Category Archives: Local News That Will Revolutionize The World

Literary brainstorming in Charlottesville, Virginia

I returned to my beloved hometown primarily to see my older brother graduate from med school and get married, but my secondary concern was generating ideas for my masters thesis, an original novel that’s due in two months. This means that I’ve spent the majority of my southern vacation poaching plots from every local I encounter. People I would never expect to have book ideas have written me outlines and sketched out character motivations. This town is a hotbed of unrealized literary genius.

For example!

My 21-year-old brother and his buddy run a handyman business in town mowing lawns, chainsawing everything in their path, “removing stinkbugs,” “babysitting,” and performing other oddjobs. When I jokingly asked them if they did novels, it took them less than a day to turn over a notebook overflowing with rich material, including fully developed protagonists (serial killers in love), back stories (sex abuse, murder, childhood trauma), themes (municipal corruption) and some thoughts on a prequel. But my little brother had a vague impression that my typical work is more emo, so he was sure to pencil in “(*feelings*)” where he thought my skills could really shine, e.g., “Mom addicted to painkillers, protag always starved for her affection <<-----(*feelings*)." The boys said they'd write the sex and violence scenes, and I could be in charge of all the emotional truths.

My friend's four-year-old son is obsessed with traffic cones. Last week we all went to Lowe's and while his mom shopped, he spent 45 minutes in the plumbing aisle lining up orange cones in different formations, then routing the Lowe's employees around them as though the men were cars or airplanes. My friend says, try as she might, she cannot find any children's books devoted to the wonders of traffic and safety cones. She thought I might write something for her son and other kids like him. I have never written a childrens' book, but I think I could manage a literary novel about an extended family of traffic cones. Something like The Corrections, but set in a parking lot.

Stumpy and Big Mac, the two men who make the compost deliveries from my uncle’s compost farm, were especially excited when they found out I was trying to write a novel. They told me I could do a ride-along with them in the compost trucks for a week and I’d have more than enough material for my book, tentatively entitled The Adventures of Stumpy and Big Mac. At first I thought they were just teasing me for being a dork, but now every time I go over there they gush about a new plotline worthy of Tom Clancy. Without giving too much away before this thing is published, Big Mac’s latest brainstorm involves a jihadist at UVA’s graduation ceremony. We agreed that the more local landmarks I insert, the better my chances would be of getting my book stocked in New Dominion. Or in the Barracks Road Barnes & Noble. Or in Random Row Books. Or in Daedalus. Is anybody listening?

Also my grandfather gave me a 2011 World Almanac, saying that it was full of ideas.

Also I need all the help I can get, because I have no ideas.

No, I have one idea. Wishter, a 30-year-old woman with few career prospects, laments the fact that she chose writing school over medical school. In a fit of jealousy, she steals her big brother’s med school diploma, and his beautiful new wife for good measure, and opens a private psychiatry clinic in the Cayman Islands, where she makes tons of money by hypnotizing her patients into giving her tons of money as well as revealing their darkest secrets <<—–(*feelings*), emotional truths which will eventually make their way into Wishter’s bestselling memoir.

The cosmic cure for nailbiting

I have been a nailbiter since I was very young. Sometimes I attribute this to the same sort of neurological anomaly that makes small children sniff glue or pregnant women eat dirt. On good days I think, “I am like a momma chimp picking lice out of her baby’s hair, except I am both momma chimp and baby chimp.”  Other times I think despondently, “Maybe this is simply a bad habit within my control, except I have no discipline whatsoever.” But more often the nailbiting seems so out of control, especially when I’m driving down the road, trying to conform a bit of cuticle to my specific compulsive vision, all the while knowing that I am distracted enough to crash into a telephone pole but it will be worth it because my finger will be shredded just right on the gurney. It’s a sickness. I realize that. But I’ve been helpless to cure it. Even when the whole world says “Gross.” Even when I say “Gross.” There’s still something so satisfying about tearing my hands apart.

