Friday Reviews: Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am by Pete TownshendWho I Am

Pete Townshend

The creative mind behind most of The Who’s music pens his autobiography, a project he admits took sixteen years. He also says he decided to write this book when he was 21. Ego? I don’t think Townshend is denying that. All rock stars, he posits, are a bit narcissistic, and while he doesn’t say it directly, he believes he is more narcissistic than Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. If you know anything about lead singers, narcissism is part of the job description.

And this is one of the amazing parts of Townshend’s autobiography. Here is the man who created Tommy, the aborted Lifehouse (which spawned the classic Who’s Next), and Quadrophenia. His solo albums, when taken as a whole instead of a collection of songs, each are organized like novels. He has one of the most ambitious imaginations in rock, perhaps exceeding the flights of fancy of Roger Waters. And yet he seems to look up to Roger Daltrey. He even says, “I hope he writes his version of The Who’s story someday.” Daltrey is a rare island of stability in his life.

Townshend hides none of his vices. He admits to being a horrible husband to former wife Kathy and worrying how leaving her might affect her. At the same time, he worries about others. The Keith Moon we have been treated to over the years was a whimsical man, the lost Monty Python member, and someone for whom being seriously was glaringly missing from his skill set. And yet, Townshend fretted over Moon’s emotional state and his bad habits, which ultimately killed him.

We’re also treated to a dismal childhood that went into much of The Who’s music, his parents contentious and adulterous relationship, probably sexual abuse at the hands of an increasingly demented grandmother, and the friends he ran with in postwar Acton, part of London. It’s all there.

Townshend’s recollection of his life is refreshingly honest and self-deprecating. I listened it on Audible, which let me hear him read what he’d written. I highly recommend doing this book on audio as his lyrical prose really comes to life.

Being A Dick

Wil says "Don't be a dick."One should never be a dick. In fact, it’s what prompted me to pilfer this photo from Wil Wheaton’s dontbeadickday.com. Of course, lifting it was kind of a dick move on my part, but at least I’m giving credit. And if asked, I’ll take it down. (Which will make editing this blog post a bitch, but to say no would be an even bigger dick move.)

Wow, that went off on a tangent. Anyway, one should never be a dick. Not without good reason. No one likes dicks. It’s a good way to get a swift kick in the dick.

But I’m going to talk today about being a different kind of dick. I’m talking about being a Dick with a capital D. As in short for Richard. Now, some Richards were complete dicks. Nixon comes to mind. But I’m talking about my Dick. The Dick Bachman to my Steve King. Yes, he’s finally gone live, which means I can no longer do the extended dick joke here tagged “My Dick is writing a novel.” That’s okay. It was time for that bit to be retired.

But Dick has come out of the shadows and into the light. Over on that blog, I refer to myself with a less racy, but similarly sourced name to discuss what I do here without letting on that I’m doing it over here. I know. I’m breaking one of the rules of the indie pub era, which is never to hide one byline from the other. But I ask, “Why not?” I’m willing to do the work, and there are some reasons I have for acting as though they are separate entities. I vow not to engage in sock puppetry with my two identities, not unless it’s for comedic effect.

It does mean the subject matter on this blog will likely change. It’s lost a bit of steam in the past few months anyway. I need to differentiate what I talk about there and here. What that means come the New Year, I can’t say yet.

It’s a lot more work, but it promises to be fun. Because there’s a reason I call this byline “Dick” that has nothing to do with raunchy humor. Stephen King wrote under the name Richard Bachman partly to burn off some work that didn’t quite fit the image of the author of The Shining and Salem’s Lot. But also after the success of Carrie, he wanted to see if he could do it again.

Right now, Holland Bay is being revised for an agent. Which means I’m going back to trad with my crime fiction. “Dick” is an indie writer, and that’s likely an important distinction.

Fear Itself

"You're drinking water? But that contains hydrogen oxide!"

“Something about Obama! Or the Koch Brothers!”

As I type this on a Sunday evening, it’s been about twenty minutes since I’ve heard or read something about ebola. What gets on my nerves is that most of the people complaining about it are also the same people who won’t get a flu shot. Many of these people will likely get the flu, which is something they do need to worry about.

But tell people that it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll ever come in contract with someone who has ebola, never mind get the disease themselves, and they get upset. I don’t get it.

