Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pen & Pencil Club

Went to the Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia last night with Kristen, an associate editor at the Ocean City Sentinel where I work. The Pen & Pencil Club is America's oldest press club, founded in 1892 with the merger of three journalist societies. Membership is private, but I'm a member, and Kristen wanted to go.
We wanted to catch the King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute beforehand, but we arrived at the museum to discover tickets were sold out. So, we treked from the Franklin Institute to the Philadelphia Art Museum to see the Renoir exhibit and arrived just in time for the museum's closing. Disheartened, we decided to go to dinner and headed to Buca di Beppo, an excellent Italian restaurant where we had bruschetta and gnocci in a blush sauce. I haven't eated Italian in a while, so this was a real treat. After that, we headed to the club.
The odd thing about the Pen & Pencil Club is its location. Tucked away in an unmarked building on Latimer Street, you don't know you've stumbled across a journalist's society unless you're actively searching for it. You make your way past a few parking garages, an abandoned building and restauant and see a nondescript fascade with an iron wrought door. Pushing your way through the door, you're in a small lobby with a neon "P&P", an door with an electronic keypad lock and a security camera. I knocked on the door. The bartender opened it and looked at us.
"I'm a member," I said.
"All right," he said with a shrug, not even asking me for a press pass as he let us in. "You picked the slowest night of the week. Nobody comes in on Saturday," he said.
Kristen and I made our way into the club's bar, a wooden paneled room with eight tables covered in white tablecloths. The bar also had a wall-mounted jukebox and an electronic trivia game. The bartender took his place behind the bar, near the door, where one patron sat eating a pizza and watching coverage of the Phillies game on TV. Kristen and I sat down and ordered drinks, then I flipped the bartender my card and we talked about the Jersey shore, how tourists come down to the Jersey shore and the plethora of special events hosted in the offseason at the Jersey shore.
An electronic Scorpion 9000 dart game occupied most of our attention, and we played a round of darts. The machine itself proved challenging to understand and the scoring system totally alien, but we enjoyed throwing the darts at the target.
The club has photographs from photojournalists on the walls, a nice touch and a way to showcase their work. The Pen & Pencil Club also has another tradition: a heated pot filled with hot water for cooking hotdogs. Hotdogs are a Pen & Pencil Club tradition, but alas, no hotdogs were cooking during our visit.
The club was a mainstay for some famous writers and journalists, including sportswriter Red Smith (1905-1982) and newspaperman Damon Runyon (1884-1946). The Pen & Pencil also hosts events like winetastings, photography exhibits and lectures by editors, writers and politicians.
I'm a fan of clubs and societies. I think they're needed for fostering friendships and as places you go for comfort and brotherhood. A club for editors and journalists is an excellent idea. We need a place like the Pen & Pencil Club to remind us of our mission as reporters; a place where, at the end of the day toiling in the jungle of reality, we can crawl to and share drinks with colleagues and talk about the profession and exchange condolences or support.

The club charter.

Old typewriters (Underwoods, possibly) in the lobby.

Scorpion 9000 electronic dart game. Personally, I prefer cork-board pub darts.

The Angry Reporter looking angry for no reason.

Kristen not looking angry at all.

The Double P.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Value of Nostalgia

