Monthly Archives: October 2011

4% diamond, 96% rough

10/16/11

I’m going to return to a concept I played with last year, which was making Mondays on the blog all about “writing” – and I can almost totally promise it won’t be mood-crushingly dull. Writing about writing is a specific skill in itself, and like any meta-activity, if you’re not careful, you can absolutely destroy your navel with gazing.

Tessa and I are frequently asked about the TV scriptwriting process, so let’s begin there, shall we? You’ve all seen television shows, and you’ve all written words down, so at least we’re not diving into arcane poetic structure, right? Today, I’ll try to explain how I go about the very beginning, which I’ll call THE GERM.

First off, the wife and I are currently developing shows, which means we’re dreaming up ideas for pilots and inventing characters who don’t exist yet. Many writers work on existing shows (called “staffing”) who think up plots for shows that are already well-established [for example, see the most-recent episode of “Community” for the fantastic work of staff writer (and co-exec-producer) Chris McKenna].

So how do you create a world out of nothing? By being interested in everything, is my answer. This is why not everybody should be a writer, because I believe you truly need to walk around with your eyes, ears and pores open to experience. You must have an inner fascination for a wild range of topics, and when you meet someone with a passion, you have to adopt it yourself, however briefly. You’ve got to care, and not everyone is geared for that kind of torque.

It is through this wide net you might catch what I will call THE GERM, which is tiny, tiny, tiny idea of something that might be cool. It can be a half-idea, and it doesn’t even need to make sense, but you know it when you feel it. The Germ can be a snippet of dialogue, or a job you’d never heard of, or an entire premise, or an unrelated fact without any context. It can be truly anything.

When you’re writing scripts, you zealously guard your ideas, not because of any worries of outright theft, but because you have to believe that any idea you just got, someone else just got too, and from that moment on, it’s a race.

But it’s not other people you need to worry about, it’s YOU. If you don’t write all these things down somewhere, it’s gone. You won’t just forget what it was; you’ll forget you even had something to remember.

So I have little pieces of paper. I have emails I’ve sent to myself, voice mails, notes on my iPhone, notes on my computer, and scribbles on dry erase boards. They all eventually migrate to a Word file that has snippets like these:

• THE GREGORIAN CALENDAR FIXED ALL THE EARLY CALENDAR INACCURACIES, BUT THEY HAD TO SKIP 10 DAYS TO MAKE IT WORK. SO THERE WAS NO OCTOBER 5-14 IN THE YEAR 1582

• IN GREEN BANK, WV THERE ARE NO WIFI OR CELLULAR SIGNALS IN A 13,000 SQUARE MILE RADIUS, PEOPLE FLOCK

What good will those do? I have a few ideas. Let your mind run on them if you will.

Or take this evening, par example. The Lulubeans has been watching Dogs With Jobs on the BYU Channel (yay DirecTV!) and we saw the show featuring Wiley, the border collie/Dalmatian who chases birds off the runway for the Coast Guard on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, WA.

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they might have thought of that before putting the runway next to a bird sanctuary

But Wiley is wily, and because he’s involved in so much of the Air Station’s business, he actually has a security clearance higher than many humans who work there. That is a very cool piece of information, whether or not it will ever get used in anything.

Yes, I can hear the jokes: it’s a show about a secretly-talking dog who accidentally gets promoted to Rear Admiral, etc. etc. etc. but think of it differently. In real world espionage, if you were one dog away from the inner sanctum of something… it doesn’t have to be a dog, and the whole thing can be rearranged, but it could lead you somewhere else very interesting.

Your germ can be much more obvious. One of my three brothers was being frustrating, and I decided I was going to fly to where he was, and straighten things out. Instead, Tessa and I wrote a half-hour comedy about doing it, and that script sold twice in the last four years. The brother in question probably still doesn’t know any of this.

Now, a wizened old Hollywood veteran would probably say I’m being too precious with all this dream-catchin’ nonsense. He’d probably say “the networks want a cop caper where the crooks get caught, and you gotta write ’em one.” Fair enough. I’m not saying my m.o. works for everybody, or that the thousand little snippets I plunk down make any sense.

But then again, we’re not in this to be jaded or wizened. We only want to develop shows that turn us on in our own precious little ways. Between us, Tessa and I probably have about 12 awesome television script realizations between us, and when we’re done with those, we’ll leave.

