Chez Shaffner

Friday, October 27, 2006

How Awesome Is This?

A real scene from my life, repeated about two dozen times:
SERVER: “Can I get you something to drink?”
ME: (Resisting the urge to correct his usage of “can”...) “Coke, please.”
SERVER: “Pepsi okay?”
ME: (Scowling, hissing through clenched teeth.) “No, I’ll be fine with water.”
SERVER: (Walks away shaking his head.)

So imagine my glee at finding this link today: Deep-Fried Coke.

Those of you who also read The Thrilling Travels of Normal Guy and Girl know that I finally experienced the deep-fried Twinkie last week in Ohio. I wish now that I’d tried the deep-fried Snickers, too, and I won’t let the opportunity pass again. But given my deep love for Coca-Cola, I’m thinking I might have to plan a special trip South for the sole purpose of giving deep-fried Coke a shot... I continue to be amazed by human ingenuity. :)

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Bacon Martinis and Other Random Musings

From the week of radio silence on this blog, you’d think I haven’t been doing much the last few days. Or, that I’m slacking on my job. Isn’t updating this one of my daily tasks? Why yes, it is, and Outlook has been squawking at me every couple of hours to make sure I don’t forget my blogging obligations...

I'm writing this blog from a tiny motel room one hundred meters off I-95 in Newark. No, not the Newark in New Jersey… but “imagine being magically whisked away to...Delaware.” The last few days have brought some activity over at The Thrilling Travels of Normal Guy and Girl. Several more installments on Pumpkin Show 2006 will be on their way soon.

Here’s something I found this afternoon: a disgusting new trend of meat-based cocktails. In college I once joked about pouring hot lard into a glass of vodka, and now someone in Vegas decided to go through with it. Gives me the willies. (Yet makes me wish I’d patented the concept). Check out the rest of CHOW.com; it's a great magazine. I especially got a kick out of this story about "ethnic" foods that aren't as ethnic as we think they are.

In other news, two CD reviews will appear in the November/December edition of Being There Magazine. I reviewed Game Theory by The Roots and Gabriel & Dresden by Gabriel & Dresden. I’ll post links to the reviews once they’re live.

Back to work... I have freelance pitches to send and novel chapters to revise...

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

En Route to Pumpkin Show...

The day has finally arrived. After months of speculation and planning, Keryn and I are boarding a Delta Airlines flight from BOS to CMH (Boston to Columbus) at 1:55pm today. We arrive at 4pm and hit the Hertz #1 Club Gold counter for our midsized rental car (redeeming accumulated Hertz points – total cost for three days, ~$15). No more than two hours later, we will be standing on the corner of Main and Franklin Streets, seeking the 5 Best Hungarian Wax Peppers...

According to Weather.com, we can expect “Showers and thunderstorms this evening will give way to steady rain overnight.” Two days ago, the forecast said “showers possible.” Grr…

Good thing Keryn advised me to pick up some cheesy ponchos at CVS. I told her that we could probably get some nifty jack o’lantern ponchos on the parade route, but grabbed some $5.99 ponchos nonetheless. Looks like we’re going to need them.

Will be reporting all the fantastic details starting tomorrow over at The Thrilling Travels of Normal Guy and Girl.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Pink Tutu and Hillbilly Teeth"

I was very excited this morning to learn my flash fiction story “Pink Tutu and Hillbilly Teeth” placed in the 1st Annual 666 Flash Fiction Contest over at edifice WRECKED. This was a fun contest, its rules described here.

Without further ado, here’s the story.

Writing it was a blast, and it’s exciting to know I’m going to get paid ($11) for this. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s better than contributor’s copies.

For whatever reason, when I read the list of required words (rainbow, brackish, baby lotion, Rastafarian, sunflower, and buttercup) and the theme (Halloween), the very first thing that jumped into my mind was Rainbow Brite. I don’t know why; I couldn't even have described her. I certainly had no clue hers is a popular retro get-up for women my age or that throngs of dedicated fans gathered in various Internet sites (these facts emerged during my cursory research).

Anyway, the story turned out reasonably well, I think. It’s a fun (and brief) trifle, and I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to post your comments below or email me.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Book Review: How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life

I zipped through How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed on Tuesday. It isn’t often that I break a binding and read the final page in the same day, let alone within a ten-hour span. That should give you some clue to the book’s easy readability and engaging story.

The fact that the author was visiting my local writing group later that night might have been the spur to pick up the book at Trident, but if the story hadn’t engaged me right away, I would have pawed through a smattering of pages and called it a day.

