Monday, December 19, 2011

Generic Sports Holiday Cheatsheet for Nonbelievers

So, you're busy, you're stressed, you just found out the Christmas gift you got your mom is USELESS because she already bought it for HERSELF (and since you bought it online, now you have to figure out how to return it). With everything going on, you aren't interested in trying to keep up with five or six sports leagues, too, right?

That's cool.

But your holiday prep is winding down, and soon you'll be looking for an excuse to turn on a TV, turn off your brain, and enjoy watching others exercise for awhile. Here's a cheatsheet to maximize your enjoyment and minimize awkward holiday party silences between now and the start of 2012.



** NFL FOOTBALL **

The Indianapolis Colts (who finally won a game!) politely decided to play on a Thursday, leaving room for some GOOD games Christmas weekend. The bulk are on SATURDAY (Christmas Eve) starting at 1pm EST. Here are the highlights:

NEW YORK JETS vs NEW YORK GIANTS - SATURDAY 1pm EST (FOX)
It's a scientific fact that the best (funny) Christmas movies take place in Chicago, and the best (tear-jerky) Christmas movies take place in New York. Well, this Christmas both New York teams desperately need to win this game in order to get that shiny lil' playoff spot this year. It will be emotional. It might get ugly. Not, like, bench-clearing-brawl ugly; more like fumble fumble interception dropped pass missed coverage ugly.

But, generally speaking, the two quarterbacks in question (Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning) are popular with the lady fans (just ask Grantland's Sarah Larimer and Katie Baker). So, that's less ugly. This game should be a lot of fun for a neutral observer. However, I'm pulling for the Official Little Brother of the Indianapolis Colts. We need a Manning in the playoffs!!!


PHILADELPHIA EAGLES vs DALLAS COWBOYS - SATURDAY 4pm (FOX)
Another game with serious playoff implications and equally serious choke potential. Again, delightful for the neutral observer.


CHICAGO BEARS vs GREEN BAY PACKERS - SUNDAY 8pm EST (NBC)
First of all, I'd like to send sincere condolences to the Packers for losing the perfect season. It sucks, but at least you didn't lose because you sat your starters; that sort of thing has been known to destroy entire franchises (see: Indianapolis Colts). Deep breath, regroup, you're gonna be fine.

Secondly, I'd like to give an equally sincere shout-out to my guy KYLE ORTON for making me look like a GENIUS! Always knew he could do it. Also, I thought he broke one of the fingers on his throwing hand, like, a week ago? Guess it's no big deal. He may even get the chance to spoil his former team's (and Tim Tebow's) playoff hopes. Ironic.

The Bears/Packers rivalry is always fun, even if one team is mucho superioro. When the Packers start opening the whoooopasssss, you can always try a little game: drink every time they mention how the Bears are missing Jay Cutler; drink again every time they show Jay on the sidelines; drink twice if Jay has a surly expression on his face, and treat yourself to an entire gingerbread house if they catch him smiling.

The rest of the time, just enjoy the delightful adorkableness that is Aaron Rodgers.


** NBA BASKETBALL **

To be honest, I haven't really followed the NBA since the whole Pacers/Pistons throw down several years ago. I've never in my life watched pro-basketball over holiday break, but I likely will this year for a couple of reasons.

1. We weren't expecting a season due to the NBA lockout. The season is actually STARTING on Christmas Day this year (better late than never, I guess). Crazy how the lockout psychology seems to have affected fans this year. The NFL lockout tricked me into watching preseason games for the first time maybe ever, and the NBA one tricked me into thinking these games are important, too. Nice marketing buzz, NBA.

2. Two of my favorite Purdue basketball players (JuJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore) both got drafted by the Boston Celtics, and Christmas Day will be their first real game. I may get a little misty-eyed, like a proud parent to my Baby Boilers. Stupid Celtics tricking me in to liking them. There's a lot of TRICKING going on...

3. My mom digs the singing group Celtic Thunder. I guess someone from Celtic Thunder is doing the National Anthem for the Boston Celtic game, so she wants to watch it just to see that. The 'Celtic' in 'Celtic Thunder' and the 'Celtic' in 'Boston Celtics' are not pronounced the same way and it's BLOWING MY MIND. Also, is it weird to have people not from America singing the Star Spangled Banner?

HIGHLIGHTS:
* BOSTON CELTICS vs NEW YORK KNICKS - 12pm EST (TNT)
* MIAMI HEAT vs DALLAS MAVERICKS - 2:30pm EST (ABC)
* CHICAGO BULLS vs LA LAKERS - 5pm EST (ABC)



** NHL HOCKEY **

I don't claim to be an authority on hockey - in fact, I'm not even sure I know the rules. However, the Winter Classic (played outside, sometimes in the snow) is a very cool event, and if it's on wherever you are, it wouldn't kill you to take a moment to appreciate it.

NEW YORK RANGERS vs PHILADELPHIA FLYERS - Jan 2, 1pm (NBC)

As a side note, it would also be good if you were socially aware of the status of Sidney Crosby. He's the kid who scored the gold medal goal in overtime for Team Canada in the Vancouver Olympics. The rest of the time, he plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Read this, and then know that since that was written, Sid returned to the ice, got two goals in his first game back, and now is out again with 'concussion like symptoms' although he hasn't done anything that should cause them. Well, anything other than normal hockey things.

Sid's 24 years old, he's the best hockey player in the world, he's the face of the NHL - and he basically hasn't played in a calendar year. Kind of like Peyton Manning... except that he's 24, not 35. I can't help wondering if we'll be watching an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on 'what might have been' in a few years. Sadness.


** NCAA FOOTBALL **

BOISE STATE
Boise State, the 7th ranked team in the nation, wasn't picked for any of the "real" bowl games, so they're stuck playing on Thursday December 22 at 8pm, the SAME TIME AS THE COLTS CRAP MEANINGLESS STUPID EXCUSE FOR A... Blah. I don't know who they're playing, and I don't care. I think they lost two games in two years by a total of 6 points or something like that, and this is their reward.

All I have to say: Keep your eye on quarterback Kellen Moore. He's going into the NFL draft after being largely overshadowed and under-appreciated his entire college career. Sometimes... just sometimes... that is the perfect recipe for a "WHERE DID THIS GUY COME FROM" scenario.

UCLA vs ILLINOIS - December 31st 3:30pm
Both of these teams have already fired their coaches after mediocre seasons. Why are they playing in a bowl game?

WISCONSIN vs OREGON - January 2, 5pm EST (ESPN)
The Rose Bowl! This should actually be an entertaining game. And the Ducks are famous for having killer uniforms.

STANFORD vs OKLAHOMA STATE - January 2, 8:30pm (ESPN)
The Fiesta Bowl! Our last chance to see Andrew Luck before he enters the NFL draft and probably turns my fandom into a tense and nauseous experience for a few months.

Andrew's dad, Oliver Luck, played in the NFL for Houston. Oliver Luck took over for Archie Manning. Archie Manning is Peyton Manning's dad. Dizzy yet? Okay, let's keep going.

A lot of people expected Andrew Luck to skip out on school and go to the NFL draft last year. From what I read, Andrew actually called Peyton Manning and asked him for advice - and apparently Peyton told him to stay in school. Maybe because it was the decision Peyton made back in his day. Maybe it was because of the NFL lockout. Who knows. Either way, now Andrew's looming like a storm cloud over Peyton's scary neck surgery recovery efforts, and every time I watch Stanford I feel like an adulteress.

When Peyton Manning played in his last bowl game for Tennessee, he got blown out of the water by Nebraska. If the same thing happens to Andrew and Stanford in this game, I won't be able to handle to spooky-cosmic-linkage.

(Note to self: Write Santa a new letter, asking him to give me an open mind and thick skin to handle the impending soap opera.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Kyle Orton

Every sports fan knows who 'THAT guy' is on their team - the guy they blame when things go wrong, whether it's really their fault or not. I have many fond childhood memories of my father yelling at the television: "Brad, you bonehead!"

My dad's 'THAT guy' was Brad Miller, a player on Purdue's basketball team in the mid-1990's. Brad was good. Brad is still good (he's been in the NBA since 1998, and played for Team USA twice). Didn't matter. My dad loved yelling at Brad.

My first 'THAT guy' was Travis Dorsch, the kicker for Purdue's football team my freshman year. One of my fondest college memories is of sitting in the student section, waiting for Travis to punt out of his own endzone, and hearing the guy behind me scream, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TAKE THE SAFETY!"

I don't remember why we blamed everything on Travis back then, but we did. It was a joke we shared as a student fanbase. I even had a large lecture class with Travis that year. And you know what? He set the curve. Brilliant, all American academic guy who is currently working on his PhD. He was drafted in the 4th round of the 2002 NFL draft, right after David Garrard. DAVID GARRARD! Our 'THAT guy' kicker was drafted directly after quarterback David Garrard. Shocking.

