Saturday, June 7, 2014

Cross One Off the Bucket List

On Friday, I was able to check off one of those bucket list items -- getting a letter to the editor published in the New York Times. This one was driven by the ongoing and rather frustrating battle between Amazon and the latest publisher that it's looking to pressure, Hachette. As a rapacious reader and a heavy investor in the Kindle method of consuming books, I am finding this whole process to be remarkably annoying.

However, after doing a bit more research, I decided that while I was ticked off at Amazon (so when exactly will we get our pre-ordered copy of the new "JK Rowling-writing-as-Robert-Galbraith" novel that's being published by Hachette and isn't available on Amazon now?), I didn't have much sympathy for Hachette and the other publishers either. Here's why:

To the Editor:

Neither Amazon nor the publishers are pure of heart. Amazon is facing serious pressure on the profitability front from investors, so it is looking to increase margins and reduce costs.

The publishers see e-books as their largest profit area. A Publisher’s Lunch article last year showed the profit breakdown for HarperCollins: A $27.99 hardcover provides a $5.67 profit to the publisher and a $4.20 royalty to the author; a $14.99 e-book provides a $7.87 profit to the publisher and a $2.62 royalty to the author.

While the publishers are making a claim to a noble struggle against Amazon’s efforts to devalue publishing, they are also seeking to protect their higher profits on e-books, not higher royalties for writers. While Amazon claims to want to offer readers the best pricing, Amazon has no qualms about using its powerful market leverage to get what it seeks while inflicting collateral pain on readers to boost its profits.

The two players that are suffering in this situation are the authors (book sales delayed or prevented, dramatically lower royalties) and the consumers, many of whom have invested heavily in the Kindle-based environment.

CHRIS WATSON
Barrington, R.I., May 31, 2014

(originally published in the New York Times op-ed letters section on June 5, 2014)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Rambling into Midnight

