Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Blogging a Novel: Part Two

OK, here's chapter one of Lique. I usually like to write longer chapters, but I really want to get something posted and get the momentum going. Remember, you can search the "Lique" post tag to see all previous installments, which at this point consists only of the Epilogue.

CHAPTER ONE

“You know what I love about Planet of the Apes? I mean, besides the ending, duh.”
This threw off the reporter from Intrusion magazine, who hadn’t really expected this tangent. “I don’t know, the apes?”
“The apes! Hell to the yeah, right? They really make you think. Like, they’re not really that different from us. They wear clothes and ride horses and everything. And how weird is it for an ape to ride a horse? That’s like a lobster milking a cow.” Barry Lique chuckled to himself at the visual. “Claws and teats – that’s a bad combination.”
Fitzpatrick Darabont cleared his throat and attempted to get the interview back on track. “Indeed. I hate to change the subject, but I have to ask: what exactly are you doing with that… box?”
“Oh, yeah. This is my pressure box – I spend two hours every day in the pressure box. For training.” The pressure box was aptly named – it was a glass box, approximately a foot on each side, that simulated pressure equal to three times Earth’s gravity. Every day, Barry stuck his hands into the box and practiced the basic gestures of Rock-Paper-Scissors. “See, when I work in here, my hands adjust to higher pressure. That makes my tendons more powerful, so I can spring into action like a cheetah. It’s like how Buzz Aldrin was really good at basketball when he came back from the moon.”
Darabont chose not to contest that fact about one of America’s space heroes. “That’s amazing.”
“Yeah, after a session in here, my fingers are like coiled… coils. Really powerful. One time, right after I got out of the box, I flipped a coin. You know, deciding what to have for lunch. Flipped that quarter right up into the ceiling – drove it in about a half inch.” He nodded over his right shoulder, and Darabont could see that there was indeed a quarter embedded in the ceiling. He let out a low, appreciative whistle.
“Now, I’ve seen a lot of people coming though here, and it looks like they’re installing cameras throughout the house. Is that for security? Are you worried about your safety?”
“Those guys? Oh, no. They’re getting everything set up for the show.”
“The show?”
“Sorry – I’m doing a reality show with E!. Or ESPN. Definitely somebody who starts with an E. They’re going to follow me around and film me. Like the Kardashians, I guess. Should be pretty cool.”
“That strikes me as an interesting idea. We’ve never really seen a show that follows an athlete at the peak of his powers. Can’t wait to see it.” Fitzpatrick Darabont could no longer tell when he was being sincere. He was fairly certain it was either “always” or “never”, though. “Aren’t you concerned about your loss of privacy, though? Of exposing your hidden depths to the viewing public?”
“Ah, you know, I don’t have anything that I’m ashamed of. Open book, right here.” There was a short buzzing noise. “Oh, that’s it for the pressure box. Hold on to your glasses – sometimes there’s kind of a vacuum when it opens.”
Darabont dutifully held his glasses to his nose with one finger as Barry stepped on a pedal to open the box. Sure enough, Darabont felt a pull, and if he hadn’t been gripping his pen so tightly, it would have flown across the table. Barry raised his hands over his head.
“Have to do this for a minute or two. If I try to hold anything too soon, I’ll probably damage it with my grip. Crushed a remote control once.” Barry’s butler approached and rubbed down his hands with a wet towel. “This is my butler, Alfred.”
“Your butler’s name is Alfred? What are the odds?”
“Well, that’s not his real name. But who’s the best butler ever? Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred. And I don’t want a second rate butler – I found this guy who looked exactly like Alfred, and we changed his name. Awesome, right? Funny thing is, he’s not even a butler by trade!”
“I’m a CPA, actually.”
“Alfred, we talked about this…”
Chastened, Alfred answered again, this time with a British accent. “I’m a CPA, actually. Guv’nor.”
“You know, Barry, I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities, and I think Alfred is the first actual butler I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, I guess I always thought that all rich people had butlers.” Barry lowered his hands and flexed tentatively. “But I guess it’s just me and what’s-his-name. Diddypuff. But they’re so handy! If people knew how great butlers were, they’d be way more popular. Maybe my show will help with that. Get little kids into the field of butlering.”
Alfred sighed heavily. “Indeed.”
“Well, Barry, it has been an absolute pleasure. Unfortunately, I need to leave if I’m going to make my flight. If it’s all right, I might need to call you later with some follow-up questions.”
“No problem, man. Sorry I can’t shake your hand, but my tendons are still really tight.”
“Oh, I understand. Good luck with the show.”

