Monday, November 11, 2013

Rant #738, Appendix B: Notes in the Margins

I have always abhorred writing in books. Not the typesets or the fonts or anything, but the physical writing in books. I don’t deny that there can be completely justified reasons for writing in books, especially by teachers and students--why take the time to write notes on a post-it or whatever and put it in when you can just highlight and/or underline, put a word or phrase, a question mark, an exclamation, whatever, especially in text books which really aren’t books at all in a sense, but are really just instruction manuals on some aspect of life--be it History, Biology, etc.  In these instances it makes sense for future discussion, homework, tests, etc. 

But, for a moment, let us consider literature and fiction and figure out what writing in a book is actually doing and why I don’t do it. I don’t want to argue my opinion is correct--I think a lot of people who think about things way deeper than I DO write in books, and freely without ever even questioning it, but I want to say why I don’t, and why I can’t fucking stand it when people do it.

First off we’ll hit the subject the easiest and most “who cares?”--it’s ugly. I know that ugliness is a terrible reason to avoid doing something to anything--especially if you’re the only one who cares. If you’re doing it to your own book, why should anyone give two shits whether or not you tagged the margin with this comment about the meaning of the candlesticks in Les Miserables or Holden’s hat in Catch in the Rye or whatever? It’s your book, do what you want with it! I am a supporter of doing whatever you want to your own things--like George Carlin said about cars--flip switches, turn dials, etc etc. and if you must break out your pen to write “Clearly adversarial to other’s opinions” in the margins, well, I’m not telling you you can’t but do yourself a favor and look at it after you’ve done it. 

Besides a few Literature books from school (The Odyssey and Dante’s Inferno spring to mind) I know of two notes I wrote in a book I was reading recreationally. One was in a Chuck Klosterman book where he was arguing about Superman and Batman being adversaries (Nemeses?) and one where I pointed out an annoying anachronism in The Body (made into a movie called Stand By Me) that I considered a plot hole because I was too self-assured that I’d found a flaw in my hero’s work that I had to shout it from the rooftops. Both of these notes are in blue ink and are written in the upper left corner of the page where there is significant space to write a note of semi-importance to absolutely no-one but myself. These notes are tragic for a couple of reasons I’ll get to later but first and foremost they are UGLY. The page is set in neat, squared paragraphs and here comes my notes in jumbled, teenager/twenty year-old handwriting sloping across the page like a slug-trail, loped and sliding, slick and rude, fucking up all the symmetry and neatness of the page. It’s like when you’re painting a wall and you slip of the ladder and grab the wall to slow your fall--a big ugly swath of original color down the middle of your new, improved color. I hate it.

Not to mention the comment itself.  It’s never anything really life-changing or surprising--and even it it is or was, then what was the point? Superman and Batman didn’t get along? No WAY! That changes their whole dynamic, doesn’t it? No, wait, it’s practically the only reason they ever work together! To promote drama! It's the thing that makes The Justice League interesting in the early days. Batman vs Superman is seriously the reason the end of The Dark Knight Returns is so good--Klosterman wasn’t trading new or even interesting ground here, and my note (which points this out in my neatest handwriting, as if to make sure anyone else who ever read this book after I died or gave it away or sold it at a yard sale in 2025 knew that I was, like, totally as smart or even smarter than a guy who wrote some very well-thought out and sometimes very blind pop-culture commentary about the 90’s in the 2000s) only points out that I know it. Even if it was a life-changing note (none of mine were)--then I’m pretty sure I’d remember it. If anything, the actual writing of the note makes me remember it that much more--and so now I know that, for instance in page one-hundred-whatever in The Body, the pistol is discussed, and then on page three hundred whatever, everyone acts surprised when it’s there, nothing has really changed. It’s not a story about who knows about the gun, it’s a story about growing up and losing your friends and feeling ashamed of who you are and having friends who want the best for you even when you can’t see it. The Body is a great book--and yet I had to--HAD TO write that little flaw in it to prove to no one but myself that I had read that book so deeply that I could point out fuck ups no one else had ever noticed. Little did I realize that someone probably saw the flaw--and said “fuck it. What’s it matter--this is a great book.” Who the hell did I think I was?

