A decade or so ago, after more than a year of spec writing, emails, letters, phone calls, serious pleading, I finally persuaded a publisher to have lunch and listen to me. He liked what I’d written, thought my voice might be a nice addition to his little newspaper, but was dubious. He’d been around the block a few times and had a secure seat on the turnip truck.
He had paid plenty of writers over the years. He’d gotten excited about new content, something to draw readers so that their eyes might wander over to the ads. He’d learned the hard way an essential truth: There are plenty of people who can write, who might write, who could write, but few of them will write. For whatever reason.
So, dubious. Still, he gave me the benefit of the doubt, after our lunch. I would start in a week, since the newspaper’s deadline was the next day, but I’d been waiting a long time. “I’ll have something for you tomorrow,” I said, and I did, and I always do, ten years later.
This was small potatoes back then. It’s still small, but much bigger than it was, still a dinosaur medium, still dying but still, at least in my situation, viable and profitable. My checks never bounce.
That first time, though, after I’d written my first column, I suddenly had to stop to think of the big picture. A lot of strangers would read this, maybe (at that time) 10,000 or so. How could I write for 10,000 people I didn’t know, wouldn’t know, couldn’t see or talk with or understand?
And then I got over that. Right then. It was the only time, really, that the readership numbers crossed my mind, except to acknowledge that there were more of them. It would kill any sparks to muse about this; I just kept writing.
Two years later I started a blog, because blogs were the thing and someone suggested it as an exercise, a warm-up, a workout for writers. For eight years, then, I did the same thing, write and ignore. This is one-way writing, even in this collaborative age; I’m always surprised by comments, but I don’t collect them or encourage them or wait for them. Write, publish, write more, let the world take care of itself.
And I’ve kept it up, as bloggers are born and die. Just because that’s what I do. There’s no automatic virtue in consistency as far as I’m concerned, but I’m consistent and have been, even with breaks, averaging four-plus posts a week for eight years.
I mean this when I talk about dinosaurs: The vast majority of people who read what I write do it the old-fashioned way, folding back paper, sipping coffee, leaving it behind on the table when they’re through. I produce ephemera, throwaway thoughts, and I don’t mind at all. Sometimes that’s all they’re worth.
A few weeks ago, though, when I was remodeling this site, I had to rework the Google Analytics code, the stats that tell me stuff about you, who’s reading and from where and how many. I never look at this, seriously, relatively speaking, but I did then, and was surprised.
That was a period when this blog was drawing a couple of thousand of distinct visitors a day, for reasons that had nothing to do with me, mostly. It’s a weird old Internet world, and people find sites for all sorts of peculiar and unrelated reasons, keywords and pictures and so on. Still, with two-thousand people wandering by, you might think that some of them would find something to keep them coming back.
Again, these are stray thoughts. I’m used to writing a column every week, knowing it’s printed and then scoots out to homes and businesses, ready and waiting for readers who have nothing better to do but who, just by sheer statistics, start to become big numbers. I’m sometimes affirmed by responses; I don’t suffer at all by the lack of them.
Last night, though, while my wife was sitting here in this room, I wandered over to my analytics page just to see, and got a surprise.
Yesterday I had 13 unique visitors.
At some point, I think, the rubber hits the road. Obviously it has nothing to do with YOU, because YOU’RE obviously reading this. You are off the hook.
And January has always been an odd month for readers, as I recall, and I don’t really track this, as I say, so maybe I picked a random off day. I don’t really want to go back and pick another one, though.
It also isn’t going to change anything, but it’s a little provocative, don’t you think? For someone like me. Someone who doesn’t have a niche, a subject, a passion that draws in fellow travelers. This doesn’t alarm me or particularly inspire me, it just drums up a good question: If, after all these years, nobody wants to read what I write anymore, will I cease to exist?
And what happens next?
Stay tuned, I guess.
I found this in the bookstore the other day, having a few minutes and noticing a familiar feeling I get around books, which is more or less summed up by There’s stuff I don’t know!
Important stuff, too, although there’s a case to be made that I should just read comic books.
There’s a whole series of these anthologies, essays by historians on counterfactuals, the smarty-pants term for alternative histories. I’ve only read the fiction version of these big ideas, so it’s been fun so far to hear what scholars think might have happened had, say, Antony and Cleopatra kept it together. All good fun.
Obviously this seems to be a theme for me lately, randomness, tiny choices with big consequences, possibilities and probabilities. Every time I buckle my seatbelt I probably wipe out a bunch of alternative histories right there, which is something this all has made me think about: At what point does our observation of the random nature of existence change what might happen, just because we prepare for it?
