The Memoir

(This is chapter 46, the final chapter of the first draft of my memoir of the Internet industry, 1993-2003.)

Do we search out the bottom, those of us who eventually find ourselves hitting it? I think we must. But I'd had enough of trouble and poverty by the summer of 2003. And I didn't know anymore how to get back to where I once had been.

Things might have gotten still worse for me, but fortunately they got better. I didn't expect to ever hear from Dave Hendriks again after he told me his school was going out of business, taking $2000 of my back pay with it, but to my surprise he called a few weeks later, not to tell me I would ever get paid (I wouldn't), but to tell me that a school called New Horizons was taking over the Hendriks enrollment. Dave had recommended me to the owner as one of his best teachers, and the school wanted to interview me.

I visited the New Horizons campus in Commack, Long Island and was happy to find a professional operation, equipment that mostly worked, classrooms at least half full. The only problem was, they wanted me to teach Microsoft .NET. I was a lifelong Microsoft-hater, and I didn't know anything about the .NET platform. "Can you learn fast?" owner Stuart Tenzer asked me. Yeah, I could.

Microsoft .NET turned out to be not a bad platform at all. In some ways, I had to admit, it was even better than Java. Good software from Microsoft ... this really was a new millennium.

Around the time I began teaching for New Horizons I got a call from Ken Jordan. I hadn't heard from him since the farewell scene at, the company I worked for that went out of business before I worked for Hendriks and Hendriks went out of business. "Are you available for a gig?" he asked. His friend Alane Mason, a senior editor for a major publishing firm, had gotten a grant to create a website devoted to international literature in translation.

I had a brief phone chat with Alane, who asked me to call her partner "Dee Dee Felman". I was excited to talk to a person with the same first name as the great bass guitarist Dee Dee Ramone of the Ramones, though after I called I discovered she was actually Dedi Felman, also an editor at a major publishing firm.

Dedi told me about the website her organization wanted to build: it would be called "Interlit", and it would be hosted at Bard College. They would publish a themed issue of about 30 pieces each month, and they also wanted a searchable archive cross-referenced into categories like country, region, time period, genre and environment.

The site would have to be built in PHP, because the Bard web servers were not configured for Java. This left me pretty much unqualified to take the job, since I'd never seen a line of PHP in my life. But I wanted the contract, so I decided not to emphasize the fact that I didn't know PHP to Dedi. If I could learn .NET quick, I could learn PHP quick. I worked up a proposal and a price estimate and got the job.

Now I was teaching and coding (and learning new stuff, fast). The Internet industry was waking back up in the summer of 2003, as if we'd finally managed to shake off the lingering taint of the dot-com stock mess and remembered what was so exciting about this new technology in the first place.

A new Internet ecosystem was slowly coming into being, now more social, more grassroots, and (thank god) more minimalist. Google's nearly blank front page set the design standard for the new age: the blinking screaming text and crowded graphics of sites like Pathfinder and ESPN and was replaced by the spare, calm, pastel-colored aesthetic of "social networks" with names like Xanga, Wikipedia, Blogger, TypePad, Friendster, MySpace (which didn't have a calm pastel-colored aesthetic, but only because the users were able to upload their own HTML), SixApart, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Etsy.

The biggest difference between these new sites and the old dinosaur sites of the first Internet wave was their funding structure. The "get rich quick" hysteria had vanished for good. It was now generally understood that a good website should spend wisely and grow organically, that grand expectations and a flood of venture capital could harm a good idea more than it could help it. This was a very positive change.

I still couldn't figure out what the hell to do with Literary Kicks, though. There seemed to be very little activity on the "literary Internet" in 2003. I was aware of only one other site that maintained a large active community of literary-minded people, Readerville, which had more of a contemporary/mainstream publishing focus than LitKicks but didn't seem to be doing any better at monetizing its traffic.

By this time, LitKicks felt to me like an isolated island. I loved what we did on our crazy message boards (when I didn't hate it), and I loved the way the site looked, especially with our new front page featuring an old photo of two of our members, SooZen and Mtmynd, in full 1960s hippie regalia, reflecting the site's Beat/counter-culture past. But, really, I knew the site was nowhere. It was more and more a closed community of regulars, pointed inward. It had to change, but I didn't yet know how.

I was at this time completely unaware that a whole literary blogger scene was being born, apparently on a part of the Internet that I never visited. Blogs had been around for many years, and I occasionally checked out sites like Dooce, DailyKos or Lileks, often at the suggestion of Caryn and Jamelah, who both ran personal blogs and wanted me to make LitKicks more "bloggy". I didn't listen, and I didn't look very hard for other literary blogs, which is why I never ran into Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, Jessa Crispin, Sarah Weinman, Michael Orthofer, Laila Lalami, Lizzie Skurnick, Ed Champion, Tingle Alley, Rake's Progress, Golden Rule Jones, Chekhov's Mistress, Syntax of Things, Mad Max, Miss Snark or even the familiar Ron Hogan (who was obviously more with-it than I was, having recently turned his long-running into a blog).

The main reason I looked at blogs at all in these days was to swipe patches of open source PHP code, since blogs tended to run on PHP and I was desperately trying to build a website in PHP and I didn't know PHP. I scrambled to cobble together a taxonomy-enabled content management system and display system in time for the July 2003 launch of "Interlit", which changed its name to "Words Without Borders".

The first three issues, in a subtle provocation, featured fiction and poetry from the three nations that George W. Bush had not long ago labelled as the "Axis of Evil": first Iran, then North Korea, then Iraq. What a concept! I loved it. I definitely believe that fiction and poetry can prevent wars, and I was more satisfied by this website than by anything I'd done on my own in recent years. Arranging poetry readings "for peace" was fine, but didn't really have any impact outside of New York City. Here was a site that would actually be read around the world.

The only problem, now that I was busy teaching and coding again, is that I missed having free time to hang around with the kids and Caryn. At least I'm glad the worst of my "broke-ass phase" had coincided with the summer. I don't really know if I'd sought out the bottom or not, but I did enjoy the hours.

Now I was busy again, the kids were getting ready to go back to school, and Elizabeth was about to begin her freshman year at Hunter College, in the City University of New York. Of the three children, Elizabeth had been the one most acutely involved in all the family dramas and financial disasters that took place after the divorce. I wish this hadn't happened, but I think it only helped to make her the strong and self-reliant person she is today.

Daniel and Abigail, meanwhile, had become songwriters. They created a band called "Chocolate Pudding" and wrote many really excellent compositions which they would perform at family get-togethers. I know that all of my relatives can still remember the words to their biggest hit, "Demon", about a mysterious lady in a black Rolls-Royce who hangs around the Harley Davidson Cafe. Their two instruments were a bongo drum and an invention called a "plung" involving a guitar placed on the floor in front of the person playing it.

This may have had something to do with a father's pride, but I saw genius in every song they wrote and decided to encourage their musicianship by buying Daniel a bass guitar and Abby an acoustic. Daniel quickly proved himself to be a serious musician, capable of playing along with bands he was into now like System of a Down, Mastodon, Korn. But I couldn't let him play my acoustic guitar anymore, because he kept detuning it to play Korn songs.

When Ishmael signed on to the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, I wonder, did he want a smooth voyage? Or did he hope to find his Ahab? Was he looking to find the limits of human sanity, out there in the darkness of the sea? It's worth wondering about.

It's also worth wondering about the fact that when Ishmael jumped aboard a whaling ship he was doing the same thing I was doing when I joined Pathfinder in 1995. Whale oil was the get-rich-quick growth industry of that age. It was used to light lamps. We're all in the technology business, one way or another.

The last thing I often wonder about Moby-Dick is whether or not Ishmael was any good as a sailor. He probably wasn't. He was the ship's sole survivor, but this seems to have involved luck more than skill. Likewise, I often wonder if I was very good at the work I did during the ten years from 1993 to 2003. I was a competent programmer, but I don't think I was much of a visionary when it came to the business side. I missed a lot of opportunities. Jeff Bezos and I were both working on Wall Street in the early 1990s, and we both heard about the Internet. He founded and got super-rich. I founded Literary Kicks and nearly lost everything I had.

But I don't think it was my fate to get rich on the Internet, and I wonder if it might have always been my dharma instead to write about it. Many decades ago, my grandparents watched the birth of the radio industry. A few decades later, my parents watched the birth of the television industry. But my grandparents didn't work for radio networks, and my parents didn't work for TV networks.

I watched the Internet happen, but as soon as I saw it start to happen I jumped in, and I became a part of it, for better or worse. This memoir is my report, the record of my journey, of what I saw, what I did, and how I survived.

view /TheRaft
Tuesday, December 22, 2009 12:42 am
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 45, the next-to-last chapter of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

One evening in early January 2003 I showed up at Hendriks Institute's main campus in Westbury, Long Island to begin teaching a course called Relational Database Programming With Oracle and SQL.

I was supposed to meet a teacher named Oscar, who'd taught the same group of students a Visual Basic course last semester. He was going to walk me through the materials and the syllabus before I met my class. I was in for a surprise.

I'd noticed last semester that something wasn't right at the Hendriks Institute, a family-owned technology school that hired me when nobody else would. My Saturday HTML/Javascript course had gone well, but when I wandered the hallways during breaks I noticed that many classrooms only held two or three students, that the building wasn't in great shape, that all the dry-erase markers were out of ink. I was the newbie among the teachers, but the other teachers didn't seem happy to be there.

I showed up to meet Oscar and found a very angry person. This was his last day at Hendriks, he told me. Dave Hendriks had just told all the teachers that their hourly rates were being cut from $50 to $35. Oscar was so mad he could hardly talk. He'd been waiting for me to arrive so he could dump the materials in my lap and get the hell out.

"Everybody's quitting," he said. "$35 an hour. I've been here six years. I don't know what kind of teachers they think they can get for $35 an hour."

Since I'd obviously just accepted a position for $35 an hour, I recognized Oscar's intended insult, and realized the best thing I could do was get my syllabus walkthrough as quickly as possible and let the guy leave. But he had more to tell me.

"The class you're teaching tonight?" he said. "They're gonna be spittin' mad when you tell them I'm gone. I was supposed to teach this course. They all liked me. I'm a great teacher, and these poor students have been fucked over by this piss-ant Hendriks family the whole last semester. Half of them don't even want to be here anymore. They applied for a refund, but Hendriks won't give it to them." He laughed. "You can't give a refund when you're broke."

My new teaching job. Great.

Oscar threw a bunch of instructions at me, showed me the password to his computer, and told me I'd have to burn ten copies of a four-CD Oracle software set for the students to install.

"That's forty CDs," I said. "The class starts in two hours."

"Yeah, well, it's a fast computer." I could see that Oscar wasn't going to be much help, so I let him go and called Dave Hendriks, who reassured me that Hendriks wasn't as bad as Oscar said, and wasn't nearly broke yet, although it was true that they'd had to cut the hourly rates. "Some of the teachers are a little peeved," Dave told me.

He also admitted that a few students weren't happy with the school. "I'm really hoping you can go in there tonight and do a bang-up job," he said. "If you can get some of them to stop asking for a refund, that'll really help our finances a lot."

Nothing like joining a stable, secure firm. I told Dave I'd do my best.

I spent the next hour and a half burning forty CDs and carefully labelling them "Oracle 1", "Oracle 2", "Oracle 3", "Oracle 4" before making a quick run for Taco Bell and coffee and returning to meet my ten students, a slightly surly-looking group of older adults mostly looking to gain new skill sets after losing their jobs.

