Saturday, April 17, 2010

long way down the holiday road

Further away than the most fuel efficient car could drive on a single tank of gas, out where the world and the sky met each other in a secret communion few human eyes had ever seen, a jeep trundled through the dirt. No roads out here, in this forsaken expanse of land. A country of 300 million people and even in all of that teeming life there were places like this, raw places that felt as though they were cast out of time.

Not that I appreciate that enough to keep it unspoiled, Palmer thought to himself as the jeep bounced over a few rocks and then coasting evenly over the hard packed dirt. He wasn’t all that comfortable being off road still, but it was his turn to drive. Still, he didn’t believe in cars existing off of roads. That’s what they were there for. If a train skipped its tracks it was derailed and it was a disaster. Why should a car be so different?

The body in the other seat shifted slightly, making a small noise from inside the comfort of her blanket. It was still early morning, the sun barely rising, and the air was cold. The blanket slipped from her as she turned and stretched and yawned. One hand came up to sleepily rub at her eyes. 

“Good morning, sleepy head.”

“How long was I out?” Lucy asked, looking over at the horizon, a thin orange fingernail slowly creeping up above the faint line of hills far distant.

“Oh, maybe seven hours or so. Not too long.”  Palmer reached up and turned on the music. This far out, they weren’t getting anything for radio. But they had come prepared with dozens of CDs.

Lucy groaned as the first track came on and fell back against her seat. “This again? C’mon, Palmer, you have to be kidding me. We can’t be doing this every morning.”

“It’s not my fault you have no taste in music.”  Palmer didn’t take his eyes too far off the ground ahead of him. There had been too many boulders coming out of the darkness last night. That would be the last time he’d offer to drive through the night. They could stop and camp next time.

“I bought like … twenty CDs neither of us have ever heard before. And yet you’ve gotta go and put in the one you’ve listened to a thousand times. How long has it been since Marton Syan broke up anyway? Like … five years?”

“Three years,” Palmer said, trying not to get too annoyed with her. This was part of the morning ritual, after all. 

“Let it go, superfan.” She hit the eject button on the CD player and the first track stopped no more than two minutes in. Each morning she let it play a little shorter. Soon it’d be out of the CD player entirely. Palmer felt like he was being weaned off of cigarettes. Thank god she hadn’t actually tried that. He might leave her out here to be eaten by vultures. 

She slid in another CD and then twisted around to pull out a water bottle from the back seat.  “You all right driving for a little while? I’d like to have breakfast before I take over.” 

“Be my guest,” Palmer said. “I’m fine. Never mind the seven hours of driving, all of it in the complete dark, with starlight and a nearly new moon and some piddly little headlights to light my way.”

“Aw, poor Palmy,” Lucy said, leaning up against him and hugging his arm.  “I appreciate all the driving you did to get us out here, though. That’s gotta count for something, right?” 

Palmer rolled his eyes.  “Sure does, it counts as one you owe me next time I want to take a ridiculous vacation and you try to back out of it.”

“Oh, c’mon, this hasn’t been all bad. Besides, it’s not as if you had anything better to do.” 

Palmer didn’t answer her, his jaw clenching as he continued to drive out out further than the middle of nowhere. He wasn’t going to get mad, wasn’t going to start a fight. Not here, where they could argue and fight and shout and still had to sit in the same jeep, endless miles ahead and behind and long hours that would have to be passed in stony silence. That was too much like his dim memories of childhood trips with his own parents.

“Anyway, we’re almost there, thanks to you,” Lucy said as she tore open an energy bar and began to pick it apart.  “We’ll be there by afternoon, set up the tent, cook some dinner, and kick back. You’ll feel a lot better with a hot meal in you.” 

“I’d feel a lot better with a long shower,” Palmer said.  “Maybe your dirty hippy Asian skin is immune to kind of hard travel, but I feel gross.”

“Don’t act like such a bourgeoisie. We’re going primal. Out here in the land where our great great great and so on ancestors lived.  And all you can think about is getting back to your big city and running water and decadent American excesses.” She fell into giggles and leaned against him. Palmer looked down at her, her dark hair pulled back into a messy ponytail and her eyes bright as she ate her breakfast.

