Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hi From the Chelsea Hotel

I first heard of the Chelsea Hotel—which, incidentally, is actually named the Hotel Chelsea) back in the late 1960s, when Arthur C. Clarke related an anecdote in an essay about UFOs. The thrust of his argument was that most UFO sightings are easily explained by a thoughtful observer, but that a few remain a puzzlement.

He said that when he was staying in the Chelsea Hotel, simultaneously writing the novel 2001 and working with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for the movie, that one evening he and Kubrick got together. At one point, a bright object appeared in the sky, came closer and closer, and then remained hovering, seemingly gazing in the hotel window. Both of the men were a little punch-drunk from hammering away at the rather transcendental script, and for a time they both felt certain that alien powers had been alerted to the 2001 storyline, and were descending to stop them from relating a tale that was too close to the truth.

Eventually the light retreated, but Clarke, even with his wide astrophysical and aeronautical contacts, was never able to glean any clue as to what they had seen that night.

I was so enamored of Clarke in my early teenage days that the Chelsea was forever branded into my memory. Imagine—the kind of hotel where the world’s greatest sci-fi writer elected to stay! (Of course, in my estimation his masterpiece was Childhood’s End, not 2001, but still…) I pictured it as a shiny, austere, modernistic sort of building, perhaps similar to the set in 2001 where Dave, having passed through the monolith, finds himself in a sterile environment where he passes through old age, death, and eventual rebirth as the StarChild.

It wasn’t too long before I discovered I was wrong about the Chelsea. It started showing up in songs (notably Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 and Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning), and then in things I read. Not all of these were positive, mind you. The hotel is perhaps best known to many as the site where Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death, but it has witnessed many other passings, some far more august: Dylan Thomas wrote his last poems there before dying there of alcohol poisoning, and Thomas Wolfe spent his last, anguished days as a permanent resident. Many stories and books were written there, although it’s hard to see how the writers were able to concentrate with the racket from all the musicians who stayed there. (Dylan Thomas’ namesake Bob Dylan composed the double album Blonde on Blonde at the Chelsea.) So, while it was indeed Clarke’s choice of residence in NYC, it was more bohemian than futuristic. (n.b. Back in those days I was also unaware that Clarke was gay. That might have made me suspect a higher degree of incipient bohemianism, even if his author photos suggested he would be best suited for a job as an accountant with a 1950s aerospace firm.*)

I've been to New York City before, but the choice of where to stay has never been up to me. So, that’s where I’ve been for the last few days—at the Hotel Chelsea. And I’m happy to report that it is neither vastly expensive nor wholly gentrified; it’s still a bit funky, rather low-key, and cheap by Manhattan standards. Nice location, too—just south of Madison Square Gardens, just north of Greenwich Village and Soho, just northeast of Union Square (which has my novel stocked in the local Barnes and Noble), and convenient to, well, Chelsea. (n.b. Yes, the Chelsea district is named after the district in London. NY’s Soho district, however, is a syllabic acronym invented by real estate agents to mean SOuth of HOuston Street, which New Yorkers insist on pronouncing as “Howston Street.” [Tribeca, TRIangle BElow CAnal Street, is carrying this idea to a silly extreme.])

Could I feel the ghosts of artists past lingering in the building? Sure. But it’s pretty easy, given that the lobby and hallways are decked out with examples of eclectic art, much of it, one suspects, rendered up by previous residents in lieu of cash payments.

It’s easy to imagine working there. The rooms aren’t elegant—in fact, far from it—but they are relatively spacious, and designed for long-term occupancy; the desks are designed for workspace rather than fiddly little plastic signs and piles of brochures. And the clientele still seems to be composed of artists or poseurs. (If you can give me a way to distinguish between the two, I’ll be grateful.)

