Tiny changes, big results

Sometimes, the smallest changes in your working space can make big differences in your work. Here’s a how and why on the zen of writing by not writing.

It’s amazing what a small change or two in your physical space can do for both your mood and productivity. This is especially important for writers who work from home. You need to be comfortable in your work space.

I hadn’t been comfortable for a while because my desk chair had gotten old. The padding on one armrest had come off and I’d replaced it with duct tape and a sponge. Thanks to the time I spent overweight, the hydraulics had slowly given up until the chair sat way too low for me — I’m 6’2” and all legs, so that wasn’t good either. It also creaked like the Tinman’s knees before Dorothy got to him any time I turned it, which was annoying.

The other problem was that the keyboard drawer under my desk came off. Somehow, the rails had gotten bent and jammed, and in trying to fix that, the wood hold the rail on the right side shifted. End result: the rails were just a hair too far apart to hold the drawer up.

Enter a free chair. And not just any chair. I was given an Aeron that someone didn’t want anymore. In case you don’t know, these are the chairs that were infamously bought by tech companies during the dotcom bubble and have a reputation for being ridiculously expensive. How ridiculous? Used models go for a few hundred bucks, and new ones can be well over $1,200. My old office chair cost me about $99 at Staples.

The nice thing about this particular model is that it goes up really high. I can actually lean back and bring my feet off the ground, and for once my knees aren’t elevated when I sit. It’s also adjustable nine hundred ways from Thursday — tilt, height, armrests, backrest, and so on. It is a million times better than my old chair.

But…

(And there’s always a “But…”)

Suddenly, having my keyboard on my desk became terribly inconvenient and awkward, so it was time to figure out what to do about that drawer. I found a perfect replacement online. The only catch was that all of the brick and mortar stores I found it on didn’t actually sell it in the stores. But I had my new chair! I was full Veruca Salt: “I want it now!”

It was not to be.

The next day, I tried finding the thing locally, starting to think outside the box. I tried CVS and Walgren’s websites and found nothing. And then I tried hardware stores and suddenly it clicked. I didn’t need to replace the whole thing, since I still had the drawer itself. I only needed to replace the rails.

And there they were, for one-fifth the price of a new drawer — the perfect 12” drawer sliders. And the websites for both hardware chains told me they were in stock, so I was off to shop… and to find out that one of those stores lied. Out of stock, so I made the drive to the other store. At this one, they were in stock, but they were not in the aisle or bin their website or app said they were. In fact, they were one aisle over and six bins down, but I finally found them. I grabbed those and some extra 1.5” wood screws because I thought I’d need to re-attach a wooden edge to the drawer, and then it was home to play handyman. That’s right, I can cook, bake and use power tools! I can also improvise, on stage and off, and I had to. Remember, the problem wasn’t just bent rails on the drawer. I’d forgotten that the right rail support on the desk had shifted.

So… a little extra cardboard under the right rail on the drawer, and then a convenient foam tube that came as padding with something I’d once bought to brace the desk rail support against the tubular leg, and in a few minutes, voilà! Good as new. (That padding and cardboard were a reminded that my sometimes packrat tendencies to keep interesting things around sometimes come in handy. Don’t worry, I’m far from a hoarder. The cardboard came from a replacement scale I bought recently, as in “might still need a warranty return,” and the foam tube — think of a four-inch pool noodle — was just interesting.

But now to the point of this ramble. With just these two changes, my workspace has become really comfortable again, and it feels good to be sitting here. And successfully finding an off-label use for hardware and doing grown-up stuff like fix a thing all by myself was a great ego boost as well. I didn’t need an adult’s help, I didn’t look anything up online. I barely read the instructions that came with the sliders.

So there’s a dual lesson. First, do one thing to make your personal work space more comfortable for you. Define “comfortable” however you want. Maybe it will involve totally rearranging the furniture or getting completely new furniture. Maybe it will be as simple as finding a cute tchotchke in a thrift shop or a comfy throw to put on your chair. If you’re low tech, it might even come down to finding the perfect pen.

But make it a project, and then find other little projects to do around the house. Find things that are not writing because you will find, in those times when you’re focusing on that project, your brain is silently working on some plot point or structure issue that’s been blocking you. Or, if nothing is blocking you, your brain will spit out a completely new idea or two.

Did I mention that the entire idea for a TV series fell out of my brain while I was sitting under my desk with the cordless drill and three-way flashlight? Because it total did, although part of it was inspired by the misadventures involved in finding those drawer sliders in the first place.

