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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 stupid 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 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 things 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.  This was post-NASDAQ crash, and 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 unbearable.

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 kid 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, but not answer my questions.  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 vehicle, and had no 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 much better.  I gave up on lunch, and went to the JetBlue web site, trying to find a vacation for October. For some reason, I 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, who later became the face of Katrina for a lot of us.)

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 a 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 random 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 straighten it all out in the morning.

For the record: Kiev is gone.  The Tower Records is gone.  The company I worked 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 she was trying to leave town because 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 completely unwearable, 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. I threw out the pulpy Rumored draft, and decided to leave behind my digital 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 train.  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 once 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.  I figured someone stole a little Cessna or something, broke out a bunch of windows and started a big fire. I think this happened a few years before, a kid stole a Bonanza prop plane in Florida or something and flew it into his work building in the suburbs.  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 subway 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 9:00, 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 unreachable. Google still worked, and they put a one-paragraph note on their minimalist index screen. (This would end up being the birth of the Google News page.)

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 cameras.  I start walking south on Broadway, taking pictures.  I’m still thinking, “How do they put out a fire that high up? 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 1976 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 few hundred 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, same serial number, same markings, now retired and 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.  The towers had just 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 blocks north.  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 mangled from walking a few miles in 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 at the one-hour counter to get it developed, 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 the pictures.  The closest drug store was in this part of Astoria that’s basically an Arab 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 local kids wearing American flag muscle shirts.  I thought there’s probably going to be a lot more of this 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 all messed up.  I couldn’t make outgoing calls, but sometimes a random incoming call would make it. Every time I started to take a nap, another call would come in from a worried relative.  I stayed glued to CNN.  I blew out the fuse and lost 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 internet went out, because of course the closest colo was in the Verizon building in lower Manhattan, 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 the job, 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 a 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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10 things I learned from the Lemmy documentary

I’ve been a fan of the band Motörhead for over 25 years now.  When I was a freshman in high school, I used to watch the British comedy show The Young Ones on MTV, when they used to show it late Sunday nights, and one week, this weird metal band came on that sounded cool as hell.  I asked my friend Ray about it, and he told me their lead singer Lemmy was god, and then proceeded to make me a dub of the No Remorse double album collection, which I promptly burned into my brain with roughly 40,000 repeat listens over the next few months.  Over the years, I’ve collected their albums, and although I’m not as militant about it as Ray, they’ve been one of the bands in a constant rotation in the player.

I heard about this documentary, simply called Lemmy, also the stage name of one Ian Kilmister.  He’s been the one constant member of the band since 1975, singing, playing bass, and writing songs.  I didn’t rush to the theater to see it, but I filed away a mental note to look for it when it came through on NetFlix or whatever, and it popped up on cable recently, so I DVRed it and got a chance to watch it last night.

I had mixed feelings about the movie.  It was executed well, and wasn’t just a typical rehash of everything I already knew about the guy, which was a huge plus.  But it was also somewhat depressing, because it showed this human side of the legend, and it was a somewhat sad scene of this guy who’s instantly recognizable, but ultimately alone.  I could write more about that, but I’d rather summarize the movie by mentioning the new things I learned that were shown by Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski’s work.  Here goes.

1) Lemmy lives in a shithole

This is the most popular takeaway from the movie.  Most people think rock stars live in giant mansions, and that is reinforced by all of the reality TV showing guys like Ozzy in giant 29-bedroom castles with indoor basketball courts and gold-plated crappers.  In reality, Lemmy’s lived in this completely shitty two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood for over twenty years, apparently never cleaning it during that time period.

Now, I’m not expecting him to rent some huge penthouse like P. Diddy would hang out in, with chrome-plated everything and an indoor swimming pool.  But seriously, when I lived in LA, my apartment was at least seven orders of magnitude nicer than this place.  It’s like a scene from a Bukowski book, with the two-burner range from 1947 and a metal sink that’s been painted white a thousand times since World War II.  The outside courtyard is not bad looking, but it’s that generic two-story apartment building you see all over Los Angeles, the kind that looks like a motel built in the 1950s and never renovated.

