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Archive for November, 2012

We Did It!

 

Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.com

“National Blog Posting Month is the epicenter of daily blogging! People who want to set the habit of blogging by doing it every day for a month, including weekends, can band together for moral support, inspiration, and the camaraderie that only marathon blogging can provide.”
(From BlogHer.com, host of NaBloPoMo November 2012)

It seemed like only yesterday that we officially launched Edge of Story on September 18, 2012.  Six weeks later Mark signed us up for BlogHer’s “National Blog Posting Month” challenge.  The premise was simple enough: post something to your blog every day for a month.  My initial reaction…I wanted to throw up.  We love to write, but blogging was still so new to us.  We’re mainly fiction writers, and so we had to figure out a whole new culture and set of norms for this world of blogging and bloggers.  And posting something every day left no room for writer’s block, busy days, or unexpected calamities.  Could we really do it?

The answer: yes!  And it was exhilarating and hard and absolutely worth it.  In one month we wrote about everything from Greek mythology to Patrick Swayze to professional wrestling to Norman Rockwell to iCarly.  We wrote about books, books, and more books.  We even got a post up on Thanksgiving Day!  In everything we wrote, we held true to our goal of focusing on stories that entertain, delight, instruct, and inspire.  Some of our most popular posts:  Modern Day Man of My Dreams, The Power of Two, The Golden Buddha, and Favorite Teen Texts.

In one month our blog had over 1300 hits, mostly from the United States, but also from all over the world including Hong Kong, India, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Israel, Korea, Brazil, Greece, Peru, Canada, and the United Kingdom.  Our posts generated over 75 comments from funny and insightful readers. We gained 22 new followers—not as many as we’d hoped, but we’re willing to be patient and build up our numbers slowly.  (Besides, we don’t love that term “followers” – sounds too much like a cult.)  We hope in the months to come, more and more people will sign up for our mailing list to receive email updates about new blog posts.

So today’s post is not just a report card, but also a heartfelt thank you letter.  To everyone who read, commented, “liked”, “followed”, and enjoyed our daily posts: we can’t begin to express our gratitude.  Thank you for sticking with us, for not getting mad at us for clogging up your inboxes, and for inspiring us to keep writing.  This NaBloPoMo challenge taught us a lot about discipline, the creative process, and working together.  It introduced us to some amazing blogs and even more amazing bloggers.  It gave us a new appreciation for the whims and fancy of writing fiction, which we’re excited to get back to now that this challenge is done.

And now…we’re ready for a break!  But only a short one, we promise.  So please check back with us often.  We’ll keep writing about the stories that we love, and we look forward to hearing more about the stories you love.

Thanks again!!

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You know how, whenever you order or sign up for something online, you have to scroll through that ridiculously long “Terms and Conditions” contract, full of (I presume) legal mumbo-jumbo?  And I say “I presume” because I’ve never actually read any it, neither the “terms” nor the “conditions”; I just click “I Agree” or “I Accept.”

Doesn’t everyone?  Honestly, has anyone actually read through any of these contracts?  Seems silly. I’ve often wondered, though:  what are we actually “accepting” when we click on “I Accept”?  How do we know they haven’t slipped something sinister in the middle of all that legalese?  How do we know, while innocently buying a pair of Christmas suspenders, we haven’t inadvertently sold our eternal souls away to some crafty minor demon?

Ancient mythmakers have actually warned us about the necessity of reading the fine print, in the story of Tithonus. A strapping mortal man, Tithonus catches the eye of Aurora, Roman goddess of the dawn (known as Eos in Greek tradition).  Only instead of asking him if he wanted to go out and grab a frozen yogurt or something subtle like that, Aurora kidnaps Tithonus and forces him to be her love-slave.  (I know: poor guy, having to be the love-slave of a beautiful goddess…)

The two actually fall in love, but there’s a problem: Aurora is immortal, and Tithonus is not.  So Aurora goes to Jupiter (Zeus, for Greeks) and asks him to do them a solid: grant Tithonus immortality.

Jupiter agrees, and there is much rejoicing… for a while. Unfortunately, Aurora forgot to read the fine print; she didn’t realize that, in addition to wishing for her husband’s immortality, she should have also asked for the gift of eternal youth.  After all, one without the other is no good.

You can see where this is going: after many years, Tithonus shows signs of age.  His hair becomes white, his face gets wrinkled, he wants to eat dinner at 4:00 so he can get the Early Bird Special at Pandora’s Bar and Grill.

