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The Writing Life

This is an archived version of the Journal. Links and pictures probably won't work.

5-26-99: I can't say

I'll say this for the good folks at Brave New World comics in Newhall, CA, they know how to treat their guest writers! I've been to bunches of signings and this was the first one to give me a gift certificate. Naturally I spent the whole thing as soon as my signing shift was over, scoring a set of Wallace and Gromit refrigerator magnets, an old copy of Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1953), a tape of Mike Allred's no-budget film Astroesque, and even a comic book (Paul Chadwick's The World Below).

The best thing about writing a Star Wars comic is how important the fans make you feel. The worse part is how ignorant they make you feel. I haven't even seen The Phantom Menace yet, I've been so busy, but fans imagine that I know every in and out of the Star Wars universe, including George Lucas' plans for the future. I smile at their questions and say, "I can't say."

Other than that break, it was a week for work. I co-plotted with fellow writer Steve Melching a two-parter for The Avengers cartoon show and retooled Nuclear Family as a kid's show, writing a mini-bible and some premises. The folks at Universal and I have a pitch meeting next month to Fox Kids.

As I said, I still haven't seen The Phantom Menace. I read the script a few months ago so all that remains is the thrill of being blown away by the special effects. Unfortunately, I've just seen two rather empty sfx movies, The Matrix and The Mummy, so The Menace (Phantom) isn't instilling a lot of enthusiasm in me right now. I'll get in the mood for it, though, eventually. Maybe I'll force (make that "Force") myself to sit down and watch the Independent Film Channel for a week. That should put me in the mood for a good popcorn movie. Is it just me, or does anybody else find these independent films more interesting than entertaining most of the time?

Julie and I did see The Love Letter, though. Kinda cute. Kate Capshaw plays a repressed bookstore owner whom Tom Selleck is in love with but she falls in love with her twenty-year-old employee instead. Or also. It's one of those movies where I just want to slap the main character for being so dense. Note to Steven Spielberg: Your wife has a nice butt.

Okay, I'm sorry about that last comment. But Spielberg isn't on my "favorite people" list at the moment. He and his cohorts Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen are paving over the last remaining wetlands in Los Angeles for their new DreamWorks studio/apartment complex/retail blightopia. Couldn't leave us just a little, tiny bit of unspoiled nature, could you, guys? What a bunch of f---ing assholes, if you ask me.

Okay, now I'm sorry about that last comment. It's rude. But then, so are overly rich people who think they can pay off a bunch of commissioners (f---ing Ruth Galanter sold us out, man!) and do anything they want for their own self-aggrandizement and everybody else can just go f--- themselves for all they care.

Speaking of a rich jerks, I'm enjoying the heck out of the Katzenberg Vs. Eisner cockfight. Couldn't care less about the outcome, it's just fun watching two capitalist piranha have a go at one another. I'd rather see a bare knuckles brawl on pay-per-view between these two egomaniacs, but I'll settle for the court fight.

Gee, this entry got kinda vehement, didn't it? It happens whenever I think about that wetlands thing, my whole mood just gets pissy. I should cut these guys some slack. Hey, it isn't every bigshot movie director who'd let the world see his wife's naked butt on a forty-foot screen, is it?

 

5-15-99: A breath of fresh air...and some stagnant stuff, too

Finally, work!

Eric and Julia Lewald called and we had a meeting about The Avengers cartoon series and the episode I'll write. It's a two-parter, with the first part being written by Steve Melching. Steve and I have this weekend to come up with a premise for both parts. While Steve is writing up the plot for part one, I'll be working on the villains and their powers and personalities, and I'll be matching up which Avenger tackles which villains. I'll also be sketching out (with words) what happens in my part without completely knowing what happens in Steve's.

Time is of the essence on this one, as we're behind schedule already.

Also, Universal is completing negotiations with my agent, Candy Monteiro, for some development work on The Nuclear Family, to make it more of a kid show now that we've struck out selling it as an adult sitcom.

So, it's back to having just a little too much on the plate after several weeks of staring into an empty refrigerator. I'm happy.

Julie was off work early one day and we went to see The Mummy. Lots to look at, neat effects, bad script. My Hollywood mantra for the new millennium, I'm afraid.

Why do people (using the term loosely to include writers) think that it's better to give a character some bit of "business" to do or a quip to quip, and thus yank you out of the reality of the film and remind you that you're watching a movie, than to maintain some semblance of reality? Why do they cheat for dramatic effect, even though in the very next shot they'll take it all back and tick you off?

These were the failings of The Mummy.

Example: Reanimated mummies are chasing our hero (the wonderful actor Brendan Fraser, whose performance in George of the Jungle surprised and delighted me). He stops and screams at them as if to intimidate them. Huh? Who in the world would do that? The answer is, "a character who is setting up a bit of business rather than one who's behaving like a human being we'd identify with." Because in the next shot, the mummies scream back, their jaws dropping and stretching like a wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon who's just caught sight of Red Hot Riding Hood.

Okay, it's a cute idea. But it has the effect of slapping in you the face and saying, "It's only a movie!" Which means that the mummies are no longer frightening and our empathy with the hero is now zilch.

A cheat from The Mummy: Several of our heroes are on an airplane. It's going down. It descends behind a sand dune, there's an tremendous crash and an enormous plume of sand shoots into the sky! No one could have survived such a crash. Next shot, the plane is wrecked and our heroes stagger out like (again) cartoon characters. And now the audience thinks, "There are no rules. These guys will live or die because the screenwriter decrees it, not because of anything that happens to them." If a big rock falls on Brendan Fraser, we know he'll somehow survive for no other reason than because the writer wants him to. We're "out" of the picture, watching something that doesn't concern us.

I didn't keep track of the number of times this sort of thing happens in The Mummy, either as a piece of action or a bit of dialogue, but it's a continual barrage of such incidents that serve to deflate the drama, the horror, and the humor. If Raiders of the Lost Ark (which The Mummy appears to be emulating) is a choice steak, The Mummy is a piece of gum--maybe one of those with a sweet blob of juice inside (the neat CGI effects).

Sadly, I believe this is the wave of the future.

It's a great time to be nine years old.

 

5-8-99: Attending to business

With still no gainful employment, I decided to do something about something that I could do something about. I surveyed Villa Strnadini and noted how the bathroom needed paint and how I never did re-stucco around the garage door and how I'd never done twenty or eighty little jobs that could be attended to, and I prioritized every job and calculated that what most needed doing was equalizing the height of the television speakers.

For too long the left speaker has resided on the window sill at a height of about 22" while the right speaker lives on the mantel almost 50" off the ground. You can imagine what this does to the virtual soundstage! Why, with that kind of tilt, the actors practically slide right off the screen! You can understand how imperative it was that I attend to this matter before watching, say, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death!

So I priced speaker stands. Outrageous! Cambridge SoundWorks, the maker of my speakers, offers a pair of metal stands for $120, and the best buy Best Buy could muster was a pair of particle board stands for $60, assembly required! I wasn't about to pay $60 for what was basically two boards and four blocks of particle board, so I headed for Home Depot.

There I purchased two pieces of scrap lumber and four fence post tops...basically, two boards and four blocks of wood, but at least it was real wood. Now, I've never taken woodworking, but I figured that if you gave a reasonably industrious chimpanzee two boards and four blocks of wood, he'd cobble together a semi-decent pair of speaker stands in about an hour.

I should have hired the chimp, because it took me four days to do the same thing. The fact that I was using an old can of Nev'r Dry paint I found in the garage didn't help any, nor did my uncanny ability to do everything wrong prior to doing it right, sometimes doing it wrong several times in quick succession. I am a quick non-learner.

Let me tell you about a fantastic product. It's called "wood putty." It's like wood in a can. You can make an incredible number of goofs and if wood putty can't put it right, nothing can! Another great product is the "deck screw." You could screw the wings on a 757 with these things, and maybe they do for all I know.

So at its core, that was my week: Assembling and painting two boards and four blocks of wood. So how much did they end up costing, excluding labor (I would never pay for labor this inept)? Well, I had to break down and buy a new can of paint, of which I used about 1/10th, so let's just say eighty cents for that. The wood putty has to be costed out at full price because, even if you only use a little tiny bit and seal the container in Lucite when you're through, it'll have turned into a solid chunk of wood by the next time you use it, even if you try to sneak up on it in the middle of the night after the day you finished with it. So that was $1.97. The boards were $1.21 each (Home Depot really figures this stuff down to the penny!) and the fence post tops were $1.98 each, and the deck screws were $4 and change but I have most of them left, so say fifty cents for screws. And some vinyl stick-on feet for the bottoms were $1.75. I had to spend about $5 on a drill bit, but it has lots of life in it yet, so let's say a quarter for that.

