Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Final Countdown

Some jokes stick with you for a lifetime. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do.

This is especially true for one's first meta-joke or anti-joke. (I'll leave the classification to experts.)

For me, long before "How many surrealists does it take to change a lightulb?--let alone Interrupting Cow--there came a simple exchange I've never forgotten.

Guy One: How do you keep an [individual] in suspense?
Guy Two: I don't know. How?
Guy One: I'll tell you later.

Today I am Guy Two, the joke at least temporarily being on me. This writer in general and entry-level humorist in particular is kept in suspense until March 1, when my collection Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth is released. There will be more waiting for reviews and sales figures, but all of that flows from publication.

And now I am down to "The Final Countdown." Yes, I went there, referencing the cheesetastic single by Swedish band Europe.

And what does an [individual] in suspense do?  Recent experience suggests the following:
  1. Concentrate poorly.
  2. Sleep poorly and/or with stress dreams.
  3. Turn every conversation with others, or train of thought while alone, to the book.
  4. Check social media obsessively to see if anyone has read, liked, or passed along a book-related update.
  5. Search the Internet at least as obsessively for references to the book.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5.
My dog is strangely unaffected by all of this.

I don't what's coming next, but I suspect the waiting is the hardest part. Tom Petty had this figured out a long time ago.

Three days until the publication of Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

It's Oh So Quiet

It's oh so quiet. It's oh so still.

At least that's how it feels. On Friday, March 1 my humor collection Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth hits the streets, or whatever hard, nonporous surface a book is supposed to hit. People younger and likelier to wear sunglasses might call this the drop date.

Still, no reviews have come out yet, and no interviews have so far been scheduled. The online sellers aren't showing any spike in sales yet.

Oh me of little faith. Who is still learning about the business end of publishing.

While I sit here wondering what's happening, others are making things happen. PR by the Book, the publicity firm contracted by publisher Cassowary Press, is working its own brand of magic, sending out  press releases that explain why media outlets should be interested in Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth. One example of their work appears on page 24 of PR by the Book's February Experts Booklet.

Diamonds may or may not be a girl's best friend (a Y chromosome keeps me out of that discussion), but  a specialized public relations firm may very well be an introverted writer's best friend, especially if that writer also has a day job.

Soon the embargo will be lifted and copies will go out on shelves. There will be more waiting and learning. And then the London Book Fair.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Next Big Thing

My generous friend and colleague Miles David Moore has tagged me to participate in the ongoing blog interview  for authors, "The Next Big Thing." The interview asks ten questions about the writer's current project; Miles posted his answers at the link on February 4. He asked to me post my answers one week later, which is today. I hope to be tagging at least one other writer this week for a February 18 post.


The working title and the final title of my humor collection, to be published on March 1, is Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth. Since the book contains poetry, fiction, song parodies, essays and lists that deal with a wide range of subjects--from fashion to environmental issues and quite a bit in between--I had to find a title that encompassed as much as possible.


Ideas came from many places. The day's news provides plenty to work with, as does advertising. The vanities and follies of the world, including my own, have given me a lot to work with.


Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth seems to fall under general or miscellaneous humor. That said, the tones of the individual pieces vary widely (and wildly). Some are innocently funny, while others are bawdy or biting. One piece even aspires to be a condensed update of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal".


Quite a few characters appear in the book's stories and other pieces, so it could take me a long time to answer. I can see much of the material brought together in some framing tale starring Bill Murray and, as is the case with pie, there is always room for Gilbert Gottfried. Rights are available, and I am on IMDB.


Man tries to make sense of world, gives up and describes absurdity.


The book will be published by Los Angeles start-up Cassowary Press. Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth is the publisher's first title, and I am honored to be placed in that position. No agent represented the manuscript, but I did rely heavily on an attorney as the contract was drawn up. A specialized publicity firm is in the process of getting the word out to print and electronic media.


Writing the individual pieces took place over about fifteen years. Imposing some kind of order on them took about four months.


The variety within Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, something like a magazine written entirely by one person, brings to mind One Fell Soup by Roy Blount, Jr.


I had to write the pieces in the book to get them out of my head and make them someone else's, whether as a gift or a problem.


This is the only place to find a funny rendition of a seafood menu in the year 2050. Also, mimes are punched out.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Labor Day at Venice Beach

Before this blog goes all out in promoting Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, I should take a moment to mention something that got lost in all the excitement of last autumn, something that for me caused part of that excitement.

