Giving This Up

I tried.  I really did.

I tried to give up this blog.

I cancelled the account.  I voided the renewal payment.  I tried…

And it lasted all of three days.  Shit, even my one pathetic attempt to give up coffee lasted longer than that!

Look, for most of my adult life I’ve lived according to DeNiro’s wisdom in Heat: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

I talk and joke about not buying in to nostalgia.  I talk and joke about being the hobo who just ups and abandons everything from time to time.  I will even occasionally talk — but not joke — about the very real fact that I never let get myself too attached…to anything, or anyone. Yeah, yeah, I know — some aspiring therapist could probably put the next five generations through college trying to fix me…

Look, I’ve lost everything before.  I’ve lost everything, and I decided in the aftermath that I would never again give in to the weakness of having anything or anyone I was afraid to lose.

Okay, fine, so those were the sentiments of a hurt, terrified idiot trying to be all edgy and emo, but still…

Yeah, they were pure bullshit then, too.

I just can’t give it up.  I would love to say something pseudo-insightful like “I have poured too much of my heart and my psyche — of my self — into the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written on this site to give it up.”  I would love to say that, but not even my ex-marketing-weasel soul could write that without an overwhelming dose of irony.

Oh, you and I both know just how much of me goes into my words here.  Just like we both know just how much I need these words to keep my sanity.  In almost every story/piece I write, I allude in one way or another to that demon I fear so much, to that lonely night and the rope…

I’ve held that demon off for a long time now.  I’ve held it off, and the words are a big part of how, but that still ain’t the whole story.

Writing is a rush.  Even when you miss and struggle, there is still that dopamine-flood that is so addictive.  When you nail it?  Oh fuck, when you nail it…

Look, I stopped counting countries a while ago because it got to be too much.  Forget countries, I’ve chased fun — chased sex and drugs and abandon — in more than half of this world’s fucking time zones.  I’ve played hockey against NHL players.  I’ve dived on WW2 wrecks.  Crawled into occupied bear dens.  Successfully completed itemized tax returns.

I’ve done all of that and more.  Far, far more.  And still, even with all of that, there ain’t much that can compare to the feeling of nailing it with my words.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…

When it all really works…

Shit, like a heroin junkie, you just need more.  The more you get, the more you need.  The more you need, the harder it is to get.

The number of times I’ve legit hit that high…

The number of times I’ve really nailed it…

I don’t care how few those are, how could I ever give that up?

{Musical Note — yep, it’s an old Simon & Garfunkel tune. Nope, I don’t like their version. Gaslight Anthem has a couple of versions that I really do like, however. The album version that I’m using here works best with the post above…}

That Terrible Inertia

It’s a tough choice right now.  Obviously, I haven’t been keeping the blog up.  Obviously, I have left vacant my seat at the bar.  Far too often have I left it vacant.

I wish I could say the words had stopped because there were no more words…  Well, at least I wish I could say it was because there was no more need for the words.  But that would be a lie.  There still is a need.  There still are thoughts and emotions and dreams crying out to be written.

There still are my ghosts, haunting the back of my mind, crying out to be heard…

Crying out to be written.

But I’m a creature of habit.  I’m a creature of habits far more bad than good, by the way — one need only look at my current waistline to know that.  Writing is, for me, a thing of habits, too.  It is a thing of momentum, and of focus.  When everything is clicking — when I am writing with that full momentum behind me — it is an unstoppable urge.  I could no more stop my fingers on the keyboard than I could stop my lungs.

When I stop, however…

When the inertia takes over, when Newton’s 1st Law is proven all too true about objects at rest…

Yeah, to start up again after you have surrendered all movement?  Yeah, that’s the hard part.  Something has to act on that object to get it moving.  Something has to act on me…

To put it in plot terms, there needs to be — yet again! — some inciting incident.  In our stories, out protagonists start out at equilibrium.  Whether that stasis is a thing of happiness or misery doesn’t matter, they are at rest until something or someone* acts on them to change that equilibrium into the motion required for both plot and character development. 

*Us writers, we’re the stone-throwing, stasis-breaking bastards that ruin everything.  When you get right down to it, we are entropy incarnate.

I’m right back at Chapter-freaking-One.  I’m right back at “It was a dark and stormy night…” and I don’t like it one bit.

