Remembering Dave Robbins, a.k.a. Ian Billings

My first meaningful exchange with Dave Robbins, our expat Brit poet, hirsute charmer and one-man wrecking crew of pretense, occurred when I was knocking around with an open bottle of wine.
Ever cheeky, Robbins entreated, “Pour me a glass and I’ll defend you for life.” I did some quick math, which factored in Robbins’ deadpan glare, and made the deal. It proved one of the best investments I ever made.

I cannot count how many times Robbins came through on his promise, not least of which because much of it happened in my absence. He was too classy to mention the bullets from would-be character assassins he’d taken for me, but others did and my esteem for Robbins, which was already high, steadily grew. Obviously, Robbins’ loyalty couldn’t be bought for a glass of wine. He was an astute judge of character and when he made me the offer, he was really asking me if I recognized in him whatever it was he recognized in me. I did. And we drank.

When someone dies, we often take mental stock of the first and last times we saw them. With Robbins, I can remember neither — his ubiquity in my experience of Sonoma was timeless. And despite the breeziness of our acquaintance, Robbins graciously enfolded those on the periphery under his great grey wings such that is was clear, there was an Us and a Them. And it was always better to be one of Us, mate.

Then there was the issue of Ian Billings — the mutual conception of Robbins, music scribe James Marshall Berry and me. I cannot recall the circumstances that called for the invention of the fictional and decrepit English rocker, but I do remember the commitment with which Robbins elected to embody him.

I don’t think Robbins would mind me revealing his alter-ego. In fact, I think he would have required it of me, since I was among the few who knew the truth. And, of course, it gives Robbins the last laugh on those with whom he pseudonymously sparred in online forums, including SonomaNews.com. When discussions reached a certain level of rancor, it was Robbins, as “Ian Billings,” who kept the conversation elevated and productive (and funny). A couple of years ago, when I wrote this appraisal, it was a secret valentine to Robbins:

Do not piss off “Ian Billings,” the lion of Sonoma’s online commenting culture, who defends the just and smites the fatuous with a certain insouciant charm. If you’re not overcome by the nuance of his argument you will be by the length. The man can be downright palaverous (look it up), and given the fact that the Internet offers infinite space for such rants, he may also be dangerous. I mean that in the “action hero” sense of the word, which, for me at least, is a positive association. Billings’ rhetoric is a high-wire act above an alligator pit of lesser wits, but a recent server switchover with the I-T’s online presence seems to have banished his posts to the far corners of cyberspace. Come back, Ian Billings – Sonoma is lost without you!

That last phrase is now truer than ever. Ian Billings may have died but Dave Robbins lives on in our hearts. He was a good man, a good friend and helluva good time. I will defend him for life.

Turning 42

42. It’s the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least it was for Douglas Adams and fans of his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books. It’s also the age I will turn this weekend. I’ve been reconciling with the notion this past year and, besides, Adams’ spin on the number, I comforted myself with easy math like: Turning 42 is like being six, seven times — so, you know, eternal youth. This worked until I realized that 42 is also two 21’s. The only upside to that equation is that not only can buy alcohol, I can afford twice as much.
What I find interesting is the existential gulf between the despondency of turning 40 and arriving at the Answer of the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything a mere two years later. In other words, we go from mid-life crisis to all-knowing guru in 24 months. It sounds like a self-help title. And it’s totally true — I can personally attest that I’ve become a master of the universe this past couple of trips around the sun.

My son is now five and assumes I know everything.I haven’t proven him wrong since I’m not afraid to lie and make up answers when necessary. My fall back, “Because I say so,” has led to some confusion. Answering questions like “Why is the sky blue?” with this default answer can lead young minds into spiritual crises they’re not equipped to handle. The sky is blue because I said so. I did that right after I said, “Let there be light” and there was. Wait ’til he learns I’m also Santa Claus. Five-year-old mind = blown.

Back in July 2012, when I turned 40, I published a column in the IT about the dreaded number that has enjoyed a half life on my blog. It’s been a consistent traffic magnet because, as it turns out, people turn 40 everyday. Apparently, they also feel the need to Google what that might mean. Below is a sample of actual search terms that have brought people to that piece. Throughout, one might note a persistent note of desperation, which, because I’m evil, I’ll eventually leverage into a tidy little bundle of false hope in the form an ebook. When applicable I’ve offered commentary.

