Archive for November, 2010

The Writing Life: How to Thoroughly Abuse Caffeine

You know, my father had this crazy mnemonic device for remembering all the exceptions to the “I before E except after C” rule, but I don’t think “caffeine” appears anywhere in it.  Maybe they didn’t have caffeine back when he was learning it?  It was only isolated as a chemical substance in 1820, after all.

OH, SNAP.

But however you spell it, caffeine is the lifeblood of many writers.  For some it’s the only way to meet multiple deadlines.  For others it extends productivity beyond an eight-hour work day and a four-hour evening with a spouse, creating a third time window to get personal projects done in.  And some people just like being wired.  So let’s talk a little bit about caffeine — what it is, where it comes from, and how you should be using it for maximum effectiveness.

Some Basic Chemistry

First thing to understand, caffeine is a poison, specifically a naturally-occurring herb/pesticide.  Coffee seedlings produce caffeine naturally as a way of killing both insects that might eat them and sibling-seedlings that might outgrow them.  So you’re ingesting a chemical designed to aggressively fuck with the body chemistry of its victim when you have a cup of coffee or whatever.

Fortunately, stuff designed to kill tiny insects and vulnerable baby plants isn’t all that effective against grown human beings.  Instead of paralyzing and eventually killing us (well, maybe it will some day), caffeine gives our central nervous system a kick in the pants that we feel as increased alertness and wakefulness.  This happens because most of our bloodstream flows through things big and heavy enough to completely ignore the chemical; the exception is the brain, which soaks up the caffeine like a sponge and attaches fiddly little bits to it in a weird chemical process that, let’s be realistic here, you don’t care much about.

Shit happens in your brain, all right?

And after that happens you wake up.  Simple, right?  If only.  Actually getting an effective night’s work out of caffeinated beverages — as opposed to a night of obsessively intense toenail clipping, say — might as well be voodoo prayer for all modern science can guide you.  100mg of caffeine as contained in a cup of coffee hits the body differently than 100mg in a caffeine pill, and that’s not even taking into consideration the way that different people’s metabolisms and tolerances will handle the same dosage.  Fear not, we’ll cover it all.

Delivery Method

So your first consideration here is how the caffeine is getting into the body.  Consumed in a beverage, the chemical caffeine is absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach and intestinal lining.  It’s usually soaking its way through your tissues (including the all-important brain bits) within half an hour to an hour of your first sip.  There isn’t a whole lot other chemicals can do to speed this process up, so be aware — energy drinks with an “instant effect” are generally loading your body up with sugar and more exotic compounds to give you a buzz until the caffeine kicks in.  If you’re a traditionalist, you’ll want to give yourself a good half-hour plus between the cup of coffee/tea/soda and when you want to be shifting into high gear.

For those looking to shortcut the process a bit, pill-form caffeine comes unadulterated and slips into the bloodstream more quickly.  Don’t look for a huge leap in how quickly you feel the rush, though — the pill still has to be broken down by the stomach, the chemical caffeine freed, and the lining of the stomach/intestines penetrated.  From there it’s a short trip via the bloodstream to the liver, which breaks the caffeine down even further and reduces the amount affecting the brain — harshing your vibe, man.  If you’ve never been in a fraternity, the next alternative is going to sound a little weird.

Has anyone NOT used this image on their blog?

Yeah, so, as John Belushi no doubt knew (he wasn’t ever in a fraternity, but he sure did a lot of drugs), you can skip around the whole lame filtration thing your digestive system likes to do if you start at the wrong end.  Putting coffee straight up your pooper is a sure-fire way to a) wake the hell up, b) burn yourself in a really hard-to-explain place, and c) crap partially-drained-of-chemicals brown sludge back out for the next half-hour.  If you’re not catching the editorial slant here, just make the damn coffee a half-hour early.  Seriously.

Additives

Of course, the demand for energy now (without putting things in your butt) is never going to go away so long as keggers and pop quizzes continue to exist in the same demographic group.  The easiest shortcut is the one I already mentioned:  most traditional soft drinks combine caffeine-containing substances with good ol’ fashioned glucose for a quick metabolic jolt.  The body snacks on the sugars for fast energy, the brain hooks up with caffeine for slower rewards, and everything is smooth sailing.  Right?

