Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

Impostors

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

I’ve hit a cultural tipping point with the sea of beards, hair everywhere I look, even in my own mirror. So I’m considering a shave, even though I like my own beard-face. There’s a young guy under there, the Me from ages ago. I grew up with that face, wouldn’t mind meeting that old friend.

However, this is one case where I really do need to think of the children.

Many of us have or had fathers with facial hair. The beard. The mustache. The pork chop sideburns.

My dad has been gone for nine years now, so my memories of him are a pastiche of ages, from a cigarette-dangling, clean-faced youth-parent to the full beard that he carried through the majority of my life. You get used to the beard, the shape of his face. It was a part of his being.

He was a serious beard-man in the man’s-man sense. I watched him take things apart, figure them out, improve them. I grew up camping, hiking, loving nature. And, of course, there was the drag racing.

He was a considerate beard-man. His work ethic became eponymous, and I try to carry on that aspect of Brucker, aspire to it every day.

He was a funny beard-man. Goofy little songs accompanied our marathon Monopoly sessions. After dinner, he referenced any food stuck in his beard as stuff that he was saving for later.

And there was that one time when he shaved it clean, and all of a sudden he wasn’t my dad. The guy sounded like my dad, wore my dad’s clothes, wore his life. But his expressions were alien. Reactions and facial twists that the beard had softened became disturbingly overt. New expressions, new judgements.

You are not supposed to “get to know” the parent you already know. This is the embodiment of the given, the constant. Change the constant, and life unravels.

I had to train myself to stop staring at his FACE. Nothing but Face, all the freaking time, talking and talking. Holy shit, is that the guy who was under there the entire time? Yikes, he’s moving his alien lips and talking like my dad but it’s like watching a puppet, a man made of living wax, and even his eyes are looking “off” and distant and transformed. This was some real Body Snatcher shit. Every conversation was an incessant challenge, a taunt. His voice became weirdly frontal. Form trumped content, and the voice itself seemed to change into this anti-dad. Stop with the Face, stop it! There’s just too much of him.

And he must have felt the same way, looking in the mirror every morning, warping time with this aged version of his youthful self. Worse, what daily climate did he navigate? People staring at him. People staring away from him. People freaking out during any given conversation, and him knowing the entire time exactly what was freaking them out, both of them trying to keep it under control. A Möbius strip of reaction begetting reaction. Madness.

His beard returned, eventually. Thank god.

Let’s just pretend this never happened.

But now: The ubiquity of Man-Face weighs on me, particularly the well-waxed and intricately squiggly Hipster Beard. A dude sports that shit like a narcissist nimbus, ready for your selfie. There’s a point when something you like about yourself and others becomes a “thing,” and then vomits itself across the cultural landscape. And then you watch it turn silly, turn sour, turn into a commodity or a ready-made attempt at personal expression.

I know men with wonderfully wild beards, beautiful sculpture, tight designs, all of those outward expressions of inner chaos, order, freakiness and depth. And I like them, like my own beard. After all, beards make it easy to identify the “males” in our society.

It’s become a “look,” though, part of a complete package, with matching flannel and boots and whatever-the-hell. For you selfish lot, you fashionistas, I wonder if you understand how this will impact the people who depend on you. I wonder if you understand that this world is not about you, that you have committed to something greater than your vanity. You are tampering with communal history.

I wear my beard as my dad wore his, clean-cropped and hand-trimmed. When he died, I took on a variety of pants and shoes, jackets, shirts – we had the same build and the same shoe size. It’s taken nine years to wear through almost all of that, to no longer don a piece of my dad as each item disintegrates, as memories merge and degrade and swirl into the historical wash of the deceased. I have a coat and an aloha shirt that I always wear on airplanes. And this beard, serious, considerate, funny.

So I haven’t hit on any beard jokes with my own son, but they’ll come in time. If I whip out the “saving it for later” line, I’ll have to attribute it to the grandpa he never met. The grandpa who lives on through my beard, channeled. Every day Simon gets a little glimpse into his Grandpa John, looking through me and into him. If I keep this beard, my decision transcends the crap-wave of culture. It bonds us in love and a shared loss.

I can’t shave that away.

Really

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Absurdity has been poisoned. Slow death, the frog in the pot. And absurdity, the ridiculous extremes of what we do and say to each other, has been my source of humor for so long, the thing that fortifies me. Absurdity saved my life once, for real. Stopped me from killing myself, because I zapped out of my body and realized how weird everything was, because a Spuds McKenzie commercial was playing on the television while I was attempting to fatally hurt myself. Take a look at that video and then imagine that shit playing while someone is cornered into the absolute illogic of tipping over the precipice, of actually attempting to wipe himself out. It was just too much, too freaking weird. I saw myself, there in front of the television, Spuds partying it up while reality collapsed, and my desperate actions were just as silly as that partying mascot. A dose of plastic reality, of a world that wasn’t as dark as I thought it was because the world was composed of elevated triviality. Still is.

I am proud to say that Spuds McKenzie saved my life.

Lately, though, I don’t have a solid grasp on the absurd. People do things that are shockingly thoughtless or, worse, deliberately hurtful or disrespectful (not a lack of respect, but deliberate disrespect). But the shock is muted, imprecise. I’ve been drinking poison, drop by drop, acclimating my body to it, and it doesn’t even taste bitter any more. It’s like being slapped while numb-drunk. You sort of feel it, but then have to work through your brain to compute what just happened, what might constitute a typical reaction. Contemplating, but not able to properly react.

Without that proper and somewhat immediate, deliberate reaction, you take this affront into yourself. Somewhere on a gut level, you know that something was wrong, something bad just happened. So you keep it, draw it inside, stay with it. It isn’t absurd. It isn’t anything, just a malformed blob, a featureless golem. You chew on it. You digest it into your system. It no longer references things outside of yourself. From deep within, this affront become a reflection of you, could only have been caused by you. There is no other logical explanation. You were treated like shit because you must have deserved it.

I went through this last week. And several weeks before that, from a different angle. I’ll go through it again, I know, because I am bound to the people who cause it. In that manner it becomes a game of abuse. Power. A jerk exercises power over you, and your reaction is constrained to interior destruction, or a channeling of energy toward people who aren’t really involved. You need to react. You must react. But you cannot react properly, to the fuckwit who assaulted you, without either losing your job or opening a box of endless shit-storms.

Here is something I haven’t said for a couple years now:

“Really?!”

Remember 2011 and 2012? Everyone was whipping that out. The affronts were flying in from all angles, from jerky jerks to downsizing to paranoia-driven paradigms. The absurdity was clear, and “really?!” was an expression of exasperation, a reality-check, a moment of stepping back and admitting that the current situation was no longer playing by the tacit rules of sanity.

But it was also a moment of pissing in the wind. You blurt out your “really?!” and then carry on, accepting the shit you were just told to eat. Again and again. And soon enough the “really?!” becomes a tacit rule in itself, replaced by an eye-roll, then a sigh, then nothing at all, then the constant clenched fist of soul-consuming tension.

Because the unspoken answer was: “Yes, really. Shut up.”

The barometer twists and bends and becomes detached from the truth. It is no longer a measure of any true environmental variable. It is, at best, an expression of confusion. At worst, it is mistaken for some sort of honest internal judgment.

My barometer has traditionally been calibrated by other people. This is normal, to a degree. Feedback helps us understand our impact, to juxtapose intent with result. At some point, probably a very long time ago, my notion of impact was not just calibrated by others, it was defined. I let other people tell me who I am, I listened to such an extent that I could not disambiguate my own self-definition from the Sartre mirror-reflection of other’s eyes.

And this is the point in the blog when I usually wind my way around to some epiphany. I can feel it coming, that moment when I uncover a truth or some other shit.

