AlphaSmart and distraction-free writing

It has been impossible for me to write lately without spending time fucking around, checking the web, reading through old email, whatever. So I am trying something new: writing on an AlphaSmart Dana word processor.

The Dana is essentially an overgrown Palm Pilot, glued to a full-sized keyboard.  It has a monochrome touch screen that’s about as big as two iPhone displays next to each other, and no moving parts other than the keyboard.  There’s some amount of flash memory inside, and two SD card slots.  It runs on AA batteries, which last about 25 hours, or you can use a rechargeable battery stick.  A USB plug on the back can charge it and lets you hook it up to a computer.

Because it runs PalmOS, it can run old Palm apps.  But I don’t care about that, and haven’t messed with it.  It comes with its own word processor, and I only need to use that.  I don’t care about the address book or calendar or any of the other things on it.  The word processor holds eight files that you cycle through with the F-keys, and has some basic formatting stuff.  It also does word count, which is about all I really need.

The keyboard itself is pretty nice, full-sized without any weird key combinations.  The entire unit weighs about two pounds, and is wide enough that it can sit on your lap without any trouble.  It’s bigger than an iPad, but smaller than a MacBook Pro.  (Maybe it’s about the size of a MacBook Air.)  The keys do have limited travel, but it’s about like typing on a Dell laptop. The screen itself isn’t great, but it’s functional.  I’m a little worried about looking down at it, since I have a bad neck, but I guess I can not look at it when I’m typing.  The touch screen is the kind that needs a stylus, and I’ve forgotten how much the old Palm screens suck, compared to a modern capacitive-touch glass screen.  The backlight is also the greenish kind the Palm had, which is not great and eats batteries, but it’s there if you are on a plane or in the dark.

The coolest thing about the Dana is how you get files to your computer.  It has an IRDA blaster for IR, not that any computer I have can use IRDA anymore.  You could also pop out the SD cards and put them in your computer, but I think it saves files in the *.PDB format, which would involve some dickery to convert them to something I could use.  You can also set up Palm Sync and sync the docs that way, but I don’t even know if they make Mavericks-compatible sync software anymore.  There are other word processors out there for Palm, and software on the Mac end to futz with it, but forget all of that.  I want it to just work, and it does.

Here’s the deal: when you hook this up to your computer, it looks like it’s a USB keyboard. You open a blank document on your computer, press a sync button on the Dana, and it beams over the current word processor document, as if the Dana is phantom typing it into your computer.  It takes a minute, but it dumps it straight into Scrivener (or Pages, or Word, or WordPress or whatever you have open) with no fuss.  I sat down yesterday and banged out a thousand-word journal entry, plugged it in, and done.

This doesn’t support a way to round-trip files back to the unit, but I don’t care about editing. I just want a text capture device, a way to sit in bed or on the couch, go into a trance state, and blow through the words, dumping them into a buffer.  It’s getting harder and harder for me to do this with old emails and book sales figures and wikipedia and everything else a click away.  I’ve tried turning off wireless, and installing blocker programs, but then I just end up reading through old files from 1997 or looking at old books of mine, and can’t get started.  So maybe this will work.

I thought about getting an actual typewriter, a Smith-Corona or whatever, but I don’t have an easy way to get the files into the computer, other than OCR scanning, which sucks.  Handwriting is an even worse proposition, unless I want to retype it, and I’d honestly rather slam my dick in a door repeatedly.  I’ve also thought about writing by dictation, but after listening to an hour of me saying “um um um” over and over, I’d jump off a bridge.  So this should work fine.

One thing that gets me about this is the Palm OS itself.  It reminds me so much of the late 90s and early 00s, my time with a Palm IIIx, standing on the subway reading early drafts of Rumored on the little screen and playing Dope Wars.  I tried writing with that, with a little clicky keyboard that folded up and was useless, and just journaling with the pen and the Graffiti function, which I never fully mastered.

I was just digging and found a backup of my Palm from 2002, a bunch of .pdb files.  I should figure out how to do something with them.



A Stupid Nostalgia Listicle (Or, You Won’t Believe these 15 Things From The Nineties That Will Help You Lose Weight That The IRS Doesn’t Want You To Find Out About!)

