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November 2006
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Dalton's Further Thoughts On The Nature Of Writing

I wrote here last week about the nature of writing, and drew this thoughtful (as always) response from close friend and regular contributor Richard Dalton:

Your modesty notwithstanding ("But I think I learned by reading constantly, widely, regularly and voluminously from the age of 5. That, combined with an English-teacher mother and a house full of books and magazines, showed me what good writing was. I just imitated it."), I wonder if anyone knows how they write. That question ranks up there with "How did Picasso paint?"

Maybe you can teach how to write unencumbered sentences and think analytically, but the older I get (and the more words I see trailing behind me) the more I believe there is a Muse who spends more time with some people, less with others. It amazes me that I have spent decades earning most of my income from writing without consciously preparing myself or following some prescribed regimen.

Poetry is a wonderfully humbling experience. Trying to synthesize beauty and meaning out of thoughts is a way for me to capture how little we are beyond the spiritual. In fact, I'm abashed that I used the word "trying" in the same sentence as "spiritual." What I guess I really mean is synthesizing (for me, the most mysterious of mental processes) happens, it isn't caused. The Muse at one's shoulder is as real as any "explanation."

It's A Wonderful Life

I'm not teaching, Vicki's not seeing clients, Rae is here until mid-January, Marlow had three days of temp work last week. We all get next Monday off--and it is our 27th wedding anniversary. Last Sunday night we watched It's A Wonderful Life (which the FBI thought was Communist propoganda), and although Marlow wondered aloud, "Wasn't anyone's life improved by the absence of George Bailey?", for the most part, we all had a good time wallowing in Capra's old-fashioned black and white sentimentality. I haven't ridden my bike, indoors or outdoors, as much as I wanted this week, but I've gotten a lot of reading done and had a good time. Friday I stayed in my pajamas all day. It is a wonderful life.

The Top 12 Things Overheard at a New Year's Eve Party at the White House OR in Hell

Did I mention I was No. 10?

12> "Good news, sir: We've found the way out of Iraq. Go down through the lowest circle and climb out of Satan's body into Purgatory."

11> "Man, it's always the same at these things: lawyers, movie stars and politicians."

10> "Yes, I did say you'd be doing the Macarena forever. Would you rather be in charge of Iraq policy?"

9> "What the heck just happened? It's suddenly freezing in here!" "Senator Santorum just asked Cheney's daughter to dance."

8> "Check this out: Abramoff and the boss are totally denying they had a meeting."

7> "This music is horrible. Is that Ashlee Simpson's CD or is someone being tortured?"

6> "Senator Clinton! Imagine meeting you here."

5> "Mr. President, would you please ask your inebriated daughters to go to their rooms. They're giving the place a bad name."

4> "Why do they always have to book Kenny G. for these things?"

3> "Do I have an excuse? Since when do I need an excuse to stir up trouble in the Middle East?"

2> "Him? He's just here for show. Cheney runs the place."

and's Number 1 Thing Overheard at a New Year's Eve Party at the White House or in Hell...

1> "Promise me you'll call my cell phone if I get stuck in a conversation with Donald Trump."

[ The Top 5 List ]
[ Copyright 2006 by Chris White ]

Selected from 83 submissions from 37 contributors. Today's Top 5 List authors are:

Curtis Stoddard, Cedar Hills, UT -- 1, 4, 11 (9th #1/Hat trick!)
Paul Schindler, Orinda, CA -- 10

Night At The Museum

3.5 out of 5 stars

Craig Reynolds wrote:

We just saw "Night at the Museum" and it is really fun. Its a "for the family" movie with something for everyone. Since you sometimes review family films I thought I would urge you to see this one.

Craig was too late! We'd already seen it, and we loved it. From the previews, I was expecting a hollow CGI fest. I know some people will view it that way even after seeing it, and will consider the "dad needs to prove himself to his son" plot to be thin gruel. But as a dad, I liked it, my 20-something daughters liked it, and a crowded theater full of elementary and middle school students in Orinda loved it. It is so lovely to see both Mickey Rooney and Dick Van Dyke working again, and Robin Williams redeems a series of recent bad choices by looking good in this film. Actually, I was intrigued that the previews changed right around the time the film was released, to advertise the actual plot dilemma of the dad (Ben Stiller). Market research? Common sense? Hollywood being Hollywood, it was probably just dumb luck; even a blind pig sometimes finds truffles.

