Once in a lifetime


One of the WordPress.com users I worked with today had recently written a post on her site mentioning the Talking Heads’ song Once in a Lifetime, so of course it’s been running in a loop in my head all day. Time to share!

God, I love my job.

You’re welcome.



Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free


In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

The King and I


BB King in Japan

Blue Note Jazz Club, Fukuoka, Japan, ca. 1995.

B.B. King played a one-night gig at this small, intimate nightclub, with just 80-90 people in the audience, all of whom paid about ¥12,000 (roughly equivalent to about US$120 at the time) for a ticket. There were about 5 of us “gaijin” (foreigners), none of whom knew each other, but at the end of the concert we had gravitated towards each other and were happy to gather at the end of the long line to greet Mr. King.

He couldn’t have been more gracious, a real Southern gentleman. Maybe he was also a little happy and relieved to chat in his native English — most of the club’s patrons spoke only Japanese. He sat with us for a bit, signed autographs, and gave each of us a few guitar picks (the shiny, gold-colored buttons you see in the picture).

I’ve since lost the guitar picks, but the framed photo remains a prized possession on my bookcase.

RIP, Mr. King. You are dearly missed.

Starbucks to stop selling music


Not that I was buying any of their tunes anyway, but I generally loved the music they sold at the Starbucks counter. Often the baristas would play them over the sound system, and as long as they weren’t assaulting my ears with their glass-shattering volume, I found them to be awesome introductions to musicians I otherwise would never have heard of. I never bought the CD’s, but only because they were a wee bit above my budget.

So I’m disappointed that musicians have lost one more outlet in which to sell their work. I’ve never been totally sold on the idea of Starbucks as the harbinger of evil, although I can sympathize somewhat with their critics. I generally like the ambiance, the consistently good coffee (except here in GJ, where the low unemployment rate means that the coffee chain can’t be too picky about their barista hiring, and it’s showing in the quality of their java), and the comfy chairs. And yeah, the good music. Sure, some of it was just compilations of old masters, but others were displays of up-and-coming artists who desperately need all the publicity they can get.

Oh well. Maybe they’ll have a big clearance sale before they disappear from the counters completely. If so, head on over to your nearest Starbucks and find yourself a new music love.

What’s better than meeting your deadline?


Meeting your deadline on a Friday afternoon so that you have the entire weekend to just play and, more importantly, sleep.

I can’t stand deadlines, and yet I can’t live without them. I spend half the time leading up to the deadline working my ass off, and the other half zoned out in front of the telly, watching Flight of the Conchords or Battlestar Galactica, not answering the phone and usually eating things my doctor would frown upon if he knew.

Still, counting down to deadline is always loads of fun, if not entirely stress-free. My whole mind telescopes and zooms in on that critical hour when everything must be done done done. Whereas I’m often too distracted to put all my attention to any one project when I’m at my leisure, the precious time left before the deadline is always so extremely, deliciously productive. I don’t even need coffee — although it’s always a plus — because the adrenaline more than compensates.

This morning I woke up with Jemaine Clement singing “Business Time” in my head, and I knew that it was going to be a good day. Ahhhh, yeahhhh.

Planner Death


Dear God, I’ve become a Planner Person again. I read something the other day (can’t remember where) about how women tote Day Planners while men have those little pocket calendars that literally can fit it one’s pocket. Hell, B. has gone through at least 2-3 the last five years, all of which he’s promptly lost within days after getting it. I think he’s given up on the process. Either that, or he was just doing it to please me and my incoherent rants about his need to “organize stuff.” Somehow, though, he still manages to make his appointments.

I swore in my last day job (for the umpteenth time, but whatever) that I. Would. Not. Carry. Another. Damn. Day. Planner.

But sheesh, they sneak up on you like some infectious disease and won’t let go until you’ve surrendered your freedom to its relentless need for complete control. Arrrrggghh!

Mine isn’t so bad. It’s about the side of a small hardback, only a little thicker. But I can’t carry it in my pocket, and it can be kinda unwieldy and, well, corporate. Precisely the last thing I want to be right now.

Welcome to the world of The Man.

Anyhoo, speaking of defying the man, check out this awesome blog of a very cool Austin-based artist and illustrator named Travis Nichols. I found him months ago but have only now gotten back to following his latest exploits on his site. His art isn’t necessarily my cuppa, but his personality and writing style are very appealing. Plus, he lives in Austin! And hates corporate America! And he’s really funny! And probably doesn’t carry a Day Planner or even a pocket calendar. My hero.

Also, here’s a new corporate site I found called PluggedIn, featuring HD music and concert videos, including that of my fave contemporary artist, Rufus Wainwright singing my never-get-tired-of-it song, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk. Seriously, the video quality is way better than what you can find on YouTube, although the selection is very limited. What? No Sugar Ray? Hurry up and upload them already!

Music To Write Crap By


I never used to listen to music much when I wrote. I found it distracting and noisy and generally annoying, regardless of what happened to be coming out of the record/cassette/CD/mp3 player. I needed complete and utter silence to be able to scrawl anything more than my name and Social Security Number on a page, so when I was in high school or college, that meant turning my room into a Cone of Silence, generally by writing and studying in the wee small hours of the morning. (That requirement for total silence, of course, precluded the machine-gun rat-a-tat of my 1930’s-era Underwood typewriter. Damn, I miss that baby. Very His Girl Friday.)

