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.