Things I made last weekend

This is my homemade smoker. Yes, I know it looks insane but it actually worked. After about twelve hours it made the piece of pork pictured below.

 

Trust me. Once it was shredded with forks it was quite good.

Here are some mussels too. I made a lot food. We had leftovers.

Happy weekend, all.

Myspace my ass

I’ve been playing around on both Facebook and Myspace to try and wrangle up some fans as well as to try and provide some places for my readers to play.

I don’t pretend to be a master of the social networking sites, but I’ve managed to do some interesting things on Facebook. There’s a discussion board over there (I think) where those inclined can yell at each other as well as the ability to share and invite friends. You know, things like that.

Thus far on Myspace, on the other hand, I’ve managed to break my blog trying to set up a cross posting program, almost crashed my computer trying to upload some pictures, and received two or three threats from my virus protection program about Trojan Horses while tinkering there.

I don’t think I like Myspace. I’m not real sure I like Facebook either, but I will keep playing there. I’m not sure how much I’ll be doing at Myspace.

I really don’t get it.

One of these days…POW.

A number of people, after checking out “Second Choice,” have asked me if there really is a statue of Ralph Kramden outside of The Port Authority.

The answer?

Yes.

Yes there is.

Every year on October 1st bus drivers from all over the world gather around and threaten to beat their wives.

I’m not even going to tell you where Norton’s statue is.

And if you got all three of those references then you really need a hobby.

$100,000 Bill

I would love to set a story here. Who wouldn’t? It’s the door to hell.

And it’s real. Which makes it completely unusable. If I ever put this into a story I’d have to explain so much of it that it would take over the story. I’m talking pages and pages on how natural gas burns and the local government and why it doesn’t explode, etc.

Either that or I’d have to take so many liberties while casually slipping it into the story that I might as well make up my own setting.

Sadly, the fact that it’s real doesn’t make it any easier to believe for the general populous who has no idea that this place exists. If you had told me about it five minutes ago I’d never have believed you. Nor would I, in a million years, have come up with a mental image to match those photographs.

Still…freakhog cool, isn’t it?

Seriously. How cool is the internet?

Over at Wordle you can create word clouds using any text you want.  I cut and pasted all 26 stories in to make this.

Or here is the entire Matthew and Epp saga in word cloud form:

SO cool.

Moment 1: Matthew Makes His Second Choice

It’s hard to explain where a story comes from. Caffeine has something to do with it. So does lots of upbeat music played over and over again very loudly. The events in my life have something to do with it, although there rarely seems to be a direct, “I once skinned my knee so now this character will skin his knee,” correlation. What sort of story my brain is in the mood to create certainly comes into play. And then there’s everything else.

Which of course explains nothing.

I had a guy, he was at a wedding, he was wearing a tuxedo. That was how this all started. It was my third story and I was fresh out of ideas. The first two stories were things I had wanted to write for years. They were fleshed out to some degree. This was to be my first outing of the project with no real foundation to build on. And I had nothing but the image of said guy at a wedding. So I got playful. I started wondering if I could make it into a Twilight Zone sort of thing where this guy makes a deal with the devil and there’s some sort of ironic ending where he gets what he wants only to discover that this is a bad thing not a good thing.

Then I decided that was boring and started wondering why the devil always gets such a bad rap. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we were rooting for the guy who brings pain into this world? If he was actually the good guy?

Suddenly all sorts of things started clicking and over the course of a few subway rides larger and larger chunks began fitting together. I can distinctly remember worrying this over in my head, standing there on my ride home, and suddenly understanding how the choices worked. This was possibly the only time I completely understood the choices. They’re rather confusing. I prefer Epp’s explanation where he brushes aside explanations and just says that there is, “an odd little hiccup in the universe.” How the choices work isn’t really important, only that a choice exists. At least that was what I told myself every time I screwed up the choices and had to go back and rewrite a scene.

