Happy Pi Day!

For the mathematically inclined and other varieties of nerds, dorks and geeks, happy Pi day!

It’s a year old, but I realized I never posted the surprise that Amber gave me last Pi day. So here it is for all to enjoy… the Pi pie.


It was rhubarb, and ultra delicious, as always. If we can get the gumption up, this year is looking like a nice apple + blackberry.

Who says math isn’t tasty?

The Sprint

So my beloved wife and daughter are gone for the next week. You all know what that means… writing time!

Now I just need to keep from getting distracted by TV, Wii (must… avoid… unfair practicing at… Mariokart), reading (except gobbling up Watchmen in preparation for the movie), catching up on blogs, twittering, Facebook, tinkering with my website, messing about with photos, reorganizing the office, purging old records from the file cabinet.
Should be a piece of cake. Wish me luck!

Coraline Premiere

Thinking about it still brings a smile to my face–a couple weeks ago Amber and I attended the world premiere of Coraline. Hold on tight, because this is going to be long, tedious, and possibly only interesting to me…

For those that don’t know, the book (and by extension the movie) has a special place in our hearts. I mean, we named our daughter Coraline. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, so I was already jazzed about another of his books hitting the big screen. But when we heard that the premiere was happening in Portland, well, we couldn’t resist.

Amber showed up at the box office the day they started selling tickets and snagged ours. Not surprisingly, within a couple hours things were sold out.

Red Carpet
Lots of anticipation leading up to the event, especially when Gaiman tweeted that he would be “sign, hug and wave” to whoever was there. In light of that tweet, we took off earlier than planned, heading downtown to the Schnitz. A big crowd clustered around the entrance to the red carpet, which we quickly circled around to get inside.
And there they all were–Neil Gaiman, Henry Selick, Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher. We were back a ways, but it looked exactly like you’d expect of a red carpet. Lights flashed constantly. Reporters clustered in tight, holding boom mikes, lights, and cameras aloft for the shot. While I sincerely believe Gaiman meant what he twittered, security had other plans, constantly asking folks to keep the area nearby clear.
Now, in Three Glorious Dimensions
While I was aware that Coraline was coming in 3D, it hadn’t really occurred to me that the premiere would be in that format. Huge excitement then, seeing the piles of glasses in sealed plastic bags by the entryways.
Our seats were a little close in and off-center but not enough to spoil things. My neck got slightly sore, but other matters submerged any pain once the film was done.
Speeches led the way–Phil and Travis Knight, Henry Selick, Governor Kulongoski. Travis especially was hilarious as he described stop-motion animators saying, “When you get down to it we are a bunch of oddball nomadic mole people who play with dolls for a living.”
The lights dimmed, and finally the show began.
More 3D!
This was my first 3D movie, and they got the film off to an excellent start. Initial shots with the various company names had 3D borders with multiple layers. Fairly tame, but they clearly popped out in a way that you just don’t see on a 2D movie.
The opening sequence begins with a doll being unstitched, and a needle swings out at you. It’s the type of trick that 3D is made for. I grinned like an idiot when I saw that.
But the 3D in Coraline wasn’t just a trick or gimmick. After those initial shots, it integrated into the look of the film remarkably well. I’ve read comments about Selick wanting it to draw you in rather than stick things out at you. For me, it accomplished that fantastically.
If you can see it in 3D (probably only for the next week!) get to the theater right away.
The Movie Itself
I always enter film adaptations with trepidation. Books are my first love, and I hate to see my favorite works turned unrecognizable up on the screen.

No worries here, though. Selick did a marvelous job of capturing the spirit of the book, both in the appearance of the peculiar characters and places, and in the tone of the storytelling. I’m not going to go all spoilery in case you haven’t read the book (go read it now!), but it held up for me.

As you’d expect, there were changes made for the film version though. Two of the largest were in the setting and the addition of another character. The book took place in an old English house, while the film was set in Oregon near Ashland. While I loved the English tone of Gaiman’s book, the overcast, gloomy rain of our beautiful home state fit the story well.

Adding a major character is a more troubling prospect, but Selick and crew pulled it off. In many ways, this seemed like one of those changes translating a book to film. On the page, Coraline spends lots of time, especially in the early going, alone as she explores her surroundings. While a book gives inner monologue, those long stretches of just Coraline wouldn’t have worked as well on screen. Giving her another character provided more interaction, more dynamic scenes, and ultimately a more fulfilling experience.

