I got an email from an editor at The New Yorker two weeks ago telling me that I was a finalist for their popular Cartoon Caption Contest. It’s something they’ve run since 2005; they are nearing 400 contests in toto; they’ve even published a book full of contest winners. It’s a simple setup: They post an uncaptioned cartoon each week, and leave it up to readers to submit possible captions. Three finalists are selected, and readers vote for a winner who is announced a few weeks later. The New Yorker estimates that 5000 entries are made each week among its million or so subscribers.
I notified a small number of people about my status as a finalist and encouraged them to vote for me. It turns out my entry is the winner for contest #377:
What I didn’t reckon was how dedicated some people are to winning the contest. None other than Roger Ebert was addicted to the contest, and it was on his bucket list to win it. He finally did in 2011 after 107 attempts (he tried 93 times subsequent to that, to no avail). Given his recent death, The New Yorker posted the best of his entries, including his winner.
I started to poke around as a curious writer is wont to do, and found an article in Slate from a few years back posted by a winner who makes recommendations about how to win. His bent is to use a “theory of mind” caption that forces readers to project intents or beliefs into characters in the tableau. Spark the right intent or belief given the circumstances of the cartoon, keep your fingers crossed that enough other people share a sense of irony that is as individual to you as your fingerprints, and you might have some good laughs on your hands. By his calculus, 94% of winning entries operate on the “theory of mind.” The other 6%? Pretty much clever puns. I guess my caption fits into “theory of mind,” though I’d really have to think more about it. I guess I’m surprised since I spend an absurd amount of time in my daily life creating horrible puns (which is why my friends are constantly punching me).
Time ran an article online in which a 3-time winner is interviewed. One of his recommendations is to try to incorporate everything that is happening in the cartoon. That would explain some of the other entries for contest #377. One of the other finalists quipped, “Did you just order a hundred cheese pizzas?” There were plenty of other rejects that riffed on that–”Just entertain him, I’m going to try to figure out how to place a call to Hamelin!”, “Pest control? I’m calling in a SWAT team.”, and “Mr. Giganto Rat, you have a call.” [seriously... WTF?]–all of which in some way incorporate the phone the woman is holding. I would caution people not to over-think things–I didn’t even see the phone until I started to read the rejected punchlines and got to wondering why so many of them made phone references.
Here’s how it unfolded for me. I’ve only entered 6 times, and not at all for a year, because if something doesn’t hit me in the moment when I first view the cartoon, I give up. If something hits me, which for the most part has happened when I’m lying in bed reading the magazine before I go to sleep, I’ll scratch out the line in a tiny journal I keep on my nightstand. Then I’ll try to refine the line within the next day–I want to make it as short as possible because, after all, brevity is the soul of wit. Maybe the drafting process will help me uncover or create a pun, or something higher up on the hierarchy of humor, but maybe not. When I flipped right to the caption contest a few weeks ago, a thought flashed in my mind. I immediately thought about how I’d just bought a brand-new bedside journal (don’t ask… my journal habits are freakish), so why not scratch something out in that new journal so I’ve at least used the dang thing? My first crack was an inference about the rat race; my second was a further attempt at the same. I can’t remember how I got to my third line, which reads: ”I think we need to upgrade…” But then it hit me. There’s an excellent line from the film Jaws: ”You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Bingo! I had what I thought to be a clever riff on a classic movie quote.
I didn’t even have to get out of bed. I flipped over to the internet on my Nook, got on The New Yorker website, typed my entry, and went to sleep.
So what do I get besides my fifteen minutes of fame? A framed copy of the cartoon, signed by the author. It’s billed as a prize worth about $250. I also get to live with this thought: Of all the ways in which I’ve struggled to publish the tens of thousands of words I’ve written over the last decade, it only took six words to reach the biggest audience I’ve ever had.
I’ll take that.
