Archive for Personal News

2013 Year in Review

And so we come to the close of another year.

This means another year-end recap post to help me reflect and reassess the previous 365 days.  Sadly, much of 2013 is not worth remembering.

To start, Mashable brought their writing in-house, so my January 2 article on the future of tablets was my final piece for them.  I was disappointed to lose them, not only because they gave me some great topics to write about and the editors were great, but the inclusion of such a high-profile website on my resume definitely brought some much-needed attention my way.

Shortly after Mashable was done, I had prospects to write for Univision when a former editor at Mashable took a new position there.  I even wrote an article for the website, but never submitted it because Univision requires any employees – even freelance writers – to sign contracts in-person at a Univision office.  The closest Univision office to St. Louis is either Chicago or Kansas City, meaning I had to travel on my own dime just to spend 10 minutes signing some papers.  I would have needed to write at least three articles to cover my expenses, and in the crazy world of freelance writing, those three articles might never even come.  In the end, the job never materialized.

Perhaps the biggest blow came in June, though, when The Dim, a web series that a friend and I had been developing for a year, fizzled out.  We’d found a director for the pilot episode.  We found a location that would work for the shoot.  But as we started to fine-tune the script, there were creative differences with the director, and we wound up parting ways.  We tried to sign on another person we’d met with, but they were now too busy with other projects to come aboard.  It wasn’t long before the project died on the vine like so many creative endeavors do.  The director moved on, my co-producing buddy understandably shifted his focus to an exciting new business venture, and I…well, I was left standing in the rubble.  Hundreds of hours of research, writing, and editing down the drain with only nine unproduced scripts to show for it.  Nine scripts that had extensive notes for additional drafts, so it’s not like they’re polished and ready to shoot, either.  I’m still reeling from the defeat, honestly, because I had high hopes for it to succeed.  Maybe we can pick it up again someday, but for now I need to put it behind me and move forward.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t been an easy thing to do and has been a shadow cast over the rest of my creative year.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though.  I’m still writing for mental_floss, though it’s less consistent than it was a few years ago.  I only wrote a handful of articles in 2013, none of which were big successes, before hitting on an idea for a regular feature called Strange States.  It’s an ongoing project which hasn’t exactly blown up the blogosphere, but I’m having fun with it.  It will conclude sometime in 2014, so keep an eye out for it here.

My big creative achievement this year has been When You Hear This Sound, “a podcast dedicated to the weird and wonderful world of record books and storybook vinyl”, hosted over at Bubble Pipe Network.  I’ve really enjoyed working on this one-man show since it’s debut in June, and look forward to continuing throughout 2014.  It’s been tons of fun and I’ve learned a lot about audio production, so it’s been a good project for me, even if only two or three people have ever actually listened to it.

With my focus on When You Hear This Sound, it means Watching the List, my movie podcast, has been put on hiatus.  The show was so time-consuming to produce that it just wasn’t worth it in the end.  I’d love to see it revived in some format for 2014, but I’m still trying to figure out how to make that happen.

I also worked on a few art projects this year.  The first was a piece I drew for myself, but wound up giving to my grandfather for his 99th birthday after he said how much he liked the one I made for my niece last Christmas.  He hung it in his room at the assisted living facility, and even included it alongside some of his own paintings in a small local art show.  Sadly, he passed away shortly after, but I’m glad he appreciated it while he could.  I also worked on a Pac-Man series that I really enjoyed.  And I drew a few more pieces as Christmas gifts – one for my parents for Christmas and the other for an Instagram friend.  I have a few ideas I’d like to experiment with in 2014, and might even try selling a few if I can find someplace that produces good quality prints at an affordable price.

Despite the rough year I had creatively, 2013 was a big year for me and my family.  While much of the time things were fairly quiet, things really picked up with the birth of our son in August.  Then, just a few days later, our daughter started kindergarten.  Talk about a whirlwind of activity!  Things have settled down to some extent – as much as it can in a family with two kids, anyway – but I’m sure the year ahead will be filled with plenty of adventures and milestones to fill our days.

As for 2014, I’m determined to make some changes.  Not resolutions per se, but I feel like the New Year is as good a time as any to decide to do things differently.

