Career Advice for a Wayward Pop Star

I was driving up highway 17 the other day, top down despite the threatening weather, ZZ Top playing slightly louder than strictly necessary. Inexorably, inevitably, sure as night follows day and a pilot for a terrible television series follows the Super Bowl, my mind turned from Tres Hombres to Britney Spears.

To call me a fan of Ms. Spears would not be terribly accurate. Her music and schoolgirl-slut image is interchangeable in my mind with that of several other forgettable young women. Presented with a song by one of them, I expect I’d guess the correct singer at a rate only slightly higher than random chance. I’m pretty sure she did one called “Not That Innocent” or something like that.

Recently I learned that she was a Mouseketeer, along with another of the interchangeable popsters, and Justin Timberlake. I didn’t even know they still had Mouseketeers. Maybe now they’ll reconsider. If memory serves Britney and Justin were together for a while, but I might be thinking of some other guy.

I’m not a fan, but I think about Britney every once in a while. Somehow she came to define the whole pop-bimbo image, the platonic ideal of sweaty teenage jizz-bait. Then something went wrong, and I heard even less about her than I had before. A year or two ago she tried to stage a ‘comeback’ (it says something about us that someone in their twenties can come back), and I read that it was a disaster. Recently I saw her face on a perfume commercial, so I’m pretty sure she’s not dead.

The things I read about her comeback meltdown were almost giddy in their celebration of the crash of one of the most famous people of the previous decade. While I was never a fan, I also took no pleasure in her downfall. I could have told her that her comeback was ill-concieved, however, had she taken the time to ask me. Britney the schoolgirl cock-tease won’t work anymore. There’s too much history. Under my sage guidance Britney could come back, however — just not as a recapitulation of what she was before.

This is what occurred to me while listening to crunching electric guitars while driving a curvy road. Britney is now in a position to make an album I would buy, and I suspect a lot of other people would too. The title would be Mea Culpa and it would be about her real experiences, the mistakes she made, her lessons learned and her hope for the future. She would tell us of the fear and insecurity and the agents and handlers and the drugs and all the other stuff that can make anyone’s life go haywire. It would be her taking responsibility for her life, and showing the strength to rise up and move on. That would be a cool album.

It would be Britney evolving from a singer into an artist. Does she have what it takes to make an album like that? The artistic power and the courage to open her soul? I doubt we will ever know. Her people would never stand for it.

Making Truffles

The insides and the outsides

The insides and the outsides

There is a thread in my life, a theme that plays out time and again. It is a small part of who I am, a constituent in the definition of ‘Jerry’. This bit of Jerryness is manifest often, and was apparent on the Night of Truffles. Simply put, there is a gap (sometimes quite large) between my image of what I want to achieve and my ability to achieve it.

Take drawing, for instance. On the occasions I have set drawing implement to paper, my mind has produced vast scapes of color and light, form and structure, of a depth that could stir the most jaded soul. What comes out on the paper is, well, not that.

Topping off the Truffles

Topping off the Truffles

And so we come to the task for the evening: painting melted chocolate into the molds, so that it can be filled with different chocolate stuff and then covered with chocolate. It is important to avoid thin spots in the chocolate, lest the structural integrity of the truffle be undermined. Too thick, and the ratio of crunchy outside to smooth inside is lost. The walls of chocolate must reach the top of the mold in even thickness.

Of course, getting the chocolate thickness exactly right isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not that hard. Yet, as I stood there using a kitchen knife to distribute the chocolate, there was always the platonic ideal of the truffle, haunting me, rendering my sorry efforts inadequate. As a result, the light of my life produced about two truffle shells for every one I made.

That's a keeper!

That's a keeper!

Then came the measuring of the inside goop into the shells. “This is really easy,” the beacon who guides my heart said. “You just have to fill them almost to the top, but leave enough space so the chocolate on top can seal up with the sides.” Yes, but exactly how much wiggle room does that leave me? I was a little better with this task, and occasionally even recognized that the tiny amounts of filling I was adding and removing couldn’t possibly make the slightest difference. In my gut roiled the fear of producing a truffle that cracked or leaked or was otherwise unsightly. When you consider how yummy the thing was going to be no matter what happened, it might seem like a lot of worry over very little. Still, the Ideal Truffle loomed, superimposed by my imagination over each still-incomplete confection.

Not All the Truffles

Not All the Truffles

The next phase of production was best done by two people: the chocolate-topper and the sprinkler. I was elected sprinkler and happily so. My sweetie laid the molten chocolate over the tops of the truffles, then handed them off to me, and I sprinkled peppermint and toffee fragments into the still-soft chocolate. I managed to make this more difficult than necessary (each truffle had to have a good distribution of fragment sizes, and the peppermint looked better with red stripes showing), but not debilitatingly so. (Crushing the hard candy had it’s own uncertainties. Fragments too large? Too much dust?)

Eighty-eight truffles later, it was time to start again.

Ultimately, all the worry was for naught; the truffles came out quite lovely, and tasty like crazy. A few even approached the Ideal Truffle.

