Glossy Eyed

I went into Barnes & Noble this morning for no particular reason.

Elite athletes engage in pre-visualization before they compete. Me? I engage in pre-rationalization before I go into a bookstore. “You could buy that non-fiction book. The one about China that won the National Book Award last night. It must be good. And no one should feel guilty about buying that book. Understanding China is super important,” I said to myself. “Or maybe that short story collection.” I don’t read short story collections, so buying one couldn’t possibly be self-indulgent.

If you pre-rationalize, you are always ready with an excuse (or excuses) for the book (books) leaving the store with you.

Using my advanced pre-rationalization skills, I was able to walk right past the Build Your Own Darth Vader kit and the book about knot tying that comes with its own length of sturdy white rope—both of which could make for a bitchin’ Saturday afternoon. Or ‘gifts’: pre-rationalization code for things I buy for other people but end up deciding to keep for myself (or read before I give it to them.)

Turns out, I couldn’t remember the name of the China book and I didn’t feel like asking. (It’s Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China, by the way.) I couldn’t work up any excitement for the short story collection. So I went to the magazine section.

Have you been to the magazine section of the bookstore lately? I hadn’t. The racks are overflowing with weird and oddly-specific publications. Everywhere I turned I kept hearing Jerry Seinfeld in my head asking “What’s the deal with that?”

Better keep an eye on Robert E. Lee

Better keep an eye on that Robert E. Lee

The Civil War Monitor. What are you monitoring? Seems that one is pretty much done and dusted, even for me, and I’m from the South.

How about the new-agey health/yoga/meditation section? Three magazines had cover stories about 10% Happier, Dan Harris’s excellent book about how meditation has transformed his life. They seem to be about 100% happier that someone in the main stream media—someone who is ON TV—will be in their magazine. Sting and Trudie can only be on the cover so often, I guess.

Experience Life?

Experience Life?

Also, in the health section, behind the Dr. Oz magazine with the headline that read something like Eat Anything You Want – Even Cake! was a particularly ironic rack where the WeightWatchers magazine was placed right next to something called livehappy. Take it from me, those two DO NOT go together. (In the picture, you’ll catch a glimpse of What Doctors Don’t Tell You. I DID NOT open that. My active imagination keeps me up at night without visual aides, thank you very much.)

Hey there, Deter Jeter. Nice list.

Hey there, Deter Jeter. Nice list.

There was actually a magazine called List It! At $9.99 it includes such compelling material as Top Ten Fictional Animals and, as you can see from the cover, 6 Things Taylor Swift Always Has In Her Fridge. (Side note: Does anyone remember The Book of Lists? I remember it being in lots of people’s bathrooms in the 80s.) My best guess is this magazine is for people who would read BuzzFeed all day but don’t have the internet. This is really sad for them. How will they know which Lord of The Rings character they are? (Samwise) Or what city they should actually live in? (London) Is there a magazine called Quiz Yourself!?

There were special issues about Star Wars and The Hunger Games and even a Rolling Stone all about Tom Petty. There were breathtaking design magazines and magazines for songwriters and quilters and knitters and woodworkers. And Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy and People where the “Fancy” is silent.

I drooled over many food magazines, including the amazing Lucky Peach, which had cartoons of lobster rolls. There are snapshots from vacations I will never take in AFAR’s “Not Your Typical Islands” issue and thoughtful articles I will never read in The Economist.

* le sigh *

The magazines blew my mind. So many stories, so many pictures, so many words.

I didn’t buy any. I couldn’t decide. Next time I’ll have to prepare: “It is important to know how to cook chicken five different ways in under twenty minutes. Everyone has to eat.” Or “I read Dan Harris’s book. But if I don’t read this article about his book I might be able to be 11% happier. That one percent could make all the difference.” Or (the best of all) “I have to buy this magazine. My friend Maggie has a piece in it.”




Like that headline? Do you feel like you’re reading Buzzfeed? Would you rather be reading Buzzfeed? Okay, don’t answer that one.


Yeah, I’m gonna need those TPS reports…

Yesterday, the tire pressure warning light came on in my car. (I learned after an hour of internet searching it is abbreviated as the TPWS. Now we know. Now we can sound cool on the auto repair message boards. Of which there are many. Trust me.) “Check Left Front Tire Pressure” is what the dashboard said. So I checked the pressure. It seemed a little low so I put in some air. The light didn’t go off. I checked the pressure again. Still okay. The light still didn’t go off. So, you know, not okay.

Today I went to my local tire store. A pleasant young man greeted me when I walked in. I told him my story and he said he’d take a look. I pulled into the bay and he checked every tire.


“The back left one was kinda low. But I put some air in. They are all evened out now. Should be fine.”

