Saturday, January 5, 2008

And Here I Thought We Were Made, A&E

Where Have You Gone, Tony Soprano?

File this post under my rant of the day from the unrelenting tedium of winter break.

Probably I'd be better off not admitting this, seeing as there are only so many hours of the day to be productive, and running out of reasons to blend my mind into mush in front of the TV is more likely something to celebrate, but:

Can anyone out there tell me what the heck A&E is doing with its rights to The Sopranos these days? The love affair started out so dreamily between us.

I'd put my time in, last year, churning out pages of writing during the day, alternately driving into the city for classes and babysitting sonny, and then come nightfall veg out with the wife on the couch Wednesdays for our weekly date with Tony and his bloody band of brothers.

Man, A&E made the most of its $2.55 million-per-episode investment in the beginning, showing 2 episodes in sequence every Wednesday, and reruns to boot during the week. Gangster Heaven (as the commercials boasted)? Fuhgeddaboutit! And this was bliss, even though we'd mostly seen all the episodes from having HBO for a while and then renting the DVDs once our conscious-parents budget kicked in.

Well, then A&E dropped back to one episode a night, at a later time. And then it backtracked over the summer. And now, just when A&E made it through a nice, long sequence of episodes leading through the stellar season 5 (the penultimate season, before the two-part grand send-off), you can't find the episodes anywhere on the schedule.

Oh, they're re-airing episodes from season 5 (after copping out with some "viewers' best" picks before Christmas), and they're on at, like, 2:13 a.m. in the East. What gives? The Sopranos cost A&E a mint of money and delivered them record ratings. So now it's time to toy with viewers?

Seeing as there is only so much time I can devote to TV, especially stuff I've already seen, I think the answer is simple, after sitting through a night last night (no football on that I cared about; crap early-season basketball; no patience for the network slop; and woah... CSI: Miami on A&E): shut the freaking (to borrow from A&E censors) tube off.

Once we "stop believin'" there are so many better things to find to do. Hey, maybe even spend time with our own, live "families"? (see above)

Friday, January 4, 2008

TED vs. GORDON: A Tale of Two Eateries

If I was to distill my approach to life, it might go something like: maximum effort, maximum variety of activities, for as long as can be sustained. I like what I like; I like doing it well; and I mope when the pace slows down and I find myself twiddling my thumbs. I feel guilty: shouldn't I be doing something more?

As you can imagine, exhaustion is never far away for me.

When reason kicks in, and I remember to take better care of myself, I try to find the easier way of doing things, or at least a method that won't awaken my inner conniptions.

When I have a 6 p.m. class in Chicago, for example, I make the drive into the city no later than 3:30 p.m. and find a nice restaurant or someplace to hole up in to wait out the time lag. Leaving that extra bit early spares me the crush of traffic that hits the road between 3:30 and 4.

I take a similar approach to eating out. When it was just my wife and I, sure, we could slink into some smoky eatery and bide our time or belly up to the bar until a table opened up. But with an infant along, it helps to plan ahead. And really, if we can eat with no wait, and optimum service, at 3 p.m. on a Saturday (or 5 p.m. on a Friday; or like anytime on a Tuesday...), isn't that worth easing the forehead crease a while?

In the bland suburbs of Chicago, particularly our bland suburb, my wife and I have our own favorites when it comes to restaurants, places that get us away from the chains, or if they're chains, at least satisfy a particular craving. We love our Irish pub; deep-dish pizza the odd Sunday after church (with the game on above the bar, and a tall mug of PBR for me, which I don't drink anywhere else); and on special occasions, Spanish tapas to lighten the wallet and color our cheeks with their special amontillado.

Lately, though, with the opening of a major shopping/eating/entertainment development just down the road in our 'burb, we've been hitting up a particularly satisfying high-end chain. It's a hot ticket, with tasty dishes and hand-crafted beers, and the times we've gone I've usually pulled my off-hours trick to get us seated right away and utterly blissed out at the treatment we get.

