Monday, March 31, 2008

Picture Monday: Still Life With Ice Cream, Vermont


I don’t like walking around with a chair on my head. If given the choice, I’d prefer not to crazily wave my arms around and make animal noises. If you ask me to do an interpretative dance about a flower rising from the ground, I might just stand there, staring at the floor, wishing I could disappear.

So then what was I doing in an acting class? I’d always considered myself a “serious” writer and filmmaker, someone who could weave words or bits of film together into a seamless whole, so imagine how naked I felt when I had to leave those props behind in a special acting class for film students at NYU called “the Actor’s Craft”? I know I was completely out of my element with the improv games and the yodeling contests until the teacher asked us each to bring in a story. We were to perform a monologue about our “defining moment.” This, I could handle. I was a serious writer, after all.

I thought about one particular moment when I was ten years old, and I really wanted to play basketball. I thought about what I found when I showed up at the first day of practice at the City Civic Center Youth league: seven boys and the coach staring back at me as I entered the gym. I barely knew the difference between a point guard and a forward, except that one of them was supposed to be in the front, and suddenly I found myself in a group of boys who seemed to have basketball hardwired to their brains. I wasn’t sure which was more intimidating, running with these guys during games, desperately trying to find a footing, or afterwards, when I would head off by myself to the decrepit and disused women’s locker room. I remembered leaving that silent and empty space, going home and begging my parents to let me quit. They reminded me that I was the one who signed up, and so I would have to follow through with my intentions and play out the entire season.

It was this last part that I focused on in my presentation to Actor’s Craft. I skimmed over the misery and told the class about how the experience had defined my sense of determination. Every good story needs a driving theme, and I was sure that mine had one, something important about perseverance in the face of a challenge, stick-to-it-tiveness, never-give-up-and-you-can-achieve-anything-ness. Because if this story were a TV movie, could it end with anything other than this brash ten-year-old misfit sinking the game-winning three-pointer? Good stories demand creative license, drama, and by God, that was something I was prepared to deliver.

The teacher of Actor’s Craft didn’t ask for the TV movie version, though she did want us to use our defining moments for something that might demand a little creativity. She was going to assign each of us a partner, and we would meld our “defining moments” into something new and improvisatory. The details of the assignment grew hazy as I realized that I was to be paired up with my secret class crush: a brilliant flame-haired film student named Mike. I decided that I could learn to like this improv thing. The beauty of the actor’s craft was opening up to me, now that I could use it finesse a romantic subplot into the mix.

I went over to his dorm one night after class. I ignored the Grateful Dead he had playing in the background—I wasn’t going to let it spoil the mood as both of us circled in on each other’s “defining moments”. His was suitably grand and cinematic: he remembered watching the aurora borealis from the top of some mountain in Canada that he had hiked to with a Deadhead pal of his. Mike had been absent the day of my basketball monologue, so I told him the whole story.

I could see him thinking about it, as Jerry and the gang grooved on behind us. “I know it might be hard for you to relate to being the lone girl on all-boys basketball team. But really, it’s a story about . . .” I began. I could see that now was the time for self-revelation. And I decided to give him the real, unvarnished me, and not the TV movie version. “It’s a story about being . . . an outsider,” I finally said.

He thought about it, really tried to delve into his mental files of experience. For Mike was a “method” man; besides being a talented filmmaker, he had this acting thing down pat. He had no problem walking around with a chair on his head.

He scrunched up his face and frowned. “It’s just that—“ he began. “It’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that.”

I looked into his bright green eyes and they just didn’t seem as compelling. I was prepared to overlook the Grateful Dead thing, the tie-dyed shirts, the fact that he was just a touch, okay, maybe a lot shorter than me. But this? He had never felt like an outsider? My crush burned away like the cone of incense he had stationed on his tapestry-covered dresser. I could see now that we would never unite.

Still, our stories had to. “That’s okay,” I said. “Because, you know, it can be looked at in a different way, as a story about . . . perseverance.”

“Perseverance . . . okay,” he repeated. “So what about we’re both playing basketball, but we’re like really committed to the game, only the aurora borealis is up in the sky above us, while we’re playing . . .”

