Mix in the swirling mysteries
“The plan was to open the garage door and film it right there.”
He points at the door behind him. The air is thick with cigarette smoke. The walls have absorbed so much that it oozes from the wood, even after the cigarette is put out.
“Jack White and Jimmy Page were going to be in Austin at the same time. Everything was lined up, but it fell through at the last minute.”
I’m listening to Tom Oatley describe the scene from It Might Get Loud that was almost filmed in his backyard workshop. He’s matter-of-fact about it; there’s no ego in the tale or regret in its conclusion. Actually, everything about Tom and his workshop is matter-of-fact.
My son’s electric guitar needed its action adjusted and a new set of strings. When you start playing the guitar, the action is generally set on the low side, with the string tension somewhat relaxed. After you put in a lot of time, you’re ready for more demanding action. It’s like keys becoming harder to press the more you type.
Tom doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t have hours, so it’s best to call his cell before you show up. I heard about him the same way everyone does, by asking a local musician if he knew a good guitar tech. In Austin, the answer is usually Tom.
My first visit was a series of This can’t be right moments. When my phone reported that my destination was on the left, I laughed. All I saw was a nondescript one-story house. I walked toward it carrying the guitar case, each step more unsure than the last until I saw a gate on the side with a sign: Oatley’s Guitar Garage.
I swung it opened, hoping I wasn’t responsible for the cat that quickly passed by me into the front yard. There was a path that led to a building in the back. I started down it, curious if I was getting closer to the shop or closer to being charged with trespassing. The tiny shed had windows along the side and a screen door that looked incapable of closing completely. I tapped on it. “Tom?”
I stepped inside. He was sitting at a workbench covered with tools, strings, and parts. The walls were lined with guitars and cases.
It was during that first visit that I realized it’s always worthwhile to ask Tom a question. The man has stories. He’s worked with a string of notable musicians, some for multiple decades. He’s gone on tour and, I found out on my latest visit, nearly hosted two amazing guitar players for a documentary.
I love listening to Tom and his work is second-to-none, but that’s not what makes Oatley’s Guitar Garage an unforgettable place for me. It’s how Tom treats me and my son. When we first stepped into the shed, we were as far from his typical customer as we could be; a father and son with an entry-level guitar and little idea what we were doing, and not a van or tattoo in sight.
What became clear in those first few moments, though, is that every customer is equal in Tom’s eyes, every guitar a worthy challenge. He patiently answered our questions. He talked up the sound of this beginner guitar, telling us it was good enough to play on any of Austin’s many stages. Most importantly, he spoke to my son like an equal, someone who was now part of a never-ending line of people under the spell of this instrument. There was no shame in starting out, just an emphatic sense of how much fun there was to come.
He didn't charge us enough.
The latest dispatch asked, What's the best thing you read this year?
It's so hard to pick just one. Can I give you three? :) I read all of these very recently, so I might be biased, as their effects are still fresh in my mind.
First up was "How Google Works". I picked up this book in a time of great trials this year, and its clear and immediate style of writing gave me something to hold on to. Since college, I haven't heard scientists talk very often, and it was refreshing to go back to a very methodical style of thinking and reasoning. (Compare this to how the British press carries out arguments in the public sphere, and you'll know what I mean.) Plus, it was full of encouragement and ideas. So much writing out there, particularly in the press, seems to be about what can't be done, rather than what can. So, I really enjoyed this.
Next was a classic, which I read for the first time only this year: Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro". Just a few pages, covering a short space of time, but they took my breath away. It's a great feat to be able to take a reader, particularly one who hasn't read much of your work before, to a concluding scene that they almost feel they're present at.
Finally, "Where'd You Go Bernadette". A delightful caper of a story about an artist in Seattle, who effectively goes into hiding from the world after a painful experience. Moments of incredible sensitivity and brilliance. I read it in one go.
The best thing I've read this year was a NYT piece by John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie. It's a long one, but it's far and away the best article I've read all year. I admit to having a soft spot for Delta blues, but when you mix in the swirling mysteries surrounding Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, Sullivan's attempts to uncover any information about them, and an impressive and immersive multimedia offering, I think this piece is one that will appeal to just about anyone and stay with them long after. I can't recommend it enough.
Best things I read/listened to this year: How One Boy With Autism Became BFF With Apple’s Siri, All Technology Is Assistive, Taylor Swift’s White Noise, and Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me.
This may classify as just outside of the last year: Some Thoughts About Class in Australia, but this from May is superb too: Whatever Happened to the Working Class.
Making reading recommendations is really hard. Also, I read a ton of books; I have no idea what I was reading in January. And, anyway, what is "best" (besides to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, etc.)? So I'll just point to a few things that I found remarkable recently:
The run of Captain Marvel, a comic book, with Carol Danvers in the titular role by Kelly Sue DeConnick. This is part of the growing number of women's voices in comics, and DeConnick made me care about super heroes for the first time in years.
