20 years does change people

(A side note: my elbow is rapidly healing. I still have a fiberglass cast, but the doctor has me spending less time in it, and I anticipate being back to my two-handed typing and right-handed mousing within a week or so. I’m enjoying such an input method as we speak, but I don’t think I’d make it through an entire business day like this.)

My high school had its 20th reunion last weekend. I didn’t go, mostly because if I had the money and vacation days to travel during the heatwave season, it probably would not be to Indiana. But part of me regrets not going, and looking at the pictures and various reports on Facebook and whatnot make me feel somewhat bittersweet about not going. I generally don’t think about high school that much, at least not in an Al Bundy “those were the greatest years ever” way, mostly because they weren’t. And aside from Larry, I don’t keep in touch with many people from high school. Turns out that “friends forever” slogan people used to write in your yearbook isn’t legally binding or anything. Pretty much everyone I knew in high school vanished after May of 1989, and that reflects more my lack of social skills during my pre-18 years than anything else.

One of the emotions that’s dredged up by the necessity to look back at this era due to the passing of a big fat even number is that of jealousy. Am I jealous that I’m not raising three kids with no spouse on the salary of a forklift driver? No. But for whatever reason, I’m somewhat jealous of the people who were able to forge long-lasting relationships from this era in their life, because I wasn’t able to do that. At the time, I suffered from all kinds of depression and confusion based on my inability to run with the A-list crowd, even if that group was doing nothing of any intrinic value by going to football games and homecoming dances. It’s a grass-is-always-greener thing, and after high school passed, I was able to beat down these feelings by replacing them with something better, by actually doing okay on a college campus, and putting it all behind me. But the reunion somehow touched on these unhealed scars, in a very subtle way. It made me wish I would have done more socially in the late 80s.

The other weird side effect of this is that I wished I would have done something more extraordinary in the last 20 years, so I could have gone and “shown them” somehow, in a keeping-ahead-of-the-Joneses way. I guess a lot of people wish they could go to their reunion with a supermodel on their arm and seven or eight figures in the bank. A sort of “I was a geek you treated like shit back then, but I flew here from my bungalow in France on a Lear jet, and you’re still on the dirt farm” moment. But I have done a lot of stuff in the last 20 years – I’ve lived in many cool places, I’ve written books, I’ve traveled to almost every state, I’ve made some money, gotten married, bought a house, and managed to do a lot more than punch a clock at an RV factory 5200 times in a row. Maybe some people from my class would look at my list of achievements and say “shit, he’s done a lot more than work as an assistant manager at the Concord Mall Jamba Juice and spit out a half-dozen kids.” But then I also think that if I told most people I graduated with that I climbed K2 with no supplemental oxygen and donated the proceeds to landmine victims in Cambodia, they would be more proud of the four or six rugrats they sired, and what I did would be insignificant. Maybe this is a conversation I’m having with myself, but it’s the way I felt 20 years ago, and people don’t change.

As an aside, people do change, at least physically. One thing I was astonished by when looking at the pictures of the reunion was how some people have radically changed, and others look identical. Many guys got bald and fat, many of the cheerleader types look a bit more haggard. Years and kids and tanning booths have taken their toll. And some people that were pretty much below the radar back in school have really broken out, and look 100% better. I don’t know where I fall into that spectrum. I feel a lot better these days since I lost weight, but then I remember that I weighed even less in 1989. But I had those glasses. Either way, I’m sure a majority of people from my graduating class would not recognize me.

Another emotion stirred by the past is shame. I never even thought about this until a therapist brought it up a few years ago, but I feel pretty stupid about 95% of the stuff I did back in high school. When I think about that era, it makes me wish I had a time machine and an endless bucket of mulligans to correct a lot of the stupid shit I did back then. And yes, life would be different if I would have stopped playing D&D and started lifting weights Rollins-style and focused on getting laid or getting into MIT or whatever else, instead of focusing on trying to find the newest Metallica import cassette single or more chrome for my Camaro’s engine or whatever else consumed the most of my energy back in 1988. And when I think about catching up with people I only casually knew two decades ago, the thought of every girl I obsessed about and asked out and got turned down creeps into my mind, and it’s a pretty self-defeating mental pattern. The counter to this is I did a lot of stupid stuff when I was a kid, because I didn’t know any better.

