Death of the Concord Mall, Redux

Almost two years ago, I wrote a long eulogy for the mall of my childhood: Death of the Concord Mall. This was after I heard of plans of the de-malling of the forty-something shopping center. Well, plans have changed. Here’s an update.

First, since I last wrote about this, more stores obviously closed. The christian book store that was there was part of a national chain that went under. The bizarro book store that took over the old Walden’s books folded. A BoRics hair place that still had the old logo on the sign has vanished. I haven’t kept track of whatever else, but today, just for kicks, I went to the mall web site and tallied up their directory list. (It’s a bit deceptive, because they list stores by category, and then list the same stores in multiple categories, to sort of hide that nothing is left.) Anyway, a 2015 planning document showed 62 total spaces and nine kiosks. The current tally is 29 total tenants (including kiosks). That includes a few dubious spots, like the “conference center” that’s really an abandoned jewelry store. And that includes the various half-baked stores, like the place that’s just a bouncy castle indoors.

Also, one of the anchors, a Carson’s store, is about to close. This store was originally a Robertson’s, which was a local department store chain. Back before my time, they had a sprawling multi-floor old-school department store in downtown South Bend, the kind with a beauty salon and a tea room on one floor, a place where people would register their china pattern before their wedding. Then they moved to the malls, and scaled back a bit. The store was bought during the mid/late 80s mall expansion bubble, and it changed to a Meis store. I never shopped there — I wasn’t wearing Izod shirts and sweaters — but I do remember they had an electronics department with gray-market Japanese gear, like Sony Walkman tape players much smaller than the ones normally sold in the US. They got bought again, and around the time I left Indiana in 1995, they became Elder-Beerman. They got bought by the Bon-Ton corporation in 2003, and renamed to Carson’s at some point. And shortly, they will be gone.

One odd memory of that store: it is probably one of the first times I was ever on an escalator. In contrast to the rest of the single-story mall, it has a voluminous first floor, with a second floor far above it, and a set of massive escalators connecting the two. Most of my childhood was in single-story buildings and malls and stores, and I can’t think of a single place where I would have encountered an escalator other than that store. So that’s weird.

Next up, that big fifty-million dollar project to demolish the mall and drop in a bunch of freestanding stores that was supposed to happen in 2017? Well, it didn’t. It never got further than a bunch of renderings and some “coming soon” signs at the mall. No tenants got on board, and no financing happened. They did move the old Martin’s supermarket to a new building just over from the old one, and started rehabbing the old building to move the JoAnn Fabrics there. But nothing else happened.

And now, the big news is that the mall is in receivership. The owners have stopped making payments on their bank loan, haven’t paid property taxes, and there are multiple liens on the property, meaning they probably aren’t paying bills. Jones Long Lasalle is the new receiver, and will continue running the mall for the time being. (Oddly enough, they also were the receiver at my local deadmall, Hilltop.) The bank has asked to foreclose on the property, which means it will likely go up for a sheriff’s sale. This happened at Erskine Village, the old de-malled Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, in 2016. It was bought back by the bank, and I have no idea what happened to it, except it’s still running. But it’s just a Target and a bunch of other random stores spread across a parking lot.

I have a feeling not much will happen with Concord. They won’t be able to attract new tenants; there are Walmarts and a Target nearby, and any possible stores are either in nearby strip mall shopping centers, or wouldn’t pull enough customers to be viable. Nobody will be able to fill the old Carson’s store. The JCPenney can’t be too far behind. The only other national chains in the mall are Claire’s (which is going bankrupt), GNC (which is about to go bankrupt), Champs, Spencer’s, and Kay Jewelry. (All three seem to go down with the ship in a dead mall.) There’s still Hobby Lobby, which is going strong. (Except on Sunday, because, Jesus.) My guess is that each store’s lease will time out, and they’ll board things up and let it sit for a decade, until they eventually tear it down. I’m sure the Hobby Lobby will be decoupled and live on. But what else can they do?

It’s so sad to me, because I spent so much time there as a kid, and have such vivid memories of the place. When I look at pictures of it now, the decor inside is exactly the same as when I worked there in 1993, when I was unloading trucks at the Wards store at six every morning. We’d work for four hours, and then I’d go out into the just-opened mall to grab a drink, and it would always be empty, just the mall walkers and the day shift of store managers getting their day started. This strange calm would be there, a vacancy, an odd quiet, when nobody was there. It contrasted so much with the hellish rushes we had at nights, on holidays, going into the holiday season. In those boom times, I would work twelve-hour shifts, long lines of people for the entire twelve hours, everyone on their late Eighties Greed-is-Good kick, maxing out their plastic to live the Reagan era of excess. And then when I was there in the day, in those early hours, there was so much tranquility and quiet, just hearing the sound of the central fountain echoing through the halls. It was so magical, yet so out of place. And now, when I go to these malls, it’s like that same feeling of calm, except all the potential is gone, all the shoppers have vanished, and all the stores are abandoned. For me, it’s like the quiet of a battlefield long after a war. It’s eerie, and it’s sad.

