general reviews

Review: My War by Colby Buzzell

I wasn’t set to go down the military history wormhole and start reading books about Iraq, but while I was going through one of the Henry Rollins journal books, he mentioned Buzzell’s memoir, and I picked up a copy.  Going into it, I knew nothing about it, none of the background, his history, and I never read his blog.  I didn’t know if he was a staunch anti-war type, or a flag-waving republican.  I didn’t even know if he lost his arms and legs from a car bomb, or if he was now a regular commentator on Fox News.  All I knew was that Rollins liked him, and the book was well-blurbed.  Even Vonnegut gave it a good blurb.  So I was hoping for the best.

Then I started the book, and found out that he’d kept a blog during his time in Iraq, and this was a book made from the blog, and my heart sank.  I hate when people repackage blogs into books.  One reason is that blog to book people rarely repeat their performance; they’re almost always one-shot wonders.  And I love to be proven wrong by this, but it’s just an issue with the format.  You put your all into a blog, every part of your life, and you only have one life, so you only get the one book.  Sometimes you get a follow-up, but it’s always the same book, the confusion and the grind of the post-blog-book world, dealing with publishers and press and all of that junk we don’t care about.  I especially don’t like the blog-to-book when I’ve already read the blog in question.  It’s like getting a greatest hits album from a band that’s got every single song you already have from them, and maybe a shitty live version of the one song you can’t stand to listen to anymore.

And yeah, part of my hatred for this is jealousy.  I’ve been blogging since 1997 here.  I did put out a book of the first three years of blog posts here, and nobody bought it.  I think I could probably get a decent book out of the thousand or so entries I have completed here, but I doubt it would sell.  And yeah, you’re saying, “but Jon, you didn’t go to Iraq and get shot at.”  No, I didn’t.  But it isn’t about the action as much as it is the character presenting it.  Buzzell presents himself in a way that makes him very likable to a certain segment of the population, and that translates into a story that people can relate to and that people will follow.  My likability… we’ll leave that for another discussion, although I think you know what my perception of that is already.

All that aside, the book is interesting because it’s hard to figure out who Buzzell is.  He’s this sort of boomerang kid, a former skate punk not into going to college and not into the popular scene like the rest of his high school.  He’s not pro-war or anti-war, but decides to enlist because it’s better than sitting on his parents couch or doing a data-entry job for nine bucks an hour.  You get the idea now that anyone volunteering for the army at a time when it was almost a guarantee to get sent into war was some bible belt Republican who loved God, guns, and George Bush.  And Buzzell shows that this isn’t entirely true, that you could come from some other background.

The story continues through basic training, on to a Stryker brigade at Ft. Lewis, up near Seattle.  A Stryker is a big 8-wheeled combat vehicle, way bigger and more armored than a Hummer, but not as heavy or treaded like a tank.  He worked as an M-240 machine gun operator, first as the guy hauling the ammo, then working up to the guy actually firing the thing.  Buzzell’s writing is solid; his two main influences are Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.  He only has some of the fluid poetry of Bukowski at his best, and it’s not the kind of rapid-fire manic energy Thompson wields, but fans of both authors would settle in well with his prose.  I think the unfortunate part of this blog-t0-book thing is that his earliest posts were not as polished or refined.  It seems like he just started to find his voice by the end of his time in Iraq.  So the additional stuff he wrote afterward, and any articles you find of his post-book are much more excellent in style and quality.  But the writing is solid enough, and it reads fast, so I appreciated that.

The politics of the book are mixed.  In some ways, it seems like Buzzell would be the typical W-following line-toter.  In other ways, you’d think he was some Berkeley radical anarchist more interested in throwing the system.  It’s hard to tell where his loyalties lie, and I have no problem with that, because I’m the same way.  I think if you adhere to the far left, you’re going to have problems reading this, hearing about shooting people and the implied cultural insensitivity here, like Buzzell’s insistence on using the term hajii to refer to any Iraqi people, which some would consider derogatory.  It’s probably a bit too war-porn for the die-hard Nancy Pelosi fan.  On the other hand, it probably contains way too many f-bombs for those of you who read the bible six times an hour.  (That’s a constant complaint in other reviews, and I honestly don’t give a fuck if he uses the word or not.)

Probably the one criticism I had about the book was that in places, the writing just showed us things, and it didn’t tell us about it.  I mean, it seems like, as an Amazon reviewer put it, he started with 50 pages of blog posts and pushed it out to a 350-page book.  And that’s fine, but there were times when he could have told us more about how he felt, or how things really looked.  Like, in the epic firefight scene that’s the keystone to the whole book, there are monumental things described with a single sentence.  Like, “The Pepsi bottling plant across the street was all up in flames.”  That’s it.  You could write at least a paragraph if not ten about the surreal situation of growing up drinking soda and then having that childhood image of the Pepsi logo transplanted to this giant factory in flames, the sounds of the timbers crumbling, the glow of the glass and plastic melting en masse… whatever.  He did a good job of documenting what happened, but didn’t cover as much how those things made him feel.

And maybe that’s deliberate.  I mean, the picture he paints is that he’s this tattoo-covered, party lovin’ dude that uses blackout drinking as a stock response to almost anything, suddenly thrust into war.  Maybe having feelings about the action goes against this tough warrior persona.  And maybe that’s why people identify with it.  I mean, nobody asks Chuck Norris how he feels about punching a guy in the throat, and more than a few people love them some Chuck Norris.  But I look back to some of the military memoirs or creative nonfiction that I like – for example, Tim O’Brien – and they add this third dimension, which makes you feel more like you can relate to the tension and drama.  Maybe he hasn’t had time to contemplate what went on. O’Brien wrote his books years after returning from the shit, and he had the distance; he wasn’t liveblogging the Vietnam War as it happened.  That’s why I’m curious about Buzzell’s act two, what comes after this book.

