Wishful Beginnings.

I started Zenarchery a very, very long time ago: the first version of the site went up, I believe, in 1998. Back then I had no idea about “weblog” software, so I wrote my own, which allowed me to make very simple HTML posts.

Over the last few years, the site has stagnated, as I’ve turned to other outlets for my ranting (mainly Twitter). But it occurs to me that it might be interesting to someone out there for me to resume cataloging my daily ideas, interests and links.

So here’s my New Year’s resolution: to try and write something here at least once a day, even if it’s only a single thought or link; specifically, something I haven’t posted anywhere else.

Here goes: I’m currently deeply fascinated by the idea of micropower: systems for self-generating electrical energy (usually in small amounts). This could be solar panels, windmills, or kinetically-generated power, like hand-cranked generators.

My current interest began with this:

This light can be charged by pulling down on a weighted cord, which I assume turns a dynamo or something similar to power the LED within. One pull equals a half-hour of light. Other devices can also be powered from this gravity light, like cellphones. (I’m interested in what they’re using to store the power — a normal deep-charge battery will lose its charging ability if it’s partially charged extremely often. My guess is a shallow-charge battery, like a car uses, or some sort of capacitance system. But that’s a guess.)

I’ve been looking at ways to modify car alternators to be human-powered as well; more to come on that soon.

How to pack

Tomorrow, I’m flying to Chicago to pick up a van that Rosalie’s aunt is very kindly giving us (we haven’t had a car in a while). I’ll be driving the van back, which is a 2100 mile drive, at least on the route I’m taking, which will take me from freezing, possibly snowing Chicago, all the way through the Ozarks, the north Texas prairie where I grew up, and the mountains and deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. So I need to pack for versatility.

I’ve traveled quite a lot in my life — less so in the past few years, but a lot more than your average American. Consequently, I’ve developed specific algorithms for what to pack.

My first rule is: black t-shirts. I always have at least 1.25x as many black t-shirts as the number of days I’ll be gone. Black t-shirts are incredibly versatile — you can wear them under a sportcoat in a pinch, they don’t advertise stains, and you can roll them up for additional space. In this case, I don’t know exactly how long it’ll take me to drive home, so I’m taking six t-shirts, just in case.

Always take at least one or two collared, button-up shirts, just in case. In case of what? Exactly.

Pants: nice jeans. One pair per day, generally, but in this case I’m driving solo, and frankly I’m only taking three or four pairs this trip. A pair of light shorts for hanging out in hotel rooms, in case you need to step out to get something from the vending machine. And they double as swim trunks, if you need ’em.

Shoes and socks: I only travel wearing Doc Martens. Not steel toes, if you’re traveling in cold places — trust my bitter experience on that. However, I also take a pair of cheap flip-flops, which I wear to the airport to speed up security. Also good for hotel rooms.

Socks: always carry lots of socks. For this trip, I have three pairs of heavy socks and four pairs of light athletic ones.

Toiletries: I just shaved my head, so I don’t need shampoo and conditioner. I always carry my old-fashioned double razor, shaving cream, toothbrush and floss and toothpaste. If you’re staying in hotels or motels, they’ll have soap.

Weapons: This may not apply to you, but I’m driving by myself 3/5ths of the way across the country, and I may sleep in rest stops. For me, it’s my giant Gerber pigsticker and my little Gerber pocket knife. Stowed in checked baggage, of course.

Electronics: I have a Keen shoulder bag that stores most everything I need: laptop, adapters, a tiny MIDI keyboard in case I get inspired to write music. I also keep a powered USB hub that can charge my phone, ClearSpot (for 4G wireless, where I can get it) and my iPad.

I’m still debating whether I need to take my actual laptop this trip. If I wasn’t driving, I would probably only take the iPad and my phone, but it’s not like the laptop takes up much more room.

Miscellaneous: When I get to Chicago, I’m stopping at an army/navy surplus store and getting the following:

  • A sleeping bag
  • Chemical hand warmers
  • A couple of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)

I’m also bringing a paracord bracelet, a pair of touchscreen-friendly gloves, and a warm hat. Sound like overkill? Maybe…but if anything happens, I’m prepared.

Even if I get lost and don’t have a cell signal, my iPad has a compass and a GPS locator built in, so I can generally find my way. Despite my reputation as a firm urbanite, I spent my early years out in the country, and I know the basics of surviving and finding my way in the wilderness. Not that I plan to be in the wilderness, but….

For longer trips, I follow my old buddy Abe Burmeister’s travel tips. Abe spent a few years as a nomad in the last decade, and he told me how he managed to live out of his Boblbee backpack for months at a time.

Basically, he only traveled with a few items: a couple of pairs of nice pants and a couple of nice shirts and his laptop and cell phone. He didn’t stay continually on the move — he’d be in one town, more or less, for a few weeks at a time — so when he got there, he’d buy a couple of packs of cheap t-shirts and wear them while he was in town. When he left, he’d donate them to Goodwill. This allowed him to travel with a single carry-on bag, pretty much anywhere in the world, with little difficulty. It’s a useful trick.

I’m off to pack. See you when I get home.

A letter to my neighbor

Irene,

1) I did to my knowledge not receive the letter you mention. Perhaps you shoved it under my door and the scampering neighborhood hooligans took it, or the 80 year old Swiss woman you insist is spraying poison all over the yard and running a methamphetamine laboratory in her parlor. Or the spies you seem to believe are hiding in the bushes.

Also, for future reference, shoving a note under someone’s door is not a guarantee that they will find it, see it, and certainly not that they will read it.

2) As for the $160 vet bill you presented us with: I called the vet and she told me in no uncertain terms that there was nothing wrong with Erwin and that he certainly wasn’t poisoned or sick or “intoxicated”, as you put it. (I suppose he might have been drunk, but I didn’t ask the vet if she’d given him a breathalyzer test. He has never shown a predilection for alcohol, however, as he is a cat.)