In the late 70s, when I was about 10, my mother took me to a movie at theAvon Cinema in Providence. The Avon still exists with what feel like the same seats but a better class of independent films and higher ticket prices. But back in the 70s and early 80s, as I entered my movie-going prime, the Avon was the sort of place that showed double features of It Came from Outer Spaceand The Creature from the Black Lagoon on Saturday afternoons and then a double feature of Conan the Barbarian and Stripes at night. Better still, the Brown students manning the box office didn’t care who went in to see the films so starting in 6th grade, when my friends and I were allowed to roam Thayer Street at night on our own, we’d go in, eat popcorn, watch R rated movies, and then go across the street to play Centipede or Tempest at Store 24 during the intermission.
On this particular night, though, it was different. I was there with my mom, for one, and second, we weren’t seeing the sort of movie that I usually enjoyed at the Avon. It was a concert film. I’m not sure if I went along because there was no sitter available or if she decided she wanted me to see it. For whatever reason, I sat there with my mom in the not-too-terribly-comfortable seats as the lights went down, pot smoke wafted through the theatre (“mom, what’s that funny smell?” “I’ll tell you later.”), and the cheesy “visit the snack bar” promo played.
And then The Last Waltz began.
I didn’t really understand the movie as I watched it. It wasn’t until later years that the conversations between director Martin Scorcese (who, I believe, may have shot this amazing film for free) and the members of The Band made sense to me as they reflected on 16 years together, life on the road, and the end of their collaboration. I knew the music of The Band and many of the guests in this now legendary concert documentary because my parents played so much of it at home. I was too young for it to be “my music” (that honor tends to reside mostly with the music of the ’80s) but I recognized the songs and I knew the names though not necessarily the importance of the performers. (I wondered why Ringo didn’t get a more prominent place, instead of just getting some guest drum work, for example).
At the heart of it all was The Band — Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. As a kid, I loved their music, which sounded so different than so much of the other stuff that my parents and my friends listened to. Songs like OpheliaThe Night They Drove Old Dixie DownIt Makes No Difference, and Up On Cripple Creek rank right up there with pretty much anything off of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run as the first music that I really started to appreciate as music, as performance, as a form of language. Of course at 10 or in my teens, I didn’t really put it that way but that music resonated with me and continues to do so.
And The Band? Well, they’d already broken up by the time I was paying attention but they were all still out there performing in some fashion. My parents, very active in the arts community in Providence in the 70s, were friends with various writers and journalists. I remember them coming home from a night out in Boston with a music critic acquaintance where they not only saw The Band’s Levon Helm play but then went and hung out with him in his hotel room (or backstage, I don’t remember which).
When I went to college, my father bought me each of Robbie Robertson’s solo albums and sent them to me where I would play them repeatedly along with my copy of the soundtrack from The Last Waltz. When Robertson spent time exploring his Native American heritage, all of those albums joined my collection. Those albums made the transition from tape to CD and eventually to digital where I listen to one of them at least once a month while at my office or alone in the car.
While Danko and Manuel passed away years ago, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm continued to make their way into the music and movies I enjoyed. Helm was the most visible, showing up as Sissy Spacek’s dad inCoal Miner’s Daughter, the aged sniper in Shooter, and my personal favorite, The Right Stuff, where he doubles as the narrator with his unmistakable Arkansas drawl and as Chuck Yeager’s (Sam Shepherd’s) mechanic and best friend, Jack Ridley (“Ridley, got any Beemans?” “Yeah, I might have me a stick.”). Most recently, it was his Midnight Rambles, an opportunity for artists, musicians, and friends to gather and perform at Helm’s farm in upstate New York that kept him in the music world, even to the point of winning two Grammys, following a debilitating fight with cancer.
Two summers ago, we spent a sunny August afternoon on my mom and stepdad’s sailboat anchored off Ft. Adams State Park listening the the Sunday performances at the Newport Folk Festival. The closing act and the highlight of the weekend, was Levon Helm making what was to be his last performance at the Festival. When he was announced and began to play, there was a surge in the crowd and a roar of appreciation. My mother, standing on the deck and holding onto the mast, kept saying “It’s him! Can you see him? It’s Levon!” and I could understand her excitement. This was a legendary performer, someone I grew up listening to, whose voice and music were among those I enjoyed the most and I was getting to see him live at least once, even if from a distance and with age and health sapping his ability to perform. Still, it was Levon (really, there’s no last name required) and it was worth it.
Yesterday, Levon’s family announced what all of his fans had been expected and dreading for years. He was in the final stages of his lengthy battle against cancer and his family appreciated the support and prayers being sent his way. His own personal, final ramble into midnight was approaching and that unique, memorable voice would be stilled. Thankfully, with the albums by Levon and The Band in my playlist, it won’t ever be silenced and that’s something we can all be thankful for.
*** Postscript added 4/19 to the original 4/18 post ***
RIP Levon, who passed away today at the age of 71.