The main thing I’m really going to focus on this year is doing more.  I want to get back to a more regular schedule of articles for mental_floss.  I want to get When You Hear This Sound on a consistent bi-monthly release schedule.  I have ideas for a few kid’s books that I’ve written down, but never developed, and it’s time I start working on those.  I have some experimental podcast concepts that I’d like to see produced.  I’d like to get back to some old creative writing projects I have in my archives and see about maybe reviving them for a new medium (podcast?  screenplay?  serial adventure?  RPG adventure?)  And, as all writers do, I’d like to find more time to work on new ideas as they come to me.

In order to do this and still manage to be with my family every once in a while, I’m going to have to be better about using my time wisely in 2014.  This is a skill that I and many creatives often lack, but I’m determined to be a “maker” – not a “wisher” – this year.  I haven’t completely worked out my plan for making this happen just yet, but I’m kicking around a few ideas that I hope to implement sooner rather than later.  I have a feeling extensive, complicated To Do lists will somehow be involved.  Maybe a spreadsheet or two as well…

Anyway, goodbye and good riddance, 2013.  Don’t let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you.

Hello, 2014.  May you be filled with creativity and good fortune for this lowly little space-based simian.

To my family and friends out there in InternetLand, I hope you all have a great New Year, and I hope you’ll stick around to see what kind of trouble I can get myself into.

When You Hear This Sound

WhenYouHearThisSound_500x500

For Christmas this year, my lovely wife gave me something I’ve been pining for for years – a record player.  It’s not a top of the line model or anything (I think it cost less than $50 on clearance), but it plays records, which is all I was really looking for.  As a bonus, it outputs directly to a computer via USB, so you can record MP3s of the album.

While I know vinyl has become something of a hipster pursuit, my interest was about as far away from hipster-y as possible.  Sure, I’d love to pick up some old classic albums to play while I do dishes, but I was more interested in getting some of the spoken word albums I had back at my parents’ house, specifically the books and stories on record.

See, I was born during a transitional period between vinyl and cassette tape.  So when I was a little kid, vinyl was still king, but once I got to my teenage years and started to get into music, the Walkman was introduced, making tapes the music medium of choice.  So the only music I actually bought on vinyl were little 45 singles of weird stuff like the theme from The Greatest American Hero (seriously…I own that); things I would have wanted to hear when I was seven, but not when I was 13.  Everything in those formative years of music was on cassette or even CD (my first CD was Huey Lewis and the News’ 1996 release, Fore!).  Which means that most of the vinyl I had was from my much younger days.  And since I was less into music at 5 years old and more into superheroes, Disney cartoons, and Star Wars, my parents bought me a lot of story records.  So while my older sister was jamming out to David Bowie on vinyl, I was listening to Spider-Man adventures adapted from The Electric Company.

We celebrated our big family Christmas after my wife had given me the record player, so when we went to my parents’ house, I dug out the blue plastic bin where our old vinyl had been languishing for years.  I was thrilled to find my Batman record, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back read-along books, four of the five-disc set of Gremlins read-along books that were available exclusively at Hardee’s, as well as a few of my favorite albums, The Story of Star Wars and The Adventures of Luke Skywalker, both of which featured the music, sound effects, and dialog lifted directly from the first two movies in the Star Wars trilogy.

As I was looking through these old albums, I noticed there was an advertisement for a Kojak read-along book.  There was also a picture teasing a Batman album with the Caped Crusader facing off against a gorilla and Sherlock Holmes.  How could I not try to track those albums down?  In addition, I thought it would be really nice to complete my Gremlins collection, since I only needed the last disc.  And, while I was at it, maybe get the Return of the Jedi read-along book, too.  Again, just to complete the collection.

Flash forward a few months and now I’m in full-on addiction mode.  I scour eBay for good deals on read-along record book adaptations of The Last Starfighter and Goonies, as well as story records featuring He-Man and Godzilla.  I’ve added a handful of fun titles to my collection and am having a great time reconnecting with this dying (or some could say already dead) artform.

