Hey Jack Kerouac

It was supposed to be just a weekend away from the grind of NYC.  We (my wife and I) had been meaning to get away for a few months now – our last substantial trip “off the island” was in January, to Atlantic City of all places, just to experience something new.  And experience it we did.

Not quite beach weather

Not quite beach weather

But in the months since, really from April on, we’d been meaning to get away for a weekend; nowhere spectacular, just someplace not New York.   So, April, we were going to get away.  Then I attended MoCCA Fest, so that weekend was a no-go.  Then Fresh Meat landed at the TriBeCa Film Festival, which ate up 2 weekends, then my wife had work-related things come up.  Then I was invited to participate in some Free Comic Book Day events.   April became May, which became June, and we still hadn’t gotten away.

So a couple of weekends ago, we decided. The Poconos, over the NJ state line in Pennsylvania.  We hadn’t been that way in six or so years, it was close, and the tourist season hadn’t started in force so we were able to do it cheap.  We booked the car, booked a hotel, and the plan was set. We were going to hike some mountain trails, eat in diners, and hit up a DQ, because we only do that when we’re out in vacation land.

Don't judge me

Don’t judge me

Then work intruded again.

Her work, not mine.

You see, my wife is a book publicist.  And part of being a publicist means being available for your client’s needs.  So when such client was having a book signing in suburban NJ, and it was strongly advisable that she make an appearance, show her support, and basically do her job.

So on the Saturday we went, to Mendham Books in picturesque Mendham, NJ to support this author and their book. And as my wife did her job for the three hours that followed, I found myself wandering the bookstore.  For three hours.

mendham031611Awesome

Now I love bookstores. Every town I’ve visited, on holidays or whatever, wandering the main drag if I saw a bookshop you know I’d be going in.  And I’d spend twenty, thirty minutes just browsing the shelves, or if there was a specific purchase I wanted to make, I’d make it, and be on my way.  It bemoans to see so many going the way of record stores, as people rush to embrace tablets and e-readers, and give print a pass. Yeah, places like Amazon.com are great, and convenient, especially if you’re looking for a specific item. But what about those undiscovered things; the ones you walk past, glance at on the shelf, look through it, and decide it looks interesting?  When I first moved to New York I’d have this ritual where I’d walk down Broadway every Friday, from 66th to 26th streets, and in that span visit three bookstores, a record store, and a comic book store. By the end of that weekly walk I rarely went home empty handed.  There was something exciting about anticipating I’d becoming home with something I hadn’t planned on buying, but did.

That was 2008; now five years later only the comic book store remains, the rest having gone the way of polite political discourse.

So yeah, I’m familiar with bookstores.  But I’d never spent three hours hanging around in one. And what I experienced is something I think all writers, aspiring, established, or otherwise, need to do.

I started in one corner of the store and moved my way down the row, reading spines, glancing at covers, pulling some more interesting looking ones out and reading the jacket copy.  So many titles, names, authors, genres – something for everybody.  Browsing through kid-lit, I rediscovered books I’d forgotten about totally; Dear Mr Henshaw, Upchuck Summer, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  I discovered that Gordon Korman – my favorite author in Grade 4 and Grade 5 (who grew up in the same Toronto neighborhood as I did) was still going strong decades later, and like me now made his home in New York.

I still have this one.

I still have this one.

I discovered just how many young adult books are parts in a series (a lot) and wondered if it was still possible to tell a story that began and ended in the same book.  Has the market changed so much that every book needs to be part of a trilogy or seven book series, like movies and TV are expected to?

Moving into the general fiction section, I saw how many books shared ideas that various un-produced and un-published works of mine did (also a lot).  I re-discovered authors I’d read books from in the past (Philip Kerr and the late Michael Crichton) but never fell in love with were still going and going strong (because others did fall in love and stayed in love).

I wandered the non-fiction section, and saw books on every possible subject, in many cases multiple volumes on the same event.  I browsed the travel section and planned vacations I may never have the time or money to take.

I also saw how vital bookstores remain. They anchor entire blocks, shopping centers, and main streets.  They’re a place where people can congregate, talk, and read. I think of the ones that have disappeared in New York, and how their departure effectively ended my visits to that particular place or street. How I no longer buy a book there, repair to the nearby café, grab a coffee and start reading.

It made me think about the trickle-down effect a bookstore closing has on its immediate environs.  Notwithstanding the closure of a store means people out of jobs, stock sold off at a discount, and an empty storefront filled by a check cashing place or a T-Mobile store.  Some would say there’s little difference between the two.

But what I really discovered was how quickly time can pass when you’re in a bookstore.  I also realized that there were so many books, on so many subjects, in so many genres that if I were to spend the rest of my life in that store, there was no way I’d ever have the time to read every one of them. And so those three hours went by like they were nothing, and shortly thereafter we were on our way to Pennsylvania.   But we didn’t resume the journey alone, because I made sure to buy this before I left.

