My occasional history with film

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I’m still thinking about film a lot, maybe too much. I’ve ended up buying two 35mm cameras on eBay this week, a Canonet QL17 rangefinder and an Olympus Trip 35 point/shoot.  I ran the first roll of film through the Trip (see attached picture) and I love it.  I need to take more pictures, figure out a good workflow for developing, scanning, and posting things, and determine what I’m really doing with photography. Mostly, I need to learn, and I feel like there’s a deep rabbit-hole of things out there to master. And the whole thing has me falling down a deep nostalgia hole, thinking about previous experiences with analog film.

A couple of years ago, I bought a photo book by the parents of Christopher McCandless, the guy that died in Alaska, described in the book and movie Into the Wild. His parents self-pubbed Back Into the Wild, which contained his journals, letters, and snapshots.  The book had a strong impact on me, not because I particularly admire his story and plight, but because it was a strong link to a nostalgic period of the recent past.

All of the guy’s photos were taken with cheap 35mm cameras, the point-and-shoot variety now largely forgotten.  The book also included copies of post cards and envelopes, with old stamps and cancellation/postmarkings that also reminded me of the early 90s.  I did so much mail for the zine around that time, and the look of those old 22-cent stamps and the cancellations, with their little public-service messages (“end breast cancer!” or whatever) draw me back instantly.  I still have old paper mail in storage, pieces in their well-creased envelopes, and it all reminds me of that period so much.

But the film, the cameras – they mentioned a few of the makes and models, and I googled these, wanting to see what gear he brought along on his adventures.  In the 80s and 90s, there were so many junk cameras, so many different brands.  it was like that with any electronics, too. Today, if you wanted a CD player, you’d have a choice of maybe three or four brands (Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, and some no-name Chinese thing) and maybe three or four models for each brand, and each one would be very similar to the other, aside from a differentiating feature like Surround Sound or digital output.  But back in the 80s, if you wanted, say, a VCR, there were dozens of brands, all of these different major Asian players shelling out radically different versions, competing with a dozen different American firms, with factories in San Jose or Dallas, plus all of the no-name Korean brands imported and given an American label, like the JC Penney brands or Sears versions.  And they were all so completely different, not identical in any way.

I remember I used to go through a lot of jam box tape players, because for a long period, I didn’t have a good car stereo, and would instead go to a pawn shop and buy a $50 jam box and then wire a 12-volt adapter in the car and use that until it got stolen a few months later.  And at the pawn shop, that $50 would buy so many different types, with removable speakers, various space-age plastic chrome finishes and grilles, fabric-covered woofers, and mystical buttons that offered hi-fi settings or switched on LCD power meters that measured nothing from a scientific standpoint, but would light and rise and fall with the volume of the music.  And they all had different EQ types and tone knobs or “boost” switches and different tape counters and ejection mechanisms, and the feel of the mechanical buttons was always different.

Cameras were the same way.  There were the high-end SLRs, which were all too expensive for my blood, but I had a friend or two, usually working for the yearbook club, who would learn how to work a good Canon or Nikon, and maybe borrow one from the school. SLRs all looked similar, but had weird differences, and there were the usual Pepsi/Coke religious wars about which one was best, although it was a ten-front war back then, not just Nikon/Canon.  There were also the low-end things, the Kodak 110s and disc cameras, and cheap Polaroid one-shots with no controls at all, just a dust cover, a trigger button, and a place to plug in the flip-flash with the exploding bulbs that would cost a fortune and smell of burning plastic after they ignited.  My parents liked these cameras, the ones with no settings, the Brownie or the 126, with nothing but maybe a film advance lever to manually crank through the roll after each shot.  And there were also a wide variety of cameras between the two, with some advanced features, some things missing, and some fully automated.

When I was a kid, I won one of the cheap-o cameras at the company picnic for my dad’s job.  It was a Kodak 110 kit, a little rectangle with the lid that pivoted open and worked as a sort of handle, hanging off to one side.  It was as thick as one of the plastic film cartridges, and had a little eyehole to look through, to frame shots.  This model had a “zoom” lens, a glass piece that slid back and forth on a track, so you could snap it into place and increase the range by a small factor.  Everything else was manual, with no focus, no aperture setting, just a film advance lever and a shutter button.  It would take me a year to take a dozen shots, carefully framing them, snapping a picture, and then not knowing for months if it turned out or not.  As a ten-year-old, I never had money for a flash, and would shoot everything in daylight with fingers crossed.  When done, the exposed film got thrown in a junk drawer, with pens and checkbooks and broken calculators and instruction books to appliances.  If we were lucky, a third of the film I shot as a kid was developed.  It always looked bad, with faded colors, grainy prints, and half of the shots underexposed or dark.  Everyone had red eyes, and all of the macro photography I attempted with Star Wars models never looked anything like the films.  It was disappointing, and not a hobby for me to get into, so I didn’t.

