A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Waiting for Pete Doherty


When Peter Doherty (no relation to the Libertine's drunken, reckless front man) came back to Iowa it was the end of Autumn.  He didn't tell anyone and so I was shocked when I saw him at the corner of Washington and Linn, on his way to Record Collector.  He saw me first and shouted "Sam!"  I didn't recognize him immediately because he was wearing slacks and a baby-blue dress shirt.  His hair was cut and he was wearing glasses.  I didn't know he could exist without a Ragstock shell of tattered jeans and second-hand leather.

He walked across the street and shook my hand.  "It's me, Pete," he said, accustomed to reminding everyone who he was.  After the Apologies, we promised to get together for coffee, or a drink, or whatever.

Months passed, as these things usually go, and we didn't see or hear from each other until close to a year later, last week.  On a whim, I went for a walk up to the Hilltop Lounge on a warm night.  An ex-roommate of mine said that a writer in Glimmer Train had mentioned it as an Inspiration for some story.  He saw, on the men's bathroom wall, "Rick is back in town," and a story was born.  Pretty tenuous, if you ask me.  But, in Iowa City, there probably isn't a bar that doesn't have the distinction of being an inspiration for some story or another, even Brothers.

Anyway, Pete Doherty was there.  He was playing pool, sleeves of his Blood Red shirt rolled up, with some older guy who looked a little like and talked a little like Charles Bukowski.  I only heard him mutter incoherently and punctuate everything with "Fuck."

"Said we'd get together," Pete said when the game was done.

We walked over to a table with our pint glasses and sat down.  It was surprising nothing broke from mere proximity to the man.  The Hilltop Lounge is a Grungy bar that is far bigger on the inside than it appears outside.  I've never seen more than a dozen people there though.  Thirty year old Budweiser posters or girls in bikinis perpetually smile at the patrons, though I find this association somehow Hysterically perverse.

Something you should know about Pete Doherty: in high school we used to work together at a pizza lounge in Ames and he was That Coworker, the guy who comes in ten minutes late every day because of some other adventure and no one wants to get rid of him because he's not bad at his job and life would be infinitely less interesting without him.  I Loathed him.  His Life was Easy and he could get away with anything.  He was a musician, he drank, he smoked, he hung out with college kids, he had a new girlfriend every week (which seemed mathematically impossible, considering the size of my school) and he had that laid-back the-world-is-ending-and-I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude.  But, I was This Guy to That Coworker, because I kind of worshipped him.

It wasn't until college that we hung out outside of work and I discovered what kind of world he lived in.  He was everything I imagined him to be, which was awful for him because people assumed he was Someone he wasn't.  We accidentally ended up at the same parties and while he sat in the corner playing his guitar sometimes I'd hear the opening lines of some Punk-ish song of his own design and sometimes I'd hear him shout at whatever girl, "I'm not Pete-fucking-Doherty!  I'm from Chicago!"  The more our paths crossed, the more often I heard him screaming the Denials and Differences.  We probably had half a dozen brief conversations in all that time and still, somehow, he remembered me.

Yes, I was surreal sitting with him at the Hilltop Lounge because I think both of us realized at the same time we didn't really have anything to talk about.  That didn't stop us from Trying, though.

"So, what are you doing in town?" I asked.

"Working for ACT, actually," he said.  "I fact-check.  It's more interesting than it sounds."

I got the feeling he didn't want to explain so I didn't ask.  Instead I said, "Do you still play music?"

"Of course," he said.  "I have a band.  We're playing at Gabe's this Saturday.  You should come out."

"I work.  Sorry."

We talked for a long time about Inanities and Shit I'm certain neither one of us really cared about.  It was just a way of passing the time.  Suddenly another round appeared and I'm not sure who bought it, only that we were still drinking and desperately trying to Make conversation.

Finally I asked him, "Why did you come back here?"

He responded almost immediately.  "Because I found a job."

"You were just looking for a job?"  This pragmatic explanation coming from the lips of Pete Doherty was both absurd and disappointing to me.

"Weren't you?"

I shrugged.

He said, "You write, you read, you serve coffee, you sell books.  What's wrong with that?"

And that was a palpable hit.  I heard myself repeating, "What's wrong with that…?"

"Yes," he said.  "It's not all that hard to get what you want."