I'm coming up with $15.61 plus tax, a savings of about $34.39 over the particle board stands, which means I can go buy myself something for $35 now (logic I learned from my lovely wife).

How do they look? Well, in the dim light of a darkened room, from ten feet away, if you're really looking at something else and only catch them with your peripheral vision...not too bad!

The speakers sound great, and I muddled through another week of pointless existence with a goal that has been satisfactorily achieved. What more can you ask?

 

5-2-99: Looking bleak

Yes, things are looking bleak around Villa Strnadini as we finish maybe four weeks of steady unemployment. I looked at the dog the other day and she looked like a big ham. The Revenuers are on my tail and to make things worse, it's been cold. Yep, actual cold in formerly-sunny SoCal. I did not move here for the cold. I doubt that anybody did. I don't like it.

I've started looking around for things to sell on eBay. So far I've uncovered one item: an original theater program from 1977 for Star Wars. I think it's worth about seventy-five bucks, which won't pay the mortgage but it'll keep us in gruel for a week or so. You can find it by clicking HERE.

Everything else that I own seems to be junk. Funny, it seemed so desirable when I bought it. Or else it's not junk and I want to keep it. Or else it's totally useless, smells funny, and poops in the house but I've become emotionally attached to it.

Wanna buy a rock? I thought about putting the rock on eBay but the shipping cost for a 2300 pound rock would be wicked.

I don't know what to do. Money comes and goes, sometimes we're flush, sometimes we're broke, and we endure, though I'm not quite sure why. We just do, like weeds.

One thing I do is I try to keep busy. I work on a spec project or two, I donate platelets, and I volunteer my now-cheap time. Thanks to that last item, I can now add the coveted title of "docent" to my resume. Julie and I volunteered to be docents for the Secret Gardens of Venice tour on Saturday. It's a neat program for the benefit of the Neighborhood Youth Association. People open their gardens...and sometimes their houses...to the public who pay to snoop therein.

We had the best garden on the tour. Venice, CA is a crowded community with very small lots that sell for lots and lots of money, being very close to the beach. The owner of "our" garden was barely able to squeeze a three-story house on his lot and so, wanting a garden, he had to buy the lot next door. I don't know what the cost was, but I'd estimate it at around $300,000. Now that's a man who wants a garden bad! Still, he and his wife are darned nice folks so if anybody has to be well off, I'm glad it's them.

Anyhow, my job as a docent (which in Latin means "will do anything for a free lunch") was to keep the riffraff out of the garden and to answer questions. Keeping out the riffraff was easy--I just kept out anybody who looked like me. Answering questions wasn't hard either if you don't grade on the quality of the answer. My answer to the question, "What is this plant?" was either, "I have no idea" or "ask that person over there." For three hours of this job I got a ham sandwich, a bottle of water, and free admission to the tour. Not bad for an unemployed cartoon writer.

I don't know what I'll do next week. I'd gather aluminum cans but the competition around here is fierce, and I don't have a shopping cart. Maybe I can order one off eBay.

 

4-25-99: Ya think?

Got some good ego-strokes this week, much needed given the absence of people wanting to hire me to write stuff. It all came courtesy of the Star Wars #1-6 series that I wrote.

First came a comic book signing at Things From Another World at CityWalk just outside Universal Studios on Saturday. As opposed to the other signings I've attended, in which I tend to cling to a folding table while it bobs like a life raft in a sea of apathetic shoppers, this signing kept me and Star Wars artist Anthony Winn busy signing autographs continually for two and a half hours. A number of the people asking for our signatures were from out of town. Anthony even did a sketch of Darth Vader for a lovely couple from Somewhere Else for their kid's birthday.

Then, on Sunday I got the results of my eBay auction of autographed copies of issues #1-6 of Star Wars, and I was pleased. So whoever wins the Atom Brain Contest (see below, somewhere) is getting Quite The Deal to get the set for free!

Meanwhile, work proceeds apace on the screenplay of Many Happy Returns. I keep thinking up neat new things to happen so the process is a lot of fun.

Work also progresses on the landscaping improvements to Villa Strnadini, if you call ripping out all the plants in front of the house so that it looks like a blight has struck everything "progress." We have yet to devise a definite plan, but as I told my neighbor Larry, if I waited until I knew what I was doing, I'd never do anything.

This week saw the retirement of Old Woogedy, the 14-foot, homemade ladder I found in the alley. I've used Old Woogedy for several years for climbing up on the roof, but when I discovered termite damage I decided it was time to quit thumbing my nose at Fate. I looked at ladders at Home Depot and found that I could get a lightweight aluminum extension ladder for $42, or a heftier and stronger Fiberglas one for $96. I decided that, if I was going to stand fourteen feet in the air on top of something, maybe I didn't want the cheapest one I could find. Also, the Fiberglas ladder doesn't conduct electricity, which is pretty important when you're waving a ladder around under power lines.

Gosh, if life gets any more exciting, I may break into a sweat.

Finally, I have to mention the shooting and bombing rampage in Littleton, Colorado. (I've already written a rant about the previous such incident.) Two angry teens went on a shooting spree at their high school, killing thirteen students and one teacher. News of the event twisted my gut, but in the aftermath I had to think: Well, what did you expect? Guns are readily available, kids line up to play Laser Tag, they buy shoot-'em-up video games by the millions...now and again some kids are going to play the games for real. Either get used to the idea or do something about it, say, by limiting the sale of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and maybe by having something like a conscience when you design a shoot-'em-up video game. Maybe it isn't necessary to glorify violence against human beings with exploding heads and gallons of virtual blood spewing all over the place, huh? Ya think?

 

4-17-99: Whoa!

Still no work this week. Zip. Nada. Zilch. So I continued plugging away on my Many Happy Returns screenplay. Man, I'd go see this movie in a New York minute! And the new part with the cat...gross!

Steve Vance and I sneaked off to see The Matrix this week. It felt like playing hookey, only with no work to do, the thrill kinda lost its edge. Like...skipping school in July.

Anyway, there sure was a lot of cool stuff to look at. Yep. Lotta cool stuff. Really neat stuff to look at. Yes sir, plenty of...really cool stuff...to look at. Yep. Neat images. Really cool. To look at. Uh-huh.

Oh, sure, the cliches come at you faster than Keanu's flying fists, the dialogue was straight out of a comic book, the characters were shallow, their names were pure comic book stuff ("Morpheus," "Trinity," "Tank" etc.), we never get any idea of the spiritual element behind Neo's being "The One" or why The Oracle's the Oracle (but of course she's black, because that's so incredibly strange and mysterious...if you're white) and the story sports one of those climaxes where, due to the fact that it's convenient for it to happen and not because of any specific revelation on the character's part, the character suddenly groks how to use his powers to beat the bad guys (after getting the poo kicked out of him up to this point).

Even as a kid I hated that. One of the things I hated most was when a super-hero would get smacked around for twenty pages and then, just because the writer ran out of room and had to end the story somehow, the hero would say, "You beat me before, but now I'm mad!" And then he'd mop up the place with the villain and it's over.

I never bought it. Donald Duck had already taught me what really happens when you get mad. You do something stupid, like kick the stove. Which hurts your foot. Getting mad never helped Donald Duck in the slightest, and it never helped me, either. That's the truth, boys and girls. This hero-gets-mad-and-beats-the-villain stuff isn't.

Not that Neo (Keanu Reeves) in The Matrix won by getting mad. I mean, it's Keanu. He doesn't really get mad. He just...realizes...something....

But I was entertained by The Matrix. After all, there was all that cool stuff to look at. Comic book artist Geoff Darrow did a lot of the design work, and he's fantastic. I guess you could pretty much sum the whole experience up in the immortal word of Keanu Reeves:

Whoa!

 

4-10-99: We have a winner!

Okay, all you fifties s-f/horror film buffs, we got exactly one correct answer last week to the latest Atom Brain Contest. The winner is Kris Boldis whose rogue Star Wars site can be found here. If Kris, whose mind is 99.9999% devoted to Star Wars, can figure it out, so can you! Unless I get a few more correct answers, the drawing for the big prize will be rather lacking in drama.

I worked all week on my screenplay to Many Happy Returns. It's shaping up really well (in my humble opinion) and I've come up with a few creepy touches that I want to incorporate in the next draft of the novel. I really think this could be my life's work, endlessly reworking a single story in every possible medium, striving for a perfection that remains always just one more draft away.

