20 December 2011


Most of you reading this probably figure you know me well enough by now to know that I loathe Xmas. (See, I can't even bring myself to spell it out.) And you'd be right, mostly. But this year, rather than writing the usual screed about everything I find appalling about the season at hand, I'm going to write about the things I like this time of year. So much for predictability.

But that takes us to the first thing I like, which has to do with predictability - in this particular case the predictability of physics. Click on this paragraph to read one of the Leaders from this year's year-end double issue of The Economist. Then make sure to come back here to read the rest of my blog. (If you use Windows you can right click on the paragraph and open the article in another window. If you use a Mac there must be something you can do but I don't know what that is.)

I love the special year end double issue of The Economist. It is probably the one thing that I look most forward to reading every year. The Leader that you have just - hopefully - read, is a perfect example of why. It is beautifully written. It is clear and easy to understand. It is witty and entertaining and fascinating and makes plain some things that you have undoubtedly seen throughout the past year in headlines. The whole issue is full of articles like this, about a wide variety of subjects. I only wish it was bigger, or came out twice a year.

I love Xmas Day. Though truth be told I could do the same thing any day of the year. Which is - I get together with friends, we go eat dim sum in a gigantic noisy Chinese restaurant that is jam packed with people of a similar bent, then we go to a movie matinee - usually something blockbusterish - this year probably the new Mission Impossible movie. It's got the Burj Khalifa in it and the Kremlin blows up. What could be more festive than that?

Okay, so what else do I love about Xmas? I'm thinking, I'm thinking...

The best Xmas I ever spent was in Dakar, Senegal.

I spent December 24th wandering the town, admiring the occasional African Santa Claus I encountered and the rather odd mix of African and French decorations. I caught a pickpocket with his hand in my camera bag in the main street market. Though then I worried about him. He couldn't have been much more than 12 and when I grabbed his hand and held it in the air and yelled at him, I was joined by a bunch of angry market women who took over his chastisement from me. I don't know what happened to him after that. Maybe they just humiliated him and sent him home. Maybe they beat him to death.

But I digress. My friend and traveling companion Ronna and I had dinner at one of the swankest French colonial restaurants in town. I had the very best steak frites (with a fresh green peppercorn sauce) that I have ever had, and we shared a bottle of excellent wine.

Then we wandered down to the wrong side of the tracks where all the tourist guides tell you not to go. Actually, it was under the tracks - a very sleazy, big nightclub that was mostly an enormous colorfully lighted patio with a band set up at one end of it. It was riotous with all the people that well-intentioned "experts" warn you against hanging out with: hookers, their pimps, their best customers, a variety of gangsters and assorted other crooks and junkies and drunks.

We had a blast. The Ventilateur was the dance craze of the moment (1984) - a dance in which one turns one's ass to the rest of the crowd and spins and jiggles it as best one can in emulation of a fan. Ronna proved to be particularly adept at this. I can't recall if she was the only white girl in the place, but she was certainly the only one who could hold her own dancing.

We drank. We smoked. There may have been some hash laced into some of those cigarettes. We chatted with everyone, in English when possible, in our tortured French when we needed to. We got lessons in Wolof - the primary local language from which jazz idioms such as "heebie jeebies" and "hepcat" derive.

At dawn Xmas morning the whole place emptied out and everybody walked through the deserted streets of town down to the beach where we scrounged coffee and breakfast from the few vendors who were around and a cafe that was open.

It was even better than dim sum and a movie matinee.

10 December 2011


Progress isn't always pretty. It's got victims. Even when it tries to accommodate the past, sooner or later it's just going to steamroll over it in many instances. Today might be one of those days.

Today Amazon is running a promotion. Take your smartphone to a shop, any shop that sells something Amazon also sells, let the Amazon app on your phone know what product you're considering buying and up will spring the - almost certainly cheaper - Amazon price. And to further encourage you to do this, today you get a five percent discount (up to $5) when you buy the product from Amazon rather than from the store where you're doing your browsing.

Retail stores are furious. And rightly so. Amazon is forcing them to become its storefront and not compensating them for that. It is taking sales directly away from them in the most crass possible way. Already, bookstore owners frequently see shoppers writing down titles, that they are certain - with good reason - those people will go home and order from Amazon instead.

Is this the future? Is this a case of technology being used to the benefit of consumers, even though it is hurting traditional, small businesses? Or is it just another typical instance of a huge corporation ruthlessly trying to stomp on its competition?

It's both, I suppose. Therein lies the dilemma.

As a consumer, I like to buy things as inexpensively as possible. If one place is selling a book I want for $24.95 and the other is selling it for $15.95, I'm not rich enough to ignore the difference.

