Saturday, July 21, 2012

On the 5th Anniversary of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the final Harry Potter book being released. Yes, that’s right, July 21, 2007 at 12:01AM is when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released and placed into the hands of rabid fans that braved the long lines and had prepaid for the book in advance. I remember that day very well…

I was a supervisor for Borders during that time. I remember all the anticipation for the big day that started months in advance. The lanyards we wore that were dual sided, one stating that Snape was loyal, the other side declaring that he wasn’t; the phone calls that came in to confirm the release date of the book, or to take a pre-order for the book (I was even receiving phone calls on the graveyard shift in the middle of the night for several months before the release); and all the hype that built up in excitement to find out whether Harry Potter would live or die.

I had never read the Harry Potter series before or after I started working for Borders—in fact, I still haven’t read it. The hype to me seemed typical of a big series coming to an end, and Harry Potter was definitely the last big pinnacle in book sales before the death of the bookstore. When I think back to 5 years ago, it’s hard to believe how much has changed in the industry with bookstores closing down, Borders out of business, and the replacements for Harry Potter such as Twilight and The Hunger Games not even coming close to what Harry Potter raked in.

Brian the Bookseller on July 20, 2007
As the day drew closer, I remember the legal agreement we all had to sign saying we wouldn’t even touch the books, we wouldn’t reveal anything inside of them, etc. I still remember the day the truck delivered several pallets of boxes that said Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on them, warning about the legal ramifications should those boxes be opened before the release date, and our GM at the time decided the books weren’t going to sit in the stock room for 2-3 weeks. My manager and I loaded every box onto a cart, put large black blanket over them, and moved them into the GM’s office over several trips back and forth (while customers shopped in the store), and they were neatly stacked along all 4 walls of his office. The soundproofing in that room was unbelievable. I still wonder how that many boxes fit in that room.

We also had a man who would come into our store who was probably about 30 years old with his father, and he had hounded every manager in the store about bringing in his homemade Harry Potter props to put all around the store, wanting the Harry Potter cardboard display sign that we had, and also asking about the events in the store non-stop every time he came in. When it was my turn to deal with him and I heard over my radio that he was already told about how we didn’t need the props, the sign couldn’t be given away, and all the other questions we had already answered for him, he began to ask me about his Harry Potter props given I was a supervisor he hadn’t asked, and when I politely started to tell him no, he screamed “YOU SURE DO KNOW HOW TO KICK A GUY IN THE ASS!”

July 20, 2007 was definitely going to be a long day. And I was scheduled for a day shift from 7:00AM-4:00PM. The long list of people who had pre-ordered the book all received phone calls in the few days prior, there was a table being set up for people to be issued a wrist band determined by color. It was hard to say how many books we would have left over, or if anyone who didn’t reserve a copy would receive one. They issued a few different colored wrist bands to determine if they were the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd group, and another color for those who didn’t reserve it and were going to chance it. The line was already growing outside before we even opened the doors for business. After working my regular shift, I was asked if I could come back a few hours later to work the release as overtime, and for some crazy reason, I accepted the hours.

When I came back to the store a few hours later, things were already starting to get crazy and there were people in the store all over the place. A co-worker and I were given the job of keeping the crowd in check, making sure they didn’t clog the aisles in the case of a fire, and to move the crowd according to its size. There were people in costumes, people acting freaky, and people who just wanted to hang out to watch the people hanging out. The local newspaper spent time at the Barnes & Noble down the street instead of in our store, and we dealt with the local news station earlier in the day, so there was no press in the store during the big event. In the children’s department, we watched the adults in costume battle to the death with the children in costume over prizes given out during the various games.

And of course, the freaks came out that night.

We used to have a couple of strange female characters come into the store, a couple of sisters who would come in late at night and we’d have a hard time getting them out of the store after closing hours. As I walked back and forth, I heard them discussing their pornographic fantasies about Harry Potter, hearing about the Harry Potter based erotica they wrote and posted online, and some of those details continue to haunt me to this day and I never looked at them the same when they were in the store. I also remember a woman coming up to be dressed in a full witch costume with a hand and she gently put her hand on my head and said, “you have a nice shaped head…” By that time and with how much the crowd was swelling in the store to where there were bodies everywhere, I wasn’t amused by creepy witch lady telling me I had a nice shaped head.

The closer we approached midnight, the more bloodcurdling it became. The people were starting to become unruly; what we thought we had for a line became disorganized and didn’t make any sense, customers also became angry. The operations manager decided she was going to take the line outside given how many people were in the store, in the 100+ degree desert nighttime heat, and this infuriated one woman who referred to me as ‘f**king moron’ after declaring we were moving the people who came in first during the day outside into the heat and out of the air conditioning; it wasn’t a bad call considering how many people were in the store, even with the customers becoming upset. A woman also came up to me franticly yelling at me about how someone cut in front of her young daughter who had been the first to receive a bracelet and how I needed to get on my “thingy” (my radio wire) to get the general manager involved. The cafĂ© began to prepare cups of ice water for those who had been waiting outside to be given to them as the line moved into the store. Shortly before midnight, a train of my co-workers began rolling out the several hundred copies of the book we received on multiple carts to the register area. When we let people back into the store at 12:01AM on July 21, the anticipation was over. The line took over 1 hour to ring through with all cashiers on deck (7 of them), I stood at the back of the line when the last of it was released into the store and followed it all the way up to the cash registers.

