Category Archives: From The Vault

From the Vault: a design flaw in the otherwise perfect basket

Last night, I stood in front of the open refrigerator and thought to myself, "You know what would go good with this vegetarian chili? That Oaked Arrogant Bastard!"

I reached for it, applying my -3 DEX modifier, like you do. A minute later sent the following text message to Anne:

"Hey, we're out of beer. Could you pick up some Oaked AB on the way home? Also, totally unrelated to this, where's the mop?"

While I waited for her reply, I was reminded of this post I wrote three years ago:

We have a new refrigerator. It's energy efficient, can hold an entire horse and a stick of butter, and is generally one of the more awesome "grown up" purchases Anne and I have made since we got married seven years ago.

In addition to the awesome Futurama magnets that adorn its doors, it comes with a nifty little basket thingy which slides in and out underneath one of the shelves, perfect for holding bottles and cans.

We here in Chez Wheaton don't drink much of anything that comes out of a can (the notable exception being Guinness) but I drink plenty of things that come out of a bottle, like Stone Pale Ale and Izze soda, for example.

A few months ago, I uncovered a design flaw in the otherwise perfect basket: the wires spread out a little (okay, a lot) more easily than you'd expect from something intended to hold bottles in their least entropic state. If you have a heavy bottle (like a wine bottle, for example) on the same rack as a lighter bottle (like a Newcastle, for instance) and you look at them funny, the heavy bottle will create enough pressure to spread the wires and launch the lighter bottle onto the floor, where it will explode.

This afternoon, while I was trying to pull out a bottle of Tejava (99 cents at Trader Joe's) to enjoy a cool glass of tea, a bottle of clementine Izzie soda looked up at me, shouted, "Hooray! I'm free!" It then launched itself onto the floor, where it landed in a sticky explosion of horrible, entropic freedom.

I was, of course, standing barefoot in the kitchen at the time, so I got to tip toe through a spreading slick of soda and shards of broken glass that were as pointy and deadly as they were invisible on the floor while I made my way to the paper towels.

By some miracle, I didn't cut the everlivingshit out of my feet, and only got stuck a couple of times, and by the time Anne and Nolan got home, I was nearly done cleaning it up.

"What happened?" Anne said.

"There were . . . errors," I said.

She gave me a blank look. Before I could explain the inside joke to her, Nolan said, "What did you do?"

"I was trying to get some iced tea, and the Izze decided to make a break for it."

I held up a handful of dripping paper towels.

"It succeeded."

Nolan dropped to his knees and looked skyward. "Noooooooo!" He said, while shaking his fists at an imaginary Statue of Liberty.

"Yeah," I said. "Sorry. But there's more, so you can put them in there when I'm done."

Anne walked over to the pantry to get some replacement bottles.

"Would you like me to leave some of this here, as a warning to the new bottles?" I asked.

I got The Look.

I finished cleaning up.

From the Vault: a convenient literary metaphor

This was originally written in 2003, after I'd published Dancing Barefoot, and was still working on Just A Geek. At the time, I wasn't sure if I was a writer, an actor, or some combination of the two, though I was trying very hard to convince myself (and the Voice of Self Doubt) that I was just going to be a writer. 

I enjoyed writing narrative nonfiction, and the feedback I got from my narrative nonfiction work was overwhelmingly positive, but it was (and is) very important to me to be a fiction writer. I had some ideas for short stories, but I just couldn't overcome my self-consciousness long enough to turn the ideas into anything more. It was frustrating to me, so I went to Old Town, determined to get some kind of narrative story out of the experience.

I still haven't written the short stories I was trying to create back then, but I think that what I did write that day has a clear narrative voice and holds up rather well.

"Can I get food at the bar?" I ask.

"Of course!"

"Thanks," I say, and take a seat.

The waitress working the bar appears to be about the same age as me, in stark contrast to the other girls who look like they're all in their early 20s. There are heavy bags beneath her tired and sad eyes.

"What can I get you?" she asks.

"A Guinness and a cheeseburger," I say.

She turns, and pours me a pint. It's still settling when she puts it in front of me.

"Not many people drink Guinness in the middle of the day," she says.

"Is that a fact?" I say. In my mind I'm Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, and I'm in a 1920s Hollywood speakeasy.

