Sunday Nibble #17: Julep

In late April, a friend shared a link to one of those “write a short play” fast contests that I happened to run across a bit late in the process. If I remember correctly, that one was sent out on a Friday evening with a deadline of Monday afternoon. I didn’t see it until Saturday night.

Called the Quarantine Bakeoff, it’s based on the bakeoff playwriting concept created by Paula Vogel. Here’s how it works: all of the writers get the same “ingredients,” usually four or five things, with an extra “bonus” ingredient, to be used or not. Then, they get a short period of time — usually 48 hours — in which to write a short play.

The Quarantine version was created by four theatre students at the University of Minnesota, and the idea was to give their acting students something to do during quarantine and lockdown. The goal was to choose about ten of the pieces to be read live via Zoom session streamed on YouTube.

Anyway, like I said, I didn’t get the ingredients until late, but cranked out my piece in short order and submitted it on Sunday. Near the end of April, I found out that mine had been chosen. And the other great part about it was that the pieces chosen came from all levels of writers, from elementary school students through to a few professionals.

In watching the whole evening as probably the most credited and experienced of the contributors, it was actually really encouraging, because in seeing the works from an eight-year-old, a team of twelve-year-olds, a couple of high school students, a few college students, a couple of grad students with professional credits, and me, I was basically watching my entire education as a writer unfold before me.

I saw the same approaches and shortcuts I’d taken when I was young, as well as the shift in subject matter from being about the plot and idea to becoming about the people and relationships. The latter held true for the more professional writers whether they were telling their stories in realistic or abstract ways.

They just closed the entries for their third quarantine bakeoff today, and of course I entered, because how could I not? I am totally expecting to not be chosen because I already had my chance, though. It’s just that the first one gave me a short play that I’m proud of and that I can submit to contests in future. Plus it was a lot of fun.

The link below goes directly to my piece, Julep, at about two and a half hours in, although you can watch the entire piece if you want to. Fun fact: Mine is the only one in which they had a technical glitch, and the guy who was supposed to read the stage directions had his camera freeze up. Unfortunately, the others weren’t on the ball, so the piece was presented without.

However… knowing this would be on Zoom, and because I tend to not overdo them in short pieces anyway, there really aren’t a lot of stage directions to miss. The one big thing is that he characters alternate making increasingly stronger mint juleps for each other, with the final slapping of the mint sprigs before placing them as garnish used as punctuation.

That particular drink happened because two of the “ingredients” were Wild Turkey and sprig of mint, by the way. But it became a metaphor for the story I tell. Watch if you feel so inclined, and enjoy.

Unfortunately, I can’t embed the video here, but you can follow this link to watch.

Momentous Monday: You betcha

Happy 162nd anniversary of statehood, Minnesota! The northernmost continental U.S. state, 22nd most populous, and 12th largest by area, there’s a lot more going on up there than people on the coasts might think.

I know that when a lot of people hear “Minnesota,” they think Coen Brothers, and while those two may be one of its most famous exports, the title of one of their more famous and acclaimed films (later, streaming show), Fargo, doesn’t even refer to a city in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

I have to admit that the closest I’ve ever gotten to Minnesota is passing through Iowa and Wisconsin on the way to visit Chicago, fart through Michigan, then dive via Indiana into Ohio and beyond.

If you visually combine Minnesota and Iowa on an outline map, it looks like a hungry boar trying to eat Wisconsin. Of course, since Wisconsin is made of cheese and men in flannel, who can blame the other two for being peckish? The snack also comes with a free chaser of Great Lakes Water.

Without having gone to the state, the closest I’ve actually gotten there has been the people from there I’ve met and known, and all I can say is that 3M (originally Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company) must be secretly cloning armies of intelligent, creative, funny, friendly, good-looking people and exporting them. And I’ve met a lot of them over the years.

Given the Scandinavian background of the state, this might be a clue to how the Vikings really conquered everything. They didn’t come in as armed invaders killing people. Nah. They sailed in really polite and well-groomed and just sort of hung around. Eventually, they niced everyone into submission, but the conquered people were too embarrassed to admit that this was how it happened, so all of those “Vikings Invade and Take no Prisoners” stories came about.

