Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Christmas List of Sorts

Ordinarily I respond to Facebook memes with the same kind of enthusiasm I reserve for chain emails.

But something about this one caught my eye and imagination. Maybe because it's Christmas, and a list called "25 Things" seemed not only seasonally appropriate, but a way to learn more about myself and those who are close to me.

The rules are simple: Write down 25 things about yourself. Send it to 25 people who you want to know more about, and ask them to write a similar list. When they do, they should send a copy back to you.

If you break the chain, you will have the worst Christmas ever.

Just kidding.

Here's mine.

1. I struggle with many contradictory beliefs and impulses.

2. I agree with the Buddhist saying that “The way you do one thing is the way you do everything.” You can tell a lot about a person by observing how they do something.

3. I believe everyone tries to do their best and what they think is right; many times, however, it doesn’t look that way.

4. I love to laugh and can find humor in almost any situation. This is why I sometimes laugh at inappropriate things.

5. I believe in God and Jesus Christ, but a lot of Christians give me the creeps.

6. As I’ve grown older, I feel that I’ve become a better person in many ways. Despite that, I really miss being young.

7. I love scents and am fascinated by them. If I could do it all over again, I’d be a perfumer.

8. I admire true expertise and accomplishment.

9. I’m a huge bargain hunter. Yet I still spend too much money on clothes.

10. I try to take good care of the things I own.

11. I’ve smoked for 25 years, and it freaks me out.

12. I wonder if starting too many entries on this list with the word “I” says something negative about me – even though it’s a list about me.

13. I’m a Myers-Briggs INTJ.

14. I try to keep up with trends and what’s happening in culture and entertainment.

15. I really enjoy art, but don’t attend nearly enough museums or shows.

16. Good design and architecture make me really happy.

17. I wish I dreamed more, and remembered my dreams better.

18. Until this past year, I didn’t understand what people meant by “the human condition."

19. I didn’t speak to my father for the last 25 years of his life.

20. I don’t keep in touch with nearly enough people.

21. I believe people in Europe and Scandinavia have it better than Americans, at least at this point in history.

22. There are vast powers beyond our knowledge at work in the world.

23. The great challenge of my life is translating into language what I see, think and feel.

24. I like making stuff.

25. Details matter. Big things do, too.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Short Short News

Terrific news that my flash fiction piece, "The Powers That Be," has been accepted into the Dark Distortions II anthology from Scotopia Press.

Flash fiction -- generally considered to be less than 1000 words -- can also be called a short short. In "The Powers That Be" men and women visit the site of a disaster and are transformed by what they find there.

Naturally, I'm delighted to be included, and grateful to the Dark Distortions editors Molly Feese and C.D. Allen for selecting my work.

Given the brevity of my story, I think I'll leave it at that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Quick Contest

There's little in this world that's better than free books, which is exactly what Cutting Block Press and Dark Recesses Press are giving away to celebrate the debut of the Horror Library, Volume 3 and Issue 10 of Dark Recesses Press magazine.

Just a few of the names you'll find in these two volumes of dark goodness: Bentley Little, Clive Barker, Gary Braunbeck, Jack Ketchum, Jeff Strand, Michael Arnzen, Kealan Patrick Burke, Cody Goodfellow and, naturally, me. (My story, "The Living World," appears in the Horror Library, Volume 3.)

All you have to do is post a comment on the Horror Library blog, by Midnight, December 14, 2008.

Winners will be selected by random, and will receive

First Prize
One Copy of Horror Library Vol. 3
One Copy of Dark Recesses Press #10
$10 Gift Certificate to the Horror Mall
Second Prize
One Copy of Horror Library Vol. 3
One Copy Dark Recesses Press #10

Third Prize
One Copy of Horror Library Vol. 2

Fourth Prize
One Copy of Horror Library Vol. 1

Deadline for the contest: December 14th at Midnight, Eastern US Time.

Make a comment, win a prize, happy holidays!

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Horror Library is Open for Business

The only thing better than seeing a book with your story in it is seeing another book with your story in it.

The Horror Library, Volume 3, arrived in my mailbox the other day, which means it's also arrived on store shelves and online. (While you're there, why not consider purchasing one or more additional products from Cutting Block Press?)

Naturally, I turned to my story first, "The Living World." In it, a young counselor at an anorexia hospital meets a patient who causes her to see the world in strange and frightening ways.

It's a pretty atypical horror story, and I have to give credit to R.J. Cavender, Boyd Harris and the rest of the Cutting Block gang for including it in what's considered to be one of the best (and I think, best-looking) anthology series in the business.

Now let's make it one of the best-selling, too, m'kay?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Wow

As a writer you often dream about someone, some day, saying something wonderful about your work. Sometimes -- when the words aren't coming but the rejection slips are -- that dream is one of the few things that can keep you going.

The reality, however, is much, much better.

In a recent interview, Unspeakable Horror editor Vince Liaguno singled out my story, "The Boys of Bald Cave," for some praise that still has me making nice, gentle orbits around planet Earth.

When asked if he has a favorite story in the collection, he says, "There is something insinuating and genuinely haunting about C. Michael Cook’s 'The Boys of Bald Cave' -- a story that has yet to clear my mind completely as a reader. The story has shades of the emotional resonance of King’s 'The Body' and It for me, a realism of male adolescence that rings true in every sense. There’s a bittersweet feeling of innocence lost at its core and a melancholic ending that profoundly affected me."

There's enough material in that quote for half a dozen knockout blurbs, and I still can't quite believe that it's about something I wrote -- especially considering the quality of stories and writers Vince and his co-editor Chad Helder have gathered in the anthology.

I'm honored and humbled and grateful as all get-out.

Now go buy the book already.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kids Today Are Crazy

This just in from the Associated Press: Approximately 1 in 5 Americans age 19-25 have a personality disorder serious enough to interfere with their everyday lives.

Add to them those with a drug and/or alcohol problem, and the number of young adults with a mental illness rises to almost 1 in 2.

Which explains this photo, and a whole lot more.

Now you kids get off my lawn.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Homeless and the Holidays

Downtown Chicago has more homeless in it than usual this afternoon.

It must be due to the upcoming holiday. People are either feeling happy about the time off, or guilty because they'll be celebrating Thanksgiving with friends and family and food and warmth, or both.

As a result, they're probably more likely to part with some spare change or a buck or two.

At least I was.

The Books of 2008 (So Far)

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and if the office I find myself in this morning were any more abandoned, I'd be tempted to take off my clothes and run around it screaming. That is, if I were any more abandoned.

My point here is that I'd like to make a post, but don't have much time. So I've decided to post a list of the books I've read so far in 2008. I'm ripping off the idea from my pal John Hornor Jacobs, who got it from writer Erik Smetana. I don't know where Erik got it.

As an extra-special added holiday bonus, I've also rated each book from 1-5 stars.