"It is," she says, "I think this is the only pint I've poured all day.

"Well, I don't like to drink beer I can see through," I say, as I lift the now-settled glass to my lips.

Her laugh doesn't make it to her eyes, but it's still friendly. I find a kindred spirit in her sadness. We're both in a place we didn't expect to be. I bet I'm the first guy she's waited on all day who hasn't stared at her skimpy outfit while talking to her.

"Hey, honey, can we get another pitcher of Bud over here?" calls a guy in a George Zimmer signature suit at the corner of the bar. His tie is loose and he bounces his leg on the rail. It shakes under my foot. I don't like that at all.

I look around the restaurant. I've never seen it this full during the day. John Fogerty tells me that there's a bad moon on the rise.

"Sure," she says, and walks down to the taps.

Two young girls turn heads as they walk in and sit at a table behind me. "Oh my god! Your eyebrows look so great!" the tall one says.

"Don't they? I totally had them tattoo'd on," she says.

I tune them out and count the rings down my glass: one . . . two . . . three.

Four.

I look down the bar and see Men's Wearhouse and his business partners putting their best midlife crisis moves on the waitress — my waitress. Brown Suit stares at her chest while Blue Suit flashes a capped smile at her. She giggles and fusses with her hair, and fills their glasses.

"Hurry back!" Brown Suit says, as she walks back up the bar.

Five. I stare at the top of my beer. It looks like clouds over a black sky.

"So what do you do?" she asks.

" . . . I guess I'm a writer."

"You guess you are, or you are?"

"I am. I'm blocked today."

"By what?"

"The Bogeyman."

"What's that?"

"A convenient literary metaphor."

"You are a writer."

I laugh. "Yeah, I guess I am."

"Have you written anything I've read?" she asks. A loaded question.

"Probably not," I say, "I wrote one, and the people who read it seem to like it, and I'm working on another one."

"But you're blocked today," she says.

"Yeah. This place is sort of involved in my career choice, so I thought I'd come here and try to break the block."

"How's that working out for you?" she asks. A flicker of mirth passes her eyes.

"Well, at the very least, I'll get a Guinness out of the deal."

From the Vault: maybe you can just enjoy the tour

While looking for something entirely-unrelated, I came across this old post from 2006. I read the entire post that it's excerpted from on Radio Free Burrito 17, but this part made me smile, so it gets its own spot right here on my bloggy-blog-blog:

Though I've been there for several auditions, I haven't been on the Universal Studio Tour since  A-Team and Knight Rider were in prime time.

I can mark that particular period of time with this degree of certainty, because I clearly recall talking with KITT, and wanting to ask it if it ever raced the A-Team van around the back lot, but actually asking something stupid about how fast it could go.

I also recall taking a scratch off game with me on the tour tram, where we were supposed to look for A-Team characters in various places, and scratch off the appropriate image on the map, with the promise of a prize for kids who turned in correctly completed games. I can't remember all of them, but Mr. T — well, a model of Mr. T's head, anyway — was in this out of control train that was supposed to come within inches of crashing into the tram, and I was so busy trying to figure out how they did it, I forgot to scratch him off . . . until the tour guide reminded all us kids to scratch off that circle on our map.

"That's stupid," I told my mom, "if they're just going to tell everyone where the A-Team is, why should we even look?"

"Maybe you can just enjoy the tour," she said.

2006 was a fantastic year for me as a writer. When I go through the 2005-2006 archives, I see a lot of creative writing and narrative non-fiction that I recall having a lot of fun writing, which remains a lot of fun for me to read today. I'm not entirely sure why that is, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with how much I was allowing myself to simply enjoy the tour.

From the Vault: surrounded by the joy of the season

In December of 2001, Anne I were really struggling financially. It had already been a pretty lousy year, as far as work went, and after September 11th, things only got worse. As Christmas got closer, it was clear that we simply couldn't afford to put many things under the tree for our kids, let alone each other. 

