Friday, December 3, 2010

Guilty Reading Pleasures: Live and Let Die

I came across an old copy of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel, Live and Let Die, and decided to give it a chance.  I'm not a fan of the few movies I've seen, newer ones that I've gone to with friends from the 90s and on.  They strike me as adolescent boy wish-fulfillment fantasy with a sugar-coating of explosions.  So I wondered if this book, which came out in the early 50s, would have the same sort of vibe.

Fortunately, it is harder to render explosions in a movie, and authors have less of an incentive to do so.  (If our imaginations came with dolby surround sound, box office sales would suffer.)  The book was the sort of fun, action based, semi-suspenseful romp I'd expected, with a bit of violence, some suspense (Fleming had the trick down of ending the chapters just where you wanted to keep reading), and the promise of sex more than the delivery of it.  But what I didn't expect was the elegant language, the vivid sense of place, and a colorful cast of characters which were not as one-sided as they come out on the screen.  Most of all, the book felt like an adventure.  

Bond is in the US for most of this one, with a finish in Jamaica.  The descriptions of Harlem capture both the grit and the elegance of the atomic age and the racial tensions of the inner city in the mid-century.  The train-travel scenes made me long to take a diesel-powered voyage in silvery cars.  And there's an underwater raid on a villain's lair with some truly delightful descriptions of scuba-diving amid teeming sea-life.  Of course there's the satisfaction of projecting yourself onto the persona of a handsome, cool-under-pressure protagonist with a dashing sense of style.  

There's an optimism in these ridiculous plots.  There's the sense that we can sacrifice a great deal in the fight against evil, accept our losses, and enjoy a full breakfast or a carefully prepared cocktail when we have the chance.  

And it's nice to be reminded that you can read for pleasure and still enjoy some fine language.

It's enough to make me forgive one of the stupidest lines of dialog I've ever read.  When Bond and his lady-friend are tied together and towed naked behind the villain's boat, seconds away from being dragged across a lacerating coral reef so that their blood will summon a swarm of frenzied sharks that will both kill them and dispose of their bodies, the lady-friend, Solitaire, comes out with this gem:

"I didn't want it to end this way."

I hope I'm not spoiling things if I tell you it doesn't.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

NanoWrimo Update: Week One

I'm moving through this November's novel-writing experiment at a reasonable pace. It's not a pace that's going to get me to 50000 words by the end of the month. Maybe half that, if I'm lucky.  But it's a pace, in the middle of a hectic November, so I'll take my victories where I can find them.

So far I've stuck with pounding it out on the Olivetta Lettera 32 typewriter. It doesn't have the fastest touch. The letter "a" doesn't show up clearly unless you give it some extra force, and the letter "p" tends to stick, which causes a real back-up of keys when you're in a hurry. So I'm well below my usual 120 wpm. But the added effort keeps my upper body and hands warm as the house moves into colder seasons and I resist turning the heat on.  And the sound of a typewriter is something I have a fetish for.

I've noticed a couple of things about this effort:

I can't get 2000 words out in the hours I have free in a given day. I tend to think a little more about each sentence before I put it down, indelible as it is, and in many ways this seems to defeat the whole purpose of Nanowrimo.

The words I do get out seem a little less terrible than the words I got out in previous years, using a laptop computer.

Can't say I have a great explanation for this. Or whether another reader comparing the first draft of this year's manuscript to the first draft of another year would come to the same conclusion. (Don't worry. No readers will be subjected to this experiment.) I do have the sense that, by the time my manual-typing fingers have caught up with my brain, I've subconsciously edited out a lot of needless words that a computer keyboard would have obliged me by keeping up with.

So, result #1 of typewriting this year's Nano is, I probably won't be "winning" the project by the standard of pumping out 50,000 words by the end of November. But maybe result #2 is I get back into the routine of setting aside one or two typewritten pages each day. Which is, after all, a much more sustainable pace in the long-term, and a pace that produces 182,500 words in a year (approximately!).

If I'm really lucky, result #3 will be a January manuscript that doesn't require quite as much cutting as previous drafts have.  Maybe something even worth sharing.  But we'll see.

Perhaps the greatest thing about having a day-job is the ability to enjoy your hobbies for what they are.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

NanoWrimo Logo

I may be taking on the NanoWrimo again this year.  Already got some notes together on several characters and a basic idea behind the driving force of what might charitably be called a plot.

And of course, my heart is with the people over at the Typewriter Brigade, who are signing on to pound their 50,000 words out on manual typewriters this year.  I may follow suit.  Haven't decided.  A laptop (preferably a disconnected one) is just such a handy device for organizing the notes, keeping characters and setting straight, etc.  But that doesn't mean I can't leave those digitized notes off to the side and pound out the actual draft on one of my beloved old machines.

If I do this, it will by my third time through, and my fourth novel.  I hit the 50,000 word mark both in 2002 and 2004, but the only time I've actually completed a story, instead of just a word-count, was sometime in 2007, where I hit 90,000 words, and I didn't do it in November, nor did I complete it in one month.  That one was a lot better than the first two, though, and I learned the persistence required to finish it from those previous Novembers.

Perhaps this is the year that I come up with something worth finishing, revising, and submitting.  Time will tell, I suppose.

But November is not the time to consider such things.  November is the month to put out eight double spaced typewritten pages every day until you have a stack 200 high.

I found an image that captures the spirit of the month quite nicely, and capped it off with my new favorite slogan.

I think that sums the project up rather nicely, don't you?

Kubuntu Installation

The Wife laughs at my obsession with Linux Distributions. As I'm changing out my desktop wallpaper or re-arranging my applets for the hundredth time, she'll say, "Linux is like home decorating for boys." Why not get some real work done instead of making the screen look pretty? But then again I could ask her the same thing about the furniture in the living room.

Came home for my middle of the day break from work (They call it a "split shift" but I call it "Two days for the wages of one.") and ended up spending hours--hours!--in putting Kubuntu on the desktop, configuring applications, getting the layout just the way I like it. I should have taken a nap, and now I'm facing the ordeal of a six-hour closing shift with very little sleep. Not entirely sure how I'll be getting through it, but I suppose we'll find a way. Adrenaline and coffee, most likely.

Oh, but the Kubuntu. It looks amazing, like it just brought the old computer into the "latest generation" of computer technology. Transparent, window effects, shiny, glowing, fresh, and surprisingly intuitive. Like Windows Vista could have been, if it didn't bog much newer machines down into a tub of molasses.

For such a flashy and attractive Desktop Environment, Kubuntu actually runs rather well on an old P4 with no dedicated graphics card. There's a little hesitation on opening applications, but once they're up, they're up. And I much prefer the overall feel of this desktop environment to the Gnome I was running before. Text displays crisper and smaller, which satisfies me on some strange control-freak level, and I can actually make use of this vast monitor's screen space with various windows, etc.

