Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chapter 25: Racism sucks

I've been keeping up with the story about Juan Williams getting fired by NPR for comments he made on Fox News. The people at Fox News have apparently made a big deal about this, harping about the First Amendment and liberal bias and NPR wanted to get rid of dissenting voices.

The comments were made during an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor," where Williams is apparently the token black guy O'Reilly trots out to prove he is not racist. When asked to justify O'Rielly's racist rantings against Muslims on "The View" that week, Williams' words were something akin to: "If I see someone in Muslim garb on a plane, I cringe." Which of course, makes Bill O'Reilly look not so bad for saying Islam attacked us on 9-11. This is dumb for two reasons. 1: No terrorist is going to ever be that obvious. 2. Nobody dressed in traditional Muslim clothing could ever get on a plane in this country without getting everything short of a cavity search. If I have to take my shoes off, they sure as hell get some scrutiny. So Williams goes on national TV and declares himself a paranoid reactionary. Good for him. He should not have been fired for that.

As far as I'm concerned, NPR should have fired him for being on Fox News in the first place.

There is no such thing as unbiased reporting. Every news source has an agenda in what it chooses to and chooses not to cover. Case in point: the corporate media choosing not to question George Bush's claims of WMDs in Iraq. This was an important decision on their part with huge consequences. Again, everybody has an agenda. Al Jazeera covers the viewpoints of people who think America is evil. All of this makes sense: the Arabs in the Middle East are biased against a violent empire that kills their people and gives weapons to their enemies, just like Time-Warner is biased in favor of the money that war coverage provides. A discerning person will look at all the different biased viewpoints to create their own perspective.

NPR portrays themselves as one of the few news sources out there not speaking for the agenda of rich white men. They get a lot of criticism for being a liberal organization that does not really challenge preconceived notions, but I think they do a decent job of showing the viewpoints of diverse people. I especially liked how they would cover anti-globe demos during the Clinton era, a period when a lot of liberals could care less about things like war and American imperialism and Third World poverty. So NPR portrays themselves as the "left-wing" media. This is what they get millions of dollars in backing to do. They are paid to provide the dissenting view for the increasingly right-wing propoganda in the media.

Which takes me to Fox News. In five days, the 50 percent of Americans who still vote are going to the polls to apparently deliver government to the Republicans again. This is supposedly because Obama didn't fix the economy. Never mind that the Dems got the house and the Senate because Bush didn't fix the economy, and--who cares. The back and forth between the nation's two parties is one of the world's biggest games of one-upmanship and has no overall effect on the average American. I was always amazed at the fact that the GOP legitimately hates Obama. They hated Clinton. They are so obsessed with who holds the seat of power that they despise guys who sit in their same income bracket and hold their same ideals. It's  fundamentally a boy's club.

But it's a boy's club that holds real world consequences. And they take consolidating power seriously. The Republicans are experts at creating straw men to distract voters. For instance, all their famous harping on "liberal" this and "liberal" that. From the way they phrase it, a liberal might as well be a mythological creature with the head of a lion, body of a snake, and a pathological desire to destroy America. This is called "divide and conquer." An American citizen concerned about liberals eating his children is not going to demand healthcare. So they villify, creating new boogeymen. Muslims are the obvious ones these days. However, most Republican candidates will not come out and say "Islam is evil," though there are a distressing number of mainstream Republicans who express extremist views. That's where their satellites come in. Conservative radio hosts, the Tea Party "movement," Fox News. These are the people who say the repugnant things about Muslims building mosques on the site of their victories so that GOP candidates can ride the wave of hate into office.

Everybody knows Fox News is the propoganda arm of the GOP. I'll go further: they're basically the modern-day equivalent of what David Duke did in the 80s, providing a respectable face for oppression. They have been at the forefront of hate-speech and fear-mongering since 9-11. I still remember being in college, watching Bill O'Reilly yell at a young anti-war activist whose father died in the World Trade Center "Shut up! Shut up! They killed your father!" That kind of stuff. They are in a large part responsible for the anti-Muslim hate going on right now, which has real consequences for real American citizens, just so they can get their little beurocrats in office. It is entirely disgraceful.

So anyway, O'Reilly goes on "The View," saying that Islam attacked us on 9-11. I'll just take a moment to let the pure bile of that sink in. Then he goes on his own show, with Williams as a "liberal" guest. He doesn't yell at Williams to shut up, which means the guy is there to affirm something O'Reilly says.

First of all, being the "liberal" on Fox News is a red flag. I actually watched an episode of "Hannity & Colmes" once, the cool-in-theory show where a liberal and conservative debate. The Fox News version of a bipartisan show is one where a moderate Republican goes up against a guy who thought "Red Dawn" was inspirational. If Juan Williams is a liberal on Fox News, that means he voted for Lieberman.

This guy also has a history of being O'Reilly's "black friend." Whenever Bill gets taken to task for saying something racist, Juan Williams comes out to accuse bias on whatever "liberal" organization did so. O'Reilly trots him out like Vanilla Ice did with Flava Flav on "Arsenio," to show the world he can't be racist because an honest to God black man is down with him. Williams emphasized that we should not judge all people by the extremists in their group, after affirming that he himself does so, and letting Bill off the hook for the same kind of thinking that led us to invade Iraq over an attack made by Saudis.

