Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Powder Dreams

Winter's first snow has blanketed Massachusetts. The cold slows most, but incites some.

Jetting out to Utah for a week on Friday. I hope it's this deep...

The Blogger tasting Utah fresh.
Photo by David Stevens

Until then, videos.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Viva Banana Derby!

Bobo bounces up and down on the back of his Golden Retriever. This crazed capuchin monkey wants us fired up for his big race. We oblige, cheering wildly. I turn to give Erin an awkward, white guy high-five and Zaaahhh...Shit!

My tongue's burned by the scorching hot peanuts from my deep fried Snickers. A fast gulp of my frozen margarita extinguishes the fire and I’m hooting again.

Two monkeys will soon be competing in a pseudo horse race, jockeying on the backs of dogs. It’s the Banana Derby…and right now, it seems perfectly normal.

I’ve been in the Vegas mix for seventy-two hours and my mind has adjusted to the sensory firestorm. This town is intent on obliterating the line between reality and fantasy—clocks don’t exist, public intoxication is encouraged, and Roman emperors reign.

All hail the Blogger!

But tributaries of reality do seep into the fantastical flood.

Today starts, like so many in Vegas, with a very real hangover and a Bloody Mary. I stumble out of my room and wander through the thousand-mile stares of slot machine zombies.

After some stumbling around, our group meets at The Mermaid Bar in the Silverton Casino. Another round of to-go Bloodies are ordered, and we file onto the waiting limo.

It's a one-drink trip to Lake Meade where a fully staffed yacht picks us up for a five-hour tour.

The first stop is for a picture near Hoover Dam. I didn’t even realize we we're on the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam. Christ, even the lakes are fake here. It doesn’t look as impressive on this side of the dam; the towering wall of earth and concrete is on the other side.

“Can we get any closer,” I ask. 

“Only if you want to get shot at,” replies the captain.

Federal agents patrol the dam to thwart any potential terrorist attack. They will fire warning shots if you get too close.

A terrorist threat?

That’s a dope slap of reality. But not to worry, fantasy is still running this boat. Actually, this guy is...


Predictably, after an hour of apps and more drinks, a whipped cream and champagne fight erupts in the hot tub. A bit of bubbly stings my eye, so I jump out of the cream puff war to clean my face and notice the bartender in the background. She thinks no one is watching and I see a slight frown, a moment of introspection. This is her job. I wonder if she’s married. Does she have kids?

As I contemplate going to talk to her, the crew opens the two-story high waterslide off the back of the boat and I make a run for it. It’s a slick ride down and I'm the first to splash into the manmade lake. The water delivers a sobering jolt.

Doing my best doggie paddle, I get back and jump aboard. Everyone else splashes in the water, but I retreat into a towel and walk along the rail of the bottom deck.

The sun’s dropping and the horizon’s a pastel gradient of purple and pink. The vast, barren landscape may as well be Mars to this son of New England. It’s quiet. 

The yacht engines fire back up and wake me from my daydream.

Back on terra firma, we pile into the limo bus and an impromptu dance party erupts as we hurtle down Interstate 215. A quick pump of the brakes would produce a few broken limbs of reality. Fortunately, it’s a smooth ride and we’re flying high, like a G-6. The limo drops us off from our million-dollar yacht day to a five-dollar carnival night in the Silverton Casino parking lot. Nobody’s wearing white.

Fair Enough.

We’re not here to barf on The Zipper or stab anyone. We want the Banana Derby.

Bobo, the star monkey, is leashed by a heavy chain. This bothers me. And apparently, I'm not alone.

The Derby owner parades Bobo around while rattling off information and jokes with the speed of a country auctioneer... We hear about the first time he discovered Bobo riding the family dog and how capuchin monkeys live almost twice as long in captivity than in the wild (as long as they don’t drink or smoke...yuck, yuck). I aggressively slug off my margarita now. Ahhh…fan-ta-seeeeee.

30 minutes of build up for a 2-minute dog race. Shockingly, Bobo wins.

Like everything else in this town, it was rigged. And I can’t wait to come back.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fight Fire With Fire

The furnace ignites and my head jolts up. I wipe drool off my chin and look out at the Boston commuters rumbling outside. Few will notice the small light from my window, but I could stop traffic with a single match strike.

You can write your whole life in relative anonymity. It’s a paradox of internet publishing—the power to broadcast to the world, but never actually reaching anyone. I'm easily lulled into a false sense of security and forget that published ideas are available to anyone with a web connection. All of these thoughts may exist in a vacuum for now, but one misstep, and there could be serious legal consequences. Despite the Lunesta-like effects of the subject matter, it’s vitally important to learn about the legal side of blogging.