One night around the second weekend of December that year, Anne and I had a long talk about the impending holidays. We never wanted the holidays to be about stuff, anyway, so we used the opportunity to introduce the concept of "Little Christmas" to our kids. We told them that, contrary to what television told them, it wasn't about shopping and things, as much as it was about spending time with people you love (and music, and spiced cider, and walking through the neighborhood at night to look at all the pretty lights.) Little Christmas began as a financial necessity, but we discovered that putting the emphasis on the holiday "spirit" rather on the holiday "stuff" made us all happier, and we pretty much removed ourselves from the consumerism that bummed out Charlie Brown so much in 1965. 

Even though things eventually got better, we crossed a Rubicon that year, and we never went back. Instead of submerging ourselves in Christmas Crap, we got a few gifts for each other, but we always did some sort of cool thing together as a family, like a trip to the Grand Canyon, or a night out with my parents to see a play. The idea was that Christmas Crap usually gets old and dusty, but the memories we created doing something together would last for the rest of our lives, and that's a better gift to give or receive than anything we could get at the store.

This post From The Vault features a portion of a post I read on this week's Radio Free Burrito, about our 2006 Christmas trip to Julian, in San Diego County, which included a day at the San Diego Wild Animal Park with my brother, his wife, and my parents:

We stayed at the Wild Animal Park until it got dark. On the way out, Nolan came over to me and he said, "I'm really glad we came here today."

"So am I," I said.

"I wasn't all that excited when you told us what we were doing," he said, "but now I'm really glad we did this. I've had a lot of fun today."

"Yeah, your mom and I were a little bummed out that you weren't into doing this when we told you about it," I said, "but we were pretty sure you'd like it once you got here."

"Well, I just wanted to spend the weekend with my friends," he said, "because I'll be gone all next week and I won't get to see them."

"I get that," I said.

"But it was totally worth it to come down here. Thank you."

"I'm really glad you told me that, Nolan," I said.

He smiled, walked over to Anne, and told her the same thing. Then he told my mom.

Nolan is 15, chronologically and in every other sense, and I feel like I'm dealing with something from another planet more often than I'd like these days, so it really meant a lot to me that he made the effort to let the people who pulled the trip together know that he enjoyed it, instead of finding lots of reasons to be sullen and unhappy because . . . well, that's what teenagers do, if I remember correctly.

After dinner that night, we drove back up to Julian, and the rest of my family drove back to their hotel down in the valley. When we got back to the B&B, we put another fire in the stove and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas together. As much as I've loved that special my entire life, this was the first time I watched it and really felt its message about the meaning of Christmas. 

We're not religious, and we're not into the consumerism of the holidays, so it would be easy to feel like we're not part of the whole Christmas thing, but as we sat there, basked in television's warm glowing warming glow, and drank hot apple cider together, we were surrounded by the joy of the season.

From The Vault: Cross the Blazing Bridge of Fire!

Did you know that I used to write a weekly column called The Games of Our Lives for The AV Club? It was about classic arcade (and occasionally console) video games that were just far enough off the mainstream radar for Gen Xers to realize that they remembered playing or seeing them, even if they hadn't thought about them since the 80s.

I worked very hard to keep it funny, nostalgic, and even a little informative. Though I didn't always come up with heartbreaking works of staggering genius, I'm really happy with about 95% of the columns I turned in … like this one for Satan's Hollow:

The flyer from Bally advertises "The hot new battle game that dares you to cross the blazing Bridge of Fire to do battle with the Master of Darkness-Satan of the Hollow!" After languishing for years in the obscurity of role-playing games, Satan finally crossed into the mainstream of arcades everywhere. Parents panicked as kids eagerly coughed up pocketfuls of quarters to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

Gameplay: It's 1982, so of course you have to enter Satan's Hollow in a spaceship. To pull this off, you build a bridge across a river of fire by picking up pieces from the left side of the screen and dropping them onto the right side of the screen. You have a shield that will protect you (for about .08 seconds) from the gargoyles and demons dropping World War II-style bombs. When the bridge is completed, you cross into the game's eponymous locale and face down Satan himself. If you avoid his magic pitchforks and destroy him, you won't save mankind from eternal damnation, but you will earn bonus points and an extra laser blaster for your space ship.

Before you complain that none of this makes sense, please remember that the number-one song of 1982 was "Centerfold" by J. Geils Band, and the number-one film was Tootsie.