So I’ve been sitting here for a few days. Stuck.

I know that I was able to move past the impact of serialized disrespect. It wasn’t keeping me awake through the night. But I couldn’t figure out how I did that.

I wrote. I worked on art, on creating, prioritized my output. Finding a positive distraction helps, a way to shift the energy into creation instead of negation. But… it was a distraction, not a solution. Bringing it all back within this blog seemed like an easy deal, some ubiquitous life experience that rings true for everyone through individual facets.

But trauma has a way of spreading slowly, manifesting unexpectedly. In this case, I was my own trigger, marching through public self-reflection with the hubris of considering myself beyond it, problem solved.

So why did it come back?

Well, digging deeper, I think a better question is: What is the problem?

Disrespect? Trouble with people?

Nope. I had a window into clarity last night. Really, an actual window. I walked by a Starbucks and saw someone cleaning up, winding down the night, going through rote closing actions. I felt nostalgic camaraderie, those many nights I had scooted about, green-aproned, reeking of roast. Those past years. Past years that don’t seem so far away.

I worked at Starbucks throughout much of the 1990s. Moved up and around and down, wasted time, met amazing people, made lifelong connections, watched those people move on while I wasted more time. Experience shapes us, shifts us, challenges us, so I don’t live in a state of regret. At some point I decided to flee that life, then I fled again, returned with nothing, no job, my life a pile of boxes in my parents’ garage, little idea of what could be next. I crawled out of that, found a place and a home, and eventually built something, a career.

My fear is that I built upon a foundation of sand. Just follow my CV, and there it is. The time when I was at zero, and the time before that, years at Starbucks, when I was cultivating excuses.

A friend told me recently that the voice that he hears, sometimes, is this: “Impostor”

Man, that is the truth. When I’m shaken, disrespected, I wonder if these people will just carry forward and dissect my career in front of me, get to the sand. Send me right back to Starbucks, back to a life adrift.

Last week I attended a wake, briefly. I have a very difficult time interfacing with family, and it comes back to the same root. They have known me for too long, and I fear that they define me by the little boy I once was, or other awkward aspects of my past, all of that foundational sand. And, again, I’m using everyone around me to define who I am, incorporating judgment over praise. It seems easier to be judged than to be proud, and to default-assume that this is what they think of me. So it gets added to the stack, incorporated. Another ingredient in a Shit Stew of the Soul.

So I’ve been worried that Spuds McKenzie will no longer save me. Even Spuds isn’t absurd enough for this rapid boil. It’s probably going to have to be me. Find my own definition and reason, generate the absurdity from within. Be fucking ridiculous. Be my own Spuds McKenzie.

Pissing in the Kool-Aid

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

During the past twenty years or so, I have had a personal vision. We all have our quixotic fantasies, details of particular utopias unfolding during the course of the occasional shower. Mine involves a restaurant. Imagine an eatery where you are treated like cheap, stinking trash. Some aborted crumb from a Lou Reed verse. Ignored, abused, flat-out insulted. Yet the food is so completely delicious, so narcotically irresistible, that you come back, again and again, enduring all manner of vicious attack, wanton hatred and caustic rebuff. Anything, just to have a little more panacea.

I would own this restaurant, and I would be a terrible, terrible person. But customers would have no choice but to play by my rules. They might hate themselves for participating in such degradation, but that would never stop them from returning, from embedding themselves into the culture of my culinary hypnotism. The product would be irresistibly delicious.

Well, folks, this personal vision does, in fact, exist. In a way. It is called Apple Computer.

Apple has evolved from an education stalwart, to desktop innovator, to convoluted boutique contraption, to sleek, sexy sex-a-tronic sex-a-ma-jig. Before the iMac, I never considered owning a Mac, as they were simply too expensive for anyone other than a serious graphic designer. Then, during my temporary relocation away from the Midwest, I advised my parents to buy a then-new dinosaur-egg G3 iMac, believing it to be the simplest entry into personal computing. It turned out to be just as potentially crappy as any PC system, “intuitive” only to people who had already been using Macs for years. Buggy and sluggish. Once Apple dumped OS9, though, everything crystalized. They really did perfect the personal computer, resulting in beautifully designed, elegant, nearly indefatigable machines.

So I bought the Kool-Aid. Several times. I now have a few Macs, a few more up in the attic, and a smattering of iPods. Each machine has been a joy to use (except the one that stopped working after a system update, when Apple online support simply said “but it just works,” denying there was ever a problem, basically bricking the machine and forcing me to backtrack to an earlier OS, finally giving up all together . . . and buying a newer machine).

Meanwhile, I’m swimming in a numbing sea of trendiness. I know a person who wouldn’t touch a Mac back in 2002, was scared of the single-button mouse, considered Apple to be a fringe specialty computer that was nearly impossible to use. This person now owns two Macs, a few iPods and an iPhone. Why? Well, it seems rooted in Apple moving from selling desktop computers to selling “stuff.” They have become a go-to brand for people who define themselves through branding.

Apple has always fostered a cultish attitude about its products, but now it’s as cultish as owning a Wii or a Volkswagon. Can a “cult” actually exist around something I can pick up at Best Buy or an airport vending machine? People used to put Apple stickers on their cars, but now no one bothers. It is simply assumed that any hip person owns at least one Apple product. The cult mentality has flipped over to the stalwart PC creative-users, the people who refuse to trust Apple and don’t need a million hypnotized lemmings telling them what is “cool.” I completely empathize with those folks (I’m married to one), but I’m still buying Apple stuff, still chugging away. Lately, though, something has been different. A little off. As if a veil will be lifted, revealing supposed five-star dinners that are actually putrid, sculpted offal.

First: It’s all about beauty. I’m typing this on a relatively new Macbook Pro. As with all Apple products, it is incredibly well-designed. In fact, design trumps all for Apple. The guts of this computer aren’t particularly fantastic. Jobs claims that they decided to put outdated CPUs in these particular machines in order to keep the form factor compact. So the design is more important than the computing power. Even then, when these things are unveiled at the press conference, mister Jobs acts as if they are the most amazing, revolutionary products ever (just as he had done for machines that are now considered to be beautiful, incredibly well-designed doorstops). He is the fearless leader. He is feeding us what we need. I obviously agree, as I bought one.

Second: Apple products are built to be replaced. The normal replacement cycle for a computer is around four to six years. Macs follow this, but Apple presents us with an additional axis of consideration: sex. A new Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPoop, whatever, is like a tiny little sun, radiating pure sex. You buy one of these things and you feel completely fulfilled, as if you just found Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. This feeling sustains for around six months, sometimes close to a year. Then Apple pushes out their next wave of sexy stuff, and that beautiful machine seems like last year’s left-over hooker. Still sexy, but no longer fresh, no longer sparkling. Two years in, and you’re really feeling anxious, ready to upgrade, trade it all in for that rush of specialness, the omnipresent glow. If you can last for three years, you basically feel like you’re computing from a Mac ghetto, using a machine that feels outdated by a decade, smoking your way through a carton of stale Tareytons.

Apple has gone to great lengths to assuage consumer guilt over the constant impulse to upgrade. Their products have become increasingly recyclable. Note, these things are not expandable or extensible, as most PCs were throughout the 90s and early 2000s. No, they are simply made out of stuff that you can easily break down, so I won’t feel like an elitist asshole, upchucking techno-waste into landfills. It’s okay to want a new computer in less than two years. It’s okay to replace that iPhone, to get another iPod. Go ahead. You know you’ll feel great. Sex it up.

Third: The overhaul of language.

