Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Walking the streets of Watertown was both exciting and weird. It's the kind of place that never changes, as if it prefers to be frozen in time. In the 15 years since I last visited, the section of town that was the large Armenian area remained virtually unaltered. Watertown has a large Armenian community, right behind Fresno and Glendale in California. Somehow they managed to carve out a community in this Boston suburb with great success and resilience. They have their own social clubs, cultural center, museums and newspaper.
I visited the newspaper offices of The Armenian Weekly where I had an internship in 1990. Though the people were different, nothing else about the building changed radically, though the paper's quality shrunk from the time I interned there. Back then, the content was meatier and articles copious - now, there was plenty of white space and precious few stories.
Everything else about those streets seemed archaic, as if the town lingered in the mindset that the rest of the world can progress, that development can continue unabated. The same old houses, businesses and churches remained, defiantly challenging the sweeping madness of the 21st century.

I stopped at a few Armenian grocery stores on Mt. Auburn Avenue. The first thing that hits you when you enter is the strong aroma of spices. You adjust, then see the displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the shelves of dried dates, apricots and bags of lentils, pilaf and chickpeas. A collection of waterpipes line one shelf, and ornate brass trays and packages of incense. Necklaces embossed with the evil eye of protection, souvenirs and flags from Armenia, Greece and Lebanon decorate one area, while refrigerated displays contain yogurt, dolma, kufta, lahmejune and other delicacies.
I remember living in the first-floor apartment on Quimby Street that summer, going to the local shops and buying Armenian bread and breakfast yogurt and having it for breakfast with fresh fruit.
Revisiting this place and taking it all in was a very rare treat. I understand now that that summer so long ago was an opportunity for me to experience something different and unique. I'd been heavily sheltered before that, and after my initial experience with living on my own, attending Harvard and meeting people, I came away with a sense of personal accomplishment. I know that you can never truly return to a time of innocence, but you can and should remember it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Return to Harvard

Harvard was the same as I remembered it: lush green lawns, old ivy-covered red brick buildings, young people shuttling between classes. The business district near Harvard Square changed. New stores replaced old familiar ones. Walking up the steps from Harvard Station into Harvard Square was exciting, kind of like a homecoming you anticipate but at the same time are uncertain of what'll seem both familiar and different. The newsstand and Coop didn't change. The Wursthaus, a German restaurant and rathskeller I haunted 15 years ago when I was a student was replaced by a bank.
I headed right for the campus and passed the wrought iron gate and walked under the archway leading into Harvard yard. Students, tour groups and visitors wandered around and I got some good photographs. Widener Library and Memorial Church were still wonderful.

I ate lunch at John Harvard's Brew House. I frequented that place during the summer 15 years ago. Then I had beer nd sausages and read books I bought from a used book store nearby. Now I'm just a tourist passing through, reconnecting with these places and locations that seem both comforting and alien to me.
After lunch I stopped at an indoor shopping mall that was once an indoor parking garage. I went to Newbury Comics and browsed around, impressed by the Zoltar fortune teller machine at the shop's entrance. I also stopped at a store called The Hempest, which sells clothes, paper and accessories made from hemp and natural fibers. I noticed the revolutionary book store, which sold pamphlets and communist propaganda was out of business, replaced by a clothing store.

"Zoltar, I want to be big..."

I also went to the Harvard Book Store and bought a copy of Persepolis, an excellent graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi about her childhood in Iran.
Walking the streets I walked 15 years ago felt weird. There was this eerie sense of deja vu, of retreading the same steps over and over, of interest mingled with tedium. I walked around Cambridge not with a sense of wonder. I wasn't a young student on his way to expository writing class - I was a burnt out journalist looking for a mental fix, a chance to make a deluge of words magically flow again, to cure terminal writer's block. This wasn't the pilgrimage I hoped for - it was retracing my steps and retreading my old stomping grounds just for kicks.
As I walked past the 16th cafe/bookstore/high-brow teashop I saw a movie theater near the old Unitarian Church. I saw a French film at that theater 15 years ago, one with subtitles, but a beautiful story filled with existential characters. I noticed the marquee listed the Rocky Horror Picture Show playing every Saturday at midnight. I laughed, thinking every Saturday night, students from one of the elite colleges in America gather together in a dark theater dressed like transvestites, throwing toast at the screen and yelling obscenities at the top of their lungs. That made my day.

