An Abundance of Balls

I’m been trying to become the Jeff I prefer again. The one who writes, goes to the gym, cooks a lot, loses weight, and on and on… I’ve encountered him before, and miss him.

But, truth be told, he’s a lot of work. And I think trying to go from this version, which… well does very little of the above, to the good version, is a rather tall order. Plus, I doubt when the good version was in full swing that it all happened at once. Only now do I try to make such an abrupt switch.

It is like I’ve never juggled and want to start with six balls. Not one to get the rhythm, two to learn the motions, three to find the timing, and on and on… nope. All six balls… go!

And that’s just too many balls for me to handle without warming up (If you’re wondering, yes, I intentionally write sentences like that to amuse myself).

I’ve read sites about how to form positive habits, and how the brain works, and blahblahblah, and it seems like you’re supposed to do one thing, and keep doing it for quite a while, until it forms a habit that you start to naturally do without prompting. And then… add something new.

This is basic stuff, but the basics are always the hard part.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. What ball do I want to grab first?

The two main contenders are the weight loss ball (which is both the gym and the cooking combined) or the writing ball.

Obviously, I want the results of both NOW, which is impossible. So, I had to choose.

And, I chose writing.

It was a bit surprising, since I’m probably at my heaviest, and it does annoy me to no end. But in February, I’ll be staying outside of NYC and seeing no theater. So, that huge gap in my social calendar seems too perfect for writing.

Now, being away from everything may kick everything on the right track, which would be fine. And, honestly, I’m not going to a vegan haven, so I will have to cook a lot, so who knows…

But the plan right now is to gear everything around writing, then the fitness/weight stuff, and by then I should have finished the first writing project and moved on to the second.

I do wish I had more exciting balls in the mix, but that’s not at hand right now.

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Day after day, it reappears…

I should be asleep, but I’m not.

I recently had a project at work go a bit nutty, require some extra late night hours to finish, and I’m still trying to convince myself to be asleep now and not nod off mid-evening.

The project did bring up that normal feeling I get in these moments, which is that I never give my own projects as much attention.

On two different nights in the last two weeks, I stayed up until 5 a.m. to get things done for this project, but when is the last time I ever gave that focus to my novel?

I always write and work out like a person with a very strict regimen, despite not having a strict regimen.

“I write best in the morning…” Well, that’s fine, but no one is stopping you from writing in the morning. And, if you didn’t write in the morning, oh well, too bad, I guess today you write at night?! I mean, if you prefer the morning, then do it.

Still having a rough go of the novel, although that is to be expected. I only recently realized that I never seriously worked on my novel while having any sort of job before. I’ve always been unemployed or living on a beach in Thailand when things went down.

So, I try to segment my days and this piece is when I’ll be at the gym, followed by this piece working on the novel, then sliding into work when the west coast is showing up for the day (the advantage of working for a west coast company on the east coast, you can do whatever until noon, although you then may have to work into the evening, so it does cut both ways).

I also have a second gig that is more intermittent, and I’ll get an e-mail asking if I can do a bunch of writing in the next 48 hours. I say yes, and then I do.

I guess I’d be more concerned if I weren’t constantly proving I have the capacity to achieve the things I’m supposed to be achieving…

In any event, that’s what’s been going on lately.

It did take a while to get off of the Facebook mental model, where everything you do was meant to be shared, and I’ve still been seeing more theater in any given month than a lot of people will see in a year… or decade.

So I intentionally didn’t want to turn my website into “everything I would have posted on Facebook…” so I just stopped posting anything.

I still get people asking when I’m coming back, but it certainly won’t be until mid-2014 at the earliest, I wouldn’t think. 

OK, I should try and sleep…

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Finally finished Wool by Hugh Howey

howeywoolI’ve been threatening to read this for a long time, but it finally happened. I just finished reading Hugh Howey’s Wool.

I first learned of Howey because of the success of his self-publishing journey, a path I will take in 2014. But the more I heard about Wool, I thought I would like it, and I was right.

