NaNoWriMo Update

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Those of you that have followed my blog since November know that I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I completed the 50,000 words in one month part of the challenge and had no dissatisfaction with the fact that my novel was far from completed even after I crossed that finish line.

December, I vowed, would bring 50,000 more words to my tale.  This didn’t happen.  January, then, would be the month that I completed the rough draft.  That didn’t happen either.  February, the shortest month on the calendar, was all that I needed to get back on track and finish the book.

In the three and a half months that followed my 50k word November victory, I was only able to write 58k more words on the novel.  Part of it revolved around time management issues as well as my increasingly busy schedule.  I knew that these were just excuses though.

My real problems had everything to do with the actual story.  I decided on the fly to throw a monkey wrench into my narrative.  It was a rich, action-packed plot choice that would push my characters to see who they really were and just how far they were willing to go in order to survive another day in the zombie-ridden post-apocalyptic landscape.

And for a while, it was a great decision.  They story continued to write itself.  Sentences turned into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages, pages into thousands and tens of thousands of words.  Suddenly, I was writing an 800-page story, and this was just the first in a series.  I waffled between reeling the plot back in and continuing on my epic journey or splitting the book I was writing into two books.  I didn’t like the latter option.  At all.  It felt like I was moving the finish line closer to me so that I could still say that I finished a full book.

But eventually I had to concede that this wasn’t one extremely long story.  It was two stories that I was trying to put into one book.  I made peace with this, revised my outline, and got excited about where I was heading again.

Then my perspectives came back to bite me in the ass.  I have 5 characters telling my story.  For a while, three of them were fighting for their lives while the other two were bickering and whining and engaging in conflicts that were trivial by comparison and boring to write.  I would fly through those three action-packed perspectives before stalling out on another “talky” chapter.  I  added a wrinkle to their problems to make everything life and death.  I was back on track!

And yet I still had trouble writing the story.  I knew where it was going, and how I was going to get there.  I just couldn’t make myself sit down and be motivated.  When I did write, I was telling the story, not showing it.

All of the changed plans had slowed my pace and filled my head with regrets about what I had written previously.  By splitting this into two books, I had entire subplots that I had procrastinated on and they wouldn’t even begin before I wrote my last line.  Continuity had become a nightmare that I was trying so hard to ignore in order to keep pressing on.  The pace of the story was horrendous.  The climax felt artificial.  There was no build to it.  It just happened to the characters all of a sudden.  I just wanted to drown all of these thoughts out and finish the rough draft, but I couldn’t make it happen.  I wasn’t doing the story justice with the half-hearted writing I was churning out just to get through it.

So I quit.

Well, not exactly.  I decided to just call this hot mess a first draft, despite the missing third act.  I paid good money to print it out and bind it.  I know that it should have felt like cheating, but it didn’t.  It just felt right.  The feeling of those 213 single-spaced pages in my hands only reinforced this.

Which leads me to where I stand today.  I’m sorting through my mythology to make sure that it makes sense before I actively apply it to governing my universe.  I’m deciding what details to slowly unravel throughout the course of this first book.  I’m fleshing out my characters better so that I can give their perspectives a richer voice.

After I’ve finished all of that, I will go start reading through this first draft.  I’ll take a red pen to it and scribble in every inch of the margins.  I will keep my chin up.  I know that the storytelling was a catastrophe, but it’s littered with tons of decent and even pretty good writing that might just survive into much later drafts.

Yeah, I cheated.

Yeah, I moved the finish line closer to me so that I could cross it and start patting myself on the back.

No, I don’t feel bad about it.  Not one bit.

UPDATE:  To be perfectly honest, I wrote this post several weeks ago but didn’t get around to scheduling it until now.  I have since flipped the order of my next steps.  I was hashing out mythology and starting to compile a character questionnaire when I ran out of steam again.  

The remedy, I supposed, was to start rereading the damn thing before going into such granular details about the characters.  I’m only three chapters into the tome.  I’ve had a lot of difficulty making time for it because I take copious notes as I go.  Even though it didn’t help me regain my momentum, it has done so much more for helping me understand my characters than any questionnaire ever could.  

I feel like instinctively I know who they are, what they want, how they will react given any scenario.  Further bolstering this notion are the notes that I’ve taken about these first chapters that I wrote so long ago, way before I knew who these people were deep down in their souls.  

I won’t bore you with the gory (very, very gory) details.  I just wanted to confide in everyone that I lost a lot of urgency after November 30th and see if the wisdom of the internet has any recommendations to help me light a fire under my ass again. 

Dinosaur DAVE 2: The Smoldering Ruins

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This is the thrilling conclusion to Monday’s post, titled “Dinosaur DAVE.”

Here is a mediocre summary of that post (if you want quality, you should go back and read the damn thing.  It isn’t that long, you bum.):  I had a crush on a girl named Mallory who was going through a prolonged break up with her high school boyfriend back home.  After they finalized everything, I gave her time to recover from that relationship before pursuing her myself.  During this time, an inconsiderate scumbag named Dave moved in on her and treated her like dirt for a while.  She complained to me about it.  I listened.  Friend zone.  Forever.  I joked that Dave was mentally handicapped to make myself (and Mallory too I guess) feel better about the situation, hence “DAVE” in all caps as if it is being yelled by someone who isn’t too smart.  Eventually I told her that I couldn’t stand by and listen to her complain about this human piece of garbage any longer because I had feelings for her.  She turned me down.

And here we are today.

I wanted to be the bigger person and not hold her lack of feelings for me against her, but she bought into that ruse too heavily and started saying things that felt like her throwing the rejection in my face.

Example:  When discussing a theory from a nearby, practically all-male engineering school stating that UCF girls were easy, Mallory thought it would be a swell idea to consult me on the matter.  Me. The guy that she just turned down.  Like less than a week ago.  UCF girls certainly weren’t easy for me!

I knew that she didn’t mean it that way and that she was just following my lead, pretending as if it had never happened.  Still, it wasn’t an isolated incident.  The most frustrating part of it all was that I knew it wouldn’t be right to yell at her over something stupid just because I wasn’t in a great place at the time.  So I pushed it all down, smiled, and acted like everything was okay.