All of you who have lived in New York City are probably a step ahead of me on this one, by asking, “well, how much is he paying, though?”  LA is rent-controlled, meaning his rent can only go up 6% a year.  He mentioned he’s paying about $900 a month in rent for a two-bedroom, which isn’t bad for LA.  (A quick google shows that the average 2011 rent for an apartment that size is around $1700.  I paid more than that in 2008, but my old apartment compared to Lemmy’s is about like comparing the Bellagio to one of those downtown Vegas motels where you shoot a snuff film.)  Of course, if the stories are true that he drinks a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, he’s probably spending a grand a month on booze.

2) Lemmy is a hoarder

The shocking part of the footage of Lemmy’s apartment is that every square inch is filled with Stuff.  There’s the usual rock start stuff, like gold records, trophies, and plaques, but there are also tons of Motörhead items, like records, posters, license plates, stickers, action figures, and pretty much any other thing carrying his personal brand.  There’s also wall-to-wall randomness, video tapes and albums that are completely unrelated to him.  And this isn’t one of those OCD collections where everything is perfectly lined up on identical racks, in dust-proof, airtight mylar bags.  There’s stuff strewn around like a crime scene, things stacked on top of other things, shit everywhere.

One complication is that Lemmy’s not being whisked to gigs in hermetically sealed limousines with a team of bodyguards and handlers; he’ll talk to pretty much anyone who comes up to him, sign anything, and is infinitely approachable.  And he has legions of loyal fans.  That means he’s got people at every show giving him paintings and figurines and demo tapes and macrame Ace of Spades murals.  And he seems to hang onto all of this stuff, which is somewhat endearing, although at some point, I would have either rented a storage unit or opened a Motörhead-themed bar with all of the stuff in glass cases.  The man is in serious need of an archivist.

3) Lemmy is into a lot of non-metal music

The movie starts with Lemmy going to Amoeba Records (I used to go there!) in search of the mono version of the Beatles box set.  (And he’s correct: fuck the stereo mix; get the real deal.)  He talks about seeing the Beatles back when he was a teen in Liverpool, and also discusses his love of Little Richard during a couple of different conversations.  (Billy Bob Thornton and Dave Grohl, in two different bits, talk about meeting LR, and Lemmy enjoys those stories immensely.)

He also plays in a band called The Head Cat, which is a rockabilly supergroup with Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats.  It is seriously surreal to see Lemmy, the guy usually belting out songs like “Killed by Death” and “Deaf Forever” knocking out the Carl Perkins song “Matchbox” while a bunch of old people dance at some random casino in upstate Wisconsin.  (Go here to listen to some of this.)

Henry Rollins (seriously, there are so many god damn appearances by people in this movie!) sums up the whole thing by mentioning that Lemmy was around before there was rock and roll; he grew up listening to Rosemary Clooney records, and then one day, these four kids from Liverpool and this hip-swaying dude from Memphis blew the doors wide open.  And it’s true that the best music ever is the first music you hear, the stuff you lock into when you’re a teenager, and for him, that isn’t the Sex Pistols or Elvis Costello or Velvet Underground; it’s Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran and Johnny Cash.  I really dug the hell out of Lemmy being so into the classics like that; it shows that he loves music, and he’s not just into this to be another SKU number in a database.

4) Lemmy has diabetes

The movie shows Lemmy drinking, smoking, and eating fried foods.  It starts with a scene of him meticulously slicing potatoes into fries (he probably calls them chips) and deep frying them in a pan.  It doesn’t show him doing drugs, but implies that he does.  And then in a later scene, he’s taking some pills in a recording studio, and when the producer asks if they’re drugs or vitamins, he says they are medications for diabetes and blood pressure.

This shows the odd paradox that he’s like Keith Richards and Ozzy in the sense that he’s spent the last 50 years shoveling down all things bad for your body, with almost no tangible effect on his longevity or ability to churn out a new album every year and play in 200-some odd cities.  But it shows the twist to this, the human side, of a guy who’s well past the halfway mark and will someday soon be staring down the grim reaper.