“But the light! The light! It won’t go out.” I said, sounding like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.Gaslight-14

“It will now.” He had a Ron Swanson confidence that I thought might be premature.

“But yesterday…It didn’t go out.”

“It will now.”

I cranked the car. No light. Problem solved, at least for now. Turns out when I had my tires rotated a month ago they didn’t reassign the TPWS sensors so when my car said “left front” it actually meant “left rear.” Who knew my car likes subtext?

With that, my own Ron Swanson charged me nothing and sent me on my way with just a friendly smile. (You’re right, we still don’t know WHY the tire was low in the first place, but that’s a problem for another day.)

On the way home I got to thinking about the value of having somewhere to go when I needed help with that tire. That thinking lead to this list, in no particular order, of random everyday things that are invaluable and important.

  1. A trustworthy auto mechanic/tire guy. Hopefully, you don’t need them a lot but when you do, you really need them. And you need to at least feel like you’re not getting ripped off. I remember a gotcha piece John Stossel did once on Dateline about a tire place in Cherry Hill, New Jersey that was charging for work they didn’t do. I thought of that piece EVERY TIME I drove by there. I also might have cursed at them in my head.
  2. A reliable alarm clock. It doesn’t have to be a clock. It can be a phone or an iPad or a rooster outside your window, but when you need to wake up at a certain time, the only way you’re going to get any sleep is if you are confident that your alarm will go off. I had someone who worked for me once whose father called him every morning to make sure he was awake for work. He was a twenty-six year old annoying spoiled brat with a law degree, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t have a system.
  3. Extra batteries. Don’t let the remote control die on your watch. (Probably best to include phone chargers here too.) Power to the people.
  4. Quarters. If you were like me, you spent a large part of your late teens and early
    This is what a pay phone looks like.

    This is what a pay phone looks like.

    twenties hoarding quarters like a doomsday-prepper squirrel. Without quarters there was no clean laundry. For a while, quarters are what it took to call from a pay phone. I no longer have to stock up for the Wash N Dry, but I try to always have quarters on me or in my car. You need them if you want to put air in the tires (see above) or use the vacuums at the car wash. You can buy a diet Coke from a machine if nothing is open and you can use them to pry open your waterproof phone case. You can even flip one to settle a dispute or a bar bet. Quarters? Good.

  5. A good quality jam. A song that you love SO MUCH RIGHT NOW and can listen to on heavy rotation. This song will change. It has to change. Today it might be All About That Bass or Barracuda or No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn. Tomorrow maybe its Wild Side or Jolene or Poker Face. Doesn’t matter. But its your go-to when you need a pick me up or a slow me down or just proof that somebody somewhere some time felt the way you’re feeling right now and wrote a song about it. Or just laid down some wicked beats. Whatever. Rock on, man. No shame in your game.

So…that’s my list. I hope this advice has been helpful. I hope you tuck a quarter or two somewhere in your car.

And me? I’m the one in the car next to you singing along to the radio.

A Tale of Two Books: Outlander and Gone Girl

I have been thinking and talking a lot about adaptation over the past few weeks. Between Outlander and Gone Girl there is a lot to be talked and thought about. About what works, what doesn’t, who gets to stay, who has to go, and how to tell the same story maximizing the strengths of different mediums. My friend Maggie and I did weekly debriefs after every episode of Outlander and I won’t admit to how many text messages have been exchanged on the subject, but if this were Card Sharks I would recommend you say “I’m going to have to go higher than that,” to the number that originally popped in your head. (Read Maggie’s post about Outlander here if you’re interested.)

It is probably important to say right up front that I loved Gone Girl when I read it last summer and I only read Outlander in preparation just before and right after the series premiere. I have only read the one book. (I did start, but didn’t finish, the second one. There are eight books total.) While I have an ongoing love-affair and word-crush on Gillian Flynn’s wicked Nick and Amy Dunne, let’s just say that if my feelings about the Outlander universe were a Facebook status it would be “complicated” or just display the “Ask” button.

Outlander-TV_series-2014For Outlander, Ronald D. Moore, the amazing showrunner who brought Battlestar Galactica to TV, said in an interview with Variety that he always intended to do a very “faithful adaptation.” According to Moore, Chris Albrecht, the CEO of Starz, said, “make this show for the fans and trust that anyone who’s not a fan will be swept up in the story the same way all the readers were.” He has, for the most part, been true to his word, at least as much as a person who has only read the book once can tell. Also, it seems, Outlander book-fans are mostly pleased. Diana Gabaldon also seems,by a quick review of her posts in a CompuServe forum–the same CompuServe forum where she originally posted early drafts of the first novel, thrilled. (That’s not a typo. Yes, a CompuServe forum. Those still exist.) She even appeared in the show, with a speaking role, in “The Gathering” episode.

