Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Best. Bumper Sticker. Ever. #6

Seen on a car in the parking lot at Amy's church tonight on our way to the Wednesday night supper that preceded trick or treating for Jackson:

Obi-Wan Kenobi 2012
Our Only Hope

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Wheel of Fate, A Game of Chance

It’s only a couple of days until National Novel Writing Month starts, so naturally, I need for something asinine to rear its ugly head and distract me from the marathon of writing that’s due to commence on Thursday. As luck would have it, I finished reading Clockwork Angels: The Novel this past Friday, and came across the following in Neil Peart’s afterword (referring to Kevin J. Anderson, the novel’s author): “Kevin also had fun weaving in many references to Rush lyrics, and though they will not disrupt the reading experience for those who don’t get them, they may entertain those who do. (Perhaps one day we’ll have a contest to see how many of them people can find.)”

As it happened, I was very much entertained by the frequent snippets of lyrics from the band’s songs; but I wasn’t taking note of each of them as I went along. That’s too bad, because you have to think that my odds of winning a contest like that would be pretty good—not because I’m such a Rush expert, but because the pool of entries would be relatively small. Without going back into the book a second time, I came up with fourteen songs off the top of my head (not including the songs from the album version of Clockwork Angels) that were referenced in the text. And then...yes...I went back and started reading the novel again—and got two more songs before the end of the first chapter.

It’s going to take me awhile to get through the novel a second time, but maybe while I’m doing that, someone else pursuing the same goal will wander by my little roadstop on the magic internets and leave a comment denoting how far they are in the novel and how many songs they have identified. (Just please don’t say which songs, since that would spoil the fun.)

A splendid mirage in this desolation...

Friday, October 26, 2012

Jackson's First Window Painting

Part of the annual Irvington Halloween Festival is the painting of storefront windows by local youngsters. (Actually, I don't know if there's an age limit. It's possible that oldsters can participate, too.) We signed Jackson up to paint his first window this year, and Amy took him over to do it last night before I got back from the old juke joint. I'm not sure this is a very good shot of the painting, so I'm going to try to get some better shots tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Iozzo's Garden of Italy

For various reasons, the annual Italian Street Festival, which usually takes place in the parking lot and street abutting Holy Rosary Catholic Church, in June, was cancelled this year, much to the dismay of area festivalgoers. In its place, the owner of Iozzo’s Garden of Italy took up a collection from its diners, and managed to raise enough money to put on a smaller version of the street festival, which was held a week ago this past Saturday, on the 13th, and was called Taste of Italy. It was immediately clear when we arrived that, relative to the festival in whose stead it stood, practically no one knew that Taste of Italy was taking place. On the plus side, that made it much easier to find parking and navigate the handful of the food trucks and restaurant booths. Amy and I both wound up trying the meatballs on a stick, from Iozzo’s, which is one of those places we’ve been meaning to get to, and just haven’t yet.

Fast forward to a week later, and it had taken us most of Amy and Jackson’s fall break, and my October vacation, to find time for Amy and I to go out on a date, but we finally managed to drop Jackson off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house so we could spend the afternoon together and go out to dinner. We started at the art museum, which is much easier to enjoy without a rambunctious little one pulling on your arms; and then we wandered around for a bit in the car, trying to figure out what we wanted to eat and where we wanted to go for it. I had decided to just roam around Fountain Square after driving by Iozzo’s Garden of Italy, downtown, just for kicks—to see how busy they were on an early Saturday evening. When we drove by and saw only a few cars parked in the area, and plenty of empty tables that we could see from the car as we drove by, I cancelled the idea of roaming Fountain Square, and we headed for Iozzo’s.

I was impressed enough by the meatballs we had at the little street festival, but Iozzo’s Garden of Italy is not the best Italian restaurant in Indianapolis, regardless of what the bartender says. It’s certainly not bad, but when the best you can do on an early Saturday evening—we arrived before six o’clock—is seat people at bar tables in the lounge, because the empty dining room is “completely booked,” it might not be a bad idea to get the bartender to take a break from fellating the place for the two inquisitors sitting at the bar. (I never was able to figure out if those guys were from out of town, or if they were from here and just liked to hear what bartenders have to say. Either way, a Venn diagram labeled Annoying would have quite neatly enclosed the both of them—and the bartender, too.)

