Geekdom

Snippets

It has been what feels like an obscenely long time since I’ve blogged.

In the meantime, my book had its birthday and we had ten days’ worth of houseguests, and then I went to Seoul to participate in the Rotary International Convention on behalf of ShelterBox, and then I had a most extraordinary time being carted around South Korea, talking about writing and publishing with interested parties all around.

Truly, I lead a charmed life.

On the last day of lectures, a grueling 4 hours of talking broken up by a pleasant hour-long lunch, I got a note from one of the attendees in the audience. Having evidence of the work we did together outside of Instagrammable, social media fodder in my hands, a tiny little craft-paper envelope with precise writing on it, still warm from her hands, is such a present. I, too, may take to carrying around little cards, the better to thank people in tangible fashion, on the fly. How much we can learn from each other!

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Over my three days with the Embassy, I met some other characters, people I’ll forever be grateful with for making it so obvious that sharing what I’ve learned with others is bound to be a most gratifying existence.

The Old Storyteller: He comes to many of the American Corner Daegu’s events. He speaks pretty spot-on English and has stories he wants to pass on, but he’s 85 and wanted to know what I would tell someone like him, someone who’s tried to write but can’t seem to do it. Time is short, he says. “When should I quit trying?”

The Anxious Girl: “You said we should write every day. Well, I draw every day. Is that okay?” Later, meeting me one-on-one, her hands shook as she tried to turn to a page in her notebook. I mis-stepped, asked if she wanted an autograph, like her classmates, but no, she wanted to show me her drawings, and boy! Were they something! Reptile claws over a planet overgrown with trees and scrub and vines; silhouetted people standing at the hearts of planets, trees rising out through their heads…Yes, yes, write every day, but geez, don’t stop doing these, ever.

The Concerned Citizens: “I wanted to know if you consider yourself a feminist.” And “You say we should fight the efficient fight when it comes to unfairness in the workplace. What is the best way for writers to do this?” And, “As a writer, do you think Donald Trump is exercising free speech?”

The Enthusiastic One: “You’re my very first author ever.”

The Worrier: “I think I carry around so much of what people say in critiques. How do you know what to take and what not to take?”

The Interpreter: Did you know that, during simultaneous interpretation, interpreters have to switch out every ten or fifteen minutes? It’s that grueling.

The Single Girl: My handler over the three days in Korea was this amazing young woman who has no plans of getting married and no plans for kids. She’s truly a career woman, a person who’s constantly curious, always living, it seems, whether that take the form of hiking up Seoul’s beautiful hills or scouting locations for visitors like me or enjoying whatever it is she’s eating. I wish we could have spent more time together.

The Veteran: “Could you sign this for me? I want to show our young people what we can do with our creativity. And I want to show them what we Orientals [sic] can do when we go abroad.”*

What a terrific three days. How lucky I am!

*No, I’m not offended. It’s a dated phrase, and the guy was near 80.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 4

Welcome back to Brain Flotsam, the weekly feature that touches on things I heard, read, and saw that made me go Hmmmm. Here’s what I encountered this week!

A tour of the British Isles in accents! I haven’t vetted this with my English pals yet. But I found it a very useful lesson in both accents AND *cough* geography.

I’ve decided to stop saying and writing “Best of luck.” To my ear, it sounds disingenuous, almost sarcastic–“Yeah, good luck with that“–and it nearly assumes that whatever it is the person is attempting, s/he’s going to need luck to get it done. I think “all best” is a good way to go.

I just started watching Star Trek. It feels a little bit funny, to immediately “know” that Spock is half-human; that the thing he’s doing to that guy’s neck is the Vulcan neck grip; that the guys in the red shirts are all likely to die. There’s no element of surprise or discovery for me. But still, I’m enjoying it to pieces.

I had a shock this week after reading a most undemanding book. It was called Penelope Goes to Portsmouth, and the edition I was reading had this cover on it:

PenelopePortsmouth2

I read it as light, fluffy, frisky modern lit. Like I said, it was completely undemanding work. But then I went to enter the book into Goodreads, and up popped this cover:

PenelopePortsmouth1

And suddenly I was like, o WOW. I had no idea I was reading outdated old-lady romance garbage! We are, as ever, visual creatures, aren’t we? (Capsule review: This book was really fun to read, if not predictable and not assuming a very sophisticated reader. But it was a nice, quick, one-day diversion.)