Anyway. Preparing for a cold, cruel world might be one reason to make sure you have company along, although that’s not the most romantic idea in the world. As I mentioned a few days ago, all of this and even more random stuff prompted this week’s column, which is now online:
Albert Einstein was uncomfortable with a random universe, with probabilities and uncertainties. He preferred a deterministic view, with clear paths that can be observed and predicted. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he said over and over again. I get that.
But we play dice with our lives, we have to. You have your own Januarys and Julys, when decisions were made or not made and now echo down the years, little ripples of choice.
From the email bag:
Hello, this is a courtesy call from Hey Yvonne, pharmacy, Yeah, we’re calling to let you know. Your order is ready for pick up at the pharmacy.
This is the happiest email I’ve received in a long time.
If I had to keep a landline phone, something that still strikes me as pretty useless aside from the fact that we can have marathon calls with parents and children, keeping our cell phone minutes under the limit, then by God I was going to finally work out the bugs of forwarding the calls. This hadn’t worked since the feature was installed, even though I’ve tried over the months and talked to tech support from time to time.
Our landline is for one-way calling, in other words. When it rings, rarely does anyone here considering picking it up, or even checking to see who’s calling, because we know. A robocall most likely, or if a human then a pollster or a salesperson or something similar. We’re easy to reach, all of us, with cell phones and email and text messages and flagging down in the front yard.
And I hate voicemail. Don’t you? The menus, the hang-ups, the minutes wasted listening and pushing buttons, all to clear out the box. An old-fashioned answering machine with a cassette tape sometimes seemed a better option, although not all that better.
But there was Google Voice, which I’ve been using since the early beta days when I wrangled an invitation. I don’t need an extra number, or even a main number to last me the rest of my life, but Google Voice has a lot of fun features, including free transcription of voicemail.
Not that it’s perfect; Yvonne up there is actually Savon. But who cares? I get the gist, I don’t have to listen, I could block numbers and forward numbers and do all sorts of fun things, and now I can. My home phone now rings once, a short ring, and then forwards to Google Voice. If I’m getting lots of annoying calls from some nonprofit or sales outfit, I can block that number permanently, giving them an Out Of Order message. If someone in my family calls that home number, I can send it directly to my cell phone, or my wife’s phone, or my son’s, or all three.
And when a call comes in, an email and a text message are automatically sent to me, along with a transcript if a voicemail is left.
I mean. It’s a small thing. We don’t get that many calls on that line. But in a minor way, this smells like victory, like a blow for privacy, like a strike against incessant ringing.
Now I have to go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. If I see Yvonne, I’ll let you know. Don’t call me, though.
I deduced it, finally. Elementary and all that. Rule out the usual suspects, consider the unusual ones, eliminate that which I can and what’s left is what I’m looking for, unless it’s not.
I’ve heard this sound for weeks now, down in the basement, always as I come in from the garage. Kind of a weird, intermittent sound. It reminded me a little of a chirp, but this is January and surely no bird got into my basement and built a nest. Or even my garage, although that’s happened before.
I considered the walls and imagined rodent-like creatures, but this basement is tricky. First, halfway up the walls is all concrete. Second, a fair portion, maybe a quarter, of this basement is without drywall, just studs. And the remaining part that IS finished WAS finished by ME, stuffed with insulation and not particularly accessible. Anything can happen but that seemed unlikely.
I would stop and listen sometimes, but then it would be quiet. As I said, it was intermittent. I started to zero in on the pipes, having pretty much ruled out critters, but I kept coming back to the floor.
It’s concrete there, garage and entry way to the basement. The rest is carpet, and upstairs is mostly wood. The ground has been real soggy for weeks, coinciding with my mysterious noise, and so the question became: Is the literal foundation of my house now waterlogged and beginning to crack, releasing pressure with little bubbly strange sounds, particularly when I walk on it? And this can’t be good, right?
Took me a while, but I got it. As I said, it was mostly deduction.
And also I started hearing it upstairs in the kitchen, and eventually I realized that I had very squeaky shoes, is all, and NO ONE HAD TOLD ME. Explaining why I now use a lot of mouthwash and trim those nose hairs more often, because we’re on our own here.
I watched “Wit” the other night, which came in one of those archaic round plastic discs in the mail (you mean I actually have to insert this thing into a DVD player and listen to it whir around? Bizarre). It’s the 2001 HBO film adaptation of the play by Margaret Edson, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Emma Thompson, which explains a lot.
Well done, but I wouldn’t recommend it, particularly to anyone who has had to deal with a loved one undergoing treatment for cancer. Painful and sad.