And it’s with this enthusiasm in mind that I’ve decided to share these records with the world – for those who want to relive their childhood, as well as for those who are hearing them for the first time.  I’ve started a podcast over at Bubble Pipe Network called When You Hear This Sound, featuring recordings of some of the stories in my collection.  The title is an homage to one of the most memorable aspects of these read-along adventures – the tone, or chimes, or R2-D2 beeping that signals when you should turn the page in your book.  The narrator always introduced the page turn signal using some variation of the phrase, “You’ll know it is time to turn the page when you hear this sound…”

The intro episode is available now on iTunes and via RSS on bubblepipe.net, with the first official episode dropping next week.  So be sure to head over there and subscribe so you won’t miss any exciting adventures that I’ll be posting in the future.  And if you have any fond memories of these albums, please share them here, on the Bubble Pipe Network page for the show, or on the show’s Twitter or Instagram accounts.

Post-less

Although I haven’t posted anything here in over a month, it’s been a very busy month for me behind the scenes.

I’m working on a new weekly series for mental_floss that has yet to make it’s debut, though I already have five articles in the can waiting to be published.  At this point it will probably drop in June, but it’s hard to say.  I’ll be sure to update here once it’s underway.

I’ve also been working on a few side projects as well that haven’t yet seen the light of day.

One is a series of drawings in my weird, geometric, symmetrical style that pays homage to Pac-Man.  I’m hoping that will be finished up fairly soon and I can show it off to the world.

I’m also still working on The Dim, a web series that a friend and I have been pounding away at for almost a year now.  We’ve hired a director – Brant Hadfield – but life has kept getting in the way for us to move forward.  Steve, the producer (and old friend) got a new job that he had to focus on, and then shortly after had a new baby.  Our search for a shoot location has been long and difficult, but I think we finally have a spot that will work.  Brant is a pretty hard-working guy, so he’s been out of town on shoots quite a bit.  I’ve had the occasional obstacle pop up (craft shows, craft shows/comic book conventions, illnesses, deaths in the family, mental_floss assignments), that have prevented me from putting my all into The Dim lately, too.  Right now we’re down to the script and hashing out what needs to be done to get it to a shoot stage.  Once we feel confident we know where we’re going, we can start thinking production, with a shoot now schedule for September (it was originally for late May).  Anyway, I hope things go smoothly from here on out, as I’m ready to see the fruits of our labor.

I’m also starting up a new podcast over at Bubble Pipe Network centered around a new/old hobby of mine.  I’m calling it Rob’s Retro Record Reviews, and I’ll be presenting the audio from some old records I had in my collection from my childhood, as well as a few new acquisitions from eBay and Discogs.  But unlike a lot of vinyl fans, I don’t collect The Beatles or The Who or anything, you know, that might actually be worth some money someday.  No, I collect old books-on-record starring Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and every kid’s favorite hero, Kojak.  You remember what I mean – the records that say, “When you hear this sound…beeeep…turn the page.”  It’s been a blast to reconnect with some of the records I already had sitting in my parents’ storage closet, as well as pick up new ones I never heard before.  Best of all, unlike The Beatles or The Who, these albums are generally really cheap; generally between $3-$6, and that often includes shipping.  I’m not sure when the podcast will launch – I still have to make up a logo and record the first episode – but it should be a lot of fun.

As you can see, I’ve been off the radar for a while, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting around twiddling my thumbs.  I hope I’ll have some official updates soon, so keep checking back and you won’t miss a thing.

Dear Briefcase…

20130129_080332

Well, Briefcase, we’ve had a good run.

I bought you back in 2002, when Unca’ Dub’ya sent us all checks in the mail in order to stimulate the flailing economy.  No, the first time.  Remember?  When no one spent the $300 he sent, because, dude, it’s only $300?  Yeah, that time.  Well, I was one of the few who actually did their duty to the American marketplace by going to my local shopping mall and buying a briefcase from Wilson’s Leather.  Why?  Because I was trying to be a writer and writers need a briefcase, right?  So I bought a $225 (plus tax) briefcase to help myself feel like a real writer.  What’s the old saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”?

