Yearly Archives: 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “Mind Fields” by Harlan Ellison

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 
Mind Fields is a book of short stories by Harlan Ellison, inspired by the mythic glory of paintings by Polish artist, Jacek Yerka.

Mind Fields, I’m ashamed to admit, is the first Harlan Ellison book I ever bought. Ashamed because I was over the age of 20 when it was published and Harlan Ellison almost instantly became one of my favorite authors of all time, and I regret I wasn’t buying his books from the moment I could read.

Jacek Yerka paintings are so vibrant and imaginative, even the most uncreative cynic would become charmed with the sense of life and depth within them. His paintings move. They breathe. They sting with snakebite fire.

In the hands of Harlan Ellison, he bleeds the visions dry, squeezing every pulpy drop of venom from every nook and cranny. No detail is missed. No pore is unexamined. No brushstroke is ignored.

Although Harlan Ellison is one of the most prolific and award-winning authors of our time, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are still going to be those of you who are unfamiliar with his work. Allow me to share with you one of my favorite passages from Mind Fields, a story entitled “The Silence”…
 

This is the cathedral in which your cowardice has been enshrined. The silence of the pulpit is the silence we heard when you did not answer cries for help. In the eaves of this place are the festooned remnants of the friends you did not come to assist. In the darkened rooms of rotted staircases are the tattered faces of lovers you betrayed – here your mother, there your father, both gone now and neither with any degree of calm or joy. Here is the sanctuary of your lost chances. There is no pastor, no choir, no stewards, no supplicants. It is a congregation of one. You will worship here all the remaining days of your life and at night your spirit will kneel on broken glass in the pews.
 
That one chills me everytime I read it. How I love authors who write prose as poetry.

Mind Fields is not only a fantastic introduction to one of the living legends of imaginative literature, but also serves as a beautiful collection of some of the finest examples of surreal art being created during our lifetimes. Ellison inspired by Yerka is a beauty to behold. This is Shakespeare inspire by DaVinci. This is Bradbury inspired by Dali. Yeats inspired by Michaelangelo.

The thing I love the most about Mind Fields is the flow of said inspiration veritably spills off the page. Between the brilliant combination of Jacek’s imagery and Harlan’s stories, it’s impossible for your own imagination to cease churning. One look at the paintings and stories start forming in your own head. Then you read Harlan’s prose and the paintings nearly come to life. You fear waters may drip upon your floor, so you hold the book less upright. You fear monsters may nip at your fingertips, so you draw your hand to the edge of the pages. No longer paintings, the images become windows to real worlds. That’s what makes Mind Fields a unique work of art. A prime example of two artforms converging to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Mind Fields is more than a book of beautiful artwork; more than a book of glorious short stories. Instead it’s a genuine gateway to imagination, opening doorways to otherworldly possibilities no story or image could do alone. Therein lies the power of Mind Fields. Melding two incredible artists to conjure something entirely new.

Not long ago in my career as a writer, I had the great honor of being a very small part of a project similar to Mind Fields called Tales From the Dark Tower. Dark fantasy artist Joe Vargo had created a number of paintings for the Tales From the Dark Tower anthology and I had the privilege of being one of the writers who contributed to it. With all due respect to the talents of Joe Vargo, I’m sure he would agree, we are no Yerka and Ellison. Nevertheless, Tales From the Dark Tower showed me a small hint of how excited Ellison must have felt when he wrote Mind Fields.

My only negative comment? The book is too short. Too thin. I would have loved for it to be two, three, four times as long! Every page is a wonder to behold and I would that they numbered into the hundreds.

This is a creation I can’t recommend enough and encourage you to go buy it. This is truly a life enriching book that must be on your shelf and it will do what all great works of art should – take you to places more spellbinding than you have ever dreamed.

I love that story I read so much, allow me to close with Harlan reading the same story.