Strangely enough, the whole package downloaded and installed right from the standard Gnome desktop in about ten minutes. One quick re-boot and I was there. The joy of messing about with all these operating systems and desktop environments is it feels like getting to use a new computer every few days, without spending a penny. (The rest of those lost hours went to the "home decorating" phase.)

I have now spent some time with all the major Ubuntu flavors (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, and the small and strikingly efficient newcomer Lubuntu) as well as a lot of lesser-known alternatives (Slitaz, Puppy, Damn Small Linux, the craptacular Xandros that came with the Asus Eee). Ubuntu, in it's incarnations, seems to have most of the bases covered, at this point. Every one I try, I like better than the last. Except for esoteric applications (extremely old hardware, custom built solutions to uncommon problems, etc.) it's various flavors seem to do what your "average" hobbyist/user with a little patience and a willingness to experiment would expect it to do, usually with delightful style.

All this distro-hopping has made me start to wonder a bit just what Ubuntu is. Before I started sailing Linux waters, I always assumed an operating system was a whole shiny package. It was, you know, the part of the computer that wasn't made of plastic and microchips but wasn't consumer software from a shrink-wrapped box, either. I assumed that the desktop environment was an integral part of an operating system, since it gave you handles to drag your windows around and icons to click to launch your video games.

But here comes Ubuntu, which is an operating system, I think, but it's not really, it's just a "distribution" of Linux. And you can have a text-only install of Ubuntu (just like DOS before the Windows came along) or you can load it up with your choice of window manager (Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LCXD) to turn it into one of it's derivatives (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu). Or you can go a whole 'nother route, skip the Ubuntu piece, and build Linux into something completely different like Red Hat, Slitaz or Slackware.

Oh yeah, and the Ubuntu code was all built up by some company called Canonical which is controlled by a man named Mark Shuttleworth, who was one of the first people to pay Russians to go to space as a tourist. (I thought his name was a joke but was apparently, mistaken.) His team built the Ubuntu distribution on top of another distribution called Debian. I'm not sure if Debian's still another layer in the cake or just something that's to the side, at this point. It becomes rather confusing. And just what this Canonical company gets from developing all this software is also unclear to me.

But I am inclined to like them, since it all seems to work despite my not-understanding. It's a tribute to the engineers at every level, that they make it simple enough for a dilettante like me to have so much fun and get so much done with their efforts.

What does become clear from all this messing around is how modular all these operating system pieces are. The different window managers all look remarkably different, but all it takes to change them up is switching out a few packages from the Ubuntu Software Center. If you're clever, or you read the right on-line tutorial, you can do this with a few keystrokes at the command line. There are even tools out there for grabbing all the bits you like from the various distributions, pre-loading it with the open-source applications you prefer, stamping your own name on it, burning it to a CD and calling it your own. The Creative Commons license will even let you charge money for it, which is a nice touch, since it gives you the incentive to add a bit of value in the form of installation and training. (Maybe this is what Canonical is after?) The only thing you can't do is tell the person who buys it from you that they can't turn around and do the same thing.

# # #

Hmm... If I spend more time procrastinating than I do writing, perhaps I should reconsider where my priorities lie. Then again, these are all just hobbies, so it's not like I have to worry about making a living from either of them. That's the freedom that comes from working a full-time job. Then again, if somebody did want to offer me some money...

Which would you rather pay me for? Turning your old computer into a fantastic new Linux machine, or telling you a story?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Old People's Houses

There is a Sadness when you visit an Old Person's house and you can date the moment at which they stopped engaging with the world. It is the date on the top magazine of the stack by the easy chair, or on the bookshelf of sun-faded paperbacks. It's the date on that first page with the library of congress information, the ISBN and the rest of the numbers. It's the last important book they read, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1967, or 1974, or 1988. It's the shelf full of James Michener, or James Clavell, or Norman Mailer. This marks the point at which they have not only given up on acquiring the new, but have ceased to trouble themselves with unloading the old.

These old people typically have newer things in their house than these artifacts. Usually the television is less than a few years old, and the microwave might be battered although it's certainly not antique. They might even have a gleaming stainless steel refrigerator with an ice-maker and dispenser built into the door. But you can tell their heart is not in these things. Most likely some child or grand-child or social worker has stopped by, said, "Oh Harold, you can't possibly go on living with this old thing in your home," and taken it upon themselves to arrange delivery and installation of the replacement. And the Old Person likely shrugged and said, "sure, I suppose so," and sat looking over the top of his bifocals with a battered paperback in his hand, a bemused expression on his face, while his caregiver fussed and grunted to attach co-ax and AC power and argue with utilities over the phone.

If it's a good natured Old Person, he perhaps said to his caregiver, "You like to read, do you? Why don't you take this copy of Shogun with you? Maybe you'll enjoy it. Don't mention it, it's the least I can do."

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Lure of Retro Computing

I want to get Lubuntu working on the old 2000 Sony Vaio, make it a streamlined, stripped-down, responsive old toy.  It won't go online without an ethernet cable, which makes it perfect for distraction-free writing. The silly thing is, though, that it runs Windows XP just fine, it's running it fine right now, with OpenOffice and everything that I need, and not going online with it keeps it pretty well free of viruses. Stripping it down to a lightweight package with Abiword/Gnumeric is really counter-productive, since I could be diving in and writing novels on it right now.

But then again, there's the productive writing angle, and then there's the fun of messing about with unorthodox operating systems and seeing how they play with old hardware, and pretending these are both part of the same pursuit is a bit disingenuous.

I've got that Asus Eee netbook, too. My reading in bed computer, almost three years old already but working great, going strong. The small keyboard’s not much of a hindrance; I actually like the minimal feel of it. And the small screen lends itself to a certain degree of focus. It will go online, but it won’t stream YouTube videos without burping along, and I can forget all about watching Hulu on it or looking at any pictures in high resolution. I could have been content with just that, but no, I had to go and purchase a Pentium 4 desktop for $120 from a guy who saved one from the dump and dropped a new hard drive into it. And why didn’t I just get one from the dump myself? Well, because the guy got to it first, the price was reasonable, and I feel good supporting that guy’s lifestyle of local-salvage-and-survive. Of course, that same day, Staples had a great deal on a 22” widescreen LCD monitor to pair with it, so now I’ve got a massive screen dominating my otherwise uncluttered desk that’s constantly calling out to me with uses for its vast tracts of screen real-estate.

These stupid conundrums, I spend hours obsessing over them, when friends of mine might be levelling up their World of Warcraft characters or fragging bots in first person shooters. Or raising children and doing the other suchlike things that adults are supposed to be doing with their time.

