Love in the Time of Al

I’ll say this right now: this blog post has been rattling around inside my head for a month now. I don’t know why – probably Al is using his mind-control lasers just to make me do it, or maybe Harvery the Wonder Hamster has finally evolved into a great and terrible beast, able to broadcast the thoughts of its master far and wide. But for whatever reason, I have things to say about at least one of the songs off his new Alpocalypse album, so I’m gonna say ’em right here.

First off, let me just say that I think Yankovic is brilliant. For one thing, he’s been producing music consistently for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, which is impressive all by itself. What’s more, as part of that consistency, he produces good work. Parody pop is something that is easy to do very, very badly, and when you hear it, you want to cringe and run away. Bad parodies usually have the cleverness of a room full of elementary school children, and are about as much fun to listen to. But Yankovic is able to take a pop song, find a good hook into the parody, and make it funny and clever and memorable – sometimes more memorable than the song he’s making fun of.

On top of that, he’s done something I know I haven’t been able to do: keep up with the trends in music. I mean, I think a lot of music today blows goats, which makes me feel really old and crotchety, and if I were a parody pop musician, I probably would have hung up my accordion somewhere around 2000. But not Al. He knows what’s hot, he knows what the kids are listening to, and he tackles it with just as much fun and gusto as he did back when he was bleeding Michael Jackson and Madonna dry in the heyday of my youth.

And his original songs sometimes greatly outshine his parodies. He can flip between genres, perform vastly different moods and tones, and has shown over and over again that he knows music better than most musicians performing today.

So that’s out of the way.

There are some really good songs on the new album, and I may come back to talk about a few more in the future. The one that’s been sitting on my shoulder and begging me to think about it, however, is his parody of “Whatever You Like,” originally by rapper T.I. Now I hadn’t heard the original song, but a quick search of the lyrics and the song reveals itself pretty clearly:

Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
We can pop bottles all night
Baby you can have whatever you like
I said you can have whatever you like.
Yeah
Late night sex, so wet and so tight
I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and baby you can go wherever you like
I said you can go wherever you like
Yeah

Anytime you want to pick up the telephone you
know that it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you
If you want it you can get it my dear
5 millions dollars homes drop the business I swear.
Yeah

I want your body. I need your body.
As long as you got me you won’t need nobody
You want it, I got it. Go get it, I’ll buy it
Tell them other broke niggas be quiet

The rest of the song is pretty much in that vein. It’s T.I. telling his young lady how pretty she is, how much money he’s willing to spend on her, and how much he’s looking forward to having sex with her. The video – which isn’t embeddable – reinforces this idea, wherein a fantastically rich young man gives his number to a girl working in a fast-food chicken joint. The video is positively dripping with symbols of wealth: diamond necklaces, a giant swimming pool, a stack of $100 bills, champagne ejaculating all over the place. The message that I get is that this man is so rich that he can afford to keep a girl no matter how much she wants from him, and he’ll make sure that this new girl knows it. Watching the video, I did get the feeling that he was basically purchasing her to add to his collection of pretty things, but that may have just been my biases coming into play.

Now, just for full disclosure: I don’t like hip-hop. Never have. Probably because I’m so white that you could put me through a prism and I’d come out as a rainbow. I’m so white that polar bears tell me to stop showing off. I’m so white that Wonder Bread and mayonnaise constitute “living it up.” Whatever the reason, I don’t like hip-hop, and I think T.I.’s song pretty much exemplifies a lot of what I don’t like about it.

But, to be fair, I only listened to it after I heard Yankovic’s take, and really, T.I. didn’t even have a chance.

Al’s song is an entirely different beast. He keeps the basic flavor of the original, in terms of orchestration and style, but instead of a horny rapper trying to entice a lady into his bed with promises of mansions and buttsex, he turns it into a love poem in the time of the working poor. This isn’t the official video, but it is the song:

The basic story is this: the singer is poor, but despite that, he’s willing to indulge his girlfriend and give her whatever she likes. Unlike T.I., Al doesn’t have very much at all:

Tater tots, Cold Duck on ice
And we can clip coupons all night
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can have whatever you like, if you like
Yeah

Take you out for dinner anywhere that you please
Like Burger King or Mickey D’s
And baby you can have whatever you like, if you like
I said you can even have the large fries, large fries
Yeah

Baby, you should know I am really quite a sweet guy
When I buy you bathroom tissue, I always get the 2-ply
Want it, you can get it, my dear
I got my Costco membership card right here

Yeah you like Top Ramen? Need Top Ramen?
Got a cupboard full of ’em, I’ll keep ’em comin’
You want it, I got it, go get it, just heat it
Dump the flavor packet on it and eat it

