Object Lessons: Rantings of a Lone Pamphleteer
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Blow the House Down

I've been looking forward to seeing the new Showtime show Huff, and finally got around to watching the first episode last night. Unfortunately, I was not impressed. The show involves a psychiatrist (Huff) who, in the first episode, sees a client commit suicide in his office. No, that's not a spoiler, because Showtime advertised that portion for months, which is one of my complaints. The advertisements revealed too much about the first episode. A really good show holds back the highlights, allows you to discover the show as it develops.

Which leads me to my second complaint.

The plot points and characterizations were thrown at the audience with the subtlety of a brick house collapsing. The show appears to rush through all the emotions, characterizations, and discoveries that would normally take several episodes to develop. For example, Huff has a "normal" evening arguing with his wife about his mother (played by the incomparable Blythe Danner) the night after his patient shoots himself. It is only a couple of nights later that he is found crying in bed. No exploration. No carefully revealed growth of realizations, no slow slide out of shock into pain. Bam! and he's crying.

Killing off a character right off seemed unsubltle as well. Of course, it sets up the rest of the show, which they have under wraps. Oddly, Showtime's tight-lipped attitude regarding upcoming episodes directly opposes their openness concerning the first episode; they're telling little now, but told too much before.

Jon points out that Six Feet Under also killed off a (central) character the first episode; the rest of the first season was resolution of that death. Still, SFU handled it better, slowly revealing character as the episodes developed. SFU handles the revelations as if the audience were flies on the wall, allowing the characters to interact and reveal themselves slowly.

Another example of the lack of subtlety is found in the 14-year-old son's monologue: "You can always talk to me, dad." C'mon. Seriously. I don't mind having an "anti-teen" who is not self-involved; in fact, that' s interesting. But keep it real, people.

I'm willing to reserve final judgements until I've seen more episodes. But Huff seems shallow, forced, contrived, and ultimately fails to evoke the emotion in the audience that it's cast exhibits so freely... too freely. Perhaps because we know too much up front about the character's motivations, and not enough of their background, the show falls flat.

Despite fine acting in Huff, there is something... hollow about it all. The show feels as if there is no core, which perhaps is the point: Huff is suddenly questioning his life. He says "I feel as if I've been asleep for 42 years." Problem is, if the show plans to reveal a reversal in his life, they needed to reveal more of his life before the tragedy.

Another example: Huff's father is mentioned and dismissed in two lines, and a brother who is never mentioned is suddenly visited by Huff 3/4 of the way through the first episode. The show reveals the wrong things bluntly, and the points it should reveal slowly are slammed at us with the subtlety of a wolf in a children's story.

Good points: The cast is superb, excepting the son, whom I find annoying. Blythe Danner, Hank Azaria, Paget Brewster (lately of Andy Richter Controls the Universe), all are good actors. The guest star list shines like a night at Spago: upcoming episodes include Annie Potts, a fattened-up (thank you Jesus) Lara Flynn Boyle, and one of my favorites, Swoosie Kurtz. Huff has a lot going for it, and I hope it improves.

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Poetry or Prose?

I often have difficulty describing what it is, exactly, that Sarah and I do during our weekly writing meetings. We discuss poetry. Plan our careers. Crack the motivational whip and give each other deadlines.

But here is one essential example of what we discuss: Sarah asked me:

Did we ever decide if there is a distinction between the incredibly short-short-story and the long prose poem? I have written something which began as a poem... transmuted into a story. Of course, there was always a story hidden in the poem...and in my efforts to flesh it out, I have created a monster.

My reply:

I think the difference is cohesive, cogent narrative (S Story), versus the free-est form of poetry (proem). A proem does not necessarily have a narrative, or anything "form"ulaic; proems break out of the poetry form altogether by excluding the linebreaks, but include poetics in other ways (language, style). The distilled language poetry requires is essential for writing a super-short (25 words or less). A short story weighs in at 2,000 words or less, about 5 pages, single-spaced. A proem falls in between; I've never seen one longer than 500 words, although I'm sure a few exist.

