Do or Do Not.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Reactive

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Originally published October 2, 2005. Last night, I finished writing my first article for the RockBand.com ‘Zine, the section of our site where we pump out content we hope fans of our games will enjoy.  (The article goes live next Tuesday — rest assured I’ll link it like hell once it’s up.)  I’m not going to spoil anything about the article yet, but the process of writing it…man, that process got me thinking.

See, I had fun writing it.  I was writing something which was entirely up my alley and doing so in a tone and voice which come very, very naturally to me.  I’ve spent so much time trying to write things I didn’t especially enjoy writing because those things were The Things Writers Write — I’m mainly talking about fiction here, in all its forms and genres.  But what the last month’s worth of updates on this site and the writing of that article last night have taught me reminded me is that I’m not a fiction writer.  I can do it, and occasionally do it relatively well, and I’ll probably do it again at some point, but…it’s not My Thing.

Writing about pop culture?  Totally My Thing.  Effortless, in that way that the work comes to you easily when you’re doing what you’re meant to be doing — where even the hard work doesn’t really feel like work, you know?

The sad thing is that this isn’t the first time I’ve come to this conclusion.  Presented below is my post from the last time I realized this was true, way back in October 2005 (so excuse, please, the dated pop-culture references).  I’m reposting/updating it here mainly as a waypoint for myself so that hopefully I don’t get so lost again…and also as ammo for you people to use to kick my ass, if necessary.

Man…feeling that buzz of doing My Thing was nice, I gotta say.


I’ve been thinking quite a lot the last few days about the current quote that’s over there in the sidebar right now. For those of you reading this through an RSS feed, or if you’re reading this entry after the quote’s been changed (or you’re reading it three-and-a-half years after the fact — ed.), here it is:

“It’s a reactive thing, like a Geiger counter; you click whenever you come close to whatever you were built to do.” — Stephen King

That’s a valid analogy. When you’re doing whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing, you just know. The puzzle pieces in your head click together perfectly, the picture comes into focus, however you want to say it–you get the buzz, the feeling of the internal compasses of your mind and your heart and your actions all finding true north at the same time.

(Incidentally, I think the same is true of the people in your life. I’ve had plenty of friends that I liked perfectly well but never felt that “buzz” about. I tend to think that those friends who do give me that buzz are the people that are supposed to be in my life for some reason. It’s more than just a matter of getting on well with the buzzworthy people; it feels almost karmic to me when it happens. Sometimes the reason I’m supposed to be around that person is obvious, other times not, but I always make sure to notice when it’s there.) Some people discover very early in life the activities which give them that special sense of This Is Right and True; some never find it at all. Some people get close but never quite make that final adjustment necessary to get it.

That last batch of people, I’m pretty sure, includes me.

See, the thing is…in the same way you just know when you’re doing That Thing You Do, you just know when you’re not, or when you’re not quite. In my case, I know I’m supposed to be writing. I’m getting more and more sure of that the more of it I do.

But what am I supposed to be writing? Ah, there’s the rub.

I have a number of writer friends (any number of whom might be reading this–feel free to pipe in, y’all) for whom this particular problem doesn’t ever seem to have surfaced. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if for many of those people, there never was any decision or exploration necessary; they write what they write because that’s what they write. They write what comes naturally. Or so it seems to me…I’d love to hear some feedback about this particular point.

For me, that process of finding what I have to say, of finding the stories that are mine to tell, has been quite a trial. And that trial’s still not done. I’m getting closer, I think, but even on the novel I’m 15,000 words into, that buzz is still elusive. It’s been there in parts; I’ve lightly detected it in those areas where I started to understand my characters and found myself with vision for where the plot was going. But I’m not really not sure writing YA fiction is My Thing. I’m not giving up, not at all, not on this particular book nor on that category of fiction as a whole, but…

I’ve been getting some strong Geiger counter readings from another writing quarter altogether.

The clicks got louder and louder this week as I read a back-and-forth email conversation between two writers I really enjoy, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman. For those of you unfamiliar with the names, Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com’s Page 2 section and Klosterman is a columnist for, among other places, Spin. Each of them has different specialties–Simmons primarily writes about sports, Klosterman primarily about music–but both have a wonderful appreciation for and understanding of the broader canvas of pop culture. (At this point, any of you who know me very well at all are probably nodding your heads and can see the source of those Geiger readings.)