Travis went to the Cincinnati Bengals just in time to make way for our new 'THAT guy' at Purdue: Kyle Orton. A Nebraska fan from Iowa, almost exactly a year younger than me, he had the audacity to attempt following in the footsteps of Drew Brees, patron saint of Purdue Quarterbacks. No pun, just fact.

Kyle was my truest of true 'THAT guy' players. We went through most of our Purdue careers together. We moved to Chicago at the same time. I feel we share a special bond, even though we've never met.

But here's the thing with 'THAT guy' - generally, he's better than you give him credit for.

Drew Brees's best year was the 2000 Rose Bowl year. The Boilers reached 9th in the national rankings, Drew was drafted by the San Diego Chargers, and his wild ride to winning Super Bowl MVP as a New Orleans Saint is well documented (and properly dramatic). Drew is dynamic, Drew is exciting to watch, Drew is a vocal and classy leader. We all love Drew.

On the other hand, Purdue fans wince a little when the Kyle Orton era comes up because we all immediately flash to the same moment in time: The 2004 Wisconsin Game.


Two side points:
* The caption below this video on YouTube says "Purdue has never been the same since." And that is 100% true.
* I was at this game live, so I'd never seen the way the announcers colored on the telestrator; enough time has passed for me to appreciate the hilarity. Nice work, guys.

But did you notice Purdue's ranking in the scorebox? They were ranked 5th in the nation going in to that game. I remember the 'experts' saying that if they'd won, they probably would have been ranked 1st. I also remember the 'experts' saying that if they won, Kyle Orton would have been a Heisman Trophy Candidate. I laughed really hard at the time. I also laughed really hard when I heard Kyle was entering the NFL draft.

Kyle was taken in the 4th round, after Alex Smith (who was considered a complete and total bust until he met Jim Harbaugh earlier this year), Aaron Rodgers (who is adorkable), and Charlie Frye and David Greene (who I don't think are in the league anymore).

Orton started as a rookie for the Chicago Bears after Sexy Rexy Grossman was injured in the preseason. I could not have been more delighted, drinking in every game like one of those people who watches auto racing just for the crashes. But Kyle played well enough as a rookie to get the Bears to the playoffs - then they shoved him aside for Rex, who hadn't played all year. And they lost in the first round.

Kyle played off and on for a couple more years, always doing better than I expected, but never well enough for Bears fans to forget the other quarterbacks on the roster.

Then the Jay Cutler thing happened.

The Bears traded Kyle (plus their jewelry and all of the spare change in their couch cushions) for cranky, petulant Jay Cutler. At that moment, Kyle Orton ceased to be my 'THAT guy' and I became perhaps his biggest advocate. For the first time, I saw a favorable comparison between Kyle Orton and Drew Brees. Drew had been tossed aside by the San Diego Chargers. He landed in New Orleans, found a perfect fit with the team/city/coach/system, and THRIVED.

I wanted Kyle to do the same thing. Reinvent himself in Denver, find somewhere he could focus on his strengths instead of his weaknesses for a change. I remembered the things he's done well over his career. For example, I was at Purdue's Bowl Game in Orlando after the 2003 season, where Orton dislocated his thumb. I remember how the crowd (including me) ROARED when he came back into the game, gritting it out and leading Purdue on a come-from-behind drive to force overtime.

He's not Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. He's not flashy, particularly marketable, or inspiring to watch. But he's tough, and he can play. As someone who's spent my share of time expecting him to fail and clamoring for his backup, I've learned he's better than the alternative, in most cases. But we never see it, even if it's right in front of us. Why is that? What is it about Kyle Orton that makes our eyes dart around, looking for ANYWHERE ELSE TO GO?

How many of us have experienced something similar in our professional lives? Something about our workplace stunts our performance. We clash with a manager. We aren't in a system that knows how to use us properly. We don't have the opportunity to meet our full potential and we digress into apathy. The formula for success is the same in any walk of life - you prepare as much as you can, but you still have be the right person in the right place at the right time to reach EXCEPTIONAL.

Would Tom Brady be 'Tom Brady' if he'd been drafted in the 2nd round by the Oakland Raiders instead of in the 6th round by the Patriots? Would Peyton Manning be 'Peyton Manning' if he'd gone to San Diego instead of Ryan Leaf? We can speculate, but we'll never know for sure.

Your average quarterback has four (4) years, and Kyle's already nearly doubled that. He's not my 'THAT guy' anymore. For a few minutes it was Curtis Painter, but for now, the position is vacant.

All of that being said - I will be cheering HARD for Tim Tebow this weekend. If only Tim and Kyle could have somehow played together.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Zusak Scale

When I was in high school, I had a drama teacher named Mr. Zeis who taught me two valuable life lessons:
1.) Don't let anything break the illusion for your audience.
2.) Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

A few months ago, I went on a Markus Zusak kick, and ever since I've been trying to figure out how to explain what sets his work apart. His use of language is a little different, the way he evokes emotion and swings you around from laughing to crying within just a few words is a little different... You don't "read" Zusak - you "experience" him.

I was toying around with an acronym, something like the Zusak Illusion Experience Scale (Z.I.E.S), and that dyslexically brought me back to my drama teacher (Zeis).

That's when it clicked: It's not about labeling a book as "good," or deciding whether or not you "like" it - I'm talking about evaluating those special few books that you develop a relationship with, that are so real that "reading" isn't an accurate enough verb to describe your interaction.

For our experiment, I'll be grading books on a scale of 1 to Zusak, with the Zusak level reserved for the most "real" illusions, the most "intimate" reading experiences. But please understand, I'm not suggesting that Zusak is the gold standard. Zusak, while great, is flawed. He never spikes the football, so to speak. I wait for that emotional stomach punch at the end (and I WANT it, I have my tissues at the READY), but he never quite gets there.

My goal: Find something that ranks ABOVE the Zusak - something that draws me in more, that maintains the narrative illusion better, and then brings in the closer (baseball analogy) to finish the job.

EXAMPLE ONE: MAUREEN JOHNSON

I recently did a book study on Maureen Johnson's NAME OF THE STAR, which I thoroughly enjoyed but described as "a little too tidy" for my tastes.



This book maintains an illusion perfectly - but it lacked the emotional attachment element. It didn't draw me in as deeply as, for example, MJ's LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE duo. I never had a moment where I was so wrapped up in "experiencing" the story that I ceased "reading" it.



THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE books, on the other hand, sucked me right in. Ironic, because NAME OF THE STAR is in First Person, which is supposed to feel more intimate, more immediate. THE LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES are in Third Person Past Tense, but I was doubly invested and properly weepy at the end of both of them. For me, they provided the richer experience. I demand Disney/ABC Family/Hallmark make these into movies immediately. ABC Family could use THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE as part of their "25 Days of Christmas" series that starts every year around Halloween.

THE POTENTIAL ZUSAK HEIRESS

I bring this up because when I originally got wrapped up in The Zusak, I hypothesized that Tahereh Mafi's book SHATTER ME might land high on the Zusak scale - similar writing style, similar ways of playing with words, similar use of humor, etc.

I struggled to study SHATTER ME the way I've studied other books because, for the first time, I "know" the author. I've followed The Mafi for awhile, I've exchanged emails and Tweets, I've read her blog for ages - I had a good feel for who she was, how she wrote, and what was important to her LONG before I got my hands on her book.

At the core of everything Tahereh writes, you'll find a cheerleader, rooting for everyone to reach their full potential, to never give up, to see the best in each other and in themselves, etc. That's her mission:
"SHATTER ME is a story about hope, about love, about looking within ourselves and finding both light and dark, strength and weakness, and struggling to be more than the labels pressed upon us by society. it's about a girl trying to find herself in a world trying to tell her who to be."
Her core mission innately gives her writing extra depth that is often lacking in other narratives. I love reading Tahereh Mafi.

SHATTER ME is absolutely the kind of book you "experience" more than "read" - I'd call it innovative in the way she takes Zusak's sensory wordplay to the next level (including crossed out segments to show you what Juliette is trying not to think). I think Tahereh is going to be a major player in the industry. I think she's going to be a star. However, as many kudos as I give her for this project - I know she can do better.



SHATTER ME explodes emotions in a raw, almost messy way, which I think is good. Juliette has gone most of her life without being touched, so when she DOES experience the sensation of closeness, you feel the explosions it creates in her nerves and in her brain. But it gets kind of repetitive. Some may accuse it of crossing the "purple prose" line.

I've never felt closer to a character than I felt to Juliette - not only was the story First Person Present Tense, but the language is so sensory that I FELT what she felt, and the strikeouts let me into her head so deeply that I even knew what she was NOT thinking. If that makes sense. Subliminal and brilliantly executed.

