Monday, May 30, 2011

In flight, May 30, Oakland-Seattle

So here's the deal. I'm on a plane now: Alaska Airlines Flight 345, Oakland to Seattle, pretty much my "regular" flight when I commute to PopCap. I'm typing on my iPad, and using the inflight wifi, confirming that I am, in fact, communicating with you from the future. Huzzah!

The problem with this flight today, other than the 1.5 hour delay (second one in a week), is that I'm flying on Memorial Day, which not only means I'm not home on the holiday like I should be, but also that the plane is full of civilians, as snobby frequent fliers like me like to call you. Rubes and mouth-breathing morons are two other technical terms, though we try to only use those in our secret meetings.

Anyway, so I have a couple with two screaming babies behind me, and a guy next to me who smells like he hasn't bathed since Hee Haw went off the air in the 70s. And the guy two seats down from me keeps snuffling his nose so loudly I can hear it through my noise-canceling headphones.

I know what you may be thinking: Boy, this Jeff Green character is a real curmudgeonly asshole! To which I can only respond: Welcome to my blog! But, look, I fly a lot now, so what little patience I had in humanity is severely tested aboard these flying tin cans, especially when the guy next to me smells like a soggy bag of dog flatulence. It's times like these that I wish the airports had delousing and decontamination chambers at the gates. I've written letters to all the major airline airlines repeatedly now for months, but oddly, I've yet to receive a single reply, despite me adding "READ NOW OR ELSE" on the front of every Yu-Gi-Oh envelope used for this correspondence.

There's nothing you can do about screaming babies on planes. Nothing legal or socially acceptable, anyhoo. And hey, I've been there. Not only did I used to have my own screaming baby on planes back in the day, but just two weeks ago I was screaming myself when the flight attendants ran out of peanuts before it was my turn. I'm tearing up a little even thinking about it now. But, ya know, smelly passengers--that's another thing. It seems like the bare minimum one should do before confining oneself in a closed space with strangers for a couple hours is to make sure beforehand that one is not emanating a rotten, fetid, and/or fecal odor from one's body, but maybe that's just me. Maybe this guy is proud of his stench, or doesn't actually notice the flowers wilting and dogs whimpering and women fainting as he walks by.

The upside of this situation is that it is giving me something tocthink about and share with you on this flight, which you in turn can share with your children, and their children, and so on. As those noted rock emissaries Journey once astutely noted, "the wheel in the sky keeps on turning." As I look out the window of the airplane right now and gaze at the infinite sky, all I can do is say, "yeah, it does."

I hope you have enjoyed my heartfelt ruminations on this flight, as it has made me feel close to each and every one of you. I hope you feel the same. Now I'm going to blast some Beastie Boys into my ears and try to breathe in as little as possible until this flight lands and I can get the heck out of here.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Thoughts on Sons of Anarchy, Season 3

So I just plowed through Season 3 of Sons of Anarchy, paying $1.99 a pop to watch 'em on my iPad, rather than wait for the DVDs, or reruns on FX, to come out later this summer. It was worth it.

Season 3 has gotten somewhat of a bad rap in some quarters, both for the slower pace (vs the near-nonstop action of the first two seasons), as well as the extended foray over to Belfast, was a decidedly different turn for the show, with all sorts of new characters and subplots, which, for some, detracted from the "main story." Not for me, though. For me, it only deepened the main story--that being the coming of age of Jax Teller and what he is going to do with his father's legacy.


The key to the theme of this season lies in the names of the opening and finale episodes: "SO" and "NS," respectively. Series creator/writer Kurt Sutter loves his symmetry and cleverly constructed narrative architecture in his show. These two episode names, of course, form the word "sons," which not only are shown physically in the 2 rings that Jax leaves behind on his father's gravestone, but also represent what this entire season was about: Jax searching for his son, and Jax searching for his role as a son. (And the moment that Jax ponders letting his son go was the most devastating scene, emotionally, of the entire season, and maybe even of the series as a whole.)

Even back in Season 1 we knew that the Sons of Anarchy's primary revenue stream came from selling IRA guns, so Ireland has always loomed in the background as central to the show's mythology. What we learned this season was that it goes way beyond the simple gun-running. Jax's father, John Teller, has an entirely different, and somewhat secret, life over in Ireland, complete with a mistress and another child. Until this point in the show, Jax has looked up to his father, and wrestled with his father's belated wishes, expressed in his memoir, to have Jax take the club in a "better direction," away from the violence and outlawism represented by Clay and Gemma.

The tension between Jax and Clay, of course, has been the central conflict of the entire series, and, for all those who know their Hamlet, upon which Sons of Anarchy is explictly based, we know this isn't going to go well. But this discovery, by Jax, that his father, too, was less than a saint, coupled with the present day threats to the club (the white supremacists of Season 2, and his kidnapped son in Season 3), help lead Jax back into the fold with Clay--thus depriving some viewers of what satisfied them most: Jax vs Clay. But the season finale's brilliant final minutes makes it clear that this conflict has merely just been postponed, and, in fact, is only going to get worse.

