Archive for August, 2010

The Topless Men Post, or, A Word about Avatars

WARNING:  POST CONTAINS SHIRTLESS MEN!  DO NOT SCROLL DOWN IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY TOPLESS MEN!

Not that it’s a post about shirtless men, or even about how many times I can cram the traffic-increasing phrase “shirtless men” into a single (shirtless men!) post, but I thought I should titillate warn readers up front.  If you scroll down (or have a really huge monitor) you are going to see naked manflesh.

SPOILER:  It’s not gonna be that exciting.

Anyway.  Internet presence, blogging, generating exposure (hur hur hur), all that good stuff. If it’s something you’re working on, go ahead and do yourself a favor:  find a single image of yourself that you like and stick with it.

If you have one little picture by your name everywhere you go, people will be able to quickly figure out that, for example, @GeoffreyCubbage on Twitter is probably the same guy as cubbageg on WordPress, and as far as exposure (hur hur hur) goes, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, it’s only an ideal strategy for people who’ve recently had one of those perfect-hair, sitting-in-front-of-a-marbled-gray-screen photos taken lately.  For my part, I’m pretty broke and only know photographers who do things like scan raw meat and frame giant prints of the image so that O Best Beloved can hang them right above the table where do you mind I’m trying to eat my pork chop here.  It took quite a bit of rummaging through other friends’ Facebook pages to find something even vaguely presentable for my most professional web functions:

And unfortunately, the shot’s mostly a lie.  I don’t wear glasses, for one thing (we were going to a costume party), and we trimmed out the part where I’m clutching a glass of brandy like it was the last love of my life (I didn’t really want to go to the party, either).  I use it for my articles on Google Knol and a few other internet things, but I find the whole thing a little off-putting, and the end result is most people know me instead as the blurry purple guy in an ancient cell phone photo from the days when a camera in your phone was intensely high-tech.

Yeah, that guy.

I personally think the shot’s an accidental masterpiece, but the unfortunate reality is that I’m both unrecognizable and shirtless, making it a really lousy image to tie my internet persona to.  Such is life, and I suppose it could have been worse — we could have gone with something that actually expresses the reality of my life and personality in a tangible way.

Don't ask.

The sad conclusion here is that I’ll likely be the blurry purple guy for a long time yet.  What about other bloggers, writers, or just plain ol’ anybody with an active internet presence?  Does your photo look like you?  Does it represent you even though it doesn’t look like you?  Would you like an extreme close-up of scanned raw meat?  Drop me a comment…!

What to Post When You Don’t Have Time to Post

This post was neither inspired by real life nor dashed off in the ten minutes before I run to work.  Would I lie to you?  Almost certainly.  But here’s how it is — sometimes you just don’t have time to get a post up to your blog on schedule.  Whatever your schedule may be (mine’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday, for the newcomers) something eventually gets in the way.  The kid gets sick, the dishwasher overflows, you work three jobs already and need to devote your morning hours to stumbling around the kitchen mumbling “ah, ah” like the No-Face from Spirited Away — whatever.  Something’s still gotta happen, right?  Can’t disappoint the loyal readers, or you won’t have any.  So not to mince words, I recommend cheating in the following ways:

Use a Back-up Post. Obviously the best solution, right?  Have a small stockpile of “emergency posts” and grab one whenever you’re running late.  The biggest problem with this approach is that it requires you to write back-up posts when you have spare time and use them when you don’t, meaning that it’s very hard to sustain if you have more days that are short on spare time than long on it.  Wednesday’s post was a good example of one of my emergency posts — a little off-topic; a little more pared-down and less thought out than my usual fare.  It was also the last in the stack, hence this hastily-scribbled beast.

Borrow Shamelessly. Read anything funny on the web lately?  Link it, come up with a vague justification for why your audience cares about it, and call it a day.  This blog has a category called “Writing Links,” and it consists entirely of posts that follow the same formula.  Mind you, they were all pretty directly writing-related — cute kitty videos from YouTube may not win the hearts and minds of your audience (then again it might).  Use your best judgment.  But it’s a good way to generate content without doing more than five minutes of actual work.

Talk Up Fellow Bloggers. Nobody is ever going to be mad at you for telling other people to read their blog, right?  And they often reciprocate, making a two- or three-sentence post along the lines of “Busy day for me, but everyone should go check out This Awesome Person because his/her blog is almost as excellent as mine” a great way to get some incoming links for your own page.  I’m not going to name any names in this post, because I’ll probably need to link them some day when I’m short on time (also there’s an admittedly-neglected selection of links on the side of my page if you really want to know some of the blogs I’m following regularly).