And yeah, full disclosure: I published John Sheppard’s verisimilitude work, Tales of the Peacetime Army, which I liked a lot more for the depth of the writing, although it wasn’t about the war of the moment, which is probably why it didn’t sell.  (I’m not trying to snake-oil you into buying a copy – go read it for free at the above link if you want.)  John also wrote the most excellent In Between Days, a novel about returning from Iraq and dealing with PTSD and the bleakness of America these days, which I keep saying is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  But it also didn’t sell.  (Maybe John needs to get some tattoos and do some blackout drinking.)

All in all, this is a decent and quick read, although it made me have more questions than answers when I finished.  If you never read the blog, and you’re into reading military history, it’s worth a look.  It’s a good book.  Not great, but good.


Strange Nostalgia for Lost Electronics

I get a lot of shit for the “museum of obsolete technology” I have in our storage locker right now, the electronic toys I’m paying $30 a month to not see.  But I’ve pared down almost all of that inventory now, and it’s down to a single C-64 and 1541 drive, and a Sony Magic Link PDA that I bought on eBay and will probably never be able to connect to the internet.  I’ve given up on collecting, but I’ve still got that collector’s gene, and if I had unlimited space and unlimited budget, I’d probably spend all day and night on eBay, trying to buy back every piece of electronics I ever owned and every gadget I ever coveted, until eventually the hosts of Hoarders showed up at the house to film a two-part special on me.

I found this site a while back called Wishbook Web, and it’s extremely dangerous for me.  It’s scans of a bunch of department store catalogs, like Sears and Monkey Wards, which is great, because those things have largely been landfilled and there’s no archive of them anymore.  When I was a little kid, I would spend the entire year memorizing these catalogs, poring over the toy sections until the pages fell apart.  I guess now kids can just get on the web and go to Amazon and look this stuff up, but I would scrutinize these things like a NASA engineer trying to figure out why the latest Mars lander crashed.  Me and my sisters used to fight over who got to read each catalog, and instead of wish lists, my parents tried to institute some kind of system for us to denote what stuff we wanted that year.  It involved one of us putting boxes next to things, and the other annotating with circles, or maybe it was stars.  Anyway, I’d just mark the entire Lego section and any single thing that said Star Wars in it.  And of course, all new toys had come out before the actual holiday, and we’d have to revisit our greedy little lists based on the commercials shown during the Saturday morning cartoons.

So at least two of these catalogs came out during the prime of my childhood, and I can still tell you almost every damn thing on every page.  Going back to these again is like going back to a home town after twenty years and still being able to find your way around.  It’s also interesting to see how much the times have changed as far as copy goes, because I could write better stuff in my sleep.  Anyway, when I first found this URL, I went through every page, trying to find the stuff I used to own, and the things I really wanted but never got.

Here’s a good example of this: the stereo I had as a kid.

When I was little, I had one of those crap record players with the removable lid and the plastic handle on the side, the kind with the speaker built into it.  My parents had a “real” stereo record player with separate speakers, but I had to listen to my read-along books and Disney records on this orange cardboard piece of shit.  When I was in maybe the 6th grade, I asked for a “real” stereo for Christmas, and I got item #2 from the picture above, taken from a Sears catalog.  And at the time, this was about as technologically advanced as the computers from Minority Report.  It had a record player AND a tape player AND a radio AND an 8-track.  Not only could I record songs off of the radio, but I could make tapes of albums.  And the speakers were separate, the kind of thing you plugged in and sat on shelves in the corners of the room.

The 8-track was a bit of an oddity; this was like the last death rattle of the failed format.  This stereo had a front-loader, and it had the program button, which jogged the tape heads sequentially across each of the four tracks of an album.  But it didn’t even have a fast-forward or rewind button.  Our family had no 8-track tapes, so we went to the Sears at Pierre Moran mall, and found them liquidating the remainder of their 8-tracks at some ridiculous price, like maybe four for a dollar.  These were all “cut-outs”, items with a groove cut in one side because they were returned or whatever, and they were pretty picked over.  I think I ended up getting a Steve Martin comedy album, a Ringo Starr solo album (I had no idea who the Beatles were, except in the most conceptual of terms), and a Jefferson Airplane album.  Much later, my mom’s second husband had a collection of a few 8-tracks, with the only notable ones being the first Cheech and Chong album, and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick.  (Albums with only two side-long tracks didn’t work as well for a format where an LP was essentially divided into four; I’m not sure how they handled that.)

I had almost no budget for music, so I spent a lot of time trying to record songs off the radio, which was a maddening process.  I’d listen to U-93, the local top-40 radio station, and hope some song I liked would get played.  There were a whole slew of problems that would occur: the tape would not be queued to the very end and I’d erase some previously recorded treasure; the idiot DJ would babble on about being the 93rd caller for a set of free tickets to a monster truck rally; I wouldn’t recognize the song until 30 seconds in, and then only record half of it; the song would fade into some other stupid song I wouldn’t want, and I’d have a pristine copy of this Journey song I really wanted, except the last ten seconds would be fused to the beginning of a Toni Basil song.  (Yes, that song, which I won’t even mention by name or it will be stuck in your head forever.)  It would take me maybe a month or two of diligent listening to fill one side of a C-90 with useful tunes.

