My occasional history with film

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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Why I Write

So the next book, which is titled Thunderbird, is done and moving through the steps in publishing.  The cover is ironed out, the interior is done, and the kindle version is being tested and tweaked.  It’s entering the phases of waiting on robots and meatgrinders to finish churning on what I gave them so I can approve the output and push it live, or make changes and wait another 12-296 hours for things to get stuck in a queue.  But, all of that’s good, and aside from all of the publicity stuff on the horizon I don’t want to deal with, this lets me shift my mind back to writing, and to the next book.

The next book – that’s always a tough one.  Each time I finish the current book, I do a post-mortem and try to figure out what went right and what went wrong, so I can figure out what should be next.  I don’t write genre fiction, so it’s not a matter of saying “what crazy adventure or sinister villain is Dirk Johnson, Vampire Gunslinger going to get into next time?” And I’ve given up on the modernist semi-autobiography stuff, so I’m not looking at a specific era of my life to strip-mine for ideas.  It’s usually a matter of thinking about form, and what container will be used to pour my ideas into to shape them into the linear thing we call a book.  And that’s always hard.

I don’t like traditional story structure.  I know you’re supposed to use it, and every self-publishing site talks about how it’s *required* for you to follow some plot arc of rising and falling action and blah blah blah.  If I was trying to write the next Wool, I would pay attention to that stuff.  But I’m not.  And you shouldn’t.  If you want to make white bread because being in Kroger is important to you, then by all means, make white bread.  But that’s not why I write.

I recently finished reading the JG Ballard Conversations book by the fine folks over at Re/Search, and there was an answer JGB gave during a Q/A for a book tour that really grabbed me.  It’s this:

“I’ve always assumed that for the imaginative writer, the exercise of the imagination is a sort of necessary part of the way the central nervous system functions.  This separates the imaginative writer from the realistic, naturalistic writer in a very important sense. […] It seems as if the imaginative writer’s nervous system needs to run a continuous series of updates on the perception of reality.  And just sort of living isn’t enough — one feels one needs to remake reality in order for it to be meaningful.

This.  This. This. This.

I started writing in 1993.  I mean, I always wrote, but that’s the point where I got a notebook and a pen and decided I was going to stop trying to play bass guitar and stop trying to write video games and stop trying to… whatever the hell I was trying to do twenty years ago, and really try to dedicate myself to getting the thoughts out of my fucked up head and onto paper.  I was chronically depressed, didn’t know who I was or what I was doing, but had this idea that I needed to process what was going on in my mind, and going to group therapy or trying to date the right person or take the right meds was not going to do it.  I didn’t know if I was going to write science fiction or romance or journalism or kid’s books; I didn’t think about money or career or the publishing game or becoming famous or rich or any of that.  I just knew I needed to write.

And what happened is that I became addicted to writing.  I did it every day, at first forcing myself, but then turning to it as a way to process my feelings, and exercise my imagination.  I didn’t do it as a form of work or craft, but as a method of therapy, and expression.  I did write some of that modernist creative nonfiction stuff about my life, with mixed success, but it wasn’t until I started exploring the fringes of experimentalism, when I started reading guys like Mark Leyner and Raymond Federman, that I found ways to transfer my subconscious onto a page in a way that worked.  And when I successfully do that, I think it not only produces a product that’s different than other stuff out there, but it makes me feel more complete as a human being, probably in the same way that building a boat out of raw lumber helps someone find themselves.  It’s very much a “journey not the destination” thing, but completing these projects and moving on to the next one helps me benchmark my progress.

On the days I can belt out a solid thousand or two words that works, I feel great.  On days when stupid appointments and unplanned emergencies eat up my time and prevent me from getting to the computer, I feel like total shit.  I’ve tried taking time off between books, time to go wander the town or just play bass and fuck off with video games, and I can’t do it.  I know it’s supposed to be helpful with writer’s block, and I do get crippling writer’s block, especially right after projects, but taking time away like that is like when you are forced to wake up every hour or so, and you never enter REM sleep and give your brain that time to heal or regenerate or process or whatever the hell REM sleep is supposed to do.  I feel like something in my subconscious is lethally gone, and I can’t sit still.  Even if I have no idea what I am going to write, I have to write.  Even if nothing is going on in life except 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, a couple hours of dumb TV, and a few hours of showering, shitting, shaving, and cleaning up cat puke or whatever, I still need to find something to write about.

I don’t write to sell books.  I don’t write to further my literary career or hob-nob to a bigger publisher or better bragging rights or a more prestigious magazine to pick up my stories.  I hope some of you do check out my writing and maybe it entertains you.  But if this was a Twilight Zone episode where I was asleep in a bank vault during a nuclear war and the only one alive, the first thing I’d do (after breaking into a LensCrafters and making 20 backup pairs of glasses) would be to find a pen and a notebook and keep writing.  I don’t write to sell.  I don’t write to feed a publishing machine.  I write because I write.

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I do not give a god damn about the book industry

I often get dragged into discussions about the book industry, mostly because people are too stupid to know the difference between Jon and Joe and blindly throw a @jkonrath into a tweet about how publishing is dying or some dumb company is fleecing even dumber authors who did the equivalent of paying $10,000 cash for head shots.

(Side note: It’s somewhat ironic that the term for this kind of shit is “joe job” given the name of the other person involved here.)

This is annoying on many levels, mostly because it distracts me from what I’m really trying to do.  But more than that, all of this talking head parroting sometimes makes me wonder why I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the publishing world.  I don’t read trades or spend time on publishing news sites, throwing down my opinion on whatever catastrophe is currently making the rounds.  I don’t take sides on publishers versus “indies” or who signed with who or who decided to leave their publisher and self-pub or what the guy who wrote Wool ate for lunch or any of that.  I don’t care.

