Category Archives: Pop Culture

Books: The 3800 block of San Diego’s 5th Avenue in Hillcrest


Bookseller Jan Tonnesen thumbs through a first edition Dr. Suess book at 5th Avenue Books in San Diego, Calif., earlier this month. Fifth Avenue Books is one of two terrific bookstores on the 3800 block of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area. The other is Bluestocking books, almost directly across the street. Photo by John Doucette.

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Folks here said the number of bookstores in the city has dwindled in recent years, but I had time during a recent work trip to visit two terrific shops on opposite sides of 5th Avenue in the Hillcrest area – 5th Avenue Books, which sells used, and Bluestocking Books, which sells a mix of new and used.

The former Borders location in Gaslamp notably lay empty, which is not unlike an awful lot of towns, but a big recent loss for rare and used book hunters fond independent sellers was the ultimate shuttering of Wahrenbrock’s Book House, following the 2008 death of its owner. But a few shops are still going, including in and around Hillcrest, and I keep hoping people will rediscover the joy of going to a cool bookstore and finding either something wanted or something you didn’t know you needed.

With 5th Avenue and Bluestocking so close, I urge them to mate and make some beautiful new bookstores. I’m not 100 percent certain of the science behind my proposal. Regardless, the Hillcrest Town Council should petition the City Council to fund the purchase of a huge scented candle, as well as the rental of a Commodores cover band to play an autumn evening set in the middle of the avenue. Just see where it goes, San Diego. Let’s see them try to resist the silky allure of 1978’s “Say Yeah.”

Anyway. I visited Bluestocking first, where owner Kris Nelson said the store’s name roughly means “oddball,” and also refers to an intellectual woman. There’s also a brief history of the term at the store site. The number is (619) 296-1424, and they have a Facebook fan site at this link. I browsed fiction, mostly, then compulsively bought a Tim Seibles poetry collection, which you can look forward to among the prizes for next year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Say, did you hear about the National Book Award nominations yet? Still cool.

Nelson said the store has a fairly simple philosophy:

Come as you are. Dress how you want. Why can’t we all just be equal?

She’s had the store for 13 years, though there’s been a bookstore here since the 1960s.

I love our neighborhood. It’s still a great walking neighborhood with trees. It’s a very tolerant neighborhood.

She even met her husband here in the store, when he showed up for a poetry reading and then bought a book. The store is doing well, she noted, in part due to the shuttering of Borders — similar to what I heard at an independent store in Rhode Island last year.

We’ve seen a bump. We’ve also seen a bump because some of the used stores have been closing, which is sad.

Bluestocking bookseller Dawn Marie said:

A lot of the bookstores we used to have closed, but so has Borders. There’s one Barnes & Noble, and they’ve really cut back.

In addition to new books, Bluestocking has taken on services such as handling magazine subscriptions. Said Marie:

It boils down to where can [customers] get the services they need? And that’s what lets us grow. There’s still growth happening, but its stores that are really service-oriented.

Bluestocking Books exterior.

Kris Nelson, owner of Bluestocking Books in the Hillcrest neighborhood of San Diego, Calif.

Bluestocking Books.

Bluestocking Books interior.

I didn’t have time to venture out to other recommended shops — Adams Avenue Book Store in Normal Heights and D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla [the latter has a Loeb Classical Library and Western Philosophy wall and, man, check out their YouTube channel] — but I loved San Diego like stupid loves low expectations. I aim to be back, and also aim to check these spots out.

That said, I found so much great stuff at Bluestocking Books and 5th Avenue Books, I ended up with a challenging carry-on situation for the flight back to Virginia. There are worse problems to have.

Across the street from Bluestocking, I spoke with Jan Tonnesen, a bookseller at 5th Avenue Books. He worked for three decades at Wahrenbrock’s before it closed.

Fifth Avenue Books holds down a big, open space at 3838 5th Ave., with some back rooms, too. The number is (619) 291-4660 and they have a Facebook fan page at this link. I ended up choosing some Modern Library volumes, including the first San Diego-bought book I started reading on the ride home — a very nice copy of The Decameron.

Tonnesen, back when he worked at Wahrenbrock’s, witnessed the late pop star Michael Jackson on a shopping spree there. His bill topped $1,700. This was by far the coolest story I heard in San Diego. Said Tonnesen:

I spent about 20 minutes alone with him in the rare books room. He wore a red silk shirt and a red surgical mask to match.

I suggested Tonnesen had a pretty good title for a memoir: I Spent 20 Minutes Alone with Michael Jackson in the Rare Books Room: A Survivor’s Story. Kind of sells itself.

I like it. Thanks.

When was that?

Oh, God. I don’t know. It was at least 15 years ago.

Before he died.

I hope so.

5th Avenue Books exterior.

5th Avenue Books interior.

A lion watches over a bookshelf at 5th Avenue Books in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, Calif.

Some nifty sketches at 5th Avenue Books included this one of Papa.

A brief epilogue:

The photos with this post are with my iPhone, so the indoor ones are a little grainy and blurry; sorry. But I want to make it up to you. I’m lighting a candle for you, bookstores.

And now it smells all like cinnamon, with just a hint of possibility.

Say, what’s that I hear from the middle of 5th Avenue?

Oh my:

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Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part Two)


NORFOLK, Va.– This is the second part of my Q&A with writer Will Harris, contributor to The AV Club pop culture Web site, among others. Harris also has his own blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link.

If you want to read part one first, click this link, and an earlier Belligerent Q&A is here.

This portion of the talk deal with making it work as a freelancer, as well as approaching Q&As by structuring questions and knowing how far to push.

Q: Can we talk about the nuts and bolts of being a freelancer? One of the things I always had to struggle with was getting the invoices out.

Yeah, my wife has been very helpful in giving me a wall calendar so I can monitor when my assignments are due for various publications, when I need to send the invoices out. I’m lucky a couple of them send emails automatically saying, ‘Please give me your invoice tomorrow.’ Otherwise, I’m keeping track as well.

Q: I have a client when I was in New York who was a good steady client, but, basically, they would forget to pay me. Have you been through that with various publications?

Well, with [one publisher] there were occasions when I was unable to cash a check. I had to wait. There was no money in the account. … I attempted to cash a check and was told there was insufficient funds in the account. For the most part, I haven’t had an issue with people not paying me in a timely fashion.

Q: When I was a freelancer, I basically had to do magazine stories to afford to do the newspaper stories I wanted to do. There’s a lot of working for clients you maybe would not [normally] work for.

For me, the only one I do is [writing about] real estate, which I didn’t love to begin with but have pretty much grown to live with. It’s not even difficult, it’s just so completely different from anything I’ve done previously or that I am doing, I just feel I have to change gears at the same time I’m getting all these emails from other people I am currently writing for – I’m literally shifting gears as I have to write the piece.

Q: You have to take this work sometimes.

It’s a steady check. I get it every two weeks. It’s hard to reject that kind of regular money.

Q: I’ve – more when I was at The Pilot – but I’ve talked to journalism students. One thing I loved doing at The Pilot was talking to the high school program they had at The Pilot at the time. And the one thing the kids talked about is how they were going to write this, and they’re going to write that, and that’s not the reality of what it is to write. Especially, I think, when you’re a freelancer.

The real reality is if you’re going to be a newspaper writer you have to basically surrender to whatever it takes to get on the paper and work your way to where you want to be. Freelancing, it’s a little bit easier to pick and choose, but you still have to have an amount of foresight as far as what’s going to pay the bills.

Q: You’ve got to make so much every month, no matter what you want to write.

Right. I was talking about this the other night. Jim Morrison, a freelance writer, when I went freelance I talked to him first because he’s one of the few people I know who have made a living at it. The first thing he told me was, ‘You can make it in freelancing if you can get five [clients you can count on] per month. You can build a budget based on that.’ I’ve fortunately been able to do that.

Q: In New York, I made enough to pay bills but I didn’t have insurance.

If my wife did not have insurance through Norfolk Public Schools, then I would be out of luck, and would probably not be working full time as a writer.

Q: I would never want to write for The AV Club because I would never want to be in the position of screwing up a site I read every day. [Laughter.] If that makes sense.

It makes sense.

Q: But one of the cool things is I read The AV Club – and you and I have talked about this before – but I read it pretty maniacally. I’m pretty sure I go there once, if not twice per day to see whatever Sean O’Neal is writing or whatever. It’s really cool to know somebody who writes there. I wonder if people come up and talk to you about that or just, ‘How do you do it?’

A lot of people around here don’t know I write for The AV Club, outside of Facebook, but I have several good friends who say, ‘How do you get in with The AV Club?‘ The best advice I can give you is what Noel [Murray, an AV Club contributor,] gave to me, which is you need to have an in, and even then there’s so many people who want to write for The AV Club that it doesn’t even get you that far.

Q: How much of the work is pitched to you? Or how much do you pitch?

I pitch a lot. I’ve built a pretty huge collection of publicist friends during the five years I was at Bullz-Eye, and the four years at Bullz-Eye while I was in the [Television Critics Association], and it’s incredible how far The AV Club name will get you in addition to the people I already knew. You just jump to a complete other echelon with The AV Club.

The biggest issue I find is a lot of the publicists don’t know what The AV Club is but they do know what The Onion is, and you have to sell it as being The Onion AV Club at the same time you’re clarifying, ‘It’s not the jokes. It’s for real and it’s serious.’ It’s kind of a delicate line sometimes.

