Chez Shaffner

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On Brooks Brothers

This afternoon, I picked up a shiny new suit from Brooks Brothers. After they re-cut the pants, hemmed the cuff, lifted the sleeves, and brought in the sides, it fits me like a…well, a tailored suit. The suit grants me über-confidence, remarkable powers of persuasion, super-human strength, movie star good looks, and x-ray vision. I am a better man for owning this garment.

The suit makes its world début from the Miss America Pageant next Monday in Las Vegas (Keryn’s doing, I swear). Program your TiVo / DVR for CMT and look for me in the balcony.

In the process of acquiring this suit, I learned one important lesson: the folks at Brooks Brothers are assholes and they will never get another dollar of business from me. (Here’s hoping their corporate people read this and comment).

For too many years to admit, I have wanted a real Brooks Brothers suit to replace the bargain basement ones in my closet, but I never had the money (and frankly, I don’t wear suits often enough to justify the expense). A few months back, though, while transitioning out of my prior job, I set about analyzing options for redeeming my Amex Membership Rewards Points before they cut my corporate card into wafer-thin strips. “Ooh,” I said, “here’s my chance to get that magical navy blue two-button suit!”

One day later, the gift cards arrived by UPS (which means Brooks Brothers got my/their money six months ago, the ungrateful bastards). Keryn and I finally made the shopping excursion the week after Christmas, just in time for their semi-annual sale.

It may have been busy that day, but there’s no excuse for letting us stand in the middle of the store with our hands raised like schoolchildren without so much as a someone-will-be-with-you-shortly wave. Gift cards burning holes in my pocket, fifty years of potential suit-shopping ahead of me, not a single salesman stopped by…

Bad move.

I took matters into my own hands. Picked out a suit and marched into the fitting room. The tailor tried to ignore me, but once we were the only men in the small mirrored room, he had little choice but approach me, tape measure in hand. He advise me to pick a bigger size and asked “who was helping you?” When I answered that nobody was, I don’t think he believed me. I could see in his eyes (remember, ye tailors, that you’re measuring us in front of a mirror—we can see your face) that he thought I was trying to cheat some hard-working man out of his commission.

Brooks Brothers should go ahead and write out that commission payment to me… PayPal preferred.

Let this be a lesson to all you readers in the market for a new suit. May I suggest your favorite department store instead?

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Where Does It Go?

That’s what I want to know. Where does the time vanish to? I’ve been at work for a little over an hour already, and Outlook tells me it’s time to move on from my new writing project to do some real (paid) work. It doesn’t seem like my morning writing hour can be over so quickly. Yet there’s the clock telling me it’s 9:05am and Outlook saying that I’m five minutes overdue to start the next task in my daily agenda.

It seems that every day zips past like a rogue express train and leaves me standing on the platform. Take yesterday, for example. According to this nifty gadget in my Google Desktop Sidebar, I worked 3.0 hours for my part-time employer and worked on fiction for 3.0 hours, too. Add to that an hour and a half for the gym, half an hour for lunch, half an hour for showers and other bathroom trips, thirty minutes of Spanish lessons on CD-ROM, one hour blogging, and I still can’t explain why I felt so BUSY yesterday from 8:00am to 1:15am and fell asleep on the couch obsessing over how little I’d accomplished…

I’m hardly the first person to notice the acceleration of time with age, but lately it has seemed so damn acute. Feels like I work more hours on my work now than I ever could during my years on the road, yet I don’t feel as if I accomplish any more than before! That’s a debilitating feeling.

Well, I’ve gone and done it now. Another ten minutes down the tubes. Outlook is pissed; I’d best appease her before she chooses to punish me by purging all those hard-won Contacts…

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Downtown Christmases

Almost every time I state this piece of Shaffner trivia, someone looks at me askew: For all but two or three Decembers, my family had an artificial tree for Christmas.

“But didn’t you live in Maine?” people ask, incredulous. “Couldn’t you have cut the tree from your back yard?”

Truth is, I loved that steel behemoth. Exposed metal at the end of each prickly bough was color coded to indicate where on the central wooden post it should go. We dumped three Hefty bags of boughs onto the carpet and began our annual family project as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes were dried and put away. It took a solid forty minutes to assemble that tree, another thirty to loop the twinkle lights and garlands back and forth across it, twenty more to place two ornaments on each and every prickly bough, and five ecstatic minutes for my sister and me to cast tinsel here and there and everywhere. Ray Conniff’s orchestra twirled carols on Mom’s rickety record player as we turned down the living room lights and smiled at the sparkle.

When the tree succumbed to rust, we hacked down a live spruce from the farm two miles up the road. We had real trees for several years, but it was never the same as that old artificial gem. Mom and Dad have a new fake tree now, but it’s not as nice as the one we had growing up… No fake tree can compare to my idealized memory of that old steel tree.

The flower shop next to my favorite bookstore had a bunch of real trees propped against the bricks today. I didn’t remember them having trees in prior years, and the survey the proprietor cast my way as we completed our transaction (do you live in the neighborhood? you do? how about these heights? should I have gotten some seven footers? eight footers?), confirmed my recollection. Upon seeing those trees this morning, the Christmas spirit seized hold of me. Ours is not a huge apartment, and there is no natural nook to hold a full-sized tree. To make matters worse, I tend to think big: a perfect tree for me touches the ceiling. But for once I thought with a level, practical mind: if I shoved my desk into the corner, shifted the couch forward two feet, one of those smaller trees might fit without forcing us to dine in the front closet.