How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life (henceforward EBB) is the story of Cambridge antiques dealer Abby Randolph, whose life is a shambles. Her boyfriend recently took up with a woman whose antiques he appraised, her mother died in an earthquake in India, and her father moved to California with his new wife and their children. Business is slow, too, until she takes one item from her store onto local auditions for PBS’ Antiques Roadhow. Turns out that her chamber pot is extremely valuable, and overnight her entire life transforms.

Medwed’s voice is vibrant and fun, and she takes us deep inside Abby’s head. The first-person narration is quite effective; it reads like an intimate friend recounting her life story over drinks, with all the digressions and what-I-mean-to-say’s you’d expect in such a case. More than the actual chain of events, it is Abby’s wit and personality that makes the story enjoyable.

The book offers many sharp glimpses into Cambridge/Harvard privilege. For an alumnus, the inside jokes and passing local references are great fun. If you are not familiar with Cambridge and Harvard, do not despair – the book will resonate nonetheless.

My only complaint is that the ending is bundled up far too neatly for my taste and comes too soon. Part of my unease stems from the fact that while we see rich character portraits of Abby, her ex-friend Lavinia Potter, Boston Globe reporter Todd, etc., Ned Potter remains a pencil sketch. Given that Ned is Abby’s lifelong love and one of the key players at the end, I don’t think we see enough of him to feel comfortable with the ending.

Ultimately, EBB is an exceptionally fun read, and I highly recommend picking it up at your local bookstore or library.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Wang Center, Saturday, October 7th: So You Think You Can Dance

Go ahead, ask me where I was Saturday night.

You’ll never guess.

Well, maybe from the blog title...

That’s right, I sat in Orchestra Left, Row O at the Wang Center in Boston, for a two hour dance spectacular, the So You Think You Can Dance Tour’s visit to area code 617. To protect me from screaming teenaged girls and exuberant gay men, Keryn and her younger sister, Lyra, accompanied me.

If you told me one year ago that I would have watched (and enjoyed) this show, I’d have laughed in your face. Goes to show that a lot can change in a year.

So You Think You Can Dance was a summertime hit for Fox. The show’s set up echoed American Idol (the same executive producer, too), with one important difference: professional experience did not preclude a dancer from proceeding through the tryout process. Of the final four contestants, two were defending American swing dance champions, one had been in The Music Man on Broadway, and one was a professional hip-hop dance instructor. This ensured a high quality of performance; these were no amateurs.

The premise of the competition was as follows: each pair (male/female until the last few weeks, which featured same-sex pairings) drew a style of dance from a hat and had one week to work with a choreographer on a new routine. The styles were far-ranging: hip-hop, paso doble, smooth waltz, West Coast swing, contemporary, pop, disco, Broadway, and other styles you’ve probably never heard of. After each episode, “America” voted by phone for their favorites, and the two lowest vote-getters did not return (sounds vaguely familiar, yes?)

In almost all cases, at least one-half of the couple was outside his/her comfort zone with the selected dance, and sometimes profoundly so. For a hip-hop dancer who has learned to pop to the beat with each motion, the languid flow of contemporary or the smooth float of a waltz are very foreign indeed. Reverse the scenario, and imagine a classically trained ballet dancer trying to play Fly-Girl… it’s not pretty.

Although all ten finalists were highly talented, some fumbled at adapting to new dance styles. For example, Dmitry, a ballroom dancer by trade, was ineffective in contemporary. Similarly, contemporary soloist extraordinaire Ryan flowed too smoothly for hip-hop and he failed to be a sufficiently masculine lead when partnered in ballroom.

Several finalists, however, demonstrated exceptional range. Ivan, playful self-trained hip-hop dancer, starred in two of the most popular pieces from the season, a poignant contemporary and an exciting Argentine tango. His partner for those pieces was the youngest finalist, Allison, whom “America” voted off at least one week too early. The final four (Benji, Travis, Heidi, and Donyelle) were brilliant when dancing within their comfort zone, but they survived to the end in large part because they had the right combination of personality and technical skill to seem consistently competent even when they couldn’t quite pull off a given style.

The winner of the title “America’s Favorite Dancer” was Benji Schwimmer. His cousin, with whom he holds the current U.S. swing dance title, was also among the final four. That Benji would be one of the top two at the end was never in doubt (to me) from the moment he made the show (as an alternate). Although Travis, who finished second, demonstrated more refined technical skills (his arabesque pirouettes make Keryn’s jaw drop), he ultimately fell short on the popular vote. But don’t feel too bad for Travis, or any of the finalists--I’m guessing they have great jobs lined up after the tour ends.

The SYTYCD Tour, which stops in twenty-odd cities, features the top ten competitors performing favorite routines from the show, joining in ensemble routines (Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” a tribute to Fosse, “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, etc.), and performing two-minute solos.

Boston’s Wang Center is a beautiful venue, ornate marble columns, gilded capitals, frescoes filling the interstices.

