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Monday
Jul092012

The Belmont, the Best Damn Band, And Why I’m Suddenly Bein’ All Drama-y Up In Here

So I just did something very scary, and that scary thing was to delete the coverage of the Belmont from the DVR.  Before writing about it.

I don't believe in writer's block in the traditional sense; I think when people say they they're "blocked," it's more a sense of not having decided what to say, and it happens far more in academic writing than the mental finger-painting I do here.  Or, you know what to say-- you're not just sure of the best way to say it.  So you're paralyzed from the right brain down.

But is time I listened to my own balks.  It’s been a month now, and I cannot write this post.  It’s not like I don’t know what to say (I was there! I have notes!) and it’s not that I don’t want it said (the stack of note-scraps on my desk in the POST-BELMONT POST pile is unwieldy and alarming) and it’s not for lack of work ethic (last week I dedicated a full 90 minutes to vigorously scrubbing the floor vent behind my office door, because I thought it looked unhappy.) It’s just that I… can’t.  I cannot bring myself to write this thing.

Still, I didn’t hit that delete button lightly (and what a world we now live in, when one may dramatically cross some sort of career Rubicon by firmly pressing “OK.”) Some have (rather terrifyingly) informed me that Blonde Champagne is their sole source of knowledge about horseracing.  That’s an enormous responsibility, especially in situations such as this. I have a degree in political science, which, as we all know, is only useful every four years when nobody understands the electoral college again.  In the same way, people normally don’t much care that I write about Thoroughbred racing until approximately 30 seconds before the Belmont during a Triple Crown threat, at which point I am deluged with questions and clarifications:  Can (insert horse’s name here) do it?  Will (insert horse’s name here) resurrect the struggling Thoroughbred industry?  What’s up with all the pooping on the way to the gate (the horses, not me)? 

All important questions. 

But lately, I’ve been wondering if I’m the right person to answer them.

When I began writing, it was under the influence of columnist Dave Barry, one of the finest humorists in American letters.  He did this stuff with words and I’d be left staring at the Sunday paper wondering if it was in fact the same English language I’d been speaking all my life.  His writing was enormous and everyday and full of adjectives and it pissed everybody off.   And I wanted to be just like him, only with a uterus, and less divorced.

Dave Barry won the Pulitzer Prize.  He won it eight years after he began writing humor regularly.  And, when he’d secured the big fat right to sit on his ass and spit forth 800 words a week about the same exploding toilet that exploded last week, he flipped down his laptop and walked away.

He said he “wanted to try other things.”  And he did, and now he seems quite happy writing childrens’ books and a few annual features.  But really, I think the truth is in this quote:  “I write newspaper columns. Nobody ever makes newspaper columns into Major Motion Pictures starring Tom Cruise. The best you can hope for, with a newspaper column, is that people will like it enough to attach it to their refrigerators with magnets shaped like fruit.”

There’s a lot of life unfolding before those magnets.  Even with the advent of digital photography and Life As a Pinterest Board, refrigerators are America’s Louvre—our Smithsonian.  They’re simultaneously the best of us and who we really are.  We don’t put what we don’t like up there.  The photos which grace the freezer door might contain unattractive children, but chances are pretty good that those kids are of our own flesh or spirit.  An 85% on a math test isn’t going to get you into Harvard, but it’s better than last week’s 72%, so up on the fridge it goes.  When Julie The Nephews Mama and Country The Brother In Law received the stratospherically high scores from their compatibility survey during pre-Cana, I will give you one guess where my mother stored them.

So you could do much, much worse than a legacy held aloft by the plastic strawberries of lower Texas and Upper Mishawalka.  But it’s not the Bush administration anymore, I’m not a little girl kneeling over the paper on the kitchen floor, and I’m not, never could dream of being, and never should be, Dave Barry. 

Dave Barry’s columns, brilliant as they are, adhered to a formula.  He knows this.  He’s talked about it in interviews.  I do not state this as a matter of disrespect; it’s a highly intelligent formula, and one which worked.  And about ten years ago I noticed that the most powerful pieces he wrote weren’t very funny at all.  They were about visiting the crash site of Flight 93 and his mother getting older.  And I wondered, “But this is thoughtful and beautiful and fine.  Why doesn’t he write like this more often?”

