"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Pop Culture Porn

When I met my wife I made fun of her magazine subscriptions. She had set both The New Yorker (swanky) and Entertainment Weekly (trashy) next to each other on the end table. Outwardly, I mocked her contradictory sensibilities, but I knew I would never read The New Yorker and instead would secret away the EW to the back porch or the bathroom to read while she wasn’t looking. It was my pop culture porn: I was ashamed that I couldn't look away.

I gradually gave up trying to hide my gratification of the pop culture dish that is the EW. Now I proudly read nearly every word every week. My descent into a pop culture junkie wouldn't have happened without it.

I eagerly await the arrival of the next issue. If it doesn't show up in the mail on Friday, I'm desolate until Saturday when I hear the mail carrier open that mail slot. And if it's not there and I have to wait until Monday? Oh, the humanity!

I take a new EW and flip through the pages, identifying the major stories, the main reviews of movies, television, DVDs, music, and books. Then I pick through the first pages. These are short articles about certain popular artists of the week, entertainment picks for the week, and a column called “News and Notes” which gives interesting information about various entertainment industry issues without pandering to giving “news” about who slept with whom.

Apparently there's an operatic Boy
George clone named Prince Poppycock.
I'm glad the EW never told me
about him.
What I have found, what I didn't know when I first teased my wife for harboring such poppycock, is that EW is not People, not Us, not In Style. It doesn't sell irritating ads for perfume and it doesn't include page after page of celebrity pot shots or paparazzi photos. It doesn't gossip about where the latest Hollywood hot spot is. It doesn't give you the 411 on the latest Brittany or Lindsey fiasco.

That's not exactly true. If a starlet has a meltdown, you can be sure to see a photo. And when Hillary Swank gets in hot water for being paid to wish a dictator happy birthday, EW will tell you all about it. But the reportage is brief and not the focus of the magazine. Entertainment Weekly is pop culture news for those who care about the product much more than the celebrity.

The interviews are restricted (more or less) to discussions about the artist’s craft, how a movie was made rather than what marriage was broken up on the set. I enjoy the articles on how a movie was filmed even as I understand how much they are commercials for the movie. I like reading about what the new Coldplay album sounds like even though I know they're only giving this interview just to sell more records.

I try to be discriminating. I don’t read the long article about Grey’s Anatomy because I don’t watch it. American Idol generally gives me hives, so I don’t linger on the five page article about who will win and who got their hair cut.

As promotional as the copy might be, the magazine maintains its integrity with the reviews they give the different media each week. Just the week before, they might have run an article gushing about the utter beauty of Norman Mailer’s authorial work, but then the book critic might skewer his latest novel about the childhood of Hitler. These critics don’t pander to popular taste, claiming that something is good just because the crowd likes it. Often they mock reality TV. They deride many comedies that end up number one at the box office. I don’t know when they last gave a good review to anything Ben Stiller has done (maybe Tropic Thunder).

In the past they had some interesting writers for the weekly column; it's now stocked with guest celebrity columnists who are a bit dull, like some producer of Jersey Shore. I liked Diablo Cody's take on the Hollywood experience after writing Juno. And I used to get a kick out of Stephen King writing the back page column (now the column is somewhere in the middle; another fault). I’m not a huge fan of his novels, but as a pop culture columnist, King is spot on. He talks about good TV and good music as if everybody understands—at least I understand. But they let them both go as regular columnists. Now if only they could hire Orson Scott Card to add his two cents.

I still don’t read much of The New Yorker. My wife gets it now on Kindle. Sometimes I'll read a movie review or something about the current music scene. I suppose I believe now that the EW is just as valid for entertainment news as The New Yorker ever was.

Plus, reading Entertainment Weekly gives you a distinct advantage during a trivia bowl. The New Yorker couldn't give you that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Soccer Stadium Pre-game Playlist

I made this playlist a couple of years ago to play during a warm-up for one of the girls' soccer games I coach at my school.

