Monday, December 27, 2010

R2D2 - Sex Dwarf of the Spaceways

So I've been talking about watching Star Wars in another language, to see if the experience changed if I didn't cringe every time someone opened their fucking mouths. (Say what you will about Star Wars, George Lucas has an ear for dialog that is infallibly leaden.) So I put on the DVD, clicked French for the language, and No Subtitles, then followed it up with The Empire Strikes back. The result was a bit of a shock.

First off, it became totally obvious that droids are slaves. Boom, that simple, and all of a sudden Star Wars got nine kinds of ugly on me. That scene where the Jawas are selling the droids to Luke's uncle was actually a little chilling -- Luke simply has no idea that he's doing anything wrong, and neither does Lucas. I've been watching the damned movie since it came out and it had never struck me before. Luke is Mister fucking Charlie. Holy shit.

So R2D2 is a slave. Well, it gets worse. You know how he beeps and boops instead of talking? They did that on purpose. I mean, it's not like they'd have to get R2 any new hardware. If he can run a mind and he's got a speaker, he's an app away from speaking directly. It probably wouldn't even cost anything; it's probably available as freeware.

This is the equivalent of cutting out a slave's tongue.

And then there came the moment when R2D2 interfaces with the Death Star's central computer, and it dawned on me that the R2 unit had a unit. He was fucking the Death Star, which is actually much cooler than blowing it up.

But I can hear you saying, "Sean, you're reading too much into it. Just because R2D2 springs a stiff rod from the center of his body and thrusts it into a hole is no reason to go laying some weird sexual interpretation on things."

To which I can only say; in The Empire Strikes Back, they have a right hole/wrong hole joke.

The whole thing was like that. It was appalling. And the attitude of vague contempt for the droids... I mean, R2 is a wonderful little fellow, but whatever would he do with himself if he didn't have an owner?

That wasn't the worst, though. I spent way too much time thinking about Yoda's hair. Study the scalp of the wise one -- at one point in his life, he had total Larry hair. I'm picturing him in his salad days -- poor bastard probably started going bald in his twenties -- cruising around, trying to pick up girls with his little green stooge head.

Why the hell do I do this stuff to myself?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best Oaf of the Year

The entire yard is like this, pretty much. Living with the missus is like being in a Clarke Ashton Smith story.

So, I've got a couple of hours to kill before we head over to my sister's house -- I'm giving 'em a collection of the Palomar stories from early Love and Rockets. They're going to Bermuda with my sister's pal Cintra, and I figure this will be something the whole lot of them can read in rotation. Now, I could do something productive, but I'm in a pensive mood, and it's freaking Giftmas. So rather than just kill time, I'm gonna take a quick look back at the last year of the blog, and hunt down all the stuff that's actually worth reading.


Well, that wasn't too bad. It is a little distressing to see that the blog has so little material in it that isn't interesting if you're not into the Sean show, but hey -- seventeen casual essays in a year is not at all terrible, right? Right.

So here we go with the cavalcade of fun!


The Watercolor Pad

Brass Knuckles

Sleazy Elephant

The Hayworth Principle

Flossing and Art

The Atheism Posts:

Green Chili Ratatouille

In Which I Lose Decisively



A Child's Garden of Serial Killers

Notes to a Fellow Writer

Helping Anonymous

Going by Appearances

Amazon is Amoral and Complicit

Woohoo! Road Trip!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ghost Rock Lives

So. I have a few pieces of work to do before I set in on the main task, but the time has come to start working on the hopefully-final version of the novel. I honestly do not know if this is the ninth, tenth, or whateverth draft -- there have been so many fucking fractional drafts it's a meaningless question. The collected manuscript would only have to be dropped about five feet to kill a mule.

The thing to keep in mind is that this novel is how I learned to write. It has been my schooling. And now it's time to finish it off. I am grateful for all the assistance, advice, and criticism I've received. But it's time to stop relying on on other people's opinions.

I write one draft, aiming for three thousand words a day. Write in the morning, revise the previous day's output in the evening. Do one draft, wait three weeks, give it a once-over, send it out to two readers, one last combing, and off. Be a pro.

This shouldn't be that hard. I've written the damned thing nine or ten or eleven-point-eight-three-four times already.

So. To prepare, there are a few things I need to change in the outline.

First off, I need to track all the major incidents in the plot and make sure the lead character responds appropriately to them. Some of the high points so far are his realistic reactions to events that are taken for granted in adventure fiction; I need to make sure that happens throughout.

I need to go through and show his feelings toward himself, and how they change in specific reaction to those around him. I need to show him working and preparing as an artist throughout the book.

Right now the most dramatic, important event in the book happens in the third chapter, and neither the reader nor the protagonist have any idea what's going on. That must change -- the big event goes to the end, and when it comes, everyone knows what it is.

I need to plot the changes in the supernatural world more visibly. I hint at things in the last draft that I need to state clearly -- things which will reinforce deep thematic issues. I'm going to try and and make a serious point about materialism in a seemingly supernatural situation by using the evolution of vertebral pneumasticity in giant cattle. Essentially, each time the protagonist shows up in the supernatural world, it will be as if that world is in a different geological epoch, with the environmental changes relating to plot issues. Fun times.

And I need to make the supernatural elements completely consistent. Right now, there are still some key events that seem to happen without reason. I need to fit them in or eliminate them. Which would be a bitch, because one of them is everyone's favorite scene.

Finally, once that's all done? I'm going to do a plot breakdown of the novel, analyzing each scene for its contribution to the story and making adjustments to smooth things out.

When the time comes to actually write, there will be a few fairly major changes in approach. I'll be going from first person, past tense, to first person, present tense. I'm doing this because the story is a stream-of-consciousness piece.

Given that, there won't be chapters any more. I'll hate to say good-bye to the chapter titles, but losing the artificial breaks and cliffhanger chapter endings will be a real relief.

Rather than the speed-loaded start from the last draft, I'm going back to a plodding, stolid, "Here is the man, this is his world," approach, letting there be a nice long stretch at the start where it isn't clear whether it's really a book about a crazy person.

I get to do some prose skylarking. I get to have a miserable, fucked-up protagonist. I get to be hard to understand.

Most importantly, this gets to be flawed. This is such a strange, twisted, inadvertent piece of work that there's no way to expect it to be perfect. It wasn't planned. It grew. Like a fungus. So it is going to be organic, gnarly, and weird. Most people won't be able to read it. It might not be as bad as, say, Pynchon. It might be worse.

That's fine.

I just want to get this over with!

Alert! Alert!

The Missus read this and she was very upset that I implied that the novel might be difficult to read -- "It's incredibly readable!" was her indignant statement on the subject. She's a big reader in the Holly Lisle/Robin Hobb/Mercedes Lackey section, so I figure the crossover potential is going to be through the roof.

Swill Is Here! Swill Is Here!

No more desperate evidence of my haplessness exists than this: I conceived and executed this cover with the intention of selling out. This, my friends, is Swill at its most commercial.


So this issue of Swill has been particularly grueling. It is late as hell and it is all my fault. Well, when you require art of a crazy person sometimes there will be a delay.

One thing should be made clear. This volume is, to a greater degree than any previous one, the product of cronyism. Nepotism seems to loom in our future. So let me make this clear to anyone who resents the fact that a lot of the people we publish are people we know.

First, the submissions go through Rob before they get to me. So we've probably rejected half my relatives and I haven't heard about it yet. And those who are closest to me can attest to the delicacy of touch with which I approach their creative efforts. Which means I'm kind of a bastard to them. Because this shit is important.

Second, do you think it is easy to find work that's worth publishing? Jesus, all the people writing, writing, writing, you'd think it would be crawling out of the fucking woodwork, but no --

(I don't suppose the fact that we're an obscure magazine that doesn't pay has anything to do with this.)

-- but no, I have to badger, beg, and bat my nasty little squint eyes to get some fucking proper fiction. Out of necessity, I only have friends and relatives who are decent stylists. Damnit.