The final scene is a juxtoposition of the show's two main female characters each reading a letter, and the two letters perfectly, brilliantly make clear just how ironic and tragic Jax's resolution with Clay is. The first is from Jax to his mother, making it clear that he has renounced his father now and is totally with Clay and the club. The "betrayal" she was worried about, that we were worried about, turned out to be a fakeout for a good portion of the season. But if there was any doubt that we, the viewers, were supposed to consider this a good thing, we had Jax's letter juxtaposed with his father's old letter to Maureen in Ireland, now discovered by Tara, in which he reveals his fear that (hello, Hamlet!) that he was going to be killed by Gemma and Clay. So Kurt Sutter, evil bastard that he is, picks the exact moment that Jax has finally given up his father's path towards the "good" to reveal what we knew all along but were waiting to have explicitly revealed: that his father had been murdered by his mother and step-dad. And because Tara now knows, that means it's only a matter of time before Jax finds out, with a path of destruction to follow.

But, ya know, this is also a pulpy action show about a motorcycle gang. One in which we expect (and enjoy) large chunks of violence and badassery (Clay's "I don't recognize your bullshit MC" was my favorite line of the season), and while this season *did* have plenty of that, I can see, if you were watching it one week at a time, rather than in a marathon like I did, how this season's slower pace might have been frustrating. Sutter is always looking at the big picture, setting things up in long arcs with big payoffs. He spins a million plates at once over a variety of characters and story arcs, some of them crossing multiple seasons, and in this season more than the first two he let some individual episodes contain more exposition than action. But, holy crap, the action, when it finally came, was awesome, as two of the show's biggest villains--Stahl and Jimmy O-- finally get their due in the most satisfying possible way. I don't know about you, but I almost let out a vocal cheer when Chibs finally gets his revenge, as brutal as it was. And, hey, after we had to watch Ethan Zoebelle slip away scot-free last season, this was amazingly satisfying.

Of course, a lot of this stuff doesn't really hold up to close scrutiny. Once you really start thinking about Jax's and the club's "The Sting"-like triple cross of Stahl, it kind of falls apart, in how they could possibly have known it would all play out the way it did. Gemma's escape from the hospital seemed totally unrealistic, as did the fact that killing of Stahl and Jimmy wouldn't have raised 1000 red flags that would have backfired on the lot of them, including Unser.

But, hey, it's a pulpy action show about a motorcycle gang. And I love it. I love Kurt Sutter's ambition, the way he digs deep with the characters, the way he so brilliantly orchestrates his plots, while simultaneously reveling in the pulp and violence. It's a highbrow show in a lowbrow form, or maybe a lowbrow show with highbrow ambition. (Or, if you're not a fan, it may be a middlebrow show that thinks it's more clever than it is---but I wouldn't agree with you.)

In any event, I loved Season 3, and recommend, if you watched it at the time and were disappointed, that you watch it again when you can binge on multiple episodes at once. Because I think the story will seem much more tighter and focused and suspenseful if you do. And if you've actually read this far, and are as big a fan as I am, than I know you will at least agree that Season 4 can't start soon enough.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lament of a formerly skinny guy.

I spent the first 20 years of my life being rail thin. If you can, in general, divide your geek stereotype into two broad categories--overly fat dudes and rail-thin string beans--I was firmly in the latter camp. ( I also had bright red hair, and glasses, and braces, which put me on the fast track towards Never Having a Date and Listening to Lots of Dr. Demento--but that's a subject for another post.) And while I think it's definitely harder, in terms of social acceptance, to be fat than it is to be skinny, when you are an adolescent the skinniness is still a form of "otherness," of not being "regular"---which is all that most of us ever want at that age. I know I did. I hated being that skinny, and tried everything I could, at certain points, to gain weight. My metabolism just didn't allow for it, nor did my DNA.

Oh, to suffer from that problem now.

I remember at the time lots of older people telling me, "yeah, you just wait," but I never could believe them because I was so skinny for so long that I couldn't possibly see how my body would ever change. But holy double-double with extra cheese were they right. Now I got my "normalcy," all right, and boy do I wish I could get that old metabolism back. Because I've got about 15 pounds of blubber, minimum, that need to be sliced off my body so that I can look in the mirror and not want to point and laugh, or cry.

It totally crept up on me, too. My wife was the first to notice, of course, because that's what spouses do. "Maybe you really don't need to eat that whole pint of New York Super Fudge Chunk tonight, Jeff. I'm just saying." Not the kind of thing a guy really wants to hear, especially when you feel your day was so damn lame that you deserve the full pint of ice cream, and especially when you spent decades of your life being able to eat whatever you damn well pleased and couldn't gain weight even when you tried.

So I was blind to it, at first. It's what we do. I'd look in the mirror and not really see the current reality, but instead the me I was used to seeing, that I'd built my identity around. In junior high, one asshole kid who used to be my friend said I was a "tomato on a stick," the tomato being a reference to my red hair. And that's what I've been in my head for forever. Now I'm kind of more just like a tomato. Or perhaps a cantaloupe. In any case, it's clear, once I take a good look, or stand on a scale, that I can retire that moniker, at least for the near future.

So, yeah. I have to watch my weight, just like everyone else now. In February, PopCap sponsored an internal contest called "Play2Lose", in which participants signed up for a specific amount of weight to lose, and would receive a $50 Amazon gift certificate if they reached their goal. I signed up to lose 10. By the end of the contest period, I had gained 8. I guess the whole "drinking more beer while I'm in Seattle and also see how many cheeseburgers I can eat each week" was not the best possible strategy for this particular competition.