In this song, Al really doesn’t sound like he can afford to have a girlfriend. Two-ply toilet paper is a special deal, Top Ramen is a staple food, and large fries is an extravagance. It doesn’t matter, though. He loves her enough to make very real sacrifices to his budget just to make her happy. He’s offering to share his very meager lifestyle with her, with no thought of compensation. The line that resonates the most with me, the one that I find rattling around in my head when I wake up sometimes is this one:

And you can always ride the city bus
Got a stack of tokens just for us
Yo, my wallet’s fat and full of ones
Yeah, it’s all about the Washingtons, that’s right

I don’t know why that verse should be so powerful for me. Maybe it’s because public transportation is often the only thing keeping low-income people from unemployment and homelessness. The city bus, as demeaning as it’s so often made out to be, is freedom. If you can’t afford a car, then that’s the only way you’re going to be able to experience the rest of your city, and he’s willing to share that freedom with her. He’s offering up his own tokens as a dowry to her, making a possible sacrifice of his own freedom in exchange for her love.

This is a theme that pervades the whole song. In nearly every verse, we get the impression that not only is Al willing to spend money on her that would be better spent on himself, we get the feeling that he’s doing so out of a sense of love and selflessness. At no point does he sound bitter or resentful – in fact, there’s only one line in the entire song where he even suggests that she might pay him back for his largess: when he needs gas money to drive her up to see her cousin Phil.

Al’s song is about sacrifice, about giving up his own advantages in order to make another person happy. He has very limited resources at his disposal. If he gave up on having a girlfriend, he might fare better financially. Without her, he might be able to take measures to save money and better his situation. With her, he will almost certainly stay poor. But she means more to him than his comfort, than putting money away for a future where he’s no longer safely employed at Kinko’s, than having a cushion of savings in case his Hyundai should break down. Her happiness means more to him than money, and he’s willing to sacrifice to see her happy.

T.I.’s song is about indulgence. He has so much money that he can throw it away on whatever his girl of choice may like, and it won’t make a dent in his already ostentatious lifestyle. With or without the girl, his life is pretty much the same. In fact, at the end of the video we discover that the whole thing has been a daydream of the girl in question. He gave her a $100 tip, which is lovely, but not his phone number – the key to getting out of a life she clearly wishes to escape. So not only does T.I. not really care about this girl, he seems to either be utterly unaware of the consequences of his actions, or a real cruel son of a bitch. Again, the contrast with Al could not be more stark.

So, in conclusion, whatever Yankovic’s intentions were in recording this song, what he’s made is really a testament to love in hard times, to dedication with sacrifice, something you don’t often see in a lot of modern music. His song is – as many of his parody songs are – superior to the original in every way.

I’ll probably come back to this album later on, as there’s a lot of great music on it. But this one was the one that really wanted to get out.

The Inevitability of NaNoWriMo

Well, it’s that time of year again, one which I’ve blithely ignored for a while now. Time for NaNoWriMo.

Now there may be some of you who are staring at these words in dumbfounded confusion, perhaps pulling at your hair or grabbing your computer screen and screaming, “For the love of GOD, what does that mean?!”

Well calm down, people, and I’ll let you know. Jeez.

It stands for National Novel Writing Month, a project that started about ten years ago with just a few people and now threatens to take over the internet every November. The concept is very simple: Lots of would-be writers plan to write a novel someday. You hear it all the time:

“Oh, maybe when I have more time to myself, I’ll start writing…”
“You know, I just don’t have any good ideas right now, but someday…”
“I really want to write, but I’m just not at the right place in my life right now…”

To be fair, writers are masters at excuses. I’ve heard my friends say that their house is never cleaner than when they have to write something, and it’s really easy to find projects that absolutely, positively must be done before any writing may commence. Reorganize dishes, scrape that black stuff out from between the shower tiles, wax the cat…

Point is: “someday” will never come. It’s better to just do it now, whether you’re ready or not. And that’s where NaNoWriMo comes in.

At one ZimDollar per word, I can almost buy a Tic-Tac!

Your goal, should you choose to participate, is to write 50,000 words of your novel in 30 days. In order to do that, you have to commit to writing every day, creating new content every day, to the tune of at least 1,667 words per day. The idea is not that you’ll bang out a publishable novel by Christmas, but that you’ll develop the writing habits necessary to actually get to the point where you can write a good novel with a shot at being published.

Because your NaNo novel will, in all liklihood, suck. A lot. But it doesn’t matter – the central idea of your novel might serve you well in the future, and you’ll have tangible proof that you can indeed commit yourself to a daily writing habit.