My solution was to just get some time away from her for a while.  The problem was that Mallory and I were at the center of a group of friends who were growing more and more close-knit every drunken weekend.  Getting time away from her meant excluding myself from a group that people kept giving me credit for forming.

I mentioned this whole “getting space from Mallory” plan to my extremely close friend at the time, Elle.  Prescient of our friendship’s impending collapse over the next year, Elle ignored my feelings and showed up at my dorm room with Mallory in tow, literally within 24 hours of the conversation.

Eventually, I did get a little bit of space from Mallory when she went out of town with Elle and some other friends.  The time and space helped me to articulate where my head was without losing my temper or getting upset.  When she got back, we had a good chat and I told her how I felt and asked for some time to process the fact that we were never going to be together.  She respected that and kept her distance until I started getting closer to her again, then she followed my lead and we went on to be good friends for a couple years before slowly drifting in separate directions.

Mallory went on to date several guys that weren’t very nice to her.  I guess that was her type at the time.  I’m so glad I didn’t fit that mold.

I went on to fall deeply in love with one of her close friends from back home (we’ve been together for five years now).

Dinosaur DAVE

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Several months into Spring semester, I developed a crush on Mallory, the roommate of my fellow Area Council building representative.  She was tall with long brown hair and glasses.  She loved The Beatles and just seemed like an all around interesting girl.

For those keeping count of the number of times that I state this fact:  “Like every other freshman college girl everywhere in the entire universe, she was in a collapsing/dysfunctional relationship with her high school boyfriend who was back home/somewhere else” – I think this makes three or four.  (To anyone who goes through and tallies this up – I will send you that stupid “coupon for a six-pack of beer” thing that nobody took me up on back in my Mario Kart post).

Also, bonus points to anyone who remembers Mallory as the girl who invited the future love of my life to go to a movie with us because she was afraid I was asking her out on a date.

What started as curiosity blossomed into a sturdy little crush when she and her boyfriend back home finally broke up.  It was the first girl that I had really, really liked in several years (apologies to girls that I dated in those last two years of High School).  I knew that I needed to play it safe or else I would blow my chance with her.

Thus arose the question:  How long do you let a girl who just got out of a long-term deal sort through the break up before moving in and sweeping her off her feet?

While I contemplated the answer, a dirtbag named Dave came out of nowhere and started an on-again off-again series of hook ups that Mallory had absolutely no idea how to interpret.  Luckily, she had Brantley to ask for advice.

While a nice guy contemplates the right thing to do, a jerk will snatch the girl that he likes.  Every.  Time.

If you ever, ever, ever fill in as a “good listener” for a girl with a predilection for jerks, you will be in the friend zone hence forth forever until the end of time.  Girls who go for guys that treat them badly love to wonder aloud where all of the nice guys are.  They especially love to wonder aloud where all of the nice guys are while talking to nice guys.

Sometimes doing the right thing is a one way ticket to the friend zone.

And so I listened to Mallory complain about Dave and tried to help her make sense of his latest douche baggery.  All the while, my crush became more and more transparent and several friends noticed.

I started mocking Dave, pretending that it was to make Mallory feel better.  In all reality though, when I bent my arm awkwardly and shouted “DAVE” like a baby T-rex that fell head first down several flights of stairs – it was to make myself feel better.  It caught on a bit amongst several of our mutual friends – frustrated onlookers as Mallory tried to elicit some semblance of care or interest from DAVE.

When things were winding down with DAVE, I couldn’t hold back anymore.  I couldn’t let this window of opportunity pass me by.  I walked Mallory home from an event one night and when we were all alone and she brought up DAVE, I told her that I couldn’t listen to her complain about this guy treating her like crap anymore because I really, really liked her and thought that she deserved better (and of course I also mentioned that I could be that hypothetical guy to treat her better).  She politely, waffly declined with some sort of “not right now, maybe later” remark that put a pep in my step for the entire 30 minutes that it took for me to realize that nothing was never going to happen with this girl.

Join us Thursday to read about how Brantley sifts through the rubble of his newly broken heart while trying to maintain his kindness in the now-awkward presence of a seemingly inescapable Mallory.

Sketchesaurus Rex

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Early on in our doomed friendship, Elle used to be courteous enough to ask before bringing people over to my dorm room to drink.  After asking permission, she brought two friends from back home over one night, Ashlyn and Katie.

Little did I know, these two girls would go on to become some of my closest friends in the entire world.  You probably won’t ever know much about them, though.  There’s no conflict there.  Functional relationships make such boring stories.

The second night that Ashlyn and Katie came over, Elle asked on Ashlyn’s behalf if it was alright for her to bring a friend over.  I jokingly asked if it was an attractive girl.  It wasn’t.  It was some random dude.  I should have known better, but I said, “Sure!  Bring him on over!”  At this point I was still searching for the wingman that my roommate would never be.

See Ashlyn, like every single other freshman girl in every college in the universe everywhere was in a dysfunctional relationship with her high school boyfriend back home.  It was on its last legs, but there it stood.  For a really.  Long.  Freaking.  Time.

In a low point, she and her boyfriend were separated enough for her to meet another guy.  His name was Kyle, and not the Kyle with the glass mice pipe that caught my hair on fire.  This Kyle was a different breed entirely.

He was tall and lanky.  Like so many freshman guys, he was experimenting with that patchy facial hair that any loving parent would tell their son to shave.  Seeing as how boys didn’t bring their parents to college with them, many amass truly trashy half-formed goatees and greasy looking mustaches.

I was never one to judge, though.  Even today I can’t grow any facial hair worth mentioning.  The son of a man whose upper lip I have never seen in my entire life – a testament to the resiliency of his mustache – hair only grows underneath my chin in the itchiest of areas.  I boast to my beautiful girlfriend that I’ll grow a ‘stash someday, but it’s a very empty threat.

Kyle dressed like a good ol’ boy.  Just by looking at him, I immediately knew that he wasn’t the type of guy that I would have reached out to for friendship.  As a refugee from Alabama, I tend to avoid the redneck type, though most of them are fine folks (I’m just not creative enough to come up with anything to talk to them about).