I’ll end The Germ section with a nugget from Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. He explains how he’d dropped out of Reed College in order to stick around and audit the subjects that particularly struck him:

“much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on… Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.”

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Like Steve Jobs’s creation the iPod Shuffle used to advertise, “give chance a chance.” Take stupid ideas seriously. Don’t be afraid to be not funny. If your Germ is potent enough, it will germinate.

on WEDNESDAY: The Smell Test!

the clever underestimate the obvious

10/13/11

You have been escorted to the limo, driven to the site, and shown the correct door – and yet you still won’t open it. Could the directions be any clearer? Did somebody stutter when describing it to you? It’s oddly self-sabotaging, you know.

The answers lie right in front of you. There is no “subtext” to the “text” – the TEXT is the ACTUAL TEXT. No hems or haws. Words mean things, and those words mean those things.

You used to compare yourself to a guy who keeps sticking his finger in the light socket and wonders why he keeps getting shocked. Actually, you’re the guy who keeps sticking his finger in the light socket, then spends hours devising elaborate ways to get the power shut off. Really, you should just take your finger out of the light socket.

There will be a time for all those high-flown plans if it ever comes to that. However, until you do the simplest fixes, open the door that is so obvious, you are not allowed to hatch any more complicated schemes. The fat kid got fat because he ate too much pie; the flower got picked because it grew in the sidewalk.

compulsion pulsion, what’s your emulsion

10/10/11

Hello, and welcome to Bad Habit Tuesday! Yes, we here at xtcian like to use the 42nd Tuesday of each year to air out all our bad habits – like they say, the sunlight of anonymous internet scrutiny is the best disinfectant!

There’s actually a shred of truth in lessening your bad habits by exposing and being conscious of them. For the last few years, I’d been clenching my teeth so badly that my dentist was going to make me wear a mouth guard at night (horff) and I was getting migraines during the day. When Chip and Cathie visited us, Cathie said she’d had the same problem, but simply chose to be aware of it, concentrate, and relax her jaw each time she felt it come on.

After a while, she stopped clenching, and after a few weeks of doing the same, I did too. So I offer this space as a clearinghouse, a halfway house for your bad habits, in the hopes that a bright light will lessen their power.

I’ll go first. Of my many tics and habits, the one that consistently bugs the shit out of me (and my daughter) is that I rub my middle finger against my thumb for seemingly hours at a time until I get repetitive motion pain. It’s hard to explain, but I’m doing it in this picture from 2007:

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Since doing a massive archiving project, I’ve noticed a few pictures going back to my twenties when it looked like I was doing it there too. It’s not a dealbreaker or anything, but I’D LIKE IT TO STOP PLEASE.

Okay, how about y’all?

the nina, the pinta, the sumbitch or other

10/9/11

This is Columbus Day.

It’s the holiday in college known as Fall Break, where freshmen go back to their hometowns and suddenly get a fresh perspective on how small-minded and controlling their high school boyfriends are. They won’t break up. Yet. That happens on Thanksgiving.

This is Columbus Day.

A day that is supposed to be a holiday. All the services you count on will be closed. No mail, no bank. They’re all off work. Lots of people are. Lots of people except you.

This is Columbus Day.

A day named for a man who never came within 200 miles of the future United States. A man who swore – even on his deathbed – that he’d reached Asia. A holiday celebrating the dude who introduced slavery and pandemics to the New World. And when he was brought home after torturing the “Indians” as their governor, he sued the Spanish government!

This is Columbus Day. The leaves haven’t really changed yet, it might get muddy, and you didn’t make plans anyway. It’s the casserole of holidays, unsatisfying and a little confusing. A holiday you can’t use, celebrating a guy you can’t stand, at a time you can’t go anywhere. HAVE A GREAT ONE!

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wearing all my favorite brands brands brands brands

10/6/11

Dear sweet wonderful wife,

You have now been gone three days, and while we have tried to keep up appearances, best that I tell you a few things before you return tomorrow. You know that schedule we drew up? Well, we’ve “gone off” it a little bit. I’d say we’re – um – “not exactly adhering to it” or perhaps even “winging it”.

Lucy came to me and said that cavemen lived in caves, and there was this French professor who lived in a cave for two months and lost track of all time, and since we descend from cavemen, we should forget about time too, and that’s why she should stay up as long as she wants. I confess I saw the wisdom of her research, and so we’ve established 11pm-1am as a vague guideline for going to bed.