Palmer’s jaw loosened though he tried not to smile to himself. If she was going to try so hard to get under his skin, he wasn’t going to give her the pleasure of an easy reaction. He drove on in silence. With the sun up, the path ahead was much clearer, and he pressed the accelerometer down, the jeep creeping up to 50 … 60 …

“Hey, lead foot, where’s the fire?” Lucy was sitting up, a bit nervous as the speedometer crept forward. Palmer knew that after a day in a half of him complaining about not being comfortable driving on this kind of terrain, she wasn’t about to trust him pushing it. Which was all the more reason to speed up.

“C’mon, Palmer, this isn’t safe.”

“What?  Safe? I thought you wanted tribal. Animal instincts, y’know, to go as hard and fast as I can. Cutting loose.” The needle slipped past 70. The jeep was really shaking now, tearing across the flat land ahead of them. Palmer was intent, watching for anything that was coming. Not that it would matter, there was no time to dodge it if it did.

“No, no, stop.” Lucy was sitting up, one hand tentatively resting on the dash like a bird about to take flight. Palmer grinned, not taking his eyes off the road.

“Come on, Lucy. Where’s your sense of adventure? Let go, live a little!”

“You bastard! Stop this fucking jeep right now or so help me I’ll rip your throat out when you finally do.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Palmer said. The needle rose up to 80, hovering. He was flooring it, but on the ground this was about as good as their heavily loaded jeep was going to get. Still, at this speed it was terrifying, ripping across the landscape with lunatic haste.

“Palmer, c’mon, stop it! Stop it!”  She was freaking out, sitting there clutching the dashboard for dear life.

Palmer kept going, but turned to look at her.  “You going to let me listen to my music, just a little bit, in the mornings? And stop teasing me for growing up in a civilized place with lights and buildings and fancy stuff like that?” 

“Fine,” she said. “Just stop!”

Palmer knew better than to slam on the breaks, slowing down carefully. The needle began to fall, then fall faster, down to 50 and 40 and then all the way down as Palmer brought the jeep to a full stop and put it into park.

“You’re an asshole!” Lucy started the moment they had stopped, her fear turning quickly into anger. Palmer remembered her how she used to be, younger and angry and a constant foil to him. It was pleasing to see her like this. The anger put red high up on her cheeks and brought a shocking clarity to her eyes.

“I know, I know,” Palmer said, keeping his hands resting on the wheel. “And yet who was the one who dragged me out here when I have a deadline just two weeks away and a whole stack of things to do beforehand?”

Lucy balled her hands into fists, still glaring at him.  “You agreed to it!”

“I was coerced,” Palmer said. “I was promised beautiful vistas and you ravaging me under the wide open sky. Also, that I could drive your new jeep.”

“I’ll let the coyote’s ravage you,” Lucy said.

“I’m the one in the driver’s seat.”

“I’ll move you.”

“Try it," Palmer answered with an indifferent shrug. 

She reached forward to shove him, but Palmer was ready for her. He grabbed her hands by the wrists and tugged her forward, so that she was set off balanced and leaned forward into him. He let go of her wrists and lifted her head and leaned down and kissed her. It was slow and sweet and he could feel her initial surprise melt as she leaned further into him.

When he pulled away, she glared at him. “You know you’re not out of the dog house yet, right?”

Palmer smiled. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful when you’re angry?”

“You, every time you make me angry. But I don’t believe it.” 

“Why not?”

“Because if it was true, you wouldn’t work so effectively to immediately diffuse it.”  She punched him in the shoulder and pushed off of him, settling back into the seat. “Now hurry up. You’re wasting daylight.”

“Yes ma’am,” Palmer said. He put the car back into drive and pulled forward. He was going a much more measured rate of speed, now. 

He glanced over at her. She was looking at him, a reluctant smile tugging at her lips. Palmer responded with a bigger grin of his own. She wrinkled her nose up at him. Palmer burst into laughter.