"You want to live in Iowa City, fact-checking ACT questions?"

"So what if I do?" he demanded.  "I'll be busy for life," he said, as if staying busy were Everything.

It was strange to ask Pete Doherty, "Is staying busy all you care about?"

"Of course not," he said.  "No."

Suddenly, on the radio, we heard The Indelicates moaning, "Waiting for Pete Dogherty to Die."  I didn't say anything out of respect for Pete Doherty's quiet wrath.  When the song ended he said, "Christ, I hate that guy."

"People still ask you if you're the real Pete Doherty?" I joked.

He gave me a cold look.  "People still ask you if you're the real Sam Ferree?"

"No," I laughed and thought about it a little more.  "No.  No one ever has, actually."

We had another round and then walked back through the Iowa City graveyard, stumbling over the freshly green grass and navigating around head stones. When we were almost through, he fell on his back in his business casual out fit and said, "I'm an Ares.  What about you?"

"I'm an Ares, too," I said.

"Doesn't suit you."

"Doesn't suit you either."

He laughed.  "Let's make up new constellations."

So we lay on our backs, tracing out new designs in the stars from the graveyard.  We thought about new, wacky, worthless, and wrong horoscopes until dawn.  Before we left, he stopped by the Black Angel to kiss her on the lips.  "They say I'll die seven days later," he mumbled, grinning.

It's been seven days.  I'm waiting on the call.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Preparation of the Wisconsin Odyssey

This weekend I'm going to Madison, Wisconsin to attend Wiscon.  This will be the finale to the Month of Insanity, which has included two weddings, one convention, sporadic and cruel work scheduling, and a steady river of friends milling about my and A's apartment.  It's been Fun, but I can feel my nerves fraying.  Fun's enough, though.

Anyway, I'm road tripping with A, R, L, M, An Owomoyela and Jei Marcade.  It will be an interesting experience since the last time I drove up to Madison I spent the entire four hour journey listening to Nick Cave's Murder Ballads.  That tends to have a negative effect on a man's psyche.  I now associate going to Madison with Death and Desolation.  Prior experiences have been better, though.  I've been to Wiscon twice before and I've always had a pleasant time.  It will be wonderful to see my former teacher and mentor Rachel Swirsky (who just one the Nebula for best novella).  Along the way I'm also going to stop by and say hello to an old friend, Derek the Viking, and probably get into Trouble downtown, which suits me fine.

This time I'm going equipped with Moo business cards.  They Will probably live and be forgotten in my pocket, but I take strange comfort in having them there.  Stole that idea from Jei.

That's about it for now.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Michelle Goodman's My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire

In the dead of winter, 2009, a freelance copywriter-friend of mine, MK, called me up and jovially announced "I want to hire you."  I was a bit taken aback.  No one had ever shoved work at me before and so Murphy's Law started bouncing around in my head.  Besides, we'd worked together in a non-professional capacity a few weeks earlier doing a theatre project for the ManiACTs and I was certain he hadn't forgotten how I misspelled the troupe's name in the playbill ("ManiACTs" not "ManiACTS" ­– Get it?) and there had to be a Catch.  Turns out there wasn't and we've been working together, off and on, ever since.

It never occurred to me that I was freelancing until I applied to the bookstore where I work now and my manager mentioned, "So, you've been moonlighting?"  The bookstore was part of my Plan.  I would work there until I attained the right State of Mind (ie disgust with the Real World) and then go to grad school.  Well, this is the dead season and I have a long time to wait, so I decided to explore other means of self-fulfillment when, conveniently, Mark (darling angel that he is) recommended this book to me.

Before I read it, I actually picked up Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer first and so that will color my review.   Also, a Disclaimer: I have yet to begin a freelance career and I can count the number of jobs I've done on one hand.  With any luck, I'll be able to come back to this in a few years with a Voice of Experience, but for now I'm going to have to go with gut instinct and my thoughts on the quality of writing.

First, if you're better at picking up subtleties than I am, you've probably figured out that this book's primary audience is women.  It took me until I saw the Publisher's Note on the last printed page, advertising "Selected titles from Seal Press – For more than thirty years, Seal Press has published groundbreaking books.  By Women.  For Women."  Well, that explains some of the inclusive statements that threw me off ("We, as women…"), but I think this is also testament to Goodman's skill as a considerate writer.  An idiot-man, like myself, can read this book and, besides the occasional head-scratching, feel welcome.

