Friday, August 10, 2012


This was one of those suggestions from Netflix -- you know: "I see you like emo space movies. I recommend SUNSHINE." This was a mixed bag -- kind of like three movies in one... cool problem-solving space adventure like Apollo 13, dumb slasher movie like Friday the 13th, and a deep philosophical movie like, uh, well, I can't think of anything with a 13 in it... so, uh, I'll just say 13 Erotic Ghosts. Any movie with a ship named "Icarus 2" is alright by me, though.

I watched the deleted scenes... some of them were better than what they left in!

The most thoughtful thing in this film is the notion that, as humans, we can never merge with darkness -- we always hold ourselves separate from it -- but we easily merge with light. I'll be thinking about that for a long time.

This is the perfect movie to double feature with Moon.

PS -- This is the 500th Thing I've Finished!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Elephant Rocks

I liked topics in this book of poems by Kay Ryan, and the length and number of the poems, and typeface, and even the paper and binding. And I didn't dislike the poems-- most of them just, I don't know, didn't resonate with me, somehow. My favorite poems are ones that cover the surface a topic, leading you to believe that their goal is to encircle that topic, but then, to your surprise, they plunge down deep, into the heart of things, in a way that shocks and surprises. For me, these poems did the covering, but their plunge just didn't penetrate, somehow. Here's one of my favorites from the book, for example:
In the presence of supple
goodness, some people
grow less flexible,
experiencing a woodenness
they wouldn't have thought possible.
It is as strange and paradoxical
as the combined suffering
of Pinocchio and Gepetto
if Pinocchio had turned and said
I can't be human after all. 
You see what I mean? It's more like the end is an illustration of the beginning, as opposed to a paradigm shift built on the platform of what came before. Contrast that with a favorite Emily Dickinson poem of mine:
Fame is a bee
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing. 
Which has all the things I like best in a poem. See how it tricks you? "Fame lures you in, but it's dangerous..." and then everything flips! "And it allows you to fly!" It's startling, and perception shifting, and it leaves you wondering about how Emily Dickinson, of all people, really feels about fame. Sheesh, I feel like a bully, beating up Kay Ryan with Emily Dickinson. This isn't meant to be a criticism of Kay Ryan, but just me realizing what it is I like best in poetry. I often wonder what a person's taste in poetry says about them. I wonder what it says about me that this poem is my favorite one in Elephant Rocks:
From the Greek for
woven or plaited,
which quickly translated
to basket. Whence the verb
crib, which meant "to filch"
under cover of wicker
anythingsome liquor,
a cutlet.
For we want to make off
with things that are not
our own. There is a pleasure
theft brings, a vitality
to the home.
Cribbed objects or answers
keep their guilty shimmer
forever, have you noticed?
Yet religions downplay this.
Note for instance, in our
rehearsals of innocence,
the substitution of manger for crib—
as if we ever deserved that baby,
or thought we did.
You can see this does all the things I like! One interesting thing about the poems in this book -- some rhyme, some don't. It's very cool that she's not afraid to have really fun rhymes, sometimes (Time is rubbery. If you hide it in the shrubbery). I know one thing -- writing poems requires a special bravery.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Roberts' Rules of Disorder

I found this little book years ago... at Townsend Booksellers, I think? Or did I have it in California? Anyway, it has been my stalwart companion, ever since. It is about as small as a book can be, just a few inches high, and only 14 pages long. It is full of ironic mottoes and tiny woodcut illustrations. There is something about it that reminds me of the seventies. It is clearly the work of a group of friends, each chipping in their own funny sayings, and their names are listed up front, and it was published in 1977, in fact. I love the attitude of this book, I love how it overflows with friendship, and how it acknowledges that things get bad, yes, and there isn't much you can do but laugh about that. I scanned not just the front cover, but the back as well, because I think the back cover sums up the book quite delightfully (click the pic to see full size). Some of my favorite mottoes within:
We've got plenty of firewood to last until Spring. -RLU 
Greens chopped in an open fan tend to disperse. -AG 
You discover the optimum number of children for your family when you've had one too many. -AD
If it doesn't fit, file it to a conical point. -WG
A motion to adjourn to the bar takes precedence over all other motions except one to leave the bar. -ER 
Maybe kitty is just getting fat. -RLU
So, after years of having this book accompany me through all kinds of problems and troubles, it occurred to me, one day, that I had no idea who Jane W. Roberts was. I'll start by saying she isn't this Jane Roberts. I had to websearch pretty hard to find out her true identity. I even had to buy online access to an obscure local newspaper that had an article about her, which I reproduce here, in full.

