williamallenpepper

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Archive for the month “February, 2013”

WHAT TWITTER MEANS TO THIS WRITER

Twitter is a time killer.

Facebook too.

Total productivity suck.

Yeah. Only losers spend time on social media.

Several hundred million losers, to be a bit more precise. Though, with numbers that large, it’s kind of hard to be.

Anyone who has a social media account – or two or seven – has heard all those from their Luddite-ish friends. (If you have any kind of current technology – tablet, computer, cell phone, whatever – it’s hard to call yourself a full-on Luddite.) But here’s the thing.

It’s not a waste at all.

Yes, you can kill time waiting for the train scrolling through cat videos and posting witty comments about the dorky barista at the coffee shop. But there are benefits to be had if you follow the right people, “right” being a relative term. The right people for you to follow may or may not be the right people for me. But whoever those people are, they are the ones who give you the entertaining, inspirational, or professional support you need. Social media conect you with old friends and acquitances you want in your life, but for reasons of geography or circumstance have drifted away. They can expose you to news of the world, to other believe systems and to information you need to do your job better.

For example, writers. Writers love Twitter. For one thing, we’re stuck alone in our rooms a lot of the time making up stuff so the chance to even vicariously leave the house and interact with another living person, even indirectly via 140 characters posted on a screen, is magical.

There are also professional writing benefits. Links to articles with helpful writing tips. Information about agents and editors. Opinions and news from the publishing industry. A chance to mingle with other writers, in a sense; to learn from them, laugh with them, make them laugh and share whatever it is you know.

I’ve gained from this as a writer, but I’ve also gained as a reader. There are two authors I read now that, frankly, I’d never heard of until their names came up in someone else’s Twitter feed – John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig. And a third author, Neil Gaiman, I’d heard of, but never read until after I saw what a kind, funny, inventive person he was even on Twitter. Scalzi, of course, recently wrote the hilarious Redshirts, which somehow both pushes the boundaries of traditional sci-fi and hilariously skewers Star Trek. Wendig wrote, among others, Blackbirds, about hard-living Miriam Black who knows how you’re going to die. Gaiman is the legendary author of many things including The Graveyard Book, about a small boy raised by a family (of sorts) of ghosts in a graveyard.

And I never would have read any of these guys if it wasn’t for Twitter. I started following them. They were funny, smart and even willing occasionally to trade witty banter with me, a dude they had never and probably will never hear of. Gaiman even took time – a few minutes at most, but still… – to find an answer for me, a complete stranger, to a question I had about one of my characters in a book I’ve been writing.

Those who care about book marketing debate heavily the value of promoting your book or your brand on social media. I probably wouldn’t have bought Blackbirds or the others just from a Tweet that was nothing more than an ad, but I can tell you that it was the impression these guys made on me of who they are, their brand is it were, that made me a loyal customer, at least for that first book. And in reading those first books, I’m now hooked and will buy more.

Everybody wins. Thanks, Twitter.

Now find me some porn.

HEY, KID, BE CAREFUL. BROKEN GLASS.

There’s a commercial for BMW running on TV right now featuring, as most car commercials do, a gorgeous vehicle taking hairpin turns down a mountain pass. In the car is a young boy with his arm out the window, feeling the wind rush by. A disclaimer runs across the bottom of the screen warning something to effect of: “Sticking your arm out the window is dangerous. Don’t do it.”

One end of a Hershey candy bar wrapper has the words “Open Here” printed on it.

Back in the early days of “Saturday Night Live”, there was a sketch with Dan Aykroyd as the sleezy CEO of “Mainway Toys”, a company that sold extremely dangerous toys to children: action figures with knives in them, Doggie Dentist, bag o’ spiders, and, also in the bag-o line, “Bag O’ Broken Glass” which was just a big plastic bag of, well, broken glass. When called on the safety issue, Mainway points out the disclaimer on the bag’s label: “Hey, Kid. Be careful. Broken glass.”

We’ve all read warning labels on products that sound to us like Mainway wrote them. McDonald’s coffee is hot. Don’t stick your hand in the power saw. That floor over there? Slippery when wet.

