Posts Tagged ‘Creative Problem Solving’

Everything Old is New Again

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Well, Campers, here I am in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and I’ve just come in from having a big walk around. I can’t tell you much about Sampa, except that it’s unreasonable large and that parts of it remind me of Tel Aviv (riotous street scene) and parts remind me of Bucharest (a little more attention to smooth pavement, please). What I can tell you about is my inner weather. All day long I’ve been haunted by the (good) feeling that “everything old is new again.” Maybe it’s because I’m on a new (to me) continent and in a totally new (to me) culture, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is really like the old days for me (like 1998, ’99), when these overseas jaunts were still a novelty and the mere act of being in a strange place was enough to get me seriously off. Followers of this blog will know that I’ve lost that feeling from time to time. It’s not that I’ve become jaded, except, okay maybe a little bit I have. Anyway, for some reason this place strips all the jaded away, and I’m walking around with the sense of wonder of a much younger man.

Just in passing today I noted the difference between being younger and being older. I fancy that it’s worth sharing here: Being older means you know more and care less. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It sounds like one of the (many, many) things I say that sounds like it might mean something and then you look at it closely and realize, hey, not so much.

Here’s one thing I know about Sao Paolo: people make eye contact. It’s weird and disconcerting if you’re not used to it, but you can be walking down the street and find yourself being “recklessly eyeballed” by all and sundry. Now me, I’m a reckless eyeballer from way back, but I’m so used to that being a one-way relationship. Here, out on the street, people are checking me out as relentlessly as I them (so much so that I sometimes think they’re flirting which, alas, they are not). I was told that this was the case, but didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own, er, eyes. Why it should be I cannot say. Does it speak to an open and connective society, or just a general prurient interest in one another on the street? Dunno. I’ve only been here a day. Maybe by tomorrow I’ll have it all sorted out.

In the meantime, two pictures. This first is from my hotel hallway, outside the elevator.

And that’s good advice, no? Note that this warning has been required by municipal code since 1997. I guess there were a lot of elevator accidents theretofore.

This next shot is from a toy store here in Sampa, and it just tickles me that the game that informed my childhood a damn long time ago is still out there doing its thing, forcing people to choose between the Rota Segura (the safe path) and the Rua do Risco (the risky path). Same as it ever was, my friends, same as it ever was.

For me the Rua do Risco. Always was, always will be. Because everything old is new again, and as long as I follow the unsafe path, no matter how old I get, I will stay new, too.

More later,  -jv

So Long, Sofia

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Okay, it’s not a perfect world. I know it’s not a perfect world because I want to post a farewell blog to Bulgaria and I can’t because my internet connection is sketchy-to-nonexistent. So I’ll write this now and post it later. Maybe at the airport in Sofia. Maybe during tomorrow’s four-hour layover in Paris. Maybe all the way back in LA. Or maybe the hotel internet will miraculously cure itself while I’m out this evening and I can send this missive before I go to bed for the last time here in Bulgaria.

My controlling emotion right now is the same one it always is at the end of a trip: melancholy. I can’t help it. I always know it’s coming and I’m always powerless to stop it. And the better I do my job, the worse the melancholy hits when it hits, because that just means I’ve forged a bond, and bonds are hard to break. If I didn’t get all sloppy emotional, I wouldn’t have such trouble letting go, but if I didn’t get all sloppy emotional, I wouldn’t be as effective. I’m trying to model egolessness and service to the work. I want ‘em to drink the Kool-Aid (even in places in the world where that phrase has no meaning). So I wear my heart on my sleeve, right out there where everyone can see it ticking. That’s part of the melancholy. Part of it, but not all. Another part is the fact of coming down from a high. For the past month I’ve been living in such a state of high intensity, with so much challenging work to do, so many interesting problems to solve. And, of course, I’m the star of the show, the answer man, the focus of everyone’s attention. For an attention junkie like me, that’s hard to let go of.

Is it weird to claim to model egolessness and claim to be an attention junkie in the space of the same paragraph?  I don’t think so. I think true egolessness is acknowledging that you have an ego. If that’s too Zen for your taste, I’m sorry , but that’s the way I feel.

Hey, what goes up must come down, right? I’ve long longed to be the guy who parachutes into new territories and makes them safe for situation comedy. Certainly that’s what I’ve done here, and I think – with all due false modesty – that I’ve done a terrific job. I did what I set out to do. I recruited and trained a team of writers who can execute the full and complete adaptation of Married…with Children, all umpteen-zillion episodes. It’s not Nobel Prize stuff, but it’s not nothing, either. So I take pride. I trained myself out of a job as quickly as possible, always my goal. With all due false modesty, I take pride.