I did it back in aught-two with a theological science fiction thriller, which is still sitting in its Kinko’s binding up on my shelf. It needs a whole lot of work, and if you think writing a novel is intimidating, that’s nothing compared to editing it. I tried again in another year and failed, and for the last long while I’ve just let it go. I just buried that little twinge of shame that overcame me every November. I didn’t participate, and I was ashamed that I didn’t.

This year is different, dammit. I already have a daily writing project over at the Year of Stories, and I’ve managed to keep it going for 160 days. All things considered, that’s pretty damned good, even if I haven’t hit the elusive one-month goal of 50,000 words.

The question, then, is how do I keep working within the bounds of the Year of Stories and still participate in NaNoWriMo? The answer: cheat.

Well, not really cheat. Just massage the definition of “novel” a little bit. Since the goal of NaNo is quantity, and quality has nothing to do with whether you win or lose, I can pretty much keep doing what I’m doing and still shoot for 50k.

I have this t-shirt. You should get one too....

So here’s my plan: I’m going to go for a single, overarching theme that can be divided into five parts – one for each week – and write stories based on that. My first impulse was the classical elements – earth, air, fire, water and aether. Each element gets a week, and the stories in that week are somehow related to that element. I’ll keep looking for sets of five that might lend themselves to this kind of structure, but you get the idea. In the end, I’ll have a thirty-story anthology that is, if all goes well, over 50,000 words.

This will require a little more work than usual, of course. I need to plan some ideas out in advance, and try to work on things when I have more than two hours before I go to bed. But if I can pull it off, it should be a lot of fun.

Wish me luck, and keep an eye on the story blog!

UPDATE: I’ve run across a really good concurrent project to dive into: The 30 Characters Challenge. While it seems to be more aimed at comic creators than writers, we wordsmiths are certainly open to join. So I figured, why the hell not? I should be coming up with at least 30 characters this month….

I Win at Google (kind of)

My story is the top result if you do a Google search for “bruce wayne tony stark bidding against each other charity auction” – ha-HA!

The story was inspired by a writing prompt left by John Scalzi while he was off in Germany promoting his books: “Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark meet up at a charity function. They are bidding for the same item. What is it, who eventually wins it, and what do they say to each other after the bidding is done?”

So I wrote this story, Masks Off, about just what would happen.

And no, it’s not that I go to Google and actively put searches like that in just so I can find places where I rank as number one – it was on my WordPress stats page, and I just had to take a look. So whoever you are that entered that search, Thank you.

It’s the little things….

And then the killer raised the knife and aw, to heck with it….

I’m working on an entry for an upcoming Worth1000 contest – Everyday Instructions – and I found that about three hundred words into what I was writing, I just kind of… stopped. I still think the idea works, but what I was doing with it just kinda bored the hell out of me. I was working on it prior to a meeting, and – get this – I didn’t think about it once during the meeting itself.

I know, right?

So from this, I have devised a Creative Rule: if what you’re doing bores you, then do it a different way.

Some ideas are harder to work out than others, no matter how easy they may seem at the time, and it’s easy to go at them in the wrong way. If you’re lucky, or if you’ve been doing this kind of thing long enough, your subconscious will give you a little nudge to tell you that you need to get the map out of the glove compartment, or at least ask the guy at the next gas station. Metaphorically speaking. Basically that nudge will tell you that what you’re doing just isn’t doing it for you, and you need to do something else.

Just as recognizing that nudge isn’t easy, what’s even harder is figuring out what it is you have to do next. Do you make a few tiny tweaks and hope they do the trick? Do you scrap everything and start at the beginning? Scrap the project entirely? Shave your head and go live in a mountain temple somewhere and change your name to something like Three Bulging Oxen? That’s something you have to figure out for yourself, and it can be an unpleasant process of trial and error. You might waste time on an idea that’s just never going to work for you, banging your head against the wall for what seems like forever. Or you might give up on an idea only to have a flash of inspiration months – even years – later, and lament that you’ve lost so much time that you could have spent working.

Sooner or later, all you can do is trust your creative instincts and hope for the best.

Of course, it helps if what you’re doing is for your benefit only. The Worth1000 contests are entirely for my own entertainment [1], as are the writing blog and the review podcast. No one’s paying me to do them, and the only person who is going to punish me for missing a deadline is me. I’ve set the rules for each project, which means that I can change them, if I want to or need to. Because as much as I love my legion [2] of adoring fans, the only person who can decide whether I write every night or record every week is me. That means that I’m free to make these kinds of creative changes if things start to get stale.

To their credit, though, the chair really is comfy.