Some time around the advent of the iPhone and the iPod Touch, Apple broadcast a shift in user lexicon. Applications have become “apps.” Every time I hear the word, I want to kick someone in the head. No one specifically, just some random person. This is very dangerous. I should know exactly who I want to kick in the head. The term “app” just reeks of vacuous reduction, of consumerism, as if software is just a potato chip to be woofed down. Yet here I am, gaging on the Kool-Aid, and I, too, have used the word “app.” Apple gives us no other choice. These iPod programs are short and focused. They are ALL Apple-approved, too.

Really, “apps” are more like video game cartridges, discs, whatever. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft make tons of licensing money from third-party software creators, which is why they are able to sell their hardware at a loss (well, Sony and Microsoft – the Wii has always been sold at a profit). It is a closed system, and the end-users buy into it. That isn’t really a bad thing, and the iPhone works in the same manner. If a proposed app comes too close to a product that Apple already offers, it will not be approved and there will be no way for typical users to install it (how many Mail programs do you have on your iPhone?). Apple does not have this control over Mac programs, which are still considered “applications.” Anyone can create a Mac program and, as long as there are no intellectual property violations, distribute it (or just chance it and get sued).

That will be changing.

Apple has created an “app store” for the Mac, making it incredibly easy for people to purchase and install “apps” that are approved by Apple. This makes my stomach turn. I think there will still be the free market system of applications that will not be sold through the gated community of the app store, but they will become irrelevant. Consumers will drive up the demand for simple programs, and future versions of the OS will basically support only the apps. The app will become the mass-market paperback of the software world. Knuckleheads across the globe will be yammering “app” every other minute, exacerbating my impulse to kick random faces until it actually happens and I end up having to raise my family from behind bars.

This Apple-thing is not healthy.

And even as we are being formed into a generation of super-consumers, with instantly-replaceable computers and quick-fix apps, we are being told that we are the movers and shakers, the creative force, the ones who “think different.”

And even after this feeble attempt to piss in the Kool-Aid, I’m ready for another glass.

Listen

Friday, March 19th, 2010

So it’s been just over four months. Fatherhood. The art of sleepwalking. The rapid realignment of personal priorities amidst the white noise of ultra-bandwidth screaming from tiny, hungry lungs. I’m about to cast a terrible, unrevocable jinx upon my long-term sense of well being by issuing the following claim: it actually hasn’t been as insanely difficult as I feared. Raising a baby is hard work, of course. Rebuilding a carburetor is hard work, too (does anyone actually remember those things in this age of anti-lock brakes and fuel injectors?). With enough work and focus, though, it can be done. And the results can be similar: you hope for a smoothly purring machine, yet there’s a chance that you’ll end up with a loud beast that spews black smoke out of its ass. Well, Simon’s spewing has been mainly from the front end, thankfully. You see, that very statement encapsulates much of this four-month experience. I am thankful that my son spews onto my shirt and pants. A year ago I would have shuddered over the thought of such rancorous expulsion, but, if anything, having a child is an ornate lesson in tolerance (and the redefining of what constitutes a “mess”).

There was one imminent change that I was truly dreading, though. The loss of personal time. I didn’t actually do much with my personal time. Watch television and movies. Think about oiling the chain on my bike. Make a sandwich. However, like any other misused and ignored freedom, from the Conan O’Brien show that I never watched to the Kiddieland amusement park that I never once visited, the threat of removal suddenly catapults “personal time” to the top of the worry list. My initial fear was that I would become nothing but a bare-bones consumer. Raise the child, go to work, watch a few television shows, mow the lawn. There would be no room for art, for creativity and reading. I believe that it is essential for any artist to be immersed in a particular medium. One doesn’t create from the barren precipice, overlooking the lands. One creates from within. It is obvious when a piece of art was created outside of its environment. We assume that canned, top-40 tripe was made by talentless hacks who wouldn’t know Lou Reed from Lou Rawls. That’s only a part of the picture, though. The good top-40 musicians are living in that world, speaking that language. When an outsider, or “alternative” musician attempts to create top-40 pop, it often ends up as limp, heartless crap. That’s because that musician wasn’t immersed in the proper environment. This is even more apparent with writers, and more basic.

There are two rules to writing. Really, just two, and they are very simple.

1. Read
2. Write

That’s it. Everything else is a refinement of one of those two rules. However, there are plenty of writers out there who skip the first rule. A fiction writer needs to read fiction. Good fiction. Immersing yourself in the art of your peers stimulates the parts of your brain that creates that art. Creativity generally follows the GIGO principle (“Garbage In, Garbage Out,” to you non-programmers out there): if you read nothing better than trashy novels you’ll probably end up writing nothing better than trashy novels. Additionally, the practice of the craft is often reliant on talent, and without some level of talent and even instinct, the art simply won’t go anywhere. However, if you stop reading, or only read a book every now and then, you really can’t hope to continue on the path of the writer. And if you truly enjoy writing, you must truly enjoy reading. Otherwise you wouldn’t even stand the act of reading your own work, which seems like a miserable way to live.

So I wasn’t too worried about losing the personal time to watch a movie or build a bookcase (those who know me just snorted at that one). I haven’t given up on writing fiction, though. Without the time to read stories, I certainly wouldn’t have the time or motivation to write them. And I’ve heard that lots of parents don’t have the time to read.

Enter: audiobooks.

Yes, books on tape. Books on CD. Books on iPod. I’ve had a few of these kicking around for years, but never gave the idea much thought. I always preferred my own inner voice to that of some orator, who’s inflections lend an additional layer of interpretation that isn’t always beneficial to the text. Also, reading and writing are very close to the math centers of my brain. I love the logical interlocking of words, phrases and paragraphs. There is a very real, visual pleasure in reading, in the beauty of patterns and flow, like the unfolding of a proof or an equation. Listening to a book requires visualizing both the words on the page and the unfolding images and feelings created by those words. It also requires constant mental tracking. A printed book will automatically pause when the reader drifts, but an audiobook will keep on hammering away, even if someone has passed out, chin to chest, drool to shirt. In general, an audiobook requires more concentration than its printed parent.

During Simon’s first six weeks, I stayed at home, working with Rachel to establish new schedules and rhythms. I ended up taking the late shift for about a month or so, staying up nearly all night. As the crepuscular dissolved into the nocturnal, I found myself in the strange state of retaining a somewhat alert, active mind within the shell of a teetering, exhausted body. I couldn’t rock the baby and read at 3am simply because my eyes wouldn’t properly focus, eyelids often independently blinking in asynchronous disharmony. So I took a chance on a Stephen King audiobook, just to keep the wheels turning.

Soon I was “reading” at all hours. By the time I returned to work, I had both my typical train-commute book, along with the baby-feeding audiobook. Better yet, all of the quotidian lapses throughout the day, from making a sandwich to cleaning dishes to sorting laundry to shoveling the sidewalk to walking to the train, could easily be ensconced within an environment of literature and narrative. I kept the audiobooks somewhat simple, reading through the Harry Potter series, catching up on other Stephen King works (both good and mediocre). Then, remembering the GIGO effect, I branched into deeper territory, including a great re-reading of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Meanwhile, I have still been reading physical, printed books at a regular rate, usually during the commutes to work.

In effect, with the arrival of my son my rate of reading has increased. I’ve probably read more books during these four months than I did during the entire preceding year. And my story-generating cluster of neurons has been brightening, not only with new ideas, but also a better sense of composition and flow. One of the most effective methods of polishing and revising your writing is to read it aloud. If it doesn’t flow from your mouth, it’s probably awkward on the page. As regular readers of the Megablog know, I created a short video in 2009, featuring a story I had written earlier that summer. The story was simple enough to function pretty well on the page. However, I found that some combinations of words simply didn’t work in the oration. Being both the writer and orator, I had the luxury of rewriting my words to fit my mouth. Still, the experience of reading aloud, leveraging performance to convey nuance, gave me a heightened respect for audiobooks and professionals who read them. Then, when I started listening to audiobooks continuously, I noticed the differences between quality, professional orators and, well, stiff and lifeless “readers”.