And I pay the price. The price of my melancholy as I stick my dirty clothes in my suitcase and prepare, once again, to turtle aboard the plane for the long ride home. I’ll be glad to be home. Back to my loved one and my loved ones, my ultimate Frisbee, my friends, my California sunshine, my precious and sacred writing days. But that’s for tomorrow or the day after. For now it’s the night the show closes, and, honestly, I don’t know how to have closure.

More later, from somewhere. -jv

“Now Saving Bulgaria”

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

For fairly obvious reasons, these weeks when I download my pictures I download them to a file labeled “Bulgaria.” Just now I went to save all my changes and I was informed that I was “now saving Bulgaria.” That made me feel rather good.

But seriously, it’s only a television show.

I had a chance to take a long walk around today, camera in hand. As always, I set out to take pictures of important cultural artifacts.

This has to be important. It is on a very high pillar.

I like to show folks the typical sights of the city, including its streets and sculptures.

Streets.

Sculptures.

But my plan always goes to hell and I end up taking pictures of dogs instead.

(True fact or bar fact: there are more stray dogs in Sofia than people.)

And then things just degenerate into silly sign captures, like this one that, at least, tells it like it is.

And this one that, based on investigation, tells it like it isn’t.

Because that was not one New York tasting hot dog.

And then this one…

…which, to my non-Cyrillic-reading eye, initially struck me as “bimbo outlet,” but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Anyway, all in all a pretty picturesque and picture-driven stroll around town. My mental map is now good and dialed in. I know where two Subways are (and two metro stations), plus two Irish bars, many Non-Stop stores in case I need a can of peaches at 3 a.m., what looks like the world’s sketchiest Chinese restaurant, plus the National Theater and the National Gallery and this palace and that church and blah, blah, blah.

Sorry, folks. I’d rather take pictures of signs.

More later, -jv

PS: Bar fact, which you knew.

An Excerpt From My New Sitcom Book

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

world premiering here and now…

What is Comedy?

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it, but comedy is cruelty. A thing isn’t funny to the person it’s happening to. It’s funny to the rest of us watching. Tell me you haven’t been funny a thousand times by making yourself the butt of your own joke. “I’m so stupid I couldn’t pass a blood test.” That’s you being cruel to you for the benefit of others. Seriously, that’s really all you need to know about writing comedy. Find a character. Put him in a bad situation. And then make the bad situation worse. So then –

Wait, wait, hang on. I’m just sitting here wondering why comedy is cruelty and you know, I can’t think of a good reason. I did, though, think of a joke.

In the years before World War II, in a little Polish village, a learned rabbi used to teach his students, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One young student was particularly taken with this philosophy, and he carried it with him through the long years of the war, which he barely survived. Later becoming a rabbi in his own right, he moved to Philadelphia, and taught all his eager young students, “Life is like the ocean.” Year after year, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One year, though, a student asked, “But Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” And the rabbi had no answer. Why is life like the ocean? The question haunted him. It plagued him so much that eventually he returned to his home village, hoping against hope to find his teacher still alive. Incredibly, the rabbi had survived the war, though now was quite old and in fact lay on his death bed when the young man arrived. He knelt by the old rabbi’s side and entreated, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” The old man looked at him through watery eyes and replied, “Okay, so life isn’t like the ocean.”

Now, who’s getting the cruelty here? Is it the hapless young rabbi who invests his life’s work in an empty premise? Or is it the reader, who expects some sort of significant payoff and gets a smirky slap in the face instead? Actually, it’s both. They’re two sides of a certain coin. The young rabbi gets an unpleasant surprise, while the audience gets a startling defeat of expectation.

I’ll tell you one more joke to illustrate the point.

These three ducks walk into a bar. They go up to the bartender and order drinks. The bartender says to the first duck, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Huey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Huey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Huey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes to the second duck and says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Dewey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Dewey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Dewey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes down to the third duck and says, “I suppose you’re Louie.”

“No,” says the duck, “I’m Puddles.”

I’ll bet you did not see that coming. So the punchline defeated your expectation, but that’s not why the joke works. The joke works because of poor Puddles. We feel his pain. And since it’s his pain, not our pain, we can go ahead and laugh. Poor Puddles.

Now here’s how this plays out in sitcom. (Notice I still haven’t said why comedy is cruelty. Maybe I’m hoping you’ll just let that slide.) To delight our audience, we consistently make our characters miserable, and to make our characters miserable, we just invent other characters designed to give them the worst possible time. Let’s have a peek at Big Bang Theory’s Leonard. Who makes his life hell? For sure you’re going to say Sheldon, whose idiosyncrasies, phobias and Roommate Agreement daily drive Leonard up the wall. You should also say Penny, for while she’s never intentionally cruel to Leonard, she is the object of his unrequited love, and her very presence in his world gives him grief of the deepest kind, because it destabilizes his worldview that “the nerds are alright.” I don’t think Howard really makes Leonard miserable – but look who makes Howard miserable: that’s right, his unseen mom. You could profitably go around from character to character in that sitcom, or any successful sitcom, and make a list of who makes them miserable and how.