Note: Adam Vollmers is a long-time friend and one of the original followers of The Seeker. When I check blog stats, his name is always near the top of those who frequently comment. Today, he takes another turn at generating content as it relates to film and one of his favorite past times–comic books.
It was almost a year ago that I blasted Marvel’s The Avengers on these pages. Adam was quick to jump to defending the film and has since engaged me in several conversations about the Marvel universe. His encyclopedic knowledge of all things Marvel, and comics in general, make him a trusted authority. My dislike of The Avengers is so intense that it has put me off superhero movies for at least the foreseeable future. Now, a day into the Iron Man 3 release, is a good time to post what Adam wrote to me a few weeks back regarding what he sees as the future of the Marvel film franchise. It will take an extraordinary set of circumstances for me to see Iron Man 3, or any future Marvel film, but in that film is a frequent topic of discussion herein, it’s worth time time and effort to post Adam’s thoughts.
Not coincidentally, Cracked.com posted an article last week about how superhero movies are a bubble that will soon burst. They bring up some excellent points, and the article is probably worth the time to fans of superhero movies and anybody who is interested in following Hollywood trends (especially the trends that show how Hollywood continually reaps its own destruction because of rampant greed, too much money, and over-inflated egos). Nonetheless, here’s Adam’s conjecture about the next few years in the Marvel universe of films. ~ Jeff
Iron Man 3 is kicking off the next round of Marvel movies. Regardless of your feelings on the movie itself, what Disney is attempting to do should prove interesting. Marvel, as a comic book company, is in the business of writing serial stories. They’re not writing novels, they’re not writing masterpieces of fiction that will stand the test of time, although there are exceptions. They are writing soap operas–largely for the young, male audience, but soap operas nonetheless. It doesn’t matter if the story is largely the same, it doesn’t matter if the villain is largely the same, what matters is continuing to do the things that work to keep their audience happy.
As someone who grew up reading comic books, particularly Marvel, one of my biggest issues with movies such as the original Batman (1989) was that they were designed to be one-offs. They were written with a more realistic tone where the secret identity is truly difficult to keep from the villain, which led to the natural conclusion that if the hero and family / companions were going to survive, the villain must be dispatched. In each of the movies, the villain died. It made for decent movies by providing more drama, but it eliminated the possibility of the serial nature of reusing the villain or building up a narrative.
Flash forward to the current Disney / Marvel properties, starting with Iron Man, wherein they started an overriding story arc. Each character–Iron Man, the rebooted Hulk, Thor, and Captain America–had his own “adventure;” however, each is also being presented as part of a larger system. Each movie contained hints as well as an ending that pushed the arc towards its next step, culminating in The Avengers. Iron Man 3 restarts that arc. As has been widely covered, Thor 2 and Captain America 2 are also slated to come out, obviously continuing this second arc.
What has been far less widely reported is the additional story lines that will feed into the arc. Maybe the information simply isn’t being picked up by reporters who aren’t aware of the back story. While many liberties have been taken to make the characters and situations work in the movie format and bring viewers who are not familiar with the characters into the loop quickly, the backgrounds have remained consistent with the original backgrounds of the characters. The villains are the correct villains for the heroes, the motivations are correct, the interactions, serious as well as amusing, have been captured in a way that reflects the source material. It was clear to me when I saw The Avengers that director Joss Whedon is a fan of comic books. The movie had the correct “feel” for the source material. This was a concern from the fans, and most of us were not disappointed.