Also, I have some kind of resentment about the fact that pretty much everything I did as a kid that made me an outcast is now somehow hip and trendy and cool now. I got my balls busted on a constant basis for being into science fiction and computers and being a geek in general, and now all of that is somehow cool. Christ. I spent a fair amount of energy trying to de-emphasize how much I was into this shit, and I should have spent the 80s going balls-deep and spending every waking hour studying assembly language and sealing unopened Star Wars toys that I bought wholesale in a vault somewhere, anticipating the eventual arrival of eBay. I would be a millionaire.

Had to work last weekend (yes, even with a broken god damned arm) and I don’t work this weekend. I allegedly have a three-day weekend coming up next weekend, and a four-day weekend after that. And now I have a large black cat standing in front of my monitor, lobbying for a second breakfast, so I better get out of here while I can.

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On breaking an arm

So last Sunday, I broke my right arm. And I am right handed. Expect a giant drop-off in my updates until I can type again.

The summary: I was riding my bike a few blocks from home. It’s all old warehouses in the neighborhood, and there are a lot of railroad side spurs that are abandoned, like with a set of rails half-buried in asphalt crossing the streets at funny angles. I remember riding next to one thinking “it would suck if my wheel fell into that groove.” Next thing I know, the bike falls out from under me, I fall to my right, I stick out my right arm, and pow. Had to ride home with a broken arm and a fucked up left knee, although I think the knee is structurally OK, just rubbed raw with the gentle touch of asphalt.

Went to the Oakland ER, which was an adventure. 7 hours of jonesing addicts thinking that if they screamed at the doctors enough, they’d get a taste. Also a Hispanic kid was in for a heart murmur or something, and his entire extended family of 768 were all in the waiting room, eating candybars and talking on cell phones right under the “no food/no cell phones” sign, as the movie “Mama’s House 2” played on a TV with no channel or volume controls.

X-Rays were murder. Turns out I chipped the elbow end of the radius. Not much of a structural issue – you can’t set it or put screws or a plate in it, it pretty much fixes itself. But in the meantime, lots of swelling, lots of nerves focused in that area, and the arm doesn’t want to bend, and the wrist can’t turn. I got this space-age fiberglass instant-mold splint that I ace bandage on, and can take off to shower (thank you – heat waves and plaster casts don’t mix.) Also got some vicodin and a sling. I missed a day of work – I can drive now, and my left handed typing and mousing slowly improves. I have to slowly wean out the splint over the next few weeks – should be AOK in a month or so.

I did this same thing in 1992 on my left arm. No space age cast then, though. And I only had codeine syrup for pain. But that was my left hand. And computers didn’t involve as much mouse work then. I don’t know how you one-armed people deal with Windows on a daily basis.

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So what do you eat now?

One of the problems with losing weight is that everyone, especially people from back home, will ask me “so what do you eat now?” I think most people expect that I stopped eating sticks of butter and switched to eating sticks of margarine and that made me magically drop 60 pounds. I think this phenomenon scrapes upon an issue of mine with unhealthy eating: the fact that my “default” cuisine is junk, because I have such a limited palete, and most of the food I’ve eaten as an adult was purchased from a drive-thru, because I don’t know any better.

I was a picky eater as a kid. I had a huge list of things I would not eat, and many of these carry over to today. I knew kids who were much worse – I knew a kid that would only eat Oscar-Mayer bologona, and any attempt to sneak in some Eckridge or another brand would cause him to have a fit. And I guess pretty much every kid brought up by the current nanny nation has a huge list of food allergies and limitations – seems like everyone is allergic to wheat, dairy-intolerant, and unable to go near peanut products or processed sugar. (Good luck ever eating in Indiana, btw, where the closest thing you’ll find to a vegan meal is the big bacon cheddar sandwich at Wendy’s.) I did have a period of extreme allergies where some genius in my family suddenly said I was allergic to chocolate, and I spent a year or two with my family substituting out my Easter and Christmas candy and probably subconsciously damaging me mentally (only to find out a year or two later I was actually allergic to penicillin.)