My question is how do people who hadn’t or haven’t read the books feel? Or how about someone, like me, who frankly didn’t like the book itself, but thinks the idea of a TV show with these characters could be compelling? In answer to the first, my friend who hasn’t read the book abandoned the show after three episodes citing too much voiceover (which is often text taken directly from the book) and a disjointed, muddled story. This is far from a scientific sample, but I don’t know anyone else who is watching on their own that hasn’t read the books.

In answer to the second question, I keep watching. And I watch closely. It’s become a project of sorts. I read articles and interviews. I listen to Outlander podcasts. (Including one called The Scot and the Sassenach, where the original premise is that she’s read the books and he hasn’t.) I do this for two reasons: 1) I’m interested in storytelling and craft and how that differs between books and television, and, 2) So many really smart people in my life LOVE these books and I’m convinced I must just be missing something.

My conclusion after a grand total of eight episodes is, well, I don’t know what. The television production is breathtakingly beautiful, well thought-out, and well constructed. It might as well be a Visit Scotland! promotional film for the Highlands. The costumes, set and art direction are phenomenal. The acting is real and compelling. The characters and settings are engaging. The story? Well, it’s…okay. It kind of moves along like the book that I didn’t very much care for. And it does that on purpose. And I’m bothered by that. But, I think, I might be the only one. No one else seems to care.

So, after this experiment of mine with Outlander, I did have some reservations going into the Gone Girl movie. The book is not a sprawling, multi-book epic with thousands of pages spanning time and generations, so it should be easier to adapt. But it was also a long, twisty book with a lot of time spent in the character’s heads, sort of like the first Outlander book. And, even though I am very clearly a Gillian Flynn fan (I HAVE actually read all of her books—there are three), it is complicated to adapt your own work. Thinking about all of the editing and revision that goes into a novel and then going back and doing another round. Well, that’s just hard on the brain.

gone girlI was in my seat on Saturday ready to love Gone Girl, but willing to admit I might just love it because of the book and Flynn. But I didn’t have to love it for anything other than the movie on the screen. It is weird and mysterious. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, who collaborated on the score, and David Fincher really seem to get each other. So, I starting thinking about why (discounting for my experience with the source material) this worked for me so much more than Outlander. I tried to “unpack my feelings” as Maggie would say and I also started digging around on the internet.


Flynn said this, in Rolling Stone:

It boils down to the plot, which moves everything (and is very hard to disassemble too much) and making these characters believable so you can go to the crazy places that the story goes.

I kind of approached it…I was a writer for 10 years for a weekly magazine [Entertainment Weekly], and had spent so much of my time having my 1,000-word piece suddenly be a 200-word box, and having to disassemble it and create it as a new thing. I think that helped me be pragmatic about it; I sort of had a ruthless, “I killed my darlings” approach to it.

David Fincher commented on NPR that if everyone who had bought the book came to the movie and brought a plus one the movie would probably lose money. So the movie had to be a property that stood on its own, with or without the loyalty of the fans of the source material.

Those approaches show in the final product. They boiled the book down to its essential materials and then built it back up. And built it differently. And didn’t worry too much about the fans of the book.

Now, I recognize that movies are very different from TV. Flynn and Fincher just have to convince people to show up once. Moore and Outlander have to keep the audience coming back. Diana Gabaldon has, according to Google, sold over twenty-million books, so if a tenth of those people–and only those people–watch Starz on Saturday night, the show’s a hit. If the same percentage of Flynn’s readers go see the movie, that would be a major problem.

But, even so, in my (as previously stated–minority) opinion, the Outlander adaptation is at its best when it’s more like the Gone Girl adaptation–loyal to the source material but not beholden to it. Adaptation, in the context of movies and TV, strictly speaking, is the alteration of the source material to make it suitable for filming. In a basic, literal sense, doing what is necessary to make the book fit in a visual medium.

But adaptation has another meaning, the biology one, that says that adaptation is “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.”

Outlander and Gone Girl are both successful adaptations, if success is judged by the definitions above. I would just argue that Flynn and Fincher’s adaptation is more organic, more primal, more evolutionary. This is a new species of Dunne.

That, to me, is much more interesting.



Wildness is a Necessity

2014-08-23 07.34.32

The Park Loop Road : Acadia National Park

Enigma (noun) : a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.

My love for our National Parks is an enigma. My own backyard, which is admittedly lovely, is saturated with Tiger mosquitoes and nasty ticks this time of year. My natural walking speed is somewhere between stroll and mosey. If you ever see me running, send help, because I’m being chased.