I read this conversation between Klosterman and Simmons and I very much had that feeling of “getting it.” It wasn’t just a feeling of “I can do this”…it was a feeling of “I should be doing this.” I don’t mean specifically that I should be either a sports columnist or a music columnist, but I should be part of the cultural conversation. I’m inspired by each of those writers, actually, in the way each one weaves in elements of the greater cultural consciousness into their columns. I know that there’s a great many people who dismiss pop culture out-of-hand as lowbrow or not worthy of serious discussion, but neither Simmons nor Klosterman believes that. And neither do I.

Pop culture is American culture, it’s the commonality that allows us to talk to others with whom we might not share race, creed, class, sexuality or gender. Even if I don’t know your or don’t have a lot in common with you, if I discover that we both have an interest in, say, “Gilmore Girls,” then that’s a talking point, somewhere to begin. It’s a bond. Is it a strong bond? Is that shared interest alone enough to sustain a friendship? Or a community?

Surprisingly, it can be–as just one small example, look at the phenomenon surrounding the “Browncoats” who so loudly supported “Firefly” and now Serenity. That’s a fairly large, strong, devoted community (and regionalized series of sub-communities) made up of a diverse set of people whose only real tie is a love for this particular fictional universe. And it’s enough. They frequently arrange social events to bring their members together, frequently (but not always) involving screenings of “Firefly.”

And again, that’s just one relatively tiny example. Look around–how many times do people gather together just because they have a love for some particular aspect of our culture? How many people get together for Dave Matthews Band concerts? For “Lost” viewing parties? For release parties for the newest Harry Potter book? For standing in line for weeks for the newest Star Wars movie? For performances of “Avenue Q” or “Spamalot” on Broadway? Popular culture by its very definition is our culture, it’s everybody’s culture, and that fact alone makes it worthy of discussion, from the most wretched of reality TV shows to Norah Jones’ albums.

Futhermore (lest we forget that this blog is All The Time All About Me), pop culture is an area where I have something to say. Reading Simmons and Klosterman’s conversation struck that chord within my head and my heart that told me: “These are your people. This should be you.” Will writing about pop culture win me any literary prizes? Nope…but it would make me happy.

So what am I gonna do about it? Oh, hell if I know. But when I do, you will, too. Chances are good that it will either involve this site or Moviegeekz. It looks like I have an awful lot of thinking to do over the next couple of days and weeks about just what my goals are going to be, how I’m going to get there…and about the greater cultural impact of Wedding Crashers.

Written by Allen

June 8th, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Waiting for Rain

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The evening was warm for late March, but we knew it wouldn’t last much longer; the weather was due to take a turn for the much worse that night. We sat outside on the patio on the plastic furniture we’d borrowed for our daughter’s birthday party, and we talked about the kids and my career and where we saw ourselves in five years, where we thought we’d be once we’d made it past the financial disaster we were facing thanks to the implosion of the real estate market. Both of us sat with our backs to the house, facing west and our large, empty backyard and the copse of trees and the large pond beyond. The muted oranges and reds of the sunset in the western sky bled into a purplish-gray bruise of thick cloud cover rolling in to the north. As we talked, the wind started to pick up and we felt that first sharp, sudden drop in temperature that signaled the leading edge of the storm.

We gathered up the plastic furniture and laid it down so that the wind wouldn’t take it, and we picked up those few items in the yard we might not expect to see again if the winds came through as roughly as we knew they could. (Shortly after moving into the house, the winds which tear violently through the piedmont in which we live actually blew over our grill. We don’t take chances anymore.) We stood on the small concrete slab of patio for a few moments, my arm around her waist, and we watched the sun set and felt the breeze pick up a little more.

I feel like King Lear, I told her, except that I only have two daughters and I’m pretty sure they both love me.

She went inside then to get the kids ready for bed. I told her I’d be just a few minutes. I walked out to the middle of the yard, planted my feet (I wasn’t wearing shoes, only socks) and faced due north.