Could be mistaken for: Galaxian, Dark Tower, Phoenix

Kids today may not like it because: Satan looks more like a sea monkey than like the Prince Of Darkness.

Kids today may like it because: Freaking your parents out because you're playing a game with Satan in it is always cool, whether it's 1982 or 2005.

Enduring contribution to gaming history: Doom wouldn't have been able to take players right into Hell in 1993 if Satan's Hollow hadn't opened the portal 11 years earlier. 

Every column had a different byline, which I tried very hard to make some kind of clever "nobody's going to get this, except for those few people who do and totally love it" joke: 

.mraf ynnuf eht, notaehW liW ot seilper rouy dnes esaelP .egassem terces eht dnuof ev'uoY !snoitalutargnoC

See what I did there? It's a game with SATAN in the title, so I put at BACKWARDS MESSAGE in the column. Ha! Ha! Ha! I am using the Internet!

I loved doing this column, and deliberately retired it while it was still going strong, so it didn't turn into [Pick some series that should have ended years ago while it was still funny. This is not a placeholder note to myself, it's a free option for you, dear reader. Merry Christmas.]

From the Vault: The Fires of Mordor

Yesterday, I decided that I'd reach into The Vault a few times this week, and reprint some holiday-related posts. 

While I combed through the WWdN archives, I came across this post, which I haven't thought about pretty much since I wrote it. It has nothing to do with the holidays, but I still like it. I'm reprinting it today so I can remember a time when I didn't feel so self conscious about my writing, could totally lose myself in a moment, and do my very best to fearlessly capture it in words.

We are under partly cloudy skies today here in Pasadena. All day long, the blue sky has been brilliant and beautiful. The few clouds that dot the sky are small and fluffy, blown at incredible speeds by the high altitude winds, and illuminated to a magnificently bright white by the sun.

About 20 minutes ago, the sun began to set, and I watched as it put silver linings behind cloud after cloud as it sank into the west. Shortly after the horizon took it away for another day, the sun did an amazing thing: it illuminated the only cloud in the sky, a monstrous one — several thousand feet cross, at least — which hung over my house. The cloud acted as a giant reflector, bouncing yellow, then orange, then red light down upon my neighborhood.

At first, the yellow light was beautiful, bringing out a brilliance in the lawns and leaves seldom seen in winter. Then, the orange light became a little creepy, casting the same muted color as sunlight filtered through the smoke of a brushfire.

When the light turned red, though, it was positively scary. The red glow that it washed over the Earth was straight out of the fires of Mount Doom.

As the light turned from orange to red, my mom called me, and asked me if it looked like the world was coming to an end over my house, too. I laughed, and told her that it did.

Then a Ring Wraith knocked on my door, and I politely hung up the phone.

Remember when Lord of the Rings ruled the world with a power and inevitability challenged and equalled only by frozen yogurt shops in the 80s? Those were some magical days, Precioussss. We loves them.

From the Vault: how deep is the ocean?

All my creative energy is currently spoken for, so let's into The Vault and pull out an old post about that time I auditioned for On The Road. 

When I wrote this, I was waiting to find out if I'd been cast in I, Robot. I'd had a sensational audition that got great feedback from the casting director, only to find out that the director (who I recall was annoyed at my mentioning the audition on my blog) "didn't respond" to my tapes. It was pretty heartbreaking, and without more specific information, I wondered for weeks if I sabotaged my chances to work on the film by excitedly blogging about the experience, or if I really did just suck out loud and fooled the casting director and myself, but not the director. I'll never know, and I haven't even thought about it until about an hour or so ago, but just reading those posts has stirred up a lot of turmoil that I wish I'd left alone and locked away in a room on the other side of the house.

Anyway, this is a story that says as much about kindness and professionalism as it does about staying focused and doing your best. It contains, I hope, an important lesson that isn't just for actors…

This project has been around for almost ten years. The first time around, sometime in 1992 or so, I auditioned to play Neil Cassidy. I read a scene straight out of Dharma Bums.