Of course, you know what happens next. More recently (say, the last two years), I discovered the joys of coffee, and with that came the joy of coffeehouses. And yeah, I do mean Starbucks, too. Where I came from, Starbucks was pretty much the only game in town, having either driven away the majority of the indie coffeehouses or banished them to the nether regions of even remoter suburbs than mine.

I found that I really loved the idea of writing in coffeehouses, the feeling of being a part of this long tradition of creating revolutionary ideas in coffeehouses of old, dating back to Sartre and de Beauvoir holding court in Paris’ Cafe de Flore, or more recently, Jon Favreau writing the screenplay for the classic guy flick Swingers at the 101 Coffee Shop in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, part of the experience of writing in coffee shops is often also suffering through listening to the music that day’s baristas choose to play over the sound system. Sometimes, they play decent music, but most of the time it’s offensive and loud and incapable of providing any kind of literary inspiration unless you’re, well, Ozzy Osbourne.

So I’ve learned to listen to my own music, to actually plug headphones in my ears and defend myself with my own playlist. And surprisingly, I’ve found that, so long as I carefully calibrate my music choices to fit the type of prose I need to conjure up, I can usually type up quite a storm, losing myself in my words while also half-listening to the soundtrack that Pandora willingly supplies in the background.

My current novel? Needs Yo-Yo Ma’s cello pieces, for sure. The more dramatic and ominous — befitting the wartime setting — the better.

Writing blog posts? Depending on the topic, it could be Brazilian jazz, Chicago blues, or — lately — Christmas music. (I’m listening to Brian McKnight singing “Christmas Time is Here” as I write this.)

Writing email? Again, Christmas music of late, or perhaps some 80’s pop, depending on the recipient.

What about you? Assuming you listen to music while you write, what’s on your playlist?


Where did all this blood come from?


Writers of any experience and background will likely recognize the inspiration of this post’s title: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” It’s been attributed to various writers, the most common one being Gene Fowler. Whoever wrote it did a remarkable job describing the daily life and death of the writer.

But hey, six pages today!! Woo hoo! And unlike yesterday, these six pages were pure drivel. I mean, I wouldn’t feed them to my dog. But what the hell — that’s six pages more than yesterday! My hope is that, when I re-read them tomorrow, they’ll sound a lot better than they do today.

I follow a number of blogs — far too many for me to ever catch up, RSS or no — and am constantly amazed at the output of a lot of writers and artists out there. I’ve seen plenty on the Absolute Write forums who juggle a family, a pet or two, a novel series, paid freelance writing assignments, a nonfiction book, speaking engagements, and probably the national debt of a few foreign countries on the side. And they still manage to find time to post on the bloody forum! How do they do it? What’s their secret? Caffeine? A retinue of household servants? Medication? I’m longing to find out.

One blog I follow sporadically is that of the mixed media artist Traci Bautista. Her blog and Web site are beautiful but exhausting. Does the girl sleep? Eat? Indulge in chocolate now and then? Inquiring minds want to know. In the meantime I try to glean inspiration from her and others. She’s an amazing creative force.

In the meantime, I remain focused on my writing goals for 2007. I was able to make a nice little dent in the play yesterday afternoon. Haven’t written the actual script yet, but I’m almost done with the backstory, which itself is probably going to end up being longer than the play. I think I’m definitely going to stick to two characters for now, as that’s all I can handle at the moment. Unlike the novel, I aim to make this one as tight as possible, with me retaining full control over the characters. In my novel, the characters all seem to be developing minds of their own, which is both surprising and rather nice, but in a short play, there’s really no room for meandering. No Delirious for me.

Also, my next column came out in the local paper today, earlier than I expected (lately the editor’s been publishing them on Thursdays or Fridays). It’s my most critical one yet, and given the conservative leanings of this town, I expect to hear from a few people. The last email I received was long and quite vociferous in her criticism. I would have responded except for one thing: she never read beyond the first line.

Ooooooo… check out this gorgeous Web site: Bossa Ever Nova. Follow the little red dots and feast your eyes on some classy graphics while your ears get a musical treat.


Cafe Society


I love coffee houses. Not coffee shops (e.g., Denny’s, IHOP, the local greasy spoon), but the real children of French cafes, the ones that let you linger over one cold cup of coffee and have stacks of newspapers and magazines at the ready. And if they have free Wi-Fi, well, all the better.

Unfortunately, I’m finding that writing in a coffee house — unless it’s a letter or postcard or Christmas card — is almost impossible to achieve. Loud ’80s music piped in, even louder habitues, cell phones chirping, espresso machines burping. And here I thought that writing in a coffee house would make me so productive… like Simone de Beauvoir in that photograph of her in Cafe Deux Margots (I think), fiendishly smoking and writing. Nope. I just get frustrated and start listening in on people’s conversations. Possibly useful for future books or stories, but not very much so when you’re writing something set in World War II.

Overheard in my favorite coffee house the other day:

TALL GIRL: I was talking to my sister the other day, and, like, she’s really into this comedian from, like, a long time ago, years ago. Name’s Gilda Radner.

TALL BOY: Yeah? What’s she like?

TALL GIRL: Oh, god, she’s so funny. She’s like, really tiny, really petite, like. 5’5″ or something. [COMMENTARY: 5’5″ is so not petite! 5’5″ is gigantic!] She died, like, a long time ago from some kind of cancer. Anyway, she’s got this funny character she plays, can’t remember the name.


Sigh. Not only am I feeling old, but I’m apparently positively elfin.

Awesome book I’m reading this week: Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. At last, a kindred spirit.


Update: They’re playing The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic! Now I’ll never get this book done.