It’s different if you’re at work, of course. I can’t just upend my EFL curriculum at school if I get bored with it, because all the students are supposed to cover the same material at the same time. If word gets out that Mr. Gladis’ classes are easier/harder/radically different from what other kids are doing, then I’ll get called up before the Grand Council of English Teachers and beaten with a rod until I repent, signing my confession with ink made of my own blood and tears.

At least that’s what I think will happen. I have no evidence that it won’t.

Anyway, it was a good thought to have, and a good one to keep in mind. I am a slave to my Pride sometimes [3], which makes changing a decision rather difficult. Giving myself permission to alter the deal – or alter it further, if necessary – is something I need to get more practice doing.

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[1] Although there is a bit of ego tied into it by now: I’ve entered into seven writing contests so far, and I’ve placed in the top three in all of them. To miss one – or to fail at getting in the top three – is becoming less and less acceptable.

[2] Note: May not actually be a legion.

[3] All the time.

Sit, Milo, sit. Good do- SIT, DAMMIT!

Never let it be said that I’m not fair.

After receiving a torrent of requests [1] following the Cooper post, I figured I’d visit the other side of the pet equation in my house and tell you a little bit about Milo.

The Boyfriend got him from a breeder in Kyuushu a few years ago, and was very excited with the prospect of having a cute little pug puppy to spend his days with. Of course, the cute little puppy would eventually grow up to be a proper dog, but that was expected and even in Japan they can’t make dogs that don’t age. I went with him to pick up the pup at Itami airport, and helped get him used to his new home at The Boyfriend’s apartment. And he was just the cutest little thing, but puppies always are.

Now some of you – and I know who you are – might be asking “Why a pug?” I can’t say for sure, really. I do know that a small dog is really the only option for an apartment-dweller in Japan, and there aren’t that many breeds of small dog that aren’t completely obnoxious. While pugs may not be the prettiest of dogs [2], they fall pretty low on the actual obnoxiousness scale.

Most of the time.

Anyway, I helped name the dog, which I think was a good move on The Boyfriend’s part. I’ve never been impressed with Japanese pet names. For some reason, a lot of people go with food names for their dogs, which I’m not down with. Or, god forbid, just “Wan-chan,” which is pretty much the equivalent of calling your dog “Doggie” for the rest of its life. I pulled up a baby name site and started plowing through ideas one after the other, and Milo just seemed to fit.

A little bit about him: He’s about four years old now and he’s a good dog, as dogs go. He obeys commands – most of the time – and generally behaves himself. He plays with Cooper (or “is played with” by Cooper, which while being accurate is also the Passive Voice, and we know how writers feel about the Passive), loves to go on walks, and sits on the couch no matter that I really think he shouldn’t. But, then, he’s not really my dog – he’s The Boyfriend’s. Whoever cleans up the poo, after all, is the one in charge.

He’s really clingy, which is something that is normal for pugs – he’ll be sitting under my chair and I’ll get up to get a drink. He’ll jump up and go with me. Then I go back to my chair, and he’ll follow me back. A few minutes later, I have to get a snack, and he’s up and with me again. Then we go back. Given his druthers, Milo would never let either one of us out of his sight. Not quite sure why this is – maybe it’s a breed thing, or maybe he’s just a little neurotic. Either way, I do wish he would just relax sometimes.

Oh, and he sheds. Dear gods, does he shed. Oh, and whenever anyone rings the doorbell? He freaks right the hell out. We’ve tried to break him of this little quirk, but he’s having none of it, which pretty much fits his personality. He’s willing to play along and be The Dog up to a point, but there are some things for which Milo simply will not stand. Visitors, other barking dogs – and children. This is where he and I really are of like mind. Neither of us likes the sound of children’s voices raised in joy. Or any other emotion. And then there’s the snoring. But he’s learned to put up with that by now.

All in all, though, Milo is a good dog, and that’s coming from someone who has never really been a dog person.

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[1] Okay, just one. (a)

[2] And they’re not. Buggy eyes, wrinkles all over their face, there’s a lot that can go wrong with a pug. Blame the ancient Chinese.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

(a) from inside my own head

How to inaugurate a new blog? CATS!!

After all the work I did setting this place up, I almost didn’t want to touch it. You know, everything is in its right place and all pretty and stuff, and I had the feeling that whatever I put up next would just detract from its immaculate perfection. I thought my blog might become a museum piece, a gallery of past thoughts that were visible, but unsullied, much like a sofa covered in plastic.