Of course, there had to be an inciting incident to even get me going this far — how many thoughts and urges have I let pass without so much as scratching out a single word in the past months?  Too many to count.  So what was, that thing that drove me to write?  That drove me to reconsider my silence?  That made me acknowledge my own inertia?

The bill.

No, honestly, it was the invoice for my upcoming renewal for this seat at the bar.  Now look, a  blog is cheap to own and run.  I know this.  Hell, you probably know this, too.  A custom web address with a .bar domain?  Yeah, that ain’t so cheap.

So I looked at my notes and drafts to check if it was worth it to keep things up.  That’s when I noticed just how long it had been since I had posted a piece here.

Then, of course, I had to go and look at the dates on my fiction stuff…


Those ghosts…they’re screaming at me right now.

Even with all the screaming; even with all the voices; even with all the need…

I still can’t make up my mind.

{Musical Note — because, dammit, there has to be music!}

Yoda’s Failure

I made a mistake as I started lunch.  I know it’s hard to believe, that mistake thing.  I mean, c’mon…when have I ever made a mistake?

Okay, then.  Moving on…

My mistake?  I read the comments sections of a number of news & opinion websites I follow.  Now, look…I know internetland.  Hell, I grew up in internetland.  I grew up in the frightening old days before Reddit, cesspool that it is, managed to actually raise the level of discussion.  I grew up in the days when Usenet was the only place to go for active conversations and interaction.


To all the permanently outraged and indignant out there: before you find yet more library books to ban and burn, try visiting some of those old-school places first.  Stay away from the alt.binaries areas though.  You do not want to see that shit.  Trust me on that one.

So you have cynical, well-armored me reading the comments…

You have the me who has yet to find many moments when my fellow Americans have not found a way to live down to my worst expectations, let alone delve beneath them…

And still I found people managing to lower the bar.  Not by a millimeter or two, mind you, but by entire freaking miles did they manage to sneak under my already sewer-level expectations.

Have I mentioned just how fucked we are as a nation and a society?

I have?  Oh.  Okay.  I’ll move on, then.  Just give me a minute or two to wash the taste out of my mouth…

You ever see those old war movies where they sterilize a wound by pouring booze on it?  Yeah, it works for that taste in your mouth, too.

A friend once asked me how to keep his kids safe on the internet.  “Join the Amish,” was my reply.


Remember way back when I warned you just how wordy I could be?  About how I started this blog all those years ago specifically to improve my short-form writing?  Yeah, I just used 300+ words for a semi-joking, mostly real, and 100% cynical intro that has nothing, really, to do with what I sat down to write about.

Yep, no matter how huge the changes in my life lately, I’m still me.

So what did I actually sit down to write?

Well, I thought about the news story I read about the rapper whose fans had a party with his embalmed body.  I thought about that one, but I’ll save it for the next post.  There is just too much fun to be had with that whole entire concept to squeeze in to this one.

No, today I sat down to write about something I have talked about before.  I wanted to write about a concept that has been a recurring theme in so much of my writing, not just here on the blog but also in my fiction stuff.  It has especially been a part of the personal (private) concepts I have used to explore characters and settings…and myself.  That concept?  To put it in words I have used before, I’ll refer to a flashfiction piece from a few years ago: someone else’s skin.

I have worn someone else’s skin.  For far too long did I wear someone else’s skin.  For far too many reasons — excuses all — did I wear someone else’s skin.  I have made a habit of being what others want me to be for a very long time now.  I did so because I thought I had to. That I will write about later…

No, for the moment let me tie this back to the theories and philosophies and reality of writing — you know, what this blog is supposed to be about — that truly define writing for me.  And when you boil everything down, there is only one thing that truly defines writing for me: characters.

Look,  I know you can write characters who are exactly what they seem.  I know you can write someone interesting and compelling who is, well, exactly what’s written on the tin.  You can also write about a can of tuna.

No, to me, a character has to be real.  A character has to have good days, and bad.  A character has to have bad breath at the worst possible moment; a character has to stumble over his or her words;  a character has to occasionally be what others need him/her to be, rather than what they are…let alone what they want to be.  In the end, a character has to answer to the people and the world around them as much, if not more, than they have to answer to themselves.

Just like real people.