In high school, on a lark, I bought another 110 camera.  This was a small “spy” camera, a tiny piece of plastic that clipped over a 110 cartridge, leaving most of the film case exposed on the outside, not much more than a lens and advancing mechanism that clipped over the film cart.  I don’t remember if it had a flash, but I do remember it had no viewfinder, just a small plastic rectangle that clicked up on the top.  I bought this in October of my senior year, right before visiting Canada for the first time.  I took a few rolls of shots with this, and paid to develop them myself, since the $3.45/hour wages at my job afforded me this luxury.  The quality wasn’t much better, but there was more immediacy, and I took a lot of pictures of things.  I knew I’d leave town in a year, and want to remember old friends and my old car and my old house, so I captured it all to film.  And that Canada trip yielded a few good shots, too.  The film quality was still bad, lots of reds to the color mix, and the plastic-lens camera was total garbage.  But the small size, the novelty, and the budget to actually develop photos made it a decent experience.

In my freshman year of college, I had a few bucks of christmas money to blow on the after-holiday sales, and bought a 35mm camera at an Osco drug store.  It was some semi-known name, like Vivitar, but was a low-end, all-manual affair, similar to the ones McCandless used.  This was my first foray into a middle ground that existed, with the pro film format (35mm) but the cheap and easy to use camera that offered not settings or adjustments.  It did have a cheap flash, and it maybe had an aperture setting (a little lever with an icon of the sun and another of a cloud).  And it may have had a similar focus (picture of a mountain, picture of a person’s head.)  But it had no zoom, no focus ring, no tripod mount, none of that.  It also had a manual film advance, and you had to load the film by hand, stretching the first flap out of the film canister across a set of sprockets before closing the back door.

This camera only lasted a few weeks, before the film spool broke, the cheap plastic splitting apart, in an unrepairable way that instantly let in the light, making the $25 gadget useless.  But I got two rolls of film through it; one while I was still home, and one at school.  The school roll had some great shots on it.  I walked a loop of the campus during the day, and the January sun and blue sky made for some great shots of the old limestone buildings, a perfect capture of the 1990 glory of Indiana University.  The home set of snaps had a couple of good pictures of Tom Sample at New Year’s, and the only picture of first college girlfriend Angie I still have.  (A horrible picture of her in my mom’s car.)

I did not have another camera until the middle of 1993, when I was home for the summer  I don’t know what compelled me to dip back into photography, but I think it was from working on the zine, the idea that I would take pictures at shows.  I spent close to $100 on another 35mm camera, once again one of those fixed-focus things.  This one was closer to a DSLR in its general shape, and it did have a motorized zoom lens, along with a better flash, and a motorized auto-load, the kind where you would put in a can of film and it would quickly suck up the end after you closed the back door.  And then at the end of the roll, it would suck the film back into the canister for you, instead of spending minutes cranking on a small dial or lever manually.

I got really into the idea of becoming “a photographer” even though it was a cheap and cheesy all-plastic camera.  I’d buy expensive film, like 1600 ISO Fujifilm or Kodachrome, and keep it in the fridge and get it developed at the one-hour place, always asking for matte prints.  I went to a lot of shows that summer for the zine, getting in for free by talking to record labels, and I’d always ask for a “photo pass” to try and get better access.  I never got any good pictures at shows, just blurry, poorly-lit snaps of Glen Benton or Cannibal Corpse, completely unusable stuff. I took some decent snapshots though, artsy pictures of Goshen College, some pictures of friends, along with a roll or two of the Milwaukee Metalfest, although none that were actually of the bands, just the booths and the drive there and back.  I also got the last few shots of the Mitchell House before I moved out, the only pictures I have of that place.

The camera went into “occasional mode” after that, only getting pulled out on a whim here and there, for parties or trips.  I wish I would have taken far more photos back then, many more shots of people and places, images capturing the Bloomington of 1994 and 1995.  I never knew the importance of these things, that I’d want to write about them, and I got a few good shots, but not enough.  I did a little more later, but I’ve taken more digital pictures in the last three months than the grand total of every frame I ran through that cheap 35mm.

That camera followed me to Seattle, chronicling that voyage.  I didn’t travel much when I was living in Jet City, but it made a few trips down to California. And then after K and I broke up, there was a period where I wanted to be a “photographer” again and went around taking pictures of cemeteries and airplanes and lakes.  It also went with on my long trip from Seattle to New York in 99. Once I got to NY, maybe a roll or two went through it, shots of my apartment, or maybe Times Square.  I’d switched to video for the most part by then, which is bad because the quality is so low, and the camcorder was bulky enough, I didn’t shoot as much.    By the time I started to take vacations, like my first trips to Vegas, it was 2000, and I had my first digital camera, so the film went away forever.