We can laugh. We DO laugh. But the fact is, warnings like this (okay, maybe not Mainway’s) get written by lawyers because some dumbass, somewhere, tried it once. The Hershey’s wrapper thing surely originated with some bizarre tale of events spiralling downward from unwrapping some candy to, I don’t know, leveling an entire city block.

Meanwhile, things we really do need protection from, we ignore. Guns. Fatty food. The more warnings the professionals level at us, the more we push back. Bigger clips for assault rifles. A restaurant in Las Vegas that serves a burger called “The Heart Attack”.

Save your money BMW and Hershey. We know what’s bad for us. We just want to hear it from the Mainway guy.

I HAVE FOUR FAVORITE MOVIES

I have four favorite movies.

There’s this one:

Sideways

This one:

The Big Lebowski

This one:

Wonderboys

And, of course, this one:

Little Miss Sunshine

If you don’t happen to share my movie taste, here they are: Sideways, The Big Lebowski, Wonderboys and Little Miss Sunshine. There are a lot of other movies I like, of course, but these four are the ones I come back time after time for regular viewings. I know the plots inside and out, memorized huge chunks, but never tire of them.

In thinking about this, I was recently struck by how incredibly similar these movies are. Sideways, part comedy/part drama about two friends on a road trip testing the bounds of their friendship while dealing with personal demons – alcohol, mid-life crises, love troubles. The Big Lebowski, part comedy/part drama (okay mostly comedy) about three friends testing the bounds of their friendship while dealing with personal demons – bowling, doing the right thing, and, uh,  a pee-stained rug (it really tied the room together). Wonderboys, part comedy/part drama about three friends testing the bounds of their friendship while dealing with personal demons – writer’s block, the pressure of high expectations, professional failure. And Little Miss Sunshine which finds a hugely dysfunctional family dealing with their own individual problems while also coming back together as a family.

Two of the movies – Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine – feature roadtrips. All four take place on a finite timeline. Sideways and Wonderboys both take place over a weekend. The Sideways road trip takes a week. The Big Lebowski doesn’t really have a calendar time line, but the plot builds to a climax (finding the rug and/or the Dude’s stolen car and/or the nihilist kidnappers.)

These movies are a lot alike. A LOT. So much so that it must mean something that out of all the movies I’ve seen and enjoyed, all the movies I’ve been preoccupied watching when they come on cable, these are the four I come back, analyze, dwell on. I even got the shooting script for Little Miss Sunshine just so I could better analyze the dialogue.

Why? Why these four? What do these selections say about me?

Does it matter? Probably not.

But I still wonder.

A WRITER WRITES EVEN WHEN SHE’S NOT WRITING

Full disclosure: I do not make my living as a writer. I have written for money. (This, for example.) I have a day job. Doesn’t really matter what. Suffice to say it’s less exciting than The Most Interesting Man in the World, more exciting than that dude I encountered working the fast food drive-thru out in the middle of nowhere a couple months ago. I was nearly rendered suicidal by his wretchedly sad voice as I placed my burger order.

I have a family that likes to see me now and then.

I have other things that need doing: appointments, sleep, playing with the cat.

All of this adds up to me not spending as much time at the writing desk as I would like. Writing advice books always tell you to “write every day.” And that’s good advice if, for no other reason, because it just feels weird to a writer to go a day without writing. It’s like missing your morning coffee or the afternoon workout or not bathing in hot fudge. Sure, you can get through the day without it, but it seems wrong somehow.

So, friends (Not you in the back. I still remember what you did.), the advice to write every day is good. Sometimes, for me, that “writing” consists entirely of scraps of paper with half-legible (at best) notes about what I intend to write later. See a road sign that inspires a cool character name? Write it down. Inspiration for a killer scene hits you in the shower? Sprint naked to your office/nook/garage to write it down. It suddenly dawns on you how your steam punk/sci-fi/Christian/chick-lit/cookbook should end while you’re watching your kid’s ballet rehearsal and you are so overcome with joy you leap up whooping, causing Erica Wongermakerdoogal to face-plant? Put that ending in your iPhone while you wait for the ambulance to arrive.