As an author, wanting to sell books to readers, if I can sell more books at a lower price, while still getting the same - or even higher in the case of my ebooks - royalty as at the higher price, I'm also not successful enough to turn away those additional sales. As a matter of fact, it's in my interest to encourage them.

But I also like shopping in real, brick and mortar stores. I like browsing through books on tables and shelves. I like sifting through clothes on racks and trying them on before buying them. I like feeling the heft of cookware before making up my mind what pot, pan, knife or gizmo I want to bring home. I like the social aspect of it - chatting with fellow shoppers, with the people who work in the store. In a good store, the knowledge and opinions of the shopkeepers is an important and valuable part of the experience of shopping. I end up buying less stuff that I want to return in brick and mortar stores than I do online.

And Amazon is threatening all those things that I enjoy as a shopper. Too many bookstores are closing down. Record stores are mostly all gone. What sort of shops are next on the hit list?

Am I, as a consumer, as much to blame for this as Amazon? I'm certainly an enabler. Hell, there are even specialty food items I buy online rather than from shops, even some fresh ones, yet I love going to food markets. Is my economic self-interest worth giving up much of what I do enjoy about shopping?

The sad fact is that other than for the currently infamous "one percent," economic self-interest will always trump the niceties of the marketplace or the "joys" of shopping. And it is always going to be cheaper for an online retailer to sell its products than for a brick and mortar store to sell the same products, even if the online stores are forced to charge sales tax - which I think they should be.

Does this mean the end of shops as we know them? For stores that try to compete with companies like Amazon on Amazon's own terms, yep, they're going to get crushed.

In the future, the brick and mortar shops that will survive are those that play up and enhance the type of shopping experience that they can provide and an online retailer can't. They need to find ways to make the higher prices they have no choice but to charge, worth the premium. It's not unlike how TV commercials need to become more and more entertaining and/or informative in order to encourage viewers to not simply bypass them on their DVRs.

Here's a few things that shops can do that Amazon can't, that might help them keep my/your business:
Foster a community. Turn your shop into a gathering place for people with like-minded interests. You can do that through events, promotions, contests, classes, film screenings, whatever. It's easier if you run a specialty shop - a mystery or cookbook or history store, rather than a general book store, for example. This is applicable to all kinds of stores, not just bookstores. (Though some of your shoppers are still going to browse in your place then buy elsewhere. There's no avoiding that.)
Provide a variety of things to lure customers in and keep them there. The most obvious are hybrids - cafe, bar or laundromat and bookstore, salad and sandwich shop and clothing store, etc. Use the revenue from one to help support the other.
Personal service from knowledgeable salespeople. Every successful brick and mortar shop may well need its equivalent of the Apple "Genius Bar."
Sell products that buyers need, or greatly want to feel and/or see in three dimensions, taste, smell or otherwise experience in person before buying. These are often specialty and high-end items or most fresh products.
I'm not a huge shopaholic, but I also don't want small, local stores to disappear. One of the things I love about the neighborhood I live in is the abundance of small, locally-owned shops selling a variety of products and the sense of community I get when I spend time in them. I don't get that from Amazon. But like anyone without an unlimited well of money to draw from, I just can't afford to pay too much of a premium for the things I need and want.

Like most people, I want it all. I want the deep discounts that I get from Amazon and other online retailers, and I want my local small businesses to thrive. In some cases those desires are proving to be mutually exclusive. But they don't have to be, at least not for all small businesses, especially those that manage to adapt to this ugly/beautiful, brave new world.

19 November 2011


They want to make money. That's what every business wants.

Traditionally, the most stable, steady profit-making enterprise for banks has been lending money. Sure, there's much higher yields to be made from speculative, high-risk investments and money manipulation, but to ensure the continued health of a bank it needs a solid portfolio of dependable low-risk loans.

And, one of the primary reasons that the economy is still so stubbornly sluggish is that banks are sitting on piles of cash that they aren't lending out. Because of that, companies can't expand, they can't hire new workers, people can't build, buy or sell houses. For any free market economy to survive it needs constant activity fueled by money - more often than not in the form of loans. It's like the proverbial shark that will die if it doesn't keep swimming.

So why was it so enormously difficult for Eva - who I live with - and I to refinance our house recently?

We are about as close as it gets to zero risk borrowers and yet trying to get a bank to take our money was a Herculean task.

We bought our house eleven years ago, not quite at the bottom of the market but near enough to it that our property is still well above water. For our refinance, we were attempting to borrow approximately 15 percent of the current appraised value of our house. (And, according to three different realtors the official appraised value was laughably low compared with current real market value.) If our house burned to the ground, the lot alone would be worth at least two or three times the amount we were asking for.