To the Readers who Discovered my Writing After I Died

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“Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we are, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
- Harlan Ellison

Hello, my friend. This is my time travel message to you. To my knowledge, no other writer in the history of the world has ever made an effort to speak to his (or her) fans the way I’m speaking to you now. Hard to believe I was ever so young, isn’t it? You know, I was still just a little kid when composed this message for you. Still a new author. Still figuring out how to write. I created this all the way back in December of 2013. When I made this, I did not yet know when my last day of living would be. But I did know, someday, long after my life had ended, you would find my books, and you would love my stories. Believe me, as much you wish you could meet me and talk to me and tell me how much my writing means to you, I wish I was still there to hear you say it. Time is a strange thing. We only have a limited supply, and we never have enough, and it seem the people we love most can often slip out of lifetimes, just when we yearn, harder than ever, to cleave those beloved souls to us.

In all the years I spent writing, there was one thing consistently weaving a common thread through all of my work. One message. One obsession. That was to make sure every man, woman and child who reads my books will come away with a sense of appreciating their tragically limited time. We spend so much of our lives zoned out and nearly catatonic. I’m just as guilty of that as you are. Only in brief flashes do we ever truly feel alive! That summer afternoon when you finally lost your virginity to that gorgeous girl or charming boy. That amazing day at the beach when waves sprayed the breakwall like diamonds in the sunshine. That wonderful book that changed your life. Or maybe it was something even more simple. Something innocuous. That special afternoon with your grandfather when you took a walk together and he told you how he fell in love with your grandma. Those brilliant moments stick with us. Those are the times we feel so aware that we exist! That life matters!

Yet our decades upon this earth are always too brief. When a person dies under the age of 50, people always say, “Oh, they were so young.”

When a person dies at 97 they say, “Well, at least they had a long life.”

The heck with that! When you get to be 97, are you, in the words of Dylan Thomas, going to go gently into that good night? I think not. We should all be so lucky to reach 97 and when we do, that will still be too young. Personally, I’m striving for about 125. Life is far too wondrous and magical to ever want to let it go. No matter what age we are when we awake to our last day on earth, we will always wish we had a little more time. The existential regret encapsulating the lot of humanity.

There are some souls born into this world who leave things behind. We construct architecture like Egyptian pharaohs. We found entire nations like presidents and kings. We bear children who carry on a legacy of business and commerce and invention. We compose music and literary works that endure for centuries like Mozart and Shakespeare. Unquestionably, such artifacts shall endure long after everything I contributed to the world. Yet, for a time, perhaps decades or even centuries after my own death, my work too shall remain. Unlike the most infamous emperors of old, you are not only be able to read my words, you are be able to see me. To hear my voice. And in that way, I have attained a great privilege, for although I was never a mighty leader or messiah among men, even after I departed the earth, evidence of my existence is preserved more vividly than the very kings of antiquity. For the honor of this near immortality, I have an obligation and I owe fans of my work this message.

Thus to you who love my work, to you who did not discover I existed until after I died, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we never met. I’m sorry that I passed from the world before you even arrived. I wish I could have lived longer and spent more years upon that beautiful earth.

I know you really connected with my writing. I know it meant something special to you. I know you never read anything else like it. I know you wanted to write me a fan letter, just to have the chance to tell me how much you connected with my stories. You don’t even care if I would have written back or not. You just wanted to let me know how much my writing means to you. You wanted to tell me how it influenced your life. How it made you see things in a new way. How it helped to save you from the dark. Sometimes, you feel like you’re nothing more than a ghost. You feel like no one cares that you are alive. And when you read my stories, you feel like someone gets it. In my stories you find kindred souls. You find your friends. The ones you have never found out there in the real world. People who think the way you think. Who appreciate life the way you appreciate it. And you’ve never met anyone else who cherishes the subtle beauty of living the way those people do in my stories. Until you found my writing, you didn’t think there was ever anyone else in the world who was from your tribe.

You just wanted to thank me. Now you’ll never have the chance.

Believe me, I would that I were still there to hear you say all those wonderful things. I wish I could read your letter and thank you for sending it. I wish I could shake your hand and tell you that you’re welcome, when you thank me for all my writing has given to you.