Our school is adjacent to the district stadium, and we get to play a handful of games there. They used to let home teams play their own music during warm-ups until one of my girls' teams played a contemporary tune with the a-word buried under the beat somewhere. My fault for trusting the girls when they said it was all appropriate for school. Someone complained, I got a talking-to, and the district obtained an innocuous sports-themed CD to play before games. You know, Gary Glitter sings "Celebrate Good Champions Because We are the World," or something like that.

Anyway, I thought we could do better, or at least classier, so I made a CD with these tracks that could not possibly be offensive to anyone because they're classical, right? Unfortunately the CD started cutting out after about three songs. I've made two subsequent CDs, and I don't know why, but this playlist will not play on CD in any order. I haven't been able to play it before a game since. Which is okay, because mostly all the players did was complain: "Can't we hear some Lil Wayne or Jonas Brothers?"

Anyway anyway, in celebration of our boys' soccer team making it to the state playoffs for the fourth time in five years (we play this afternoon; hope it doesn't snow), I present my most awesome and inspiring playlist for your anxious ears. Don't try to watch the videos. Just push play and turn up the volume while you surf the net or plug in your headphones if you're in your cubicle at work, and tell me in 45 minutes whether you're inspired to be better at what you do.

Start off with a classic. The first ten seconds itself should get your motor running.

Next up: A variation on "Mars: The Bringer of War." But whether or not he ripped off Holst, Hans Zimmer adds more bombast, and you can't go wrong with Lisa Gerrard in the coda.

This one is from a group called The Immediate who make music especially to be used in movie trailers. Their songs follow a distinct formula, but you can't deny their impact.

"O Fortuna" from Orff's Carmina Burana is widely heard, but many people don't know exactly what it is. I imagine my soccer players running in slow motion a lot.

When this plays, I want to yell, "Fly you fools!" at about 4:18 minutes in. Then it just gets sad because Gandalf is dead.

Here you can imagine mythological creatures or Vietnam era choppers dropping napalm. Either way, it can be a revelation.

Add another track from The Immediate. Keeps you going after a long day.

This one includes the long, quiet prelude, but at about 1:10, you get the thunderous classic John Williams' "Superman Theme" and it doesn't get more rousing than this.

We are near game time, and one more track from Gladiator can bring down your heart rate a bit, but more Lisa Gerrard is a gorgeous way to end your warm up. 

The seventies chorus cheeses this up a bit, but hear this song through stadium speakers and you're ready to smash Apollo Creed into the ground.

I hope all this doesn't mean my blog will crash your web browser. 

Now go win that game!

Update: We lost the game 1-0. Rained the whole time. But I think the real cause of the loss was that they didn't get to listen to this playlist to warm-up.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How Do You Blog?

This week I'm on my Fall Break from school. I capitalize it to emphasize its importance in the education lexicon. People think Spring Break is the fo-shizzle, but Fall Break is really the 411. (Thought I'd utilize some recent additions to the slang lexicon in my own vocabulary. Did I do it right?)

So, I haven't had much time lately. For anything. No time to do my job. No time to spend with my family. But more importantly, and most sadly, no time to blog right.

When I started this last January, I obsessed about it so much that I lost sleep. I obsessed about each post I wrote that about 15 people actually read. I obsessed about the other blogs I stumbled upon and obsessed about how accurately idiotic my comments made me seem. But it was easy back then to keep up. To post a couple thoughts each week. To read each of the blogs I followed. Even Hyperbole and a Half only posted something once a month. (Now she's gone, ostensibly to work on getting her book published. And the blogosphere weeps for more brilliantly wacky comics.) (Never fear: I've discovered The Oatmeal. Funny and educational.)

Somehow along the road, dozens upon dozens of blogs have sweet-talked their way onto my reading list and it became difficult to keep up. Then life happened and work happened and summer happened and school started again in August and it's really been since August that I've not been able to blog like I liked back in the spring.

This week I'm on Fall Break. I mentioned that, right? Lots of things I want to do. But also lots of things I have to do.

I have to read Crime and Punishment. I have to mow the lawn one last time so I don't have to rake as many leaves. I have to finish revising the ending of Trendy Poseurs Go Home so I can finally get it off to the editor who said he wanted to see the whole manuscript. And I have to watch my boy.