This is borne out by the other thing that I need to make clear.

Best issue so far.

The last two were fascinating deviations, and it'll be interesting to see if the dice roll that way ever again. The work that came in was all of a piece, literary neo-pulp. I felt like I was doing a punk version of Black Mask or something.

This issue is like the first issue, done right. We have a much wider variety of fiction, a more diverse crop of writers, a finally-perfected layout... (I worked like a bastard on the typesetting this time around. A real designer would have no trouble, but that ain't what I am.) It's more well-rounded, more experimental, less relentlessly negativistic, and still appalling.

On to the contents.

Janine, by Warren Lutz. A perfectly sordid slice of naturalistic noir, this one places a journalist’s eyes and ears at the service of a deceptively lucid, fluid prose style.

Remind Me To Show You Your Face, by Elizabeth Eslami. Nice use of style to convey character, a look at the service side of the entertainment industry, and a good, solid, undependable narrator.

The Feld And The Veldt, by Sean Beaudoin. Now here we have part of the uncanny resemblance to the first issue. Just as someone else submitted a clown story in issue one, this time someone else has a Bush-era relic, and their fucking name is Sean. But at Swill, we do not give a care, because this one is a funny. It made me smirk, persistently.

The Quiet Type, by Chia Evers. Horror seen through the eyes of love, written with an approach that made me think of a hard-boiled Poe.

The Weight Of Fall, by Wendy Sumner Winter. So this is why you should let the editor decide whether or not they like the story. Based purely on light romantic content, you’d think I’d hate this one. Instead, I responded to it as though I was catching up with an old friend. But what really sold me? The footnotes. Which were a massive pain in the ass. But I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

Jimmy’s Confession, by Sean Craven. This is the second-nastiest thing I’ve ever written. It’s ‘pretty dark,’ even by Rob’s standards. Please don’t actually read it as it will make you like me less. It was written at request for an anthology during the Bush years, but there is a whole other fucking story there.

By Himself, by Allison Landa. Stylistic risks are taken and rewarded in a tricky, crooked story with a painfully human core. Sometimes you need lateral approaches to go deep.

Crystal Vision, by Catherine Schaff-Stump. This one moves as directly as a bullet, with a payload of knotty family dynamics that keeps unraveling long past the ending.

Stomach Punches, by Rob Pierce. Ah, l’amour.

Unmoving, by Z.Z. Boone. One of the great rules of life is that there are some people you do not fuck with. This story reminds us that you can’t always tell who those people are.

Son Of A Goat, by Jasmine Paul. This one is just jam-packed with squealing goofiness, a midnight movie in print form.

blowjob; ferocious patter: fucking incoherent, by delphine lecompte. Rob can explain it to you some time, but delphine is the reason he founded Swill. Rob has tried in vain to get more fiction from her; these are selections taken from the ensuing correspondence. Effortlessly transgressive, sensually driven, and brutally absolute, she writes in a magpie chatter of compulsive verbal brilliance. She’s the saint of Swill.

Seven Views Of The Downtown Area, by Sean Craven. For the first four issues of Swill, I more or less hid the fact that I was the one doing the art. You might have been able to guess if you read the indicia, but what kind of freak reads indicias? This time around, I worked my fucking ass off on the illustrations. Every one of them is better than any prior interior illustration in Swill. I’ve posted them on the blog, but they were made for print, and that’s where they work best.

So click here and go buy some fucking Swill!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ten Thngs I Have Done That You Probably Haven't

In response to John Scalzi's taunting post, here we go.

1. Faced down a Hell's Angel after he rammed the car I was in with a pickup truck. (I didn't know he was an Angel at the time, he thought I was a deaf-mute channel for the Devil...)

2. Nursed a fledgling sparrow to maturity. Best part? When it landed on my shoulder days after I let it go...

3. Written Cockney dialog for Cockney actors and a Cockney audience, as broadcast on the BBC.

4. Debated Mortimer Adler to a standstill at age 14.

5. Befriended a baby elephant, who then tried to keep me.

6. Heard a fellow student shot to death while in my typing class. I'm typing now, if you notice.

7. At a friend's request, operated on his dog's ear to drain a hematoma; the vet who put in a drain later confirmed my diagnosis and praised my work.

8. Laid a brick path around a planter, starting in one spot, laying bricks as I went, and the bricks at the end slotted perfectly with the bricks at the beginning. A pal went behind me and mortared as I went -- we knew I could do it, even though I'd never laid bricks before. Artist's eye, motherfuckers.

9. Pushed a needle all the way through my thumb in fourth grade, for reasons only G. Gordon Liddy would understand.

10. Turned down work as muscle for a mid-level drug dealer.

And you?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What The Hell Is Going On?

I'll tell you about this later. It should be -- oh, shit. Is that a bear?

It's been a while since I've posted. Life has been interesting in the proverbial sense...

But here's the big news.

1. I made my first performance, unless you count speaking at weddings and funerals.

2. I spoke to a psychiatrist, and have tentatively begun treatment.

3. Swill is out.

So I'll talk about the shrink first. Get it out of the way.

It was interesting. The nurse running the place immediately slotted me for a two-week stay in the bin, to be monitored while they determined my medication.

She said, "They'll be delighted with you."

Thus we have my relationship with the mental health profession. It's kind of like Where The Wild Things Are. "Oh please don't go! Oh please don't go! We'll eat you up, we love you so!"

I wound up speaking with the doctor for quite some time. Near the beginning of our interview, she said, "Normally these are much shorter, but you're so interesting!"

In my lowest moments, I can think back on moments such as these, and comfort myself with the thought that women find me of great clinical interest.

So, I've mentioned in previous posts that I've been diagnosed with agitated depression and borderline schizophrenia. Well, the doctor told me that there is no longer such thing as agitated depression, and 'borderline schizophrenia' never existed -- some shrinks use it as a shorthand for, 'well, there's something going on in there, and it's making me nervous.'

What she said? Post-traumatic stress disorder (which, interestingly, Jim MacDonald diagnosed for one of my autobiographical characters) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. "You've got a little bipolar, too, but all artists have a little bipolar." And I'm hypomanic. If you know me personally, look up hypomania and nod in recognition.

There was something I very much appreciated. I mean, she's letting me keep my bipolar! (Well, hypomania is pretty functional.) She specifically stated that the goal of my treatment was maximum creativity, minimum medication. "Maybe just stabilizing your sleep would be enough."

Yes, yes, yes.

She also said something interesting. "I don't think you represent a danger to yourself or the community at all." She said it with the definite air of a woman making a contradiction. I suspect it was directed at the nurse, since the doctor didn't put me in the bin after all.

Instead, I received an initial prescription for two anti-depressants and an anti-psychotic. Which I guess is minimal medication for such as me.

The missus, bless her heart, after all this... after making me go to the emergency room, insisting that I do the follow-up, driving me to the appointment...

"They're putting you on a caaaaahk-tail! That stuff is poison! It's addictive, you know. Have you talked to ______ about how they feel on their medication? (the individual in question has behaved violently when not on meds) You won't be able to work."

And so on. Her great fear is that I'll wind up a broken zombie. I told her that if she doesn't like what it does to me, I stop. The point of this is to make me as easy to live with as possible. So we'll see. She's having me hold off for a few days, which is fine with me. Get one last band session in with beer before the long drought -- no drinking with meds.

I think talk therapy will be more useful to me -- but it's going to be a long time before I can get that going. Turns out Berkeley is hurting for low-cost counseling.

And so.

How'd the performance go? First off, let me thank everyone who showed up. I have got a swell community and I am grateful for it.

And as for the performance. It turns out that my completely unreasonable confidence was not unreasonable at all. I have a talent for performing that isn't obvious until I have an audience to fuck with.

I'm good at it. Real good. The video will go up at some point, but I will tell you in honest pride that I kicked ass. I was told a number of times by a number of people that I was 'the hit of the evening.' What's sick? I didn't need to be told. I knew it; I was there.

