Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

  • July 4 stuff

    I was thinking on the 4th of July about how I have this proclivity to write about what happens on the 4th of July, even though it’s not stuff about hot dog eating contents and apple pie and going to fireworks shows and wearing clothes made out of flags and whatever else. I’ve already written about this too much, but I’m bored, so here’s more.

    The above picture is from 2002, when I flew from New York to Las Vegas, stayed at I think three? four? different hotels, and drove to Colorado in the middle of that. On the first night, I stayed at the Hacienda — not the old, classic one, but the hotel in Boulder City that’s now called the Hoover Dam Lodge. Horrible hotel. I got there late at night, and there was zero food to eat at the place. Passed out, woke up, tried to take a shower, and raw sewage started coming out of the drain. Drove to Colorado, got a speeding ticket in Arizona, and saw that giant asteroid hole in the ground. Stayed in Alamosa at a bad motel across the street from an AM radio station, and any time I picked up the phone, I could hear ranchero music on the line. Spent some time at the land, drove back to Vegas early, and ended up at the now-demolished Tropicana. I remember going out to see the fireworks and it was like 107 degrees at night and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder in this crowd in front of the MGM and looked over and saw someone who looked exactly like my ex-girlfriend from 1992. The other memory of that trip is that Rumored to Exist was waiting for final approval for production, and I think I got the email that week while I was gone.

    In 2015, I had a solo trip to Vegas, although I was flying back on the actual 4th. It was even more hot on that trip, like 112 degrees out in the day. This was the trip where I put a case of Coke Zero in the trunk of my car at like 10am, and at noon, they all exploded. I got back to the hotel at like 5 and everything had evaporated. I stayed in the Hooters hotel, which was obviously a mistake. Interesting inflection point on a really bad and strange year, though.

    I have a bizarre bathroom mirror selfie I won’t post from 7/4/20 where it looks like I haven’t had a haircut all year, which was true. I also for whatever reason went to Stoneridge Mall, probably for the air conditioning. I took a bunch of pictures of the recently closed Nordstrom. I can’t even remember the last time I went to that mall. I don’t even know if it’s still open. I think the last time I set foot in a mall was in Vietnam. (Once again, air conditioning.)

    I just realized that next July 4 will mark 30 years since I left Indiana forever. I did the math the other day and next year also makes California the state I’ve lived in longest. I lived in Indiana for a total of 17 years, and I moved here in 2008, so, math.

    In 2006, we went to Coney Island, which was probably not the best idea, because it was absolutely slammed with people. I remember hiding out in a McDonald’s watching the Space Shuttle launch, and this guy was filling a gigantic Igloo cooler with ice from the McDonald’s Coke machine, a cup at a time. I also remember meeting Sean Maloney, who was running for New York AG. He shook my hand and I had no idea who he was, except that it was like a hundred degrees out and he was wearing suit pants and an oxford dress shirt rolled up to mid-forearm like he was a tax accountant about to give a speech on fiscal policy.

    In 2007, I went to an insane Rockies-Mets game in Denver. Highlights included the game going completely lopsided, like the Rockies were ahead by 167 runs. And also the giant purple dinosaur mascot slingshotted a t-shirt into the stands and it landed right into my fucking knee, which was injured and in a brace. For a long time, the Rockies had this habit of completely blowing out July 4 games, although now they are one of the worst teams in the sport, so I haven’t even paid attention this year.

    All the other usuals come back to me. 1992, selling glowsticks, see also Summer Rain. 1991, Chicago with my ex, car broke, etc. It’s in the other story. 1995, move to Seattle, drive a U-Haul nonstop across the country with no sleep. 2004, I wrote a story about walking home from seeing a Terminator movie and said story got published in some anthology, but I can’t understand my own filing system enough to find it without wasting an hour of my time. Speaking of Summer Rain, I sent the masters to the publisher on July 5, 2000.

    Anyway, nothing spectacular going on here last Thursday. We went for a walk in the neighborhood in Berkeley by my old allergy clinic and looked at expensive houses, then went to Whole Foods to pick up stuff for dinner. Had to dose both cats because it sounded like Fallujah outside, then I think I fell asleep at like 9:30. A life of excitement for this writer.

  • Spain

    Had a quick trip to Barcelona for work a week ago. I did zero research before I left, so it was a bit of a rush. Here’s a quick summary:

    • This was a work thing, and 90% of it was strictly work, and I don’t talk about work here, so this isn’t as all-access as I normally am with summaries. Anyway.
    • I did not pack until the last second. I was not sure what to do about camera stuff, because I broke my arm and I didn’t think I could carry a DSLR. So I brought my Sony a6400 mirrorless and a couple of lenses.
    • I left on the afternoon of Memorial Day, which meant I’d arrive in the late afternoon on Tuesday. This meant I absolutely had to sleep on the plane on the way out. Of course, I didn’t.
    • I was lucky enough to have a window seat on the left side and nobody in the middle seat. My broken arm was maybe 80% better when we left, but It would have been problematic to have someone jammed next to me for twelve hours.
    • I think eight or ten people from my company were on my flight, which is a bit unusual for me. I generally fly alone, or maybe there’s one other person on the same flight.
    • Like I said, no sleep. Then I changed planes in Zürich, Switzerland for a smaller two-hour jump to Spain. Switzerland looked nice from the airport, but I didn’t see much. I also didn’t get to eat. I did buy a Coke Zero and totally forgot they use the Swiss Franc. I passed customs there in about two seconds. They have a very nice tram connecting the airport terminals.
    • The airport in Spain was fine, with no baggage drama. The company had shuttle busses for us, so it was pretty painless to get from the airport.
    • The whole thing was at a Hyatt that was right next to the University of Barcelona. I had a narrow room but in good shape and I had a fridge.
    • We had 400 people from 20 countries there, and like I said, I won’t get into work, but the whole day was work and the whole schedule was work and there was lots of work, work, work.  (I was not “working” though; it was “tourism.” I don’t have an EU work visa.) On Wednesday through Friday, my schedule was pretty much all work stuff from six AM to one AM every day.
    • Spain has never really been on my radar and I did not know what to expect. I mean, it’s a European country, and the base things are all European: the money, the voltage, the general look of the thing. There’s old architecture that’s definitively Spanish, but the area around the university looked and felt like any European suburb built after the war.
    • One thing that threw me was Catalan. My two semesters of Spanish in an Indiana public school 40 years ago basically taught me that people in Spain spoke Spanish with a lisp. That’s incorrect. Catalan is a different language, and about 40% of people speak it there. So everything was written in Spanish, in Catalan, and maybe in English. It also meant the default outside the hotel was usually rapid-fire Spanish, and I had to just act stupid. I know maybe 200 words of Spanish, when it’s at glacial speed. I know zero Catalan. So that was fun.
    • I did get a brief look at the university each morning, as I went for a quick walk before breakfast. I think UB is like twice as big as IU Bloomington, student-wise. It’s also like two or three times older. We were staying near the hospital facilities, and I think the main part of the campus is like a mile or two away. I absolutely could not figure out the layout of the thing, and I just tried to google it and I still can’t.
    • Aside from the meetings in the hotel, there were three dinner/evening events. One was a rock band at a castle. Another was a beach event with a DJ (which wasn’t an actual beach on the water, but was an event space with sand), and the last was a sit-down dinner with flamenco dancers.
    • I did have Friday off to spend with my team, so we went to Park Güell, which is this freaky park designed by Antoni Gaudí. It’s way at the top of this hill, and it’s a municipal garden with natural park features like trees and such, but it’s framed by trippy bridges and houses and stairs with tile mosaics and almost surreal shapes to them. The top of it has a terrace with a bench seat wrapped around it that’s in the shape of a sea serpent, its scales being an ornate tile mosaic. It’s way north up a hill, which was a back-breaking hike for me, but worth it.
    • On that trip, I also got to use their metro system, which was not as nice as Singapore’s, but it was pretty good. I also got to stop at a Polish restaurant and get some pierogis.
    • I had to check out of the work hotel Saturday morning, but I was not flying out until Sunday because I extended my stay, so I moved across town. American Express hooked me up with a room at The Cotton House in the Gothic Quarter, which was absolutely insane. It’s rated as one of the 30 best hotels in the room, and Amex was paying me $300 to stay there. I got a room on the top floor of the hotel. I had my own balcony that looked south over the Gothic Quarter.
    • After settling in and eating a stellar lunch, I went walking and went to the Picasso museum. There’s a lot there, but if you made a list of the top ten Picasso paintings, I think one of them is in Barcelona and like seven or eight are at MOMA in New York.
    • Spent a lot of time wandering the gothic quarter and taking pictures. It was nice to just wander. I was slightly on edge about walking on cobblestone and uneven sidewalks with the fear of falling again. I also didn’t get any great photos, maybe because of the arm. Lots of blur; I probably should have switched to S and moved a stop faster on the shutter.
    • Went walking the next day and looked at the Casa Battló, another Gaudí design. Unfortunately I didn’t get tickets, so I just looked at the outside.
    • Stopped at a McDonald’s, just to be the ugly American. It was largely the same there.
    • Flight back was direct, 12 hours. I stayed awake the whole time and forced myself to watch five movies, so I would collapse when I got home and get back on regular schedule.

    Of course, I caught a cold or something on the way back. I’ve been dragging all week, but I’m back. Good trip, but I wish I would have had more time and more research. 20 countries down. Back to work.

  • Arm, teeth, allergies

    So I have a good excuse for my blogging slowdown as of late: I broke my arm. This was two weeks ago, and there’s no exciting story behind it. I was walking from work to a hotel where we were having a convention in SF, and I wasn’t looking down and hit some uneven patch of sidewalk and fell. Landed on my right arm (I’m right-handed) and knee, and set off my Apple Watch fall detection. I went to the conference anyway, unsure if I’d actually broken anything, but within a few minutes, I knew I had, so I scrambled to find anything nearby that could see me at 4:30 without spending twelve hours in a war hospital triage room. To further complicate things, Sarah was out of town, and I don’t know where anything is in SF.

    I found a Carbon Health clinic on Market, who bounced me to another branch with an x-ray a half-mile further out. I made an appointment on their app on the way there, and got in semi-immediately. This isn’t the first time I’ve broken an arm; I broke the left one in 1992, and the right one in 2009. Both of those were bike accidents, and it turns out all three were the same exact break: a hairline radial head fracture.

    Like 2009, the urgent care folks shot some x-rays, took a look, then put me in a fiberglass splint that went from mid-hand to above the elbow. The doctor got this long strip wet, then molded it onto my arm in a U shape. It felt hot, and it looked like some emergency fiberglass repair strip you’d use to patch a hole in a boat hull. He then wrapped the arm in compression bandages, put it in a sling, and told me the name of an urgent orthopedic surgeon to see. I got on their web site and got in the next day.

    And the question everyone asks: no, there were no drugs. I got no painkillers, no shots or IVs or anything, just the advice that I should take Tylenol and ice the thing.

    Went to the ortho the next day for another round of x-rays. The bone wasn’t chipped or shattered in any way that would require surgery. He took off the splint and said I’d be better off using the sling, keeping on the ice, and trying to get it moving as soon as the swelling let up.