I have a lot of problems with nostalgia, and with memories, and with looking back. I think it becomes more painful as things like this vanish. I don’t want to go back; I never would want to live there again. But it still bothers me. I can’t explain it, but I can’t get past it.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens here, but it probably won’t be good.

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Take Care of Scabbard Fish

This entry is a bit of a placeholder, in hopes that somebody will find it in a google search and maybe chip in more information. It’s very odd that searching on “Take Care of Scabbard Fish” brings up almost no results. Even more weird that it doesn’t come up on sites like discogs or allmusic.

Take Care of Scabbard Fish is a 1994 compilation released by Japanese record label Scabbard Fish (I think?)  Its claim to fame is that it contains the first track released by the band Boris.

Track listing (song title/band/time):

  • Children Of The Revolution – REAL BIRTHDAY 3:31
  • Access – Speeeedway Baby 5:31
  • 50 Times – Puka Puka Brians 8:34
  • Mother Drive Sky – Romeo 5:55
  • Golden Finger – 50’s Junk 5:29
  • Papillon – Jam-Jack 6:25
  • Spacetime – Hula 7:34
  • I Can’t Stop Laughing – Long Fish,But,Blue 2:16
  • Eventualy – 20.000 Dope Disk-Junkie 3:50
  • Maria – Love Sick Lovers 3:09
  • Water Porch – Boris 5:27
  • I Never need – Ja-Dow 9:05

A general description would be that this stuff is Japanese noise/rock from the mid-90s. Lots of feedback, lots of jangly guitar, some stuff bordering on surf rock. But not a lot of it is noise-noise, like beatless, screeching, experimental noise; a lot of it has a heavy groove to it, like basement alt-rock without commercial goals. It’s good stuff.

I haven’t googled through all the band names or songs, although a lot of these seem like dead ends. (How many bands named Romeo are out there?) I don’t have a physical copy of the album, but accidentally found the MP3s on a deep-dive for something else. (Of course, I immediately deleted them and called the police, because piracy is wrong.)

Anyone else have any info on this?

 

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The 8

It’s that time again – the iPhone no longer holds a charge, and is slower than slow compared to the new ones, so it was off to the Apple store on Saturday for the next iteration of the handheld computer gadget. I got the iPhone 6s in December of 2015, and was thinking of doing the thirty-dollar battery replacement deal and limping along until summer, or maybe when the 8s or the 8+ or whatever comes out. But, whatever. Easier to start new, I guess.

This time, there are more decisions to be made, since there are three different front-line iPhones available: the 8, the larger 8 Plus, and the X. That’s a bit confusing, because it seems like the X would come out after the 9, and the 8 would be long obsolete. Nope. The X is a “special edition” or something. I have no idea what will happen when they go from 8 to 9 to 10. Or maybe they’ll need to do something else. Anyway, I can’t deal with the larger size phone, so the 8 plus and the X were off the table, and the 8 it is.

I still don’t entirely understand how AT&T Next works. I am on some weird plan or sub-plan that required me to turn in my old phone in the next two weeks, and keep paying the $40 a month or whatever for the next 24 months to pay for the new one. I bought AppleCare, bought a new battery case (mostly so I can hold the phone without it slipping out of my hands) and assorted taxes and fees.

What’s odd is that this is the first time I’ve upgraded and had the same screen size, the 4.7″ screen. Each prior upgrade (3G to 5S to 6S) had a change in size. This one is the same, which is slightly underwhelming. In many ways, it feels like the same phone. I even had both phones on my desk the other day, and grabbed the wrong one. It’s not as dramatic as going from a tiny screen to a bigger one of a different aspect ratio.

There are little changes, though. No more headphone jack. I can plug in the included Lightning headphones, which I’ll probably use 99% of the time. There’s a small dongle to plug in standard headphones. I’m not really into Bluetooth earbuds, so I’m not doing that. The only other real change is the home button is slightly different – it isn’t an actual button, but a little dimpled area the size of a button, with haptic feedback. It feels like a button, but won’t get gunk or liquids in there. Oh, stereo speakers are on the bottom now, although I don’t spend a lot of time listening to audio on my phone without being paired to my car or with headphones.

One big difference is that the new phone is much faster. My old one was getting throttled because the battery was dying. The 8 is about twice as fast in benchmarks, but because of the throttling, it’s roughly four times as fast. So scrolling and app launching and whatnot all feel much more responsive. I’m sure I will get used to that in a few days and not notice it anymore, though.