We had time to fool about on this trip, and even to catch Jude Law doing an astonishing, and highly idiosyncratic Hamlet on Broadway. (Who knew he was that good?) We also had plenty of Walkabout time, and traipsed all over the island, and not only across the Brooklyn Bridge, but back across the less-revered Manhattan Bridge. (Though I believe it is the even-longer Washington Bridge that Parker trudges across in the opening to Point Blank. We only drove across that one.)

Nonetheless, the best part of the trip for me was the Chelsea. I can’t really imagine living in NYC…but I could imagine living at the Chelsea for a while.


*Arthur C Clarke was never an accountant at an aerospace firm. He was, however, one of the inventors of radar; and, though he never even considered applying for a patent, he outlined the operating principles for the communication satellites that now encircle the globe.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wild Kingdom, Huntington Beach Style

I guess we'd be living in suburbia but for the fact that the nearest real urbia is quite a drive. Huntington Beach used to be an isolated little beach town, but it's now surrounded by Orange County sprawl.

Despite that, there's still a bit of wildlife. The Bolsa Chica wetlands and the marshes surrounding Anaheim Bay both abut the city, and there are strange pockets of ponds scattered along the San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers, as well as dozens of channelized creeks that were formed when much of land around the town was origiannly drained. There are also de facto greenbelts along the edge of some or our mesas, owing to the fact that the grade was simply too steep to stuff in more houses.

So there's wildlife aplenty around the wetlands--herons, kingfishers, ospreys, skimmers, assorted raptors, and the two remaining nesting sites for the endangered least tern. The wetlands also have raccoons, coyotes, fox, and even the occasional cougar. But although we don't live next to a marsh, our back yard can get pretty darned busy.

I've already mentioned our accidental pet crows. We also have two bullfrogs in the back yard, the result of buying a trio of tadpoles to eat up the algae in our pond. Who knew they would grow to adulthood and begin serenading us, like a pair of libidinous foghorns, on summer nights? We've also had our share of possums, who are innocuous, but not terribly good company; after all, what do you say to someone whose reaction to anything new is to freeze? (Makes it easy to snap their photos, though...)

Like most cities in Southern California, we also have raccoons wander through every so often. But recently one of them has done more than wander through. He has set up housekeeping in our back yard.

He (or she) is a young adolescent, obviously only recently seperated from his mother. We first saw him stealing food we had put out for the crows. Not unusual behavior, except for the fact that he was placidly muching away in broad daylight.

At first we thought this was raw courage, but we have come to understand that it is a deliberate strategy. The night belongs to a gang of larger raccoons who maraude the neighborhood, and he isn't part of that gang. By creeping out in the day, he has a whole new ecological niche to exploit (although he has to put up with almost incessant scolding from the crows. Come twilight, her retires to a nest in the line of Italian cypresses that lines one side of our property.

He isn't fearless by any means, but he is surprisingly unafraid of us. One of our beach towels went missing; when we were sitting outside one afternoon, we saw him up on the deck wrestling with it and dragging it about. When he saw us watching him, he gave as a what-are-you-looking-at glance, and went back to killing the terrycloth.

He also stole one of Pamela's rubber sandals, though he was good enough to bring it back a few days later (somewhat chewed up).

Since he seemed desperate for entertainment, as a joke when we were at the market we bought him a couple of squeaking rubber dog toys and left them outside for him. We had no idea what a hit they would be. He absconded with them immediately, and seems to keep them hidden up in the trees. In the afternoons, and sometimes late at night, we can hear the trees going squeak! squeak! squeak! (God only knows what the neighbors think.) He also seems to use the toys as a novel form of defense; when the gang of bigger raccoons comes through at night and tries to chase him off, we can hear him snarl and whine, alternating with vicious chomps on the squeaky toys. It seems to baffle the opposition; at any rate, he's still here.

He's cute isn't he? Yeah, yeah, I know the rules: never get attached to a wild animal. It will end in tears.

But, then, doesn't everything, eventually?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hey, Look--I'm in Bookshops in the US!