I may feel alone when writing, but I'm absolutely alone should I face litigation for the work. As an independent blogger, there’s no employer to back me up. I'd seriously consider incorporation should my site ever become a popular destination.

Words and ideas carry a tremendous amount of power. They can sway opinion and severely affect both the author’s and subject’s existence. A lone, irresponsible blogger can even force the executive office’s hand, as highlighted by the recent Shirley Sherrod incident. It’s a delicate balancing act for an independent blogger. We write to incite something within people, to give something, but also open ourselves up to potential litigation. Listen to the voice in your head (and not the one holding a pitchfork). If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. There are a number of ways an author can get himself into trouble, but most legal problems arise because of gross misconduct.

Billions of ideas are self-published online and it’s difficult to get yours noticed, but it’s extremely easy for companies or even individuals to track when their name is mentioned. Cast it in a bad or untrue light, and they’ll know it. Even if what you’re writing is completely factual, it may not be enough. An individual can litigate if “embarrassing private facts” are disclosed. A company, with large resources, can file a frivolous lawsuit and many times will succeed in suppressing factual information by doing so. Are you willing to spend an exorbitant amount of time and money to defend your writing?

I say yes. Stand up for what you believe in. Not every writer needs to be provocative, but if your aim is to promote truth and influence, then you’ll inevitably vex someone. The threat of litigation can be frightening, but even scarier would be a world where dissident voices are smothered. You never know…the publicity from a high profile court case may even dramatically increase your site’s traffic.

I don’t suggest intentionally burning down your house just to attract a crowd of onlookers. But if you’re passionate about your material and bold enough to defend it, then flame on.

Friday, October 22, 2010

It feels like the first time.
I’m surfing @cdirksen’s Phish thread and have to pull myself away to blog about Twitter. I could rummage though Twitter’s closet for hours. It’s like discovering the internet all over again.
Tweets, micro bursts of thought, are cognitive headlines limited to 140 characters or less. It demands brevity. Hemingway would have been a masterful tweeter. I thought Twitter was just a bunch of 14-year olds telling each other what they had for breakfast. But the sophistication and creativity of the material is astounding.
It’s ten o’clock on Thursday night and I’m searching topics that interest me, #phish, #jonstewart, and #theonion. These commercial outfits generally use the microblog as a marketing tool to draw people to their main site. But as a user, the more attractive part was getting real-time information from fellow fans tweeting. I’m hunting around for fifteen minutes, stumble onto a Phish feed, and someone mentions that Trey Anastasio, the guitarist for Phish, was just referenced on The Office. I turn on the TV and dial up my dvr of The Office episode that just aired.
It was easy to quickly connect with people who share my same interests, even for a first-time user. And I swear the cold beer I sip tastes better, knowing I just used this technology to enhance my life. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Transitive Nightfall of Diamonds

The driveway's full so I park on the front lawn, along the street. Quickly walking over icy grass, I see a familiar bush and pause. “Oh Man, that’s where I puked and thought I was going to die. Southern Comfort...more like Dixie Nightmare.”

It’s not a pleasant memory and the cold wind lashes my freshly shaved face, so I don’t loiter long. Walking up to the front door feels strange. We always went throught the garage and straight down to the basement.

“Proctor-man!” A couple of shouts followed by high-fives and hugs. The smiles are the same but the eyes have extra miles. There’s small talk and the first beer slides down quickly. “Hey, let’s have one down in the basement before we go.”

A majority of my wayward high school days were spent in the basement. My friend’s mom was easy going and let us hang there without supervision--she had raised three rambunctious boys on her own and by the time my buddy was seventeen, she had checked out. It was a burnout oasis.

As we descend into the musky grotto, half-baked memories come flooding back. A Grateful Dead poster remains at the bottom of the stairs and empty liquor bottles still line the top of the concrete foundation like dusty trophies. What filthy stories of subterranean debauchery they could tell. I notice a couple of Smirnoff bottles I had a hand in finishing. I feel proud and immediately ridiculous for feeling that way.

“Dude, no way, you slept with her too?!?”

JULIE’S A SLUT is spray painted on the concrete wall. The red paint is slightly faded, but her tarnished reputation remains--immortalized by a heartbroken teenage author. No wonder people burn books.

We shwill down our drinks and hop into the taxi for the hotel.

In the reception hall, the overhead flourescent lights are too bright and the band is too loud. The saxophone, yes a saxophone, is out of key and the line for the bar is ten people deep. Obviously I’m not the only one in need of liquid relief.

While fidgeting in my pocket for change, a voice calls my name. It’s Julie. “You look great. You haven’t changed at all,” she says. 