(And I don’t want to get into the argument of “why doesn’t Apple have removable batteries.” Because it’s not 1997. Does the new Samsung Galaxy have a removable battery? Does any phone under a centimeter thick? Does any phone that is even vaguely spill-resistant? It doesn’t come with a floppy disk or S100 expansion bus capability, either. Sorry.)

The other difference is that I optioned up to a 256 GB capacity, up from 64. With 64, I was always within a percent or two from capacity. I also had a byzantine system of playlists to sync only part of my music collection. Now, I have synced all the audio in my iTunes collection, and still have half the phone left. So, time to get more music.

The swap was a bit of a pain in the ass. They activated it as a new phone at the store, then I came home and tried to sync a backup of my old phone onto it. But my phone’s OS was a version newer, so I had to reinstall a new OS to the phone, then wipe it and set it up from backup. I also had to back up, wipe, and restore my watch. All that took a few hours, and syncing over 16,000 songs took a few minutes, but it was otherwise up and running that afternoon.

The strange thing for me is that it’s become slightly easier to let the old phone go. I remember when I replaced my first iPhone, it was bittersweet to return this machine that I’d spent so much time with. But now, it’s like the soul of the machine transfers to the new phone after an upgrade. I’ve still got the same documents, backgrounds, settings, and so on, just in a more robust body. It’s some real Altered Carbon shit.

Anyway, new laptop, new phone, and the iPad is only a year out. The watch is probably the next thing to go, although there’s still a small part of me that thinks I should just get a typewriter and a bunch of index cards and spend the money on a cabin in the mountains or something. The toilet situation is the only thing holding me back, really.

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Various appearances

Just a few other appearances of mine worth a mention for completists:

First, I wrote an introduction for Jeff O’Brien’s book Butt Stuff. I don’t normally write stuff like this — actually, I think it’s the first time I’ve written an introduction for something that wasn’t mine, or something of Paragraph Line’s. Full disclosure: I wrote this introduction without having read the book. When Jeff asked me to do it, he had like half a TOC and a few rough drafts in Word. So I wrote a long, rambling thing that had little if anything to do with the book, and tried to make it big enough that it would take up the entire Kindle preview. Anyway, the book is cheap, and looks fun, so check that out.

Also, I am in a video game now. Writer and publisher (at Rooster Republic) Don Noble has also dipped into the video game production world and come out with a game called Heckpoint. It is a side-scroller shoot-em-up that reminds me of the good old days of bitmapped arcade classics. My familiar meme picture appears as a boss in one level, flying a little flying saucer ship. The game is on Steam, and works on Windows machines, although I think they’re trying to get it onto video game machines soon. It is an early access game, meaning they are still adding features to it. And it’s cheap. So check that out.

I also have another podcast appearance scheduled, more on that after it’s released.

And I still have a new-ish book out, in case you haven’t read anything here in two months. It’s getting good reviews, and it’s also cheap, so give that a spin if you haven’t already.

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Book consumption 2/11/18

I haven’t been using goodreads to keep track of my book consumption, and I need to keep track of it, so here goes.

TL;DR: The Best of Odd Things Considered by Anita Dalton – Dalton’s long-running blog started as I Read Odd Books, a compendium of book reviews of the unusual. It later developed into Odd Things Considered, to cover audio-visual and other media. I’ve followed the blog over the years, and always appreciate finding off-the-beaten-path conspiracy theories and weird fiction and stuff like that, so it’s always been great reading for me. I also appreciate when a review blog isn’t afraid to respond negatively to something, instead of only printing positive reactions and automatic five-star reviews of everything. There was a bit of controversy over this a few years ago, when Dalton went on a tirade about the poor editing and design of several Bizarro books, or her lengthy takedown of Tao Lin (years before the ER Kennedy allegations, when everyone posted a lengthy takedown of his work.)

Full disclosure: Dalton wrote a lengthy review of my book Sleep Has No Master about four years ago, which appears in the book. It’s a little weird to see someone write a long-form review of my work, going through story-by-story. Anyway, regardless of my appearance, I liked having a bunch of her blog archived in 600-some pages of paper, so I can flip open to a random page and start reading about true crime or 19th-century portraits of dead children.

 

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson – A four-story collection that was completed right before Johnson’s death. This, unfortunately, has been marketed as the successor to Jesus’ Son, his absolutely flawless collection of short stories from twenty-five years ago. It isn’t, unfortunately. And it could probably be his last work published, unless Random House decides to pull a Bukowski and re-release another chopped up collection of the same essays and letters each year for the next century. The stories are very good, have a certain depth, but it’s not a five-star collection. It’s like the placeholder he’d release before a major Tree of Smoke-type book. It’s good to see a final book, but bittersweet that it’s a last book.