I received a very surprsing e-mail from my friend Vickie yesterday. It began, "I recently (as of today) bought your book 'Shock and Awe' at Barnes and Noble...It was so cool. I was looking for John Irving's 'The World According to Garp'; wasn't there but as I scanned the shelf, your book popped out at me. I was giddy to say the least; it had finally come to America."

This seemed unlikely to me, but I figured perhaps someone had special-ordered it and then failed to pick it up. So I went online. Vickie lives near Fashion Island, so I checked that inventory at that store. Yep. In stock. Also in stock in Bella Terra and South Coast Plaza, the other two Barnes and Noble locations near my house.

So I drove up to Bella Terra to check. Sure enough--three copies, face out if you can believe it, stuffed between John Irving and Susan Isaacs (two writers I adore). And in the Fiction/Literature section instead of off in Mystery/Thriller (not sure if that's a good thing or not...). Here's a snap:

I was astonished. So I started trying to reason it out. Perhaps an enthusiastic friend had talked the superstores in my neighborhood into ordering the book. So when I got home, I checked inventory for three stores in Oakland. Ah, just as I suspected; no copies.

But I decided to see how far my secret friend had gone, so I did a broader search around my own zip code. Orange, Long Beach, Irvine, Spectrum, Tustin, Fullerton, Carson...in stock in every store. Then Laguna Hills--nope. But Aliso Viejo, yes. Puente Hills, no, Del Amo, yes, Chino Hills, no, West Covina, Corona, Manhattan Beach, Glendora, yes yes yes yes, but Montclair, no, Tyler Galleria, no, but Pasadena yes...

Well, you get the picture. This was clearly beyond anything that a local pal had arranged. Did B&N somehow decide to do a big trial run of the book in Southern California for some obscure reason?

So I did a wider search in the Bay Area. And although it wasn't as plentiful as in SoCal, some of the stores stocked it. Ditto Seattle, Denver, Washington DC, New York, Miami, Boston, San Diego...

Crazed with success, I ventured into the middle of the country. That was, it turned out, a big mistake. Chicago? Nope. Wichita? Get real. St Louis? Ha ha hahahaha. Kansas City? Nada. And not a single copy to be found anywhere in Texas, not even in the People's Republic of Austin.

I guess it's just a bicoastal sort of book.

I don't know how this happened, but I'm pretty damned pleased to be on the shelves in dozens of Barnes and Nobles and B. Daltons around the USA. (Now pray that the books actually sell.)

I'm also on the shelf at the world's best bookstore, Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon.

But when I check the inventory at Borders, alas, they tell me, "This book is available online but is not carried in our stores." Sheesh. And after Borders was so nice to me in the UK...

Much as I like visiting England, it's nice to finally see myself on the shelves of neighborhood stores 'round here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones...

...but words can make my head explode.

More and more often I encounter sentences that hurt me. It isn't a problem of poor grammar--though that can play a role. It isn't that the intention of the sentence is dumb, though the dumbness coefficient can be a factor. The kind of sentence that hurts me is one that is slightly off-kilter and makes me stop and think about what exactly what is wrong with it and ponder on what sort of person could say it without making their own head throb.

A simple example. There is a church not too far away that puts up "clever" things on a sign out in front. The most recent one proclaimed, "God opens doors no one can shut."

If the goal was to make me think, it succeeded. My first thought was, "Huh?" and that ought to have been enough. But the statement is the kind that nags at me because it lacks both symmetry and focus. If it were, "God opens doors no one else can open," I'd be fine with it. It's banal, but it has a clear message.

I guess I'd even be happy with, "Once God opens a door, no one can close it again," which is what I think the framer of the sentence meant, though it leaves me wondering if God can close a door God has opened. It would be pretty inconvenient in the Celestial Mansion otherwise. I mean, how would He let the dog out without the door remaining stuck open forever? Perhaps God has servants, and they can both open and close doors, so long as God stays away from the the doorknob. Presumably God has to be careful not to absentmindedly pop open the door for the mail guy, or the whole thing is ruined--nobody can shut it again, and there's nothing for it but to board up the gap with plywood and use the sliding glass doors out on the patio to enter and leave.

