Alert Fire Chief and Captain, Silent Friends save Firefighter/Writer from Self-Immolation

There’s a fine line between “Hey, cute idea” and “Holy Fuck, was that ever a stupid idea”. Well I like to walk that razor’s edge. I guess that’s why some folks call me “Danger Man”. Well, actually, nobody calls me Danger Man, but if they did, that might indicate why.

See, I’m going to the O’Reilly Etech Conference next week to try to sell some of my books to the “alpha geeks” as (Tim O’Reilly calls his posse). And to any beta geeks who might be there, and so-on right through the omega geeks, and thence on to the roman alphabet geeks.

So I thought it would be nice to join the modern age and make a little video about me and my books. I was kind of inspired by this self-mocking movie by my friend Josh Crowley at Enter the Jabberwock. I figured, hey, Josh makes cool movies, all the big time writers have youtube movies to promote their books, *I* should make a movie! I thought that was a swell idea.

Not all ideas that I think are swell actually are good ideas, however.

While walking my hyper puppy through the State Forrest, thinking about Josh’s movie, I came up with an idea for a similar movie that made me laugh. And the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, the more I laughed, and as my laughter resounded through the empty snow-covered expanses, and as I elaborated the video idea in my mind, I decided to make it. Time was short — only about three days remained before I would be leaving for California — but I knew that if I roped in a few of my friends, it could be done. So I came home and wrote up a script and commenced to sending out notes to friends and acquaintances asking for their help.

Only two persons responded. (Well, four people, actually. See below.) One person declined to participate, one offered to help, and two people quashed it altogether, extinquishing the very premise of the movie by “surround and drown”, as they would a dumpster fire.

The background of the movie idea is this: I’m a self-published writer, and although I think my books are great and although they have gotten rave reviews in some quarters, and although I have gotten hundreds of nice notes from people who’ve read my books, the books are not exactly what you would call monster (financial) hits. Especially my most recent book The Pains. So far, it’s a big money-loser. I’ve been only intermittently employed since getting laid off 16 months ago. I have money worries. I cannot afford to lose money on vanity book publishing. I need to sell some of these things, dammit. So frankly I’ve been feeling a little vulnerable on the whole “self-published author” thing.

Before I got to conferences like Etech and try to sell my books, I have to get myself psyched up, because it’s hard on the ego when people chuckle at you and insinuate (or say outright) that your books must suck, because they’re self published– and as everybody knows, all self-published books suck. Although I’ve made good money going to venues like E-tech in the past, there is always the chance that going to Etech will itself be a money-losing venture. So frankly I’ve been feeling a little vulnerable about the whole “selling my book from a booth at a geek conference” thing.

I’ve also recently become a volunteer fireman in the town of Tisbury on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, attached to the coolest motherfracking truck on the whole fracking planet, Tisbury 651. It’s a ladder truck with an aerial platform at the end of a fully articulated boom that extends 100 feet in the air, manufactureed by E-One, Inc. In fact, I recently passed my six months review and graduated from probationary status to full-fledged firefighter (although I have lots and lots more training to undergo before I can do things like put on an air pack and go into a flaming building). We regularly conduct drills with the truck, during which we practice going up in the platform, which we call “flying”.

So I thought of this idea for a movie: in the opening, I’m moping at home, full of worry and self doubt, and dreading getting “flamed” in person at Etech & online by people putting me down. I’m wishing out loud for a source of strength to boost my confidence.

Then my pager goes off with the noon test, and I get a flash of inspiration: my truck, Tisbury 651, also known as Tower 1, will give me the confidence I lack. I go to the fire station, have a heart-to-heart with my truck, who is soothing and feminine and very very sexy. She says all kind of flattering things to me. I don my firefighting gear, my confidence beginning to soar as Tower One says all kinds of positive things about other great writers who were self published. And then, to my surprise, my fire company shows up, my buddies, and we take 651 out of her berth and deploy the jacks and raise the boom with me on the platform, and as I rise to the heavens in the boom, 651 reads glowing reviews of my books,(with the text copy scrolling across the screen.) Close-up of me atop the boom pulling down the visor on my helmet. Now full of confidence, high above the island like Jack in Titanic (“I’m king of the world!!!”) I invite critics to flame me. Finis.