 

LiarTown: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi – Liartown is an absolutely incredible blog of expertly photoshopped images: vintage ads for corduroy porn, satirical paperback book covers, bizarre calendars, and other promotional material that at first glance looks professionally done, but contains absolutely absurd running jokes and dark humor. The blog (http://liartownusa.tumblr.com) is excellent, but the book is even better. Full color, 250 pages, complete overload. This is absolutely mandatory.

 

The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird by Richard H. Graham – Every few years, I fall down an aviation k-hole where I end up buying one of these large-format color photo books, and this is the latest. This one is about four and a half pounds of full-color photos of the A-12 and SR-71, a complete summary of the aircraft’s secret testing, missions, and retirement. Lots of facts and stories, plus a bunch of pictures I’ve never seen. Obviously not for everyone, but this is the kind of book I keep on the shelf for cold and flu season, when I’m too out of it to read and want to sit in bed and go through a big tome like this.

 

What Does This Button Do?: An Autobiography by Bruce Dickinson – Every time I swear I will never read pop autobios like this, I fall down some rabbit hole and end up buying one. Iron Maiden was an important bridge in my teenage years between prog rock bands like Rush and thrash metal like Metallica, but I admit I fell off the bandwagon around college, when there were better things to pursue. Dickinson’s led an interesting life, leaving the band to pursue an aviation career, then coming back to it. He allegedly wrote this book, although you know how that goes. (He did write another book of fiction back in the early 90s, so who knows.) What’s odd about this book is that he rushes through the Maiden stuff, and absolutely does not mention family, spouses, lovers, or children. So the pacing here is a bit bizarre, and it makes it seem like a lot is missing. Similarly, his bout with cancer (spoiler alert) doesn’t come up until twenty pages from the end of the book, and then it’s just a quick infodump of his treatment, which seemed almost glued in as an afterthought. Anyway, essential for fans, but a hard sell otherwise.

 

Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris Kraus – A collection of essays about the art scene in LA from the author of the book I Love Dick, which has recently blown up in popularity due to a Netflix series based on it. These were columns written in the mid/late 90s, and waver between buzzword-laden critical academic writing, and crazy stories of her personal adventures in the gritty world of the end-of-century LA, when too much dotcom money was floating around a pre-gentrified Los Angeles. That academic bits are exactly that, and I felt myself skipping past some of them. But the parts about her experience as a transplanted New Yorker in this weird world can be interesting. There’s a specific mid-90s pomo voice to this writing, which can now seem dated, but it’s an interesting time capsule of a city where I lived long after this was all over, and I liked that.

 

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier – by Mark Frost – a nicely-designed, nicely-printed book filled with Agent Tanya Preston’s notes to her FBI superiors about the goings-on of the sleepy Washington town where weird things are going down. The material sits between the second and third series of the TV show, so it covers things that were briefly recapped in S3, but in much more detail. Good stuff, but it mostly made me realize I need to go buy the S3 BluRay and watch it a few more times in more detail.

 

That’s it for now. I’m still working through a pile of holiday books, and getting other things for review, so I should do this again in a month.

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The Amazon Store

We’ve had unreasonably nice weather all weekend, sunny and in the seventies, perfect for walking. I went to Walnut Creek yesterday to get in the daily miles, and eat at Veggie Grill, this overly bright and cheery vegan place, which I thought was only in LA, and I used to eat all the time at the one in El Segundo. The weather, and the fact that the ten-year anniversary of the move from Denver to Playa Del Rey is coming up has given me a strong sense-memory nostalgia for my brief time in Los Angeles, and I always try to find different places to walk that remind me of Southern California.

Walnut Creek is a point of scorn for a lot of people in the Bay Area, because it’s not “real” and most of the housing is either those same three-story townhouse apartments they build everywhere, or is multi-million dollar stuff hidden in the hills. There’s no ghetto or dead people in the street or graffiti, and that’s a little too Disney for people. I don’t know if this would have bothered me when I was younger, but it’s fine by me now, whatever.

There’s also a weirdness to Walnut Creek in that a lot of neighborhoods can be defined by the businesses they have that would not survive in any other neighborhood. Like if your neighborhood has multiple computer repair shops, it sets the demographic. In my neighborhood, if your computer is broken, you throw it in a pile of garbage on the street, and break into someone else’s house and steal a new one. West Oakland also doesn’t have multiple piano stores. When you mention that a neighborhood has a Steinway showroom, you don’t need to say much else to describe it.

