Archive for October, 2008


This is the first Sunday I’ve had completely, blissfully, unencumberedly free in weeks, largely because I’ve been editing an incomprehensible goddamned survival manual on a freelance basis and I completely underestimated the work and brutally blew my deadline and I’ve been dicking around with it in every spare moment for almost a month and on Friday I was finally done. Or as done as I’m going to get.

The survival guides on this page, by the way, are not the survival guide I was editing. I don’t even know that book’s title or the author’s full name, and if I did I wouldn’t say it here. These books are for illustrative purposes, and the fact that I had two survival guides on my bookshelves (not that I’ve done more than skim them) is part of a display of general familiarity with the subject matter that got me the $25/hr. assignment, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

(This army manual above is cool. I broke a general rule about titles published by Barnes & Noble (this is only a sticker after all) because I like the mud splatter. That’s not design. That’s real mud. I hope it’s mud. The one on the right is more or less definitive. I should probably put one of them in the truck. You know, in case the truck and I have to parachute out of a crashing plane in the Himalayas or something. The other one’s fine right where it is. In the bathroom.)

I don’t know why anyone’s doing a new survival guide, there are dozens already out there, but the general gist I gathered from the totally inadequate instructions I was given was that this was a little on the Survival-for-Dummies side of the street.

I think people like these, and all the cable shows dedicated to the same topic, in direct proportion to the ever-more-vanishing possibility that they’ll ever find themselves truly, badly, threateningly lost. You can still do it, all right, but increasingly, you have to try. I personally have never been in a genuine survival situation. If ever I find myself in such, I’d rather rely on a gun and a single bullet than have to try to make sense of the raw copy I just spent three weeks trying to untangle. 

My author is some former Special Forces dude who must have skipped the boot camp session where they diagrammed sentences. My job, which I was dumb enough to take on, was to organize the contents into some sort of semi-logical cohesion, apply house styles to the document, polish up the language and excise repetitions. Pointing out logical fallacies and red-flagging factual discrepancies and TKing just plain bad advice were not among my specified duties, but I took them on anyway, because one can hardly help it.

Other stuff just stumped me. Dig this:

AND at 180 degrees behind the UK, out in the middle of the pacific, is where the INTERNATIONAL DATELINE occurs. That is where one day becomes a new day first. So, it is chopped in half and each half gets a letter M & Y, so that means 1 letter of our 26 letter alphabet is not used, the letter “J”, since it was not common in many languages. That means we have 24 hours, 24 time zones, 1 letter left out and 1 zone gets 2 letters. All this comes into play when we look at the rest of LAT/LONG.

You follow? Try this:

This is applied basic trigonometry (or geometry for purists) – but this is the triangle formed from one eye down your arm to the point, then the short base line distance over from the eye change, then the distance back to you forms a triangle, so, this is how to apply it. Multiply that known size, by the amount of itself that it moved over by the eye/arm ratio of 10.

Granted, you’re losing something via lack of context, but trust me: You’re not missing much. I’d say 9 out of 10 sentences needed rewriting. Two chapters of this were mine, about 32,000 words.

I almost didn’t survive it. Heh. But it’s a hell of a lot better now. And I can pay for my new bike.

I’m available for freelance editing jobs, by the way. And I promise not to name you or your book on my blog.


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I’ve been inexplicably obsessed with bicycles lately, which I’ve never much been before, with the exception of a brief period in early high school when I got all inspired by Breaking Away and somehow finagled the money for a low-end Nishiki road bike, which I rode around my neighborhood, knocking on doors and collecting pledges for the MS-150, a charity-funding two-day bike ride from Houston to Austin.

One of the first things I did on that ride was lay the bike down in a turn on wet pavement and bruise all hell out of my hip. The other thing I remember, aside from being ass-tired when it was over, is that me and a buddy actually got pulled over by a cop in a patrol car and ticketed for running the one red light in what I believe to have been the township of Industry, Texas.

The ticket pretty much washed with the money I collected to fight multiple sclerosis, which I notice is still out there, and my dad jumped on the opportunity to say told-ya-so. He had been of the opinion from the start that the ride was an inefficient fundraising mechanism once you factored in depreciation of the equipment and time and personal risk. Jesus he was an engineer.

This time, after many essentially bike-free intervening years (the Nishiki got stolen in Portland almost 20 years ago), it’s mountain biking. Apparently there are lots of good trails around here, and since I’m feeling grudgingly motivated to not sit on my ass staring at a computer screen every single last minute of the rest of my life, and since the canoeing opportunities in the neighborhood are somewhat less than consistently inspiring, I figured I’d check it out. Apparently it’s complicated.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to educate myself and shopping for a reasonable bike. But before I bought I figured I’d impose at least once on a friend to borrow his and go actually, you know, ride on a mountain bike trail.

