Tuesday, August 26, 2008


When I was younger, I used to draw pictures. Sometimes I’d get so engrossed in what I was drawing that I’d lose an hour, hunched over my desk, nose to the page, eyes spidered with red from not blinking enough. When I was in a drawing, I’d be compartmentalizing, focusing on one detail at a time, and the picture never looked very good. When I finally finished -- usually due to disgust, time constraints, or eye fatigue --I’d put the drawing away and leave the room.

When I’d come back later and look at the same drawing, standing above it, giving it some distance, I was often pleasantly surprised. I had a decent picture there.

With writing, it’s the opposite. When I’m writing a first draft, I’m in the world of the story. I can see it, feel it, smell it. I know what my characters are thinking -- I’ve lived with them you see. I know what’s in their past and I usually know what they’ll do next. With all this floating around, the piece I’m writing seems rich, layered and wonderful. The story’s unfolding at a lighting pace. I don’t want to slow down or go back and fix anything lest I lose momentum. With writing, you’re not confined like in a drawing; you can go anywhere, and you don’t have to stay for long. You never linger in one place long enough to reflect on whether it’s good. It’s a scene in a movie that has already passed, and it must have been good – you’re still watching.

But you pay for this freedom later. When I set my first draft aside and come back to it later, cold, as a reader would, without all the world circling, it doesn’t look better. It looks like shit. Worse, it’s one-dimensional -- a photocopy of shit.

From what I’ve read, this is a normal part of the writing process. You have to go back and add layers upon layers, stepping away each time to assume the role of the reader. And this part is HARD. And it takes FOREVER. I know this because I’ve been doing it for the past week. I started my class at the writing salon, and next class I have to share the first 15 pages of my manuscript with the other students. So I’ve been trying to make my first few chapters presentable.

This will be the first time I’ve shared any of my writing with “the outside.” As nerve-racking as that prospect is, I’m looking forward to getting some feedback. But most of all, I’m thankful for the deadline. Forcing me to finalize those pages has, in turn, forced me to make some decisions about my characters and plot. Completing the beginning, the setup of my whole story, has given me a foundation on which to build the rest of my book. Since I “finalized” those first 15 pages, it opened a floodgate of sorts, and yesterday I wrote more than I have in a long time.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shocking, Daring and Extreme

I'm tired of Michael Phelps. There, I said it. He's a robot, just like Bob Costas and the Chinese divers. If you, too, are tired of Phelps, there are other things on TV. Especially if you happen to be home on a weekday.
When you're home sick from work, it's okay to make fun of the shows and ads on daytime TV because you know you're not the audience they're after. You don't need a job, a degree from ITT Tech or an AbSmasher. When an unemployed writer watches daytime TV, however, he's walking a fine line. So I try to avoid it. Of course, in the past few months I've still watched more daytime TV than at any time since college, and I've drawn some conclusions about us as an audience. We don't really want a job or a degree, or even flat abs. What we really want, apparently, is anything that's Shocking, Daring or Extreme. Peruse the daytime listings and you'll see: Most Shocking Videos; Most Daring Police Chases; Most Extreme Acts of Violence.

We also seem to crave anything with Dumbest, Stupidest or Worst in the title. I guess what this kind of TV does is it makes us feel better about ourselves. No matter the reason you're sitting home watching TV at noon on a Tuesday; turn on your TV and there's always someone worse off than you.
Feeling bad because you drank too much over the weekend? Tune in to
Intervention on Monday, and there's a girl inhaling cans of computer duster. Worried about your love life? Watch To Catch a Predator. At least you're not that guy.

When it comes to Shocking, Daring and Extreme, even Animal Planet has gotten into the mix. I leave you now with actual descriptions of my favorite episodes of Animal Planet's
Untamed and Uncut:

  • A diver makes a potentially fatal mistake when he teases a giant Pacific octopus out of its cave.
  • A rodeo bull goes head to head with a cowboy - literally.
  • A zoo visitor gets way too close to the polar bear cage.
  • Fisherman in Louisiana are unpleasantly surprised when a mako shark they'd believed to be dead seeks its revenge.
  • Betsy, a large pet Boa Constrictor, is the life of the party until she decides she's had enough.
  • A mule race in Brazil goes awry.
  • A professional alligator wrestler undergoes an event that might make him rethink his career choice.
  • A black bull doesn't bluff when it charges a promotional poker contest.
  • A deep-sea diving guide makes a mistake when he attempts to kiss a Nurse Shark on the snout.
  • An attempt to rescue a pregnant tiger caught in a tree in India goes terribly wrong.
  • A Monocled Cobra, one of the world's deadliest snakes, shows an exotic animal trainer why it should be handled with care.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Doggy Daycare

I didn't get much writing done last week. This was partly because I spent the week at Amy's family's lake house in Michigan. But I think another reason is I didn't have my muse with me. Chester spent the week in doggy daycare.