Q: Could you talk about pitching? My pitches used to be letters.

It’s email. I get so many emails from publicists pitching me interviews. Some of them are not obviously huge names. One of the things I love doing at The AV Club is [a feature called] ‘Random Roles.’ You don’t have to be a big name. You just have to have a very long career. By virtue of that, whenever I even get remotely interested in a pitch for that, I send it off and it’s reached a point now where I’ll say 70 percent of the time they will be like, ‘Go for it.’ [Harris checks to ensure] nobody else has pitched it. I’m very sensitive about stepping on anyone’s toes.

It is literally a dream gig.

Q: The comments just go off the charts on that site, and they’re not always very kind to the writers.

They’re not, but there’s perpetual criticism about ‘Random Roles’ about, ‘Oh, how come you didn’t ask them abut this?’ I seem to have built some semblance of a fan base in the comments section.

Q: I think one of the reasons ‘Random Roles’ works so well is stories with big stars usually suck.

One thing about ‘Random Roles’ is it can be a big star. Like Mark Harmon, when I set that interview up, he was the number one most-loved TV celebrity, and yet I talked to him for an hour and asked him about all this stuff he never gets asked about anymore. And at the very tail end of it, I asked about NCIS, and prefaced it by saying, ‘This has got to be the longest interview you’ve done in years where you’ve barely been touching NCIS.’

Q: People who are character actors, those people tend to be, for me, more interesting, because they seem to be more forthright.

Yeah. I think they’re rightfully convinced they can get work even if they mouth off.

Q: One of the things I like about The AV Club, and your writing specifically, is an appreciation for the forms. Whatever you think about reviews, there’s an appreciation for an art. One of the greatest things I’ve heard in my life is the commentary by Roger Ebert for Dark City. It’s a great commentary, and I think one of the few film commentaries I’ve listened to more than once. There’s such an appreciation for film. I think you really get a sense that the people writing for The AV Club, too, they really care about the form and they find meaning in it. How does that work for you to get to write about pop culture?

I’ve been a trivia geek since I’ve been in single digits. … I was just eating this stuff up because I’d never heard of it and it sounded interesting to me. I’ve just been an obsessive about pop culture since then. The opportunity to write about pop culture for an audience that, as evidenced in the comments section, loves pop culture as much as I do, it’s an honor. And not one I thought I would ever see.

Q: Is it difficult to get people who have reached a certain level of success in the entertainment industry and get them to sit down and to ask them tough questions?

I’ve rarely been one to ask the hard-hitting questions. Not because I don’t think I could, but because I don’t think I have an interest in them. I’m never going to ask somebody a gossipy kind of question like you’d read in a publication like People or Us Weekly because I don’t have an interest in that.

If you send a reporter who actually enjoys talking to an interview subject or just is friendly with them, I think you get a better interview. At a certain point, if you are friendly with the person, they will open up about the stuff.

Q: Do you feel that’s what happened with the Larry the Cable Guy interview? You asked him some questions about a situation he had [with criticism from comedian David Cross].

Yeah, but I asked at the end of the interview and I didn’t ask in a confrontational way. I literally said, ‘I don’t know that I’ve ever seen you talk about this. I’m really just curious what you thought of it.’ As a result, I had another half-hour conversation with him. It was arguably a hard-hitting topic, but it was not a hard-hitting question. As a result, I got some really great answers. I don’t know if that tactic works for me all the time or some people any of the time.

Q: Do you feel like you have to ask questions like, ‘Do you hate gay people? Do you hate Arabs? When you make jokes like that?’ Do you feel that’s a responsibility for a critic?

I think it’s responsible to ask those questions. It’s just not something I would want to do. I’m very aware of the difference between a real person and an act. I’ve interviewed Andrew Dice Clay and I know that’s an act, but certainly it’s offensive to plenty of people.

Q: The thing that David Cross was kind of pointing out in Larry the Cable Guy’s act is that he goes for the easy joke.

You could argue that if you go back and read his responses, his response was a little disingenuous, you could say. Kind of avoiding the direct accusations in favor of being, ‘Why me? Why’s he picking on me?’ If I was a different kind of interviewer, I probably would have asked a harder hitting question, but I still got a better answer than a lot of people would have gotten. I just didn’t feel the need to go for it. That wasn’t why I asked the question in the first place. …

If it had been like a major headline story and I had an opportunity to ask him about it that would be one thing, but this was four years after the fact. It wasn’t like I was waiting with bated breath to find out what Larry the Cable Guy thought of David Cross’ letter.

Q: What I was going to ask about was actually structuring interviews.

When it comes to asking questions that could piss somebody off, I invariably wait until either the very end of the conversation or at a point in the conversation when I’ve developed enough of a rapport with the person that they know I’m not trying to be a dick by asking them. …

If you’ve got somebody on the phone where they’re in a position to hang up on you, you can probably wait until you have everything else you need first, and then ask the question.

Q: Have you ever had anybody just get pissed off and hang up the phone?

Ving Rhames, more or less. … Basically, it was for Death Race 2, the straight to DVD prequel to the remake of Death Race 2000.

Q: That’s the saddest line anyone’s ever said.

I’ve talked to a lot of people for straight to DVD sequels. I’m not going to lie to you.

Q: But no other film can claim that superlative.

No. So I think it was the day before or even that day and they said, ‘Oh, Ving Rhames is going to do some interviews.’ Well, I’ve got to get in with that. They forewarned me that they were not going to have copies of the video to screen in advance. So we talked for about five minutes, and we were supposed to have 15, and it’s going pretty well. I very casually and not trying to draw attention to it said, ‘I haven’t actually been able to see the film yet, but I understand you do such and such.’ Before I can even finish the statement, he goes, ‘What do you mean you haven’t seen the film?’ I said, ‘They haven’t sent me a copy of the film. It wasn’t available.’

[Rhames then quoted the Russian actor and theater director Constantin Stanislavski as saying] ‘if you do not take your job seriously, I will not work with you.’ [Laughter.] So I wait to see if he’s kidding. Apparently not, so go, ‘Then the interview is over? I hope not.’ He says, ‘No, that was Stanislavski. I will finish this interview, but I think you need to, as a journalist, take your job more seriously.’ [The interview lasted about two more minutes.] I do take my job seriously. If they had a copy available I would have watched the film.

Q: What’s the name of the film again?

Death Race 2.

Q: Why didn’t you take your job more seriously?

Ah, again, I really have no more of an answer for you than I did for Ving Rhames.

Q: It’s not just a race. It’s a race about death.

The second race about death.

Playing us out is a trailer Stanislavski undoubtedly would have loved.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XIII: The AV Club contributor Will Harris talks about freelancing (Part One)


Chesapeake, Va., writer Will Harris sports a mashup tee combining his love of the United Transportation Union and Ram, Paul McCartney’s under-appreciated 1971 collaboration with his late wife. Oh, wait. I think that’s just a Futurama shirt with some letters obscured. So forget that first bit, though you might want to revisit Ram. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va.– Will Harris has a gig an awful lot of geeks like me wish we could pull off – TV criticism and interviews for the seriously fun The AV Club pop culture Web site.

Born effectively as the back pages to The Onion’s print and web operations, The AV Club of that has come out from under the shadow of its parodying parent to become a uniquely cool destination to read about the tube, flicks, music, and a strangely divisive substance called The Bieber.

Harris, a contributing writer at the site and for other publications, also has a nifty blog, which you can check out by clicking on this link, or check out his Twitter feed.

Harris, based in the Hampton Roads, Va., burb called Chesapeake, recently was the subject of a Belligerent Q&A here at the blog. You can read that at this link, but please let me apologize in advance for the whole Isabella Rossellini deal, and assure you I am keeping 1,000 yards away from her since I posted it. When the courts stipulate, I am compelled to stipule, which is to say I produce an outgrowth or two on the side of my petiole. Botany!

Harris met up with me a few weeks back at the Taphouse on 21st Street in Norfolk. Harris had a bourbon and diet Coke. To make up for his blatant carbs caution, I brushed some thick, refreshing Guinness onto my belly until I glistened like a dewy European hornbeam. Also botany!

Anyway, the interview went from there.

This portion of the talk focuses on how Harris got into music writing, the joy of freelancing, and then turning to TV criticism. It also includes me trying to make a foolishly hyper-local joke that makes up for with obviousness what it lacks in subtlety, unlike the awesome botany gags above.

Fortunately, we get through that quickly.

Q: You’ve got a neat story about coming to be a freelancer. Can you take me through the journey?

I really just wanted to write starting in about seventh grade. I didn’t know what I was going to do with that ability but I knew I was halfway decent at it. … Senior year of high school, I was actually on the newspaper staff, and I started to get more a feel for what I actually wanted to do. I went to a high school journalism convention in New York, and there was a guy there who was giving a speech about doing reviews for your high school paper. Basically, the thesis of his entire speech was ‘if you send a letter to record companies, they will give you free stuff.’ [Laughter.]

And that sounded really, really great to me. So I tried it, and sent a letter to I.R.S. Records [which represented acts such as R.E.M., The Cramps, and Fine Young Cannibals] and said, ‘I am a high schools journalist and would love to write a record review column. If you have any new releases you would like to send, I would love to review them.’ They sent me copies of Concrete Blonde’s first album, and the soundtrack to [the documentary film] Athens, GA: Inside/Out on vinyl.