But when I’m in one of the National Parks—even one that has mosquitoes and ticks—I become a person with durable wool socks, Helly Hansen hiking shoes, and Deep Woods Off.

My phone stays in my pocket because, even if I have cell service, I don’t want it. I stop to look at meandering brooks or tiny fish darting in and out of the long grasses on the shoreline. I’ll sometimes sit on a rock that is not necessarily suitable for sitting but perfectly suitable for thinking.

I gaze on scenic vistas and imagine how it must have been for people a hundred, two hundred, or three hundred years before to, like me, experience mountains so tall their summits are hidden by the clouds themselves, or see ancient echoes of glaciers, or stand in an seemingly endless deserts for the first time. I feel closer to the writings of Muir and Thoreau.

Aerial View of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key and Bush Key  Source: National Park Service

Aerial View of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key and Bush Key Source: National Park Service

I have had the outstanding good fortune to visit many of our National Parks. I often say I am one of the few people to have visited the Dry Tortugas, home to a Civil War fort two hours by boat off the coast of Key West, and Denali National Park, home of Mt. McKinley a little more than two hours drive north of Anchorage. (This declaration, of course, is based on no actual data whatsoever, other than my own NPS humblebrag.)

I have seen the Joshua Trees in the California desert and the giant redwoods of Sequoia in the California mountains. I have listened for the ghosts of the Founding Fathers at Independence National Park in Philadelphia, PA, and read love letters between John and Abigail Adams in Quincy, MA.

Photo Credit: Bob Moffatt Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Photo Credit: Bob Moffatt
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are miraculous and ancient. It is no mystery to me why the colorful slot canyons of Lake Powell in Arizona are so often used by filmmakers as a stand in for Mars. (Watch some of Taylor Kitsch in John Carter if you want to check it out. Don’t watch the whole thing. There are way better things you could do with your time, like watching Taylor Kitsch in Friday Night Lights.)

It is without hyperbole or exaggeration that I can say that Zion in Utah is literally one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Acadia GuidebookRecently, I visited Acadia National Park in Downeast Maine for the first time. My most excellent guidebook, Acadia: The Complete Guide, by the most excellent James Kaiser (who also has a great guidebook for Joshua Tree) referred to Acadia as “posh” amongst its National Park peers. And that’s true. As National Parks go, Acadia is privileged in both time and place. It grew from the tireless work of two wealthy Bar Harbor cottagers and has benefitted greatly from the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and now his son David. We happened to pass David Rockefeller on our trip along one of his father’s carriage roads. It isn’t every day that you see a scion of one of America’s wealthiest families doing exactly what you’re doing: enjoying the clear air and the beauty of the Maine coast on a late summer afternoon. Especially considering that David Rockefeller is nearly a century old. But there he was. And there we were. It was strange and comforting all at once.

I love, without reservation or qualification or even a whiff of irony, our National Parks. I am thankful for the men and women who work the keep them open and accessible. I am thankful for people like Muir and May Mann Jennings and the other early conservationists, scientists, and advocates that made these parks possible.

I am thankful for interpretive guides, short information films, dioramas in visitors’ centers, and detailed topographical maps. I am thankful for Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

I learned early on the park cliche to leave only footprints and take only pictures. I unabashedly take much more than pictures. I take with me the peace, grace, and power of the world around us. I take stock of our collective history, my personal present, and our uncertain future.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.”

— John Muir, Our National Parks, 1909


Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park


Listening to Silent Bob

The things that made me want to write and made me believe I had stories to tell are not things that get a lot of respect in the literary world or make me cool.

Here, in no particular order, are some of those things:

I'm not even supposed to be here today.

I’m not even supposed to be here today.

  • Kevin Smith’s movies Clerks and Mallrats.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all related texts by Douglas Adams.
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.
  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman.
  • The television shows Burn Notice and Arrested Development.


Several years ago, my friends and I got tickets to a Q&A with Kevin Smith at the Merriam Theater. There were expletive-soaked stories and lurid and graphic tales of sexual proclivities. Anyone who knows who Kevin Smith is would expect nothing less. What I didn’t expect was that some random dude would ask a question that would literally alter the course of my entire life.

Random dude: I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to get started.

Smith: If you write, you’re a writer.

That’s it. It’s just that simple.


I took this picture!

I have written about this before. I have talked about how that one simple answer lodged in my brain like the ear worm from Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan. It whispered to me in my waking hours and screamed at me in the middle of the night when I tossed and turned and fretted and worried that I had missed my opportunity to do the thing with my life that really meant something to me. Somewhere along the line I had gotten the idea that my ideas weren’t serious enough or the things that inspired me weren’t important enough.

But I could write. I could be someone who writes.