And that deserves commendation.  I enjoyed reading this book.  Yes, I'm naturally skeptical of self-help books – which is ironic, since that's primarily what I review here… so, hopefully that will make me a better critic – and so my critical distance is that much more exaggerated, but I still had fun.  I compare this favorably with Bowerman's book – which I will someday review – because Goodman is a writer who fell into marketing and Bowerman is a marketer who fell into writing.  Essentially, when I was reading The Well-Fed Writer I kept thinking, "That was a good pitch.  I'm on to you." but when I read My So-Called Freelance Life I found myself thinking, "That was very intriguing, well-articulated advice.  I should… oh, you're good."

In summary of the writing itself, at the very least you won't feel like you've wasted your time reading this book.  Goodman is a very good writer.  There are other, more practical aspects of the book that I will now address, though I am less Qualified to critique them.  In the near future, I hope to put them into practice and see how her advice holds up in the Real World.  For now, it shouldn't hurt to explore the ideas and give first impressions.

The book is divided into three parts which are subdivided into chapters and further divided into 2-3 paragraph snippets addressing ultra-specific topics.  It's a clever way to write a book and especially appealing to those of us with frail attention spans and a love of the Almighty Hyperlink.  This is, I assume, the usual way to write a self-help book, but it's new to me.  The first chapter is fluff, essentially.  She lays out a basic argument for why one Can and Should go freelance if one has the Desire to do so.  Don't get me wrong, she gives a fine pep talk.  But, if you're hoping for solid, applicable advice you won't find it in the first bit.  Chapter Two, "Forget Fuzzy Math," is an incredibly relevant set of instructions on how one should go about evaluating one's finances.  The following chapter discusses the merits of working at home against the benefits of renting an office which, while probably good to consider for reasons of mental health, does not seem immediately useful to beginners.

Actually, this "Relevant, Food-for-thought, Relevant, Fluff" pattern continues through the book.  Some chapters go in-depth discussing specific issues in freelance Living – like how not to go crazy when you never leave the house – while others explain how and where to seek legal and financial advice, complete with several general references.  It's a clever tactic.  She is able to inundate you with relatively boring facts about red tape and everyday obstacles while entertaining you with anecdotes about weird shit a freelancer will encounter.

The second and third parts of the book cover, basically, Business Etiquette.  As a recent English grad who has never had a salaried job and precious little experience with Corporate America, I found these chapters to be quite enlightening.  Little Things like "Thank You" notes appear to go a long way.  Details such as timing and how to approach clients are beyond the scope of my education (institutional or otherwise) and Goodman walked me through it with good humored patience.

I'm reluctant to go much farther with this review since, again, a book like this has to be tested, not just critiqued.  There are a few points, though, to Goodman's credit, that I should say.  First, I was just toying with the idea of going freelance before I read this book and now I'm taking timid but serious steps to achieve the pipe dream.  Second, I feel that she informed me well enough and gave me enough references and resources to do just that.  All the questions she left me with do not seem as unanswerable as they once were.  Last, I don't feel like I'll be successful because I read this book, but I do have a feeling that I now have a fighting chance.  So she brainwashed me pretty well.

In conclusion, if nothing else, it's a damn good self-help book since I'm taking the advice and considering buying it rather than just checking it out from the library.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Nothing Still Happening

We were bored at the Java House and if that wasn't the reason then there was none.  My supervisor, B, looked up at the wood and plaster divider between the "back room" and the dining area and realized that if he climbed onto the counter he could pull himself up to stand on it, thus being the tallest person in the room.  From there, he might even be able to touch the ceiling, I thought.

"Dude, I can climb on top of this," he said.

My coworker, M, ever the pragmatist, asked, "Why?"

"Because, I just realized it's possible," B said, and climbed onto the counter.

"What's the point?" M asked again, cleaning the espresso machine.  No one had ordered a drink in ten minutes.

B hesitated.  "I've never done it before."

Personally, I thought B had offered two perfectly sound excuses to do pretty much anything and "Why?" had nothing to do with it.  So I, also bored, decided to encourage him.  I didn't want to stand on the divider myself, but seeing that it was Possible and that it had Never Been Done before made it a worthwhile venture.

