Jesus’ Son

I’m running out of things to read in the house, or at least I have the perception of running out of things to read.  I probably have at least a hundred or two books that I haven’t read, so maybe I should say “things I want to read” or “things I should read”.  I feel like I need to be reading more every day, but I also feel like I should only be reading things that feed directly into what I want to write next: either things that are stylistically similar, or the non-fiction that will fill my brain and eventually dump out onto the pages in my fiction.

So the other night I grabbed a copy of Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son.  It’s a short little book, maybe 150 pages in the pocket edition, and each page is pretty terse.  Johnson is, at least here, a very minimalist writer, the kind of prose that can completely kick your ass in the fewest words possible.  He’s the kind of writer that can spin these infinitely interesting characters, with the kind of quirk that really sticks in your head, but he doesn’t do it by spending pages and pages laying down details.  Sometimes, it’s just a sentence or even a few words of a sentence, but I feel like he burns in these people more than when I spend chapters trying to explain the same type of thing.

This book is a collection of realist short stories, in what I would pejoratively call “MFA fiction” if a wannabe was trying to do the same thing.  I see far too much of this when I’m reading submissions to the zine, and I guess with ten times as many people in MFA programs these days, there’s a lot of it circulating.  Normally, this stuff bores me to tears, but Johnson is one of the few that can make this work.  I haven’t really thought about what the difference between good fiction and “MFA fiction” is, and just by mentioning this, everyone with an MFA is going to be up in my shit about it.  Further, the common theme of the stories is an addict that’s hanging out with other junkies and fuckups, and their various escapades.  It’s a far too common trope in that space of writing, but he does manage to pull it off without being cliche.

The thing about Johnson doing this Raymond Carver sort of writing is that he makes it look so effortless, that it makes me think it would be easy to do.  And of course it isn’t.  And it’s dangerous for me to read this kind of thing and get some wise idea that I should get back to writing this kind of modernist, realist fiction, and start thinking about beating the dead horse that is this unfinished book about Bloomington and forget about the kind of absurdist thing I’m trying to chase.  Fortunately, I’m writing every day in this automatic writing thing, just doodles, and when I tried to get into this kind of writing again, I failed horribly, and that made it easy to move on.

Johnson does make me think of flashes of things that probably could someday become stories, and that’s valuable because I’m at the point where I feel like I’ve been wrung dry of material.  Case in point is this blog: any time I think of something interesting to say about the past, I look here and realize I wrote the story back in 2006.  I don’t feel like a lot is happening here day-to-day, at least the things that I could spin into stories or posts.  And I feel like I told the story of Jim getting his kid caught in a vending machine at least five times in the archives here.

I am still struggling to get the next book moving.  I keep thinking I need to write some big, plotted, narrative book that could go toe-to-toe with any genre writing out there, or at least get me out of the situation where I can’t explain my book in a single sentence.  My usual thought is that I should be writing another Rumored, since it’s the book that I’m happiest with, and it’s my book that’s sold the most copies.  But there’s also this huge disconnect for a lot of people who can’t deal with nonlinear fiction, and I feel like one harmful thing the Kindle has done is made the audience for books much more trained to only like heavily plotted genre fiction, or at least that’s who’s buying most of the books these days.  I don’t want to write vampire romances, but I wouldn’t mind turning out a book like Leyner’s Tetherballs of Bougainville, either.



Apple TV

So last night, as an early anniversary present, Sarah got me the new Apple TV.  Not the rumored buy-a-whole-TV-from-Apple Apple TV, but the third-generation set-top box from Apple.  My first impression is that this is an interesting little piece of machinery, and will largely replace my first-gen Roku, plus do a whole lot more.

The Apple TV is a very minimalist piece of hardware. It’s black, not much bigger than a hockey puck, and has no markings or logos other than a low-visibility logo on the top, and a light on the front that isn’t visible when it’s not illuminated.  The back has jacks for power, ethernet, HDMI, optical audio, and a mini-usb that is for “service use only,” whatever that means.  Other than the dust cover on the optical audio jack, there are no moving parts; it does not contain a mechanical hard drive or a fan. The whole thing is very low-key.

