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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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    Elisse on The First Year of Grief Is as…
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Starts with a Queue

We killed our satellite TV. A few weeks ago, we realized that most of the stuff we watch is available on Netflix or DVD. We even own the entire series of The Golden Girls (duh), but we’ve usually watched it when it’s on one of the networks that syndicates it, an old habit that we can break now. Actually, we have no choice now. The subscription was canceled as of Tuesday, and the signal has turned to (a subtler) noise.

In recent years, I haven’t watched much TV on my own. When I travel for work, I rarely turn on the obligatory television in my hotel room. At home, I watch what Doug watches, and when he’s out of town, I might turn it on for background noise, but I usually haven’t bothered.

After 28 years with either cable or satellite TV, I no longer have that connection with the wider world. Continue reading

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Glee Loves Gays? Oh, Puh-leez, Mary!

For a show supposedly dedicated to the importance of people being themselves, Glee doesn’t push the boundaries of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. On this week’s episode, “the boys” play songs by Kiss, and the girls (and Kurt, the “faggy” guy, as described by Finn, one of the boys), praise Gaga.

As in the other three episodes I’ve watched, there’s way too much auto-tune punctuated by after-school-special moments of lesson-drenched monologues. In the most annoying one, Finn gets lectured by Kurt’s father, who won’t allow Finn to stay with them because of his homophobic attitude. (Okay, I’ve got to give the show a few points for that.)

But at the end of the scene, the father touches Kurt on the shoulder, literally at arm’s length, and the second Kurt touches his hand as a sort of reply, his father pulls his hand away. After such an impassioned tirade against homophobia, the gesture suggests, “I care about you, Kurt, but I’m not sure I love you.” Continue reading

Structure: Thinking It / Feeling It

I get plot and structure when I *see* them; I don’t seem to be able to fully realize their potential when I *do* them. Like anyone, I know how to tell a story, to get the job done. I’m really trying to understand what I already know, so I understand why authors I admire get away with things I’m trying to do.

Analyzing the design of stories really does thrill me. I love tearing them apart to see how they work. I was an English major because I wanted to be; I wasn’t one of those students who ended up in the department by default. But analyzing stories (including novels) that have been praised and loved is different than analyzing a story (especially the novel) I’m writing.

Structural design is, for me at least, the algebra of the writing process. I got through algebra, but I had to go over lessons again and again. The work made my eye twitch and I had to keep it in my mind at all times so I wouldn’t lose what I’d learned. Algebra fulfilled my math requirement, so as soon as I got my A, I ran (did not walk) from anything math-related beyond balancing my checkbook.

When I try to apply principles, theories, rules to my own writing, I feel as if I’m doing algebra, which, considering I’ve forgotten so much about algebra, is probably not even an effective simile.

How about this: it’s an attempt to quantify what has been qualitative, to give my lump of literary clay some form. Which is a good thing, but fucking frustrating. I need to know if what I’m *trying* to communicate is making sense *at all*.

It reminds me of that episode of Golden Girls when Blanche spends 72 hours writing her memoir. She scrawls her life story in numerous spiral notebooks and, upon finishing, enters the kitchen to share her work of genius. Blanche’s brain is on the verge of collapse from lack of sleep, but she’s so cranked up on arrogance that she can’t wait to have Rose read it. Rose can’t make sense of the sprawling text. Continue reading

Less Than Stellar

Advertisers love me because I know what’s true: commercials are the reason TV exists. I only pretend to understand the term “commercial interruption.” As so-called programming transitions into a commercial, I harumph along with my fellow TV watchers, but I don’t share their frustration. I feel relieved to finally get down to business.

Any commercial may grab my attention. I appreciate high-quality persuasion. A fine balance of pathos, logos, and ethos rocks my world in advertising just as it does in other forms. But I admit that I am drawn to a certain characteristic: less-than-stellar production values. When it’s clear that a company has set a limit on how far it will go to get me to buy a product, well, I probably won’t buy it, but I admire that kind of honesty.

Currently, I’m a little fascinated by the Snuggies Designer Series commercial. I find no false advertising in it. The advertiser unashamedly shows you how you can look wearing a backward bathrobe made of zebra- or leopard-print fleece. The disembodied voice says it “looks as good as it feels,” and I’m going to trust she’s telling me the truth.

If only I had some of the problems that Snuggie allegedly addresses, I might buy one, but I have no problem staying warm while lounging on my sofa, petting my dog, or any of the other issues mentioned. The free gift (a press-and-open booklight) does not sweeten the deal. Somehow I am able to appreciate yet resist the offer.

