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Dec. 30th, 2013 @ 08:00 am A Geeky Proposal: A Story in Four Parts
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Well, I haven't posted here in well over a year, and I'm only breaking silence here to tell a story. For those of you who are unaware, I proposed to my girlfriend Leslie Lopez (aka datalopez) on Christmas Day this year, and she said yes. I promised details when I returned home and had time to put something together, so....well, here's the story. :)

Part I: The Sneaky, Fiendish Plan
Leslie and I have been dating for nearly eight years now, so I wanted this to be a memorable proposal. However, Leslie is not the romantic type, which makes a memorable and worthwhile proposal a bit more difficult. What she is, however, is a geek girl of the highest order. Both of us love comics, science fiction and fantasy, and other geeky pursuits, and most of all we share a love of video games.

So, I thought: a video game proposal. And I knew just the thing.

Leslie's favorite game of all time, and probably one of my all-time favorites as well, is Final Fantasy X. It also holds the distinction of being one of the first games that she shared with me, when she first visited me, and holds a lot of special memories for both of us. Many's the time that one or the other of us would play it and the other one would watch and enjoy. Final Fantasy X was originally released back in 2001 for the Playstation 2, but in 2011 a remastered HD version was announced to be in development for the Playstation 3. Its release date was eventually settled on as December 31st 2013. Both Leslie and I would periodically check to see if it was out yet, but the date remained December 31st.

So I had an idea: I'd pretend the game had been released earlier than she thought. I'd print up some custom Final Fantasy X artwork for a PS3 case, hide the ring inside the case, and give that to her for Christmas. Then when she opened it, I'd play the theme song "To Zanarkand", and give her a little speech that incorporated both Final Fantasy X themes and also my love for her. She would (I hoped) love it, and she'd certainly never see it coming.

Part II: The Preparations
Leslie and I would be visiting my brother Michael and his wife Sarah in Wisconsin for Christmas this year. My mother and father would also be joining us. I immediately told all four of them about my plans and asked for their help with a couple of things.

Leslie and I had been ring shopping several months ago so I knew the characteristics of the kind of diamond ring she hoped to get. I also knew that ultimately she had decided she would prefer a laboratory-created diamond from Gemesis rather than a mined diamond. Mined diamonds, she decided, were out because of their environmental and social impact. A laboratory-created diamond was both socially and environmentally responsible, while still being as beautiful, fiery and sparkly as a mined diamond. Physically and chemically identical, just different in their source. Accordingly, I selected a nice diamond from Gemesis, had it set in a white gold solitaire setting, and ordered it to have it delivered to my brother at his workplace in Wisconsin. (No way was I going to risk checking this in my baggage to Wisconsin, or keeping it in my carry-on and having her accidentally see it). The ring arrived about two weeks prior to Christmas, and Michael sent me photos of it, reassuring me that it looked awesome.

Next, I needed to make the case look good. I pulled the artwork and disc out of one of our PS3 games and hid those in a drawer, then went online looking for the artwork for the upcoming release. The only problem was that I couldn't find any images that were high enough resolution to serve as decent cover art. So, I did some more digging, and discovered vgboxart.com, where people create their own custom artwork for various games. I found two images that I thought might serve: this one, which I ultimately decided to use as the exterior cover art, and this one, which I used as the interior artwork. I had both images printed up on high-quality paper by a local printer and then sneaked out to pick them up one afternoon before Leslie arrived, then trimmed the excess white paper away and fitted them to the case. They looked excellent. Here's a shot of the case exterior "in the wild", as it were:



I figured it would do quite well enough to fool Leslie, at least till she opened the case.

Next, I needed some way to keep the ring in the case without it knocking around. I didn't want to just tape it to the case, but I didn't have any boxes small enough to fit inside a PS3 case, even half boxes. I checked with several jewelry stores and they had nothing that would serve either. So I called my mother to see what she might have, and she came up with an even better idea: she would sew together a small pillow with some thread to hold the ring in place, then we could put THAT inside the case. Then, I thought, we'd cover that with tissue paper so it wasn't immediately visible when the case was opened. So she put that together for me and brought it with her when she came to Wisconsin for the visit.

I also wanted to have the right ambiance when Leslie opened the box. I loaded the piano theme, "To Zanarkand", on my phone, so I could play that once she saw the ring, and then wrote a speech which I'd say while holding the ring for her. I spent the next couple weeks refining it and rehearsing my delivery over and over, till I had it down solidly.

Finally, I threw a medium-sized red herring in to distract Leslie and keep her from realizing anything was up. I suggested to her that we go out and have a nice dinner on New Year's Day for our "anniversary" this year, since we had met eight years ago just before New Year's. She agreed, and I could tell my idea had worked nicely. She confirmed later on that she was thinking, "He's up to something. Maybe he's going to propose that night!"

I grinned inwardly, and kept quiet.

(One last note: Leslie asked me about a week prior to Christmas if there was any new news on the remake. I'd found out a week or two before that the release has actually been pushed back till March 2014, and hoped she wouldn't fact-check me when I said, "Still scheduled to come out December 31st, sweetie." And crossed my fingers. Which must have worked, because she never did go and check it out.)

Part III: Phil Uses Ultimate Overdrive: "Proposal"!
Leslie and I arrived in Wisconsin with no issues (and go see the pics on my Facebook page to see how much fun she had in the snow). I brought the case with me and kept it hidden beneath the clothes in my carryon bag. One day while Leslie was taking a nap, I got together with my mother to finish the prep work. We tied the ring to the pillow, fixed the pillow in place inside the case with some tape on the back so it wouldn't move, placed tissue paper over the top, and then I wrapped the whole thing so it looked just like any other Christmas gift.

Christmas Day arrived. I had warned Michael, Sarah, and my parents that I was going to spring THE present on Leslie halfway through the process of opening our gifts. None of this "oh ho, there's a FINAL present left under the tree, I wonder what could be in here?" melodrama. I didn't want there to be any chance that she might see through it. So we all opened several of our presents, while I sat there with my heart hammering madly as the moment drew nearer.

Finally I decided the time was right (truthfully, by this time I was so jittery I needed to do it soon, or she was going to notice that my hands were shaking). I made a quick motion to my brother to kill the Christmas music that was playing so my own little theme could be heard. I gave Leslie her present, sat close beside her on the couch, and it unfolded pretty much the way I had hoped.

First, she unwrapped it and saw this:



She immediately got excited and accused me, "You said this wasn't coming out till December 31st!" I grinned and just said, "I lied." She made a few more remarks about how surprised she was and how she couldn't wait to see how good it looked. I pulled my phone casually out of my pocket (having already cued up the music), and told her, "This is the Limited Edition. There's some cool stuff in there. Open it up, let's see."

So she opened it up, and removed the tissue paper, frowning a bit ("tissue paper?" she was thinking). This is what she saw:



And a closeup:



For several seconds she sat there, staring. I could almost hear the gears grinding in her head as she tried to process. She later said she was thinking, "Where's the disc?" Then, all at once, her eyes went wide and she gasped. "Oh my God," she whispered, and looked at me, her eyes already brimming.

I swallowed hard, slid off the couch and got down on one knee. I started the theme music playing (here's a YouTube link; start that playing in the background for the best effect). I reached for the box and untied the ring, then held it up in one hand, taking her hand with my other one.

I looked into her beautiful brown eyes, and this is what I said to her. (My voice broke repeatedly, but for a wonder I didn't forget any of the words).

Listen to my story.

This...may be our last chance.

Yuna had Tidus, five other guardians, and ten aeons to watch over her and protect her. I'm only one man, but no dream of the fayth could ever have loved Yuna a fraction as much as I love you.

Will you do me the honor of allowing me to become your guardian --

to go where you go,
to guard you from harm,
to do battle at your side,
to share in your victories and your triumphs,
to comfort you in your sorrows,

and most of all, to love you, until we both cross over to the Farplane?

Will you let me walk by your side and share your life, from here, to Zanarkand and beyond?

My lady -- Summoner Leslie -- will you marry me?


Crying, she answered, "With all my heart, yes!" And let me slip the ring on her finger. And fell into my arms for a long embrace and kiss.

[[Note: See the bottom of this post for an explanation of this speech, if you haven't played Final Fantasy X.]]