The point is that at the end of The Avengers, there was a cameo by the next major villain: Thanos. Thanos was originally seen in the Iron Man comic book series with additional appearances in a number of comics, but he is not considered an Iron Man villain. Personally, I was wondering how they were going to introduce him, as I felt they would have to introduce him much like they introduced Loki, which means through Thor and the cosmic cube through Captain America. Have you heard of The Guardians of the Galaxy? If not, you will. They are fairly minor characters, and to be honest, I was stunned that a movie is going to be made with them. However, they re really just serving as a vehicle to introduce Thanos. The movie may be decent, it may be terrible, but at the end its purpose is to advance the arc. And that’s what’s interesting to me. Disney has the money and the ability to plan a long-range movie serial project, and that’s what they appear to be doing. Don’t get me wrong–movie studios are a business, and they have every intention of making money, but unlike many businesses, they have the luxury of being able to survive a bad quarter. They can afford to invest in what is essentially story infrastructure, as well as being aware that a movie that does poorly domestically may still make money internationally, through DVD sales, and licensing. How many people are going to be watching the first two Iron Man movies as a warm-up to the new release? That’s the long game that they are able to play. The problem they are likely to have is saturation, which appears to be solved in case of the Marvel properties by rotating them instead of doing them all in a row.
Along with The Guardians of the Galaxy, another movie has been confirmed: Ant-Man. Far moreso than the Guardians, the character of Henry Pym (Ant-Man) is strongly tied to The Avengers. He and his wife were part of the original Avengers, not Captain America, Hawkeye, or The Black Widow. Like the Guardians, he is still a fairly minor character to most people, and more importantly for the sake of the movie, he’s not a very interesting character (until he goes insane as Yellow Jacket, a completely unrelated point). What the character is known for is introducing two other major characters: The Wasp (Ant-Man’s wife), and Ultron, a robot Pym creates that ultimately becomes one of The Avengers’ greatest foes. And that, I believe, is the purpose of the movie. For the record, I believe the villain for Avengers 3 will be Ultron. It’s the long game that Disney is playing. It’s going to be interesting watching it unfold.
Let’s hope Adam is spot-on with his predictions. Some troublesome questions remain: If the Cracked article is correct in its prediction about what they see as the inevitable demise of superhero movies, can Disney crank out all of these films before the market bottoms out? Or will Disney cause the market to falter?
News broke last week that the owners of the Chicago Cubs, the Ricketts family, are moving forward with a $500 million renovation of Wrigley Field that will bring a 6,000 square foot scoreboard and another 1,000 square foot video screen to the field–plus a hotel, plaza, and office building to Wrigleyville. It’s not going to cost the taxpayers anything, allegedly. I can hear the Wrigley Field purists crying foul, and if I listen closely enough I can hear pens scratching legal documents as the rooftop owners across from Wrigley initiate the process of slowing down progress for the sake of profits.
This is ridiculous, really, on many fronts. As many people have pointed out, the Ricketts announced that these renovations will bring enough money for the Cubs to put together a World Series-winning team. The problem with that thinking is that the Cubs have never wanted for money. To push that idea is to be ignorant to the financial history of the club and ignore the ongoing cycle of poor decisions the franchise has made.
There are better arguments to be made for the renovations. The best one I can think of is that it will cost $500M to kill nostalgia. The new billboard and video screen are going to in some way interfere with the rooftop views, and the rooftops are one of the unique draws of Wrigley. They’re fun, too–been on one 4-5 times and had more than my share of fun while enjoying the game. I can’t see how the additions won’t interfere with the rooftops since the new billboard will be 3x larger than the current billboard in center field. The construction of new buildings and a new common area around the park is going to mean that some existing buildings are going to bite the dust. Those buildings could be bars. They could be apartment houses. It doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that the Ricketts drive a stake into the heart of nostalgia at all costs because it’s nostalgia far more than poor decisions or a supposed lack of funding that continues to kill the Cubs.
The Wrigleyville neighborhood in the immediate vicinity of the park is a joke. It’s little more than a destination for the post-college population that is not ready to let go of the fraternity or sorority lifestyle yet, and will pay 5-6 times more to preserve it than they paid on campus. Game day at Wrigley is a social event that starts around noon and continues until 3am. Far too many people who go to the game go to get hammered and be seen. To my way of thinking, the best testament to this is how the art of scalping has evolved around the field. It’s virtually impossible to scalp some good tickets anymore because the scalpers know they can hold their tickets for a 50-100% markup for the drunk legions to buy up to and after game time. The only thing that matters is getting into the game and being seen there. After the final out, the priority becomes staggering into The Cubby Bear or Murphy’s Bleachers or Goose Island or Sluggers and continuing the rowdiness until your pockets are empty or the places close down.