But back during that subway ride I understood, and I knew that this “Matthew” character would have made one choice back when his wife died, only he didn’t understand that situation fully, because really he had two choices to make. A second choice was coming. The first was to give his life to begin with, the second revolved around who it was, exactly, that he was giving his life for and whether he would continue on in this world when those he continued to love moved on. And at the center of it all was a discarded home pregnancy test.

And then I was off, branching out and discovering one of the most interesting worlds I have ever visited as a writer. Coming up with new stories for Matthew and Epp became one of the best parts of this project. They gave me a canvas where everything could be played with.

On the other hand they also became the biggest stress inducer of this project, because as more and more stories piled up, more and more pressure to carry on this tale in the expected fashion began to pile up as well. I never want to write a book in that way again. That was terrifying.

So Matthew and the choice that set everything off gets the top slot. His encounter with the daughter he’s been unknowingly following for her whole life never fails to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and the moment he decides she’ll be okay if he lets go sends me all over the place emotionally. It is the single most important brick in this building. Despite the zombie knife fights and trips back in time, it is Matthew’s struggle to accept his second choice that is really what this is all about. It is Matthew, after all, who brings Epp back around at the end. And it is Matthew, in a mirror image of the scene below, who signs off on Gus’s last push and all that it involved by letting himself believe that Zach will turn out all right, leaving a little message for the mortal in the meantime.

At the beginning of “26 Stories” weaving a book into it was certainly not the plan. Now, though, I have a hard time imagining what this would have been like without a visit with Matthew and Epp every third story.

I’ll visit with them again I’m pretty certain. Their world strikes me as way too rich for me to stay away from for long. I did mention a few months ago, though, that there are no plans to go back at the moment. And that remains true. The doors are currently closed and I will not force them open without an actual story in mind. But I get the feeling that one will fall into my lap eventually.

I’ll be working over a scene in my head or something, and it won’t sit right. I’ll be unable to put the camera in the right place, so to speak, and the characters will all be acting off and I’ll run it over and over in my mind trying to figure out what’s going on. And then I’ll take a step back to regroup and I’ll notice, there in the background behind the trees, a man in an immaculate suit resting his weight on a cane, or the girl on the blind date will suddenly turn blond and the patrons around her will walk right through her, or the man holding up the liquor store will have a big blind man with mirrored sunglasses breathing down his neck…and I’ll know.

But for now that hasn’t happend. For now I leave you with my favorite moment from this project.

Matthew Huntington of Brooklyn making his second choice:

The hallway Matthew entered was dark, but he had the feel of high ceilings and dusty white walls. He walked, his feet noticing the occasional warped slat of wood under his feet. He walked past a semicircle arch that led to a cramped kitchen, past a closed door, then around a corner to a bedroom. There was a fluffy comforter, rumpled and bright like starched snow, an end table with a clock radio and a lamp, a small desk cluttered with books and a laptop. He stared around; everything looked generic enough on its own, but combined there was a personality here.

Epp stood at a tree, his hands passing around and around it as he unwrapped loop after loop of tape until he finally reached the end. He walked around the tree, gathering handful after handful of tape as he went, the light on his left shifting from dusk into darkness now, and two figures ran towards him, one of them tossing a knife into the bushes before they reached the barrier where the tape had been and they disappeared to catch up with their present selves.

Matthew heard a door slam and he spun around to see a woman standing in the hallway, sleepy eyed, wearing a large t-shirt, reaching a hand through the doorway he had passed to flip off the bathroom light. He breathed in, and in, and in, seemingly unable to exhale any as his blood beat warm in his ears. “Christ, you look like your mother,” he said as his daughter walked past him. And her face, on top of the resemblance to his wife, was somehow so familiar, and he remember in rapid succession, a child’s laugh at the corner of a room he was working, a little girl in pigtails who had watched as he caused a fight on a street corner, the glimpse he caught in the shop window of a teenager walking past as he looked over the clientele, her face at a thousand different moments in his past appearing again and again as he floated through his work and it was like an optical illusion that he had only seen one way until just this moment when it became so clear how close he had been to her this whole time, how much of her life he had witnessed.

