Isn’t this just like me? Only last night I was waxing pretentious about writing more substantive pieces and saving the silly stuff for Facebook, so what do I decide to post as my very next entry? A video of a ukulele-playing gamine extolling the awesomeness of beards.
What can I say? As a proud member of the Clan of the Beard for over 25 years now (save that one terrible, ego-crushing week back around 1995 or thereabouts, when I thought I’d “try something new,” like a colossal dumb ass), and as someone who has frequently had to defend my hirsuteness as a perfectly acceptable fashion choice in a highly conservative culture that frowns on too much individual expression (that would be Utah, kids), I can’t help but support the cause whenever I see an opportunity. So, in that spirit, allow me to present to you Molly Lewis and… “The Year of the Beard.” (Keep your eyes peeled for appearances by fellow beardites John Scalzi and Wil Wheaton, from whom I ganked this clip in the first place… )
Hey, kids. Sorry to be such a tease, making a big announcement that I’m back in business and then leaving you hanging for several weeks. Evidently it’s going to take me a while to get back into the swing of this blogging thing.
On a somewhat related note, I had hoped to get things put back together around here in time to begin posting new content again by February 14th. That was the tenth anniversary of my very first post, you see, and I liked the idea of my re-entry into the world of blogging taking place on that momentous date. Alas, as you may have noticed, I missed the deadline. I’m just not very good with those things. As the late, great Douglas Adams once quipped, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Still… ten years. Can you believe that? Well, ten years, more or less. There is that little matter of the eight-month vacation I’ve just concluded. But considering that the break wasn’t my idea, I’m willing to call it an even decade if you are. And a decade spent on the same continuous project really demands to be acknowledged, whether you get around to doing it on the proper date or not.
Looking back at a decade of Simple Tricks and Nonsense, I’m painfully aware of its shortcomings. I’ve never achieved the same level as John Scalzi or James Lileks — both of whom were very much my blogging role models in the early days — in terms of either quantity or, to be honest, quality. Those guys have a knack for really saying something in nearly everything they post, and they post a lot. Especially Lileks, whose Daily Bleat comprises 1,000 or more words per day. My own meager output doesn’t begin to compare, even with my occasional “tl;dr” pieces. (That’s “too long, didn’t read,” if you’re not hip to the lingo.)
Of course, those guys have the advantage of blogging in a semi-professional capacity, i.e., their blogs can be considered a facet of their careers (especially in the case of Scalzi, who got his big break as a novelist because of his blog, and who now uses his online presence to promote his fiction). That means they have time to devote to their blogs, and they can easily justify taking that time to do things the way they ought to be done. I, on the other hand, am merely a hobbyist, as much as I wish I could say otherwise, and I have to fit this thing in whenever I can, in between the obligations that come with working for The Man. And as I’m sure my Loyal Readers are aware (based on all my grumbling about it), fitting Simple Tricks into my day has become considerably more difficult in recent years. (It doesn’t help that it takes me so damn long these days to finish whatever I’m writing. I suspect Scalzi and Lileks are pretty fast at putting their thoughts together in some kind of coherent and entertaining fashion, whereas I agonize over every… bloody… word. Years of tapping my abilities for the day job have taken some of the wind from my sails. That may sound melodramatic, but it has been my experience.)
If you’re interested in the numbers, I’ve published 2,385 entries in my decade of blogging. And I suppose that’s not too bad, considering I initially had no idea what the hell I was going to do with this thing, if I was going to find anything to say or anyone who would want to read it, or even whether I’d stick with it beyond the first few days or weeks. Some of those entries are even pretty good, if I do say so myself. A few, anyhow. There have been a lot of dumb time-wasters too. But one thing I noticed as I was working my way back through the archives during my recent troubleshooting: many of the silly activities that used to be such a big part of blogging — quizzes to determine what sort of pasta you are, for example — seem to have migrated over to Facebook, as has much of the social aspect of this medium. (Of course, in my particular case, it hasn’t helped that the commenting feature was out of action for so very long). Linking to articles and items of interest have gone there too, or to Tumblr. In fact, in many ways, blogs seem to have become passe’, that there are other, more efficient ways of doing what they used to be primarily used for. Many of the folks I used to read and interact with have curtailed their blogging activities, or gotten offline altogether. And there has been a lot of chatter lately to the effect that blogging is over, that people no longer have the interest or attention span to read longer pieces (reference the tl;dr slang I mentioned above). It almost seems like there’s little point in starting it up again.