I shelled out the dough and threw that tree over my shoulder. Down Newbury Street, up Mass Ave, along Commonwealth, wielding a five-foot Douglas fir. I almost lifted a woman’s purse from her shoulder with the tip-top of my tree. She should have known better than sneak past a tree-bearing man on his blind side, if you ask me!

Sure enough, it fit, and we hopped in the car to procure the fixings. Four hundred twinkle lights, two strands of silver garland, twenty cheap shiny ornaments later, we’re ready for Christmas in the Back Bay.

(Now if only I can get started on the pesky matter of shopping…)

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Monday, November 06, 2006

Reading Aloud: An Unexpected Road Trip Pleasure

(This post also appears at http://normalguynormalgirl.blogspot.com)


The drive from Syracuse (NY) to Greenfield (MA) lasts 255 agonizing miles. By the time we start forth, we have already been in the car five hours, having visited five Syracuse high schools between 8:30am and 1:00pm. After a week on the road, we have wearied of the ten CDs we trucked along with us. Hold off on calling us Luddites; few rental cars come equipped with satellite radio, and we left our iPod attachments at home.

Keryn comes up with an unusual solution: “Maybe you should read aloud.”

My first impulse is to take this opportunity to read her the newest chapters of my novel-in-progress. But that might seem a little selfish on my part…

I have always been a proponent of reading my drafts aloud. There’s no better way to find pet phrases or clumsy structures than to recite them. Whenever I complete a draft, I carry the printout through my apartment and pace from bedroom to kitchen and back. In an online workshop I’ve been a member of for several years, I was appalled to see a fellow writer proclaim his belief that reading aloud was a waste of time, since that’s not how readers read. His lunacy was confirmed a paragraph later, when he went on to say that rhythm and language were immaterial to story.

I don’t know that this joker is alone in his assessment, though, which is a tragic thing indeed. In my years of workshopping, I have run across many people who claim to have a great story to tell and believe that the power of plot can compensate for lacking technical proficiency with the language. I’m not sure where they came upon this silly notion. Granted, on the opposite extreme, story sometimes disappears into a fog of figurative construct and purple prose. Literary writing is a balancing act of all the core elements. The craft is about using the sounds and shapes of words to tell a story. If your tongue trips on itself trying to read a sentence, flaws remain in need of smoothing.

But I’ve led us off topic.

Cut to an East Syracuse Kmart. Keryn and I are looking for a DVD to watch on my laptop back in the hotel room. We find a winner and head toward the front of the store. The fiction section holds us hostage for ten minutes. Both of us are bookstore addicts; it is a blessing and a curse.

Smack dab in the center of the display stands the maroon cover and mauve script of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. That famous novel was one of two unread books on the syllabus of a literature class I took my junior year at Harvard, and I have always felt a distinct measure of regret for not going back later and reading it. (The other unread book was Herzog by Saul Bellow). I impart this story to Keryn and she suggests we read it on the road. We agree that the jacket text is intriguing and drop the book in our cart.

Ten minutes outside Syracuse, with three hours of daylight remaining, on our way to Greenfield, Mass., I crack the binding.

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.”

When I reach the bottom of the page, I stop.

“Now that’s writing,” I say. “Damn.”

Keryn nods. “Keep reading.”

There are awkward moments, words distasteful to my tongue, words that raise the fuzz on my neck. Some images haunt us. Vicious beatings and rapes. The murder of a daughter for reasons unknown. Scars, spirits, and sexual intercourse. Butter churns and pink granite tombstones. As the words roll from my tongue, Keryn asks: “Can you read that again?” And sometimes I finish a sentence and pause to mutter “Wow” before I can proceed. That is the power of great writing.

The first time I read Lolita, I stopped and stared at the first page, then permitted my eyes’ return to the top. I recited that famous opening in the quiet of my sophomore dorm room. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” In that moment, the power of language overwhelmed me.

But back to Beloved. This is a book built for oral recitation. The vernacular in the voices of Sethe, Denver, and Paul D. comes alive, and you realize how perfectly the author has crafted the dialogue. Tight, evocative, and real. It’s a hard life few readers can truly imagine, yet it comes alive through the words. Speak through the characters and feel their anguish and sorrow, the fleeting moments of elation, the doubt and worry and hope. And in the long passages of exposition, you find sentences so powerful that sometimes you have to stop and say them again.

That afternoon in the car, I complete only fifty pages. But we decide that the entire book should be read this way, and through the weekend we take turns reading difficult and powerful words. I have never experienced a book this way. Beloved is truly a masterpiece.

Meanwhile, Keryn and I have decided this whole reading aloud thing, experiencing a great book in lockstep, is a tradition henceforth. Beloved will be a tough act to follow…

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Friday, November 03, 2006

A Questionable Start to the Night...

Room 312

It may be misguided (or plain snooty) on my part, but if you see a sign such as the one above marking the door of your next hotel room, I recommend against sliding the key card into the door. Misery and heartache await across the threshold.

The above image comes from our first hotel room in the Berkshires (Sunday night). Sure, it was the best they could do on short notice after a prankster pried the real 312 from the wall with a pen-knife… But that doesn’t make it welcoming.

The folks in the lobby were downright bubbly in responding to our request to fix the fire alarm (the battery informed us it was low every minute after we entered). They gave us solid dining advice and directed us appropriately when it came to scouting Berkshire sights. The next morning, after a fitful night where neither of us slept more than four hours, they apologized profusely and let us out a day early without penalty. Owing to their friendliness alone, I will not disparage the chain on this page. However, if you find yourself in need of lodging in the quaint village of Pittsfield, Mass., may I recommend instead the Crowne Plaza, where we slept soundly the following evening, or try one of the dozens of quaint bed-and-breakfasts in the area.