When the last customer was rung up and we locked our doors after 1AM, we looked around the store and saw that it was completely trashed. While they shut down the registers and calculated the sales in the cash office, a small group of us began trying to put the store back together. As we all declared how insane that release was, I remember hearing the operations manager declare that we would never have to do another Harry Potter release again. I felt as if I was in a hurricane when we left the store at 2AM, and when a group of my co-workers decided to hit Denny’s, I was definitely in the mood to unravel in food therapy.

When I think back to the liquidation of Borders 4 years later, it’s hard to believe that Harry Potter wasn’t that long ago. While the release was chaotic, it definitely had a spirit of anticipation and excitement for those who gathered in the store to buy the final book in their favorite series. It’s hard to believe that this is being replaced by, and that there hasn’t been another series like Harry Potter that has people gathering in the middle of the night in anticipation to buy the latest of the series. The Twilight and Hunger Games series didn’t even come close to Harry Potter, and we had release parties for those too, and they weren’t even half of the size of that last Harry Potter book.

When I signed onto my personal blog the following day after the release of the book, I saw many messages of thanks and praise from my friends for working the Harry Potter release. Plus I can say it was the one big book event in my lifetime, and I was employed by Borders when the last Harry Potter book came out. 

A couple of pics from our release at Borders in Rancho Mirage, CA 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Me in the New York Times

I'm a week late, but I was one of the "artists" that Caitlin Kelly wrote about in the New York Times last week. The subject of the article dealt with artists who had fallen on hard times and help coming from unexpected places. Below is a link to the article at the New York Times.

I also interviewed Caitlin last year about her book, "Malled." That can be read HERE

I was injured back in November after taking a fall in my home that resulted in a break of my L1 vertebrae in my back. Borders, my former employer, picked up the cost of my aftercare through the Borders Foundation, now known as The BINC Foundation. I wrote about this back in December when it happened.

I definitely encourage those who are book lovers and to those who miss their local Borders to think about  making a donation to the BINC Foundation. You can do so at

Many thanks to Caitlin Kelly for including me in her article, and many thanks to those who have sent me compliments on being in the article.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Manning Marable’s autobiography of Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, that was finished before Marable’s death in April of 2011 is a fascinating look into the life of the revolutionary icon and a prominent figure of the civil rights movement era. While this book has won critical acclaim, received a Pulitzer Prize in the “History” category and was listed as one of the best 10 books of 2011 by the New York Times, it also has some controversy associated with it. As I read this book, I found myself reviewing Marable’s notes and examining many of his sources.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley that was published shortly after Malcolm X’s death in 1965 is put under the magnifying glass in this book; Marable makes the claim that Malcolm X wasn’t as big of a criminal as he made himself out to be to Alex Haley, and Marable quotes many of Malcolm’s speeches post  Malcolm’s initial trip to Mecca that contradict that he had reversed many of his views on race, Martin Luther King, integration, and hinted that he may not have been totally opposed to the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad.  Marable’s accusations of Malcolm having a homosexual affair with a white businessman are also brought up and are all according to rumor; Marable also suggests that his wife Betty Shabazz also had an affair with one of Malcolm’s security detail, and that Malcolm’s journal entries in a couple of places during Malcolm’s trips abroad suggest he had extramarital affairs as well.

At the same time while Marable makes some strong accusations throughout the book, the life of Malcolm X aside from what you read in Alex Haley’s autobiography is well written. The problem with acquiring sources based on interviews and being on record and going through someone’s journals is that it still doesn’t paint an accurate picture, but Marable does include a lot of good information of Malcolm’s activities in and out of the Nation of Islam. He goes further into the things that we also already know about Malcolm and the Nation of Islam.

There are a lot of disputed claims from the Nation of Islam and some of Malcolm’s closest associates when it comes to this book, but a lot of the information regarding the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakan, and that fateful day of Malcolm X’s assassination is consistent with other accounts that have been documented. Elijah Muhammad definitely formed the Nation of Islam based on schemes that had nothing to do with traditional Islamic practices or philosophies, which the Nation of Islam still embraces to this day and makes traditional Islamic groups refuse to embrace the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s conversion to traditional based Islam after Elijah Muhammad banished him were probably bound to happen—Malcolm was already questioning Elijah Muhammad’s beliefs and morality.

The problem with any book on Malcolm X is that Malcolm himself didn’t leave a lot of information about himself behind, especially in the sense that he never released any writings of his own, and he left behind several recorded speeches and media appearances. Malcolm X also died in the midst of a transformation that became very problematic for him due to his association with the Nation of Islam. Elijah Muhammad produced Malcolm X; Malcolm X saw Elijah Muhammad as his personal savior, a prophet who could do no wrong, and Malcolm was shattered when he discovered Elijah Muhammad was a man who was having inappropriate sexual relationships with the Nation of Islam’s secretaries. The group was threatened by Malcolm’s activities in creating groups that would likely lure away members of the Nation of Islam, and while Malcolm exposed Elijah Muhammad in the process of reinventing himself.

Marable’s accusations that Malcolm never completely reinvented himself and never changed his views on race are up for debate. The more Malcolm traveled overseas to Islamic countries, the more people he met, the more that the Nation of Islam threatened him and his family are what led to his many revelations. And to be fair to Marable, he does quote an interview that Malcolm gave right before his death where he said that the infamous incident where he answered “nothing” to a white student who asked what she could do to help his cause was something that he later came to deeply regret. Had Malcolm X survived, he would have likely had more time to evolve and further his transformation.

