Sunday, December 21, 2014

Shopping Malls And Hookers

And I'm back again. Briefly. Before I take off for the final leg of Operation: Get The F Out Of Kalamazoo.

This first leg of Operation: GTFOOK was a one week visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to visit a very old friend who I haven't seen in eighteen years.  The friend in question, who shall henceforth be known via his codename "Tim," was someone I'd met through a mutual interest in martial arts back in college. Ever since we reconnected on Facebook a few years back this visit has been in the works, but it wasn't until now that the logistics made sense.

It was my first time out of the country since I was in the low single digits, age-wise. I expected to be a great deal more lost than I was.

Kuala Lumpur is a strangely approachable town. As is the case in SE Asia, most of the city speaks very good English. All signs are in the roman alphabet. Even if you don't know, exactly, what something means, you can pronounce it. Oftentimes you pick up new words from context ("Tandas" equals "bathroom," for example) .

Everything you need to get by on a daily basis is clearly labeled and within walking distance. Credit cards work fine. Cash exchange shops abound. The public transport system is logical, cheap and easy to use. The few times I needed help, I could just grab someone official-looking and ask them for it. The locals are friendly. The city, at least in the parts where tourists hang out, is very safe.

Once you get past the airplane ticket, everything's extraordinarily inexpensive. Hotels are cheap. Food? You can get a heaping plate of the best food you've ever had for two or three bucks. About the only thing that isn't cheap is alcohol, thanks to the Muslim tilt of the local political system. But that just brings booze prices up to an American ballpark figure.

Everything's weirdly affordable.

The place is not really what I expected. I was expecting a tropical version of Bladerunner's Chinatown, I guess. Blazing hot, jungle everywhere, all communication in an impenetrable patois of southeast Asian languages. Neon signs in kanji and hieroglyphics. Maybe I'd have to fight monkeys for food, or sword-fight pirates. I don't know. I really had no frame of reference.

Instead, the city reminded me of Grand Rapids except a hundred times larger, more sprawling and filled with ridiculous shopping malls, palm trees and a nigh-mythical level of tropical humidity. And hookers. That's a story for another day, I guess. No, I didn't retain any hookers. Damn it, folks, that's how rumors get started. Anyway.

Shopping malls?

That's right. Shopping malls. You can't throw a rock in Kuala Lumpur without hitting one. They come in all sizes, ranging from large by American standards to "Holy shit, I just stumbled into a pocket universe."

Think I'm kidding? Check out this Google image search. Some of the places were so huge they reminded me of that final scene in Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss is inside the alien ship and he looks up, seeing rank upon rank of observation decks until perspective closes them to a point far above him.

Again, not what I was expecting. I asked my buddy Tim about it.

It turns out that back in the 80s and earlier, there wasn't really a whole lot to do around those parts. People would fish or hang out in local parks. There was a mall or two, but they weren't extraordinarily large.

Then something happened. Right around the time in the early 90s when mall culture began to die in America, it hopped the ocean.

It was a perfect fit. As it turns out, nobody likes to do much outdoor shopping in a tropical country. Even if you grew up there, being out in that weather is rather miserable. Malaysia, at the best of times, averages around the high 80's to low 90's, with physics-defying levels of humidity. It's the sort of place you define temperature by the number of t-shirts you go through in a day, where it's perfectly normal to take three or four showers by suppertime.

When the locals found out you could build a place where everything you could ever want can take place inside one enormous air-conditioned building? Where it's not only okay to just wander around slowly, at your own pace, just enjoying the sights and the people watching, that it's expected to do so? You can just hang out, be cool, peregrinate and graze, without having to pay a single thin red cent for the privilege? Heaven.

Mall culture is alive and well in Malaysia. And nobody does them better.

Mall businesses run the usual gamut: clothing stores, fast food chains, cinemas, comic book shops and so on. You'll find businesses that no longer exist in America, because apparently Malaysia is where franchises go to die. I haven't seen a Baskin Robbins in Michigan in over thirty years, but you can't go thirty feet without tripping over one in an average Malaysian mall.

Even a mid-sized Malaysian mall will usually have a food court, containing some of the best food around. Some of the food courts, like the one in the bottom level of the Lot 10 mall, are regionally famous.

Malls in KL are brimming with oddities. There was one where you could take an escalator up eighteen flights of stairs, a place so tall it had safety nets halfway down the atriums. It had an indoor amusement park. Another place had an ice rink on the bottom floor, complete with Zamboni. Apparently a local hockey club practices there.

Another place had an indoor track and a basketball court two levels from the top. I believe it had two fitness centers who shared them. You could shoot hoops, run a few laps, get buff and then buy cheap elecronics, score some junk food and buy a suit, get a haircut and take a nap, all without leaving the building.

