(This is chapter 41 of 46 in my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I spent the days after September 11, 2001 in Queens with the kids, or near the World Trade Center site wishing anybody needed my help. I suddenly had a lot of free time every day, as BobDylan.com was now complete, so I was able to take part in candlelight ceremonies spontaneously taking place in Union Square and Washington Square. There were gatherings every night, and I found myself attending many of them.
I took Daniel to the West Side Highway where we joined the crowd that gathered to cheer on the rescue teams moving to and from Ground Zero. I watched a lot of TV news and learned about our new enemy Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization. I guess I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news, because I hadn’t heard of either name before September 11.
How had I fallen so out of touch? I’d always followed international politics but had let my attention slip during the crazy dot-com years. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade earlier I’d naively imagined that all major global problems were peacefully working themselves out. I now resolved never to lull myself into such complacency again.
I felt uneasy about the fact that we were suddenly at war in Afghanistan. War, in our peaceful age? It was a shocking development. I wondered why we couldn’t respond to terrorist violence with a principled stand against violence. Instead, we were now bombing towns and cities in Afghanistan, at the same time as we cried out in pain because two cities in America had been bombed. Even so, I felt the urge for revenge against Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar as much as anyone else. I put aside my concern about our military response and eagerly followed the progress of our armed forces as they dismantled the repressive Taliban regime and began tying Al Qaeda down in the mountains of Tora Bora. The best hope was that this would end fast.
The Literary Kicks message boards hadn’t stopped buzzing with pointed debates about terrorism and violence and war and religion since the day of the attacks, I was very proud when I got a letter from the Library of Congress saying they were including the LitKicks boards in their archive of the Internet’s response to September 11, and proud again when a group of San Francisco writers including Allan Cohen created a book of September 11-based poetry that included verses originally published on “Action Poetry” by a talented Cleveland poet named Mark Kuhar. Some LitKicks members objected to the increase in political chatter on this literary site, but I liked the conversations and created a new message board called “Poetry and Politics” to keep them focused in one place.
Another nice moment occurred when a young poet who signed herself “jamelah” showed up on LitKicks with a poem called “September 11th Birthday Girl”. Jamelah Earle would eventually become a creative partner at LitKicks, and a person I could trust to help manage the site when I was away. I wonder if she would have ever shown up at all if she hadn’t been motivated to write a poem about the attacks that took place on her birthday.
I had no work immediately after September 11 and began living off my savings. This wouldn’t hold out more than two months, so I hoped Dan Levy’s other music site proposals would materialize soon. The BobDylan.com contract had paid well, but I had severe child support and living expenses and didn’t have much experience managing my finances without a regular paycheck. I decided it would be a worthwhile investment to hire a top-tier business coach who Candice Carpenter had explicitly recommended in her recently published memoir Chapters. His name was David Zelman, and he responded quickly to my query. His price was high, but I hoped he’d help me figure out exactly what my business potential was and how I could reach it.
My sessions with David Zelman were fascinating and somewhat confrontational, but I was slightly disappointed when Zelman’s main life lesson turned out to be, more or less, “don’t be afraid to fail” and “just do it”. In the tennis game of life, Zelman said, the most important thing to do is to keep the ball in play. I didn’t think this was bad advice, but it happened to be the same exact advice my stepfather Gene had always given me (one of Gene’s favorite lines was “Ready, Fire, Aim”). I guess I already had a business mentor in Gene, and was overdoing it by shopping around for a second opinion.
Now I had two mentors and no income and I was out of excuses. With my industry crashed and my city in shock, it was time for me to “just do” something. Do what?
The best idea I had, as I waited for the next music site contract to roll in, was to get involved in the emerging e-book market. I’d already put in a lot of hours formatting and designing a PDF version of my unpublished novel Summer of the Mets. But how could I call attention to it? I thought of doing a press release or trying to invent some kind of venture to frame this publication, but it was hard to think about personal ambitions after September 11. On the morning of September 25 I impulsively uploaded Summer of the Mets to Literary Kicks and posted a message announcing its availability as a free download.
This was, it turned out, a terrible way to release the book. I didn’t explain that this was a novel I’d been writing for years and that it meant a tremendous amount to me. I didn’t give potential readers any reason to want to download it. I just put it up there: “here, read this”.
Not many people did, and I would later feel very angry at myself for wasting the chance to release this book right. It was as if I thought “just do it” meant “it doesn’t matter how you do it”. To publish a novel in an unusual format with no publicity is to embrace certain failure. I don’t know how a guy with two business mentors manages to do something this dumb, but I did.
