A longtime friend and the man who designed the Future Tense Books website, Paul Ash, took his own life on February 7th in Portland, Oregon. I met Paul around 1999 and for a couple of years we often did readings together and talked about our various publishing projects. I was publishing little Xeroxed chapbooks by various small press writers and he was enthusiastically exploring the world of Internet publishing, first with his website, Sniffy Linings Press, and then by designing eBooks for a bunch of people including myself, Jemiah Jefferson, and some other Future Tense folks and mutual friends. He was the first person I heard talk about eBooks in a serious way. In fact, he was probably way ahead of the times with that stuff.
Shortly after we met, he volunteered to redesign the Future Tense website. He worked for several days on it. What at first was a bright and garish disaster without even one Paypal button, he turned into the cool, clean beauty (featuring the art and lettering of the great Kurt Eisenlohr) it currently is. He built websites for many companies and his talents were vast in that arena. He was influenced by sculpture and art history, two subjects he studied in college.
For the next several years, he was my webmaster. Whenever I published a new book or had a new update for the News page or additions to the Links page, I’d send the info to Paul. Most of the time, he’d do it quickly. But sometimes, he’d take weeks and I’d grow impatient and we’d bicker a little bit. He was working for free after all, though I would give him some money whenever I could. I was a little worried that tossing him forty bucks here and there, maybe writing a $100 check, was perhaps more insulting than anything else, but I knew he made money freelancing for the most part, so I figured anything helped.
Paul seemed pretty solid but I’m sure a lot of his friends worried about him. He described himself (only slightly joking) as “an absent minded disassociated borderline psychotic narcoleptic insomniac” whose past included pills and cocaine. He told me that he hadn’t filed taxes in years, living off of his design work, his art, and even as an electrician. He was suspicious of websites where you had to enter personal information. He wasn’t on MySpace and avoided Facebook as well (though he did pop up on Facebook briefly a couple of years ago).
I think I lost touch with Paul about four or five years ago. He helped me figure out how I could maintain the Future Tense website (after I finally got a decent computer) and then stopped going to literary events around town anymore, so I didn’t see him much. The last time I ran into him, he told me he had given up on writing and was starting to drum in bands again. I think he felt embarrassed because he hadn’t stuck to his writing and I probably felt embarrassed because I hadn’t kept in touch with him better. One thing I only learned this past week is that he had become obsessed with yo-yos. And he was even blogging about them (complete with numerous serious and detailed video reviews). There’s something very funny and fitting about that. But maybe those things were substitutes for other parts missing from his life–like family or romance or a clear mind. A neighbor said, that she heard him shout once, from inside his apartment, “Drumming and yo-yos are the only reasons I have to live.”
Paul was obsessive and fascinated by many things. His small basement apartment, where he lived the last ten years, was full of books, CDs, DVDs, and art. He loved Chris Ware comics, Steve Martin, William Burroughs, and Spalding Gray. He once played me a record by composer Steve Reich and we shared a love of Devo (the name Sniffy Linings came from a misheard Devo lyric).
Paul (left) and me at my birthday party in 2002, at Portland restaurant Poor Richard’s.
I admired Paul in a lot of ways. His readings were more like one-man shows or monologues. He helped and hyped-up the work of others. I like people who actually DO what they talk about and not just SAY they are going to do things. And Paul was a Do-er, a man with a lot of stuff going on and interesting writers and artists floating all through his self-made universe. His own books were full of conversational prose, playful and meditative and sometimes focusing on the weirdness of small details. He would sometimes perform in bath robes, for audiences in cafes, bars, and art galleries.
The last weeks of Paul’s life were full of struggle. In December of 2012, Paul was in a scooter accident that totaled the scooter he’d been restoring and separated his shoulder. He was in a dispute with his landlord and his saw his eviction as a final battle lost (his suicide of an intentional overdose–of what I’m not sure–came just hours before he was to be out of his apartment). He was terrified and having panic attacks about the prospect of being homeless. On top of that, he had also lost his mother and his cat in the last year. His suicide note said, “I’m just no longer able to continue suffering.”
A couple of nights ago, I went by his old apartment to see what it looked like–if there were flowers or memorials for him. There was one vase of flowers and a note nearby that said “Goodbye friend.” I saw a few old Sniffy Linings stickers stuck to his door, which looked like it had been broken down and then nailed back up and sealed shut. For some reason, I knocked on the door and waited a minute before walking back to my car.
If I could have said anything to Paul before he passed away, I would have told him thank you for all of his work, support, and enthusiasm. Not only for me and Future Tense, but for so many other writers that he championed. A person like Paul can affect so many people’s lives. It’s terrible and sad when they take their own. Paul Ash was 46 years old.
There will be a wake for Paul today (Saturday, February 16th) at Aalto Lounge at 4:00.