Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Motivations for Story

Writers seem like such unhappy people, especially the ones actually making a go at doing it for a living. The constant pressure, the un-steady income, the long hours and relentless deadlines, it seems to make for some intense, unlikeable folks. You have to be remarkably talented and insanely driven to try and survive this way. Particularly now, as the chain bookstores are slashing their inventories to free up shelf space for toys and games.

I wonder why so many people (myself included) feel compelled to string words together, and like to dream that, someday, they might be able to make a living this way. Would we really be happier poring over page proofs and negotiating contracts, than punching a time clock and enjoying our weekends?

There's a few rock-star success stories that keep us dreaming: the J.K. Rowlings, the Stephen Kings, the Stephanie Meyerses, the Clancys and the Pattersons.  These draw us back to the keyboard (though hardly often enough to actually cobble a novel together) in the hopes that such a dream might come true for us. But what blinders we wear, to ignore the fact that these few writing stars have come out of decades of publishing.

Our odds would be better in music, where each year produces a handful of hits and celebrities. Musicians are easier to love, and it's easier to love more of them, since we can consume their products in minutes, and we can do it while we're working, or walking, or driving in cars. While novelists -- well, novelists ask us to shut up, sit still, and listen for hours at a stretch, while they go on and on, unraveling this low-bandwidth string of communication, one word at a time.

How presumptious! Were I to knock on your door and ask you to listen to me for eight hours in a row, I would shudder to consider your reaction. But authors do this to us every day, and they ask us to pay them for the priviledge.

And yet there must be something primal about this particular dream, this aspiration, given that it generates so many reams of submissions to editors and agents, so many MFAs in creative writing, so many purchases of laptops and lattes. We set so much store in the story of the storyteller. Is it for the same reason the poor are so inclined to support tax structures that favor the super-wealthy? Does the same dream that, hey, I might get rich someday, and I won't want the gummint taking a slice of my pie, keep us pounding away at an activity so unlikely to reward us in money, fame, or affaction?

Or is it something even more basic than that? Is it that piecing our lives together in the form of a story is central to our identity? We're happy or miserable, we're successes or failures, and we look to our past for clues as to why this is so. We find them. We gossip.  We keep journals and blogs and Twitter accounts.  We call this our autobiography. (And it's telling that so many current-day literary successes are shelved under “Biography” or “Memoir.”)

The alternative -- that it's all just blind chance and one moment doesn't have any partiular linkage to the next, and certainly nothing we have control over -- is just too horrible to contemplate. Books give us the certainty that it all makes sense, somehow; that the decisions we make have consequences that make them worth making. Whether we read books or not, they're there, weaving our singular moments into elaborate, meaningful structure.

A proper story is more than entertainment.  It's a roof, and walls against the night.  It's a hearth.

The average American may not read many books in a given year.  But we want them to be written. It's an imperitive right up there on par with having children, and believing that they're going to carry our stories into the future, whether they remember them or not.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vacation Summation

It's been a wonderful stay at home vacation. We've combined old with new, relaxation with activity, and time with friends with time alone.

We've ridden bicycles to the beach, swum in ice-cold water and lain in the sun long enough to remember what a proper sunburn feals like. Strange that you can live in a place like this and go to the beach so seldom, but there it is: a few times a year really is enough. Anything more and relaxation starts to feel like routine, and like work. But getting there on our fleet of cast-off and dump-recovered bicycles is a nice touch. And it's liberating to leave your rides leaning on a post at the end of the trail, without locking them up. Anybody could steal them, I suppose. But other than the inconvenience of a long walk home, would it really matter?

We've had an old-school LAN party, networking our five year old computers together to play a ten year old video game around the kitchen table.  Amazing how much better it runs on the hardware we have now. Made us reflect on the treadmill of hardware and software advances. You buy a new PC to get a better experience of your favorite video games, but then there's a new library of games to install that'll just bog it down again. Are they really any more entertaining than the last? I doubt it. But they set you to salivating over the next computer you're going to buy. (Hence this sort-of vow of poverty that leads me to buy used or accept castoffs whenever possible.) Given that I hardly ever touch video games these days, our little session was a surprisingly social and satisfying exercize. We may play the game a bit more in the weeks to come, though I'm not sure. It may be like going to the beach, a handfull of hours here and there enough to scratch the itch.