Remember when the updated, early-2009 version of the Kindle was released? It included a text-to-speech feature that would automatically read content aloud, allowing disabled readers to have access to anything Kindle-readable. The Authors Guild staged a very public freak-out, claiming that this feature would erode the audiobook market. They seemed less concerned about the vast amount of disabled readers who would have a simple, portable tool for reading and buying books. It was all about the sanctity of the audiobook as a billion-dollar-per-year product. (Oddly, when I just looked up the Authors Guild website, the front page contains an “advocacy” article about the Guild being applauded by the White House over efforts to “ensure access to books for people with print disabilities” — I guess as long as that means produced audiobooks at twice or three times the price.) Not all authors agreed with the Guild, though. Neil Gaiman, who, along with Harlan Ellison, is one of the most talented readers of his own work, supported the text-to-speech feature. Wil “Shut Up, Wesley” Wheaton, actor cum über-blogger, took it a step further, claiming that text-to-speech doesn’t even come close to the experience of a quality audiobook. He effectively demonstrated this by providing both computerized and human-orated samples of the same passage. The comparison was clear: text-to-speech is a feature that couldn’t possibly be confused with an audiobook, which is a product.

Well, unless the audiobook is a piece of crap. This is the familiar controversy introduced with any innovation of digital distribution: content providers are raking in the cash by selling crap. Before the MP3 boom, consumers didn’t have many options for previewing music. You might hear a song on the radio and be titillated into buying an album, only to find that 80% of the tracks were pure slug slime. The entertainment industry went bananas over digital file sharing because the vacant crap that they were peddling was instantly devalued. Consumers could listen to it, judge it as crap, and simply chose to not buy it, to not get stung by a stinky purchase. Meanwhile, file sharing has been proven to have no effect on record sales, and sales of non-crap music have actually been boosted (at least for Canadians (Rush!)). I think that same fear generated the Authors Guild paranoia over text-to-speech functionality. If an audiobook is as robotically-read and lifeless as a text-to-speech reading, then, yes, there is a chance that this free feature would bite into the profits of that particular audiobook. But that’s because that audiobook wasn’t carefully produced and is a substandard product. The profit is undeserved. The result of all of this pissing and moaning from the Authors Guild was that Amazon allowed publishers to optionally cripple the text-to-speech feature. And some publishers have actually done it. Authors Guild (supposed advocate of access) wins, disabled readers lose.

My point is that there is an additional layer of consumer gambling when it comes to purchasing an audiobook. So, just as I do with print books, I have employed a variety of methods to borrow my audiobooks. Standout performances include Stephen King’s Under the Dome and the Jim Dale readings of Harry Potter. Just steer clear of abridgments. There is a uniquely sinking feeling that comes when, after listening to three hours of The Baroque Cycle, the narrator unexpectedly announces that “the following is a synopsis of pages 83 through 145.” Dammit! Also, as mentioned, the Neil Gaiman material is certainly worth purchasing, as is anything containing Harlan Ellison’s voice, even if it’s just one of his perfect, undiluted rants. If you haven’t watched that Ellison clip, give yourself a few minutes of enjoyment. Ellison draws flack because he’s often over-the-top cantankerous, but that is basically a byproduct of being both brutally honest and completely intolerant of the idiosyncrasies of stupidity. He always motivates me, both as a writer and a human being.

And now I have Harlan Ellison to blame for my latest ethical dilemma. As his voice is a mark of entertainment quality, I’ve sought out his various orations. While browsing through Tom’s media collection, I noticed the audiobook CDs of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. This book has been repeatedly recommended by a variety of friends, and the slickly produced audio version includes the voice talent of mister Ellison. So I borrowed it, imported it into the iPod and, eventually, incorporated it into my stream of audiobook immersion. I loved it. An instant, well-crafted classic. I immediately tracked down the excellent sequel, Speaker for the Dead (a paperback kindly lent from Jeremy). It is one of many Ender sequels, multi-volume franchising a common occurrence in science fiction and fantasy. As I started reading the third book (switching back to an audiobook version), I decided to check up on Orson Scott Card. This is a normal consumer activity. If you feel particularly thrilled by some piece of art or entertainment, you usually want to learn more about the creator. You want that added connection. Sometimes the person turns out to be a weirdo, and other times he or she is amazing and inspiring, drawing you even deeper into the art. Then there is Orson Scott Card.

I had heard various rumblings that Card was anti-gay, but I tried to ignore that as I started reading his works. If the prejudice started to surface in the literature, then I would certainly back off, as anti-gay is very much not a part of my belief system. However, the three books didn’t seem to be heading in that direction. They were, however, clearly heading into soap-box territory. He was already spending less time with plot and character, and more time working out complex ideas through long passages of dialog. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is a classic method, particularly in the harder genres of science fiction. Ender’s Game, though, wasn’t like that at all, with its purity of story and character. This illustrates my love/hate relationship with science fiction. My favorite literature includes characters and plots that stick with me, that become interwoven with my life. Most classic science fiction, though, features ideas, thought experiments and pontifications that sing out beyond the pages and words. With “harder” science fiction, characterization becomes secondary to the hyper-detailed, sometimes overly dry explanation of fantastic ideas. For me, this reads as an anesthetized brain-dump, often soulless. The Ender books weren’t nearly that sterile, but they were definitely dipping into the cold pool of monologue disguised as dialog. So I was already on the fence about reading my way through seven more books (Jeremy has promised that the fifth book, Ender’s Shadow, is an excellent rejuvenation of the franchise).

Back to the anti-gay thing. Card is universally active. Active writer. Active teacher. Active blogger. Active member of LDS. He isn’t just a tertiary mormon. The dude is a direct descendant of one of Bringham Young’s 55 wives. There was no polygamy or mormon ideas within those Ender books. At least nothing overt. Outside of the fiction, though, he has written some particularly closed-minded diatribes. For someone who denigrates the term homophobic, he is hypocritically and publicly afraid of the effect that gay marriage will have upon heterosexual marriage. The idea that gay marriage could destroy the entire concept of “normal” marriage, that it “marks the end of democracy in America,” is, at its heart, rooted in fear. Fear of homosexual relationships. A phobia of homosexuals. Therein lies the hypocrisy. What is marriage? For a person such as Card, who claims to be “protecting marriage from a fatal redefinition,” it must be defined in terms of procreation, as that is a primary distinguishing factor between heterosexuals and homosexuals. But what about heterosexual married couples who do not have children? Are they destroying the concept of marriage? There doesn’t seem to be a huge, religiously-driven backlash against those folks. So it seems to be about something more basic than procreation: sex. People who are afraid of homosexuals are not afraid of two men or women loving each other. They are afraid of the idea of two people of the same gender having sex with each other. That’s really what it comes down to. That’s what actually disgusts some people. I certainly don’t condone that viewpoint, but, if someone is disgusted by something, I can’t decree to that person that he or she is not legitimately feeling disgust. However, being gay is also a social position. It is an identity. Gender itself is not as simple as sex. If it was, then no one would mature beyond adolescence. Everyone would be constantly trying to do it with everyone else. There would be no nuance of gender and identity. And all heterosexual marriages would result in obscenely massive families. Regardless of one’s belief in the biological legitimacy of homosexuality, the sex/procreation argument against gay marriage is shallow. I am married. I have a child. I didn’t get married so that I could finally “do it”. I got married because I am in love with my life partner. Marriage is about love. It is about a lifetime commitment between two people. No one could possibly argue against that. The folks who leverage religion to spout anti-gay fear mongering are not doing a very good job at convincing me that this sex-centric view of marriage has done anything to solidify it as an institution. Love-based marriage, though, is solid. A marriage built upon love, relying on that love for sustenance, rarely results in divorce. I cannot assume that gay marriage is built upon sex, as there is no motivation for most gay people to marry in order to have sex. If a gay couple can already have sex, and cannot procreate, then why get married? Yes, it’s about love and permanence. Therefore, if both gay and heterosexual marriage is rooted in love, gay marriage is indistinguishable from heterosexual marriage.