I get so depressed when I think of the state of film horror these days. We used to have evil brains in fish tanks, mad scientists, mutants, giant fauna and flora, saucer men, even space rocks that got big and fell on people...all sorts of neat, wacky stuff menacing the Earth and its inhabitants. What do we have now? A guy with a big knife cutting up teenagers. How boring! Or we get mega-million-buck special effects spectaculars from people who think that the story and characters don't matter if you just throw enough digital effects on the screen.

They say that a society can be measured by the quality of its horror movies. ("They" of course being "me.") By that standard, American society is one fragile step away from total disintegration.

Okay, I admit: Most of the stuff that I loved as a kid was crap. Low budget. Stilted dialogue. Terrible effects. Horrible science. Movies have moved on, technically and stylistically. I'm not advocating making movies like they did back in 1956.

What I would like to see is some imagination. There are a lot more things out there that want to kill you besides guys with big knives. Let's see 'em, filmmakers! Bring on the giant crustaceans! Unleash the blobs! Signal the flying saucers!

Let's making dying a grisly and horrible death fun again!

 

4-3-99: What was I thinking?!

I had this dream that I'd bought the rights to the Marvel Comics character The Mighty Thor. I received a shipment of my first issue which I had illustrated myself. I opened the book and beheld artwork that looked like I'd stolen it out of the notebook of a grade schooler. "I can't send this out!" I thought, in my dream, "It's awful! What was I thinking?!"

"What was I thinking?!" If I had a buck for every time I could apply that question to my life, I'd be a multi-millionaire.

I finished my Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon this week, thereby throwing myself into unemployment. I like to have jobs lined up so that I don't have any gaps between, but it didn't work out that way this time. It often doesn't work out that way. Which wouldn't be such a problem except that I bought Villa Strnadini a few years ago when I was on staff at Disney, and that mortgage comes around every month like clockwork. I knew my job was coming to an end when I bought the house. What was I thinking, that I'd be the first freelancer to never have an off month...or two...or six?

So, they think they've caught the guy, one David L. Smith, who created the Melissa virus (named after a topless dancer he knew). The virus messed up a lot of people's email. Now Smith faces a $150,000 fine and five-to-ten years in jail, if convicted of the charge of "interfering with communications." As far as I know, Melissa (the virus, not the dancer) didn't get Smith anything, so why'd he do it? I don't know what thoughts are coursing through Smith's febrile little brain right now but "What was I thinking?!" has got to be among them.

And now we're at war with Yugoslavia, and them with us. Nobody wants it, but we're all stuck with the situation with nowhere to go but toward greater conflict.

Let's force all these Albanians out of their homes and just take their space...nobody'll care!

Let's start bombing the Serbs...that'll scare 'em into behaving!

Gotta be a lot of people on both sides wondering, "What was I thinking?!"

Meanwhile, on the celestial plane, God looks down and sees how Man has ravaged the earth, wages war upon himself, and seems intent on destroying himself and everything he claims to love, and God thinks back to the moment when He created this mad species, and God wonders....

Ah, heck. You get the idea.

Hey, what's with you guys? Did you forget about the contest? Nobody's entered! Okay, maybe it was too hard or the prize was too feeble. Well, the prize isn't getting any better so let's see what I can do to make it easier for you.

I'm talking about a 1950s sci-fi/horror film that is a true classic, not just a kitsch classic like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, but one that had a lasting effect on society's lexicon and which has been remade at least twice. If that isn't enough help, I'll be back next week with another clue.

 

3-27-99: A week off

Sunday we hosted our annual Oscar party. Elia Kazan was given a Lifetime Achievement Oscar despite turning in several of his friends at the McCarthy hearings, branding them as Communists, getting them blacklisted and destroying their careers.

When we consider "lifetime achievement," shouldn't we add in the damage a person has done to the industry as well as the good? What about the achievements of the blacklisted people, which of course we'll never know because of Kazan's betrayal?

I'd have been with those Academy Members who sat with their arms crossed in front of their chests, refusing to stand or applaud, when Kazan's award was announced.

Here's a cartoon from the L.A. Weekly on the issue.

Now go out and rent The Front for a comic/tragic look at the Hollywood blacklist.

Moving on:

I pretty much had the week off. I was waiting for notes on Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, and I don't have any other deadline work to do, so I took care of some business I'd been postponing.

I hadn't entered the checkbook into Quicken for a few months, so I got that caught up and attempted a reconciliation with the bank, which is a lot like reconciling the Serbs and the Albanians. I'm still trying to negotiate a settlement.

I also did the taxes, which was depressing as we'll owe the equivalent of a B-2 bomber to the government this year.

And I gave platelets. I try to do this regularly, but it's been nearly a year since my last donation. Donating platelets is like donating blood, but they take blood out of one arm, spin the platelets out for leukemia patients, then put the rest of your blood back in the other arm. It takes longer than donating a pint of whole blood, but the effect on your body isn't so debilitating. Don't try it if you've just seen The Abominable Doctor Phibes, though, or you'll inevitably flash on the scene where the doctor ties a guy to a chair and drains out all his blood, and then it's no fun.

I take a movie with me when I donate platelets. The whole process takes almost two hours, so the Red Cross provides a television and a VCR. I took The Conversation, a four-star 1974 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gene Hackman (and a very young Harrison Ford in a supporting role). The way the place is set up, you have two donors watching one television and, across the room, two other donors watching a second set. The televisions are in the middle facing opposite directions, the two sets of donors face one another. Everyone wears headphones.

The two donors across from me were laughing through their whole movie. I had no idea what they were watching. But when I finished my session, the nurse asked me if I enjoyed my movie. "Yes, I liked it a lot," I said, "but I think the guys on the other side are having a better time." They were still sitting there getting blood drained out of their bodies and laughing, wearing headphones. The nurse glanced at them, rolled her eyes and whispered to me, "Dumb and Dumber? I don't think so."

When you donate platelets, a couple little clear plastic bags fill with your bodily fluids. One is some kind of clear stuff, and the other is the yellowish platelets. When I was through, the same nurse noted above took my bag of clear stuff and offered it to another nurse, saying, "D'you want an implant?" They squished it around a little bit, laughing and making jokes that I couldn't hear under the headphones.

I'm always glad to see medical people enjoying themselves, but I hope they don't decide that practical jokes on the patients are the order of the day. "Heh-heh," they say, eyeing me with malicious glee, "Wait until he finds out we've traded his blood with that of a serial killer!"

I did a little bit of writing. I'm plotting a short Star Wars story for Dark Horse, and I worked on my next novel a little bit. On Friday I received notes on the Buzz Lightyear script and am now gainfully employed again. After this one's done...??? I may have the rest of the year to finish that book....

 

3-20-99: Mental musings

Unsolicited, unpaid plug: The current issue of The Astounding B-Monster features "Lobe Budget Cinema," aka brain movies! Designed and written by Marty Baumann, B-Monster is a highly recommended (4-brain) site...especially right now! Click below to go there!

Now, on with the news.

I spent most of the week glued to the keyboard, working on a Buzz Lightyear of Star Command script. I'd been working on it since Monday the 8th, and I'd told my editors, Bob Roth and Bill Motz at Disney TV Animation, that I'd have it by the 15th. There was plenty of wiggle room in the schedule but a week's long enough to write a cartoon script. Usually.

I had to email them that it would take longer, and Bob kindly cut me some slack, saying, "As long as we get it next week, it'll be okay." The problem I was having with the story fell into the "missing mojo" area of writing.

Writing can be distinguished from most other forms of wage-earning in that a large part of it happens without the writer really knowing how or why. You need an idea. An idea comes. In between the two events can be moments, hours, or even years. When you're writing for television, it had better be moments or, on a slow day, minutes. The occasional "block" can be allowed to occur if it doesn't last too long...like, more than an hour is cause for concern. If you're one of those writers who gets stumped on a story for years because you don't know if a character will accept an hors d'oeuvre or not, you'd better be a novelist...with a day job. Forget writing for the noisy little box in the corner (which home theater enthusiasts have replaced with an even noisier big box).

I have various tricks for getting over a block but the main one is this: forget about it. Really, I just put it out of my mind and go do something else, preferably something physical. When I come back from the bike ride or from digging a hole or whacking a tree branch, the answer I needed is there. Works almost every time thanks to that under-recognized friend of Man, the Subconscious. While I'm chopping at the roots of a rubber tree with an ax, ol' Subby is working away on the dilemma like a grad student on an overdue term paper. Then, when I return to the keyboard, he hands in his work.