She also told me that you claimed to be my cat sitter and that I’d authorized you to take him to the vet. Neither of these is true. So you took him to the vet, incurring this bill, without my permission and for no sane reason at all. Your claims that our other neighbor, Pia, was poisoning the animals is as utterly insane and groundless as your claims that she is some sort of meth cook, and suggests to me that you are possibly a paranoid schizophrenic.

However, we’ve paid for half of your fraudulent bill, and will pay the other half at our convenience — not because we believe we owe it to you, but because we want this matter settled. But that’s as far as it goes. Consider yourself lucky that we don’t litigate against you. I’m sure there’s some legal prohibition upon stealing your neighbor’s cat and taking him to the vet because you’re a madwoman.

3) As I’ve told you twice previously, I don’t have Erwin’s vaccination records, nor do I remember the name of the veterinarian I took him to to get them. There’s no legal requirement for me to keep these records. He is a cat, not a human child.

4) I absolutely, categorically refuse to pay for your $1000 doctor’s visit. If you hadn’t felt the need to fraudulently abduct my cat and take him to the vet without my permission, he wouldn’t have scratched you. Nor was he “intoxicated”, according to the vet who saw him. You are merely demented.

Also, my wife has warned you — in writing — that you play with our cat at your own risk.

If you feel the need to take this matter to court, feel free. I have an excellent attorney and will promptly countersue you for harassment. I suspect the court will find in my favor, as I am not a paranoid lunatic who takes pictures of my neighbors because I believe they are all conspiring against me.

5) For at least two years you have felt the need to take my cat into your home without asking my permission and feed him and generally behave in a terribly creepy fashion. To avoid a confrontation, we’ve allowed this. That ends now. I demand that you leave my cat, Erwin, alone. Your Erwin privileges are, as of this moment, revoked. Don’t feed him, don’t allow him into your house, don’t touch him. If I see you put food out for him I will throw it away. If I see you picking him up I will take him from you physically.

And, God help you, don’t harm him, or I will have you prosecuted for animal cruelty. You will go to jail.

6) If you want to pursue this matter, do so through your attorney. My wife and I wish no further contact with you, and if you harass us — or continue to behave as though our cat is your pet — I will, again, pursue the matter with the authorities.

I understand that you’ve been evicted from your apartment for basically behaving like a madwoman. I advise you to simply drop this matter and leave. Perhaps your lunacy intimidates others, but you don’t frighten me with your maniacal legal threats.

Signed, Joshua Ellis

Dick move.

Sometime early Monday morning, my old friend and collaborator Tommy Marth committed suicide.

What a prick.

And Tommy was a prick, make no mistake. It was his chief public characteristic. He was cynical, sarcastic, caustic as industrial solvent. The day he met my wife Rosalie, he walked up and said “So this is the stupid bitch who’s marrying you?” He was kidding, but one of Tommy’s greatest talents was the maintenance at all times of an absolute poker face.

I say one of his talents, because Tommy had quite a number of them. Like every member of his family, he was a gifted musician — in Tommy’s case, it was the saxophone. He was most known, in fact, for being the studio and live saxophonist for Las Vegas’s biggest music act, The Killers, playing on their records Sam’s Town and Day And Age. But he also played with a lot of less-known local acts like Black Camaro, Ryan Pardey’s up-and-coming Halloween Town…and me.

Tommy was possessed of one of the fiercest, most unrelenting minds I’ve ever encountered. It would be a mistake to say that Tommy didn’t suffer fools gladly; in point of fact, he didn’t suffer them at all. He had no patience with stupid people or the mentally lazy, and he didn’t bother to hide his contempt, which also contributed to his reputation as a gigantic raging asshole.

I met Tommy, I think, sometime in 2000 or possibly 1999, at Cafe Espresso Roma, where I met so many of the people who’ve become my good friends and family. Back then, Tommy was still modeling and accompanying casino club DJs on saxophone. My first impression was: prick. And he really was. Why not? He was a male model who literally had to fight off starlets like Tara Reid, who once walked up to him when he was playing at a club and stuck her tongue down his throat. He had no reason to be humble.

But then, slowly, I got to know him, and I discovered that underneath his abrasive exterior was a thoughtful, restless autodidact who was fiercely loyal and devoted to his friends and protective of his family. Tommy and I were very similar in many ways: avowed atheists, obsessive music lovers and makers (though Tommy was far more talented in this direction than I will ever be), voracious readers; deep romantics masquerading as dismissive cynics. Tommy sneered at the world because it consistently failed to live up to his expectations of what it could be.

For a few years there, we were close. I moved in with Tommy’s brother, Ryan, and Tommy and I would sit for hours and hours in Ryan’s condo, filled with instruments and recording gear and the detritus of a thousand electronic experiments, and watch movies or play Grand Theft Auto: Vice City endlessly, disregarding the built-in missions in favor of simply raining chaos down on the cops and whores of Vice City, stealing tanks and using them to demolish entire neighborhoods of the city while “Fascination” by the Human League played endlessly on the in-game radio station. (On at least one occasion when we finished a marathon gaming session by heading to nearby all-night bar and restaurant Ichabod’s, I nearly had to physically restrain Tommy from ramming a cop car, pulling the cop out, beating him up, stealing his cruiser, and going on a mayhem-filled joyride. It was that kind of game.)

We never paid to get into nightclubs or bars; Tommy knew everybody. We would stand back and critique the decor of the place, the layout, the DJ’s music choices, the lighting. For Tommy, the glamorous Vegas nightclub wasn’t fun, it was a job. He was one of those people who float through the places other people are desperate to get into, shaking hands with the club owner, the promotions manager, the barback, the DJ. Tommy knew everybody.

If you knew Tommy, you may have heard him called “Perfect” Tommy. That was my nickname for him, taken from a character in Buckaroo Banzai. He was “Perfect” Tommy because he was perfect. He was a pretty man who often inspired naked lust in women who encountered him, until they tried playing flirty and ditzy with him and he sent them away with a dismissive remark. (His rebuff to a supermodel who was desperately trying to engage his attention: “Are you the president of the Ron Perlman Lookalike Club, or just a member?”) He was perfect because he could back his bullshit up, because he was always the coolest guy in the room, whether the room in question was our kitchen or the dancefloor du jour. I even made “I (Heart) Perfect Tommy” t-shirts with an online printshop; to our delight and confusion, I sold one to somebody on the far side of the world.