What a can of worms! Even in the midst of such a hot issue, I can still read Orson Scott Card’s fiction, just as I can still appreciate films from Elia Kazan, and not assume Volkswagen drivers are closet Nazis. I might be more detached from the art, but I can still enjoy it. Card, though, has crossed the line. The “line,” in this case, is the distinction between personal, public expression and the action of overtly oppressing a specific group of people. No, his rants didn’t cross this line. He might have motivated the wing nuts who sustained Proposition 8 (the California bill effectively banning gay marriage), but, in my opinion, everyone has the right to speak up. Card crossed the line when he became a board member of the National Organization for Marriage. The NOM is the Jersey-based group that was instrumental in passing Proposition 8 in 2008. Take a moment to think about that. A group of people who, on the whole, did not live in California decided to influence the Constitution of that state. These people were so phobic of the idea of gay people even having the option of legal marriage that they decided to wage a national campaign against a particular state, fearing that California would be a corrupting anchor, dragging down the entire nation. Look, I think California is massive and fantastic, and I could certainly see myself living there, but this is not the United States of California. Cali is the most populous state in our country, and it carries 55 of the 538 Electoral College votes. That’s a bit over ten percent. That’s not going to sway the entire country (unless the country was already heading in a particular direction). In 2009, Orson Scott Card joined the NOM. He has moved into a position of national action, able to impose his views upon people who are not his neighbors. This is a guy who won’t even teach at a non-LDS university. I’m sure that Card is passionate about a particular belief in marriage, and sees himself as a responsible husband and father. I’m not going to insult those aspects of his values. However, he has used his fame and literary success to impose his sex/procreation-obssessed world view upon others. There are people in California who have been negatively affected by Card’s efforts, who have never cracked an Ender. And now, just thinking about this guy gives me visceral spasms of disgust.

Ugh. In the true spirit of GIGO, I have spent my allotment of scrivener’s energy on this blog, leaving little left over for the actual fiction-writing that I so revere. Who is a greater hypocrite, the man who spews anti-gay hypocrisy or the man who claims to be writing fiction but is actually spewing an anti-hypocratic diatribe? Um, it’s the anti-gay guy.

Some great writers have been terrible, destructive, abusive people. If I take a no-read stance on Card, does this mean that I need to research every writer, every artist, to be certain that I am not inadvertently supporting some agent of oppression? No. Reading is part of my personal enrichment. I have a healthy filter, allowing me to selectively separate the acts of the artist from the products of that person. I reserve judgment on future discoveries of authorial atrocities. We do not live in a world of absolutes. People try to shoehorn things into absolute categories because it makes those things easier to understand. Limit the variables, crunch it all down to talking points. And that’s why I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal, because both camps tend to blind themselves with dogma. For Card, his absolute is marriage, invariably rooted in this confusion of sex and procreation. He has so completely corrupted himself that I cannot think of him without thinking of his garbage, and I cannot separate the man from the product. So I will no longer listen to him.

3-D crap is still crap (in 3-D)

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

I can pinpoint the moment when I lost my stomach for large concert venues, right down to the minute. It was June 28, 1997, 9:13pm, at Soldier Field, attending U2’s PopMart tour. It took less than two hours for U2 to unravel, dissect and anesthetize everything I had loved about live music, and by the time Monica and I left (cutting out before the encores), I decided to never, ever see another stadium concert (the exception is Rush, who transcend all the hocus pocus to reliably deliver on the Big Show, again and again). Too many people who I didn’t like and too much chaos, all of it just plain obscenely and oppressively gigantic. U2, consequently, has saved me hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in ticket sales. James Cameron, I’m afraid, has just accomplished the same feat for 3-D movies.

[Please put on your 3-D glasses now. Ready?]

Yes, people, I have seen Avatar. I heard about it years ago, as Cameron was cooking up his secret weapon. I knew of the name, knew that he was filming it in 3-D, with computer and photography equipment that he was literally inventing. I imagined some souped-up, next generation Tron, the realization of William Gibson on the big screen (the sequel to Tron will, in fact, be in 3-D, by the way . . . it’s a Disney film, and Disney . . . well, read on). The 3-D idea, in particular, seemed outlandish and impossible. Then we had the flood. The last few years has seen a steady increase in 3-D feature films, most of them animated, the others concert footage. This broke open in 2009, spearheaded by Disney.

This instant batch of 3-D has been a big shot in the arm for theaters. I am a home theater enthusiast, and my personal set-up is basically a medium-screen, full featured theater. I have no reason to go out to the AMC, where every other jackass is whipping out a cell phone to text friends and family, emitting tiny, blinding blue-white display beacons that are far more distracting in a darkened auditorium than cellular conversation. I can eat whatever I want, pause everything, crank it up and turn it down, all from the comfort of my favorite chair, in the presence of people I know. I can’t, however, view anything in 3-D. So, if 3-D seems worth it, I get out to the theater and cough up the big bucks for a unique experience.

The movie studios, though, have long realized that the theater income is only part of the picture. The home market has presented ample opportunity to re-sell the entertainment. I own The Empire Strikes Back on VHS (three times), laserdisc and DVD. I’d probably own the Blu-ray, too, if they bothered to release it. It’s all part of the plan, though. Once the next format has sufficiently settled, they will release a better, sharper, snazzier version that I can once again purchase. For now, I can see two more markets coming up. 3-D is happening now. The next HD will be later. By the time this extended joke has played itself out, I will have payed hundreds of dollars to keep on watching Vader whack off sweaty Luke’s stupid hand and Yoda babble his “there-is-no-try” crap, on a small screen, in letterbox, in Prologic surround, in Dolby Digital surround, in HD projected onto a large screen, in lossless 7.1 surround, in 3-D, in 4320p UHDV with 22.2 surround and, finally, playing directly into my occipital lobe via a convenient jack on the back of my neck. There is no “try”, there is only “do”, again and again and again.

They have us because they know that we love the shiny stuff. Deeper than that, they know that we want these symbols of identity (see a previous Megablog post for more dirt on this idea). Apple Computer has perfected this, providing a perfect model for perpetual sales. Give the people the shiny new machine, and let them feel special for about six months or so. Then show them a shinier, newer machine. It shouldn’t take more than another year before that old-shiny machine looks dull. Upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.
Buy, buy, buy.

I knew that the 3-D home market was getting prepped as soon as I saw the Disney Digital 3-D imprint. They weren’t just putting out the occasional 3-D flick. They were full-throttle churning, and this was destined to hit home. It makes sense. Get people to re-purchase all of their beloved movies. Better yet, get them to ditch their thousand-dollar televisions for a new batch of two-thousand-dollar televisions. They’ve been priming the pump for the last couple years, and now, at the 2010 CES, oh my gosh, there’s a slew of 3-D televisions! Sound the trumpets, launch the press kits, and force all the journalists to check their AP style manuals for “3D” vs. “3-D”!

Somewhere in the Dark Tower, the Crimson King is sitting on his throne, hands together, smile beaming. The pieces are all falling into place.