Con Someone Into Guest-Blogging. I almost talked O Best Beloved into writing today’s post, but she does about as well in the early morning as I do.  She started a draft while I was in the shower, and by the time I got out the content read:

Here comes O.B.B. on her pony,

pony pony pony pony,

pony pony pony pony,

pony pony pony.

There are actual words to that song, but she just likes the part about ponies (despite what this and the post about my teddy bear may suggest, O Best Beloved and I are honest-to-god adults).  The point here is that you can sometimes get a friend, whether they’re from your personal life or your circle of writing-and-blogging friends, to write a quick emergency post for you.  Just remember that they’re doing you a favor, and be sure to tell them it was wonderful even if they wrote a song about ponies.  Especially if they wrote a song about ponies!

Apologize Profusely. This is sort of a last-ditch solution, but if it’s all you have time and brain-power for it’s still better than nothing.  Swallow your pride, write a few short sentences about not having time to post today, and go do what needs to be done.  Go heavy on “sorry about missing today’s post” and light on the details of why (unless they’re hilarious), otherwise it sounds like you’re making excuses and/or whining.

And, last but not least, I highly recommend getting inspired in the shower and writing a quick, helpful set of suggestions on how to deal with your exact situation!  Because realistically it’s something that other writers and other bloggers are dealing with, and there’s nothing wrong with pandering.

Writing Life: Five Drinks Even an Alcoholic Can Remember

Remember when this blog was about writing?  No wonder even computer-generated search results think I’m an alcoholic.  But let’s remember for a moment that socially- and intoxication-inclined writers are working double duty — not only do they have to keep their bar etiquette and their drinks straight, they’re also constantly mulling over works of staggering genius.  I promise you it’s true.

To that end, I thought I would help aspiring alcoholic geniuses with a list of the easiest to remember drinks — not necessarily the best, although many of them are quite good, but the ones with minimal ingredients combined in equal (or otherwise memorable) proportions.  Knowing these has the added benefit of making you the go-to person for cocktails at private gatherings as well, which is a great way to either talk to people or avoid talking to people — your choice.  Everyone’s happy to talk the bartender, but it’s easy to look constantly busy, too.  Just try to restrict them to easily-memorized drinks:

The Martini: This classic is easy to remember because it’s almost entirely a single ingredient:  gin (it will resultantly be awful if the gin is anything but top-shelf stuff).  Pour the gin and a small splash of white vermouth into a shaker full of ice, shake until it’s very cold, and pour through a strainer.  Add an olive or three on a toothpick and serve.

Be aware that people will try to use lots of irritating words to modify their martini.  These are not actually all that relevant, other than knowing that “dry” means even less vermouth (barely a hint of it, really) and “dirty” means some olive juice along with the olive.  If they ask for a “Gibson” they want a regular old martini, but with a cocktail onion instead of an olive (also they’re probably being an asshole deliberately)

By the Numbers: 6 parts gin to 1 part vermouth, varied to taste

How to Remember It Drunk: “Lots of gin, splash of vermouth.”

Boilermaker: Similar to the martini but even easier, this is a drink that requires two ingredients and almost no preparation:  it’s beer with a shot of whiskey in it.  The catch is that you drink it all at once, either by taking the shot of whiskey and downing the entire beer (usually an 8 oz. frosted glass, though a full 12 oz. bottle/can or even a draught pint can be used when you’re feeling brutal) or by dropping the shot glass straight into the beer and, once again, downing it all in one go.

In its most traditional, working-class origins, this is done with the cheapest whiskey in the bar and an American-style lager (but not a “light” beer, which didn’t exist when the boilermaker was becoming popular).

By the Numbers: 1 shot whiskey (1 1/2 oz.) to 1 glass (8 oz.) cold beer.

How to Remember It: “Shot and a beer.”

Sidecar: As classic in Paris as the martini is in New York, the sidecar is a somewhat underrepresented drink in American bars.  Beat the trend by remembering the supremely easy formula:  equal parts orange liqueur (traditionally Cointreau) and fresh lemon juice to fill half an ice-filled shaker, and cognac the rest of the way up.  Shake it and strain it into a martini glass (often with a sugared rim) and drop a twist of lemon peel in.

By the Numbers: 1 part orange liqueur to 1 part lemon juice to 2 parts cognac.

How to Remember It:  “Half a glass of cognac; Cointreau and lemon juice for the rest.”