What I don't understand is that Tahereh failed to take advantage of what I think is her greatest asset - her amazing sense of humor. SHATTER ME is heart wrenching - there is a lot of emotion sloshing about. But I don't remember ever laughing out loud. Once Tahereh integrates her playful side into her work, she'll be in a class by herself. Of this I feel confident.

SHATTER ME is a strong debut and worth a read, if nothing else so that you're braced for the inevitable copycatting that is sure to follow. The Mafi is only going to get better. Can't wait for the second installment.

AND NOW FOR A BRIEF TANGENT/RANT

I don't read jacket flaps. I do my best to avoid spoilers. I want to experience stories without anything getting in the way. What bugs me about jacket flaps (or other summaries): They tell you what you're going to read before you read it.

We live in a society of increasingly shorter attention spans. Things move quickly. It seems to me that the way these book summaries are put together is kind of old fashioned, and may even become problematic for a publishing industry already trying to keep up.

In short: I don't want to read a summary on a jacket flap, and then spend the next 150 pages learning what I already know. This dampens the experience and makes me less likely to enjoy the product.

SHATTER ME (in the hard cover US version) is 338 pages long. I read through about page 120 before I re-learned everything I learned by just reading the jacket flap. That's one-third of the book! Am I the only one who thinks this sort of "production" issue is a problem? Isn't there a way to write the jacket flap/summary so that you can jump right in to the story without the duplication? Wouldn't that be better for the reader, better for the art, better for the business?

Lord knows I understand how difficult it is to write a "hook" but this doesn't seem sustainable - it's like watching a movie trailer that shows you a summary instead of a tease. How invested would you be, as a viewer? How much would your attention wander?

This is by no means a knock on SHATTER ME (and should in no way reflect poorly on Tahereh, who I'm sure had nothing to do with it). This book was highly anticipated and spoilers were hard to avoid. SHATTER ME was good on its own. It wouldn't take much to hook a reader. At least in this case, I feel they over-hooked and it kind of broke the illusion for me. I'll bury my head deeper next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

NFL Thanksgiving Cheatsheet for Nonbelievers

You still don't like football? Or maybe you kind of like the idea of liking football, but there aren't enough hours in the day and it's low on your priority list? That's cool. But this Thanksgiving in households around America, football WILL be on. Wouldn't you like to know enough to participate in family conversations? I mean, otherwise, they'll probably start prying into your personal life - wouldn't it be MORE fun to redirect the conversation toward the personal lives of Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers?

Well, you've come to the right place! Here is the DEFINITIVE 2011 NFL THANKSGIVING CHEATSHEET, your one-stop source for easy talking points so you can spend your Thanksgiving holiday in peace... and maybe even accidentally enjoy yourself in the process.

GAME ONE - NOV 24 12:30EST - FOX
GREEN BAY PACKERS v. DETROIT LIONS


Topic of Discussion: The defending Super Bowl Champion Packers look even better than they did last year; they are the only undefeated team left in the league.
Correct Response: If you were at MY family's Thanksgiving, you'd make some remark laced with dark humor about how the Indianapolis Colts are the only team in the league who has not yet WON a game this season. Then we'd all exchange knowing glances because it's all part of the plan.

Topic of Discussion: Is Aaron Rodgers the best quarterback in the league?
Correct Answer: He must be, if he can get away with the Championship Belt Touchdown Celebration. When he first did it, we all feared it would be his undoing because QBs are supposed to be infinitely cool, you know? But now, if he stopped, we'd all be sad. The goofiness is part of dear Aaron's charm. Never change, Aaron. Hang on to your inner goof.

Topic of Discussion: Detroit Lions play every Thanksgiving - isn't it nice that they're actually kind of good this year?
Correct Answer 1: Yeah, maybe they'd be kinda good every year If-Matthew-Stafford-Stays-Healthy.
Correct Answer 2: Yeah, they should have started playing dirty a long time ago. Did you see when Matthew Stafford almost ripped that guy's head off? Or when the Lions' Coach tried to fight the 49ers' Coach after the game (sorry, can't find video)?
Correct Answer 3: Just shout "MEGATRON!" every time Calvin Johnson catches a pass. I don't care how good Green Bay's defense is, CJ will catch something.

GAME 2 - NOV 24 4:15EST - CBS
MIAMI DOLPHINS v. DALLAS COWBOYS


Topic of Discussion: Yikes... the early game should be a lot more entertaining than this one.
Correct Response 1: Miami may be friskier than their record shows. I mean, I don't think so, but Sports Guy does (Quoth the SportsGuy: "I’d take the Jags and Dolphins right now over every other mediocre-or-worse team. Vegas isn’t totally believing in their overpowering notsobadness yet. I believe."). They had the chance to Suck for Luck and didn't take it. So...
Correct Response 2: The Cowboys are awesome at collapsing when they shouldn't. ANYTHING could happen!
Correct Response 3: Did you know that Tony Romo just married into the GOSSIP GIRL family? And that earlier this season he played with a PUNCTURED LUNG!? That's almost as good as Chris Simms' ruptured spleen! (Note: Wait until after eating for this discussion.)

Topic of Discussion: Miami needs a new coach and a new quarterback.
Correct Response 1: Why aren't they Sucking for Luck? WHY!?!?
Correct Response 2: Sports Guy muses that there may be a "Curse of Dan Marino" brewing. This is the only logical conclusion. In other news, I'm growing increasingly curious about this Case Keenum person. I haven't paid this much attention to college football probably ever.

GAME 3 - NOV 24 8:20EST - NFL NETWORK
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers v. BALTIMORE RAVENS


Response 1: Awww, the coaches of those two teams are brothers! Thanksgiving is a holiday for family togetherness!
Response 2: Awww, the brother who's in his first year of coaching has a better record than the brother who has been coaching for a long time! Awww!
Response 3: You know, this could be the best game of the day. I'm sure the 17 people who get the NFL Network will really enjoy it!

OTHER SUGGESTED TOPICS OF CONVERSATION IN CASE YOU GET DESPERATE
(Note: The following is a list of topics you can throw out and then watch everyone else debate/discuss whilst you enjoy a cocktail or hot cup of java. It is my gift to you this holiday season, and you're welcome.)

Topic 1: What do you make of this Tebow thing?
Note: This may take the rest of the day. That's why I suggest using it first.

As for me, I still love me some Kyle Orton. But, I watched the end of the Broncos/Jets game last Thursday. There's only one way to describe what happened: Everyone knew what was going to happen, and they simultaneously knew that it was impossible. It takes awhile for those two things to reconcile in a feeble human mind. Accept the power of the Tebow can't be explained and just enjoy the ride. Oh, and only watch the end, it's more fun that way.

Topic 2: The so-called "Dream Team" Eagles have only won about one-third of their games.
Note: This may be a touchy subject. Michael Vick's time in prison on charges related to dog fighting will probably light at least one fire in any household. But, by Thanksgiving weekend, he may be benched due to injury in favor of Vince Young... and that's an entirely different train wreck.

Topic 3: Did you guys see how Manchester City destroyed Manchester United a few weeks ago? That was hilarious, NO ONE saw it coming, right!?
Note: Enjoy the blank stares and silence as people try to figure out what language you're speaking.

TEAMS SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS NFC:
* 49ers, 49ers, 49ers. Yay Coach Harbaugh, my beloved Captain Comeback!
* Bears. I'm dreaming of another Bears/Packers playoff game. I'll include that in my letter to Santa next week.
* Giants. Someone's gotta carry on the Manning name, and I'm solidly in Eli's corner.
* Lions. They've been backsliding and got exploded by the Bears last week, but that doesn't change the fact that they're in playoff contention on Thanksgiving weekend for the first time since Lewis and Clark went in search of the North-West passage. And by the way, for those of you who like curses and conspiracies - read this and then wonder if the Lions may be in the process of finally exorcising their demons. We could be witnessing history, like the 2004 Red Sox.
* Carolina may not be surpassing expectations, but rookie quarterback Cam Newton is. I apologize for that cookie remark I made in my preseason cheatsheet. My husband has started Cam in every fantasy game this season and has only lost once. Testify.

TEAMS SURPASSING EXPECTATIONS AFC:
* I was going to say Buffalo, but they seem to be saying, "Move along, nothing more to see here." Too bad, I like being reminded that their quarterback has a degree in economics from Harvard.
* I was going to say the Houston Texans because they were simultaneously expected to thrive and self-destruct (per usual). Now their quarterback is out for the season with a broken foot, but they're in a quagmire of a division (with Colts, Tennessee, and Jacksonville), and anything could happen. Mostly, there is evidence of yet another curse. In case you couldn't tell, I've been researching these things lately.
* Bengals. Bengals Bengals Bengals. Andy Dalton, rookie QB who has hair the same color orange as his helmet. Congrats, Cincy, the Bengals are suckering people in with a young and likable team. Whenever anyone calls Dalton the 'Red Rifle' I think of Ralphie from A Christmas Story.
* Denver Broncos and the Tebow experiment. With Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers once again underachieving, there is a playoff spot up for grabs. I'm going to include a Tebow playoff game in my wish-list to Santa, too.