Epp wound his way around the third corner of the square he had marked out, tugging the tape off a tree branch. Inside the square the light rain that had passed through earlier that night began to fall, the raindrops tapping soothingly against the treetops.

Matthew watched her climb into bed, roll around a few times trying to get the comforter right on her body. She settled down onto her back, her face up at the ceiling. He watched and could tell that she was debating whether she should go back to sleep or not. She reached a hand up, scratched her forehead, half rolled over and looked at the clock radio, then rolled back. She clasped her hands behind her head, wriggled back onto the pillow, and smiled as she looked up at the ceiling. One thought went through Matthew’s head as he watched her and it shocked him with its certainty, but as a lifetime of watching his daughter grow up flooded through his memory he knew it was true.

“She’ll be okay,” he thought.

Moment 2: Epp Decries Modern Telecommunications

What to say about Epp? Most likely not a lot. The guy was everywhere, was arguably the main driving force behind these tales, influenced every character and became the center of, if not the reason for, the entire third act. He was a character who was so powerful that scenes he wasn’t anywhere near changed course simply because his name was spoken out loud. He was a character so cool that he made britches and a waistcoat seem stylish.

Picking one moment to capture Epp, I realize as I write this, is completely out of the question. It just isn’t going to happen. He’s here, obviously very high up on the list, but the moment I’m going to choose isn’t any grand Epictetus moment. If you’ve come this far then you know all the grand Epictetus moments yourself and probably have a few stuck in your memory that are being trotted out right now: the cathedral; Newtonian Physics; pounding the bar at the Port Authority and turning a stack of hundred dollar bills into a brief history of currency. I’m not about to go picking and choosing amongst those to try and capture everything about him in one little scene.

He also has a number of rather wonderful lines:

Smooth – “Even for the immortal, Benjamin, life is too short to drink bad scotch.”

Touching – “Two thousand years and the power of a god and there’s no end to how much I’d give up to be able to talk through some of my problems with you. You were always so good at helping me notice what I was thinking too hard to see.”

When asked why you would buy the cow when you can get the milk for free – “One would purchase the cow if the future value of all milk after deducting for risk was greater than the asking price plus the value of the amount of expected free milk, assuming a cow that provided no benefits other than milk.”

But, no, none of these are my favorite moment. My favorite moment is nothing but a little throwaway line that comes in the middle of “Three Lessons.” It’s just something that Epp mutters while waiting for a text message.

Why choose this moment? Because it’s something that any of us might mutter while waiting for a text message (I mean, not me because I love texting, but other people). My favorite moments for Epp, in fact my favorite moments in these stories, are the moments when these keepers of strength and defenders of inspiration, when these century old demi-gods and masters of quantum particles, when these embodiments of the “whatever” in “whatever doesn’t kill you”, when these testers and pushers act undeniably human. Because that was the best part about these tales for me.

Despite all the bells and whistles and craziness happening, these characters came out as some of the more human characters I’ve ever written. That’s really all I want to say about that as far as the deep end of the pool goes, that statement is surely up for debate, but in the shallow end of things there are hundreds of moments where these characters become perfectly accessible because they do things like mess up math in their head, fumble with metaphors, screw up times zones, forget appointments. That aspect of things was a huge part of the world-building that went on for these stories. I didn’t want larger than life immortals gnashing their teeth and causing giant earthquakes and speaking in booming voices. I wanted their roots, their beginnings, who they were to start with to always shine through. I wanted them wonderfully and at times woefully human. Human but with the ability to turn mass into energy at will or quantum tunnel their way through a car roof.

So Epp at slot number two speaks for itself as far as Epp the character goes. The moment is irrelevant, so say I, allowing me to pick a moment that has nothing to do with anything except that it continues to make me smile when I think about it. Just one line when Epp is sitting alone in Sophie Loughton’s bedroom while Matthew is making his first push. Epp is contacting two strangers who turn out to be Mary and Bartleby, and in the silence of the gathering storm outside his phone continues to beep softly, and he continues to clack the keys in reply, and he utters to no one a very simple human sentiment:

Nobody talks on the phone anymore.