All these machines, built for communication. I strip them down and prune them back. Too much communication makes me nervous. Why should we share our dinner plans on Facebook and post our bowel movements on Twitter?  Just because there's an app for that?

I like the older machines because I feel they’re not being wasted; I can ask of them everything they can give and use them to the fullest. This is what K. Mandla speaks about when he says he is not a computer minimalist. He’s a maximilst, getting the most out of ten-year old laptops he pays $20 for. And there he is, building, researching, and publishing online (which is a more elegant description of what we do than “blogging,” which is perhaps the most unfortunatly coined term of this last decade) all from the command-line. Whether this makes him any more effective or productive as a writer and journalist is up for debate, but it seems to me he gets a pretty decent load of fun out of the proceedings.

Unlike Mandla, I'm not ready to go back to command-line-only. I've been tempted by the challenge of it, but climbing the learning curve of Unix commands and Vim keyboard shortcuts is a fun exercise that I’ve embarked upon a couple of times, but repeating that exercise enough to comfortably compose a letter without going online to reference tutorials and man-pages starts to make me feel that maybe I am wasting my time, a little. There’s enough distraction-free text editors out there for Linux that I can re-create the feeling of austerity and still wave my mouse around when I want to put something in italics or copy and paste.

Don’t think I haven’t considered getting that old 1980 IBM PC, which has no graphics card, out of my mother’s attic and re-acquainting myself with the keyboard shortcuts of WordPerfect whatever point whatever that I loaded onto it, back in the day, with my buddy's mother's boss's stack of 5.25" floppies. The thing boots in seconds and will output to the dot-matrix printer in near letter quality, provided I can scare up a ribbon and a carton or two of tractor-feed paper. If I bring that thing home, though, I’ll get open-source ambitious and lose a couple of weeks trying to load up a stripped down version of Linux through those 5.25” drives, and then I'll be diving right back into the morass of text editors and obscure, out-of-date printer driver installation. Is there any way to sauter a USB port onto a 30 year old motherboard? Getting anything I write off of that old thing would be a significant challenge.

And now I'm toying with the idea.  But if I have to find a place to put that hulk of a machine, I’ll have to get rid of one of these bulky typewriters (probably the Selectric) which call to me, nightly, from beneath their dust-covers. They want me to type something, anything, and they seem to be unaware of the cruel truth that I’ve run out of things to say.

All these computers are four years old, at least (and the typewriters are 40 years old, at least) so it’s not like we’re one of those families that goes around scooping up the latest gadgets and sending last years models off to India and Africa for recycling and reclamation. The problem is that despite whatever planned obsolescence is built into them, they persist in working just fine. Throwing them away doesn’t feel right, but it’s not like we can sell them, either, given that people would rather finance an iPad with their credit card (”It’s like buying a computer with no money down!”) then make do with something that still gets the job done, something they could have second-hand for twenty bucks.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Dusted off the roller-blades (once we found them, hanging behind the winter coats in the closet) for a skate along the canal. We bought two pair of these things about eight years ago because we were living so close to such a nice, smooth paved trail, and it seemed a shame not to try them out.  I've used mine about a dozen times over the years.  The Wife tried it once or twice and decided it wasn't for her.  

Funny, how life was eight years ago, when we'd invest a few hundred dollars sports equipment just to try something out.  

They demand a vigorous sort of exercise, these rollerblades; it’s not so easy to have a leisurely adventure with them as it is when bicycling or walking. And they limit where you can go. Long, smooth stretches of pavement are best, and the trails had better be isolated from cars, and they’d better not slope more than a degree or two from the horizontal. You have to carry a pair of shoes along with you if you hope to venture far from the path, and this is on top of the helmet and other protective gear you should have on.

It’s a very first-world leisure activity, rollerblading. It requires a great deal of infrastructure.

Still, we had a good time and I got a good workout while we were at it. The Wife stuck with her vintage bike, of course, as it’s got a pair of brand-new whitewall tires on it and they needed breaking in. The sun was out, the air cool, the wind light. We watched a man land a 12 lb. striper and then toss it back into the water. We spent a good 15 minutes sitting on a park bench, watching the passage of a 30’ sailboat and a 60’ fishing vessel. The fishing boat was remarkably loud with its diesel engines. I wonder if those fishermen keep earplugs in all day, and what the world sounds like to them when they get home and go ashore?

On the way back we found we had the breeze in our face and a slight hill to climb, so by the time we got home I was out of breath and happy we hadn’t gone further before turning around. Time was I could skate all the way to the southern mouth of the canal and back with a lit cigar clamped between my teeth. It seems, perhaps, I’ve let myself go a little.

My own freebie bike needs a new tire. Once that’s taken care of I’ll probably favor that over the rollerblades. It’s easier to zip into town and pick up library books and drink a cup of coffee on the bike. But it felt good to get some use out of these silly old shoes with the wheels on them. When I’m in the mood for jogging, and then remember how much jogging hurts my knees, I’ll just might pull them out again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Super Sad True Love Story

OK, so now that I'm done with whining about Franzen, how about a book I loved?

Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story is shelved in "literature," although I think it might qualify as the sort of near-future science fiction that William Gibson used to write until the world caught up with his futurism.

Shteyngart has tapped into a lot of my personal fears and obsessions with this one: the erosion of human relationships in the face of mediating technology, the growth of America's "in your face" military dominance, the rise of military checkpoints within our own country and the sacrifice of personal liberty and privacy in the name of security, the coarsening of communication as we rely more and more on vulgarity and abbreviation to express ourselves, the preoccupation with youth and the commodification of sex, and the ultimate fate of the US as the dollar drops in value and we're further in debt to our trading partners.

His characters parade about in OnionSkin jeans (yes, they are what you think they are) and undergarments from companies like TotalSurrender and AssLuxury that they buy with yuan because the dollar is worthless.  Work in America is so hard to find that you've got to have a Master's degree and to through a period of apprenticeship to secure a position in retail.  Facebook has been abandoned for the trendier, hipper social networking site GlobalTeens, and people of all ages are so dedicated to texting on GlobalTeens (texting is now called teening) with their hand-helds that, when connectivity goes down for a couple of weeks, several people commit suicide, convinced that a world of "walls and thoughts and faces" is just not enough.

It's a terrifying world, taken all at once like this.  And yet it's the world we're settling into, the way your overweight executive settles into his tacky recliner in front of the TV at the end of a long day.  Bit by bit, we're reclining towards this disaster.  We've all felt it, haven't we?  I just haven't seen it portrayed so clearly and believably before.