* * *

As he scanned the overnight ratings, Phil Stump tried to remember the last time he’d had a solid bowel movement. Three, four years, probably. Had Phil known at the time what a momentous occasion he was experiencing, he would have marked it somehow. Perhaps with a handful of confetti. But Phil couldn’t have anticipated the stress that would soon come to define his life.
“Seventeenth in 18 to 34? You’re shitting me, right? Is there even a seventeenth place?” He used to worry about his mental state when he talked to himself like this, but the eternal question of whether or not he’d gone insane continued to slide down his list of priorities. On this particular morning, his sanity was approximately one thousand times less important than the viewing public’s steadily decreasing disinterest in whether the surviving Fat Boys would be able to find themselves some nice girls with whom to settle down. Last season, Crushin’ was a major hit, pulling network numbers for the season finale. This year, he was consistently losing to not one, but two, Spanish language stations. As the executive producer, Phil spent most of his waking hours worrying about this.
Of course, this worry overlapped with his worries over the eleven other shows that House of Stump Productions oversaw. While celebrity reality (or “celebreality”, a term Phil Stump claims to have invented) was a notoriously low-cost way to fill programming space, it was an increasingly crowded market. Unlike scripted TV, there was no chance of getting time to build an audience. One-season wonders littered the landscape, and every time a show flamed out, Phil Stump had to scramble for another concept. If he didn’t step in to fill that slot, somebody else would. It was absolutely brutal out there, with so many fly-by-night production companies fighting to line up the most watchable celebrities at all levels.
His MTV reality competition show, The Next Girl I Kissed, in which young women competed for the chance to kiss Katy Perry failed after only two episodes. “Get this, they actually replaced it with videos. On MTV!” Phil was heard to say after the speedy cancellation. He’d managed to get some traction with the VH1 hit Shannon Doherty: Party Planner, but his star had quit at the end of the first season, tired of spending every episode planning a stranger’s special event. The second season had consisted entirely of re-edited unused footage, but people were starting to notice. At this point, his only solid success was The Same Name Challenge, in which two teams of same-named celebrities competed in bizarre challenges. The second season finale, which pitted Bills Pullman, Paxton, Bradley, and Nye managed to eat a collective seventeen more pounds of squid than Team Tom (Green, Watson, Clancy, and Daschle) brought in monster ratings, but the researchers were starting to run out of first names. There was talk of switching the format to famous people with the same last name, but Phil worried that would lead to casting people who were actually related, which he felt threw off the gimmick.
It was a stressful existence, but Phil saw one bright spot on the horizon. Barry Lique was at the top of his game – usually he had to catch people on the way down, banking on the viewing public’s sense of irony. Barry, though, was on the rise and Phil had somehow managed to contract him. It was the first bidding war for one of his projects in years, and Phil Stump felt a rare glimmer of hope. Hell, if that Olympic talk continued, he would be right there in the middle of it, catching lightning in a bottle. Whenever he thought about Lique It (title tentative), Phil Stump allowed himself to smile. It felt good. Weird, but good.
Phil Stump had no way of knowing how short-lived this feeling would be. Even with his innate pessimism, he would have overestimated if asked.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Blogging a Novel, Part One

I had intended to start with a much bigger chunk of book, but I'm so excited about this that I want to show something right away. And so, I present Lique.

PROLOGUE
“Rock. Paper. Scissors. Mere words? Perhaps. Separately, they describe potentially useful items, depending on what it is that you’re trying to accomplish exactly. But together, they are a national obsession. Formerly, this sport of gentlemen was confined to schoolyards and seedy back alleys. In fact, as recently as 2002, the Bloomington-Normal Cup, the national championship of Rock-Paper-Scissors, was actually broadcast on UPN. Imagine that. UPN.
“And then, in 2003, everything changed forever. Rock-Paper-Scissors, or RPS as it’s known to its devotees, escaped from its Pandora’s Box, and much like the evils that escaped from the literal Pandora’s Box, greed, hatred, violence, sex crimes, there was no putting it back. And the modern-day Pandora, destiny’s unwilling patsy, was none other than Scott Ponzi.
“Like all great American heroes, with the exceptions of Batman and William Randolph Hearst, Ponzi came from humble, some might say hardscrabble, origins. Born to a fishwife, spawned from the loins of a man he never knew, Ponzi spent his childhood in abject poverty. The target of frequent beatings as a young man, Scott did not turn to drugs or hardcore fantasy role-playing as so many others did.
“Instead, Scott turned to America’s secret shame, Rock-Paper-Scissors. It’s unknown where he first played the game, whether it was in the comfort of his own home with the shades drawn or in the parking lot of a massage parlor. Definitely one of those two places, though. Regardless, the game touched something within him. And with nothing left, Scott Ponzi had no reason to be ashamed. He played Rock-Paper-Scissors out in the open, in the light of day.
“First his community, and then the nation, asked themselves ‘Who is this plucky young man who so casually flaunts societal mores and customs?’ And there’s nothing America loves more than an underdog, unless it’s an underdog who somehow legitimizes something that was previously a taboo. And so, America embraced this gangly young man.
“Ponzi won that year’s Bloomington-Normal Cup without breaking a sweat. He was the hero of a nation. Corporate sponsors flocked to him like scabby groupies to a KISS concert. Coca-Cola, Chrysler, Sony, Keds, they all wanted a piece of him, and he was more than happy to oblige. Scott Ponzi had spent his life in poverty and suddenly found himself with unlimited money. Perhaps it was that taste of the good life that made him forsake his training, all but turning his back on the sport that made his name. Still, his own natural talent won him a second championship in 2004, though it was, in the words of the fat guy at the sports bar ‘Closer than it had any right to be’.
“And then, one year later, a barely recognizable Ponzi was defeated in the final round by a plucky young upstart, one Barry Lique. Ponzi was devastated by the loss and injured by the small items thrown at him by the record-setting audience.
“Scott Ponzi has been missing ever since his defeat. It has been five long years since anyone’s laid eyes on him, and his story is incomplete. And so, here we are, outside his mother’s house. If anybody can point us to Ponzi, it is the no doubt overwhelmed occupant of this particular suburban nightmare. Join me, won’t you, as we enter to find the secret of Scott Ponzi,”
“Hello?”
“Yes, good afternoon, Mrs. Ponzi. I’m famed documentarian Desmond Trawler. You may have seen my film Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
“What?”
“Or perhaps Puerto Guernica: Dustbin of the West.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Schlongs of Chicago – A Cockumentary?”
“Oh, we rented that one! Wait, are you looking for Evelyn Ponzi? She moved to Scarsdale two years ago.”
“Goddammit Lonnie! I’m trying to make a film here, and you are supposed to be my fucking research assistant. As a fucking research assistant, perhaps you could take it upon yourself to, oh, maybe do some fucking research!”
“Can I go back inside now?”
“What? Oh, yes. I’m terribly sorry ma’am. And I’m sorry for my language. I tend to swear when the people around me are miserable fucking failures.”
“Nice.”
“What’s that, Lonnie? Now you’re chiming in? Didn’t have this much input while we were chartering a fucking flight to Shitsville, USA, now did you? And that’s all you’ve got in response? A hand gesture? Wait, are we still rolling?”
“You didn’t say ‘cut’.”
“Fuck. Cut!”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Return of the Undead Blog