Pockets. Pockets are on my mind. Nearly all of my dresses–even the nicer ones–have pockets in them. I look for them. When I am out, I keep business cards, a small notebook and pen, lip balm, in them. And sometimes I store things in them–other people’s business cards, for instance. But pockets are also good for memories. This week I found this in the pocket of a dress I last wore in December, in England:

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It is a tiny propeller off a tiny airplane that was a toy in a Christmas cracker. It immediately sent me back, briefly, to an awesome evening with great friends. Pockets. Good for finding memories.

Tune in next week for more Brain Flotsam!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cheez-Its, Springtime, and Book Publishing

Or, Stray Memories.

I think my predilection for orange food (see Cheez-Its; Cheetos [the caveman-club-shaped kind, not the poufy kind]; Annie’s Extra-Cheddary Bunnies; Goldfish; Clementines; carrots with their skin on) may have been encouraged by one Pat Crow, the first editor really to take me under his wing. He, too, had a weakness for nuclear-colored foodstuffs, and I met him at a most impressionable age.

This is Pat, with my friend Julia.

This is Pat, ca. 1998? 99? with my friend Julia.

I didn’t meet Pat until he was done with his New Yorker tenure. He used to take me to lunch, and our cubes at Audubon magazine were right across from each other. He used to buy me copies of books if he went to book signings, and notebooks from Kinokuniya when he went. He was, it’s safe to say, my very first mentor. He edited a short story I’d written, showed me where I went wrong; gave me advice on totally unrelated things: “Stop twirling your hair. You look like a twit.” (Which, by the way, is something my mother was trying to get me to stop doing for, like, ever, but I only stopped doing it when Pat told me to knock it off.)

I think, all in all, our lives only intersected for less than a year. We lost touch after that, and Pat passed away in 2011. (Read: I didn’t work hard enough to keep in touch, and he had enough young writers, I’m sure, vying for his attention beyond me.)

But in a copy of the only novel he ever wrote, Pat wrote this:

For Yi Shun —

My mentor at Audubon, my friend and colleague, who has more promise than springtime itself. 

With affection, 

Patrick Crow

And when I read it, I knew I would carry that phrase around with me–“more promise than springtime itself”–in my mouth, saying it to myself sometimes; in my heart; in my deepest of hopes and sometimes, through the query rejections that followed. If I could have it tattooed on me, massage the copy into a phrase that made sense to everyone who saw it, I might just do it, maybe in Pat’s distinct handwriting, because even if the man who edited John McPhee; who probably shepherded more young writers than I ever will; who probably passed on the name of his favorite tailor to everyone he could; who probably even told many a young office worker to stop twirling her hair, lest she look like a twit, penned that sentiment in a temporary fit of, well, sentimentality, it meant the world to me and my young career.

I wish Pat were here to see May, 2016, which is when my novel, NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU, comes out from Shade Mountain Press.

It’s a big promise to fulfill, that of springtime itself, and it sure is nice to know that someone thought I could.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point, I guess, is that we might all go around saying nice things to people we feel deserve it. Something you say might provide them a little talisman of sorts, to carry around, a star to orient oneself by.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

If Literary Readings Were Major Sporting Events

Howie Long: Hi, sports fans, I’m Howie Long.

Phil Liggett: And I’m Phil Liggett.

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HL: And we’re back from break to bring you live coverage of a very special event: The annual Golden Pencil literary readings.

PL: That’s right, Howie. Now, you may not know this, but this is actually the 20th anniversary of the readings. At stake? The coveted Golden Pencil, a prize absolutely salivated over by every budding writer since 2005.

HL: Well, Phil, the energy in here is certainly up high for a reading.

PL: Who knows what the readers are feeling tonight? We’ve seen some remarkable talent tonight, through the genres, but we have a ringer coming up right now, the penultimate reader of the night. Susie Weekins has just come out from behind the curtain, looking like she’s deep-breathing. Now, Howie, this is a common exercise for seasoned readers. You often can tell the newbies because they’re in the bar, quaffing one too many Cherry Cordials before they take their places at the podium, instead of working on their lungs.

HL: Cherry Cordials!

PL: Yes, Howie, it’s a thing.

HL: Well, anyway. So Susie is up next. She’s a veteran reader, isn’t that right, Phil? And, our sources tell us she actually is a veteran of the Air Force–did I just make a pun?