If there’s one conclusion that this book makes well, it’s that the Nation of Islam is a dangerous organization and that Elijah Muhammad was not who he made himself out to be. Malcolm built the reputation that the Nation of Islam enjoyed, built up its membership, lived and breathed the cause, and then spent his last days trying to rediscover himself and destroy the mentality that Elijah Muhammad installed in him. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Arthur Goldwag's "The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right"

“As it’s turned out, ‘The New Hate’ is less about prejudice than it is about American’s long-standing penchant for conspiratorial thinking, its never-ending quest for scapegoats.” – Excerpt from The New Hate

When the people elected Barack Obama to office in 2008, it didn’t take long for the craziness to ensue afterward. The Tea Party, birth certificates, death panels, hostility at town hall meetings, and of course a slew of conspiracy theories started to present themselves from right-wing figures on television, the radio, and bloggers began to surface and become mainstream. If there’s one person who knows about conspiracy theories, it’s Arthur Goldwag. Arthur Goldwag has spent several years writing about conspiracy theorists and has researched most of the conspiracy theories out there. He has a blog where he addresses various conspiracy theories, and he also wrote Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more. Arthur Goldwag’s new book, The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, examines many of those same conspiracy theories the right-wing populists were promoting after the 2008 election—but they aren’t exactly new.

Goldwag goes into detail tracing the origins of what we see today. Much of it is recycled fear from other eras of history; he describes what a conspiracy theory is and how these beliefs become fact in some people’s minds. Glenn Beck channeling an anti-Semitic Mormon named W. Cleon Skousen, Sarah Palin quoting an anti-Semitic figure during a speech, the theories of the John Birch Society, Freemasonry and the Illuminati, the new world order, Henry Ford and many others quoting an anti-Semitic text known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the theories surround 9/11, and the conspiracy theories that drive Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are some of the things discussed in this book in great detail; the final result is a history lesson and a debunking of many of these theories.

Goldwag’s in-depth look at Glenn Beck’s rhetoric and reading material that he would suggest to his audience makes you wonder why anyone would put Glenn Beck on the air. The fascination for W. Cleon Skousen, a former police-chief of Salt Lake City, was one of Beck’s main inspirations; Glenn Beck also told his fans to purchase and read Skousen’s book, The 5000 Year Leap. Skousen’s history is filled with controversy—he was a member of the John Birch Society, he accused Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist, ran the Salt Lake City police department like a Gestapo, and promoted the idea of a New World Order and world government. Skousen was so unpopular amongst conservatives that even William F. Buckey, who ran The National Review, dismissed him as insane, Ronald Reagan tried as hard as he could to distance himself from Skousen, and many other conservative figures were not impressed by Skousen, either.

The one interesting piece of literature that Goldwag discusses is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,  an anti-Semitic text that states a theory that the Jewish people are out in a quest for global domination. The writings, described and proven mostly to be a hoax, have been used many times by conspiracy theorists. The writings have been used by 9/11 conspiracy theorists to promote the idea that Israel was behind bringing down the twin-towers, by various figures to promote the idea that our banking system is part of their plot for world domination, and that things such as labor unions and liberal politics are also part of the Jewish quest for world power and the enslavement of the Christian white man. The writings also went on to inspire a number of other political figures and people such as Father Coughlin during WW2 (an anti-Semitic priest),

The history of hysteria is something in our past that we cannot deny, but it’s also starting to rear its ugly face in this modern age. Trying to make sense of many of the conspiracy theories that we have been seeing over the past few years can only be understood by examining the roots of where they come from. Goldwag’s history of these theories is a very accurate and scary piece of insight for those of us who are concerned about the future of our society. It’s a must read for any political minded person who believes in bringing reason and sanity back into our political system. 

Visit Arthur Goldwag's blog HERE

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Death of Gay Literature

I read a great article yesterday that asks the question,“Is gay literature dead?” The article is in part an interview with Christopher Bram about his new book, Eminent Outlaws, a retrospective on the era of James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and other gay writers from the post-WW2 era. There are many questions about the death of gay literature, what caused it, the current gay generation attitudes towards the older gay generation, and the current era of gay literature. As a gay man myself, I have concluded that the days of great gay literature are indeed over. While working as a bookseller, I found myself unimpressed with the selection of “gay literature” that the chain bookstores stock, and even the stuff that is stocked in the independent LGBT bookstores.

When you look back on the post-WW2 era of gay literature writers, you can’t argue that they weren’t great writers. Gore Vidal is one of my major influences given he wrote on a variety of subjects. The Narratives of Empire series of books offering a look into our history based on fictional characters being the narrators are only a handful of Gore Vidal’s masterpieces. Gore Vidal’s ability to write fiction, history, politics, essays, plays, and screenplays made him an American literary icon. His gay literature novel , The City and the Pillar, that was published in 1946, is one of the first books in American literary history to have homosexuality as its main theme; The City and the Pillar was also controversial upon its release—The New York Times refused to review any of Vidal’s writings after its release. Vidal wrote his mystery novels under the pseudonym of “Edgar Box” to avoid any connection with the controversy of The City and the Pillar.