Until a few Saturdays ago. A friend of mine from Pittsburgh was in town, and headed out our way, though we weren't quite sure when. Not her fault, AT ALL -- mostly a function of frenetic weekend pace and winter snowstorm and that ever-present traffic -- but by the time she rolled in, we were head-on with the Saturday night restaurant crush. What the heck, I said. Let's do "Gordon's" place, anyway. Out here in the wastes of Cul-de-sac Land, to settle for Bennigan's, or T.G.I. Pukedays or the like, when she'd just come from Chicago, would have been pretty disappointing, I figured.

So we loaded up the car with my wife and I, my friend and her Chicago friend, and the baby, of course. We made it through the blowing snow to Gordon's, and I braced myself as we approached the hostess stand -- there was the expected crowd of bench-dwellers and pager-fondlers, like us all eager for a table. And the wait was announced as 30 to 45 minutes. "C'mon," I grumbled, "let's try another place." There are, after all, at least a dozen or so in this new development to choose from, and one across the way -- "Ted's" -- we'd never tried but heard good things about. They'd also opened a chain in the suburb we used to call home, right down the street from our beloved pub. So we headed out and bent into the wind, stomachs chirping.

As you trudge with us through the slush, let me list the ways that Gordon's had bowled us over up to that point. First, I'm a sucker for microbrews, especially when there's variety, which Gordon's has in abundance. Maybe I've been a product of Chicago too long now, but I even don't mind paying a premium for them, like the $9 LITER of Oktoberfest I guzzled this fall with my sausage, mashed potatoes and kraut/spatzel plate. JA! Gordon's food runs the gamut from hearty pub fare to steak and seafood house cuisine, done in tasty combinations and you can substitute ANYTHING, ANY TIME, no upcharge or ridiculous pouty looks from the server. The dining room is spacious, and tastefully decorated, and baby-friendly. And the servers have always been cheerful, helpful -- and you stick with the same one throughout the meal. None of this "we're-all-a-team-in-the-name-of-anarchy" crap, like something out of a recent ER episode. All in all, you feel you're getting more than you pay for, and this is why we love it. Also, we'd been pretty spoiled our first few visits, granted. We'd been seated right away every time.

Still, knowing what I know now, I would trade the predicted 30- to 45-minute wait at Gordon's that night with what we learned about Ted's. We won't be going back. But I'm happy to ward you off from making even an initial visit.

As you might expect, the crowd was as thick at Ted’s as Gordon’s. This is, after all, Saturday night in Chicagoland, and if you have an idea for entertainment, chances are a few thousand other people do, too. We were told the same wait time: about 30 to 45 minutes. When they asked for the number in our party, I told them what I always tell the host staff: four adults, plus a baby. Implying that instead of the automatic “5” they’d brand us with, we could do a table for four with the baby pulled up to the side. But they began explaining to me why this could not be the case, how we couldn’t have a table for four, since we were five, etc. etc. This isn’t an issue in places like Gordon’s, or other restaurants that prepare for fluctuating numbers of parties, since they have a certain planned versatility in their dining area. For instance, Gordon’s is outfitted with several tables for four and two in the main dining area that can be reconfigured – read: pushed around and arranged with each other – to accommodate basically any size party, and right away. Ted’s, stupidly, is not. They’ve populated the dining room with a bunch of round tables for huge parties juxtaposed with tables for two and four jammed against the wall. During the course of our wait, we saw many tables for four open up, but were told we couldn’t sit there because we were five. The wall tables were out, we were told, because we’d be putting a member of our party, or the baby, in the aisle, which was against fire code. OK… the baby is still little enough to sit on our laps or between us on one side of the table, but Ted’s wasn’t budging. The manager himself came out a few times to keep me updated on the seating and to reiterate this point. Wow… didn’t go to eat for an education in the restaurant business or fire codes, just came to eat.

