Saturday, May 23, 2009

sno white drive in

Sno White deserves its own entry. There are a few prerequisites to understanding its significance and I'll attempt to outline them here.

Fast food barely existed in the 60s. I think there was one McDonald's in our town, which I maybe got taken to twice as a child. I think burgers were had maybe 6-8 times a year. I know that's standard for people with hippie parents, but hippie parents hadn't even had a chance to conceive yet. They were still teenagers themselves. So I'm talking about just normal life in mainstream America. It wasn't that we were thinking about and craving fast food during the weeks and months we weren't getting it. It's that fast food was a blip on the radar; something that didn't occur to you very frequently.

I guess today its really the food of the poor, but back then poor people ate stuff (like corned beef and mashed potatoes, my favorite childhood meal) at home. The first time I tasted Spaghetti-Os, which was invented when I was about nine, I nearly spit it out. I had begged for weeks for my mom to buy it (she was definitely not a canned food/brand name kind of consumer, and Spaghetti-Os -- currently priced at 43 cents a can -- was considered expensive) and I was really embarrassed that I couldn't swallow more than a few bites. She was sympathetic. I mean, basically it's watery tomato-flavored sugar over O-shaped dough. But that just gives you an idea of how foreign "convenience" foods were.

All that changed in the 70s, when a frightening dystopic "restaurant row" went up in our town. Fast food was a fixture of my teen years. But not at all during childhood.

Okay, so keep that in mind. Fast food was rare. Next point: my aunt's steel blue station wagon. It was enormous and it was our caravan. My cousins (Betsy and Leslie, whose names never sounded hilarious to me until just now) and I hung out in the backseat on whatever chauffeured adventure. So picture yourself there on a hot summer day, coming home from the park or something. (You have to be me in this scenario, but it's only imaginary and it won't last, I promise.)

Your aunt says, "I think we'll drop in at Snow White's." Betsy and Leslie cheer. You reflect. Obviously, there is no "real" Snow White. But it's possible that there is some Snow White attraction that exists that you've never heard of but that your cousins evidently adore. Or that your aunt maybe knows somebody who is so much like Snow White that a whole nickname situation was engendered. You check. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?" Your aunt, thinking you are joking, plays along. Your cousins chime in on the joke, which continues in various forms for the next several minutes. The entire time your brain is continually recalculating the probability stats that you will soon be in the presence of the actual Snow White, and that probability is now approaching 95%.

Then you pull into the Sno White drive in parking lot. And -- drum roll please -- this turn of events is so dramatic that you are NOT disappointed. The opposite. The idea that you could casually, at the last moment, decide to "drop in" to a burger joint is about as extraordinary as you calling up a friend right now to go drink a milkshake in Paris.

The opulence. The decadence. It just wasn't done.

Sno White's menu was: Burger. Cheeseburger. Fries. Coke. Seven Up. Ice cream cone in the three standard flavors. It was dizzying. What to choose?

Their burgers were flat and crispy and that's what made them different. Buns were toasted and smeared with mayonnaise and secret sauce (which, as the movies have revealed to us, is forever thousand island dressing). I can't stand mayonnaise, but Sno White was a magical enchanted place where mayonnaise reigned supreme. The fries were thick krinkle fries that came pre-salted in a waxed paper envelope. Pre-salted, people. Can I get some appreciation here?

You lived one block away from Sno White until you were 10. At some point after you moved, it was converted into a taqueria. And although you grew up and became a vegetarian, a couple of times a year you fall asleep thinking about that particular taste that exists nowhere else in the world. You know the dull red of the laminated tabletops, you know the sound and feel of the cooler that ran in place of air conditioning, you know your cousin's standard order (burger, hold the mayo -- and she was the first person I ever heard say that in real life, 7-Up). You know everything about that place.

Except the fact that there are still eleven of them! And one of them is conveniently located right in the middle of your route to Yosemite!

I had to call my friend Richard, who keeps statues of the A&W family next to his swimming pool, and ask him if he knew that Sno White still existed. Even he didn't realize it! And have I mentioned that the entire A&W family stands next to his pool?

In closing, I'd like to take a moment to share this awe-inspiring photo with you. I defy even Yosemite to come up with something more beautiful.

i can't even write this

I'm currently in the throes of completing my first short story ever. And by throes I mean taking Sequoia on gratuitous walks and watching old news interviews of my friend's dad online.

Which reminds me -- I also bought this 1938 book online. A (different) friend's dad used to talk about this book and how it included charts and maps and instructions for pretty much throwing over your existing life for a life of adventure on the high seas. He had the book for a time but then lost it. I've always wanted to read it. Over the years, I've searched for it in used bookstores to no avail. Yesterday I suddenly remembered the internet. Five minutes and twelve dollars later, I became the proud owner. So yeah, that's what I'm doing instead of finishing my story, which is due a week from tomorrow.