They'd been expecting to see Oscar, and greeted my news that I was Oscar's replacement with a few grunts of derision. I intended to win the group over, though, and I even caught a few approving glances when I told them I'd built Bob Dylan's website and had more than ten years of solid database application experience with firms like Time Warner and JP Morgan. Since relational database technology is a subject I can really get passionate about, I decided to improvise an introduction before jumping into the courseware. I told them about how IBM invented SQL, or Structured Query Language, in 1970, and how it quickly came to dominate the field of database programming. I said that each of them had probably already interacted with several SQL databases that very day, because SQL was everywhere from cash registers to ATMs to libraries to traffic light systems to websites. Most technical standards are platform-specific, but SQL is used on every single platform from the largest mainframes to the smallest network servers, and on every platform from Windows to Linux to Mac. By learning SQL, I told them, they were learning the secret language that powered nearly all the business or media applications in the world.

By the time I was finished, I had their full attention. I can talk pretty good about SQL databases, once I get on a roll.

I then handed out the CDs and began walking the class through the software installation process. Two minutes later, a student piped up: "disk read error". Ten seconds later, another one said the same thing. Soon the entire class was having the same error.

I thought I was handling the class well, but I wasn't prepared for this sudden change of mood. I froze, my composure momentarily lost. The oldest student in the class, a gray-haired man with a rangy, weather-beaten face, stood up. "Goddamn this school!" he yelled. "Cheap CDs! They can't even afford CDs that work!"

I looked at the CDs. They appeared to be the CompUSA house brand -- cheap, sure, but not usually defective. I had done a test install with my source CDs, so I knew they weren't defective either. "Hang on," I said. "Let's take a ten-minute break and I'll try burning a new set on a different computer," I said.

"How are we going to all use one set?" a woman asked.

Another one piped up: "It's too early for our ten-minute break."

"This should have been done well in advance, and the disks should have been fully tested," said the angry old man, obviously an expert in process management.

I went back to the teacher's office with my source CDs, rummaged through the supply cabinets until I finally found a dusty box of Memorex CD blanks, switched on a different computer, burned two new sets and rushed back to class. I handed the CDs to the two quietest students in the class, praying for good luck.

They began the install. "Disk error," one of them said. The other quickly agreed.

At this, the uproar fully commenced. Some of the students began packing up to leave, while the angry old man pulled out his cell phone, called Dave Hendriks at home, interrupting his dinner and insisting that Dave drive over right now. A few minutes later Dave walked in. I hoped he'd be able to calm the class down, but he didn't turn out to have great people skills. "I don't like your tone of voice," he told another angry man who'd taken over the yelling so the older angry man could take a rest. They all yelled for a while and we finally all agreed to call it a night and come back tomorrow, because there was nothing else we could do.

It didn't help when we all walked out to the parking lot together and everybody got into their crummy beat-up cars while Dave Hendriks stepped shamefacedly into his shiny new, gigantic black Infiniti QX4 luxury SUV.

Sitting that night on the Long Island Railroad, staring out the window into the darkness, stunned and drained, I began idly fingering the Sharpie pen in my shirt pocket. At that moment I suddenly noticed that this Sharpie was not actually a felt tip pen. It was a pen with a metal tip.

I'd probably been the cause of the disaster myself, because you scratch right through a recordable CDs magnetic surface if you write on it with a metal tip pen. In fact, I'm sure I was the cause of the disaster. I have never told this to anyone before.

These early months of 2003 were tense and exciting months. As the economy plummeted, our government was completing its final preparations for the invasion of Iraq. It felt surreal to watch it all slowly happen once it began in March -- the missiles suddenly flying, the tanks rolling. I followed it all closely in the newspapers and on TV, tracking the progress, hoping for the best.

I was caught up in the excitement in April when Baghdad fell, when the statues of Saddam were torn down in the streets. Maybe, I thought, this would actually end well. But I couldn't understand why American forces stood by as looting began all over Baghdad. Why didn't Donald Rumsfeld direct his forces to establish calm in the city? Others had the same question, and it was during one of his explanations that Rumsfeld delivered his famous quote: "stuff happens".

By April I was teaching two courses -- my Oracle/SQL course, which really never recovered from its terrible start, and another course in Macromedia Dreamweaver whose original teacher had also left in a huff. I was now earning just enough money to pay my rent and child support each month, though not enough to also buy food or pay my credit card bills. At least I was staying alive, though I was slowly racking up more debt.

I'd decided to take a break from running LitKicks poetry readings for a while, and instead had more fun showing up at other people's events. Brian Hassett began organizing Sunday open mics at the Back Fence, an agreeable little sawdust-floor hole in the wall on Bleecker Street a block away from the Bitter End. Caryn and I would show up there, or at the Bowery Poetry Club, where one day I met a vintage-era spoken word poet named Cheryl Boyce Taylor along with her famous son Malik Taylor, also known as Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. I'd never known that A Tribe Called Quest had spoken-word roots, but it made perfect sense once I thought about it. A month later I got to participate in a reading with Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Daniel Nester and Reggie Cabico, along with an old LitKicks friend, Judih Haggai, who'd come from Israel. Caryn and I showed up when Doreen Peri and "Lightning Rod" put on a show in an art gallery in Bethesda, Maryland, and another for the Fringe Festival in downtown Washington DC. Probably the greatest bang-up reading of them all was Jamelah's second Battle Creek, Michigan shindig, which due to it's faraway location turned into a weekend party. Caryn and I met many great LitKicks friends there, and even got to tour the factory where Kellogg's breakfast cereals were made before we left.

Meanwhile, back in the online world I was locked into tiresome "policy debates" with various members of the Literary Kicks message board community. Following the best practices of all well-managed community websites at the time, I took the liberty of deleting messages intended to harm the site or attack other members. This caused a furor because it apparently proved that I was a "fake beat" since Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac would have never deleted anybody else's beautiful messages. I replied that this was probably true, but Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac would have never been able to manage a community website, and also that I didn't care if I was a "fake beat" because I never wanted to be "beat" in the first place.

By the end of every incident, my complaining members always wore me out. They seemed to have endless energy to argue back. But Caryn and Jamelah and I became seriously worried about one of them, an apparently financially independent young man from Suffolk, England who called himself "Caliscouri". His rage at me for deleting his messages took a turn towards the psychotic. We dealt with the "Caliscouri" drama for over a year. An example of his handiwork is a court summons that showed up in my post office box one day declaring that I was being sued for 14,000 pounds.

Nothing on this summons was real, including the summons itself. I called the Suffolk Court in England and verified that he must have simply taken a summons form home, typed it up and mailed it without ever filing it in the court. I often wondered at the time if "Caliscouri" was actually insane. I've known people with schizophrenia or other serious mental illnesses, but I didn't see those signs in "Cali". I think he was just a guy with way too much time on his hands and nothing in the world to do.

The war in Iraq was supposed to be winding down by April 2003, and there was incredible military bravado in the air around this time. Observing the reactions to the successful invasion of Iraq, I started to realize that for many Americans the greatest horror of the September 11 attacks hadn't been the waste of innocent life or the affront to global civility but rather the insult to American pride, the sense that we'd been beaten by an unworthy opponent. The victory in Iraq seemed to help a lot of Americans get their swagger back.

It was hard not to get caught up in the vengeful spirit of new victory. I even bought myself a pack of "Iraq Most Wanted" playing cards (Saddam Hussein, of course, was the ace of spades). I watched on TV in early May as George W. Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier and emerged for the television cameras decked out in a high-tech military flight suit to deliver his famous "Mission Accomplished" speech. This was before anybody in the Bush administration learned the fact -- they could have looked it up -- that Iraqi society was deeply divided between Sunni and Shiite Muslims who would not be able to form a government together without slipping into civil war.

I started to worry a little about my financial situation one day when a piece of mail came from my bank: my last paycheck from Hendriks had bounced. I called Dave and he assured me again that Hendriks wasn't going out of business, that summer enrollment was looking great, that everything was fine.

Two weeks later the check still hadn't cleared, and I was walking to the train station when Dave called my cell phone. "Don't bother coming in tonight," he said. "We have to close the school down for just a little while."

I should have expected this -- stupidly, I hadn't. They now owed me nearly two thousand dollars in back pay, two thousand dollars I needed to pay rent and child support bills that were already late.

"What about my back pay?" I asked.

"Oh, we should be getting that to you soon," he said. Based on his tone of voice, I sensed that I would never see that money, and would never hear from Dave again.

There's an expression we use in software architecture: "single point of failure". A single point of failure is a component in a system that can take the whole system down if it fails. A good software design avoids single points of failure by including redundant components that operate in either dual mode or failover standby mode, ensuring that no one isolated event can cause everything to crash.

In regular life, we run into single points of failure a lot. When I was scrambling to burn those Oracle CDs during the first day of my class, I tried a different computer and a different brand of blank CDs. But I didn't try a different Sharpie, and the Sharpie turned out to be my single point of failure.

As the Bush/Cheney administration began to lose its grip on occupied Iraq, it began to seem that the unexceptional mind of George W. Bush, the self-styled "Decider", had become the United States of America's single point of failure.

I have no idea what "Caliscouri"'s single point of failure was, but it must have been a doozy.

As for my financial situation, I really thought I was getting it back on track by the middle of 2003. I was working four days a week, planning to expand my hours in the fall, hoping to soon start making a dent in my credit card bills. My single point of failure, it turns out, was those Hendriks paychecks. Now I didn't even have time to plan, didn't have time to think about who I could possibly borrow from, what kind of horrible crummy job I could find next. The rent and the child support were already overdue. I was busted, and I didn't even see how bankruptcy could help me dig my way out.

Picture me sitting in the office of a grimy social services office in Jackson Heights, Queens, explaining to a young case worker for a government-administered private charity why it was I needed a handout immediately.

I had literally become a beggar. I was there to get help from a charity created by local church groups to help New Yorkers who'd lost their livelihoods in the post-9/11 economic crash. As a software developer, I easily qualified. My case worker agreed to arrange payment of my rent for one month from the charity fund. I would scrape by with my other payments, and we'd meet again in two weeks to see if my situation had improved.

Since I would have a lot of time on my hands, I also joined a "therapy group" for other jobless adults held every week in this office. The group would meet for ninety minutes, and I eventually told this group my own story: how four years ago I became a paper millionaire after one of the biggest IPOs in history, how ten years ago I'd been an eager young programmer on Wall Street, just hearing about this thing called "the Internet" for the first time. That was when the trouble started, I told my group.

I guess I must have had a lot to be ashamed of at that moment, getting a handout and spilling out my woes to a roomful of other losers. I didn't really feel ashamed, though. I just couldn't figure out what my next steps ought to be.

view /SinglePointOfFailure
Wednesday, December 16, 2009 01:36 am
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 44 of 46 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

After my job at collapsed, I began going broke.

The long-term effect of the dot-com stock crash of 2000 and the September 11 attacks in 2001 became fully clear in 2002: the tech job market in New York City was flooded with laid-off developers like me, and no companies were initiating new projects. Programmers who had jobs were staying put, so there were no openings to fill. The headhunters who once annoyed me with persistent phone calls had simply vanished, their own phone numbers now disconnected. Where did they all go, I wondered? And where was I going to go?

It's scary how fast you can go broke when you have no income. Each month a new child support payment was due, and rent, and credit cards. I was out of ideas; I had never thought this could happen to me.

I sent out dozens of resumes, answered newspaper ads, looked up old contacts. I got back in touch with long-forgotten co-workers from my Wall Street days, even though I hated the idea of slinking back to the banking industry I'd been so eager to leave for the Internet sector nine years before. It turned out I had nothing to worry out: Wall Street was just as dead as Silicon Alley.

I often wondered if it was the physical proximity of Wall Street, Chelsea and midtown Manhattan to the gaping hole now known as "Ground Zero" that made Manhattan's economy shut down in 2002. We don't usually imagine corporations having feelings, but it seemed like many New York corporations did after September 11: they were simply in a state of shock, not hiring, not spending, not building, not doing anything at all.