This was something for me. A while ago I began attending readings, and soon found that I wanted to be on the other side of the podium. I can even put a date on the birth of this ambition -- my birthday in 2009, when I attended the Litpunk reading. To concieve an ambition, and see it through to completion at a high level of skill in a prestigious venue? On purpose? Dang. Didn't know I could do that shit. Bodes well for the future.

Okay, I'll confess. When I was told that I was going to be opening, I smiled and nodded and agreed internally that it was only smart to put the new guy in first. First time out, you can't expect too much.

But something in me said very distinctly, "You're gonna eat that."

Not a nice statement, is it? But there it was. Something in me felt challenged, and responded. I don't think I would have done as well if I didn't have a wee touch of malice in my motivation.

It was interesting. I was in a distinctly altered frame of mind. Normally that kind of busy-busy atmosphere -- people bustling around, eating, talking -- shuts me right down. Instead, I was able to smile and converse, but I felt a real distance from everyone. That was my only bad feeling of the evening -- I felt guilty about not being able to spend real personal time with all the friends who had come out to support me.

And here's the other thing that was weird. When I looked at the audience? They were all just a horrible undifferentiated blur, a genially horrid many-handed monster -- except for women I found attractive, who gave the impression of being arranged like chocolates in a box. Very disturbing. Between that and the disassociation, I think I have a better understanding of how celebrities get into trouble.

But I'll tell you what. After an initial stumble, I had them. I got laughs I wasn't expecting, but when I turned the screw they shut the fuck up and listened. The missus later explained that stumble to me. At the start, I mentioned that I'd brought the wrong copy of the manuscript.

At first I argued with her about that -- I was just being candid, which is part of my thang, etc. But on further thought, I decided she was right. (Sweetie, here it is in front of everyone -- you were right, and I was wrong.) I think an audience likes being told what to do -- if you have convinced it that you are in charge. By admitting an error, I cast doubt on my authority, which made the audience suspicious until I proved my mettle.

And once I thought of it that way, I realized the pleasure I'd experienced in performing. It was that of dominance. Control. I work hard on being polite, deferential, cooperative, a person of service. I do this because the alpha male I have locked in the basement is a motherfucker and I do not trust him.

Performance gave me a time and place to let him out for a while. I liked that. I want to do more. And it felt safe. It was appropriate for me to be extreme, demanding, and unquestioningly in charge. It was the time and place where I was serving by ruling, to put a ridiculously overweening caste on things.

And like I said, it's safe, it's harmless. I mean, some crazy artist getting sick power thrills from the control of crowds? What could possibly go wrong with that?

I'll tell you about Swill tomorrow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Let Me Harden Myself With Ten Thousand Hours Of Labor

And finally, done! Every issue of Swill must pay obeisance to the Insect God.

And once again, a comment on someone else's blog ran wild, and turned into a post. Catherine Schaff-Stump wrote about that book on expertise that's got everyone all het up, and I figured that if I was going to accuse a pal of serf mentality I shouldn't do it on her turf. I'll do it here, where I'm familiar with the escape routes and can keep a table between us until I get a chance to explain myself.

I should read this book. All I know about it is what I've heard or read in other's discussions. So really, I'm not talking about the book. I'm talking about the reactions to it that I've seen in a number of creators of my acquaintance.

But there are a few things I wonder about. The premise under discussion is that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become an expert in any given skill. I get the impression that what's meant by 'expert' is a world-class, top-grade, unquestionably significant and accomplished talent.

I've seen a common reaction to the ten-thousand hour paradigm. People see it as a sentence. They are crushed, then they nobly lift the burden up and accept it as part of their load.

Because the idea that this is something that must be done also implies that it's something that can be done. It takes a question that seems unfathomable -- how can I achieve greatness? -- and gives a straightforward numerical answer that is just barely on the acceptable side of impossible. Practice for ten thousand hours, and if you still suck, get back to me. We'll work something out.

Don't get me wrong. I am the poster child for compulsive woodshedding, and I think it's paid off. If you want to be good, you need to put the time in. And I think that a cold, sober look at the amount of time that dedicated professionals put in on their work is a damned fine thing.

But there are a few reactions that I've been developing as I've seen the ten-thousand hours join the hundredth fucking monkey and Catch-22 as part of the law of the jungle.

First off, it implies that there is a distinct point at which one says, "Yep. There it is." Ones skill is undeveloped, then ten thousand hours later it's in full bloom.

My favorite band is the Ramones.

By this I do not mean, "Craft counts for nothing." What I mean is, is that lack of expertise is not always a barrier to achievement. I don't think the world would be a better place if Blitzkrieg Bop had an interesting chord progression and some kinda life to the beat. Which is what would have happened if the Ramones had put in their ten thousand hours before they started working.

So that's the first point. Don't think of what you do as practice unless you are doing a deliberate exercise in order to develop some facet of your skill. If you are working on something that means something to you, you are not practicing.

Next is the ten-thousand hour figure itself. Let me tell you something. Practice is not as clear-cut as it seems. Are you doing the same routine every day, or are you challenging yourself? And what counts as practice? Maybe you spend two hours a day writing, but how many hours a day are you spending thinking about your work, or even just consciously using language? When my observational drawing skills are strong, I can draw without drawing -- I look at a branch and count the leaves, that kind of thing.

That gray area in practice, where unavoidable moments in life are turned to the advantage of art, is crucial. Those are the moments when art is not something you make yourself do, or allow yourself to do. Those are the moments when the artistic process is part of your process. When you've fully assimilated your creativity.

When your art is fully part of your life, everything contributes toward it. It becomes impossible to estimate practice time, because it is all practice. It isn't a chore or an effort, because if it is? You won't do it.

When I first heard about the ten thousand hours, it totally rocked my John Henry. I did a little math and felt better about myself.

In other words, I reacted the way Catherine did. Lots of people have reacted this way. One at a time, each is the result of an individual struggling with questions of dedication and achievement. Seen en mass, I find myself reminded of that Maoist-era toe-tapper, Let Me Go To The Mountain, Mother, And Harden Myself With Physical Labor.

I am not criticizing the concept of practice here. But I have noticed not just in myself, but in most of the serious beginning writers I know, a sense of stern duty, of feeling that we must steel ourselves for the rigors to come. Writing these days feels like a polar expedition, where we expect to lose a finger or nose to frostbite in the process of starving to death while surrounded by bears.

This sense of eternally plowing under gray skies (while wearing thick damp pants that chafe) is not an essential element of art. The grim satisfaction of dedication is a useful tool, but I worry that it has grown too important to too many of us.

Here is the secret of the ten thousand hours. You do not get through ten thousand hours of practice through grim dedication. Okay, you can -- but your work will reflect that grim dedication.

If you are one of the people who is actually going to get ten thousand hours of practice in, most of those ten thousand hours will be spent enjoying yourself. Yes, there are tedious practices and chores and so on, but give me a break.

For those of us who like to spend our evenings carving crude pitchforks with which to maintain our dungheaps, this is a bitter pill indeed. When you embrace the labor of art, you embrace the pleasure of that labor -- which is actually play. The moments when you are engaged, when you are loving what you are doing -- those are the moments when you are learning.

Ten thousand hours isn't a sentence or a guarantee. It seems to be an estimate of how much time people have spent doing something they love by the time they get noticed. And a lot of people do good, interesting work long before they clock in those hours. And a lot of people put in more effort than that without advancing. Practice is necessary, but it can only take you as far as you can go.

Bummer, huh? Once again, quantification proves of more apparent than actual use.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Come See Me On December Tenth

That would be my area of specialty -- the menacing faked pastoral. One more of these prints and I'm done.

So, the time has come for me to plead, to beg. Do you live in the SF Bay Area? Are you interested in edgy literature?

Then come see me perform in Lip Service West. This is a literary event dealing with performances of transgressive works drawn from real life. It is very prestigious for those of us who could be described as, 'belletristic dirtbags.' NPR has been known to broadcast from these readings from time to time.