That’s the weird impression I get about a lot of Apple hardware and software. You plug everything in and think “ok, now what?”  And then suddenly, it becomes irreplaceable, because it Just Works.  That’s the way the iPad was.  I got it, fired it up, and thought, “okay, I have a web browser and all of my phone’s apps on a big screen.  So what?”  And then a week later, I was using it constantly, for everything. It’s the big appeal of ubiquitous computing; there’s no dazzle or show, but it’s something that’s always there, and totally utilitarian.

So, what’s it do?  Well, I plugged it into my TV, and when it fired up, it asked me how to connect to the internet.  I’m out of ethernet in my living room, so I pointed it to my wireless router.  (My first minor complaint is having to type in the password with the remote arrow keys on an onscreen keyboard, but that’s what I get for not having a wireless password of ABCDE.)  Then it asked me for my Apple ID and password, which is what I use to buy content on iTunes.  And then, main menu.

The obvious use for the Apple TV is for consuming content you’ve purchased within the walled garden of iTunes.  So if you’ve bought movies or TV shows or music in iTunes on your computer, or your iPad or iPhone, you can navigate the menus on the slick interface and see all of that stuff, and stream it to your TV.  The unit does not store any of the content on the box itself.  (It does have 8GB of SSD storage that it uses for buffering/caching, but those details are hidden away to the user.)  Of course, if you’re living in some rural outback shithole with a 56K modem, this is an issue, but for me, it isn’t. All of this works fine, and of course you can do stuff like peruse the iTunes store from your living room, and click on things to rent or buy them.  Part of the reason for doing all of this is to make it easier for you to throw money at Apple with very simple clicks, and this part, of course, works very well.  And any of your purchases here are added to your Apple ID, so when you go to your iPad or iPhone or MacBook, you’re going to have the same purchases available.

There are a number of other non-Apple streaming services available from this menu.  The obvious is Netflix, and if you’re already paying them, you can log in and stream all of their stuff.  There’s also MLB.TV, Vimeo, NBA TV, Flickr, and the biggest win for me, YouTube, which was not available on the Roku.  I spend a lot of time watching obscure UFO conspiracy theory documentaries on YouTube, so I will now be able to watch them on the big screen.  The one missing feature, for obvious reasons, is Amazon.  That’s a huge one, since we use Amazon Prime, but the PS3 offers that now, so all is not lost.  Another minor quibble is that there isn’t a way to add any channels.  I don’t know why I miss this feature though, because the Roku has it, and has a million channels to add, all of them being garbage.

The big feature that is not as obvious is that the Apple TV will stream whatever is in your iTunes library.  This means that even if you never bought a single thing from Apple, you can still stream all of the stuff you’ve ripped or stolen off the internet, from your computer to the TV.  This is big for me because I rip a lot of my DVDs so I have crap to watch on planes. Once the Apple TV found my laptop on the local network, I had a catalog of movies waiting for me when I plugged in.  Also, a lot of comedians have been doing this Louie CK model of a $5 downloadable concert, and I have all of those sitting in iTunes, ready to roll.  My former CD collection, which is now all ripped and sitting on my hard drive, is also available. Also, iTunes works as a conduit to iPhoto, so I can look through all of my pictures on my computer on the TV.

The other interesting thing is AirPlay.  Basically, the Apple TV acts as an AirPlay receiver, and any iDevice that supports AirPlay or has a program that does can pipe its output to the TV.  This is an extremely freaky and endlessly useful feature.  For example, if I’m sitting in the living room with my iPhone in hand, looking at a baseball game in the MLB At Bat app, if someone hits a home run or whatever, they will post a recap video.  I press play, but I click a little AirPlay logo and choose my TV set, and suddenly, I’m watching the video in 42″ glory, instead of on the tiny screen.  A bunch of games and apps support AirPlay, and will pipe their audio or video to the Apple TV.  This is also cool if you have the Apple TV plugged into a receiver, so you can use your stereo’s speakers as an output destination for audio from your computer or iOS device.

What gets even more mind-blowing is AirPlay mirroring.  If I’m on my iPhone, I can mirror my entire display to the TV wirelessly, regardless of what I’m doing.  The one downer to this is that the only device I currently have that supports AirPlay mirroring is my phone; neither of my laptops or my first-gen iPad have the GPU power to do this.  But it’s interesting, because if for example, I had a company that was an all-Apple shop, I could put an Apple TV on a projector in a conference room, and when a presenter needed to connect, instead of fucking with cables and adapters, they could just beam their stuff right into the projector.  (And of course, this is password-protectable, so your neighbors can’t suddenly shoot pornos at your TV at three in the morning.)