Of course, it probably still contained cocaine when they made this ad.

Well, sort of.  The two “buzzes” are totally independent of one another, and depending on your metabolism may or may not complement one another very well.  If you have a faster metabolism, you may well find yourself burning through the sugar in well under half an hour and feeling just about ready for a nap by the time the caffeine starts to take hold.  Other people with slower metabolisms may get an unpredictable double-whammy of sugar-high and caffeine-buzz, but only after feeling drowsily unaffected for the first twenty-plus minutes.

If you’ve been in a truck stop lately you know the currently-popular solutions:  taurine, ginseng, and B-vitamins, predominantly B6 and B12.  You’ve probably heard of guarana too, but don’t worry about that — it’s just another seed that contains high levels of caffeine, like coffee but a little bigger and fruitier-tasting.  Taurine and B-vitamins, on the other hand, have no stimulant properties to speak of on their own, though people are desperately trying to prove that they do.  What they can do — arguably — is speed up the rate at which your body breaks chemicals down, turning coffee and similar steeped caffeine extracts (like the guarana syrups used in energy drinks) into brain-poison that much faster.

Dosage

Needless to say, this makes dosage a little challenging.  If the presence of taurine (just for example) can help shove an energy drink’s caffeine content to your brain significantly faster, does it matter much what the label says the caffeine content is?

Not much, is the overall answer.  The additives in the drink-of-choice aren’t the only factor turning your caffiene dosage into a giant crap shoot; what you ate for dinner has just as much effect on how quickly the delivery method (coffee, tea, caffeine pills in your bum, etc.) takes to actually get an effective amount of caffeine to your brain as the other crap you paid to have added.  The only way to be sure you’re going to get a good, long caffeine buzz (and an effective dose can last you up to twelve hours, depending once again on all sorts of crazy factors) is to take significantly more than you realistically need.  And that has its own negative consequences:

Tolerance

Your brain is one adaptive motherfucker.  Caffeine works because it latches onto specific types of receptors, just like the really boring image above showed.

This one.

Once that starts happening regularly, your brain compensates by making other shit to latch onto those receptors, the neurochemical equivalent of a wife buying her cheating husband porn so he’ll stay at home.  It can take as little as a week to develop a total immunity to the mental (meaning the sleep-replacing) effects of caffeine if you’re seriously overdosing.

So What the Hell Do You Do?

Right, the title of this post sort of implied advice, didn’t it?  Well, here’s the poop:

  • Stay the hell away from energy drinks.  All they do is mess with your internal chemistry to get the caffeine to the brain faster — once it’s there, the massive overdose doesn’t do you any more good than it would have if you’d just had a pot of coffee.  It’s actually worse for you, because the more concentrated dose will burn off faster.  Sipping through several cups of hot tea/coffee helps spread the load out and makes the buzz last longer.
  • Be cautious of anything with sugar in it.  Sodas are the worst offenders, but even coffee with sugar risks jump-starting the metabolism so far that it’s moved into its sleepy digestive cycle by the time the caffeine kicks in.  You’ll end up feeling simultaneously in need of rest and unable to relax, more commonly known as “jittery.”
  • Prepare ahead of time if you do plan on caffeinating.  You want to give the caffeine at least an hour to really kick in to be sure of a good alertness when you need it.
  • Space your binges out.  Caffeine tolerance is built by constant exposure, not extreme exposure; getting seriously wired one night won’t kick your brain into addiction-mode unless you surround it with days of lower-level intake.  Try to surround any seriously caffeine-dependent night by at least two days of “cold turkey” on either side to get the most mileage out of your buzz.

Of course, the real caffeine freaks in the audience probably stopped reading two paragraphs in and went back to check their e-mail for the 3,567th time this morning, huh?  Congratulations if you made it this far…tell us what your secret is down in the comments section if you like; I’m off to grab a cup of coffee.

Black Friday Special: How to Shop for Your Neurotic Writer

I may have mentioned before, writers are basically big balls of crazy waiting to unravel on someone.