It's taking place on December 10, at 8:00 in the evening, at 5512 at San Pablo in Oakland. There will be wine and hot dogs and such.

Listen, I'm begging here. The more people who show up, the better I look, and the more likely it is that I can participate in the future. This is, oh, brother, a significant career moment for me, and I need y'all to be there if I'm going to pull this off. I'd like to get 'performance' onto my resume, and here's an excellent opportunity.

I'll tell you what, though. It's a good reading. Consistently engaging and interesting. Confessional memoirists are the only folks in the 'literary scene' who still want to entertain the audience. It is a guaranteed good time for those who don't mind peering over the edge!

Bring a friend. Bring two. Did I tell you I heard there would be hot dogs and wine and stuff?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yes Indeed, There Is A Plethora Of Swill-Related Posts

See, the thing about the way I work with Illustrator is that I think in ink. I can't fucking control a pen or a brush to save my fucking life -- but I've learned to use Photoshop and Illustrator in a way that gives pretty much exactly the kind of result I'd like to be able to execute in ink.

Which would make me feel terrible, and inadequate, if I didn't have to clean up brushes and pens and wind up with accidental tattoos all over my feet from dropping pens on them unlike the four or five Rapidograph dots I currently sport and rather than spending forty or fifty hours crouched over a drafting board to produce the above, which I cannot do with my back, I spent about twelve hours all told. Standing work, sitting work, walking around work. Good variety. If I can make this pay, it's a good job. Cool.

Swll Some More!

Deborah called me up yesterday and asked where we should go to sketch. I told her I needed to take photos and that I could use some inspiration for prints. She delivered, and here she is. Thanks, as usual, to a good pal.

This Is Your Brain On Art

There we go. Much better. And I've got a new one I might be able to finish today. It's got a new feature -- a human being! After all, what's the point of doing landscapes like these with no-one in them to feel distressed, alienated, and threatened?

So to shift the current focus of the blog a little bit, here's some information I recently received that gave me a fresh look at the relationship between mental illness and creativity. This is, as you may imagine, a subject of great interest to me. There are so many factors that come into play here -- everything from tenacity that looks a little like OCD if you tilt your head to childlessness to poor boundaries making characterization and dialog easier to write to vulnerability to sensory input to the stress experienced when one lives in a culture-hating culture -- on, and on, and on.

Look. I know healthy, stable artists who are sick of the 'crazy artist' stereotype. Sorry, folks, you seem to be in the minority. When people apply it to you, it's a stereotype. When they apply it to me, it's observation.

Artists of any kind tend to be a little messed up, and when they aren't, they are usually kinda weird. I used to go through phases of being upset when waves of mental illness seemed to sweep through my friends, and then I realized that I only like hanging out with driven creative people.

Well. I think I have figured out one of the reasons why art is so good for those of us who have a few screws rattling loose in the cranium.

The information came from two different sources. One was the book This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin, the other was an episode of the Mythbusters TV show.

The Mythbusters included a segment on the idea that you use ten percent of your brain at any given time. Bullshit, of course, but there was something very interesting that came up near the end. If you aren't familiar with Mythbusters, they're a TV show devoted to the scientific (on a crude but real level) investigation of everything from turns of phrase to movie cliches. They investigate the myth, and then when they're done, they try and either replicate it, exaggerate it, or completely reverse it.

In this case, they wanted to turn the myth around and have someone use their entire brain at the same time. Do you know what the subject did that used their entire brain simultaneously?

They told a story.

Memory, sensory details, emotions -- everything came into play. And as they described what was going on, I realized that if I had a chart of the areas of the brain, I could intentionally activate any of them through an act of imagination or memory. (They're pretty much the same thing, actually, or so it looks these days.)

You could do it too. It's not hard at all, it turns out.

And in This Is Your Brain On Music (a wonderful book, if you think you might be interested in it you should read it), it was revealed to me what part of the brain is used when you play music.

All of it. The whole meghilla.

Let me tell you a little something. I play bass, and before my music buddy became a father we were pretty serious in a garage-band way. Recorded an album that's actually listenable in a way. But my bass playing stalled out a bit, and I recently figured out the totally-obvious reason why.

With my back, I don't practice any more. The more I sit, the more I hurt. It's a simple formula.

But recently music has been taking off on me. I had a couple of baritone ukuleles that I found at yard sales. The nice thing about ukes is that with their short necks, I can play them lying down or sitting in my recliner. Well, a few months back I found something else. A pair of violin stands that are the perfect size for the ukes. I tuned one uke EADG like a bass, the other DGBE, which is standard baritone uke tuning, and then set them out on the floor. Where they stayed in tune a hell of a lot better, and they were there. I could just reach out, and there was an instrument that I could actually play. And I would.

In fact, I do. I've gotten in the habit of periodically breaking while working to play a melody or a scale or a few chords. Sloop John B is my current favorite, and those who remember the VPXIII singalong will be amazed to hear that I've got it sounding halfway decent.

It's gotten to be a habit because when I do it, it's like running a comb through my thoughts. The bristly stray cognitions that have begun to block my work in writing or visual arts are put back in place, and I can return to work refreshed and confident.

Very interesting, no?

And there is a feeling that I've been getting with my writing more and more frequently -- a sense of control. Of knowing that I know what I'm doing. It's actually intoxicating.

I think it's my whole brain going at once. I think one of the great attractions to art is that it allows the artist to fucking make their brain shut up and do what it's told.

Here's another anecdote. (I know, the plural of anecdote is not evidence -- but I am not claiming to do research here. I am saying, hey! You! Research this for me.)

For me, creating visual art does not feel like a complete experience in itself. I need music to fill things out. I don't want music when I write. People who write to music might want to ponder this a bit. Is this the reason I'm a second-rater in the visual arts? I need the music to propel me through the laborious parts of the process. If I was actually interested in each brush stroke I'd be a better artist. (Although Chuck Close works to music, so that theory might be blown right there.)

Last Saturday I was working on a print, and instead of playing music, I played an instructional CD on learning rhythm. Fascinating, delightful stuff -- here it it -- and it riveted me. I was chanting along unconsciously while I worked, occasionally taking time out to do a little hambone. It was a great fucking afternoon. I came out of it feeling euphoric. And I'll bet I maxed out my brain. Overclocked that son of a bitch.

I think I'm a whole-brain junkie. I think my brain is like one of those high-end sportscars where if you just drive it in traffic, it gets fucked up. You need to take it out on a track every once in a while and put that fucking pedal down.

Or so I suspect. Anyone got an EEG so we can check this shit out?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WooHoo! Road Trip!

Of course, some would regard it as a bad decision to post this after the last post, but this conversation came up yesterday, and if a conversation has a punchline, I can't help blogging it.

If you don't know, my whole family is the
same way as me, pretty much. I'm just the XXX version.

The Oaf: I've been thinking about running amok lately. I dunno; it's not always a bad idea to let go of your dreams. I think I might be out of the game.

His Dad: Really? You think?

The Oaf: Well, there's three ways to go. Serial killer, mass murderer, and crime spree. Serial killing is right off.

His Dad: How so?

The Oaf: Well, it's basically a form of masturbation, and the great feature of masturbation is its convenience. I mean, you toss one off and you've got a body to dispose of? That just doesn't work for me.

His Dad: Yeah, I'd rather roll over and go to sleep.

The Oaf: Exactly. And mass murder... I mean, in terms of what you're doing, that's the one that appeals to me. Just start killing and keep it up until they kill you. It's the prep-work that throws me. I couldn't get ready for something like that in advance. You ever read Erica Jong? My ideal mass murder is pretty much the same as her zipless fuck. I might dive into a crowd from a height, but probably not if they were only one person thick. I dunno, maybe if I'd been in the military...

His Dad: Vets always get the blame.