And remember, if your room is labeled in multi-purpose paper and black Sharpie, make like a tree and leave.

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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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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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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"Am I Gone? Is that for real?"


As Keryn and I stood in the parking lot of a Walgreens in Buffalo, she pointed across the street. "Does that say 'am I gone' funeral home? Is that for real?"

It did, and out came my trusty Elph. Amigone Funeral Home, apparently a chain around these parts. I can’t help but chuckle looking at this picture, which is why I’m sharing it with you today.

I struggle mightily with the intersection of levity and death, and always have, feeling a certain discomfort at dark humor. Apparently Western New Yorkers don’t share that struggle.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Seeking Inspiration in Buffalo (?!?)

As I write today’s short entry, I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Buffalo, New York. Usually when I travel someplace that isn’t on everyone’s desired destinations list, I have work to do. Typically, I would be spending my lunch hour plotting the afternoon requirements gathering session and strategizing forthcoming deliverables. Instead, this trip I’m a tagalong (in other words, a moocher, not to be confused with the tasty Girl Scout Cookie). I’m here to write and provide Keryn with dinner-time companionship. The road can be a lonely place.

I’m listening to the soundtrack from Garden State (which kicks ass, by the way, especially track three), drinking Mountain Dew, and typing furiously. While the housekeeper stripped the bed a few minutes ago, I sat at the desk, finishing up the latest Normal Guy/Girl blog entry about Buffalo. After I finish today’s obligatory personal blog entry (Outlook keeps chirping at me!), I’m turning my attention to my novel.

As usual, I’m editing. In a wonderful twist, however, the thirty pages I’m red-lining today did not exist last Tuesday.

Actually, those thirty pages aren’t entirely new. One chapter existed before, drafted more than a year ago, but last week I re-wrote the whole thing from scratch, referring to the old draft purely for concepts. One or two sentences might have survived, but I really couldn’t say for sure. The resemblance is slender.

It is official: I’m in love with my novel again. And if I accomplish nothing else in the next three months, I will find out what happens to Billy Jones, whether he gets the girl and escapes Memphis (ME) unharmed.

You see, I’m flying without an outline. More than that, it would be fair to say I don’t have the faintest clue how the story ends. As the working days pass, I keep surprising myself. For example: midway through the chapter I’m editing today, I put two people in bed who were never supposed to end up in bed. It kind of just happened…the way it often does in real life. They’re totally wrong for each other, and putting them together throws all kinds of kinks into the plot. It is inevitable that Charlie will ditch Stacy within forty pages—he’s not looking for commitment—and that’s going to devastate any chance Billy has with Stacy’s friend Ginny. But there was no other way. Cheap beer and strong pot and a hot tub: craziness ensues.

When the story goes and goes without having to think through each step: that’s when I feel I’ve really found it. The feeling doesn’t always last long. Sometimes it’s fifteen minutes. Other times, two full hours. And in the rarest of cases, like last Wednesday night, it starts at eight p.m. and ends at four a.m., not because it wants to, but because my head crashes with exhaustion and bounces off the keyboard, my nose writing six pages of "jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj..." before I wake and groggily push the computer aside.

When those words pour out, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s the feeling I remember from my youth, when I didn’t have such a loud-mouth internal censor. Back then, I went wherever my characters took me, and I had a great time. Now I find it much harder to let go.

Hold on... Was that a twitch in my hand? It might be inspiration. I’d better go. Billy’s getting ready for his first date with Ginny...

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Buffalo Reading List

As readers of The Thrilling Travels of Normal Guy and Girl already know, I am heading on an extravagant journey. Beginning Sunday at 4:55, when I board the US Airways flight from Logan to Buffalo-Niagara, and culminating in an AirTran flight from Rochester to Logan next Friday, I will spend the next week exploring Western New York.

During this trip, I expect to spend a lot of time in isolation. As Keryn journeys from high school to high school to college fair to high school, I will undoubtedly find myself alone in the reclined passenger seat of her rental car.

Sure, I am planning some sight-seeing adventures, including a self-guided tour of downtown Buffalo, a sunset tour of Niagara Falls, and whatever I find Rochester has to offer (research into that answer is planned for this afternoon).

However, I think there's some reading to be done.

I hesitate to admit this, but my reading rate fluctuates widely. Over the last five years, I have experienced six-month stretches where I averaged better than one book per week, and I have experienced six-month stretches where I've been lucky to get through The New Yorker every week. Sure, there are always online literary magazines and stories read in various online workshops, but sometimes I fall down on the job...

So here it is, the list of books I plan to read in Buffalo / Rochester:

Mutual Holdings by my friend Susan DiPlacido.
Old School by Tobias Wolff
What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson

I can't imagine getting through all three next week, but just in case, I'm also bringing On Beauty by Zadie Smith, which I was supposed to read last month for a book club. (Shame on me; Daphne, I'm sorry.)

And of course, if I really run out of reading material, there's always On Unrequited Love and Serial Killers...

(Tell me honestly, does the working title suck?)

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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Johnnie Walker Experience


L to R: Jeff J., Mark H., Ben C., The Author

Friday night, we headed to the Cyclorama in Boston's South End for the Johnnie Walker Experience, a special event where each attendee has the privilege of sampling each of the five colors, including the pricey Blue. I have received email invitations to these events once or twice a year since I graduated college, but never considered attending. About a month ago, my buddy Ben C. emailed a few of us to see if we were intereseted. Why not? I figured. All thse years deleting those emails, maybe it was time to see what it was all about.