And yet he manages to find the humanity in his characters and spin a love story between them.  People still want the same things, really: community, belonging, good friends, work that's challenging and provides a sense of purpose.  It's just that all these human desires are washed under a wave of data and stuff.

The main character, Lenny, is middle aged.  He's determined to live forever, and he works for a company that provides life extension to the very rich.  Obsessed with youth as he is, he's still attached to his old books.  But he's embarrassed by the way they smell.  The person sitting next to him on a plane complains about his volume of Tolstoy, "Duder, that smells like old socks."  When he realizes the same smell might put off Eunice, his young girlfriend, he sprays his library with air freshener.

How can he remain young and still love the things that meant so much to him in a long ago childhood?  And how can he remain young when he can't afford the technology that extends the life of his clients?

His girlfriend, who really is young, wants to feel smart, to understand these books that mean so much to him.  But how can you share literature with a girl who has grown up in a cultural vacuum?  All the references are lost.  It's like trying to read Chaucer in the original Middle English.  Possible, but with great effort.  And certainly not fun, when there's shopping and teening you could be doing instead.

The connection between these characters is as touching as it is doomed, as they struggle to find common interests and qualities that can transcend their generational gap.

I don't want to give too much else away (beyond the obvious bit given away by the book's title).  But I particularly liked Shteyngart's explanation for how the Chinese bankers finally call in their debts.  It seemed like a plausible outcome, though hopefully not the one we ultimately end up with.  The economists I've spoken to have always told me not to worry about our debt to China, since if they call it in, we won't be able to buy their products any more, and so they have an incentive to keep lending us money on and on forever.  Given the collapse of the tech stocks and the housing market and the derivatives market in the last ten years, I've had trouble buying the idea of anything financial going on forever.  (Except, perhaps, for interest payments.)

All this is handled with a marvelous sense of humor, and so it really doesn't come off as bleak as all that. (Humor. Something else that was missing from the Franzen title, and might have made all the difference.) Check out Shteyngart's book trailer, which really has very little to do with the book but will make you want to read it, anyway.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Franzen's Freedom - From Literature!

I gave up on reading Franzen's Freedom after 120 pages.

I just could not make myself care about these characters.  These are shallow, petty people of modest accomplishment being mean and hurtful to their families in shallow, petty ways.  Afraid I'd be missing something, I jumped ahead a couple hundred pages, and then again, and then to the end.  I kept finding myself among the same folks, having the predictable affairs, struggling with the predictable rage.

I get that these characters have failings.  I get that sad, unfortunate things have happened to them.  I get that they are just like us.  I just don't care.

I suppose Franzen has captured something about suburban white Americans at the present time.  Maybe folks can come back to this book in a hundred or a thousand years and say, "Oh, so that's how the common people were living in the early 21st century," and they'll have a record of common lives that might have been left out of cable programming and news feeds.  A distillation of white, American ordinariness.

Time Magazine built up a great deal of hype over this novel, putting Franzen on the cover even though they haven't featured an author on their cover for a decade.  And they mentioned his spat with Oprah, saying that if she didn't feature this book in her book-club, she may very well be passing on the greatest novel of the 21st century.

It was clear that this was a major BOOK EVENT, at a time when BOOK EVENTS are precious and rare.  It reminded me of the hype around Infinite Jest, the book event of the 1990s, when David Foster Wallace (Franzen's good friend) was given perhaps the last American book tour to publicize this massive brick of literary ambition.  Wallace's book tour was captured rather effectively by David Lipsky in a book-length interview which stands, I believe, as a monument to the end of this particular "literary" era (and as such is just about as interesting as anything Wallace wrote himself).  As I got caught up in the hype for Freedom, I started to think that, maybe, the era of this particular BOOK EVENT was not over, that maybe there was room for another novelist superstar or two.

But Wallace's book was challenging, intricate, and absurd.  He may have been writing about ordinary folks, but he did it in a way that required being intensely alert and careful in your reading.  Wallace was a master of the literary gamesmanship that the 20th century liberal arts education told us we should aspire to consume.  Whether the production and consumption of such work was a worthwhile endeavor is still up for debate.  Are we really better off for dragging ourselves through Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow, say?

Franzen's has sidestepped this whole question about "literary" writing by keeping his prose simple, easy, breezy, and in some places, flat out lazy.  (He handles the mine-field of a sex scene by writing "He fucked her like a brute.")

I suppose it had to be done.  After a century of post-modernism, someone had to say, "Hey, what if we stripped all the pretentious language games out of the literary novel and saw what was left?"  And what we got was Freedom, written with the simple, clear language of a mystery, but without the mystery.  An adventure without adventure, a thriller sans thrills.

For better or worse, people had to struggle with Pynchon and Joyce.  But one could get through this lengthy novel in a weekend, absorb everything it has to say, shrug, and move on.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Big Plane on Little Field

I took a scenic route home from work yesterday.  It brought me past the little grass airfield, the sort of place with no control tower, the sort of place where pilots radio in their approaches if they feel like it, and overfly before landing to get a peek at which way the windsock is pointing.  

There was a huge WWII era troop transporter parked by the offices.  It seemed surreal to see something of that scale parked in the grass.  It was a tail-dragger, chin up, with the US Army star painted on the tail and the wings.   A proud mama-plane looming over her children.  I thought, "gosh," and turned around to take a look.  When it comes to airplanes I'm a ten year old boy inside.  

Unfortunately my cellphone camera does not do it justice.  But you get the idea.

The folks out in front of the hangar office were tired of answering questions about her. One of them was kind of a dick about it. Full on sarcasm: "You're the first person to ask about that plane all day."

"I'm sure that's not true," I said.

"You'd think we were having an air-show. Someone else tell him about it. I can't go through it again."

An actual ten year old boy who was hanging out at the airfield obliged me.  Apparently it belongs to a wealthy enthusiast from South Carolina, and it's here for some maintenance. (Really, was that so hard?)

This airport offers glider and biplane rides.  I joked that it looked like they were expanding their operation.

The kid's father said, "No, we can't give rides on that. The operating costs would be too high."

"I bet it burns a ton of fuel," I said.  

"It burns 100 gallons an hour."

Oh, proud mama plane, so noble and strong. Why must you be so thirsty?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Awake and Offline

Inevitably awake and asleep at the wrong times.  Four hours until I get up for a meeting and here I am in bed, typing away.

I think I might try a few days of internet isolation.  It's not like I post to the blog on a regular basis.  People read the blog on a less than regular basis.  If I deactivate or unplug my wireless card...  Just to see if I can get the words flowing again.  Just to piece together the sort of running internal monologue that used to, I think, flow through my days.  Nicoholas Carr has a point.  We think differently, in an age of broadband.