As I set out to write the next Great American Novel, you were by my side, Briefcase.  I carried notebooks filled with scribbled notes, ideas, and musings, all of which were sure to net me at least two, maybe three, Pulitzers.  I carried handfuls of pens, because you never know when inspiration would strike, and the last thing you wanted was to be left without any ink.  It was not unusual for me to carry the first five to seven pages of my Great American Novel, printed out, covered in red marks from top to bottom, as I honed my words to be as sharp as steel.  Unfortunately, more often than not, I never got past those first five to seven pages because I spent so much time honing that I’d forget to actually, you know, write more.  Later, I’d carry another five to seven pages of a different story, because I’d abandoned that first project to focus on this new one that was “a lot better” than the last.  But I still felt like a writer because I carried you.

Even when I went back to school in the Spring of 2002, going for my English degree because that’s what writers do, you were by my side.  You hefted my heavy tomes of Medieval Literature, my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, and all those Spanish textbooks that were such a pesado en mi culo.  Without you I would have never received by diploma, or my $30,000 in crippling student debt.

That brings us to about 2006.  You’re still looking pretty good, I must say.  I could have looked better, to be honest.  A few scrapes here, a couple of worn corners there, not to mention our cat Peekaboo had found that scratching your hard, leathery exterior felt nice, leaving your facade scarred like the mug of that guy who played Jake Fratelli in Goonies.  You, my friend, are starting to have “character.”  I, on the other hand, had just let myself go.

20130129_080341

After graduation was a dark time for us, Briefcase.  I struggled with what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Did I want to keep going down the path of secure paychecks, good benefits, and interesting work in GIS?  Or did I want to throw caution to the wind and try my hand as a writer, living freelance check to freelance check, spending hours and hours in coffee shops to use the free wifi, while hoping, praying that neither my wife nor I would ever so much as catch a cold, because, damn, insurance is expensive?  Well, you know me, Briefcase; I went the boring, traditional, conservative, “mature” route, and did both.

Yes, 2008 was when I finally gave up trying to become the Voice of My Generation and opted to become a cartographer who occasionally wrote about Yo Gabba Gabba, video games, and sometimes minor historical figures that no one’s ever heard of before.  I became…a blogger.

So I dusted you off, Briefcase, like an old gunslinger coming out of retirement for one last score, strapping on his six guns before riding off into the sunset.  For a while you still carried those old pages from my unfinished novels, screenplays, and my one-act, one-man Broadway show, Memories of Me (Not affiliated with the 1988 film starring Billy Crystal and directed by Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) (It was a working title…).  But by my second year of blogging, I began to realize that those things were just taking up valuable space where my laptop, mouse, and power cord could go instead.  Besides, those dreams were gone now.  And that’s ok.  Because I came to realize that maybe I was better suited to write what are essentially Wikipedia posts that someone pays me for, than to become the next Kerouac, the next David Foster Wallace, or the next “best-selling author, Snookie.”  After all, “Success is success is success.”, is something that sounds like Kurt Vonneget might have said once in a mythical commencement speech, but I can’t verify that at all.

As my writing career accelerated, you began to deteriorate in direct proportion.  Maybe the laptop has been too heavy, adding unneeded stress to your mass-produced, plastic buckles, rings, rivets, and stitching.  Maybe I slung you around too much.  Maybe I shouldn’t have tossed you into the passenger’s seat of my car so often.  But you were always there for me, Briefcase. Even when I wasn’t working on an article, I brought you to the office because you carried my thumb drive of ideas, my Kindle of knowledge, and my mini-USB cord of electricity so I could listen to podcasts all day without my phone’s battery running down.  Sometimes you served virtually no purpose at all, other than as a leather-bound security blanket.

20130129_080413

And so it is with great sorrow that yesterday, January 28, 2013, you have sustained a life-threatening injury.  No, the split in your seam from where the should strap puts undue stress, did not finally give.  The metal strips that hold your form, which punched holes in your delicate lining long ago, did not burst through your leathery hide like a phallic alien embryo out of John Hurt’s chest.  It was, in fact, your handle that broke.  A plastic clasp that somehow held on for over 10 years, had finally had all it could take.  The break has left the other side of the handle useless, vestigial, and dangling like a leech from a young Wil Wheaton’s nether regions.