Hostage to the Devil - Malachi Martin ***
Mariette in Ecstacy - Ron Hansen
Heart-Shaped Box - Joe Hill *****
Libra - Don DeLillo ***
Abducted - Brian Pinkerton ***
The Plot Thickens - Noah Lukeman ****
Independence Day - Richard Ford ****
The Bottoms - Joe Lansdale ****
Southern Gods - John Hornor Jacobs ****
Mama's Boy - Fran Friel ****
The Keep - Jennifer Egan ****
The Plot Against America - Philip Roth *****
A Good and Happy Child - Justin Evans *****
The Children's Hospital - Chris Adrian **
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle ****
This Perfect Day - Ira Levin ****

That's only 16, far short of the 36 John Hornor Jacobs has put away. With any luck, I'll make it to 20 by the end of the year. I guess I'm just a slow reader. Guess what? Turns out I'm a pretty slow writer, too. What can I say?

One of the things I'm grateful for this year is books, and the money to buy them, and the time to read them, and the people who write them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Horror in the Heartland

Because I am an Iowan (one is never a former Iowan, regardless of their best efforts) I swell with pride every time Iowa is in the news. Even when someone does something silly, and especially when something good or interesting is going on.

Thankfully, this time I'm reporting on the latter. And maybe just a wee bit of the former, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

Somewhere in Iowa a small Christian college is staging a goth-rock musical based on horror stories from the Bible.

Conceived and directed by theater professor Jeff Barker at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, the six stories of Terror Texts: The Musical include cannibalism, rape and a bear that mauls children. All were taken verbatim from the Old Testament and are performed by a sweet-faced and talented cast among what look to be the kind of hardcore theatrics that would be at home in a Gran Guignol spectacular of Jesus Christ Superstar.

I love that a Christian college in Iowa decided not to put on the same old sleepy church play. In doing so, they risked being misunderstood by the more conservative factions of just about everybody, not to mention mounting a show that might fail to live up to its promise. Fortunately, it appears neither is the case.

The show maintains a MySpace page with five songs on it. They all sound pretty good to me, based on the precious little I know about what today's youth considers cool when it comes to Christian rock showtunes. There's also a video, with clips from the show and interviews with the director and some of the cast. Seeing it makes me sorry the show is closing November 22. It also reminds me that Iowa theater students can be some of the most annoying and adorable creatures on God's green earth, even though I was once one myself. Terror Texts only has 50 friends as of this writing, but deserves more.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Unspeakably Thrilling

Two copies of Unspeakable Horror were waiting for me in the mail when I got home this evening.

If you've never seen your name -- or better yet, a story you've written -- in print before, it's hard to explain the excitement you feel when the real, live thing finally ends up in your hands.

More experienced and successful authors probably greet this moment with just a slight tingle of satisfaction. But for someone who's still a newcomer (and who still fights to find the time and motivation to write) it's a big deal.

Bottomless thanks go to Vince Liaguno and Chad Helder, editors of the anthology, for taking a flyer on an unknown and including me among many other, better-known authors.

Of course, the first thing I did was open it up and read my own story, "The Boys of Bald Cave." Not once, but twice. That's just the kind of secret egomaniac I am.

Now I'm eager to read the rest.

I'd like to believe you feel the same. So toddle on over to Amazon and order a copy. Or two. Or more.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Is There Life on Mars?

The video below is 35 years old but looks like it could have been made tomorrow.

Music videos -- not just recorded concert performances, but something actually produced and performed -- were a rarity in 1973. But the ground-breaking concept was absolutely in keeping with David Bowie's "Life on Mars" from the album Hunky Dory.

To hipsters who were lucky enough to see it (where would music videos have played in 1973?) "Life on Mars" must have been a trippy, transgressive revelation. With his baby blue suit, spiky orange hair, full, perfect make-up and those disturbingly mismatched eyes, Bowie is a genteel, Technicolor alien, male and female and somehow beyond both.

But to worried parents and other concerned citizens, Bowie must have seemed the very embodiment of Everything That's Wrong With This World, a vision of the present and future that was nothing less than bizarre and more than just a little horrifying. If this is what the kids were listening to, God only knew what they were actually doing.

Today the video is a jewel whose value lies not only in its prescience, but also its difference from the quick-cut style that would begin dominating the form just ten years later. Director Mick Rock turned his technical limitations (and what must surely have been a shoestring budget) into a languorous series of close-ups that succeed by staying out of the way and letting Bowie be Bowie.



Thanks to Justin Mroz and Suzanne York for bringing this to my attention on Facebook.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Be Careful What You Wish For

Ever since last Tuesday's historic election, news reporters and commentators have been enthusiastically -- one might even say eagerly -- comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

And every time they do, I cringe. Because what they all seem to forget is that both of those presidencies ended tragically.

I know that "those who forget history are doomed to repeat it." But I also fear that those who constantly reference it may be subject to the same fate.

----------------------------

UPDATE: A few hours after making this post, this article hit the wires.

I suppose if John McCain had been elected president, I might be feeling some of the same sick emotions. And if this year's Democratic candidate had been white, I suppose the actions and words it reports wouldn't anger and chill me as much as they do. But still.

Dear President-Elect Obama: Please be safe. Our country desperately needs you, more than it knows.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Apparently My New MP3 Player Can Kill Me

Yesterday my new MP3 player finally arrived.

Tempering my joy at having a new electronic toy to hold and pet and play with and love, was the message I found tucked inside the package, printed in tiny letters:

California Proposition 65 Statement
WARNING: Handling this product may expose you to chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.

California and its darned propositions really know how to spoil a good thing lately.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An Open Letter to America's Distressed Homeowners

To struggling homeowners who are in danger of foreclosure and hoping for some assistance from either their lender or the government, I have some advice.

Fuck you.

Yes, I know the government is bailing out AIG and the investment banks and the mortgage lenders who caused this whole mess to begin with. I’m also aware that now the automakers – who cranked out gas-guzzlers by the millions while their CEOs and executives never imagined that oil might some day rise above $30 a barrel, yet literally made out like bandits – are also lining up to the public trough with their hands out and shit-eating grins on all their faces.

So given all that, why shouldn’t you, Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner-in-Trouble, receive some of the free money that’s suddenly being tossed out like candy from a parade?

Simple. Because this is all your fault.

If I’m not mistaken, the reason you can’t afford your house payments is because you bought a house you can’t afford. Am I right?

Now I know, that nice man or woman at the mortgage brokerage swore you were getting a great deal, and that adjustable rate mortgage you agreed to probably wouldn’t go up when its initial term expired, and even if it did it wouldn’t be that much, and even if it was that much you could always refinance and everything would be fine. Am I right?

So you went ahead and bought more house than you could afford with a mortgage that was going to do who-knows-what in a few years time. And why not? Everyone else was doing it, too, and you sure as hell couldn’t afford to look like you weren’t keeping up with the Joneses and the Smiths and the Hempstead-Heaths next door. Am I right?