This man has written multiple bestsellers, for example.

So for those of you with writers in your life, I’ve prepared this handy Black Friday shopping guide to help with purchasing. Seriously, he/she is going to kill you if you send another copy of Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul. Actual chicken soup would be a better gift. For your sake and for writers everywhere’s, HOW TO SHOP FOR YOUR NEUROTIC WRITER:

GOOD GIFT: ALCOHOL

I might have mentioned it once or twice on this blog before, but writers tend not to be strangers to the bottle. You will never, ever go wrong buying them liquor. The very worst that can happen is that you will buy something they’re not fond of, in which case they will put it on a shelf until things get really desperate, when they will appreciate it all the more. Don’t think of it as being lame and buying an uncreative gift — think of it as a certificate entitling the bearer to One More Day Without Seeing Any Spiders. From Your Loving Friends!

BAD GIFT: NOTEBOOKS

You may think these are brilliant gifts, but they’re not. Your neurotic writer lives in his/her notebook. It’s like buying someone a furnished apartment, and if those were available at Barnes & Nobles for $14.95 they’d be shit too. Don’t even look at the shelf unless you know exactly what your writer prefers — size, color, clasped vs. unclasped, little elastic bookmark or no, lined or unlined, you name it. They will care about at least one of those, and if you don’t have it directly from their mouth you will get it wrong. And because this is a writer, they won’t say anything. They’ll just hate you quietly every time they use the damn thing.

GOOD GIFT: BLANKETS AND PILLOWS

An actual Snuggie might be pushing it, but your writer probably does spend enough hours crouched in front of a computer to make some warmth and padding a welcome addition. And when they’re not writing they’re usually curled up somewhere reading, so something that can go from the chair to the bed will win you extra points. You might sound the recipient out on color before buying, however — you don’t want to buy pink if pink is “the color that blocks my creativity” or whatever. Not making this stuff up…

BAD GIFT: PENS

Remember what I said about journals, and how they have all these options that people really, really care about? Pens are the same way — if they care about them. Really good fountain pens are kind of like fine wines; they come in all these different styles that you’ve never even heard of and can’t tell the difference between and people will look at you like you are retarded if you try to get involved without knowing what the hell you’re talking about. And for the rest of the world (including most writers), anything that flows easily and leaves a legible print on the page will do just fine, meaning you’ll look just as retarded for buying some fancy-ass fountain pen when all they need is a twenty-pack of Bics. Or you could just be the person who buys a twenty-pack of Bics for Christmas, I guess, but come on.

GOOD GIFT: CLOTHING

Socks and underwear are like coal, only for bad children (unless it’s sexy underwear). But if you love your writer dearly and are looking to spend some money on him/her (bless you), figure out the right size and buy something really sharp-looking. If you’ve never lived with a writer, you may not fully understand how hard it is to get them out the door, particularly when a project is past deadline going well. The opportunity to dress up is one of the few effective temptations. So you can think of a nice sport coat for the writer in your life as a gift to the significant other, too.

BAD GIFT: BOOKS

I don’t care if you think you know your writer’s literary tastes inside and out — if they didn’t ask for it, don’t buy it for them. That creates an obligation. The writer knows you’re going to ask about the book next time you see him/her. It’s like saying “Merry Christmas; I got you some homework. Remember homework?” If we wanted to do homework we’d have stayed in school (you can do that until you die these days, apparently). Don’t give writers books. If you really…really…really have to do the book thing, get a gift card. Preferably one that can be used online because, you know. Going outside.

GOOD GIFT: INSURANCE

Got a few bucks to spare this holiday season? The odds are your neurotic writer doesn’t, and is living uninsured. You can really make their day by buying them a few months of coverage. Alternatively, just help out with a trip to the doctor/dentist/auto shop/whatever. This is great for practical gift-givers, and way better than that nose-hair trimmer you were thinking about. We don’t go out, remember?

AND IF ALL ELSE FAILS

Ha!  My little joke.  I’ll kill you with a spoon. It won’t even be a nice spoon. Just send cash or something.