And yet, here I am. Why?
Partly it’s just a habit. Simple Tricks has been part of my identity and my leisure life for a very long time. Being without it for so long was… weird. But also, to be honest, I like writing and reading longer pieces in which I can really spread my wings and tell a story, or think about an idea that’s bothering me. Facebook and Twitter have their place, and I enjoy them greatly for what they are, but they don’t encourage anything of any real substance like the best blog writing. Now, whether or not anybody out there still likes reading these longer pieces… well, I guess I’ll find out. Ideally, I’d like to keep doing this for another 10 years… and I’d like to keep striving toward the goal I feel like I’ve rarely attained, to actually say something with this thing. Or rather, to do it more consistently than I have previously.
I’m thinking I may post less frequently than I did before, and I hope that’s all right with my Loyal Readers. That’s just the reality of the demands on my time these days. But hopefully you’ll be getting something a little more worth your time in return. As for what I plan to post about… well, in some ways it feels like I really am starting all over again. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in this reborn Simple Tricks and Nonsense. I would still like to take a stab at that recurring feature I suggested so long ago, i.e., reviewing the entire oeuvre of my main man, Rick Springfield. And I have a couple of other ideas for regular features, too. But really I guess I need to do what I did way back in 2004, which was to just jump in with both feet and see what happens…
As I said in the previous entry, I was pretty upset when I realized these pieces were gone, as several of them represented some of my favorite writing for the year in which they were posted. I could maybe reconstruct a couple of them — The Girl with the Gray Eyes and the Ebert obituary, perhaps, and of course the memes — but they wouldn’t be the same, would they? They wouldn’t use the same language, and likely wouldn’t have the same energy as the originals. And I no longer have any idea what I said about my 43rd birthday, or about the impending demise of 35mm film projection, or about that road rage incident. Losing those posts really bothers me because they were essentially diary entries, capturing what I was feeling about those subjects in real time. And my annual Media Wrap-Up for that year is gone because I didn’t save my paper list (Why should I? I had recorded it here!) I’ve got a record of what movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read stretching back over a decade… except for this one year.
It sounds silly to say this about a few blog entries, but I feel a keen sense of loss and not a little despair over this, even now a couple months after discovering what had happened. I can only imagine what poor Hemingway must’ve felt when Hadley told him the suitcase containing all of his early work had gone missing on a train.
And of course I feel like a colossal jackass for not better protecting my work to start with. If I hadn’t gotten lazy about the backups, I’d still have this stuff.
Hello? Anybody out there? It’s good to see you all again. It’s been far too long. You’re probably wondering just what the hell happened and where I’ve been, and why it’s taken so long to get this place back in business again. At least… I hope you’re invested enough to be curious about all that.
The short version is: the old server crashed, data was lost, and it’s taken time to reconstruct everything.
To flesh that out a bit, let me first remind my Loyal Readers that Simple Tricks is hosted by my good friend Jack on his personal server, as a favor to me. About a year ago, Jack warned me that the server was on its last legs and would need to be replaced soon, but he was going to try and keep it running just a little longer, until he was in a better place to deal with it. A little while later, with the server becoming more and more unstable, he decided to lock me and the other bloggers he hosts out of the back-end, to prevent our tinkering from inadvertently hastening the inevitable. That meant we couldn’t post new entries or edit existing ones, or much of anything else, which is why activity seemed to freeze on June 4, 2013, for several weeks. Despite what you may have heard, I didn’t lose interest in writing, guys!
