Thursday, July 31, 2008

JK Rowling and Her Mighty Empire

Today J.K. Rowling turns 43. How grand it must feel to contemplate all that she has accomplished. She must be happily anticipating the upcoming movie premiere of HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, the 6th and arguably most shocking in her seven book series. And what a relief it must be to her, after years of writing these giant tomes of books, keeping track of tiny plot details that wound around and around her story, to be finished. To have left a legacy of fiction that will guarantee she is a household name even in a hundred years.

I'm trying not to resent the fact that, while I too am 43, I did not have a meteoric rise to fame with the release of my first book, and I do not live in a Scottish castle. I am not richer than the Queen of England, and I do not routinely make the Forbes list of wealthiest people.

Instead, I choose to see J.K. as a sister writer--one who has earned fame and fortune with her talent and tenacity. She is a tribute to the notion of following your heart, and a living moral about the value of a good idea.

So happy birthday, J.K! I hope you are enjoying your castle view today, and that you are enjoying rest and relaxation with your family. (But I also hope you have other ideas percolating).

The movie comes out in November; the trailer link is here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Beware the Traveling Salesman

In this modern day, I feel there is no reason why a stranger has to come to my door. If he is selling something, he can do so via phone, e-mail, ad in paper. I have a "No Solicitors" sign, which door-to-door merchants routinely ignore. Generally, then, I ignore them.

Yesterday, when a young man knocked at the door, I told my sons that I wasn't going to answer, and I went into another room. My older son couldn't resist, though--he felt it could be an emergency. So he went to the door and told the person there that I was busy. The man insisted; he instructed my son to tell me that he was from G.E. and he "needed to explain something."

Wondering if this could have something to do with my electricity, I finally went to the door (although Com Ed is my provider). The man had a shirt that said "G.E. Security" and a matching lanyard that was supposed to make him look official. He said we had been "selected" to receive a free home security system. All we had to do was display a yard sign so that when our neighbors asked about it, we would tell them how great it was. He handed me a brochure about the system and then he talked and talked. It seemed to me this wouldn't be the way a company would establish their test market.

He occasionally asked me condescending questions (although he was a good twenty years my junior). "Do you understand?" he said. "Do you get what I'm saying?"

"No," I told him. "Because I haven't figured out yet how you're going to try to make me pay for this."

"No, no. You don't get it," he said, looking cross. And then he launched again into the explanation of why this was totally free, why we'd be fools to pass it up. I tried to give him his brochure back and he wouldn't take it. He used words as a wall that he was putting up against me. "What size door frame do you have? Two-and-a-half inches, or five inches?"

"I don't know."

"I can tell you right now," he said, trying to move past me. "Do you want me to take off my shoes?"

"I don't want you to come in at all," I said. "And I won't make any decision about this until my husband gets home."

This did not send him away. "That's fine, but I'll just explain it all to you," he insisted. And he talked more. How great this was because it was wireless. It would even call the firemen for me while I wasn't home. It would save my dog's life if I weren't there to do it. "Do you just have the one dog?" he asked.

Later I realized that he was asking a lot of personal questions, security-related questions, in his patter. I couldn't imagine that a thief would go to quite this much trouble to case a joint, but I did think that he was an aggressive and terrible salesman.

"I'm going to give this back to you," I told him, shoving the brochure into his hand.
My husband appeared, looking suspicious.

The young man tried to introduce himself. "Are you a solicitor?" my husband asked, pointing at our sign.

"No, sir. I'm not soliciting." He went into a bit of his spiel, but Jeff was tired and having none of it.

"It seems to me like you're a solicitor, and I'd like you to leave my porch," he said.

"May I ask why?" He actually said that! He wanted to stay and talk about his "free" product. He was tenacious. I do not think he was from G.E. I never did quite figure out his agenda, but I found him sinister and suspicious.

And this is why, I told my children later, we do not answer the door to strangers. The fact that we have a door does not give every random guy on the make the right to knock on it and monopolize our time.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

How the Forest Protects Itself

We are newly back from our woodland retreat, and after all that driving we don't have much energy; therefore I have time to sit here and post some photos. The interesting thing about these pictures that I took on a very brief jaunt into the wooded back of my grandfather's property, is that they represent only about fifteen minutes of our whole trip. Why? Because the mosquitoes were unbearable. I paused to frame a shot and they would divebomb me from every direction! Still, I suffered their attempts in the name of photography. :)
This is not a pancake on the forest floor, but a giant mushroom. I thought it looked incongruous, but there were quite a few of them back there.
I can't even identify these thistle-like things on the tips of the branches, but they made for a great photograph.
The dead trees are sometimes more poetic than the living ones.