The big shortfall to this new hardware was that it only had one tape deck.  Most of the new stereos coming out had two decks: a play-only unit, and a player-recorder.  And my unit was a “closed” system, without an AUX input or any sort of input jacks.  Most of my friends would buy their albums on cassette tape, and I had no way of making copies of them.  My best hopes were either to have a friend that had a dual-tape deck who would be willing to make a dub for me, or find someone who bought everything on vinyl and would let me borrow their album.  Another problem was that I had no way of recording from the TV.  I watched an insane amount of MTV back then, and I would have given anything to capture some of their new music on cassette for repeat listens, especially since they played much cooler stuff than the behind-the-times station in my redneck Indiana town.  I remember trying to record a Genesis concert off of MTV by holding my sister’s little jambox up to the TV cabinet, which worked about as well as taking a picture of the night stars by dragging a photocopier outside and making a copy with the lid open.  (My sister later tried recording some song on MTV – that “don’t put another dime in the jukebox” song, and every time it would come on, I would yell at the dog and she’d start barking, totally screwing up the recording.)

It’s always interesting to me how we have such a tactile nostalgia for old technology like this.  Like I’ve got an old cell phone sitting on my shelf, a Windows Mobile phone I used for maybe six months before I wised up and got an iPhone.  And I hated that phone at the time, but it was my daily driver, and I used it constantly, for email, google maps, web browsing (or what approximated web browsing in a crippled version of pocket IE).  And I pick it up now, and its heft, and the feel of its keys, and the glint of its display remind me so much of that period in late 2008 and early 2009 when this thing was permanently attached to my hip.  And I get some of that when I look at pictures of old technology like this.  I remember the smell that stereo had, the new electronics smell of components heating up for the first time.  I remember the snap of the silver knobs going across their detents as I cycled through the inputs.  I remember playing with that tuning knob endlessly, trying to get a clear signal on WAOR so I could record Dr. Demento on Sunday nights.  I haven’t seen this stereo in at least 25 years, but I think if I found one at a garage sale, it would instantly transport me back to 1983 again.

Anyway, that’s my story.  Now I must go waste the rest of my writing time finding this stereo elsewhere on the web.  I’ve just found there are a ton of eBay sellers with demo videos of their wares on youtube, with many similar stereos.  Not sure which is worse, the waste of money and space hoarding this stuff, or the waste of time finding it.


Escape from Alcatraz

Last night, we took the night tour at Alcatraz.  The night tour is the best time to go; it leaves the dock at about 6:45, and they have more tour guides there, plus you get to see everything at night, or when the sun’s setting, which lends to some amazing views.  Unfortunately, we went during some horrible weather.  It was like 47 degrees, pouring rain, and extremely windy, and it got even worse when we were on this little clump of rock in the middle of the bay.  It’s hard to get tickets to the night tour, and we ordered ours months ago, so we bundled up and decided to power through it and go anyway.

Most of the tour itself is indoors, but we couldn’t spend any time wandering around the island itself.  Also, you get there at a dock at the low point of the island, but the cell block itself is at the top of the island, which means you have to climb up a steep switchback trail that’s the equivalent of hiking 13 flights of stairs.  And maybe that would be a decent workout, but not when you’re soaking wet and cold and being blown sideways by gale-force winds.  Even when we were inside, winds and rain whipped through the giant barred windows.  It’s not a climate-controlled resort, and you appreciate how miserable it must have been to do time there when the weather’s this bad.  And you know six months out of the year, it’s going to be this downcast at night.

The cellblock itself is a lot smaller than I imagined.  It’s really only four rows of cells, with one, the solitary wing, having cells on only one side.  I think the maximum number of people they ever had there was about 300, which was the size of our tour group.  There’s a library, a cafeteria, a control room and warden’s office, and not much more.  I guess there were some other buildings, like a place where they did work duty, but the other stuff was either closed off or is long gone.  A couple of the buildings burned down during the Indian occupation, and a couple were torn down when they were on the verge of collapse.

There’s also an apartment building, where workers lived, some with their families.  I never realized that kids actually lived on the island, and took a boat to school every day.  That seems unusual – now, nobody lives within miles of those supermax prisons, like it would be an amber alert field day, or a steady supply for hostage situations.  But I guess the families liked the small-town feel and the fact that they looked out at this incredible view of the city.

I wish I could have seen more of the history of the place.  It’s like New York City in the sense that it’s many-layered, hundreds of years of stuff built on top of other stuff, going all the way back to when it was a civil war fort.  There are areas that used to be moats and sally gates, and buildings built on top of the foundations of other buildings.  I guess when you have to haul in all raw materials, you tend to reuse things.  They tell the story of this at the various exhibits, but I wished it was a clear day so I could get some more pictures of this construction.

We also stayed for a presentation about the myths of Alcatraz, where they talked about how most of the stuff you see in movies is total bullshit.  Like, the whole system of tunnels under the island in The Rock does not exist.  And the myths about the man-eating sharks and impossible swim to the mainland are also just myths.  There are no sharks in the bay (other than little bottom-feeders), and a good swimmer could make it to the shore.  But if you spent your days rotting in a tiny cell with no exercise and no access to a YMCA pool and a daily diet of bulk-up powder, you probably couldn’t.