Anyway, the McCandless book reminded me of this, because he took these shots of the desert, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the plains states, and everywhere else off the beaten path of the early 1990s America.  And his pictures, the feel of film going through the low-end optics of a cheap import camera, I could feel the places he visited, much more so than if he’d just snapped some Instagram pics with his iPhone.  That particular type of shot, the lenses or the grain of the film or whatever else, just screamed 1990, the same way my dad’s old slide film 135 shots from when he was in the service are easily IDed as being from the late 1960s.  They just had a certain feel to them.

I made that journey across the desert in 1999, driving through New Mexico and Arizona and Nevada and Texas, on some of the same roads as him, and pulled over many times to walk across the flats and look at dry riverbeds and take a few shots with my cheap camera.  And his pictures remind me of my pictures.  And my pictures remind me of standing there alone, feeling the nature and lack of mankind around me, in a way that a hundred snaps from a camphone would not.  That era is so close to us now, only a few years ago, but it seems like a lifetime away.  And when I pick up a film print I took from them, or look at the copies of his, it makes me jump from my life back to that one.

Anyway, enough rambling.  More film will be shot.  And I have a huge project I dread, involving scans and restoration of these giant tupperware storage bins of negatives and prints, before they all rot into rancid chemicals and fade into nothing.  I should get on that.

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Why I love analog

Real film. Not an instagram filter.

After shooting some 25,000 digital photos in the last decade and a half, I finally did something I never thought I would: I started shooting film again.

In a fit of boredom, I bought a Lomography Diana F+ camera. It’s a 40-buck plastic toy camera that shoots 120 roll film, with manual everything and a plastic lens that takes hipster-esque Instagram-y pictures. I took it out and ran three rolls through it, just to see what it would be like. It was tough, clunky, and awkward, but I loved it.

I haven’t shot film since 2000.  I got my first digital camera, a 1-MP Olympus point/shoot, at J&R Electronics in New York at the very end of that year.  I remember this well, because I had to take a bunch of use-it-or-lose-it vacation and essentially split work very early in the month of December for the rest of the year, and I got really sick on the first day off. I spent the whole vacation in a NyQuil daze, sleeping for 30 hours, waking up in the middle of the night to order hot and sour soup by the gallon from the crap Chinese place down the street, then going back to bed.  I eventually got ambulatory enough on the day after Christmas to brave a snowstorm that dumped a few feet of fluffy white snow over the island. I took the N train down to the City Hall stop to go into the electronics superstore that stood near the foot of the mighty twin towers of the World Trade Center.  I bought the camera, stumbled home, and took a bunch of shots of my kitchen and bathroom, amazed at how they instantly showed up in the tiny LCD screen.

Digital changed my life.  I didn’t have to go to labs, didn’t have to wait to see if a shot worked, and didn’t have the nagging self-censorship that a flunkie working the film counter at Osco’s would be looking at my prints. I took a ton of pictures with that little junk camera, and then moved on to a series of better point/shoots through the 00s before graduating to a DSLR in 2010.  I love shooting with the big Canon, but I still take more pictures with my iPhone. Both are fast, easy, and cheap.

But, there’s a disconnect. I average a few hundred shots a month, although it’s in fits and spurts; I will take out the DSLR for vacation or a baseball game and run a few thousand shots, but then it goes back to the shelf; the iPhone grabs a funny picture or something interesting maybe a few times a week, mostly snapshots of the cats or stupid products in stores. Sometimes these go to flickr, endless galleries of vacation shots that nobody looks at. Hell, I don’t look at them half the time.  I enjoy going back to remember something from ten years ago, but my least favorite part about vacation is trimming a thousand pictures down to a hundred and trying to caption them.  I wish there was a program that would do it automatically, as I’ve said before, but that’s a ways off.

I think that disconnect between us and what we capture, the intermediary of the digital screen and the promise of quick/easy/cheap causes us to produce things we don’t care about.  I don’t give a shit about most of those 25,000 shots I have in Aperture. Maybe 100 are really good works of art, and maybe 1000 of them are things I want to remember. And everyone is that way. Everyone with a digital camera has a million shots and nowhere to put them.  And nobody likes looking at them, except people you don’t want prying into them, like stalkers and annoying relatives. Nobody creates with a camera anymore; we capture, hoping it will help us remember what we quickly forget in our fast-paced world, but we never go back to look at it, and none of it matters. It’s something we feel we should do, like when people take a thousand pictures an hour when they have kids, but nobody’s going to cherish those pictures. They’re probably going to be gone in a dozen years, from a dead hard drive or some new change to formats that will make them all obsolete.

So the first reaction from anyone I told about this new camera is “why the hell are you shooting film?  Don’t you have an iPhone?”  And the answer is that the lack of immediacy, the fact that I need to think because each shot is costing me a buck and I won’t see it for two weeks, makes me more cognizant of what I’m doing. It gives me more of a relationship with what I’m creating. I mean, my iPhone is still taking better pictures, but there’s something about the process of going to the photo shop and talking to the clerk and being handed that envelope of prints and negatives, and then the surprise of opening it and going through to see what worked and what didn’t. I enjoy the process, even if it takes longer.