I hated the idea of reaching out to older friends on Long Island, where I'd grown up, and where I'd begun my career at General Instrument in Hicksville and Robotic Vision Systems in Hauppauge before migrating to New York City. But I couldn't turn down any opportunity, and the engineering firms on Long Island were doing much better than the finance, media and entertainment companies in Manhattan.

It really killed me to crawl back to the engineering world I'd left behind, and when I got a couple of interviews I half-hoped I wouldn't get the jobs, because working on Long Island would feel like returning to high school.

Not surprisingly, I didn't get any job offers. It turned out that after ten years away my C++ was kind of rusty and I'd forgotten nearly all the principles of embedded system design. Now I felt like I'd couldn't even go back to my old high school.

It's a funny thing, going broke. There are a lot of good songs about it:

Once I lived the life of a millionaire,
Spent all my money, I just did not care.
Took all my friends out for a good time,
Bought bootleg whisky, champagne and wine.

Then I began to fall so low,
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go.
If I get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins.

'Cause no, no, nobody knows you
When you're down and out.
In your pocket, not one penny,
And as for friends, you don't have any.

When you finally get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
It's mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you're down and out.

Unlike the singer of this old blues tune, I didn't actually lose many close friends when I went broke. But I did sense that some of my former co-workers felt ashamed for me, and perhaps saw me as a reflection of what they most feared for themselves.

My final recourse was to borrow from my parents. It really pained me to do this. I think it pained them too.

My mother, father, stepmother and stepfather are all very different kinds of people. My mother, Lila Weisberger, is a very charismatic and intensely individualistic psychologist and poetry therapist. I think it was my Mom who taught me to be a brazen non-conformist, to never be embarrassed about who I was.

My father, Eli Stein, is a cartoonist and graphic designer -- I think I got my artistic sensitivity from him, along with my appreciation for classic comedy from Gilbert and Sullivan to Jackie Gleason to Mad Magazine (which published one of his pieces in 1968, when I was six years old, to my great pride both then and now).

My two stepparents also played big roles in my life: Gene inspired me in business, while my stepmother Leftie inspires everyone in the family by being nice and watching out for us all. My four parents are all very different, except for one thing: they all grew up fairly poor, and are all very, very sensible about money. Going broke is a thing you don't do in my family.

I like this work ethic, this stern emphasis on financial independence. I've tried to raise my kids with the same common sense. It was very difficult for me to go to both sets of parents and ask for help. To soothe the agony, I prepared my plea to Gene and Mom in the form of a business plan, presenting several pages of paperwork along with my request for a $5000 loan. By the time I finished this ordeal, I was exhausted and just asked Dad and Leftie for money straight out, and they were kind enough to quickly hand over a check as a gift.

It was nice to know I had strong family support, but I also realized I had only bought time with this money, and hadn't solved my basic problem. The $10,000 would get me through three months, but there was no sign that the economy would improve by then. It seemed likely that our country would invade Iraq in a few months, and the growing public anxiety and uncertainty was not likely to help.

In desperation, I began looking for a business model within LitKicks, which kept growing more and more popular. I now had 25,000 registered members and about 15,000 pageviews a day, but there was no obvious way to monetize this traffic. My best idea was to sell ads to indie writers and small presses for $75 a month, and after many weeks putting together a new system and publicizing the service I did sell several ads, bringing in over $1200 in the first year. This was a good start, but it was also the hardest I'd ever worked to earn $1200. I would have to make much more to turn LitKicks into a real business, and $1200 wasn't enough to dig me out of my financial hole.

I enlisted Caryn and Jamelah to join a new "executive team" on Literary Kicks, and we began brainstorming how the site could possibly make money without resorting to cheap gimmicks that would ruin its reputation. An online writing contest with a $20 entry fee? A book of short fiction and poetry? All these ideas had merit, but when I ran the numbers I didn't see any sustainable profit model to replace my lost paychecks.

Ironically, it was around the time that I began trying to monetize the Literary Kicks message boards that I also began wishing I could get rid of them. When I launched LitKicks 2.0 in January 2001 I'd hoped to develop a sharp, focused, cutting-edge literary community. Instead, mostly due to the site's original reputation as the Beat Generation site, I'd gathered a lot of "keyboard beatniks" who loved to post drunk on Friday nights and never read books that weren't by Kerouac, Bukowski, Chuck Pahlaniuk or Irvine Welsh. There were also way too many "happy birthday" messages and "how was your weekend?" conversations that had nothing to do with literature.

I tried constantly to change the tenor of the conversations, but the site wouldn't budge. Imre Kersetz won the Nobel Prize in October 2002; I posted about this and nobody responded. Then it'd be "SooZen"'s birthday, or "Dave the Dov" would see a good movie, or "Lightning Rod" would think of a dirty joke, and the boards would light up for hours. I'm glad they were all having fun, but it was my website, and I wasn't having much fun at all.

Could we make some money selling merchandise? Caryn and Jamelah helped me launch the "LitKicks Shoppe" on, featuring stylish black backpacks and fitted baseball caps with the Paul Verlaine logo and baseball jerseys with our message board headers. Caryn agreed to be the Cafe Press model. We did move a few units, but again the profit was nowhere near enough to pay my monthly bills.

I enjoyed working with my new "executive team" and it was nice of them to try to help. But in the end the best idea we came up with was to start emailing funny pictures back and forth just to keep ourselves amused, like one Jamelah made of me in a trenchcoat wearing a LitKicks cap with a cardboard sign reading "WILL CODE JAVA FOR FOOD". At least we had a good time.

Finally, in late 2002 one of my ideas got some traction. I'd taught some corporate courses at Sybase years ago, and had contacted every technology training school I could find to see if I could get hired as a teacher. The New York City tech schools were all closing down, but I finally got a callback from a small family-owned tech school called Hendricks Institute in Lindenhurst, Long Island. They needed a substitute teacher for a Saturday HTML/Javascript course. This was bad because it would cut into my weekends with the kids, but I couldn't turn anything down and agreed to start.

The money was lousy -- $35 an hour, $280 a week -- and since I didn't have a car I had to commute over an hour each way on the Long Island Railroad and then walk another twenty minutes to reach the school. But I liked the students, mostly laid-off adults looking to change careers. I liked it that they were motivated to work hard, but I hated the thought that after they graduated with a two-year Hendricks certification there might not be any jobs for them. It wouldn't have helped if I told them that the only reason I was teaching them instead of working was that nobody was hiring HTML/Javascript developers in 2002. The hope, of course, was that the market would pick up soon.

My outlook started to improve towards the end of the year when Hendricks invited me to begin a second course, a night class in Oracle and SQL, starting in January. The money would still be lousy and I'd barely be able to pay off any debts, and I'd be spending a whole lot of time on the Long Island Railroad. Still, I would have my weekends free for the kids again, and it felt like things were moving in the right direction.

That December I arranged another Bowery Poetry Club extravaganza in December with a delightful folk troubadour and pamphleteer from Vancouver named Ralph Alphonso, featuring Lauren Agnelli, Dave Rave, Paul Hyde, George Wallace, Bob Holman and David Amram. Caryn and Jamelah performed too, and Elizabeth, now 17 years old, did her first poetry club reading, accompanied by David on piano. A few LitKicks poets showed up too: Julianna Harris, Sean "Firsty" Hogan, Lucy "Gothic Hippie Chic" Torres, Angus "In Extremis" Ramsay. A bitter winter rainstorm that night kept the audience small, but cozy.

This was a significant night for me because it was the first time I tried to read a piece with some semblance of rhythm and flow. I'd been hanging around the Bowery Poetry Club long enough by now to realize that my old act of blandly reciting from a piece of paper into a mic wasn't good enough. The Bowery Poetry Club scene was all about spoken word and hip-hop poetry, and even though it would never be my style to stand up there and "spit" with the best of them, I did want to add some rhythm to my performance. The first step was to write poems that rhymed, and I showed up with a few new rhyming poems to choose from.

Up till the last minute I expected to read a poem I'd written about the miseries of being broke, but then I decided to try a different one, an angry piece I'd just written about all the ethnic and religious and nationalistic hatred I'd been seeing around me in the post-9/11, pre-Iraq War days. All the lines didn't rhyme, but enough did to help me find the music in the words, and this was the first time after several years of live readings that I really felt I nailed a performance. It didn't hurt to have David Amram banging out a hard minor key rhythm behind me.

I decided something today
today is the day I'm just gonna smile and let it go
you know, a few things have been getting me crazy lately
like this guy who says he loves me
and keeps sending me pipe bombs in gift-wrapped boxes
or this other guy who says he needs to kill me
but it's nothing personal and he hopes I don't mind
I'm trying to love my enemy but I'm running out of love
and I don't know how much longer
I can hold on to my sanity
this must be the garden of eden, or is it
the museum of inhumanity
like that story about the guy with the machete
who was selling girl scout cookies
or the woman who killed her bridge partner
for playing the dummy low
well, today I'm just gonna smile and let it go

I can't watch the news anymore
because it keeps telling me the world's a cauldron of hatred
but I see a hundred different races and religions
when I pick my children up at school
wanna say a dirty word? call someone a muslim or a jew
so they think there's something wrong
with the way that we were born
well, my friend, I don't think this is anything new
so now the tanks are rolling again
so now the bombs and rockets flow
I guess we're just gonna smile and let it go

I try to maintain a peaceful mind
but it's hard to stay zen
I thought you guys were grown men
stop comparing yourselves to each other
and look what's in your own hands
everything I told, I fought to keep
and if you think I didn't struggle
you have got to be insane
and if you think I didn't have to grow
well, you just don't know
but today
I'm gonna smile
and let it go

Maybe I'll run for President
or maybe I'll just blow up the fucking world
because that's the way I feel sometimes
but no, I'll just try to keep my head straight
I must be a child of the universe
or something like that
and if the nuclear war comes
I'll just wear my special hat
in the end, we can blame it all on the superpowers
and no, I'm not done talking about the towers

so as I travel, here's the advice I take:
change at Jamaica, but don't be afraid of change
because change is actually more afraid of you
and don't write any books
because nobody's done reading all those other books
that have already been written
and don't get sick
because you don't have any sick days left
just remember to stand straight and show no fear
and if we get through, I'll meet you all at the globe
and when it's all over maybe we'll be able to use tools
and our planet truly is a ship of fools

if you think i'm gonna lay down, the answer is no
but today, I'm just gonna smile
and let it go

Well, if a poet can't feel confident onstage with David Amram playing piano, I guess nothing will help. At the end of the evening we all stood there together as David led us in a reading of the last page of On The Road, our big closer.

I think the whole audience was onstage, although somebody must have been watching to take a photo.

view /HowToGoBroke
Wednesday, December 9, 2009 01:00 pm
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 43 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry. This draft will be completed when chapter 46 is posted in three weeks.)

On one of the first warm springtime days of 2002 in New York City, I suddenly found myself accepting an unexpectedly cool and excellent new job.

The offer came from my friend Ken Jordan, who had been working the Silicon Alley arts/media hustle as long as I had. He'd worked on music sites like Sonic.Net and literary sites like Word, and now he'd hooked up with a wealthy investor and art collector named Chris Vroom to acquire a bankrupt website called They planned to rebuild the site and use it as the starting point for a new art-related online venture.

Ken and Chris had great connections and were close to signing contracts with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. They hired my star designer friend Leslie Harpold to be art director, rented a chic brownstone in Chelsea to serve as the office, and wanted me aboard as chief technology officer. Was I interested?

Let's see. I was unemployed, broke and miserable. They were offering me a lot of money to build Java websites for art museums. I said yes in about two seconds.

