Dept of Amplification & Correction: “The Wave”

On further investigation, big chunks of the story about my father’s crib book and its effects were completely inaccurate. In particular, the meat of the thing is rotten: Fred’s life arc began with books and also with collecting, and he was all along a bibliophile. The original post has been edited to reflect this; please read it before repeating my own error.

Also, I used the word “partner” to refer to his wife, and this has been corrected as well.

Like my father, I make stories in my head and defend them against the world, even when this is disastrous. I apologize to Fred for wedging him into one of my stories, especially when it was his story to begin with.

Hell of a good story, though. Hope it happened to somebody.

The Wave, or Why to Publish (corrected and expanded)

Contemporary Literature cover and frontispiece
Fred Schreiber's copy of Contemporary Literature, 1956

My father was a skilled and productive writer. He published many novels, including the recently reissued National Book Award nominee The Balloonist. There were a few non-fiction books as well: some early scholarly work about Italian literature, a book about solo sailing around the world, and a series of literature study guides for students with the usual plot summaries, discussion of themes etc. The crib books were the least important thing he had done, and my mother had done a lot of the work with him grinding out summaries.

Now, a leap. In the early 1990s I was an America Online user and an avid player of online trivia. Online social networks were very new, and this was a great one. Intelligent, educated obsessives battled for free online hours at a time when connection time was expensive. I made some good friends among the “Triviots” and not too many enemies, and some of these people are close friends to this day.

One day in chat I talked about my father and his work. Later I received an email from a fellow Triviot: Are you really this guy’s son? He changed my entire life around! We have to talk.

The email was from Fred Schreiber, an antiquarian bookseller in New York and a former professor of Classics.

And now, a lesson. The three paragraphs below are completely incorrect, which is why they’re in strikeout. I am not sure how this happened, but a story appeared in my mind — backed up by memories of conversations that did not occur — that is in fact not true. The story is told in the link below, and is very different: a working-class kid and compulsive reader, a love for books, and a formal education that started a mile behind and finished to win.

My Life With Books: How One Thing Leads to Another

After gently correcting my bizarrely fictional account, he was kind enough to say:

“The fact remains that your father’s book played a VERY BIG part in my early education; the proof is that I have kept it for well over a half century.”

So there we are, with a new story. At this point I really have no idea what part my father’s little book had, and I’m going to back slowly away from the story and just say that Fred’s pretty amazing. For my own part, I seem to have fallen into one of my father’s novels, possibly Hemingway’s Suitcase, in which the line between fact and literature becomes thicker and thicker as imagination and fraud switch places.

I apologize to Fred for inadvertently romanticizing him into a kind of high culture Horatio Alger character. The true story is better and more complicated than accidental fiction, as lives usually are.

Fred’s story did not begin in academia. In 1956, he was uninterested in school or anything else in the straight world. By his account, he was a tough guy headed for a working class life at best, and constantly in some kind of trouble. Some twist of fate, probably a court order, put him in night high school at the age of 21, taking bonehead classes and hating it.

For his sweathog English class, Fred picked up a copy of Contemporary Literature, one of my father’s crib books, with plot summaries and critical paragraphs to get him through this nightmare with the minimum of actual reading. And then something odd happened.

He became fascinated with the stories, the ideas, and the writers. In a recent email to me, he put it this way: “I remember how fascinating and instructive I found the book: your father had a way of telling the essential facts about an author in a most readable and elegant way.” I have to drag out a cliché here: a door opened for him into an entirely new world, full of stories and characters and ideas, the last thing he’d expected from an enforced trip back to high school.

The transformation took Fred from the streets of New York to college, graduate school, a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard, and a professorship at CUNY in Classics. He was as immersed in literature and ideas as a person could be, and loving it. When he got tenure and a job for life, though, he was immediately bored. He left academia and began dealing in old books. To this day he and his partner wife are E.K. Schreiber, dealer in books before 1700.

So this is the story of how a young person headed for a tough life in a hard city became a seller of “Early Printed Books, Incunabula, Renaissance Humanism, Early and Important Editions of the Greek & Latin Classics, Early Illustrated Books, Emblem Books, Theology, Early Bibles (in Greek & Latin).” And my father’s books were the key to that world. Not any of the award-winning novels, or the studies of Italian post-war literature, but the plot summary study aids he bought for $1.95 so he wouldn’t have to read his assigned work in remedial adult high school.

Publish! Record! Blog, even! Don’t just create, distribute, as far and wide as you can. To this day my father’s mostly out-of-print books are in libraries and used bookstores all over the world, in many languages. I have no idea if there’s just one Fred story there, or a thousand. If you have something to say or make, please put some effort into sharing it.

A bit of yourself, thrown far enough, hits the ocean and makes a little wave. You may never see the shore on the other end, never see the size as it breaks, but make the wave anyway.

Something is afoot at the gas station.

The gas station routine has not changed in years. I put in my card, enter my zip code, choose my fuel, and pump. When I’m done I put the spout back in its bracket and the machine asks me if I want a receipt. I say yes, it spits out the receipt, and I leave. Sometimes I remember to close the gas cap again.

