Monthly Archives: May 2011

Focus, People! Focus!

(I bought a whiteboard today and hung it up in my home office. To me, it was a symbol that I am serious about my commitment to become a published creative writer. It also inspired this post.)

I am notoriously scatterbrained. I’m also an incredible neurotic, which is probably why none of the many therapists I’ve had throughout my 30-year history have voiced a specific diagnosis for my condition. I assume they think I’d just take the label and run, as in “Oh, I can’t possibly pay my rent today. My general anxiety disorder is acting up.” Or “Deadline? What deadline? You’ll have to excuse me. I have ADHD.”

Regardless of the lack of an official diagnosis, I got problems. Fortunately, I have learned to cope with them, largely without the aid of medication. What’s the secret? Besides wearing my body out on a treadmill about five days a week so I don’t have enough energy to be anxious, I practice two very helpful techniques.

First, I practice mindfulness. Simply put, I try to restrict my thoughts to the present, rather than mulling over the past or focusing on the future. Concentrating on the present sounds easy. After all, isn’t that what is right in front of you? But the human mind makes the simple convoluted. Memories, worries and all that other mental stuff create a kind of thought cloud that serves to detach us from the now as well as ourselves within the context of the now. I make this distinction between the now and ourselves within the now because one speaks to the external stimuli (I am sitting in a cafe as unobtrusive music plays overhead) while the other speaks to the internal stimuli (I am hungry and tired. I’m thinking how the girl sleeping at the table next to me might possibly be dead).

It is important to both observe the now and ourselves within the now. Although the past can inform the present and the present informs the future, it is the present in which we have the opportunity to truly interact with and affect life. And so, despite my constantly wandering mind, I try to reel myself in, prompting myself with such questions as “What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What are you seeing? What are you smelling?”

The other technique I employ to cope with my overactive mind is to break goals, projects, assignments, etc. down into small steps. It’s basically the whole “Every journey starts with a single step” adage translated into a self-help action. For instance, let’s say I assign myself the task of making a meatloaf. Perhaps the thought of turning a lump of thoroughly ground cow carcass into something delicious and delicious looking seems like an impossible feat. But what’s this? A recipe? You mean there are steps I can take to turn this nondescript cow mush into an entree? Now I know I can do this!

Breaking things down into steps can take many forms. My most used form is the “To Do List.” I make a To Do List almost every day. I include work-related things as well as everyday chores, such as washing dishes or going to the gym. Creating these lists helps me break down the day into many tiny chunks, which in turn instills within me a sense of direction.

Why am I writing about focusing through mindfulness and task-mastering? Because I’m beginning to realize that focus is one characteristic that separates a writer from a published writer. And I want to be a published writer. Without a routine, without discipline, the most ambitious of projects will rarely get done. And so it requires some self-soothing (mindfulness) and self-coaching (task mastering) to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Think of it as hand-holding except you are actually holding your own hand.

The aforementioned whiteboard I purchased is now covered in erasable ink. It details all the ongoing projects I am juggling. It also lists ideas for future works so that I don’t let them slip my mind. I use different colors of ink to denote different types of projects (e.g., green is for my freelance assignments, blue is for my book ideas and red is for my article pitches/essays). I also included an ever-changing “To Do List” box up in the corner. Thanks to a sale at Staples, the whole get up cost me less than $20. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and the possibility of success.

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My Lady Gaga Born This Way Album Review (Part 2)

After a restful night, I am fully refreshed to plunge  back into the depths of Lady Gaga’s most recent auditory explosion, “Born This Way.” Read part 1 of my review here.

I was not too kind to Ms. Gaga in my last post. I explained that, despite my obvious bias against her and all she stands for, I would judge her music purely on its melodic merits. Unfortunately, these merits sucked, save for several tunes. Perhaps the second half of the album has more promise? God, let’s hope so.