I have been binge-watching the show West Wing lately, because S has never seen it, and I watched a lot of the first few seasons until it got stupid, back when I was supposed to be writing the follow-up for Rumored to Exist, which never happened. So I remember bits and pieces of the show, and then hit a long patch when I was out of town in 2002 or whatever and didn’t see those episodes.

What’s odd is that the show doesn’t remind me of the early 00s when it aired, but instead gives me strange nostalgia for the mid/late 90s.  I guess it’s supposed to be an idealized version of the Clinton presidency, spun up with some of the torn-from-headlines scenarios taken out of the W years.  It hasn’t aged well, and it’s humorous to see someone whip out a giant cell phone you could beat someone to death with in less than three blows.  And Sorkin’s choir-preaching sermons get a little wooden at times.  But, it’s more entertaining than watching some limey chef scream at interns or a dozen sluts fighting over a dork with money, or whatever the hell else is on the tube these days.

(Side note: there’s this Slavoj Zizek theory I ran into the other night that might or might not encapsulate the zeitgeist of West Wing‘s popularity with the left in those Dubya years.  His essay Denial: the Liberal Utopia talks about the left’s need to look at or analyze only failed leftist regimes in order to dismiss those in progress, because you can fetishize the failed regime/government/plan/whatever as being utopian and perfect, if it had only worked.  (It’s possible I linked to the wrong essay here; I read this right before falling asleep, and the book’s upstairs and I’m too lazy to double-check it.)  Basically WW was popular because Al Gore lost and the Clinton era crashed to a halt and W fucked everything up and 9/11 happened and the left could wring their hands and reminisce about how if those chads hadn’t hung in Florida, the whole world would be a utopia and perfect.  That Michael Moore movie F911 even begins this way more or less.  I’m not making this point to defend W, because I think he was more than harmful; I’m just saying I don’t think Gore would have cured cancer and gave us jetpacks in his first 90 days, and I found the Zizek thing to be an odd coincidence for me.)

OK, so I was thinking about it, and here’s a partial list of a bunch of stupid nostalgia touchstones that keep coming up in my brain during k-hole falling:

  • Everyone’s forgotten those giant CRT monitors by companies like ViewSonic that were like three feet deep and could heat an entire office, and they did that degaussing wavy lines effect when you powered them on, and it took like three seconds for the screen to flicker on.
  • The Mac OS was horrible, and even though it was probably better than the clunkiness of Windows, it didn’t multitask well and always hung up when one program crapped out.  And the hardware was much worse, and you’d pay like $5000 for a decked-out Centris that had about as much RAM as a TV remote control has now, plus a hard drive that spun up and sounded like the turbocharger in a Japanese sports car.
  • (Aside: I was just googling to see how much a Mac IIfx cost, and found this weird story about someone who bought one from a scrapper on eBay, and it turned out to be Douglas Adams’ old machine.)
  • I used to read constantly back in the late 90s, and I’m sure that now if you saw their 1998 site, it would look like a Commodore 64 game, but it was a clear portal to the world for me as I killed time in my office.
  • I didn’t use a phone book app or some cloud-based thing to sync my contacts, and this was before I got a Palm Pilot.  I’d keep a sheet of paper in my wallet and write down phone numbers on it.  I found one of these recently, almost torn apart at the creases.  What’s interesting is that few of the numbers had area codes, because I instantly knew that someone in Indiana was 219, 317, or 812 based on where they lived in the state.  And all of Washington, or at least the western part, was 206.
  • The Onion’s online edition only published like seven articles a week, and they were always on one day (Wednesday?) so you could stay up late the day before and keep reloading the page and you’d magically get the latest from them.  Now they publish about seven articles a second and I can’t follow it anymore.
  • I used to spend an incredible amount of time in a command line window, telnetted to a unix machine that held my mail and news.  For maybe ten years, I read my email in emacs in a central machine on a server, usually at when they did that sort of thing.  This was when you used actual telnet, and not ssh, or at least I did.  It was one of the last throwbacks to my IU days, when I mostly did the same, back to Ultrix machines that held my unix mail.
  • I could tell what day of the week it was by what feature was on, which I read religiously.
  • I actually used the CD player in the computer to play audio CDs.