My point being that whatever is buzzing through your head when you grabbed your pen and started scribbling notes in the margins aren’t really that important, and if they were, you probably don’t need to write it down. I have had several teachers and professors tell me I should “read with a pen,” writing all kinds of things down in the margins--how this part relates to that part, underlining turns of phrase, writing grocery lists, I don’t know--but most of that stuff turns out to be useless anyway, especially if you re-read the book. If you re-read the book there you are, reveling in your private mode, perhaps seeing things differently this time since now you know the end and can see how well the thing was put together, how tightly wound the plot is (or vice-a-versa--it’s rare but I have definitely been underwhelmed on second reads of books that were great on the first run) and then all of a sudden, you-from-four-years-ago extrapolates a point that is either totally wrong, inherently meaningless against the greater scope of the work and/or distracts you back to whatever stupid shit you were doing four years prior when you wrote that ugly note in off-color pen in the margin. And to anyone who thinks re-reading a book is meaningless--to that I say simply that you’re wrong. Books are not rides on the subway--books are vacations into other peoples thoughts, feelings and emotions, they are escapes into places that are filled with the meaning that life sometimes lacks. Because of this, they should be experienced several times, to get the points and nuances, the rhythm and the cadence, to re-experience the experience and see it from a different view. All books should be read twice--even Dune.

And this, I think, is the crux of the biscuit--When you write a note you ignore the context of the book, you ignore the forest for the trees. The rhythm is tampered with when you have thirty words written sideways on the page and it will bring back the formerly important things that you thought of before and ignore the stuff you may have missed. It pulls out four notes of the guitar solo in your favorite song and brands them as Important when really the whole song needs to be experienced from the first clang to the last note that stretches into the end of the track. When this context is lost the whole meaning of the book can be thrown into the bushes. It’s like those jokes about professors needlessly pointing out that the “Curtains are blue because the character is sad.” Though I agree that many times the curtains are “just fucking blue” I can’t argue that they are ALWAYS just fucking blue--Holden’s hat DOES mean something--the Candles-sticks DO mean something--but when looked at alone they mean much less than when the book is looked at as a whole. Holden’s hat only means what it does in the context of the book, and to point it out somewhere in the middle of the book when your 16 year-old self finally figured it out there’s no need to mark it on the calendar. Who cares when you discovered it? It's the fact that you discovered it that's important. The discovery is less important than the doors it opened. Finding the dinosaurs was great, knowing that they existed is AMAZING. 

If I make one last note before putting this overly-long rant to bed I want to say that it’s not an advocacy for ignoring great moments in a novel, or a place you can go back to. It’s not even to say all defacing of books is wrong--I’ve always been a page-folder and always will be (except with other people’s books, of course). And so when I find a line I love, a paragraph, or simply a setting that speaks to me in a voice that I rarely hear and opens up the floodgates to something in myself I hadn’t seen in awhile, or ever, I fold the page. It’s ugly, sure, but not that bad, and for me it builds an anticipatory feeling that knows I’m about to get to something that’s really good. On re-reads I sometimes land on these rare moments and I revel in their beauty and others I wonder what the hell I thought I was doing folding that page, but either way I can come to that line in a new way, and the difference can take your breath away.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

I've lived in New York for awhile now and theres a few things I've learned about the people here that is causing some concern. Well, perhaps that is a little harsh, but there is something that makes me know that when I planned on living here "for awhile" I was correct in assuming that it would eventually tire me out and though I don't think I've reached that point, I do notice that I'm becoming increasingly disillusioned about what it takes to live here, and how up to it I really am.

They say that when God closes a door he opens a window, and despite my feelings on God being completely moot, I do think that it works the other way around, as in when a window opens, a door closes. If I take anything away from this New York thing, I think, if I had to pin it down it would be that there is a part of your soul that gets eroded away here over time. The people who live here are not soulless, I don't mean to say that, but I think when you emigrate here you are born with a worldview that will eat away at you until you conform or leave.