I always loved that line.

Of course, here we are with Epp and it’s only moment number two.

Surprised? Wondering what moment one is? It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. After all, this never really was Epp’s story, now was it?

(thanks to Reza Vaziri for the photo)

Moment 3: Smith Gives Me a Motto

Way back at the start of this project, back before Epp brought a cathedral crashing down, back before Matthew smoked his first cigar, before Jacob checked out or Dorian chased his wife into the past, back before all of that there was “Liquid Calling.”

A simple tale of a hit man, a conspiracy theory to spread Alzheimer’s and a young man named Smith. For a lot of people this story is a favorite and the twisty plot and clear writing put it pretty high up on my list as well. Taken away from this project I think I’d still like this story, but within the confines of “26 Stories” Smith and Morzeny’s battle against death and each other took on a lot more weight.

This whole concept always seems so simple when I think about it: I write stories; you read the stories; if you like them you tell some friends. And we go from there.

But then things go all crazy. Because I’m out here in the wilds of the internet, and at times it doesn’t seem like the internet. It doesn’t seem like the internet at all. It seems like the wild west. I’m in some rustic town with no law. Madmen and lunatics own the streets and whore houses outnumber farmhouses by about a hundred to one. All the major players from back east, well they all have representation here, but all those representatives do is fly the company colors and hope for a transfer back to the big city where things are really happening. And there are gold in the hills all around, or so we’ve all been told. We have stories of those who have struck deep rich veins of the stuff. But after awhile you begin to wonder how much of those stories are myth because when you take a real good look around it seems that all of the deals being cut out here revolve around gambling or sex. And there are no rules. And there are no plans. And I’m standing in the middle of the muddy road as gunslingers and stagecoaches and drunks and whores and jesters and gamblers roll past, holding up my little stories like some embattled preacher, trying to bring my brand of literature to this land.

Although since I’m talking about literature instead of religion, maybe I’m not the embattled preacher. I guess that makes me the doe-eyed schoolmarm.

Maybe I shouldn’t push this metaphor too far.

The fact is, of course, that since diving into the internet I’ve come across a number of blogs that I really do love to read, and a lot of sites written with wit and intelligence, and works of art that have no classification but still take my breath away. So I know it’s not all that bad.

But still, sometimes when I look back over my shoulder I don’t see the world wide web. I see Dodge City.

There have been any number of times over the past year that I’ve thought back on Smith and Morzeny sitting in that apartment, both mortally wounded, neither wanting to budge a millimeter. And I would think about one of my favorite lines to come out of Smith’s mouth. And what was weird was that after enough time and enough stories had gone by, my favorite line of Smith’s really started to seem like something someone else had said: “I prefer to be underestimated.”

And it became my motto. Mind you, there’s a fine line between “I prefer to be underestimated,” and “I’m pretending that this is where I want to be because I screw everything up and wind up on the losing end naturally so I might as well act like I meant it.” So I never started saying Smith’s line out loud or anything. Never took it too deep to heart. Never printed it up and taped it to my wall. No, it just became something to repeat to myself when it was Monday night, I had no story, the stats were down and I was wondering what life as a banker would be like.

Moment number three. Smith gives me a motto:

Morzeny rolled his cigarette slowly between his thumb and first finger. His arm was settling into a slow, deep, throb. Had he not been trained for this he knew he’d be going to pieces. “You’re not what you appear to be,” Morzeny said.

I’m not what I appear to be?” Smith said, gritting his teeth with the effort of talking louder than a whisper.

“Your dirty sweatshirt, your stupid haircut, your head bobbing walk, your annoying teenager attitude, it’s all an act, isn’t it?”

Smith’s eyes glared hard for a second, then his head rolled back, away from Morzeny, and Morzeny knew he had finally figured Smith out.

“I prefer to be underestimated,” Smith said.