To make the movie more funny, I figured it would be great to have cameo videos of people putting me down, or, at best, damning my books with faint praise, interspersed in the opening part of the movie, when I’m wracked with self-doubt. I know some famous people & some alpha geeks, so I figured if I could get ten or twelve little 5 second cameos of people like Doug Hofstadter and Tim O’Reilly saying that my books were no big deal, that would be funny. So I sent out about 15 requests to said people, asking them to send me short clips putting me down.

One person very kindly wrote back that she was not going to say nasty things about my books because she had already said nice things about them in print & basically I was asking her to lie (which was not my intent, but when I reread my note to her from her point of view, I saw she was right.) Everybody else ignored my request.

About that time, after I had sent out these notes, it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t putting on the Internet any video including footage of my truck & me in my gear without the approval of the chief of the Tisbury Fire Department. So, I called my captain & asked him what he thought of my idea, and asked him to run the idea by the chief.

Well, my captain was skeptical about me using the truck for a personal movie (even through conducting a practice in which I fly the platform is a perfectly legitimate use of the truck; we do it all the time), but he agreed to run it by the chief for me. The chief vetoed it. So, no 651 in my movie. No Johnny being “king of the world!”

Without the truck, all I would have would be a movie full of people putting me down. Which might be funny in a “curb your enthusiasm” cringe-inducing way, but probably not a great motivator for selling books.

So, I dropped the whole idea. Thereby probably saving myself all kinds of embarrassment.

However, my dear friend littlestar had already gone ahead and recorded the role of 651, which I’ve included below for your delectation. She voices it wonderfully, I think you’ll agree.

Had I made the movie it probably would have been a disaster. It actually is more of a stupid idea than a funny idea, and although it might have become a minor youtube hit, depending on who I got to play along with me, it probably just would have further pegged me as a self-publishing weirdo oddball.

Here’s the draft of the daft script. Be sure to scroll down for the E-One promotional video.


Scene 1.

[Me on my dumpy couch in my dumpy living room, typing on computer, looking depressed. I speak into the camera (or maybe a voice over?). You can imagine the cuts to pictures of my books, various websites, my cell phone, etc, as they’re mentioned.]

jrs: That’s me, John Sundman. I’m a writer. A novelist. I live in Tisbury, Massachusetts, on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. I write geeky dystopian technoparanoid stories, like this one, Acts of the Apostles, about nanomachines, neurobiology, Gulf War Syndrome, and a Silicon Valley messiah. And this one, Cheap Complex Devices, a metafictiony tale about the Hofstadter Prize for Machine-Written Narrative that’s a send-up of the entire field of academic artificial intelligence. And this one, The Pains, an illustrated fable about a young monk who is beset by a kind of stigmata in a 1984 universe that is equal parts George Orwell, Ronald Reagan and LSD.

Well, I like to call myself a writer, but my books are all self-published, which means, as far as most people are concerned, that I’m not even a “real” writer at all. I’m just a wannabe writer. A loser.

In just a few days I’ll be flying out to California in order to sell my books from a booth at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference — they call it E-tech, for short.

E-tech is where all the coolest and trendiest and smartest and hippest geeks congregate each year to prognosticate and pontificate and listen to what the Oracle Tim O’Reilly has to say about technology and the future. Emerging technology, emerging trends, emerging hipness, emerging coolosity. Everything at E-tech is ahead of the curve.

Who am I kidding? I don’t belong at E-tech. I’m not emerging. I’m not cool. I’m a fucking dinosaur. Although my books are online for free download from my site, I don’t understand new publishing technologies like print-on-demand or kindle ebooks or podcasts or mashups. I don’t have a blackbery or a bluetooth. I do have a cell phone that can take pictures and send text messages, but I don’t know how to do either of those things. Sometimes I accidentally take pictures looking up my nostrils. I’m so far behind the curve I might as well be the Utah salt flats.