I do not give a fuck about the book industry.  I mean, I like to read books, and I publish the final output of my work so you can see if you want to read it.  But I am a writer.  I’m not a shameless self-promoter, and I’m not an industry insider.  And I don’t want to be.  I don’t write books for maximum profits.  I write books because they’re trapped in my soul and need to be excised like the pus from a wound.  I know it sounds pretentious to pull the “I’m an artist” card, but I’m definitely not a businessman, and I do not care about any of it.

I recently read a book called Post-Digital Print, which was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time.  It outlines every “publishing is dying” screed that has happened since 1894, and I guarantee you that about a dozen of them are things you’ve never heard about.  Almost every one was invented by a company that wanted you to buy their shit instead.  Did you know that people thought radio would replace printed books?  At the turn of the century (or a couple of decades later, I guess) part of the population thought books were turning everyone blind.  It probably had some causal relationship to the rise in optometry technology at the time, and everyone was getting glasses, whereas before that only rich people got monocles, and everyone else squinted.  Anyway, some industry geniuses said that radio would replace “the burden of reading” and save everyone’s eyesight.  And we know how that turned out.

I’m not saying print isn’t suffering.  But it’s not going away, either.  There’s going to be a whole generation of artisanal printing, letterpress chapbooks and boxed sets of limited edition prints with high-end art book covers and over-designed interiors in esoteric fonts that makes Helvetica look like Comic Sans.  Look at what happened with vinyl records.  The 8-track was supposed to kill them, then the cassette, then the CD.  There are now vinyl-only stores, limited-edition LPs with extra tracks and slick printed gatefold sleeves encasing art books and 45-remastered dual discs on 200-gram virgin vinyl.  Yes, the airport reader is going to gobble down murder mysteries on their kindle, but book collectors aren’t going to be forced to shred everything and go to e-format.

What I am saying is that these talking head industry-mongers are not authors – they are inflating their own egos for their own industry, which is fear-mongering and hand-wringing. It doesn’t help your writing.  They’re the people selling the ten dollar loaves of bread to the people who showed up late to the gold rush.  It’s all bullshit.  It’s all inconsequential.

Speaking of, gotta get writing – trying to finish the next book.  I’ll end with a quote from my buddy George Carlin that pretty much sums it all up.

I figured out years ago that the human species is totally fucked and has been for a long time. I also know that the sick, media-consumer culture in America continues to make this so-called problem worse. But the trick, folks, is not to give a fuck. Like me. I really don’t care. I stopped worrying about all this temporal bullshit a long time ago. It’s meaningless.

-George Carlin

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Things I Learned in 2011

Okay, so how does one write a post that summarizes the year without A) listing all of the books you read that year, which honestly nobody gives one flying fuck about; B) see A, except with music, which is problematic because I don’t think I bought a single goddamn album actually released in 2011; C) giving a giant list of “resolutions” which you will promptly forget about by January 7th.

I’d like to think in the last 365 days, I have become wiser.  I’ve definitely become older; unrelated: looking for reviews and advice on picking the correct shade of Just For Men hair color.  But here’s the laundry list of life lessons I may or may not have learned in 2011.

  1. Get an Amazon rewards card, then make every single purchase of your life using the card instead of cash, down to paying for a $2 parking fee with your Visa.  Then, pay the entire bill at the end of the month.  Also, buy every damn thing possible from Amazon so you get triple points.  I bought everything from birthday gifts to toilet paper to deodorant to computer supplies from Amazon instead of battling the idiots at the grocery store.  You save time, but most importantly, you end up with hundreds of dollars of free books by the end of the year.
  2. Paying any attention whatsoever to the Apple versus Android arguments online is a total waste of time.  Buy what you want and stop reading the comments in engadget or gizmodo posts.
  3. Sync a notes file on your phone with a gmail account and write down every single idea for a story or character or scene the second it crosses your mind, because it’s a lot more efficient than trying to actually think of ideas when you need them.
  4. Don’t read more than three Philip K. Dick novels back-to-back while on cold medication.
  5. Scrivener is the best writing tool imaginable, at least for me.
  6. You can either spend a lot of time arguing politics with people who will never change, or you can learn how to block people on facebook and actually get shit done.
  7. When you’re trying to read something on the web and you see a link to something else, instead of falling into a giant wormhole, just add the link to Safari’s Reading List and then when you’re eating lunch or stuck in line somewhere, read those articles later.  I have this horrible issue where I start searching for how to change the font in my mail program, and suddenly it’s two hours later and I’m reading the entire history of the Gemini space program and I have no fucking idea why.
  8. Get a Kinesis Advantage keyboard, and learn to touch-type.
  9. Stretch.  If you don’t know how, go to a chiropractor and ask.
  10. Write what you want to read.  Read what you want to write.

Here’s to 2012.  No resolutions, no predictions.  I’ve got two books in the hopper and need to kick ass on getting stuff done and out, so stay tuned.

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You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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Why I am not an indie writer

I hate the term “Indie Writer”.  Hate it.  Hate all of the variations: indie writer, indie writing, indie books.  It’s one of those terms, like “sammies”.  Any time I am in a restaurant that has the term “sammies” on the menu, I want to burn the fucking place to the ground.