So then I thought I'd write about my recent trip to Yosemite in order to ease in to um, the thing I supposedly want to do more than anything else in the world. But I found myself retyping my blog entry title six times, then stopping to marvel at how laughably fucked up I am. I suppose that's what separates actual writers from, uh, me.

But I digress. Yosemite was incredible, but there's almost too many stories to tell. In chronological order, there's:

1. Sno White drive in! I bet you didn't know that Sno White is indeed a chain and that there are 11 stores still extant in California. Because I sure didn't. I thought there was only one Sno White ever and that it had closed its doors on Chester Avenue way way back sometime after its heyday in the 60s. One screeching U-turn was all it took to semi re-experience the taste of a Sno White burger (which I couldn't bring myself to eat, although Michael assured me it was quite enjoyable).

2. The way Michael talks. It freaks me out that a British accent just never gets old for me. And although I've been listening to (or, er, tuning out) Michael for years, it's like there was this whole new "Yosemite Edition" Michael. Complete with phrases like, "Did you bring your torch?" and "I think I left my jumper in the bonnet." We did amazing things like "endeavor" to park closer and start on our hikes by "half past." Bob was our uncle for almost the entire trip.

Interestingly, when people ask me where I'm from when I'm in Berkeley, I know the answer is "Bakersfield." When they ask that in Yosemite, the response is obviously "Berkeley." But for Michael it's different, and I never thought about that before. Perhaps when he's in England he can be from Berkeley, but any other place in the world requires him to be from Cambridge. Whenever I told people that "we're" from Berkeley, they shot him a questioning, suspicious look that confused me but not him. He just smiled and nodded, "Originally from Cambridge." Oh.

3. People still don't know how to talk about tribes. All over Yosemite, there are official plaques that say things like, "The native peoples believed that this was inhabited by evil spirits that caused illness." No shit. Substitute "bacteria" for "spirits" and I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say they were right.

4. I'm always impressed by Yosemite's refusal to provide Disneyland-level safety for visitors, despite the Disney-like atmosphere. It's the fucking wilderness, candy coating notwithstanding. The schism makes my brain ache. Tiny children scrambling up slick wet rocks next to a sheer cliff overlooking the rapids. No one is afraid, and yet people actually do fall to their deaths here. In fact, a woman died the day before we arrived. I know her death affected everyone. But the next day, I watched people run down those same slippery rocks, jostling people as they passed. I can never figure out if I'm too afraid or if they aren't afraid enough.

5. Wilderness areas always trigger my inner Western civilization vs. Native American way of life debate. I totally love Western civilization. But wow, how fast do we screw up paradise? Tens of thousands of years of balance nearly gone within a hundred years.

Still, at one point I realized that only a very few people ever saw Yosemite valley before this past century. How weird is it that people lived and died there never knowing what a rare place it was? And that others may have lived and died just a few hundred miles away, never knowing it existed? I wish I could think about other things during camping trips. But I'd say that 80% of my brain space is taken up with "what was it like" and "what will it be like" and "what could have been."

The other 20% is taken up with my plan to (but not today) climb Half Dome.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

usually used

My latest brain craze is adverbs. A few weeks ago, a grad student criticized the number of adverbs in my hastily-written story (get it? get it? a little humor there). He then proceeded to give the best explanation in the history of written language about why to avoid adverbs.

He said, "Because everybody walks clumsily in a different way." I've been turning that over in my mind and have come to the conclusion that everyone is also cheerful in a different way, but the principle still holds. I revisited the subject a couple of days ago when I read a similar adverb cautionary tale on a writing website. Apparently it's Rule 14:

14. Avoid excessive use of adjectives and adverbs; trust the precision of your nouns and verbs. Verb form: the shorter the better. Avoid helping verbs and progressives. Avoid passive voice. Avoid cliche and stock phrases.

Has telling people to avoid stock phrases become cliche yet? If not, what day should I calendar that for? Anyway, the truth is that I remembered Rule 14 in much greater detail than it appears above. I thought it said to replace adverbs with strong verbs. I guess I embellished it during the course of my 48-hour obsession. In my mind, Rule 14 came complete with examples like:

"She eyed the chocolate greedily" vs "Her eyes consumed the chocolate."

You know, the kinds of examples that invite counter arguments. Like the fact that "eyed" is a strong verb and "greedy" is a strong adjective. It's true that "greedily" is no fun to trip over. But also true that "consumed" is a really impersonal verb -- the only reason it gets away with being cool in the sentence above is that it gets to hang out with the "eyes" noun. So which sentence is better? Seriously, I'm not sure.