There’s always room for revision. An inept ten-year-old basketball player had gotten cut and so had my budding infatuation, but Mike still held out the promise of a happy ending. And as our newly minted universe lit up and took a life of its own, it was a small consolation but a real one: two happy hippies playing basketball with dogged determination while the Aurora Borealis glittered above them, the offspring of a union that was never meant to be.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Project Sunday: Bike NYC like a messenger

My friend Rich and I were talking about how there are two types of messengers now in NYC. Kamikaze hipsters on fixed gears and the slightly older guys you'll see walking a Huffy over the bridges while smoking a cigarette. I love this video (made by Nada Surf for their single "Whose Authority") because it so deftly captures the former, starring the darling older brother in "The Adventures of Pete and Pete" playing a bike messenger. It's a great street view of what it's like to bike in the city, if you don't know it, whipping around businessman, smacking buses, and all. This is how it's done, people.

And I love how the hero rides off into the Williamsburg sunset at the end.

If you're a cyclist, be sure to check out my favorite bike blog for a good chuckle.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

25 Things Every Man Should Know How to Do

I came across this list while I was googling around. It's from Popular Mechanics.

1. Patch a radiator hose
2. Protect your computer
3. Rescue a boater who has capsized
4. Frame a wall
5. Retouch digital photos
6. Back up a trailer
7. Build a campfire
8. Fix a dead outlet
9. Navigate with a map and compass
10. Use a torque wrench
11. Sharpen a knife
12. Perform CPR
13. Fillet a fish
14. Maneuver a car out of a skid
15. Get a car unstuck
16. Back up data
17. Paint a room
18. Mix concrete
19. Clean a bolt-action rifle
20. Change oil and filter
21. Hook up an HDTV
22. Bleed brakes
23. Paddle a canoe
24. Fix a bike flat
25. Extend your wireless network

I'm good with canoes and bikes, but maybe not the others. But then again, I'm not a man.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I read the news today oh boy

When I first came to New York, more than ten years ago, it was a bad time to be a writer, an artist, any sort of creative person. A democrat was in the White House, the economy was booming, and crime hadn’t been so low since 1964. It was difficult to walk down the street without a venture capitalist hitting you with a sack of money. Recent college grads were landing jobs with fat stock options and titles like “Director of Advanced Mixology” and “Imagineer.” You could become a millionaire playing around on the internet in pajamas.

Even I couldn’t help but be touched by the boom. I sent a fake writing sample to some start-up called or something, and got a call a few weeks later: how would you like 200 bucks to write a column? Sure. How would you like to write the lead feature of our launch issue? Sipping champagne on each level of the three-level launch party in a loft downtown, I was drunk on power. Those were different times. Who’d want toil for ten obscure years on some work of staggering genius when you could be an Imagineer, have your own office with a margarita machine? Why would you want to write about suffering when you could get a dollar a word for writing a feature about natural deodorant or slacks made out of organic cotton? We were all a little stunned then, what with being hit by the sacks of money and everything.

Of course, things have changed. Terrorism, blackouts, war, recession. Is it the 1970s again? Maybe. Alls I know is that every day NPR wakes me up with another scary warning about the economy falling apart, and at least I know one thing: I don’t have to worry about somebody luring me away from my dark garret with promises of untold riches and incredible stock options.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Project Friday: O Pioneers!

I was always a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie. Little wonder, then, that I imagined my very first grown-up apartment as a kind of foray into pioneer life in the BK. My mom sent me a sewing machine as a housewarming present, and I pictured myself sewing calico dresses, growing salad greens on the fire escape, and hewing together furniture by hand.

Now, a year later, my sewing acumen extends merely to straight seams and minor repair work. My agricultural operation succumbed to the fate of many small farms: complete collapse—but not before my $50 investment yielded two small side salads’ worth of hand-grown greens. My furniture building, on the other hand, had better results. And with this Project Friday, I present to you the extremely simple Crash Pad, a sort of couch/bed/storage combo.

Apartment Therapy and Ikea Hacker are two superb sites for urban pioneers, and it was the latter that inspired this project. Here’s what you need to build your own.