Friday, September 2, 2011

68 Hours

(The following written on the afternoon of September 2, 2011, en route from Providence, RI, to Orlando, FL)
I’m less than 2 hours from meeting my daughter.
The jet is cruising at 36,000 feet and in a shocking turn of events, I have the entire exit row (aka “first class” on Southwest Airlines) to myself. This has never happened before and while not superstitious, I wonder if it’s just another bit of the good fortune that appears to have been flowing through my life over the last two weeks.
Well, except for the hurricane and losing power, phone, and Internet for 4 days. Yet even there, we suffered no damage, no flooding, and everyone we know came through it safe and sound.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Eight days ago I accept a great job offer following an almost 3-month interview process. It offers tremendous opportunities and won’t require us to relocate. Yes, it means ending my 13-year tenure with my current employer but it’s time for a new challenge. I am thrilled to get the position, especially knowing how competitive the job market is right now. I give two and a half weeks notice and began to prepare for the transition.
Then Hurricane Irene hits and much of Rhode Island, including our town, goes dark. But our damage is minimal and the neighborhood gets together to help clean up the fallen trees and debris in all the yards on Monday. Still, we are cut off even via cell phones unless we leave the house and go elsewhere (not quite sure why but neither AT&T nor Verizon can deliver reliable service to our house). But my office is open for business on Tuesday and I head off to work frantically on the projects required to make my transition out as smooth as possible for my friends and co-workers.
Jennifer stays home, doing some cleanup from the storm and trying to put things to right. Unlike a normal day during which at least a few text messages will zip back and forth just to say “hi” and “I miss you”, there’s radio silence. My messages are going out but she’s not receiving them.
Late that day, a friend in the office comes by to say hi. He’s been on vacation and only just heard that I was departing. The topic of families comes up as he and his wife are due to have their first child in October. He knows how long we’ve been waiting and the devastation we felt when our previous adoption placement collapsed when the birth mother changed her mind four days before her due date.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “It will happen for you.”
Ten minutes later, my cell phone rings.
“Hello,” I say.
“Chris? It’s T, from Adoption Network. I’ve been trying to reach you all day.”
“We’ve been out of contact due to the hurricane,” I say. “No phone, no power, no Internet. What’s up?”
“I’m calling about a placement opportunity but it’s an unusual situation and I’ll need your feedback right away.”
I stand up, close the door to my office, and then sit back down again, pen and paper in hand.
“What is it?”
“There’s a young woman in Orlando, Florida. She came to us last week, pretty late in her pregnancy. She’d thought about abortion but decided against it because she knows there are families who want to adopt. Her due date was September 10th.”
“Ok,” I say, swallowing hard.
“Well, she had the baby today and we need to identify the adoptive parents tonight because the baby will be discharged from the hospital on Thursday.”
I’m baffled. Can she really be saying what I’m hearing? And now of all times?
T fills the gap left by my silence. “I know how long you and Jennifer have been waiting and how hard it was back in March. K, the young woman, has already seen your profile and those of two other families as she’s been completing the paperwork before going to the hospital today.”
“I need to know if you want me to show her your profile again. If she chooses you, you or Jennifer will have to get to Florida tomorrow.”
She rattles off some more details that I dutifully scribble down on a piece of scrap paper, the information washing over me. Key phrases stick…
“The baby is healthy.”
“It’s a little girl.”
“Oh wow,” I breathe. “T, I need to talk to Jennifer but she’s at home and I can’t reach her by phone or cell. However, I’m meeting her in 15 minutes for dinner. Can I call you back in half an hour?”
“Yes, of course.”
And with that, I’m shutting down my computer, cramming materials into my briefcase, digging out my keys, and fleeing the building with butterflies in my stomach.
The drive to our favorite restaurant feels interminable as I get caught at stoplights, and stuck behind a succession of pokey little econoboxes and trucks.
I pull up to the restaurant and run toward the door, slowing as I see Jennifer sitting on the bench outside, phone to her ear, notepad in her lap.
I hear her ask a question and realize she must be talking to T. The voicemail that never reached my wife’s cell phone at home has emerged from the void to spring upon her in front of El Parque. I realize that I’m seeing a mirror of how I must have looked at my desk a short time before, scribbling notes frantically as T relays the details. Finally, she signs off with the promise that we’ll be calling back very soon.
She looks up at me.
“When it rains it pours, huh?” I ask.
And we both burst into laughter.
“Holy crap.”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know. I guess we need to talk about it.”
“Out here or are you ok talking in the restaurant?”
