Is This Thing On?

Happy Friday! I wanted to share a bit I wrote for Two Minutes Go. We’re still open, if you want to play. Or just stop by for a read. Excellent writing going on.

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After a few months of house arrest, the shock frequency diminished, and Henry began to see his ankle cuff differently. He painted the silver finish dull with one of his daughter’s apocalyptically named nail polish colors—Irony or Acid Rain or Corporate Greed or something. Wore his shirt unbuttoned and pretended he was one of those old-time cartoon prisoners in Alcatraz, with their raggedy striped pants and a link or two dragging off their old, rusted leg irons. He let his beard grow and limped around the house talking to imaginary pigeons.

His daughter rolled her eyes and started making more coffee. “Dad. Stop it. They’ll just shock you again if you try to do anything funny, if that even qualifies.”

His shoulders slumped as he dropped his character. “Everyone’s a critic.”

“She’s right, dear.” His wife had walked in, began fussing around with breakfast things.

“You know”—he snatched a piece of bread before she could toast it—“I don’t think they’re even listening anymore. Maybe the guy in charge of that department quit again. Last night I recited about a dozen dirty limericks. Turns out a lot of things rhyme with ‘Trump.’ And…nothing.” He addressed his ankle. “You hear me? Nothing. Hello? Is this thing on?”

It just sat there. He’d missed a few spots with the nail polish, a shade of grayish-black somewhere between a gangrenous limb and mold, and they glinted in the kitchen lights.

“You owe me for that nail polish,” his daughter said. “That stuff costs, like, ten dollars a bottle.”

“I’ll take it out of your college fund,” he said. “Or here’s an idea. Try to help your old man through this.”

“Through what?” his daughter said. “You sleep half the day, then watch old movies, order pizza and go back to sleep. Throw in some beers and porn and that’s, like, a dream life for half the guys I know.”

“You’re fourteen. What kind of guys you know drink beer?”

But she just smiled and left the room, waggling her fingers goodbye over her shoulder. He spun to face his wife.

“You think they’d let me watch porn?”

Her eyes flattened. “Are you kidding? From what I’ve seen of him, after Fox News, it’s probably the most popular channel in the White House.”

He grinned and pointed a finger at her. “Ooh, you’re gonna get it. They’ll be coming after you next. Then you’ll be wearing one of these. Maybe we can get a matching pair.” He addressed it again. “Hello? Is this thing on? There once was a man from New York, who boasted of girls he could—”

“Henry!”

“What? Nobody’s listening. I could call him every name Jon Stewart ever dreamed up for him and nobody would notice. I could do twenty minutes on his weird bromance with Vladimir Putin. Hell, I could probably grab the Saws-All and cut this thing off and fling it into the dumpster across the street.”

He’d never seen her so pale. “Henry. Don’t you dare. Just because it might not be monitored twenty-four-seven doesn’t mean it might not have some kind of built-in—”

“You worry too much.” He headed for the basement. “It’ll give you wrinkles.”

Downstairs he rummaged through his tools. Several projects decorated his workbench, and he sighed at their varied states of abandonment. In the beginning of his house arrest, after an initial period of mourning, he’d thrown his energy toward creating things. A birdhouse, a set of bookshelves, a knife rack for his wife. But all inspired his comedy, became a stage for new routines. He imagined birds gathering, the cardinals scolding the finches, the crows telling dirty jokes. Each earned him a shock, so he’d stopped.

Maybe he was finally free now. Emboldened, he grabbed the saw and hacked away. No shock. Not even a vibration.

He took the severed anklet upstairs to show his wife. Alarm spread across her face. He half expected it to explode, or that any second now, he might hear sirens and the men in black would show up at his door. Like the first time. But no such thing happened that morning.

He set the mangled, streaky device on the mantel. A trophy to his survival. Even if he could be arrested again for doing his act in public, he’d write jokes for that broken ankle cuff; he’d perform for it. After all, after everything, the show must go on.

A couple weeks later, he finished a set, grabbed a beer, and was about to watch Bird Man of Alcatraz for the twenty-third time when he heard an odd noise coming from the cuff—long then slow beeps, like Morse code. He inched over to it. Touched it. Nothing. Then a voice: “Are you still there?” It was female. Tentative, with a thick accent.

What the hell. “Yep. Still here. Paying my debt to society.”

“Please do not stop. It is making me laugh and I need this so desperately.”