Recently I purchased Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' "Globe of Frogs" CD on Amazon. I'd listened to the cassette tape in high school and hadn't heard those songs since. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I purchased the CD. I'm not one given to sentiment, but recently, with the move to the apartment and taking on a roommate and the realization that I'm getting older, I'm staring into the past for some solace and comfort.
I spent my teenage years in Ronald Reagan's 1980s, a time of optimism, money, superficiality and sugar-coated banality. Anyone alive back then remembers just how saturated pop culture was with glib, meaningless slogans: "Just Say No", "The one who dies with the most toys wins", and "No pain, no gain". When authority couldn't sell us the bullshit, they had the youth do it. Being a teenager in the 1980s was tedium mixed with false euphoria. It was like being on a drug that lit you up and sent you to the mall, then let you slowly crash while realizing just how plastic and artificial the world around you was. All of my friend's parents had important jobs in offices and carried titles. It's all part of the gated communities in suburbia - planned developments with manicured lawns and swimming pools.
Yet there's something innocent and lost in those youthful days - MTV actually played music videos, Michael Jackson was the King of Pop instead of a twisted freak, and you could go to the movies and watch pablum like The Breakfast Club and not feel like a complete retard.
In recent years, I've submitted to a guilty pleasure of listening to and collecting 1980s music for my iPod, since my vinyl records are obsolete. All of the songs I thought were pop drivel, I'm savoring with a longing for school dances past, when the youth of the 1980s socialized in their gymnasiums filled with balloons and streamers and danced to Duran Duran of all things. The spiked haircuts, the skinny neckties, the colorful pins on denim jackets. Who's The Boss, The Cosby Show, ALF. Jesus Christ - ALF! It was a freaking Muppet! Too Close for Comfort, Three's Company, Mr. Belvedere. If sociologists in the future gauge the nation's mood by the television shows, they'll probably surmise everyone in America between 1980 and 1989 were either intellectually stunted or had absolutely no worries.
There were the hair bands, heavy metal, punk, and New Wave. A Flock of Seagulls. I'm sorry, but that band has become the whipping boy for all of the bad New Wave bands of the 1980s, yet their song "I Ran (So Far Away)" is an iconic representation of that time musically. Same with Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 / Jenny". Older people think 1980s pop is akin to the ebola virus, yet those stupid songs and fly by night bands led to the musical transformation in the 1990s, when New Wave gave way to grunge and pop rock and guitar bands still vibrant and successful today. But we kids during the 1980s were stuck with crap like Rat and Motley Crue. Yet a gem would come along, like Twisted Sister or Talking Heads.
I used to think the old farts with their greaser bands and stupid leather jackets and finger-snapping doo-wop were dinosaurs searching for pure nostalgia; pathetic has-beens thirsting for their bygone youth. Then I woke up and realized I'm one of those people, peering back into the looking glass to see a younger version of myself, a skinny kid wandering the halls of Cherry Hill East High School, lonely, rejected and clutching a notebook filled with short stories for the school's lit mag. The reason I'm wallowing in this swamp of nostalgia is I received an announcement my 20th high school reunion is slated for next year. Let that sink in for a moment. Twenty years. Two decades. The class of 1988. For those in the early 21st century, 1988 seems as remote in time as the Industrial Revolution. How the hell did this happen? Once a gangly teenager, now a man paying bills and writing for a living.
Why do we long for our pasts, our age of purity, of innocence? Was there ever an America not bitterly divided, cynical, ignorant? Was there ever a time before terrorists destroyed skyscrapers in New York, a time when we weren't at war, a time when music and movies weren't decided by focus groups? Was there ever a time when corporations didn't control everything we read, see and consume? A time before television pundits, before politics glutted with money, stole something from us? A time when songs about rape or murder didn't saturate the airwaves and you could hear dippy pop songs?
I'm not saying the 1980s were a pinnacle of human evolution. Far from it. But as a kid, they were far better than what kids have to grow up with now. No Columbine. No Virginia Tech. No rootless anger or fierce rage.
We didn't have the technology we have today; no Internet or cellphones. We made due with what we had. We interacted with and relied on each other.
The value of nostalgia isn't vague reminiscence of ages gone by; nostalgia is remembering how things were in relation to how we are today. It's recalling where we were to better understand where we're going.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Writer's Life

