October 25, 2011 § 1 Comment
I like to think of myself as a story teller. In my opinion, telling stories is the second oldest profession in the world; way back in time, a caveman had sex, then afterwards he told all his friends about it. Knowing what I do about men and sex and stories, his version of what happened was also probably largely fictitious.
When I’m not paying the bills or trying to look respectable, my real vocation is telling stories to people. It can be through plays (my main focus), or essays, or blogs, or comics. It doesn’t matter. It’s what I do and what I love, and when I’m telling a story I’m at my best and my most content.
The functions of a story or manifold. Entertainment. Also making connections with the world around you. And it’s also about memory. One thing which haunts me is how much I’ve forgotten. How many wonderful moments from childhood have been lost to the cruel effects of time? My first taste of ice cream. My mother comforting me when I was crying. Important lessons my parents taught me. The first time I was entranced by a beautiful face. They’ve all been lost, even if their effects remain part of the programming of my identity.
Sometimes this memory loss, and the inability to connect, happens on a global, historic scale. It was part of my motivation for writing Don Quixote at Tiananmen Square. Thousands of people died, more had their lives ruined. People were shot and maimed in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. And yet, most Chinese citizens under the age of twenty have no recollection this ever happened. Government propaganda has wiped the collective memory clean. Outside of China, The June 4th Incident has been a beacon for human rights violations committed by the Chinese government. Inside China, the event has been wiped clean by a ruling body intent on keeping up appearances.
So I want to keep this story alive. And that terrible tragedy in Tiananmen Square seems to have connected with others, as current events demonstrate. The sacrifice of those people, whose only crime was believing in an ideal, cannot be forgotten. It must be preserved, and the event must find a connection with people today.
Don Quixote was a man so in love with stories that he was carried away by them (yes, I know, literary understatement of the year). He read so many books about heroic knights that he believed he was one of them. Although the facts show that most actual knights were violent teenagers who spent most of their time living on subsistence farming. Of course, Don Quixote’s ideals were out of synch with reality. The events were comic, but ultimately tragic. Still, I think he remains an endearing figure because he was inspired to dream larger than life. Stories gave him a purpose and energy. He’s an example of the power literature can have on an individual, even if in his case the results were misguided.
What would he see, how would he react if he were at Tiananmen Square in 1989? And what could we learn if that happened?
Storytelling can connect people in a way nothing else can. It can connect individuals, groups, ideas. It can keep history alive and preserve their memory. To all the writers and actors and poets and artists, I want to say that I love what you do. You may not have a house in the Hamptons and two kids in Harvard, but you are giving people meaning and enriching lives. You gave me hope and knowledge and a respite from loneliness. You enabled a connection with my family, as when my father read me my first nursery tale; an event which may been forgotten, but which still resonates with me today.
It doesn’t even have to be the next great novel. Just find a loved one, maybe someone you’ve neglected too long, and tell them about your life and what you’ve been up to. Nothing fancy. Share your personal experiences. A life unshared is a life half lived. Don’t give up. Keep at it.
September 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
Writer’s block has an an equally destructive brother. It’s one thing when you can’t think of anything to write. It’s another when you over write something. Take a perfectly good piece, then add and revise till whatever gem of an idea you had is covered and distorted by the inability to let something go. It’s like taking a perfect piece of rib eye steak and seasoning to the point where you can’t taste the meat. Overwriting something can be as destructive as anything else for a writer. There are a few explanations for this. One is insecurity. Myself, or any other writer, doesn’t trust that the piece is good enough as is, and feels the need to pad with more “brilliance,” even when nothing is required. Another, perhaps related, cause is a lack of perspective. The writer can no longer see what is in front of them clearly, and can’t tell that the piece is good because they’ve become so inured to the piece.
For some advice on the matter, I turn to Eddie Van Halen.