Like I said, this thing comes with a remote, and it’s a tiny piece of shit IR thing that I will probably lose in a week.  If I was smart, I could reprogram my all-in-one that drives my DVR so it would also work the Apple TV, but I’m lazy.  Luckily, there is a free app called Remote that I already have on my iPad and iPhone, that enables me to use them as glorified remote controls.  So when I have to search for something on the TV, I can use the keyboard on the iPad to do it.  (I suppose I could also bluetooth in my real keyboard to the iPad, like if I had to type a dissertation into the Apple TV, but I’m not there yet.)

All of this works perfectly and is an entirely disruptive technology if you’re using all Apple devices and have a bunch of crap in iTunes.  If you prefer registry fondling and DLL conflicts to usability and getting work done, I have no idea if the Apple TV plays well with the Windows version of iTunes.  And I’m certain there are some hidden DRM nightmares that prevent you from doing certain things, although the system seems perfectly capable of taking torrents you pirated off the web and playing them in 1080p glory.  (Not that I would ever do that, Mr. MPAA intern scouring the net for possible lawsuits.)  If you have philosophical issues with iTunes, cloud computing, wireless networks, and not owning physical copies of media, this isn’t for you.  But for me, it’s an almost perfect solution.

There are some minor issues, like the lack of an app store or method of adding channels.  The Apple TV uses the same processor as the iPhone, and a customized version of iOS, so I would suspect some kind of app store in the future, with the ability to add games and whatnot.  (There have been some jailbreaks for the first and second generation that enable you to do some freaky stuff like this, but nothing for the new version.)  Or maybe the philosophy is to keep the platform as just a receiver, and focus on iOS and Mac apps that use AirPlay.  There’s huge potential for kick-ass games that use AirPlay as the main display and your iOS device as a controller.

Anyway, it’s a cool little present.  Now I just need to go buy a new iPad to get mirroring to work.  Maybe that’s how they’re able to sell these things for so cheap.



Wonder Bread Gorging and the Ceiling Toaster Distraction

I want to mount a toaster on the ceiling.  It’s a really tall ceiling, seventeen feet or some shit like that, and there’s a thin pipe with a metal box on one end, one of those electrical boxes with four plugs on it, just staring down at me when I sit on the couch.  There’s a ceiling fan installed on the same piece of conduit, this ever-spinning thing that’s supposed to look old or antique or industrial, but it really cost something like $800 when I bought the place, which means it cost the builder 27 cents, and it’s going to cost me $14,000 by the time I make my last payment 30 years from now, except the fucking thing will be 22 years dead by then, rotting in a landfill while I make some fucker at CitiBank that much richer every month.

I stare up at this junction box, and wonder what the fuck it’s used for.  I mean, I guess if I didn’t have the ceiling fan, I’d get a big a-frame ladder and plug in one of those chain lights, the dangling ball with a bulb in it that hangs from a chain or a stay or a pull or whatever the fucking word is.  But I have this fan up there, so I can’t do that.  The cord from the light would get shredded the first time I turned on the fan, unless I creatively duct taped it and ran it down a wall.

I thought about a toaster.  I could sit on the couch and throw bread up at the ceiling.  Eventually, some of it would catch.  Then it would bake, or toast, or roast, whatever the fucking word is, and then I would put a plate under it and it would shoot a piece of toast down seventeen feet onto my plate.  I’d need to keep a catcher’s glove handy, and trap the toast so it wouldn’t ricochet away.  All of this involves a toaster with some kind of positive retention system, and careful aim, of which I have neither.

I don’t even eat toast anymore.  I used to eat it fairly often; we’d go through at least a loaf a bread a week, minus those two end pieces, “heels”, which we’d never touch, except my mom would throw the usual fit, “YOU GUYS NEED TO EAT THAT GOD DAMNED END PIECE, WHAT THE SHIT, IT’S PERFECTLY GOOD BREAD.”  Except it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I was pro-crust or anti-crust at the time, but I probably fucking hated crust when I was seven, and when you think about it, the heel of a loaf of bread is an entire side of crust.