Margarita: The margarita was originally explained to me, starting with the orange liqueur and working up through lime juice to finish with the tequila, as “drip drip drip, pooooouuuur, GLUG GLUG GLUG GLUG GLUG.”  In more precise terms that translates to a one-two-three ratio of orange liqueur (traditionally triple sec), fresh lime juice, and quality silver tequila.

Properly, this should be served in a wide glass with a salted rim, but they’re good straight out of the shaker if you’re serious about your business.  Knowing how to mix a good margarita comes with the added benefit of getting to sigh resignedly any time you’re forced to drink the frozen, slushee-like variety.

By the Numbers: 1 part triple sec to 2 parts lime juice to 3 parts silver tequila.

How to Remember It: “Drip drip drip, poooooouuuur, GLUG GLUG GLUG GLUG GLUG”

Amaretto Stone Sour: Not exactly a bar classic, this has the advantage of being very easy, very drinkable (sweet and low alcohol, making it inoffensive even to less practiced drinkers than yourself), and often a surprising innovation as far as your audience is concerned.

All ingredients in an amaretto stone sour are equally-proportioned.  Mix equal parts amaretto, orange juice, and sour mix (simple syrup and lime juice blended in equal parts), top it off with a shot of soda water or club soda if you want it bubbly, and serve in a tall glass with plenty of ice.

By the Numbers: 1 part amaretto to 1 part orange juice to 1 part sour mix.

How to Remember It: “Even thirds amaretto and the two citrus thingies.”

Obviously, these five drinks barely scratch the surface of bar culture — and they leave a few glaring holes in the “classic” canon.  The list is meant to be easy to remember and nothing more, though it does manage to cover a wide range of tastes.  Serious drinkers with a preference for strong flavors will gravitate toward the martini and of course the boilermaker, while those that prefer a more nuanced balance of flavor can enjoy a sidecar or margarita, and the sweet tooths get the amaretto stone sour.

Once even this list becomes too challenging to remember, I recommend switching exclusively to bars and friends that cater to straight-whiskey drinkers (the last bastion of alcoholics wishing to retain a veneer of civility).

The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read

It takes a very complicated algorithm to determine what balance of critical history, publication volume, and content makes a book “overrated,” and I’m sure you’re all dying to see that math — no?  I should just go ahead with the list, and you can cheer me on as I pander to your sympathies or curse my name as I skewer your old favorites?  God, I love list entries.  So with the cold calculation of science, I present to you what are undoubtedly the most severely overrated written works you’ve probably had to read — or at least pretend you read:

10.  THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche

Alternatively “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” or for all I know “Zarathustra Once Said” in some translations.  Friedrich Nietzche wrote a number of responses to what he saw as centuries of dense, incomprehensible moralizing texts, but Thus Spoke Zarathustra is by far the densest, most incomprehensible, and most moralizing of his offerings.  Discontented undergrads have quoted it for years, usually without reading the whole thing, and who can blame them?

Apart from some entertaining cracks about everyone being monkeys and God being dead, there isn’t actually anything there except for hundreds and hundreds of pages of puns on words like “under” and “over” that don’t translate out of the original German.  The selections in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations are more than ample for anyone who wants to sound like a pretentious asshole, which satisfies 99% of the population that might consider reading this book and therefore earns it a place on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read list.

9.  IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott

Imagine everything about stories set in some unspecified “medieval” land of knights, castles, and chivalry that we as hip, sophisticated, cynical, post-modern readers like to turn our noses up at.  Ivanhoe didn’t really start all that, but it certainly perfected it, and the blow is the more crushing because Walter Scott is generally considered the inventor of the modern historical novel.

It’s hard to summarize Ivanhoe because it reads sort of like a full season of a particularly schizophrenic HBO series:  we have jousts, fights, abductions, love affairs (boringly chaste, don’t worry), religious and racial tensions (insofar as Saxon and Norman are different races), and some gratuitous Robin Hood bits all jammed together by Walter Scott’s unflaggingly turgid prose.  This used to be a required staple of the public school canon, and is thankfully on its way out (unfairly, most objections are based on the portrayal of the Jewish love interest rather than the fact that it’s an awful goddamn book.)  Still, its influence on the cultural consciousness and continuing presence on some required reading lists clinches it as one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read list.