The line coiled down the block. The event was slated to start at 6:30pm and we were on the RSVP list (not that it mattered, so far as I could tell). Ben told us to be there about 30 minutes early, but 50 whisky-drinkers (no "e" in Scotch Whisky, I guess) were already there when we arrived.

A cadre of women wearing short-black skirts, most of whom have never considered ordering a glass of whisky in their lives, checked us in on Tablet PCs. Upon completing a short survey on our drinking habits, we were presented with gold tokens, which entitled us to a complimentary drink at the bar. A long wait and two plates of crudités later, we had drinks in our hands (only Red and Black, the two most inexpensive varieties, were available at the bar).

They summoned us to the presentation room.

The Cyclorama, for what it's worth, is one of the more unusual buildings I've ever been inside. Part of the Boston Center for the Arts complex, it hosts a wide variety of events, ranging from art exhibits to political rallies. (The Johnnie Walker event is one of several alcohol-related events, including a Belgian beer fest in October that Ben C. is pushing hard). As the name implies, the building is circular. Red-brick walls, glass ceiling, exposed ductwork. It is an impressive space...with an interesting story.

Benches were arranged in four sections, with a square opening at the center of the room. In front of each seat in the crowd sat the drinks (except the Gold and Blue varieties), each shot glass placed on a colored circle indicating the label.

Huge video screens flashed with seemingly irrelevant images (rainforests, glaciers, Porsches, male/female models) and the potent sound system blasted a dramatic score.

Into the center of the circle bounded our presenter, a thirty-something woman in a business suit, bearing a tall glass of blended scotch.

Rather than bore you with the detailed recounting, let me summarize what I learned:

  • Black is your "every day whisky"
  • Red is all about FUN (and, judging from the video, fun = race cars, fast motorcycles, and bicycle racing)
  • Gold is about celebration, the champagne of whiskys. Best served like revenge.
  • Green is our presenter's "flask whiskey" (which she clarified with an anecdote involving snow, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a pewter flask, and some question about whether she was clothed at the time)
  • If your date is a real boozehound, they also market Green as an eau de toilette. (We were all asked to splash some on our hands, rub them together, and pat out necks. Some of us opted out.)
  • Blue is expensive (you can tell because they served it in a snifter, très chic), perfect for special occasions such as: "a marriage, a birth, a divorce." (I kid you not).
As with any tasting event, it was little more than a looooong commercial.

But we are sophisticated Gen Y urban professionals.

We spit in the face of advertisement.

We will not be swayed by flash and a thumping beats.

We are free thinkers.

On the way out, we deposited the JW collateral in a nearby trash bin. We took a left onto Berkeley and strolled toward a great restaurant, our hunger piqued by two hours drinking scotch.

The waiter approached; we ordered four glasses of Johnnie Walker Black and ginger ale.

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Fantasy Football Terrifies Me

Everything about fantasy football intimidates me: the complexity of the scoring, the needing to pay attention to every game on the board, the ruthless trash-talking amongst friends, the constant monitoring of injury reports, the estimable risk of losing control and becoming obsessed.

For years, I have heard my friends talk about their fantasy teams and leagues and quietly stepped away, since the conversation did not pertain to me. One of my friends partipates in a league that has a physical draft in NYC, where all the fantasy owners fly in to be physically present for the draft. One friend establishes an annual fantasy budget; this year's allowance was set at $700. That's a lot of money, if you ask me, and I'm kind of a spendthrift.

Several weeks back, I made the mistake of mentioning off-hand to Ben S., one of my fantasy-obsessed friends, that I had never participated in a fantasy league. I made the further mistake of implying that I never participated because I had never been invited. Why I felt it necessary to make him feel guilty, I don't quite know.

After Week One, Ben s. decided to start a new low-stress league. Low stress because it has only six owners, which means everybody has good players. Various rumors permeated our group of friends as to Ben's motivation for launching this league, but the general consensus is that his existing teams aren't very strong and he wanted another chance at winning. In our new league, with its selection of less-experienced owners such as myself, he thinks he has an advantage.

Last Wednesday, I scheduled an hour for this draft. Keryn napped on the couch while I sat at the computer, picking players I hate from teams I hate. Some of my choices may have been suspect, though nobody said anything snide in the chat area. I was expecting somebody to say "a kicker in the first round?!? Shaffner, are you a @*&%!#@ IDIOT?" But they let it go, content that I wasn't going to compete for the "trophy."

(FYI: I didn't actually take a kicker in the first round. Even I knew that was dumb. You should wait until at least the 2nd round...)

I made my picks, including most of the players I had "pre-drafted" the day before, when I should have been working on my novel or updating this blog...

(Incidentally, blog fodder was one of Ben's selling points when I showed some hesitation at joining the league. I think he may be right, though there are already way too many fantasy blogs out there... I promise no more than one short posting a week, honestly...)

I am lucky to have a girlfriend who likes football, because we sat in front of the TV for three hours of it yesterday. Sure enough, I found myself saying things like "If the Bears can hold out, I'll get 10 points for the shutout, yeah!" and "68 receiving yards, that's 7 points, could be worse" and "Nice, Peyton threw for 400, my receivers must have had a great day!"

In esssence, as I sat on the couch, I felt fantasy seizing control over my brain and eating away at my soul. Was I really celebrating that Reggie Wayne (IND) had 135 yards receiving and cursing that he couldn't have caught one of the touchdowns? Those words of encouragement for Eli Manning, were they coming out of my mouth? In the sobering light of Monday morning, I am afraid of who I'm becoming and what this league will do to me...