This also conjures up strange images of Lemmy at a doctor’s office, paging through a years-old People magazine, waiting for an internist, who then asks him all of the typical questions about diet and exercise.  My health is not at Charles Atlas levels,  and I can’t go to a foot doctor about a hangnail without getting a prescription for Lipitor and a scathing 40-minute lecture about how I’m supposed to exercise 9 hours a day and eat less than 9 grams of fat a month.  I can’t imagine the dressing-down he must get every time he comes in to get his scripts refilled.

5) Lemmy practically lives at the Rainbow

One of the other reasons Lemmy’s got the shithole apartment is that it’s stumbling distance from the Rainbow Bar on the Sunset Strip.  And apparently, he’s always there, sitting at the bar playing one of those video trivia machines.  The Rainbow is a big rock hangout, and has been forever.  And you always hear about how back in the day, it was stylish for these non-music Hollywood types to make their token “I’m a bad boy” appearance there.  But you know how some dive bars always have that one creepy old guy that sits at the bar and stares at the wall for dozens of hours at a time, eating peanuts and nursing beer after beer?  Well, at the Rainbow, that guy is Lemmy.

6) Lemmy has a kid

He’s probably got more than one kid, but the movie features Paul Inder, who is his adult son.  He mentions that Paul’s mom Patricia was some kind of groupie who had dated John Lennon before she knew Lemmy, which is a pretty odd connection.

What’s strange is how close Lemmy appears to his son.  When he’s asked what his most valued thing in the apartment is, he says it’s Paul.  Although Lemmy apparently had never seen the kid for the first six years of his life, the two seem like the best of friends now.

7) Lemmy is obsessed with gambling

There’s a scene showing Lemmy parked at a slot machine, and someone talking about how he’d sit in front of the one-armed bandit all day, compulsively pulling the lever, over and over.  In fact, it’s rumored that he got the name Lemmy because he was always asking people “Lemme have a fiver” to pay off his gambling debts.

It’s a bit of a recurring theme; he’s either hunched over a gambling machine or a trivia game or a video game system at several points in the film.  It makes me think he’s got one of those OCD personalities where he gets locked into stuff like this and can’t put it down.  I sure hope he doesn’t get an iPhone with Angry Birds installed, or we may never see another new Motörhead album again.

8) Lemmy’s stepdad was a football player

I don’t think this was mentioned in the movie, but I was cruising wikipedia as I was watching and saw this.  His dad was an RAF chaplain and split when he was three months old, and he was largely raised by his mom and grandparents.  But when he was ten, his mom remarried to George Willis, who played soccer (football) for a decade or so in the 40s and 50s.

9) Lemmy roadied for Jimi Hendrix

He actually used to live with bassist Noel Redding, and roadied for the Experience back when they were London-based, in 1967-1968.  He tells a story about how he used to score drugs for Jimi, and he would take acid daily.

The story of him being a roadie also shows how much he loved music back as a teen.  When he couldn’t be the one making or playing the music, he was just has happy lugging gear for the people who did.

(Also not mentioned: Lemmy was also a roadie for The Nice, which was Keith Emerson’s band that was the forerunner to ELP.)

10) Lemmy is obsessed with Axe body spray

Maybe obsessed is a strong word, but there are multiple times that show him dousing himself with the stuff.  And it’s not just any cologne spray — the film is careful to display that it is specifically Axe body spray, the spray of the douches.  I’d expect the guys in Maroon 5 or Nickelback or something to be frequent users, but not Lemmy. He seems like the kind of guy who maybe uses some Old Spice (one of the original scents, not the new trendy crap), or just goes around reeking to high hell.  I’d expect him to smell like stale Marlboros, burned motor oil, and old leather, not Intense Phoenix or some shit.

Overall, this was an interesting movie.  I mean, the day-to-day stuff was a good look at the man’s life; the endless line of celebrities fawning over him got a little old, but emphasized the point of his importance in the metal world.  But like I said, it ultimately saddened me to some degree.  It made me hope he’s happy with what he does, because he’s not reaping huge financial or material rewards, and although he’s got a certain amount of respect and admiration, it’s not like he’s going to cross over and become known for anything other than being what he is.