Overall, this was one of my favorite films in a long time. The animation is stunningly beautiful and original. It doesn’t look like anything else I’ve ever seen. Here’s hoping that Laika reaps a huge harvest so they can go on creating more films like this!


After-Party
One of the biggest surprises we learned after getting the tickets was that they included admission to the after party. It was already a thrill to attend a movie premiere, but the after party too? I was floating the whole afternoon after Amber told me that.

The “tickets” for the party were gorgeous metal keys like one featured prominently in the film. They were also used extensively in the marketing Wieden-Kennedy did for the movie. I’d seen pictures of them on Gaiman’s blog, but never thought I’d actually get one.

The path from the Schnitz over to the Portland Art Museum, site of the party, was lined with paper bags glowing with small candles. There’s a few great shots of it over on Kitty’s Neverwear blog. We joined the huge line streaming in.

The room was packed. Colored lights gave everything a flashy, festive atmosphere. Servers with food pour into the room constantly. In the entryway, we saw Henry Selick talking with some people. Rather than interrupt, we calmly went past, although Amber brushed against him to make her way. It was so strange to be there next to a well-known director. It just didn’t seem real.

Around the edges of the room were displays showing off many of the props from the movie. Some of the artists were present too. Seeing those drove home how much work making the movie must have been–the models were intricate and all handmade. We were especially impressed by Anthea Chrome who knit Coraline’s sweater and gloveswith thread. I have no idea how she doesn’t go blind.

We circled the room a couple times, looking at the exhibits, enjoying the atmosphere, but mostly looking for the man himself–Neil Gaiman. Up near the entry were a couple VIP areas, but we didn’t see him there as we passed. Since we had a babysitter and it was getting late, we were getting ready to leave. Amber decided to take one last look, and she spotted him.

For a moment we hesitated. Was it acceptable to talk with him, or would it be an imposition?While we dithered around, someone else walked right up with a book, and Gaiman gladly signed it. We took that as a sign and got in line.

Amber pulled our copy of Coraline out of her bag, and we asked if he’d sign it. He asked who it was to, and we told him for our daughter Coraline. The look of genuine surprise and enjoyment that lit up his face was awesome. If it was possible, he became even more friendly as we showed him a picture.  I’m sure this isn’t the first Coraline he’s heard of, but he acted as if it might have been. Above the title on the first page he wrote “For the real” Coraline, and then proceeded to draw a splendid little rat before signing his name.

We chatted briefly, telling him how much we love his work. He acted almost bashful. He’s commented before on his blog that it seems slightly absurd he gets to make things up for a living. You really got the sense that’s how he feels about it–just very lucky to be able to do what he does. Other folks were waiting then, so we thanked him profusely and floated away. The whole way home we both couldn’t move the smiles from our lips.

On the way out they had little chocolate beetles to take with. It’ll make sense once you’ve seen the film.

A Twittering Postscript
When we got home, Amber suggested that I send Neil a note on Twitter thanking him for the signing. I jotted off this:

“The real Coraline” saw the rat you drew and said “za-zoo.” Thanks for making our evening go from great to spectacular.

Didn’t expect any specific response, but the next day I got a notification email that @neilhimself was following me on Twitter. Now when I tweet about my lunch or the build breaking, one of my heroes might see it pop up on his computer screen. Cool.

Here’s the whole haul. What a fantastic night.

Twelve Sentences

A while back, I stumbled on an article with some clever advice on getting writing done. Write twelve sentences. That’s it. If you want to keep writing past that, do it. If not, then you’ve got your twelve and you’re good to go. No guilt for not churning out 2000 words a day. Just small, consistent forward progress.
I started trying it and oddly enough it worked. I can rough out that much in probably 15-30 minutes. While life has gone crazy, most days I can find at least that much time to sit down and scribble.
What about continuity? What about getting a good writing flow going? Well, those are valid concerns. But I was planning on editing the novel before I shuttle it off for the world to see, right? Right? You think there won’t be continuity issues even if I write the whole thing in five page chunks?
And the short bursts don’t prevent that writing groove from showing up sometimes anyway. Several times I’ve sat down intent to just get my twelve in, and instead ended up writing pages. If I’d thought about it beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have started–too much to do, floors to clean for our crawling daughter, dishes to put away, laundry to run.  But the easy-in of writing just twelve sentences got my butt in the chair and it took off from there.