The trip was very cool, but it was photography hell, because of the low light and moisture.  The trip back was also not optimal – the ship was pitching and bobbing every which way, and water was splashing up over the boat as we crossed back.  I wasn’t sick, but a few people were, which wasn’t pleasant.  Anyway, I’ve posted the pictures to flickr here:


Rare reports of tongue discoloration

I’m sick.  Strep throat.  It happened suddenly, this urge to drink a gallon of water every five minutes, then a difficulty swallowing.  I didn’t wait for it to play out, and got in to a doctor right away.  They’ve had so many cases of adult strep throat, they were out of the test kits, and had to dig up an ancient kit that was almost at the technology level where you had to kill the rabbit and look at its ovaries to determine if it was positive or not.  Okay, not that bad, but it was one of those things where we had to sit and stare at a little stick in a vial of chemical solution and wait to see if it changed colors.  And if I wasn’t sick, I would have come up with a great punchline containing “the last time I had to sit and wait to see if the blue line appeared…”

So I got an antibiotic, zithromax, and I googled out all of the side effects, and it’s not much except the usual stomach stuff that you’d get from ordering the five dollar box at Taco Bell.  I don’t take antibiotics that often, because I’m allergic to penicillin and all of the other -cillin drugs.  I think I last took penicillin when I was five or six, and that ended with a stay in the hospital.  I think this was the first time I ever spent a night anywhere away from a parent or family member, and I know it was the first time I’d ever seen a Mennonite kid with his arm cut off from a tractor accident, which was the case for my roommate during part of my stay.

I think the last time I took any antibiotic was maybe ten years ago, a bad cold that I probably wrote about in here somewhere, a thing that eventually turned into strep, or maybe it always was.  All I remember was that it was during a time when my stupid piece of shit landlord in Queens was not running the heat, and it was definitely a time when you needed the heat, and then the hot water also gave out, so instead of taking a shower or a bath, I’d put every pot and pan on the stove, fill them with water, and then bathe by standing in a plastic bucket in the kitchen and sort of washclothing it and pouring this hot water from the stove over me, which is damn fine behavior to engage in when it’s 48 degrees in your house and you’re hacking away at a death cold.  I also remember trying to drink diet soda and loathing it, because someone told me at some point that drinking regular Coke was just going to feed sugar to that bacteria colony breeding in my tonsil area.  And I tried to gargle with apple cider vinegar, which is supposed to be some kind of damn miracle cure, but it usually just made me gag.

I haven’t been writing much in here, because I’ve been saving all of the crazy for this book I’m writing, which is well underway, aside from the whole thing about being sick.  If you graphed my success at writing versus the word count, it’s definitely a bell curve with the middle being in the thousands-word range, which means writing a hundred thousand words is definitely way out there to the right where that bell threatens to hit the axis again.  I’ve found that if I just write and write, by the time I get 30,000 words into it, I’ve completely forgotten what I’ve written in chapter one.  And when I start to keep an outline is when I start to get distracted, because I start to think about plot and arc and proportions and golden ratios and Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory, and I get derailed dealing with all of that shit.  So it’s a balancing game.  And it’s hard to keep writing here with all of that balancing going on, but I feel a need to get back to it.

It’s also starting to get nice enough outside to crack open a window or two during the day, which throws me, because that smell of fresh air, the beginnings of spring, the mid-afternoon sunshine after a brief Bay area rain shower, that’s the kind of stuff that throws me down an emotional k-hole. It has me teleporting back to random spring days in 1993 or in Seattle or whatever else, and I can spend all month digging through old journals or old emails trying to find some thread to pull me back into that.  And that also makes me think about writing about some of that nostalgia, about trying to find some structure again like the NecroKonicon that I can use to briefly riff about those times when I think about Garcia’s Pizza or the guy I knew at Ball State who was growing weed in the suspended ceiling of his dorm room, or the feeling when I got into a primer-black $300 Camaro in 1987 and drove to drive nowhere, just to get through that side of a Black Flag tape and kill another 88-cent gallon of gas.  Sometimes I think I should start another blog or maybe a wiki or tumblr or something else as a way to link together all of this shit.  I’ve tried multiple times to write a big epic novel containing all of this, but I also think in many ways the big epic novel is dead, or at least in deep sleep, and it’s all about the randomness of small pieces.  Maybe.

I’m writing this from the comfort of my bed, while on my old computer, the 2007 MacBook.  Talk about nostalgia – I remember being in Denver that summer, selling off all of my old, dust-collecting toys on eBay to get together the cash for this thing.  Seems like yesterday, but this machine is slowly yellowing and wearing and that little beach ball spins more and more every time I try to load two things at once.  That brand new, top-of-food-chain MacBook Pro is about to turn a year old, and is now displaced by a faster, sexier model that costs less.  In three more years, that thing will be the backup beater machine, and some 32-core beast with 64 gigs of memory and no moving parts whatsoever will be business as usual.  This is the dance we do.