It really sucks. Now I know just how spoiled and easy I had it for so long. And, far, far worse than just feelings of vanity over appearance, of course, is the actual health and fitness aspect to this. Because in addition to eating more, I compounded the problem by exercising less (something also I never needed to do to keep the flubber off). I've made a serious, concerted effort to get on a regular exercise regime now (elliptical/bike/yoga/weights), but good lord do I feel like a fat, sweaty tub of lard every time I do it now, huffing and puffing over an exercise that I used to be able to do with half the effort or exhaustion. It's embarrassing to myself. But it's also good motivation for me to keep at it. There's no way I'll ever be a skinny rail of a guy again. But maybe I can somehow work my way back to feeling "normal" again. Or maybe I'll figure out, after all these decades on the planet, that such a thing might not actually exist.

I'll settle for healthy and happy.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why I resent The Wise Man's Fear

I am 750 pages into Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear--over 200 pages to go still--and I can't recall the last time a book has made me more resentful. Why resentful? Because, I am sorry to say, it is boring the crap out of me, and has been doing so for nearly all its 750 pages so far, and yet I can't not finish now. And so it is the obligation that I resent. The obligation to finish a book I am thoroughly not enjoying, and yet have committed so much time to already (in addition to the outstanding first book in the series before this, The Name of the Wind), that to put it down now without finishing would just feel like even more of a waste of my time than its been already. If I'm going to waste my time, in other words, I at least want to be a completist about it.

My reaction to this book is bumming me out. And if it wasn't for reading like-minded reviews elsewhere, I'd wonder if maybe something was wrong with me. Because the first book, The Name of the Wind, was just so damn good--one of the best fantasy books I've read in a long, long time. It was just the story he told, and the way he told it, but the writing itself, which was just so clearly a cut above the standard stuff of this genre. (Though there are some amazing fantasy writers out there---my favorite, which is a cheat, because he's as much a comic writer and satirist as "fantasy writer," is Terry Pratchett, but that's a topic for another post.)

Rothfuss just has a great way with words, and when you marry it, as in the first book, to a great story with great momentum and suspense and mystery, it makes for marvelous entertainment. The saving grace in The Wise Man's Fear is that Rothfuss still writes great sentences. He has a poet's ear for description and cadence, which, when everything else is going wrong, still helps carry me along without wanting to blow my brains out.

Not much of a recommendation, I know. The problem with this book is everything but the individual sentences. I don't even know where to start. Well, okay we can start at the beginning, or more specifically, the book's first 300 pages, which feels to me like nothing but a total, unnecessary rehash of the first book. ( I'm trying to avoid specifics, because I don't want to give away any spoilers, not that I think you need to bother.) It's one thing, in a trilogy, to start off where the previous book concluded. It's another to go on for hundreds of pages without doing anything to advance the plot beyond where we were a few years ago. Yes, we know Kvothe is poor, and brilliant, and in love with Denna, and is awesome at the lute, and is the greatest student at the University in a billion years, but, good god, man, we knew that already and have been waiting for years now for you to tell us something we didn't know.

Once Kvothe does finally move on--which, if I had edited the book, would have happened about 250 pages earlier--it hardly gets better. While the Name of the Wind drives along on the strength of a gripping storyline, Wise Man's Fear feels episodic, and disjointed, with "set pieces" stuck together with masking tape. First he goes here, then he goes here, then he has amazing sex because he's so good at having sex even immortal faerie queens can't believe it, then he goes here, and then he goes here, without ever seeming to get one step closer to the essential mystery that opens the first book: The murder of his parents, for one, and how he becomes the guy we know he is to become in the book's present-time sequences. And when every episodic, barely interesting event seems to have "look how awesome I was!" as its point, it just makes it that much more intolerable. When I finished Name of the Wind, I felt like I could have listened to Kvothe's stories for a number of books. Now I just kinda want to kick his ass.

But, who knows. It's the middle book. The story is not done yet. Maybe, in retrospect, all this rambling braggadocio will mean something in the context of the larger work. Maybe the third book will be so satisfying it will help this book seem better. And, hey, I'm not even done with this yet. Maybe, in the 200 pages I still have to go, Rothfuss will tie all the pieces together in a way that will make me feel ashamed and embarrassed that I ranted here prematurely. (In which case I'll have to post again to apologize.)

And I am ranting because I've so rarely been this disappointed by the followup to a book that I loved. Because I'm a slow reader, I almost never read books twice, but I loved The Name of the Wind so much that this one I did read twice--and enjoyed it even more the second time. But now, I'm counting the pages for every chapter. It feels like being back in college. "Okay, if I just read 10 more pages, then I can reward myself with something fun." And this is why I'm so resentful. This is supposed to be my leisure reading. This is supposed to be fun. But it feels like a slog. I'm looking at the stack of books sitting by my nightstand, waiting to be read, and I am resentful that I can't get to them yet, because of this interminably boring book.

Most of all, I'm resentful because I want to believe. I want to love it. I still think he is fantastic writer for the most part. And I know I'll still be buying the third book on Day One. But, for the love of Gandalf, please let that third book be a better read than this one. I need my entertainment to entertain me, not make me a bitter, ranty blogger.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

LA Noire and the "DAY 1!" problem.

When you are in the videogame press, as I was for about 400 years, you get kinda spoiled. I'm not even talking about the ridiculous wining and dining such as is happening with the "E3 Judges" this week, but really just the day-to-day mundane aspect of getting every single game free. I used to always remind myself, and other editors, to keep in mind that most people actually had to pay, and pay a LOT, for the games we were reviewing, and to never take that for granted--both when writing, and also just in appreciation for how good we had it.