It reminds me of the days of going to a real record store, talking to the people there about what’s new and what’s cool, flipping through the stacks, looking at the artwork, smelling the vinyl in the air and seeing the other people there.  The whole ritual of going there is something I painfully miss, and buying albums made me more aware of them.  It’s damn convenient to go to iTunes, listen to a few samples, and click the buy button to instantly have it on your computer. But I buy stuff and don’t even listen to it, forget about it, and have to force myself to use playlists and rate things to find them and get into them.  I’m not aware of the music I have anymore.

It’s also the same with books.  Everyone is into the Kindle, and I sell more ebooks than paper these days.  But I download Kindle books that go free, or things I see online, and I never, ever read them.  I have hundreds of Kindle books I will never in a million years open. I read 100% of everything on paper, and I love collecting books. I cherish the print copies of things I really dig, and nothing beats the hypnotic experience of holding a dead tree in your hands and flipping through the pages.  Yes, it’s easier to search through a tech manual or textbook and find what you need on a Kindle or in a PDF. But the relationship between the reader and the work is much more solid on paper.  Will the Kindle disrupt publishing?  Sure.  The CD disrupted the production of vinyl. But people who love music are back to buying it.  Books are the same thing.

Anyway, the first film came out okay.  It’s going to take some practice to get into it, and I probably need a cheaper 35mm to do some learning. Here are the first shots. It’s a fun distraction, so I’m going to keep at it. I’m still shooting as much or even more digital, but there’s just something about analog I can’t shake.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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More potential author photos

I was bored.  Here are some more potential author photos.

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Audience of One

I’m probably too old to be listening to Rise Against, but for some reason I am, and I’m supposed to be editing this fucking book, and I’m not.  It’s still getting there, I guess.  I wish it was done though so I could work on something else.

I had an involved dream the other night that I was in Cambodia on New Year’s.  And I needed to get out of the hotel and take a cab somewhere, but I couldn’t talk in Khmer and nobody spoke English, so I told the cab driver to take me to McDonald’s.  The McDonald’s was actually two rooms in a walk-up apartment, run by a pair of hillbillies and completely off the radar from the franchise. They had bottles of generic Fanta that had probably been refilled dozens of times with hepatitis-infused kool-aid, and soy hamburgers that tasted like death, wrapped in photocopies of McDonald’s wrappers. The french fries were made of smashed plantains, and a 500-pound woman with no teeth kept telling me it was all real, and I could only buy things with cash, American dollars.  I don’t remember what happened after that, something about explaining to my step-dad how on-demand cable TV worked.

I think I can start talking about this now: I signed a contract with a production company who will be recording an audio book for Atmospheres. They sent the first fifteen minutes the other day, and it’s pretty phenomenal.  I mean, the book’s great and you should read it (of course), but hearing someone else read it makes it even better.  I don’t know all of the details on the release yet, but it will probably happen by the fall, and it will be an exclusive through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes, for download.  I don’t know how much it will cost, and they set the price, but it’s targeted to be a 6.5-hour book, so it might be $25 or so.  There will probably be deals through Audible though, like if you sign up for an account, you could get it for free or something like that.  Stay tuned for more details, because it will be awesome when it’s done.

I am reading the new Henry Rollins book, which is sort of a mixed bag.  It’s essentially two years of his daily journals, or about 500 pages of tales of travel and work.  He has some amazing adventures, going to crazy countries in Africa and south Asia that require you to have a map and a wikipedia connection to find where he is.  But some of it also gets monotonous, like when he’s on a speaking tour and the daily entries are not much more than “drunk people at show/this bus sucks/this club owner is a jackass/repeat.”  And it’s sort of dangerous for me to read this sort of thing, because I have hundreds of thousands of words of journals like this, and a strong compulsion to throw them together, drop in some pics, and send them off to CreateSpace and the Kindle store for consumption.  But I’m not a famous punk rock dude, so that’s not an option.

I do sometimes think about unloading half-baked writing like that.  Like maybe I should compile a book called “First Thirds” that is the front end of three failed NaNo novels.  Or it would be vaguely interesting to take a thousand pages of my sent mail and stitch it into a book.  Or maybe not.  And I’ve got enough on my plate that I don’t need to chase those dragons.

I am also slowly dumping new words into a book that could become the next Atmospheres, or maybe it’s a breeding ground for new flash fiction.  I’ll leave you with a short bit that was written last March.  Enjoy.

I couldn’t go to the meetings anymore, because the urge to scream “SHUT THE FUCK UP” every three seconds became too huge. I knew I’d eventually snap and tell someone from marketing to stick their tongue in my asshole, and there’s no taking that back. But they brought free donuts every Tuesday, the good kinds, drenched in syrups and candies. You’d fart the yeast-cloud of death for hours after gorging on four thousand calories of that shit, but it was totally worth it.

