Saturday, May 29, 2021

Teenage wasteland and examining the unexamined life

I did not look like these dudes,
but was, in spirit.
Reading Donna Gaines’ Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia's Dead End Kids (1991), an otherwise unremarkable sociological study about troubled teenagers living in suburban New Jersey, has made me think a bit more about my own life, my story, and trying to knit it into a consistent whole. Like many other boys and young men, I’ve always been interested in things--Music, D&D, weight lifting, the military, history, fantasy fiction—over people. Maybe more so than your average person. I’ve always sucked at small talk, and relationships, and spent very little time examining myself, instead enjoying music and books and the like. Most of my life has been existing, and living without examination. I’ve decided in my middle age (47) to do more of that, maybe here on the blog.

I grew up in the time period and was a teenager in the same timeline of Teenage Wasteland, the late 1980s. My own experiences were different from the kids in the book—I would say that my hometown of Reading, MA was more affluent than Bergenfield, New Jersey, with more promise in my particular geographic area, more jobs due to the presence of a good economy in nearby Boston and its suburbs. My family was not affluent—my dad held a blue collar job building and developing centrifuges at a production plant in Brighton, while my mom took care of her three kids and did odd jobs (office cleaning, baby sitting) to help make ends meet, before eventually taking a job as a legal secretary as we got older. We were not anything close to wealthy, we didn’t always get what we wanted for birthdays or Christmas, and we wore hand me downs and a mixture of new and used clothing, and lived in a modest cape on a dead-end, blue-collar street. My town had its burnouts like those described in Gaines’ book: Reading High had a back parking lot where (incredibly, looking back from today) you could smoke. We had the metal kids, long-haired and denim jacketed, opposite the jocks. Some went to the nearby vocational school and became mechanics.

I had brushes with the burnout culture, but had a foot in each camp, which in hindsight may have made me somewhat unique. I played football, and track, and kept my hair short, and my grades were unremarkable, C’s and B’s, save for English, where I could pull As with little difficulty. But I also wore metal T shirts and hung out with a semi-fringe, though not burnout crowd. We loved metal, we drank when we could get our hands on beer or cheap vodka. A few of my friends smoked—cigarettes, and again when we could get our hands on it/post high school, weed. But, we didn’t do hard drugs, and we mostly stayed out of trouble with the police, a few scrapes here and there aside.

Like the kids in Teenage Wasteland I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do with my life. Not even a clue. I went to state college because I was a decent student, but mainly because it was the thing most kids did—not all kids, not for example my friend Wayne who went from retail to house siding to carpentry, and now today has his own small business. Not a couple other acquaintances and occasional drinking buddies who drifted into substance abuse. But most. Although thankfully I didn’t drift down that latter path, I was nonetheless a drifter, sliding into college, going along for the ride, partying and going to class. At college I had two major, life-altering occurrences—I met my future wife (we started dating as sophomores, and got married a year after graduation, in August of 1996) and I discovered a love of reading and writing after a false start in sociology and criminal justice. Eventually I chose English as a major and worked on my college newspaper. I excelled in all my English and writing classes because I loved the material.

I guess I was lucky, and met the right girl, which led to buying our first town house, setting me on the path of home ownership (two houses later, I’m living in the dream in a large colonial), and starting a family with two girls of my own. My love of reading and writing turned into a job on a small local newspaper, at the tail end of viability of local journalism. That later turned into a job at a medical b-to-b publishing company and my current, well-paying job and stable career.

Given my modest upbringing, the opportunities I had to take my life in a different, darker, direction, how did I end up where I am today and not in some dead-end, like that described in Teenage Wasteland?

The 80s had their issues. It was the decade of excess (again, for some), and probably the beginning of the have/have not wealth divide that is plaguing the country today. Manufacturing, blue-collar jobs like my dad held were being steadily eroded (my dad retired at the right time, in the late 90s, just as his company was bought and moved overseas. His old plant is now a condo). I stayed out front of ruin by cashing out on our first home (though taking a hit on our second), and getting out of print journalism just as the internet killed newspapering. I was competent—I’m being unnecessarily humble, I was an editorial star at my current job—which allowed me to survive the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and a deep round of layoffs. Due to severe mismanagement at the same company we endured an even worse series of layoffs and eventual purchase in 2012/2013, and I again survived those.

Kids were troubled back in the 80s. I saw some of that first-hand, and some of the consequences. But, kids were also troubled in the 60s, and 70s, and the 90s. And now today, with everyone wondering about the effects of staring at cell phones all day. “Kids these days” has probably been muttered by every single adult since ancient Greece, and in fact it has. Socrates himself wrote, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Sound familiar?