It's a great system. My subconscious does the work and I get the credit and the money.

Well, just as I started the Buzz Lightyear script, my subconscious hopped into a convertible with a couple of ids and motored off for Fort Lauderdale for spring break.

I sat at the keyboard every day. I typed keys every day. Mostly I typed the "delete" key. Sometimes something good got written, thanks to the "infinite monkey syndrome." But at the end of the week, I had about ten pages of a forty-page script. Average: two pages a day. Not good enough, not by a long shot.

Then on Sunday I attended the memorial service for my Uncle Hal. I don't know how you feel about funerals but I don't like them. I've never felt that I needed a funeral to "say good-bye" to someone. After Hal's service, I didn't feel any great relief, any unburdening, or in any way less sad about his death. But apparently my subconscious did, because on Monday I was in full writing form again. Eight-to-ten pages a day, plus a self-edited rewrite, and pretty good stuff, too, if I'm allowed to say so myself (which I am).

If you have a wall to build, you start putting bricks in place and eventually you're done. If you have plumbing to fix, you know where to start, how to proceed, and you know when the job is finished. But writing...man, you are at the mercy of forces that you can only perceive, like the wind, by their influence on something else. You do whatever voodoo magic it takes to call them up, but when the familiar rituals don't work, what can you do but persevere and hope that the cosmic forces will realign themselves and the magic will return?

Anyway, happy ending: My editor, Bob, called me up on Thursday morning and the conversation went like this:

Bob: "Hi...Jan?"

Me: "Today."

Bob: "Great." Click...bzz.

Felt good.

One more thing: I lied about the "click...bzz" portion of the story. We chatted some more about contracts and payments and such, but it makes a better story this way, don't you think? If not, I'll rewrite it. I aim to please.

Friday I drove out to the Disney Studios to sign a contract (that Buzz Lightyear episode) which has to be notarized by the lovely Suzanne Prescott, and I had lunch with a couple of writers I hadn't visited with in awhile, Tom Hart and Kevin Campbell. We were talking about getting blocked and I told my story (I try to play my Journal material before a live audience before committing it to print because, hey, I know how valuable your time is) and Kevin told me about a writer who received some bad news and, like me, thought he was handling it well...but when he tried to write, he realized that he'd forgotten all the "hot keys" on his word processor.

The brain, the mind. What a mystery. Or, as a character in a classic B-movie once said, "The mind is a strange and wonderful thing. I'm not sure it'll ever be able to figure itself out. Everything else, maybe, from the atom to the universe, everything except itself."

(Name the movie...the character's name is Dan Kauffman...and I'll enter you in the drawing for a signed set of Star Wars comic books. Deadline: When I receive issue #6 from the publisher in about two or three months. Send the answer by email.)

 

3-14-99: Noted in passing

Last week was a bad one for losing talented people. Stanley Kubrick, who gave us a small but outstanding collection of superb films, and Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, baseball Hall of Famer, both died last week. Not mentioned on the news casts, however, was a third talent, a dancer, choreographer, stage manager, agent and entertainer whose work spanned decades, one Mr. Hal Belfer.

Hal coached Bob Hope on how to dance. He choreographed films for Universal and Twentieth Century Fox. He played the "rice circuit" in WWII, entertaining troops in China, India and Burma, serving under Major Melvyn Douglas. After the war, Hal became the youngest producer Las Vegas had ever seen, producing shows starring top talent of the day: Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Lena Horne, the Ritz Brothers, Liberace, Anna Maria Albergheti, Tony Bennett, and many more. He produced television, including some shows featuring a puppet performer from Las Vegas named Sid Kroft, and was a booking agent for talent like drummer Louis Belson and singers Pearl Bailey and Tony Martin (you may also have heard of Tony's wife, Cyd Charisse). That Hal was respected and loved by his business associates was made obvious to me a few years ago, when he and his wife Bernice were treated to a trip to Europe by Henry Mancini.

I came to know Hal late in his career, through his wife, Julie's Aunt Bernie. Hal and Bernie lived in Las Vegas and we didn't see them often, but when Hal was in town on business he'd make time for a family get-together. They began coming to L.A. more regularly a few years ago as Hal began undergoing treatment for cancer. He finally lost that battle on Sunday, March 7, Bernie's birthday. Three days before, he was on the phone to a casino in Laughlin, Nevada, arranging a booking for Louis Belson.

Hal probably died wishing he could make one more phone call.

The caption says: "Old Ski-Nose tries a dance step with Hal Belfer, NBC-TV choreographer, who works with Bob on the hour-long monthly TV appearances that Bob makes." The photo is enscribed: "Life is a time step. I know you will stay on the beat. Love to Julie and Jan, Hal Belfer."

Julie spent this week in Las Vegas helping Aunt Bernie make arrangements of all kinds. Hal's service was today. Tony Martin gave a heartfelt eulogy and apologized for not being able to fulfill one of Hal's wishes--to sing at his funeral. "I'd never get through the song," Tony said, his voice cracking. Then he was silent, unable even to speak. There wasn't a dry eye in the chapel. Hal Belfer was a much beloved man.

I stayed home last week, while Julie was in Vegas, and medicated the dog and wrote on a Buzz Lightyear of Star Command cartoon script. I heard from my Sabrina editors, Steve Granat and Cydne Clark, about last week's problematic script, "Feats of Clay." Despite my worries it sailed through the review committee with very minor notes...just a few line changes that Steve and Cyd will handle themselves. They have only one more episode to edit and it's already been assigned to someone else, so my work there is done.

Most of the line changes involve making the lesson of the story specific. You know, that awful moment near the end when a character says, totally without motivation or conviction, "Gee, I guess we all learned to work together" or "Gosh, I guess maybe practical jokes go too far when you start using bear traps." I hate those. I suppose that, if you asked a kid what the point of a cartoon story was, he'd be able to give a more satisfactory answer if you've spelled out the lesson, but I remember when I was kid (this was during the advent of the Age of Mammals) how I'd hear that line and suddenly a big old block wall would just drop into place between me and the story. Mentally, I was out of there!

There's a big, big difference between being able to recite the answer you know the Authorities want to hear, and actually taking a lesson to heart. I feel that, if you leave out the preachin' and speechifyin', it's up to the audience to examine and interpret the story for themselves, or to absorb the lesson on a subconscious level. By letting the audience decide for themselves what the story was about, they make it their own. If you've told a clear story, it'll continue to resonate inside their skulls and become incorporated in their world view and behavior; it's their choice to assimilate the message, and not just another lesson from The Man.

This assimilation can't be measured with a multiple choice test or monitored in a focus group, so the "spew it back verbatim" behavior will maintain its advantage for the foreseeable future. I wonder how much of this process is really in the interest of teaching, and how much is purely to make it plain to the FCC that teaching is being done so that the network's "educational requirement" is clearly being met.

On the Rock front, the Rock was delivered Friday morning and set into place with a forklift. The forklift had to drive over the curb and sidewalk (and I had to indemnify them against breakage of same, promising to take the heat from the City of L.A. if they cracked the cement), through one front garden, across the lawn, and to the designated spot for the Rock. I could have avoided this damage by hiring a crane. However, the forklift method of delivery cost $50. A crane would cost $318. For that much money, I'll dig up a few plants and smooth the forklift tracks out of the lawn.

I would include below a photo of the Rock In Place, but sadly, the Buy Jan A Digital Camera Fund has been underperforming of late and I'm still taking pictures the old fashioned way, which takes some amount of trouble and time. I'm hoping for a grassroots organization of Mass Distraction readers to spring up to meet my digital needs with some bake sales and maybe a bachelor auction.

I also went to the doctor this week and learned that I have "trigger finger." No, not "itchy trigger finger" which is manifested by a tendency to shoot your enemies, but simply "trigger finger" which means that sometimes when you curl your finger it locks painfully into place and won't open until you grab it with your other hand and pull it out...POP...which also hurts.

Trigger finger is a repetitive stress type injury. To understand it, refer to the following diagram graciously donated to Mass Distraction by the Indiana Hand Center until they find out I've stolen it from their web site:

For the finger to work properly, the tendon slides smoothly through the tendon sheath. The function of the "first annular pulley" is a total mystery to scientists, hence the confusing name. In the fingers of trigger finger victims, something messes up the sliding portion of the process (inflamed tendon, inflamed sheath, or tartar buildup from failure to floss your tendons) and the tendon gets caught, causing locking-up, discomfort, and an outcry similar to that of a man with a martini banging his shin on a coffee table. Coincidentally, both conditions may cause the man to spill gin on the carpet.