So an African-American comes on the show to defend a racist, increasing hate against other people of color, and gets visibility and marketability in doing so. Is it his First Amendment right? Doesn't matter. It's his human right to speak his mind. But NPR has an obligation to their listeners and the people who pay their bills to stand against racism.

In that case, give his black ass a pink slip.

I don't like the idea of a world where people are afraid to take a stand. If you are a source of information with a code of standing against oppression, live up to it. Show him he cannot contribute to hate and expect to get a paycheck. Racism sucks. It has followed me every day of my life and, though I am against religion, I stand with Muslims in their fight against profiling. We live in an age of ridiculousness, where people can shout racist vitriol on national TV, because to do so serves some politician's agenda, but God forbid you call them a racist. Racism should be battled, not abetted. The Tea Party and other inventions of Karl Rove will disappear once Republicans have governmental control again, but the hate they lace will have long effects. And that needs to be checked by all people who claim they stand for freedom.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oh happy day!

Last week, my publisher sent me the pdf for the 2nd edition. Looks amazing. I read the book one more time, came up with 15-20 piddling little changes, then sent it back to him. We're looking at putting it on Amazon in mid-November, as well as getting into consignment and review copies. It's going to be a busy winter.


With the book comes, once more, the task of promotion. I hate doing promo because it saps time from the actual writing. The only form of promotion I feel completely comfortable with is performance, because A) it's tied in with the writing and B) it's so damn fun. Having the 2nd edition will be an excuse to do another tour, which I am already planning for next summer.

But there's more. I will have to start sending query letters to bookstores. I will mail books myself for consignment. I have to book readings and get the word out on literary websites. I have to ask for blurbs. I have to fill out forms for competitions. This is not fun. It's a huge amount of time and energy and, on top of that, I never feel like I'm doing enough.

This year I was a guest at Balticon. Balticon is one of my favorite conventions of all. It's a science fiction convention that focuses heavily on SCIENCE and FICTION, as opposed to fandom and non-literary media. It's just the right size, too. I don't consider myself a typical fantasy writer (meaning, my work does not read like a Forgotten Realms book), but I proudly call my stuff fantasy. So reading at Balticon was an honor. I spent most of my time going to readings, trolling the dealer room and lamenting the fact that I hadn't heard of Bad-Ass Fairies 2 when they were accepting submissions. How awesome would it be to have a story in that book?

Balticon is the kind of environment where you learn about the hustle aspect of writing. Now, I used to staff anime conventions, so I saw the guests hustling: anime voice actors using their industry pull to shill their DJ or singing careers at the con. That kind of stuff. But at Balticon, as a guest, I was in the thick of it. People were there to promote themselves, and most of these writers were seriously on their grind. Whether it was packing on as many panel appearances as possible, or sitting at dealer room tables to hawk their stuff. I also noticed that writing was not a day job for most of them. These were not rich writers. Inbetween fantasy novels, they were freelance editors, librarians and high school science teachers. There was back-scratching going on, people organizing panels and readings and parties with friends (and why the hell not?). Writing was a passion, but, other than the Guest of Honor, these cats were working for every single book they sold.

And there were people who approached writing as a job. I hope I am never one of those types. The term "fantastic fiction" should be as broad as you can get, but there are niches that arise, with writers who make their bread filling said niches. I questioned whether some of them really enjoyed doing their umpteenth book about erotic steampunk shapeshifters or whatever. But it's a job.

My fellow writers came equipped with promotional materials. At one point, I had dinner with some other writers. I left early to go attend a reading, but prior to that I had a nice conversation with an older gentleman. He was taken kind of aback that I couldn't trade him promotionals in kind.

"You're telling me you don't have business cards? You don't have postcards? You don't have bookmarks? You don't have a blog?"

To which I sheepishly replied that no, I don't have any of those things. Dude was legitimately shocked. I felt woefully unprepared. What I found interesting was the way he listed these things as if they were absolute imperatives. Nowadays, all writers must have blogs. Including me, obviously. It was something I never really thought about, since I was so dedicated to simply writing. Yeah, Tolkien got along fine without one, but if he was around today he would need an online presence. I looked around the con and saw that all the authors had business cards, and postcards, and blogs. And here I was, with six books to sell and nothing else.

I got a small audience, as expected for a debut guy. I did wonder what I could have done to make it bigger. For instance, at Balticon people leave papers all over the place promoting their site or webzine or convention. I don't know why I didn't think of fliers. That might have had some effect in a mid-sized con. Something like "Fresh off his cross-country tour!" or "Noted storyteller!" or "This guy once talked to Peter S. Beagle for a minute! Come to his reading!"

Of course, nothing is certain. In the writing world, even longevity is no guarantee of an audience. I sat on a small press publishing panel, where I mostly just listened to the other, far older panelists. They described readings where people didn't show up, and they'd go out the store into whatever mall they were at to advertise the reading. And the guy who I had dinner with had less people at his reading than mine. He's written six or seven books.

I'm not comfortable with going out in the street and asking people to come hear me read. As I mentioned in a previous post, we had no audience in Cleveland on the Elvenslaughter, and Dan took it upon himself to go leaflet an hour beforehand. God bless him. I can't do that.