But I also want to catch up on some blogging. It bothers me that I can't read every blog I follow. Maybe I should follow fewer blogs. Probably. I'm sure at least half of those 70+ individuals who took the time to click the button on the left and register as one of mine don't know why they did it in the first place, let alone remember they once read a blog called Building Sandcastles Something Something.
Just an image to help you remember me by. 

Still, I want to be a good blogger. I want people to read what I painstakingly create. But that's not the only reason. Connecting and communicating through bloggery has brought hours of satisfaction to my life. So I vow to do a little more of it this week. My commitment to you.

Do you care?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Culture of Failure

As an introduction to a unit on literary analysis, this week I asked my juniors to think about where they come from in terms of culture. I gave them this handout. It asks them to think about ten ways to define themselves, from religion to family to entertainment choices. I then gave them this handout, outlining a three minute presentation where they were to talk about which cultural group they most identify with and share a text that illustrates that culture. The presentation also required a visual aide of this text they identify with. It's show and tell for the high school set.

Here's my example presentation:

You might see me as...an angry-all-the-time white guy who follows all the rules and only want you to do things his way.

What you don't know is...that I'm a liberal-minded Mormon who used to dress weird and listens to indie music, anything different.

I most identify with...punk culture and nonconformists.

(Side note: Remember that this was a presentation for my class of high school juniors. They said I pretty much nailed it on the head with how they view me. In an effort to keep them engaged I also decided to focus more on who I was at their age rather than who I am now. I don't think it would have gone well had I brought in a Book of Mormon for show and tell.)

The text I shared with them is the following song, "Institutionalized" by Suicidal Tendencies. I showed them lyrics from the verse about the Pepsi, along with the chorus. You get the whole terrible classic video. Lucky ducks.

I then proceeded to explain that this song is a plea for thinking for yourself. The lyric "All I wanted was a Pepsi" has been a kind of rallying cry to me for making my own choices. All teenagers struggle through a phase where no one in the world understands them, especially their parents. I went through it. But it doesn't have to mean a flat rejection of where you come from, your family's values, beliefs, education. (That would be just as unthinking, wouldn't it?) It just means that you follow what you follow for your reasons, not anyone else's.

I got a kick out of showing my students this aspect of my life and relished the opportunity to play a skatepunk masterpiece for them. Each class seemed to appreciate my efforts, despite their general aversion to the sound of the song itself. And they seemed to work the rest of the class period, filling out the charts and thinking about what they would say about themselves.

The next day they were supposed to present for themselves. Half of the class of forty one day, the other half the next day. (Yes, each class has forty students. It's unwieldy.)

Five students were prepared to present first period. Only three second period. 

This isn't atypical.

I offered them a second chance. After those prepared students presented, I told the rest of the class that if they wrote me an explanation about why they were not prepared on time, and why they deserve another chance, then they might be given the opportunity to make it up. Last quarter our writing unit was all about persuasive rhetoric, so I added that they should know all about how to convince me.

You can probably guess how many of them took advantage of this timely offer. Two students in first period, and one of those was a student who already presented and wanted to go again (she didn't do well). Six students left me an explanation from fourth period, and three of them had been absent and didn't really know what was going on anyway.

As icing, these persuasive letters were less than convincing. One said,
"I work from 4:00 pm to 10:30 pm that's a 6 hour shift & Im in school for 6 hour's as well so you can see that I dont have time to do homework because when I come home I dont wanna do anything but sleep but sure thing tomorrow I will have it for sure."
Apostrophes and sentences structure aside, this brings up a slew of troubles that I have to deal with every day with every student I have. But mainly what I'm thinking is, "What's going to make tonight any different from last night?"

I'm sure if I did get an explanation from every student, each one would be as equally compelling as this one.

So I'm stumped. I've done all I know how to do as well as I know how.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Looking for an 80's Nostalgia Geek Fix?

Like, gag me with a spoon. Ready Player One will do the trick.

It's a high concept story. A reclusive computer genius invents a virtual reality system called OASIS that changes the world, and with his death, it's announced that his billions of dollars and control of the OASIS system will be awarded to the person who can solve an elaborate puzzle he constructed using the whole system. A young lad who dubs himself Parzival sets out to solve it and change his life. So begins the adventure.