There are three kinds of treatment for trigger finger: pills, shots, and surgery. I've opted for the pills for reasons obvious to those who know what a coward I am. I am also supposed to rest the finger. Since it's the middle finger of my hand that's afflicted, the streets of Los Angeles have become a little friendlier, at least for now.

 

3-7-99: A week in labor

Late Tuesday I got a call from Steve Granat and Cydne Clark, my Sabrina editors, with notes about my script. The short version of their long and polite conversation was, it stunk. Major rewrite, short deadline.

So that's why I'm late with this Journal entry. I've been giving birth to an ill-conceived 39-page baby.

It's fascinating, all the ways scripts can go wrong and what sends them spinning off into Poopyland. Sometimes it's a note from a powerful executive that throws a monkey wrench into the works but which absolutely, positively has to be accomodated, even if you have to shove everything else around to do it. Sometimes it's a particularly disparate view on the part of the review committee about what the story should be, which results in the story trying to go several different ways at once and getting pulled apart in the process like a light-fingered peasant being quartered by horses. Sometimes it's the wrong writer, or a writer with a wrong-headed notion.

And sometimes, it's a basic flaw so obvious that only brilliant, experienced writers, editors and executives working together in blind harmony can fail to see it until two days before the draft is due.

Such was the case with this story. I did my best, though, and met the deadline with a script that, I hope, does not stink. Does it delight the olfactory sense with the bouquet of a new rose? Not exactly. But I can say with pride and conviction: It does not stink.

Sometimes during this labor my mind would simply quit. When you work hard physically, you naturally take breaks to let your muscles rest so that you can return to the job with renewed vigor. So, when my brain gets tired, I "rest" with physical labor. But what to do?

Luckily I had four thousand pounds of gravel to shovel.

Buying the Rock and deciding to locate it in the front yard forced us to make some decisions. We've been kicking landscaping ideas around for the past seven years without settling on anything but now we faced a deadline of sorts. Eventually the rock store would get tired of storing the Rock and want to deliver it and we needed to prepare a proper site to receive it. It wasn't like, oh, a coffee table that you pick up and move willy-nilly. Once the Rock is in place, it is In Place. Little did I know (and boy, does that phrase ever resonate with truth where all things Rockish are concerned) that putting the Rock somewhere would involve moving earth on a scale that hasn't been attempted since the construction of Hoover Dam.

So when I wasn't beating myself against the Sabrina script, I was digging dirt, moving dirt, amending dirt, shoveling gravel, raking gravel, or in bed asleep, dreaming about one project or the other. And yes, it truly was four thousand pounds of gravel, moved shovelful by shovelful by yours truly. If there were a company store in Santa Monica, I'd owe my soul to it.

 

2-27-99: I am nowhere

Everywhere is now "long distance" to me. Thanks to all the cel phones and fax machines and internet connections, L.A. has instituted a new area code...424...which is an "overlay code." It doesn't exist anywhere specific, it doesn't lay claim to any territory, it's just there on top of the other area codes. New numbers of all kinds will get the new (non)area code.

No big deal, except that now, even when calling within "my own" area code, I have to dial "1" and "310" before the number. There's no such thing as a "local call" for me anymore. Everywhere is somewhere else!

The world beneath my brain is spinning! The center can not hold!

And speaking of phones, is anybody else sick of all this "dial 10-10-whatever" business? By the time I dialed all those numbers, I'd have forgotten what I wanted to say. Maybe that's the point. Keep the old, stupid people busy dialing numbers and let the young, smart people get on with ruling the world instead of trying to figure out how to save a nickel on a call to Peoria. I for one am not falling for it. I'll dial "1" and the area code and the number and that's it. Maybe an extension if I'm in a good mood. People who know me know how often I'll be dialing extensions.

I turned in a Sabrina script and a Buzz Lightyear outline (revised as per editors' notes) this week and had two days to fart around. I farted around in the front yard, digging out plants and grass and making a place for the Rock. This is back breaking work, tedious and messy, whose only reward is when it's over. Julie and I have to pick out gravel now. This is the kind of thrilling item that married people shop for. Gravel. Previously we've shopped for dirt and worm poop, so gravel is giddily exotic by comparison.

I also quit the Science City project. This is a rare thing for me, quitting, and I didn't enter into the decision lightly.

I remember Harlan Ellison ranting to me once about "working with amateurs" and the frustration of it. I don't know the job histories of the SciCity folks, but their process of trying to zero in on a planetarium show wasn't working for me. I felt like a typist rather than a writer, like one of a row of infinitely-numbered monkeys hoping to give them what they wanted almost by accident.

I'd contracted for three drafts. The process is supposed to be one of diminishing rewrites as you zero in on the final version. Instead, I seemed to be writing first drafts every time. After the third draft they sent notes on what they felt confident would be a "final" draft before the "final-final" polish draft, and I simply didn't share their optimism. I cut them a break on the fee and bailed. Big relief.

I also had a breakthrough moment concerning the current novel-in-progress. I don't want to give away the idea behind it, but I've been making notes for several months and finally reached the point where I had to start writing. For me, writing is a process of discovery, where you learn more about your characters and story as you write. (SciCity was like a process of dropping blindfolded out of an airplane and trying to figure out if you're behind enemy lines or not...a little too much discovery at the writing stage.) On Many Happy Returns I bounced among writing chapters, outlining, and referring back to the original screenplay it was based on. I figure I'll do the same thing with the new book as the outline informs the details and the details inform the outline.

Anyway, I'd been working on the first chapter to try to discover the tone of the narration. What was this book going to sound like? I'd made some attempts that weren't entirely satisfying to me, but I couldn't figure out why. I didn't like the opening line. It just wasn't working.

Finally, while driving in the car (as opposed to driving on top of the car, which I haven't done since my barnstorming days), the opening line occurred to me. And it entirely destroyed the tone I'd established for the first third of the book. But it was the right tone, so although I have to throw out most of what I've written so far, I feel on track at last.

I also found some time to putter on the Many Happy Returns screenplay, the screenplay based on the book based on the screenplay. This story is beginning to feel like an Easter toy with eggs inside of eggs, or like a snake swallowing its own tail, or like a minor horror thriller that consumed a writer's entire lifetime. But I have, at best guess, a year or more to get it done before the book sees print, though at the rate Leisure Books is attacking the contract process, I might have a decade to get it right. I see where they got their name...they are nothing if not leisurely.

 

2-20-99: They finally get me

For the last two days, the gods have been trying to involve me in a car wreck.

First, it was on the drive to Rancho Los Alamitos. Julie was behind the wheel, we were sailing down the Marina freeway to the 405. As Julie changes lanes, so does a yuppie in a suburban assault vehicle, and our cars seem destined to collide. Two things save us. The first is my timely observation to Julie: "Dear, it seems that we're about to trade paint with the vehicle on our immediate right." I'm in a hurry, though, so I paraphrase it as a concise and evocative scream like the sound of a coed opening the door to a knife-wielding maniac. The second thing that saves us is Julie's cat-like reflexes. She whips the wheel to the left, the car lurches, and we avoid the yuppie-mobile with a generous millimeter to spare. The yuppie, aggravatingly, drives on seemingly oblivious to the whole thing.

Near the end of the day, I tempt the gods by venturing out to the post office. In the post office parking lot, I'm driving by a white Cadillac when I see its back-up lights go on and its enormous rear end, comparable to that of an adult female of the Bamboola Tribe, shoots my way. I lay on my horn and the Caddy screeches to a halt bare inches (or at least, lightly clothed inches) away from the side of my car.

But on Saturday, I was quietly sitting in the driveway of the Marina del Rey Garden Center waiting for the light to change when Adan Medina decided it was time to plow his Nissan Sentra into the rear of my car. Gardeners are like that, I've found.

The last four auto accidents I've been in, I've been patiently waiting for a light to change when some bozo rammed into me from behind. I'd vowed that the next time this happened, I was going to punch the idiot in the nose. This time, however, I realized that poor Adan was merely the tool of angry, petty gods who were determined not to let me through the weekend without wrecking my car, and so I spared him my wrath.

Why the gods are on my case, I don't know. I just hope that they've gotten all the jollies they were seeking and that I can drive in relative peace for the rest of the year.

Workwise, it's been a busy week as I write on a Buzz Lightyear outline and a Sabrina script with simultaneous deadlines. What more can I say about that? I sit here and type type type, night and day, day and night, and when I sleep, I dream about it. Buzz and Sabrina, quite a team.