James Baldwin was just as brilliant of a writer as Gore Vidal. Baldwin also wrote on a variety of subjects and a variety of formats. He wrote novels, essays, poems, plays, and was a social critic. Baldwin was an African-American and a homosexual in a time when America was racially divided and homosexuals were scorned. Baldwin relocated to France given France’s treatment of African-American artists, musicians, and writers. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, published 10 years after Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, is about a young man living as an expatriate in France who has relationships with other men. Baldwin was also involved in the civil rights movement and took part in the Civil Rights March on Washington in August of 1963; his writings about combining the dissimilar philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King inspired the second phase of the civil rights movement in the 1970s.

When you take a look at the gay literature of today and look back on the era of Gore Vidal and James Baldwin, it’s easy to say that gay literature is dead. Gay literature today, for the most part, is glorified erotica writing, love stories that are the Nicholas Sparks for gay society, and characters that don’t really have any depth to them. The closest thing to the gay literature that Vidal, Baldwin, Capote, and Isherwood provided in the post-WW2 era would be the writings of Armistead Maupin, the author of the Tales of the City series, which made light of the AIDS epidemic. It’s amazing to think that the post-WW2 era gave us the best years of gay literature. The interview with Christopher Bram asks if it’s a generational disconnect and whether the young doesn’t want to acknowledge the old, but it doesn’t seem that indifference is the reason for the death of gay literature given Bram doesn’t believe there is any difference between the older and younger gay generations.

When you take a look at modern literature, whether it’s gay or not, you could argue that literature is slowly dying. Many of the writers that defined literature in the postmodern era—John Updike, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett to name a few—aren’t leaving many worthy heirs in the modern day. We’re also living in the times where the formats are changing from print to e-Readers, corporate book stores and independent bookstores having any possibility for a future is in question, and when people are choosing to curl up with their James Patterson and Stephanie Meyer books. The quality of today’s literature is questionable given it doesn’t seem to inspire and influence the way that it used to. Gay literature is not the only genre that has gone through a transition of masterful literary works to erotic and romance writing in the modern era; African-American literature is now less Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and has become filled with the erotic romance novels of Eric Jerome Dickey, Zane, and Noire  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron's "The Last Holiday"

"I was trying to get people who listened to me to realize that they were not alone and that certain things were possible." - Excerpt from The Last Holiday 

If there was a man who had a way with words, it was Gil Scott-Heron. The revolutionary poet and songwriter, who mixed jazz and poetry together, was an iconic figure in the 1970s. His songs and poems were the backdrop of the post-civil rights era and were the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap music. His poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a big hit and has been named one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” by The New Statesmen.

The Last Holiday was posthumously released in January after his death in May of 2011. In 2010, his career was on a comeback after a decade of drug problems, health issues, and incarceration. He released his first album in several years that was amusingly titled I’m New Here--the album was praised by critics and sparked an interest in his previous recordings. He started touring again and played the big music festivals around the world.

He begins The Last Holiday discussing his family’s origins. He has warm memories of his grandmother who raised him after his parents separated, he talks about his father’s career as a professional soccer player, and he talks about how all of his maternal family were educated people. There is no doubt that Gil Scott-Heron was an intelligent person, and we learn just how intelligent he was as a child when he discusses his full-scholarship to a preparatory school, his college years at Lincoln University, and Johns Hopkins where he received his masters degree in creative writing.

He discusses his music career with stories from the road and playing in various cities in America. One of which is where he talks about playing a benefit concert against nuclear energy put together by Jackson Browne, where he went on stage to an audience screaming for Bruce Springsteen, who was scheduled to play later on that evening. In one amusing tale, he talks about how we walked into his hotel room to find Bob Marley and his friends sitting in there after being given the key to his room. Touring with Stevie Wonder and talking about Stevie Wonder’s benefit to establish Martin Luther King Day included a story about meeting Michael Jackson, and when he and Stevie Wonder learned about the assassination of John Lennon.

The one problem I had with The Last Holiday is that it’s a collection of stories being told in chronological order as they happened. There were a lot of moments where I found myself wanting to know more and what happened next in transition, but you end up starting a new story when you turn the page. It’s as if you’re getting samples of his life at times and that you want him to emphasize more on what he’s sharing. I came to a part towards the end where he said that when he used to teach creative writing courses before he became a musician, he would tell his students to write about an event that they could remember in vivid detail, and it seems that’s how he decided to write his memoir. The memoir ends around 1999 when he talks about his mother’s death. We don’t get to hear anything about those lost years that followed where he was struggling with drug addiction, with arrests, and his fight to attain sobriety where he decided to revive his music career again. The one thing that he eventually admitted to in a later interview was that he was HIV-positive.

For music fans or anyone who has heard of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday is definitely a delight to read. For those who are just being introduced to his music, it’s a good place to start. The Last Holiday is the climax and last testament of the life of the man who changed how he listened to music and how we experienced poetry. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

I read an article today that called the film adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the “worst reviewed Oscar nominated film in the past decade.” I read the book a few years ago after all of the hype surrounding the book had past. I honestly wasn’t shocked that the reviews that were coming out for the film’s release were mostly negative. I had been waiting to see this movie since I read that they were creating it given I enjoyed the book. There have been film adaptations of my favorite films that have ruined the book forever for me; Where the Wild Things Are in my opinion was one of the worst nightmares to have ever been created for the big screen, and I lost a little respect for Dave Eggers for writing such a horrible adaptation for the big screen of a magical children’s book turning into an ad for Zoloft. The film version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was very well done, and I find it funny that some critics who hailed Where the Wild Things Are took shots at Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and said it does the book a horrible injustice. When I saw this movie last Friday, I left the theater very impressed and felt that this one of those films where the director gets the idea to make it as close to the book as possible, and I felt that the movie was just as worthy as the book.

