Monday, April 23, 2007

Wasted my talent? I made 68 albums! Talent, Writing, and Selling Out

Deanos dilemma (being accused by a dead Homer Simpson in heaven of wasting his talent) is quite frightful for the creative soul. The implication is that Deano sold out.

Most of us wish for such troubles; if you “sell out”, it means that (a) you had talent in the first place, and (b) people wanted to pay you a lot of money.

But what does selling out mean? And can you sell out without being successful?

I’ve attended (and even taught) my share of creative writing workshops. Inevitably, there is always at least one student who wants to know what the secret is of selling his work. He comes to class hoping to find the secret formula, the magic knowledge that will land him on the best seller list. The answer, of course, is quite simple: write good stuff. And then send it out. Repeat.

This need to know the secret formula is all too human, especially when you see what makes it onto the best-seller list. I mean, there has to be magic involved somewhere! This student doesn’t really like the simple answer, so he starts to formulate theories. I can distill all of the theories I’ve heard over the years into one question: “will it sell?” This question taints the rest of the workshop for such students. They’ll make comments about other people’s work such as: “I think your story is written well, but I don’t think there’s a market for it,” or “people are interested in Chinese coin collected right now, so why don’t you make the main character a Chinese coin collector?” or “using those types of words (swear words, 50 cent words, foreign words, etc.) will turn people off, so you should cut them out.”

These theories effect this student’s writing as well. He’ll copy what is selling write now, be it Clancy-like, Grisham-like, or King-like, and he’ll do as good or as bad a job as they do. But he won’t make good writing. What ever you think of these writers, on thing is certain: they didn’t set out to copy anyone or write to the market. They wrote what they wanted to write. But this poor guy spends his time trying to time the market. He might have talent, he might not. Whatever “talent” is (and I’m not sure), it’s not as important as working hard and believing in what you write. How can you believe in what you write when are trying to write for some amorphous “market”, and not for yourself?

The question “will it sell” spells death to creative writing. We all struggle with self-censorship as it is, ranging from “what will my mother think if I write this?” to “will I be labeled a big fat jerk if I say that?”

Are people like Clancy and Grisham and King sell-outs? I’d argue that they didn’t have much talent to squander in the first place, so they aren’t. What about the poor guy in my writing workshop? If he really has something to say and the drive to work hard, but keeps getting stuck on “will it sell,” he’ll never be a sell-out, because he’ll never be successful. He’ll simply waste any talent he has, and lots of time.

I had a creative writing teacher who said “if you really want to make money, go sell drugs. Or play the lottery. Don’t waste your time writing.” Clancy and Grisham and King hit the lottery. But they also wrote what they wanted to write, market be damned. So did Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston, but they didn’t hit the lottery, at least not like the other three did. I’d argue that none of the six are sell outs.

So which of them are good writers, which of them are bad? Which of them used their talent to its full potential, and which of them didn’t? Which of them helped create a better world, and which of them didn’t? I have no idea. The only thing I know for sure is that some of them wrote books I like to read, and some of them didn’t.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Gun Are Already Legal in DC!

On a neighborhood list serve I’m on, a debate was recently raging about gun control in DC. It stemmed from a recent robbery attempt in which an assailant wildly fired a pistol while fleeing. People weighed in on both sides.

Basically, what it comes down to is the old 2nd amendment debate. I’m tired of hearing about it.

Regarding current district law, there is no constitutional issue. Any law abiding citizen in DC can own a fire arm. Let me make that statement again: any law abiding citizen in DC can own a fire arm. You just can’t own a pistol or a “sawed-off shut gun.” But you can own a rifle or a non-sawed-off shot gun.

The people who make the argument that they want to own a hand gun so they can protect their families and homes are being disingenuous. Leaving aside these peoples paranoia, siege mentality, mistrust of government, mistrust of humankind, and logical absurdity, here’s why they are disingenuous: if I wanted to own a firearm to defend my home from a burglar, murdered, or any other “home invader”, why would I want a pistol? I’d want a giant shot gun. You barely have to aim a shot gun. In a time of panic and fright, why would I want to mess around with a pistol, trying to aim it with a shaky hand, perhaps in the middle of the night, perhaps from across a room? A shot gun makes so much more sense.

That said, I don’t want a gun in my house of any kind. But, let me say this again: the people of DC already have, and have always had, the right to keep and bear arms: shotguns and rifles.

That should end the constitutional debate. But of course it doesn’t.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mayoral Trademarks: Crack Pipes to Hats to Motif Coffee Mugs

Among my many titles, I answer to the moniker Alderman of Coladams Circle. I also answer to Ombudsman of all the Internets, Commodore Way-Cool, and Mary Queen of Scots. (I’ve also always wanted to be referred to as “Pontifex Maximus”, simply because of how it rolls off the tongue, and, of course, because of my unnatural love of bridges; there are, however, certain untenable drawbacks to holding that title, so I’ve always declined its bestowal.)

