Monday, November 23, 2009

4 and 3

The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand -First off, I hated Atlas Shrugged. I hated it. I read it because reading it was something I felt like I had to do.

I liked The Fountainhead, maybe not a lot, but enough. From a reader's standpoint, the story had tension and a good plot, even if the characters are basically philosophical points on a intellectual graph pitted against each other in story form. This also means the characters aren't particularly rounded. They tend toward caricature.

Reading this book and also thinking of Atlas Shrugged, I am a little confused by the conservatives who embrace Rand. Rand was against so many of the things they would tend to support. She didn't think much of religion, marriage or what might be termed traditional family values. Tradition was for suckers, but she very much liked free speech, particularly as talking truth to power. She'd have disdained Fox News and been amused and revolted by the tea baggers and birthers, mostly because so many of them are clearly being manipulated.

Rand did seem to have a warped affection for the working class, particularly tradesmen and laborers, which I think she saw as cogs in a working machine. She didn't particularly see them as people, but as necessary parts of the machinery to help raise up the ideas of the truly exceptional. In her books, the wise and righteous know when to shit-can their own aspirations to serve the greater man's idea.

She was very much an elitist, a lover of capitalism, but with a funny view of wealth. She hated taxes, but respected a love of work and creation more than actual money. Money was fine, of course, but in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, the honest acquisition of money is more of a mark of achievement, a way to validate her point of view. Her heroes are all wealthy people, but scarcely spend it on much except on utility.

So, it's about the money, but it's not about the money for Rand.

I find Rand to be endearingly naive, and she makes some valid points. Is it fair for a working class slob who puts in an honest day's works have to pay more for a less nice place to live than someone on the dole? Should creators of industry be made into villains just because they profit? Isn't a certain amount of selfishness necessary, even admirable? Really, before you can help anybody else, including accidentally improving society, don't you have to take care of numero uno first?

It's all in how you put the question, I guess. Rand turns things to fantastic extremes. The Fountainhead is Lord of the Rings for miscreants and the narcissistic. It is a fable for the selfish, set in the middle earth of unlikely America. The poor are the lazy goblin minions of the soulless, selfless (yes, I mean selfless) liberal intellectuals who mesmerize but produce nothing. The great fight is against their mediocre crusade to make things slightly better for all because in the end it will fuck things up for everyone.

Still, if you take the book as an unusual novel about ideas, not characters, and look at it as a conversation, it's not a bad way to torch a couple of weeks of free time. So, I kind of liked it.

Candy Freak: Steve Almond - Loved this book. Almond is a sugar fiend. He loves his candy and somehow he convinced an editor to let him write about his passion. So, he rambles around the country, visiting fellow candy nuts and regional candy manufacturers, whose products most of us are barely aware of, including the Idaho Spud and the Goo Goo Cluster.

Almond approaches it like a half-assed adventure, full of often odd and funny observations. It's a travel book and a food book and a book about his own connection to confections.

As I am on a diet and have been now for a fucking long time, perhaps reading about candy wasn't the brightest thing to add to my reading list. Still, it was fun and I got a list of things to try... in moderation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bookstore Days Revisited

I don't go to Books-a-Million any more. Funny. Right after I stopped working there, I stopped going. I think we both needed a clean break. By the time I left, I'd watched a lot of people go through the machine. Most of them left pissed off. You couldn't blame most of them.

I lasted longer than almost everybody. I did about three and a half years, met some great people, made some friends and laughed a lot more than I probably ought to have in a retail job --mostly at the expense of the company. I had a good time moving books on caring for horses and goats into the romance section, occasionally dropping chunks of dry ice into the urinal and generally horsing around with the customers and staff.

Some of these people became friends and still are.

I also helped facilitate the mischief of others. In the men's room, where graffiti grew out like weeds in the cracks, I added to notes left by angry and frustrated men, changed the meaning by tacking on religious references, nonsensical Bible verses and overly earnest statements of love and affection. Sometimes, these incited strange and hilarious graffiti arguments that went on until management sprung for a new coat of paint.