1994? Sue and I, just getting started.
I was fortunate enough to go to college and fall in love twice—once with my wife, and again with the likes of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot and John Keats. I thank my parents for putting me through college, and scraping to do so, so that I did not graduate with a mound of debt. My wife had some, but together we managed it, and paid it off. We lived on nothing for the first year of marriage, living in an apartment in Burlington, VT on scraps. She was a grad student and I worked selling insurance, and later as a security guard, making almost nothing. That continued until we moved back to MA, and I started stringing for a local newspaper, where I got hired full time. My wife became a speech-pathologist and has since moved into school administration.

I guess you could say (to use modern vernacular) that I was “privileged.” Some of that is true, in that I grew up in a stable if unremarkable U.S. suburbia of the late 20th century, not war-torn Bosnia. But I reject that as the sole story. I worked consistently, my entire life. I have had jobs since I was 11-12, and worked at every school break, doing every odd job you can possibly imagine. Shagging carriages, digging fence post holes, sweeping floors, delivering newspapers. As a professional I didn’t take work home with me, I didn’t kiss ass, but I always (and still) believed in obligation, and keeping promises. Maybe it’s the old Northern European/Danish blood in me, and my reverence for the oath and/or Protestant work ethic, but when I’m being paid to do a job from 8:30-5, I work, and I do it to the best of my ability. I don’t believe in half-assing anything I commit to. I don’t always commit, but when I do I’m in, and my work, if not always brilliant, ranges from well-done competence, to exceeding expectations. When you do this, over and over again, you will eventually be noticed, and promoted. I have seen others in very similar circumstances and with similar abilities fail.

The world is a troubled place, and always has been, and despite our best efforts to socially engineer it, probably always will be. Some people will get shit breaks. But I think hard work and dogged persistence can still lift you up from teenage wasteland.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Sword-and-sorcery news and goings-on

Some recent news and items of interest that readers might find interesting.

My Q&A with Bard author Keith Taylor has been posted in two parts on the DMR website. If you're at all interested in his life, early writing career, collaboration with Andy Offutt, health, and current plans and writings, and much more besides, I recommend checking them out. Keith was super generous with his time composing these wonderful answers. Part one is here, and part two here.

The dudes over at the Cromcast released their final episode of season 13, covering Karl Edward Wagner's Bloodstone, and gave some good coverage to my DMR essay on the (possible) influence of The Lord of the Rings on that book. This is why I write these essays--not for the fortune and fame, but in the hopes that people will read them, interact with them, maybe leave thinking a little differently about their favorite works and authors.

I sent an essay over to Bill Ward at Tales from the Magician's Skull asking and attempting to answer the question, "Is Jack Vance's The Dying Earth Sword-and-Sorcery?", in 1,000 words. Not easy. That I believe will be published in June.

My buddy Wayne hung up my beloved Miller Lite sign in my new basement office/bar/man cave last night. And with that final flourish, it's done, man, and I'm pretty darned happy with the finished project. I'll post some pictures here soon. I describe it as a mullet--business in front (work station and desk) party in the back (bar and bookshelves featuring much S&S and other books).

Friday, May 21, 2021

Queensryche, "Take Hold of the Flame," Live in Tokyo 1984

Time to gush for a moment.

Geoff Tate circa 1983-88 was a vocal god on earth. Extraordinary range, power, expression. Soaring octaves that leave you speechless, wondering how a human voice can produce this sound. I have yet to see his peer in this window of time.

Here is arguably his greatest live performance, Queensryche ripping the roof off some dome in Tokyo in 1984. Move over Godzilla. If you haven't yet seen "Take Hold of the Flame," I envy your first experience. It's nuts.

Queensryche fell from its lofty perch, hard, after the smashing commercial success of Empire. But I choose to remember them here, when they were at their best, circa The Warning, Rage for Order, and Operation Mindcrime.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Bran Mak Morn: Your favorite cover?

I'm currently on a Bran Mak Morn kick, having read Karl Edward Wagner's Legion from the Shadows (good, not great) and now am going back to the original REH stories themselves.

What is your favorite cover? I'm partial to the Dell Bran Mak Morn--a dark, brooding Frazetta painting, with savage Picts looking very much like a prehistoric race bridging the Hyborian Age and our own ancient world. I prefer it over the Gianni and Jeff Jones covers, but your mileage may vary.