People in the bay area are notoriously crazy about their animals, and this fervor is reflected in the amenities at Planet Pooch. There are no cages at Planet Pooch, just 40,000 square feet of climate-controlled indoor and outdoor playspace, equipped with webcams so you can watch your dog from anywhere. There's a pool, and a salon -- yes, a salon -- is opening soon. The dogs are segregated into play areas based on their size and personality. Chester was placed in the "Central Bark" area, which houses "dogs with puppy personalities and with a few grownups to chaperone." There's even a quiet lounge for the elderly dogs. I toured the old dogs' lounge, and I wanted to live there. It features several luxurious couches, a fireplace, and a large flat screen TV. I found out later that the TV is fake, which is somehow even weirder.

There was an assemblage of other dogs up at the lake house, and spending time with other dogs makes you miss your own. I found myself saying things like, Chester's head is not this big and blocky; Chester doesn't get this much slobber on his tennis balls; Chester is such a better swimmer than these dogs. I imagine this is what it's like when people with kids spend time with other people's kids (little Jimmy would never do that, Awh, don't you just miss him to death?).

When it was finally time to pick Chester up from daycare, Amy and I could barely contain our excitement -- and our anxiety. Would he still remember us? Would he be mad at us? He's such a sensitive little soul, did the other dogs take advantage of him? The owner of Planet Pooch, clearly used to this type of hysteria, met us at the door with some well-worn disclaimers: He's going to look skinnier -- they always look skinnier. He's going to sleep for a week when he gets home. That's normal. Again, that's completely normal. No, he was fine all week. No, he didn't seem depressed. I'm sure he's not mad at you. Dogs don't have the same sense of time as humans; he doesn't know how long you were gone. And so on.

Chester was excited to see us, but he was clearly exhausted. He barely moved for the first two days. It makes sense when you think about it. For a dog who spends most of his time alone in the safety of our apartment, going to a week of daycare must be like a person going through a week straight of job interviews -- where some of the interviewers want to kill you, and all of them want to pee on your stuff. I'd sleep for a week, too.

The daycare owner's disclaimers didn't allay our concerns. Every few minutes, Amy would look at Chester and ask me something like, He looks like he's in pain -- do you think they beat him? He has so many more gray whiskers -- do you think he has post-traumatic stress disorder? Look at all the water he's drinking -- do you think the other dogs wouldn't let him drink all week?

Three days later, Chester seems nearly back to his old self. Still, next time I think he'll fly with us.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Origin of The Leaf Blower

I'm posting a day early because I'm not sure if I'll have access tomorrow.

Many of you have asked where the title of my blog comes from. Here's the story: About four years ago, my brother Matt left his office job to go into sales. He sent me an email telling me it was the last one he'd ever send from a cubicle; from then on he'd be working from home or out on the road. I was sitting in my shared office, watching the gardening crew work outside, and I wrote Matt the following note:

Outside my window a squat man is blowing leaves, swirling them into haphazard, amorphous piles. I wonder if he plans to rake the strays between the mounds or if he will simply gather what he can from the center of each pile, and move on. The whole effort seems futile to me, like trying to gather water with a sieve. Even if he manages to gather every last leaf, the leaves will come back, and so then will the man.
But what if he could peer through the tinted glass and catch a glimpse of me, sitting in my climate-controlled office, my ergonomic chair. What would he see? I, too, move things around into piles. And they always come back. For the most part, my piles don't even exist. Not in the tangible world, anyway.

So when you're out on the road in your company car, just remember that you are no longer of the world behind the glass; you are a leaf blower, moving piles around in the tangible world.

Four years later, on my last day of work, I received a large package from Matt. It was a leaf blower.