Sunday, August 28, 2011

Broken Things

I broke a wine glass today while emptying the dishwasher.  It landed first on the tile counter, then bounced onto the open dishwasher door, then onto the floor.  The sound echoed almost musically in the kitchen, really a fabulous audio result for one glass.

A child appeared almost immediately in the doorway.  "You broke something?" he asked.  Hopefulness and excitement brimming in his voice.  He crouched down to see the remains, fairly contained in the small space where they fell between machine and cabinet door.  "Wow," he said.

I was amused by his reaction and quickly dismissed it as something peculiar to children, this vivid interest in new things, unusual things, and let's face it (with boys especially), with destruction.  But then I realized that I would have done the same thing if it had been me in the other room, him someplace with something broken.  I would have checked him first, but I would have wanted to see the destroyed object.  What is it in our human natures that draws us to calamity, to broken things?  Is this why the best characters in fiction are flawed?  Would we rather watch them destruct or rebuild?

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Woman's Day

Last week, I received a copy of Woman's Day in the mail.  The subscription appears to be in my name.  I'm not sure how or why I got the magazine--I didn't sign up for it--but I figured as long as I don't get a bill, no harm done.  It's not the type of magazine I buy, although I have been known to pick up an In Style or Us Magazine, purely frivolous reading, if I'm headed for vacation.  Which I was this week, so I put it in the "to read" pile.

Finally flipped through it today.  You know, I had no false expectations.  I know that it's a flipper type of magazine, with light articles about makeup, relationships, housekeeping, stuff like that.  This one promised advice on "Quick No-Cook Meals" and "Summer Beauty Fixes" (both I could desperately use, by the way), I was ready for non-serious reading.  But as I flipped through, I became more and more distracted by the massive amount of advertising.  It's as though the "articles" (using the term loosely) were a distraction from the ads, most of which were full page or even two full pages or three, and seemed to be forming some narrative of their own.  So distracted that when I finished the magazine (took about 10 minutes), I went back to count. 

The ads seemed to fall into a few broad categories, which I would call "Beauty," "Health," "Household," or "Other."  Here's a list of the full page or two or three page advertisements in the August issue (excluding the quarter-page ads, the "articles" that really were ads, even the half page ads), in the order that they appear.  (Prescriptions drugs denoted with (RX)):

Silpada jewelry
I Love Lucy DVD set
Chase credit card (apparently to get you ready to buy the stuff that follows)
Maybelline Makeup
MegaRed supplement (to avoid heart disease)
Vanity Fair napkins (for entertaining)
Curel lotion
Dentastix bones for dogs
Frontline flea collar
Children's Allegra (medicine for allergies) - Used to be (RX), now OTC
Nutella (which contains nuts, a big child allergy issue.  Weird.)
Dove chocolates
Symbicort (RX) for COPD (I had to look up COPD--it's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
Bremenn cream for age spots
Clorox wipes
Fresh Step cat litter
No Gray hair color
Spiriva (RX) handihaler (an inhaler for COPD)
Omega Smart fish oils supplement
Edy's ice cream
CDC ad about vaccines
Gain detergent
Pfizer ad (RX) about options for overactive bladders
Vimovo (RX) arthritis medicine
Oreck vacuum
Arm & Hammer spin toothbrush
Dixie paper plates (more entertaining, cheap-style)
Moen faucets (random, perhaps accidentally advertised here)
United Healthcare
Senokot (RX) for constipation
Cymbalta (RX) for osteoarthritis pain
Skinny Cow ice cream
Lanacane anti-chafing gel (for fat people whose limbs rub together)
Zyvestra (RX) for vertigo (it's a cream!)
Bradford Exchange (religious jewelry)
California almonds
Crest toothpaste
One A Day vitamins
Celluscience pill for cellulite
Miralax (for constipation)
Jenny Craig diet plan
Capri Sun juice drink
Aricept (RX) for Alzheimer's
Hormel lunch meat
Hydroxycut for weight loss
Premarin (cream for female lubrication)
Sauza tequila
Nestle dark chocolate
Thundershirt (a shirt to alleviate anxiety in DOGS)
Big fish computer games
AARP auto insurance
Medifast diet plan
Heinz 57
McDonalds (specifically, their Asian salad which I can attest is in fact yummy)