Track 10: Bad Kids

This angsty anthem is one of the few songs on “Born This Way” that seems to be targeted to a little-girl demographic. The rest of the album, with its abundant unclever innuendo, is targeted toward adult gay men. “What’s the difference?” you ask. Honestly, I really don’t know anymore. But back to judging the song. This is another one of those terribly mismatched patchwork songs that seem to plague this album. The verses are moody and full of attitude. I dig them. But then we hit the chorus, and it’s like a pink pony just trampled our circuit party. I may as well be listening to Tiffany or Debbie Gibson. Still, while the verses and chorus don’t mesh, they both are catchy in their own right. This is certainly one of the better songs on the album, especially if you don’t understand English and can’t decipher these awful lyrics.

Overall Rating: 6

Track 11: Fashion of His Love

Wow! I didn’t expect this. We just fell into a wormhole that has transported us into an alternate dimension, one where Lady Gaga has assumed the role of a young Whitney Houston circa “I Want to Dance with Somebody.” In fact, the chorus of this song has a melody that somewhat resembles the aforementioned Whitney hit. With its canned drums and old-school synths, this is actually a heart-warming flashback song. Even the lyrics espouse a cute anachronistic patriarchal naivete that you’d likely never hear in another Lady Gaga tune. It’s a welcome relief from all the “independent woman” slogans she screams but fails to back up with any intelligent support.

Overall Rating: 7

Track 12: Highway Unicorn (Road to Love)

Yes, the name of this song is stupid. It conjures images of a one-horned horse carcass rotting on the side of the road. But let’s not judge a song purely by its title. Perhaps, “Highway Unicorn” has some musical value. Oh wait. No it doesn’t. Lady Gaga speaks the verses, which is a waste for someone who has an amazing voice. It’s like the world’s fastest man walking through a marathon. What’s the point? As for the chorus, it’s really just an exercise in repetition. Warning, this song may cause stigmata of the ear.

Overall Rating: 2

Track 13: Heavy Metal Lover

We start with a growing distorted bass line and a digitized Lady Gaga informing us that, yes, this is “Heavy Metal Lover.” And here we go with the God-awful lyrics. “Whiskey mouth” and “blond south?” Hey, Lady, don’t make me gag gag. Anyway, Lady Gaga puts on an extra sultry affectation for this one, purring like a cat in heat. Sure, it’s contrived, but it’s got more attitude than most this album, which is so bubbly it might just give you gas. Overall, this sounds like something I’d enjoy listening to while shopping in the GAP. It’s got the kind of sexy unobtrusiveness  I desire when picking out tank tops or jorts.

Overall Rating: 7

Track 14: Electric Chapel

So the woman that sings “Judas” goes all Judas Priest on the intro of this song. We have what sounds like a shiny version of the riff from “Breaking the Law.” By the way, if you want to see a truly sinister leather-clad gay icon, check out Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, who is about as much of a heavy-metal lover as you can get. The triplet vocal scheme is toe-tapping. And I like the relaxed “do do doo.” The whole “electric chapel” thing is a little strange. I’m not quite sure what she’s trying to say. I guess it’s just more excessive sacrilege. And the guitar solo is laughable because, really, who is listening to this album for the rocking guitar solos? Still, a more listenable track than most.

Overall Rating: 7

Track 15: The Queen

With the interesting ambient sounds, this starts out like an Animal Collective  tune. I wish more of Lady Gaga sported these quirky electric blips and bleeps. Oh, wait. The fun just stopped once she started singing. In a moment, all integrity has been sapped from this song. Now it sounds completely indistinguishable from a Kelly Clarkson hit. And once again Lady Gaga’s vocals are destroyed by digital tinkering, so much so that it may as well be me wailing. If I wanted to hear a robot shriek, I’d put my computer in the microwave.