Maybe this is just standard operating procedure when you sit in the bar/lounge section of reasonably nice restaurants—I don’t know. I remember from the Nicky Blaine’s days that it’s pretty much de rigueur when you’re seated directly at the bar, and the bartender has nothing better to do than bend the ears of regulars. It was annoying then, too—but at least back then, the bartender knew us and would only charge us for every third or fourth drink. On Saturday night, I paid $25 for linguini with pesto sauce, some barely recognizable chunks of prosciutto, and five big-ass shrimp. We might still have been able to hear the bartender if we had been seated in the actual dining room, which was not all that far removed from the “lounge.”

Luckily, the food was good enough that I was mostly able to ignore the bartender’s disparaging remarks about Mama Carolla’s, Iaria’s, and the Milano Inn, all well-liked Italian restaurants in the city. The linguini was almost perfectly al dente, and the pesto cream sauce, despite being very heavy and separating over the course of the meal, was so strongly flavored with basil that I couldn’t even taste the tiny chunks of prosciutto, even after I remembered that they were supposed to be there and started to look for them. The enormous shrimp were perfectly adequate, but nothing to write home about. Amy’s garlic shrimp, one of the most heavily garlicked dishes I have ever tasted, would have been even better, except that it was made with stupid pasta—capellini. If there is a valid reason for pasta thinner than linguini to exist, I am not aware of it.

Both entrées came with a house salad, and bread accompanied by something called “soppy tomatoes,” which is supposedly a southern Italian tradition. I Googled the phrase and got a handful of hits that were actually related to what I had searched for, and a boatload of hits that had to do with sloppy joes. Enclosing the search string in quotation marks dropped the number of hits from 772,000 to 285. Maybe it’s a tradition just because they say it is. Either way, it’s a relish (or you might call it a salsa) comprised of marinated tomatoes, olive oil, scallions, and oregano. Very flavorful, and it certainly helped the three small slices of dry, tasteless bread. The house salad was a simple affair of spring greens and balsamic vinaigrette, with a couple of slices each of cucumber and tomato. Not exactly inspired, but well done—just enough dressing to keep things moving and balance the flavors.

The menu is strong enough to merit a return trip, though the possibility of having to suffer the pretensions of the loquacious bartender is an almost equally strong disincentive to return. The single advantage it has over Iaria’s—which remains the gold standard for Italian food in Indianapolis (despite being closed on Sunday and Monday)—is that it’s open seven days a week. For me, the food can almost always overcome deficiencies in charm or service (though it should be noted that the service we had Saturday night was great); but this might be one of those rare instances where even really good food can’t make up for a complete lack of charm. There’s a reason that some people sneer at you when you say something nice about the downtown dining scene—it evokes the concept of the haves commingling with one another in fancy places that have dress codes and judge the rest of us for being so ordinary.

I wish that more people knew that there are lots of places to eat downtown where you can be yourself and have a good time, regardless of who you are, what you do, or how much money you have. There are places like that where you can drop a ton of money if you want, or almost nothing at all; and if you’re feeling slightly more adventurous, Fountain Square isn’t very far from downtown at all. Places like Iaria’s, Amici’s, Mama Irma, Siam Square, Santorini, Greek Islands, Shapiro’s, Bazbeaux, Old Point Tavern, Chatham Tap, Aesop’s Tables, the Bosphorous, and Smokehouse on Shelby all have charm to spare without beating you over the head with it. Iozzo’s Garden of Italy is not one of those places.

946 South Meridian Street

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Cat in the Hat Races a Cheetah

Today we got Jackson into his Halloween costume and headed out to the zoo for their annual Zoo Boo...uh, I guess it's an event, or something. Basically, you take your kids in their Halloween costumes, and there are Halloween decorations, and the kids can "trick or treat," which means that they can walk through one of the biomes and be handed candy at five different trick or treat "stations" throughout the biome. And when I say that they get candy, they get both candy and some kind of advertisement for the company that sponsored that particular trick or treat station.