I think perhaps he was wondering the same thing; that, having conquered the refrigerator door, perhaps he would now take a shot at the office shelf.  That’s a terrifying thing for an author to do.

And now I pick up his column collections and realize that some of them are nearly incoherent without the political and social context in which they were written.  As is the case with a volume of political satire on my bookshelf entitled Convention Articles, by Will Rogers.  The bulk of it was written in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.  And, like Dave Barry’s work, it is spectacular.  But there are 29 pages of single-spaced footnotes explaining why what the reader has just read about Tom Heflin and the 18th Amendment is in fact hilarious.

There is, of course, a vital place for this in life, in American culture.  It’s not just a diversion; it’s a necessity.  It’s how we release the tension of the doctor appointments and the grocery list and the dwindling bank account.  In the ‘80’s, Americans needed failing S&L jokes and cheap shots at John Sununu.  That is what we knew.  That is what we needed to laugh at.  And historically, these works are extremely valuable; they shed a light on what was boiling through pop culture—what we cared about, what we fretted over, what joined the air over the dinner table with the aroma of meat loaf and mashed potatoes.   

(I swear to you that this all has to do with the Belmont.)

I do not in any way think that career or talent-wise, I’m anywhere near Will Rogers and Dave Barry.  I do think, however, that I grow weary of Bieber name checks.

It’s not that I think I’m above this sort of insta-snark, or that I’ve so perfected the art that I must toss aside all references to Snuggies until further notice.  I just need to… shake the EtchASketch.

I’ve done this before.  Those of you who have been with me for a while remember that I deployed my political science degree on a mighty regular basis.  You see, when I truly began writing as a teenager, the Internet was around, complete with Matt Drudge, and talk radio was there too, but this sticky webbing of media wasn’t woven into daily life the way it is now.  Still, I stopped writing political satire after the 2004 election, wrung out by the mean and exhausted by the frantic daily nuances that, in the end, just didn’t matter when it came to what was blue and what was red and what was going to stay that way.  And my writing, I think, got better.

It needs to get better some more.

Part of the issue here (I almost typed “problem,” but that sounds whiny.  Returning from a month in Ohio to ants in the sink in Alabama is a “problem”.  A really gross one.  This, rather, is An Issue To Be Discussed) is the forward march of social networking.  In its earliest days, Blonde Champagne, which began about year after I moved to Florida, was my de facto Facebook page.  If my far-flung friends and family wanted to know what was happening with me... here you go.  Entries sometimes consisted of a line or two or a single picture with a pissy caption. 

Once I found that the office manager had accidentally dumped my Ziplocked lunch into the trash in a rather draconian kitchenette sweep, and I took to the blogwaves to survey everybody plus The Readers about the matter, because I was assured of a consensus by the first coffee break.  You know what I use now for these same precious bits of wisdom and crowdsourcing?  Actual Facebook. 

And.  You know what the first thing I do is as soon as I hit the alarm clock?  I don’t pray.  I don’t check to make sure all limbs are still attached.  I check my Facebook notifications, on the grounds that if I need to pray especially hard about something, such as the fact that an arm or leg has gone, I’ll find out about it there, and in a far more entertaining fashion than if I made the discovery myself. 

Insta-snark and drive-by writing is a way of life now, and there are others who wield it far better than I do… faster… and before a larger audience.  Why voice my opinion on the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare when 5842 Twitter accounts are already instantaneously voicing it for me in a far superior manner by almost every conceivable metric?  This blonde has already made her 140-character stand, and it will be but a very pale shadow of Jim Gaffigan’s.

(And of course in about 5 years, if not less, this whole Facebook discussion itself will be outdated.  People will be pointing and laughing, and not in the good, revenue-generating way:  “Oh, Facebook changed the way she writes on Blonde Champagne, did it?  Did she realize that while rewinding the mix tapes on her Walkman, or while dropping off the film from her 110 camera?”)

Actual Facebook is simultaneously quicker and more far reaching.  But what’s missing is that sometimes these neurodumps turned into multi-paragraph musings which were rarely useful or illuminating of themselves, but which served as excellent writing practice and encouraged me to think beyond pronouncements of 140 characters.  This means that more often than not, my non-income writing output consists of typing “That’s what she said” over a cell phone photo of a sign reading “PULL OUT.” 