And we're excellent customers. We have never missed, or even been so much as a day late with any payment.

And the whole point of refinancing in the first place was to cut our monthly payments - by about half - which would make it even less likely that we would miss a payment or be late with one in the future.

So we called up Harris Bank - our then current lender - reminded them of what good customers we've been and told them we wanted to refinance.

They turned us down flat.

On the one hand, what incentive did they have to give us a lower interest rate when we've been paying a higher one for the past eleven years? That would have meant they'd be making less money off of us.

On the other, they were risking losing a couple of very good, reliable customers at a time when banks are claiming that the going is tough for them, and making no money at all from us.

I pointed this out to them. They said sorry, that's the way it is.

Too bad for them. Bye bye Harris.

Thanks to the tenacious, patient and expert efforts of a fantastic mortgage broker, Eva and I jumped through numerous flaming hoops, shoveled the requested shit out of the Augean stables of our finances - being self-employed didn't help - and prevailed. We refinanced our house down from a five percent loan to a three-and-a-half percent loan, cutting our monthly payments in half. (If any of you need a really good mortgage broker I can send you the name and contact information for ours.)

So, I've got to ask, why?

Certainly banks ought to be more cautious than they were over the last decade when it comes to lending money for houses. They got severely burned making stupid loans to pretty much anyone who asked for one for any property no matter how ill-conceived the whole deal was, or how unlikely the person taking out the loan was to be able to pay it back. They figured that the property market was going to continue going up and up and up forever, so even if the loans blew up, they'd still be left with property worth a lot more than they'd loaned out for it.

They were wrong.

So now, to avoid it happening all over again, a lot of banks have put into place internal regulations that make it very difficult for them to loan money to anyone - not just the people who probably shouldn't be taking out loans in the first place.

But because banks' lending business has slowed to a crawl and they still want to make money, they are returning to the other, even riskier, financial juggling activities. Sometimes those do chalk up huge gains. But they also can cause enormous, rapid losses that are horribly destructive.

Apparently banks, and the various government agencies that oversee them, and Congress (of course) haven't learned anything from the recent and ongoing debacle.

The fact that Eva and I had such a difficult time refinancing our house may seem like a little thing. But it is a symptom of a much more severe malady that is not merely getting in the way of our country's (and big chunks of the rest of the world for that matter) economic recovery, but setting us up for the next big fall.

14 November 2011


I've had cause over the past couple of months to think about my past more than usual.

On the personal / mortality side of things: one aunt died. Another has been diagnosed with what is possibly her terminal illness. It was the seventh anniversary of my mother's death. For the first time in my life I spent a week in the hospital due to something that could have killed me.

There aren't a whole lot of pictures of me from my first nine years of life. That's because November 7 this year was the 50th anniversary of my family's house burning down in a wildfire that gave us little time to evacuate, much less take much of anything with us. The only thing other than memories that I have left from the years before the fire is this:It's the cooled puddle of a silver or steel or some kind of vase that melted in the house and that my mom scraped up from the ashes when we were allowed to go back and sift among the smoldering ruins.

Then there's the personal / political side of things. Occupy Wall Street makes me think back to the days when I was a student radical in the '60s and '70s. I've been watching the new History Channel show "Vietnam in HD." Growing up when I did - a teenager in the late 1960s, eligible to be drafted in 1970 when kids just like me were being drafted in large numbers and sent to die in Vietnam - did a lot to make me the person I am today.

I went to a book launch party not so long ago for an anthology of short stories called "Send My Love And A Molotov Cocktail," edited by my pal Gary Phillips. One of the contributors, John A. Imani, had written a story set during antiwar demonstrations at UCLA in 1972. I'd also been at those demonstrations.

The launch was held at The Southern California Library, "...a people's library, dedicated to documenting and preserving the histories of communities in struggle for justice..." I poked around in the library's archives, just looking at the labels on the boxes of collected materials. There were a number of collections that were familiar to me, that possibly even hold leaflets or newsletters or posters or articles that I wrote, edited, distributed or hand cranked the mimeograph machines to help print.

I have my own collection of printed materials from those days. I plan to go through them and see if the library wants any of them. And I've got a collection of "buttons" that I hadn't looked at in many years until I just now took this picture of some of them:It pleased me to think that some part of my past might be preserved in that collection, that I may have contributed in some very small way to the historical record. And I do recall those days fondly, though I think of them as neither the good old or bad old days, just as days like any other - a mix of good, bad and mostly just getting by.