Even with that precaution in place, though, entropy finally won out and the server failed. And naturally it did so before Jack was quite ready with the new machine, which meant none of our precious data had been transferred yet. It’s a cold, cold feeling you get in your gut when you’re told that all of your work for the past several years might be permanently lost in space. Sure enough, when Jack spun up the old server’s hard drive to see what could be recovered, he couldn’t find anything more recent than 2010. Three years’ worth of my blog entries had evaporated when the server died. (I don’t know about the other bloggers who shared the server, but I imagine they were in a similar place.)
But Bennion, you say, surely you had a backup? After all, that’s the very first thing they teach you when you start messing about with this intangible digital stuff, that you always make a backup. Or six. And you’re reasonably savvy about this tech stuff, even with that self-deprecating “analog guy” thing you wear like a badge of honor, right? Right?
Um, yeah. Well, you see… I did have backups, but the truth is… I’d gotten kind of lazy about running and exporting them — it was a manual process I had to think about performing — so the most recent one I had was months old. Which meant that even after Jack had recovered what he could from the old machine and supplemented that with my inadequate backup, we were still missing a year or so of content, everything from March 11, 2012 (“The Best John Carter Quote I Saw This Weekend“), forward.
Lesser men would’ve just shrugged and said “c’est la vie” at that point, but I am, if nothing else, one stubborn bastarddedicated, and I wasn’t yet willing to give up on my precious word-babies. Fortunately, the Internet provides. There’s this website called archive.org, which stores copies of… well, pretty much everything on the web. And it had a snapshot of my lonely little blog as it existed just before it died. Perfect. I was elated.
Then I discovered that archive.org doesn’t provide any easy way to export content so you can just plug it back into, for example, a blogging platform. I was going to have to laboriously copy and paste every… single… entry… one at a time.
And if that wasn’t disheartening enough, I also learned to my absolute horror that some of the archive.org copies were incomplete. In a number of my longer entries, the ones where you have to click “continue reading” to see the whole thing, the “front page” was there — usually just an introductory paragraph or two — but everything that should’ve been “below the fold,” as they say, was missing. And naturally, these were my favorite entries from the year I was reconstructing, the ones in which I felt like I really had something to say and told some good stories. Entries like my rumination about that road rage incident with a guy my father’s age, or my reminiscence about that girl I knew back in college, the one with the gray eyes. My tribute to Roger Ebert, and to the fading magic of motion pictures on 35mm film. The good stuff — or at least the stuff that meant the most to me — all gone, with no further hope of getting it back. And no good idea what happened to it, either. Jack was as baffled as I was. The best theory he had was that something about our server’s particular method of dying had interfered with archive.org’s capture process.
Anyhow, once I reposted everything I could salvage, I had to repair a bunch of formatting that somehow got borked during the transition — spacing between paragraphs, bullet lists, that sort of thing. If you go roaming back through the archives for any reason, you may notice that there aren’t any italics on anything anymore, but I fixed all the big appearance issues at least. You may also encounter some dead links here or there, but the internal-facing ones, i.e., the ones that point back at my own blog, ought to be working.
I still need to see if I can re-upload a bunch of photographs.
But for the most, we’re back. And with any luck at all, we ought to be even better. The blog is running on shiny new hardware with multiple redundancies, and we’re on a whole new blogging platform too — WordPress instead of Movable Type — which apparently causes more headache for Jack, but is much easier on yours truly.
