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March 22, 2006

business etiquette

There's a guy. A nice guy, I think I'd enjoy socializing with him. I've been dealing with him about a freelance gig. This involves phone conversations and emails. Every time I call him (or, more infrequently, he calls me), he asks how I'm doing. Seems to want to know. Asks leading questions. So we chit-chat, shoot the breeze. And all the while, I'm sitting there in my desk chair, looking out across the driveway to the grassy slope beyond, and thinking, "When are we going to get down to business?" Far as I'm concerned, the chit-chat is white noise. I'm impatient. I called about something specific and I want to deal with that, not chat about our kids or the weather or my transition to New Jersey.

This, by the way, is not a slam on him. Or his style of doing business, which is very friendly. Companionable. Warm. It's simply not mine. If you're going to chit-chat, save it for the end, when we've gotten the tricky stuff out of the way.

I got an email last week from a friend of a friend of a friend. Her son is on the autistic spectrum. She wanted to pick my brain. This happens a lot. Because of my web presence and a certain number of years (and level of success) with this, people sometimes email me asking for guidance, information or just a sounding board. I try to respond as best I can. I know what it's like to be scared and lost and trying to help your beloved child. But this email was, well, brusque. "I want to know about X." Not "Hi, I appreciate your taking the time, my kid is thus and such and I'm feeling this way about it and I hear your kid is this other way and that's so great and here's what I was wondering…" but "I want X, what do you know?"

I felt taken aback. To the point where I almost didn't respond. I am not an institution, I am not an encyclopedia of autism, I am a person with a life and feelings and I do this, not for money, but because I care. So care about me. Or at least be polite enough to go through the motions.

Maybe I was reading into her note something she didn't intend. Or maybe she's just so focused on her own panic, she forgot to be nice. I can understand that. I don't have to like it.

Do my reactions seem contradictory? In one case, I want the guy to cut to the chase. In the other, I want the chitchat, the warm-up. Which is it?

Somewhere in between, I think. I believe the level of desultory small talk that feels natural to you at the beginning of an interaction depends partly on where you grew up, the social constructs you accept as a given but that aren't in fact universal. Part of the reason I liked coming back to the New York area, in fact, was about this. There's usually less chit-chat here to mask the fact that it's really business. On the other hand, if it was just raw business, that would feel strange to me too. I think this is more about tone and content than about the length of the preamble.

I got a business-related email from someone yesterday. Very short, to the point. But her language was friendly and personable and even though she certainly didn't inquire into the wellbeing of my cats and my son, it felt like a comfortable communication. That’s the middle ground. That's what I prefer. It can sometimes be tricky to find, but I know it when I see it.

March 19, 2006

two pages

I'm not sure how it happened. I can certainly tell you I had no intention whatsoever of doing this so quickly, I know it's not proper and besides it's a bit, well, dumb. Or at least foolhardy. But I couldn’t help it. I started a new novel.

See, I'd been trying really hard to develop the outline, the characters, the whole milieu. Working to create the world inside my head. The twists and turns and emotional heart of it. The backstory, the guts, the midpoint, the story of the story, the why of the what, the meaning of life, or at least an approximation thereof in the form of a slice of fictional narrative of a person going through an event. Y'know, working.

At first I couldn't. Just stared at the screen. I know something should go here. I know I can do this. I've done it before. It's not the idea-generating that's hard in writing. It's what comes after. What that idea generates, as it were. The story that grows from that seedling. And my brain wasn't having any. It was flat out refusing to brainstorm.

Stress will do that. I'm trying to do too many things, generate freelance work (or, well, think about doing it), prepare for tax time, look for an agent (a story for another time). Pressure. Hopes and fears. Not good for storytelling.

A friend said forget it, put the other stuff aside, don't worry, just write. So I decided to give myself a week off from fretting and planning and marketing. And lo, it flowed. Plot points, chewy character dilemmas, point and counterpoint, theme and structure. The stuff that draws me to novel writing.

So that was good. But I had a long way to go before writing "Chapter One."

Except my brain, that recalcitrant, irritating writer's brain, it had another agenda. Thursday night I lay down, head on my pillow, relaxed and ready to sleep. I heard the first sentence of my novel, how it could go. Good, nice. But go to sleep. The exact words don't matter, I'll remember well enough in the morning. Then the second sentence wrote itself on the inside of my eyelids. And the third.