When we did get seated, after spending longer than the promised time at the bar (with my son taking up one of the seats… hmmmm), where the service was zombie-caliber, we sat for a long while and endured the setting of our table and the distribution of menus by two different members of the wait staff before somebody thought to take our drink and/or appetizer order. We were very interested in appetizers, and drinks, in fact since ours were empty and the baby was getting pretty squirmy hungry at this point. Ted’s is done in a western theme – didn’t mention that until now – and so part of its rustic “charm” is that you get these cucumber-type complimentary appetizers and there’s buffalo on the menu. Well, buffalo, after ample experience, I can do without, but the appetizers interested me. We were to find out, soon enough, that maybe it’s Ted’s “charm” or just an oversight of the wait staff, but the way we ate our appetizers that night was straight off the table cloth, I mean butcher paper serving as a table cloth. Nobody from Ted’s seemed to notice. Weird.

The food was less than stellar. Much. So much so that anything we brought home we basically just tossed. I can’t remember what I ordered… ooh, it’s coming back to me… beer can chicken. I’ve had better in my own backyard, which is maybe usually the case, but I have certain expectations for restaurants. You’re putting your money behind them, obviously.

There was one more surprise at Ted’s, and perhaps it had to do with the rustic “charm” of the place, but it smacks of poor, poor planning to me. The restroom stalls were outfitted with baskets of extra toilet paper, placed above the commode like you’re spending winter break at your UNCLE Ted’s, and this would be OK, if unsanitary, I guess, except for the way patrons dealt with the bottomless basket of t.p. rolls was the same way you do at your uncle’s (I’m assuming here): the fresh roll was propped atop a spent cardboard center still in the dispenser, while a half-dozen or more spent centers littered the floor. C’mon over to Uncle Ted’s! Yeeeeeee-haw!

I think describing our three-hour visit to Uncle Ted’s (that’s right… yee-haw) as “debacle” would be a little much. It doesn’t rank up there with the worst of our bad eating experiences, some at places we like that were just having an off night. But I figure my experience at Ted’s was typical of what it has to offer. And I’m too experienced – old…? – to waste my time going through it again. So we’re one and done there. And looking forward to our next trip to the ultra-mega-super-duper-urban-eating-shopping-entertainment complex. Whenever that might be, we’re dining at Gordon’s, no matter the wait.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Confessions of a Chronic Page-Turner

One of the questions I get a lot as a writer, and that I also ask a lot of everybody else, writer or not, is “what are you reading?”

I admit to being a lot more curious about what others are reading than eager to share my own list. It’s such a personal thing to me, and how can I expect you to understand, or get down with what I’m reading, without a ten-minute mini-sermon on my influences, or book-buying habits, or some sheepish disclaimer about why you caught me reading a romance (it was for Popular Fiction class!) and why I enjoyed it (it was by Jennifer Crusie, a super-witty, highly humorous fellow Ohioan).

Nevertheless, I’ve been made to answer this question a lot since jumping the track as newspaper reporter (maybe they think reporters don’t read) and setting out on my own to write and publish a nonfiction book and return to grad school to teach and write a few more.

“What are you reading?” came up in my first tutoring session. My undergrad student confessed what, in all honesty, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably all feel: “I haven’t read much of the ‘good books,’ and I’m trying to catch up.” Well, what do you say to that? I’d hardly describe my reading list as being populated exclusively with writers in the literary canon, and just because I like something, doesn’t mean you will. Chances are it’s part of my own quirky make up as a writer, and I’d suggest that any writer serious about the craft cling to and take pride in their unique crushes in reading, while also staying open to trying new stuff.

It’s like Billy Joel said about music and food, and here I’m paraphrasing (I recently read his biography and I know this quote is in there, but fifteen minutes flipping and consulting the index yielded zip: why is that usually the case when there’s a specific thing you’re hunting?): there are so many flavors and varieties; why limit yourself to just one?

So how do I respond to the question?

In teaching, it’s about what you bring into the classroom. Through 40 years of its Story Workshop Method, Columbia College has developed an extensive reading list, with materials tested and proven to spark improvement in student writing. The range of stories and novels covers the forms writing can take – letters, dreams, model telling, folktale, story-within-a-story, etc. – and generally works with an eye toward giving students’ permission to write about the deep, personal stuff, to take that first crack at transcending self-censorship, which often blocks out our best stuff. So, you see selections like the ministratin’ episode, from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and “Tralala” from Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, as well as successful student pieces from the past, collected in the college’s award-winning Hair Trigger compilations. To these lists, tutors draw on their observations and hunches about tutees to bring their own selections, which are ideally ferreted out in the tutor training class beforehand. For example, I dipped into “The Vomitorium” chapter from John McNally’s The Book of Ralph to illustrate character, voice, place and movement. Reading for the classroom is partly about finding a connection to the elements that prove useful in your own writing.