For old time's sake

For old time’s sake

So the hours I spent in this small neighborhood bookstore ended up being the highlight of the trip. Because it reminded me that I’ll never be able to read every book written, that I’ll never be able to plunge into all the worlds dreamed into being and put into words.  It also reminded me of the unpublished and unproduced works of mine that may never be experienced.  And it reminded me to not take anything for granted.

Especially not bookstores. We need them as much as they need us.

 

You Can’t Put Your Arms ‘Round A Memory

Life is a series of events; I think we can all agree on that.  And over time those events blur and combine until all you remember are moments.  Think about it; what did you do yesterday?  How much of it can you remember, in detail?  You can’t.  Now think of everything you’ve forgotten from last week.  Last month.  2012.  Beyond.

It's called "getting old". Sorry.

It’s called “getting old”. Sorry.

Depressed now?

This experience intensifies the older you get.  The more memories pile up, the more your brain files them away because there’s only so much information you can recall at a given point, or need to.  But the memories aren’t gone – they’re just hidden away, buried and waiting to be unearthed.  I like to think of them in some steel lockbox, beneath a pile of dirt.  Even knowing they’re just beneath the surface isn’t enough – you have to find a way in.

Music is a great key; think of how many times you hear a song you haven’t listened to in years, and how often some memory long since buried is dredged to the surface.  That song and that memory are forever linked.  You can’t have one without the other.  I get that sensation every time I hear “Velouria” by the Pixies, “Black” by Pearl Jam, and “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You’re Told)” by The White Stripes.  The songs and the memory associated with them is forever linked.

Random White Stripes insert, because White Stripes.

Random White Stripes insert, because White Stripes.

But that’s a digression.  We’re talking about memory, and specifically those memories suffused in a golden hue; those transcendent moments, those perfect days that sneak up on you.  We all have them. Ask anybody and they’ll have a grocery list of them, and a lot of them are rightfully great memories.  The day they got married, the day their son or daughter was born, the day they graduated college, or accomplished something extraordinary.

Thing is, I’m not talking about those days – I’m talking about the ones where everything just seemed to just happen in the right fashion.  The days where you woke up and figured it was going to be just another day.  You’ll never forget it because it began so innocuously but when it ended you realized it was one of those days you’ll never forget.

For me the first would have been in late spring 1990.  I had been enlisted to help a friend open up his family cottage.  It was about an hour’s drive from town, so was going to occupy the better part of the day.  There was a lot of work involved, and naturally that meant said friend and I slacked off as much as we could, but we got the jobs assigned to us done (mercifully my friend’s father handled the outhouse chores – that’s right, no plumbing).

Probably not as bad an outhouse experience as this guy, but still.

Probably not as bad an outhouse experience as this guy, but still.

Anyway we were winding things down, but had another hour or so before we were heading back home.  My friend’s mother suggested I stretch out on the hammock.  “It’s the most comfortable one you’ll ever experience,” she promised.  I figured “why not” and climbed into the hammock.  It was essentially a canvas bag strung between two trees, not one of the more common netted ones.  I laid back and pulled the canvas over so I was totally cocooned and I lay there, listening to the breeze waft through the trees, hearing them creak.  I could hear the water lapping at the shore.  In the distance I heard a motorboat on the lake.  And for a moment this incredible sense of well-being overcame me.

Someone nudged the hammock and I pulled back the canvas to see my friend staring down at me.  “Time to go” he said.

“I thought I had an hour”, I replied.

“Dude, you’ve been in there an hour.”  I checked my watch, and saw he was right.  Thing is it felt like a minute.  I know I didn’t fall asleep – I was awake the entire time.  But somehow I didn’t notice it had been an hour.  Had I been alone there I could have stayed in that hammock until dark.

Or until this guy showed up.

Or until this guy showed up.

I didn’t say much on the ride home, and after I was dropped off, didn’t say much to my parents either.  Instead I sequestered myself in my room, trying to capture that moment of perfection, and realizing I never would again.

The next time was in summer of 1992 and involved basketball.  For some reason a friend and I were playing a little 1-on-1 in his driveway, the hoop and net mounted (as is the suburban fashion) above the garage.  A couple more friends dropped by, and we were 2 on 2.  Then, for some reason we decided to take this show to the closest school playground for more room to roam (not to mention two opposing hoops).  We did, played basketball for what must have been  hours, until the sun set and we lost the light.  We parted ways after that, on the short term, but a few months later in the big sense when we all went away to college. Whether true or just an invention post-script, it could have been the last time we were all together at the same place.

This was more our speed.

This was more our speed.

What stands out about the basketball story; none of us played basketball with any regularity.  We weren’t on the school team, and, point of fact, were an un-athletic, uncoordinated bunch.  We probably looked like idiots out there, but didn’t notice or care.  Shooting hoops was something we never ever did, before, and never did after, yet for some reason on this day it seemed the thing to do.