By all reports, though, the Vikings did have amazing hair.

But, come on. Can you imagine any of the following people invading anywhere and violently kicking ass? Al Franken, Prince, Judy Garland, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Schulz, Bob Dylan, and so on? Not likely.

It’s been a popular setting for film and TV programs, with 1970s The Mary Tyler Moore Show being the first example of a series specifically set there, in Minneapolis. Wikipedia tells me that the earliest TV show probably set in the state is the 1959 series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, although that appears to be conjecture — the show is set in the fictitious Central City in the upper Midwest. Only the stories the series was based on were explicitly set in Minnesota.

TV returned to the state in 1974 (while MTM was still airing) with the show Little House on the Prairie, which took place a hundred years earlier, in Walnut Grove, a small town in the southwest corner of the state.

In fact, the town itself was drawn out in 1874 and incorporated in 1879.

And, of course, it’s really hard to ignore the multi-media juggernaut that was Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, partly set in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. It aired on radio for over 40 years, finally ending in 2016.

As I’ve mentioned, Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but that happens to be a total, bald-faced lie. In fact, the state has at least 11,842 lakes if you go by the standard of a body of water of at least 10 acres.

Wisconsin claims to have more lakes — 15,074 — but their standard is 2.2 acres or more. If you apply Minnesota’s standard to Wisconsin, then the latter only has a mere 5,300 lakes.

And if you apply the U.S. Geological Survey standard, which combines ponds and lakes together as water body features, Minnesota has a staggering 124,522 of them. So 10,000 lakes, indeed. There’s that Minnesota modesty for you right there! Or is it duplicity? I’m not really sure right now.

Here’s another not-real thing related to the state: Minnesota Fats. In real life, he was a professional pool player and hustler, originally named Rudolf Wanderone. Beginning in the 1960s, he became one of the most well-known pool players in the world, eventually being inducted into the billiards hall of fame in the 1980s.

However… this Minnesota Fats was actually born in New York City to Swiss immigrants in 1913. He started playing pool early, managed pool-halls, and went by a series of “Fats” nicknames, none of which involved the name Minnesota. (And the Swiss, not being Scandinavian, were not part of the big influx into that state in the first place.)

Then, in 1959, the book The Hustler. by Walter Tevis, came out. It was soon adapted into a film of the same name starring Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason as the totally made-up character Minnesota Fats, who had absolutely nothing at all to do with Wanderone.

This didn’t stop Wanderone, though, who quickly adopted the name and claimed that the character was based on him, although both Tevis and the film’s technical advisor, Willie Mosconi, denied it.

Oh… the film itself was shot almost entirely on location in… New York City.

I mentioned at the beginning that I know a lot of people from Minnesota — living in L.A. entails knowing a lot of people from a lot of places — and I reached out to eight of them I could think of off of the top of my head via IM and email, asking for their thoughts and comments on having grown up in the state.

I heard from five, got promises from four… and then nothing. The closest I did get were the comments from a friend who shall remain nameless in accepting the request: “All I ask is that you tell the truth. However dirty, beautiful, or in-between it may be. The world needs to know the truth about Minnesota…

“There’s what you call dry humor and passive aggressiveness we have that you’ll need to absorb here…! Actually I don’t know if that’s a generalization. It could just be me, but there’s certainly something fishy in that ‘Minnesota Nice’ cover we have.”

Then… silence. Which maybe just confirms the short statement from the only one to ultimately respond.

So maybe Minnesota is more like the quiet, shy one you have to watch out for, maybe not. But there is one other detail: It was the next state accepted into the union after California, so in a sense we’re the Gopher State’s big brother. Maybe it’s our responsibility to keep reminding them that they’re supposed to be the nice ones.

Otherwise, people might figure out that it’s actually us, and we can’t have that!

Oh, by the way, that gopher nickname has nothing to do with the actual animal. It came from a political cartoon from 1858, which wasn’t complimentary. So maybe “Minnesota Nasty” is a thing after all.

