Archive for October, 2011

Saved by the Bell

Some of the best arguments end in fire alarms.

Or at least, the fight (just a little one!) that O Best Beloved and I had gotten into last night ended with one.  Someone apparently pulled the apartment building’s alarm, right around midnight (possibly in a not-very-well-choreographed Halloween prank?), right when we were getting to that “everyone’s had their say but now our emotions are up so we’re going to fight about the details” part of things.  You know the one.

I learned a lot from the experience.  Mostly I learned that:

  • The fire alarm does not actually contact the fire department in any way.
  • It takes the landlord about half an hour to wake up, get his keys, and get over to the building in the middle of the night.
  • It only takes the fire department about ten minutes to get there, once you call 911.
  • It doesn’t matter, because it takes a fireman longer to find the ancient control box than it takes the landlord to get there and open it.
  • Fire alarms startle the cats enough they can be manhandled into a carrier with a minimum of blood drawn.
  • They still won’t forgive me for a while afterward, though.

…what?  You were expecting things I’d learned about relationships?

Friends, if I could write that book I’d be vacationing somewhere equatorial with a whole harem of O Best Beloveds.  The best you’re gonna get out of me is urban apartment survival tips.  Like, hypothetically, if your partner/roommate wears glasses, make sure he/she is wearing them before accepting his/her “all clear” on smoke and fire in the hallway.

Just a thought.

But sometimes the best arguments end in fire alarms.  True story.

Your Favorite Local Beer Probably Isn’t

Tonight’s party night at Chez Cubbage/Best Beloved, so beer’s been on my mind.  That may still be literarly true, depending on how much is still sloshing around my brain from last night’s bender, but no matter!

The point is.  Beers.  I’ve been chewing on the idea of the “local favorite” lately.  I feel like most regions of the continental U. S. have their own brand loyalty, most of which are not actually local beers.

Now, Madison has its exceptions, because some of our local brands are truly local — they’re made here, sold here, and pretty much only available here; I’ve met people who take Capitol Brewery beers home to relatives on the West Coast like it was black market Venezuelan gasoline.

People have died for less.

But setting aside that sort of small-scale craft brewery, most people have an emotional attachment to what they think of as the “local” or at least “regional” beer that’s just what everyone else drinks, regardless of whether it’s sold nationally or not — Grain Belt in Minneapolis versus Sam Adams in Boston, Miller in Wisconsin versus Bud in Missouri; PBR in the Midwest versus Yuengling in the Northeast, and so on.

Here’s where it gets weird:  the love stays long after the plant is gone.  Take, for example, that favorite of Chicago yuppies who want to out-snob Goose Island, Berghoff brand beer.  Not just a local brew but a local restaurant, right?  And so we can retail it for at least $8.99 a six-pack, maybe more.

Wrong.  The part about local, anyway, not the retail price — that remains.  But Berghoff beer was brewed in Rhinelander, WI for years, and sold across the entire state of Wisconsin under the label of “Huber” beer.  Same beer, different labels — and way different prices (I picked up a twack of Huber Bock today for $8.99, in fact).  And here’s where it gets fun:  it’s not even really Huber beer anymore, even though it’s still sold under that label.  The beer is made and bottled at the Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe, WI, the same people that brought us Mountain Creek and other such gems of affordable ($7.99 a case, no I am not shitting you) yet drinkable (sort of) beer.

Never once made in Chicago or even Ilinois, you'll note.

So to put that in very simple words for those of you that are enjoying your regional beer of choice right now:  Berghoff beer is really Huber beer, brewed in Rhinelander, WI by the Huber family brewery, only it isn’t anymore and is in fact brewed in Monroe, WI by a brewery specializing in cheap (but regional) American-style ales.  And whatever else they can get paid for, as far as I can tell, which in this economic climate ain’t a bad business model. And it’s still Berghoff beer in Chicago and Huber beer in Wisconsin.