Wow, five months since I've posted anything here. My once-glorious blog has withered away to nothing, and for that, I apologize. Sure, I've been providing almost-daily content over at spunkybean, so there's always that. But with all of my entertainment content moving over there, I haven't had much to write about over here. I'm not into posting personal news and such here, and I sort of hate it when the blogs I follow do that. Heck, I'm creeped out when people share actual details about their life on Facebook. And don't even get me started on Twitter, that enabling device for douchebaggery. Frankly, there's no good reason you should care about any of that stuff, so that's out as a blogging topic.

Still, I feel like I should be writing about something other than TV on occasion. I feel like I should be generating something original, rather than only reacting to things. I haven't decided what that's going to be. I'm getting the urge to create again, though. I'm thinking about trying to to write a book, and posting each chapter as a blog entry. I realize that may affect my ability to get it published, but I busted my ass writing Borrowed Time a few years back, and to this day something like twelve people have read it. You know what? That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to post a novel in first-draft form, as I write it. That sounds kind of daunting, but I'm taking a crack at it. And now that I've said it publicly, I have to follow through. So in the very near future, expect to see the first chapter of Lique. I'm not going to say more about it, but it's a plot that I've been working on for seven years in one form or another. It's going to be a relief to finally make some progress on it. Hopefully, the first chapter will be up next weekend.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Shut-in's Guide to Ireland, Part 2

The Shut-in's Guide to Ireland, Part 2

Day Three

Before I get into the specifics, it's as good a time as any to talk about TV. I didn't watch much TV in Ireland – mostly before breakfast in the morning or late at night. Still, it is what I'm interested in. I caught some bits and pieces of American shows, episodes of The Simpsons (available in English and Gallic) and Heroes. I think it would have been funny if the episodes had been re-dubbed so that everybody had an Irish accent.

Children's programming, at least everything I saw, was in Gallic. Sesame Street, Spongebob Squarepants, and Batman, all in a foreign language. (For the record, it was the newest Batman animated series, which I didn't like all that much. This means I didn't have any dialogue passages memorized, so I was lost.) Spongebob has terrible voice acting, by the way. Mr. Krabs has a high-pitched, wacky voice, rather than the dulcet tones of Clancy "Kelvin" Brown. The Gallic actors have weird, vaudeville pacing. And Spongebob's laugh will make you tear your ears out and throw them at the TV. I did like the way that everybody's name stayed the same, so you'd hear a string of something impossible-to-decipher, and then it would end with "Squidward". Also, they greet each other in English. They say "Hi", and then go into Gallic.

Batman was even more fun, because all the tough-guy slang stayed in English, so you'd hear an occasional "Punk" or "Shaddap!". Some of the characters had Gallic names, in the event that it had a reasonable translation. So "The Ventriloquist" had a Gallic name, but "Penguin" and "Rhino" did not, because there isn't a translation for those non-indigenous animal names. It's nice to know that wherever you go in the world, Batman and Dr. Hugo Strange are the same. (Although in Mexico, Batman's real name is "Bruno Diaz". I like to cite this fact as often as I can.)

There are a lot of TV channels devoted to music videos. Either Irish music videos, which largely consist of singers walking around and looking at the camera, or American videos from bygone days. Been a long time since you thought of Top Gun, I bet. Did you know Val Kilmer shot new scenes for the "Danger Zone" video. Anthony Edwards was all like "Dude, I've got too much artistic integrity. Besides, I'm shooting Nerds in Paradise." I realize this isn't actually specific to Ireland, but man, if I knew how creepy the video for "Kayleigh" was, my brief Marillion phase would never have gotten off the ground.

I saw the Irish version of American Idol, which also has duo and trio performances. All the judges are Randy in Ireland, and they're obsessed with the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah". It's an awesome song, but I heard three covers of it within a week, and nothing's skeevier than three pre-teen blondes harmonizing on a song about female orgasms.