But no more! I have been cured. And it wasn’t the bad-tasting nail polish or the synthetic nails or the hypnosis or the tape or the gloves or the sedatives or whatever. I can honestly say that the universe cured my nailbiting. Or rather the universe by way of my godmother. Because she read my chi – when up until last week I didn’t even know I had one – and she told me that I wanted to get rid of my body. This is true. I’ve always been separate from my body because, let’s face it, my body is not that great. Despite the fact that tonight I sensationally dropped an edamame down my cleavage, I would readily trade my body for a few more brain cells. My body is pretty much worthless to me unless it’s wearing something really cute.

My godmother says that Christianity has instilled in us this dichotomy between mind and body wherein we privilege the intellectual/spiritual sphere over the physical. “Yes,” I say to her. “I feel that.” And then she says that we’re all actually one thing, that there’s no separation. “Yes,” I say. “I believe you’re right.” What she’s getting at is that we’re whole beings, interconnected, cosmically integrated into the couch, the stars, the popsicle, the soy bean buried in my bra. We can’t discard or abuse our bodies because we’ll simultaneously be hurting our deepest selves. That makes sense to me. But what makes special sense is when you take this concept of the universe being a single, indivisible entity with good intentions and you apply it to the bloody tips of my fingers. Why am I trying to destroy the universe? By biting my nails I am undoing all of the important work of the cosmos. I am the character in science fiction who wants to explode planets where cute, furry aliens inhabit utopias. I am a space brat. I’m destroying my nails because I don’t believe in God, order, love, or the mind/body connection.

And frankly that’s all it took to stop biting. I just had to redefine my bad habit in terms of the universe at large. In two months I’m going to be able to scratch my itches for the first time since I was five. I’ll be able to pick a quarter up off the floor! And, as a bonus, I might go to heaven too. I’m not Cinderella (at least while I wait for these 10 nubs to grow out), but I do have a fairy godmother. And I probably helped someone today. That’s just me giving back to the cosmos that made me.

Important revelations from my sabbatical

Janet > Michael

Babies don’t need diapers

In which my husband solves the newspaper publishing crisis

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the future of journalism residing in “hyperlocal” news. Hyperlocal news steps in where the doomsday scenario leaves off: Newspapers fire experienced writers, writers have no place to go, newspapers die out, the end is nigh. Yet we still crave news that is streamlined and directly relevant to our lives. So instead of scavenging a national paper on its deathbed, we might read a blog written by an out-of-work reporter who lives down the street, a meaningful voice that in turn aggregates other meaningful voices.

This is where Darren Hoyt comes in. He and Ben Gillbanks, an English colleague, just launched Dispatch, a WordPress blog theme for writers and journalists. An add-on to the Mimbo Pro WP theme, Dispatch gives any journalist with $20* an online platform that looks and feels like a professional newspaper or magazine website. So with minimal effort and financial commitment, you can launch a respectable blog for posting pictures and stories of your tour in Afghanistan or your cat or whatever. God, my husband is on the cutting edge.

Tech Dirt tells us why hyperlocal news makes sense, and, by extension, why you should be interested in Dispatch:

The technological and economic constraints of newsprint meant that the whole process had to be done by full-time employees and carefully coordinated by a single, monolithic organization. But the Internet makes possible a much more decentralized model, in which lots of different people, most of them volunteers, participate in the process of gathering and filtering the news. Rather than a handful of professional reporters writing stories and an even smaller number of professional editors deciding which ones get printed, we’re moving toward a world that Clay Shirky calls publish, then filter: anyone can write any story they want, and the stories that get the most attention are determined after publication by decentralized, community-driven processes like Digg, del.icio.us, and the blogosphere.

Other tech people weigh in on hyperlocal news here and here and here.

In my own hyperlocal news, I want to punch that word “blogosphere” in the gut. And then make sweet love to it.