Once, someone tossed a penny in the urinal. Unwilling to fish it out, I picked up a marker and wrote "Wishing Well" above the silver handle. The next day the drain was overflowing with change. Naturally, the thing was bailed out (no idea what they did with the change, but my guess --considering the company --they probably put it into circulation) and the note was painted over.

It didn't stop people from trying to bring back the Wishing Urinal. People have needs, I suppose. Several times, others put the sign back or tossed a coin in the urinal. It was one of my favorite running jokes, next to the old guy who kept stealing newspapers. Management was prohibited by corporate from chasing after him. They begged to do it, but all they were allowed was to glare and watch him leave.

So, the other day, I went back for a visit, to get a cup of coffee and decline the discount card. The store looks better than it ever has. The shelves were clean, organized and in good repair. They don't seem to have an impossible overabundance of home improvement books, children's storybooks or the word of God. Everything is in its right place or at least, a lot closer to its right place than when I worked there.

A lot seemed the same. Employees still quietly drifted toward each other from around the store, looking for some kind of company among the thousands of books. Quietly, with an eye toward the office door, they laughed a little, talked, and tried to be absolutely invisible to paying customers. Nobody was getting paid enough to care too much.

They seemed like the same kind of kids I worked with before I left, just maybe better at their jobs than I was. I kind of hoped they'd get as much out of the old place as I did and I think they will. On my way out, I stopped in at the rest room. A small circle of new copper looked up from a pool of urine.

It made me want to come back again, if not to work, then to just watch.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Return of Cancer Man

The coordinator on the phone joked about why she hadn't called to schedule me to drive a cancer patient.

"You probably thought they came up with a cure, didn't you?" She laughed and I squirmed.

I hadn't driven in ages, at least a year. My last patient was a woman living in a tiny, cramped house that smelled like an open carton of Winstons. She'd looked like she was: a woman dying very slowly and clinging to life with waning interest.

There had been a long time when I thought it would be fine if the Cancer Society didn't call. All of my patients, all three of them, had succumbed. They'd died and all within a month or so after my last visit with them. That kind of thing sort of makes you question the efficacy of modern medicine or makes you feel like the angel of death. I'd taken two of the three hard. I'd gotten to know them some and I'd thought if nobody called me to drive again, I'd be okay with it.

But I took the call and took the assignment.

My new patient is a mother in her early 50s, diagnosed with breast cancer in July. Doctors had already taken her breast. She'd been through her first round of chemo.

"The hardest thing wasn't the surgery, it was shaving my head." Absentmindedly, she touched the ugly, pink cap she wore. "I had to do it," she said. "You have to do it, you know? Your hair is falling out and it's better to just get rid of it than watch it come out in clumps."

She told me she appreciated the ride. Her husband had been out of work for a while and was part of some sort of government training program. The hours were weird.

"He told me he'd ask for the time off." She talked him out of it. "We only got one income coming in right now."

Her youngest son took the diagnosis hard, grew angry and found himself in a juvenile home, where he'd been for most of the fall. She hoped he'd be home for a visit at Thanksgiving. She implied he wouldn't be staying --not yet.

She was glad I was willing to do the driving. Being sick scared off some of her friends and brought a new class of people into her life. During the first round of chemo, one of the women she used to work with at a grocery store stepped up and took her to treatments.

"Then she started asking me if I'd give her whatever pain pills I didn't want."

She decided it was better to take the bus after that, but it left her weak the first time. She couldn't do it a second time, she was sure, not without help.

"If some Samaritan could just walk me across the street," she laughed. "I wouldn't need nothing else."

I told her she didn't have to worry about the bus or waiting in the cold. I'd get her there just fine and be waiting for her when she was done. The car would be warm and I'd get her to her door. She could also keep her pills. I was more of a coffee drinker.

"OK," she said. "You're hired."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Holding steady

No book reviews this week. Because I'm a fucking smarty pants, I decided the best way to ride out my final five in the hundred books in a year thing was to read a couple of giant bricks. I am already rethinking this, but have committed to the first one: Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead." Yes, I supposedly swore off Rand after I slogged through "Atlas Shrugged," but Rand is all the rage again. So, I figured... eh, whatever.