This trip, as usual, managed to refresh and inspire me simply with its visual beauty. Michigan and Indiana offer some spectacular scenery for those willing to drive northward.

The only downside to our trip? I never even noticed how much time I was spending in the sun, and now I look like a lobster. I preach to my children about sunblock and then forget to apply it to myself.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

My New Hero

An Australian pilot (and his copilot) flying over the South China Sea bound for Melbourne lost a chunk of his plane's fuselage yesterday; it caused debris to fly through the plane, and oxygen masks fell in front of shocked passengers. The pilot had to quickly descend 20,000 feet to reduce pressure in the plane. And then, with a hole the size "of a small car" in his plane,(according to news sources), he diverted to a Manila airport and made an emergency landing.

Imagine how it would feel to know you saved 350 lives.

The story is here.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Male/Female Brain Conundrum

Tomorrow we leave for a family reunion in this idyllic setting: the Michigan woods. To my husband, this simply means: wake up on Saturday morning and go to Michigan. To me, it means endless lists, arrangements, decisions--and all for one day. For example, we have five pets. Four of them can stay home and be tended by our nice neighbor--but one (our hyper dog) needs to be boarded so that he doesn't tear apart the house when we're gone. I need to make sure they all have proper food and that the windows are open the right amount and no doors will slam shut and lock them into a room with no food or litter box.

I have other lists, too, that look like this: BOYS' PACKING; NECESSITIES; DIRECTIONS TO HOTEL and BACKPACK SUPPLIES; FINAL CHECKLIST; etc. Why do I make all these lists and agonize over them? Well, for one thing, if I didn't, no one would--I live in a house full of men.

I attended a lecture two years ago about the current research into the brain--primarily the differences in the way males and females learn and process information. Because the structure of the female brain is actually more complex than the structure of the male's, women are able to consider more possibilities in a given situation--hence the lists. Men's brains are streamlined. They make decisions. They say things like, "Here's how it is: period." Women, at least women like me, agonize over decisions forever because they can't always see which option is the best.

Ironically, this is one of the things experts say makes girls and boys of equal intelligence perform differently on multiple-choice tests. Boys will read the options, decide the answer is A, and mark A. Girls will read them, narrow it down to A and C, and then waste time worrying over which is correct.

It's not surprising, then, that women often take control of things like trips or parties, because they'll look aghast at their husbands and say, "But you're not considering this! Or this!" and the husbands will look back with bleak expressions, thinking "Here we go again."

It's biology that does this to us; knowing that, I made my lists of options and then gave them to my male family. "I came up with seven possibilities for our lodging," I said. "They all have different advantages. You decide."

And they did--in about one minute.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

In Search of Dawn

The other day I did a post on Inkspot, and I happened to mention, while we were discussing the sense of smell and its link to memory, that I remembered clearly the very distinctive aroma of a childhood doll of mine. It was called a Dawn doll, and if I ever smelled it again I would be awash in nostalgia. Dawn had an indescribably sweet smell--one that I link to childhood.

Sue Ann Jaffarian
then sent me a link she found about the doll, which I shall put here for any other women who happen to remember this doll from the early seventies. She was far more diminutive than Barbie, but there was something special about Dawn. She somehow was a woman for her time: she radiated independence as much as did Mary Tyler Moore in her famous hat-throwing scene. :)

I'm amazed, though, that pretty much anything you think is irretrievably lost to your past can quickly be reclaimed on the internet. It is truly a magical place!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stay-Up-Late Reading

Last night I stayed up late to finish this book: RED LIGHTS, by Georges Simenon. It's as much a psychological exploration as it is a suspense tale, but Simenon really kept me--well, not on the edge of my seat, since I was lying on my tummy, but AWAKE until the end of the book. (And that is a feat that is harder and harder to accomplish). :)

The story begins when Steve Hogan and his wife Nancy are getting into their car to pick up their children from camp. It's dark on the road, and Steve is distracted by the lights on the highway and by his strong desire for a drink (he had two before he started). On the radio they hear of the predicted fatalities for the weekend, because it's a holiday. Steve eventually stops at a bar, against his wife's wishes, and hears that a man has escaped from prison.