George Carlin

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”
- George Carlin

Received a text message at 7:50 a.m. from Big Rick, my comedian friend. The message read, “The King is dead. There’s nothing funny today. George RIP.” At first I got excited and thought Bush bought the farm. Then I realized it was George Carlin and a TV report confirmed it.
Carlin was like the pope for many of us comics. He burst on the scene in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when experimentation on stage was the way you found your unique voice and persona. For Carlin, it was latching on to the counterculture movement and ridiculing authority. Later in his career he poked fun at the hippies and phony liberals as well as the heartless conservatives, idiotic rednecks and purveyors of religion, trashing them with acerbic verbal lashings they justly deserved. His wordplay and talent for scrutinizing idioms and colloquialisms was legendary. Carlin invented something that wasn’t there before – observational humor He explained the universe in a quirky but honest way and showed real intelligence and skill, making comedy a craft instead of goofy shtick. His “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is timeless and immortal. In his later career, Carlin took on the mantle of grouchy critic, skewering society and praying for doom and tragedy as a punishment for the human race’s stupidity. He exposed the hypocrisies in politics and religion, playing the part of the hermit and philosopher. Yet within the barbs remained a jokester and puckish figure whose job it was to tweak the king’s nose just to see the elites squirm.
A few years ago, I won tickets to see Carlin perform in Atlantic City. A local radio station held a contest where callers had to do a Carlin bit on the air. I did Carlin’s early routine “Join the Book Club” and made the DJ laugh. I got the tickets and saw Carlin on stage. It was a great night of comedy and I’ll never forget watching him perform, this bald, bearded old man wearing all black, ripping the shit out of everything America held sacred and bashing our egos from our collective psyche. He was a comic, social critic and philosopher and a performer that comes along once in a lifetime and leaves an indelible mark behind him, inspiring countless others to view the world with skepticism and humor.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


"Steppin' out I tried to fix it
Pulled a thumb out of that hole
Give me ingredients, I'll mix it
How can you move without a goal?"
- Dinosaur Jr.

The crazy woman outside my hotel room door was talking to the police officer. She’d been riding the elevator for hours and incoherently babbling so the hotel manager became worried and called the cops. They cornered her on the 8th floor next to my room.
“I don’t want to tell you my hotel room number. That’s my business. It’s my right,” she whined distraughtly.
“Ma’am, do you think I want to be here?” the officer asked gruffly. “Now you tell me your hotel room number or we’ll strap you to a stretcher and bring you in for a psychological evaluation.”
The woman, in her 50s with graying dark hair and bony features, protested.
“Sir, I don’t want to tell you my number,” she pleaded, her voice trembling. “It’s my personal business.”
The officer pressed her for her room key. She said she left it downstairs in the computer room. They went to get it, along with the grumbling hotel manager.
Welcome to Cambridge, Massachusetts, a college town full of freaks and characters.
I returned here not to sample the sights, but to experience a place that was instrumental in my development as a writer. In 1993 I spent a summer enrolled in an expository writing class at Harvard. I learned the fine points of essay construction, writing to persuade and reading and analyzing short stories. Back then I stayed with distant relatives in Watertown in a moldering Victorian house that resembled something from H.P. Lovecraft. I chronicled my experiences that summer in a journal. It was a magical time – a young writer nestled in the bosom of America’s academic history, experienced new things far from home. As time passed, I became a working journalist writing for newspapers in New Jersey.
Along the way, my writing grew trite and dull as I went through the motions as a reporter covering petty events and government meetings. Work became skullduggery, a hum-drum process of methodical interviews, obligatory quotes and regurgitating information. Because of this, my writing suffered. Hurriedly-written text lacking depth or imagination filled my daily routine. Stories were listless and drab, just words strung together and sentences arranged automatically, as if assembled in a factory by machines. I switched off the passion and wonder I so ably had in my 20s. Now in my late 30s, balding, alone and jaded, I realize that the greatest writing of my career might have come before my career. How does one deal with that? How do you get back that sense of everything is new and shiny and fresh, of awe at life instead of cynicism? I needed to regain the passion that compelled me to write about what I really wanted to write about. I don’t want to be sluggish or torpid, moving sloth-like through life, jotting down articles just to fill space in the paper. I’d crank out nine stories that were 300 to 500 words but complete drek. When I started out, I was prolific, putting down a 1,300-word story in less than an hour. Life beat me down and I lost the passion and a writer’s passion is his edge. It’s what separates him from mediocrity.
Coming to Cambridge in 2008 was a pilgrimage of sorts. It was returning to a place that had significance and meaning for me. I didn’t come here to recapture old glories the way a burnt-out athlete returns to the stadiums of his past victories. Reliving or recreating the past never works – one can’t duplicate exactly how things were. I guess I’m here to visit the streets and buildings that left an indelible impression on me.