This book is a better. However, if you consider the characters as philosophical positions, you realize they're all partially full of shit, including the hero: Howard Rourke. Still, an engaging read. It's surprisingly addictive.

Anyway, I'm halfway through with that and another book. I'll have the official overview/review next week --unless I'm crippled suddenly and having nothing else to do.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Very, very Old News

I don't remember when I did the Glory Hole story. It was a long, long time ago --could be five or six years back. The whole thing revolved around a woman (alleged) who'd opened up one of these things in Huntington to basically service five or six men anonymously. I'd heard of the practice, though considered it to either be mostly an urban legend. Seriously, the logistics of blowing someone through a hole cut into a wall sounded like too much of a hassle for all but the most devoted of cocksuckers. And really... I just couldn't see it as being really all that attractive (or comfortable) for those electing to receive. That's a lot of trust to invest in a stranger's kindness.

Apparently, however, it was and is something done --mostly, as a novelty in the gay community. In the straight community, women, for some inexplicable reason, aren't into this -- at least, not without receiving a sizable donation.

That's the background. I did the story. I interviewed the purveyor of the glory hole. It was an e-mail interview (and one of the reasons why I learned to detest the format because it leaves out a lot), but for a photo, I took my camera and went to the nearest adult bookstore. It was the big, blocky one in Spencer. I went in, paid like five bucks to go to "the arcade," and very nervously stalked around, looking for booths that were empty. I wanted to just take my picture and get the hell out.

The inside of the place was appropriately awful, dungeon-dark with a maze of cheap and warped booths. Adding to the surreal fun of the place, there were actually a couple of video games inside, propped up in the corners of the room --in case you got bored, I guess. Inside each booth was a half-fried television and a channel change device, where you could switch to one of several different porn channels. They had all the usual flavors: hetero, gay, lesbian, gay, bondage, gay and something involving an entire community theater troupe.

I got the picture, but then argued with myself about whether I should leave right away or if I shouldn't stay. The clerk saw me go in, of course. I had to buy the token from her in the first place. She might judge me.

I didn't stick around, went home and that was it for the story. I did the whole thing to see if I could make the new management at Graffiti squeal --and I'm pretty sure they did. Actually, I remember that part. Oh yeah, they squealed. They didn't run it and later I posted it here before the great purge I did a couple of years back, but otherwise, it's gone.

Anyway, the story or at least the story of me doing the story has circulated for a while. And periodically, somebody will come looking for me to ask about glory holes and maybe how they can find them.

Today, the guy was an older guy, pushing 60 --and not very lucky in love. To my knowledge, he's never married and has only dated sporadically over the roughly ten years I've known him. He's not a bad guy, but he's a guy and he wants to get his swerve on. So, with no real prospects at the moment, he started taking some chances. He got accounts with adult match sites. He went to a swinger's club. He paid 60 bucks as a cover and was essentially ignored by the women and couples in the room, probably because he's a 60 year-old guy who looks his age and wears it awkwardly.

Somehow, word about my knowledge of glory holes got to him. So, we talked about what was going on with him, what he was doing to improve the situation and how it wasn't working. I couldn't give him much advice. I listened and nodded, told him it was a lousy thing for him, but no, I didn't know where there was an active glory hole.

In a situation like that, there is no giving good advice. He wasn't looking for love or an actual relationship. He was looking to get laid, which as most of us know by now, is a separate article. If you get into a relationship (i.e. get married), you aren't guaranteed sex and sometimes, the relationships available to you aren't worth the agony to maybe get the sex.

Of course, the problem is sex with few strings is less likely for people who aren't especially good looking and charming or have one of the great equalizing traits like money or the complete Star Trek the Next Generation series on DVD. In the old-old days, I had friends who could pull off the casual sex thing effortlessly. It was like being good at parallel parking. Most of them had good looks, a certain amount of charisma and money to throw around (which was funny, since they were also terrible about spending any of it on the girl). However, for the majority of men I know, casual sex was and probably is mostly an urban legend.

It could also be I tend to run with a pack of losers or well-meaning liars.

Still, I tried to be helpful, suggested he could check the personals. Maybe Craigslist would have something for people wanting to pair up temporarily. He left disappointed. I gave him nothing he hadn't thought of before.