The main thing that bugged me about this new gig was that I felt lucky to have it during such a lousy year, and I didn't like relying on luck. Laid-off software developers were scrounging for work all over New York City, and here I'd suddenly landed in a pot of jam. I didn't feel confident that the job could last long, because it was very difficult to build and sustain an online business in this economy. I was also concerned because Ken and Chris had very optimistic plans for, and were already operating at a high burn rate. I definitely admired Ken's rainmaking skills -- I didn't know anybody else who'd managed to create an arts startup in 2002. But the way we were spending money made me wonder if Ken and Chris had seen the year 2000 happen.

This is why I balked when they asked me to begin hiring other Java developers to fill out our team. I had two good friends who wanted to join, Evan Sable and Yaniv Eyny, so I gave them my best warning and then brought them in.

During all my years in the Internet industry, I always fought against expensive "go for broke" business strategies, and usually lost the fight. This was often the source of my worst conflicts at work: I always wanted my companies to grow slowly, build firm foundations, avoid big investments in unnecessary or questionable projects. This was only partly because I hated working overtime; it was mainly because I didn't think a company ever helped itself by taking on excess weight.

I often advised business managers to imagine themselves as travelers and the software they developed as luggage they would have to carry around. The path to success, I argued, was to travel light. Keep the costs low, the staff small, the code clean and the complexity level low.

The managers I'd been able to work best with -- Charlie Thomas at Time, Dan Levy at, Susan Hahn at iVillage -- were the ones who were able to see the appeal of a sensible minimalist approach. I practiced what I preached on my own website, maintaining Literary Kicks with the simplest possible technology. This is why LitKicks was still around in 2002 after all the other over-produced webzines of the mid-90s were gone.

Sometimes I wondered if the urge to expand and exceed that plagued the Internet industry in its first decade wasn't rooted in insecurity. Executives who ran good websites did not have the confidence to realize that they were producing something valuable every day, and so they would chronically over-produce to mask their shortcomings. Many dot-com executives during the gold rush years did not understand the Internet at all, and these executives were the ones most responsible for constantly raising the stakes.

My philosophy of business was similar to my philosophy of poker. In the early 2000s I became obsessed with Texas Hold 'em, mostly inspired by my older brother Gary, who'd become an expert player and won a few tournaments in Atlantic City, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Gary taught me how to play a cautious and smart game, and I found that I was very good at it. I started joining him at casino outings, and found that I could usually show up at a $5/$10 table with $300 and double my money in seven or eight hours.

I always specialized in the slow play -- that is, I liked to bluff weak instead of strong. Many experienced poker players would bet big with, say, trips on the flop. In this situation, I preferred to put on a worried and confused expression and limp in with the other bets, hoping to hit my full house and win big on the river. Instead of trying to overpower a table, as most players did, I specialized in making the table underestimate me -- over and over again.

This seemed somehow significant to me. In business, in poker, in life, I realized, I was a slow player. For better or worse, this was the technique that worked for me. I guess it's why the minimalist-minded Buddhist religion appealed to me so much as well.

Patience was hard even for me, though, when it came to love. In the summer of 2002, Caryn and I were finally able to begin the relationship that we'd both known was brewing. We spent our first days together in the peaceful Shenandoah Valley in Northwest Virginia, where we symbolized our new love by climbing a mountain together, finding at the peak a view more beautiful than we could have possibly expected. Birds flew underneath us as we sat there, and I think that captured how we both felt now that we were finally united.

Caryn and I had a lot in common. Like me, she lived her life with a lot of conviction and determination, and like mine her personality was an oxymoron: she was an introvert who often found interpersonal interactions frustrating, and yet she excelled in social skills and often found herself chosen for leadership positions. It was funny that we both were both considered experts in online community, because we were often surrounded by others who enjoyed online community more voraciously than we did. Maybe that's why we were good at it.

I was very much in love with Caryn. Our situation was challenging because we lived several hours away and did not want to disrupt our kids' lives by trying to move. We began spending a lot of time on Amtrak trains, or on the I-95 Interstate. Worth the trouble? Hell, yeah.

We were alike in some ways, mirror images in others. Caryn had grown up in a conservative household in a small Indiana town, while I was the offspring of liberal Brooklyn Jews. But this made it exciting, and we found common ground in rarer places. Two years earlier, I'd sat alone in my Times Square apartment listening to music from the '30s and '40s that nobody else I knew liked, never imagining that someday I wouldn't listen to this music alone. Now I'd found someone who shared my odd musical tastes. I brought Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Noel Coward to our relationship, while Caryn brought Hoagy Carmichael, Tony Bennett and the Andrews Sisters.

I had a lot of flex time with my cushy ArtAndCulture job, so I was able to visit Caryn often during our first summer. It seemed my life had taken a lot of good turns this summer, and I began to feel like a very lucky person. In this happy spirit, I began planning a second Bowery Poetry Club reading for August, this time a collaboration with a San Francisco friend named Janan Platt who ran a website called AlienFlower Poetry Workshop and suggested that every poet should carry a flower onstage with them and place it in a vase before reading.

This made sense to me, and I contributed to the reading by putting out a call for poets on Literary Kicks. Several came out of the woodwork: an irascible flute-playing character from Texas named Clay "Lightning Rod" January, a Virginia writer named Doreen Peri, the charming Bill Ectric from Florida. Jamelah Earle also flew in from Michigan, and since she and Caryn had become good friends this made it an especially joyous meeting.

We also invited some local talent: the spoken word poet John S. Hall, author of Jesus Was Way Cool and Detachable Penis, and for our big closer a reunion of the celebrated 80s retro-folk outfit the Washington Squares, backed by Billy Ficca on drums (though this was a poignant reunion as one member of the trio, Bruce Pankow, had died of AIDS).

This was also a significant evening because for the first time I'd invited my entire family to be in the audience. My oldest daughter Elizabeth was there, and my brother and sister Gary and Sharon, and all four of my parental units. Yeah, I felt lucky as I stood up there on stage, reading an excerpt from Summer of the Mets with accompaniment from flute and guitar, knowing that everyone was here just because I'd invited them, and they were all having a good time.

I was amused years later when a Bowery Poetry Club regular named Gary "Mex" Glazner wrote a book for Soft Skull called How To Make A Living As A Poet. He never mentioned it to me, but one of his comic descriptions of a typical evening at the Bowery Poetry Club was clearly a description of our event. I know this because I'm pretty sure we were the only BPC show ever with flutes, flowers, folk-rock, striped shirts and berets. I'm not sure whether or not Glazner was making fun of us, but it's a pretty accurate description.

I get some of my life's philosophy from poker. For instance, you may have heard the widespread myth that poker has a lot to do with luck. It really doesn't, as becomes obvious once you consider the law of probability. During a typical poker game or tournament, a player will be dealt many, many hands. Over time, each player's luck must eventually even out. This is a mathematical certainty.

Good luck is actually not what you need to succeed at poker. You need to be able to quickly calculate odds, and to intuitively read your opponents. But more than anything else, you need patience and self-control. Without patience and self-control, all the luck and skill in the world will not help you win.

It's funny that people think poker involves a lot of luck, when it's really everywhere else in life that you need a lot of luck. Example: you get a new job, and you might get a great boss or you might get a psychotic and nasty boss. Either way, it's a sure thing that you won't get dealt a new hand five minutes later.

Then there's family -- where you get dealt only one hand your entire life. As I stood onstage at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2002, seeing the smiling faces of half my relatives in the dark crowd, I knew I'd been lucky here.

Then there's love. I gazed at Caryn as she read her own poem onstage that night, and wondered how I could have ever nabbed her.

I was feeling so philosophical about all of this in the late summer and early fall of 2002 that I didn't even get upset one day in September when I walked upstairs to our Chelsea office and saw a bunch of sad faces. We'd run out of money, the second round of investors hadn't turned up, the operation was shutting down.

Time to go home again. I still felt like a lucky guy.

view /LuckyGuy
Thursday, December 3, 2009 12:31 am
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 42 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

Heavy emotions hung in the air around New York City in early 2002.

By early 2002 the pile of debris at the World Trade Center site had finally stopped burning and smoking. The "Have You Seen ___?" posters and handbills all over the city had peeled and crackled to the ground during the winter. Meanwhile, the discussions of why the attacks happened, and how the USA should respond, continued to heat up.

I had felt like a blank slate immediately after the attacks: I had never heard of Al Qaeda, had never remotely imagined that such a thing could happen in my city. My first emotional reaction to the attacks had been a strong feeling of gratitude towards my fellow New Yorkers and fellow Americans for bearing the horror with such dignity and unity. But in the weeks and months that followed I also became aware that the attacks had unleashed a new level of hatred between people of different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups around the world.

It was clearly Osama bin Laden's goal to polarize the world with his shocking act of violence, and it was very frustrating to realize how well he succeeded in doing this. For instance, there was a steep rise in bombings and atrocities in Israel and Palestine after September 11. Meanwhile, many Americans began arguing that we needed to respond to the attacks with a show of force: invade the Middle East, get tough, finally kick some ass. Many believed that we now had a rare opportunity to depose warlords and dictators, install democratic governments, solve the Israel/Palestine standoff in the bargain, and eventually make peace with the defeated Arab lands just as we'd eventually made peace with Germany and Japan after World War II. When George W. Bush gave a State of the Union speech in January 2002 containing harsh words about an "axis of evil" including Iraq, Iran and North Korea, many commentators began to wonder if we were ramping up for aggressive military initiatives along these lines.

I was vexed to learn how many of my own friends, family members and neighbors believed it would be a good idea for us to fight a major war against the forces of militant Islam. It was widely believed that Al Qaeda represented some new kind of enemy, motivated by religious fanaticism, implacable "like Hitler". Because I am Jewish, I was expected to support a muscle-bound strategy in the Middle East. I heard constant comparisons to Hitler and Chamberlain, and constant reminders of the dangers of appeasement. I noticed that many people seemed to also feel some sentimental attraction to the bygone patriotic spirit of World War II and hoped for a new manifestation of that spirit -- as if the USA would go to war and there would be milkshakes at drugstore fountains and kissing in Times Square.

Having done a lot of reading about the real misery and obscene waste of human life that was World War II, I was very disappointed to realize that many Americans felt that a new major war could be a constructive force in the world, or a "character-building experience". I'd sooner believe in Santa Claus.

I was as outraged as everybody else about the September 11 attacks, but I could not see any value in this outrage unless there were ethical principles behind it. The idea that a valid response to our city being bombed was to bomb other cities left my head spinning.

When I expressed this to my friends and family members and neighbors, I was often told that I didn't understand the extreme fanaticism of our enemies. "Islamic fundamentalists are different," somebody would tell me. "They don't even care if they die."

"How is that different?" I'd ask. "What about kamikaze pilots in World War II? What about Nathan Hale? What about Pickett's Charge? What about Masada?"

"Yeah," I'd hear back, "but Al Qaeda is still totally different."

"Different how?"

"It just is."

Because I was against a preemptive war, many people I talked to suspected I'd become a soft-brained peacenik liberal, or a self-hating American, or a self-hating Jew. I was often told that Muslims could never live at peace with Jews, to which I usually responded that Muslims and Jews had lived together much more peacefully than Christians and Jews during the last 1000 years, and could certainly do so again in the future.

The debates I got into tended to be intense, and helped me harden my own convictions. The wisest politician I can think of is Mahatma Gandhi, and I find his arguments for pacifism utterly intelligent, important and correct. Many people tell me that humanity is fated to fight wars forever, that peace is impossible. I believe, with Gandhi, that peace is not only possible but obvious, and I think it's reasonable to hope that ordinary people around the world will eventually wise up to the fact that military-backed ethnic nationalism is a fraud and an unsustainable way of life. It's funny that people call me naive, when they are the ones who believe that war can help people's lives.