Then she said that people can only learn another language when they’re young because their brain has enough space for all the extra words, so she should be watching (in her words) “as much documentaries” as she can. I immediately saw the logic in this as well, so we’ve been rocking the Science Channel and Planet Green pretty much all night. Instead of practicing piano and doing homework, you see.

A word about the parties. The following picture sums it up.

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Yes, those are your panties on the ceiling fan. I could lie and say “I have no idea how those got up there” but the fact is, I’ve got a pretty damned good idea. To say our parties have been epic is probably overstating it – certainly Salem and I had more actual people at our dance jams during our 5th year at Carolina.

Who knew Juicy Juice came in kegs? I’ve learned a lot about tolerance over the last few days.

About the five-foot sinkhole in the dining room… I may or may not have been responsible for that. I told Lucy and her friends that buried treasure lay beneath the floorboards and gave them pickaxes. Oh, their imagination! When they found nothing, they were DISAPPOINTED to say the least. So I bought everyone a tub of cookie dough to salve their mounting frustration.

Some of them were vegans, and some parents weren’t happy. Did you know that there’s crushed-up pig bones in Jell-o? That means it isn’t vegan either. Yikes!

Well, it’s just after 2:30am and finally got the girl to bed. Hello cinnamon schnapps! Just wanted to send you a note to say I love you and can’t wait to see you.

love, me

P.S. I know there’s all this chatter amongst our friends about non-traditional relationships, and that we decided we were perfectly happy in our monogamous arrangement… but for the record, I had assumed that only meant “monogamous within our species“.

Just wanted to clear that up before any awkwardness. SMOOCHES!

simply look around and view it

10/5/11

It seems every human being in a certain caste has something to say about the passing of Steve Jobs yesterday, but to me, it almost felt like a mysterious but beloved uncle had died. My grandmother Klea had the very first Macintosh (128K), and my mom had the second one, both in 1985.

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my mom on the Mac 512K, using Performer, 1986

I don’t know how she did it, but my Mom got me a Mac Plus from the UNC Student Stores in 1986, and from that moment on, I never once even considered a Windows machine. Every single friend, fraternity member and casual acquaintance lined up to use the thing, sometimes waking me up at 4am to make a life-or-death deadline. All of those files are still on the Macbook Pro I’m using now, still easy to open, still bearing the names of old pals I haven’t seen in 24 years.

Four years later, that Mac Plus was still plugging away, meaning that Tessa and I owned the same computer, and we were both typing away on McCauley Street in Chapel Hill, a few hundred feet from each other, merely 13 years from our wedding day.

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with the awesome Susan Comfort, the Mac Plus at left, 1990

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Tessa’s bedroom, 1990

Before there were decent laptops – and our jobs depended on writing music on the computer – we’d just lug the whole setup wherever we were going, like a rental house in Nags Head:

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Sean holed up during Hurricane Emily on my Quadra 660av, Nags Head, 1993

By 1997, most of my friends had drifted over to PCs, and they made fun of me for sticking to my Mac (especially when I got the tangerine iBook that looked like a toilet seat). I told Block to invest in Apple and he told me I was insane. It didn’t matter – I loved the interface, I loved the feel of it, and I was willing to stick it out.

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planning world domination, Pink House, 1995

We all know what happened after that, from the birth of the iMac to the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad. I usually got the new thing for Tessa first and she was my guinea pig, but I always buckled under the unbearable cool factor eventually. I know it was largely “more plastic crap”, but it was magical more plastic crap.

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Tessa carves pumpkins, East Village, 2000 – my tangerine iMac glows in background

Whether Steve Jobs was picking the right developers or just saying “no” at the right time, he had a child’s ability to imagine something unseen, a composer’s ability to hear the orchestra before the notes were even written. He might have been a dick, but so was the man who invented the Everlasting Gobstopper. I feel like we just lost Willy Wonka.

rocktober

10/5/11

When my parents went to Europe for weeks at a time, leaving us three younger kids at home (hey, it was the ’70s), they finally wised up and hired Melissa. She was Kent’s girlfriend, about to be his wife, and she was the best babysitter of the 20th century.

One thing she did was draw a giant calendar on the wall of the kitchen, knowing it was going to be repainted anyway. Each day she’d mark off the time left until my parents got home, as well as taping broken cigarettes up there in a self-shaming ritual to get herself to quit. I always thought it was brilliant.