To people who dismiss Van Halen as just mindless party rock, I would say that being creative is being creative, no matter what you’re doing. their goals may be to just have a fun time, but they also know what they’re doing. Yes, Van Halen’s music lacks ambition. Perhaps the one facet which keeps Van Halen one notch below the rock greats, such as Led Zeppelin and Queen and the Who, is that Van Halen never tried anything to take the music to the next level. There was no ambitious concept album with multiple movements. No experimentation or fusion of folk music. No epic songs that ran over five minutes. But you can’t ignore the craftsmanship. It’s just dessert, but dessert on the same level as Jack Torres or Bouchon Bakery.
I read an interview with Eddie Van Halen. Aside from talking about playing guitar and why his current lead singer is way better than his previous singer (alternate David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, ignore Gary Cherone if you ever remember him) he actually talked about his creative process. He said there are three basic steps; inspiration, creation and release. I don’t remember if he used the first two words specifically. But I do remember the equivalent meaning, as getting the idea, setting it down on tape and refining what you have. What struck me was the final phase, the release. He said it was an important step, and one that he only recently began to appreciate.
It was odd to hear the California Guitar God talk about the creative process so seriously.
Anyway, what struck me about Eddie’s interview was the idea of release. Letting go of an idea as a means of writing a song. Unfortunately, the interviewer seemed more interested in asking questions about what strings EVH uses and his sspeaker preference than futhering queries about hte mysterious creative process. EVH does emphasize the importance of release. Maybe someday someone will ask him to clarify. His statement also reminded me of an Indian proverb someone once told me, “All creativity comes from forgetting.”
Letting go can be a mysterious but powerful tool. It may explain why I never see a typo in my blog until I’ve published it. Or why I seem to get my best ideas when I’m not at the desk writing. Somtimes, the idea will hit as soon as I get up from the computer to grab a root beer. Why does it happen this way? Who knows.
I do know that I’ve been plugging away for months writing Don Quixote at Tiananmen Square. Unlike other plays, I have a group of people interested in producing this one. I’m actually writing something with a production at the end. So that means a deadline. Which means that I can’t write a few pages, go away, come back days later and pick up where I left off. It’s been a constant writing process.
After finishing the second draft, I did walk away from the piece, very purposefully. I felt as if every time I read it I couldn’t even see it anymore. My brain had just burnt out on writing something that had anything to do with Don Quixote or the Tiananmen Square massacre.
So I spent about a month not writing any plays. I did write, and have done some work for the good people at infinite-ammo.net. Then I got a call from my director, Melissa, asking to have some meetings about the play and where everyone was going. So I picked up the play again . . . more accurately, I looked around the living room and finally found the play . . . and read it. And the interesting thing is, things about hte play became glaringly obvious. A lot of it I liked. But there were some sections where I said to myself, “Why the hell did I do that?” It was like waking up sober after a night of partying and seeing the mattress crammed into the shower. What was I thinking, and what God forsaken moment of inspiration make this seem like a good idea?
Anyway, letting go. Forgetting. Putting some distance away from a piece. Hard work is good and all, but sometimes you have to go out and play. And when you play, there’s nothing better soundtrack than Van Halen.
September 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here’s a movie review . . . sort of . . . that I wrote for Infinite Ammo:
September 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
The transition to autumn brings a palpable yet definite change in the air, a feeling which lies somewhere between the regions of nostalgia and bittersweet. What I notice is the sudden lack of heat and humidity. Plants begin to whither and leaves start to fall, just as old sweaters and light jackets are resurrected from dusty storage bins.
For myself and about 11,000 other people, this fall also marks another transition. September 14th marked my last day as a Borders employee, as the book retail chain shut down for good, the last shelves and fixtures sold off pice by piece to liquidators. It’s still an odd feeling to wake up in the morning (or actually afternoon, I have to catch up on a lot of sleep) and have nowhere to go.
I was called in to work early on Wednesday. The feeling was that there wouldn’t be enough books to stay open till ten. And when I got in that morning, I was shocked by how little was in fact left. About nine-tenths of the shelves were empty and taped off to the public. The last dregs fill up two tables and about five sparse shelves. One or two employees were at the registers, but everyone else just mingled about.