This happens all over.  Grain Belt, that Minneapolis favorite that I mentioned earlier, is brewed and bottled at a plant in New Ulm, MN (several hours south of Minneapolis) by long-time Grain Belt rival August Schell.  Minnesotans still drink it down by the gallon as “their beer.”  Other Twin Cities natives prefer Hamm’s, “brewed in the land of sky blue waters” just outside St. Paul — or it was, but now it comes from Millers-Coors’s plants in Milwaukee.  And, just to complicate things for native cheeseheads, those same plants may still produce PBR, but the company is now based out of Woodridge, IL — F.I.B. central.

If you’re not feeling enlightened and edified yet, grab a beer and listen up, because the point is this:  most of our sentimental attachments are absurd and unreasonable, to say nothing of based on outdated information.  Does it make the “local” beer any worse, or the competition any better?  Only if you’re an unfeeling asshole.

So bottoms up, ladies and gents, and if you’re in Chicago I hope you’re staring at the bottom of a Goose Island or a Berghoff.  Here in Wisconsin, I’ll lift my Huber to you.  Or my PBR.  Or my Blatz.  Or…fuck it, this is a great state to live in.  Cheers!

What’s your local/regional favorite?  Do you know where it’s actually brewed?  Chime on in on the Comments page — but if I’m a little slow getting back to you, please don’t hold it against me.  I may be drinking.

What’s YOUR Bad Habit?

I think writers ought to have a bad habit.

Not an inadvertent one, like the poor social habits discussed earlier, but a carefully-cultivated one.  A signature vice, if you will.  Coffee, booze, cigars; expensive leather shoes for your or the opposite sex as your taste dictates.

My web traffic just went up.

Why vices?  Character, mostly, I suppose — I subscribe to the school of thought that people are more interested in character flaws than character merits (cruel voyeurs that we all are at heart), and I don’t have a lot of faith in an overly-virtuous author’s ability to really get down into the dirty muck of the human soul.

Put it this way — no one can really identify with a really good person, but we can all identify with a really bad one.  We might not have made his/her choices but we’ve sure felt the temptation to.  And I think it’s healthy for authors to have had that giving-into-temptation experience a time or two.

I’d wrap up with a candid “reveal” moment of my own personal flaw, but frankly I’m a collector at this point.  Maybe you’d better tell me which vice you’ve been nurturing like a beloved child, and I’ll try and give you some helpful pointers.  Helpful, right?

After all, we should balance our vices with at least a little virtue here and there.

Reading is Hard!

It’s time for me to admit something I never did throughout my school years:  sometimes I have trouble reading.

Not understanding text or comprehending literary devices, mind you.  God, that English degree had better be good for something!  It’s sure useless for finding a job.  No, my problems are logistic.

Settling in with a good book is something of an engineering feat in our household.  Neither O Best Beloved nor I have an engineering degree (or one in interior design), so we’ve accidentally stacked the deck against ourselves…consider:

  • We share a one-bedroom apartment.  Reading options are basically limited to the large living room or the bedroom.
  • In a flight of reckless fancy we painted the large living room a lovely but light-devouring turquoise.
  • The bedroom was engineered with outlets on only two walls, one of them the wall with the bizarrely-placed windows that you can’t put a bed up against.
  • Our bed, therefore, is wedged in a corner between my dresser and the wall, with no outlet nearer than the wall directly across from it.
  • O Best Beloved and I are basically incapable of walking on a flat plane in good shoes, so extension cords stretched across public spaces is just disaster.
  • The living room can be lit with lamps but also contains two furry, heat-seeking limpet mines that will attach themselves to any stationary lap that presents itself.

Add all this up and you have one hell of a delicate operation.  “Settling in with a good book” now involves lining up the cup of tea (essential), the kleenex (also essential most of the time, in our plauge-ridden lives), the book, the bookmarks, the cell phone for inevitable interruptions, and possibly a snack of some kind on the coffee table in an accessible-yet-reasonably-cat-proof cluster, with the tallest and solidest items buttressing the smaller, tippy ones.

