Twenty Years Later

I just wrote a review for David S. Atkinson’s book Bones Buried in the Dirt (go read it here) and something I mentioned in response to it is actually an idea I had that I will probably never do.  His book is told from the point of view of a pre-teen kid, and I mentioned something that John Knowles did with A Separate Peace, which is to write a book that takes place a generation later.  With Knowles, he wrote the book Peace Breaks Out, which takes place after the main character returns to his old prep school to become a teacher.

Something I was obsessed with a bit ago was writing a sequel to Summer Rain, that would take place twenty years later.  I ultimately wasn’t fully happy with Summer Rain after it was published, for a few reasons.  The book wasn’t successful, but it was also a first book and suffered from extreme nostalgia a little too much.  If I wanted to make the book a commercial success (which I didn’t want to do) I probably should have killed off some of my angels and stripped out all of the death metal and replaced it with grunge rock or college radio music or whatever.  Anyway, the book never felt resolved to me, in a way that just a copyedit or a different cover could never solve, and I always wanted to either rewrite it completely, or do something else like it that had a better chance of working.

An idea that knocked around my head a bit ago was to take this Knowles approach, and write a book where the main character of Summer Rain had to go back to Bloomington twenty years later.  I wasn’t sure what plot device I’d use to get him back there, maybe the death of a friend, or just a reunion or an itch to drive back to 47404 and see who and what still remained of that summer.  It’s a problem I have in real life, as I never have a legitimate reason to go back, and when I do end up returning to Indiana to see my family, I’m on the other side of the state and it’s usually snowing and the roads there are barely paved as it is.  I never explored the end game of the character in the book, as he wasn’t graduated at the start of the fall 1992 semester, and I didn’t extrapolate that he’d end up moving to Seattle (or whatever) so a certain amount of the book’s start would be this backstory, the explanation of how the character made it out of Indiana alive, and what he did in the two decades following college.  There’s always a certain amount of fun in that kind of world-building, and it’s one of the things that got me hooked on this idea.

Another big part of it is just diving into that nostalgia again.  I barely remember what Bloomington was like to me, but I can spend way too much time digging around bloomingpedia or old books and notes, and it’s something that still has a sick appeal to me.  I thought that after the book and publishing The Necrokonicon would get it out of my system, but there’s still a part of me that perks up when I find a picture of an old VAX online, and I sometimes feel like there’s at least another book that could come out of that part of my life.  I’ve finished a few short stories about it, and I have a whole book that I never completed that’s just a collection of them, but I do have that occasional itch to do something bigger.

And as I thought about it, there’s a lot of character exploration that could be done.  I mean, there were people that I knew who were vegan anarchist punk rock terrorists in the early 90s that have fallen hard into yuppiedom in their later years.  Some of the people I knew who were very successful and seemed like they were destined for greatness have fallen into lives of mediocrity, divorce and middle-management blues.  Some friends who railed against The Man became The Man; some people who seemed like total losers made millions in the dot-com era.  Very few people remained on the path that I thought they were on back in 1992.  Some escaped Indiana for greater things, and many basically became their parents.  Some completely fell apart.  Some are dead.  And some truly achieved greatness.  There’s a lot of ground that could be covered.

The problem with that is, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not that into “straight” writing anymore.  Another issue is that I fall into a heavy self-censorship mode when I write about reality, because I’m afraid of offending someone.  And the best stories that I could tell about reality are probably by the people who would be pissed off the most if I told them.  And every time I think I’ll get past it by changing names and hair colors and whatnot, I get some fuckwit who decides to get on my shit because I said US-33 between Dunlap and Goshen was a four-lane highway, when really it’s five lanes of interstate, or whatever the fuck.  When I try to write fiction, people give me too much shit because it’s not fiction.  It’s enough to distract me from finishing, at least.

If I had infinite time, I’d probably look into this.  But, I don’t.  I wrote a long set of notes about it, and filed them away, in a crate next to the arc of the covenant.  Maybe I’ll get to it eventually.

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You Can’t Record Satanic Death Metal On The Flight Data Recorder Of The Jackson 5 Tour Jet

I had an old friend, a guy named Perry who used to sell me vintage firecrackers, who hijacked the Jackson 5 tour plane back in ’74.  Printed up some fake boarding passes with one of the Fisher-Price toy printing presses, the kind that came with thousands of tiny movable type letters cast in lead, a double-whammy choking hazard and toxins that was hunky-dorey back in the days of lethal lawn darts and fully functional napalm flamethrowers available at your local five and dime, and high-test benzos, uppers, and downers for sale over the counter at any pharmacy.  He got on the 727, armed to the teeth with swords, throwing stars, a homemade full-auto 9mm submachine gun, and a portable 8-track player and the latest Black Sabbath album.  (Sabbath Blood Sabbath, for those keeping track.  True story: Rick Wakeman was a session keyboard player on “Sabbra Cadabra”; since 2004, his son Adam has played keyboards in Ozzy’s solo band, and will appear on the upcoming Sabbath album 13.)