I was manic about preparing for the audition: I was already familiar with most of the Beat Generation, and was a huge fan of Burroughs, but I'd never read Kerouac. I wanted to have a good sense of his style, so I could bring his character to life faithfully, so I furiously read "On the Road," and skimmed through "Dharma Bums." I was already a jazz geek, but I took the opportunity to fill several gaps in my collection, so I could listen to Charlie Parker and Chet Baker while I learned my scenes. I worked with an acting coach – at great expense – to develop body language and dialect. I bought clothes from a thrift shop, and went through lots of different hairstyles until I got the correct look.

A little over a week later the audition came. I drove myself to this old church on Highland where they have auditions from time to time, listening to Bird the whole way. I walked into a large empty courtyard, filled with fountains, birds, and a beautiful garden. Only the sign-in sheet betrayed the presence of Hollywood. I sat down, focused and ready to go get this job.

While I was waiting, Emilio Estevez arrived.

Wow, I thought, I'm at the same audition as Emilio Estevez, and I'm about to meet the man who is responsible for The Godfather and Apocalypse Now!

I totally forgot why I was there, and became a drooling fan boy.

Emilio Estevez said hello to me, one professional to another, and I said, "Hey."

There was a pause, and I heard myself say, "I want to tell you how much I like your work. Repo Man is one of my favorite movies of all time, and Breakfast Club is a classic."

He went one better:"Wil, Stand By Me is a classic, and I love your work too. It's really nice to meet you."

I hadn't told him my name, yet.

The casting assistant came out, and looked at the two of us. Emilio was on the "A" list. I was on my way to the "C" list, having been off TNG for a few years, and still waiting to properly follow-up Stand By Me. She said, "Emilio, would you like to come in now?"

He looked at her, and said, "Wil was here before me. It's his turn."

She told him that it wasn't a problem. They were ready for him.

"Well, if you're ready for me, you're ready for Wil, and he was here first." He crossed his legs, and looked at his script.

I was stunned. He didn't need to stand up for me, and it really didn't matter to me who went first, but I thanked him and went in.

The room was large and very dark. Like the rest of the church, it was mission-style, with high, open-beamed ceilings and terra cotta tiles on the floor. Coppola was sitting behind his massive beard, a flimsy card table between us.

I approached him, and extended my hand. He didn't take it, so I sat down.

"You don't mind if I film you, do you?" he asked rhetorically, showing a palm-sized video camera, already in his hand.

"No, of course not."

He asked me to slate my name, and begin the scene. I did, and proceeded to give the worst audition of my life.

I'd forgotten why I was there, and was a drooling fan boy. I didn't want to read this scene, I just wanted to talk about Apocalypse Now, and Rumblefish. I wanted to ask him about Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, and James Caan.

All these thoughts flooded my head while I stumbled through the scene. My Inner Voice, that internal critic/director/coach that all actors have, was screaming at me that I was doing horribly. I didn't listen, instead hearing Robert Duvall shout, "Charlie don't surf!" It screamed louder, telling me to stop and start over, but I was too busy watching John Cazale get on that boat, knowing that he was going to get whacked.

Before I knew it, I was done, and Coppola was thanking me for coming in. We both knew that I'd blown it. We both knew that I'd wasted everyone's time. I knew that I'd wasted a lot of time and money on my preparation. I'd had my one chance in front of Francis Ford Coppola – one of my favorite filmmakers in the history of cinema – and I had completely blown it. I walked out, head hung low.

I passed Emilio Estevez, who asked me how it went. I shrugged, and told him to break a leg.

I drove home in silence, hating myself, Chet Baker wondering how deep is the ocean?

from the vault: local color and flavor

This is from a post that I originally wrote for CardSquad:

The Klondike is a dump, but like many dumps (I'm looking in your direction, Freemont Street) it is a charming
and glorious dump, and an integral part of the character of Las Vegas.

I will never forget my one and only
experience at the Klondike: About a decade ago, my friends and I stopped there for breakfast on our way out of town, to
"soak up some local color and flavor."

We pulled into a mostly-empty parking lot, and walked into a
dark, smoky casino. We made our way past ancient slots and video poker machines with burned-in monitors, and took a seat
at the back of the cramped coffee shop.