We had a brief road-trip to a neighboring town to pick up a friend of ours. Stopped in a smoke-shop for a cigar and some pipe cleaners. Drank lattes in an unfamiliar cafe. (Eight dollars for two cups of coffee! A rare and precious indulgence, indeed.) Floated around a bit in a pool, drinking cocktails. (Who says watersports and alcohol don't mix?) We ate a few meals at restaurants, and watched a few movies on the couch.

Oh, and there was all that yard work earlier in the week, which turned our yard from a construction site and scrap-metal heap into a pleasant place to sit with a typewriter to and do some writing. So I did some. Plus, I gathered up all the spare bricks which have been mouldering in piles around the yard for the past 100+ years and stacked them up into a hearth on the patio, perfect for sitting around the fire at night and grilling on. So we did a bit of that, too.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Free Books at the Dump

The Wife has already written of our stay-at-home vacation with its trip to the dump and a couple of treasures she brought home.  She left it to me, however, to share this shelf of western culture, left together in one cardboard box for whatever fellows might come along and find it.

Granted, there was a lot more in the box--dated textbooks and such, not to mention the shelves and shelves of mass-market paperbacks which line the entire back wall of the dump's swap-shack, as if, their entertainment value drained, their sole function from this point forward was to provide insulation.  But one can't love and cherish every piece of garbage one comes across, can one?

There is always the risk of coming home from the dump with more than we leave there, an occurrence which rather defeats the entire purpose of the voyage.  We've scored bicycles, rocking chairs, windows and doors at the dump.  We've put most of it to good use, but sometimes storage is a problem.

However, yesterday we discarded a broken koi-pond liner, a metal outdoor fireplace rusted to the thickness of newspaper, several pounds of rusty chicken wire, and a leaky chicken-watering can.  This completed the yard cleanup that started off the vacation, and left the backyard looking the tidiest it has since we moved back here, almost a year ago.  There was little chance of returning with a bigger haul than that.

We also threw out a 40-pound, 19" Sony Trinitron CRT monitor.  This it pained me to part with, since this screen has loyally displayed the machinations of various PCs for the past decade, and despite its bulk it still boasted a generous resolution.  It seemed we should have been able to make something of it, like building an old-school television cabinet for it and mounting it inside with a basic internet-connected media PC.  But something had gone wrong with its insides, and it displayed its colors washed out, interrupted by a series of sharp diagonal lines.  The dump charges $25 to take your old CRTs, but when we renewed our dump sticker they provided us two coupons to cover disposal "hazardous items," which seemed fair to me.  So there it is, ready, for the municipality to bundle and pack and process and reap the bounty of its five-to-fifteen pounds of lead*.  Here's hoping they don't up and ship it off to Africa or China.

So, having unloaded an entire station wagon, it didn't seem too bad to come home with this shelf.  Let's see: Maugham, Melville, Tolstoi, Fielding, Cooper, Whittier, Trollope, an anthology of stories and another of poetry, discussions of Victorian Literature, and a song-book for The Wife and friends to crack open around the campfire.  All stuff I'm actually bound to read, sooner or later.

Not too bad a reward for cleaning up the yard.

*  Here's something I didn't know: one the reasons CRT Monitors and TVs contain so much lead in their glass is to shield their viewers from the radiation being streamed at their eyeballs.  This is where I could get all snobby about how smart I've been not to watch TV over the years.  But if you pointed out how many hours I've spent staring at computer screens and video games, you'd wipe that smarmy smile right off my face.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Flying Cars - The Fruits of Progress!

Okay.  I do a lot of bitching and moaning about this mad, crazy future-present world we're living in now.

But just once in a while something comes along that makes it all seem wonderful and worth it.

This is one of those times.

