenny Chesney list. This isn't a common problem, but I think in the 30 or so lists I've printed I've run across three or four such duplications. That's about 10 per cent and that's way too high.

I was surprised by the Alan Jackson list because it does not include "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Set aside the fact it was a six-week #1 hit; there is a unique, historical context to that song that transcended Jackson's already solid career to that point. The historian in me balks at its omission, and yet I confess: I was oblivious to its exclusion not only as I pored over the list, reconstructing it within my library, but I didn't even notice its absence as I played all 75 songs! That they could take 75 songs and arrange them so that I didn't even notice the absence of what may well be the biggest hit of his career is a testament that they did get something right, I should think.

Other omissions are not as easy to accept, much less forgive. For instance, their Dwight Yoakam list is simply invalid. I would love to know who approved any playlist entitled "iTunes Essentials: Dwight Yoakam" that includes neither "Honky Tonk Man" nor "Guitars, Cadillacs." That the remainder of the list is quite impressive is irrelevant; those two recordings are the very definition of "essential Dwight Yoakam." Still, Dwight fared better than George Jones, whose list is stunted at a mere 54 songs, none of which are "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," "Choices" or "Beer Run." All three songs are available from the iTunes store, so their absence is particularly conspicuous. Granted, I favor streamlined playlists; but I find it egregious that George Jones, in his fifth decade as a recording artist, has but nine more songs on his "iTunes Essentials" playlist than Norah Jones, who has yet to release her fifth album as a recording artist.

My final gripe is the inconsistency of the Deep Cuts sections. iTunes describes this as the songs that are worth hearing, despite not having been released as singles--or even on the artist's own albums. One would expect to find, for instance, "Designated Drinker" among the Deep Cuts section of the George Strait list. It was a duet with Alan Jackson from his 2002 album, Drive. It appears on Jackson's list, but not on Strait's. The aforementioned Norah Jones list includes many of these miscellaneous recordings, and that's one of the reasons I think it's one of the better lists I've seen. Conversely, though, one can easily imagine an entire, 75-song list of just the "Essential Miscellaneous George Jones" recordings from over the years. Most artists' entire discographies aren't as large as the volume of guest appearance work that The Possum has turned in over the decades, and yet these are entirely missing from his list.

One failure I can forgive, though, is the absence of Garth Brooks from these playlists. Brooks, to date, has resisted efforts to bring his catalog to the world of digital distribution and as the biggest act since Elvis his songs are sorely missed on playlists such as "'90s Country." That said, it is impressive that the 75 songs on that list that iTunes selected manage to hold up despite missing the undisputed king of that era. We can only hope that The Beatles catalog reaches the digital world, because certainly that would bait Garth-zilla into following suit.

15 July 2009

"Jen and Danielle"

When I returned to writing fiction recently, it was the first time since I took a creative writing class in college. That class was in the Spring 2003 semester, so it's been quite a while. I should like to think that I have improved significantly as a writer since that time, though in truth most of that would likely be more apparent in my non-fiction works. Anyway, "Jen and Danielle" is a piece I composed for that course six years ago and while perusing my hard drive I came across a folder of those writing exercises. This was initially three separate tasks; the first was to introduce the characters; the second, their conflict and the third, a resolution. I introduced the conflict a bit early, a gaffe for which I was docked some points, but I think that it serves the complete story somewhat. Hopefully, it will not read as obviously three individual pieces, but rather as a comprehensive, singular story.

Now, then, what of the story? The titular Jen and Danielle are young adults sharing an apartment. Jen is in school and, when we meet her, working on a paper about one of Claude Monet's paintings, "San Giorgio Maggiore Soleil Couchant." (You might not recognize it by title, but it's the piece that Pierce Brosnan steals in The Thomas Crown Affair remake of 1999.) Danielle, who is certainly less mature (if not younger) than her girlfriend, feels ignored and becomes frustrated. Logically, of course, we know that she should grow up and let Jen work on her mandatory assignment; and yet, I think there's a part of us that identifies with Danielle. There comes a point where we feel like we've put ourselves on hold for one thing after another, and we're no longer convinced that everything should be more important than ourselves. I would say I side with Jen, but I empathize with Danielle.

After having recently written "Dirty Laundry," it may seem excessive to now publish a second story featuring gay characters. I'd like to address this point. Firstly, remember that this was written six years ago, so it's not as if gay characters are dominating my state of mind as a writer today. I simply thought this was worthy of putting out there as a bit of filler until I write a new piece.