Wow. He had a fan. “I didn’t think the administration hired anyone with a sense of humor.”

After a long pause, she said, “I am not exactly hired. I… I feel like a prisoner here.”

You and me both, sister. “All right, then. For you, I’ll keep the act going.”

“I am grateful,” she sighed. “I just have a question. How did you get your ankle thing off? Mine itches like I cannot believe.”

The Other Half of the Story

P&L-Cake-TopperYou can’t stay married to the same person for almost twenty years without amassing a goldmine of writing material. In some form or other, I’ve used a lot of events from our “real life” in my fiction, good and bad. The bad ones somehow end up funnier. Heck, if life gives you citrus fruit, why not squeeze them into tasty adult beverages for other people’s entertainment?

This past weekend, we were with family, and one story led to another. It never takes much prompting for my husband to start telling the Tale of the Worst Day of his Life. Although the years have magnified each horrible turn by a factor of ten, it originally started like this: Continue reading

Healing with Humor

ImageI love a good joke. Even a bad one. Which is one of the reasons I wrote my first novel. In The Joke’s on Me, a stand-up comic returns to her hometown of Woodstock after a major crisis and tries to get her groove back. One stepping stone toward reinventing herself is to craft a workshop on Healing with Humor. Frankie ferrets through research notes, movies, and videos of other comics, trying to glean what’s funny and why it makes people feel good.

Having laughed my way through some serious and not-so-serious health problems over the years, I felt unerringly qualified to write about a fictional character writing her workshop.

After all, a string of funny romance novels by Janet Evanovich got me through a nasty back injury, and elephant jokes once saved my sanity.

Elephant jokes? Yeah. Okay, they’re a little juvenile, but a good case of the giggles is still good medicine. About twenty years ago, I had one of those not-so-great mammograms (which turned out to be a false positive), and my perhaps overzealous doctor had referred me and my films to a breast surgeon. Needless to say, the forty-minute drive to his office was a bit stressful. So I turned on our local NPR station, which was running “Knock on Wood” during that time period. Some of you—and especially those of you in the Woodstock area—may know Steve Charney and Harry, his ventriloquist’s dummy (Yeah, I know. A ventriloquist on the radio.) That day, Steve was doing a long string of elephant jokes, one after the other. I was giggling so hard I almost ran off the road. Yeah, silly, but it definitely took my mind off where I was going.

So this is why one particular joke stuck in my head. Recently, when the lovely Carol Wyer, author of several humorous novels about aging disgracefully, interviewed me on her blog, Facing Fifty with Humour, she asked me to tell a joke. This was the one I selected:

Q: What do you get when you cross a kangaroo with an elephant?
A: Great big holes in Australia.

Okay, not spit-coffee-across-your-keyboard funny, but cute.

Then I came across this website. Apparently, the author, Kevin R.R. Williams, had read Carol’s interview and felt the same about my joke. In an effort to parse the eternal question of what makes people laugh, he deconstructed it over a dinner party. How I wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

Or the elephant in the room.

What do you think? Has humor ever helped you through a tough spot? Can humor really be analyzed? Once we do, does it lose its comedic value? And what’s your favorite elephant joke?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A local author had asked me to participate in an event sponsored by the Woodstock (New York) Library Forum called, “Four Funny Writers.”

Now, I have this love/hate relationship with public events. A natural introvert, my first instinct is to cringe, lock the doors, and hunker down in front of the television, eating junk food and watching episode after episode of The Big Bang Theory. But getting out and meeting people can be a very good thing. So I do it. I even wrote this blog post on public events, and how to stop doing pointless and mentally poisonous things like imagining the audience in their underwear. Continue reading

Stealth Book Promotion

A sobering fact of promoting your small press or independently published book is that it can seem like bookstore owners would rather endure a simultaneous tax audit, bikini wax, and colonoscopy than pepper their folding-chair-stuffed “conversation” areas with your latest work and, well, you. Nothing personal; as an unknown, they often consider you too great a financial risk. The bookstore doesn’t want to commit personnel or promotional funds on an author that might not draw a crowd or get stuck with a bunch of books they can’t return. It sucks, but that’s the way the world works at the moment.

Therefore writers have to get crafty about annoying everyone you know promoting your book sans retail establishments. Here are a few “outside the brick-and-mortar” ideas that just might work, or at least would be amusing to try.