On the plus side, proper preparations and a couple of clingy cats gives you an excuse to avoid work for hours.  “But Sweetie, the cats will be sad if I get up!”

So that is why I have trouble reading.  Do you ever struggle with reading?  Don’t be afraid to admit it — we all have our little handicaps.

First Words, or, I Was Kind of a Jerk Even at an Early Age

Some of these posts are about writing and some are just about conversations that came up over beers one night; today is more of the latter.

It does tie in reasonably well to yesterday’s post, at least — like names, first words are something that all of us have, and that we sometimes read more meaning into than we should.  They’re less useful for a writer to obsess about endlessly in terms of characterization, I grant.  But maybe we ought to.  Just for example…

  • My (older) brother’s first word, in the blissful, pressure-free environment of the only child, was apparently a dreamy mumble of “tree!”  This is still the sort of thing my brother is likely to stare off into space and mumble happily, depending on his chemical state.
  • I, on the other hand, inaugurated my verbal era with a firm declaration of “Mine!”, presumably to my brother.
  • O Best Beloved, always the overachiever, leapt straight into fully-formed ideas with “Go pool!” rather than trying one word at a time like the rest of us.
  • And my personal favorite will always be a good and dear friend whose grandmother introduced her to shopping therapy at a very young age, and whose first word was “Nordy’s!” (for “Nordstrom’s,” of course).  Given that her summer camp had its own yacht (but not a very big one, she assures us), I’d say that one was prophetic too.

So that’s one of those stories that just about everyone has, but aren’t necessarily useful in any sort of creative-writing sense.  Oh well.  They’re still fun to share, right?

What’s In a Name: Obsessing About Character Names

When we were in college together O Best Beloved was convinced that we would name one of our children Verlin Dayglo.  Age has mellowed her somewhat, and she’s now settled on two girls named Maria Dolores and Maude Gonne, but suffice it to say that I still don’t turn to her for help when I’m naming characters in a story.

Instead, I obsess endlessly.

I place an almost talismanic faith in character names (and, to an extent, real people’s names, although my black heart is happily too cynical to be one of those people who reads books on what names mean and how yours might have shaped your life because it attracts certain kinds of celestial energy to you, and yes they exist and yes I’ve thought about writing one for easy-but-minimal money).

Does it matter that much?  Maybe; maybe not.  I have friends who will cheerfully write the majority of a manuscript/story with a blank space or generic placeholder name for their protagonist, left there to be found-and-replaced once a suitable one is decided on, and the idea just gives me the willies.  I feel like I wouldn’t really know who my character was without that one-word summary of all his/her traits to tie them all together.

(Pro Tip — if you do use a placeholder name, make sure it is something that doesn’t appear in any other word, whole or in part, because if you do a find-and-replace on, say, “Thor,” you may well find yourself with a manuscript that includes words like “NAMEoughly” and “NAMEoughbred.”)

Assuming that your book talks about horses, but really, why wouldn't it?

I don’t quite know where this fascination comes from.  I doubt I would have turned out that much differently if I had been a Jeffrey instead of a Geoffrey, or even a Verlin Dayglo instead of a Geoffrey.

All right, that last might have induced some schoolyard traumas above and beyond what I struggled through.

But it stands that, even if they aren’t laden with Dickensian significance, I want the name to be set in stone before I start writing about a character.  It gives me (in full awareness of the pun) a handle on them that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

Does it wind up mattering by the end of a manuscript?  You tell me.  If you’ve ever obsessed over a character name, or if you just picked one at random out of the phone book, let me know — and let me know how it turned out!

But if anyone takes “Verlin Dayglo” without citing it O Best Beloved will be cross.

…and now Facebook thinks I’m gay.

It’s my fault, really.