    The only real problem was this happened Monday night, and I had my biggest product release of the year on Wednesday morning. I had to wake up at 3:15am to get this thing rolling, and I had to do the whole thing one-handed. I switched from my Kinesis Advantage keyboard to a small 65% keyboard for one-handed typing, and a trackpad on my left hand. I also used Apple’s voice dictation, which has gotten surprisingly good. The release got out, and without the cast, I was able to actually shower, which was nice.

    Not having a right hand is a problem. The first time I broke my right hand, I thought I would have a ton of trouble because I could not write, and it turns out that’s not much of a problem at all anymore. Also, it turns out I can write without much difficulty, because that doesn’t involve moving my arm. The mouse is the big problem. Also, turning things is bad: keys, doorknobs, the ignition of my car. And I can’t do anything involving weight.

    It’s been almost two weeks, and I’m out of the sling for the most part. I still wear it on the train so I don’t accidentally grab an overhead strap, and so people don’t bug me. Typing on the Kinesis is no problem. The mouse still is. I’ve got more x-rays Tuesday, and a list of rehab exercises I’m supposed to be doing. I think the timeline for total healing is maybe 6-12 weeks, but I expect to be largely up to speed by the end of the month.

    * * *

    I’ve also got some dental trauma blogging to do, although this one is largely done. I finished a course of Invisalign on Friday. This was largely a stupid idea and I have serious buyer’s remorse over it, although not as bad as when I was in the middle of doing it.

    I did an extremely short course of it: 14 trays, a week per tray. I also used a different brand than Invisalign, which only required me to wear the trays at night. The huge pain with this that I didn’t know until we got down to starting the whole thing was that you have to have attachments glued to your teeth. These are little porcelain buttons that are bonded to the front of your teeth, which anchor your teeth into the clear plastic trays. The attachments were not totally visible unless you were really looking at them, but they drove me insane. I continually felt like I’d been eating a candy apple and got a chunk of crushed peanut stuck on my teeth. I had nine attachments, and I never got used to them.

    The first two weeks were horrible, mostly because they also coincided with the worst weeks of allergy season. I have this thing where my sinuses drain through my upper teeth during the worst of the worst part of allergy season, and with the plastic trays blocking my teeth, it felt like I was being waterboarded with battery acid. This eventually passed, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought to wear the trays at night. I would switch to a new tray on Fridays, and those were the worst days, but things moved around that first night, and by Saturday, they would be fine.

    I went in on Friday and they ground off the attachments, and it feels so good to have just smooth teeth now. I don’t feel like a magically changed person or proud of my smile or anything else, and it was far too much money for what I got out of it. I’m just glad it’s done.

    * * *

    Speaking of allergies… First of all, I had zero allergies in Vietnam. Same in Iceland. Maybe I need to move. Anyway, I was doing allergy shots for like a decade and had to stop when Covid started up in 2020. I need to do something, and I don’t care about needles, but the whole drill is such a big waste of time, driving to Berkeley, paying to park, sitting in the waiting room full of sick kids, etc. I recently started doing sublingual immunotherapy, though. I got a blood test for allergies, and they sent me some drops in the mail, which I put under my tongue every day. It’s the same stuff as regular immunotherapy: pollens, dust mites, and grasses. I just started, and it’s supposed to take months or years to get up to full speed with them. I never thought the injections were a magic bullet or anything, but I think once I got to top dose, it maybe took 20% off. If I can get that without leaving my house, I’ll take it.

    That’s about a thousand words of medical updates, and I don’t like talking about medical updates. So, back to your regularly scheduled program, I guess.

  • Threads

    Last week, I started messing around on Threads, the latest Meta social media app. It’s interesting, for a few reasons. I’m trying to figure out if it’s the technology, the social network involved, or me. But I’ve been enjoying the change of scenery.

    Threads apparently was born as a reaction within Meta to Twitter’s acquisition and the ensuing dumpster fire that happened there. In many ways, it’s a clone of Twitter’s basic functionality: text updates with pictures. It’s mostly integrated with Instagram, or on top of Instagram, or whatever; you get the app and then auth with your Instagram to create your username.

    My initial reaction to this was meh. I am not a fan of Twitter. To me, it was a random firehose of PTSD, a room full of people shouting at each other, each having a different conversation. I wanted to see the updates from friends I followed, and instead I got this unhinged jumble of bad jokes, hot takes, doomer news links, and random begging. I had an account there since 2007 or so, but I didn’t do much with it. For a while, it mirrored the updates I posted on Facebook and sometimes the posts I made here. But I seldom had conversations there, or found anything worth a reply. It was easy enough for me to kill it off entirely when it changed hands.

    Threads showed up last year when I was in the process of quitting social media entirely, deactivating or deleting accounts, keeping apps off my phone. I still had Instagram, and when they nudged me to register and reserve my username, I jumped on for a second and immediately saw a ton of posts from someone I thought I’d blocked who was the reason for me quitting everything, and noped out completely.

    * * *

    Threads is the fourth full-length album by South Africa-based composer Jason van Wyk. Released in 2021, it’s also the first album from Oakland-based n5MD. I tripped over van Wyk’s work during an endless google storm looking for how ambient artists composed music, like what tools or processes they used. I don’t remember the outcome of that (those searches never work out, do they?) but it must have been as I was writing my first album, and I ended up stuck on this album Threads. It’s a very compelling eight tracks of deeply cinematic ambient music, a combination of both heavy texture and minimalism. The track “Where to End” is my favorite, about 3/4 through the album. It’s a slow roll of evolving sweeping tone, a relaxing build of painfully emotional synth soundscape. I love the album, and my only criticism is it’s only 38 minutes long. I feel like each of the songs could easily unfold for twenty minutes and I still wouldn’t be bored. Excellent album, but it’s a bit of a bummer about the name.

    * * *

    I’m not sure why I got pulled back into Threads. I’m sure Instagram had a nudge to it, or I saw someone on there with a link to their account or something like that. Threads had massive growth right out of the gate, then quickly lost about 80% of it’s monthly active users out of general boredom. Anyway, I somehow ended up re-downloading the app and poking around. And I found that I got a certain amount of enjoyment out of it, and was trying to figure out why.

    First, I’ll mention TikTok. I don’t know why, but I signed up for TikTok, even though it’s like the end of the world to most people and will soon be banned in the US. (Or maybe it gets bought and becomes stupid and goes the way of Vine.) One of the reasons TikTok is good is the For You page and the algorithm behind it. Without even telling TikTok my interests, within a few swipes, it had me figured out, and started showing me stuff within my wheelhouse with an uncanny accuracy. For a consumer, it offered an incredible funnel for showing an endless amount of content.

    I compare this to YouTube, which for whatever reason, just doesn’t do that anymore. I can’t tell if YouTube is trying to be TikTok or Netflix, and its algorithm seems to be very slow-learning and inefficient. If I watch three videos about B-17 bombers, it will suddenly show me nothing but clips about B-17 bombers that are largely identical to the ones I already saw, or it will continue to show the ones I rated, watched, and finished. I think at one point it was better, but either its algorithm has gone sideways, or it’s been fed so much mediocre algorithm-chasing garbage, it has become useless.

    From a content creator standpoint, TikTok was interesting, because it put eyeballs on my videos from complete strangers. I didn’t get too heavy into creating anything there, and I had no intention of becoming an influencer or carefully manicuring content to pop in their algorithm; I was just dumping raw video from my vacation in Singapore to see what happened. In comparison, I did this project on YouTube that had a hundred videos and was not super catchy or narrative or anything like that, but was more of an experiment and I wanted to see if people would stumble upon it. And of course, they didn’t, and two years later, a lot of the videos have less than ten views. Any time I’m talking to another writer and they mention a video project and “I’ll just put it on YouTube and see if anyone’s interested,” my answer is to just not post the videos anywhere, and you’ll get similar results.

    Social media has been bothering me a lot. Like I said, I completely quit it for several months last year. That was hard, and I realized I’ve had so many online relationships and connections and conversations, dating back to the first time I logged into a VAX mainframe in 1989. I couldn’t quit being online entirely, but everything online was so toxic.

    And I came back and was somewhat guarded in what I posted and what I did. And in recent months, my social media has almost completely dried up. It’s probably some combination of the people I follow, the algorithm’s subtle negging of me, and the quality of what I do post, but I felt more and more like I was just yelling into the void. And also, I was not seeing anything anymore. I wasn’t sure if people stopped posting, I’d blocked too many people, or if Facebook was just crapping out. I’d sometimes log in after not being on for two days, and see the same exact posts I’d seen 57 hours before. I bounced between Facebook and Instagram, and it became completely futile. It felt like they were both over.

    * * *

    If you work with me, you know I always use the metaphor “pulling the thread on a sweater.” (If you work with me though, you probably shouldn’t be reading this. Sorry.) Anyway, whenever I’m talking in terms of edits or writing, I am sometimes wary of fixing A, seeing B wrong, so quickly fixing B and that reveals C, D, E, and F, etc.

    I guess this post is like pulling thread on a sweater. Also, I don’t really wear sweaters, but you get the analogy

    * * *

    When I got back on Threads, it followed a few people from my Instagram list, but I did not suddenly get 600 followers. That was sort of liberating to me, because I had to start over, and I didn’t care about followers. I am a content creator in the sense that I write books and blog here, but I’m not an influencer and I’m not a micro-niche’er and don’t care about followers, because I’m not trying to make money. (Also worth nothing that Threads is not currently monetized, and has no ads.) I started posting, but largely used the For You page to scroll through what it showed me. I’ve got some great friends on Facebook, but I also have a lot of people I went to school with forever ago that I am completely out of touch with, a ton of writers who added me to try to sell their horror books even though I don’t even read horror books, and people who know me as some previous version of myself that doesn’t exist. Declaring persona bankruptcy is nice.

    The FYP situation – it learned me semi-quickly, showed me a lot of photographers, a lot of cats, a lot of travel. It showed me a fair amount of the Twitter-esque bad open mic one-liners and hot takes and unpopular opinions, which I ignored. There was a decent mix of both photos and text. But that’s the fun part: text. People were actually writing.

    One of my obvious observations about TikTok is that video has set a lowest common denominator that is far too low. Everyone talks and video is very pervasive, more than text or audio. Everyone on TikTok is just a million followers from being rich and famous. Everyone is the main character. And because it’s video, it’s very easy to get pulled in. I’ve sat down in front of TikTok, swiped away, and found an hour instantly gone. It’s extremely addictive.

    And I want to word this carefully, because I don’t want to sound like an incel or an anti-porn crusader or something. But TikTok has a Hot Girl Problem. I know it’s the algorithm, and I know the algorithm is based on what I see. But it seemed to very quickly pick up that I was a white heterosexual male without me purposely seeking out this content. In fact, it is downright scary how fast it figured out my type. I have nothing against people making videos of themselves. But there’s a lot of low-effort content that I think directly monetizes or weaponizes the male loneliness epidemic. And when I want to look at cameras or old cars or travel spots, I don’t really need to see attractive women showing them to me. That’s all Facebook Stories and Instagram Reels show me. I’ve said “not interested” on clips for weeks straight, and that’s all it shows me. Like I said, free to be you and me, but I’m married. I’m old. I just want to see cameras I don’t need to buy.

    Anyway, Threads is interesting because it’s showing me conversations. Words. People I don’t know. Things I wouldn’t normally see. It’s been pretty light on politics and has learned fast on what I like. The Hot Girl Problem is a lot lower, and it picked up fast that I wasn’t interested. And I haven’t gathered that many followers, but the people who have been interacting with me are largely strangers, which is interesting. I think the big problem with Facebook is you have this silo, and you rarely have people outside of the silo interacting with you, and then only a subset of the people in your silo see your content. So it’s interesting to see new people out there.