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20 Facts About Baseball You Didn’t Know

1) PNC Park, home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, was built on what was later identified as an American Indian burial ground belonging to the Shelmikedmus nation. Since its construction, the Pirates have not had a winning season.

2) No player in history at the major league level has had the middle name Xavier.

3) During the filming of his PBS documentary about Baseball, Ken Burns pitched 12 games under the assumed name of George Johnson for the High-A Myrtle Beach Penguins. In 22 innings, he gave up 67 runs and pitched only seven strikes.

4) Hunter S. Thompson worked as an assistant machine operator at the Louisville Slugger factory when he was a teenager.

5) Manny Ramirez did a series of Rolls Royce ads in Japan between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, which can be found on youtube.

6) Under the current MLB Player’s Association Collective Bargaining Agreement, any position player on the 25-man roster of any team is allowed unlimited access to any American Airlines Admiral’s Club lounge in the continental United States.

7) The size of a regulation baseball (between 5″ and 5.25″) was originally set because it was the diameter of an average cow’s kidney.

8) Johnny Damon’s great-grandfather was the first person to buy a Model T Ford in Thailand.

9) Originally proposed names for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays included the Tampa Oranges, St. Petersburg Piers, Florida Mickey Mice, and Pinellas County Sunshines.

10) The Colorado Rockies have an alternate home jersey specifically designed for playing in snow. It has a pullover hood, full-height boots, and a parka top. It’s rarely used because it impedes pitching motion, but they were most famously worn in game 4 of the 2007 NLDS, in which it snowed over 27 inches during 9 innings of play.

11) The MLBPA blocked negotiations in 2004 that aimed at moving the Montreal Expos to Havana, Cuba. The biggest issue was complications with obtaining work visas for players who had previously fled Cuba for the US.

12) Pitcher Randy Johnson is an avid collector of Strawberry Shortcake figurines and memorabilia. In 1998, he paid $650,000 for a rare 1985 Berrykins Strawberry Shortcake doll that once belonged to Kim Jong Il.

13) There is no specific rule banning the use of human-animal hybrids as baseball players, although it’s rumored that the owners collectively came to a gentleman’s agreement limiting their use during the 2006 off-season owners’ meeting.

14) The 2010 version of the MLB At Bat app for the iPhone contains a number of hidden easter eggs, including a hardcore porn viewer available during the 7th inning stretch.

15) Cracker Jack purchased at Giants games at AT&T Park does not contain any peanuts and is manufactured at an alternate facility that does not process peanuts, in accordance to San Francisco peanut allergy laws.  Also, when singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the 7th inning stretch, they change the line “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack” to “Buy me some tofu and Cracker Jack.”

16) In 1986, George Steinbrenner explored the possibility of a ban on facial hair for all fans attending games at Yankees Stadium, but his legal staff eventually convinced him this would not be feasible.

17) Janis Joplin’s younger brother Mike was the bullpen catcher for the Houston Astros from 1971-1973.

18) Billy Martin was the celebrity endorser for Excalibur crossbows in 1981.

19) There have only been two times in baseball history where a position player who was pitching was hit by a pitch during an at-bat, had the game interrupted before they took first base, and then appeared pitching for the opposing team during the makeup game due to a trade in the time between games.  This is the only situation in which a player other than a pitcher can have their own walk credited against them.

20) After becoming a vegetarian, Prince Fielder killed a goose with a line drive at a road game against the Florida Marlins, and refused to eat the dead bird.  This was the first time a player has killed a bird during play and not eaten the carcass, which is a secret tradition held among most omnivorous players.  This dates back to an infamous incident at Bennett Park in 1911 when Ty Cobb killed a homeless man with a baseball bat and ate his left arm during the intermission between two games of a doubleheader against the White Sox.