His social skills weren’t strong.  It wasn’t a good situation for someone with that problem to be in.  He was the new guy, the stranger in a room of friends who were getting closer and closer every Thursday night.  

Needless to say, Kyle didn’t know how to act.  He was a little off when we were playing beer pong, but it didn’t really show until we folded up the ping pong table.

That’s when he hijacked the music.  In my iTunes library was a cornucopia of stand up comedy albums.  They were outstanding for road trips, but obviously not party soundtracks.  Kyle disagreed.  He clicked through them one by one, quoting the ones that he recognized and chuckling at my desk at the ones unfamiliar to him.

By now he had amassed enough small transgressions to walk the line between being annoying and outright creepy.  In a move that I’m quite amazed actually worked, I offered sanctuary for the women in my bed.  It was just the standard issue dorm bottom bunk, but I had made it into a vampire cave by hanging a long blanket from the top bunk so that I didn’t have to worry about sunlight when I slept all day.  (Complementing this effort was the cardboard box that the ping pong table came in, which I had taped up over the one window in the room in a fire hazard that even my laid back RA had to acknowledge).

In the comfort of my bed, the ladies and I drunkenly began hatching a plan to ditch Kyle without calling it a night.  I don’t remember the specifics, only that it was far, far, far more elaborate than it needed to be. I think we all made up separate excuses for needing to leave suddenly.  So many beers in, we must have figured that this would be believable.

Meanwhile, Kyle recognized that the bed was too full and that it would be crossing a line (even for him) to join me and all these females in my hibernation cave.  Instead, he thought it would be funny to poke at the blanket that closed it in.  I couldn’t help but wonder how ridiculous he looked in doing this, and he was really baiting my curiosity with the strange noise he made each time he pushed on the blanket.  I crawled across people to get to the foot of the bed.  Through the bed posts, I saw his strange motion, a cobra-like half-witted karate chop accompanied by sound effects reminiscent of that old Batman TV show.

Either completely clueless, or sadly aware that we wanted him to leave, Kyle eventually parted ways from us and we reunited to go to Whataburger to discuss the strangeness of our night.

After brainstorming nicknames for the guy, we settled on Sketchesaurus Rex.  He was the king dinosaur of creepers.  To this day we still give Ashlyn a hard time about inviting people places, joking that we never know when she will bring along the next Sketchesaurus.

If this story seems cruel to poor Kyle, it wasn’t meant to be.  He gave off a really bad vibe and he made his very presence extremely uncomfortable to endure.  We weren’t mean to his face and we didn’t gossip about him behind that blanket.  Our covert communication’s sole intent was to get him out of there so that we could get late night junk food.

We never partied with him again after that night, though we exchanged tales of “Sketchesaurus Sightings” around campus.

Fate is funny.  For all I know the guy could be a billionaire by now, surrounded by a slew of beautiful women to enjoy stand up comedy CDs with.  If he is, then I feel even less guilty about lying to him so that he would get out of my dorm.

Capitalism and the Chicken Little Perspective of Pop Culture

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I recently read a blog post where an older man wrote about how he doesn’t seem to find today’s comedy movies and television shows funny.  He referred to an NPR piece postulating that mid-century comedy was more intellectual, whereas current comedy seems to stick more to slapstick.

I won’t link to the man’s post or reblog it.  I was working on a comment on my phone, but it was coming across too harsh and I don’t want to directly attack this guy just because I don’t agree with his opinion.

I have a real problem with this way of thinking.  Journalists, bloggers, storytellers, and many other groups seem to enjoy using vague generalizations to paint a picture that everything used to be so much better before the relentless march of time drove any given facet of civilization or culture straight downward into the sewer.  Depending on the source, you can sub out “relentless march of time” with “kids these days,” because people inclined to use that term seem to love this worldview.

Today, I’m going to use a unique blend of Capitalism and Pop Culture observation to explain why I will never agree with these folks.

Part 1:  The Rise of Television Real Estate in America

The television landscape has changed over the past several decades.  Dramatically.  When TV sets first became a mainstay in American homes, there were only three channels.  Advertisers didn’t have to guess which of the three given programs airing at any particular time slot was the best.  They were guaranteed an enormous amount of eyeballs, even on the lowest performing shows.  A selective viewing of TV series from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s will show that while there were some quality programs on the air, there were also some turd sandwiches as well.

The conceit of this argument is that because television real estate was so scarce, it had higher value, but I argue that comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges (that is, programs of the same genre and depth across time) would show that this argument doesn’t hold water.  There were crappy network shows back then.  There are crappy network shows now.  There are great network shows now.  There were great network shows back then.  People arguing otherwise tend to compare the great classics of the era with the disposable garbage of the modern day as most of the best stuff currently on the air flies right over their head.  We know that Real Housewives of Atlanta is not as good as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Find your remote and change the channel rather than using one bad show as your reason for writing off everything else on air right now.

Part 2:  Enormous Growth in Viewer Options

Efforts by major networks to establish high-production value shows with maximum pop culture impact further supports my position that when competition for viewers is high, content quality must also be high.  If the shows on the networks aren’t up to snuff, consumers now have a gazillion other options on cable, premium channels, free and paid on-demand features, Netflix, Hulu, and even home video (which wasn’t around during those days when TV was “so much better”).

Targeted marketing through cable programming sells for a higher cost per thousand impressions (CPM), allowing grand cinematic visions to hit the small screen in the form of shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and actually just about anything currently on primetime AMC.

Purely by the numbers, I would argue that there are more excellent shows on air or available to viewers right now than there were in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s combined.  (And no, I’m not counting the fact that any teenager with an internet connection can now pull up an episode of Gilligan’s Island if he or she is so inclined when I say “available to viewers right now.”)

The converse of this, of course, is that there are many, many, many more horrible, vacuous, pooptastic shows on air right now as well.  And they manage to find an audience unfortunately, ensuring that we will continue to know about any and every little thing that a Kardashian ever does ever until we locate the people watching that show and cut off their cable.  (That’s a homework assignment, Society.)

Part 3:  The Search for the Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve done my best to acknowledge the counterargument to each point I’ve made so far, and this point especially will tip my hat to those who believe that television has seen better days.