After lunch, I wandered through Broadway Plaza, which is an outdoor mall anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Neiman Marcus. It’s very upscale, very clean. There’s a Tesla store. You could probably perform surgery on the ground, it is so clean. Everyone looks like a yoga model. It’s a very strange place. And as I was walking, I passed by… an Amazon store.

An Amazon store?

Yep. An Amazon Books brick-and-mortar store.

I’d heard a bit about this experiment. In a strange twist of fate, the University Village shopping center in Seattle got one of these, the first one, right after the Barnes and Noble there closed. I haven’t been back to Seattle in almost twenty years now, but back when I was single, broke, and had no TV, I went to this B&N pretty much every week. It was a massive two-story thing, with a big cafe, a full record store, lots of fiction, open late, the whole nine yards. That outdoor mall was doing well, but B&N had lease troubles in 2011, so it went. (Oddly enough, Veggie Grill took over part of their space. Or maybe it’s the next building – the area has been so overdeveloped, I can’t recognize it anymore.)

I had to go inside. And… it was weird. It is a real book store – paperbacks, hardcovers, a magazine stand. There’s a Peet’s coffee bar, and a ton of space dedicated to the Amazon electronics ecosystem: Kindles and Fires and Alexas and whatnot. There was an Amazon Basics section, in case you needed a cheap HDMI cable or battery. And… books. Actual books. Like, the smell of brand new books, something I barely see anymore, especially since most of Barnes and Noble these days is filled with calendars and Lego and dusty Nook displays.

Not only was this a time machine to a different place when book stores were a big thing, but it was a specific time machine, because this place looked like a bizarro Borders. There are differences – Amazon has polished concrete floors, and a slightly darker look, while Borders had the light gray carpet and more light wooden shelving. But I’d imagine if Borders was alive now, their stores would have moved from the early 00s look to this new style.

What really threw me is that the signage is really similar. Maybe it’s mandala effect, but Borders had these black signs hung from the ceiling, with their distinctive sans font laying out the book sections, music, etc. Amazon has similar dark signs with white letters, in their familiar serif font. It’s strange, because the font and design is burned into my head from using the Amazon site for years, but it’s on the signs in a physical store. It’s like waking up in an alternate dimension where the Nazis had won the war, walking into a McDonald’s and seeing the familiar menu in all German.

The store isn’t big – maybe 5,000 square feet of retail space. It didn’t have tons of couches and chairs like a late-90s lifestyle book store. But something about the layout, the look of so many books on shelves, and just the smell of fresh paper, made it seem inviting. The staff was overly helpful and nice, and they had some discount system for Prime members, although I’m not sure how it worked. Granted, this is like a flagship store in a very upscale mall; by the time it filtered down to where they had an Amazon store in Kalamazoo or something, it may be a whole other experience. But it was interesting.

It is a can of worms, though. On one side, there’s the strong fear that Amazon is Walmart-izing the current landscape, dropping in stores to kill off the last of the brick-and-mortar. (Side note: it is Walmart now, officially; they finally killed off the hyphenated spelling of the parent company. Copy-editors rejoice.) On the other hand, it seems like Amazon has grasped onto the fact that book buying has a tactile or community experience that people miss. I don’t go to Walnut Creek often enough to shop at the store regularly, and I wouldn’t have minded if it was twice as big with a bit more elbow room. But I could definitely see popping into one to pick up a charging cable on the cheap, and maybe a top ten book.

The Borders thing really gets me, though. I was just thinking about this because Anita Dalton’s book TL;DR closes with a long thing about the death of Borders. (Buyer beware: it also contains a review of Sleep Has No Master.) Like her, I have many specific memories of Borders. I had a friend who worked at one in New York, and we used to go and get steep discounts on armfuls of books. They had a good location in the WTC, which of course is now gone. Another friend who was a manager at a location in Indiana got my first book into their store, probably one of the few times you could buy my stuff in a brick-and-mortar. And I spent a lot of 2007 going to the one in Stapleton in Denver, looking at computer books, baseball books. The last book I bought at Borders, at the one here in Emeryville, is the Philip K. Dick collection of five novels from the 60s and 70s, which is a mindfuck on its own.

But yeah, it is strange for me to think of Borders being gone. And then more strange to walk into this alternate reality Borders, run by the company that is at least partly responsible for their downfall (among many other things, of course…) and see actual books for sale again. Just bizarre.

 

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Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

Paul Auster’s new book, 4 3 2 1, was a slog. It had a payoff in the last dozen pages, but it took some effort to stay with this for the other 850.