Summer of the Mets, a coming-of-age story set in suburban Long Island, deserved better treatment. The story was completely autobiographical, though I wasn’t as comfortable revealing intimate facts about myself back then as I obviously am today, so I fictionalized the characters and set the tale during the summer of 1986 instead of the summer of 1977 (when the events described in the novel really took place in my life). The time switch also gave me a good framing device: the amazing Mets World Series season of 1986, including the famous “Game Six” against the Boston Red Sox which provides the book’s final scene.
Summer of the Mets was mostly about my struggle to overcome extreme shyness as a kid and a teenager. The book’s hero Chris Blomberg has only one friend, an obnoxious social outcast who bullies and mistreats him. Chris discovers that he has artistic talent, and plots to change his image. dump his so-called friend and hang around with his school’s stylish “art crowd”. This results in a series of poignant and comic mishaps, especially after he goes away for the summer and becomes infatuated with a girl out of his league who, miraculously and terrifyingly, likes him back.
It’s supposed to be a morality tale, an inspirational story about persistence and courage in the face of repeated failure. A literary agent named William Clark from the William Morris Agency liked the book and attempted to sell it during the mid-90s, though we stopped trying and fell out of touch once I began working on Coffeehouse. But I never stopped wanting to publish it, and I still believe it’s a good book. It even seemed to me to have the potential to be important, because as far as I know there has never been a novel or a play or a movie about a character whose major problem is debilitating shyness.
I don’t know why this is — is shyness too ephemeral a condition to be taken seriously? It doesn’t feel ephemeral to anyone who suffers from it. Could it be, I wondered, that our society has so much contempt for shy people that we don’t consider them worth the honor of fictional representation? I think I was onto something there. In my grandest dreams the unique “shyness” angle would be the novel’s key to success.
But I blew it by having no marketing plan, by releasing the novel (ironically) in a completely shy way. I would eventually go on to self-publish Summer of the Mets as a print-on-demand paperback, but I never figured out how to draw the slightest bit of attention to it. I had no taste at all for publicity, which made self-publishing a total dead end for me.
Looking back today, I’m amused at how much Summer of the Mets resembles the memoir I’m writing right now. Both stories describe the tragicomic travails of an introvert trying to navigate a fast-moving social world he often doesn’t understand, trying to reach past his natural limitations and become the person he wants to be instead of the person others expect him to be. I guess this is the story I was born to tell.
I turned forty years old in November 2001. Some people dread growing older, but I felt pretty good about hitting this milestone and I’ve always managed to stay young at heart (the Buddhist religion helps here, I think). When I hear younger people speak with horror of aging, I often wonder if they know that growing older can bring a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure. At forty, I felt more confident and capable than I ever had before — strangely, perhaps, considering that I was unemployed for the first time in my adult life.
Growing older can bring nice surprises. One day I was sitting around the apartment playing my acoustic guitar, running through the same clumsy interpretations of a few favorite Jorma Kaukonen, George Harrison and Jimmy Page riffs I’d been playing for years. Daniel suddenly piped up: “You’re a really good guitar player.”
“No I’m not,” I corrected him.
“Of course you are,” Daniel said. He asked Elizabeth and Abigail, and they both quickly agreed. I scoffed at this, but the next few times I picked up my guitar I listened to myself and was surprised. It seemed that I’d developed a rather bright and expressive finger-picking style. I heard myself easily pulling off complex licks I’d never been able to master before.
How had this happened? After years and years of aimless strumming and plucking, I had actually developed “finger feel”. This is the kind of thing that makes getting older feel good: you can’t get “finger feel” without putting in your time.
But every birthday is a time for contemplation, and I did have some concerns about my future. My financial situation was very uncertain. My city was still reeling from the worst terrorist attack in history. I hadn’t been in a real relationship since the divorce. Caryn had become a very close friend, but hundreds of miles and some difficult circumstances kept us apart (she did send me a birthday CD, though, that helpfully included songs like “A Pirate Looks at Forty” by Jimmy Buffett and “Old Man” by Neil Young).
Most of all, I felt good because I was able to spend my 40th birthday in my new apartment in Rego Park, Queens with my three amazing kids. I don’t see what else anybody could need to be happy.
I decided to surprise the kids on the morning of my birthday by taking them with me to get my first tattoo. We ate breakfast and strolled over to a tattoo parlor on Queens Boulevard where I picked out an image of a three-masted ship being capsized by a scaly sea serpent, and instructed the tattoo artist to transform the sea serpent into a white whale.
What I had in mind, of course, was the great climactic scene of Moby Dick. The only person who survives the destruction of the Pequod is Ishmael, the once-eager narrator, a character based on Herman Melville himself. By the end of the book he floats peacefully on a coffin raft. I guess I related to Ishmael.
Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.
Mostly, it was fun to freak my kids out by taking them with me to get my first tattoo on my 40th birthday.