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I’ve been meaning to write about my recent trip to China, but one of the other guys on the delegation has taken the words out of my mouth. Check out Allan Xia’s first blog entry on his China trip…

http://www.allanxia.com/blog/2015/01/04/journey-to-china-pt-1/

…and I’ll write up my thoughts a bit later…

Here’s a riddle for you:

What happens when you take a driven and somewhat-obsessive woman and indoctrinate her over five years in one of the toughest academic programmes in the world that she can never slow down or she’ll wash out, and then…

…you give her a few days off?

The answer, my friends, is this:

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I didn’t frame these as well as I should have, because I don’t think they convey the grandeur of effort here. She’s basically ripped half the hillside away, with her bare hands and some office scissors.

We gotta keep this girl occupied…

After busting her butt for nearly 16 years (counting all the pre-qualification work to get into vet school in the first place), Cece has finally earned the right to practice veterinary medicine in New Zealand.

The Veterinary Council of New Zealand has sent a simple document, suitable for framing, that says as much.

Twice.

And they may have to send a third one. This is because Murphy (he of the Law) keeps messing with the documents.

The first time, it got left out in the rain and got water damaged…

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…and so Cece asked the VCNZ to kindly send another one.

Which they kindly did.
And they kindly put “Do Not Bend” on the envelope.
And our postal carrier kindly chose to be an iconoclastic rebel and prove the VCNZ ain’t the boss of him.

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Luckily, we might be able to salvage the current one with a towel and a medium-hot iron, so hopefully we won’t have to give the VCNZ any reason to believe we’re selling these documents to the highest bidder.

Not this time, Mr. Murphy!

DSC0440216 years ago we adopted a kitten from the SPCA in North Hollywood. She was old for a rescue kitten, having lived in the wild for several weeks before being found and taken in. Because of this, she was ‘semi-feral’ when we brought her home.

We decided to call her Mab, after the queen of the fairies talked about by Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet. Throughout her life  we’d call her Mab, Mabby, Queen Mab, Mabita, Mabikins, Scaredy Cat, and the Princess with the Peach Toe.

As soon as we opened her carrier at our house, she ran under the bed. We thought she had had a rough few days, and figured we’d let her come out and introduce herself to us when she realized we weren’t going to eat her.

12 years later, she still thought we were going to eat her. She spent most of her time under the couch or under the bed (at least when we were home), and would scramble away when we got too close.  She loved to snuggle with our big dumb tabby, Mojo, but thought we were ogres.

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(Sometime in that first 12 years we had a shaman for a neighbor. He thought she had lost some part of her soul when she was feral, and that’s why she was scared all the time.)

Four years ago we moved to New Zealand. Cece was part of a 6-month competitive class at vet school, so we didn’t want to bring the cats over if we didn’t make it through. So Mab, Mojo, and Gordito went to live with Cece’s sister and bro-in-law Dana & Steve for that six months.

Once Cece was accepted into the full vet school, it took us three months to arrange to fly them over and put them through quarantine.

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I’m not sure what happened throughout that time, but after a few weeks of normal under-bed behavior, Mab seemed to find her courage in New Zealand. At first she’d only come snuggle with us when we were flat on our backs in bed, and would scramble away as soon as we sat up.  But soon she’d hop up on the couch with us, and would allow us to pet her when she was in her cat tree by the window.

Maybe the shaman was right. Maybe she had lost part of her soul, and it somehow returned to her in New Zealand.

In any case, if Mab has a soul — broken or otherwise — it has now left her body.  Three months ago we learned that she was in renal failure. We put her on special food to slow her decline, but we knew the end was near.  Over the last few weeks she has been quickly losing weight and getting painful urinary tract infections because her kidneys weren’t concentrating her urine enough to kill any germs in her plumbing. In the last few days she had started staggering and yowling. Cece got a dose of painkillers, hoping it was a temporary pain, but she kept getting worse. When she was doped up she’d sit on our laps and purr, but we couldn’t keep her stoned forever.

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Yesterday was a public holiday, and the vet clinics were all closed. So we made an appointment for 8:30 this morning to let her go. None of us got much sleep last night.

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This morning we gave her the last dose of painkillers and sat with her for an hour, waiting for the appointment time to come. She sat quietly, breathing slowly and occasionally purring. She didn’t know why we were crying.

