Monday, December 7, 2015

Gifts from the DVR: A Series on Christmas TV (Episode 1- The Obligatory Introduction)

If you ask me, Shelley Long made her living
playing the same character over and over.
Image found here.
This is the first in a series of articles on the gifts that our TVs offer us for the Christmas season.  The idea for this series came to me last year when I was at my local Pathmark and looked in the DVD bin.  I found a movie called “A Different Kind of Christmas” starring Shelley Long and Barry Botswick from the early 90s.  I guess someone was clamoring for a Christmas movie with Diane from Cheers playing the romantic interest to Brad Majors from “Rocky Horror.”  There’s also a guy pretending to be Santa Claus and Barry Botswick playing Donkey Kong Country on an SNES.  It really doesn’t matter.  The point is that for every Charlie Brown Christmas, there are a multitude of movies with titles like “A Prince for Christmas,” “Dear Santa,” and “The Christmas Shoes.”  And eventually, they all end up in the discount bin at your local supermarket.

Here is ION's Holiday Movie List!
You're welcome.
The most egregious perpetrators of this crime against the eyes and minds of people are The Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, and ION Television.  It seems like these movies are being churned out and distributed like Old Navy clothes coming from Indonesia: cheaply and without much thought to the consequences.  I don’t mean to single out these three channels as if they are the only ones feeding us this cotton candy cornucopia of schmaltz.  It just so happens they are the most prominent.  They exude in their ability to make these movies, in fact.  You might be binge watching a 12 hour marathon of SVU in early November (yeah, kicking the habit isn’t that easy), and you’ll easily catch seven or eight promos for their holiday spate of movies.  They just stick in your head like candy canes melting to the side of your hot cocoa mug.  

Christmas Movies for Women?Right here.

The disturbing thing is that, like porn or an episode of Jersey Shore, these movies all have similar tropes.  They have elements that can be switched out, reordered, and remixed.  You know that you’ll get a bar fight, a few dumb lines, and Snooki making a dumb comment on any episode of Jersey Shore.  The Walking Dead is another show that has a similar aesthetic (remember that episode when the humans did something so vile, we question whether they’re any better than the walkers?  Yeah, I went there).  In a modern Christmas movie, we’re told Big City People Don’t Celebrate Christmas like Small Town Folk do.  Someone is always engaged to the wrong person in the beginning of the movie, but by the end, the engagement is broken for the One True Love.  We get a life story in an exposition dump that takes place 10 seconds after the opening credits are over.  And all throughout, we get this white-washed, air-brushed, very bland form of Christianity that is subtle.  It’s not like a sledgehammer.  It’s more like a blackjack to the back of the head in delivering its message of family values and the reason for the season.

When you care enough to watch the very bland.
Hallmark Christmas Movies.

These are some of the issues I’ll be exploring in this series.  And while it’s fun to kick these types of movies like the cynical fiend that I am, I am not trying to be cynical nor fiendish.  I think the public gets the entertainment it asks for.  After all, TV programs and movies are as much a product of our capitalist system as Coke and McDonald’s.  I also think that writing, the basis for all these media, is a reflection of our innermost selves.  Christmas is a time of reflection.  It comes at the end of the year.  We’re reminded of Christmases past often, listening to the same songs, watching the same specials.  This time of year puts our ideal selves face to face with what we actually are, so our entertainment is probably some kind of reflection of that.  These movies are fun to laugh at, but we might learn from them as well. 
Let’s face it.  We’re all suckers at this time of year.  Laughing at these movies is like laughing at ourselves.  I think now more than ever, we need that kind of comedy in our lives.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

My Writing May Be A Special Victim If I Keep These Habits Up

“You are what you eat,” the old saying goes.  You are also what you take in, not just in terms of food, but in terms of information as well.  Nutrition, after all, builds up the body, but information builds up the mind.  If that is the case, my mind is built up of murder mysteries and rape trauma as seen on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU).  I am scared to think what this means for my mental state.

The term “binge watching” is relatively new, but the act of binge watching has been around for the last ten years or so.  Releasing TV episodes on DVD or Netflix makes this easy, but what makes it even easier still are syndication packages sold to basic cable and broadcast TV stations.  Without even using Google, I can tell you from memory that Law and Order’s parent show currently can be seen on WE as well as TNT, and SVU can be seen on USA, sometimes run several times a day back to back, and My9 (WOR in New York) and TV 10/55 (WLNY also in New York), usually once a day.  And of course don’t forget new episodes of SVU on NBC once a week.