It comes up because Jack LaLanne died this weekend at the age of 96. Hard to grieve for someone with that long of a life, and apparently such a full and active one, although it did seem unfair. Relatively few people make it to the age of 100, and I’d bet that none of them had the history of such attention paid to the care and upkeep of the human body as Jack.
Still, I’m going to assume that he experienced what social scientists call “compressed morbidity,” which is a good life with few signs of debilitation and then a sudden, quick end. Unlike the character in “Wit,” who spent 8 months undergoing painful chemotherapy and then died anyway, unpleasantly.
We should all wish for a LaLanne death, if not his life (it’s a good goal, but the man was intense). I have no clues about my endgame, although lately for some reason I’ve decided that it would be fun to be at the wedding of a grandchild, so let’s shoot for that.
“Grandpa looks good,” someone will say, and someone else will add, “He’s slowing down a little,” and I will snicker. I never sped up, which may be the secret of my success, and maybe explains why I didn’t hear my shoes until this late date.
My unsuccessful attempt to grasp quantum physics and my weird annoyance at Internet trivia intersected this morning, giving me something to write a column about, although it took much too long.
See: Someone On The Internet Is Wrong if you’re curious as to what I’m talking about, and what I got a teeny bit obsessive about for a brief time.
It must have bounced around my brain in the background, though, since that totally unremarkable numerical event (five weekends in July) kept popping up, and eventually it rang a bell.
We had one of those Julys in 1983, too. I remember. I got married on Saturday, July 30, so I would know.
And that pushed me back to January of that year, after several paragraphs about Albert Einstein, and specifically this part of January. I remember those days distinctly, even the days of the week. I can tell you a bunch of details about Friday, January 21 and some more about Sunday, January 30, although I’m not going to. They’re really only of interest to us.
Us meaning us.
Months of dancing around love and the inconvenient nature of it came together that January. We both made serious, life-changing decisions that January, Julie and I. Decisions that made our wedding six months down the line just a matter of scheduling. It was in the bag by January.
This is a weak spot of mine, romanticizing calendars and so on, and I’m aware of that and still. I mean, I’m aware.
It did make me all quantum there, though. Not that there was anything random about that January, but the ripples from it just kept going. It was a snowy month in the mountains of northern Arizona, and if you wonder why I get sentimental about snow there you go, there’s your answer, it’s 1983, it’s an echo. Just for one example.
Again, there’s nothing special about the days of the week coinciding with another month in another year. It happens all the time, every 5 to 7 years, and usually we don’t notice. I don’t, anyway, unless it’s one of my kids’ birthdays and I think, hey, you were born on a Friday too.
But now that I’ve thought of it I keep thinking, and remembering. I was 24 that January, and I could have turned out in any number of ways, and maybe there are parallel universes in which I did, too. But this is my universe, and it’s nice to remember the beginning.
I think I’m almost done with physics. The Law of Diminishing Comprehension has taken effect, and even though I understand more, a lot more, most of that has to do with knowing what I’ll never know.
But there was plenty of history to learn, and that’s always fun. It was a pretty brief period in time between when Newton was still king and most physicists were very skeptical about the actual existence of atoms to The Manhattan Project. I’ll take the history lesson, then, and a bit more knowledge of some very basic science, and move on. There’s still a lot I want to learn about plumbing, for example.
What I did get, though, sort of skimming quantum theory, was a new model or two, things to think about, metaphors to play with. And while I’m not particularly interested in imagining parallel universes, multiple Chucks who took left turns instead of rights and skipped off into different futures, the idea that my personal path only solidifies once I observe it from this point seems intuitive and correct. Fine tune the fuzziness by a little reflection.
I’ve known people who aren’t like this at all, and sometimes I envy them. They don’t wallow, or waste any time with analysis; they move ahead, they lean into their responsibilities and look for results. They adjust, they correct, and they keep moving. Sometimes I want to be like this.
But I’ve also seen this type of person find themselves where I did five years ago, overwhelmed with the results of years of what seemed like subatomic movements and choices. A little drink here, a little drink there, pretty soon you’re talking real money. And they could be lost, then, with no skills at looking back. Some of them did OK, helped by cliches and the discipline of following certain routines: Talk about it, hang out with others with similar histories, practice humility and surrender and prayer or meditation or whatever gets you through the day without a drink.
So I was fortunate in that respect, sort of used to thinking about all the dumb and trivial things I’d done. It maybe was easier for me than some to look back, look hard, see what happened and what would if I didn’t make some changes.
I mean. It took me forever. Still. It didn’t feel unnatural.
It seems so long ago, now. Although I think about it every day, literally. Every day.