He carried the back rim from an electric bike over his shoulder as we hopped from bar to bar in the east village, searching for a place with Absinthe milkshakes for St. Patrick’s day. “It’s going to cost 50 billion dollars a foot to dig a new subway,” he said, chugging Jaegermeister. “And by the time it’s done, everybody’s going to be taking autonomous cars everywhere.  We’re basically paying ten trillion dollars for a new urinal for the homeless.”

Someone charged me twenty dollars cash to explain how Gravity’s Rainbow predicted 9/11. It involved rockets, but that’s all I remembered. She told me she’d meet me at the Irish bar, but it was too loud, and they tore it down before the end of the evening, something about zoning laws or new condominiums. Everything’s condominiums now; even Duane Reade is building drug store-themed co-ops to sell to insane Japanese businessmen.

I tried to sleep on the train platform, while a guy explained to his wife why their cats needed Roth IRAs.  She mostly argued not about the absurdity of cat retirement, but the tax implications about not using a traditional IRA. I got on the F and saw a girl that looked like a doppelgänger of one I let go a dozen years before, intently reading whatever book was hot that week through her librarian glasses on the long train ride to Bay Ridge.  This war will never end, I thought.



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I keep that Bruce Hornsby album in my iTunes library for profiling purposes

It’s one of those days where I’m editing the first draft of this book and it’s probably 90% done and I need to push it and get it finished, and I waste ten hours finding isolated bass tracks on youtube.  This book is almost done, though. And it sucks that Berry Gordy recorded all of those Motown records in the shittiest way possible, so the James Jamerson bass tracks are full of bleed-through from the drums.

A couple of appearances to mention.  First, an excerpt from Atmospheres was over at Bizarro Central today.  Second, I got mentioned in Fiona’s list of “The 7 most unique internet personalities” over at Thought Catalog.  The only person I vaguely know on that list is Rev Jen, and I only know her as a friend-of-a-friend, and we used to talk about the Subaru Brat all the time on LiveJournal about 63 years ago.

Oh, and got moved this week.  I moved it over here to and it’s about five times faster.  So I will be doing more work over there, blogging and talking about lit stuff, and basically not writing.  But you should check it out.  And I’m always looking for people to write or blog or send stories or reviews over there, so do that, too.

I can’t believe it is already 2/3 of the way through June.  I also can’t believe this book is almost done, only a few months after the last one.  Part of me is sick of it, because I’ve been reading and re-reading it over and over as I edit it. But part of me also thinks about all of the great stuff that’s in it, the themes and concepts, and thinks it’s going to be great when it’s done.  I still don’t know any of the publishing details or where it will go, and that might take a while.  But I will be happy when it gets out there.  And I will be happy to have #11 done with, so I can move on to the next thing.

More weird dreams lately, probably because I’m back on a strange insomnia cycle, waking up in the middle of the night and not fully going back to sleep, bouncing out of a half-awake state and REM.  I dreamed last night that I was back in Denver, back working for the company where I worked briefly in 2007-2008.  That place got bought by McAfee in real life, and I don’t know what happened, if they still have an office in Denver or if it’s all been re-absorbed by the mothership or what.  I’m glad I don’t work there anymore, only because then every idiot relative I know would be constantly be asking me “YOU WORK FOR THAT GUY JOHN MCAFEE NOW I HEARD HE SMOKES CRACK.”  Anyway, in the dream, I had to go back to Denver to report in and start working again, and there was an entirely new tech team and I knew nobody, and even after I landed at the airport, I did not know where their office was, because they apparently moved.  The whole thing was odd and awkward and I didn’t fit in, and it was basically like what my job was at pretty much every place I worked.

I also had an involved dream where the new Star Wars movie came out, and I felt an obligation to see it, since I loved the original ones as a kid.  (I reluctantly saw the new ones when they came out in the 2000s, and wasn’t that into it, which is another discussion entirely.)  Anyway, my wife decided we would go if we could bring her two 2-year-old nephews, and they lost interest about twelve seconds into the movie, chaos ensues. I don’t remember exactly what happened, except I remember waking up and thinking very clearly that the movie was already out and I should go see it by myself. I think it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized they are just now shooting the movie.  I’m still not sure if I will actually see it, because I felt so burned after seeing Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that because that’s like complaining about airplane food.

Not much else to report.  I am going to a baseball game next week, not because I care about the teams (Giants, Red) but because my wife’s team got their company suite, and that’s a hell of a way to go to a baseball game and not watch it.  I hope to get more good pictures of players I don’t care about. I’d kvetch about the Rockies, but after they got no-hit the other night by the Dodgers, the season’s pretty much done for me.  They are beginning their long slide into the basement.

Speaking of pictures, Germany pics are here and here.