That seems to be a bona-fide flying car.  Its manufacturers claim it gets 30 mpg on the highway and burns only 5 gallons per hour in the air.  And it can take off and clear a 50' obstacle in 1700 feet. 

These were the sorts of gadgets we were promised, back when we started thinking about the future with technological determination: robot wives, holo-decks, and flying cars.  Looks like we'll finally be one for three.

I don't care that it looks dorky.  I want one.  Bad.

If only I had an extra $200,000 lying around.  

Ironically enough, there's no place I have to get to on a regular basis that warrants ownership of an airplane.  Still, I'm sure I could think of something to do, even if it was the old standby $100 hamburger.

(Link thanks to boingboing.)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Head Falls Silent in this Middle Age

There was a time when it seemed I had something to say.  But I realize, upon reaching middle age, that I am not as unique and interesting as I once thought.  Or maybe it's just that I'm working a very middle aged, middle class job.  I used to work for small companies and family owned businesses that hung to solvency by their daily deposits.  For a bit I owned one of these businesses myself.

Then there was the hare-brained scheme of several years ago, which was to find a way to make a living from the cabin of a 30 foot sailboat -- or just enough of one that we could call ourselves semi-retired.  Come to think of it, that was a great scheme, actually.  Just a little short on details.   But it made for some great stories.

Now I'm a small piece in a very large corporation, and comfortable there, for all the usual middle-class reasons of security, stability, and health insurance.  The thing about big corporations, though: they tend to discourage their employees from sharing stories of their workday with the internet and the world.

On top of that, I'm not a huge fan of all this web 2.x stuff.  Facebook, Twitter, microblogging, text-message navel gazing.  I could blame my distaste on being a grumpy old man, except it's not just the kids doing it these days, it's the parents and the grandparents.  (I will share this story from work: four folks on break in the employee lounge, eating their meals in silence at the same table, thumbing messages into their phones.  "How cute!" I said.  "It looks like you're all texting each other.")

I liked the static web-sites you could lay out with html in text editors, the wonder of using code to alter layout and style, the puzzle of constructing a consistent navigation system of links.

I was fond of email, but a certain kind of email, longer than 200 words, with punctuation and a certain amount of thought behind it.

And I grew to love a certain kind of blog, the kind that shared a bit of life and story, observation and criticism, and led to lively discussion in the comments.

It seemed, for a bit there, like the internet was going to make the world a more thoughtful, reasoned place.  You could get the resources of a global university, blessed with a vast library and an active population of students and professors, for the cost of a broadband connection.  (Actually, we made do with dial-up until the end of 2006.)  You could save a great deal on postage.  You could come out of a long silence with something to share, and if it was interesting enough, you could put it out into the world confident that someone, at least, would read it.  Like minds reached beyond the silencing limits of old communications to forge connections and build friendships.

Now, it seems we need to fight for our silences.  These kids these days, and their parents, and their grandparents, they're connected non-stop to this abhorrent noise.  (Okay, one more story from work: the employee who had to be disciplined because her face-book status update changed when she was working.  Since she had "friended" several of the managers, one of them called from home to ask just what she was doing logging on to face-book with her cell-phone in the middle of her shift.)  Why have a conversation when you can play a hand-held video game?  Why listen to the people around you if it means you have to take your earbuds out?

Granted, I am the sort of person who cannot abide the background chatter of a television, because it absorbs all thought.  If there's a television on within earshot, my brain is dead to the world.  The Wife, bless her, she accommodates me in this small house by wearing headphones when she wants to watch something I'm not interested in.  I don't know if other people are able to keep their minds active in the face of such chatter, or if they just don't care that they're shutting down when there's something shiny to watch.

But I suspect it's the latter.  This makes it all the more horrifying for me when I read that 98% of iPad users are surfing on their tablets while they watch TV.  How is it possible to be any more distracted?  Or any more absorbed with absolute garbage?

Our attention span has become our country's most precious natural resource, and it seems that Apple and MTV and the rest want to deepwater-drill, strip-mine, and extract it.  See: MTV Developing 'Co-Viewing' Apps for the iPad.

