Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poetic IronYee

Senator Leland Yee carved out a niche for himself as one of the nations leading legislative opponents of violent video games. It was a useful cause for him throughout his career. His original base of support was among first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans in San Francisco and its suburbs, very concerned with their childrens futures and distrustful of the larger popular cultures chaotic and hedonistic sides. As he worked to make a California-wide name for himself, building up to a run for Secretary of State, it fit well with both nanny-state liberalism and social conservatism, one of the few trans-party issues an American politician can find these days.       
       Its also an issue with no strong opposition. The game community has never been able to mount an effective, broad-scale defense of its more violent products. Partly thats because its corporate leaders and legal representatives chose early on to stick with a defensive position reminiscent of Big Tobacco in its cigarettes dont cause cancer days, insisting that video games never have any effect of any kind on anyones behavior; its a position thats worked well enough in court over the years, but it prevents them from making any plausible claims about the positive effects of games and makes it essentially impossible for them to function as members of a larger society, collaborating on discussions of social, psychological, and moral issues. I think its partly a cultural issue, too: the traits that lead people to become passionate gamers (like, say, a love of mastering systems of invariant rules in order to achieve clear-cut victories) are not the traits that lead people into political activity, which is always about distasteful compromise and partial success. 
       Whatever the reason, video games are one of those things—like pornography and gambling for most of their histories, like distilling liquor at the end of World War I—that are hated by a minority and enjoyed by a majority but produce hardly any political champions willing to fight for them publicly. Which makes them a fine tool for ambitious politicians with a talent for on-camera moral earnestness but little to offer in terms of the nuts and bolts of governance.
       Yee was also a loud advocate of gun control. Thats a position with a very strong political opposition, but its also a fairly safe one for a California Democrat, and it worked well with his anti-video-game bills to enhance his image as a protector of children and families.
       Im using the past tense, of course, because Senator Yee was recently arrested by the FBI for conspiring to sell illegal weapons across international borders. More specifically, for conspiring with Chinese gangsters and New Jersey mafiosi, whom he knew to be murderers and drug dealers, to sell billions of dollars worth of machine guns and portable rocket launchers to Muslim guerrillas in North Africa and the Philippines.
       Which, really, is about as vile as an act of official corruption is likely to get. Almost worthy of the villain in a video game.    
       Now, I do want to honor the sacred American journalistic tradition of pretending to think that the accused might be innocent until a jury pronounces him guilty. And I do want to add that the transaction never actually took place, that the New Jersey mafiosi were in fact undercover FBI agents, and that the whole deal was concocted as part of a sting. But you know that the FBI doesnt go arresting prominent elected officials unless it has a very strong case. And Yees connections to the Chinatown mobs and willingness to do anything for campaign contributions are known from other sources. I could add allegedly to several of the following sentences, but it would feel disingenuous.
       One of the more illuminating moments in the very long FBI complaint comes when Yee tells his new Mafia friend, Im a gun-lover, and says he wishes he could live the life of the gangster. Im not offended that a public officials private values are very different from his public positions; the idea that a legislator should vote from his own heart of hearts rather than from what his constituents want runs counter to the whole idea of representative democracy. Nor am I personally appalled that someone loves guns or envies criminals. Love and fantasy are complex matters, and Im not sure any of us can be pure in heart without a great deal of repression. 
       But I am struck by what appears to be another case of something that Ive seen over and over again in writing about the cultural histories of media and violence. In condemning something, we amplify its glamor. In demonizing any aspect of the human imagination, we give it more power in our own minds. Its often the moral watchdog who becomes more pruriently obsessed with the very taboo hes watching against.
       Im hesitant to make too much of this psychologizing. This could all be simple political cynicism on Yees part: tell parents whose votes hes courting and the thug hes trying to cut a deal with that he shares their values, whatever they may happen to be. Indeed, the one character trait that emerges from every story about Yee is that he was so consumed by a passion to advance politically that he would do just about anything for votes and campaign cash.
       Still, I do think theres a larger truth revealed here, whatever the individual circumstances may be. We are a nation in which guns, money, and power are infernally interwoven. We are also a culture shot through with a fascination for violence. Even when we abhor it in reality and work to eliminate it from daily life, it holds a place in our art and imagination that it wont surrender easily; in fact, the harder we try to eliminate from reality, the more powerful it can become in fantasy. 
       And we are a species that has never once, anywhere, been able to will away our own animal nature—not through indoctrination, education, or legislation. The more we try to make ourselves believe that our own violence is something simple and removable, the more perversely ironic will be its reminders that it is anything but.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Keep Thinking about Pollyanna

Among Richard Diebenkorns papers when he died, someone found a sheet of paper labeled Notes to myself on beginning a painting. There were ten of those notes:

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.


