Minnesotan as a Second Language

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I'm pretty into language, and I'm obviously into New York, and I live in Minnesota, and . . .

Well, for a million reasons -- not the least of which is that it actually come close to fitting in with the alleged theme of this blog -- I have decided to compile a list of differences between everyday interactions, here in Minnesota, and back in the tri-state area. (That means New York City and its suburbs in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.) For our first installment, we will visit the most popular coffee shops in each area: Caribou and Starbucks.

In Minnesota, the Caribou cashier will greet you, and actually smile and listen to your reply to "How are you doing today?"

In New York, the Starbucks cashier might make eye contact when she asks what you want: "Can I help you?" If she says "How are you?" it just means "What do you want?", and if you reply and ask how she is doing, you will get a vacant stare in response.

In Minnesota, the cashier will then ask you if "you need anything else today?" She might tell you how nice/cold/rainy/hot out it is, and that the football game will be on later, and perhaps you plan to watch?

In New York, the cashier will, while writing on your cup, say, "That it?"

In Minnesota, after you pay, the cashier will ask if "you need a receipt at all?" ("At all?" What does that mean, anyway? Am I supposed to say, "I need it just a tiny bit"?) She will suggest you have a great rest of the day, and perhaps stay cool/dry/warm/inside/outside.

In New York, the cashier will put the receipt in your hand with your change in such a way that the change will fall from your hand and roll off the counter. She will say "sorry" and turn to the next customer while you try to get the coins that are rolling around the store.

In Minnesota, after you take your change, no one will make a move to order until you've put everything in its proper wallet or pocket or zippered bag compartment and moved completely out of the way. While they wait, they will smile and look at you. It will make you nervous.

In New York, the moment you have your change (or are scrambling for it all over the shop), the next person will start right in, often before being asked, leaning across and in front of you if necessary: "Yeah, lemme get a double nonfat latte in two cups . . ." It will make you nervous.

The Greatest LPs of All-Time . . . kind of.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

We're not talking about the, say, My Aim Is True, which was the starting gun on a long and inspired career. We're not talking about the Nevermind, which was a perfectly-timed, but hugely derivative, LP that defined a generation. We're not talking about a You're Living All Over Me or a Diary, which appealed, despite their greatness, to a small group of particularly discerning fans--and still do. We're not even talking an Exile on Main St. or a Led Zeppelin IV, which stand out as a distinct highpoint in a long career of vast influence on popular music overall.

The Life Pursuit -- Belle & Sebastian
London Calling -- The Clash
The Soft Bulletin -- Flaming Lips
OK Computer -- Radiohead
Pet Sounds -- The Beach Boys

Something about these LPs--and I have no doubt there are many others, too--connects them. They are the best work the bands have done (obviously that is debatable, but I have a suspicion that if I checked sales numbers, they're at least the best-sellers*), and they seemed to come from nowhere. Example: The Flaming Lips were, despite renown on the college radio scene, essentially a psychedelic punk band known as much for their strangeness and inability to cross over as for their sound. Their biggest hit before 1999 was "She Don't Use Jelly." In fact, it remains their only hit in the States. But in 1999, they released The Soft Bulletin. Many longtime fans (including myself) were surprised (and, yeah, disappointed) by the drastic change in their sound. We eventually came around--or most of us did. But more importantly, the Lips were suddenly critics' darlings. They were all over the Mtv. The Soft Bulletin was called the third best album of 1990s by Pitchfork, and the best album of 1999 by NME.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots followed for the Lips. In my opinion, it is an uninspired follow-up to The Soft Bulletin. It's a good record, sure, but I'd rather listen to--I don't know--Clouds Taste Metallic or Hit to Death in the Future Head. It doesn't hold up to repeated listenings, and no one was talking about it as a groundbreaking, career-changing release.

Radiohead's OK Computer. Where the hell did that come from? Seriously, did anyone expect that after the tepid Pablo Honey, "Creep"'s success notwithstanding? The Bends was a stronger record, I suppose, but Radiohead was--to me--another mopey group of Brits, one of whom (lead singer Thom Yorke) looked an awful lot like Martin Short doing a mopey Brit. Then one morning in 1997, getting ready for work with Mtv on, I caught a new video but missed the opening credit. I didn't move from the couch till it ended. It was "Paranoid Android." (Not an embeddable clip, but worth clicking over if you haven't seen this video.)