Loyal readers, what do you get the neurotic writer in your life? I’ll see you in the Comments section…

Porn: The Last Bastion of English Wordplay

I like to start these posts with an amusing little vignette about my life and whatever in it prompted the thoughts at hand, but I’m not gonna lie to you:  I think about porn every damn day. It’s a miracle we’ve gone this long without it coming up.  And if you noticed the word choice in that last sentence and wondered if it was accidental or not (it wasn’t), then you’re the person this post is for.

Because porn is naughty business, and not just with the flashing of flesh and butting of body parts against one another.  It is the most wordplay-indulgent genre in the English language, and the wit is not unique to the selections so highbrow one has to call them erotica instead of, you know, porn.  Pick up a video in any truck stop in America and you’ll find a cast listing filled with offerings like “Steely Johnson” and “Shirley Knots,” and those aren’t the character names.  Those are the actors, or at least their working names; their noms de porn if you like.

Why the romantic relationship between pornography and wordplay?  Part of it is as natural an evolution as those bugs that look like sticks — when you couldn’t say certain words in public, things that sounded very much like those words became inherently funny.  So when people started writing books and later making moves about those things you couldn’t say, they obviously turned to those funny little words that they’d learned to apply creatively in school (though not in the classroom) for names and titles.  Wordplay was an early form of camoflage for porn, and the habit’s proven hard to break in less rigidly-censored (I’ll stop now) times.

The natural extension of this (okay, I didn’t stop) was the parody porn, which from a completely unscientific perspective seemed to hit its heyday in the 1990s.  Hustler has recently done what big, powerful corporations do to all enjoyable products, which is to say made an easier-to-produce and crappier version to flood the shelves with, so your parody porn these days usually comes under titles like “The Office XXX” and “Weeds XXX” rather than, say, Throbbin’ Hood or Whore of the Rings.  But for a while there it was brilliant.

Mind you, some films didn't really need to be made more pornographic.

These were the sort of masterpieces I meant to pay homage with the ill-advised Shakespearean Parody Porn — non-stop laugh-fests where you wind up fast-forwarding through the sex scenes because they slow down the wisecracks.  Friar Fuck.  Blowus Lane.  Foreskin Gump, Hands Solo; Dildo Baggins.  You get the point.

Again, not actually in need of more sex.

The names are, of course, just the beginning.  The sort of minds that used to write French farces and Regency comedies now apparently work in porn, creating plots and scenarios of hysterical misunderstanding.  You’ll probably have to take my word for that one if you’re not a regular consumer of pornographic products, but trust me — when the refrigerator repair guy says he brought all the tools he needs, he doesn’t mean that wrench he’s holding.  And the scenes where the husband comes back from work early could come straight out of a Marx Brothers movie, if the Marxes had finished every chase scene with an incestuous orgy.

The stateroom scene will never look quite the same.

I don’t have an excuse for today’s celebration of pornographic wit, unfortunately.  I could blame it on reading Lost Girls, I suppose, which was certainly full of wit and puns both verbal and visual.  It’s even literary enough for them to have it in the catalog at Goodreads.com; you can read my review there if you feel like it.

Not the Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy you grew up with.

But mostly this was just my entertaining thought for the day.  Am I wrong?  Is there another genre, written or visual, sure to be filled with half-witticisms no matter what volume you pick up?  Animated children’s TV shows, I guess, which might say something alarming about society…as always, the comments page is there if you care to weigh in.

Remember the “Done, Bitches” List?

For those of you that don’t, the idea is outlined in this post.  O Best Beloved made one, and I thought it was a good enough example to share with everyone:

Dilute 3 fucking plates of extracted DNA DONE BITCHES!
Do 10 fucking rounds of PCR DONE BITCHES! (now hope they all worked)
Meet with Brian (avoid sounding like a fucking idiot) DONE BITCHES!
Make a fucking 2% gel (try not to make it suck) DONE BITCHES!
Run the damn gel
Combine all the PCRs into 3 fucking gene scan plates
turn the plates the fuck in
Call the bank (Like a fucking GROWN UP!) DONE BITCHES LIKE AN ADULT!
Do your damn laundry so you can pack for your fucking trip

While I can’t help but notice a distinct lack of “Buy Geoffrey a pony” at the bottom of the list, one has to applaud her effort otherwise.  What a rockstar, huh?  I don’t even know what half of those words mean.