Life on the Back Porch

The house where I am staying is a nice one, nestled among towering redwoods just north of Santa Cruz, California. I am in Scotts Valley, the place where the Suicide Squirrel Death Cult was first exposed, almost three years ago. (Three years!)

When I arrived home from a fruitless but enjoyable day of driving around, my hosts were both unavailable to entertain me, and the dogs had been exiled to the back. I set up my laptop on the dining table but soon felt the hopeful gazes of the hopeful dogs tunneling into the back of my head. The writing wasn’t going anywhere anyway, so I pulled a beer from the fridge and went out to join the banished canines.

It was a pleasant evening. I played with the dogs for a while and then leaned against the porch railing, appreciating the quiet. Quiet is different than silence, much different, and tonight’s quiet was filled with gentle sound. There is a stream that marks the back boundary of their property (as well as eating away at the property), and the still air carried the chatter of small birds. Sometimes things would rustle in the foliage back in the forest, and the dogs and I would both scan the dense brush for any sign of what might be out there.

The air, while clear, was not empty; countless winged creatures filled the canyon, darting through the sunbeams. One of those insects will appear in a story of mine someday, I suspect. While the multitude darted about in their brownian randomness, there was one, slightly larger flyer whose motion seemed to carry much greater purpose. The bug flew straight up, then after rising a few feet would freeze, wings outstretched red-gold in the slanting sun, and drift straight back down again. Up, down, up, down, the yo-yo bug continued, steering with a long tail to always be in the sunbeams. Hunting? I assumed so. Perhaps while it is drifting its prey cannot hear it coming. It was a very pretty killer.

I looked back in the window to see a cat silhouetted against my laptop screen. One of the feline residents here has an affinity for electronics. I wondered what the cat might be adding to the short story I was working on. (Later I discovered that the cat has actually removed a chunk of the story which it apparently found to be of substandard quality. Hey, it’s only a rough draft! Luckily the four-footed editor did not save her revisions, as I did not agree with all of the changes.

While the smaller dog grew impatient with me just standing there, the larger was content to hang out with me. There was much scratching of backs and rubbbing of bellies. The younger dog sent up clouds of winter fur, which drifted to form a layer, snow-like, on the deck. The birds sang, the creek babbled (happy to have someone listening for once), the land turned it’s back on the sun once again, and all was well.

Miss America is Not the Problem

I am sitting at the Budvar Bar, basking in the glow of writing what might be a really good story. It might not be — a review and edit a few days from now will determine that — but right now I feel good about it. I’m not supposed to be working on short stories right now, but there are going to be days like this.

On the television is the Czech version of Miss America. The Czechs, still being old school, have no problem with the fact that being sexy is an important qualification. They know that people are tuning in to see hot women in small clothes. With that in mind, I considered the Miss America pageant. Its television ratings, apparently, are plummeting, and the event is caught in a hard place where they used to sell it with sex but they’re not allowed to do that anymore. Judging women by their physical appearance is now only done shamefully, in secret. By everyone.

It occurred to me that while the Miss America contest is getting less and less sexy, the US Congress is getting better looking every election. So while we cringe at giving some woman an ultimately meaningless title on the basis of her looks, we will not give a man or woman the power to declare war on another nation unless they look like a professional athlete or a model. It’s not that I care much about the idea of Miss America, I just wish we’d apply that same queasy skepticism where it really mattered.

Been Writin’

The words, they are coming right now. It’s fair to say that I’m writing most of the time anyway, but there’s a difference, sometimes. Eighty percent of the time I’m working on the ninety-five percent perspiration thing. Then there’s the sixteen percent of waking moments that I’m not writing. That leaves only four percent of my life for inspiration.

These numbers skew dramatically from week to week, and there are certainly moments of inspiration when I’m working on the software as well. In fact, recently I’ve really had some good ideas about improvements to JersNW. The thing is, I’m writing right now. The words are there for me, scary in their nakedness.

I wrote a bit a while back, my hypothetical advice to hypothetical students, an essay about writing essays. The message was to write without fear. I was (and still am) pleased with that work. There are times when I put something down that is just a little too close to the bone, sometimes here in the blog, sometimes elsewhere. There is a moment of commitment, and I hesitate. Secrets. Demons. Shame. Rambunctious offensiveness. I tell myself at those times, “Write without fear.”

But that’s not right. What I really mean is “write with courage.” The fear is there. In fact, when I feel the fear, that means I’m getting close to something. No, I never write without fear. I write despite fear. I write because of fear. I look back at my favorite episodes here at muddled ramblings, and they fall into two categories. There are the most entertaining ones, and the ones that frightened me the most to publish.

There are also the gray episodes, the ones I’ve written but pulled back from hitting the go button. Eventually I delete those, and the words are lost until I find a braver moment. In the end I am not as courageous as I’d like to be.

Random Stuff

I’m listening to Saint Low right now. Johnson City. Somehow in that narrative there is something important, something more complicated than love, and it will be lost. They are going to Johnson City, but it feels like the last time. Something’s changed; it’s heavier now. The trip is destroyed by its own significance.

The singer would probably laugh at my interpretation.

