• Going To Humboldt

    Going To Humboldt

    One of my big regrets about the Potatomen – yes, I’ve had a few – was that we never finished...
  • Weed And The Beeb

    Weed And The Beeb

    I should start by saying that I don’t know Justin Bieber. Never met the kid, never seen him perform, don’t...
  • Cars, Bikes, and People

    Cars, Bikes, and People

    I’m waiting, with a dozen other people, to cross Metropolitan Avenue. Mothers escorting kids home from school, hipsters languidly examining...

Going To Humboldt

Going To Humboldt

One of my big regrets about the Potatomen – yes, I’ve had a few – was that we never finished a song we started back in 1994 or so called “Going To Humboldt.”

And when I say “we” I probably should say “I,” because I was the one who fell down most badly on the job. We had a great, monumental riff that might still be echoing down through the ages if we’d ever committed it to vinyl, and although the song structure was never finalized, it was the sort of thing we could and often did jam on for hours. The main thing the band was waiting on was for me to finish writing the words and to make the sometimes arbitrary distinctions that divided verse from chorus and chorus from bridge, which tended to be my main job, and which I was often painfully slow at.

So slow, in fact, that maybe a dozen potentially great songs are now lost forever, because even if I finally came up with the words, I’d have forgotten how to play the music, and so, I’m certain, would any members of the band, past or present. As a result, “Going To Humboldt” will remain a “You had to be there” moment, as in fact, the actual act of going to Humboldt most often was.

It can also be a hopelessly vague or misleading concept, and not just because of the mind-zapping powers of the region’s most famous agricultural product. Those of you familiar with Humboldt County will know that it’s an awfully big place, larger than a couple of states, and the coastal regions of Northern Humboldt differ so drastically in climate and terrain from the heavily forested mountains to the south and east that they might almost be on different continents.

So where exactly are you headed when you tell someone you are “going to Humboldt?” In the case of our band, it was as much a state of mind as a geographical destination. Basically it meant heading up Highway 101 until the city lights of Berkeley and San Francisco were a distant memory and the forests and mountains and quirky little towns conspired to tell us that we had arrived back in our true spiritual home.

Poster for the event sponsored by The Book Juggler in Willits.

Poster for the event sponsored by The Book Juggler in Willits.

Our drummer was the only true Humboldter (Humboldtian?) among us, having grown up just north of Garberville, but I had spent much of the previous decade on Spy Rock, which, if you’re thinking in terms of bioregion or indigenous culture, has more in common with Southern Humboldt than it does with the rest of Mendocino County.

Our third member, Patrick Hynes, he of the lilting, haunting guitar and bass lines so immediately specific to the Potatomen, was East Bay born-and-bred, but he too embraced the Humboldt mystique with the avidity of a native. It was his plangent guitar tones that brought to life one of the saddest and most heartfelt songs on our first album, which was an ode to Eureka, a town that at the time seemed fated to live forever under the foul shroud of its pulp mill-poisoned present and the dark cloud of its brutal, Indian-slaughtering past.

Within short order we had also come up with songs about Arcata and Ferndale, covered the Brent’s TV song about Trinidad, and even given, in “The Train Song,” a namecheck to obscure little Blue Lake. I mention this not to big up the Potatomen, but to show that my connection to the North Coast, the Redwood Empire, the Emerald Triangle, whatever you want to call it, runs deep, and no matter how long I stay away, is not easily severed.

But through the haze of memory a quiet voice keeps calling me
Back to the only home I’ve ever known

That’s what I sang in the song “Arcata,” which ends by predicting that I’d eventually be:

Back to stay there
Beneath the clouds of gray
On the shores of that fog-shrouded bay

It could still happen. A million miles from Brooklyn in some regards and right around the corner in others; if I could make the transformation from Spy Rock wilderness to first London and then New York City, who’s to say I couldn’t once again feel at home strolling across the Plaza or queuing up for coffee at Los Bagels?

No, I’m not packing my bags for Humboldt just yet, nor am I planning to bail on Brooklyn, but I am still luxuriating in the afterglow of the past couple weeks spent touring my old Northern California stomping grounds, copies of Spy Rock Memories in hand. It would be too grandiose to call it a “book tour,” as my mother and other partisans insisted on doing, since I only did two official “readings” and a handful of interviews. But I also busied myself paying visits to many of the region’s far-flung bookstores to ask if they’d be interested in carrying Spy Rock Memories, and in doing so, took advantage of the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and spectacle of one of the most beautiful and, some might argue, bizarre places on earth.

US Out Of Humboldt County, the bumper stickers used to proclaim in the 80s, and while you don’t see too many of those anymore, there are parts of the Emerald Triangle where you’d be hard pressed to find evidence that you were still within the jurisdiction of the United States of America or the State of California. The Triangle is its own land, and its own reality, and while the shopping districts of the bigger “cities” and the artsy-craftsy boutiques of the tourist meccas might look deceptively normal, you don’t need to venture far off the beaten track or, for that matter, the pavement, to learn that much of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties remains largely ungoverned and, perhaps, ungovernable.

My trip began to take shape when I was asked by the excellent Book Juggler, a linchpin of the Willits cultural community, to do a reading at the local library. The library?  This was heady stuff for someone who, back in the early days of Lookout magazine, was accustomed to being run out of town on a fairly routine basis. I don’t know who originally said it, but it was Jerry Garcia who I first heard explaining that, “like old whores and old buildings,” his band had, by hanging around long enough, actually become respectable. Could time be working a similar magic on me?

Larry Livermore holding forth with his (unplugged) electric typewriter at the Ukiah Denny's. Photo by R.D. Deines for the New Settler Interview, spring 1986.

Larry Livermore holding forth with his (unplugged) electric typewriter at the Ukiah Denny’s. Photo by R.D. Deines for the New Settler Interview, spring 1986.

Let’s not rush to judgment. When I arrived at the Willits Library, I found a reasonably-sized group – I think “crowd” might slightly be overstating the case – waiting for me, including a few old friends, most notably Holly Ferretta, whose family you’ll find mentioned in the Spy Rock Memories segment about home schooling, and Beth Bosk and R.D Deines, who’ve been publishing Mendocino’s iconic New Settler Interview for nearly three decades. Way back in the spring of 1986, Beth interviewed me for the magazine and R.D. snapped the photo of me that has, more than any other, defined my public image ever since.

I read several selections from the book, spoke at some length (didn’t catch anyone yawning, though), and took a few questions. I was well received, though Beth Bosk did take some slight umbrage at my suggestion that Big Timber, which used to run roughshod over the North State, had been replaced by a new 900 lb gorilla, namely Big Marijuana.

Some version of this discussion would continue wherever I went for the next couple of weeks, with almost everyone agreeing that the near-complete takeover of the local economy by marijuana cultivation and sales had led to some unforeseen problems. The only dispute seemed to be whether those problems were manageable ones that could be solved by, depending who you talked to, either a stern crackdown on the industrial-scale growing operations that have all but supplanted the family-scaled farms of yore, or complete legalization (accompanied by regulation and taxation) of the cannabis crop.

As it stands now, Mendocino and Humboldt are getting the worst of both worlds: billions of dollars flow in (and back out again, since many of the biggest grow-ops are controlled by agri-business interests from other cities and states), leading to a huge increase in crime and an ever-greater demand for public services; at the same time, both counties are effectively broke, barely able to meet existing obligations, let alone take on new ones, because probably 90% of their economic activity goes untaxed and unaccounted for.

But let’s not focus unduly on the negative. I was here to sell books and cultivate literary interactions, not to rail against the grim state of local politics, and in that I’d say I was largely successful. Stores now carrying Spy Rock Memories include, in addition to The Book Juggler, the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino,  the Mendocino Book Company in Ukiah, King Range Books in Garberville, Northtown Books and People’s Records in Arcata, and Eureka Books and the Eureka Co-op in, yes, Eureka. I guess I can count myself lucky that independent booksellers remain a thriving presence – there were a number of others that I was unable to get to before I ran out of books – and that they are so receptive to books about local places and people.

If there was any disappointment, it was that I didn’t get to put books on sale in Laytonville itself. There is a bookstore there – like most North Coast communities, even a town of barely a thousand people is able to support one – but the hours it kept made it impossible for me to connect with the owner. And, to be honest, given some of my past adventures with the Laytonville citizenry, most often in response to things I had written in Lookout magazine, I still can’t help feeling a little nervous whenever I publish something new.

The Redwood Summer poster, artwork by "M," concept and slogans by yours truly.

Redwood Summer poster, artwork by “M,” concept and slogans by yours truly.

I envy Bruce Anderson, who’s long been saying more inflammatory things that I ever dreamed of in his Anderson Valley Advertiser and yet can stroll blithely around beautiful downtown Boonville with scarcely a care in the world (granted, it wasn’t always thus; threats of violence, lawsuits, even a couple of jail terms have dogged his journalistic journey almost from its beginning in the mid-1980s). I visited Bruce and his longstanding comrade-in-arms, Mark “The Major” Scaramella, at the AVA offices one Sunday night. They were busily putting together that week’s issue (the Major still uses the old manual paste-up method that I thought had all but vanished in the wake of full-fledged computerization), but they set their work aside and made time for a lengthy chat, during the course of which I noticed a copy of the original Redwood Summer poster hanging on the office wall.

That poster, created by the AVA’s onetime editorial cartoonist, the mysterious “M,” along with some input from myself, is actually quite hard to find. There’s a copy of it in some university library I located online, but they wanted a bunch of money just to let me download the image. Bruce volunteered to let me take his copy, but it looked so perfect thumbtacked to his wall that I decided to settle for a photo of it.