So, let’s just say, when Silent Bob speaks, it behooves me to listen.

Today, I saw Kevin Smith again. The idea was that he and Jason Mewes (aka Jay and Silent Bob) would talk about their new book Jay & Silent Bob’s Blueprints for Destroying Everything at The Reading Room in Bryant Park. But Mewes is sick and didn’t make the trip from California. So what happened was another Q&A with Smith. But instead of a crowded theater in Philadelphia, this one took place in a leafy corner of the park in the shadow of the New York Public Library building—the one that I can never look at without thinking about Ghostbusters.

For an hour and a half, Smith took questions about his show Comic Book Men on AMC, Clerks, Dogma, Batman, Ben Affleck, and Ben Affleck as Batman. As he had in Philadelphia, he talked a lot about creativity and self-expression. He is a strong proponent of the podcast as a medium and as a way to capture the stories and moments with the important people in your life. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he said. “Just because you’re some random dude in New Jersey doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say.”

Since I saw Kevin Smith the last time, I have gotten an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts. I have a couple of published credits to my name and I’m working on a couple more. None of that is easy. There are lots of roadblocks and lots of gatekeepers. Smith talked about that today, too. “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what success is,” he said. If you feel good about what you’re doing–“if your side of the street is clean”–then keep going. Try. Just give it a shot. “You don’t have to wait to be invited into something awesome.”

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to come across the thing you need right when you need it. For me, the inspirational lightning has struck twice in the form of a guy from Jersey with a foul mouth and jorts.


Thank you, Out of Print Clothing.

So, I write. I am a writer. And I’m going to keep on writing.

And I’ll wear this Hitchhiker’s Guide t-shirt while I’m doing it.





Make It A Combo

photo 1

For a few hours, I was an Uptown girl.

I have never spent much time on the Upper West Side. Sure, I’ve walked along Central Park West and I even visited Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon memorial with my friend Maggie, but never the part of the west side where people who aren’t Sting or Bono or the Chief Inspiration Officer of a Start-up worth a billion dollars live. Anything I know about that part of the city I learned from Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail.

So I was happy to spend a couple of hours there over the weekend. My friend and I had tickets to 2econd Stage Theatre’s production of American Herowritten by Bess Wohl and directed by Leigh Silverman. We gave ourselves some extra time to wander a little bit and eat a crepe from a street vendor. It was partly because it was Sunday and partly because it was Memorial Day Weekend, but the sidewalks were bustling with that early summer ‘can you believe I’m wearing shorts?’ energy of optimism and good will. (This, of course, will quickly change into the dead of summer ‘it’s so effing hot’ lethargy of ennui and grouchiness.)

Being a person who is definitely not from New York, I am always amazed at the community feel of certain blocks or neighborhoods. Even parking garages, which seem to me like some of the most impersonal of places, can have that convivial vibe when the attendant welcomes back a monthly tenant in a way that is altogether familiar and friendly. Growing up in the outer rings of the universe (at least according to the New Yorkers I know) you have an image of New York City as a place, unlike Cheers, where nobody knows your name.

This community feeling only got better when we got to the McGinn/Cazale Theater. It’s a small space, maybe 100 seats, located above a New York Sports Club on Broadway at 76th Street. Despite the fact that their address is technically on Broadway, this is most definitely an off-broadway production. We arrived early enough to not mind the wait for the small elevator, a pro-tip from the usher who said, “You don’t want to walk up those stairs.” I told him I was just relieved that a workout at NYSC wasn’t required before the show.

While we were waiting, he lamented the loss of an old movie palace and theater that had been next door. “It was one of those great places. Amazing lobby. Ornate performance space.” It’s now a Sephora. He asked if I remembered it “Before Sephora.” I said no, but I felt good that he thought I might. Like I could blend here. Like Marisa Tomei in reverse.

Another good hint came from the usher who was taking tickets who said, “You might want to hit the ladies room. It’s a ninety minute production with no intermission.” Seeing the other Sunday afternoon patrons as they filed in, with assistance for many with the stairs, and a collection of orthopedic shoes and just-in-case-there’s-a-chill scarves, I understood how this had become an important part of the pre-show ritual.

The theater filled slowly with a more diverse crowd that you get at some of the bigger shows. Groups of two, like mine, were the exception rather than the rule. These were regulars. These were locals. Many were subscribers who could manage a subscription here, where my full-price ticket was $25, but would have been shut out from the high-dollar, big-name venues further downtown in the Theater District.

photo 2

Mind if I help myself to a Diet Pepsi?

The play was the thing, of course, that brought me there and they had me the minute I saw the set, a fully realized sub-shop, complete with working soda fountain and REAL FOOD. There was even a sigh board in the lobby with a time-line history of the sandwich. Mmmm. Sandwiches.