I watched hockey tonight, the electric hypnosis coming at times from different hemispheres. During the first intermission of the Sparta/Slavia (rhymes with Yankees/Mets) game, the owner of the Budvar Bar Near Home switched to Rugby. Amazingly (at least to me), one of the teams playing was one that I had seen during the calm part of new year’s eve in Ireland. The game was in its final moments, but is was close and hard-fought. I’m not sure how the players differentiated each other — they were all the color of mud.

Sport, mate. Sport.

There were times when the team with the ball was stalled, and there was a pile. Who gets the ball in such a pile is carefully regulated, but when you can’t move the ball from under the pile, you have to move the pile off the ball. It has been argued that the pads in the NFL actually increase the injury rate, and watching these guys, that’s easy to believe. When the progress of the ball is stalled and the pile is forming people will fly in, head first, smashing into the pile without regard for personal safety. We’re talking about big people, and big hits.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons a man might fling himself at a pile like that. First, he could hope to move the pile. Second, he might take one of the other team off the pile, someone who had good leverage. Third, he might just like to crash into people, without regard for personal safety. I think to play that game there must always be a bit of reason three.

The whistle blew, the game was over, and they unpiled themselves and began shaking each other’s hands. It was an easygoing, natural sportsmanship that limits the cheap shot because you’re going to be looking those guys in the eye when the game is done, and ideally you’ll be buying each other beers down the street. That is sport.

Saint Low is now telling me that I can just walk on by, like she’s no one. I just wish I could tell her how wrong she is.

Soup Boy sent me an invitation tonight, chocolate night at some club or another. I do like chocolate, but the launch time for the festivities is about now, and I am well and truly done for the day. In fact, today is about done for the day.

Hockey. I was pulling for Slavia, the other Prague team, mainly because they weren’t Sparta, easily the Yankees (ca-ching!) of Czech hockey. It was a good game, back and forth, with both sides pulling off some of those passes that have you saying “Wha — wow!” The game went to a shootout. While I will always rail against the shootout in any team sport (reducing a contest that is supposed to be about how a group of people work together to a series of one-on-one events is a disservice to the entire sport, whether hockey, soccer, or whatever), this was an interesting one to watch. It went long, and I noticed a pattern that held. If the shooter glanced down, even for the tiniest of moments, at the puck, he missed. The shooters who never, ever took their eyes off the goalie scored and made it look easy. Nothing fancy, just smack it by the guy.

I’m pretty sure there’s not a useful life lesson there.

After that game we switched to NHL. They play on a smaller surface and at first the skaters seemed unnaturally large. In the past I’ve preferred the North American version of Hockey, but with the recent rules changes they’re caught in middle ground, no longer the hard-nosed pounding game I like, but without the room to be a game of finesse.

Johnny Cash is telling me that it’s the time of the preacher, in the year of ’01; when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun. I’m pretty sure he’s right about that.

My team, the Flames, they still play old-school hockey. (Incidentally, this means they’re doomed.) That is only secondary to why I am a Flames fan; it would be more accurate to say that I am a Flames-fan fan. I’ve already documented it in these pages, no sense in digging up old laundry and all that, but never before and never since have I seen a row of pretty girls neglecting their jobs because they simply could not tear their eyes away from the hockey game.

I wonder what apartments go for in Canmore.

I only had the one Johnny Cash song handy, now Nick Cave is singing about a woman with a dead man in her bed. I’m pretty sure she’s not referring to me. She’s never met me.

There are times, looking out at the city at night, at all the lights, the sound and the motion; it seems busy but for all that there are no people. My window is just another sparkle.

The Transitional Seasons

Piker Press just published a story of mine, a decidedly springtime one. It didn’t feel at all strange to have it come out as the days are getting shorter, however; spring has more in common with autumn than with her neighbors. Lazy, shimmering, devil-may-care summer is too self-absorbed, while brooding, fierce winter will not contemplate another’s voice.

Spring and autumn are the seasons of change, when we feel the passing of time. It makes perfect sense to me that spring and autumn are the times when new fashion lines are revealed, summer and winter are when one coasts along, enjoying or enduring according to personal preference. Excitement comes with uncertainty and change, with the realization that today will not be a repeat of yesterday.

Spring is often compared to birth, and of course Halloween could not come at any other time of year. Autumn is spookier than winter, even though winter is darker. There is a restlessness to the season; leaves skitter and twirl aimlessly on city sidewalks and in fields harvested and prepared against the coming cold. There is anticipation in the air, the certaintly that something is coming, but there’s no telling when it will arrive. It’s the same feeling that horror films so often fail to achieve.

They are the seasons of scent. In autumn there is the smell of decay in the air, leaves piling up, but it is not death, it is autumn passing a note to spring, right under winter’s nose, the down-payment on spring’s vitality. In return spring fills the air with the scent of flowers and the songs of birds — dialogues of reproduction, as spring creates sprawling vibrant life poised and ready to take all the energy it can from summer’s plenty, the return message to her friend on the other side of the sun. They are in cahoots, spring and autumn, giddy seasons sharing the joke that is life, while summer and winter are none the wiser.