Friday, June 26, 2009
It was the only thing my entomology degree was any good for. Knowing what distinguishes a member of the family Hymenoptera Symphyta from Hymenoptera Apocrita is a pretty much useless skill anywhere but the lab, but try saying it outloud in a string of other Latin terms. Blows the morons’ minds. Medical terms work well, too, although my money ran out before I finished my premed. Who cares? I had had enough, and I make good money now. To be fair, I could probably have gotten by with just a lit degree and a few microbiology textbooks. I didn’t know what I’d end up doing. You’ve heard of technical advisors? Watch to the end of the credits on some movie--there’ll be an advisor, making sure the military characters are all wearing their rank right-side-up, that the furniture in the period piece is the right style, that the animals are all from the same geo-climatic space, that the physics isn’t too ridiculous when they shrink the submarine and shoot it inside the patient. “Thanks to blah blah blah of the University of Blah at Blah Air Force Base at the Institute for Blah.” Well, I’m a geek advisor. That’s right, I do the geeks in movies and TV shows. Which basically boils down to embellishing some dialogue, because that’s all they really want. A few interjections, some name-dropping or a few wild rattlings-off of ludicrous jargon. See, geek speak falls into two categories: stuff you get and stuff you don’t. Basically, we throw in a few allusions nearly everyone who passed their GED can get, and then pile on a lot of crap that no one outside of that particular subfield will ever get. And by we, I mean me, and by no one, I mean no one except me. The point of the dumbed-down geek speak is to make you feel special--Ha ha, you’re in on the joke! Aren’t you smart for getting that! Apparently you remember something from high school!--and the second category is to keep you from thinking you’re too smart, making sure you feel like these guys on the screen really are geniuses, distant and apart from you. I find Pygmalion + X works well, as in, “Let’s add a little Cyrano to this Pygmalion” or “So what’s up with your Pygmalion turning all Svengali?” or “Don’t look now, but your Pygmalion has begun to woo the fretful portentine.” Nearly everyone gets Pygmalion, nearly no one gets whatever you end up tempering it with. Easy. Entomology, as I alluded to earlier, is a goldmine. Bugs can be worked into almost any situation, and nothing says “smart” like canned Latin. References to poetry are good for some stuff, but the problem there is that the really good lines usually don’t use particularly impressive words, and the morons are completely nonplussed. What I usually end up doing is using poetry in higher-end Type 1 geek-speak; it’s the stuff you’re supposed to get, in shows aimed at the less stupid demographics. Haha, aren’t you smart! You picked up on this line from Dryden. But do you get this reference to Robert Oppenheimer? No, no you didn’t--not if I’m doing my job right.
I’m not sure how I got the job--I guess it had something to do with how detail-oriented I am. And unlike a lot of guys obsessed with details, I’m also a pretty good people person. Although my editor would probably argue that poets are not real people. After I graduated from college I started work at a publishing house on the outskirts of the town I grew up in. They took in anything, technical manuals, novels, self-help, local history, erotica, poetry, and anything avant-garde. About three-quarters of their work was volume printing, but there was a fairly active chapbook division and some print-on-demand. My boss, Harold, had no literary aspirations, nor did he possess the drive to lend a hand up to starving artists. But he was desperate to make ends meet, and would take anything he thought he could turn a profit on. Chapbooks with runs measured in the dozens actually pay pretty well if you charge the authors enough up front, and Harold knew these types would pay anything to see their names and their babies in print. Unfortunately, Harold could not stand these types. That’s where I came in. Disagreements always erupted into full fledged confrontations, complete with two-colour covers ripped in half and thrown down on desks, spiral-bound spines crunched like choux and plastic chips falling to the floor, and gallery proofs thrown through windows. Harold would fix misspellings, consolidate typography, and obsessively tighten up line breaks to save paper. He would standardize fonts and justify margins, attributing anomalies either to poor control of a manual typewriter or to an artistic whim that he might just as well ignore. The poets then, the bold explorers of white space and type, would grow ever more experimental, producing concrete poetry, prose that forgot its place in the world of literary categories, and intersections of paragraph and illustration. Sometimes I think Harold would catch legitimate mistakes and the authors would stubbornly cling to them when confronted, just to spite the Philistine, insisting that they had meant to write it that way, that it was essential to the meaning. If the sound must be an echo to the sense, the sense in Harold’s office was usually one of chaos and bruised egos on both sides. Shortly after I came to work for Harold, he had one of his shouting matches with an archetypical poet-type, long hair and velvet jacket, aquiline nose and slender, bony hands. After the poet stormed out, I followed him to his bike and talked him down. He pulled out his notebook and showed me what I wanted. I took it, promising to fulfill its every jot and tittle. A week later we mailed him the gallery proofs, and two weeks later he showed up at the publishing house specifically asking for me. He was delighted. The work was excellent. He would work with us from now on. And I knew, and Harold knew, that he would be writing a lot more. Initially irritated that Typo-Ass (Harold’s term) refused to speak with him, Harold soon came around and acquiesced to the poet’s insistence on working solely through me--and now, twelve volumes (and only a slightly greater number of sales in indie bookstores) later, Harold is satisfied. It was only a matter of weeks before I had become his official go-between. I take the notebooks, the loose-leaf of typewritten sheets, the print-outs from library computers, and go over them with the authors, at their houses, at coffee houses, at meditation centers, at farmer’s markets. I make copies and mark them up carefully, indicating what is to be done in the typesetting at each point. Then I go to Harold. I almost wonder if it doesn’t matter anymore what’s on the page--whether or not I really keep every idiosyncrasy intact, the authors feel safe in the knowledge that someone is paying attention. Harold doesn’t care how crazy and time-consuming the type-setting might be--he doesn’t have to deal with the Type-Asses. I’m kind of a detail person. But I think people are pretty interesting, too.