By the time I sat up and grabbed pen and paper, I'd written the entire first page. Of a novel that shouldn't be ready to write.

On Friday I transcribed that page and wrote another. I don't know if I'll go back to plotting or move ahead with the actual pages of the actual story.

I'm not altogether sure it's up to me.

March 12, 2006

six months in stages

Six months ago today we were in Minneapolis, halfway across the country, midway through our drive from California to New Jersey. Six months. A breath, a hiccup, a sigh.

So what's it like, landing back in a place that's so familiar and yet not? How does it feel to be here and not there?

First stage: We're here? Wow, we're here, we're really here, wow, here we are, look, there are leafy maples and pretty Victorian and Colonial houses and oh, I can get into NYC on the commuter train, wow I'm walking around my city again, wow we're here, we're here, are we really here, wow did we do this? Is this real? Is this my life? Wow, we're here… (etc. on an endless hyper loop)

Second stage: Where is here, exactly? And oh my god, Damian needs socks, where do you go to get socks around here? I feel so lost. Do I live here? But how can that be? Me, I live in a place far away, a place smack in the middle of a teeming city with all the teeming city amenities. Damn, I ran out of conditioner. Is there an Aveda store around here? I swear, if I turn left out of my driveway, I'll be on Melrose heading toward the Beverly Center, except somehow when I turn left, I'm just heading up a leafy street lined with pretty Victorians and Colonials. So where's the Beverly Center? Very confusing.

Third stage: Okay, yes. Here is here and not there. I get it now. Sure. And here has good pizza and bagels and chopped liver and ravioli and cold sesame noodles and apple cider, did I mention the fresh apple cider? Because oh my. And here has people -- or at least the extended metropolitan area version of here has them -- and I keep meeting up with them, people I like and know, people who are family and friends and this is oh, yes, it's good and right and yes.

Fourth stage: I feel so isolated. I feel so alone. I feel like the last person on earth. Why did we do this? Can I hide under the covers until I wake up after having magically, mysteriously created a community in my new hometown? Or slink around in my sweatpants and never venture out the door? Pretend I'm a bear in a cave, yes, that would work. A depressed, lonely, unfriendly, paralyzed sort of bear. Hey, it's snowing! Pretty.

Fifth stage: How is this different, living in New Jersey instead of LA? No, really. Dan's working late. Damian's yelling about needing more time before homework. I scorched dinner and the writing gig I thought I had in the bag came with a draconian contract I can't sign. Life sucks. Doesn't matter where you live. Palm trees or elms, the landscape is secondary to the life.

Sixth stage: No, I love it. Love meeting up with friends at the Metropolitan Museum. Love running into another friend on the front steps as we're leaving. Love finding a fantastic hole in the wall sushi place in suburban New Jersey. Love the drive up the Garden State Parkway to visit Dan's parents and make them my miso salad dressing. Love a leisurely brunch with old friends who now live just up the road as the kids play hide and seek in their country club's huge dining room. I love being here and not there. Love the city after a rain, love the town in the sun, love the sense that life is more full, ripe with connections. All those years in Los Angeles feel present and distant both. A funhouse mirror reflection of a life that was, or was it? This, here and now, is reality and that's just memory, a life someone keeps telling me I once lived.

Seventh stage: Great. Okay. Now how do we make it work? How do we shift our careers enough to make the money to stay? Dan's job is over, how does he get another? How does he build a career? How do I? I've had three writing gigs so far, all handed to me. I have one more potential offer and then I have to go looking. How do I do that? is this really going to work? Because, damn, I want it to. This is where we belong. But how can we stay? We have to. So we will. But, um, how? I'm scared, anxious, nervous, and all synonyms in between. We took the leap and now we land, but our footing remains uncertain, our landing still slippery.

(Note: these stages are approximations of the voices inside my head, roughly chronological but sometimes the stages collide, exist simultaneously even when they're in direct contradiction to each other. Because that too is reality.)

March 08, 2006

new Hidden Laughter entry

Called by hand. About how unaccommodating we are. Um, kind of.