Actually, I do. The source of most of our information about ebola and illegal immigrants and terrorist groups comes from the nightly news. In the past ten years, many of the more sensationalist stories have had to be retracted or get debunked on snopes.com. By then, the damage is done. And they don’t care.

Is it a grand conspiracy? Is there some sort of evil agenda at play here?

Well, yes there is. See, the broadcast news services, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all need to sell advertising so Tim Matthews and Sean Hannity can go on telling you what to think. Advertisers use advertising to sell you everything from Toyotas to iPhones to tampons to even gold-buying schemes. (Study on it. Pray on it.) And how do those ads work?

Well, they keep your eyes glued. How? Two things: sex and fear. The networks have always used sex. Three’s Company and Friends and any soap, day or night, have contained enough bare skin, double-entendre, and implied or graphic sex to keep eyeballs pointed at the screen. But sex doesn’t work so well on the news. What does? Fear.

Tsunami hits Japan and sends a nuclear power plant in an out-of-control meltdown? Hey, radiation’s coming to America. Film at 11. Radical terrorists trying to take over half the Middle East? Well, the threat of them coming over here keeps a lot of people watching, right after this message from Captain Crunch. Ebola? Hey, there’s a new iPhone out. Let us tell you about that before we get to some horrific disease you likely will never get.

Sweeps months tend to be the worst for this. Local news in Cincinnati is pretty good. Yes, once upon a time, Jerry Springer was a respected anchorman, not a freak show barker. Yet every February, May, August, and November, YOUR SMARTPHONE IS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH MITCH MCCONNELL AND A GOAT BEHIND YOUR BACK!

CNN actually takes the cake in scaring you to keep you tuned in. Back in the late 90’s, NASA discovered an asteroid that will come uncomfortably close to the Earth in 2029. It’s since been determined it’ll pass farther away than anticipated. However, CNN picked up on this for its 10 PM broadcast and ran with it. I remember watching for news of the end of the world in three decades only to learn, forty minutes later, the chances of humanity’s imminent extinction by dinosaur-killing impact were somewhere between slim and none, leaning heavily toward none.

It gets worse. Pundits make their money telling you everything is those “other people’s” fault, that they’re out to get you. It’s the Muslims fault or immigrants or liberals. Or conservatives. If Obama isn’t out to get you, the Koch brothers are. It’s all a grand conspiracy meant to make you miserable and keep you down.

Uh huh.

First off, I have, as a matter of fact, bought Gold Bond Medicated Powder for some itchy feet. When that happened, I hadn’t listened to a second of Rush Limbaugh since, oh, 1996. It was 2010. Volkswagen is pushing Jettas hard. Know why I bought mine? Internet search, comparison to Edmonds.com, the raving praise my cousin the lifelong VW fan heaped on the cars. Test drive. I didn’t buy it because Obama tried to kill the Koch brothers by bringing the Black Plague to American shores.

You didn’t hear about that one?

Film at 11.

Friday Reviews: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations

Charles Dickens

I selected this late novel by Dickens from Harold Bloom’s list of novels in his book How to Read. The list begins with Don Quixote and includes several French and Russian novels of various lengths, along with works by Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon.

Great Expectations was a good choice. It’s text is not as dense as A Tale of Two Cities, and there’s a refreshing lack of those contrived Dickensian names (“Scrooge”, “Wackford Squeers”). Great Expectations does, however, showcase Dickens’ pet themes, namely class disparity, poverty, and the questionable application of justice in early Victorian England.

The story is about Pip, the short name of Phillip Prirrip. Pip is an orphan raised by his abusive sister and her kindly husband. In the beginning, he helps an escaped convict by sneaking him food one Christmas Eve. The convict is later arrested, and Pip forgets the incident. He is eventually apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a blacksmith, and resigns himself to a life at the forge. A mysterious benefactor sends for Pip and offers to have his solicitor, Mr. Jaggers, raise him in exchange for giving Pip a small fortune. The benefactor wishes Pip to “become a gentleman.”