My parents made me get braces when I was five. It was hardly an age recommended by the American Orthodontic Association, but our Beverly Hills orthodontist was hardly going to say “no” to a second solarium, was he? And my parents had big plans. I had already been in two beauty pageants and managed to collect second and third in my division. My hair was dyed and permed, and the trainer had my abs looking, I guess, however the ideal five-year-old’s abs are supposed to look. After the braces came off, I didn’t wear my retainer, and I had to get braces put back on when I was fourteen. I hated it. But by then I was an old pro. While all my friends were complaining about how sore their mouths were and how they couldn’t eat what they wanted to, I felt smug because I already knew how much it hurt. At fifteen came the nosejob. I had already been tanning for six years at that point, in the bed my parents had had installed in our home after they realized it wasn’t worth it to keep arguing with the lady behind the desk at the salon. My twelfth birthday marked my last cheeseburger for a long time--my friends and I snuck out of school to celebrate at McDonald’s. The french fries formed a pleasantly warm mash in my mouth and I vowed that the next day I would tell my trainer to go fuck herself and her dietary supplements. That was the hard part. I didn’t mind the semi- and then bi-weekly manis and pedis--almost got a kick out of them when I thought about my friends complaining that their parents couldn’t afford it. I was cool with the delayed periods, too. Constant illness? Okay by me. It’s just that the dieting all the time sucked. But my real pride and joy was my teeth. Perfectly straight. Perfectly, bleachedly white. My lips were untouched--the collagen was all mine, only the color enhanced. At seventeen, my ears were straightened and pulled back the slightest millimeter, at a cost of months of surgery and recovery, and, it goes without saying, thousands of dollars. My parents stopped short of breast implants but only, I am convinced, because the Baywatch look had fallen out of favor by that time. It takes a lot of upkeep, all that. Except the teeth. After the final set of braces came off, after my mouth stopped growing and my jaw settled into perfect maturity, the teeth were mine to keep forever. And you know what? People will pay for teeth like that. Do you ever wonder about the bites taken out of advertised food? Look at the next Dreamsicle you see in the pages of a magazine. The iconic semi-circle removed from one rounded corner, piercing through the different-colored layers. Look at a stack of Oreos in the coupons flyer. One Oreo to the side has already been bitten into, a light smattering of crumbs around it on the table. Look at a package of Reese’s. The teeth marks are visible, and they have to be perfect. Evenly spaced, no gaps, no overlaps, no untoward rotation. But there’s more to it than that. The teeth have to be the right size. Too big, and it looks wrong, as if someone ate only hesitantly, with their front teeth, nibbling at food they weren’t too sure about. Too small, and it looks like a child has been into the food--cute in some cases, but not what most advertisers want. And the teeth have to be proportional to each other--too-large incisors conjure up images of buck-toothed morons; oversized canines add an almost feral quality to the tableau. That was the phrase the producer used once on a shot, to describe why he fired the last biter: “an almost feral quality to the tableau.” I’d put too much time into my teeth; I would never be feral. You’d think people wouldn’t notice these things, but they do, subconsciously. They can’t tell you why, but they prefer the foods that have been partially consumed by those of us with perfect mouths. Technique has a lot to do with it. I’m not kidding. How you use your lips is important. Some foods need to be bitten cleanly, like ice cream sandwiches. The ice cream between the wafers should be as flush with the edges as possible. Otherwise it looks sloppy, as if you were mouthing the product, or sucking on it. A clean bite, keeping the lips back as you bring your teeth together and draw back, removing the bite, is essential. It shows how good the ice cream is. It’s crisp and refreshing. But for other things, you draw it out. Think caramel-filled chocolates. That little tuft of gooey goodness really sells it. And no machine can replicate the touch that creates a fine crest in the middle of a half-eaten strawberry. Speaking of fruit, it’s important to keep the bite straight--nothing looks worse than wavering rake marks in a crisp apple, as if it had been gnawed, or tunneled through by termites. Well, one thing might look worse: lip prints on the afore-mentioned Reese’s. A moist lip would leave a trace like a greasy hand on a pastry-case window, and in harsh studio lighting--forget it, sister. Keep those lips up and out of the way until you need them to massage some malleable piece of balaclava. Let the flakes bend and come together under the influence of your mouth, and keep them slightly crimped as you withdraw. When they bring you a can of ReddiWhip, bring the airy cream in, almost inhaling it, and give the viewer that sense of ecstasy, of eating because you cannot help yourself, it is so good. Whatever you do, you must always be conveying the idea that the food provokes insurmountable desire, and yet that you, the eater, relish it, and eat it without loss of dignity. I no longer have my tan. My fingernails look like hell, and my hair is a mess. Those well-trained abs have flabbed out and lost whatever idealness they once displayed. And upon graduating high school, I really did tell my trainer to go fuck herself. But I still have my perfect teeth, and all the ice cream bars I can eat.