It’s amazing how much this kind of commercial has not changed over the years. Within a minute or two, you are presented with images of people (actors) happy because of the product, and you learn that you can get the product and more (a free gift and/or double the offer) if you call immediately. I can’t remember ever calling, but I enjoy the game.

For a brief time many years ago, I wanted to become a star of less-than-stellar commercials, perhaps because I loved the irony of such a goal. I was signed up with a talent agent, who sent me out on go-sees for print, TV, and industrial jobs. I quickly learned most talent, including me, didn’t have the look to do fashion modeling. But there was decent money to be made playing common people. I rose to the challenge to be common and landed a commercial for a product called the Stretch-Out Strap. The strap was designed with loops that help the customer do various stretching exercises.

The director guided me and a young woman through various scenarios in which the product made our workouts easier. I remember smiling a lot, but I had to be prompted. I understood that the product was useful (and I’m impressed to see that it’s still being sold), but I did not have a gift for communicating unfiltered glee about poking my foot through a loop. Continue reading

I Hope They Drive Into a Cul-de-sac

Today on the flat screens in the cafeteria, MSNBC showed “breaking news” of police chasing a white van. I flashed back to a similar situation–you probably know the one I’m talking about. A friend at my table said the cops should blow out the tires. I said they were going too fast so it might cause a wreck. Someone else at the table said something similar as I spoke, and soon the conversation we’d been having shifted to this so-called news. We puzzled over why this was news and if it involved anyone important, like, say, a former athlete.

The van cut across lanes of traffic, bumped over a median, and kept going. Students throughout the cafeteria cheered, and I heard a few voices saying, “Go!” and other such encouraging words. Most everyone at my table looked around the caf and realized that almost everyone was watching the TVs. People in the area outside the caf were staring at the TVs through the glass wall. My tablemates and I laughed at the foolish watchers of this non-news without moving our eyes from the screens.

Someone said, “I hope they drive into a cul-de-sac.” We agreed that would be maybe funny, maybe exciting. Shortly thereafter, the van stopped. I noticed there were a lot of palm trees. A helicopter flew through the scene. I thought of Apolcalypse Now but didn’t think of napalm. Continue reading

Blinky, Smiley Pundits

A few years ago, I got to see and hear Tony Kushner in person. He is a gentle, polite human being offstage, and a ferocious, intelligent persona on stage. He offered an observation that has kept me thinking for these years. He said that art is not activism. In that moment, I agreed and disagreed, and have puzzled over this comment since. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how what he said relates to the presidential campaign process: rhetoric, which is an art, is not action. Writing and speaking can illuminate us to what the writer/speaker wishes to do and wants us to do. It’s not action, but it’s useful.

Candidates tell us what they think they will do, but the campaign process involves pundits telling us what the candidates really mean, what we should really think about them, and–my favorite part–telling us what the future holds if this or that so-and-so is elected. It reminds me a lot of when critics and fans of the American version of The Office insist that it’s amazing and brilliant, and go on to explain why it’s funny, and how it’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest television shows ever. Political and entertainment pundits alike tend to promote too much, and I tend not to buy what they’re selling.

It’s kind of fun to watch the pundits giggle condescendingly at one another in the split screen, eager to explain why they’re right and the others are wrong. Right now I’m watching a particularly blinky, smiley Republican economist shaking her head as one of Obama’s advisers speaks. As soon as she has an opening, she flings two accusations at the “Obama camp,” which the Obama adviser immediately dismisses before offering some accusations herself. The Republican pundit continues to smile through all of this, blinking faster when she’s not speaking. The Obama adviser is stone-faced through it all. Finally, Wolf Blitzer must go to a commercial, and I have learned nothing from this segment, except that I should have trusted my instinct not to waste my time on this trash.

Not that I don’t enjoy a good rhetorical brawl, but I’d really like some follow-through on some issues. To my surprise, this sort of thing happened on The View last week when John McCain was a guest. During the first segment, I felt uncomfortable because Barbara Walters went right after him despite the “let’s sit on the couch and chat” environment. She asked a clear question (Who does he expect Palin to reform?) and demanded a clear answer (Congress? Him? Someone else?), pointing out that he’s been in Washington for two decades and his party has held president’s office for eight years. It was exciting to see her act like a journalist again. She can be impressive when she’s on.

The next segment made me uncomfortable because the tone softened. The hosts settled for McCain’s weak answers. When he said he thought Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, Continue reading

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