“You look amazing too. What are you up to?”

The girl with the scarlet tag is now a married mother of two and living as a housewife in Atlanta. She’s a God-fearing Christian and treasurer of her oldest daughter’s soccer team.

I want to go back to the basement and paint over her name. But I won’t.

I drift in and out of different biographies over the next couple hours…marriages, babies, jobs, rehab and death. Eventually the saxaphone plays its last off-key note and we all wander our separate ways again.

Arriving back at my front door, the key scratches around the lock a few times before sinking in. I head to the kitchen for a bourbon nightcap. It’s Johnny Walker Blue, not Southern Comfort, but mind wanders back to that naseous experience 10 years earlier and as I reach for the glass tumbler, it knocks off the counter. Tiny shards litter the kitchen floor.

“What the hell,” says my girlfriend, who's just appeared in the kitchen doorway. “That’s one of the nice glasses Anna got me from New York.”

“It’s only a glass,” I sneer. “It would have broke sooner or later.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Long Shadows

He ran because he knew he was going to die. Just finished watching ESPN's inspirational documentary about Terry Fox: An amazing story about a young runner with cancer not giving in and attacking each day.

I jump off the couch and dance into the kitchen. The dishes get an enthusiastic handwashing and are swung into the cabinets.  One the other side of the room, my girlfriend chops summer squash that was grown and donated by our neighbors. 

I feel a bit of guilt. Our neighbors are an elderly couple and every time I see the husband I hear, “Hey Jared, stop working so hard and come on over for a drink!” I always decline. I'm not opposed to the occasional day drink, but for some reason I never make the time to go visit. 

Dishes done, I quietly sip a glass of pinot noir. My girlfriend’s blond hair glows angelic under the soft hue of the track light. I sneak up from behind with a hug. Bob Marley croons in the background and the sun is shining, weather is sweet. We sway, discussing future, purpose and plans.

A few moments pass and a paw scratches my leg. Our dog, Esther, is feeling ignored. I leave kitchen duties behind and take her outside for tennis ball bedlam.

She chases with  intensity and focus, as if this were the last ball, the last jump, the last run.

After fifteen minutes, I slide the saliva soaked ball into my pocket and Esther knowingly trots back towards the house. But I’m headed out to the field and the long shadows.

Esther wheels around, realizes there’s bonus play time, and races to lead the way. The ball business is fun, but unleashed walks are wild. She runs with purpose, nose-to-the-ground, unafraid. Searching…

I sprint to keep up with her. The dry air burns my lungs, but I don’t relent. She occasionally glances up, seeming annoyed at my foolish red face. I stalk her until I eventually collapse, exhausted.

The cool ground comforts my throbbing head. Off in the distance, the elm tree's orange leaves flash like a fireworks charge and our house looks perfect…no lawn needing mowing, no running toilets, no regrets.

A wet tongue licks my arm...Esther's come to check in. She sees I'm OK, takes off again but abruptly stops a few feet away. Falling to the ground, she writhes around as if under a voodoo spell.

She’s rolling in horse shit. I let her.

We're losing light and the shadows are getting longer. 

Walking slowly home, I notice a lamp glowing in my neighbor's house.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Rise of Digital Media

For the people and by the people...The digital revolution is dynamically changing how we interpret our world.

Individuals now broadcast personal stories, angles, and opinions from all corners of the world in real-time. The balance of power in media has shifted away from print and to digital content. The flow of advertising dollars confirms this trend. The old print behemoths are giving way to, and in many ways relying on, more nimble, localized outlets to better serve Upton Sinclair's “fair body of truth.” The new media, with sparse editing and oversight, relies on self-policing to judge its merit. It requires a more self-reliant reader.

The large, traditional print outlets are evolving from paper behemoths to online broadcasting machines…employing a heavy dose of pictures and video to add power and titillation to their stories. In the digital world, the ability to use headlines and pictures to grab eyeballs is as important as the stories. The larger media outlets are well positioned to take advantage of this new medium because they already have the journalistic resources in place, as well as a brand and reputation.

Consider this headlining article from today, September 24th, 2010.
It reports on an 18 yr old Sengalese immigrant who was stabbed to death on the campus of Regis College. The post contains details of the family’s back story, reactions, quotes and a surreal photo of the grieving mother holding a computer showing an image of her now deceased son on the screen. He was found dead at 5:00 in the morning and seven hours later the site had a full report on it, complete with pictures. This isn’t national news or even impacting Bostonians day-to-day lives, but it’s headlining…because it’s local and compelling. This is the old media outlets niche, and where they can succeed online. now features many “neighborhood” sites within its main site. It’s nothing new. Since its inception, news publishers understood that “the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors.” (Walter Lippman, Public Opinion, p. 210). This old idea is now being applied in the digital arena.