I’ve had several odd jobs, but one of my favourites was a couple years ago I was the writer for the subject lines in fictional emails. A manufacturer needed to promote its new cellphone, new PDA, new BlackBerry--they’d call me. I’d write the subject lines they’d use in the screenshots for ads. It was tricky. There was a fine line you’d walk, varying with the target demographic. A device aimed at busy professionals needed different subject lines than one pitched at college students, but both needed a mix of up-to-the-minute urgency driven by fun and that driven by profit. “meeting for lunch?” was always a good one, ambiguously suggesting both a bit of power-noshing among rising executives and casual hang-outs with trendy twenty-somethings. You could nudge it one way or another, trying to increase its appeal. Did some girl just-moved out on her own aspire to a Carrie-Bradshaw style existence, sipping cosmos and laughing with her girls? Swap the cosmos for a martini and the D&G shoes for an Armani suit, can we see the corporate lawyer slipping our phone in his pocket? Does that same phone seem equally well at ease in the pseudo-vintage shoulder bag of a turtleneck-clad indie kid, and can he pull it out without selling out when he’s at the coffee shop? Can he hold a venti in one hand, and in the other--no, the same hand, grasp our mobile messenger between his fingers like the new technocrati cigarette? A few tweaks to “meeting for lunch?”, and the answer to all of these is “yes.” “meeting for lunch?” was great. Sometimes we had to go after moms. “PTA meeting” worked well, and, surprisingly, even the almost too-clichéd “snacks after soccer game?”--or at any rate, the guys who hired me seemed to think it was a good idea. Early on we learned to avoid romance; never if you can help it use a subject line like, “thinking of you…” or “missed you today” or “Happy Anniversary!” These things smacked too much of spam; there were only a step away from notices of three new crushes or links to hot Asian teens. But we--I and the other subject-line writers--oh, yes, there’s a whole industry--did learn a few things from the spammers. One was to try to pique curiosity--or rather, to suggest that their curiosity would be piqued, well and frequently, if they bought our gizmo. Hence a lot of question marks, a lot of tentativeness, a lot of requests for confirmation of time or place or presentation topic. Orthography mattered too. Of course there were a lot more abbreviations in ads for teens--but not too many, not enough to make them feel as if they were being parodied, or like we were sucking up to them. The formula I finally settled on was to use only one or two abbreviations that were outright inventions of the 12-18 crowd (basic, businesslike abbreviations like FIY and ASAP didn’t count toward my quota). The key was to make those one or two really count, using bleeding edge terms that had barely made it to the internet forums, let alone the text messages sent by middle-schoolers. No lols. Not even an LMAO, and especially no rofls. L8r was off limits from about 2001 on. Same for almost any alpha-numeric combination. Instead, I would use IIRC, YMMV, things like that, things that established an easy sense of confidentiality between me and the shopper. Quirkiness counted--double ampersands and atypical spellings, even spellings that had never made it into the youth culture--spellings that I made up. Such things spoke of inside jokes and idiosyncratic friendships, the amorphous social structures of The Connected in the new century. It was hard keeping ahead of the game. Some acronyms had more staying power than others, and some were dealt quick deaths--that one carrier pretty much ruined BFF indefinitely for the rest of us. Even time stamps mattered. You had to use times that looked spontaneous, times that emphasized the fact that they could be sent at any moment. Odd numbers worked well. Primes were better. 37 after. 1:29. 3:57. Some times were more euphonious than others, to the ear and the eye. Who wants to get mail at 11:12? Not me. Or at any rate, I don’t think anyone else would. And the times had to go with the topics. “dinner tonight” wouldn’t be sent at 5:37--in time to make last-minute arrangements for a normal dinner. “dinner tonight” would arrive in your inbox at 7:32, because the event itself would have to be a full hour later--a time suggesting sophistication, a certain European quality, late nights and soft whispers and wine, a view of the bay and French cuff links. “hit the park?” was 7:32 on a Saturday, something you would see first thing upon waking up--because you would look at our device first thing, it would be as normal as reaching for your glasses--at a time full of possibility, when you were rested but ready to seize the day with urgency and gusto. “meeting tomorrow” could go all the way to 11 at night, or even past 12, but it was best not to press it and risk confusing our potential customers about A.M. and P.M. The important thing was to reinforce the idea that an important memo could come in after you had already shut down your computer. No road warrior feels like booting up the laptop once more before dropping off to sleep, but what about a check-in with your Blackberry? Of course you could. Probably nothing there, but worth it, for the five seconds it takes to check, right? I always wanted to be a writer.