And I waited for the storm to come.

I stood there for quite awhile just being, a somewhat unusual condition for me: I’m not a nature person by nature. I’m more air conditioning and Internet than tent and campfire. But for now, I simply stood and let the elements play across me. The occasional strong gust of wind would whip through the yard, blowing my long hair and pressing my shirt and jeans tight against my body. I watched the lightning off to the north, sometimes quick flashbulbs and other times floodlights illuminating every detail of the soft gray clouds hovering over the neighborhood.

I’m going to stand right here, I thought, until it starts to rain.

A train roared past to the west, the thunder of its wheels rolling along the track commingling with the thunder in the sky to create a baritone rumble I could almost feel as well as hear, a rumble which soon gave way to the shriek of wind whipping across the wide, flat expanse of yard running behind the houses on my street.

I quickly discovered that the expectation of rain carried its own surprising emotional weight. As the wind continued to gain strength and the air continued to cool, I began to feel an intimate connection with the weather, each increasing gust further ratcheting up the tension within me — much the same way each of a lover’s touches aren’t disconnected experiences, but rather each builds on all of the touches which have come before it. And like the stroke of a lover’s fingers, particularly strong blasts of wind would touch me just so, wrap around me just right, would make my jaw drop open just a little and let a small sigh escape.

After half an hour of my standing alone in the dark of my backyard, she came out to check on me just as the wind swirled tightly around me. I felt both a little embarrassed and a little violated, as if she’d found me in bed with someone else. When I tried to speak, my voice came out as a croak.

It’s time to put the kids to bed, she said.

Just a few more minutes, baby.

But I didn’t know how long I would be, not really. I wanted the rain. I wanted my moment of poetry.

Nature owes you nothing, you know. Nature could care less whether you want it to rain, need it to rain or pray to god it doesn’t rain. It’ll get here when it gets here.

I wanted it, though. I wanted to feel whatever I was going to feel when those first drops of cold rain hit my face. The storm would reach my yard, it would lash me and soak me and hold me and rattle my teeth with the rage of its thunder…but I would face it down and I would stand solid and I would come through the other side of the storm in one piece. Slightly worse for the experience, perhaps…but perhaps slightly better.

But then I turned toward the house and I saw her, now in the living room in the warm blue bathrobe which perfectly matches the color of her beautiful blue eyes. She carried our younger daughter, who had two fingers in her mouth in her reflexive who-me-tired? gesture, towards the stairs. Our older daughter bounced after her.

And then the realization came: I could stand out here in the dark by myself and wait for the coming storm to drench my clothes and crack my cheeks — or I could go inside and put my children to bed, read them a story and kiss them goodnight. I could wait for the storm, or I could live my life and know that I had prepared as best I could for the storm’s arrival.

I closed my eyes one last time and felt the air brush past my face, and I went inside.

Written by Allen

March 29th, 2007 at 10:06 am

Posted in General

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Lost and Found

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Lost

On Monday, we lost Alex.

Any of you who know Laurel know exactly who Alex is and how traumatic these last five days have been her, but for the benefit of those of you who don’t:

Alex is the Beanie Baby lion Laurel has carried with her everywhere for more than a year — and a year’s an awfully long time when you’re still four months from turning three. We’re not sure just how old Alex actually is, but his worn, matted mane and general state of manginess lead us to suspect he’s been around quite awhile; Laurel found him in a box of old toys which used to belong to her cousins while we visiting them sometime last summer, and he’s seldom left her arms since. (The “Alex” comes from Alex the Lion from Madagascar, a movie she first saw around the same time she discovered the toy.) Alex is, in a way, part of the family: he’s never been “Laurel’s lion” or “Laurel’s toy,” but always, always “Alex.”

The last time Alex was seen was at the grocery store on Monday. Terry knows Laurel had him when they went in, but she didn’t have him when they got back to the truck with the groceries. Terry went back into the store and went up and down every aisle looking for Alex, and she left her phone number with the customer service office. She’s even been back twice checking with the store’s lost and found and called once.

But it’s obvious at this point Alex is gone.