My cousin and my friends went to Florida a few years ago for a Spring Break that turned into an adventure for all of us, some more than others, but there was a moment when My cousin and I hadn't even gotten there that was telling about how the world sees this place. Our flight was scheduled out of New York during a heavy Nor'Easter that was systematically dismantling street signs all across New Brunswick (where we lived at the time). Our flight got cancelled and the next day was mostly going back and forth between terminal and service counter trying to chase down two seats on a plane to get us to Florida. I remember we had slept the night on air vents and gone to like 7 different flights which were then delayed or cancelled completely, and in a desperate last try we got a flight to Nashville which would then transfer to Florida. I remember distinctly when the woman told us that we would have to run to catch our next plane because we had five minutes to go like 30 terminals or something. She described it as "you're going to have to run." So we made the flight (my first first class experience--paid for through 20 hours in an airport trying to salvage a vacation I could barely pay for before and almost thought I was going to die on at least twice after) and tried to sleep (impossible, despite drinking two free Heinekens), knowing we had five minutes to check in at another airplane in a place we had never been surrounded by people we did not know. Finally the plane landed and we looked at each other--tired, hungry, desperate for the whole fucking mess to be ended--and sprinted off the concourse and charged through the terminal. I remember dodging old people moving entirely too slowly in our paths and pulling suitcases piled higher than they could stand upright, soldiers with their pants stuffed into their black boots, silent as they watched us scramble around them as they waited to get on board. Finally we got to the check-in desk and tried to explain to the woman through giant, rasping breaths why we were there and how we needed to get on the plane because we needed to get to Florida by any means necessary. She looked at us, sweating, tired, haggard, wide eyed and frightened for our "adventure" and said with a kind, understanding smile: "Oh, Sugar, we held that plane for you. You're not in New York anymore." Stunned faces stared back at her and I remember thinking "they held the plane? With all these people waiting? That's so...nice!" We looked at her, thanked her, and sat down on the carpet near the water fountain and waited for them to start boarding. It wasn't so much that I didn't understand why they held the plane, but that they actually did it.

Those word stuck with me, and living here now there is a certain understanding that has completed the circle: I know what she meant by her statement but I also know how she profoundly missed what it was that caused it. She thought (or so I assume) that New Yorkers are heartless, cold and are so uptight that we always leave on time--that New York in general does not give two shits if you are going to miss your flight or how missing this connection fundamentally ruins all the stuff you've looked forward to for the last three excruciating weeks, the time between when Finals were eons away and then POW right-here-right-now-c'mon-it's-everything. But really the issue with New York being seen through that lens is that it ignores that there are too many fucking people here. The only way to truly understand a city where 45 people live in a small apartment building in Brooklyn that occupies less acreage than my father's front yard is to understand that no one could function here without completely ignoring the needs of some of the people around them. It's this fundamental difference that comfounds tourists to American cities and City people when they visit the suburbs and rural areas. It's not that things are slower, it's that there are less people, so you don't have to shove anyone (or at least as many) out of your way to get where you're going.

Living this close to others and going out amongst them every single day is an experience that I think everyone should have, if only to understand your place sometimes in the world. For every person who knows you, there are 243 who do not know you exist, and 45 of them want to shove you when you stop to check Google Maps at the top of the escalator (.002 of them want to stab you and throw your body down an elevator shaft, but those people are waaay rarer than you'd think). This becomes obvious when you see entire crowds buff and wobble when a homeless guy starts freaking out in the middle of a sidewalk. People make a face and run away (tourists, newbies) and the others just move a little faster and stare off into the distance like vietnam soldiers walking past burning villages. This is because this isn't the first, second or 23rd time this has happened, it has just become part of the mentality to ignore the part of your brain that simultaneously shouts "Run away!" and "I should help that other human being." When a person understands that stepping over a homeless guy laying on a vent in the middle of the street will not be viewed as antisocial, or rolling your eyes at someone begging for change, or planting your feet in front of a baby carriage because fuck-you-lady-I-was-here-first-and-the-subway-car-is-almost-full-and-I'm-almost-fucking-late is not wrong, especially in the wider scheme of things. The world is hard and demanding and we have to take it as a fact that not everyone cares about you.