Pip’s life is one of idle luxury with no foreseeable plan. But he is a gentleman, and that is what is expected of Pip. Over time, Pip feels an enormous amount of guilt over leaving his brother-in-law, who showed him more kindness than the society types Pip encounters. He also feels a growing sense of alienation from Estella, the coldly beautiful girl from his childhood. In the end, when Pip discovers the identity of his benefactor, he wonders if his entire life since leaving Kent was a lie.

Great Expectations would be the template for later novels such as Twain’s The Gilded Age, much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Simon’s television work, particularly The Wire and Treme are compared to Dickens work. However, Simon pulls from a different zeitgeist than Dickens, though there are many parallels – the anger at poverty and class inequality in particular.

Before reading this, I might have picked A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s contribution to Bloom’s list. However, Great Expectations sums up Dickens’s philosophy on class, morality, and justice.

Nobody Owes You

"But why doesn't anyone get my X Men - Twilight Crossover fanfic?"

“But why doesn’t anyone get my X Men – Twilight Crossover fanfic?”

In the great trad vs. indie debate, there’s an annoying chorus rising on the indie side. Many authors seem to think they have a god-given right to be published. “I worked hard. I write better than [insert disliked writer or celebrity here]. It’s not fair!”

Well, Corky, I’m about to pass on one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I was young: Never start a land war in Asia. Since that’s not relevant to today’s topic, I’ll also pass on this valuable nugget of wisdom: “Fair” and “should” have nothing to do with reality.

In fact, the way I heard it originally, “fair” and “should” walked off into the woods one day holding hands. They were struck by lighting and died.”

The point is that the world is not fair. Never has been. Never will be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be fair. Fairness is an aspiration. It’s why we have laws and moral codes and why we keep revamping them over time. Fair and should are where we need to be pointed. They do not reflect reality.

The fact is an agent is under no obligation to read your work. He or she is looking to make money. That’s the whole point of becoming an agent. A publisher is under no obligation to buy your work. They, too, have a business to run. Now, an argument could be made that the Big Five is running its collective business into the ground, but that’s neither here nor there. In the beginning, the only one with a vested interest in your manuscript is you. Not an agent. Not an editor. Not even the buying public. If you go straight to them, they will decide if you’re worth their time. And reading a book takes time.

That is not to say you shouldn’t try. An unwritten, unsubmitted, or unpublished novel will not go anywhere. But nobody owes you a chance. Nobody owes Stephen King a chance. He just made the most of the one he was given. On the other hand, if his wife had never fished Carrie out of the trashcan, you’d have never heard of him. Not likely, anyway. And his experiment with being Richard Bachmann shows that he might have faced a struggle. As King puts it, Bachman sold 10,000 copies of Thinner – respectable, but hardly an NYT bestseller. Steve King sold several times that many copies of the same novel. And keep in mind that “Bachman” had co-conspirators in King’s editors and agent. Misery could have become Bachman’s breakout novel.

Let us remember what the biggest component of success is: Luck. Pure, unadulterated luck. Even if you should go trad, get an agent, sell to a big publisher, and have all the marketing muscle in the world behind it, readers can still look at your work and go, “Meh.”

“But… But… But… Hugh Howey! Amanda Hocking! Dean Wesley Smith!”

Okay, let’s look at Dean Wesley Smith first. He went independent already having a reputation and the ability to write over 100,000 words a month. That’s just combining short stories he writes for Smith’s Monthly and other work. It does not include his blog, his workshops, or work for hire. Smith is a hypergraphic freak of nature who makes Nora Roberts look like a slacker. They exist. I envy them.

But Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. They did a lot of work to raise their profile, but both, Howey in particular, could easily have been ignored by the buying public they courted. They worked hard, and they got lucky. You do have to make some of your own luck, but if your work is esoteric or covers tired ground or, let’s face that elephant in the room, sucks, all the hand selling and interaction with readers is not going to do you any good. And even if it is good, innovative… Hell, you could be positively brilliant, and all that comes when you check your Amazon numbers or look at your royalty statements is the sound of crickets.

Probably the moment that set me off on this topic was when I decided independently publish Second Hand Goods. My editor from the original intended publisher said, “That novel deserved to be published.”

Of course, one should learn to graciously take the compliment. I did not say anything to him, but a few people got to hear me rant, “‘Deserves to be published?’ No novel ‘deserves to be published.’ It’s all luck!”