I have a very tiny niche when it comes to reading sci-fi (and I ignore fantasy altogether), and that is I love dystopian post-apocalyptic tales, which is where Wool squarely falls. No one shape-shifts, or has to explain the crucial details of an alien race in bald exposition that will perfectly foretell what will happen later.

Instead, it is just people presumably in our miserable future, trying to figure out life and survive. And it’s a crazy-compelling page turner. If you love dystopian stuff with a story that moves along at a brisk pace, and makes you want to immediately dive into the following two books in the Wool series, by all means check it out.

The timing on finishing this book, which I started while on vacation recently, is that I will be reading the ancient draft of my own manuscript starting on Wednesday, so I stayed in all of Saturday to read Wool to clear the decks. As things worked out, I will be squeezing one more book into the mix to review on Oasis, about the real story behind Matthew Shepard’s murder, but hope to finish that by Monday night. That review is available on oasisjournals.com.

After I read the Haterobics draft, and start editing that again, I’m still unsure how my reading habits will change. In previous writing sessions (and, editing is really a massive rewrite), I read a lot of non-fiction, especially celebrity memoirs and stuff. But this time, I think I’m actually going to pop some classics into the mix. Things I’ve read before, so I’m not completely sucked into the narrative pull, but more to enjoy the craft and beauty, as well as providing inspiration.

I’ve also start accruing a massive amount of research, almost none of which I’ll probably use in the finished product, for my next project. I still can’t believe I’m considering writing what I’m going to write, but so far, my love and interest in the project continue to grow. I was certain that by now I’d’ve found some exit strategy, some reason why it won’t work… but it hasn’t happened yet. So that should be fun.

The novel writing will affect by TV watching this fall, so any shows with ongoing narrative will have to get queued up for after I’m done, or for when I can blast through a whole season on a weekend, so that no hanging narratives but my own are in my head. So, this will put Homeland and a bunch of others I can’t think of in a massive queue for a future date. Sitcoms are fine, and reality TV like Survivor should be fine, despite the ongoing narrative, since I don’t get invested in who wins the million dollars.

I must say that it is perfect timing to be starting my novel edits as Breaking Bad finishes its run, because that show has been amazing and very involving lately. But, by the time I’m writing, that will have wrapped…

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The Book of Matt book review

BookOfMattIt is hard to minimize the impact that the brutal death of Matthew Shepard had on the gay community in 1998. Even this site was flooded with a constant stream of poetry and other submissions in the days after his death, totally unsolicited, so much that we had to add a separate page to that month’s website as a special tribute to Matthew.

A few months later, I interviewed Alex Trout, one of Matthew’s best friends in Laramie, and that following June, got to hang out with Alex for a night of drinking and cruising in the Castro, as he and Matthew’s other friend, Walt Boulden, were honored as grand marshals in the San Francisco gay pride parade.

I’d really never given any further thought to Matthew Shepard since then, except for when his name came up in 2009 when federal hate crimes statute finally added LGBT protections with the Matthew Shepard Act. The most common touch point I’ve had to this 15-year-old case is that I often see my friend Garrin Benfield perform live in NYC, and his sets often include “What You’re Hiding,” which has a chorus that ends, “Matthew, you lived your final hours, with the butt of a gun smashing in your brain.”

The case seemed simple and the justice swift. Matthew was the frail, baby-faced guy out in cowboy country of Laramie, Wyoming, who made a sexual advance on two guys, and they killed him for it. The lack of complexity was what made the case so perfect, and how everyone could easily put themselves in Matthew’s shoes, and imagine that simple gesture turning tragic.

In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, journalist Stephen Jimenez reveals how little of the narrative we’ve all come to know is accurate, as he spent more than a decade slowly peeling away protected layers until the real picture emerged.