We were close, and then we weren’t. Tommy was increasingly involved with his music career, and he seemed to spend less time out and about, more time in the studio or just hanging out with Ryan and their sister Melissa. We were close, and then life happened, the way it often does, and instead of hanging out with Tommy every night, I’d see him once a month, then once every few months. He got busy; I got married and quit drinking, which obviated the only two reasons I ever really made the scene. We just weren’t moving in the same places anymore. But he was still my friend.

When he went on tour with the Killers, we sat around Facebook and giggled at the pictures he sent from far-flung places: Tommy riding a bicycle in Paris looking like some kind of sinister homosexual prostitute in his everpresent (and utterly hetero-challenged) v-neck t-shirt, Tommy at the Acropolis in Athens, Tommy surrounded by adoring groupies backstage at a London show. It was funny to imagine Perfect Tommy hanging out with the bright young things of 2000s indie rock, still sneering, still the coolest guy in the room. (He once spent an evening in the NYC apartment of Strokes lead singer Fab Moretti, discomfiting Moretti’s then-girlfriend Drew Barrymore by endlessly giggling at how much she resembled his sister Melissa.)

Then he came back, and seemed to resume the path he’d been carving for himself for years: working at the Revolution Lounge and the Royal House and the Beauty Bar, handling nightlife promotion or managing the bar, still recording and playing gigs with friends. Since November, he’d been working as nightlife promotions manager at the Hard Rock Casino.

I found out that last part, by the way, by reading his obituary in the Las Vegas Weekly. The last time I really talked to Tommy was at his brother Ryan’s birthday party last year. I’d seen a couple of times since then, for brief moments, at the Beat Coffeeshop or outside the Griffin or at the Royal House, but we’d barely done more than hug and promise to catch up.

Every so often the last few years I’d call him and text him and email him to come and have coffee or get food, and he simply wouldn’t respond. It hurt my feelings, slightly, but Tommy was Tommy. He’d been having other problems as well, which I won’t go into here, and I was worried about him. But whenever I’d see him, he always seemed to be doing well, to be happy — or as happy as Tommy would ever allow himself to appear to be — to be enjoying himself. He was busy, living the dream, or so I thought.

Until yesterday, when my friend Carey Kaplan came into the Coffee Bean, where I was sitting and working on my laptop. (Where I’m sitting and writing this now, in fact.) Her eyes were red.

“How ya doin?” I asked her. She started to sniffle. “Not good.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked. She just looked at me. “It’s bad,” she said.

“Is it something I need to know?”

“You’ll find out anyway.”

“Well, what the hell is it?”

And she told me, and I felt the ground drop away from under me.

Last night, a few of his people came by my house. We sat on my front lawn in my cheap plastic patio chairs and drank Jameson’s and listened to the Pogues and told stories about the silly, mean, amazing shit Tommy had pulled in his brief life.

His brother Ryan came over late. We laughed about what a dick move Tommy had pulled. In fact, Ryan and I agreed, we should hang a banner at the entrance to his funeral that just read DICK MOVE in giant letters. I pulled out an old promotional ad I’d made for my erstwhile music store Mperia.com, featuring Tommy and Ryan and our friend Alex and myself as a sort of retarded fake boy band. Ryan was the Sensitive One, Alex the Pretty One; I was the Odd One, the one member of every boy band who seems utterly out of place. Tommy was the Tough One, throwing shapes in a pair of wraparound sunglasses and a Kangol hat.

We talked about the surreality of receiving condolence messages via the social networks from Killers fans; I was unaware that, for some time, Tommy helped to manage the Killers’ official fan club. It surprised me because it seemed totally at odds with the Perfect Tommy I knew, but many of the fans who messaged me or replied to my posts told me how sweet he was with the Victims, as they were called. (I joked with Ryan and TJ Styles, bassist for Big Friendly and a close family friend, that when I started getting messages about how nice Tommy was to the Victims, my first thought was “They knew about the victims? I thought Tommy had hid them away better than that.”)

Some of our friends seemed horrified by the fan messages, but I thought they were kind and respectful, and I understand them, I think. Tommy meant something to these people as well. Not the same things he meant to us, but he was still someone who had touched them, either through his music or by simply being nice after a gig, and I was grateful for their sympathies.

I asked Ryan, as delicately as I could, how they were planning to handle the funerary arrangements, as he and the rest of Tommy’s family are Christians and Tommy was a vicious atheist. “We’re gonna do the most religious ceremony we can,” Ryan laughed. “Because fuck him.” I suggested we get a Catholic priest and a Mormon elder and a voodoo houngan and a faith healer, and then get Richard Dawkins to piss on Tommy’s grave. It made Ryan laugh, and I was grateful for that.

My heart is broken, not just because my great friend is dead, but because his massive dick move has also broken the hearts of his brother and sister, who are two of my favorite people on Earth, and whose sweetness and good-naturedness have always stood in marked contrast to Tommy’s cynicism. They do not deserve this, nor do his parents, nor do any of us who cared about him.

I don’t know why Tommy chose to do this stupid thing, or if it was even something he considered for more time than it took to do it. I’d always known that Tommy was wounded by a world that never lived up to his expectations, but I’d always assumed his colossal ego, arrogance and intelligence would keep him moving, because fuck the lot of you. And I’d always sort of looked forward to seeing old Tommy: old, mellowed out Tommy. He would be calmer, less cruel, less dismissive…but he would still have been the coolest cat in the room.

And now we’ll never find out.

So we’re going to bury Tommy soon, and the rest of us are going to go on. He will never get any older, mellow out; his perpetual growth of stubble will never go gray, his bald head will never stoop. He will exist only in the memories of those who loved him, and who will always miss him, and always be furious at this, his last dick move, and I miss him like hell already.