Another place I wandered through was large and opaque, labyrinthine and cavernous. It took me an hour to walk from one end to the other and scenery would subtly alter as I drifted along. As I passed, low ceilings turned into high. Cinemas appeared. Sometimes I'd be in a bamboo garden filled with Chinese lanterns, and in other places, I'd be in a crystalline place with chandeliers hanging from the ceilings.

At one far end, I wandered eight floors up to find there was a garden and a parking lot on the roof, because why the hell not? I texted Tim at one point while exploring, asking him if the mall was being procedurally generated, like one of those rogue-like video games where the maps would assemble themselves off-screen from a jigsaw puzzle collection of randomized components.

Even when you don't want to go to a mall, you wind up having to go to one anyway, because that's where all the stores and restaurants are. Sometimes it's more efficient to cut through one, because they are sprawling, huge, air-conditioned and often will save you from having to cross a street. Pedestrians do not have right of way in Malaysia, so if it comes down to a comfortable walk through the local equivalent of a Sears to avoid potentially being run down by a bus, then sign me the hell up. Or you'd simple cut through one because if you have a choice between slogging down a half mile of sidewalk in damp tropical humidity or going the same distance in air-conditioned comfort and still wind up in the same place, you make the obvious choice.

And they are all crowded, filled with shoppers, loafers, children, old people, foreigners, locals and what have you. Even more so in December, because apparently Malaysia goes completely insane around Christmas time.

Seriously:


For a country composed of only around 10% practicing Christians, it was a little surprising just how nuts the Christmas decorations were. After a while, I began to not be surprised when I'd round a corner and find myself in a faithfully-recreated snowy pine forest filled with animatronic elves with "White Christmas" blasting over loudspeakers. Even the smallest shop would have Christmas lights up, musak Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer playing on the radio. To get down the street, sometimes you'd have to dodge around small clusters of pretty girls dressed up like elves. Santa hats abounded.

It was surreal. I don't think I've seen anything like it anywhere in America. Even Frankenmuth isn't this nuts.

Other than that, I did the usual touristy stuff. Climbed tall buildings. Saw some jungle. Visited some big damn caves. Gawked at things. Figured out the rail system.

Tim drove me around the city, showed me stuff off the usual tourist circuits. We did strange restaurants, visited stores only locals go to. We ate a lot, went to a night market of colossal proportions, the Asian equivalent of a county fair, except without rides and carnies and with much better junk food.

It was fun. It's probably going to be several months before I digest all my experiences. I figure I've got a few dozen blog entries just from that one week, so expect more in this vein.

And now I'm going to disappear for another week. Heading out on the second leg of Operation: GTFOOK before the New Year and my next job.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Shits, Fucks and Damnation

One of the great things about having a blog is you get some fairly involved traffic analysis tools.

That's not really where I was expecting that sentence to end up. "One of the great things about having a blog is" should end with "all the nubile groupies" or "the millions of dollars in yearly advertising revenue." Or maybe "international fame and an eighteen inch dong." "Having a yacht and a winning smile." Or something like that.

But really, the analytics point out occasionally amusing things. People finding your blog by punching the words "moment of shit" into Google. Or finding out that your blog is mostly hit by drunks at three in the morning who type "things to do with donkeys" into Lycos and are satisfied with the fourth result down the page (you).

In my case, I have an extremely low-traffic blog, as random writing/life-style related blogs tend to be. I'm not writing about sweet tips about raising babies, leaking corporate mysteries, or posting pictures of naked koalas or anything like that. I'm pretty cool with not making many waves across the vast ocean of the Internet. I'm doing this mostly for accountability with my various writing-based resolutions, a little bit of practice and, possibly, a smidgen of narcissism. Mostly I just like blogging for the sake of blogging.

Because my site has such a low amount of traffic, blips in the numbers show up pretty clearly. When the usual number of hits on any given entry range from 0 to 5 per month, mostly from Ukrainian search-engine crawlers, any unusually large amount of traffic tends to stick out, like a death metal front man at a Mormon picnic.

Not counting flash fiction and stuff I deliberately cross-post across multiple sites, things fall into two general categories: posts with profane titles and posts without.

If I throw a shit or a fuck into the title, traffic is (relatively) high. If not, crickets. My story about the UP's only strip club? Crickets. The post entitled "The Power Of Not Giving A Shit"? High.

I suppose this is the part where I'm supposed to bemoan how debased society is. How crudities have replaced habitual formality. Think back to the Golden Days, when I could slide on my monocle and silk gloves, tip my chapeau to the man at the door and go about my daily peregrinations instead of the way it is now, in modern times, where I am required by law to bathe in a fountain of shit fortnightly.