This book came to my attention because I adore Andrew Sullivan, and am a subscriber of his website, The Dish. Sullivan’s site has been running videos featuring Jimenez unpacking some of the mysteries and revelations of this case, and I was floored to have something so assuredly resolved be completely upended. I was also intrigued because in the mid 90s, I worked at a daily newspaper where my daily job was covering criminal trials. I’ve spend hours watching entire murder and rape trials unspool, and am always fascinated watching people online jump to wild conclusions based on scant information, but be completely assured that they have locked in on the crucial bit of information.

So, as I became fascinated by the existence of such a narrative-changing book, it was interesting watching the online world pick it apart based on Sullivan’s videos. On one of many sites online masquerading as journalism, where people just puff their chest and vomit their opinion everywhere, an entire thread arose because Jimenez mentioned what started him down this process: an anonymous letter he found by accident in the previously-sealed court records.

The letter said the anti-gay nature of the crime was completely wrong, because Aaron had been a male hustler who was no stranger to sex with men. This, of course, set the comments flying about how irresponsible it was to write a book based on an anonymous letter.

But, having been a journalist for years, this didn’t seem strange to me at all. Anonymous tips were a normal part of the job. They aren’t sources, they are things to investigate, and sometimes prove to be true. Mystery is often a part of journalism. I know I personally received criminal files that were sealed in some cases, after they would miraculously find themselves in completely unrelated county offices with my name on them, if either side of a case wanted that information to find its way into the public realm. And, let me be clear, if the proof of Jimenez’s theory were merely an anonymous letter, I’d agree with the online trolls that he was a bloviating hack who found a perfect case to inflate his notoriety.

I took a different path when faced with my gut reaction of “How could this be true?” I read the book. (I know, it’s very old school of me.)

The important thing to note here is that, when you remove the gay element from the story, the rest remains factual: Shepard got into a car with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson; they took him out past a housing development to a remote area to rob him; he was tied to a fence, pistol-whipped, and left for dead; he was found 18 hours later by someone who thought Shepard was a scarecrow initially, until they got closer; Shepard died at a hospital shortly thereafter.

That narrative, minus Shepard coming on to them, remains true throughout the book.

The other online speculation that made me interested to read this book was people saying that Jimenez had to be making things up, since the prosecution already told the whole story. Now, this also set me off, since I know the prosecution’s job isn’t to paint a complete picture. Nuance is the enemy of prosecution. Their job is typically to show evidence linking the defendant to the criminal charges they brought against that defendant. That’s it.

Entire pre-trial motions, on both sides, seek to limit the scope of what can be brought up at trial. The prosecution because it wants to tightly shape a narrative, and the defense to keep their client’s past run-ins with the law and other negative things out of testimony.

So, no one’s job at trial is about painting a complete picture. Often, the media is where you find more of a complete picture of a victim, or a crime, but in the case of Matthew Shepard, the press not only didn’t have much to go on, they often embellished and added details about the crime (from bad sources, one imagines/hopes) that proved untrue.

Matthew was never strung up on the fence like he was being crucified. His hands were tied behind his back. He was also not burned with a cigarette, as some articles offered. Instead, the press ran full steam with the story of this being a hate crime, to the point where then-President Bill Clinton was even publicly commenting on the case.

I apologize again for the tangential nature of this book review, but just to remove any seeming bias here, I will point out that I oppose the notion of hate crimes. I don’t really like the idea of the government putting someone in jail longer because they think that, not only was that person killing someone, they were also thinking bad thoughts while they did it?! It is silly to think a murder case where the death penalty was involved also has to question whether the killer was thinking bad things at the time of the murder. And hate crimes only exist once an actual crime is committed.

And, to be clear, despite being the media martyr, poster boy, and public face of hate crimes, there was no hate crime angle pursued in Shepard’s case. The media was the only party trying McKinney and Henderson for hate crimes, not the state of Wyoming.

So, what did happen that night? And why?

Jimenez does a masterful job of unspooling this haunted narrative like a puzzle, giving you seemingly disparate pieces that take a while to form a larger picture, but the slow build only heightens the tragedy once the complete picture begins to reveal itself.

The most interesting element of the book to me is that Jimenez is pursuing a story that no one wants him to tell.