Even a super short is still a story, requiring all the same elements of plot, character, narrative, etc. that a story needs no matter it's length. I suspect that the elemental forces are pared down to their most essential "forms", i.e., that a super-short would have only dashes of the points that may be expounded upon in a longer SS, and it must perforce include the narrative thread, no matter how reduced. Character might be reduced to a few well-chosen, overly expressed dialogue. Plot is minimized to a moment -- 8 second -- an encounter between two characters, even if one of those characters is not human; the second character could be inanimate, even. Imagine a story of a woman trying to open a can without a can opener. In short, an SS still tells a story, no matter how briefly related, while a prose poem need not.

Likewise, the proem must have the same basic structure of
poetry -- beginning, middle, and the "couplet" or "aha" ending that leads the reader to some emotional conclusion along with the narrator. Thought the line blurs when one considers a narrative poem, I think it's clear that a proem can be most easily distinguished from an SS by virtue of its tone. That is, a proem includes a directness, a connection to its reader, which should reach out and grab you by the lapels and not let you loose until it's done with you. A poem is like an attack of the reader in a way, shining a light into those unwashed issues hiding in humanity's dark closets.

My feeling is that short fiction, no matter how short, is less....
accesible, in another sense of the word. It's further away from the reader or the writer by virtue of its form: character displaces narrator, setting usurps place, chronology and story-telling replace reflection and exposition.

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Done with Poetry

I've been working on my poetry for three months now, and have a complete chapbook (50 pages) which I've submitted to four contests. Ever hopeful some contest judge will recognize my brilliance, I'm reminded of a great rejection letter, a copy of which I found posted at the Comstock Review.

Actual Chinese Rejection Slip:

"We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that, in the next thousand years, we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and
to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."

If you really want a giggle, and you're a writer of any sort, you'll appreciate some rejection slips from Working Poet.

Think kind thoughts.

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Lost in Space

My favorite Star Trek characters are always the pinnochio characters.

Commence station security log, Stardate 47282.5. At the
request of Commander Sisko, I will hereafter be recording a daily log of law enforcement affairs. The reason for this exercise is beyond my comprehension, except perhaps that humans have a compulsion to keep records and lists and files, so many in fact that they have to invent new ways to store them microscopically; otherwise, their records would overrun all known civilizations.
My own very adequate memory not being good enough for Starfleet, I am pleased to put my voice to this official record of this day: Everything's under control.

End log."

--Odo, "Necessary Evil"

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Yo Voté

Yesterday was such a cool day, today I decided to wear knit yoga pants to walk to my voting location. Of course, it turned out to be over 70, and I was boiling by the time I reached University Park Elementary to vote.

I walked to the desk marked "L-Z," and handed over my voter's card. I was immediately redirected to the next table, "A-K." Oops, I'm a "G" now, not an "R" anymore.

To verify that I'm me, I suppose, the lady asked me my middle name. "Salme," I promptly and confidently replied. I was wrong. My voter card and driver's license list my maiden name as my middle name.

Trying again, she asked me "What's your address?" I stumbled over that too, but handed over my license as proof.

Finally she asked me "What's your DOB?"

"My what?" wiping sweat from my face.

"Your Date of Birth."

I got that one right first try, and was allowed to slink to the voting machines, thinking they must think I'm a fake, a ghost from Chicago, sweating and screwing up. I'm suspect. Immediately waylaid by an energetic assistant, I gratefully watched him push the card into its slot, gently encouraging me to take "as much time as you need."

Some days I don't feel too smart, and I suppose I also gave that impression, but I zipped through the voting, thanks to my marked Sample Ballot. It's cool that Maryland sends out the Sample Ballot (in English and Spanish).

Chel says that in VA they don't send voters sample ballots, though you can see one at the public library, her favorite haunt. (Concerning the inconsistency of voting technologies across the nation and even within a state: In Chel's hometown, they don't vote with touchscreens, nor punchcards. That's right, they still use levers. For all she knows, she voted for Goldwater.)

Decisions, Decisions:

Under my hubby's good influence, I researched the county referendums in advance, decide on my candidates early. I even filled out my Sample Ballot. Some interesting things came up.

President: NO COMMENT. I mean, Kerry's carrying MD anyway, so there's no fault in voting my conscience.

Senator and Congresspersons: Being Mexican has a strong influence on my voting . I sincerely believe we should have more viable options in the presidential election. The only way we're going to have choices other than the two major parties (a dual-sided monopoly, in my opinion), is to use Mexico's method of ousting the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party: shoehorn some candidates from another party into Congress. So I voted Green. That's right. Not a vote for the candidates as much as a vote for more freedom of choice, a system in which "fringe" candidates are also invited to presidential debates.