The next period jumps us ahead 18 years.   I’m in Toronto for the day, waiting for my fiancée to fly up from NYC.  You see, I’ve just got back from Montreal and a successful visa interview at the US Consulate.  It’s one of the necessary steps a Canadian needs to take to marry his American sweetheart – paperwork, criminal background checks, medical exams, fees etc – to acquire the visa.  It’s the last step, and a successful one.  After having this enormous weight I’ve been carrying for a year lifted from my shoulders I’m in a rare state of euphoria.  My fiancée is up the next day (a Saturday), so I have time to breathe.

Anyway I’m out the door at my sister’s place around 8am because I have a meeting downtown with a producer I try and keep up with when visiting Toronto.  We meet up at 9, grab coffee and talk shop for an hour and a bit, just catch up and stuff, but when the meeting’s over, I realize it’s maybe half-past ten and I have the whole day ahead of me to do … well, whatever I want. No way I’m going back to my sister’s place in the middle of nowhere suburbia, so I grab another coffee and sit, reading the paper, looking for something to do, and decide I’m going to go to a movie.  What’s playing?  What’s new?

Well, Iron Man just opened … but I already promised the fiancee I’d take her that weekend.  What else — oh, look, Speed Racer opens today.

This is actually the only coherent shot in the movie.

This is actually the only coherent shot in the movie.

Yeah, Speed Racer.  The Wachowski’s epic flop of a film.  But at this point it’s just opened, and is playing in IMAX, and I have a few hours before the first showing.  So I figure, “why not” and slowly make my way down towards the theater, looking for something — anything — to kill time with.  So hours to go before the movie, I walk down Yonge Street, just enjoying the day, when I walk past a comic book shop.  There’s a sign in the window and it stops me in my tracks.  Today (and only today) they’re selling all graphic novels at the U.S. cover price, which is a big deal because books in Canada routinely cost about ten bucks more than they do down here.

And since it’s bee a good long while since I bought a GN, I figure, why not, and head on in. A half-hour and eighty dollars later I exited the store, toting the first volumes in The Walking Dead, Y: The Last Man, and Northlanders sagas –and inadvertently opened the door that would eventually lead me to create Mixtape.  Of course at this point I didn’t know the significance of the moment, but looking back now I ask myself What If I had walked past and there hadn’t been the sale on. Would I have gone in?  Would Mixtape have been born? The mind reels.

Because the TV show is insanely popular and I'm trying to gin up hits.

Because the TV show is insanely popular and I’m trying to gin up hits.

Eventually my wandering took me through the downtown core to the theater showing, yes, Speed Racer, a film which is akin to someone smacking you in the face with a bag of Skittles over and over again.  But my mind was so centered it might as well have been the greatest movie ever made.

And in all honesty, Speed Racer is much better than people give it credit for.  It’s overlong, and doesn’t know what movie it wants ot be half the time, but it possesses an emotional center that most movies of its type lack. I watched it again recently and was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how much stronger a film it feels like in comparison to the other big movies of 2008, namely Indy 4, The Dark Knight, and, yes, Iron Man.  Actually, I think all of the Wachowski’s films age better than people give credit for — this from the guy who liked ALL of the Matrix trilogy (and ditto Cloud Atlas).

It's true. I did like it.

It’s true. I did like it.

There have been days like those three since, but those three are the ones that jump out at me most.  We’re coming up on five years since that Speed Racer day, and it feels like it could have happened decades ago.  And at some point, it will have been decades, like the previous memories are.

But for now it’s just a moment, one of many where for just that moment, everything seemed right in the world.

[NOTE: Not that anybody commented on this post anyway, but the spambots love it, hence comments being closed.]

Ongoing History

If you don’t know Alan Cross, you should.  He’s a well-known music personality, author, and radio host, who created the long-running, syndicated program The Ongoing History of New Music.  This program was essential listening for anyone who considered music to be more than just music.  The show ran on Toronto’s CFNY from 1993 to 2011 and was incredibly in-depth, taking an hour or two to focus on one band or one wave of alternative rock.  Alan has a new program called The Secret History of Rock, airing every Sunday, and thankfully available in an archive which can be accessed right here.

Of course, I bring Alan up because he’s given Mixtape some attention on his official blog, particulary pertaining to the digital version of the book.  Check it out here.

Anyway, a month back he did a show on what he considered the 10 essential alt rock albums; the ones that no record collection is complete without.  They span the late 60s to the early 90s – the period that most influenced Mixtape’s genesis.  I can state proudly that I own 9 of the 10* (though, if I may, the lack of any Pixies is a little disturbing)

If you look at the characters in Mixtape – Jim, Terry, Noel, Lorelei and Siobhan – chances are all of these albums are in their combined collections, with the exception of Nevermind (as Mixtape starts in September 1990, we’re a year out from the Grunge explosion, though you can be certain in the post September 1991 world, they all own copies of it).

I’ve already listed my top 15 albums here, but for those interested in Alan’s picks, you can listen here to the archived show.  I strongly urge you do so.