MONADNOCK PROFILE: It’s all there in the fine print

She keeps an art alive

Jane Roberts believes that life should be lived to the fullest. Now 86, she’s a former social worker, teacher and award-winning commercial printer who also creates hand-tooled canoe paddles. Beyond that, she knits, recently learned to spin fiber and is a longtime member of Fitzwilliam’s zoning board.
And, she offers a very simple remedy for those who want more fulfilling lives.
“Always make sure you have a lot of hobbies and things you’re interested in doing,” she said. “If you’re one of those people who are bored, it’s your own damn fault.”
Among Roberts’ varied interests is her successful business, Old Time Printing, which, for more than 30 years, has offered Victorian and obsolete typography, mainly to the antiques trade. Although she retired not too long ago, she still plies the craft for friends and local organizations, and introduces young children to the practice.
Her home-based print shop is equipped with 19th-century antique tabletop and pedal-operated foot presses and nearly 300 different typefaces and fonts. She’s won awards for her work and, for nearly 60 years, has been a member of the Amalgamated Printers’ Association, an organization of letterpress print enthusiasts.
It’s a passion she first discovered in her teens.
“My father gave my brother a small printing press for Christmas,” she said. “He didn’t like it all that much, but I did. I bought it from him when I was 16. It’s been a big part of what I’ve been interested in since then.”
In the late 1940s, she worked her way through college as a printer. Besides running presses, she became proficient in typography, including Linotype, most commonly used for newspaper copy, and Ludlow, used for headlines and displays. She even operated her own business, which she sold upon her college graduation — then took a long hiatus from printing for 15 years.
Instead, she launched a decade-long career as a social worker, working with disadvantaged children in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and at Chicago’s renowned Hull House, the first settlement house in the country. A few years later, when the Chicago neighborhood underwent urban renewal, her job was eliminated, and she chose a new path.
“I still wanted to work with kids, but I’d had it with big cities,” she said. I knew that, for me, the way to work with kids was to go back to school to get a license to teach.”
She enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where one night at a square dance she met her future husband, Ken, then a faculty member. The pair married a year or so later, and she taught school in Connecticut for several years, starting out at the junior high level, then moving on to high school English classes.
Her interest in printing was rekindled when her husband discovered and purchased an old press at an antiques shop.
“I’ve had a number of small presses over the years,” she said. “I like to see what I can do to repair, rehabilitate and get parts for them to get them working.”
After moving to Fitzwilliam in 1973, the couple installed a print shop in their home. Roberts started her business and, for a while, additionally sold puzzles and old folk toys she made at craft fairs. She also dove headfirst into her new community.
“I’d never lived in a small town before. I’d lived in suburbia or the city,” she said. “But the first couple of years we were here, the town was planning a bicentennial celebration, and I joined the quilt committee. It was a good way to get acquainted, finding people who are interested in the same things you’re interested in.”
Over the years, she moved on to handling publicity for the town’s historical society, and managing the local newsletter. Her husband, who worked with antique tools and books, died in 2000, but she continues to be actively involved in the community.
Nine years ago, she was appointed to the town’s zoning board of adjustment. She served as chairman for a term or so, and still remains a member. Today, she also belongs to a casual group of local women of all ages and skill levels who meet once a week to knit and to socialize.
Among them is Roberts’ longtime friend, Gretchen Wittenborg, who founded and hosts the group.
“I find the trajectory of Jane’s career extraordinary,” she said. “She put herself through four years of college working as a printer, then worked at the most famous settlement in the country. Then she put herself through grad school.
“Jane is a marvelous teacher. She never stops learning. She can do so many things,” she said. “If there’s something interesting to learn or to do or to read, she’s there. She’s never bored. She’s open to anything.”
Although Roberts and her husband had no children of their own, children have been a major focus in her life. Besides her careers as a teacher and social worker, she worked every year at the same summer camp in Ontario, Canada, for nearly two decades beginning in the late 1950s. Originally, she served as a crafts instructor, and later was in charge of planning extended overnight canoe trips for young campers.
It was at camp that she first learned to make canoe paddles with hand tools, an art she continues to practice.
“I figured that if I was going to teach the kids, I had better learn how to do it myself,” she said. “I loved working at the camp. I used to say I’m getting paid for playing. It ceased operation in 1970, but I still keep in touch with a lot of the people.”
As for the future? She plans to pursue whatever new interests arise, and continue to follow her passion for printing.
“I’d like to stay in printing for as long as I can,” she said. “For as long as I’m having fun.”

