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!

Laughing at the Wrong Thing

Sometimes I laugh at inappropriate things.

Not so much “the date went really well and she asked you up for coffee and she takes her shirt off and suddenly you start giggling” inappropriate, although boobs are pretty entertaining.  But everyone in my family gets into trouble at the theater sometimes, when we all crack up at what we thought was a laugh line and everyone except the actors (sometimes them, too, if it’s a small space and an amateur group) turns to look at us in horror.

“I know how to blow things up!” from Ragtime is particularly etched in my memory.  The Oriental Theater in Chicago seats a whole lot of people, and they all look at you funny if you make noise when they’re not.  It’s a funny line, damn it!

So okay.  Most of that can be chalked up to a dark sense of humor not necessarily shared by everyone in this day and age of yoga, dog parks, and stress reduction techniques so intense they’re stressful.  Empathic is in; morbid is out.

But every once in a while a writer really goes out of his or her way to make something totally inappropriate not just entertaining but intensely, absurdly, laugh-out-loud funny.

My earliest memory of this is the Hank the Cowdog books.

They’re for fairly young children, so the subject matter is not very complicated, but anyone who’s read a lot of children’s books should know that you don’t often get controversial subject matter that might, say, teach you the opposite of what your parents are trying earnestly to teach you every damn day.  A main character (admittedly a dog) starting a conversation with “What would you do if we peed on your tires?” was unusual enough for even my tiny, developing brain to notice.

Actually it was less “notice” and more “laugh so hard I peed myself.”  Maybe I’m just very suggestible.

Anyway, this all came to mind because I’m re-reading Infinite Jest (and occasionally building things out of it).  I am not, unlike my first time through, taking it with me to read at work (which we’re not really supposed to do, but when it’s slow what the heck), because I have vivid memories of hunching over the upstairs desk, cramming my fist in my mouth and hyperventilating, trying desperately not to laugh so loud that I’ll have to explain why the scene about the head-in-microwave-suicide is so hysterical.

I work with these people, you know?

So my question for the writers (and the readers too, I guess):  do you like it when people make you laugh at the wrong thing?  Do you try to make people do it?  How’s that working for you?


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