"You should," I said.  "I'm enabling you."

"You mean 'empowering?'" M asked.  He's a Socratic type, and soon-to-be medical student.

"No, I mean enabling.  Empowering's overrated," I said and glanced at the register to make sure Nothing was still Happening.

B gauged the distance he would have to vault and then looked at the nearby customers.  "I'm afraid I'm going to break something."

"You probably will.  Yourself," M said.

"I'm going to do it before the night is over," B said, climbing down and grinning.

But he didn't.  After some deliberation, we all decided that the divider was not structurally sound enough to support him.  I choose to believe he could have touched the ceiling.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Priveleged Ass

A few weeks ago I purchased a Beautiful, three-volume collection of Steinbeck's novels from the Library of America.  It was a weird and uncharacteristic splurge on my part, since I usually buy all of my books second-hand so I don't have a guilty conscience about beating them up and writing in the margins.  I haven't read Steinbeck in years, but he's always had a special, troubled place in my heart.  There's a line in The Grapes of Wrath (spoiler alert) that never fails to move me: Reverend Casy pleads with thugs hired by a local plantation slum lord telling them, "You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids."  He isn't afraid of them.  He isn't even angry with them.  It's heartbreaking because he doesn't die heroically trying to save the victims, but the perpetrators instead.
                   
Anyway, I was reflecting on my Very Expensive Purchase (okay, so I got them on discount because I'm a Cheap Bastard, but I'm now obligated to buy a $30 book every few weeks… they're So Gorgeous!) after reading this article from the BBC, "Where Are Today's Steinbecks?" by Michael Goldfarb.  The author points out that the unemployment rate is higher than it has been since the Great Depression and that if you include people like the author himself (and people like the author, who are scraping together a wage that is a fraction of what they used to earn) the numbers are Much Higher.  It should be pretty clear what my political leanings are by now, but I have to echo Goldfarb and ask everyone (readers, appreciators, and artists): Why isn't there more art out there depicting our current situation?  Maybe there is and I just haven't been looking in the right place, but I think that I agree with Goldfarab that it's not getting enough attention.

That said, I'm scraping by between two minimum wage jobs after spending several months unemployed and searching fruitlessly for salaried work; if it weren't for my family and social network I'd be in a bind.  Many of my friends are in similar situations.  Several of my intimates have suffered crippling blows to their household incomes.  It seems weird to me that even I have a pathological optimism about my situation and those of the people around me.  I'm not Tom Joad and I'm in a far better position than Billions of People out there.  I'm a poor, recent college graduate (oh, woe is my Privileged Ass) and that's pretty normal.  But should it be?  Still, comforting oneself with "It's not that Bad" doesn't mean a story about how much our shared circumstance Bites isn't uncalled for.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Jack Heffron


Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book

My younger cousin gave this book to me the Christmas of my freshman year of college.  It was a wonderful gift since it came from a genuine faith – probably na├»ve – in my promise as a writer.  After that Christmas I sat it on my shelf at home and forgot about it.  A few years later, when my parents moved, I put it in a box and forgot about it again.  There's a theme here that applies to my entire life.

The reason it languished for so long is because I had this twisted idea of the value of books about writing.  I thought that a real writer didn't need instruction manuals to write well.  For some reason I didn't see the irony in taking writing workshops every semester of my undergraduate career until quite recently.  After that embarrassing revelation I decided that I'd done my cousin and Heffron an injustice.

This is the first book on writing that ever came into my possession and it seems appropriate that it should be the first I review.

What became outstandingly obvious to me after about the first two pages is that Heffron has a definite target audience: middle age, middle class parents.  In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing, but it is frustrating if you don't happen to be a middle age, middle class parent.  Heffron accidentally taught me something about white-male privilege.

If you do happen to be a middle age, middle class parent and you have had no previous instruction in writing, this is a good book.  He has many valuable insights about motivation and if your life is hectic and your free-time is scarce that could be exactly what you need.  What Heffron does here – and he does it well, I think – is explain how to integrate writing into an already busy life and to treat the act of writing not so much as a hobby or moonlighting, but just as a craft worthy of pursuing for self-fulfillment.