“Oh, I think I need to sit down and have something to drink.”
And so we go inside. The small bowl of chips and homemade salsa are emptied rapidly, mostly by me in a fit of nervous hunger.
“I don’t think I can eat,” Jennifer says.
In truth, that’s about all I can remember of the conversation at the table. I know we talk about the challenges that would arise due to travel (one of us would have to be in Florida for one to two weeks for the paperwork to clear) and me leaving one job and starting another (well, there goes my plan to take few weeks off to be with the baby). We have no way to do any of the things we’d need to do from home, given the current stone age situation.
And in the end, none of it matters.
We can’t turn down the opportunity. Besides, K might not even pick us so all of these issues will be non-factors.
I step out and call T.
“Ok, show her our profile again.”
Back at the table, my stomach is twisting and nagging sense of doubt creeps in. Are we nuts? Can we actually do this? What sane person would do this in the midst of every other change and challenge in our lives? Did we make the right decision.
“We could call her back,” Jennifer says, a questioning note in her voice. But we don’t.
Fifteen minutes later, the phone rings.
“Congratulations,” says T.
************
The next few hours are a frenzy. After leaving the restaurant and hugging and laughing and sitting by the side of the road sobbing in terror and joy and relief together, we head for my mother’s house, where power, Internet, and a reliable phone line are available.
A plane ticket is purchased for Jennifer (yay Southwest!). I will follow a day or two later to give me a chance to meet some commitments and deadlines at work.
A hotel suite is reserved for the next two weeks (yay inexpensive hotels in Orlando!).
E-mails are sent to and from T.
Documents are printed.
My mother and stepfather are informed when they come home, walking into their kitchen asking, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Calls are made to a few other family members but no other messages go out. We’ve been disrupted before and we’re not going to jinx it by letting everyone know yet.
Finally, exhausted, Jennifer and I head home at 11 PM to get her packed up for her morning flight. Conveniently, when the Universe crashed in on us in March, we’d been all packed and ready to head to Arizona as soon as we got word that the birth mom was in labor. We never unpacked the “baby duffle.” I just wasn’t able to bear it and so it sat, zipped and ready to go for five months. Until the night of August 30th.
There isn’t much sleep to be had that night. We are both too keyed up.
Finally, I head off to work, giving Jennifer a kiss and hug. Sitting at my desk, I devour the occasional text messages from my wife as she surmounts a few unexpected challenges (I think I’ll leave it to her to tell that part of the story sometime) and touches down in Florida.
And then I receive the first photo of a lovely, tiny person held in Jennifer’s hands. My heart stops. More photos trickle in along with updates on her conversations with K, the adoption case worker, and the nurses. Phone calls from a few family members come in asking for updates.
Finally, I leave work and head home, planning to go to my mom’s house to show her pictures and provide an update, even if I had power at the house. Jennifer and I speak again and I soak up every detail. K still seems willing and ready to proceed with the adoption. The paperwork process will begin at 10 AM the next day. And despite my entreaties, Jennifer holds off on sending me a picture of her with the baby.
“I don’t feel right doing that,” she explains. “She’s still K’s baby, I’m in the room with her and it would feel presumptuous. After the paperwork is done and we’re her parents.”
Argh!
There isn’t much sleep to be had on Wednesday night either. By the time I go to bed, we are just over 24 hours from the initial call from T and our lives are totally upended.
Thursday morning. 36 hours into the event. I savor a brief phone call with an exhausted Jennifer who stayed at the hospital well into the night. We make the final determination of the baby’s name should we be so lucky as to become her parents. I make the drive into Providence to get an updated criminal background check to prove I’m not a psycho. And then I am on my way to work, fretting as I drive, caught in traffic and knowing it’s after 10 and the process is supposed to be underway.
The text messages begin their steady crawl on my iPhone.
10:36 AM (Jennifer): Give me a call when you can. I have to fill out the long form and need your social security number and some other info.
10:50 AM (Jennifer): I signed all the papers. The attorney now in with K having her sign everything. OMG. This is really happening.
11:01 AM (me): I’m at my desk. Having a bit of trouble breathing.
11:01 AM (Jennifer): me too
11:20 AM (me): Anything?
11:20 AM (Jennifer): Still waiting
11:21 AM (me): This is nerve-wracking.
11:21 AM (Jennifer): What about this entire experience hasn’t been nerve-wracking???
11:22 AM (me) Bonus wracks for being so close to it happening. I’m sorry I’m not there with you.
11:22 AM (me) I’m sorry too. But you’ll be here tomorrow and we will just get to hang out without anyone else around!
(In the midst of all this, other text messages from family members are arriving, wanting to know what’s going on.)
11:41 AM. A text message arrives from Jennifer containing just this:

I begin to weep at my desk.
*************
And now my flight to Orlando is beginning its descent. I’m 30-40 minutes from seeing my wife and meeting my daughter for the first time.
It still feels unreal.
My daughter.
I have a daughter.
Jennifer is a mom.
I’m a dad.
After two and a half years of dreaming, of crying, of frustration, of excitement, and of anticipation, it’s actually happened.
Family and friends are flooding us with calls and e-mails and comments on Facebook. Things are being ordered from our Amazon baby registry. I’m getting congratulations from people I’ve worked with for years and I’m glad this happened before I departed for the new job so I can share it with them.
But all of that pales in light of what’s about to happen to me and to my family.
It’s 68 hours since the call from T.
I’m about to meet my daughter.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Oh Wow

Massive hurricane? Check. No light, power, phone, Internet or electricity for four days? Check. Switching to a new job? Check. Adopting a baby in the space of 48 hours? Sure! Why the hell not! Clearly, the Universe has a twisted sense of humor.
More details coming soon but the adoption journey is over and the journey as parents and a family begins today.
Welcome to the world and to our family, Esme Louisa!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Turning to tech to get writing again

It's amazing what a change of scenery and some new tech will do when you're stuck in neutral on a writing project.

My wife, to my utter shock, bought me an iPad 2 a little while ago as a birthday/10-year anniversary gift after we'd talked about strategies to get writing again. I'd found myself in a non-writing rut for a while and needed to shake things up. I do enjoy writing on my computer here at home using a fantastic application called Scrivener (I can't recommend it highly enough) but between the cat and other distractions (phone, TV in the same room, the knowledge that there was laundry to be done, etc.), it's been hard to get into a groove at home.

However, going mobile felt even worse as my laptop -- a very fine MacBook Pro -- is my work computer and frankly, I spend too much time using that system every day at work to really feel comfortable spending my free time writing on it as well.

And then the topic of an iPad came up and to my surprise, Jenn went out and got one for me. First of all, it's a really cool gizmo and one that has changed how and where I read the news every day among other things. But more importantly, with a Bluetooth keyboard and a very slick way to get access to my Scrivener projects via iPad (the free Simplenote app), I suddenly found myself with an ideal way to get away from the stuff on my desk and the loving cat desperate for attention and instead camp out in our local library (recently redone from top to bottom and now one of my favorite places) and write. I hunker down in a carel with a nice view of the gardens, tucked away in solitude on the third floor in the Religion section that no one ever seems to visit, and I've found myself writing again.

The great thing is that this doesn't feel like a short-term fad. I love the iPad, I love using it as a writing tool, and most critically, I have not permitted any work-related apps, e-mails, or other materials to be loaded onto it. It's 100% a personal tool, one that I can pick up and move wherever I need to be. With the synchronization to my Scrivener project, I'm have access to the same notes, chapters, scenes, and more that are available via my iMac. I'm not done with my novel yet but I'm farther along than I was a few weeks and months ago, which feels very good.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Have jet pack, will go...boating?

This is either the coolest or nuttiest innovation in "boating" that I've seen in a long time. OK, I'll admit it...I think it's pretty cool. Very "Thunderball."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dumb Criminals

There's a bit of a scandal going on in the Rhode Island defense industry as a local firm has been shut down following allegations of a $13.5 million kickback scandal. An executive at the firm and the civilian program manager tasked with overseeing contracts are at the heart of the alleged criminal activity. Now, one of these individuals has clearly demonstrated that smarts and subtlety are not prerequisites for crime. showing that you really don't need to be terribly smart to pull off big crime.