Now for the “but” that inevitably comes with an assertion like I just made…

BUT…things change.  But…people change.  But…your characters have to change, too.  Oh, I know, we all make the proper noises about growth and change and development in our characters.  We all know that we have to use the plot, and its various crises, to show how our characters are evolving and changing.  We all know that, but still we tend to restrict those changes to the “big” things.  And we forget the small things.  We forget the real things.

My favorite example of this is Luke Skywalker, of all people.  Look, he grew over the three movies in which he was the protagonist.  He grew and changed and improved himself.  Lucas showed that quite well.  He even managed a nice emotional touch when Luke’s rage in his fight with the Emperor in Return of the Jedi turned to pity and regret when he chose to spare his father in that fight.

Okay, golf clap there.  Good job, Luke.

While Lucas had a great image of Vader’s mask disintegrating, he forgot to show the mask Luke himself was wearing.  What Lucas didn’t show was the expectations and burdens that Luke bore from the failures of the old Jedi.  The failures, when you get right down to it, that belonged to Yoda and Obi Wan…but for which Luke, and ultimately his nephew Ben, paid the actual price.

Luke wore someone else’s skin when he took up the mantle of Jedi and teacher.  Luke tried to be what his teachers told him he should be, and failed to be what and who he really was.  It was that failure that, by the way, that caused Ben Solo to fall and become Kylo Ren, not any innate drive towards evil.  Hell, one could argue that it was Yoda’s own failure to understand and embrace the gray areas — and Obi Wan’s weakness in not standing up for what he knew to be true — that drove Anakin himself to turn from neurotic, angsty teen into the world’s best antagonist.*

*Don’t believe me on that score?  Watch again one of my favorite ever movie scenes, linked below.  Luke is all speed and tension and urgency, and Vader is just…relaxed.  Luke is a rabbit, terrified and scurrying, while Vader is very much the predator, toying with his prey.  To (mis)quote the movie Patton, “God help me, I do love it so.”

So…just who are your characters trying to please?  Just who are they trying to be?  Chances are, if they are at all “normal”, that answer is not themselves.  It doesn’t have to be some plot changing answer, by the way.  No, as the writer you can go all Greek-drama on that score and have the answer be very much offstage, but you do have to answer the question.  So the question when you create your characters is not just “Who is your character?” but also “Who is your character trying to be?”

{Clip: Nerd Mode enabled!}

Musical Note: I had a list of songs I was going to choose from, to match the theme of what I wrote above. But…well…I decided not to. No, instead I decided to answer here an email from my Dad. My Dad responded to some of my previous music choices with some of his own, and I realized that I have very much limited what I use here in my posts. That is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, as I try to match things like mood and tone and intent between post and song, but it does to shortchange the breadth of my choices. So, below, I am posting a song that really is a favorite of mine. One funny note about this tune: y’all know hockey is my thing. I actually teach hockey, to be honest. Or at least I used to. One of my favorite exercises has been to take this song and make the folks I am working with do agility & shooting drills to its timing and rhythm. You will never laugh so hard as you will watching high school and college players — all confidently arrogant in their youth and abilities — stumble over themselves trying to keep up with a song that is almost a hundred years old…}

Food, Beer and a Music Podium

So I started thinking about food.

No, not like that!

Err, okay…pretty much exactly like that, but I plead hunger and impatience for my lunch to come.

Well, it’s a bit more than that, actually.  I started thinking about food a few days ago, mainly because I was cooking…and because I love to cook.  I love the process of taking a pile of disparate ingredients and turning them into something greater than the sum of the parts.  It is actually one of the more satisfying things to me, to be honest.  Strangely — for a guy as given to impulse, randomness and flights of fancy as me — that process of turning chaos into order is pretty damned relaxing.

But just as much as the process do I enjoy what food means.  Look, when I get together with friends, we inevitably end up in the kitchen.  We inevitably end up sharing booze and food and good times.  Even at “work”, when I get together with others involved in the beer world, we inevitably end up back in the brewhouse, still sharing booze and food and good times.