The more Steve drinks the more he wants a drink, and when he stops at yet another bar his wife, who has been arguing with him, tells him that if he goes in,she will drive on without him. Maliciously (and drunkenly), Steve takes the keys from the ignition and goes in. He drinks more whiskey, and when he comes out, his wife is gone . . .

This is the first Simenon I've read (I might have read a couple of Maigret novels in high school) and I was impressed. I may have to see if there's a biography of this writer--or if you know, drop me a line.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How Young is Your Brain?

My friend Lisa sent me a web game which asked me to identify number patterns and then told me how "old" my brain was. It was refreshing to hear (although from an anonymous web game) that my brain is a babyish 25.

Give it a try yourself! Click here.

Then share the age of your brain. I'm curious to know if anyone gets back down into the childhood region. :)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Tea Most Cozy

In the tradition of cozy mysteries everywhere, my sister, my mother and I enjoyed a lovely tea today at a Bed and Breakfast in town. The building was built in 1890, and sipping our Earl Gray in the dark-panelled dining room felt a bit like going back to a more genteel time. We dined on light salads and the luscious desserts above, as well as lots of tea.

Naturally I was thinking of mysteries set in Bed and Breakfasts (and there are quite a few!), but also some classic whodunits like Christie's THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, in which the wealthy couple is confronted, not by eggs and kippers on the sideboard, but by a young blonde corpse they've never seen before.

In any case, a change of scenery really gets those creative juices flowing. And if you're looking for a summer treat, I recommend High Tea with the female friends of your choice!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An Ominous Date

Some dates on the calendar are clouded by the associations of history. July 16 is an infamous date for two notable reasons: on July 16,in 1918, Czar Nicholas II of Russia was assassinated, along with his wife and five children. The whole mystery of the "missing" Anastasia evolved over time after this event which horrified the world. The link to the New York Times story reporting the execution is here.

Also on this date, in 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister plunged to their deaths in the Atlantic Ocean when the small plane Kennedy was piloting apparently lost control near Martha's Vineyard. I still remember seeing the little blurb on the news screen: "JFK Jr's plane is missing." I think everyone knew even then that this was going to be a significant tragedy.

Of course we can find records of tragic things on every day of the year. But some dates stay with us; I've met two people with birthdays on September 11 who have suggested that their special days have been forever tainted by the horrible events of 2001. One of them now chooses to celebrate her birthday on the day before.

What we need to do, I suppose, is to counteract what is bad with what is good. A special thing that happened on this date? In 1911, Ginger Rogers was born. The joy and wonder that she brought to innumerable moviegoers (and tv watchers) over the span of many years cannot be estimated, although I know she was a major hero of my young life--she was a picture of glamour and talent and independence.

I will make it a goal for the day to make July 16 special in some positive way. How about you?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

O Frabjous Day!

It's not every day that I quote "Jabberwocky," but today is special--I finished my book! Finished writing it, that is. I still need to finish the one I'm reading, but one project at a time. :)

What a relief it is to have gotten it all down on paper, every little detail and theme that I wanted to express. I would be doing a spritely little dance, but it's 95 and I have to drive to class tonight in a car with no air conditioner, so that sort of balances things out.

You might ask, "But Julia, why have you included a twelve-year-old picture of your son wearing family heirloom lederhosen?"

I could say that the text and the graphic have absolutely nothing to do with each other and that I just thought it was a cute picture--which is true. But there is one tenuous link between them. In my new book is a little boy named Charlie, and I pictured him looking a lot like this.

Okay, off to look at the house I haven't cleaned in two weeks. :)

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Ultimate Mysteries

I took this shot last night at sunset. I'm always amazed by the way Nature can change a mood. Shakespeare said that "One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin."

Why is it that looking at all of those beams of light shooting out behind the clouds makes me think that the answer to everything is back there, too? Is it really emanating wisdom, or am I projecting my philosophies skyward?