Rat Queens, another comic, set in a fantasy world (D&D with the serial numbers filed off) about an awesome group of four mercenary ladies by Kurtis J. Wiebe. The four main characters are all very different from each other, but their relationships feel very real. Also it's super funny.
Matt Fraction's stint as the author of Hawkeye, also a comic. He makes one of the most boring Avengers (no powers, what?) and shows him as an interesting, flawed Everyman who can't keep his life together. The dialog is rock solid.
To continue the comics parade, Saga by Brian K. Vaughn. It's a sort of fantasy/super-soft-scifi setting. The main characters are new parents from opposite sides of an age-old war. Their relationship, especially on the topic of the kid and their parents, feels legit to me.
If you're into longer reads, I'm pretty sure I read Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey this year. Anyway, it's extremely compelling mostly-hard scifi. It makes space travel that takes months and battles that span thousands of kilometers seems tense and super exciting. Somehow, the pacing feels like an action movie, without being vapid or exhausting.
And kids books! Journey by Aaron Becker is a wonderfully illustrated booked with no words that tells a simple story with subtlety and skill. Instructions by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess. If you know their work, I need say nothing more and if not, you should rethink your life a little.
It took me 3/4 of the year to finish it, and is admittedly and unfortunately the only book I've read in entirety this year, but I would say Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" was the best thing I've read this year. I read "Atlas Shrugged" a few years ago and loved it. "The Fountainhead" didn't have the same impact that Atlas had for me, but it was still fantastic and entirely worth the 8 months and almost 800 pages.
One of the books I read this year was the original Dutch version of Anne Frank's diary, "Het Achterhuis", as I prepared for a trip to visit the Netherlands, a country I love dearly. I knew her story in outline, but reading the gritty details in her own maturing teenage voice made it much more real, horrific, and inspiring.
Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors, and this year I read three of his books: "The Promise" (sequel to "The Chosen"), which tells about Danny and Reuven becoming adults and dealing with the harsh realities of the world; and "My Name is Asher Lev" and "The Gift of Asher Lev", which explore what it's like to discover your true self in a culture that doesn't always understand or accept you.
Kathy Sierra’s Why the Trolls Will Always Win and Maciej Ceglowski’s many pieces, namely The Internet With A Human Face and his two-part piece on traveling to Yemen, Sana’a and Green Arabia.
Best reads 2014 include: The Checklist Manifesto, The Comedian's Comedian's Comedian, and A Tower in Babel.
I sat down to read "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" because I was feeling discouraged and having a tough time getting my own creative work done, and I just wanted to escape into another world for a while. I read it in three sittings—something I only rarely get to do now that I’m a grown-up. I didn’t exactly get what I wanted; the Oz of Gregory Maguire resembles our own world much more than it resembles the Oz of L. Frank Baum. But I got something much better instead: a story about a highly sensitive, highly principled outcast whose hopes and ambitions consistently crumble in the face of life’s indifferent realities. To say much more would ruin what I found to be special and wonderful about the book, but let me give it the best recommendation I can:
I’ve never before read a book that resonated with me as profoundly as "Wicked" did. After I finished it, I spent the rest of the evening and much of the next day just thinking about it and trying to process the emotions it stirred up in me.
It’s not for everyone. When I looked up the original New York Times review of it, I found that the critic had panned it with great prejudice. My mother—who I would not have expected to have more than a passing awareness of the book—told me that she had in fact read it some months before. Literally her only comment on it was, “I found it tiresomely sexual.” I was so bewildered and crushed by this that I didn’t follow up with further questions.
In fact, the book does contain quite a bit of sexual content and sexual reference, among other themes and incidents not suitable for children or people offended by such things. But I will certainly read it again one day, and probably return to it multiple times throughout my life, as I suspect it will continue to hold new meaning and value as I grow older and more experienced.
This year has been tumultuous like most years, but more so for me personally and for American society in general, I think. The best thing that I read this year was a two-part essay series from Quinn Norton exploring the history of racial privilege in the US Part I, Part II. It is an honest and forthright dive into historical complexities that few people appreciate and that may inspire discomfort in some, as it should. If you read anything to improve yourself and your grasp of your station in life this year, especially if you’re American, make it Quinn’s series.
Platforms as Cultures by Jennifer Brook:
In becoming a maker, both of physical books and of digital forms, I’ve learned that content and form are not two strangers that come together with ease and obviousness. They are more like quarrelsome lovers engaged in a hot sweaty dialogue.
Parable of the Polygons by Vi Hart and Nicky Case:
Look around you. Your friends, your colleagues, that conference you're attending. If you're all triangles, you're missing out on some amazing squares in your life - that's unfair to everyone. Reach out, beyond your immediate neighbors.
With this dispatch, we've surpassed 1,000 prompt replies. This community has created a treasure trove of humorous tales and memorable stories.
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