Nope.

Mostly it makes me want to come up with a constructed language, like Esperanto, made to communicate basic ideas and needs but in a way that causes search bots to flip the fuck out.

It would be a great deal like how they handled jive in Airplane.

Since there's probably a hundred different ways to use the word "fuck" in a sentence, I have high hopes of this working out.

Vulgarities are weirdly flexible things. You can yell across the factory floor: "Fuck! Fucking tell that fucker that this fucker's fucked," and it will make perfect sense to a native speaker.

I have no doubt I can make a language explicitly fine-tuned for swearing, but flexible enough you could use it to engineer a skyscraper. It would probably be a great deal like Cantonese, in those respects. Cantonese is to "words that mean shit" as Eskimo-Aleut is to "words for snow."*

There's a fine science behind cursing and there is a rhythmic pattern to vulgarity that would mesh well with search engine optimizations. Moreover, it would just be a hell of a lot of fun to come up with. It could be a pastiche of all the swear words in the world, from all the more interesting languages.

Anyway.

Going to disappear for a week or two so this will be the last update for a while. Writing is going well enough, but not much of it will get done for the rest of the year, since I'm going to be getting some traveling out of my system--some international, some not. Access to wi-fi will be spotty. Inclination to do responsible things will also be spotty.

Words:  601, 531, 627, 1200, 729, 750 and 647.

* As a dude who has a background in anthropology, I need to add this footnote to the effect that this is probably a myth.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

On Not Blathering

I was digging through the ass end of my Facebook friends list the other day.

I have a tendency to friend people and then unfollow them after a while. It keeps my Facebook status updates clean and relatively clear of drama. You get three strikes as a FB friend. If you post too many game invites, too much political shit (from any part of the spectrum), too many image memes--particularly of the fitness variety--too much drama, fight-picking, whatever, you get unfollowed. I won't unfriend you, but I don't want to see that shit when I do my regular Facebook check. It's annoying to scroll through.

It tends to drown out the stuff I do want to see: pretty girls, kittens, weird news and updates from my friends who are actually doing interesting things or have interesting things to say.

I'd say about two-thirds of my friends list is unfollowed at any given time. If that's what it takes to filter out constant baby photos and awful motivational memes, I'll do it.

Every once in a while I think of someone and I'll check their page, see what they're up to. If the majority of their updates don't tick one or more of the five hundred or so things that piss me off, I'll re-follow them.

Some time ago, I'd friended this one guy whose updates seem to fall into one of two patterns: constant family-raising shit and rambling philosophical posts about nothing in particular.

Good guy, fine to hang out with, has roughly the same tastes in beer and television as I do, but definitely in the periphery of my social circles, so into the dust bin he went along with the obscure family relations I'm obligated to follow even if I don't know, exactly, where in the family tree they fall, people I used to know back in high school, but only care about a little now, friends of friends and so on. Basically, it's the junk drawer of my social network where I keep the human equivalent of mismatched socks, power chargers for devices which no longer exist, strange screws and widgets and cables and so on.

Reading through the last few status updates he posted reminded me why I'd unsubscribed in the first place.

Every one of his posts runs into the multiple paragraph range and can be summarized as "pseudo-philosophical meandering." Bloviation. Just acres and acres of verbiage, each entry easily summarized into a very short sentence. Pseudo-deep: "people like people", "grief sucks", "people are different", "be nice to each other", and so on.

It's like suddenly finding an entire wall of awful high school commencement speeches. Stultifyingly boring. Dull.

I was originally planning on dwelling more on his posts and why they bother me, but frankly I'm more guilty of bloviation than just about anybody else on this planet. I probably deserve an award of some sort for wasting vertical footage pointlessly. I have too many posts on this blog, I think, that aren't strictly about anything in particular. This one included, I guess.

It made me think, though. I see this sort of thing a lot. Do it too much myself. Spend thousands of words writing something which can be summed up in much shorter form, as if adding more to the word count will make a simple concept deeper, simply by added poundage.

The contrast between that kind of writing and that Dashiell Hammett book I'm finishing up is startling. The Hammett book was written in the golden days of the pulps. Short, brutally terse, just the bare minimum of words to get an exciting story across. No padding. You don't see a single chapter, paragraph, sentence or word there that isn't doing something, dragging the story forward by its fingernails. There's not a single description of a place or person longer than three words.

I'm not kidding. He summarized a fast drive over a very poorly paved road as "we took turns sitting in each others' laps." Great writing.

I think one of the biggest dangers of electronic media is the tendency to just fire hose thoughts out there.

Terseness is something of a lost art. Back in the old days, before the digital interwebs, you were paid by the word and had to find physical space on actual, honest-to-God paper. If you ran over, there simply wasn't room for you. Literally. Unless they used microscopic type, your shit would run off the end of the page.