On my own, though, I’m more of an impulse/committed reader when it comes to book devouring. I like to wander the aisles and run my fingers along spines, look at the names of authors and publishers, flip to a random page and see how the music of the voice moves me. On the romantic end, I’m a streaky reader, devoting myself to one author for a month or more, weighting my shelves with everything by that writer I can get my hands on. Some of these, I guess you could say, become my favorites, books and writers I’ll return to every year, for the rest of my life: John Updike, Ray Bradbury, Rick Bass, Nabokov, Capote, Michael Chabon, T.C. Boyle, Denis Johnson, Robert Olen Butler. Some are flings, no less passionate in the devouring, though fleeting in my obsession: Buzz Bissinger, John Feinstein, Philip Roth, Dave Barry, Annie Proulx, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, Tom Franklin.

Here are two characteristic examples of my book-buying/-reading habits from 2007.

First, my wife and vacationed in Maui for our fifth anniversary. We were walking past the tourist traps in downtown Lahaina – art galleries, T-shirt shops, eateries fine and profane – when I spied a used bookstore down an alley. We spent about an hour in there, and I walked out with: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, by Jimmy Breslin; They Whisper, by Robert Olen Butler; Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burrows; and one other my shelves have since swallowed. Didn’t make my return-flight luggage any lighter (I was already toting three or so novels), but a nice mix of literary fiction, fiction by a wise-ass New York newspaper columnist (Breslin), and memoir.

Second instance: Columbia’s writing department sets up a used book sale every fall, and in addition to my usual back-breaking pack, I bought and bagged these to take home: Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor; The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan; Schindler’s List, Tom Keneally; three Richard Brautigan books bound in one edition; and two Creative Nonfiction journals, including vol. 1, issue 1. All for under $5. While I’m a sucker for buying new, I also kick my heels at buying used in a quantity to make my forearms sting without straining my wallet. I also dig “finding” books, like the giveaways frequently piled atop the table outside the department office. My idea of geekdom is becoming utterly absorbed with the “letters” issues put out by journals, like the Missouri Review edition chronicling correspondence from Alfred A. Knopf’s files. That, and reserving a place of honor on my bookshelf for the two volumes chronicling the best of the Ohio Review, which marked the grand finale of the journal in 2001.

So that’s what I mean about reading being personal. I could say a lot more about my choices above, and my patterns of reading (and planning to get to) them, but why? You’ve got your own page-turning peccadilloes, after all. Or at least you should. Nick Hornby spends a bit of time detailing his in The Polysyllabic Spree, which, after you’ve read about his bookish habits, and likely laughed a bit, too, you can always go out and acquire the stuff he’s been poking his nose in.
Lately, when “What are you reading?” comes up, I’ve been steering folks to a great source I found while researching a class oral report in November. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (first public library in the nation, folks) keeps a nice selection of reading lists on its web site at Developed by librarians, there are lists targeted for teens like “Holden Caulfields for the New Age,” and “Believers and Doubters,” and “Thrillers and Mysteries for the Adrenaline Junkie.” On the adult side (look under “Discover More”), their categories in fiction & poetry (be sure to check under New Arrivals, too) include “Bodies! Where Would We Be Without Them?” Its description: “A bounty of fiction featuring the human body both inside and out, as vehicle, curse or blessing.” Its titles: The Illustrated Man (Bradbury); The Flawless Skin of Ugly People (Doug Crandell); and The Electric Michelangelo (Sarah Hall), among others.
With the aid of search engines, you’re never short a reading list these days. That’s a good thing, especially when considering sobering statistics like these, compiled by publishing researcher Dan Poynter:

* 1/3 of adults don’t read a book after high school.
* adults watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day.
* 80 percent of U.S. households didn’t buy a book at all in 2005.