Make your work space comfortable and you’ll make it inspirational. Occasionally focus on creative projects that are not writing, and your subconscious will inspire you. And thus endeth today’s lesson — quite often, our biggest writing helps have nothing directly to do with writing at all.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Quartets on the Deaths of too Many Children… Part 1

Sometimes, I write poetry. Sometimes, it’s inspired by real-world events and not who I’m in love with that week. This is one of those sometimes. Feel free to share.

Thoughts and prayers do nothing, you know
Except make you feel no guilt
One more shooting, and one more blow
This is the world you have built

How many children, how many deaths
How many guns do you need?
Suffered enough of their terminal breaths?
When will we learn to take heed?

You’d think we’d be better than that
Learn to transcend our animal past
But we kill like a hungry house cat
So our species ain’t destined to last

The secret is this, the secret is love
The secret is learn how to share
Take other people and put them above
Learn how to tell them you care

This planet is old, our species is not
But all life that lives here is kin
Learn to be happy with what you have got
Learn how to let all life in

The problem, I think, is that words interfere
Let’s tackle emotions instead
Settle on being in the now and here
List’ and react to what I just said

So here are my quartets
And here are my words
Take ‘em or leave ‘em, ta-da
Breaking the format
To bring you this point…
Smile and hug me… voila!

Laissez le bon temps rouler

While I’m an atheist, I find religious symbolism to be useful in the right context. As Fat Tuesday brings us into Lent, here are some lessons even the most secular of people can use. Plus… free beads!

Although I’m only nominally Catholic by accident of birth and an atheist by nature, I have learned to appreciate the symbolic value of some religious rituals, and since today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which leads into Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, which means we’re supposed to give up something from now until Easter… I’d like to honor my mother’s side of the family by giving something up, but it ain’t gonna be something simple, like coffee or candy or meat.

No, it’s going to be something harder. For Lent, I am going to give up judgement of others… which means giving up impatience, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of seeing other people as fellow humans, even if I find their politics to be utterly disgusting to me. Lent, whether you’re religious or not, is all about sacrifice for the greater good — giving up a key part of your person in order to rediscover your connection to humanity.

And, as what is basically a pagan celebration of the imminent return of spring is warped into serving a patriarchal mind-control system, I’m doing my part to take it back. For Lent, I am giving up hate. I am giving up fear. I am giving up the idea that people who are different than me are scary. In fact, people who are different than me just remind me of the fact of how similar all people are to me — white, black, Asian, indigenous, mixed; gay, straight, bisexual, asexual (but especially bisexual, yay, us!); cis and trans; tall, short, cute, ugly, old, young… whatever.

Remember this: By definition, all life on this planet is related because all of us are descended from the same primordial ooze. But, beyond that, every single one of us is made up of atoms that were first created in a star that lived and died and blew up long before our own sun was born. Every single living thing here is literally a bit of star stuff twisted around a simple organic molecule born in a turgid puddle of water that emerged billions of years ago after this lump of rock solidified in a rather boring corner of space.

And our time here is but a mere eye-blink in terms of what the cosmos has experienced. We might as well do whatever the hell we can to make our fellow creatures feel more happy and welcome every second we’re here, and if it means giving up shit that makes us feel comfortable for forty days in order to make at least one other person feel more welcome, then have at it.

So, for Lent this year, atheist me is going to give up all attitudes that make anyone else ever feel less than… and embrace everything I can do to make my fellow humans and other beings feel like they are a valid part of this little wet lump of mud spinning through the void we have found ourselves on.

How hard is that to do, eh?

Chapter Fourteen

This chapter comes with its own cookbook, documenting DIY condiments and a few recipes I’ve customized. But first… advice on learning how to do something and a shout out to some friends.

Putting it all together

If you’ve come this far, then you’ve followed my journey through some really hard work, and if you’ve managed to get a good start at it, congratulations. Don’t stop and don’t give up. But half of the fun of changing your life is finding new and more creative ways to do it. This chapter is going to be all about the practical, and I’m going to share some of the recipes and replacements that I’ve discovered and altered to fit my diet over the last year and a half.

Previously, I’ve discussed healthier versions of various seasonings and condiments, but you can also make your own versions of the latter, and the best part about doing so is not only do you have complete control over what goes into them, but you can fiddle around and adjust the recipes to suit both your own dietary needs and your palate.