I Am A Rock(head) Department. I pass by a building materials yard every time I go to the post office, and every time I do I'm tempted by the big rocks they have out front. I like rocks. They're low maintenance, and I'd like to have some boulders close at hand in case I ever decide to build a catapult. So one day this week I stopped in "just to look" and to find out what your average boulder costs these days.

The answer: ten cents a pound. So a good-sized boulder would cost around $200. Fine. I stored that kernel of info in the Strnad noggin and prepared to leave when a salesman named Tony leaned over to me and said in a low, confidential voice, "You should see this rock we just got in." How could I refuse?

He walked me over to a stack of boulders on top of a prize hunk of Mexican onyx from Baja. And I fell in love.

Yeah, I fell in love with a rock. The top was flat and the edges extremely eroded, giving it the appearance of a sandstone cliff in miniature. Inside, drip deposits created a cave-like effect. And through it all ran horizontal bands of onyx. It was quite simply the best rock on the lot. In fact, I'd never seen its equal, and I've seen a lot of rocks.

I knew that, if I didn't buy it, someone else would, and soon. I knew also that when the time came that I was truly in the market for a rock, I'd measure every contender against this one, find them all wanting, perhaps purchase something that "would do," and spend the rest of my days wallowing in bitter regret evolving into despair, until I tried to drown the cry of "If only...!" with endless rivers of alcohol, leading to my precipitous decline and inevitable fall into a mean existence in the gutters of society, scorned, abused, and reviled by all who beheld my sallow countenance, until the day they tossed my pallid corpse into a pauper's grave, unmarked, unmourned, and unremembered. And who wants that?

So I bought the rock and went home to try to figure out how to maneuver the darn thing into a showcase position in Villa Strnadini. Did I mention that it weighs 2300 pounds?

For the rock to achieve a spot in the back yard would require removal of a fence, uprooting a mature rubber tree, and the collapse of the only good patch of concrete in the Villa by a four-ton fork lift driving over it carrying a one-ton rock. In the front yard, placing the rock would entail removal of a much smaller tree, some annuals, a king palm that looks about ready to ascend to that great oasis in the sky, and some other minor transplanting. Julie and I chose the front yard. Now I have to figure out what substrate to lay down, remove the plants, lay down the substrate, and phone the rock yard to say, "Bring on the rock!"

Did I mention that Julie has been a real sport about this whole thing? Here's a picture of Julie being a real sport about the rock:

The picture, as is typical of my photography, doesn't do either subject justice, but dang...it does look like a prehistoric cave dwelling, doesn't it?

I'll let you know how it goes. Or if I find any itty-bitty cavemen living in it.

 

2-13-99: I get put in my place

Very busy week. I finished a "final" draft of my planetarium show and began an outline for a Buzz Lightyear cartoon. My old Disney chums and former editors Bob Roth and Bill Motz called with premise in hand, needing a scripter, and I happily accepted their offer. Disney is a union studio and I need some union hours--I'm currently paying for my own health insurance since my union benefits ran out--but of course I'd decided to go on "honorable withdrawal" from the union and now had to pay my back dues to be reinstated.

Anyhow, I also have a Sabrina script to write and there will be some tweaking on the plantarium show, I'm certain.

I'm still hassling with Blue Cross about my health insurance. First they had my name entered on my i.d. card as "Strand" instead of "Strnad." I called to have it corrected and the woman who took the call "corrected" it...to "Strmad." I also tried to pick up a prescription for Julie and found that a) she wasn't listed in Blue Cross's "pharmacy" computer as being covered, though Blue Cross had informed me positively that she was, and b) that it would cost us $3 more to get the prescription through Blue Cross than if we just paid cash for it.

That's the kind of health insurance self-employed people get to buy.

My second Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron series has been collected into a trade paperback, Requiem for a Rogue. The affordably priced $12.95 book also includes a thematically related story, written by Mike W. Barr. You can order it here from Amazon.com for 20% off.

On Friday, Julie and I checked out the historical gardens at Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach. The property initially belonged to the Native Americans but it was taken by Spain and 300,000 acres were deeded to one Manuel Nieto in 1790, who married a 14-year-old Mexican girl in order to qualify for the grant (called the "Los Coyotes" land grant). Talk about marrying well.

Nieto quickly lost almost half of the acreage to the Mission San Gabriel, and later his heirs split the land into five "ranchos." Over the years, one of the ranchos, Rancho Los Alamitos, had a number of owners, including Governor Joe Figueroa who bought 28,500 acres for $500 and eight years later sold them to a rancher for $6000, setting a trend in California real estate of great appreciation in value over a short period of time, a trend that would not be broken until 1991 when I bought Villa Strnadini and caused the great California Real Estate Bust.

The rancher, Don Abel Stearns, ranched the rancho until he went broke, which is pretty much the way I ran my publishing company (more than coincidence?). Businessman John Bixby bought it in 1881, struck oil in a couple of places, and got filthy stinking rich, which allowed his wife to devote her time to gardening. Her gardens were the lure for Julie's Master Gardener class, and Julie enticed me along with sugar cookies.

Here's what Florence Bixby's gardens looked like:

In other words, it was very much like Villa Strnadini's gardens, only a thousand times larger, more diverse, and well tended.

I toured the gardens with the Master Gardeners, disguising myself as a gardener by wearing rubber boots and putting dirt under my fingernails. During the tour I happened to be standing next to the tour guide when she pointed to a tree and said, "Since you're Master Gardeners, I'm sure you know what this is." "That," I proclaimed authoritatively, "is a tree." She looked at me quizzically while Julie buried her elbow in my side. Then the guide quipped, "You sound like some of the little ones who come through here."

Humbled, I continued the tour in silence.

It's only on tours like these that I yearn for wealth. Well, tours like these and whenever I walk into a true high-end video gear store. Or look at the prices on menus taped to the windows of restaurants I'll never set foot inside. Or open the Visa bill. Oh, all right...I pretty much wish I was wealthy all of the time, but especially when I see places like these. I don't want a San Simeon-type mansion, but I'd like some acreage and some quiet places full of growing stuff that someone else tends to.

All together now: "Dream on, little broomstick cowboy...."

Only in L.A. Dept.: I had dinner with our friends Zofia, Jennifer and Priscilla last night (and Julie, of course). Priscilla wears many hats and it looks pretty funny, too, but one of her jobs is at a chic-chic card shop, Noteworthy in Santa Monica. They get a parade of celebrities through this little place, including Lauren Bacall (classy, carries lots of pens with no ink) and Brad Pitt (drunk and obnoxious, was ordered out), but last week a real star came in.

Priscilla was helping a woman and happened to look down to see that the woman was holding a chihuahua on a leash. "Hey, it's the Taco Bell dog!" Priscilla joked, and the woman said matter-of-factly, "Yes, it is." And she had the photos to prove it!

Anyway, it's Valentine's Day tomorrow and I've been too busy to shop for you-know-who (no, not Monica, though I understand that she and her boyfriend Bill have broken up), so I have to cut this Journal entry short. Considering the material I've exhibited so far this week, maybe I'm cutting it long.

Hey, what do you expect for free?

 

2-6-99: Name that artist!

Here's a painting from an exhibition Julie and I went to. Can you name the artist? (Answer below.)

I'm please to report that the joists under Villa Strnadini are still sound. I like to test them against my forehead now and again and I got that opportunity last Sunday, where I spent the best part of a warm, sunny day avoiding the Superbowl by crawling around under the house looking for ants.

In the past I've been able to see where the ants were gaining access to the house from the garden. After a prolonged ant invasion from some secret source, I donned my under-the-house clothes (an outfit I stole off the back of a homeless man), grabbed my flashlight and bug spray, and went thither. I go thither a lot, but a good rap on the back of the head usually brings me out of it.

I totally circumnavigated the manse from underneath and found nary an ant. This took a few hours. Then I began spiraling inward, which took another day or two. One loses sense of time under the house. After a few years of crawling around in the dirt with the spiders, I found an ant. One ant, coming out of a hole at the very center of the house. I followed him (at a discreet distance, hiding my face behind a newspaper so he wouldn't notice) to a line of ants marching up a supporting member (I guess it couldn't afford a full membership) to a floor joist ("Ow!") and thence under the floor, from which terrain they had full run of the house, which they presumed included food privileges.

My bug sprayer had stopped working so I poured a half gallon of poison around the hole. I topped it with a layer of boric acid and a maraschino cherry. Then I got out the wasp and hornet spray and sprayed the joists.