But here’s the thing – was I a picky eater because I was a picky eater, or because my cuisine was so limited, and I was never introduced to far-out stuff? Anthony Bourdain often talks of his first culinary experience as a kid, visiting France and eating a fresh oyster, and suddenly having his world turned upside-down, forever destined to do weird shit like eat ox testicles in backwater Cambodian former Khmer Rouge refugee camps. I led a much more white-bread existence, food-wise. For most of my childhood, my mom stayed at home, and did the cooking. I’m not going to say she was a good or a bad cook – actually, she later worked as a cook, and there were certain dishes she would make that I wish I could have now. But we weren’t rolling in money as a kid. And we lived in Indiana. So most of our menu was derived from Kroger’s general and more economical staples: meatloaf, frozen pot pies, canned vegetables, shake-and-bake, casseroles. Spices other than chili powder and A1 steak sauce were pretty much foreign to me. Wonder bread was a way of life. We didn’t venture far out of the box, and if it wasn’t in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, it probably wasn’t at our kitchen table.

One strange deviation from this rule was asparagus. When we lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan, there was a farm across the street from us, and for some reason, asparagus grew wild right on the fence line between Redfield Road and this large industrial farmland. I think they must have grown asparagus there, and never tilled up the land right at the fenceline, and the stuff kept growing back like weeds. My dad used to go over there and pluck out a bunch of the stuff, and then my mom would cook it in a pressure cooker and cover it in butter. Most of our vegetable intake was canned corn, canned green beans, canned mixed vegetables, and the occasional head of iceberg lettuce broken up into a salad with no other vegetables and maybe some bacon bits. I still love asparagus, although the advent of the microwave makes it way easier to cook.

A few limitations shaped our menu, some making sense, and some more random. When you have a limited budget and three kids constantly screaming bloody murder and doing crazy shit like we always did, it’s hard to spend time perfecting your duck confit, or piece together anything that involves hours of immaculately dicing and prepping 17 different ingredients. That’s when the “throw three things in a bowl and bake for 40 minutes at 375” comes in handy. There’s also the economical advantage of buying a pound of hamburger, a box of hamburger helper, and a tube of ready-bake rolls versus buying all of the crap you need to make a good Coq Au Vin and three side dishes. And the local Kroger or IGA did not have much more than the basics, especially in the pre-foodie 70s. I don’t know if Elkhart had any old-school butchers or farmer’s markets or other produce shops where once could piece together all of the ingredients in four or five shopping trips, but good luck doing that with three kids in tow.

I also have no particular ethnic background that shaped my family’s food definitions. I guess my grandmother on my mom’s side made a lot of good food, but it was just your basic meat-and-potatoes stuff: turkey, gravy, roast beef, ham. She was from Poland and the rest of my grandparents were from Austria, but there were no specific dishes from the motherland that I remember. It wasn’t like my grandparents were off the boat from China/Japan/India/whatever and my mom would live to whip up Chinese/Japanese/Indian/whateverian food like her mom used to make. When we had time and money to eat fancy, and we weren’t already going over the hill and through the woods to grandmother’s house, that usually meant a butterball turkey and some Stove Top Stuffing.

When we did go out, I think the most ethnic food I ever ate was Pizza Hut. It wasn’t like Elkhart had an Ethiopian district or Koreatown where we could partake in a variety of food. And even if they did, I don’t think my parents had the patience to deal with bringing me or my sisters to a place full of unknowns. The reason McDonald’s is burned into my system so much was because the cheeseburger happy meal was an easy go-to for me. Maybe Italian was one ethnic derivative we had in northern Indiana – places like Columbo’s, that were mostly pizza joints but would dish up some good pasta or a chicken parm. But I don’t think I had Chinese food until I was in college, and I know that Indian, Thai, and even Russian food was something I didn’t learn to enjoy until after I moved to New York.

So when I suddenly decided to get in shape and stop eating Quarter Pounders for every meal, I was faced with the situation that I didn’t know what to eat instead. Eating just vegetables seemed impossible to me; it was like making Kool-Aid without water. Even if I ate 19 pounds of the most complicated salad possible, I still would feel like I was missing the meat course. And avoiding fried food was absolutely befuddling to me. Weight watchers kept me focused on point values instead of complicated rules, and I was able to figure out substitutions and what would make me get through the day without crashing. But I still can’t explain to people what I eat instead. I didn’t lose weight by suddenly only eating Ugandan traditional dietary staples or by switching french fries with only purple-colored fruits, or anything like that.

I still can’t eat like Bourdain. I still don’t like olives, mushrooms, most seafood, or anything that still has eyes. But I somewhat understand the cult of spicy foods now, and I think I’m beyond being fixated on long-passed fast food chains like Hot-N-Now and Burger Chef as my salvation. I still can’t explain what I do eat in under a thousand words, though.