I wasn’t always behind the curve. I used to be ahead of the curve. I was writing about Unix internals and the TCP/IP protocol in 1983, before the web existed, when the Internet had so few nodes you could print out a map of them.

That’s when I met Tim O’Reilly, by the way. At a long-defunct company called Masscomp, Massachusetts Computer Company. We were just two techwriters writing about Unix. He transformed his little techwriting consulting company into a publishing company and then a conference organizer. Now look at him. He’s a media mogul, a visionary, the coolest of the cool kids. Here he is speaking at the World Economic Forum, in Davos Switzerland.

I had a bit of a career for a while. Nine years at Sun Microsystems, managing a fifty-person bicoastal Information Architecture Group. The first information architecture group ever, by the way. I’m the guy who coined that term. But then blammo, laid off by Sun in 1994. And it gets worse from there, a downward career spiral, a bunch of gigs at software startups, a bunch of layoffs. A few articles for A few self-published books that sell a few thousand copies. A one-way ticket to techwriting palookaville. Worked for five years as the doc guy on OpenLaszlo, the coolest of the “ajax”, “web 2.0” platforms. Laid off a year and a half ago. Three months of work since. I can’t pay my bills. My house is a wreck. I can’t aford to get my teeth fixed. This one’s been missing for four years now.

I am so retro! My website is so Web 1.0! I could get with the trend and make a video, but it would suck, I’m sure. All the cool kids at Slashdot and Boing Boing would make fun of me, and if I tried to say that I really AM hip, the hippest of technopunk writers, cooler than Neal Stephenson, cooler than _____, it would be nothing but flames, flames, flames, flames.

I’m too old. I’ve lost my confidence. I have 223 “friends” on facebook, and only a few dozen of them have bought my latest book. My own children haven’t read it. Doug Hofstadter is a friend of mine, but even he hasn’t read Cheap Complex Devices, a book I wrote explicitly for him! And I’ve given him two copies! In person! Thanks a lot, Doug!

I’ll go out to E-tech and mope around, apologizing for my even being there. Tim O’Reilly will probably wander by and say “John, you’re shameless”, which is what he said to me the last time I hawked my books at an Etech, in 2003. I might as well wear a sign around my neck saying “I Suck”.

[insert here various cameo videos of famous people and alpha geeks putting me down.]

If only there were some force outside of myself that I could appeal to, a force to reinvigorate me, something to give me that confidence I used to have, make me more like Tim! But who? What? Where?

[A loud beeping sound, an attention signal. Where’s it coming from? Pan to my pager in its stand on the kitchen counter. Letters TFD written on it.]

Voice on Pager: “868 with the noon test. 868 clear.”

jrs: Of course! Of course! That’s it!

Scene 2

I get off couch, go to my car, drive up my snowy lane, up to the “Barn” at the public works department. I stand in front of the giant doors.

jrs: 651, 651, I need your help.
651: I’m here, John.
jrs: 651, I need to get my confidence back. I need to be strong, like you! I need to lean on you, 651. I want to fly again!
651: I’m always here for you John, just as you’re always there for me.
jrs: But what about the flames, 651, what about the flames?
651: There are no flames that we cannot handle, together.

[Garage door slowly rises, revealling the awesome magesty of the coolest fire truck on the whole fucking planet. Across the front the legend: TISBURY 651.]

651: Firefighter Sundman, get your gear!

[I walk to the compartment where my gear is stowed, gab the bag.]

651: Get your tags!

[I open the cab and get my tags from the tag board. They have my name on them. as names of fires are called out, cuts to newspaper stories about them.]
jrs: This is silly. I’m just a rookie; my tags are red. . .