8.  ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand

The title of Rand’s seminal work evokes the mythical Titan who held the weight of the world on his shoulders, but we’re thinking maybe he was just carrying a couple copies of Atlas Shrugged instead.  It weighs in somewhere over a thousand pages depending on your edition, over a hundred of which will be a single speech by a single character — practically a novel in its own right, except for the absence of plot, character, dialogue, or anything else enjoyable to read.

In this day and age Atlas Shrugged would vanish among the heaps of other “distopian” novels that exaggerate a single aspect of modern government to make a very heavy-handed point (I once saw these categorized as “bitchtopian novels,” much to my delight), but in 1957 it was pretty radical stuff and so we’re still stuck with the damn thing half a century later.  Whether you share Rand’s belief in the free market or recoil in horror from her work (a reasonable reaction to what she clearly thought were sexy love scenes but are pretty much just graphically-described rape), you can’t get away from the fact that there’s not much plot and no detailed characters, making this unquestionably one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

7.  HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE by Dale Carnegie

This is apparently still a popular gift to freshly-minted MBAs (presumably from other, older-minted and therefore slightly tarnished MBAs).  I don’t know if anyone else still has to read it, unless they spend their time making lists of overrated books, so perhaps its time on this list is limited?  We should be so lucky — Dale Carnegie’s classic work is equal parts a guide to being a complete square and to being a goddamn liar (which is an impressive feat of personality juggling when you think about it).

If you’ve ever dealt with one of those middle managers who never say anything nice but won’t stop smiling?  Yeah, they read this book.  It will teach you how to sound sincere and earnest about everything, including where you’d like to go for lunch, which will help you become a person who sounds sincere and earnest about where he/she wants to go to lunch.  Do you want to be that person?  Do you even want to know that person?  Apparently a vast percentage of the population does, if overall sales are anything to go by, making this very definitely one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

6. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper

To put things in perspective for modern readers, James Fenimore Cooper was basically the Steven King, Robert Jordan, etc. of antebellum America in terms of sales and impact on the popular culture, and he was about as concerned with consistency or quality in his work. I feel a little redundant panning any of Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales since Mark Twain did it earlier and better in an essay called Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, but his opinion remains the minority in the public schools at least — they keep assigning the damn books, with Last of the Mohicans leading the pack (presumably because they made a movie of it, thereby providing the teacher with a solid four days of uninterrupted smoking out back while the class watches the video).

Suffice it to say that Natty Bumpo remains one of the more overpowered and under-characterized protagonists in the traditionally overpowered and under-characterized annals of genre fiction (and this at a time when “genre fiction” was at least a century away from being a well-defined category).  There were a lot less books in 1826, so desperation gives the original audience some grounds for forgiveness, but the book’s enduring popularity confirms its place as one of The Top 10 Most Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

5. GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES by Jacob and Wilheim Grimm

We’ve thoroughly backlashed against the Eisenhower era by now, so everyone knows that early fairy tales were a kind of Victorian Quentin Tarantino thriller, right?  Well, no.  Setting aside the fact that the Bros. Grimm were Victorian by neither nationality nor publishing date, most of the stories also weren’t all that horrific by anyone’s standards, modern or otherwise.  Outrage with the “Children’s Stories” mostly centered around the allusions (veiled) to sexual activity and the presence of dense scholarship alongside the stories, not the violence.

Modern readers looking for the “real” version of Disney favorites will be disappointed to find out that a) Most Disney movies aren’t based on Grimm stories and b) The “sanitized” modern versions often aren’t all that different from the originals.  They’re still stories for children, and therefore pretty simplified moral lessons with the same familiar cast of character archetypes.  In honor of disappointed eyeshadow-wearing middle schoolers, I’m proud to christen this as unquestionably one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

4.  THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J. R. R. Tolkien

Sure, we could get worked up about details like implied racism or the absence of female characters, but why bother when Tolkien’s beloved trilogy suffers from the much greater flaw of being really fucking boring?  The influence of Icelandic epics and Norse sagas on The Lord of the Rings is clear and well-documented, and sure — back when Beowulf was hot shit, it was important to know what Hrothgwang gave to Hrothswanger, because you lived two hills over from Hrothwanger and probably wanted to know that someone had given him a giant fucking sword to hit you with.  But there is no justification for that shit in 1954.

Remember that the “trilogy” was written as a single work weighing in at multiple thousands of pages, and that’s after Tolkien realized that he was going to have to make substantial cuts before anyone would touch the thing.  Many of those pages are filled with interesting characters, epic battles, and questions of good and evil — but many, many more are filled with the genealogies of made-up kingdoms and descriptions of the different cloaks worn by different Elf-Kings, earning The Lord of the Rings its place on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

3. FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce

For those of you who don’t take the time to click through to the Wikipedia entries on these titles, here’s a snippet from their summary:

“…The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingualpuns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams.”