Those are the deepest mysteries, and I suppose they'll have the most satisfying answers, if we ever get to know them.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summer Can Be Boring

Especially on days when it's too hot to venture long outside.

What do you do to beat the heat?

I do some reading, and lots of writing--at least this summer that's what I'm doing. I'm in the middle of Tim Cockey's mystery THE HEARSE YOU CAME IN ON, which is very funny and fast-moving; I'm also reading endless assignments for my rhetoric class.

Tell me your ideas for (preferably free) summer fun!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Attributes of a Spy

"Smiley himself was one of those solitaries who seem to have come into the world fully educated at the age of eighteen. Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession . . . A man who, like Smiley, has lived and worked for years among his country's enemies learns only one prayer: that he may never, never be noticed."

--John le Carre

(photo link here)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Wonder Woman Update

Long ago I posted my Wonder Woman plan for getting into shape. It didn't really succeed while I was immersed in my work life--but this summer I began again. Thanks to my monk-like abstinence and some increased exercise, I am down almost eight pounds. However, my scale seems to be stuck in that position. If anyone has some suggestions for shaving off the pounds, let me know. I'm trying to reach that first ten-pound goal.

The biggest obstacle at this point is that it's about 90 degrees and humid, and the hot air and I get along about as well as T-Rex and Triceratops (my sons tell me that analagy is valid). My basic desire right now is to lie on the floor in front of the fan.

But Wonder Woman doesn't quit, and neither shall I! Share your ideas, or let me know if you want to join my crusade. I'll be in front of the fan.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When Mysteries Have Happy Endings

I was relieved to hear this morning that a missing three-year-old boy in a rural Illinois town has been found alive and well. The boy walked almost two miles and weathered a storm in the night he spent away from home. I can only imagine the relief of the parents who found that their little wanderer is alive and healthy. The link is here.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Jo-Ann Power on Sipping Margaritas, Selling Books, and Smiling with Intent

Jo-Ann, is it mere coincidence that you once worked in Washington D.C. and your name is POWER? Were you drawn to that hub of power?
Mere coincidence it was that I fell in love with a guy whose last name was infinitely better, more memorable—and more easily pronounced (!) than my maiden name. He and I (and others) always joked that I wore Power Suits –in my days in corporate DC world—and had Power Lunches with lobbyists, media and elected types when I worked in lobbying. At home, with 3 children, I tried to keep my power! In writing, the name is useful and memorable!

What made you move from Washington to San Antonio? Do they have anything in common?
San Antonio Texas in 1996 was as far from Washington D.C. as salsa on the River Walk is from peanut butter pie in the Palm!

I was totally lost when we moved to south Texas after my husband was promoted in his corporation. Culturally, socially and professionally, I was utterly out of my element because I had been an East Coast gal for all my life, except for a brief stint in the Army when we went to the mid-west and to Japan. In Washington, I had owned and operated my own PR firm for over 5 years and just brought it with me.

BUT WOW, I had to learn how to do business Texas style! And did I! I learned that women are a big force in business here. (And I lost the Power Suits fast because it was too hot for 2 layers of clothing PLUS hose! UGH!)

Women here are also A HUGE force in politics. Think Ann Richards and Kaye Bailey-Hutchison. I also learned that there is absolutely no funny bone to compare to a Texan’s. So I combined all that new knowledge—in a truly Write What You Know concept, to come up with the concept of a female Texas politician who finds dead bodies wherever she goes! This became the ME & MR. JONES series that starts with MISSING MEMBER and continues this November with the release of #2, BARING ARMS.

In addition to being a writer with myriad writing credits—nonfiction, freelance work, ghost writing, romance, mystery—you are a publicist. What advice would you give to authors who are not “naturals” about publicizing their own work?
Because publicity and promotion can become your second job as an author and because it can be fun, it is vital to have a good business plan AND a budget before you embark on the tactics. PR can get out of hand, I will be the first to tell you. And it is extremely time consuming. (For example: there are rules of the road, so to speak, when contacting media. Ways to send an email press release that ensures it will be read, and so on. Failure to follow the rules—and you have failure to see your hard work reach its audience let alone result in positives.)