  • 2 Akurum refrigerator cabinets measuring 36 by 15 by 24‘’ or to your specs (the refrig cabs are ideal because they are short and extra deep, better for making a bench)
  • Sheet of plywood cut into two pieces measuring 24 by 75’’ (Home Depot or Lowes will do this for you)
  • Sheet of high-density foam rubber from a futon shop (a standard size for this is 24 by 75’’, hence the plywood
  • Fabric to cover (or just a sheet or whatever if you’re lazy)
  • Drill (or if you’re really lazy, hammer and nails)

Step 1: Build the cabinets per those weird, all-visual IKEA directions

Step 2: Paint the plywood to desired color

Step 3: Attach the cabinets to the plywood (you’ll make a little gap in the center which is nice for storage) with drill or nails.

Step 3: Cover the foam pad and place on the bench.

Voila! You’ve got a clever storage solution, a bench for your friends to sit on, and a crash pad for overnight guests. My total costs for this were around $200. Possibly you can do better on Craigslist, but that wouldn’t be very pioneer like, would it?

what garfield has to say about about the empty desperation of modern life

All you need to do is take Garfield out of Garfield.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review Thursday: Another Dull and Lurid Year

The other day I was in Posman Books at Grand Central Station, where they always have a really great browsable table of fiction. I started talking to this woman who was holding a copy of Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. She was shopping for her husband’s fiftieth birthday or something. I was psyched that someone was actually that jazzed about fiction. So from so many great choices, I hand-sold her my two favorite books from the last year and a half or so: the Josh Ferris and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.

On Amazon, Emperor’s Children has a couple hundred reviews, and opinion is totally split. I have to say at first it sounded like some kind of hoity-toity bourgeois-fest, a novel of manners, apparently, revolving around a rootless trio of privileged 30something Manhattanites. I had seen Messud speak once at Columbia and it seemed like she wrote super thinky artsy little novels. I was swayed, however, but one of those excellent Slate Audio Book Clubs about it. They called Messud a kind of modern-day Edith Wharton (who happens to be another writer that I feel is severely underrated because she’s female and writes about the subtly of human interaction). Once I got into it, I found Emperor’s Children completely engrossing, a “literary page turner” as some critic said. It was smart and you wanted to keep reading it. That’s not to say that the characters always felt true or that Messud really has an authentic grasp of the environment she’s writing about (I've read a lot of people pointing out how she puts her own British/Canadianism into the mouths of bona fide American characters). But the book did have a lot of power and imagination behind it—and what’s more, it’s one of those books that made me want to write more.

Ferris’s book is so buzz-worthy that you kind of want to hate it—it’s the literary version of “The Office,” it’s written in the third-person plural, it uses the ad world to sort of reflexively comment on Our Times. But once I got past the gimmicks and the jokiness, I found myself thinking about how one of my teachers at Columbia, Richard Locke, spoke about Nabokov. I would always ask Professor Locke how is that Nabokov is so £*$&!*&$ amazing. His answer was that Nabokov was a master of combining pity and delight. And so in the best, most incredible moments of ATWCTTE, you’re totally buzzed on the language, the humor, the inventiveness—delight—and then Ferris will hit you with the revelation of some profound frailty in one of his characters. Those juxtapositions produce a lot of wow moments in the book. I totally agree with a lot of people that this book could have been trimmed like 100 pages, but read it, it’s worth it.

I’m one of the world’s laziest readers, I’m always starting books and then not finishing them, so a book has to do a lot for me to stick with it. These were my wow moments in reading for the last year, but I’m always open to suggestions.

And for all the DeLillo nerds out there (I can’t be the only one), Ferris’s title is the very first sentence of DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana. Neat homage!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Monday, March 17, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

Project Friday: The Best Burger You'll Ever Eat

The secret of the best burger you’ll ever eat? It starts with grass-fed beef and the right cooking equipment. Read on for the burger experience of your life.

Step 1: Assemble ingredients and equipment.

You’ll need:

  • A miniature cast-iron skillet, 6’’
  • A third of a pound of grass-fed beef for each patty
  • A plastic take-out container lid
  • Condiments of choice: mushrooms, onions, pickles, jalapeno peppers, cheese, tomatoes, greens, pickled vegetables.
  • Bread vehicle: Brioche bun (if available), ciabatta, bialy, Thomas’ English muffin.