Anyway, it happens that I had a lot of time to sit around debating political philosophy with friends and neighbors in early 2002, because I was still unemployed, and not finding any new consulting work at all. Maybe the economic problems added to some of the general emotional intensity of the time, especially in New York. The economy had already been bad before the September 11 attacks, but now it was even worse. And it was especially bad for software developers, because many companies froze new project spending after September 11.

I had picked an absolutely terrible time to begin my career as an independent consultant. I had already burned through my savings and was heading for big trouble. By the spring of 2002 I'd begun putting my rent onto my credit cards, and desperately trying to find full-time or part-time work through headhunters, connections, newspaper ads ... anything.

I didn't know how to be poor. I had never checked prices in a supermarket before, had never had to think hard about whether or not to buy a CD I wanted or take the kids to a movie. I had to lower my monthly child support payments to Meg, which meant her financial situation was now in trouble too. We both cut spending severely and began explaining to the kids why we couldn't buy them things like we used to. I was impressed with how easily they brushed off this news.

I also didn't know how to spend my time unemployed. It wasn't a good feeling to wake up alone on a weekday morning and feel the day's empty hours shaming me. Before, I'd never had enough time to do everything I'd wanted to do. I never imagined that I'd find myself with time and nothing to use it for. I listened to a lot of music, watched TV, read books, wrote new articles for LitKicks, sent lots of copies of my resume out with little hope of hearing anything back.

As I became more involved in the public dialogue following September 11, I found myself yearning to do live poetry events again in New York City. I hadn't done any readings at all since the big blowout at the Bitter End in the summer of 1999, and I felt completely removed from that world, totally out of the circuit. It seemed like a good time to jump back in.

My first chance came when two Dutch poets I'd never heard of emailed me: they were flying into New York City and doing a big show in a 500-person theater in the Lower East Side -- did I want to perform and did I know any other good poets? I recommended Brian Hassett, my blogger friend Leslie Harpold and a LitKicks poet from Queens named Lucy Torres. I figured it'd be fun, though I couldn't imagine how this Dutch couple thought they would fill a 500-person theater with a poetry show.

It turns out I was right, because I got a phone call about 1 pm on the day of the show. They were calling from the airport: "You know how many people will come to the show?" one of them said in a heavy Dutch accent.

"I have no idea."

"The theater says we must sell 100 tickets or they will lose money. Did you announce on your website? Can you put posters up?"

I had announced it on LitKicks, but I sure as hell wasn't going to run around doing last-minute publicity work for somebody else's show. It was now obvious that these two poets had no idea how to arrange a poetry reading. "No," I said, "I can't put posters up for you on the day of the show."

"Is there a radio station you can call, get the word out?"

"I'll get right on that," I said, laughing to myself. The night turned out to be a hilarious disaster -- a 500-person theater without a single attendee except for the other poets, Lucy Torres's family and two friends of mine who were nice enough to show up and pay the entrance fee. But we all had fun, even if the two Dutch poets looked slightly shell-shocked and the theater owners very angry. It felt good to stand up on a stage again for the first time in a year and a half.

Just a few days later, Jamelah Earle posted an invitation to a LitKicks poetry gathering in Battle Creek, Michigan. I didn't know Jamelah very well at this point, but I got a kick out of the fact that she just decided to have a LitKicks gathering without even telling me in advance, despite the fact that I thought LitKicks was mine. Just for the hell of it, and because I didn't have much to do back in New York, I decided to drive out for the event.

I brought two excellent poets with me, George Wallace of Huntington, Long Island and Deb Ruel, an up-and-coming singer-songwriter eager for new venues to play in. We drove all the way through Pennsylvania and Ohio -- where we stopped to see a memorial for Hart Crane -- and into Battle Creek, Michigan, the town where breakfast cereals were born, where we found a hip art gallery owned by a guy named John Hart packed with a rollicking local crowd very receptive to hearing poetry from a few strangers who'd just rolled in from New York.

Unfortunately, I think my own performance that night was terrible -- stupidly, I'd expected to find an empty room like in the theater on the Lower East Side and had barely prepared anything at all. But George Wallace and Deb Ruel both rose to the occasion, and we ended the event with a long, lively open mic in which every single member of the audience eventually got up and did something, even if it was just armpit tricks or dirty jokes. We then retired to a local saloon to get really, really wasted. It was one of my favorite poetry readings ever.

Back in New York City, my friend Eliot Katz told me that Bob Holman was about to open a new poetry club on the Bowery near Bleecker Street, across the street from the legendary nightclub CBGBs where punk rock had been born and the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Patti Smith all started their careers. I sent Bob an email and he invited me to come to the Bowery Poetry Club's opening in April 2002.

The opening was a beautiful event. I marveled at the empty, still-unfinished industrial brick-walled space, met many of the folks who would become the Bowery Poetry Club staff and regulars, and read an impromptu poem on a makeshift stage. Bob had been at my Bitter End poetry show in 1999 and now asked if I wanted to put together a new LitKicks poetry show in a few weeks. I had a lot of free time on my hands, so this seemed like a fine idea.

I started emailing poets I wanted to perform: Todd Colby, Eliot Katz, Papa Susso, Nicole Blackman, Stephan Smith, George Wallace, Mark Thomas, Brian Hassett, Pat Russell, Will Hodgson, even my sister Sharon Groth. For a special finale I invited Sander Hicks, onetime publisher of Soft Skull books (and, unbeknownst to many, an excellent lead vocalist) to perform with his punk band White Collar Crime.

Since it was April 2002 and there hadn't been much poetry during the long winter, they all seemed to understand without my telling them that this would be a memorial show, and very different in mood from the typically riotous spoken word poetry show. I invited them each to read works about September 11 if they wanted, and told them the event would have a "peace" theme. I then made a bunch of posters and pasted them up all over New York City.

It was a good, touching show. We didn't pack the house like we had at the Bitter End in '99, but we filled at least half the room. I thought Nicole Blackman and Sander Hicks were especially good that evening, and I was moderately happy with my own performance of a cut-up poem called "Fight", a collage of clashing expressions of violence that expressed what I was feeling at the time.

It felt great to do something on a public stage, and to help open the Bowery Poetry Club, one of my favorite places in New York City to this day. And when it was over I found myself back at home, watching TV, working on LitKicks, looking for work, watching my credit card bills grow.

view /PoetryAndPolitics
Tuesday, November 24, 2009 11:14 pm
Levi Asher

(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 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 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.

view /Gathering
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 11:13 am
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 40 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry. An earlier version of this chapter was published on this site in March 2003 as "A Story Without a Moral, A Day in Dust".)

Bob Dylan's new album "Love and Theft" was hitting the streets on September 11, 2001. I was building his website, and by the last week of August I knew I was in trouble.

Dan Levy and I had thrown Dylan's earlier "Time Out Of Mind" website together easily with Perl and a whole lot of BBEdit in 1997. Now these software tools were considered primitive (they were) but I hadn't realized how difficult Java-based server-side programming would be. I'd done some graphic Java programming back in 1996, and I'd built the JSP pages for the iVillage UK message boards (while Evan and Jim handled the server side) and for LitKicks. But now I was responsible all by myself for two complex server-side applications: Jive message boards, which worked fine, and a Lucene search engine for all of Bob Dylan's lyrics, which was dragging badly.

Dan wanted a full working preview on Friday, September 7. It wasn't ready, and I was starting to panic. I didn't want Dan to know how far behind I was, so I started avoiding his calls. My kids stay with me on weekends, so I got almost no work done Saturday or Sunday morning. I brought them back to Meg Sunday afternoon, and began digging in for an all-nighter.

It was stupid of me to think that I could just cruise in, grab some open source Java code and deliver a perfect application in a couple of weeks. Furious at my own bad judgment, I spent Sunday evening staring in dismay at oblique error messages, wondering what would happen if Tuesday, September 11 rolled around and the site was still not ready. The "" URL was going to appear on the CD's liner notes, and since URLs were novel on CD packages in 2001, it was important that the site be in good shape once everybody showed up. What had I gotten myself into? Sony Music was not going to hold off the release of the CD because Levi Asher was getting Java runtime errors. I felt like I was facing one of the worst and most visible deadline fuckups of my life.

On Monday morning, September 10, I finally had a breakthrough and solved the error that had been plaguing the system. But I now had a ridiculous amount of catchup design work to do before the site could be launched. Monday the 10th was a no-leave-the-apartment day, a caffeine frenzy, eat-with-one-hand and type-with-the-other day. Midnight rolled around, it was Tuesday, the morning of the release date, and I was officially late.

I was pounding away while sending status updates via Instant Messenger to Dan (and also using AIM to bemoan my hard work to Caryn, there for moral support). Dan had been working hard on final site touches, and now wanted to see my search engine so he could go to sleep. I told him I couldn't show it to him yet and pleaded with him to give me a few more hours and check with me in the early morning.

I plugged and plugged away, bleary and fuzzy-brained but highly focused. By 4 a.m. on the morning of September 11 the site seemed to be operating. Except that I was too exhausted to be able to tell if it was really working or not. I had a long list of corrections I still needed to work on -- broken graphics, typos, bad links -- but there was no way I could apply my brain to them now. The site was live, and I decided to get a few hours sleep and then get back to work. I set my alarm clock for 8 am, left my computer running, and lay back on my bed to fall asleep.

I woke up at 8 a.m., feeling tremendously good. The site hadn't crashed during my four hours of sleep, which felt like a minor miracle. I wandered into the kitchen, tired but energized by the fact that I had managed to just barely hit the deadline, and made coffee. I usually read the Times in the morning but today I had to shut out the world and get right to work. I brought my cup of coffee back to my desk and put a shuffle mode of three Dylan CD's into my CD player (I like to listen to Bob Dylan in shuffle-mode when I work on his website).

I picked up my hand-scribbled list of final changes and corrections, most of them cosmetic items of the time-consuming but not mentally-challenging variety, and started tearing through them one by one. I felt totally "in the zone".

My TV was off, and I was signed off AIM because I didn't want Dan to pop on and find out how many errors I was still fixing. If he asked, I'd have to be honest and tell him, but if he didn't ask, I figured it was unlikely he'd find them all himself. Since I was using my apartment's single phone line for my dial-up Internet connection, I was completely cut off from the outside world.

My windows were open as always to the fresh noises of Times Square, five floors below. My small Manhattan one-bedroom was on the sixth floor of an old converted hotel on 47th Street between 6th and 7th, above a cheap Turkish restaurant, right next door to the Palace Theatre, across the street from the Broadway TKTS booth. I usually heard a lot of street sounds -- cabs honking, panhandlers panhandling, tourists talking -- and I heard nothing unusual this morning. I pounded away on my bugs list, enjoying my shuffle-mode, completely oblivious to what was going on in the city outside my window.

At 8:47, I might have been listening to "On A Night Like This" from "Planet Waves". At 9:03, maybe I was listening to "What Good Am I?" from "Oh Mercy". At 9:38, it could have been "New Pony" from "Street-Legal". I worked, worked, worked.

By 10:30 the site was looking pretty good and I started my final review of all the pages to make sure everything worked. At 11 I was ready to tell Dan that the site was now officially perfect. I knew he would be waiting for me online, so I popped up my IM window to tell him the good news. But Dan wasn't on IM. Instead, two friends quickly greeted me with the same message: "Are you okay?"

I didn't expect my friends to be so concerned about my Dylan deadline. I wrote back "Sure" to one of them, and asked the other one "Yeah -- why not?". The second friend replied, "Don't be funny with me". I replied "What's going on?", grabbed my TV zapper and turned on CNN.