Laurel, understandably, has been distraught all this week, though she hasn’t been able to express exactly why — advanced though her speech skills might be, expecting her to communicate emotions of that complexity is a bit much. She’s had a hard time going to sleep (Alex slept cradled in her arms every night) and has taken to pulling out her hair in anxiety. She’s been carrying around a small puppy Kelsey had given her a couple of weeks ago, but we can tell it’s just not the same — she likes the puppy fine, I suppose, but she’d had her heart invested in Alex. Unlike Kelsey, who happily flits from Most Favoritest Friend to Most Favoritest Friend with the wind, Laurel and Alex have stuck together solidly for almost half of her life.

Not quite as understandably, I’ve also been distraught this week. Every time I think about Alex’s absence, every time she asks where he is or sullenly says “I miss Alex,” I find myself having to fight back tears. (I’m sure that shatters the image of me as Tough Stoic Manly Marlboro-Man-Without-The-Marlboros so many of you hold of me.) Most of it simply has to be my not wanting to see my daughter upset, I guess, but I’m wondering if there’s be something more to it that I can’t quite get at, some childhood trauma of my own I don’t even remember.

Regardless, my daughter was upset, so I jumped into action Monday night. I crawled out of bed in the middle of the night, hit Google, and found and ordered her a replacement Alex… not sure whether I’d be able to pull off the switch, but feeling like I had to give it a shot. (Part of me felt like I was in a bad sitcom, some episode where my neighbor asks me to watch his dog while he’s on vacation and I accidentally kill the dog through some bizarrely contrived negligence and try to buy another one that looks just like it hoping my neighbor will never notice but of course he does and I learn Valuable Life Lessons about Facing Up to My Responsibilites and Lying Is Just Wrong. Or something.)

Found

Terry’s been prepping Laurel the last couple of days for Alex’s imminent return, pulling out the kinds of fantastic lies that could really only work on small children still gripped by their imaginations: “Alex went on vacation! He went to a spa to relax and get himself cleaned up, and when he comes back he’ll be prettier than ever!” We weren’t sure how much she bought it — two-and-a-half years old or not, she’s a really, really smart kid and we wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised had she seen through our film of bullshit. But we had to try.

This afternoon, a small box was waiting for us in the mailbox when we got home.

Both girls were asleep in the truck, so I grabbed the box and we drove around a little more so we could examine Imposter Alex before presenting him to Laurel. He’s not exactly the same as Original Alex; in addition to his much better overall health, his eyes are a little different and the underside of his jaw is white, details we were hoping she wouldn’t notice. (My suspicion is that Original Alex was actually a cheap knockoff of Imposter Alex, who has his pedigree: he’s an Authenic Ty Beanie Baby.) But the body’s largely the same, and I was counting on that being the aspect she’d focus on: how he felt in her arms.

After we got home and got the girls inside, I snuck back out to the truck, cut the tag off and set Imposter Alex up on the ground right outside the front door. If we were going to ride this lie, we were going to ride out to the end: Terry knocked on the wall where Laurel couldn’t see, and we encouraged Laurel to go answer the front door. We helped her pull the door open and directed her gaze groundward, where Imposter Alex was looking up at her expectantly.

“Oh,” she said quietly. “Oh.” She looked at Imposter Alex for a minute.

And then she picked him up.

And she didn’t put him back down for the next three hours.

“This is Alex,” she said to Terry later. “He’s my lion. He’s very special to me. He came back to me.”

(Here’s where I completely demolish the rest of my image as Macho Man Holt by admitting that after it became obvious Laurel was accepting our ruse, I cried. Hard. I felt like I’d done something Good: I’d managed to alleviate my child’s pain and anxiety. I realize there’s benefits to your child learning how to cope with loss and grief, that children need to learn to deal with those emotions, but dammit, not just yet and not with her very favorite toy.)

Epilogue

The book Kelsey picked out for me to read to her tonight was The Velveteen Rabbit — a book she’s never had me read to her before, a book I wasn’t even aware we had. If you know this story at all — and being that most of you were once kids, you most likely do — you can appreciate why that book hit me a little hard tonight. (If you don’t know this story, I’d like to introduce you to my good friend Google.)