It's not like I don't have enough free time.  It's just that, sitting down at these machines, these marvelous distraction machines, entire days go by and all I've done is work my way through my Google reader queue and browse for ebooks that I don't buy (or I download a bunch of free, old ones I'll never read) and scroll mindlessly through whatever dreck my subconscious says is worth looking up or clicking on.  It's pacifying, relaxing, the way folks used to like to watch TV.

But I used to hate to see people watching TV like that.  I couldn't understand it.  And I swore I would never be so pathetic, as to do such a thing.  But good god.  Click click clickety click on the internet, to no end and for no end.  I know Cory Doctorow can handle it.  Can get books written and blog communities together and build an entire career on it, in fact.  The poster child for the distracted but productive modern superman.  

But my poor brain.  It needs the linear, focused passage.  I was raised on typewriters and piano practice, and told not to bother doing something if you weren't going to do it right.  In retrospect, those activities and principles were not the best to build a future life on, in the twenty first century.  My job is an exercise in multi-tasking.  It gets easier with practice, but I'd do better if mom had put an iPhone in one hand and a Nintendo controller in the other.

So, if no internet for a few days...  Well, I've got enough content on these computers and in this house to keep myself entertained for a year.  It shouldn't be a problem.

Really, I could roll this sort of self-denial into better practices for daily living.  Like jotting down the things I need to research (when there really is a thing I need to research), and then waiting for an allotted hour to get the research done.  Like back in the day when you'd go to the library to check your facts.  My online hour.  Just one.  Maybe I could post any composed and brilliant thoughts to the blog in that precious hour, too.

Limited access: because when we can do things anytime, we don't respect our time.

Here is a quaint memory:  I used to write a monthly newspaper column for our local weekly.  I remember mailing mailing it in, stamp and envelope and all, the week before it was due.  And if I was running late, I'd ride my bicycle over to the offices and hand it to the editor.  This was how content was delivered.  Research was done at the library, words were typed up at home, and work was brought to a building.

Newspapers.  Were those ever cute, or what?


I remember talking to this girl in high school.  She seemed very smart - honors classes and all that - and very pretty.  She was the sort of pretty that comes from training to be a ballet dancer for the first sixteen years of her life and then her breasts came in just a bit too grandly and there was the end of the ballet dream.  So when we had a conversation I was inclined to talk to her a great deal about everything that came to mind, since when a girl like that is listening to you, you'd better be ready with something to say - especially if you couldn't get by on your looks.  I'd go on about Stephen Hawking and the philosophy class I was taking nights at the community college and whether the rules of mathematics had to be the same in all universes and whether piano keyboards would look different if we had an alternate history where the dominant tonal mode somehow settled into a different pattern of whole and half steps.

She listened politely to a lot of this and then asked, "What's it like inside your head when you're not talking?"

"Pretty much like this," I said.  And then, suddenly horrified by the alternative, I asked, "What's it like in yours?"

"Really," she said, "most of the time...if I'm not doing something, that's just...quiet."

"No words at all?  Just silence?"

"Well, maybe I'm thinking about my homework, or dancing.  Just a little.  Or, if I'm watching TV, of course there's the TV.  While I'm watching it.  But no.  Otherwise, it's just quiet."

"So, at lunch, riding the bus, taking a walk, lying in bed at night, there's no words gnawing away at you up there?"


"Just quiet."

"That's pretty much it."

It struck me as a tremendous and tragic waste that such a smart and pretty girl could pass through so much life without a single thought in her head.  And back then, I had no idea what that kind of silence could feel like.  It was inconceivable, like trying to imagine what you're going to think about after you die.

The ironic thing about that she's at an Ivy League college doing research into brain structure and the physical roots of consciousness.  So a mind that was just...quiet apparently worked just fine for her and her career.

I skipped college altogether.  And now my brain lapses into long passages of silence that shock me with their breadth, at their conclusion.  Some of those silences are filled only with the clicking of a mouse and flashes of content that are gone as soon as they flash across the retina.  Maybe if I take away some of those flashes, the silences can open up and fill with words once again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sacredness of Books, The Sanctity of Print

Is there something sacred about the book, as a format?

We feel there is something special about the leather-bound tome on the shelf, and afford it a special significance that we don't assign to, say, the CD or DVD.  Even the spine-creased paperback has been held and fondled and caressed, directly and for a period of hours.  Books demand unmediated, tactile consumption that is foreign to other media.

But does this make it particularly special, this format?  Or is it simply that it has been around for so long, and used to transmit so many messages that have become central to our culture (The Bible, the works of Tolstoy and Dickens, Harry Potter), that it becomes difficult to imagine life without it, and so we have, in the face of new alternatives, afforded it a protection and reverence we used to show to women, children, and the elderly?  Is there a benefit to the physicality of the book that demands we preserve it, even though we've discarded the papyrus scroll, the long-playing record, and the cassette tape?

Burning books has been seen as a horrible, reprehensible act for a long time, now.  It's associated with the most ignorant of faith-based thinkers and the most dangerous of regimes.  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 showed us the horror of this wholesale, biblicidal destruction of knowledge.

But a decade into the new millennium, there are signs we are ready to move on.  E-readers are becoming affordable and commonplace, digital book sales are gobbling up a measurable portion of the book sales pie-chart, and former book hoarders and collectors are enthusing about the amount of space they can free up in their homes by moving their libraries onto their new digital gadgets.  Listening to the owner of a Kindle the other day, I heard, "I'm going to get a game room in my house with all the space I'm saving.  First thing I'm gonna do is buy a pool table."

I was confused.  Was this person going to re-purchase all the titles he owned in physical format as electronic books, and then throw the physical books away?  Or does the fact that electronic editions are available for instant download make him want to dispose of his physical library, secure in the knowledge that, if he wants to read a book again, he can download that title over a free cellular connection in seconds?  For whatever reason, the adoption of a new way of reading for this man meant that the old form of his entertainment had to go, wholesale and in bulk.

What happens, though, to the pleasure of running your eyes across a shelf of books you've already read, each one freighted with the mutual significance of content and context, what it said and where you read it, what it meant to you, who you were before and after you turned the pages?

And how much room do books take up, really?  A foot in from the wall, here and there?  (I wanted to ask: How can you spread a pool-table along your walls?)

Granted, the weight of books can be tremendous.  I think that's the greater stigma they carry today.  We Americans are supposed to be light and fast and mobile, ready to jump up and follow an opportunity at a moment's notice.  "Must be willing to re-locate."  Our houses down pass down the generations.  They aren't places to put down roots and build histories and collect pockets of significance.  They're assets.  The last thing we should burden them with are libraries.