Do these things, even if you never sit down at your computer or fountain pen (ala Neil Gaiman) that day. Why? Because, friend, it’s still writing. And don’t feel bad about it if that’s all you do on a given day. You’re still pushing your creative endeavor forward.

The key, of course, is to actually follow through and develop that scrap of whatever into something someone other than your mother would want to read. Otherwise, all those bits and pieces are just nexting material for the Spoon-Billed Wannabe Warbler of ShouldaCouldaWoulda.

Go ahead. Wikipedia that. Then get back to writing.

WHY THE HELL WOULD ANYONE TAKE A CRUISE?

So, the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph (Wow, just count the oxymorons in those first six words) limped into port last week like five days late. Out of power. Onion sandwiches. And if you know anybody who was on the cruise and they tell you they brought you a souvenir, for pete’s sake, DO NOT accept anything offered to you in a plastic bag.

Remember “The Love Boat”? The cheesy, romantic comedy from the 1970’s where passengers played by whatever TV actor was hot that week would come about the Pacific Princess for that episode’s cruise and find “love and adventure” on the high seas. Stupid show. Ran for, I don’t know, eighty-seven years, as a huge hit. Well, whenever I heard news about the Triumph, I keep imaging Purse Burl “Gopher” Smith (I mock, but I’m typing all these character names without even once checking Wikipedia.), Isaac the bartender and Doc in some sort of weird “Hunger Games” type scenario on the Lido deck where cruise director Julie is chucked overboard as a sacrifice to the gods of the sea. Captain Merrill Stubing locks himself away on the bridge to await the inevitable, much like the captain on the Titanic.

Except, of course, the Triumph made it back to shore, no lives lost. Yay! Many of the passengers stumbling off the boat even said to the cable TV cameras shoved in their faces that they’d love to take another cruise in semi-believable tones.

By all accounts, conditions were pretty awful as the ship drifted all those days. And it appears there was no real contingency plan in place to deal with a situation where, you know, the boat breaks in the middle of the gosh darnit ocean, ’cause, you know, what are the chances of a mechanical failure on a hugely complex, hugely huge piece of maritime equipment while in use?

All of which begs the question that so many of those wretched passengers and crew had to have asked themselves over and over and over for almost a week.

Why the hell would anyone take  a cruise?

Engine failure. Power failure. Sea sickness. Pirates. Sewers backing up. Food poisoning. All of this and much more has plagued luxury liners since the days when half the people died before reaching land on ocean-going voyages. These days, people don’t usually die, they just get watered down drinks at the tiki bar and get swindled by shuffleboard sharks.

Full disclosure: I’ve never been on a cruise. My entire frame of reference on the subject comes from TV show killer Ted McGinley, who joined the “Love Boat” cast late in its run, only to have the show die a season later, which was pretty much his MO throughout the eighties.

Anyway, I don’t know if cruise ships have shuffleboard anymore. But they do have sickness, the spectre of epic failure, and loud people in speedos, none of which I’m particularly fond of.

Shiver me timbers, matey….Indeed.

A BAD CASE OF ASTEROIDS

So last week with a swing and a miss, Earth was spared the type of epic, total destruction of life as we know it that normally would be heralded with a speech by Morgan Freeman.

Remember how scientists always said there was virtually no chance of a huge asteroid colliding with Earth? Well, take that, scientists. Came pretty damn close this week. Guess the weather forecasters got some new blood to sit with them at the loser’s table.

Still…

Once I crawled out from under the dining room table and took off my tinfoil hat (hey, it’s not just to keep out the aliens) I cranked up my solar-powered radio (What? You don’t have one? Go ask at Radio Shack.). I was shocked to learn that my planet had not been destroyed. Despite the hype, it was just an epic Asteroid 2012 DA14 fail, friends.

You win this time, scientists.