I hate The Velveteen Rabbit. I’ve always hated it, ever since I was Kelsey’s age. Tremendously. (That hatred either is symptomatic of whatever real or imagined childhood grief guided my actions this week… or possibly was the root cause of it. I’m honestly not sure.) Yeah, okay, it’s a happy ending for the rabbit and al, but I’ve always felt just awful for the kid, who had all of the toys and books which were meaningful to him taken from him — especially that damn rabbit.

But when I got to the end of the hated story tonight, I tried to reframe it within the context of Alex Lost and Alex Regained, and it made me hate the story a little less:

I imagined that some night, Laurel (who’s maybe five or six now) will be sleeping peacefully in her bed when she’ll be woken by a noise just below her window: a soft, playful growl. And she’ll go to the window and look down into the bright, clear night to see a majestic lion standing beside the swingset in the backyard, smiling up at her with a familiar spark in his eye, moonlight dancing through his mane. And she’ll look down at the now-well-worn lion in her arms, the lion that she can’t remember ever not sleeping next to her. But she’ll smile at the familiar-looking lion in the backyard and she’ll wave and maybe she’ll blow him a kiss, and then she’ll climb back into her bed and snuggle down next to her Alex and return to her peaceful sleep.

UPDATE, June 2010: We’ve recently had to move on to Alex v3.0. So far, she still has no idea.

Written by Allen

September 16th, 2006 at 10:31 pm

Posted in Kids

Tagged with ,

Coming Into Focus

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It was never my dream to be a novelist.

I think that it’s pretty obvious at this point to anyone who’s paid a shred of attention to my progress bar on the side of the page that my heart’s not in writing the novel I was (am?) working on. The bar hasn’t budged in two months. For a while, that fact was bothering me; yesterday, I stopped letting it.

Writing a novel has always been on my “something I’d like to do someday” list. But, as I said, it’s never really been my dream. When I think of my life as a writer in the not-too-distant future, I don’t honestly see myself writing novels (or not predominantly, anyway). I’d say that writing novels doesn’t feel like the way I’m going to get my writing goals met–except that the fact is I haven’t had any firm writing goals.

The novel gave me something to do. I’d had a story idea rattling around in my head for a year or more, and that seemed like a good way to start working out the details of that particular story. What I worked out more than anything else, as noted in this space previously, was that I don’t do the dive-in-without-planning thing very well. And while I do have an overall much more clear idea of the story and where it’s going, I’m not sure that story’s future is in novel form.

Tips What Spoke to Me.

What, you might ask, spurred this particular bit of self-examination? Well, I rediscovered a link yesterday to a site from which I’ve gotten one of the previous sidebar quotes for Do or Do Not. Hugh MacLeod, author of Gaping Void, writes an awful lot about creativity–how to be more creative, how to succeed at whatever your creative vision might be, how to follow your own instincts and tell everyone else to piss off, how to get through the inevitable down times. I’d read Hugh’s article several months ago, early in the infancy of this site, and it helped me restructure some things in my head; unfortunately, over time I seem to have lost all of the valuable insights I’d gained from the article.

But when I re-read it yesterday, it helped bring into focus how out-of-focus my creative energies have been recently.

I haven’t had a lot of time for writing overall lately, between a hectic work schedule, time spent with family and having some semblance of a social life, and what little time I have had I haven’t been putting to good use. Some of the stuff I’ve written for this site has been worthwhile, or at the very least fun to write, but overall I just haven’t been very productive. But as I was thinking about these issues and thinking about some of the issues raised in MacLeod’s article, I realized that even when I had been getting the words out, most of them weren’t in service to the things I’ve always really wanted to do. I think I was writing a novel because it seemed more like the kind of thing I should be doing rather than what I know in my heart I really want to be doing. I was writing just to say I was writing.

So I think that from now on (or, well, for the near future), I’m going to work on those things that will get me closer to my actual goal: writing comic books. I’m going to work on developing my craft, regardless of whether I think the projects I’m using to develop that craft are going to sell–I’ve got plenty of shitty stories to work through before I get to the good ones, so I might as well get those out of the way now. I’m going to work on things for me, not on things I think the world expects from me; when I’m ready, when the work is ready, the world will know it.