I’ve been reading a lot of Auster recently for some reason, and in the last six months have probably read at least six of his other works. So I threw his latest, still in hardcover, on my wish list for the holidays, and got a copy. I started wading through it a few weeks ago, and initially thought it was a heavy piece of dead tree, but the deckle edges and thick paper add to it, and it felt like it was maybe a 400-page book, but it’s really double that. And I remember twenty-odd years ago, a certain thousand-page book filled with footnotes made the news because of its absurd length and thickness and heft, but now it seems like 600+ page works are becoming pretty common.

Anyway, 4 3 2 1 is the story of a young man named Archie Fergusun, starting with his grandfather’s arrival at Ellis island. The big twist is that the story follows four different instantiations of Archie’s life, and detail how he would have grown, matured, and ended up if little circumstances had changed. It’s basically four parallel books, each with the common characters of parents and aunts and uncles and so forth, but as the back story changes, the four lives fork into much different directions. Each chapter is numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so forth. It’s like an extremely complex choose-your-own-adventure, where you are watching each branch of a tree unfold in completely different realities.

So, simple example, without too many spoilers, is that one Archie has a dad who struggles in the appliance business, has brothers who run the business into the ground, and he goes from job to job as the family lives in semi-poverty. Another has a dad who strikes it rich in the same family business, and the brothers go fuck off to different states as his kingdom flourishes, affording that Archie a much more lavish wife, but a mother who also is “encouraged” to close up her photography store and become a bored socialite drunk, and Archie is much more resentful toward his distant father who is always working. You end up with four very different Archies, all born in 1947, but heading into different versions of the turbulent Sixties, becoming involved in different angles with the youth movement of the era.

The style and stage of the writing is very familiar Auster. Like I said, I read Moon Palace and Invisible right before I read 4 3 2 1, and they all bled into each other. One thing I like about Auster is he has a familiar field he often works with, and I don’t know if the events are based on his own life, or just random things he keeps coming back to. I mean, it’s a known thing that he went to Columbia, and then moved to France, and both of those happen frequently in his stories. 4 3 2 1 has no shortage of these themes, and his modernist portrayal of New York in the Sixties is deep within his canon here.

Auster is also big on using a “gimmick” of some sort to frame his traditional writing about the city or his youth and bend it around into a meta, postmodern structure. This was a big thing in the four-part narrative of Invisible, and this one uses a different approach to take this even further. I don’t mean that a “gimmick” is a bad thing — it’s something I’m always searching for when I try to write something nonlinear or outside the narrative box like this. So it’s interesting to see what he used and how he extended it into such a big book.

Did it work? Yes and no. I didn’t read anything about the book going into it. I read 1.1, thought okay, it’s a story about this kid, his dad, his grandpa, etc etc. Then I read 1.2, and thought, “why the hell is he telling the same story but just changing one or two things?” It was like someone singing a song where the second verse is the first one with a few words changed. Then 1.3 came up, and I had to stop and go read the wikipedia article to see what the hell was going on. And I have to admit, for my no-attention-span brain, it was hard to keep the four stories straight. Like I’d be reading, and then think “wait a second, is this the rich Archie or the poor Archie? Is Amy the stepsister or the girlfriend in this one?” There are four casts of characters, all with similar names, but all different people. It’s a big investment. And I got about 200 pages into it and thought I needed to just quit and go read something else. But I stuck with it, just forcing myself to read 50 pages a night, or get to the end of the next chapter, and eventually, about 400 pages in, it caught me.

I really want to talk about the ending, but it’s such a huge spoiler, I can’t. I’ll just say that it’s enough of a payoff that I was happy with it, but I could also see that it would really piss off some people, especially those who invested so much time in the reading. Some reviewers were really unhappy with this; Michelle Dean from the Los Angeles Times also called it “a slog” and “a bad joke.” I had the opposite reaction, but yeah, some people didn’t like it.

I’ve often wondered about Auster’s end game, not to be morbid about it, because it took him seven years to write this book, and he’s recently talked about how he’s been out of ideas. At 70, I’d expect him to keep kicking for a while, but what does that mean — another book, maybe two? Like I said, this is a bit morbid, and maybe driven by my own birthday last week and the constant thoughts/fears about how much more I’ll get on the page, especially since I am tragically out of ideas and beating the same dead horse for the last few books.

Anyway. Interesting book, good stuff, but obviously, a heavy investment. If you haven’t read Invisible, you might want to start there, but maybe put some space between the two books, so you don’t get hopelessly confused like I did.