However, open your window to this reality for too long and the door to compassion and understanding, fairness and concern may swing shut. During me and my cousin's endless airport day I can't imagine how many times the same customer service person had to say "I'm sorry, sir/ma'am, I can do nothing to help you." Imagine how many suitcases were lost, how many family reunions were ruined, how many Spring Break shitheads never got to where they wanted to go. And this, I think, is the crux of the biscuit. There are people in my life now that I have had drinks with, had long conversations about the natures of reality, religion, education, politics, reason, logic and philosophy that I counted among my friends, who have become just another rat in the maze after the same cheese I am. I do not find them to be less than people, they are not the homeless man on the sidewalk screaming at traffic, but they are other mice in the maze. And in order for me to get my cheese, sometimes I have to swing some hinges and those hinges may effect others, and sometimes in negative ways. This may not be the state I am in presently, but I know that there are people whom I have come in contact with who do think along these lines, and do so because that is the way you have to live sometimes. Sometimes you have to draw a blade to stay in contention, and sometimes you have to use it. Ask those poor suckers who tried the stock market and had their lives eaten up by better, more ruthless players.

But to do so is to become inhuman, I think. Ethics is a strange thing, and when all the winners are the ones who were quick to draw their blades, everyone learns the game to survive just that much longer. New York is like that--a city of people who have learned to draw their blades, and have learned the game better. But because of that, certain things get missed. The kind touch, the "have a nice day" while meaning it, the not just being an asshole because "hey, this is New York, get used to it." Things are done half-assed here like it's no one's business, and I think it's because no one ever says "Jesus, what if that air conditioner falls on someone?!" There's a lot of "fuck it, it gets the job done." Most of this mentality comes from there being so many people that no one will notice, but also from being in that mental space of "well, the job fell on me to get it done, it's done, let's move on," which is how a city full of 8 million people are bound to feel when if you don't return your bottles the old asian woman down the street will do it for 5 cents a pop, where you can see piles of trash on a roof that just happens to be near a subway exit, where barbed wire surrounds empty lots. People who move here know about these things, but experiencing them is different on a wholly new level. In the end it comes down to the real nature of things: adapt or die, stay or go, repel or become. Evolution of your mind--am I a mouse in a maze or am I a man who needs to eat? Are these really all the same things? Conundrums like these always fuck with my head because they boil down to what I am made of as a person, and the decisions I make always alienate some of the people I have in my life. Send Lawyers, Guns and Money--get me out of this.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013


Sometimes I am asked what I am writing currently and sometimes I have an answer and sometimes I don't. Right now I do, and this causes a few hurdles to appear: 1) my creativity comes in waves, 2) Sometimes working is like rolling a big fucking rock up a goddamned hill and 3) I get bogged down in the details and that shit kills the whole mood and sets me into the last and worst part, 4) This isn't working, this is fucked, I should just sell shoes.

Right now I'm at three and deathly afraid of four, holding it back with a sweaty forearm as it tries to gnaw my face with great big pointy teeth. The last day I worked was Sunday, and I was off yesterday and today and that means that building up to this lag in work duties I said to myself "you will write during that time, make some ground, get the ball rolling on this idea before you lose it, set it before you forget it," which of course means that I actively avoided doing any writing Sunday after work and yesterday. Yet today I felt like writing. I thought about it throughout two conversations this morning, a re-watch of the Avengers, and some basic reading and videos that reminded me of why I like writing (they were incidental, I don't have a video bank or reading go-tos to get me motivated) and so I took a shower, blasted The Faces and started writing.