Part IV: Victory!
Well, after that, the rest of Christmas had to be kind of an anticlimax. :) My parents, my brother and his wife, Leslie and I were all leaking around the eyes and of course everybody wanted to congratulate us. Michael and Sarah went into the kitchen and appeared with champagne, surreptitiously hidden outside in the snow earlier that morning in anticipation. We toasted, and celebrated, and laughed, and I told Leslie some of my evil plans and how I'd managed to fool her. I explained the meanings behind the speech to my family (because all of them had gotten worried at the opening phrase; once I told them that it was the theme phrase of the game, they were much relieved). We made a phone call to her parents to tell them, and Leslie was annoyed to learn that they had known about it in advance too (well, of course they did; I'd asked her dad for permission to marry her last year, in secret, and had told them both I planned to do it over Christmas, a few weeks prior). Then we got the congratulations from her family, and said goodbye, and drank some more champagne, and things gradually calmed down a bit.

But I had one last bit of ambiance up my sleeve. I motioned everyone to be quiet for a second, and cued up one last bit of music on my phone. "She said yes," I said, and pressed play. This is what we heard:

Final Fantasy X Victory Theme

And I danced around, hands raised high, as the victory theme played, and Leslie laughed, and my family laughed too, without really understanding why, till I eventually calmed down enough to explain that to them too.

And over the rest of the afternoon and the next day, we made phone calls to other family members and friends that we wanted to tell in person, or as much in person as we could manage when we were still in Wisconsin. Eventually we reached everybody we could by phone (it's hard to reach people during the Christmas holidays), and finally we went ahead and posted something on Facebook to notify everybody else.

And now I'm posting here, for those of you who only know me through Livejournal, or those who know me elsewhere but for whatever reason still didn't know about it already, and to give details for those who wanted them.

And that's the story of how I proposed to my girlfriend. She is my Final Fantasy, and I am the happiest, luckiest guy around.

I still can't believe I managed to surprise her. :)

Here we are in all our cuteness. This pic was taken later that night by Sarah's mother Donna (who also gave us the mistletoe ornament I'm holding). Thanks Donna!




********************************************************************

[[Explanation of the speech, for those who aren't familiar with the game:]]

Listen to my story.
This...may be our last chance.

This is the phrase that opens the game. Tidus, the game's male lead, is reminiscing about the events that have brought them to this point. "Last chance" refers to the fact that they are about to enter a haunted city, at the end of which is a battle that may doom them all.

Yuna had Tidus, five other guardians, and ten aeons to watch over her and protect her. I'm only one man, but no dream of the fayth could ever have loved Yuna a fraction as much as I love you.
Yuna is the female lead (and love interest for Tidus). She is a summoner, a mage whose mission is to defeat Sin, a destructive being of tremendous power that wreaks havoc all over the world of Spira. To do this, she goes on a pilgrimage. She is aided by five (mostly human) guardians who protect her, and ten aeons, magical spirits that only she can summon and control.

"Dream of the fayth": Tidus is eventually revealed to be not human, but a dream in solid form.

Will you do me the honor of allowing me to become your guardian --

to go where you go,
to guard you from harm,
to do battle at your side,
to share in your victories and your triumphs,

Yuna's guardians, including Tidus, do all of these things: protect her, fight at her side, and share her victories.

to comfort you in your sorrows,
A recurring theme of the game is sorrow and sadness. Tidus comforts Yuna in her sorrows and eventually falls in love with her, and she with him.

and most of all, to love you, until we both cross over to the Farplane?
Farplane: the afterlife / afterworld, where spirits of the dead can appear to the living, but never communicate with them.

Will you let me walk by your side and share your life, from here, to Zanarkand and beyond?
Zanarkand is the city, destroyed 1000 years ago, that Tidus claims as his home. It's later revealed that both Tidus and the Zanarkand he remembers are only dreams, given solid form by a magical summoning. The game begins with the party just outside the ruins of Zanarkand, with the game's theme music "To Zanarkand" playing. This music never fails to make Leslie teary-eyed.

My lady -- Summoner Leslie -- will you marry me?
"Will you marry me", I think, needs no explanation. :) "My lady" -- the people of Spira refer to Yuna as "Lady Yuna" or "Summoner Yuna" as a title of respect, indicating her status and position as a summoner.
Jul. 16th, 2012 @ 03:41 pm LJ Idol Home Game cutoff
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Current Music: Sean Paul - Get Busy
So it seems I'm in the midst of house-buying madness all of a sudden, and the free time that I used to have has all gone swirling down the drain. Add to that the fact that my workplace has gotten tremendously busy in the past few weeks and that leads to me not wanting to even look at a computer when I get done with work. This is why I haven't even written anything since being eliminated mathematically from LJ Idol.

I had planned to keep writing right up until the season finished, but it looks like I was eliminated none too soon. I don't know whether to be relieved or annoyed by this.

On a side note, I really hate the house-buying PROCESS. Looking for houses is lots of fun. Going through the hoops you need to jump through when you're actually putting in an offer -- not fun at all.

-- END OF LINE --
Jul. 2nd, 2012 @ 10:51 am LJ Idol, Week 32 (Home Game entry): "Modest Proposals"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
I have never felt the urge to reproduce.

I see those eyebrows going up into the stratosphere. Of course I've felt the urge to have sex. I'm a guy; we think about sex an average of once every seven seconds, if the popularly stated statistic is to be believed. Sex is great and wonderful and awesome, and a fantastic way to grow closer, and I'm dating a very lovely girl whom I love very much, and our sex life is none of your business, thankyouverymuch. :)

No, what I mean is that I have no particular urge to pass on my genes. To create a new life. To actually create a small copy of myself, watch my girlfriend (we're not married. Yet,) give birth to it, and raise it to adulthood with all the attendant joys and laughs and miracles.

The fact is that I am simply not suited for fatherhood.

Oh, there are any number of reasons why I don't want to have kids. The primary one is that I don't like kids. Babies especially. They're noisy, they make messes, they interrupt your sleep schedule, they turn your household routine upside down, they cause other people to take leave of their senses and become drooling, baby-talking, cheek-chucking imbeciles, you can't talk to them or reason with them or even understand them, they eat your money and time and resources, they have to be the center of attention all the time, they are, for all intents and purposes, useless. In high school, I read Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" with rather more enthusiasm than others in the class had. I thought Swift had the right idea.

Yes, I'm exaggerating. I do that sometimes, hadn't you noticed? The point is that babies annoy me. Annoyance is not a good start to a lasting relationship.

Another reason is that I personally think the world is already populated enough, thanks. We just hit seven billion and change, a number which is still increasing at a near-geometrical rate. And since we don't seem to be making any real steps to take to the stars and find other worlds to colonize, we'd better work harder at conserving our resources and getting along better with what we have. Having nineteen kids (and a near-twentieth which she miscarried), of which the infamous Duggar family is unjustifably proud, is not what I would call the best utilization of available resources. As my friend Mellzah once remarked, "A vagina is not a clown car." I simply don't see the need to add to an already burgeoning world population.

Some people use kids as a validation for their own existence. They have children because they want a purpose, a sense of permanence, a way to leave their mark on the world, to provide something lasting that they can be sure will live on after they're gone. Me, I've always known that life is transient. I face my own eventual end with equanimity, relatively secure. I don't see the need to create a carbon copy of myself, to have a child just because I want them to Do Great Things, or to do things that I myself might not have done. I make my choices; if I regret them, that's my own affair. It isn't someone else's job to atone for my mistakes, or to accomplish things that I haven't.

The most important reason of all, though, is an echo of what I said earlier: I am simply not suited for fatherhood. I am open and honest about my failings. I have an acerbic, sarcastic personality. I have a temper. I have little patience when faced with stupidity, or obstinance, or deliberate willful misbehavior. All of these things are an ingredient for a virtual certainty of an atomic explosion if I were ever to reproduce and found myself faced with the task of raising a child.

Look: parents in this day and age are faced with enormous challenges. I mean, count 'em up. The drains on finances and time and sleep; the troubles if your child turns out to be autistic or physically disabled or otherwise outside of what society tends to consider "normal"; avoiding unwanted advice from those who think they know how to raise your children better than you do; the difficulties of providing firm guidance and discipline while at the same time avoiding actual child abuse; dealing with rebellions and disagreements and outright defiance of your parental authority; helping them to grow and expand and change and become their own person, instead of forcing them into a mold based on your own expectations; and most of all, most of all, providing them with a good role model, raising them with strength and honor and morals.