Now that I'm a "civilian, " I'm like everyone I used to talk about. I have to pay for my games. This means I have to pick and choose what I'm going to buy, and when I'm going to buy it. Most of my press friends already have LA Noire, released to the public today, and have played a bunch of it, because they got it for free. Me? I don't have it yet, and I have to decide, like you, whether it's worth spending $60 for, or not.

The old me--and the part that still likes to stay current with everything--wanted to rush out and get it ASAP this morning. It's today's big deal, after all, and I want to chime in with my know-it-all perspective, dammit! But the old me didn't have to think about where this factored in with, ya know, every other fiscal commitment I have. Sixty dollars is a lot of freakin' money. iPhone games or Amazon MP3 deals are one thing. I can justify those impulse buys all the time. A full-price brand new console game is something else entirely.

And then when I really start thinking about it rationally, I remember the huge backlog of games I haven't finished yet--or even started. (Like Dead Space 2, still waiting for me, even though I "needed" that one Day 1 as well. ) My backlog, like many gamers, is ridiculous. I couldn't even tell you--especially because of all those free games the old me got--how many unfinished/unplayed games I have. 50? More? Plus, there's the fact that, at some point, there's going to be a price drop. Because there's always a price drop. I could easily, happily play all the games I haven't played yet (like "Bully," another Rockstar game!) for a long time and just wait for LA Noire to hit a more reasonable price point, at a time when I actually have the time to play it. Totally reasonable, right?

And yet--that DAY ONE impulse remains. You want to be part of the phenomenon, the zeitgeist. You think you have to play it because everyone else is. You get worked up and hyped up, and everyone who participates amps it up a little more, encouraging and validating your own "need" to have the game RIGHT NOW.

But time has told me that if I try to just resist that, I (and my bank account) won't regret it. That first wave of hype only lasts so long, and is usually followed either by an "err, wait, this isn't actually THAT great" buyer's remorse, or, more often, "this is pretty good but I have 1000 other things to do and games to play so maybe I'll put this down for awhile"--after which it gets neglected while the next bright new shiny DAY ONE game grabs everyone's attention, yet again.

That hype machine is, of course, what all the game companies want and need and count on. They NEED you to buy those DAY ONE games on DAY ONE. Their stockholders need you to, too. But, ya know, the games aren't going anywhere, and they'll just get cheaper. And now that I'm a civilian, this matters to me way more than the hype.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Uh oh, I'm thinking about comic books again.

Like many nerds, I have a bit of a collecting problem. As in: I like to collect things. (Game Freak gets a Genius of the Millennium award for recognizing this problem in us and creating Pokemon, by the way.)

My worst collecting addiction, by far, is with music. I really make no apologies for it. It's just too much a part of who I am, and what gives me joy and meaning in life. I have hundreds of vinyl records and CDs, and, boy, have I spent a lot of time and money over the past four decades thinking about it all and obsessing over them and going down different avenues every time I fixated on a new sound or genre or artist. I'm particularly glad to be living through the digital age now, though, since the *worst* thing, by far, of the collector mentality is the sheer clutter of it all. Being able to buy music (and not have to wait for the store to open, or to hope that the record is in stock) without adding more *stuff* to my house is a godsend. And as much as I love my vinyl records (not so much with CDs), there's no chance I'd ever go back. I'm all digital now, baby.

What I wanted to talk about in this post, however, is comic books--another obsession. This one was never as important to me as music, except for the fact that once I start collecting, I can't help but kind of go all in. Though I read a bunch of Marvel and DC stuff when I was growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, I never developed a habit for it. (What I did collect back then was MAD Magazine, one of my big life influences.)

My comic obsession really started in the mid-80s, when I was already in my 20s. This was the point at which the indies first began to rise, as well as the watershed rebooting of the superhero genre through Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Thanks to these guys, as well as comics like Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (my all-time favorite comic book ever), David Boswell's incomparably ridiculous Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman (my all-time second favorite comic book ever) Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, Peter Bagge's Hate, and Daniel Clowes' Eightball, I discovered comics as an intellectual pursuit, and these alternative books coincided and collided nicely with a lot of my punk/alternative musical obsession at the time. Comic book shops (like the just-departed, legendary Comic Relief in Berkeley, R.I.P.) were added to my shopping rotation along with the record store, where I'd blow an irresponsible amount of whatever disposable income I had at the time, which was not much.

This lasted for awhile, but did not persist. Once I met my now-wife and started actually thinking about things like, say, a career, I tapered off on the comics for a number of years--- until I got a job at Computer Gaming World in 1996. This, for me, was the true moment of doom. Suddenly, from the first week of the job, I found myself surrounded by grown men, at least one of them older than me, who were obsessing over comics and--worst of all--were talking about them at all the time. If you like nerdy things, like I do, and like collecting things, like I do, and suddenly find yourself amongst a group of people all riled up about the Wednesday comic run, and then spending the week dissecting the latest developments in the Marvel and DC worlds, among other things, well, let's just say you'd have to be tougher than I was to resist.

