Being a writer (I can’t claim to be an author since I don’t make a living at it) is like being a radio receiver.  You pick up signals, or so it seems, and it’s your job to try to make sense of them.  That’s why I always carry a notebook.  Specifically a Moleskine volant extra small plain notebook (I can’t abide lined paper).  I’ve been using them for years and I’ve got quite a little stack of them in my writing nook, battered, taped, and well-used.  There’s part of my soul in those little things.  But they’re getting increasingly difficult to find.  More than once I’ve come to the last page only to have searched in vain all the local bookstores and speciality shops without finding a replacement.  (Big boxes like Staples appeal to the lowest common denominator and writers demand special treatment.)

Tools of the trade

Sometimes they’re not even available on Amazon, surprising as it may seem.  You see, I’m particular about where I store my thoughts.  People have suggested to me that I use my phone, but by the time I get it out of my pocket, turn it on, type in the passcode, and open the app, the thought is gone.  They travel quickly.  My notebook, always with me, has a pen companion.  It’s refillable and I take great care to buy refills that write instantly, without having to scribble to get them going.  I keep careful note of the brands that are reliable.  There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a great thought flee as you’re furiously scribbling to get your pen to capture it in your Moleskine.  No, this is an area where there can be no compromise.  If only notebook sellers saw it that way!

The trouble with being a receiver is you have no control over when the signal comes.  You wouldn’t know it from my publication record, but I have many, many unpublished pieces.  Most of them, regrettably, have to be reduced to electronic form so they can be submitted and rejected via email or Submittable.  I would have nothing with which to build, however, if my zibaldone were absent.  After my brain this is the first filter.  And when they’re full it’s time for another.  The next time I find them in my favorite indie bookstore I’m going to buy them out.  I’ll store them in the attic—I can find space up there, along with my pen refills—against a time of need.  Somethings a writer just can’t do without.

Big Boxification

When was the last time I purchased an actual book at Barnes and Noble? In a vain hope that they might have something intellectual and edgy, I stop in once in a while. If I were a faster learner I might have known that I’d leave disappointed. You see, it’s been rainy a lot around here and rainy Saturdays are perfect for book stores. But where are the good books? I’m not just picking on B&N. I stopped in Bed, Bath, and Beyond (they don’t really use the Oxford comma, but then, who had time for commas?). This is not a frequent occurrence since we rent and it’s hard to gentrify bohemian decor, but we needed a practical household item. After wandering enough aisles that I thought it was time to hire a jungle guide, I found that the choices were actually rather limited. If I don’t like what they tell me to like, well, I’m out of luck. The local stores were driven out of business, you see, and you have to like what we have to offer because we are the BIG GUYS.

It’s not just housewares. It’s everywares. We’re a big box society. Costco and Sam’s Club and SUVs to haul it all home. Once, back when paper was still a thing, I had to find some file folders. I tend to like color coding—my non-Harvard-educated mind just rolls that way. So I went to the local stationary store and found a virtual reading rainbow of options. A year or so later, strangely, more papers had accumulated. I went back and the store was out of business. A Staples had opened nearby. Everyone was going there. They offered a superfluous loyalty card—where else would you go? They had four colors of folders. Just four. In industrial cardboard boxes that mean business. I mean BUSINESS. You want choices? There’s a clinic down the road. Unless you’re female, of course.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not a genius, but I can recognize repeating patterns. Big box settles outside your town then limits your choices. I consume, therefore I am. To buy, or not to buy? I am not a number, I am a—what? What am I if I’m not a consumer? A communist, I guess. And everyone knows the Bible says communism is evil. And if you need a Bible you can purchase one from Sam’s Club. To be part of the resistance, you need to buy from Amazon. What a radical I’ve become! At least at Amazon they still have books.

Biggest Buy

It isn’t really that much of a specialty item. You see, we live in an older apartment and three-pronged outlets were mostly reserved for kitchens the last time the place received any kind of upgrade. I’m not sure which century that was, but here in the twenty-first, we have lots of electrical toys, and of course, they come with grounding plugs. We needed an outlet for a device, but the nearest plug was yards away. Well, it seems that extension cords are now fire hazards, so you need to use a power-strip. Your typical power strip, as I came to learn, has a six-foot cord. (Although I said “yards,” I meant more than a couple.) So I drove to Best Buy. I can’t remember the last time I was in one. These “buy it large,” “consume excessively” kinds of stores aren’t really my style. I never believed the consumer myth, but I figured these large appliances must require surge protectors or power strips, right? And surely not all houses have conveniently located plugs.

Photo credit: Myke 2020, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Myke 2020, Wikipedia Commons

I am neither a large man nor a fetching woman, but it became clear that I was practically invisible in the store. Trying to get the attention of anyone on the blue-shirted staff was impossible. Even walking right up to someone with purpose wasn’t enough. I did notice, however, that the blue shirts were fairly adept at helping the female clientele. Eventually I found the surge protectors, etc., in their aisle—up to eight feet in length. I tried for another 20 minutes to find help, but the kind of help I need, apparently, doesn’t come in bulk. Maybe on a couch. I went home and within minutes found what I needed on Amazon. I would have it in two days.

Bulk buying, in my humble opinion, is an ethical issue. I’ve stopped going to Home Depot, and even Staples and Barnes and Noble are final resorts. What I’m looking for can’t be found in such places. Besides, nobody wants to stop and direct a bearded, perpetually confused-looking guy. We live in a culture where worth is measured in comestibles and durable goods purchased in bulk. Those with the most buying power are the gods. I can’t even drive by Costco without a substantial delay on a Saturday morning. I don’t need very much to get by. Still, come to think of it, I could use a power source that is conveniently located. And perhaps, some day, a culture more interested in quality than quantity.

Whatever Happened to Whimsy?

American Gothic is one of my favorite paintings. I’ve never seen the original, and I know of no other paintings that Grant Wood produced, although I’m sure there are some. The mood in what has been called “the most famous American painting” is unsettled. There’s something not quite right here. When one of my authors wanted to use the image on a book cover, it led to quite a bit of serious discussion. I was a bit surprised by the negative impressions—not of the painting, but of its use on a serious academic book. The discussion seemed to turn on money rather than on wit and whimsy. I confess to being a dreamer, and I admit that the aspects of life that truly inspire me are never financial. When I crave wealth it is so that I might free up some time for creativity. That’s not the way business works.

Sometimes I feel a stranger in my own country. The unquestioned triumph of unbridled capitalism means that you can go from city to city to city and not really be able to tell much of a difference. If you want to buy a bit of tubing or a piece of wood, it’s Home Depot or Lowe’s for you. Office supplies—Office Max or Staples are your only choices. If you want to buy intelligent books, well, you’re just plumb out of luck unless you go to Amazon. The big financial corporations have won. Just admit it. Every time I visit my hometown I come away depressed at all the vacant stores and lost hopes of the small businesses that offered something just a little different. Something to tickle my fancy. Something to tempt me to wonder. Something with a tinge of American Gothic.


The messages we receive from every angle echo Madonna’s hit song, “Material Girl.” Only this includes all genders. Reductionistic materialism tells us that we’re just proteins walking. Mind is an illusion. Soul is a myth. I work a job where the money I’m paid is transferred electronically and if I want to see some of it in paper form I face a robotic ATM rather than a human face. I went to the mall last night and wept. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will. Say nostalgia has no place in a forward-looking society. I just want a few more options besides the plastic, the smart-chipped, and the sterile. The world needs more whimsy. Maybe that’s why I insisted on American Gothic on the cover of the first book I put under contract.