    * * *

    I was trying to think of the first time “thread” became part of my vocabulary from a messaging standpoint. The term “multi-threaded” would pop up here and there in the early 90s, mostly when bitching about the Mac’s multi-tasking fails back in the System 6 days. (Insert that little bomb icon…) Neither C or C++ had threads, at least until POSIX threads showed up in the mid-90s. Same with green threads in Java, which was JDK 1.1 in 1997.

    I don’t know if Usenet specifically called conversations “threads” or if that was a casual term used by readers. In email, RFC 822 goes back to 1982, but it didn’t strictly introduce the term. It did define “In-Reply-To” and “References” as optional fields in an email header, but didn’t specifically say that they could be used to organize messages by thread. (RFC 2822, which obsoleted 822, does mention threads, but it came out in 2001, long after the term was commonplace.)  I swear the elm email program had threads, but I can’t find a reference to it. Pine did. Eudora definitely did. VMS mail absolutely did not.

    (Sorry, I’m sure nobody cares about this. It was stuck in my head, though.)

    * * *

    Threads is a bit addictive. That’s a problem, and I need to take things in moderation. I can’t waste a ton of time on there, and I can’t let it influence how I write outside of Threads. Matias Viegener wrote a book called 2500 Random Things About Me Too!, which was inspired by the Joe Brainard book I Remember. Viegener’s book was a book of lists, where every day he would log in to Facebook and write a list of 25 things. He mentions how at a certain point, he spent his entire day thinking in terms of lists. Like he’d go to the grocery store and look at the fresh fruit and his thinking would be partitioned into how his observations would fit into lists. And I find I have the same problem with Threads. I walk around the neighborhood, see a sign, and start thinking about how I could formulate some hot take about it, a “what’s the deal with airplane food?” that would get random people to like me. All of this is useless, except maybe that the bad internal monologue that I cannot shake has suddenly been gone.

    And then there’s the age-old problem of what I should be writing there. It’s public, so that limits it a bit. Is it like Facebook, or like Twitter, or like MySpace, or what? And which who is writing there? What persona do I use? What part of my life do I amplify? I have the same problem on this blog, and I have the same problem with my writing.

    My first entry on Threads:

    Crisis of confidence about first post on a new platform re which persona should be presented or niche hobby I should micro-obsess over when I’m not currently interested in anything but day-to-day survival mode and should be writing. Anyway here is some McDonald’s ketchup in Taiwan.

    (There’s a picture of a Taiwanese ketchup packet there. I’ve had an abnormal amount of McDonald’s content. Honest, I don’t eat there regularly.)

    * * *

    I stumbled across Devin Townsend’s podcast recently, and quite enjoy it. I was only vaguely familiar with his musical work, but the podcast is an incredible journey of him talking to various guitar geniuses about their creative process and thoughts on art. It’s amazingly motivating to hear someone like Steve Vai talk about how they work and how they get past writer’s block.

    Townsend is somewhat infamous for his metal band Strapping Young Lad, and also for having serious anger management issues, going off his medication for bipolar disorder, and basically imploding in about 2004. He had extreme anger and sadness over the music industry and everything else, and he basically had to completely remove himself from the industry, get sober, cut off his hair, and spend years just being a family guy and not getting involved with music so he could recreate himself in a new direction.

    In one of the podcasts, Devin addresses this, and how he struggles how to reconcile his old work with his new. He’s really hard to categorize in general, and has bounced between prog-rock, metal, new age, ambient, and combinations thereof across his 28 albums and counting. But Strapping Young Lad is a pretty heavy albatross to have hanging around his neck. A particular issue he’s had is that people, especially metalheads, will lock onto those early aggressive metal albums and want basically a dozen more copies of the same album from 1995. And the problem there is he’s not 1995 Devin anymore, and has gone through extreme change through extreme effort to not be.

    That’s probably the best summary of my crisis of persona right now. A lot of people on Facebook and a lot of people who bought my early books think I only write that, and I am that. I’m not a bizarro writer. I’m not sure I’m an absurdist anymore. I’m trying hard to change exactly what I am. I feel like I’m much better now, but I don’t know who I am as a writer. All I know is when someone makes a callback to a short story I wrote in 2012 or asks me when I’m going to republish my old books I can’t stand looking at anymore, that’s a problem.

    Like I said, there’s something freeing about sitting at a blank slate. I still don’t know what me is supposed to be writing there, though.

    * * *

    Anyway. https://www.threads.net/@jonkonrath. Not how long the experiment will run, but we’ll see.

  • HTTPS

    Some site news here: I finally enabled SSL here, so HTTPS works properly, and that stupid warning goes away in Chrome. I’ve put off doing this, because I thought it involved buying SSL certs from my domain place, and I didn’t want to pay a monthly charge for it. Turns out I was able to click a button in the admin panel, tell it to use Let’s Encrypt, and change one character in my WordPress config. HTTP requests now redirect to HTTPS, and that’s that. I’m sure there’s some dumb thing somewhere that gets tripped up and goes to the wrong thing, but it seems to be mostly functional? I think the various links scattered around the site need to be changed, but I have a list of a dozen other things I need to fix, so I’ll get to it.

    I very vaguely remember in 1995, I documented a commercial web server at Spry/CompuServe, and we rushed out a new version that glued in the ability to use HTTPS. We also slapped SSL support into Spry Mosaic. I only remember a few distant details of this, like there were competing standards, S-HTTP and HTTPS, and we supported both, but Netscape supported HTTPS, so S-HTTP died. Also there were almost no sites that supported SSL; you had to pay Netscape five grand in 1995 dollars to get a secure version of a server, and e-commerce was mostly a vague rumor at this point. I vaguely remember CompuServe partnering with a drop-ship company with a portal to quickly throw some store to sell junk you’d normally get for free at a trade show for insane prices, like you could pay $50 for a t-shirt. Anyway, I did virtually nothing except write an addendum for Marc VanHeyningen and the whole thing was a moot point; Internet Explorer killed Spry Mosaic, because why would you pay a hundred bucks for a web browser in a box on floppy discs.

    Not really related: I vaguely looked at moving this site to AWS Lightsail, and did an experiment with that. (One of the features included in this is that it would support SSL out of the box, but who cares now.) I spun up an instance in AWS with WordPress preinstalled, and then did an export and import of this blog. All the posts came across, but none of the media, themes, plug-ins, or site config made it. A quick test or two showed a very slight performance boost, but not enough to justify the labor involved. It would be nice to have the site on a CDN, and it would save me a few bucks a month in hosting fees. But it would involve moving my mail config, and I’m sure I’m forgetting three or five other things that would need to change. It’s not entirely worth it for the ten views a day I get on here.

    Side note: the latest Word on Mac doesn’t open any of the files I wrote back at Spry/CompuServe. I think they were in Word 95, or maybe even Word 6.0. I had to download a copy of LibreOffice to open them up. That seems dumb, but they’re also almost 30 years old. It’s always scary to look at writing that old, and this is no exception.

    Anyway. That was easy enough. Now I need to fix all the other little things that came up during the move to the new theme. And maybe figure out how to make this thing faster.

  • 27

    This blog is now 27 years old. On April 11, 1997, I made my first post here. This seems like it was both 20 minutes ago and about 167 years ago. I know I burn a lot of cycles on anniversaries and numbers, but felt it might be a good time to riff on a few things.

    This blog was originally called Tell Me a Story About the Devil, based on some dumb joke between me and Ray Miller. In 1997, I was only a few years into being A Writer, and spent most of my time scrawling in various spiral notebooks when I wasn’t either working or actually writing books. I spent all day in an office, scrolling through the nascent web, trying to find stuff to do when I wasn’t doing my job.

    This was definitely in the era of Web 1.0, because the term Web 2.0 would not be coined for two more years. The Information Superhighway was still figuring itself out, and had not been completely destroyed by commerce yet. There were roughly a million web sites in existence. The term “blog” would not be invented for another eight months. Google was about a year away.

    Back then, I would fixate on a few different sites like CNN, which I’d reload and reread a dozen times in a row. But I would also go into AltaVista (the Google before Google) and dig for content. A lot of definitions of Web 2.0 call it the “participatory” web, but if you were around last century, you might think of Web 1.0 as participatory, but just not by regular civilians. If you had something to say, you’d be on GeoCities or Usenet or hand-coding your own HTML. And people did. And I burned a lot of cycles searching for people who carved out their own personal sites. I loved it when I’d find a “web journal” where someone documented a long trip or pet project or the day-to-day in their life. Before blogs were blogs, this was the web.

    And in 1997, I decided I needed to do this too. I mean, since 1992, when I first created what was then called a “hyplan” I tried to think of what cool stuff I could do on the web. Should I publish a magazine like the heavy metal zine I photocopied and mailed to people? Should I write a choose-your-own-adventure with hyperlinks between the pages? Was there some kind of hypertext novel in my future? I had the technology, but never had the idea or plan.

    But I decided to chronicle my writing process, and maybe eat up my lunch time at work. I figured if I created a framework, I’d eventually hit a cadence with the thing. So I did.

    * * *

    What’s funny is that in the first implementation of this thing, I’d inadvertently invented the static site generator probably ten years before Jekyll existed. This was way before I could even think about database-driven CMSes. This is basically how it worked:

    1. I would telnet into Speakeasy.net, which was my dialup provider, which gave me a shell login.
    2. Fire up the emacs editor.
    3. Press Ctrl-x Ctrl-j, which ran a hit of elisp and opened up a text file in the right directory with the filename containing today’s date.
    4. Write. This was not done in HTML, and it was seven years before John Gruber started talking about Markdown. Just plain text.
    5. Save the file, and run a little C program, which would generate the index pages and other junk. The output directory was on the live host so there was no staging or mirroring or file transfer.

    There are like 19 problems with what I just described. And there are at least two or three things I probably should have named, expanded, and sold.

    Anyway, that was all fun, and I kept writing and publishing. The mechanics of the site slowly improved over time. I switched from plain text to HTML. I figured out a way to slap a commenting system on the site. I got rid of the frames layout (ugh, remember that junk?) and added rudimentary CSS to the thing. Finally in 2009, I gave up and moved to WordPress.

    What’s funny is I’m actually half thinking about moving back to a static site generator. I’m sick of WordPress and I use Next.js at my real job. I keep thinking about making the change, but with so many posts here, it’s a monumental task. Yeah, I’m sure you Hugo apologists can break out a StackOverflow post from ten years ago that explains how to export WordPress to Markdown with a script written by a teenager in his mom’s basement in Latvia, and it will waste at least a week of my time and still mess up every post containing an image that was written on a Tuesday. I could do that, or I could sleep. I’ll think about it.

    * * *

    The thing about this blog is it’s still hard for me to explain what I do or don’t do here, and even with a million and a half words written over the last few decades, I still can’t. I rarely wake up in the morning with an idea of what to blog, and when I do, I often find I already wrote about the same exact thing ten years ago. Travel stuff is obvious, as are big life events. But there’s also a lot of self-censorship involved. I can’t talk about my job. There are people who I don’t want reading about my private life who militantly stalk me to find out about my private life. I have issues with persona. I have little interest in writing reviews. What do I write about?