Balticon was a chance to meet all sorts of lovely writer-folk. While at one soiree, I got to talk to Jean Marie Ward, who is quite friendly and a hilarious writer. I talked about some of my trepidations as an emerging writer. I told her I was unsure of my marketing skills. She told me that whatever enables you to keep writing and publishing, that is the path you should take. Everything else is secondary. I believe in that, but I also believe in promotion. I internalized the lessons of Balticon, because I was unprepared for a promotional gig. Life is to short to dream small dreams; I want as many people as possible to read my work. I take the business aspect seriously. But I'm also aware that the end result is sending my dreams out into the world.

To bring it full circle, I am all about performance. You could have 3 people at your reading. If you're into it, they'll be into it, and you'll have more fans than you started out with. I think a lot of people come to readings expecting to be bored. When I saw I had the skill to challenge this, that my voice could engage an audience in stories, it was the most amazing feeling.

I'm pretty certain I'll be reading at MEWcon. It's over New Years, and seems like a fun way to round out such an exciting year. And yes, I'll have fliers. Maybe a business card, with the blog's URL. I'm never making bookmarks. Most of all, I'm excited for the reading. I think it'll be killer. I am a performer, and I'm ready.

Long story short: the book is out in November. Time to get my ass in gear.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chapter 25: In which I discuss marijuana, Entourage and Eminem

In a few weeks, the good people of California will vote on Prop 19, the bill to legalize and tax cannibis. This is a significant vote, not just for people who like weed (which, by the way, is damn near everybody in this country). I can't see the level of pot-smoking in this state really going up or down if it was legal. Prop 19 is significant in that it marks a clear repudiation of one of the most lowdown, racist abuses of American law.

Californians like to portray their state as the liberal capital of America. Fact is, California doesn't even count as "progressive." This is a state that led the charge for homophobia with the passing of Prop 8. This is a state where police execute black men on train platforms and get away with it. This is a state where the gap between haves and have-nots is so vast, I suspect Hollywood execs use Mexican immigrants to bicycle-power the hot tubs at their cocaine parties. Prop 19 is not just an excuse for people to smoke herb. It is a rejection of the War on Drugs, a decades-long scam designed to feed the prison industry. In rejecting this scam that's crippled poor communities, California could actually come close to realizing its potential as the most forward-thinking state in this union.

Needless to say, the White House is vehemently against Prop 19. Maybe this will be a good chance for Americans to learn what people in the Caribbean and Africa have known all along: a black man at the head of a racist system does not make it less racist. Beyond the absurdity of Obama wanting to throw other black men in jail for nothing, it points out the absurdity of drug laws, because you just know Obama smokes weed. Yeah, everybody does, but that guy sure as hell does. So why is the shit illegal?

California: realize your potential. Vote for 19.


And speaking of weed, somebody who smokes a lot of weed is Eminem. A guy who cannot look good on film.

I have never been a big hip-hop fan but, coming of age in the late 90s, I was of course fascinated with Eminem. An undeniably talented rapper, he captured the cultural zeitgeist with his tales of white trash frustration and violent revenge fantasies on people who wronged him, many of them women in his immediate family. His generic rapper homophobia, because of his popularity, became a rallying point for gay rights groups, the same way Marilyn Manson rallied the Christian fundamentalists a few years earlier. I loved The Marshall Mathers LP. It's one of the best records I've ever heard, period. Favorite track: "Kill You." Second favorite: the skit about ICP sucking dick.

Yet I always felt disappointed in him. Here's a guy with not just a soapbox, but a whole stage to express his views, has massive cross-cultural appeal, and he uses it to ream harmless targets like Christina Aguilera and his wife. On his next album he tried to get political, but did so in a neutered way. He made an anti-Bush song called "Mosh," which was not a good song, released it after the 2004 election, and did a video for it in which he gathers an army of black bloc malcontents, marches them through the streets so they can...go vote. Voting? Really? The Disturbed video for "Land of Confusion" had more balls. Anyways, after that I was pretty much done with Marshall. A great talent, but he just played it too safe.

That is all as intro for something I have just discovered: Eminem cannot look good on film.

A few years ago he starred in a movie called 8 Mile. In it, he plays a belligerent loser who engages in unsafe sex, is paranoid and responds to the slightest insult with violent rage. The character, called B. Rabbit, doesn't even flow as well as the real Eminem. They said the film was semi-autobiographical, and I hope the "semi" part was the most important. This is not to say 8 Mile isn't a crass star vehicle. There are plenty of scenes with B. Rabbit making goo-goo faces at his daughter, attempting to save her from the influence of his nutty mom, yelling at people to stop arguing over petty shit, etc. Believe it or not, we are supposed to like this character.

The fact that the movie shoves his elusive likeability in my face only makes it more obvious what a douche this character is. Case in point: There's a scene where he and his friends find an abandoned building where a little girl got raped. His heroic idea is to burn it to the ground. For some reason, his friends go along with this. So he risks burning down the whole block just to take out this one vacant. What a hero.

And his friends respect him, for some reason. While Mekhi Phifer and the others aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, they aren't portrayed as the dullest, yet they spend the movie deferring to this clown's judgment. They treat the other dumb white guy in their crew, Cheddar Bob, with open disdain. This seems more realistic. Their respect for Eminem does not make him look good: it just makes them look worse. So anyway, he spends the movie doing asshole moves that supposedly make him great, including defending a gay guy at work by telling the homophobe that "No! It is in fact, you who have HIV!" And we're meant to cheer this guy on when he defeats a gauntlet of eeeevil rappers in the final rap battle. Please.

