Friday, November 28, 2008

thanksgiving, then and now

Eight years ago was my first Thanksgiving on my own, cooking the meal without a mom or anyone mom-like in charge. I was living with my friends Heidi and Tim the Lawyer (not yet a lawyer) in a cockroach-infested duplex in an entirely Spanish-speaking Van Nuys neighborhood, but Heidi and Tim were both with family for the holiday. My college friends Laurie and Matty were visiting from San Jose, and my friend Ben and his roommate were coming over. I was also cat-sitting a kitten named Miss Moneypenny for a friend from work.

I didn't want to get up early so I don't think we started cooking anything until mid-morning, and then I remember sending Matty to the store to pick up various items several different times. We didn't even remotely have the hang of timing the food so everything comes out at once, and I think we just kind of made one thing at a time. When I got to the turkey, which we had stuffed full of dressing, I had it on one of those tinfoil bans you get at the grocery store, and I kept pulling it out to check on it, because I didn't know what I was doing.

All that pulling out and pushing in eventually ripped a hole in the bottom of the foil pan, which I decided to ignore. Turkey juice and butter from the stuffing (as I recall, we accidentally put twice the called-for amount of butter in the stuffing, so it came out kind of like stuffing butter stew) ran out the hole in the pan and collected on the bottom of the oven. Where it caught fire.

I don't know how long it took for us to realize the oven was on fire, but when we did flames were licking the inside of the glass door. I didn't know what you do about an oven fire, so I called the fire department. They told me to shut off the oven and keep the door closed, and they would send a truck. I said, "Don't send a truck, I just wanted to know what to do." The woman said, "Ma'am, if you have a fire, we have to send a truck." I said, "Um, I don't have a fire. I just wanted to know what one would do if the oven caught on fire... hypothetically." She said, "Ma'am" (people only ever say Ma'am when they're annoyed) "Ma'am, if you call the fire department we have to send a truck." I said, "Tell them not to put on the siren." She said okay.

So they sent a fire truck (without the siren,) and three firemen in full gear trooped into the living room to check the oven fire, which by then had gone out. They said this was the sixth oven fire call they had been on that day. As they left, Miss Moneypenny ran out the door through their legs.

So Laurie and Matty and I spent some time looking for Miss Moneypenny in the neighborhood. We finally found her hiding under a car, came back in, and resumed cooking one thing at a time.

Eventually Ben and Aaron came over. We finally ate at midnight, sitting on the floor around the coffeetable. The turkey was slightly singed but overall pretty good.

This year went much more smoothly, probably because I wasn't in charge of anything except the sweet potatoes, which I volunteered to make, because sometimes I go to Thanksgiving meals various places, and they don't have sweet potatoes, and I just feel like, what are we even doing then?

I was going to go to the store to get ingredients (based on a recipe from my friend Brie's mom*,) but I couldn't find a parking space at noon on Wednesday, so I decided to come back at midnight, when I figured it would be less crowded. And it was less crowded, but it was also set up like an obstacle course:

And this was the line at 12:15:

I got everything I needed. The next day I tried to make them at home but realized I really should have gotten more sweet potatoes, so I gathered my stuff, picked up my faux-boyfriend Cubby (as he is now called to distinguish him from the myriad of Joshes in my life,) and set out for Heidi and Josh's loft downtown, bearing wine:

which Heidi and her mom taught Cubby how to open:

My workstation:

Josh carving the turkey:

Heidi's mom making the gravy:

My sweet, sweet potatoes! You want to eat them, don't you:

Our lovely hostess:

presiding over her lovely table:


Jeremy actually ate all of this:

After the delicious meal, we sprawled out on the floor and watched a bunch of shorts that Heidi and Cubby and I made our senior year of college at LAFSC. If they weren't on VHS, I would post some of them to show you, especially Josh-in-a-Box (brilliantly directed by Tim the Lawyer,) which is an experience that should not be missed if it can be helped. Heidi's on the SAG nominating committee, so she had a bunch of DVDs, from which we chose Wendy and Lucy, which reviews called "quaint yet gut-wrenching" but which was actually "boring yet really boring." In that way it was kind of the perfect post-turkey movie. Cubby slept through most of it. I kept drifting off, but then waking up because I thought something was happening in the plot. It wasn't.

Hero was into the scenes at the dog pound:

After the movie, we all went on a field trip to see the lights on the street:

And then we had pie. And then we left, and I dropped Cubby off. And then I drove back to my apartment, where I crawled into my bed, still wearing my clothes, and fell asleep.
*Mrs. VC's Sweet Potato Mallow

2 big cans cut sweet potatoes
1 cup sour cream
2 egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup miniature marshmallows or cut up large marshmallows
brown sugar to taste

Heat oven to 350 degrees F.

Heat yams with a bit of salt, drain off the water, then mash the warm potatoes.

Beat in sour cream.

Beat in egg yolks quickly.

Mix in brown sugar, beginning with half a cup and adding more if desired.

Pour mixture into buttered 2-liter casserole dish, top with marshmallows.

Bake 30 minutes or until marshmallows are puffed and golden brown.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Next time you have 23 minutes free while sitting at a computer with speakers, please take a listen (free!) to at least the first part of my favorite episode of This American Life ever. (And if you know how much I'm in love with This American Life, you know that's saying something.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

caplearing and other useful screenwriting terms

When working with a writing partner or on a writing team, it can be useful to have a shorthand for describing certain types of jokes or plot situations. I've seen a couple of lists lately that cover comedy writing or TV writing jargon, but since the last two things I've written with a partner have been thriller features, I'm more interested in jargon that serves as shorthand for dramatic situations.