I don’t use Facebook much.  The occasional link to the ol’ blog, a comment here or there on friends’ stuff — Facebook doesn’t have much to go off of.  I’m a mystery wrapped in an enigma and slathered with sweet-n-tangy conspiracy sauce.  (My metaphors suffer when I’m hungry.)  It’s safe to say that their “targeted” advertising is still firing rangefinder shots at this point.

For example, while I do like opera (which I might have told it at some antediluvian point in the profile creation process), I have never even been to Texas.

So the Dallas Opera ads, not so much.  “Lives in Madison, WI” is right at the top of my page, so I dunno how it got to this one.  But anyway.  The point is that I was not considering how little Facebook knows about me when I posted two completely unrelated links in a disastrous row.

The first was this helpful chart of traditional Biblical marriages, for those interested in preserving them:

Click to enlarge, of course.

And the second was this breast cancer awareness video.  What can I say?  I appreciate guys taking their shirts off for a good cause.

And then Facebook suggested that I might like to meet “single men in Madison, WI.”  True story.  Nice to know it figured out where I live, at least, right?

But for all of you worrying about my domestic happiness, rest assured — O Best Beloved is still with me and still has all her lady-bits (I know; I just checked to be sure).  This has just been a useful lesson in thinking carefully about what I put on my Facebook page.

Anyone else inadvertently given the entirely wrong impression of themselves on Facebook?  Do your distant friends, the ones that only check your Facebook page but don’t actually know you that well anymore, think you’re queerer than a six dollar bill now?  Did I mostly just want to use that phrase ’cause I like it?  Discuss!

I’ll be back on Monday.

How to Make the Most Manly “Wisconsin Winter Toddy” Ever to Sit Just to the Right of Your Computer Mouse

Cold weather’s starting to roll in, and that means it’s almost Wisconsin Winter Toddy season.

What’s a Wisconsin Winter Toddy, you might ask?  It’s a drink that doesn’t even bother with putting hair on your chest, because if you’ve lived in Wisconsin this long you can already rent yourself out as a bearskin rug in your spare time.  This Darwinian drink gets the jump on winter and goes ahead and starts putting hair on your unborn children’s chests instead.

A Wisconsin Winter Toddy needs the following ingredients:

  • Brandy.  Not whisky, or whiskey, or bourbon, or rum, or anything else.  Raw fuckin’ brandy.  Wisconsin’s love for a drink most people associate with effete Frenchmen seems strange until you realize that we have fantastic grape-growing soil but miserable grape sunlight, resulting in abundant crops of grapes too sugary to make a wine that you don’t distill and age the shit out of.  Hence, Brandy Old Fashioneds, Brandy Manhattans, and Brandy Fuckin’ Toddies, served all over the state at road houses so dingy and ancient their blue collar atmosphere has faded to a dirty off-white with hints of old indigo and prominent grease stains.
  • Honey.  Pure honey from bees that fed on sweet Wisconsin meadowflowers, gathered with your own two hands while they swarmed and stung ineffectually at your chest hair and plaid wool jacket.  Ideally it should be so crystallized and frozen with age and cold that you have to dig it out with a spoon, but pour it in a spoon even if it’s not.  The spoon is important later.
  • Water, boiled on the stovetop in a kettle or saucepan.  If you’ve got a fireplace or a wood-burning stove to set a kettle on so much the better.  Don’t even think about microwaving it.
  • Lemon juice.  It lasts for months on ice, so press it fresh in the summer and have a good store laid in for winter.  Or just buy it at the store, whatever; we have to cut a corner in here somewhere.

To make your toddy, put the water on the stove and forget about it until it’s boiling and has been that way for a while.

Stick the spoon down into the honey and dig around until it’s mounded up with delicious crystallized goodness.  Select a mug based on how drunk you want to get and stick the dripping spoon right into it.  It should lean picturesquely against the side of the mug like the long-handled spoon in an old drugstore malt tin and stay there.

Pour brandy directly over the spoon until you’re between a third of the way and halfway up the mug.  Don’t be a show-off and pour almost all the way to the top; your drink won’t get enough boiling water to heat up if you do it that way.  Just find a bigger mug.  Don’t stir yet.