Notice that these lines of cruelty run in much the same directions as the lines of conflict we discussed earlier. That’s not by accident. The same things that drive the narrative drive the comedy. If you have a story with lots and lots of problems for your main character, you also have a story with lots and lots of jokes, because each one of those problems will make that character suffer and comedy is cruelty, so there you go.

I don’t want to go too deep into this (I’m well over my head already) but not only do comedy and story line up together here, so does theme. This is because the truth is revealed under pressure, and no character will move from denial to acceptance of the theme – admit the truth, that is – without sufficient pressure forcing him to do so. That pressure moves the story along. And it generates the jokes. And it drives the character to new understanding. That’s some triple-duty pressure there. It’s pretty marvelous stuff.

Are you worried about being cruel to your characters? Don’t be. They’re characters in a story. They don’t really exist and you can’t really hurt them. If you ever find yourself holding back, it could be a case of conflict avoidance. Many writers are conflict avoiders in their real lives. I am. You might be, too. I can’t say from here, and sure don’t want to get in a fight over it, but I do know that to make real people laugh, you have to make fake people ache. So if you’re averse to cruelty, you’d better get over that, or you’ll never be sufficiently funny on the page. Comedy is cruelty. If you want to be funny, you’d better be cruel.

So, are you still waiting for me to tell you why comedy is cruelty? Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy, I should be able to pull that off. Maybe I’ve studied the world’s great humorists: Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Twain. Maybe I’ve peered into the depths of my own soul and sought the answer there. Maybe I have found out why life is like the ocean. But you know what?

The exercise is left to the reader, ha!

More later,  -jv

Anchored Down in Anchorage

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

I’m having an odd sort of flashback.

I’m on a plane over Canada, flying up to Anchorage to address the Alaska Writers Conference. This plane is like many planes I’ve been on in my professional life, like any plane whisking me to Managua or Moscow or wherever. And, as usual, I have a laptop open on my tray table. I’m either working or not working. Knowing me, I’ve probably just finished playing a game, or just about to start. It’s how I fly: I should be working, and sometimes I am, but often I’m not.

Usually on these gigs in wherever, I’m arriving as the expert from out of town, the consultant expected to teach and train writers (possibly even enlighten writers) but not necessarily to be a writer himself. And there have been many, many times in the past when I frittered away all the hours on the flight doing two things: not-writing, and feeling guilty about not-writing. I understood that, as a hard working and dedicated teacher and trainer, I had a pretty damn good excuse for not, at that moment, being a writer. Yet I felt guilty. Down deep in my heart, I felt like a fraud, and simultaneously loved and hated having a handy excuse for not advancing on my own writing front. And felt guilty. Like I was letting myself down, and really not living up to my reputation.

I recognize in this moment that this feeling of guilt is gone. I have finally, finally, written enough, achieved enough as an author, that I no longer feel like a fraud to me. No one can doubt my body of work. It’s there. It exists. There’s simply no way they can pin upon me the label of “those who can’t do, teach.” I do. I do plenty. I teach, too. So as I sit on this flight, monkeying with my next novel, I need not fear flying into a situation where someone asks, “What have you done for you lately?” I’ve done plenty for me. I still am. I’m the writer I always wanted to be. It’s a pretty sweet feeling. It’s nice to leave guilt behind.

I’m finally starting to fill the bottomless hole. It’s not full, but it’s not empty, either, and I, at last, seem to recognize that. I’m either growing up or growing old. From here at 35,000 feet, it’s hard to tell which.

Anyway, Alaska. More writers to meet and teach, more pulp to push, more sights to see. I’ve never been to Alaska before. I hear they have moose.

More later, -jv

Five Beer Reviews Without the Word “Hoppy”

Monday, June 20th, 2011

I have so much to share with you. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know the story behind this?

But it’s almost midnight, I have to be awake in too few hours, and I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those nights. So I’ll have to limit tonight’s bloggage to my attempt to review five beers without using the word “hoppy,” courtesy of a hand-crafted Belgian style brewery called Brouwerij ‘t IJ, conveniently located in the shadow of this windmill.

… de Gooyer, if you want to Google it.

Okay, the five beers, left to right

PLZEN: 7-Up grows up.

IJWIT: If wheat’s your mother, this is mother’s milk.