About half the gas stations changed recently. The machine now asks the receipt question before I can pump. At the end, it gratuitously announces that ‘THE OPERATION COMPLETED SUCCESSFULLY” and out comes the receipt.

Can you see what’s wrong with this?

If I don’t make the receipt decision until the end, I’m looking right at the gallons and dollars when the receipt pops out, and without conscious decision I compare them. By the time it hands out the receipt the numbers are all done, and it doesn’t know until then that I requested paper proof of its honesty.

But now the machine knows from the beginning whether I’ve asked for a receipt. If I say no, the computer can cheat me and give me less gallons or charge me more, knowing that I’ll have nothing to immediately compare with and no paper later when small differences in my credit card show up or the car runs out of gas sooner than expected.

Considering the heavy presence of organized crime in gasoline fraud around here (particularly in PIN thefts from debit-only stations), one has to wonder, doesn’t one?

Assorted premature thoughts on Breivik

I’m not sure, but this appears to be the first use of Family Circle cartoon art in a mass killer’s video manifesto. Eerie. For a guy who clearly hates both the modern and the postmodern, he sure hit the postmodern gong hard with his media technique.

Breivik managed to repeat the last 15 minutes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It reminds me of Timothy McVeigh’s identification with DeNiro’s heroic HVAC guy in Brazil. Have we reached a singularity of satire, culture war, confused thinking, and fertilizer bombs?

Breivik says he’s anti-Nazi, because he hates all modern collective post-Christian socialist ideas. But he would have got on great with Himmler and his crazy medieval Teutonic Knight Arthurian mysticism. That idealized medieval agrarian dream of the racially pure heartland is the European version of Imaginary 1903 Tennessee as imagined by reactionaries here in the U.S. Everyone’s stuck with the hell of modern industrial life, but powerful people hold out that idyllic dream of a small farm town to everyone who’s alienated.

And finally, what makes the difference between the internet comment person who talks like this guy, and the one who actually does the deed? Is there any way to tell?

Burro Canyon KABOOM!

Had a fine time shooting at the Burro Canyon range up in San Gabriel Canyon near Azusa. Apart from screwing up and shooting a rifle on the pistol range, I did fine. I shoot high and to the right.

As we were all banging away the range officer called an emergency cease fire, and everyone on all the ranges stopped and stepped back per orders. A helicopter was coming to land. WTF?

In a few minutes the LASD rescue helicopter roared on in and landed a hundred yards south of us, and then left in a few minutes.

The story I heard was that someone on a private range was shooting a modified .50 caliber machine gun (!?) that only shot semiautomatic, and somehow it fired with the bolt partially open. This isn’t good, because then the hot gas from the propellant goes sideways as well as forwards, and one gets a faceful of fire and possibly chunks of stuff. Off he went to the hospital.

The story may be somewhat different, but this was from a range officer who should know.

This kind of accident is very, very rare. It’s possible that the guy loaded his own ammunition and made a mistake, or that the gun itself had been modified poorly in some way. But it’s also possible that it just broke. Scary stuff.

In any case I had a good time with my own unmodified, normal-powered stuff.

My War with Indie Rock

I started to write this thing and did it all wrong. There was a long-winded history of how “indie rock” happened, an examination of my own part in that, and then a whole list of reasons why “indie” gives me a headache. Dumped.

I know what I can’t stand “indie,” and it’s because “indie” is me. Indie rock has all my generation’s vices and even worse, all of my personal artistic crimes. I list these below:

Narcissism. False naivete. Excessive pastiche and homage in place of creativity. An aristocratic disdain for the popular. Rigidity. Excessive irony. Warmed-over modernism. Obscurantism. And no goddamn songs.

I keep having these Emperor’s New Clothes moments where I hear a breathy little girl voice over some feedback, or someone dropping a Velvet Underground quote into ten minutes of detuned guitar wiggling. I know what you’re doing there! You don’t have any songs or any substance, and you know your audience won’t care as long as you follow the style guide! You suck!

I like strange, challenging sound. My favorite artists include industrial bands that sound like a broken dishwasher, jazz that goes SKWONK, scary insane singer/songwriters, medieval European music, Central Asian wailing. No way do I want everyone to sound like Tom Petty.

And I still love pastiche, and quotes, and irony. And I still love Dada and the modernist revolt, 100 years later.

And I can’t fucking stand Klosterman and his celebration of everything popular for the sake of its popularity. That’s just this same attitude turned inside out, with extra patronizing.

I just want people to make good art instead of following rules. And this is especially true when the rules are the ones I rigidly clung to when I was 18 and a shining knight of the avant weird. At least two generation of musicians have looked to the “indie” of 1985 and duplicated it exactly, from the square glasses to the narcissism. Stop! Make a different thing!

So in conclusion, my war on indie rock is a war on my own failings as well as my generation’s. My appeal to indie rockers is: Please stop being me. I’m tired of me. Be more surprising.