Over on Self Publishing Review, there was an interesting article about this (here.)  In recent years, I’ve had a certain unease with the sudden popularity of self-publishing, and I could never really explain this effectively. But then I read this article, and it was like I’d spent the last X months staring at the splotchy acid-trip picture at the mall and something shifted and I could magically see the 3-D unicorn.

Back in the day, I was tangentially involved in the underground death metal scene; I published a zine, wrote for another, and spent a lot of time trading tapes and writing obscure bands around the world.  This was independent music at its most fundamental: people recorded albums in their own garage, dubbed them onto Maxell C-90s with a jambox or tape deck, then photocopied j-cards and mailed them off to zines for review, or sold copies through the mail.  (“Enclose carefully hidden cash!”)  Some bands “sold out” and signed to major labels, and you could have arguments forever with people over whether or not Nuclear Blast America was a “major” label, but I’m sure their most popular band sold about as many albums total as Sony gave away during promotion of a new Mariah Carey album.

Then Nirvana showed up, and the metal scene completely died.  And all of a sudden, all of these “indie” bands appeared.  And we were constantly told that a band like Smashing Pumpkins was “indie rock”, even though they shared a label with the Spice Girls and Janet Jackson.  And this must have been a major pain in the ass for alternative or punk bands who were still pressing their CDs in batches of 1000 and dragging their own orders to the post office.  But it was even worse for the metal bands who saw a recently functional ecosystem completely dry up, replaced with a bunch of guys in flannel.  The only valid solutions for metal bands were to a) cut out all of the satan references and play mopy college rock; b) get a job at a gas station; and/or c) wait it out until all of the alternative bands had kids and got old and metal once again ruled. Meanwhile, MTV and the mainstream press beat this “indie” label to death until it had no meaning.

There are two different axes to graph this stuff on.  One is “indie” as meaning independent of a massive corporation for your publisher.  The other is “indie” as a term describing rebellion against common conventions in literature.  And I think many of the people who write genre fiction and self-publish it take up the “indie” moniker to show that they are somehow bad-asses raging against the machine, although they’re still writing vampire romances and murder mysteries.  And most self-publishing forums and groups I encounter have little to nothing to do with pushing boundaries, and are mostly about how to make a product that looks like and competes with the same exact things released by the Big Six.  And anyone calling themselves an “indie” would be the last to admit any of this, and respond with “but MY book isn’t just like Tom Clancy – it’s like Tom Clancy with zombies!”

Self-publishing suddenly became “indie publishing” because people wanted self publishing to sound legit, and shed the baggage of being associated with people who paid vanity presses a few thousand bucks for a box of a thousand books, 974 of which would sit in a box in their attic forever.  And some people may be staging a revolution against the Big Six by doing it themselves, while others may have tried to get an agent and get a deal and failed.  And maybe they failed because the industry is failing (nobody reads, economic downturn, the damn 1%, choose one or more), or maybe they just didn’t make the cut, because their stuff was no good.

And I know you’re probably just thinking, “he’s just jealous his piece of shit books didn’t sell as much as Twilight.”  That’s not the point.  That isn’t my world.  I’m not Pavement complaining about Smashing Pumpkins.  I’m Captain Beefheart for the sake of that comparison; I’m doing something that’s not meant to be appreciated by anyone but a small number of people.  I’m fine with that.

The problem is, I self-publish.  I’m an “indie” in the sense that Random House is not handling my output.  And for whatever fucked up reason, that automatically lumps me in with every Stephenie fucking Meyer wannabe that’s self-publishing for profit.  I don’t self-publish to make money.  I self-publish because I don’t happen to have an offset press in my living room.  And I write because it’s a way of channeling my subconscious and my thoughts on finding a meaning to life into a format that can then be consumed and possibly felt as emotion by other people.  And the way that happens isn’t about a perfectly carved out plot arc or a nicely packaged consumer product or a compliant genre-specific thriller novel.  Jackson Pollock did not paint crying clowns and landscapes.  Albert Camus did not pen murder mysteries for the YA market.  I don’t have to adhere to the bullshit rules people keep spouting off, any more than G.G. Allin had to dress like the members of Pearl Jam, even though they both released albums in the same era.

It’s irrelevant.  And it should be for you, too.  Write what you want.  If someone tells you to develop a marketing plan, tell them to go fuck themselves.  This is Art, not Amway.  I am not an “indie” writer.  Underground?  Maybe.  Cult?  I probably need more cult members first.  But “indie”?  Ugh.  Someone’s mom is an indie writer.  I’m anything but.

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The Replay

I’ve been dreading this post for years, but it’s a band-aid I need to rip off.

I was at this acupuncturist in Berkeley a year ago, in some stupid last-ditch attempt at getting rid of my allergies.  (It did not work.)  And I remember laying on his table, with a dozen needles in my arms and feet and face, thinking, “I really should post something today, but I don’t want to regurgitate the same old shit, and it’s only the nine year anniversary.  I’ll wait for an even ten.”  And it’s now ten years, and everyone is either waving their flags and beating their chest and ringin’ them bells, or they’re talking about the folly of spending two billion dollars a day to catch a man that’s already dead.  And every show on TV this weekend is trying to get their spin on it, about how the world of cooking shows or pet rescue or hillbilly alligator hunting was forever changed on this day.

Seriously, fuck all of that.

It all makes me replay the day, and I do that a lot, but I don’t really think about who I was on September 10th, 2001, and what really did change.  And I play this game a lot, with a lot of other arbitrary dates.  I pull up old pictures or dig through old emails, wondering what person I was on 9/11/01 or 7/4/92 or 1/20/97 or any other date.  And I try to reconstruct it, and I always find information I’d totally forgotten.