But as Alderman of Coladams Circle, which is much like being a Mayor, I feel I need some sort of recognizable trademark.

Mayor Williams had his bow tie.

Mayor Barry had his crack pipe.

And now Mayor Fenty has that… that… that HAT. (His haberdashery knows no bounds.)

Having been lauded on one of the internets (as Ombudsman, I keep current) for my “dipshit galoshes”, I thought about using those as my trademark. But that would mean that I would have to wear them to every public appearance, every function, every ribbon cutting, charity event, press conference, and speaking engagement that takes place in Coladams Circle. You know, like Fenty does with that…that…that HAT.

I just got a new rain coat and I considered using that as my trademark, since you never know when it’s going to rain. But associations with flashers, spies, and confused old men (I have enough trouble with that one already) convinced me otherwise. I also have that Norwegian sweater I’m constantly spotted wearing in that picture over there. However, I’m afraid that the sweater would become so besotted with body odor and perspiration (and the attendant swarm of flies and colonies of mold) during DC’s long, hot summers as to tarnish my reputation as a dandy and preclude me from any but the most scandalous of public appearances.

So I’ve decided on a pair of rumpled kakis and a half full Christmas motif coffee mug. To be truthful, I didn’t really decide on this; it’s more of a default position. I’m so often seen with these accoutrements that it was a natural fit. I think these would be as logical a trademark for a man of my lofty station as Fenty’s use of that…that…that HAT.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Everglades Want to Kill You

Not wanting to wait until I found myself in the closing jaws of an alligator or eating what I thought was lettuce but turned out to be one of the many poisonous Everglades plants, I decided to do some much needed research. I made this decision in Key West, however, the day before we were to plunge into the wilds of the Everglades to set up camp. This limited my research options.

I only found one book in Key West about the Everglades. Fortunately, it contained the information I was looking for. I quickly learned that the Everglades could kill you 50 different ways the moment you step out of your car.

To start, there are water moccasins, copper heads, and two kinds of rattlesnakes, and perhaps various species of constrictors and pythons that have escaped into the wild. As long as you don’t sneak up on them, or go swimming with them, or insult them in some way, the snakes will leave you alone. But it is not uncommon for a visitor to be attacked by more than one snake at time in the Everglades, even more than one species of snakes. Or so I imagined. Because one has little to do in Key West when sitting on the beach drinking Red Stripe after Red Stripe while reading about the Everglades, except contemplate all the forms in which death could visit you there.

I also learned that the Everglades is home to Florida panthers. Seeing as how they haven’t won a Stanley Cup in a while and are forced to live in a swamp, I knew to be wary of them. But I figured they’d be rather unwieldy trying to negotiate through mangroves and quicksand on ice skates (even if there are hockey skates). How silly I felt (and tipsy) when I continued my reading and found that these “panthers” are actually rather large carnivorous cats. To add to the confusion, the book compared them to other “mountain lions” around the U.S., like the “Nittany Lions” of Pennsylvania (or the “Panthers” of Pitt).

Thoroughly confused (and more than a little worried), I then learned about, what else, alligators. I understand the issue with alligators. I had no intention of poking any with a stick or thrashing about woundedly in the water. But what I didn’t know is that there are also crocodiles in Florida. I’m not sure if I can tell the difference between a gator and a croc, but I hoped this confusion wouldn’t lead to some sort of reptilian meal-related mishap, for I figured with my luck, I’d be staring at the open mouth of one of these animals (after having jumped into the water in a frantic attempt to escape a pack of snakes (or hockey players)), trying to determine if it were a crocodile or alligator (I think you count their teeth, or make a bag out of them and see how it wears, or something), when the other kind would sneak up behind me and CHOMP, there would go my glove hand.

Compared to the various animals who want to kill you, there are also any number of poisonous plants. In particular, there is a tree called the Poisonwood. The book provided helpful pictures. The problem was I was drunk, so the picture of the Poisonwood tree looked to me like a picture of an Oak tree. Or a maple tree. Or any tree, really. (On a side note, the picture didn’t improve the next day during my hang-over.) Since we would be camping, I was worried about inadvertently using poisonwood for the camp fire. I imagine that breathing the smoke of a burning poisonwood log would be rather irritating. It might make your lungs itchy, necessitating all sort of inventiveness and contortions as you make a desperate yet vain attempt to scratch your lungs.