SUPERBOWL PREVIEW

May I remind you once again that the Superbowl is Feb 5, 2012 in my beloved Indianapolis? I'm asking haters to keep an open mind about this. I wanna go.

Most likely Superbowl Contenders NFC:
* Packers (Again.)
* Saints (Looking a bit weak, but I love the idea of Drew Brees coming back to Purdue territory.)
* Giants (Eli Manning = The Official Little Brother of the Indianapolis Colts.)
* Bears (Jay Cutler is from Indiana, Chicago is an easy drive away, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels would enjoy taking in more Illinois $$.)
* 49ers (Wildcard, would be an amazing Cinderella story, and would bring Coach Harbaugh back. Many a fan in Indianapolis would turn out in support because he was our guy, just prior to Peyton Manning.)

Most likely Superbowl Contenders AFC:
* Patriots (Ugh, seeing Tom Brady hoist the trophy amidst the confetti on Indianapolis turf would probably stop me from eating for at least 10 days. Even if there's fudge.)
* Steelers (Meh.)
* Ravens (This would be kind of interesting because Indianapolis "stole" the Colts from Baltimore, at least in the eyes of Baltimore fans. I was three years old, so I reserve judgement and embrace the blue. Either way, those Baltimore fans with long memories would probably get a deep sense of satisfaction from winning in Indy. And maybe then everyone could let it go? No? Okay.)

Long story short... looks like I'm rooting for the NFC this year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Study - The Name of the Star


Question: Who is the best author you've never read?

Until a couple of days ago, my answer was Maureen Johnson. MJ is something of a power broker in YA publishing. She goes everywhere and knows everyone and has her finger on the pulse of everything. Somehow I managed to follow her on Twitter for months without reading any of her books.

I had several books to choose from. Several. So far I've only read two, but it seems to me that she needs to be included on the list of "Must Reads" for anyone who wants to be an author when they grow up.

HOW TO SPOT A REAL PRO

MJ does her homework. She owns her story, she is the expert, no one knows more about her characters, her world, or her plot than she does. That sounds kind of obvious, like that should be the case with all authors, right? But it's not. Haven't you ever watched a movie/TV show where you checked out because you knew something was just "wrong"? It flicks you in the back of your mind, breaking the illusion?

Several months ago, I did a series of studies on how to properly "refresh" a story. You have to accept that your readers will go into your version with a set of expectations and some common knowledge. A lot of these principles apply for MJ's THE NAME OF THE STAR, because at its core, it's a presentation of the Jack the Ripper cannon. In order to own this story, she had to know more about the Ripper than we did. She had to know London better than we did. She had to build the rules of her world, drag us into it, and then run every word past our eyes without us hiccuping and saying, "Wait, that's not right..."

Still not impressed with the amount of legwork she had to do in order to pull this off? If you follow her on Twitter, you'll see how often she travels to London, how much time she spends in libraries, what sorts of things she studies, how many times she's been on the Ripper tours, etc.

She's a New Yorker creating a main character from Louisiana with Southern cultural attributes. She's creating supporting characters from London with various British cultural attributes. She's fluidly including their proper speech patterns - and I purposefully included the word "proper" in that sentence because I love how the English use the word "proper".

I first noticed the use of the word "proper" on TOP GEAR, my new favorite BBC show. (It's about cars. I care nothing about cars. I still love this show.) They say things like, "You look like a proper orangutan when you concentrate," and "That little Fiat is properly quick." Through Grantland, I listen to a weekly English Premier League (soccer) podcast, and those Great Brits say things like, "Our guest today is a proper comedian, a proper broadcaster, a proper many things."

There were a few instances where MJ used the word "proper" like that, and I laughed out loud because it was perfect. And I laughed even more when the main character Rory used it in her inner monologue because it's been proven by science - Americans who stay in England too long become aware of their accents and pick up the Queen's vernacular. (I count myself among the guilty.)

In short, MJ's a proper pro.

DOING ALL THE LITTLE THINGS RIGHT

When I study a book, I keep a notebook handy. About three-fourths of the way through THE NAME OF THE STAR, I reviewed my notes and noticed they were all positives. No questions, no instances of "huh, this didn't seem quite right," no irritating cliches or things that struck me as lazy.

The story hops seamlessly from a first person narrative (high school girl) to very short third person accounts of adults who play various roles in the Ripper mystery. I love this format, perfect in structure and execution.

And although this is a creepy ghost story involving graphic murders, it still has MJ's voice and sense of humor throughout. There's a maturity in her style; she knows when to be serious and when to be fun.

She includes lines like "Something about her suggested that her leisure activities included wrestling large woodland animals and banging bricks together." She adds "Auntie MJ" wisdom and depth by describing fear as a "snake with no venom." Whether it's Tumblr, Twitter, or paper and ink, MJ is MJ in style and substance.

WORLD BUILDING

I already covered the London details, but more than that, THE NAME OF THE STAR takes us inside a private British boarding school that felt a little Hogwartsian. Rory emphasizes how average the school makes her feel, how adult it felt (it seemed more like college than high school to me). As monotonous as it can be to read YA book after YA book in cookie-cutter high schools, this was fresh. She took me somewhere I hadn't been before. I drank in the details, so excited to be in a new and interesting place.

Also, it was nice to see the American/English educational and cultural juxtapositions - something I haven't necessarily seen in other stories where American kids end up in foreign countries. It wasn't central to the plot, it wasn't a "fish out of water" story - it was a series of small details that made it real and three dimensional.

EFFECTIVE USE OF SIDEKICKS

When I studied ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD, I was a little harsh on Cas's sidekicks, stating that I liked the story better when Cas was on his own without all the extra noise. In NAME OF THE STAR, Rory was enriched by her "sidekicks" - and the more were added, the happier I was.

First we met Rory's roommate "Jazza." Her real name is Julianne, but in another example of attention-to-detail, MJ gave her an Englishy nickname. Soccer player Wayne Rooney is called "Wazza." BBC host Jeremy Clarkson (Top Gear) is called "Jezza." I've not heard a girl nicknamed this way, but I wasn't surprised - in fact, I was delighted.

Jazza is just a nice, considerate, "good girl" character. She wasn't exactly a stereotype, but she was exceedingly normal. I felt like I'd met a dozen girls like her. In a good way.

We also have something of a love interest in Jerome, an adventurous prefect and burgeoning journalist. He's sharp and resourceful, and wants to be where there's action. Not necessarily to be a part of it, but to make sure he sees what happened. Very journalist-like.

Later, the book takes a forty-five degree turn - again, in a good way. "Boo" joins the cast, a London girl with the kind of accent that finishes every sentence with "yeah" and a question mark ("I was in Mumbai vising family, yeah?"). I could hear it so clearly, and in my mind popped an image that was part "Bex" from the Gallagher Girls series and part "Tai" from the movie Clueless, only of Indian heritage.

For reasons I can't quite explain, my favorite character was Stephen, a stoic boy of indeterminate age (between 18-22) whose personality you almost pick up subliminally. I'm going to have to re-read to figure out how that happened. Somehow, Stephen slid through my brain without me realizing he was there, but of all the characters (and there are several), he's the one who ended up following me around after the story was done.

BUT HERE'S THE THING...

I've developed a serious writer crush on Auntie MJ over the past week, but nothing is perfect. THE NAME OF THE STAR is a phenomenal example of technique and precision. It's so tidy and put together that there's nothing for an amateur like me to criticize. Even the title is brilliantly clever.

But about two-thirds of the way through, I wrote in my notebook, "Why am I not falling head-over-heels in love with this?" On paper, this book was written for someone like me. I'm obsessive with British culture and always have been. I did a semester in London, living in a three-person room in the same general area as Rory. I've even been on the Ripper tour (by the way, if you haven't seen the movie FROM HELL, you probably should).

I wondered if the issue was just with me? Like ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, where I was looking for resonance and the timing was just off? If I read it in 2005 instead of 2011, would it have taken up residence in my brain HUNGER GAMES style? Or would I have liked it better if it weren't so perfectly executed, maybe if the edges were just a little raw? Or was it that the end got a little monologue-y? I mean, the bad guy kind of did an impression of a Bond villain...

All of these questions bothered me, so I grabbed 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES, MJ's older book about a girl who goes on a scavenger hunt around Europe, piecing together the last years of her beloved aunt's life. Comparing 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES to THE NAME OF THE STAR is interesting because you can see how MJ's craft has evolved over the last six years (give or take).

THE NAME OF THE STAR is probably a better book, but 13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES made me "properly" weepy, evoking all of those emotions I'd been expecting but missing. I leapt right into the recently released sequel, THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE, but had to shut it down. I wasn't ready.

