Time Machines

I’m eating a frozen pizza, drinking a Sprite Zero, and thinking of time machines.

Time machines? WTF?

I’m not talking about H.G. Wells, or teleporting man-machine hybrids that look like a leaner version of the current California governor back to save the leader of the future resistance army.  I’ve probably mentioned this to others, but it always seems to come up in conversations with Michael, usually about writing.  Time machines are my shorthand for any stimulus that instantly beams me back to a previous era more than just simple nostalgia would.  It’s a touchstone of some kind that will automatically change my brain chemistry in a magical way and show me a brief view of a different world in my past.  It initiates a rush of memories about some forgotten time, some former lover or old job or just a series of events or common pattern that happened long enough ago that it takes that piece of machinery to take me back there.

This frozen pizza – it’s the Lean Cuisine Margherita pizza, a little personal pan thing you microwave for a two minutes thirty while it sits on its own box, turned inside out to reveal a little high tech silver cardboard browning thing that probably can’t be recycled and clogs up landfills.  Six weight watchers points.  In the summer of 2008, when Sarah was out of town and I needed to fend for myself for dinner, this was a common go-to.  In fact, I have a tally of everything I ate that summer (and it worked, so don’t knock it), and I ate one of these pizzas eleven times.  And almost every time, it was when I sat at my computer, listening to a Rockies game.  These things have a distinctive flavor, the artificial preservatives and synthetic garbage that keep the tomato sauce stable for a thousand years, the low-fat cheese, probably made with some soy crap to keep the calories and fat down.

It sounds horrible, but every time I eat one, I think of that summer, of obsessively watching everything I ate, writing down every food, shopping for the newest reduced-fat this and hundred-calorie-pack that.  It reminds me of the long walks I took in the ever-sunny Playa Del Rey tropics, the jogs on the sands of the Pacific, the breaks from working at home to go to the local Subway and get the same exact thing every day, because I had the points so dialed in.  Even though I was broke and panicked over money and applying for every god damned job on dice.com that popped up in the middle of a huge economic downturn, I really miss some parts of that summer.  And when I sit down with one of those pizzas, it’s a time machine that brings me back to July 1, 2008, when I had a pizza and a diet root beer and listened to Aaron Cook and the Rockies beat the Padres at home 4-0.

Here’s another:  I bought some new shampoo this weekend, a drug store off-brand that’s supposed to be like Axe, called Blade or Storm or Pyro, or Battle Mace or something.  (It was on sale, I needed shampoo.)  So I crack this stuff open on Monday morning, during my usual hurried 5:21 must-shower-fast-so-I-can-write shower.  And it smells really familiar, and I don’t know why, and then I realize it: it smells exactly like Obsession cologne, or as exact as those impostor fragrances get, anyway.  And this is a huge, huge time machine for a couple of reasons.  First, smells are absolutely the most precise way this phenomenon happens.  And second, I went through this doofus phase in 1992 where I was convinced that any deficiency in looks, physique, personality, lineage, education, or financial standing could be resolved with a pheromone-like effect from the right cologne.  And that spring, a friend of mine got me started on that particular Calvin Klein fragrance.  And I don’t remember if I talked about this in Summer Rain or not, but it was part of my standard uniform I’d wear on all of these failed first dates I went on that year, at least until I switched to Eternity, and then to Drakkar.  And now the smell of that stuff, or a facsimile shampoo, transports me back to 1992, when I drove up to Forest Hall in my beaten and rusted diesel VW Rabbit for my first date with Patty.   The rest of the story – well, go buy the book – but I fell for her, it was a month or six weeks of magic, then she left for Pittsburgh and broke my heart and did not give me a pen.

Speaking of time machines, I am supposed to be packing for a trip to Denver.  Wish me (and the Rockies) luck, and I’ll try to get the netbook rolling while I’m a mile up.

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Home Page Redux

I did some minor facelift work to the home page – check out http://rumored.com if you get a chance.  Nothing too exciting, but I wanted to mess with JQuery a little bit, and I’m now using it for rounded corners and hover effects.  The old circa-2007 DHTML stuff I was using for panel swapping was fun, but I’m convinced that the method of having the panel text embedded within the JavaScript was causing crawler issues.  I’m slightly worried that the new caffeine engine of Google’s is bombing out on page errors, and I think the old embedded HTML in JavaScript crap was looking like one big error.

The new page is not as exciting, and I am convinced I need to do something better, but I don’t have time to sink into some gigantic mess of flash and photoshop wizardry.  I really just want to work on narrowing down and focusing what I have on the site, which is why a lot of stuff is now gone.  But I like what I have.  Or at least I like what I have as seen in Safari 5 on a Mac.  I’m always worried that a copy of IE 2 for Solaris will turn the whole thing into an unholy terror due to some rendering problem.