When we got to the clinic, they quickly put us in a private room so we could have a few minutes with her.  The vet (another graduate of Massey, where Cece is going) was kind and gentle with us. She put a catheter into Mab’s vein, asked if we wanted to continue, and slowly injected her with a cocktail that would gently make her unconscious and then stop her heart.

It only took a few seconds. She didn’t try to fight it. And now she’s gone.

I was sick all yesterday and have a hell of a lot of work to do today, but I’m having trouble concentrating. My thoughts keep turning to our scaredy cat, our princess with the peach toe. Our Mab.

She wouldn’t have the kind of existential questions that plague humans at times like these. In that I kind of envy her.

I don’t know if there’s a Heaven for cats. I kind of doubt it.  But I do know that I miss her and some part of me hopes that some part of her continues to exist.

Goodbye Mab. My lap will be colder without you.

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I’ve traveled Auckward for a meeting of the Premiere Shorts executive producers. It’s warmer here than in Palmerston North, but even more susceptible to island weather. If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change.

But the combination of rain and sun does have its upside.

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I had a quick meeting in a cafe this morning and got to meet a shopcat who would make Beautiful Wife squee with joy.

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I was a chubby kid with a smart mouth and poor social skills, so it will come as no surprise that I got my ass kicked a fair amount when I was young.  In my teens my folks kindly paid for me to start going to martial arts classes, and for almost ten years I worked out in a bunch of different fighting styles.  I was never a badass, but it was a lot more fun than jogging or lifting weights or whatever other exercises are done by normal people who don’t enjoy getting kicked in the face.

After I graduated from USC I went to live with my cousin Jim in Pomona, and was a student at a Kung Fu San Soo school there.  The sifu was a fun guy, also a black belt in judo. We were all interested in the then-fledgling world of Mixed Martial Arts, so we used to have no-holds-barred fights with minimal padding.

One day I was on the receiving end of a perfect tomonage that drove me into the ground and popped the three ligaments that hold my left collar bone into my shoulder. That was the last time I went to fight class.

That was 16 years ago.

16 years of sitting on my ass in front of a computer for 70 hours a week. Every year I would think about getting back into it, and every year there was some valid reason not to. I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the time; I couldn’t find a class that was for real fighters but wasn’t full of douchebags with testosterone poisoning.

I still don’t have the money or the time, but in the last couple of weeks I decided that if I don’t start again I never will. So I went to The Fight Shop here in Palmerston North, which looked like the kind of place I would enjoy.  They train a lot of different styles (Thai boxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, Karate, Greco-Roman & freestyle wrestling, and MMA), which means they see the value of adopting techniques from wherever you find them, rather than the schools that only teach one style and often have a purist’s attitude about protecting the form from outside influences.

I was nervous about going back because of the high probably of douchebaggery. Lots of dudes get into fighting because they want to be alpha-dog badasses, and it’s natural to have a certain level of macho posturing in any group of guys who are doing guy stuff. But to me that chest-puffing is kinda dull – I used to go to fight class because I enjoyed it and I liked hanging out and telling jokes with the guys, not because I wanted to prove that my dick is bigger than theirs*. So I was hoping that the class wouldn’t be full of meatheads in Ed Hardy shirts.

So it was with hope and fear that I walked in for my first workout in a decade and a half.

I lasted 38 minutes – THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES – before I had to run outside and vomit in the bushes. I then collapsed on the concrete path and tried my very best not to die. And that was just the warm up before the fighting started.

But here’s the thing – they were cool about it. No one laughed and pointed. I got some ribbing, which is expected among dudes, but I also got honest concern about my well-being and an open welcome to come back and try again. No douchebaggery, no posturing, just good humor and encouragement.

So I went back, and lasted an hour. And almost didn’t pass out that time.

And I went back again, and while I was a wreck by the end I was starting to remember why I liked punching and kicking stuff.

So now I think I have a hobby again. And I’m starting to carry the black-and-blue badges of someone who kicks people in the face for fun.

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* Which it is.

Yesterday was Cinco de Mayo in New Zealand. Or as they call it, “What did you just call me?”

I’ve talked before about NZ’s tragic lack of Mexicans (and their yummy yummy food), but for Cinco de Mayo we felt obligated to go to Palmerston North’s one and only “Mexican” restaurant, El Gusto.