And here’s the big announcement of the night: we have comments again! I invite everyone reading this to drop me a line right now, just to see if the system is working, if nothing else. I’ve really missed the feedback and sense of community that used to exist around this place. Facebook took up some of the slack, but it wasn’t the same as having a conversation right here, attached to the entries that inspired it. I’m looking forward to having those conversations again…
I’ve writtenbefore about Zen Pencils, the amazing web comic/blog thing by artist Gavin Aung Than, who skillfully brings to life quotations, poems, speeches, and soliloquies through his illustrations. His work often displays a certain streak of melancholy, and it’s also undeniably sentimental, which is probably exactly why I respond to it so much. I often get a little misty reading these things. Today’s strip actually brought an inarticulate sound — I’m not going to go so far as to call it a sob, but you can imagine whatever you wish, I suppose — to my throat.
The text is taken from Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. The story Gavin tells around it… well, let’s just say it hits me in a number of my soft spots:
The cartoon is a fantasy, of course. In reality, that little neighborhood moviehouse would’ve gone out of business because there’s a megaplex up the block and it couldn’t compete, no matter what its lone regular willed to it after his passing, and also because people more and more stay in and watch DVDs, BluRays, and streaming video, or they play videogames or surf the Internet, instead of going to the theater on the corner. The fate of these places is tied to economics and shifts in the cultural landscape, unfortunately, and there’s nothing in the world that can hold those back. And if the place ever did reopen, it wouldn’t be as a spruced-up cinema. Instead, it would be the rundown home to a community theater group’s live productions of family-safe musicals. I’ve seen this pattern repeated many, many times in the 20 years since my own days in the business.
But then, that’s one of the reasons this pushed my buttons. It is a fantasy… but it’s one I’ve had many times. How I wish some anonymous benefactor could have saved the old Cameo, where I worked… or the Murray, where my earliest memory of seeing a movie on the big screen took place… or the Centre, where an entire generation of Salt Lake Valley kids first saw the Star Wars trilogy… or Trolley Corners, which was just a neat place… or the Villa, the last of Salt Lake’s grand old movie palaces. But they’re all gone now, or at the very least, repurposed, which is almost as heartbreaking as the wrecking ball.
And of course there are Ebert’s words. He wrote so many good ones in his time, but these are among the very best, I think. And I think he knew that, too. It’s still hard to believe he’s fallen silent…
I was never what you’d call a “school spirit” kind of guy. I never went to games of any sort, and I attended pep rallies only with the utmost reluctance, and even then, I made damn sure everyone knew I was too cool for that nonsense by refusing to participate in anything that might be mistaken for actual pep, preferring instead to just slouch in my old army-surplus trenchcoat and knockoff Ray-Bans. (Yeah, this was long before Colombine made that particular ensemble cause to be placed on a security watch list.)
But having a bad attitude when I was seventeen doesn’t mean that I don’t feel sentimental about my old high school now. (Truth is, I did back then, too, I just didn’t want anybody to know it). So I couldn’t help smiling at the video that’s been going around Facebook tonight. It’s a little long — just over ten minutes! — and it’s not really my style of music (it’s apparently based on a song I’ve never heard of, “I Love It” by Icona Pop). But it has an infectious energy, and it provides a nice peek at what my alma mater is looking like like these days:
I have to admit, I don’t see much about the old place that’s still familiar to me. Back in the ’80s, those hallways were carpeted and the lockers were yellow and orange instead of blue (which actually makes more sense, given that the school’s official colors are blue and white). We never had a costumed mascot that I can recall, and we certainly didn’t have a lacrosse team. And what the hell happened to all the books in the library? Times change…
According to the info on YouTube, this video required over 2,200 participants, 23 soloists, 800 balloons, 250 pounds of flour, 200 glow sticks, and a helicopter. A helicopter. Where the hell did the yearbook staff get a helicopter? I was on yearbook in ’87, and we didn’t have a helicopter. Of course, we were just a smallish school in a smallish country town back then; we didn’t have anything.
I liked that the producers of this seemed to give every group, every activity, every club and interest, every corner of the self-contained society that is Bingham High School its own little moment. And they even managed to include some lyrics from the school hymn, which apparently endures even after 60 years. Hey, I may have been too cool to sing it, but I still recognize it!