What I really remember about that review is that it was the first and probably not the last but certainly the most egregious occasion where I totally wrote something inaccurate in a review. I referred to the version of ‘Swan Swan H,’ in reference to the original, as having intense orchestration, because I’d only actually heard it once and that’s what I remembered. It’s actually acoustic. That went into print and I still have a copy of it to keep me humble.

Q: What high school?

Great Bridge [in Chesapeake, Va.].

Q: What was the paper called?

The Bridge. [Laughter.]

Q: Makes sense. Did they change it to The New Bridge when they put the new bridge up?

I don’t think so but I can’t tell you that.

Q: What did you start out as?

At the time it was pretty much straight music reviews, because that’s what I was excited with. The idea of getting free stuff was a major impetus for that direction. … I’d just discovered alternative music – R.E.M., Morrissey, The Cure. I didn’t join the staff until my senior year. … And then when I graduated, my grades were not what you would call spectacular. I went to [Tidewater Community College] and I don’t know if they do now but they certainly didn’t at the time have a journalism program … I transferred to Averett [University], where I got my journalism degree.

I really didn’t do much actual writing until I got to Averett, and then essentially I’m writing for the newspaper on a regular basis.

Q: But you knew –

I knew that’s what I wanted to do, absolutely. I was writing for my own amusement. I wasn’t actually trying to send it off anywhere. There was really nowhere to send it, frankly.

Q: That’s kind of a thing, though. When you want to freelance, and you want to do a certain kind of thing, you want to be a music writer but you have to take a newspaper job. Did you find that right away that you couldn’t really write what you wanted?

No. I guess I did in high school, at first, because then I was writing just very basic stuff. I mean, whatever they handed me, I wrote. You know, who had the best fast food burgers in the area, to violence at football games. A variety of stuff. I mean, I still enjoyed writing it. … But then when I wrote the review, despite the fact that I wrote it very poorly, it seemed I knew what I was talking about.

Q: So you’re writing for the college newspaper –

The Chanticleer.

Q: What is it?

The Chanticleer.

Q: Really?

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: That’s a sweet name for a school newspaper. [It is French for “sing clear,” according to Wikipedia, which is French for “probably accurate;” it often refers to a rooster.]

Me [and former reporters for The Virginian-Pilot] Jim Washington, John Warren were all alumni of The Chanticleer. …

Q: Was there anything that really stood out from your time as a college journalist?

I had a column. Having looked back on some of those in retrospect, they were pretty terrible, but it gave me a feeling for wanting to spotlight the obscure. I think I still do now.

Q: What do you mean?

Well, I was coming off working at a record store for a couple of years. I was listening to a whole lot of albums that were not getting a lot of promo or press. I enjoyed the opportunity in that column to spotlight something I really liked and I didn’t think anyone had heard of.

Q: So what were some bands you really enjoyed focusing on?

Back then I did spotlights on the Judybats, Material Issue … I think probably the favorite [one] I did was on The Replacements. I think that was the first time I really sat there and tried to take it seriously, not just as a listener but as a writer. I probably don’t want to look back on it now because I probably remember it a lot more fondly than it actually was.

Q: I started as a freelancer when I was in college for The Pilot, but I used to write music stories just for the money. You know, you write an album review, you get $25. I think there was a time where I looked at those reviews and I wanted to write about music I liked and also kind of placing whatever I was reviewing in the scheme of things. Not just saying, “Hey, this is a good record or a bad record.” Was there a time that you really developed an understanding of what you wanted to do with reviews?

Probably after I got out of college because of the fact that I wasn’t necessarily my own editor anymore. I had been able to edit my own stuff in the column and that showed. [Laughs.] Certainly in retrospect, anyway. It certainly didn’t bother anybody at the time. Once I was able to work under an actual editor that went a long way toward helping me hone.

I did my internship at [the former local music pub] Rock Flash.

Q: That’s kind of a great internship.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

Q: Well, if you want to write music –

Yeah. For what I wanted to do, it was perfect. Our office was at the Beach. We shared a parking lot with The Raven [restaurant at Virginia Beach’s Oceanfront]. It was really cool for what I was able to accomplish as far as building connections and getting the feel for dealing with publicists. It was a little hard dealing with the reality that not every editor and publisher cares as much about the actual writing as you would like them to. It was more about advertising.

Q: Yeah, you’ve got to fill that space around the ads. Did you write for any other local pubs?

Acrtually, you may have seen on Facebook, I still have the letter from when I applied [for an internship] at The Pilot … ‘We’ll let you know.’ [The Rock Flash internship was] cool. I don’t think it was paid. Totally unpaid. I might have gotten like $50 at the end of it. You know, ‘Thanks for working your ass off for nothing, basically.’ But I got it. That’s really what mattered in the long run. I started writing for them. I got freelance after I got back from college. That was the first recurring gig that actually paid any money at all.

Q: What were you doing while you were freelancing?

I was working at the Tracks at Loehmann’s Plaza the first year after college. Then I went over to Harris Publishing. I started on the phones there and was on the phones for about five years. I started getting ridiculously good interviews. In retrospect, I have no idea how Rock Flash actually pulled them. I interviewed Robin Gibb, Johnny Rotten, Jellyfish, the Posies, a laundry list of people who were either big at the time or went on to become very important. …

At some point it went from Rock Flash to Flash Magazine. Then it went from Flash Magazine to 9Volt. I can’t remember the exact series.

Q: So how did you go from that to [fulltime] freelancing? … There’s a lot of dues-paying in freelancing.

To say the least. Pretty much all I was doing was freelancing pretty much for 10 years, basically. Rock Flash to Flash to 9Volt. 9Volt to Port Folio Weekly for a little while, and then I was writing unpaid for a couple of pop music magazines. One called POPsided and one called Amplifier. …

So I was writing for them with my friend David Medsker. … We were both writing for PopMatters and he got a gig writing for Bullz-Eye and then bumped up to editor, and his first act of nepotism was … to bring me on. Six months after that, the publisher said you’re our most prolific freelancer by far, and as soon as we’ve got the budget, we’d like to bring you on fulltime. Six months later, they had the budget and brought me on as an associate editor fulltime. That’s where I was for five years.

Q: I freelanced twice in my career. I could never figure out a way to make a living at it.

Honestly, it never occurred to me that I was going to make a living as a freelancer. I didn’t know anybody else who was freelancing full time. Everyone I knew was using it as kind of for fun and on the side. The full time thing with Bullz-Eye was really out of the blue. It’s not so much that it doesn’t really have to do with what your abilities are, but it certainly does absolutely have to do with who you know.

Q: The big thing about stringing is you have to get people to trust you can do the work. So how do you do that? How important is that first assignment for a new client?

It’s very important. Certainly, with The AV Club it was invaluable. I was Facebook friends with [The AV Club contributing writer] Noel Murray for a year and he would occasionally hit ‘like’ on something I posted, so I felt he at least was aware of who I was. At some point he’d responded to something I’d written, so I sent him a direct message saying, ‘Out of curiosity, how do you get a foot in the door at The AV Club?’ Basically, he said someone had to foster an introduction to [The AV Club‘s editor] Keith [Phipps] and ‘I’ll do that if you like.’ Because I had a pitch. I pitched it and Keith said, ‘Would you be willing to collaborate with Noel, just because we’ve never worked with you before?’

Unfortunately, at the time I still was fulltime with Bullz-Eye. … Because I was so swamped for Bullz-Eye, I kept setting the piece for The AV Club aside in favor of something I had absolutely hard deadlines on, whereas I did not have one for The AV Club. It sat there and sat there and then I got the news at Bullz-Eye that I was going to be shifting to freelance whether I wanted to or not. That night, I sent an email to Noel and said, ‘Look, you have every right to not want to collaborate with me on this piece because I’ve been dormant for so long, but I had this pile and just kept shifting it because it wasn’t something I had a deadline for. I had to maintain.’ He wrote back, “I’ve got a pile like that. If you’re ready to start working on it, let’s do it.’ Within two days, I’d finished the piece and I’d worked harder on that than I’ve worked on any piece in my life. [Laughter.]

And then turned it in. I sent it to Noel first. Noel sent it back and said, ‘All right, normally I would send you my edits, but they were so negligible I don’t have anything to do but tell you you did great.’

Q: What was the piece?

It was an inventory on TV characters on real game shows. Like plots of episodes, Barney on How I Met Your Mother going on The Price is Right.

Q: That’s a really obsessive list.

[Laughs.] Yes. Extremely.

Q: That’s kind of The AV Club’s –

Yeah, I’d been an obsessive reader of the site, anyway. In fact, I had their book on inventory lists. I knew what I was getting into, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t aping it poorly.

Noel … sent it to Keith, and Keith wrote me the praise that ‘I really wasn’t sure which ones were Noel’s and which were yours.

That was invaluable in getting me a major foot in the door as a regular contributor. It’s a lot of relationships. You never know what’s going to turn into a relationship in the world of social media. It may be a very casual situation. They don’t know who you are. They just accepted your friend request. Versus them actually latching onto you because they like what they see. Virtual friends or whatever. Certainly, I’ve learned that social media is invaluable.

Q: How so?

A combination of self marketing, but also just meeting likeminded peers. I’ve certainly proceeded to bond with a lot of writers who I would not have ever had any way of crossing paths with were it not for Facebook or Twitter or stuff like that.

Q: When did TV coverage work its way into the mix?