8 Mile would have been impressive had I never seen Purple Rain. Eminem's movie is a straight up uncredited remake of Prince's. One day I'm going to write a retrospective on the four Prince movies. Purple Rain is an undeservedly overlooked film. Think about it: it's a movie written by amateurs, directed by an amateur, starring Prince and his entourage (there are literally only two real actors in the film), yet they manage to make a movie that is entertaining, engaging and has psychological depth. Prince's character, The Kid, is a tortured individual who goes through the mental ringer in the movie. Here is where Purple Rain succeeds and 8 Mile fails: The other characters are aware that The Kid is an asshole. They call him out on the fact that he's self-centered, that he has no respect for his bandmates, that he's got jealousy issues, that he hits women, that he dresses and acts like a girl. This grounds the movie in the real world, giving it a convincing grittiness. 8 Mile takes place in a fantasy dreamland version of Detroit where a guy like B. Rabbit wouldn't just get clowned on.

Which brings me to the season finale of Entourage.

I used to like Entourage when I started watching in season four. I found it subversive. A story about a pampered, vapid Hollywood star named Vince who has one hit film, then squanders it by pissing off execs, passing up high-profile pictures, ruining big-budget movies due to his own ego, sinking his own money into disastrous film projects, and generally driving his career into the ground. He depends on other people for everything, surrounds himself with sycophantic losers, spends his days doing drugs and having empty sex with slutty girls. All of this is on top of the fact that he is a bad actor. However, it never occurs to this guy that he's ruining his whole life; he maintains the same laidback attitude through all these ordeals, and the whole show has this fun demeanor. It seemed truly original: a tragic story told without a hint of tragedy. I was onboard until the end of season 5, where, after a whole season focused on his bad decisions, the writers deus ex machina'd him into the lead role in a Scorsese film. Never mind that he can't act. It occurred to me that what I had taken for subversion was, in fact, lazy writing. Vince will never truly be allowed to reach bottom, so I recognized the show for what it's always been accused of being: porno for frat boys. The core audience is not discerning, which is why it's been on the air 15 years, but I had to stop watching. Seeing Adrian Grenier get laid once a week gets tired. There has to actually be a story. For a real comedy about the dark side of fame, I suggest people watch the show "Extras."

I heard that this year, in the 127th season, they were finally going a little dark, making Vince into a coke addict. So I watched the season finale. Vince, in coked-up mode, goes to a party thrown by Eminem. It's worth noting that Eminem has the DJ playing nothing but Eminem songs. This already puts him pretty high on the douche-o-meter. There's nobody on his label he could promote instead? Vince makes an ass of himself, so a bodyguard tells him to leave. Vince won't. Marshall himself comes over, tries to calm Vince down. Vince replies with "Fuck you," inspiring Eminem to have him bounced from the party. Incensed, Vince says "What, you're too mainstream now to fight your own battles, Marshall?" Marshall responds to this lame and lowgrade insult by sucker-punching Vince in the face, then diving behind his bodyguards while they carry out the beatdown on this drugged-out scrawny guy and his useless brother, Johnny Drama. This is oddly reminiscent of the MTV VMAs a few years ago, where Marshall had his bodyguards whisk him away from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

In theory, this scene is supposed to make Marshall look good. He throws a killer party, tries to play the peacekeeper, but is willing to throw down once insulted. Instead, he just looks like a wuss. I have seen two instances of Marshall acting, both of which are tailored to show him as god-like, and both put him in the worst light possible. Why can't he look good on film? In other news, he's still a talented rapper. I liked "White Trash Party."

Okay, I'm done with the pop culture overload. Next blog post will be intellectual. I promise.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chapter 24: In Memoriam

Just got the email from Politics and Prose bookstore that Carla F. Cohen had died. As a former D.C. resident and patron of the store, I have to show my appreciation for her decades-long work. Politics and Prose is the place to go in D.C. for good books, good food, open mic poetry and high-quality reading. This is thanks to its dedicated management. The literary world runs on enthusiastic independent booksellers like Carla Cohen.

My favorite memory: Mrs. Cohen intoduced Jhumpa Lahiri at her reading for Unaccustomed Earth which, like many P&P events, had to rent out a larger space. In this case, a synagogue. She was so happy to introduce Jhumpa and lavished grandmotherly praise on her. In answer to the final Q&A question, Jhumpa compared her stories to a casserole, blending together different elements and ideas. Mrs. Cohen then said that the pieces in Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth came out far better than any casserole dinner she ever made.

She was an extremely accomplished person who lived a full life, having success in many different arenas. This website goes into more detail on her life and legacy:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chapter 23: In which I blog about what I did this weekend

As far as I'm concerned, every city needs something like Litquake.

The weeklong San Francisco celebration of all things writer-related is a truly great idea and, as a writer, a communal experience. Every day, from October 2nd-9th, there's a reading somewhere. I didn't attend the festivities last weekend because the opening on Saturday was just a dance party at the Minna Gallery. Not even a single reading. And the reading that Sunday was sold out, and $30 on top of that. Can't remember which rock star writer it was. Now, the idea of a reading selling out its tickets is beyond cool, but I wouldn't pay $30 for one unless its God coming down to talk about how many rough drafts he wrote of the Old Testament. Litquake had a few "For yuppies only" events, and as such I didn't go near them.