I like to think that I lack nostalgia, that in my mind the good days are still ahead of me, that the next book I write is going to be my best, that I get handsomer and more desirable with age - okay, well, maybe that one not so much, there's only so much self-deception that even I can muster.

Nostalgia is almost always made up of convenient lies and selective truths. It is good to remember the past - ideally with all its blemishes, failures, ugliness, beauty and triumphs acknowledged - but it is seldom of any use to dwell in it.

If you're reading this and hoping that I'm somehow going to wrap it up in a way that makes sense of it, that has something significant to impart, sorry you are S.O.L. The only lessons I've learned from any reflecting I've done on my past, the past of others or the past in general are that there is nothing whatsoever that can be done about it and that you can't let it get in the way of trying to do things better in the future.

Oh yeah, and that the future is pretty much out of your control, too, but you can't let that stop you from trying.

I guess I just talked myself into getting back to work on the next book.

17 October 2011


With regard to the last post, having further reflected on the matter I think I left something important out. It's one thing for strangers to rip each others writing apart. Any reasonable writer expects that from editors and critics, desires it even. But for friends to do it, first requires the development of a great deal of trust.

I do have one friend like that - Ashley Ream. We know each other well enough, are confident and secure enough in the knowledge that we respect, like and admire each others writing that when we tell each other that something we have written sucks our reaction is to wince, sometimes curse, then start thinking about why it might actually suck. (Sometimes we decide the other was wrong, sometimes right, but we know each other well enough to take each other seriously and not take offense at what we have to say to each other.)

But it took a while to get to that point with each other. Trust doesn't develop quickly, no matter how much you like someone or how sympatico you are with them.

The mea culpa part of this post is that I now realize that I jumped the gun, possibly by several years, with the friend whose work I criticized. That was a big mistake on my part. It was stupid and I'm sorry for it.

While I certainly stand by what I said in my previous post, there was an important element left out. Let that be a cautionary tale.

14 October 2011


It seems possible that a recently expressed honest opinion of mine may have lost me a developing friendship that I had high hopes for.

Like many of my friends, this one is a writer and a lot of our talk has been about writing, other writers, books, ideas, etc. Our talk was always straightforward, honest and filled with our opinions about the subjects at hand. I encouraged this person (who shall remain nameless and genderless) to send me some of their writing. (I offered to send some of my works in progress in return as I am always on the prowl for intelligent, honest, blunt criticism of my own work.) I got sent a short story.

While I liked the writing in general, I didn’t particularly like the story. My opinion – I know, we’ve all got them just like assholes – was that it didn’t work for a couple of big reasons (macro-level) and it had some other stuff wrong with it for more specific (micro-level) reasons. I said as much, giving the two major reasons and offering to go over the others if that was wanted.

It wasn't wanted. My friend did not take my initial criticism of the big picture problems well, not at all. To the point where I’m concerned that it may have ended our friendship.

This has made me think a lot about what us writers want from each other, or not and how to be clear about it.

All of us want praise, of course, who doesn’t? It’s encouraging, stimulating, pumps us up and pushes us forward.

But praise is easy to come by, whether it’s honest or not, whether it’s informed or ignorant. I’m very happy that I’ve got supportive family and friends. My life is better because of it. I’m certain that I have more self-confidence in everything I do in life because of it. It’s an important component in making me who I am. And because of all that it even helps make my writing better.

It’s not enough though, not nearly enough, to help make my writing as good as it can be. I need the addition of criticism for that – solid, intelligent, insightful, honest and blunt – sometimes hard to take - criticism.

Believe it or not, sometimes I write crap. (Hell, a lot of what I write is crap, at least at first.) So does every single other writer. The only difference between a good writer and a lousy writer is the ability to keep working through the crap, to recognize it for what it is and to make it better.

And that part of the process can be very painful because one of the reasons why we all keep writing is that we know in our hearts that we are good at it, that what we write is good, and that it’s worthy of being read by other people, by strangers. So when something we write is crap, or someone else thinks that it is, that punches us in the gut.

I am not saying that my opinion is the be-all and end-all when it comes to recognizing crap, or problems with a story or a manuscript or anything else. It’s just my opinion. Try and nail down the opinions of any dozen of us writers, and you’ll probably come up with several dozen different conflicting opinions.

But listening to those opinions, weeding out the ones that are due to some sort of twisted personal problems or that stem from an ill- or misinformed reading, or all too obviously have their heads up their asses, then giving consideration to the ones that are left, is the only way any writer ever gets any better.

Sadly, getting honest, well-informed, blunt, pulling no punches opinions and criticism out of someone is an extremely rare and precious commodity.