Eventually, poor Tithonus gets so old that he can’t talk above a faint creaking sound; not only that, he begins to become so hunched over, he actually starts to shrink. Finally, Aurora can’t stand to see him suffer any longer and transforms him into the creature he started to resemble: the grasshopper.

How do those ancients do it?  Not only did they come up with a perfectly plausible explanation for the origin of the grasshopper, they also crafted a cautionary tale for our modern times.  First, the Tithonus story warns us about the dangers of not aging gracefully—something that members of the modern youth-obsessed culture should definitely keep in mind.

Next, the myth reminds us that, when it comes to romantic relationships, some differences may be too big to overcome. An immortal marrying a mortal?  Could that be that be the equivalent of a Red Sox fan marrying a Yankee fan?

And possibly the most important lesson of the Tithonus story:  read the terms and conditions.  You have no idea what you’re agreeing to.  And if you wake up one morning to realize you sprouted antennae overnight, think back: it may have something to do with that iTunes account you opened up back in 2005…

Incidentally, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the poem about poor, pitiable Tithonus, victim of his own “cruel immortality.” You can find the Tennyson poem here: http://www.online-literature.com/donne/730/

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First let me say, I don’t hate the idea of book clubs.  I think it’s a truly wonderful thing when a group of people who love to read to get together and discuss a book. But for me personally… not so much.  I’ve been invited to join many book clubs over the years, and it’s never worked out.  So I spent some time analyzing the reasons why.

Reason #1: I have NEVER liked a book that’s been chosen for a book club.  I don’t know why.  Maybe just bad luck.  Maybe my favorite genres just aren’t book club material. Outside of school, I’ve never believed in the idea that there are certain books you really “should read.”  Pleasure reading is a pastime of delight, and people should read nothing other than exactly what they want to read.  Whatever the reason, I find myself struggling not only to finish the dreaded book club selection, but also to come up with some insightful things to say about it.  Way too much pressure.

Reason #2: Being forced to read something on a deadline takes the fun out of it.  It’s kind of like getting a job as a taste-tester in a candy factory.  Sounds like a dream job, but once you have to do it… it becomes kind of a drag.  The truth is, I’m usually a pretty fast reader.  But the moment I’ve been given a date for the next book club meeting, reading that book becomes the very last thing I want to do.  Maybe it taps into some latent rugged, American individualism within me that I just don’t like being told what to do.

Reason #3: Choosing a book is a very personal matter.  I have a small list of books that I consider my favorites, and I’m passionate about these books.  Opening that up to criticism from other readers is risky.  I once recommended a selection to a book club and almost everyone hated it.  I felt pretty stupid, but also gravely offended on behalf of my beloved text.  I understand the whole point is to expose yourself to differing opinions, but there’s something so sad about discovering that someone dislikes a book you think is perfect.  (Just ask my niece, who’s still reeling from my critical blog post about her favorite show, Glee.)  Sometimes, you’d just rather not know.

Reason #4: For me, reading is about the inward journey.  It’s not that I don’t value the opinions of others, or enjoy hearing what other people think.  I do.  But I read to escape.  To delve into another world and get lost in the characters, the setting, and the drama of the story.  Sometimes, you just don’t want others along for the ride.  I’ll finish a great book and spend hours in my own private world… re-living the story, imagining myself there.  It’s a solitary thrill that can only come from a good book.

Reason #5: I don’t enjoy a debate.  I much prefer to connect with like-minded people who enjoy the same kind of books that I do.  My mother and I share a love of historical romance and we talk about them all the time.  My sister and I will spend hours discussing the British authors that we enjoy.  A local friend introduced me to the fun and exciting novels of Suzanne Brockmann and we dish about her stories at length.  My nieces and I love to talk about the YA fiction that we read.

So there you go… maybe I’ve been in book clubs all along, and just didn’t realize it.

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Last week, I was reading the newspaper, feeling depressed, dismayed, and disheartened about the state of the world.  And that was just after reading the funnies.

I have to come clean: our family does not subscribe to a newspaper.  Luckily, my parents– who subscribe to no fewer than three daily papers– make up for any deficiencies on our part.  (In fact, I almost wonder if my parents are single-handedly keeping the newspaper industry afloat). So, when we visited my parents last week for Thanksgiving, I had an opportunity to do something I don’t normally get to do: eat a coffee roll, decipher a Crypto-Quote, and read me some comics.

