Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Stranded on a desert island with an iTunes card

... and I guess this scenario would have to involve a laptop and a fast Web connection too, but let's not let logic ruin this for us, OK?

Here's the deal. I got an iTunes gift card for Christmas and have enjoyed using it. Now there's one song's worth of money left on the thing and I'm trying to figure out what I should buy. It's tough, you know? To whittle one's musical tastes down to a single selection is so not a trivial thing.

Well, actually it is, but hey, it's the Internet, so just ride this out with me.

What I need is suggestions. One song. One selection. What should I spend my last 99 cents on, and why? Please phrase your answers in the form of an answer. Ready... go!

Who let the--no. I can't. I just can't.

Maybe it’s a summer thing. But in the last week or so, a handful of stories have bobbed to the surface of the Internet regarding bans on specific breeds of "predisposed to violence" dogs. This almost always refers to the American Staffordshire Terrier, aka the pit bull.

I’m not an expert on dogs—didn’t even stay in a Holiday Inn last night—but I can bring two bits of anecdotal evidence to the table here.

First of all, my good friend Aaron has a pit bull puppy. I’ve met Sharky, watched her slobber all over anything that wanted to play with her. She’s a sweet animal. Aaron gets her a lot of exercise, treats her well and makes sure she’s well-trained. There’s about as much chance she’ll carry off someone’s child as there is Voltron being elected president. The point here is that like any domesticated animal, temperament is directly correlated to responsibility of ownership.

And second, actual veterinarians with actual expertise in actual animal behavior have recommended American Staffordshire Terriers to me as a great breed to own. Very smart, very loyal, they say. Granted, at least one of these recommendations came at a cocktail party, but it was early in the evening.

I think the takeaway here is that banning a specific breed of dog is getting the chicken and egg question (dare I say? I do dare) scrambled. Pit bulls, because of their reputation as "fighting dogs," probably have a much higher incidence of owner stupidity and irresponsibility. The problems that appear related to the breed are really just related to the morons who want to own a dog like other people keep a pistol under their pillow.

Of course, this is the type of dog I'd recommend for any home, anywhere....

The Blank Page of Death

Writer's block is an unfortunate phenomenon that periodically attacks everyone who puts pen to paper. It's like a basketball player missing layups; a pitcher missing the strike zone; and an American not being the most beautifulImeantalented person in the universe.

In short, it's a terrifying event. Something that you're used to doing, doing well and enjoying suddenly becomes K2-esque task. The screen, devoid of words, taunts you. Dares you to be creative. And your creativity runs screaming into the corner, where it hides behind an end table and sucks its thumb.

How do you cajole it back into functionality?

Every writer has a different method of dealing with it, and here comes a cliche, there is no wrong way to clear up writer's block.

For me, it's a matter of steadfastness. Of staying the course. This basically entails staring at the screen, writing a few sentences, rewriting the second one, deleting the first one, then swearing under my breath and deleting all of it. Eventually I'll get one good sentence. Then I'll hang a second one on it. And after a while--we're talking hours, sometimes--I've accomplished something that I can walk away from until the next day.

Others suggest getting up and doing something else around the house. A sketch-writing class I took at Second City included an entire session on getting your creativity out of first gear using various exercises. I know a few writers who keep several projects simmering at once, so if they get hung up on one story, they can dive into another.

So let me just ask you: When that blinking cursor is staring you down, how do you fight back?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Skew it on the bar-b

Memorial Day is upon us. I remember when I was still in school, the holiday marked a gateway to a magical time. A time without homework or alarm clocks, when a young man's dreams could coalesce in the hot, humid air of a Midwestern summer.

Now it just means we get to have a few barbecues, then go back to work.

But a barbecue is a magical event in itself. Whether you're cooking your own or partaking in the work of an expert, enjoying grilled meat (and even the occasional vegetable) makes any day a holiday. Or at least a meal. Here are my recommendations for barbecue, and because I'm from Kansas City, you should pay attention:

-Avoid Carolina barbecue. Unless you're one of those people who really, really love vinegar on shredded meat.

-If you're in Chicago, there are lots of barbecue restaurants but only a handful of places worth visiting.

Lem's, at 311 E. 75th St., uses an excellent, spicy sauce and will serve you ribs that are just firm enough to stay on the bone. If you're feeling hungry, order a half-chicken for yourself. Don't forget that there are fries buried underneath.

Twin Anchors, at 1655 N Sedgwick St., is kind of surprising. It's tucked into Old Town, for one thing, which isn't exactly a barbecue stronghold. For another, it's got more of a Sinatra vibe than that of a dusty Southern roadhouse. However, while the sandwiches are pretty average, the ribs are worth the visit. They don't skimp on the portions and have several great sauces to choose from--I recommend the "zesty." That's just how I roll.

The best barbecue in the city can be found in West Bucktown at Honey 1 BBQ, 2241 N. Western Ave. These guys know what the hell they're doing, and I haven't ordered anything that I haven't loved. Get a combo if you're hungry--rib tips and hot links are perfect for any occasion, providing you're not wearing a white shirt.

-Of course, if you want to go top-shelf, you've got to go Kansas City. Sorry--that's just how it is.