Goodbye, brother.

Common People

We’re rednecks, rednecks
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
Rednecks, rednecks,
We keepin’ the niggers down.
–Randy Newman, “Rednecks”

What do you have when you come from a poor-white background? And from a place where Reconstruction didn’t end until the 1950s. If you came from people often referred to on campuses as crackers and rednecks or, condescendingly, as blue collar or poor-white Appalachians. If even the uncertain gentility of the South, who accord physical work no dignity at all, refer to your people as peckerwoods – in what tradition do you find an example? That we whaled the piss out of them that first time at Bull Run? That Great-granddaddy did right at Vicksburg, that a corner of Shiloh is forever Yazoo City? There is much honor and more sense in having succeeded with what was left, making something with the damned forty acres and a muddy mule, but you have to be able to see that. No one will tell you.
–Thomas Harris,
Hannibal

I am increasingly cognizant, these days, of the notion of privilege, and the fact that, as a straight, physically large and intimidating white man, I possess quite a lot of it by default. It’s increased particularly since my marriage, oddly, because I am now acutely aware that my lovely and wonderful wife does not exist in the same universe I do.

In my universe, a dark and empty street holds no particular fear; as I always jokingly assure her when she tells me to be careful on a late-night walk to the store, I’m the thing to be afraid of in the dark. And it’s true. Nobody catcalls at me, or tries to get me to get in their car, or tries to put their hands on me. But people — men — do that to her, with a casualness and frequency which I find astonishing.

That astonishment may sound naive to you, and maybe it is. But the fact is that men don’t do that to her when I’m around. Men don’t do that to any women when I’m around. It’s not like I’m some kind of white knight; it simply literally does not happen in my presence, presumably because the kind of men who behave this way are the kind of cowards who wouldn’t dare harass a woman if there’s even the possibility that another man might call them out on it. I live in a world where that horrible shit doesn’t exist.

And of course, as I’ve become aware of this, I’ve become aware of all the other horrible shit that doesn’t happen to me; the shit that happens outside the edges of my peripheral vision. Nobody ever follows me suspiciously around a store because of the color of my skin; nobody ever talks to me as if I’m mentally challenged when I go into a bookstore; nobody ever calls me a faggot and threatens to kick my faggot ass (at least not anymore, but that’s a whole other story). Nobody ever makes snide half-muttered remarks about how I ought to go back to my own country. Nobody ever tells me that what I need is a big dick in my pussy to turn me straight.

I don’t even see this happening to other people. Maybe it’s just because I’m not mentally prepared to see it when it does happen, or even recognize that it’s happening. But I’m a pretty observant person, and by and large I think that it really doesn’t happen when I’m around, for the same reason that men don’t actively and aggressively harass women in my presence: because the people who are likely to do that sort of thing don’t want to take a chance that my big scary ass might step in on the situation. (On the rare occasions that anybody will make a bigoted or homophobic or sexist remark to me or around me, it’s usually someone who’s obviously chemically altered or just plain stupid, like some douchebag frat boy or a random tweaker on a bus — people whose sense of self-preservation is at a low.)

But there’s another facet to the notion of privilege that I have begun to think about and question, one that perhaps comes from the opposite side of that idea: namely, the automatic assumption that straight white people automatically possess infinite privilege, a sort of token Get Out Of Jail Free card that they can throw up whenever they need to. I notice it because I see this idea taken for granted by a lot of people, and it is my experience that it is simply and bluntly untrue.

I recently read and was struck by a 2010 piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “A Culture Of Poverty“, in which he discusses his own aggressive reaction to a rude, insistent critic, and how it was, at least in part, a product of his own upbringing in rough West Baltimore:

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask  why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there’s something uniquely “black” about those values, and their the embrace.


He’s right, of course: there’s nothing “black” about the mentality of being willing to whip somebody’s ass for getting up in your face and disrespecting your shit. I recognized his reaction immediately — man, you best step the fuck off — because it’s probably the exact same thing I would have done in the same situation. Because it’s not a product of “black”; it’s a product of poor.

We don’t talk much about poor white folks in America, these days. In the sort of circles I run in — liberal, progressive, culturally tolerant and permissive — poor white trash are the last cultural group who can be stereotyped, lumped together, dismissed and ridiculed without fear of confrontation or social reprisal. We call these people “rednecks” and refer to the rural states they occupy as “flyover” country; we label them as bigots and small-minded, childish religious fanatics; we shake our heads as they consistently vote against their own best interests, whichever way the neo-conservatives tell them to. We act like they’re fools.

And we’re right, of course. They are fools. But they’re only fools in the same way that poor urban blacks are self-defeating fools who perpetuate their own misery indefinitely; in other words, that isn’t the whole story or even most of it. And as Coates rightly points out, the question that’s never asked is: why would anyone embrace that sort of foolishness?

I think I have a rather unique perspective on the issue, owing to my rather eclectic upbringing. It’s not worth getting into my whole family history, but the long and short is: sometimes I was well-off, and sometimes I wasn’t. At best we were upper middle class; at worst, we were barely clinging to the “working” part of the working class.

I’m fairly confident in saying that I’ve been exposed to pretty much every way of life a white guy can be in this country. My grandparents were friends of the Bush family, Texas jet-setters during the oil industry’s economic explosion of the 1970s and 1980s; I went to private middle school with kids whose parents were business partners of Ross Perot, kids who had their own small yachts to compliment those of their parents. For my seventh grade school trip, we took a bus from north Texas to Vail, Colorado; it was my first time snowboarding, as I remember.

And yet, a few years later, for complicated reasons, my mother and stepfather and I were living in a trailer outside of Hamilton, Montana. My dad was out of work for a couple of months, because the sawmill he worked in had been shut down by Greenpeace activists trying to save the spotted owl. I was expelled from school for mouthing off one too many times to my teachers, so he and I would go and cut down trees for friends in return for a share of the firewood. One winter, we all slept in the living room of the trailer because that’s where the wood-burning stove was; every few hours, during the night, one of us would have to get up and spray off the chimney pipe of the stove with a hair spritzer full of water, because it would get red hot and begin to smoulder where it met the roof if we didn’t. We slept huddled together, because if we didn’t, we would have quite literally frozen to death in the subzero temperatures of the Montana winter night.