Now it's like living in a house in Love Canal, but the ant invasion has slowed to a trickle of confused-looking stragglers who escaped the massacre by being out shopping at the time. In another year or two I'll have recovered from the lung damage I suffered from inhaling dust and poison and won't have to breathe with this oxygen canister.

Wednesday afternoon, Julie and I went to the Van Gogh exhibit. It's very popular, but we had tickets for two o'clock and so were inside by a quarter to three. As for the exhibit itself, how can you go wrong with a bunch of Van Goghs?

I was surprised at the scope and variety of the paintings, which included the "skull of a skeleton with burning cigarette" picture above. I had no idea that Vincent Van Gogh had such a macabre sense of humor. I think I'd have liked him when he wasn't borrowing money.

Here's another surprising Van Gogh, one that reveals the Japanese influence on his art. Really...I'm not making this up!

This is a lousy reproduction, of course, that doesn't do justice to the vibrant colors. Van Gogh juiced up the colors of a Japanese print and added the background so he didn't get sued for plagiarism, not that they'd have gotten much from him.

Van Gogh started out painting depressing pictures back in Holland where, judging from his portraits, people were really ugly, dirty and depressed. Most of these paintings are brown. Then he moved to Paris where they had blue and yellow and sometimes people were happy. Then he moved to the French countryside where he could break down mentally in peace without a bunch of snotty Parisians poking fun.

You know long Van Gogh painted? Ten years. From the ages of twenty-seven to thirty-seven. Then he killed himself and soon thereafter got famous and rich, for all the good it did him.

Let that be a lesson to you. What lesson? I don't have a clue. When you find out, let me know.

Julie and I saw Shakespeare in Love last week. The time in the newspaper was wrong and we got there an hour early, along with a group of elderly women. Elderly women don't take guff from movie theaters that send the wrong times to the newspaper, let me tell you, and they wrangled free passes from the theater manager. Julie and I also wrangled free passes based on the legal precedent of having given free passes to the old ladies. We killed an hour but apparently got away with it and went back and got to see a free flick.

Shakespeare in Love was great. Intelligent and funny and touching. Everything Godzilla should have been but wasn't.

 

1-30-99: My advice to the Pope

Funny how life is. Not ha-ha funny, usually, more like laugh-to-keep-from-crying funny. One week I'll be complaining about always being under the gun with deadlines, and another week...like this one...I'm blissfully staring down the barrel once again and having a great time of it because at least it's better than last week when I wasn't on a tight deadline but everything else was mucked up.

With the computer restored to health, I leaped into the second draft of my planetarium show, Star Leap. I finished it on Thursday, leaving me free to deal with the cable television men who came to remove the cable from my house, at my request, and with the dog who had another vet appointment, and with my health insurance, and the car insurance, and the credit union. Income tax statements of various kinds are pouring in, foreshadowing the day when I have to deal with paying my taxes for 1998. And the Republicans still haven't gotten the message that the longer they drag out this farce of an impeachment trial, the worse they look to a sensible public.

I had some pleasant experiences this week. One involved pulling an old, partially-written screenplay out of a box, looking at it after more than a year spent diligently ignoring it, and finding that it was pretty darned good.

My friend Paul Chadwick, who writes and draws Concrete for Dark Horse Comics and who has a new project out called The World Below, says that manuscripts shut in a drawer will either ripen or rot. I was pleased to see that this one has ripened and I'm hard at work (or at least medium-softly at work) finishing it up in my spare time.

Another pleasant experience: Julie has announced her acceptance of the satellite dish. Now that the cable television wire no longer stretches over the back yard, the chairs on the patio won't be shat upon by birds perched on the wire, which makes a substantial improvement in Julie's life (and mine). We are down to one wire spanning the yard, which means it's very nearly safe to venture out without an umbrella.

And Toby got rid of her bandage and the whapping, bapping Cone.

I did say "pleasant" experiences, not incredible ones.

A fourth pleasant experience: I called the Spectracide company to inform them that the sprayer on my one-gallon jug of bug killer died before I ran out of poison. A woman with an incredibly sexy voice for someone who works for a pesticide company offered to send me a new sprayer. It's a simple bit of customer support, but it contrasts starkly with how the post office treats me.

Last year I bought some of those 40-cent stamps that work like 32-cent stamps, but the extra eight cents go to breast cancer research. So then the rates go up, and I ask the post office if I have to add a 1-cent stamp to the 40-cent stamp to mail a 33-cent letter and they say, "Yes, you do!" So I try to buy a couple of 1-cent stamps and they don't have any! So I bought some 2-cent stamps, and now I'm spending 42 cents to mail a 33-cent letter and you can bet that breast cancer research doesn't get nine cents but only eight and You-Know-Who gets the extra penny.

So then I go to the post office to buy some more 1-cent stamps, figuring that they've had a couple of weeks to print some up, and the line is longer than the Mason-Dixon line (historically, the longest post office line ever recorded), so I put fifty cents in the stamp machine to buy fifty 1-cent stamps (I needed two). The machine takes my money and gives me nothing. So I complain and I get a form to fill out and they say that they'll give me my fifty cents back. A few days later I get a letter from the post office which includes one 33-cent stamp, two 1-cent stamps, and a 10-cent stamp, which I believe, unless they've changed arithmetic on me again, adds up to forty-five cents.

Which brings me to the subject of monopolies, though you'll have to wade through some other stuff to get there, but trust me, you'll arrive at the stated destination by-and-by.

The Pope was here. Well, not exactly right here, but in the U.S.A. We rolled out the red carpet and commuted the execution of some guy in his honor (I think it was Bill Clinton but I could be wrong about that). The Pope railed against abortion and the death penalty but polls show that most Catholics are Pro- on both of these issues, which doesn't bode well for the Pope's called-for new evangelical efforts for Catholicism.

I wish I could talk to the Pope. I'd tell him about how, when I'd finished installing my satellite dish, I still had to call DirecTV to open an account and get some programming. So I called the 800 number and they asked me what I wanted and I told them that I'd just installed a new dish and needed to open an account. Then the guy on the phone said, "Is this Jan Strnad of Villa Strnadini?" (Okay, he didn't say "Villa Strnadini," he gave my home address, but the effect on my psyche was the same.) I had to look over my shoulder to see if somebody was watching me! I said "Yes" and the guy said, "Okay, you're set up." I looked at my TV set and there were 200 channels. Just like that.

So if I could talk to the Pope, I'd tell him to tell God to work on His customer service. If God answered prayers as efficiently as DirecTV signs up customers, there wouldn't be an atheist on the face of the planet! I'd just fold my hands and say, "God, we're out of corn chips," and POOF I'd have corn chips! Then God would probably say, "Give three bucks to the church" and you can bet that I would. Anybody who can make corn chips appear is no one to mess with.

God doesn't work this way because He's a monopoly. (I told you we'd get here.) The ancient Greeks understood the value of competition and filled a whole pantheon with gods, which is about all you can do if you've got an empty pantheon on your hands. If you prayed to Zeus and didn't get what you wanted, you could always have your call transferred to Hera or Apollo or somebody else, and all the gods knew it. It kind of ticked them off but they paid attention to mankind nonetheless, much to our chagrin quite often but that's another issue. At least we knew they were listening.

The Greeks understood division of labor, too, giving the oceans to one god, the sun to another, etc., so the gods weren't so all-fired busy being omnipresent and had some spare time to devote to the affairs of mortal men. Makes sense.

So that's what I'd tell the Pope: Tell God to delegate and put a few more resources into customer service. Put off expanding the universe for a few thousand years if that's what it takes. Concentrate on your core customers.

I'd also tell the Pope that if he wants us to stop executing murderers, why doesn't he offer to take them in at the Vatican? There are plenty of murderers to go around, and we'll share.

 

1-23-99: A week in hell

The week started sweetly enough, with my wife Julie returning from a 10-day trip to Seattle and finding a new satellite dish on the side of the house.

I've had home projects that took me to the roof, and other projects that took me under the house, and now and again some project requires my attendance in the attic, and periodically I have to wiggle into the space behind the television to mess with the tangle of wires back there that I swear is growing like a nest of tapeworms. But installing the satellite dish is the first project ever to force me to all four locations...not to mention Home Depot, Radio Shack, and into the branches of the tree beside the house.

First, let's talk about attics. We've all seen them on television. They have wooden floors, bare light fixtures, a dress form in one corner, an old chest of souvenirs, and maybe a crazy aunt chained to one wall. They're a warm, pleasant place where you can walk around and poke about in your knickknacks or settle yourself in a squeaky rocking chair and read old love letters by the light of a dusty sunbeam streaming through a dirty window. This is a "TV attic."