List: possible zombie book ideas for future use

  1. Zombie Jesus
  2. Zombie Ernest Hemingway
  3. Zombie Mama Cass
  4. Zombie Jethro Tull
  5. Zombie Joey Ramone
  6. Zombie Jesse Ventura
  7. Zombie Jerry Lewis
  8. Zombie Veterinarian
  9. Zombie Les Paul
  10. Zombie Ayn Rand
  11. Zombie Kim Jong Il
  12. Zombie Slum Landlord
  13. Zombie Transvestite hooker picked up by Eddie Murphy
  14. Zombie Illegal immigrant
  15. Zombie Midlist genre author
  16. Zombie Tax preparation assistant
  17. Zombie Hipster taco truck worker
  18. Zombie Indian casino blackjack dealer
  19. Zombie Pro-Microsoft internet troller
  20. Zombie Weatherman
  21. Zombie French-Canadian baguette baker
  22. Zombie Has-been child actor turned junkie
  23. Zombie Build engineer
  24. Zombie Incontinent old person
  25. Zombie Herpes sufferer riding a mountain bike in a drug commercial
  26. Zombie Civil War re-enactor
  27. Zombie Cooking show hostess you want to slap but you also want to fuck
  28. Zombie Death metal fan who has really long hair but is bald on the top
  29. Zombie Wal-Mart greeter
  30. Zombie Blind guy who plays accordion on the subway for change
  31. Zombie Larry King
  32. Zombie High school gym teacher
  33. Zombie Al Bundy
  34. Zombie Editor at Huffington Post who posts content from other places as if they are new news.
  35. Zombie Ruby on Rails developer who talks about how great the ORM model is but doesn’t acknowledge scalability issues.
  36. Zombie Used car salesman
  37. Zombie Fred Flintstone
  38. Zombie Alexander Haig
  39. Zombie Eli Whitney with interchangeable parts
  40. Zombie Herbalife salesman who posts Zombie “Lose Weight Now/Ask Me How” signs at grocery store.
  41. Zombie Tattoo artist
  42. Zombie Guy who always insists that autotuning is killing the music industry
  43. Zombie Congressional Budget Office Assistant Director of Health and Zombie Services Division
  44. Zombie Yoga teacher with really hot ass
  45. Zombie Dog show groomer
  46. Zombie House painter
  47. Zombie David Lee Roth
  48. Zombie Left-Handed Setup Pitcher
  49. Zombie Alien abduction survivor
  50. Zombie Steven Spielberg

(Feel free to use any of these, but please let me know if you write a book or screenplay based on them.)


Plane wreckage in the 49th state

There are currently two things that every single show on cable must be based on at this moment: either making cupcakes, or Alaska.  I went to AK in 2006, and found it interesting, although now it’s a much harder sell to get people up there, given that a certain someone has branded the state as a vast wasteland of idiots.  It’s much more than that, but of course I’m going to start writing about it with a much more stupid filter, which is a visit to Denny’s.

This was probably the beginning of the end of Denny’s for me, I mean aside from the whole diet change. I used to love Denny’s, and I guess that started in Bloomington. There weren’t that many 24-hour places to eat, and you’d end up at Denny’s more than actually wanted to go there. At least it was that way at first, especially when I didn’t have a car and someone else had to drag me around. But then it transformed at some point, and I used to go there to write, or try to write, hours with the spiral notebooks and bottomless glasses of Coke.

This Alaskan Denny’s, it was on some half-deserted strip of highway in Anchorage, and it had this big construction fence down one side of the parking lot. The owner was trying to subdivide the land I guess, sell this narrow strip of leftover parking lot to some other business. Who would buy it? Maybe one of those espresso coffee shacks? Or maybe it was some kind of zoning bullshit tactic, like “give me this much extra money to keep this twelve feet of your parking lot. / No? Well fuck you, I’m going to sell it to your competitor and really screw things up for you.”

I remember service being poor, and some horrible Palin-esque family of fourteen at the next table, the dad in full camo with this redneck grizzly man beard, and a wife that looked like it was the only time that year she wasn’t being actively beaten. Alaska in June – I think we just landed on the cusp of the tourist season, like a week later and we would be inundated with bluehairs and grandchildren. The week we were there, we almost had the place to ourselves, except for the skeleton staff of locals, keeping the basics going.

I always used to get the All-American slam, which isn’t the healthiest thing in the planet: scrambled eggs with cheese, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and toast. I just looked it up: 970 calories, but a whopping 76 grams of fat. The food was off for some reason though. I mean, it wasn’t spoiled or anything, but the bacon tasted thin and reconstituted, like it was the strip of meat in a frozen TV dinner. I found some other minor oddities like this in food in Alaska; it seemed like they shipped up things that couldn’t grow up north, so they sometimes subbed things out with poor imitation rehydrated food.

But bacon – I mean, we went to this place, I keep thinking it’s City Lights but it’s not that (Northern Lights? Snow City?) and they had real bacon, the thick strips of solid, crunchy bacon, the kind you could pick up between your thumb and finger at one end  and it would stand straight out and not sag at all. And it had no visible fat. I’m sure it still contained like 40% fat, but it didn’t have the greasy, hard-to-chew strips of white at the edges.

But I had to go to Denny’s. We had a car, a little white Matrix, like the zipcars we rented for some insane rate back in the city. I never got to drive anymore, maybe once or twice a year, and Sarah would drive us out to some mall in New Jersey every once in a while, not that malls really did it for me anymore. I did like the occasional trip to a real Target, the pacifying effect of pushing a big red cart down wide aisles full of jumbo-sized boxes of everything, ten versions of every product, as opposed to the typical New York style of only one choice and that was practically a travel-sized portion, at twice the price of the giant 144-pack you’d get out in the country.

Sarah went to some thing – a facial, or a pedicure, and to kill time, I got the car for a couple of hours. I went to this aviation museum out by the airport. That airport is just this weird mystical strip of nothing in the middle of nowhere. You’re driving through moose country, and you suddenly stumble upon miles-long strips of asphalt, with huge stretch jumbo jets from across oceans floating down to land. Every flight to Anchorage is some huge cross-country thing, a 767 filled with tourists from LA or Tokyo or some other city that involves following the curve of the earth for two thousand miles.

And that museum – it was basically a dumping ground for any ruins of planes they found across the state. There’s a lot of civil aviation and small military aviation up north, and because of weather and maintenance nightmares, a lot of those little flights fall from the sky and are never seen again. And then decades later, some bear hunter finds the carcass of an old P-38 from World War II that went off the radar and got buried in a glacier. When they could chip those things out of the ice, they ended up at this museum.