    I journal a lot, in a lot of places. I still write on paper every day, usually a page or two in a Moleskine diary. I use Day One pretty religiously for day-to-day stuff and dream journals. I use the Notes app to jot down ideas and things to do later. I freewrite and do the actual books-and-stories writing in Scrivener. None of those are public-facing, so where those end, this begins.

    I think the thing I’m almost comfortable with now is this being about nothing. Part of blogs being essentially dead as an art form is nobody asks me anymore. In 2002, you had to focus your blog, have an elevator pitch, be niche, because everyone was chasing a book deal with their blog. I don’t know if people still do this. I don’t know if people who got seven-figure deals to turn their blog in a book had a one-and-done publishing career and owe seven figures of an advance. None of that was why I blogged, and none of that is why I still blog.

    Anyway. Old man yells at sky. It’s been fun so far, and I’ll keep doing it. I’m not sure I’ll make it another 27 years, but we’ll see.

  • Vietnam

    So, I was in Vietnam last week. Yes, Vietnam. I spent a week in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. I think it was everything I expected, but a lot more than that in every way. Lots to explain here.

    OK, so. As I’ve mentioned before, I have this situation where I find out I have a week I can take off, and with very little notice, I have to plan something, and I always rush to Expedia and do something asinine. The last few trips like this were Sweden, Iceland, and Poland. This one was a bit more stupid, given the travel time, but I had to do it.

    The usual question is, “Why Vietnam?” A few quick answers:

    • I’ve read way too much about the war and wanted to see how the country had transformed itself since 1975.
    • My dad was there fifty-something years ago.
    • Cheap(-ish).
    • I wanted to go somewhere I’d learn something.
    • It’s way out of my comfort zone, and I need to force myself to do things way out of my comfort zone.
    • Anthony Bourdain would not shut up about how great it was.

    The idea of visiting Vietnam has come up in the past, but I’ve always shrugged it off because I felt like I could not deal with it at all: the foreign language barrier, the accommodations, the safety aspect. It’s easy enough to pop into Canada where 99% of everything is the same except the speed limit is in kilos and Canadian bacon is just bacon. But getting turned completely upside down and backwards is something I didn’t think I could grok. After spending time in India last year, I figured I could probably get by with no major problems. So I booked my stuff, bought a couple of books, did my usual plan by marking pins on my Google Maps, and away we go.

    Friday/Saturday/Early Sunday

    I was scheduled to leave SFO at 11PM on Friday night, which meant it was actually midnight. I upgraded to economy plus or whatever it’s called on United. The week before, I burned a lot of cycles figuring out what to put in which carry-on bag, and ended up having to put both of them overhead, pocketing my phone and headphones, but nothing else. The first leg was about 15 hours, and I’d been awake since four in the morning. I can never sleep on planes, and with the aid of three different sleeping pills, I got maybe three hours of fretful sleep right after we left California. This trip was also the first where I basically spent two nights in the air, because we technically left on Friday and landed on Sunday.

    I talked to my seat neighbor a bit. He worked for a big shoe manufacturer (I won’t say which) and had done the Boston to SFO leg prior to our flight, and then was flying to China next to tour some factories. He said he was in Vietnam a few times a year and told me I’d love it. It’s funny how any time I ask anyone about a vacation spot, they tell me I’ll love it, even if they are a total strainger. I understand that for a place like Hawaii or Iceland, but I’m waiting for the time I tell someone about a destination, and they tell me, “Sorry dude, that’s a shithole.”

    While I couldn’t sleep, I watched Oppenheimer. Good movie, but it was weird because as the scene came on where they’re testing the first bomb, I looked at the in-flight map and I was directly above Hiroshima.

    I landed in Hong Kong at five in the morning local time on Sunday, and everything was closed. The HK airport is this confusing maze of multiple levels, and is a jumbled combination of new technology and luxury, and not. It’s like if Chicago Midway got bought by the Saudi sovereign fund and they tried to make it look like the Dubai airport and gave up after six months. Good news is I got a shower in the Amex lounge. Bad news is my “breakfast” was beans and sausage. It was either that or some fish head curry that is only appetizing if you’re from the Mainland. Also. was I in China? I think depending on who you ask, I was. Or maybe not.

    The jump over to Vietnam was easy. I think it was a two hour flight on a half-empty Cathay Airbus. The only other Caucasian was an older half-hippy looking woman who shops REI clearance only for her hemp clothes and is probably helping some communists dig a well somewhere. I had an entire row to myself, and mostly zoned out for the entire flight over. When I landed, it was now Sunday morning.

    Sunday

    The Tân Sơn Nhất airport is a perfect metaphor for Vietnam. It existed in some form since the 1930s, grew, collapsed, then grew again. The French built a terminal in the fifties, and then the US dropped in a pair of two-mile runways and a bunch of jetways and aprons. For a few years, it became the busiest military airbase in the world, and then that stopped when the war ended. After 1975, Pan Am noped out, and the airport only did light domestic duty for the next three decades. Then the capitalists started flying 747s to the city again, and things massively grew. They built a giant international terminal in 2007, expanded the old (now domestic) terminal tenfold, and traffic grew accordingly. But unlike the Hong Kong airport with its giant mall-like concourse, this one looked strictly utilitarian. It’s drab, with primary colors and outdated trim, and looks like the old Indianapolis airport circa 1978, or a Midwestern grade school built by the lowest bidder in 1981. The customs area was basically a non-air conditioned gymnasium full of lines of people fresh off a 20-hour flight, leading to booths with nothing automated, just clerks in military uniforms lazily stamping passports. I waited an hour, had my visa and passport glanced at, then got waved through with no communication whatsoever.

    Yes, I needed a visa to get in the country, even as a tourist. There was slightly contradictory information about this, but it’s possible to do everything online. You fill out the “Do you have a passport? Are you a war criminal? Are you sick?” form, pay $25, and they email you back a single-entry tourist visa within a few days. The only oddity from the 1997-looking web site was that it had a mandatory field for religion, which is weird for a country that’s officially atheist. I’m not Catholic anymore, but I recognize that putting Catholic in that field might be a huge misstep, given the post-1975 situation over there. And I’m always tempted to fill these in with “Siðmennt, félag siðrænna húmanista á Íslandi” but I don’t want to get stuck in a holding room for six hours having to explain Icelandic humanism to someone who really doesn’t get the joke.

    Once I got my bags, unzipped the legs off my convertible shorts/pants, and stepped outside, it all hit me: the wall of heat, the bright sun, the thousands of people outside, the lines of cabbies looking for fares, the motorcycles everywhere. I didn’t know what to expect, but my only point of comparison is my time in Bangalore, and Saigon is Bangalore times ten, if Bangalore had no height restrictions and said fuck it, you can build a 50-story tower if you give the right person a suitcase of money. (I probably need a different metaphor here since a million VND is about $40. A roll of bills as thick as your arm might get you a used refrigerator.) There’s the same frenetic energy, mopeds everywhere, people slaughtering animals in the street or selling dialysis machines from rickshaws or cooking food on an open pit on the sidewalk. The new stuff, it’s like India too, where someone randomly builds an all-chrome Prada store and it’s next to an open-air slaughterhouse. But the bones of the city – it’s every Vietnam War movie and documentary I’ve ever see, a mix of feudal architecture and French colonialism, with bits of Americana tacked on the site. I’m driving down the road in my Grab taxi, look over, and I’m suddenly in the second half of Full Metal Jacket. (Bad example – that was the Thames river doubling for Da Nang…)  But it’s such a strong deja vu. And then I’m walking around and I’m suddenly freaked out because why the hell is that hotel hanging a half-dozen North Vietnamese flags off their balcony? Wait, it’s a Vietnamese flag. They’re everywhere. McDonald’s has not been taken over by the Viet Cong. And then a guy is selling fruit off a moped, and he’s got a little bullhorn that’s playing a tape loop or something over and over in Vietnamese, and with the distortion and the traffic, I’m expecting him to start yelling “Fuck you GI! Fuck you GI!” like Apocalypse Now.

    I got to my hotel in District 1, but it was too early to check in, so I dropped my bags and went for a walk. The heat was absolutely overwhelming. 95 but felt 100, almost nothing had AC; this was not Las Vegas or Singapore. My hotel was a narrow building in a row of narrow buildings at a night market. The entire block was filled with tents and awnings and people selling stuff: cases of soda, boxes of snacks, fish, slabs of meat, vegetables, bags, everything. Various food stalls were buried in the shops, and after the morning, it was always packed with traffic, mopeds, carts, motorcycles, and people shopping.

    I thought I’d walk to a McDonald’s for lunch to sort of ease into things, and the MCD was some weird standing-room-only alley with the kiosks and I guess you take your Big Mac and go sit in the street and eat it. They looked like the worst possible golden arches I’ve ever seen in my life, and that includes the ones in the lower Bronx. I went to a giant hotel and ate at the “French Patisserie” which was just paninis and pre-packaged salads, like the sandwich shop you’d go to in an office park in Schaumberg. 

    After getting set up in the room and taking a shower, I suddenly realized it was St Patrick’s Day so I thought it would be dumb fun to find an Irish Pub. There was one place a mile away. It’s the same setup as what I saw in Poland last year or what would be in Bloomington or Brooklyn or anything else: the green shamrock, the sepia-tone pictures of Irish laborers on the walls, and so on. The first floor was the bar, which was full of bald expatriate blokes wearing football jerseys. The dining room on the second floor was completely empty. I ate a corned beef sandwich for dinner at like 3:00. Food was decent, actually. I don’t drink but I almost would have grabbed a Guinness because of the occasion, and oddly they only had Vietnamese beers. Probably for the best.

    I didn’t talk to anyone and don’t really know the story about the expats in Vietnam. There are the obvious ones, young people on a gap year, backpacking across the cheap parts of Southeast Asia, staying in hostels and Instagramming the whole thing. I can distinguish them by their young age, their look, their tattoos, their gear. This was absolutely unattainable when I was that age; I remember a trip to Mexico was a major undertaking that I never managed to pull off. Maybe they have trust funds; maybe the internet has democratized this to a degree. I don’t know.

    I think other people either come to Vietnam on a quest or in defeat. Like they punched out of corporate life after their third divorce and came here to live on ten grand a year and try to forget it’s Asia. Or they’re running some off-shoring business to kill off jobs in the US, but wish they were back in the US, so they find the one Irish bar and pretend they’re in Dublin or Dayton or Aurora. It makes me wonder if this is what the French did back when this was a colony, or the Brits in India. Make three stories of a narrow building look like Paris or London and try to forget where you are.

    I stumbled home in a jetlag and meat coma and fell asleep at like seven. 

    Monday

    Didn’t sleep, of course. I was up for good at like 2:30a with horrible back pain, like I couldn’t even turn over in bed without spasms stopping me. I think it was the combination of the travel and dehydration. I had to spend hours massaging my spine until I could even get out of bed. By the time they started breakfast at 6:30a, I was largely ambulatory and past the pain, but it bothered me the whole trip

    Breakfast – I was on the top floor, which is the 8th, but the G floor with the lobby is really the “second” floor, and there is no 4th floor (tetraphobia) and then 1-8. The restaurant is upstairs, so basically ten floors up. It’s half open, half a deck facing the river. In the morning, the temps are only in the mid-70s, the humidity isn’t there yet, and traffic is almost quiet. The panorama is this mix ranging from brand new chrome and glass skyscrapers, 80s Soviet-looking block housing, and colonial apartment towers that are eight feet wide and look like they survived an airstrike fifty years ago and were just fixed with tarps and chicken wire. Roosters crowed to start the day, but traffic hadn’t started yet, and it was otherwise quiet. 

