Yam Stories

I recently figured out that I can never retire, because if I did I’d have no work stories to tell my wife.

Me: And then I talked to this guy in the other department, and he said he had the same problem last week. And he said I should talk to this guy in my department, but I already did that and that’s why I was talking to him.

Wife: Uh-huh…

Me: Now the funny thing was, while I was doing all that, Jeff, three rows down from me, was making everything even worse. You know Jeff, right? I told you about that thing he did at the Company Fair?

Wife: Uh-huh…

Me: Yeah, that Jeff. Not the Jeff I used to work with. Anyway, this Jeff completely went off the deep end and…

Wife: Uh-huh…

I love telling her about my day, and by the time I finish telling her it’s like she was there the whole time. She’s totally hooked in, like I’m her favorite soap opera and she can’t miss an episode.

But if I retire, all that will go away. We’ll be at the retirement home together and she really will be there the whole time.

Me: I had the best thing for lunch today. Yams! I didn’t think I’d like them, but I did!

Wife: I know. I was there.

Me: And you know what made them so perfect? Pineapple juice. They made the yams with pineapple juice.

Wife: I know. I had the same lunch.

Me: And weren’t the yams spectacular?

Wife: No. I hate yams.

Me: You’re kidding. Since when do you hate yams?

Wife: Since forever.

See? How’s my wife going to enjoy the story if she already knows all the good parts? It just doesn’t work. So…I’ve got to keep working. For the stories.

 

 

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Will Ferrell the Dramatist

Will Ferrell is one of my favorite comic actors, and his movies are regulars in my playlist at home. If you’ve never seen Zoolander, The Campaign, Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory, or his new 1970’s miniseries parody The Spoils of Babylon, then treat yourself and watch them. They’re laugh-out-loud funny.

That said, I like Ferrell best in his dramatic roles. Here are two that are not as well known as his comedies, but are as good as anything he’s done.

Stranger than Fiction is the story of an IRS auditor who suddenly finds himself a character in the story of a famous novelist played by Emma Thompson. He can hear her narration as he’s living his daily life. And, by the way, she’s going to kill him at the end of the book.

In Everything Must Go, Ferrell plays a salesman with a very serious drinking problem. In the first fifteen minutes he’s fired from his job and he comes home to find that his wife has left him and locked him out of his house with all his stuff scattered on the front yard.

The movie is loosely based on the short story “Why Don’t You Dance?” by Raymond Carver. Like the story, the movie is sparse and quiet, and the subtext conveys deep emotion. I went in expecting a comedy, and came out moved by the drama.

 

Enjoy.

 

 

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Smokestack

I once went to a meditation class and the instructor taught us a breathing technique: breathe in the light, breathe out the dark.

I’ve always liked it. I can feel my body rise and fill with brightness. It helps me let go of distractions. Distractions can’t survive the light.

And then I realized: when I take in the light, it’s not out there for anyone else, and I’m spewing dark into the world, like a human smokestack. Is that what I want?

So I’ve started trying it the other way around: breathe in the dark, breathe out the light. That’s better – spread the light into the world. Of course that means I’ve taken the darkness into myself. But maybe that’s okay? Because my soul is a filter, cleaning the air for everyone?

I haven’t decided yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to breathe in a way that does the least harm and the most good.

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Making Audiobooks

I am pleased to say that soon I’ll begin producing audio versions of my books. I have wanted to create audiobooks for a long time, and now it’s possible thanks to the ACX program, which lets independent authors create their own books and distribute them through Audible and iTunes.

There’s a big learning curve between me and the finished books. I am just now getting a studio set up. (Sounds glamorous. It isn’t. I’ll be speaking into a box lined with foam rubber and containing the microphone.) And I have to learn all about the recording process. It will be weeks or months before the first book is downloadable.

All the same, I’m excited.

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Talk to Michael

A coworker once told me a story that I’ve remembered ever since.

He used to work at a software company that kept a life-size cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan in one corner of the office. When an engineer got stuck on a problem they would walk over to Michael and tell him all about it.

Michael would listen carefully, and – ah-ha! – the engineer would walk back to their desk with the answer. Michael was awesome like that.

As smart people, we think the best way to help another person with a problem is to go after the answer: brainstorm for it, interrogate for it, provide it from our own experience – get it out there. But Michael knows that isn’t true. We can just listen and let the other person figure it out on their own. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s better, and it’s always the first thing to try.