Now, I’m not suggesting I never read any modern-day comic strips; I didn’t pull a Rip van Winkle, waking to realize the Golden Age of Comics had passed me by—that glorious era when Broom Hilda ruled the skies, when Ziggy thrilled us with his scintillating wit, when Marmaduke… OK, Marmaduke always sucked.  The point is, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

But “underwhelmed” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt after reading these sorry excuses for comics.  I was actually startled with how un-amusing they were—all of them, from A to “Zits.”  And that’s not just me being curmudgeonly.  Even my twelve-year-old son had to remark, “These funnies are not funny!”

It would be one thing if they weren’t aspiring to be funny—if they were trying to be thought-provoking (in that “B.C.” kind of way) or even heart-warming (in that “Prince Valiant” sort of way). But the comics I read last week did none of those things.  They didn’t inspire laughter, or provoke thoughts, or even warm hearts.  If anything, they only induced groans.

Where did it all go wrong?  Why are today’s comic strips so stripped of joy and humor?  I have a few theories:

They’re so old!  Here are some comic strips currently running in the Boston Globe, along with the date these strips originally debuted, from oldest to youngest:  “Doonesbury” (1970), “Zippy the Pinhead” (1970s), “For Better or For Worse” (1979), “Rose is Rose” (1984), “Mother Goose and Grimm” (1984), “Arlo and Janis” (1985), “Monty” (formerly “Robotman,” 1985), “Curtis” (1988), “Dilbert” (1989), “Rhymes with Orange” (1995), and “Zits” (1997).

Now, I don’t know about you, but that list gives me some serious pause.  I mean, has “Arlo and Janis” honestly been around for twenty-seven years?   And “Rhymes with Orange” for seventeen?  And here I thought they were the newbies!

And then there’s “For Better or For Worse,” which is so old, its creator Lynn Johnston isn’t even putting out new content.  Instead, way back in 2008, Ms. Johnston “rebooted the franchise” and started re-drawing her older strips—a curious arrangement she called “new-runs” (half new, half re-runs).  That lasted for two years, and then in 2010, newspapers just started re-printing the old ones… which is particularly interesting to me, since I never liked “For Better or For Worse” the first time around!  Which brings me to my second theory…

 They’re tired!  The truly shocking thing is not that so many of these comics have endured, but that they’ve endured despite their profound inability to inspire to laughter, moderate giggling, or even knowing smiles.  Yes, “Dilbert” had its day, but how many times can our hapless cubicle-dweller muse about the paradoxes of the corporate jungle?  How long do we have to see the mug of Zippy the Pinhead before everyone collectively acknowledges that everything about the strip is incoherent and creepy?

Even the new strips are inane.  Of course, some brave souls have launched new strips over the years. The Boston Herald, for example, has a whole bunch of (relatively) “new” strips, including “Mutts,” “Baldo,” and “Pearls Before Swine.”  The problem, though: these “new” strips are just as insipid and uninspired as the old ones. (Honestly, have you ever once laughed at “Mutts”? Rather: have you ever even understood “Mutts”?)

Where are the feisty up-and-comers waiting to muscle the old guard out of the spotlight?  And will any of the current crop of comics be running, in any form, fifty, twenty, even ten years from now?  Somehow, I don’t see it.

Maybe the comic scene is an obsolete medium. Maybe, at some point in the near future, there will be no funny pages… or pages at all, for that matter.  Or maybe a new batch of artists will crop up, who will create new iconic characters—new Garfields and Dagwoods and Woodstocks.

Till then, today’s funny pages may resemble the cereal you’re probably eating as you’re reading them: a soggy mixture of stale old comics and hollow new ones. That’s the state of things… for better or for worse.

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Thanksgiving is over and the Christmas season has begun!  In keeping with the theme of our blog, here is a list of our favorite Christmas “stories” from movies and TV.  Full disclosure: Neither of us has ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life.  Mark vows to watch it this season, but I kind of want to see how long I can hold out.  If we haven’t lost all credibility after this confession, take a look at our top ten Christmas picks:

10. Love Actually (2003 film, Richard Curtis)
This movie beautifully depicts the ways in which sorrow and hope are often intermingled during the holiday season.  We also love the multi-threaded storytelling that brings characters together in unexpected ways.

9. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987 TV special, Jim Henson)
In this sweet and magical Christmas special, Fozzie Bear brings the entire Muppet gang to surprise his mother on Christmas Eve.  Also a cool crossover with characters from both Sesame and Fraggle Rock.

8. Die Hard (1988 film, John McTiernan, Steve de Souza, Jeb Stuart)
Not only does it take place on Christmas Eve, the emotional core of this awesome action movie has to do with John McClane’s love for his family—and his ultimate redemption.  What’s more Christmas-ey than that?  In many ways the terrorists’ attack on Nakatomi Plaza is a metaphor for the unrest in the McClane family. The fact that not only do John and Holly survive but rekindle their love for one another is truly a Christmas miracle!

7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 TV special, Chuck Jones)
Three reasons we love this one: 1) A faithful adaptation of the Dr. Seuss story, 2) the totally cool narration by Boris Karloff, and 3) Thurl Ravenscroft (the original voice of Tony the Tiger) singing the delightfully creepy “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

6. Christmas Party: The Office, Season 2 (NBC, Greg Daniels)
During its second season, The Office became the highest-rated scripted series on NBC for their ability to blend deliciously cringeworthy comedy with surprising moments of heart.  This is most evident in the Christmas episode when Michael Scott—disappointed in his gift of a homemade oven mitt—hijacks the Secret Santa party and turns it into a Yankee swap.

5. A Christmas Story (1983 film directed by Bob Clark)
My brother-in-law will be disappointed that this movie only makes #5 on our list.  Indeed there are many moments of perfection in the film. Topping the list:  Ralphie’s relentless campaign for the Red Ryder BB Gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”); Flick’s tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole; and Ralphie’s dad’s “major award”—a leg lamp in a crate marked FRAGILE. (“Fra-JEE-lay! Must be Italian!”)

4. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970 TV special, Rankin-Bass)
A fun and comprehensive origin story in which we learn how Santa got his name, why he’s sometimes called Kris Kringle, why he has a beard, why kids hang stockings on their chimneys, why Santa enters homes through those same chimneys, how reindeer got the ability to fly, and why Santa and Mrs. Claus now live at the North Pole.  Plus a very cool villain-turned-good-guy in the Winter Warlock.

3. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974 TV special, Rankin-Bass)
This TV special starts out with the great feminist musical number: “I Could Be Santa Claus.”  Mrs. Claus was the Lilly Ledbetter of her time.  Plus: Heat Miser and Cold Miser.  Enough said.

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965 TV special, Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez)
For many of us, Christmas is about hope, peace, and the promise of a Savior.  This is brought home with stunning simplicity when Linus interrupts the pageant practice to recite a passage from Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:8-14).

1. Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977 TV special, Jim Henson)
This somewhat obscure Christmas special will always top our list.  For over ten years we’ve been watching it with our twins on the original VHS tape.  Adapted from a children’s storybook by Russell Hoban, this Jim Henson TV special tells a Gift of the Magi story with a twist.  Emmett puts a hole in his mother’s washtub (laundry being their main source of income) in order to enter a talent contest.  If he wins, he’ll use the prize money to buy his mother a piano for Christmas.  Meanwhile, Ma Otter hocks Emmett’s tool chest (which he uses for odd jobs) in order to buy herself a costume for this same contest.  If she wins…she’ll buy her son a guitar.   Set to a delightful soundtrack of original songs by Paul Williams, Emmett and his Ma learn about the value of family, the gift of music, and the importance of making the most of what you have. (“Oh, Emmett…that’s about the nicest present anybody ever tried to give me.”)

We’d love to hear your thoughts on our list and some additions of your own!

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It’s the place where books go to die.

My town’s transfer station (a.k.a. “dump”) has a wooden shack that sort of resembles an outhouse.  Only it’s for a whole different kind of refuse: it’s where residents bid farewell to their no-longer-wanted books.

Now, I’m assuming these books get recycled, so I guess they don’t technically “die”; they’re re-incarnated, re-born in another form.  And some of these books actually get saved; over the years, I myself may have plucked out a few gems from this garbage-heap.  (Hey, one man’s trash, right?)