I saw something about the Pentagon on fire. Then I heard something about airplanes hitting the World Trade Center. Since the towers are visible in the distance from my street corner, I IM'd "I'll be right back" to both friends, logged off and scrambled to put my shoes on, intending to go outside and see what was going on. By logging off I had freed up my phone line, and at that very moment the phone rang. It was my friend Lauren, who worked at an advertising agency a few blocks from where I lived. "I'm right downstairs," she said. I said "What's going on?" I told her I'd meet her outside, threw clothes on and left.

Lauren began filling me in, but I couldn't comprehend what she was saying. She said that both towers had collapsed. "Collapsed?" I said. "What do you mean, collapsed?" There was no such thing. We were in the street, and we walked to the busy corner of 47th and Broadway, the TKTS booth corner, where we saw a strange site: a bunch of people had climbed into the back of a large truck and were standing up in the trailer as somebody rolled the back door closed on them. Where were they going? When do you ever see people standing up in the trailer of a truck and driving away?

"What the fuck is going on?" I said. Lauren had trouble understanding that I was really completely in the dark, that I was the only one in New York City, maybe the only one in the world, who had not seen it on TV or heard it on the radio.

She started explaining but I kept questioning her. She described the TV footage of the airplane crashing into the south tower, and demonstrated to me with her hands how it had sliced right through the walls. My only reaction was denial. It didn't seem believable, and I made her repeat her words several times.

We had instinctively begun walking south, towards the towers. "Where are we going?" she asked. My only instinct was to go down there, to see how we could help. As we walked I got my first glimpse way down 7th avenue -- since I hadn't seen it on the news -- of the gigantic cloud of pure white smoke that hung lazily over the southern tip of Manhattan island. The cloud seemed to encompass the towers, and was easily as tall, so that it was easy for me to believe that the towers were still there, inside that gentle ball of smoke. I had an image in my mind of towers with broken tops, a few floors fallen in.

Many New Yorkers who remember this day talk about how beautiful the weather was. What they say is true. It was a perfect and rare September day, the sky blue as a painting, the air crisp and pleasingly cool with just a touch of a warm, welcoming breeze. There was no chaos around us, just a lot of dazed faces of Times Square tourists and regulars, and a few scenes of confused attempts to organize relief efforts (like that truck bizarrely filled with people). It was impossible to connect the scene of normality around me with the words Lauren was saying. We kept walking.

Lauren was dressed for a day at work and a date afterwards, and it was not easy for her to walk in her flowered white dress and high-heeled shoes. She asked again if we'd be better off stopping in a bar or restaurant to watch what was happening on TV. I stubbornly insisted that we keep walking. The World Trade Center was about 80 blocks away, but I knew that the West Side Highway promenade would get us there fast without stopping for street traffic, and I led Lauren westward towards the highway.

Streams of people were on the West Side promenade. A few, like us, were walking towards the round white cloud of smoke, but many more were walking away from it. Lauren suggested that this was probably a hint we should take, but I wouldn't listen. As we walked I made her tell me yet again what she'd seen on the TV news. She'd only been watching it from storefront windows while wandering the street after leaving work, so she didn't know many facts. She had no idea who was believed to be responsible. There were no well-known enemies of the USA, at least as far as we knew on that morning.

I tried to use my cell phone to call Meg and Elizabeth in Queens. The calls wouldn't go through. We walked on, and around 23rd Street we saw a sight that made us begin to realize what exactly we were were walking towards. It was a burly, older fireman in full uniform, completely covered in dust and dirt. His face was streaked, his hair and walrus mustache caked in gray ash. He was walking quickly uptown, and did not seem to want anybody to say a word to him. Lauren and I looked at each other. This was really happening.

We began to ponder how many people might have died. We discussed the horrific idea of airplanes full of passengers smashing into buildings, and what this must have been like for the innocent victims. We talked with some relief about the fact that many New Yorkers typically arrive at work a few minutes late, so that most offices would not have been even half full by 9 in the morning. Neither Lauren nor I had friends who worked in the towers, so we did not feel the personal agony of fear that many other New Yorkers were feeling that morning. I told her as we walked about the one time I had gone to a business meeting in one of the towers. I had been working for a banking software company and we'd been on a sales call to Fuji Bank. I told her about the incredible cleanliness of the Fuji Bank offices, the rock-garden Japanese perfection, so unlike offices of American banks, which tended to look professional but hectic. I remembered the faces of the two Japanese businessmen we had met with. It had been the only time in my life I had ever been called upon to execute a polite Japanese bow, which I remember I only performed very slightly and without much enthusiasm -- bowing is not my style. I had also been instructed to carefully study each business card I received, instead of shoving it carelessly into my pocket as Americans do with each other's business cards.

I had many memories of the World Trade Center, actually. I'd even once eaten at Windows on the World, a swanky place, to celebrate my engagement to Meg with Mom and Gene and her Mom and stepfather.

Lauren and I reached the Chelsea Piers, where a sports center had recently opened and where I often took my kids for golf swings or batting practice. We asked a parking lot owner if we could use a restroom and he let us in. Everybody we talked to had a look in their eyes that I could only describe as crazed calm. We were crazed because of what was happening, but we were calm because we knew that we were not the victims, we were the observers, and that it would not be helpful for any of us to require attention when others needed it more. I guess you could say the crazed aspect was real, the calm aspect necessary.

I kept dialing Meg and Elizabeth but couldn't get through. Around Franklin Street, only about ten blocks north of the Trade Center, I finally got through to Daniel, my 10 year old son, on the home phone. He was confused, hyper, not upset or scared but definitely shocked. I asked him what the TV news was saying and he said something about Afghanistan being responsible. It was a shaky phone connection and we were cut off after about thirty seconds.

At Franklin Street we were looking directly up at the enormous white cloud, close enough to see a haze of tan dust hanging over the ground directly in front of us. We now were regularly seeing pedestrians with their skin and clothes covered in this tan dust, the same kind of dust that had covered the fireman walking north on the West Side Highway. A police van was blocking off pedestrians to allow emergency vehicles to get through, and it was clear that we could not walk any further down this street.

We were in front of the Tribeca Grand Hotel, and a deli was open on the opposite corner. We went in but realized there was nothing either of us could think of eating or drinking, so we stepped back outside. At the southern corner near the police van, a few people were organizing an impromptu volunteer's brigade. But there were about fifty people wanting to volunteer, and nobody apparently needing their help. Days later, we would hear about the vast waves of medical emergency volunteers who were at this moment rushing into Manhattan from all over New Jersey, Long Island, upstate New York and Connecticut, bringing with them the best medical equipment in the world, only to find out that there were no survivors to save.

Lauren and I stood with the volunteer brigade for a minute or two. But it seemed pointless, and I wanted to keep walking. I don't know why I was so insistent on going directly to the site of the disaster, except that this was my city, these were buildings I knew intimately, and like many New Yorkers, walking is what I do when I'm not standing still. It wasn't that I had any reason to continue; it was more like I had no reason not to. Lauren didn't want to go any further and considered going back alone to her apartment in Greenwich Village, not far from where we were standing now, but she begrudgingly agreed to keep walking with me, for no reason that either of us could explain.

Since I'd worked on Wall Street in lower Manhattan for over two years, I knew every street of this dense and ancient downtown neighborhood. Downtown Manhattan was the original site of New York City itself (midtown Manhattan, with its Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center and Times Square, was a later creation), and most of the streets, unlike the broad boulevards of midtown, were tight and crooked. Lauren and I circled southeast, towards the Brooklyn Bridge and the old Five Points area. We crossed Mulberry Street and stopped at a Church in Chinatown where the neighborhood residents had set up a relief center for victims.

This seemed to be a gathering spot for people who wanted to talk, including many covered in dust who had obviously been near the towers when they fell. We stopped to listen to one young Hispanic man tell the story, in a feverish but steady voice, of how he had been in the South Tower in the morning, how he'd simply walked down the stairs to safety. He wore a white shirt, covered with dust, and his tie hung loosely around his collar. An impromptu crowd had gathered to listen to him, but he didn't have much else to say.

Fulton Street, near the entrance to South Street Seaport, was where the dust cloud began. Lauren is a professional singer (she had been a member of The Washington Squares, a popular 80s band, and was currently recording a new album and performing torch songs in nightclubs). She was worried about her voice and very reluctant to walk into the cloud of dust. Of course she was right, but I irrationally told her that we could not stop now. We stepped into the tan haze.

A few others were also wandering aimlessly on these deserted streets. Many of them held napkins or handkerchiefs in front of their mouths, and Lauren briefly did the same before she decided it wasn't worth the bother. We walked through the tan haze down Pearl Street, a wide and modern avenue on the east side of Manhattan's southern tip. On both sides of Pearl Street were parked cars literally caked in fallen dust, about half an inch thick. I scooped up some of the dust with my hand and examined it. It seemed to be a mixture of two substances -- a woolly fiberglass and a fine, moist powder. No matter where it had fallen, it all seemed to have the same exact odd composition of these two substances.

Improbably, a corner deli was open on Pearl Street, and we walked inside to got a break from the air outside. About a dozen people were gathered there, all with the same poignant faces -- crazed calm -- that we had been seeing all day. I bought a Tigers Milk bar from the sad-looking young Asian man at the cash register, who managed a calm and polite smile.

We walked on, down Pearl Street. We made a right turn onto Wall Street, where I'd worked as a computer programmer at JP Morgan. By the time I left the financial market to join "Silicon Alley" I'd grown to hate my bureaucratic, Dilbert-like job with a passion, and up until this moment I'd still regarded all of Wall Street with some derision and contempt. Now, this famous street was transformed into a scene from the planet Mars. The dust covered everything. We were only a few blocks away from the site of the towers, and papers and debris fluttered in the breeze around us. I picked up a few pieces of paper, financial documents and import records, burned neatly at the edges. I found a manila folder and placed some papers inside (I still have these papers as my only relic of the day). Outside the classical-columned Citibank building I picked up a women's high-heeled shoe. "Do you think this came off somebody?" I asked Lauren, trying to wrap my brain around the horrible thought that the owner of the shoes had just died. Lauren told me that women often kept extra shoes in their desk, so maybe the worst hadn't happened to the shoe's owner. Or, we both thought, maybe it had.

We walked by JP Morgan at 60 Wall, the brass revolving doors I used to walk through every day. The company and the building I had until recently hated now seemed beaten, buried, insulted lost. For the first time in years, I felt affection for the building. I also remembered how, at the old JP Morgan building on the corner of Wall and Broad Street, there were pockmarks visible in the wall from a 1930's anarchist bomber. It seemed relevant now to look at these pockmarks, and I guided Lauren to them and pointed them out -- part of the standard Levi Asher tour of New York City architecture and trivia, now covered in the dust of a different kind of anarchy.

Alongside other pedestrians at the unreal corner of Wall Street and Broad Street, we stood helplessly, wondering what to do next. There was a peaceful silence in the air, and still that beautiful clear blue sky visible over our heads, above the cloud of dust. We now stood very close to the Trade Center site, but emergency vehicles were blocking our way on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, so I led Lauren south on Broad Street. We exited the dust cloud temporarily on Water Street, and were glad to breathe fresh air again. Lauren had by now tired of asking me if we could turn back. We walked on, into quaint Battery Park at the city's southern tip. We had now completely circled the site of the disaster, and because we were at the southern tip of Manhattan there were no emergency vehicles or roadblocks cutting off our access. We only had to re-enter the dust haze and walk north through Battery Park to reach the site itself.

I'm not sure if we walked up Greenwich Street or West Street. I only remember the horror as we stepped closer to the site itself and finally stopped at a scene that looked like the scene that is now memorialized in many photos: dust-blanketed firemen working in teams, lugging hoses, lifting, moving, organizing, calling to each other for help, their stern and sad faces overwhelmed. We stood and stared in horrible awe. Clearly we were too close to the activity, and we weren't helping anything by standing there looking, but nobody was going to pause to tell us to go away.