Neal Vitale Reviews: Dreamgirls

3 stars out of 5

I saw Dreamgirls when it first opened on Broadway in late 1981, but I didn't love it, despite the energy and voice of the then next-big-thing, Jennifer Holliday, in the central role of Effie. When I saw this film's trailer many months ago, I didn't think Dreamgirls would be high on my must-see list. And - no surprise - when I finally saw Dreamgirls, it elicited the same middling response. Perhaps I am just tired of slick musical biopics and their mostly one-dimensional characterizations of all-too-familiar, none-too-appealing performers. Maybe adding the stagy quality of a Broadway musical (why are they singing?) is the extra dampening factor on film. Or possibly it's the overwrought, histrionic singing that becomes wearying over two hours (I was checking my watch after thirty minutes). Dreamgirls - telling the story of the launch of The Supremes and Motown Records - is not without its appeal. The new next-big-thing, "American Idol" loser Jennifer Hudson, is a powerhouse and engaging - though physically awkward - as Effie. Eddie Murphy atones for the years of Pluto Nash and Dr. Doolittle and resurrects a career with a stunning and potent performance that channels James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson. Beyonce Knowles has scenes where she is a picture-perfect Diana Ross, and the period costumes and set designs are both amusing and striking. But the highs don't offset enough lows to make Dreamgirls more than slightly better-than-average entertainment.

--Neal Vitale

[ed. note: Vicki, Rae and I never saw the play, but enjoyed the movie. I have to say, it was a bit weird to watch an all-black cast in a major movie with a largely black audience. Just doesn't happen to me that often.]

Dreamgirls: A Guide

Curtis Taylor Jr.= Berry Gordy
Rainbow Records = Motown
C.C. White = , Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson
Dreams = Supremes
Deena Jones = Diana Ross
Effie White = Florence Ballard (spliced with the style of Etta James)
Lorrell Robinson = Mary Wilson
Michelle Morris = Cindy Birdsong
James "Thunder" Early = James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson

Neal Vitale Reviews: The Holiday

4 stars out of 5

Deep, it's not. Inventive and genre-stretching? Not really. The Holiday instead shows the beauty of knowing what you are - a delightful Christmas confection - and producing it very, very well. Writer/director/producer Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, What Women Want, Baby Boom, Father Of The Bride, et al.) is brilliant at manufacturing terrifically enjoyable entertainment in a populist vein, creating an ideal blend of cast, dialogue, plot, sets, score, and clever cameos. The Holiday tells the story of two attractive but unhappy-in-love women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) who exchange homes for two weeks in the hope of escaping failed relationships, only to find love (and themselves) among myriad new complexities. The three male protagonists - Jude Law, Jack Black, and Eli Wallach (!) - are all well-cast and immensely appealing. I hate to use the descriptor "feel good," but it characterizes The Holiday perfectly. A wonderful surprise at the cineplex on an evening when everything you came to see is sold out.

--Neal Vitale

Lasusa Links, More Hot Shots from Firesign, Crosswords, Vitale on A Disappearing Mammal, Coquet Agrees with Slate On The Nixon Pardon, Dan Grobstein File

But first, the only political brief I had this week: Redacted Version of Original Op-Ed and What We Wanted to Tell You About Iran. The White House's actions here are disgusting.

Tom Lasusa surfs the web so you don't have to: High School Kid does a SuperFly Snuka off second floor railing onto School Xmas Tree…. The Above-mentioned Tree Jumper offers a 'logical' explanation as to why he did what he did….Did you Watch "It's a Wonderful Life" This year? You Commie Ba*tard!How to preserve a snowflakeSongs we wish we could leave in 2006Movies in 2006: Awful is the new Awesome!The Little Book of Hindu Deities… Former heavyweight Boxing Champion Rocky Balboa has fallen on tough times

Great news: more gag videos by Firesign Theater:

Nazi Diet Doctors
(from She Demons 1958)

Revenge of the Non-Smokers
(from Spy Smasher 1942)

Claws II
(from Panther Girl of the Kongo 1955)

Several people have informed me that I was wrong about the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. Here is the most detailed explanation of the true situation:

Sunday puzzles aren't the hardest, just the biggest. They are like over-sized Wednesday puzzles. On the other hand, whereas Saturday used to be the hardest by far, Mr. Shortz is now mixing it up...I've found some really tricky puzzles of late on Thursdays and Fridays, and have sailed through recent Saturdays.