After about 3 minutes on the bike I was on my back in the bottom of a rocky ditch with the bike on top of me and my feet strapped into borrowed shoes clipped onto evil little spider-like pedals hovering in the air above my face, which posture I maintained for a good long while as I explored the possibility that I might be dead. I wasn’t, but that crash pretty much set the tone for the whole ride, especially the other four crashes, which have collectively left me with a bruised shoulder, a scabby elbow, a splinted flipping finger, and some too-aggressively tenderized tender parts.

It went a little something like this:



Still, put all that in a bucket and add a sharp stick in the eye and it’s nothing compared to my biking-maniac friend Matt, who rides everywhere, and who just sent out his pledge solicitation for this year’s MS-150, and who recently got swept off his bike by heavy drooping wet branches at high speed, and whose leg looks like something you might find at the bottom of a bin of rotten eggplants. I’m scared to even look at the rest of him.

And I guess we both got off lucky compared to Paul Rayment, who gets his in the very first paragraphs of J.M. Coetzee’s Slow Man.

The blow catches him from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle. Relax! he tells himself as he flies through the air (flies through the air with the greatest of ease!), and indeed he can feel his limbs go obediently slack. Like a cat he tells himself: roll, then spring to your feet, ready for what comes next. The unusual word limber or limbre is on the horizon too.

That is not quite how it turns out, however.”

It turns out that he loses his leg. Hilarity does not ensue. But I love this guy. He’s sailing for pavement and what’s going on in his head? He’s trying to remember how to spell “limber.”

Three days after I spent the afternoon falling off someone else’s bike (no fault of the bike implied), I found the bike I wanted at a used sale and bought it. It’s like the teasiest Christmas ever because my hand’s still much too busted up to take it out on a trail and try to do what it’s supposed to do for the first time.

And I can’t recall ever seeing another book with any kind of bike on the cover. There’s bound to be something. Anyone?

I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like, it’s got a basket and a bell and lots of things to make it look good. I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it… —Syd Barrett, “Bike”

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The Welcome Wagon lady, sixty if she was a day but working at youth and vivacity (ginger hair, red lips, a sunshine-yellow dress), twinkled her eyes and teeth at Joanna and said, ‘You’re really going to like it here! It’s a nice town with nice people! You couldn’t have made a better choice!’ 

Where was she when I moved here?

There is no way, with that opening paragraph, and this cover (→), at $2.99, to not buy this book. Even if you already have a perfectly good copy with a perfectly good cover, like I already did (←).

That girl on that cover up top, a 2002 edition, is no way 60. She could almost work as a cover girl for Lolita. There’s always some version of a little girl on the covers of Lolita. It’s like nobody cares that the book is really about an old man.

I picked up this (→) paperback copy of Lolita a couple of years ago in a metro station in Paris, which sounds a lot more romantic than it actually was. I was taking an overnight train to Madrid and I was in a rush and I needed something to read and I was delighted — because delighted is the sort of thing one can be in a train station in a foreign country — to find it stacked alongside a row of Daniel Steele novels in English. 10.7 euros. About 15 bucks at the time. For a little mass-market paperback. And happy to pay it.

I’ve read it several times. I recommend the movie highly. Peter Sellers is something else. A new quote jumped out at me this time: 


“Why did I hope I would be happy abroad? A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lungs, rely.”

I was facing quitting smoking at the time. And so on.

He’s only been dead a year, but nobody seems to remember Ira Levin, I don’t think. But the gentleman had quite a run. Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives. With that many books made into movies, it’s all the more gratifying to find non-movie-tie-in covers. Especially when they look like these. Nobody needs to see Nicole Kidman on another book cover. 

Ira Levin was lauded — when he was lauded — as a plotmaster. Stephen King called him “the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel.” Vladimir Nabokov knew his way around Switzerland too; he was really more a stylist.

But I bet Levin sold more. And he got better covers.

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 I’ve driven me some plains. Nebraska stands out, in an outstanding in its field sort of way. North Texas/Oklahoma/Kansas.

Pretty friggin boring, driving, but not near as boring as I-10 between Fort Stockton and San Antonio Texas. Or hell, El Paso, though I did get woke up in the middle of the night by a freight train on that stretch, sleeping in the back of a pickup with a pretty girl, on the way home from a fine weekend in Albuquerque, so there was that. 

I got to review this book this week. I liked it, which is thankfully sort of beside the point. You can read that here in the Missoula Independent if you like.