Up to this point, I contradicted the Official (Democratic) Sample Ballot handed out by Kerry supporters today.

Voting for the Judges was a waste of time, and generally involved keeping people in office. A tenured judge'd bench experience counts. Same votes as the Democratic party line (DPL).

Next, the county Questions. Here's where I get a real say in my hometown. I voted:

For Questions A, B, and C, approving bonds for the county to improve public works and transportation; county libraries; and public safety facilities. I like driving, reading, and cops, (especially cops). (Same as DPL).

Against Question D, Facilities Bonds for county buildings, because the lack of explanation frustrated me. For all I know, they're buying fancy furniture and damask wallpaper for the city council offices. (DPL suggests For.)

For Question E, Facilities Bonds for Community Colleges. I'm all about education (same as DPL).

Body Politick

This sticky set of questions proposed by apparently feuding factions of the council. In this corner, Hendershot, who'll get ousted under existing term limits in 2006, and in this corner, the rest of the current council.

For Question H (DPL suggests Against), which adds two at-large council seats. I'm for a diversity of voices.

H includes a piggyback clause that exempts the at-large seats from term limits. Theoretically, with the passage of this amendment, Hendershot himself could run for re-election (as an at-large member) even when established term limits force him out in 2006. (Voting for Question F negates H's term-limit exemption.)

Furthermore, Question H changes the rules about electing the chair; currently, the chair is elected by the other council members; H proposes to elect the at-large member with the greatest number of citizen's votes to the Chair. (Voting for G negates the change in voting procedure.)

For Question F (same as DPL), a clause counter-proposed by the councils' opponents to H that limits council terms to two, even for newly added seats. I'm against people staying in power because some voters seem to think it's a contest, to see how long they can keep old goats (God rest Strom Thurmon's soul) in office.

Seriously, I feel incumbents are inaccurately preferred by uninformed voters, who tend toward putting in 'trained' officials. Certainly, incumbents are statistical favorites. Also, if a candidate sincerely wants to continue in public service, plenty of other ways to help are available: other offices to run for, volunteering, campaigning for others, etc.

For Question G (same as DPL), proposed by the Anti-H group. Voting for maintains the current system to vote for Council Chair.

Eminently Logical?

Question H and the story behind it sounds like a crock of crap to me. Maybe I'm being overly cynical, or my mexicanidad is showing, but whenever I see a proposed amendment that benefits the person (or people) who propose it, I think it's crap.

Think Congress voting themselves a raise.

Prima facie, I don't trust a career politician who promotes an amendment that, incidentally, secures his job. I'm too cynical not to wonder if Hendershot's attempting to secure his place on the council, as well as his chance to become chair (he'd have a 50-50 shot, instead of 1-in-9). I further wonder about the opportunity the Chair would have to promote other ballot amendments, such as repealing term limits altogether, perhaps?

And doesn't Question H, taken as a whole, make the at-large seats the most prestigious, seeing as the candidates would also be running for Council Chair? Hmmm....

Jon says not to read too much into things, but as a writer, I believe the image carries the narrative; facts tell the story in real life, too: journalism. Here's an interesting article. It just smells fishy to me, though that might be Teddy.

Against Question I (same as DPL), which while claiming to "establish voting rights for at-large council members," actually denies the two new seats voting rights. Here is where I imagine the anti-Hendershot crowd lobbing another one. But I can't agree with putting two lame ducks on the council, at my expense (don't they get paid for this with my tax dollars?). This Question struck me as particularly vicious. Maybe I'll go to the next meeting.

The Rest

Against Question J (DPL suggests For), limiting the hours of temporary seasonal positions.

They didn't explain it enough; I'm worried they'll be taking away park employees, or those three pesky DMV tellers, or cops (especially cops). Generally I feel that people should be allowed to work as many hours as they need to support themselves.

As someone who has enjoyed freelancing most of her career, I have to say NO! based on what I can glean. To me, it's about maintaining the flexibility and control over one's work life. But that's based on a poor understanding of the poorly written statement, which was the deciding factor in my vote.

I made all these decisions days ago, so after zipping in my answers, I handed the card to another technician, who traded me a sticker for it.

"I voted," in English and Spanish.

In retrospect, maybe they thought I didn't speak much English.

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