PL: You did, Howie. Well done.

HL: Next to Susie, you see her coach, Bob Kirkland, one of the nonfiction faculty here at the workshop. Looks like he’s whispering some peptalk into Susie’s ear. What kind of pep talk might writers need, Phil?

PL: Well, Howie, it could be anything from “Remember the windmills”–a nod to Don Quixote, you know–to a more modern quotation from essayist Elissa Washuta, designed to evoke feelings of great calm.

HL: Great calm! Well, who knew? This sure is unlike any sport I’ve ever covered.

PL: Indeed, Howie. And after Susie reads, the lineup will end with the rarest of rare in this arena, Chuck Panterson.

HL: But Phil, why is Chuck such a rarity?

PL: He’s male.

HL: Ohhh.

PL: Indeed, Howie. Oh, Howie! Look at Susie as she moves towards the podium. She’s got her game face on, for sure. And she’s wearing that great maroon top, the same one she wore last year when she rocked the house with her reading about a canoe–

HL: A canoe! Writers can operate canoes?

PL: Shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry.

PL: Anyway, the fact that she’s wearing that same top tells me that she’s feeling good and strong. You know, Howie, writers often have funny little quirks. Some of them don’t bathe for days before a reading. Just look at the way Susie cranks that microphone towards her. She is feeling good. Last year, the MFA invested in a new mike. It’s going to improve the readers’ performance for sure.

HL: Do you go to a lot of these, Phil?

PL: Do shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry. Ooh! What’s Susie doing now?

PL: Oh, she’s engaging in a common crowd-engagement tactic. She’s calling for their support by telling them she’s feeling nervous. Now, I know this is something we see a lot, but I gotta tell you, coming out of Susie, I don’t buy it for one minute. She’s trying to psych out the other readers, and I think it might just work. Once you get the crowd behind you, you can’t lose.

HL: What does Susie have to do bring home the bacon tonight, Phil?

PL: Well, readings are tricky, Howie. Not only do the writers have to read well, they also have to come in under the time limit. Remember last year, when Susie nearly lost The Golden Pencil by a pesky second?

HL: I do! Remind our viewers what happened, though.

PL: She managed to get in under the wire by eliminating a metaphor. It was close, but I’m glad to see she’s recovered from that.

HL: Shh. She’s starting.

PL: Indeed.

HL: Oh! Oh! She’s killing it! She’s bringing it home! She’s…she’s…singing!

PL: Indeed, Howie, she is! Few writers would dare to try out their tremulous vocal chords on an audience so attuned to monotone, but Susie has her eyes closed, she’s pulling out all the stops, she’s dancing over the notes with a confidence that must be borne of a million repetitions and rehearsals. You know, when writers write, they don’t often imagine music. But this one clearly has, and we are PROUD of her.

HL: I can’t believe the crowd. They are going nuts. They are bolt-forward in their chairs. Some are swaying! They are under her spell! She’s in! She’s in! Susie is bound to take home the Golden Pencil for a second year in a row!

PL: Just look at Coach Kirkland, there on the sidelines. He’s crying. We never see this from a writerly coach, never.

HL: Chuck can just sit down, can’t he, Phil?

PL: Well, no. Even though Susie has clearly won the Golden Pencil, Chuck still needs to show up. He’ll win points towards the lifelist series of Most Readings Read At.

HL: Phil, that was a moment to beat all. I’m quaking. I think Susie’s set a new bar for readings.

PL: I think so too. Let’s ink it right now. Susie Weekins has just created the literary reading version of figure skating’s Salchow. Tune in to our web site to vote for what we should call it. And tune in next week as ESPN 2 covers the Wine Tasting 2015 competition, a feat of tongues and nasal passages that will have you riveted to the screen. Thanks for joining us. I’m Phil Liggett.

HL: And I’m Howie Long. And we’re signing off. Good night, all.

Thanks to Ana Maria Spagna, Nancy Rawles, and Kelly Davio for planting the seed for this post. And to Samantha Updegrave, who knows why. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and the F-Bomb

At the end of last  year, I noticed an uptick in the frequency of my swearing–specifically, my propensity to drop the eff-bomb. (For the .0000001 percent of you who have never heard this phrase, I’ll use it here: Fuck.)

So I started penalizing myself; five pushups for every time I dropped it; that and every other, reasonably labeled “cuss word.”