Yup, I’m reviewing books with pictures now. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the plan. 

There’s a lot of good writing in here, or out there, and b&w photography worth looking at—I especially enjoy the idea of city boy Lee Friedlander traipsing around eastern Montana, always half-cocked for some sort of road out.

I’ve driven through, but the plains was never my place. I tend to think the plains aren’t most peoples’ place, not permanently, and I suspect the demographics will bear me out.

“Great Plains” is, however, the title of one of my all-time favorite books, by Ian Frazier. Annick Smith, Missoula’s literary den mother and co-editor of The Wide Open, called Ian “Sandy” when I asked about his absence from the new anthology over the phone. Sandy must have been busy.

Who isn’t? Can I call him Sandy now too?

The plains have inspired a reasonable amount of unexpectedly interesting American literature, of which I’ve read shallowly, but not disinterestedly. And here’s a related curiosity: a book I have read, but don’t possess (seems bassackwards, don’t it?): Jonathan Raban’s Bad Land: An American Romance. (And I dare anyone to write me a better sentence including three colons.) (And yes, I ripped off Raban for the review’s headline.)

It’s been so long since I’ve read the Frazier, though, that I can hardly remember with any specificity what I liked so very much about it. I think it has something to do with Sandy’s genuine interest in meeting people, an attribute I share only imperfectly. That, and I think I just love the company of his voice in the middle of all that nowhere.

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Every time Alaska governor/vice-presidential candidate/agent provocateur Sarah Palin answers a completely unrelated question by repeating robotically that Arizona senator/presidential candidate/hate-enabler John McCain is “the original maverick” — and she shows no signs of ceasing anytime soon — she is not only dissembling, she is, again, lying like a dog in the dirt: lazily, impudently, luxuriously, to the manor of thoughtless falsity born.

That dog don’t hunt… as I might say if I were an animatronic representation of a right-wing Republican wetdream of American motherhood with my FOLKSY knob turned up to 11. Even if you buy the specious argument that McCain — as veteran an insider as senators get — is any kind of rebel in anything but his own mind, you still have to wrap your head around “original.” The first thing I think of when I hear Palin call McCain “the original maverick” is a vision of the senator kickin it with OG Ice T poolside in Phoenix. Neither one of them looks happy.

But “original” is other kinds of trouble too, because “maverick” isn’t just some crazy Slavic (?) word that’s been hanging around forever waiting for Mel Gibson to come play cards. Maverick was a real man’s name: Samuel A. Maverick, 1803 to 1870, “a Texas cattleman who did not brand his calves” (according to the absolutely perfect hardback 1550-page 1969 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language I picked up at Goodwill a few weeks ago for $3.99.)

Sam Maverick’s branding habits gave maverick its meaning (“A horse or steer that has escaped from a herd,” or, “one who refuses to abide by the dictates of his group.” ibid.)

Now normally, when Gov. Palin sees an animal escaped from a herd, she shoots it from a helicopter, and when an animal refuses to abide by the dictates of her group, she tries to have that animal fired, but the McCain/Palin ticket swallows its hypocrisies easily.

John McCain can claim original maverickhood, or have it claimed for him, all he wants, but as a simple matter of established historical record, it’s simply not true. It’s so not true that the still-kicking San Antonio descendants of old Sam Maverick have called his bluff in the New York Times.

“I’m just enraged that McCain calls himself a maverick,” said Terrellita Maverick, 82, a San Antonio native who proudly carries the name of a family that has been known for its progressive politics since the 1600s, when an early ancestor in Boston got into trouble with the law over his agitation for the rights of indentured servants.” (READ THE WHOLE FANTASTIC JOHN SCHWARTZ STORY IN THE TIMES HERE)

(And while we’re breezing past the poker metaphor, and in case you ever had cause to wonder what, if any, kinds of books I don’t bring home from the pound, I’ll just mention here that I recently had an opportunity to acquire a little paperback of Maverick’s [worthless] Guide to Poker with a glossy photo of Jew-baiter Mel Gibson on the cover at my local Salvation Army thrift store. I left it behind with all those bleeding Left Behind books that are always left behind at thrift stores by people who are now so scared of being left behind on Planet Obama they can’t climb onboard Mothership Palin fast enough. Nope, even though I have a small collection of books about poker. Not even at 69¢.)

So why do I have Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave: Essays On Texas (a book so nice I own it twice → ) there at the top of this post? (Nice bit on McMurtry and books, here, by the way.) Aside from the ass-kicking posture of the boot and that image’s happy resonance with my burning inclination to pound some progressive Texas sense into Sarah Palin’s stubborn Alaskan ass (wait, did I just write that out-loud?), it’s there because one of those progressive Texas Mavericks, legislator-mayor-lawyer-columnist Maury Maverick Jr., signed and inscribed this copy, mine now, in 1975.