Aside: we once visited the Wonder Bread factory, in the first grade.  It was when I lived in Edwardsburg, and I think we drove to Elkhart, although it’s possible we drove to Niles, because that’s the time of my life when I didn’t know left from right and north from south, and I assumed any drive anywhere was a drive to Elkhart, unless it was a drive to Florida or Kosovo.  Anyway, we went to the Wonder bread factory, and I now know that there are a thousand Wonder bread factories all over the country, and every different store also has its own brands, and there are regional brands, and some stores only have four kinds of bread, and others have like fifty.  But I didn’t know shit about regional brands or franchises or anything; I think I assumed that every single town had a Kroger store, and every single Kroger store contained the same damn stuff, so if you went to a Kroger in New York City, you could buy Big K cola, when of course there are no Kroger stores in Manhattan, and an Albertson’s or a Safeway or what have you is going to have different shit.  I also think I assumed that the one bakery we visited was the one place that made all of the Wonder bread in the entire country, because I had no knowledge of industrial operational scale or how hard it is to transport and ship perishables cross-country.  I just saw the big robot machines stamping out loaves of white bread, and stared in awe.

And at the end of the tour, the plant foreman or supervisor or whatever the fuck gave each of us a loaf of white bread to take home.  And I started eating that goddamn loaf of bread on the bus ride home, and it was so fresh, it tasted almost as good as eating a fresh slab of angel food cake.  (It’s also possible I was on the brink of starvation from not eating our shit school lunch.)  I must have eaten four or five slices of bread before that yellow Bluebird bus got me back to my mom’s house.  And maybe she was pissed off that I ate all of this damn bread, or maybe not, I don’t remember.  In retrospect, I think she was pissed off at everything.  Or maybe nothing.

I also remember some exercise where we all had breakfast in the first grade, like in the afternoon.  Maybe it was to teach us how important breakfast was, or it was because this was Michigan, and Kellogg’s is in Michigan, so they had an upstart cereal indoctrination program that programmed young kids into thinking they had to buy five damn boxes of cereal a week, and the same evil executives knew they’d eventually jack up the prices to seven or eight bucks a box and gradually make the boxes thinner and smaller and more full of air until eventually that $7 box of Life cereal only actually contained like twelve of those little cereal squares.  (And yes, we all believed that kid Mikey died of coke and pop rocks, or maybe it was cocaine.  We didn’t have Snopes back then.)

So everyone in the class had to vote on what cereal they wanted, and there were maybe a dozen choices, and everyone chose frankenberry or fruity pebbles or one of those cereals that’s 100% sugar and is basically a candy you’d eat at a movie theater, except you added milk and ate it with a spoon.  Nobody chose cheerios, because cheerios are basically inedible unless you added fourteen tablespoons of sugar and turned the milk into a sugary mud, which is what I had to do on a regular basis, because my mom always bought cheerios.  But on that day, I voted for frosted mini wheats.  I don’t know why.  But I think six people voted for it, including the teacher, who was some ancient woman, although ancient probably meant 24.  She seemed to agree with my choice though, saying “these are good.”

Some people had to settle for other cereals, because they lost the vote.  This one kid, I think his name was Skip, wanted some cereal we didn’t even vote on, like count chocula.  I think he did it as a write-in, and it got one vote, so no count chocula.  But on the day of the big breakfast, as the teacher poured out bowls of cereal, there was no count chocula, and Skip threw a fit, cried and bawled until tears and snot ran down his red face, screaming “I want count chocula!  I have count choclula!  I voted for count chocula!”  And the teacher tried to appease him with some boo-berry or fruity pebbles, but he wasn’t having it.  The whole thing reminded me of when someone votes for Ross Perot or some fringe libertarian.  Well, maybe not.  But I bet Skip ended up voting for Ron Paul or Ralph Nader or something.


Ranch K-hole

Yesterday was a shit day for writing, not only because I still don’t have a project and I’m entering month three of the one month I decided to take to shore up an outline for the next book, but because my afternoon schedule was truncated by an chiropractor’s appointment, and after a couple of days on airplanes, my knees feel like they’ve been beaten repeatedly by a pro wrestling with a steroid addiction.  (I guess I that’s a redundant sentence.)