Awesome art by uncredited Doug Beekman

Friday, May 14, 2021

Flame and Crimson nominated by the Robert E. Howard Foundation

This was a heck of a surprise.

Flame and Crimson has been placed on the final ballot for the 2021 Robert E. Howard Foundation awards. You can find a complete list of the 2020 and 2021 nominees at the link above, which I can't resist sharing because it's probably the one time I'll ever get mentioned on Locus. Here is the initial announcement on the REH Foundation website.

I have been twice nominated for awards by the foundation, both times for print essays. These included "The Unnatural City" (from The Cimmerian, Vol. 5 No. 2), in 2009, and for "Unmasking 'The Shadow Kingdom': Kull and Howard as Outsiders" (from REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #14) in 2011. This time I've been nominated for The Atlantean — Outstanding Achievement, Book (non-anthology/collection). Per foundation rules, books nominated for the Atlantean may be print or digital, must be a minimum of 50,000 words, and must be substantively devoted to the life and/or work of REH. Reprinted works without significant revisions are not eligible.

I'm up against some stiff competition as Charles Hoffman & Marc Cerasini are legends in Howard studies, as is Fred Blosser, and their books are more purely aimed at Howard scholarship, as opposed to the broader S&S genre. But anyone who has read Flame and Crimson will note the substantial amount of attention rendered to Howard and the case the book makes for his place in S&S, fantasy in general, and as a writer of consequence.

Let's hope the third time is a charm.

The deadline for ballots is Sunday, May 16, at 11:59 pm CDT. I am a member of the REH Foundation (supporting member) and I haven't quite figured out how voting works. If you are a member, let me know how this is done, as there are several other worthy nominees on the ballot for whom I'd love to cast my vote. And I see the late Steve Tompkins has made his way into the nominees for the Black Circle Award for lifetime achievement. That's a pretty darned good group he's a part of, and Steve absolutely deserves to join that elite inner circle someday.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Some more S&S thoughts on the way; Keith Taylor news

Recently I've completed a couple of essays that will be published, both as early as tomorrow, by Dave Ritzlin over at DMR Books and Bill Ward at Tales from the Magician's Skull. "Myth manifesting in the present: Robert E. Howard’s “Marchers of Valhalla”* was a semi-spontaneous eruption of sheer joy to see Howard making myth, very much in the vein of J.R.R. Tolkien, with this wonderful, lesser-known story that Dave recently reprinted in Renegade Swords 2. Anything with Vikings in it gets my attention, and when you combine REH at his wild, poetic best with mythic Aesir I'm all in.

The piece for Tales from the Magician's Skull, "Under the spell of Keith Taylor's Bard Songs"* was likewise inspired by two new-to-me stories from Keith Taylor from Renegades Swords 2 (these stories were first printed in the revival of Weird Tales back in 1988). Since then, I was able to obtain Keith's email address and wrote to him, and he's generously and at length been answering a series of 10 questions I posed to him about his early influences, writing career, and current health and upcoming plans. Great stuff from Keith which I hope to publish in some form or fashion.

(*Bonus points to those who spot the Blind Guardian references in both essays; they're pretty obvious).

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Satsuma covers Ratt's "Lay it Down" and Judas Priest's "Hellion/Electric Eye"

At many points in my life I've debated picking up the guitar. I've always thought it would be awesome to be able to bust out a six string and entertain guests on the beach, or plug in and replicate some of the favorite riffs of my youth. Wouldn't that be cool?

Then reality smacks me upside the head. Specifically, the effort, and hours, it would take.

One of my friends brews beer. He spends hours, a couple weeks, to make a halfway decent batch. I've tried many; they're pretty good, though not great.

"Don't do it unless you love the process, man," he tells me.

"Why?" I ask.

"Because you can drive down to the local liquor store and buy something 3x better than you or I could make."

He's right of course.

The same words of wisdom apply to the guitar. I think about the amount of effort, and practice, hours upon hours, it would take to even muddle through a song. Is it worth it? Maybe? And then I think of this Japanese dude Satsuma, who exposes me to the futility of that dream. Look at this damn cover of Ratt's "Lay It Down." I'm in awe. This dude RIPS. So badass.

Check out his rendition of "Hellion/Electric Eye." I'm in awe of this guitar god. Stick around for the solo.

I can't even imagine the amount of practice that went into this.

So yeah, on second thought, I'll stick to watching Youtube, and dreaming of being a guitar god.