“Yeah, yeah. Just wait. When I’m driving I’ll flip us and make sure your stupid face gets crushed by rocks.”

“I love you, too,” Palmer said. He turned up the radio, and the two of them continued their long drive away from absolutely everything but the place where the land met the sky and they would be alone together.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Regarding the Man on the Lawn – a #fridayflash

To Sheriff Oliver,

I’m writing to inform you that I once again saw an unidentified man out on the lawn just the other day, out right in front of my house at [redacted]. This is after the guarantee by your Deputy Matthews that there certainly was NOT a man out on my lawn during this past weekend when I called your office to report just such a man a total of five times.

In order to keep things neat and tidy and not have to spend another two hours on hold with your receptionist waiting for you or the Deputy to become available, I’m going to write down here exactly what happened as clear as I can remember it. Not sure it’ll help, though. It’s not much different than the report I filed last week.

I was out watering the nasturtiums yesterday morning when I first saw him this week. Apparently your Deputy’s car had scared him away during the weekend but now he was back again, standing on the edge of my lawn the same as ever. He was a nondescript man, maybe in his 30s or 40s. Just like any other guy you’d see. Though he was wearing a suit. Let me tell you, that’s rare enough these days. Men casually out in suits is one of those things I thought had died back before computers were invented.

He was just standing there watching me watering my nasturtiums. Normally I wouldn’t mind that. My nasturtiums are the pride of the block, ask anybody. But this was just how it started last week and I wasn’t having any more of his loitering. I turned towards him and shut off the water spray. I told him to leave and that I didn’t want him hanging around my property again, but he didn’t give any indication that he was listening to me.

I went back to watering my nasturtiums, hoping that he’d respond to the cold shoulder. It must have worked, because when I glanced back at where he was standing over my shoulder he was gone. Satisfied, I gave it no more thought until noontime when I was making lunch. I had just put together a modest plate of egg salad sandwiches and was carrying them out onto the porch to eat when I saw the man had returned.

This time he was standing in front of my nasturtiums, not twenty feet from where I stood. I nearly dropped my plate of sandwiches, he startled me so bad. I set the plate down and then leaned over the porch railing to shake my fist at him. I told him he had no right to be on my property, that I was going to call the cops again if he didn’t listen to me and get out of my yard instantly.

He didn’t seem to listen at first, just staring at the nasturtiums. I wondered if he wasn’t deaf or mentally ill or something, but he looked too slick for that. No crazy ever wore a suit so well who wasn’t a politician. And no politician would be standing in Sweetcreek looking at my nasturtiums. I gave him another warning and then walked inside to get the phone. By the time I picked up the receiver and dialed I noticed that out the window, he was no longer in front of the flowers.

I have to admit here that I did hang up on your receptionist. Maybe there’s a note of a call from yesterday around noon in your records. That was me. Sorry for not calling back to clarify, but I was so surprised that I hung up the phone. That guy was like a damn ghost, appearing and disappearing. I almost thought that maybe he was a ghost, but when I went out to make sure he was gone I saw that he had left footprints in the still wet ground near the flowers.

I decided to think nothing of it, and went about the rest of my business. I’m a busy man, for a retired person. And the mysterious guy seemed to have finally given up for good. So I finally settled down and spent the rest of my day in peace.

This morning, roughly 6:23 AM, I woke up to find the man standing on my lawn again. He was as immobile as always, standing just on the border of my lawn looking at the house. I couldn’t tell how long he had been there or what exactly he was looking at. But him being out there greatly disturbed me. People shouldn’t be lingering on lawns at that time of the morning.

So I called the police. And you guys said that you’d sent a patrol car out. Which was the last time I heard from you. Because despite me having a valid complaint, you see fit to treat me like some kind of kook. No patrol car has come past here, nobody’s shown up to check in on me. It’s been hours. At least the sun’s fully risen, though I’m not completely sure what time it is. Still nobody coming.