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Oculus Rift Impressions

I stopped in Best Buy on Saturday, because I’ve been meaning to check out the Oculus Rift, and the demo people are only there a few days a week, and I keep missing them. Usual thoughts on the death of the Best Buy I used to know, although they did seem to be semi-busy. Anyway, I tried out the Rift. Impressions:

  • I was worried that the thing would not work with glasses. My glasses fit fine inside the headset, so no problems there. I had to take off my glasses, put them in the headset, then flip the whole assembly onto my head. It was a slightly tight fit, but worked fine for me. The focus was decent, but did make me think maybe it would work better with my reading glasses and not my dailies, which aren’t that great for close-up work.
  • I did not notice the headset weight, and did not experience any fogging.
  • The controllers are interesting. They each have a joystick and a few buttons on the top, but then you also have a trigger and a squeeze button. They are also tracked, so your hand movement goes into the system. The result is that you have a set of virtual hands in the game, which move around and can point at various things and tap around. There’s also a bit of haptic feedback in the controllers, which was nice.
  • You start in a room in a house. Your head movement tracks, so you can look around. You can even turn around, and then see there’s a Koi pond behind you, which makes it very immersive and cool. In front of you is a wall containing tiles or pictures of each available game or program.
  • The immersive feeling of head tracking is something overwhelmingly cool. Just the subtle movements of your head moving around inside this virtual room is amazing.
  • I tried a few things. One was the basic tutorial, how to move your hands and look at things. Then I went into a climbing game, where you put hand over hand as you moved up a rock wall. Once I got the hand of moving and gripping, I was able to move fast and I quickly forgot I was wearing a headset, and felt like I was inside the game.
  • The freaky part of the climbing game was that I was focused on finding the handholds, studying the rock face. At a certain point, the Oculus person told me to stop and look behind me. When I turned, I could see the full display of the terrain behind me. And below me – I looked down and saw how far up I was and had a sudden feeling of depth, from the height. It was amazing.
  • I also did some weird video thing, which was not interactive except for head tracking. It was basically a 360-degree movie, with some African tribe, various scenes where you are surrounded by tribespeople, throwing spears and talking and whatnot. It was a bit boring, but also showed off the video well.
  • The video – it depends on what you are doing. On the tribe thing, I could really discern the pixelation – it was like standing with your face right up to the surface of a standard-definition monitor, or looking through a screen door. For video game or cartoonish things, it was not as noticeable. I do not think I could watch a movie in it.
  • Surround sound was very good too. I noticed that in the circle of tribesmen, how I could hear one to my right, then swing around to look at him and he’d be in the center of the sound stage.
  • I did not have any issues with nausea or fatigue from having the thing on my head, but I was only in it for ten minutes or so.
  • The Rift is now about $400 with a set of controllers, which is pretty amazing for what you get. The real kicker is you absolutely need an all-out machine, a newer-gen i5 or i7, lots of RAM, and a high-end video card. And the video card is the real problem, because Bitcoin mining has created a GPU apocalypse right now. Since Christmas, most GPUs are running about double MSRP, sometimes more for the higher-end ones. And that’s if you can find one, which you cannot. They are sold out everywhere. And you absolutely can’t get it to work on a Mac. My MBP meets all specs by far, except for the video card. I can run an external video card, and an enclosure is maybe $250, but getting the card is the hard part.
  • There probably won’t be an update to the Rift this year, but the Vive has a Pro model with more resolution. (Pricing and availability unknown.) The rub here is that a higher resolution would probably drive back up the pricing, and would require a rig with much more video horsepower.

So, mostly good impressions, but probably not enough to dive in right now. I think I could probably buy a prebuilt that would be on the low end of usable for about $750, slap in some more memory and an SSD I have from my old machine that’s just sitting here. But then I’d just want to upgrade to an all-out gaming rig, and I couldn’t buy an affordable GPU, and ten minutes later, the Rift Pro would be announced. So I guess I’ll wait a minute on this one.

 

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Tank, Oculus, food, more food

Pretty good birthday yesterday. After a bit of writing, I headed to the float tank place for a superfloat, which is what I did last year. A normal session there is 70 minutes, and this is like three sessions back-to-back. Last year, I had a float chamber, which is sort of like a big bathtub with a door on it; this time, I was back in an old-school tank.

The problem with a superfloat is there are logical considerations that prevent one from sitting in the tank for almost four hours, mainly dehydration, the need for mass amounts of drinking water, and then the disposal thereof. I took a quick lukewarm shower before the float, to trick my internal thermostat to settle in on the tank temperature – if you take a hot shower and then get in the hot tank, your body will think it’s cold, for some reason. (You also have to shower to get all the chemicals and perfumes and deodorants and whatnot off your skin.)

(And yeah, I should pee in the tank, haw haw. Enough. I’ve heard the joke too many times, it isn’t funny.)

Last time, the superfloat basically ended up being three back-to-back floats with bathroom/drink breaks. This time, I settled in fast during the first float, and went deep within a few minutes. A tank is more claustrophobic than a chamber, because the ceiling is much lower, and the temperature keeps at a constant body temperature a bit more. I mean, you’re senseless, so it doesn’t matter if you’re in a coffin or the middle of a limitless empty universe, but I feel like I can tell the difference. But I like small spaces like that. I don’t know if claustrophilia is a thing, but if it is, I probably have it.