The hook for me is that the genius named Halliday came of age in the 1980's and his OASIS game can only be solved by someone with an acute knowledge of 80's pop culture and trivia. So the whole world becomes obsessed with the 80's and kids like Parzival dedicate their lives to learning everything they can about the decade. This leads to Family Ties viewing marathons, Pac-Man perfect scores, and not-so-friendly arguments about the merits of the film Ladyhawke and it's attendant synthoid Alan Parsons Project soundtrack (which does nothing for its fantasy setting, by the way; it's a classic victim of the popularization of  new wave synth music, which happened to Dune and Scarface among others).

The book's author, Ernest Cline, is clearly steeped in 80's knowledge himself. He previously made the film Fanboys, about a group of nerds who are desperate to break into George Lucas's Skywalker Ranch. I never saw it, but it seems full of geeky goodness.

Marge Simpson says she struck a blow for women's rights.
It must have been the pose, or the eye shadow, or blush.
Ready Player One relies heavily on an understanding of gaming culture, which I'm not exactly a part of, but I'm well-read enough to follow what I've not experienced first-hand, and I did play all the classics as a kid. My family never owned a gaming system, but all my friends had the Atari, and later, the first Nintendo. I never played many games enough to get very good at them, but I did master Ms. Pac-Man. Knowing that Ms. Pac-Man was far superior than the original Pac-Man was just me demonstrating my progressive thinking, even as a budding teen.

How many hours did I spend
playing this dungeon? Well, it
finally paid off.
My point is that even if I wasn't 100% informed about the ancient video games mentioned in the book, I certainly was up on most of the rest of the pop culture references. I got a kick out of the first step in Halliday's puzzle, which is taken straight from a Dungeons and Dragons module called "The Tomb of Horrors." I played D&D with friends in fifth and sixth grade, and "The Tomb of Horrors" happens to be one of the only modules I ever bought.

I'm not trying to brag--yes, I am--but I recognized the majority of the allusions throughout the book, from the Mr. Tuttle reference to the movie Brazil, to the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster drink from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And it isn't an 80's reference so much as a current geek-trend gag, but one of the greatest, funniest parts of the story is that the users of the OASIS system have voted Corey Doctorow and Wil Wheton as President and VP of the OASIS universe for ten years running.

Ready Player One is not totally sweet. In fact, there's a huge exposition dump in the first fifty pages. And the characterization is a bit simplistic. And the plot could have done with an added twist or two. But the writing is swift enough to keep you humming along, and connecting with the references not only creates the nostalgia, but makes the book one of the most fun I've read in a long time.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Not Milestones

The boy will be eleven months tomorrow.

Considering I started this blog as a way to chronicle my baby's growth, I haven't written much about him lately. Teaching has basically been a boot to the head so far this year, and I've had about five minutes to myself since August. To temper the sting, though, my soccer team has had a swell season, and in a week we'll be garnering a decent berth at the state playoffs.

So what has the boy been up to lately? Not much. He seems to be past the milestone-every-week phase. He's not walking, not talking, not cruising, not waving, not clapping, not teething, not drinking from a cup, not potty training (that's a-waaaay off). Not that he's unhealthy or anything. He's been deemed "normal" at this point, despite the circumstances of his birth. He's just on the cusp. It's like he's gearing up to turn into a real boy, but Jiminy Cricket hasn't visited just yet. (Is that the wrong reference? I don't like Pinocchio.)

So what is there to say?

He is cute. That's not a milestone. He was born that way. Lady Gaga would approve. (I'm going to consider taking that reference out completely.)

How about some pictures, then?

Yeah, I know.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Crystal Bridge: Secrets Revealed!

Charlie Pulsipher has written and self-published a book called The Crystal Bridge. He's weird. He can be found at Notice Your World. You should buy his book, not only because it will make me jealous, but because it's a ripping yarn about inter-dimensional travel and dragons. 

I spoke with Charlie while we sipped cocktails (root beer and grape Welch's) on the veranda at a swanky Beverly Hills club. 

Let's get the easy stuff out of the way: What's your book about? 