I have to admit that in my 80 years living in Sweetcreek I’ve NEVER seen such disregard for the complaints of a local citizen. I’m sure if the same complaint came from someone who owned a business or sat on the city counsel, you’d have the deputy up here checking things out. Instead it’s just me, waiting while that … that MAN is out on the lawn.

He started right on the edge of my property. It was barely a trespass, just the toes of his shined shoes hanging over the lip of the sidewalk. But it was enough. Yet by the time I got back from talking to the dispatcher at the police station, I found that he had advanced some two feet into the yard. His expression and pose hadn’t moved. In fact, I had never actually seen him move before.

And so it’s gone for the past four or five hours. I’ll watch him, standing there staring off into space. Then he’ll be so strange and immobile that I can’t bare to look at him, yet when I look back he’ll be a few feet closer. Now he’s standing right in front of the three concrete steps that lead to the porch. He’s kindly stayed put while I wrote this letter, but who knows how fast he’ll advance now that I'm finishing? Will he climb the stairs soundlessly? Will he open the door without me looking? What will he do after he’s here?

I don’t have the answers. I shouldn’t have to provide them. I pay your salaries, you assholes, and you didn’t come to check out my damn house when I gave you the damn phone call. I hope you’re happy.


Horace Waterson

[ Mr. Waterson was reported missing some 6 hours later by a jogger who happened by and noticed the door was open and nobody was home. Police found the letter, but no evidence of forced entry or a struggle. Mr. Waterson’s whereabouts are still unknown. ]

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Velour Septic Tank – Some Twilight Saga Impressions

So since I got a nook, I decided that one of the first tasks I should undertake was wading my way through that paragon of tweens and housewives, that epitome of the zeitgeist, that effigy that most people seem ready to string up and burn. Yes, that’s right, I read the Twilight books.

I’m not going to waste a ton of space on this, because I imagine there’s nearly as much text on the internet devoted to Twilight as there is to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter at this point. Unlike those books, though, Twilight is often commented on through reputation alone.

So, as a hater who likes to feel self-righteous about saying something is bad, I had to read them myself. Just so I knew, y’know? I mean, they were probably ridiculous, what with sparkly vampires and all. But I read through the latter half of Anne Rice’s vampire books. How bad could this be, in comparison?

I will never ask that question rhetorically again.

Anyone who follows me on twitter probably followed with some degree of schadenfreude my blow by blow response to the experience of reading through the tetralogy for myself. I was kind of exaggerating the melodrama, but my reactions were honest.

The Twilight Saga is bad. Not just ‘not for me’ but genuinely bad. Badly written, badly conceived, badly executed. I could easily say that it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read, but since I don’t normally seek out bad books, I’m a poor metric. I will say that it’s the worst example of tasteless bestselling fiction I’ve ever seen. Stephanie Meyer makes Dan Brown look like William Faulkner.

The worst part of this series is that it didn’t even start out all that terrible. Twilight (the first book, to clarify) isn’t that terribly written. It’s rough and kind of slim, but it reads with the tentative steps into a world of unreality that isn’t too far off from Harry Potter. Sure, it’s a more romantic bent instead of a school days adventure one, but there is an everyman heroine who encounters the supernatural and takes to it. There’s an arc, a villain, some motivations. It’s not good, but it’s not abysmal.

But as soon as Twilight ends the series drops into the depths of the most ridiculous fucking melodrama this side of telemundo. And the worst part is, I’m not sure how this could have happened.

What you have is basically just a boy-meets-girl-but-circumstances-drive-them-apart. It’s cliche, but it’s a cliche that works. Or should work. But instead of keeping that the story, it drifts into both characters worrying about hurting each other, brooding over each other’s absence and the consequences of their forbidden love.  Which might be fine in the hands of a good writer, but here it has all the grace of a brick thrown at a curio cabinet. All the delicate minarets of girlish fantasy crushed by the weight of adult escapism into bodice-ripping wish-fulfillment.