As I said in my commentary on "Dirty Laundry," sexuality is just one facet of a person's identity and while I am, at times, fascinated by that dynamic, I have long prided myself on my ability to look beyond it and see the whole person. The fact that Jen and Danielle are lesbians is entirely irrelevant to their story, save for the fact that it is the reason to have two female characters in the role of conflicted lovers.

Why did I choose this dynamic to explore in writing? Simply, I find women fascinating and I enjoy writing them as characters. Generally speaking, they are better communicators than men and, because I'm lazy, I enjoy being able to write characters that can believably come out with what they're thinking and feeling to one another. Writing emotional men is more challenging because you can't have a particularly masculine character say things like, "How do you think that makes me feel" in the middle of an argument and not make it laughable. I got away with it with Jimmy in "Dirty Laundry" because that's the kind of person he is as a character, and I established that from the beginning; otherwise, it is just plain easier for me as a writer to explore emotional vulnerability with female characters. Since my assignment was to explore the conflict between two lovers, I thought it would be easier to get to each person's side if they were both women. I was right, at least about this particular story.

Where did I get the names, you might wonder, and why do none of my characters ever seem to have last names? Well, this is one instance where I borrowed names from people I knew. To the best of my knowledge, they never had a relationship (they may have never even known one another, and one of the two, so far as I know, is entirely straight). But, as I indicated, I am lazy and that permeates my writing as well. So, when I needed two young women characters to have names, I stole theirs. It could easily have been two former classmates or coworkers instead, only that I had been to where both of these particular young women worked the day before I set about writing these three pieces. I don't believe I ever told them, and I hope they don't mind.

Why no last names? I don't know. Maybe it's the lazy thing. Maybe I just don't think that last names are entirely relevant to the stories I'm telling. I think once you add a last name, you add a layer of definition to a character. If I were telling full-length stories the characters would need that fuller identity. As it is, so far I have only composed short stories (really just glorified vignettes) and I think it services the nature of these stories to reduce the characters to just their first names. Whenever I've gone to parties and been introduced to people, it seems they always share their first name and rarely anything else. Sometimes all I've been given is a nickname, so if I wanted to inquire about the person afterwards, I would have to trust that the host would know how to put me back in touch with that person.

Similarly, I think the nature of the stories I tell are really just introductions to the people about whom I write. I like to believe that if you caught Shelly, Jimmy or Jen on a different day they'd have told you an entirely different story about themselves. These are just the stories that were on their minds when you met them, and so when you leave them you have gained an insight into who they are--but only a glimpse, really. I like the idea of these stories being mere introductions to people you may never meet again; all I hope is that, when you've finished meeting them, that they interest you enough that you might want to meet them another time later.

Read about Jen and Danielle here.

13 July 2009

Monsters: A Celebration of Horror Classics from Universal Studios

atThe Louisville Palace's summer movie series is up and running, having begun this weekend. Sorry for not posting sooner, but they are notorious for waiting until the last minute to post anything on their website about this annual series. I simply forgot to check back with them last week. Anyway, here is the lineup:

Friday July 10 (7:3o) & Saturday July 11 (2:00) - The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Saturday July 11 (5:00 & 8:00) - Dracula (1931)
Friday July 17 (7:30) & Saturday July 18 (2:00) - Frankenstein (1931)
Saturday July 18 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Mummy (1932)
Friday July 24 (7:30) & Saturday July 25 (2:00) - The Invisible Man (1932)
Saturday July 25 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Black Cat (1934)
Friday July 31 (7:30) & Saturday August 1 (2:00) - The Raven (1935)
Saturday August 2 (5:00 & 8:00) - The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Friday August 7 (7:30) & Saturday August 8 (2:00) - The Wolf Man (1940)
Saturday August 8 (5:00 & 8:00) - Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

I already missed Dracula and we won't be home until late the night of the 2nd, so I'll miss The Bride of Frankenstein. That only leaves Frankenstein this weekend on my Must See list.

10 July 2009

What's Up With "Antiques," Part I?

Having had an excruciatingly miserable time with my guts last night/this morning, I was pleased that they cooperated enough tonight that I was able to dash off another new work of fiction. This piece is entitled, "Antiques, Part I." Why the "Part I?" Well, I will tell you. There are two reasons. First, I saw it was 2:16 when I finished writing and I wanted to get to the keyboard, since I prefer to type these right after I put down my pen. It affords me the opportunity to revise while still in the zeitgeist of creation, and I have long felt that essential to a second draft. The other reason this is "Part I" is that I wasn't entirely sure what happens next. I have some ideas, but a little voice inside my head told me to just stop where I was and call this "Part I." So, that's exactly what I did.