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C-41 Process Nostalgia K-Holes

I am in the thick of editing this next book, and I really hate editing. I’m doing the work and fixing a lot of problems, but I like writing and creating and counting the words added a lot more than I do swimming in the soup of words and trying to kill passive verbs. There’s no metric for me to tell how much better or worse I’m making things, except to tell how many comments in Scrivener I’ve completed and removed, only there’s no way to count the comments in a Scrivener document (I think.)

I’ve been on the fence about this book. In some senses, I think it’s the best stuff I’ve done in a while, or at least very different than the stuff I’ve been writing. It’s a traditional plotted science fiction book, and sometimes as I’m cruising through the text, it amazes me how all of the pieces come together perfectly. And there are so many themes and concepts that I managed to shoehorn into the thing, that it amazes me to rediscover them as I’m editing. On the flipside, I wonder if it’s enough to sell, and I find the writing clunky, and the more I stare at it, the worse it gets.  And as I’m editing, I keep thinking I want this to be over with and to move onto creating something else.  But I need to keep up the fight.

Unrelated: I recently realized that Rumored to Exist and Atmospheres both end in the same parking lot in Elkhart, Indiana. This was entirely coincidental.

My old boss from the school theater where I worked just posted a picture of me on Facebook from maybe 1986. I was probably fifteen, must have weighed about 135 pounds, and had spiked hair. I don’t remember the picture being taken at all, and that sort of thing always amazes, mystifies, and scares me. I have such a solid concept of my memory of the past, and it flummoxes me to see a picture that challenges that, or fills in a blank I don’t entirely remember.

The same thing also happened recently when my sister sent me a picture from the fall of 1990, at my other sister’s first communion. It was in the parking lot of the church, a whole-family thing, and I’m dressed in a suit and tie, and my girlfriend from that era was with me. It’s an incredibly haunting photo to me, for three reasons. First, this must have been right around the time I started taking lithium, and the weight gain had not happened yet, so I was probably six feet tall and weighed about 140 or 150 pounds. I would kill all of you and all of your children and pets and relatives to get within ten pounds of that weight again.  That’s superficial, but there you go.

Point two: I have not seen a picture of this ex in twenty years. After we broke up, she broke into my house while I was at work and destroyed every picture, note, and letter in my bedroom, including all of my paper journals going back to high school. I’m still beyond pissed she did that, because it included my first stabs at writing a book (and maybe I should be grateful) but it also means only my memories of her remain, and those memories are faint. I occasionally talk about writing a book about the time that happened before Summer Rain, and if I ever did, a fictionalized version of her would play a major role. It would have to be some hybrid-composite thing, capturing the feelings without revealing any details, maybe rolling a few relationships into one, like the character Amy in SR. Aside from the million other reasons I haven’t written that book, a big one is the unconscious self-censorship involved with having that bad breakup hanging over me, even 25 years in the rear-view.

Point three: I don’t remember my sister’s first communion. I remember that fall: commuting to IUSB, hanging out at that girlfriend’s place in Goshen, working in the computer labs, laboring over calculus M215, listening to the Queensryche album Empire every day for a year straight. But I don’t remember going to that church that day, or hosting all of my mom’s family from Chicago, or any of it. I remember the Sundays of that fall, because we had such a regular ritual, of going to the grocery store and eating dinner and watching that funniest videos show of people getting hit in the nuts with a frisbee and doing my calculus homework. But I don’t remember that Sunday.  And now I have a picture of it.

So yeah, if you have any pictures of me, send them and blow my mind.

I’m still knocking around the idea of some long novel about nostalgia, a straight fiction book that pries apart at these things. The two big things stopping me are the aforementioned self-censorship thing with regard to old relationships, and the feeling that I’ve already completely strip-mined my past for any good stories.  I know this isn’t true, and I’m sitting on a quarter-million poorly-written words of stories that need to be rewritten and pushed into a novel at some point. But that’s like four burners back on the stove. I have another really big project on the horizon, and this UFO cult book that fell apart last fall will have to get revisited.

Also I think I should just compile together all of the shitty comments I leave on Facebook posts and make that a book. Someone needs to find a way for me to monetize that.

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The Wisdom Tooth Story

My friend Marc Broude is in the middle of impacted wisdom tooth drama, sitting in bed on painkillers while everyone replies to his post on facebook with their own tales of dental horror. My story is too big for a little box, so I thought I’d type it out here.

When I got to Seattle in the summer of 1995, my teeth were decimated. It was the holy triumvirate of no fluoride in the water as a kid, drinking way too much Coca-Cola, and being on lithium for a half-dozen years. My teeth started to go in college, and I couldn’t do anything about it until I got a real job and insurance. It wasn’t something I was too enthusiastic about, given my shame-based depression, which was at an all-time worst level back then, but I couldn’t do much beyond brushing and flossing, until I got some insurance. (I think reading about the various dental trauma in Infinite Jest was also a tipping point.)