They did have some nicely restored planes inside, old wooden biplanes and maybe a warbird or two. They also had a collection of surplus planes, obsolete military gear donated to the cause, obscure workhorse planes that came too late for the big one and too early to go to Vietnam, these weird fifties-era helicopters you’ve never heard of, because elsewhere they went extinct with the advent of the Huey, but some outback division of the forest service painted over the camo with bright yellow or orange and used it to drag oil well pieces or rescue dog sled operators lost in blizzards.

Beyond the military surplus was this third tier of the absolutely beaten and fucked pieces of crashed planes. I think they had a noble idea, taking in this potentially rare and impossible to find collector planes, things that maybe the Confederate Air Force and some rich Branson-type guy had the only two in existence, and here’s 26 percent of one that flew into a mountain in 1947 and was left to rust, except maybe it was encased in some bizarre combination of blue ice and no acid rain that left some of the galvanized or alloy pieces intact. But this organization had zero money, maybe a couple of senior volunteers that swept the floor and could put a coat of latex house paint on top of the ruined carcasses. They probably had a small population of retired Air Force guys who did know the proper way to fix up one of these planes, and maybe they were lucky enough to get a few hours of patriotic service out of them. But there were also enough working retired aircraft still making hops across the Alaska terrain that needed the TLC from a trained mechanic to keep the tourists in the air or to get raw supplies or medical aid to people up in Fairbanks or Nome or the upper pipeline.

I still had time after the tour, and went to a Burger King across the street from this used book store where we ended up almost every other night of the trip. I needed something to eat between meals – we ended up on such a screwed-up schedule because it never got dark, and we’d sometimes eat dinner at ten or eleven at night, when it was still broad daylight out. I ordered something tiny, like the junior King menu, a smaller burger and a small fries, and sat alone, picking at the food and browsing through the snaps I got on my digital camera. I saw this kid working the counter, a pencil-necked guy with glasses, but not the typical nerd, more like the Boy Scout nerd, the kind that was athletic in the sense that he ran cross-country, but he also tried to go for the eagle scout ranking and knew how to start a fire in the rain and could hike twenty miles in the hills and be okay. But not a ladies’ man, not a football player, not the kind of scraggly Alaska man that lived on Skoal and Jack Daniel’s and listened to Nickelback and Pantera and drove a pickup truck.

He was talking to some girl behind the counter, and told her that he just joined the Marines, that he signed the papers and was going to ship out at the end of the summer. This struck me on many different levels. One, the kid didn’t look like the Marine type. Maybe I could see him in the chair force, playing around with some weather computers or directing air traffic in an office with a coffeemaker running like the Daytona 500 and lots of yellowed post-it notes on every surface. He didn’t seem like the leatherneck type, too much of a loner or something. I knew that in eight weeks at Parris Island, that would all get beaten out of him. Maybe that was his goal, though, so more power to him.

But also, why the hell would you join the Marines in 2006? That’s pretty much a death sentence, or at least a guarantee that you’ll be sent out to fight in some shithole maybe eight weeks and two days after you sign your papers. But it also hit me that this was the only way out for a kid like this, that nobody could afford college anymore, and you didn’t get rich serving crap to old people on a cruise boat layover at a chain hotel. And if I grew up in Alaska, I would have done everything in my power to get the hell out the second I turned eighteen.  I know I felt that way in Indiana, that all-consuming need to put huge amounts of distance between me and everything and everyone.  But I could always load up the car, drive for 20 hours straight, and land in a completely different universe.  In Alaska, you can drive for two days and barely make it into Canada.

So yeah, Alaska – worth the visit.  Don’t go in the winter, though.  23 hours a day of darkness would really put the zap on things.


Snow White and Enduraflex

I watched a documentary a bit ago on the Baltimore Colts marching band, which I guess continued to exist after the Colts left town for Indianapolis in 1984. (It was part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. I find that even though I don’t like or understand all sports, I love pretty much any well-done documentary about sports, and all of these have been excellent.) The story itself was interesting, but what caught me was the 1984-ness of it, and the fact that I only peripherally remember football coming to Indiana. (I only remember it at all because my mom still bought my school clothes for me when I was in like the 8th grade, and she got me a Colts shirt, and this was the season when they went like 4-12, and dressing your kid in a Colts shirt and sending them to school was a virtual death sentence, probably two steps worse than dressing them in blackface and a Confederate uniform and dropping them off at an inner-city.) But some of the footage pulled my memories back to that time window for whatever reason, that era when I was in junior high and the EPCOT center was brand new and the future, and everyone thought “The Superbowl Shuffle” was cool as hell.

I guess I don’t think of the difference between network TV news now and then until I see old newsreel. I don’t know if it’s the timely look of the reporters – the hair, the clothes – or if it’s something about the production values. Like, when it was the late 80s/early 90s, I don’t remember thinking “this looks horrible”, but now when I go back to a TV show of that era and see everyone with the giant, giant glasses (like I had) and the sweaters over their shoulder and the generated graphics that look like they were done on a ColecoVision, I think “what the fuck were people thinking?”  I never turn on the TV news now and think “wow, this looks 100% different than it did last week”, but then I see a clip from 1995 and it looks like it could have been produced on 1947 equipment.

There are a couple of things I immediately think about from that period. One is the Fiero. I don’t know why, but I really wanted a Fiero when they came out in 1983. It was like the future of cars to me, and the way they marketed it, they made perfect sense: the slick design, the EnduraFlex body panels, the Italian-style mid-engine, only two seats. I didn’t care that you could only carry one bag of groceries in it, and I didn’t know anything about the engine fires or the fact that the whole drivetrain was cobbled together from the leftovers of a Chevette and a Citation, and performed accordingly. I just remember getting a glossy brochure when I saw one at the Concord Mall, and I memorized the thing, wishing that after the four years or so passed when I got my license, I’d somehow magically get the money to get such a cool and futuristic car.