The Oaf: Well, tell me why, Mr. Postman? See, they've been trained to respond to stressful reactions with violence just like me, they've been trained to view groups of people as dehumanized victim galleries just like me. But they have guns and shit laying around, and they have an excuse.

His Dad: So I'd ask you why you bought a gun and you'd get all red faced, start mumbling about home protection...

The Oaf: Exactly. And if I just run downtown and start bending people, man, what a fucking waste of time. Get to Hell and have Charles Whitman being all, "Ah, one point seven five? Shit, that's no body count for a man. I told you 'bout how I got sixteen, right?" at me for the rest of eternity. No thank you.

His Dad: Well, you should have thought about that when you were younger.

The Oaf: Shoulda, coulda, woulda. And a crime spree... I dunno. I don't think I could make enough consecutive bad decisions to get a crime spree out of it.

His Dad: Oh, crime spree's the one for me.

The Oaf: What? Really? Huh. Is it a matter of getting the right Caril Fugate?

His Dad: Nah, I just like a road trip.

The State of the Oaf

There we go. This looks right and will print properly. Alas, the other piece I want to work on? I lost the fucking file for it, and will have to reproduce it from scans and photographs. Oh, well. I'm just going to have to do the fucking work -- turns out that these aren't just going to Spectrum, they're also going to the SF MOMA! I got an invitation to submit in my email this morning. Which means I'm putting the Swillistrations out into the commercial and fine arts worlds simultaneously.

Duchamp rotates as I type, faster and faster and faster... a little smoke emerges from his grave...

So I haven't been too communicative about my personal situation over the last week or so. I've been mulling things over. This is an eminently mullable situation. Here's the deal.

Two weeks ago, I checked into the emergency room after vomiting impressive quantities of blood for three days. This is the third incident of this I've had in the past few months, so the missus was frightened enough so that... well. If I didn't do what she wanted, I'd have felt like a total shit.

Now here is a familiar pattern. I will take care of myself if it is something I need to do for the sake of another person. This is one of the reasons I'm hard on the nerves, but it's also one of the reasons I'm still alive. Yes, it's bad that a human being needs a mechanism like this in order to function. But you know what? Sometimes you need a fucking crutch. People badmouth crutches all the time -- but who goes around taking people's crutches away, for chrissakes?

That was what was driven home to me in the hospital. You see, what Karen and I thought was some sort of gastrointestinal condition turned out to be a stress reaction or anxiety attack. And it seems as if the sight of my reaction to three shots of Ativan, a Valium, and a dose of morphine made an impression on the missus.

Because last week she took me back to the hospital. She'd spoken with my doctor and they'd decided to get me on some tranks to last me until I consult with a shrink, one batch of pills and one batch of suppositories in case I climb back on board the blood-puking train. (Look, I need a general term for counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists and shrink would be the word.)

Which I am going to do. I'm not going to do it until the Swillistrations are done and off, because I need to cater to my OCD tendencies a bit in order to keep my stress at a manageable level.

This is representative of the way I'm coming to think now.

What strikes me as interesting is that I had the attack just a little while after I decided that I needed to simplify my life, to work with my quirks and eccentricities rather than fight them.

Now this is going to sound horrible, but I'm trying to look at myself semi-objectively here. I've always considered myself a crazy genius, but, you know. The domestic, or tea-cup variety. Someone who'd be more accurately described as a gifted eccentric.

That estimation isn't exactly holding up. I'm crazy enough so that big 'S' society has decided that I need medication and observation. And I'm genius enough to be simultaneously rocking literary fiction, scriptwriting, surrealist digital prints, and paleontological reconstruction, all well enough to be taken seriously by those in a position to do so.

I mean, I've gotten serious big-name approval. The scary kind. Patrick Neilsen Hayden bought my fiction and wants to see all of it, the BBC has broadcast my shitty cartoon scripts, Harlan Ellison (who does, in fact, know art) praised my art very highly in personal correspondence and it has improved distinctly since then, the Smithsonian mentioned my latest paleontological print by name on one of their popular science blogs. If I heard any one of these things about someone else I'd be impressed. To know that these are all true of me... Honestly, I still think I made all that shit up but there is a fucking paper trail! These things happened and they continue to happen! Shit, I'm about to start in on performance and spoken word stuff, and even there I'm starting out at a respectable level.

It is fucking hallucinatory. It contradicts my views of myself profoundly. This is one of the reasons I've been going nuts lately. I keep talking about this kind of stuff to the people I know because I can't believe it's true.

I bet it's getting a little dull to listen to.

What helps put this into perspective, is that when I told the doctor that I'd been diagnosed with agitated depression or mixed state when I was in my mid-twenties, she was suddenly very, very concerned. She scootched close to me and put her hand on mine and looked me in the eye and said, very, very gently...

"So, can you go outside at all? Or do you have to stay at home?"

The thing is, is that she wasn't being clueless. So far as they can tell, about a third of the people who are diagnosed with agitated depression kill themselves. This is, for many people who suffer from it, essentially a life-ending diagnosis. Permanent misery. To be able to speak articulately to a doctor while in a state of distress is enough to mark me as extremely high-functioning. And it is far from the only thing that's odd in my noggin.

But while it's important, it isn't what my life is about. Yesterday I wrote an essay for an upcoming project that I'll tell you more about later. It was a bit of absurdism/surrealism that was... Well, I know I can hurt people with my fiction, that I can show horrid events from a horrid viewpoint and have the reader walk away feeling worse for the experience, wondering why they didn't just stop reading. I wanted to see if I could write something that could impart a powerful feeling of positivity and uplift.

I gave it to the missus to read, and when I asked her how she liked it, I thought she might be close to crying.

"I wish you really did feel this way," she said. When I was able to explain to her that I do not write things that are not true, she felt pretty good. I swear, you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? I'm sorta like the elephant.

People tend not to see all of me at once. Some people cannot imagine me having a negative thought and some people cannot imagine me having a positive one. But I am a creature of balanced extremes. If I did not have a compensatory optimism and ambition, I wouldn't be here. But I do, and I am.

I'm going through an important transitional period in my life. This is why I'm having these crises. This is why I'm constantly excited. And the excitation is part of the problem. Good news increases my heart rate, makes it difficult for me to sleep...

It's stress. The doctor spoke to me about this when she encouraged me to get into counseling. Why am I having these spectacular blood-spurting breakdowns? Because my life is starting to come together and I have no basis for coping with success. At all. And it's something that takes coping.

So this is it. I'm giving up on trying to be a conventional person. Nine-to-Five house and kids 401k Sean is not a possibility. It's too late, and a bad fit. I do not fit into the American categories of winner and loser at all comfortably. I need to make crazy genius work.

Let me put this into literary terms. As a child I idealized the Heinlein man, Conan, the My Side of the Mountain guy, but that isn't the way it works for me. If left entirely to my own devices, I would die due to simple lack of interest in eating and drinking. I am not an independent person. I am not a loner. I'm more like Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes, someone of great gifts who is also very dependent on those around him for support and structure. By struggling against this, I've made life harder for my support group.

That's one of the reasons I'm finishing Swill, and sending the art off to the Spectrum collection and the SF MOMA before I make the hike down into Oakland to be evaluated, designated, slotted, spotted, and then head-shrank. The genius part has to carry more weight than the crazy.

Here's where I am this moment. I've taken two of the Ativan since last Wednesday, and I don't like it. It makes me feel slow, numb, and slightly confused. It is better than serious anxiety, though. I've noticed that if I threaten myself with one, I calm down so I don't have to take it. Very interesting.

And the last two nights, I've gotten relatively decent drug-free sleep for the first time in years. I believe I've found the secret. I need to be in bed between eight and eight-thirty, I crash by nine, I'm up at five in the morning. That's my proper slot. My insomnia is partially because since I've stopped work, my bedtime has drifted later and later so I can spend time with Karen in the evenings. (Well, sweetie, would you rather have me awake at ten, or in bed at three?)