In 1996, I had a good job with good insurance, and that fall, I found a dentist from one of those ValuPak coupon books they stuff in your mailbox. He looked like Craig Kilbourn and was fresh out of dental school, working in a tiny office near Seattle University.  When I showed up and opened my mouth, I think he saw the first ten payments on a boat staring back at him, and he excitedly started planning a regimen to get everything fixed and max out my insurance, starting quadrant-by-quadrant, and waiting until the new year and new set of benefits to take a crack at the back four teeth.

Until then, I was in complete agony.  I think the work he did on restoring the other teeth shifted things around and pressed more into the back ones. The wisdom teeth were rotting, and food would stick in them constantly, causing sharp, intense bursts of pain every time I ate. But I’d also sit in bed at night with an unbearable dull ache in my entire jaw. I am allergic to aspirin, Advil, and other similar NSAIDs, and did not know at the time that I could take Tylenol. Sometimes I would rub anbesol into the back teeth, which would give me five or ten minutes of relief. I mostly counted down the days until January, and considered staging a car accident where I hit a dashboard mouth-first and got an insured motorist to fit the bill for a total dental remake.

One thing they did, which almost helped, was put me on a seven-day regimen of antibiotics. I try to avoid them, because I’m allergic to penicillin, and the last time I took it, I was in the hospital for a week. I’m also allergic to a few of its relatives, and I try not to take any of the others, so I have a working drug in reserve for a time when I really need it.  Taking that stuff made me puke daily, but took the edge off of the pain. I also got this syrup stuff that looked and tasted like RoboCop’s jizz. Cancer patients rinse their mouthes out with it so they don’t lose all of their teeth in chemo.  It would coat everything inside my mouth with a protective layer of scum, and turn my not-that-white teeth a horrible color of syrup brown. But it worked overnight, or at least long enough for me to sleep a couple of hours.

January rolled around, and I got an early morning appointment to extract all four teeth at once. My girlfriend K lived in Longview, about a hundred miles away, and would come up for the weekend to deal with me, but the morning of the procedure, my friend Bill drove me there, and brought his laptop so he could keep programming at work stuff while I got my teeth yanked.

Problem one: I was not knocked out. I did not get a general, did not get laughing gas or twilight drugs or any of that. He took out the horse-sized injector of novocain and jabbed away at the gum line, while the nurse set up the tray with these medieval torture devices.  Once I got numb, the fun started, and he pried and twisted at the teeth.  You DO NOT want to be awake for this, because all you hear is this horrible twisting and breaking and cracking sound. You don’t just hear it; you actually feel the vibrations of this through your whole jaw.  My neck muscles tensed and throbbed with fire as my whole body pushed against him.  He actually had to push down on my chest so much for leverage, I left the office with bruises all along my sternum. He eventually cracked out each tooth, showing me the total devastation of each molar, the black decay and rot all along what used to be enamel.

He did this for three of the teeth, and then struggled on one, unable to get a hold on it.  And then, the word you never want to hear a dentist say, “SHIT!”  He managed to yank loose the top of the tooth, but the roots remained.  The tooth broke in half.  He spent some time poking around the gum line, trying to find a way to pry out the impacted roots, but this was more painful than the worst Guantanamo torture tactic you could possibly imagine.  The pain shots numb the nerve on the surface, but prying away at an open wound in the socket with forceps and blacksmith’s tools is a pain you feel through your entire body.

The hour-long procedure ran into the third hour, and he gave up. He got his assistant to call a dental ER surgeon for an emergency appointment. They packed my mouth full of gauze after stitching the other three sockets, and told me this other guy could get me in at 4:00.  It was now about 11:00.  I was starving, seeping blood, and the drugs were wearing off. They gave me directions, and wished me luck.

I could not talk, so I took Bill’s laptop, opened an emacs buffer, and typed out what was happening. He was supposed to be back at work hours ago, but agreed to stay with me for the day. But, I had to get him fed.  And I had to figure out a temporary solution for the fact that I was drowning in blood.

We went to Madison Street in Pill Hill, to hit an ATM and the McDonald’s there, and to kill time before that appointment. While we were standing in the snow at the ATM, I was trying to talk to Bill with all of this blood and cotton in my mouth, sounding sort of like Bill Murray in Caddyshack.  I said something like “dude, it would be cool if I could spit blood like Gene Simmons from KISS.” Bill replied, “dude, you are.”  I looked down and had this long strand of blood and spit hanging from my half-numb mouth, dribbling onto the white snow.

At the McDonald’s, Bill ordered whatever, and I paid for a large drink, but asked for just an empty cup.  This resulted in the huge “I can’t give you a cup, the cups are inventory and you have to buy a drink” speech, at which point I said, bleeding all over the counter, to just sell me a goddamn drink and I’d pour it on the floor or something.  They eventually gave me a cup, and we sat in the dining room, Bill eating his Big Mac or whatever, and me spitting in a cup like a hillbilly with a wad of Skoal in his lip instead of bloody cotton.