The best way to start with media is at home. Work your home market first in terms of tv, radio, metro and local newspapers. Then, go to those other niche markets that seem appropriate. And go with a well-written 3rd person journalism story.
With promotion, the challenges are greater in that you have so many venues to choose from that you need to figure out which are the most important. Chain stores? Indies? The web? Blogging? Blogging with whom—and why?

The list is endless. But it must be tamed! Why? Because your real job is to write the next great book—not spend your life doing bookmarks.

What was the first piece of fiction you ever published? How did learning of that publication make you feel?

My first novel was THE MARK OF THE CHADWICKS (Kensington, 1991), a first person gothic with the woman in jeopardy and the tormented hero. Loved the entire experience! Nothing compares to the rush of the first novel!

Your last release was called Missing Member. Is it me, or is that aggressively euphemistic?

Yes, the title certainly is! I meant it to be. And it worked!

I wrote this book with a grand concept in mind—and at the time, I wanted to write it for PURE fun. It was 2003 when I began and the mood in the country was very pro-conservative. My main character is a female and a Texan—and though you never know her politics (I mixed that up to protect the innocent and make a few points about how Washington REALLY WORKS), I figured it would never be published. She was too irreverent a character.

By the time I marketed it—and sold it, the mood in the country was changing quickly. And so, I felt as though my female character would meet her market. She did! And it was a featured alternate of THE MYSTERY GUILD! Plus, we are sold out of the print run!!! And hopefully now back to press.

What’s the premise of this mystery?
The premise is that a savvy, sassy, good-looking female Texan who is a Congresswoman from the border area and a single mother not only finds her party’s boss dead in her office chair in the Rayburn Building, msut then clear herself of complicity by finding the culprit!

What I wanted to do here was show how Washington really works. I got very tired of seeing some novels where Washingtonians were portrayed only as men who never did any work and ran around town solving crimes like James Bond on uppers.

Janet Evanovich called your mystery the “fastest, funniest, and sexiest mystery ever to hit D.C.” Were you thrilled to get that kind of support from a queen of the humorous mystery?
Janet and I have been buddies since the 1980s when we both belonged to Washington Romance Writers. In 2005, when I called her and told her I had sold this series to St. Martin’s (her house, too), she said immediately she would give me a quote! Nothing like good friends in this industry!

Your commercial for Missing Member features a cow—or is it a steer?—talking about your book. Is this the choice of the publicist in you, focusing on your Texas buying public?
I wrote that script and chose the longhorn! (I have written tv commercials for years—and here, I knew the value of promoting a Texas-gal and her Texas voice to Texans, a natural market, so to speak.

The voice-over is done by a friend of mine who is a video and film producer here in town. But the longhorn? He is a real Texas longhorn with a horn–span of 5 feet! One of the biggest in Texas. He chows down in Boerne, my home town, and belongs to one of my clients who owns an entertainment ranch and film site for westerns!

Wow. You really have the connections. When I was a kid I used to listen to Tanya Tucker sing about the San Antonio Stroll. Is there such a thing?

Oooooou. Not to my knowledge! I better go look that one up!!!!

You’ve written many romances, and I noted on your website that you and your husband Steve have been married for 37 years. THAT is romantic! How did you meet?
My husband and I met in grad school. We had a mutual friend who insisted we date. For over a year, each of us said, no thanks. But then, we gave in. Six months later we were engaged. WHAT A SURPRISE! We thought we were all wrong for each other.

What are you writing now?

I am finishing up a short story that I hope to sell to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Title is MURDER BOARD—and is another Washington-insider kind of story. Murder boards are training sessions put on for nominees before they face Senate confirmation hearings. A real slice of political life! And in this story, death!

Are there certain authors that you just love to read?
OH, yes. How can I count them? And the variety? Janet E., Carla Neggars, Victoria Alexander, Mariah Stewart. Elizabeth George, Minette Walters, Laura Joh Rowland. Daniel Silva. Nelson DeMille. We could be here for days!!!!

I’m currently on a diet, so naturally all I think about is food. (I dream about it, too). What are the best dishes in San Antonio?
Fajitas, chips and salsa. Margaritas. I have to go the gym at least 3 times a week to keep up!

I'm drooling. But I think I can find low-calorie versions of those, right? :)

I couldn’t help but notice that in your author photo, your eyes are actually “twinkling,” something that I thought only happened in books. Are you a mischievous person?