I thought I had more of these but I don’t.  I’m almost done with WW too because it’s getting to the point where everyone quit over the salary dispute, so I will move on to another show.


RIP, Oderus

I woke up this morning and found the start of a flood of Facebook posts that I thought had to be a hoax, but they were true:  Dave Brockie, also known to many as Oderus Urungus of Gwar, had been found dead last night.  He was only 50.

I must have first heard about Gwar back in 1990 or 1991. I remember hanging out with Sid Sowder and Matt Reece over at their dorm room in Wright Quad, and them playing the Live from Antarctica videotape, while telling me the story of an infamous show in Indianapolis, where they played at an old Howard Johnson’s and completely destroyed their ballroom. They took on the role of the most extreme band in my head, this melding of Troma shock-horror movies and extreme metal, demonic costumes and fake blood. The lyrics were campy and meant to be offensive, and yet the music was nuanced and more sophisticated than most typical metal bands could belt out.

I didn’t really start listening to them until America Must Be Destroyed came out in 1992.  When I DJed at WQAX that summer, the station had it on CD, and I dubbed a copy and listened to it constantly.  The concept album told a story about censorship, blind patriotism, the gulf war, and predicted the dubya-ization of the country that would uncannily happen a decade later.  I loved the CD, and played the title track almost every week on my show.

I was never a loyal Gwar fan, and they were more of a thing I’d forget about and then fall into every few years, going down the rabbit hole and watching and rewatching the Phallus in Wonderland tape. But then five years would go by until I’d pick up another album.  The horror-metal category was always filled better for me by the band Haunted Garage, but they’d only released a single album on Metal Blade before completely vanishing from the scene.  (They’ve since reformed and have done local shows in LA, though.  Check them out over on Facebook.)

But Gwar still helped define that era for me, the early 90s.  I started listening to that album constantly when I was writing Summer Rain, and mentioned it a few times in there.  And one of the distinct memories I have of my cross-country trip in 1999 was this long and boring drive from St. Louis to Bloomington.  I had already listened to everything I owned 19 times in the last week or two of driving across the southwest, and was going through entire albums from this Summer Rain playlist, playing that game where you force yourself to not skip songs and go through the entire album from first to last track in order.  I was somewhere on I-70 and very clearly remember listening to “Rock N Roll Never Felt So Good” and thinking how amazing the authorship of the song was, how it wasn’t just some speed metal collection of noise, but had such a carefully crafted structure that showed a decent musical knowledge, even though the song was about fucking a 13-year-old quadriplegic with a piece of frozen shit.

John Sheppard just saw Gwar last year, which made me go back and buy their newest album, and we planned on going to see them again when they came back to the US for the next leg of their tour.  It was like a religious experience for him, and I really wanted to check it out, even if it involved flying to Alabama or something.  Unfortunately, that won’t happen, which really sucks.

Oh well.  I guess the lesson to be learned though is how you really need to chase down your creative extremes and beat them to the ground.  Gwar started out of a freaky group of artists who wanted to shock people and do weird out-of-this-world shit, and that’s exactly what they did.  They didn’t set out to win Grammies or sell albums, but instead decided to marry together extreme horror movies and the performance of loud music, and they did it balls-out for thirty years.  Given the choice of doing the ridiculous and pointless that you really want to do or doing the expected and formulaic, they chose the former, and it gave them unprecedented loyalty from their fan base.  There’s something to be said for that, and it’s something to keep in mind as I try to figure out what the hell I’m doing next.

Long live Oderus!  Antarctica will miss you.


Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest Wes Andserson flick, last night.  I don’t like watching movies like that on opening weekend, because they draw the baby boomer intelligentsia Berkeley crowd, the ones that never see movies and then laugh at the wrong places at the stupid pre-trailer ads that I’ve seen a thousand times and hiss at trailers for blockbuster summer tent-pole movies and generally drive me insane. But, we’re in the dead period of films, post-Oscars, when all of the turds are released until the next holiday weekend, so I’ll go see almost anything that isn’t some Jesus freak epic (which is about everything right now.)

