Category Archives: Words

Reading, strong words, big thoughts, and what others are writing about.

Cory Doctorow “Walkaway”

[Also appears in the “2017 Book List” page, but this was so good it gets its own slightly expanded top level entry]

Each of Doctorow’s novels increases in thought-provoking idea density to the point where reading requires a nearly Talmudic scholar intensity to unpack, turn over, and examine each word grouping, hunting for meaning. And it is so, so worth it. Normally I’d finish his latest offering in days, but “Walkaway” (especially on the back cover heels of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140,” which dealt with some of the same societal themes) takes the near future, magnifies through the lens of current events, collimates it via just enough social and computer science to make it frightening, and then zaps it, laser-like, into immediate term focus.

What are the existential crises of an uploaded consciousness (something teased in “Rapture of the Nerds” but central to this story)? What happens when test-heavy, fee-for-content education runs rampant? (as I was reading I was thinking “I should support Wikipedia, Curriki and the EFF to a greater extent”) What if the ultra-rich run out of ways to grow more rich? And most scary, what happens when there is immense value locked up in physical plants, raw materials, and intellectual property that isn’t being used, is in crumbling ruin, but can’t be made into a public trust simply because of variously divergent views of “ownership”?

If you don’t see the parallels to the United States in 2017, and can’t trace out the roots of the most terrifying themes in the book, then ask how and why we have and had a savings and loan bailout, a sub prime mortgage meltdown, staggering loads of student debt, teachers pushed to “test for testing” rather than teaching life-improving concepts and skills, and a housing market where $2,000/square foot in some cities is less of am impediment than simply finding supply that isn’t smoldering. And you haven’t visited Atlantic City, Detroit, or the parts of New Orleans still financially submerged from Hurricane Katrina.

“Walkaway” tells the story of those who simply reject the ultra-rich ultra-constrained social contract, write a new one, and the conflicts that result. It is, after an eight year hiatus in adult novels, well worth the wait. There are vintage Doctorow-isms: tribes, family and friends as the strong, weak and gravitational forces of personal relationships; a bit of fun-poking at names and how they convey and develop their own contexts over time (perhaps beating out the ABCD brothers in “Someone Comes to Town”); instant transmutation of noun to verb (“John Henry” as a verb) and by the last page, not necessarily a happy smiling ending but one that points to a more stable future for all involved.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, died at age 88 this week. I read the book because it was part of (what we’d now call) new age/zen/spiritual English curriculum that one of our teachers built for us, a plate of Pirsig sprinkled with heavy Castenada seasoning and a bit of Pierce’s cosmic egg to make us question our realities. If it was possible to give literary acid to high school students, that was it.

I don’t remember much of what I read in high school, but parts of Pirsig’s book stood out to me, not only then but in discussions years later. The emphasis on “gumption”, the desire to do something the right way, and the various traps that drain your energy, motivation or desire to tackle something challenging has come up repeatedly. The thought that the journey is as important as the destination, that the ride matters, certainly informed and prepared me for reading Neil Peart’s moving, haunting and touching motorcycle travelogues thirty-five years later. Finally, his matter of fact approach to maintenance, especially the beer can handle bar shim (horrifying his riding companion but so illustrative of the idea), tied an episode from my childhood to one of my parenthood.

My father and I built a number of models together; one of my favorites was a bass and balsa wood model of a Chris Craft power boat. It was a thing of scale model beauty, down to the lovingly applied finish on it that gave it the feel of a wooden ocean faring boat, scaled to my world and horizons. My father decided we should have not only a model but a boat that could truly power, so he outfitted it with an electric motor and propeller gently welded to the end of a brass shaft. The prop shaft ran through a tube he had installed, at an appropriate angle, through the floor of the boat, and again gently sealed and fitted against leaks (including a bit of non-water soluble lubricant on the shaft so that it would not grind, rattle or even allow water to encroach on the drive train). The concentric brass tubes weren’t part of the design of the model, but solved a problem neatly when tackled with all of the gumption that two inland residents could manage.