Part of the slow reveal of the truth as the book unspools is that no one can benefit from it. McKinney and Henderson are serving life sentences with no chance of parole. The prosecution did their job by getting Shepard’s killers locked up. The defense purposefully stayed away from a drug angle that seems to paint the real picture.

No one seems to give him a complete information dump about the case, only guarded responses with an occasional clue that lead Jimenez to more information, and another clue. He really had to work to unearth this story.

Even the Matthew Shepard Foundation has decried this book with the following statement: “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law. We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew’s memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it.”

It is disconcerting to think that Matthew’s memory can be tarnished by the truth, and that sustaining potential lies would honor it.

The truth seems to be that Shepard was involved with crystal meth, as both a user and dealer. McKinney was also a meth user and dealer, and had been on a multi-day meth bender leading up to Shepard’s murder. Shepard and McKinney were not strangers, and both had seemingly exchanged sex for both drugs and money in the past, including both of them having sex together for both business and pleasure.

The book alleges that Shepard’s murder did start as a robbery, because he had been transporting meth into Laramie, and the night of his murder he was supposed to have made his regular run and either had the meth on him or money. But Shepard didn’t make the run that night.

McKinney’s robbery went off the rails when Shepard only had around $20 on him, but the violent nature of his murder might owe a lot more to McKinney’s mental state due to days and days on meth, and the delusional state it put him in. None of which absolves him, of course.

Both McKinney and Shepard were seemingly small fish in the Laramie drug scene, and both may have been messing with forces bigger than they might have been aware. To that end, a lot of sources in the book are pseudonyms, and many are still fearful of opening up this can of worms.

Henderson comes off as another victim of McKinney in the book, serving life in prison for a crime in which he barely participated, and judging from the gun-barrel scar on his upper lip (similar to ones on Matthew), may have tried to stop the beating, short of being McKinney’s second victim that night.

Anyone interested in the Matthew Shepard case needs to read this book, and not just the distilled takeaways in Jimenez’s videos or reviews like this one.

While I always felt horrified for Shepard, his family, and by his senseless murder, I think his martyr status was so easy to buy into because it was all we were told. It also kept him out of reach. At the beginning of this review, I said that nuance is the enemy of the prosecution, but it is also messy baggage for martyrs.

I no longer think of Matthew as the perfect, All-American kid who had to lose his life because he made a sexual advance to the wrong people.

But if that isn’t who he was, why should I want to preserve that lie?

After reading Jimenez’s book, Shepard is still a tragic figure. But now I know more about his life, and that he was loved, that he was a good friend, that he was interesting and curious, that he had dreams and goals that conflicted with how he lived his life, that he was troubled, that he was imperfect, and that he still aspired to be better than his life and situations in a future that never happened.

After 15 years of knowing Matthew as a martyr, his pointless death isn’t any less sad or tragic knowing him merely as a flawed human.

The real irony, of course, is that if he had been murdered in a field in Wyoming because of a drug dispute, it would be unlikely that any of us would have ever heard of him, and his attackers would probably be out on parole by now.

I’m just not sure what to do with that thought.

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The power of text

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 1.37.56 PM

I have an unusual attraction to text that goes back many years, but I think the real attraction began while reading Stephen King’s On Writing, where he described the magic that occurs when readers interpret text.

His example, if I recall properly, was that writing was telepathy and then wrote a description of a table with a red cloth and then referred to a few other things on that table.

The magic was that almost no two people were probably picturing the same sized table, the same color red cloth, the same type of cloth, and then all of the objects on the table were probably different from person to person as well…

But we were all sharing the same experience. So, he put an image out into the world and we all see it. We all see our version of it, but we all see it nonetheless.

That simple thing really clicked with me, and made me really appreciate the alchemy of mixing words together that could conjure visual, emotional, and other reactions for people to experience through interpreting those words for themselves.

Although I tend to wear funny or ironic T-shirts with phrases that are more amusing, my skinny wardrobe also tends to have a lot of textual elements, as well, although not as funny/pop cultury.