My attic is about four feet high at the crest, so you have to duck-walk through it. There is no floor, so you have to duck-walk from one ceiling joist to another taking care not to stray from the joists or you'll fall through the ceiling, which hurts, believe me, I've done it. My attic is full of loose, "blown-in" insulation, which means that with every inhalation you drop further down on some insurance actuary's table of life expectancies. Supporting rafters which look "rustic" in TV attics are less than three feet off where the floor would be if I had one, so you have to duck-walk up to them and walk-duck under them or you hit your head in the dark, which hurts, believe me once again as one who speaks with the voice of experience.

I had to go to the attic to nail up a 2x4 to mount the satellite dish into. Three trips across the joists: one to measure, one to hammer, one to check the installation. I figure the three trips took about sixty years off the life expectancy, which means I could go at any moment.

The roof, on the other hand, is fun. I like the roof because you're up high and you don't hit your head on anything and you can walk wherever you damn well please as long as it isn't over the edge. I get to the roof by mounting the ladder that honest-to-gosh I found in the alley one day. I can't imagine why anyone threw it away, unless it's because it's handmade and heavy and ugly and the rungs go a little south when you step on them. Other than that, it's great.

Under the house: the crawlspace. I mean c-r-a-w-l on your belly like a soldier with live rounds whizzing through the air over his head. Over dirt and rocks, through spider webs, under floor joists which believe me are even harder when you hit your head on them in the dark than ceiling joists in the attic are. I do not like crawling under the house because I am not insane, but when cable has to be stretched from one room to another, going under the floor is the only option given the state of our walls, the less said about which the better.

Anyway, after only two days of duck-walks and crawling hither and thither and going up and down and up and down and up and down (I could add many more "up and downs" but you get the idea) the ladder I managed to install a new Sony/DirecTV satellite dish. Julie returned to find her beloved "Biography" once again available (she has yet to watch it) and a new remote control to learn and a husband practically incapacitated by the whole process.

Tuesday my computer crashed totally and utterly, thanks to Norton Uninstall which is a piece-of-shit program that no one should ever buy! Anyway, I spent three days trying to reconfigure the stupid computer and finally achieved functionality on Thursday night. I spent most of Friday getting it tweaked back the way I wanted it. Most of my data had been backed up, including all scripts, the novel in progress, etc.

The first email I received was from my buddy Ed (no relation) Strnad, who had an even worse week: He had a heart attack and ended up with triple-bypass surgery. Kind of put my woes in perspective. Send some good thoughts toward the west coast for Ed, okay?

Getting back to the computer, though: They sell us these things to "increase our productivity" by slicing fractions of a second off this-or-that task...and then you spend three days trying to get it to work when it crashes on you. Gonna take a lot of "increased productivity" to make up those days, Bill! (Bill = Bill Gates, whom anyone here has my permission to slap silly if given the opportunity.)

I am not going to detail all the trials and tribulations I encountered in restoring my computer to workability. Consider this my gift to you. Suffice it to say, it was frustrating, tedious, infuriating, and the next time it happens I'm just dumping this Windows-based piece of crap and buying myself an iMac.

Toby continued whapping into things with her cone, but her foot is healing nicely and we should be rid of the cone after another week, about the time my bruises heal from crawling over rocks in the crawlspace.

And our daughter-in-law gave birth to a son on Monday, the day Julie flew home from Seattle where she'd gone to be there when the baby was born, which was scheduled for the 8th, but he didn't show up until forced out of the womb with induced labor on the 18th. I don't blame him. If I'd known that I faced a week like last week, I'd still be in the womb myself.

 

1-16-99: How to make life complicated

Aside from doctor appointments for me and the Tobe, I worked on an outline for another Sabrina cartoon. My story editors appeared with the cartoon writer's equivalent of a Gift from God: an approved story premise in need of a scripter. The only problem was that time was short. The outline was due on Wednesday.

I wrote a "beat outline" and submitted that to my editors, Steve and Cyd, for review and discussion before going to the outline itself, but then they got involved in some hassles of their own and couldn't get me notes until the day the outline was due. So I worked like a bunny on Thursday and Friday and emailed them the outline this morning, Saturday.

Now I can devote myself to installing this crazy satellite dish, a project that is approximately as complex as launching the satellite in the first place. It will begin with nailing up another 2x4 in the attic to bolt the dish to, then running all kinds of Byzantine wires (very old and hard to obtain, but I got some from the museum) and drilling holes in the house and crawling under the floor and all sorts of nasty, yucky things, all so that Julie can watch "Biography."

We've had cable TV for several years but I got fed up with the lousy picture quality and the constant price increases and one night, probably under the influence of a full moon, I suggested to Julie that we save $50/month by canceling cable. She agreed, assuming (as I later learned) that'd I'd soon "cave" and get hooked up again.

I thrived. After all, I have the Internet to amuse myself. Julie however developed a nervous twitch and a tendency to snap at her husband, both signs of "Biography" withdrawal. I ordered a satellite dish instead of re-upping with the cable company. This course of action means that I get to do all the things noted above, whereas reinstalling cable would have been much, much harder, involving a phone call and an admission that I'd made a mistake and a feeble-sounding attempt to blame it all on my wife (even though it really was entirely her fault).

Wish me luck. If I miss next week's Journal entry, I may be stuck in the attic or under the house. Please have someone look for me.

 

1-9-99: The missing Journal entry

Things got a little crazy for awhile and I missed a Journal entry. A big "thanks!" to all both of those who expressed concern.

My dog Toby had surgery on her foot. It was successful, and the vet, who has a sadistic streak, sent her home wearing an Elizabethan collar, aka The Cone. The Cone, on a miniature poodle, is a clever little plastic device that keeps the dog from licking its foot while it heals. I do not have a miniature poodle. I have a sixty-pound bearded collie. On a sixty-pound dog, the Cone is a hazard to property and life. If she had fillings in her teeth, Toby could get the Sci-Fi Channel on this thing. And since she has no idea of how far the Cone extends beyond her nose, she whaps and baps around the house in it like, I don't know...some big, clueless, whappity bappity thing.

The Cone, of course, did not work with Toby, who, taking after her master, is very persistent when it comes to self-destructive habits. She managed to lick the bandage off her foot despite the Cone, necessitating a trip back to the vet for re-bandaging, from which she emerged wearing the New, Improved, Ultra-Cone. "Now with twice the whapping and bapping of the standard Cone!"

So I spent the week with my whappy-bappy dog, trying desperately to shake this blasted cold and get back into work mode. Julie left me on Friday to visit our daughter-in-law in Seattle who is allegedly having a baby this week.

I took advantage of Julie's absence to order a satellite dish. I figure, if the dog can have one, so can I.

Work accomplished this week: very little.

 

1-2-99: A brand new year

New Year's Eve I was sick as the proverbial dog, but I don't take it as well as dogs do. Dogs seem postively delighted to throw up, for example, whereas I (and most humans) are reluctant vomiters. Luckily I wasn't doing any of that, but a cold, sore throat, and fever had me pretty much wiped out. Our friends Steve and Cindy were hosting a New Year's Eve party but I had to skip it. Julie went and had a great time. I was in bed asleep before midnight. And so begins another year.

I did a slight revamp of the Website of Mass Distraction on New Year's Day. The DVD Reviews section had to go as being too time-consuming, as did the Mystery Link, and I closed the Brain Station for wont of participants. I dropped the Bookshelf, too, reluctantly since I have friends with books listed there. But nobody ordered books through the page anyway, so I don't think I'm costing my friends any sales, and my reading of new books has fallen off dramatically while I alternate between a volume of Robert Benchley essays and The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. These two books should keep me busy for some time.

We had a New Year's Day party to go to, also, but I didn't want to infect friends. Infecting strangers, however, is a different matter. So I dosed myself up with cold medication and Julie drove us to a movie, which does not require social skills or even sitting up straight. I wanted to see Mighty Joe Young and she wanted to see You've Got Mail so we compromised and saw You've Got Mail. Bachelors may not understand how this is a compromise and not an outright capitulation. Married men, however, comprehend the difference, thanks to a wonderful mental process we call "denial."

Maybe it was the drugged stupor I was in, but I enjoyed You've Got Mail. Not that it's one of the world's great films, but it was entertaining, which is more than I can say about certain highly-budgeted, big-lizard, blow-up-the-asteroid films from 1998.

Hm...this would be a good time to list my Top Ten and Bottom Ten Films from 1998.

Unfortunately for list lovers, it's also a good time for a nap.