Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembering "Awesome"

I was twelve years old when I first saw Niagara Falls. I remember looking out at the water crashing over Horseshoe Falls and thinking that for the first time, I truly understood what "awesome" meant. The value of that discovery was short-lived, though; within a few years, "awesome" would have evolved into a designation for a new ice cream flavor, a solid test score or a plan to meet up after school.

It nagged at me from the beginning, the loss of that word. Though I'm something of a preservationist, I'm also a fan of clear communication. I do understand that the commonly accepted meanings of words sometimes evolve, and sometimes that serves a societal purpose. Sometimes, it does not.

"Awesome" was converted from a word with a unique meaning that conveyed something powerful into a shorthand reaction interchangeable with a dozen (or more) other words--and we no longer had a single word to clearly convey what "awesome" once meant. Sure, we can find workarounds--say "awe inspiring," for instance. But we had a perfectly good word for that, and it got broken.

I've been thinking about that word again recently, since general misuse and the gatekeepers of our vocabulary joined forces to steal "literally" from the English language. In essence, the word has been redefined to mean, "literally" or "not literally." Which, of course, means that it conveys nothing at all. It's as if we've decided that the word "warm" now means either "warm" or "cold"--at the user's discretion and without any designated context to help determine which opposing thing the speaker is trying to convey.

However language evolutionists might argue that updating the meaning of words aids in clear communication, the type of updating we're engaged in today does no such thing. Rather, it creates a rule of thumb that says that words don't actually have to mean a particular thing, and that a person speaking that word might mean anything at all. For example, she might mean "literally," or she might mean "figuratively."

Meanwhile, we've lost the use of a perfectly good word that made a clear and important distinction. The old "literally" served a purpose; the new one, by virtue of its conflicting meanings, cannot. And, once again, we'll have to find a multi-word workaround to express what "literally" used to say with crystal clarity.

Apparently, we've also redefined "evolution of language" to include "devolution of language."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Another Overnight Success Story Years in the Making

I “met” Thunder Levin minutes before his meteoric rise to fame (we’re all hoping fortune is soon to follow). I encountered Levin entirely by accident: I’m stalking late 80s heartthrob Richard Grieco*, and Levin wrote and directed Grieco’s most recent movie.

My research included the intriguing discovery that Levin’s AE: Apocalypse Earth (The Asylum’s “mockbuster’ answer to Will Smith’s After Earth) had climbed onto the list of the 50 most active movies on IMDB. In my book, this was already a pretty significant win, but it doesn’t begin to compare with what happened to Levin just weeks later, when a little film he’d penned by the name of Sharknado set Twitter on fire and drew news coverage from channels as far-flung as Good Morning, America! and The New Yorker.

It turns out that a little thing like 5,000 Tweets per minute can have a big impact on a writer’s career, and Thunder (who is also a director, though he didn’t direct Sharknado) now has a new agency representing him and bright prospects ahead. And I’m very glad he does—he’s witty, intelligent and well-informed, which is basically my checklist for people I’d like to see capturing more public attention. And, I happen to know that he has a little project called 2176 in development that I’m interested to see on the big screen.

I suspect that most of you never heard of Levin before last week, but that doesn’t mean he came out of nowhere. In fact, his earliest director’s credit dates back to 1992, when he was just 27 years old. My point isn’t to say, “Man, this guy’s old!” (he’s a year older than I am), but to drive home the fact that—like most people who suddenly catch the public eye in the creative arts—Levin has been building the foundation for years.  Decades, even.  And although I haven’t asked him, I’d wager that he never expected Sharknado to be the vehicle that brought his big break.

The moral of the story is one you’ve heard a thousand times before (and probably at least 500 of them from me): you never know when the first crack in the door is going to appear, or when the right piece of work is going to catch the attention of the right person or when the life-altering opportunity is going to come along. You might never expect that it will arrive on the tail of a flying shark, but sometimes it does. And the only way to get to that moment is to keep building the foundation in every way you can, doing what you were meant to do, finding a way to make it pay and being ready to move quickly when you see that sliver of light along the edge of the door.

*No, not that kind of stalking. I'm hoping that Richard will agree to be the subject of my next, "no, really, there's a lot more to this guy than you realize" biography.  So far, he's kind of a tease.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who Stole My Phone Booth?

I wrote this article in 2005, for a website called CoolStuff4Writers. Though I've obviously written much more significant pieces in my career, this one received a resounding response--probably because so many of us feel like imposters while we're out there in the world doing what we do best. The article archives went offline a few years ago, and I though it was lost forever, but recently re-discovered the original draft on an old back-up, here it is.

Unthinking, I answered my cell phone in Wal- Mart. We were buying supplies for the Daisy Girl Scout meeting that night and I was absorbed in the variations of color and shape in the sequin packets when I found myself absently saying hello to a musician who's been making appearances on the Australian equivalent of the Billboard Top 40 for more than thirty years.