Overall Rating: 2

Track 16: You and I

I should mention that the “u” in “You” has an umlaut over it, but I’m not computer savvy enough to figure out how to type that. This song is like if Queen’s “We Will Rock You” had a drunken one-night stand with any random contemporary country song. I’m assuming this is meant to be a genre-hopping chart topper for Lady Gaga. After all, the country market is incredibly lucrative (just look at the recent “American Idol” competition). Because the current state of country music is  the auditory equivalent of a cow patty, I can see this song doing quite well. It’s boring, full of cliches and even has an impassioned shout out to Nebraska.

Overall Rating: 1

Track 17: The Edge of Glory

The song title alone references, in part, two gay sex terms. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just do a quick Internet search. But don’t do it at work, unless you work at a gay bar, bathhouse or political headquarters.) This is appropriate given this song sounds like every early ’00s gay club dance track. With its sense of relief and finality, I could see it played over the closing credits of such films as “Trick” or “The Broken Hearts Club.” In fact, I seem to be experiencing deja vu. I swear a newly out version of myself once danced to this song while donning short spikey hair and rainbow gel bracelets. Oh, and this sax solo by the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons? Tragically hilarious.

Overall Rating: 5

Based on all my song ratings,  the entire album averages at about a 4.5. I’d say that’s about right. “Born This Way” isn’t terrible. But there were certainly problems with its conception. Repetition, bad songwriting and over-production sink what could have been a very strong release. Instead, the resulting work is like Frankenstein’s monster, a mishmash of styles that collectively result in a lifeless, but loud, beast.

My Lady Gaga Born This Way Album Review (Part 1)

Hello Internet friends! Although this blog is primarily a landing pad for my thoughts on publishing and writing, it will occasionally serve as a landing pad for my generic brain spillage. This is one of those puddles of opinion.

Lady Gaga. The name conjures images of cheek prosthetics, koala bear masks and gyrating gay men. She is the queen of unnecessary sacrilege and contrived controversy. She is the mistress of manipulation, managing to turn Britney Spears bubble gum pop into a radical anthem for the disenfranchised. Her new album, “Born This Way,” has been likened to a battle cry for gay rights, specifically the record’s title track. Yet, her lyrical portrayal of gay culture closely reflects my father’s own narrow-minded and antiquated associations with rainbows, glitter and unicorns. This is not to say that I do not enjoy rainbows, glitter and unicorns. I am only saying that eggs, flour and sugar alone do not make a cake.

So, let it be known that I am not an enormous fan of Lady Gaga as an artist or as an artistic concept. But that is not what an album review is about. An album review cares not for what you have done but what your music does. Chuck Berry is a great example of this. He is a god among roots guitarists, yet he famously peed on women. R. Kelly would later follow in his footsteps, becoming a contemporary musical legend and notorious goldenshowerer. So I shall not be judging Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” based on the manner in which she conveys herself, that manner being an aloof artsy fartsy megalomaniac.

So, without further ado, here is my track-by-track review of “Born This Way.”

Track 1: “Marry the Night”

I am having a hard time getting over the stark image of Lady Gaga that appears on my iPhone as I play this track. She looks like a banshee embarking on her walk of shame. The image is bone white and black with a splash of bright crimson red marking her lips. She’s sporting mega-smokey eyes and a mane of unkempt hair that would make a comb cry. But I digress. The song is actually pretty good. It starts off slow and low key. The Lady is easing us into her world of sexual innuendo and religious iconography. It reminds me of a rock ballad from the 1980s. But, wait. What’s this? Wow! We just went into hyperspeed. We’ve now been teleported to the ’90s. Thumping bass, wailing vocals. Replace Lady Gaga with a large black woman and, I assure you, everybody will dance now.

Overall Rating: 7

Track 2: Born This Way

“It doesn’t matter if you love him or capital H-I-M.” Here we go with the vague religious references. And here we go with the lackluster songwriting. Many were disappointed when this track was released as the album’s first single. And rightfully so. It’s a blatant rip-off of several other, much better songs. This includes TLC’s “Waterfalls” as well as Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” which even has the same thematic idea. I’m sure I’ll be hearing this song at every single gay bar from now until the end of the universe. In fact, this song might cause the end of the universe.