Moment 4: Kyo Craves Raw Fish

I have a baffling tendency in my writing to sometimes invest characters with qualities that are utterly foreign to me. Now, naturally that’s pretty common. It’d be a helluva boring world if all authors’ characters were themselves carbon copied over and over again (do the kids these days know what a carbon copy is?). But for me there is one quality that continues to pop up in story after story that I’m beginning to find a little odd. For some reason I’m running a guerrilla campaign in my fiction with the goal of convincing the world that I really like sushi.

I hate sushi.

I hate most fish. I’ll eat mussels sometimes and clams are okay and canned tuna I’ll do, but other than that I hate fish. And this isn’t a “I can’t stand how slimy they look and I’ve never touched one” sort of hate. Over the years I’ve sampled what I’ve been told is some of the best fish in the world. Smoked salmon in an Alaskan fishing shack, the winner of the best tapas in Spain, plus I’ve picked off of plates in a number of restaurants here in New York. And they’ve done nothing for me even when I have been able to swallow. I hate fish.

Yet love of sushi has appeared in a lot of my stories. It pops up in “New York City Marathon” for example and, possibly for the last time, it appears in the form of Kyokutei in the Matthew and Epp stories. I say possibly for the last time because in its other iterations my fake love of sushi was a passing nod, a glance in through the window, a cursory mentioning. With Kyo things became a lot more involved and I spent days reading more things about sushi than one might consider sane. It didn’t help that I needed to know about sushi as we know it as well as sushi as Kyo knew it. This is because sushi became a huge part of his story as it was fleshed out in “The Monk, The Warrior and The Lord.” But that isn’t the story that contains the number four moment.

Nope. Kyo was rather nebulous before the writing of “The Monk” for me and until I actually wrote his story it wasn’t clear exactly how far outside the normal lines he existed, so even though that story was where he solidified into the samurai that he is, that story doesn’t contain his moment in my mind…although he’s not a samurai. He’s a ronin. And that is what his story is all about.

Which is to say that Kyo’s origin story drew heavily on the Japanese legend of the 47 Ronin with the number of ronin, obviously, decreased by 46 and the length of time and the number of antagonists increased. His story was a departure from the main storyline but I knew that Kyo’s differences were going to become important and I felt that establishing his origin was blah blah blah I really wanted to write a story about a samurai.

But, again, his spot on this list doesn’t come from his origin story. For Kyo’s moment I find myself landing squarely in the little precursor for “The Monk, The Warrior and The Lord” that we get in “Robin’s Flight.” During Robin’s tour of the world we touch base with all the main characters as they go through their day and in Kyo’s case that meant him sitting at a local sushi bar in Tokyo by himself, desperately trying to convince the chef to make him a type of sushi that hasn’t been around (to the best of my understanding) for a few centuries. And as Kyo stares down the chef, the chef stares back and now and again gets the strangest sensation of times long past, of wagon wheels rolling over hard dirt ruts and the shouts and smells of a small village in ancient Japan.

For me this is everything. Kyo’s longing for his past is so strong that even the sushi chef can feel it and in a few quick strokes Kyo’s loneliness is captured. That’s really what his story was about for me. An outsider in every way, Kyo never even had a chance to make his own choices. There is a sense for those testers who do their work that some sort of release awaits them; in the first story Epp talks about how his mentor eventually was able to move on. But for Kyo this hope doesn’t exist. In death Kyo hoped to find honor and a completion of his tasks, but instead he finds himself wedged between worlds forever as an anomaly that nobody quite understands with a set of rules that nobody can figure out.

Of course rules are never as set as most people think they are and Kyo, albeit hundreds of years later than most, does make a second choice of sorts in the form of Mary.  So the last few seconds of “Where Sarpedon’s Body Lay” were in the running for Kyo’s slot.  As were any scenes where he was using his sword.