I started out small. And at first I stayed away from the superhero stuff, gravitating instead to indie stuff like Jeff Smith's Bone, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, and Mark Crilley's Akiko. But I could only resist the superhero stuff for so long, what with all the chatter around me all the time. I made a couple early choices, to limit myself. Like: Only Batman. But, as any follower of these universes knows, it's almost impossible, once you decide to get involved, to ignore the other books--not entirely. Both DC and Marvel are masters at sucking you in, if you're willing to let them. Crossovers, multi-arc stories, "events," all conspire to make you buy books you could have sworn a week ago you would never, ever buy, no matter what. Like, say, Catwoman.

And once that collector switch flipped in my brain, I was done. I was all in. Suddenly I was buying practically every goddamn book that came out every Wednesday. I had to. I had to have them all. I had to be totally caught up with everything. I started buying magazines about comics, so I'd know what was coming. I'd be at the store as soon as they opened, just to make sure I'd get the books before they sold out. I started buying longboxes to hold them all.

Eventually, it got to the point where I was buying more than I had time to read. I'd bag-and-board them only to have them pile up on my nightstand, in the To Read pile, which, at its worst was literally, seriously, a few feet high. And now the reading of the comics started to feel like homework. I couldn't spend time reading actual books (the kind without pictures), because I felt like if I had any free time, I had to get through some of the comics. Finally, ultimately, I just kind of got disgusted with myself. I was buying comics every week and not reading them. I made a vow to myself: I will not buy one more comic book until I get to the bottom of the To Read pile. And guess what? I never did make it to the bottom. That's how I quit my comic book obsession. Total cold turkey, based on a deal with myself.

It's been years since I've spent even a dime on comics. And I haven't really missed them, to be honest. I realized that I actually could live my life, as a man in my 40s, without necessarily knowing what The Flash was up to, and be just fine. I knew that there was probably a lot of great stuff I was missing out on, but I just had to stay the hell away, and felt good about it. My longboxes? They got covered up by a big blanket to become a de-facto stair for my cat and dog to use to climb up on our bed.

Now, however, I have an iPad. And, like with music, I am confronted with the wonder and magic of the digital age. I can buy comics, and not have them pile up in a To Read pile on my nightstand? I don't have to go to the store on Wednesday and feel bad, like a junkie showing up for my weekly fix? WHERE DO I SIGN UP. I am going to try to be prudent and circumspect about this. I am going to try not to go all-in again. I asked for recommendations on Twitter today of the current cool stuff, and got more than I can handle. As I did previously, I'm going to start with some of the more off-kilter stuff, and avoid superheroes. Chew, Orc Stain, Criminal, Atomic Robo and Locke & Key are the first ones I'm checking out. And maybe (hopefully?) the ONLY ones. (And yes, if you followed me over here from Twitter, I know there were a lot more, and maybe one was one of your favorites, and I promise I have a larger list, so don't be hurt.)

I worry, though. Because I know myself. I know I can say, "I'm only going to do THIS much", but then quickly rationalize it once I get sucked in. I know, for example, that not every book is available digitally. I know, too, that if I read a book and find a writer I love, I'm going to be tempted to seek out his/her other work.

So I need to stay vigilant. I need to keep a lid on it. I need to not have comic books become too important to my life again. I need to enjoy them without obsessing over them.

There may be no hope.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Busy Signal

My first real job out of college, in the mid-1980s, was at a computer book publishing company in the Bay Area. You will recall—or, if you’re too young, I guess I will make it clear—that in the mid '80s there was no such thing as “the Internet,” so people tended to get their information from such now archaic forms of communication as print. LOL.

The books that this company made were instructional books on the then popular software and programming languages at the time: Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, dBase, and so on. My job, as a recent graduate of UC Berkeley with a degree in English Literature, was proofreader. I would proofread the galleys (page proofs) for spelling and grammatical errors, and then to paste the galleys on to boards that would get sent to the printer. These were the days of literal “cut-and-paste.” We’d use Xacto knives to physically cut lines of text and paste them onto the boards. So you Ctrl-X/Ctrl-V people? We used to do that, like, for real, okay?

Anyway, my boss at this place was an amiable but utterly absent-minded kinda guy, as well as sort of spineless and cowardly when it came to dealing with the higher-ups. The latter part, unfortunately, pretty much negated the fact that he was amiable, because, in critical work situations, it was clear that when push came to shove, he was always going to side with upper management, rather than his employees, out of fear for his own job. Thus a pattern of distrust was established.

One particular week, the upper management dipshits got it in their heads that the proles were wasting too much company time on private phone calls. A crackdown was ordered.

Our boss returned to our area and informed us of the crackdown. There will be no personal calls on company time, except in emergencies. People were abusing the privilege. To prove his point, he pulled out the most recent company phone bill, with all the itemized calls. As he scanned the bill, he noticed that one particular phone number in our area had a grotesquely large number of long calls.

“Look at this one!” he exclaimed. “Who the hell is this on the phone all the goddamn time!” he said, waving the bill around in the air. “You know what? I’m gonna CALL this number and see who the hell answers it!” He dialed the number, while a few of us watch him. “It’s BUSY!” he yelled. “IT FIGURES!” He slammed down the phone.

A few minutes later, he left his office. A couple of us walked in to peek at the phone bill, and the offending phone number.

It was his phone number.

He had called himself.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

"I Should Tweet That!"

Like many people, I heard of Osama Bin Laden's death on Twitter. Most of the breaking news I get these days comes from Twitter, and it's also a way I talk to many of my friends around the country, often on a daily basis. What at first seemed like (and often still is) a silly tool to empower utterly inane self-obsession and indulgence (I do not exclude myself from such criticism) has in fact evolved into a disruptive, important force in the media, and beyond.