That’s a polite way of saying that this landmark work is completely fucking unreadable.  And yet it remains the critical standard by which all other works, including some very fine ones by Joyce himself, are judged and found wanting (at least by pretentious wankers the literary/academic elite).  I can’t offer you a summary because there isn’t one — outside of a few generally agreed-upon plot points, even dedicated Joyce scholars haven’t been able to translate the text of the book into a meaningful narrative.

There aren’t even Cliff’s Notes, because the people who write Cliff’s Notes aren’t equipped for the kind of analysis it takes to get of meaning out of Finnegans Wake.  Nonetheless, some of the greatest writers of the 20th century have declared this a work of genius, and it remains required reading for the true lit-crit snobs, thus allowing it to place in the final heat of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

2.  TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

Before the outrage begins, let me remind you that this is a list of overrated books, not bad ones.  I quite like To Kill a Mockingbird myself, but it will always remain a children’s story no matter how many talk-show hosts hail it as one of the great American novels of all times.  Like many first-person narratives it falls into the trap of establishing a character for the narrator that the prose cannot possibly reflect — in this case a rurally-educated six year-old girl, whose narrative voice frequently varies in the space of a paragraph from broken and folksy to sweepingly poignant and well beyond a first grader’s vocabulary or emotional understanding.

Perhaps the book’s popularity stems from its ability to touch on difficult social issues like racism without becoming difficult or confusing, which to me suggests that it’s not doing a very thorough job of portraying those issues — and for kids, that’s fine.  But as long as people insist on treating this like a work of serious literary weight, it remains high on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.

1.  THE BIBLE by *

I know what you’re thinking — yes, it’s an oversized series of works purportedly by a single author (but actually written in his name by a host of credited and uncredited ghostwriters), chronicling the career of a single destined savior with miraculous powers and just about every relative or associated character they could come up with a prequel/sequel/spin-off for, but is Star Wars The Wheel of Time the Bible really a bad work?  Maybe not.  But taken as a whole it certainly tries to be too many things at once, until the reader is left wondering just what they’re holding — is it a historical record?  An instructive moral text?  An epic adventure?  Any one of those answers gets bogged down with the others, making it hard to like the completed product.

There are parts that make very fine reading, and parts that are incomprehensible, which is not altogether unusual or noteworthy.  Were it anything but the most published work in all of written history, the Bible probably would have been spared a place on the list altogether — but that kind of hype is very hard to live up to, and so it rests atop The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read, which you’ve just finished.

The Worst Beer Label Ever

Am I late this morning?  Are there people who actually notice that these days?  That’s a sign of success, I think, though I’m sorry for the inconvenience (you should really just subscribe via your preferred feed/reader service).  There are, as the title implies, houseguests, and “house” is a misleading term since I live in a small one-bedroom apartment.  My computer is in the room that isn’t the bedroom, which is also the room guests have to sleep/exist in, so it’s a little rude to sit and write a blog post.

But never fear, I found something entertaining to write about.  Good thing I drink heavily!  Otherwise I never would have peeled this label off a bottle of Grain Belt Premium (wanted to make the visiting Minnesotans feel at home):

“The unique Grain Belt bottle cap neon sign,  in Downtown Minneapolis, is 40′ x 40′, and was constructed in the 1940′s.” [quote marks theirs]

I don’t know if the public schools still put error-filled sentences on the chalkboard for students to correct one mistake at a time (ours were usually called DOL, for Daily Oral Language — which always weirded me out, even at a young age, since there wasn’t anything oral about walking up front, making a mark with chalk, and sitting back down).  But if they do, I hope some young teacher looking to switch careers brings in a bottle of Grain Belt Premium.

The extraneous quote marks around the whole thing — whatever.  I can live with that.  Some people just like putting phrases in quotations in advertisement, maybe in the hopes that it will make the phrase seem more authoritative.  Like it’s a thing that people say, you know?  Maybe it’s there to encourage us to read the label aloud, thereby reminding people in the bar that we’re drinking good, hearty Grain Belt Premium! (It’s not actually all that great.)

But the random capitalization of “Downtown Minneapolis”?  Unnessecary commas separating the prepositional phrase?  An apostrophe after the decade?  Two spaces after the first of those commas?  These aren’t stylistic choices or usage confusion, these are typos. Just flat-out careless errors that a second read would have caught.