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Default park experience

Why are Sundays always so depressing for me? I always thought it had to do with the fact that in Indiana growing up, Sundays were always an abbreviated day, with everything either closed or only open from 12-5, with the exception of 7-Eleven and Kroger, and maybe Target, which I think was open until 9. But I think part of it too is that I spend all day Sunday dreading the fact that I have to go back to the same old grind on Monday. And I think I had that mindset even when I didn’t have a regular 9-5 job, just because it was so burned into my head. Maybe I should save all of my vacation time and then take three-day weekends for the final four months of the year, if that’s at all possible. (I think I get enough days to do that; I just don’t think they’ll let me take time off like that. Maybe I should have kept working for a university for my entire career. Sure, I’d only be making $29,000 a year, but I’d get like 22 weeks of vacation a year.)

We hung out with A yesterday, packed a bunch of picnic stuff (a cooler full of sandwich meats and various salads, which cost about $247 at Whole Foods) and went to Hidden Villa up in the Los Altos Hills. We hung out there for a while, seeing a variety of animals, from cows to goats to chickens to a wild snake. This was all with Crosbie the pit bull in tow; he was pretty non-plussed by every animal, except for the one or two times we ran into other dogs, in which case he was wildly enthusiastic about approaching them. We also drove way the hell up into the hills to a vantage point where we saw the entire peninsula unfolded below us. Then we went towards the ocean, passing Alice’s Restaurant and many redwoods, to a park at the beach, where we set up camp, made our sandwiches, and watched it slowly become dusk, as a hispanic couple next to us, blasting AC/DC from a shitty jambox, told us how they accidentally bred their pit bull and chihuahua and were waiting to see what the hell would come out. (Probably a huge market for a pithuahua, if it looked like a pit bull and was a tiny purse dog. Other way around, probably not so much.) Overall, a pretty good day.

Three random thought cycles came out of the day:

First, it’s strange that every outdoor park-y situation like that goes back to my default park experience, which was Ox-Bow Park. This was the place right next to my grade school, and where we often went for bike rides, picnics, to bring the Chicago family to see what a non-city area looked like, field trips, and for winter sledding. And now, whenever I’m in a park that has the split-log fences and info stations with maps and donation boxes and non-running-water outhouses, it always reminds me of being a kid and going to Ox-Bow. The big difference is that Elkhart County parks did not have signs warning you want to do in case of a mountain lion attack. I think the closest thing they had was a warning sign about your boat picking up zebra mussels.

The second thing is that being in an outdoor situation like that always begs the question of what the hell I should do with my land in Colorado. I look at the various trees and gardens, off-the-grid irrigation, and wildlife, and wonder how the hell I could get a pond going on my property, or put in some shelters, or a nature trail. Hell, maybe I could build a few bunk cabins, hire some teenagers, and run some kind of outback religous whackjob scared straight day camp for kids, and get a few dozen juvenile delinquents to help me plant some trees and work the soil for a few months of a year. Hang up a few Jesus statues, get a deputy sheriff to come in with some DARE propaganda and let the kids run the sirens on the Crown Vic cruiser – this could turn into a real cash cow. I could set up a shooting range and have the rugrats shoot some crappy .22 rifles at pictures of Nancy Pelosi and Al Franken, maybe get some loons from the local Pentacostal church to come in and teach us about gold hoarding and weapons stockpiling to prepare for the end times. It’s either that or do some kind of organic green solar-energy back-to-nature camp for kids of rich hippies up in Boulder or down in Taos. But this would combine two large fears of mine: kids and the outdoors. Better to farm this out to someone else, I think.

Last, being at the ocean reminded me of being by the water down in Playa Del Rey. That’s where we went last year for the 4th, and the undeveloped hills and sand brought back that feeling, and ultimately made me miss being down in SoCal. That seems to happen now and again, and it’s a weird feeling, especially since I lived down there for like 30 seconds, and I have something like 359 mortgage payments left here in Oakland. This happened the other night too, when I watched the pilot of Californication on NetFlix. Not sure what I think of the show as a whole, but it made me miss LA. And it made me miss being a writer, because ultimately, I’m not even treading water these days on any sort of fiction – the best I get is pushing around some leftover food on my plate. I recently finished a short story, but it was something I wrote to maybe the 90% mark last year, so it doesn’t entirely count. And I just re-read Leyner’s Tetherballs of Bougainville, which is absolutely everything I would want in a book. So I need to start thinking about what to do with the next book.