Here’s how it ended:  I’d been sober a year, more or less.  No meetings, no steps; I just quit drinking.  But that night, my power was out, not because I lived in lower manhattan, but because my stupid fucking landlord had my entire apartment on two 15-watt breakers, and I was watching the news coverage on NY1 as I was running my computer and cooking in the microwave, and I blew a fuse.  And the fuse box was in a locked box in the basement, and my landlord was in Italy for a month.  So I had no power, in half my apartment, and ConEd had bigger problems on their hands, so I walked to Rob’s and he offered me a beer, and I started slamming them away.  It wasn’t because, like usual, I needed to be the life of the party and get blotto and do stupid shit to make everyone else laugh.  It was because I thought if there’s ever a time to fall off the wagon, watching thousands of people die and two skyscrapers collapse was probably that day.

What I know about the weekend before: I just switched jobs, and I thought it was a huge mistake.  I was in way over my head, working as a lone writer surrounded by people who were 18 steps ahead of me.  I think I was the only person in my section of the cube sea that didn’t have a PhD.  I’d moved to New York to be in a relationship, and that ended; I’d found this job at Juno, which started out pretty awesome, and that ended.  I forgot all about this, but I’d emailed Frankov that weekend and asked him if there was anything going on out in SF, if I should pack it in and move out there.  He said don’t do it unless you can line something up, and that he lost his job and his apartment, and was now couch-surfing and stringing together a bunch of scraps of contract work to keep alive.  I don’t remember why I wanted to move to San Francisco, except that I wanted to leave New York, and I wanted a lot of different things, depending on the time of day.

I finished my first book the year before, and it didn’t really sell.  I was struggling with finishing my second book, and in this weird funk where I didn’t know how it would ever end.  I was constantly printing drafts and editing them on the train and putting the pieces on index cards and rearranging them on the floor of my apartment and dumping the whole thing into spreadsheets to try and untangle this mess of a book into a cohesive 200 pages.  I’d start with a fresh printout, and read the first page, and think it was perfect, then move to the second, and by the 3rd or 7th or 12th page, I would get sick of the whole thing.  So the first page was damn near perfect, and pages 150-200 were horrific.

The first page, the first section of the book starts with a scene where all of lower Manhattan was accidentally blown up by a nuclear bomb.

So on the 10th, it was a Monday.  I spent all weekend trying to buy a car on eBay.  I had a good lead on a 1980 Z-28 that some guido in Queens was trying to unload.  It had no exhaust, and there was no way it would pass a NYS emissions test.  He would reply to my emails in all caps.  I bid on an AMC Gremlin in Staten Island, but got outbid.  I also looked at a 1982 VW Rabbit convertible.  I owned one in 92, the one in Summer Rain.  I bought a second one in ’98, when I was writing said book.  Why not a third?  But I figured Ray and Larry would give me unending shit if I bought a sorority chick car.  And I didn’t have a place to park a car, or a need for one, except for that desire to do what I did as a kid and hit the road when I got depressed, drive for one side of the tape, flip it over, drive back.

I wanted to go to Iceland.  No passport, too expensive.  I spent two weeks in Florida that summer, doing nothing in a motel room, trying to write, sleeping all day, taking long walks at night.  It just barely scratched the itch, and I needed more.  I talked to A about coming back to Bloomington to do a book reading, but I couldn’t get away with coming back to Indiana and not visiting my family, which I really didn’t want to do.  I thought about taking a flight to Nebraska, finding a Motel 6, locking myself in with no internet and nothing but the laptop, and finishing this damn book.

That afternoon, it poured rain.  I bought a lunch at this crap Chinese place downstairs, and it was inedible, so I went to Wendy’s, and it wasn’t any better.  So I gave up on lunch, and went to the JetBlue web site, and bought a plane ticket to New Orleans.  I didn’t know where I would stay or what I would do, so I emailed Suzanne and Chuck, the two people who I knew who spent some time down there.  (I don’t know why I didn’t email Bart.)

Chuck’s dead now.  I dug through all of his old emails when he died in 2007, and saw that he was one of the many people that emailed me on the 11th and 12th asking if I was still alive.

Everyone worked at this new place until 6, 7 at night.  Startup mode.  I stayed until 7, then walked in the rain, and took some pictures of people on the street, up by the Tower Records at Astor Place.  One of those pictures ended up being the first cover for Rumored to Exist.  I walked to Kiev, the Ukrainian greasy spoon diner, one of my favorite places to eat, and red-penned the draft of Rumored.  I got through the entire draft while eating pierogies, then set off to catch the N back to Astoria.

Right outside of Kiev, I ran into John, this guy I used to work with at Juno.  He said he was on the way to see a play, because he got a job reviewing theater for some newspaper, and asked me to tag along.  We walked through the East Village to get to this Alphabet City theater, one of those hundred-seaters that’s probably a cupcake bakery now.  On the way, it poured rain, the standing-in-the-shower-fully-dressed kind of rain.  When we got to the theater, I took off my new dress shoes and literally poured out a half-liter of water.

The play was insanely boring, and I left after the first act.  When I got to the train, I realized that my draft of the book, filled with comments, had turned into a chunk of runny pulp, all of the precious corrections now a smear of pink nothingness.  I got home and took everything out of the bag: my digital camera, the minidisc player, all of my books and papers, and decided to fuck with it in the morning.

For the record: Kiev is gone.  The Tower Records is gone.  The company I worked/work for is moving out of their office this month.