The unfortunate consequence of this is that the local fan base is constantly shifting and renewing itself. The cycle of 23-30 year olds is never ending. They also don’t expect anything of the team. Who cares if they win or lose? I saw Ronnie Woo-Woo in the bleachers, heard Russell Crowe sing the 7th inning stretch, drank 8 Old Styles, and got 3 phone numbers. What’s more, we’re going to do it all again tomorrow and next week and next month. The Cubs will constantly sell the tickets because of the social cachet of the game, not because of its quality. Need more evidence? The Cubs are the team that kept Ron Santo on the payroll for far too long. But what the hell–gotta love ol’Ronnie. Who cares if he’s incoherent, a laughing stock to even his broadcast booth mates, and does his research live on the air. The fan base loved him because he was a touchstone to the past–a past that included the most epic collapse in the history of baseball. Even Harry Caray himself did a lot to promote the overly casual approach to Cubs games and the idea that it’s all about getting wasted
So I say move forward, Ricketts. Pound that stake into the heart of nostalgia. Renovate, innovate, mandate, and don’t hesitate. I’d rather see consistent quality baseball than the Illinois State University chapter of Lambda Chi puking in the bleachers. Fate itself is cooperating– Ron Santo passed away just a year into your ownership and possibly spared you the public relations nightmare that would have resulted had you decided it was time to turn off his microphone. Maybe Ronnie had the best interest of the Cubs in mind and took the flag of nostalgia with him to the ever after. Regardless, if you change the physical space of Wrigleyville, maybe you can change the demographics. Change the demographics, and you’ll refine the fan base. Refine the fan base, and you might have a lot of people at the ballpark that start expecting things of you and who will stop smirking and proclaiming “Next Year!” halfway through each summer. Then you’ll have no choice but to field a quality team year in and year out.
Whining sucks. Deal with 100 or so teenagers a day, and you’ll come to the same conclusion rather quickly. It’s worse when I’m doing the whining, which I have been doing for a few weeks now in a few different capacities.
If my latest serial wasn’t enough whining as I dove back into writing nonfiction, there’s more. I’d been dragging my feet in my Public Speaking class in regard to using some technology I’ve been trained to use and am certainly ready to use. Unlike the piece of nonfiction I was writing, I didn’t eventually kick myself in the ass and bite down hard and do three or four other cliche things to get through it. No, in my classroom somebody else gave me a kick in the ass. At the start of a group project, one of my seniors pretty much said he was going to use the new technology and that if I wanted him to show me how easy it was, he’d be glad to. What was I going to do? He was right. We started using the new technology right away, and things went better with the project than they ever had before. So thanks, unnamed student, for the kick in the ass.
So how about a kick in the ass for the third major barometer in my life behind teaching and writing? I’ve hardly been running the past few months, and have settled into a pretty good excuse: The weather sucks. I only have to tell you one thing to prove it: Today is April 20, and I woke up to snow on my balcony. I haven’t felt like fighting the cold and have been holding off on getting into any 5Ks until I could get someone to pace me on my bike because I’m just not there yet. I thought it would happen this weekend if the weather finally cooperated, but that was a hope in vain. So I’ve been moping around thinking I’m not going to get into any running until May or so… boo hoo, poor me. What I was missing, though, and resigned to let go until things got better, was the structure and discipline that racing brings to my life. Plus, the fringe benefits of feeling good about helping charitable causes, feeling a sense of competitiveness, and turning on the edginess that so often (too often?) characterizes my disposition the morning of a race. Positive or negative, all these things come together to bring me something positive immediately or later in other avenues not directly related to running.