And to this girl. To you, my lovely. I’m especially sorry that a young and beautiful girl like you ended up being born years after my gravestone was planted. You are the one I wish I could have met most of all. A smart girl like you, who gets bigger crushes on dead authors than on living boys. I know the boys you meet are jackasses. You wonder what I was really like. Was it true I was quite the charmer? All those fantasies you have about meeting me at a book signing and then, well, doing what pretty boys and girls do best? Oh, I would have been very dashing, my dear.

Forgive me. I know that talking directly to you like this almost makes it worse. Almost makes it harder. Your head is spinning. You’re wondering if I’m really saying this to you? Is this an actual conversation? Would I hear you if you spoke back? Is the voice in your head truly your own? Will these only be my words the first time? Will you pray that somehow my words might be different the next time? That I could reach across time and space.

Does it really matter?

In the end, I just wanted you to know you’re not crazy. No matter what the rest of the room tells you or says behind your back. They have never spoken the language of our tribe and therefore they have never comprehended the way the universe truly functions and the way we have always instinctively understood it. You’re not alone. We are the rarest of creatures, you and I. But even if you never find them, rest assured there are others of our blood. As I said earlier, time is a strange thing after all. And although we can never touch, dreams are still very, very real. And it is there that I can always take your hand.

So, to all of you, to all you dear friends who discovered my books long after I died, I apologize for not being there. I’m sorry that all you have left of me are the books and the stories. But know this, all that you dream you might have become, can still be. All the friendships and love affairs and the pen pals that we are, can still happen in your wondrous daydreams. You were right about me. I do get you. I do know you. I do understand you. That’s why I left you this message. How many other writers have ever done this? I did it because I know that you’re real. We are brothers and sisters of the same tribe. Time does not encapsulate us. And for all the inspiration and hope and love you have found in my stories, I now beseech you to remain unyielding in your long quest, for you and you alone are the knights and shieldmaidens of our noble banner. You still have your life. Make something of it. Achieve something splendiferous with the time you have remaining. Because one day, one day far too soon, you will no longer be upon that earth either. One day will be your last. And when you awake on the morning of your final day, you owe it to yourself and to all our tribe represents, to be able to look back and say, “I’m proud of what I achieved. I made the world a better place. I left something beautiful to this good earth.”

I may not be with you in the flesh any longer, but my spirit endures in your magical world. Through my words. Through my stories. In my books, I am still there. As people we are nothing more than stories and thoughts and words and memories. And all of mine are still with you. I remain far more than just dreams and remembrances. Our tribe is mightier than that. Those others out there, the ones who are not of our tribe, don’t understand what in the world I’m talking about. But you do. Unlike them, you know the essence of who you truly are. Hold steadfast to that, remain a beacon of light in all the shadow, and we will meet again. Fare thee well, my friends.

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
- Carl Sagan

How did Walt Disney make me rant about Levi’s Jeans?

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“By the way if anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself. No, no, no it’s just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day, they’ll take root – I don’t know. You try, you do what you can. Kill yourself. Seriously though, if you are, do. Aaah, no really, there’s no rationalization for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay – kill yourself – seriously. You are the ruiner of all things good, seriously. No, this is not a joke, you’re going, ‘There’s going to be a joke coming.’ There’s no fucking joke coming. You are Satan’s spawn filling the world with bile and garbage. You are fucked and you are fucking us. Kill yourself. It’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself.”
- Bill Hicks
 

Many times you hear writers talk about the the joy of writing because you get to share these common aspects of the human condition or simply bring smiles and much-needed-escapism into the lives of readers. And, you know, I tend to be a happy and optimistic fellow and honestly, I agree with those motives. Writing is a joy and a blessing and a wonderful medium by which to interact with the world around me.

But sometimes…

Sometimes, when people are self-centered and presumptuous assholes, it’s fantastic to wield the pen which it mightier than the sword and cut off the heads of people who are pricks.