Bookstore Ninja. This is fun and requires only a copy of your book, a camera, and an accomplice or two. Have an accomplice distract the salesperson by requesting an obscure book about the mating habits of the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach while you place your book on the shelf of your dreams and snap away. Post photos, like the one above I took at a certain large bookseller that shall remain nameless, on your social media. Feeling totally reckless? Leave it there.

Tricks With Tablets. This is another amusing attention-getting device which probably cheeses off the guys and gals at the Genius Bar and Geek Squad. If you’re in a store that sells tablet computers and e-readers and foolishly puts samples out for you to play with, casually pull up your book page and leave. Yeah, I know it reverts back, but if the traffic is heavy, some folks who might not normally see your book will get a glimpse.

Trainspotters. It’s so awesome to see people reading your book in public. When I do, I want to run up and hug them, if not for that nasty business with the restraining order. Know any regular commuters? Give them a copy of your book to read on public transportation. If you’re traveling with companions, sneak them a copy and take their picture as they read. Voila! Instant promo.

The Waiting Room Game. I’ll take “Two Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back” for $200, Alex. The doctor’s office. The dentist. The chiropractor. The DMV. A hospital library or waiting room. Slip a copy or two in with the magazines. Think of these copies as seed money. Even if someone walks off with your book, that’s still a reader, and a reader who might pass on your name to their friends. Bonus points if you tailor the drop-off location to your audience. Does Lassie save the day? Drop a copy off at a local pet groomer or vet’s office. Teenage mutant zombie/vampire apocalypse? Try the pediatrician’s waiting room. Comedy? Anywhere people are awaiting a stressful procedure. Try your local IRS or waxing salon.

I Will NOT Go The F**k to Sleep by Richard Crasta – A Review

I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Crasta years ago at a networking event, and if not for that meeting (because he’s mainly been published in India), I might have lost out on the experience of his clever wordplay and the playful but biting satire that peppers his writing. Immediately I purchased a copy of his first and most well known book, “The Revised Kama Sutra: A Novel of Colonialism and Desire.” (Buy it if you can.)

Through an accident of the Internet, our paths crossed again, though we are now living on opposite sides of the globe. And through the magic of electronic publishing, I was able to catch up on the books that I missed.

The one that caught my eye first was a book of essays titled, I Will NOT Go the F**k To Sleep, the title meant to be a satire on the recent and popular Adam Mansbach children’s book that’s more for parents, Go the F**k to Sleep. It is, indeed, the title of the first essay in this book, a Stewie Griffin-meets-Bart Simpson take on this command from the child’s point of view. The humor continues, some essays with a political bite, some with inspired silliness, but thoroughly enjoyable.

For instance, one essay, “What You Don’t Know about Bangaloring Could Hurt You,” is a wisecracking look at outsourced American jobs from India’s point of view. Another, “On The Trail of Sex in Kama-Land,” got him censored in his homeland. Crasta also includes an especially funny excerpt from The Revised Kama Sutra, in which our hero, at a tender age and with a repressed upbringing, is disturbed to discover the assertiveness of his male appendage. “A Tale of Two Weddings” puts a satiric lens on the stereotypes many people have about Indian culture.

Crasta is funny, yes, sometimes with a Pythonesque goofiness, but often with an irreverent poke in the eye to those in power. But all good satirists, from Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain to Christopher Buckley and Bill Maher, know that humor is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Or, as C. K. Chesterton put it, “Humor can get in under the door while seriousness is still fumbling at the handle.”

Or, as Crasta writes in his introduction, “The king’s jester had no sacred cows, and was the only one who could laugh at the king and not pay for it with his life–why? Because to prevent a society from going insane, it needs a band of men and women who have carte blanche, carte blanche to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes, or even that black polka dots on his polka dot pants are not dots but holes.”

The Fonts of Our Lives

Have you noticed a subtle shift in the use of typography in supermarkets lately? Probably not, because, like most people, you’re more concerned about what’s in the box rather than what’s on the box. Or, unlike me, you have not been indoctrinated by a career in graphic design into the habit of identifying every font that you see. This especially annoys people in movie theaters when I randomly call out, “Gill Sans,” or “Memphis Bold” when the opening and closing credits roll.

I’ve tried to stop doing that, even though I secretly wonder which is more annoying in theaters: hordes of people texting in the dark, errant ringing cell phones, or my typographical Tourette’s.

