Thursday, December 30, 2010

It Snowed in New York

I'm sure you haven't heard.

I have some strong feelings on the snow, or, mainly New Yorkers' whiny response to it. First, judging by the breathless coverage on the news you'd think all of the following:

1. It had never snowed in New York before.
2. New York snow is thicker, heavier, slipperier, and generally more problematic than snow in the rest of the country.
3. There might be a rest of the country, but it's not all that important what happens there, unless what happens there somehow demonstrates that the people who live in that part of the country (which, lest you forget, is not New York) are less civilized than those who live in New York. Like that crazy pastor who wanted to burn the Korans.

Now I'm going to admit something that I shouldn't. It gratifies me that a bunch of New Yorkers are stuck in the snow. It makes me happy that these folks who so casually deride rural living are now trapped by the urban congestion they profess to love. I laugh at the folly of their narrow streets, at the fickleness of their public transportation system, at their lack of wide open parking spaces. It makes me smile to know that we hicks who live in the middle of the country, if we don't have one ourselves, know somebody who can attach a plow to the front of their gas guzzling pick-up truck and plow their own damn road. It pleases me to think that these sophisticated people, who willingly pay exorbitant taxes for the privilege of living in the "greatest city in the world" are suddenly left in the lurch when their precious government can't compete with nature. I chortle in glee as I picture the stranded car waiting to be freed by the disgruntled plow driver.

Perhaps now, more than five years after Hurricane Katrina, people will finally begin to realize that no matter how much faith we put in government, there are things for which it will be woefully overmatched. Maybe now, with self-important New Yorkers blaming their mayor for an inadequate response, we'll finally admit that no matter how often government promises to take care of us, the reality is we better, when the shit hits the fan, be prepared to take care of ourselves. Maybe now, now that their self-assured, smug, condescending attitudes have been covered in a little snow, they'll realize that the New York way isn't the only way. That there are people out here in the great middle whose ideas aren't stuck in the past and whose way of life deserves a little more than the supercilious scorn usually reserved for it by the self-appointed elite.

But probably not.

I've Been Kindled

This is me reading my Kindle. I love it like whoa. I was sort of an anti-ereader person last year but the more I had to wait for a title to free up at the library, and the more my house got stuffed with books, and the more I looked at the economics, the more it made sense to ask for a Kindle. The Wife got it for me for Christmas. I'm reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest on it right now (which sucks, by the way), and that leads me to a story...

When I purchased that book (with an Amazon gift card, bang!) The Wife was jealous because she wanted to read it and there was pretty much no way I was going to just give her my Kindle for three days or whatever. But then we had another Christmas to attend--The Wife's side. And at that Christmas, my mother-in-law presented The Wife and I with one of those It's For Both of You presents. I let The Wife open it because I'm chivalrous. We were warned:

"Now, if you don't want this, I'll buy it back from you," Mother-in-law said. I was intrigued.

The Wife opened it and it was...(you already know, don't you, you anticipatory reader)...a Kindle!

Mother-in-law was apologetic because she'd found out a day or two before that The Wife had already given me one, so she felt bad that I hadn't gotten a gift. I quickly corrected her. I had been given a gift, and it was the greatest gift of all--the gift of not having to share.

Now, there are two things I'd like to share (see what I did there?), one of which wouldn't be possible (or at least very difficult to do) without a Kindle. If you've read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or any of the subsequent books, you know that the author is (was?), for some reason, obsessed with telling the reader exactly what his characters eat. If I've learned anything about Sweden it's that they eat a lot of sandwiches and drink a lot of coffee. They drink coffee so often that I was curious just how many times the word "coffee" appeared in the third installment of the series. So I used the search function and discovered that there are 103 uses of the word in the book. The book, in its paper form, is about 600 pages, which means that, on average, coffee is explicitly mentioned every sixth page. Here's an idea: how about having someone drink a Coke?

Also, you can browse the Kindle Store and search for titles and whatnot, just like on the Net. So, for research purposes, I looked up books on "psi"( paranormal ability and the like). I got a bunch of books and I clicked on a few and I found this gem, summarized thus:

Chronicles of Psi – Book I – A New Beginning

In a world that has reinvented itself from the ashes of a ruined civilization comes a child of The Foretelling who must find his way to save mankind from further destruction. Along his way the forces of his world conspire against him to destroy him or gain the power he wields for their own selfish purposes. He must learn his destiny and how to use his gift before the world is ravaged and destroyed yet again.