Now imagine it filled with screaming teens carrying poster-board signs proclaiming their love for one or more of the dancers.

A boy-band-concert vibe throbbed through the audience.

Despite the screaming throngs, the performance did not disappoint. Even if you have never seen an episode of the show, it would be an extremely entertaining display of dancing talent and often-brilliant choreography. The highlights were numerous, and the performances compared favorably to what we’d seen all season. My personal favorite was a new swing dance routine from Heidi and Benji, followed by Travis and Heidi’s paso doble, wherein Heidi plays the part of the matador’s cape to brilliant effect. I'm not sure whether Keryn could narrow down to a favorite, but I think she'd list the Mia Michaels' choreographed park-bench-and-sunflower routine (again featuring Travis and Heidi) and the gentle hip-hop set featuring Ivan and Allison (and two umbrellas).

As much as I can’t believe I’m writing this essay, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the entire show, and would see it again without hesitation. As I said before, a lot can change in a year.

Now back to Paso Doble for Dummies…

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Remember, Ma, It’s Fiction

When I was in high school, I wrote a lot of bad fiction. (Bad poetry, too, but let us pretend that never happened, all right?) Many stories featured characters who were thinly veiled facsimiles of my classmates. A girl I liked at the time, an opponent from a neighboring high school, a dorky freshman, an unpopular classmate. Sometimes, but not always, the protagonist bore some resemblance to an idealized version of myself. My lone reader (not counting the poor sods at various journals I submitted to) was my best friend, Don. He spent a lot of time figuring out who was who, putting real names with fictional faces. He wasn’t always right, and when I told him a given character wasn’t actually modeled on someone, I don’t think he bought it.

Now that I’m writing every day, submitting constantly, and gaining confidence that I’ll add a few more credits to my resume by year end, I’ve been thinking about this problem more and more…

I suppose all fiction writers face this at some point.
  • Your first-person narrator says something controversial and a reader presumes that you share the narrator’s point-of-view.

  • A character happens to have a certain physical characteristic (a gap in her smile, a scar on her hand, a speech pattern) and suddenly a friend is convinced the story is about his girlfriend.

  • A story features a character doing something awful and a friend emails to say “did so-and-so really do that to you?” Um, no.
This problem is especially acute for me because my novel-in-progress happens to be set in Coastal Maine (where I grew up) and the protagonist is a male, twenty-something, Harvard student, whose summer job is at the local paper mill (all valid descriptions of myself nine years ago). Yet this is nothing more than writing what I know. Billy Jones is not Jason Shaffner. Memphis (ME) is not Bucksport. Not even close.

That I needed such a disclaimer was not obvious until I gave the first selection of pages to Don, the same man who read all my juvenile stuff fifteen years ago. He immediately came back with guesses on real identities. No, really, I said. You might find a few recognizable sites, and maybe we once knew somebody who did X or Y or had quirk A or B, but none of this is real. Uh huh, he said, with a wink and a smile. No, really, I’m telling you! I reinforced it a few times, and I think he might believe me now… A little bit…

The issue came up again in a discussion with my Mom last week. This project was a secret for a while, for reasons I cannot recall. I described the story using my two-minute “jacket blurb” (or “agent pitch”), and she immediately latched onto one element of the story that bears a thin resemblance to my recent reunion with Keryn.

“There’s no connection,” I said. “I wrote the first draft of this story two years ago.”

That seemed to placate her, but I felt the urge to go on:

“It’s fiction. Sure, I might take a piece of a real person here, a snippet of real conversation overheard in a coffee shop there, I might have my characters dine in some restaurant I know, and I might make my protagonist’s favorite food the same as mine. But for every one real detail, I have ten I’ve pulled from thin air. It’s fiction.”

In a story with familiar elements, this problem is one thing. It takes on another life when stories are violent, feature unscrupulous characters, or otherwise make readers consider for a moment there might be something a little off about somebody who could come up with such ideas...

On more than one occasion, after explaining that a story is honestly, truly, swear-to-God not about me or anyone I know or have known, the inquiring mind has asked: “Then how did you come up with it?”

To that question, I can only grin and shrug.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

How did you find this blog?

It’s always good to know how people come across your site, and whether they meant to get there or it was an algorithmic fluke.

Readers who maintain blogs or website know exactly what I’m talking about, but for the other ten of you, let me explain. Web servers track which searches led people to your pages, which browsers those people were using, and where in the world they were sitting when they got there (based on IP address).

If you don’t have access to the web server, Google can tell you the search results part. Their webmaster tools tell you whether the root of your site is indexed, allow you to upload a site map if it isn’t (in the form of an RSS, if you’ve got a blog), and find out what real searches return one of your pages (including which results page your link appears on). It’s pretty nifty.