Every morning I tried to decide which morning show had the hottest weather lady, channel 4 or channel 9. I think I finally ended up with 9. And at one point, I heard a report about "druggies and cheesers". To the best of my knowledge, "cheesing" was only on South Park, and it's what they called it when people inhaled cat pee. Is that a real problem in Ireland?

Anyway, the big outing today was a trip to Blarney. But first, we went to Cobh, formerly Queenstown, formerly Cobb, for a visit to the Museum of Sadness. It's actually called the Cobh Heritage Center, but since it pretty much focuses on famine, shipwreck, and squalor, it turns out to be the most depressing non-Holocaust related museum in the entire world. Cobh itself was a cool little town. One thing I like about Irish towns is the way they'll have a row of houses or small businesses pressed up together, or possibly all part of the same very long structure, and the individual sections will be just insanely colored. I saw the purplest building I'd ever seen sharing a wall with the yellowest building I'd ever seen. I also like the way that you'll see a pub, and then a bank, and then a ruined castle, then a Laundromat. All these ruins and relics of olden days are just sitting there, and people build around them. It's something you don't see in America, because we're fairly new as countries go. And most of the stuff we build even two hundred years ago kind of sucked and didn't last long.

Cobh is a shipping town, and most of the immigrants traveled from there. There's a bronze statue commemorating the first woman ever to successfully emigrate to the United States. They love bronze statues in Ireland, by the way. I saw a statue of Charlie Chaplin, a dolphin, a unicorn, many a war hero, and just about anything else. (And every time we passed the statue of a war hero, I had to make sure everybody knew how he died. "The horse has one hoof up – he died of wounds sustained in battle!")

The museum itself is, as I said, incredibly depressing. There are exhibits replicating conditions in the steerage hold of a freighter and a prison ship. Never seen a mannequin leaning over a filthy puke bucket? Have I got the museum for you! Plenty of depressing statistics, recovered relics from the Titanic and the Lustitania, woodcuts of starving orphans… It's like they tried to find every sad thing they could, and put it next to a gift shop. If they could in some way have connected the cancellation of Arrested Development to Ireland, it would have had an exhibit.

Oh, you know what I haven't mentioned yet? The sheep. Cows too, actually. In Dublin, all the souvenir shops had things bearing pictures of sheep. It was a couple of days before I got that, since I hadn't seen any actual sheep at that point. On the way to Blarney, it really went nuts. There are sheep everywhere! Sometimes they're in the middle of the road, sometimes they're just pleasantly grazing, and sometimes they're in really dangerous places. Like, you'll see a sheep standing on an incredibly precarious outcropping very high up on a heel. You just want to ask them what's going on. "Man, you passed all kinds of perfectly good grass on the way to this deathtrap. What's wrong with you?"

All of the sheep have their owner's markings painted on their neck, and the females have paint on their butts to indicate where they are in the breeding cycle. That right there is the ultimate Walk of Shame, walking around with a red ass so that everybody knows you're knocked up.

The cows are pretty great, too. They're so much more fit than American cows. I saw cows run! American cows can't run – they're too engorged with growth hormones to increase their deliciousness. Irish cows, if they put their minds to it, could chase you down if they had to.

We went to Blarney Castle, which is very old indeed. It's hard to imagine somebody actually living there, as it's built with inconvenience in mind. It is, of course, the home of the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to bestow eloquence on those who kiss it. (One of the signs that explains the legend includes the phrase "much like Harry Potter's sorting hat". Something tells me that's a fairly new display.) In order to get to the stone, you have to climb 127 stairs, which really doesn't sound that bad. What you don't know until you've already started is that it's a steep, windy, and very tight staircase in that tower.

As you may or may not know, I broke my leg (in four places!) falling down my own stairs a couple of years ago. (True fact: I broke my leg and then watched an episode of The Wire before seeking medical help. Priorities.) To this day, I get a little nervous on unfamiliar staircases. And I am not a tiny man, either. The tower? Lots of low ceilings and narrow passages. It didn't help that Lana, at one point, actually bounded across part of the path like a freaking mountain goat. (Lana: Making EJ look even more awkward by comparison since 1999.)

A bunch of Urban Walkers went with us, and they were lots of fun. Especially Bev, who hit it right off with Lana since they were on the same pee schedule.

Finally, we reached the top of the tower. Now, cartoons have taught me that the Blarney Stone is sitting atop an easily accessible pedestal, ripe for smooching. Turns out, not so much. What you have to do is lay down on your back, extend out over a gap, and then lean way back. The Stone is several feet back and another two feet or so straight down. It ain't easy to get to. In fact, I couldn't tell which was the Stone until my face was nearly pressed against it.

There's an old guy who sits by the gap and holds onto you so you don't die. He does, however, exhibit a bias as to who he doesn't want dead. See, there's a camera posed right over the Stone to take your picture. I wish I had both pictures handy, but you'll have to trust me on this one. In my picture, the man is sort of disinterestedly clutching at the front of my shirt with two fingers. Nothing that would actually provide any support or anything. In Lana's picture, he is holding on to her with both hands! He was deeply worried about her safety, it seems. The disparity is pretty hilarious. Of course, when I came up from kissing the Stone, I announced "I totally scored!", so the last laugh goes to EJ.