And so I have quite happily turned over the task to other people who are better suited for raising children than I (although, given the sheer number of ill-behaved, spoiled, bratty hellspawn I see in the news on a day-to-day basis, I have to wonder how many of them are really that much better suited for the job).

But isn't it better for me to refuse to have kids, knowing my own failings, knowing ahead of time that I would not make a good father, knowing ahead of time that I don't have the needed enthusiasm, love and patience needed to raise a child? I think so. I'm selfish: I want to have the time and money to buy the things I want, instead of giving them up so my kids can have them. I'm impatient: I wouldn't deal well at all with a child who needs constant care and attention (which is, of course, all of them). I'm a poor role model: I swear, I drive too fast, I have poor financial habits, I don't spend enough time thinking about the future, I get angry too quickly, I have incredibly high standards, I'm often misanthropic and curmudgeonly. I'm ill-tempered: the first time my child began screaming with no letup, I'm very much afraid I would be apt to lose my shit and do something really stupid. That simply isn't acceptable when we're talking about someone else's life that you could be ruining, or warping by poor example. I refuse, I absolutely refuse, to be the cause of another unhappy childhood, another shattered psyche, another sullen and unresponsive teen who goes out and takes out his frustrations and hatreds and angers on someone else because he didn't get the love and care and support that he needed from his parents.

I salute, and have tremendous respect for, the parents out there who have gone into parenting for all the right reasons. The ones who genuinely love children, who see them as bright shining stars and our hope for the future. The ones who want nothing more than to be good role models. The ones who relish the challenge of instilling core values, teaching right from wrong, polarizing a moral compass. The ones who see all children, even the problem ones (or especially the problem ones), as human beings who deserve to be loved and cherished. The ones who can't wait to see their child's school play, who jump at the opportunity to volunteer to coach Little League, who shuttle their kids to the pool and to their friends' houses and to parties and amusement parks and concerts and band practice and...you get the idea. The ones who tuck their kids in at night, read them bedtime stories, go to the movies with them, play catch outside, talk about their favorite bands or artists, get involved with their lives. The ones who guide and shape their children, but let them become their own person, with their own beliefs and opinions and values. The ones who pay attention to what their kids are reading, listening to, seeing on the Internet, playing on the computer. The ones who get to know their child's friends, playmates, teachers, coaches. The ones who provide discipline in the face of misbehavior, praise for well-deserved efforts, compassion and comfort when the world falls apart, patience and understanding and empathy and wisdom and guidance.

The ones who pick their kids up, and hold them tight, and tell them that they love them. Tell them over and over again, even during the stormy adolescent years, even during the tantrums and the rebellions and the outbursts. Tell them that they're loved, and that they're special, and that they mean the world to Mommy and Daddy.

And truly mean it. Because only if you really mean it -- only if you know that you can do that for your child, that they will be the light of your world, that they will be the center of your universe, that you will give up everything, sacrifice anything, do anything at all for them -- only then, I feel, should you be a parent. Only then can you really understand what it means to raise someone. Only then should you be given a license to reproduce, because otherwise you're just adding to the world's pain, just adding another voice to the chorus without really caring about what it sings.

And that's why I'm not, and never will be, a parent. Because I know in my heart of hearts that I don't have the personality, the temperament, or the desire to be the best parent I could be. And without that, there's no sense in being a parent at all.

[This has been my entry for Week 32 of LJ Idol. The topic this time was an Open Topic. I've been eliminated from the competition proper, but since I'm in this for the inspiration, you can't get rid of me that easily, and so I'm continuing to write on the topics anyway. I hope you enjoyed my efforts this week! Please check out the entries of the participants who still remain in the competition itself and show them some love if you liked their work as well.]
Jul. 2nd, 2012 @ 08:46 am LJ Idol "You Can't Get Rid of Me That Easily" Post
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
So I was out of town starting Thursday afternoon and got back late late last night. I checked the LJ Idol doings and discovered that I had been eliminated from contention while I was out of town.

Well, that's kind of a kick in the balls.

So, a little FAQ, because I always wanted to do a FAQ but I don't actually have anybody contacting me with frequently asked questions. :)

Q. How does it feel to be eliminated from the competition?
A. How the hell do you think it feels? No, I kid. Well, mostly. I always put my best work out there, so I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me. But LJ Idol is part talent exhibition and part social media; if you are less active in the social media aspect of the competition (frequent comments, beta reading, visiting the Green Room and Work Room -- all of which I did rarely, if ever), I think you are less likely to hit the top 10. Or the top 20, as it turns out. So, although I am disappointed, I can't really say I'm surprised, either.

Q. What will you do now?
A. I'm going to Disneyland!........wait, no, that's not right either. Do? I'll be doing the same thing I have been all along during this competition. As I said back in the very beginning, I entered this as a way to reignite my creative fires and to take inspiration from the posted topics. The competitive aspect of it was just that: another aspect, but not the reason I was into this. Of course, since it was and is a competition, I was in it to win it. I don't do anything halfway, as I said a few weeks ago. I believed, and still believe, in the strength of my work. It spoke for itself for thirty-odd weeks and I intend to let it keep speaking for itself. So I'll be continuing to post entries that match the posted topics right up until this "season" ends.

Q. I loved your stuff this season! I'm sorry you were eliminated.
A. Hey, thanks. I really appreciate your saying so! But that's not really a question.

Q. Oops. Sorry. Um, did you have any favorites of your own this season?
A. Oh, sure. Plenty of them. I won't single any of them out, though, because there are a hell of a lot of talented writers that participated in this season's running and I think picking out anyone in particular does a disservice to the ones that I fail to mention. Several of my favorites have actually been eliminated already, unfairly, in some cases, I thought, but then again -- competition. There will always be eliminations, and some of them I won't care for.

If you've participated this season, and I've enjoyed your work, rest assured I have let you know about it, through a comment or an email or both. Or by just "following" you using Livejournal's "friend" feature.

Q. Why didn't you comment on others' work very often?
A. Several reasons. The biggest reason is that I am not a fan of drive-by commenting. Reading all the entries in each week's offerings (which I did every single time) is one thing; leaving comments on every entry just to say "I've been here" is not something I cared to do. I am one of those people who only wants to chime in on a discussion if I've really got something to add to it, so I would only leave comments if I felt the feedback was useful or there was really something there for me to say. A simple "I liked this" isn't good enough for me.

And of course there's the "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" thing, too. There were plenty of entries out there that I just didn't care for. Sometimes the subject matter, sometimes grammar and spelling mistakes, but sometimes I just didn't care for the writer's style. Opinions differ, people differ, so it's inevitable that I would not like everything. But what's the point in telling someone "Sorry, I just don't care for your style"? All that does is hurt feelings, and there are enough of those in the world already. Better to keep quiet unless I had constructive feedback to offer.

Q. "Just didn't care for their style", hmm? Don't pull many punches, do you?
A. I didn't go into this looking to make friends (although, surprisingly, I do seem to have picked up a few). I sometimes wrote on topics I knew would be likely to annoy people, not because I wanted to annoy them, but because that was what I happened to want to write about. Additionally, I have always been outspoken and completely truthful in my dealings with everyone. Not one positive comment has been insincere; every single bit of feedback on others' work has been straight from the heart and completely honest. Like I said already, I don't do anything halfway.

Q. How come you never used trigger warnings for stuff you wrote?
A. I feel my work speaks for itself, and if it doesn't, it should. 99.9% of the time, I refused to write about the reasons or inspiration behind a piece except when I felt it was warranted. Likewise, I do not feel it's my job to warn people that they may be offended or hurt by reading something I write. You don't see things like that on newspaper stories, magazine articles, or novels. If you don't care for something I created, I'm not forcing you to read it. Go elsewhere with my blessing; I know quite well that my style isn't for everyone.

Q. Do you plan to publish anything you wrote? (this was, incidentally, a question I did actually get from a few people).
A. I have a couple of novels which are bouncing around various publishers. They haven't been accepted yet, but I intend to keep trying. The stuff I wrote here, on the other hand, isn't the sort of thing that really has a ready audience. So, no, I don't really intend to try and publish any of it anywhere. Thanks for the confidence, though.