So now we have Avatar. This isn’t just a retro-fitted, 3-D-i-fied re-release. It was built to be an immersive experience, with real acting, a real story, true innovation. Let’s see how fast this thing can go.

Cameron was cooking this thing up long before the big wave of Disney marketing. The 3-D effects have been integral to the story from the moment it hit the page. The only times we have had such overt writing explicitly for 3-D was in the salad days of Jaws 3D and Friday the 13th, Part III. The new crop of 3-D films are generally viewed conventionally, with 3-D money shots dispersed throughout various scenes (okay, Friday the 13th, Part III was all about the pitchfork-in-your-face money shot). Avatar, though, is an environment. The 3-D is as constant as the patented Cameron breakneck action. It is a wondrous ride, a visual feast.

It also made me want scream my way out of the theater off and on, for two-and-a-half hours.

Cameron, with his supreme effort of absolute 3-D saturation, has finally shown me why 3-D stinks. These movies have a habit of sticking things right in your face. A forest scene will always have a stray branch poking you in the eye. A room full of people will include the back of some dude’s head, right there. Flying creatures and ships fly right at you, every time. In a conventional movie, there is usually enough depth of field for the viewer to decide where to focus. Depth is achieved when the viewer selectively focuses on something “far away”, and then back to something “close”. The viewer’s brain does some of the work, deciding that a particular swooping pan over a mountain range is breathtaking, or that the Millennium Falcon’s flight into the heart of the Bigger-Badder Death Star is hair-raising. 3-D movies remove that viewer participation. In an effort to further immerse viewers into a scene, the 3-D movie dictates the aspects of that scene that should stand out. The viewer, however, can’t escape. Yes, I’m in a room full of people and the back of this guy’s head is right there in my face. I got it. However, the head monopolizes the entire scene. If there is any additional depth of field, I wouldn’t know because I stuck behind this guy with the 3-D freakin’ head.

The experience becomes similar to standing on the floor of a General Admission concert. Unless you’re exceptionally tall, you’re going to spend most of the show jockeying for a clear view of the stage, with various heads obscuring your enjoyment on and off throughout the performance. Avatar was full of these moments. Get that fern out of my face, dammit! Hey! You! Bazooka! I’m more interested in the expression of the person holding you, but I can’t read that character’s face because your big fat bazooka mouth is hitting me in the forehead. Instead of expanding the depth of a movie, 3-D flattens it. There are the things that are right in front of you, and then there’s all the other stuff (that is, the actual movie) that is not worthy of your attention.

The effect simply grew more intense and insistent as the film progressed. Soon enough I felt as though my head was encased in a fish bowl. I felt as though I was wearing an astronaut suit, sitting there in my comfy chair, trying to enjoy this wild movie, even though I could feel the sides of the helmet tickling my hair. And my suit was probably running out of oxygen. Did they include some damned oxygen in those fancy glasses? Did anyone really care about me? Could someone- GET that branch out of my face, dammit! Argh!

I have, admittedly, only seen three of the Real3D films: Coraline, Up and Avatar. So far, Coraline was the only film that came close to doing it right. There were less things sticking in my face. There were things . . . out there. And I wasn’t being told that I had to look at them. All I had to do was pay attention to the story, regardless of the flourishes.

3-D has a long way to go. At this point, it is simply an occasionally nauseating gimmick. Eventually, someone will use it to make art, to truly explore the possibilities of telling a story within the depth of the z-axis. More importantly, 3-D computer displays will push the evolution of interface design. For now, though, we have things sticking in our eyeballs. And, of course, U2 is just as much a part of this as they were in the nauseation of stadium concerts. In the end, none of this is as exciting as watching Polyester with an Odorama card. Someday they will figure that out, and then I’ll be smelling Yoda.

[note: compared to many previous Megablog entries, the above yammering can, indeed, be considered “succinct”]

The impermanence of communication

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Waiting for the baby to arrive. Well, he’s here, but, for now, he prefers the confines of Rachel’s womb. I’ve done a lousy job of keeping friends abreast of my spawning. Every few days I think of someone else who I just sort of didn’t mention this baby thing to during the last, oh, nine months. These online tools, from email to blogs to social networking, are primarily supposed to make such general broadcasts of life events much easier. However, you have to use the tool to get the result, and I’ve become disgustingly lax. I blame Rachel, my wonderful and social wife. I just figured that everyone who knows me also knows Rachel, and, much in the way that I can rely on her to answer the telephone whenever it horrifically invades my personal sanctuary, she would take care of this baby-announcing business.

In a way, Facebook has made communication so easy that it’s become warped and diminished. It reminds me of the terrible havoc wreaked by word processing. I’m just old enough to remember what it was like to type something. On a typewriter. You could set the margins, apply a little white-out, and maybe throw in some carbon paper. Every other aspect was extremely permanent and one-shot. When word processing came along, everything became variable. Composition is just the first step. Tweaking margins and fonts is trivial, and I think most of us have, at one point, creatively stretched a 2.5 page paper out to meet the 3-page requirement. Worse yet, the draft has become extinct. You write it out, edit as you go, and then rewrite directly on top of what you just did. There is no archive, and no duty to permanence. Using a typewriter, there is a deliberate aspect to every word, every character. When you know you can undo anything you just typed, it doesn’t seem as important to get it right the first time. The true destruction, though, is to the art of spelling.

I can’t spell. The computer takes care of everything for me, so I don’t have to worry. However, back in those typewriter days, I don’t think I could spell worth a crap anyway. So yes, science has helped me become a better human. But I’m certain that, with nothing but that trusty typewriter, I would have become a much better speller. I wouldn’t have had a choice. Either adapt, learn how to do it, or blow my savings on Liquid Paper, year after year. The word processor has destroyed any requirement on my part to have any freaking idea how to spell. I’m 41 years old now, and it just ain’t gonna happen.

Now I’m worried that Facebook (and whatever other upcoming innovation in social networking) is doing the same thing to the art of communication. We used to rely on face-to-face, letters and telephones. Then email. Now we just need to occasional status update, broadcast to all who sign up. Conversations become strings of loosely connected fragments, murmurs and shouts from the ether. Pretty soon I could simply install event-listening software on a personal device, and I won’t have to bother typing “Jim is on the way to the hospital” or “Jim just ate two bowls of chili and has been in the bathroom for the last hour, reading three chapters of the new L. Frank Baum biography.” Everything will be coded, RFID’d and tagged. My iPhone will know that I’m in the bathroom, my personal health record will have something to say about the effect of chili on my gastrointestinal fortitude, and the tag in my L. Frank Baum book (too cheap right now to buy a Kindle) will report relevant info back to the iPhone. The iPhone will shoot out the appropriate message, according to my settings, to folks with the appropriate access roles and I won’t need to bother actually telling people what I’m up to. Instead of “like” and “dislike”, I can just select from 10-15 pre-written responses that should apply to just about anything. With absolute minimal effort, we can all send each other updates and responses and automated chuckles, and the art of conversation is both simplified, streamlined and destroyed. And without the efforts of forward thinkers, it will also not be archived.

I am most critical of myself, so this is a reaction to my own dopey way of falling off the map. I don’t have to be so fatalistic about this. I mean, it’s up to each of us to stop monkeying around and actually put a little effort into our surrounding humanity.

So, um, we bought a house, too. Yes. Any other life events? You all should know that Rachel and I are married (implied by the “wife” status). Both of our cats died in early 2009 (a month or so apart). We went to Hawaii in May, attending one of my big librarian meetings, and had a wonderful time connecting with family on both Oahu and the Big Island.

Our son will be named Simon.

I raked leaves today.

I ate soup with bread while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Jim is sitting at his computer.

Jim sure likes this weather.