I’ve never been a member of a writers group. That is because in my experience they almost all exist as a means to provide support, encouragement, incentive and praise to their members and to do that they fail to provide the really hard to hear criticism that all writers also need.

If I ever do hook up with a writers group, it will probably need to be one in which none of the members know each other outside the room where they meet. (Or maybe we should all be masked and disguising our voices.) Where we aren’t trying to maintain or create friendships. Where the only thing we want to do in there is help to make each other’s writing better by being as shitty and unpleasant and brutally honest with each other as it takes.

One of the most important lessons of my life as a writer came when I was a new hire on a business magazine in Hong Kong. I came up with what I thought was a great idea for a story. It was a monthly magazine and I worked my ass off on that story for three weeks. I got some great interviews, I unearthed some remarkable facts that hadn’t come to light before, and then I sat down and wrote the hell out of the thing. I turned it in to the editor in the full glow of knowing that it was the best thing I’d ever written – prize-winning material.

I got it back a half hour later with a note scribbled on the first page: “This is shit. It’s not why I hired you. Rewrite.”

I wanted to walk into his office and quit. I wanted to throw things, break windows, slug somebody, anybody.

I took a walk. I had a bowl of soup noodles with fish balls into which I ladled nearly an entire jar of extra-spicy chili paste.

When I got back to the office I took several very deep breaths, picked up my article and walked into the editor’s office to ask him what was wrong with my piece.

He looked at me and said, “I don’t have time to explain. Figure it out.”

I went back to my desk, mumbled and swore and grumbled and cursed my editor and every generation of his family all the way back to the apes.

Then I got to work and I figured it out and it was a much better article for it. (But he was still an asshole and I would have appreciated some clue as to what he thought was wrong with it.)

So what is it that we writers actually do want from each other? And how do we make it clear that’s what we really want and aren’t just paying lip service to what we think we should want?

08 October 2011


What is a writer to do when faced with the realization that the best way to tell a story he wants to tell is in a style that he isn’t all that comfortable with and doesn’t even particularly like to read?

I don’t like magical realism. I forced myself to finish the first 50 pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then I threw it across the room in frustration and disgust. I loathed it. So sue me. Other than Eduardo Galleano I haven’t been able to get through any of the other much lauded South Americans, either.

I am not entirely consistent. One of my favorite books of the past few years was Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (who is Mexican – Tijuana – by way of Chicago) and it certainly takes a few spins around the room with magical realism. I have never been able to read what is widely regarded as his masterpiece – The Hummingbird’s Daughter. Although on my recent road trip I listened to him read it – he does a wonderful job, which is rare for a writer reading his own book – on my car stereo and enjoyed it thoroughly. It worked for me as a story that someone was telling me in a way that it didn’t work for me to read.

The book I am currently working on has given me fits and starts. Initially it was going to be the middle one of three thematically linked novellas. I finished it, I thought, at about 40,000 words. (Long for a novella but too short for a novel.) But that grand scheme didn’t work out.

Now I’m faced with rewriting it as a full length novel that will stand alone. And I can’t simply expand it. It’s not going to work that way.

Worse yet, it has occurred to me that the story involved can best be told in a way that at least flirts with magical realism, and maybe even has to actually climb into bed with it and get down and dirty.

What’s a writer to do? Sometimes a story will dictate its form and if you want to do an adequate job of telling it, you have to succumb to its demands.

It’s times like this when I have thoughts of going to trade school and becoming something useful, like an electrician.

05 October 2011


Kingman, Arizona to Home (Los Angeles, CA): Finally made it. The weather didn't cooperate, it poured rain and blew wind from Victorville all the rest of the way home. There were wrecks littered along the road, but they couldn't stop us. A stop at Total Wine & More in Rancho Cucamonga nearly bankrupted us though. It is the Disneyland of Booze. I'm not sure how much I'm supposed to be drinking on the varied dope they've got me on, but there's plenty to drink in the house should I be so inclined. And I am so inclined.

Here's my latest photographic victims:

Needles, CA. A couple who'd just driven down from Washington State.
Ludlow, CA. They were repaving part of a gas station.
Victorville, CA. A clerk in a convenience store. At first she thought I might be a secret shopper, since they take pictures.
Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Candy, on the left, is terrifyingly knowledgeable about wine and other booze. I blame her for the amount of money we spent in the place. But I recommend her should you ever be in Rancho Cucamonga and want the perfect tour guide to the wonderland of booze.
Home. This is what I look like after two weeks without shaving. Because I am so very skilled at finding ways to cut myself shaving, and the drugs they've got me on have thinned my blood, I have been warned to only shave with an electric razor for fear of nicking my nose and bleeding out on the bathroom floor. I ordered a well-reviewed electric razor online and it was waiting for me when I arrived home. I think it is now just about charged up. But I figured I'd humiliate myself first by posting this picture. It's good to be home.