Arthur Bryant's, the original one at 1727 Brooklyn Ave., is the best barbecue I've ever tasted. It's the kind of perfect combination of meat and sauce that can drive a guy who's the average weight for his height to eat 10 times more than he should. I'm a big fan of the Rich 'n' Spicy sauce slathered on whatever. And don't cry, out-of-towners: You can order online! Be the first in your neighborhood to rock the Bryant's Rib Rub.

A close second, by the way, is Gates barbecue. (growing up, we usually visited the one at 103rd Street and State Line Road.) Although the atmosphere can be a little off-putting--imagine a teenage clerk yelling at you to order as soon as you poke your head in the door--the food is great.

-And finally, because I love you, dear reader, I'll share with you the perfect, the ONLY beverage to enjoy with your barbecue: Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat. It's hard to find if you don't live in Kansas or Missouri, but lucky you... you can buy it on Al Gore's Internet. Repay me with a beer when we next see each other.

Have a great holiday--and welcome to summer!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Root, root, root for the [Royals]

Is rooting for a losing team the new rooting for a winning team? I dunno. But I do know this: I have many fond memories of watching the Royals when they were good, and many more fond memories of watching them when they were (and are) terrible—it’s just a matter of percentages, I guess.

And I also know that one of their backup outfielders can jump over a car.

Now the Royals are on a bit of a roll (tonight's performance against the Mariners notwithstanding), and I’m enjoying it, even though it can’t last. So all you Yankees Red Sox, early-to-mid-’90s-Cowboys, Bulls-when-they-had-Jordan fans—you lose. We Royals fans have learned how to have fun no matter how many (hundreds of) games our team is out of first place.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Viva Coldplay. Seriously.

OK, I'm not a huge Coldplay fan--I've got some on my iPod, but who doesn't, and I can quit anytime I want. Stop hassling me, man.

This salsa version of "Clocks," though... it kind of rocks. Makes a guy want to have a mojito and tap his feet. Enjoy (and pay no attention to the random ballet footwork).

(as a somewhat-related aside, I saw "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" after work last night. It didn't make sense. But there were lots of swordfights. My advice: Wait for "Transformers.")

Thursday, May 24, 2007

How can I say this....

Writing dialogue has always been a weakness for me. I'd need characters to interact with each other, but dammit, whenever they opened their mouths it sounded like some hack who could type fast was putting words in their mouths. Description and plot came easily to me, but I would spend hours hovering over one passage of dialogue, wondering why talking was so simple when you could use your mouth instead of a keyboard.

Here’s the thing that’s so tricky about it: People talking in real life are boring. If you transcribed most human interactions, no matter how packed with information or sparkling wit, you’d wind up with a lot of repetition, "uhs," "ums," and "likes," and giant chunks of talky-talk that don’t take the conversation anyplace.

Some of that is because there’s a lot more going on than just talk when you’re face-to-face. Gestures. Expressions. Social nuance that flows from the speakers’ backgrounds with one another. But more than that, real-life conversation is interaction, two people engaged in communicative give and take. There’s no further purpose to their words.

But in fiction, we also need to tell the story with each sentence. If you’re not doing that, those passages don’t belong in your book. So when you write dialogue, the characters are doing more than just pass the time—at least they should be. They’re advancing the plot in some way, whether through description, backstory, character development or conveyance of some bit of crucial information.

And that’s what makes it tricky. Your characters can’t "sound natural" because they’re not talking naturally. So how do you address this?

Once you make sure that your characters’ chatter isn’t just filling space, the easiest way to make sure they sound somewhat normal and not "written" is to read their lines aloud, preferably to someone who is not you. And that will help you develop an ear—or eye—for what sounds good on the page.

But don’t become too conscious of what you’re doing. I know. I know. It’s kind of Zen. And by "Zen" I mean "occasionally frustrating as hell." Here’s the way Elmore Leonard puts it... and Leonard writes the best dialogue of any novelist on the planet:

"I just make it up. Don't you hear people talking in your head? You think of a certain character, and you hear them talking. And from the way he talks, his character has attitude. When you see a character coming that you've met before, you know what his angle is going to be, what his beef is or if he's funny. So that I'm always writing from their point of view, and I'm never writing from my own."

What he said. Write a lot, read it aloud and try to let each character talk to you. I guess when you look at it that way, it’s not so tricky after all.

[Recommended Reading:
-"On Writing," Stephen King.
-"Negotiating with the Dead," Margaret Atwood
-"This is the Year You Write Your Novel," Walter Mosley
-"From the Depths," Gerry Doyle]

Back when Mizzou basketball was... fly?

OK, I was all set to put together a nice, useful post about writing great dialogue. I swear. I was sipping coffee on the train and letting my thoughts gather--in the way that only a giant mug of coffee and a trip on the Brown Line can facilitate.

Then I arrived at work, and all that went out the window. (a cliche, by the way--avoid them in your writing come hell or high water)

Why? Because I discovered what can only be described as the baddest basketball marketing campaign man has ever devised. Behold:

Friend of the blog Jack Pointer points out a beauty in the comments section as well.

Well I'm Mike Alden I'm the rappin' cracka'/

also known as the bank account packa'/

Got Quin on the turntable and Clemmons on the chorus/

I sold our program like a '98 Taurus/