Room 810 of the Holiday Inn in Cambridge is your typical North American hotel suite – king size bed, couch, writing desk, color TV, microwave, coffeemaker, bathroom and nightstand complete with Gideon Bible. From the window you can see Boston in the distance, its glass-covered towers poking above the trees around the Charles River. Below me a collection of buildings – refurbished Victorian houses, sturdy redbrick buildings, church spires and soulless concrete boxes all mingled together.
In the hotel’s restaurant, I met some members of my family who live in Massachusetts. We spent the evening eating Italian food we had delivered to the hotel and talking about our lives. It was a rare relaxing family moment, the kind you see on TV but rarely experience.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Political Creature

Over the years, I’ve grown weary of politics, especially local politics. The first reporting assignment I’ve had in Cape May County was covering the Board of Chosen Freeholders. For those not up on their archaic terminology, a freeholder was originally one who owns land and a “chosen freeholder” refers to a representative representing land owners of a town or area.
I covered politics at all levels, including Congress, the Statehouse and local municipalities. The one thing you build by covering politics around here is a bullshit-proof skin. The governing yokels don't have the will or fortitude to be accountable to the public, and therefore engage in dodging everything that aren't softball questions.
Run by the Republican Party, the county is very conservative. How conservative? In Upper Township they still believe Richard Nixon is president.
Because the Party controls the freeholder board, their influence filters down to local elections. Why is the Party such a dominant force here? Its prime movers are influential men: insurance salesmen, real estate agents, and developers. Men whose influence extends beyond the county and into the state.
With the entrenchment so deep, the Democrats don’t stand a chance. The Democrats are far outnumbered and sometimes don’t even run candidates for the freeholder board.
Not like they’ve even tried – more often the county Democratic Party doesn’t even field freeholder candidates. That party is impotent to begin with, and not being able or willing to serve up a few sacrificial lambs for the ticket is just painful and sad.
Which brings me to my loathing of political parties. With the national primaries earlier this year, I developed an aversion to rhetoric, campaigning and bullshit spewed by political candidates and their flunkies. Both Republicans and Democrats claim to possess the one infallible truth about how America should be run and anyone wavering from this truth is a heretic.
Fuck that. Fuck those moonbats and fundies. Fuck the liberals and the GOP. And Ralph Nader. Yeah, fuck Ralph Nader, too. And Fuck Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Air America. Fuck every talking head, pundit and insider. Seal them in a full chemical toilet and throw them in the Ganges River to wallow in festering crap.
Rabid partisanship on the left and right isn't improving the national political discourse. It's stagnating it. It's retarding it. It's destroying it.
We need to unite as a country and solve the problems before us as adults, as citizens, as Americans. In the 20th Century, America was Superman. We were revered and heroic. We got things done.
We fought two world wars and defeated tyranny and fascism. We fed poor countries and protected weak ones. We reached out to those who couldn't help themselves because that's what heroes do.
But lately, within the past few decades, we've grown so self-centered and angry. We've turned on ourselves. It used to be that neighbors looked after each other. Now we're tearing each other apart like wild animals.
This derision doesn't start with the individual citizen. This hatred and venom filters down, usually from a man in a suit and tie standing behind a lectern, spouting divisive partisan rancor and rhetoric, or some radio talk show host or personality who think they have a lock on truth.
It filters down in a tiny trickle and by the time it reaches the airwaves, it's a monumental deluge: kill the fags, protect the flag, they'll cut and run, they'll keep us in Iraq for a century, they're only for the rich, they're only for the poor, they'll destroy our God-fearing way of life as we know it.
Move over, baseball. Scapegoating is the new American pastime.
Yes, it used to be that Americans rolled up their sleeves and solved problems of this nation together, sitting around one table. They didn't care about soundbites or polls or how it would play in the media. They didn't care about who said what in a Vanity Fair article or who was quoted in The New York Times.
They cared about America.
They cared about protecting, serving and maintaining this great civilization. They cared about the idea that what our forefathers did, for good or ill, mattered and had a nobler purpose. That the preservation of ideals and values such as freedom, liberty and justice for all were concepts worth securing and protecting.
They cared about this and they did the right thing, regardless of whether they were registered Republican, Democrat or independent.
But vitriolic pablum spewed over the airwaves is big money, and talk radio the new Colosseum, where lefties or righties are sacrificed to the lions of partisanship all for the entertainment of those who don't know that what they're participating in is a barbaric blood sport.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Monopoly on Truth

“Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one and they all stink.”