American Hero is the story of three sandwich artists, Sherri, Ted, and Jamie, each at very different places in their lives, but all here for the grand opening of a new outpost of the home of the Toasted Torpedo. To borrow a cliché, the play is what happens when a group of strangers stop being polite and start being real. It is laugh-out-loud funny but also stacks the sandwiches high with some poignant moments and commentary about our post-recession world.

I’ll admit it was Jerry O’Connell who got me through the door, but each of the actors is worth more than than the (cheap) price of admission here. Erin Wilhelmi as Sherri begins so frightened and fragile you’re afraid she’s shatter right there on stage, but finds her strength along the way and owns her job as “Baser! The person who introduces the sandwich!” like a boss. Ari Graynor, Jamie, makes me wish more people had watched her sit-com, Bad Teacher. Daoud Heidami shoulders the parts of frazzled franchisee, disgruntled sub-shop customer, and unfulfilled corporate drone with frenetic energy and palpable empathy.

Then there’s Jerry O’Connell. I saw him in Seminar with Alan Rickman and he was my favorite part of the play that wasn’t, well, you know, Alan Rickman. (I’ll always remember that play, about a complicated fiction workshop, because the very next day, I got the call that changed my life forever and put me into some complicated fiction workshops of my own.) As Ted, O’Connell manages to be confident and vulnerable and a dick and a really good guy. Even if you show up, like me, because you love him as an actor and as that kid from Stand By Me or the super-hero in My Secret Identity or as the guy talking to cockroaches in the awesome and mostly-forgotten Joe’s Apartment, he won’t let you down.

At one point, Jamie asks Ted what he wants. He wants, he says, what anybody wants — to be happy. “In general or in this sub shop?” Both, he answers.

After the play and after we had slowly and carefully maneuvered down the four flights of stairs with the rest of the showgoers, my friend and I made a stop at PinkBerry for some yogurt. Earlier, we had popped into The Coffee Bean for some iced tea. So maybe our Upper West Side Experience wasn’t all that authentic since both of those places are more West Coast than West Side, but both were still yummy and a good way to spend some extra time just sitting outside watching the world walk by — in their shorts.

I didn’t see Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. I did see lots of people just going about a normal Sunday in their neighborhood. I saw some amazing actors bring to life an interesting and challenging play that manages to be really, really funny at the same time. For a second I felt like a part of a community in a city with eight million people. And I was happy. In life and in that sub shop.

I wanted it to be you.

Before Sephora.

Tropical Wisdom

palm treesI have shoveled the driveway five times in the past seven days. This morning was number five. Another round of ‘wintry mix’ is headed this way for Wednesday into Thursday. That will be six or seven or maybe even eight. Somewhere between the mailbox and the front door, it occurred to me that it has been exactly a month since I was in Key West complaining about how loud the air conditioner was at night and wondering why I had only packed one pair of shorts.

The Key West Literary Seminar is what took me to The End. I have put off writing about my adventure down the Overseas Highway it in part because I wanted to keep it to myself–the deep, dark secret handshake of the San Carlos Institute on Duval. But today, while I swore oaths at the snow gods and shoveled and swore and shoveled and swore some more, I decided to share some of the tropical and topical wisdom I gained during my time in the Conch Republic.

Good writing is the result of the hard work of writing. A lot.

Scott Turow addressed this issue head-on. He was talking about ‘the writing life’ and the people who spend more time talking about writing and drinking coffee or whiskey with other people who like to talk about writing more than doing much actual writing. “If you write,” he said. “You are a writer. If you don’t, you’re not.” Hanging out at Grumpy’s in Brooklyn or a Starbucks in Santa Monica with a latte and a laptop doesn’t  make you a writer. Words on the page. Day after day. That’s what it takes.

Earth shattering? No. Comforting? Oddly, yes. Hard work I can do, even if it doesn’t always pay off.

Not thinking you are good enough is the only thing that makes you better.

I’m paraphrasing Carl Hiaasen here. As someone who aspires to write funny, satirical fiction it means a lot when someone you admire openly admits to fears and insecurities. Camille Paglia said something once about no great art coming from people with high self-esteem. And knowing that Hiaasen worries that people won’t find the humor in his writing, it gives mere mortals like me hope.

High school is a noir thriller. Law school is mean on purpose. And just living to tell the tale can help your fiction.

Megan Abbott asked, “What is more noir than high school?” It is the time when you are the most curious about the world and your place in it and when your illusions start to be shattered.

Law school, Turow said, is a challenge to the identity of the students. You find that your very identity is transformed, often “without your consent.”