Anyway, just a few short notes on this, not a review.  This film has incredible production design, absolutely flawless stuff.  It was shot in Germany at some abandoned gothic department store, and then supplemented with models — not CGI, not stock footage, but little scale models that have that quirky, awkward look like a bizarre story book.  The whole thing had that Wes Anderson absurdity to its look, like even the warning sign in the back of the decrepit 1920s spa talking about electrical treatments for liver toxins made you laugh out loud.  That was great.

The script had an interesting bookend shell game: a girl goes to a statue in tribute of a famous author; cut to the old author reading from his book; cut to the young author staying at this hotel as it is in decline and talking to the old proprietor, who has dinner with him and tells the tale of his youth and the hotel in its heyday.  I liked that quirky twisting of the plot.

Unfortunately, I thought the actual plot itself was a bit too Wes Anderson, too cookie-cutter.  No strong b-story, and just plodding along on this stock adventure.  There were lots of twists and turns and some good humor.  But the 99 minutes seemed to drag a bit in the middle, and the whole thing was a fluffy cake, pure sugar without a lot of weight at the bottom of it.

Acting was great, an absolutely solid Ralph Fiennes as the lead, with Tony Revolori (relatively unknown?) as the young hotel owner, F. Murray Abraham as the older version. But one of Anderson’s key tropes is to have the usual gang pop in with minor roles.  It always gets a laugh to see Owen Wilson or Bill Murray show up with a single line or two, but the cameos have gotten to the point where they almost annoy me.  Marching on Jason Schwartzman in a funny hat (or whatever) does not make a film.  It’s a chuckle, but it’s getting predictable.

Overall though, a pretty good one, especially if you’re into his stuff.  It’s no Life Aquatic, but the design though, is worth the price of admission.


The journal pit

I wanted to write a big post bitching about the new Facebook design, but it’s hopeless and a waste of time. I’ve wrung hands over the fact that I spend too much time there, and eventually that rug will be yanked from under me and it will become as fruitful as logging on to Friendster in 2014. Truth is, I like having a community online, and never feel like I can find one, and right now, FB is the closest I have to being in one.  But eventually everyone will grow up and drop out and who knows what will happen next.

All I do know is that this thing will be here until I decide it isn’t here, so I should point some more energy at it.  Blogging in 2014 can be a fruitless endeavor, as nobody reads and nobody plugs into a decentralized world of disconnected sites. But I can be guaranteed that my backlog here never goes away, and that any fruity ads that pop up in the sidebars only belong to my own products.

(Oh yeah, BTW, I published a book recently so go buy it.  That’s your ad for today.)

I recently finished filling up a journal.  It’s one of those Moleskine notebooks, a large-sized (digest, really: a hair under 8.5×5.5) with 240 pages.  The first entry is July 4, 2012 and I got it in a greeting card store in the Embarcadero while we were waiting to see the movie Bernie. I haven’t been religious about writing in paper journals every day, although it was a kinda-sorta new year’s resolution, so I’ve been getting better at it – I think the first half of this book was 18 months and the last half was three months.

I dug out the box of journals I’ve kept over the last twenty years, the “journal pit,” to file this one away, and could not resist digging through it.  It’s like a canker sore in the mouth I cannot not poke with my tongue, and I of course had to pop a claritin to fight off the dust mites and start digging into the old entries, just to see where my brain was at various points in time.

One thing that depresses me is that I fell out of the nightly habit of journaling for a long time, when my schedule changed away from that of a hardcore insomniac and the chronic depression backed off a notch or two.  I never, ever missed a day of writing in paper journals, and then my last 180-page spiral notebook goes from the end of 2006 to the beginning of 2011 or so.  Like the entire period of 2007-2008 when I worked my job in Denver, there were zero entries.  I have what I now call “the lost decade” which pretty much spans from when Rumored to Exist was published in 2002 up until Fistful of Pizza was published in 2011.  In that time, I published some half-ass projects, and had many false starts and failed attempts at big books, but in many ways, I have almost nothing to show for those years.  2011-2014, five books published; but that period was a long stretch of not knowing what the fuck I wanted to do.  The first half of it, I did pretty good in getting the pen to paper for personal journals.  The second half, not so much.