Two-thousand seven. When I started writing for [Bullz-Eye] and realized how many promos they were getting, I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Once I started doing more reviews, I found out about the Television Critics Association. I found you could apply, and they were accepting online writers. I sent them an application. They wrote back and said, ‘You need to tighten up the site a bit.’ [A certain percentage of Harris’ writing needed to be on TV.] … So I started bulking up the site. I started doing regular news briefs. I started reviewing more DVDs whenever possible. … The time came when I applied in 2007 again and they accepted me.

In the next post, we talk about the nuts and bolts of freelancing, some of the stories Harris has covered, and finding the right balance of questions to make an interview click.

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Writing Craft, Vol. XII: Beatty Barnes, Marlon Hargrave & Rob Wilson, executive producers of Keep the Change


Keep the Change executive producers Rob Wilson and Marlon Hargrave on Colley Avenue. Photo by John Doucette.

NORFOLK, Va. — Keep the Change, a new sketch comedy group in Hampton Roads, holds its debut show on Sunday, and I caught up with the group’s executive producers to talk about writing funny, writing the truth, and why their group aims to tackle sketch comedy from fresh perspectives.

Barnes and Wilson are both members of Plan B improv and sketch comedy. Wilson, of Chesapeake, recently was featured along with Plan B’s Jason Kypros in a discussion of comedy writing you can find at this link. Barnes, of Norfolk, is a veteran comic who I hope to speak with here again down the road. Hargrave, an actor, director and acting coach, lives in Portsmouth, which earns him extra points. Portsmouth living is what all the cool kids are doing. At least until the tolls kick in.

This conversation deals with the seeds of this group, including approaches to writing, collaboration, and seeking truths.

The Keep the Change show is at 8 p.m., Sunday, July 15 at Lola’s Caribbean Restaurant, 328 W. 20th St., Norfolk. There’s some free surface lot parking, and some limited nearby street parking. The restaurant is at W. 20th at Debree Avenue, within the Palace Shops & Station shopping center. Admission is $5, and the restaurant is running some drink and appetizer specials.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and there’s some adult language below.

Just a housekeeping note for those who are coming to this blog for the first time: I’m a writer, not a comic. I’ve been fixated a bit on comedy writing for the past year because I’ve been playing with joke structures within some new short fiction stories. The questions I ask writers and, in this case, writer/performers, reflect my interests, ignorance, and hang ups, such as they are, but my goal in doing these talks is to (a) talk to people I dig and (b) steal their hard-earned life forces to make my own writing better.

People seem to enjoy the conversations and get something out of it. That’s where this is coming from.

Q: So how many people are in the group?

Wilson: [Whistles.]

Barnes: Ah.

Hargrave: At last count it was about –

Wilson: Fourteen?

Hargrave: No, 15.

Wilson: You know, I think we’re back up to 15.

Hargrave: We might be up to seventeen. We were at 22 before.

Wilson: We shed a couple pounds. [Laughter.]

Q: Did they want more snacks?

Wilson: A lot more snacks, a lot less work. That’s the funny thing to me, when people join a thing and they –

Barnes: They don’t think about the work.

Wilson: They don’t think about the work. They’re like, “Yeah, man. I would love to be famous.” [Laughter.] “Work? Yeah … I’m good.” [Laughter.]

Q: Is this going to be your first performance?

Wilson: This will be our first full show. We did a sketch at my [comedy] show, “The Business” [in May]. Did like a little standup thing, and I think it went over really well. Just trying to get our sea legs.

Hargrave: What makes the group really unique is we have poets, we have comedians, and actors. It’s pretty dynamic.

Wilson: We’ve got some straight-up writers, as well. That’s more their background, but they’re getting up on their feet and performing. It’s really cool that all these people come from all these different backgrounds, and we kind of have all bled into each others’ fields.

Hargrave: We also have musicians, too.

Q: Is it basically an improv-sketch group or more variety?

Wilson: Pure sketch, but we’ve got so many other elements like the poets and musicians. That’s an integral part of the show. So you talk about writing, and you’re moving out of a strictly sketch format, which is great.

Hargrave: With that type of dynamic, we’re able to expand our comedy to real life experiences and having a poet or writer is a beautiful thing because they write all the time. As a matter of fact, our poets come up with skits.

Wilson: It’s about expression, in that not everybody gets reached the same way. Some peope love musicals. Some people love straight plays. Some people love action movies. Some people love whatever. You’re going to get a different sketch, a different idea, a different performance from someone’s who’s writing from a musical background, because they’re concerned about the rhythm. … It’s pretty neat seeing what everyone is coming up with. And our job is, a lot of times, facilitating all this talent we’ve got, and funneling it and packaging it into one really cool show.

Beatty Barnes. Courtesy photo.

Q: So both of you [Wilson and Barnes] , you’re still in Plan B, right?

Barnes: Yes.

Wilson: Yeah.

Q: So why did you want to do something different?

Barnes: I’m going to go with because Rob pulled me into it. [Laughter.]

Wilson: It’s not necessarily a black voice.

Barnes: There you go.

Wilson: But it is.

Barnes: It’s a voice, a different voice that hasn’t been seen around here in a really long time in sketch.

Q: Is everybody in the group black?

Barnes: No.

Wilson: We’re equal opportunity. … We were Pushers. Beatty was the alpha black dude in the Pushers. I was, I think, beta. [Laughter.] … Plan B’s really cool because I look at our roster now, and we’re about 50-50. That’s cool, but you talk about when Beatty was in the Pushers, it was just him, and then when [another actor] came along it was them, and then [the other actor] left. When I came in, Beatty left, and then for the longest time it was just me. It’s nice to be in a place where you’re not the only. “Okay, we need a black guy for this sketch.” In this place, we make sure we’re all pretty diverse and we’re experienced knowing that feeling. We write people. We don’t write black people or white people. Well, sometimes we need a cop. [Laughter.]

Q: Irish accent?

Wilson: Aye. [Laughter.]

Q: We’ve [Wilson and I] talked before about some of the groups and the idea of representation, and you’ve got a sketch where somebody’s black and that’s what the sketch is.

Wilson: Which is tiresome, at best.

Hargrave: And also I guess my problem with it is, and this is even on large-scale with TV, even when they do [feature a black character], it’s not written well enough. It’s not written truthfully enough. There’s always what somebody’s perception is. Usually the people who write it don’t have experience. They’ll grow up in the suburb and write about somebody in the hood, and it’s just from their perspective, and it becomes very … generic homeboy-ish, not really getting into who this person is. Very cliché. Just the human experience is what we’re trying to cover. More of a truthful story through comedy.

Wilson: One of the things we talked about was we wanted to tell the truth. Not just my truth. I kind of grew up in the suburbs. Even in Queens, it was more suburban than the Bronx. You know what I mean? We want to write everybody’s experience. My truth and Beatty’s truth and Marlon’s truth. There’s a lot of different shades. … We’re trying to make it clear that there is no one black experience. That shit used to piss me off because in theater, in a predominantly white school, college I mean, and you’d have people come up and say, “Well, what do black people think of this.” Well, I can tell you what I think. Damn it, me and him think two different things. So in trying to start this group, you understand you’re going to hear black voices, but it’s a choir, not a solo.

Q: Why did you want to do this instead of or in addition to what you were already doing? Was there any sense you weren’t getting what you needed from the groups you’re already in?

Wilson: It’s necessary. Wherever there’s a lack of something, and it’s blatant, it’s glaring, you can see there’s nobody doing it here, at least. It needed to be filled. It’s tough. Some of us have three, four, five other projects. This is a necessary thing that needs to be done. Dave Chappelle and Tyler Perry can’t do it by themselves. …

Barnes: Tyler Perry is the Kenny G of black theater.

Q: He’s a regular reader of the blog, so this is really going to hurt him.

Hargrave: When Tyler Perry comes to town, there’s a group of people who will support him and we understand that. We’re far from that, and we would like to offer a different voice because our stories are so diverse and we don’t think of everything the same way.

Q: How do you avoid doing stereotypes when you do comedy?

Barnes: Don’t do it.

Hargrave: Because we’re real. … We do more of the human experiences, so we shy away from the conversations that have been done again and again through the years.

Q: Rob and I talked before about representation, which is a big thing I ask people about on the blog [because I’ve struggled with it in my writing]. … One of the things I’ve seen in some of the comedy, but people like Larry the Cable Guy, there’s a reinforcement of the subjugation of people who have been marginalized.

Wilson: My thing is the truth, man. That’s our mission statement: the truth. Even if you’re going into a stereotype, if it’s founded in truth, I mean, people get mad when you tell them the truth. … As long as it’s really true, then it will be funny. It’s an undeniable fact if it’s true. If it’s bullshit, people can sniff that out.

Hargrave: There’s this low hanging fruit if you go for the stereotype. We go for the fruit at the top of the tree, or at least we deal with the roots of it. Comedy is truth. Comedy and conflict is truth. We stay on that side of it. … I hate when you watch movies and the black guy is the sidekick. That never happens in real life. You’ve never seen a black guy be a sidekick to a white guy.

Q: I’ve had my personal ad out for a couple of years, and never got any responses.

Wilson: “Needed: black, funny sidekick.” [Laughter.]

Hargrave: We run into that all the time. It a voice that’s not there. For the most part … people don’t even realize that there’s another story until it is told.

Q: Can you give me an example where you were able to do that?