For me personally, I loathed it when it first came out, when I watched other people use it, but then realized that I actually enjoyed the challenge of trying to write in 140-character phrases, and liked bleating out random inanities throughout the day. Sure is easier than blogging! I'd never bother to try to convince anyone who doesn't "get" Twitter why they should, nor would I mount some passionate defense of it or my use of it. If it's not your thing, that's okay. Hey, I've been trying to figure out for 20-something years why people like Julia Roberts, and I still have no clue. We like what we like.

My current concern, however, is the way Twitter has insinuated itself into my personal life, to an extent that is now beginning to bother me, I think. Or rather, it's bothering other people in my family, which made me realize that I needed to think about what I was doing. Specifically, everything in my life is now fodder for Twitter. I mean, I've been kind of living "in public" for a long time, by choice, but now, because of the immediacy of Twitter, I am constantly scanning whatever is happening around me as possible tweet material. Funny sign on a wall? Tweet it. Daughter says something funny? Tweet it. Dog is looking particularly pathetic? Tweet it.

I like doing it because I like sharing the stuff that makes me laugh with others. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'll keep doing that, even after this blog post. The problem is just knowing when to stop, or when to leave things to themselves. I tweeted throughout our family vacation in Hawaii in December. It was fun to do, and I got a lot of funny responses. But by the end of the trip I was honestly feeling kind of bad about it. Why was I still engaging my brain all day long in this activity that was taking me out of the experience of being with my wife and kid? Instead of just enjoying my time with them, I was observing myself enjoying my time with them, and commenting on it. Since I pretty much do that for a living, really, my vacation should have meant not doing that for two weeks, just living in the moment, letting the private moments stay private.

It's not like I'm having massive amounts of regret about it. And I did like that, say, my family back home could keep up with our exploits through my Twitter feed. But I think I want to work on my now-engrained habit of thinking "I should tweet that!" after every funny or memorable thing that ever happens to me. Sometimes, I think, I should just say to myself, "I should just enjoy this."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

I'm entitled!

So I was sitting on the plane this morning, some tens of thousands of feet in the air. That fact alone is a constant miracle that we really don't take enough time to appreciate. We fly across the world in the air, people. Imagine what Fred Flintstone, or the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, would have made of that.

But instead of marveling at this modern miracle, I was annoyed. That in itself is not remarkable, since being annoyed while on a plane is pretty much par for the course these days (just like being in a movie theater). What was remarkable was what I found myself annoyed about: the fact that the in-flight wifi was too slow to play Netflix . Can you say "first world problem?"

The very fact that I had Internet access on an airplane at all is still something I should be freaking out about--not taking for granted or being annoyed about. Shit, even if the planes were only equipped with 2400 baud modems, that would still be better than we had for, oh, let's see, how about: ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY UNTIL NOW. I can sit on a plane and IM with my friends, deal with work email, surf the web, goof off on Twitter, and, hey, even update this blog.

At this point, I definitely get annoyed when flights don't have wifi. Because now that we know that it's possible, it seems like there's no reason for any airline not to have it. (On the other hand, flights without wifi suddenly become the perfect excuse to NOT work and just tune out, like in the good old days.)

But to be on a plane with wifi, and then be annoyed because it's not fast enough so I can stream my movie that I shouldn't be watching anyway because I should be working if I have Internet access, feels like the height of absurd entitlement. So I'm posting this just to publicly berate myself, as an act of repentance.

But hopefully it'll work on my next flight. It fucking better!

Monday, May 9, 2011

One Night in Germany, 1984

In September 1984, at age 23, feeling lost and directionless and brokenhearted over a girl that was all wrong for me, I packed up a bunch of clothes, my cassette Walkman and some tapes, threw them in the old orange backpack I'd had in my possession since Boy Scouts, bought myself a plane ticket to London and a Eurail pass, and bummed around Europe for three and half months. It was one of the greatest things I ever did.

I had many adventures on my solo voyage in Europe, some great, and some utterly stupid. Here is one of the stupider ones.

In late October, I found myself in Heidelberg, Germany. I say "found myself" because I often had no idea where I was going or what I was doing on any given day, until I arrived there. If you've been on the European youth hostel circuit before, you know what I'm talking about. I'd randomly meet people in the hostel of whatever city I was in--equally directionless, drifting 20-somethings--and we'd hop on trains with no particular destination at all, often getting off on a total whim.

At this point in my journey, I was traveling with two sisters from Wisconsin, a big Mormon guy from Salt Lake City, and a gorgeous blonde woman from Sweden named Wiveka. We had all rolled in to Heidelberg--an absolutely gorgeous city in southwestern Germany--on a Saturday afternoon, and had a delicious lunch of bread and cheese in a beautiful forest setting.

Heidelberg, Germany

I have a journal buried somewhere around the house with all the details of the trip, and if I found it it could fill in the blanks of why the next thing happened. All I remember now is that later that evening, a Saturday night, after wandering around the city, I was by myself at around 11 pm and needed to catch a bus back to the youth hostel before they closed for the night. The problem I had throughout my travels, except in England, was that I spoke no second language. Sure lots of people spoke English (always the lazy American attitude) and I could basically get myself through any situation with lots of pointing and facial expressions, but still, there were certain times you really needed to engage in some solid communication. For example: Finding the right bus to take you home late at night in a city you're totally unfamiliar with.