I've got an e-reader myself, and I'm noticing there is something sad about a physical bookshelf that hasn't been updated in a while.  The spines fade, a layer of dust grows in hard-to reach crevices, the prices printed on the spines start to look quaint and old-timey.  And I think that's what today's book-lover, caught in the shiny embrace of digital content, is afraid of coming home to: this accusation from his shelves that he hasn't been reading--when in fact he has, he just hasn't been shelving the artifacts.

But without the artifacts--with just tiny, tiny digital book files (a novel is about a tenth the size of a song) -- can the words carry as much weight, imbue as much significance, as ink on paper?

I know it's silly to bemoan a state of plenty.  The amount of information I can access from this desk with a few keystrokes is nothing short of miraculous.  BUT.  Consider the act of burning a book.  The energy and determination and world-view that requires.  And then consider the act of deleting a digital file from a hard drive.  It's easy, it's instantaneous, and the destruction is no less complete.  Even better: there are no ashes, no fumes, and no heat.

When a book is so easy to erase, is it not as easy to forget?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Questions for Corporate America (Typecast)

I sat down to my manual typewriter and some classical music to unwind after work and ended up writing  So it goes.

* For more on The Wife's beloved 1950's visit The Apron Revolution.

I'm not really happy with how blogger is handling my scanned pages.  But clicking on the pages will bring up full-sized, easier to read pages.

This typecasting is a lot harder than it looks.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Let's Stop Tossing Our Kids Into Student Loan Debt Slavery

American parents: Before you made that baby, did you think about how you were going to send it to college?

We've thought about it, and the costs of college, health care, and housing have been the top three reasons why we've put it off -- and probably will put it off until it's too late.

Because, seriously, how can you bring a child into a world where we're told (1) any kind of success and happiness comes on the heels of an advanced college degree, and (2) a college degree is not affordable for the child of working middle class American parents.  To top it all off, the companies which loan you the money to get that degree use some of the most vicious practices in the lending industry, and still manage to bilk the American taxpayer for any money they can't collect from students.

President Obama upset me terribly when he started talking about the importance of increasing college graduation rates.  More debt-saddled, unemployable college graduates are the last thing our country needs.  How about increasing the ranks of skilled, self-reliant tradespeople and entrepreneurs instead?  How about teaching civility, respect, and civic-mindedness at the high-school level, so we can get to work building sustainable communities and raising families, instead of partying, boozing, and drugging through an additional four to eight years of "higher education?"    (And then spending a significant portion of their professional lives paying for it.)

This is something I tend to get all worked up and furious about, to the point I can't discuss it without descending into incoherent rage.  So instead I'll just embed this handy info-graphic from  It does a better job of getting to the root of my anger than I can myself.

Student Loans Scheme.
Infographic by College

Friday, August 20, 2010

Macs Do Not Age Well; How Come I Still Have One?

Macintosh products continue to disappoint me. Maybe this is because I expect the things I purchase to hold together for more than a couple of years. Ever notice how Apple's products are all shiny, smooth, and sleek in the showroom, but after you use them for a few months they get scratched up, grimy, and gross?

The shiny white finish on my Macbook was designed to accumulate damage. They used the softest plastic I've ever seen on a computer. Meanwhile the rubberized, matte coating around the keyboard started to chip away within a year, peeling off in strips where I rest my palms.

The keyboard absorbs fingerprints like a napkin, but I can't clean it for fear that water's going to get in the tiny cracks beneath the keys.

I run Linux on it, of course, ever since Snow Leopard came along and the Mac software I'd already paid for started asking for more money just to stay up-to-date.  It's a shame Linux didn't have this level of sophistication four years ago when I bought the thing, because I would never have bought the thing.

Recently I tried putting the Mac OS X operating system back on the Mac, though. There's a couple free-but-commercial programs I've been wanting to run that just don't function on Linux: Netflix movie streaming, for one, and the Adobe Digital Editions software which lets me borrow books from the library and read them on my Nook. I've got other (even older) computers now, so putting the Mac OS back on the Mac that I don't really use that often seemed like a logical solution.

You would think that the system-restore disk that comes with a Mac would, well, restore it to factory settings without a hitch.  It did put the operating system back on there. Then it asked me to register a bunch of personal information with Apple. I wasn't really happy about sharing it, but what the hell; it wouldn't hand over control of the system until I filled in an address, phone number, and email address. That's the price of playing with Apple, I guess.

About an hour later I booted into the shiny blue of a virgin OS X install. None of my networking hardware worked. No wireless, no ethernet, not even my bluetooth mouse would function. I had successfully turned my perfectly functional laptop into Jonathan Franzen's distraction-free isolation machine. That's pretty handy in it's way, just not what I was looking for.

So I spent a couple of hours trolling the internet for solutions to this problem. The consensus from boards and forums was that the airport card had probably gone bad, and that a trip to the Apple "Genius Bar" was the only solution. "Or," they said, "try re-installing again."  So I spent another hour repeating myself.

Strangely enough, all the networking hardware worked fine during the installs. It recognized my wifi connection and sent all my information to Apple, after all. But once I rebooted for my first proper use of the computer, all of it went wrong. Strangely, the diagnostics provided by the Apple's "System Profiler" listed all of the stuff that should be working with "failed" written beneath it, and the menu where I should have been able to enable the airport card was grayed out, stubbornly refusing to accept my clicks.

So where did this leave me? Putting Ubuntu back on the machine. This took half as long as the Mac install did, and Ubuntu detected all of my hardware by default.

I don't understand why I can get a free third party operating system to run better on this overdesigned piece of junk than the native Mac operating system, but oh well.  There were good reasons I switched away from the Mac OS last year.  And those grapes were probably sour anyway.

(And then today I realized I should be able to run Netflix through a Virtualbox install of Windows XP. Which may make this the only Macbook in Massachusetts running Windows and Linux, but not OS X.)

Further evidence of Mac Crapitude: we ended up with a secondhand iPod Touch. (It's not so much that I like gadgets, as that I can't resist getting extra use out of other people's garbage.) This thing isn't even three years old yet. Still, it wouldn't download or run any "apps" without a $5 update to its operating system, which required downloading iTunes onto a Windows PC, registering the device, and typing a bunch more personal and banking information into web-forms. This seriously took a couple of hours.

Then, two months after we got it, the touchscreen stopped responding. This thing is an iPod Touch.  Without a touchscreen, it sort of fails at its primary function.  What's next, Apple?  Cell phones that won't make calls?

At first we were able to bring the screen back by squeezing the lower right hand corner, but this only worked intermittently until it stopped working at all. Now, the screen is dead to the world.  The internet tells us it's a known problem with first generation iPod Touches; best advice is to bring it in for repair if you bought the AppleCare warrantee.

Um, not happening.  At least we can still use it as a 16GB flash drive.  Given what we paid for it, we have no right to complain.