I don’t mention this to make you feel sorry for me; I mention it because I feel like I probably have a pretty good handle on what it’s like to be a redneck, to be a flyover person in a flyover state — to live your life, as Jarvis Cocker says in the classic Pulp song “Common People”, without meaning or control. But I also see what it’s like to be the sort of white person that people refer to when they refer to “white people problems,” like not being able to get good wifi so you can download your podcast of This American Life. Ta-Nehisi Coates can tell you that not all black people are the same; I can tell you, with the same absolute assurance, that not all white people are the same, either.

*     *     *

So here you are, a teenage girl in the heart of America’s heart. You were born in the tiny emergency room of the same small rural town your people have lived in for at least a century. Your parents aren’t hardworking salt of the earth farmers or millworkers, the kind of people that get country songs written about them and whom politicians like to hold up as examples of the rugged American can-do spirit. They’re white trash. Your mom’s an alcoholic who’s recently discovered the joys of bathtub crank; God only knows where your daddy is or even who he is. He could really be any one of the fat bastards who prop up the bar down to the Brass Rail six nights a week, when they’re not bowling.

You live in a trailer with your fifty-five year old grandmother, who insists you call her Mae instead of Granny or Grandma — “because, fuck, honey, I ain’t that goddamn old” — and who works part-time doing nails for the rich bitches who live up the hill, and spends the rest of her time sitting around drinking Southern Comfort out of a tumbler she got with Camel Cash that has a picture of Joe Camel playing pool and smoking a cigarette on it. That’s when she’s not down at the Brass Rail, drinking Rolling Rock and putting quarters in the jukebox to hear Shania sing “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” for the thousandth time and waiting to see which one of the upstanding gentlemen will take her home and fuck her tonight. Hell, it might be the same one who took Momma home back when it was Garth Brooks instead of Daughtry on CMT; nobody knows for sure, and it wouldn’t matter if they did.

Momma’s never had any kind of real job; sometimes she works graveyard down at the Stop ‘N’ Shop out on the highway, but that’s only when they need an extra hand and it’s usually only one or two nights a week when they do. Most of the time, your little family subsists on what they tend to call “government assistance” around here, because “welfare” is for niggers. Your mother will self-righteously tell anybody that she’s a stay-at-home mom, but apparently “stay-at-home” doesn’t include staying at home at night or most weekends.

What she does do when she’s at home is get into shouting matches with Mae and bitch about those fuckin’ skinny bitches on the TV and occasionally sneak into the bathroom to snuffle up some of the shitty crank she gets from one of her boyfriends, who’s a nominal biker with a connection out of Bakersfield, California. Any parenting she does is limited to sending you down to the Vons with your food stamps to pick up a loaf of Wonder bread, some generic bologna with the red wrapping on the outside, and a couple of six packs of Diet Shasta, because if you get a fat ass now you ain’t never gonna lose it, honey. Since the Vons won’t take food stamps for her Camels and her generic vodka, she sends you along with a Ziploc baggie full of quarters for those items.

You’re not in such great shape yourself. You don’t read too good; it’s just hard to pay attention in school. Nobody gives a shit if you do good or not, because everybody knows your family are fucking worthless, so they pretty much let you slide; that fuckin’ No Child Left Behind bullshit doesn’t really apply out here. You think maybe you’d like to go to school to be a fashion designer, but you’re not really sure how somebody actually goes and does that. You’ll figure it out later. They’ve diagnosed you with ADD, but you think that’s full of shit. Doesn’t matter. It’s not like Momma can afford to buy the medicine they prescribed you anyway.

You’ve been sneaking your mom’s Camels since you were ten, and smoking pot since you were thirteen. Momma doesn’t know you dip into her crank a little bit, every so often, when you need a little pick-me-up to drag your ass out of bed and down to the high school. One time, Troy down the road gave you a line of coke in return for sucking his dick at a house party. Fuck, you wish you could afford to do that shit all the time. But you can only think of one way to get the money to have a coke habit, and that’s some shit you’re not really into.

You technically lost your virginity when you were nine, when one of your mom’s boyfriends got drunk and came in your bedroom and accidentally fucked you instead of her. Now that you think about it, it’s entirely possible that it was actually your father. But that was, like, just some shit that happened; you really lost your virginity when you were eleven, to a twenty-three year old mechanic named Toby you met at a party. You told him you were seventeen; girls in your family always did develop early, and besides, he was so fuckin’ drunk you could’ve told him you were Dolly Parton and he woulda believed it.

You “dated” Toby  — meaning you went over to his house and fucked him while Survivor played on his TV in the background — for three months, until somebody finally told him how old you were and he panicked. Not that he needed to; it’s not like Momma or Mae gave much of a shit. They said they liked having him around. Mae always wanted him to sit next to her on the couch when he came over.

You heard from Becky’s sister that Toby’s a total homo now, taking night classes at the community college three towns over. “Taking dick-sucking classes,” Becky’s sister said, but what the fuck does that bitch know anyway?

Last year you were going out with Mike, who’s way into hip-hop; he wants to be, like, the next Eminem, except he can’t rap for shit. But he was a good boyfriend and he never hit you or left you stranded out in the country or anything like that. He even told you he loved you, and you believed him. You thought maybe you loved him too, and maybe he was the one. But then he cheated on you with that fuckin’ whore Lorena and got her pregnant, and she went to live with her cousins in Reno and Mike had to go in the Army. He’s in Iraq now, and sometimes he posts pictures of the baby on his Facebook, which you occasionally check at the school library. Lorena’s a fat fuckin’ goddamn whore and you’ve sworn you were gonna fuckin’ stab her if she showed her fuckin’ face around again, but the baby’s cute. You want a baby of your own, maybe.