Desperate major networks have adopted a popular Hollywood method of marketing:  find the lowest common denominator – that one thing that won’t put off any single viewer – and get as close to that topic, tone, theme, etc. as possible.

It’s the reason why paint-by-numbers crime procedural NCIS is the top rated show every year.  There’s nothing wrong with that show.  It isn’t awful.  It just doesn’t have any flavor.  It doesn’t go anywhere risky or do anything that might make you think.  It doesn’t surprise you in any way that might make you uncomfortable.  It is a safe, mind-numbing viewing experience;  the culmination of the perfect execution of this particular programming formula.

Same goes with the strangely popular Two and a Half Men (prior to Charlie Sheen’s departure).  Nielsen keeps telling us that millions and millions of people are watching each week, but it seems like nobody is talking about it.  It doesn’t generate buzz or spur conversation.  It isn’t a cultural phenomenon that will be remembered through the ages.  It’s just some stuff happening on a TV screen that millions of somebodies somewhere out there like to space out in front of.

Though by necessity this approach must have been the goal of the networks in the early days of television (with three stations micro marketing would have been suicidal), there was still an experimental aspect to shows back then.  With so many unknowns on a new frontier, strangeness managed to find its way into American family rooms because the suits hadn’t yet perfected their  formula for hollow success.

Part 4:  Comedy’s Evolution

The statement that comedy used to be more intellectual is a bit ridiculous to me.  To argue that humor used to reference elements of history, science, or pop culture; that a degree of knowledge used to be required to “get the joke” is totally wrong in its conjugation.  Change that past-tense to present tense, because it never stopped being true.

Turn on Family Guy for God’s sake.  They reference anything and everything and all the freaking time.  I once saw that show reference a Crest Toothpaste commercial from like the early 80′s.

These days even slapstick, screwball, and physical humor are used to wink at the viewers who have been paying attention.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the elaborate joke constructions, episode-spanning set ups and rapid fire third act pay offs of Modern Family.  Seriously, watch the recent episode titled, Las Vegas, and marvel at all of the complicated things that they pulled off in just 21 minutes of screen time.

If you’ve got even more time to kill, watch all four seasons of Arrested Development.  If that show wasn’t cancelled for being so far ahead of its time, some of its jokes would have made our heads explode a thousand times over by now.  Had those writers chosen different paths in life, their knack for off-the-wall concepts and flawless execution would have made them prime candidates to form an Ocean’s Eleven-like crime ring.

After you finish Arrested Development, check out How I Met Your Mother.  It’s an entire series structured as flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks telling one long elaborate tale that is just a prologue to the pivotal moment when a hopeless romantic meets the love of his life.  And it’s one of those shows that appeals to people who enjoy a good boob joke.

Actually, all four of those shows have goofy physical humor and crude sex laughs, but it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the complexity of what those writers are trying to accomplish in the big picture.  Sure, there’s a lot of junk shows whoring their one dimensional characters out for easy laughs.  But there are also a ton of really ambitious, weird shows that make you appreciate the hand of the storytellers in weaving such an unconventional, detailed narrative.

Remember the moment in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when you realized that Harry stabbing the talking diary with the snake tooth in the weakest book in the series was actually an enormous part of the overall conflict that all seven books build to?  Even network sitcoms are doing stuff like that these days, so you should check out those four shows and try really watching them.

Part 5:  Conclusion

The irony of writing a long post that speaks in broad generalizations to uphold my criticism of people that write long diatribes speaking in broad generalizations to uphold opinions that I don’t agree with is not at all lost on me.  This was a natural, human reaction.  I was frustrated and I won’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite for responding in this way.

That being said, I don’t truly believe that television back then pales in comparison to television today.  They were different times.  Society had different expectations of their pop culture, different values, a different sense of propriety when it comes to questioning any given widely held belief of the time.  It doesn’t mean that their stories have lost value over the years, even the ones featuring now irrelevant plots and conflicts.  I grew up watching Nick at Nite – I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, The Munsters, Happy Days, The Wonder Years.  I will always love these shows, but they do NOT represent some superior time period that we will never again live up to as creative people.

My problem is this:  When people state that art, society, civilization, pop culture, and everything else  has gotten unequivocally worse over the years, they write off a treasure trove of what the world today has to offer.  Quit lusting for the past so much and you just might find that the present is pretty awesome too.

I just might write up my similar take on movies someday to go along with this post, but it will probably only happen if someone gets me riled up on the topic again.

The Return of Heroes: Ordinary People with Extraordinary Abilities Doing Increasingly Ordinary Things

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With the recent announcement that NBC will be reviving it’s once-great drama about ordinary people discovering that they have extraordinary abilities (Heroes) for a miniseries in 2015, I’ve taken a deep breath before weighing in on the judgmentally -challenged network’s decision.

For those unacquainted with the show, the first season of Heroes is without a doubt the greatest season-long story arc I’ve ever seen accomplished in a television series.  The second season was promising, but crippled by the Writer’s Guild strike, and thus half as good as the first.  But still I kept my hopes up for the Monday night event that I looked forward to all week.

“Heroes” was a story told in Volumes, with the first two seasons being Volumes 1 and 2.  The second half of season 2 was meant to be Volume 3, but it didn’t happen because of the WGA strike.  The third season consisted of Volume 3 and 4.  Volume 3 started out promising with an interesting new focus on some of the more vile people who had developed superhuman abilities, but the character arcs began to circle back on themselves and become repetitive.  This problem persisted through Volume 4, which had a far less promising premise.

By the time season 4 of Heroes infected a dwindling population of American television sets, true fans of the show were ready to take the series out back and shoot it.  It truly hurt to watch such a great show suffer so much.  The character arc problems continued and the pace at which they repeated themselves quickened.  The mythology unraveled.  It felt as if new writers were brought in and given only Spark Notes on the show.  There was no pay off, and the plot kept getting worse and worse.

In the words of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory:  “Heroes gradually lowered the quality season by season until we were grateful it ended.”

All of this has been an elaborate set up for my own abusive relationship with the series.  I tried Heroes for the first time when my mom went to Alaska to visit my older brother and I was left home alone for several days.  I was just a high school kid, bored, looking for something to pass the time.  The pilot had me hooked.  I stayed up all night watching the first 8 episodes all in a row and arrived at my high school classes the next morning exhausted and hungover from my bender.