A lot of people ask me why. I have a friend who regularly encourages me to swear; he says I need to cut loose more often. I had my reasons, some of which were tried and true, but today I encountered something that filled in the whole picture for me. So here’s why I’m trying really hard not to use the F-bomb as often as I used to.

This is the peaceful scene I was headed towards before The Ugly Thing happened.

This is the peaceful scene I was headed towards before The Ugly Thing happened.

1. If I’m swearing, I want people to know that I really, really mean it.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Copywriter Brain: An exposé

Copywriting is a largely internal pursuit. And yes, it’s largely solitary. But there is a certain amount of teamwork that takes place, and just as much “brainstorming” as, if not more than, you’d get in any bullpennish office with folks flinging headlines and ideas back and forth at each other, just to test them.

The teamwork takes place between me and my client, me working off of information and feel that I’m getting from them. The bullpenning takes place in my head. It’s loads of fun, honestly.

Most rewarding about the process is the one crystallizing moment, kind of like the ping you get in your ears when a four-part harmony comes together, when you’ve struck the right tone for a line of copy or for a brand whose voice you’re trying to nail down.

If I’m doing my job right, this happens with all my clients.

Sometimes, I get to use the process on myself.

I ran out of business cards recently.

Here’s what they used to look like, and say:

oldcard

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What’s Your Birthright?

We’ve been in California now for a little over a year. I grew up here, moved away for 17 years, and then came back to fulfill what I see my as my filial duty: both of my parents are getting older, and I’d like to get to know them better.

The days run into one another here. The seasons are never changing, especially now that we’re in a terrible drought. (MILITARY SHOWERS, PEOPLE! Just an aside.) We’ve gotten to the point where we chart what month it was by who is visiting, since there’s no weather to provide a memory aid. But there are some days that stand out more than others.

One day, in the summer, for instance. Late in the evening, verging on night, with the sun low across the foothills behind our home. Jim and I are struggling up the hill on our mountain bikes–well, I’m struggling, he’s not–and I’m executing a military move up the hill (veering, left, right, left, right) because that seems like the best way to get ‘er done, when finally, the hill, and the false hill behind it, ends, and we’re at the ridge we’ve climbed so many times before, only this time, something is different.

The sun has just reached the edge of Johnson’s Pasture, on my right, which sweeps away in what can only be described as a textured golden-red sea of sorts, and the “city” of Claremont lies to my left, looking verdant and plush, and my legs have gone loose and free, having conveniently forgotten about the agonizing climb, and a memory triggers somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain, which is the only part that works when I’m exercising, I guess. I’m searching for it, trying to figure out why this feels so damn familiar, and I figure it out just as an overwhelming urge takes me: It’s a scene from a f***ing REI catalog.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Open Letter to the Nike+ announcer lady

Hello there.

I feel I need to tell you something. I loathe your voice. It isn’t because I do not value what you are saying. It is because you Like to Hear Yourself Talk.

I picture you a Grace-Kelly-like ice queen; frosty; sure of yourself. “You have run .01 miles,” you say. And then, because you are so deeply enamored with the sound of your voice, you go on. “Pace, 10 minutes, 12 seconds per mile.” You say this smugly, as if you know that this is miserably slow. A little later, you will say, “You have run .02 miles,” and then you will say something ridiculous: “You are halfway to your goal of 1.8 miles.”

You see? Now I know you are just talking for the sake of talking, because you are just spewing nonsense. Seriously, who runs for 1.8 miles? And who the f*** wants to know their total distance every .01 miles? Crazy people, that’s who!

You were really bad this morning: you spent so much time talking to hear yourself talk that you made me miss a critical clue that the detective in my book on tape had discovered. There is no good way of rewinding while I am trying to jog, operate you, and operate my e-audio-book (???) all at the same time. So I still don’t  know what the clue is, or even whether it matters, although I kind of think it does: You sounded extra smug.

It’s not that no one likes you. You seem to have all these friends. All these professional athletes keep on popping up to wish me well, or say things like, “Keep it up!” or “That’s the way to do it!” Who ARE these people? Tell ’em to go away. I don’t need their kudos. They tell me their names, but I am too busy trying to hear my detective hero while they are telling me. What he is telling me is so much more important that their “Attaboys” (Seriously? Are you off your nut???)