Digging through the old emails, I had a couple of online dating prospects going on.  One was a theater actress who would later go on to be Neighbor #2 in a Law and Order episode.  The other, who I really liked, was an artist and trained dogs.  We met up once, and I really did like her, but we never connected, and in all of our later emails, she kept talking about how we were going to get hit with another attack any second now, which was always awkward.

Tuesday morning: my dress shoes were warped and damp and fucked up, but I put them on anyway.  I only needed to walk to the train station, then I could take them off and let them dry.  My bag was still wet, so I didn’t pack in the Rumored draft, and decided to leave behind my camera.  I always brought it to snap pictures of New York streets, but I figured I wouldn’t miss anything if I left it home for a day.

I got on the N.  I hated the N, and they just changed the schedule, adding this W train that skipped stops and ran express and made it more difficult to get to work.  The N crept into the city, and once we got past Lex, it kept getting held up at each station.  I figured it was this god damned schedule change, that the MTA had fucked it all over, and my commute would be forever filled with these delays.  It’s maybe ten till 9:00, and I was hoping to get to work by 9:00, but it’s obvious that’s not going to happen.

It’s about 9:00, and the train is being held at Union Square.  Someone gets on the train, a hispanic guy, and starts talking to me, but I have my headphones on.  Nobody ever talks to anybody on the train; it’s like using a urinal: you don’t talk to the person next to you.  I realized this was not a panhandling attempt, and took off my headphones.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center,” he said.  “They stole a plane and crashed it.”

The train was full of murmurs and misinformation.  I remember reading about how a B-25 crashed into the Empire State Building during World War 2.  It took out a whole floor, killed a couple of people.  That sucks, I thought.  I wonder how they get a plane out of a building when it’s a hundred stories up?  They can’t use a crane.  I started playing engineering scenarios in my head, how to disassemble a plane with cutting torches, when the doors closed and the train slowly ambled south.

The N train, the train I was on, went to the WTC.  It stopped at Cortlandt Street, and you could take a tunnel into the lower concourse, and end up at the big underground mall.  When it was cold in the winter, I used to take the train there and go to the Borders at the WTC all the time.  Rob worked there, and would get me his employee discount, so I bought many a Bukowski book in that store.  That Borders is obviously gone.  And now all Borders are gone.

Just after 9, the train stopped again at 8th.  I anticipated another long wait, so I got out and started walking south on Broadway, to the office.  Gary, the company’s CPA, is outside of the office frantic, red-faced, looking like he’s about ten seconds from a massive heart attack.  He tells me that a bunch of people from the company are at a meeting on the 106th floor of the North tower.  The office is just north of Houston and Broadway, and I see a huge plume of smoke in the air.

The office is chaos.  Nobody has a TV; someone is trying to find a radio; our phones are alternating between working and a fast busy signal.  Nobody knows who’s at the meeting and who is en route and who hasn’t left home yet.  Nobody knows if tower 1 is the north tower or tower 2.  Someone reports that a second plane hit the other tower.  Some people are outside watching; some are trying to get their computers to work to pull up a news page.  CNN, MSNBC, and every other news site is completely fucked.

I realize I don’t have my camera.  I walk across the street to one of those film developing/passport photo/lotto ticket places, and buy two disposable camera.  I start walking south on Broadway, taking pictures.  I’m still thinking “how are they going to repair this?”  For some reason, the WTC on fire reminds me of the image of King Kong on top of the towers in that horrible remake.

I see an unmarked cop car, black tinted windows, speed up Broadway the wrong way, sirens blazing, lights on.  It’s covered in about three inches of powdery grey dust.  It looks like the dust you used to see in Mt. St. Helen’s footage in the 80s.

I walked south, took pictures.  Some people were walking away from the scene, walking north.  Some police were trying to block roads, but there was so much disorganization, nobody knew what was happening.  I saw an F-15 fly over the Hudson river, at a ridiculously low altitude, maybe a thousand feet, on its side, probably approaching Mach.  I’d never seen a fighter jet fly that low, that fast, even at air shows.

Almost ten years later, I’d see that same exact jet, at an air museum here in California.  I touched its grey camouflage paint, the metal skin on the side by the cockpit, and instantly remembered all of this.

I went south, past Canal, snaking down West Broadway, and reached Finn Square.  By that time, the cops had completely blocked off the streets.  By then, the towers had collapsed.  I didn’t actually see it happen; I just saw this giant grey cloud where the towers used to be.  I walked back to the office, and I remember sitting in my cube for about an hour, trying to send off emails.  This is the email I sent to a bunch of people:

I’m OK.  The World Trade Center isn’t.  I think two or three hijacked planes hit it, and it’s gone.  The WTC is maybe a mile? south of where I work.  I was in the subway when the planes hit.
The news makes it look like it’s mt st helens with all of the raining ash, but it’s not that bad unless you are right on wall street.  I just bought two disposable cameras and walked to maybe 10 blocksnorth.  I saw the second tower on fire, and it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in my life.  Right after I took pictures, it collapsed, but I didn’t see it happen because of the smoke.
The subways are closed, and I think the bridges are too.  I will probably sit here at work for a while, or maybe just fill my backpack with bottled water and walk home.  (it’s only like 3 miles, so it’s not horrific).
As far as the people from work, it wasn’t the CEO, but it was three others.  They had a meeting on the 106th floor of the second tower that went, so nobody knows what happened.  To say that things are freaked out here in the office would be a major understatement.
The phones are sporadic so calls are timing out or getting a fast busy.  You can try me at 212 842 8848 but don’t be alarmed if that doesn’t work.  Pass on the word that I’m OK, and I’ll let you know more when I know more.
-Jon

There was nothing anyone could do, so I started walking home.  I realized my feet were completely fucked up from these wet dress shoes, and I hadn’t eaten anything since that Kiev the night before.  I walked to the Astor Place K-Mart, dropped off the film, then went to the second floor to buy a cheap pair of tennis shoes.  Fifty women in dress clothes were doing the same exact thing.  I sat in the Big K Cafe with a couple of corn dogs and fries, and tried to get my cell phone to work.  Then I realized the closest cell tower was probably on the roof of one of the two buildings.