On Saturday the 9th, I went with a few friends to Litcrawl, the Litquake finale where pretty much every establishment on Valencia Street hosts a reading. Valencia is the street that runs parallel to Mission in San Fran, and nowhere are two closer streets more different. Mission is crackheads, dealers, Mexican families and the shops they own. Valencia is the hipster capital of the west. I used to think "hipster" was one of those amorphous words people use for someone they don't like. Like how the neocons use "lib'rul." That was until I saw Valencia. The hipsters walk it in packs, knowing they run they place. They all sure as hell look the same. The expensive stores price accordingly for their audience. Say what you will, hipsterdom is a real thing. Some of them you see on Valencia are even pregnant, ensuring the continued proliferation of their aesthetic-based youth culture.

Litcrawl caters to the white bar cowd, and is gloriously commercial. No amount of cynicism can make me poo-poo walking into a random coffee shop on a Saturday night and seeing a crowd of people hushed for a READING. The organizers scheduled the event like a convention, with all sorts of things I wanted to see going on at the same time. We had to choose which to attend. I like this; having way too many things you want to see is better than too few. My group of hip young people started at the Elbo Room, where we saw the "Anger Management" reading. The readings were, in order: a poem about how much the poet hates pussified males, a piece of flash fiction, a parody about guys who e-publish, and something else I can't remember. The headliner was "Charming" Charlie Getters, a staple at the 16th & Mission open mic who I love as much as you can love an older man you don't know personally. He's got charisma to spare, tons of energy and his poems are actually about something. His performance at Elbo Room was not as good as the one I saw last year, where he delivered a poem while getting attacked by playful children. But it was good.

I liked that, whenever the bar crowd got too loud, there were about twenty shushes. I have never wanted to read in bars, specifically because of the loud assholes. So its great to see the audience policing that.

Being a small press writer, I went a small press reading. Saw the last ten minutes of it, then went to a flash fiction writing. The venue seemed to be some kind of printshop, judging by the old newspapers they had decorating the table, but who knows. Could be a bicycle shop or something. It was called Verrachucoa, I believe. We went to the downstairs basement, which had some creepy black paper mache puppets held up by strings. I thought one of them was a scary performance art actor, until I realized the reason it was shaking was because a figeting audience member kept moving its strings. We settled in for the "Flash fiction" reading, focused on debut writers. The readings were, in order: something I forget, a rhyming nonsense poem, a guy with a goatee recounting the day his parents conceived him (from his perspective [mad funny] ), a father-son bonding story with a twist ending, a lady talking about a book she did on female musicians, one of those female musicians talking about the 90s LA rock scene, then she played a song. All in all, a great reading.

Afterwards, my companions wouldn't shut up about some afterparty we didn't end up attending. They got drunk and ate burritos. Valencia got way crowded with bar-crawlers and, with the readings done, I realized I well and truly hate this shit and wanted to go home. I'm just too old for the bar scene, if not the drunk scene. We went back to the East Bay, after much lollygagging.

Going to something like Litcrawl, seeing events made by and for writers, is inspiring. Definitely makes me want to get off my lazy ass. I got the same feeling from Artomatic, the year I went. All the commercialism can't distract from the fact I'm in a space filled with artists. Again, Litquake is the coolest idea in the world. They need to do it in other cities. They shouldn't even put their own spin on it. Just copy the thing wholesale with local writers and have a great time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chapter 22: Music of the Elvenslaughter part 1

As the O'Jays said, "I love music."

I never had the patience to learn an instrument. However, I am proficient at listening to music. This is to the point where I can make out individual melodies from individual instruments in a song. Its an addiction; I start going a little stir crazy if I don't listen to music for too long. When Dan McCloskey and I set out on tour in May, having car tunes was imperative. We drove a Crown Victoria station wagon. No CD player. So, we had to reacquaint ourselves with the cassette, a thoroughly outmoded form of technology that I doubt anybody was ever truly happy with. Like all pre-CD forms of recorded music, simply listening to it requires some physical labor. To hear your favorite song, you either fast-forward or rewind. This is not a fast process, and you kind of need to go into a Zen space while you wait. This was doubly so for the station wagon tape deck, which had neither fast-forward nor rewind. To listen to a particular song, you had to sit through some other song on the other side. A true exercise in patience. I brought a handful of tapes I own. Dan brought some a friend of his loaned us. Then we hit the road.

Here's my reflections on my first book tour, as seen through the cassettes we listened to, in no particular order.

At some point, I found myself atop a hill in western Illinois, outside a rest area. The sky was immense. Seeing this incredibly flat earth was one of my most anticipated things about tour; it had been almost two years since I made a trip to the west. Madison, Wisconsin was the second-to-last stop on, and the farthest west. Early on in the tour, I considered cutting Madison for monetary purposes. Cash is tight on tour. I'm glad we went. Though the drive into Wisconsin was a straight shot, I still had this feeling of being lost. Of being totally cut off from anywhere familiar, so far away from home. Ludicrously, outrageously far. Starting in pittsburgh and questing to Wisconsin, just to turn around and go back, is almost illogical. We passed through tolls, driving under the glass window bridges that span the interstate, connecting the rest stops. In upstate New York, Dan and I saw small farms, hidden behind the woods and drenched in rain. Here we saw the commercial farmlands, the Big Agriculture running endlessly under a sky that was endless.

I have never been a Beatles fan. I understand that some of the music they made was revolutionary for its time, but it always sounded bland to me. They were the first and they were the biggest, but they're far from the best. The Blue Album played us into Wisconsin. Some songs grew on me. "Hey Jude" is undeniable. Favorites: "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something in the Way." The station wagon's tape deck destroys cassettes, and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was playing when the shrill scratching noise started. By then, I had grown so attached to the Beatles that I rescued the tape before its certain destruction, and let country radio take us into Madison.

After we got to town, we got lost. Drove almost an hour in the wrong direction, before turning back and finding the store at the college area we'd just left. Madison is a hugely bike-friendly city. All sorts of space for bikers on roads, and apparently rides through the mountains are common. It made sense that the friend who set up the reading was a bike mechanic. We read at the Rainbow Bookstore Collective. It was Dan's 23rd birthday. He headlined, and received the second (but not last) cake of his birthday week. We read with Matt Robertson, an absolutely lovely fellow from Madison who treated us to breakfast the next day. Maybe it speaks to my nature that I was secretly concerned about whether Dan would enjoy his birthday, being so far from home. I shouldn't have cared. We spent a wonderful night drinking, and a cold-ass night on my friend Sarah's furniture. We also went to a bar whose name I can't remember, but it was cool, and the topics of conversation seemed to veer between anarchy and anime.

We were halfway across the country, completely sold out of books, with one more stop left. In two days, we would be on the Kentucky border.

Here's the trick to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He isn't the world's most successful musical producer because he makes populist work, or because of the melodies he uses. The trick to him is his weirdness. He takes the most out-there subjects and makes rock operas on them, and it works. Up until the 60s, people based musicals on the most obvious subject matter: fairy tales, drawing room comedies, stories about English people flouncing around in parlors or American people flouncing around at county fairs or cowboys flouncing around on ranches. Obvious. Webber took the eclectisism of the 60s and ran with it. One day he woke up and said, "I want to make a rock opera based on the Eucharist." Or, "I want to do a roller-disco muscial where the stage is a giant circular roller rink." Or "Hey, let's do a muscial based on Sunset Boulevard." Or, "Let's take these obscure nonsense poems that aren't even the poet's most famous work and turn them into a dance-based musical. Oh, by the way, the poems are about cats. They'll be singing about how they're cats." This guy is weird. One day he said "Let's do a symphonic rock opera/gothic romance based off some 19th century French slasher novel." He does it, and its a license to print money.

Dan and I did a reading at Red Emma's in Baltimore that I was a little nervous about. After Pittsburgh and DC, it was the first show where we didn't have a real connection to the city. Our reading was also scheduled at the same time as a radical puppet show. With all those puppet-loving anarchists going to that, I was concerned there would be no audience. And when we started, there wasn't. But as Dan started reading from his novel, "A Film About Billy," passersby filtered in. Some younger folks, and some older guys who came simply to hear science fiction. That was easily the best surprise of the trip. I read "Safe Space," which is sort of my Robert Howard tribute story.

In Baltimore I got to catch up with old friends. One of them I used to work with during grad school, the others were an old college buddy and his wife. We sat around at the one friend's house, eating Indian food, drinking wine and talking about the real things. I've been organizing readings for awhile. Meeting up with friends I've met in different parts of my life, then seeing their interactions, is its own unique kind of happiness. The next day we left Balmer. After struggling half an hour to find an exit out the city, we filled the tank and jetted onto the massive highways that led from the city, blasting the "Phantom of the Opera overture" the whole way.

It's a long play, and we only had the first of two cassetes. We got well-acquainted with "Think of Me" and "Angel of Music." Got really tired of hearing characters say the name "Christine." There's a lot to love in Phantom. The overture is both beautiful and eerie in its bombast, like something you'd hear at the start of an Argento horror flick. From there, we're introduced to the confident soprano of Sarah Brightman. "Think of Me" is just an amazing song. The moment that orchestra kicks in always gives me a rush. Always. Another personal favorite is "Poor Fool." The fact that Webber could so seamlessly insert such an old-style opera into his synthesizer-driven rock soundtrack is just all kinds of intertextual craziness. Since we only had the first cassette, we always ended on the "All I Ask of You (reprise)." Michael Crawford starts out singing softly, lamenting the rejection of Brightman's Christine. The wails her name. "Christine. Christine!" The song ends with him screaming vengeance to the heavens, cackling like the great horror villain he is. In the movie that came out a few years ago, this part is played incredibly cheesy, with Gerard Butler screaming on top of a gargoyle. Sometimes, no visuals is best.