Some men are musicians, some are orators, some are craftsmen working with their hands. I am a writer. It is the only gift bestowed upon me and I take the writing craft seriously.
As far as a talent, it's a pretty lame one. Face it, everyone should know how to write. Everyone communicates in language and can imprint characters on paper in some fashion, making letters and words and sentences. Yet everywhere I go I hear people tell me, "You're a writer? I wish I could write!"
Writing doesn't seem to be a problem for most people. Writing well is. Now I'm no Shakespeare by far. I'm only an average writer at best. I don't claim to work miracles with my prose or stupefy with my verse. But I'll tell you one thing, Charlie - I'm no hack.
During college I corresponded with a writer from Canada named Ara Baliozian, an Armenian writer who wrote books about the Armenian diaspora. Most of his stuff was bitter and stark social commentary, a fish-out-of-water tale of immigrants dealing with the phonies in their own immigrant communities. We wrote letters to each other for years. This was the neolithic age of communication, before e-mail, when people actually wrote letters, what's commonly referred to today as "snail mail." So Ara and I wrote back and forth, exchanging war stories about writing and how undervalued and under-appreciated writers in America were. He sent me his books to review which I did for the Armenian-American newspapers. I've been published in papers from Massachusetts to California.
Baliozian offered the following advice to young writers: "Even if you were to write with the wisdom of Socrates and the compassion of Jesus Christ, there is no guarantee that you shall escape the hemlock or the cross. But if you write as most writers do, don't be surprised if you are dismissed as an idiot by idiots, a jerk by jerks, and a Turcophile by Turkish gypsies parading as superpatriotic Armenians."
Another one of Baliozian's statements concerning writers: "Writers are a harmless a bunch; all they do is scribble, scribble, scribble. They are a threat to no one, except perhaps to the prestige of riffraff parading as noble specimens of humanity."
Baliozian was a political writer, a dissident who enjoyed reaching out to young writers. He lived in poverty with his mother in Canada, refusing to work and receiving money from a benefactor who published his books.
To me, at 23, the guy was living out his dream of the writing live, a bohemian existence where books and words mattered and where material success a frivilous daydream.
I saw my first story in print in 2000 in a game publication called the Deadlands Epitaph. It wasn't really a story, but a scenario for a roleplaying game called Deadlands. I wrote a lengthy article about Fort 51, the 19th century equivalent of Area 51, a secret fort in the Nevada desert. It's my only contribution to the Deadlands product line.
In 2005, I sold the rights to a roleplaying game I designed called the Ravaged Earth Society, a game currently being published by Double G Press.
I never set out to write roleplaying games; that opportunity fell into my lap. What I really want to do, my ultimate goal as a writer I think, is to maximize my creativity and produce plays, screenplays and novels. I have so many projects under my belt and seemingly not enough time to do anything.
Working as a reporter for a local newspaper, I'm writing every day, staring at the computer screen, that flourescent cyclops blinking back at me. Hoping and praying I'd get enough time to transcribe the multitude of ideas in my head onto a blank page. Predictably, something always crops up and distracts me from my work.
I've got plays and novels in the works. I've got notebooks filled with scribblings and notes that don't make sense to anyone buy me. They beg me to decipher them. Alas, I never find the time.
The greatest book on writing I've read was Stephen King's "On Writing." I can't recommend it enough. King ploughs through all of the bullshit other writing books tell you and he lays it out bare and clean. You've got to have it in your veins to be a writer, you've got to have that urge, that desire, that crazed mania.
I can tell you this: the money sucks, the lonliness is unbearable at times and the respect is non-existent. The moment you do write something good, you're proud of it. You want to show the world. Nobody, not even your priggish 8th grade English teacher, can take that moment from you.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Path to Happiness

The older I get, the more I think the Buddhists got it right – life is a cyclical pattern of pain, sorrow and disappointment with intermittent episodes of happiness thrown in to remind us just how rare happiness actually is. I’ve noticed that in my professional and personal life how many people let me down and how frustrating life can get; people don’t harbor good feelings towards you or you go to the supermarket and they’re all out of a particular item you want or you’re paying more for something due to “hidden charges.”
Life is basically an uncertain adventure fraught with danger, pain and frustration, but once in a while you experience brief periods of elation and happiness. Translation: you get laid.
Still, philosophers and mystics have for millennia pondered the deep mysteries of existence and all of them are about as effective as guessing where the light switch is in a dark room. Nobody really knows; it’s all just a hunch and we’re improvising. The more truthful doctrines are ones acknowledging that life doesn’t always go our way. You may meet someone you think is a diamond in the rough, but they turn out to just be just smartly polished glass.
An anecdote to such disappointment should be the realization that life isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. If you fall in love, you’re going to eventually lose that person. How, when and why are variables, but love doesn’t last forever.
Neither do humans. We’re all going to die. It’s inevitable. Only the factors change, whether it’s through extreme old age, cancer or being struck by the Number 7 bus from Parsippany.
The problem is, we carry on as if none of these factors exist, blithely plodding along life unaware that around any corner we might be killed by a pack of wolverines or, for some unexplainable reason, might spontaneously combust.
Which brings me back to the point that the Buddhists might have gotten it all right when they say there is Dukkaha, or sorrow and suffering in life caused by desire. This is explained in the Four Noble Truths, which make more sense than any televangelist on Sunday morning. Essentially:
1. Life means suffering
2. The causes of suffering are attachment, anger and ignorance
3. Suffering can end
4. Ending suffering comes following the Noble Eightfold Path
Though the Noble Eightfold Path sounds like something L. Ron Hubbard thought up in his basement lair, it really is quite simple:
1. Right view – seeing things through and understanding things for as they are
2. Right intention – a commitment to self-improvement and resisting desires
3. Right speech – honesty, openness and rejection of lies
4. Right action – don’t harm living beings, don’t steal, don’t kill and don’t fuck everything that moves
5. Right livelihood – make money honestly and not in a way that hurts others
6. Right effort – abandon unwholesome thoughts and strive for perfection
7. Right mindfulness – View things with a clear consciousness and not with muddled perceptions
8. Right concentration – Inner discipline through meditation
In other words, don’t go through life a selfish, greedy bastard. Other people share the Earth with you. Billions of them, in fact. So instead of adopting this Darwinian “the strongest shall survive”, be kind, be courteous and remember not everything will go your way. You’ll lose money, you’ll experience heartache and you’ll have health problems. You’ll have your share of sleepless nights. You will be depressed. Maybe suicidal. Just remember that all of the shit you experience is fleeting and will pass and you will be happy, maybe for a week or a few days, but you will be happy, so don’t go stocking up on strychnine.
Everyone has their good days and bad days. Everyone. I’ve experienced constant frustration at life, tiny niggling things like gridlocked traffic, idiots at the supermarket with more than 12 items in the express lane, and psycho telemarketers on the phone. Still, I get by, hopeful that the traffic will move, the fat lady buying Doritos and Clorox will bag her products and get the fuck out of the store, and that the telemarketers will spontaneously combust.
And that's my brief moment of happiness…