In the face of this kind of noise, what's the point of opening your mouth at all?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Second Hand Computer Adventure

When last I wrote I was window shopping for computer parts and saving my pennies for the day I could put a decent machine together from components.  A new PC is not something I need; mostly I just enjoy putting them together.  And I've wanted a desktop since we came back from the city a couple of years ago.  Using a Macbook made a lot more sense when I skipped around like a bohemian, doing most of my writing in bookstores, libraries, and parks.

I'd saved money to the point where I could just about build a modern dual-core system for under $400.  The plan was to piece it together and hook it up to an ancient (ten year old) bulky CRT monitor, and perhaps start saving for one of those new-fangled flat-screens.

Well, fortunately I didn't drive to Cambridge and blow my pin-money that weekend.  Because the next day I came across an ad on Craigslist for a mid-sized tower.  It was listed by the name of the motherboard rather than the brand, which seemed suspicious.  

But the specifications looked good.  The hard drive was small, but there were plenty of internal SATA connectors to add more storage.  It had a single-core Pentium 4 processor, but it sits in a "socket 755" that would hold the newer dual and quad core Intel processors should I want to upgrade that.  It had a basic on-board graphics chip that probably wouldn't handle any heavy-duty 3d rendering, but an open PCI-e slot to accept a cutting edge graphics card should I ever feel the desire to play games again.  It lacked a DVD burner, but those are available for less than a tank of gas these days, and it did have a DVD rom and a CD-RW.  And it was housed in a basic, black, mid-sized tower, not one of those flashy, neon-lit monstrosities designed to appeal to hormone-saturated 14 year olds flush with their parents' disposable income.  And the fans spin with no more noise than my laptop.

Best of all, it was a complete and fully functional PC for only $130.  

I asked the fellow, "You listed this computer by the name of its motherboard.  Is it something you put together by yourself?"

He said, "Yeah.  I get most of my parts from the dump and see what I can put together from them.  The person who threw this one out thought it was broken, but it really only needed a new hard drive."

Now, a lot of folks might balk at paying money for a machine that was another man's garbage.  But the fact is, it sounded like a good box, and it was exactly what I was looking for: a computer with parts too obsolete to be available through regular retail channels, but with a wide range of upgrade possibilities.  Plus, how can I begrudge the guy for doing what I should be getting off my hump and doing: stopping by the dump and picking up other people's trash and seeing what I can make out of it.  (We go to different dumps, so I wouldn't be competing with him.)  

Plus, I genuinely liked the guy: his condo was cluttered with computer parts and the deck was stacked with Lobster Traps.  He projected the aura of a year-round, local Cape-Codder in the 21st century.  Folks like us are scrappy; we do what we have to do to survive.  

So I bought the computer.  Paid cash.  He even carried it to the car for me.  "It's part of the service," he said, "and I give you a 30 day money-back guarantee."

He warned me that the installation of Windows XP on the machine might not be 100% legitimate.  I told him the first thing I was doing when I got the thing home was installing Ubuntu, so that didn't really matter to me.

I liked that I got to indulge my electronics acquisition itch without generating any new e-waste.  Of course, given all the money I saved, I couldn't resist stopping by Staples and picking up a flat-screen monitor that day.  There were none second-hand on Craigslist.  I checked.  I probably could have held out, but I really wasn't all that thrilled with sticking by the old CRT.  I'll justify it by talking about how much electricity we'll save with the lower wattage flat-panel monitor.  Christ, I bet you could cook an egg on the top of that old Trinitron.

I'm pleased to report the Ubuntu installation on the new/old machine went flawlessly.  And despite my grand plans for expansion (dedicated graphics card, 1+ TB hard drive, DVD burner, extra RAM, multi-core processor) those things can wait until the cash re-accumulates in my wallet over the next several months--or years.  As it is, the computer has no trouble running the latest version of Ubuntu and pushing the monitor at its highest resolution while playing music and running a word-processor and web browser over wifi and seeding open-source torrents over bittorrent.  

That's about as hard-core as I get with my PCs, these days.