651: None of that talk! You’re a rookie but you’re no probie! You’ve passed your probationary period and tests. You’re a full fledged member of this truck’s company. Is there not a name strip on your turnout coat?
jrs: There is.
651: Were you not there at Lighthouse Road?
jrs: I was there at Lighthouse Road.
651: Were you not there at Spring Hill Road? Did you not put water on flame?
jrs: I was there at Spring Hill. I did put the wet stuff on the hot stuff!
651: Were you not there at Codding Lane where we flowed fifty thousand gallons of water? Did you not run hose, change packs, set up lighting and maintain staging in the bitter cold and dark?
jrs: I did.
651: So no more of that “red tag” talk. Your tags will be yellow some day.
jrs: And green?
651: Yes, I do foresee your certification! A green tag is in your future! You are a real firefighter!
jrs: But. . . But. . .
651: Yes, John? What is it?
jrs: Am I a real *writer*, 651?
651: John, are you not the secretary of this company?
jrs: I am.
651: Go get the log.

[I got to other side of truck, open compartment where the log book is kept.]
651: Read your account of Codding Lane.

(camera zooms in on logbook, with my scawled handwriting and crude pictures of the fire scene. I read a section.)

651: And you doubt whether you’re a writer! That is poetry John. Poetry. Now, suit up. It’s time for you to fly.

[ I open my gear bag, take out gear. Step into pants/boots, pull up suspenders, pick up jacket, camera shows name strip. I put on nomex hood, then my helmet (visor up) and finally my gloves. 651 is speaking as I do this.]

651: Was James Joyce a loser when he self-published Ulysses? Was Mark Twain a loser when he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

jrs: The Joy of Cooking! The Elements of Style!

651: Deepak Chopra!
Gertrude Stein!
Upton Sinclair!
Carl Sandburg!

jrs: D.H. Lawrence!
Edgar Rice Burroughs!
George Bernard Shaw!
Thomas Paine!

651: Virginia Woolf!
E.E. Cummings!
Edgar Allan Poe!
Rudyard Kipling!
Henry David Thoreau!
Benjamin Franklin!
Walt Whitman

jrs & 651: Tim O’Reilly!

[Captain Maciel & Patrick Murphy of my truck have arrived. They are suited up.]

jrs: Captain! Patrick! What are you doing here?
Capt: 651 paged us. She said you needed to fly.
jrs: Really, can we fly now?
Capt: Bring her out, Patrick!

[Patrick drives 651 out of the barn. We deploy the jacks. I mount the arial platform and secure myself to the harness. I have copies of my three books in my hands. I hand them to Patrick and assume my position in front of the control panel.]

651: What’s my other name, John?
jrs: you mean “Bronto?”
651: That’s just my nickname, because I look like a brontosaurus.
jrs: Oh, you mean Tower One.
651: Yes, Tower One. And that’s what you are too, John. You’re a tower! A towering figure in the whole of literature! Tower one!

Capt: Fly, John!

[The platform slowly rises 100 feet in the air, with me and Patrick in it.]

651: [reads glowing reviews of my books from various sources. These are faded over the image of the tower rising.]

[close up of me high above the island, view to truck below, then whole of island (obviously the shot of me would have to be faked, but I could take a camera up with me. I’m holding my books.)

jrs: I’m John Sundman. I’m a writer. A novelist. I live in Tisbury, Massachusetts, on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. I write geeky dystopian technoparanoid stories, like this one, Acts of the Apostles, and this one, Cheap Complex Devices, this one, The Pains. I’m also a firefighter.

I publish my own books. They are the best in their genre. If you like Neal Stephenson’s books, you’ll like mine. Mine are like his, only better. If you liked Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, you’ll like my books. They’re like his, only better. If you liked any book at all, you’ll like mine. My books are like your favorite book, only better.

I would love to hear what you think about my book and my website and my little movie. I hope you like them. But if you don’t, flame away!

[I pull down visor. fade out.]

And finally, check out the awesomeness of the e-one bronto in action:

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