What I love about the love triangle in Phantom is that its one of those Peter Pan/Captain Hook scenarios. In other words, the heroine would be better off not going for either suitor. The Phantom of the Opera is all passion, flame and genius, but also controlling and insane. The count Raoul is a gentleman, but bland, boring and just as controlling in his own way. I always got the feeling, from the play, that her marriage to Raoul marks the end of Christine's singing career. She leaves the opera, becomes a pampered countess, spends the rest of her life trapped in a castle, having his babies. For some reason, that depresses me. Not saying she should have gone with the Phantom. She should have become an opera singer. Around the time we went on tour, the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, was playing around the world. Maybe this time around Webber gives Chrstine her own passion, which isn't dependent on which man she chooses. I heard that this sequel takes place on Coney Island. Weird.

There was a definite low period in the Elvenslaughter Tour. After Ithaca, the gigs got farther apart, and we were entering the Midwest, where we knew fewer people. The good people at Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo told us we would not get a big audience, but we took the shot anyway. Five people showed up, three of whom had to cover our reading for a class. They left halfway through. Nobody showed up at all in Cleveland, which straight pissed me off, because the store should put some effort into promoting their readings. There wasn't even an employee there to bottomline it. Athens, Ohio saw the biggest audeince at the Smorgasbord art fest, and tons of camaraderie, but we sold no merch.

At this point in the trip, Dan and I were looking at the very real prospect of losing money. I was still thinking about canceling Madison. Two reasons I didn't. One: the spirit of adventure. Two: Pettiness. Dan had been pretty hyped on doing Buffalo. I figured, if he can have his ridiculously out of the way tour stop, I can have mine. As stated, I didn't cancel Madison, and was glad for it. Should have cancelled fucking Cleveland, if anything.

Columbus was the turnaround. It was probably the day where I officially turned in my card as an anarchist/radical/DIY punk/whatever, organizing an entertainment event at an INFOSHOP on MAY DAY. There was at least one immigration march we were directly competing with. While we were both really anxious about the turnout, we got a decent-sized crowd. On Dan's request, I read half of the zombie story "Graveyard Shift."

The concept of reading in infoshops caused me Evangelion-like levels of angst on tour. For those not in the know, infoshops are anarchist bookstores. While there is a political aspect to my work, it is not explicitly radical. It is urban fantasy. I felt bad about using political spaces for what is primarily entertainment. Dan pointed out the political aspects of my work, saying that infoshops are sort of the meeting place between politics and bookstores. He also pointed out how many people use those spaces simply to promote their shitty-ass punk bands. A good point. I don't identify as an anarchist, but my community work over the years has given me many connects in that world, which was how we booked about half the shows on tour. I have since made peace with booking in these kind of spaces. My fantasy is not typical fantasy, and I proudly follow a DIY aesthetic. So there you have it.

Dan McCloskey is known in Columbus as WMD, or Wild Man Dan. Apparently, when significant acts of punk-based destruction go down, he tends to be there. He knows every punk in the city. So we stayed at a real-ass punk house. The scene in Columbus is amazing, full of seasoned veterans who are always putting on shows and put out their own newsletter and working to fight the shallow atmosphere that comes from living in a college town. The house we stayed at had recently had a situation where, I believe, some asshole Juggalo got kicked out a show, then came back with his girlfriend (or Juggalette, as they call them) and shot at the house. Think he might have stabbed somebody, too. No vengeance-minded ICP fans showed up while I was there. Dan gave a bunch of tattoos, which he got paid for in beer.

Book tours are like band tours. People are happy to see you, and they certainly shove alcohol and other things in your face. My party days are long behind me. Even the complete absence of accountability that comes from touring can't bring them back. I remember drinking some disgusting shit called Four Loco that's like a mix between malt liquor and a Fruit Roll-up, then passed out on the living room floor while the party was in full swing.

"Columbus sucks because you suck" is a very apt tagline. Very good vibes in Columbus, and another chance to catch up with old friends. The university there has an amazing multi-story library. Dan and I continued on the road to Indiana, plus two hitch-hikers. The best part? Going to a record store and finding "Phantom of the Opera." The second cassette.


Going to upstate New York is like time traveling. No cities, just the Catskill Mountains, farmsteads and rustic inns. I could imagine Dutch settlers among the trees. I could imagine Iroquois tribesmen as we drove the endless pastoral roads, the car getting pounded with rain the whole way there. Real rain, that relentless east coast kind. This was the land where they fought the Revolutionary War, and it pulses with the heritage of the people who lived there before anyone ever thought of a United States. The road to Ithaca ran for so long I wondered if we'd missed an exit. The one gas stop we made was among bait shops and ice cream shacks. I could see why the hippies all moved up there in the 70s.

One of the greatest songwriters of all time accompanied us on this leg. My father has a soft spot for 60s-70s female singer-songwriters, so I've long had a soft spot for Tapestry. I was happy when, digging through the glove box, I saw the photo of the bushy-haired woman sitting on a windowsill with her cat, autumn sunlight spilling through the windows. Tired of being in the background, Carole King led the charge for songwriters stepping up and recording their own albums. What we got was a masterpiece. The soothing melodies and throaty vocals you want accompanying you on a country road, the car's heat on high, rain pouring all day. 