You'd think that article would satisfy me, but no. I decided I had to contact her to thank her for the little book, which has meant so much to me. She seemed quite pleased to hear that, and we began a bit of a correspondence, and I learned that not only does she have a history in printing, but in making handmade wooden toys and puzzles, too! And she was kind enough to send me some -- they are absolutely charming -- and some of the puzzles are quite clever, I'd never seen them before. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the world is full of amazing people... just keep your eyes open for amazing footprints -- you never know where they might lead!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Much Ado About Me

I've been a lifetime student of comedy, and part of that, for me, has included listening to old radio shows from the 30's and 40's. That was how I first discovered Fred Allen. He had a kind of fun, homespun radio comedy show that consisted of monologues, comedy sketches, and music, really, a kind of middle America version of the Jack Benny show. The two shows often poked fun at each other, and I came to realize that the David Letterman / Jay Leno battle for ratings had happened in almost exactly the same way about fifty years earlier between Benny and Allen.

Fred Allen has long fascinated me because he was very popular (if I understand right, he had better ratings than Benny did) but today he is largely forgotten. Perhaps this is because he didn't make the transition to TV? Maybe the more mainstream comedians are the ones that get forgotten? I'm not sure. Anyway, I was in New Orleans a little while ago, and with an hour to spare, I visited Beckham's Books, and the first thing to catch my eye was "Much Ado About Me", Fred Allen's autobiography.

Reading it, I was shocked to learn I had a few things in common with Fred Allen:
- We both grew up in Massachusetts
- We both got our start in entertainment as professional jugglers
- We both got a pretty good entertainment education from some not-too-trustworthy mentors
- We both made use of advice from John Steinbeck when writing our books
- We both used a "franchised" pseudo-vaudeville system to eventually propel ourselves into the big time. (his pseudo-vaudeville: franchised local talent nights; mine: franchised amusement park entertainment. His big time: The Palace; mine: Disney Imagineering)

Anyway, this book is primarily about his Vaudeville career -- he doesn't touch on his radio career much, because he had already done that in another book (which I want to seek out), "Treadmill to Oblivion." Reading the details about how Vaudeville worked, and how he made his was through it were absolutely fascinating to me. He gets into all kinds of details about his act, and how he marketed himself ("World's Worst Juggler", for example), and what the day to day of real Vaudeville was like. The book was incredibly readable and approachable. Since I used to listen to Fred's show a lot, I know his voice, which is very distinctive, and it is clear there was no ghost writer -- I could hear his voice on every page of the book. The foreword of the book is especially notable, and so I include it here, in full.

Some years ago John Steinbeck offered to help me with a book. I didn’t know how to write a book. John listed some rudimentary suggestions for the beginner. I pass them on to you. John wrote:
       Don’t start by trying to make the book chronological. Just take a period. Then try to remember it so clearly that you can see things: what colors and how warm or cold and how you got there. Then try to remember people. And then just tell what happened. It is important to tell what people looked like, how they walked, what they wore, what they ate. Put it all in. Don’t try to organize it. And put in all the details you can remember. You will find that in a very short time things will begin coming back to you, you thought you had forgotten. Do it for very short periods at first but kind of think of it when you aren’t doing it. Don’t think back over what you have done. Don’t think of literary form. Let it get out as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail—cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling. Don’t make telling follow a form.
Fortified with John Steinbeck’s advice I am starting my autobiography.
In short, if amusing tales from the days of Vaudeville interest you, I recommend this book highly.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Atlantis Bookshop