I felt a little sick about the whole thing. I am a sucker for weird and uncomfortable stories. I never look away. I can't. Beneath the man's hunger is a need to just be touched by someone, to feel physical contact with another human being. It's something most of us crave and it hurts when all we get is rejection, when others shudder at the look of us. Still, to me, the great sadness is his desperation and disappointment. He's cast aside the idea that another person ought to care about him and has settled for seeking a meager, impersonal release.

It's a terminal kind of hopelessness.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Old News

I don't take my job too seriously. I'm a writer before I'm a journalist. I'm here to learn, not so much about the world, but how to tell a story well. So, I look for stories I think I can tell and stories I'd like to try to tell.

I'm often surprised at what takes off and what doesn't. I expected to get all kinds of hits and action over my Kanawha Players piece. Got virtually nothing. I didn't expect much of anything over the calendar girl story, but then the comments section went through the roof and Melissa Ann got kicked hard. I feel bad about that, not bad that I wrote the story or bad that people read it, but bad that people set upon her like a pack of wolves over a bag of pork rinds.

Eventually, the comments were shut down.

I was attracted to the story because I thought it was kind of neat someone in their 40s would do a swimsuit calendar. No, I don't think she's precisely your average housewife. She lives in an upscale neighborhood, though she could probably use some work on her house. I noticed water damage on the ceiling. It probably needs a new roof.

She's a former beauty pageant contestant and winner. She's also modeled and, from what I understand, is married to a plastic surgeon.

Some of the commenters thought she'd had surgery, had botox, had something. Maybe she did, maybe she didn't. Maybe it doesn't even matter --not these days. It wasn't really important. Sure, anybody can have plastic surgery and theoretically get the perfect body (though actual miles may vary), but not everybody would want to put the results up on somebody's wall.

It really didn't matter. The aesthetics of the calendar don't matter --except maybe as a discussion related to feminism, body issues, societal expectations and female objectification --things I sound like a moron talking about.

What mattered to me was 20 years ago, she was a model and a pageant contestant. For one reason or another, she got out of it. It's a little brave to give it another try when you're middle-aged, have kids and live in an out of the way place like Charleston.

Some would say and probably did say she should have just focused on being a mom --as if having children negates every other hope or wish in someone's life. She had the three kids and maybe doing this wasn't so good for them. I tend to doubt it has any lasting impact or has no more impact than the usual ways parents routinely traumatize their children when they choose to pursue something that has nothing to do with being a parent, like playing tuba in a community brass band (particularly mortifying if you're a Goth kid), joining a belly dancing troupe (oh, recital night would be like hell) or deciding to devote 40 hours a week writing a novel (kids, I'm sorry, but this may pay for junior college and won't that be sweet?).

I don't really know what kind of a person she really is. You don't always get that after sitting with them in their living room. Sometimes you do. Other than the calendar, she seemed pretty normal.

Did she want attention? Yep. Is that a bad thing? Nope. Is she a good person? Hard to say. I didn't do a lengthy character study where I went through her diaries and checked her tax returns. This wasn't about stripping her history for the masses to gawk at. She committed no crime and had not put herself up as a paragon of morality or an example of absolute coolness. It was a people piece, not an investigation.

My whole story was really about why she wanted to put a picture of herself on someone's wall for sixteen months. And you know why she wanted to do that?

Because she could. Because it was possible. Because she had the resources, one way or another, to pull it off --and she did. The calendar got made. She's selling it. Somebody is probably buying it. And from my standpoint, she did no harm. Do I think it's all about self-esteem? Not really, but here's the thing... If she can hold her head up after the kind of ass kicking she got in the comments section of the paper (and the little bit of ridicule she's probably taking on the street), you know, she might really have something to say about the subject.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Yeah, I've been slacking. How many times have I said that? A bunch, but I'm down to the last five books.

Love Comes First: Erica Jong -If I based whether I'd read a novelist by her poetry, I'd give the novelist Jong a pass. Full of dull Greek mythological references, this is poetry meant to impress. Why yes, she is very learned and has an appropriate respect for guys like Shelly and Byron, but this is crap only a masochist would read for fun. I was hoping for sexy, for sensual, I got horse shit. Maybe her novels are better. They'd pretty much have to be.