Sure, the scientists said all along that asteroid probably wouldn’t hit us, but they left just enough doubt to keep up from walking away from the tv for a potty break (The tinfoil hats also come in handy here. If you’re ever invited to my home – and this is important – never go into my hall closet.) This asteroid came closer to Earth than any other asteroid that wasn’t in a video game ever has. But mass destruction? Blotting out the sun with a dust cloud so big it, uh, blots out the sun?

None of that.

There was that meteor in Russia. (Coincidence? I think not. Pretty sure those guys who faked the moon landing are involved.) That had some promise for dinosaur-level destruction. Big shock waves blowing out windows and such.

But, no….A little property damage is all. Sweep it up, call out the contractors to replace some windows. Ho hum.

Humans have been trying to wipe themselves out pretty much since the first one crawled out of the ooze and stumbled over a Tonka fire truck left at the top of the stairs. (Damn kids) But we’re still here.

The universe steps in, tries to help out by hurling a giant celestial bowling ball at us. But instead of a strike…gutterball!

And we’re still here.

I’m sure there’s something profound to be said here, but I’m not Morgan Freeman.

LOVE’S TRAVEL STOP

In honor of the holiday, here’s a little flash fiction piece I wrote some time ago featuring an arrival, a departure and, of course, LOVE. Enjoy!

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Abigail said.

“No, you’re not.”

“Really. I just…I just don’t…”

“Say it.”

“I don’t love you anymore.”

Ben winced, closed his eyes.

A single tear fell. But it wasn’t Ben’s. Or Abigail’s.

Love was crying.

Love was somewhere else, secluded, because love sneaks up on you. But from his vantage point, he watched, devastated. “Don’t say it,” he whispered.

“I don’t love you either,” Ben said, then drove it home. “Never did.”

Love spat. Blood. Thick and ruby. The force of the words propelled him backward; droplets of blood from a busted lip staining the collar of his crisp, white shirt.

Love would have to move on soon. He knew that. But not just yet. A moment to catch his breath first.

“Gonna lay there all day?” groused a bored sounding voice.

Love looked up. The speaker’s face was obscured by a white hoodie that enveloped his face, giving him a vaguely Flintstonian Shmoo-like appearance. He held out one hand. Love grasped it and stood, visibly aged, battle scarred, not the youthful self he had been a short time ago.

“I thought you didn’t care,” Love said.

“I don’t.”

“When did you get to town?”

“Just now,” Indifference said. “I was paged.”

Love nodded. He should have guessed.

“Ben and Abigail ain’t gonna make it, Love.”

“Then I guess I should hit the road. Move on,” Love said. “Love knows no boundaries.”

“Want to get a drink first?”

“Really?”

“Meh…”

“You’re buying,” Love said.

“Why?”

“I don’t carry money. All you need is love.”

“Except when you’re drinking.”

Love and Indifference strolled through the ephemera hand-in-hand, as is often the case, looking for an open bar.

The one they found was at the end of a street that wasn’t a dead end, but might as well have been. Love and Indifference entered; the competing forces of their being blew up a storm that scattered cocktail napkins and stale pretzels and quickly created an empty table for them.

Love picked at a couple pin-sized drops of blood on his sleeve. “Another rough day at the office.”

“Love hurts,” Indifference intoned from deep within his hood. “I exist largely because loving things is painful.”

Indifference leaned across the table. “Love is random. You’re fickle. You’re certainly one-sided much of the time. Valentine’s Day should be a day of mourning.”

Love’s shaggy, newly-grey mane shook as he objected in a voice both wise and weary. “That’s the thing about indifference, my friend. It’s more than simply not caring about anything. You’re not aloof. You are actively hostile to the idea of everything. You’re not indifferent, you’re insurgent.”

Predictably, the sphinx across the table said nothing.

“What are you drinking?” Love asked.

“Meh,” Indifference shrugged.

At the next table, pretty-but-scattered Rochelle Mendota was having relationship troubles of a sort.

“No. No. That’s it,” she said into her phone. “I told you it was over.”

Indifference gestured. His point was made.

Rochelle ended the call and looked at her friend Maggie.

“So you really just quit your job?” Maggie asked, momentarily distracted from her five-alarm buffalo wings. “Just like that?”