    I went for a walk in the morning, no camera, to grab some supplies and survey the area a bit more. I did not know this but I was in the red light district, which is disconcerting. Lots of ladies shoved flyers in my face and yelled hello at me, especially at night. This is not straight-up brothels, but more of the Japanese hostess bar model. Buy “lady drinks” for triple the normal cost and they pretend to be your friend. No thanks. The problem is the bars, “lady bars,” and expat restaurants all look sort of the same. Is Phatty’s Bar and Grill a Chili’s ripoff or a tub-and-tug joint? You don’t know until you’re in there. Also most restaurants are like 9 feet wide, no AC, and outdoor seating on little plastic step-stools that don’t jive with a bad back.

    Anyway, lunch, I decided to go to Saigon Center, which is a big Westfield-style urban mall, seven stories plus an office tower. Tons of food and lots of American stores, like Coach, Nike, and an MLB store. (?!) I went to the basement food court and ended up at McDonald’s as a goof. I got the equivalent of a #2, which is the Cheese Royale. The fries tasted identical. Meat was passable. Something was wrong with the ketchup, though. It’s a totally different taste, which threw off the whole thing. 

    I booked a photo tour, which really delivered. This French guy named Arnaud showed up on his moped at 2:00p. We talked lenses for a second, and then he gave me a helmet and told me to hop on. I really didn’t want to brave a moped on this trip, especially with my back out and a ton of gear on my neck, but we did. I hung onto the grab bars as we weaved through traffic, every turn unprotected, other mopeds inches away, some carrying groceries, dogs, lumber, a month of chopsticks in crates, whatever. Remember those stories about old ladies on the Ho Chi Minh trail dragging 500 pounds of medical supplies on an old Schwinn? That spirit lives on in Saigon. No econovans or Amazon trucks – they do it old-school. It was truly terrifying to be in the middle of it at 50 km/h, but the chaos was amazing.

    We started at a Chinese temple, which was low light but the Jacob’s Ladder effect from holes in the ceiling letting in some light, then candles and tons of incense smoke swirling around. We talked a lot about exposure, enough for me to learn I’m doing it all wrong, but not enough for me to get practice in doing it right. There were not enough people in there to get good subjects, so we moved on.

    We spent most of our time in “the maze.” This was a sort of night market and residential area, which I normally never would have ventured or even found. It was like an entire city block of tube houses where each unit was roughly 9×9 feet, and four stories tall. At street level, they had open doors like garage doors, and the rows of houses were maybe six feet apart, with a narrow alley that was used for walking, motorcycles, storage, cooking, work, and everything else. The ground floors were all random businesses: rice wholesalers, variety stores, salons, print shops, motorcycle repair shops, fish mongers, or just someone’s living room.

    So a walk down an alley would be something like:

    • Older woman on the ground in the alley, cooking a hundred eggs over medium on a small gas grill to ship off on a moped to a hotel. (Note to self: don’t eat eggs for the rest of the trip.)
    • Ten feet away, a teenager drenching parts of a 50cc engine with brake cleaner and letting it run into the drain in the middle of the alley.
    • Someone laying on the mat on the floor watching the lottery numbers on a fifty-inch Samsung.
    • Four shirtless guys with lots of bad tattoos playing pool under a harsh single bulb like the interrogation room in a war movie.
    • A teenaged girl watching TikTok and sitting in a room full of bags of rice as a Grab driver stacks a purchase onto the back of a Honda.
    • A fish monger breaking down some random fish I’ve never seen in my life and putting the guts in a kettle of curried stew.
    • A guy wants to show us his chubby little terrier. Cute dog. I look over and there are cages of roosters being raised for cock fights.

    Etc etc etc. So many people on top of each other, so many businesses, such big families. There are also were so many kids in Vietnam. When we got out of the maze, school was letting out, and there were thousands and thousands of teens in uniforms, getting on bikes and talking on cell phones. There was a wall of mopeds, like every Honda built from 1947 to present was on this main drag.

    We got the bike and headed across the river to a District 4 apartment. Crossing the Ben Nghe Canal on a little moped during rush hour was insane, putting along on this incline with cars surrounding us, looking out at the river and the buildings and the stark contrast of this new construction sprouting up everywhere. We went to this bombed-out old apartment complex for whatever reason – he liked the sun or the angles or something. It was a c-shaped place, open on the inside like an old motel.

    The thing about Arnaud was he had 100% confidence and would walk up to someone and shoot a dozen pictures of them before they even noticed. Like he would show me his screen and say “look at this one” and I didn’t even know he fired off a dozen pictures, because he was talking to someone and had the camera at his chest or off to the side snapping away. Or sometimes they would notice him shooting and he’d keep going and did not care. He spoke Vietnamese and would start conversation and joke with people and smile, and he shoots the same places frequently so he knows people. Sometimes he would show the shot to a person and thumbs up them and ask “xing dep?” (It’s beautiful?) He also had an incredible eye for light and framing. I thought he was focusing on a motorcycle in the front of us, and he’d show me his camera and say “did you see that Buddha statue to the side in the apartment?” and he captured that layer in the foreground of the other layer. He had such a great eye and quick reaction.

    I shot maybe 300 shots and I’m sure 295 of them were useless. And I think the main lesson here is I’d have a lot of work to do  to get even vaguely confident in portraiture or street, But I learned a lot from him and saw a part of Saigon way out of my comfort zone I’d never have found.

    Came home exhausted but had to eat. I wandered back to the mall and went to some little Korean place among the pseudo-hawker faire they had in the basement. It was basically mall Korean, but I was starving and just needed calories. Wandered around a bit more and then collapsed at home.

    Tuesday

    I got almost a full night of sleep. Grabbed some breakfast upstairs, then I read and horsed around on the computer for a minute, downloading photos and looking at maps. I went over to Bitexco Financial Tower, which is a 68-story skyscraper right on the river, built as the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City in 2010. (It’s since been surpassed.) I had a ticket to go to the 49th floor observation deck, which I got for free from Expedia. It was about worth that price, honestly. It’s a very sterile environment, and reminded me of going to the Sears Tower as a kid: you’re in this building with a million offices, but you don’t see anything or have any context; you’re just shot to the top in an elevator and it could be a hundred or a thousand or a million or twelve stories, who cares.

    And most of HCMC is largely flat, with a few taller buildings. It’s like being at the top of the tallest building in Indianapolis, where there are a few shorter buildings, then a ton of three-story buildings out to the horizon. Also, maybe it’s me, but I think with the advent of Google Maps and Earth, the aerial view has lost some of its excitement versus when I was a kid. It was good to get that sense of scale of the city, and see how District 1 (where I am, the downtown) is this mix of old areas like The Maze pocked with giant towers built for banks or cell phone companies or whatever. Across the river, District 2 is – weird. It looks mostly vacant, except for the occasional Soviet-era brutalist building, or a brand new apartment “community” that looks like it was thrown up in a Denver suburb in 2007. I’m thinking this was a poor district that got completely ignored for ages and now development is just starting now that there are bridges over there. 

    I tried to snap a few pics, but the windows were filthy, and there was this pollution haze over the city. I didn’t notice it at ground level, and even though everyone complains and wears masks, I just looked it up and Oakland’s twice as bad. What’s odd is my allergies were 100% better in Vietnam. I’m not sure if there was less pollen, a different growing season, or I’m only allergic to the domestic stuff. It was a nice break, though.

    Anyway, I wandered after that, and went to the Hotel Continental. Ducked inside to look at the lobby, and didn’t stay long. It’s one big room, a straight shot with four people at a desk staring at me as I’m hauling around a full-sized camera and lens. I took a quick look at the history mural next to the gift shop (all jewelry in there, no logo polo shirts) and they mention Graham Greene living there, but of course gloss over Hunter Thompson’s brief stay in room 37. By the time I left, it was noon, a hundred degrees out, and the sun was pounding down full force.

    In my quest to eat everything but Vietnamese food (not really, but that’s how it’s been going) I went to the only German restaurant in town. It was straight up old school American Bavarian food, full menu. Asked for a speisekarte, bitte – turns out they speak less German than English. Fair enough. Got a bretzel mit käse, und currywurst. Tasted like the curry was made with their weirdo ketchup, so I scraped it off and used a bottle of “US mustard” (generic yellow mustard). Sausage was also slightly off in consistency, like the fat ratio was wrong. Oh well. Great posters on the wall, probably from eBay, or actually they were all lo-res and maybe they just printed them from the JPEGs on an eBay listing.

    Wandered around more to take more pics. Went to the giant statue of Uncle Ho and it’s more fun to pretend to take pictures of the statue but actually take pictures of the people posing in front of the statue, and try to catch them before or after they stiffly post for their spouse or tour guide. I’d run into westerners and say hi, and most were tourists from New Zealand or France or some other European country. Sometimes in front of the HCM statue, I’d see an old Vietnamese guy my dad’s age, weathered face, zero BMI, and wonder if he was a PAVN regular on a once-in-a-lifetimes trip down from Haiphong Bay to see the south before he went off to see Uncle Ho in the sky. Or maybe he was from Singapore and I’m an idiot.

    Tuesday night, I had a street food tour. The tour was… something. It was maybe an hour walk from my hotel, off in district 3. I left at 5:00p and got to experience rush hour in full force as the sun was going down. There was a section toward the end of the walk where there was literally kilometers of mopeds stopped at traffic, eight wide, shoulder to shoulder. Imagine the entire Indianapolis 500 track filled wall to wall with Honda 50cc scooters, all idling. 

    Met up with this guy Tâm, about my age, and we ducked in an alley and got to work right off. We ate I think four different plates and then two drinks (a cane sugar thing everyone drinks, and a smoothie from their weird alien fruits here.)  It was terrifying. Women who have never washed their hands in their lives cooking over open flame in the street handed me unwashed leafy greens, sauces that had been sitting at room temperature, and unknown organ meats. At one point, I had a bowl of Hủ tiếu, which is basically a bone broth with two kinds of noodles and then about a half dozen of the absolutely most horrific meats you can think of thrown in it. Mine had kidney, liver, tongue, shrimp that probably wasn’t cleaned, and something else. That was the point where I politely tried some of the broth, ate one piece of tongue, and then said nope, out. A lot of the food was great, but that was the line.

    The guide was interesting. His dad was an ARVN Huey pilot. When the shit went down in 75, his dad left his entire family, loaded up a chopper with a dozen buddies, and flew to the USS Midway. He ended up getting moved to a commercial ship, then to Clark, then to Guam, then Arkansas. He’s in Lancaster, CA now. I don’t know if this whole story is made up, but we talked a lot about post-1975 Vietnam. He was Catholic, and he talked about how the government shut down Catholic schools and things went a bit quiet after the communists took over. There are more Catholics now, but there’s more of everything here now. It’s hard to believe it’s a communist country.

    The walk home at night was one of those scenes of heavy contrast that burned in my brain forever. It was a Tuesday and the streets were full like Times Square on a Friday. It was beautiful to see all the signs lit up, kids out, people eating and shopping, mopeds zipping around, and the skyscrapers in the distance. I listened to this ambient album by Jon Hopkins and strolled through the night, surprised at how strange and different this town was from what had been put in my head the fifty years before.