Looking back, I suppose it wouldn't have been hard for me to fully ascertain the proper bus to the youth hostel, between studying the transit map and asking folks at the bus stop. I may just have been too tired, or too weary or embarrassed to play charades with Germans to find out. All I know is that what I did do is just hop on the first bus that looked reasonable, and hope for the best.

I settled inabout 2/3 of the way towards the back of the buss, popped in U2's Unforgettable Fire in my cassette Walkman, and looked out the window looking for reassuring signs that I was heading the right way. There were a fair number of passengers on the bus for this late at night, but, one by one, over the next 20 minutes, as the bus tooled along, they began getting off, until I was alone except for two other people. It was at this point that I began to get worried. Not only was the bus nearly deserted, but, outside, the suburban streets were getting sparser. Out my window to the left it was now pitch black, as all there was was countryside, and no streetlamps. Soon we would out of the city entirely.

Finally, with panic starting to set in, I made my way up to the front of the bus, and asked the bus driver--and old guy with a big, grey, walrusy mustache--the important German word I had learned in the last few days: "Jugenherberger?" ("Youth hostel?" Upon hearing my mangled German, the bus driver assumed an expression of bewilderment, repeated the word even louder and more questioningly that I had said it, and then stopped the bus and opened the bus door. "Go back, very far," he said in English, pointing to the exit.

What choice did I have? I asked if there was another bus coming, but I don't think he understood the question. I got out of the bus.

So now I began walking along the dark, empty street, no idea where I was, all hope of making it back to the youth hostel in time gone, and no idea, in fact, where the youth hostel even was. At this point, the self-pity and self-loathing was in full effect, but there was one more bad thing to come. I was wearing my contact lenses (with no backup pair or backup pair of glasses), without which I approach Mr. Magoo levels of blindness. As I walked along this dark road, cursing myself, my right eye started to get irritated by the lens. I rubbed my eye, in an attempt to readjust the lens and relieve my eyeball, but, in the process, managed to rub the lens right out of my eye. Because it was late at night and my eyes were tired and the lens was dry, I simply could not get it back in my eye. Because I was not carrying a contact case on me (and, recall, too, that this was before the existence of disposable contacts, so this was an expensive lens) , the only thing I could think of to keep the lens from drying out completely and cracking pop it in my mouth.

I found my way back to civilization eventually, and flagged the first cab I saw to take me back to the hostel. And the hostel personnel had mercy on me and let me in for the night. So it was ultimately a happy ending.

But sometimes when I'm having a bad day, or maybe when I'm just thinking about that trip to Europe 27 years ago, this is what I picture: Me, all alone, in the pitch black, totally lost, on a road outside Heidelberg, Germany, with a contact lens in my mouth, cursing myself.

It makes me laugh every time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Joy of New Appliances

So the wife and I just recently upgraded our kitchen appliances. It was a long time coming.

Our dishwasher, which was always something of a loud piece of junk even when it was working, stopped functioning something like 10 years ago, and we never bothered to fix it. For one, we have, like everyone else, plenty of other expenses, not the least of which is our daughter's education, which--while utterly worth it--costs us a crazy chunk of change each year. Second, neither my wife nor I really mind hand-washing dishes, which is what we did for years before we had the dishwasher, and what we've been doing again for the past decade.

And for 20 years, my wife has been cooking on an electric stove, both at this house (the first and only one we've ever owned), as well as in our past couple rentals before that. As those who know her know, my wife is an amazing cook. Some of her meals are legendary. That she's been saddled with an electric stove for so long has been, well, I'm not going to say "tragic," because that would be a bit drama-queeny, but it's been a real bummer for someone, like her, who loves to cook so much.

But it was our refrigerator that was the real problem, and that forced the recent upgrade. First, the freezer slowly stopped, over time, actually freezing things. When that's your one job and you fail at that, well, ya know, you're fired. Making things worse was an increasingly loud buzzing sound that mysteriously began emanating from the fridge. I'm sure it wouldn't be mysterious if you knew how these things worked, but, hey, we don't. All we know is it's supposed to keep the food cold and not buzz so loud we can't even hear airplanes overhead. And once the buzzing reached an alarmingly loud level, to the point where it sounded like it was going to blow up, we realized we had to take action.

It was then that we just decided to upgrade the whole damn kitchen. My wife, who rightfully calls it "her kitchen," did the legwork and the actual buying, with my blessing, and returned home a few weeks ago having purchased brand-new stainless steel fridge, dishwasher, and gas oven.

We had to wait until this past week to get the stuff installed (and to extend our gas line so it could reach our kitchen), but now it's done. And, man, what a difference. When you hand-wash dishes for as many years as we have, you kinda get used to it. It's just part of the day-to-day drudgery you deal with. And, ya know, not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. So having a functioning dishwasher again--and a state-of-the-art quiet one at that--feels like some kind of royal luxury. Which I suppose it is. Being able to finish our meals and just dump everything in this magic box, rather than have to spend another 20 minutes-1/2 hour every time cleaning up, feels, in this first week of use, like we won the lottery. Meanwhile, my wife is in love with the new gas stove, which has a built-in griddle, and which she tested out yesterday morning with some utterly delicious blueberry pancakes. Being able to fine-tune the control over the flame, something impossible with an electric stove, has her giddy with the possibilities in her cooking again. And given that I am one of the prime beneficiaries of her cooking, I'm all for it.