20130129_080350

So, my friend, my longtime companion, my life partner, I’m afraid we will soon have to go our separate ways.  Maybe not today…maybe not tomorrow…but soon, and for the rest of my life.  You’ve been a good bag, Briefcase, but, quite frankly, without a working handle, well, you’re just no good for me. Your shoulder strap has always been like razor wire to my shoulder, cutting deep and wounding my very soul.  Your popped seams, your broken bones, your torn skin…sure, there’s character there, but, well, character doesn’t carry my laptop, son.  But, for old time’s sake, we’ll stick together for just a little while longer.  Maybe we have a few more good mental_floss, Mashable, and Top Hat Sasquatch articles in us.  Maybe you’ll see me through the end of the production of The Dim.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll last until December, when I have to spend some money on something to offset even a little bit of my freelance income for the year.  Until then, old friend, old pal, old leathery you, we’ll stick together through thick and thin.  I swear.

Plus, the replacement briefcase I want from Saddleback Leather, complete with a 100-year warranty, is going to cost me close to $500.  And, well, I don’t have that kind of money just yet.  I started a SmartyPig account for it, though, so hopefully I can get it soon.  But, my God, will you look at that thing; it’s a work of art, ain’t it?  I mean, don’t get me wrong, Briefcase, you’re…you know…nice…and…and you have a great personality, but…

saddleback

Anyway, until I can afford to replace you with a newer, shinier briefcase that I’ll be able to pass down to my grandchildren instead of feeling lucky to have gotten 10 years out of like some briefcases I know, we shall have our last hurrah, my dear, handle-less, broken-ass Briefcase.

We shall have our last hurrah…

 

2012 Year In Review

For nearly 10 years now I’ve written a Year in Review post.  This is the first time that I pretty much forgot all about it until after the new year had already hit, which ought to give you some idea of where my mind is lately.  Or rather, where my mind is not.

2012 was a very strange year for me.  Without going into too much personal detail, a lot of less-than-good things happened, which unfortunately overshadowed a lot of the good.  But for now, let’s focus on the good, shall we?

I had a handful of Mental Floss articles that were worthy to rank as some of the best of the year for the site.  If you’re interested, this is one, this is another, and this is the last one.  That last one, Way More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Animaniacs, is one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my writing career.  I contacted one of the creators of the show, Tom Ruegger, and got some amazing, exclusive, behind-the-scenes information from him.  I wrote the words, but he filled in most of the content.  I can’t say enough about how great it was to, even ever so briefly, occasionally receive emails from the man who gave so much to my generation.  You don’t get to have that experience every day.

There were other Mental Floss stories that I was really proud of, but they didn’t set the internet afire.  For example, this one, this series of posts, that one, and this other one right here.  Check ‘em out when time allows.

I also wrote more for Mashable this year, and saw some mild success.  Their measure of a successful post is drastically different than Mental Floss’ (or almost anywhere else online, for that matter), so none of my work would rank as Best of the Year material for them, but I was very happy with some of them.  For example, this one, this one, yep, this one, this one over here, this one was nice, and I had a lot of fun working on this one.  But my two biggest stories of the year are definitely Top 5 Podcast Apps for Android and Top 5 Instagram Alternatives for Android.  The Instagram one came out just before Instagram announced an Android version, but it became relevant again and again after Instagram made a few missteps this year, so it’s been the story that keeps on giving.

My year with fun site Top Hat Sasquatch started out great, headed into the mid-year on an upswing, and then just sort of flopped, unfortunately.  I mainly wrote reviews of iPad apps for kids, did a few comic book reviews here and there, and then got in good with a rep from Titan Books, which filled out most of my year.  You can check out all my work here.  The one editorial I wrote this year for the site dealt with the loss of my childhood innocence at the hands of four teens that wore masks, wielded weapons, ate pizza, and spouted terrible catchphrases.  Yes, I wrote about How the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Killed my Childhood.

But the real excitement with Sasquatch this year was in podcasting.  The site’s owner, Tommy Day, had a dream of setting up our own podcast network, which he called Bubble Pipe Network.  We’d already done a few shows of Bubble Pipe Theater, I wanted to start my own podcast for Watching the List (more on that later…), and I even got my wife in the game with Handmade Alley, a show about the Indie Craft scene, so BPN was off to a good start.