Wilson: There was one particular sketch that was written, it’s one of our favorites, I think, of church folks. It deals with an old-timey, you know … Sheeba McLeod wrote a sketch called “Church Folks,” and there was an appendage thing I wrote a long time ago, just all of those things in one sketch. The main thing is there’s a stereotypical preacher and we’re not poking fun at black church. A lot of people would have stopped there because when you think about black church, that’s a staple. You’ve got the preacher. He’s whooping and hollering. You’ve got folks falling out. You know, everybody knows the scene of black church. Tyler Perry has helped a lot with that. [Laughter.] No, but I mean even going as far back as Flip Wilson, these are your archetypal characters in this community. What she did, first and foremost, was kind of turn that on it’s ear. It became less about the archetype and more about the situation. This minister is lascivious, man. It bleeds through. … This is something that hasn’t really been addressed. Like infidelity. The scene is less about that character, that archetype you understand and you know and less about poking fun at him, and poking fun at the lady with the big hat. It’s more about poking fun at the abuse of power. In that way, you make it a real character piece as opposed to a stereotype piece. … A lot of our sketches – you’d think as a quote-unquote black sketch group. There’s a thing about suicide. There’s a scene about gay marriage and gay relationships with this thing about Obama not to long ago. We just seek out what’s funny, what’s true, and what’s poignant.

Hargrave: We spoke about how diverse the group is, and because of our different backgrounds we can look at the same situation different ways. I grew up in D.C., which is a little more hood – I don’t want to say I’m the hood-iest guy in here. [Laughter.] We end up writing from our truth. We write from ourselves, and I think that’s where the creativity and the story comes. Again, when Sheeba wrote this, we could easily have gone into that screaming preacher. … Instead of that, the undertone is infidelity and it is abuse of power and that’s what we want to address. When we have somebody who writes a skit like that, if it becomes too stereotypical or if it’s not good enough, then we get rid of it. One of my skits didn’t make it. It can’t even be reconsidered. It’s dead. It can’t be an ego about me or anybody else … If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If you don’t fit the role, you can’t be in it. We’re challenging our writers to be more creative. Don’t come to us with the bullshit, because we won’t accept it. We started off, and people were trying to get the feel. But now we’re in a groove and people know what expectations are. They’re really writing some good material.

Q: What’s the process for writing? Does it come usually from the comedians or is it a mixture of everybody?

Hargrave: Everybody.

Wilson: The thing about this group, man, is we told them right off that everybody writes. Nobody gets to be a diva and not write. Everybody writes. You’ve got to do one of two things if you want to be in sketches. You’ve got to write yourself into them, right? Or you’ve got to show you’re so hilarious that you want these people to be in your sketch, you know what I mean? … So the sketches come in. We do table reads, and it’s a little bit of the Saturday Night Live format. When things come in to the table read, then you’re seeing who is laughing around the table, what jibes. We do an analysis of every sketch that comes in. We send it around the table. [There are suggestions.] Then it goes back into rewrites, nine times out of ten.

Q: Is it the person who wrote the sketch who does the rewrites?

Wilson: Mostly what happens, I give a lot of writing notes and we send it back with the changes we want to make. We talk about different things. We talk about what the general scene is. A lot of the time, people who really haven’t done this kind of writing before don’t understand the format, so it’s a thing of finding what the joke is. What’s the thing that’s funny? A lot of people will just write and write and write and it’s not that it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just that it doesn’t have any focus. We find the central point, the central joke, the central theme, and a lot of times the sketch will get turned on its ear. You know, there was one thing that they touched on that was really cool or really true, so we’ll take it all the way back to the drawing board and say, “All right, this part over here, I know that you’re going for some laughs, but you found some gold in this tiny little piece. Expound on this and leave all the rest of this out because it makes it muddy.”

Q: Beatty, you’ve been writing comedy for how long?

Barnes: Twenty-seven years.

Q: What do you look for in a joke?

Barnes: Having it not be a joke. Having not have a punchline, not have a tag. I like to teach, kind of, you know? Kind of do something that’s not regular, not normal. I don’t like the typical. I don’t look for the, “Oh, that’s funny right there.” You can get somebody else to say that. For me it’s more about the thing that is not normal, that’s not necessarily normal but comic. It’s easy to laugh at seeing someone fall, but [what about] the shoe that the person had on?

Wilson: We had a relationship scene. It was funny enough. It was a Lucille Ball misunderstanding kind of thing, and Beatty was like, “No. What if he was a woman.” And just that one change changed the whole thing. What it did was it didn’t make it a stereotypical scene that a man would have with a woman about a misunderstanding, just by plugging the woman into the place where the man was. … He found just in turning the head a little bit. It was funny.

Hargrave: We were right in the middle of it, too. We pulled him out right there, pulled the guy out and plugged the girl in. And boom.

Wilson: It was gold.

Hargrave: And Beatty has an older joke I love talking about. You remember when you’re talking about when you’rte driving and playing white music?

Barnes: Right.

Hargrave: And then the hood guys come across and say, “Why are you playing that white music?” And you say, “Oh, I just stole this car.” Right? It’s funny. You would never expect that. Me being from the hood, I worked at Bennigan’s, and I was the token black guy in Bennigan’s. One of the funnier moments that I has working there was when I went to the jukebox, I wouldn’t play the black songs. I would play the stuff they would never expect. I’m not lying, but the only other black person there, we’d both be nodding our heads, and he knew that I did it, but nobody else in the restaurant knew that I did it. I mean, nobody would have expected that was my lineup. I had Aerosmith. I had Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. I could have played Jodeci, easily, and they would have known it was my lineup. And the deal was that the other black person, who was a rapper, nodding his head lets me know that our story is deeper than that.

Q: Do you think really – I mean, I wrote on Thursday, and I listened to Funkadelic all day long. Actually, the same three or four songs over and over again. [Laughter.] Do we still live in a society where … is that really still a thing?

Hargrave: You have the artists that get played on the radio. You’ll have Justin Bieber – Bieber, is that his name? – you’ll have him next to Lil Wayne now.

Wilson: On the same track.

Hargrave: Yeah. Now because of multimedia, because of the internet, we’re at a point in society where we see more cultural diversity. Justin was found by Ludacris.

Q: That’s the worst thing Ludacris has ever done. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: It’s a gold mine for him, that’s for sure.

Barnes: Justin’s all right, man. … I listen to what my kids listen to, and, “Okay, I can see why you would like that.”

Q: I listen to what my kids listen to, but I won’t defend the Wiggles. [Laughter.]

Hargrave: Then we have The Disney Channel, and there are a couple of kids who are artists and my daughter looks up to them all.

Wilson: There’s some regular folks who only stay in their lane, who only listen to the thing that they’re supposed to, who only watch the thing that they’re supposed to. They’ve decided to stay there. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. So I think that part of what we do is necessary in showing folks that there’s a different way.

Hargrave: I was born in the 1970s. My father tells me stories about growing up here in Virginia Beach that are unfathomable. He actually got arrested for sitting in a lunch – he got arrested for that. I can’t fathom that. We grew up post Civil Rights movement, so we don’t know anything about that. I don’t know anything about what my dad went through. My journey has been so different, so now my child’s journey, even though she remembers Bush a little bit, she’ll remember Obama on, for sure. It’s weird. My parents tried to explain the movement to us the way I’m trying to explain pre-Obama to her.

Q: Do you think the sketches you’re doing you could do with Plan B or The Pushers or another group? What is it that makes them unique?

Barnes: That’s a very good question.

Hargrave: I think that … you have to have experience in what you’re writing, and because we write from ourselves and our personal experience, the people who are in those groups didn’t experience it the way that we experienced it. The outlook, the joke of it, it just comes from a different area. And to be honest, predominantly white groups may not be able to touch something that we can touch. Just like the church sketch, I don’t know that another group can pull it off the way we do.

Barnes: It wouldn’t have been the same –

Hargrave: Impact. Would they reach the point we’re trying to reach? They might do that archetypal preacher, and it might be funny, but they wouldn’t touch what we’re touching in the same environment.

Q: What do you think of that, Beatty?

Barnes: [The sketches] stand by themselves, but to picture someone else doing them.

Q: Do you feel like you’re taking material you weren’t comfortable pitching to other groups?

Barnes: It probably would never come up. It would never come up. It would be, well, because you’re thinking – I don’t know if it’s commercial thought or you’re just staying away from what you really feel in sketches. Or maybe it’s because of the cast. You know, you just don’t have enough people for it … That might be the biggest thing.

Q: Because you don’t have enough black faces to make it come alive? Or am I misunderstanding?

Barnes: No. I think of our group [Plan B]. … We have five black folks.

Wilson: I don’t know if that was a move on their part …

Barnes: It was on us.

Wilson: I think Plan B can do it now because –

Barnes: That is a really tough question.

Wilson: I know when I was with The Pushers, we did a show up in New York. … I wrote a series of sketches called “Black Man’s Fantasies.” And a couple of them, when we were working them, they went over pretty well. It was easy. It was stereotypical. Like, calling a cab and it coming right to you. That was one of them, and they loved that one.

Barnes: I’ve never had a problem getting a cab in New York.

Hargrave: I would grab white girls off the street and say, “Please hail me a cab.” They would go right by me and pick up somebody else.

Wilson: That went over, but I wrote another one in the series and it was all about gentrification.

Barnes: Wow.

Wilson: Right? And immediately, [a] girl was like, “I don’t get it.” And she lived in New York. I was like, “What do you mean you don’t get it? Where you live right now … that’s gentrified.”