It’s okay to stop and ask for direction(s)

Recently, I wrote about the improv concept of getting yourself in trouble and then making it worse. I should have mentioned that this is fine for improv, but in the real world, not so much. And yet, people manage to do this all the time.

Sometimes, it’s due to psychological conditions. Hoarding is a classic example, and there are even TV shows about it — yeah, way to exploit a serious disorder, y’all. The thing is, hoarding progresses gradually. There are actually five levels to it, and reading that list will make a lot of us feel better about our own housekeeping skills — as in “Phew. I’m sloppy, but not a hoarder.”

The thing is, though, that hoarding, like any mental illness, is treatable, but the hoarder has to seek treatment first.

Here’s the other thing. There are conditions that are not mental illnesses that can still get people in trouble but could be avoided if only they ask for some help.

Basically, anything in your life that feels like it’s gotten out of your control or gone beyond your area of expertise is a good candidate for getting help on, and the condition is called “swamped,” which isn’t an official psychological definition, but definitely a fact of modern life. This is especially true if you’re feeling swamped and don’t know where to begin to take action and fix the problem.

Most of us don’t know how to do that. It’s human nature, although it’s a bigger problem for Americans in general and men in particular, because asking for help can be seen as weak and definitely makes someone feel vulnerable. There’s always the chance of hearing “No,” in which case the floor falls out from beneath us. In other words, a big bar to seeking help when we need it is fear.

Another one is over-confidence and simple blindness to there being an issue until it’s too late.

Imagine that you’re setting out on a road trip to visit good friends who recently moved to another state, and they told you their address, but you forgot to look it up before you started driving. No problem, you can look it up at some point before you get to their state, and anyway the scenery is beautiful, so you’ll just keep driving.

You set out from California, aimed for Minnesota, and you’re doing well up to the point you’re thinking about popping open the GPS somewhere halfway across Colorado, but when you do you find out you have no signal up in the mountains and, later on in Kansas, you find out that you have no data out here at all. “Well, that’s cool,” you think as you pass into Oklahoma. All you have to do is make a big left turn at Iowa, and boom, straight into Minnesota.

But then you notice that you’re driving into Arkansas, then Tennessee, wind up in Georgia, and you’re suddenly seeing road signs indicating “Miami, 250 miles.” You do manage to get data when you hit Miami, only to find out that you’re about 1,760 miles and six states southeast of your original destination with no idea how to get there.

Now, obviously, you’re not going to make that 28 hour California to Minnesota drive in one solid shot. It’s basically a three-day trip if you’re not being touristy (or are being cheap) and a two-day trip if you’re a maniac. Okay, a day and a half-shift if you’re a trucker on speed. Still… you have to eat and pee at some point. And at any one of those points, you could have simply asked someone, “How do I get from here to Minnesota?” (I feel that I’ve mentioned the gopher state enough times now to actually pop in a link and see if their Visitors Bureau will toss me a sponsorship. It can’t hurt to ask. See what I did there?)

By not asking, our hypothetical traveler had a destination in mind but then things literally went south. Oh. Did I mention that this traveler was going to attend their friends’ wedding and would have arrived on time without the wrong turn? Instead, they’ve missed the big event completely.

This is exactly what we do in our real lives when we sense that something is going out of control but then keep on driving, enjoying the scenery, and hoping that it will magically work itself out. But here’s the problem. Just as self-driving cars are not quite a ubiquitous thing, self-driving lives never will be. Get out of the car every now and then and ask for directions.

You need to exit your fear-bubble and ask for help when you need it. That is literally what friends and family are for, especially friends. Hey, they’re that special F-word for you for a reason. It means they want to hang out with you and spend time together and help you when you need it and feel safe being vulnerable enough to ask you when they need help.

Family are the people you have to like because you’re related to them. Friends are the people who like you despite not being related. And, to bring it full circle, when you ask the best of your friends for help, their first response is exactly the same as the best improv teammate.

“Yes! And…?”

Image source Wonder woman0731, used unchanged, under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0