I spent a night in Fort Bragg, which during superheated summer days on Spy Rock, used to beckon as a cool gray refuge, with its own cinema multiplex and some decent restaurants enough to justify a two-hour trip over mostly dirt roads. But while the movie theater is still in business, the town itself felt a little more Twin Peaks-y than it did back in the day, and apart from the bars, most businesses were shuttered well before dark. The highlight was a stroll (except for one shopping cart-pushing tweaker, I might have been the town’s only pedestrian) down to the forlorn but picturesque Noyo Harbor, where a raccoon, accompanied by a posse of feral cats, greeted passersby by standing on two legs alongside the road and eagerly beating his paws together in apparent anticipation of a treat that, at least from me, was not forthcoming. I had enough dealings with raccoons during my years in the mountains. They are not generally nice creatures.

The highlight of my trip, though, had to be the semi-urban triumvirate of Ferndale, Eureka and Arcata. Ferndale, an astoundingly well-preserved Victorian village, could be seen as a little creepy, especially late at night or when sitting in its hillside cemetery, which is where I was when I wrote the song “Toytown,” about what I imagined it would be like to grow up in an exquisitely beautiful but in many ways lifeless village populated mainly by elderly Republicans and tourists (I was wrong on the first count, it seems; Ferndale, I was informed, voted for Obama in the recent elections).

Ferndale is also home to the brilliant Lost Coast Outpost, Humboldt County’s most vibrant and reliable news source, notwithstanding the presence of a daily newspaper in Eureka, the Times-Standard, which in one form or another has been around since the mid-19th century. In 1860, then known as the Humboldt Times, it distinguished itself by editorializing, in the wake of a shocking massacre on Indian Island:

For the past four years we have advocated two—and only two—alternatives for ridding our country of Indians: either remove them to some reservation or kill them. The loss of life and destruction of property by the Indians for ten years past has not failed to convince every sensitive man that the two races cannot live together, and the recent desperate and bloody demonstrations on Indian Island and elsewhere is proof that the time has arrived that either the pale face or the savage must yield the ground.

In other words, by being so careless as to get themselves massacred (this particular massacre involved between 200 and 300 individuals, nearly all of them women, children, or the elderly) the Indians had somehow proven that they needed to be, um, massacred. I’d like to be able to tell you that over the course of the last century and a half, the Times-Standard has moderated its stance on this and other issues, and in fact it has, though as far as I know it has yet to acknowledge, let alone apologize for Eureka’s bloody past.

Noyo Harbor, Fort Bragg.

Noyo Harbor, Fort Bragg.

I mentioned this to Lynette Mullen, who I met at Eureka’s once-monthly (and not to be missed if you’re anywhere in the area) Arts Alive festivities, and who keeps a fascinating blog on North Coast history. She has a special interest in uncovering and preserving stories of the horrendous treatment experienced by local Indian tribes. While I knew about some but not all the massacres she had compiled accounts of, I was completely unaware of the practice of killing Indian adults so that their children could be sold into slavery. I told her that I and many friends had long suspected Eureka might have something of a curse on it dating back to those bloody days, and although hers was a more scholarly approach than mine, she observed that we were not alone in thinking along those lines.

Back in Ferndale, I had the honor of appearing on Larry Trask’s radio show. The best-known DJ on KHUM, Humboldt’s largest commercial radio station, Larry grilled me for the better part of two hours on Spy Rock Memories and a dozen related issues. By “grilled” I don’t mean to suggest anything even slightly unpleasant or intrusive; in fact, it was one of the best interviews I’d ever participated in (the other being a few weeks ago with Diane Farris on New Jersey’s WFMU). Larry had read the book, knew his stuff, asked excellent questions, and the only thing that worried me was how his listeners, who are normally used to hearing music during the afternoon, would take to us going on a lengthy talk binge. No one, as far as I know, called in to complain, though.

A week earlier I’d done an interview on KMUD, the Garberville station where I myself used to work, and which I mention extensively in Spy Rock Memories because it played such a vital part in helping me learn what it means to live in and become part of a community. I was a guest on the Monday Morning Magazine, a time slot held down for many years by Michael Brennan, and in which I’d sometimes appeared, more often informally than formally, during my KMUD years.

Michael was in the front row at my reading at Northtown Books in Arcata, which got off to a rollicking start: almost in the very instant I opened my mouth to speak, an earthquake rumbled through the store. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in the story I was preparing to tell, but it barely fazed me, and I shrugged it off as little more than maybe a 2.5 on the Richter Scale, a shaker that could be easily topped by a fully loaded logging truck passing by. But the more knowledgeable and experienced locals insisted it had to be about a 4.5, and they turned out to be exactly right.

No damage was done, however, and I wasn’t about to be scared off that easily in any event, so we went on for a couple more hours. Late that night, as I was about to go to bed, I tuned into Arcata’s college station, KHSU in time to hear the Potatomen play “Empty Inside,” followed by the quintessential Crimpshrine song “Summertime,” the one that sings of going “back to Mendo one more time.” It was a song I’d placed on my Spy Rock Memories playlist, but hadn’t yet got around to playing at any of my appearances.

Hearing it over the Humboldt airwaves again (thanks, Julie!) nearly a quarter of a century after the fact capped off a perfect day in that most perfect of places, and left me convinced that yes, you can go home again, even if it’s only for a little while. Headed south toward San Francisco and my flight back to New York, I passed Southern Humboldt’s biggest social and musical event of the year, Reggae On The River, and while I’d never been the biggest of reggae fans (to put it mildly) I listened to KMUD’s live broadcast from the site and marveled at the realization that some of this stuff was actually quite good. If it weren’t for the clouds of pot smoke that, astronauts report, can be observed from outer space, I’d be tempted to attend next year’s ROTR myself.

So that’s my journey to Humboldt. I could go on for quite a few more hours and quite a few thousand more words, but I fear I’ve already tried my readers’ patience. Thank you to all who made my journey back to the promised land such a wonderful and rewarding experience, and I look forward to seeing you again real soon.

Weed And The Beeb

Weed And The Beeb

I should start by saying that I don’t know Justin Bieber. Never met the kid, never seen him perform, don’t really know his music that well.

But if even I have heard stories about the teenage sensation’s alleged flirtation (or full-fledged infatuation) with marijuana, chances are there’s something to the tales.

It could be, of course, that the marijuana rumors are part of a carefully contrived media manipulation, a product of the same strategy that’s seen him trading his sweet-faced choirboy look for that of an Odd Future gangbanger wannabe.

19 is an awkward age. Poor fashion choices, dubious companions, even full-fledged self-sabotage are predictable pitfalls for anyone at that point in life, multi-millionaire pop star or McDonald’s fry cook alike.

But while there’s no proof that the Beeb’s goofy, diva-like, and potentially career-destroying behavior of late are the product of a too-close acquaintance with the devil weed, when even your own manager is suggesting you go to rehab, chances are you’ve got a problem.

Next question, and it’s an obvious one: so what? There must a million 19-year-old potheads in North America. Does it matter if one of them happens to be richer and more famous than the rest of them put together?

If Bieber winds up wrecking his fabulously successful career, isn’t that what child stars typically do? If the gigs dry up and he has to resort to tell-all memoirs, Lifetime movies, or hawking reverse mortgages on late night TV, he’ll still get by.

“Oh my god!” I can hear you protesting, “It’s only pot. Don’t get carried away.”

Yeah, only pot. Why, in many states, it’s officially “medicine,” which must mean it’s good for you, right?

I started smoking pot when I was about Bieber’s age, and I once thought that, too. In fact for more than 20 years of my life I would have sworn that marijuana made me smarter, wiser, more moral, and probably even more handsome. In reality, as most people who knew me during that time will happily tell you, it made me an obnoxious dingbat.

That seems to be the effect it has on most of its users. The problem is—a big problem—is that the more stoned you get, the more likely you are to believe the complete opposite.

It’s only logical: why would people spend tons of money and (at least in some jurisdictions) even risk arrest to take a drug that made them look and act dumber than they already were? Unless, of course, one of the chief effects of the drug were to stand reality on its head and translate bleary-eyed dumbfoundedness into a half-assed approximation of cosmic insight and understanding?

Marijuana users hate it when you point out that the “high” they experience is a form of temporary derangement if not clinical insanity. What they’re even less likely to appreciate—or be aware of—is that the derangement isn’t necessarily temporary.

That’s not to say it’s permanent—serious long-term research needs to be done—but the mind-altering effects of marijuana last long after you stop toking down on the joints or bong hits. Days? Weeks? Months? How about years?

I’m not necessarily the ideal guinea pig, but that’s how long it took in my case: somewhere between three or four years before the inverted perceptions of my dope years felt fully restored to their former levels of functionality.

“But wait!” I can hear legions of dopers protest. “Just because you had a problem with marijuana doesn’t mean everybody else does. I mean, look at all the great art and philosophy that came out of the baby boom generation when they started smoking weed en masse in the 1960s!”

To which I can only respond: yeah, just look at it.

One of the most pernicious impacts of marijuana is the illusion that the universe revolves around the user, and that said user is uniquely qualified to understand and explain this to lesser mortals not under its influence. It’s not hard to see why this could be particularly problematic in the case of a 19 year old, who by dint of age and hormones alone, is already convinced he knows everything.

Add to the mix the fact that said teenager is one of the richest and most famous entertainers in the world, surrounded by yea-sayers willing, for the sake of inclusion in the magic circle, to tell him endlessly how brilliant he is. Should it be surprising when the young man has trouble keeping himself, shall we say, grounded?

Is this why the wheels seem to be coming off the well-oiled Bieber juggernaut? After years of scarcely putting a foot wrong, the boy wunderkind suddenly can’t seem to do anything right. As a former pothead myself, I can only say, “Been there, done that.”