A young girl, trained as an assassin, is commissioned to protect the boy, yet finds herself embroiled in this war of politics and subtlety even as she leaves her guild training grounds. Her greatest challenge lie in finding him in time before the others seeking to destroy him do.

This story begins the saga of the Chronicles of Psi, where the rare gift of psionics or mind powers called “Psi” are used by human and creatures alike to the benefit or destruction of those around them. This post apocalyptic world is filled with terrible creatures and forces struggling for power over the world.

Favorite parts:

1. The whole first sentence, which almost makes a little sense. Also, what good is "The Foretelling" if it failed to stop the destruction of the world the first time? Are we just supposed to not care about the first mankind? You know, the one that was totally wiped out before this foretold child showed up after the fact?

2. I like how the "forces of his world" are unsure whether they want to kill him or steal his powers. Nothing like indecisive forces.

3. Who commissions an assassin to protect somebody? Does the commissioner value irony over success? Maybe this world should be wiped out too.

4. What does a "war of subtlety" look like? Do people raise their eyebrows cryptically at one another until someone gives up in confusion?

5. If the assassin's "greatest challenge" is in finding the kid, then what's the point of sending an assassin? Why not send someone who's really good at hide and seek?

6. Psychic powers can apparently be used for good or evil. Huh. Who knew?

And a bonus for the new year: Glamour shot!!!

Are you entranced by my beguiling gaze?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Poetry and Christmas Gifts Go Together Like Chocolate and Milk

Here's the poem I attached to the Yankee Swap present that I took to today's Christmas gathering:

"Shit You Sometimes Need"

If you want a sexy gift
then this one's not for you.
It will not make your car shine
it doesn't make fondue.
There are no gift cards in this box,
no wine or Lotto tickets.
Once it's open the response we'll hear
will probably resemble crickets.
These are things you hate to buy
so please, do not get peeved.
If you're a girl or a guy
it's shit you sometimes need.
So if you hate it, pack it up
Put it right back in the box.
And just be glad you didn't get
six pairs of argyle socks.
You might regret the choice you made
it may remind you of what's in your colon.
But like Jesus's birth, miracles happen
and your gift could still get stolen.

Because even at Christmas, I'm all about fecal references.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Vonnegut's Creative Writing 101

From the introduction to his book of short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things--reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

He then says great writers tend to break all the rules except the first one.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Goose and the Golden Eggs

The Goose and the Golden Eggs

The farmer was poor. Grain prices had fallen precipitously. He didn’t have the heart to slaughter his cows. Cows were so peaceful. How could you kill something that lowed? It didn’t particularly bother the farmer that he was poor. He was a man of few needs. His wife, however, dreamed of fancy cars and sparkly jewelry and other things that would make her friends jealous. She had grown tired of being pitied by those in her social circle and although she respected the farmer for his honesty she told him one day, “If you don’t start making some money, I’m leaving you.”

Although she was harsh and honest to a fault, the farmer liked the idea of having a happy wife. He began to brainstorm ways he could make more money. He’d once had an idea for a game show, but he wasn’t sure how one went about having television shows made. And he’d heard on the radio in his truck a story about a man who made millions by placing tiny ads in newspapers, but he was skeptical. A solution did not immediately present itself, so the farmer went where he always went when he wanted to do some serious thinking. He went to the barn.

In addition to the cows, the farmer owned a goose. The goose was old and while it still provided the occasional egg, the farmer mostly kept it around because it seemed to be a good listener. While the farmer talked, the goose would emit an occasional honk that, to the believing ear, seemed to be pitched in way that simulated conversation.
“I’ve got a problem, goose,” the farmer said.

The goose honked plaintively, as though affirming something it already knew.

“My lady’s fixing to leave me unless I can scrap together enough money to get her something fancy. She likes fancy things, she does.”
The goose honked: “I know she does.”
“I been trying to think of something but I just can’t. Guess I’m a little outta practice. Only thing I know is farming and farming don’t make a man or his woman rich.”
Honk, once again, in agreement.
“Ah, well. I’m sure I’ll come up with something. Life tends to work out, you know,” the farmer said.
Honk: “It does indeed.”