In my opinion, a lot of critics didn’t judge this film fairly. The performances in this film by the actors/actresses of the characters in the book were something I had a lot of concerns about, especially the main character Oskar. Oskar had to be played by a child actor who could really pull off his personality quirks, his anxieties, his Aspergers syndrome like mannerisms, and his emotional moments and make them all seem believable. Thomas Horn playing Oskar is truly magical, and I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off as well as he did. Thomas Horn is a no-name, didn’t seem to have any acting background or resume given this is the only film on his iMDB resume, there is no information out there on him, and the only thing they have on him are a few interviews that he did recently. Tom Hanks as Thomas Schell was a perfect fit, and he played the difficult role of the adventurous, story-telling father remarkably. Plus you really never go wrong when you have a veteran actor like Max von Sydow in your film; my friend who has a background in acting whispered in my ear after seeing the character on screen, “Playing a silent role is a real bitch!” Max von Sydow playing a silent role and getting an Oscar nod is quite an accomplishment.

The story line is probably where the critics aimed most of their criticism. The movie is a very emotional one, and it deals with the subject of a little boy with a brilliant and sensitive mind who is very close to his father having to deal with losing him in one of the worst events in our nation’s history. The subject of 9/11 in the story made me believe that people were going to see it in the trailers, conclude that it’s a film they don’t want to see, or the people who would brave it out in the theater would find the 9/11 inspired plot to be too heavy to handle. The premise of the story is that Oskar must learn how to face his fears, learn to relate and share emotions with other people, and must learn how to move on from his pain. The story has a lot of emotional moments, but I think that emotional moments in a film that have a positive impact on people make for cinema gold, and this is one of those stories. The book had mixed reviews and sold very well, and I have talked to some people who said that the book helped them move on from the pain of 9/11, and others say that they hated the magical realism of the novel.

The critics showed their distaste for certain elements of the film such as the opening credits showing dramatizations and non-graphic images of what appears to be bodies falling from the twin towers, they call the film “exploitive,” and even made it seem that it was too emotional and “plucked at the heartstrings.” The Oscar nominations that this film has received obviously show that there are people who focused on the performances of the cast, obviously found the artistic element in the movie, and it obviously goes to show that even though the Oscars are a joke and a Hollywood pissing contest, the movie has some wonderful qualities that the critics just didn’t seem to get. The book adaptation went through the same thing for a while, and yet it went on to become a bestseller. I’m hoping that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close will keep on having a solid box office performance, will gain some interest with its Oscar nods, and will defy the critics proving that you can’t always trust their opinions.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Steve Jobs

I’m probably a bit late on Walter Isaacson’s biography on the late Steve Jobs. The book has been reviewed to death, the more exciting moments of the book have been discussed in the media, and I’ve seen many people in public carrying and reading the book. Shortly after my injury in November, I was given the book as a gift and I recently just started it. With all of that being said, I looked forward to starting the book and was happy when I was finally able to start it. I wondered if a 600 page book on one of the most fascinating of entrepreneurs in American business. When it comes to Apple products, I’m a huge fan. In 2005 when I moved to California, one of the first things I had to do was purchase a new computer; I decided to take a look at Apple products. I was tired of dealing with Microsoft Windows issues, I was tired of dealing with software that wasn’t user friendly, and I decided that it was time to consider Apple. The first time I got to play around with an iMac in the Apple store I was sold on Apple’s technology.

Anyone who is a fan of Apple knows all about Steve Jobs. The company’s rise and fall after Steve Jobs was forced out and then its rise again when Steve Jobs came back made the American public wonder how Steve Jobs operated, and how he managed to pull this off. The book goes all the way back to his childhood; his adoptive parents had made a pact with his birth mother that they would make sure he went to college. His father as a mechanic taught him a lot, including that the components in anything that aren’t seen and covered are just as important that taught him a lesson on quality. He was an engineer from an early age; he managed to create technology gadgets that annoyed his parents and won him friends. Life events when he was an adult such as taking LSD, discovering various vegetarian diets, practicing Zen Buddhism, befriending Steve Wozniak, and attending Reed College led to him becoming the person that he was. His personality was far from perfect and he was known to be a bit on the cruel or manipulating side, but he was still a brilliant engineer despite dropping out of college.

The story of Apple’s creation is quite fascinating, especially when the handlers were hiring handlers to deal with Steve Jobs and his personality. The creation of Apple’s first products such as the Apple II, the Lisa, and the Macintosh all have stories of conflict. Steve Jobs’ manipulation and cruel personality were a daily obstacle. Putting Steve Jobs solely on the Macintosh program was chaotic, but it led to one of the most innovative and successful products that became part of American consumer culture--as well as a very colorful ad campaign that Steve Jobs was also part of. The connection between Microsoft and Bill Gates with Apple at the time led to a very strange business relationship. Bill Gates an Steve Jobs were both highly eccentric, had different ideas about what they were creating, and both of them had their insulting comments to each other. The people who have been around Steve Jobs in their careers both past and present all discuss his “this is shit!” comments when they presented him with their ideas. They also discuss how there’s a code in dealing with Steve Jobs and what each of his insulting comments mean.