Here’s a “for instance”: Your wife needs a new website ASAP so she can compete with the New York literati! You just created an awesome website! What’s your next move?

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

Screenshot of Dispatch WordPress theme

*Keep in mind that Dispatch is an add-on to Mimbo Pro, which costs $79. Still, that totals $100 for a website with amazing functionality and versatility that you might otherwise pay a designer thousands of dollars to develop for you. I feel like I am one step away from an infomercial right now.

A formal essay about famous frogs me

My mother is exasperated that my husband and I still haven’t made a dime from our famous photograph. “Couldn’t you at least print up some t-shirts?” she says. “You can sell them on www.turtlefrogspiderphoto.com.” I explain to her that it seems exploitative to profit off something that—for whatever reason—inspires people. It’s like selling $5 bottles of Barack Obama water on the Washington Mall. I also explain to my mother that I don’t want to abuse or overextend my 15 minutes of fame. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “If I play my cards right, I can ride this photo all the way to the top.”

My husband and I never aspired to make a full-fledged career out of the spider on top of a frog on top of a turtle that we rescued from my parents’ pool filter last August. How could anyone sustain that kind of celebrity? We never dreamed that the photo phenomenon would go as far as it did. In fact we thought it would go precisely as far as our personal blogs. But the turtle/frog/spider mutant took on a life of its own. First local website cVillain picked up the story and photo. Then it went viral on the internet. Then it went international in OK Magazine and the Daily Telegraph. Then it went epidermal with a giant back tattoo on a California woman. Then it went full circle with Brian McKenzie’s Daily Progress column. Then it went statewide with Sandy Hausman’s WVTF radio story. Here on One Star Watt I will try to prolong the story for at least another week.

All my previous fantasies about being famous involved the New York Times or the Oscars or the White House or (on bad days) the Darwin Awards, not accidental drownings. Granted, the three critters survived their ordeal, but that didn’t stop an irate Albemarle County woman from writing into the Daily Progress. According to Marlene Condon’s editorial, the photo “epitomizes the cruel impact that humans often unwittingly inflict upon the Earth’s creatures.” Since when is it cruel to go hunting for animal carcasses in your bikini? Pool filters are the middle class’s version of raccoon traps baited with Friskies cat food. And I doubt that the chipmunk living in the neon-green Funoodle on my parents’ pool patio would exchange its happy home for personal safety. But Ms. Condon alleges that “[b]y maintaining an uncovered swimming pool, people bring about the deaths of numerous kinds of wildlife that are attracted to the water but then can’t escape the consequences.” Tell that to the three creatures that are in the woods right now writing the Disney/Pixar screenplay of their lives. At least I think they are. I’m a little afraid to return to the place where my dad finally released them after the photo shoot. What if I discover three small skeletons stacked one on top of the other, delayed victims of chlorine inhalation? I would bury them in formation. But that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that I’m famous.

On the internet especially, I’m surprised the goodwill has endured so long. Usually it takes a much shorter time for a cyber backlash to begin. It’s a credit to the New Age websites that have featured the picture that few people make negative comments. Even the “This is clearly shopped” comments are rare. But please—if I were to Photoshop an image, it would probably be of me and Mick Jagger partying together on the island of Mustique. I have a hip, unfeeling reputation to uphold; I would never choose to be known as the woman who took a heartwarming picture which Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover’s Soul will one day option. (Call me anytime, Chicken Soup.)

But I’m not embarrassed by being the author of the picture. Fame is always cool, no matter how lame its origins. At least my mom has been really impressed with me since the photo started generating buzz. And I’ve discovered that it’s not really how you get famous that matters, but how you deal with the fame once you have it. Once it’s in your lap, do you reject it (no), freak out (no), gloat (yes), start judging your friends “pre-turtle/frog/spider” and “post-turtle/frog/spider”? Certainly. Do you become full of yourself, thinking “I can stack any three things on top of each other—magazine, turkey sandwich, remote control—and they will be transformed into high art when I take their picture?” Of course you do. In the morning I’m going to lay my bowl of yogurt on top of a cat on top of a dictionary and then sell the photo rights for a million dollars.