The other night I was feeling self-conscious and vaguely depressed about being so excited about something so...domestic and boring. Has it really come to this, I wondered? I'm excited about a dishwasher? This is what I have to look forward to now in life? But, hey. Sue me. Our little lives here just got better, and easier. There's way dumber things that people get happy about, like, say, a new episode of Storage Wars, so who's to judge?

Now if someone could just invent a machine that could unload the dishwasher for us, then I think my life would be perfect.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On seeing Mike Watt, April 2011.

Sure I'm a lucky man
But how I miss you, man
All alone and pulling shore duty
Seems there's always more duty
Maybe that's the beauty.

--"Shore Duty," Mike Watt, 1997

I've written about my love of The Minutemen before on this blog. It's a love that I imagine is inexplicable to those who listen to a song or two and can't believe the racket they're hearing. (Not that I think it's a racket. To me, their short, angular blasts of funk/punk are sharp, sonic shards of beauty.) I suppose it was a matter of time and place, too. I was a young man in my late teens/early 20s in Los Angeles when the punk scene burst, and I was totally ripe for the taking. I loved all those early punk bands, and was as in love with Exene Cervenka as every other kid at the time.

What was weird, though, and I've written about it before, is that I couldn't actually identify with the punk bands, or lots of the punk rockers, themselves. Even amongst the new group of outsiders, I felt like an outsider, because I either couldn't or wouldn't fully commit to the lifestyle--I was always far too self conscious, and far too skeptical about everything, to want to put on a costume to express my identity. So I'd show up at punk shows like I dressed all the time, in flannel shirts (this was pre-grunge, when that suddenly became a thing) and jeans, loving the music and the attitude but still not feeling entirely part of the crowd.

The Minutemen hit such a strong chord with me because that's all these guys were, too. They could hardly have looked more schlumpy or uncool (save for drummer George Hurley, who rocked the blonde surfer dude thing pretty well). And their music was so bewilderingly complex and unique for the scene--more Captain Beefheart than Ramones--that, though they had a strong, loyal cadre of fans, like me, they were always a bit on the outside of things themselves, as far as "cool" punk bands went. Seeing the heavyset d boon and dorky Mike Watt up there, playing the hell out of their instruments, looking like they were having the time of their lives, was so inspirational to a somewhat lost, insecure dork like me that to this day I credit it with helping me survive that dark period in my life. "Our band could be your life," they sang on their most memorable song, "History Lesson, Part II." It's something I've kept to heart every day when I look at the obstacles ahead of me.

When d boon died in a car crash in 1985 at age 27, I was driving alone along Highway 5 from Berkeley to Los Angeles, and had to pull over when I heard it on the radio. So young, so full of promise, the band just on the cusp of breaking through to greater success.

But as devastating as it was to a random fan like me, the toll it took on his best friend and bandmate Mike Watt was inconceivable to imagine. You can see and hear for yourself the heartbreak the man still feels 26 years later on the incomparably heartfelt and moving documentary We Jam Econo. And it's been in the sound of all his solo work since then (every recording he's made all these years has been dedicated to d boon), and on his face in all the live performances I've seen. Mike Watt has done and continues to do brilliant work, but that heartache has always been right there on the surface--often explicitly, as in the song quoted at the top of this blog.

Mike Watt (center) and his current bandmates Tom Watson and Raul Morales.

All of which is a preface to say that his new record, Hyphenated Man, as well as his current tour, which I caught last weekend, shows him, at age 54, finally, at long last, at a place of seeming peace with his past, with The Minutemen legacy, and with what he had to leave behind. Watt had supposedly never listened to The Minutemen at all, all these decades, until he was asked to participate in the We Jam Econo documentary--the memory of d boon too painful to him--but that upon doing so he was able to heal that wound, even if just somewhat. Hyphenated-Man is the closest he's ever come to recreating The Minutemen sound--and it is awesome. He sounds refreshed and alive on this record. Never much of a singer, Watt over time has grown into his growl, bringing depth and gravity to his baritone, again bringing to mind Captain Beefheart, or Tom Waits minus the 8,000 packs of cigarettes.

But as great as the new record is, it was the live show that was the real revelation. Mike Watt, in 2011, looks happier on stage than I've seen him since 1984, back when his best friend was alive on stage with him. He looks confident and serene, playing his heart out with his new bandmates, casting sly grins at the audience, filling up the stage with his presence in a way he never used to do, even in The Minutemen--where d boon, in his gigantic, goofy way, always dominated.

I was at this show with three of my friends, themselves all in their 40s, as was most of the crowd. Really, I don't know what the hook would be for the younger crowd at a show like this. I mean, other than the amazing music. But this felt like some kind of victory tour for all of us. A signifying of the power of music to keep him, and us, hopeful and alive as we hit this second half of our life.

And with The Minutemen, back in the day.

In my early 20s, I looked at The Minutemen to help give me the confidence to pursue my own goals, my own artistic pursuits. "Our band could be your life." Now, with 50 less than 6 months away, I find myself still looking up at the stage, at Mike Watt, as a source of inspiration. Look at him up there, I say to myself. Wailing away on that bass--even with a leg brace on--eating it all up, playing his heart out, laughing, making the most out of the life he now has.

What more could anyone ask for?