Goodbye Astoria

The last of the Astoria move-out was completed on Saturday. Now all I need to do is send my keys to my landlord and get ripped off for my entire security deposit. Saturday’s work involved a last trip to the Neptune Diner, and then about three or four hours of clearing out every remaining item in the place. I had some grand scheme of donating things to some charity, selling stuff off on craigslist, listing stuff on freecycle, or whatever else. But when it came down to it, I simply couldn’t deal with waiting on other people and whatever else, so it all went to the curb or in the garbage cans. And as quickly as we could put stuff out there, it vanished. It was like christmas for some poor bastards that hauled that stuff out of there.

The worst of the last stuff were the loveseat and single chair that I bought back in 2000. Because of the weird s-curve layout of my front door, it was like a very bad 3-D tetris game trying to get the couch out of there. It was too wide and too deep, and the depth of the curve made it impossible to take it out long-ways at an angle. I can’t even really describe it, but it was a horror to get that thing out. After clearing everything, we did a real quick sweep of the place with broom and swifter, just to get the big chunks up. Like I said, the landlord’s going to fuck me on the deposit anyway, so there’s no reason for me to get out a toothbrush and go OCD on the place.

As we left, it hit me that I’d never see the place again, and despite all of the horrific problems with it, I’m sort of sad to see it go. I lived in the place for six years, which is longer than I’ve ever lived in any place since my parents’ house. A lot’s gone on there. Every book I’ve published was cranked out while I lived there. (Some of them were started before then, but the ISBNs hit the jackets while I was living in Astoria.) I crossed the millenium there. It was a good run, I guess. I didn’t like the place as much as, say, the 600 7th Ave place in Seattle, but I’m glad to move on, but shit, that’s a sixth of my life. Leaving didn’t blow me away as much as it did to leave the Mitchell Street House in ’93, or leaving Seattle in ’99, but still. End of an era.

We had a good Thanksgiving, too. We went up to Guy and Scott’s, Sarah’s friends, up in upstate New York again. Sarah went up on Tuesday night to help with the shopping and the preparation, and I worked on Wednesday and then took the bus up. The Port Authority looked like some kind of apocalypse disaster movie on Wednesday afternoon, but once I got on a bus and headed north, it wasn’t a bad run. I think I made it to Rosendale in under two hours, door to door, and was greeted at the bus stop by Guy and Sarah, who then took us to a shopping center where we got Chinese and pizza from two different places, and I headed into a Dunkin’ Donuts for a dozen of those, just in case.

Guy and Scott’s friend Beth was there with her two-and-a-half year old son Ian and her dog Gus. Guy already started the dinner preparation, and we all ate and hung out that night, knowing the oven would get fired up in the morning for the big bird. We crashed somewhat early, and in the morning woke to find a couple of inches of fresh powder covering everything outside. Given that this is in the middle of nowhere, it meant there was virgin white snow all over everything. When you live in the city, where snow is immediately smooshed by busses and trucks and turned horrid colors of black and grey by pollution, you really appreciate the pure white of a real snowfall. Gus, a collie/alaskan husky mix, enjoyed it too. He spent a lot of the day outside, running through the drifts, trying to chase the wild turkeys and deer that cross through the yard. He was so happy, he would roll around on his back in the snow and jump around like a kid on Christmas morning.

Guy’s dinner was perfect. I’d put Guy up against anybody’s pefect grandmother’s cooking dinners anyday. He’s totally into cooking way too much food and making all of it great, so you don’t want to get in his way when he’s cooking, but you totally want to be there for the product. Guy’s pre-dinner dinner is better than most dinners, and it’s just a long onslaught of food. It’s like the iron man triathalon of food. I had to pace myself and quit early, before the handmade pies happened. We stayed Thursday night again, and then I had bacon and eggs before Beth drove us back to the city. We got back before 2:00, which meant we had the rest of Friday plus the whole weekend to chill out and do nothing, which we did.