And, like anything else, the only way to get better is through practice. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. Look at one of my non-cooking examples: I walked into my first improv class at the beginning of 2017 being absolutely terrified of even trying it. Just under a year later, at the end of 2017, I started doing it for real for audiences as often as I could and I am loving it.

Another example I haven’t mentioned. At my (former) workplace but still freelance office away from home (long story), there’s a ping pong table. Before I got out of the hospital, I never even tried to play. I thought I’d be terrible at it, honestly. It was something that I watched my two office besties, Peter and Cooper, do all the time for well over a year, and they were both quite good at it, but I was intimidated.

But then, not long after I got out of the hospital and was feeling better, I figured what the hell, let’s give it a shot. And I sucked. Peter and Cooper could both kick my ass with their eyes closed, although to their great credit they really held back at first. And they also taught me, little by little. While I’m not as consistently good as either of them to this day, I can still manage to sometimes hold my own and win a game or two, although I will never take it as seriously as Cooper does and I will never mind losing to Peter because he’s nice about winning.

But I do digress.

My point was that my progression on both fronts — improv and table tennis — is one of the biggest lessons I want to share with you, my loyal readers. You can’t get good at anything if you don’t try, but you have to understand that when you try it at first you’re probably not going to be any good at it. If you are good from the start, then congratulations. You’re a prodigy, and you should absolutely keep going.

Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or to teach you. Peter and Cooper taught me how to play ping pong, among many other things. Rick, Holly, Jen, and Abel, along with all of my fellow students, taught me how to do improv, among many other things — and every audience I appear in front of teaches me a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

I’m going to share a little bit with you about how to cook, but don’t be afraid to seek out the help of others. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, an American chef and food writer, can teach you all about the science of cooking in his books and blog, and there’s a copy of his weighty tome The Food Lab in my kitchen right now — although be careful with his stuff, because he does lean a bit toward too much salt. Listen to him for the how of cooking; not so much for the exact ingredients.

It might seem strange that I’m both promoting and criticizing Lopez-Alt in the same paragraph, but the fact that he teaches science-based cooking brings up a good point. When it comes to the strict chemistry of things, salt is really, really useful. It’s a preservative. It helps to denature proteins and make them cook better, and it facilitates necessary reactions in baking. When I first discovered him, way pre-hospital, I followed his recipe for scrambled eggs, which involved tossing in a teaspoon of salt with the raw eggs, then letting them sit for fifteen minutes before whisking and cooking.

And yes, they were the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had. And they had at least 2,325 mg of sodium from just the salt, never mind what came from the eggs and milk. In other words, it was nearly twice what I’m supposed to have in an entire day in a single breakfast item.

So… not really a viable roadmap to follow without editing the ingredients yourself and acknowledging that some bits of cooking magic will be impossible. On the other hand, if you stick to his methods regarding cooking tools and times and techniques, then he’s absolutely worth following.

There are also cookbooks geared toward specific dietary needs, like both editions of the American Heart Association’s Low Salt Cookbooks, which happen to be sitting right next to my copy of The Food Lab unironically. Any brick and mortar bookstore or online retailer (although, please, go to the former first!) will have an array of books designed for low-sodium, low-fat, sugar-free, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, halal, and any other kind of diet you can think of. You can also find books, and plenty of blogs, teaching general cooking techniques.

One go-to blog for me personally is SodiumGirl which, despite the title, is oriented toward low-sodium diets. Other useful sites are FatSecret for tracking calories and keeping a food diary, and EatThisMuch for meal-planning, although you’ll need to set up a free account in order to customize beyond daily Calorie count. I tested it without being logged in, and the first suggested menu under vegetarian options blew my sodium count with breakfast alone, so be aware.

But let’s get to cooking and start it out simple, with the All-American trio of condiments: ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Thirteen or start with the Prologue.

 

Pardon meme, but…

The internet is full of images with text on them, but all such images are not created equal. Some memes are image macros, but not all image macros are memes and not all memes came from the internet. Want to stand out from the crowd? Know the difference.

Meme: noun

  1. a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet — which you obviously do if you’re here — then you’ve run across plenty of pictures with text on them. Facebook timelines and every discussion board around is full of them, and they frequently serve as a shorthand or pre-made response to a topic or idea.

In the image above, one of these things is not like the others. Three are memes and one isn’t. Can you tell the difference? I’ll get back to it after a bit so you have time to make your guess. But for comparison’s sake, here’s an image that contains four genuine memes:

MemeStrip

Notice anything they all have in common? I chose four slightly older and well-known memes specifically to increase everyone’s chances of having run across them by now. Chances are you can probably associate a name with two or three of them — possibly all four if you’ve been online a lot, like I have.