But at what price fame? Sometimes fame can tear a couple apart. I should know because I was engaged to my husband when I found the turtle/frog/spider and now we’re happily married. All because he remembers that I took the picture so technically I own the rights. Every time I open our freezer and see the preserved topping from our wedding cake—the sugar turtle/frog/spider that Frank Cappellino made for us—I understand that love is the turtle that holds up the frog bride and the spider groom. Or maybe the spider bride and the frog groom? Or maybe humankind? I’m determined to find a deeper message in my photo. In any case someone has his fidgety legs in someone else’s eyeball and someone else is feeling seasick and the ground seems to be constantly moving underfoot. But in a good way. In a way that says one day God will pluck us out of the pool filter of life and unleash us in heaven after having a good laugh at our expense. Or that we will simply succumb to the fumes. Or that I should apply for a photojournalism position at National Geographic Magazine.

The CLAW book is here!

The CLAW book is finally here! Not yet in person, but online, which in my view is better than any medium that passes bacteria from one hand to another.

Congratulations to the extraordinary wedding photographer, Straight Punch to the Crotcher, and man-about-town Billy Hunt for making it all happen! On November 7, Billy and CLAW will host a book signing and trading card release party at The Bridge in Charlottesville.

Rosie the Wrist-Twister preparing to twist some wrists (and some tongues if you’re lucky):

Rosie the Wrist-Twister prepares to twist some wrists (and some tongues)

Debbie “The Debutante” Danger pausing mid-match to write The Ref a thank-you note:

 Debbie “The Debutante” Danger pauses mid-match to write The Ref a thank-you note

Something cute I fished out of the pool filter today

I opened my parents’ pool filter today and there was this turtle, just barely afloat, with two resourceful friends riding the crown of her back. In the chlorine around them, dead frogs and insects bobbed belly-up, not nearly so lucky.

Turtle, frog, spider

I saved your ass!

My mom said this scenario would make a good children’s story, so here goes:

Once upon a time, there was a baby turtle who lived in a back yard in Virginia. One August day, her dumb ass crawled into a swimming pool. Then some other dumbass animals jumped into the water after her even though it was obviously a swimming pool made for human beings and not a pond or lake or whatever made for amphibians.

Eventually all the animals got sucked butt-first into the pool filter.

Crickets and frogs swelled, then drowned, when they grew tired of treading water in this fatal lagoon. But not the turtle. The turtle didn’t know that her cause was hopeless – that she might as well be trying to swim across the Pacific Ocean – so she kept paddling in the inescapable filter. An exhausted baby toad swam up to the turtle’s buoyed shell.

“Please, turtle,” said the toad, “may I climb on your back and rest my poopy legs?”

“Do I have a choice?” said the turtle.

“No, you definitely do not,” said the toad.

“Whatever,” sighed the turtle, and the toad hopped on her back. But the toad’s weight was not much of a burden, and eventually the two of them got to talking in a friendly way about gas prices and Obama and the lawn mower that routinely tried to decapitate them.

Then a little spider swam up to the turtle. “Do you mind administering my Last Rites and then killing me in a way so that I won’t suffer?”

“I have a better idea,” said the turtle. “Climb on my back.” The spider crawled up the turtle’s shell. She was high and dry. It was a miracle. With her hairy arms she made the sign of the cross on her cephalothorax.

The toad also wanted to be heroic. “Climb on my back,” she said to the spider. “I’ll save you.” Even though the spider had already been saved, she climbed on the toad’s back so the toad would feel useful. Then they bobbed up and down in the filter for several days chatting about the DNC and cannibalism.

Finally, a beautiful princess wearing a bikini opened the pool filter to check for cool dead stuff that she could ask her dad to dispose of later. “You guys, c’mere,” she said in her mellifluous voice. “You’ve got to see this shit.” Then a crowd of human faces was peering down at the miserable, bloated totem pole of turtle, toad, and spider.