04 October 2011


Gallup, New Mexico to Kingman, Arizona: By now, if you've been paying attention, you should realize that we are taking, essentially, Route 66 across the country. Well, we're on Interstate 40 but for most of its way it either parallels what is left of Route 66 or runs right over it. Some towns, like Seligman, Arizona, seem to survive entirely off nostalgia for the old highway.

Here's some of the people I encountered today on my hourly stops.

Ofelia's Knife City, AZ. I asked Ofelia - at least I'm pretty sure she was Ofelia - if she would pose with her favorite knife. She said, "They are all my favorites. They make me money." So I posed her at the cash register instead.
Winslow, AZ. Stopped for lunch at La Posada Hotel, one of the great quirky hotels anywhere. Run in part by , a painter with a twisted sense of humor. Here's a woman in front of a painting of Nancy Reagan, part of the First Ladies series.
Seligman, AZ. Inside the Route 66 souvenir shop pictured above. A group of tourists from Quebec, Canada were shopping for t-shirts. They were a little concerned when I wanted to take their picture, they'd just finished a three day hike into a nearby canyon and hadn't had a shower yet.

03 October 2011


Amarillo, Texas to Gallup, New Mexico: A late start due to needing to get a blood test and the results. I first went to one clinic that refused to release results to anyone other than a doctor. I think that's illegal - the patient is entitled to the results. I tried arguing with them but failed. So I then went to a nearby hospital and threw myself upon their mercy. They were merciful. This trip being almost entirely about transportation, rather than recreation, the only highlight of the day was a stop at Tito & Mary's in Albuquerque for enchiladas Christmas style. Yum. Here's the people I met at my hourly stops.

Tucumcari, NM, this man and his dog were driving the truck with his motorcycle and most of his family's belongings in it. His wife and the kids were following in another car. He was laid off in Indiana and is moving the family to Phoenix where he'll go to Harley Davidson mechanics school. We chatted a bit about the 1930s, which seemed far too apropos a topic.
Milagro (Miracle), NM didn't seem all that miraculous. This couple ran a rather beat up old gas station and convenience store without much on the shelves.
Albuquerque, NM, the waitress at Tito & Mary's brings a chile relleno and a plate of enchiladas.
Grants, NM, long-haired clerk at the RediMart.


Midwest City, Oklahoma to Amarillo, Texas: A relatively short, four hour, day of driving. With a wee bit of fudging on the one hour rule, we only stopped twice. (Not to worry, I keep my legs flexing and moving while sitting in the car.)

Katie, waitress at T.C.'s Country Kitchen, Clinton, OK.

Shamrock, TX at classic Route 66 Conoco Station.

02 October 2011


I now interrupt my regularly scheduled blog to indulge this morning’s bout of grumpery.

The post-season is underway and I’m rooting, in order, for the St. Louis Cardinals, then in ascending order for the teams with the lowest payrolls, until you get to the Phillies and the Yankees – the highest payroll teams – who can kiss my ass. I respect teams that develop their winning ways, not buy them.

As always, the post-season makes me think of things that I like and don’t like about baseball. Here’s four things I’m cranky about:

Pete Rose – Put him in the Hall of Fame, un-ban him. So what if he got caught gambling. The only difference between him and the no doubt hundreds, if not thousands, of other players who undoubtedly bet on baseball is that he got caught. The Hall of Fame is filled with unsavory characters – Ty Cobb anyone? Stop this nonsense now and let Pete Rose in.

Saves – What’s the big fucking deal with saves? They’re bullshit. It’s all pumped up faux-drama to increase ticket sales. Sooner or later someone in SABR is going to crunch all the numbers and come up with the statistical probability of a team losing or winning a game that they lead by three runs in the ninth inning. My guess is that pretty much any big league quality pitcher could come in fresh for the ninth with a three run lead and the majority of the time – unless they were backed up by a team of little league players – their team would win the game.

Roger Maris – He’s the current single season home run record holder in my book. No one who hasn’t been juiced on steroids has beat him. People moaned about him doing it in 162 games, while Babe Ruth did it in 154. The more important statistic is that he did it in fewer at bats than Ruth did. Split the category – home run record on steroids / home run record not on steroids. And while we’re at it, Hank Aaron is still the career leader in home runs, at least until maybe Albert Pujols breaks that record. And while we’re still at it, toss Barry Bonds in jail, at least for a week or two, just on general principle.