And along the way you took out a home equity line of credit, because at the time your home’s value was increasing and you couldn’t afford to just let that cash value sit there and do nothing. As a matter of fact, for a while it looked like that big house of yours was going to make money for you the way pigeons produce poop. So you bought some furniture you couldn’t afford, and an expensive car, and some kick-ass vacations and probably a lot of restaurant meals that impressed the Joneses and the Smiths and the Hempstead-Heaths when you bragged about them Monday morning at work. Am I right?

But guess what? All those old clichés your parents used to repeat – things like “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” and “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you want to, too?” and “Chickens always come home to roost” – turned out to be old clichés for a reason. Because they’re true.

But you jumped off that bridge anyway, because some slick salesperson said there was a free lunch down there, and now those chickens have come home to roost.

And don’t say you were suckered into this. Guess what? Everyone in this whole world – from the bum in the gutter to the CEO atop his ivory tower – is trying to sell you something. And ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s going to benefit them more than you. That’s their job. Yours is keeping your eyes and ears open, and doing your homework so you’re smart enough to tell the difference.

You failed to do that.

It’s not my fault. It’s not the government’s fault. It’s your fault.

Which is why you don’t deserve a bailout.

What you do deserve is to learn a hard lesson, one that’ll be passed on to your children so they don’t grow up to be as stupid and gullible as you some day.

So fuck you.

Am I right?


Monday, November 10, 2008

Massive and Miniscule

The film below, entitled Powers of Ten, was created by Modern design masters Charles and Ray Eames for IBM in 1977.

Watch it, and you'll get a sense of just how massive and miniscule our universe and lives are.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

High and Low

On the eve of what will probably be the biggest and most important moment of his life, Barack Obama loses the woman who arguably had the biggest and most important influence on him.

The tragedy and irony of Barack Obama's grandmother dying just one day before he will likely be elected President of the United States is inescapable. Things like this make it easy to imagine that there's something bigger than mere coincidence at work here.

Something great is given. Something great is taken away.

Most of the time I like to believe that the universe is a cold, uncaring place, one that swirls and churns with absolutely no knowledge or interest in mere human activities. But when stuff like this happens, it's almost as if something, or someone, has taken notice and decided to announce their presence.

I'm not saying this something or someone cares. Just that from time to time they think it's fun to fuck with us in cosmic ways.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Stop Reusing Catheters

If the TV's on at our house, chances are it's tuned to MSNBC. The drone of liberal voices and images creates a soothing background that calms me down and makes me feel less alone in the world.

But lately, this commercial has been appearing a lot. If I'm not able to skip it, I have to change channels or leave the room. It never fails to make me cringe.



I don't know why this poor woman has to re-use catheters. I hope I never do. Just the idea of catheters is upsetting enough. Thinking about them boiling away in the same pot I use to cook spaghetti and drying on my kitchen counter makes me shudder way down deep in my soul.

The actress -- and I pray she is an actress, not a real customer -- delivers an earnest performance of what is at best an uncomfortable and embarrassing script. Her southern accent brings me hope that reusing catheters is something that only happens to other people, in other parts of the country.

The shot at the end brings out the film student in me. In it, our heroine's life has been improved. We first see her squatting down in a field. Then a cat runs up to her, which she pets. She and the cat seem pleased with the state of affairs. You do the math.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Family Barbecue

News from California today about a mother and son team who cremated their mother/grandmother this past December in a homemade barbecue pit.

Afterward, they continued to cash her retirement checks, eventually collecting approximately $25,000. Both were arrested and are in custody.

Additional reports say the daughter, 50-year-old Kathleen Allmond of Tehama County, California, constructed a necklace from parts of her mother's skull.

In related news, as part of the research I'm doing for a novel, I interviewed a funeral director earlier this week. During our conversation he confessed that ever since entering this line of work, he's been unable to eat ribs.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"The Horror Library" Volume 3 Arrives in Time for Halloween

A few days ago the editors of The Horror Library Vol. 3 wrote to let me know that the book is at the printers and scheduled for release in time for Halloween.

Am I excited? You have no idea. I'll be appearing with much better-known authors such as Gary Braunbeck, Michael Arnzen, Kealan Patrick Burke, Kurt Dinan and a bunch of others I'd be too shy to introduce myself to at a convention.

But I digress.

The editors also sent along a nifty animated GIF banner. Unfortunately I can't get it to work here on Blogger, so a link to the page will just have to do.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Things Could Be Worse

It's been a rough week for investors, people who work for a living, retirees, Republicans and anyone who either has money or needs it.

But after considering recent events, I realized that even though things are bad, they could could be worse.

Zombies could be roaming our streets and shopping malls, for example.

And this one could be president.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Watch This One

This is Neel Kashkari, the 35-year-old former Goldman Sachs vice president who's been tapped by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to head up distribution of the $700 billion from the Wall Street bailout program.

All criticisms aside about Washington cronyism (Paulson once worked at Goldman Sachs as well) or foxes guarding the hen house...

Is it just me, or does dude have some crazy eyes?

Monday, October 6, 2008

Financial Terrorists

Stocks dropped all last week while Congress debated passage of the Wall Street bailout... oh, I'm sorry, economic rescue plan.

But now that $700 billion has been cleared for take-off, stocks continue to drop. As of this writing, the Dow was below 10,000 for the first time in four years.

Why?

According to a story this morning from the Associated Press, "The markets have come to the sobering realization that the Bush administration's $700 billion rescue plan won't work quickly to unfreeze the credit markets, and that many banks are still having difficulty gaining access to cash."

In other words, it took only one weekend -- coincidentally the weekend after the "rescue" plan was passed -- for the markets to come to the sobering realization that $700 billion either isn't going to be enough, or that it won't hit their balance books fast enough to avoid the catastrophe they said was imminent if they didn't get $700 billion?

And no one -- NOT ONE SINGLE WALL STREET EXECUTIVE OR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL? -- had the foresight to see this?

With geniuses like this at the helm, it's no wonder our financial system is in shambles.

You know what? Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and every other financial terrorist on Wall Street had better watch out, because it's looking like circumstances are ripe for a good old-fashioned witch burning.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fatal Error

As part of a novel I'm writing, I'm researching care-giving and end-of-life issues. BeyondIndigo.com has turned out to be an excellent resource for this.

The site supports individuals either caring for someone with terminal illness or recovering from their death. Understandably, one often becomes the other.

Reading the message boards, where husbands and wives and children pour out their fears and frustrations, it's obvious the site has become the hub of a close-knit community and is helping a lot of people come to terms with their grief.

Unfortunately, the site is undergoing some renovations, and when I clicked on the Funerals topic, I got the error message pictured above. Click on the photo to see if for yourself.

I'm sure no one at BeyondIndigo.com purposefully worded the error message in just that way, or chose to pair it with what is obviously intended to be the main page graphic. They're probably not even aware users are getting this message.