Sometimes, lying in your single bed in your trailer at night, surrounded by stuffed animals and listening to the wind howl endlessly outside, you dream about a whole other kind of life, somewhere else, like on TV, where people live by the ocean and go and do all that weird shit you can’t even imagine. That’s the life you want; that’s the life you ought to have. When Mae takes you to church on Sundays, that’s what you pray to Jesus for: dear Lord our God in Heaven, meek and mild, please please please take me away from here. I wanna be one of the TV people.

And sometimes you sit on the curb at the Stop ‘N’ Shop, drinking a raspberry Icee and smoking a Camel, and you look out at the highway, the way cars just disappear into the dark, and you’d do just about anything to be in one of them, going anywhere, anywhere but here.

*     *     *

If that little fictional sketch sounds dramatic to you, then you’ve never spent any time in small-town America. In point of fact, it’s based on specific details of people I knew and went to school with…as well as some people from my own family.

Whatever special favors are granted by white privilege in America, they don’t particularly apply to my little small-town sweetheart here. She’s as trapped by the circumstances of her birth as any African-American kid in South Central or Latino kid in the barrio in Phoenix.

I know these people. I came up with them. I saw how few of them escaped the black hole of being a poor white redneck piece of shit in America. I was lucky I had the resources I did; lucky I ended up living in Las Vegas with a good job and a beautiful wife and a great life, instead of working at a dying factory married to some idiot girl I’d knocked up my junior year, with a parcel of dirty children and a whole lot of potential and good intentions washed down the drain.

And even when they do get out, their escape velocity doesn’t usually take them all that far. For a lot of kids I knew, the Big Show wasn’t New York or Los Angeles or Chicago; it was goddamn Billings, Montana or Boulder, Colorado or Ogden, Utah. They’re the ones who show up for interviews in the HR office at your company wearing Wal-Mart suits and big clumpy work shoes, the ones whose alma mater is Pinedale Community College, who still put their high school membership in Future Farmers of America on their resumes, who never did an internship and have absolutely no work experience because the only jobs where they come from involve manning a cash register, cutting down trees or cooking meth in a bathtub.

When they walk out of the office after their hesitant, doomed interview, you look after them and laugh; you’d never ever think of sneering at a black dude who came for an interview, but you’ve got no problem going “Dude, what the fuck was up with Joe Dirt?” Because he’s white, and therefore he’s got privilege.

Yeah. Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from East Buttfuck Holler, Kentucky might never get racially profiled…but he’s fucked just the same. If his chances of success in modern America are any better than the kids Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with in West Ballmer, it ain’t by much of a margin.

I don’t claim to be one of these people. I’ll absolutely, readily admit that I had opportunities and chances most of them never even dreamed of; the older I get the more I understand that, and the more thankful I am. But I’m also less inclined to simply dismiss them as stupid fucking rednecks.

Are they bigoted, small-minded, racist and homophobic and usually sexist as all hell? Sure. No defending them on that front. But I’m pretty sure Ta-Nahisi Coates would tell you that the easiest way to get your ass whipped in West Baltimore back in the day was to suggest that another gentleman might, in fact, be a homosexual. I’m pretty sure the boys in the hood had some extremely odd ideas about how rich white motherfuckers spent their time too.

*     *     *

Here’s what I figured out a long time ago: poor white trash and poor black trash have far more in common with each other than they do with wealthier people of their own skin color. We always make it about race in America, when it really has a lot more to do with class than anything else.

Part of that is an incredible trick, perpetrated by the wealthy elite in this country in the years after the Civil War, when all of a sudden the poor white stratus of Scots-Irish former indentured servants and fieldhands were joined by the newly freed African-American slaves. It was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and there was a moment when the paddies and the darkies could’ve recognized their common situation — namely, that their indenture and slavery had been replaced by an unspoken de facto economic subjugation by the same privileged landowners who had held the deeds to their lives so recently — and banded together to level the playing field.

But the trick — that hideous, remarkable bit of probably unconscious legerdemain on the part of America’s rich white ubermenschen — was to whisper into the ear of all those hillbillies. Sure, you’re poor, uneducated; you don’t have anything and you probably never will. You’ll never come sit at our table, Bubba. But you know what? You’re still better than a nigger.

And that hatred was what those poor motherfuckers held on to…because they didn’t have anything else except that toxic measure of their own negligible worth. Still better than a nigger, right? Or some smartass queer in San Fagcisco with his fuckin’ Pride parade, running around in a pair of assless leather pants…or some spic motherfucker wants to come up here and steal my job…or some stupid loudmouth bitch whinin’ about, oooh, equal rights. I may be ignorant as dirt, I may be mean as a badger stuck down a hole, I may have absolutely not a goddamn thing that ain’t on layaway or owned by the bank, but I’m better than all o’ them.

And so on, for a century and a half. The descendants of those bigoted, hating and self-hating and hated servants fought and died alongside the descendants of those slaves on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, the foothills of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, partially out of patriotism but mainly because it was a noble way to get the fuck out of the shithole ghettos and the shithole small towns that spawned them. They died for an America that lied to them and told them they were enemies.

Can you hate them for their small-mindedness, for their savage insistence that they’re God’s chosen people on Earth, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary? Of course you can. You can hate a mad dog for trying to bite you. But you’re not human if you don’t feel pity, too…even though they’ll hate you twice as hard for pitying them. They don’t want you or need you, and you don’t need them. But we all have to live in this country together.

Perhaps if we stopped looking at the deceptively simple barrier of race, if we stopped our centuries-old denial that America is a nation where class matters more than perhaps anything else; if we asked Coates’s all important question of why, maybe we would be able to find more common ground than we ever thought imaginable. Maybe we’d stop seeing shifty niggers and stupid cracker around every corner, and start looking up the ladder at the real bastards who are fucking all of us, the ones for whom the only color that really matters is green.

I know I’ll never fully understand how much grace is automatically afforded to me here, simply by virtue of a set of characteristics over which I’ve had no control. But I’ve also seen where the limits of that grace lie, and what a pathetic advantage it is in the long run. I was also fortunate in that I not only saw how to escape the trap of poor white trash America, but that I was even capable of understanding that there was a trap in the first place: that white privilege and straight privilege and male privilege, for all they confer upon their possessor, only go so far.