OK Computer was a daring and brilliant record. Radiohead found fans they never had before, in the public and the press. It made nearly every best-of-the-year list, in the US and the UK, and won a Grammy. (I kind of get a kick out of how much Robert Christgau of the Village Voice didn't like it. Scroll down to Dud of the Month.) But the point: this was a daring, sparse, experimental, unfamiliar album. No one outside of the band's inner circle could have predicted this musical shift. But there it is, and it's brilliant, and everything since for Radiohead doesn't come close. Sure, the Kid A lovers exist (I'm not among them), and they continue to sell LPs and fill halls, but they never again saw a career-exploding popular and critical success like OK Computer.

I am not a Clash fan. I am a huge fan, though, of London Calling. In 1979, these guys recorded an album that explored ska, reggae, punk, rockabilly, and good old rock 'n' roll. It turned out to be the breakthrough they'd been looking for in the US, and went on to appear on not just the best-of-the-year lists by many rags, and not just best-of-the-decade (often making best of the '70s and best of the '80s list, despite being release in 1979), but best of all-time lists. Rolling Stone called it the eighth best record ever. They never had the same success again. They never pleased the critics or the public in the same way. Of course, hardcore Clash fans exist in great numbers, and they swallow up the discography like delicious foodstuff. But for most music fans, I think, London Calling is as deep into that discography as we need to get.

I won't go into detail on The Life Pursuit, except to say that B&S fans who have been around since Tigermilk will tell you that simply everyone who never much cared for B&S adored The Life Pursuit. Well, they've put out their follow-up, and it's . . . good. But I'm not listening to it repeatedly.

Or Pet Sounds. You want a WTF moment? I can only imagine what happened when a bunch of Jan and Dean fans slipped this slab of wax on their Victrolas, maybe expecting to hear the ilk of "Surfin' USA" or "California Girls." This is the album Paul McCartney played for John Lennon--over and over and over--and that was after they'd already done Rubber Soul. Come on!

And Pet Sounds is a great place to stop, because it highlights well the problem with such records: what followed for Brian Wilson--the LP's mastermind--was a "lost" LP called Smile. It was simply never good enough, and it didn't see the light of day until 2004, nearly 40 years after Pet Sounds was released. And that's the only truth about all these LPs I can figure: every artist I've mentioned simply never did it again. They struck absolute greatness--created some of the best and best appreciated music of all time--and then slipped toward mediocrity once again.

Why? Is it the grasping for greatness, having touched it once, that makes it impossible to hold (like soap in the shower, if you will)? That's the best explanation I can give. Of course, what might be more valuable is an answer to this: How did they hit greatness to begin with? The bands above didn't give any indication that they'd someday create such start-to-finish masterpieces, albums I would, at a moment of weakness, even call flawless. But they did.

I guess if we had an answer to that, we'd all have framed platinum records hanging in our living rooms.

*I checked, and Yoshimi is gold, while Soft Bulletin is not. My best guess is that Yoshimi was released to a public suddenly familiar with the Flaming Lips. Also, "Do You Realize?" was frequently used in commercials.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Here's the thing: By the time I get halfway through a first draft, my work has a name. It fits the story, as I see it, from the point where I start to actually see the story.

(The Tom Petty music in this coffee shop is too loud and makes it difficult for me to enjoy the Smiths and Noisettes and Belle and Sebastian and Avett Brothers in my headphones. The complicated musical collision is unpleasant and I keep making all the typos and losing track of sentences before I finish them.)

Where was I? Oh yeah. Titles. When I wrote |-1|, it was called Splinters. In my head, and to my wife, I still sometimes call it Splinters. It was only very recently that I renamed the folders in my PC, from Splinters to Absolute Value.