Now, then, the story itself. Jack and Dorothy MacGuffin are in their 50s, and are traveling to stay with their son, Henry, in Georgia. During the span of this story, though, they have stopped at Historic Roscoe Village, in Coshocton, Ohio. This is a real place, and aside from the fictitious antiques store I invented, it is much as I have described. I have visited there thrice now, accompanying my wife on family visits to her grandmother who lives near Roscoe Village. There is a little building on the end of one street where, apparently, businesses come and go with some degree of regularity. I know it at least once housed a book store because I bought a copy of Moneyball there. In case you're familiar with Roscoe Village, or in the event you happen to visit there after reading "Antiques, Part I," this is the building in which I have placed my fictitious Antiques shop.

Unlike "Dirty Laundry," "Antiques, Part I" is a return to a G-rated story. I gave them the last name MacGuffin for a few reasons; one, it sounds Irish and that's the kind of people these two are. They're from New England; I think I mention that they live in a small town outside Concord (though, of course, it may not be the city by that name in Massachussettes). Another reason is that "McGuffin" is the term Alfred Hitchcock ascribed to any object central to the plot of a story; we need never understand anything about the object other than the fact that the characters seek it. Think about any story about an object, whether it's James Bond trying to steal a Russian "Lektor" decoder in From Russia with Love or Jesse and Chester caught in the middle of the quest for the Continuum Transfunctioner in Dude, Where's My Car? and you have an idea what a McGuffin is. I made this surname "Mac" instead of "Mc" just 'cause. Instead of seeking a McGuffin, though, Jack is the one doing the seeking. At the end of the story, Jack has purchased a small box of old photographs; what will their significance be in his life? I don't yet know.

One remark I would like to make, while I'm thinking about it, is that this is the most revising I have done so far. If you were to look at the handwritten manuscript, you would see numerous crossed out false starts to sentences and even an entire page and a half sequence set in a leather goods store that I excised entirely. Additionally, you would discover plenty of subtle alterations were you to contrast the handwritten and the typed editions. There were several awkward sentences in the original version, and I managed to salvage most of them; a couple remain, though, and if you happen to see them and think of a better way for me to express those thoughts, I would genuinely appreciate the guidance.

As always, the story can be read on Google Docs here.

08 July 2009

New Short Story: "Dirty Laundry"

I was up until 3:44 AM writing "Dirty Laundry," and it took me nearly an hour and a half to finish typing it. It is easily the longest piece of fiction I've dashed off in ages. I actually considered breaking it into two pieces, as there are really two stories being told. The first half focuses on Jimmy discovering that Jon has been cheating on him; the second part follows Jimmy to his sister's apartment, where he bears grudging witness to Bruce's mistreatment of her. There's a lot going on in "Dirty Laundry," so if you'll follow along I'll try to predict your questions.

Why did I write about a gay character? One thing that irks me about the gay marriage debate is that too often I read or hear people reduce gays and lesbians to just that singular dimension of their identities, as though that's all they are is just a homosexual. The truth is, their sexuality means no more or less to them than a heterosexual's. Some of us obsess over that part of ourselves, while for others it's almost a nuisance to even consider. We're people, not machines, and that means there are all kinds of dynamics in play with each of us. Jimmy is vulnerable, and I think vulnerability is universal. I liked that this guy is frank enough to admit that his reaction to Jon lacked dignity, and that he didn't care. I could relate to Jimmy in a lot of ways, and I hope you do, too.

Why the mature themes and language? I wanted you to loathe Bruce, and the only way I could do that was to make sure you knew just how vulgar he is. So, at every opportunity, Bruce says something that makes me just want someone to do something to shut him up. We all know people like Bruce; people who got by on being intimidating for so long they become arrogant about being a bully. These are the kinds of people who make jokes about their victims and gloat about their every demonstration of hostility. I cannot stand such people, and I hope that, by the story's climax, you're just as desperate for Jimmy to fight Bruce as Jimmy and I both were.