And that’s really the problem with the series. For all the other problems, the glaring problem is that the story centers around an avatar of the author that is given everything good and wonderful and to whom nothing REALLY bad ever happens. The only real threat and villain is in the first book. After that every character continually assures Bella and the reader that everything is fine, and it always is. You can’t have your only source of tension your main character’s lack of faith in the people who are telling empirically sound truths to her until they’re blue in the face. Not that vampires can get blue in the face.

There’s a thing in fan fiction called Mary Sue. It’s when a writer injects a character that is a shallow facade of the author who gets to interact with the character of their dreams. And there’s no doubt that Bella Swan is a Mary Sue in a fanfic all her own. She is fought over by two good looking men, is able to pick whichever she wants, becomes a vampire that’s better than all the other vampires, becomes rich and fabulous (even though she was always beautiful to everyone other than herself) and who lives happily ever after. Every good guy likes her. And everyone who hates her is the bad guy. I’d call it an insult to my intelligence, but my intelligence shatters upon the coral of Isle Stupid.

I could go on and on and point out how this Mary Sue is poorly used in relationships that are unhealthy at best and abusive at worst, but … well, unhealthy relationships are a part of young romance. It’s that one that is so poorly mismanaged has gathered such a rabid fanbase that strikes me as the worst part of this whole series of books.

And let me tell you, I don’t begrudge a young girl who looks at this books and wishes she was Bella Swan and that she had a vampire and werewolf fighting over her. We’re all dumb at 14. We all have our wish fulfillment fantasies. But it isn’t the teen audience that’s pushed Twilight fandom to the ridiculous heights its at now, it is the adult fanbase.

I think that bears repeating. There are adults—people with jobs and children and mortgages and whatnot—who enjoy Twilight. Who love Twilight. And that’s baffling to me. Childhood dreaming is all well and good, but at a certain point people learn some damn sense. And at that point, I don’t know how a sane person could look at the Twilight saga as anything other than one woman’s warped perception of what teen romance should be like.

These people are the problem. There’s plenty of bad writers in the world. There’s plenty of teenagers who haven’t developed taste or have the scope to see the conclusions and consequences of the narrative threads in books like Twilight. But adults who buy into this shit? They are the ones that have driven this series into the greater public eye.

And to those people, I say … have some respect for yourself. Read something that isn’t mindless wish fulfillment. Art is about more than that. You’re the assholes made Transformers 2 a success. Because apparently being entertained on a base level is okay, even if you have to have your intelligence insulted along the way. 

This has been pretty rambling, but I didn’t want to go on at full length, so you’re getting a kind of scattershot of feelings about Twilight. But really, when we break it down, I can just say this—if you want to understand good writing better, reading Twilight is a great learning experience. Just understand what you’re getting into. Because around page 1000 of the same 2 plot points being regurgitated on the page, I about threw my nook.

For anyone who doesn’t have that morbid sense of obligation, stay away. Stay very, very far away. Every bad thing you heard was true. Every. Single. Thing.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hrothgar a Go Go

Once upon a time, Hrothgar was a pretty badass king. Being Danish, he knew how to throw down when the occasion called for it. This wasn’t modern Denmark, that country rarely heard from in the European conglomeration, but the land of big Viking bastards who would slay dragons and generally make a bad day for everyone they crossed.

Now Hrothgar lived in a hall named Heorot, which is ‘hall of the hart’. It’s a name with two meanings, though both of them spoke to the prowess of their great king. First, Hrothgar was a man known for his animalistic passions and insatiable appetites. And second … well, let’s just say that the hall guard is now much more on alert that random forest animals didn’t wander into the hall when the King ordered the mead to flow freely.

Needless to say, despite all the old timey-ness, Heorot was a pretty fly place.

Sooner or later that kind of excess draws some attention, of course. If you’re just a serf kicking back in your hovel, the guards will kick down your door. If you’re some middle of the road middle-management bastard, the King himself might step in to make sure you aren’t having too much fun.  But when you’re King of the land, there typically isn’t anybody who can tell you ‘enough is enough.’

Which is where Beowulf comes in. 