In my apartment in San Francisco, I had a valance above the living room windows, with text in French (I think), and although I never knew what it said, I still liked knowing that it said… something.

Recently, I’ve started buying artwork from an online site called Five Spot Derby, where text forms the basis of the artwork. Each week, the site features one new piece, and every five pieces sold increases the price by $5, so buy early and you get a great piece at a great price, buy later, well, you still get a great piece.

But the combination of the text, the simple imagery, and I’ve become very engaged with getting the pieces I want every week. Some weeks, they don’t hit me, but most weeks they do, and I’ve been stashing them away, building up an archive.

This week’s piece is featured above, and you can click through the link two paragraphs up to see the full image. It is a Steve Jobs quote, so I kind of like having artwork I enjoy, with text I appreciate, from someone I actually got to know (ever so slightly).

The quote is: “When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

So, of course, I bought this week’s piece (for way less than whatever price you see when you click the link), and someday it will be hung somewhere, and most people will probably never know what the text is that makes up the artwork. I’ll have it ready in case they ask. But I sort of like knowing it has important lessons to tell.

Plus, it seems to add something to the Stephen King telepathy, where Steve Jobs was quoted, that quoted has now been captured and converted into a singular image by TEKSTartist, and now when I see that image, the meaning of the quote is linked to the image, and I may not recall every word of the quote, but looking at it will convey its meaning on sight.

So continues by love affair with text, as I start working to create more of my own…

Here is a video of TEKSTartist creating the Steve Jobs quote:

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La Paglia nails it, as per usual…

Discussing Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, she says:

“Madonna, a trained modern dancer, was originally inspired by work of tremendous quality — above all, Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous movie roles as a bisexual blond dominatrix and Bob Fosse’s stunningly forceful strip-club choreography for the 1972 film Cabaret, set in decadent Weimar-era Berlin. Today’s aspiring singers, teethed on frenetically edited small-screen videos, rarely have direct contact with those superb precursors and are simply aping feeble imitations of Madonna at 10th remove.”

But lays the blame for this at the feet of an industry in shambles:

“At a time when profits are coming far more from touring than from CD sales, performers are being hammered too early into a marketable formula for cavernous sports venues. With their massive computerized lighting and special-effects systems, arena shows make improvisation impossible and stifle the natural rapport with the audience that performers once had in vaudeville houses and jazz clubs. There is neither time nor space to develop emotional depth or creative skills.”

You can read the whole Time interview here.

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The Cloister

The cloister has begun. Well, it’s ramping up…

It isn’t really a switch that gets turned on. It just means my schedule is nearly empty, and will be filled by the stuff I need to be doing: reading, going to the gym, cooking, going for quiet walks and, of course, writing.

So, I just stop doing the previous list of things: Facebook, Twitter, too many TV shows and movies, theater, comedy, etc., and start subbing them with the cloister list.

Within 2-3 weeks, it starts feeling like its own natural thing and that’s pretty much it. You just keep repeating it at that point.

My reading list will be compromised to some degree, since I need to read pretty specific things when I’m writing. Of course, as soon as I finish up Wool by Hugh Howey, the next book I’ll be reading is Haterobics, draft four, by Jeff Walsh.

I’m not sure what an honest number would be, but I know calling that draft four is pretty insane. But it is the fourth major revision, with many multiple things in between. At this point, though, I haven’t read or thought about that book for 2-3 years, so I should have a very fresh perspective going in to get it as perfect as I can.

Of course, it will always be a graveyard of past ideas to some extent. I know where all of the abandoned plotlines are buried, and some of the tracks for them are visible to me in the book. But I kind of like them there. It shows how this story clawed and fought its way to making the draft.

So, it’s still early. I’m still feeling the absence of that social pulse. Still pumping up to go back into the book again and make it everything it needs to be.

Even more exciting, I’ve been filling up my Kindle with research for the backdrop of the next work, which is also newly reframed. It still seems ridiculous and absurd to me now, but I have yet to come up with a single reason not to do it.

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