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.