Yikes. What more can I say about that? Ask away, perhaps. “What do you read?” is preferable to “Who’s Mark Twain?”

As a final blog-buster in a long entry, I’ve mostly been keeping track of what I’ve read each of the last five years, when I remember to write it down, which is more often than not. Perusing my list for the year just ended, I counted 11 short story collections, 28 novels, 14 nonfiction biography, memoir, journalism and letters, 3 writing reference/instruction. A good mix, and it varies every year. Here’s how it broke down for me, in mostly random order. With that, I consider the question answered... for now.

Where I’m Calling From
– Raymond Carver (second time)
Childhood and Other Neighborhoods
The Coast of Chicago
– Stuart Dybek
The Bell Jar
– Sylvia Plath
The Diary of a Madman... and Selected Stories
– Nikolay Gogol
Best of Hair Trigger
– Columbia College short stories, other stuff
Other Voices, Other Rooms
In Cold Blood (second time)
Collected Stories
– Truman Capote
Truman Capote: Conversations (collected interviews)
Conversations with Capote (ed. Lawrence Grobel)
Capote (by Gerald Clarke)
Too Brief a Treat (Capote letters, ed. by Clarke)
A Bridge to Childhood (by one of Capote’s relatives, about his childhood)
– books about Capote!
The Bluest Eye
– Toni Morrison (second time)
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”
– Herman Melville
“The Metamorphosis”
– Franz Kafka (fourth time?)
Mystic River
– Dennis Lehane (third time)
Jesus’ Son
– Denis Johnson
Men and Cartoons
The Fortress of Solitude
– Jonathan Lethem
All the King’s Men
-- Robert Penn Warren
The Book of Ralph
America’s Report Card
-- John McNally
The Lost Grizzlies
The Ninemile Wolves
-- Rick Bass
Becoming Abigail
-- Chris Abani
Aspects of the Novel
-- E.M. Forster (third time)
The Bronx is Burning
-- Jonathan Mahler
Little Children
-- Tom Perrotta
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight
-- Jimmy Breslin
They Whisper
-- Robert Olen Butler
-- Al Stump (fourth time)
Running with Scissors
-- Augusten Burroughs
The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007
-- collected stories
Welcome to Temptation
-- Jennifer Crusie
Writing from Start to Finish (second time)
Writing from Start to Finish: Teacher’s Manual
-- John Schultz
The Blade Itself
-- Marcus Sakey
Kill Me
-- Stephen White
A Darkness More than Night
-- Michael Connelly
Go Tell it on the Mountain
-- James Baldwin
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (third time)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (second time)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (second time)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
-- J.K. Rowling
Storm Front
-- Jim Butcher
-- Robert Sullivan (second time)
The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
-- Philip Pullman
Billy Joel: The Biography
-- Mark Bevo
Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription
-- William F. Buckley Jr.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008


Into the Blogosphere! (Multiple Personality Disorder Edition)

With all due regard to Sufjan Stevens and his four recorded versions of his song “Chicago”… (Check out three of ‘em on The Avalanche album) here is my lunging stab at overextending myself from the first tick of the New Year.

Like a Harlem Globetrotter with a Guinness-record fetish, I aim to keep three blogs spinning about in cyberspace this year, not because anyone told me I should, not because I have to, but because in my compartmentalized, creative way (talk about multiple personalities), I want to.

This all basically started with a colleague I respect asking me “Do you blog?”

What do they say – hindsight is like French kissing the funhouse mirror? Well, no, actually I just said that. But I think you know what I mean.

What I mean is, when I answered her, I thought I knew what she was asking, and I was confident in my answer. And now, looking back, I see completely missed the boat. Like, John-Cusack’s-girlfriend-in-Say-Anything missed the boat.

Her question came about in this context: as a former newspaper reporter and columnist taking a plunge into grad school and fiction writing, I still get the Jonesing, now and again, for journalistic work, be it a magazine or newspaper column, a radio essay, or the stray profile or other assignment. Late last year I sent an e-mail to that effect to a few editors and well-placed contacts of mine, basically saying, if they knew of any freelance gigs that might be a fit, give me a shout. This colleague wrote back, saying she would keep me in mind, and concluded by asking, “Do you blog?”

