Chez Shaffner

Monday, February 19, 2007

On Eavesdropping and People Watching

Above: I swear that I don't stoop to such measures as this works better if you youse an empty glass...

I don’t know where along the way I learned to categorize the act of eavesdropping as a crime. I certainly don’t recall any conversations on the matter with my parents, and thou shalt not listen to other people’s conversations was not among the many lessons taught in Sunday School. It must have been something I picked up from one of the televisions series now coming out on DVD. Whatever the case, it is one of the few fundamentals of common courtesy that I have chosen to ignore.

Now, I would love to take this paragraph to explain how the conversations of strangers benefit my writing: boosting the verisimilitude of my dialogue, giving me new and fresh ideas. While I could say that with a straight face—eavesdropping really does serve as fodder for my idea-engine—the truth of the matter is that I was an eavesdropper long before I started writing.

I read the phrase “people watching” for the first time in mid-July 1995, while seated on the foam-padded steel bench in a sorting booth on the conveyor belt at the paper mill in my hometown. I had smuggled The Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard to the belt, to read during the periodic stretches of idleness. Although my matriculation loomed two months ahead, I had received a cache of publications, including one issue of each campus political rag, and this thick guidebook to Cambridge and Boston. I scanned every page, including several hundred restaurant listings. One of them—I believe it was on Newbury Street, a site I never visited while an undergraduate and now visit daily to lift weights—was labeled as “people-watching.”

Hmm. “What does that mean?” I wondered. “Why would someone choose a restaurant to watch people?” It was a curious label.

Up to that age I was a people-watcher in denial of my propensity.

People-watching and eavesdropping are near kin. Although I have engaged in both since an early, early age, I wonder whether my interest in writing correlates. Am I a (struggling) writer because of my predilection for spying on others? Or, since I have wanted to be a writer since fifth grade, did my quotidian habits extend from my professional aims? Chicken or egg?

My eyes and ears are always at work. Here in my home office (15.8% of my total living space according to the IRS formula). At my favorite writing spot, Trident Booksellers (which happens to be a great people-watching venue, for what it’s worth--seated at the bar or in the windows that face Newbury Street). On the Green Line or #1 MBTA bus. Walking through the Prudential. Browsing the aisles of Barnes & Noble. Waiting in line for a grande Earl Grey at Starbucks. Overlooking the dance floor at Avalon. Pretty much anywhere I find myself in the presence of people, I mine the visual and aural landscape.

It’s a blessing and a curse.

Why am I sharing this today? Last week I finally started my new project and wrote a scene where my protagonist was standing in a liquor store in San Juan, sipping a beer and eavesdropping on locals who incorrectly assumed him to be ignorant of their language. He isn’t. That passage set me thinking of the conversations I’ve overheard in my life. Humorous, awkward, banal, intriguing, uncomfortable: I’ve "observed" every kind you can imagine. And I’m certain I’ve been a victim as often as I’ve been an assailant; I’m far from alone in my weakness.

The next time you see a guy wearing headphones at the adjacent table, beware. There might not be any music in his ears except the spirited discussion you're having with your friends... :)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oxygen Bar

Above: Normal Guy breathes “pure” oxygen in The Venetian.

We saw our first Oxygen Bar in the entry vestibule of New York New York around ten a.m. At the time, neither of us knew what the kiosk was selling. Bright-colored tubes of water gurgled, but the bar was empty of patrons, and the marquee was hardly comprehensive.

I nodded toward the kiosk. “What’s that?”

Before Keryn could reply, the salesman was upon us. “Fifteen bucks for fifteen minutes. Give it a try?”

We shook our heads. “Off to see the lions,” I said. We wandered past Coyote Ugly and Nathan’s before following the bridge to MGM.

A few hours later, while wandering alongside The Grand Canal in The Venetian, I spotted another bar. It was the fourth or fifth I’d seen that day. At every turn we found a Starbucks, and at every other turn we saw another oxygen stand. They were stalking us. My curiosity could weather the ignorance no longer.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you explain how this works?”

“It’s basically pure oxygen,” the girl told me. “It provides energy for up to eight hours.”

“Does it work?” I asked, flooding my cheeks with skepticism.

“I think so,” she said.

Hardly a ripping sales presentation, but I was too intrigued to say no. Besides, I was on a temporary high from a temporary bout of luck on the slot machines. Keryn opted out. The procedure was a little too hospital-like for this hospital-phobic gent, but a minute later I had an orange tube jammed into each nostril.

(It’s important to stop here for a clarification. The tubes are one-time use, and you can keep them as souvenirs, though I can’t imagine why… There is no boogie-sharing going on. That seems to be everyone’s first question on seeing the above picture.)

The Oxygen-girl offered me a Vitamin Water—I chose a bottle of the red. She asked me to hold out my palms and emptied a dropper onto my right hand.