But given the site's purpose in general, and the topic I clicked on specifically, it struck me as one of those rare so-awful-it's-funny things. Almost.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Begotten"

1991; written and directed by E. Elias Merhige

Begotten isn't frightening because it contains violence and gore, even though there's plenty of both. Begotten is frightening because every image and sound within it is so alien. It almost seems impossible that the film was created by a human being on planet Earth, and yet, you know it was. And it's terrifying.

The synopsis does about as much justice to the film as describing the Mona Lisa as a picture of a woman smiling. But here it is just the same. "God disembowels himself with a straight razor. The spirit-like Mother Earth emerges, venturing into a bleak, barren landscape. Twitching and cowering, the Son Of Earth is set upon by faceless cannibals."

Every word is true, but falls far short of actually experiencing Begotten for yourself. Shot in the grainiest of black and white, and accompanied by a soundtrack made up primarily of nature sounds (and not a bit of dialog) Begotten seems more like a nightmare burned directly onto film than a mere motion picture.

Occasionally compared to David Lynch's Eraserhead -- the way one might compare hard-core porn to a Harlequin romance -- Begotten can be confounding and frustrating. But surrender to its bizarre rhythms and imagery and you'll find yourself in a new world, one that distorts your view of the real one long after the film's 78 minutes are done.

(Another apt comparison would be to the videotape in The Ring. Both share a similar style of images and editing techniques, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the makers of The Ring were influenced by Begotten.)

I don't expect you to add Begotten to your Netflix queue based on my recommendation alone. So take a look at the clip below. It's ten minutes long, but you should know by the end of the first whether Begotten is something you want inside your head. Because once you see it, that's exactly where it will stay.

(Some images may not be safe for work.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Coming Attractions

The video teaser for Unspeakable Horror is out, and you can get your free copy right here.



Watch for my name. I'm "and 17 others." In all seriousness, I'm grateful to be part of what people at Context were calling an anticipated and prestigious anthology.

What I Did at Context 21

Thanks to a hot tip from fellow writer Kurt Dinan (more on him later), I went to Context this past weekend in Columbus, Ohio.

From the little I saw, Columbus is a lovely town that's difficult to get to from Chicago, but whose liquor stores are easily located. This proved helpful to my roommate John Hornor Jacobs. His southern hospitality was in full force, and I often found myself marveling at all the people he knew, had just met, or was going to introduce himself to. The guy is socially fearless in a way I'll never understand but will always admire.

Which brings me to a discussion of my own behavior during the conference. The few people who meet me at these things usually end up expressing surprise when I describe myself as a shy introvert. Even though that admission may come on the heels of a quip that's left the room in stitches, it's nonetheless true. When it comes to most social interactions, I'm the proverbial dancing bear. Whatever social skills I possess are little more than well-practiced tricks, and even though they might appear effortless, they're no more natural than Mr. Bear's lumbering cha-cha or that pink tutu barely covering his ass.

Where this illusion really breaks down is when I find myself in the presence of people I admire but don't know. This was the case with several of the visiting authors, such as Gary Braunbeck, Maurice Broaddus, Brian Keene, Nick Mamatas and Tim Waggoner, none of whom I met. At a certain point during the convention, after seeing them several times in the halls without saying a word, the whole thing began approaching a level of ridiculousness that was probably worse than whatever awkward small talk I might have been able to generate with them. What's honestly just shyness and uncertainty on my part probably comes across as the kind of aloof arrogance that makes these folks remark to themselves, "Christ, what an asshole."

This was certainly the case with Michael Arnzen. Even though I had a workshop with the guy, I found it nearly impossible to speak with him outside the confines of our class. Because of this, I spent the majority of the conference giving him uncomfortable nods in the hall. Then, on Saturday night, we both found ourselves in the smoker's ghetto outside the hotel. Realizing I couldn't ignore my social responsibilities any longer, I did my best to engage him in talk about his book Proverbs with Monsters, and complimented him on his imagination, and made a few more comments that left both of us squirming like two junior high students on our first visit to the locker room. Michael, if you're reading this, um, uh, er, sorry.

Of course, bitter experiences like this only make meeting the few people I do that much sweeter. Especially when they become friends. I've already mentioned John Hornor Jacobs, and will continue to do so. Kurt Dinan turned out to be as much of a smart ass as me, and almost as socially at ease as John Hornor Jacobs. He's a really good writer, too, and delivers a kick-ass critique like no one else I know. And Fran Friel is, quite simply, one of the classiest acts in the industry. She chaired a panel Sunday morning with what seemed to be preparation and confidence, but later confessed that she winged the whole thing. That's the scope of her powers.

Among the new names in my Rolodex, Michael Knost was a delight to have breakfast and dinner with, and the microbrew in his iPhone really, really made me want to rethink my long-held anti-Apple stance. Brian Hatcher knows magic and how to be really funny, and I was sorry to see him leave on Saturday night when our Mexican dinner started putting him through changes. Gary Frank is unassuming, knowledgeable, funny and didn't seem to mind being stuck next to me at a table. I'd have a cigarette with Calie Voorhis any time, and could probably learn a lot from her about how to get things done. And Bill Carl is so nice and entertaining that he was able to put me at ease even after I realized he'd written a book that I hadn't read. (Bill, that oversight will soon be corrected.)

So. There you have it and there it is. If anyone has any tips or tricks for making smooth small talk with the semi-famous and above, I could really use them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Work of Todd Hido

I first saw Todd Hido's work several years ago, and always remember it whenever I see a suburban house at night.

What is it about these ordinary-looking photographs that pulls me in and sends a chill down my spine at the same time? During the late '90s and early 2000s, Hido made a name for himself with a series of photos from the edges of suburbia entitled "House Hunting." More recently he's introduced portraits and interiors in a book entitled Between the Two. Thankfully, his newer work still has that desolate sense of mystery about it.

Hido's photos could almost be stills from a horror movie. Looking at them, you can imagine the camera slowly zooming in while the wind howls and a muffled scream joins in to sing harmony.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Worth A Look Back

Although saying, "I told you so," can be enjoyable, it's usually not very helpful. Because when you're up to your ass in alligators, reminding everyone that you warned them about the swamp just makes a bad situation worse.

And yet. Considering the current news and my lack of recent posts, there doesn't seem much reason not to give another look to this March 14th essay from my mirror blog entitled "Good Scares."

-----------------------

The Bear in Bear Stearns

Today, the United States Federal Reserve and JPMorgan Chase & Co. provided Bear Stearns with a 28-day emergency funding package that the Associated Press calls "a surprise, last-ditch effort to save the 86-year-old institution."

Amount and terms of the deal were not disclosed. At the time of this writing Bear Stearns stock has lost approximately 40% of its value.

Though rumors have been rampant that the venerable investment bank was in truly hot water over their losses related to subprime mortgage-backed securities, Bear Stearns CEO, Alan Schwartz, denied them until today when he revealed "our liquidity position in the past 24 hours had significantly deteriorated."

In a memo to staff, Schwartz said the loan would allow Bear Stearns to "get back to business as usual."