Maybe that’s why I don’t flog the Kepler novels or Road Rules harder. They’re done. I’m satisfied with them. They’re out there for people to find. And besides, crime fiction readers are a little harder to lure. (Hence my forays into science fiction. It’s fun to build a spec fic following!) I stand by my work. I don’t regret publishing them myself.

But nobody owes me a read. If they don’t owe James Patterson a read, why should anyone “owe” anyone else?

Remission: It’s All Coming Together

Running_Man_Kyle_CassidyIt’s not a stretch to say I did not have a good summer numbers-wise. My weight went back to 280. Blood sugar and cholesterol followed. In fact, cholesterol, not A1C, is what freaked my doctor out on my most recent (and overdue) checkup.

My wife and I have both been running this summer, but I fell back to a mile a run, three days a week and sometimes down to two.

But now we’re getting into to, using a football metaphor, the red zone. My goal is to run a half marathon in 2015, specifically the Flying Pig. I want to run the full Pig in 2016. So I need to be running more than 3 miles a week.

I’m working slowly on it. By Christmas, if all goes well, I’ll be up to 5 miles a run three times a week. Come January…

I’ll admit, I worried about being ready to run 13.1 miles in five months. As it turns out, I found a training plan for the run. You don’t have to work up to running 13 miles a day. In fact, you could hurt yourself doing that. You run five times a week, starting by running 3 miles a day. Sunday (or whatever your final day is), you run your long run. It starts out at three miles and increases one mile weekly to 13 miles. The week before the half marathon, you actually only run 6 miles on your long day. During the week, you insert longer runs from 4 to 6 miles, which is doable.

This is perfect for me as I have my final semester of college coming up. So for the first half of the semester, I’ll have two built-in rest days while I knock out an accelerated class.

So the first running goal is more than doable. Now I just have to figure out how to train for the marathon after that.

Friday Reviews: Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor & Saul Singer

Start-Up NationStart-Up Nation

It’s a small nation surrounded by enemies and at war as often as not. And yet Israel continues to thrive. Start-Up Nation attempts to explain why. It does not look into the political ramifications of its military actions or its treatment of the Palestinian people.

Instead, it looks at a nation that, under normal circumstances, would be seen as too dangerous to sustain long-term investment. Instead, it is a major center of technology. What’s the secret? Floods of money from America and Europe? A constant state of war resulting in greater and greater technology?

Actually, it’s culture. Israel’s history as a republic is unique, fostering an entire nation of entrepreneurs. Every Israeli Jew, with few exceptions, serves in the military. And Israel’s military is, counter-intuitively, anti-hierarchical. Junior officers are encouraged to question their superiors. And because units continue to serve in the reserves until their members reach their forties, a natural network is built up. Because of this, everyone in Israel knows someone who can help implement a new idea. And in these new Israeli companies, the office politics so familiar in Europe and America (Why do you think there are so many versions of The Office?) don’t exist.

At the same time, Israel is not too far removed from its “pioneer” generations. Consider the rise of America as an industrial power. Much of nineteenth and twentieth century technology that gave rise to GM, IBM, and Microsoft came from a propensity to tinker. In Israel’s case, there was no choice. When the republic was founded in 1948, it had only what it could borrow, steal, or salvage to build its infrastructure and transportation. Now?

Israel, a small country the size of Delaware, rivals America, Britain, and Germany in the number of patents filed.

The reasons for its constant state of war are touched on here, but it’s tragic, since Israel has much to teach its neighbors. Egypt and, once ISIS is subdued, Iraq may be in the best position to implement some of Israel’s techniques for fostering innovation. However, as long as the old monarchies continue to cling to power, they will never allow their populations enough freedom or education to foster entrepreneurship. Of all the Arab nations, Dubai seems to have made the most progress.

There are threats, aside from Israel’s enemies, the author asserts. While Israel produces incredible talent, many Israelis go abroad to seek their fortune. Certain traditional sects of Jews do not serve in the military, and their numbers are growing. Likewise, Arab Israelis, a growing segment of the population, also do not serve in the military. While they get the same education as their Jewish counterparts, they lack the network most soldiers enter civilian life with. The result is a brain drain and a growing segment of the population that is not in the workforce. These, along with relations with their neighbors, are the challenges the world’s first “start-up” nation faces in the future.