Are you familiar with Bill Hicks? He’s one of my favorite stand-up comedians of all time. Tragically, he died very young in 1994. He was only 32 when he passed away. If you don’t know his material, I encourage you to look him up. In one of his funnier bits, Bill Hicks did a piece on people who worked in marketing and he spoke about how they were all evil demonic spawns of darkness and should kill themselves. It is a hilarious bit. But, I never knew how true it was until March of 2013.

Now, before I tell you what happened, you need to understand a little background about me that you may not know; namely I have been a skateboarder all my life and I have scores of skateboarding videos on the Internet which have upwards of 15,000 subscribers and more than 2 million views. I feature videos on learning to skateboard and reviews of skateparks and contests and so forth. I shoot these videos all around Los Angeles with some of the top skateboarders in the world including Holly Lyons and Sarah Thompson and XGames medalists, Julz Lynn and Lizzie Armanto. Thus, I am quite knowledgeable about skateboarding and skateboarding culture.

Consequently, on 7 March 2013 at 6:55pm I received an unsolicited email from an advertising agency in Marina Del Rey. This is what it said.
 

Hi Eric,

I hope this email finds you well. My name is Carolyn and I work on the Levi’s account. Levi’s is interested in exploring the Skate culture as a passion point and is interested in getting to know the skate community better and wanted to see if you could help us gain a more intimate understanding of your skate site(s) and its audiences. We are providing a preliminary deep dive on the media landscape as it pertains to Skate, and while Behavioral and Demographic site user data would be helpful we are curious to see how your site participates in an active community role. Information on the unique perspective of your skate communities and how your site communicates with them would be most useful.

Attached is a template for the points of information that would be helpful for this deep dive, but feel free to provide further information as you see fit and list all sites as it relates to the skate category. In addition, any applicable information that could help us gain a better understanding of how your sites relate and converse with its community would be much appreciated. This includes any unique advantages your sites may have interacting with its community such as unique distribution of branded content, organic ways to reach highly-relevant influencers, fostering true engagement, igniting peer-to-peer sharing and other socially relevant activations.

Please let me know if you can help us get to know your community better. We would greatly appreciate if you could send the info back to us by EOD Friday. Please confirm receipt of this request.

Thanks in advance!

Carolyn
 
She also copied this email to her coworkers Spencer, Scott and Christina. Attached to her email was a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet called “Levis Skate Site Deep Dive”. This is what that spreadsheet looked like:

As you can see, it has multiple fields for multiple websites and categories like “Demo breakout and sweetspot” and “Estimated CPMs” which is a marketing term referring to the cost of advertising impressions.

Now, keep in mind, this email arrived about 6 months after I was laid off from working at Disney, after having been there for over 6 years. I loved working at Disney. Working for Walt Disney Studios was truly the proudest moment of my professional career and I was livid that I no longer had such a blessed opportunity in my life. I’m a firm believer in always advancing in life, always improving, and what could be better than working for Disney? How could I improve after that? Any other company would a step backwards. I had been thrown off a plateau, the heights of which I would never surpass. In other words, despite my typically chipper and positive outlook, my general demeanor towards life had become a lot more angry and pissy than usual.

Then this fucking email shows up filled with corporate-zombie euphemisms, asking me to do work for them, with no mention of any compensation. They expect me to fill out a fucking speadsheet and give me a goddamn deadline to get it done!? Who the fuck do they think they are!? Their client is Levi’s fucking Jeans for christsake! Not like they don’t have any fucking money. They didn’t even offer me a goddamn pair of pants for my trouble. Fuck them. I was furious at the gall, the audacity, and the arrogance of these marketing agency scumbags.

So, I responded with the following.
 

Carolyn,

Wow. Are you fucking kidding me? Have you read your email?

“We are providing a preliminary deep dive on the media landscape as it pertains to Skate, and while Behavioral and Demographic site user data would be helpful we are curious to see how your site participates in an active community role. Information on the unique perspective of your skate communities and how your site communicates with them would be most useful.”