For the record, here was my starting lineup yesterday:
QB Eli Manning (NYG)
RB Reggie Bush (NOR)
RB Brian Westbrook (PHI)
WR Reggie Wayne (IND)
WR Marvin Harrison (IND)
WR Keenan McCardell (SD)
TE Tony Gonzalez (KC)
K Stephen Gostkowski (NE)
DEF Chicago

Not awful, but not great...

I'll be back later today with something not related to football... :)

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

More Ole Miss Football...

Keryn has posted a response to yesterday's blog over at our shared blogging project. Check it out: http://normalguynormalgirl.blogspot.com/2006/09/normal-girl-on-ole-miss-football-and.html.

Be back later with a recap of the José González and Zero-7 show I saw last night at Avalon.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Much Needed Injection of Football: Part Two

Yesterday I warned you to expect another football article, this one tackling the Ole Miss vs. Missouri show-down on Saturday. Well, better a day late than never at all…

We had big plans for our Saturday. The sun was shining, it was rumored the air temperature would touch eighty by mid-afternoon, and the swimming pool in my building remained open for business (two more weeks before they mark the official end of summer). Therefore, lounging on lawn chairs while listening to our iPods in preparation for the Ben Harper concert later that night was definitely in play.

So was shopping. Keryn has some struggles finding shoes in her size (5½) and I proposed a trip across town to the DSW in Downtown Crossing. (Because that’s the kind of new age, sensitive guy I am).

Finally, there was the issue of food. In fact, we were five steps from the door, en route to our old standby, The Trident (which I have written about before and will surely write about again), when Keryn decided to check her email one last time. We were expecting a message from an out-of-town friend about whether she’d be able to meet up with us later that night.

"What’s FSN?" she asked.

"Fox Sports Net," I said. "Why?"

"Do you get that station?"

"Of course," I said.

She looked at me with her big brown eyes; I readied myself for a bomb. But how many megatons could she drop on me, if FSN was involved? Dance team competitions and the like seem much more ESPN2.

"The Ole Miss game is on," she said.

"Okay," I said.

"We might have to watch it." She winced, as if she were asking me to scrub the toilet bowl.

I pretended to be hurt, conflicted by the Sophie’s Choice she was presenting me. Gee, watch football or shop for shoes? Faux-reluctantly, I agreed. (Because that’s the kind of new age, sensitive guy I am.)

Two days in a row with football? Two days in a row with football, at my girlfriend’s request? I almost couldn’t contain myself. But I had to act unenthused.

"Sure, I guess that’s okay," I said, flatly, before lumbering over to take the choice seat on the couch and grabbing the remote. "But since we don’t have any food in the house, I suppose we’ll have to order pizza..."

(By the way, Mizzou manhandled Ole Miss, 34-7. It wasn’t pretty.)

From now on I’ll be looking to find when they are televised again, so I can "accidentally" leave the page open on my computer for her to see...

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Monday, September 11, 2006

A Much Needed Injection of Football: Part One

Although I have watched football from the couch almost every weekend since Fall 1986, I am ashamed to admit I have never attended an NFL game.

As for college, Harvard Stadium and the Yale Bowl are legitimate venues, and The Game has a fairly legitimate tailgate, at least according to this article. But through the last few years, as I heard stories from friends who went to school in the Big 10 or SEC, I began to develop something of a complex.

To give you some idea, according to Sports Illustrated, the tailgate at my girlfriend’s alma mater is the #3 must-do college event. That fact alone is enough to make me feel pretty nervous about dragging her along with me to The Game this year… Since it’s at home, though, we don’t have much choice. I will probably house a few boarders on my living room floor, and it would raise some eyebrows if I opted against joining them in Allston.

To get ourselves into the football spirit, Keryn and I went to the Bentley College home opener on Friday night. I had never watched a Division II game (Harvard is I-AA, which some find surprising), and had no idea what to expect. I knew, from intrepid googling, that Bentley was in the Division II playoffs as recently as 2004 and had knocked off #18 East Stroudsburg the week before, in something of a stunner. The opponent on 9/8/2006: Southern Connecticut State (which, by the way, somehow gets truncated to “Southern”).

We arrived fifteen minutes before game time and bypassed the $5 gate when Keryn flashed her “staff” card. The concession of choice seemed to be the doughboy, as dozens of kids filed past us with confectioners sugar decorating their blue and yellow sweatshirts. I have something of a weakness for confectioners sugar…and the fried dough isn’t bad, either… But it seemed the entire student body was waiting in line for the complimentary meal.

When I told a friend that we went to the game, he asked me what stadium they played in. “Stadium?” I said. “No, that’s not the word for it.”

The field was absolutely beautiful—brand new Field Turf (the artificial surface that looks like grass). Flanking the field were two sets of aluminum bleachers. I thought back to some of the big games under the lights in Bucksport… If I had to guess, I’d say that my high school “stadium” was approximately the same size.

It was a fun game, though Bentley ultimately lost by six. The strangest thing was that, during the first quarter, while all those students were lining up for free fried dough, we could actually hear the players on the sidelines. Not just when they were yelling “pass” or “run” to alert their defense what was happening, but even their thataboys when players returned to the sidelines. It was strange, a little unsettling, though we were both pleased at the clarity with which we could enjoy the crunching of shoulder pads and the cracking of helmets.