Of course no one, let alone millions of kids, ever looked up to me as a role model the way countless teens and tweens to with the Beeb. Granted, he could argue that he never signed up for that when he set out to be a superstar. He’s perfectly entitled to make his life about nothing but, as Ice Cube memorably put it, “bitches and money.”

But before heading down that road, he might also want to take Dr. Dre’s advice under consideration, advice that, even if Dre later changed his tune, holds truer than ever today:

I still express, yo, I don’t smoke weed or a sess

Cuz it’s known to give a brother brain damage

And brain damage on the mic don’t manage nuthin’

But makin’ a sucker and you equal

Don’t be another sequel

Cars, Bikes, and People

Cars, Bikes, and People

I’m waiting, with a dozen other people, to cross Metropolitan Avenue. Mothers escorting kids home from school, hipsters languidly examining their iPhones, get-up-and-goers champing at the bit to get to the other side of the street, down the subway stairs, and onto the L train.

People are easing into the street and poking their heads into traffic long before the light shows any sign of changing, but nobody tries to cross. Even when the “walk” signal flashes to life, they wait, because they know at least a few cars or trucks are bound to ignore the red. Sure enough, we all take a couple steps back as a fully loaded semi roars past. In the driver’s defense, at the speed he was going it might have been more dangerous to slam on the brakes. Besides, there may have been a flicker of amber left in the signal when he entered the intersection.

He’s followed by a gray SUV that doesn’t even slow down, though the light’s been fully red for a few seconds now. It barrels around the corner and through the crowd as though we were so many bowling pins just crying to be sent flying.

Everybody jumps and scatters, nobody gets hit, let alone killed or injured. And, because this sort of thing is so commonplace, nobody utters more than a sigh or soft grumble in protest.

Then something marvelous happens. Actually, it didn’t, but it could have. Across the street, also waiting for traffic to clear, is an NYPD cruiser. You know how they say there’s never a cop around when you want one? This time there was, and the crime had taken place right under his nose.

I silently cheered at the prospect of seeing Mr. SUV Man hauled to the side of the road and, I hoped, taken away in chains. But the cop didn’t bat an eye, and the SUV dude drove off, probably not even vaguely aware how his casual haste had put a dozen people’s lives at risk. I wondered if the cop might have been more responsive if, instead of a reckless driver, he’d spied someone writing graffiti or smoking a joint.

But even at the height of Rudy Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on petty crime and antisocial behavior, little attention was paid to careless, reckless, or even downright homicidal drivers, though they kill and injure as many people as “real” criminals, if not more.

The sad truth is that there’s an enormous double standard: mayhem, even of the murderous variety, is seldom considered a crime when committed by car or truck drivers unless it involves multiple fatalities and/or brazen drunkenness, and not always then.

If you ran through Times Square wielding a chain saw or a firearm, your chances of avoiding prison would be slim to nonexistent. Pull the same stunt with a speeding two-ton automobile, even if you put two or three people in the hospital or the morgue, it will most likely it will be deemed an unfortunate “accident.”

The public has developed an enormous blind spot when it comes to the car, which was never more obvious than when Mayor Bloomberg’s long-awaited bike sharing program began installing its first stations. Greenwich Villagers squealed like stuck pigs, as did denizens Brooklyn’s statelier sectors. “We’re not against bikes,” they cried, “but they’re just not appropriate for historic neighborhoods like ours.”

The streets are too narrow, they argued; there’s barely enough room even without bike stations. The more candid among them cut right to the chase: “It’s too hard to find parking as it is.”

A rack holding 15 or 20 bicycles and occupying what might have been two or three parking spaces is seen as freakishly unnatural. Yet nobody questions the same block’s several dozen parking spaces and one or more lanes devoted exclusively to cars and their owners.

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy the space that could contain a bus carrying 50 to 60 passengers, or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

Five people and four smogmobiles occupy space that could contain a 60-passenger bus or 100 pedestrians. But apparently bicycles are the real cause of congestion!

 “I drive from Brooklyn to the Village three or four times a week,” fumed one resident. “Where am I supposed to park with Bloomberg plopping his stupid bikes all over the place?”

But hang on here. What are you doing driving from Brooklyn to the Village anyway? Unless you’re crippled, transporting your aged mother to her mahjong club, or engaged in a business that involves hauling a lot of parts or samples, get on the subway with everyone else.

Every car that enters the city produces pollution and ancillary expenses hundreds of times greater than those generated by someone who walks, bikes, or uses public transit. The individual driver may enjoy a more convenient trip, but the costs of his comfort have to be borne by all of us.

What’s especially maddening is that much of the time it won’t even be convenient for the driver. He’ll wind up circling the block for an hour before he finds a parking place, or get hopelessly stuck in the traffic that he himself helped create. Maybe he’ll get dinged or sideswiped by an oversized van or an errant cyclist, or collect a $200 ticket because he misread the street sweeping signs.

You know what, buddy? Tough luck. We the taxpayers of New York City do not owe you a gold-plated parking place, or an unobstructed route for your smog-belching chariot. You want convenience and comfort, get your chauffeur to drive you in the limo.

Maybe getting behind the wheel of a car does something to a guy’s brain chemistry. One minute he’s good old Joe who lives down the block, the next he’s some high and mighty muckamuck, expecting the peasantry to scatter like frightened geese in advance of his advancing carriage.

It can be frustrating if you’re walking through town and get stuck behind someone who’s exasperatingly slow, but do you scream at the top of your lungs, “GET THE BLANKETY-BLANK OUT OF MY BLANKETY-BLANK WAY”? While there are exceptions, no, for the most part you do not. But put many a New Yorker behind the wheel and he’ll be pounding on his horn and yelling his head off if a traffic light has the temerity to turn red in front of him.

Standing in line at the bank? Would you elbow your way to the front of the queue, implicitly threatening to clobber anyone who doesn’t let you pass? Check out drivers who think they have the inalienable right to enter the Holland Tunnel right NOW, regardless of how long all those other schmucks have been waiting.

But I’m not here to deliver a single-minded anti-automobile diatribe, There are times and places when cars are necessary in New York City. Those times and places just happen to be a lot fewer than most car owners seem to think.

Bike riders don’t get a free pass, either. As much as I’ve always loved bikes, I’ve all but given up riding mine, partly because I no longer enjoy the combination of aggression and vigilance necessary to survive the streets of New York City.

But it’s also because I don’t want to be identified with the significant minority of—I can’t think of a nicer or more subtle word to describe them—assholes who seem to feel being on a bike gives them the right to run roughshod over anybody or anything in their path.

I’ve had two close calls while walking recently, one on the Queensborough Bridge, the other on 2nd Avenue, where I came within inches of being injured—or worse—by sociopathic bicyclists. One was speeding downhill at somewhere between 30 and 40 mph on a crowded and narrow footpath, the other had run a red light going the wrong way on a one way street, and tore through a group of us in the crosswalk as if we were contemptible idiots for even thinking about trying to walk where she was planning on riding.

Sure, you say, there will always be jerks like that, but aren’t the vast majority of cyclists law-abiding and respectful of their fellow citizens. Um, no. A majority? Maybe. Vast? Not even close.

I’m not talking about people who bend or break laws that were written for cars and don’t make much sense for bikes. Almost everybody does that. But the reckless, smug, almost psychotically self-absorbed cyclists I’m referring to make up as much as 20 to 30% of the two-wheeled population.

I have some insight into this mindset, because I was once a pretty obnoxious cyclist myself. Maybe not at Critical Mass levels, though I did participate in some of their early rides in Berkeley and San Francisco. But I was definitely one of those clowns who came to believe that anything hindering his progress from Point A to Point B, be it cars, pedestrians, or, last and least, traffic laws, was of trivial or no importance.

This attitude eventually softened and all but disappeared once I left the vortex of narcissism that is the San Francisco Bay Area. Besides, riding with that cavalier arrogance in London or New York seemed more likely to end badly. Maybe even fatally.

Even so, New York today is far more bicycle-friendly today than when I moved here—or, for that matter, than at any time since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Mayor Bloomberg deserves much of the credit for this, and he might have accomplished even more were it not for the curiously reactionary stance of Governor Cuomo. Cuomo, admirably progressive on most issues, is straight out of the 1950s when it comes to transportation policy.

Bloomberg’s bike share program aroused laughter and derision when first proposed, but though delayed and bedeviled by technical glitches, it’s off the ground and running relatively smoothly, something that would have been almost unimaginable in the bad old days of rampant crime, declining population, and collapsing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a few poorly thought out details stand in the way of Mike’s Bikes becoming the full-fledged transportation alternative they ought to be. One of them is cost. The annual fee of $95 is reasonable enough, I guess, but daily and weekly rates are outrageous: including tax, it’s almost 11 bucks a day, 27 bucks for a week. You’re better off buying an unlimited MetroCard. By contrast, the highly successful London bike share program charges just £2 ($3.20) for 24 hours.

Another problem is that the New York program, at least thus far, only covers a relatively tiny sector of the city: basically Midtown and Lower Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Astoria, which probably harbor more bicyclists per square inch than anywhere else in the city, are barely served (Williamsburg) or completely ignored (the other three).

This, combined with the 30-minute limit (45 minutes for annual members) on an individual bike, makes the program useless for many of those who would be most likely to use it. An example: say I’m in lower Manhattan and have an errand to run in Greenpoint. It’s the sort of trip that would be ideal for a bike, except that unless I’m Lance Armstrong, there’s no way I can pedal to Greenpoint, take care of my business, and return the bike to Manhattan in time to avoid paying an overtime penalty.

Hopefully bike stations will eventually come to the 80% of New York City currently left out of the system, but until that happens, and until the daily fee is reduced to something more affordable for ordinary New Yorkers, Mike’s Bikes will remain mostly a tourist toy and plaything for the privileged.