“I had to. I love Nathan. I always have. And he’s waiting for me.”

“See?” Love said, triumphant. The blank countenance of Indifference made it hard to needle him.

“When do you leave town?” Maggie asked.

“Tomorrow. First flight out. Cheers!” The women toasted burgeoning romance.

Love, triumphant, pounded the table, throwing back his head full of no-longer-grey locks.

“You really can’t help yourself, can you?” Indifference asked.

Love said nothing, but sipped his drink, spilling none on his pristine, crisp shirt.

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

HOMEBREW UPDATE

So, for Christmas, I got a very simplified home brewing kit and mixed up a batch of hard apple cider. The stuff is pre-mixed, you just sterilize everything, mix it up, add the yeast and ferment. It came out pretty well. Bubbly. Tasty. Good stuff.

But it’s not homebrewed beer.

So.

For my recent birthday, I got a bunch of new mixes. Beer mixes. A variety of domestic and international brews. There’s a “patriot lager” fermenting right now.

I’m enjoying this new activity immensely. I hesitate to call it a hobby yet. Time will tell if this is a passing diversion or if it will stick as a part of me, like “Doctor Who” or my great passion for carving unicorns from old Ikea furniture.

At some point, I will get the bug to do a true homebrew: recipes, bags of grain, thermometers, the whole bit. I’m really scared about this. I fear you need a palate for this. Is it too yeasty? Too hoppy? Too, uh, chocolately? I don’t think I have a palate. Well, I do, but it’s a lazy bastard. I know if something tastes good to me, but damned if I can tell you why.

But still, I’ll be compelled to do a true brew someday. I know this will happen. And if I grow a palate and thereby survive the process, I’ll also know that what I have is not just a flash in the keg…er pan. It’s a hobby.

I look forward to that day. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go stare at yeast fermenting and count the days until bottling commences.

It’s what I do now.

Mr. MCFEELY IS PISSED

Recently, the US postal service announced that beginning in August, there will no longer be Saturday mail delivery. The postal service has been losing money for years – a victim of mismanagement and an inability to compete with email, FedEx and the like. So, of course, the way to lure customers back to your service is to make that service even less convenient.

There are a lot of questions to be answered. For instance, the USPS has said that it will still deliver “packages” on Saturdays, but not “mail”. Will they still pick up mail? And, if so, will just pick up mail at the houses/businesses they deliver packages at? Or all houses/businesses? And if they’re going to pick up mail, why not just drop off my bills, letters from grandma, and stack of hardcore porn while they’re here? (Kidding! …My grandmothers are deceased.)

Mr. McFeely, I feel certain, is pissed about all this. Remember him? Delivered packages to Mr. Rogers in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, clearly high on something? The man couldn’t sit down, couldn’t even stand still, just kept jabbering, “Speedy delivery! Speedy delivery!” I’m pretty sure, McFeely was on the job 24/7, intravenous caffeine drip dragging behind him. He would not approve of killing Saturday delivery. That’s not good service. Delivering mail is a privilege, not an expensive, arduous chore. Bringing you the electric bill is like bringing you a precious, little baby of your own. (Did I mention McFeely’s epic meth habit?)

Surely there must be other ways to save money. Instead of those pith helmet things the letter carriers wear in the summer to stay cool, they could auction off the right to follow off the carriers on their routes and pelt them with water balloons. All the extra exercise the auction winners get would provide a side benefit of putting a dent in the national obesity epidemic.

Sam’s Club sells those blue postman shorts in packages of twelve-for-five-dollars.

Go back to the stamps you have to lick, but lace them with bacon grease.

Mail trucks sit idle at night, of course. Why not hire them out as taxis for drunks after the bars close?

Keep delivery of the mail as is, free as always…But if you don’t pay the surcharge, your mail will be covered in poo.

No more blanket, “neither rain nor sleet nor dark of nigh” jazz. From now on, it’s all ala carte. Every thing priced separately.

NEXT TIME ON THE BLOG: I fix Social Security. Also…tacos!