They make a cute couple.
Image found here.
Time it right and you can catch an episode from any season of L&O or L&O:SVU that you want.  Don’t like Chris Meloni’s Elliot Stabler’s character?  Newer episodes are usually on weeknights on USA.  If you pay attention to the current schedule, you can time it right and watch Mike Logan and Lenny Briscoe take down murderers.  The real challenge is catching the one season that had Paul Sorvino.  Depending on the channel, those episodes probably run in one afternoon.

Except to look up the spelling of Paul Sorvino’s name, I did not use Google once to look up any of the information in the previous two paragraphs, and I’m pretty sure I’m right about most of what I just wrote.  And when I say I’m sure, I mean I’m more sure of these facts than I am of who was President at the time of the dropping of the first atomic bomb (Harry S. Truman, right?).  I find that disturbing, and a little sad.

I've had the time of my life. . . watching these two.
Image found here.

A few nights ago, my girlfriend and I were talking about The Love Boat, a show that ran for nine years and was basically an anthology show with a cruise ship as its framing device, with some elements of a variety show mixed in.  After all, if Robert Goulet was on, there was a distinct possibility that he’d sing a song.  I wondered why a show like that had a viewership.  It’s not a bad idea for a show, mind you.  But nine years?

My girlfriend then said something that I found interesting.  She said, “If you ask my mom, she’d tell you that nothing else was on.  In fact, if you asked her about any TV show back then, she’d say they watched because nothing else was on.”  This opened my eyes as I realized that here, in the 21st century, there’s plenty on.  I can look at the night stand by my bed and see a stack of DVDs with movies I love and movies I haven’t seen, but have picked up from either the library or from the bargain bin at Pathmark.  These are the more low tech options as I don’t have Netflix or any other streaming services, I don’t use On Demand, and there are usually a lot of options on other channels.  The furthest afield I’d go from Law and Order would be to Criminal Minds or CSI.

So why?  What is going on with me?  And why am I worried about something that seems pretty trivial?  Well, again, we go back to the premise that you are what you take in.   It’s not so much the murder or rape or violence that bothers me.  After all, some of my favorite movies are blood feasts for the eyes, like Pulp Fiction.  It’s the fact that I’m watching the same stuff, over and over and over again.  A similar thing happened in my early 30s when I realized that my taste in popular music pretty much stops at 1994.  It bothered me, but these viewing habits are setting off alarm bells in my head.

Why am I on a loop?  Well, the first reason is obvious.  It’s comforting.  The franchise of SVU, for instance, is pretty predictable.  You know there will be at least one red herring.  You can set your watch to it as it usually comes into play a few minutes before the first commercial break.  Just as you were guaranteed at least two car chases on CHiPs, you know that Elliot Stabler would lose his shit some time around the 30 minute mark (I’m going by the assumption that commercial breaks add to the running time of the show).  I can watch about five minutes of many of the episodes and could summarize the plot.  It’s good background noise when I’m folding laundry.  I guess I could watch an episode on autopilot.

That is one of the alarm bells right there.  How much of our daily existence runs on autopilot already?  I’d be ashamed to talk to Thoreau if he were alive today, because he might say I’m sleeping my way through life.  I doubt I could argue with the guy since I’m barely writing or posting due to my need to watch something “ripped from the headlines.”  God, even that tagline is so dated.

I can also connect different episodes to different moments of the past 15 years or so.  Olivia and Stabler are wearing black bands around their badges?  Must be an episode from some time around 2001.  This is especially true if somehow a rape case they’re working somehow leads to a terror plot.  Hell, I remember an episode when a child kidnapper somehow got his hands on stolen anthrax because he escaped from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in a van from a lab that housed the stuff.  That’s as Bush era of a plot as you can get.

Even on a personal level, if I watch an episode, I can tell what time in my life it aired.  If Captain Cragen is helping a kid deal with his abusive stepmother by bonding with him over a video game, I know that was when my parents still owned their restaurant and I watched that episode on a Friday night after work.  And Richard Belzer is one of my favorite actors playing one of my favorite TV characters, Detective John Munch, who came from Homicide: Life On The Street, which takes place in Baltimore; I spent my early college years in College Park, Maryland and still miss the place to this day.  So apparently, Dick Wolf has discovered the secret, comforting recipe from McDonald’s fries and translated it into TV format.

