Thursday, August 28, 2008

What This Place Needs is an Amazing Bridge

This post about some of the most unique bridges in the world got me thinking. For years Chicago politicians have discussed extending Lake Shore Drive up to Evanston -- the first suburb north of the city. Whenever the subject comes up, it always involves filling in the existing lake front and completely changing the shoreline along the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Not only is this a bad idea, but I think it lacks vision as well. First of all, the lake front we have is perfectly fine, with more public beaches per mile than any other neighborhood in the city. This is because once upon a time Rogers Park functioned as Chicago's "vacation area." Times change, however, and for the past fifty years or so Rogers Park has been considered at best a "transitional" area, one always on the cusp of a renewal that never quite seems to arrive. The current lake front is one of the few things Rogers Park has going for it, and altering or decreasing our access to it would be disastrous.

Instead, I'd like to propose building a kick-ass bridge from the end of Lake Shore Drive to Evanston. Something along the lines of France's Millau Viaduct, above, would be nice. A visually stunning bridge would not only preserve the current lake front and beach access, it would provide a unique identifier to the Rogers Park area, similar to San Francisco's Presidio and Marina districts, and a new iconic image for Chicago. Plus, for all our architectural splendors, a great bridge is not among them. And though I'm no expert on these matters, instinct tells me building a bridge would be less expensive than putting up an eight-lane highway over newly created land.

So, let this post be my notice to Mayor Daley and our alderman, Joe Moore. Think about it, guys.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where Was I?

Never try to stop smoking, lose weight and write a short story on deadline at the same time. Because none of them will get accomplished.

That's not entirely true. I've cut my smoking by 75% (thank God Nicorette gum is available without a prescription). I've written half a story (which won't be finished in time to submit to the anthology I had in mind). And I did lose three pounds.

So the past 2-4 weeks haven't been a complete loss. But the portion of them that wasn't spent in a frenzied haze was devoted to beating myself up, which is always a bloody affair. What little time was left over I spent reading and yard-saling. Both provided me with many hours of enjoyment.

These things happen from time to time. I'm pretty much an all-or-nothing type of guy. Most of the time it works out okay. Occasionally, however, this lifestyle swallows me alive. It's always nice to come out the other side, even if it does leave me feeling like shit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Universe is a Casino

Albert Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice with the universe." His point (made in response to the randomness of quantum physics) was that the universe must behave according to laws that are observable, absolute and, ultimately, predictable.

While God (and Oprah, more on her later) may have the luxury of operating within this kind of well-ordered universe, the vast majority of us must get along as best we can by doing exactly what God can't be bothered with: playing dice. That, or roulette, blackjack, Texas hold 'em, slot machines or insert-your-favorite-game-of-chance-here.

This observation was inspired by a good friend's recent experience in a discussion at a well-known author's online writing forum. My friend responded to the request for "favorite writing rules" with several that have helped him, and was subsequently taken to task for some of them. Not only by the well-known author, but by his henchman as well, and in not one but two separate responses.

I left a lengthy comment supporting my pal which basically boiled down to calling bullshit on the author, his henchman, rules in general and the futility of following them specifically. It probably wasn't the most mature or well-reasoned response in the history of these things, but it did get me thinking.

As someone who's spent a great deal of time and money searching for rules by which to live a successful life, I feel I can speak with some authority when I say my search has largely been futile, and I suspect most other people's have been as well.

This isn't because we suffer from a shortage of so-called experts, each one offering (usually for a price) one or more rules that promise to help you earn more money, make wise investments, find true love, improve your marriage, land a dream job, enhance your career, write your novel or find an agent/publisher for that book you just finished.

No, the world is packed to the rafters with these folks. At best, their rules reflect the mysterious combination of hard work and good luck that happened to come up aces for them once upon a time. At worst, they're recycled platitudes that were pulled out of their ass and/or thin air.

This is why I do a slow boil every time someone like Oprah says something along the lines of "The universe responds to intention." In other words, if you want something badly enough and send out that desire to the universe, the universe has no other choice but to pony up and respond by delivering exactly what you asked for, like some great cosmic Santa. I would argue with Ms. Winfrey that the universe does not respond to intention so much as your personal staff and the entertainment industry respond to hundreds of millions of dollars, a terrific amount of perceived power, and your own stated wishes. Mere mortals and those whose lives relegate them to watching daytime talk shows must hazard a much steeper climb.

Back in the 1980s, Bally health clubs ran a commercial featuring Cher, in which she told us "if great bodies came in a bottle, everybody would have one." I believe the same could be said for best-selling novels, number-one pop songs, record-breaking movies and larger than average penises. If it were possible to cook these things up simply by following a recipe, they'd be as common as apple pies and chocolate chip cookies.

And yet, as writers we're among the most desperate of anyone to believe that the next book of rules or seminar or guru will be different. It's a perfectly understandable desire. Authors who have books to their name and a list of rules for sale must have their acts pretty much together. They must know what they're talking about.

Alas, I don't believe they do -- at least when it comes to passing along some great and powerful secret. This became clear to me upon reading Stephen King's On Writing. I opened that book with great anticipation, figuring that if anyone could describe the process of successful writing it would have to be Mr. King.

Instead, he pretty much admitted that even he doesn't know how he does what he does so well, and didn't have much more advice for hopeful writers than could be found in any number of other books on writing already out there. Read copiously, he advised us. Be a compulsive observer of human nature. Tell the truth. Write every day. Eliminate adverbs and cliches. He might as well have added, "Finish your vegetables."

It's not that King's instruction wasn't generous and well-intentioned. It was. But after finishing On Writing I came to believe that either there was no secret, or if there was, even he wasn't going to let the rest of us in on it.