Let's hope not, since business as usual for Bear Stearns has often included aggressive operations on the fringes of the mortgage loan business. Instead, let's hope this lifeline allows Bear Stearns time to clean house and change its course before it's too late.

Observations aside about CEOs who either lie or ignore the writing on the wall for an entire week, then blithely refer to returning to the very same "business as usual" that got them into their current mess, this development doesn't bode well for the United States, our economy, Wall Street, the banking industry, the housing industry, or ordinary people like you and me.

Because when the fifth-largest bank in America doesn't have the prescience to know shaky investment vehicles when it sees them -- or even that it's going to run out of cash in five days -- the credit crisis some experts say may be coming to an end soon is probably just getting started.

However, I think we can all take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what happens, Bear Stearns's CEO, its board of directors and executive staff will be well taken care of. Anything less simply wouldn't be the American way.

--------------

3/16/2008 UPDATE: In today's Sunday New York Times business section, Gretchen Morgenson laments the Chase/Fed bailout of Bear Stearns and compares the current mortgage securities and credit crisis to the Drexel Burnham junk bond fiasco of the 1980s.

Among her more interesting -- and incisive -- observations is that
The beneficiary of this bailout, remember, has often operated in the gray areas of Wall Street and with an aggressive, brass-knuckles approach. Until regulators came along in 1996, Bear Stearns was happy to provide its balance sheet and imprimatur to bucket-shop brokerages like Stratton Oakmont and A. R. Baron, clearing dubious stock trades.

And as one of the biggest players in the mortgage securities business on Wall Street, Bear provided munificent lines of credit to public-spirited subprime lenders like New Century (now bankrupt). It is also the owner of EMC Mortgage Servicing, one of the most aggressive subprime mortgage servicers out there.

Bear’s default rates on so-called Alt-A mortgages that it underwrote also indicates that its lending practices were especially lax during the real estate boom. As of February, according to Bloomberg data, 15 percent of these loans in its underwritten securities were delinquent by more than 60 days or in foreclosure. That compares with an industry average of 8.4 percent.

Let’s not forget that Bear Stearns lost billions for its clients last summer, when two hedge funds investing heavily in mortgage securities collapsed. And the firm tried to dump toxic mortgage securities it held in its own vaults onto the public last summer in an initial public offering of a financial company called Everquest Financial. Thankfully, that deal never got done.
At the end of an excellent article, Morgenson concludes
But by offering to backstop firms like Bear, who were the very architects of their own -- and the market’s -- current problems, overseers like the Fed undermine a little bit more of that [investor] confidence.

Another worry? How many well-capitalized institutions remain at the ready to take over those firms that may encounter turbulence in the future? Banks just do not have the capital that is needed to rescue troubled firms.

That will leave the taxpayer, alas. As usual.

Scary stuff, indeed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Government Bailout Plan

The news about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae -- and now AIG -- has inspired me. I think now is the time the United States government provided me with a bailout plan.

A bit less than a year ago I left a great job to focus on writing fiction full-time. Some may have argued with the wisdom of this decision, describing it as risky or even speculative. However, times were good, I was feeling optimistic, and believed that if things worked out the upside of my actions was almost limitless.

I've since sold two short stories -- which is great! -- but the few hundred dollars I earned from them hasn't been enough to cover my expenses. (Worse yet, some publications I sent stories to did not buy them, which had a further negative impact on my earnings.) Consequently, a significant portion of my savings is now gone and the truth is that I simply cannot continue writing full-time without some assistance from the government.

Some may blame my current circumstances on poor management. To them I say, no one could have predicted the dilemma I now face and, frankly, I consider it to be one of those "once in a century" things that just can't be helped. Would more or less regulation have made a difference? I believe it would take a federal commission, several years and a great deal of taxpayer money to get to the bottom of it all.

However, it would take only $1 million dollars for me to continue my current operations. While that is a lot of money, let me remind you that it will be used to keep hard-working Americans -- such as the folks at my mortgage holder, the utility and credit card companies, the grocery store and gas station -- employed. I might even find myself in a position to create jobs with that kind of cash on hand. I think it would be nice to have a cleaning lady come in once or twice a week, and I've been wanting to update our kitchen and bathroom for the longest time. Withholding that million dollars -- and allowing me to go under -- would only end up hurting more people in the end.

I, too, am "too big to fail."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Pit Bull with Lipstick

No one enjoys cheap name-calling and mud-slinging more than me. And the Republicans' new attack dog appears to be an experienced pro at the game. So naturally, I enjoyed Sarah Palin's speech last night.

However, while the far-right is still bloated from ingesting all that red meat, I think it's important to state a few facts about the woman being haled this morning as the "future of the Republican party."

1. Time magazine reports (among other things) that as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Palin asked the local librarian how to go about banning books she found offensive. When the librarian refused to go along with her, Palin tried to have her fired.

2. Although she's now presenting herself as an anti-earmark reformer, the LA Times reports that as mayor Palin hired Washington lobbyists to gather pork for Wasilla, including a $600,000 bus facility and a $1.5 million sewer system. In her first year as governor, she requested 31 earmarks worth $197.8 million. And that "Bridge to Nowhere"? She's against it now, but was a strong supporter, and kept the $400+ million the state had already received for it.

3. Don't be fooled by Palin's support of families with special needs children. The Huffington Post is reporting that she recently cut educational funding for special needs children by $6 million. There's as-yet unsubstantiated talk that she also slashed funding for an unwed mothers' shelter.

4. The Wall Street Journal reports that Palin is a member of the Assembly of God Church, which practices speaking in tongues, supports the mixture of church and state, and believes that humanity is living in end times. Her minister preached that critics of President Bush would be banished to Hell, and questioned whether those who voted for John Kerry in 2004 would be admitted into Heaven. Though she hasn't been a member since 2002, she still maintains close ties with the church and its minister. Here's a video of her from this past June, addressing the church. In it, she asks congregants to pray for a gas pipeline she describes as "God's will" and says that the Iraq War is a "task that is from God."


5. She may be parroting McCain's "Country First" slogan now, but in the nineties she and her husband were members of the Alaska Independence Party. One of the Party's planks is secession from the United States. Here she is warmly addressing them this year.


6. According to CNN, Palin is under an ethics investigation in Alaska. The case concerns her July firing of a state safety commissioner for refusing to terminate a state trooper who was locked in a custody battle with her sister.

7. That car wash she's part owner in? The Washington Post says she failed to declare it on the form in which gubernatorial candidates must disclose interest in any non-publicly traded company. And then it failed to file its biennial report and pay its requisite fees.

8. Palin blatantly misrepresented the extent of her meager foreign travel during the VP selection process. Though she claimed to have visited Germany, Kuwait and Ireland (three hotbeds of international tension) the Huffington Post has since reported that the trip to Ireland was a refueling layover only.