Step 2: Preparations

  • Take a third pound of beef and shape it into a thin patty on the top of the plastic takeout lid (it will puff up a bit as it cooks).
  • Season patty with salt and pepper.
  • If time allows, let patty or patties rest in fridge for a while
  • Disarm smoke alarm
  • Open windows and strategically place fans

Step 3: Fire it up

  • Preheat skillet on high for a few minutes until it is blazing hot
  • Slap a patty on the skillet, you may reduce heat a little bit if there is a lot of smoke
  • WARNING: not uncommon for grease fires to break out at this point in the cooking. Watch carefully and take necessary precautions.
  • Cook patty about four minutes on each side for medium rare (this is not a science, I figure the small-farm grass-fed beef you can eat practically raw, one good thing to do is to let the burger rest for a few minutes after cooking to let the center cook a little more)
  • While burger is cooking, toast bun, prepare other condiments.
  • Flip burger; it should have some nice charring—if not, raise heat and turn fan to high.
  • Place desired cheese on charred side and allow to melt while other side is cooking.
  • When burger is done, set it on the toasted bun and throw some thin-sliced onions in the pan to fry in the hamburger grease.
  • Top hamburger and enjoy.

Some good burger iterations:

The blue velvet: blue cheese or gorgonzola, watercress, grilled onions

The Senor Caliente: jalapeno peppers, bacon, Swiss, homemade pickled hot onions and carrots

The Monsieur Canard: duck bacon, Gruyere cheese, pickles, red onions.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review Thursday: Michael Clayton

As a film school grad and someone who analyzed hundreds of scripts for Miramax for a couple of years at the beginning of the new millennium, I’m intimately familiar with iron-clad, unfailingly successful screenplay formula ala Syd Field and Robert McKee. After writing enough "reader reports" to stretch to the moon and back, the beats of three-act structure have become another coil in my DNA: you’ve got your inciting incident, a major reversal by page or minute 30, escalating complications through the middle sixty pages, then another all-bets-are-off bang at page 90 and then a resolution.

In practice, what you find are movies that loosely follow this template—they hit the ground running in the first 30 minutes or so, then flag with second act problems, throw in a third act twist that feels contrived, and them limp toward the finish. It’s a structure that’s so well-worn that we take it for granted. At the same time, it’s very exciting to see a film that breaks out of the conventional beats. I felt that way—excited—when I was watching Michael Clayton.

There was something invigorating about the way director Tony Gilroy approached the stuff of story in the film, and I don’t mean starting out with a car bomb and then having the rest of the movie be a flashback leading up to that moment. It’s the scenes themselves with their elliptical quality, their curious inertia that add up to a film with a power that seems to sneak up on you.

The movie drops you into scenes in the middle, which in itself is quite par for the course, quite cinematic. But where I think Michael Clayton departs from the usual model is that it approaches story information sidelong and asks the viewer to put the pieces together. Moving away from the three-act paradigm, it further refuses to explain overmuch, lay out the information the viewer wants to know, and is all the more involving for it. Michael Clayton casts the viewer as voyeur, and you can’t help but feel complicit as the pieces come together.

Writing in the New Yorker, David Denby called it a “screenwriter’s movie” but I have to say I disagree. I suppose that when a movie is talky or intelligent, it’s easy to say: “Oh, I bet the screenwriter had a great time with that,” but from my own experience in the process of development, I think the idea of a “screenwriter’s movie” is as dubious as saying: “that looks like a carpenter’s building.” That is changing somewhat with a level of cult of personality rising around screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman. As wretched as I thought it was, I guess Juno could be considered a “screenwriter’s movie.” At every minute, you’re aware of how “written” the movie is—because all of the contrived cleverness had so little respect for characters or story and was so hell-bent on screaming “look at how adorable I am.”

With Michael Clayton, the notion of whatever was on the page falls away. In my mind, therefore, Michael Clayton is an “auteur’s movie.” I doubt Michael Clayton read as well as it executed. That it comes to life in the spaces around words is a testament to the sometimes subtle contributions of the director. Supported by some powerhouse performance—Pollack, Clooney, Swinton, Wilkinson—Gilroy is manipulating the unsaid unlock totally new levels of depth in the story, which is truly cinematic.