By the second quarter, the crowd filled in and dashed the intimacy we had shared when the players on the field outnumbered the fans in the stands. According to the above article, attendance was 3,400. That’s a respectable number. The crowd had a great vibe, though the most animated fan of all was this young girl, no older than eight years, B painted on her face, pom-poms in her hand, who insisted on bounding up and down the stairs every two minutes. I’ll tell you, her every step reverberated straight into my ass…

I learned a few things from this trip:

  • College students look REALLY young(and make me feel really old)
  • Get your fried dough before half-time, because they close up shop after two quarters
  • Division II football is good, clean fun
  • I’m not going to be embarrassed by the Harvard tailgate: even if we can’t touch The Grove at Ole Miss, we still do all right for ourselves…

Coming up later today… Ole Miss vs. Mizzou, on TV…

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Pictures with Rob Zombie!

Okay, that’s a dirty, stinking lie. I still haven’t gotten the full story from DT yet, but there was some kind of glitch and the tickets didn’t pan out. Bummer…

In other news, it’s Friday.

That doesn’t have quite the same ring as it did two weeks ago, but there is still something magical about that word, Friday… We are going to see the Bentley football game tonight. I’ve never watched a Division II game, and I’m looking forward to it.

Last night’s Steelers-Dolphins game certainly rallied my football spirit. Glad to see Miami lose, since Sports Illustrated projected them to win the AFC East. A bunch of baloney, if you ask me!

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Productive Weeks Are Fine, But Bring Me the Weekend

I am still adjusting to my new lifestyle. Probably I’ll just about settle into a workable routine when it becomes time to find a “real” job again.

On Tuesday I was out of bed and at my desk by 7:45am, cranking away. Two hours on the blogs, two hours working on a few flash fiction pieces I hadn’t thought about in a year, four hours on the creative non-fiction essay I have been honing for the last three weeks, three hours rewriting Chapters 3 and 5 of my in-progress novel… When all was said and done, I was pedal-to-the-metal for fifteen hours, with a brief interruption around midday to throw some weights around.

Yesterday was devoted to my novel. I’ll be thrilled to tears if I ever can stop revising this particular section… I am excited to tackle some entirely new chapters this weekend and into next week. Somehow I need to get Billy (my protagonist) through a painful conversation with the girl (Ginny) he’s pined for since age five. And then I need to figure out who the bad guy is going to be in this epic. Figuring that out is one of the many things that stalled my first attempt at finishing this thing… I’m keeping my fingers crossed for better luck this time around.

Today has been less productive. I did manage to squeeze in 2.5 miles on the treadmill during the lunch hour, which is something. Have had a tough time getting my fingers to cooperate today, though --- they aren’t particularly talkative after two days yammering on about Billy Jones and Ginny Doogan. So I have switched gears to the always exciting re-organization of my files. It has meant that I’ve had the chance to skim a whole bunch of fragments I’ve written over the last three years. I even enjoyed a few lines here and there…

Switching gears... the weekend is looking pretty busy!

TONIGHT I’m supposed to have front-row seats at the Godsmack / Rob Zombie show at the Tweeter Center, courtesy of my buddy DT. He called yesterday after winning the tickets by being caller number seven to a local radio station. I was more than happy to jump at the chance. Free tickets, you know… As part of the prize package, we’re supposed to meet the band before the show. Will give a full report tomorrow.

FRIDAY we’re hitting the Bentley College home opener. Keryn started working there in August and she’s a huge football fan (that happens when you go to college in the SEC). This will be the first time I’ve watched football with her, and it should be interesting. She has a thing for violent sports, you see… But that’s a story for another day.

SATURDAY brings us to see Ben Harper @ the Bank of America Pavilion. Should be a great show. (Had better be, after the challenges I had getting these tickets. It’s a long story you don’t want to hear, but I have nothing good to say about American Express Membership Rewards and their relationship with Ticketmaster…)

Later that night, with any luck, we’ll meet up with an old friend from grade school.

SUNDAY I'm sitting my ass on the couch and watching football... I'm in a suicide pool again this year, after two years in a row being eliminated Week One. I'm not going to jinx my pick by writing it here, but I have to admit a lull in my confidence.

That’s it for now. Sorry today’s posting is so boring! I promise excitement galore in the morning. Unless WAAF never gets these tickets into DT’s hands (he just told me he’s having a tough time reaching their promotions department), in which case you can expect a lot of complaining…

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Old Records

When I was young, my mother had a record player in the living room and an odd selection of records; my favorite album from her collection was Neil Diamond, Hot August Night. My youth, though, was solidly rooted in the cassette tape. Christmas morning ‘83 I tore wrapping paper from Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. Ten years later Santa switched me over to the CD player (my first CDs: Black Sabbath and George Thorogood---yes, I know that’s a little strange).

I never owned an LP. Records seemed awfully clunky; at that age, even the eight-track player at my grandparents’ house seemed technologically advanced by comparison. Still, there was something about the fancy jackets, the variations in the inner sleeves, the snap-crackle sound of the albums my mother put on at Christmas time…

The camp on China Lake boasts a record player. Designed to look like an antique, the built-in CD player and FM tuner betray the truth. Unfortunately, the selection of records was not exactly extensive when the summer began. Other than a pile of scratched up Johnny Cash 45s and a few show tunes, there wasn’t much to listen to. Still, the scratchy rasp of those few records became a familiar soundtrack to our July 4th holiday.