9. Wikipedia states that pit bulls are recognized as dangerous and unpredictable dogs, often valued for their "macho" reputations and fighting abilities. They are responsible for one third of all dog-bite fatalities, and have been banned in 12 countries and 24 cities in the United States.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What This Place Needs is an Amazing Bridge

This post about some of the most unique bridges in the world got me thinking. For years Chicago politicians have discussed extending Lake Shore Drive up to Evanston -- the first suburb north of the city. Whenever the subject comes up, it always involves filling in the existing lake front and completely changing the shoreline along the Rogers Park neighborhood.

Not only is this a bad idea, but I think it lacks vision as well. First of all, the lake front we have is perfectly fine, with more public beaches per mile than any other neighborhood in the city. This is because once upon a time Rogers Park functioned as Chicago's "vacation area." Times change, however, and for the past fifty years or so Rogers Park has been considered at best a "transitional" area, one always on the cusp of a renewal that never quite seems to arrive. The current lake front is one of the few things Rogers Park has going for it, and altering or decreasing our access to it would be disastrous.

Instead, I'd like to propose building a kick-ass bridge from the end of Lake Shore Drive to Evanston. Something along the lines of France's Millau Viaduct, above, would be nice. A visually stunning bridge would not only preserve the current lake front and beach access, it would provide a unique identifier to the Rogers Park area, similar to San Francisco's Presidio and Marina districts, and a new iconic image for Chicago. Plus, for all our architectural splendors, a great bridge is not among them. And though I'm no expert on these matters, instinct tells me building a bridge would be less expensive than putting up an eight-lane highway over newly created land.

So, let this post be my notice to Mayor Daley and our alderman, Joe Moore. Think about it, guys.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Where Was I?

Never try to stop smoking, lose weight and write a short story on deadline at the same time. Because none of them will get accomplished.

That's not entirely true. I've cut my smoking by 75% (thank God Nicorette gum is available without a prescription). I've written half a story (which won't be finished in time to submit to the anthology I had in mind). And I did lose three pounds.

So the past 2-4 weeks haven't been a complete loss. But the portion of them that wasn't spent in a frenzied haze was devoted to beating myself up, which is always a bloody affair. What little time was left over I spent reading and yard-saling. Both provided me with many hours of enjoyment.

These things happen from time to time. I'm pretty much an all-or-nothing type of guy. Most of the time it works out okay. Occasionally, however, this lifestyle swallows me alive. It's always nice to come out the other side, even if it does leave me feeling like shit.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Universe is a Casino

Albert Einstein famously said, "God does not play dice with the universe." His point (made in response to the randomness of quantum physics) was that the universe must behave according to laws that are observable, absolute and, ultimately, predictable.

While God (and Oprah, more on her later) may have the luxury of operating within this kind of well-ordered universe, the vast majority of us must get along as best we can by doing exactly what God can't be bothered with: playing dice. That, or roulette, blackjack, Texas hold 'em, slot machines or insert-your-favorite-game-of-chance-here.

This observation was inspired by a good friend's recent experience in a discussion at a well-known author's online writing forum. My friend responded to the request for "favorite writing rules" with several that have helped him, and was subsequently taken to task for some of them. Not only by the well-known author, but by his henchman as well, and in not one but two separate responses.

I left a lengthy comment supporting my pal which basically boiled down to calling bullshit on the author, his henchman, rules in general and the futility of following them specifically. It probably wasn't the most mature or well-reasoned response in the history of these things, but it did get me thinking.

As someone who's spent a great deal of time and money searching for rules by which to live a successful life, I feel I can speak with some authority when I say my search has largely been futile, and I suspect most other people's have been as well.

This isn't because we suffer from a shortage of so-called experts, each one offering (usually for a price) one or more rules that promise to help you earn more money, make wise investments, find true love, improve your marriage, land a dream job, enhance your career, write your novel or find an agent/publisher for that book you just finished.

No, the world is packed to the rafters with these folks. At best, their rules reflect the mysterious combination of hard work and good luck that happened to come up aces for them once upon a time. At worst, they're recycled platitudes that were pulled out of their ass and/or thin air.

This is why I do a slow boil every time someone like Oprah says something along the lines of "The universe responds to intention." In other words, if you want something badly enough and send out that desire to the universe, the universe has no other choice but to pony up and respond by delivering exactly what you asked for, like some great cosmic Santa. I would argue with Ms. Winfrey that the universe does not respond to intention so much as your personal staff and the entertainment industry respond to hundreds of millions of dollars, a terrific amount of perceived power, and your own stated wishes. Mere mortals and those whose lives relegate them to watching daytime talk shows must hazard a much steeper climb.

Back in the 1980s, Bally health clubs ran a commercial featuring Cher, in which she told us "if great bodies came in a bottle, everybody would have one." I believe the same could be said for best-selling novels, number-one pop songs, record-breaking movies and larger than average penises. If it were possible to cook these things up simply by following a recipe, they'd be as common as apple pies and chocolate chip cookies.

And yet, as writers we're among the most desperate of anyone to believe that the next book of rules or seminar or guru will be different. It's a perfectly understandable desire. Authors who have books to their name and a list of rules for sale must have their acts pretty much together. They must know what they're talking about.

Alas, I don't believe they do -- at least when it comes to passing along some great and powerful secret. This became clear to me upon reading Stephen King's On Writing. I opened that book with great anticipation, figuring that if anyone could describe the process of successful writing it would have to be Mr. King.

Instead, he pretty much admitted that even he doesn't know how he does what he does so well, and didn't have much more advice for hopeful writers than could be found in any number of other books on writing already out there. Read copiously, he advised us. Be a compulsive observer of human nature. Tell the truth. Write every day. Eliminate adverbs and cliches. He might as well have added, "Finish your vegetables."

It's not that King's instruction wasn't generous and well-intentioned. It was. But after finishing On Writing I came to believe that either there was no secret, or if there was, even he wasn't going to let the rest of us in on it.

Critics will probably consider this post the sour grapes of a bitter and disillusioned has-been to-be. If that helps them sleep at night and wake up in the morning refreshed and ready to face another day, I'm happy to be of service.

My point isn't that nobody knows what they're talking about and everyone is full of shit. Quite the opposite. I'm a big believer in learning the rules and playing by them, then breaking a few when it suits your purposes or you're feeling especially ornery.

But I do believe writing is as slippery and mysterious as life itself. And just as there's no formula for success in one there's no ten easy steps for the other. In the end it is, like everything else, largely a numbers game for all but a fortunate few whose number has already been called.

Seek out advice, but consider the source and its agenda. Use what suits your purposes and leave the rest by the side of the road. Look at what's already worked and build on that. Don't take "no" for an answer and stay at the table. Keep playing for as long as you possibly can and hope like hell your number comes up, too.

And keep in mind that everyone -- even and especially those you allow to teach you -- is making it up as they go along.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Ever Since the World Ended"

2001; directed by Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle; written by Calum Grant

What everyone enjoys about end-of-the-world tales isn't watching the world wind down, but seeing how a small band of survivors rebuild it, and imagining what it would be like to be among them.