People have asked, and I really think that was the single experience I liked best on the trip. It was just a cool thing to do – it was fun, and frankly, it's kind of hard to get up there, and I did it. When it was done, I couldn't have been more excited if there'd been a clue box and Travelocity roaming gnome waiting for me.

After that, it was a short walk to the Blarney Woolen Mills, a giant version of the shop in Dublin where Lana got all of her cold-weather clothes. We had lunch there, and learned that when you order coleslaw in Ireland, you get all the coleslaw. You need a mule to get that plate back to your table. Also, it turns out to actually be a coleslaw-shaped plate of mayonnaise. The Irish love anything that you can spread with a knife.

It turns out, I'm a good shopping companion because I carry things, keep quiet, and stick close. Also, Lana sometimes pretends that I know things and asks for my opinion while shopping. She knows as well as I do that it's pretty much like asking a goldfish for help with your homework, but it's sweet nonetheless. I got an awesome sports jacket, by the way. (And yes, she did have to explain what I should wear with it, and further, to specify that "a gray or black t-shirt" would be all right, but those shirts should not have a Batman logo. She knows me so well.)

Finally, the bus took us to Killarney. Killarney, and the rest of Kerry county (which we were to see the next day), was the most beautiful place I've ever been. There's this Bukowski story about a guy taking a trip on a bus, and they make a stop at a roadside diner. The guy realizes that the diner is perfect, but nobody around him ever notices the magic. I always liked that piece, mostly because of Tom Waits' reading of it on the Orphans album. And then, it actually happened to me. There was this fog over the hills, and that made everything in the middle distance seem so much sharper by comparison. It's hard to explain, but as we drove through this absolutely stunning landscape, I felt like everything was going to be all right. A world that has Kerry in it is never going to get that bad.

Killarney seems like a pretty busy town, but it consists of about three streets. It's a nice little town for a walk, and it has a lot of cool little stores. I saw the first movie theater I'd seen all week, and the only American movies they had were Tropic Thunder and The Duchess. They also had a marquee for the new Bond movie, though it wasn't actually playing. From the posters, it looked like all Irish movies are exactly like the Irish movies that we see around here. Quaint tales of small villages and their eccentric inhabitants, precocious children engaging in odd behavior, people who dress like it might be the late 19th century, that sort of thing. Yes, I'm critiquing the whole Irish film industry based on walking past a movie theater.

This hotel was the least fancy of anyplace where we stayed, but kind of charming. Sure, they had separate faucets for hot and cold, resulting in me burning the living crap out of my hand, but that's how you learn. They did have a table display so ill-thought-out that I had to steal it. There's a photograph of a hotel employee with Down's Syndrome, and a headline reading "Watch Out for our Mentally Disabled Friends!" Lack of political correctness aside, the "Watch Out" makes it sound like they were in some way threatening us. It's so wrong, and I had to take it so I could prove to people that it really existed. I locked myself out of my room once again, only this time, there was sad inevitability about it. I sort of realized it was happening just as it happened. Theoretically, I could have caught the door. But it seemed like I had to lock myself out because that's what happens. I was like a dimwitted Dr. Manhattan. "Five minutes from now, I lock myself out of my room."

At dinner, Lana and I ended up sitting with the New Yorkers. They were a mother and son, and he could have been anywhere from 20 to 37. He was a hard guy to read. Now, there'd been some whispering about them during the tour so far, as they hadn't participated in any of the outings, and he kind of freaked out back in Kilkenny castle. Just to give you the picture, both were severely cross-eyed, and the mother sounded exactly like Kyle's mom from South Park. It turns out, they were very nice people, but a little odd. He told us about his past lives, how his father carries a piece of coal from the Titanic for luck ("Worked for them!" I said, because I'm evil.), and other tidbits. The mother said "We have three cats, a dog, and my disabled son", which was so awful that I nearly choked. (The same reaction I had a year or two ago when Lana's uncle started discussing "cornholing" in great seriousness.) Lana, of course, can talk to anybody and managed to completely charm them, while I suspect I came off as owlish.

That night, a group of us went to the bar. The older women in the group loved me, and tried desperately to coax some rhythm out of me. The bar band started off with Irish songs, but since every musician in Ireland is legally required to play "Ring of Fire", our response pretty well ensured a night of cover songs. The Urban Walkers were feisty, and they did some dancing and played imaginary instruments. By the time I'd had a couple of pints, they finally managed to get me dancing. That, of course, was a spastic display. I did do a double high kick off of a table, which was pretty impressive if I do say so myself. And it doesn't matter where you go, if you're dancing and you undo your belt buckle, people are going to freak out.

Best to end it there, at the idea of my arrhythmic thrashing. Next time, we meet a mule, ice cream becomes a major part of the story, and the Irish attempt to understand "That's what she said".

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Shut-In's Guide to Ireland, Part One

I went to Ireland last October, and after I got back, I wrote a multi-part travelogue for my friends. Since I've been lackluster in my blogging lately, I present the first part here for the purposes of entertaining the public.


Now, I have to point out that I traveled with Swear Jar Buddy Lana Just to sum up, there are a couple of key differences between us in regards to matters of travel.