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Requiem for a Nation Wounded

Six years on and we’re still numb and grieving
Through the smoky haze and the yellow ribbons
Plastered on automobiles like they sprouted naturally
Cold graveyards still beat tumultuously with mourners
Filing past their solemn candlelit vigils
Weeping millions huddle confused and puzzled
Meekly asking God for solace and guidance
As brains burn with the memory
Of that harrowing September morning

Beneath a blue sky, the thunder roared
Death fiercely delivered on metallic wings
Crushing the soul, destroying dreams
Raining steel, glass and ash on Manhattan
People frightened, gasped horror-stricken
Pulses pounding, quivering in doorways
At this thing delivered swiftly with cunning
A Trojan horse violently exploding with fiery pillars
Angry young men babbling about divine war
Smiting enemies vengefully while cackling threats
Box-cutters, cellphones, bloodcurdling screams
“Let’s roll”, jetliners, tearful goodbyes
Firefighters raising a tattered flag
Over a smoking crater of charred hopes and dreams
As America died and resurrected itself

Realm of abject hopelessness, ruined land of death
Sprung again to life with charity and breath
Nations are not mended with concrete and iron
They are bound by blood, flesh, sinew and muscle
Teeming masses united in strength
Raised up the hulking, shattered husk
Cleared away the dead and swept away the dust
Heal the wounds, create heroes from men
Revere uncommon bravery and praise those lost
Calm the frightened, the tempest-tossed
Treasure the principles we took for granted
Makeshift hospitals, donating blood, giving time
Guilt and pain washing through, a baptism by fire

A man will never again see his wife
A mother never again her son
Photographs of the missing, the victims
A collage of faces, a desperate attempt
Phone calls never made, messages go unanswered
The nervous pacing across floors and corridors
The guilt, the uncertainty, the sorrow
Just an employee at a cubical, a desk, an office
Now a casualty in the trenches
Whose unfinished lives sadly linger
In notations and promises and dreams

Shoulder to shoulder, American brothers and sisters
Varying races, creeds, colors, religions
A spectrum of humanity lashed together by fate
Standing united, hearts thumping in synch
Amidst falling skyscrapers and flaming fuselages
Clench our fists and grit our teeth
As sorrow gives way to heated rage
We were Pearl Harbor
We were London during the Blitz
We were the Gauls facing the Romans
Invaders shrunk the world and in one moment
On one violent day, our grim future cast
Before us in a cataclysmic eruption

With a steady, frigid stare we realize our task
Song of vengeance, of resolve and retribution
Battle Hymn of the Republic, a call to arms
The eagle soars with talons sharp
Emboldening and mightily we reach across the Atlantic
Piercing the heart of the jackals skulking in their lair
A phalanx of rogues, warped by dogma, fortified by hate
Afghanistan tortured by scimitar and crescent
They know Hammurabi’s Code, “An eye for an eye”
So they understand our vengeance, our thirst for justice
What would the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)
Think of this clash with the infidels,
Of alien cultures, of democracy versus theocracy
Of incinerated humanity, twisted metal
Ground Zero, the Pentagon, a field near Shanksville
Hijacked airplanes, pepper spray, young Muslim men
Screaming “Allahu Akbar” reverberating
Like a morose death knell spelling doom?

An arrow struck the American breast
Defiantly we grasped the shaft and plucked it out
As innocent blood spewed forth for 3,000 dead
Wounds heal over time, yet scars never fade
A grim reminder of that chaotic day
When America died and was reborn
Will our descendants a century on
Ensconced by time’s comfortable distance
Ruminate on a September day early in the 21st century,
A dawning age of terror and fear
Pay their respects with flowers and humble encomiums
For those thousands of civilians fanaticism killed?

Though rain beats on graves of the fallen
And monuments and medallions fade with age
The names of those departed etched in marble
In the living rock, in our collective memory
Never shall be forgotten, but preserved and
Sanctified by history
As a grateful and empathetic generation
Lays a red rose on the icy, wet slab
An offering for souls long gone
Taken from a simpler, gentler time
Before America was reborn anew