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The Retail Race to the Bottom

The Borders by my house looks like a food warehouse two years after the apocalypse started.  I went a few weeks ago, when the sign dudes stood on the corner with the “ALL TITLES 40-60% OFF”, hoping to snag an armful of good science fiction, because I’m going through this phase where I’m trying to read everything I “should have” read when I was a kid and too busy poring over Car Craft and trying to figure out if I had to replace the front springs in a ’76 Camaro if I wanted to swap out the 305 for a 454 that I couldn’t afford in the first place.  I found maybe two or three books I wanted, but everything else was already picked clean.  They still had stacks of “destined to be remaindered” books, but I didn’t need to Teach Myself HTML 4 in 30 days, so I ignored all of that shit.

The whole store was so depressing, for some unexplainable reason.  Store designers spend untold sums doing subtle things to layout and placement to hypnotize consumers in optimal ways to buy more stuff or feel more comfortable or set the mood.  You don’t notice it, but if you’ve ever worked in a department store and you’ve spent time after hours during a massive store reset, when pieces are scattered everywhere and the kayfabe has been dropped, you know the deal.  Something didn’t look right, and it wasn’t just the hoarders digging through the out-of-date celebrity cookbooks, looking for a deal.  Half of the entrances were boarded up already, covered with giant vinyl banners advertising the fact that everything but the fillings in the cashier’s teeth had to go.  And something about the lighting, the vacancies in shelves, the massive numbers of books in the wrong place, faces out – it made me feel overwhelmingly depressed that this place would soon be yet another vacant storefront.

I don’t even shop at that Borders; I think I’ve bought a grand total of three books there since I moved to the East Bay in 2009.  I’ve eaten at the neighboring food court quite a bit, so I guess it’s become part of the routine to go there after a falafel or some Afghani food and shuffle through the magazine racks.  But I somehow feel both strange remorse and responsibility for the sinking of this ship.  And it’s not that I miss this Borders as much as it sets off a chain reaction of emotions and memories about all of the other stores that have turned to vapor and vanished in the last decade or two.

I used to love malls.  Ask my pal Larry about the overwhelming obsession I had with wandering million-square-foot indoor shopping empires, and he’ll tell you stories of being dragged to College Mall for no reason other than to run the circuit, walking up and down the hallways  and then ending up at Morgenstern’s Books for two hours to ogle over every single World War II book in stock.  (And Morgenstern’s wasn’t even technically in the mall – it was in a strip of stores across the street.)  I found some strange peace in going to any Simon-operated property and wandering past every storefront, from Ayres to Zale’s, looking at mannequins donning bad early 90s attire.  It wasn’t even that I bought anything; I wasn’t like one of these housewife machines that walked out of the clothes stores with a maxed out piece of plastic and two armfuls of boxes.  I’d just get some osmosis-hypnosis effect, listening to the muzak and peoplewatching.

But those bank-issued sixteen-digit hologrammed devils did get shelled when I went to record and book stores.  All through college and my time in Seattle and New York, it was a weekly ritual to take every ounce of disposable income to the media gods, the places that stocked my fix for reading and listening.  In Seattle, I had a two-night-a-week habit locked in at Silver Platters, this CD palace up by Northgate mall.  They had this certificate plan where you got a paper dollar for every title you bought, but if you went in on Tuesday or if you bought certain sale items, they’d give you extra points.  And if you came in on Wednesday, you could turn in your dollars for extra value.  So I’d go both nights, buying armfuls of every Gary Moore or Peter Gabriel import single I could find on Tuesday, and then redeeming these paper coupons for more stuff on Wednesday.  And I’d end up there on weekends anyway, spending my Saturday afternoons cruising all of the other retail outlets nearby.

And I had this routine with the book stores, too.  Every Friday night, I’d end up at the Barnes and Noble in Bellevue, after gorging at the Denny’s there and scribbling in my notebooks for hours.  I’d wander the stacks, pulling books that looked interesting, things I could consume, inhale through the late nights.  I’d end up reading some obscure title in bed late into Friday, knowing I’d been hypnotized too long when I’d hear the sound of the landscaping sprinklers seven stories below my open bay windows going off at 5 AM in the Jet City darkness.