OLD ACTION HEROES NEVER DIE, THEY JUST GET MORE PAY

In the eighties, I think it’s fair to say, a few names dominated the movie box office, at least in terms of ticket sales if not stellar artistic achievements. Schwarzenegger. Stallone. Willis. At least, I think they did. Clearly, I’m gettin’ old and the memory ain’t what it used to be.

What was I talking about?

Anyway, gather ’round kids and I’ll tell you about a time which seems quaint in the present political climate. With gun control all over the news, it’s hard to remember that in the eighties we gleefully lined up to see films that were nothing but explosions and gunplay. Those movies still get made, but it’s nothing like back then.

Consider Sylvester Stallone: Forty-seven “Rambo” movies (I counted. It was something like that.) Movies about a post-traumatic Vietnam vet who kills lots and lots of people. He did the eighty-four “Rocky” movies too (Again, look it up.) He didn’t kill anyone in those, though.

Then there’s former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger from back when he was, uh, PRE-California governor. He made “The Terminator” and it’s sequels, of course; playing an evil cyborg from the future who travels back in time mostly to kill lots of things. He made a bunch of other movies too. They were all loud. Even “Twins”, though that may just be Danny Devito’s acting style.

And, finally, the third musketeer, Bruce Wills. He, of course, made holiday classic “Die Hard” (There’s a Christmas tree in one scene.) and it’s sequels. He made other movies in the eighties too, most of which were pretty forgettable, at least to me. (“The Sixth Sense”, a very good film, didn’t come along until 1999.)

We all at our popcorn (with the good, extremely unhealthy, butter flavoring back before nutritionists finally wore us down.) and had a good time.

Then the eighties ended.

We wound our cinematic way through the next two decades. Stallone continued to make the same kind of cheap dialogue, high action films he always did to modest success. Schwarzenegger got into politics. Willis made movies too, but they weren’t quite as bullet-happy for the most part.

Action movies still got made, but movie-goers started demanding action heroes with more depth. They needed more back story, more heart. We also wanted movies that engaged in a wee bit less racial and cultural stereotyping of our villains. I can’t support this with statistics, but my hunch is that the attempts at traditional “action movies” these days don’t fare as well as horror or the latest Judd Apatow romantic/comedy something-or-other.

So, it seemed, the era of the action star might be over.

But wait…

Is that Ben Gay arthritis cream and mothballs I smell? No one probably uses Ben Gay anymore, but I know three guys back in the day who probably did. Could it be…COULD IT BE?????!!!!!

Yes! They’re all back! Willis! Stallone! Schwarzenegger! They’re all up on the big screen this year, wrinkles and all. (Except Stallone who looks freakishly cut. Look at those abs. Pretty sure they just enlarged a Rambo action figure and stuck his head on it in some sort of top-secret lab.)

Willis debuts on Valentine’s Day(!) in “A Good Day to Die Hard”, the fifth installment in the franchise. I’m actually not going to rip on the film because (1) haven’t seen it; (2) I was surprisingly entertained by “Live Free or Die Hard” which came out a few years ago. Yeah, there are lots of bullets and explosions, but it’s SO cartoony, you can’t take it seriously. It’s a video game with someone else at the controls.

Stallone is in theaters now with “Bullet to the Head”. Didn’t see it, but the title tells me it will pretty much be vintage Stallone. That’s good or bad, depending on your taste.

And Schwarzenegger returns to movies with “The Last Stand” playing a small town sheriff who’s not taking crap from anybody. It’s hard to picture Arnold as a “small town sheriff”. Andy Griffith, he’s not. Not even Jack Carter (that’s a shout out to “Eureka” fans) But, then, Arnold always has liked odd choices. Remember “Twins”? Or that one where he’s a pregnant DUDE?

The point is: these guys are OLD. And they’re still out there doin’ it. And doin’ it the way they did back in the day, updated cultural sentiments be damned. Why? Nostalgia for the eighties? Maybe. I’ve got some. I still haven’t solved the Rubik’s Cube. I’ll probably see the Die Hard movie because of my weird affection for the franchise. I’ll skip the others, but lots of people go. Lots of money to be made.

And I guess that’s the answer.

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