Now, I see that you’re thinking ‘What about Grendel? Big messed up monster come killing people, that’s gotta be a problem, right?’

Sure, it might be, if it was a big monster running around ripping people apart these days. We can’t abide that shit. We have problems when our fast food order isn’t right. You think people today could deal with Grendel? They’d shit their pants and curl up and die of fright. 

But back in the day, these Danes were pretty hardcore. Mythological motherfuckers were coming out of every crevice and shadow and hole to spoil the party. No, monsters like Grendel were about as common as armor chafing. Yeah, it sucked, but it came with the territory. 

But you see, the Danes were taking their sweet time getting around to dealing with Grendel. Hard to get motivated when you’ve got a party hall and an unlimited supply of drink and wenches to go with it, am I right or am I right? But poor old Hrothgar, happy on his throne, forgot the cardinal rule of the ancient rule—no matter what kind of badass army you command, somewhere is a place more cold and more desolate where a more badass hero with a bigger sword and a bigger dick is just waiting to fuck up your shit.

Seriously, check your epic tales. Right up there with plucky sidekicks and tragic endings on the cliche scale.

So Beowulf was this viciously gleeful bastard who had made a name for himself going around the world and taking on all sorts of mythic beasts and abominations for the fame and ladies that came with such glory. He was also a Geat. Which was an early name for ‘hella Swedish.’  He sailed a ship full of type A macho frat boy assholes who came to kill things and claim credit.

Of course, Hrothgar had known Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow way back when when Ecgtheow had been a pretty cool guy. But sometimes the apple falls pretty far from the tree, y’know? And while Hrothgar remembered fondly the times he and Ecgtheow had chilled in front of the fire, Beowulf barged right in and demanded the hospitality that his father had been shown.

Now Hrothgar was a pretty stand up guy. And it wasn’t like Beowulf had just driven across town and crashed at his pad. Sending him back would be a weeks-long affair. So he rolled out the red carpet and put down bedding for Beowulf’s men and offered them all the things he had to share.

Beowulf partook of as much of this as he could, but then turned around and told Hrothgar that he was here to slay his monster for him. Now, hundreds of years have passed and it’s hard to relate, but that’s like telling another person you’ll scratch their ass for them or spank their kids or sleep with their wife.  It’s an imposition.

A damn frustrating imposition too, because you can’t just say ‘oh, no, don’t kill the murderous monster, I rather like him.’  If you haven’t had the time to get around to killing him yourself yet, suddenly the Hero is here to steal all the glory and leaves you looking like the asshole. Hrothgar knew that Beowulf had him by the short and curlies, so he agreed.

Beowulf and his men took control of Heorot and finally trapped Grendel. Beowulf, that grandstanding ass, fought Grendel hand to hand, without clothing, when Grendel surprised them one night. Let me tell you, it’s bad enough to have some foreigner showing up to slay your monsters, but when he can do it bare ass naked and come out of it just fine, it really busts your balls.

Beowulf even did him one further by going out and fucking up Grendel’s mother, too. Two monsters for the price of one. In one visit, Beowulf had totally shaken up the power base of Hrothgar. And yeah, maybe Hrothgar wasn’t the best monster slayer around, but he was a good King and he kept his people as chill as you can keep a group of beefed up Danish warrior types.

Beowulf took the credit and some cash and split. Because Beowulf never stayed around when the dust had settled and the blood was drying on the wall. That guy had Shit. To. Do. So Hrothgar paid him and wished him well, secretly bummed out and ready to hit the mead harder. 

Because that’s what happens when Beowulf passes through. He just sucks out all the glory of life, and leaves you a broken King sitting in a hall another man conquered. You’re just Hrothgar, the guy who paid Beowulf to kill his monsters. They don’t call the epic Hrothgar, The Baddest Motherfucker in Denmark, do they? Noooooo. 

The moral of this story? Fight your own monsters, even if you’d rather drink your mead. And tell those heroes who would do it for you just where they can step off and go the hell back to Sweden.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Intangibility and Me – a future story

nookereaderSo, as anyone who’s following me on Twitter knows, I went out and bought a nook a few weeks  ago. This wasn’t a purchase I made lightly—nor should any purchase of such a high dollar value, but that’s not what this blog post is about—or without a lot of consideration of what it meant to take that step.