I’m 40 now what? What it means to be 40 years old… What to do now i’m 40… Milestones for 40 year old… Who is 40 years old today? I’’m 40 — the 90s… I’m turning 40 this year, what year was I born? (I hope Google answered this last one with “Um, you should already know this.)

But wait, there’s more:

Look of average 40 year old man… Generation X turns 40… 40 is so old… I am 40 yrs old but feel like I’m 25-30… (What’s marvelous about his last bit is that the person searching Google clearly “just wants to talk” but since they’ve chosen a search engine for their interlocutor we can assume they scared away the real 25-30 year-olds and the other 40-year-olds weren’t having any of it).

Turning 40 — how to get through it? (The same way you got through turning 30 – drink too much and have a fight with your significant other.) Being 40, now thats old… I am turning 40 and I am a waste…(You’re not a waste, just the first 40 years of your life were a waste).
Whew. Glad that’s over. Being 42 is much easier. It might even be easier than 41 — I wouldn’t know, I spent the year in shock that I was suddenly “over 40.” Now that I’ve inherited the knowledge of the universe, I’m actually looking forward to getting through 42 as fast as possible. Because 43, after all, is prime.

New Web Serial, The Quantum Times, Hits Newstands

When you say ?web serial? out loud, it sounds like Spiderman?s breakfast. It?s a shame the term is so dopey because what stands for is a quiet revolution in publishing that proves the adage ?everything old is new again.?

Web Serial: The Quantum TimesIt worked for Dickens. Readers awaiting the final installment of his serialized ?The Old Curiosity Shoppe? riot. I fully expect you to do the same with Quantum Deadline (formerly The Quantum Times), sci-fi crime meditation on the multiverse rife with shady academics, sociopathic tech gurus, cheap booze, cheaper sex and the death of newspapers. I goes something like:

A decade after the suicide of his intern, disgraced journalist (ahem) finds himself having to help a troubled boy who claims to be from a parallel universe. The newspaperman (now low-rent blogger) thinks the kid could either be the redemption story he?s been seeking or another dark chapter of hardboiled sci-fi hooliganism and urban fantasy. It could be a helluva story… If the journo lives to write it. And, of course, someone doesn’t want him to make his deadline? Bwahah.

This novel is part of a larger transmedia project I’ve been creating, which is, in part, my attempt to map a surreal fictional universe over my hometown and even my own biography (which could actually use less surreality but least I?ll have my fingers on the dial). So, yeah, basically, I’m trying to be a one-man performance art piece like Shia Labeouf but with less arrests and tears. Or ? to get literary ? consider this is my attempt to do for Petaluma what James Joyce did for Dublin. But with more drinking and less ? just less. So much less.

Why a Web serial?

After a couple of triumphs participating in National Novel Writing Month (wherein one writes a 50,000 word novel over the course of a single November) I decided to conduct my rewriting process with an “open studio” concept. Most writers work in relative isolation, often huddled in the dank corners of cafes with little more than their angst and reek to keep them company.

Writing is a lonely business the demands one?s attention to the exclusion of all other activities apart from perhaps drinking. When you drink alone you always have to pick up the tab and I?m too social ?tolerate long bouts of hacking into the void of Google Docs without some kind of feedback from the universe. Inspired by Austin Kleon’s excellent book Show Your Work!?that basically suggests that it?s okay for one? audience to see the man behind the curtain, so to speak, even if he?s in his boxers and shaving, which is precisely what my creative process looks like.

Likewise, I’ve been reading on Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup which advocates shipping a ?minimum viable product? to test one?s assumptions regarding a market. It occurred to me that a novel, when serialized, could function as a such a product and would allow for pivots based on audience feedback along the way. For example, you might suggest the man behind the curtain put on some pants.

Why Wattpad?

As comfortable as I am running my own blog, I decided not to reinvent the wheel when it came to serializing a novel online (i.e., figuring out how to swim upstream against its user interface design to make sequential chapters appear in reverse chronology) and instead borrow a page from Margaret Atwood‘s book(s), and publish on the social-reading site Wattpad. It?s been a hit for her and its free mobile reading apps?for phones and tablets offer an excellent reading experience.

Throughout this exercise, I invite you to be part of the creative process. I’ll annotate chapters with video sto explain what I’m going for and how it ties into the larger body of work. If you’re inclined, please tell me where I’m going right and wrong and be sure to share. Or start a web serial yourself. I?d imagine after Spidey?s breakfast, there?s nothing stopping you from eating my lunch.

New chapters of The Quantum Times are published Tuesdays on Wattpad.