Stuff I Dig: The Movies Edition

The “Stuff I Dig” will be a casual series of lists that I’ll post over time. I’m not into the idea of presenting a top 5 or 10 list of the things that you absolutely must do/see/experience/read/use. I just want to give you lists of things that I dig, and maybe prompt you to think about the same in your world.

I’m not interested in providing movie critiques, nor am I interested in hearing them. I’m not really into listening to a critic wax poetic about the film making process and how a particular director/writer/actor/cinematographer/key grip approaches the craft. It’s a movie, folks. I go to the theater for entertainment, not a lecture or study on how the color palette denotes the emotional fragility of the minor character, dog, or chair in the background of a shot. Therefore, I tend to avoid movie critics because I like to go in to a movie free from any preconceived notion of what it is or isn’t. It’s all subjective anyway. Sure, I liked “The Godfather”, but I also liked Brendan Fraser’s “George of the Jungle”. You like what you like, I’ll like what I like, and maybe we can find some common, non-judgmental ground.

So, in no particular order, here are ten movies that I have enjoyed over the years that you might dig as well if you give them a chance.

  1. Alien – This is my favorite Ridley Scott movie. Sure, “Gladiator” had more balls to wall action, but “Alien” struck my horror bone and has always been a favorite.
  2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – I’m not overly concerned with how historically accurate or inaccurate the story may be. I’m simply forever impressed with Redford and Newman as a duo. The only thing that could make this movie better is to take out the Burt Bacharach “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” bike riding scene.
  3. The Princess Bride – Another William Goldman story that, despite being different from the book, is so well done that it doesn’t matter. I love both equally.
  4. Fight Club – I’m not allowed to talk about it.
  5. Time Bandits – I haven’t liked all of Terry Gilliam’s movies, but this one has so much humor and adventure that it’s irresistible. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. David Warner is so good at playing the villain.
  6. His Girl Friday – a great love story that is a bit twisty and absolutely hilarious.
  7. The Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy – okay, so this is technically cheating, but I have to include Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End on this list. They’re all good fun and worth a watch. Come on: zombies, nuns with guns, and aliens? Spectacular.
  8. The Breakfast Club – this one is like a favorite pillow or the mug you always use for hot chocolate – it just feels right and works every time. Now go fix me a turkey pot pie.
  9. The Planet of the Apes – I like the new Apes movies quite a bit, but the original movies hold a special place in my heart. The 70’s were all about Apes for me. Movies, TV show, cartoon, coloring books, and even action figures. It was my Star Wars before Star Wars.
  10. Galaxy Quest – this one is great because it takes the piss out of fandom while giving fans the best fantasy of all. It’s like being at the concert when the bass player falls off stage and they ask you to come up on stage to take over.

So, there it is, the second in the Things I Dig series. It was difficult to get down to this list of ten based upon the movies that I have loved over the years. Here’s a quick list of honorable mentions: “Hello, My Name is Doris” (I still have a crush on Sally Field), “Dan in Real Life”, “Children of Men”, “The Fisher King”, “Awakenings”, “The Illusionist”, “The King and I” (that’s right, I said it), and “Arsenic and Old Lace”.

Excuse Me, You’re in Your Way

 

There are a lot of things that can motivate a person to write. Or paint. Or sculpt. Or whatever. Some people are drawn to their art at an early age, writing stories on an old typewriter that is still in the house, or taking photographs with dad’s old film camera. Others might come to it later in life, realizing that they don’t want to live without having even tried to make some art, to express themselves in one way or another.

And some get stuck somewhere in the middle. Perhaps they’ve had a lifelong desire to make art and think about it often. Perhaps they’ve gathered various tools that would be necessary to create that art. But for some reason, they don’t actually do it. They buy the canvases, the easel, the paints, hell, even a fancy smock with pockets, but they just sit in a corner gathering dust.

Perhaps they have, at some point, created some art. Good, bad, or indifferent – it doesn’t matter. It’s all subjective anyway, so who cares what anyone else really thinks. But then they don’t go on to do more. They don’t get another ream of paper, or another roll of film. They stop themselves short.