This is the fantasy that Ever Since the World Ended appeals to, explores, satisfies, and then improves upon. Presented as an amateur documentary, the film is set in San Francisco 12 years after an unnamed plague has eliminated most of the human race, leaving only 186 people within the city limits.

Choosing the documentary form was a brilliant move. Not only does it circumvent a lot of budgetary limitations, it allows the filmmakers to make the most of their special effects shots of eerily deserted streets, a decomposing Golden Gate Bridge, and a rusting ship in the harbor. It also gives viewers license to transform what might have been considered technical shortcomings in a big-budget film into a sense of immediacy and the feeling that what we're seeing is real.

The film opens with just enough individual recollections of the plague's history to set up the premise, then quickly introduces us to a world that is recognizable, yet radically different and sometimes humorous.

Bike mechanics are considered extremely valuable, as are those with a knack for sniffing out caches of liquor, prescription drugs and cigarettes inside the deserted city's thousands of abandoned homes and buildings. The last American Indian has grown weary of people expecting him to be some kind of mystic. Those who couldn't tolerate the demands of our current workaday world are now thriving. And everyone has lots and lots of time on their hands.

Yet people -- and their interactions with one another -- are much the same. They still enjoy dinners together, suffer petty jealousies, and engage in gossipy conversations, and it's within these very human relationships where much of the film's plot lives.

A single woman is ready to raise a child, and searching for a suitable sperm donor from the city's remaining men. A small group has decided to venture outside the city, and encounters a long-lost friend living wild in the branches of Muir Woods' canopy. A troubled community member who had left (or been chased out) has returned, presenting the survivors with the dilemma of keeping watch over him, banishing him again to become some other city's problem, or performing an outright execution.

The film's ending is both a surprise and surprisingly bittersweet, and I won't give it away here. But by the time we get there, this strange new world has become a place that looks like home. The only problem is, you have to go through hell to get there, and there's no guarantee you'll arrive. Better to watch the film and dream.

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales" by Fran Friel

Much has already been said about Fran Friel's debut collection, Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales, most of it revolving around the question of how such a nice woman could write such disturbing fiction.

While I have some issues of my own with that question (nice people write disturbing things all the time -- in fact, most of the horror writers I know are incredibly nice and, yes, even normal, people) the answer is actually pretty simple: Fran Friel is a writer, one who's not only in touch with her own vivid imagination, but has learned how to harness it, allow it to run free, and isn't afraid to go where it wants to take her. In a genre that too often relies on the tried-and-true, that's saying a lot, and it sets her apart from many of her contemporaries.


The book is composed of two novellas (including the title story), a group of short stories, flash and micro pieces; and a single poem. Friel's shorter works are both sensitive and powerful, and many of them are eye-openers in terms of proving just how much a limited number of words can accomplish. "Orange and Golden" -- a Katrina-inspired tale of a survivor and a dog -- is especially upsetting and well-done. (And upsetting has become, for me, the gold standard of dark fiction, since so little of it actually scares me any more.) "Close Shave" was another piece that, brief as it is at just 58 words, packs a visceral punch and central image that is still surfacing in my imagination several days later. "Beach of Dreams," with its glorious and hallucinatory opening of monsters washed up on the beach of a South Pacific island, was another favorite and made for a strong introduction to the collection. And "The Sea Orphan" is a well-researched tale that did what I wouldn't have thought possible after that series of disappointing Disney movies -- made me interested in pirates.

Of course, "Mama's Boy" is at the collection's heart, even though it appears at the end. The story was a 2006 Bram Stoker finalist, and I finished it awed by Friel's courage as a writer. The story's subject matter of mother/son incest is nothing less than explosive. Friel tackles the topic with a difficult mix of sensitivity and frankness, with keen observations and often fearless language. As I read it, I often found myself wondering about the questions she must have asked herself during its creation -- "Do I say this?" "Can I take it there?" "Is this possible?" Judging from the results, she answered each one with a resounding "Yes."

One section I especially enjoyed is at the back of the book, where Friel gives notes on each story. Sort of like a DVD's bonus features, she provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look at how each piece was conceived, grew and developed, generously crediting the fellow writers and workshoppers who gave her inspiration and guidance along the way.

Friel's publisher, Jason Sizemore at Apex Book Company, also deserves some recognition for putting together a collection that's daring and out of the ordinary in many ways. They've ventured outside the safety zone in several respects with this book, and deserve credit for doing so.

Rumor has it Friel is working on a novel. Based on her work in Mama's Boy... it should be one to look forward to.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get the New But Keep the Old

Obituaries for the death of old media aren't hard to find. But this Sunday's New York Times seemed positively lousy with them.

On its front page (and for an entire inside spread) the paper examined the rise of online reading among teenagers and their subsequent rejection of books and novels. Elsewhere, a columnist looked at those shows that can pass for hits in today's declining television industry (Mad Men and Swingtown among them), noting that they're set in eras when the Big Three networks ruled the airwaves. A third lamented the demise of CD liner notes due to the growing popularity of downloadable music.

All of this in a newspaper, an industry that's grappling with old vs. new media problems of its own.

As someone with one foot planted firmly in both worlds, these stories left me feeling torn. Most of my reading occurs online rather than on the page these days as well, and like the teens quoted in today's Times, I often find novels too demanding of both my free time and attention span. I rarely watch television dramas or sitcoms, preferring reality science-based shows I've recorded on my DVR. (And my commercial-skipping skills are so well developed they've reduced my ad exposure to mere seconds per hour.) I download music frequently, and can't remember the last time I even thought about reading liner notes.

And yet. I'm a short story writer and aspiring novelist who relies on other people reading my words, preferably on a page. I can draw a straight line between my career choices today and the books that made a profound impression on me as a child and adult. I miss the television series I grew up on in the seventies and eighties, and recall with particular fondness how the networks used to promote their new fall line-ups with such fanfare and excitement each summer. I spent the majority of my professional like in the advertising industry. And my LP record collection continues to grow and bring me untold joy -- not only for all its lost music, but because of the words and images on the covers and liner sleeves as well.

Viewed one way, I'm as guilty of killing old media as any teenager armed with a smart phone and a Twitter account. Viewed another, I'm as much a relic as some love-lorn college student's mix tape from the eighties.

I'm firmly on the fence here, and that's where I'll stay, because I've learned my lesson about buying into -- literally and figuratively -- the hype surrounding the death of old media.

In 2000 I gave away all of my LPs from high school and college -- a collection of hundreds of albums from the seventies and eighties. While I loved all those old records, I'd moved on to CDs. I no longer owned a turntable, and didn't believe I'd own another ever again. And without a doubt it was one of the worst mistakes I've ever made. Because little did I know, a mere five years later, I'd chance upon a collection of hundreds of LPs from the '50s and '60s at an estate sale, which would lead to me falling in love with the LP all over again.