So I won’t be giving up my MetroCard just yet, and will continue to do most of my non-subway travel on foot. But speaking of which, it wouldn’t do to finish up this rant—er, thoughtful and reasoned rumination—without noting that pedestrians, salt of the New York City earth that they may be, have faults as well.

They inflict by far the least environmental damage, thus giving them an unshakable claim on the “greener than thou” cred that bicyclists are forever misappropriating. But they too have their ways of being a pain in the ass, and yes, I know this because I too, at least in the past, have been guilty of it.

Crossing the street with complete disregard for traffic signals—or traffic—is one thing. Let’s be honest: it’s what New Yorkers do. But doing it with insolent and unnecessary slowness, almost as if you’re reveling in holding up progress for all the drivers fuming in their cars as they sit though several light changes without managing to get across a single intersection? Maybe it’s funny in a sick sort of way, but it’s really not very nice.

What about pushing the walk button so that traffic will have to stop even though by the time it does you’ve long since jaywalked across? Would people really DO that? I’m here to shamefacedly admit that there was a time when I and others I knew did just that.

Thankfully I outgrew such petulant and counterproductive tactics. I realized that creating still more stop-and-go traffic helped no one, and that frustrated and exasperated drivers are far less likely to be thoughtful and careful ones.

In fact, I’ve gone to the opposite extreme: now, if it’s just as easy to walk behind rather than in front of a car, I’ll signal to the driver to go ahead even if I have the legal right of way.

It’s not a question of having learned to love or even accept the vast numbers of cars that still, in my opinion, overpopulate our streets. But I finally got it through my thick skull that regardless of their chosen means of transportation, we’re ultimately dealing with individual human beings who deserve respect and consideration. Like nearly every aspect of life in the big city, it comes down to one of those honey-or-vinegar things.

Traffic and transportation are still major sources of stress, inefficiency, waste, and environmental depredation, yet a little at a time, slowly but surely, I think we’re making progress. Next time you’re gliding down what once would have been an unimaginably tranquil Broadway on one of Mayor Mike’s shiny blue bikes, pause to reflect on what things used to be like, and maybe even give a little thanks for how much better they are today.

Life As A Published Author b/w Greenland Dreaming

Life As A Published Author b/w Greenland Dreaming

It’s been over a week now since Spy Rock Memories was officially released. No one has come right out and asked me, “How has your life changed now that you’re a published author,” but in case they do, I’ve concocted an answer, one which most of you will have seen coming: not much at all, at least that I’ve noticed.

To be fair, this is far from the first time I’ve seen my name and/or my writing in print. I published 40 (and a half) issues of Lookout magazine, and wrote columns or articles for at least half a dozen other magazines.

I’ve also contributed essays or interviews to several books, but that doesn’t come close to the sensation of seeing your own book in print, and I’d like to thank Joe and Zach at Don Giovanni Records for taking a chance on me and making it all possible.

Zach in particular worked hand in hand with me on the editing process, which wound up taking a LOT longer than I imagined it could, but which I think was well worth it. Aaron Cometbus and Emily Rems also gave the text thorough goings-over, catching a fair few errors and glitches that Zach and I managed to miss.

Once it was finally out, a brief flurry of excitement—a few really thoughtful and nice reviews like this one and this one, some interviews, and a sudden spike in Twitter followers—was followed by a plummet back to normality. Not that there’s anything so terribly wrong with normal. And not that, given the checkered and turbulent course my life has taken pretty much ever since I started having a life, I’d be likely to notice the difference.

There’s still plenty—potentially, an open-ended amount—of work to do. When Jon Ginoli’s book was published, he set out on a personal odyssey that saw him crisscrossing the nation’s bookstores for the better part of the year that followed.

Whether or not that helped him sell more books, it sounded like a great adventure, the sort I’d look forward to if I ever had a book of my own. Other writers, Aaron Cometbus, for example, simply release their work into the wild, confident or at least in hopes that it will be able to fend for itself. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of personal appearances Aaron has made to market his writing and come up with a couple digits of change.

Surely there’s no one right way of doing it. It’s true of music, too: it’s an article of faith that you’ve got to tour relentlessly to sell records, but Operation Ivy broke up a week after releasing their one and only album, never played another show to promote it, yet went on to sell over a million copies and go down in punk rock history.

As a newcomer to the publishing world, I’m not sure how often that happens with books. Seldom, I suspect. And yet part of me wants to hope Spy Rock Memories reaches its audience by osmosis or old-fashioned word of mouth so that I can retreat into my study and start/continue plowing away at my next project(s).

I already have two of them, in fact, both already in progress. But I’m kind of hamstrung at the moment over the question of whether I can or should try to write two separate books at once. The result is that for the past couple of weeks, I haven’t written anything for either one.

For years people have been asking, expecting, demanding that I write my version of the history of Lookout Records. It seemed like the logical next step, and I had finally got started on doing just that. I even had an opening chapter ready to release here on the blog, just as I did with Spy Rock Memories.

But on a recent trip, during which I was fortunate enough to see Helen Mirren’s excellent, excellent play, The Audience, I was seized with an inspiration about how I could do something I’ve long wanted to do, but couldn’t quite get my head around: write about London.

I’d held back in the past because no matter how much time I’d spent in London, I was ultimately an outsider. I felt like I owed the place more respect than to come charging in with the attitude of, “Okay, London, I’ve been visiting you for 38 years and lived in you for 10, so I think I know what your deal is now…”

London is so vast and complex that even someone who’d spent his whole life there, and devoted that life to unraveling the skein of mystery, mundanity, intrigue, and banality that comprise the sum of its parts, would struggle to delve more deeply than its sufficiently fascinating surface.

But I think I’ve come up with an angle. It occurred to me while chatting at the interval with a blue-haired Home Counties lady of undoubtedly long-standing Tory lineage.

As we talked I marveled at how I, an American who’d grown up in a time and place where few people ventured more than a couple hundred miles from home and were content to remain blithely indifferent to any goings-on that unfolded on foreign shores, had come to know and love England with at least as great a passion as I’d ever known for my native land.

Part of it was due to the greatly increased mobility of the working and middle classes that came about in the latter part of the 20th century, but it was equally a function of the way I came to feel at home there. My sense of humor, for example, which frequently elicited blank stares or threats of violence from Americans, actually made sense to Londoners, and their droll, ironic or completely over-the-top excursions into absurdity resonated equally well with me.

In fact, one of the few remaining characteristics that brazenly marks me out as a non-Englishman is my unrestrained enthusiasm for the place and its people: no real English person, in the unlikely event of succumbing to such a patriotic upwelling, would publicly admit to it.

Anyway, that’s more or less what the book’s about, but I’ll say no more until I’ve actually written the thing. At the moment I’m stuck in the interim phases of getting ready to continue writing it, while meanwhile catching up with this long-neglected blog.

But there’s something else on my mind as well. As some of you will know, I’ve always had a fondness for hiking, a fondness that only grew during my years in England and my many journeys around London and the South East, through the Cotswolds, and across the moors in the company of the West Country Walking Society.

If all goes well this is one of the delightfully bleak landscapes I'll be clambering over in a couple months' time.

If all goes well this is one of the delightfully bleak landscapes I’ll be clambering over in a couple months’ time.

One of the only things better than just plain walking, in my opinion, is walking in places where few if any people have walked before. Given the absence of affordable space travel, I’m forced to seek out the ever-dwindling number of such spots here on planet Earth. One of them is Greenland.

I first visited there two years ago, and heard a few locals say that once you’ve touched Greenlandic soil, you have no choice but to return again and again. If that were true you’d think the world’s biggest island would have a population considerably larger than 55,000. Be that as it may, I know I’ve been unable to stop thinking about the place. In a couple months, I’ll be going back for my second visit, and I doubt it will be my last.

Last time I spent all but a couple days in the Arctic town of Ilulissat, at sea sailing alongside the Greenlandic coast, and in the historically unlovely capital, Nuuk. This year I plan to focus on South Greenland’s “banana belt,” where temperatures can sometimes compare favorably with those of a San Francisco winter (or summer, for that matter, not that there’s all that much difference).

It’s the area where Viking explorers first settled 1,000 years ago, seduced into a false and fatal confidence by the Medieval Warm Period, only to be frozen out 400 years later by the Little Ice Age and supplanted by the Inuit Greenlanders who today comprise more than 80% of the country’s population.

Even today, with global warming rapidly shrinking the Greenland ice cap and raising sea levels, the “banana belt” effect really only means that it’s now possible to grow small trees (no, not banana trees, silly!) and a handful of root crops. Most of the greenery you’ll see consists of grass and moss, which take on a dark, brooding color from the bluish-black stone that forms the backbone of the land.

But it was sufficiently green to inspire the Vikings, early masters of the real estate scam, to name their new home Greenland in hopes of luring settlers from nearby Iceland, which actually has a milder climate, far less ice, and in summer, at least, is greener than even Ireland’s Emerald Isle.

Both Iceland and Greenland are among the most beautiful places on earth, and, while they’re the closest of neighbors, are completely different from each other topographically, geologically, and culturally. Film companies looking for the perfect location for their next extraterrestrial sci-fi flick would do very well to choose either of them, but Greenland’s beauty is of a particularly other-worldly variety, compounded—or, some might say, augmented—by the harsh, unblinking and unforgiving stolidity of its precipitous and often impassable terrain.

It called out to me the first time I laid eyes on it, during a flight from London to San Francisco more than 20 years ago, and when I finally got there, did not disappoint. I’m looking forward to some astounding hikes, as well as some long internet-free (Greenland does in fact have the internet, but it’s so heart-stoppingly expensive that it might as well not) opportunities to work on my next big writing projects.