Designated Hitter
– Do I even have to argue this one? National League games are more fun to watch. There’s more drama, more managing to be done. Isn’t it about time baseball admitted the error of its ways?

I now return you to my regularly scheduled blog. Next – the continuation of Across America One Hour at a Time.

01 October 2011


Wagon trains averaged about two miles an hour across the country. We're averaging something just under 70. That should pick up across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona where the speed limit is 75.

It doesn't mean it's fast though, not as fast as I'd planned. I'd figured on three days of hell bent driving to get back home to Los Angeles. It's going to take six. One of the things about having a blood clot is that you have to be careful to move your leg around - at least once things are stabilized enough to risk that. So, we are sticking to no more than six hours a day on the road, with stops every hour along the way to get out and walk around for a few minutes.

Day one, Clarksdale to Little Rock, Arkansas

We left the hospital around 11am. This is where I'd spent the past seven days and 15 hours:
First stop was at Hertz at the Memphis Airport so that Eva could return her rental car. It was actually about an hour and 15 minutes. (There was also no person for me to take a picture of. I'm going to try and take a picture of a person, or people, at each stop hereafter.) Palestine, Arkansas - Man with his father's 1959 Ford Fairlane We spent the night in Little Rock where there is a very pretty riverfront park and the Clinton Library and Center.

Day 2, Little Rock, AR to Midwest City, Oklahoma

Russellville, Arkansas. Bikers at a gas station. Dora, Arkansas. Squash Blossom Natural Grocery. Lake Eufaula State Park, Oklahoma. Robertson's Ham, Bacon & Sausage, Seminole exit off I-40, Oklahoma. We had dinner with some old pals, writers Meredith and Win Blevins. The owner of the restaurant where we had dinner - Chile Mercado Mexican Grill. Tomorrow it's on to Amarillo, Texas.

27 September 2011


Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center: If only I’d had to pee more often, maybe I wouldn’t be here. You get Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT, blood clots, usually in the legs) when you are mostly immobile with your legs cramped for long periods of time. It’s what they warn you about on long airplane flights.

Some people get it more easily than others thanks to their genes.

It can be fatal. A piece of clot can break off and careen through your bloodstream coming to rest in your lungs – a pulmonary embolism, in your heart – causing a heart attack, or in your brain – stroke.

So when you notice that your leg has swollen and turned various shades that it isn’t supposed to be, the smart thing would be to go get it checked out. You might get lucky and it might be something other than DVT. I had about a 36 hour smarts delay when I noticed that about my left leg. That’s not too bad. It’s not to say I couldn’t have simply dropped dead during that time, but plenty of people don’t do anything at all about it.

When the nurse practitioner told me that she suspected DVT and I should be checked into the hospital, I considered waiting until the next morning. After all, it was Thursday night and that’s the only night that Po Monkey’s – a place I’ve wanted to go since I first heard about it – is open. Hell, if I'd dropped dead on the dancefloor there, hopefully they’d just prop my corpse in a corner with a cigarette in my mouth and a Bud in my hand and I’d have gained some sort of immortality.

But I didn’t. I did what you are supposed to do and I’ve been in the hospital ever since trying to get the clot organized and stabilized enough that I can actually go home. If I only had stopped to pee more regularly when I was driving out here, this might not have happened. Instead, there were days when I drove straight through – six, seven, eight hours of driving non-stop. I like that sort of thing sometimes, the meditation of the highway. Damn meditation. I should have known better.

I might get out of here tomorrow, maybe Wednesday, maybe Thursday. Then the drive home is going to be quite a bit slower than is my usual style: no more than 4-5 hours in the car a day, stopping every hour to get out and walk around for a few minutes. It’ll take seven days from here to Los Angeles. I’d originally planned to do it in three.

Oh well, at least I’m not dead and there’s much to be said in favor of that. I have a couple of recommendations for y'all (I’m in the south.)

One – if you’re on a long flight or a long drive, get up or get out of your car and walk around for a bit every hour or two even if you don’t think you want to.

Two – if you are ever in Mississippi and have something go wrong with you, this Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center is a very fine place. The people are incredibly friendly and attentive and beyond merely competent. And they’ll give you bacon and eggs with grits and a biscuit for breakfast.

23 September 2011


Clarksdale, Mississippi: And hopefully not from the hospital where I died, either. But that's where I am. It's a very nice hospital, as these things go, too. (The hospital where Bessie Smith died is now a hotel here in Clarksdale - room 2, you can stay in it.)

Two days ago my left leg seemed swollen. I ignored it, as one does, and very happily went about my business of touring the Delta. Yesterday morning it seemed somewhat more swollen, but I figured I'd deal with it later. As one does.