I think I do need to go to Target, though.

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Sentimentality time-suck

Nostalgia has been such an overruling force in my internal dialogue lately. I think part of it is that I never feel like I’m doing anything in the moment I’m in, but much later, I idealize that piece of my past. I wrote Summer Rain in an overwhelming fit of nostalgia for my time in Bloomington while I was holed up in a studio apartment in Seattle, and now I miss my time in Seattle in some odd way. I thought about Seattle a lot while I was in Denver, mostly because Denver has mountains like Seattle (no water though) and it has a similar style of architecture, plus shares all of the same regional chains that make me think back to jet city. Like I never thought I’d be back at a Red Robin, but I ended up there all the time in Denver. And I spent a lot of my time in Denver trying to figure out what the fuck I was doing and how I’d ever make friends and meet people like I did back in Seattle. And now I miss Denver.

Another big sentimentality time-suck is facebook. I don’t have the fly-to-the-bugzapper attraction to facebook that many have, mostly because I don’t see the huge benefit to it. Yes, it does pull people out of the woodwork, but it also limits updates to a brief line or tiny picture, which I guess is why it’s so popular. But here’s the scenario that happens almost weekly: I hear from someone I haven’t been in contact with since high school. Sometimes, it’s a person who I hung out with daily back in Elkhart, someone who I was not best friends in the world with, but a person that was part of my daily routine back then. They drop off the face of the planet for 20 years, and then they show up on Facebook. We do the mutual ad, I see their pictures, we say hi, and… that’s it. Maybe at most, there’s a round of catch-up, “what have you done in the last 20 years?” email. And that’s pretty much it. Oh, and then I get endless updates on daily minutiae, like posts on what they had for lunch or how their kid crapped their pants at the K-Mart.

I don’t know what I expect to happen. I guess the kicker is that some of these people are folks I could never find back in the pre-2.0 days of the internets. It happened in expanding circles of contact: maybe 5% of the people I knew back then showed up in the dark days of university email accounts and shell accounts; maybe a couple percent more got in contact during the AOL boom. A few more were found in the early myspace days. And now these huge waves of people who never even touched computers are now all over facebook. And part of that is driven by the fact that my 20th reunion is next year, and everyone is hopping onboard to see what the hell happened in the last two decades. But those original dozen or so people back in 1997 with text-based email accounts were the ones that would swap dozen-page emails with me every day, talking in depth about life and about their connection to the world, while now the people I run into on facebook do little more than post a ten-word update on how they brought their kid to the swimming pool, or something else inane,

To be clear, I don’t wish to be back in Indiana 20 years ago. To quote John Dillinger (you know, Johnny Depp): “There is absolutely nothing I want to do in Indiana.” There’s a reason that line got more laughs than anything else in that movie, and it’s not because Indiana is that interesting of a place to hang out. But that’s the kicker to nostalgia – it adds this draw to things that are otherwise not that compelling. The boxes of crap I loaded into my storage space when I moved – old pictures, journals, papers – are all essentially worthless to anyone, but they are strong touchstones into the past for me, which is why I pay $40 a month to rent a small cube of space in an Oakland warehouse to forever stash that stuff. (Along with extra furniture, seasonal bric-a-brac, and empty boxes from electronics, stored as a hedge that they might die during their warranty and/or go to eBay someday.) I haven’t been to Indiana in two years, and I haven’t been to Bloomington in seven. I still think about it, but like I mentioned, it’s mostly because what I do day to day now is so uninspiring. And I have too much mental time in my hands due to my car commute. I think the difference now is that I don’t see myself dwelling in this long enough to deep-dive into book research. I was kicking around the vague idea of writing a fictionalized account of my time in high school, but there’s not enough energy there for me to get very excited about it. I have roughly 65,000 words of a novel there, but it’s too disjointed and it’s just not that interesting yet. It’s like the book of short stories I wrote about Bloomington – that book is 90% done, but it’s too hard to do the last 10%, because as I read through the stories, it feels like nothing compelling is in there.

Also, it’s the 4th of July today, and it’s odd that I have so many updates in this journal on 7/4. And although I never explicitly plan anything on the fourth, it seems like something always happens, be it moving across the country (1995) or getting stranded in Chicago when I tore the exhaust off my car accidentally (1991), there’s always something odd going on. This year, we are going to hang out with A, bringing some food, and trying to find a place to have some kind of picnic that hopefully is not overrun by baby strollers.

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