Archive for November, 2009

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.

The Ovation (and how to not be a writer)

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

First, watch this (with the sound up):


Then, read this:

The idea for this story came to me while I was making a sandwich. I’m a methodical sandwich maker, creating the same damned sandwich every work morning (sprouted bread, hummus, two cheeses, shredded carrots, spinach). A reliable sandwich is the cornerstone of a productive day. This was in the evening, though. I was attempting to get a leg up on things and streamline my morning ablutions. Methodical procedures, those moments of daily autopilot, are great times for reflection and the general percolation of ideas. That’s a glorious aspect of our brains that we all share. The creative act, though, requires additional commitment. It requires the pinch-grasping of one of those fleeting ideas, holding it by the tail, refusing to let it fly off into the ether. It requires feeding the idea, percolating it, facilitating its journey. There are two huge stumbling blocks, though. First, sometimes the ideas just don’t really present themselves. Sometimes you’re dry, or just don’t notice as they escape out your ears and off into the void. Other times, the ideas are there, but that doesn’t mean that each one merits a significant focus. For example, I was walking home from work the other night and I passed a MacDonald’s sign that announced something about an Angus Beef burger. I don’t know about you, but when I hear “Angus” I think of clean, pure, unfettered Rock and Roll. So now I’m heading down into the subway, imagining Angus Young, sweaty head nodding, a Big Mac shoved in his mouth as he crunches through a stellar rock solo. How did Angus end up pimping Big Macs? Is he the right role model for hamburger-woofing children? On what dark path shall he lead the waning fast food empire? Is this the payment for his well-known Deal With The Devil?

And that’s one of the ideas that you just leave back up there at street level.

So I’m half-way through this sandwich and I imagine this absurd image of an audience that takes the standing ovation to the bitter extreme. I continued the logic, imagining people working shifts of applause, and how long that could be sustained. Fun stuff. Normally I will jot down a few notes, then file it away for some time when I can properly sequester myself from my own life. My general approach to writing is to brew up the idea, keep it turning on some sort of pig-roast spit until it seems reasonably ready, and then, finally, start writing. This has worked for a few stories, but, with many others, I have essentially killed it off before it even hits the paper. Very similar to seeing a movie trailer for a super-cool, amazing flick that’s coming out next summer, then seeing a few more trailers later in the spring, getting all excited, actually marking the release day on some sort of calendar, and then being barraged with a two-week wave of previews and press right before the big moment, so that when it finally opens you just don’t have the energy to get out and see it, feel like it really isn’t that special anymore, and decide to hold off, eventually waiting for the DVD, then throwing it into the middle of the Netflix queue and, well, forgetting about it. So when I finally sit down to write a story, I’m already sick of it. This is a distinguishing characteristic between those who “imagine” and those who actually “write”.

Anyway, I went into my office to jot down the notes, the same old procedure, but then I just sat down and wrote the whole thing. It’s a short one, more of a punchline than a real story with any nuance of character. I ended up with about 2.5 pages, and, while the joke was effective, I wasn’t sure what else to do with it. I wanted to put it up online, but still “publish” it in some way. And I wanted to retain some rights, to prevent anyone from just cutting/pasting it into a blog or something (assuming anyone would be so inclined). I decided that I could read it out loud and stick it up on YouTube. Then I thought of some fun soundtrack enhancements. Then I thought it would be nice to have something for people to look at. Then I spent the rest of the summer photographing people’s hands. The Neil Gaiman shot was the coup, of course, and a moment of generosity during one of his multi-hour signings. Unfortunately, I was buying a house and preparing for a baby (due to arrive in two days, which is, um, any time now in baby-land . . . perhaps I should be blogging about that, eh?), so I wasn’t on the ball as much as I hoped. That happens when something turns into a “project”. I think that a lot of the people, my friends, coworkers, intermittent folks, forgot about the hand photographs. Now that it’s resurfaced, I’ve found that the project tends to work against itself. The people who have a real investment in this, those who’s hands are in it, concentrate on identifying their hands or other friends’ hands, missing key parts of the narration. It’s a bit of a multimedia overload. This reminds me of a project a friend did many years ago, when we were both at Illinois State University. He read an HP Lovecraft story while playing “Bella Lugosi’s Dead” on a CD player while projecting scenes from “Evil Dead 2″ on a screen. This was for some sort of grad class down there at ISU. Most folks were drawn to the video, making it very difficult to actually follow the progression of the story. Cool idea, but ultimately a confusing mash.

So that’s the type of hole I have dug. I must say, though, that it was a lot fun in the digging. I hope you enjoyed it!