Our general manager had assigned theme days, and in a move that would make Fellini proud, this last day was “Carnival Day.” Brightly colored pigtails and balloons. Cotton candy. I wore a burgundy short sleeve collar shirt (oddly the same color as the company’s logo) with a black and white polka dot tie, in my view kind of like a metrosexual hipster carny. There was even a toy pony. Really, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate ending. The theme resonated on so many levels for the last day of this chain, and as you look further into the layers of meaning it became both more resonant and depressing.
But like every other day I spent there, my coworkers kept it fun. We gathered up the packing tape and made a giant make-shift ball, which we threw and kicked around the empty sales floor. Everyone was on a sugar high from the cotton candy and pixie sticks. Endless photographs were taken.
I received endless texts asking me how I was holding up. I didn’t have time to reply with how sad I was, I was too busy having fun. That’s how it always was. As bad as things got at work, I couldn’t always look to the person working next to me to crack a joke or act like a clown.
The GM made a final speech. Plans were made to meet at a bar. And I clocked out for the last time. And that’s when it hit. You see, there was a security guard named Lionel Holder. An immigrant from Guyana, where he used to be a police officer. Semi-retired, he worked for a while at the front door of our Borders, deterring shop lifters. Which wasn’t hard for him. Even though he was older with grey hair, he was still a massive human being. Big shoulders and a head taller than everyone else, with a deep, booming baritone of a voice. I’ve written about him previously (see phantomasianman.livejournal.com). I would leave for work and end up spending over an hour talking to him. One of the nicest, avuncular guys I knew. Unless you were caught stealing. I’ve seen people break into a sweat when he stopped them for suspected shoplifting. Actually, most of the time when the alarms went off, it was for an innocent reason, and Lionel would ask politely, “excuse me sir, kindly let me deactivate teh alarm for you.” Only he looked so intimidating that people would still freak out.
Lionel passed away a few years ago from a brain hemorage. It was a couple of weeks for everybody, because everybody loved him. People would start crying in the middle of work. Coworkers who hated each other would hug one another. It was a dark time for everyone.
Fast forward to last week. Rosie called me up and asked if I’d left behind a dark blazer. I said not to my recollection. When I got to work on Wednesday, I saw the blazer she talked about.
“Rosie,” I said. “That’s Lionel’s old jacket.”
She looked shock, as years old but poignant memories came back unexpected. “You should keep it,” she said. It’s a few sizes too big for me. When I wear it, I feel like a little kid going through his dad’s closet. But he was my friend, and it seemed like the right thing to do.
So I took it with me after I clocked out. After nine years of working for the same company, I was leaving for good. And I can never duplicate the good, sometimes great, sometimes terrible times I had at Borders. I’ll keep in touch with friends, but that shared experience will be gone. Laughter that comes after a grueling, ego shattering day at work forms a bond that is hard-earned. Being able to relate completely to a roomful of people, who knew exactly what I had just gone through, at any given moment is a wonderful relationship that I took for granted. Now that the job is over, those situations won’t repeat themselves.
And over my shoulder I carried an immense dark jacket, once filled by a great man and now empty. Lionel won’t be coming back. But I could carry out a piece of him, just as I carry a piece of everyone I had the pleasure to work with. I can only hope they feel the same about me.
“Don’t run, man,” Lionel once said to me. I told him I didn’t have time to talk, as I had an appointment right after work. He said, “You have to walk. You run too fast, you miss the good things in life.” It feels like he said that yesterday. He passed away years ago, but it still feels like yesterday when I talked to him. So I walked out of the store, slowly, with dignity. I walked with my head high, looking forward as I soaked in the moment. I walked, proud of my time there, grateful for the people I met. I walked to prove that Lionel was right when he said that. And he still is.
September 7, 2011 § Leave a Comment
You’ve probably seen the trailer or the commercial. An airborne deer gets a flying kick in the face that sends it spinning out of control. This promises the type of left field, over the top action that was so entertaining in the Evil Dead movies and Kung Fu Hustle. The image belongs to the film Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The title, overlong and melodramatic, also promises pulpy b movie enjoyment and silliness. Both however turn out to be red herrings. A “red herring” is a phrase used in mysteries, meaning a false or misleading clue. Because Detective Dee is in fact a mystery.