Q. Is this where we do the credit roll?
A. Yes, sort of. I'd like to thank the Academy.....er, the LJ Idol community, for welcoming me so warmly, despite my curmudgeonly outward demeanor and my general refusal to participate in Green Room and Work Room shenanigans. I'd like to single out my partners during the Intersection Weeks: copyright1983, m_malcontent, and xreesex, all of whom were talented, able and willing partners and were great for bouncing ideas off of. I'd like to thank each and every one of the people who took time to send me a message about how they liked a piece, whether it was done through commenting (as most were), emails, or in one particularly memorable case, a text message (and I'd still like to know how the hell you found out my phone number....you must tell me about that sometime). I would like to thank each of you individually but that really would make this credit roll unbearably long. You all know who you are, though.

Q. Can I add you as a Livejournal "friend"?
A. Of course. If you like my work enough to want to read it regularly, who am I to argue with that? I don't object at all. Conversely, I don't hate you if you choose not to follow my work. Again, go with my blessing!

Q. Anything else to say?
A. Sure. I went into this thing thinking it was (by reputation) a drama-llama thing, for divas and people who thought much more highly of their talents than was deserved. There was some of that, to be sure, but the vast majority of the writings I saw were really surprisingly good. There are at least ten or fifteen people in this competition (and I won't name names) who are creating professional-level work, and I will be continuing to follow their stuff long after this season is finished.

And a final thank you to Gary, who runs this whole thing. I imagine this is a hell of a lot of work for very little reward. Maybe running things is its own reward; I don't know. But thank you all the same, for providing points of interest, stimulating discussions, and above all providing the topics that got people writing each week.

Because in the end, it doesn't matter where inspiration comes from -- if the writing is good, then it makes everything worthwhile.

cheers,
Phil
Jun. 25th, 2012 @ 09:49 am LJ Idol, Week 31: "The Argument Clinic"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Current Music: Masterplan - Kind Hearted Light
I won't go so far as to say that I deliberately set out, all the time, to do the opposite of what I am supposed to be doing -- that sort of thing would be childish and stupid -- but I can't deny that it's a lot of fun to do the unexpected, to act in ways contrary to those that others may consider normal, and especially to find "strange" or "interesting" ways to do required tasks.

Take, for example, my experience with a college drama course.

I majored in psychology, and was moving along the Bachelor of Science track rather than Bachelor of Arts, so I really didn't get the opportunity to enjoy many arts-type electives. Most of my "free" courses went to stuff like Comp Sci, Astronomy, or other scientific-related courses. I did get to take a few fine arts courses here and there, though, and one of them was a drama/theatre class. I had done some acting in grade school and high school before deciding I didn't really care for the drains on my time and the prima donnas, but some part of me still wanted to play the ham once in a while, so I signed up for the course to see what it was like. After all, I figured, I could always drop it and take something else if it didn't suit me. (Ah, the freedom of college. I miss it.)

It was fairly enjoyable for the most part, even if I did spend a lot of time in it shaking my head at the ineptness of the other students in the class. I mean, I never intended to make a career out of acting, but even I know that less is more a lot of the time when it comes to acting, and some of these people looked as if the world was crashing around their ears when the instructor gave them suggestions on how to improve -- they really weren't suited for a possible career in acting, where rejection and apathy are the watchword unless you are really lucky, really talented, or really rich (or possibly all three).

Still, the course was a lot of fun. I even got an almost-date out of it once, when I was paired with a lovely young lady; we were working on "Hamlet" that week and the two of us were assigned to perform Hamlet's scene with Ophelia. The girl suggested I meet her at her place and we could practice it there. She was really nervous and shaky (I wondered why she was even in the class) and it took her several glasses of wine before she could loosen up enough to get into the scene. But after that it was all very pleasant; I got to sit very close to her and look into her eyes and help her through her shaky bits. We rehearsed for a while and eventually I left, and when we performed it in class we both got full marks from both the instructor and the other students.

(Much later, it finally occurred to me that maybe she hadn't been as nervous as she acted, and maybe inviting me over to her place was just a pretext to spend time with me, particularly with the glasses of wine...and she had offered me some....and I had declined it....and looked really disappointed when I did so.....and looked even more disappointed when I suggested we get to work on the scene......and still more disappointed when I finally left.....oh my GOD, I am the most dense idiot in the world. I couldn't get her to give me the time of day after that, and deservedly so. But that's neither here nor there.)

I think the most fun I had with the course, though, was when we were assigned to do a monologue.

We were told we could pick it from virtually any performance. Theatre, movies, Broadway, TV shows, whatever. As long as it fit into ten minutes or less, and could be done by one person, then it was fair game.

Well, at the time I was something of a lazy bastard. I enjoyed the class, but I wasn't really very keen on putting much work into memorizing a scene which I would promptly forget later on. Accordingly, I cast about for something I already knew by heart and could use for the scene. I came up with a good one, or so I thought.

Most of the rest of the class chose the familiar, the predictable, or at the very least the famous and well-regarded. Hamlet's famous soliloquy. Alec Baldwin's rant in "Glengarry Glen Ross". Jack Nicholson's rant in "A Few Good Men". Two of them even picked monologues from "Pulp Fiction" -- the watch scene with Christopher Walken and Samuel Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 speech. (The guy playing this last one actually did the full scene, not just the monologue, playing Brett's tiny tiny part as well, although it technically wasn't a monologue....which reassured me, about which more later).

Me, because I was lazy, and didn't want to learn anything new? I chose Monty Python's classic "Argument Clinic" sketch. I had it, as well as many others, memorized from repeated viewings, and it seemed like it would go over pretty well in class.

I knew I was running a couple of risks with this one. Firstly, it absolutely is not a monologue -- it's two very prominent characters, arguing with each other, riffing off each other and playing off each others' reactions. Secondly, it's hardly high art. The Pythons are the acknowledged masters of Brit humor and dry wit, but they are not exactly classic cinema. Thirdly, I didn't bother to check with the instructor as to whether my choice was OK, like the other students did. My attitude was pretty much "Fuck it -- I'm going for this." And finally, I made an absolutely conscious decision to go completely over the top with the performance. So when I stepped out in front of the class and began my recitation, I honestly didn't know what the hell was going to happen.

There were some almost immediate giggles from the students who recognized the sketch, and I could see them struggling to hold in their laughter as I went on, shifting from one character to the other and back again, using vocal tics, shifting vocal timbre and body language to convey character (as well as the classic "turn from one side to the other" that actors do when they're playing both halves of a scene). That was encouraging. The instructor himself was a little harder to read: he sat there with a raised eyebrow for the first minute or so, obviously wondering just what the hell I thought I was doing here, performing a piece that was written for two actors when the requirement had been a monologue. I felt a little nervous, but I pushed even harder, playing Cleese's part with stuffy disdain and exact correctness, playing Palin's part with steadily growing frustration and hysteria. By the end of the piece, half the class wasn't bothering to hold their laughter in any more and the instructor himself had a very slight smile on his face (the only reaction I'd seen from him at all during the piece).

I subsided, panting a little, and enjoyed the applause the class gave me. The instructor was silent for a very long time, and I figured I'd made a mistake by being too convention-defying.

He finally stirred, and told me that while he should probably give me a zero for technically failing to meet the requirements of a pure MONOlogue, the class had obviously enjoyed the piece, and he himself had enjoyed it too once he'd seen where it was going. (Apparently he was not a Python fan and had never seen the sketch, so he was a bit lost at the beginning). "I would have given you a zero anyway," he said, "if you hadn't done a really good job with the piece. You portrayed two different characters clearly with both voice and body language, and since all of it was done by you, I suppose we can call this a monologue of sorts. I'll let you get away with it this time."

Whew. I exhaled, and went to sit down. He brought me up short by calling my name. I stopped. "Yes, sir?"

He smiled a very wintry smile. "Next time I assign you something, check with me first before you perform it."

I snapped off a salute (which earned me an eye-roll and a dismissive wave), and went and sat down. My two immediate seat-neighbors immediately collared me and said "I can't believe you did that! Monty Python, in a drama class?" I just smirked, feeling justifiably smug. I got away with it, didn't I?

The moral of the story? Hell, I don't know. I don't even know if I learned anything from the experience. "Do what you feel is right"? "Ignore the conventions and play what your heart tells you"? "Go big or go home"? Or even just "Defying expectations is fun"? Damned if I know. All I know is that I really do enjoy doing the unexpected sometimes.

Postscript: Several weeks later, we were asked to do a humor piece with up to three characters, and to select any partners we chose. Predictably enough, I chose another Python sketch (this time the more famous "Dead Parrot" sketch). Predictably enough, I played both parts myself, rather than doing it with a partner. Predictably enough, the students, particularly the ones who'd seen my Argument Clinic exhibition weeks before, were in stitches.