I got my film, and the woman working at the counter was all pissed off that they were in a mad rush of film processing, and everyone had tried to get pictures of the people jumping off the towers.  I hadn’t heard about that until then.  They were saying 6,000 people probably died.

I walked to 34th Street, and the trains started running out of the city.  I got home, contemplated taking a nap.  I went to register.com and checked if kill-binladen.com was taken, and it wasn’t.  I don’t know how I knew already that it was him, if the news was saying it or if I made the connection myself, or what.

I had to get rubbing alcohol to clean my scanner to scan these pictures.  The closest drug store was in this part of Astoria that’s basically an Arabic neighborhood.  There’s a mosque there, all of the hookah places, and a bunch of Pakistani and Egyptian restaurants.  I remember looking at all of the people, and seeing the nervousness on their faces, that this white guy was going to show up and start shit.  I imagined all of the store windows broken within 24 hours, people beaten up by guido thugs wearing American flag muscle shirts.  I thought there’s probably going to be a lot more of this shit in the near future.

Inside the drug store, they had on an AM radio to the news.  They were interviewing some guy at a flight school in Florida, who was saying a bunch of Saudis took classes that summer, wanting to learn how to take off and not land.  I realized that this flight school was almost exactly where I was staying that summer.  It was the same exact time.  I even looked at taking some flight lessons when I was there.  I probably ate lunch at the same Denny’s as one of the hijackers and didn’t know it.

I scanned the pictures, fielded some frantic phone calls, but could not call anyone because my phone was fucked.  Every time I started to take a nap, another call would come in.  I stayed glued to CNN.  I blew out the fuse and fucked my power.  I went to Rob’s, drank beer, came home.  I wrote a lot of emails, including an email to someone I dated earlier that summer that probably said a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have said, and was pretty much akin to playing a game of poker and laying every card you had face-up.  The next day, my DSL went out, because of course the closest colo was in the Verizon building, which had no power, and all of their generators ran out of gas.

I didn’t go back to work for a week.  Four people died.  I didn’t know how to feel about any of this, because I just started, and didn’t really know anybody at the company.  We had to go to grief counseling, but it was a joke. I became this weird conduit for all of these people in the Midwest, because I was their link to the tragedies.  New York became this ghost town; the city I wanted to leave really became a place to abandon.  I cancelled my trip to New Orleans, because I didn’t even know if there was going to be an airline industry anymore.  I went to a shrink and told him to give me whatever he could, and I started taking Effexor.  That gave me something else to focus on: crippling headaches and nausea.  Within a few weeks, that went away, the drugs took over, and I got back to work, back to writing, back to bitching about my lack of a dating situation.  I’d survive.

I just realized I started by saying I didn’t want to write about this, and I’ve now written about 3500 words about it.  I have no nice ending or message to wrap this up with, except the uneasy feeling that there will never be any real closure on this, because the event will forever be fetishized.  I’m constantly told what I should think about this, and it never is what I think.  I guess that’s the big takeaway, that it’s not something that can be pigeonholed into a nice, succinct bumper sticker-sized motto or slogan.

Okay, time to turn off the TV for the weekend and go on with life.

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The Death of Death

I was in the allergy clinic last week, waiting for my arm to swell up until it looked like it took a Justin Verlander fastball, and I saw some magazine with a cover story about man reaching immortality. I didn’t read the article, because I know there are exactly two types of articles in magazines: 1) “Everything is fucked and we’re all going to die”, and 2) “You really need to buy this shit, or you’re worthless”. (I guess there is a third type, which is 1+2.)

It’s not an unfamiliar concept, especially if you read a lot of SciFi: eventually, we’ll get to the point where all of the diseases and maladies that currently kill off people will be treatable or curable, and the only way to die will involve motor vehicles with a fast 0-60. That’s not to say all people will live forever; everyone who can afford it will be able to.  Also, maybe there will be some kind of Logan’s Run cutoff date or death lottery or other optional euthanasia scenario which will prevent infinite population growth.  But what I find interesting is that immortality is already available to the ultra-infamous, and we just saw an example of it this week.

So Osama Bin Laden found himself on the wrong side of a SEAL team last Sunday. They installed some additional ventilation to his brain, which had the side effect of stopping his pulse for an indefinite period.  Half the world took the opportunity to get drunk, scream “USA! USA!”, wave flags, and thank the wrong president for a job well done; the other half of the country posted quotes incorrectly attributed to the wrong civil rights leader.  I’m not here to condemn or condone either reaction, except to say that I had a different one, which is to acknowledge that Bin Laden did not die, because at this point in time, nobody of his stature can die.

Before anyone flies off the handle, I don’t mean that OBL was a great guy or anything like that.  What I mean, is that in today’s world, when you get to a level of infamy like he had, there will always be people who insist you are alive, regardless of your body temperature or lack thereof.  Governments are corrupt, and media is worse; we see constant examples of that.  Things get covered up, and conspiracies occur, so any time anything happens in the world, a plurality of people will insist that it didn’t.  People so carefully cherry-pick their news from partisan sources, any time they hear something they don’t want to believe, they move on to another news source until they find the one they agree with.