I should throw out a few book reviews for good measure, since I’ve been reading a lot. First, Andrew Smith’s Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth. I’ve been reading a lot of space stuff lately, but this really put a new twist on things, by trying to catch up with the nine remaining Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon. Smith chases after the elusive lunar explorers, trying to bring out more than just the stock NASA facts, but to really determine what happened to these men who had the great apex of their life happen at a young age, and then had the entire country’s interest in space exploration collapse after the moon walks. Some guys are still trying to champion space missions, like Buzz Aldrin, while others turned to religion, philosophy, art, or private industry ranging from beer bottling to football team management. Many divorced and had family problems, many felt betrayed by their country for dropping the ball on the space program. Overall, the backstory is excellent and a great page-turner.

An impulse purchase I greatly enjoyed was Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains. Posey, a former Grand Prix race car driver and long-time race commentator, also spends a lot of time playing with HO trains down in his basement, something that goes back to his childhood and a Lionel train set around the Christmas tree. The first half of the book goes through the fifteen-year saga of Posey restarting his hobby as an adult when he has a baby boy, going through the construction of a massive layout in his basement. During the steps of this journal, we learn a bit about the industry behind the hobby, and the various steps you need to go from a little loop of track to a full-blown system. In the second part, he gets his journalistic background fired up and starts to go out and meet the other people with his obsession, as well as the major suppliers and magazines covering the hobby. He also goes out and tries a 1:1 scale steam locomotive, and makes a few field trips to the crumbling remains of the once-mighty rail system in this country. While I never re-started the hobby (no basement, no attention span), I had the Tyco starter set and a bunch of Life-Like buildings nailed to a piece of plywood when I was a kid, and always dreamed of a giant 1:87 reproduction of some Santa Fe freight line rumbling through a scale city. The book reminded me of all of that, and I’m sure if I did have a basement, I’d be down there right now with $700 of new HO-scale equipment.

Another great one was Michael Harris – The Atomic Times: My H-Bomb Year at the Pacific Proving Ground. Harris was drafted back in the fifties, and spent a year of his two-year commitment at the Eniwetok Atoll. He was there in 1955 for Operation: Redwing, a series of some of the biggest H-bomb explosions ever. He spent the first part of his stay editing The Atomic Times, a little mimeo base newspaper, which reminded me a bit of John Sheppard’s stories of Army journalism. He later spent time typing requisition forms and destroying carbons for top-secret shipments of nuts and bolts. On the day of the tests, with no morning, the enlisted would get pulled out of bed and ordered to stand at attention, facing away from the blast, while 20 megatons of test-device vaporized islands and ocean water. Much of his story deals with being stuck on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere (a lot like Lost, but no hot chicks) and dealing with the stupidity and pranks of various draftee-quality Army privates removed from their small towns for the first time. A minor caveat on this one is that Harris tends to be a little choppy and informal in his writing, and loves to use incomplete sentences. But the subject matter is great, and it’s a unique look at the history behind the H-bomb.

I also bought the new Vonnegut book, A Man Without A Country. Vonnegut said he’d stop after his last one, Timequake, but he came back to cash in a bit with a thin little volume of retread material. If you’ve seen Vonnegut speak in the last 10 or 15 years, take that stock speech and add in a bit of whining about George Bush, and there you go. Vonnegut’s always been a favorite writer to me, and I love all of his novels and books, but there wasn’t much to this collection except maybe a sly way to get the Air America crowd to rush out and buy it and say “best book ever!” because he compares Bush to Hitler. There’s a really funny example (or 40) of this on the Amazon reviews for the books; all of these people’s reviews are like “Hi, I’m 23 and a college graduate and I’ve never heard of Kurt Vonnegut, but I saw him on the Daily Show, which I think is a real news program, and rushed out to buy his book.” It’s also somewhat sad to see that Vonnegut has been preaching this “the world is ending tomorrow” luddite viewpoint, but he’s been doing it for 40 years now, and the world hasn’t ended. Oh well. Three out of four ain’t bad.

This entry is far too long. Sorry.

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Amsterdam

I’m back from Amsterdam, and we had a good time there. Part of me wants to write a big trip report, but part of me wants to do a rm -rf ~/www/journal on a fairly constant basis, (and that might be coming soon), so no report. The basic synopsis is that the jetlag really fucked me, I got a bad cold and was not able to buy any medicine to get better, but we still got a lot in, and the trip was more than worth it. Pictures are posted, but I’m too lazy to add a link, so figure it out.