And predictably enough, the instructor flunked me on that one, despite what he said was another great performance, because I hadn't listened to his instructions. Again.

Ah, well. I guess you need to pick and choose your instances of convention-defying. I don't care. It was totally worth it.

[This has been my entry for Week 31 of LJ Idol. The topic to be written was "polemic". I hope you enjoyed my efforts this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]
Jun. 18th, 2012 @ 12:07 pm LJ Idol, Week 30: "Wanderlust"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
I've been on a lot of vacations with my parents, but only one of them affected me to the point where I wanted to change my entire lifestyle.

Years ago, my parents bought an RV (recreational vehicle). It's a 32-foot Bounder, a vehicle of sufficient size that I really feel there should be required training on driving the things before people are let loose on the highways to terrorize other drivers. Fortunately, my parents had a few years' professional CDL (commercial drivers' license) experience under their belts; a few years before that, they had spent a couple years driving big rigs for Schneider National, so they weren't at all fazed at having to handle a vehicle that was merely bus-sized, instead of tractor-trailer-sized. In any case, they took to it as naturally as breathing, and pretty soon they were taking trips all over the U.S., sometimes with my grandparents in tow, sometimes just the two of them. The biggest trip they ever had was probably the one where they and my grandparents started from their home in Georgia and drove all the way up to Canada and then Alaska, spending several months on the road and accumulating enough awesome experiences to write a book. The Bounder was definitely in need of a long rest after they got back home from that one!

For quite a long time Mom and Dad kept asking me to go on a trip with them. They had already been on one or two with my brother Michael, and they wanted me to go along as well, but it kept not happening for one reason or another, usually mostly because we had trouble getting our schedules to mesh. At one point we actually had a trip mapped out, my time off from work arranged, and plane tickets bought ("what plane tickets?" I hear you saying, "I thought this was supposed to be an RV trip?" Patience, I'll get to it), and then we had to cancel at the last minute when my grandmother developed a life-threatening illness. That trip fell by the wayside, and it wasn't until several years later, in March of 2009, when everything finally gelled and we went on a trip together.

This was to be a Great American Southwest trip. Mom, Dad, myself, and my girlfriend Leslie would be traveling to visit Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park. Because it takes so long to travel from Georgia, where my parents live, to the first of these destinations, and because Leslie and I had limited time for our spring break / vacation time, we elected to meet up: my parents would drive the RV out to Las Vegas, Leslie and I would fly out to Vegas together, we'd drive around and visit our intended locations, and then Leslie and I would both fly home from Salt Lake City (the nearest airport to Bryce Canyon).

It was a frantic vacation, with us on the go pretty much from sunup to sundown each day. When you're wanting to see that many places in just a week, you can't really dawdle, have to attack each day starting at 7 AM, and you have to be efficient with your time. That said, we managed to fit everything in quite neatly, visiting all of the places we'd wanted to see, taking hundreds of awesome photos, enjoying each others' company, and just generally having a hell of a good time. Both Leslie and I were sorry when we had to leave. (I have plenty of photos of the trip available in this collection on Flickr, incidentally, subdivided by day, if anyone wants to see 'em). And Leslie and I decided, almost immediately, that we would be RVers ourselves one day, could we but find the money.

The RV lifestyle is really unlike any other. The RV is not just your home, it's your home on wheels; you pull up stakes in the morning, disconnect everything, and pull out of the RV park wherever you stayed, heading down the road towards your next destination. When you get where you're going, you look around for a decent place to stay. Prominent tourist destinations will offer you a plethora of choices; RV parks are ubiquitous in places like Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, although your options are a bit more limited when you get into the really remote areas like Monument Valley or Death Valley. These RV parks provide you with a parking spot and places for you to hook up your water and electric feeds, in exchange for a fee, of course (although a fee much smaller than you'd get checking into a hotel for the night). Many of the parks have lovely landscaping, tons of amenities (most of them even have wireless Internet access nowadays), and friendly people, some of whom may actually be year-round residents. Other parks are bare-bones, offering you just the parking spot and hookups. In some cases you are in a remote enough place so that there are no official RV parks; in that case, you pull into the parking lot of a Wal-Mart or other large store, and then you "dry camp", that is, make do without live hookups for a night.

Regardless, when you pull in and hook everything up, the RV is suddenly transformed from transportation to a home again. You extend the hydraulic jacks to level and stabilize it, roll out the awnings over the windows, and extend the slide-out compartments. (Slide-out compartments are an awesome RV invention -- when the RV is parked, you punch a button inside and part of the side of the RV actually slides out sideways, extending the amount of space you have inside. In a twinkling the somewhat cramped environment becomes much more spacious, allowing you to move around with a lot more freedom. This picture shows my parents' RV with the slide extended). Then you hook up your electric cable and water intake hose, as well as your drainage hoses. Now you have electric power for the overhead lights or other electric devices, plus running water for the sinks, shower, and so on. You can put together a lovely meal using fresh food from your fridge, or pulling stuff out of the huge number of storage compartments, cooking it on the stove or using the microwave, and sit down in the cabin for dinner, or take it outside and sit under the awning in the fading light of a summer's day. When it's bedtime, you can sleep on the queen-size bed in the bedroom area at the rear, or convert the couch into a bed and use that as well (as Leslie and I did). The next morning, you have breakfast, then unhook everything, make sure the fresh-water tanks are topped off and the wastewater tanks are drained, and away you go to your next destination. The fridge switches over to gas/propane usage instead of electric, to prevent drain on the battery, and all the running water now comes from the holding tank instead of from the hookup, but you can be driving down the road while people in the cabin are wandering about, grabbing a sandwich and a cold beer from the fridge, rinsing dishes in the sink, using the bathroom, or just stretching out on the couch and watching the world go by.

If you want to go on a short local expedition, well, that's what the tow car is for. There will always be places where the RV is a bit cumbersome, and so the savvy RVer will have a tow car. This car is hooked to the rear of the RV with a tow bar and chains, an arrangement that lets it calmly follow along behind the RV without the fuss of driving it up onto an actual towing platform. My dad even uses a Brake Buddy, a device which you hook to the brake system of the car and which works in conjunction with the braking system of the RV; if you're tooling along and the RV has to brake hard, the Brake Buddy fires the braking system on the tow car as well to keep it from shoving too hard against the RV and making it even more difficult to stop. The tow car allows you the flexibility of quick and compact transportation; when you get to the RV park, you unhook the tow car and then you can drive off to explore the local sights, have dinner at a local restaurant, go shopping for groceries, or even go to visit the nearby parks that may be too narrow or problematical for the RV itself to visit. Most of the time this is how we visited the places we wanted to see -- the RV would sit at its local home and we'd visit the parks via car.

RVs allow you so much freedom. If you want to stay for a week at someplace you're visiting, you can do that. All you need is a slot in the RV park to have all the comforts you'd have at home. Even in a pinch, when there are no RV parks handy and you're stopped for the night in, say, a Wal-Mart parking lot, you *still* get all the comforts of home. Oh, you have to run the generator to get electricity, to avoid running down the RV's batteries, and you have to be careful with water management, but all in all you are just as comfy when "dry camping" as you are when you're in an official RV park and using hookups.

Water management when dry camping is a bit different. RVs have three water systems. Fresh water comes in from either a hose hookup (if you're in an RV park) or the holding tanks (if you're on the road). When you're in a park, the fresh water is essentially unlimited, and so is the drainage. When you're mobile, or when dry camping, you're limited to what you can draw from the tanks (although they have such huge reserve tanks that you'd really have to push it to use up everything in the reserves). Water drainage, however, is another matter. Wastewater has two types: black and gray. Black water is everything in the sewage tank; gray water is everything that goes down all the other drains (sinks, shower and washer/dryer combo). When you're in a park, these drain directly into a waste tank outside, but when you're mobile they drain into separate tanks with limited capacity. So you need to be careful that you don't waste a ton of water when doing the dishes or showering, because if the gray water tank fills up, your shower may stop draining until you go outside and pull the drain valve to flush the tank. (This is very much uncool when you're not using an official dump station or flush tank -- and don't even get me started on RVers who think nothing of dumping their black water tank, their sewage, onto the pavement in a parking lot somewhere, because they were too cheap to stop in a real park). But even with these caveats, "dry" camping, with no official hookups, is hardly "roughing it" in any sense of the word.