Well, I say I started, and I did, but the basic plot I had before me (I felt) demanded that I describe the town layout. I'm not sure why, but I wanted to get it straight because later it might come in handy to not have a thousand street names flying around. The town setting is really basic (it's not even really a town, more like a neighborhood) and only has four or five streets and one feature that is intrinsic to the plot later (way later) in the story. So you're thinking, "draw a map and get on with it." Good advice. But I didn't want to draw it on paper, because I have a habit of losing paper left around anywhere, so I tried to draw it on the Outline I wrote for the story. And since I'm me, I used this opportunity to try and familiarize myself with the drawing function in Pages (my current text editor for my Mac). This ended up taking waaaaaaay too long and became a bit extravagant as I looked up names for the streets that had some sort of group meaning (because I named the first street Wyatt, I named them after other gunslingers. Of course I know a bunch of them but could think of exactly zero past the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday when I wanted names). It took me a few minutes but eventually I got the names, and tried to set them to the roads I had drawn. Yeah. That didn't really happen. Eventually I became super-fucking-frustrated with the map I was drawing, how I couldn't write sideways, how there was some sort of layer issue that put text boxes over each other and wouldn't allow me to write IN a circle I drew. In other words, I got bogged down in the details. My second roadblock came when I had a group of soccer players practicing for a game the next day, but my brain immediately thought "What day is it (in the story?)" and since this is a pretty important detail (only because of the fucking soccer team I just invented and how they wouldn't have a game on a weekday) the whole thing spiralled out of control into "you don't know what the fuck you're doing, do you?" thoughts that are always ridiculous and a sure-fire sign of me giving up. And that is the dangerous area right in front of 4).

The biggest problem with ANY of this is really that they aren't even important. What is important are the characters, the situations they get into and how they squirm out of them. It doesn't fucking matter what the streets are named, it doesn't matter if the events happen on a Sunday, Saturday, or some made up day like Misurgsday, just that they fucking happen and make sense. But my brain gets caught in a loop on the "make sense" part of the equation, and in the summer, most soccer games happen on a Sunday, and all towns have street names. So these things must be addressed, but unlike the feelings, thoughts, movements and processes of humans and their interactions with each other, I cannot just pluck them from the air and make them real. I get bogged down in them* and the whole process shuts down. 

So my plan is currently to decompress and relax a bit. I've got the ball rolling, I just need to figure out the stupid day-of-the-week thing and move on. And there it is, moving on. The simplest solution to the heaviest of problems. Ugh. 

The answer is keep truckin, I guess. I can't say it'll get better because I've walked away from stories because of these seemingly tiny issues, if only because it takes me out of the story and then I'm done. I cant get the flow of storytelling when I'm worried about Soccer games not happening on Wednesday--it sticks in my mind and just rusts out everything I think about. SO I'm going to go eat something and figure out the day of the week, fix it if necessary or ignore it if I can, and get back to work. I'm 760 words below my daily minimum, and since I skipped the last two days, thats really more like 2,760 but I'm okay if I can make 1,000 today. So that's it. that's the plan. Okay. Let's do this.


*The worst thing is names. I can't name my characters anything without long-winded conversations in my head about how I don't want them to be named after people I know, but can't all be named Oswald and Elwood and George. Luckily, this time names were cake, somehow.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

In Medias Res

Okay, I know it’s been a very long time since I wrote anything here, and I’m pretty sure it started as a slight lapse in time or effort to continue writing here, but after awhile it also became an issue of embarrassment: how long can a writer not write before he has to tell everyone (and more importantly himself) that he is no longer a writer? How long can one have a blog and not add to it, how long can he say “Yeah, I have a blog, you should check it out” when he hasn’t added anything on it forever. One of the first jokes I ever heard about blogging was how everyone has one and they only ever have updates twice a year and they all start with “Hey guys, I know I haven’t been writing here, and I promise to write more...” and I know that I’ve made similar (if not wholly equal) statements in the past for this blog and others. But fuck it, man. I never start these blogs with any real intention of every-day or once-a-week use, I try to, but when push comes to shove I’m a really lazy guy who has bursts of energy and activity and slumps of inactivity and boring-ness. This is a thing I do not say with pride, and it probably has a bunch of reasons no one cars about, so we’ll just skip the pyschoanalysis for once and dive right into what I came here to talk about.