As a writer who uses his mind as the building blocks to my work, what does this mean?  I could make a career of writing the same thing over and over again.  Mickey Spillane and Erle Stanley Gardner did that.  I do enjoy writing crime fiction, but I’m not very good at building mysteries.  I take the approach of writing interesting characters dealing with crimes, the way Monk and Shawn Spencer had to solve crimes that were secondary to the shenanigans of the week.  I just feel like I’m in a rut.  I mean, it’s March and I’m just now posting a second blog post this year.  Stephen King once warned against sucking on the glass teat, and unfortunately, my lips are regularly wrapped around Stephanie March’s or Diane Neal’s, again depending on the season.

We wrap ourselves into these cocoons of comfort and warmth, and we pay the price.  Dick Wolf has built a Warren of Intellectual Snares that Cowslip from Watership Down would be at home in.  No thinking, no questioning, and even though the intellectual nourishment from shows in the Law and Order franchise are probably not the flayrah spoken of in the book, it’s easy to feel your brain grow corpulent and lackadaisical under that kind of input.  Just like McDonald’s fries.

Blast from Dick Wolf's past or SVU of the Future?
Image found here.
The one bit of good news in all this is that I recently joined a gym so my lazy ass could get some exercise and so I could get away from the perniciousness of Dick Wolf’s police stories (as a side note, I wonder what Mann and Machine would have looked like if it had ran for 20-plus years).  My mind probably needs the same stimulation.  I am reading poetry now from some old literary magazines I held on to from the 90s.  I’m also reading How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, a very good book but hard to sit down and read when there are so many distractions around.  This year, I want to live a writer’s life.  I just have to stop my diet of Wolf fries and Ice-T.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Five New Year's Resolutions for Writers (with Pictures)

I haven't written a blog post in a long time.  I think the last time I wrote, Robin Williams had just passed away and people were doing the ASL Ice Bucket Challenge.  I actually did the challenge, but by the time I had decided to post the video, the Ice Bucket Challenge was already just a blip in the history of the Internet.

As a side note, I did the challenge and donated the money.  I think I should just put that out there.

Many things happened to me that kept me from keeping the writing schedule that I wanted to keep this year.  I'd like to think I had some legitimate setbacks.  Some dealt with family and job issues.  Some dealt with issues I have with anxiety.  Driving has become problematic.  In fact, if I had written more, I may have been better able to deal with my anxiety.

Or it just might be that everyone has a breaking point and I have had mine.

The good news is that I'm dealing.  Thanksgiving and Christmas were great opportunities to reconnect with many people I had lost touch with.  I still feel disconnected from my writing self, however.  I teach others to write, and I love my job, but I feel like a hypocrite if I tell others how to write and don't write on a regular basis myself.

Therefore, I have come up with five New Year's Resolutions for myself to get me back into writing on a regular basis.  Five is a nice number; you can count these resolutions on one hand.  They come from advice I have been given, and that I have given to others as well.

Why this picture?  It's a cute girl reading. Why not?
Picture found here.

  1. If you want to be a good writer, write a lot and read a lot.  This came from Stephen King's book, On Writing, and it is advice I pass on freely when I tutor others.  King says to be good at writing, you have to write about eight hours a day.  I wish I could, but I usually tell students ten minutes a day with a small notebook works.  I can say that I do a lot of writing in my journal.  I don't invest a lot of money in fancy journal books.  I can go to the dollar store and buy a marble notebook and I'm set.  I do need to improve my reading habits though.  I just realized I've barely moved in the books I've been trying to read since September.  I have to admit, I need to make more time for reading and writing because writing gives me practice, and reading gives me fundamentals like structure and vocabulary.  This leads me to my next resolution.
The best character on Glee.  You know she'll keep your ass in line.
Image found here.
  2. Keep a regular writing schedule.  Now, I don't know how true the following story is.  I just remember hearing it from my therapist, who had read it in a newspaper article.  Apparently, John Cheever would wake up every morning at the same time, put on his suit, go downstairs into his home office, take the suit off, and work on his stories all day in his underwear.  When finished, he'd put his suit back on and "go home," as it were.  Again, how true that is, I don't know, but I did read this article about weird habits of writers which confirmed half the story.  I did try this (having a writing schedule; the underwear part I only did in the afternoons, not all day) and it was easy in July and August when I didn't have work.  But my work schedule made this extremely difficult when I went back to teaching in September.  Three classes and close to 30 hours of tutoring, not including other obligations, made writing difficult.  I did carry my notebook, which helped, but when I had a regular schedule, I felt a lot more in control.  So I guess it's all about balance, right?