But the statement calls for a deeper metaphysical examination. If no one can shut it, how did the door get closed in the first place? I've hung a few doors, and I can assure you that they don't start off shut. You have to get things all lined up, and the pins hammered down, before you can do anything with them at all.

I can't believe that these are the thoughts the pastor wanted to evoke when the decision was taken to tell everyone driving down Baker Street in Costa Mesa that "God opens doors no one can shut."

Here's another, more screwed-up example--and I wanr you in advance that this one can cause lasting neuralgia. Until very recently, there were large signs in baggage claim at Honolulu International Airport which informed us that "Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be." Let's say that again:

"Just because a bag looks like yours, it might not be."

Not only is that grammatically inscrutable, it appears to be asserting something utterly bizzare: Because that looks like my bag, it might not be my bag. The reason it might be somebody else's bag is because it looks like mine. So does it follow that bags that don't look like mine probably are mine? Is there an equally problematic corollary that states "Just because a bag doesn't look like yours, it might be" or, with somewhat better agreement between the parts of the sentence, "Don't assume a bag isn't yours just because it doesn't look like your bag"?

Why not just post a sign that says "Many bags mutate during transit. Assume nothing, trust no one."?

I don't see why they couldn't say something more straightforward, like "Many bags look alike. Please check luggage tags carefully." They might have considered a few alternatives before they had dozens of large expensive signs manufactured.

This problem of agreement between parts of a sentence not only stops me dead, it can hit me with real, physical force. The kind of yoga I practice (Bikram Yoga) was taught to all of the instructors by the originator of the system, who speaks English as a second language, and many of them tend to parrot his precise locutions. I can forgive being told to do something "with your exactly forehead," or even with "your both arms"; indeed, it's sort of charming.

But in one of the most strenuous of the balancing postures, Standing Bow (dandayamana dhanurasana), they occasionally encourage us by asserting, "The harder you kick, you can stay in this posture forever!"

The clause that prefaces this sentence demands agreement or contrast. I guess the original sentence was probably something like "The harder you kick, the easier it is to stay in this posture. Kick hard enough, and you can stay there forever!" But the way they actually say it, leaving the "harder" seeking a comparison word in the next part of the sentence, is enough that it sometimes knocks me right out of the pose. One of these days I'm going to fall down and injure myself, all because of that lonely "harder."

I'm not one of those Men Too Gentle To Live Among Wolves. I can survive and thrive in a world filled with unneeded apostrophes ("Apply now for Summer Job's!") or quotation marks for emphasis where they really imply sarcasm ('Try our "delicious" food!'). But ill-conceived sentences scar the actual tissue of my brain.

To show how permanent the damage is, I'll leave you with one more, which I first saw in a menu at a Zippy's restaurant in Hawaii...back in 1979. Beneath a picture of an unusually extragant ice-cream sundae was a description that began "An illusion of grandeur!"

That's a true gem. In fact, that's screwed up in too many ways to discuss. And in only four words.

Come to think of it, even though I promised that would be the last one, now that I'm off on Hawaii, I can't resist mentioning the sign at the University of Hawaii Computing Center that warned "No smoking, beverages, food, and pets." If there is anywhere on earth that ought to know the difference between AND and OR, it is a university computer center. "IF (Huge) AND (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" is standard computer logic, "IF (Huge) OR (Gray) THEN (Elephant)" will tell you that you have an elephant when you are looking at a mouse.

I was often tempted to stroll in the door with a lit cigarette, a Coke, and a dog. According to the sign, I wouldn't be breaking the rule.

But I knew how this would be received. Some surly computer center employee would have tossed me out, and when I explained the literal meaning of their sign, they would have snarled that I could understand what they had meant.

Well, you know what? The fact that people can probably puzzle out what was meant ain't enough.

God can answer questions no one can ask.