Basically, the plot involves Detective Dee, who apparently is an actual historical figure, a ranking official of the Tang Dynasty. Years ago he was accused of treason and imprisoned. But after a few people spontaneously explode into flame, the Empress decides to release him in order to solve the mystery of the . . . well, the phantom flame.
I won’t give away much more of the plot. Except to say that everything is plot driven as opposed to action driven.
Because this movie involves Asian people who punch and kick, there are the inevitable comparisons to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, this movie has more in common with Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes, a detective story interrupted occasionally by an action scene. There’s also a lot of Dr Who in the filmic DNA of Detective Dee’s character. Both are kind, compassionate, smart, and observant to the point of near telepathy. And where the Doctor had his sonic screwdriver, Dee has his Dragon Mace.
The Dragon Mace is probably one of the most inventive weapons seen in a movie in some time. There’s a screenwriting phrase called “charging the object,” in which a prop is imbued with emotional meaning and significance, giving it dramatic heft in the story. Indiana Jones’ hat is one example, and the dragon mace is another. It looks innocuous at first, but during the climactic end it becomes one of the most entertaining action props since Odd Job’s decapitating hat. I won’t spoil the fun by describing it in further detail, except to say I’m sure people will be leaving the theater shouting “break!”
In terms of kung fu movies and mystery movies, Detective Dee offers very little that is new. But the fact that it combines both is novel enough, and a lot of fun to watch. There are also a lot of nice touches, especially with the characters. We’re introduced to an overzealous albino detective, a curiously androgynous female companion, and a host of scheming royalty who never seem to be sure which side they’re on.
And yes, there is a fight with a deer. Specifically, about three deer. Three talking deer. It’s a fun scene, and one of the better action scenes in the whole movie. The oddest thing about a kung fu fight against talking woodland animals is that it’s not campy.
Probably the best scenes involve a skyscraper sized statue of a Buddha. Again, I won’t give anything away. But the fact I mention it at all should be a clue that something really cool happens.
A thoughtful, unique action/mystery, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is worth not only a look, but also the inevitable franchise that should follow.
August 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a nice person. So let me say, thank you. I salute you. You truly are one of those people who is making the world a better place, and there should be . . . no, need to be more people like you. I mean that in all sincerity. If you’re a jerk, you probably didn’t get past the title and went on, because you don’t care. And for that reason there is no hope, and no point in writing for you. This is for the nice person. The one who wants to make the world a more pleasant experience for everyone around them. Because they know that nice propagates more nice behavior, making the world better one gesture at a time. Want to make this planet better for your children? Save the rain forest. Recycle. Protect the ozone layer. But also be nice to your fellow human being.
Unfortunately, sometimes good intentions backfire.
I’ve found that every group has its own set of pet peeves. And these peeves are never obvious or apparent to those outside of the group. For example, I’ve learned that people who play water polo hate jokes about swimming horses. Women named “Stella” do not enjoy jokes about bread sticks, “Stella Artois” beer, or Marlon Brando impressions. And people who come from foreign countries hate it when you try to talk back to them in their own accent. The impression is usually terrible, and really, what’s the point?
“I’m from England.”
“Oh, really? Cool. ‘Ello there, guv’na! Wud you like some steak and kidney pie-ee?”
Are they supposed to find that charming and amusing? Imagine the same scenario, with one change.
“Oh, really? Cool. Ching chong. Me take-your laundry and make-a flied lice for you, okay?”
Yes. This is not the way to charm someone.
Oh yeah, while we’re at it, if you meet someone from the state of Kansas, absolutely do not quote that line from The Wizard of Oz. I’m sorry, did you think this is the first time they’ve heard it? Or the first hundredth time? Do you still think they find it funny?
I’ve worked for too long in retail. And honestly, the majority of people I’ve helped have been good, decent people. Granted, there are a lot of horrible people, but that’s not news to anyone. In an attempt to help the nice people, I would like to point out some things which they do which are actually making retail workers sick with frustration. Because you don’t want to get them angry, right? You appreciate their hard work, their low pay, and the fact that they’ve helped you find that perfect sham wow for your apartment. So here are some things that people do to be kind, but which actually backfire hideously.