While I was in London, I had to stop at the Atlantis Bookshop, as well. I had seen ads for it in the London Review of Books many times, and was pleased to realize it was right around the corner from my hotel. And it did not disappoint. Though small, it had quite a fascinating collection of occult, religious, and philosophical works, as well as, let's say, exotica. I picked up a few books there (I decided I better limit myself to three), but it was hard to resist getting more -- there were so many unusual texts. I complimented the proprietesses (who had a somewhat supernatural air) on the selection, and they proudly mentioned that they were having their 100th anniversary. I jokingly insisted that they didn't look a day over ninety, and, I swear they cackled! Something about that chilled my blood. I paid and got out quickly.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Roycroft Inn

Okay, this is a long story, but I guess I have to tell it sometime. It's about Elbert Hubbard. Not L. Ron Hubbard, that's a whole other story, but Elbert Hubbard. (They are actually related, though not by blood. On top of that it has always seemed likely to me that "L. Ron" chose that peculiar name-phrase to connect to his famous uncle.)

I discovered Elbert Hubbard on my birthday, about ten years ago. I was poking around in a used bookstore (Caliban Books) and I found a cardboard box full of these neatly bound little book/magazine things that seemed quite old. Each was a "Little Journey" to the home of some great man or woman. Newton, Socrates, Hypatia, Beethoven, etc. They were dated around 1900. The printing style of the books was incredibly eye-catching, and, I don't know, I felt a kind of energy around the box. There was no price, but there were around 80 of the "Little Journeys", and the clerk said they had just come in, he hadn't priced them, and gave me a deal for the whole set, and he threw in a copy of "The Roycroft Dictionary" to go with it.

Over the coming weeks, I was completely taken with these bizarre little books. Each was beautifully printed, and contained a flowery biography. Weirdly, these biographies didn't stick to the facts. Each was about 30-40% biography, combined with wandering philosophical outpourings that I found bold and fascinating. That summer I was working on Carnegie Mellon's campus, doing some rather dreary software work, and so I was glad to be able to take a break at lunch, sit under a shady tree, and go on these Little Journeys to the homes of the great, with Hubbard as my guide.

There was so much in his philosophy that resonated with me. So much about where greatness truly comes from, about the importance of creativity, about doing great things because you must, because there is no other choice. I was pleased to learn details of the lives of these legendary figures (people who've read my book and wonder "Who the hell is Hypatia? Where does Jesse pick up this stuff?" need wonder no more), but with each book I read I became more curious about Hubbard. Weirdly, each of these books contained advertisements for other books as well as furniture, and other things, and through these ads, I gradually came to understand that:
- Hubbard was part of some group called "The Roycrofters"
- The Roycrofters were printers, but also seemed to make household goods, and hold "TED-like" conferences
- The Roycrofters had been located in East Aurora, New York.

Over the years, I learned more about Hubbard's life, about how he was a soap salesman who gave it up to start the Roycrofters, and how he and his wife went down with the Lusitania in 1915. And about his "Philistine" magazine, which cast stones at the topics of the day, back at the turn of the century. Hubbard and the Roycrofters were often on my mind, because their values ("Head, Hands, and Heart", making quality goods by hand, self-improvement, Emersonian self-reliance, etc. etc.) so resonated with mine. I would use his quotes in my teaching, and I would sometimes joke to students that I was Hubbard in a former life. Even the style with which I wrote my book, a bold first person, speaking directly to the reader, was very much under Hubbard's influence. And I sometimes wondered... was there anything in East Aurora left to see? My initial Internet searches revealed little. It seemed possible that the Roycrofters were forgotten.

But, in early July 2012, my family and I were driving home from a trip to New Hampshire, unexpectedly early, due to a change of plans caused by a death in the family. We were all somewhat gloomy, and I thought, you know, maybe this is the time. Maybe this is the right time to visit East Aurora. My new Internet searches bore fruit this time -- there was apparently an Elbert Hubbard Museum, a tour of the campus, and even a restored Roycroft Inn. It was a long drive from New Hampshire to Pittsburgh, and we needed a place to stay, and hey, guess what? The Roycroft Inn had rooms available.