I had enough of the sluggishness and moping about all this for the past six weeks, so late Friday morning I decided that what I needed to break this funk was to throw myself into a race ASAFP. I found a 5K nearby, got myself to bed early, got up early, and went for it. I told myself that it’s still too early and not to expect much, which was a good thing because I didn’t get much in regard to results, but actually doing it seemed to be all I needed. I feel good, if a bit sore. I wasn’t terribly off my pace, either, all things considered. My back has been bothering me quite a bit the last few weeks and I’m not fully re-seasoned for road running, nor is my breathing where it should be, but still–things aren’t often all in line for you in life anyhow and you still have to go and do what you have to get done. Sometimes you need to kick yourself in the ass to get back to doing what you need to be doing. It beats whining about it.
This is the third time I’ve written about that GDMF piece of creative nonfiction that has been weighing on me the last few months. Truth be told, it’s been the last few years, since the episode upon which the writing is built happened two years ago. I gave myself permission to get back to writing nonfiction about myself, and then wrestled and wrestled with the writing until I forced myself to kick the piece off by telling a rather direct piece of truth. I thought that would solve my problems. I was wrong.
I spent a good deal of time over vacation slogging through drafts nine and ten, and got to the point that the only thing left to write in the piece was even more truth about who I was and what I was doing at the time of the story. That had to be written so I could complete the piece and send it off to a few friends to review. It wasn’t easy. I have a student right now going through pretty much the same thing. He’s writing about a profound defeat he experienced at the elite level in his sport of choice–a defeat that he’s going to have to live with for the next year, until he has one last season to set things right. That’s a helluva long time for anybody, especially a teenager. I told him that the only way to make his story work to its fullest potential is to tell the truth. The absolute, drop-dead truth. I suspect he’s going to get to the point where he says what has to be said: ”I wasn’t good enough, and everything I’ve led myself to believe over the course of the last year was false.” There are more eloquent ways to say it, but for the purposes of using that example here, that wording will do. I told him it’s going to be like birthing a football sideways. That’s a lot for anybody to announce, and not just to your friends at the local bar or walking down the hall to the cafeteria. Writing it down is even more difficult because then it stops being words in space and starts being actual text that other people will read and from which they will draw their own conclusions.
This is good all around. I’ve been there and might be able to shove him in the right direction. I’m glad I’ve been there, if only because it makes me a better teacher of creative writing. I’m careful to never ask my young writers to do something that I can’t do or wouldn’t do with my writing, so I can be honest with them, and with him in particular.
None of this helps me manage the overall issue that has dogged me throughout writing this piece: Who Cares? The process of writing the story has been enriching to me as a writer, and it has definitely help me cast the episode in a fair and proper light in my mind, but I’m entering it into a contest next month and if that doesn’t work out I’m still going to work to find a home for it. If that doesn’t work, then has this been successful? No. I want to get it published, and don’t want to be stung again with the realization my ego got in the way of the writing, and that the story is not as good or as interesting as I thought it would be, or that nobody cares about it.
I don’t have these problems when I write fiction. I’m a step removed from the story, though still working just as hard to make everything in it work and to make it tell a truth (the truth applies to me, a truth means the world outside of me). Regardless, I’ve taken my story as far as I can and will have to wait for what my peers have to say before I send it off. If it doesn’t work out as I would like, what am I going to do? What can I do? Keep writing. Which is what I was going to do anyhow. Already started a new story, in fact.
I was in Florida last week, trying to enjoy some time away and some nice weather. I was halfway successful. It’s hard to enjoy nice weather when it’s not much different down south than it was in Chicago, where I expect to wake up to 31 degrees. Regardless, vacation is usually good for writing. The rest helps, as does the extra time. I was in the same location last year and did some solid drafting of a story that’s going to be published later this year. I did some work this year, too… on the nonfiction piece I’ve been pissing and moaning about on here over the last few months. It’s been a bit like birthing a football sideways, but the truth can be that way.