Things started out strong on the Watching the List podcast, but it was slow-going.  I took months to write a history of early adaptations of The Wizard of Oz.  It only took me a few days to record the episode, another few weeks to edit it completely, but I loved every minute of it.  Seriously, it was the most fun, frustrating time I’ve had in recent memory.  I did another episode very shortly after on Night of the Living Dead and it’s influence on pop culture, in which I interviewed the creator of a serial podcast I’d recently discovered, called We’re Alive: The Zombie Podcast.  Again, had a blast!  I wish I could do more WTL podcasts and more posts on the website itself, but, well, something major has prevented that.  Let me explain…

About six months ago, my old friend Steve sent me an email, asking if I’d be home that weekend so he could call me.  I said yes and when he had me on the phone, he said he wanted to shoot something.  Not with a gun, mind you, but with a video camera.

Steve and I have produced a few small, short films over the last 5 or 6 years.  One, the most successful, ran one time at a public exhibition as part of the 48-Hour Film Festival.  It did not win any awards.  But we had a great time doing it and we vowed to do another film.  We did shoot another film based upon a one act play I wrote for a creative writing class years before, but it has only ever made it to the rough cut phase of post-production.  That was five years ago.  We handed it off to the director/editor, and that’s as far as it got.  Neither one of us has any proper video editing experience, nor the time to devote to learning it, so there hasn’t been much we could do about it.  Besides, at this point, I think we’ve both moved on.

Anyway, Steve wanted to shoot something again, but this time he wanted to do it right.  No more basements mocked up to look like sets.  No more bad lighting.  No more inexpensive cameras.  No more amateur hour.  He’d been doing freelance web design for a while on top of his regular job, so he had a budget of $10,000 that he was willing to put towards the creation of a really good, independent short film, with the hopes that it would be a pilot for what could eventually be a YouTube series.  The stories he kept coming back to that he thought would make for a good series were a few that I’d written about 10 years ago, called The DimIt had always been one of my favorite concepts – a supernatural thriller that takes place inside either a mental institution or a broken-down prison, depending upon the version you read – so I was excited to see one of my creations resurrected.

We started working on ideas, research, character bios, etc. in June and thus far have 6 of 10 episodes written.  Most of the scripts are around 20 pages each, which has meant a lot of writing and rewriting on my part.  Now, naturally, we don’t have the budget to shoot the whole 10 episode season in one fail swoop, so we’re focusing on spending the money on the pilot (the first episode) in the hopes that we can attract investors that will help us shoot the rest.  And even if this is all the further the project goes, we’re both excited to think that we’ll have one really awesome film that we can show our kids someday.  But here’s hoping it does get picked up, because we’d both love to see it through to fruition.  We have three seasons outlined, for a total of 30 episodes, so it would be a massive, but incredibly rewarding undertaking.

Anyway, production is moving forward on the The Dim, and we’ve just recently chosen our St. Louis-based director.  We’re going to start going over the pilot script with a fine-toothed comb, honing it to perfection, as well as start scouting for locations, finding actors, and getting all of our ducks in a row.  We’re hoping for a 3-day shoot in May.  After that, it’s post-production and sound design, and shooting for an October release date.  It being a supernatural thriller, October seems like a good time to introduce it to the world.

Unfortunately, writing and rewriting 20 page scripts at a pace of about one a month has meant I haven’t had as much time for my other writing as I would have liked.  I’m hoping to crank out these last three episodes, get the pilot as perfect as possible, and then get back to more Mental Floss, Mashable, Sasquatch, and Watching the List while we work on the pre-production side of things.  Granted, we’re already getting the marketing machine in motion, so I’m sure I’ll be tweeting, Facebooking, Google Plusing, Instagramming, and generally spamming the shit out of anyone who will listen in an effort to get our project out there, but I’ll try to squeeze in some time to write about pop culture and iPads, too.

So 2012 was a year of ups and downs.  On a personal level, more downs, but on a professional and semi-professional level, it’s been a very rewarding year.  In looking at 2013, it could be the best of both worlds, assuming everything goes as planned.  Then again, we all know what happens when you assume.

(If you came here expecting my typical Best of list, have no fear, that’s in the works, but will be a separate post.  Look for it in the next few days.)