The doctor’s office was the complete opposite of the dentist, a super-modern place that looked like a Beverly Hills plastic surgery clinic.  They changed out my bloody mouth-tampons and put me in one of those panoramic x-ray machines to render my entire jaw in a long landscape strip of black and white, which amazed me.  After a bit of waiting, a surgeon came in, looked at the x-rays, and within about four minutes, dug out the shattered pieces of tooth root and sewed me up.

I got home and had a couple of hours to kill, until K showed up. I forget what pain pills they gave me, but I loaded up my CD changer with the first six Black Sabbath albums and took half of the tablets at once.  Every time I hear “Planet Caravan” now, I think about how my girlfriend came in that night and found me laying on the floor, mumbling “WE TRAVEL THE UNIVERSE” with my mouth full of gauze.

Recovery was unremarkable.  I sat on my futon all weekend, drinking Ensure and eventually eating gouda cheese, which is now ruined for me, because it always reminds me of the procedure. Honestly, the worst parts of my recovery were all of the purple bruises on my chest, the strained neck muscles, and the fact that I watched some stupid Meg Ryan movie on painkillers.  Also, the little threads of stitching bothered the hell out of me, my tongue rubbed raw from trying to feel them.  I think I took Monday off, although I didn’t need it, to finish the painkillers and work on writing Rumored to Exist.

That’s my story. Hard to believe it was almost twenty years ago. I wonder if that fucking dentist is in prison by now.

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I wonder if Albrecht Durer was a Pepsi or a Coke guy

OK, I’m back.

Went to bed at 8:00, Oakland time, and woke back up at 2:00, unable to sleep, so here I am, digging through the piles of trash from my luggage, trying to return the gadgets to their daily configuration so I can get back to The World by Monday.

The flight back yesterday was decent but long.  We boarded at about 1:00 Frankfurt time, and I had a “business economy” seat, which is slightly bigger than a coach seat, but still in a 3-wide row, with no special plugs or media viewers or amenities, beyond the meal that almost looked like chicken, and a dollar’s worth of Cokes.

Frankfurt was good.  It’s a weird city, trying to hold onto the past, while also trying to radically build itself into a Zurich-esque financial center, which in some senses it is.  I was struggling to name a sister city in the US with the same kind of feel and dilemma, and the best example I could think of is Charlotte, North Carolina, which is the second-largest banking center in the US, with rows of shiny chrome buildings downtown, and then sixteen blocks later is failed tobacco farms and abject poverty.  I don’t know what it’s like outside of Frankfurt, but I do know they have struggled over the years with their identity and people have pushed back against the image of “Mainhatten,” but the skyscrapers make it an interesting contrast to a lot of other European cities.

I’m not really in the mood for travel writing at 4:37 AM, so I’ll plow through a quick list of highlights:

  • Our hotel was decent but horrible.  I think it was designed by the people who engineer prisons to drive people insane.  Features included a single shower with all glass sides in the middle of the room, with water controls designed by Erno Rubik; a bowl sing that rang like a Tibetan gong when you looked at it wrong; a bathroom light you could only turn on from the outside, which results in blinding your partner during every nocturnal visit; an extensive “pillow menu” but the room only included a single pillow per person that wasn’t much more than a thick towel; etc etc etc.  It wasn’t a dump, but it tried too much to be quirky and modern, and it needed someone to QA it.
  • The German Museum of Architecture was my favorite, and the exhibit on postmodern architecture and Heinrich Klotz helped give me a lot of context on the city.
  • The Museum of Modern Art had an interesting exhibition on African artists which was themed on Dante’s Inferno, with three floors for heaven, purgatory, and hell. Unfortunately, it didn’t have any of the permanent collection out, and is supposed to have a second facility opening with that stuff out, but not until the fall.
  • The Museum for Communication is sort of a postal museum, and is a good place to see old telegraphs, radios, TVs, and mail equipment. I was hoping for more early computer stuff, like a West German VAX or something; I think my obsolete computer collection has more stuff in it.  Also there was a thing about the Bildschirmtext system, which was an early BBS-like system run by the post office on specialized hardware.  They had a couple of terminals, but no English text explaining it.  (google it for a deep k-hole, though.)
  • The Schirn had an art exhibit based on Infinite Jest.  It was… interesting.  It was more or less curated around ideas about the book, and was very meta and didn’t really have to do with the book, but did.  Or didn’t.  I need to learn more about art.

I ate a lot of asparagus for some reason.  Lots of sausage, too.  I am glad to be back on a regular diet.  It will be nice to get back to a regular sleep schedule, too.

I have a thousand pictures to sort through.  I’ll get to it.  First, back to writing.


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