What I love most about RVing, though, is the general sense of wanderlust that so many RVers seem to share. They all want to visit all the cool places. The RVers we've met, on our various trips with my parents, have been almost universally cool and friendly, eager to swap stories, to assist with any problems you might have, invite you over for dinner, or just wave and say hi when you pull in for the night. They are usually older, or at least retired, and are filling their lives with trips to places they'd always wanted to see. Sometimes they're younger families on vacation, renting an RV for a short period to see what the life is like. More and more, though, we're running into people who are RVing full time -- who have have sold their houses and have no fixed residence, who live in their RVs and just wander from place to place, wherever the wind blows them. Even my parents are considering this themselves; they enjoy the RV lifestyle enough to seriously countenance the idea of spending 365 days a year wandering.

Even the full-time RVers do settle down periodically. Some of them will spend half the year at a long-term RV park in one location, and half the year in another (heading north for the summer and south for the winter). Some spend a portion of the year at one place and the rest of the year traveling. But still others have no fixed abode at all. They pull into a place, stay there until wanderlust overtakes them, and then pull out again, heading down the road, seeing where it leads them.

I envy them sometimes. What must it be like to have that kind of freedom? To have the only question in your mind each morning be "Where are we going to go today? What sights will we see this time?" Not to have to worry about heading to your job, about obligations and responsibilities, but only to worry about topping off your tanks and make sure there's enough food in the fridge to last you until you hit the next town with a grocery store? To experience the sights and sounds of a fantastic country (the United States has a mind-boggling array of scenery and places to visit from East Coast to West Coast), knowing that you can stay as long as you please at each place, knowing that there will always be another one waiting for you around the next bend?

Leslie and I have been on several more trips with my parents since the Great Southwest RV trip. Each one has only reinforced our initial excitement. We will definitely be RVers one day, assuming we can afford it.

It's just too much fun to forget about.

[This has been the sixth of five SIX entries for Week 30 of LJ Idol. There were five SIX topics to be written this week: "gobsmacked", "disappear", "appropriation", "cesspool", "scared money never wins" and "vacation" (added at the last minute). This was the "vacation" entry. I hope you enjoyed my efforts on this and the other entries this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]
Jun. 18th, 2012 @ 09:30 am LJ Idol, Week 30: "Involuntary Theft"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Current Music: Kitaro - Fata Morgana
One of the really hellish things about being a voracious reader is that it invariably colors your own writing whenever you put pen to paper yourself.

Reading has enriched my life in so many different ways that I couldn't possibly even count them. It is not, I think, exaggerating by much when I say that my love of reading has damn near saved my life a few times. It is, quite simply, one of the primary drives in my existence, and I've written about my love of books several times before.

There is, unfortunately, a downside to the desire to consume every book I come across. It's combined with another of my traits, a very good memory for the printed word. This latter trait has often been quite useful, particularly in high school and college where I had to recite facts I'd gleaned from the texts we were given. (A side note: this memory of the printed word is, with enough repetition and rereading, extended and refined to a memory of not just the words themselves, but also a memory of the way the words are printed and arranged on the page. An example: I have read "The Lord of the Rings" so many times, always in my beloved Ballantine paperback editions with the blue, green and red covers, that I can close my eyes and recite any particular passage that comes to mind, and even tell you where the lines and pages break and continue. In fact, if I read any other editions or versions of the books, with the inevitably different arrangements of the words and different line breaks, it feels somehow "wrong" to me, even though the text itself is just the same).

The downside, as I mentioned, is that when you read as much as I do, and you have as good a memory for writing as I do, you find yourself involuntarily using choice phrases and stylistic bits from the best of whatever you've read in the past. And that just isn't cool at all.

I'm a firm believer that theft in the art world (whether it be written, musical or visual theft) is a crutch. Any writer worth their salt should be able to turn out a piece of work without relying upon phrasings, characters, or styles that they cribbed from someone else. Truly original music isn't sampled from other beats and librettos; truly original art doesn't reuse elements of other artists' previous paintings or compositions. I strive for this myself, though I don't know how well I manage it. But sometimes I go back and reread the things I've written, and I discover to my dismay that that phrase cropped up in something I read eight years ago, or that particular idea may be an echo of something I saw in a piece I reread last week, or that character is uncomfortably similar to somebody from another book in my past.

This is never deliberate, of course. I hasten to clarify that. Plagiarism, out-and-out copying, is theft of the worst kind. Passing off someone else's work as your own is not only cowardly and weak, but it's also really damned stupid, particularly in this day and age when so many writings appear in so many different places, and technology exists (say, Copyscape or other similar software) that can immediately turn up dozens of similarities between a new piece of work and other things that have been previously published. No, that isn't what I mean. Even when I go back and reread the bits where I involuntarily used a favorite phrase from something else I read, it's never more than five or six words, and it's always repurposed and adjusted so that it doesn't even fit the same kind of context it was in originally. I don't do this deliberately, like I said; it's like my mind is just storing up these favorite bits and they just jump out without prompting.

If I wanted to really make a meta statement about this, I'd turn it into a story of its own: how these words and phrases are living creatures, how they are clawing for life and jostling for their chance to live again, how they want to shine, to stand out, rather than to be shut back into the pages of dusty tomes hidden away on secluded shelves in ancient libraries long-hidden from visitors' eyes. But that's another sort of crutch, isn't it? No, the fact is that although I've been writing my own poems, essays, stories, since I could pick up a pen, I am still working on my own unique style. I like to think that I have, for the most part, succeeded, that I don't write using someone else's voice....but sometimes bits of their style creep in all the same.

What to do about this? I know that a lot of professional writers, fantasy and science fiction writers in particular, simply don't read anything at all in their own field, for fear of contamination. They don't want to be colored or influenced, even involuntarily, by anyone else's work. This is, most likely, the best course....but I just can't make myself do it, because I can't stand to know that I'm missing out on so much outstanding work. I can't bear deliberately overlooking great storytelling just because I'm not confident in my own ability to block out those genius phrasings. Instead, I choose to deal with it by remaining vigilantly on guard with every word I commit to the page. I read and reread my own work not just because I'm a perfectionist and typos or grammar mistakes drive me absolutely up the fucking wall, but because I am more likely to catch things like this if I read my work several times before I put it out there anywhere. I catch those little phrases or ideas that sneaked through, and I rewrite them, excise them from the piece, relegate them back to their source with an angry wave. Because I really do hate when I do this. I mean, it isn't a frequent thing -- it happens maybe once out of every twenty-five things I write, and even then only five or six words total -- but even once out of twenty-five is too much, to my mind. Perfectionism, remember.

Now, I also do understand that very few pieces of art are truly original nowadays. All music, for example, builds on the same basic harmonic and melodic themes, using the same scales. There have been "music theft" cases that I've seen where the similarities seemed to me to be only coincidences -- that the second composer or artist really had written his own piece with no inspiration from the first, even if there were some chance similarities. I remember reading a discussion on the Dream Theater mailing list when copying of someone else's music or musical style came up. One fellow illustrated the ridiculousness of it all by noting that technically, ALL music steals from some other music: "This piece, for example, uses the C sharp minor from the third cadenza of Beethoven's fifth, followed by the G major found at 1:45 of Nine Inch Nails' "Kinda I Want To", then the A flat of the intro of Eric Johnson's "Ah Via Musicom", and so on". Taking things to an extreme, but the hell of it was, he was right. Music is pretty derivative, and it's how you arrange those source notes and weave them together -- overall -- that makes the work stand out.

Writing is similar in some ways. I'm sure you're familiar with the idea that there are only a handful of Great Stories or Story Archetypes, such as the Hero's Journey, Rags to Riches, Man Vs. Nature, and so on. Depending on who you ask, this number can range anywhere from thirty or forty "basic" ideas all the way down to one (the minimalist viewpoint is that all stories and all plots stem from "conflict", and that without conflict there is no story....a claim which holds no water with me, incidentally). The generally held viewpoint is that all fiction, all stories, stem from one or more of these basic plots or story types. Yet I think that trying to rigidly define the Archetypes or Story Types is doing just as much a disservice to writing in general as out-and-out plagiarism is. What's important is how well-crafted the take is; how uniquely arranged and carefully-constructed the narrative. It doesn't matter if the idea has been done to death a million times before; if you put your own unique spin on it, add something new and different, or even just tell it compellingly and well, the fact that it's somewhat derivative doesn't matter. You can write along roads that have been carefully laid down already. It's not necessary to go reinventing the wheel with every piece you create.