Naked In Dangerous Places: Cash Peters -A funny and insightful book about travel television (if not exactly travel0. Peters was the host of "Washed Up," a travel show about an unprepared guy who washes up alone in some odd location and sort of explores, gets to know the indigenous culture and finds his way. It's kind of like "Man Vs Wild," without the drinking urine through the corpse of a snake bit.

Of course, it's reality television, so it's not very real. The basic premise is impossible with a camera crew following him. Peters is unsuited to the job and the show is eventually canceled, but the book turned out pretty well.

Thank-you and You're Welcome: Kanye West -If you can imagine idiot pop stars as philosophers, Kanye West is hip-hop's Nietzsche. With a tiny (and often large print) book, the rapper gives out his maxims for surviving and thriving in today's world. As far as thought-provoking material, it is just slightly below the wise words of Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars, Episode I, but just above what my (probably) brain-addled cat might write if I taught him to type.

Amusing for all the wrong reasons, it's like a 50 page tract for the church of stupid and as an added bonus, Kanye actually brought on a co-writer. It's hard to believe with statements like, "Believe in your flyness... conquer your shyness" he needed someone to help him flesh out his thoughts.

He might be laughing all the way to the bank on this, but somehow, I doubt it.

Not That You Asked: Steve Almond -A collection of essays and biographical pieces ranging from his love of Vonnegut to becoming a punching bag for right wing pundits over his decision to resign from his teaching post in protest over Condoleeza Rice speaking at Columbia University's Commencement. Generally, a good time. I plan to pick up his book "Candyfreak," on my next visit to the library.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I've always been a little behind with new technology. I was one of the last people my age to get an e-mail address. I didn't get a cell phone until late and had to be prodded and pushed into blogging, Myspace and Facebook.

In truth, I've spent a lot of time on Facebook lately. It's been a real drain on my time. Part of the attraction is the superficial conversations with old friends that seems like you're really connecting, even when you're not. None of it gets into the grit of their lives. It's all status updates and personality quizzes. It's getting points for hiring hitmen or planting flowers. There's not a lot to it and I've had a great time using it as my own personal performance space.

But I think I'm giving it up.

An old friend from high school black listed me. It happened months ago. I only noticed today.

My history with this friend goes back a long ways. She was one of the smartest people I knew and an early encourager of my writing. Officially, she was the second person to ever tell me I should write and the first person to recognize I needed to.

We had a bit of a falling out our senior year. We stopped speaking. She went her way. I went mine and neither of us said anything to the other for fifteen years when I found her e-mail address. I sought her out. I tried to open up the lines of communication and it worked. Back and forth, we caught up some. We both talked about our jobs, our relationships and even our hopes for the future.

Things settled down a lot over time. She was a lot busier than me. She's a scientist, a researcher and a teacher. I'm just a scribbler, an odd jobber.

Everything got quiet between us sometime last winter and it was during those cold, dark months, she decided she didn't want anything to do with me.

The funny thing is I thought she'd just pulled the plug on the internet, on Facebook. It never occurred to me that she'd just pulled the plug on me --not until today, when I happened to notice her name attached to another friend's status update. It was in black and the picture was blocked.

I'd never seen it before and the realization of what she'd done hit me pretty hard. So hard, I didn't think, I just fired off an apology. Me annoying someone with something I've written has been done many times. It has sometimes led to litigation.

I wasn't looking for an explanation. I just wanted her to know I probably didn't mean any harm. She wrote back, told me it had nothing to do with offending her. She thought I'd misrepresented myself and my life. She accused me of being insincere, said she had no idea who I was, said she didn't think it was even possible for her to know because I seem to change depending on who I'm talking to. She didn't know me and maybe she never had.

I could see her point, at least partially. I am a man who blends in with crowds. I get mistaken for cousins, uncles and old friends from the neighborhood. This has been the way of things since I was ten. I have one of those faces, one of those voices. I am one of those people, but I have always believed my friends could see me for who I was, that even if I looked as common as a stone, they'd have some sense of the man I was.

I don't know I believe that right now.