It made me think of something Amy's friend Carolyn said at lunch today, about the science section of the Children's Museum—the area that used to be called Science Spectrum, in bright red neon light. Back then—this was before the museum went through its remodel and started charging admission—there were various science stations set up where you could pedal a stationary bike to show how electricity is generated in a turbine; walk across a wooden bridge-like contraption that could show you how much you weighed; and speak into a mouthpiece at one end of the room and have someone at the other end hear your voice come out of a matching mouthpiece, to demonstrate acoustics—among lots of other interactive activities. Now, as she so eloquently put it, everything in the science section is "sponsored crap."

It would seem that we could add trick or treating to that list, too. Nevertheless, you can still race a cheetah, and that is still an amusing thing to watch, especially the littler the kids are. When the kid is dressed up as the Cat in the Hat, just can't top that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Threading WonderLab Bike Wheels

Way back in early September, we went down to Bloomington for the Fourth Street Festival, a little street fair they put on each year, with artists and craftspeople hawking their wares. It was rainy the day we went, so the usually enormous crowd mostly stayed away. As we got toward the end of the tents, we came to one set up by the WonderLab, where they were letting kids thread long strips of colored fabric through the spokes of bicycle wheels to make a community art project that would later be "planted" in the garden at the WonderLab.

Jackson threaded a few pieces of fabric through one of the wheels, and we were lucky enough to be able to see the completed "flowers" on display, as we had already planned another to trip to Bloomington, to attend the Indiana-Ball State football game a few weeks later.

There are a few more pictures from each of those days on my photo page.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Liberal Arts

You’d think that I would be the target market for a film about a thirtysomething English major (with a history minor) who attended one of the great liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and wound up working a completely uninteresting and uninspiring job that he unequivocally hates, given that I am a thirtysomething English major (with a history minor) who attended one of the great liberal arts colleges—er, universities—in the Midwest and wound up working a completely uninteresting and uninspiring job that I unequivocally hate. To an extent, this is true—I wanted very much to like the film.

The problem is that much of the film fails to ring true. Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor, as writer/director/star) apparently yearns to still be in college, but what’s not clear is why he suffers this yearning. He missed an opportunity of some sort—no one starts out in life aspiring to be an admissions counselor at a community college, or to hand out passes to dimbulbs who could not be bothered to learn that the film was subtitled before they arrived at the theatre—but no voice is given this missed opportunity. He declares early on that he was an English major. What do English majors do? They write or they teach. A lot of the time, they teach in order to be able to write.

Jesse Fisher seems not to have been inclined to do either, and so one wonders what prompted him to pursue a degree in English in the first place; and if he realized while he was in college that what he really wanted was to remain in college indefinitely, one then wonders how it escaped his knowledge that remaining in college, especially for an English major, is not especially hard to accomplish. If you are successful in the discipline, and it is implied that Jesse was, then you go on to get your MFA and then, presumably, assume an assistant professorship somewhere in the wide world.

Unless you really just want to remain an undergraduate forever. Jesse’s singing-in-the-rain stroll through campus, when he returns at the behest of a retiring professor with whom he forged a close friendship during his days as a student, clearly indicates that being on campus animates him in ways that wearing a tie to work and asking people why they want to go to college does not. On the one hand, I totally get where he’s coming from. I loved being in college, even if I did not avail myself of all of the academic opportunities available to me as well as I ought to have done; but college is a means to an end, not the end itself. You go into it know that you’re only passing through.

This is my second go at writing about this film, and I find myself coming up against the same wall this time as I did the first time. I understand that the entire thrust of the film is that Jesse simply stopped growing at some point between matriculation and graduation. I don’t even find it hard to believe that this could happen to a person—not everyone is meant to go to college, even if they think they’re supposed to. He is, by his own admission, stunted; but it’s difficult to square that stuntedness with someone who did well in one of the finest undergraduate English programs in the country. Maybe he really had no idea what he wanted to do and just happened to do well enough in English at Kenyon to graduate and make a start in the real world.

Radnor means for the character to come across as unmoored, but setting the story at such a prestigious institution strains the character’s credibility. I have read that the story is somewhat autobiographical, but Radnor, also a product of Kenyon College (with a degree in Theatre rather than English), was a star on television by 30. Jesse is still drifting at 35. I can appreciate Radnor’s effort to pay homage to his alma mater, but I can’t help but think that the story might have come across as more authentic if it had taken place somewhere slightly more pedestrian.