Fast forward about forty years, to a day when my son was outfitting a bass guitar with custom tuning heads. The new heads were slightly smaller than the headstock holes left by the original equipment, meaning that the bushings around the tuning pegs were likely to grind, slip or otherwise chip at the headstock. Taking one of the fancy brass tuners in hand, we ventured off to the (last remaining) local hobby shop, known to stock brass tubes in a variety of diameters. Finding one that slipped neatly over the tuning pegs, it filled the headstock bore snugly enough to solve the problem for under $3. It was never part of the original design, nor an intended after market custom shim for nearly $100 worth of tuners, but those small brass barrels cut from the tube solved the problem We faced a gumption trap and drove around it, small bag of scale model parts in hand, the journey providing as much resolution as the final fit and finish. The whole way I was channeling that Chris Craft boat, and Robert Pirsig, and thinking about that beer can shim, a few pennies of aluminum that amplified the value of an $1,800 motorcycle so wildly up or down, if only you had the gumption to fold it to fit.

Somewhere my English teacher is smiling – and for good reason, as the book was less than five years old when we read it — a miracle of modernity, as most of our history books didn’t include the Korean or Vietnam Wars. Thank you Robert Pirsig, for taking us through your Chautauquas, and to the teachers and friends who have reflected on our personal quests for Quality with me over the years.

Springsteen Stories

Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.

Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.

The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.

My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.

For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.

“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.

Wisdom of Andy

Went fishing with my father today, an outing that always brings back a lot of good memories of the olfactory, muscle and narrative types. One of our regular bits is to review the “Wisdom of Andy,” the koans spoken by a regular on one of those party fishing boats who was easily fifty years my senior.

“Eat a pepper sandwich”. Quite literally, Andy put sliced bell peppers on bread and ate a succession of them through the morning’s fishing stops. He was a man who made the most of his local (garden) resources.

“Catch your fish going under”. When drift fishing, your line either goes under the boat or away from it; when you’re “under” you run over the fish first. Andy was a big believer in catching most of your fish by getting first crack at them, particularly the big ones.

“Catch the ones the other side missed”. The logical counter to having the best luck going under, if the opposite side of the boat wasn’t literally pulling its weight, you could pick up the slack.

“Always use fresh bait”. Whether there is anything to to science of fish picking up scent, contrast, or just ensuring you were checking that you had bait on the hook (after drifting over rocks or rough bottom spots), this was the best advice of all. There is likely some deeper meaning to ensuring you make the most of each chance, and present your best face at all times, but really it just means to make sure you have bait on the hook.

You can interpret Andy’s mental lures however you like, but he really was just dispensing rather good fishing advice. The fun part of sharing a boat with a group of strangers is that sometimes they leave you with sound bites to accompany the fish bites for the rest of your life.

Comics 2015: The Time Is Now Again

One of the best parts of 2015 was watching Berkley Breathed re-animate “Bloom County.” A staple of the mid-80s to early-90s and a definite influence on Sun Microsystems culture (Rob Gingell’s machine was “opus” for as long as I knew him; perhaps only William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” spawned more machine names), Milo, Binkley, Bill, Opus, Steve Dallas and Oliver have returned in a most timely manner. Posting strips online gives Breathed more artistic and cultural reference flexibility (read: less censorship), and the political, technological, social and (sum of previous) Star Wars memes exposed are both unchanged and incredibly relevant. It is, as Geddy Lee sings, like “the time is now again.”

Strips are on Facebook.

Signed strips in reverse chronological order.

My favorite part of the reboot (in addition to the Star Wars references and Bill and Opus once again deciding to run for office) has been the Christmas sequence. The holiday sniffle usually prompted by John Scalzi this year put a soggy exclamation point on the last few strips of the year.

If you’re too young to remember Bloom County in its syndicated glory, start at reboot strip #1 and say hello to the characters. If you ever said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bill and Opus” (and have said it frequently in the run up to 2016) it’s like the funniest guy in college just reappeared in your daily news feed.

“The Expanse”: Five Books of A Different Moses

An advantage of long-haul travel is that you get to binge read – an art that pre-dated binge watching serialized television but is just as rewarding. Returning from Prague this week I finished “Nemesis Games,” the fifth book of James SA Corey’s “Expanse” series, and after taking a brief hiatus (I had read the first three earlier in the year, then picked up volume four a few weeks ago) I have to admit that this one gets better with each book. The storylines here rely on the politics and world-building of the earlier books, but truly force the characters to develop and explore — there is backstory mixed with forward-moving story mixed with difficult plot points. James Holden, the central character of the first four books, takes a bit of a backseat here (I’m reminded of current discussion of “Orange Is The New Black” in which fans agree that Piper isn’t the most interesting or central character to the drama) but yet remains a bit of a different-context Moses: leading his extended family out of conflict, again, despite difficult odds, and with his usual ability to over-share at the worst times (if biblical Moses suffered from a speech impediment, Holden-Moses has a speech accelerant, a trait that figures in book five).