It's about a boy who can open wormholes to far away worlds, a girl who can see other people's memories as though they were her own, and their adventures after their gifts interact. They end up lost on a planet on the edge of war surrounded by dangerous creatures. That distant world is in danger as an ancient being imprisoned in the space between universes awakens. Pretty much my two main characters must decide to save the world or go home, but Earth isn't safe, either. 

My own book, Trendy Poseurs Go Home, is a slice of YA fiction that might be compared to the books King Dork or Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. (See www.brentwescott.com for more info on Trendy Poseurs Go Home!) Compare your book to something so I'll know if I'd like it or not.

I think my writing is similar to Tad Williams, though a little less descriptive. It's hard to compare it to other books because I'm mixing sci-fi and fantasy. Take a little Harry Potter, The Belgariad series, and throw in a touch of A Wrinkle in Time. With television and movies, it would be Fringe, Farscape, and Lord of the Rings...with a touch of Stargate. 

You've said before that the inspiration for this story came from two separate dreams. I once dreamt that Pee-Wee Herman and R2-D2 were on a stage in a field giving a political speech a la Willy Stark. Do you think that would make a good book? 

Wow...and I thought I was weird. That might make an interesting point in a book, but not a whole book. What you have to know is that, in my dreams, I build up a back-story. A while ago I had a dream where a group of Martian children were making fun of another Martian child. They threw an egg at his head. That was the extent of the dream, but there were layers underneath it. The Martian society was made up of two subclasses, very strong laborers and mentally augmented upper class. They looked different and had been genetically engineered to have distinct skills. The upper class kids were throwing a special egg that smelled horrible when raw, but delicious when cooked. It's a bit of a delicacy and very expensive. The labor class boy used a power he shouldn't have to cook the egg before it hit him. The upper class kids were disappointed, but assumed their brainless friend had grabbed a hard boiled one. There were even more layers that I won't share because this is getting long. That's how I dream. Crazy, I know. 

Now we get to what matters: I'm an English teacher, but that doesn't matter now. What's the theme of The Crystal Bridge? I mean, why does it matter, man? How does your book benefit humanity like To Kill a Mockingbird or Bloom County? 

Of course it comes down to good vanquishing evil, but it's got more to it. My main characters have to make some hard decisions that could cost them their lives, but benefit the majority of humanity or other sentient life. Is the greater good worthwhile? It also has a bit of Frankenstein in it, technology out of control that threatens the creators and all creation, in this case. I'll let the readers explore any other themes that they discover.

Draw us a picture of a pivotal scene. Your fans (and by fans, I mean Nicki at The Loaded Handbag) demand it.
I picture Keanu Reeves in the lead role.

You dedicate this book to your wife (which I condone since she's my sister) by saying she supported you quitting your soul-sucking job in order to write. How does it feel to be able to dedicate all of your time doing what you love, to pursue a dream? 

It's been amazing to focus all my time on writing for the past few months. It would have taken me a couple more years to finish my novel if I hadn't left that job. I am very grateful to my wife and everyone who encouraged me. It was a crazy leap of faith and I was half certain we'd starve.

You have decided to go Indie with this publication, writing, editing, formatting, uploading, printing it all by yourself. Why did you decide on this route to publication? What has that process been like?

I've watched the upheavals in traditional publishing the last year or so with great interest along with fear and dismay. Borders fell apart, Amazon is growing, Barnes & Noble is scrambling to push their Nook and dedicate more store space to ebooks, and big publishers are also trying to figure out how to make money as everything shifts more to digital. I've seen author advances get smaller while agents and publishers are looking for bigger cuts or more rights. I am also impatient and I really didn't want to wait three to ten years before seeing my name on a book, which is what a new author can expect. I decided I will try this Indie thing and hold on to my rights. It's been educational. I admit I had to reformat my novel about six or seven times before I was happy with the outcome. Then I had to reformat it a couple more times for print. But now I know I can do it again and again.

Now that you've accomplished this feat of derring-do, are you at all interested in traditional print publication using agents and publishers?

I wouldn't say no if a big publisher came knocking, but I don't think I'll go looking for them. I like being able to set my own prices, choose my covers, and keep my rights forever and ever. I may not be making tons of money, but I'll keep making my trickle as long as I keep my novel online. I'm certain I'll make more than I would have with an advance...in the long run.