    * * *

    There’s not an easy way to ease into this, but one of the main thought loops running through my head on this trip was what my idea of Vietnam was as a child of the Eighties, and how the Vietnam I was in was completely different. I felt a bit aloof or ashamed about that, how I was the Ugly American wondering why I didn’t see more stars and stripes everywhere.

    I was fourteen years old on the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and I think that was an inflection point on the sentiment of Vietnam in America. Maybe I was too young in 1975, but I felt like immediately after the war, it wasn’t talked about and it was mostly forgotten or buried. But as Reaganism flourished and the military expanded and the cold war heated up, things were revisited a bit. I think some Americans were ashamed at how we treated or forgot the military after the war, and there was a massive shift in the other direction. And in various media, especially media consumed by a teenaged boy in Indiana, Vietnam was seen as a two-dimensional enemy and little more.

    So Vietnam in my head in the 1980s: Rambo: First Blood Part II; Chuck Norris and Missing in Action; Mack Bolan novels. I built model airplanes with red star decals for each Vietnamese MiG the plane shot down. There were songs on the radio and MTV by Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen. They built the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A lot of people didn’t like it, so they added a trio of statues next to it. By the end of the 80s, it seemed like everyone had a Vietnam movie: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hamburger Hill. Vietnam went from being a taboo subject to a complete saturation point.

    I never learned about the Vietnam War in high school. I think in the last week of US history, we spent like two days on everything post-WW2, so it was vaguely mentioned, but that’s it. We didn’t talk about who actually won or lost the war. That seems silly, given that it was now one country, and it wasn’t a democracy, so it was fairly obvious that someone won, and it wasn’t us. I think if pressed on the issue, a lot of Americans would hem and haw about how the US left victorious in 1973 and the South Vietnamese later lost, or the US won all the major battles, or the US lost fewer people, or it wasn’t really a war anyway, or what exactly is winning? I think the bottom line though is that this wasn’t openly questioned and definitely wasn’t discussed, except maybe to say “let’s not have another Vietnam” any time military action came up, and spend more money on the military and tie on more yellow ribbons and have more parades and try to get it right next time.

    As far as my own upbringing, my family was largely apolitical. My dad did serve in Vietnam, but didn’t talk much of it. None of my family went to college or was anti-war. I didn’t go to protests as a child, didn’t know anyone educated about politics or history. In today’s polarized political landscape, there’s a lot more emphasis on taking sides, and if you’re not on one side, you’re on the other. And the truth is, when I was a kid, most of the adults around me didn’t really support either side. They just worked their jobs and tried to feed their families.

    The media narrative around Vietnam going into my college years was a wide range of sentiment, from glorification of war to regret to discussion of the futility of war. The American veteran gained a more nuanced role over time, as the country moved to this “support the veteran but not the war” stance. One can pull this thread on the sweater forever, but the main thing is that the view of the other side wasn’t entirely changed, at least in my head. Those common movie tropes and two-dimensional views of people were still in the back of my head.

    And now, here I was, in Vietnam, surrounded by Vietnamese, in the country that won the Vietnam War. And it wasn’t just the backdrop of a Rambo movie, with character actors from Hong Kong playing cliched Viet Cong villains. It was… just people: shopkeepers, chefs, students, bellhops, bankers, mothers, tailors, teachers, mechanics. I burned a lot of mental cycles trying to integrate the Vietnam in my head with the Vietnam around me. It was good to be wrong, to see what it really was. But having the map not match the territory, so to speak, was something on my mind for the rest of the trip. And there was a strange combination of feelings around this: shame? Amazement? Regret? Wonder? I don’t know. I just wondered what the 1985 me would think of me being in Ho Chi Minh City almost 40 years later.

    Wednesday

    I was very surprised that I did not get sick from the street food during the night. I grabbed breakfast upstairs, then headed out for a long walk and to hit a few landmarks, most notably the War Remnants Museum.

    I get it, history is written by the victors. I wasn’t expecting the museum to be entirely unbiased. And yeah, America is the bad guy, and they were the assholes, and everyone just wanted to farm rice, and they ended up with decades of 24/7 24-hour-a-day bomb runs on their villages. I didn’t expect a photo essay on American exceptionalism. But the museum was a bit much.

    The only reviews of the museum you’ll find online talk about how graphics the exhibits are, and how it shows the truth of the conflict, and the horror of war. And it does show the war from the other side, the Vietnamese side. All of this is true. But as someone who’s wasted too much time reading history books, the whole thing was riddled with errors, and went to great lengths to not cover the South Vietnamese government, it really threw me. And it’s hard to say anything about that, because then I’m the asshole. Right?

    The museum took great pains to never refer to South Vietnam as the South Vietnamese government. In every display, Vietnam (not North Vietnam) fought against France, then America. When they had to refer to the Republic of Vietnam, they would call it the “puppet regime” or “the illegitimate American-backed government.” Those semantics are understandable I guess; it’s their war. But I kept wondering what errors were bad translation or straight up propaganda. I mean, American museums are often similarly jingoistic or simplify things, and I’m not into that either. But at a certain point, I had too much, and had to call it a day.

    One funny thing – they made a big deal out of the American anti-war protests, and there was a section with a newspaper showing how people in the US didn’t support the war. The newspaper was the Goshen News. It had Elkhart high school football scores as the above-the-fold headline. This “we should not be in the war” thing was probably written by a Goshen College professor. It was funny though to see Elkhart County depicted as this bastion of liberal tolerance. Anyway.

    * * *

    There was something disconcerting brewing in the back of my head, other than the usual mental distractions that take up too much real estate running in tight loops and draining my energy. I guess the only easy way to explain it was I didn’t know who I was in the scheme of what I was doing in Saigon, and if I was truly welcome.

    First, I was somewhat skittish about mentioning to anyone that my dad was deployed to Vietnam. I really didn’t know the sensitivity level of this. On one hand, a lot of people in the south have family who were ARVN or worked for the RVN. And 60% of the population was born after the last Americans left in 1975, and weren’t alive for any of it. But I’m sure there’s a large amount of the population who has resentment about the war, and aren’t happy to see dumb American’s plodding around the country, flashing their money and talking loud when people don’t understand them.

    I understand there’s a big problem with the “sexpats” and the drunken idiots causing trouble. And I know there’s the “savior complex” of people acting high and mighty because they’re “helping” by spending their money in country. In Europe, there’s a lot of the “if it wasn’t for us, you’d all be speaking German” attitude. In Vietnam, well, the Americans were the ones who dropped seven million tons of explosives on them. It’s tough to argue we saved anyone there.

    My street food guide was nice and cordial and interesting to talk to. But there was a moment when he talked to the people at the table next to us in Vietnamese, and I know he was talking about me. He said “blah blah blah San Francisco blah blah” and sort of laughed. And I don’t know if he was saying, “Check this out, I’m going to make this dumb white guy eat a cow tongue” or what. Maybe it was nothing. But it made me feel stupid for being there.

    The war museum reinforced that thought. It was designed to make me feel guilty. Why was I even in Vietnam? Did they even want me there? Why do I go to any country? What was I doing?

    This dovetails into this feeling that I have in general with why I travel and who I want to be. I’m often unhappy with who I am and want to change things, want to get better or write more or do something else or be something else. And when I’m traveling alone, I’m looking at sophisticated business people and happy families together and affluent travelers and everyone else and wondering what I am. I book these trips maybe in some hope of thinking travel will make me happy or define who I am or teach me something. When I’m on day four of a long trip, I often realize this is definitely not true. Would I have been better off sinking this money into a new guitar or donating it to orphans or investing it in the stock market, or what? Why was I overheating in a land where I couldn’t grok the language or deal with this food, especially if I didn’t even know who I was or if I was even welcome there?

    * * *

    I walked more, but quickly felt like I was getting heat stroke. I went to Book Street, which is a pedestrian mall where a bunch of open-front book stores face this one street, along with a few cafes and such. It was cute, but the last thing I needed was to drag around twenty pounds of books in the hundred-degree heat. I wandered around dehydrated and went to another giant mall and ended up at a fake Italian place where I got an almost passable mall pizza. I then stumbled back to the hotel, hit a 7-Eleven on the way to get caffeine and junk food, and sat in the air conditioning until dinner.

    Dinner was once again crazy, but in the opposite direction. I went to Anan Saigon, which is HCMC’s only Michelin-star restaurant, and it was coincidentally just a few doors down from my hotel. It’s chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s place, and it’s in a tube house in the wet market. It has a bunch of different floors for a noodle shop, a bar, and the actual restaurant. I ordered the chef’s menu, and they put me at this bar, where I was shoulder-to-shoulder with other eaters, but we didn’t talk to each other. Also, two of the girls there were influencers (or whatever) and had this whole setup with tripods, gimbals, and lights, which was sort of disconcerting.

    The food was great, but very performative, I guess. Lots of single bite food, esoteric combinations, everything done with interesting textures, like little works of art. This is typical for this type of restaurant, and the nice touch here was that this eleven-course meal basically followed food across the country, like it told a story with the journey. The best item was a foie gras spring roll. The weirdest one – they had a pigeon roulade. Yeah, pigeon. Tastes like chicken. Really bad chicken. Overall though, the food was pretty good, and very beautiful.

    As is usually the case with these things, I finished 11 courses and was still hungry after. I stopped by Circle K on the way home for an ice cream bar, and avoided all the cat-calling from the women trying to get me into the lady bars and separate me from my cash.

    Thursday

    On these solo trips, I always get to the point where I hit the wall. The planned excursions are done, things around the hotel are looking a bit too familiar, and I’m done with the food. I always end up feeling very alone because I don’t speak the language, I’m too much of an introvert to hunt for expats or people who want to talk, and everyone online is asleep when I’m awake. I try to avoid this by booking more stuff to do, but I didn’t get anything set up for Thursday. I looked at Expedia a bit after breakfast, thinking maybe I could get some kind of last-minute boat cruise or an air-conditioned van tour, but I didn’t want to deal with a twelve-hour trip filled with me trying to be social with old people from the Midwest or tour guides who only act nice for a tip. (I also really did not want to explain for the 17th time why I don’t live with my parents or have kids.)

    I went for a walk before the temp really heated up. Just south of my hotel is the location of the first US Embassy. It’s at 39 Hàm Nghi Boulevard, and that four-story got hit by a VC car bomb in 1965 or so. That building did survive the war, but I found it’s now razed and there’s a construction project going on, probably some anonymous 40-story office complex. I walked near the site of the second embassy when going to the museum the day before, the one with the helicopters on the roof, the VC sappers under the wire at the perimeter during Tet, etc. It’s a park now, torn down in the 90s. There’s a new consulate next to it, opened in 2000. It’s a single-story thing behind a wall, and looks like the community center at an inner-city housing project built in 1974. It was so weird to me because I just saw in my journal from today in 2016, I saw the embassy in London. And that place is a real “Mini-America abroad” situation, with a limestone building that looked like it was teleported from Georgetown, ringed with bollards and anti-terrorism gear, MSGs toting MP-5s in a gunless country. I’m guessing the embassy in Hanoi is the deployment Marines have to endure before they get a nice one in Europe.

    I went to an art museum nearby. It was an old colonial compound and not air conditioned. It was like looking at oil paintings inside a brick pizza oven. No cameras allowed, but cell phones were, which is annoying. I only made it halfway through the first floor and then left. There was one funny room of all paintings of Uncle Ho, pictures of him playing with kids or standing majestically on top of mountains. 