Q: It used to be called Harlem … Har-lem. [Laughter.]

Wilson: Maybe I could have written the sketch better, but there wasn’t [anyone] willing to help.

Beatty: Because of the cast it would be hard to do. Not enough black faces. I’m still thinking about that question.

Wilson: I could never write a black family. … I just wanted to be able to have the personnel to write the things I wanted to write. If there was a family, I could never be in the sketch. I wrote a sketch called “The Other Son.” The family was like, “We want you to know you’re black. You’re not like us.” I was like, “Yeah, we’ve all got mirrors. I figured it out.” [Laughter.]

Playing us out? Enjoy The Wiggles.

Remember, kids – make sure to use a plastic knife, and you may want to have a grownup around.

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2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest winners revealed; recount aboard Funk Mothership demanded


UPDATED; July 18 – Today the contest winners and many of the fine runners up go on display at Elliot’s Fair Grounds in the Ghent neighborhood of Norfolk, Va.

Fair Grounds is on the second floor of 806 Baldwin Ave., at the corner of Colley and Baldwin avenues. If you’re at the Starbucks, you are incorrect. Please cross Colley Avenue to Fair Grounds as briskly as the traffic allows.

Do not look back. If you make eye contact with Starbucks, you will taste like smoldering wood.

Thanks again to all at Fair Grounds, as well as the other sponsors listed below, including Naro Expanded Video and Local Heroes. And a big thanks to Jay Walker, a great Rhode Islander, for sharing gift certificates and movie rentals with the second and third place winners. They live in Hampton Roads and will be able to use them.

As far as I know, Walker and I are the only folks who can rock our Local Heroes tees while slugging a Del’s from our Fair Grounds mugs and simultaneously appreciating the New England Pest Control (now Big Blue Bug Solutions) bug as we hurtle along I-95 South.

If only for now.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — I am not a political person, at least not since my six vote loss in 1977 to Bootsy Collins in a bitterly interfunkular election to become recording secretary of P-Funk.

My memory is not what it used to be, and I was four at the time, and this may just be some Funkadelic fan fiction I’m remembering, or simply a thing that is not true because a lie is merely the purposeful application of what accuracy is not, but I seem to remember George Clinton’s support for Bootsy over me came down to delivery of enough Parliamentary votes to pass the Rent Act, which led to protected tenancy in England and Wales.

Though I certainly respect the rights of protected tenants of U.K. dwelling houses, this was not what I had in mind when I boarded the Mothership, thank you very much.

So was I outmaneuvered in my pretend youth by a fabulous bassist? All of us are, always, even still. Do I write self-indulgent, off-topic ledes? Ahem. Am I political? No, no, no.

Which is why I need to get some business out of the way before announcing this year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest winners, while preemptively directing my Republican friends to the comments section below. It was writer Connie Sage, not I, who delivered these fortunes, which work together, but did not win:

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Had Sage won the competition, and should the election (Novemberish, I hear) go otherwise, the mountain of predictive credibility that is this blog would crumble. Additionally, she might have picked her own book as a prize, which would have meant that many months ago she effectively signed a first-edition copy of her book for herself, and so the universe would have little choice but to fold into itself, obliterating life on earth and possibly some other planets we don’t care about as much as certain works by Stephen Spielberg might lead you to believe.

I submit to you, gentle reader, that we have averted disaster and, frankly, saved this world and countless others.

Still, we have only the here and now, and the knowledge that prizes include a gift certificate and mug from Fair Grounds Coffee on Colley Avenue in Norfolk and a gift certificate and extra-large tee – plan your diet or weight gain accordingly – from Local Heroes on Colonial Avenue in Norfolk, as well as movie rentals from Naro Expanded Video on Colley Avenue and these autographed books:

And which election does Sage mean? The upcoming U.S. presidential election? Perhaps, but are we sure? When we make such assumptions, as certain musicians may have done, let’s say, when choosing as their recording secretary a bassist who was actually a contributing member of their collective over a four-year-old New England boy who was not really there at all because the opening anecdote is not a true thing, who really wins? And how can I properly thank this year’s judges – my sister Cate Doucette, my wife Cortney Doucette, and writer Tom Robotham, who voted for the finalists without knowing the names of the writers/artists? And how do I get out of this intro, already?

Say, dig these speculative meeting minutes from Clinton’s 1981-1982 Computer Games sessions:

Chairman Clinton called the meeting to order aboard the Funk Mothership. The roll was taken. Sub Woofer and Clip Pain were absent. Quorum confirmed.

Under old business, Capt. Draw moved that “Man’s Best Friend” and “Loopzilla” should be merged into a monumental track topping twelve minutes and ultimately released as a 12-inch single. Maruga Booker seconded.

Clerk Sir Nose D’voidafunk called the funk before the funk called him. The motion passed, 44-0-2. P-Nut Johnson abstained. Dennis Chambers was too busy making the goddess of time herself reset her celestial watch to care. Drumroll …

FIRST PLACE

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

 SECOND PLACE

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

THIRD PLACE

Rich Neefe; educator; Portsmouth, Va.

A brief note about the prizes: Since the first place winner hails from the Ocean state, I may have to adjust the first place prize package a bit. When Mr. Walker and I hammer it out, I’ll update the post.

For those keeping track, a Virginian has yet to win this contest. Boy.

Here are some other great entries, including honorable mentions that were also on judges’ scorecards.

 HONORABLE MENTIONS

Arianna Akers; Norfolk, Va.

Merritt Allen; owner & executive director of Vox Optima LLC; Tijeras, N.M.

Sean Collins; eater of pizza, drinker of beer; Portsmouth, Va.

Rick Hite; retired professor; Norfolk, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima; Chesapeake; Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima; Chesapeake, Va.

Angelina Maureen; visual artist; Norfolk, Va.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Oliver Mackson; investigator; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

RUNNERS UP

Merritt Allen; owner & executive director of Vox Optima LLC; Tijeras, N.M.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Anonymous; Norfolk, Va.

Sam Cupper; Norfolk, Va.

Jeremie Guy; trainer at Planet Fitness; Reston, Va.

Bill Hart; shipyard worker; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

Christa Jones; Norfolk, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

JC Kreidel; managing director at Vox Optima LLC; Chesapeake, Va.

Judy Le; editor; Norfolk, Va.

Judy Le; editor; Norfolk, Va.

Tom McDermott; whereabouts unknown

Sharina Mendoza; MDMFA student at Full Sail University; Norfolk, Va.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Brian Patrick Monahan; actor; Los Angeles, Calif.

Meghan E. Murphy; education reporter at Newsday; Highland, N.Y.

Jim Noble; Virginia

Rachel O’Sullivan; director West Coast operations at Vox Optima; Greater San Diego, Calif.

Michael Perez; senior communications analyst; Rio Rancho, N.M.

Gary Potterfield, operations director of a PR firm & 2011 contest winner; Waldorf, Md.

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Connie Sage; author; North Carolina

Terry Schommer; self-employed; Monroe, N.Y.

Terry Schommer; self-employed; Monroe, N.Y.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Dani Al-Basir Spratley; art editor for The Quotable Literary Magazine & poet; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Earl Swift; writer; Norfolk, Va.

Suzanne Tate; Bristol, Tenn.

Suzanne Tate; Bristol, Tenn.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Bob Voros; graphic artist; Norfolk, Va.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Jay Walker; poet; Cranston, R.I.

Thank you. I think we’ll do this again next year.

And if anybody wants to buy me the Bootsy Collins shower curtain, I am into that idea a lot.

Playing us out is some prime Eddie Hazel on a song the writer Greg Tate called Funkadelic’s “A Love Supreme” (FYI, language) …

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Fortune cookie fortune writing contest prize books announced, entries due June 15


PORTSMOUTH, Va. – There are less than two weeks left until the entry period ends for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest, so if you haven’t sent your submission(s) via email to jhdouc@verizon.net yet you’re missing out on a chance to win copies of some terrific books.

This year’s prizes include the following books. Most of them by authors featured at the blog. Each book is autographed by the author.

  • Norton Girault’s short story collection Out Among the Rooster Men
  • Dana Heller’s Hairspray, a study of the film by John Waters
  • Connie Sage’s biography Frank Batten: The Untold Story of the Founder of the Weather Channel 
  • Two copies of Tim Seibles’ new poetry volume Fast Animal
  • Wells Tower’s short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

The first place winner picks three books. Second place picks two of the remainder. Third place gets what’s left.

I’m hoping to add a few additional prizes. I hope you’ll enter as often as you like. I’ve enjoyed reading the entries so far.

Again, the official rules can be found at this link. For a taste of last year’s winners, click on this link.

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Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVII: Pop culture journalist Will Harris


As the journalist Will Harris so bitterly learned during a brief partnership, Elmo's one-two punch of icily avoiding pronouns and the rope-a-dope lovability ploy does not always translate into total supremacy in the blood-spattered arenas of the North American Chicken Fighting Association. Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. – Will Harris is a pop culture journalist, a splendid form of the muckraking arts that often dispenses with the muck by subbing in stuff that people enjoy reading.

Harris is a senior editor and TV columnist for Bullz-Eye, and he’s become a regular contributor to one of my favorite online destinations, The AV Club, a pop culture and criticism site that is a sister publication to The Onion.

Harris has written for a number of publications over the years. Additionally, and clearly most importantly, he was the runner-up in last year’s Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest here at the blog.