I made it through both, admittedly more scathed than unscathed, but, as Stephen L. Carter explained, it makes me question things and ask, what if? What if that one fact was changed? What if that character made a different decision? What if the story was told from someone else’s point of view?

Finally, this:

“Nobody starts out smart. That’s why we read books.” — James W. Hall

Trust My Rage

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about villains. The fact that I was reading I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman is not entirely to blame for this. It’s more a chicken and the egg situation: I was thinking a lot about villains and evil antagonists in fiction so I read Black Hat so then I was thinking a lot about villains and evil antagonists in fiction and in life.

blackhatBlack Hat is a collection of essays ranging on topics from OJ Simpson and the Oakland Raiders to Machiavelli and Metallica. Klosterman’s premise is that the villains are the ones who know the most but care the least. Klosterman admits that this doesn’t always hold true, but that the idea works on a basic, baseline level for a larger discussion of the appeal of villains and villainy. The collection opens with a quote from Klaus Kinski, “super nihilist”—“One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real.”

Thinking of these two ideas together—supreme knowledge and real depravities—is the ideal blueprint for a building a cinematic super villain. (Thinking of it in the context of real people like Ted Bundy is too chilling for this blustery November morning. You can read Klosterman’s book for that. But I don’t want to go there.) When I say super villain, I talking about people like Dr.No or Megamind. Villains with armies and minions and catastrophic maniacal world-ending plots. Of course, every villain needs a foil, the hero who saves the world. But aren’t the villains more interesting? The fact that they are detached from the social constraints of polite society appeals to the darker corners of our minds. Our collective id is excited and enthralled by the possibility of doing exactly what you want, when you want, and to whom you want. (I am always curious about the funding of the super villain community because a ginormous anti-matter freeze ray can’t come cheap, but those are details and no self-respecting scenery-chewing super villain (except maybe Dr. Evil) is going to be caught up with petty details like credit limits or the guy from MasterCard who keeps calling about suspicious charges on your account at Computer World.)

This weekend I went to see Thor: The Dark World. (Me and a ton of other people adding up to $80 million or so.) And yeah, Thor is a great and powerful hero. And Chris Hemsworth is well, yeah…Chris Hemsworth—abs, biceps, and all. Even the Ninth Doctor makes an appearance as the ultimate antagonist, a dark elf of all things. But the moments in The Dark World that are best, the ones where I felt like I was getting my money’s worth, are the ones with Loki. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the Marvel Universe, such as the people who live under rocks or you know, my mom, Loki is Thor’s brother who has appeared in both the original Thor and last summer’s The Avengers. (In Norse legend, Thor is the god of thunder and lightening. Loki is the god of mischief.) In Thor and The Avengers he was a bad guy unleashing evil-doing alien hordes on New Mexico and New York. He did so with a gleam in his eye and a wicked smile. He is the god of mischief, after all. Here, though, in The Dark World, Loki is more complicated. He is imprisoned in Asgard. He has been neutralized. It is only when Thor needs Loki’s help that we get to see him out in world again, smiling that smile and casting his illusions in true super villain style.

lokithorThese scenes between Loki and Thor and interesting and funny and sometimes sad. The brothers have long standing trust issues (One of my favorite lines from The Avengers is when Thor scolds Natasha for besmirching the name of an Asgardian and his brother. She reminds Thor that Loki killed 80 people that day. Thor’s response: “He’s adopted.”) Thor knows he can’t really trust Loki, but he also knows that he needs Loki and needs to find something close to trust.

Loki says, “Trust my rage.”

Trust my rage. Classic super villain. But also subtle and powerful. We have seen (No spoilers, don’t worry) Loki knowing the most but caring the least earlier in the movie. We have seen his real depravities in the original Thor and The Avengers. We know Loki has more issues than the newsstand in the train station and a world-class Oedipus complex. Because we have seen these things, we, like Thor, can trust in that rage. It is authentic and nihilistic, a la Kinski. We might not trust Loki to water our plants if we go away for the weekend, but if we need some heavy lifting and some world-ending-type bad-assery, we can trust that he’s up for the task. (Much of the credit for Loki certainly goes to Tom Hiddleston who is amazing and the sort of actor that makes you want to watch just because he’s there.)

Authenticity and emotional honesty are thought to be the exclusive providence of the hero. But sometimes those qualities are just the things that make us watch, draw us in to, the villain. We may not agree with the villain’s choice, but we have some kind of understanding about where those choices come from. We believe in the villain’s own villainy.

Or, it could just be that we all secretly want our own liar deep inside a volcano with an open bar, big screen TVs, and satellite TV.