In a good way.

The season marked the publication of my third collection of poetry, Labor Day at Venice Beach. A previous post mentions where some of the poems in the book originally appeared. This is probably a good time to note as well that the collection's title poem, also its last and longest, is based on actual events at Venice Beach on Labor Day of 1998. (For full details you may have to buy the book.)

I had the great good fortune of giving the debut reading at my first choice of venues, the Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center in Venice, California. Along with my wonderful wife Paula Van Lare, the audience included several poets who could  easily have replaced me at the podium: Kevin Durkin, Leslie Monsour, Frank Osen and Timothy Steele, all of whom have shown me kindnesses too numerous to mention in this space. The audience also included debut author (and friend since the late 1970s) John Sandrolini, whose novel One for Our Baby will be published in April by the legendary Otto Penzler's Mysterious Press. The reading was videotaped for the Beyond Baroque archives.

As Don Marquis once noted, publishing a book of poetry is like throwing a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. Which, of course, I am doing. No reviews have come out so far, and there is no guarantee that any review will be what I want to hear. Then again, as Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone, "This is the business we have chosen."

Labor Day at Venice Beach is available from the bookstore at Beyond Baroque and from major online sellers, as well as some minor ones. It might find its place on a bookshelf near you.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth

Sometimes a blog takes a little nap.

And sometimes that little nap turns into a long nap, then a hibernation that continues into the spring.

And then it goes into a longer nap that lasts all summer, which is called estivation if memory serves.

And once in a while that nap will go all the way through the fall, though the word for that doesn't come to mind at the moment.

Some regular readers of a blog, such as the blogger's father, might even start to wonder if that long slumber has turned into a dirt nap.

But that is no longer a concern for this blog.

Smitroverse is waking up (if perhaps groggily burying the lede) for the March 1 publication of my first humor collection, Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth, by Cassowary Press of Los Angeles. Both print and ebook editions are available for pre-order from the usual online seller suspects, and the print edition will be shelved at bookstores with a pulse and a sense of daring. (If you manage such a bookstore, please contact SCB Distributors to order.)

In case you're wondering, Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth has a little bit of something for everyone: stories, poems, essays, song parodies, lists, a manifesto or two and even a canine resume. You can think of the collection as a whole magazine by a single author who is attempting to become the Swiss Army knife of American writing.

In an upcoming post I'll say a little bit more about the book, the publisher and the publicity firm that will be getting the word out.

For now, though, I would simply urge you to order Notes of a Tourist on Planet Earth for the sake of my cash flow. My wife and I are remodeling both bathrooms this year, and I might be placing some rather large long-shot bets on Puppy Bowl IX.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

AWP 2012 in Chicago, or, Why Do We Do This?

This blog has been silent for a while, and generally for very positive reasons that I will mention in later posts, but that is not the matter at hand.

More to the point, tomorrow I will be joining several thousand writerly types in one of the great annual rituals like the migration of Monarch butterflies or the spawning of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay.

In other words, I will be attending this year's conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Chicago, where I have lived and near where I grew up.

With airfare and hotel paid for, and no-cage boarding arranged for Roo the Rescue Dog, the only question remaining is Why am I doing this? With plenty of company I can ask Why Do We This?

It's not for the money. No one I know will be turning a profit. A few in academia may break even if their departments fund them, but such funds are increasingly hard to come by.

Yet money is far from the only currency exchanged. Like other fine arts and some performing arts, writing depends on other economies. One is the prestige economy of publications and professional activity that may eventually turn to tenure and grants, though for relatively few. Even in these cases the amounts of money involved would seem bafflingly small to a financier circa 2006. Presenting papers and giving readings, though, can yield a slice of that small pie. Sometimes overlapping with the prestige economy is the gift economy of networking, favors exchanged and trading in books, journals and swag of usually modest dimensions; this serves as the framework for no small amount of conviviality.

Even without a quid pro quo, more than a few genuinely enjoy advancing the professional and creative development of others and/or buying a broke graduate student a drink. The term for these feelings in economics is "warm glow altruism effects".