Back in my Boston apartment, I lugged my dirty laundry down to the basement. In addition to washers and dryers, our basement provides access to the dumpster for items too large for the trash chutes located on each floor. Outside the "trash room" people sometimes leave more challenging items (refrigerators, ranges, and dishwashers) and those discarded items that might be somebody else’s treasure (some examples: bookcases, desk chairs, and armoires). This particular day the booty was a large box of LPs…

I spent ten minutes leafing through the records, an eclectic collection, to say the least. Between Abbey Road and Magical Mystery Tour were the Dartmouth Glee Club and Rite of Spring; between My Fair Lady and Hair (Original Casts, both) stood Jim Nabors and The Doors; between CSNY’s Déjà Vu and Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere stood Vic Damone and Nat King Cole.

My initial reaction was shock. What were the odds that just hours after returning from camp I would find these records in my basement?

I smiled at all the good things this discovery meant:

  1. It was a great set of records according to any scale,
  2. I would definitely score major bonus points with Keryn’s family… and brownie points certainly never hurt...

Skepticism came next. What was wrong with the records? Something had to be wrong for someone to just throw them away. I mean, you could sell this collection on eBay and make a solid $300 (of course, that's chump change to most of the folks who live in my building). I pulled Abbey Road from the sleeve. It was immaculate, almost as if it had never been played. I spot-checked another five or six records and found they were all in mint condition. I seized the box in my arms and lugged it upstairs.

Up at camp, those records were well received. We put on Revolver; it sounded like new. We played things we would never normally listen to, and I realized how different records are from CDs. I found myself studying them, looking with nostalgia at records pressed when my mother was in grade school. Keryn’s seventeen-year-old sister picked out seventies’ classic rock, Keryn put on Harry Belafonte Calypso, and her mother requested Johnny Mathis. Meanwhile, I fell in love with Foreigner’s “4”, and realized that The Doors is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard. I may not like having to flip the record after twenty-five minutes, but the scratch of the needle was a pleasant change from the silent perfection of my iPod.

Now I’m home, listening to Let It Be on CD. It isn’t the same.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Breaking Out The Atari

I have to admit I had some skepticism when Keryn first told me about the Atari. She said she bought it on eBay two years ago, thinking it would be a great addition to the family compound in Maine. That seemed reasonable enough, but the way she talked about it, I got the sense she considered herself a skilled gamer. “Decathlon,” she said, with more than a touch of pride, “I was great at that game.”

This was difficult for me to envision. Granted, the heyday of the Atari ended before I met her; by the time she moved to Bucksport, the Nintendo revolution was in full swing. But somehow I couldn’t put the controller in her hand. The image of a young girl wearing pageant sash and tiara and clutching an Atari controller in her tiny eight-year-old hands did not coalesce in my imagination.

The TV at her camp is more than twenty years old, old enough to require leaders to convert UHF or VHF screws into a coaxial post. Keryn had all the requisite connectors in years past, but somehow they were lost in the shuffle. Without the right adapter, the Atari is a useless, silent black box. Since all sounds emerge from the TV, when disconnected, even powering up or down the Atari has an unsatisfying silence.

Overheard at Radio Shack in Boston:
Me: Hey, excuse me, I have an unusual problem.
RadioShack Dude: Sure, what’s up?
Me: So I have this Atari…
RadioShack Dude: No way, man. That’s awesome.
Me: Yeah, it would be awesome, except we need one of those RF modulators to connect it to the TV. [Editorial Note: I was very proud to use “RF modulator” like I knew what I was talking about. Re-read and picture the corresponding attitude.]
RadioShack Dude: (yelling to back) Hey Carl!
Carl: What’s up?
RadioShack Dude: This guy’s got an Atari…
Carl: I wasn’t even born then.
RadioShack Dude: Me neither.

The guys looked, but what I needed wasn’t there. However, they did their best to figure out a way for me to do it, and ended up selling me two $2 parts that together would do the job. Great customer service, except for the making-me-feel-old part.

Problem is, next time we went to Maine, I left those parts on my counter.

Rather than alert Keryn to this lapse, I arranged for a surreptitious trip to another Radio Shack once were in Maine.

Overheard at Radio Shack in Portland (ME):
Me: Hey, excuse me, I have an unusual problem.
RadioShack Dude: Sure, what’s up?
Me: So have this Atari...
RadioShack Dude: Leaders or Coax?
Me (squinting): Leaders.
RadioShack Dude: (walking about ten feet, pulling an item off the hook, handing it to me). This should do it.

That was a long way of saying that apparently Ataris remain in much more widespread use in Coastal Maine than in Boston. Are you surprised? Shocked?

Now, I have to describe this Decathlon game.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the Olympic event thanks to that irritating (though clearly successful in making an impression on me) ad campaign in the mid-nineties? As the name implies, the Decathlon comprises ten events: 100m, Long Jump, Shot Put, 400m, High Jump, Discus, 110m hurdles, Javelin, Pole Vault, 1500m.

Now, consider the Atari controller… Then imagine how you might make your stick figure run.

Got an idea?

You may be surprised to learn your stick figure runs NOT because you press the orange button a thousand times per second. Instead, try wiggling the joystick side to side as fast as you can. Keep in mind that an Atari joystick is tight; it doesn’t move more than a fractional inch with each jostle. It’s great for guiding Ms. Pac-Man through the labyrinth, but it was not designed for rapid wiggling…

Cut to Keryn running the hundred meters. Her stick figure flies through the race, crossing the finish line in a respectable, and realistic shade, over ten seconds. (Mine struggles to get there just shy of eleven seconds, and our tête-à-tête decathlon opens with her taking a solid sixty point lead, one she will not relinquish).