March 06, 2006

Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

Our first year watching the Oscars from a vantage point far away from Hollywood, how ironic is it that this is the year we knew the most nominees? (Three, for the record. One who won.)

Oscar night last year: helicopters overhead all day, traffic congestion like you wouldn’t believe, parking at the farmer's market (a few blocks from the site) a mess. Order in pizza, do it early because everyone else is doing the same. Streets are quiet, everyone at a party.

Oscar night this year: quiet surrounds us in this hilltop aerie of ours. It's late here, past dinner time. Damian's asleep. We zip through TiVO, pause to watch speeches and clips, zip some more. Not so far from the film business, maybe, but far from the all-enveloping industry mindset.

I don't have a rundown of the show, no analysis of the documentary short subject choices nor extended critique of the dresses. (Though, what was that thing on Charlize Theron's shoulder? Did she put a snack in there, in case she got hungry during the show? A microphone to record snarky commentary from producers to use for blackmail fodder? A pet dog? Enquiring minds want to know.) I have just one main thought:

Crash beat Brokeback Mountain for best picture. Huh. Who'd a thunk?

I haven't seen Crash yet, though it's on our Netflix queue, so I can't comment on its Oscar worthiness. I'm a Paul Haggis fan, though, dating back to his eerie, disturbing and utterly brilliant short-lived TV series EZ Streets. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie.

But I did see Brokeback Mountain. I didn't find it romantic, exactly, but rather an exquisitely observed and heartfelt portrayal of human nature, of the choices we make – or are forced to make, by circumstance and our own psychology – and the repercussions of those choices. Which is to say, I thought it was a great movie. The parade of pre-Oscar awards says I'm not alone in this.

So why the Oscar snub? Homophobia? Brokeback just a little too real, with its single, non-graphic but nevertheless visceral sex scene? Somehow I doubt that. This is Los Angeles, after all, not South Dakota. This is the film industry, a creative magnet. There are gay people in this town, folks who are comfortable in their identity as such, people who don't feel the need to bury it six feet under. If a majority of the Motion Picture Academy members are secretly squeamish homophobes, well, they better look in their own mirrors, is all I'm saying. And across the table at their dinner companions. And across the desk at their business partners. And I'm not buying it.

So what then? Just a fluke of voting? Everyone assuming other people will vote for Brokeback Mountain so why not vote for their own favorite? But why was Crash their favorite when so many awards shows leading up to the big night singled out Brokeback Mountain? Whose favorite was it?

Dan pinpointed it last night, after we turned off the TV and went upstairs to the bedroom. It's all about the Academy. Which has members who are producers, members who are directors, who are cinematographers and writers and editors and production designers and costumers and animators, yes, all those. But the biggest voting bloc by far? Actors. And something I've learned from my years around the film business: people see movies through the filter of their own particular interest. Go to a movie with a writer, you'll hear about story and structure, inciting incident and character arc. Go to a movie with a director, you'll hear about pacing, staging, and camera placement, about subtext and context and coaxing meaning out of the story. Go with a composer and sure enough, you'll hear all about the music and how it dominated the scene here and gave the wrong tonal quality over there. If you see a movie through the eyes of an actor? Sure enough, it's about the acting. Admittedly, Brokeback Mountain had some brilliant acting. I thought Heath Ledger was amazing in his choked-back emotional restraint. But it wasn't showy and it wans't chewy and it wasn't a big ensemble.

That may be why Crash won. Because, from what I hear, it is all those things. Plus, Don Cheadle, an actor who has won a lot of respect and goodwill, was one of the producers. It sounds like it's a good film. It may be brilliant. I'd like to see and judge for myself. But the fact remains, Brokeback won the critic awards. Crash won the actors awards. Best ensemble cast at the SAG awards, which is their equivalent of Best Picture. And now this, the big kahuna, the shiny gold man.

People forget, but the Oscars are a company town's way of showing appreciation to their own. Which film fits the bill better? It's not about objective bests. How can you judge that anyway? What makes one beautifully written book better than another, one stellar meal more worthy? Contests are always about something other than choosing the best of anything, because subjectivity and personal filters always enter into the equation. So it was last night.

That's what I think, anyway.