History Repeats, Again!

History Repeats, Again!
History Repeats, Again!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Kings of Commerce - Twelfth Night in Barcelona

The Kings of Commerce
(Excerpt from "The Expat's Pajamas")

The Christmas holiday in Spain lasts for two long, work-free weeks culminating in “Reyes” which celebrates the beginning of the discount season. “Reyes” or “Kings Day,” the proverbial “twelfth night” of Christmas,   commemorates the visitation of the three Magi from the Orient —Gaspar, Balthazar, and Aznar—who bring good tidings and cheap products from their respective low-wage kingdoms.   Unlike many countries, where shopping must conclude before Christmas day, in Spain — a land where procrastination is worth waiting for — parents can delay gift purchase decisions until the new tax year.
It's no epiphany that you can tell where the money is in this country by following the kings.  In the town where I lived --Sant Cugat, famous for the depth of its nova-yuppie culture--the kings arrive by helicopter accompanied by klieg lights, fog machines, and a stage show worthy of The Rolling Stones.
After the kings’ assault chopper touched down, they were paraded through the town in monster trucks followed by elaborate floats, marching bands, and lots of plugs for local enterprises.  Dignitaries riding the garish floats enjoyed pelting the plebes with rock-hard candy and shouts of good tidings.
Catalans love fire, danger, and demons and find a way to work them into all celebrations from baptisms to funerals. One of the floats was a giant stew pot full of nuns being cooked by happy devils. The sisters simmered in the soup while the flame-stoking demons danced and stirred the stew with their pitchforks. 

      The Kings of Commerce eventually arrived at the local monastery where a hooded priest brought them a plastic baby to endorse and revere. After sufficient adoration and a demonstration of the toy’s many child-pleasing features, the royal retailers distributed discount coupons for local stores and then drove around town throwing more hard candy at children.
 Next, the parade floats wound around town so that all kids, rich and richer, had a chance to dive under the tractor wheels to fetch the fallen candy. Seeing children risk being mashed to mince by tractors, horses, and hummers adds a level of heart-stopping excitement that simply can’t be found elsewhere.
Each king signifies an important value like faith, hope, and disdain for immigrants. The “African” king (usually a white guy with a painted face) is the kids’ favorite for the obvious reason that he brings toys. The other two geezers just bring clothes, school supplies, and EU subsidies.
While Sant Cugat’s Kings voyage by helicopter, it’s widely believed that the real kings traveled on camel back. In deference to this tradition, local pastry shops sell little bowls of  chocolate camel dung for parents to leave as proof that dromedaries and dukes still deliver the goodies. How the camels sneak into high-rise security apartment buildings isn't much of a concern, nor is the fact that their poop is edible. Why question a sweet thing?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sweden: Birthplace of The Blues

A few years ago, I spent a few hazy shades of winter days in Stockholm, Sweden. Gray, eerie, and beautiful; the city appeared to be skating on an endless sheet of  Baltic ice.

A couple of people I spoke with claimed they were having an unseasonably warm winter and I was glad to see the Swedes enjoying the tropical weather, but after a day of wandering around outdoors I felt frozen to the point of shattering. Around 3:00 PM the leaden sky dissolved into purple haze; within an hour the night was painted so black that not even a bad moon would dare to rise.

On our last night in Stockholm I suggested to my friends that we check out a little blues bar I had noticed at the edge of town. My love for the blues has taken me into a lot of dodgy places, even jamming on stage. I figured that a tiny dive in this most non-bluesy of countries during the dead of winter would be pretty tame.

And so it seemed. A faded poster of Muddy Waters. A tiny dance floor. An over-amplified and below average white band slogged through 12-bar standards and harmless shuffles.

A skinny, threadbare but harmless looking character was spinning around alone, carefully avoiding an uncovered hole that opened to a subterranean room. Seconds after our beers arrived, he two-stepped over to our table and, hearing us speaking English, started screaming, “F---- AMERICANS!!!”

“We’re Canadian,” said my quick-thinking friend who really was both. I smiled cheerfully, trying to look the part.

Our new pal repeated his warm greeting and then shuffled away, captivated by the band that played the blues so poorly that they needed sheet music.

Minutes later, Jack Flash jumped back with more creative F-word conjugations. His grammar was impeccable. Tangled up in his own shade of blue, he drifted away. Free falling. Dancing with himself.

He was far from running on empty. Whiskey, bourbon, beer …. this shabby ambassador of international bad-will slammed enough cold shots to bankrupt the Vatican.

And the band played on, doing their best to bring it on home.

The nowhere man let it be for a while. He was reeling and rocking like tumbling dice. I’d almost succeeded in ignoring him until he tried to walk out of the bar wearing my jacket. This was doubly irritating because, (a) I liked this coat and, (b) I would have died after two minutes in the sub-arctic streets without it.

Once, long ago, I had my nose broken when I made the mistake of trying to reason with a drunk, so I gently nudged this northern nebbish, and coaxed him out of my coat.  I pulled his arm out of my sleeve and he spun away like a top.

The band strangled a slow shuffle as he scuttle butted around the room, slamming into tables like a pinball.

In less than no time, Professor No-Hair was back at our table shouting at the devil. “YOU HAVE NO BLUES IN AMERICA!!” He gave us the evil eye, his bare skull steaming. “AMERICA STOLE THE BLUES FROM SWEDEN!!”

Sweden: the birthplace of the boogaloo. I hadn’t known.

“YOU HAVE NO REAL BLUES!!” he barked like a howling wolf.

“We’re from Canada,” I said, rambling on my mind. “It’s like Sweden, without the blues.”  At this point there was no reason to wait for the midnight hour. When he launched back into his rapidly decaying orbit, we hit the wet streets trying to remember whose bad idea this wild night had been.