There’s never any shame in a solidly delivered TWSS, mind you, provided it’s done correctly—it’s a I'm not sure this is a good look for me.modern subgenre of Fruit Magnet writing, with reTweets and shares standing in for the magnet.  It’s just that now I’m surrounded by mounds of interview notes and photographs and books and CDs as a result of my time with The Ohio State University Marching Band, and… they changed me.  They changed not just my writing style.  They changed me

When they perform the ramp entrance and Script Ohio, they are of the moment and yet eternal.   What they do has been done for decades before they were born, and yet the 18 year old rookies bring fresh air to the mouthpieces.  As I type this, the Band is rebirthing itself, the yeast leavening in the heat of summer sessions, the members who were holding up the middle of the totem pole now acting as squad leaders, the new graduates keeping watch over these high schoolers who don’t know a toe point from a toe pick.  It is their responsibility to pass this knowledge, minute by minute, session by session, year by year, via transmission of sweat and concrete.  And, since they entrusted me, an outsider, with their lives and their pure brass shouts from the center of the state and the center of themselves, it’s my responsibility, too.

I spoke about the heavy weight of this to R Row member Stephanie, just appointed to her dream job as a high school band director.  “I feel like,” she said, “we’re saying... here.”  She mimed tenderly cupping her hands about an ethereal, priceless item, then gently pushing it across the table to me to me, as though transferring a certain measure of moonlight.  Their trust.  Their music.  Their reputations, themselves, all in my hands.

I just don’t think I’ll be worthy of communicating that if the bulk of my daily writing concentrates on what color Bob Costas’ hair is today.  They deserve more.  And so do you.  And so do I. 

This does not of course mean that I’m leaving of-the-second humor writing behind forever and irrevocably.  You have Katie Couric to thank for this:  As I was first coming to this realization, I walked past a television set which bellowed that KATIE WAS MEETING QUEEN ELIZABETH II, which turned to be a fascinatingly, horribly awkward ten-second conversation at a Windsor Castle garden party attended by one skillion other people.  And you have never seen any human being less impressed to be in the presence of Katie Couric.  The Queen was everything polite, but it was also entirely obvious that her very handbang resented the fact that this be-flipped Yank was standing on her lawn.  My media-destroying sense of schadenfreude and I enjoyed this immensely.  I had to tell someone about it.  And so I told all of you.

So if it happens, it happens.  But it will likely crop up in venues other than Blonde Champagne, and I’m not going to force it.  I don’t want my writing to come from a place in which I sit down before the output of another human being and say “There must be something to eviscerate here.”

I want it to come from this place:

A few months ago, I sat across from Jason The Ridiculously Awesome and said, “I want your great-grandchildren to be able to pull this book off the shelf and truly understand what you did.  The whole band, all of you—that is what I want for you.”

Jason has a stock response for the issuance of these authorly pronouncements, which is to stay very still and gaze at me with an expression which I download as 98% I Am Emotionally Moved But Not Really Sure What to Say About This, Exactly and 2% sheer terror.  But I am pretty sure it was a positive reaction.  Now it's up to me to deliver on that promise.

My horseracing liveblogs began as a “hatred born of love,” as Antoine de Saint Exupery says; I was furious that this gorgeous sport was becoming distilled to a three-hour Technicolor gloss of shitfaced celebrities and sideshow ponies.   So I flung everything furious I had at it, kicks and punches and all the kitchen knives.  I’m not sorry I did that.

I'm truly petrified here.  My own mother says she likes my first kind of writing best.  You'd think she'd know.

I mentioned at the top of this post that I’m not Dave Barry or Tom Wolfe or Florence King or any other of my writerly influences, because they themselves were born of their own influences, childhoods, and education.  What’s going to make me read (rhyme that with “fed,” as in “read by others") is what makes me different.

What makes me different?  Am I, in fact, different?

I’m not entirely sure, but here, ten years after college and one second from the first paragraph of my second book, I think I’m beginning to find out.

You’ll find out with me?

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