If you haven’t made a “Done, Bitches!” list for yourself lately, maybe it’s time to start thinking about one.  What’s going to go on it?  I haven’t made one myself this week, because I’ve been too busy…

Cowboys are Goddamn Superheroes

I dropped O Best Beloved at the airport brutally early this morning, and for those of you that don’t already comprehend the significance of that statement I’ve illustrated it with my usual graphic skill:

My geography, like my hands before the third pint, is a little shaky, so I can’t promise that I’m giving a 100% accurate rendering here.  But I do know she had to go through Customs today and I didn’t, which means that it’s a lot of miles any way you slice it.

Unfortunately, wild stag parties were right out, on account of the last Guys’ Night ending in embarrassment when we realized that none of us could actually pick up the cute girl eying the group.  Not a goddamn one of us was single. I haven’t been single since puberty, in fact (occasionally multiple, to the varying irritations of varying ladyfriends, but never single).  Drinking alone lacked novelty and strip clubs are way more fun with O Best Beloved there to get excited too, so my first night of pro tempore bachelor living was shaping up to be a real bust when a Bob Wills song saved me.  Inspired, I fired up Netflix, nuked some mac and cheese, and settled down to watch Westerns in nothing but a cowboy hat.

Well, okay, a cowboy hat and a blanket.  It’s November here, for crying out loud.  And some tea so that I could stay awake to write a Friday blog post later.  And a teddy bear, because I get lonely without OBB.  And…shut up.

So there I am in my cowboy hat et. al., watching classics like Stagecoach when it hits me — cowboys are superheroes.  Like real superheroes, with mutant powers and secret aliases and even the dark and tortured angst that was supposed to be so original in the X-Men.  Ordinary men setting aside the hope of a normal life in order to use their unique abilities for the betterment of a world that fears and ostracizes them, and demands they set aside their powers even as danger only they can prevent looms?

Sounds familiar.

This is, therefore, the obvious answer to every drunken late-night mumbling of “no, really, which superpower do you want most?”  You want to be a goddamn cowboy. They can, in no particular order:

  • Move at superspeed, enabling them to dodge not only bullets but individual pellets from “near-miss” shotgun blasts (pro-tip for mortals:  those near misses don’t).
  • Exercise low-level superstrength in everything from arm-wrestling matches to firing full-sized shotguns one-handed from the hip.
  • Metabolize poisons (re:  alcohol) almost instantly, converting the calories into stored kinetic energy for powering later super-punches.
  • Either use precognition to tell when the ace of spades is the top card, or else use telekinesis to put it there.  Either way, awesome.
  • Power weapons with their own super-energy, allowing them to shoot long after running out of ammunition, set entire buildings on fire with a gunshot, etc.
  • Communicate with animals, and re-energize them beyond their natural limits with their own cowboy powers.
  • Telepathically control a woman, making her do everything from repenting her misspent years of whoring to drilling some guy in the back of the head even though she’s a Quaker pacifist.  Seriously, what a dick move.
  • Maintain a 3/8″ of stubble impervious to everything from razor blades to forest fires.

I could probably come up with more, but I’m busy converting energy for any super-punches I might need in the near future.  O Best Beloved is gone all weekend, so don’t expect Monday’s post to be any more responsible!

Also, if you really think you’d rather have some other lame-ass superpower that isn’t being a goddamn cowboy, feel free to drop me a comment so I can tell you that you’re wrong.  Or just watch you with appraising, steely eyes from beneath the brim of my hat.  We’ll see.  We’ll goddamn see.

Do It Tomorrow Syndrome (Sounds Better Than “Slacking Off”)

A while back, I had this great idea.  Actually, my friend had a greater idea — he called me up one day and said “Geoffrey, I’m throwing out all my socks and buying a completely new drawer of all the same brand in black and white. And then I am doing my laundry and not giving a shit which sock I match with which, as long as they’re the same color.”