I've since moved on to MP3s, but you can bet I'm hanging on to all my CDs this time. And you should, too, along with your DVDs and books and anything else you've got taking up space. Because while old media dies, it doesn't happen suddenly. It hangs on, like a crotchety old aunt who'll probably outlive us all. That's old media. And like that old aunt, it'll probably outlive us all as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I've Gone Mad

For the past two days I've been drowning my sorrows in Season 1 of Mad Men, an experience that not only brought on a lot of heavy drinking and smoking, but made me cheat on my wife as well.

Season 2 begins Sunday night, and seeing as how it's received such enormous critical acclaim, I thought it best to jump on the bandwagon now, since I obviously missed it last summer when it first rolled down my street.

I actually started watching Mad Men last year, but opted out after two or three episodes. Exactly why is a mystery, since everything about the show seemed designed to hit my sweet spot. It's set in the early sixties, my absolute favorite epoch, when men were unrepentant adulterers, women were frustrated housewives, interiors were sleek, smoking was cool and happy hour was whatever time it happened to be. And it revolves around the intrigue and political machinations inside an advertising agency -- an industry I know all too well. And yet, I stopped watching. What I didn't know then is that Mad Men is like an office party, one that doesn't really get going until late into the evening.

Maybe the first eight episodes were busy setting up the characters and conflicts, because Mad Men didn't become truly funny and inappropriate until the last four. Sure, there were plenty of scenes with pregnant women drinking mai tais and smoking cigarettes in the beginning, but they paled in comparison to a character bringing a rifle to the office and not inciting panic, or the sight of a grown man riding through the executive suite on the back of a model wearing only a bra and panties.

I think that's one of the show's greatest charms, watching these characters say and do things that would bring down the wrath of the HR department in our more politically correct times.

It's also hilarious every time the characters talk about how hard they work, since t seems the bulk of their business day is taken up with smoking, drinking, womanizing and gossiping, with occasional breaks for long lunches and shopping excursions. Yeah, I know, Mad Men isn't supposed to be reality, no more than Carrie Bradshaw's fabulous lifestyle on a writer's salary was in Sex in the City.

And yet. From everything I've heard, advertising truly was a glamorous business once upon a time, one filled with travel to exotic lands, unlimited expense accounts and workplace tomfoolery, all of it in the name of manipulating the American public to buy things they didn't need with money they didn't have. Those must have been the days.

It's a different business now. Advertising agencies -- especially those lacking a firm grasp of the interactive disciplines -- are running scared. TV commercials, formally an agency's bread and butter and caviar and champagne, are a much smaller part of the business, since fewer people watch TV and most of those who are zap past the spots. Clients expect results, not just pretty pictures, snappy copy and catchy jingles. And, saddest of all, people work their assess off now, trying like hell to keep the boat they're in afloat and hoping like hell that another big ship will come in.

I miss early sixties, even though I never experienced them. But, as my friend Jonathan keeps reminding me during every episode of Mad Men, "all those people are dead now." He's probably right. But at least back then they lived.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A GUD Cause

GUD magazine (it stands for Greatest Uncommon Denominator and is pronounced "good") is true to its name, a literary magazine with an eye for excellent design and a taste for dark fiction.

Their third issue will be released soon, and to promote the event they're holding a contest. Get the details here. The prize? A full set of their first three issues to have and to hold and read and enjoy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"The Dark Knight"

2008; directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

If nothing else, The Dark Knight is loud. Throughout its hectic 2-1/2 hours bombs explode, engines roar, glass shatters, cars crash, mobs scream and characters shout at and beyond the top of their lungs. In this respect it's the perfect summer movie for both teenage boys and the hard-of-hearing.

Like all summer blockbusters, The Dark Knight excels in its technical aspects. Fans of special effects, pyrotechnics, sound design and editing, cinematography and sheer volume (in both senses of the word) will certainly leave the theater feeling they got their money's worth.

However, audiences hoping to find a compelling story amidst all the sturm und drang will leave feeling not only cold but confused, since the screenplay is little more than one massive action sequence after another.

In this installment of the series, Gotham has been overrun by organized crime. The mob is involved in a multi-billion dollar corruption ploy in cahoots with the Chinese, Gotham's crooked police force can't be trusted to fight them, and the Joker is stirring it all up -- not for monetary gain, but only because he enjoys the thrill of chaos. (Judging from the results, he surely must have been pleased.) Only Batman and the tough new District Attorney provide any hope for justice. There are several character reversals and double-crosses that seem to come out of left field, some nonsense about Gotham getting the kind of hero it deserves, and a deus ex machina device that brings the whole thing to a close. None of it amounts to much.

I was most interested in seeing the late Heath Ledger's penultimate performance as the Joker, which did not disappoint. He brings an array of vocal and physical techniques to the role that make him the most interesting and entertaining thing in the picture. He commands our attention, controlling every room he enters, filling the screen and literally crowding out the other characters. Even beneath his smeary make-up his face is so expressive, his eyes so quick and intelligent, we can almost see the synapses firing inside his head. One wishes he had not only more scenes in the film, but more roles to come afterward as well.

However, I also think a bit too much has been made of it, with some going so far as to suggest that the performance required such physical and emotional demands that death became the logical result. This is not the case. Ledger does an outstanding job, eclipsing every other actor in the film including Christian Bale, who's been known to suffer for his art as well. Ledger's performance will serve as a thrilling end to a too-short career. But this is not acting to die for.

Let me be honest. It's rare for me to go to any film on its opening weekend, especially one as over-marketed as The Dark Knight. Invariably I sit there in the theater, feeling shoveled in by all the hype, and ultimately walk out wondering why I wasted my time, patience and $9-$10.

The Dark Knight was no different. The film tells us very little about ourselves, and way too much about what Hollywood thinks of us. To quote Shakespeare, it is "a tale of sound and fury... signifying nothing."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Verminators"

If, like me, you recoil at the sight of any life form smaller than a kitten, but enjoy watching them infest other people's homes from the safety of your own, Verminators is your show.

The series follows the day-to-day pest-killing adventures of a exterminating company located in Los Angeles. In the last episode I saw, the company's field crew tackled an all-out roach infestation in a lower-middle class apartment complex, a horde of rats in a slightly better apartment complex, and a bevy of black widow spiders who'd decided to nest in the horse barns of a well-to-do family's estate.

The lesson here? No one, regardless of socio-economic status, is safe from critters.

In addition to getting a good look at other people's bug-infested homes, the Verminators also pass on helpful tips and tricks for spotting them in yours. Rats and mice will leave smudge marks on corners and walls, for example. Termites are more likely to destroy moist wood. Regular house cleaning will keep spiders at bay.

All good things to know, especially if you're more interested in keeping vermin out of your house than figuring out ways to get rid of it once it's made itself at home.

New episodes of Verminators air Monday nights at 10:00PM ET on the Discovery channel; older episodes appear throughout the week.