Case in point: how many people believe Bin Laden really got killed?  I’m not saying the number is down there with the percentage of people who think the Washington Nationals are an awesome baseball team, but it’s not 100%, either.  The government didn’t drop fifty tons of Mk.82 love from 40,000 feet and turn the entire village into jelly, so there was a body, and there was DNA testing done.  But there weren’t rotten.com-style photos released, and the body was quickly buried at sea.  That’s fine by me, but it means that there will forever be doubt in some peoples’ minds about whether or not this really happened.

And there’s a whole list of reasons why people don’t want to believe.  Some think there’s no way that the current president could have pulled off such a coup when the last one spent 7 years burning calories on a quest to do the same thing, but failed.  Some people think the whole thing is an October Surprise situation, a Wag the Dog scheme to bump up poll numbers.  There’s a group who think 9/11 was engineered by the government in the first place, and this dude had little to nothing to do with it, so a scripted end to him brings a false closure to that whole operation.  And who knows what other motives are there for a lack of trust.  But some folks on both sides of the spectrum will insist that OBL did not die on 5/1/11.

This sort of reaction isn’t limited to high-ranking terror suspects.  Did Tupac die?  You’re a google search away from his autopsy photo, but “tupac alive” also gives you four and a half million results.  What about Michael Jackson?  JFK?  Elvis?  People elevate superstars in their mind, making them larger than life.  When that life happens to end, the legend continues, and that dovetails nicely with a media that prints anything for money and a political system that does the same.

So now the White House wrings hands over whether or not to release some death photos.  But peoples’ minds are decided.  They could cart out that corpse during sweeps week on Dancing with the Stars and it would get a twenty share and people still wouldn’t believe it.  The Navy could personally bring his dead body to your doorstep like Ed McMahon with the Publisher’s Clearing House cardboard check, and you’d still say, “I dunno – looks fake / you could put that beard on any homeless dude”.  I know the dude’s probably dead, and to me, that’s not a bad thing, but the speculation will continue forever.

And I can see why they did a burial at sea.  I was in Berlin a few years ago, and I did not seek it out, but I walked past the spot where Hitler’s bunker once existed on my way to Potsdamer Platz.  They’ve since put up a sign, but at that point, the Fuhrerbunker was underneath a Chinese restaurant, and nobody was in a hurry to mention it to anybody, for fear that every skinhead with a passport would show up to turn the place into a Neo-Nazi Graceland.  People get weird about stuff like that.  When I lived in Seattle, people still cruised past Kurt Cobain’s old house, looking to get a glimpse of the garden house where he offed himself.  (It’s gone now, BTW.)  And I just recently wasted too much time on Google Maps, trying to find the spot in my neighborhood where Black Panther Huey Newton got gunned down in 1989.  (The exact spot on the sidewalk where he died now has a sign warning you of the speed bumps on the street.)  I could see the reluctance to having a burial which would become a monument to whatever followers might still be knocking around decades from now.

At any rate, this all shows we’re at a weird time in history.  It used to be you remembered where you were when you heard about things like this. Now, when something monumental goes down, chances are you’ll first get the news on the computer, which will make all of these events blend together.  And when it happens, people will flock to Google Maps to find the death site; they’ll reload their twitter feeds over and over to get the latest distorted quotes and unvetted news.  Back when I was a kid and a space shuttle exploded or a president got capped, even the pre-emption of all three TV channels brought little information.  Now, there’s too much, and we only believe pieces of it.  Not sure which one’s worse.

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On writing tools

In my last post, I talked about my old standby writing tool, emacs, and how I’ve made a gradual break from it.  So here’s what I’ve been doing.

First, there was a recent stream of different full-screen writing tools dumped on the market.  It’s the latest fad: some program that closes off everything but a single window to write.  To me, that seemed largely stupid; you just expand your editor window full-screen and shut off your IM program, right?  Well, there’s more to it than that.

First, I have horrible ADD or ADHD or something.  Not diagnosed, no pills or doctors, but I – what was I talking about?  Seriously, I have a hell of a time focusing on writing these days, especially with all of the distractions out there in the internet world.  And writing involves a certain amount of self-hypnosis, that ability to suspend disbelief and not even think about writing, but still type it on the page and channel your subconscious and capture it into your work.  And it’s damn hard to do that when you can click on the other window to check your twitter feed and derail the whole thing.

For a while, I would either turn off my wifi, or I would use this program called Freedom, which completely locks your internet connection unless you reboot.  (And those of us who don’t use Windows aren’t in the habit of rebooting hourly, so this is a Big Deal.)  I know, I should just be able to shut off wifi, or just not click on that god damned browser window.  But I can’t.  It’s nice to be able to completely childproof the process.

I also experimented with trying to fake a full-screen writing program with emacs, adding some margins and pumping up the font size, so I could go full-screen and only have a nice blank page to stare at.  But one day, in a fit of writer’s block fury, I went to the app store and picked up a copy of OmmWriter.

OmmWriter is pretty damn amazing. Basically, you start it, and it opens a text editor over your entire screen, plain and simple.  But the little details are what make it so slick.  First, it shuts off all notifications.  If you’re using Growl to sling popups when you get new mails and whatnot, those all get halted.  Next, it draws this background picture of a winter landscape that looks like some lost Tori Amos album back cover.  And as you start typing, the borders and minimalist menu buttons fade away.  The fonts are very readable and high-design typography too; no more Courier New or whatever the hell emacs uses by default.  There’s also a word count tally at the bottom of the resizable text area that will vanish as you get to work.  And there’s a choice of several mellow, new-agey ambient soundtracks that play in the background.  And all of this sounds hokey, like I’m about to talk to you about an opportunity to resell some healing crystals to your family and friends, but it seriously works.  I don’t know why, but it made it much easier to fade into the work.  It was awesome for journal entries and articles and brief bursts of automatic writing.  But it was not a full-fledged content management system; there’s no way I could write a book in this thing.