Neal Vitale forwarded this sad note from the New York Times

A Fellow Mammal Leaves the Planet
By ROBERT L. PITMAN, NOAA Fisheries Ecosystem Studies Program
Published: December 26, 2006
Robert L. Pitman has spent 30 years studying the world’s whales, dolphins and other aquatic mammals. He returned to San Deigo, Calif., last week after a fruitless six-week expedition in which teams of five observers on two vessels scoured the Yangtze River from the Three Gorges Dam to Shanghai, seeking the last members of the rarest cetacean species of all, a white, nearly blind dolphin called the baiji, Lipotes vexillifer. The dolphin is now considered, at best, "functionally extinct." Dr. Pitman wrote this note in response to a reporter’s question about the broader implications of this, the first apparent extinction of a cetacean in modern times.

I don't know where Kent Peterman finds this stuff:

Read this question, come up with an answer and then scroll down to the bottom for the result. This is not a trick question. It is as it reads. No one I know has got it right.

A woman, while at the funeral of her own mother, met a guy whom she did not know. She thought this guy was amazing. She believed him to be her dream guy so much, that she fell in love with him right there, but never asked for his number and could not find him. A few days later she killed her sister.

Question: What is her motive for killing her sister? [Give this some thought before you answer, see answer at the bottom of this item]

We won't speak ill of the dead, but may we speak ill of one of their decisions? This from Steve Coquet:

Here is a Slate article that pretty much sums up my opinion of the Nixon pardon. The author misses (or discounts the importance of) one important aspect of the whole affair, though. The Nixon pardon gave the whole vindictive lot the assurance that they could ride rough-shod over anyone and any document that got in their way once they got into power. It has weakened American democracy a great deal.

Dan Grobstein File

  • Online slide show with your slides? You bet! And since it's flash, no one can copy your pictures.


Answer to Kent Peterman's quiz:

She was hoping the guy would appear at the funeral again. If you answered this correctly, you think like a psychopath. This was a test by a famous American psychologist used to test if one has the same mentality as a killer.

Many arrested serial killers took part in the test and answered the question correctly.

If you didn't answer the question correctly, good for you.

If you got the answer correct, please let me know so I can take you off my email list.

Staying In One Place and Writing There

This Christmas marks the ninth anniversary of our 1997 move into this home we built for ourselves--just a half mile away and a hundred feet up from the home Vicki bought in 1978 before I moved here. It took a long time--we bought the land in December 1992--but it was worth the wait. We're not likely to live in another home so perfectly suited to us. Mistakes? Sure. There should be a phone outlet in the TV room. A hose bib in the center of the garage between the garage doors. Better gutters above the door to the outside utility room.

But Marlow got to live here for 18 months before graduating from high school; Rae got 5½years and the chance to paint her walls green with a trompe-l'œil forest ceiling. Vicki and I have the best home offices ever, and we've gotten to live here for nine years, so far. If we make it to 2016, we'll have lived here longer than in the old house.

Some people move constantly; others almost never. There are, surely, advantages to both modes of living. If we are settled, it is because we come from settled people. My parents have lived in their home for 50 years and counting; Vicki's parents lived in theirs for 55. Since we are unlikely to live to the age of 100, we probably won't equal or break any family records.

This blog (or column, as I like to think of it) has also been in one place for a long time: this is Volume 8, No. 51; I only missed one column this year (when we were hiking in Yosemite). Some of the columns have been lame, of course, but I've never known a writer who wouldn't (or shouldn't) admit to the occasional misfire. Some weeks I've had nothing to say, but strived, in the interests of discipline, to say it anyway.

I love to write. Always have. Always will, I hope. Never had writer's block (despite enthusiastic advice that I could use some); perhaps been terrorized by a blank page or blank screen twice in the 44 years of my writing life. In the typewriter days, I would sometimes go through a dozen sheets of paper until I got my lead right. Boy, did I welcome the arrival of word processing!

My problem has always been writing too much, never too little. In college I sometimes wrote ½ of an 8-page tabloid with 50% ad density. At InformationWeek, I wrote ⅓ of the magazine in August 1985. The skill of over-writing, alas, became less and less prized as my career progressed.

Anyway, I have always felt, as did A.J. Leibling, that I write "faster than anyone who writes better, and better than anyone who writes faster."

I wish I knew how I learned to write, so I could teach it. But I think I learned by reading constantly, widely, regularly and voluminously from the age of 5. That, combined with an English-teacher mother and a house full of books and magazines, showed me what good writing was. I just imitated it. You can't teach that, and you probably can't even make up for it if a student has, literally, never read for pleasure by the time they are in 8th grade. I don't remember anything I did at school being that helpful in my development as a writer. So, I'll probably just continue teaching U.S. History.

(Craig is still on vacation; I ran my Christmas Message last week)