True Lies

Star Wars Disco has come up in conversation (online and in person) twice in the past week. For those of you who don’t know what Star Wars Disco is, it is exactly what it says it is: a disco remix of John Williams’ score by Meco. It is that moment in time when two 70s juggernauts had a drunken, pop-culture, one-night stand. When something becomes too trendy for its own good. (Click here to get your groove on.) It’s the day your mom borrows your Reeboks and slouch socks to wear with her new Champion sweatshirt, or your great uncle’s new girlfriend friends you on Facebook.MecoSW

For anyone who is interested in, reads, writes, otherwise thinks about non-fiction, the debate over what is true, what is fact, what is fiction, is inescapable.  For me, the conversation is a little bit like Star Wars Disco. The debate itself is trendy to the point of absurdity. I’ve heard super-smart people argue, with raised voices, about “my truth” and “your truth” and “universal truth.” I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying the debate isn’t important. I’m just saying that I’m kinda over the whole thing. I mean, seriously folks, even Miller Lite has moved on because tastes great and less filling can peacefully coexist. (But watch this anyway and love it.)

The MothEnter The Moth, a movement dedicated to the power and, yes, truth, of storytelling. I am so, so new to The Moth, but, by sheer stroke of luck, got invited to the Live at the New York Public Library event Illuminating The Night: Stories and Conversation with The Moth. The event included some Moth stories, but also a discussion about story itself. Catherine Burns, Moth’s Artistic Director explained that they “don’t have The New Yorker’s fact checking department” but that all of The Moth stories told in events around the world, on their podcast, and on NPR, are “true” for the storyteller. Andrew Solomon, who not only told a fantastic story about Diana Vreeland and the (in)famous Avedon portrait of Nureyev for Vogue, but also participated in the panel discussion, was adamant that the stories and their telling are bigger and more powerful than being concerned about truth and lies. “Numbers and statistics” he said are facts, but it takes people to tell the stories. The Moth connects people with stories and storytellers and, in doing so, moves towards that “universal truth” that so many get hung up on in the non-fiction/fiction debate.

That’s where the magic lives — in between the what and the how and the who. It lives in the why? and the so what? the what’s next? And I think that magic can be in fiction and non-fiction and everywhere in between.

So, let’s move on. Let’s talk about something else. How about you tell me a story?

Entry Point

Just like everything else, the literary world has its own language. Its own set of buzzwords. I find myself talking about how I “approached the work” or was “intrigued by the piece” or “engaged by the narrative” where before I might have said something boring and mundane like, “I read this book. I really enjoyed it. Let’s get some fro-yo.”

One of my current favorites is “entry point.” As in, “The sad clown really gave me an entry point to the narrative.” Or “I never found an entry point that allowed me to participate in the deeper meaning of the grilled cheese sandwich.” As far as I can tell, which, granted, isn’t all that far, entry point is the key to the kingdom, the secret handshake that draws the reader onto common ground with the writer. It is important, critical even, but the phrase makes me giggle (almost) every time I hear it.

streetcarSo imagine my surprise when I was thinking about my trip to Yale this weekend to see A Streetcar Named Desire and the phrase popped into my head along with a snapshot of Joe Manganiello. Yes, that Joe Manganiello. Alcide Herveaux on True Blood. Big Dick Richie in Magic Mike. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Yep. You heard me right.

Joe Manganiello was my entry point into Yale Rep’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic. I wouldn’t have made the trek up I-95 to see just any old Stanley. Maybe not even Brando’s ghost. And I would have been worse off for not doing so.

Streetcar has always made me inordinately sad. I think it is because Blanche DuBois is not a stranger to me. Coming from the South, she’s all too familiar. I know and have known lots of people, men and women, who expend copious amounts of energy maintaining that perfect sheen on their otherwise imperfect lives. Often they, like Blanche, are broken and sad, but willing to put on genteel airs like a seersucker suit or a wide-brimmed straw hat. The sadness and insecurity are softened by a comforting drawl and a glass of cold sweet-tea. The darkest memories are packed away in the attic with the Green Stamps china and the dusty old Coca Cola bottles.

René Augesen is Blanche in New Haven. She wears Blanche as seemingly easily as the silky, red robe she slips into after another of Blanche’s long, hot baths. She is haunted and harried. Augesen, the actor, disappears into the New Orleans haze the instant Blanche says, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire…” She is, in the overblown language of Playbill, a tour de force. A tour de force that I would never have seen if it hadn’t been for Big Dick Richie. (Seriously, Magic Mike, people.)

So, thanks, Joe Manganiello for being Stanley Kowalski. Thanks, René Augesen for being Blanche DuBois. And especially, thank you, Tennessee Williams for breaking my heart in that old, familiar way. Who knows? I might even make in down to the Booth Theater to see Mr. Spock in The Glass Menagerie.