Ah, see me chuckling! Those twinkling eyes are the result of years of media training and exposure!!!

When you appear on tv—or do still photography—you must learn how to emote with the eyes and the lips. Those are the 2 elements people see most—and the ones that folks who meet you in real life recall! I learned long ago in Washington from the woman who taught me media presentation (she worked with presidents, Congressmen and Senators) that you smile with intent—or don’t do it at all!

On your website, you give some succinct advice to writers: “You must begin to end.” Did you ever go through a time when writing was something you meant to do but put off for another time?
To write regularly is a constant challenge. For anyone, I do believe. You must plan it. Rigorously.

I currently have a daily schedule. If I did not, I would run in circles and get little done. I have just beenelected president of my local RWA chapter here in San Antonio, and that means I have a new layer of daily responsibilities. So I must be organized to succeed.

Do you run writing seminars?

No, I don’t do writing seminars, but I do run workshops for authors and groups on how to develop and monitor a comprehensive public relations plan.

You also advise writers to give themselves “permission to write badly.” Can you expand on this?

The first draft is usually awful. For almost everyone I have ever met. (With a few exceptions.) The point is to keep going, refine the work so that has uniqueness, a voice and a theme and moral that are very clear to the reader at the end.
Moral of this? Not much springs from the head of Zeus full blown except Athena.
ReVISION is really ReFINEMENT—and most necessary to a sale.

Any fun summer plans?
I am staying home in hot hot hot Texas this summer, getting ready for the November debut of BARING ARMS, the second in my ME & MR. JONES series. This year, call me amazed, but I have traveled at least once a month—and loved it.

My 2 biggest trips this year? To the Middle East—and the West Bank with a new client, a non-profit group that does work with charities in the Palestinian areas. I am the ghostwriter for them for a book about their work—and I am delighted to do it.
If that trip was heart-breaking, informative and frightening, then my other big trip this year was my hubbie’s and my Annual European, this time to Paris for 10 days! We are still tasting the escargots (big as your thumb) and the kirs!

Thanks so much for talking with me, Jo-Ann!!!
And thank you for having me. I enjoyed it!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Dog's Mystery

The big mystery for my dog, this past 4th of July, was the origin of those popping sounds, and how he could potentially make them stop. He expressed his immense dislike for fireworks by hiding in the shrubbery. He's apparently hidden there before--my husband found the vines all flattened down, as though a deer had spent the night in our back yard. Now recovered from the horror, Simon is back to flopping lazily in the middle of the yard, enjoying the full power of the sun.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Showering the Plot

I have discovered two ironic things while writing my latest book. First, the ideas flow FAR more freely during summer, when I am not distracted by my job--and perhaps because I am more relaxed. During the school year I tend to stress out over my writing: I try to FORCE the ideas out, which makes them recede. Now they are tumbling out almost more quickly than I can record them.

The second thing I've noticed is the importance of the morning shower to the fiction process. This morning I got up early and did some writing. Then, feeling groggy, I dragged myself into the shower, during the process of which two crucial ideas occurred to me--problems in my plot that made me ask "Why didn't I see that before?"

Those WDISTB questions (as I just started calling them) tend to emerge in the shower. Why? Does the water on my skull actually dislodge thought particles from my brain?

I'd love to know if anyone else has ah-hah moments while having the morning (or evening) bath.

(Photo link here)

Friday, July 04, 2008

Erma Bombeck on Patriotism

"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism."

--Erma Bombeck

Happy 4th of July!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why Satirists are Patriots

I'm taking a class in rhetoric, and as my final paper I'll be doing an analysis of the satiric persona of Stephen Colbert and the rhetoric he uses to persuade. His attempts at persuasion, however, will only work on those intelligent enough to see through his caricature.

I'm also reading a book called Chic Ironic Bitterness, by Jay Magill, Jr., which asserts that " . . .From the Simpsons and Borat to the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the ironic worldview measures out a certain cosmopolitan distance, keeping hypocrisy and threats to personal integrity at bay.

Chic Ironic Bitterness is a defense of this detachment, an attitude that helps us preserve values such as authenticity, sincerity, and seriousness that might otherwise be lost in a world filled with spin, marketing, and jargon. And it is an effective counterweight to the prevailing conservative view that irony is the first step towards cynicism and the breakdown of Western culture."