What strikes me just then is not only her seeming prowess in video gaming; instead I sit there gape-jawed at the realization that the game is entirely in real-time. Which means that the pain I feel in my forearm at eleven seconds of joystick work is nothing compared to the workout awaiting me in the forms of the 400m (at least 50 seconds) and the 1500m (a solid four minutes). Real-time… Can you imagine? That’s like playing Madden with full-length quarters. Who has the attention span for such things?

Later in the weekend, we will play a four-player Decathlon grudge match. It will take an hour. Keryn’s younger sister will develop a round blister in the heel of her palm. I will bathe my muscles in Ben-Gay. We will joke that if all video games required the physical fitness of Decathlon, American would be much thinner.

But let me take a minute to talk about the most important thing I learned that weekend in Maine: Keryn was being modest when she said she was good at that game. I have become convinced that she must hold the all-time world record for Pole Vault. As each of the rest of us failed to clear anything higher than 3.2, Keryn sent her stick figure careening over the bar at nearly 6. I gained a whole new respect for her, and have decided to stop suggesting we play a few games on the Xbox. I can’t take the humiliation.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Drinking Tea While Blogging...

I think they are starting to wonder about me. Although there was a time I used to venture here with my laptop and sip Cabernet and Perrier (separate glasses—I’m not that weird) while working on my writing, none of the current waitstaff were employed here then. To them I'm just this guy who sits for hours, banging away at his keyboard, iPod in his ear, foot tapping beat against the bar, downing cup after cup of tea.

I’m sitting at the bar in The Trident, a coffee shop slash bookstore slash restaurant slash Internet café on Newbury Street in Boston. It’s a popular place—just try getting a table on the weekend for brunch, and you’ll see. The remainders tables are among the best around, with a great variety of high-brow lit and trash, and a liberal dose of Zen / new-age books scattered between. The magazine selection is second to none, and they don’t object if you grab a handful of magazines, bring them to your table, peruse with fingers greasy from sweet potato fries, and leave without buying.

I brought my parents here two months ago (for the first time, which is pretty astounding given that The Trident is two blocks from my apartment) and we had breakfast at two o’clock. They’re open until midnight (seven days a week) and I have to say that it’s tough to beat having Eggs Benedict at 10pm. For me, anyway… I love breakfast food, it’s the waking up at breakfast time I struggle with. The mac and cheese is pretty damn good, too, and the cobbler, crust overflowing the bowl, ice cream melting on top, kicks ass.

What brings me here, though, is the “tea high.”

Only three months ago I could say “I’ve never had hot tea” and mean it. That trivial fact was something I used to bring controversy to the table; other items in my controversy-building repertoire include the facts that I’ve never seen Titanic, watched an episode of The Brady Bunch, or worn flip-flops.

One day in April, Keryn gently urged me to give the tea a shot.

What the hell, I said. Bring me Earl Grey with milk and splenda (I’m still not ready for honey). And much to my surprise, I sorta dug it. And then I sorta felt it.

You’d think with a lifetime drinking Coke Classic on my morning commute (to school, to college, to work) I wouldn’t feel the effects of caffeine unless I crushed a box of No-Doz and snorted it through a tightly rolled Benjamin à la Tony Montana. But I was dead wrong—that buzz hit me hard. And I liked it.

So begins a nasty habit, an almost nightly trek down the street to The Trident, computer in tow. Give me a pot of black tea. Oh, let’s make it Ginger Peach today. One cup, two cups, three cups. Hit me with the Darjeeling. One cup, two cups, three cups. Never a fan of milk in my youth, I must drink a half-liter each night I’m here.

Fortunately, tea is inexpensive. I spend $10 and pump my body full with enough caffeine to kill a lab rat. And I swear it greases the gears: I crank through 2000 words each time I come here. Sure, this pesky blog consumes a healthy portion of that output, but 2K constitutes a pretty productive three hours no matter how you slice it.

Back at the bar, I have switched to Dos Equis, counting on the beer to slow me down a notch or two. I’m a stranger here, though tonight I went ahead and gave my name to the server. He has waited on me two days this weekend, ten days this month, and showed little recognition until tonight. They don’t know what I’m doing with this computer; they definitely don’t know I’m using the free wi-fi to talk about them on a blog nobody reads (yet). I’m going to order one more beer and a plate of Mac and Cheese before sneaking out, as unknown as when I came in.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I'm Back...

Some of you may have been around for my Rants & Raves page I updated sporadically two years ago... Well, I'm back, and this time I mean business.

You see, I had a revelation a few months ago. It came to me one week in April, when I was in my parents' house in Maine. I realized that many years ago, when I was ten years old, I wanted to be a writer. It was all I could imagine for myself, the only one of the flights of professional fancy that stuck for more than a few days. Sure, I briefly dreamed things every boy dreams: to be a doctor, fireman, cowboy, President. (Surprising as it may be, IT consultant was never in that list... Then again, I'm not sure the title even existed back then...) Only the desire to see my name on the cover of a bestselling novel really stuck.

So what was that grand eureka moment? It was watching a video of a concert we did in fifth grade. Sixties music was the theme. I watched myself singing an atrocious version of "Daddy Sang Bass" and behind my wincing face hummed a simple enough thought: if I don't ever chase the dreams I dreamed when I was that little boy on the television screen, would I regret it forever? The decision made itself, really, and two months later I presented notice at work.

I'm retiring at twenty-nine, to pursue other dreams. Like Michael Jordan, Evander Holyfield, and so many others, I may emerge from retirement in mere months. But for now, I've got dreams to chase...

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