Although I’ve been to most of the 50 states, and I’ve been to Canada a half-dozen times, I’ve never left the country otherwise, so this was a cool trip. Ever since the first time I went to Canada in high school, bought a Coke can from a machine, and felt the slight difference, I have been fascinated by finding out the differences in places based on their consumer goods. I don’t land in Utah and seek out the Mormon people or find out why it’s called the Beehive state; I immediately find out if they have a Denny’s, an IHOP, a 7-Eleven, or where people go to buy their records. I enjoy travel to states that are test markets for new soft drinks, or that have odd hamburger chains I can’t find anywhere else. I know I should care more about the history or culture or climate or something else, but seriously, fuck that. I want to know about the things I consume, that I use.

In that sense, The Netherlands were very interesting, because EVERYTHING was different. Okay, this wasn’t like going to some third-world former Soviet shithole where people drink chlorinated rainwater and eat gamey horsemeat on important holidays. The Dutch speak English and enjoy many of the same foods as Americans. But the differences I look for were there in spades: .33L bottles of Coke; Fanta everywhere; bottled water in those plastic-impregnated cardboard boxes like soy milk; automats; coin-op bathrooms that were cleaner than hospital operating rooms; weird soaps; weird cell phones; weird cars. Everything was interesting. I wanted to buy one of everything just to open it, taste it, smell it, and decide if it was better or worse than what I’d become used to over the last 34 years. Even the money was weird; it took some time to get used to having a fistful of coins that was worth like forty bucks.

Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. I read that before I left, but I was very surprised at how well most people did. And I’m not talking “your total is ten Euros” sort of proficiency; I mean, I had conversations with people who spoke such unbroken English that I could have sworn they grew up back in the states. The bad news is that everything is in Dutch, with occasional English subtitles. Shopping in a grocery store was a little difficult; I almost walked out with a large bottle of drinking water that was in reality vinegar. The most odd aspect of the whole English-Dutch thing was the number of times a cashier started talking to me in Dutch instead of English. You’d think I would have a giant “American” sign above me, but I guess not.

I mentioned elsewhere that things were completely politically neutral, which was nice. I was at the very least expecting a huge fuck-george-bush display in a city square, or some hippies hassling the American tourists over their fascist leader. But nobody said shit, and furthermore, there was no real display of political strife or issue locally. I was very pleased to find a place to go where I didn’t have to hear someone drone on and on about it.

I think my favorite thing was the botanical garden, which had three different big greenhouse climates with different temperatures and humidities, plus some smaller rooms and a lot of excellent landscaping and scenery. It was maybe in the fifties when we were there, but one of the big rooms was a jungle climate and so humid that my glasses and camera fogged over. They had some huge trees in there, and of course, this immediately made me wish I had a similar setup out on my Colorado land.

Anyway, that’s the basic story. Now I have to get over this cold, and start on my next project, which is learning Apple Pages, the new word processor/page layout program that’s part of iWork. It’s basically an Apple version of something like Adobe InDesign, and I think it might enable me to drop FrameMaker when I design my next book. I have only played with it for a few minutes, but it’s very fun.

But first, the evening’s Nyquil…

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Bukowski bios, Vinyl Junkies, Cyborg

I’ve been trying to read a little more lately; I don’t have that long train commute anymore, which is where I got most of my reading done. But I’ve been sick, it’s getting cold outside, and I’ve almost completely given up on TV lately, so I’m starting to get in the swing of things a bit.

First of all, I read the Barry Miles bio on Bukowski, simply called Charles Bukowski. I didn’t entirely like it. I don’t know if this is supposed to be the “official” bio, but it’s advertised as being one of those “total access with the family and friends” sort of books, and it’s anything but. To be fair, pretty much everyone who was friends or lovers with Bukowski for more than ten minutes has put out a book, and most of those are fairly bad. They suffer from the problem where the person only knew one facet of the guy, and they missed most of the story. Then you have the problem where the “official” bio is only going to mention the family’s opinions, thereby not giving the real story. (For the best example of this, take a look at Jack Kerouac’s various biographies, which have generated lawsuits, infighting, and a total blanket on all information from his family, who want to forever silence any voices that may paint their little boy as anything but sqeaky-clean and wholesome, which he totally wasn’t.)