Why this animosity towards Apple?  Two crappy devices out of two is certainly not a representative sample.  And they must be doing something right.  People buy enough of their products.

I think it's the designed-to-wear-out aspect that really pisses me off.  That one year life cycle, where their crap starts to look like crap just in time for the slightly newer crap to come to market.  They've kicked planned obsolescence to a new level, at a time when our country is less and less able to afford it.  I have co-workers who are pissed because the iPhone 4 came out, and they just bought an iPhone 3 six months ago.  They talk as if they don't have a choice about upgrading.  The Apple product cycle is something they just accept, up there with Death and Taxes.

And then there's the whole infantalism of their culture.  The cuteness of the products.  The little "i" in front of everything, as if branding should be allowed to trump grammar.  The "Genius Bars" in the Mac stores where hard working debt-saddled graduate student computer technicians are trained to be pricks.  The fact that none of their products come with a manual, but then you can go back to the Mac store and buy "The book that should have been in the box."

I mean, honestly, it's like people can't wait to line up and get slapped in the face.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Franzen on the Cover of Time?

It was nice to see a literary novelist on the cover of Time Magazine this week (and interesting to discover that Oprah Winfrey has some kind of grudge against him).

Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom, sounds pretty interesting, and in the Time article (in the actual magazine, not the chopped-up link salad they give you on the website) he speaks to his overarching theme: having freedom is about what we choose give up to live the lives we choose, rather than having the right to do whatever it is that strikes our fancy in any given moment.  Hurrah! to that, I say, and also to his other point: if we're going to define our country as a place that "loves freedom", in conflict with terrorists who "hate freedom", we should really devote some serious thought to just what freedom is.

And we haven't yet, because we're a nation of overindulged, spoiled-rotten eight-year-olds.  (That last sentence was all me, not Franzen.)

From a retro-tech perspective, I got a kick out of the photograph (again, only in the print magazine) of Franzen's workspace.  He rents an office space, which he keeps completely bare, and writes with an outdated laptop computer on a plain desk.  There is absolutely nothing on the desk except for this computer.  He's yanked the wireless card out of the computer to make it internet and distraction free.  Even without the wireless card, though, there was an open ethernet port to tempt him.  So to fix that, he took an old cable, put super-glue on the jack, popped it in, and then cut the cord off of it.  Hole plugged; distractions averted.

I admire that level of dedication.  Personally, I would have brought one of my typewriters to the office.  (But just one, so I wouldn't waste time deciding which to use on a given day.)  There really is no better single purpose machine for writing.  Then again, typewriters necessitate a supply of paper, ribbons, pencils, etc.  Then the accumulations of manuscript pages and handwritten notes have a way of cluttering up the workspace.  So the self-contained laptop feels a lot more tidy.

No matter that it took him eight years to do it; Franzen did manage to get to the end of a lengthy novel, so clearly he's found a level of technology that works for him.  It takes dedication and focus to write, or read, anything long-form these days, and I'm looking forward to reading this once it comes out -- regardless of what Oprah says (or doesn't say) about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Considering The Cult of Less

The Wife and I are still inundated with stuff.  Yard sale troubles, tenant troubles, and house maintenance  troubles all have us wishing we could slim down more than ever.  Just this morning we were talking about how little we'd want to take with us, if we were to sell it all and move on to, say, an abandoned stone castle in the south of France.

So I can certainly understand the impulse behind the "Cult of Less."

Here's the Boingboing article, the BBC article, and the Cult of Less website.

It's amazing, when you think about it, how much modern baggage consists of CDs, DVDs, and books.  (At least we don't have so many cassettes and VHS tapes any more.)  All of that stuff can go on hard drives, now, or stream into our laptops from the "cloud".  The books seem to be the toughest hold-out, which is funny when you consider how easy they should be to digitize.  Just about the only complaint I have about my nook is how few books are available for it.  A couple million titles sounds like a lot, but I haven't been able to find Graham Greene on there, or Nabokov, or even very much Gene Wolfe, so I still find myself clinging to a lot of dead tree like an anachronism, at least until I finish a paperback and give it away.  (I like to follow Tyler Cohen's example of giving away all the books he loves, and throwing away the books he doesn't like, so they don't waste anyone else's time.)

You can only take the Cult of Less so far, though.  And it's a young man's cult, surely.  Some of those guys are giving up on housing, relying on friends with couches to put up with them when they need a place to sleep.  Which I imagine would be every night.  This must foster, at least, an understanding of good manners.  You'd better make a lot of friends, and you'd better be nice to them, if you expect to find a warm place to rest.  But there is no way around the fact that somebody, at least, must be paying the  taxes on the walls that keep the weather out.  We can't all own nothing, as liberating as that might feel.

(This also brings to mind a quote by Dave Chappelle:  "If men could f*** women in a cardboard box, they would never buy a house.")

And try being a member of the Cult of Less and having children.  I can't even imagine the burden of all those baby clothes, diapers, toys, cribs, insurance policies...

Still, The Wife and I are childless, and could theoretically get by with very little.  A few changes of clothes, a couple of laptop computers, and maybe the one car.  Four walls around us, or maybe the hull of a boat, could do for the rest.  I might even hang on to my Olivetti Lettera typewriter.  It doesn't take up that much room.

What is the absolute least you would take along, if you had to fit it all into a couple of suitcases?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Yard Sale Reflections

Two days of yard sale selling have me more convinced than ever that we need to think long and hard over every purchase before we make it. We had a decent take, just about $80 for what were essentially two half-days of exceptionally casual salesmanship. But, as anyone who has ever sweltered through one of these things knows, the yard sale is not about the money you bring in so much as it's about the junk you don't have to haul to the dump. And when all was said and done, we were able to pack the left-overs into the station wagon for a single load to the dump swap shop, where no doubt a couple of the items will be picked back up, lived with for a couple of months or years, and then returned.

Plus we had the added pleasure of sitting under a tree for a couple of sunny days and chatting with strangers.

There's something humbling, though, about seeing goods you've accumulated over the years laid bare across a driveway. Particularly after you've hauled lots of this junk from one house to another half a dozen times. Lots of it is chipped, dented, or covered in dust. If it was pristine or at the least well loved, no doubt it wouldn't be shoveled out for sale like this.

 We polish it off as well as we can in a couple of minutes, but we don't take any longer, since, after all, we're only asking a dollar or two. Attempts to clean things off stem more from a sense of self-respect than marketing. Because the folks who stop to consider our junk are not approaching it with the discerning shopper's care for the best deal. They're thinking more along the lines of, "Would I really want this object in my house even if it cost nothing at all?"