I was a teenager and Rick Springfield was a superstar when I decided, more than twenty years ago, that I was going to write his biography. I guess that makes me living proof that teenage dreams come true...but somehow I thought it would be different. I thought I would pack the lunches and distribute the milk money and sort the homework and drop off the kids, and then I'd transform from "Mom" into "Biographer to the Stars" like Wonder Woman spinning away Diana Prince. I'd buy the right clothes...except that when I went out to do that, I stepped out of the dressing room to hear my mother laughing. "I wouldn't wear the Velcro gym shoes," she said, "they kind of mark you as a soccer mom." I'd fly off to Los Angeles to do interviews...except that when I did that, I had to call home three or four times a day. I'd meet the coolest people...except that I already knew the coolest person, and I didn't have to fly anywhere to see her.
I wanted to be a superhero. I really did. But I couldn't find my phone booth.

My daughter was everywhere, and when I stopped and thought about it I realized that there was a simple reason for it: I wanted her there. Being a mom was an important part of who I was, and my daughter was just about the most important thing I could imagine. In an earlier age, that might have meant making a choice, but the logistics were manageable. The issue was one that apparently existed only in my own mind, an idea that it was somehow unprofessional to be a mother.

When I'd been teaching, I had never given it a thought, blithely standing before pre-law students with a bunny sticker on my jacket and calling home during the break to say goodnight. But the "Biographer to the Stars" I envisioned wouldn't wear Velcro gym shoes, not even to the grocery store. She could fly away on a moment's notice without having to worry over childcare, and she would never be hiding a chocolate handprint behind her lapel. She would not reach into her bag for a pen and come out with a crayon, nor would there ever be a My Pretty Pony in the pocket of her dress coat. Not even a very small, unobtrusive yellow one.

The news flash that shouldn't have been a news flash is that most people are parents. On the loading dock behind the EFX Theatre at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, I interviewed an actress/musician who had just released her first solo CD. At the end of the interview she took my hand and led me to her dressing room saying, "I have to show you my son." In Los Angeles my interview with a record producer with more than two decades of success behind him was interrupted briefly while he made sure that his teenage daughter had sunscreen on before she left for the beach. At a concert in Chicago the bass player brought his four-year-old son out to play the drums. I began to suspect that many people had Velcro gym shoes hidden in their closets.

Not long afterward, I realized that just as many people kept them on a mat in plain view of the front door.

I happily tucked that knowledge into my pocket alongside the glow-in-the-dark plastic alien and took to the road again, this time secure in the knowledge that the glamorous people I met along the way would understand--and maybe even approve--when I reached for a business card and came out with a gap-toothed first grade portrait instead.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Writers Don't Get Hazard Pay

This is a story I didn't tell publicly for a very long time, for reasons I expect are obvious.  But a lot of years have passed, and I don't think I've ever shared the story with anyone who didn't say it was "great" (or some variation thereof).  So...what the hell?  Here it is.  I think it shows Rick Springfield for the exceptional person he is, despite the fact that it begins with a head injury.

In the summer of 2000, I was already writing about Rick Springfield and had corresponded with him a bit by email, but I’d never met him in person. So, when he bounced a camera off my head and gave me a concussion at the Taste of Minnesota in July, he didn’t know who I was.

At that time, Springfield had a habit of taking a camera from someone in the crowd, photographing himself and tossing it back to her.  This had been working out for months and of course the audience loved it.  But at the Taste of Minnesota, there was a barrier about ten feet out from the stage. That meant that when Rick threw the camera back, it wasn’t the gentle toss we’d all become accustomed to. 

Someone reached up to catch it, the camera tipped off her hand and bounced…right into my forehead. Hard.  The corner caught me above the left eye and immediately my forehead started to swell.

Thus far, it may be difficult to see how this becomes another “Why I love Rick Springfield” moment, but here’s what happened next:

Rick saw the camera hit me and he dropped his guitar and jumped off stage. Remember the barrier that caused all this trouble in the first place?  He climbed over it and was standing in front of me in seconds.  After asking if I was all right and kissing my forehead, he dispatched someone nearby for ice. Then, he picked up my then-five-year-old daughter and hugged her, started to turn away and then stopped and said, “She feels hot.  Is she okay?” 

And then, while thousands of people waited patiently (yes, really) for him to get back on stage and finish the song, he waited for an answer.  It was only after I showed him that she had plenty of liquids that he turned away again.

To be totally honest, I don’t remember him kissing my head.  After all, I had a concussion!  I’ve heard about it from a lot of people, though—some of them said I was “lucky”.  I’m not going to go that far.  I was in a lot of pain and six hours from home, I had to cancel family portraits we had scheduled for the following week when my stepchildren were visiting, I couldn’t drive for a couple of weeks and my poor husband got dirty looks everywhere we went over the vibrant black eye I developed. 

I was, however, very impressed when, about 15 minutes after the show resumed, Rick walked to the part of the stage directly in front of us and asked the people standing near me whether I was really okay.  I even remember that part.