New York helped break me of the mall habit.  There aren’t really malls in Manhattan; the square footage of a single food court could be broken up into a thousand studio apartments renting for two grand a month, so you’re not going to see that shit unless you take a train to Jersey City.  And I did, for a while.  I’d take the N to the Path, and emerge in this bizarro world where people drove cars and parked in outdoor parking lots and shopped at huge Simon-owned palaces of consumerism.  But these trips became less frequent.  Any time I found myself in a strange new (or old) land like St. Petersburg or Pittsburg with keys to a car in hand, I’d visit the old haunts and take a lap or two, get a corn dog on a stick and think about the days when I wore the name tag and listened to the muzak professionally for hours on end, asking people if they needed help with anything.

But then Amazon happened.  I started buying books from them way back; I remember in I think 1996, buying an old book I could not find anywhere else on the history of Indiana University, and it slowly became my go-to place for the things I could not dig up at Elliott Bay Books.  CD Universe entered my ecosystem around then too, and I’d hunt down the rare finds I couldn’t get at Silver Platters.  Amazon went from supplementary purchases to my main outlet for everything, as my go-to media places in New York began the long slide into nothingness.  I dumped serious cash at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which used to be on the first floor of where I worked (very dangerous), but is now a Forever 21 clothing store.  I also made the Best Buy pilgrimage every Saturday, when they still sold CDs.  Now, unless it’s Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, good luck finding anything there.

So yeah, my purchases, or the trends behind how people like me make purchases, may have killed off the retail stores.  I don’t know; I know I don’t even buy CDs or DVDs anymore, and either get stuff through iTunes or stream it from NetFlix.  I still buy paper books, but I also buy stuff for the Kindle.  So I’m sure the anti-digital luddites can scold me about how it’s my own damn fault that Borders filed Chapter 11.  Except for the part where Borders has lost money every year since 2006, or how they thought back in 2001 it would be genius to hand over their online retail operations to Amazon.com, or how in early 2008 (when about 7 people owned a Kindle) they announced they were so in debt, they were going to sell out to Barnes and Noble, a misstep that plummeted their stock price through the floor.

You can armchair quarterback this one in a million different ways, and the same holds true for any big retail collapse.  Blame it on Wal-Mart, or online sales, or poor holiday seasons, or the cost of gas, but it’s really this perfect storm of different things that makes it too complicated to predict or correct.  I mean, I always bemoan the shuttering of Montgomery Ward, where I did my time as a teenager and did a couple of summer moonlighting stints in college.  Most blame a bad 2000 Christmas season as the reason for their bankruptcy, but there were so many other factors: the debt from their leveraged buyout; the two-front war against discounters and other department stores; the failed attempts at re-marketing themselves; the expense of facelifting a bunch of their stores; the hundred million dollars they threw at IBM to overhaul their computer back-end.  Some even say the problems go back to just after the end of World War II, when the company focused all of its energy into building stores in the heart of metropolis areas and resisted expanding into the suburbs.  But it’s one of those things where you can’t just say “the internet killed it” and leave it at that.  And I think Borders is the same way; I think their mistakes at running a business go back much further than the advent of an e-ink screen or even the HTML shopping cart era.

And there’s all of these other things that have changed since I was in high school that alter the game.  People used to buy stuff from mail-order houses, or from catalogs; then they switched to malls; then big-box stores; then discount stores. Indoor malls have been “de-malled”; outdoor malls have shifted from low-end to boutique and probably back again.  People “don’t read anymore”.  The middle class is gone.  Gas costs as much as uranium did when I was in high school.  Book stores only sell clip-on lights and picture books of cats dressed as movie stars.  Everyone is an obese hoarder that never leaves the house.  Kids keep playing these god damned video games and Angry Pac Bird Mans.  Focus groups and religious nitwits and crowds of “what about the children” whiners have killed off anything more controversial than a loaf of Wonder bread.  All of this is true.  None of this is true.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Things never change.  Things work in cycles.  People never forget failures.  People don’t remember what happened five minutes ago.  I don’t even remember what I was talking about.