And as the purveyor or such an object, the yard-saler is thinking, "What does it say about me, that my irregular, oddly numbered set of Ikea flatware and my stack of five year old home decorating magazines can't even fetch a fiver? I've lived with these things for years. Do my memories come so cheap?"

What it really feels like, when many of these customers wander through without making a purchase, is not that they are so interested in scoring a good deal on second hand housewares or jigsaw puzzles with no guarantee on their piece-counts, as in touring a museum of the recent past of an ordinary life. Many of them are gruff, uninterested in chit-chat. "We'd never get stuck with this kind of garbage," their condescending silence seems to say. And some of them hurry away, as if we had stolen their time.

We did make a couple of good connections, though. The sorts of sales that confirmed our tastes as something worthwhile, and that gave hope our discards could live on for some time.

I sold a folding typewriter from the 1910s. The feet had flaked away and the platen seized up, but the woman seemed to appreciate it's value as an historical ornament. (Working, it would have been an amazing artifact, capable of producing documents mechanically with a footprint smaller than a laptop computer. But it didn't work, and I had not looked at it in a year, so its value as an ornament was zero to me.) Gussie sold some sort of howdy-doody doll to an old man who had met the original ventriloquist and was going to give the doll a place of honor in his home. Another fellow scooped up an abacus for a dollar, and announced that he had found the perfect wedding gift for his sister, who was a math teacher.

Trash to treasure. The yard sale life cycle system works.

I purchase very little with the modest allowance that The Wife allows me. This year I bought an e-reader second hand, and half-price, from someone who had ended up with two. I got this computer on Craigslist from a man who pieced it together from parts he got at the dump. Maybe once a month I treat myself to a bottle of scotch. A pair of shoes lasts me two years, at which point the soles have worn through.

I'm a bad, bad American. But part of my problem is this: I've had hoarders in my family. My grandfather filled acres with junk cars and rolls of old carpet; wooden boats which he refused to sell slowly sunk into the soil.

I've probably spent more time throwing away my family's purchases than I've spent making my own.

So that shiny new widget on the department store shelf, with its hard clam-shell packaging and optional two-year service plan, always comes to me with a vision of the future, from so much of the crap I've kept before: a dust-covered relic in a storage unit, no longer worth the rent of its cubic-footage, just waiting to be hauled away at great effort and expense to the yard sale or the dump.  The tragedy inherent in a credit-card swipe is a pile of garbage resting on a mountain of debt.

If we really think about the things we buy, we can minimize this pain. And maybe we can live lives that revolve around people again, instead of things.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sex Sells ... Math?

Sex has been used to sell a lot of things.  But math?

There's no reason the nice lady teaching your children their algebra shouldn't be attractive.  But I wonder.  If Danica McKellar was my eighth grade algebra teacher, what would I really remember from that class?  Polynomials, or something else?

Honestly, do we need the "boy crazy confessionals" and the Cosmo-style quizzes right on the cover?  And the titillation of the letter x?  Such blatant subtext: "It's a variable.  But put three of them together and it's pornography."

And how about the implication that it's not enough for our daughters to be smart, they have to be drop-dead sexy too?

Regular readers will forgive me, I hope, for putting pictures of pretty girls on my blog.  That's actually a lovely dress.  (The more persistent among you may find less even modest pictures a google image search away.  Not that I checked.)

Hey, remember Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years?  Is it me or does that girl look familiar?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On How We Come to Love what we Love, Including Old Things

Of those of us who have this attraction to old things – or affliction by them, more like – I suspect there are two types: those who came to it by love and those who came to it by privation. Either way the result is the same.

I originally settled on the manual typewriter because it was the most reliable piece of machinery I could get my hands on for $50. Once I had it, there was no need to pester well-meaning poor parents or tempermental rich grandparents for the likes of upgrades, ink cartridges, repairs, and diskettes. Nor was there any squandering of allowances, the earning of which was far too laborious and dear to apply to faddish devices.

I came to love my typewriters because they were mine, not because I'd had any particular draw to them in the first place. I suspect if the latest computers and printers had been easier to acquire, easier to replace and upgrade, I would have come to love those in the same way, through repeated experience of pleasure in their use. As it turned out, I wrote papers, stories, and love-letters on old machines, and so they worked a fetishistic magic on me.

Is this the healthiest reason to love something: because it is always there, and therefore convenient? But how about this reason: because it is reliable, and steady, and enduring. Certainly, we should take our time with things we are to invest our time and emotion into, just as we should with people.

After all, this is how we form the relationships that endure, among people: not from the hot-headed pursuit of the youngest and newest companion, but from the seasoning of shared experiences that accrue among those we find ourselves, by accident, convenience, or routine, in the presence of most often.

This is why, even though we have virtual access to over a billion souls through social networking sites on the internet, we spend the majority of our time on Facebook chatting with the folks we went to school with long ago. The seasoned relationships are the ones that mean the most to us.


I've convinced myself this is a perfectly reasonable way to come to love something, this circumstance and convenience.

The alternative – determination and pursuit - is overwhelming. It requires constant search and discernment, such a connoisseurs effort which, when it comes down to it (and despite it may feel otherwise) is in the hands of advertisers and marketing men anyhow.

Self-determiners assign themselves labels. They tell the world they are “preppy,” “goth,” “thrifty,” “refined;” they're “Harley” or “BMW.” They seek out clothes, accessories, and friends that match their categories, priding themselves on unique taste. But really they only landed in that category because of the display at the Hot Topic or J. Crew, or because all their friends rode motorbikes and they wanted one too.

I understand this desire to assign myself to marketing categories.  I'm not immune.  “What are you into?” Classical music, retrotech, science-fiction-literature, hiking, flying. Voila mon profil. Without categories, how can I market my blog? How could it ever be monetized?

But in reality, do I really belong in any of these? I only practice classical music a few hours each week. I don't have the space to accumulate any old junk beyond a few typewriters and old computers. Science fiction doesn't turn me on to the extent it used to, and though I have a yen to re-visit Moby Dick, I can't locate that copy I bought back in 1992. As for hiking, though I think I'd love to spend months charting every mile of trail in Acadia National Park, in truth I only have the time and energy for local pathways like the power-lines across the street. Oh, and I'm a passionate private pilot, having flown a total of 38.25 hours - 19 years ago.

So I've got to stretch the labels to get them to fit.  And I came by each of these phases and faces by accident first, and preference only through time. Does it speak ill of me that there have been so many (also sailing, running, and pipe-smoking) that it becomes impossible to define this life with any focus? A more aggressive and motivated sort might have made a choice and followed it through to a level of perfection and professionalism that could guarantee good fortune and career.

Me, I'm left to muddle along as best I can. None of the labels will stick* and I am well-nigh unmarketable.

*Except that I grow old. And shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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.