I don’t write in paper journals as an early step in my “real” writing, like as some hipster way of unplugging or whatever.  It’s just personal observations and current events and leg-stretching.  It’s not designed for anyone else to see, so that anonymity offers me the ability to do what I want and capture the things I might self-censor here or in my books.  I sometimes think it might be worthwhile to scan them or scoop out pieces, but that’s too much work.  For now, they sit in a box.

One of the things I noticed when I looked back at the old, old notebooks the other day is the crazy amount I experimented with writing when I was trying to figure it out in the early 90s.  Flipping through some entries from 93, 94, there were little bits like the things that ended up in (or not in) Rumored.  There was a lot of poetry, little phrases that grabbed me, and a lot of bleakness captured in the writing.  All of it is painfully bad, or at least most of it, but some of it is hilarious and interesting to me.

The other thing that got me was the massive time warp I’m in now, the speed of things.  When I don’t think about it, Christmas was last week; I just bought a car ten seconds ago, but it was like two months ago today.  I was just in Germany a few months ago, but I guess that was in 2012.  Time is flipping past at this incredible rate, which is one of the reasons I get so freaked out about not being on a writing project right now, a couple of weeks after a book got released.  If I blink, I’ll have another lost decade and it will be 2023 and I won’t have anything done.  Not to get grim about it, but I don’t have forever to let this stuff sit.

In contrast, I was looking at a journal from 1995 where I was talking about all of the stuff that happened “way back” in 1993.  Here is a timeline for you, with names replaced by letters like a 19th-century British novel:

  • I got dumped by someone (A) I vaguely dated a couple of weeks, although it was one of those stupid holding deals where she dumped me, went to Florida with her ex-boyfriend, and then expected me to pine for her for a couple of weeks and then run back to her after the next semester started.  I didn’t, but I was depressed about it the entire break and wanted to jump off a bridge, and when she got back, we had these weird meta-arguments that nobody could win, like some kind of deranged 1970s Soviet arms conference.
  • Over the break, this girl I had a weekender with back in 1991 (B) came into town, and we went out to the lake, sat around, and then made out for a while.  She then dropped me off at Lindley Hall and I agreed to myself to never acknowledge that this ever happened because I was so infatuated with (A) and things would work out.  Last I heard, (B) is now a lesbian and just got married to her long-time partner, which is now legal for them, so good for her, but the memory of the various stuff that happened during that 1991 weekend that I did with a lesbian is a bit of a mindfuck.
  • Despite the (A) saga, I was emailing with (C) and that became an out-at-second date thing for me.  (C) ended up dating a friend of mine who also coincidentally messed around with (B) for a minute after I did.
  • I met (D) and cooked dinner for her and had another date or two and envisioned this happily-ever-after life with her and then it became this long string of broken dates and I got incredibly depressed about it and started slashing my arms with a razor, which I now recognize isn’t the best plan for coping with your feelings.  Until I wrote about it in a short story decades later, the only person I admitted this to was (A) who was then briefly sympathetic to me for about ten seconds.
  • In my book Summer Rain, I mentioned this girl I briefly dated (fictionally) named Jenn.  (See chapter 16.)  She (E) had just fallen out of some abusive relationship, but was also an unmedicated manic-depressive on a major manic cycle, and I was a hopeless insomniac, and we started hanging out again.  I’d go to her dorm late at night and we’d sit around and talk and sometimes sleep together – not sex, just sleep in the same bed.  But like I said, she was seriously manic, and I recognized that this could get ugly fast and somehow magically didn’t let my dick do all of the thinking on this one and sort of took a big step back from it.
  • Then I met on the computer with (F) and we hung out and messed around and flirted and did everything-but for a bit, before that sort of randomly ended (although we’re still friends to this day.)
  • And then I met (G) and we hit it off and ended up dating for about six months and then she dumped me and it completely fucking gutted me and I didn’t date again until like a year after leaving college.  (Not for a lack of trying.)

So the timeline for all of the above was between Christmas 1992 and spring break, or March, of 1993.  TEN WEEKS.

In the last ten weeks, I’ve… read a couple of books, and worked out twice.