Most online publishers don’t have an editorial staff like the major media outlets. Even the most irresponsible and erroneous material can be broadcast by rogue publishers. The obvious danger here is that an uninformed reader may have trouble deciphering fact from fiction. The positive side to this same coin is that we are able to access unfiltered news and gain a broader perspective. We can look at a story from more than one side and avoid being lulled into the naively comfortable notion that only one true version of an event exists.

WikiLeaks is spearheading this new form of psuedo-journalism. They operate under the belief that “the best way to truly determine if a story is authentic, is not just our expertise, but to provide the full source document to the broader community.” They are willing to publish material that other traditional media outlets won’t. It allows us to more deeply investigate major stories, reported on by established media outlets, but lacking some ugly truths. The current Wiki reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq affords us a rare glimpse into the realities of the situation on the ground. These are written by soldiers and intelligence officers who witnessed these accounts first hand. There’s no editorial angle.

In the wild world of digital publishing, it is up to the reader to make intelligent, independent judgments. Are we up to the task?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Techically Speaking

Creating compelling content is only one part of managing a successful blog. Brilliant writing is useless unless it finds an audience, and a wise blogger will employ a number tools to attract readers.

After your guests have arrived, it is critical that you engage them in a way that ensures a future visit. A blog should be easy to navigate and match the tone of the content. You don’t want to make it hard to use your site. This can negatively impact the quality of the work and increase the chance that a reader bails. The tools and technology used to design a blog may change over time, but human nature remains the same… we will always be less likely to use something that is difficult to navigate.

I discovered
The Daily Beast a year ago. It’s a site that I visit often and have grown to love, but initially the tools employed by the site had a negative impact on the work, and my first visit only lasted thirty seconds. The homepage prominently displays pictures and captions of their lead stories. The pictures change automatically every few seconds from one story to the next in a slideshow. I wasn’t able to stop the slide from changing and this annoyed me. I’m sure there’s a way to stop these, but I couldn’t figure it out, and that's all that mattered.

I managed to get by my initial frustration and eventually jumped back to the site. I’m glad I did.
The Beast uses a lot of tools that also positively impact the work. The first I noticed, and used, was the ability to increase and decrease the font size. The biography link next to the author’s name, which displays as a small pop up, makes it a more intimate experience.The Facebook widget and engaging comment sections makes it dynamic. It feels alive and communal.

It’s not necessary to use a ton of tools to produce a site that “does” what you want and positively impact the work. The
Bookslut blog is simple in design and only uses an RSS feed widget, inconspicuously placed on the left hand side of the page. The design of the site is subtle, as it should be. It felt relaxed, content is king.

It's not the amount of tools used that makes the technological side positvely impact a blog. The tools just need to be used in away that make the site most effectivley communicate with the reader.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spontaneous Elbert

After graduating college,  myself and a few college friends made the move from small mountain Vermont to big mountain West. The idea was to ski a lot and work a live the dream. The reality of nine to five adulthood would be put on the shelf for a couple more years. It was procrastination at its finest.

I had always dreaded the thought of the vanilla, corporate lifestyle. It seemed so ordinary. I was young, invincible, and extraordinary. I wouldn't allow myself to get old.

Despite my best intentions, time marched on. The two years spent in the mountains whirled by like a breathtaking landscape viewed from a speeding car's window. The best things always seem to go by fast and setting the e-brake would just send you careening off the road.

I spent my last month in Breckenridge alone. My friends had already made the lonely trek back East and I was couped up in a small efficiency room at the hotel I worked at. It was a slow time of the year in a ski town--the summer vacationers had returned to their post-labor day realities and the snow had yet to fly. It felt like perpetually waking up after a party and realizing you're hungover and there's cleaning up to do.

I read a lot during this time and one of my books was Louis Dawson's Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners. It was a hiking and mountaineering guide to all of Colorado's fourteen thousand-foot peaks. I was reading about Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak, on an especially somber afternoon when I was hit with a jolt of inspiration and I had to go climb that One last hurrah. One final wail before succumbing to the eastern corporate pull.

I quickly grabbed what I needed and left behind a note that stated my plans "just in case I become bear food." Driving towards the trailhead, I felt hyper-aware of my surroundings. It was early fall and the sun shined with a crisp brightness only found in the high mountain air. The landscape was illuminated and I felt as if I were looking through polarized lenses.