But, in the end, I had to go with Kyo staring down the sushi chef in “Robin’s Flight” where we get our first whiff of the age that produced Kyo, where for the first time we see Kyo when no other testers are around, and where I first began to wonder just how different this guy really was:

“It is not the same effect,” Kyo said, and the itamae felt the odd notion that this man in the ugly suit was not who he appeared to be. His eyes, his manner, his ability to act in the most impolite way but somehow not come across as anything but the superior in the situation, all of these things always made the hairs on the back of the chef’s neck stand up. Anyone else would have deserved a ban from the sushi bar and would not have been allowed to remain after such insults, but the sushi chef always felt a strange sensation when he talked to this man that settled somewhere deep in the back of his skull and for fleeting moments he would feel as if he were one of the ancient members of his trade in some roadside shack along a muddy road, outdoing his own best to craft perfect pieces of sushi that would feed the local samurai who passed through. The sushi chef enjoyed this feeling immensely, and it was for this reason alone that the man in the ugly suit was allowed to act as he did, not to mention rarely, if ever, pay his bill.

Moment 5: Frankie Doogan Takes a Bath

I have nothing against happy endings. I really don’t. But they don’t come to me naturally very often. I would argue, mind you, that everything I write is a happy ending, or at least an optimistic ending, it’s just that I rarely view happiness as dependent on everything working out perfectly. I like a little grit in my life. The way I look at it, it’s going to be there anyway so you might as well figure out how to use it for you.

So my endings don’t usually have an “everyone’s ducks are in a row” type of feel, mainly because my life never seems to have an “everyone’s ducks are in a row” type of feel, and even if it does for a moment the next moment something requiring my attention is bound to pop up, so “ducks in a row” doesn’t seem like a very honest type of ending to write. And why are we lining up our ducks anyway?

Which brings us to the one clear-cut happy ending I wrote for this project, “Black Eyed Susan.” The story of Unnamed Male Narrator and Unnamed Female Narrator (no, they never receive names) wasn’t written with a plan in mind. It wasn’t written with a structure in mind. It wasn’t written with an ending in mind. It was just written. I had a male voice, and he was talking about meeting his wife, and I had his wife, the female voice, talking about meeting her husband. They took it from there and I wound up, much to my surprise, writing a love story. But after a few pages I came to realize that this was only 50% love story. The other 50%? The other 50% was nothing short of a judo match.

Each section was a push from one side or the other. Unnamed Male Narrator would give a few paragraphs of honest emotion and his view of things that put him just far enough out on a limb so that when the section ended and we swapped over to her side of things, Unnamed Female would be able to take his story and neatly tumble it ass-over-elbows with one or two deft sentences. Then Unnamed Female would start telling her point of view, build up steam through her section until she herself had gone a little too far with her viewpoint, and then we’d have another section break and sure enough Unnamed Male would step in and throw Unnamed Female’s story for a tumble.

It got to a point where I didn’t know what was coming next; I just knew that when I hit a section break I should duck. The sometimes playful sometimes painful tug of war that brought this story to light was one of the more enjoyable experiences of this project. I loved every turnaround, every section where he saw things one way, would state things quite firmly with his ending sentence, only to have her section open with the complete opposite point of view.

So slot number five goes to one of their smallest sparring bouts. A quick four sentence break involving Unnamed Male’s rival love interest, one Frankie Doogan, and Unnamed Female’s firm belief that nobody was pulling strings the night of their first kiss. This moment actually prompted a real Frank Doogan out there who had spent time at the Jersey Shore to e-mail me and ask if he had ever inadvertently tried to steal my girlfriend. He didn’t. This story is all fiction.

This moment also caused me to laugh harder than at any other point in this project. I’m talking pushed away from my desk, headphones off, face buried in my hands because I had just burst out cackling so hard I might have freaked out my neighbors.

Three simple sentences.

Then a fourth that changed everything all over again:

Did I know about Frankie Doogan? Of course I knew about Frankie Doogan. Why do you think I pushed him into the bay that night?

Of course karma paid me back after your mother broke my heart.

(thanks to Dom Dada for the photo)