Anyway. I’m grateful for a little dip into the big brains. For one thing, it turned out to be a great way to induce sleep. I grew to admire all of these scientists, the way they argued about reality and theory the way you and I might discuss the designated hitter, the way they managed, most of them, to keep their discussions heated but polite, to preserve friendships and relationships.
And I have a special place for Einstein, of course, who was not only brilliant but human, as it turns out. He said, “God does not play dice with the universe” so often he should have just had it printed on cards, but chaos provoked him, as did probability and randomness. He spent the last half of his life seeking order, resisting uncertainty and trying to prove it didn’t really exist.
I could have told him that chaos happens, and maybe mostly because the steps leading us there are usually unobserved, but then. I probably should just have that printed on cards, I say it so much.
Seriously. It’s me, not you. I need to back off, back up, back out of the room. I mused aloud a few weeks ago that maybe, in terms of a new year, I should concentrate on being more supportive and kind and encouraging to people I know and care about, and now I’m a curmudgeon, offended by dumb Facebook cut-and-pastes and grumpy because every Web site I like to read on a daily basis has at least three articles on “American Idol.” An open wound on the soul of an already tattered nation, “American Idol,” a waste of time and talent and air waves.
But not the end of the world. And I don’t have to pay attention to it.
A local writer today bitched loudly about “politically correct” media referring to the Tucson shooter as “alleged.” Never mind that the people who refer loudly to “the media” are almost always part of…the media. As this guy is. But of course news readers and journalists refer to this nut as “alleged” because they feel sorry for him and think he’s had bad breaks and believe in the tooth fairy, etc. Rather than, hey asshole: They use the word “alleged” because we don’t live in the Soviet Union, that’s why. Because even obviously guilty people get a fair trial and a presumption of innocence, as technical as it is.
See? I spend brain cells on this? And there are other things. Lots and lots.
Some of it is reasonable; I hang on to that. Some of it is my appreciation of this world, the way we all have access to so much information and resources and ways to communicate and share stuff, and instead we use it to say, “Hey! If you add the year you were born and the age you will be this year, the numbers will end in 11! Isn’t that funny?”
So obviously it’s me. I’m feeling useless or frustrated or something, and I’m focusing on just the same sort of small shit that I get irritated at. I’m not sure what the answer is, but either I shape up or I’m writing myself a nasty letter. Or just did, hard to say.
Snip. All done.
After months and maybe years of ruminating and stewing and whining, I turned off the TV yesterday. I called the cable company, negotiated a little, and now we’re done. Dumped the cable we almost never watched, saved a hundred bucks of month (thus the negotiating), and felt good. I kept it a few more days just to watch the Seahawks lose on Sunday, but now we’re done.
It occurred to me that in doing so, I’ve shifted this household into another demographic. The media landscape is obviously changing, and not just with newspapers and magazines. The cable companies have been insurance salesmen, hawking whole life when you really just need liability, because they could, but tradition is a large part of this too. I just read a study that pointed out how Americans get their news, and overwhelmingly the over-50 crowd relies mainly on television, a habit hard to break. A bad habit, I would think, particularly since this group also votes reliably, but there you go. TV is still king, and like a lot of things major change only will take effect when generations grow old and pass away.
I ended up keeping our landline, part of the negotiation, which I landed for an extra 10 bucks per month on top of my broadband. This is mostly because of a reluctance on the part of someone in this house to let go of it and our phone number of 20+ years, but there’s a case to be made there, somewhere. So we statistically, demographically, have become younger people, although not that young.
I’m sure there are a lot of people, my age and older mostly, who would rather cut back on something else, possibly food, than give up their cable. I can’t make any sweeping statements here; we just didn’t watch it. Some get a lot of pleasure from it.
And I’ll note that the $100 figure is approximate; it doesn’t count taxes and fees. And whatever it ends up being came about because I was ready to ditch the phone and the nice lady found a way to persuade me to keep it for a minimal charge.
There will be times, too, that I think we’ll feel a little twinge of regret, Wimbledon or something like that, but then again there are fine signals floating through the air. I’ve picked up our major broadcast networks with a cheap antenna and the picture is stunning, maybe better than the cable.
But really? Easy call. And all the cool kids are doing it.
Writing about movies here always feels similar to writing about baking. I like watching movies, I like to bake, but my enthusiasm might give you the false impression that I do either of them more than I actually do. Mostly I read.
And I try to be careful when it comes to film, not having any criticism skill and knowing that tastes vary. I have a few absolutes, mostly (but not always) having to do with Adam Sandler. And I don’t have to see, say, “Sex In The City 2” to understand that it’s a blight on America and the world and should be banned. I don’t have to mention that.