I so wish I could find the original link that started this off for me, but there’s a book with ‘twelve’ and ‘sentence’ in the title that totally obscured my hopes of finding it. Cory Doctorow wrote something very similar not long after, though–he says a page, but it works out to the same idea.

Slow and steady beats waiting for uninteruptted time hands down.

An afternoon with Ursula Le Guin

About a week or two ago a friend from critique group mentioned that Ursula Le Guin was coming to Bend for a brief class during “The Nature of Words“, a lit conference. Le Guin is 80 years old and doesn’t teach a lot, so I was definitely on board.

The topic of her talk primarily was why we write fiction and what we can learn from that. She started by pointing out how as children we all are story-tellers. Watch a kid at play, and you’ll see them building up narratives about what their dolls or spaceships are doing. We start out telling stories, but at some point most of us stop. Some even develop a distaste for fiction, perhaps reading only “real” books that talk about “real” things.
There was a lot of discussion which was awesome–I mean, here’s Ursula Le Guin, and she’s asking us what we think about her questions! She has a very soft-spoken style that made it a warm environment to talk about things. It wasn’t in a classroom either, but in a seating area in the community college library, which went even further to establishing a relaxed atmosphere.
The standout for me was during Q&A at the end. A guy, trying to get a reaction (not in a bad way–he admitted he was being a little “provocative”), said basically that the characters that stick with him all come from realistic rather than genre fiction. He asked what she thought about that. I sat up straighter, as the downplaying of sci-fi and fantasy as juvenile and purely escapist sometimes grates on me. What defense would Le Guin use, what counter-examples she would point to? Instead she said, “Well of course. Character is often the focus of realistic fiction. Fantasy does other things.” I have to admit, it was liberating to hear from someone whose work I regard so highly–Le Guin is among the most literary of fantasy authors, especially with her sophisticated use of language and depth of insight into characters. If her viewpoint is that fantasy doesn’t need to “compete” with literary fiction for legitimacy, I’m inclined to believe her.
It was also inspiring to hear her talk about how she writes and her love of it. Someone asked her about process, and she said basically–what process? I just shut the door and do it. It’s a good reminder that often there’s no magic involved; it’s mostly about showing up and doing it.
Overall it was a fantastic day. Amber and Cora came out with us and hung around in downtown Bend (which apparently has a great knitting shop). We had lunch at the Deschutes Brewery (beer taster!), and had many great conversations along the way.
Oh yeah, and I got my copy of Wizard of Earthsea signed too. Cool.

Of Meat and Music

This post is a little later than I was expecting, but that’s life with a baby–free computer time is hard to come by.

Last month, Amber and I took our second excursion without the child. The first time was just a quick jaunt to the coast, almost a test run more than anything. This time we had a mission. Well, two missions really–Salumi and Radiohead.

For anyone who’s been hiding under a musical rock, Radiohead released a new album, In Rainbows, a while back. I’ve been a big fan ever since my stint in England during college, and when we heard they were coming to Seattle (well, Auburn really, but who’s counting?) we decided to shell out for tickets.

We’ve also wanted for quite a while to get to a restaurant in Seattle called Salumi. We saw it on No Reservations (the only TV program I regularly follow these days), and have been dying to get there ever since. Downside has always been that it’s only open on weekdays until 4pm. So the game-plan was to 1) have my mom up to take care of Cora, 2) drive to Seattle for lunch at Salumi, and 3) Radiohead!

Salumi was everything we expected. The line was out the door at 2pm when we arrived. It’s exactly the type of little hole in the wall you’d expect. It’s narrow the whole length of it, and with people lining up to get to the counter it got even more cramped. A couple long tables at the back, a couple seats that were tight for two, the counter and that was it.