My facing up to the fact that I've got a mental illness that does require treatment, my days and nights of compulsively writhing and vomiting? These aren't issues. They're climate and weather. My life is coming together, and I'm finally finding out who I really am. This is a good time. This is a healthy process for me. This shit does not represent a setback, it is just some of the baggage I have to deal with. And other people have it worse, and there is no point in comparison.

This is my life, and hey. It may not be what anyone expected but it is a thing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Second Cousin of Swill

Okay, so today I wrote a very odd essay -- inspirational surrealism, a rare feel-good piece -- edited it, redid the first Swillistration and greatly improved it, and executed the piece above. In addition, I purchased a book for a friend, walked the dogs, made lunch for the missus...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Swill -- This One's Done


And here's the linework... Now for interminable tone fiddling.

Yes, it's Swill!

There we go. Now it's time for the fun part -- turning it into black-and-white.

Further Swillistration.

An interesting result from a simple drag and drop. One of those temporary images that's still kind of cool.

Swill Madnesss!

Swillistrate. Swillistrate, Oafboy! Sunday depends upon it!

Amazon is Amoral and Complicit

This is written in support of Catherine Schaff-Stump. I make this publicly known, because she is making her position publicly known.

Allow me to quote Helen A.S. Popkin from her MSNBC story, "Amazon defends pedophile's guide."

Amazon issued a statement that will no doubt fuel the outraged comments multiplying on the "Pedophile's Guide" Amazon page. "Amazon believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable," it reads. "Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decisions."

In order to keep this within reasonable bounds, I will be discussing my personal experiences with this issue, and not the many other problems I have with Amazon.

When I worked at a book warehouse, we found ourselves faced with a similar situation. I had an opinion, stated it loudly and frequently, and regardless of my influence we would up handling it the way I thought we should.

The book in question was a collection of essays written by priests in support of pedophilia. It had an introduction by William Burroughs, which really bothered me. I use fucking Burroughs as a resource, he's been a tremendously important and influential writer for me, and the man gives every exterior evidence of being ... Well, shit. You know what I mean. This kind of toxic crap.

There was the initial and major outcry from those who, for whatever reason, needed it to be known that unlike most people they opposed child molestation.

Then came the censorship backlash, the idea that by not carrying the book we were somehow doing something worse than child molestation. People would get a funny look on their face when you got them to admit that that was their position, but they usually stuck to it. See the above Amazon statements for their basic position.

Here's what I said.

"If I pick up that book and put it on a cart and take it down to the packing line and send it on its way, then my energy -- my muscles, nerves, and brain -- are acting directly and conclusively on behalf of that book and its message. Censorship is the act of preventing people from creating and distributing work. Refusing to help people who are opposed to your ideas of right and wrong is something different. It's called discrimination. You fucking idiot!"

If you act as a distributor without discriminating, that does not absolve you of responsibility for the effects of the works you put out in public. And it certainly does not absolve you of complicity when your resources bring financial aid to those who act decisively against the best interests of our society.

Neutrality is amorality, and amorality is complicity. Amazon has taken the book down, but that does not lead me to believe that they are any less amoral -- if you poke a dog with a stick until it stops biting you, that doesn't mean you can throw the fucking stick away.

I don't like Amazon. I don't trust Amazon. And I don't think I'll be buying much from them after this. The MacMillan debacle kept me away for quite some time. This might do it for good.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On The Edge Of A Scandal

Note From A Little Later:

I've exchanged emails with the individual involved, have been assured that the situation has been blown out of proportion, and that my work was not at all involved.

So at this point, I suspect it is simply a matter of allowing things to progress until a clearer picture emerges.

Yes, my beloved, the Swillistrations proceed apace.

So. I've become aware of an interesting situation. It seems that the first editor I don't know personally to ask me for fiction has been accused of some fairly ugly behavior.

I'm very bothered by this because our interactions had left me liking him. I'm waiting to see if he has anything to say to me. I don't think he gave me this particular treat -- both pieces of fiction I wrote for him were mentioned on his sites with my name attached to them.

I am a little baffled as to how to react and behave here. So I'm letting y'all know that something is going on, there is no way it is good, and right now I am really, really hoping that David Byron -- the name he gave me -- is going to show himself to be a gentleman. In another time I would be keeping this to myself, but right now I feel a stronger sense of allegiance to the community of writers than to Mr. Byron, and feel that despite the possibility that this is not what it seems to be, it is appropriate that anyone who has had dealings with Mr. Byron know about the situation.

In other words, I'm hoping that what seems evident turns out to be false. And if this turns out to be true, I'm kind of braced for it. I don't feel anger, which surprises me. I just feel puzzled.

When does that kind of behavior seem like a good idea? I don't understand.

While I am holding off on making any kind of serious judgment between now and when I feel as if I actually fucking know something, I am going to celebrate by passing on to y'all one of the stories. If anyone's seen this anywhere, please tell me. This is my story. This was one of a series I wrote and quit after two had been published -- they were basically an attempt at selling outlines instead of writing stories, and it did show up on the New Voices in Fiction website. I was told that it had been published in the magazine and an anthology as well. Here's the special Christmas version, so put on your pointy red...


Next year either I get my shopping done early or I’m blowing Christmas off entirely, I thought to myself. I hate shopping at the best of times and this wasn’t the best of times. It was the holiday season. The bookstore, the music store, even a little boutique to pick up some fancy hair crap for the missus… I needed a drink. I promised myself I’d never go back to that dive just off campus but this was an emergency.

As soon as I stuck my head in the bar I knew I was making a mistake. The last time I’d been in here the place had been nearly empty; now it was packed and noisy and full of happy young people, a breed of human I can do well without. The jukebox was still broken but someone had brought in a boom box. It was playing horrible dance remixes of Christmas carols. The kids were dancing on the rough concrete floor and crowding up against the badly finished plywood of the bar. Someone had stuck up some mistletoe. The bear on the dust-coated Hamm’s Beer waterfall seemed to disapprove.

The short guy with the walrus mustache who had been behind the bar the last time I was here moved neatly back and forth as he dispensed draft beer and well shots, a pointy green elf hat perched awkwardly on his threadbare scalp like it was getting ready to jump. I started to withdraw when he caught my eye and held up his hand and waved me over.


I pushed my way through the crowd and the bartender gestured again, moving me further down the bar. That’s when I saw a big chunk of territory at the end that was completely vacant except for a beefy guy in a Santa suit and a moist white false beard. He had the kind of rugose drinker’s tan that turns skin into a rind the color of a pomegranate. There was an iced tumbler of soda or tonic water, a shot glass, a bottle of hundred-proof vodka and a red plastic bucket sitting next to him on the bar. The college kids who had the nerve to look at him were disgusted or horrified; in turn he regarded them with calm benevolence.

The bartender smiled at me from behind his mustache, a creepy smile that made me think he had something planned for me.

“Come on, hoss,” he said. “You’ve got to meet the latest. Get him while he’s here cause he’s going away fast.”

Hoss? Whatever.

“Mike,” the bartender said to the beefy guy. “You got to tell this guy about the brain stuff, he’ll get a kick out of it.”

Mike smiled benevolently and took a small swallow from the tumbler and licked the moisture off his upper lip. “Sure,” he said. “It’s good for me to talk. It helps with the pacing.” He had the slow, smooth diction of a serious drunk deep into a binge but nowhere near the end.

The bartender turned to me. “The usual?”

I’d only been here once before and I was curious as to what ‘the usual’ was.

“Sure,” I said.

The bartender went to fetch my order and steal change from the frat boys at the other end of the bar.

Mike poured a shot and downed it. “Well, I can’t tell you everything,” he said.

“Top secret stuff, huh?”

“Yes,” Mike said, still smiling. “You got it in one.”

Then he picked up the red bucket and, just as easily as he smiled and drank, he puked in it. Nothing big; more like a macro-spit than a hurl. Clear fluid dribbled into the blue-white fibers of his fake beard.

No wonder the crowd gave him so much elbowroom.