One you may have heard of is the term "MacGuffin," which is the thingamajig in a movie that advances the plot or motivates the characters, without itself being important to the story. The term was described by Alfred Hitchcock in an interview:
"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a MacGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no MacGuffin!' So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all."
Most James Bond movies have a MacGuffin. I would use an example from The Quantum of Solace, except I'm not sure I followed that movie well enough to know what the MacGuffin was. Maybe it was the quantum, maybe it was the solace. You know it's a real MacGuffin if you could switch out the Thing that Everyone Wants and make it a different Thing that Everyone Wants, and it could still be basically the exact same movie.

Tim the Lawyer and I have developed a few of our own terms that serve as shorthand for us. For your reading pleasure, a brief glossary:

Red Rum Clue: Taken, of course, from the movie The Shining, where the boy Danny keeps saying, "red rum," which later is revealed to be "murder" backwards. We use it to mean a clue that seems to mean one thing but actually means another.

Boo Scare: Fairly self-explanatory, this is when you put in cheap scares that aren't really scary at all, like a cat that jumps out at the hero when he's creeping down a dark hallway.

Smart Audience Member: The Smart Audience Member is the one who's trying to stay ahead of you in the story. The Smart Audience Member knows things like Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters, which states that, "Movie budgets make it impossible for any film to contain unnecessary characters. Therefore, all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie's plot: This 'mystery' person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous."

In order to attempt to stay ahead of this problem, our theory is you keep the audience busy by giving the Regular Audience Member one set of clues, then lay in a second, more subtle set of clues for the Smart Audience Member, when really the solution to the mystery lies in a third set of clues.

Recently, Tim the Lawyer came up with a brand new, useful term. It happened because I foolishly let him write the outline we were creating on the dry erase board, even though his printing is sometimes terrible.

Days later, we were planning to meet at our friendly downtown IHOP for a quick between-lawyer-meetings outlining lunch. Before I left home I tried to transfer Tim's dry erase board outline into my notebook. I was struggling to make out his writing, but it was coming along pretty well when I hit the point halfway between the end of Act One and the Midpoint. It said this:

Try as I might, the best I could come up with was "Caplearing." So I wrote that down and brought it to IHOP. Tim and I stared at it, but we couldn't figure out what he had written, or even what the plot point was that was supposed to go there.

And so a new screenwriting term was born.

Caplearing: When you have a spot where a plot point needs to go, but you don't know what the plot point is. And you can't read your partner's handwriting to tell you.

Monday, November 3, 2008


If you've ever asked me anything about my past more distant than a few years ago, you probably know that I have a terrible long-term memory. Maybe it's because I don't focus on the past, maybe it's because I'm blocking things out, maybe it's because I was a kid in the eighties.

Whatever the reason, I've come up with a few cheats to deal with this, one of which is to keep tons of random stuff in a cedar chest that my dad made for me when I was twelve. They're mementos, literally helping me to remember my life. If you've ever handwritten me a letter, I probably have it, along with the little wallet sized photo you gave me in grade school with a note like "LYLAS!" written on the back. I have the first teddy bear I was given by the first boy I ever kissed, complete with the GI Joe Ninja Force box it was wrapped in. I have a report on the Soviet Union I did in the sixth grade in Mrs. Wendell's class, which my mom stayed up until six a.m. helping me type on my typewriter. The cover has gold glitter on it, (naturally):

I have a detention slip from high school:

It's for tardiness, what a shocker, and, as my mom pointed out, it was supposed to be signed and returned, and was neither. We used to have to clean the school as detention, and I got detention all the time. In 9th grade I had a crush on Adam Curry, who used to stay after school and talk to me while I swept classrooms, so it was fine with me. And Mr. Hill, the janitor, told us stories about Vietnam and taught me how to drive stick in his pickup. (No, I don't remember how to drive stick.)

I have the piece of fake sweater I had to knit on stage when I played Reba in Last Night of Ballyhoo in college:

It's terrible knitting, as you can see. I got my grandma to teach me but I didn't pick it up very well, so I had to hold it carefully on stage so you couldn't see the holes in it.

I have the flyer I used to have pinned to the bulletin board in my office:

(It's funny 'cause it's true.)

Recently the cedar chest has become completely full, so since I would like to remember a few things from 2008 onwards, I had to get rid of some stuff. But going through it and throwing some of it away felt like deciding what I would no longer need to remember.

So I needed to come up with another way to remember things. Writing a blog is part of that. I figure if I exhaustively detail, for example, the night I missed the train to Florence and stayed up all night outside Termini Station with Heidi, Brie, and two ex-soldiers online, I won't be able to forget it.

But I also think part of it really is learning how to pay attention. One night when I was a kid, I was playing by a creek in the woods near my house, and I looked up and saw that the air was full of fireflies. In the darkness of the trees, it looked like the branches were hung with stars. I held my breath and thought, "Remember this." And, about twenty years later, I do.

What if I did that all the time? Chose moments to keep? My mom's been visiting this week. A few days ago, we went out to eat with my aunt, uncle, and grandmother. When we were leaving the restaurant, my grandma was sitting in the front seat of my uncle's car, and before I got in, I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. It was a silly kiss, a "mwah!" kind of smooch. And she looked over at me and smiled, and said, "Thank you." Twenty years from now I would like to be able to still see her smile, hear her voice, smell the rain lingering in the air that day. Maybe I can keep a thousand of these moments, mental souvenirs, just by stopping for a few seconds to really pay attention, and reminding myself: "Remember this."