The Everglades are full of other comparatively minor nuisances, such as thick swarms of mosquitoes (unbearable at some times of the year, the book said; oh, and Deet doesn’t work), biting flies, wasps, hornets, bees, buzzards, gulls, jelly fish, and any number of allergens at all times of the year. As we drove east on the Overseas Highway, I began to question why we were going to camp in the Everglades. Then I remembered: it's beautiful. And it was! (Pictures still forthcoming.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

DC’s Friendliest People

DC gets a bad rap as an unfriendly place. You walk down the street and no one says hello to you. People pass you by either with down-turned heads or cell phones stuck to their faces. Some people have mastered the skill of typing away on those little itsy bitsy Blackberry keys as they walk along, never once getting hit by a Metro bus.

The bad rap is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone here is from somewhere else, usually a more friendly small town where people are nice, a place to which DC compares unfavorably. When these people arrive from “Indiana” (in quotes because there’s some question in my mind as to whether it is an actual place) or “Missouri” (same reason for quotes), they decide they must fit in, and thus walk around ignoring everyone else’s existence.

But if you’re open to it, you’ll find many friendly people here in DC, because DC has a long tradition of friendliness, from politicians on the take to squirrels to regular people. For instance, there’s the guy near the door of the Starbucks next to the U Street Metro (I think he lives there) who greets me every morning and evening with the delightful words “help me get something to eat?” What’s more friendly than requesting a total stranger to share food with you?

In my old neighborhood near RFK, I had countless offers of help unloading my car or raking leaves or cutting grass, totally unsolicited help, help that I didn’t need, help that was a little aggressive and frightening, help that (of course) required compensation. Such friendly helpfulness!

There’s the joke guy who sometimes followed me down Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill telling me off-color jokes for some reason, and then there’s the “Final Jeopardy” guy down town who always wishes me to test his knowledge of state capitals as I staggered out of Indebleu (I’ve learned that’s how it’s spelled even when you NOT drunk!); better him than me, I say! I can only imagine the scene if he insisted on testing my knowledge of state capitals as I steady myself against a light post and blather on about how much I love him, man! He wouldn’t give me a cent.

But the friendliest guy I’ve met in the city was on Capitol Hill. He was some sort of Bottom–like mechanical, dressed in blue work clothes and a tool belt. I met him four or five times at various locations around the Hill, and he always seems to be in the same pickle. Quite the absentminded fellow, he’s constantly on the phone with his wife, trying to figure out how to get home. You see, he consistently leaves his wallet and keys in his coveralls back at work and doesn’t have any change for the bus. He always tells his wife to hold on and he’ll ask someone, and that someone was me. He was always happy and amused by his mistake. Such a friendly guy! And so prone to forgetfulness! If you see him around (and I bet you will), become a part of the friendly DC and tell him his old friend at aportablesnack says hello!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Don Imus: Pathetic, Crotchety Old Man

I’ve been trying to get my own radio show for a long time, but the only people who seem to get these gigs are folks like Don Imus.

What’s Don Imus got that I don’t? Let’s face it, I say stupid things all the time. I’m out of touch with reality. The youth culture of America frightens and confuses me. I should be a shoe-in!

With that said, I’m tickled by the Imus controversy. He has shown himself to be more pathetic than anything else. He’s an crotchety old man completely isolated from the larger culture of America.

For instance, his remarks, as I understand it, stemmed from the fact that some of the Rutgers players have tattoos. How many of us know someone with a tattoo, or have a tattoo ourselves? There was a time, I suppose, when only sailors and convicts had tattoos. Imus still lives in that age, when men wore fedoras and a coke cost a nickel. (He is THAT OLD.) A tattoo signified a bad seed (and rock and roll music rotted the brain). But a tattoo signifies nothing these days, except that the person who has it, wanted it. Imus is too out of touch to understand that. Or just about anything else. Look at the stupid hat he wears, for god’s sake.

The response from the Rutgers players was perfect. I characterize it as bemused. They defended themselves with quiet grace. Some of them even laughed about it. You would think that Don Imus and his aging white male out-of-touch frightened audience would look at the Rutgers players as role models: academic athletes who will do well in life, people who make them feel a little safer, whose existence assuages their white male guilt, so they can say “see, the American system works and isn’t racist and sexist!” But instead of expressing this only slightly less demeaning rationalization, Imus simply denigrates them, their achievements, and their humanity. (And even seeing them as “role models” is patronizing in the first place: why should it be surprising that young African-American women are smart and well-spoken (with or without tattoos)?)

I’m glad Imus made a fool of himself. He’s simply an old fool. He and his ilk are dying off, thankfully, and they won’t see the Rutgers players running companies, healing sick people, holding elected office, and just maybe hosting their own radio shows. He’d probably say something nasty about them, anyway.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I’m Glad to be Back from Sunny Florida

Landing at National after 9 days in the warm Florida sunshine, despite the snow and shivering cheery blossoms, I was glad to be home. The gray skies and biting wind did nothing to dampen my feelings.

My life in DC is so much better than any life I could imagine in south Florida, for one simple reason: cars. Yesterday, this article in the Washington Post confirmed what I learned from years of commuting to Tyson’s Corner, a time in my life that is happily behind me. In the Miami area, it is just about impossible to live without a car.