However, despite being someone who notices grammatical errors, I do not necessarily equate them with a bad product.  In fact, I view this as an overall recommendation for the beer:  the people that bottle it are clearly more interested in sampling the product than quality control on the labels.

Do any teachers read this blog?  Will you bring in a bottle of Grain Belt Premium for your class to edit?  And if not, will you at least check back on Monday when I update substantially earlier in the day?

“Done, Bitches!” Lists

To-do lists have been on my mind lately.  O Best Beloved makes them constantly, I made one myself (it has angry red tape at the corners, lives on my desk, and makes me want to hide under the covers forever), and two different people I follow mentioned it on Twitter in the last few days.

To-do lists are not happy things.  Even without angry red tape, they are reminders of how goddamn far behind you are (because who enumerates their responsibilities unless they’re in serious danger of defaulting on at least some of them?).  Sure, crossing stuff off feels good, but that only provides regular positive reinforcement if you set the bar really low:  “To Do — put some underwear on, maybe brush your teeth, feed yourself at least once today.”

A wonderful friend recently solved this problem for me.  Profanity isn’t always funny, as many TV comedians should be aware, but it is almost always satisfying, and a healthy dose was all it took to turn my scary To-Do list into an awesome Done, Bitches! list.

As the name implies, items on a Done, Bitches! list are not checked off.  They are completely obliterated by a giant “Done, Bitches!” printed right on top of them in Sharpie.  Since that still only provides satisfaction when things are actually getting done, we also make the list less scary with a generous salting of F-words:

  • Write the fucking article for Friday.
  • Get the fucking car fixed.
  • Do the fucking dishes. DONE BITCHES!!!
  • Buy me a fucking pony.  (Strangely enough, this particular item appears at the bottom of all my lists, not in my handwriting.)

Done, Bitches! lists are extra fun if you live/work with someone who asks you what you have to do today on a regular basis.  They’ll eventually become desensitized, of course, but the first time you look up and say “finish the fucking reports” will be immensely satisfying.  So will the first time you whip the Sharpie out and yell “Done, Bitches!” so loudly the neighbors come by to ask what, exactly, is done.

Cubicle-dwellers might avoid this strategy, now that I think about it.  But I hope it helps the rest of you.

Getting Attached to Specific Editions of Books

As a progressive-minded sort of writer, I tend to view private collectors of rare editions as people that just missed the point somewhere — a first edition of, say, Lolita is only valuable because so many people have realized the worth of Nabokov’s words, which appear unchanged in the cheapest and most recent editions.  Having an older copy is kind of cool (particularly in less recent works than Lolita), but the inherent worth of the thing is still in the content.  The exceptions are works in different translations or works that underwent significant changes from one publication to the next, which does happen, but otherwise it just seems to me like missing the forest for the trees.

Right?

Well no, not always, that’s the problem.  I pulled a book off my shelf to help me think about this post:  Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, which was probably the first book without pictures that I read.  I have the first edition (I would have to, to keep that timeframe), with the Trina Schart Hyman illustration wrapping around the front and back covers.  Dragons have looked like that in my mind ever since.

I have a hard time understanding other versions as being the same book.  Academically, I know the content is unchanged, but the Trina Schart Hyman illustration and the particular formatting of the edition — the little curlicues after the “In which…” chapter titles, the large sariff font; the spacing for the couplets when someone recites a spell — seem inherent to the work.  I even like the illustration on the newest edition’s cover, but it’s hard to resist picking it up as “a new Patricia C. Wrede.”

Similarly, I will never read The Hobbit without hearing it in my head as Nicol Williamson’s reading:  a recording that was only released once, for cassette tape and vinyl, by Argus Records in 1974.  My parents owned the records, and so I still think of Tolkien’s goblins as having thick Russian accents (this was the Cold War, remember).

What these examples should teach us as writers is that the words aren’t everything, though they are surely what embed books so deeply in readers’ hearts that they come to love every line of the drawing on the cover.  Or I may be the only crazy one out there that falls in love with specific editions, and you’re welcome to tell me so — but beyond the value of a first edition or a rare autographed copy, are books really interchangeable, perhaps even with electronic text?  Or are there battered old favorites that you can never conceive of replacing with the latest version?

Perhaps the man who still sleeps with a teddy bear is not qualified to speak on this subject.  I will leave it to the comments, and to you!