In my opinion, the best Bukowski bio out there is Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes. The Miles book pretty much just tells the story of Bukowski’s life from his books, with very brief corrections and asides, but not a lot of research or dissent. If you’ve read all of the Bukowski books, you already know 90% of what is in the Miles book. But Sounes did a hell of a lot of research to find out where Bukowski lived, who he dated, where he worked, and how everything from his finances to his distant relatives fit into the picture. The Miles book has absolutely no photos; the Sounes book has photos of Bukowski that I’ve never seen before. And since the myth and the man are more different than you think, the Sounes book contains a lot more “I never knew that” moments, and made it enjoyable. The Miles book is nothing more than a recap.

As an aside, I really don’t like reading books from UK writers anymore. It’s not that the “tyres” and “petrol” and whatnot bother me (they do), but I really hated how Miles had to interject his criticisms of the US health care system in his biography. If you want to talk shit about how barbaric the American society is, I don’t think you should be writing a book about Bukowski. Anyway.

The other book I finished recently was Vinyl Junkies by Brett Milano. This was a pretty light book (about 240 pages in paperback) that talked about the neuroses of people who totally get locked into a collection habit, specifically the accumulation of those pieces of stamped vinyl that people used for music replication back in the days before the CD. He talks to a lot of people who are habitual in the vinyl way, from R. Crumb to Thurston Moore, and he covers not only the general collector of yesteryear’s hits, but people who are really freaked out in their specific collections, like a lesbian that only collects Olivia Newton John, and one of the most ultimate Monkees collectors ever.

Milano talks about actual physiological and psychological reasons behind collection, which make sense, like that collectors might have a serotonin deficiency that causes them to collect in order to feel happy, which they never will. Given my recent diatribe about Stuff, that hits the mark. I am guessing this might also cover people like the crazy eBay mom (you really need to look at that link) and people who have a thousand cats in their house. You could argue that simply trying to collect every single version of every single Elvis record ever pressed is a little less extreme, but there are some fairly fucked up stories in the book. I think if I paid $4000 for a single, no matter how rare or weird it might be, I’d probably get some kind of serotonin tap added to my water supply, and maybe add a pound of it to every meal from then on.

A lot of the book talked about people always coming back to vinyl, the harshness of the CD, the tactile feel of a record, the look of the jackets, and so on. I guess. I did grow up in the record generation, as I was born about ten years before the CD player, and the first cassette tape system in my parents’ house was the one I got for my 11th (I think) christmas. I have many fond memories of listening to the Haunted Mansion record on our orange box-type phono player, and all of my parents’ crappy record collection, from Billy Joel to Styx, all got burned into my head by the time I entered junior high. And even with tapes being my primary medium all through high school (the walkman made that a requirement; you can’t walk to school carrying a portable turntable) I got on this kick where I bought all of my old Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister albums on vinyl, so I could keep them as a backup and make my own dub tapes, something I did until CDs became completely ubiquitous a few years later. So I never got into vinyl that much, and I’ve always preferred the ease of use with CDs. Maybe if I was a few years older, though, I would have totally been hypnotized by the format, and I would have spent all weekend hauling 200,000 pounds of oil-based platters from Queens to Manhattan.

Last night I started reading the book Cyborg, which is the pulp scifi novel that The Six-Million Dollar Man was later based on. It was completely out of print, and I found it on Amazon for like a buck fifty or something. It’s a fairly horrible little book, but I enjoy it. I think I read half of it in like an hour last night. I also recently found the book The Boys from Brazil, by Ira Levin. It was a weird little alternate-history ditty about Josef Mengele still alive in Brazil, creating a giant project to start up the whole master race thing again. They made a so-so movie of it, but the book was also out of print and hard to find. What’s weird is that Mengele really was still alive in South America when the book came out, although he had no master plan other than to sit on the beach and wait out his time until he eventually died. Anyway, I find it interesting that these books, which are both classics, are out of print, and it’s not like they came out 400 years ago or something. I’m glad Amazon lets me buy up other people’s garbage, though…

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