First, let me set the scene. The average retail worker does not do what they do because they want to. No one I know dreams of being a retail worker. They have do, for a myriad different reasons. In order to keep their jobs, they are given tasks which they themselves despise, and which lead to conflict with customers. By the time you encounter one in their work environment, they have been yelled at, insulted and humiliated, and were forced to respond by saying “what else can I do for you?” or “have a nice day.” So when you meet one, they’re already sensitive and angry. Moreso, they expect to undergo the same debasing experience, and in their mind you could be the next to insult them and say “I hope you lose your job.” Every time they hear the phrase “Do you work here?” it’s an invitation for debasement. Which leads to the first nice gesture that actually drives retail workers insane.
“Do You Work Here?”
No retail worker hates it more than when a customer walks up and just blurts out “Where are the Children’s books?” Or even worse, just “Children’s books?” It’s common courtesy to address someone properly first, with maybe a “hello” or “how are you?” But just like “How are you?” certain phrases have lost their meaning. When someone asks that, they probably don’t want a full story about one’s state of affairs and life. It’s just a greeting. In the retail world, this opening phrase has become “Do you work here?”
Most people know this is a silly question. The retail worker either has a giant-sized name tag, or an ill-fitting polo shirt with the company logo emblazoned onto it. Many even have to wear aprons, perhaps to absorb the blood stains when they finally lose it and kill someone. Everything is done to make it obvious who is there to help people buy products, and thus make money for the company. One of my coworkers even tried an experiment. Whenever someone said “Do you work here?” to her, she replied “No.” The customer blinked, then asked the question anyway. They knew she worked there, yet asked the question anyway.
I myself walked into a store, approached someone in a big colorful uniform, and heard myself saying “Do you work here?” I kicked myself. Hard. I did it mentally, but with vigor.
Why do we ask this when we know the question? I think it’s just the easiest way of addressing someone and indicating that we need help. What we actually mean is, “I know you work here, but I want your attention and want to indicate that I need help.” Over the years, the phrase “Do you work here?” has become an idiom in the shopping experience.
When someone asks this, it drives retail workers insane with frustration, even if they don’t show it. Why is this question so aggravating? It’s not just because the question is pointless and silly. People get pointless and silly questions all the time. It’s because they get that question literally at least a hundred times every day. Let me put it this way. Imagine something you enjoy eating, say a candy bar. Imagine eating one hundred candy bars every day for a week. You’ll probably grow to hate it. Now imagine something you don’t like, such as three day old sushi. And imagine eating that a hundred times every day.
So yes, politely asking if someone “works here” is driving the retail worker nuts. Next time you want their attention, just take a moment, and say something else. “Can you help me?” is a good choice. Or, “Hello, where is . . . .”
This leads directly to . . .
My name is . . .
This is going to seem completely counterintuitive. Every uniform or badge or tag has the worker’s name displayed. This means they want you to know their name, right? Wrong. The company wants you to know their name. So the store can seem more friendly. Regardless, let’s say you walk into a store, and are greeted by an employee. They have a nametag which reads, let’s say “Dan.” And in order to be smooth and friendly, you say, “Hello, Dan.” Given the circumstances, this seems like a nice, personable thing to do.
I can tell you from experience that being called by your first name from a stranger is, in reality, really, really creepy. I don’t care that my name is on the front of my shirt. This isn’t a party or a convention. This is work. You are a stranger. Having someone you don’t know suddenly address you by your first name is very unsettling. In addition, I’ve found most people who do this are in fact actually quite creepy, or at the least unsettlingly eccentric. After using my name once, they tend to use it over and over again. “Hello, Dan. Can you help me, Dan. You’ve been so nice, Dan. Where do you live, Dan?” This has happened. If you work retail, this probably happened to you. And you didn’t like it.
“That means it’s free, right?”