This means, to me at least, that the cities of south Florida can’t compete with DC when it comes to quality of life. The best in south Florida are usually situated on the barrier islands. The beach towns, stretching from Miami Beach to Ft. Lauderdale and further north to Palm Beach, are about the best urban spaces in this part of Florida. These places, while fancy, are rather sterile, with little street life to speak of. No one walking to the corner store or the gym or the dry cleaners. No one walking to the local bar or restaurant. You drive to these places. At night, certain blocks come alive, but these rest of the streets are dead save for buzzing traffic. Most people who actually live in these beach towns, reside in cold, absurdly large and fantastically expensive condominium buildings. I’m not sure who they are, but it doesn’t seem they venture outside very often, except when they burst forth from underground parking garages in their bass-thumping SUVs or sports cars.

However, I actually liked these areas much more than I thought I would. South Beach is a veritable outdoor museum of art deco architecture, which is not my favorite. But strung together, building after building, block after block, with palm trees and neon, it was wonderful! There’s a certain amount of life coming and going if you sit still long enough to notice, and of course there’s the beach. But this is probably a function of contrasts: go inland just a few blocks, and you find yourself in no-where land. The southeast side of Florida, from Homestead north to at least Ft. Lauderdale (and probably farther) is one vast sprawling suburb, from the edge of the Everglades to the high rises along the Atlantic. It’s one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen in my life. And I grew up in the rust belt.

What makes Florida so bad is the lack of choice. If you have lots of money, you have more choices (same as anywhere else, I suppose). You can buy a condo in Miami Beach and walk somewhere, if you can find somewhere you want to walk to. But if you are a regular person, you’ll probably end up living in a place that you must use a car to get anywhere. You have no real choice. Everything is the same. In most neighborhoods in DC, where lots of regular people (like me) live, from the Hill to Columbia Heights to Georgetown, you can go weeks, months, even years, without ever driving a car unless you choose to. To me, there is an indirect correlation between time spent behind the wheel and quality of life. The less time driving, the better my life.

So now I’m back in my little corner of DC, stopping at my wine store on the way home from work, having a coffee on the side walk, watching regular people do mundane errands, and I’m happy. Despite the strange weather, I’m glad to be out of Sunny Florida.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Offending Cock

Living on Sponge Cake

My wife and I just returned from a trip to south Florida. Before we went, I had decided that I didn’t like south Florida, or Florida in general. I don’t know why I made that decision. (Actually, I do know why: because there are alligators there; but that sounds rather snobbish, so I didn’t want to bring it up here.) After spending a week and half there, I’ve come to the hard thought out decision that I don’t mind southern Florida. “Don’t mind” falls somewhere in the middle of my “Place Likeability Scale” or “PLS”. My PLS goes from “utter loathing” all the way to “I wouldn’t mind dying there.” Specific parts of south Florida tend toward “pretty darn cool” (which is 2 clicks below “I wouldn’t mind dying there” on the PLS), while other parts of the state come very close to “get me out of here!” (only a notch away from “utter loathing”).

Pictures are forthcoming, although none of them show me being eaten by an alligator. Which is kind of disappointing, in a certain sense, because THAT would make a great blog entry. The logistics of such an entry are rather difficult to imagine, but my journal entry below gives a flavor of what such an entry might be like:

“Key West, Friday, March 29.

"The island is over-run with chickens. They tell me they are of the “feral” variety, which I can only assume means “soft and cuddly”, because they look so fluffy and friendly.

"One particularly jaunty fellow is approaching me now as I sip my mimosa on this quaint porch. How amazing, he’s coming right up to me. What beautifully colors! What amazing plumes! Hi little fellow! I don’t know if it’s the 4 mimosas or three Red Stripes talking, but I feel quite close to this rooster right now. I think I’ll reach out and give him a little hug.

"Well, I’ve got a hold of him, and I think he likes me, although I’ll know better tomorrow during my hang-over when I’ll actually be able to tell if his feet are tearing up the skin on my arms as I imagine they must be. The claws look sharp enough to shred paper!

"Oh, look! Now he’s pecking my head. That, I can feel a bit. He’s moving down my forehead toward my eye. Boy, now that hurts! That hurts a LOT! I should probably throw him away from me, or at least leave off writing in this damnable journal for a moment in order to grasp him more firmly with BOTH hands. I’ll soon have to stop writing anyway, since he’s moving on to my other eye, and I’ll soon be blind. But no matter, because, as they say in Key West….OWW! klahtygiroqjkhfjbtyu5oheqvjrkqjvkbtroguifejhgj….”

I’m sure an entry about being eaten by an alligator would be at least twice as exciting, and probably have a better back-story. But we’ll have to settle for a feral cock. And he was, too.