Before that, though, I’ll hopefully be coming to at least some of your towns and bookstores to talk about Spy Rock Memories, sign some books, and give you a chance, if you’ve already read it, to tell me what you thought about it. If you know a shop—or better yet, own one—get in touch and we’ll see if we can work something out. The only event definitely scheduled so far is July 12 at Brooklyn’s Book Thug Nation, but sometime either just before or after that, I hope to see a lot of you out on the West Coast, especially in the Emerald Triangle.

Spy Rock Memories: The Book

Spy Rock Memories: The Book

So I guess it’s now official: the book I’ve been working on for more years than I care to remember will finally be coming out this June on Don Giovanni, and if you thought Don Giovanni was a record label, well, yeah, they are, and a very good one, but they’re now branching out into publishing.  So hopefully you’ll buy my book, or else they might start thinking that publishing books wasn’t such a good idea after all, and in these days, we don’t need people thinking things like that.

spyrockcover2reworkSome of you have been reading a preliminary version of Spy Rock Memories here on the website as it was being written.  Out of consideration for my publishers, I’ve now taken all but the first chapter down, since I want to give them at least a fighting chance of being able to sell copies of the book.  Also, although the basic format and story line remains the same, every chapter has been substantially, and in some cases completely rewritten since it first appeared here.  Chapter 1, which you can still read here on the website, is the original, not the rewritten version.

I’m especially excited about the cover art, which was done by my niece, the wonderful, amazing, luminously talented Gabrielle Bell, who, though she was born in London, grew up on Spy Rock.  The house portrayed on the cover is where I lived, and where Gabrielle often visited as a child.  As crazy, maddening and bizarre as Spy Rock life could be, there must have been something in that mountain air or water (or maybe it was just the vibes, man), because out of that remote canyon, home to only an intrepid handful of back-to-the-landers, ranchers, outcasts and misfits, came at least two certified geniuses, Gabrielle being one and Grammy-winning drummer Tre Cool being another.

There were others, too, certifiable if not certified, and as those of you who’ve read some of the previews or have had the privilege to spend time on Spy Rock yourself will know, it’s an amazing and unique place, in some of the best and worst possible ways.  Living there was easily the most formative experience of my life, and I can say without hesitation that everything I’ve done since my arrival on Spy Rock at the beginning of the 1980s has been colored, shaped, and, really, made possible by what went on in those mountains up on the back of beyond.

As I’ve heard many writers say, there comes a point with any piece of work where you just want it to be done and out before the public so you can move on to the next project, but at the same time, there’s a tendency to cling to it, to rewrite and re-think every aspect of it.  And even once it is done and on its way to the printer, it’s possible – even probable – that you’ll wake up in the middle of the night thinking, “Oh no, I totally forgot to write about ____”  Believe me, I’ve had more than a few of those moments.

I also had to give careful consideration to how much or how little information to reveal about people who were part of my story, whether as friends, neighbors, or family members, and who may not be as thrilled to be in a book as I was to write about them.  In the end, if I erred, it was on the side of caution.  So I did have to leave out some stories that would have certainly helped sell books and entertain the masses, but maybe don’t need to be in print for anyone and everyone to see.  In many cases, I don’t even give people’s names at all, which, if you’re familiar with Spy Rock culture (or the tale of the posse of pot growers who showed up on my driveway threatening to burn down my house if I kept writing about the area in my magazine), you’ll know is probably exactly how they’d like it.

Cover artist Gabrielle Bell and her brother Jethro on Spy Rock in the 1980s.

Cover artist Gabrielle Bell and her brother Jethro on Spy Rock in the 1980s.

Taking all that into account, though, I still think it’s a pretty good read.  Rolling Stone and other music-oriented media are naturally focusing on the Lookout Records and Green Day connection (it was, contrary to the Rolling Stone story, in the remote mountains of Mendocino County, not at Gilman Street, where I first met and saw Green Day), but although both those things play a significant part in the story, it’s not a music book per se.  In fact, the bulk of it focuses more on a hapless city slicker (that would be me) who bumbles his way into the wilderness without the faintest clue of how to survive there, and has to learn for the first time in his life to take care of and be responsible for himself.

I went to the mountains, as I note in the book, in search of something “real.”  There was plenty of that, to be sure, but I found a hefty dose of wildly improbable unreality as well, some of which I’m still trying to digest all these years and miles down the road.  It’s a sunny late-winter morning here in Brooklyn, somebody outside is pointlessly revving up his engine and the overly loud hum of the refrigerator and the various clicks and beeps and flashing lights of 21st century technology remind me just how far I’ve wandered from those solar-powered days where the loudest sounds on most mornings came from buzzing insects and the occasional pine cone dropping onto the roof.

Being wrapped up in writing about Spy Rock these past couple years has been like a form of time travel, enabling me to experience that life again, minus the life or sanity-threatening consequences that sometimes came with it.  It’s come in a way to haunt me, to make me desperately nostalgic for a time and a place that I can’t and probably wouldn’t want to go back to.  It’s been quite a journey, but I’m glad the time has come to move on.  I do hope you’ll read my book, because I’ve already started writing another one, and you wouldn’t want my publishers to be disappointed in me, would you?

Aaron Cometbus: Pen Pals

Aaron Cometbus: Pen Pals

Home is where the heart is, at least as long as you can pay the rent.  But I always preferred a loose paraphrase of the Robert Frost definition: it’s the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.

Discovering and defining that place has been a central theme of Aaron Cometbus’s writing for at least as long as I’ve known him, which is a couple years longer than the 25 years spanned by his latest—and possibly greatest—work, Pen Pals, aka Cometbus 55.

 That might not be how some of his longtime readers see it.  Aaron has been—occasionally to his chagrin, and largely because of a handful of pieces he wrote in the long-ago 1990s—variously pigeonholed as a dumpster-diving ragamuffin or a lonesome drifter who turns up unpredictably in one obscure town or another, hangs about at the local coffee shop and/or copy shop, then departs with a notebook full of memories and observations that may or may not turn into the next Cometbus.

cometbus55There might once have been some substance to that image; perhaps a little bit of it remains.  But as he pointed out in a 2001 interview, “I like to live places for a few months at a time.  To other people that sounds like traveling.  I understand that.  But when I live places, I live there.”

I’ll admit to once having been one of those “other people.”  During my years in Berkeley, the city where Aaron grew up, and with which he’s still associated in many people’s minds, I used to think of him like the tide, rolling out of town one season, rolling back a season or three later.  At the time many of us were still in love with Berkeley and the East Bay, still saw it as the center of the punk rock universe.  It was hard to picture where else Aaron might be going or why.

 I was shocked when, around the time of the first—only—Crimpshrine tour, Aaron confided in me that he’d long dreamed of getting out of Berkeley, and had merely been waiting for the opportunity to do so.  In those heady days, when Gilman Street was new and the East Bay “scene” and “sound” were still taking shape—our little community felt like the ultimate destination.  Why would someone who’d been lucky enough to be born there be so eager to leave?

 In light of all that’s happened since—I left Berkeley long ago, too, and despite many happy memories, have no desire to go back—I wonder if Aaron was, even in 1988, consciously or unconsciously, beginning his search for the place where he truly belonged.

 People in thrall to the old Cometbus image sometimes express surprise that Aaron even lives in a house, let alone calls somewhere home.  But as far back as Double Duce, the 1997 issue of Cometbus that became his first novel, or in his chronicles of the House-O-Toast years before that, he was already exploring what it meant to live in community with others, and puzzling over how and why it never quite seemed to work out.

 As Pen Pals begins, Aaron—or somebody very much like him; he’s always refused to say where his characters stand on the continuum between fiction and memoir—he’s hanging out in downtown Berkeley, pondering those same sorts of questions on a physical as well as a metaphysical plane.

He’s frustrated that he and his friends, even those who’ve lived there all their lives, can’t find their way into Berkeley society.  He feels like part of an orphan generation, cut off, ignored, all but abandoned by the aging hippies, New Leftists and baby boomers who appear to have put the town on permanent lockdown for their own exclusive use.

 He’s joined by a young woman who laughs at his concerns, mocks his ever-widening but largely hopeless quest to make contact with older writers, philosophers and agitators, and with whom he’s about to form a lifelong relationship that, as the title suggests, will be played out more in pen and ink than flesh and blood.

Many years later he awakens, almost as from a dream, on the other side of the country, on another street corner, realizing with tentative satisfaction that he’s found the purpose—part of it anyway—and perhaps the place he’d been seeking.  He’s made it from callow youth to middle age without having to surrender to the compromises he once feared, with hopes and values largely intact, and the tenuous outlines of a meaningful future beginning to take shape.

It’s a gentle, almost poetic journey that, because of its loping, discursive pace and its deceptively dyspeptic asides, hits all the harder when the reader discovers—just as Aaron himself does—where this has been going all along.  The point is not —never has been—what town or what neighborhood he ends up living in, nor what job or jobs he ends up doing.  What counts is the connections he learns to make, often through painful trial and error, with those who have come before and will come after him, and, ultimately, with society, community and life itself.

 I’ve been reading Cometbus since I found a copy of it on San Francisco’s 43 Masonic bus in 1985, a year before I would meet Aaron in person, and this stuff is truly inspiring.  I say that as someone who’s long been an avid supporter of his work, but who’s also at times been an unnecessarily harsh critic.

Like many well-intentioned but misguided fans, I’ve wasted my breath urging him to adapt to modern times, maybe get a web presence or do an e-book, make the changes that would ensure his writing gets out to the millions rather than the thousands who enjoy it today.

And maybe someday that will happen.  It could be that one of the mega-publishers or Hollywood movie studios will come knocking and Aaron will finally relent and allow them to make him a household name.  It’s not as though he’s a Luddite.  It’s been years, for example, since he gave up hand lettering his books and magazines in favor of computerized typesetting.  But what’s essential to know about Aaron Cometbus is that anything he does, any changes he makes, will happen in his own time and on his own terms.