And reading these journals is very dangerous for me, because I fall down this horrible rabbit hole of nostalgia.  I’m in that dangerous state where I’m trying to think of ideas for the next book, and it’s very easy to think I should just Bukowski it and take all of these old journals and twist together some kind of coming-of-age story set in the 90s blah blah blah basically what I did in Summer Rain, but again.  And I tried to do that with this book I was writing during the Lost Decade, which is this 120,000-word pile of suck sitting on my hard drive, with no plot and no flow, just fifty or so pieces of memory that are divided into “stories” that aren’t.  It’s so painful to think of all the times I’ve looked at that folder and though, “with a little elbow grease, I could…” and then I need to go slam my dick in the door and prevent myself from even going down that road.  There’s nothing more painful than writing a book about your life and then having it not sell.

Anyway, not sure where I was going with this, except to say I need to write in these little paper journals more, and of course I need to be writing on here more.  And you need to be reading it more, so maybe I should be making it better.  Let’s see what happens.


default apologies

Enter the standard disclaimer here about never posting and needing to post something more often and how I’m going to be pissed ten years from now when I go back to find out what I was doing in 2014 and find out that entire months went by with no updates.

I’ve actually done well with writing in my paper journal, and force myself to write a page or so before work every day.  I used to write in a paper journal every night, for decades, and that slowly fell off after getting married (not to blame the institution or the partner, just the change in evening routine, or something) and now I’ve been burning through pages at a steady rate, which is nice.  I did switch from the standard spiral notebook to a leather bound book, a larger digest-sized Moleskine, because spiral notebooks tend to disintegrate at the edge of the page where the wire goes through the punched holes, and the processed paper attracts dust mites a bit more during long-term storage.  I also like the feel of the leather books, even if they are half the page size and cost five times as much.

I just published a book, and am now quickly entering the post-partum depression that comes with it.  I now come to expect this to happen, and there’s no easy way around it, although it feels like taking time off makes things worse.  I don’t have a next project at this point, just some vague ideas and a new unnamed manuscript that’s got about 14,000 words of wandering in it, maybe pieces that will end up as flash or short stories or will get folded into something longer.  And I have over 60,000 words that were cut or left over from Atmospheres, and no idea what will happen to those.  This tends to happen on each of the books, and it’s sort of like making yogurt, where a bit of the leftover ends up starting the next batch, although yogurt is much easier to make.

I’m having this great internal struggle about what to write next.  I feel like the current style of writing, the stuff in the last few books, has run its course or started to blur together from book to book, and there needs to be a giant leap-frogging into something radically different, but I’ve been ho-hum about everything I’ve read and seen lately.  I want to write a novel, something that can’t be confused for a bunch of short stories or look like a patchwork of leftover crap bound together in a single volume.  But I don’t know what that is, and I can’t force it.  I hope I can figure it out soon.

What else… I have been taking bass lessons from a guy here in Oakland.  It’s good, but it’s work.  I’ve had a lot to learn, with music theory and all of that, but I also have a lot of bad habits to break and new technique stuff to take into consideration, and that can be overwhelming.  But it’s good, and I feel like I’m slowly progressing.  We also work on stuff where he’s playing drums and I’m playing along, and that’s a lot of fun.  I still suck, but it’s better than sitting around watching TV.

My new car is still very nice.  It still smells like a new car. I’ve only put gas in it once since I’ve bought it, and managed to get about 375 miles on 8.1 gallons of gas, which is lower than I think I should be getting, but I’m still getting used to how to drive a hybrid.  There’s a trick with getting the EV system to work and the gas engine to shut off while at cruising speed, and once you change driving style to get that happening, your mileage improves.

I’ve been reading a lot of Jonathan Lethem lately, trying to get down all of his stuff.  I’ve hit all of the first-tier books, and now I’m going through the novels that are less critically-acclaimed, although I seem to like all of them.  Nothing so far tops Chronic City, which is still one of my favorite books ever, and I will probably end up reading it for the fourth time soon.  I’m also thinking about an Infinite Jest re-read over the summer, but who knows.  Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses are both sitting on the shelf with a bookmark on page 12, staring at me.  Someday.

I just found myself re-reading old blog entries here, and I am dumbfounded by how much I updated this thing two or three years ago.  I should spend more time on here.  And I sometimes think about pulling together some of those old posts and putting them into a book, although I guess if you wanted to read them, you would have already read them.

Allergy season is starting.  Not looking forward to that.  At least the Benadryl will help me with the weird dreams.