The title, "Dirty Laundry," refers to both the anonymous lover's navy blue briefs, as well as the dynamics of Jimmy and Shannon's family. We never meet Mom and Dad, but I think we can extrapolate what they're like. Dad subscribes to much of the same macho code as Bruce, which is why neither is comfortable with Jimmy and it's why Dad tolerates Bruce's mistreatment of Shannon. One suspects that, once upon a time, Dad confronted Bruce and his prospective son-in-law out-bullied him. Ever since then, Dad has acquiesced to the younger, stronger bull and essentially sacrificed his daughter's happiness to maintain his sense of how men should be.

Mom, as so many mothers do, has tried her best to maintain a healthy relationship with her children, but has been browbeaten by Dad enough that she employs passive-aggressive techniques to get her way. She never really fights any big battles, but believes that she does because that's what gets her to sleep each night. While Dad goes to bed knowing he's done wrong by both of his children, Mom deludes herself into believing things between Shannon and Bruce, and Jimmy and Dad, will work out in the end. She never really considers the negative impact her own role in these affairs has had, because she knows she's stayed out of things too long.

Where did I get the names? Jon simply came to me as I began writing. I thought he was young enough that his parents would have spelled it without an "h." Jimmy went unnamed for the longest time, as I deliberately postponed having to give him a name until I found one. I wanted something informal, something that would be a nickname rather than a birthname. I nearly named him Sammy, but then I decided I would give that name to the sister because it's unisex. I figured Dad was macho enough that he would want to believe each of his babies would be born a boy, and he would resist a feminine name for his daughter. When the time came to actually write the name for her, I realized I'd written Shannon, instead. Since that was also unisex, that's what she was named.

Back to Jimmy, though, after Sammy I almost went with Timmy. Jimmy rhymed with Timmy, though, and I liked the idea of Jon and Jimmy as a couple. It seemed like the kind of thing that would get a couple of young gay guys teased, and make them a tad self-conscious. I figured friends of Jon's probably called them "Jonny and Jimmy" and his family probably treated them like kids, denying the true nature of their relationship. This is manifest in Jon's insistance that he's uncomfortable with public displays of affection; one suspects that he's not as comfortable being out as Jimmy. Of course, we also learn that the impetus for their moving in together was Jimmy's family shunning Jon; the ensuing confrontation likely forced Jimmy farther out of the closet than Jon.

So, these are some insights into "Dirty Laundry" from its author. I hope I haven't shattered any illusions you created for yourself while reading the short story. If so, then please disregard any contradictory statements by me and refer instead to your own interpretation and insights. They are, certainly, more valid than any speculation I might offer. If you have not yet read "Dirty Laundry," I would sincerely appreciate it if you would take the time to do so. It can be viewed on Google Docs here.

06 July 2009

What's This? A Poem?!

I have long held a dim view of poetry, in large part due to the self-important pretension I find among its proponents. "Poetry is an art that doesn't have to conform to the rules," they like to say. No, more than even just say; they like to gloat about it, for some reason. It's as though the notion of not having to form complete sentences makes poets superior communicators in their minds. That would be fine with me, except that poetry cannot be understood or explained without complete thoughts; this is why entire volumes of analysis exist to explore the works of a given poet, or even a particular poem. If incomplete thoughts are so great, then why are all of those supplemental materials works of prose, and not poems themselves? Aha! Got you!

Regardless of this private little war of mine, tonight I dashed off a poem and have uploaded it to Google Docs (click here). This piece offers glimpses into the recovery period of its narrator following a loss. Just what the nature of the loss is isn't entirely clear; perhaps a divorce, perhaps death itself. I don't know that it matters. The point is, someone who used to be there isn't there anymore. I think when most of us reflect on such periods in our lives, we only have impressions of ourselves during that time; this is why I felt a poem was the most appropriate format for these scattered images of the narrator.

I suspect this will be a piece I revisit later and revise. I'm not terribly in love with it, and yet it pretty much says everything I intended it to say. That means there must be a better way of saying what I've tried to say, and I shall certainly explore those options as they are revealed to me. (Of course, if you happen to see such an opportunity for improvement, I welcome you to share it with me!)

I've had some thoughts for other pieces I'd like to write next. I can't help but feel that I should try to depict an anxiety attack or a Crohn's flare. After all, I have plenty of firsthand experience with each and I think there is potential for such a piece to have resonance and significance for readers who share those experiences. It is oddly comforting to recognize our own misery in someone else, and I should very much like to provide that comfort, should my aptitude overcome the restraints of my talent and allow me to do so.