Why? I could give you plenty of reasons that fit into any number of categories, but for most folks, it comes down to fear. Being afraid that no one will like it (there will be people who won’t). Afraid that people will judge you for what you have created (there will be people who will). Afraid that no matter how hard you try, you’re just pretending. You’re a fraud. An impostor.

Well, yeah. When we start, we’re all impostors. We all pretend. We all do something derivative of what we like. We imitate the writers or painters we like because we want people to think of us like we think of them. But as your portfolio of work grows, so does your own sense of voice – you become less like what inspires you and more like yourself. It takes time and your mileage may vary. You discover your voice as you go along – it’s not an overnight thing. Can you find your voice during a month-long writing challenge? Sure. Can it take year after year of struggle? You bet.

The point is, though, you have to keep moving. If it’s the thing you want to do – if it’s who you are – then dammit, you move forward. You surround yourself, as much as you can, with the people and things that influence your art. You join the tribe and remain on the outskirts of it until the day that you create something of your own.

I was lucky enough to find my tribe when I was a kid. And I was even luckier to have finally gotten deeper into the tribe just a few years ago. I took the steps to realize that there are really aren’t any valid excuses for not creating the thing I want to create. I’m no longer an impostor. Am I 100% there? Nope. But I’m learning how to step aside from my fears and let myself create, and that’s good enough for now.

Stuff I Dig: The Books Edition

I thought I would start a series of posts about things I like. No – stuff I dig. Yeah, groovy, man. There are a lot of lists out there in the world, and I suppose I should do my part to contribute to the conversation. Making lists is how I make a living, after all. 

“Stuff I Dig” will be a casual series of lists that I’ll post over time. I’m not into the idea of presenting a top 5 or 10 list of the things that you absolutely must do/see/experience/read/use. Everyone’s mileage varies and I don’t want to deal in absolutes. I just want to give you lists of things that I dig, and maybe prompt you to think about the same in your world.

So, let’s start with some books, eh? Here are five books that have had an impact in my life:

  1. “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley. I don’t recall how old I was when I first read “Frankenstein”, but I know that I had seen a few movies by that, or similar, name before getting the book in my hands. Writing in the epistolary form is quite challenging and I think Shelley nailed it. I’m not really a book collector, but I will admit that I have three different editions of “Frankenstein” sitting on the shelf. My favorite is an annotated version that is extensively marked up in pencil and ink from the days when I studied the book in college.
  2. “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James. This is one of the best ghost stories I’ve ever read. Of course, I’m telling you it’s a ghost story, because I think it is. You could read it and come away with another conclusion (maybe the governess was insane). I don’t think James ever meant for the reader to really know. So if you’re into the whole “I’m not really sure how that ended” kind of thing, this book is for you.
  3. “The Shining” by Stephen King. Like the majority of books on this meager list, “The Shining” has been analyzed to death. I’m not here to do that. I just think this books rocks. It was the first book I read that gave me nightmares. I had fallen asleep on a chair during a hot summer day, sitting in front of a box fan while reading my copy of the book. It was the bright yellow, movie poster tie-in edition with the creepy, warped face of Danny. My father came up behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder. I don’t think he knew that I was asleep and that I was having a rather disturbing dream inspired by what I had been reading that day. Three things happened: 1)  my legs kicked out and knocked over the box fan; 2) I fell out of the chair; and 3) I tossed the book in the air, knocking dear old dad in the nose. Yeah, it’s a good book.
  4. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon. I came across this book after my wife had finished reading it for a book club. There was a time in my life, albeit brief, that I very seriously considered a career in mental health, and I am very often attracted to stories that involve people with a disability (real or perceived). “Incident” manages to tell a story full of mystery and adventure through the eyes and words of a teenage boy on the autism spectrum. It took me a few pages to settle into the rhythm of the language, but once I did, I was hooked.
  5. “On Writing” by Stephen King. This is certainly among the most influential books on the topic of writing to come out in years. I have a few others I can recommend (just ask), but I always put this one at the top of that pile. If you can, get a copy of the audio book. Hearing King read it makes it even better.