This is going to sound terrible, but I have to confess that Memorial Day doesn’t hold a lot of personal meaning for me. I don’t come from a military family, and I’m not what most Americans today would consider “patriotic.” I am, however, a romantic and a sentimentalist. Here’s a Memorial Day story that brought a lump to my throat: sixty-nine years ago, a young American corporal was killed in the Pacific by a Japanese sniper. His last wish was that the diary he’d kept of his wartime experiences be sent to his high-school sweetheart, who’d given him the book in the first place as a gift. Somehow, though, the diary never made it back to her.
Decades later, that girl — now 90 years old — finally got to read the words of her long-lost boyfriend when she recently spotted the diary in a display case at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. I can only imagine what must’ve been going through her head and her heart at the moment that she recognized herself in those yellowed pages beneath the glass… thoughts of a life cut short, and of another life that might have been, the inevitable outcome of all wars… even the so-called “good” ones.
It’s worth your time to read the details here, and give them some thought as you grill your burgers this afternoon.
Every once in a while I encounter a story — most often for me, it seems to be in the form of a movie, although that’s probably just because I see more movies than I manage to read books — that feels so truthful, so honestly revelatory of some ineffable aspect of what it’s like to be human, that I am gripped by an intense pang of envy. I find myself wishing that I had written it myself, and I feel some level of annoyance that I didn’t, as well as a great deal of insecurity and futility because I doubt my abilities to ever affect a reader (or a viewer, I suppose) as deeply as I’ve just been affected myself. This reaction goes beyond merely liking or responding to the story; that happens all the time. No, this is the rare occasion when I feel like the story is in some way mine, that through the telling of it, I’ve somehow lived it personally. Hemingway’s famous short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is like that for me. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous was, too. And so was Robert Redford’s gorgeous film adaptation of Norman MacLean’s novella A River Runs Through It. And now tonight I’ve just encountered another story like that: a film called The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez (yes, that Emilio Estevez, Mr. Young Guns himself) and starring his father, Martin Sheen.
It’s a simple story about a father who journeys to France to retrieve the body of his late son, who has died in an accident while walking the Camino de Santiago, a.k.a. The Way of St. James, an ancient pilgrimage trail that runs through the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. In a moment of inspiration, Tom — Sheen’s character — has his son cremated and embarks on the pilgrimage himself, carrying the ashes with him so his son can, in essence, complete his journey. Along the way, Tom reluctantly picks up three companions, each of whom are traveling the Camino for their own reasons. And he begins slowly to understand just what it was that made his son tick.
It’s a beautiful movie about fathers and sons, and seeing the world (both literally, in terms of travel, and metaphorically, i.e., “smelling the roses”), and most of all it’s about connecting with other human beings. Sheen delivers an impressive, very moving performance, seemingly without doing much of anything at all. Emilio Estevez meanwhile, demonstrates great skill with visual composition and also pacing… the film is leisurely without ever seeming boring, and it does a handy job of conveying the mental aspect of a long journey, how you gradually let down and let go.
I don’t know what else to say about The Way, except that it’s just plain good. And that I hope to someday write something that’s just a fraction as good. Seek it out.
Okay, this one is going to take a bit of explaining, so bear with me, please…
The first time I traveled anywhere as an adult, I spent a week in Reno, Nevada, with my dad. Long story, which really isn’t germane to this entry, but I will just say that that trip seemed like a great adventure to me, coming at a time when I really needed one. I was 21 and hurting from a breakup with a girl, eager to figure out exactly who and what I was, bored with my day-to-day life, and chafing against the moralizing, uptight atmosphere of my home state. (The girl who dumped me was a Mormon, you see, and it had been an issue in our split.) Getting away from all that stuff and into a fresh environment that glorified, shall we say, adult pursuits was an invigorating experience. Whether or not it really helped me figure anything out is questionable. But if nothing else, I discovered one of my favorite songs that week.