5. Dont discover a subject—of any kind.

6. Somehow dont be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes cant be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

I almost want to say I wish I’d seen this when I was in the worst of my confusion about The Undressing of America, but honestly, I probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. My usual experience with advice is that it crystallizes what I’ve already experienced more than it points to a new path. But that crystallizing helps me remember what I learned next time I hit a similar mess.
       When I first read the list, it was the line about the destructive power of boredom that jumped out at me—because I bogged down in boredom so often in writing the earlier version of the book, but I always thought my response should be to whip up new enthusiasm for what I was doing or just slog through it and assume I’d fix it in rewrite. Which got me nowhere. Nothing could really change until the boredom grew so deep and so infuriating that I burned down the whole damned thing and started over.
       And destruction, of course, can be the first step of creation. It opened me to abandoning all my original positions, welcoming uncertainty and chaos, making mobilizing mistakes in the search for I didn’t know what.     
       The one note I dismissed as silliness at first was the one about Pollyanna—but it was the line I kept coming back to, and now I think I’m starting to get it. In fact, I’m discovering that the “glad game” is almost essential to taking all this on. I wasted a lot of emotional energy getting mad at myself for heading off in the wrong direction, not seeing that I’d hit a wall, and staying stuck for so many months. But I can find things to be glad of: glad to have wandered in the wrong direction, because it took me off my safe, familiar turf; glad to have been forced to throw out a whole book, because it made me braver; glad that I had that long period of non-production, because it turns out to have been a chrysalis. 
       So a fine painter and a fictional eleven-year-old girl discovered the same principle, which I’m learning now: when I’m glad about the paths I went down, even the ones that were most frustrating at the time, then I have the courage to plunge down new paths again.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Still Undressing (After All These Years)

I had a great year in 2013: rich and sane and productive, full of wonderful people, good work, and just enough adventure. But there’s one part of my life that didn’t go the way I hoped. I really, really, really thought that ’13 would be the year I finally finished The Undressing of America. And yet, here I am, even as I’m already starting my next book, still adding to it.
       This wasn’t due to a lack of work, nor to throwing it out and starting over (as I did more than once before). I wrote a good draft of a good book. But it became very clear at a certain point, as I was trying very hard to convince myself that it was good enough, that it had the potential to be a much better book. And having glimpsed that other book, I just couldn’t bear to let it never happen.
       I’m not usually a proponent of this kind of thinking. Clearly this kind of thing can lead straight into the treacherous bogs of perfectionism. There’s a saying going around out there, “Done is better than perfect.” I haven’t been able to find out who came up with it. Some have said Mark Zuckerberg, others Sheryl Sandberg; give it a while and, the internet being what it is, I’m sure we’ll see it attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Nelson Mandela. But wherever it came from, I like it. Because I firmly believe, as another quote has it, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Which I’m pretty sure was Voltaire. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Bill Gates.)
       But there’s a spectrum here, surely. Holding something up for months in order to finesse the last few details is neurotic, but banging something out overnight even though it’s a pile of junk isn’t a sane alternative. I presented the world with several piles of junk in my comics-writing days, when I took on too much work and not only didn’t have time to worry about perfection but didn’t have enough even to worry about coherence or originality. One of the hardest parts of any job in which we have to make our own calls about whether something’s done or not is finding that magical balance point where we’re neither excessively driven by a hunger to get it over with nor a mania to make it just right. 
       In the case of this current book, I’ve finally decided that I haven’t reached that point yet. There are downsides to that, professionally, financially, and psychologically. But the downsides to stopping now look bigger to me. Because I may never write about quite this subject again, and the pragmatic realities of my life may never give me this much flexibility again, and I believe there might be real value in the not-finished book I’m seeing.
       Basically, the deal is this: the book tells the story of America’s moral and legal wars over issues of the body, sex, and privacy as they helped shape our culture from the 19th century into the 20th. As conceived up ’til now, it began with Anthony Comstock’s ferocious assault on public discussions of private matters in art, literature, politics, and public health, starting at the end of the Civil War. But what became increasingly clear to me (with some editorial prodding) is that Comstock’s war doesn’t make enough sense without understanding the men who inspired and supported him, and their evangelical crusade to reform the nation in the decades leading up to the Civil War—especially given how deeply entwined that crusade was with abolitionism and the birth of feminism. Nor did the story of his opponents make enough sense without understanding the origins of the free-thinkers and free-speechers from whom they descended, and the way their crusade got all tangled up with the early days of vaudeville and pornography. And after a while it all became just too much to cover in quick backstory.
       So now the book begins at its proper beginning: in 1827, with the arrival of the first ballerina to New York and Samuel F. B. Morse’s public denunciation of her, with Fanny Wright’s flight from her collapsing interracial free-love commune in Nashoba, with the wildfire of Charles Finney’s revolutionary evangelism, and with Elijah Pierson’s mad, doomed mission to save the souls of prostitutes. It will be a long book, and it will be an even later book than it already is. But I believe it will be a good book. Anyway, I owe it the chance to find out. 
       (As for the next book, Lost Hero, about Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and the secret origin of comic books...that one I promise to finish on time. Because on that one I have a collaborator, and she’s not going to let me get away with anything else.)



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Twelve DVDs of Christmas

Because my son was in Japan until December 24th, I thought we might have to skip our ritual holiday-DVD viewing; instead, he suggested do it over the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, starting on the 25th and running to January 5. We won't really be watching one per night, because he's off with friends part of the time and some of them are way too short to fill an evening anyway, but we've agreed on twelve that we'll definitely watch, and without which the season wouldn't feel quite complete.


A Charlie Brown Christmas
At barely over 20 minutes, this still says more about the experience of Christmas in modern America than anything else I've seen. Not just the overt message about commercialization, but the melancholy, the alienation, the desperate pursuit of getting Christmas "right," the manic participation in rituals that no one really cares about, the sudden eruptions of religious seriousness that seem like they should be important but never actually make sense with the rest of it...and then that weird way in which it all seems to come out fine in the end. Plus Vince Guaraldi, who only seems to grow more ubiquitous with the passing decades. Sometimes I wonder if this thing didn't create modern Christmas as much as it reflected it.


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This is one of those works of art that's simply perfect for what it is. At the same time, the question of just what it is remains slightly elusive. Epic fantasy? Sly satire? Juvenile cute-animal fest? In some way it transcends them all. I never get bored with it, despite having it all perfectly impressed on my memory. It's also the one show that takes me back most completely to what Christmas felt like when I was seven or eight—bright, plastic, mysterious, surprising, and ultimately safe—and it seems to do the same for Nicky, as different as the world of our childhoods were.


 Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special
This is pretty much a satire of Christmas specials, but it's so colorful and the humor is so bent that it captures the eternal, dorky weirdness of TV, Christmas, and modern childhood better than whatever it's satirizing. A lot of it is devoted to '80s camp, with guest appearances by faded celebrities my son could never have heard of—Grace Jones, K. D. Laing, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Little Richard, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore—which I thought would be boring for him. But somehow the utter weirdness of them all (and his initial assumption that they were all just actors playing invented characters) only made them funnier to him. Frankie Avalon, a talking cow, and Santa Claus...all just the stuff of Christmas media madness.


"Hearth's Warming Eve" from
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic 
What? It's good! Nicky was the one who discovered this (no surprise), but I've adopted it as one of my own. It actually has very little to do with Christmas—the ponies' holiday pageant celebrates a national origin myth, not the birth of any equestrian savior—but it has some gorgeous evocations of winter wind and frost, the story is unlike anything I've seen in a cartoon, it's pictorially delightful, the characters are charmingly ridiculous, and it maintains that delicate balance the show strikes so well between spoofery and earnestness.


A Christmas Story
Not many movies stand up to multiple viewings for me, but this one's so rich, not just in event and character but in detail and texture, that I always find something to enjoy even when I know exactly what's coming. What impresses me most, though, is the way Ralphie and Randy are portrayed; I usually hate Hollywood's idea of kids, but these two are unlike anything else I've seen in movies, somehow more ludicrously cartoony and more humanly believable at the same time. We never call the movie by its title. It's always, "Do you want to watch Ralphie?"


Remember the Night
I asked for this one, and Nicky's going to give it a chance based on my assurance that it's got a very different tone from most Hollywood Christmas movies. In fact, it's from before there was really such a thing as a "Christmas movie," from 1941, when a comedic melodrama could make good use the holidays without having to go all preachy, cloying, and self-important. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, three years before they generated an equally intense but very different chemistry in Double Indemnity. Here too, Stanwyck is a bad girl who leads the too-straight MacMurray into crime, but this time they don't end up dead, thanks to MacMurray's oddball Indiana home folks and the bounty and limitations of a rural Christmas. It was written by Preston Sturges, who would very soon be writing and directing Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. Like everything else by Sturges, it's a unique blend of elements.


Babes in Toyland
(aka March of the Wooden Soldiers)
My father introduced me to this one, and it was the movie I waited to see every year on TV from the time I was four or five years old. It's an oddity, a sentimental musical from the end of the Victorian era mashed up with Laurel and Hardy's vaguely sadistic Depression-era comedy, an oddness that I think I sensed at some level even then. Or, at least, I was haunted by some of its bizarre and even frightening elements: that Mickey Mouse imitation that could be a marionette or a monkey in a suit or God knows what; Ollie being nearly drowned in public torture; the Bogie Men with their goggling eyes and zippered backs; the wooden soldier marching with its head knocked off, a terrified child wrapped around its chest. Apparently they were images that haunted my son, too, because although he has little interest in Laurel and Hardy or their brand of comedy, he always wants to see this one.


The Little Drummer Boy  
Books 1 & 2
The two parts were made years apart, and the second isn't as good, and yet together they're very pleasing. The original is a pretty and affecting little thing, managing to blend High Church solemnity with the Rankin-Bass style of silly animal humor. It's quite complete in itself, but at the end we like knowing that there's more to come with the same drummer boy and the same goofy beasts. And a lot more room for slapstick in the sequel.

 
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
I was fascinated with this as a kid, I think largely because cartoons of this length and seriousness were nearly unknown on TV then. But after a few years I got bored and thought I'd never need to see it again...until my friend Joe sent it to me on a VHS tape, I showed it to Nicky for the heck of it, and he liked it. I still find a lot of it dull, but I do like those ghosts. There are moments when they're genuinely eerie, which isn't easy when they're playing off a character like Magoo. 
 


Scrooge  
This is the Alistair Sim version from 1951, the Christmas Carol I kept liking after I got tired of Mr. Magoo. Nicky likes this one less than me, but he hangs in for the scariest and moodiest moments. the horror-at-Christmas tradition is one Americans never really went for but the British can still do well. This one makes nearly all the ghosts, even those miscellaneous shades whirling through the air, as scary as the spirit of Christmas future. And Sim often makes Scrooge himself the spookiest character of all. 


 Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
This one snuck up on us both. What happened was: back when Gene Autry had his huge hit with Rudolph, he and his people decided to cobble up another Christmas song to exploit the market. They substituted a donkey for the reindeer, big ears for the red nose, and baby Jesus for Santa Claus. It was a pretty lousy song, but by the mid-'70s, when the Rankin-Bass people were running out of ideas to sustain their TV-special business, they saw something they could work with. And indeed they did: Romeo Muller turned in one of his most charming stories, the animals were charming, and Roger Miller's narrative sold it all with a strange conviction. It's not Rudolph, but it feels like a visit to his universe.


It's a Wonderful Life
I used to have this movie on in the background every Christmas Eve, when I'd be up until 2:00 AM wrapping presents. Now that the present-giving has gotten a lot lighter, I almost want to let it slip away, but I can't bring myself. Every time I see it, it impresses me again with its intensity, its darkness, its raw agony, its honesty about the cruel tricks life can play. Although we don't like to look at it in our smiley-face culture, there is a frightening darkness around the edges of the Christmas story: the terror of the Imperial tax, the freezing night, the slaughter of the innocents, and the foreboding gift of the one of the Magi (Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom. / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. / O Star of wonder, star of night...). And, of course, for any convincing story of a soul's redemption, or any myth of light emerging from darkness, the night has to grow very deep before the brightness of the star begins to shine. Capra, Stewart, and company make me feel the deep darkness more than just about any movie, and then they make its frantic redemption very nearly believable. This year I want to use it to close off the sacred season.


Which brings us to January 5th, the Twelfth Day. But then there's the Epiphany...which doesn't mean I've just had a sudden realization, it means we usually do some final Christmas rituals on January 6, the Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of God on earth, to seal off the holy days. That's likely to include one last movie before I put the holiday DVD box on that shelf in the corner of the basement, where it must go untouched until the day after Thanksgiving. Nicky's likely to push for The Nightmare Before Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Chuck Jones version, of course), but I feel like wallowing a little longer in old Hollywood. My two candidates are:


Miracle on 34th Street
Yeah, it gets a bit tiresome with repeated viewings, but I'll always have a fascination for the era of American holidays shaped around the Macy's parade, department store Santas, New York bustle, and moanings about the commercialization of Christmas when people actually seemed to care (before that itself became just another Yuletide custom). That era was still alive when I was a kid, or at least it seemed to be everyone's assumption of how the season should be, although I saw a mostly diluted and suburban-mallified version. Nicky seems to find it all interesting too, as exotica, probably the way I like movies from before 1920. And, of course, Natalie Wood is endearing, slightly troubling, and unfailingly compelling.


Holiday Affair
Not a great movie, but sweet. And Mitchum for Christmas? What could be more weirdly perfect?



Monday, December 23, 2013

Goodbye, Candlestick

I'm writing this as the 49ers take the field to play what will most likely be their last game ever at Candlestick Park, where they've played football since 1971, where the Giants played baseball from 1960 through 1999. And I'm starting to miss it.
       Well, I'm not really missing it. It's a horrible stadium. Grim, bleak, ugly. Hard to get to. No matter where you sit, you're too far from the field. Cold, wet, and windy all summer long. The wind used to screw up baseball games and the boggy field mucked up football games. Not enough restrooms, terrible food. The Giants almost moved to Florida just to get away from the place, and it took a new stadium to keep them in town. The 49ers have been pushing for a new stadium for twenty years, and now they're finally getting one—but not in San Francisco.
       And it's not like the 49ers playing 50 miles further away makes any difference to me. I haven't gone to Candlestick in fifteen years and I haven't felt much desire to. Frankly, I'm more likely to want to spend the time and money to check out the team's spiffy new home in Santa Clara than I ever would have been to go back to Candlestick. 
       I do have some memories around the place. In the first half of the '80s, when I was fairly new in S.F., working part time, with some baseball-crazy friends, I became a passionate Giants fan and spent a lot of chilly days and frigid nights in the bleachers. It was a pretty forgettable team I was following—Jeff Leonard, Chili Davis, Bill Laskey—but the ritual was fun. My time got shorter after that, but I still managed to get to several Giants games over the next few years, when they were actually good. I was there for an All-Star Game and one playoff; I still remember Joe Price pitching great innings of long relief and Jose Uribe putting the Giants ahead with a clutch single down the line.

       Football games were a bigger deal. I took my brother a few times, my father once, with a sense of doing something meaningful, a sort of offering to the family cult of 49ers fandom. They all had happy endings except one, one that that was by far, to my mind, the unhappiest 49er game of all: their 15-13 loss to New York in the NFC Championship after the 1990 season, when they fumbled away a trip to their third Super Bowl in a row and Joe Montana broke his hand. Miserable as it was, I still take a certain pride in having been there that day. (If nothing else, it was a chance to watch 68,000 people vacate a building so quickly it was as if a gale had blown us all away.)
       And, of course, there are the memories of the things that happened there, that I watched on TV but will always associate with the place. I remember how alive I felt, how electric everything seemed to be, after that Dallas game in January, 1982. I remember the glow I felt for days, even though my real life was pretty crappy at the time, after they beat the Bears to reach their second Super Bowl. I remember the pizza-and-TV parties Jennie and I would throw for every playoff game, baseball and football both. I remember my friend Joe coming up from San Diego to watch Will Clark put the Giants in the World Series with an eighth-inning single up the middle. And even though the teams will continue to play inside my television set the way they always have, knowing that the place is different—that I'll never again see those shots of the Goodyear blimp over San Francisco Bay on an autumn afternoon—is a loss of some kind.
      None of that is what I'm really missing, though. As I've been writing this, I've realized that I'm mourning something that isn't the place and it isn't even the memories. What I'm missing is just how much it all used to matter to me. 


       I started to pull away from baseball sometime in the early '90s. I had a baby son, I had a lot of interesting work to do (and a lot of deadlines), and it just became impossible to follow a team for 162 games a year. I got in the habit of tuning in for pennant races and playoffs but not really engaging with the rest of the year, and inevitably the passion faded. I still follow the 49ers, but they stay in a much smaller compartment in my heart. After Nicky was old enough to go out and do things, I wanted to spend my Sunday afternoons with my family, and so I start watching football games on my VCR. Gradually I started fast-forwarding through more and more plays. Then the players I'd been so in love with started moving on, and I just didn't connect as well with the new ones. I still watch most 49er games, but fast-forwarding; I still arrange either to host or visit friends for playoffs, but I spend more time sitting and talking and eating, and less time standing and pacing and staring and screaming and jumping and dropping to my knees.
      Which is healthy, really. After the last Super Bowl I felt downhearted for about fifteen minutes, and I thought ruefully about that final, dreadful set of downs at the goal line maybe a dozen times during the next few days. In decades past, I would be depressed about a playoff loss for weeks. I would wake up thinking about that Roger Craig fumble or go to bed writhing over that ball Candy Maldonado lost in the lights. All over games that didn't really affect anything, played by a bunch of guys who didn't know I existed. 
       Of course, that coin had another side. There was an ecstasy, a feeling of everything being right with the world, that that same bunch of guys could give me with a victory, and it could last for days, for weeks. I enjoy watching Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis and Justin Smith, and sometimes they even make me vocalize suddenly and loudly, but I don't feel that exquisite, world-transforming joy I used to. No matter what happens in the end zone at Candlestick Park, I remain solidly, happily, healthily in my real life.
       I would never want the whole emotional package of sports mania back again, with all the lost time, the vast brain space given to statistics, the pointless funks. But I do miss that ecstasy, a little bit. And even that strangely sweet agony that made the ecstasy possible. I miss the feeling I used to be able to get driving past Candlestick on Highway 101, even on a Tuesday in February, long past the Super Bowl and well before Opening Day, when the stadium just sat there slumbering, ugly as hell—a feeling almost as if I were passing some boyhood home, all longing and joy and almost painfully rich memory. I'll miss that, at least a little, when I drive past the place next time and know that its life as a stadium is over. And I'll miss it when I drive by, sometime in the next year or two, and realize that it's gone.
       For now, though, it's still here, and Frank Gore just ground out ten yards on the spongy turf, and I'm going to watch it.
    


       

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Village, Pueblo, Dorf

I was sitting and reading at Martha & Bros, a just-under-the-radar San Francisco institution, a handful of coffee shops (exactly five), entirely as family owned as the name suggests. Martha is from Central America—Nicaragua, I think—and she staffs her shops mainly with a seemingly endless supply of nieces, friends of nieces, and cousins of friends of nieces from the old country. The walls are painted with murals of hillside plantations with macaws in the trees, the back-counter gossip is in Spanish. Sometimes the music is Latin too, although just as often it's unobtrusive coffee-joint music, "smooth jazz" or soul/pop or grown-up rock.
      Today it was a variant of the last, Ingrid Michaelson and Jason Mraz and people like them whose names I don't know. It's a common sound in S.F. cafes, one I tune out easily. The only note that nearly caught my attention was an announcer's voice—this wasn't the usual Pandora but apparently a radio station, probably KFOG, which every white person in the Bay Area between 30 and 60 seems to listen to while driving to work. It's harder for me to tune out speech than music, especially caffeined-up rock-FM speech, so it kept forcing its way through my book and into my consciousness. But even as it forced itself, I never fully understood what was being said. Gradually, in fact, that's what brought me to full awareness: the refusal of the words ever to coalescence into any sort of sense. 
       Which is when I paused and listened and realized there were some words I knew, just not words I'd been looking for. Jetzt. Ihre. Neue. Fünf. The radio was speaking German. And as I listened longer, I discovered that about every third song, although its sound was never incongruous with the rest, was in German too.
       The explanation wasn't difficult to imagine. An employee chooses a station off some selection of streaming music options (iTunes used to offer this, someone must still) and either doesn't bother to read too closely or doesn't know enough non-Spanish to pick out the nuances of Rock Radio Hitwelle. Even so, it struck me as a little bit miraculous.
       This is globalization, certainly, but not how we would think of it if we heard an American station in Managua, or even in Berlin, where guilty worries about cultural colonialism would start creeping up. Yes, it was American music, but looped back to us and varied subtly by another nation—not a downtrodden nation by any means, but not one with any imperial authority in the arts or popular culture. After all, Germany failed in its last effort to impose its culture on the rest of us, to have us listening to Wagner and watching movies about bright-eyed young goatherds in the Alps. Failed quite badly, actually. Its musical intrusion into a Nicaraguan-American coffee shop was not only not fraught with significance but was quite wonderfully, randomly insignificant.
       The online version of that German station no doubt exists mainly for Landsmänner sent far from home and missing not only their home-cooked culture but their familiar, everyday reworking of American culture: the tired department manager at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla, the sweaty staff at the Deutsches Generalkonsulat in Lagos. But because the internet is the internet, it leaks out. It finds the wormhole through space and appears, uncomprehended, barely noticed, but welcome and amusing and vouching momentarily for the bigness and strangeness of things, in California, in Nicaragua, in anywhere.


      

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Beaver Is Back

Thirty years ago, Will Jacobs and I got a book published called The Beaver Papers. The premise was simple, if unusual: what if the world’s great writers and filmmakers had joined forces to save the iconic suburban sitcom Leave It to Beaver from cancellation in 1963? We wrote 25 script treatments to answer that: The Beaver and the Fury by William Faulkner, Cries and Beavers by Ingmar Bergman, Beavermorphosis by Franz Kafka, Farewell My Wallace by Raymond Chandler, Beaver on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams...all starring the exceedingly wholesome Cleaver clan in situations that prime-time TV never found them in.
       It was the first real thing I got published, and it did well—it was a modest best-seller, picked up a lot of good reviews, and got us quite a few radio and TV appearances. In some ways it's still my favorite of all my major projects. Will and I wrote it in six weeks of insane youthful energy and shared hilarity, and I think that verve and freedom and absolute lack of reverence for anything still shine through it. It goes a bit wild here and there (apparently we'd never heard of the literary convention known as "rewriting"), but wild in a way I'm glad we went.
       So it's exciting and sweet and gratifying to be able to bring it back now in a "30th Anniversary Edition." We've fixed some errors, gotten a snazzy new cover, written a new introduction, and added something: two new parodies, The Beaver in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Do Beavers Dream of Electric Creeps? by Philip K. Dick, offered as a sneak preview of The Beaver Papers 2, coming next year. (Yes, a sequel, written 30 years after the original...which is a story in itself that I'll tell later.)
       It's only in ebook form for the moment, but the publisher, Atomic Drop Press, is working to line up a print on demand service soon. It's for sale in all the usual places ebooks are sold, including Amazon's Kindle Store, but we'd much appreciate you buying it straight from the publisher, if you don't mind, since we get a much bigger cut of that $2.99 it's going to cost you. But if you really must Kindle, then Kindle. We just want you to read it!