And all of that might have been forgivable if not for Jesse’s literary pretensions. A centerpiece of the film is a lengthy back-and-forth between Jesse and Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), the 19-year-old Summer of Love throwback who manages to woo Jesse with her free spirit and joie de vivre. He notices a book on a shelf in her dorm room and proceeds to interrogate her about why someone of such seeming quality could possibly possess such a worthless tome. (It’s never explicitly stated, but the book in question is meant to be one from the Twilight series.) While not defending the quality of the book, Zibby unabashedly says that the book makes her happy. It may not be very good, but she likes it. Jesse cannot reconcile liking a book that isn’t also a good book (although in his mind he’s probably thinking that people should only like Great Books).

I would certainly have reacted differently to this section of the film if I had not read the first Twilight novel. I might well have agreed with Jesse’s pointed invective, but the point of the too-long sequence is that you really shouldn’t complain about something when you don’t know what you’re talking about. Zibby presents this idea succinctly, and Jesse pretty much rejects it out of hand; but in deference to his new friend, he agrees to read it. He still rails against the novel after reading it, though—mostly because he has already decided that it is worthless. The Twilight novels aren’t for everyone, of course—what books are?—but Jesse’s denigration of them is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than an objective evaluation. The most useful thing it contributes to the film is to more fully paint the character of Jesse Fisher as a cross between an unkempt, vaguely professorial Ted Mosby, and the Jesse Eisenberg character in The Squid and the Whale. I’ve known literature snobs like that—and I kept waiting for Jesse to launch into a tirade about how Zibby just had to read Proust, because he would break her heart and change her life.

I’m giving short shrift to most of the plot (and sub-plots, most of which are somewhere between unconvincing and ridiculous, and not even within shouting distance of satisfying) and all of the other characters; but apart from Richard Jenkins, who quite zestfully plays the retiring professor who provides the impetus for this moveable feast, the remaining cast are all portraying caricatures rather than characters—and they even seem to know it. I get the feeling that Radnor really wanted to write a love letter to college, but I wonder if he hasn’t been away so long that he no longer connects with the part of himself that could synthesize all those things that happened in college and make them seem more important than they really were.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

NaNoWriMo Warm-Up #1

Over the last couple of days, I have started working on some warm-up exercises—of which this is the third—for National Novel Writing Month, much like I did with a number of blog posts last October. Unfortunately, neither of the pieces I have started in the last couple of days has amounted to much—one of them got to about 500 words before sputtering out, and the one that I worked on for about three hours on Monday morning, after I put Jackson on the school bus, didn’t even make it to a thousand words. This does not fill me with confidence that I will be able to churn out 1700 words a day on a regular basis once November starts.

It’s possible that I have just not managed to find the right subject for a 1700-word essay. I suppose I could go all meta- and write about what I was writing about in those other two posts; but that would be even more boring than my usual ramblings, and would probably interest no one but hardcore writers (and maybe not even them, assuming that any of them have stumbled across my little outpost here on the magic internets). Now that I start thinking about it, though, I’m wondering if the general topic of poetry might not make for an essay that could get up toward that 1700-word mark. The problem there is that I don’t think the words would pour out of me the way that they would need to in order for 1700 words a day to be viable.

I have also thought about posting the reasons that I continue to support President Obama; but writing about politics is always dangerous for me, because I often let emotion get the better of me and wind up setting conservatives on fire. The risk is that much greater this time around because I would eventually have to write about Richard Mourdock, who is running for the U.S. Senate and who makes Indiana look even more embarrassing and hilljack than usual. It’s also starting to look like President Obama might well win most of the states that he won in 2008, with the glaring exception of Indiana, which is not remotely in play. This is disappointing, but not at all surprising—like making solid progress potty-training your child, and then watching him stand in the middle of the room and shit himself for no apparent reason.

And here I go again, running out of things to say well before I get to 1700 words. Writing fiction is different from writing essays, of course, but I’m still concerned. My schedule looks much different than it has in the all the previous years I have participated in National Novel Writing Month, due to the fact that I now have school bus duty five days a week. I’ve been batting about .500 when it comes to staying up and trying to be a productive member of society after I get back from walking Jackson down to the bus stop. The other half of the time, I go right back to bed; and that means that I wind up losing hours I could have used for writing—and having to wake up at 7:00 a.m. now means that I don’t have as much time to make up those lost writing hours at night.