Syfy has picked up “The Expanse” as a series, with the first season set to air at some point this year. There’s an IMDB entry for the show, including the pilot episode, and some behind-the-scenes coverage in the Lizard Brain blog, the joint public musings of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (together they write under the pen name of James SA Corey).

Sometimes at the end of a long book, or series of books, you start to miss the characters, and imagine what they’ll do next. Often times, the story provides the final details, and you make mental reminders that the characters were created, not real people, and you’d do well to spend as much time worrying about your real world friends. I’ve probably felt this less than a handful of times: at the end of M*A*S*H, when Gary Oldman’s character was killed off in 30something (sorry for the twenty year old spoiler), and as the Sopranos drew to a close. “Nemesis Games” leaves many doors open for its cast of characters, so I’m in more of a summer hiatus waiting to see what constructed world next draws them across space and time.

Really, Really Exploring “Calvin and Hobbes”

Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” ran its last strip twenty years ago, pretty much neatly dividing my life into periods of before and after “family at full strength.” Watterson effectively hid from the public eye, despite one cameo drawing appears in “Pearls Before Swine” he had all but ceased to have any sort of real-time presence, and certainly there was very little insight into what made so many of us laugh, chortle and sometimes sniffle a bit at a six year old boy and his tiger.

Watterson has donated his original strip collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, co-located in the state of his youth, and now Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Cataloguecontains a wonderful interview with Watterson is now in mass market print.

It’s so worthy of a read; I dropped everything else on this quiet Sunday afternoon, put my feet up on my desk, and dove in. It’s the way I consumed comic strips out of the Sunday papers until I stopped getting a print newspaper. The exploration of the themes in the strip – the seasons, landscapes, dinosaurs – is just intellectual enough to be fun. The whole book reinforces the sense that yes, this is a comic strip served with a very small dollop of social commentary, put on your Sunday plate by a kid who sees life and companionship in his stuffed tiger.

“Calvin and Hobbes” decorated cubes and offices in every company that employed me during its print run. Something about a kid who pushed the limits of reasonable behavior, who created overlay landscapes and sci-fi fantasies for the drudgery of elementary school, always spoke to the engineers who tried to turn those fantastic ideas into products. Without Spaceman Spiff, I’m certain there would be no smart phones and certainly no Internet as we know it (one of the engineers at Sun Microsystems who taught me more about networking that just about anyone else was a die-hard Calvin and Hobbes fan). I have the three-volume slipcase bound collection of the entire series; it is a guilty pleasure to sit and read a month’s worth of strips when I find I could use some inspiration.

In the interview Watterson talks about the theme of friendship through the strip. I always found it a way to challenge the status quo, whether it was through commentary on social norms (as seen by a little kid), the art of the possible, or the kind of kind of trouble you get into when you escape into a world just slightly less constrained than Calvinball. Side note: growing up, a group of us used to build “forts” in backyards other than my own; invariably made from construction remainders we liberated from the houses going up on the other side of Schank Road, they were hammered together to suit our fantasies about forts, bravery, and in one slightly strange turn of events, a circus box office. Reading “Calvin and Hobbes” brings so many of those first grade memories back into sharp focus, and also reminds me to relax the constraints when looking at a problem, with Calvin’s naive yet endearing way of seeing things through a Calvin-centric lens, to find out what is in that big world to be explored.

When the things of your young adulthood end up in a museum retrospective, you should be officially considered either old or suffering from stunted cultural tastes (or both), but I’m thrilled to see Watterson’s work get the long-term home it so richly deserves.

Perfectly Named Strangers: Pinchot Reads Doctorow

Short form: Bronson Pinchot, widely acclaimed and (vocally) prolific audio book narrator, picks up Cory Doctorow’s “Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town” in an unedited, 11+ hour DRM-free audiobook. That’s one great week of commuting time this gnarly winter for less than the cost of half a tank of gas.