When the farmer went to the barn the next morning to do his chores, he noticed something shiny lying on the straw next to the goose. It was the size and shape of an egg, but as the farmer came closer he knew that an egg it could not be. It was shining like the sun. He went to lift the object but was surprised at its weight. It was much heavier than any egg should be.
“What have you got here, goose?” the farmer said.
The goose only blinked at him.
The farmer, knowing nothing of fancy things, took it inside to show to his wife. “Look what I found in the barn,” he said.
The wife handled the egg. She turned it this way and that. She smelled it. She scratched it with her nail. Flakes of gold fell off. The wife looked accusingly at the farmer. “Where did you say you got this?” she asked.
“The barn. It was next to the goose.”
“That old, worthless thing?” the wife said.
“The very.”
The wife huffed. She dropped the golden egg on the table and stood up. “You take this egg right back where you got it,” she said. “I see what you’ve done. You’ll get us both thrown in the clink.”
“But…but,” the farmer stammered. He took the egg back to the goose.

Life went on in the normal manner for some time until one day the wife came home furious. “Guess where Mildred’s going next week?” she asked the farmer. “Vegas. Mildred’s going to Vegas for a vacation. Know where I’m going on vacation? That’s right. Nowhere. I’m going nowhere while Mildred’s going to Vegas. I’ve had it up to here!”

The farmer didn’t see what was so special about Vegas, but he thought it was his role to please his wife so he went to talk to the goose. “Hey, have you still got that golden egg?” he asked.
Honk. It sounded like a yes to the farmer. After some searching through the straw he found the egg. He took it into town and traded it for a plane ticket to Vegas. When he got home, he handed his wife an envelope. She looked at it dubiously.

“Go ahead, open it,” the farmer said.
She slid a nail along its back and pulled out the plane ticket. But instead of the surprise the farmer expected to see, his wife’s eyes flashed anger. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’ve done here. You never took that egg back like I said. The cops will be here any second, I reckon.”
“But the goose laid it!” the farmer said. “The next time it lays one I’ll take you out to the barn and show you.”
His wife sniffed. “As if I’m stepping foot in that filthy shack,” she said. She tore the ticket up and dropped it into the wastepaper basket.

The next day the goose laid another golden egg. “Come on,” the farmer told his wife. “You’ve got to come see. It’s laid a second golden egg.”
Reluctantly, the farmer’s wife followed him into the barn. There, shining brilliantly next to the goose, lay a golden egg, even larger than the last. The farmer’s wife lifted it and turned a baleful glance on the farmer. “Do you think I’m a fool?” she said. “You’re stealing these eggs from some nice rich family and pretending this goose here lays them. That’s the dumbest cover story I’ve ever heard and I know just how to put an end to your nonsense.”

She went to the wall where the farmer hung his tools and drew his scythe from a hook. She used it to slice the head clean off the goose. After that there were no more golden eggs, and the wife, claiming she couldn’t live with a man she couldn’t respect (“you could have at least made up a believable story,” she scolded), left him. She married a young man whose father had become wealthy by creating a popular game show. The farmer lived alone in poverty. And they both lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Roosevelt's Revisions

In the course of boning up (funny phrase that) on my Pearl Harbor history, I ran across President Roosevelt's revised draft of his famous infamy speech. Interesting to think about the choices he made as a writer. I share my thoughts below the document (which you can click to enlarge).

Most interesting is that Roosevelt's famous "a date which will live in infamy" line was originally "a date which will live in world history." Let this be a lesson on word choice. Other changes of note:

"suddenly" attacked instead of "simultaneously" attacked, which changed the focus of the sentence from being attacked by both Japan's navy and air force to the fact that it was a dirty sneak attack. Also, in this same sentence, FDR added "without warning" to the end of the sentence before realizing that "suddenly" essentially said the same thing and he struck it to avoid redundancy.

I also found it interesting how FDR changed "Hawaii and the Philippines" to "Oahu" as the place that was attacked. It's more specific and it removes the Philippines, which, let's face it, Americans wouldn't be nearly as willing to fight for. Later in the speech, other references to the attack on Manila were removed and "attacks" became singular. Indeed, that Japan attacked the Philippines on this date has largely been forgotten by history, thanks largely to Roosevelt's address. "Oahu" delivers a better punch, and it's obvious in the speech that Roosevelt is appealing to Americans' anger in his justification for war.

Later, Roosevelt, well ahead of Strunk and White, substitutes one word ("states") for three ("contained a statement").

Lastly, the beginning of the speech is intentionally written in the passive voice. As the Wikipedia article states

The wording was deliberately passive. Rather than taking the more usual active voice—i.e. "Japan attacked the United States"—Roosevelt chose to put in the foreground the object being acted upon, namely the United States, to emphasize America's status as a victim. The theme of "innocence violated" was further reinforced by Roosevelt's recounting of the ongoing diplomatic negotiations with Japan, which the president characterized as having been pursued cynically and dishonestly by the Japanese government while it was secretly preparing for war against the United States.