The failures of Steve Jobs after Apple with the “Next” system he created, his involvement with Pixar, and his failed relationships with his colleagues and girlfriends provided learning experiences in business and relationships. When he returned to Apple, it seemed like he wasn’t much different, but he had an idea of what he wanted to do and where he wanted the company to go. He pointed out Apple’s failures in creating innovative products, he addressed the lack of quality for the sake of creating profits, and he wanted to get people who were “A players” instead of having a bunch of “B players.” It’s well documented that he laid off people, made insulting comments at board meetings—such as telling all of the engineers that their products suck. One of my favorite parts of the story of his return is when he was given a tour of all of Apple’s existing products before his return; anyone who remembers that period knows that they had several models of the same system and that they were confusing to consumers. His response was asking “Which one do I tell my friends to buy?” to which he wasn’t able to get a response. He simplified the product line, he took a look at where the company needed to go, and Apple’s failure before he came back was a prime example of what happens when successful companies forget their roots and focus more on profits.

In the world of business books, I think that this is one that corporate executives could learn from. I also think that the key word that is used many times in the book is “innovation.” While Steve Jobs wasn’t an angelic figure with a rosy personality, he knew how to create and sell products. At the same time there were positive results for the company due to his personality. Any fan of Apple or technology products has probably already read and loved this book. Walter Isaacson being the one to pen the only authorized biography on Steve Jobs proves Isaacson is a very detailed writer when it comes to research and attaining facts. Isaacson’s biographies on Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, and Henry Kissinger are all notable biographies, but this one is going to be his masterpiece throughout his entire writing career.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Brad Warner: Hardcore Zen Buddhism

Brad Warner is not your typical Zen Buddhist; he’s especially not the typical Zen Buddhist monk, either. His appeal to the younger Buddhist generation, younger people seeking a spiritual philosophy to follow of any sort, or to people who are what you would call “spiritual misfits” have made him one of America’s most popular of Buddhist teachers. He’s been listed as an influential Buddhist teacher you should be following on Twitter by The Huffington Post, he’s been interviewed on CNN, he’s written pieces for the alternative adult website ‘Suicide Girls,’ and he’s authored 4 books: 'Hardcore Zen,’ ‘Sit Down and Shut Up,’ ‘Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate,’ and ‘Sin and Zen.’ Brad Warner is a native of Akron, OH and was part of Akron’s hardcore punk scene in the 80s; he played bass for Zero Defex; he later went on to form his own group Dementia 13. He eventually found himself living and working in Japan playing the roles of foreigners in various programs, and he was also involved with the popular long-running Japanese show “Ultraman.” While he’s a Zen teacher, he’s also a huge science-fiction connoisseur, still continues to play music and has played in reunion shows with Zero Defex after returning to Akron, OH from Japan, and does speaking and teaching engagements around the world.

Brad Warner’s books are not what you’d generally read in any book written on the subject of Zen or Buddhism. He has extensive knowledge of a variety of teachings in Zen Buddhism from his formal practice that he discusses in his books explaining his own journeys in life in Japan, working on ‘Ultraman’ and other science fiction based productions, being in Zero Defex, his college years, and part of his childhood growing up abroad due to his father’s foreign job assignments. He’s able to keep readers of his books entertained with humor, stories, and yet translate these teachings all at the same time, which makes him a unique teacher and has earned him a following. At the same time, there have been many who have criticized his books and his teachings. He’s also proudly stated that one of his books is “Zen for people who don’t give a rat’s ass.” In today’s society while people are still seeking spiritual walks of life, a philosophy to find themselves engaged to, or some sort of a religion that they can feel comfortable with, it’s easy to relate to Brad’s straight-talking, sobering, against the “new age” concept, and yet positive writings.

I decided to talk with Brad about his roots in Akron, his love of science-fiction, his approach to Zen Buddhism, his writings, and some other related subjects.

You grew up living abroad, but you mostly lived in Akron. Being a native of Cleveland myself, the things I think of when Akron comes to mind are working and middle class families, the tire companies, and the music. I would even consider it more culturally vibrant than Cleveland. Akron’s music scene has been unique with who is either from there, or what has come out of Akron when you look at iconic bands and musicians like Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, The Cramps, and The Black Keys who have all come out of Akron. It’s obviously still a significant city in Ohio and has a vibrant history in many aspects. At the same time, it seems that Devo and The Black Keys have a love/hate relationship with their hometown. As a native of Akron yourself, and someone who has been part of Akron’s music scene, what do you think it is about Akron that gives it that rare cultural history, music history, and just general atmosphere as a city?

Akron is kind of a hellhole, really. This is probably one of the reasons so many creative things have come out of the city. If you want to see any good live music you have to make it yourself. Nobody ever comes here. Until the advent of the Internet, even if you just wanted to hear some good music you had to make it. Nobody can afford to even go to Cleveland let alone New York City and see what’s going on there.

It seems like it’s pretty rare that any great culture comes out of big vibrant cities like New York or Los Angeles. When it does, it’s usually because whoever is making that stuff moved to those cities from a place like Akron. Artists need something to fight against. So people here make their own culture. And sometimes it’s really amazing stuff.

In Akron we’re working in kind of a vacuum. We don’t know what the trends are so we can’t follow them even if we want to. The mainstream culture here follows the lowest of the lowbrow in terms of mass culture. But nothing “hip” ever comes here; no art exhibits, no bands. So people have to create their own reaction to that lowbrow mass culture without having a viable “alternative” culture to fall back on. Really, so-called “alternative” culture is usually just a minor variation on what the masses are doing anyway. People who are truly different aren’t any more accepted by the so-called “alternative scene” than they are by the mainstream.