By the time I picked up on the series, Heroes was on that hiatus that most shows take around Christmas.  It wasn’t but a few more days before I was caught up with the first 12 episodes and faced with a long wait for the show’s return in January.  I used the gap to peer pressure my friends into joining my obsession, and soon we were gathered around, poorly supervised at someone’s grandparents’ house every Monday night, losing ourselves in Heroes.  This was my senior year of high school.

Before heading off to college, I purchased Season 1 on DVD.  After so many initial lonely nights alone in my room, I began my first failed attempts at branching out.  They all centered around people that I already knew and getting to know their roommates.  It was the lamest entry into the second degree of separation anyone has ever attempted.

One girl who had been in a few of my high school classes, Catherine, was living in an apartment off campus.  Catherine and I never really hung out, more of just – around each other.  We had some similar friends, one of my closest swimming friends in particular.  Those first months of college, we went on road trips to Gainesville to see our mutual friend, and actually kinda got to know each other a little better.

Soon I was showing up uninvited at her apartment, leaving perverted stick-figure comics on her roommates’ communal dry-erase board, and forcing my Heroes problem down their throat.  Catherine and one of her two normal random roommates, Kalina, both bit.  Their other normal roommate, Connie, was shy and had a separate group of friends but also joined us at first.  She soon fell off our break neck pace though, and then there were only three of us and frequent joiner, Luis from back home.

We tore through that first season, often watching four episodes in one sitting.  It wasn’t much in terms of a fascinating social life, but it got me out of my dorm and off campus even.  It helped me become friends with Kalina and got me talking to people that I didn’t previously know before.  It was a small, disfigured step in the right direction I guess.  More importantly, it was the Beta version of my LOST and beer pong nights, which formed the core of my socialization a few months later.

On a side note, Catherine and Kalina had another roommate, Jessie.  Jessie was a hot mess, emphasis on the “hot.”  She was very attractive physically, but had the worst personality in the world.  There wasn’t much going on upstairs for her (her brain I mean, not her boobs – those were fine), and her biggest concerns all revolved around vacuous social functions.  Jessie wore her virginity like a first place ribbon that she used to taunt guys with as she dressed scandalously and flirted relentlessly, sending the complete opposite message.  She bragged about not drinking too, but that soon ended.  Jessie and Catherine were in the same sorority, yet ran in separate circles.  Being the messy roommate, Jessie would soon find herself at odds with the other residents of that apartment.  Eventually she took a page out of my roommate’s playbook and just stopped living at the apartment.

There’s a key anecdote that captures Jessie’s wild and often moronic spirit.  She didn’t like the taste of water.  I can’t explain that.  I can only state it as fact, the way that she always did.  Instead, she hydrated using Diet Pepsi.  How she still had teeth is a complete mystery to me.  Well as I said, after getting to college she traded bragging about not drinking for actually drinking.  Her “No H20” diet coupled with copious amounts of beer while tailgating before an early season football game in the ludicrous central Florida heat of August/September (they’re practically one 60-day long month down here) put her in the back of an ambulance.  This was before her falling out with her roommates, so she just vanished one weekend after failing to meet up with them at the game.

I know that it looks like I glorify binge-drinking with some of these stories, but you gotta stay hydrated kids!  Booze dries you out.  That’s why your head hurts the next morning.  Alcohol took the edge off of my social anxiety, and at the time I credited it more for my social accomplishments than I should have, but I’m not advocating that you go out and beer bong a six-pack right now.

Not until you drink plenty of water first.

Beer is important, but water is more important.

The Opposite of Belonging: Finding My Place on the Political Spectrum

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After realizing that college was a bit more than just a place where people high five each other into instant friendship, I began to hatch a plan that would allow me to meet likeminded people who would undoubtedly lead me to the parties, underage drinking, and copious fornication that I knew were the true meaning of higher education.

Beyond joining my dorm community’s Area Council, I also scoured the list of student clubs to compile a list of leads.  Luckily, there was some stupid fee tacked onto our tuition that provided an enormous budget for student organizations.  Well luckily for me, seeing as how the lottery enthusiasts of Florida were paying for my tuition rather than me doing it myself.  This treasure trove of resources produced organizations ranging from College Republicans and Democrats to the Rock, Paper, Scissors club.  It was a lengthy list of student organizations, but I narrowed down my leads to several and began scratching my head as to how to become involved.

The first group that I visited was Students for a Democratic Society.  They were grungy looking hippie kids that hung out at a table by the Student Union.  Unlike other groups that solicited you as you walked past, they didn’t seem to care whether or not you were curious as to what they were all about.  It was a unique marketing approach in that it wasn’t marketing at all;  just pure masochistic baking in the Central Florida sun for some higher ideal that they didn’t bother trying to tell you about.  I don’t know how I noticed them, but I was intrigued enough to ask for more information.

Now at this point in my life, I understood the American political spectrum to range from right leaning Fox News Viewers all the way to enlightened fans of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  I knew that the history books mentioned Communists and Socialists in America, but that they were mostly just the boogeyman that Joe McCarthy insisted was lurking under our country’s bed.  When I read “Students for a Democratic Society” on the banner, I thought to myself, “Oh, these people probably want to curb carbon emissions and bring the troops home from the War in Iraq.  Sounds like the place for me!”

The conversation in which I learned the date and time of their first meeting was forgettable in that it probably didn’t go any deeper than them telling me the date and time of the first meaning.  They were extremely committed to their apathetic marketing.

Within the first month of the Fall semester, I showed up at the pavilion near the Visual Arts Building for the meeting around 4 PM in the afternoon.  With this group, being on time made me extremely early.  As the clock ticked, more and more people showed up and soon we were out of space under the small pavilion.  On a side note, I’m not really sure why the University of Central Florida even has such a small pavilion given their 60,000+ undergrad population (which ranks second in the nation).

The two people running the meeting stepped forward and introduced themselves, explaining briefly that the organization was a very large tent under which a variety of ideologies co-existed to try and make a difference on campus and in the larger community.  Then they explained that we would be going around the circle, each person stating their name and the reason why they wanted to be a part of the club.