Jim wonders.

A funny way of persisting

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

I’m just inching past the age of 40.5, and, as I sort my thoughts for another Megablog brain dump, I’m realizing that I am well on my way to becoming an Old Man. This isn’t a statement of middle-aged regret. I’m feeling pretty good about my age, and I recognize that any age level changes with temporal perspective. I was in Colorado just after I turned 30, and recall meeting a couple in their late-20s. When I told them I had just turned 30, they both groaned, as if that was the inevitable Wall of Age. Even then, it was completely absurd. I knew that 30 was generally pretty young, and I always felt accomplished to be finally out of my 20s, out of the Stupid Zone. Of course, stupidity has a funny way of persisting, so it’s not as if my 30-year-old brain had suddenly developed into Highlander-Quickening-like omniscience. I’ll always have a copious abundance of stupidity cells floating around in my head, and I’ll just have to work hard to auto-correct every thought before it flies out of my mouth. That 20-something couple didn’t have their auto-correction properly attuned, so they sounded like a pair of immature idiots. Ten years later, I bet they’re really freaking out about the big 4-0. As for me, inching into my 40s, I’m thinking that throughout my 30s, during that entire decade, I was still wading about in the shallow end of the stupid pool.

So now I’m entering the age of brilliance. The middle of my life, when I’m finally starting to get it. Right? Yeah. Well, unfortunately, I’m finding that my Inner Old Man, the crotchety crab-ass who has been poking his head out for the last 20 years, is just about ready to take up the mantle of dominance. And I say this with full knowledge that 20 years from now I’ll be thinking of my young, stupid 40s, when life was getting thicker and I was still getting a bit dumber. I suspect that I will eventually temper my judgement, start to see the goodness in people, and finally move on from being an Old Man to becoming a Wise Man. For now, though . . .

This started while I was thinking of Facebook. That was going to be the blog post. I was going to title it “Facebooked!”, and proceed with an inventory of all the things that both delighted and infuriated me about the super-popular website/phenomenon. Last year represented a tipping point for Facebook. In a rush of just a few months, it seemed that everyone I know had established some level of Facebook presence. It culminated with Mark, my childhood friend, a person lost to time after having moved away in 1979, Facebooking me, reconnecting our lives in a rush of memories and updates. I had been trying to track him down, along with his twin brother Matt, for decades. I suppose that when you really want to find someone, you can make it happen. However, I never wanted to stalk him or pry him out of the world. I had no contact information, and I had been so generally unorganized throughout my life that I couldn’t even do much digging into my own past. Once information became interwoven with our culture, Googling didn’t help much, as Mark and Matt have a very common name with an uncommon spelling (and my impermanent brain didn’t help out), so I just couldn’t track them down. It was one of the great regrets of my life. These were my closest friends during a time when I was probably at my most creative. Everything we did was performance and collaboration, all pre-video-games, pre-vegetation. Those elements of Jimmy, the boy I once was, were lost forever. In November 2008, though, Facebook turned all of that on its head. For all of the weirdness and frustration of that site, that simple reconnection has probably been the most profound thing that the entirety of the Internet has done for me. Facebook represents the reality of the next-generation semantic web.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided that Facebook is a great big stinking turd of a site. It’s a time-sucker that promotes the meticulous construction of masks. It is working hard to destroy the subtleties of long-term relationships, collapsing all the people we’ve known into a list of “friends”. Friends. Really? My wife is a friend. My boss is a friend. Someone I hardly spoke to during high school and haven’t seen or thought about at all for 20 years is a friend. They’re all just fodder to add to the list, to keep that Friend number growing. And that’s the first thing you notice about anyone else. How many friends? Didn’t we all move past this when we finished high school? Does every network need to include some quantitative value, some demonstrable quotient of success? And what about the people who were once your friend? The amicable partings. We all have them. There is no great break-up or drama. You simply drift apart over time, accompanied by the mutual understanding that this is okay, that there is no ill will. And then, six or seven years later, you receive the Facebook request. Joe Blowass wants to be your friend. Well, yes, you were friends at one time, certainly. But that was back in your second year of college, or back in that service job, when you briefly connected, but, eventually, just found different paths in life. And, in the discovery of that divergent path, you realized that you really didn’t like Joe Blowass all that much. You would actually rather not see him again, and, if you ever happen to bump into him, you can be cordial and mature about it, but you won’t be giving him any means to stay in touch. And now he wants a declaration of friendship. My friends are the people who I hold dear to me throughout my life. There are pieces of my personality invested into my friends, elements of my soul. I believe in my friends. I love them. So no, I’m not going to say that Joe Blowass is one of my friends. It just isn’t true. Yet, is he an enemy? Of course not. There is no middle ground, though. Facebook demands that Joe is either a friend, or a not-friend. And either choice is a declaration, overriding the subtlety of the amicable drift. Now I have to drag it all out of the closet and actually say, “no, you are not my friend.” So you sit on that invitation for weeks. Every time you sign into the stupid site, there he is, with that silly thumbnail photo. Looks like he’s lost a little on top. And now he’s gone up to about 30 friends, faces from all over time and space. Ah, just ignore it. Just check the messages, erase the pokes and requests and surveys and calls for extreme navel gazing, close it all up and bolt out of there. And a week later he’s still there, with the fucking grin, and maybe it’s more of a style than actual hair loss, and 37 friends now, including someone you actually would like to contact, but she always had better taste than Joe. But she added him, so why not. Okay. Now he’s my friend. And friendship now means less than ever before.

And just when you’re going to leapfrog Joe and send a feeler out to that lost common friend, the one who’s thumbnail is in Joe’s growing list, you hesitate. What if she doesn’t want to hear from me? It’s been a few days now, and, being Joe’s friend, she can surely see that he has also added me. What if I’m her Joe? If I send her a friend request, she’ll probably accept it, just as she did for Joe. And it will be meaningless. Or, worse, she could actually say “no”, after having accepted Joe, shooting me straight into the gutter of lower-than-Joe, the lowest of the low. Fucking Facebook.

Meanwhile, it’s a party. A non-stop, 24/7 goddamned party. “Judy is baking cookies.” “Steven can’t wait for this day to be over.” Freddie has sent you a Little Buddies request. Would you like to be his Special Little Buddy? “Annie is having a drink.” Annie has now sent you a request to accept the “have a drink” app. Would you like to have a drink? Which drink are you? No, no, fuck off, Annie, get the hell away from me! No. You’re not my friend. None of you are my friends! I don’t care what you’re doing, and I don’t care if you’re late for work or feeling fine or injecting fluid into your cat or jazzed about tonight. Ugh! This is not a party, folks. Yet, with the constant tiny little updates, and the conglomeration of micro-statements flowing in from 50 different people, any boring old life sounds like its just crackling with excitement. We are all the stars of our group sitcom, our Sex in the City.

So . . . this is what has been popping around in my head. And as I filter it out, sorting, composing, trying to dig up my thesis, I realize that I’m just being an asshole. A cranky old man. And a hypocrite. I mean, I’m there, right in the middle of this fake party, and knee-deep in Twitter, as well. Twitter, however, is a bit more honest. It was designed as a broadcast tool for cell phone text messaging. “Jim is sitting in the back room, at the north end of the bar.” Twitter it, and you don’t have to bother individually texting all the people who were supposed to meet you at the bar, or the people who might otherwise be looking for you. Like everything else that’s online, it either evolves or stagnates, so now it has become a web-based micro-blogging tool. I admire the simplicity, the lack of pretense. Of course, like many other narrowly-defined web tools, there are folks out there over-thinking Twitter, trying to use it as a marketing device and even an educational tool. I’m a librarian, and I recently read a short article about other medical librarians using Twitter as a reference tool, broadcasting links to cool reference resources, bringing help to the people. Hey, if it makes you feel good about yourself, go for it. Some of us just call that spam, though. But maybe that’s just what the micro-blogging movement actually is: intermediary spam. Spam-lite. Keep it short enough, and we don’t feel as inundated with all of those informational blurbs, tweets and belches. Put it all together, though, and it just coagulates into static. “Follow” a few hundred Twitterers, and my voice eventually returns to what it really is: just one within millions. Meaningless.