Who the hell talks that way!? What’s wrong with you? Let me guess. Some fuckwit wrote that form letter and you just plug in words like “skate” where needed? Right? Whatever fits the “target demo” you’re trying to analyze.

“Hey, I work at an advertising agency and Levi’s Jeans are interested in knowing more about skateboarding culture. Can you help me out?”

That’s all you need to say. That’s how humans talk. Your email sounds more like it was written by an emotionally vapid asshole with a BMW and a 3-piece suit, who spends too much time in meetings.

And what’s with this end-of-day Friday shit? You ask a complete stranger for help AND GIVE THEM A DEADLINE? How dare you! Who the fuck do you douchebags think you are? Sorry to shatter your self-important delusions of grandeur, but your irrelevant client and your agency are meaningless to me. I don’t need to complete any Excel surveys for you by the end of your Friday workday, or any other day for that matter. I graduated high school a long time ago. Do your own fucking homework.

Go home Carolyn. You sent this email at 7:00pm. You should have been home hours ago. Your job is not that important. You’re not rescuing orphans or curing terminal diseases. You work at an advertising agency. Stay there 9 to 5 and not a minute more. Your friends and family take priority over your job. Get out of the office and go see them. You want to learn about skateboarding culture? Take the day off work. Go to RipCity or Venice Originals. Buy a skateboard. Learn to ride it. Become part of the culture. Don’t send out inhuman emails asking about “unique distribution of branded content” and “CPM impressions”. Get out of that cubicle and live a little. That’s how you develop “organic ways to reach highly-relevant influencers” and start “fostering true engagement”.

Read my book www.SchoolingYourBossToNotSuck.com and learn how humans need to behave in the corporate world. This is for a grade, so have your book report finished by the end of the day on Monday. I’m sure a drone like yourself is used to working all weekend, right? Figure out how to treat human beings like human beings, instead of seeing every person as a fucking statistical analysis.

Finally, don’t ever write back with some bullshit corporate-speak apology about offending my sensibilities. I’m not interested in your apologies. I just want you to start living like an actual person again. Life is so painfully short and that office is killing everything that makes you human.

Eric
 
Oh, that felt good. I made sure to copy Spencer, Scott and Christina. Obviously, I never heard back from any of them. My only lament is that I couldn’t be a fly on the wall to see their reactions. I bet my email was the talk of the office all afternoon.

Or perhaps not.

Maybe my reaction is commonplace. Perhaps those evil little demons of the marketing world are accustomed to being verbally decapitated and simply sewing their pustulant craniums back on their rotting necks. But in my fantasies, I like to imagine they were filled with such indignant consternation they could barely put gas in that Mercedes they can’t actually afford. I hope she cried. That’s what would make me happy. I hope Carolyn cried and hated herself and took a long look in the mirror and saw that she was dead inside. I hope she was miserable that night. I hope the next day, she woke up and quit her job. I hope she started working as something she always dreamed of being. Pursuing that passion she had when she was a little girl. That thing she always wanted to try, but was too scared to try it. I hope I was the Tyler Durden to her Raymond K. Hessel. Because goodness knows, no one ever aspires to working in advertising. Working in advertising is a career that you “end up doing”, not a job you ever dream of achieving.

But maybe I was too late for Carolyn and her coworkers. They may already be inexorably fused into the ratrace, and like batteries in The Matrix, they are unable to be unplugged.

For those of you already on that path and staring into the inevitability of transforming into mindless drones, let this be your final warning. Turn back. Run. Do not become part of a system that strips away all joy and humanity, lest you end up working in an industry that uses terms like “deep dive” and “peer-to-peer sharing” and staying in the office 12 hours a day under the delusion you will be “appreciated” for your self-imposed slavery and the only moments of laughter you will know are hollow happy hour gatherings with the assholes who sit in the adjoining cubicles.

Perhaps I am too late to save Carolyn and her brethren from that hellish fate.

But I pray it’s not too late for you. Get out while you still can.

I opened this piece talking about writing providing joy and entertainment. My scathing reply to Carolyn certainly entertained me and I hope conveying my little story brought you some joy.