I'm not sure what else to say. I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel to THE NAME OF THE STAR (I think she said it's the SHADES OF LONDON series, or something to that effect). I think I'll like it more the longer I let it marinate, and I'm saving THE LAST LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPE for a Christmastime treat.

Friday, November 11, 2011

When You're Accustomed to Winning

As I've said before, I was an Indianapolis Colts fan long before it was cool. And as for what's happened this season - I have only myself to blame. (Note: Never ask a question unless you're sure you want to have it answered.)

Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback ever to play the game, may never play again as a result of multiple surgeries on his neck. I'm not ready to eulogize him just yet (after all, he's our GUY and hopefully always will be), but this begs the question - what do you do when a winning streak ends and the ground crumbles beneath your feet? When you don't get the job, or all of the appliances in your kitchen break at the same time, or your car needs jumper cables three mornings in a row, do you:
* Embrace losing with a plucky sense of humor (see: #SuckForLuck)?
* Take it seriously and have an angry meltdown (see: just about any sporting event ever lost in the city of Philadelphia)?
* Just sit there. Stunned. Asking, "What just happened?"

If I'm honest, I'm the one who sits there stunned with my mouth hanging open as my IQ plummets about 30 points and my teeth turn to cotton. I'd rather be the one with the plucky sense of humor, like the guy who set up the #SuckForLuck twitter campaign.

For the uninitiated, #SuckForLuck is named for college quarterback Andrew Luck. He and his Stanford degree are expected to be the first pick in the next NFL draft. The first pick goes to the team in last place, so the joke is that bad teams are trying to be their worst in order to "win" him. At least... we hope it's a joke (the Colts have been losing the most, so they are currently "winning").

There's a lot to like about Andrew Luck. For one, he decided to stay in school and finish his Stanford degree. He was coached by former Colts quarterback Jim 'Captain Comeback' Harbaugh. So-called "experts" say that he's the closest to a "sure thing" they've ever seen. They "know" he'll be a star in the league. And I'll admit - I enjoy watching him play and can't help rooting for him.

I've always been rather loud about my Colts fan-hood. Now that the Colts have gone from constantly winning to constantly losing, everyone wants to ask me about the Andrew Luck/Peyton Manning controversy. Do you stand by your guy, or go after the shiny, tantalizing young gun in hopes of ending your losing streak for the next 10-15 years?

My Answer: I wish things could go back to the way they were - with Peyton healthy and Andrew Luck buried in some high school somewhere not bothering anyone, not making us daydream like philandering bigamists, cheating on our franchise player while he struggles back from a rather scary neck injury. It's like one of those stories where the hero is sent off to war, gets captured and is assumed dead, and then bravely returns home to find his lovely wife cuddling in an intimate way with their younger, capable, fiery neighbor.

The good thing is that now I know what kind of loser I am. Now I have clear eyes, a full heart, and ample opportunity to practice losing until I know how to do it properly.

I thank and salute you, anonymous Miami Dolphins fan who started #SuckForLuck. Thank you for blurring the lines between winning and losing and reminding us to look on the bright side. There's a practical life lesson here. Like a 1980's sitcom.

Thank you to evil genius @thatdjgallo (writer for ESPN's Page 2) for suggesting the Colts draft Andrew Luck and then bury him on the bench, just so no one else can have him. (This is going to be my new answer to the Manning/Luck controversy question.)

And thank you most of all to @PeytonsHead, the best thing on Twitter since @MayorEmanuel fell into that unfortunate vortex. If we learn nothing else, friends, we must learn this: When you are accustomed to winning, and then you begin to lose, you know who your true friends are. Don't take yourself too seriously, stay calm, and carry on. Nothing lasts forever.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Study - Anna Dressed in Blood


One of my most fondest memories of college is of retreating with a group of about forty girls to a farm for a late-night bonfire, telling ghost stories and generally trying to freak each other out whilst eating s'mores.

That's what drew me in to the first half of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD - that urban legend feel of a short, creepy story with no definitive answers or explanations. The kind that make your eyes dart around when you cross an old, lonely road late at night, or make you sit straight up in bed when you hear a mysterious thump in the attic. The kind that remind you that the unknown is the most thrilling part.

THOSE FIRST FIVE PAGES

Anyone who's played the query game knows that (generally) just the first five pages are submitted to agents when a novel's being "shopped." To anyone getting ready to enter the game, may I recommend these particular first five (okay, it's actually seven) as an example to follow.

First Line: "The grease-slicked hair is a dead giveaway - no pun intended." To be honest, not one of my favorites. But, to be even more honest, I don't get very excited about first lines. I know, I know, everyone who knows things emphasizes how important it is to have a catchy and memorable first line. They rarely do much for me, so I tend to think them over-rated. Moving on.

This first chapter is essentially a self-contained story, the kind we would have told around that bonfire. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a sufficient amount of mystery to prevent unsatisfying resolution - a ghost story needs unanswered questions in order to be scary. Here's a snippet:

The locals say that they beat [the hitch-hiker] up pretty good by the bridge and then dragged him back into the trees, where they stabbed him a couple of times and then cut his throat...

[Now as a ghost] He's perfectly pleasant. A nice guy to ride with. But when we get to that bridge, he'll be as angry and ugly as anyone you've ever seen. It's reported that his ghost, dubbed un-originally as the County 12 Hiker, has killed at least a dozen people and injured another eight. But I can't really blame him. He never made it home to see his girl, and now he doesn't want anyone else to get home either.



Our hero, Cas, tracks these stories, hunting the ghosts to "kill" them, forcing them to move on to... wherever ghosts go when they die.

In seven short pages we've set the premise, built the rules of the world, heard Cas's great voice, and had a ghost story about a hitch-hiker with a beginning, middle, and end. We feel like we know exactly what to expect now, and we'd like to have more.

YAY! FIRST PERSON BOY!

Cas has a great storytelling voice. He uses words like "kerfuffle," which I didn't even know how to spell. It has an oral history feel to it, even though it's in present tense. You feel like you're listening rather than reading. However, I can't find an audio book version. This is nearly criminal.

I sat here looking at my Blogger for half an hour trying to think of which young, male actor who would be perfect for the audio book job, but this just reminded me how old I am. Someone, please put in the comments the correct answer to this question so I'll be able to sleep tonight. Thank you.

To help you cast the voice, here's a sample of Cas's wisdom:
* "They'd made the decision to pick up a hitchhiker, and they weren't about to let themselves be scared into going back on it. They rationalized their fears away. People shouldn't do that."
* "I always hate the sunlit towns, full of newly built developments with double-car garages in shades of pale eggshell, surrounded by green lawns and dotted with laughing children. Those towns aren't any less haunted than the others. They're just better liars."
* "I need to get people talking to me, so I can ask them questions that I need answers to... I always look for the queen bee. Every school has one. The girl who knows everything and everybody. I could go and try to insta-bond with the lead jock, I suppose, but I've never been good at that.... So I scout the halls until I finally see her, smiling and surrounded by people.... Everything I want to know, she could tell me. Which is what I hope she'll do."

Cas is comfortable in his own skin. He's not worried about what he looks like, or what he can't do. He's confident in what he CAN do, he understands his role in the world, he's brave and he's smart. He doesn't try to be anything he's not. I love him for that, and I wish more characters went in these directions.

THE MAIN EVENT

The primary plot involves Cas investigating a ghost story in Thunder Bay (Canada), which the locals refer to as "Anna Dressed in Blood" - an unsolved murder mystery.

I loved watching Cas piece together the story like a detective, relating the anecdotes, figuring out what's true and what's legend. Even better, when Cas tracks down "Anna" and sees her for himself, Blake (our worthy author), manages to build drama and tension without it being cheesy or overdone.
It's her. She's flickering in and out like an image on a computer screen, some dark specter trying to fight her way out of the video and into reality. When her hand grips the rail she becomes corporeal, and it whines and creaks beneath the pressure.

Anna is descending upon me, coming down the stairs without taking any strides. Her feet drag horribly along like she can't use them at all. Dark, purplish veins cut through her pale white skin. Her hair is shadowless black, and it moves through the air as though suspended in water, snaking out behind and drifting like reeds. It's the only thing about her that looks alive.

She doesn't wear her death wounds like other ghosts do. They say her throat was cut, and this girl's throat is long and white. But there is the dress. It's wet, and red, and constantly moving. It drips onto the ground.

Well played, Blake. The building cadence of a good ghost story, and it feels like it's being spoken aloud. Again... why isn't there an audio book!? Normally I wouldn't care, but this one is screaming for it. GET IT DONE!