I have proof of this: See? When I go to this little “settings” place? It says I’ve turned you off.

It’s true. I have. And yet, like a bad houseguest, you keep on turning up. Really, how hard can it be to just go away?

I know, part of this is my fault. I seem to be unable to delete you. I like some parts of you. I like your little maps, your points tally, the fact that you show me when I have pulled ahead of this friend, and even when you tell me I have fallen behind. I even like your idiotic little badges, which as far as I can tell mean nothing. But part of me likes to collect these meaningless trifles, I guess.

Anyway. Every relationship has its ups and downs. I like you most of the time. I just hate it when you–or your friends–talk to me. Okay?

Love

Yi Shun

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Verbagram 2, the Raw Fish edition

Our good friend Tim came to visit. We had a packed weekend that somehow managed to include some downtime on our couch and four episodes of American Horror Story, before it jumped the shark. It was fantastic.

It also gave us an excuse to go visit Cousin Richard at his incredible sushi joint. And that gave me an excuse to think about another food-based Verbagram. Because, you know what? I am sick of people describing sushi-grade fish as “like butter.” People. That’s disgusting. Seriously, would you ever eat a stick of butter? Or a pat, by itself? This description makes no sense to me.

Here:

Sometimes, you eat something and it tastes like the place it came from. By this I do not mean that when you eat a piece of steak, it tastes like a barnyard smells. I mean that sometimes you eat something and you get an evocation, an impression. Piece of steak, again: Big, open fields, as far as the eye can see. The occasional tree, and a few lone cows, standing here and there, with a bird of prey streaking across the sky. See? Steak tastes of largesse, of generosity, and even maybe of excess, depending on whether or not you get the crumbled blue cheese on top.

Take sushi: The texture: creamy, practically, even though the fish is arguably solid, sitting there on its rice. It yields to the bite easily; maybe because it’s ribboned with fat, if you’re eating a nice piece of salmon. Or maybe, if it’s yellowtail, just because that’s the way a good fresh fish should be.

You don’t get any flavor at all, really, in that first bite. If anything, the vapors of wasabi and fine rice vinegar are the first to hit your palate; and then, finally, an absurdly clean finish, a little bit like you’ve rinsed with really cold seawater.

Your salmon should evoke the day you spent on the banks of a river in Maine, with the early-summer sunlight dappling the current. And your tuna will take you back to the day you spent on a party boat in Brooklyn. Your uni will remind you, briefly, of the time you got washing-machined by the wave you weren’t expecting, that afternoon in Rhode Island.

For Grier, a photo. Because you requested it.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Instagram Rebellion

…Okay, I have a confession. I’ve never used Instagram. And I’ve never had even the slightest urge to. Partly this is down to the fact that I know I take crap pictures. Also, I have no desire to make my crap photos look like more than they actually are, which is … crap photos.

I haven’t given this too much thought, except this weekend I had the following Twitter exchange:

gooddirt

gooddirt: After incredible pea, poached egg, and crostini lunch @littledoms, have terrible craving for smashed peas!

littledoms

littledoms: @gooddirt attach pic next time. Yum!

See, here’s the thing, okay? Even more than taking crap photos and passing them off as “vintage” or whatever, I hate amateur food photography. It makes me squirm to see folks taking pictures of their food at a restaurant. I don’t understand it, however I might appreciate the results, or “like” them on facebook or retweet them, or whatever.

So I have an idea and a challenge for myself: Each time I come across a dish I like, I will, instead of taking a photo of it, take a verbal snapshot of it. That is, I will write a little ditty describing the dish. I will post the results at my Tumblr as well as here, starting with the aforementioned Little Dom’s dish, above. Here it is:

From a purely literary standpoint, there was no music to it. Even the manager of the joint couldn’t be assed to dress it up: “It sounds really weird,” she said, grimacing apologetically. “It’s peas, poached egg, and pea tendrils on crostini.”

“Hell,” I thought. “Sounds just ugly enough to be right.”

“Right” it was, like a dame in heels and seamed stockings, or coffee, black. The “pea tendrils” were wilted into the crevices of the crostini, much as the yolk from the poached egg sank into those same crevices, and the peas were smashed enough that they fit neatly over the fork tines after you’d loaded the thing with egg, bread, and veg.

For an old hand like me, sustenance could be an art form. But when flavors work well, quotidian matters like “art” disappear.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.