I count 56 ads and let me repeat...these are FULL PAGE, TWO or THREE PAGE ads, in a magazine that is 150 pages long.  So probably at least 50% advertisements (or more), when you factor in all the advertising I did not include.  And the topics covered here...well, you can read the list and pretty much come to the conclusions I did.  Basically, I was extremely depressed after flipping through this "light" reading.  I felt overweight, hungry, bloated, under-medicated, dry, afraid, out of breath, disfigured, old, achy, ill, and did I mention hungry?  The entire back portion of the magazine is where they put page after page of full-color food photos.  I was in a crazed hunger state after the glistening photos of shrimp salad and glazed chicken, interspersed with ads for dark chocolate.  Really, the only item that held any promise of good, guilt-free feeling was the tequila, which I promptly sought out.  After which, I needed the Crest, the over-active bladder stuff and the ice cream.  Or the chocolate.  Either one.  But I felt good.

I think I'll cancel my subscription to Woman's Day...even if I'm not paying for it.  Too much stress.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You Say Zebra, I Say Jackal

Here is an exercise.  Answer the first two questions out loud, then say the first thing that comes to mind in response to the third.

1.  What is the largest continent?
2.  What are the opposing colors in chess?
3.  Name any animal.

Approximately twenty percent of people will say "zebra" in this context; fifty percent will name some African animal.  Without the first two questions asked first, less than one percent will answer "zebra."  In other words, the brain is wired in such a way that it can be directed and diverted to draw upon certain associations.  In this way, answers can be manipulated.

I heard about this concept in reference to a book called Brain Bugs:  How the Brain's Flaws Shape our Lives by Dean Buonomano, which explores many other interesting topics regarding the brain and its ability or failure to evolve in certain ways over time.

But what stuck with me was the first concept, this associative nature of the brain, and how maybe as a writer, I feel that it's my job to place the signposts that will lead to certain associations.  That is not to say I expect to direct the reader's exact course (because another fifty percent came up with something other than zebra) but perhaps only to construct a general playing field.  Discussing books and studying books, then, is really the process of comparing which direction the associations have led us.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Airport Drama

From the LA Times this morning:

“British novelist Tony Parsons is gearing up to tell tales from the terminal, as he assumes the role of writer-in-residence at London’s Heathrow Airport.  (He) will spend a week roaming the terminals in search of inspiration for his first collection of short stories… (and) hopes “Departures:  Seven Stories From Heathrow” will revive the airport fiction genre.”

I guess my life has taken a turn for the pedestrian in recent years, because when I think of airports, the following comes to mind:  stale air, indigestion, cranky children, shoulder pain from heavy bags, too much air conditioning, jarring noise, etc., etc.  Certainly not things anybody would want to read about.

I wasn’t aware that there was a genre for airport fiction, although I can think of some recent attempts to explore the theme.  In the 2009 movie Up in the Air George Clooney used airports and travel to escape forging any type of real life.  Jonathan Miles’s wildly inventive novel Dear American Airlines was written in the form of a letter from a traveler who’s been stranded, yes, in an airport.  Of course, many movies have pivotal airport scenes.  My personal favorite is from Moonstruck:  “I put a curse on that plane!”  Check out “The 25 Most Awesome Airport Scenes in Film” here.

Airports can, in fact, spur creativity.  Here’s a video made earlier this summer by two guys stuck at DFW.

But back to writing about airports.  I suppose my own short story collection would look something like this:

  1. Woman is unable to get toddler to eat bagged snack prior to boarding.  Toddler then throws hysterical, hunger-induced fit once plane begins ascent.
  2. Woman misjudges boarding time and cannot get a Chai Tea Latte.  Full of spite and regret, she can hardly swallow the Earl Gray the flight attendant has provided.
  3. Bag tips over in bathroom stall, requiring woman to kneel and reach into adjacent stall for stray lipstick, hairbrush.  She wonders about the choices she’s made in her life.
  4. Computer decides to conduct 57 updates when woman really only wanted to quickly check email before her flight.  She has also forgotten her stack of magazines.  Why can’t things ever go right for her?
You get the picture.  Parsons described airports as “places of extreme emotion,” and in my younger years, I suppose I had some of those moments.  I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with.  Nothing, however, will ever trump this moment.  I challenge him to try.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka