Step Away From the Book Store

Hi. My name is Sean, and I’m a mass media addict.

I guess it started with taping movies off of cable. Having secured a film on the permanent archival format of a Beta cassette, I felt that I couldn’t let it slip out of my clutches. After all, now I could watch it again whenever I pleased! Media was finally at my convenience instead of at the whim of broadcasters! The collection of tapes grew quickly, and some I never did get around to watching even once. What mattered was that I could have.

Actually, it may have started before then, with comic books. On my mom’s side, I’m the youngest of my cousins. I don’t recommend being last in a generation, by the way; it’s the nuisance position. Even the kids table doesn’t want you. What I did get was everybody’s cast-offs, which for the purposes of this essay means comic books.

Comics from my kin accumulated at my grandma’s house, and when I tired of exploring the old hay barn and chicken coop I’d curl up with the stack of leftover comics. They were mostly from the Harvey line: Richie Rich, Casper, Little Lotta, and the rare Lil’ Devil which I loved most of all. Few of these had covers, and many were missing pages. I’m sure this helped fuel my desire to possess my own things.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that one room of our house is dedicated to the hoard. Somewhat hopefully, I call this room the library. There’s a pile of boxes in the center of the library, and I no longer recall what they contain. I can’t even get to them to find out; the rest of the floor is adrift in stacks of books that have been catalogued but await shelving. The walls are concealed behind boxes of DVDs. There’s a treacherous path that leads about three feet into the unstable mass of media. The door to this room cannot close.

So, yeah. I have a media addiction. At least I admit it, right? And I’ve already made strides in resolving to pare down the collection. The problem is that my compulsions keep interfering. First they demanded that I write a custom application to track media. Then I could enter everything, discover duplicates (hopefully only due to bundled packages…), track which I’ve read/watched/consumed, and mark which I’ve given away.

For months I picked away at this program. I’d make good progress and then get lost in other projects again. When I’d return to coding the damn thing, I’d inevitably discover that nothing worked anymore because some third-party library had been updated. The next week would be lost to cursing and bug-fixing, I’d add one more feature, and then I’d get lost in something else again.

After nearly a year of this, I realized that this process had gotten in the way of actual progress. I chucked the application and started transferring DVDs into binders. This went well until I finished with all the titles starting with ‘C’, at which point other projects captured my attention.

One of these was the ongoing effort to catalog all my books and make an initial pass at culling some for donations. I’ve already removed several bags of books that have been given away or donated to libraries. There are only a few shelves left to sort through, after which I plan to put up new shelves for the books that remain. Of course there are boxes of DVDs where I’d like to put the new shelves…

The biggest problem I have with the books is that there are a lot I don’t know if I’d read again because I’ve not read them in the first place. Currently there are just under a thousand unread books in the library, according to what I’ve entered at LibraryThing. This is only that low because I decided that I’d never read dozens of the books I’ve already donated.

Actually, that’s merely a big problem. The biggest problem is that I continue to bring new books into the house. I’ve slowed the pace considerably, mind you. On average I’m only buying 3-4 books and 1-2 movies a week. I’d like to turn that into an average for a month, but it’s better than when it was a daily average.

Netflix instant and the availability of ebooks is helping to some extent, as I can enjoy books and movies without bringing new material into the house. Ultimately, what I think will help more is that I’m growing more interested in doing things and creating. I’m writing more, thanks to this blog, and for the first time in years I’m working on a short story. I’ve written another comic and have plans do more. The musical dry spell is over, and I’m working on a holiday EP.

I don’t have time to consume media, because I’m too busy creating it. It’s starting to sink in. All of these things that fired my imagination threaten now to snuff out the expression of it. If it comes to a choice between making and having, I’ll choose making.

Just as soon as I get this room cleared out…

Semi-Random Thoughts on Writing Pulp

I’m working on stories to submit to two online journals, and while I’m finding it difficult to write at the level I demand of myself it is wonderful to be creating fiction again.

I really haven’t done much prose work since finally abandoning my novel for being overburdened with unrelated ideas.

For inspiration, I’ve looked backward to my early, pulpy influences: H. P. Lovecraft, with his paranoid self-loathing; and E. R. Burroughs, with his heroic adventures. I’m sure it says good things about my mental state that I relate much more to Burroughs these days, but it has the effect of making it much more difficult to write the horror piece.

I still really like the plot, but I haven’t made any progress on it in well over a month. On the other hand I’ve been going gangbusters on the space adventure, and I have only the vaguest of notions where I’m going with it.

I guess the difference is that adventure is more fun. I should just chuck the whole Lovecraft angle and take the plot to a healthier environment — someplace where it can run around and enjoy itself.

I hear the woods are nice this time of year…

Billing Time

When colleagues find out that my degree is in English Literature, they look at me with confusion and ask how a came to be a programmer. The following is more or less what I tell them. Well, mostly more. People generally don’t have time for the director’s cut.

I was working in a college book store, entering invoices into the computer system and sometimes helping process deliveries. It was dull work, but at least it didn’t pay well.

Wendi was working for a local firm that sold its own software and provided butts for consulting gigs. It was a small company run out of a decommissioned rectory. When their receptionist/recruiter moved out-of-state, Wendi suggested that I apply for the job.

It was a terrible idea. I hate phones. Calling in a pizza order leaves me with a racing pulse and the start of a tension headache. I knew nothing about computers beyond minimal experience with BASIC and PASCAL, and I was terrified of strangers. Making a cold call to a programmer about a job I didn’t comprehend lay far outside the realm of Things I Could Do.

So I applied.

To my total surprise I was called in for an interview. A few people talked to me for a bit, and I wound up standing in the parking lot for an hour listening to the company president as he smoked most of a pack of cigarettes. My ankle hurt, and the smoke made my eyes water, but I stood there and took it for the sake of the job.

Turns out they’d already decided to hire me.

A week later I was helping my new boss clear space in HoneyPot, Inc. for our new office, and he told me how I’d come to be a recruiter. I’d mentioned having finished the first draft of a novel, and he’d been impressed by the initiative and drive that indicated. He figured I wouldn’t have a hard time learning the job.

His faith was touching but entirely misplaced. As a recruiter, I was useless. The one and only call I made was a disaster, and I wound up explaining to my poor victim that I had no clue why I had been asked to call him in the first place. Fortunately the company with which we’d just merged into Honeypot had its own, well-oiled recruiting staff. I was not asked to join them, and I never again even pretended to be a recruiter.

That left me with reception. Again our partner office already had a receptionist, and she was incredible. I sat at our little side door and served little purpose but to tell employees where the managers had disappeared to.

One day the phone rang, and I stared at it in terror. I forced myself to answer, which was good as the caller turned out to be the VP who’d been the president of the company I’d hired into. His flight had included a stop-over, but delays in the initial stretch had led to him missing his connecting flight. It looked like he’d be missing his business meeting.

“Oh, man,” I sympathized. “That sucks.”

There was a lengthy pause on the other end as he accepted that I was unlikely to be of any use in the situation. Finally he told me that he’d call the representatives of the company to reschedule and work out arrangements to come back.

“Okay,” I told him. “Good luck.”

As soon as I hung up, I realized that I’d just lost my job. What I didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t be fired, not for another four years.

Having started precisely at my level of incompetence, I had nowhere to go but sideways. I wound up assisting an office administrator. My new responsibilities consisted of entering time sheets into an Access database and managing the software library. The first kept me busy for just over half of a day each week, and the second consisted solely of telling developers they couldn’t have the software they wanted.

Incidentally, after I became a developer the admins saved on personnel costs by locking the software in a closet and pretending to not have the key.

I had a lot of time on my hands at precisely that moment in the cultural zeitgeist when everyone was making one-page websites about their friends and interests, usually with lots of blinking text and aggravating MIDI loops. The majority of my work time was spent making constant tweaks to my Geocities page.

One day an account manager caught me. I’ll call him Tom. He looked at what I was doing and asked why I wasn’t out billing. I laughed. Tom laughed. Within a week I’d been assigned a contract to make a dynamic Word document for a school district to use. I’d become a developer, and it would be many more years before I felt like one.

I finished a second draft of that novel before writing it off as an unsalvageable mess. It will never see the light of day, and that’s alright. I have other stories in me, and after all this one gave me a career.

Cat Spotting

Ling is an old cat, and she’s been developing old cat problems. She sleeps harder than she used to, she’s skinny, and — while she was never a particularly graceful creature — she misses even simple jumps with surprising regularity.

Last night Ling slept in my lap while I read comics on my tablet. My thigh went from warm to hot, and I dimly thought that this six pound cat was really kicking out the heat. A few minutes later she woke up, struggled to her feet and headed off somewhere.

My leg still felt too hot.

I finally set the tablet aside and looked down. There was a small wet spot where Ling’s butt had been. She’d leaked on my in her sleep, then woken up to finish the job properly.

As this sunk in, she came back and struggled back into my lap. She noticed the wet spot on my jeans and sniffed at it. Then she looked at me with wide eyes as though to say “Holy crap, dude! Someone peed on you!”

I put her on the floor and left to change my pants. Just a leaky old cat…

Banjo School

Note – all references to banjo parts are likely to be incorrect, because I know absolutely nothing about banjos. Kindly just nod and pretend that I know what I’m talking about.

There’s an antique store that we walk past on our work commute named Antelope Antiques & Coins. It’s in a basement space with a ground level window display. A fascinating array of objects rotate through this display: ventriloquist dummies, comic books, native carvings, typewriters, and everything that someone might once have loved.

Antique stores delight me with their odd wares and the occasional spark of joy that signals me take something home — after paying for it, of course. The stores also sadden me, so I don’t actually go in very often. A lot of the merchandise comes from estate sales, which makes the shops a sort of ossuary for the scattered belongings of the dead. In that vein though the remains have the potential to revive as part of a new life, so I suppose that it’s a bit less gruesome than I tend to imagine.

It’s certainly less ghoulish than pawn shops, which trade in the fallen dreams of the living.

What I mean to say is that it takes something special to make me descend those stairs and poke around amongst the artifacts. One evening last week, Wendi and I went down those stairs and came out with an 80-year-old banjo, give or take a decade.

Ling helps inspect the banjo. She notes that the distance between strings and frets grows alarmingly as the neck of the instrument approaches the body.

I don’t know which of us saw it in the display first. I noticed it but didn’t say anything. My birthday is approaching, and I’ve made a habit recently of discovering stringed instruments and convincing Wendi to count them as presents for upcoming events. This deprives her of the fun of looking for gifts, and it crowds my studio even further. And anyhow I focussed on ukes and mandos, which this was not.

Wendi exclaimed over the banjo, and we stopped to look at it. It was cool, but it was not on my list. Then she pointed out that it had only four strings. My greedy little eyes lit up. Four strings? Could this be a banjolele, a uke with the body of banjo? My resistance shattered, I readily agreed to go take a closer look.

A saleswoman fetched it from the window for me, and I started to inspect it. The neck was out of alignment, and the body cover looked dirty with age, but other than that it looked okay. I plucked a few strings and heard the sound bounce between the cover and the wooden back. That did it. I needed this 4-string banjo.

The resonating back of the banjo.

Once I got home I poked around on the internet to see if I could identify it. Still convinced it was a banjolele, it took a while for me to modify the searches enough to make any progress. The head had the word ‘Paramount’ etched off-center on it, and by focussing on that and ‘banjo’ with ‘4 strings’ I started get somewhere. Unfortunately I wound up on seemingly divergent paths.

There was a company called ‘Paramount’ that made banjos around the 1920s. There’s conflicting information about whether it started then or was an earlier company that had started in the 1890s under a different name. In either event, they put out 4-string tenor banjos with the ‘Paramount’ imprint for around 15 years in the period between the World Wars. The few pictures that I found didn’t match up, though.

Then I stumbled on a reference to “Paramount School” 4-string tenors. This was apparently a mail-order music lesson company that distributed banjos — although through sale, rental, or free with curriculum is unclear to me. Also unclear to me is how or if this is related to the instrument company. Paramount seems to be a respected brand, but Paramount School is dismissed as inferior.

What I do know is that the smudged letters underneath “Paramount” can be read as “SCHOOL”. I also know that I love the sound it makes and the mystery of its former life. Whatever its origin, this instrument has been kicking around for about 90 years. Was it played at gatherings? As part of an informal band? Or did its owners pick at it a little bit and give up?

Now it’s part of my motley collection. It’ll get a little TLC, and every so often I’ll ask it to teach me a little more about itself.

Do Bee Do Bee Do

I’ve been a busy Do Bee this week.

The weekend passed in a blur of editing and mixing so that I could release my latest song as soon as possible. It’s about the election, so I knew its shelf-life would be extremely limited. Housework piled up, the cats forgot who I was, and Wendi patiently waited for me to work the song out of my system.

It’s titled “Rochambeau”, and it’s a raucous lefty protest against some of the most inflammatory remarks made by politicians on the right this election season. As it’s based entirely on carefully selected statements and partisan hyperbole I have no delusions about its popular appeal, so consider yourself warned. 🙂

If you’d like to listen to it, read the lyrics, or find out why it’s called “Rochambeau”; all of this can be found on my Bandcamp site.

I felt relieved after releasing my political anthem and braced myself to catch up on chores. Then the week started, and it seemed pissed off. Two of my friends were checked into hospitals. Both were released, one with significantly better news than the other I fear. I don’t want to reveal any more than that, other than to say that I’ve not been happy with people I care about having medical surprises.

My emotional investment in following the health updates left me tired, so when A Very Bad Thing happened at work the late nights and early mornings spent analyzing and correcting left me — well, I got stupid tired. A fix has been designed and is currently being tested, and my involvement appears to be over now. The less said about it the better, really. I only mention it to emphasize that my household responsibilities have continued to back up.

Tonight is going to be my first chance to get back on top of things, and it feels like I’ve battled through monsters to reach the level boss. I’m going to need to find a save point, because I’m not sure I can finish this fight before the Veep debate tonight. No way am I missing that; I need the laughs.

Hoisting Petards

The association between cats and yarn is not a myth. There appears to be something about string that plugs directly into the play center of their furry little minds, and if it’s a ball of string — let’s just say that their brains are no longer engaged. But sometimes I think there’s a hint of cunning in their maniacal playing.

Our cats have been filching yarn for years, constructing elaborate monkey traps in the stairway as part of their ongoing efforts to disable us. They’ve learned that broken monkeys stay home and make good chaise lounges, so most of their efforts go toward turning us into furniture. Cats are jerks. Cute jerks.

Monday night, Bogart got into some yarn just as we were getting ready for bed. I’d already gone upstairs for my usual pre-sleep reading of comics, so Wendi was the one who discovered him sitting on the lower landing inside of several loops of yarn. When she laughed at him, Bogie ran upstairs, perhaps embarrassed at having been caught laying a monkey trap. But when he ran away, some of the loops of yarn knotted around one of his back feet. He tried to shake it off, and when that didn’t work he ran again. That only tightened the snare.

Wendi called me in to assist, and somehow I got the task of trying to pick the knot loose as Bogie kicked frantically. There’s nothing quite like having claws flailing an inch from my nose to make me focus. I managed only a few quick tugs at the yarn, but maybe that helped. Wendi picked up our little saboteur to get better control of him, and the yarn fell off.

Within seconds the furry fool had resumed his frolicking in the yarn, as though nothing had happened. Maybe they aren’t that cunning after all.

Relative Thinking

I was born in the fall, so as the weather grows cooler and the leaves start to turn; as everyone begins to think of who they’d like to be come Halloween and children, freshly back in school, begin to wonder if there really is an end to classes; as stores anticipate three big holidays all at once and radio stations trot out “Santa, Baby” and other old chestnuts; at that time of year I typically reflect on how to be less of a schmuck.

As explained by Robert Anton Wilson, in a book I lost long ago in college, every now and then you should take a moment to think about what a schmuck you’ve been. The thought appeals to me, especially since I’m fully aware that I don’t always function according to societal specifications. I mull over events every week, but once a year I take the time to make a deeper examination.

This isn’t a birthday-related activity, at least not in the traditional “oh crap, I’m aging” manner. I’m not afraid of aging any more than of any other inevitability. I’m in no particular hurry to shake off my youth, mind you. I’m just too busy worrying about everything involved with daily life; I’d need another lifetime to fret over the big issues. No, I hold my yearly mental audit in the fall because it’s a good time for putting things in order.

For years Wendi and her mom have commented on how I’ve been taking lessons from Ken, my father-in-law. This is meant as a joke about how I’ve picked up some of his more playful traits: feigning ignorance, playing with the wait staff, etc. But it’s truer than that, and more intentional.

I never had a very good father figure from whom to learn. He met his obligations, and I’ll credit him with doing the best that he probably good, but his personal skills were that of a rabid weasel. What I learned from my dad was to belittle people, to treat others as malfunctioning objects when they didn’t serve my needs, to resent any aspect of life that did not cater to my desires — in short, to be a colossal schmuck.

My father had a good life right under his nose and rejected it for not matching his dreams. A good job, a big house, a successful wife, kids that did well in school and largely avoided trouble — he dwelled instead on what he didn’t have, which largely resembled a late-night sex comedy on Cinemax. With bagpipes.

Imagine my confusion as I got to know my father-in-law. Ken stayed at a job he didn’t like, a job that hastened his hearing loss and furthered the destruction of his back, because he wanted to support his family. Sure, he wanted other things — who doesn’t? — but the people around him were important enough to put dreams on hold or even give them up. He never acted resentful for it or suggested to anybody that they owed him anything. I saw him grumpy a few times, but his normal disposition was one of good cheer.

I hope this seems perfectly normal to you; it stunned me. That’s not how people behaved, in my experience. Once I processed that he was for real, I realized that I finally had a model for acceptable behavior. This whole “caring about others” approach intrigued me.

So this year with my normal season of reflection approaching, and my frustrations at work growing, I’ve been thinking of Ken. There’s a lot that I get from my job: a good salary, fantastic benefits, and access to a huge collection of reference materials, to name a few. Wendi and I are in easy shot of paying off our bad debts, and we’ve finally started to fix up our house.

Is it really that bad if I don’t get the project I want at work? No. It’s just disappointing. If my car needs a new transmission is it a catastrophe? No. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience. Are Tom Hanks’s Oscar wins a sign of the End Times? Probably. I’m still consulting the ancient texts about that.

The point is that I need to remember to step back from the immediacy of events and put them into a larger context before reacting, because my initial reactions tend to be hyperbolic and aggressive.

In late September I got a head cold. My brain was fogged, and I was tired, so I had difficulty maintaining a civil attitude. I found myself snapping at people and getting angry over minor upsets. Finally I stayed home for a few days, mostly out of fear that I might start screaming at people.

At about the same time, Ken had a hip replacement and a double bypass in rapid succession. His chief complaint appeared to be that his butt hurt from all the lying around, and he joked with the nurses during his recovery.

Perspective. I need some in order to be less of a schmuck.