Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Human Network

Occasionally I'm asked to speak on writing or entertainment industry issues and during the course of those events, especially with young writers, I get asked certain questions with some regularity.  This past week, the question was, "how do you develop your network?"  The answer to that question has many components, too many to cover in a brief blog post, but subsequent events in the week highlighted one particular thing not to do when developing or maintaining your human network.

Don't waste people's time.

When you ask a fellow writer to read your material, you're asking for a commitment of their time, their experience, and their critical acumen.  You're also asking them to devote their own limited creative energies on your behalf.  Before you decide to call in that favor, ask yourself: why do I want this person's opinion?  If you're looking for a rubber-stamp, "hey, this is wonderful," send the work to your mom.  I assume if you send it to me, you want an actual, critical evaluation and that you're somehow looking to improve your work.  I treat those requests with a professional's eye and try to be as honest as I can.  That type of professional evaluation bundles together my decades of experience, my attention to detail, and a significant amount of mental effort.  If, when you make the request, you have absolutely no intention of listening to anyone's opinion other than your own, then you have wasted my time.

In that case, you have self-selected yourself out of my network.  You will not be on my go-to e-mail list for job opportunities or future connections.  Your name will not come up in cocktail chit-chat as "someone worth knowing".  Your e-mails will no longer be acknowledged.

Networks are fragile.  Respect the value of a professional's time.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Bi-polar Nature of Writing

Apologies to the mental health community for co-opting the term for a clearly-defined condition in service to a loose analogy; no harm or slight intended and in no way am I trying to minimize what people with bi-polar disorder suffer.  It's just the way my own brain is working this morning and certainly I'm not original in pointing out the similarities between the impulse to write and mental disorders in general.  But I got to thinking...

Writing requires two particular and somewhat conflicting abilities.

First, the need to submerge yourself in the waves of culture and humanity -- not just the books, magazines, comics, films, tv, and music that media presents, but general contact with other humans sharing communal experiences.  Time with friends, family, colleagues.  Eating, drinking, discussing.  Sharing opinions and thoughts, hopes and desires, annoyances and pet peeves.  For any writer, living a life fully and richly provides the context for your work.  It's research, in a way.  You absorb experiences you can then use and modify to tell the stories that mean the most to you.

But, and let's face it, there's always a "but."

Writing also requires the ability to totally disengage from those necessary and valid connections to actually, well, do the writing.  When you're actually at the keyboard, you need to be able to focus on that project, immerse yourself in that world, and not be pulled aside by the scrolling of the twitter feed or the pings of Facebook updates.  It requires a force of will not to constantly worry about "maintaining your brand" on social networks and actually generate content.  It's difficult in our world of constant connectivity to focus on one thing at a time and that's one reason why writer's retreats are popular destinations.

It requires the ability to turn down invitations from friends, to eschew the very things you love, like reading and watching tv, in order to create something.  The creative impulse isn't an easy one to obey and you should never underestimate the toll it demands.  However, producing something brings other rewards, sometimes monetary, sometimes simple satisfaction, so you have to find the balance.

It's a constant tightrope walk between artistic engagement and having a fulfilling life.  It's possible to navigate, with constant work and maintenance, but don't minimize -- or allow others to dismiss -- the effort required.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dream Big

I think a fundamental part of the human condition is to dream and strive for things that are just beyond the grasp of our abilities.  While ambition can have a negative context, like resulting in near-economic collapse caused by a few ambitious wankers -- or maybe they were just greedy, not ambitious -- positive striving is what drives innovation and furthers the human cause.  Creative ambition can be a balm to the soul, lifting us out of our daily hamster wheel and giving us a rejuvenating sense of accomplishment.

Like my little football-sized dog who regularly tries to take on German Shepherds, I believe we are genetically predisposed to ignore the size of challenges confronting us, and continue forward in spite of the often overwhelming nature of those challenges. If we didn't ever reach beyond our grasp, how would we know the length of our arms?

I'm regularly surrounded by filmmakers, writers, artists, and musicians, whose intellectual and creative expression pushes the boundaries of form and context.  They are always exploring the new, the diverse, the unique.  I'm fortunate that I get to witness their process, their struggle with the unknown, and it comforts me in my own quest.