“She must be an angel,” said the spider.

“Hold on – don’t take them out of the water yet,” said the angel. “Let me get my camera first.”

After a round of digital pictures, the creatures were released into the wilds of the back yard. Like three scoops of disgusting ice cream, they held formation as they rode. And they all lived happily ever after.

The turtle is currently writing a memoir that she hopes will be optioned by Pixar.

Sad news from a Charlottesville resident

I just heard that LeRoi Moore, sax player for Charlottesville’s Dave Matthews Band, passed away this afternoon. I don’t confess to be the band’s biggest fan, but in my experience the guys and their families are kind, caring, and down-to-earth people. I’m sorry to hear about their loss. My little sister is working the DMB show tonight at the Staples Center in LA, and I know it must be a strange and heavyhearted scene. Big love from Charlottesville.

Woman’s search for meaning during her 10-year high school reunion

This week I started reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. I also attended my 10-year high school reunion. Initially these two events appeared to have nothing in common. Frankl survived internment at multiple concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II, whereas I spent my tenth grade year at an alternative high school that tutored children in self-expression, basket weaving, and pot smoking. Whereas Frankl had to endure starvation, the threat of gas chambers, and a constant assault on his human dignity, we students had to free-write in our journals for 15 minutes a day, hold yoga poses, and drive to Taco Bell for lunch.

But the more I thought about it, the more I could apply Frankl’s wisdom to my own experience of high school, and to that of reuniting with high school friends ten years after graduation.

Man’s Search for Meaning stresses the psychological freedom of the individual. We possess the unique ability to choose how we interpret our lives and our environment. We can find meaning in the most painful of circumstances, and that meaning can sustain us. Frankl tells a story of walking to a work site at the concentration camp, focusing his attention on his hunger, his foot sores, his brutal foreman, the freezing wind. Suddenly he becomes aware of how “trivial” these thoughts are.

I forced my thoughts to turn to another subject. Suddenly I saw myself standing on the platform of a. . . lecture room. . . .I was giving a lecture on the psychology of the concentration camp! All that oppressed me at that moment became objective, seen and described from the remote viewpoint of science. By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. What does Spinoza say in his Ethics?. . . .”Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

The message is that we can transcend our daily troubles, even if those troubles are the incomparable atrocities of a concentration camp. We are blessed with the resources to rise above our own lives. The book’s thesis reminded me of a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in 2005.

. . .learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Wallace uses the example of concluding a long day at work by first getting stuck in traffic, then getting trapped in a long line at the grocery store, then being treated like a nonentity by the check-out girl, and essentially being annoyed with the world and everyone in it. But he challenges this interpretation of reality:

It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

[Read the whole piece, by the way. It’s not Jon Stewart’s 2004 commencement address to William & Mary, but it might change your life.]

So last night I sat at the bar with all these high school kids who are now bona fide grown-ups, but we’re still talking about mostly the same stuff, and we’re still smoking the same brands of cigarettes, and we still look basically the same as we did ten years ago even though there’s a pregnancy or some swelling here and there, and I thought, “I am happy.” And that’s the last thing I would have thought when hanging out with the same people in high school. Not because there was anything wrong with them, but because I was so self-conscious and pitiful due to my own myopic interpretation of life.

And maybe it’s because I now have a novel and a nice boyfriend, and maybe it’s because I’m heavily medicated, and maybe it’s because I’d been drinking the whole day of the reunion, but I also submit that life gets better, even if it doesn’t actually get better. The same exact life can feel good, whereas once it felt bad. So remember that, you down-and-out high school graduates with your unmarketable basket weaving skills. One day ten years will have gone by, but they won’t actually have gone by.

Another short and sweet post about arm wrestling

I give you the best multimedia feature about arm wrestling the Daily Progress has ever done.