Really Terrible Writing Advice

I was a student before I was a writer, so I’m used to hearing some pretty half-assed advice on how to use the English language better.  But my personal favorite to date was not, alas, one that I picked up after foolishly telling someone “yeah, I’m a writer” at the bar — and you do hear some fantastically absurd advice that way.  But it was the unfortunate soul I call O Best Beloved (for purposes of vague anonymity, although most people know exactly who I’m talking about) that received what we think is the single worst piece of editorial commentary we’ve seen to date:

Cut this – can’t modify a noun with another noun.

The phrase in question was something like “gene modification” or I don’t know what; something sciencey.  The point is that it was an absurd comment — of course you can modify nouns with other nouns.  We do it all the time.  “Church steeple.”  “Laptop cord.”  “Cookie Monster.”  There isn’t any point in rattling off examples, because all of you can do it for yourselves.

No, the point, instead, is this:  in your writing life (and you need not be a professional writer for this to happen), you are almost guaranteed the occasional editorial comment that is just plain out wrong. Not sort of a matter of taste like yeah, okay, maybe I just like the passive voice so fuck you, guy; plain-out, unequivocally, called-a-spade-a-pumpkin wrong.

How you deal with this is a matter of taste.  Blogging about it is in poor taste, for example, but done behind a sufficient veneer of anonymity may still fly.  Making the change despite recognizing the error may even be necessary, depending on the relationships in play here.  If the man or woman who is about to decide your immediate employment future likes dangling participles (you will undoubtedly have noticed them in memos or the like), then leave a few hanging in your project reports.  If the power dynamic is less fraught, you can always point the error out in a good-natured sort of way (this is misleading advice itself, since there is no universally-recognized way to point out grammatical errors without sounding like a douche).

But whatever you do, do not assume that anyone’s editorial remarks — even your editor’s — are gospel.   You might be getting advice from a salty old tar of the literary seas, sure, but you might just as easily be dealing with a total asshole.  Or, to modify one noun with another — ass hole.

Fellow writers, or anyone else, what is the worst advice you’ve ever received, either in direct editorial commentary or just casual bar-talk?  Was it as bad as “no nouns modifying other nouns?”  And did you call them an asshole, or an ass hole?  Either way, enjoy your weekend and look for another post Monday as usual!

Personal Pages: Banana-nana-fo-WHAT?

Looking back on my childhood, my love affair with words should have been obvious, and one wonders why my parents didn’t take more corrective steps along the lines of Summer Math Gulag or whatever they call those programs.  I might even now be a happily-fulfilled actuarial statistician.  But no episode stands out more clearly in my mind as an indicator of what was to come — a loving yet slightly sado-masochistic relationship with the English language — than the affair of the Substitute Music Teacher.

This was central Iowa, so things like “the Name Game” were actually pretty novel to us, and I at least had never heard the familiar patter when a substitute music teacher introduced it to us.  She ran through it herself and then passed the “lead” off to the nearest student, guiding it from one child to the next by way of some clever clapping-and-stamping segue that thoroughly distracted us all.

It was the clapping that did it, really.  You only had time to shout your name out, and then everyone was singing again, which prevented me from consulting — and giggling — with my neighbors.  But for that, my literary genius might never have had a change to shine — as it was, there were no warning signs when the chain of syllables came to me and I happily called out “BUCK!”

Looking back, “CHUCK” would have been much more believable, but I was saved by the almost hypnotic pattern of repetition.  Even the students, who knew perfectly well my name was Geoffrey, launched into the song with scarcely a titter until their linguistic centers caught up with mine and saw the inevitable outcome.  The poor substitute saw it as well, of course, and tried to give us all the old hands-on-the-hips you-know-better-than-that look, but it was too late:  once a group of thirty second-graders has it in their heads that they’ve been given license to scream “BANANA-NANA-FO-FUCK” as loudly as possible, no power on Earth can dissuade them.

Chaos reigned, for a time.  It subsequently came out that my name was not, in fact, Buck, and I was sent to the principal’s office (this was an even harsher fate for me than most, since my mother worked as the school librarian, and could be found to yell at me by simply walking across the hall from the office).  But I had had my moment, and I remained — and still remain — proud of my instinctive recognition of the inherent potential for wordplay.

This explains more about my writing than it doesn’t, though the phrase “Banana-nana-fo-FUCK” has yet to appear in any published works.  But give me time.