It seemed to be playing everywhere I went in Reno: in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel, where we stayed; in the coffee shop at the Club Cal Neva Casino, where I ate a lot of $1.99 ham-and-eggs; in the ice cream shop where I met the colorful old man who claimed to have been with Claire Chennault and the Flying Tigers in China; and even in the bar of the infamous Mustang Ranch, where I went one night and drank a Tom Collins, just so I could say I’d been there. (I chickened out when it came to doing anything more.) I loved this song, a slightly melancholy but ultimately affirmational, piano-based tune that somehow perfectly suited my general mood and frame of mind at the period of my life. But I had no idea what it was called, or who performed it. (This was long before the World Wide Web came along and made it so simple to learn these things.) I’d never heard it before my Reno trip, and I didn’t hear it again for about six months after. But finally, one glorious day, it popped up on a radio station back home in Salt Lake City, and a helpful DJ finally gave me a title and artist: “Walking in Memphis,” by Marc Cohn. In short order, I tracked down and purchased the album it came from, and to my delight found that there wasn’t a bad song on the entire disc. It’s still one of my favorite listens two decades later. (Two decades?! Oy. I think I need to go lie down for a moment.)
Fast forward to just a couple years ago. I’ve just seen Marc Cohn live at a smallish outdoor venue here in Utah, but unlike most musicians who disappear backstage after the last encore and are already halfway to their next gig before the ringing has left the audience’s ears, Marc is setting up at a card table outside the amphitheater, making himself available to fans for autographs, pictures, or just to say hello in person. I knew there was a chance he might do this — friends who’d seen him before had told me to be ready for it — but I was still surprised. I’ve never seen anybody else do this, not even performers who are known for having good relations with their fans. As I said, I’d known about this possibility in advance and had come prepared. I asked him to sign my old, well-played CD of his self-titled debut album, and I quickly related a condensed version of the way I’d discovered “Walking in Memphis,” his best-known song and biggest hit. And he was very nice and very gracious, even though he’s surely heard variants of that story a thousand times before. I came home that night with the impression that Marc Cohn, in addition to being a great live performer, is also an all-round cool human being.
Now jump to this morning. My day started badly for reasons that don’t bear repeating. I was in a just-plain bitchy mood as I arrived at work and signed into my computer. As usual, I wasted a couple of minutes catching up on Facebook while I sipped my first cup of coffee and waited to find out what was on my agenda for the day. And there I saw a post by Marc Cohn, who I’ve been following for a while, and I was inspired to dash off a quick comment. No big deal. I do that all the time with several celebrities I follow on Facebook and/or Twitter. I never expect any sort of response, nor have I ever gotten one. So imagine my shock when I’m notified a few minutes later that someone has answered my comment… and it’s Marc Cohn himself!
Here’s a screen grab:
Now isn’t that something? It’s not like I think Marc Cohn and I are best pals now or anything like that, but I am… pleased… that I apparently struck some kind of chord in him with one of my fondest memories.
You know, Facebook takes a lot of heat for various reasons — because it’s superficial and it’s a huge timesink, and because of privacy concerns — and these criticisms all have some genuine merit. But the great thing about Facebook is that enables a truly remarkable level of connection and interaction between people who otherwise might not have any contact at all. I admit, that’s sometimes a bad thing. But sometimes it’s a really magical and satisfying thing, too. Having the man who wrote and recorded a song that means so much to me say something like that… well, it didn’t exactly fix my crappy day. But it certainly helped.
I intend to do some more blogging over the long holiday weekend, but in the meantime, I’m going leave with you all with this, my favorite song from the summer of 1991, a tune about Memphis that will forever remind me of Reno, and the best-known work by a genuinely cool human being:
If I don’t make it back here, Happy Memorial Day, everyone! Enjoy some, ahem, adult pursuits, won’t you?