Thanks, Hugh.

Written by Allen

November 7th, 2005 at 6:06 pm

Posted in Writing

Tagged with

Curious About “Curious George”

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I was reading “Curious George Goes to the Hospital” to my older daughter last night, doing the thing I normally do when reading interminably long books to her–speaking the words while letting my mind wander off to something more interesting. (Yes, I know that probably loses me Good Daddy Points, but c’mon, man, that book is long.)

But I noticed something during this read-through that I’d never caught onto before. As George and his yellow-chapeaued friend sat in the waiting room of the hospital, a little girl sits crying near George. The girl’s mother points to George and tells her daughter, “Look, dear, it’s Curious George! He’s not crying.” (Or something along those lines. Like I said, I wasn’t paying much attention.)

Setting aside the questionable tactics of using celebrities as role models for children, or the fact that no one in the hospital seemed to find it the least bit strange that a small monkey was there for treatment, I found myself wondering…

…how, exactly, did this woman (or, presumably, her daughter) know who Curious George was?

“Hospital” wasn’t the first in the “Curious George” series, of course; it was, in fact, the seventh, published in 1966, some 25 years after the first book hit the stores. So let us posit for a moment that all of George’s adventures from the previous six books–his kidnapping from Africa and forced relocation to the unidentified Big City, his job as a newspaper delivery monkey and his brief stint in the circus, his ether addiction, all of it–had happened in the same world. Let us say all of the books in the series took place in the same universe, not an unreasonable assumption to make (though we’ll be revisiting this topic later).

Would all of George’s various misadventures have made the news? Might that be how the mother and daughter knew of him? Did he find himself in the newspaper for the “escaping from jail, flying through town holding on to a bunch of balloons and ultimately causing an enormous traffic jam” incident? Perhaps he did–but buried somewhere toward the back of the paper, if at all. It’s far more doubtful that he would have ended up on the television news at that time for something so inane. There were far fewer news outlets back then, and less need to fill air time with inanity–George wouldn’t even have qualified as a human interest fluff piece.

The way I see it, there are two likely answers to this conundrum:

One. It seems quite likely that the mother and daughter both recognized George from the “Curious George” books. This scenario has interesting metatextual implications: does each new story starring George spawn its own new universe, one in which all of his previous adventures exist only as children’s books? The girl’s mother recognized George from the books she read to her daughter at bedtime, never realizing that she herself is only a bit player in one of George’s adventures.

And does that mean that those of us reading the “Curious George” books are ourselves nothing but simplistic cartoons to be found in future volumes? Might I someday see a little monkey driving a carjacked Duck Tour boat raggedly down Tremont Street in Boston, narrowly missing pedestrians and cars alike on his way toward crashing harmlessly into the Frog Pond in the Common? And then might someone ultimately turn my page?

Two. He’s the victim/focus of some spectacular merchandising in his own world. In addition to the books, George’s likeness is featured on other products directed at kids–in one particularly disturbing turn, the jigsaw puzzle from which he swallows the piece that sends him to the hospital shows the scene where he’s first captured by his “friend” in the yellow hat. Can we assume that it’s The Man who’s responsible for selling George to the youth of America (or of whatever country in which the stories take place)? Is he the Colonel Tom Parker to George’s Elvis?

And does George profit from the expolitation of his image? George seems to be a smart little monkey, and always very curious, but would even a smart monkey like George realize he was being swindled by his management? The Man does indeed buy him a new bicycle for a gift at one point (though we won’t count the gift of that fateful jigsaw puzzle–since George’s image is on the puzzle, we can assume The Man likely got it for free). How many millions of dollars must The Man have made off of this poor little monkey, this monkey he stole away from his home and family in Africa? And the best he can do is to give George a fucking bicycle? Shameful.

Whichever option above turns out to be correct (and it can only be one of the above options), I clearly cannot let my children read the “Curious George” books any longer. Doing so would either be contributing to the exploitation of a kidnapped and abused young monkey…or would mean that this entire existence is a lie. Either way, those books are going in the trash tomorrow.

Written by Allen

October 25th, 2005 at 11:28 pm

Posted in Books,Pop Culture

Tagged with