It’s a hell of a way to do business, you might think, and in light of the many trivial and insignificant writers who’ve rocketed to fame and fortune while Aaron languished in relative obscurity, you might have a point.  But what some might call stubbornness or a refusal to engage with the modern world, others would see as a deeply principled integrity.  It’s the same integrity, in fact, that has informed, and resided at the heart of all his work.  What holds him back from achieving the full recognition he deserves might be and probably is the same thing that makes him worthy of that recognition.

Graphic © Gabrielle Bell, from The Voyeurs, published 201 by Uncivilized Books, PO Box 6534, Minneapolis MN 55406

Graphic © Gabrielle Bell, from The Voyeurs, published 2012 by Uncivilized Books, PO Box 6534, Minneapolis MN 55406

Meanwhile, seemingly unaffected by any quest for literary glory, Aaron carries on as if the internet never happened, schlepping bags and boxes full of magazines to post offices and shops in this town and others, most often by bike, bus, or subway—the legendary traveler never learned to drive—and bit by bit, issue by issue, year after year, his thoughts and experiences weave their way into those of his readers, and into the fabric of their lives.

You have to wonder whether Aaron sees something of himself in the quixotic crusaders who kept pumping forth their denunciations of capitalism and conformity long after everyone appeared to have stopped listening.  Their single-pointed devotion to what most people dismissed as a lost cause intrigued Aaron enough to set him on what has turned out to be his own lifetime path.

Besides, Aaron—his literary alter ego, anyway—has long reveled in the futility of lost causes.  That tendency will probably never be wholly extirpated—it’s too essential to both his persona and style—but it’s becoming less noticeable as he acquires a new, more confident and compassionate voice in middle life.

This is true of Pen Pals; it was similarly in evidence in 2011’s In China With Green Day.  In lesser hands that story could have devolved into a sensationalized and highly commercial behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s biggest rock bands.  Instead it turned into a low-key, occasionally melancholy but ultimately warm-hearted meditation on the unexpected twists and bizarre turns of long-term friendship.

It’s tempting at times to see Aaron as the lonely protagonist of the John K. Samson-penned Weakerthans song, “Pamphleteer,” pouring out his heart “to the beat of the Gestetner.”  But it’s no longer true, if it ever was.  His is a voice that should be heard, is being heard, and will be heard by many more.  His insistence on doing things the hard way may delay that outcome, but can’t forestall it forever.  He’s one of the best and most important writers of his generation.  Anybody who hasn’t yet figured that out needs to wise up to the fact.

Camus vs. Harry Potter

Camus vs. Harry Potter

Like many aspiring members of New York’s chattering class (I’ve got the chattering down; it’s the class I still struggle with), I’m a supporter of WNYC, the local public radio station, and as a membership perk, I also receive an annual subscription to that apotheosis of left-liberal literary journalism, The New Yorker.  There was a time, I’ll admit, when I found The New Yorker a bit much to take.  Too dense, perhaps, a little full of itself?  Or, perhaps I lacked the depth or patience to appreciate it?

Whatever the reason, my thinking has changed, perhaps as a result of living in New York, more likely from getting older, and I have become one of those people I used to taunt and skewer for their pretentiousness, a devoted, dedicated, cover-t0-cover reader.

When I have time, that is.  I’m that unlikely individual who often complains that his subway rides are too short, because it’s on the subway that I do most of my reading.  Apart from an occasional one-page Shouts And Murmurs or an item from Talk Of The Town, it’s a rare New Yorker feature that can be consumed between Williamsburg and Manhattan, even if the train is late in arriving and I’m riding all the way to 8th Avenue.

The unfortunate result is that I always have a stack of two, three, sometimes five or even ten New Yorkers sitting on the kitchen table waiting for me to do some catch-up reading.  At points it gets ridiculous: it was snowing heavily the day I finished the issue with the midsummer beach-themed cover, and we were homing in on Valentine’s Day when I tackled October’s coverage of the Presidential election.

Few publications had so vociferously and persistently ridiculed and vilified Mitt Romney; since I believed this to be a fundamental duty of any reputable media outlet, I wasn’t about to miss anything The New Yorker had written about him.  I was chagrined to find a thoughtful and insightful Nicholas Lemann piece about the now all but forgotten candidate that had me on the verge of thinking maybe Romney wasn’t so bad after all.  I thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t read it before voting, because I get a lot more enjoyment out of casting my ballot when it’s unambiguous.

Then I moved on to a profile of J.K. Rowling, an author I admire greatly because, well, all right, because I enjoyed the Harry Potter series greatly, but also because of her success in turning a generation of children into voracious readers when, in the age of ubiquitous electronic media, you wouldn’t have thought that possible.  And the more I read about her, the more I liked her and the more I enjoyed the article.

Until, that is, I ran into this clunker, this sour note, this sad fart of an ill-considered opinion from one Alan Taylor, editor of the Scottish Review of Books.  Taylor ”despaired of Rowling’s ‘tin ear’ and said of her readers, ‘They were giving their childhood to this woman! They were starting at seven, and by the time they were sixteen they were still reading bloody Harry Potter—sixteen-year-olds, wearing wizard outfits, who should have been shagging behind the bike shed and smoking marijuana and reading Camus.’”

What a truly ugly—and idiotic—statement.  I hadn’t heard of this Taylor fellow before, so I looked him up.  Seems to be about my age, seems to be embittered that life has been or is about to begin passing him by, and can’t pass up an opportunity to try to impose his time-tattered, threadbare values on a generation younger, smarter and better-looking than his own.

Let’s be honest: any of us who’ve reached a certain age has also acquired certain ideas, ones we’re sure would greatly improve the quality of, well, practically everything, if only the nincompoops in charge could be compelled to put them into effect.

Foremost among such ideas tend to be those beginning with “When I was your age” and consisting almost entirely of prescriptions for how today’s young people could more profitably and pleasurably comport themselves.  Whether it’s urging them to study hard and pick a good university, or to acquire a couple of STDs and a drug habit before considering themselves “done” with high school, it’s inevitably reads like the sour-grapes wisdom of people who didn’t get to do everything they wanted when they were young, and so are now demanding that the next generation carry on where they left off.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone my age, but in my defense, I’m at least conscious of the tendency, and try to rein it in.  Not so this Taylor character, who, not content with rubbishing the joy brought to literally hundreds of millions of readers by the Harry Potter series, suggests that that joy should be replaced by the tedious clichés of his own pseudo-rebellious youth.

Was there once something to be said for “shagging behind the bike shed, smoking marijuana and reading Camus”?  No doubt.  After all, Taylor (and I) grew up in a time when, at least for a while, there wasn’t a lot else going on.

But we live in a bolder, brighter world today, one that presents infinitely more options to young people, whether they be of a rebellious bent or (and I think this is what really gets to curmudgeonly aging baby boomers like Taylor) they’re actually rather happy with their friends, families, schools and life prospects.  Obviously shagging is never going out of style, but the furtive and often disappointing and destructive liaisons behind Taylor’s beloved bike sheds are as often as not being replaced by open and loving relationships that don’t have to be hidden away or hastily conducted.

Marijuana?  Well, I tried it.  In abundance, as did most people I knew.  Some of us managed to get through it all right, even after we were sure we’d seen God and been assigned a special mission that just happened to be incomprensible to parents, teachers, authority figures and, truth be told, ourselves.  Many of us didn’t do so well: a great number of damaged individuals, incapable of carrying a coherent thought from one end of a sentence to the other, can be seen picking their way disconsolately through the garbage cans—figuratively or literally—of Main Street America.

And Camus?  Come on, it’s the 21st century.  Yes, it seemed very daring and radical back in the day to slog through a bunch of French gobbledygook in hopes of appearing “intellectual,” but seriously, who needs that crap today?

Certainly not kids who enjoy their lives and don’t confuse angst with authenticity.  Sure, kids will always find ways to screw up as well as ways to pursue ecstasy (I don’t mean the drug, though I suppose for some it will work that way) and enlightenment.  But let’s let them find their own ways, and stop trying to shoehorn them into the corny scenarios just because they seemed exciting to us half a century ago.

And for the record: I read Harry Potter in my 50s, Camus in my 40s.  I learned far, far more from Harry Potter.

Calling Out The Merchants Of Death

Calling Out The Merchants Of Death

There comes a time when insanity and injustice becomes so rampant that it reeks to high heaven.  To remain silent in the face of it is to become complicit.

Such is the case with the collective meltdown of the American psyche evidenced by the latest mass shooting(s) (I hesitate even to name a specific one because chances are that by the time I post this, there will have been another one – or two, or three).

We Americans as a whole tend to be be more tolerant of differences than we’re given credit for, managing to (for the most part) coexist peacefully with neighbors holding diametrically opposed religious, political or social views.  Most of the time, this is something to take pride in, something that helps define the unique qualities of what it is to be American.

But this 21st century version of the old hippie “You do your thing and I’ll do mine” ethos, while fundamentally sound, has its limitations.  At some point it stops being a blessing and turns into the curse now besetting out nation: whether through benign tolerance or malign neglect, we have abdicated our moral responsibility and allowed—indeed, virtually encouraged—evil to flourish.

When we were a frontier nation, when large numbers of our people hunted for survival and lived in far-flung homesteads where they could not always count on the government to protect them against animal or human interlopers, then of course it made sense to have a relatively relaxed attitude toward gun ownership.  Today, with 82% of our population living in cities or suburbs, only a maniac seriously believes that unlimited access to high-powered weaponry and ammunition is either desirable or necessary.