Cars were overturned and violently crushed on all sides. We were now so close to the white cloud of smoke that I could see details inside it, and I finally studied it enough to see what I had been unable to see all afternoon. On the south corner, barely visible through the white smoke, stood the outline of the broken skeleton of the south tower. Or at least I think that's what it was. Later I would try to return to this same corner and try to figure out what I might have been looking at. Maybe it was the wall of the fallen Marriot Hotel. I'm not sure, but I know that it was only at this moment that I understood what Lauren had meant when she said that the towers had collapsed. In retrospect, I'm sure this sounds stupid. But I hadn't seen it on TV and I had been unwilling to comprehend. I now stared directly into the white cloud and realized there were no buildings left, just air, wisps of breeze merging with the thick white smoke.

I don't know why we decided to step away from this primal scene. I guess it was too much to take. We both needed to breathe fresh air, and we walked westward into the Battery Park City complex. I was pretty much in shock at what I had only now begun to understand. As soon as we reached the Hudson River waterfront, a policeman stepped politely up to us. "We're evacuating," he said, and asked us to walk down the riverfront walkway to where an old tugboat was loading passengers.

"Where are you evacuating us to?" Lauren asked him. He shrugged; he didn't know. At that moment another cop came over with a bicyclist who was refusing to be evacuated. By listening to the transaction between the bicyclist and the two cops, Lauren and I quickly understood that we had no choice but to do as instructed.

The bicyclist was arguing with the cop, who calmly told him, "Either you are getting on that boat or we are putting you on that boat." They were as nice as they could be about it. One of them explained that they'd had reports that more buildings nearby might collapse any minute, and this was why we could not stay there

We had to step up onto an impromptu stepladder and balance precariously on the top step to make it onto the tugboat without falling into the Hudson River. The deck of the boat was completely bare, devoid of equipment, but the entire surface -- every wall, every inch of deck -- was covered in a thick coating of industrial grease. Lauren, in her flowery white dress, demurely stood without touching anything. She started talking to other passengers but I didn't feel like talking.

Finally the boat began to cross the Hudson River. Nobody told us where we were going, but it was clear we were heading for the piers at Jersey City, a ride that would only take a few minutes. We all stared silently back at the disaster scene as we travelled. I looked at the broken ruins of the Winter Garden, a glass atrium which had been connected by a pedestrian bridge to the Trade Center. The Winter Garden's glass roof was visibly smashed in. The sides of the Merrill Lynch and American Express buildings in the Battery Park City office complex looked as if they'd been ripped of a layer of skin.

The boat let us off at the Jersey City piers, where Lauren and I were embarrassed to be greeted by a kindly woman in a blue dress who stood behind a table of dixie cups filled with water. She handed us each a cup of water and a white towel to wipe the dust off our faces with. We smiled and thanked her, feeling guilty because we were not victims but just helpless bystanders. As we walked off, Lauren said "That was wrong, I feel bad."

But now, as I think back to this day, I am not sorry I took a cup of water and a towel. This woman had a table filled with dixie cups and a basket of clean towels, with barely anybody to take them. Maybe we helped her think she had done something to help. And maybe in some way she really had.

Now that we were in New Jersey, it was pretty clear that our journey had been pointless and that it was time to find our way back to Manhattan and go home. Lauren and I discussed what to do next. Strangely, when I look back on it now, it strikes me how neither of us understood how major an event this was. Lauren had a date for an off-Broadway play that evening, and she kept trying to call her date or the theatre on her cell phone to see if the play was cancelled. I said to Lauren, "I think it will be cancelled". But it is a sign of how clueless we both were at this moment that this obvious fact was not completely clear to either of us.

The Jersey City waterfront was crowded with silent people staring over the river at the burning white cloud. Lauren and I stood with them for a few moments, and noticed that people were looking at us as if we were survivors, since our clothes were covered in dust. As we watched, we noticed a building just north of the white cloud that seemed to be pouring a new thick spout of black smoke. There was an audible gasp from the crowd and we saw that the building had just collapsed, and a new, darker cloud of dust billowed evenly out under the larger white cloud. This was 7 World Trade Center, which had collapsed at 5:20 pm, just a few minutes before. So the cop who had evacuated us had been right when he'd explained that more buildings were collapsing.

We asked around about how to get back to Manhattan, and somebody told us how to walk to the PATH train station nearby. We didn't know if the PATH trains would be operable, but when we reached the station we found that they were. In fact, to the credit of the New York and New Jersey public transportation systems, all trains and subways continued to operate through the disaster. Lauren and I found the train and headed towards Penn Station, in midtown Manhattan -- back where we had started from.

I think Lauren was sick of me by now, and was glad for the chance to catch a train down to Greenwich Village and say goodbye.

I walked back to my apartment, got in, called my kids and spoke longer to them. They sounded fine, less upset than I was, at least as far as I could tell on the phone. I remember feeling how glad I was that I had already made plans to move back to Queens so I could live closer to them. The timing on this was good.

I got online and communicated with Caryn and a few other people who said they'd been worried about me, though they knew I didn't work anywhere near the World Trade Center. I checked LitKicks and saw that everybody was posting to the message boards about what had happened, but I didn't feel ready to post anything myself. I checked and was glad to see the site was up. But it wasn't getting much attention, and neither would "Love and Theft" or anything else for the next few months.

I turned on CNN and only now saw the video footage the rest of the world had already seen. I think this is a measure of how screwed up my thinking was, but I was honestly surprised how much coverage the event got on the news. I wasn't used to the rest of America caring about anything bad that happened in New York City.

I saw George Bush say that America was now in a state of war. I thought, "We are?" I did not feel capable of any analysis greater than that.

On Wednesday morning I went back downtown again. I walked on Sixth Avenue to read the hundreds of missing person posters that covered many walls. I stopped at the Empire State Building for a few minutes on the morning of September 12th to look up with love and gratitude at the skyscraper we hadn't lost. I then looked around me and saw a few others staring up at it in the same revery.

This is a story without a moral. I don't think I had an original thought or idea during the entire day of September 11. I spent a lot of it in a state of denial.

Maybe it was the next day that I started to understand what this day meant for the future of the world. Or maybe I don't understand it still.


From Levi Asher's memoir of Silicon Alley 1993-2003: September 11, 2001 in New York City.

view /Tuesday
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 11:38 pm
The ruins of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 39 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry).

By the spring of 2001 I began to face the fact that I was probably going to lose my job at iVillage.

I'd been working on a Java version of our message boards to replace our old Perl code. I almost got the go-ahead to complete this project, but then a new proposal to outsource our message boards to a company called Prospero came up and stalled my plan. I fought against this proposal bitterly, not only because outsourcing the boards would leave me without a project but also because I believed it would be the wrong move.

If we outsourced our boards, I argued to our management team, another company would physically own our data. We would maintain legal rights, but this didn't feel like a safe position in our turbulent financial times. What if Prospero went out of business, taking our boards down with them? What if they suddenly began running pop-up ads on the boards, even if our contract did not allow it? Several of us debated the pros and cons for weeks, and in the end my plan was axed.

I didn't realize how big the momentum towards outsourcing was at this time. The struggling dot-com industry was gradually moving towards a new set of approaches that would collectively come to be known as Web 2.0, and externally hosted services like Prospero were an integral part of this trend. I suppose I should have realized this and not tried so hard to change the company's decision. I may as well have been standing on a beach trying to shout down a tsunami.

Without the boards redesign to work on, I knew I was layoff bait. What, I wondered, would it feel like to be canned? I dreaded the idea of being singled out like that, of slinking away in isolated shame as friends mumbled their goodbyes, as I'd seen so many co-workers do in the past year.

If it happened to me, I resolved, I would walk out with my head high. Why should I feel ashamed? But it's hard to buck the way we really feel, and I knew I'd have to hide a lot of emotion if it took place.

I even wondered if I might go insane if I were suddenly forcibly detached from the mothership of gainful employment. I'd been living the cubicle life for 17 years straight. Without a job, would I have an identity in the world? Might I drift away into incoherence, like a character in a Paul Auster book?

I was more worried about the emotional impact than the financial, because I still had a little bit of IPO money in the bank and at least one contract job to fall back on. Dan Levy had recently called with exciting news: Bob Dylan was coming out with his first new album since 1997 and his organization wanted us to completely rebuild his website. They wanted it bigger this time, with lots of features: message boards, a lyrics search engine, a concert calendar, a completely new design. We'd throw out our Perl code, Dan said, and build everything brand new in Java. And we'd be working with Sony Music's online department this time, so If 2.0 worked out well we'd get the chance to build other artist's websites too.

Most importantly, they would pay well. This would be a good time to get laid off, I realized, because I could use the severance pay and the Dylan contract to bridge my way into a new career as an independent consultant. Logically, this made sense. But I was nervous about whether or not I'd be able to bring in enough income to pay child support and my own rent and expenses. And, I just couldn't stand the idea of being cast out of the company where I'd spent two years, where there were a lot of people I liked.

I especially liked one person, Caryn Dubelko, who'd been working with me on a chat software upgrade. Caryn worked offsite as a manager in the Community team, and we communicated via Instant Messenger during the entire course of the chat upgrade project. I was impressed at first with her quality ethic. As we put together the schedule, she messaged me: "I really want to take the time to do this project right".

You do? I thought. "That'll never fly around here". But I found her enthusiasm refreshing. Caryn and I chatted a lot and inevitably got friendly in between conversations about configuration settings and performance monitoring tools. She could really make me laugh, and I never knew what to expect her to say next. She'd message me random questions like: "what is your favorite Tom Petty song?", or tell me stories about the small Indiana town where she'd grown up.

We managed to successfully upgrade our iChat installation along with all the chatter, assisted by a third team member named Dorothy "Hobbit" who may or may not have sensed that there was some serious chemistry going on between her co-workers. The new software held up fine and we were all proud of the work we did. Unfortunately, this barely helped my job security situation, since nobody in iVillage top management cared about our chat service ("it's just chat", we constantly heard).

I probably worked harder, and with a more positive attitude, during these last few months at iVillage than I ever had before. I felt personally invested in the company's success, and I didn't want my time there to end on a low note. When Newsday (my once-hometown Long Island newspaper) interviewed me for a "My Bookmarks" feature, I plugged two iVillage message board areas, ParentSoup and ParentsPlace, among my personal favorites. I guess I was really clinging on.

One Monday morning in late June 2001 we heard that a whole lot of people were going to be laid off this week. Lots and lots of people, we heard. I knew that my time was up. My office was already clean (in these post-crash days many employees had private offices, since they were free for the grabbing) and I'd already sorted my personal items for easy packing. I waited -- Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Each day, I watched friends walk sadly away, cardboard boxes in their hands. I'd already brought in two sturdy shopping bags from home so that I wouldn't have to walk away with boxes. I never liked being a cliche.

I waited and waited and didn't hear the news till Friday afternoon. Yeah, I was out. "Thanks" I told Rich. "I know you kept me on as long as you could." I packed the shopping bags I'd brought just for this purpose, wrote a quick goodbye email to my friends in Community, talked to a few friends in Tech, got in the elevator and left the building.

I began plotting my next life steps as I walked from 37th Street to my apartment on 47th Street. I would give up this expensive apartment and move back to Queens. I would do a kickass job on and hopefully get enough music site work to pay the bills. I would buy a book on how to manage taxes as an independent consultant. Everything would be fine.

Up in my apartment, I realized I didn't want to sit around, so I went back downstairs and walked up to Central Park. A bunch of Asian women were offering massages for $5 near the Bow Bridge, and for the first time in my life I got a massage in Central Park.