From left to right, these images have become known as “Ermahgerd Girl,” “Scumbag Steve,” “Success Kid,” and “Grumpy Cat.” The latter two proved to be particularly lucrative for their originators, with “Grumpy Cat” parlaying media appearances and merchandising into a million dollar business. Meanwhile, the “Success Kid” image has been licensed out to companies like Vitamin Water and Virgin Mobile UK, but its ultimate success was raising over $100,000 to finance a kidney transplant for the father of the infant in the image.

You’ve probably seen each of these images with dozens of different captions. It’s not the wording that matters, really — it’s the recognizability of the picture and what it represents. Ermahgerd Girl is a nerdy expression of enthusiasm over something. Scumbag Steve is usually a set-up and punchline about that one guy who manages to be a douche to everyone. Success Kid and Grumpy Cat represent exactly what they sound like.

Of course, there are some memes that are a specific image macro — the same image and the same text always appear together — although you probably recognize both the copy and the picture in this one.

not how this works

This was taken from an esurance commercial, in which a character called Beatrice tries to bring Facebook into the real world by taping her vacation photos to her living room wall. As a meme, it’s usually used to point out that someone has made a dubious statement about science.

Now, back to the original question. Of the four images at the top, which one do you think is not a meme? If you guessed the bottom right, “We’re vegan…” you’d be correct. It’s merely an image macro, combining what is probably a stock shot with some copy, but it’s nowhere near widespread enough to have achieved true meme status.

Here’s another example of an image macro that is not a meme — and which is rather meta about that:

Meme Not a Meme

If you ever want to find out whether something is a meme or a macro or to learn the often fascinating history of a particular meme, there are some great resources out there, but Know Your Meme is probably the most extensive collection. They frequently will have an entry for a new meme within hours of its first appearance. And if you’d like to visit a place where memes roam free and are frequently born, start with web-aggregator Reddit.

The secret to something being a meme is that it is generally known and understood on site across a wide swath of the population, although there can definitely be separate memescapes with their own subsets. For example, memes from anime or gaming may be very well known in one internet population but completely meaningless to another. Newer memes may be unknown to older users and vice versa.

Finally, as I said at the beginning, not all memes come from the internet, although most of them live there now. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has been with us for close to 80 years. “Elementary, my dear Watson” and the image of Sherlock Holmes himself still endure — although the original character never used that famous phrase.

Some memes are even more ancient. Ever hear of Oedipus Rex? It’s a name that brings exactly one thing to mind. And that is the essence of what a meme is: a cultural shorthand widely understood within a group or subgroup that carries a lot of semantic meaning in very few images or words. Of course, I couldn’t end without sharing the most meta image macro of all that fits here perfectly using yet another meme picture known as “Good Guy Greg.”

Meme Final image

Although now you should know the difference between the two.

 

Even freelancers need sick days now and then

I’m taking a break from posting a new chapter excerpt this week because the blog has caught up to my writing — and some bug caught up to me.

Chapter fourteen is in the works, although I don’t have an excerpt this week. For the last few days, I’ve had the first cold I’ve had in a long time — definitely the first one post heart failure recovery — and while I rarely get sick, this one knocked me for much more of a loop.

I think the main reason is that my lungs are still a bit vulnerable. Remember: One of the symptoms of congestive heart failure is shortness of breath, because that’s where fluid and pressure start to accumulate first. Now, I haven’t had any shortness of breath, but I have had a bit of a cough and that unfortunate congested feeling in the chest, not to mention my nose has been producing copious amounts of mucus.

Needless to say, I’ve been pretty useless the last few days, although I’m starting to feel better now. But it’s another reminder of the mortality I flirted with in 2016, and how there are still hidden effects lurking. Maybe it’s too early to tell, and maybe this was just a fluke, but I can count the number of times in my adult life that I’ve had a cold or the flu on less than one hand, and the last time I had either was around the winter of 1999.

Come to think of it, that one knocked me on my ass and left me immobile for close to a week as well, so maybe my immune system is still as strong as ever, and this is really just a reminder that if something is going to make me feel sick, then it’s got to be some super-powerful virus at work.

* * *

Photo: CDC/ Dr. Erskine Palmer

You can read last week’s excerpt from Chapter Thirteen or start with the Prologue.