Vacation is not for standing in line and waiting for whatever it is that you want to do. This becomes most aggravating to me when I’m waiting for an elevator in a high-rise hotel. Hell, any hotel. This happened last Saturday night when I was waiting on the 21st floor of the Sheraton in downtown Nashville. I quipped to some other guests that our situation would be a good reason to have a hotel parachute. I like cracking my own jokes, regardless of whether or not others get them, and in the process of cracking this particular one I remembered that years ago I actually wrote something down about a hotel parachute. I dug through some old journals and found it. I was staying at the Riu Jalisco resort in Puerto Vallarta:
July 27, 2002
I’ve already spent a lot of time at Riu Jalisco waiting for the elevator on the 6th floor. I think many people would agree when I say I’d rather spend my time doing something other than waiting. So, hotels should give guests on higher floors a Hotel Parachute. That way, they can just step off their balcony, pull the cord, and float down without hassling with waiting for the elevator.
I never got around to securing a patent or trademark for that.
The frivolity must have gotten my creative juices flowing. I stepped into a honky-tonk bar a few minutes later and had to scream over the top of the music and the crowd to order a beer. Then it hit me: Why don’t bars develop a system of hand and finger signals so customers can quickly and easily order a drink when it’s loud? Each bar could post their particular signs so as to have their own variations and flair. Customers can adapt to their surroundings.
Seems like a piece of cake. Seems like someone should have thought of this years ago. I say that a lot.
I wrote two weeks ago about some struggles I was having with a piece of writing. In particular, I was ranting on the self-serving evil that memoir can sometimes be. Seems I needed to get that out of my system and make some kind of declaration about my real intentions so that I could move forward with the piece in question. Maybe it was a sort of permission-granting thing wherein I needed to allow myself to write some non-fiction that was about me. Whatever it was, it worked. I’ve been working pretty steadily on the piece for the past two weeks. But that was only one of a set of problems with the writing.
I’m having trouble right now telling the truth. I’m not lying–but I’m trying to find ways around telling the whole truth in the story, kinda like I’m reaching around my elbow to scratch my ass. The result has been inflated, self-serving writing. I can tell because I was feeling too good while writing it.
So why not just tell the truth? It’s complicated. I don’t want to expose my vulnerabilities to the reader. I don’t want to deal with the emotional impact of what I’m writing about. I don’t want to write something that will “come back” on me in some unexpected way. Sounds like I’m looking over my shoulder, doesn’t it? I guess I am in some ways. I want to get published, and when it is about me and other people see it, things can get complicated. Students and parents and untrustworthy school administrators can make their own interpretations of it. This hasn’t happened to me to a significant degree, nor do I want it to. But the risk is there.
So how to deal with it? The truth has to come out–otherwise, what’s the point in writing? This was lost somewhere along the way as I’ve been writing much more fiction and poetry in the last few years than I have non-fiction. The truth has to come out. What I decided to do was start the story with the truth I was having the most trouble expressing:
I don’t know what Catherine wants, other than to beat me at basketball.
That seemed to kick me into gear, and since I was sufficiently direct (but still a little vague), I found I could move forward with the story. What’s more is that I can keep coming back to that point throughout the story, along with a few other truths that I’m working on. What’s more more is that I’m telling the truth in a way in which I am comfortable and still protective of myself.
Writing didn’t used to be like this. I loved to pepper my prose with “fuck” and “shit” and a whole host of other dandies since I tend to talk that way more times than not. I didn’t think much about including lurid details about whatever story, or talking about crazy and even stupid things I did. So I guess now I have a conscience. Since I want to be published and am aware of the possible dark side, I’ve adjusted my writing. It may be a move I needed to make all along. Regardless, I’ve now made it.