Lana travels for a living and has been all over the globe.
EJ saw a blimp once.
Lana is able to engage complete strangers in conversation and put them at ease.
EJ becomes visibly uncomfortable whenever the topic of conversation is not Venture Bros.
So right off, you can see the potential for comedy.
Day One
First off, I had done a very good job of packing. I was ready for every contingency. Lana came to pick me up and run a couple of errands before heading to O'Hare. And then, in the car, she asked in an almost joking tone of voice, in a tone that indicated Of course you remembered, it's not like you're officially retarded or anything, "Do you have your passport?"

Guess what I didn't have! See, I set my wallet on top of my passport so I couldn't possibly forget it, and then I went and forgot my wallet. Again, not an experienced traveler. After that epic brain-fart, the trip to Chicago passed without incident.

We traveled to Dublin via Aer Lingus. There was a giant shamrock painted on the plane, and the pilot's name was Trevor McCarthy. So, you know, couldn't have been more Irish if his name had been Lucky O'Guinness. Aer Lingus runs a tight ship, in the sense that the rows are incredibly close together. Fine for Leprechauns, not so great for a giant like myself. On the other hand, they have TV sets in the back of the seats, so you can pick from their menu of movies or randomly chosen episodes of randomly chosen television shows. (True Fact: Aer Lingus groups all scripted TV under "Comedy". This includes CSI: Miami.) This means that I got to watch a Season Eight episode of The Simpsons while over the Atlantic Ocean. That makes a flight much more enjoyable.

Weirdly, the in-flight meal of ravioli was actually really tasty. Who knew that the Irish aviation industry had it in them? If only they could perfect the idea of putting seats slightly farther apart, they'd really have something going for them.

On Lana's advice, we took sleeping pills, since the flight was six hours long, but would land us in Dublin in the morning, 24 hours after our day began. Sleeping on the flight would have been ideal. Unfortunately, all my pill did was make me really tired, but didn't actually put me to sleep. We landed in Dublin about fifteen minutes too late to make the first tour shuttle, but their airport was pleasant and clean.

(Sidebar: We were with a tour that had 39 people. 32 of them were a group of Speedwalkers from Flint. Yeah – that meant a bus full of Michiganders. There was also a group from California, a grandmother, aunt, and grandson/nephew. They were very nice, but the young man remained silent until the last night, and then he revealed himself to be really weird. Then there were the mother and son from New York, but we'll get to them later.)

Our tour guide came to pick us up at the airport. He was a nice man named Terry – he had a pleasant sense of humor and sad eyes, and he sort of looked like Shaun of the Dead. He dropped us off in Dublin and told us how to find our hotel. Sort of. We quickly learned that, for all their good qualities, the Irish are crap at giving directions. If you ask an Irish person for directions, they'll do a lot of pointing and tell you about things you'll see, and often assume a starting point that is different from the place where you are actually standing at the moment you ask them. What they will not do is use words like "right" or "left" or give the name of a street. Terry actually described two ways to get to our hotel – one was a very specific instruction to give to a cab driver, and the other involved pointing and landmarks that were not visible at the time he described them. This would become a factor later.

Dublin is the largest city in Ireland, and it made a pretty good entrance point, as the culture shock was minimal. Sure, everybody was on the wrong side of the road, and they misspelled a lot of words, but downtown Dublin at least bears a passing resemblance to other cities. Sure, the sidewalks are incredibly narrow, and they are somewhat lax in putting up street signs, but that's easy enough to assimilate.

Here are some cool things that I learned about right away:
-Irish walk signals make noise. They buzz to let you know that the signal has changed to "Walk", and then there's a rapid beeping indicating the ever-approaching "Don't Walk". It's pretty great, because you don't even have to use your eyes to safely cross the road.
-The stick figures you see on road signs are much more detailed than they are here. American stick figures are five lines and a circle. The Irish ones have knees and elbows, and the basic approximation of a human shape. Some have visible pantcuffs and hairlines. My favorites is the sign near school zones which shows two children crossing the road. Not only do the stick-kids have hair, but the boy is looking up and the girl is looking down, so neither one of them is watching the road.
-There are giant plastic ice cream cones in front of all the shops that sell soft-serve ice cream. This is useful because ice cream is sold in seemingly random locations. A bar here, a newsstand there, maybe a bait shop over there. We'll get into the ice cream later, but the giant plastic cones do brighten up the street.
-Everybody in Ireland is very friendly. It really took us until the flight home to meet any real buttholes. Well, there was the waitress who nearly stabbed Lana, but we'll get to that later. They are also very interested in the American Presidential race. People will ask you who you're voting for, which is sort of unthinkable in America, especially during a retail transaction. It turns out, everybody in Ireland supports Obama, but they always end the conversation with "Either way, it's got to be better than you have now."

We did some shopping, since Lana has forgotten what cold weather is like, and she needed a coat. So we got to see some really cool stores, and talked to friendly Irish people, and it was a lot of fun. We took a double-decker bus ride, and a humorless woman told us about Irish history. It turns out that Ireland's principle domestic products up until the 19th Century were political unrest and miscarriages.

Since everybody was going to ask if we did, we went to the Guinness brewery and learned the story of Arthur Guinness. "Arthur Guinness", by the way, is apparently what Irish people call Jesus. Since I'm not a huge fan of the beverage, the promise of a free drink at the end did not motivate the way it did others. Still, it was fairly interesting, and the design of the building was actually really cool.