It took me about an hour on Tuesday morning to write the preceding four paragraphs. Then I decided that I was going to go lie down and “rest” for a little while. I did not plan to fall asleep for almost three hours, but of course that was what wound up happening. When I woke up, I still had enough time to take the long walk around Irvington that I had planned for the day, but there was not much in the way of time to dawdle before starting on that walk. I still had not thought of anything major that I wanted to write about for 1700 words that I would pop off all at one sitting, but I knew that there wasn’t any time left to think about it, so I let it go.

And then I checked my e-mail. Some time ago, I signed up for the Poem-a-Day e-mail from the Academy of American Poets. For whatever reason, it took a really long time for them to start e-mailing me, but I’ve been getting them for about a week or so now. When I checked my e-mail, one of the messages was Tuesday's poem, and when I started reading it, I suddenly remembered the idea for a short story that I had had and then almost immediately forgotten about while I was at the old juke joint on Monday night. It was bad enough that I forgot the idea—but I also forgot that there had been an idea in the first place. I remembered the fact that I had had an idea on Monday night when I sat down at the computer Tuesday morning to check the weather while Jackson got dressed for school; but I could not for the life of me come up with what the idea had actually been—until I read the first few lines of yesterday’s Poem-a-Day poem.

What actually happened was that the first few lines made me think of what I had envisioned as the end of the story—and then I remembered the idea for the story itself. I even thought of something else that I think will work a little bit better as an ending. That whole episode, plus the rambling nature of this post, which has more to do with the genesis of ideas rather than any one idea in particular, reminded me of a couple of things I had read about having ideas, both of which were written by Stephen King. Thinking about that inspired the following three paragraphs, which, for some reason, I wrote down separately from the paragraphs that precede it in this post.

I believe in the idea that you can’t force yourself to have an idea. I also believe that a corollary of that idea is that you can’t force yourself to remember an idea that you have had but then forgotten. Stephen King has written about both concepts, though I don’t recall where I read what he said about the second one. He wrote about the first idea in the novel Misery. He says that, while you can’t just say that you want to have a good idea and then have that idea erupt into your head, you can engage in behaviors that stimulate the creative part of your brain and make you more receptive to the ideas that might suddenly emerge out of nowhere. He describes Paul Sheldon’s procedure of taking a walk and observing the world around him when he needs to have an idea. The writer can’t actively choose to have an idea—but he can do things to get himself into a creative state of mind, to prepare himself to receive any ideas that might manifest themselves.

That’s one of the reasons that I love to talk long walks around Irvington and downtown (and in Bloomington, too, only far less often). The combination of exercising a little bit and immersing myself in a place where my past and present collide (mainly Irvington, but to a lesser extent the other two places, too) often causes ideas to erupt in my head. (And that’s one of the reasons that I carry my fully loaded backpack with me almost anywhere I go. You never know when you’re going to have an idea, and you never know when you’re going to have to write that idea down.)

The corollary is that you can’t make yourself remember a good idea that you have forgotten. What Stephen King said about that is basically that good ideas will out. (At least I think it was Stephen King. I could be wrong about that, but I’m pretty sure it was Stephen King.) You don’t even really have to write them down. Once you have them, if they are, in fact, good ideas, they will keep coming back until you do something about them. If you have something that you think is a good idea, and then it slips away and never turns up again—it probably wasn’t that good an idea in the first place.

Very technically speaking, most of what is written here was written within a single twenty-four hour period between Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning. That’s not exactly within the spirit of banging one of these things out in one sitting, or in one day’s worth of writing—but it’s hella closer than I got the first two times I tried it in preparation for this year’s NaNoWriMo. The not so good news is that it’s only just over 1500 words. I don’t necessarily need to force my hand here and just start rambling in order to get past the finish line of 1700; that kind of writing just for the sake of writing and hitting a number can be saved for November, where the whole point is to hit the damn number, knowing full well that you’re going to be an awfully long way from final draft material at the end of the month.