Buying the nook pushed me firmly into the 21st century model of content distribution. With my netflix account, I haven’t purchased a DVD in over 6 months, and the last movie I bought was Wrath of Khan so I could have it on my iPod. I shop exclusively through the various MP3 stores of the internet. I couldn’t imagine buying a music CD anymore. Since my drift towards PC gaming, I continue to keep up my goal of never purchasing a PC game that isn’t a download. Digital distribution of media is something I’ve been sinking deeper and deeper into as the years pass.

So why are books any different?

I know all the traditional arguments. Because I’ve made them myself in the past. There’s something special about books. The tangibility of turning pages. The sight of them all on a shelf, neatly arranged. The act of going into a book store and browsing through dozens of titles, hunting for deals, etc.

And you know what? I get it. I really do. The tactile sensation of reading isn’t lost on me. I remember the summer I lugged a gigantic hardbound copy of Stephen King’s The Stand with me on a road trip to Mount Rushmore. I was 13, and the book was bigger than my head. Hell, the book still might be bigger than my head. And that weighty tome imparted a certain gravitas to what I was experiencing. So don’t think I’m not numb to the joy that is a proper dead tree book.

But I really do need to be realistic about my life. I don’t have space anymore. My neat rows of bookshelves became a massive pile of boxes when I moved multiple times in the past seven years. And they’re still a pile of boxes. Heavy, frustrating, dust-collecting boxes. And when I would buy new books, they’d go on a ‘to be read’ shelf that grew and grew and just became more daunting over time. I would shop for deals at used book stores, not for what I wanted to read, but for what I knew was something I might be interested in and could get for cheap.

It’s a poor way to digest media, this scattershot method.

It got to the point where I just stopped reading altogether. In 2009 I read a total of one and a half books. I just couldn’t bring myself to go shopping for new books when my shelves were sagging under the weight and the boxes continued to stack ever more precariously in the closet.

I don’t have to tell you that, as a writer and lifelong reader and just an intelligent thinking person in the modern world, reading one and a half books in a year is completely, utterly unacceptable. 

Something had to change. 

Which is what brought me to this solution. Dead tree books are great, but they don’t compact well. The best thing that ever happened to my movie watching was Netflix, with the ability to compress all the things I wanted to see into one digital list. It created a proper queue, with guidelines and scope and manageability. Surely technology was up to the task to salvage my reading in a similar manner.

Which is what lead me to e-readers. I won’t bore you with the decision making process on why I settled on a nook over the obviously more popular Kindle other than

  1. ePUB support allowed me to shop outside of Amazon’s walled garden (and rent ebooks from my local library, which is a concept so fabulously futuristic that I salivate just thinking about it)
  2. aesthetic considerations, shallow as they may be
  3. who doesn’t want to support the up and comer taking on the establishment? (see early Apple fanboy fervor back in the day)

So I went and purchased the device. And that’s really the key here, the thing that I think makes the ereader a wonderful, long-term replacement for dead tree books—the device. You are not giving up tangibility, you’re trading one tactile interface for another. But instead of the interface being unique to the media (the experience of reading a book like Lord of the Rings is vastly different than a book like Animal Farm, just in terms of physical sensation) you have this all encompassing object that becomes the portal to unlimited future experience.

I know that I’m prone to getting overly attached to my technology, but it’s hard not to see my nook as an intellectual window into the infinite. What knowledge I want, I can receive. It’s abilities are limited only by my desire to best make use of them. I am enamored with that potential.

Sure, there’s no new book smell, but I’ll never break another spine again. Yes, I don’t have the pleasure of turning pages anymore, but my reading goes just as fast as it used to back in the analog days. And yes, you miss that downhill feeling when the left hand starts holding more of the book than the right hand and you know that the story is drawing ever on to its inexorable close. I could see missing that most of all. But in its place is the all-powerful progress bar, the object that any internet user and gamer sees as a temporary Holy Grail, a dragon to be slain, a mountain to be climbed. It’s the same experience of pace expressed in a more modern context. It takes some adjusting, but I found I’ve adjusted just fine. 