I was thinking about this, and this is maybe my fourth iteration of the root page on Rumored, and I think there were at least a couple of iterations on speakeasy from 1995-1998, a brief home on plan9.spry.com in 95, and then a couple of iterations on bronze from 1993-1995.  I also had a hyplan (what we used to call homepages) back on cs.indiana.edu in 1992-1993, but it consisted of two .au files, one of Cannibal Corpse, and one of Bill Perry yelling “will you shut the fuck up?”  That’s 18 years of homepages.  EIGHTEEN YEARS.

The www as we know it is only 7000 days old.  I’ve been here for about 6500 of them.  Christ.

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Phoenix Dumpling

I had the most vivid dream a bit ago.  I was back in Bloomington, in present-day, working some job that involved me commuting either to or from Indianapolis every day.  I went for breakfast at the Phoenix Dumpling, which had been (re-?)opened as this sort of foody sit-down service restaurant, but still had the same cooks and the same food and kitchen setup.  I ordered The General and wolfed it down while overhearing a conversation at another table, with some woman who was a geology PhD from Arkansas or something, although she looked Filipino, who bought and reopened the place, trying to make it as accurate as possible.

I think the Phoenix was the first place I’ve ever eaten Chinese food.  I mean, I know I never ate it as a kid, because the most ethnic food we ever ate was maybe Pizza Hut.  The Dump was sort of an institution amongst the compsci people and other hackers that used to hang out at Lindley Hall.  You didn’t have to know the difference between a struct and a pointer to a struct to eat there, but at least half of the people there at any given time probably could.  (Or maybe not – it was a pretty scheme-heavy institution, scheme being this lisp-like programming language, not a synonym for plan or strategy.)

The Dump sat in this building with two storefronts, and a bunch of apartments above it.  At one time, Frankov had one of the studios above it, which must have been torture, smelling the food below on a daily basis. The storefront next to it was temporarily the location of Jerry’s Liquors, when their other location burned down in 1991.  Phoenix Dumpling consisted of a small dining area with a few tables in the front, with a sort of assembly line of food prep in the back.  A row of giant cauldrons sat on gas burners, a line of ancient Chinese women hunched over each one, stirring gallons of food with giant boat oars.  You pointed at the kettle of food you wanted, and they would pile it into a styrofoam box, along with a bunch of premade rice, and you’d order a coke, and they’d fill up a styrofoam cup, no cans or coke-logoed paper cups.  You could get in and out of there for five bucks easy, and get a pound of the best worst Chinese food you could find in town.  I mean, there were plenty of places to get Chinese food, and there were several places with better food, but this was one of those pound-for-pound comparisons, where you got five bucks of food for five bucks.

I’ve been thinking about Bloomington a bit lately, digging through some old stories I want to clean up eventually.  I have not been back since 2002, and even that was for a quick afternoon.  I wish I could go back, but any time I’m in the midwest, it’s up north and during the winter, so I can’t invest the ten hours of driving on crap roads to walk around a cold and vacant campus.  I don’t know though – it might be incredibly depressing to see everything changed, and the place populated with kids who are literally young enough to be my kids.

Okay, gotta get to work.

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random.yahoo.com is better than any Ouija board

I don’t know why, but I suddenly remembered that random.yahoo.com used to be an obsession of mine.  I mean, this was back when there were only like 800 web sites and 680 of them were under construction and had one of those stupid animated GIFs of a construction worker or bulldozer, but it meant that every reload of that URL brought you to something interesting to read, while now, 9 times out of 10, you get directed to a spam farm that’s full of harvested content someone’s using to game their search rank.  But I was going to write something about that, and it made me think about the Ouija board.  And now I wonder if anyone still plays with these, or if the slow demise of the board game and all things printed is going to make those go away.  I mean, you can’t really do a spirit seance with your Nintendo Wii.  (Or can you?)

I remember when I was 14 I had this babysitting gig for the better part of a summer, where I watched these two boys, went to their house every day while their mom worked, and tried to entertain them for the working day, for something like $45 a week.  I can barely get out of a California Pizza Kitchen for less than that now, but I think my allowance at that point was something like $5 a week, so that was gold rush money.  The two kids were unholy terrors, and in today’s modern world, would probably get drugged out of their minds for ADHD, bipolar disorder, or whatever the hell they diagnose hyperactive kids with these days.  They weren’t bad kids, I guess, but this wasn’t one of those gigs where I could sit around and watch TV all day – I had to actively think of something to do all day every day.

Anyway, their mom had a bunch of board games, and we burned up maybe a week of time playing those.  She had all of the basics: Life, Monopoly, Clue; she also had that game Anti-Monopoly, which was in the news because they got sued by Parker Brothers, but I think it was too complicated or too boring, so we never played that.  But she had a Ouija board, and we spent a lot of time screwing with that, trying to figure out if we could call up any ghosts or dead people.  I think we spent the better part of a summer trying to call up various professional wrestlers, because this was when WWF was really huge and the kids were really into Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik and all of that crap.