I lived in the era of bar soap, which apparently started a slow death in the late 80s, and now everyone showers with various liquid soaps, probably because, as my wife the product developer for a large commodity grocery item manufacturer tells me, the best two things to sell people are air and water, and if you can sell people less product and more water and charge them a premium, you introduce that much more money in the sacred vaults of the Cayman Islands banking system.  Anyway, back when we used bars of Zest or Dial to take showers, we’d end up with these little slivers of soap, thin remnants of a big rectangle eroded to almost nothing, but leaving enough of a pairing that my cheapskate parents needed some solution to the problem.  They bought this thing that looked like a cheap plastic version of a medieval weapon designed to cripple horses, or maybe the thing the California Highway Patrol extends across the road during a high speed chase to blow out a culprit’s tires.  The thought was that you’d impale the soap husks onto this ABS caltrop, and after you skewered enough pieces, you’d have this composite soap bar.

(Side note: this didn’t work.  The core of a soap bar somehow loses all lathering properties, and you’d only end up scraping yourself on the spikes, like some torture method devised by a splinter faction of the Catholic church in the Philippines that whips themselves bloody on Good Friday.  File this under “things my parents did to save a buck that probably permanently scarred me psychologically” and move on.)

I wish I had some functional version of this soap spike thing for my time, though.  I seem to have these few minutes here and there, and I should be using them to research a book or find new topics or new readers or new communities or whatever, and instead I spend them doing the Control-R knuckle-shuffle on my Facebook page.  Or, if I’m lucky, I dredge the web for some useless pursuit of knowledge, like trying to find the number of times each crew member shit on the Apollo 10 mission.

So, I ended up spending an hour trying to find out if anything was going on down by my land.  I own this 40 acres in southern Colorado, in the middle of nowhere, and every few months, I start the windmill lancing by pulling it up on google maps, hoping by some miracle that they put a Target store two miles away, even though the nearest town is maybe a dozen miles up the road, and has 739 residents, with a per capita income of $8,887, which is roughly the amount of money I spend annually on vitamins that do nothing except turn my piss a bright yellow.  There’s always hope that each visit will bring higher quality google aerial data.  This isn’t entirely in vein; they recently added Street View data on state road 159, the nearest paved road to my land.  Take a look at the screenshot above – if you turn onto that dirt road, drive a quarter mile, hang a left, and drive another quarter mile, you’ll be at a cul de sac with my land to the southwest of you.  But the hope is always that a combination of growth and satellite moore’s law-ing will allow me to see the trees I planted in 2007.

One thing I found recently was that a biodiesel plant opened a couple of miles from my land, in Mesita.  I drove through that city ten years ago; it’s not a “city” as much as it is a collection of a half dozen buildings, like a weird black lava rock church.  It feels like a ghost town, or maybe the outbuildings on the back half of a farm, long forgotten.  I guess in 2004, they plopped down a new prefab steel building that looks like a giant five-bay garage, and started smashing up sunflowers into oil that’s processed into diesel and purchased by the county for their vehicles.  I don’t know if this is sustainable, but it’s either that or meth, so good for them.

Another k-hole I haven’t fully fallen into is that the Southern San Luis Valley Railroad ran through this area.  I don’t know exactly where or when, but it seems like they originally had something like 30 miles of narrow-gauge rail out there a century ago, which almost immediately went bankrupt and got passed around in a game of insolvency hot potato for decades, finally being fucked into nothingness in the mid-1990s.  I do not have the patience to stumble through the geocities-level-quality web sites of railfans to piece together a history, but I am curious where the rails originally went, and if any of that is near my land.  I would drive out there and look around, but seeing as I can stand on my land and have no idea there’s a river just a thousand feet west, there’s no way I’m going to be able to find abandoned railbed that was torn out in the 1920s.

There’s also some vague connections to the UFO community in the San Luis Valley.  I think one of the cattle mutilation incidents happened in Mesita, but there’s not much in details.  There was a book, called “Enter the Valley”, that had a listing of various UFO phenomena in the area, and I used to have a copy, but it was a very open-ended list of reports, which wasn’t that meaty to me.  I have never been a huge UFO nut, because most of these reports are the same trope, the “I saw a bunch of lights, and I drove 17 miles down a dirt road, and saw some burnt grass, end of story”, and that doesn’t do much for me.