Add a splash of lemon juice.  It should be a healthy splash.  You’ve got a spoonful of honey in there, remember.  You should hear the bottle go “glug” once or twice.  Still don’t stir.

Fill the glass the rest of the way with more-than-boiling-hot water.  Now you can stir.  At this point one of three things happens:

  • 1.  You fill too full and stir too hard.  The liquid in the center of the mug sinks and the liquid around the edges rises until it pours over, spreading a hot mixture that evaporates and dries into a nigh-indelible film almost immediately all over your countertop.  Swear.
  • 2. You pour the boiling water directly onto the handle of the spoon without noticing and grab a brazen hold of metal that’s been flash-heated to 212F.  Scream.
  • 3.  You do neither of these things.  Drink your delicious toddy.  Feel like a beast.

Now.  Who’s ready to give up on whatever lesser drink they’ve been cradling through the previous long winters of writing (or whatever) and switch to the Badger Country special?  Because we all need something to keep our fingers warm by the computer, that’s for sure.  Feel free to share your recipes in the comments, if you like!

Just, y’know, don’t expect me to actually switch.

It’s Okay — Yours Is Plenty Big

I like watching numbers go up.  Always have.  I’m a sucker for addictive little browser games, and my current mission in life is to go back through each level of Angry Birds and make sure I have a higher score than O Best Beloved or my other Google-linked friends.

I don't even LIKE Angry Birds much.

This naturally leads to a bit of a love-hate relationship with the ol’ blog stats page.  I can’t help wanting the numbers to go up rather than down, which isn’t the point of this ad-free, not-selling-anything, traffic-really-doesn’t-fucking-matter blog at all and can be kind of a dangerous habit.

Big spikes are the real problem.  And they’re the problem for a very silly reason:  WordPress just throws everything on a bar graph and sizes proportional to the biggest bar, so a sudden traffic spike changes the scale.  All of a sudden your week looks like this:

Those days on the right aren’t bad days.  The really really tiny bars that look like such a horrific downturn are still very large numbers.  They’re plenty big enough.  But in my head the graph looks like this:

(I tried to make that last little face-thingie weep tears of blood too.  It didn’t really come out at this scale.  But that’s how horrible we’re talking.)

It’s really very silly.  So some days my mantra, as I write the next post, runs something like “It’s okay — yours is plenty big.  It doesn’t look that different today.  Everyone liked it yesterday!  Just…get it out there for people to see it.”

And then I feel better, because dick jokes always make me feel better.

Blog traffic, graphs, statistics — your thoughts?  Your dick jokes?  Share away!

Writers and Their Terrible Social Habits

Writers are “take them anywhere but out” sorts of creatures, I swear they are.

I’ve never met one, for example, that wasn’t a dreadful gossip.  Myself included — our favorite houseguests are the ones who know all the good gossip on our other houseguests and friends, and doesn’t that just make you want to come on over for my next dinner party disaster?  And I’m always a sucker for other bloggers leaving tantalizing little hints about their personal scandals lives, which the best ones know and take full advantage of to keep us all reading.

You don’t, of course, get good gossip and/or novel fodder without keeping an ear out for dramatic conversations — another dreadful habit that seems universal among writers.  I won’t say they all actually listen at keyholes, per se, but if a keyhole happened to present itself in a manner which seemed to invite listening, say by virtue of being roundish and transmitting sound well — at that point all bets are off.

O Best Beloved claims there’s also a bad habit of correcting grammar, which I maintain isn’t nearly as irritating as her habit of abusing the subjunctive form but really is one of those things you want to nip in the bud before you do it to your boss.

Throw in the late nights, the intermittent hygiene, the various alcohol-and-DT-related twitches, and the tendency to think of words as revisable even in irrevocably spoken conversation and its a wonder anyone ever lets us lead the house.

…or is your writing life totally different from mine?  Discuss!

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