It’s a lesson much smarter people than me seem to often miss, one I think they desperately need to understand before any real healing can begin in this country; before we can truly find any common ground.

A review of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die, in the guise of an open letter to music bloggers

Dear hip music bloggers,

Fuck off and die.

I can just see all of you, sitting in your little rooms in the weeks since Lana Del Rey’s disastrous appearance on Saturday Night Live, coming up with the clever little bon mots you planned to sprinkle all throughout your review of Del Rey’s debut album, Born To Die, the day it dropped. How you giggled at your own oh-so-apt metaphors! How proud you were of your complex understanding of the nature of post-modernism and the Society of the Spectale as it related to Del Rey and her public persona! This, you thought, this is the review that’s finally going to make Pitchfork sit up and notice me!

You’re pathetic. You’re not clever. And none of you know a goddamn thing about music, because Born To Die is one of the best pop records I’ve heard in decades and perhaps in my entire life. If you don’t hear that, you don’t understand anything about what pop music is. Go back to masturbating every time some member of Animal Collective tries (and fails) to capture the syrupy, wretched exuberance of ELO’s playbook.

Fuck off and die.

We get so caught up now in the deconstruction of music and musicians that a lot of the time, we just forget entirely about what music is and how to judge it. It doesn’t matter one single fucking bit whether Lana Del Rey is really Lizzy Grant or Miley Cyrus or the ghost of Nina Simone. It doesn’t matter whether she’s rich or poor, whether she grew up in a New York penthouse or in a pig wallow in rural Alabama. It doesn’t matter if she writes her own songs, or arranges them. It doesn’t even really matter if she can perform them live or on TV, because pop music isn’t about live performance anyway, it’s about how you interact with the music in your car or your living room or the interior of your own head.

Pop music is about sex and intoxication and romance and beauty and sleaze and the ways we can transcend our own lives through these things, and by this standard, Born To Die is flawless. And make no mistake, not for a second: Lana Del Rey is a pop singer. She’s not an indie rocker, she’s not avant garde. She’s a pop singer like Britney Spears or, God help us, Ke$ha.

But unlike these lesser talents, Lana Del Rey obviously likes indie rock and alternative and avant garde music. She’s absorbed decades of Stereolab and Portishead and Cat Power and Fiona Apple and even Patti Smith, and taken bits and pieces of all of it and made it something that will appeal to the common denominator.

People say the same thing about Lady Gaga, but it’s not true, because Lady Gaga makes shitty fucking music. Look, you know it and I know it; the only reason anybody gives a shit about her is because she’s made her career selling faux controversy to people desperate for it. To paraphrase the film Se7en, just because Gaga rented The Cell on DVD once doesn’t make her Joel-Peter fucking Witkin. It’s still shite house music no matter how you spin it.

Lana Del Rey’s music is gorgeous. (And it doesn’t matter if we mean Lana Del Rey the girl, or Lana Del Rey the public face of a songwriting/production team, or anything else. Stop being boring and pay attention.) It’s a blend of Peggy Lee and Missy Elliot and Angelo Badalamenti, hip-hop beats filtered through the noir side of every bit of American pop since Pat Boone’s “Moody River”. It’s lush and intoxicating, like the smell of Chanel No. 5 and Marlboros. It’s drawing from everywhere, Bjork and Blue Velvet. The best thing about Lana Del Rey is that her influences are impeccable.

You know what? I was going to write a real review of this record, but I’m not going to, because I don’t want to convince you that it’s amazing. You’ll buy it or you won’t; you’ll like it or you won’t. In fact, I hope you don’t like it, because then it’ll still be my little secret, someone else’s music that belongs to me the way music used to belong to people before the relentless light of the Net was shined into every dark corner, before every useless snarky fuck with a Tumblr decided it was their personal job to either create or destroy artists, whilst never having the fucking guts or the soul to make art themselves.

Fuck you if you don’t like Born To Die, and fuck you if you do. Either way, it’s mine, and I love it, and that’s all that matters.

Recipe: Mac ‘n Cheese Stovetop Soufflé

Ingredients

  • 1 package macaroni and cheese (brand is irrelevant)
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese (the kind in the can works too)
  • 1 cup frozen cut spinach
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 2 eggs

Directions

Cook macaroni in medium saucepan. (If you don’t know how to do this, find a gun and shoot yourself with it.)

When macaroni is done, drain macaroni in strainer over container, reserving about half of the leftover cooking water. Pour cooking water back into pot and let it get nearly boiling again.

Add spinach and peas. Cook them in the water until they’re not frozen anymore (it won’t take more than 2-3 minutes, generally.)

Drain spinach and peas into strainer with macaroni. Melt butter in the saucepan. When butter is completely melted, add milk and cheese powder stuff from macaroni package and whisk it until it’s all mixed up. (It’ll be a bit thinner than you’re used to. This is fine.)

Pour macaroni, spinach and peas back into saucepan and, using big wooden spoon, mix with cheese sauce stuff until it’s nice and all mixed around.

Add eggs and grated Cheddar and cook over medium high heat for roughly 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until eggs are solid and mixed thoroughly with noodles and cheese and veggies. (You should be able to tell when this happens.)

Add Romano. Mix thoroughly. Cook for another five minutes.

Serve.

It’s Just The Internet. It Doesn’t Matter.

It’s been reported that Diaspora co-founder Ilya Zhitomirskiy committed suicide this week at 22 years of age; while no one is sure of the cause, of course, there has been a lot of speculation that Diaspora’s lack of traction might have been a trigger.

I certainly hope not. I wish he hadn’t done it in the first place, of course; I wish I could have talked to the guy. I wish I could have told him that there’s very little you can do at the age of 22 that’s not undoable, short of killing someone or having a kid; no matter how bleak your situation seems, you can always change it. More than that, though, I wish I could have told him: dude, it’s just a fucking social network. It doesn’t matter.