While I took no action toward the proposals noted in this space last year, I will come in with a plan, as discussed in detail by several other bloggers. The centerpiece of mine will be the event shown in the flyer above, an offsite meet-and-greet (and signing) by poets affiliated with WordTech Communications, the publisher of my 2005 collection Settling for Beauty and my August 2012 collection Labor Day at Venice Beach. With any luck I will also have the opportunity to visit the fine people of Accents Publishing and American Book Review (and that leaves 25 more letters to cover). I also hope to stop in with Salmon Poetry, publisher of the anthology Dogs Singing, the proceeds of which go to two dog rescue organizations.

Another distinct pleasure will be attending a few readings and panels to get off my feet for a little bit and, more importantly, to remind myself that we are there for the art.

This could be fun. Please feel free to introduce yourself if you see me, assuming my badge has the right side showing.



Monday, October 17, 2011


The summer and early fall have found this space largely neglected, as I consider guest posts from fellow writers and wait for news to emerge.

The title of this post does not refer to travel, but detours from my usual habits. The first detour is self-publication, which I have generally avoided in order to benefit from editorial judgment. The second detour is speculative fiction, which I have never attempted outside of the story below.

My reason for posting the story below is to make it available for possible inclusion in an anthology of Peak Oil-related fiction to be edited by John Michael Greer, a prolific author, Master Organic Gardener and blogger behind The Archdruid Report. By no means do I share all of Mr. Greer's ideas, and he graciously does not expect that of anyone; in fact, his work has added to my vocabulary the word "dissensus" and reminded me of the utility of multiple and often conflicting opinions. I find myself most in agreement with him regarding the necessity of acknowledging and addressing the finitude of global resources, including but not limited to oil, and preparing to live with increasingly obvious limitations.

With this in mind I present below my story "The Urgent, the Necessary," which runs about 2,500 words.

Thank you for whatever attention you care to give the piece.

The waiting is over. Whatever they contain, the quarterly performance reviews have been distributed. Besides the relief of no longer waiting, there’s a certain entertainment value in the distribution ritual. Like any number of other rituals, it is aggressively outdated, drawing on the paraphernalia of earlier times. At the end of the appointed work day, the Director himself, like his predecessors stooped and gone gray in a handful of years, oscillates among our workstations in alphabetical order rather than seniority, passing out envelopes signed across the left half of the seal and sealed again sealed with wax on the right. The specifications for this procedure must be guarded among files at a higher level of access, or successive directors have come to believe that they are, and do not question them.

While the Director’s ritual is a public performance, each of us greets the envelope with a private counterpart. Some tuck it into a pocket, or lay it slowly in a briefcase. A few crumple their envelopes, violating the folds, or grasp them by one end, like a knife handle, and hold them that that way as they walk out the door. Analyst Perez sets his unopened envelope face-up on the desk and takes out a bottle of something brown and strong to toast the contents, as if he were propitiating an unknown god. On more than one occasion others have helped him continue the ceremony after work. Analyst Barton tucks the envelope into her brassiere.

Because our actions vary no more than the Director’s, there is no apparently no correlation between the handling of the reports and what the handlers expect to read. “Apparently” is all that can be said, because we never discuss our reviews. There are too many other topics. On the way out this evening, or tomorrow morning, we will discuss the weather, as a matter of course, and as a factor in our work. We discuss family, sports, love lives or lack thereof, and even money. All of our small talk circles around a larger silence.

My ritual before not discussing my review—such as it is—consists of setting the envelope under a paperweight and waiting for my colleagues to leave. Then I slide it out from under the paperweight with my left hand, the one I could live without if the contents burned or shredded it, a less painful outcome than losing my position and descending from subject to object of energy calculations. I let the chunk of crystal resist, even turn over as the envelope comes free at the usual thirty-degree angle. It is long past time to think of imitating a magician pulling a tablecloth from under place settings. The bones that already are revealing themselves, precocious fossils emerging from the erosion of flesh, tell me as much. Such talents as I possess lie elsewhere.

At this point, when the envelope is cantilevered like a fishing pole, a diving board, a future over uncertainty, I tear open a corner and insert my right index finger. A letter opener seems too impersonal for the text that will extend my tenure for another three months or end it forever. Though I might be difficult to replace, leaving my successor with a steep learning curve, I am by no means indispensable. Analyst Montrose came to believe that he was, with predictable results, and he was widely acknowledged as the most brilliant of us all. Six years ago, on a hangover day when he merely skimmed his data sheets rather than read them cell by cell, he missed a sudden dip in projected supply and did not activate the protocol for issuing a shortage alert. The official explanation is hidden in thickets of polysyllables, saving face for the rest of us, but everyone knows the results as the Atlanta Gas Riot. When last I heard he was shining shoes near the ruins of the St. Louis Arch.