“Rub them together and do this,” she said, cupping her hands over her mouth and inhaling. “Only don’t breathe too hard at first; it’s strong stuff.”

No joke. That eucalyptus oil will clear the cobwebs out of your head in a hurry. It hurts a little even in recollection…

A few minutes later, the girl came around with two of those $6.99 three-legged massagers you can pick up just about everywhere these days. For sale, of course. The vibrating head massager could be yours, too, for the low, low price of $25. (Those things may look like instruments of torture, but they work awful well).

Peppermint oil on my fingertips was to rub on the back of my neck. The soothing chill felt nice, but for the rest of the night, I paid for it by suffering the odd mix of peppermint and eucalyptus like cough drops hanging around my neck.

And how about that Oxygen? I really can’t say whether it was that or Starbucks that sustained me through the night. But I’d advise everybody to give it a shot, if only for the pictures…

(This post cross-posted over at Normal Guy and Girl

Monday, February 12, 2007

EVERYMAN by Philip Roth

Click book cover to access Amazon.

Philip Roth has been one of my favorite novelists since I read American Pastoral for a lit course my senior year of college--the book was awarded the Pulitzer a month after we finished it. Since then, I have followed Zuckerman and Portnoy and a young Philip himself facing an alternate mid-century American history. I have seldom come away anything less than awestruck. (The two-page dismissal of The Plot Against America at the conclusion of that book being one of the few weak moments, for my money).

Everyman is another gem, despite its being a slender digest-sized novel with almost no action at all. The book opens with our nameless protagonist’s funeral and starts over at his childhood, proceeding onward through three failed marriages, numerous health maladies, and to his death. Even though you know the death is coming, when I read the final page, Roth still manages to make it surprising. That’s quite the feat.

In many ways, the hero here is an unremarkable man; that fact is one component of what makes the book so wonderful. The story here could pertain to anyman.

Books where nothing happens intrigue me. That sounds odd to say, but I’m impressed by an author who manages to hold my attention without resorting to staccato chapters with cliffhanger endings. A few nights ago, I spoke reverently of Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which spans a single day in a man’s life, and despite some rather tense scenes, dwells on minutiae in a way that might make many readers turn away. An in-depth focus on the trivial becomes compelling only in the hands of a master craftsman (or craftswoman). Roth accomplishes the feat here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Secret Confessions...

Now is that a kick-ass cover or what? Click to access Amazon.

Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA by Ellen Meister

I’m not typically the sort of guy who reads chick-lit, although my girlfriend has recently drawn me into the sticky web spun by those Desperate Housewives... I don’t blame her. Not really.

Last week I read on the Internet one woman’s defense of her own novel-in-progress as NOT being “chick-lit.” She seemed genuinely offended by the label, noting that the ubiquitous catch-phrase pertains only to stories about twentysomething women, and such novels tended to lack “real” substance. She went on to clarify that her story was “women’s fiction, thank you very much.” Uh huh. Such distinctions may be meaningful to some, but certainly to the majority of male readers. For my money, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and wears a sailor suit...

Whatever, you want to call it, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA follows three interesting women, as they try to do whatever it takes for a Hollywood production company to bring its cameras--and leading man George Clooney--to their Long Island hamlet. They face plenty of obstacles along the way, including the meddlesome and attention-grubbing PTA president, but each woman also faces her own personal demons--an alcoholic mother, a stroke-damaged husband, a husband who may or may not be messing around with his own cousin!

The story is fun and fast-paced, the characters are well developed and distinctive, and plot twists along the way sustain the tension to the final pages. I just loved it.

Buy it, will you?

You should also take some time to check out Ellen’s blog.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Another Hiatus Ends

Last week was a hectic week of recovering from Vegas. Funny, because of all the trips I’ve ever taken to Vegas, this one involved the least excess consumption of…er…beverages. In any case, I needed a few days to recuperate and adjust my body clock back onto Eastern Standard Time. It has also been FRIGID in Boston, and when it gets that cold, I have a tough time dragging myself out of bed in the morning… let alone updating the blog! (Excuses, excuses: I’m full of them!)

This week I have been really working, onsite in Baltimore. Spent the last two days standing in front of a projector, attempting to explain how to configure tuition calculation. It is somewhat more exciting than it sounds.

Alas, no news on the seeking-representation front.

Yesterday I started The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. This marks the third time I have started the book, but this time I have the right mind set.

It helps that last week on our flights to and from Las Vegas, I re-invigorated my pleasure reading habit. I hate to admit it, but through the last six months, I have been devoting most of my free hours to my novel, and not quite managing to read anything of note. Magazines take plenty of my time, and I’m in a perpetual state of “catching up on last week’s New Yorker.” But for the trip to Vegas, I broke out three books that I have been absolutely dying to read. Somehow I managed to start and complete all three books in the fourteen hours of flights and delays. Not too shabby!

Tomorrow I’ll post some details, but I thought I’d share my Vegas Reading List today: