Thursday, April 19, 2012

Self deprecation and the art of seeming cool...

I make fun of myself a lot. There, I said it. I also make fun of nearly everything else my eyes relay to my brain. Sometimes this ongoing dialog makes its way past my brains "Gahd, that's dumb or insensitive" filter and leaves my mouth to the chagrin of those I choose to share my life with. Sometimes, these little comments about the humorous state of the universe are about me. Recently, it has been brought to my attention that this may not be the best thing for my self esteem or my mental health.

A writer's mental health is a precarious thing to begin with. I can't speak for everyone else, but my process involves a bit of multiple personality disorder. When I write, each character has a different voice and personality in my brain. I imagine that actors have something very similar going on, but I doubt their individual personalities are ever all at the surface at the same time like my writing demands. In addition, good comedy comes from seeing the reality around you from a different perspective than most people.

Anyone can be paranoid enough to believe that their server spit in their food, but it takes someone special to imagine the argument that went on in the kitchen between the chef and waiter about how much saliva was too much for a light tipper... I'm special like that, I guess.

The thing is that I don't usually share these thoughts with others because sometimes, quite frankly, they would gross out or offend whomever I'm with at the time. "Nice purse... Do your add wheels to it on the weekends so fifteen clowns can jump out of it at the circus?" doesn't go over real well in mixed company. I usually avoid this by making fun of the one person around me that I can be sure won't be offended by it... Me.

This tactic has served me well for many years. While it's true I have gotten called out from time to time for being self-deprecating, I generally don't piss off those around me with my constant critique of our shared reality anymore. I also found it to be an excellent defense mechanism over the years in that nothing takes the wind out of the sails of someone about to insult me like me beating them to the joke. I really don't think much about it before cracking a "Rob is fat" joke anymore. Better to be a lovable self-deprecating loser than to be an arrogant asshole that finds something to bitch about comedically every few minutes. Lovable losers are still cool... Arrogant assholes not so much.

The problem is my wife doesn't appreciate the self deprecating humor as much as I do, and I've promised her that I would do my best to stop. What I hadn't realized is that the fat jokes and the lazy jokes were providing a valuable release valve to my psyche. The less I laugh about it, the more it festers inside me. I want to make the wife happy, but I worry that I may be doing more harm than good to the writer inside.

And thus, the hero finds himself in conflict... The center of any really good story.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My digital afterlife

By now, many of you have heard about the Tupac Hologram that performed at the Coachella music event* and seen the footage on Youtube and other places. I just want to say that the whole thing creeps me right the hell out for a few reasons.

Tupac wasn't the only hologram in attendance...from
For a while now, we've been approaching what I like to refer to as the "Entertainment singularity", a point which actors and singers will not be integral to the entertainment process. At some point, creating TV, Movies, Plays and such will be as simple as pointing and clicking any live or deceased performer into my manuscript, and watching the computer render it. Take Tupac's hologram... while I admit that I don't actually know the source of the voice, it would not be hard to digitize Tupac's performing style and voice with a computer based on samples taken throughout his life. Suppose I could make that hologram say and do anything I typed into my word processor.

And why stop with the dead? A mid-thirties Harrison Ford would make an excellent Jake Price in a Dimensional Games movie, and with this technology, I should be able to theoretically put any words I want into Harrison's mouth. Or how about Rosario Dawson? I could make a ninety minute loop of her saying to me whatever naughty, sexy things my twisted little mind came up with. ("Can I get you a sandwich, Rob? would you like extra bacon on that? Would you like me to do your dishes too?")

My point is, that if they could do this with Tupac, then they could probably do it to anyone that had enough source material. As the technology improves, less source material will be necessary to make a digital representation of just about anyone. Which brings me to the second thing that creeped me out this week... Post-Mortum Facebook pages.

Over the past year, I have had two good friends pass away. Their Facebook accounts remain active, and as their birthdays rolled around, people posted to their pages to commemorate their passing. I understand that grief is a tricky thing, and we all grieve with what we think is appropriate, but seeing the dearly departed pop up as important in my news feed over a year after their passing is downright creepy. I suppose the solution is to unsubscribe their feeds, but that seems heartless somehow. As creeped out as I was by all this, I have to admit that it made me remember my departed friends for the first time in about a month, and I kinda smiled at that.

Where I think that it would become a problem is if you start combining these technologies. Imagine for a second a world where anyone can create a Tupac-style Hologram from the information on your facebook profile. It's not really that big a stretch when you think about it... a computer model of your image can be extrapolated from photos, even aged appropriately if the viewer desires... a synthetic personality could be constructed as well if you post status updates enough. (Snarky? Check. Loves Bacon? Check. Unhealthy infatuation with 80's cartoons? Check.) I would imagine it would be harder to deal with a loved ones passing if you could just whip up a digital version of them to chat with any time you want, or if a friend used their image in a youtube video he thinks is totally appropriate to your loved one's memory. The odds of a video of Grandpa on a skateboard doing a triple ollie into a swimming pool full of lime Jell-o and bikini clad women being 'appropriate' to your Grandma are sketchy, no matter how much you think he would have loved it.

We may come to a point where it will be necessary to bequeath the rights to your digital likeness to specific people on your passing, so that your image won't be plundered by those that don't share your vision of your legacy. Heck, in many ways we're there already. My wife has given me permission, (should she kick first... I think we all know how unlikely that is) that upon her passing I can keep updating her facebook page with her thoughts and impressions on the afterlife. ("Boy, it's a lot hotter here than I expected, and since when does God have horns and a pitchfork?")

*the DOA management admits freely to not being hip enough to really know what this "Coachella" thing actually was.... for all we know, it could have been a Cinderella-type ball for high school football coaches. we also acknowledge that it is equally unlikely that Snoop and Dr.Dre would perform at such an event, much less spend several thousand dollars to have their dead friend perform at one.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Finding the time

We've all heard the words before, from better minds than I... "A writer WRITES! To truly be a success at writing, you have to have a body of work for new readers to find!". So, you get up your nerve, open your laptop, brew a pot of coffee, and close your eyes, waiting for the words to start flowing.

Then your youngest child decides to figure out how the dishwasher works by adding an entire bottle of detergent to the machine, your oldest needs help with his homework, and your dog poops on your wife's favorite jacket. As you get out the mop, while balancing a math textbook in one hand, the youngest hops up on your kitchen table and starts typing his manifesto, which looks disturbingly like this:

"It was a dark and stormy night when Dex first saw her... She washiubhbrfrdegtfhhhgufyrxjknkytdrckjniubiun. Cytfuvhgdvhhioinoinoubiulin ihbibibhibijnsoiubdiducyeyebdjfkfk."

The translation is of course, "She was only interested in getting up off her fat butt and buying her youngest child some goddamn juice boxes before he threw the biggest tantrum ever!"

Finding the time to write can be one of the biggest challenges of the writer's lifestyle. It requires a lot of discipline on your part, and a substantial amount of understanding from your loved ones. I wish I knew some magic writers charm I could share with you that would grant you an extra six hours a day in a parallel dimension, with only a word processor to keep you company, but it just doesn't work that way. All of us that are compelled to tell stories have our own tricks and stratagems that get us to that blissful state of productivity every day, but they're just that... Tricks designed to convince our muses that they have our undivided attention for a few short hours.

Fact is, there will ALWAYS be things competing for your attention. When starting out, we all have day jobs, loved ones, pets, and responsibilities vying for our attention. I have come to believe over the years that one of the things that separates the hobbyist from the pro is their ability to manage this problem. The important thing is to try to establish a routine for your writing, just as you do for anything else that's important to you. If you don't, you'll always be the "one day" writer.

For me, the journey to a writing habit was not an easy one, but one I think every writer could learn from. I would break it down into four steps... But not twelve... That would be too creepy. "Hi, my name is Rob and I'm a Writeaholic..."

Step 1: identify a time of day you consistently have to yourself. For me, it was that magic time of the morning between when I drop the kids off at school, and when I need to walk the dog at noon. Before I got married, it was the hour or so before work when I had been going to the diner and reading a book while eating my breakfast. Thus began my diner/coffee shop workplace fixation.

Step 2: make that a time you write. No excuses. Keep in mind, a writing habit doesn't have to be a huge amount of time. The important thing is consistency. Let's say that the block of time you have is the thirty minutes you have lunch... For most people, that's enough time to crank out a page. If you do this for 30 days, you've got a short story. Do it for a year, and you have a novel.

Step 3: meet other writers. Other than the benefits of peer pressure on your writing (accountability is your friend) it can be difficult for your friends and loved ones to understand the whole "muse" thing. Having the support and friendship of other people that know what it's like to try to get words on the page can be huge. There are writers circles in every major city, and NaNoWriMo groups all over the planet. Should that fail, most sci-fi conventions have writers panels, and most of the people in the audience are just like you.

Step 4: cut deals with your loved ones. I am not above promising a day at the park or a romantic evening to my wife and kids to buy some writing time. Life is all about compromises, after all.

"But Rob! What do we do when our loved ones interrupt our writing time?"

Simple. Put down the laptop and enjoy their company, but come back to it after the kids are tucked in, and you've snuggled a bit with your sweetie. Art is never created in a vacuum, and it is our experiences that give our words life. So give yourself permission to go and laugh and love a little. When you get back to your laptop, you're gonna write great pages.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Pizza Gain, or Easter Pie

As a kid, I would look forward to Easter for one reason... A giant chocolate rabbit with my name on it. I could care less about resurrecting messiahs, rites of spring, or pagan fertility festivals. It was all about the candy. A good Easter basket, if properly managed, could last a sugar happy kid like myself all the way through the fourth of July.

Mine was of course, gone by Tuesday.

As an adult, my tastes and understanding of the holiday matured considerably, and along with freaking out my Catholic (with a capital 'C', you heathens) relatives by espousing my personal theory that Jesus was a Vampire, I started to look forward to a traditional Sicilian (with a capital 'S'!!!) dish known as Pizza Gain. I would later learn that the name of the dish was actually dialect-specific to the region of Sicily my ancestors came from. It's 'real' name is Pizza Rustica, or 'Italian Easter pie'.

When I moved to New Orleans, I was disappointed to find that my beloved Pizza Gain wasn't part of the Italian traditions here. Mind you, the Italian parades and St. Joseph's altars make up for this failing, so I let it slide for many years.

Fast forward twelve years. After hurricane Katrina, I flopped around a bit. I was unsure of myself or my identity. No longer confident about my role in the world after having much of my life stripped away. That following Easter, I felt homesick for the first time in years. I wanted and needed to have Pizza Gain on Easter Sunday.

First, I tried to find someone that produced it locally, with no luck. Then I called a bunch of Italian bakeries in NYC to see if they could ship some to me, but turned up nothing. Then I Googled it, and came across a recipe that seemed very similar to Grandpa Ferdinando's. I prepared it, tweaking it here and there to what I remembered my Grandpa doing to his, and it came out really close... but not quite there. Certainly it was close enough for my purposes. I have tried to prepare it every year since, and I really hope that my step kids will one day incorporate it into their holiday traditions.

Rob's Pizza Gain (Pizza Rustica, Italian Easter Pie)

2 lbs of good ricotta cheese (dense, not watery, being the standard here)
1lb of deli ham, cubed (or capicolla if your local deli has it)
1lb of Genoa salami (any hard salami should work... but Genoa has just the right blend of garlic and fat)
9 large eggs
1lb cubed Mozzarella cheese
3 tbs of dried parsley
2 tbs of dried basil
2 deep dish ready-made pie crusts, or 3 regular depth**

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. in a large bowl, mix together the eggs and the ricotta. add all the deli meats and cheese, and the basil and parsley. Pour the mixture into the pie crusts and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the edges turn golden brown. remove from oven and let stand until completely cool before serving. My Mom says that you need to let it age for at least a week... yeah, you just try waiting that long.

**Note- Grandpa Ferdinando's traditional Pizza Gain always had a top crust... I have never gotten the hang of making pie crust from scratch, So if you feel up to it, go for it. Don't forget to do an olive oil wash (not egg) and vent the top.