    Went back to the Saigon Center mall for lunch, hoping to increase my salt intake to help out the heatstroke. I was the Ugly American and went back to McDonald’s. The McNuggets are identical in Vietnam, and they have regular sweet and sour sauce, unlike India. After lunch, I walked top to bottom through the mall to check out the stores in the half-million square feet of retail space. Every time someone starts talking about the evils of communism, I’m going to post a picture of empty store shelves in a US Target and then a picture of this giant glass and chrome tower filled stem to stern with gear from every luxury chain store imaginable. You could perform surgery on the floor of the mall there, and I even saw a little robot sweeping the corridors. This very much was not the Vietnam of Chuck Norris movies. It reminded me more of the super high end malls of Singapore.

    Back at the hotel, I didn’t do anything until 5:00 when the sun started to set. I went on a random walk and then realized I was very close to the Pittman Apartments, which is the setting of the infamous picture of the “last chopper leaving the embassy.” It wasn’t the last chopper to leave, and it wasn’t the embassy. It may or may not have been a CIA building, depending on who you ask. It’s now next to another giant mall, and I had to see if I could get a shot of it.

    To get a view of it was bizarre, and I’m glad I found an article describing it. You go in an alley between two storefronts, walk up a set of stairs, traverse through an apartment building, go to an external staircase, walk up six floors, crane all the way over, and you can see it from a 90 degree angle, which doesn’t look like the pictures, because you can’t see the elevator shaft from that angle. Someone said if you go to some rooftop bar two blocks away with a 300mm lens and the right light, you can see it better. Or go to the chemical company that now operates in the building, give the doorman a half-million VND, and hope he looks the other way so you can catch the elevator. The whole thing was so weird, because the building looks like a typical CIA building from 1959, but there’s this gigantic mall next to it, and every other slot on the street below it is like a Circle K or Sunglasses Hut or whatever.

    After that quest, I went to the Continental, and ate dinner at their big bougie restaurant where Graham Greene would have eaten every night, or HST would have drank a dozen Singapore slings. There were a couple of old people there, but it was otherwise empty. Had a decent but ho-hum chef’s menu with a lobster bisque and a steak, and ate in silence, watching the traffic outside, in front of the opera house. The view was nice. The dinner was like $180 for basically what I’d get from room service at a Hilton in Pennsylvania. The view was nice, though.

    The way home was crazy. It was just a random Thursday night, but it looked like New Years Eve. Lights and spotlights and people everywhere. There was some weird Pepsi thing, a giant can of Pepsi ringed in neon, loud pulsing techno music with Vietnamese lyrics blaring, lights everywhere like a rock concert. Maybe it was a rock concert, or a lip-synced thing with their version of k-pop stars. (v-pop?)  Or maybe they had a Tupac-style hologram of Uncle Ho up there, dancing with Hanoi’s version of Taylor Swift. Saigon is anything but a sleepy little city, especially in District 1.

    Friday

    Friday was my last day. In WTF news – Vo Van Thuong, the President of Vietnam, resigned the day before. Or “was asked to resign” maybe. Turns out there’s a big anti-corruption campaign he was in charge of, to stop the rampant bribery here, and he did something that made the party say, “yeah, maybe you need to go spend some time with your family.” I know nothing about politics in Vietnam, but I’m guessing the bribery culture here isn’t cool to multinationals looking to invest.

    * * *

    After my last breakfast upstairs, I started packing, throwing things out, shifting stuff between my three bags, planning the long trip, wrapping it all up. While I paced and packed, I gave my dad a call.

    Like I mentioned, my dad was in Vietnam, under different circumstances, in 1968-1969. He was never in Saigon; he flew to and from Cam Ranh AFB, then spent his tour at Phan Rang AFB. Both are on the coast, five or six hours from Saigon. Cam Ranh is now an international super-airport; Phan Rang is a VPAF air force base. There’s a lot of nothing surrounding it, and not any way for me to get close enough to do some then-and-now pictures. In the 55 years since he was there, a lot of the American presence is gone, torn down or overgrown.

    I was hesitant to go to Vietnam because I didn’t know what my dad would think, and didn’t want to offend him or bring up anything bad. He went from seldom talking about the war when I was a kid to really embracing the veteran’s movement in recent years, always wearing a hat or a jacket, talking to others who do the same. I guess I didn’t want to appear to be giving back to the enemy or anything like that. I don’t really know how much the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh and 1975 has to do with the Vietnam of 2024. It feels like they are different countries, different states of mind. He seemed almost excited I was there, and told me some stuff about his time in Vietnam. It was a good chat.

    My dad is my connection to Vietnam, but the obvious connection is I would not be here if it wasn’t for Vietnam. My parents met when my dad was in training outside St. Louis, and when he was about to ship out, they quickly married. I didn’t come up until the next stop along the way, after he’d returned. But there’s the connection. If the military wasn’t a thing and my dad had stayed in his small town in Michigan and worked at a lumberyard or pumped gas, he never would have met my mom, and… well, who knows what would have happened with me. So I felt some strange duty to see the place that was responsible for me, and I did.

    * * *

    The last day’s festivities included a three-hour jump to Taipei, a three-hour layover in Taiwan, then the 11-hour flight over the Pacific. I did upgrade to the “premium leg room” or whatever they now call it. Because of the time jump, I would land in San Francisco on the same day, four hours ahead of when I took off.

    The flight back was okay. I had a rough cab ride to the airport, through lunch traffic on surface roads, lots of stop-and-go, affording one last look at the city. I got checked in with no problem, although the two people in front of me had their carry-ons plus fifteen bags or boxes, all pushing the 50-pound limit. I luckily got pulled into another line as they went through all the labor to get those weighed and sorted.

    Ate at a Burger King at the HCMC airport. It was largely the same as a US one, which means it was pretty blah. Actually, it was just the “greatest hits” menu (Whopper, etc) because every time I go in the US, there’s a cornucopia of random new things on the menu that week: tacos, sliders, donuts, chicken sticks, etc. 

    On the flight to Taipei, I was sitting next to a guy who I swear was the Vietnamese version of my dad. After the war, he worked for 20 years as a fisherman in Seattle. He kept showing me pictures on his phone of like every fish he’d ever caught and all of his friends’ cars, and started the whole “when you come to Seattle, we get seafood” thing, and I really didn’t want to exchange phone numbers with him and start getting random texts every time he had a Facebook question. Actually, it would be funny if he and my dad became friends and talked about fishing.

    The Taipei airport is fairly insane, gigantic. Every gate is basically a sponsored lounge of some sort, themed or filled with artwork. Like it’s not just gate C7, it’s a Hello Kitty-themed Sanrio lounge. It’s also got a duty-free supermall in the middle of it. For whatever reason, I went to the McDonald’s to eat. They do not have their act together there for some reason; everything tasted way off. I don’t know where they get their meat, but it’s wrong. I only ate maybe a third of my burger and threw the rest out.

    On the EVA flight home, I got a seat on the exit row, the ones that have like ten feet of leg room, but nowhere to put your stuff. I did not want to sleep, but I couldn’t get my computer or do anything else. I watched the first five minutes of ten different movies, and took some vague notes on my phone for this story. I couldn’t really process everything that happened, but knew I would in the weeks to come. I still haven’t. I need to do more work on this.

    I landed at SFO in the pouring rain, the temperature roughly half what it was when I left. After standing in the rain to catch an Uber, I got home, ate a burger, and collapsed. My Apple Watch said I had 34 stand hours on that Friday.

    I’m back. My brain is still there. I’d quote the “When I was here I wanted to be there” line from Apocalypse Now, but it doesn’t entirely make sense. Or does it?

  • Anne’s Home

    I had a business trip to Anaheim a few weeks ago and felt some need to document it, since it’s the first time I’ve left the house since Christmas, and it was an unusual journey. But I don’t talk about work here, and 95% of the trip was work, despite its unique location. And I don’t want to sound ungrateful about the opportunity. And I am not a super-fan of the location, but I’m not an anti-fan either. So, there’s a conundrum here, which is why I did not enthusiastically belt out five thousand words of copy while my plane was still in the air on the way home. How do I approach this one?

    * * *

    OK. I first went to Disney World when I was twelve, on a family voyage where we loaded up the station wagon and drove from Indiana to Tampa for a week at Busch Gardens, then on to Orlando for a week at Walt’s thing and the then-new Epcot center. The plan was to escape the Midwestern cold for Florida sun and heat, but they had a freak storm of the century where it actually snowed while we were down in Orlando. I think I’ve told this whole story before, but anyway, that was my childhood experience with Disney and my first experience with Florida.

    Smash-cut to 1997 I went to Disneyland in Anaheim with my then-girlfriend. She was a Disney person and wanted to do the whole deal, so we stayed at a hotel across the street from the park and I spent most of the time shooting with a Hi8 video camera and comparing the much smaller park with the distant memories of the bigger and newer Florida version. Oddly enough, I wrote about this trip in one of the first entries in this blog. Even though it was 15 years after my childhood journey to Orlando, I felt like this 1997 trip was in the same general era, because both of them were in the analog era, and before explosion in size of both parks with all the Pixar, MGM, Star Wars, adventure land, animal kingdom, and whatever else is going on now.

    * * *

    Semi-related: when I was at a trade show in San Diego in 2000, I drove up to Anaheim for some stupid reason. Actually, I ended up going to Santa Monica to have dinner with a fan and on the way up, I thought it would be interesting to zip up Harbor Blvd and see if my 1997 memories jived with my 2000 feels. I know that’s stupid, but whatever, this was before I could just look at Google Street View to depress myself. I stopped at a McDonald’s there and wrote some thoughts down in a notebook, mostly that it all looked so familiar and yet so run-down and beat, that strip of fast food and aged motels just outside the purview of the Disney corporation. This little run ended up being in another book, probably because it was one of those colliding-worlds thing. That 1997 visit was very wound up with my time in Seattle and my girlfriend in Seattle, and the 2000 visit was very much a New York world thing.

    I doubt any of this makes much sense, but it somewhat tees up a 27-years-later visit from yet a different world, maybe.

    * * *

    I did absolutely zero planning for this trip. I would fly down Monday afternoon and back out Thursday afternoon. I had to schedule the flight and the Uber to the airport, but everything else was arranged by the company as a package deal. They told me to download the Disney app, put in my work email, and I’d magically have everything set up. That was the case.

    I flew into LAX, and normally have the usual I-miss-LA flashbacks to 2008. Maybe the 2021 trip down partly cured me of that, but I didn’t think about it at all. I brought a single duffel bag and my usual computer laptop, no camera gear and no personal laptop, just my work stuff. The trip down and back was quick, and nothing remarkable.

    The whole deal was at the Grand Californian Hotel, which I think was a parking lot when I was there in 1997. It’s on the west side of the park, and the first thing I noticed was that this side was not near anything. I think I’d have to walk at least a mile to get to anything non-Disney, and that would be just other hotels or the convention center.