From there, I learned that my pages come up high in searches for Harvard tailgate (2nd or 3rd page) and sorority rush 2006 ole miss (2nd page). That makes sense, although I have to admit I was surprised to see we ranked so high.

The search phrase that bowled me over was "nine guys from out of town nine beautiful spirits." Wow. There’s a whole story in those nine words, don’t you think? It’s so specific, ripe with sexual possibility and conflict. Where are the nine guys from? What are they doing here now? How did they come across their beautiful spirits? Will the nine men call those beautiful spirits back once they return home, or was it only a cheap fling? From those nine words alone, I feel serious empathy for the spirits.

Unfortunately, after running the search myself, I learned the answer was nothing quite so dramatic. As it turns out, a band called "Nine Guys From Out Of Town" released a CD entitled Nine Beautiful Spirits. Nice job on that title. Unfortunately, the tracks at CD Baby didn’t work on my machine, so I can’t offer an opinion on the actual music...

You’ll have to pardon today’s odd musing. Check out The Thrilling Travels of Normal Guy and Girl tonight for an in-depth Niagara Falls exposé.

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Book Review: What Should I Do With My Life?

This week, I finally read What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson. I have wanted to read it for years, but never got around to it for some reason.

I think I was afraid.

When this book came out in 2002, I was asking the question almost every day. Three years into my career, it was time to figure out the next scene in my story. I had taken the GMAT and done well, but I could not weave a coherent narrative to justify business school. Two years away from work was what appealed to me, but that makes for a lousy essay.

Always looking to keep my options open, I spent four hours at the University of Massachusetts, #2 Dixon-Ticonderoga in hand, filling bubbles for the LSAT. According to the GPA-LSAT grids, most Tier I law schools would admit me if I applied. Many of my college friends are lawyers, and the law is marginally interesting. But it held no appeal for me, no matter how many different ways I tried to talk myself into it.

That year, I began to write again. Only a few lousy short stories, but I found it enjoyable and thought it might become more than a hobby someday. Once upon a time, writing had been my life’s ambition, but I had set it aside. Perhaps an MFA was the answer. I aced the GREs, but since I have never studied writing, I could not garner the recommendations I needed, and my writing was not yet polished enough. I tacked rejection letters to my wall.

Meanwhile, I climbed the ladder at a boutique IT consulting company. I was skilled at solving problems and making software fulfill clients’ requirements. Sometimes I loved my job, but I never thought it was what I would spend my life doing (I reserve the right to change my mind).

The truth was, I had no idea where I might find my answer. Most of my Harvard classmates seem by now to have found their calling, and I sometimes feel there must be something wrong with me. Old friends seemed to react that way when I announced I quit my job with no replacement as yet in sight. Since they have settled into careers in law, dentistry, medicine, or investment banking, the notion of flying without a net does not compute.

In Po Bronson’s detailed study, he offers more than fifty stories of people who looked for (and found, for the most part) their calling.

Bronson culled these fifty from conversations with more than 900 candidates. On the one hand, this fact adds credibility to the analysis; on the other hand, it suggests the likely case that hundreds of his subjects failed to progress toward an answer to the question, and were therefore unsuitable for the final product. To be fair, he could not document them all; the book runs to 430 pages already.

Bronson has a lively writing style, relaxed and conversational, yet journalistic. He is a participatory journalist, building relationships with his subjects, and in some ways influencing their progress. At various points he adopts the roles of strategist, therapist, and trusted friend. His own life story fits into the narrative, too, since he fled a life of bond sales to become a writer. (He has suffered other crises of direction along the way). Early on, I eyed these autobiographical interludes with skepticism, but they add an extra element: he is not looking at this problem from the outside, but understands the plight.

The book is strongest when he lets the stories speak for themselves, weakest when he begins to preach or interpret. His cheap armchair psychology is too much for me; when he compared a man’s dedication to his job to longing for his absent mother, I nearly vomited. Thankfully, such over-reaching moments are infrequent.

Many of the stories are indeed remarkable. More than once, I stopped to say "she did WHAT?" Fortunately, remarkable tales are balanced with more mundane ones. In addition, Bronson structures the stories in thematic pods. Although it is not relevant to me, I especially enjoyed the section regarding the importance of location. Too many people overlook the importance of location.

The best thing about the structure is that in considering five or six like-motivated subjects, the reader can draw his own lessons about why some succeeded and others failed.

I am not alone in my muddle. I especially take these words to heart:

    "Failure’s hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever. It is so, so much harder to leave a good thing." (p 143)

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered aloud what they want to be when they grow up. You will not find a blueprint to your success--in fact, several of Bronson’s subjects fail--but it will make you think.

With that, I'm off to work on my novel.

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