I love how demure Carole looks on the cover, because this album is the musical equivalent of a machine gun blast. Not that its heavy music, but the way it is constructed for maximum emotional impact. There is no filler here. "It's Too Late" is both sad and all the better for its lyrical simplicity. "Home Again" is melody on melody. "Smackwater Jack" is just badass. "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" is that song you don' t realize you know all the lyrics to until it starts playing and you can match her word for word. The ragtime-y "Beautiful" is a guaranteed pick-me-up song. And the title song! "Tapestry" is a song where, even without listenning to the lyrics, I start reflecting on the marvels of life and the adventures I have taken, and will take. The album is short, a quality production pound for pound, with Carole daring you not to marvel at her lyricism. I love the composition. I love how Carole is reclaiming songs she wrote for other people. I love that she's declaring herself to the world. And I love upstate New York.

Ithaca is a quiet home to college kids, aging hippies and cultists. "Ten square miles surrounded by reality," they call it. While there we did a house show, the only one on the tour. Funny story: we pulled up to the house where the reading would take place. I knew just from talking to the folks that they were hippies, and seeing Ithaca only confirmed this. Opening the door onto the enclosed porch, I encountered a very startled-looking squirrel. He dove for the exit. Not wanting to risk the wrath of a hippie by letting their pet squirrel out, I shut the door. He bounced off it and commenced ricocheting around the world's tiniest porch like Sonic the Hedgehog. He was literaly bouncing off the walls, off the birdseed bags, off my shoe.

DAN MCCLOSKEY (from outside): Man, I think that's a wild squirrel.

So I opened the door. Turns out he wasn't a pet, but a birdseed thief. The people we stayed with were the sweetest folks with the most pleasant house. In cold, rainy Ithaca, I realized I suck at bowling. Like, really suck. I read "How Brother Roy Lost His Dog, Twice" with an actual dog in the audience. Dan tattoed a unicycle/buzzsaw on the leg of a kid who had just left a cult, while Edguy blared in the background. Dan got a pair of sneakers out a free box. By the halfway point in the tour, he was wearing an entirely tour-made outfit: shoes from Ithaca, jeans from his friend in Buffalo, shirt from his dad in Kutztown.

In my free time I explored the 200-year-old tombstones, walked up the mountain to Cornell University and back down again. After a pleasant stay with some truly amazing people, we hopped in the wagon and played Carole King all the way to Buffalo.

My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold

Once amid the soft silver sadness in the sky
There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by
He wore a torn and tattered cloth around his leather hide
And a coat of many colors, yellow-green on either side

Next: Part 2. Dio, Alannis Morrisette, Richard Wagner

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chapter 21: Iraq

Recently, the president of the United States declared an end to combat operations in Iraq. He did so in a subdued message in which the words "win" and "victory" were never uttered. This is, of course, in sharp contrast to what his predecessor did, strutting around an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, declaring "Mission Accomplished!" smack dab in the middle of the war. I feel it's partly because of this memory that Obama called an official end to Iraq with all the enthusiasm of a 7-Eleven overnight cashier.

I find it interesting that Iraq ended with a whimper, because I remember the passion and pageantry. George Bush marketed Iraq as an exciting war. Something straight out of a Hollywood movie. Fox News showed flotillas of humvees driving magnificently across the desert. Every newspaper had to have a human interest story about the soldiers going off to fight for their country. If you supported Iraq you were a real man, and if you opposed you were a faggot/liberal/terrorist. Every newspaper salivated as the countdown to war began, even though one front page story about the WMDs not existing could have straight stopped the bombs. The protests, the largest anti-war demos the planet ever saw, only added to the pageantry. Nowadays, George Bush seems to be viewed as a lovable doofus who "did his best." Even his fuck-ups are considered endearingly incompetent. In 2003, he was the most hated man in the world. People across the globe despised his arrogance, ignorance and bullying. They wanted him dead. Bush was looking at the kind of hate usually reserved for the Hitlers and Napoleons, and he embraced his role of don't-give-a-fuck cowboy to the hilt.

Iraq incited extreme passions. I was in the Allegheny County Jail the night it began, and watching the Pittsburgh police yell about their patriotic duty while punching women in the face only proved this. The passions died. All the Support the Troops rallies and flag-waving settled with news of multiple deployments, withheld veterans' benefits and PTSD. The fair-weather fans of the war stopped pretending like they cared about the troops altogether. Iraq stopped being sexy. On it dragged, costing billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, until we finally built and unstable democracy on a ruined nation.

A friend of mine once told me that America uses an outmoded form of imperialism. We hem and haw and shock and awe and dropped bombs on anything with a shadow, and we've managed to bomb ourselves into a recession. All the Fallujah firefights and Abu Ghraib rapes have done nothing for our 10% unemployment rate. Entities like the WTO or the European Union gain power through money. They lend the money and thus get to tell their debtors what to do. We kill a ton of people and have to sit around miserable for years while enemy insurgents take shots at us. At least Iraq is somewhat over, unlike our embarrassment in Afghanistan. Is this the way every Amereican war will end? A stretch of restless years in which soldiers lose their morals, purpose and sanity, followed by an end without victory? No tickertape parade? No kisses in Times Square?

There was no other way it could have ended, of course. But the conclusion of the conflict is in such sharp contrast to the start that I had to take notice. It will be interesting to see how the history books treat Iraq. I have a feeling it will be skimmed over, just another footnote in the eternal skirmish betwwen East and West, note even as noteworthy as Vietnam. In 2012, Obama will try to rally his progressive base by saying he ended Iraq, one of the few campaign promises he kept. Some will note it for the cynical political move it was; most will not care about the name "Iraq" either way.