It's not possible to succeed all the time, but the things worth achieving are usually those which stretch our abilities and demand our best efforts.  The fact that people regularly engage in these pursuits not only supports my ideas, it has another unintended creation.

It inspires hope.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Like It Or Lump It

Hell hath no fury like a fanboy out of lockstep.

Generally, you have to be afraid to stick your opinion out anywhere on the internet, unless you want to get into a smackdown of a particularly petty persuasion.  Post a thought, anyone who disagrees comes screaming out of the woodwork to spam all over the place about what an idiot you are, simply because they disagree.  A weird electronic shouting match ensues; in cyberspace, can anyone really hear you scream?

Fair warning, unwary reader: This post includes a movie review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  It contains my opinion of the film, with a bit of critical acumen backing it up.  But if you don't want to risk my opinion being at odds with your own, then don't read it.  Also, my critique of the film should in no way inhibit or enhance your enjoyment of the film or prohibit you from going to see it as many times as you want or that your pocket change allows.  Your opinion may differ from mine.  It's okay, that's what makes the world go around.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios' latest entry (After Iron Man 3, and Thor: The Dark World) in its Avengers marketing maintenance plan, finds the titular hero pensively trying to fit into modern society and carve out a place for old-fashioned morality in the grey ethical landscape of modern intelligence services.  Despite being on ice for 60 years or so, Cap never has to worry much about the present, because his past seems to dog him at every instant, from the heartbreaking scene confronting the love of his life (who would have to be in her mid-90s), to the epic battle with former childhood chum and later best friend, Bucky Barnes.  Along the way, he's aided by The Black Widow, The Falcon, and occasionally Nick Fury.  Although there's a plot about Hydra taking over SHIELD and some shadow intelligence service stuff and a master plan to kill a whole bunch of people, most of it is non-sensical, expositional blather that serves only to set in motion a daisy-chain of ridiculous explosions and bone-breaking hand-to-hand combat.

Just to underscore the weighty subject matter -- your civil liberties are at stake, Americans! -- the very color has been leeched from the film, leaving a grey, ambiguous wash of digitally-enhanced malaise.  As if that's not depressing enough, any possible fun or attempt at humor in the script is tamped down with unmodulated performances and poor direction.  Chris Evans' Cap is so stoically serious that he ends up ceding the film to the more dynamic supporting heroes around him.  The Black Widow and The Falcon seem to occasionally be in a totally different film.  Even The Winter Soldier, with his dour glare and cyber-arm, seems to be having more fun than Cap.  At what point did super-hero movies take on the pretentious weight of religion?

While the explosion factor is high enough to satisfy even the most demanding video-game addicts, best to not probe into the whys or wherefores too carefully.  Early on, the movie is bogged down by a car chase in which Nick Fury is trapped, shot, and nearly crushed, but still manages to drive away with an assist from his very smart car, only to be met by The Winter Soldier at the precise location no one could have possibly known was on his escape route.  It goes on like that for another two hours or so.

Now, this is all an accurate analysis of the film and the story.  HOWEVER, if you like it, you like it.  Plenty of people did like it, based on the box office stats.  That's totally cool, because you're allowed to like whatever you want, regardless of abstract notions of quality.  Think of it this way: plenty of folks like eating and drinking things that are not only unhealthy, but by most objective standards, aren't "good" food.  Does that change anyone's mind?  Not usually.  So, you can cue up at the McDonald's drive-thru all you want, but don't argue that because you do, McDonald's makes good food.  In films, music, art, all the same notions apply: you can like whatever you want, but don't assume your enjoyment carries any kind of long-term critical weight.  If you don't believe that, go back and look at the top 40 billboard hits of 25-years ago and tell me how many of them you have actually ever heard.

That's a long way to go to get to the point, but fanboys, lighten up.  Just because I don't like something, doesn't mean it's a personal attack on you or the things you like.  I'm probably a bigger fan of Captain America in the comics than anyone; he was always one of my favorite Marvel heroes.  That doesn't mean I have to say I think The Winter Soldier is good, or even enjoyable, when I thought otherwise.  The louder and harder you try to shout me (or anyone else) down online doesn't make me change my opinion on the film, it just makes me change my opinion of you.