3. Balance your writing with the other areas of your life, but stay focused on your priorities.  I have come to the conclusion that my writing, if it will ever generate a sizable income, is a long term project and that right now, my teaching pays the bills.  I have also become somewhat of a hermit lately.  Balance is definitely something I have to work on.  However, I know my writing has to be a more significant priority in my life.  Last November, I started work on a novel about a wizard criminal that has been cursed by other wizard criminals and now has no powers.  Think Quentin Tarantino meets J.K. Rowling.  I started the novel for NaNoWriMo, but didn't finish the first draft.  I'm kicking myself now because my excessive teaching schedule kept me from finishing a first draft that I know, under normal circumstances, I would have finished easily as the story is in my head and just needs to get plopped down on the paper.  Now that I have a month off from work, I could have easily edited my novel and been that much closer to publishing it.  Instead, I have to finish the draft.  I also love writing this story.  If you go back and look at my Twitter feed or my Facebook wall in November, you can see I had a good time coming up with scenes and characters.  Writing is my passion and fuels the other good things I do, including and especially teaching others to write.  I guess this is good advice in general, whether you're a writer or not, but for the solitary profession of writing, it is especially important to know its place in your life, whether as a hobby or as a profession.

4. Be your own cheerleader.  

Gratuitous?  Not as much as other pictures I found on the Internet.
But it gets the point across.
Found here.
I like people who toot their own horns.  I like guys who work hard on reviewing comic books or movies or exploitation and porn films on the Internet.  Why?  Because these guys had a dream that started out as a need to discuss fiction in different media and now, they're promoting their work.  It's hard because they are on their own.  They probably have naysayers out there.  As an artist, it's part of the job.  I respect guys like Eric Rodrigez, Brad Jones, and Louis Lovhaug because they put out a lot of work and promote themselves.  After all, no one will do it for them.  So as a writer, you have to believe in your own work.  If you're writing on a regular basis and enjoying it, you're on the right path.  I know this is one area where I need improvement.  I do want to make a living from my writing some day.  I need to put work out there.  I also need to believe in my work.  If you have the same dream, you have to be that way, too.

5. Hang out with awesome people.  While you might have to believe in yourself, it helps to also have people around you who believe in you, too.  As I said previously, circumstances and my own issues made me into a curmudgeonly hermit.  Without social contact, getting in touch with the creativity within becomes difficult.  

She seems like an awesome person, right?
Kat Williams said that if you have haters, you must be doing something right.  I agree.  I also know, however, that man cannot be fueled by hate alone.  Sometimes, it's nice to be loved.  That love can help foster your own inner voice and give it expression in your work.

Now, if you noticed that these five resolutions work together, you're catching on.  After all, priorities help you balance work life and social life.  An inner sense of love for yourself and your writing radiates and attracts others to you, in turn helping fuel you.  Also, success breeds success, so the more you write, the better you feel about your writing and the more you want to write.

I'm not saying any of this is easy.  In fact, the first step is deciding to do all this and then following through.  The follow-through is where many people get tripped up.  I say cut yourself some slack.  Don't punish yourself for letting your writing talent fall fallow.  Instead, reward yourself for writing anything, the way I plan on rewarding myself for writing a blog post, something I haven't done in months, by drinking the last beer in the house.

I'm hoping in the coming months to write about my driving anxiety and how I'm dealing with it, book and movie reviews, and tips on writing.  I think that in order to teach writing, you have to first be a writer.  My hope is that this blog will show off how awesome I can be while also being a practical repository of advice for other writers.

If you feel I've left off something from this list, let me know.  You can also follow me on Twitter @Mike_Pimp12.  If you're local and need help with your writing, I'm available and reasonable.  Read into that what you will.

Have a Happy New Year, and I look forward to writing for you in 2015.