I tend to defend that detachment, as well, but my loyalty is rooted in a love of good satire--and I think Mark Twain would agree with me. He said, after all, that "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."

In any case, I'll honor Colbert by re-posting something I wrote about him last year--honoring him as a writer and lover of words. Here it is.

I will venture briefly into the world of television to say something about the world of writing. And my statement is this: Thank goodness for Stephen Colbert.

There are times when I despair that things in television are being too “dumbed down,” especially the things that are meant to entertain (and sometimes educate) my children. I grow tired not only of scripts that contain too many stock characters, cliché situations, or predictable plots (oh, how very predictable many have become)!

I cringe at the notion of “reality tv,” which I find not realistic at all if by realistic they mean authentic. And the huge burst of reality programs suggests that not only is television trying to create a nation of voyeurs, but that network after network wants to jump on that bizarre bandwagon.

Colbert’s show, The Colbert Report (whimsically pronounced COL-BAIR RE-PORE) is political, satirical, and ironic (he poses as an extremely conservative American), and I appreciate all of those facets, but they are not the reasons why I feel grateful to Colbert. My gratitude stems from the fact that Colbert loves words, and he uses them effectively, hilariously, wielding them as weapons of protest, as swords of debate, as reminders of the broad vocabulary at our disposal.

The opening sequence of the show, aside from showing Colbert literally waving the American flag (hence the ironic tag), presents a visual of Colbert remaining stationary while a slew of words scrolls past his head—words that are humorously supposed to describe Colbert himself, at least in his televised persona. Every now and then a word is selected to remain onscreen; the current word is “gutly.” My personal favorite is “Lincolnish.”

Colbert has fun with words; writers understand this, and first and foremost I view Colbert as a writer. His show was spawned by The Jon Stewart Show, and Stewart is perhaps the king of political satire in this venue. But while Stewart is great at improvisation and cutting edge satire, Colbert is a good writer and speaker. Sure, he has a team of writers at his disposal, but I believe that Colbert, as a lover of words, is much involved in the writing of the show (I base this on his quick wit in interviews, much of which must necessarily be improvised depending on his subject’s responses).

Why are words so important? Unless television begins to challenge our minds and make us think about words, concepts, ideas beyond platitudes and clichés, we will no longer want to read or think at deep levels. We will want only to be entertained (both Stewart and Colbert reach people, after all, by making them laugh), and if the powers behind the networks chip away at our resolve, we will be entertained by less and less impressive things. We will lose our critical edge, our love for language, our cultural depth.

There are still many shows that challenge us, but they may not all have the viewership that Colbert is building in his blatant (but funny) attempts at p.r. I won’t comment here on Colbert’s politics, because this is a blog about writing. I hope Colbert will continue to wield his pen to show viewers that words have power, that their diverse use sharpens our intellects, and that they are pleasurable to hear . . . and to read.

(Photo link here)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Mysterious Mr. Mulliner

Our cat, Mr. Mulliner, is in continuous quest for the highest place in the house. He almost found it here, on top of the bookshelf in my sons' playroom. He also enjoys camouflaging himself. Here he is just one of the stuffed animals . . . or so he would have us believe.

We have also found him in piles of laundry and inside discarded grocery bags. He seems to be practicing his spy skills, but for what, I wonder? :)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Farewell, June!

I'm happy to welcome July and midsummer, but I'm a bit alarmed at how quickly June fled. I used to think that this rapid passage of time was just part and parcel of getting older. But last year the school year flew by quickly, and one day I commented to my students that, to them, the year must seem to be dragging by, but to me it had gone by with unusual speed. They assured me that the year had sped by for them, too.

My sons, ages 13 and 9, also told me that they think time is hurtling--but I remember being their age and thinking that it couldn't pass quickly enough, that it crept along.

So what is this new time, in which even children who should enjoy the leisure of endless summer days think that time passes too quickly? Is it actually accelerating without our knowledge? Where is Einstein when I need him?

I have not signed my children up for anything--not sports, not camps, not classes. I just wanted them to be able to relax. Still, though, they feel there is not enough time in the day. I wonder at this urgency we all feel.

Is this a personal phenomenon, or have you noticed it, too?

(photo: wildflowers in front of my neighbor's garage.)