THE GOOD AND BAD RELATIONSHIPS

I said earlier that the first half of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD felt like a oral, bonfire ghost story session, and that's what drew me in (I read it on Halloween, by the way). However, somewhere in the middle, it took a bit of a forty-five degree turn and started feeling something more like I AM NUMBER FOUR - and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

I preferred Cas on his own, without all of the sidekicks. My favorite relationship in the book was between Cas and his semi-evil cat.
"He's half Siamese and has that breed's trait of choosing one person to adore and saying screw off to all the rest. Not that I care. I like it when he hisses and bats at me, and the only thing he's good for is occasionally seeing ghosts before I do."


After I read that section, I wrote down in my notebook "Watch relationship with cat - potentially SUPERB." And it was. Fantastic.

Cas also had an interesting tension with his deceased father. We figure out very early on that Dad was killed by a ghost, leading Cas to become what he is, but the tension is drawn out a bit longer than I preferred. Seems like we wait artificially long to find out what exactly went down. That's being pretty picky, though, if I were Blake's critique partner.

My bigger criticism would be for Carmel (the Queen Bee of the high school) and Thomas (the nerdy psychic outcast). Carmel reminded me of Sarah Hart, and Thomas seemed like a Sam Goode doppelganger. Their tagging-along added a bit of a cartoony element, almost Scoobie Doo-ish, breaking the tension of what had the potential to be a truly scary ghost story.

And then there was Cas's interactions with Anna... never fully wrapped my brain around that, either.

IN OTHER WORDS...

Remember when the movie IRONMAN came out? In the first half of the movie, Robert Downey Junior was kidnapped by terrorists and had to invent the Ironman suit to escape. In the second half of the movie, he's playing around with improving the suit and starting to fight baddies. It's divided into two halves, and most people I've talked to enjoyed the movie, but liked the first half better than the second.

Lots of people like this book. I like this book. It's fun to read, and it has a nice look to it (just look at the font - the FONT!). But, I liked the first half better than the second.

It's hard to write a long ghost story and hang on to that tension. It's hard to resolve things in a ghost story, because the unknown is what makes it cool. In the light of day, with the mysteries explained, it's not fun anymore and you end up feeling kind of silly that you were ever scared.

But this is a novel, and I guess you have to answer and resolve. Kind of too bad - this might have been a fun opportunity to test those rules JJ Abrams-style, see what we could have gotten away with. That all being said, if I ever see another Kendare Blake book, I wouldn't think twice about picking it up.


CONTEST

If you'd like to win a gently used copy of ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD... and, what the hell, maybe even some Halloween candy to go with it (if you're good), leave a comment below letting me know you want it. Random Number Generator will decide the winner on Monday November 14, open internationally to those aged 18 and older.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Resonance - Hunger Games

What is it about the Hunger Games? It's hypnotic, it sucks you in and you can't escape. I've heard some people say they liked the books, but they had a hard time buying in to the premise. Then again, I've also seen some people scroll through the TV Guide and say, "You know, I can see Hunger Games working on the right network."

Detach yourself from the death and carnage factor for just a minute. And then click here to check out the Grantland Reality TV Fantasy League (like Fantasy Football, complete with competitive scoring system). Please, indulge me. I still have a major crush on Grantland.

If the Hunger Games were a real show, what would the scoring system look like? Grantland already has a solid points scoring foundation in place:

Female Crying: 5 points
Male Crying: 20 points
Saying, “I didn’t come here to make friends”: 10 points
Open-mouth kissing: 5 points per participant
Pregnancy scare: 50 points per sexual partner (and yes, I'm counting it)
Verbal Fighting: 5 points
Physical Fighting: 25 points
Decisively winning physical fight: 25 points
Throwing drink in someone’s face: 5 points
Winning elimination challenge: 10 points
Winning final challenge: 50 points

We'd probably have to add some show specific scoring options:
* Receiving a silver parachutes with gift attached: 25 points
* Figuring out how to use received gift: 50 points
(You think this is too high? Remember, not everyone gets gifts, and when they do, they get exactly what they need precisely when they need it. Potentially a dramatic shift in advantage.)
* Stealing a parachute gift from someone else: 150 points
(We never saw this happen, but we didn't see what everyone was doing at all times. It had to happen at some point - right?)
* Winning a fight with any type of mutt: 10 points
(Same as winning an elimination challenge; anything more would lead to score inflation.)
* Killing an opponent: 50 points
(Same as winning final challenge; technically, it's kind of the same thing.)

Note: We'd also have to figure out a way to get points to Foxface for hiding in the cornucopia and making off with her backpack unscathed. Also, how cool would it be to be an actress and have a character named "Foxface" on your resume?

Maybe we just wait until the movie comes out and score Katniss and Peeta based on what makes the final cut?

And speaking of the movie, a friend of mine is already planning a pre-movie tailgate. She's talking about making little silver parachutes, attaching them to Starbucks gift cards, and releasing them around the theater during the movie. I love this idea. I wish I'd come up with it myself. WE'RE ALL SPONSORS!

But back to our more "scholarly" discussion on resonance. I think what makes The Hunger Games work are the stakes - the 'unbelievable yet believable' nature of the interaction between these human beings. The contradictions are part of what makes it ring.

* Katniss is a celebrity in poverty, cold-hearted but kind, tough but vulnerable, wounded by loss while she's doing the killing.

* The Capitol is rich in materials but poor in spirit. They worship youth and beauty but relish watching its destruction in the arena and its distortion within their city (remember all of their fashion 'enhancements'?). They purge in order to feast. The things that made them powerful were also their undoing.

* Haymitch is a winner, but a loser. He's detached, but still invested. He practices self-preservation emotionally and recklessness physically.

* And then there's Peeta.

Peeta is the one honest character that you can take at face value - and yet, he's the accomplished liar, smooth talker, showman. The one most willing to sacrifice himself, and yet the one who is continuously resurrected. The soft, sunny dandelion who demonstrates unconditional love (and then, shockingly, unconditional hate).

When you read these books, you feel the rawness of the contradictions. There is so much emotion, it's exhausting. The pacing is perfect, so you can't put it down, and you get lost because you see the realness (which, again, we all play 'Real or Not Real' both with this book and within it).

Proposed Rule of Resonance: Resonance comes from emotion, and emotion comes from stakes.

We hear over and over again from industry professional that they want to feel the stakes, and there's something more at stake here than just obvious life and death. It's that 'something more' than resonates.

Friday, August 12, 2011

NFL Preseason Cheatsheet for Nonbelievers

You don't like football? Or maybe you're a casual observer who only watches the Superbowl (for the commercials)? That's cool. But do you feel like everyone around you is talking about the NFL and you have nothing to contribute to the conversation?

Well, you've come to the right place. Here is my 2011 NFL Preseason Cheatsheet, providing you with a few easy talking points so you can spend your valuable Sundays in other pursuits.

Topic of Discussion: The Philadelphia Eagles as "The Dream Team"
Correct Response: "Call me when they sign Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. By the way, did you know Michael Vick is left-handed?"

Topic of Discussion: Any combination of the words Denver Broncos, Quarterback Controversy, Tebow, and Kyle Orton.
Correct Response: "Tebow's fun to watch, but he's not quite ready yet. I'm on Team Kyle, even if his ceiling is low and clearly visible."

Topic of Discussion: "I think this thing with Peyton Manning's neck surgery is a bigger deal than the Colts are letting on..."
Correct Response: Nod sadly. Dismiss premonitions of the Patriots winning the Superbowl on the Colts home field in February.

Topic of Discussion: Jay Cutler's knee, Jay Cutler's toughness, Jay Cutler's broken engagement to K-Cav from The Hills.
Correct Response: "Why would a guy who hates the media date a reality TV personality, how did Jay Cutler become a sympathetic figure, and what's he going to do with that 5.2 carat engagement ring!?"

Topic of Discussion: Any team west of the Mississippi River not named the San Diego Chargers.
Correct Response: Avert your eyes and go about your business.

Topic of Discussion: Fantasy Football draft
Correct Response: "Josh Freeman wins football games!" (Just repeat this over and over until whoever you're talking to walks away)

Topic of Discussion: The Houston Texans as this year's 'sleeper' or 'team that turns things around'
Correct Response: Nod happily and know that this person is a sucker. Try to figure out how to use this information to your advantage.

Topic of Discussion: Any team from Ohio, Carolina, or Florida (other than Tampa Bay).
Correct Response: Shake your head sympathetically and make plans to bring fans of these teams cookies sometime around the middle of October. If the fans in question are in Carolina, don't bring fig newtons.

Topic of Discussion: The possibility of a team moving to Los Angeles
Correct Response: Avoid eye contact with any fans of the Minnesota Vikings and/or Jacksonville Jaguars until the conversation turns in another direction.

Topic of Discussion: Brett Favre
Correct Response: Make jokes about the possibility of him moving to Florida because that's what old people do... and then declare yourself a genius when he joins the Miami Dolphins around week 4. Oh, and see if you can work in the whole "taking his talents to South Beach" thing - people love that, especially in Ohio!