He keeps a blog called News, Reviews and Interviews at this link. I recommend the Larry the Cable Guy interview, in which the subject opens up about a beef with comedian David Cross, as well as perceptions of him. There’s also an interesting discussion in the comments.

Harris can turn a phrase. He can write funny. One of the big things I enjoy about Harris’ work is that his writing often comes from a place of respect and appreciation for the possibilities of the various forms – movies, TV, music, etc. The best critics have this; the rest are just passing through.

And how much juice does this guy have now? When Morgan Freeman wants to drop the f-bomb, he asks Harris for permission.

This Belligerent Q&A was conducted via email. There is some brief potty mouthery below.

I hope to speak with Harris at a later date about freelancing, navigating conferences and junkets, and how he landed at The AV Club.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

  1. I’m a street-walking cheetah with…no, wait, sorry, that’s not me, that’s Iggy Pop. (You can understand how people would get the two of us confused, I’m sure.)
  2. I’m a guy who got his journalism degree in ’92, worked a variety of retail, telemarketing, and I.T. jobs for more than a decade while continuing to do freelance writing and look for the elusive full-time gig in my field, and, after finally getting my foot in the door with Bullz-Eye.com as an associate editor, finally found the career I’d been seeking and have done everything in my power to make the most of it.
  3. I’m just this guy, you know?

Q: What is pop culture?

It’s the viewing, listening, and reading material that defines a generation even as it dates it.

Q: When pop culture gets on you, how do you get it off?

You don’t. Either it falls by the wayside because it isn’t worthy of permanence, or it sticks with you forever.

Q: Where do you, as a pop culture journalist and critic, place yourself in the pantheon of those engaged in the practice of assessing and, to some extent, propagating the entirety of thought and cultural reflections that represent the often media-driven, social collective of an increasingly globalized consciousness, which in turn could be said to reinforce culturally-dominant entertainments and artistic (and less artistic) works at the expense of marginalized perspectives? What are you truly assessing when you examine what is considered popular? What we value compared to what we should value? Also, what do they mean, the things I just typed?

I don’t think those things mean what you think they mean. But they might. I’m just a pop culture journalist and critic, so my knowledge and opinions – like those of my peers – shouldn’t be trusted any farther than you can throw them. They’re only ours. Yours are probably just as worthy. Well, almost, anyway.

Will Harris and the stars of Breaking Bad. Courtesy photo.

Q: You have interviewed Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad on various occasions, and even visited the set. How did this develop? If, after the next three interviews, the two of you join consciousnesses, how will your mental energy orb maintain dominance over the mental energy orb formerly known as Bryan Cranston?

The first time I met Mr. Cranston was at the Television Critics Association Awards in Pasadena, I believe, and I was subsequently part of the group of TCA members who was invited out to the Breaking Bad set the following winter while they were filming Season 3, which resulted in the greatest dinner conversation I’ve ever had. Subsequently, between in-person encounters and phone interviews, I have now interacted with Mr. Cranston more times than any other celebrity. In fact, I see and/or talk to him more regularly than some of the people who were in my wedding party. (Dammit, I knew I should’ve asked him to be a groomsman … ) But while he is one of the nicest and most genuine guys I’ve ever come across, someone whose head is on straight – he’s been happily married for two decades now, with a daughter who’s now in college – and whose many years in the acting trenches have enabled him to truly appreciate his success and not get an ego about it, I do not believe Mr. Cranston and I will ever join consciousnesses, as I invariably ask him about some obscure project on his resume which he hasn’t been asked about in ages, thereby breaking his concentration and preventing any such melding.

Q: What do you think of that show? Seems awfully fixated on meth.

A bit, perhaps. But no more so than Weeds is on marijuana. Hand on heart, I think Breaking Bad is the best show on television. Period.

Q: Your career field enables you to interview people such as Isabella Rossellini by asking her questions to which she responds in the actual voice of Isabella Rossellini. I suspect this is better than the Isabella Rossellini imitation I do after I ask Pretend Isabella Rossellini “Am I handsome?” And Pretend Isabella Rossellini replies, “Naturalmente – but only in the right light.” Emboldened, I then say, “Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational battle station.” But she spurns me. What am I doing wrong?

You’ve got to know when to walk away, man. Or when to stop talking. Or, in this particular case, when to seek out a licensed therapist.

Q: When Morgan Freeman asked you “can I say [f-bomb]?” during a recent interview, how did it make you feel that he phrased the question in such a way that he had dropped the f-bomb before securing your approval to do so?

If you were to go back and listen to the recording, you can hear the pride and amusement in my voice that he bothered to ask at all. But I like to think that, had I said, ‘No, I’m afraid you can’t,’ he would’ve offered an even more offensive word in its place, then upturned the table and said, ‘Morgan Freeman says [f-bomb] whenever the [f-bomb] Morgan Freeman wants. Now you get the [f-bomb] out … and when you hit the hallway, tell Michael Ausiello to get his ass in here!’

Q: Did you ask him “What’s in the box?” I assumed that question was edited out.

Actually, I asked him, ‘Do you still feel that ‘that reading stuff’ is out of sight?’ (He does, but he doesn’t like to take a public stance on it anymore. Too many publishing companies looking for endorsements, apparently.)

Q: Did Isabella Rossellini happen to mention whether she’s down with men of the, let’s say, “husky” persuasion? Please answer this one.

When I brought it up, her mind immediately went to thoughts of seduction. She even made a video about it.

Q: You have bravely waded into The AV Club comments section. For readers who do not know this online oasis of advanced thought and emotional consideration, please describe the sensation. What protective gear do you wear? Is there a ritual cleansing later?

Actually, I have been very, very lucky for the most part, as far more of my work for the AV Club has been in the field of interviewing rather than criticism, which limits the amount of vitriol spewed in my general direction. In fact, after my first interview (“Random Roles with Peter Gallagher“), one of the commenters wrote, ‘The comments above are all, like, sincere and shit. What’s going on here today?’ I’m as surprised as anyone that the readership has embraced me as quickly as they have, but I’m confident that I will somehow cause them to turn on me before long.

Q: What can we as a culture do to fight the spread of memes?

Stop being so damned creative. Creativity has always been humanity’s downfall.

Q: You sometimes string for our local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot. When you force The Pilot to pay a fee to purchase the supple fruit of your freelance journalism, do you ever feel guilty for reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses?

In my scrapbook, I still keep a letter I received from E.F. Rogers, Jr., The Virginian-Pilot’s Assistant Managing Editor, Recruiting/Personnel, dated December 31, 1990. ‘This is to acknowledge receipt of your application for a summer internship on The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star,’ wrote Rogers. ‘Interns will be selected in January. If you are selected, we will be back in touch.’ The fact that Rogers did not, in fact, get back in touch with me handily assuages any guilt I may feel about reducing the available pot of money for executive bonuses. If they’d only brought me into the fold as a full-timer when they had the chance, they certainly could’ve cut me by now, thereby adding more funds to the coffers.

Q: Did you happen to get Isabella Rossellini’s phone number? For the purposes of fact-checking, I mean.

Sadly, we were connected by a publicist, so she herself did not call in. I say ‘sadly,’ but for Ms. Rossellini, this is probably a blessing.

Q: When you ask a subject such as Larry the Cable Guy whether they appeal to the lowest common denominator, do you have to define the word denominator?

It’s so tempting to mock ol’ Larry, but the truth of the matter is that he was an incredibly nice guy, and he liked me enough to discuss something he’d never been of a mind to talk about in the press before. I mean, it’s a shame he went and wasted such great material on a little ol’ blog like mine, but I still feel a certain allegiance to him for having done so, especially given that I once completely tore Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector a new one. (Funny how it never occurred to me to bring that up during our conversation … )

Q: When you use the word denominator in front of subject such as David Cross, do you look up what it means before hand, just in case he wants to challenge your understanding of the word’s meanings?

I always have Dictionary.com at the ready, just to be on the safe side.

Q: Mad Men has returned. It is quite popular. Why are they still so mad?

Oh, that’s just the lung cancer and liver damage talking. They’re really a swell bunch of fellas.

Q: If you did indeed write down Isabella Rossellini’s phone number, where do you keep it? I’m thinking an address book in the center desk drawer. Of course, that might be the decoy address book. You’re a clever one, Will Harris.

If you truly believe that I have the budget to afford a desk with drawers, John-Henry Doucette, then I don’t think you really know me at all.

Q: Has a certain series of questions in this Q&A effectively furthered the popular notion that a certain actress is a desirable person or merely slapped around a dead horse through repetition? How do both of those techniques – identifying a referent of a cultural perception and engaging in reaffirmation of the referent – fit into writing about pop culture?

Fact: Isabella Rossellini is endlessly charming … or, at least, she was during the 15 minutes she was chatting with me. But, then, she is an outstanding actress. As for repetition in the field of pop culture, I always return to the Simpsons scene where Sideshow Bob steps on a seemingly endless number of rakes, each one smacking him in the face, each time instigating a low grumble. It’s funny at first, then it isn’t anymore, and then all of a sudden it gets funny again. This doesn’t translate to everything in pop culture, of course, but it works on a surprising number of things. Like, say, this Isabelli Rossellini gag.

Q: Seriously, you find that number, I’m sure she’ll be cool with you passing it along.

See, now the joke isn’t funny anymore. Remember what I said about knowing when to walk away? This would’ve been one of those occasions.