“Big Tent” was an understatement, but there was an overwhelmingly hard left lean to everyone in the group, even the ones who were dressed like normal human beings.  One person said that they joined the group because it was the only club on campus that accepted Anarchists.  Another was a reformed High School Republican Club President who saw the light and decided to abandon the dark side like Darth Vader chucking the Emperor down that hole in the end of Return of the Jedi (if you’re reading this from 1983, SPOILER ALERT).  One particularly articulate guy said he wanted to join the group, “to fuck shit up.”  This drew applause from leftists to my left and right.

We even had this guy who was way too freaking old to be coming to college club meetings on campus.  He was at least in his forties, and all of the members of the club who had participated in whatever it is that they do (I’m still not 100% sure) seemed to know who he was.  This old fellow was the organizer of “Cop Watch,” an organization that tails police officers and videos them so that they think twice before beating someone up for having the nerve to be a minority (this happens in Orlando, allegedly).

I don’t remember how I introduced myself.  It was probably some timid, moderate crap like, “I’m Brantley, and I think that there are too many loop holes in the corporate tax code!”

This meeting dragged on for over three hours.  I wanted to care.  I wanted to be one of these people.  I didn’t like cops ever since that time Officer Bacon (seriously, that’s his real name) gave me a ride home from that tiny high school party.  I loved Rage Against the Machine and Anti-Flag.  I totally read the Wikipedia page about Anarchy.  These should have been my people!  But they wanted too many different things and when you boiled it down, they didn’t want enough of any one thing to warrant an actual focus.

Schilling out your money to major record labels doesn't constitute commitment to a political stance.

I didn’t go to a second meeting.  Fighting the power was too exhausting.  That big tent got insufferably humid from all of the body heat.  Trumping all of the above stated reasons, I didn’t meet a single attractive girl in this club.  I had shown up assuming that there would be some liberated, sexy girl who wanted to show society that she owned her own body by having lots and lots of sex with me.  God, my imagination is magical.

They emailed me from time to time.  One time they invited me to protest Burger King’s poor treatment of the migrant workers that pick their tomatoes by doing something at the Burger King in the Student Union.  It was tempting, but this was back when they still served Chicken Fries and I loved those too much to wonder whether or not an employee spit on them because they recognized me as the guy who was being an asshole about farms or something.

The right to an at least mediocre fast food experience should not be infringed by exercises of free speech.

Another time, they printed out this gnarly, huge banner that spelled out the First Amendment one letter per 8 1/2” x 11” page.  They wanted to hold it up near the “Free Speech Lawn” in protest of the fact that there was a “Free Speech Lawn.”  “Shouldn’t we be able to hold these demonstrations absolutely anywhere on campus?” they argued.  They had a good point, sorta.

Needless to say, I had to take part in this free speech demonstration.  I kept reading the email.  They planned on starting this whole thing at 8 AM.  I set my alarm to go out and join them, but when it went off I rolled over and decided that I could live with limiting my first amendment activities to one patch of grass on campus.  Participatory democracy can be so uncomfortable.

The best time to stand up for what you believe in is no earlier than 11 AM.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

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Disclaimer:  I actually didn’t do any of the illegal things described below because those illegal things are illegal and I’m a law abiding guy.  This isn’t a confession to crimes committed, just an entertaining story that totally never actually happened, okay?

Freshman year of college, I was walking home from a 6pm-9pm class one night.  The sun had already set and being the invincible still-teenager that I was, I made sure to take all of the darkest, sketchiest alleyways to get back to my dorm.  This was, after all, nearly a full year before I was robbed at gun point.

Lurking in the shadow of the Counseling building that was just yards away from my dorm community were two figures, a guy and a girl.  Rather than assuming they were up to no good, I decided I would ask them what they were trying to accomplish in such a poorly lit spot.  When they both nearly jumped out of their skin, well, then I assumed they were up to no good.

He was a typical fratty guy in a polo with too much gel in his hair.

Busty doesn’t adequately describe her.  I think I vaguely remember that she had a pretty face, but it wasn’t something that I noticed until we became Facebook friends.  It’s a miracle I didn’t keel over from a boob overdose right then and there.  When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs through the entire alphabet when naming hurricanes in one season, they resort to the greek alphabet.  I suppose she had Omega cups.

I’m not the type of guy who goes on and on about this stuff anymore, but I was back then and this story takes place in the past, so humor me when I detail how enamored I was with her knockers.  Guys of a certain age just aren’t that smart, okay?

It’s a miracle they didn’t throw the Earth off its axis and send us spiraling into the sun.

The teenage male's mind devotes an inordinate amount of memory to encounters with boobs.

Seriously, I’m done talking about this girl’s breasts now.

As I said, the guy seemed to be a Fraternity-type so with his fake swagger cranked up to eleven, he emerged from between two maintenance golf carts in the darkness to share with me an intriguing fact that was whispered to him.  He didn’t say by whom.

Our tiny, dorm-community mailbox keys were rumored to be capable of cranking up the maintenance golf carts.

I asked him if he had any luck and he said that he hadn’t tried before I came up on him and started asking questions.  I laughed at how ridiculous this all sounded and went on my merry way.

A few beers into the post-LOST festivities that night, I recounted the bizarre encounter to my compatriots.  The consensus was universal.  We had to test this theory.  It probably wasn’t true, but we had to know.  “No, no,” I told them.  They handed me another beer, then another, then another.  After I emptied the bottles into my belly, the conversation returned to this topic.  “No, no,” I repeated, but by now the dissent was laced with drunken chuckles.  More beers were handed to me and I consumed them.

The next time this rumor came up, the conversation was different:

“How many beers do you need to drink before you are willing to try this, Brantley?”

“At least ten.”

The Empty Bottle (EB) is the international measurement of bad ideas.

It wasn’t long before ten of the empty bottles that crowded every open surface in my dorm were accounted for by me.

Without much fuss leading up to my ruling this time, I informed them:  “Maybe like two more.”

After a dozen beers, I found myself standing back as I watched a handful of friends no more sober than myself fumbling with the golf cart ignitions in the dark.  Somehow, someway, my liver manned up enough that I was still the most prudent of the group.