Critics will probably consider this post the sour grapes of a bitter and disillusioned has-been to-be. If that helps them sleep at night and wake up in the morning refreshed and ready to face another day, I'm happy to be of service.

My point isn't that nobody knows what they're talking about and everyone is full of shit. Quite the opposite. I'm a big believer in learning the rules and playing by them, then breaking a few when it suits your purposes or you're feeling especially ornery.

But I do believe writing is as slippery and mysterious as life itself. And just as there's no formula for success in one there's no ten easy steps for the other. In the end it is, like everything else, largely a numbers game for all but a fortunate few whose number has already been called.

Seek out advice, but consider the source and its agenda. Use what suits your purposes and leave the rest by the side of the road. Look at what's already worked and build on that. Don't take "no" for an answer and stay at the table. Keep playing for as long as you possibly can and hope like hell your number comes up, too.

And keep in mind that everyone -- even and especially those you allow to teach you -- is making it up as they go along.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Ever Since the World Ended"

2001; directed by Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle; written by Calum Grant

What everyone enjoys about end-of-the-world tales isn't watching the world wind down, but seeing how a small band of survivors rebuild it, and imagining what it would be like to be among them.

This is the fantasy that Ever Since the World Ended appeals to, explores, satisfies, and then improves upon. Presented as an amateur documentary, the film is set in San Francisco 12 years after an unnamed plague has eliminated most of the human race, leaving only 186 people within the city limits.

Choosing the documentary form was a brilliant move. Not only does it circumvent a lot of budgetary limitations, it allows the filmmakers to make the most of their special effects shots of eerily deserted streets, a decomposing Golden Gate Bridge, and a rusting ship in the harbor. It also gives viewers license to transform what might have been considered technical shortcomings in a big-budget film into a sense of immediacy and the feeling that what we're seeing is real.

The film opens with just enough individual recollections of the plague's history to set up the premise, then quickly introduces us to a world that is recognizable, yet radically different and sometimes humorous.

Bike mechanics are considered extremely valuable, as are those with a knack for sniffing out caches of liquor, prescription drugs and cigarettes inside the deserted city's thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. The last American Indian has grown weary of people expecting him to be some kind of mystic. Those who couldn't tolerate the demands of our current workaday world are now thriving. And everyone has lots and lots of time on their hands.

Yet people -- and their interactions with one another -- are much the same. They still enjoy dinners together, suffer petty jealousies, and engage in gossipy conversations, and it's within these very human relationships where much of the film's plot lives.

A single woman is ready to raise a child, and searching for a suitable sperm donor from the city's remaining men. A small group has decided to venture outside the city, and encounters a long-lost friend living wild in the branches of Muir Woods' canopy. A troubled community member who had left (or been chased out) has returned, presenting the survivors with the dilemma of keeping watch over him, banishing him again to become some other city's problem, or performing an outright execution.

The film's ending is both a surprise and surprisingly bittersweet, and I won't give it away here. But by the time we get there, this strange new world has become a place that looks like home. The only problem is, you have to go through hell to get there, and there's no guarantee you'll arrive. Better to watch the film and dream.

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales" by Fran Friel

Much has already been said about Fran Friel's debut collection, Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales, most of it revolving around the question of how such a nice woman could write such disturbing fiction.

While I have some issues of my own with that question (nice people write disturbing things all the time -- in fact, most of the horror writers I know are incredibly nice and, yes, even normal, people) the answer is actually pretty simple: Fran Friel is a writer, one who's not only in touch with her own vivid imagination, but has learned how to harness it, allow it to run free, and isn't afraid to go where it wants to take her. In a genre that too often relies on the tried-and-true, that's saying a lot, and it sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.

The book is composed of two novellas (including the title story), a group of short stories, flash and micro pieces; and a single poem. Friel's shorter works are both sensitive and powerful, and many of them are eye-openers in terms of proving just how much a limited number of words can accomplish. "Orange and Golden" -- a Katrina-inspired tale of a survivor and a dog -- is especially upsetting and well-done. (And upsetting has become, for me, the gold standard of dark fiction, since so little of it actually scares me any more.) "Close Shave" was another piece that, brief as it is at just 58 words, packs a visceral punch and central image that is still surfacing in my imagination several days later. "Beach of Dreams," with its glorious and hallucinatory opening of monsters washed up on the beach of a South Pacific island, was another favorite and made for a strong introduction to the collection. And "The Sea Orphan" is a well-researched tale that did what I wouldn't have thought possible after that series of disappointing Disney movies -- made me interested in pirates.

Of course, "Mama's Boy" is at the collection's heart, even though it appears at the end. The story was a 2006 Bram Stoker finalist, and I finished it awed by Friel's courage as a writer. The story's subject matter of mother/son incest is nothing less than explosive. Friel tackles the topic with a difficult mix of sensitivity and frankness, with keen observations and often fearless language. As I read it, I often found myself wondering about the questions she must have asked herself during its creation -- "Do I say this?" "Can I take it there?" "Is this possible?" Judging from the results, she answered each one with a resounding "Yes."

One section I especially enjoyed is at the back of the book, where Friel gives notes on each story. Sort of like a DVD's bonus features, she provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at how each piece was conceived, grew and developed, generously crediting the fellow writers and workshoppers who gave her inspiration and guidance along the way.

Friel's publisher, Jason Sizemore at Apex Book Company, also deserves some recognition for putting together a collection that's daring and out of the ordinary in many ways. They've ventured outside the safety zone in several respects with this book, and deserve credit for doing so.

Rumor has it Friel is working on a novel. Based on her work in Mama's Boy... it should be one to look forward to.