Almost every sane individual loves to laugh. A good laugh can make a horrible day a good one. Laughter, in my opinion, is one of the best guilt-free uppers that exists. When a customer makes a joke or tries to make a retail worker laugh, that’s a good thing. With one exception.
Ask anyone who has been a cashier for even a day, and they can tell you they’ve had this experience. And they hate it. The product is placed in front of the cashier. She or he scans it over the laser barcode reader. The scanner doesn’t read the barcode, so the cashier must scan it again. After a few tries, the products still doesn’t scan. So the customer breaks into a giant grin, and says, “That means it’s free, right?” Pause while the comedian du jour waits for a laugh.
Problem is, the jokes really not that funny. Maybe twenty years ago, when scanners were invented (no, I didn’t check my history, this is just a guess) this produced a chuckle. But not anymore. What’s worse, the one making this joke usually waits for a laugh. So the cashier can either glare in disgust, which is bad customer service, or fake a polite smile. We’ve all faked a laugh at a bad joke. But again, this happens a hundred or so times every day. Want to tick off the cashier? Make that joke. Want to genuinely amuse them? Come up with a new one.
Retail workers are busy. They have dozens of people to help. It is normal for them to have two or more customers waiting for help at the same time. And they know that the longer the customer has to wait, the more impatient they will get, and the more likely to harass and belittle the worker if something goes wrong. Time and speed are essential, if only for preserving self-esteem and more importantly one’s will to live.
So imagine the frustration when someone asks for something. But rather than just saying “Where can I find the bath towels?” they say, “You know, I was in Tuscany on a family trip with my in-laws, when I stayed at this hotel and found the most wonderful bath towels, and upon returning home I tried to . . . . .” Trust me, unless you’re Ruth Reichl or Anthony Bourdain or any other great story-teller, they don’t care. You’re also wasting their time. And increasing the chances that they will be yelled at when they move on to customer #2.
Companies keep thinking of ways to make more money. This often involves asking their employees to push something, like an extra impulse item, or a membership card. To ensure that everything is done properly, employees are usually given a script to recite to get said customer to fork over money for this whatever miracle money-maker that will increase the bottom line.
Customers usually respond with a “yes” or “no.” Some sympathetic people understand that retail workers have to say this, and will probably be reprimanded if they get too many “no” responses. So they try to make the worker, and themselves, feel better by explaining why. “Sorry, I can’t sign up for the rewards card, because I just broke up with my girlfriend and I’m short on cash and I need to . . . “ whatever. Great. I sympathize. There probably is a very good reason to decline. Actually, considering most of the rewards programs and impulse items, there are hundreds of good reasons. We all know that. The cashier doesn’t need to hear the excuse. It doesn’t help their case. They’re not going to repeat the story to their supervisor in the hopes it will get them off the hook because they didn’t get enough people to sign up for the “magazine of the month club.” It just wastes more time, and again, it happens constantly.
A sincere smile and a pleasant “No, thank you” is much more effective when you want to be nice. Trust me, it will be appreciated, and might even make someone’s day better.
“Why are you closing?”
This one is more personal, and hopefully rare, because I work for a company that is going through liquidation. And I get this question a lot. People ask, “Why are you closing?” Now, I know they’re just curious and maybe want to make conversation to make the exchange more personal. but why on earth would someone ask this to someone who is losing their job?
This is just a flat-out painful question. Never mind that the answer would take half an hour. I once told someone “Do a Google search and find out for yourself.” They laughed, but I was pissed. Some even failed to take the hint and say “No, really, why are you closing?” You wouldn’t walk into an E.R and say to a gunshot victim “Why are you dying?” It makes no sense. Maybe it’s genuine concern. Sometimes I think curiosity gets the better of sensitivity. After all, I do work in New york City, where people are almost psychotically self involved.
So, there you have it. Thank you for letting me get this off my chest. And let me just say, if you really want to be a nice person, just don’t try so hard. Sincerely friendly and considerate people are a joy to help. I really mean that. So if you are nice, if you like making others smile and feel good for the sake of doing so, then just be yourself. Want to make the world a better place? You already have.