Thursday, September 20, 2007

A dark day for punctuation

Huge news, here, people. No, not International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Not the Fed’s decision to lower interest rates, sparking a crazed mixture of celebration and sadness among meth-addled day traders.

It’s much bigger and more sinister than that.

This week, you see, marks the 25th anniversary of the invention of the emoticon.

You might say, “But Gerry—they’re cute, tiny Internet smiley faces. What’s sinister about that? Have you been getting enough sleep?”

I might reply, “You’re insane. Smilies lead to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side.”

Scott E. Fahlman and his unstoppable civilization destroyer.

Just as I refuse to type “LOL” except in very rare and precious circumstances, I refuse to create a happy face out of otherwise innocent punctuation. It’s just not right. I guess, rationally, you could argue that such expressions take the place of actual verbal communication, which undermines our ability to really relate to one another. But mainly they just grate at my soul. I can’t tell you exactly why.

I also refuse to type “u” for “you” and “2” for “too/to.” But that’s just because Prince doesn’t appreciate imitators. A reasonable stance, I think.

Anyway, put on a black armband and type out a dirge for the written word. There’s only one expression for our continued slide into emoticon oblivion: Frowny.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Not as tough as I look

Yeah, so, I don’t cry very often. Blame it on my Irish heritage, but I tend to keep any negative emotions under wraps until I have a few Guinnesses, at which point I’ll tell you more than you want to hear. Like I said, Irish.

But a few times in the last month, I’ve been moved to tears. I know, it’s hard to believe. Watching “White Light, Black Rain,” about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki really hit hard. And in the same vein, HBO’s “Alive Day Memories” laid bare the physical and emotional damage that war inflicts on those who participate in it. The last chapter of “The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell” made me want to launch myself over a cliff. (Fortunately for everyone involved, I live in Illinois, not known for its towering rock faces) And even more recently, as I began reading “Canticle for Leibowitz again, I skipped ahead to a few of my favorite parts… and, well, you know what happened.

And, of course, when I’m just sad I cry by myself and don’t blog about it. Unless those Guinnesses get involved again.

Anyway, are there any works—songs, paintings, books, whatever—that affect you like that? And please, people, I’m going to reject anyone who tries to post about “The Fox and the Hound.” That one’s just a given.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Let us all bask in television's warm glowing warming glow

Last night, allegedly, people on TV gave other people on TV awards for being on TV. It was a joyous event, and Philistine that I am, I missed it.

Before I come off as too snide, though, I do think there’s some great acting and writing on television. “The Office” and “Flight of the Conchords are, I think, two of the funniest and smartest programs you’ll find anywhere. “The Daily Show” manages to be insightful, cutting and hysterical while discussing actual, wince-inducing current events.

It’s easy to say something like, “there’s a lot of bad TV out there” (there is) or “will my life change because James Spader beat out James Gandolfini?” (it won’t. As far as I know.) But there’s no question that the shelves of the world’s libraries are groaning with reams of bad books, too.

Writing for the screen is hard. And for me, it plays against my weakness: Writing dialogue. When you need to move the story along using the characters’ mouths, you better be pretty good at putting words in them. I’m a lot better than I used to be, though, as I hope my recent writing shows. So maybe I should keep my sarcastic comments about television dialed down a bit.

What’s the point of all this? Good question. But as some successful shows have proven, a point isn’t really necessary. ("Seinfeld" is horribly, tragically overrated and makes me laugh about as much as a cereal box)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Too... believable?

This is an ad for a video game.

It's pretty simple, and no video game actually makes an appearance therein. It uses a technique I love--taking something commonplace and understandable, such as a documentary or a museum, and applying it to a fantastic situation. In this case, that situation is a war against a "covenant" of alien races, driven by an opaque religious fervor.

So we see the desperation, the death, the fear, the pain, all reflected in the subject's face. It's like watching a veteran look over a diorama of Normandy, or the Ia Drang Valley, or the blood and dust of Baghdad.

It's powerful. But is that kind of intensity--and its echoes of real life--appropriate in an ad for a video game? You tell me.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Good 'til the last page

There are, one can assume, a finite but really freaking huge number of stories floating around in the universe, waiting to be told. Some people argue that no matter what the subject and plot, the best ones are nothing more than echoes of our subconscious; fading shadows of a primal existence. That there are archetypical tales we don’t even realize we’re adhering to when we start writing.

If that’s true, there must have been some remarkably dull times back when we still slept in caves. How else do you explain James Fennimore Cooper? Oh, no! Suck on that, Bumppo!
Where is your literary God now, Natty?

But what about the good ones? The great ones? What makes a story stick in our consciousness and—as the best writing does—affect the way we view the rest of our lives? There are many theories. They’re probably all right in some way, and I don’t want to get in the middle of a literary slap-fight.

So I’ll just say that I have my own theory. Which is indisputably right in my own head. Here it is: The best stories transcend genre—they exist outside of themselves. Take, for example, "Canticle for Liebowitz," which I recently began reading for the 100th time and instantly got swept away in.

Yes, it’s set in the distant future. Yes, there is terminology—and later technology—that play a role in understanding the story. But at heart, it’s just about the human condition, about what man does to himself and why he keeps doing it. It’s moving because... well... it’s truth. And our minds can recognize that in a story.

Other stories tell us what we already know, deep inside, about war... love... death... sacrifice... hate... towels... and they resonate, stick, become popular and make their authors fabulously rich.

So as a writer, make sure you’re saying something besides what’s plainly on the page. I realized after I finished "From the Depths"—thanks to an assist from my dad, an extremely literate guy and a hell of a photographer—that the subtexts I had worked in, purposefully or not, had given birth to an allegory about what warfare does to humanity.

Which, let’s face it, makes me look a lot smarter than I am.

What books or stories have in some way imparted some spin on your life?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Pull up

There’s something both tragic and uplifting about watching someone take risks and fail.

I think it’s important for us as a society—and individually—to push limits, to follow dreams, to make bold plans. If you let that part of you atrophy, what are you left with? Breathing, eating, sleeping. Watching bad TV.

Steve Fossett was (and possibly still is) one of those risk-takers. It’s silly to try to guess at his personal motivations or glamorize his successes and failures. But from a third-person perspective, it’s good to see someone try to, for instance, fly around the world, solo, without refueling, just because it had never been done. Sometimes I think we’ve become so inoculated against that kind of daring that it doesn’t even register in the public consciousness as it has in the past (see Lindbergh, Chuck).

As of Wednesday night, Fossett still was missing somewhere in the sun-baked wilderness of Nevada after taking off on what should have been a routine three-hour flight.

I have a major soft spot for aviation. That particular winged horse might be well out of the barn for me, but I still love watching the state of the art develop, the envelope expand, pilots continuing to give gravity the middle finger. So to see someone whose public life was predicated on trying to leap tall buildings trip and fall over the equivalent of a sidewalk crack… well… that’s only sad, and nothing else.

I hope they find him soon.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

'Tis not quite the season... but still....

Football is upon us.

And as much as I dig football (if not Brodie Croyle’s decisionmaking), for some reason it just makes me miss college basketball more. For now, though, all I’ve got is recruiting news, preseason rankings and Internet videos… like this one, featuring ex-Kansas Jayhawk Julian Wright, 2007 NBA lottery pick, semi-pro bowler and sporter of occasionally wacky haircuts.

I appear in none of those clips, in case you were wondering.

Anyway, here's to watching more sports--football, basketball, baseball, occasionally soccer and never NASCAR--in person. And the great thing about going back to Lawrence is that a) Southwest gets you there cheap-like and b) that leaves you more money for darts and beer.