The Hunks of the Western Literature Canon

It’s very popular to read Jane Austen just now, which means it’s also very popular to complain about Jane Austen — a good friend recently told me that he was never dating a girl who’d read Pride and Prejudice again.  Since everyone from Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant to Seth Grahame-Smith of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fame has already taken a crack at Jane Austen-related humor, I thought I would instead turn my eye to an often-overlooked problem:  if sulky aristocrats like Mr. Darcy aren’t your thing, what hot guys are there for a good reader of English literature to lust after? The dead white men of the traditional English lit canon were surprisingly bad at providing their readers with good male role models (or underwear models), and so I’ve searched high and low to find the hunkiest hunks that you ever skimmed over in Language Arts class:

THE HUNKS OF THE WESTERN LITERATURE CANON

HECTOR from The Illiad by Homer

Okay, the ancient Greeks and Romans usually get their own category apart from “Western Literature,” so this is cheating a little bit — and I’ll restrain myself to one Greek in the interest of fairness, because those guys didn’t write anything without hunks in it.  But Hector was so manly that medieval Europeans considered him one of the “Nine Worthies” that personified the very best attributes of guys everywhere.  He’s also almost certainly made up, cobbled together from a Theban warrior that Homer had heard of and a few popular stories about really badass fights, making him a definite literary hunk rather than a historical one — and probably mostly put in for the ladies, who were pretty damn sick of hearing about Helen.

SATAN from Paradise Lost by John Milton

“The snake gets all the lines,” and some of those lines establish the fallen Satan as one of the hunkier hunks of Western literature — to say nothing of a highly charming and quotable fellow.  He wanders around the first four books of Paradise Lost as a sort of James Dean with wings while Milton lavishes praise on the size of his spear and the eloquence of his arguments.  After that he becomes less charming, gets bullied around by a couple angles, and winds up having to do the whole snake thing, but nobody reads that part.  Skim through the first couple bits, drool over the shirtless angel, and move on.

CHIEFTAIN FERGUS MAC-IVOR from Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Kilts are one of those things that either do it for you or don’t.  If they do, Fergus Mac-Ivor is your boy.  Forget Braveheart, this hot-tempered Scot does a little bit of everything manly:  rabble-rousing, cattle-raiding, family-honor-upholding, and of course stomping the ever-living bajayzus out of occupying Brits without ever mussing his kilt.  He sings and recites poetry, too.

D’ARTAGNAN from The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

Alexandre Dumas was not a man to use one word where five would do, and so we hear all about how attractive the young D’Artagnan is at the start of The Three Musketeers.  Like any good cavalier, he has long flowing hair, a long flowing cape, and a hat so extravagant that it, too, is presumably long and flowing.  Ladies are unequivocally invited by the florid prose to ponder what else might be long as D’Artagnan bounds through the weighty tome unsheathing his sword so many times that even his fellow musketeers think he’s overdoing it a bit.

DORIAN GRAY from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was famously queerer than a football bat, so it’s probably no surprise that the handsome young protagonist of his only novel is both beautiful and lovingly-described.  He’s also a bad boy, indulging in all sorts of perversions so secret and titillating that Wilde only referred to them obliquely, using the fact that they were from a French book as late Victorian code for “kinky.”  The book dwells at length on Gray’s inability to form meaningful relationships, but for man-candy, what’s better than a beautiful, shallow young thing with a taste for the exotic?

SHERLOCK HOLMES from various stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Doctor Watson isn’t so bad-looking himself, if we’re to read his self-effacing narration generously, but Holmes is still the “catch” of the pair for anyone who fancies them slim and intellectual (call me).  We know that he’s athletic and skilled in various arts of self-defense, and women periodically throw themselves at him, to his great disinterest.  “Hard to get” is part of the charm, and don’t forget that Watson describes Holmes as a good dresser and overall tidy man, “catlike” in his fastidiousness.

TARZAN from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Neither Burroughs nor his readers wanted to put much time and effort into figuring out what a man who spent twenty years living with apes would actually look like:  the original Tarzan is black-haired, gray-eyed, tall, tan, athletic, and endearingly loyal to his lady-love (he apparently didn’t ever pick up on the typical Great Ape approach to the birds and bees, i.e. gang rape, during those twenty years).  He can dress up when Jane asks him to and spends the rest of his time running around in a loincloth and knife.  Small wonder Jane Goodall got her start reading the Tarzan stories and dreaming about how she would have made a better wife than Jane.

Got a favorite that I missed?  Drop me a comment and I’ll remedy the glaring oversight!  This list is, after all, for posterity, or at the very least for well-formed posteriors.  And for lusting after someone more delicious than Mr. Darcy.

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