So where am I going with this?  No, that’s not me projecting your response to the opening above, it is me legitimately asking myself that question…

When it comes to food, I love it.  No, really, there is nothing I won’t try.  I love it all. I’ve had some of the most refined, perfect food you can imagine, from Kyoto to New York to Nice.  I’ve also had street food.  In the back alleys of Mexico City; in the streets of Marrakech; in those neighborhoods in Naples you aren’t supposed to go…

And in every bite there has lived that one thing so impossible to define, but so crucial to life: culture.  The culture and life and heartbeat of those who gave birth to that food, both the individuals and their people as a whole.  The food that sticks with me — and the food I like most to eat — is, by the way, the street food.  The peasant food.  The food that make families brag about still using great-grandma’s recipe.

I once spent several hundred dollars on a formal 30-course kaiseki dinner in Kyoto.  I loved the meal, but if you pressed me, I could only really describe one or two dishes.  Do you know what I remember more from that trip?  The grilled chicken cartilage* I had at a tiny Shinjuku izikaya.

*Yes, it really is a thing.  I won’t explain in the interests of saving space and word-count, but buy me a beer sometime and ask about it.  I can go on for hours about some of the weird shit I’ve had in my life.  Just don’t ask about the sheep’s eyeball — I didn’t enjoy that one.

I thought about this as I was cooking dirty rice, by the way.  More peasant food.  Food that started as a way to extract all the flavor possible from leftovers and off-cuts and what was left after the rich had their pick.  It was James Michener who introduced me to this reality.  I don’t know if you have ever read any Michener, but one of the things he excelled at was connecting his readers to the cultures he was trying to explore.  One of the ways he did that was through their food; more importantly, through the historical nexus between food and culture.

In the US that nexus is one of class, yes, but also of race.  Steaks and roasts we all know.  They were — and still are, to an extent — the food of the wealthy.  Then you have the foods for the rest of us, for those at the bottom.  The fish stews and pies for the New England fishermen.  Gumbo and jumbalaya for the French Acadians (yup, that’s where “cajun” comes from) transplanted to far off Louisiana.  For the slaves and former slaves there were wild greens (collard, mustard, etc…), catfish and leftover/unwanted cuts of pork and beef…all those things that lie now at the very heart of American barbecue.  As a matter of fact, I just paid $25 for a meal that once was given to slaves because the master couldn’t be bothered to supply anything better.  Hell, lobster was once so despised that is was used only to feed prisoners…

That is how food both reflects and embodies culture.  That is how food defines who we are as a people…and, just as much, who we once were.  That is a key part of the magic of it all.

As a writer, I sometimes get chastised for using food and booze too much.  I use them, however, to reflect my characters.  To reflect who they are, and who they aren’t.  I use them, often, to create situations where the food — and the atmosphere around it — defines the cultures and backgrounds of the characters in ways that would otherwise take hundreds and hundreds of words.

I am, at heart, a peasant.  I would rather have real coq au vin in a tiny country village than the best dishes from the fine dining places in Paris.  I would rather, as a writer, use a hundred words of my characters’ thoughts and reactions about food and everything surrounding it as a mirror for the real world than five thousand words of exposition.

One of my disappointments with George RR Martin, by the way, wasn’t that he talked too much about food, it was that he didn’t use food enough to truly comment on the lives and circumstances of the different strata of the society he created in GOT…

{Musical Notes — this started as something very different.  It started as a desire to find a good, old school song to use.  That desire morphed into finding those anthems that are truly evocative of an era.  Then, me being me (and beer being beer), everything morphed again into finding those songs that we don’t even have to actually hear anymore; into those songs from which we need only an exposure of a second or two to remember, and to feel.  I had to limit things to the last fifty-ish years, if only to keep the number of songs manageable.  As a further note, these are all songs I love…and all songs that bring their own memories for me.

Gold Medal: perhaps the most instantly evocative of these songs, for far more than one generation.  Don’t cheat, don’t look ahead.  Just listen.  It won’t take more than one second if you are anything at all like me…

Silver Medal: a better song than the first, it does not have the instant cross-generational impact of the “winner”.  It is to me one of the best songs ever recorded…

Bronze Medal:  This song is my generation.  It should probably take the Silver, to be honest, but the second place song is just a better song by a better creator…

Honorable Mention: I couldn’t help myself, this song had to make the list.  It had to make the list because, not long ago, I was walking to my own locker room at a hockey tournament, only to hear a bunch of middle school players belting out this song in the next room.  That is cross-generational appeal…and a song you will instantly recognize…