So, there it is, the first in the Things I Dig series. It was really difficult to get down to this list of five considering all of the books that I have loved over the years. Here’s a quick list of honorable mentions and runner’s up: “Elmer Gantry” by Sinclair Lewis, “Ghost Story” by Peter Straub, “The Great and Secret Show” by Clive Barker, “The Shock of the Fall” by Nathan Filer, and “A is for Angelica” by Iain Broome.

Hey, You Should Do This

The fall of 1988 was an interesting time. Movies like “They Live” and “The Accused” (yep, my taste is widely varied) were bringing in some major box office, and for some reason, people really seemed to like Bobby McFerrin (not my taste).

I was working a temp job at a collection agency. “Hello, <sir/miss>, I’m calling from <hospital name> to talk to you today about how we can help you with your outstanding healthcare balance.” The work was not easy or fun, and the customers that we were dealing with (the hospitals, not the patients) made it practically impossible. After I completed my three days of training, I was assigned a desk, a phone, and a stack of files with names and phone numbers. As it happened, my desk was next to that of another young man who, like me, was wildly uncomfortable with the work that our temp agency had arranged.

Over the course of a few weeks, Chris and I got to know each other and discovered a shared love of comedy. I told him about how I had memorized every comedy album that I ever had. I figured that sounded pretty weird. He said not to worry about it because he had done the same. I told him that my mother was a fan of comedy, too, and that she had started taking me to comedy clubs when I was thirteen. We went often that the doormen and managers recognized me and some even called me by name. They didn’t mind letting me in as long as my mom didn’t have a problem with me hearing some strong language or being around people who were eager to exceed the ‘two-drink minimum’ rule that the club had. Considering my mother had very few boundaries, this wasn’t a concern at all.

One Thursday at the office, Chris told me that he had recently joined an improv group that performed regularly at a local comedy club. “You’re funny,” he said. “You should try it.” He told me that the group wasn’t looking for any new members, but that the club’s open mic night show for stand-up comics happened right before the group performances. “Write up five minutes of jokes, come to the workshop at the club on Saturday and if the other comics think you’re ready, you’ll get to go up on Monday night.”

Okay, so I was a fan of comedy, not a writer of it. I had a fair sense of timing, but it was all about being funny in a conversation, not on a stage. The idea of actually writing up a set of jokes and then performing it was well outside my comfort zone. Sure, I did some stand-up in a high school talent show, but I basically performed three short bits, two of which were Steve Martin’s and one of which was Gallagher’s. I wasn’t sure if I could take the plunge.

By the end of the work day, Chris had convinced me that I could do it, and had even given me a couple of writing tips. He also assured me that the other local comics were always happy to see new faces at the workshops.

And so I did it. I spent as much time as I could writing furiously between then and the Saturday morning workshop. I got the green light from everyone to go ahead and get up on stage the following Monday and in the before I knew it I was walking off the stage after having performed my five-minute set. I didn’t kill that night, but I didn’t bomb either.

Chris had been in the back of the club, watching the open mic show. He had also kept an eye on the micro-cassette recorder that I had brought along to record myself. A lot of comics did that so they could review their performances. As I listened to the tape, I wasn’t sure if I would ever actually do it again. I had done a passable job, but how would I write new stuff? What would I do if I bombed? What if the other comics ended up hating me? But something happened at the end of my set. There was applause from the audience as I left the stage and the MC came back up the introduce the next comic in line, and then the sound of the recorder being picked up. It was Chris, who had to speak loudly into the mic over the applause. He said, “That was really good, man. Do it again.”

That was a watershed moment for me. It changed my life in more ways than I can ever fully describe. I ended up opening for that improv group more than any other local comic – they liked me. Over time, I performed for as many as three hundred people in large clubs and halls, and to as few as four people in a hotel bar. I expanded that original five minutes to thirty. I had people tell me I was great and had people threaten to kick my ass because I offended them. I killed. I bombed. It was all great.