Whatever, I started doing a whole adverb scan on Amazon books. Amazon writing technique scans deserve their whole separate blog entry! Maybe even an entire blog! I know I can't be the first person to realize that every novel in the history of every language is on Amazon, and that we get to read the first five pages instantly and for free. But no one has ever shared with me the marvel that is the Amazon WTS, so I'm taking credit for it as my own independent invention.

Beyond the whole adverb thing, I learned that good novels have this great "brain feel" from the very first word. Like the first moments listening to an orchestra in a concert hall. The music resonates in your body. For example, the first page of The Great Gatsby has phrases like, "privy to the secrets of wild, unknown men." Jesus Christ, how can you argue with that?

The first page also contains an adverb. And this is what fascinates me: Good writers do avoid adverbs. But they also use them, and in very specific ways. Which I'm attempting to scientifically (ha! another joke) outline here:

1. Idiom. Phrases like "Our team won handily" or "she wept openly" or "hardly ever" or "isn't necessarily so" really can't be communicated any other way. Those are the phrases. And we love them, adverbs and all. Same with temporal adverbs. You "usually" use them or "occasionally" use them, but you better at least sometimes use them because it's very hard to describe frequency without an adverb.

2. Character. People use adverbs, so characters use adverbs. Someone who says "we've always been unusually communicative" is telling you something about his education and background. Someone who says "...he mentioned someplace in Dorset, and his face beneath the blotches went into a completely new kind of grimace" is talking almost the way a person might actually talk, or at least think, or at the very least picture something. Replace "went into a completely" with "transformed into a" and you have a stiff, writerly construction in the middle of a sentence about illness and bad memories.

3. Third person. Adverbs start appearing more when people start talking about other people. I myself have never done anything "jerkily," but five constables might have come "jerkily into attention" before they "subsided into their usual sprawl."

4. Expedience. Not every moment in a story is some hushed perfect long drawn-out moment. Sometimes you just want to mention a thing in passing and go on to the next more important thing. Adverbs speed things up, or at least I suspect they do in some cases. For example, notice the two adverbs in the second sentence of Toni Morrison's A Mercy:

"Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark -- weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more -- but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bear teeth." Are we really going to want to slow down that incredibly long and interesting sentence in order to "lie in the dark without making a sound" or "see blood in certain moments"? "Quietly" and "occasionally" give us the images in real time.

5. Past events. We don't really need to be in the moment for stuff that happened before the action of the story takes place. If this is just background info, it's enough to say, "And then, miraculously, Adam's new job came through..."

And you've probably already started noticing that the examples that illustrate one use also illustrate a bunch of others. One adverb for a past event described by a character in third person using standard idiom... It seems like good writers often have more than one reason to plunk in an adverb.

I think the thing I liked best was noticing the purposes the adverbs served: the reason to avoid them is the same reason to use them. They keep you at a distance, out of the moment, they summarize. And sometimes that works perfectly for a particular moment in the story.

I think where adverbs go awry is when they make you "repaint" the story in your head. Like "walked across the room lightly" makes you first picture walking, then go back and picture it again, only this time "lightly." Tiptoed across the room places the picture in your head before you are even conscious of it being there. That's the kind of thing that creates great "brain feel." (Not that the above sentence is a terrific example. I'm just saying.)

Okay, last thing and then I'll put a stop to this whole anal retentive tiresomeness (at least I'll stop this one instance of it). I once took a physics class from a teacher who wrote her own textbook. The first chapter discussed the principle of Occam's razor, which is “The simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct explanation." (Actually, Wikipedia just explained to me that that's not exactly what he said -- he just wanted us to introduce the fewest assumptions and postulate the fewest entities. Let's pretend we didn't hear that.)

Anyway, I had learned about this principle at a snobby private college I'd attended in the past. Only there they acted like it was the kind of thing you defend to your death. In contrast, my physics teacher described it as a prejudice (I'm paraphrasing badly here; whatever it was she actually said carried no negative connotations). It was somehow soothing to read, "Look, we just all think simple explanations are cool so we're going to believe those whenever we get the chance. No offense to the funky complicated ones."

Applying this to adverbs -- ha! you thought I'd forgotten what I was talking about, didn't you? -- one of the standard reasons given for avoiding them is to "streamline" your writing. Which is a prejudice. And one that really didn't exist before the 1900s, if I understand the whole Hemingway phenomenon correctly. I mean, I'm all for adopting the styles particular to my era, but let's do what my old physics prof did: let's call a spade a spade.

Even better is finding out that this whole eschewing adverbs thing isn't just a passing fad. Which is why I'm so excited to learn that there are deeper reasons to avoid adverbs. Or use adverbs. Whichever makes things go most swimmingly.

Note: Adverb examples are from The Great Gatsby; Never Let Me Go; A Mercy; Sacred Games; and Unaccustomed Earth. And here you thought I was making all this up.