    I spent almost all of my time at the Grand Californian. My room, the work event, and all the meals were there, so not much to report. Breakfast started at like 7:30am and meetings and dinners lasted until 9 or 10 (or later) each night. It was pretty much the same as if we were in a hotel in San Mateo or Denver or Indianapolis or anywhere else. The only weird thing was that we saw troves of people walking around the hallways wearing mouse ears and with strollers and fanny packs and all the other tourist talismans and gear, which was odd amongst the sales talk of ARR and MAU and everything else. There was such a strange collision between the two worlds, and I wonder what it was like for these people who flew in from the Midwest or whatever to go on vacation and see all these startup people with laptops wandering around their Disney experience.

    * * *

    I had exactly four hours on Wednesday to experience Disney. We each got a pass for the park and a fifty-dollar gift card to use on refreshments or whatever. Someone asked me earlier that day what my top two rides would be. I said the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain. Both were closed. I didn’t know what to do, and ended up in a rush to find rides I wanted to ride and figure out some game plan to get on them.

    My first observation of the post-analog Disney is that everything is monetized to the point of absurdity. One used to get admitted to the park and then ride everything all day. Now there’s a whole maze of passes and bands and services and tiers and things in the app, where you have to buy Genie+ and find reservations and sign up for slots and get in different lanes and… I don’t even know what. I think you had to wait an hour, or smash a bunch of buttons and put in a strong enough credit card and take the pain. I paid about sixty bucks to get on four rides in four hours.

    Having a phone in the park was an obvious plus. I don’t know how I would have been able to find and coordinate with others without it. Also, the app has a map, plus shows all of the wait times, which is half useful and half an incentive to shovel more money at them for the FastPass or EZPass or whatever. Another plus was that while I was standing in line forever, I could play Duolingo and pump Slayer straight into my brain to drown out everything and everyone.

    Another thing the phone changed was that nobody had cameras at all. I think maybe I saw someone with a mirrorless here and there, but nobody carted around camcorders or big cameras. That was a fascination of mine, a peoplewatching fixation point, looking at what giant Sony kit people were lugging around to tape their four-year-old dropping ice cream on the ground. Those kids now have kids. I wonder what happened to those old tapes, just like how I wonder what happens to all the video that people shoot on their phone, upload to a cloud service that will go bankrupt in two years, and then forget all about it.

    The park closed at 8:00 because of some valentine’s thing. I went back to my room to go straight to bed and prepare for a 04:00 product release the next day, then realized in the mad rush of trying to get on rides I’d totally forgotten to get dinner. I ordered a greasy pan pizza from room service and tried to watch TV. I think they purposely make TVs in Disney properties horrible so you will leave the room and spend more money. The pizza was not bad.

    * * *

    I said I was not a Disney superfan, and that doesn’t mean I’m an anti-fan. I honestly don’t have any strong feeling either way. I don’t think it really burned in when I was a child, and I was already out of college and working when the first Pixar movie came out. I know people who are Disney superfans, and honestly, I’m slightly envious of those who can have that strong sense of joy wrapped up in a place they can go and see and visit. It’s the same way I feel about people who have a strong sense of camaraderie about sports, where a stadium is “home” and they can be with tens of thousands of people who dress alike and have the same shared experience. I’ve tried, and maybe it’s because sports was not in my childhood, but I’m not wired for it. I wish I was.

    I’ve spent a lot of my midlife crisis pondering this, wondering if I just bought a boat or started collecting baseball cards or got a cabin in Montana or went to coin shows if I would find my people, if I would find joy in something I could easily purchase or fixate on. And that’s not the answer. It’s great if it works for you, but for me, I know I can’t get lost in it, and that’s what I need.

    And that put me in this unfortunate position, surrounded by people who paid large amounts of money to be at their Happiest Place on Earth, and I’m not exactly there at gunpoint, but I am there to work. So, yeah.

    * * *

    There was no time to go see LA. I didn’t even leave the grounds of the park. On Friday, I did an Irish goodbye, grabbed an Uber, and had an overly enthusiastic Korean driver who wanted to be my new best friend when I told him I used to work for Samsung. On the loop in to LAX, I did feel a very slight nostalgia/homesickness as we cruised through Hawthorne and El Segundo on the way in. Had a quick flight back, and then a quick Uber home in time for dinner.

    I have a much bigger trip in a week. More on that later.

  • 53

    I am fifty-three today.

    53 is a weird number. It’s a prime number, so I can’t play the usual games like “I’m exactly twice as old as when I ____”. It’s not a nice round number age-wise, but now I’m old enough and this blog is old enough that I’m twice as old as when I wrote this entry, which is a bit weird to think about. But other than that, there’s no numerical relevance to 53. My locker in junior high was 153. My combination was 2-31-16. (Why do I remember this?)

    Grasping at straws, this birthday is 35 years since I turned 18, I guess. It’s 40 years since my parents divorced, which means it’s 40 years since I got my first computer, the Mattel Aquarius. But as I start writing this, I can’t think of any other big even-numbered anniversaries or dates or anything else. It’s another year.

    * * *

    I’m loath to write about this, but I guess in the interest of full transparency, I should. That little cold I got when I came back from Wisconsin? Turns out it was COVID-19. I’ve spent the last three weeks out of commission dealing with that. And although it was not as bad as it could have been, it was as bad as most people say it is.

    It’s stupid to have an illness that is so politically divisive. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it, and end up in an argument about how it did or did not exist. For the most part, everyone was nice about it, and the only unsolicited medical advice I got was that I needed to take it easy and rest. And that was correct, because I was horribly tired, and sleeping twelve hours a day was not enough.

    The worst part about COVID was that I had to spend about two weeks on an air mattress in my home office, staying isolated so S wouldn’t catch it. (She didn’t.) And sleeping on the floor of an 8×10 room for weeks is a good way to put the zap on yourself, especially when you’re already depressed about your station in life and what you did over the last year, and are looking up at another big milestone.

    So that whole thing was no bueno. And I am supposed to be in Las Vegas right now with the usual crew, but I had to cancel that. Physically, I’m 90% better. I’ve been testing negative for a few days now, and the symptoms are mostly gone. Mentally… what am I doing?

    * * *

    When I wrote this post for my last birthday, I basically said I wanted year 52 to be better than year 51, that I wanted to write more, do more, be more. Was it? I don’t know. I traveled a lot. I did another master’s degree. I published two zines. But I didn’t write anywhere near as much as I wanted. I was recently looking at the draft of Atmospheres 2 and I put a bunch of notes in it on the morning of my birthday last year, a laundry list of things I wanted to do, a punch list of what I needed to finish. I did almost zero on that. And it wasn’t because some other big project got in the way. I “un-quit” writing, but I haven’t gotten back into practice yet.

    Year 52 was spent spinning my wheels on a lot of stuff, thinking about what I need to do, what I need to start, what I need to finish. Need is a bit of a dirty word, though. When I say I need to write a big book and I don’t write a big book, it just makes me feel bad or guilty. I should want to write a big book, then either do it, or do the prerequisite work or exploration or research. Ultimately this is all noise, because the era of fame and fortune from a book is about to end. I shouldn’t want to write a book because I need to keep a roof over my head or become a household name. I should want to write a book because I want to write a book.

    I was emailing with my friend Michael about this need to create the other day, and I remembered a story from my childhood. I was maybe ten years old, playing with Lego, like I did for months at a time. And I must have seen the M.C. Escher lithograph Relativity in an encyclopedia or something, the one with the orthagonal staircases going off in different directions and opposing gravity wells. And instead of assembling the stock fire station or moon base or whatever you do in the instructions that come with Lego kits, I started randomly building this structure with staircases going nowhere and little side pods of houses in the air and catwalks going across them and walls sticking up akimbo, leading to towers and ramparts and pieces of vehicles affixed to turrets or cupolas. It was this endless mess of structure going everywhere and nowhere, eventually taking over the entire kitchen table until I was required to remove it. But what I remember most was just the joy of growing the thing in every direction with no plan or idea or concept, spending hours just creating for the sake of creating, and it generated such a wild out-of-the-box product. I thought about this a lot when I wrote Rumored to Exist. And now, I feel like we have unlimited Legos and an unlimited kitchen table to build on, and it’s all a matter of snapping those first bricks onto a baseplate and going.

    * * *

    So 52 was eh and 53 is no magical number. But I’m still here, and I’ve got a lot to do in the next year.

  • New Album

    I released my first album yesterday. Yes, album. And it’s not spoken word or audio book or anything else. It’s a first attempt at creating music and releasing it into the world.

    The album (more of an EP really) is titled Ø. It’s five songs of ambient drone music, and just a hair over 30 minutes long. It’s available only on Bandcamp here: https://jonkonrath.bandcamp.com/album/0

    Why did I choose to make an album? I have played around with both Logic Pro and Ableton Live for a while now. I used Logic to record my old podcast, and I’ve mostly done utilitarian stuff like make backing tracks with drum sounds to practice bass and guitar. But I’ve also messed with synth and drones and wanted to pull that together into something cohesive.

    Back in 2015 and 2016 when I was mostly playing bass, I started piecing together an ambient album. I listen to a lot of ambient music when I write, and I wanted my own soundtrack for my writing. I think I had maybe half the EP sitting on my hard drive for almost ten years, and it was time to get it done and out.

    I will admit this album is very much a learning experience. It isn’t anything complicated or highly musical. It’s mostly simple drones with basic production, and I have no idea what I am doing, but I’m slowly figuring it out. The album was entirely written and recorded in Logic Pro, and uses no analog instruments or outboard gear. I think the only plugin I used that wasn’t included in Logic was the Valhalla Supermassive plugin, which if you are doing this kind of stuff, you really need. (And it’s free!) I used an Akai MPK mini controller when I started, then moved to an Arturia Keystep. But honestly, I do a lot of edits and even basic composition using the keyboard and mouse on the Mac.

    Just for fun, I’ll run through each track and give you a couple of notes on each one:

    1. Autumn Synthesis – This is silly and I don’t know how obvious this is, but the inspiration for the bright, lush drone intro for the album was actually the PlayStation 2 startup sound. This is the Alchemy synth and the Space Designer plugin at its finest. I also used the MIDI ChordTrigger plugin to build up the chords a bit.
    2. Sublispheric Waves – Here’s a good example of what Supermassive does; the low-end Alchemy synth has a loooong delay through Supermassive which gives it the warped-out sound.
    3. The Derision Bell – This has nothing to do with Pink Floyd; it’s just a snarky title. The low end of this was heavily influenced by the SleepResearch_Facility album Nostromo. The bell was subliminally influenced by the clocktower on the IU campus. The low end is the ES2 with some weird setup. The bell is a chopped up singing bowl sample in the sampler synth.
    4. Enceladus Lost – Probably my favorite song to put together. Once again, heavily influenced by Nostromo. The synth is again Alchemy going through Space Designer. The low end is two different samples, both fed through Supermassive. The more discrete samples are from NASA mission transmissions. The lower lush drone is from Aerospace Audio’s AeroPads.
    5. Inner Echoes – I know like every ambient musician messes with Tibetan singing bowls, but I think my direct influence was the David Ummmo track “Bowls” which is on Typewritten, Vol. 1, which was the soundtrack for the OmmWriter app, until it abruptly vanished from the face of the earth. The bowl is the Sampler synth, again. The low end is the Sculpture synth. The sample at the very end was something I recorded on my iPhone when walking at night in Mishawaka, Indiana in 2015. This is silly, but the decision to end the album with that sample was largely taken from the very end of the Queensrÿche album Empire.

    So that’s my story. I don’t know how to sell music or “build a platform” as an artist or whatever else. My only next step is to keep playing and see what I can come up with.