Let’s go back to the supermarket, shall we? Grab a cart. No, you may not have a candy bar. But take a look at that box of cereal, or crackers, or macaroni and cheese. We’re going sans serif. Serifs are the little “feet” that appear on the ends of the letters. Times Roman, for example, is a serif font. Helvetica is a sans serif font. Historically, and as measured by studies of ease of reading, sans serif fonts are often used for headlines and subheads while serif fonts are often used for body copy, as they have been judged more readable in blocks. Serif fonts are really cool, in my opinion. I love the grace note they put on a character, and how various shapes and flavors denote different periods of history.

But this is not a lesson in typography. I’ll save that for others who are currently working in the field, or for me, when I run out of ideas. This is more about what the Internet has been doing to our eyes, as well as our social discourse and our culture.

I’ve written before on what turns me off about people’s websites, and some of those reasons have to do with typographical choices. But I never thought that the Internet itself, and our reading habits, could change typography. For instance, when using white text on black background (which is a total bitch for anyone who no longer has twenty-year-old eyes), serifs tend to melt into the page and disappear. They also disappear on certain types of screens. Clever marketers, studying the various screens of our lives, have seen a pattern. Extrapolating into a two-hundred-slide PowerPoint presentation unveiled at a conference in an undisclosed location (Akron, Ohio), they have deemed sans serif fonts to be old-fashioned, frumpy, and altogether the domain of “losers” who still gather their information from words printed on dead-tree pulp and would not deign to purchase an electronic reading-type device unless the price dropped below a certain level or they received one as a gift. (Or so I’ve been told. Now that I’m out of the field, I’ve been blacklisted, and even had to return my pica pole and vow to erase the secret handshake from my memory.)

Therefore, packages of crackers and cookies are now devoid of serifs, those nasty, dated, printers’ nightmares, and now sport a clean, modern design, and what has been shown in focus groups to be a younger look. Never thought that buying a package of saltines can make you look younger, did you? Skip that four-hundred-dollar face cream and the Botox injections and just fill your grocery cart with Saltines and Oreos.

I feel younger already.

Side Effects of Writing Fiction

A few weeks ago, Health magazine came out with a ranking of the ten most depressing jobs in America. Writing came in at number five, right after Justin Bieber’s bodyguard and Lindsay Lohan. Reasons cited were frequent rejection, irregular pay, and that moody, creative thing that makes many of us want to eat chocolate and cry.

I understand all of these and yet I still write. I write because I have to. If I don’t, that moody, creative thing will kick in, and I’ll want to punch holes in the wall and knock people’s hats off, then eat chocolate and cry. Here are some other side effects I’ve suffered as a fiction writer. As with anything else, your actual experience may vary.

1. Spontaneous combustion. Attempting to operate heat-generating kitchen appliances while writing may result in scorched pots, wailing smoke alarms and the need to create alternate dinner plans. (See Appendix A, Fire Extinguishers, and Appendix B, Take Out Menus.)

2. Training accidents. Training your roommates, significant others and/or children to respect your writing hours must be done firmly and consistently. As with puppies, inconsistency leads to accidents. Yelling at someone who knocks on your writing room door and says, “I’m going to get the mail” is a perfectly normal response, as you would have figured that out on your own following his or her return with various envelopes and flyers, and still gotten your writing done. (See Appendix C, Training Accidents Leading To Spontaneous Combustion, or Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion.)

3. Alienation of affection. You may, through no fault of your own, fall in love with your characters as you write them, and will want to sneak away to spend quiet moments alone with them. This is normal, although your significant other may feel otherwise. (See Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion, or Appendix E, Flowers and Chocolate)

4. Antisocial behavior. You may find yourself increasingly reluctant to attend social events, especially those far from home, preferring instead to lock yourself away in front of your computer or notebook. (See Appendix F, How to Feign Illness)

5. Unreliability. Even if you desire to attend a social engagement or agree to pick up a friend at the airport, you might have trouble leaving your characters behind. You may sink back into their world, only to be reminded of your previous commitments by an angry woman’s voice calling you a “douche” on your answering machine. You may then drift back into your room, musing about the etymology of the word, thinking you must write a blog about it soon. (See Appendix D, Apologies For Every Occasion or Appendix G, Brain-Piercing Alarm Clocks)

6. Utter and complete joy. Finding the perfect words, putting them together just the right way, and stringing those sentences together like exquisite glass beads may lead to unexpected feelings of euphoria similar to eating chocolate. (See Appendix H, Does This Mean I’m Cured?)

Having any side effects of your own?