This is how I ended up in the rear-facing back seat instead of driving, because

IT.

FREAKING.

WORKED.

Drunken courage and disregard for rules doesn’t equal coordination or control of your body, so two golf carts swerved all freaking over campus that night.  At one point, our driver took a turn as tight as he could.  The blonde, burnout girl sitting next to me on the back seat of the cart quit being on the back seat of the cart after succumbing to inertia.  She tumbled through the grass as she was thrown off.  It was almost the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my entire life.

Drunken courage plus disregard for rules does not equal hand-eye coordination or basic motor function.

But then she was crying.  She scraped her hands and hurt her ankle.  Or knee.  I don’t remember because I was twelve beers into the night so my retention reserved itself for the inebriated joy of the wind in my hair as we tore through the night air in those stolen vehicles.  Regardless of which joint she hurt, it killed the night and we brought the golf carts back to where we stole them from and went back up to my room to hang out for a bit more before parting ways to sleep it all off.

It wasn’t an isolated occurrence and it wasn’t a secret that we kept very well.  It required boasting.  A lot of it.

We stole those golf carts probably two or three more times.  Each theft required a prerequisite game of “How many beers does Brantley need before this becomes a good idea?”  There was a bit of a sliding scale, but usually the magic number fell between 10 EB and 12 EB.

One night, we didn’t exactly return them in one piece.  A FedEx drop off mailbox leaped into the path of our cart and we couldn’t swerve (or stop swerving probably) in time to avoid it.  We crashed into that big metal box and knocked it about five feet from where it was bolted into the freaking cement.  We were cautious enough to only allow ourselves about 45 seconds of uninhibited laughter before we got the hell out of there before we found out exactly what the consequences of all of this would be.

Eventually we did find out exactly what the consequences of all of this would be.  It’s a total miracle that it wasn’t the hard way.  The rumors that circled the community took on a new tone.

The Fraternity-type and his enormously chesty girlfriend were caught on a stolen golf cart.  Campus police threw the book at them.  Both were hit with Grand Theft Auto.  Fratty-Polo guy was driving, so he got a complimentary DUI with it.

Learning from someone else's mistakes trumps felonies every time.

Looking back on all of this, these rumors were probably living up to the reputation of rumors.  Legendary things become legends pretty easily when drunken coeds are involved.  Stories that are passed around orally by people who only half-remember them evolve over time and truth  fades away into obscurity as the tales morph into outright lies.

Half-remembered stories orally passed around evolve over time, and truth fades away into obscurity as tales morph into outright lies.

The basis of this particular gossip seems believable enough though, even now.  We never stole golf carts again after that.

Moments of terrible judgement form the core of many great stories.

Oh yeah, like I said, this never happened.  I didn’t do any of this.  It’s illegal.

It was a dark and stormy night…

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It was a dark and stormy night.  Wind carried the torrential downpour sideways in relentless sheets.  

And I was out delivering pizzas despite the fact that I couldn’t see ten feet in front of my face.

I was forced to trust the GPS with its insistence that I was on the correct road.  I drove past town home after town home, connected to each other in stretches of four and identical except for the address number that was no longer visible through the storm.

The buildings were shaped strangely.  It wasn’t a problem for residents, who undoubtedly just parked in their garage and entered their homes that way.  For the pizza guy, however, the layout of these apartments was a major complication.  The “front door” was on the backside of the building, facing 180 degrees away from the road and garages.

There was no pulling around the building.  To get to these doors, one has to walk on a quaint little stepping stone pathway between one block of town homes and the next.  For every intentional pathway there was a corresponding untrodden route, wild with bushes and shrubbery (probably well landscaped and pretty when viewed outside of the squall).  Unable to tell the difference between paved paths and flowerbeds in the inclement weather, I unwillingly opted to trudge through the underbrush rather than taking the easy way.

Running didn’t make a single bit of difference in how drenched I was as I barreled through plants and branches that lashed out at me in the wind.  When I emerged from what felt like a vengeful rainforst, I saw them:

Three teenagers passing a bottle of liquor.

They nearly jumped out of their damned skins at the emergence of a drenched, angry looking guy spouting profanity from a bush that they knew wasn’t intended to be traversed.

Hopefully one of them has a popular blog where they recounted this story from their point of view.  My perspective was frustrating, but their’s was probably hilarious.

The Awkwardest Lunch Conversation. Ever.

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Maggie is responsible for the most surreal moment that I’ve ever found myself in.  One strange turn of a conversation put a weightless feeling in my stomach and danced with the possibility of a full-on out of body experience, and all during lunch at the crappy sports bar in the student union!

When I first declared a major at the University of Central Florida, I chose the Film Bachelor of Arts program, Cinema Studies track.  The secondary reason* that I decided to go to this school to begin with was that my original choice, Florida State University, limited access to their film program.  I waffled on submitting a portfolio (I didn’t have one) despite having already decided that I wouldn’t get in, and then chose a different school that I felt confident would give me a shot at my desired course of study.  I was already living in Orlando and taking classes when I found out that there was a Bachelor of Fine Arts Film program at UCF that was limited access – and that they were the only ones who got to take all of the actual filmmaking classes and use the school equipment.

*Sadly, the primary reason I chose UCF over FSU was a rumor that I heard about the girls at FSU having a higher rate of STDs.  This was a game changer for high school Brantley, because I was absolutely certain that I would be having lots of sex with lots of different girls while I was earning my degree.

When faced with difficult choices in life, always opt for the one that doesn't give you crabs.

The first year or two of my Cinema Studies degree would be all general education requirements and pre-requisites for later film classes, which luckily happened to be the same as required by the BFA program.  The plan was to submit a portfolio to get into the cooler program before I fell behind.

At this point, I didn’t know how to write a script.  I had never shot anything.  I didn’t own a camera.  I had film editing software but my computer crashed every time I opened it.  I had no tangible evidence of artistic interests or talent.  All I had were some short stories, copious notes for a novel I would never write, and individual scenes of that novel in screenplay format (even though I didn’t understand how to put it in screenplay format, so it was completely wrong).

For so long I kicked myself for not submitting a portfolio before enrolling that first year, but now I know that it would have looked horrendous and would have made me the laughing stock of the film faculty (probably).