I raggedly open the flap and let the contents fall onto the desktop. At this time of day the landing is audible.

I withdraw the review and unfold it in two steady motions. Perhaps something of this magnitude in my life, if no one else’s, should blossom like a paper flower in water, or perhaps it should be unveiled like a statue. It doesn’t; it isn’t. Instead, my recent past and near future disclose themselves as marks on a page. This time, though, the review runs to two pages: along with the usual quantitative section and its twenty items, the optional qualitative section continues at great length. The comments are handwritten in the Director’s poor script, learned when almost everyone had a computer. Yet, like the rest of this ceremony, these comments are hallowed by obsolescence. All that remains for me is to sign the review and indicate my agreement, or at least my acquiescence, a final antiquated touch.

Deciding whether to sign seems to call for no less care than any other part of my work, but the habits of analysis do not end with the turn of a clock’s hand as the workday closes. In the last few hours terawatts of energy have in effect flowed through my synapses as I’ve allocated them according to source and destination. No thought, no drop, should be wasted.

That was the goal, the theoretical ideal or omega point toward which our training was directed. No shortages, no complaints, no surpluses that produced regional disparities in allowed energy use. Whither gasoline and gasoline? Where could brownouts settle and blackouts roll with the smallest losses of life and property?

Our performance could never attain perfection, as our instructors were the first to admit, but we were charged all day, every day with reducing the distance between the real and the ideal: the asymptotic null, better known as Zeno’s arrow forever approaching but never reaching its target.

But arrows reach their targets as we never can. The archer aims at what lies before his eyes and only an instant separates his intent and his action. The target can only move or be moved so far in that time. We have fewer options. As the image of a star conveys only how that star appeared light years ago, the data at our disposal summarized a state of affairs that had already changed. Populations shift, firms expand and contract, or they arise and vanish like bubbles.

We could only hope to minimize the damage, like goalkeepers. Also like goalkeepers, we were given equipment, and our pay was based on performance. We’ve always paid for our gasoline and electricity like everyone else, but it took little from our sizeable salaries. In my first years, when cars were still common, I took drives in the country with no destination in mind. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the speed and freedom, or the illusion of it, and the envious looks. Those were youthful indiscretions. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Whatever they were, at some point in life a man has to stop working at cross-purposes with himself. I returned to doing a good job instead of having one.

All things old are new again: I circled back to the ethos of our charter class of employees at the Energy Distribution Agency. Once the climate warmed unto volatility, floods competed with droughts and stable conditions disappeared. Even rented experts would no longer testify that these were only cyclical variations of Earth and Sun, or that we had the fuel to make and run machines that would rescue us, fetishes engineered to the tightest tolerances. At that point things were not as they had been; science began to shape policy. We were recruited from the best universities, and our pictures appeared in magazines, and on websites. A newspaper called us “Stars of an age of limits,” and a business journal feature story on us bore the headline “Scouts on the Pareto Frontier.” We were celebrities, or as close to it as a person could get without singing or acting, and for people who didn’t act or sing we were paid very well.

In spite of our means, though, many of us did not marry, as I didn’t. This used to seem like coincidence, a small random cluster, but over time the pattern continued as our numbers grew, and as vacancies were filled. What started out as a prestigious job turned into a vocation, and some of us even spoke of it as a calling. Something larger than our private happiness was at stake.

This sense of vocation, or a penumbra of it, forces me to read and reread the evaluation like a sacred text. As with parsing data, I believe reading the comments hard and long enough should allow significations and shades of meaning to emerge and guide my next quarter’s work, as others have discerned courses of in tossed sticks, tea leaves or the entrails of a bird. Evidence for this belief waxes and wanes, or slips just beyond the horizon. Whatever I believe, it is certain that much of Arizona and New Mexico, and large portions of Texas, depend on me. All there are strangers I have made a point of not meeting or corresponding with. Personal acquaintance would cloud my judgment.