Editors had to be fierce because they had no other choice. Space was limited, after all. If you didn't keep to the limit you were given, they would slash you down to your ankles with the editing razor and make you fit in the available space, by God, even if the results didn't strictly make sense to the reader. Or they simply would refuse to run your piece until you made it shorter.

These days, things can be as long as they need to be. This post? Could go twenty thousand words, no problem. Nothing will break if I go longer than that. I could copy and paste War and Peace here in its entirety and it would display just fine.

Nothing except reader attention span, which is still a limited resource. Maybe even more than it used to be back in Hammett's day.

TL; DR. So it's something of a wake-up call, I guess. A big strong dose of "get to the point." Which I need--even though there's no limit to what you can write anymore, no limit to how long you can go, there is definitely a limit to reader attention span.

I'm always a little hesitant to go negative in my updates. I don't like to dwell on things that bother me, complain about things I dislike in writing, bitch about people. I'd rather be constructive. But sometimes it's worth it as an exercise to look closely at something that pisses you off and figure out why it pisses you off.

Reading my friend's updates makes me want to edit my own writing more strongly. I see a lot of my own weaknesses in those pointless blatherings, which is why it bothers me to read them.

When I write, sometimes I don't know exactly what I'm going to say ahead of time. I have no idea what path I need to explore when I'm making the arguments I make. I get there when I get there.

But I just wrote what I wrote. I don't want to throw any of that shit away. It came from my brain, so it's something like a child to me.

There's a reason my writing teachers used to call the editing phase "killing the babies." Sometimes you have to throw out stuff that sounds awesome simply because it's a waste of the reader's time. It might even be stuff that you think really works, maybe some of the best writing you ever did. Or maybe it's just crap, but you like the way the words sound when you read it to yourself. In the end, though, it's all about the poor bastards who have to read your shit. You have to get to the point and, the more efficiently you do so, the better.

And of course, I just wrote a 1200+ word post to the effect of "get to the point as quickly as possible." Story of my life, really.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Strange Fame

And I'm back from vacation...for about a week. Then I disappear for TWO weeks, even more so than this last stretch. I am not actually fleeing the country for unnamed horrible crimes. Just taking some long overdue and highly extended vacation, visiting friends and so on and so forth. Next year (which ain't that far away) will be more normal and I'll settle back into my usual sordid routine.

It's a strange thing to see the things you're highly ranked in Google for.

Star Trek, yes. I see myself ranked with Trek quite a bit because of that rpg I wrote a ways back.

Various fitness and gaming forums, okay. That also makes sense.

The major hit for this blog?

"Moment of shit."

What a thing to be "heavily"* linked for. I'm in the top three results currently, probably because it's not a heavily searched term, probably because of this awesome site right here.

Makes you wonder what other writing market terms could be gamed, giving me the SEO chops to stay on top. I could probably completely own head-hopping or anacoluthon. Negative capability probably already has its own embedded and fiercely defended corners of the market. I am reasonably sure I could snap up engfish.

Just imagine the marketing possibilities. Advertisers would pay upwards of one or two dollars a year for the high-spending wanna-be writers market.

Or maybe not.

I'd nearly forgotten about that post, actually. It's still one of my favorite industry terms. I can't imagine what kind of grind writing for a multi-season by-the-numbers sitcom must be, what sort of dread you'd face sitting in front of each blank screenplay, knowing you'd have to pound out twenty-two pages of rote humor and drama each week. It's one thing working on a show with a great dynamic, like a Seinfeld or a Friends. Imagine the dull existential horror of writing deep-run episodes for something truly insipid, like Just The Ten Of Us or Small Wonder where you could probably change character names mid-episode and no one, not even the actors would notice or care.

Actually, I take that back. Small Wonder would have been, with a sufficient amount of pharmaceutical products in your bloodstream, rather hilarious to write for, in a surreal way.

No totals to report, obviously. Spent a week up north in the frozen wastelands of the Upper Peninsula, six miles away from everybody's favorite strip-club-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, studiously doing nothing much except helping out with various chores, reading and eating.

Heavily featured on the reading list has been pulp detective novels, specifically Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest.  I'm a little in awe of it. It's fast-paced, to a point where it feels like the story is being flung at you from a machine gun. The writing is tense, terse and very funny. No spare words, no wasted verbiage. Any plot you need to know is fed you quickly and efficiently, via brutally effective dialogue. I can see why Hammett's considered a classic in the genre.

I can also see his Pinkerton service background as well, particularly in the echoes of MacParland that show up whenever he mentions his boss.

Fun stuff, in other words.

* For this blog.