After a while, we set out to find our hotel. As it turns out, we each focused on a different one of Terry's sets of directions, and they were not exactly compatible. Of course, once we actually found it, we could see the sense in the directions that he gave us, but by then it was a moot point. Once you've found it, it doesn't really help to go back and reverse-engineer the directions. Anyway, it was a really nice hotel. The outside said it was a Quality Inn, but it had recently undergone a makeover to be a nice, shiny, awesome hotel.

I don't want to get too graphic, but newer toilets in Ireland have a, well, quirk. They have two buttons for flushing. One for number one, one for number two. Now, there's nothing that indicates this on the toilet itself. It's not like there's a picture of a turd on the appropriate button. This was worrisome because, well, I used the toilet. I was horrified when I flushed and the water barely even stirred.

On my way to dinner in the hotel, I came across a group of about a dozen women, all wearing costumes. They were sharing a table, and all of them were wearing superhero costumes. No kidding. This is kind of what my dreams are like. Heck, if somebody were to write fan fiction about me, that's how it would begin. And the really weird thing is, after the biggies (Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl), they got a little more obscure. One of them was wearing a Dr. Fate costume! I have to assume she was my soulmate, this Irish girl hanging out in a hotel dressed like Dr. Fate. I never did figure out what was going on there, but I'll always wonder.

My first dinner in Ireland, I had actual Bangers and Mash! Basically, that's sausage and potatoes, with a really sweet sauce and onions. Pretty darn good, actually. By that point, it was fairly early, but I'd actually been up for about 36 hours by that point, so that was that. The Justice League was gone by the time I finished my dinner.

Day Two

The first full day in Ireland began with me locking myself out of my room. This would become a trend. Who knew those doors didn't allow a grace period? This was also the first of many buffet breakfasts, in which I learned several things.

-Scrambled eggs are invariably nasty in Ireland. They are runny and weird, with a funky smell to them.
-Irish bacon terrifies me. It's a giant slab of pigmeat, and never once did I see a piece that looked like it was fried up well enough to actually kill the trichinosis.
-They love sausage over there. It was generally pretty good, too. Just, you know, there was a lot of it.

Our first activity was a trip to Kilkenny Castle. (On the way to Kilkenny, we not only drove past the spot where Veronica Guerrin was murdered, but also a restaurant that Gordon Ramsay rehabilitated on the BBC version of Kitchen Nightmares. I freaked out.) I was ridiculously excited about being in a castle. I mean, I've never even seen an actual castle. The closest I'd come up to this point was the Excalibur Casino. The tour was really cool – a lot of original furniture and artwork was still there. It turns out, people used to be tiny. Those beds were little. I could probably beat up anybody born before, oh, 1800 or so. I particularly liked that the castle had secret passages, so the servants could skitter around and not have to be glimpsed by the decent people.

In the courtyard, an entire wall was missing, destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. It turns out, if something in Ireland is damaged in any way, there's about a 50% chance that Cromwell did it. I think that was his actual goal, and he just cloaked it in political and religious significance. Dude just wanted to wreck stuff.

A group of Irish dancers performed in the courtyard, which seemed to be for a special occasion. They wore something that looked like lederhosen, bells on their legs, and sometimes they banged stick. It was kind of insane, to be honest.

Afterwards, we got to explore the town of Kilkenny, which consisted of approximately three intersections populated by a billion crazed hurling fans. (That is to say, fans of the sport called hurling. Not fans who were vomiting.) It was a nice little town, about which I don't have anything hilarious to say. We did stop at a fast-food place, which I think was a specifically Irish chain. It's called Supermac's, and one of their sandwiches is advertised with the phrase "As seen on The Apprentice". I was particularly excited about that. I asked an employee who hosts The Apprentice over there, and she said she didn't know, but she totally did. Wherever you go, people are ashamed to admit that they watch The Apprentice.

Next, Terry took us to the Waterford Crystal factory. Now, I'm aware of Waterford Crystal, but I didn't know much about it. Because, you know, I'm poor. This was a really interesting tour – we watched the glass blowers, walking around with their superheated glass at the end of a straw and wearing no eye or hand protection whatsoever. As cool as it was, I was distracted by the revelation that, in order to heat glass, you insert it into a furnace opening called a "glory hole". I'm not going to lie to you, I giggled at that. One guy who fired up a vase pulled Lana from the crowd and handed her a metal peg, as if she was going to transport this molten glass from one side of the room to the other, using only a dowel. He was joking around, but you could tell, she was going to go for it.

We got to see the shapers and the cutters and the engravers, and the whole thing was amazing. Watching these guys basically take a perfectly formed vase and take a buzzsaw to it and come back with these intricate lines was mind-boggling. The engravers did some really beautiful work, and when I am rich, I will have engraved crystal in my house. Chances are, it will be something really stupid, too. Perhaps a solid block decorated with Whammies from Press Your Luck.

In the showroom, they had a giant crystal bear. Like three or four feet tall. I want a crystal bear so much. I'll keep it by the door, so visitors think my home is guarded by an invisible grizzly bear. I assume they will mind their manners, if they believe that to be the case.