I knew I needed help, but I couldn’t find any useful information on specific things that the faculty looks for in a portfolio.  Desperate for information, I searched Facebook for UCF students in the Film BFA program.  I found a few, friend requested them and sent them a message explaining my need for direction.  Only one responded.

Maggie was encouraging and optimistic, even though she didn’t know anything about me.  She said that her portfolio was an assortment of random writings and other art projects and that none of it was even all that great.  I was relieved to find out that I could submit my writing, because as I said, I didn’t have any film projects to my name at the time.

We were in the midst of a weeks-long back and forth correspondence when I awoke bright and early to the fire alarm one day.  By “bright and early,” I mean 10 AM.  I reached for my cell phone, stupidly thinking that my alarm clock had been using steroids while I slept.  Yes, I was that groggy at 10 AM.

Then it dawned on me that a screeching noise was informing me that the building was on fire.  Or that it was a fire drill.  I scrambled out of bed disoriented and considered gathering my most prized belongings in case the building would soon by a big pile of ashes.  More importantly, I paced around my small dorm trying to decide whether or not pants were necessary.  If the building actually was on fire, nobody would judge me for escaping the inferno in my underwear.  If it was just a drill, I would be that guy who took it way too seriously – which would lead to ridicule (real and imagined) from the strangers that I was already too terrified to talk to.  Pants it was.

In life or death scenarios, pants are optional.

That morning, I saw a lot of future friends and acquaintances in pajamas.  One looked particularly familiar:  Maggie.  She lived in my building.  I told myself that I couldn’t be certain that it was her and thus justified not introducing myself in person.  I suppose I saved myself the joys of saying, “Hey Maggie.  I’m that stranger that found you on the internet.”  Instead I mentioned in my next message that I thought I saw her and asked if she lived in my building.

She confirmed that she did.  We made a plan to meet in person for lunch at the crappy sports bar in the student union.  It was January by now, so I was sure to count the encounter as progress towards my New Year’s Resolution to put myself out there and be a better person.

We discussed film stuff, figured out common people that we knew (including Mallory, who also lived on our floor), and just got to know each other in general.

Then.  It.  Got. Weird.

Being Facebook friends, I already knew that Maggie was the type who wasn’t shy in sharing her epic romance with her high school boyfriend with the entire world (whether anyone wanted to hear it or not).  They were so very in love.  It warmed my heart. Or maybe that was just indigestion.  There’s a fine line between sweet and nauseating.  Maggie was nowhere freaking near it.  This is how I knew that she was not single, rather, she was about as far from single as you can get without marriage.

Much like her social media habits, she was very candid with me about her boyfriend (and she was getting more and more candid by the second).  I got the full performance of how awesome their love for each other was.  They were so perfectly happy together.

“What about you?” she asked.

“Oh I’m single.”

“Well what’s your type?”

“I don’t know.”  (I guess at the time “girls with low enough standards to be interested?”).  

“Well surely you have a type.  What about girls like Mallory?”  (This was fair.  She was our only mutual acquaintance at this point, and it was also a bit prescient as Mallory and I would have a little absolutely-nothing-ever-developed later on in the semester.)

“Yeah, Mallory is pretty I suppose.”

“What about me?”

“Uhm…uh…” DOT DOT DOT.  “Yeah you’re pretty too.”  (It was weird, but I just figured that I wasn’t the only awkward person in the world – or even at this particular table for two).

If I found a magic lamp, one of my wishes would be used for a flawless memory.  (The other two would be infinite money and a Batmobile, but don’t get me sidetracked).  I don’t fully remember how the rest of the conversation went down, because the turn that it took made me feel like I finally was living in a movie.  It was a moment too strange, too bizarre for reality to have conceived.  This moment had to have been birthed by the perverse mind of a desperate screenwriter trying to make a name for himself through any means possible.

I was in two places at once for this exchange.  Part of me was mechanically going through the motions of the conversation just to get the check so I could get the hell out of there.  The other part was figuring out just which phone call I would make first when I left.  Everyone had to know about this.

“Well, can I tell you something?  You have to promise not to judge me,” her tone changed.

(I was already judging her).  “Umm, okay.”

Anyone who "promises not to judge you" is a liar. “And you have to promise not to tell anyone,” she continued.

(I already knew that this would be something that I needed to tell a lot of people).  “Okay.  I promise.”

“My boyfriend doesn’t mind if I get with other guys.”

(All of a sudden, her asking if she was my type has taken on an entirely different meaning).  “Oh.  Okay.”

“He actually…he actually kinda likes it.”

“Hm.”

“He likes when I call him and tell him about it.”

(I was running out of monosyllabic grunting noises to make).  “Oh.”

“In detail.”

“Oh…kay.”

“He likes it when I take pictures or videos too.”

(Check arrives)  “Well that’s interesting.”

I paid quickly, suddenly remembered that I needed to be somewhere else, anywhere else in the whole freaking entire world, and ran the hell away (observing as many courtesies as I could muster without ending up making a porno for this girl’s boyfriend to enjoy).

Within the hour, one person back in Pensacola heard the story over the phone, another had a tidy editorial bit delivered to her Facebook messages.  As for someone with feet on the ground in Orlando, a childhood friend from back home asked me the obvious question after hearing the story:  “Well, are you going to get with her?”

I’m not proud to admit that my answer was:  “I don’t know.”

Nobody had ever propositioned me like that before!  Any physical occurrences thus far had been products of a passionate moment, things that I kinda saw coming.  (I’m glad I don’t tell these stories aloud, because there’s an obvious double-entendre there that everyone in the room would have to stop and pat themselves on the back for identifying).

I was 19 years old.  Doing the math, 80% of my bodyweight was still semen (a decrease from a peak of 95% at age 14).  I knew that I wasn’t attracted to this girl.  I knew that I didn’t want to star in a nasty movie for some dude’s gratification.  The prospect of having a male audience of one enjoying my highlight reel had a very real limping effect.  Like I said, I’m not proud that I answered anything other than a resounding “NO!”

I did come around to that conclusion though.

Right after we finished.

 

Just because you can star in an amateur porno movie, doesn't mean that you should.

 

JUST KIDDING!