Long form: SCTTSLT is probably Doctorow’s strangest novel but one of my favorites. It’s ten years old, and still deliciously off-center. You have to experience it knowing that all of the characters with alliterated first names are the same; you have to listen deeply to get into the symbolism. It’s weird, and it’s reflectively weird if you are a first or second generation immigrant to the West. One of the insights Cory shared with me years ago was that he chose the flexible naming conventions because it seemed the Russian immigrant generation in his family used so many names to refer to the same person, and the foreign family member stand-ins (stacking dolls and washing machine, for example) conveyed that same rough sense of being in a foreign land. If you can’t envision a washing machine as a maternal metaphor, go re-listen to “Do You Love Me?” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” If matryoshka dolls don’t resonate as siblings, you don’t have (or are not) a middle child in the family. And if the alliterative nicknames don’t work, pick up your Dostoevsky (ideally, “Crime and Punishment”) again. The Russian force is strong with this one.

In the art-life transverse universe: People of roughly my age remember Bronson Pinchot as Balki from “Perfect Strangers,” a strangely setup TV sitcom about a Greek immigrant to Chicago and the foreign interpretation of his somewhat appealing naivety. It makes the narration seem all the more appropriate, although there isn’t even a tenuous connection between the choice of narrator and his previous small screen credits.

Tangential but completely unrelated music reference: Mimi’s wings (and their scarred history) and her role as creative forcing function remind me of Prise Ambellina from the Coheed & Cambria Amory Wars universe. The cover for Downpour’s audio book of SCTTSLT is eerily similar to Coheed posters from their first four albums.

Pairings: “Darwin’s Radio” and “Year Of The Black Rainbow”

This was the genesis of the pairings idea — while listening to “The Broken” on Coheed and Cambria’s “Year Of The Black Rainbow,” my first thought was of Greg Bear’s spectacular near-future sci-fi books about human speciation, “Darwin’s Radio” and “Darwin’s Children.” Most of the story of the Monstar virus is told through the first CoCa album “Second Stage Turbine Blade,” but the history of the virus, and its nefarious intents, are really covered in depth in YOTBR.

Claudio Sanchez’s writing in the Amory Wars storylines veers more into the Replicant-versus-human or Terminator-versus-human storylines of “Blade Runner” and the “Terminator” series, questioning how we know whether someone is good or evil, and whether we identify with them as human or not through their actions and not purely carbon, silicon, or metallic attributes. Greg Bear puts a slightly different spin on the question, asking when homo sapiens evolves into a new species, and how the current definition of “human” will react to this divergence, threat or evolutionary splinter. Both ask highly moral questions about survival of a species versus survival of a few individuals, modulated by the requisite evil government entities.

Pairings: “So” and “Beyond The Bass Clef”

I spent much of the winter break reading books about musicians, and then listening to their music in an attempt to pick up audio clues and color hinted at through the author’s prose. Along the way I found myself thinking about how I had first appreciated or heard the music, and I stumbled on the idea of audio and literary “pairings”, the same way a chef will pair a wine with an entree to enhance the flavors and stimulate your palate.

Welcome to my first attempt at pairing beat and book: Peter Gabriel’s “So” with Tony Levin’s bass-ography “Beyond The Bass Clef” (out of print, but worth every penny used on Levin’s book tells the backstory of how he came to be Peter Gabriel’s bassist; what I didn’t realize is that Levin is on every one of Gabriel’s solo works going back to “(melt)”. “So” remains one of my favorite albums, and the variety of bass technique and sound are fantastic. It’s the album for which Levin invented “funk fingers”, and upon another listen you can hear the slap/hammer technique at work (but only if you know to listen for it — the book gives you clues that your ear picks out).

I will forever associate “Red Rain” with the Stone’s War episode of Miami Vice from the fall of 1986, the soundtrack for one of the moodier and more morally ambiguous episodes of a show that foretold the rise of hipsterism. Nearly half of “So” was eventually synchronized to Crockett and Tubbs and their linen jackets, a product both of the MTV (when it played music videos) style of TV production of the mid-decade as well as the rich, open-to-interpretation elements of Gabriel’s music. Whether it’s the punchy “Sledgehammer” or funky “Big Time” there is a lot of bottom on “So,” pushing Levin from the back line to the front line at times.

So there you have it — as Bill Joy would say, a near and far video experience (a TV show and a book); a near and far audio experience (the album and the video synchronization); a near and far cultural exploration.