In fact, a few Saturday mornings ago, I was on one of these shopping sprees, and while perusing through the shack’s cramped shelves, I started doing a mental inventory of the discarded books. I saw (among many others) Jerry Seinfeld’s SeinLanguage; Dr. Barry Sears’s diet book Enter the Zone; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm; four Tom Clancy books (The Sum of All Fears, The Hunt for Red October, and two copies of Red Storm Rising); and two copies of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Ever the English teacher, I started doing an analysis—not of the content of the books, but of the kinds of books that people were throwing out.  And it occurred to me: they’re all fads.  Those books I listed above are ones that caught fire with the public at a certain point in time and then… just died out.  For some of these, the fire may have lasted a long time (Tom Clancy had a good run there), but it died out nonetheless.  (I’d call these books the literary equivalent of Furbies, but Furbies are apparently trying to make a comeback. Godspeed, Furbies…)

This isn’t to say these books didn’t enjoy some incredible popularity.  Let’s take Da Vinci Code, for example: as of 2009, it sold 80 million copies; it stirred up a lot of controversy (which may have contributed to the aforementioned 80 million copies); it spawned two movies; and it transformed nerdy symbologists from Harvard into sex symbols.  (Well, that last one may be a stretch, especially given the sorry state of Tom Hanks’s hair in the film version.)

Moreover, this one novel ignited a slew of literary sub-genres—including the “Unlocking The Da Vinci Code” books, the “Debunking The Da Vinci Code” books, and the “Debunking the Debunking The Da Vinci Code” books.

I definitely got caught up in the Dan Brown fervor myself a few years ago.  I dutifully read Da Vinci Code (as well as its prequel/ pseudo-sequel, Angels and Demons), mostly because everyone else was, but I remember liking it. And yes, I also remember agreeing with the critics who called characters two-dimensional and the prose less-than-Faulknerian (according to Wikipedia, a writer from the New York Times once called the book a “best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence”), but I remember finding the novel entertaining regardless.

But I don’t really remember a lot of specifics about the book. I remember a few things: that the plot hinged on the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married (ooops… spoiler alert); that there was a creepy albino named Silas; and that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting has some weird and wacky things going on.  But that’s about it.  The novel didn’t really stay with me.

The Da Vinci Code had its day, but it was definitely a fad.  And seeing those two Da Vinci Codes in that outhouse-sized book shack that Saturday morning started me thinking about the whole “fad books” phenomenon.  Why do some books strike the mainstream’s fancy?  And then why does that same mainstream discard them and move on to something else?

Then I realized:  the truly amazing thing is not that some books fade from our consciousness but that many actually stay there.  Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947.  Why are we still teaching it to our high schoolers today?  Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in 1884, Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales around 1400, and Sophocles wrote Oedipus The King four hundred before the birth of Christ.  What does it say about these texts, these ideas, these characters, that they didn’t fade away?

Who knows which of today’s best-sellers will end up in tomorrow’s outhouse?  More importantly, which ones won’t?  Which current beloved book will withstand the sands of time? (No one can predict this, of course, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I suspect that the words “Grey” and the number fifty will NOT be in the title.)

And now, as always… your turn, it is: which titles do you think are quintessential “fad”-books? And which books do you foresee becoming “fad”-books in the future?

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Tonight the final episode of iCarly—iGoodbye—will air on Nickelodeon, and we’re very sad to see it go.  Our twin boys were in fourth grade when they discovered iCarly. Becoming less interested in PBS shows like Arthur and Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman, they were looking for something a bit more “sophisticated.”  They turned on Nickelodeon one day to check out iCarly and were immediately hooked.  The best part was… we loved it to.  Dan Schneider put together a fantastic writing team that struck the perfect balance of silly and clever humor.  Carly and her friends Sam and Freddie were smart, funny, and creative.  Carly’s brother Spencer was delightfully weird and artistic… Jerry Trainor’s spastic physical humor reminds us of the great Jim Carey.  We have been equally entertained by supporting charaters like Gibby, T-Bo, Nevel, Mrs. Benson, and Mandy.

109 episodes and we haven’t missed one.  Some of our favorites: iWant More Viewers, iSpeed Date, iMust Have Locker 239, and iBelieve in Bigfoot.  Our favorite running gags: Sam’s butter sock, Spencer setting things on fire, Sam’s love of meat, the younger Gibby randomly taking his shirt off, and spaghetti tacos.  (We actually made spaghetti tacos for dinner one night, and they were pretty good!)

Our iCarly love reached it’s pinnacle when we had the amazing opportunity to meet Miranda Cosgrove at a radio station contest in February 2011.  Totally awesome.

So goodbye iCarly.  Thanks for the memories and most importantly… the laughter.  We’ll really miss you!

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