Topic of Discussion: Donovan McNabb
Correct Response: (Despite all the joke possibilities, I'm afraid to say anything. I don't want to incite his mom's wrath.)

Topic of Discussion: The New Orleans Saints
Correct Response: Swoon and casually point out that this is a contract year for Drew Brees.

Topic of Discussion: Chad Ochocinco going from Cincinnati to the New England Patriots
Correct Response: (Honestly, every time I read that sentence, it leaves me speechless. I'll get back to you on this one.)

Topic of Discussion: Teams that should be good this year.
Correct Response NFC: Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Philly Cheesesteaks (oops, I mean Eagles)
Correct Response AFC: New England Patriots (ugh), New York Jets (also ugh), Pittsburgh Steelers/Baltimore Ravens (they often seem interchangeable to me), and for the love-of-all-good-and-holy-things, maybe the CHARGERS will finally live up to their potential (but I kind of hope not because that would be inconvenient for me).
Correct Bonus Response: Indianapolis Colts should be contenders if Manning can get rid of whatever he's named that pain in his neck (I'd like to submit 'Philip Rivers' for consideration.) If they make the Superbowl, they'll be the first team to play for the championship on their home turf since the NFL started the location rotation. BELIEVE IN BLUE!

Topic of Discussion: Teams that might surpass expectations (always fun to root for if you're a neutral observer).
Correct Response NFC:
* Detroit Lions! (Been showing flashes of potential when their young quarterback is healthy, and their defense is frisky.)
* Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (Josh Freeman wins football games!)
* San Francisco 49ers! (New coach Jim 'Captain Comeback' Harbaugh will be interesting to watch, especially since the 49ers kind of slacked off last year. Also, I've loved the Captain since he quarterbacked the Colts during their miracle season when I was, like, 12 years old.)

Correct Response AFC:
* Tennessee Titans! (Introducing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck - he has no hair at all, and I enjoy his work.)
* Houston Texans! (Alright, fine - I'm a sucker - but they've got to put it together one of these years... right?)
* Buffalo Bills! (So many heartbreaking near misses last year - it wouldn't take much to surpass expectations.)


Season begins for realz on Sept 11th (with, I anticipate, much 10-year commemoration and ceremony, with the teams from New York, DC, and Pennsylvania playing each other). One last friendly reminder - this year's Superbowl will be in my beloved INDIANAPOLIS on Feb 5, 2012! Start planning your parties now.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Seventh Mile - The Art of Finishing



Repost from a few months ago over at InkSlingers.

I recently conducted some statistical analysis on my life and discovered a phenomenon I've termed "The Seventh Mile."

Memorial Day weekend I participated in the Soldier Field 10-mile Run (for which I acquired the shiny new t-shirt I am currently wearing). I trained for months prior to the race (following a program), and got to a place where I could consistently run 6.5 miles any time I wanted. Slowly, but always with a predictable result.

You know what happened the day of the race? When I reached that seventh mile, my body assumed I was done. That's what I'd trained it to do - go about seven miles and then stop.

A year ago, I started working seriously on my second manuscript. When it was about two-thirds of the way finished, I decided to set it aside for an idea that I thought would be more marketable. Now, that third manuscript is also two-thirds of the way done.

I'm nothing if not consistent.

And I'm in danger of training my writer-brain into a rut - a repeatable result of coming up short. There is something to be said for practicing the art of finishing.

I watch a lot of sports and study a lot of athletes. When you look at your Kobe Bryants and Peyton Mannings, the experts always want to talk about how they prepare, train, maintain control and relish the clutch moments - because they are READY for them.

I want to pattern my writing life after them. Study the competition, do fundamental exercises, study the craft and the business... I want to be the best conditioned, the most prepared, etc so that I can avoid that seventh mile trap in the future.

During the run, I walked that seventh mile. I nursed my fatigue and my side stitch and put one foot in front of the other. When I got to mile eight, I felt better. And when I hit mile nine, I could actually SEE the finish line and struggled to control my adrenaline so that I didn't run too fast and completely destroy myself.

The point is, I finished. It wasn't pretty, but I made it. You don't get style points for your process - just your finished product. One keystroke at a time, I'll give it a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if at first it sucks, I will practice the art of finishing.

What would you like to practice "finishing" today?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Surviving the Chicago Power Outage of 2011

I learned a new word this week: ‘derecho’ — a short, violent windstorm with sustained straight line winds that can exceed 100 mph.

Here's how it went down, Sports Guy retro-diary style.

DAY ONE: MONDAY

It started out much like any other Monday - me vaguely resembling Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne as she arrives for her 8am class, hiding behind dark sunglasses and wobbling just a little in her shoes. I didn't really sleep the weekend before, as I was "finishing" a manuscript, so I wasn't necessarily as alert as I might ordinarily be. Mostly, I was wondering why I'm incapable of acquiring a taste for coffee - because I really, really wanted some.

Pulling into the parking lot at the day job, imagine my surprise as I removed my dark sunglasses and discover the sky is black. I mean BLACK.

"Oh crap." I'm pretty sure I said it out loud, grabbing my laptop bag and bookin' it into the building. The power was flickering, so I made the brilliant decision to NOT take the elevator (I'm telling you, people - stick with me in a crisis and you'll be just fine).

By the time I made it to my cube on the third floor, holy hell had been unleashed outside. No thunder, no lightning... I'm not sure there was even much rain. But there was WIND (hence, derecho - cited above).

Like, 20 minutes later, it was over. The power at the day job didn't go off permanently, but all the networks were down, further irritating me since I can't make myself drink coffee.

Once we finally got internet restored, I got an email from a friend asking me if we had power... because apparently most of the area did not. I brushed it off and replied, "Whatev. Nothing we can't handle, we live in CHICAGO! Remember how we owned the Snow-Down-Throw-Down blizzaster last winter? Please."

And then I left work to drive home and realized just how bad it was. Trees down everywhere, powerlines dangling. Most of the traffic lights were dark, and the few that were still working were just flashing red. The sun was shining, temps in the mid-90s. Wacky.

I got to my house and optimistically clicked my garage door opener. Nothing. And shortly thereafter, I realized I didn't have a key to the house and dissolved into manic laughter on my front porch. Classic.

I texted my husband and the Intern, letting them know the situation, and then set out on an hour-long cruise, just looking for somewhere to pass the time. But, the local businesses were all closed, dark. All of them... except Culvers. Somehow beautiful, delicious Culvers had weathered the storm (or had at least been given priority restoration).

I danced my inner happy dance and went inside, planning to chill out until someone could let me into my house... but Culvers was standing-room only. Cellphones dangled from every available outlet. The poor kids behind the counter looked like they wanted to kill themselves, party due to the insane crowd and party due to a cheese shortage. So I did what any humane person would do in my situation. I said, "Hey you! Get up out of the fetal position and make me a brownie batter concrete mixer! We're having an adventure, get in the spirit!"

Husband arrived home, pointing and laughing at me before unlocking the door. It was getting dark, so we pooled every scented candle we owned and lit them all. There was a near miss incident with the lighter, but in the end, we managed not to set the house on fire. Hashtag winning.

We inspected the house and found minimal storm damage. The only casualty... well, let's just say the tiny farm may have met its match.

*moment of silence*

I hopped on my laptop to give my manuscript some finishing touches. My husband and the Intern passed the quiet hours by listening to Tina Fey's "Bossypants" audio book on a DROID X phone (product placement). My husband turned to the Intern and said, "This is how our ancestors used to live."

DAY 2: TUESDAY

Alright, so the early bedtime, dark and quiet didn't make for a restful night, but no problem. The power was still out, so I collected my things to go shower in the gym at work.

I repeated my Julia/Larry Crowne routine (only this time in my jammies). As I put myself together for work, I was reminded of that time in college when I was between apartment leases for a week, so I snuck my laundry into the gym locker room a few pieces at a time and washed them in the sink. I fear no shame.

The day progressed as normal, except everyone at work was sharing war stories.

"I was driving during the storm, it was so scary! We all pulled over and all these trees started falling - I never even made it to work. I tried, I dove for hours, but all the roads were blocked, so I gave up and went home."

"I called the power company yesterday to report the outage, and they said we could get updates on the progress of the restoration online, as well as tips for how to handle the heat. You know what, autorecorded voice? I CAN'T LOG ON BECAUSE I HAVE NO POWER! What? You want me to follow you on Twitter? I'd love to... except my cell phone is dead and I can't charge it BECAUSE I HAVE NO POWER."

Fun day.

Got home, power was still out. Cleaned out the rapidly deteriorating situation in the refrigerator and freezer (yay trash day being conveniently timed). Did some laundry in the sink, still feeling nostalgic, and read Anna and the French Kiss by vanilla candlelight. The Intern tried to decide what "Wedding Day" smelled like as he took his candle downstairs to his little basement apartment.