Scratch that: there are other interest groups who remain avid supporters of the firearms industry: the merchants who share in the profits, which easily reach into the several billions, the lobbyists—like the National Rifle Association’s chief liar-for-hire Wayne LaPierre, who pulls down in the neighborhood of a million bucks a year for his Goebbels-like exculpations of mass murder, and the bought-and-sold politicians who, in Congress and the Supreme Court, have successfully resisted even the most moderate adjustments to our wildly inadequate gun laws, and have gone even further to weaken our existing ones.

The time has come to stop wringing our hands and saying “Isn’t it awful?” on the near-weekly occasions when innocent and broken young bodies are once more hauled out en masse to the charnel house.  These savage killings are not something that just “happens,” the way tornadoes do in Kansas or hurricanes in Florida.  They are not simply a matter of bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

No, they are a wholly predictable and more or less inevitable outcome of policies and actions embarked upon, whether innocently or not so, by our neighbors and maybe even our friends, people who live and work in our communities, who we may see at church or at the ball game or even at a rally for our favorite political candidate.  They may from all appearances be perfectly nice, genial people, helpful, honest, the salt of the earth, but it’s time to stop mincing words: every time children (or people of any age) die in another senseless shooting, these “nice” folks have hands that are dripping with blood.

What’s more all-American than Walmart, for example?  They have a widespread reputation for low prices, family values (they won’t even sell records containing “dirty” words), but they will sell you weapons and ammo capable of murdering everyone on your street in about 30 seconds.

What about the “good old boys” of the NRA?  Many of them are very simply guys (or ladies) who like to hunt, and share an interest in the firearms necessary for hunting, and all the best to them.  But when they (and of course it’s nowhere near all of them) almost violently oppose ANY restrictions on how, where, when and why guns can be sold, then they are saying, in effect, “Yeah, tough luck about all the dead six-year-olds, but my ‘freedom’ is more important.”

Your “freedom” to do exactly what?  Almost nobody is seriously proposing that guns be banned or greatly curtailed.  The proposed laws that induce apoplectic fits in the NRA honchos are typically nothing more radical than the notion that someone should have to identify himself when buying a weapon, to pass a background check, to be responsible for the safekeeping of the weapons they already own.  These do not seem like radical infringements on anyone’s freedom.  At least not when compared with a mother’s or father’s freedom to cherish a living child rather than a mangled corpse.

Yes, these are harsh words, but they need to be spoken: you, Wayne LaPierre, you, stockholders and executives and, yes, even customers of vast weapons emporiums like Walmart, have blood on your hands.  Granted, no single action that we take as individuals or even as a society can solve all problems or resolve all injustices, but that does not mean we shouldn’t do what we can, however little or much that should be.

So if you’re an NRA member and you don’t support the mass murder of small children, let the NRA know you’re not paying any further dues until they moderate their stance and begin working with the government to develop sane laws that protect gun ownership but don’t put the rest of the society at risk to do so.  If you’re a Walmart shopper, let them know they won’t be seeing any more of your business until they stop trafficking in murder.

What would a reasonable gun policy look like?  And how do we avoid getting bogged down for years in Talmudic squabbles over what constitutes an “assault” rifle (ghoulish lobbyists and politicians relish these definitional fights because they can spin them into millions of dollars of legal fees and endless delays and obstructions, during which time hundreds or thousands more will die waiting for justice to be served)?

Here’s some basics:

1. All guns, and I mean ALL guns will have to be registered, with the owner having identified him or herself, passed a background check, and furnished the regulating agency with the address at which the weapon is being kept.  The weapon can not be sold or transferred to anyone else without the same procedures being followed.

2. As long as a weapon is registered in your name, YOU are fully responsible for any damage it does.  If you leave it lying around the house and one of your kids or a neighbor’s kid gets hold of it and kills himself or someone else, YOU’RE going to jail.  This also means, obviously, that you keep it under lock and key AT ALL TIMES when you’re not using it.

3. With that in mind, anyone owning any kind of firearm needs to have a liability insurance policy safeguarding against damage done by that gun—the same as you presumably have on your car, which is probably less likely to end up seriously injuring or killing someone.  We’re probably talking about a million dollars coverage here, which is not unusual for an auto insurance policy.  What price would you put on another human life, and do you have enough in the bank to pay it?

4.  You can buy all the ammunition you want, but you’ve got to show ID and your gun registration, and fill out a form showing where the ammo will be kept (if not on the same premises as your gun(s).  Also, the price of ammo should be dramatically increased, partly to cover the administrative costs of this program, but also because any “normal” use of weapons (whether hunting, target shooting or self-defense) does not require military-size caches of bullets or shells.  Even a hunter who’s a really poor shot is not going to use more than a few dozen bullets (and if he does, maybe the cost of ammo will inspire him to take some lessons and become a better shot).

5.  Oh yeah, speaking of courses, any gun owner will have to pass a basic competency exam on the use and care of firearms, not unlike what anyone is expected to undergo before driving an automobile.

There are other things that can be done—we can certainly have that debate about how large an ammo clip is “necessary” before a defensive weapon turns into an offensive one, but these five proposals, if enacted, would go a long way toward bringing America into the 21st century and at least beginning to put an end to our national madness.  You’ll notice that none of them, in any way, interferes with an individual’s right to hunt, target shoot, or keep a weapon in his or her home for self-defense.

If you still protest that there is something un-American about requiring people to be responsible and accountable for their weapons, then I respectfully submit that it may in fact be you who is un-American.  “Freedom” is only one half of the equation that makes America what it is, and it was never meant to be utterly untrammeled freedom, freedom that concerns itself only with our own immediate desires and remains oblivious to the needs and desires of others.

A look at our history—or at common sense—tells us that we cannot enjoy freedom in a vacuum, and that even if you could, it would not be the sort of freedom any sane person would relish.  In the wake of the Connecticut school tragedy, I have literally heard people say that the deaths of 20 small children, while unfortunate, was a “relatively small” price to pay for what they considered the “freedom” of unlimited and unregulated gun ownership.  Such an notion literally sickens me, and I think—in fact am quite sure—that a large majority of Americans feels the same way.  It’s time that make ourselves heard, time that we demand an end to this senseless and shameful slaughter.

The Moral Case For Not Voting

The Moral Case For Not Voting

Twice in my adult life I chose not to vote in a general election, and on a third occasion, I almost didn’t vote, only doing so with great reluctance at the last minute.

Each time my reason for not voting (or, in the latter case, almost not voting), was the same: I had become convinced that both candidates were bad, or that there was not sufficient difference between them to make it worth my while to take a side.

And each time I was completely, terribly wrong.  In 1968 I refused to vote for Hubert Humphrey; the winner, Richard Nixon, presided over a pointless extension of the Vietnam War that cost 28,000 American lives and probably hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives.  He also mired the White House in such a cesspool of corruption and chicanery that the reputation of America’s system of government has still not fully recovered.

The next time I chose not to vote was when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter.  As a longtime California resident, I knew all the havoc that Reagan had wreaked on that state, knew how his sunny smile masked a callous indifference to human rights and liberties and a dogged determination to dismantle the New Deal, that bit of social engineering cobbled together as a response to the Great Depression that transformed and bettered the lives of millions of Americans.

But I just didn’t like Jimmy Carter, and in my stubbornness and youthful certitude, refused to consider that Reagan might be (as he proved to be) infinitely worse.

In the year 2000, I felt similarly about Al Gore, only dragging myself to the polls at the last minute, with extreme reluctance, because even in my muddle-headed state at the time, I had an inkling that George Bush might spell serious trouble.

We know how that turned out.  Bush became the worst president of the modern era, possibly the worst ever.  It was only because the government he inherited was in relatively good shape, the budget balanced, the economy thriving, that the damage he inflicted was not even worse.

But Bush’s wildly incompetent mismanagement and malfeasance—on a scale, I think history buffs would agree—comparable to that of the latter-day Roman emperors—took our country close to the brink of collapse.  And because of the globally interconnected age we live in, it would have taken a large part of the world with it.

We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.  In fact, even after the gradual stabilization that has taken place during the past four years, I still wouldn’t rate our chances of avoiding an economic and societal meltdown at much better than 50-50.  Bush’s bankrupting the national treasury to pay for giant tax cuts for millionaires and two insanely expensive and pointless wars was, again, on a par with the follies the sealed the fate of ancient Rome.

And that is precisely why this year’s election is so vital.  In a normal year, in a year when our finances and our social structure were on a sound footing, we could afford four or maybe even eight years of a cynical, mercenary buffoon like Mitt Romney.  We’ve had presidents like him before—Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover come to mind—and survived.

But our position is far more precarious now, very likely as precarious as it’s ever been.  Romney’s plan to apply the Bain Capital model to government—ruthless downsizing and outsourcing, looting the national pension system (aka Social Security and Medicare), and skimming off huge profits for a handful of the best-connected—would be stupid and brutal at any time, but in an economy as fragile as ours, it would be fatal.

I can’t say that strongly enough: if Mitt Romney gets his hands on our government, I think it’s unlikely that our system as we’ve known it will survive.  It’s not just political rhetoric to point out that his so-called economic plan is a poisonous fantasy; any rational economist will acknowledge that it is mathematically impossible to accomplish his goals without massively impoverishing the working and middle classes and/or massively expanding an already almost unmanageable debt.

What does this mean for the average American?  Very possibly a total wipe-out.  It’s not just a matter of losing your health insurance—Romney has already promised millions of you will do that—or getting stuck with lower pay and poorer working conditions.

I’m talking about total collapse, where your money—unless, of course, you were smart enough to stash a few hundred million in offshore accounts—could become literally worthless, where a government stripped of its resources and income by the avarice of Romney and their ilk will no longer be able to provide you with the most fundamental of services.