I'm not sure I've ever felt more at home. The Inn is absolutely gorgeous, and decorated throughout with works of the Roycrofters, both hand-work and mind-work. The photo above is of a framed picture in our room -- a Hubbard quote I'd somehow never heard before. The room we were given was the "George Eliot" room, and I was pleased to see her name was carved into the door, just as "Beethoven" and others from the Little Journeys were carved into the doors of the other rooms. "How clever," I thought, "that the designers who restored the hotel chose to name the rooms after the Little Journeys." Later, reading a biography of Hubbard, I learned that naming the rooms that way was part of the original design of the Roycroft Inn, which was used partly as staff dorms, but partly to house visiting guests. And there was even an amusing anecdote about this that the Roycrofters liked to tell. They had hired a local craftsman to carve the names into the doors, specifically, Socrates, Edison, George Eliot, Beethoven, William Morris, and Susan B. Anthony. (Causing one visitor to comment, "An odd team, that.") After carving the names, the craftsman expressed disbelief to the other villagers at the madness of the Roycrofters: "They had me carve 'George Eliot' on the door. What if the fellow doesn't show up?"

Anyway, our stay in the George Eliot room was very pleasant, as was the entire Inn, the restaurant especially, as was our entire trip to East Aurora. We didn't get to see all the sights -- the Hubbard Museum was closed while we were there, but we did visit the copper shop, which sells works of local artisans in the Roycroft style, and it was thrilling to me to see the actual printing presses they used to produce the Little Journeys. Later, we had a lunch of ice-cream sodas in a candy store that was formerly the home of president Millard Fillmore, and we visited an old-time five and dime store. The headquarters of Fisher Price is nearby, too. The town has really embraced its arts and crafts history, you can see it everywhere.

Thus ends my tale of my first Little Journey to East Aurora. (Eerily, I later realized that the first Little Journey Hubbard published was, yeah, George Eliot... so, the room could not have been more appropriate for us.) I feel certain that there will be others. And I am pleased, each day, to look upon the framed sign I found in the copper shop that now hangs in my office, one of Hubbard's lesser known epigrams:

"East Aurora is not a locality - East Aurora is a condition of mind."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Geek Wisdom

A thoughtful gift from a friend. This little book, by Stephen H. Segal (no, not the actor, duh) takes nerd quotes ("I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit", "It's dangerous to go alone, take this", "Kneel before Zod", etc.) and tries to put them in a squeezer with hopes of distilling wisdom. It doesn't really work... instead of meaningful wisdom, each entry is really just some ambling observations. But once in a while he trips over something interesting or clever. It's a great gift book, because it is pleasing to receive, and pleasing to look through, and see all the catchphrases in a row. Reading is overrated, anyway.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

London Review Bookshop

I'm a London Review of Books junkie. I first found it in a Girl Scout Magazine catalog, of all places. And now I'm hooked. I can't read it fast enough -- the articles are so deep, and it comes every two weeks! But... I really like reading something where every time I think "Oh my God these people are so much smarter than me!" For a while, I used to bring it with me to coffee shops, and tried to look smart reading it in public. How sad is that? Fortunately, I cut that out.

So, anyway, with my bookstore fascination, when I was in London, I had to stop into their bookshop. It was pleasing, and modest. A mix of show-offy intellectuals, confused tourists, and quiet bookish people irked that anyone else is in the shop. They have a cafe, which seemed nice, but the show-offs and the confused tourists were so busy ordering complicated things there that it didn't seem possible to actually order something. The basement is where the cool books were... esoteric philosophy and politics, etc.

As mentioned previously, I picked up a copy of Remains of Elmet.

I took the picture you see here, cuz I was too shy and bookish to ask a stranger to take a picture of me standing outside.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Alex Shakar, what's the deal? Did you just decide to take my life, and put it in a book? Okay, not *everything* in this book happened to me, but, yeesh, enough to make me wonder. Let's see...
- Performed magic shows in kids' living rooms? Check.
- Started a tech company to help emergency rescue workers prepare for terror attacks? Check.
- Said company had to race to make flaky demos to impress investors? Check.
- Said company had to do a major pivot? Check.
- Said company got bought out by a much much larger company? Also check.
- Stress caused me to vandalize a Florida mini-golf course? No comment.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this book. It was so creepily intimate with how MMO's are produced, and the challenges of tech startups... and also it had a great handle on magic, and then there was all the fun mysticism. I can't explain it, exactly, but beyond the surface similarities, there was something in the whole way the protagonist related to the world that resonated with me. Weirdly, this and Ready Player One were on the shelves at the same time.

But back to my original question... Alex Shakar, how do you know all this stuff?