Genius. The most boring stroke of genius ever, but genius nonetheless.

But I was broke at the time, so I couldn’t exactly follow suit (follow sock?).  Instead I grabbed a spare Trader Joe’s bag (those little I’m-not-destroying-the-planet ones made out of like a million dead dinosaurs and printed with dyes they won’t even let you manufacture in the USA, you know the ones) and stuffed every clean sock that didn’t have a clear and obvious mate into it.  The plan was that I could do that every time I did laundry, until the floor was completely bare of clothes, at which point the socks left in the bag clearly had no mate and could be thrown away.

Less genius, but ruthlessly effective.

Well that was 2008.  And the sock bag is still there, and I now put all my socks in it every time I do laundry, promising myself an eventual sorting.  I don’t even use my sock drawer anymore; I just go straight to the sock bag and rummage around until I find two that match, sorta.  My sock drawer’s life is meaningless.

This is embarrassing, though probably not all that surprising to regulars, who have seen me at my worst.  It’s also really only relevant as an example of the Do It Tomorrow Syndrome that will destroy you and everything you strive for.  DITS is the bane of the self-employed.  Constrained to housekeeping, it will perhaps irritate your Best Beloved, or at the very worst cause you to live in filth and never be able to find the camera when you want to take embarrassing pictures of your own home for your blog (random example).  But applied to work it turns into subpar products or outright missed deadlines, which — freelancers being something of a buyers’ market — very quickly encourages employers to start looking for replacements.

Know your weaknesses.  If you’re susceptible to DITS, learn to recognize the warning signs.  If I’ve read more than two Cracked articles on a single day, I know it’s time to start thinking hard about what intimidating project I’m avoiding.  If the warning signs are web-based, consider investing in a program that automatically shuts off your browsers for specified amounts of time.  If you tend to distract yourself with chores around the house instead…shit, I don’t know.  Tell me how you even got that far, I guess.

Confession for the day?  Totally read an old Cracked article while I was writing this.  What’re you doing instead of the project you should be working on?  Is it reading this blog?  Because that would be totally flattering.

Man, I Hope Some Actual Writers Read This Thing

So if you read this blog, you’re probably involved with writing somehow?  That or you got drawn in by the recent rash of pop culture references, in which case I’m sorry to disappoint — today’s post will have nothing to do with either Star Wars or Harry Potter (though I think I can put those in the tags list now, ha-ha!). But for the portion that come here to actually read about writing from time to time, some thoughts on the matter:

Like many posts, this sprang from a conversation with a friend about something totally unrelated to writing, several bottles of wine into the night.  Someone brought up their Thanksgiving plans, and it went from there into a back-and-forth about the best ways to do various dishes, and all the tricks people knew for the perfect turkey, perfect stuffing, what have you.

Funny part was, the conversation was 90% referential.  These were all people that had made turkey before, but the interest was in what Jamie Oliver had said about it recently, or various other names that didn’t mean a whole lot to me but were apparently from the Cooking Network.  There was less of “oh, when I did this,” and more of “oh, I once saw.”

I sometimes feel like we’re going that way with writing, too.  There’s such a wealth of “authoritative” (pun intended) memoirs, guides, and how-tos by successful writers, to say nothing of all these blogs (like mine), that you can spend your whole day reading about writing if you want to.  Or writing about writing, whatever your actual qualifications might be (and whoever said I had any?).

None of that’s necessarily bad, of course.  It’s good to learn from multiple sources, whatever the skill set in question happens to be, and I’m not above stealing a neat pan-searing technique from the latest Cooks’ Illustrated myself, or a handy turn of phrase from some fellow blogger that I particularly admire.  But it is interesting to see how many traditionally experiential professions — things you learned by doing them, over and over again — have become referential as well, allowing starting professionals to research on paper first.

I suppose as with all things, the key is to balance your written education with your practical.  Kick around the blogs, the forums, what have you for a while — there’s good information out there, though there’s quite a bit of bad as well.  Then shut the internet off, fire up the word processor, and ignore everything for a day or two while you just write for yourself.

Here, I’ll make it easy, and stop talking now!

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