Overall Rating: 2

Track 3: Government Hooker

When I first saw the title of this track, it made me think of whether prostitutes in Nevada have to get licensure from the government. However, I don’t think this song is about state-level compliance. It starts off with some impressive Janelle Monae-style operatic vocals. Next a semi-industrial beat is introduced. Good stuff. My butt’s shaking. Where are we going with this? Oh. The vocals for the verses are so over-produced that they may as well be Britney Spears, the lowest common denominator when it comes to anything (and that includes breathing). The pre-chorus is funny. The call and response with the too serious male vocalist reminds me of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” And now here comes the chorus and…WHAT THE FUCK? Blue Monday? You ripped off New Order’s “Blue Monday?”Are you trying to make me hate you, Lady Gaga? New Order was one of the best and most influential techno groups of all time. You are like gum on their shoe, and this song is a polished turd.

Overall Rating: 1

Track 4: Judas

If you haven’t been able to tell, I’m not a fan of Lady Gaga’s rampant use of religious references to inspire shock and awe. I mean, first, it’s a cheap shot. I could pee on a statue of the Virgin Mary and probably get a book deal. Plus, Madonna already did this (used religion in a controversial manner, not pee on the Virgin Mary). However, this song actually has legs. The verses and that whole shrieking “Judaaas Ju Daaa” thing is unquestionably hot. But wait, what’s with this chorus? Who let Mandy Moore into the studio? Seriously, we went from Marilyn Manson to the musical equivalent of an Easter basket. How are us gays supposed to have sex to this?

Overall Rating: 7

Track 5: Americano

The lyrics are stupid. Can we just get that out of the way? All of Lady Gaga’s lyrics are stupid. As I said on Facebook earlier: “Lady Gaga has hired me to write lyrics for her next song. Here’s a sample: ‘Red wine, crushed cigarette butts, pant bulge, Jesus, something in French.'” So I’m just going to ignore the words that fly out of her crimson-tinged mouth and instead concentrate on how these words sound. And in “Americano,” they sound awesome. This song is impressive. I’m a sucker for hand-clapping (who isn’t?). I’m also a sucker for Americans reinterpreting world music (see the entire genre known as Exotica). In short, this song makes me want to have sex with men of Latin origin. Good work, Lady Gaga.

Overall Rating: 9.5

Track 6: Hair

Does Lady Gaga whip her hair? Unfortunately that is not what this song is about. This song is about teenage angst as told through hair. It reminds me of my freshmen year of college when I told my parents that I was going to dye my hair blue. Their response: “If you come home like that, you’ll be lucky to still have a head.” The message was received loud and clear. Unfortunately, Lady Gaga’s message isn’t so clear. Though it is loud. This song is just thumping and yelling and a backing “Whoa Oh Oh.” It’s like extensions on a bald woman. There’s nothing genuine about it.

Overall Rating: 1

Track 7: SchieBe

German makes me nervous and rightfully so. But out of the mouth of Lady Gaga, it is more like a dog doing a cute trick than a Nazi-led Kristallnacht. This song starts off with all the attitude of a sexy European runway show. But, as with Judas, we hit the chorus and all things go to poppy cock, emphasis on the “poppy.” This chorus does not belong in this song. It’s like Japanese happy hardcore. I can’t help but to think of a line of cartoon hamsters jiggling on my computer monitor to this sacchrine sweet melody. Seriously, was this lifted from a “NOW That’s What I Call Techno” compilation? Another misfire.

Overall Rating: 5

Track 8: Bloody Mary

The song begins with plucky strings and an operatic overture. We then go into the typical electro-thump that we have come to expect from this album of sound and fury that signifies nothing. But there is a darker edge to this chugging thump. There’s a little more crunch; the vocals have a moodier tone. The vocals in the verses even remind me a bit of Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But, wait. What’s this chorus? Isn’t this the same fucking chorus I’ve heard twice already on this album. Yes! It’s just slowed down. Really? You are making it hard for me to like you, Gaga.