I was trying to remember the last time I’ve been to a mall, and I can’t.  We have a “mall” just up the road from us, one of those new urban bullshit outdoor mall things that has apartments in the top tier of it, and an Apple Store and some movie theaters, and a bunch of stores I’d never shop at, and a parking garage that is always a total clusterfuck.  But I can’t think of when I was last in an indoor mall.  I think I went to the Concord Mall during a visit to Indiana in like 2007, and was amazed at how totaled it was, how the old Wards store got cut into three or four pieces and turned into a discount car stereo place and some kind of hillbilly craft store where post-menopausal women buy glitter to paste on their angel centerpieces.  No wait – we had an indoor mall, Tanforan, by our old place in South San Francisco.  It was more or less the no-man’s-land between a Target, Penny’s, and Sears, with a big movie theater, and two floors of places selling clothing I’d never, ever wear.  It’s the kind of mall that made Pierre Moran mall in Elkhart (aka the “other mall”, where “other” means “not white”) look big, and they de-malled Pierre Moran about five years ago.

Must stop writing about this, because every paragraph I write involves about 200 web pages of nostalgic searches for old department store catalogs, and I’ve got other crap to do.

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general

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 random useless gadget, 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. (Or was there? The fact that I don’t know this off the top of my head sort of proves my point.) 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. Unrelated — or is it?)  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.

[2020 update: wow, not to get political, but this got way more horrible in the last ten years. I never thought we’d get to the point where like half the country thinks the world is flat, but here we are.]

Categories
general

List: 30 Ways to Reach First Base

  1. Hit a single.
  2. Reach on an error.
  3. Walk on four balls.
  4. Get hit by a pitch.
  5. Catcher drops the ball after the third strike.
  6. Fan interference.
  7. Catcher interference.
  8. A pitching infraction that results in a 4th ball.
  9. A pitched ball lodges in the catcher or umpire’s mask on the third strike or fourth ball.
  10. Replacing another player that just reached first base.
  11. Purchase failing MLB franchise, build new stadium, create a ground rule stating that a player with your exact name is awarded first base at each at bat regardless of the strike/ball count, add yourself to the 25-man roster.
  12. Star in a stupid movie based on a British book written about a different sport, run on field to chase romantic interest Jimmy Fallon.
  13. Take a 25% dose of the steroids normally used to hit home runs.
  14. Take 4 train from East Side or B/D train from West Side, stop at 161st St, enter at gate 6.
  15. Hire Uri Geller, learn secrets of hypnosis, hypnotize all defensive players and umpires.
  16. Jet pack.
  17. Time at-bat with zombie apocalypse, wait until all players are infected, have co-conspiritor drop large pile of human brains on the warning track by center field.
  18. Build time machine, send cyborg back in time to kill pitcher’s parents; repeat until you get a really bad pitcher you can easily hit.
  19. If you play first base, you will always reach first base nine times, provided you don’t leave the game early.  (Why isn’t this ever on any of these lists?)
  20. Have fans throw batteries at the head of the pitcher.  (Works best if you play for the Phillies and are at a home game.)
  21. Scout a pitcher born with phenylketonuria; feed him large amounts of aspartame prior to his start.
  22. After strikeout by a pitcher born outside of the United States, petition the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law for arbitration, arguing the pitcher’s work status is in dispute due to paragraph 9 of General Assembly resolution 2205 (XXI) of 17 December 1966.
  23. Up-down-up-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-Start.
  24. Either build a second moon, or move an asteroid into Earth orbit, with enough mass to change tidal patterns and conversely change barometric pressure to alter the pitcher’s ability to locate the ball correctly.
  25. Do not give the pitcher LSD (especially if it is Doc Ellis.)
  26. Start a facebook petition to put you on first base.
  27. Travel to bizarro alternate reality where you get to advance to first base after you swing at nothing three times.
  28. Send a photo of a gun to the pitcher’s cell phone. (This probably works best if you are Elijah Dukes.)
  29. Be the daughter of Bud Selig when he is on first base and suddenly needs it to look like he doesn’t own first base because he took a new job.
  30. Practice.
Categories
general

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.