What's next for Charles M. Pulsipher? Are you currently in need of a new soul-sucking job? Are you willing to relocate?

Yes I am in need of another job, hopefully not so soul-sucky. We didn't starve, but we will begin to soon if I don't. I'm looking for something that will still let me write. I have many more novels in my head that are begging to get out. My wife's a teacher so we probably won't be relocating any time soon.

Finally, let's get down to the point of all this brouhaha: Where can one purchase this tome, and how much does it cost?

Monday, October 3, 2011

What you should have been listening to the last twenty years

20 years ago last month (I wanted to write about this in September, but that didn't happen), Nirvana released Nevermind, which would turn into some kind of phenomenon and change the way we thought of popular music.

In the Fall of 1991, I was driving around Provo, Utah, in my 1981 VW Rabbit, that German engineering putting it's way around town, when a song came on the radio. I didn't know what it was, but it was distinct and different from most anything on the radio at the time, even as I listened to the  "modern music" and "alternative" stations that were actually pretty decent in Utah back then. This song began with a staccatto guitar riff, which really hit when the drums kicked in moments later. The singer didn't seem to be singing as much as mumbling incoherently, then screaming a chorus that included the unforgettable "Here we are now/ Entertain us."

Over the next few weeks, Nirvana exploded. The "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video was all over MTV (let me forgo the joke about how MTV used to actually play music videos) and the radio.

I was no stranger to screaming vocalists or sludgy music. In fact, one of my new obsessions at the time was The Pixies, and I couldn't help but compare "Teen Spirit" to "Debaser." Later, Kurt Cobain would say he purposefully wanted "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to sound as much like The Pixies as possible.

Because of the sudden popularity of this "grunge" music, I tried to pretend I didn't care. But soon I was wearing the plaid flannel and the Doc Martens and growing my hair out as much as I could get away with at BYU, just like all of the other post-80's new wavers who were left stranded in the early 90's when Depeche Mode actually played guitar on "Personal Jesus."

I bought Nevermind on CD, one of the first CDs I ever purchased, in fact. And when a roommate's girlfriend stole it, along with Metallica's Black Album, I bought another copy.

I still liked to talk about how The Pixies should be bigger than Nirvana because they were there first and they were better. And I couldn't help but notice the influence of one of the greatest songs from the 80's on another song from Nevermind. You might have heard it, but probably from one of it's many uses in movies or TV. There was even a knock-off recorded for the movie Weird Science. It's called "Eighties" by Killing Joke. Listen to the opening riff to both songs and tell me Nirvana should get all the credit.

Killing Joke actually sued Nirvana for plagiarism, which they dropped after Cobain's suicide. I don't know what the big deal was. Cobain was a fan of Killing Joke. So he ripped them off. Happens all the time.

What gets me is that Nirvana went crazy big and Killing Joke was still slogging away, making the same music they had for the previous decade. (We must always forget and never mention again the late 80's interval that was Brighter Than a Thousand Suns and Outside the Gate.) In fact, Extremities, Dirt & Various Repressed Emotions, one of their greatest albums, was released just a year prior to the Nevermind juggernaut. Where was their radio airplay and MTV worship? 

And speaking of albums that deserve more recognition, I say Nirvana killed off My Bloody Valentine. They released Loveless the same year of Nevermind. The fuzzy shoegazer melodies made Loveless into what is now considered one of the greatest indie recordings of all time, but where were they in 1991? And unfortunately it was their last album of all time, too.

Turns out I have kept few grunge albums, and I rarely listen to them. Every so often I'll dial up a Smashing Pumpkins retrospective, but I don't remember the last time I listened to Bush or Stone Temple Pilots. I can't even remember Hole. And I swear I owned Pearl Jam's Ten at one time, but it's not in my collection now.

I've lost track of my point. Okay. Nirvana, good. Still love Nevermind. But the grunge takeover of pop music obscured what would be better bands and better albums. So with the 20th anniversary of a pop masterpeice, maybe we should also take a look at what was lost along the way.