There were definitely things that I disliked about Michael Clayton, important things. I wanted the hows and whys of the car bombing to remain elliptical like the rest of the movie, because when it was explained it turned out to be both conventional and far-fetched. I love Tom Wilkinson and thought his performance was brilliant, but as the moral center of the movie, he was hard to really invest in.

Ultimately, I’m kind of a sucker for corporate conspiracy movies. The Insider, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. They don’t sound sexy on paper, but they are a lens on the world a lot of us live in, showing up to a nondescript office every day, basically unconnected to real life. At their best, they can reveal the moral character of a human being tested in an usually tangible way. In its remarkably spare scenes, I feel like Michael Clayton opened up a truly unique view of those kind of quiet tests.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Go totally B & T

I grew up in the West, home of wide-open spaces, orange groves and concrete jungles. What enchanted me most about New York was its verticality—the way everything was stacked up, layer upon layer, the stories of a family friend who described his relatives making pasta in tiny Little Italy tenements by stretching the dough across starched white sheets. Everywhere you looked—and places where you didn’t—there was so much history.

My first few years in New York, I got to see the city as a member of various film crews, fanning out from Queens to Brighton Beach to the Village, everywhere searching for the perfect location to capture the malaise of a perpetual grad student, an inspiring sunrise, or a scary dark alley. In my mind, I could never stray from the deep canyons of lower Manhattan, where I hoofed it from river to river, hardly ever taking the subway or cab. That is, until I got a film job at the St. Augustine Church on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn.

I’d never been so enchanted before; this landmark block of leafy trees and row houses, towering spires in the distance, and the sound of the church bells filtering down. So when, two or three years, I had an opportunity to move into this totally ramshackle brownsone shared with two other women, three men and a child, just a few doors down from the magnificent St. Augustine with her beautiful spires, I took it as a sign. Except I didn’t, not exactly. For this, I would have to leave the vertical density of the city and accept a different kind of life in Brooklyn.

Certainly, if I had secret hippie proclivities, if I enjoyed strumming a guitar over vegetarian goulash, practicing free love, or not having to shave my legs, it might have come more naturally to me, this quasi-commune thing. It would be easier to explain, at least.

The church bells rang each day, the sound filtering through the house, four floors of hardwood, huge closets, sturdy banisters. Where we might intersect in the shared kitchen, impromptu dinner parties or late-night poker games where we wrapped ourselves in blankets to combat the cold. We’d play host to people passing through, musicians, radical puppeteers, organic farmers. This was a big change for me, the space, the camaraderie, the compromise. But as I adapted to life amongst so many others, I learned to make it work, coming out on the other side, a different sort of person.

Harness the digital video frontier

Found this site that aspires to be "free resource for content creators that will become a user contributed repository of information." It got me to thinking, what's so great about words, anyway?

A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing

The good news is -- you're fired. The bad news is you've got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting tonight. Starting with tonights sit. Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. 'Cause we're adding a little something to this months sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize's a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired. You get the picture? You're laughing now?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Find a more lucrative career

A no-frills guide to doing stand-up.

write poetry

Rockets Red

Where we were when the bomb hit:
Left field bleachers,
Orioles at Yankees,
seventh inning stretch.
Imagine our surprise when
mid-verse into the National Anthem
the sky lit up with poisonous
green, and the automatic organ
with some other occasion in mind
continued its festive trill.

Next day, a helicopter in my neighborhood
hovered low,
dispersing pamphlets, tablets,
useful tips. Of course the sound sent
screaming figures scattering like ants.
You had to get close enough to
get your nourishment from
the beak of the dipped bird.
See that it only said:
U.S. Government Relief.

Last time, lights out
from Toronto to the Midwest,
I walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge
with a regal refugee named Hatshetsup.
She claimed she was a CBS news exec,
but I know an Egyptian queen when I see one.
Time before last,
I slogged through the smoke
downtown, checkpoints and photographs,
listened to music I hadn’t heard for years.
Called friends to hear how they were doing
over and over: did you see? And: can you believe?

End of the world or no,
it’s getting very difficult
to write with all these people running around.
But there’s always a bright side—
tonight, I’ll be the one cracking a beer
offering melting ice cream to neighbors.
Call me a role model in these
uncertain times. Call me
an old hand
because by now I know
better than to look for the stars
when everything goes dark.