Robert Heinlein used to remark that writers in general, and science fiction writers in particular, specialized in taking someone else's work and reimagining it. "Steal it, switch it over the state lines, file off the serial numbers, and it's yours." He was joking, exaggerating for comedic effect, but (as others have noted) there is very little truly original work out there. When something's touted as "new and different" it usually isn't all that different -- it's just well-done enough to stand out from the crowd in a time when most fiction really is awfully dull and plodding.

All of this, incidentally, is just a bit of philosophizing. For my own part, I still try damned hard not to use phrases from other writers, even if they're only short phrases, because I would rather come up with my own work from start to finish. When I look back at my own work and smile because I like the way that sentence came together, the way the piece flows, I want it to be all from the well of my own creativity. But when your head is full of gems from other writers' work, because you read too damned much for your own good, it's a struggle sometimes to make sure that the words are all your own.

When people are cursing about their own faulty memory, they're usually angry because they can't remember something. Me, I sometimes wish that I could forget some of what I remember. Then I could be more at ease when my fingers are dancing over the keyboard and I'm marveling at the ease with which the words are flowing. Instead, I have to keep a constant lookout......"constant vigilance", as Mad-Eye Moody used to scream at the students in the fourth of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

[This has been the fifth of five SIX entries for Week 30 of LJ Idol. There were five SIX topics to be written this week: "gobsmacked", "disappear", "appropriation", "cesspool", "scared money never wins" and "vacation" (added at the last minute). This was the "appropriation" entry. I hope you enjoyed my efforts on this and the other entries this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]
Jun. 14th, 2012 @ 03:18 pm LJ Idol, Week 30: "Shock and Awe"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
I am always pleasantly surprised when a book, or movie, or piece of music, or whathaveyou, lives up to its hype.

I'm all for getting recommendations from friends on what's good with respect to music, movies, books, and so on. And I do pick up a lot of what I read/listen to/watch from my friends' suggestions. I trust my friends and they have rarely steered me wrong. The problem is that I am something of a curmudgeon when it comes to recommendations. If something has taken the general public's interest by storm, then experience has taught me that it is often, sadly, not all it's cracked up to be (which is a charitable way of saying that the general public's taste is utter and complete shite...examples include "Twilight", "Jersey Shore", Robert Jordan, "Hunger Games", "50 Shades of Gray", and plenty of others I won't bother mentioning). So when I hear zombie hordes of people squealing about how I must see this movie right now or read that book immediately before another second elapses, then my immediate reaction is to run speedily in the other direction. It is not, shall we say, one of my more endearing qualities.

Occasionally, the object of attention is actually worthy of the public's adulation, but usually not to the extent that they rave about it. I enjoyed Christopher Paolini's Eragon and its sequel, but have felt no special urge to read the third or fourth book and will pick them up whenever I see them in the used bookstore. Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is another good example. Near-impenetrable for the first forty percent of the book and hampered by translation vagaries, it only picked up towards the end. Decent enough, but way overrated; as with Paolini, I'll probably pick the others up eventually, but they aren't high on my list.

In a few very rare cases, though, the public is actually perceptive enough to seize on something which has real, actual merit. The "Harry Potter" series is the prime example of this. I studiously ignored Rowling's work until just after the fourth book had come out. Since I knew that the general mouth-breathing second-grade reading-level public tended to prefer stories with all the depth of an empty child's swimming pool, I couldn't see what all the hype was about. But curiosity eventually got the better of me and I sat down in the local Borders one day with the first book, to see what it was like. I figured I'd try it for a while and then feel vindicated when it turned out to be crap, so smug and self-righteous was I. Now imagine my surprise. I was stunned, shocked almost into immobility, when I realized that I'd plowed steadily through almost the entire book in an hour or so without ever glancing up once. Because, dammit, Rowling had written a freaking good story, with absorbing characters and a fascinating world. How was that possible, that the general public had picked up on something this smart and interesting? It boggled the mind.

(The HP books now occupy a place of honor on my shelf -- in hardcover, no less, an honor which only a few series have managed -- and I was at "midnight release" bookstore parties for the fifth, sixth and final books in the series....but I digress).

The problem is made even worse, at least for me, when the fans of a particular book or movie aren't even part of the "general public" I keep mentioning. This happens a lot more in my circle of friends. Because I love geeky pursuits, the types of recommendations I tend to hear for books, movies, etc., are for films or stories that the general public will never have heard of, or would look down their noses at. "Firefly?" they'll sniff. "Never heard of it. Wait...no, isn't that that geeky (they always say "geeky" in that tone that makes it clear they actually mean "childish" and "worthless") science fiction western thing? God, what a stupid concept." I already know to ignore their opinions on all things fannish. That's not the issue. The general geek fandom, on the other hand -- a group that you would normally think I could trust with my life -- will rant and rave about a show at every possible opportunity, with such intensity that it tends to put me off even more than widespread public acceptance might tend to do, so I will still avoid it like the plague. Again, not one of my more endearing qualities.

This has, regrettably, led to my being a "late adopter" on a number of really excellent shows, books, and so on -- usually because I discounted my friends' recommendation on something for the reason that fandom in general had gone a little too geeky over it all. It always annoys me when this happens, because I then go kicking myself around the house for waiting so long to read it or watch it. In a few cases I've become enough of a fan of the recent discovery that I immediately turn into one of its evangelists myself. Then I'm one of the annoying people who reacts to "I haven't seen it" by squealing "Oh my god, you haven't seen it? You have to see it, it's awesome!" Being mindful of my own extreme objection to that sort of rabid fanboy drooling, though, I do try to temper it with rationalism, coolly listing reasons why the show is worth watching or the book's worth picking up.

Examples where I've been late to the party because of my own stubbornness include:

-- The TV show "Firefly", which had been dead and gone for a good two years by the time I tried it, and of which I am now a massive fan.
-- Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which was so ubiquitous in geek circles that by the time I actually watched it, I already knew half the quotes from the episodes.
-- Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller trilogy. "The Name of the Wind" is not only the best first novel I have ever read, it is also one of the best novels I have ever read, period. Rothfuss is destined to be a major player in the fantasy world.
-- Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series. These are a trifle formulaic, but the character and concept are something I really wish I had thought of, and the stories are damn well told.
-- Crime/thriller author Donald Westlake, who I actually avoided for a long time solely because of one author's near-constant inside references and homages to Westlake; I love Spider Robinson and he's a very good writer, but he does wear his inspirations on his sleeve rather a lot. I am really kicking myself for this now, because Westlake was a truly great writer and I can't believe I missed his talent for all these years.
-- The TV show "The Big Bang Theory", which is staffed with enough geeky, interesting characters and outstanding acting that it rises above the "sitcom" setting and "hey, look at the funny nerds" stereotypes, both of which tend to annoy me greatly.
-- The comic book series "Preacher", which was a year finished when I started
-- The comic book series "Cerebus", which was two-thirds of the way through its 300-issue run when I began reading it
-- The remake of "Battlestar Galactica", which actually didn't "grab" me immediately like some of these others have done; it took about a year of watching episodes off and on for this one to take hold.

One saving grace to my stubbornness in cases like these is that it tends to provide me with a wealth of material to take in once I finally do give in and succumb to the siren call of whatever-it-is. In the case of "Battlestar Galactica", for example, the series had been over for months when I finally decided to give it a look, so I had the entire series of four and a half seasons to look forward to if it turned out to be worth my time. I didn't have to wait with bated breath for the next episode to arrive, or tear my hair out in clumps when they ended a season with a cliffhanger; instead all I had to do was shrug and insert the next disc. With the Harry Dresden series, Butcher had produced ten books in the series when I started reading them, so there was lots for me to enjoy already. Donald Westlake produced more than 100 novels during his relentless career, so the only difficulty I'm having now is that people who own Westlake's books don't tend to sell them to used bookstores (my usual source for picking up books). "Cerebus" is kept in print via "phone book" graphic novels which collect 25 issues of the comic at a time, so it was an easy task to catch up with 200 issues' worth of backstory.