I just started googling Ouija because I wonder how it works.  I mean, I don’t believe in the paranormal and never believed all of the various Christian fundamentalist types who said I’d go to hell for playing with a board game, or introduce some kind of trapped demon spirits that would somehow channel into this world through a piece of plastic dancing across a board of letters printed and sold in a Kay-Bee toy store.  Wikipedia says something about the ideomotor effect, and I’ll buy that, even though wikipedia is generally full of shit.  Still, it all makes me wonder if there’s some way to write an iPad version.

That whole summer though – it was such a weird little period of time, because it was after junior high, before high school.  I absolutely hated junior high, because things seemed almost normal as a kid in grade school, and I knew my place among the few dozen people in my class, and then all four grade schools got thrown into one big school, and everything changed.  And everyone makes this weird jump from being little kids in an almost socialist situation where everyone is equal to this place of cliques and castes and a social pecking order based on who you know and what you wear and how you look.  And I never got the memo, and spent way too long infatuated with computers and D&D and science fiction and model airplanes, and did not do well on that jump.

So in a sense, that summer was this weird sort of “end of innocence” thing, where I built at least one or two 1/48 scale fighter jets a week, and mowed lawns when I wasn’t babysitting, and pretty much memorized every Rush album to date while pushing a 3.5 HP Briggs and Stratton across a manicured bed of green and getting another five bucks closer to someday buying a drum set and learning every single thing Neil Peart laid down in a recording studio.  That summer, I did buy a drum set, my friend Derik’s old double-bass set – I have no idea how I talked my parents into that one – but I never did learn much, and sold the whole thing a year later to buy a new bike.  I played a lot of D&D when D&D was totally uncool, and spent a lot of time typing in computer games from Compute magazine into my Commodore-64.

I think I also underwent some shift in brain chemistry in that period.  Every psychiatrist I’ve talked to said that’s when things hit, that last spurt of puberty that changes the plasticity of your brain or something, alters the structure in some way.  I never remember ever being depressed before that, and it seems like after that summer, when I grew like a foot in three months, I spent all of my time in some undefined funk.  At the time, it was all situational – it was all a lack of friends or popularity, a lack of whatever clothes or haircut or social placement that made me unsuccessful.  And all of that was true, but there was also this new serotonin imbalance or whatever it was, masking the whole thing.

No real moral to the story here – I just fell into a brief time hole, thinking about this.  I remember watching TV when I was babysitting those kids, there was some morning news program, the last thing they would show before they got into the soap operas, at which time we had to shut it off and go play game #263 of Life that week.  But they were talking about the 40th anniversary of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, showing the grainy newsreel footage of the giant mushroom cloud, and the decimated little paper and kindling wood city after the 18-kiloton blast.  And the 65th anniversary just passed – and that screws with my head, thinking that summer was 25 years ago.

I should wrap this up.  I’ve started googling Hiroshima, and will probably waste the next two hours reading stuff online, and eventually convince myself I need to dig up the Richard Rhodes book, and I have other crap to do instead.

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Back to School

I am going back to school.  Sort of.  I’m taking one class, online, about TV comedy writing.  This will probably elicit a number of questions, like “why school?” and “why TV?” and “what about these government agents in black helicopters that sit with sniper rifles and thermal scopes a mile away from my armed compound?”  (Okay not all of you may have that last question.)

First, school: I need to get off my ass and do something.  I need some deadlines, and I need to have some people look at my stuff.  And I don’t know if I could hack an MFA program, and I definitely am not quitting my day job.  But I would like to challenge myself a little, and take something.  And it’s a little daunting, because aside from training classes at work, I have not been in a classroom since 1995, which is 15 years ago, which is downright scary.

Why TV?  I am getting to the point where chasing the long-form novel or the Raymond Carver sculpted story just isn’t me.  I mean, I am beating myself up learning this crap, trying to follow it, and maybe I could, but it’s just not my skillset.  I need to find some other form that’s closer to what I do.  Maybe that’s writing TV comedy.  Or maybe it’s punching up jokes for sketch comedy.  Or maybe it’s writing a regular column, or writing for something like the Onion.  All I know is I come up with a lot of way-out ideas, and I punch them together fast, but then get bored of them fast.  I need a format that fits that well.  I have been reluctant to even think this, because it is some form of defeat in a sense.  But it isn’t.  I mean, Picasso was a good painter, but I bet he’d struggle painting department store shelves for a summer.  And I did that with no problem – I’d kick his ass, given a skid of 36x18s with no metal prep and a couple of gallons of semi-gloss oil.

I really have no idea how the comedy writing world works, or where to go to find out.  I have this sneaking suspicion that the two cities you want to be in for this are NY or LA, and of course I didn’t do shit when I lived in either one.  But at least I’m not in Possum Pouch, Arkansas.  One thing that is possibly limiting is I have no interest in performing.  If I did, I would go to whatever UCB-type sketch comedy place and max out as much as possible, since it seems like that’s the way to cover all of your bases.  But I have zero interest in stage time.  I mean, I took my college speech class at 8:00 AM in a summer session specifically because I hate talking in groups.

Okay, I need to go log into this course site and figure it out.  The last time I had a class discussion online, it used VAXNotes, if that dates me at all.

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