On the bus, somebody asked me why I had a picture of myself on my bag. I was carrying one of those canvas bags from Barnes & Noble with a woodcut-style portrait of a famous author. Mine, of course, shows Stephen Colbert, who I suppose looks like me in the sense that we are both men who wear glasses. I just explained that it would be easy to describe my bag if I ever lost it – "It looks like me, but with straps."

We spent the night in Cork, in what was probably my favorite hotel. Except for how I got lost. Oh, and then this happened. I bought a tiny lock for my suitcase to keep it safe on the bus. I realized, partway through the day, that I didn't have the key on me, but I played it cool. Until I got to the hotel and went to the front desk and asked them if they could send somebody up with "tin snips" to break the lock. They clearly thought I was insane, but acted as if they wanted to help. And then Lana found the key laying in the hallway – presumably, I left the key in the lock, and it fell out en route to my room. It was at this point that she took the lock away from me. That's just as well. I honestly imagined myself ending up a deranged street person in a foreign land, all because I had no access to any of my belongings.

After all that, we had dinner in the hotel – we ended up at a big table with some very nice speed walkers. Both of us got salmon which was served on a bed of mashed potatoes. It was topped with a whipped potato, and there was another potato on the side. Three types of potatoes on a single plate! Some stereotypes are supported by fact, it seems. This was the meal where the server dropped a dirty knife on Lana (not her own, by the way), and really just seemed relieved that it hadn't pierced the skin. As long as there are no fatalities, they're happy with the job they've done!

I hung out at the hotel bar that night, as it was decided that I couldn't find my way into town. A big group of walkers were down there, and I tried to make conversation. Depressingly, many of them didn't even realize that I was on the tour, until I told them I was with Lana, and they gushed about how great she is. And that was my conversational in – they asked me questions about Lana, and I answered them. It was another day or so before anybody had any questions about me, and two more days before people finally stopped calling me "Lana's sidekick", but baby steps…

Some of the women taught me to play a card came called "Fruit Bowl", which is sort of like reverse Euchre, with the rules changing slightly with every hand. Apparently, they usually play for money. I turned out to be pretty good, which I assumed meant they were actually hustling me, so I called it a night before they could talk me into "making it interesting".

I traveled to Ireland only to spend the night in a hotel bar playing cards with middle-aged women from Flint. That has to say something about my life.

Next: EJ kisses the Blarney Stone, locks himself out of another room, and dances. Not all at the same time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

You Should Click this Link and Read It!

Remember how worried I was about the The Spirit?

I was right.

On the bright side, Futurama merchandise will be reviewed this weekend. I have a Calculon action figure, and if you don't, you should be jealous of me.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas, All!

Well, now that I've driven away all my readers by never posting anything, I can get all self-indulgent for the holidays.

I'd just like to take a moment to thank everybody on Team EJ who made this year possible.

Thanks to my brother, who got me a swell autographed picture of Mikhail the Russian. Even better, Mikhail wrote the name "Benry". We're getting that on the air before the end, I tell you!

Thanks to Sister Jane, who shares my love of reality TV and manages to watch even more embarassing things than I do. Her brain's like a freaky rolodex of reality contestants -- it's pretty unbelievable.

I didn't see much of Dr. Brian this year, but he's been busy being a doctor. He is still awesome, and my oldest friend.

Big thanks to Lana for one million things. You know when you're driving in a snowstorm, and you can't see the road anymore, sometimes there's a car ahead of you that you can follow? And as long as you can see those tail lights, no matter how far off they are, you know you're going to be OK? Yeah. Lana is the tail lights.

Mad props to the whole bunch of Kennys -- Sam for encouraging my fledgling comedy career and forcing me to be funnier all the time, Sean for involving me in crazy projects and blessing me with his wisdom, and Becky for having a heart much too big for her tiny frame. And the mighty Colleen for bringing me celebrity sightings and sharing so many of my obsessions. Of course, thanks to Shmoopy who is sweet as all get out, even if she does make Sean get all cutesy and weird.

Thanks to Kelli for being good and arguing and for being all nice and stuff. Also, for her hilarious righteous indignation at the X-Files movie. Not to say it wasn't warranted, of course.

Thanks to Rachael for helping with my Halloween costume and being a fine hostess and a great Lost fan. Thanks to Bruce for letting me stay at his house and explaining guy stuff to me.

Applause to Brad and Becke for hosting Thursday TV night and for being much less normal than they seem at first glance.

Thanks to Melissa for being the first person outside of my immediate circle to care about things that I wrote, and to Amy for hanging out at Festival and being generally swell.

And of course, I have to thank the spunkycrew. Ben for founding the website and knowing a lot of stuff, Anne for editing me in those early days and introducing me to Frisky Dingo. Thanks to the other writers and the way they amuse me regularly, and special thanks to Nic, who made the trip to attend Spunky Night at the Movies and shared in some Backdoor Mansion Pizza. And then there's special giant thanks to Don, who singlehandedly laid waste to the Swear Jar, but made up for it with all of his encouragement and enthusiasm. We're getting on the Amazing Race one of these days! And finally, to my most frequent collaborator, Myndi. We did a lot of co-recapping this year, and it's been a real pleasure. She's thoroughly delightful, and much funnier than I am. Frankly, that's a little bit irritating to me, but I'll let it go.

Thanks for everything this year, you goofy SOB's. With your help, just maybe I'll make something of myself this year.

Merry Christmas, everybody!