When I got to the point where I thought I had to take a break, I thought about 45 minutes had gone by. I got out, dried, drank a liter of water, and checked the watch – it had been about two hours and fifteen minutes. Got back in, couldn’t really settle in that deep, but I got partly there, and the next hour and fifteen went past. But the first segment was deep enough that it made the whole experience worth it.

Then came the task of washing off the salt. I brought my own soap this time, and did a two-pass shower, since last time, I spent all day with that feeling like when you wear a pair of stone-washed jeans without washing them first. They have some special hippy disinfectant soap, so I used that head-to-toe first, then used real shower gel and scrub, and that seemed to be the trick.

Like last time, I was fucking ravenous when I got out. I walked over a block or so to this place called Clove and Hoof, which is a neighborhood butcher that does whole-animal butchering on local livestock, but also has a small cafe with really off-the-hook food. It’s always restaurant week on my birthday, and they had a special with four courses of stuff, but I just went in on a burger and fries. Their burgers are insanely good, a double patty with pimento cheese and pickle mayo, and I added bacon. The fries are also incredible, beef tallow fries with more of the pickle mayo. A total mess, and expensive, but totally worth it.

It was suddenly a beautiful day out, sunny and in the sixties, so I walked up and down 40th. It has suddenly become a weird hipster mecca on that street, lots of kids with chunky glasses and ironic hair packed onto the sidewalk, waiting in line for two hours for vegan macaroni and cheese. I went to check out Broken Guitars, which is a shop opened by Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, who still lives in the area. It’s a little place, but the focus is guitar for players, not collectors. Went through the stuff on the wall, and they had some decent-priced strats and teles, some older stuff, but a good mix of daily drivers, and good value players. I need a new guitar like I need a hole in the head – I’ve got two perfectly good Strats, and I’m not even playing much these days. So I went and walked around a bit more, then headed back.

On the way home, I stopped to try out an Oculus Rift, which was cool. I started writing about this and realized it really needs its own post, so I’ll do that separately.

Home, nap, then Sarah took me to a new place called Copper Spoon, coincidentally a few doors down from where I ate lunch. It is in the same space as an old classic called Art’s Crab Shack, which I never tried, but it has a cool old-school sign outside, which they fortunately kept. (This was just in an episode of Modern Family, which I hate to admit I still watch, but they did a joke about a gentrified bad neighborhood where cupcake stores and poetry collectives kept the same names and signs as body shops and welding fabricators or whatever.) Got the restaurant week menu, which was a good mix of stuff, plus dessert, plus cupcakes when I got home.

A good haul of books and a new hooded sweatshirt in the mails – I still have a ton of Christmas gift reading to do, and I’ve been stuck on that new Paul Auster monstrosity since the holidays. Anyway, overall, a good birthday this year.

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47

Me, 46 years ago

So, today I turn 47.

I was trying to think of what numerological or nostalgic significance this number has, and I can’t think of any, really. 47 is such a weird number. It’s slightly dreadful to me, because it’s in the “almost 50” range, and I’m really not ready to go there yet. I still think of myself as a bit over 40, and I’m closing in on the half-century mark.

47 reminds me of 17, which is that oddball birthday of your teens, the one of least significance. When you’re 16, you can drive; when you’re 18, you can vote and get married and join the Army and whatever else. At 17, you can… see NC-17 movies, I guess, although we didn’t have them back then. (They were added for the Henry and June movie, which came out when I was 19.) I don’t even remember what I did on my 17th birthday, if anything.

My birthday, even more than New Year’s, makes me look back at the last year and think about what I need to do in the next year. I can’t say much, good or bad, about year #46. I wrote a lot but didn’t get much published. I walked and hiked a lot, but didn’t lose any weight. I worked a lot, but don’t feel like I got a lot accomplished. Stasis, I guess. I didn’t have a bad year, but it has me thinking a lot about what I should be doing.

I’m actually cheating, writing this a few days before the actual day of my birthday. It’s a Saturday this year, so I don’t have to fight to get the day off work. I was going to do another superfloat in the sensory deprivation tank, but had to cancel, so it’s probably just another Saturday of writing and walking. No Vegas this year, unfortunately. No Denny’s, probably. No hospitals, no layoffs, no funerals. (I hope…)

So, I’ve outlived JFK. David Foster Wallace. Fatty Arbuckle. HP Lovecraft. It’s good to be alive, but then I also look at what I’ve done so far, and think there needs to be more. So I need to get to work on that.

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