I found it in Missoula Montana’s Book Exchange, just sitting on the shelf, for $5. Being from Texas I recognized Maverick’s name; I doubt most people working at a used book store in Missoula Montana would have. It’s probably worth about exactly five dollars, but it’s always seemed extra-valuable to me, especially since I found it like a secret such a long way from home.

I don’t know who Ray Sanfear or Tom Kimmell are or were, and I haven’t tried beyond a cursory Google search to find out. I like to think that with friends like Maury they would have known better than to bite on the bait — our race-hating, intellect-bashing, other-fearing worst — that Sarah Palin seems to so enjoy dangling in front of America’s inner Pit Bull.

They’d sure as shit have known just exactly what she and McCain are full of — as if the brown rising in their eyeballs didn’t give it away — every time they call themselves mavericks.

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I cannot believe I left George Herbert Walker Bush sitting at the top of my blog for three friggin days.

I used to drink a lot of Shiner Bock. You used to could buy it straight from the keg at Valhalla, the Rice U. graduate bar, for 50¢ in plastic cups and then walk outside and sit in the grass and drink in the sun all damn afternoon. Shiner was surely my first bock. For a long time I didn’t know Shiner made any other kind of beer. Who cared?

Somewhere along in there they started advertising it as the hip beer to drink at its price point, at which point it started costing a little more and tasting — to my tongue, anyhow — a little less good. 

Nothing against Shiner. They make a fine beer. It’s just that there are cheaper cheap beers, and better good ones.

For cheap beer, now that I’m back where Mexican brew isn’t a cross-country import, I’m a bottled Carta Blanca guy at home, Tecate cans in the boat. Good beer? I left all the quality micro stuff behind in Montana (I miss you, Kettlehouse; I love you, Cold Smoke; Marry me, Eddy Out). In the meantime, I’ll gladly drink all the Pilsner Urquell you care to buy me.

But there probably isn’t any other beer — in Texas, anyway — that’s generated the long-standing collective good will that Shiner Bock has earned. And I’m certainly not aware of any other Texas beer that has its own coffee-table book.

And I definitely don’t own another coffee-table book that I’d let you set your beer on.

(And god no, I didn’t buy this. Such are the perks of the Texas-based book review editor.)

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So today is my birthday — me and Buster Keaton, Charlton Heston, Alicia Silverstone, Anne Rice and Rutherford B. Hayes. I used to tell people — girls, mostly — that I shared a birthday with Pancho Villa, and I felt sure I had seen that somewhere, but then I got curious one day and looked it up. June 5. Strange how that shit happens.

I’ll be spending the day doing a contract editing job on two chapters of a survival manual by some Green Beret I’ve never met for a publishing house in Philadelphia. The chapters in question concern how to determine your location and chart your direction of travel, and how to signal for help, respectively — subjects that could, under the circumstances, be considered somewhat ironical.

I turned 41 this morning, and this is the only thing I can find in my library that has anything to do with being 41. Aside from chronology, the connection is admittedly pretty thin. I’m not even sure where I acquired this. I’ve certainly never read it, and doubt I ever will.

I did grow up in Houston, and howled with indignation when our otherwise perfectly good airport was renamed after this pencil-necked schlub in 1997. But come to think of it, just looking at him makes me feel pretty gosh-darned prudent about not having any kids…

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cartoon copyright Ben Sargent, reprinted from The Texas Observer

cartoon copyright Ben Sargent, reprinted from The Texas Observer

A couple of weeks ago I got to spend the afternoon with a trio of top-notch Texas editorial cartoonists, including the Austin American-Statesman‘s Pulitzer Prize-winner Ben Sargent, who called me a “star-fucker” when I asked him to sign my program, but somehow seemed to mean it as a form of self-deprecation. Funny guy.

Otherwise the day was depressing as hell, since two of the aforementioned cartoonists were out of work, along with a great many more of their ilk across the state and nationwide, which circumstance was pretty much the gist of the story I was there to report.

We were all gathered at Baylor University for the opening of an exhibit called “Drawing Power,” instigated by a journalism prof named Robert Darden, who autographed his 1983 book of the same name — his master’s thesis — without calling me any kind of fucker at all, which I appreciated. It now takes its place as the only book of editorial cartoons in my library. 

My Texas Observer story on the sad state of the art published today. I’m especially proud of the headline, which I wrote, despite the fact that the 20-something staff writer in my office has no idea what it means. Damn kids. Oh crap. It’s come to this…

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