I then walked around for a few hours more, thinking and planning. When I got home that night I was very happy to hear a voice mail from Caryn. She was crying, and I was glad that somebody at iVillage cared enough to cry for me. I called her back -- this was the first time we'd spoken on the phone except for short bursts or conference calls at work -- and we talked for a long time.

My first couple of months as a self-employed techie went well, thanks to the project. I loved working from home, not having to go to meetings or leave the apartment. I began seeing the kids on Wednesdays as well as weekends. I also began apartment hunting in Queens -- I'd save money on rent and be able to see the kids even more.

My biggest problems were technical. I'd been dabbling in Java for years, but now I was responsible for building not only Jive message boards but also a Lucene search engine and a custom content management system, all in Java/JSP. I quickly discovered how much about Java I didn't yet understand. The Lucene lyric search engine gave me the most trouble.

I was also working hard on upgrades to the Literary Kicks software, and cooking up a new project based on a hot trend that was currently getting some attention: electronic books. A company called NuvoMedia had created the first commercial e-book device, the RocketBook (yes, six years before the Kindle).

I liked the idea of electronic books, and decided to experiment by publishing an e-book of my own. Partly inspired by the disappointing performance of the 2000 New York Mets in last year's World Series, I dug out the novel I'd tried to publish in 1995, Summer of the Mets, and began plotting how to launch it as an e-book. Maybe, I thought, I could use my now-again popular Literary Kicks site to generate interest in the book. It seemed worth a try.

Mostly, I plugged away on, working long hours every day. I was feeding the lyrics to every song Bob Dylan had ever written into the Java-based Lucene search engine, trying to get it to spit out nicely formatted custom-designed result pages in response. Despite all the hours I put in, I was falling behind.

Dan wanted me to finish everything ahead of time, but our drop-dead date was the "Love and Theft" release date. Record companies always released new CDs on Tuesday (I never knew exactly why, but it was a firm rule) and the new Dylan album was scheduled to come out on Tuesday, September 11. The URL "" would be printed on the CD sleeve, Dan told me, so it would really be a disaster if I didn't finish all the software work in time.

Not long before the deadline I heard some excellent advance tracks from another big CD coming out on the same day as the new Dylan: "Blueprint" by Jay-Z. I had a feeling both albums were going to be something special. September 11, 2001 was going to be a big day in New York City.

view /FallingOut
Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:44 am
Levi Asher

(This is chapter 38 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

Every once in a while you get a new boss you just know you're not going to get along with. This happened to me in late 2000 after a series of layoffs and restructurings at

We'd once nearly tipped 300 employees, and now we were 175 and shrinking fast. Our layoff days tended to coincide with the holiday seasons in 2000: there was the pre-July 4th layoff, the pre-Labor Day layoff, then the pre-Columbus Day layoff (and we didn't even get Columbus Day off!), then the pre-Thanksgiving layoff (get out of here, turkey).

Every layoff was accompanied by a management shuffle, and after the pre-Thanksgiving massacre I found myself with a new boss named Stella Rotelli. Now, I actually liked Stella. She was a tad bit bossy, but she was certainly smart, had no trouble at all being decisive, and always said what she thought.

The problem was, Stella didn't like me. And, like I said, she always said what she thought, so I had little trouble figuring this out. This was a problem, especially since she was now my boss and had the right to fire me anytime.

Why didn't Stella like me? I really don't know, but I think it had something to do with my laid-back manner, my sometimes overly existential way of answering questions, and possibly an independent streak that she knew wouldn't fit in well with her parade. Well, I can handle it when people don't like me. It's their right, after all. But she was my boss, and I didn't want to get laid off. And Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa were all heading our way.

And so, my fifteen-month adventure on the "product" side of the Internet industry ended. I went running back to Rich Caccappolo, who'd been my boss in the technology department fifteen months ago, and asked if I could rejoin his team. We agreed to change my title from Director of Community Services to Director of Community Technology (though I wouldn't actually be directing anybody). I saw to it that the paperwork was quickly put through. Now I was free from the wrath of Stella Rotelli (though I still had to work with her as my end-user, and honestly she wasn't that bad. Sometimes I actually like the people who dislike me).

But I felt sheepish joining Evan and Jim and Mike and Mozam and John and Joe and Fadi back in the tech catacombs of our new building. They looked at me like "you back again?". Well, yeah, when a company is running mass layoffs on a monthly basis, a techie'd better find some real work to do.

So there I was, back in the nerd cubicles with the Rubik's Cubes and the History of Unix posters. The offices looked the same, though we had actually moved to a smaller, more nondescript building in the Fashion District on 37th Street and 7th Ave. Candice Carpenter would have never agreed to such mundane office space (and maybe that was why they had to fire her).

It felt strange to be coding again, but I was excited to discover that the software development field had gone through some big changes during my fifteen-month journey on the Other Side. The biggest change was the programming language. When I left tech in 1999, web applications were still mostly written in Perl or TCL with C++ back ends. Now, suddenly, it was all Java. I was excited about this because I'd known Java was the ideal language since it was introduced in 1995, and I had been waiting for it to catch on. Suddenly, apparently, everybody was now coding pages in JSP, using the HTTPServlet specification, and communicating via XML (yes!) with Java back-end services.

This was a poignant realization for me, because I'd been writing C++ programs since 1988, and I was sure going to miss pointers to pointers and .hpp files. But I was also happy, because Java was a better and more logical language in every way, and I was bored with C++ and loved having a new object-oriented computer language to learn.

I was assigned to build a message board platform for our British subsidiary, IVillage UK. This was based on an open-source message board system called Jive, which Jim Berrettini had found on Apache Jakarta and heard was pretty good. I was asked to get a first prototype working, and once this passed inspection we got the go-ahead to launch some actual boards on iVillage UK. If this proved successful, we would then replace our clunky Perl-based Hypernews main message boards with Jive.

I fell back into the coding routine very happily. After a year and three months working every day with Family Point and Michael Rose and Alison Abraham and Stella Rotelli, getting my hands dirty with Java felt just wonderful, like a balm.

I also had a sneaky motivation for working so hard on the Jive message boards. As I put together the iVillage UK installation, I was going home every night and installing the same software on a new dev server I'd just built for Literary Kicks. My plan to turn LitKicks into a message board-based community site was moving forward fast.

The iVillage UK project was easy because I was building from scratch, but as I made progress on the new Literary Kicks platform I realized I was going to have to port the entire site, and five years of archived content, to Java/Jive. I wanted to keep running articles along with message boards, so I would have to find a way to turn Jive into a full-fledged content management platform. This wasn't going to be easy.

Well, what the hell, I didn't have a date for New Years Eve anyway.

We launched the iVillage UK boards system and it was a success. Meanwhile, in early January I had the new Literary Kicks message boards ready to go on a private dev server, but I wasn't sure whether to flick the switch or not. Then one day while I was at work my friend Laki emailed me: Beat poet Gregory Corso, a favorite of mine, had died.

I couldn't think of much to do about this except announce it on LitKicks -- and I announced it with a message board, "For Gregory Corso".

The software held up, and people seemed to figure out what to do. Yeah, these boards seemed like they would work.

After I tweaked the software on the Gregory Corso tribute a bit, I began trying out other ideas for boards. LitKicks 2.0 didn't get many visits at first, since the site had been static for nearly a year. But folks eventually started rolling back in, and good conversations began to flow. I experimented with a variety of board names and taglines, and stuck with the ones that worked best: a free-for-all general board with the Joycean title "Utterances", a "What Are You Reading?" running thread, a more serious-minded literary topics board called "Writers and Genres".

Somebody suggested that I create some creative writing boards, and I thought this was a pretty good idea (remarkably, I never thought of the idea myself). I'd just read a biography of painter Jackson Pollock, and this inspired me to call the main poetry board "Action Poetry". I also created some other writing boards like "Roadgoing" and "Stories". "Action Poetry" was always my favorite, though (and is, today, the only part of the old LitKicks 2.0 message board platform that remains in place).

I met many LitKicks readers in the first few months of the boards that I would never have met otherwise. Some of the earliest to show up were "judih", "billectric", "jota", "sooZen", "mtmynd", "doreen peri", "Lightning Rod", "panta rhei" and "Scootertrash". New folks were joining the party every day.

I had no idea where I would take this thing next, or what it was good for. I guessed we'd figure it out eventually, and we were having fun.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009 12:40 am
Levi Asher

The memoir I've been writing is an honest account of one part of my life: the work I do. Because this is a story taking place in a modern professional workplace, I like to compare it to other recent books, movies, TV shows and plays that cover similar territory, like the great TV series "The Office", the movie "Office Space", Joshua Ferris's "Then We Came To The End", Ed Park's "Personal Days", Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs", Michael Wolff's "Burn Rate", Mike Daisey's "21 Dog Years".

These works are often very clever and touching, but they can also be dishonest for at least one reason. They tend to rely heavily on irony and sardonic humor, adopting tones that are Kafkaesque, absurdist. The message of these work stories all too often amounts to "people are crazy here". And since people are crazy here, the implicit heroes of these stories maintain a knowing distance.

In real life, this is a lie. Very few of us manage to maintain a cool ironic distance from our jobs, or from the people we work with. It's much more comfortable to snicker about the problems we face every day than to admit that we are deeply, passionately engaged in the projects we work on, and that we care obsessively, often to an unhealthy degree, about what our co-workers think of us. Why is this so hard to admit? In the chapters I've recently added to this memoir, I've been forced to make one of the most painful and embarrassing admissions anybody could possibly make in an autobiography. I went to work every day and I really did care about it. I liked it when I did well and I hated it when I did badly. More importantly, I liked it when *we* did well and I hated it when *we* did badly.

I also lost my composure often, and maybe some of my common sense too, and I'm not sure I ever fully got either of these things back. I did, however, learn how to fight to survive, how to take control of my own destiny.

My greatest goal with this project, as quaint as this may seem, is to write a moral tale. In some strange way, I want this memoir to be a book of philosophy, a set of arguments, a record of lessons learned. I am very encouraged by the positive feedback I've gotten so far, which convinces me that I must be getting through to at least some readers out there. If it were not for this encouragement, I don't think I would have continued past Chapter Ten.

I began this online writing experiment in January, and I'm planning to end the first phase of it -- the weekly chapters comprising a ten-year period of my life, 1993 to 2003 -- by the end of December. That doesn't mean the entire memoir will be finished by then, because the complete story I want to tell takes place between 1993 to 2008, a fifteen-year span. But I am going to save the concluding chapters that cover 2003 to 2008 for a later time.

This is partly because I think the ten year tale of 1993 to 2003 has a nice arc, and I think I can bring it to a satisfying conclusion by December. I like the neat idea that I've spent exactly one year writing about a period of ten years. And, really, I need a break, and I'm looking forward to calling the main phase of this writing experiment done at the end of this year -- reeling it in, taking inventory ... getting my privacy back.

Then, once I've taken a long break, I have a few different ideas what I'll do next. I need to figure out what form this memoir ought to take once I revise it (I'm sure I can tighten up the prose with a second draft). Then I'll return to write the 2003-2008 chapters online, beginning sometime in 2010, or I will write them in some other form, or maybe I'll never write them at all. I'm really not sure what I'll do next.

I'll be posting the next chapter next week as usual. We're now at the end of the year 2000, and there's a lot of story left between now and the concluding summer of 2003. One procedural change: I plan to begin posting stories on Tuesdays or Wednesdays from now on, instead of the usual Wednesdays or Thursdays. I definitely plan to keep up the pace of one chapter a week until we reach the summer of 2003. It's starting to get easy.

Thanks again, dear readers, for your attention and positive vibes. I hope you all get to write your own memoirs someday too -- it's a hell of a way to come to terms with your past, and you might be surprised what you discover. See you next week.

view /ThirdInterludeBringingItHome
Friday, October 23, 2009 02:16 am
Levi Asher