It was still an adventure. Sort of. Okay, it was getting old, but at least it wasn't as hot. And I was starting to wonder where all of these scented candles came from. Most of them had never even been lit before. The house smelled like everything. Evergreen vanilla caribbean salsa pumpkin pie lavender cinnamon spice... I think it smelled like Overwhelming. Maybe now my house will smell like a Yankee Candle store forever.

Then, around 11pm, the Intern sounded the SOS.

Okay friends, if you learn nothing else from me this week, let me give you this one little tip that we should have been smart enough to know, but somehow escaped us.

If you're city-folk like us, even when your power goes out, you still get running water. But please keep in mind, while the magic forces that bring the water into your house may be operating as normal, they are not necessarily the same forces that drain the water out. Proceed with caution.

The Intern's basement apartment was taking on water and we had to go bail him out. I regretted my sink laundry trip down memory lane.

"We'll all laugh about this in a few days... or weeks... Right guys?" The Intern is adorable when he's optimistic. The basement carpet went squish. Squish squish. Ugh.

We did what we could with towels and rags and flashlights and the Intern's delightful smelling 'Wedding Day' candle. Yeah. It was kind of a long night.

DAY 3: WEDNESDAY

Woke up to bright sunshine and mid-70's temperatures. Beautiful day, but still no power. Realized I was getting shockingly good at putting in contacts in the dark, and vowed that my next house shall have windows in the bathrooms. Collected my things for another jammie-Julia walk into work.

Morale was low. Started communicating in terse, clipped phrases. Drowned sorrows in donuts and chocolate milk purchased in the work cafeteria. Yes, I am supposed to be training for a 5K in August to support my local library, who's asking?

Taking full advantage of the work internet, I caught up on what I've been missing. "Women's World Cup USA vs France is today? Screw work, I'm watching the game down in the cafeteria because I deserve it!"

And then I realized I'm a wuss.

Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, the Tsunami in Japan... I started to realize how bad things were NOT here in my fully functioning office. How about a little self-awareness and perspective, huh? Remember (again) how we schooled that blizzard a few months ago (except for the poor people stuck on Lake Shore Drive... but we're not supposed to talk about that anymore). We are CHICAGO! WE CAN DO THIS.

Then I overheard my cube neighbor: "Everyone I know who calls the power company for updates, they're saying they'll get power back at about Noon on Friday. Next Monday, worst case."

WHAT !!?!

The bad man had just punted Baxter and I was in a glass case of emotion.

Later that night, the Intern suggested we make smores by roasting marshmallows over all our candles. Husband thought this was a great idea, except we didn't have any marshmallows. Or chocolate. Or graham crackers. Or pointy sticks. But other than that, he's all for it.

I curled up with a coconut lime candle to spend some more time with Anna and the French Kiss". Thoroughly enjoyed that book. Eerily reminiscent of my freshman year of college.

DAY 4: THURSDAY

Husband wakes me with the words, "I don't know if you noticed, but still no power."

We sat on the couch and stared blankly, not particularly motivated to go to work. Basically, we were transitioning into the acceptance phase.

Husband: I think this is probably just how it's going to be from now on.
Me: Yup.
Husband: We should probably buy ourselves presents.
Me: I'm going to start with a donut.

When I got to work, there was a little less Julia in my walk, but still plenty of Indianapolis Colts jammies. And I got there kind of on the late side, so there were plenty of people to see me. Don't care.

The news tells me that of the 800,000+ people who lost power on Monday, all but about 100,000 have power restored. I think I know each and every one of those 100,000 people. It was cool to be powerless. Made you part of the in-crowd.

The dude reading the news on the radio was down with it, too. He said, "If I don't have power restored by midnight tonight, I'm gonna buy a horse and buggy and be done with it."

Embrace the coolness of powerlessness!

The Chicago area is becoming divided - there are haves (who have power) and have nots. And though the have nots are getting all the attention, we're getting snippy, even amongst ourselves - as though trying to one-up each other with our suffering.

"I lost the ENTIRE contents of my deep freezer, and it's so nasty that I won't even be able to clean it until it freezes again!"

"Oh yeah? At least you've had running WATER all week!"

After work, the Husband and I had our small group for church, just like we do every Thursday. Our hosts had power, so we thought we were all set. Except, about an hour later when we realized that the Intern had no house key. I texted him to warn him to hang out somewhere for a bit, and he responded quickly, already in the house.

That's right, folks. The Intern broke into the house. He's becoming more and more like @MayorEmanuel's Carl the Intern every day. I'm not sure whether I'm proud or frightened.

After one more brief candle episode, we decide it's time to call it a day. The take away: candle wax is surprisingly easy to clean off of most surfaces.

DAY 5: FRIDAY

Whereas yesterday the powerless were cool and interesting, Friday we were pitiful creatures. When my "have" co-workers saw my wet hair, they smothered me with hugs and plopped a giant chocolate chip cookie on my desk. Woooot breakfast.

All in all, it really hadn't been that bad. Except for, you know, mouldy food in the refrigerator, and issuing water-wings to the Intern, and just general exhaustion associated with the break in the "normal," not to mention living in constant fear of burning down the house. Apart from all of that, now things are getting dicey.

Mom and dad were supposed to come visit so that we could all go see the last Harry Potter movie. "We always watch them as a family!" my dad reminds me. He never read the books, so he's been waiting patiently for YEARS to find out how it ends. He called the power outage stupid and sent me a frowny face emoticon. I love my dad.

Got home from work, still no power. I went for a walk and that's when I saw them - repair trucks. FOUR of them all the way from Michigan.

WE WERE SAVED!! I <3 MICHIGAN!

I called my dad and told him I was un-cancelling Christmas - our Harry Potter plans were back on! I ran around my house like Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music, flicking switches and putting the squalor behind us. And thus, we survived the great Chicago power outage of 2011 and escaped with minimal damage. By Sunday, it was like nothing had ever happened.

Now, about that Anna and the French Kiss...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The benefits of trying to do something too hard

Have y'all seen Secretariat - the movie about the race horse winning the triple crown? Remember the thesis statement, something to the effect: "We run our own race, Penny; they don't get to decide whether we won or lost."

I thought about that line a lot last week, building up to our infamous ten mile run challenge. We started training in February. We fought through illness, injury, insecurity, bad weather... lots of bad weather. Memorial Day weekend was fast approaching and we knew we weren't ready.

I don't try new things very often. I don't like failing. I despise wasting my time (and I thought trying and failing counted as wasting). But running was something I'd always romanticized. I wanted to try. I wanted to know for sure whether or not I could do it.

And much to my surprise, I wasn't too old, or too slow, or too out of shape. The only thing I "wasn't" was willing to try.

Like I said in my post on Veronica Roth's book DIVERGENT, I learned something about mental toughness - something I'd heard a lot about while watching sports but not really experienced for myself.

Someone who is mentally tough doesn't meltdown when things are rough. When they face failure or rejection, they use it as fuel instead of an excuse to quit. When they are inches from victory, they keep their cool and don't celebrate too early. When they reach the endzone, they act like they've been there before (even if they haven't).

I thought mentally tough people were just born that way, that they had some intangible something beyond my understanding. What they really had was experience. Practice. They'd given themselves the opportunity to grow by challenging themselves. And I hadn't, really.

The secret to mental toughness - to reaching a point where failure isn't so scary and criticism doesn't cut so deep - is practicing doing things that make you uncomfortable. Repeatedly. I think it's really just that simple. Like Roth said in DIVERGENT, you gain perspective as you take risks and face your fears.


When I was training for the 10 mile run, I used a training program. I very, very rarely managed to successfully complete my training sessions. When I was supposed to run four miles, I only made three. When I was supposed to run six, I only made four. I failed repeatedly. I channeled my frustration into determination. I learned to control my adrenaline, to set myself up for success days in advance with hydration and food intake. Slowly, I started to change mentally. And I fell head over heels in love with running.

I didn't care how far I went, or how fast. I just wanted to go. When race day came, I was just happy to be there. The finish line had nothing to do with it. By the way, that picture (above) is of me and "The Intern" warming up before the race started (with Soldier Field in the background).



I did make it the full ten miles. It was much easier than I thought it would be. There was this one amazing moment when I KNEW I was going to make it - the nine mile mark (picture above), with the tall Chicago skyline on my left and Lake Michigan on my right. Soldier Field, the finish line, was a mile in front of me and I could SEE it. I got a huge adrenaline rush and had to remind myself not to be that guy who has the game winning shot right in front of him and blows the slam dunk. Mental toughness is handling both adversity AND prosperity.


And yes, I got my t-shirt. It looks like a soccer jersey and it was totally worth it.

So what do you think, friends? Is there something you've always wanted to do but there is something holding you back? Is there something "risky" you could try to toughen yourself up? What's holding you back? They don't get to decide whether you won or lost, Penny - what do you have to lose?