I also have some terrific friends and there’s a real sense of camaraderie and community among those of us who see things differently from the rest of this town.

On the other hand, now that I’m back living in Akron again and I can see that this is a city where it seems like most people think baloney and white bread are what normal people eat and anyone who doesn’t must be a “commie fag.” And they’re pissed off because the economy is shit. No one has jobs. The weather is awful. Sweltering summers and winters like the Antarctic. I don’t have any trouble understanding why DEVO and Chrissy Hynde and LeBron James and the Black Keys and all the rest got out of here.

You have such an interest in some of the most obscure and classic forms of science fiction films and the culture that’s related to it going back through several eras. It seemed that you were living a dream by working in Japan in the industry there where so much of the world’s most notable science fiction films like Godzilla originated. At the same time, you’ve also been heavy into music and you’re a musician yourself. Do you feel that music and science fiction films have been as influential to you as Zen Buddhism? And did you ever feel during any part of your Zen training that these interests were going to have to be put aside, or that they were a distraction along the path of your Buddhist practice?

It’s hard to say if music and sci-fi have been influential. I mean, I can say that my early reading of sci-fi novels by Philip K. Dick had some influence on my interest in Zen. He put a lot of Zen-like ideas in his books. Though he got most of it wrong. And I know that my experiences playing live music led me to seek other experiences similar to that great feeling of openness that you get from playing.

On the other hand science fiction is full of a lot of worthless goofball speculation that can seem profound when it isn’t at all. L. Ron Hubbard is a perfect example of that. And rock music is loud and probably potentially disruptive to the workings of the human nervous system if indulged in too much.

I did feel at one point like I was going to have to put that stuff aside to become more “pure” and more like the Zen folks I saw at Buddhist centers. But that didn’t make me happy. And I don’t feel like Buddha’s message was “Don’t be happy” or “Don’t be yourself.”

You can always find a way to make your particular interests part of your Buddhist practice. I still love science fiction. But I now tend to gravitate toward the goofier stuff rather than the science fiction that’s touted as profound. I find the goofy stuff to be more honest, while the stuff that seeks to be profound is usually just pretentious. I always felt this way to some degree. But now I no longer feel like I ought to apologize for it.

As for it being distracting, well maybe it is. But sometimes you need a certain amount of distraction. If you get too single minded about Zen practice it can turn into an unhealthy sort of obsession.

I want to talk about one of your books that I found to be best of your 4 in my opinion, and the reason ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ is my favorite is because of it being an example of how you teach and present material. You took the Zen teachings of Dogen’s Shobogenzo and presented them in a unique way by telling personal stories in that book. Plus you used it to talk about how you were taking a trip back to Ohio and reuniting with Zero Defex at the time, how you accidently botched a TV release for a company in Japan you worked for that your boss took the consequences for on your behalf, and you presented it in such an easy way for people to take something from it. You’ve also done the same things in your other books. Buddhism is a way of life where you apply the teachings to everything you do, and is that how you approach your writing?

We made live-action television programs and once a year we made a live-action movie. It was one of the TV show releases that I screwed up. And I wouldn’t say my boss took the consequences for me. But he did say that as my boss he had to accept some of the blame because it was his job to look at what I was doing and to see that I had a general understanding of what was going on. Problem was, in that specific instance, he didn’t understand any better than I did what the company was doing.

But that aside, yeah, I do feel like Buddhism is a way of life. I approach writing like everything else, as part of my Buddhist life. I try to present something useful. But I also do it as much for me as for anyone else.
Sometimes I make these rather blunt statements in my books to a hypothetical person designated by the pronoun “you.” Sometimes people take that as an admonition. They think I’m saying, “I’ve got it all together, but you, on the other hand, should do better.” But that’s not what I mean at all. The “you” I refer to in my writing always includes myself. I’ve been trying to make that clearer as I go along.

As for Shobogenzo, all I can present is my understanding of it. I can’t dig up Dogen and ask him if I got it right. Some people disagree with my interpretations. I’m certainly not schooled in Dogen studies.

You and Noah Levine, who is another Buddhist teacher who has been involved in the punk rock lifestyle, have both been considered to be the most influential Buddhist teachers to the younger generations. In fact, you’ve even worked with Noah’s meditation group in Los Angeles. Noah is a little bit more rooted in speaking in terms of escaping self-destruction and addiction, and living with compassion for others. Your teachings are based on a more straight-forward, unchained point of view, which makes sense given you come from the Zen lineage. You’ve even said you’re about teaching “Zen for people who don’t give a rat’s ass.” When you take a look at the younger generations of people who come to you for instruction that come from rebellious movements or counterculture, what do you want them to take away from your instruction?

I have no idea what I want people to take from my so-called “teaching.” Honestly. I don’t really want them to take anything in particular.
I’m really not trying to teach anyone anyway. That’s why I don’t take students. I wouldn’t have any idea what to teach them. I can give people information that I have and that they don’t have. But that’s about it. And if you want information, there are better sources than me for just about anything. I really don’t know much in terms of information about Buddhism.

I do feel that there are people who could benefit from Buddhist philosophy and practice who might never encounter it because they’ve already decided like Jello Biafra in his song Religious Vomit that all religions suck. I sometimes think maybe my writing appeals to people who have a sense that there is some deeper truth but who don’t want religion. That’s how I felt.