There was a thump on the bar next to me. It a tumbler filled with something red – no ice.

“Eight bucks,” the bartender said and grinned, stubby yellow teeth barely visible behind his mustache. I handed him a ten.

“So this is the usual,” I said. “What is it?”

“Just go on and taste it, okay?”

As I’d feared there was wine in it; there was something else as well. Something varnish-y that swallowed like hard alcohol. It made a couple of return trips before I finally got it down.

“It’s a Brutal Hammer,” the bartender said. “Seven ounces of vodka for the kick, five ounces of red wine for the hangover. I got this cheap Ukrainian vodka I can’t get rid of so I figured I’d cut you a bargain. Chernobyl, baby.” He gave me a thumbs-up.

“Fuck you and everything you stand for,” I said and the bartender laughed and moved down the bar without giving me any change. Jesus, if he was giving me radioactive vodka what kind of wine was in there?

“I used to think that the problem with the world was that people didn’t think straight,” Mike said and took a swallow from his tumbler. “You know, people think they’re rational but they really aren’t.”

“How do you mean?” I took another sip of the Brutal Hammer and it only took two swallows to get it into my stomach. I’d paid for the fucking thing, I was going to drink it.

“You know anything about the brain? I mean, developmentally.”

Now I had to think hard for a moment. At first there was nothing there, and then the file opened up. “Sort of. The way I understand it is that the brain’s like a house where there’s been all kinds of additions put on and nothing torn down; brains started off as sensory processors and then at different stages of evolution additional parts of the brain were added to the basic design and the parts that make us human were the last to come along. It’s not like a human brain is all that different from a fish’s brain; it’s more like it’s a fish brain plus a whole lot of other stuff.”

“Close enough for government work.” Mike smiled gently, as if he’d made a joke. “They’ve done some interesting work with brain scans. When someone makes a decision you see action in the lower parts of the brain first, then in the upper parts. The fish and lizards we carry around in our skulls make the decisions and our human parts just rationalize everything the animals do.”

Mike poured and swallowed a shot.

“Our brains are better at religion and conspiracy theories and fairy tales than they are at rational, logical thought. We can think, we can think well, but it’s like stirring paint with a screwdriver or cooking on an engine manifold. It works but you’d be better off using a tool made for the job.”

Then he puked again and dabbed his lips and false beard with a cocktail napkin.

“So we made the right tool for the job. We made brains for people that let them really think rationally.”


“Hoss, you know I can’t tell you that. I will say this; since nine-eleven there’s been an awful lot of money floating around for people who have an interest in…” He took a sip from his tumbler. “Alternative avenues of research. Big money and no controls and if the president says you can do it then it isn’t illegal. And that’s everything you’re going to hear about that.”

I nodded and thought the Tuskegee experiments and those cancer patients they dosed with plutonium and the time they sprayed germs over San Francisco…

“The thinking caps have two parts,” he said. “The first is a sort of EEG that shows which part of your brain is working on a given bit of information. The other’s a processor that allows you to record memories in a limited fashion and also gives you access to calculation, record keeping, all the functions of any computer hooked directly into your brain so you can access them at will. You wind up with your consciousness running on both an electronic digital processor and an organically-grown analog one.”

He took a swallow from his tumbler. I took one from mine; it still took two swallows to keep down.

“Sounds like it would be hard to do any experiments with animals,” I said. “Seems like you’d need to be able to communicate in order to tell whether or not things were…”

Mike nodded. “Terry, which isn’t her name, split off from us and tried to work with parrots that had already been trained to talk; she figured the setup would improve their vocabularies enough to let her work with them. Bird brains are different than human brains; parrots have the equivalent of a cortex but the neurons are organized in a totally different… Well, you’ll hear about those parrots in the news pretty soon. That’s one disaster they won’t be able to keep secret forever. So yeah, we had to experiment on ourselves if we were gonna get any useful results.”

He took a shot and lifted his hat; there was a grubby white plastic box the size of a deck of cards stuck into a shaved patch on top of his head ringed by scabby scar tissue. He put his hat back down.

“Those poor parrots had to be hooked up to their thinking caps with optical cables. Goodbye flight. No wonder they got so pissed.”

This time I didn’t take a swallow; I took a gulp. A quick bad booze shudder and then I said, “So that little box has a processor that can run a simulated human mind?”

Mike waved his hand like he was brushing away an invisible butterfly. “No, no. It’s better than you’ll find in consumer markets but we don’t have anything that good. Yet. It works like this. When you have a thought, you not only have the thought, you also know what part of your brain it originated in. So you find out that your parking is based on territorial instincts rather than time and space functions, or that you picked a particular checkout line because you think the cashier is sexy. It makes it a lot easier to sort things out. Put that together with a digital memory recorder and an internet connection…” He shook his head. “You’d be amazed if you knew how many decisions you made with your dick.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“You. Would. Be. Amazed.”

Mike puked in his bucket. The bartender swooped by and emptied it into the little bar sink, wiped the lip with a rag and set it back down.

“Anyway, the end result is that you know what you think and why you think it, you can store important memories in a solid form – the world’s first impartial witness. So if you’re willing to spend the time with your thoughts you can really figure things out. And that’s what fucked us over. We figured out the big question. And then we figured out our answers.”

“The big question?”

“How should I live my life. That’s the only important question and everything else comes from that. And at the end of the day life is a simple minimax situation – minimize suffering, maximize pleasure. Of course there’s no way to eliminate suffering – it’s all a matter of making sure that you get what you pay for.”

He took a sip from his tumbler; by now I was pretty sure it was just a way of padding his stomach for when he hit it with the hard stuff.

Mike held up his hands and started counting off fingers. “Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, Terry, and Terry killed themselves inside of the first two months. What we got out of the hard drives in their thinking caps was that they realized their prime motives for existence were based on animal needs they would never be able to effectively gratify – that everything they did was intended to attract potential mates and none of it would ever work and the best way to maximize their happiness was to minimize their lifespans. Thinking with the dick, except for Terry and Terry who used their vaginas.”

Mike puked into his bucket again — splosh.

“Now Terry and Terry, they make a good argument for the success of the experiment. They got together with each other, started getting involved in community services. These days they grow their own food, volunteer at the local grade school, all that kind of thing. Epicureans in the real sense of the word – maximizing life’s pleasure through balance. I mean, they would have wound up like the other Terries if they hadn’t decided that they’d settle for each other.” He held his tumbler out to me. “To Terry and Terry.”

I clicked my glass against his and we both sipped.

“Terry, Terry, and Terry couldn’t make their new minds work. Or maybe we just didn’t wire them right. So now they are locked up in tiny rooms and nasty men such as myself take notes on their various twitches and spasms. Terry runs that program; he likes power and secrets and decided to roll that way. Dick thinking and in his case it works. Terry realized that at the end of the day it was chocolate for her. Diabetes got her after a year and a half, a good two months more than what she thought she’d get. Terry wanted to be pregnant; she’s involved in a fertility research program that’ll come out in the news the same way the parrots will. I promise you nightmares, my friend. And then Terry, Terry, Terry, and Terry have devoted themselves to a sort of masturbatory monasticism. Limited but gratifying, apparently.”

Mike took a shot.

I took another gulp and a deep breath. “So how are you handling it, man?”

Mike smiled, his eyes wide and wet. “Oh, I’m just like Terry with her chocolate but I like to drink.”

The bartender leaned over to me, his mustache almost hiding his grin so I could barely make out his crooked yellow teeth. “Tell you what, Hoss. It’s Christmas. Finish that off in one go and I’ll give you another on the house.”

I looked at the Brutal Hammer, still more than half-full. “Nice of you to offer but I think I’ve got more here than I’m gonna finish.”

Mike smiled benevolently at both of us. “Ho, ho, ho,” he said and reached for his bucket.

Magical Blood Math

(Art scanned from the rule book for purposes of review/slander. I couldn't find any credits for a specific artist. Sorry, artist, I would name you if I could.)