I responded, essentially, yeah, of course. (Affecting the tone of a Nick Hornby character, probably John Cusack in High Fidelity, since I’m mentioning it.) I referred her to the blog I’d been keeping on My Space, where for a year or so I’d been posting excerpts from stories, or updates on life, and lately had been teasing friends and readers with news and outtakes related to the publication of my first nonfiction book, Building the Green Machine. At that point, the book had really taken over everything: the blog, the MySpace page, my life. (My wife’s, too. And still she manages to get excited about it. God, how I love her.) And while I’m sure that’s a legitimate use of blog space, it doesn’t quite fit the usual mode of blogger discourse, mainly, as “web log,” a sort-of tap into the keg of the writer’s mind which spews forth in a sometimes forceful, sometimes freeform spray about all the dirty corners and bright-lit byways traveled in life.

In retrospect, I see that I wasn’t blogging, not really. My aims were far too direct, not that that’s a sin in the blogosphere. But where my colleague was concerned – holding up my blog as an example of how I write, and how I think, and what things move me to write, get my socks going up and down, so to speak – my efforts on MySpace weren’t really hitting the mark. Compared to what I tackle daily in my journals – random pop culture, news, rants, books, movies, parenthood, life as a grad student, running, etc. – I was cutting off the reader from what I’m truly about.

Make no mistake, I was about and am about Building the Green Machine a lot of the time. And that’s unavoidable. As Sarah Keeney, eminently awesome marketing expert at my publisher, Savas Beatie, writes in her latest blog, first you birth the book (the long process of researching and writing it, revising it, publishing it), then you give it legs to walk (the winding trail of publicity, getting the word out and the book out into readers’ hands). So that’s an ongoing focus of mine. But it sure isn’t the only one.

So I started thinking about what more I could bring to blogging. I probably shied away because, like, there are only so many hours in the day to devote to sleep, eating, parenting, exercise, classes, and my God, writing, that what kind of sustained effort would I manage to mount when there are only so many pages in me every 24 hours, and I already have plans for them! And my writing mind is so attuned that anytime I consider an idea that may be blogworthy, it usually gets blown up into a column or essay or … gasp… something longer and meant for printed publication. And there’s a whole jungle gym of rules about what you post and don’t post if you aim to eventually see it in print, and want to get paid to boot.

But what I discovered is that a lot of what I’m already thinking about – in the microbe-germ-paramecium-barely-fertilized-egg stage, anyway – could be churned out here to qualify me as a card-carrying participant in the bustling Blogiverse. It’s practically a requirement nowadays, isn’t it? Like hanging the high-def TV in the family room (though I resist, and cling to my dust-attracting 1996 RCA 19” model). And thus, my ambition to juggle three blogs at once.

That’s more an accident of affiliations, actually. I mean, I’ve got my MySpace blog, and the obscene number of friends I’ve made there, mostly due to the drum corps connection. So I want to keep them posted on that front. But I’ve also got the official book site and blog, and the professional obligation to keep that humming, and to “interact” as the tab indicates. And now my publisher, Ted Savas, and dear Sarah are blogging about the industry, and I’m trying to keep up with that and cheer them on every now and again, which I do through my Google BlogSpot account, and that profile just seemed so blank and lonely, so diligent former staff writer that I am, I want to fill that space, too.

And so there is my goal and my sickness and my obsession, to somehow maintain relevance, or at least entertainment value, in three corners of the Blogiverse. I notice other writers doing it, and doing it personally, like Sam Weller (MySpace and The Bradbury Chronicles site) and John McNally (MySpace and BlogSpot… what else, John?). My question: what do you do? How do you keep up?

In any case, should be a fun experiment. And if the characters in my fiction start to squirm and eye me pityingly, looking more or less blank and lonely as the pages I should be devoting to them dwindle, I only hope I come to my senses and call a hasty retreat. But for now, it’s:


INTO THE BLOGOSPHERE! (Building the Green Machine)