But as for what I want people to take from my instruction, ugh! I don’t even like the word “instruction.” It makes me feel like we’re getting into some kind of S&M scene. As for what I want people to take from my writing… I can’t even say. I see my writing get misinterpreted in all kinds of bizarre ways. It seems to me like some people read what they want to read no matter what I actually say. I have no control over it at all.

I once heard a retired Episcopalian priest tell me it seems Americans can’t really be Buddhists because we’re too set in our ways to accept another culture’s religion with such intensive practices. There are obviously formalities that Americans are not used to that you have lived through in the Zen temples of Japan, and even in places where you have done your recent personal retreats. At the same time, when you perform your own retreats and teachings, it’s less formal, but still based in the practices. When you think about your own personal Zen training and the perspective of some of the people who have attended talks and retreats that you have given, do you believe in the idea that Americans can’t be Buddhists?

Well, neither of my teachers was very into formalities. There are Zen training centers that are much stricter and more difficult than anything I’ve personally been to. So I sometimes think I’m kind of a wimp.
And I think that anyone who can’t handle the kind of comparatively easy sort of practice I do is probably pretty hopeless. I don’t really make the retreats I lead any easier than the most of the ones I experienced. On the Zen scale of difficulty in retreats, Nishijima Roshi’s were very low. You woke up at 4:30 AM instead of 3:30. There were long breaks during the day for free-time. He never led a retreat longer than four days.

You do need some kind of discipline to get anything out of Zen practice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be intense discipline. It just has to be discipline.
Some people say I’m disciplined because I get up in the morning and the first thing I do is at least a half hour of zazen followed by a little exercise routine. Then I write every single day and practice my instruments daily. But to me, this really isn’t much. I feel very lazy and undisciplined because I’ve seen people who are way more intense than I could ever be.

You are one figure in modern Buddhism that has earned such an interesting following that has stirred things up for the better; you have such a unique way of teaching and explaining things. At the same time, I have encountered many of your critics, for as long as I’ve been reading your stuff, who say that you have an “immature sense of humor” for a Zen Buddhist monk, that you think you have a superiority over others because you studied Zen in Japan, and that you have enough of a rebellious streak to where it makes you an ineffective teacher. I even had a laugh after I read “BRAD WARNER WRITES PORNOGRAPHY ON "SUICIDE GIRLS!” Plus a blog that you wrote about a book on the subject of psychedelics and Buddhism earned you some scorn from the older Buddhist generation who said that you unfairly categorized them. You definitely don’t teach like some of the American Zen teachers like Enkyo O’Hara does, how Daido Loori did, or the other big names and figures in America who are part of the Zen community. I also don’t think people assume that any other Zen monk would ever interview a member of Devo, or talk about how Gene Simmons of KISS isn’t a Zen master in a Buddhist book. Do you feel that sometimes you are unfairly criticized?

“There’s no fair or unfair to a meteorite. You get hit, you die.” That’s a quotation from the film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.
I feel like people criticize an image. They don’t know me at all. Nor do I know Genpo Roshi, who I’ve criticized a lot. I just slam his image. And it’s a lousy image so it’s fun to make fun of it.
If people don’t like my sense of humor, they don’t have to read what I write. If they’d rather find a more stereotypically “mature” Zen teacher there are plenty around. It doesn’t matter. If I was the only Zen teacher in the whole world maybe I’d have an obligation to be more universally appealing. Though probably not even then. But in any case there are other teachers people can go to if they don’t like me. So I feel no obligation at all to try to be what everybody wants. To me, that would be the antithesis of what Zen is about anyway.

It’s interesting sometimes, though, to be criticized for not fitting into what has become the standard “Buddhist guy image” that has developed in America over the past fifty years. Because that image is pure bunk. Zen teachers have always been weirdo iconoclasts. I am a rank amateur compared to the likes of Ikkyu or Haukuin. Those guys were really nutty! They make me look like the most conservative guy ever.

The Buddhist magazines and the Internet have really done a lot to solidify this weird phony image of what a Buddhist teacher ought to look and sound like. Those who conform to that stereotype can gain a following of people who like stereotypical teachers. I’m glad those folks don’t like me!

What’s in the future for Brad Warner as a teacher? Do you plan on staying in Akron for the long term? Do you plan to open a center? And how involved are you in playing music?

My future? I have no idea. I’ll stay in Akron at least till Spring of 2012. After that I’m not sure. I have no plans to open a center as such. But some people in Los Angeles are trying to set up a nonprofit religious organization with me as the head. So maybe we’ll start some kind of something.

I’m very involved in music. I just bought a new guitar and that means I need to start a band in which I can play it. I play bass in the band I’m currently in, Zero Defex. Zero Defex, by the way, are currently recording a new album. That’s been fun.

I’ll have a novel out this year and I’ve written a screenplay that I’m hoping we can make. Last year I acted in a movie called Shoplifting From American Apparel. I’m actually the lead role in it. The film should be released in 2012. But it is ultra low budget. So don’t expect to see it at your local megaplex cinema! It’ll probably play festivals and art-houses before getting released on DVD.

I want to do a lot of things. Zen teaching is something I’ve sort of fallen backwards into. I have no idea why anyone respects my opinion on such a deep subject as Zen. I’m still just a punk rock bass player who writes cheesy books.

I want to say that it’s been a pleasure, I always enjoy reading your Facebook and your blog, and that I hope there will be lots more to come from you in the future. And congrats on being one of the “Buddhists you should follow on Twitter”


Many thanks to Brad Warner for allowing me to interview him. You can follow Brad's blog at Hardcore Zen