Yes, I know that sound dramatic and alarmist, and I hope and pray that I’m wrong.  But I’ve been following and studying politics and economics and history on at least an avocational level for some 50 years now.  I’m no professor, no certified expert, but I can hold my own on these subjects, and everything I’ve learned leads me to believe that yes, the situation is indeed that dire.

I’m voting for Barack Obama.  In fact, I already have, and I urge every single American who cares at all about the future of this country and this planet to do the same.  You don’t have to agree with everything he says or does—I certainly don’t—and you don’t even have to like the guy.  But it’s the least you can do, the bare minimum, to help save our country from falling into the hands of people who, whether from greed, megalomania, or sheer, bloody ignorance, might very well destroy it.

Now there are those of you—some of you are even my good friends—who will cling to nostrums like “A pox on both their houses” or “No matter who you vote for, the government wins.”  I say to you, in the strongest possible terms, please consider that it may be time, at least for now, to put aside that kind of thinking.

In 1942, George Orwell wrote an essay condemning British pacifists who refused to participate in the war effort to defend Britain against a Nazi invasion.  He said, in no uncertain words, that under the conditions existing at that time, pacifism was “objectively pro-Fascist.”  You could not remain aloof from the struggle, he argued, as long as there was no realistic option to either a British or a Nazi triumph.

Similarly you can not remain aloof from the present struggle to prevent the devastation that Mitt Romney and his backers would unleash on this country.  You can trumpet your third parties or your principled abstinence from electoral politics as some sort of moral stance, but in fact—and this is, as Orwell put it, “elementary common sense”—you are voting for Mitt Romney just as effectively as any Tea Party fanatic or theocracy-fancying fundamentalist.

You can’t wriggle out of this one.  The Greens aren’t going to win this election.  Nor are the Libertarians, nor a coalition of anarcho-syndicalist communes.  Beginning November 7, this country will either be in the hands of fanatics, criminals and crazy people, or it will remain in the hands of those who have demonstrated at least some degree of sanity and some degree of responsibility to the people who elected them.

So what is the moral case for not voting?  This year, there is none.  Not just for yourselves, but for your children, for the future of this flawed but still inspiring experiment in democracy, please, I beg of you, drag yourself to the polls.  Regardless of whether you do so with a song in your heart or with one hand firmly holding your nose, it’s the least you can do.  I believe—as passionately as I’ve ever believed anything—that this is one time when failing to act is a luxury none of us can afford.

Waving, Not Drowning

Waving, Not Drowning

When I first started considering moving to the East Coast of America, the weather was  certainly something I considered.  I was mainly concerned whether, after 40 years spent in California and England, I was ready to face the rigors of a full-on Northern Hemisphere winter.  I could still remember that wretched February day in February 1967, when I struggled across the Diag in Ann Arbor into the teeth of an Arctic gale, cursing every step of the way.

In the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Gone With The Wind, I declared then and there, with as firm a resolve as I’d ever applied to anything in my then relatively young life, that I would never, ever be that cold again.  And with a few notable exceptions, like getting stranded in blizzards atop Spy Rock, I pretty much lived up to that ambition.

But times change, and so did I.  Besides, New York City, surrounded by the moderating influence of the sea, doesn’t get as cold as Detroit, and the worst part of its winters is maybe a month shorter.  Now that I’ve spent six years there, I have to admit it’s really not bad.  I’ve even come to appreciate all four of the seasons in a way I never imagined possible.

One factor I didn’t give a lot of thought to, though, was hurricanes.  I was familiar enough with history and climatology to know that they occasionally strike New York, but given that the last major one was in 1938, I didn’t feel I had to spend a lot of time scanning the horizon for the next one.

There’s a part of me, a very childish part, obviously, that revels in disaster, that secretly hopes the tornado or the hurricane or the blizzard will come our way, just for the excitement.  It’s shameful to admit, especially when you consider that this “excitement” often comes at the cost of lives lost or drastically upended, and I guess what I really hope for is that I’ll get to experience the drama without any damage to myself or others.

And, I’ve found, when the weather map shows that disaster is actually headed my way, I quickly change my tune, as I did last year when it briefly looked like Hurricane Irene might make a direct hit on Brooklyn.  I barricaded myself in my house, filled the requisite bottles, pans and bathtub with fresh water, and put in a stock of candles and canned food.

When I woke the following morning with the power still on, my house still intact, and little harm done to my block apart from a potted palm blown over across the street, I was greatly relieved, but also slightly disappointed.  I mean, it could have been a little worse without really hurting anyone, couldn’t it?

Maybe I’m finally growing up a little, because this year I didn’t for a minute hope that Hurricane Sandy would come our way.  In fact, I actively cheered for it to turn out to sea as northbound hurricanes normally do.  Irene had provided enough of a scare, and a graphic illustration of how much suffering even a hurricane downgraded to a tropical storm can cause, as illustrated by the havoc wreaked on the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Besides—and wouldn’t you know I had a selfish motive as well—I was hoping to get out of town to attend the annual convention of the Guang Ping Yang T’ai Chi Association and to visit my mom in California.  In the end, I made the decision, call it cowardly or call it prudent, to beat it out of town just ahead of Sandy.  I caught one of the last NJ Transit trains out of Penn Station and one of the last planes out of Newark, and followed the unfolding disaster mostly via Twitter.

On board the California Zephyr en route to the Sierra Nevada.

Phone service was patchy to nonexistent, so I couldn’t check in with friends I’d left behind, and though they’re now all accounted for, quite a few are still without power or heat, and some are struggling to deal with major damage to their homes or workplaces.  Seeing the ruins of places like the Rockaways, Long Beach, Asbury Park, and the eastern shore of Staten Island, where only months ago I was strolling in the sunshine, is absolutely heartbreaking.

At the GPYTCA conference.

So yeah, I feel guilty for not being there, guilty that my own neighborhood was once again spared any significant problems, and most guilty that I’m not there to join the thousands of New Yorkers who are heroically pitching in to help the afflicted and clean up the wreckage.

It’s also kind of embarrassing to have to tell the many people who combined birthday wishes (I spent my b-day making my escape from New York) with anxious inquiries about my well-being that I’ve been safely holed up in the Sierra Nevada doing t’ai chi and basking in the (admittedly slightly chilly) California sunshine.

Speaking of embarrassing, it’s also a little awkward having to explain to people why they haven’t seen an update to my blog in, oh, I don’t know, half a year or so.  I’ll try to explain as best as I can what I’ve been up to, but I still can’t help feeling I’ve fallen down on the job, even if it’s a job I don’t get paid for except by the occasional “well done” or “Livermore, you’re an idiot.”

This past year has been mostly consumed by two projects that you may or may not have heard about.  The first, which should have been done long ago, but still isn’t quite, is preparing the manuscript of Spy Rock Memories for publication.  I’m working with a real solid editor, and the process has been thoroughly enjoyable, but also painfully slow, in large part because I decided that whole sections of the book needed to be completely rewritten.

Where I spent the hurricane.

But I’m through with the hardest part (I hope), and right now we’re just giving the text a final going-over.  With any luck, the book should be out next spring, only a year late.  Which also leaves me a year behind on starting my next book, the subject of which will have to remain secret for now, but which I’m very excited about.

Oh, and among the other details to be worked out: a decision on whether to change the title.  I’d be happy to hear from any of my readers on this question: do you think it should be Spy Rock Memories or Spy Rock Road?

My other project was a compilation record that Billie Joe Armstrong asked me to put together for his Adeline Records label.  Billie’s often expressed an interest in the pop punk and punk rock bands I’ve told him about, especially those who’ve been part of the scene centered around the annual Insubordination Fest and the infamous Pop Punk Message Board.

I hadn’t planned to get back into the record business, and probably won’t on any kind of permanent basis, but it was fun to do it once.  Although it was time-consuming, it turned out to be surprisingly easy and enjoyable.  Either bands these days are more together and dependable, or I’ve matured and learned a more about how to work with people.  Most likely a bit of both.

The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore, artwork by Patrick Hynes.

Even more enjoyable was the chance to work with Patrick Hynes again.  Patrick, as many of you will know, was one of my partners in Lookout Records, and was responsible for some of the iconic art by which people remember Lookout’s heyday.  I got him to reprise a 1991 Lookout magazine cover and update it for the 2010s; in tribute to The Thing That Ate Floyd, the 1988 compilation that David Hayes and I assembled, the new record was called The Thing That Ate Larry Livermore.

Nine months of work culminated with a series of record release parties in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, and then, after being constantly immersed in overseeing every aspect of production, everything went eerily quiet.  The reviews were great, the music was great, the shows were packed and amazing, and then the record slipped off into the ether.  I’d like to think it will go on to be a classic—many of the bands contributed what I consider among their best songs ever, and all the songs were original and exclusive to the comp—but who knows these days?  The record business, while still exciting and rewarding in its way, is nothing like it used to be, for better or worse.

Which reminds me, I still have a few copies of both the record and the CD, as well as some t-shirts featuring the Patrick Hynes artwork.  I’ve been meaning to set up a web store to offer them to the public, but that’s just one more thing that’s gone by the board during these months of staying indoors writing and editing and producing.

I missed most of the summer and, with the cold weather starting to settle in now, most of the fall as well.  No doubt it will all pay off in the end, though in what form, it remains to be seen.  I’m at a stage in life where work seems to have become more important than it ever was before—though given my long career of procrastination and job-dodging, that wouldn’t be hard—and sometimes that makes me very tired.

But I console myself with the thought that I spent much of my earlier life goofing off, and that I should have expected the work would catch up with me sooner or later.  Besides, I always thought it was kind of backward to expect young people to work like dogs to save up enough so they could retire at an age when they no longer had the energy or ability to do many of the things they most wanted to.  So who knows, maybe I blundered into doing it the right way after all?