We’ve been there a couple of times before, and each time had a less than optimal experience. They’ve definitely improved since the bad old days of making everyone wait two hours to get served food that gave them diarrhea, but they’d easily lose in a competition against, say, Taco Bell With Waiters And Tequila.

(Which is a hell of a business idea. Someone work on that.)

But at least they’re trying. For example, they teach their customers how to speak Spanish with a Kiwi accent:

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If you said “Or-La!” to a Mexican, they’d just look at you funny. And then offer to mow your lawn.

The food was pretty good this time around, though they still use Feta instead of Monterey Jack or Queso Fresca, but I think that’s because most cheeses here cost $987029834750987.42 per ounce.

The high point of the night was when Cece got to compete in a blindfolded taco-making contest.

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That’s Cece on the left. The Head Chef comes from a Mexican family but was born in Chile, and somehow made it to NZ. I’m sure there’s a story there…

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The Most Interesting Man In The World: “I don’t always make tacos, but when I do I make them blindfolded.”

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This dude had his game face on.

Cece was the last to compete, but but then I was too drunk to aim the camera. But she was awesome.

As any freelancer in any industry will tell you, we don’t tend to get days off.  If you have enough time for a day off, that means you should be out there trying to find more work.

On the other hand, as a freelancer in the entertainment business, sometimes a day of work looks an awful lot like a day off.

Like, for example, today:

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I’d already seen one of these at a cast-and-crew-and-friends screening, but I wanted to pay for a ticket to support the filmmakers. Another was for research on a project I’m consulting on, and the third was because I’m secretly a geek fanboy. See if you can guess which is which.

And the great thing is, those are all tax-deductible as professional research.

I love my job.

Last weekend the NZ Writers Guild invited me up to Auckland to help teach a seminar on writing 5-page treatments.  The NZ Film Commission is awash with far too many applicants for the size of their development team, so instead of reading full screenplays for initial funding decisions, they want to see 5-page treatments first so they can quickly wade through the stories that don’t work on a big-picture level.

The trouble is, treatments are almost never effective. If you focus on plot, the reader will think the characters are thin. If you focus on character, the reader will think the plot is weak. If you focus on theme, the reader will think you’re a navel-gazing arty farty type. It’s a lose/lose/lose situation.

But with that understood, there are ways to write 5-pagers that are more likely to be effective than someone else’s 5-pager. So that’s what we talked about this weekend (and will talk about again next weekend in Dunedin and two weekends after that in Wellington).

Steven Gannaway, the Exec Director of the Writers Guild, opened with an hour about answering the most common question he gets every week – “I’ve finished a screenplay. Now what do I do?” He prepared a checklist that covers a multi-step process, a few of which involve alcohol. I wish I had received a copy of that checklist far earlier in my career.

"I shouldn't be more invested in your career than you are."

Then I got two hours to talk about treatments in big-picture terms – how they’re structured, why they exist in the first place, and most importantly … why most writers misunderstand what they’re supposed to accomplish. A sales treatment (as opposed to a working document) isn’t really about whether a story works or not; it’s actually about whether the writer is worth supporting. The text of the treatment is about the writing, but the far more important subtext is about the writer. Is she smart? Confident? Professional? Does she have good taste? Can she evoke emotions? Can she make me expect one thing and then deliver something surprising and cooler than what I expected?

I used four sample treatments – three written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and included  with a good article on treatments by Terry at his website Wordplay, and a a 5-pager for MR & MRS SMITH written by Simon Kinberg. I don’t recall where I got the Kinberg treatment, but it’s like the Platonic Ideal of a 5-pager for a character-based action movie.

Then, lunch. Mmmmm… lunch…

Then it was Kathryn Burnett’s turn. Where I had been talking about the forest, Kathryn talked about the trees. How to write active sentences, how to use the power of language to your advantage, how to engage the reader and force him to keep reading even though he is tired and hungry and has already read 42 other treatments that day.

"Why is 'A languid, honey-skinned brunette slides onto the barstool at his side' better than 'A pretty, slightly tanned brunette sits next to him'?"

Then we did about an hour of Q&A with all three of us. Everyone seemed to get something out of the day, and I got to see a few friends I hadn’t seen for a while.

And then our reward:

Yes, there are people in New Zealand who know how to make good cocktails. It's just that none of them are in Palmerston North.

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