The Fiero shared the philosophy of a sports-only car like the Corvette, the “fuck you, family man – it’s a two-seater”, and it had the styling of the Pontiac Trans Am, the Knight Rider car, but in a smaller cousin. And this was an era when people in Detroit were trying to put performance back in cars. Every coked-out Miami Vice wannabe person rich off of Reagan-era stock market rapings was going out and picking up a Ferrari. And the big three were coming off of a horrible decade where performance cars were all but killed by wimpy engines and EPA guidelines and DOT requirements. But Delorean was trying to win people over with his future (albeit underpowered) car; the Knight Rider third-gen F-body was on the road; and the high-end Vettes were getting into fuel injection and computer controls that would usher in a new era of performance. It was the start of a good time.

Another consumer mind bug that caught me back then was the Apple IIc. I had a love/hate relationship with the Apple; my schools always had them, and when I got a crack at them, they were always great, but they cost an insane amount of money, at least compared to the Commodore and Atari computers built up around the same 6502 CPU. But then Apple released this new machine, essentially a portable “all-in-one” version of the II line. And once again, I got a slick multi-page brochure booklet, maybe at the mall, maybe at Templin’s Music, which sold some computer stuff (although they mostly stocked Atari gear.) The brochure was part an implementation of Apple’s Snow White industrial design language in the form of a pamphlet, and part the genius marketing philosophy Apple was hacking out back then. And for whatever reason, I pored over this book, and tried to count out the number of lawns I’d need to mow to get one of these things to myself.

The genius of the IIc was that it heavily advertised itself as a “portable,” but it was, at best, a “luggable.” The computer did seal in everything that came with a IIe into a single eight-pound unit, maybe two or three times the size of a large laptop, but that didn’t include the power supply or monitor. Back then, they announced a small LCD screen that would sit on top of the computer, and had the same snow white design.  It didn’t solve the problem that you had to haul around a giant power brick and be within arm’s reach of 110 AC (or bring along a Honda generator).  Also, from everything I’ve heard, those LCD screens completely sucked.  But those shots of the IIc plus LCD looked absolutely mind-blowing to me, especially since I spent forever hauling around my Commodore and earlier Aquarius, jumper-cabling them onto my dad or grandma’s TV sets on the every-other weekend divorced child shuffle. In fact, the Commodore was infinitely more portable than the IIc, but the Apple looked like a cleaner solution. And it had a floppy disk built into its side, which was a first at the time.  (And yes, I know they made a luggable version of the C-64 with a built-in monitor and 1541 drive, but that was way out of my price range.  And a quick look at eBay shows that they still are.)

I never got a IIc.  I spent a lot of time on the IIe and IIgs at school, but never even saw a IIc during that timeframe.  Years later, when I worked at Wards, this girl Michelle had one, and once she talked me into coming over to tutor her on BASIC for some class she was taking at IUSB. Of course, they were using GW-BASIC, probably on the piece of shit Leading Edge computers I’d later have to maintain when I worked at IUSB, and she had the Apple IIc, which was just different enough BASIC-wise to throw off the whole damn thing. We sat in her bedroom, hacking away at it, and I don’t remember how I felt about the computer, although it wasn’t a slam dunk like the brochure made me think.  (And there’s part of me that thought this tutoring session was about more than just computer tutoring, but I was so stupid about the opposite sex back then, even if she chained me to a wall and started raping me, I’d still be like, “wait a second, we could use a GOSUB here and save five lines of code.”)

I never got a Fiero, either. When I lived in New York, I would occasionally see one on eBay and wonder if I should jump on it. The interiors look really dated now, the boxy gauge panel, the 85 MPH speedo. Most people bought these things either to become donors for some kind of kit car (Ferrari, Lambo, etc) or to drop a V-8 into and completely fuck up the balance of the thing. I still wonder about doing a full restoration on one, keeping the sleek exterior body but maybe transplanting in some 21st century powerplant and a real suspension system, plus a cool digital dash and some modern sound system bits.  And then I start thinking about buying a 1970 Z28 and a 2011 Camaro, and taking the body of the ’70 and putting it on the fuel-injected, 4-wheel ABS, all-modern electronics chassis of the 2011.  And then I remember that I drive about 40 miles a month now, and even vacuuming the floor mats of my current car is way beyond my patience level, let alone some extreme welding project involving $30,000 of shit I’d have to scrounge off the internet or at junk yards across the country.

And now I need to close the damn eBay window, and stop looking for a cheap SX-64, or even worse, a cheap PSOne monitor and C-64 innards in order to roll my own C-64 laptop.  It’s better for me to fire up x64 in an emulator window and get bored of it after ten minutes.  Or even better, I could shut off all of this and actually WRITE.



I don’t know how I remembered it, and managed to do the time calculation correctly, but last week, about five minutes before it happened, I suddenly realized it was the day of the last Discovery Space Shuttle launch.  And my Roku box now has the NASA channel (which will be essentially useless after this mission, except to maybe watch some scientist drone through a powerpoint on why some speck of dust on a telescope’s long shot is relevant.)  So I fired that up, and watched the stack sit on the pad down in Florida, and waited for the countdown, and thought about that stupid Rush song, but also thought about how I watched the very first Shuttle mission as a kid, and now I’d be watching one of the very last ones.