I have also thought of writing down at least a few of my own autobiographical anecdotes. Perhaps as a sort of exercise in narcissism, perhaps seeking a catharsis; I suppose it's really more for someone else to evaluate. Regardless, my reading of non-fiction works these last few years has made me mindful of the fact that should I depart this world today, few of the stories I can tell would likely survive me. Whether those stories have any significance to anyone but me, I cannot say--I can only record them, and let future audiences decide for themselves what, if any, meaning they wish to ascribe them.

03 July 2009

"Maw-maw"

Insights and Reflections of a Short Story
Recommend you first read the story, here.

I have just uploaded my third work of fiction this week, and I have to say this is easily my favorite so far. The point-of-view character is Shelly, who recalls the death of her grandmother, known as "Maw-maw." Shelly lives with her mother and younger sister, Callie, and is visited by her Aunt Ruth. The funeral itself is not actually discussed in the short story as it stands now; I think a subsequent draft might explore that but it somehow didn't seem particularly relevant to Shelly's narration. I think we can all look back on some key events in our lives with surprise as we discover how few of the seemingly obvious details have stayed with us, displaced by otherwise trivial observations.

I can distinctly recall having watched Scooby Doo prior to going to a cousin's wedding when I was a child, and I recall playing with my mom's keys during the service but I couldn't tell you anything more about the wedding than that. I know it was at the same church where I was wed, and I can even recall the reception was hosted at my aunt's restaurant. Surely, everyone else in attendance could identify the setting for each event, but who else remembers what they watched on TV prior to leaving for the ceremony?

There is only one male character in this piece, and that is Shelly and Callie's grandfather. Unlike their grandmother, referred to throughout as "Maw-maw," he is always called "my grandfather." Shelly clearly has fond memories of him, but I decided he was a WWII vet and that he was likely somewhat formal; besides, it's clear that he had already passed on, and since Shelly was nine at the time, I suspect her memories of him are less vivid than those of her Maw-maw.

This isn't so much a story about Shelly's grandmother as it is about sisterhood. I think we all find ourselves captivated by the kinds of stories our aunts and uncles tell about our parents; those things that only a sibling thinks is appropriate for one's children to know about their youthful indiscretions. Even amidst the background of something as sad as burying a loved one, those kinds of anecdotes are irresistible for children, and that's part of what I was trying to capture in Shelly's recollections.

Also, this is unmistakably set in the South. For one, I don't think Northerners call their grandmothers things like "Maw-maw." Moreover, Aunt Ruth wears a perfume that reminds her of honeysuckle because she misses it, living away from where she was born and raised. Shelly recalls drinking a lot of sweet tea most other summers, and Callie instigates a lightning bug hunt that is, without a doubt, my favorite scene I have ever written. There is, I hope, a sincere sweetness and innocence to that sequence that I hope takes you there with Shelly.

Where did I get the names? you might ask. Mrs. Ellen Baker ("Maw-maw") literally just came to me as I reached the sentence about what the rest of the world called this woman. I liked the timelessness of the first name, and I liked Baker as a family name. I could see young Private Baker writing love letters to his Ellen back home, and thought they seemed like the kind of people I was trying to write about. From there, it was obvious that these are the kind of people that give their children conservative, simple names. There just wouldn't be a Dakota in the family, certainly not in Shelly's generation. What I like about Shelly as a name is that it's almost certainly a corrupted nickname for Michelle; the kind of thing a nine-year-old would still answer to, but could outgrow at a moment's notice. And, the truth is, I stole Callie right out of Dallas, which crossed my mind as I traveled back in time mentally to the 1980s searching for a name for Shelly's sister. J.R. Ewing's second wife came to mind, and I immediately thought of that character's innocence and I thought that this four-year-old girl could easily have grown up to be a young woman like her.

These writing exercises are exciting for me, because it's been a very long time since I last flexed my creative muscle. I'm thrilled to say that the handwritten original draft of this story went into a tenth wide-ruled page, three more pages than the cigar vignette from last night. And, of course, there's plenty of room for expansion should I go back and insert the actual funeral sequence into this story. I nearly wrote one more paragraph featuring Mama and Aunt Ruth's reaction to Shelly's story-ending decision, but ultimately I decided that by defining it I would cheat you of the opportunity to end it for yourself. It just didn't seem necessary, and I hope you agree.