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British Sketch Comedy Duos

For my American readers who love Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Key & Peele

British television has a long tradition of sketch comedy duos, going back at least as far as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the 1960s.

(Sidebar: If you’ve never seen Cook and Moore’s brilliant movie Bedazzled, check it out. Also the fantastic American remake.)

Here are a few of the more recent British duos, all streamable and/or rentable. I’ve been surprised at how my friends and coworkers don’t know them despite how good they are, and how easy to find. So, for your education and amusement, I’ve embedded samples of a few recent duos, to discover and enjoy while you’re waiting for the next season of Key & Peele.

 

David Mitchell and Robert Webb: That Mitchell and Webb Look

 

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie: A Bit of Fry and Laurie

Yes, that Hugh Laurie, before Americans came to know him as House.

 

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders: French and Saunders

You might know Jennifer Saunders from Absolutely Fabulous. She also does amazing sketch comedy with Dawn French.

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More on Meditation

Learning the practice of meditation has been a journey. To encounter thoughts that entered into the quiet space in my mind and let them go. To be at peace with my breathing and nothing else.

I have been making a certain kind of progress. Slowly. Little by little.

First there were the negative thoughts: what was going wrong in my life now, what might go wrong next week, and what had gone wrong ten years ago. I had to let them go.

Then there were the good ideas. While sitting in my quiet place I thought of story twists, blog posts, the solution to the problem at work, the name of that guy who was in that movie with the other guy. Creativity thrives in silence. But no, not this silence. This silence is dedicated only to being silent. I had to let the thoughts go.

And then the music crept in. I could dismiss the other thoughts, but I could not let go of the songs.

In time I realized that every song has a tonic, a base note, and that I could hold onto it and clear space for the emptiness again.

Be Bop A Lulaaaaaaa…ommmmmm.

Lastly there were the dogs. And the cat. Whenever I began to meditate, they came over to see what was going on.

I was letting go of desires.

They wanted to be petted.

I was focused on my breathing.

They were focused on eating and how I could help them with that.

They wanted to lean on me.

I wanted them to lie down and be quiet.

I had Om…

So did they: OMMMMMM.

I started by trying to make my Om louder than theirs. I’M…MEDITATING.

It didn’t work.

Now I am trying to make my Om quieter and clearer. Just Om.

Om…

I can let everything go. Om…

Then there’s my wife in my mind saying , “Good luck with that.”

Just Om, honey. Just Om.

Then silence again.

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The Shuffle

One of the best things ever invented is the shuffle beat. It can be fast, slow, pop, rock, jazz, and a million other styles and tempos. Here are just a few examples.

In some sense these are all leaves on the same tree. What binds them together is as important what makes them different.

Enjoy.

 

 

 

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A Concrete Image

When I’m trying to come up with a story, I often start with a specific image. It could be anything: an apple pie cooling on a stove top, a red bird flitting onto a snow-covered tree branch, water from the garden hose on bare feet, the echoing voice of a woman on a cell phone in a stairwell. Anything, just so long as it’s one simple thing that fills the senses.

I recently realized that this insight was a good subject for a blog post, and I pondered what more to write about it as I was driving to work. I could explain that concrete images help keep a writer grounded in physical reality instead of puffing up stories with abstractions that readers don’t care about. Or I could talk about how sensory images activate latent memories that pull readers deeper into a story.  Or I could show how sensory images resonate with our right brains and help us writers tap into our wellsprings of creativity.

These were all great ideas, and by the time I was half way to work I had thought out a share-worthy post.

But then I had to stop outlining and focus on driving past a slower-moving truck. It was long steel flatbed painted robin’s egg blue, and as went by I was able to see that it carried three gigantic cubes of gray cement, ten feet on a side. They must have weighed two tons each.

I clicked my mental camera shutter: an image of concrete.

I looked into the cab and the driver waved to me. I half-waved back, happy for the clear morning and the cheerful truck driver, but also sad that I had say goodbye to another brilliant but too-complicated blog post. Simple is best. Simple is always best.

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Gregory Crewdson

For anyone who hasn’t heard of art photographer Gregory Crewdson, let me introduce him to you.

Crewdson makes photographs with as much artistic vision as if they were paintings, and with as much technical precision as if they were movies.

His pictures are quiet and dramatic, simple and mysterious, and filled with the fantasy of ordinary life. They are works of high art that invite you to bring your own imagination to them.

Crewdson recently made a documentary called Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, streamable on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes. I invite you to watch it. Trailer below.

Enjoy.

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