I've got a WIP right now--about a girl addicted to a popular MMORPG, losing her grip on reality--that I call A Terrible Mistake. The aspect of the plot that produced that title is now gone, but I think I'll always call it A Terrible Mistake in my mind.

There's this other one--I just sold it, and I got my revision notes from the AE last night--that I've been calling Two Summers around the Fire for, well, like a year, I guess. It takes place during two separate summers, and between them was a fire. But yeah, it sounds more like it's a camping story. (Is there such a thing as a camping story? I've never camped, so don't ask me.) Therefore, I exhibited exactly no surprise when that title had to go.

We brainstormed. Everyone I know brainstormed! Well, like five people I know brainstormed! I don't know a lot of people.


We came up with a few great ideas, several mediocre ideas, and a multitude of crap. (Have you ever seen a multitude of crap?! It's not what the angels had in mind, I can assure you.)

We narrowed it down. We bartered and haggled and compromised and held firm. We added commas. We took them back out. We put them back in. We added "is," and took it out again. We put it back. We capped it. We lowercased it. We took it out again. There was a comma under my desk, so I put that in. A question mark got stuck in my shoe and I had a limp for a week.

I went to the Metro State library and worked with the research librarian for 45 minutes to properly attribute a quote of Jeremy Taylor that he probably never actually said.

I watched this video like six times.

And this one.

And then this one, for no good reason. It's a freaking Four-Chord Song, but I couldn't stop. I'm going to watch it again.

Then, last night, I met with the AE at a coffee shop here in St. Paul, where we both live. While I waited for him to show, I watched this video again. I'll leave out the boring part, or at least save it for a post about revisions, and cut to the title--the final title for what was Two Summers around the Fire--and is now . . .

Brooklyn, Burning

Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Fire. Love. Arson. Sunrise, sunset. It's pretty perfect, really.

We found a witch.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wow, I have been the worst blogger of all time. I know, people are irritated when blog entries open with sentences like that. People are irritated by a lot of things, like car alarms or cat dander. Such is life.

We're back from our very short vacation! Here is the crazy house we stayed in. We loved it.

It was our first vacation as a family, unless you count trips to family events or obligations, which we don't, and if you go by those rules, which we did, it is even the first vacation for Beth and me as a married couple! Or even as a freaking dating couple! We never went anywhere! The point is, traveling with a toddler is a job of work. But Sam did love the lighthouse and the choo-choo. Here is Sam near the choo-choo.

He claims he liked the big boats as well, but there was only one, and we didn't board, and I don't think he was paying attention when we walked past it*.

Also, regarding Duluth: If you play Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening, and if you haven't yet bought the expansion Witch Hunt, don't. Why? Because (A) it's pretty boring and doesn't really answer any of your questions, and (B) Morrigan is working at the Duluth Grill. She's shorter in person, and isn't wearing that crazy outfit, but you wouldn't either because she's an apostate and has to stay on the DL, so she can't very well go around in that get-up with a staff on her freaking back, can she? If you have no idea what I'm talking about, all the better.

Out of respect for my adopted state, I did not wear my favorite baseball cap all weekend. But when the next series starts on Friday, it's back on my head. Don't give me any crap.

*Photos are by Beth, and from her new blog.

Blogtours, bidding

Friday, October 1, 2010

Did you miss my whole blog tour? I hope so, because now you can read the whole freaking thing right in a row.

But before the big list of links, let's talk about Swati Avasthi's just-beginning blog tour for charity! Here's a banner!

There's loads of great items--from signed books to MS crits--including a personalized |-1| and 100-page crit from me! Go bid right away.

In other news, I think we have a final title for Two Summers, and it ain't Two Summers, folks. It's better, I can say with astute clarity. I feel like using words that aren't entirely appropriate in context today. Anyway, I'll blog about titles and such soon.

Okay, so. My little blog tour. Here it is!

An interview with Noah, one of the |-1| narrators

A review of |-1| at The Hiding Spot

A short interview with me

A review of |-1| at Lauren's Crammed Bookshelf

A guest post at Lost for Words

A review of |-1| at Lost for Words

An interview with me

A review of |-1| at A Good Addiction

Another interview with me

A review of |-1| at The Book Scout