Tessa just left this morning for a work-week jaunt to New York, and I thought it’d be cool to do the same thing for the Lulubeans, only without the cigarettes. I wrapped some Ikea easel paper around a giant piece of plywood, and now our dining room is adorned with this:

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That’s Tessa’s plane taking off on Tuesday, landing on Friday, and Lucy can shade in the time between. Also marked is her piano lesson, a school book party, an “Big Animal Encounters” event (postponed until next week), and a all-school gathering where I’ll be playing bass.

Then Lucy got the marker out and started writing in a graphamaniacal fury that rivaled Bach in an E-flat major mood. This is what it says, apparently:

CHEKA BOOM BOOM (no idea where she got that, and no, it wasn’t me)

1234 ROCKSTAR!

“WELL, AT LEAST IT’S GOOD”

“I don’t like it!”

“THIS IS SORTA GOOD.”

“You’re… oh, I retreat!”

“I DON’T KNOW ABOUT THAT.”

ruff! (dog bark, apparently)

flap flap (birds take wing)

Then the giraffe from Big Animal Encounters says, “I’m afraid of heights up here! Help!”

Certainly the story is effective in captivating rock and roll mundanity, and the animal noises resonate primordial. The stream-of-consciousness play of words is almost James Joycean in its evocative randomness. But MAN what a shitty speller!

there but for the grace of god went we

10/3/11

When Amanda Knox was released today, I confess to feeling more jubilation than I would have expected. Tessa and I have been following the case pretty closely since 2008 for a number of reasons, and today’s verdict was four goddamn years too late.

A lot has been made of Italy’s crazypants justice system, and the laughably sloppy way the forensics were gathered by a bumbling team of Perugian nincompoops. It’s also clear that the lead prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is utterly batshit, saying “he had a gut feeling” about Amanda Knox en route to concocting elaborate satanic rituals to give her a motive to kill her roommate.

But before we make fun of Italians, let me make the obvious Lefty O’LeftyShorts point that if Amanda Knox were a black man, and this trial was in America, she’d likely be on Death Row. Good ol’ liberal Washington State, where she’s from, actually allows inmates to choose between lethal injection and hanging. So what if there was no real evidence for the murder, and fabricated “eyewitnesses”? We kill African Americans around here for a lot less.

I suppose the reason this case resonated with me and th’ wife is because we both felt like it could have easily happened to either of us. Tessa took some time off between high school and college, and wound up in Bolivia and Spain, then traveled post-graduation to Croatia and Bosnia just after the war – and no doubt found herself in some pretty crazy bars, cars, flats and situations not much different from Amanda.

I think of all the bizarre, morally-questionable, low-rent periods of my own life and know exactly how they would have been portrayed by a psychotic prosecutor hellbent on theater. I smoked hash with my girlfriend on a Barcelona beach in 1992, even as we were breaking up. I did ecstasy in New Orleans and wandered along Tchoupitoulas with a myriad of characters after a warehouse rave. I slept in an empty apartment in Brixton, London, having been left a key in a secret hole in the stoop, with mobs shouting outside all night.

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in Barcelona

And I was basically a careful guy, with a control-freak self-limiting streak that ensured I’d never do too many drugs or drink too much alcohol. But if someone got murdered anywhere around me back then, I would have been the perfectly repellent fuck-up, tailor-made for disgrace. I would have been easily convicted for something I didn’t do, if only because I was doing a lot of wandering, wearing weird clothes, and not seeking a desk job.

Infamously, Amanda Knox did cartwheels at the police station when she was first taken in. Then she wore a shirt that said “All You Need is Love” at one of her hearings. She was, in a word, unsophisticated. She did these things because she was a normal 20-year-old, completely unaware of the tornado clouds gathering behind her.

All it took were a few pictures out of context and articles like this piece of shit, and blam! There’s four years of your life right there. Sure, it’s a cousin of Missing White Woman Syndrome (perhaps Wrongfully Jailed White Woman Syndrome?) but sometimes you can look at your past and wonder how you managed to slalom through.

good day sunshine

10/2/11

Oh, I had some vitriol or some sadness or some intense overarching theory to spew, but then I saw this video – perhaps you have too – and it’s all you really need today.

woman hears herself for the first time in 29 years