“YOU HAD TO COME TO SWEDEN TO HEAR THE REAL BLUES!!” he yelled, following us out into the sub-zero. But without the benefit of my famous blue raincoat he wouldn’t last long outdoors.  

At the crossroads we could still hear him twisting and shouting. “SWEDEN IS THE TRUE HOME OF THE BLUES!!” 

For him it was the gospel truth.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Writer's (Heroic) Journey

The flash and crush of inspiration hits you and you hit back. You try to ignore the gnawing sense that you’ve got a unique idea, something brilliant churning inside you.  You find no lack of reasons to discourage yourself, most of them rational. For once, that negative voice inside your head is making good sense.

But the inspiration is larger than life, certainly larger than yours. When you have something this good, aren’t you obliged to share it?

The protagonist takes on a life of her own. She’s Pauline Personne, a detail-obsessed physicist who uses the smoke from her filterless Gaulois cigarettes to test for leaks along the 17 miles of Large Hadron Collider tunnels under Geneva.

Your novel, "French Stickler," will be the heroic tale of Pauline’s battles against sexism, bureaucracy, and Europe’s shifting attitudes towards smoking. With such a great title, the first chapter almost writes itself. Like any other baby, this one should take about nine months to pop out, right?

Good thing you’re recently single. A relationship would be a major distraction right now.  

You slog forward. You slog backwards. You start smoking Gaulois like Pauline.

You confide in your favorite Barista. Turns out, she's writing a novel, too. The Barista becomes your muse. You order increasingly complex coffee drinks so you can spend more time with her.

It’s a good thing you didn’t mention this to anyone because 100 pages into this nightmare, you realize that you have no roadmap, no story, and no life. Perhaps a brief hiatus for, say, the rest of your life, will provide some much-needed perspective.

You rediscover network television and find it good.  

Sleep becomes impossible. Even the latest issue of “Writer’s Digest” can’t cure your insomnia.

Confirming that you are utterly alone in the universe, your muse/Barista quits to "spend more time on her novel." The café manager mentions that a lot of cash went missing right before she disappeared.

You write with newfound fury.  The novel is nowhere near complete but you spend big bucks to attend a Writer's Conference where you pitch to a pale, tattooed, black-clad literary agent with movie industry connections. She’s willing to look at the first fifty pages, but only if you change your protagonist into a vampire.

Everyone at the conference agrees that vampires are hot and will be for the next few years. Vampire Lit isn’t a fad, it’s a new genre.

It could work. Your heroic scientist could also be a vampire. On the other hand, it’s more likely that the jet-lagged literary agent who puts the Goth in Gotham is the real vampire.

You take a vow to be true to thine own self. This is your book, your story, and there are no damned vampires except for all the real ones who are so thirsty to drain your creative juices.

With days to spare before the postal rates change, you power through the first draft and send inquiries to every agency in Manhattan. Within a week, half of your 1000 personalized query letters to literary agents are returned with “No Address Found.”   The other half come back with “Insufficient Postage.”

The new Barista, also working on a novel, tells you that the book industry is in turmoil. Agents are waiting to see how e-Books and unemployment benefits play out. Publishers are only interested in vertically integrated properties with movie tie-ins, video game hooks, and action figure potential.  

Determined to weather the storm and hone your craft, you join a critique group and grind to a halt. At a rate of one chapter every two weeks, it will take two years for them to critique your book. At a rate of five hurtful critiques per hour, it will take you 30 minutes before you kill these know-it-alls.

While the group rips apart “French Stickler,” you envision your second novel. It's about an aspiring writer who murders his critique group and bakes their loose chapters and minced body parts into biscotti for book store cafés.

In a quest for authentic dialogue, you start actually listening to your critique group. Maybe they're right about your bad punctuation, point of view shifts, and long-winded tangents. Perhaps that long, dreamy sequence about a subatomic particle racing around the Hadron Collider really doesn't move the story forward. After months of neglect, you return to “French Stickler” with fresh perspective and fewer comma splices.

In a manic push, you complete the second draft. Bills pile up. The phone company disconnects the land-line you forgot you owned. The Starbucks manager threatens to charge you for bandwidth and table time.

Rather than waste another 1000 stamps, you decide to self-publish “French Stickler” as an e-Book.   It turns out to be so simple anyone can do it, and they do. But your story will stand out. Yours is different. Yours is the product of the pain and inspiration that comes from years spent alone at  Starbucks.

There’s just one minor issue: Your literary bits can’t light up a million Kindles until Amazon removes the incorrect “Adult Content” label.

You send emails. You make phone calls. You argue with Amazon’s offshore service rep that “French Stickler” isn’t porn. It’s about a frumpy physicist who saves the world with a lit cigarette. It’s about idealism versus incompetence, individuals versus institutions, man against the machine. But Amazon turns out to be a giant computer program that doesn’t understand the subtext of your story or the irony in your title.

So “French Stickler” becomes “The Woman who Saved the World” and the long march is over. You’re in print, sort of. You feel like you've just given birth to an elephant after a 4-year gestation. Finally, you can collect royalties and return to the real world.

But the e-Book doesn’t sell itself. It’s currently ranked dead last in the Kindle store. Your earnings summary shows “one sold, two returned” so now you owe Amazon money.

Your new Barista says you need a marketing strategy. He says you need a “platform.” You need a website, a blog, a fan page that feeds your tweets. He says you should start a YouTube channel on your Facebook page.

He also tells you that the only people buying Kindles are the legions of soon-to-be-unemployed Manhattan literary agents with long commutes from New Jersey. They think the Kindle will be bigger than vampires.