The other saving grace is that episodic stories and series really do tend to work better when taken in as a cohesive whole. Neil Gaiman's comic series "Sandman" is one of these (although it's not one of the ones I was late to the party on -- that one, I can happily admit, I was a reader within the first ten issues). Sandman is a story with a definite beginning and end, and though it was really wonderful to read each new issue as it arrived, it's better still to sit down with my issues (or with the graphic novel collections) on a rainy Sunday afternoon and just read from start to finish, all 75 issues, drinking in the story as it unfolds. There's no break in the narrative, nothing to interrupt the flow, and it just works better when seen as a gestalt whole. This is true to a lesser extent with episodic TV series, as well, although they suffer from the handicap of multiple writers -- "Battlestar Galactica", for example, while a wonderful series up till the third season, definitely seems to lose its way after that, wandering aimlessly about as it tries to recapture the earlier magic and never quite manages it. But when a single unifying creator is at the helm from start to finish (as with book series, and some comic series), it just tends to work a lot better if you can manage the uninterrupted time to go from start to finish.

Now, if I could just find some way to disconnect the "no! I won't do it!" reactionary circuit in my head that triggers every time the geek fandom trips out over a really great series of books or movies. There's gotta be some way I can find a happy medium....

[This has been the fourth of five entries for Week 30 of LJ Idol. There were five topics to be written this week: "gobsmacked", "disappear", "appropriation", "cesspool", and "scared money never wins". This was the "gobsmacked" entry. I hope you enjoyed my efforts on this and the other entries this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]
Jun. 13th, 2012 @ 10:14 pm LJ Idol, Week 30: "Blank Slate " [fiction]
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Blasted
bereft
hollow
withered --
wrenched from within and without,
bowed down by crushing disapproval,
the Curse of Differentia,
the Weight of Weird --
shambling through life
in a grey rain,
all smoke and shadows, ghosts without substance,
destination: nowhere.

This is how they feel:
the truly unique ones
the brilliant yet eccentric
awkward but talented
unsung genius clad in burlap sacks
to hide the exterior --
wrapped in armor frail
to shield them from the slings and arrows
of outrageous ignorance,
the stupid, blind hate,
the scorn of popularity,
the shouting, tumultuous sound and fury
that ultimately signifies nothing.

And yet -- and yet --
some do believe the cruel words,
the venom poured into their ears,
the scars scrawled haphazard into their psyche --
believe the naysayers,
the guardians of the Truth and the One Right Way
(self-appointed),
till all chance of personal expression
character
individuality
lifefreedom
is ground under jackboot heel, crushed into the dust.

In moments like these
when faith stretches cobweb-thin
and Reason's reasons seem far distant
and acceptance a fading dream
comes a wish to fade --
flicker, dissolve, shimmer insubstantial
and vanish from all thought and knowledge.
Invisible, inaudible, imperceptible:
it seems ideal
when the numbness spreads and overwhelms,
when the walls of the pit yawn steep and sheer,
when you stand outside looking in
at all the warmth and cheer
too far from the fire to feel its heat
too far from the people to hear their songs.

"It gets better": the clarion call
"It gets better": the real Truth
"It gets better": the words to remember
for all who feel different,
in moments of pain
in times of agony
when words wound
and arrows are aimed --

because the fact is
that ordinary never makes waves.
The fact is
that weird is interesting,
different is cool,
unique and unusual carry immense weight and worth.

The clouds will part, the mist dissolve,
the gloom will lessen,
the sunshine return:
the fabled gold at the end of the rainbow
is within reach,
if one but perseveres --

a message of comfort
for those locked in durance vile,
lost and forlorn,
who dream, wish, hope

to

dis
ap
pear

[Dedicated to all those who have felt ostracized because they were different, for any reason. Dedicated also to those who suffer from depression. The two often go hand in hand. It does get better, people. Please remember that.

This has been the third of five entries for Week 30 of LJ Idol. There were five topics to be written this week: "gobsmacked", "disappear", "appropriation", "cesspool", and "scared money never wins". This was the "disappear" entry. I hope you enjoyed my efforts on this and the other entries this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]
Jun. 13th, 2012 @ 08:30 pm LJ Idol, Week 30: "Playing to Win"
About this Entry
Memento Dory.
Current Music: Survivor - Eye of the Tiger
I'm a sucker for a feel-good story. I admit it. I'm cynical and sarcastic, but I'm a sarcastic cynic with the damp, squishy heart of a romantic.

And so it was with a big upwelling of emotion that I watched, with interest, a link that a friend sent me earlier this week, 19-year-old Andrew De Leon's recent appearance on "America's Got Talent". This kid, who admitted to feeling like an outcast, like he never fit in anywhere, defiantly showed up to the Austin auditions for the show decked out in full-blown Goth regalia -- black leather jacket, cat's-eye contact lenses, heavy eye makeup, black nail polish, studded bracelets, the works. The judges sneered at him, of course -- "Rough day at the office?" Howard Stern inquired as Andrew walked out onstage -- but Andrew ignored that, and proceeded to rock the house.

Figuratively speaking, of course. No Cookie Monster death metal growl here -- he blew the audience's heads (and preconceptions) off with a powerful and emotional rendition of the aria "O Mio Babbino Caro", from Puccini's opera Gianni Schicchi.

If you haven't, by some miracle, seen the performance yet (it's been around the interwebnets at lightspeed this week, so most of you are probably already familiar), then for pete's sake, go and watch it. G'wan. I'll wait.

Okay. Now that you've watched that (or at the very least listened to it), you have some idea of why I'm so impressed by this guy. I take issue with the stories that are calling his voice a soprano, by the way -- males who use falsetto to reach the soprano or mezzo-soprano range are more properly referred to as countertenors. But that's neither here nor there. But how cool is that -- to face your fears like he did, to completely ignore the tiny voice inside that tells you you've never been any good at anything, to stand in front of thousands of people for the first time, having never sung in front of anyone at all before...and shine like the sun.

"Go big or go home," is a phrase I've always found useful. And "To enjoy life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks" -- that one from no less a sage than the esteemed Robert A. Heinlein. Andrew has my utmost admiration, not just for his talent (which is considerable), but for the way he threw himself completely into the spirit of the competition. With no vocal training, no experience performing, and self-admitted enormous doubt and shyness, he simply refused to listen to the voices that nip with sharp tearing teeth at your psyche, and let his real inner voice do the talking for him.

I'm glad Andrew is getting so much exposure, for a number of reasons. I mean, first off, it wasn't all that long ago when Susan Boyle and Paul Potts proved to us in similar situations that appearances don't mean a goddamned thing when it comes to artistic talent. How quickly people seem to forget. It's good to be brought up short again, to be reminded again that talent will out.

But you have to do something about it. You have to make those steps. You have to put yourself out there, and when you do, you might as well do it full-bore, because a half-assed effort is going to shame your inner muse and make you wish you'd never tried at all.

That's the other reason I'm happy to see Andrew getting so much attention -- because he's an inspiration. People are going to see his performance, his success, his Ugly Duckling reimagining as a conquering hero, and they're going to think about polishing off that novel that's languishing in their trunk in the attic. They're going to send off that demo tape to the studio. Or take some of their paintings to a gallery for a critique. Or -- just a hypothetical situation, say -- they're going to jump feet first into a writing competition.

See, this is why I admire Andrew the most. He had his doubts, sure. He may have felt that he was never any good at anything. But he knew, really knew, in the quiet places of his soul where it really counts, that he was fucking good. He entered the competition, not because he was curious, not because he wanted to see how far he could get before he eventually petered out -- but because he knew he was good enough to go all the way to the top.

He was in it to win it. He was in it to shine.

That's something all of us could do well to remember. If you're making art, exhibiting your work, "singing your song" as Don Bluth once referred to it, you should be playing to win. LJ Idol's esteemed organizer, Gary, has remarked occasionally on the importance of "bringing your A-game". The way I see it, you should be bringing your A-game every single time you sit down at the keyboard, or drawing tablet, or recording studio, or canvas. You have to be thinking you're good enough to stand at the top of the mountain. If you go into something -- anything -- thinking that you can't possibly win, guess what? You're going to be right.

Attitude is everything. Own your work. Put it out there and let it sizzle.

Because scared money never wins.

[This has been the second of five entries for Week 30 of LJ Idol. There were five topics to be written this week: "gobsmacked", "disappear", "appropriation", "cesspool", and "scared money never wins". This was the "scared money never wins" entry. I hope you enjoyed my efforts on this and the other entries this week! Please check out the other participants' entries and show them some love as well.]