Overall Rating: 4

Track 9: Black Jesus + Amen Fashion

“Jesus is the new black.” What does that mean? Don’t even try to think about it. Your brain will rot and your skull will cave in. There is a nice retro-Madonna quality to this song. In fact, it’s kind of like “Express Yourself.” Yes, for the second time on this album. Nothing else about this song is notable.

Overall Rating: 2

Okay, so originally I was going to review the whole album in one sitting. But it’s long, and so far it kind of sucks. I’ve never heard music so loud that so severely lacked any element of emotion. Yelling does not equal feeling, Lady Gaga. The worst part is that Lady Gaga can actually sing. Quite well in fact. All of her live performances are spectacular because she is free from the prison of over-production that serves to completely gut her voice of any uniqueness.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my album review, which hopefully I’ll find time to write tomorrow or Friday. Until then, cleanse your ear pallet with some Adele.

Fly Free, My Fragile Piece of Writing

If I had a kid, I’d probably think twice about shipping him off to a bunch of strangers, quite possibly never to be heard from again. But I’m not parent. I’m a writer, a childless writer who has no intentions of ever having children. So my essays have become my babies. I love each and every one in a unique way. And the thought of sending one of my kin sailing away down a river of faceless literary agents and publishers frightens me.

Will they celebrate him? Will they laude him with compliments? “Oh my! Aren’t you a perfect specimen of narrative non-ficiton? Your father must have amazing literary skill.” Or will they destroy him, dismembering him with their red pens and shredding machines.

I am trying to get past this anxiety. Criticism and rejection are just part of the process. Just because one person of literary esteem does not like what I produce does not mean another won’t. And it doesn’t automatically mean that what I birth is without value. Perhaps some refinement may be needed; perhaps better marketing tactics need to be employed. But you wont’ know unless you try.

To get over my hangups with submitting, I’ve set a couple of small goals for myself. I’m going to write a couple pieces over the next month and identify some magazines to submit to. These would be for consumer magazines rather than literary journals. I have other pieces that are more suitable for the latter, which I am considering publishing in book form.

If anyone has any advice for me about doing the legwork for the submission process, let me know. Coming from the journalism world, I’m familiar with the query process, the never-call-an-editor rule and things of that nature. As for researching publications to submit to, I’ve been using the Writer’s Market website, which is a really terrible resource. Wikipedia is more thorough, but it still isn’t fantastic.

Announcing My Relaunch

Let’s face it. This blog has fallen into disrepair. If this were a ’67 Chevy, it’d be covered in rust and mounted on cinder blocks in my weed-ridden front yard. Look at my last post. It’s from nearly a year ago. And it’s announcing a blog that has also since suffered a fate of apathy.

So what happened? Why have I been such a bad blogger? Well, for one, I maintain the Essay Fiesta blog and our related monthly e-newsletter. That’s a fairly demanding job. Plus I have a job as a freelance writer, which is ironically the most and least time-consuming career on the planet.

But I’ve also been busy developing a reputation as a creative writer. With the launch of Essay Fiesta 18 months ago and the Chicago Story Collective six months ago, I have propelled myself into the literary spotlight. And let me tell you, it feels more like home than being an improv, stand-up or sketch comic ever did. I love writing and performing, so reading my work in public really is an ideal synthesis of my passions.

But public readings don’t pay the bills. And I’d like to spread my gospel even farther than the hundreds of people who have patronized Essay Fiesta. So, I’m embarking on the exciting path of publishing. That’s right. I want to write a book.

This is a whole new world for me. And I’ve already gotten some wonderful advice (thanks Randy). If you have any other tips, leads or support to offer, please feel free to contact me. And, in the meantime, if you have any freelance work you’re looking to assign, I’m still toiling away at that trade as well.