I’m a media junkie. It’s becoming kind of an issue. I found myself thinking today about a scene that I only know from clips and such of Dustin Hoffman whacking a taxi cab (?) and screaming “I’m walkin here! I’m walkin’ here!” when it nearly runs him over. When I thought of it at first, I thought it was Kramer vs. Kramer, which was probably way off. I spoke that guess out loud, because my co-worker hadn’t any idea what I was referencing (there was cab who was doing a rolling stop while we were crossing the street), and then had to explain it. THEN I had to explain (because my brain does whatever the hell it wants anymore, but we’ll get to this later) that this incident (Dustin Hoffman yelling at a cabbie [wait, was it a cabbie? Shit.]) was actually ad-libbed, because some guy drove through the shot and almost ran Hoffman down. So I basically made a reference to a movie I have NEVER SEEN and then explained it, and then added more superfluous information to this already annotated story in order to explain why I made the reference. And it may have been Drugstore Cowboy (another movie I’ve never seen) and I’m also not sure it was a cabbie. In a second, I’m going to go onto Youtube and find out because, as previously mentioned but not discussed, I have officially lost control of my brain.
Okay, so the verdict is one of three: it was a cabbie, but the movie is Midnight Cowboy, not Drugstore Cowboy (what is that, I wonder?) or Kramer vs Kramer (was Hoffman even in that movie? Fuck I’m losing it. Concentrate, goddammit, you’ve got to get through this). The important part of this ridiculous anecdote is that I am a media junkie that does things like identify with a scene in a film I haven’t even seen and try and use it to relate to people in real life. This can’t be a healthy exercise. Really. And not only that, but that I haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy (What the hell could it be about?) or Kramer vs. Kramer (probably a court movie, which went out of style around the time Dick Wolf started making television shows) actually makes me want to see them, just so  I know the context of my own references and to know why the hell Kramer vs Kramer is famous enough to be in my brain. And here’s the fun part: I will probably watch one of those movies, and I have no idea why. Wait, back up, I do know why: it’s because my brain does whatever it wants because I am a fucking junkie for media and information.

I don’t know when it started, but I think it may have to do with embracing curiosity about the time Wikipedia became a thing. I remember back in the forum days, trolling along in the interwebs, we used to talk (write?) about the interesting places we’d start on wikipedia and the crazy places they’d take us. I can’t remember specifics, but the thread was not unlike the Kevin Bacon connect-the-people game where you can line up Charlie Chaplin to Emilio Estevez or whatever. Say you start with World War I and somehow end up on the breeding habits of red squirrels or the shelf-life of pine nuts. It doesn’t matter, the point was what a long strange trip it was getting from one link to another, starting at one place or subject and then, simply because of curiosity, being taken to another just as interesting (if not more so [who doesn’t love pine nuts?]) and never going back, or having to close 45 tabs or, at the very best, spending days going back and reviewing them after spontaneously being inundated with new information (never happens except for ALL THE TIME). 

So I’ve decided that this is and may be and definitely has been a bit of a problem that effects not only me, but the things I want to do and the things I have done and not finished. Did that sentence make sense? There’s sometimes I feel like what makes sense to me doesn’t exactly make sense to others. And that’s why I am here now doing this. Trying to finish something. Trying to make a thing whole and maybe small but at least something to be proud of, something I can point to and go, “there it is, that’s the start of something and the finish of something. It’s not pretty, maybe, but it’s mine and fuck you if you can’t handle it.”

So there are a few things that I’ve been working on, and they seem stupid sometimes and (my all-time favorite reason to stop something) too big to be real things that I can make exist. Writing projects. Like, sit-down-and-spend-some-fucking-time-writing-godammit-projects. One, I think, I want to finish before the end of November (yes, novel-writing month or whatever). I think it will be the “religion” project, as a story that I am absolutely afraid of because it deals with beliefs and madness and death and heartache and pain and somewhere, hope. It’s a story I’ve been sweating for a year? two years? Doesn’t matter. It needs to be done because I started it. The other project I have in mind is a compilation of stories based around a deli (I know, I’ve kicked this around a million times), but this would be more of a collection of short stories with a mild framing story to hold them together, like the early Treehouse of Horrors, and the stories usually have nothing to do with the deli at all, just because fuck work, it’s life that’s interesting.

So anyway. This is the plan: write. The only issue I have (other than confidence or my finishing-things issues) is fucking media. My constant cycle of switching channels, flip to Jamestown, history of; Pocahontas: Reality vs Legend; Disney movies I’ve never seen, The physics of lifting a house with balloons, That Penn & Teller Bullshit! when they take on the Boy Scouts, The Republican 2012 Platform, skip-a-few Hoovertowns and the Great Depression. I’ll do my best to keep my internet bullshitting to a minimum, but we’ll see what happens. Fingers crossed.

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