By this time of day they were already out of a number of things, particularly the delicious sounding specials. We settled on their basic salami sandwiches, of which there were nearly a dozen varieties of meat to choose from. They make them on thick, dense olive oil bread, with a bit of garlicy sauce and loads of salami, onions, and peppers. They’re apparently the only place on the west coast that does the whole dry curing process themselves, and man you can taste it. I had the coppa and hot sopressata (one for there, one for dinner later). Although I managed to eat my whole sandwich, I was FULL by the end of it–no side dishes, no chips, just meat, bread and a drink. If you’re a fan of cured meats, my friend, this is a must visit when in Seattle.

And then to the concert. Now I’m not a huge concert-goer. I’ve only been to a handful, mostly because of the expense. This one was at the Whiteriver Ampitheater. We didn’t think though the “ampitheater” part of that all the way, and it rained that day (first time in weeks) and we didn’t bring extra jackets. Luckily, our seats were under cover enough that it didn’t make much difference.

We showed up early, due to my punctual nature and lack of familiarity with how concerts go. The opening act was a bust, and Radiohead didn’t take the stage until almost 9pm. Still, I was glad to be there in plenty of time.

Before the show opened, they started pulling out lines of these long, vertical tubes over the stage (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/areminder/2786640194/in/photostream/ for a picture of it in action.) I had no idea what those were, but they turned out to be lights that they used to do some pretty amazing effects. The tubes could light up at any point along the way, so sometimes there were just dots of light, lines or whole synchronized patterns playing across the whole stage. On the closing song (“Everything in its Right Place”), they actually spelled out part of the lyrics scrolling across those vertical tubes.

On that note, the visuals exceeded anything I was expecting. In addition to the lighting on-stage, there were video screens to the right, left, and back of the stage. These cycled through various angles of what was happening, but with every song the effects changed. Video was distorted, or hazy, or oddly colored, and you never knew what was coming next. The shots had weird angles too, so it wasn’t just a straight-foward “here’s Thom, just like you see him”–it felt like crouching away in some corner of the stage watching the action.

The setlist (see this review for a full listing, although I personally thought they were a bit harsh on the venue) was just what I was hoping for. They obviously did a lot from the latest album, but they also plumbed back in time as well. The only disc they didn’t play something off of was Pablo Honey, and given how much their style has changed since then, I wasn’t surprised. OK Computer got a solid three or four songs, and since that’s one of my absolute favorite albums, I was in heaven. They also played “Street Spirit” off The Bends, which is another of my favorite tracks.

Beyond the music, seeing the live show was a cool experience. One thing I wasn’t expecting was the prevalence of cameras in the audience. When the show started up, the whole slope of the ampitheater down to the stage was dotted with glowing screen after glowing screen. It was like every third person had a digital camera or cell phone held up to snap a picture of the action.

Another fun bit was during the song “Faust Arp”–Thom lost his place after a couple of lines (to his credit, the lyrics are really packed together, and a single misstep completely screws the rythm). He stopped, flustered, and started singing another song (apparently Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why”, though I didn’t recognize it), until another band member came out and dropped a dollar for him to stop. So he picks back up and flubs it at exactly the same spot! The crowd roared as he said “f*** it”, before finally starting several lines later and finishing the song. Now there’s something you never get listening to a CD.

Thom also dedicated one song to anyone involved in the WTO riots in Seattle. Um, yeah, all right then. Still enjoyed the song, though–just him at a piano, with a camera looking up over the keys right into his gaunt, stubbly face.

The weather turned drizzly by the end, and we were up far enough that although we were covered we still got a good bit of drifting mist. I feel for the folks on the lawn behind us–they were totally drenched by the end, but the whole area was packed front to back anyway.

I guess I’ve waxed on long enough. Suffice to say, it was a fantastic experience. Not something that we’ll do often, but I’m so glad we grabbed hold of the chance when it presented itself.

“Single” life

It’s often easy to look at your life and imagine how much better things would be if they were different. Case in point for me is writing time. I am very happily married, and I love being a father, but it’s hard not to fantasize about how much writing time I used to have.

Before Amber, and then Coraline came into my life, I wrote almost every night. Finding time was effortless. I never had to leap into action at the smallest slice of time. I could wind up in a leisurely way, read to feed my imagination, watch a movie and still have hours to work.

But sometimes life sends us reminders that such fantasies about how perfect life would be are exactly that–fantasy.