So I clapped eyes on this, and thought, "Holy shit, this is an actual revolutionary moment in popular culture. I've never seen anything like this before -- an attractive older Latina, a little on the stocky side, none of that brass bikini crap. This is something that would make someone none-white feel a little more at home, that won't make a woman feel shitty automatically. It's pop-slop crap, but the health of the image is more than compensatory. This is motherfucking fantastic!"

Then I noticed she was a Dwarf. (Not a little person; a Dwarf. Sorry, it's not my fucking terminology.) What the fuck? That ruins everything!

Or does it? Maybe it's still cool. No it isn't. This is...

My thoughts felt like angry bees for a few moments, and then I settled down and asked the real question, one which brings the current vernacular term 'shorty' to mind.

If MILFs are Dwarfs, then are standard hot chicks hobbits?

No, this is a motherfucking hobbit. The four-year old listening to The Hobbit being read aloud has just been left bleeding in the intersection, thank you very much, but I like this a lot.

Because it is a triumph for a commercial artist working with the corporate machine, man.

Here's what happened.

Art Director: Okay, so Bilbo Baggins was a burglar, okay? And he had a sword called Sting?

Artist: Here. Sting's a cat burglar with a sword. Give me my fucking check.

And that fucking candyass gave him the fucking check. Go, team.

So I mentioned that I've been spending more time with my nieces, who for blogging purposes may be known as Poppy and Spike. Poppy had a birthday recently, prior to which my sister and I had the following exchange.

Oaf: I've been trying to think of things to do with them. An evil corner of my soul thinks I could drag them down to perdition and get them into Dungeons and Dragons.

The Sister: You've got to do it. You've got to geek them.

So I picked up a copy of the Basic Dungeons and Dragons boxed game.

I have a gaming history. I got into it back in the mid/late seventies and played until I left Richmond at eighteen. When I started playing, there were no high-impact dice. Blue-cover basic was my start. Did a lot of stuff with a mix of AD&D and Arduin, which is the role-playing equivalent of making fire with sticks. I wrote a bunch of games myself, even played a few of 'em. These days I'm a distant spectator, but I still follow things.

So I had a few hopes. I'd always figured role-playing had a real industry in it and sure enough, it's here. I'm used to RPGs being strictly amateur night. I knew what was coming, but it turns out I wasn't ready for it.

Corporate fantasy.

I have seen a lot of shit fantasy on the shelves over the last forty-six years, and I believe I have located an asshole. This is fantasy systematically stripped of anything resembling individual vision, and reading it is like eating gravel that smells bad. It is Tolkien heard the sixth time round the ring in a game of Chinese whispers.

Worse. This isn't shit fantasy. This is a set of instructions for creating shit fantasy. There are some wonderful ideas in here -- doing character creation as a solo adventure that produces a character the player will enjoy playing is just brilliant. Shame the type is so small, the rules so needlessly complex --

There we go. That's part of it. When I said this was stripped of anything resembling individual vision, I overspoke. There is a love of rules and math here that speaks clearly. This is the product of people who, in playing Pac-Man, would rather not use a computer to run the algorithms. They'd rather do it themselves.

Because of this love, they did not want to strip the game down to the point where it would actually be accessible to someone who had never gamed before. There's another aspect, too. If someone can jump through the hoops this rule set presents, they are likely to be the kind of person who would like to work with even more rules. This is an industry run on rule consumption, thousands upon thousands of pages of rules. Here's how that works out in real life.

When Poppy opened the box she was thrilled with the maps and the counters, and devoted a lot of speculation to what the characters were like and who she'd like to be in the game.

Then she cracked a rulebook, and started reading. A few minutes later, she came over to me, a look of irritated concern on her face. "Do these people have any idea at all what kids like?"

Case closed.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lip Service West

We'll see if Rob is going to be able to print this. If so, we're off to the races.

So there's exciting news. As usual. But this isn't as usual!

As usual.

Anyway. I've got exciting news! I've been asked to participate in Lip Service West. It will be on December 10. I can't tell you how excited I am about this.

If you aren't familiar with Lip Service, it's a fairly high-end program devoted to live readings of autobiographical material by literary writers. It tends toward the gritty and transgressive. Sounds within my range, if a bit ambitious. Which I am.

I was familiar with Lip Service long before I began writing seriously, and remember in detail some readings that were broadcast on NPR. When my writing pal Allison Landa (You have read her piece on Salon, haven't you?) read, I attended and was impressed past what I'd expected. It was a rock solid program.

It gave me that itch. I wanted in. So I threw a few pieces at Joe Clifford, the organizer. And he expressed interest, and I expressed interest, and things have gotten to such a pass as to have me saying, hey.

Show the fuck up on December 10, and you will hear about how I...

Ah. I'll tell you then.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mental Commercial

I'm coming to realize that I've stacked up so many images that even if I don't have an original image for a post, I can probably find something wiggy that hasn't been seen for a while...

Just like the rest of you, I am saturated in mass media. I've had the forms of the ad and the commercial ingrained so thoroughly in my mind that my brain will from time to time emit an ad or commercial spontaneously.

My subconscious has the same techniques as the regular ad houses. It just has different concerns.

I'm in an interesting state, what with everything, and my brain just shot a television spot into the visual cortex that I would kill to see on the screen.

It's a standard battery office, a regular cubical farm, right? Warm white walls, lots of blues... people pecking away in front of their monitors...

The door comes off its hinges with a bang and the cops just flow in.

"Everybody freeze! You! Cardigan! On the floor!"

Cop looks at the monitor. "Oh, yeah. He's the one."

Close up of Cardigan's face to the carpet, gun to the back of his head. And then the written message goes up, with sound effects, block letters top and bottom.





See, that's the thing about my subconscious. Throws me into the emergency room, then turns around and gives me a treat like that. Brain, you are indeed a wacky pal.

(Holy shit. What a movie idea! Cops find out that busting white-collar criminals is easy, safe, and gets them brownie points from the public! Cop Rampage! Once the parasites are pulled from the public body, the swine once again grows fat. Tom Cruise or Mel Gibson for the lead?)

Why They Thought I Was A Dipso

So. I was in the emergency room yesterday. And there was something weird going on there. The people were wonderful, make no mistake. And they were able to communicate very sensitive issues in a completely comfortable atmosphere.

It wasn't so much that I was offended when they repeatedly asked me questions about 'withdrawal from alchohol,' and my drinking habits, as puzzled by their persistence.

The thing is, that wasn't there from the start. They asked me about my drinking at the initial interview, and it wasn't mentioned for a few hours. During that time they did my blood work, and they'd spoken of my liver in tones of golden praise. If they had physical symptoms to lead them to that conclusion, they would have brought them up as the tests were being delivered to me.

But when I was talking to the doctor, there was a moment of silence in the conversation, and suddenly she stared at me intently. It was brief, but I could see her thinking hard. And she says, "Are you a writer?"

I was, of course, stunned by her insight. (If you haven't noticed by now, I'm a sap, and I've written this same story with a different cast of characters quite recently.) "Yeah. Yeah, I am."

"So, have you ever experienced withdrawal from alchohol?"

And I had to answer that question three more times from different people while I was there.

I thought about it. And I thought about it. Okay, the symptoms I was displaying -- nausea, in an emergency-room format, you provide your own details -- were consistent with alcohol withdrawal. Fair enough. But they were consistent with a lot of other things that were mentioned and dropped.

It wasn't until I went to bed that I put the last piece in place.

When the doctor stared at me, she was reading my T-shirt. T-shirt communication is a tricky thing.

I had been wearing my Viable Paradise Writer's Workshop T-shirt. Which marked me as a writer. Writer = Dipso, as is well-known.

So here's a new writer's workshop T-shirt rule.

Running around town? Cool.

Social event? Uncool.

Professional event? Required.

Times when you don't want to be mistaken for some kind of sterno-guzzling wet-brained flammable sot?

Leave it in the drawer, my friends. Leave it in the drawer.