I think a lot of us lose perspective working in this industry. There’s a lot of hyperbolic and impossibly hypocritical rhetoric thrown around by tech founders and venture capitalists. The words “world-changing” and “revolutionary” get thrown around a lot, and it’s mostly at projects and products that don’t deserve these adjectives.

Diaspora had and has absolutely no chance at “changing the world”. It’s another social network, just like the ones that came before it and have now vanished into the ether. By and large, social networks are not changing and will not change the world, any more than message boards did before them. They’ll be the default exciting way that people interact online for a few years, then somebody will come up with some permutation that’s different enough to warrant another generalized term — “social whiteboard” or some other such ill-fitting metaphor — and Facebook and Diaspora and all their predecessors will be just part of the early history of the global network. This new world of ours is nothing if not ephemeral.

Most of the “revolutions” we generate in this industry are really just incremental improvements on communications technology…and most of the worldchanging we want to do involves the part of the world that is our own bank balance.

What’s really sad though — assuming that Ilya killed himself because he believed his project was a failure — is that failure is not the end of the world. Hell, it’s not even failure, as long as you understand that every new technology or idea is just something you throw at the fucking wall to see if it sticks.

I’ve been involved with two failed startups so far. Both of them were excellent ideas — because, after all, that’s all a startup really is: an idea. One of them never even got publicly announced, because the logistics required to solve the problem it was attempting to solve were simply too expensive and complex to achieve. The other one was probably eight years ahead of its time.

It sucked when they tanked. But you know what you learn, when you don’t kill yourself at 22 because your idea isn’t getting enough attention and it looks like you might not be the visionary you thought you were? You learn that failure is inevitable. And you learn that you simply brush yourself off, go “Oh, okay, that didn’t work,” and look to see what collateral you can salvage out of the thing that didn’t work. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve invented a new technology that might be useful in totally different ways than you originally considered; sometimes you’ll find you learned a new skill; more often than not, you’ll simply walk away with more experience about how the world works, and how it doesn’t.

I’m building my own little sandbox on the Internet right now, and I’m old enough and wise enough not to have any illusions about its potential to change the world or make me a millionaire. I know the odds are against it…the way they are against any startup. If it fails? That sucks, and I’m going to do everything to keep it from happening, but if it does, I’ll just move on to the next idea. I’m never short of ideas.

And I struggle with depression every day. Every day that investors fail to materialize, every day that passes that nobody uses this cool thing I’ve built, I feel like the world is ending, like I should just fling myself under a bus and get it over with. But you know what? The world’s not ending. It’s just the Internet. It doesn’t matter.

It’s a tragedy when anyone who is not terminally ill commits suicide, and it’s even worse when they have their whole lives ahead of them; and maybe there was other stuff going on with Ilya Zhitomirskiy that is not public (and nobody’s business, of course). But if the guy really did it because his stupid fucking social network wasn’t becoming the coolest thing since Cheez-Whiz, that’s even worse, because it means he did it for really no reason at all. It was a meaningless act by someone who lacked the life perspective to understand how absolutely trivial the success or failure of his project was.

If you’re one of us — people like me and Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who make up ideas for a living — never forget that. Never forget that there’s always tomorrow, always another idea, always something new and great to do. Don’t believe the hype, yours or anyone else’s. Fight another day.

 

Putting Out The (Notional) Guitar Case

As many of you who are regular readers know, I was kind of an early innovator in the realm of crowdfunding. I also regularly record and release my own music, which doesn’t make me a lot of money, but enough to occasionally pay for groceries and that sort of thing. As you probably also know, I’m in the middle of starting what I think is an exciting new Web tool, Stikki. Things are moving along for Stikki, slowly but surely…but it’s the slowly part I wanted to talk to you about today.

Here’s the long and short of it: a couple of days ago, our car died. We haven’t had it towed to a mechanic, but I’m 90% certain that the problem is that the transmission is kaput — specifically, the torque converter. (The car won’t shift out of first gear. It’s not grinding, just chugging, and that’s basically a sign that the TC is cooked.)

This isn’t much of a problem for me, as I work out of my house or the local coffee shops…but it’s a very big problem for Rosalie, who just started a new job on the other side of town. Las Vegas is a southwestern city, which means it’s a sprawl city, so her bus ride would be an hour or more, and our public transportation is both unreliable and franklydangerous for a single young woman. (Almost every dodgy situation I’ve found myself in since I moved to Vegas has occurred while waiting for a bus, and I’m a big scary dude.)

So we need to buy a new car or replace the transmission in ours, which will basically be about the same amount — $2500 or so. (If we buy an older car, I can do the repair and upkeep myself; I’m not a motorhead, but I know what a Chilton’s manual is and I’ve done basic repair work on my own vehicles before.) But at the moment, it seems unlikely that we’ll have that kind of spare money any time soon. (I’ve got one possible project that would handle essentially all of our money problems, but that’s a whole other story. Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath.)

Many of you have been willing, in the past, to pay actual cash money for my writing or my music. So here’s what I’d like to throw out here: what can I offer you that you’d be willing to pay a dollar or two for? More music? Fiction? Non-fiction? Some kind of web app? Something that, even if you yourself couldn’t afford to pay for, you’d be willing to share with the world.

I actually want to do something that’s crowdcommissioned, that’s what people want to see, rather than something I come up with myself. It’s an interesting challenge, and knowing you maniacs I’m curious as to what you’d come up with.

So what do you think? Tweet at me or write in the comments here.

Random Thought

This is from something else I’m writing, but it didn’t fit, so I’m throwing it out here: A sort of inverse version of Metcalfe’s Law is that any node that is not part of a network loses value proportionally as the network gains nodes. A computer without Internet access was no big deal when the Internet had a hundred computers on it; once that number swelled to hundreds of millions, any PC without a Net connection became an antiquated toy.

The same is true of humans. Ask your friend who refuses to have any social network profiles, and sits at home alone on Friday night wondering where the hell everybody went.