Of course, the rules of civil discourse demand I treat your opinions cordially and with respect, whether I agree with them or not. Feel free to argue with me; I couldn't stop you if I wanted to.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Coffee and Karma

If you were to speak of me with any of my old friends, you probably wouldn't be too far into the conversation before the word "cynical" was put into play.  While I like to think of it as a realist approach to life, many misinterpret me to have an overly-jaundiced view of the world.  It's not a glass half empty/full question, it's more that I'm focused on where the next drink is coming from.

You'd think that any realist approach would negate a relationship with religions, superstitions, ideas of karmic balance, etc.  That's not quite the case because I, like all people, have a spiritual side to me and I spend a lot of internal time considering big existential questions. My realist side prohibits me considering karma as some kind of cosmic ledger sheet with transactions that are totaled at the end of the day.  I think good and kind things are the way to live your life, regardless of payback.

Sometimes, though, you are confronted with evidence that's a little hard to ignore.

This morning, in a rare twist, my commute got me to my office well in advance of my first meeting of the day.  Rather than settle for office-brewed coffee, which is perfectly fine but never spectacular, I realized I had time for a trip to Joe Coffee to score a latte and pastry before chaining myself to my desk.  Walking past one of the little-used entrances to my building, I saw the homeless guy who sometimes camps there out of the wind.  He looked even more disheveled than usual and was fidgeting and picking something off his clothes.  Realizing I was going to buy a 4$ coffee of all things and this guy hadn't probably had anything to eat today, I reached in my pocket and gave him the wad of one dollar bills I was carrying, figuring I could always use my debit card for the coffee.  The guy looked up and nodded when I handed him the cash, then retreated into his own internal world.

I continued on to the coffee shop and, frankly, I was wondering how the homeless guy had made it through this particularly brutal winter.  I wasn't paying attention when I got in line and ordered my coffee and pastry, so I didn't see the handwritten sign explaining their internet was down and it was cash only to pay for items.  It's always embarrassing to be caught out without a way to pay for something and I quickly asked the barista to cancel my order.  Before she could do so however, the woman in line ahead of me stepped in, saying, "I'd be happy to buy that for you.  I know how that feels."  I thanked her profusely and she replied, "Just pay it forward."

"You're not going to believe this..." and I told her about my morning.

On the way back to my office, the homeless guy had already left, hopefully to use my money to buy himself something to eat.

The incident didn't make me less of a realist and I still don't think karma is a cosmic vending machine, but it's nice to know that the world can be a better place if we're all a little kinder to each other.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snowed In

In honor of the weather and the snow and the polar vortex, I stocked up on some Pendleton Canadian Whiskey for the day off.  It's been a while since I've tasted any, since last year in Montreal, and I was pleasantly surprised. Light and slightly sweet, it has plenty of spicy overtones.  I went to and searched cocktail recipes containing specifically Canadian Whiskey and they came up with four.

You can find the list here:

So far today, I've tried the Citius, Altius, Fortius and the Flanders. I think the absinthe overpowers the first one bit, although the combo provides a fresh, citrusy drink with an anise edge.  The Flanders, basically a Manhattan with Canuck spirits, is an easy-drinking variation with hints of maple.

It's perhaps telling that I have these ingredients on hand, but it's made for a relaxing snow day.  I may try the other two recipes before the end of the day.  Cheers, Canada!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

On The Boulevard

If you saw this Wednesday's NYT article on the Bouulevardier cocktail, you may have been intrigued to try one.  If you haven't seen it, you should check it out here:

This cocktail is a variation on various whiskey-based cocktails which are part of my standard drinking menu.  The Manhattan is the most basic, then it spins out to variations like the Compass Rose or the Vieux Carre.

I tinkered with the Boulevardier a little, and this is one totally bomb-ass result:

The Brookline Boulevardier

Chill a cocktail glass with crushed ice.

In a mixing glass, over ice, combine:

1 oz Dad's Hat Cask Strength Single Barrel Rye
1 oz Jim Beam Signature Craft 12yr Bourbon
1/2 oz Carpano Antica Vermouth
1/2 oz Aperol
2 dashes No. 11 Orange Bitters

Stir until well-chilled, at least 30 seconds. Empty your cocktail glass of crushed ice. Strain the cocktail into the glass over a slice of blood orange for garnish.

Substitute ingredients as necessary or get over to my place and I'll mix you one.