Evaluating the evaluation, I find that the quantitative section neither pleases nor surprises me. Shortages and complaints are up. So, too, are temporary surpluses, though they are resolved quickly enough; later records usually show that populations have declined as some leave for land to farm, or a place closer to work. But there is no getting around the fact that my overall efficiency ratings are down. No business has closed, no hospital blacked out without warning, no one left without supplies and turned to leather in the Western air. (I’ve seen pictures of what happened in Laughlin, and read several accounts. Analyst Burton hanged himself before he could be dismissed.)

The incident report section is filled with numbered entries, and incidents are never good. The larger events are accompanied by citizen complaints and bad press. Mine include browning out parts of the Phoenix area, which people don’t call the Valley of the Sun that much anymore, to keep electricity going to Tucson. I sacrificed retail in favor of homes both times, but next time my decision could down to homes versus homes. Or hospital versus hospital. The existing backup generators are aging, and replacements are slow to come online. But that is another day’s set of calculations.

From the ink thickets of the comments section arise a few phrases I haven’t seen since my grade school report cards, such as “seems distracted,” “a slowing of response time,” “appears to be engaging in non-work activities.” The latter go unspecified.

Signing off on these comments, on the report as a whole, would take only a stroke of the pen. Everyone goes through peaks and valleys of productivity, and in our training we were told to expect as much. It is only necessary to acknowledge the troughs, consent to a refresher course or two, and commit to improving performance. Then all is forgiven.

Yet this time I will not seek forgiveness, as there is nothing to be forgiven. At this point in my career it is not a matter of pride: analysts either outgrow their enfant terrible stage or move into the private sector. All that prevents me from signing signature is a regard for the facts. This, too, might amount to a flaw, but it is less self-indulgence than an occupational hazard. We are all deformed by our occupations, and perhaps our greatest choice is how to be deformed. Rightly or wrongly, I have chosen to be deformed by paying attention, and by holding fast to what I see.

The facts behind the evaluation apparently do not fit in its boxes. The largest incidents reported occurred on days when I most strictly applied the Southwest Distribution Equation. On days with smaller incidents, or none, I went to the edge of my discretionary range and sometimes beyond it. Too many factors lie outside the equation, or the available statistics are out of date. Households are growing larger near the main roads and power lines; a glance at yards and sidewalk on a mild day show as much. The gas and electricity have to follow them.

There is only so much we can do for the subdivision hold-outs. As if this weren’t enough, the tappers have found ways around the pipelines’ sensors, and hijackers more often than not outgun the armed guards on tanker trucks. After drugs were legalized the cartels had to diversify. What this means to me is that on any given day gas and supplies are overstated by five to ten percent. One day last year the difference reached twenty percent, and the Director took the next week off on the advice of his physician, in the sense of the word meaning press office.

My memos have covered my reservations, and confessed my furthest detours into discretion. When there is a reply, in eleven to twelve percent of the instances, my proposals are categorized as denied, taken under consideration, or presently unfeasible. A fourth category, adopted, exists exclusively in theory. I once wrote a memo inquiring as to the ultimate purpose of the equation, if it might involve something other than the allocation of energy, such as the appearance of allocating energy to prevent panic. Eighteen months later, this memo received no reply. Such replies as came noted that the issues I mentioned fell under the jurisdiction of the Review Committee, whose mandate was to review from time to time the regional equations. From time to time they did, those times lengthening, before being de-funded. Left behind are the formulae, templates set over conditions that fit them less and less.

With all due respect to the facts, I may initial some of the Director’s comments. I am distracted, and move slower than I should. I can lose much or all of a night’s sleep to examining news and other reports for trends, or modeling the outcomes of alternative equations.

Consulting my findings during the day is what must be meant by “non-work activity,” a point on which I will not sign off. This will require an explanation, and I will provide one, placed under a request for extra time to discuss my review.

There is no choice but to prepare the materials now, while there is no noise to distract me save the low buzz of electric current and the blood coursing past my eardrums. Tonight I will need to rest, if I can rest while knowing that what I don’t learn could change lives and fortunes, or end them. Depending on what happens, even more lives and fortunes could be in play, such as my own. The appearance of allocation might be served by a firing, an investigation, perhaps some other burnt offering to the public.

In any event, I have no children to provide for, and my own needs are few. There may be work in St. Louis.