So I’ve given up my bookshelves for a virtual library, a series of covers I scroll through on a small touch screen. Maybe it’s not as satisfying on a creature comfort level, but it’s given books back to me. And that’s the one thing that is beyond all of the other arguments over format or experience. I feel excitement to read again, and that’s the real invaluable gift this has brought me.

I’m sure the books versus ebooks war will continue on for quite some time. But I’ve taken my side. And it was the side I was moving towards all along. I don’t need things. I just need experience. I don’t want a collection, I just wish for knowledge. Objects I can let go of, watch them float away. My book collection never really had any more permanence than I was willing to let it have, and now it’s truly nonexistent.

I don’t feel upset about that. I feel happy that all of those boxes are just so much old baggage that I can freely cut loose.

Pages on the wind, bytes on a drive, here one minute and gone the next.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Discs Ashore - Desert Island Movies

So I was greeting this morning by a blog post from Elizabeth Ditty about desert island movies. It originated elsewhere, but put simply it is the idea that if you were stranded on a desert island and had only 8 movies to bring with you (assuming that there was a working DVD player and television on the island) what 8 movies would you pick?

The way I approached this is to find a spread of movies that were engaging on a variety of levels. Some I'd be able to approach intellectually, peeling them apart like a puzzle box. Others would be simple, easy enjoyment. So let's see how this list shakes out.

8 1/2 - Easily the most cerebral film on this list, I chose Fellini's most famous work as an exercise in intellectual stimulation. There's a lot of indulgence on this list, but 8 1/2 is a movie that I feel would offer up endless questions and rewards on subsequent viewings. Besides, there's always room for one 'art' film on any list.

Clue - Yes, THAT Clue. And why not? It's among my favorite comedies, despite hardly being a 'good' movie. It's inventive, zany, and full of absurdity. If I ever needed to laugh, Clue would provide it. It's infectiously ridiculous.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - It doesn't hurt that this movie's nearly 3 hours long, but I couldn't go anywhere without it. My favorite film to look at, this epic spaghetti western stands in for all of the possible Tarantino choices I could have made, as well. In its vistas are all the stuff of epic heroes, writ large in close up. A must-have for passing the time away.

Lost in Translation - Kind of an indulgent choice, Lost in Translation is kind of goofy and maybe not the most popular movie around, but I adore it so. The perfect blend of understated romance and culture shock, Japan is very much the third character in this movie. A whirlwind of sights and emotion. For the days when I want to indulge in some melancholy.

Cast Away - Almost a joke entry, but I'm very serious about why a joke entry needs to be there. If I'm going to be on a desert island, keeping a sense of humor about my situation will be vital to my survival. And Cast Away is just about the perfect film to repackage my predicament in a way that I can both mock and appreciate. Cast Away will get me through those dark nights of the soul, where I stand on the beach and look out at the ocean and shout "WIIIIIIILSOOOOON!"

Spirited Away - This one isn't hard to justify. It's probably my favorite film. Certainly always in the top three. Miyazaki's masterpiece is full of imagination and magic. It's uplifting, inspiring, and every scene is packed with amazing things to look at. If I had to pick ONE movie for my desert island trip, it would be this one.

Blade Runner - Blade Runner almost lost to Casablanca. Might as well be up front about that. But upon thinking about it, while they both provide a distilled, near-perfect noir experience, Blade Runner has more to offer in its huge vistas, its echoes of Metropolis, it's imagination and abstraction.

An American in Paris - I needed one musical on this list, and while the competition was fierce, An American in Paris won out. It's probably my favorite Gene Kelly film, and there's that huge ballet sequence in the finale. This is one that I could drift in hundreds of times and still be swept up by the color and spectacle.

And those are the eccentric eight. Feel free to share your own!