02 July 2009

Cigars and Finesse

I just finished writing and uploading my second work this week. Unlike the confession of a fraud, this is unmistakably a work of fiction. There are only two characters, the narrator and an older man with whom the narrator smokes a cigar. Anyone familiar with my writing style will notice immediately how little description I have provided; and yet, I hope I have succeeded in creating the atmosphere of the story sufficient to allow your own imagination to do the rest. I edited this one while writing it, and again while typing it. Originally, the narrator was on vacation, traveling with a young woman but I excised that because I didn't feel it really added anything. I don't know if this might be the introduction to a larger story or not, though I suppose it could be.

Now, if I'm really lucky, I might convince Chad to design a matchbook for me. That would be cool. In case you're unfamiliar with his work, there is a link to his blog, Chad's Sketch Dumpster, in the sidebar. It's certainly worth the time it takes to click into it, even if he only updates it sporadically at best.

Link to the new short story here.

01 July 2009

iTunes - June 2009

515 songs, 1:05:38:19 total time for the month of June! Wow! Here's what I can tell you about June: It rained. A lot. I read Robert Morgan's Boone: A Biography (reviewed over on The Bookshelf), and I had a bout with a cold at the beginning of the month and a flare at the end. June sucked, frankly. And yet, it appears that my iTunes library got its biggest workout of the year so far. iTunes Essentials account for 150 of the songs I played in June. Those are playlists prepared by iTunes that focus on a specific theme--be it an artist's discography, the hit songs of a particular year, or even just a common theme throughout the songs themselves. I got to exploring these and realized I had all 75 songs on their George Strait and Alan Jackson playlists, and so I put them together myself and gave it a whirl. Not bad, really, even if they are a tad outdated. So, what did I play in June?
  • "All That I Need Is Love" - Melody Gardot (9)*
  • "Love Me Like a River Does" - Melody Gardot (9)*
  • "Goodnite" - Melody Gardot (9)*
  • Worrisome Heart - Melody Gardot (8)*
  • Baby, I'm a Fool - Single - Melody Gardot (6)
  • Lullaby - Single - honeyhoney (6)
  • "Let's Get It Started" - M.C. Hammer (5)**
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow - Single - Jewel (4)
  • Living for the Night - Single - George Strait (4)
  • "Dare (New Recording)" - Stan Bush (3)
  • Who Will Comfort Me - Single - Melody Gardot (3)
  • "Johnny Cash Is Dead and His House Burned Down" - Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers (3)
  • Thinking About You - Single - Norah Jones (3)
  • Just a Little Lovin' - Shelby Lynne (3)
  • "Sorority Girl (Demo)" - Luke Bryan (2)
  • Worrisome Heart - Single - Melody Gardot (2)
  • "Story Behind the Song 'Johnny Cash Is Dead and His House Burned Down'" - Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers (2)
  • "Pump It Up (Here's the News)" - M.C. Hammer (2)
  • "They Put Me in the Mix" - M.C. Hammer (2)
  • "Intro: Turn This Mutha Out" - M.C. Hammer (2)
  • "Like Red on a Rose" - Alan Jackson (2)
  • "A Woman's Love (New Recording)" - Alan Jackson (2)
  • Deep Cuts - EP - Norah Jones (2)
  • "The Tick (Theme)" - Doug Katsaros (2)
  • Sideways - Rolfe Kent (2)
  • "Master Sold My Baby" - Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears (2)
  • "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" - Dean Martin & Shelby Lynne (2)
  • "Pitter-Pat (Acoustic)" - Erin McCarley (2)
  • Stardust - Willie Nelson (2)
Music played once in June included iTunes Originals - Brooks & Dunn, Twister - Music from the Motion Picture, Lucky Old Sun (Deluxe Edition) - Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits and Let's Get It Started - M.C. Hammer, iTunes Essentials playlist and Like Red on a Rose - Alan Jackson, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, Spirit and 0304 - Jewel, Come Away with Me and Not Too Late - Norah Jones, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - EP - Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Twister - Motion Picture Score - Mark Mancina, Moment of Forever - Willie Nelson, Girls in Their Summer Clothes - Single - Bruce Springsteen, iTunes Essentials playlist, I Just Want to Dance with You - Single, Meanwhile - Single - George Strait, The Lost World: Jurassic Park - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - John Williams, and an assortment of other stray songs.

*"All That I Need Is Love," "Love Me Like a River Does" and "Goodnite" are from the Worrisome Heart album. I can't account for why they were played once more than the rest of the songs.

**"Let's Get It Started" was played 3 times from Greatest Hits and twice from Let's Get It Started