Right after we placed our order, a man and a woman sat down at the
table next to us. I forget what she looked like, but he was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, and was a smelly,
unshaven mess. From their conversation, it was unclear whether he'd been released, or escaped. Either way, the waitress
(who was so drunk at eleven in the morning, we were concerned about open flames) didn't seem to care. Because we were
all in our very early twenties, neither did we. The as-yet-unawakened writer in me furiously scribbled down every
possible detail of what was clearly a moment in time we'd never want to forget.

We ate a traditional Vegas
steak(?)-n-eggs breakfast, while half expecting federal marshalls to burst into the joint, and wondered if any of us
would qualify as hostages or not. It never happened, though we all jumped a little bit when a scream errupted from the
casino as an octogenarian hit a jackpot on the nickel slot. When we finished, we left a twenty on the table (which
worked out to about a ten dollar tip) and raced down Interstate 15 toward Bat Country.

Years later, none of us
could tell you anything about the games we played, where we stayed, or whether we left winners or losers, but we could
all tell you, in exacting detail, about breakfast at The Klondike. In fact, it remains one of the enduring highlights
of any Vegas run we've ever made.

from the vault: someone in tennessee loves me

Digging into the vault is fun.

When I was in my very early 20s, this girl who I dated and I played this celebrity lookalike game.

Whenever we saw someone who looked like a celebrity, one of us would say, "Hey, there's Nell Carter" or "Don't look now, but Kirk Cameron is shopping in Target."

One day, we were eating lunch at this Hamburger Hamlet in West Hollywood, on the extreme West end of the Sunset Strip. I looked up from my lunch to see this totally goofy looking guy, with a stupid mullet, parachute-y muscle pants, and a corduroy hat that had "Someone in Tennessee Loves Me" embroidered on the front.

"Hey," I said, "There's Chuck Norris wearing a 'Someone in Tennessee Loves Me' cap."

We cracked up and complimented each other on our insightful wit.

A few minutes later, a manager walked over to that guy's table holding a phone on a long cord, like you'd see in the old 1940s movies.

"Mr. Norris," he said, "Mr. Washington is calling from Knoxville."

from the vault: the excellence incident

This was originally written years ago, when I was still finding my personal narrative voice, and still enjoyed the beefy goodness of a slaughtered bovine creature with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. I've cleaned it up and meddled with it a tiny bit, because I can't resist meddling with things.

Many moons ago, my wife and I found ourselves at a Black Angus restaurant.

I’d like to welcome back those of you who just picked yourselves up off the floor. I don’t know what we were thinking, either.

Anyway, the waitress came over to our table after our food had been delivered, and asked, “Is everything excellent?” I could hear the italics.

I know that this poor girl was just doing her job, just as she’d been when she tried to upsell us on “a half-carafe or perhaps a full carafe of Fetzer merlot” but something inside me snapped. Before I could stop myself, I heard the following come out of my mouth: “Excellent? Excellent? No. It’s fine, and in fact I’ll even tell you that it’s nice, but excellent? If I said 'yes', I’d really be devaluing the whole word — and concept — of ‘excellent.’”

Anne gasped. A busboy three tables over dropped a stack of plates. The muzak was interrupted by the scratching of a needle across vinyl.

Remember in Cable Guy, when they’re at Medieval Times, and Janeane Garafolo looks at Matthew Broderick and just says, “… dude?” and we all know that he’s the asshole? Yeah, I was the asshole.

We all looked at each other, shocked, wondering what would happen next.

"He's not usually like this," Anne said.

"Hey! Don't apologize for me!" I said. Then, "I'm not usually like this."

"Uh-huh," she said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

"We're not getting dessert," Anne said. "In fact, we're not getting any more food that anyone in this restaurant other than us will get close to."

"That's probably a good idea."

We finished our meal, and I apologized again for what would become known as "the excellence incident." When I paid our bill, I over-tipped the girl as penance for my transgression, which I decided was intended as a lighthearted little joke that went awry between my brain and my vocal cords. But I did not — and I will not — waiver on the question of excellence. A man must stand for certain things, and I have chosen this. I have chosen to stand fast on the question of excellence.

The drive home was quieter than usual, until Anne turned to me unexpectedly and said, “Excellent? We’re at Black Angus. Let’s try for adequate and go from there.”

“Well thanks for speaking up for me when we were in there,” I said. “It was excellent that you had my back.”