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Did I mention that I once interviewed Isabella Rossellini?  (I’m not sure, but I think the fact that I’m bringing it up this time makes it funny again. If so, you’re welcome.)

Beyond that, I’ll just say that I appreciate your appreciation of my work, and I hope that my ridiculous obsession with doing research in advance of my interviews continues to pay off both for myself and the people who seem to like the pieces that result from these conversations.

To read more Belligerent Q&As, click on this link.

The Stooges plays us out. Sometimes we’re all just the world’s forgotten boy.

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UPDATED: Announcing the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest


• • • • • • • • • • •

April 3

I’m now taking entries for the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest. Deadline is June 15.

Additionally, I’m pleased to say Fair Grounds Coffee on the upstairs of 806 Baldwin Ave., on the corner of Baldwin and Colley avenues in Norfolk, will display winners and runners up in July.

Details on the national tour to come when people start returning my calls anywhere.

• • • • • • • • • • •

PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The Imaginary Board of Trustees is pleased to announce that the second annual Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing Contest submission and reading period begins next month.

I’m taking submissions from April 2 until June 15, with winners to be announced here at the blog on Monday, July 2. As with last year’s contest, I’ll pick the finalists and judges-to-be-named-later will vote “blind” for their favorites.

I hope get more visual art entries this year, but getting any entries at all brings its own special joy. The winners and runners up will be displayed at a Norfolk-area business. I’m still working out the details there, but hope to have more information soon.

Should nobody enter, we will pretend this did not happen. Just like my junior prom at Cranston High School East. Go Bolts.

Don’t want to enter? Suit yourself, cupcake. But before you go, do consider this persuasive and entirely solicited testimonial from last year’s winner, the Marylander di tutti Marylander who is called Gary Potterfield by all who are introduced to him as such. Get ready for gravitas:

A warning to anyone contemplating entry into the 2012 Fortune Cookie Fortune Writing contest. Run. Just put down the chop sticks and run. For if you should win your life will never be the same.

Ever since I won last year’s contest, hardly a day goes by that I’m reminded of my victory. In fact, entire seasons go by and I’m not reminded of it. Immediately after the announcement, I began to receive more than 100 emails per day, none of which had anything to do with fortune cookies or cookies of any kind.

I can count at least 2,372 people who have not asked for my autograph, and that’s a low estimate. 

I think my victory has even affected the time-space continuum. The February immediately following the contest explicably had 29 days. 

Clearly, we need to bring the title back to the Virginia. May God bless the Commonwealth that is not Kentucky, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Yes, as the kids say, the preceding sentence was a parochialist U.S. state designation burn.

Click here to see the full official rules, such as they are. (Please bookmark this link for updates.)

Click here to see last year’s winners, and the runners up, too.

Here are the basic guidelines, from the official rules:

In this test of skill and conciseness, readers contribute (hopefully) clever or artistic fortune or fortunes of their own creation to me via email to jhdouc@verizon.net – not in the comments, please.

Funny fortunes. Clever fortunes. Poetic fortunes. Artistic fortunes. Silly fortunes. Sad fortunes. Angry fortunes. Your hopes and dreams, your fears and foibles. Whatever way you want to approach it. It just has to fit on or to the form of a fortune slip, so please keep it to about 30 words or less. Cartoons, (original) comic strips, photos, and artwork all are encouraged, not just the written word – it just has to fit into a fortune cookie fortune sized space, such as this:

There will be modest prizes of my choosing, including signed books by authors previously featured on this blog. Last year’s prizes included Ted Danson and Mike D’Orso‘s Oceana and Earl Swift‘s The Big Roads. There also may be prizes from local businesses in the Hampton Roads area. Or maybe not. Details to come when the reading period nears.

Please enter early and often, and maybe tell your friends.

This message is pretend approved for immediate release by the Imaginary Board of Trustees.

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Why We Have the Internet, Vol. V: Smells so famitazic on the puplic [sic] edition


PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Sometimes there is a little too much Christmas stocking to stuff, and that may be marked the moment in which a parent reaches for the Avon product.

Such as Mesmerize® brand roll-on anti-persperent deodorant, a scent so alluring it sells for 99 cents online. Among its selling points? A promise:

Non-stinging.

And, dear customer, always remember:

Ask a doctor before use if you have kidney disease.

It just so happens that I came into a little Mesmerize during a recent trip to the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. I can’t bring myself to let it go. The container is fun to look at — R2-D2’s head comes off to reveal a roll-on. And the name — as my poor family can attest — is really fun to say like Christopher Walken.

So I turned to the web to research this product, and I learned I am not alone in appreciating Mesmerize. The deodorant has garnered nine five-star reviews compared to a solitary one-star snivel.

Here’s Slaaneshgod of Great Falls, Mont., who will be back later in the post:

I had a friend of mine give me some of the cologne and I love it. I work with the puplic [sic] and women love this scent.

However, it is the parent spray cologne ($20; but now on sale for $12.99) — presumably the same scent as the roll-on — that draws out testimonials that totally are not written by people whose paycheck says Avon over the watermark.

A sampling follows. All spellings have been maintained in their natural form.

Katstuff of Ellenton, Fla., confides that even Bible study groups in the Sunshine State are selective because they have needs:

We are in a small Bible study group on Tuesday’s and my husband isn’t allowed in unless he has his Mesmerize on. The ladies all love it.

You’re going to get past this, BC92 of California:

My ex boyfriend wore it, and every time I think about him I always remember how GOOD he smelled.

Jack of Northern Indiana reminds us that it’s not how you find Mesmerize, but that you find Mesmerize:

I stumbled across this scent completely by accident; someone had discarded some within some remaining items in my present flat. When I smelled it it seemed too good to be true […]

Big Mike of Meadville, Pa., adds:

FAMITAZIC SECENT [double sic]

Reedj of Atlanta’s review:

A great colone [sic], not to stiffling [sic] but just right.

Jacinto of New York, N.Y., thinks people actually want to feel this way:

I am not a person who purchase high price or famous brans [sic] cologne. But while wearing this, you will feel you are paying lots of money.

And this one is from Philly:

I SPENT $100’S ON WELL KNOWN EXPENSIVE COLOGNES, BUT NEVER RECEIVED SO MUCH COMPLEMENTS WHEN I WEAR MY MESMERIZE.THE NAME IT SELF SAYS EVERYTHING, YOU TRULY BECOME A MESMERIZED MAN WHEN PEOPLE PASS YOU BY AND SAY “YOU SMELLS REALLY GOOD ,WHAT IS IT ?”

Slaaneshgod of Great Falls, Mont., is back, and he may be bragging about his job:

I work in a strip club and i can tell you that the ladies love the scent.

Slaaneshgod is also apparently really into Warhammer. But which is it Slaaneshgod? Do you work in a strip club or with the puplic?

Playing us out is System of  a Down. I was going to go with something off Mesmerize, but “Hypnotize” is a better song to celebrate the perfect scent for when you’re just sitting in your car and waiting for your girl:

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Books: An eye on Myopic Books in Providence’s Wayland Square


PROVIDENCE, R.I. — This is the second of two posts on the book stores in Wayland Square on the East Side. The first post featured Books on the Square, an independent bookseller, and this one features Myopic Books, a used and rare book shop with more than 25,000 volumes.

The store is owned by Kristin Sollenberger, a visual artist and businesswoman who studied at Rhode Island School of Design. Wayland Square is near RISD and Brown, and it’s a great place to walk around — and between Books on the Square and Myopic Books it’s a great place to buy books. Sollenberger said:

I think people are lucky to have both of us in this area.

Her shop has been open since 1996. Its emphasis, as per the web page, is “scholarly books, literature and books on the arts.” I enjoyed the philosophy and biography sections, picking up a few biographies for me and a copy of Poetics for my dad. There was a great selection of Loeb classical library books, too.

Kristin Sollenberger, owner of Myopic Books in Providence, R.I.

There’s art throughout — no surprise — including art featuring eyeballs, hand-made cards made from “book debris,” and an “Art-O-Mat,” which dispenses original artworks. And, though best enjoyed in better weather than the cold spell when I was around, a courtyard out back.

The name of the store originated with Sollenberger’s hand-made card company. The name, she said, reflects this:

It’s sort of my vision, which may be tunnel vision of what a good book should be that I should have on my shelves.

Sollenberger, who has a painting degree, worked at another bookshop, managing a cafe. She bought out the inventory when that shop closed to open Myopic Books. She said:

I just liked books. I have ever since I discovered used bookstores. You never know what you can find going to used bookstores.

The day I visited she sported a slight black eye — a book-shelving wound.

I was at the top shelf. One tipped over and hit me in the eye. It was up beyond my reach.

She also opened a store in Wakefield, R.I., which lasted about two years.

I kind of had to move two stores into one.

Myopic shows it. The place it packed with books. The store has done well in Wayland Square, and Sollenberger had a great holiday season. I asked about how business stays strong.

I feel I was very lucky getting this location. And being selective about inventory, and keeping it moving.

In addition to the cards, there were some craft-style artworks for sale on the wall when I visited. But the business is books,despite the artistic touches around the shop. Sollenberger said:

I guess since I don’t have much time for my artwork, this is like my artwork.

And a couple of young men came in to sell books, and the owner bought a few — keeping it moving.

Myopic Books, at 5 S. Angell St., can be reached via (401) 521-5533. The website can be found at this link. For the first post, follow this link.

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