       

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Beaver Papers: The Sequel

So it's turning out to be simply too big a job to pull together an "expanded edition" for The Beaver Papers' 30th anniversary ebook reissue, as we were originally planning. Just proofing the original and doing the whole ebook-format learning curve is going to make it hard enough just to bring the original bookout next month as planned. Given that, we've decided that the 30th Anniversary Edition will consist only of the original book, with two new scripts, a new introduction, and some corrections of fact (or what passes for "fact" in the reality of The Beaver Papers), sold for a lower-than-planned $2.99.
      Which means we'll be saving the unpublished scripts we were gathering for the "expanded" edition—and coming up with a whole bunch more—for The Beaver Papers 2. Thirty years ago, when The Beaver Papers was new and doing well in the stores, we talked about writing a sequel...but life moved on and we never got to it. Now, almost by accident, we're finally doing it. 
       So far we know it'll include faux Leave It to Beaver script treatments by Ayn Rand, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jim Thompson, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Wright, Flannery O'Connor, W. Somerset Maugham, J. G. Ballard, John Updike, Jorge Luis Borges, and at least 15 others. Along with the story of what happened during "the Autumn of the Beaver," when the cast and crew fought to bring the show back to life after the heart-rending cancellation described at the end of the original book. It should be out in less than a year.
       Oh, and there will be a sneak preview of two of the scripts from the sequel in the Anniversary Edition next month: Beaver in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Do Beavers Dreams of Electric Creeps? by Philip K. Dick. That'll give you a chance to see if we've gotten better or worse at this parody thing in the past three decades.
       Better or worse, we've had a great time going back to that long-ago idea and bringing it back to life for our current selves. I really wasn't sure we'd have it in us when we started, but whatever drove us to write the thing in the first place is apparently still alive in us. I guess sometimes you can go home again.
        (Actually, that's someone we haven't parodied yet: Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward, Beaver?)


Friday, September 20, 2013

Technology Addiction

I've been asked to deliver a keynote address at the International Congress on Technology Addiction in Istanbul in a few weeks. I didn't hesitate to accept. I've been to Istanbul twice, and both times wanted to get back as quickly as I could. The last time was over twenty years ago, so this was a very welcome invitation. It was an unexpected invitation, too...because I've never written or spoken publicly on addiction of any kind. But I've been wanting to, wondering if I was ready and what a good entree would be. And suddenly, out of the blue, comes this email from a group I've never heard of asking me to speak.
       I'm assuming the reason I was on their list of desirable speakers is that I've written and spoken a fair amount about video games. My topic, though, has always been their content, especially violent fantasy, growing out of that book I wrote called Killing Monsters. I've fielded a few questions about game addiction during the Q&A period of talks and during press interviews, but it's never been my focus. Not my professional focus, I mean. Because privately I've thought a lot about it. Mainly because I struggle with the damned thing myself.
       It's not games with me. I don't play video games unless there's some compelling research reason, and I've gotten good at avoiding such reasons. But Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Google News, Blogger...at one time or another I've had to set strict rules and bring in a support network to stay off every damned one of them. Which is part of a larger complex of addictive, obsessive, compulsive, habitual, and God knows what else behaviors I've been wrestling with and exploring and slowly coming to understand for a long time.
       I've had a feeling for a while now that I have in me a good book about addiction and recovery. But I haven't known how even to start thinking about it. Now this conference in Istanbul is forcing me to pull at least some of my thoughts and knowledge together and to bring them to other people. I'm expecting it to open the door to more—and I don't mean to more invitations, although that could happen. I mean it'll open some doors in my head.
        Something people in spiritual recovery programs talk about are "higher power moments." A lot of people see signs in the events around them from the universe or God or some other guiding power. I've always figured signs were where we wanted to find them. The universe is constantly throwing unexpected twists at us, and if, deep down, we want to read one as pointing us in the right direction, then we'll do that. If we're not inclined to see it as a sign, then we probably won't. 
       This invitation out of nowhere definitely has "God moment" written all over it. Which is how I choose to take it. I've wanted to open the door to writing and talking publicly about addiction and recovery, but I've been uncertain about how and timid about whether I should. I'm choosing to take this as a sign from the universe that it's time to plunge in. Where it takes me from there, I'll find out when I get there.