That saying has been around for a long time, and I agree with it. Today, we hear from editorialists, op-ed columnists and the blogosphere about everything, from the current presidential hopefuls to family values, religion and a myriad of social issues.
All of these opinions bombard us at once and sound like static, a jumbled cacophony of ideas, biases and hysterical rants.
Absolute knowledge is a rare thing, if it exists at all. Political factions love absolutes. They love platitudes and hate specifics. They hate science, reason and logic and like the best lawyers, try to manipulate facts to fit their agenda.
Now every right wing nut job or left wing wacko can spew their own brand of venom without exposure to data or facts thanks to the Internet.
They politicize everything based on emotional impact or outright lies, crafting a brainwashing strategy only Machiavelli would be proud of.
Everyone believes they have the golden panacea for social utopia. Problem is, reality is never as perfect as the schemes our leaders present us. If any of these stubby-fingered charlatans read any of the great philosophers, they’d realize perfection and idealism aren’t attainable. Maybe we weren’t meant to live in utopia, whatever that is. Maybe we were just meant to make today better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today. Maybe that’s the only certainty.
Strife and bullshit aren’t the zest of life – discovering commonalities between people is. It doesn't make you a genius if you can divide, but you're pretty damn great if you can bring different people together.
I never engage in arguments online. It's impersonal, immature and a waste of time. I prefer human interaction with my opponents - hearing their voices, looking into their eyes and understanding why they have passion and conviction in the things they believe.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert

Proof that Friday the 13th sucks. Iconic and legendary journalist Tim Russert, whose hard-hitting, rapid-fire questioning on Meet the Press made him stand above other political reporters, died of an apparent heart attack. He was 58.
Where most TV news today is pure drek, Russert's show elevated discourse above soundbites and cut to the heart of the issues. He pressed his subjects to get answers, made them squirm and it wasn't gimmicky like Chris Matthews, Tucker Carlson or a bunch of those dandified posers. He was the real deal: a no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes kind of reporter who showed no biases and became the consummate professional both on-air and off-air.
In an age when most reporters and political commentators are talking heads with nothing between their ears, Russert was intelligent and insightful. His professionalism and style will be missed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ramblings From The Writing Desk...

Received more rejection letters from the agents I queried. So far, four of the six agents I originally queried said no to my novel. How come the books tell you to personalize your queries, but literary agents reply with form letters? Maybe, as one agent put it, he receives 300 submissions a week and uses the form letters as a way of convenience.
I queried three new agents via e-mail today, so that's good. I also re-wrote my query letter, making it punchier and juicier, so it would (hopefully) stand out.
On the gaming front, I've been getting nothing but positive feedback on The Ravaged Earth Society. The fans like it and many sources are urging me to publish it into a PDF or a dead tree book. It's certainly encouraging, especially for a project that was all but dead a few months ago. I'm considering what to do next. I mean, I want to publish it into a book, but I need someone to do layout and use the text and artwork I have. Let's just say I've got many irons in the fire regarding the RPG.
The TRES wiki is a different story. I accidentally bungled the wiki when I went to edit it and locked myself out by switching the authorization code. Simon Lucas helped restore everything and get the wiki up and running after my ineptitude. Pinnacle has the friendliest staff and most loyal fans.
So now, the wiki is back online.
Savage Worlds Online, a gaming website that runs realtime RPGs via software called Fantasy Grounds, wants to run TRES. They're a great bunch of guys and they have to see if they can import some of my adventures over to their system. If they do, registered users can log on, join up, and participate in the adventures online using the software, which replicates a gaming table environment, complete with dice rolls, maps and notebooks.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Old School Mix

Mixwit allows you to create a mix tape for your blog. It is uber-cool! I created an old school 1970s rock mix - you know - the kind you used to record off your stereo and play in your car tape deck when you and your buddies cruised for burgers and women.
Ah, nostalgia!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

TRES Online

After three years of development, anticipation and perseverance, The Ravaged Earth Society is finally available. It's been a rough, long road of staring at draft after draft, tweaking, exchanging e-mails and frankly wondering if it would ever see the light of day.
TRES is an RPG setting that uses Savage Worlds, a generic system that's the best I've ever gamed with. TRES morphed from a planned book and PDF to now free online distribution. It is a shared world, one where the fans can help shape through their writings, illustrations and creativity.
I've always enjoyed playing RPGs: D&D, TORG, Deadlands. The idea of creating my own game started in 2000 and lingered in the ether while real life intervened. In 2003, Pinnacle Entertainment Group released their first edition of Savage Worlds and I finally found a system that fit with the ideas brewing in my head for years. I drafted several character backgrounds for a pulpy game and posted them on Pinnacle's message boards. The response was fantastic! People were interested, but nothing came of it for a year, until I published my first pulp adventure "Quest for El Dorado" in Shark Bytes, a Savage Worlds fanzine. I sold the rights to the property to a new game company in 2005, and developed The Ravaged Earth Society over the last three years. Unfortunately, this March, the company lost their license with Pinnacle and wasn't able to produce the game. They signed the rights back to me and I worked with Pinnacle to get the game out to the fans, who've waited patiently for it.
So in an odd way, a game that began online is ending up online.