I haven’t been back to my land in five years, almost to the day.  When I lived close, I never went, because I sort of figured I’d always be able to go.  And when I lived further away, I never went, because it’s such a pain in the ass to get there.  I can now drive there, in 20 hours, which is a hell of a long haul.  Or I guess I could fly to Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive four hours; same for Denver.  (My sister in law now lives in Albuquerque, which probably means I should learn how to spell it.)  The issue is that when I’m far away from the land, I have these grand visions of building geodesic domes and digging wells and planting trees and paving roads and constructing camps and buying a dozen wrecked cars and erecting my own carhenge, but when I get there, I look at all of the desolation and nothingness and factor in that 49-minute drive to the tiny town with the nearest grocery store, and think “fuuuuuuck” and want to go back to civilization.

The idea of living on my own land is romantic, but I can’t deal with how to repair the stupid fucking dime-sized bubble that appeared at the seam of the laminated flooring in my condo; there’s no way I’ll be able to dig a well and trench out a septic field and run some power and do all of the basic crap I’d have to do to even drop a double-wide on the property.  (And I warn you in advance, please shut the fuck up about building a yurt or a haybale house or a tire house or whateverthefuck hippy idea you have about sticking it to the man by not using dimensional lumber.  They have zoning out there.  I’ve researched this far more than you’ve ever researched anything in your life. Not gonna happen.)

Okay, enough about this.  I need to dig myself out of this k-hole, put on some Hendrix, and actually write.


Half the reason I don’t blog every day is I can’t think of titles

I miss the days when I didn’t use wordpress, because back then, my entries didn’t have titles.  I found it much easier to start brain-dumping babble onto a page when there wasn’t a blank title forcing me to somehow compose my thoughts into a single linear article or whatever.

So I just got back from a quick unannounced trip to Milwaukee, for a family funeral.  I’ve had three relatives die in the last two weeks; both of my wife’s grandmothers, and then my aunt.  I don’t like to write about family stuff, so I won’t, but there’s a lot of that brewing right now, which is not conducive to me sitting down and banging out the next great American novel.

I’m used to being in Wisconsin over the winter holidays, so being there during the end of summer seemed a little atypical to me.  Whenever I travel, I always wonder if my allergies will get better or worse, and it’s completely nonsensical.  For example, earlier this year, my allergies were horrible in the UK, bad in Hamburg, and almost nonexistent in Berlin, despite very similar weather in all three.  So I figured it would be a crapshoot on this trip, especially if I spent the majority of my time sealed in air-conditioned climates.  Unfortunately, the allergies hit me hard, and even at peak allergy drug use, I wheezed and hacked with blurry vision and reddened eyes.  Oh well – win some/lose some.

While on planes and in airports, I read two books that affected me, with different results.  First, I read that new bio of David Foster Wallace.  It was mixed, a bit fluffy, and uneven, with too much detail on dumb personal habits and not enough details on things like writing process.  I appreciated some of the information on the writing of Infinite Jest, but I swear if that dude mentioned one more time how Wallace liked to drape his wet towels over furniture, I was going to open the emergency exit of the 737 and throw the god damned thing out into the jet stream.

One of the things that bothered me the most about the book was that Wallace was undeniably a genius, which caused me far too much to think about how much of an idiot I am.  It made me wish I could go back to 1989 and not fuck around in college and get into grad school and start writing early and get an MFA when it cost as much as a large car and not as much as a large house.  There’s this huge force sitting square in front of me telling me it’s too late to do any of these things, and it’s the same force that tells me the 19 different projects I should be doing, which causes me to lock on doing any of them.  Couple this with a piss-poor reception to my latest book, and this constant thread of people around me dropping dead, and it gives me The Fear in a major way that I’m moving in the wrong direction with all of this writing shit.  It’s a demon that needs a serious beat down, and I’m just barely smacking it with some wet spaghetti.

I also read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and that blew my mind.  It’s a nice short 150-page dose of his craziness, with incredible density and a plot that packs a lot of disparate ideas into a little book.  It made me want to sit down and bash out something like it, except I’ve already got at least two projects underway, and no time to work on any of them.  The thing that I liked the most about this book was the title, and how it was almost a plot device in that I wondered what the hell it was, and I didn’t find out until pretty much the last page of the book.  That’s a sneaky way to pull you through a plot.