I arrived at 2 o'clock and started down the path at a quick pace. Darting birds encouraged me to step faster. The smell of pine was intoxicating. As the sun dropped more in the sky and the light of the forest softened, I felt like I had stumbled into a John Muir dream. I wanted to stop and linger in that moment but it was getting late and I was running out of daylight. After pushing on for another hour, I was just about to call it when the trail suddenly led out beyond the veil of trees. It was as though a curtain had dropped before me--the great peak was visible on center stage. Mount Elbert.

It was the top of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. It was massive and majestic. I had made it to treeline and this is where I would set up camp (which consisted of a mat and sleeping bag, no tent).

The ecstasy of the view quickly gave way to a feeling of anxiousness. It was almost dark and I was alone, on the side of a mountain. I was scared but I felt alive, like I was really doing SOMETHING. I need those moments.

Quickly I began gathering wood for a fire and wound up running into something else. I found what looked like a six shooter cap gun from my childhood days. I pointed it at the ground and pulled the trigger. Boom! A bright orange burst shot out and smell the of gun powder lingered in the air. It was real and it was loaded.

The wild west! I cooked hot dogs and baked beans on an open fire that night, thinking about where the gun had come from. An outlaw on the run? Whatever its story, having it by my side gave me comfort.

After dinner, my belly was full and I was feeling high so I decided to make the quick hike up past treeline. It got dark and cold as I moved away from the fire. I scurried along until I was beyond the canopy of the trees. Here the sky was big, with countless stars; diamond reminders of the laughable mystery. The Cheshire Cat Moon was in on the joke as well, wryly smiling as I stood shivering in the cold, mountain night.

I returned to my fire and I tried to sleep. But it was colder and darker than I expected. And there were noises. My tongue in cheek note about becoming bear food didn't seem as cute now. Being an outlaw was scary business...maybe the corporate world wouldn't be so bad. I didn't sleep that night and the gun was always within reach. The sun's arrival was announced by the birds a few minutes before I felt it's comforting beams on my face. I was relieved and felt ridiculous for being scared of the mischievous night.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Open Up

Most intimate writing is safeguarded by the insulated pages of a closely guarded journal. A personal blog is essentially like a journal that the whole world could potentially read. Yikes. But a successful blog must have the nuggets of truth that are part of the unrefined and sometimes unflattering human experience. Readers crave something to relate to. It doesn't matter if you're blogging for a corporate giant like JetBlue (love their shtick) or keeping a running commentary of your life. There needs to be something human about the material.

Writers have a tendency to "live behind the pen," and prefer to tell a story about others. But a personal blog requires the writer to pull back the veil and expose a Self to world. And not a boring Self. We want to feel intimately connected with a writer who isn't afraid to take risks. It's the thought provoking risks that force the reader to think deeper about a topic and raise their blood pressure a little. Phillip Lopate humorously describes how the purpose of the personal essay is not to "win a writer points in heaven" but instead to "quicken the reader's pulse." (The Art of the Personal Essay)

Titillating your readers while not offending them to the point that they leave can be a tricky endeavor. There's no reset button in the blogosphere. Once the publish button is pushed, your ideas are out there. The good, the bad, the all gets published. There's no editorial staff required to post a blog. Luckily, the ability to quickly self-publish allows the blogger to broadcast a timely defense if pulses were ever quickened to the point of outrage. Penelope Trunk, a widely followed author and truth warrior extraordinaire, used her blog to defend a controversial post she ran on Twitter about having a miscarriage at work. A disturbingly light way to handle a topic, which rattled even her biggest fans. But because she was able to quickly post a well argued response, she was able to explain herself and put out the fire. This wouldn't have been possible only a decade ago. Of course, stirring up controversy with a Tweet wouldn't have been possible either.

Penelope's blog is the bravest and best use of this new medium. She's unashamed and willing to expose herself in order to further difficult conversations. We live in a modern world where there are an innumerable number of outlets vying for our attention, including the approximately 110 million different blogs. We can very easily become swept up in a world of "busyness" that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as a "state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions." The best personal blogs provide content in a manner that engages the reader and is easy to digest, even if the subject matter isn't.

There are plenty of safer personal blogs that specialize in every niche imaginable. In fact most blogs are about trivial matters like car repair, sports, cooking, etc. These can be equally successful, as long as the blog is able to give the reader something. Anyone need a tasty new recipe for gazpacho?

There are other types blogs for the less adventuresome. Corporate blogs are an important part of promoting a company's image. And advocacy blogs serve the important role of, well, advocating for a cause or message. These are useful, thank you, but I get the most out of reading about how someone else sees the world and themselves. I want an honest look into the mind and soul of a fellow human being.