What I did appreciate – though he beat it to death – was his exploration and encouragement of using one's own life and experiences as inspiration.  Heffron writes –and he's not wrong – that most people tend to see their lives as banal and that's simply the wrong attitude.  Actually, he spends about the first half of the book doing nothing but talking about ways and reasons why the reader can and should mine his or her life for material.  Others have said it before, and more eloquently, but I still can get behind him pointing out that nothing is inherently uninteresting and our lives are probably more exciting than we give ourselves credit.  We can all stand to be reminded of that every so often.

The book is a user-friendly introduction into the general craft of writing.  He explores poetry, fiction, and the personal essay in equal parts, though I wish he would have spent a little more time talking about script writing.  The last part of the book is a series of meditations on some very difficult concepts in writing (tone, figuring out what a story is "about," stakes, etc.) and I think that he explains them admirably.  These are lessons I take for granted since I learned them over the course of a few years from various writing teachers and it was interesting to see them placed side-by-side in chapters. 

Heffron is not a particularly entertaining writer, but he's not an engineer either.  I could imagine him sitting across from me at my grody kitchen table, politely ignoring the months of recycling stacked in the corner, in order to give me a bit of advice that I didn't really want in the first place.  He's nice, and I can't bring myself to tell him he's not wanted.   When I open my mouth to ask him to leave, he asks me what kind of tea I have and why and when I purchased it.

That's what annoyed the hell out of me: his prompts.  They're about as bland as they are tedious.  At first, I thought Heffron is just trying to ease the reader into things by rephrasing ideas a few times.  But he keeps doing it.  Throughout the whole book.  After a while I began to wonder if there was something more insidious going on.  About half the book is prompts and, since almost every one sounds like it was recycled from the previous, I am forced to conclude that Heffron ran out of ideas very quickly.  I had to remind myself several times that I was redressing an injustice in order to keep reading.

It's hard for me to recommend this one.  I read it a month ago and set it aside, thinking that I might warm up to it in that time (hey, it worked for The Rum Diary), but instead I just forgot everything I read.  It was a struggle to write this review mostly because I couldn't remember why I disliked it so much initially and whatever seemed appealing at first faded away.

Now, Heffron, you shall return to the shelf, but at least now cluttered with marginalia.  I feel better about this now.  Do you?

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Next Great

Today was one of the first genuinely Nice days this year.

I was sitting at the Java House with one SN – a Wandering Writer who I believe hails from New Orleans – and my girlfriend, A.  It was a serendipitous and strange meeting since both SN and I had been attending shows at the University of Iowa's New Play Festival and when you see a familiar face so many times under similar circumstances you either become curious or deeply worried about serial killers and such.  Anyway, A ran into SN at the Haunted Bookshop the day before, crossed paths again on the street and I happened by while they were talking.  SN and I both recognized each other as That Person from the plays.  That's how Life goes sometimes.

We got to talking about the plays and she told me about one I had missed, Idris Goodwin's Black Intellectuals Chew the Flan Waiting for Death and/or Tenure (awesome title, no?).  She told me how the audience, including the industry guests were struck Dumb.  "It was weird, you know," she said, "to meet someone after the show like that.  To stand in front of someone and think... this person... you're standing in front of one of the next Greats.  This person, when they write theatre history, is going to be one of the Names."

And I sat there and thought, Christ, I'm glad I'll never be one the Names or the Greats.  What tremendous pressure.  It's liberating being mediocre.

Monday, May 2, 2011

About Why This Blog Shouldn't Exist

It seems appropriate to start with a story.

Yesterday, at work, we were just about to close and my coworker, L, was mopping while I moved tables around so I could vacuum the carpet when I started laughing hysterically.  L turned around and asked, "What are you laughing about?"

"No.  It's just…" I sputtered, struggled back into control and said, "My friends and I were watching Alien the other day and we were talking about how the music is shit.  But, it's not bad, because you don't notice it.  It works really well as a score, but not as music.  Then somehow we got into a discussion about how the movie would've been completely ruined if Danny Elfman had done the music.  Can you imagine that?  The theme from Beetlejuice playing when you get the first glimpse of the Xenomorph?"

At that point I burst out laughing again while L stared at me, heroically trying to smile. 

After a moment I choked out, "Never ask me why I'm laughing."

People like me shouldn't be allowed to have blogs.