NATTE: And by Natte we mean nutty.

ZATTE: Starts like lemon zest, finishes like formaldehyde.

COLUMBUS: I want to say hoppy. Oops, I lose.

More later, -jv

Duffy of the Desert

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Maxx has reached the desert portion of her Indian sojurn. I’ll let her words and pictures speak for themselves.

March 9, 2011: We are now in the desert – Jaisalmer – which is in the northwestern part of  India, very close to the Pakistani border.   We are told by our driver that the desert road is of the highest quality (translation: it is a smooth road) so that the military can get to the border quickly if necessary.  For the political buffs, the tension between India and Pakistan remains at a 60+ year standstill over Kashmir.  India feels it is rightfully theirs as the ruler of Kashmir in 1947 when given a choice to become part of India or Pakistan, the ruler chose India, even though Kashmir consists mostly of Muslims (Pakistan is Muslim; India is mostly Hindu).  Pakistan claims that the ruler was unduly influenced and Kashmir should belong to Pakistan. Fast forward, in 1998, tensions between India and Pakistan increased after a series of nuclear tests.  It got worse in 1999 as hostilities flared between the two countries when India launched military strikes against Kashmiri insurgents. Today, I am told by the locals living close to the border that all Muslims (Pakistanis and Kashmiris) and Hindus (Indian) are living in peace though each country remains committed to Kashmir.

All I can tell you is this:  the Indian desert is beautiful — golden hues shimmering off sand dunes or buildings; camels lazily snoozing by the road, and people who have that look of contentment in the simplicity of their lives.

More later, -jv et al

Lost in the Past

Monday, March 7th, 2011

I’ve been writing a novel set in 1969. There’s no mystery about why: I’m stuck in that era; always have been. The music I listen to, the philosophies I believe in, the major discoveries I’ve made, the clothes I wear (I’m wearing an army jacket right now), my whole entire sense of self is rooted in the 1960s, and I do believe that the tragedy of my life — a thing that has haunted me from that day to this — is that I was just a little too young (and maybe a bit too scared) to be the hippie I wanted to be. So this novel I’m writing is nothing less than an emotional memoir, a wish-fulfilling journey down a path I might have walked. From time to time as I write it, I get very close to something I call “the bottom ache,” which, for me, is where the writer’s true emotions live. When I can get a bit of the bottom ache out of my heart and out of my head and onto the page with all its authentic sour sweetness, I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere with my work.

But there are unintended consequences of living in the past as I am. Melancholy frequently sweeps over me as I measure the distance between where I was and where I am. Rue slips in — damn, why didn’t I take the road not taken? Frustration dogs me, for even when I successfully catch a snapshot of the ’60s, I know it’s only a snapshot, a dim reflection, not at all the real deal. And when I miss — when my details are lame and my dialogue flat — when I try to convey real emotion and real event on the page, and know that I’m not coming close, I’m not only burdened by the time gone by but also by the time I’m burning through now, trying and failing, trying and failing again.

Well, it’s what writers do, one of the many things we do: We try; we fail; we try again. And when we succeed, we set harder targets for ourselves. That’s part of the paradigm, and I understand it well. Writing is a “have more, need more” condition. No matter what goals we reach, real writers always need new goals and tougher ones. In this novel, my goal is to go deep and go back. In my dark days I fear I’m missing on both counts.

But I soldier on, because that’s what real writers do, too. I feel like I’m participating in an experiment of a sort: how much melancholy can I stand to feel? At this moment, living in 2011 and trying so hard to live in 1969, I’m feeling it all, every single bit. I’m lost in the past. I put myself there, and now there’s no way out of it except through it.

More later, -jv

More From Maxx

Friday, March 4th, 2011

She’s been in and out of caves all week. Not spelunking, but… oh, hell, I’ll let her tell you.

March 4:  Aurangabad, India

Flew to Mumbai and then to Aurangabad  – the first leg of my tour of India.  Today’s adventure was The Ellora Caves which are a mix of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cave temples that were built between the 6th and 10th Centuries AD near the ancient Indian village of Ellora.

The caves  were carved out of the vertical face of the Charanandri hills at time when Buddhism was declining in India and Hinduism was beginning to assert itself. As time progressed to the 10th Century, local rulers switched allegiance from Shaivism (Hinduism devoted to Shiva) to the Digambara sect of Jainism.

The coexistence of structures from three different religions serve as a symbol of religious tolerance in India. The Ellora Caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

More later, -jv (and Maxx)

A Free Read

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Want to score a free copy of THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY? Just click below.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Albuquerque Turkey (Hardcover) by John Vorhaus

The Albuquerque Turkey

by John Vorhaus

Giveaway ends February 23, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win