Amber and Coraline are visiting family in Montana for a week (they’ll be back on Tuesday, so we’re most of the way through). As you’d expect, this has given me tons of writing time, and I’ve grabbed hold with both hands, writing with the nifty fountain pen Amber bought me until my thumb aches. If anything, I’m even more productive than I used to be since now I’m far more accustomed to simply sitting down and starting without lead-time.

But what’s easy to leave out in that wistful fantasy picture is the just how dry and dull life is without my family. Having Amber around gives me the chance to hang out every day with my favorite person. Simple conversation and household activities take on a whole extra dimension with her, and it’s amazing how much of a gap it leaves when that’s absent.

And Coraline… although I “knew” before we had her how she would wind her way into my heart, I could never have imagined how much I’d miss her. With Amber I can chat on the phone and get some snippet of normalcy, but that doesn’t work with a baby. There’s such a huge gap not being able to hold her, tickle her, bathe her, not to see her bright eyes track mine or a smile flourish on her cute, pudgy cheeks.

The “bachelor” fantasy somehow misses those parts of the equation, but sitting here now I know the truth. As much as I love writing, as great as it is to devote time to it, there are more important things. I can’t wait for Tuesday to arrive.

Fail!

Recently, my friend Brian and his family stopped through for the night. Per usual, conversation took turns I never would have expected.

Brian teaches math and science, and he’s really keen to find the best ways to help kids learn. I respect how much he thinks about the subject, and it’s always enlightening to hear what new insight or method he’s come up with for getting things to stick in kids’ minds.

This time he mentioned an idea that sounded both strange and spot on. He wants to help his kids fail.

fail owned pwnd pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

No, not utter fail the class, fail in a more controlled way. Often the best learning comes from trying something, messing it up, and then being able correct your approach. Brian wants to find a way to provide that–problems that are tough enough students will fail, but clear and simple enough that he can help them learn through it rather than just crash and burn.

This rings true to me in a lot of different areas beyond school. Software comes up, because there is no single “right” way to develop a given application (and a bajillion wrong ways). Any time I’ve returned to something I wrote as short as a year before, I see pitfalls and mistakes. While maintaining some other yahoo’s code is painful, it doesn’t the ouch factor that looking back over your own code can bring. But the only way to get things done is to try hard, apply the best technologies and practices we have, see where they fail, and correct.

It works with writing too. The biggest lessons that I’ve learned–many of them through my wonderful critique group–have come from committing time and effort to material that just doesn’t work. It’s only once things are written down, with someone else pouring over it, that the faults come clear.

Failure is a double-edged sword, though, because it hurts to get things wrong. As much as I know that it’s the only way to grow, that doesn’t remove the sucky feelings when you’re in the midst of it. Having to throw out half a novel and rewrite may bring some valuable lessons, but it is not an enjoyable experience.

But you can’t let that stop you. Lots of doubts plague me as I’m drafting my new book, concerns where things don’t measure up to my imagination, where I’m falling into old patterns, where I might need to make major changes later. But I can only do the best that’s in me now, fail on some parts, pick myself up, and try again.

Trunk novels

I ran across a fun blog post the other day about trunk novels–you know, those novel drafts that have been put in a dark place and mostly forgotten.

Like most writers, I have a pile of old stuff stowed away. There are four full novels buried where they will never see the light of day. Three of those four are a trilogy, and that experience convinced me that resurrecting old drafts doesn’t work for me–or at the very least is hard.

(Yes, this was back when I thought fantasy only came in muli-packs, so I powered through the whole series before revising. If I didn’t write the whole thing, how would I know whether I missed something in the first book..? or so the “reasoning” went.)

When I finally returned to the first book, I found something terrifying–it stunk. In the midst of all that writing, my skills had grown. A massive quality gulf yawned between the books. I tried to fix the poor first book, but it needed more than polish. It needed a complete rewrite.

That left me feeling tired and bored. I was ready to move. The next shiny idea waited out there, unencumbered and free of prior draft baggage. So I stuffed the trilogy in the trunk and moved forward.

Anyway, since dumping those drafts I’ve never felt an urge to go back. There may be one idea I’ll use someday, but that’s it. My trunk novels are almost certain to stay tucked away, moldering in the dark somewhere.