I also understand preferences. You may prefer action, I may like quiet character-driven films. Lots of people said “The American,” for instance, was boring. I finally watched it the other night. I thought some of the cinematography was stunning. I enjoyed the locales. It was sort of remarkable how George Clooney tamped down his charm, a hard thing to do I would think. And some of the sex was hot, which I rarely experience (referring to movies here, but hey, think what you want).
And I stopped watching it a little over halfway through. Because it WAS boring.
I also have preferences that make no sense. One of my favorite movies is “Late For Dinner,” an early 90s forgotten film that is remarkable not just because it’s not a great film, but because it’s not even a good one. The story has huge holes, even for a fantasy, the acting is barely passable, the dialog is dumb and there’s nothing special about it at all.
I love it for my own reasons, then. You might too; it’s on NetFlix Instant View currently. You probably won’t hate it if you watch, but you’re on your own.
Most of my watching is of the streaming variety; I can catch a few scenes of old favorites, dip into interesting titles, or watch things I otherwise wouldn’t want to waste money on and sometimes be surprised.
And sometimes I’m just in a mood, and I wonder about my taste a lot. Or my mood, for that matter.
I wandered into strange territory last weekend, though, and now I’m definitely wondering about my mood.
First out of the gate was “The Only Thrill,” a title that makes no sense and a movie I’d never heard of, although it’s only a dozen years old and features Sam Shepard and Diane Keaton. I’ve always thought Shepard does good work when he’s only given a few pages; asking him to carry more of a part seems to be stretching “laconic” into four or more syllables. Three is pretty much enough. And I have no problem watching Keaton, although if she’s made a movie in the past 40 years in which she didn’t look like an ad for a talent show of tics, I missed it.
The subject matter appealed to me, though, the idea of two people in love who never seemed to be able to connect, spread over decades, so I watched and waited. And waited. Through the entire stupid, really bad movie, toward the end just hanging in there, hoping for maybe a decent song on the soundtrack, a shot of a pretty mountain, even a stray boom mike in the background, something, anything. But no. It wasn’t a romance, it was a bitter movie with a bitter end and left a bitter taste in my mouth.
So naturally I moved on to another maudlin movie. I’m, like, a crazy person.
This was “Life As A House,” another late 90s film and one of those that has a bunch of those stereotypical characters/plot devices that Roger Ebert likes to name. Including one of those kinds of cancers that cause you to get thin but still look fit, faint suddenly on the day you get fired, put you in the hospital for a few days with no chance of treatment, dooming you to only weeks of life left, during which you will be in severe pain but still manage to build an entire house and help all the people in your life reconcile, and also some strangers.
And still I could recommend it with caveats like that, because Kevin Kline saves it from horrible with his skill and wit and line readings, frankly. Plus Kristen Scott Thomas and some other fine performances, some pretty LA coastline scenery, and a shot of Mary Steenburgen’s middle-aged but nice naked butt, which I speculate about (the reason why that shot is in the film, not its niceness, which can happen to anyone).
And the next night, I watched “The Majestic.”
If you haven’t seen this, maybe you remember it. It was created by the director of “The Shawshank Redemption,” so that guy deserves the benefit of the doubt, maybe. It starred Jim Carrey and maybe that’s taking a chance, but also had crinky old guys James Whitmore and Martin Landau for a little gravitas. It was a big-budget bomb in 2001 but it had supporters (Mr. Ebert was one). It was widely called Capra-esque and of course it was, small town and decent American values and all.
Mr. Carrey plays a Hollywood B-movie screenwriter in 1951, moving up and then suddenly implicated in some nefarious college-days dallying with Communism, an unfair accusation that sends him driving up the California coast at night in the rain, only to slide off a bridge, hit his head on a rock, and develop amnesia. The kind folk of Lawson, California take him in and begin to believe that he’s their long-lost Luke, who disappeared during the war and was never accounted for. Lawson lost more than its share of sons in the war and never quite recovered, so this is sort of a miracle.
So is the amnesia, of course.
The whole thing was predictable and sweet and conventional and yeah, Capra-esque, we get it. I watched the entire movie, knowing all of this, smiling through most of it, humming through parts, understanding how ridiculous it was. And here’s the thing.
It was a bad week. Not only the news, bad enough, but some online interactions that got nasty and depressing. I was wandering, it was late, I wanted to watch something distracting and not dark, but I wanted something else, I finally figured out.
I wanted a happy ending, just for a moment, and with “The Majestic” I got it. And I understand that sometimes that’s why I watch not-great films, and why I love certain ones, and why I should, I guess.