It’s pretty cliche to talk about how we’d all have jetpacks by now or be able to go out to LaGuardia and catch an American Airlines flight to Mars three times a day in 2011.  I spent a lot of time in those pre-Shuttle years as a nerdy kid reading every single book I could find about the Apollo and Skylab.  And it always disappointed me that the era right before I was born had tons of launches, capsules that orbited the planet and launched to the Moon and back.  And in my childhood, we had a space station made out of leftover junk from moon missions that only got any name recognition whatsoever when it finally fell out of the sky.  Meanwhile, the evil Soviet empire was sending cosmonauts up there constantly, living for years in those Soyuz orbiters, eating tubes of borscht in zero G and laughing their asses off at us Yankee bastards.

The Shuttle was a big deal for me as a kid.  I spent all of my time playing with a Millennium Falcon, thinking that if the Space Shuttle got off the ground in ’81, by the time I got my driver’s license in ’87, they’d have a ton of those things in the air like Southwest currently has crappy Boeings criss-crossing amongst second-tier airports, and by the time I finished college and entered the much-distant 21st century, it would be no problemo jumping on a high-speed train to O’Hare spaceport and getting on a commercial flight to the moon for a long weekend.  So I was riveted to those early launches, the long delays and the shaky cameras from a distance.  I guess they flew the tail end of the Apollo missions when I was a baby, and Skylab and that joint Apollo/Soviet flight went up in the early 70s, but the grade school didn’t drag out the giant wood-encased TV on a cart from the AV room for those ones.  This was live, and real, and we all stared at the video footage of this tiny airplane-looking thing shoot an insane amount of white smoke and orange flame as it crept upward from the Florida swamp and into orbit.

We watched a couple of those launches back in the 4th or 5th grade, and then it seemed like a Shuttle was going up every other month.  It was really 24 missions between the start and the loss of the Challenger, but they had four Shuttles going at once, and it pretty much fell out of the news unless you dug for it.  This was long before the days when you could fire up google and point your browser to all sorts of time-wasting distractions detailing every small aspect of manned space flight; typically, the Elkhart Truth would run a paragraph or two per launch, buried somewhere after the local bowling scores.  To get any real news, I had to go to Osco Drugs and hunt down a copy of Omni magazine, which typically included a ton of articles on mind-melding and peyote experiments and whatever the hell else they used to write back then.

I didn’t think much about the Shuttle for a while, but when I was a sophomore in college and bored out of my mind at IUSB, I discovered usenet news, and spent a lot of time reading the newsgroup.  The one thing I loved about it was this guy Henry Spencer at the U of Toronto who posted endless amounts of news about the space program.  I probably have a bunch of floppy disks somewhere in storage – the 5 1/4 type of floppy disk – that contain endless numbers of those usenet posts.  I remember poring over those Shuttle news reports, that showed details of the schedules, what was sitting at what pad, what was being assembled, and so on.  And I remember being excited as hell when a nameless OV-105 started appearing on the list, as parts and pieces of the future Endeavour arrived at Rockwell.

The Shuttles kept flying, and after those evil Soviets became our pals, we started swapping Cosmonauts and Astronauts, and Americans hung out on the Mir, and eventually they found a way to hang a Shuttle off the side of that firetrap and give the Russians some hamburgers and Pepsi to go with their caviar, porn collection, and frayed combustible wiring harnesses.  But around that time, I realized how the whole space exploration thing was under attack from both sides of the aisle, and how we’d never dump the money in it to get any man to Mars, let alone this man.  The left-wingers saw that NASA budget as a bottomless money pit that went to defense contractors; the right-wingers didn’t like the idea of non-Jesus-related science research or the flight of any space hardware we couldn’t use to kill brown people from orbit.

So yeah, you boomers got golf on the moon, while us GenXers got a nearsighted space telescope, a couple of exploding Shuttles, and too many Mars landers and orbiters that blew up or crashed or otherwise went MIA.  But not only that, but the children of the 60s had this whole legacy put forth that had to do with a space race.  They had a President that pulled out of Marilyn Monroe long enough to say, “God damn it, we’re going to put a man on the moon even if it kills us”, and even after the CIA/Mafia/freemasons/Scientologists/aliens blew his head off, everyone still followed the order and put a damn man on the moon.  Nowadays, if the President took a 31-minute lunch break, he’d come back to find some bastards dismantling and defunding every single thing he tried to do.

And honestly, I know almost nobody is interested in drinking Tang and crapping in some adult diapers 86,000 miles from home in zero-G.  But space exploration is more like a side effect of a well-fed science research and education program.  When we had an arms race and a space race, we also had an education race to produce scientists and engineers to build weapons and technology to send men into orbit.  Education means a higher quality of life.  Take a look at a place like Liberia where there’s absolutely no education and kids live in shitholes (LITERALLY shitholes – they use the beaches as toilets), snort heroin, eat human flesh, and fight in wars at the age of twelve.  Then look at a country like Sweden or Finland, which has excellent education and an overwhelmingly positive quality of life.  Here in the USA, we now gravitate between not giving a shit and wanting to completely remove all education, especially science education.  And a country with more education not only has a bigger talent pool for jobs more technically advanced than ditch digging, but it means companies who want to attract top talent are going to have an easier time when said employees can send their kids to a decent school.  And people with kids tend to want to buy houses in good school districts, which means the prices of those houses goes up, and property taxes are based on home sale price.  That’s why you can buy a house for $18,000 in my old home town of Elkhart, Indiana.

So now I’m sad as I watch blurry streaming video of the Discovery tethered to the ISS, knowing it’s pretty much the end of the line for this stuff, at least in my lifetime.  Bleah.