An old neighbor of mine back in Park Forest, a somewhat cranky old man himself, once described his frustration over attempting to get his driver’s license renewed. He failed the driving test, claiming that the young DMV woman accompanying him was “picking the fly shit out of the pepper.” Man, do I love that phrase. It’s what I’ve been doing every day for decades. It’s easy to do, really. I think our brains are built for it. Wallowing in the details, winnowing away the days on jigsaw puzzles. The assumption, though, is that you can recognize the fly shit, that you know shit from Shinola. That’s the arrogance that usually gets you into trouble, or simply keeps you in your cranky little corner, gradually removing yourself from society. It’s dangerous and self-righteous, and even though I can recognize it, acknowledge this in myself, that doesn’t mean I’ve been able to alter this bottom line of bullshit.

FYI, we should be thankful that this woman from the DMV took the time to pick out the fly shit. This neighbor was shaky of both grip and mind, and was definitely someone who shouldn’t be commanding a vehicle of any sort.

So I spend far too much time going after the easy targets that tend to be interwoven with my daily routines. Such as Trader Joe’s. I’ve been at odds with TJ’s for years. Yes, delicious culinary luxury at okay prices. A good place for vegetarians and organic-o-philes. And friendly! Incredibly friendly. So friendly that I can hardly get out of the store without painting myself in puke. I’m sorry. I’m not a very enthusiastic shopper. I either get in there, list in hand, on target, on mission, super-efficient, or I wander the nebula of deliciousness, lost in a haze of exotic beverages, chocolate delights, 18 flavors of hummus and seven radically different varieties of organic farm-raised grain-fed antibiotic-free (but not necessarily pro-biotic) vegan eggs. So I either zip through the store, anxiously waiting in the checkout line, ready to complete my circuit, or I crawl into line after a lifetime of distracted shopping, dazed and stumbling as if emerging from the Sun’s Anvil in Lawrence of Arabia. Either way, the last thing I want to do is chat it up with the hipster at the register. Just shut up and tell me what I owe.

I’m in the minority on this one. For many of my fellow shoppers, Trader Joe’s is a complete package. Drift about the aisles, charmed by the “hand drawn” signs, sampling a bit of the bruschetta or limeade, finger of decision casually drifting over the fabulous array of chocolate-dipped/smothered plentitudes. It’s all champaign and peaberry. And top it all off with the cutie at the register, young, beautiful, so chatty.

Trader Joe’s is the flip-side of the indie record store. Attractive urban hipsters wait for you at the register. Their hair, clothes and piercings suggest a freedom of living you were never able to attain (unless you, too, work at a similar store). At the record store, friendliness is overshadowed by apathy or judgement. You’re never going to impress that clerk, and anything you say is always going to be either too droll or not droll enough. This is where Trader Joe’s diverges. They have gathered all the beautiful cool freedom-loving next-gen kids who are just too gregarious for the record stores. They don’t care what you look like. They love all, as if each one of them has been touched by Christ. Better yet, they will always support your purchase decisions.

“Oh, the Belgian-chocolate Madagascar prune-lettes . . . mmm, these are just . . . awesome.”

They always take notice of a few random items, claiming that the $3 bottle of wine is their “favorite,” or that they’re positively addicted to those ready-made stinkless-shit sandwiches. Always a compliment, always the wondering of how your day is going, what you’re up to tonight. Girlfriends, boyfriends, knowing grins and camaraderie. The customers eat it up, soak it in, some of them visibly twitching and bouncing as they get closer in line, approaching that hipster, the sunshine epicenter. So by the time I make my way to the front of this processional, I’m up against it. I feel as if I have to be “on,” to fire back a hipster-ism or a witty remark or some other flake of bullshit that I see coming from every other person in line. And they all look like assholes, every one of them. The clerks are assholes for being so chipper about working at a grocery store. The customers are assholes for acting as if they themselves are hip, cool people who just happen to be loading their designer food into their $60K vehicles. And I’m the biggest asshole of all for being there, for grunting my way through the transaction, stymied and shrunken and simply unable to act my way through it. There are plenty of other scenarios in life where I have to amp up my personality, put on a cheery face, shoot the small talk. I’m not going to do it at a freaking grocery store.

“Hey, cool, love these maple cookies, how’s it going?”

“…”

End of conversation.

Why should I even care about any of this? Why spend all of these words complaining, being nothing but a grump? Here is what’s been happening. Listen.

The pleasantries of life have become transparent.

I have become increasingly intolerant of the myopic apathy of youth, the affectedness of it, droll, bored during a time when life is infinite and limitless. I am angry with the “me” that I see in others, to see them pissing away the same things in life that I, too, pissed away. I was recently looking through some older family photos, pictures from several generations ago. Each generation has shifted its tolerance. The youth culture is an offense to the previous generation. Yet, one generation later, there is an even more offensive youth culture, and then another one. The circle of tolerance shrinks with each generation, and I’ve been living with that downscaling.

At 40, life is better, more solid. Now that I have my footing, it would have been nice to feel this security 20 years ago, or at least understand that this period of contentment was coming. What would life be like now if I knew all of this 20 years ago? Would I be even happier now, more successful and stable? This is recursive thinking. It is the path to madness. I am always comparing my success to others, particularly now that the President is almost in my peer demographic. The more I question my choices and place in life, the more critical I am of everyone around me. So it’s better for me to be a grump than to be paralyzed by all of this overthinking. This is the Curmudgeon’s Code.

Meanwhile, I am shocked over how few of my fellow citizens care about such things as not pissing on the seat, not talking on their phones in enclosed public places, not ripping out the last paper towel without turning the little wheel at the bottom of the dispenser so that there is a fresh clean paper towel ready for the next person, not throwing cigarettes, coffee cups and other jetsam out of car windows as if the world was their god damned ashtray, not eating fried chicken on the train or letting go of yourself to such a degree that you yourself smell like fried chicken (bad salmonella Popeye’s leftover coagulated grease fried chicken, not fresh and tasty fried chicken), not drifting aimlessly down the middle of the steps as the CTA train is obviously 20 seconds away from pulling away, not pushing your strollers side-by-side on the bike path and taking up the entire width of the path while oblivious to my ringing bell and hey-hey-hey and all attempts at warning that my 30-mph bike might be a substantial risk to your adorable little baby’s perambulation, not standing on the left side of the freaking escalator, not being a dope, a mope, an idiot, a stupid idiot just like each and every single one of them . . .

As I lay it out, it just seems like a disease. More a sadness than a madness. If I capitalized on all of this anger, I would be in jail, toothless and black-eyed. So I channel it into impotence, with the occasional passive-aggressive hand gesture or cold, hard stare. It is ultimately better to just let it go. Turn off the news. Erase the nodes of comparison and just be happy with the gift of life.

Still, it’s nice to be plugged in, to follow friends and artists on Twitter. It’s nice to still feel like a part of a society I thought I hated. I suppose it would be a good time to hop onto Facebook and fill out a “Which classic cartoon character best describes your lifelong dread and self-loathing?” quiz, join the “Misanthropes Unite” group, or just raise some hell in one of the hundreds of Pro Life groups. Whatever makes us feel better. That is, whatever makes us feel better than others.