But NO! That’s not how we do things around here, dammit. Blogs are living, breathing, sweating things and they should be made to live, dammit – LIVE, no matter that they’re not always picture-perfect or in tip-top shape. They need to be scuffed, battered and knocked around a bit from time to time so that visitors who come to read it know that there really is someone on the other end who’s just barely keeping up with life, much like Lucy in the chocolate factory. What’s more, the imperfection of the blog should keep the blogger from worrying too much about having perfect content. I mean, sure – I’d like every post to be glimmering with wisdom and philosophical perfection, but as you have probably already guessed, that ain’t always going to happen.

So, how to damage something nice in the cutest possible way? Only one creature in the world knows how to pull that off: Cats.

Meet Cooper. He’s a cat we found as a stray. Well, The Boyfriend found him, and called me out to see if there was anything we could do about this adorable little moppet that may or may not involve bringing him home and adopting him. Which, of course, we did. He had some early veterinary adventures, not the least of which was discovering that he had high levels of feline coronavirus. This nasty little bug could be nothing, or it could lead to painful, unpleasant death. So far, we’re at the “nothing” stage, and I’m doing everything I can to make sure it stays that way.

He’s got an uncanny internal alarm – he knows damn well when feeding time is, and will do his utmost to wake me up at 5 AM regardless of whether or not it’s my day off. The bastard. He feels the need to supervise when I get dressed in the morning. I get out of the shower and there he is, waiting to make sure I don’t eat my socks or wear trash bags for underwear. We finish that off with a little scratch the tummy / bloodletting session, which he enjoys immensely. And if I’m late going to bed at night, he’ll come out and start complaining until I get off the damn computer and get my act together.

He usually sees me off in the morning, and knows when I come home, running to greet me at the door… and then, for some reason, he tries to escape. This is a new thing with him, and it’s not nearly as adorable as he thinks it is. This might be because we’ve had a couple of Cockroach Events in the apartment recently [1], which seems to have convinced him that there are interesting things outside which must be investigated. Previously, his only experience with outside was vet visits, which really aren’t things that he should want to seek out, thermometers in the butt and all.

He’s probably the most laid-back cat I’ve ever known. Most cats have a “no-touch” policy with certain body parts – feet, belly, perhaps, that little spot right at the base of the tail – but not him. When I clip his nails he just lays there and enjoys it. When I want to rub his belly, he has no problem with it. Unless it’s part of our morning scratchathon ritual, which I see as the price of being a cat owner. But you can pick him up, carry him around and he doesn’t much care. His favorite perch happens to be my shoulders, which actually is as adorable as he thinks it is.

They made me promise this picture would never see the light of day. I lied.

He gets along well with our dog, Milo. If by “get along with” you mean “thinks it’s fun to smack around.” It’s all playing, really, and much like kids playing hide and seek, there’s a safe zone – Milo’s bed is where the game usually stops, so if he makes it there he’s safe. Unless Cooper isn’t finished playing, of course, and then all bets are off. But other times Cooper will groom Milo and occasionally – very occasionally – they end up sleeping in the same place at the same time. I try to get photographic evidence of this when I can.

So, that’s Cooper, a damn fine cat if I do say so myself.

And now the blog has been scratched up a bit, made – like those gorgeous hand-woven Persian rugs – a little less perfect so that it does not mock God Himself. [2] And now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can feel a little more relaxed about putting other posts up. Because hell, if I’ve already done a Cat Post, then I can only get better…..

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[1] Pretty sure not our fault. The Boyfriend is a meticulous cleaner, which is good because I’m not. But a couple of times now, we’ve had a roach show up, and it drove Cooper nuts.

[2] Stick around, though. There will be God Mockery at some point, I guarantee it.

A Brand New Blog!

My students think they invented this trick.

Because lord knows the internet needs another one of them.

Right now, I have two blogs that are running very nicely – the Labyrinth Library podcast and the Year of Stories. The former updates weekly and is about books, the latter updates daily and is about writing. Frankly, I’m surprised I’ve been doing as well as I have with them.

What I don’t have, though, is a good place to just dump my thoughts. Because I do think, from time to time. And there are some thoughts that hum around in my head and just beg to be let out. Now I do have a LiveJournal page, but over the time I’ve been here at WordPress with the other blogs, I’ve just really come to enjoy using it. So, to that end, I’m moving my operations over here. I’m in the process of finding interesting posts from my LJ and bringing them over, perhaps cleaning them up a bit in the hopes that you enjoy them as much as I do. Over the next couple of days, the archives should fill up a bit, so grab a torch off the wall and take a look around.

If you want to know more about me, check out the “About the Blogger” page, but suffice it to say that my interests are varied, and even I don’t always know what I’m going to come up with. It’s an adventure for all involved.

With luck, once everything is in good working order, I’ll be able to deliver my morsels of half-baked genius to you on a regular basis.

No, no. Don’t thank me.