I expanded my otherwise socially awkward horizons and met a lot of really, really funny people. We were all striving for something – finding ourselves, expressing our pain, getting on the Ha! channel. We were all damaged people, some more than others. That sad clown thing? Yeah, it’s generally true. We were all unsure of ourselves and struggled every week with the idea that this comedy thing was never going to work out. We supported each other, leaned on each other – especially when someone did drop out of the game because it was too much to handle or life (drink, drugs, relationships) got in the way. Out of the ten or so of us that I started with, I only know of one that is still performing comedy to this day. Everyone else dropped out somewhere along the line. I was lucky enough to make it five years before I walked off the stage for the last time.

Here’s the thing, though: we all had at least one person who had told us that we could do it in the first place. We all had someone who told us in some way that they saw or heard something that showed we had a spark. That we needed to strike hard and fast so we could catch fire and hope to make it last a while.

And so it is with writing fiction, non-fiction, blogs, cookbooks, or whatever floats your boogie board. We all have someone who has read our work and said, “You should do this.” And if you’re lucky, you will succeed, you will fail, you will get up, brush the dust off, and start over. You will stretch yourself in unexpected ways, make new friends, be supported and be supportive. The writing community of today is not unlike the stand-up comedy community in the late 80’s. There’s a lot of mentoring that you can receive and give, regardless of where you are in your journey.

So, if you’ve written anything, and I mean anything, that you took a chance on and put out in the world, I have three words for you:

Do it again.

 

Thanks, Ray

Books. I love ‘em. I would love to have a massive ‘Downton Abbey’ style library in my home if I could. The highest number of books I think I have ever owned at one time was around fifty – far short of my massive goals. Now, I have owned far more books over time, to be sure. I have just rarely decided to keep a book longer than a year or two before I take it to a used book store to unload it and find some new goodies.  

I have about twenty printed books on the shelves now and close to one hundred on my Kindle. Yep, I like e-books. Don’t get me wrong, though. Even the best e-book experience cannot replace the sensation of a printed volume. No e-book will ever be able to adequately accommodate my annotations (I can do it, by the way, it’s just a real pain in the ass). No e-book will ever have that used book smell. You know that smell. Outside of a hot, fresh pizza or a freshly bathed and lotioned baby, there is no greater smell.

There’s one book in particular that is not on my Kindle, and likely never will be – the printed copy is so precious to me. It’s Ray Bradbury’s “The Vintage Bradbury”. It was a ‘best of’, published in 1965 by Vintage Books and included 26 stories. This book sits on a shelf in my home office, in eye-shot from my desk where I often write. Of all the books I own, this is the oldest. In fact, it was the first book I ever bought with my own money. It has moved with me ever since – stashed in a box or a bag as I made my way across the country until settling down back where I started. 

My father and I would often take a bus into downtown Columbus to find a place for lunch or a store to browse. One hot summer day we came across a huge used book store on High Street, a little south of the Lazarus department store. We spent what seemed like hours exploring the store. The store that lives in my memory, with bare fluorescent lighting and row after row of bins and shelves filled with all manner of books and magazines, is certainly larger than it actually was. There’s no way for me to tell, since it is no longer standing. But that’s okay. That’s not important.  

What is important is that I had discovered something new (to me, anyway). I was staring at bins filled with fantastic worlds, far away places, and characters who lived great adventures or struggled through great tragedies. I was surrounded by the perfume of old books, made better by fanning the pages of an open book, releasing what I can only equate to a pheromone. Of course, I know now that it’s a result of a complex chemical breakdown that can result in floral scents that hint at almond and vanilla. Hell, you can even buy scented candles that try to capture that kind of magic. But nothing can recreate the magic that I experienced in that store on that day.

I was nine years old. I had just been given two dollars in allowance. I was with my dad and he had given me free reign to pick whatever I wanted. I held the book tightly in the paper sack, desperately trying my patience, as we rode the bus back home. And when we got there, we sat together on the couch, diving headlong into the worlds contained within pages, reading the stories out loud. Just me, dad, and Ray.