After a day of touring I went to Cathead - a truly fantastic store for blues, folk art, books, everything relating to the Delta - and also the place to go for local information. Roger, who runs the place and who makes some excellent documentary films and has written one of the better general introductory books to the blues, suggested a local clinic if I wanted someone to look at my leg.

I did. The very attentive and concerned nurse practitioner sent me to the hospital. I checked in last night and this morning they confirmed deep vein thrombosis - a blood clot, the sort that can break apart and kill you if you don't catch it and take care of it.

I almost didn't go. Last night was the night I was going to go to Po Monkey's - the only remaining rural juke joint anywhere and a place I have wanted to go ever since I first heard about it. I considered the fact that it would probably be a better place to keel over dead than most, but then good sense got the better of me. Tonight T Model Ford is playing at the best juke joint here - Red's Lounge; tomorrow night it's Robert Balfour - two of my very favorite, old and not going to be around all that much longer blues players. But I won't be sneaking out to see them either, no doubt.

Shit. I've got a good bottle of scotch in my luggage here in the hospital room. I wonder what the doctor would think of me having a drink or two?

Anyhow, this is all by way of explanation as to why you aren't going to get much more in the way of posts from the road, at least for a while. (They want me in the hospital for about five days.) Luckily, before this came to pass I did get around some. Here's some pictures and some explanations:

Robert Johnson, the blues singer and guitar player who you know even if you don't think you do - most of his songs have been covered by rock and roll bands and lines from his songs and guitar riffs are impossible to avoid - is reputedly buried in three places. Not because they chopped him up, but because there was some controversy over which was the real spot. I visited all three. The last one of the three is the one that has the best claim to being the real burial place. But visiting all three is a good way to see the area.

After visiting the likeliest real grave, I went for lunch to Hoover's Grocery & Launderette which is in Baptist Town - part of Greenwood - just down the street from the corner where Robert Johnson often played and where he died. Sylvester Hoover runs the place and he was sorry that they don't usually do hot lunches anymore, not since the grocery burned down and they had to move both businesses into the laundry. But, well, he did have some ribs. Do I like ribs? Yes I do.

These were not just ribs. These were a whole new order of ribs, something else altogether. Inside they were dark rich red like the best country ham and they tasted kind of like that and so smoky it was almost too much but it was perfect. Outside they were somehow crisp and crunchy with the right amount of char and rub. There was sauce on the side but it was superfluous. Here's the place and here's Mr. Hoover, and there's the corner where Robert Johnson played and died:

In the course of all this grave visiting I drove around and looked at stuff and took some pictures like usual. Here they are:

21 September 2011


Mississippi, Day 1: I am, as those of you who regularly read this are well aware of by now, not a particularly – or even any, really – spiritual or mystical sort of person. Yet there are places in the world where for no reason that I can quite fully put my finger on I simply feel at home, at peace, comfortable, engaged. Mississippi – to be specific the Delta and the Hill Country – is one of them. (Indonesia is one of the others, but I’ve already blathered about that earlier this year.)

Mississippi rolled into my mind over the years. My first association, as a child, was with the name. Thanks to the river, thanks to Mark Twain I’ve always unconsciously associated the place with travel and flow and adventure.

Then, as with so many of us who grew up in the 1960s the associations turned terrible – the scene of some of the most brutal battles of the Civil Rights Movement, a place that seemed alien and scary, primitive.

But at about the same time that was happening, I discovered the blues; music born of the struggles and torment, the strength and humor and intellect of the place and time it came from. Music that muscles its way out of the blood and sweat stained soil of this place, filling the air with ghosts and history and a culture that somehow comes across as triumphant in spite of the wretchedness and misery that created it, that made it somehow possible. And a culture that has informed and transformed much of all the other culture that I’ve been deeply affected by throughout my life. The blues, or something a whole lot like them – at least their sensibility - is part of nearly every book, song, movie, artwork, etc. that has reached far inside me and made me feel deeply.

And the people I meet have been almost universally friendly, welcoming, pleased to have someone visiting their state, their town, their farm who is in return friendly and genuinely interested.

Then there’s the light. Literally. Throughout the day, but most dramatically during the long evenings, the light here is palpable. It gives dimension to what could be a flat, nearly barren landscape. It is a photographer’s dream.

So I’m going to shut up right now and post some pictures from yesterday. I won’t even tell you what they are other than that they are roughly in the order I shot them, from the Hill Country around Holly Springs (lunch at Phillip's Grocery and an interesting conversation with a man selling the Nation of Islam's newspaper) to Greenville in the Delta and my favorite steak place in the world for dinner. There will be more today.