Side note: this thing uses OSX’s text editing widget or engine or whatever you call it.  And something I did not realize: most of emacs’s key shortcuts work in any program that uses this.  So if you reflexively use Ctrl-A and Ctrl-E to jump to the start and end of a line, that totally works, either in the Mac’s TextEdit, or a program like Ommwriter.

So I’ll cut to the chase: after a few other trials, I finally got into using Scrivener.  And it has completely changed the way I write, because it finally does what I need to keep organized.

One of the biggest things is I need a system that can deal with me writing in “chunks”.  There are other virtual index card systems, but they typically don’t let you meld the cards into one huge work.  And outline programs are great (I’m a long-time user of OmniOutliner) but I always hated trying to reconcile changes in the actual writing with changes in the outline and vice-versa.  I wanted a way to have the outline be the document.

Scrivener is a lot like modern IDEs you’d use to write code: there’s a binder that’s a project-level collection of folders, with one folder being the actual manuscript, and the other folders being whatever the hell you want.  In a folder, you can create other folders, or you can create documents.  So let’s say my manuscript has a dozen chapters, I can make each of those a folder.  Then in each folder, I can have a bunch of text documents, one for each scene or paragraph or whatever the hell I want.  I can drag those around in any order, chop them into smaller pieces, merge them, add more, delete them, whatever.  Then when I click on my chapter folder in the left navigation pane, I’m presented with every piece in that folder, all glued together into one document.  Click at the root level, in the manuscript folder, and you’ve got your entire book.  It makes it very easy to write in fragments, and move things around easily.  This is pure magic for me.  I really wish I had a program like this when I wrote Rumored to Exist – it would have saved me at least a year of time.

Here’s the real beauty.  You like to work with index cards?  Each of these fragments has an associated title and page of metadata that you can see in the right pane inspector.  You can type in a little blurb of what happens in your fragment, or what needs to happen, or what you want to fix.  Then you click a button in the toolbar, and instead of seeing the text editor, you see a corkboard with a bunch of index cards, each one being that metadata for each text document.  If you don’t like the order, drag them around and make it work.  When you go back to the text editor, all of your pieces will be reordered.  You want an outline?  Click another button in the toolbar, and you see all of your documents and folders and stuff in an expanding/collapsing outline.

I take a lot of notes when I’m writing, and have all sorts of loose text documents and other crap associated with a project: loose wikipedia articles, jpeg images, maps, whatever.  Instead of throwing all of that in a directory on my hard drive, I can keep it all in a folder that resides outside of my manuscript.  And you can totally hyperlink this crap, too.  So you can have a page per character, with facts and stats about the person, a character sketch or notes or whatever else, and you can drop links in there to scenes where they appear.

There’s a full screen mode, too.  It’s not as pretty as the OmmWriter one, and it does not have any Brian Emo ripoff music playing, but it works.  It’s pretty easy to jump back and forth between the full screen and the three-pane mode, which is good for me; I can focus on inputting long passages of text, then jump back into org mode and move things around.  I’ve still got those emacs shortcuts too, because it uses that Mac text engine.

One of the big issues I had too was import and export.  I really can’t have my stuff locked into a proprietary format where I can’t get it to a publisher or to someone for review.  Scrivener has very good import and export functions; you can work in this weird nonlinear format, and when you’re ready to lock it down, you press a compile button and jet out a copy in RTF for your Microsoft Word-impaired buddies.  Need it in plain text, or Final Draft, or HTML, or PDF?  No problemo.  It gives you a fully submittable, standard format document that’s ready to go to the world.  And here’s something awesome: you can press a button, and it will spit out a perfectly formatted .mobi file, ready to submit to the Kindle store.  (It does .epub too, if you’re not down with Amazon.)  All of the exports are very configurable, too.  So if you need different headers or footers or page breaks or fonts or whatever, you can screw around with that stuff to your heart’s content.  You can also do weird stuff like import or export parts of your document automatically.  So you can do stuff like use a standard text editor to take notes on another computer or your phone, then dump that stuff into Dropbox or a shared directory, and Scrivener will pull those files into your binder, or vice-versa.

Another big thing for me is statistics.  I need to know at any given second how many words are in a project.  Whatever you have open in the text editing pane (chapter, fragment, manuscript, whatever) has a word count in the bottom bar.  But you can also do a quick Ctrl-Shift-T and get a word count for the project.  You can also set a goal date and count, and it will calculate how many words you have to write that day, and pop up a nice little reminder in Growl when you hit your target.

There are tons of other features I will never figure out.  It has comments, and little flags you can set to indicate if something is a draft or a revision, and snapshots, and citations, and tons of search and replace things I have not figured out.  But the ability to write in a completely nonlinear fashion is a big thing for me, and this works way better than any other system out there.

Anyway, if you’re in a similar predicament, check out their site and download the free trial.  The learning curve is steep, and I initially had a big freakout trying to figure out how to carve my next book project into the right type of pieces.  But I’ve got the next book underway and it’s motoring along fine.  And I’ve imported both Summer Rain and Rumored, and I’m vaguely thinking about dumping those to the kindle.

Enough babbling about tools.  Time to get back to work.

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