Anyway, Perry had a thing for crashing airliners, and wanted to steer this fucker into a shopping mall in Simi Valley, not on some Taliban kick, but because he liked recording doom metal songs on black box recorders in old jets.  He’d plunge a vintage airliner into a steep dive, plug his Les Paul into the in-flight recorder, and loop power chords over and over as the jet plummeted toward the ground.  Then he’d DB Cooper out the back hatch with an army parachute, let the plane crash, and dig the black box out of the ground so he could transfer the contents to quarter-inch tape and dub it down on a jambox to sell the demos in the back of Metal Maniacs magazine.  He claimed the acoustics of the flight deck of an airliner and the heavy distortion of a TSO C84 cockpit voice recorder provided the right ambience for his own brand of satanic doom metal.  I tried convincing him once he could probably just hang some aluminum baffles in a garage and get an old surplus recorder from the Boeing junkyard, but he starting crying and screaming like a little bitch, saying I didn’t understand musicianship because I had a CD player in my car and digital audio was for homos.  Whatever.

Perry couldn’t open the front door of the Jackson 5 plane, because the charter pilots locked it from the inside to avoid Tito’s (alleged) crazed drug binges and Michael’s constant requests to re-route flights to various Disney theme parks.  He didn’t get to record, but he liberated a case of Pepsi and a sequined jumpsuit, and managed to get out of the rear hatch and stick a perfect landing on the roof of a K-Mart outside of Escondido.  Berry Gordy managed to bury the news story of the hijacking, although years later it was mentioned in an LMFAO song.

 

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Lack of computer

My computer is in the shop.  It has some random reboot situation, which is either from a bad motherboard or bad memory, and because it’s still under warranty and it has aftermarket memory, they want to prove that it’s the memory’s fault, although I’m pretty sure it’s the motherboard.  This is the first generation to have the NVIDIA GPU and discrete graphics, and I think it’s a lemon generation, because others have complained about a dud GPU.  But it could be the RAM, who knows.  EIther I’ll get a new motherboard for free, or they will say the RAM is bad and I’ll pay $50 to get it replaced.  The problem is not having the machine until then.

(And yeah, all you PC people can start with your HA HA MACS SUXXOR stuff.  But if this was a PC, purchased in 2010, it would have died about two years ago, and the warranty would have been long gone, and instead of getting help from an actual human at a store a mile from my house, I would have had to either fedex my computer to rural China and wait six months for an answer, or possibly bring it to a store that also sells refrigerators, junk food, and Beyonce CDs, and explain to a person who can’t read what happened.  There are only three steps in PC troubleshooting:  Reboot, Reinstall Everything, and Throw It Out And Buy A New One.  The fact that this machine has lasted three years is amazing – a three-year-old PC is a doorstop at this point.)

Anyway, I am now working off of my 2007 Macbook, which is plugged into the same monitor and keyboard and mouse, giving me the partial illusion that I’m on the same machine, but it’s a few versions back on the OS, only has a fraction of the speed and memory, and is missing a bunch of stuff like my entire music and photo libraries, my mail, and all of my documents.  I did install Scrivener here, so I can write, and I have copies of my latest books and projects, so that’s good.  And I have all of my homework and whatnot for my class, so I can do that.  But it is unusual to not have the bulk of my files around, even if I do have them over on an external drive just in case.

All of this does have me thinking about buying a new machine, though.  I wanted to limp along this MacBook for another year or two before shopping for a new machine, but I’m now wondering when the best point is to upgrade.  The rumor is that the middle of summer will be the next cycle for the MacBook Pro, and that they’ll be all-retina.  If I had to buy a Mac now, I would probably buy a non-retina, just because I don’t need to spend the money for a nicer display if I spend 80% of my time docked.  I’ve also thought about buying a MacBook Air and a Mini, using the Mini as a home server sort of thing, and the Air as a “terminal” and portable machine.  I don’t know exactly how this would work, or if there would be any advantage.  I would probably spend two hours a day moving files back and forth between the two.

Okay, I need to see how Scrivener does on a vintage six-year-old machine…

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Contests I Have Won

I have won a number of contests in my life, both games of skill or knowledge and the plain dumb-luck sort. Here is a partial list:

  1. As a very young child, I vaguely remember winning a plastic model car from a contest at a radio station. It wasn’t at the radio station; it was on Cassopolis Street in Elkhart, probably a remote location thing at a used car lot. I don’t remember actually being at the event, and I don’t remember the model car at all (it probably required glue, and I wasn’t even at the level of snap-together models if this happened so long ago I don’t remember it) but every time I drive past that location (which is probably now either a Mexican grocery, a cash-for-gold place, or a meth lab) I remember winning that car. (This could be a planted memory though, like when kids “remember” they were involved in Satanic sexual abuse and their babysitter had a pit of corpses of other little kids, and it turns out you just think this happened because an episode of Geraldo back in the 80s talked about it. I don’t know if Geraldo did any specials about used car lots giving away model cars, though.)
  2. I won a Huffy BMX bike from Honeycomb cereal. Many people my age remember Honeycomb cereal giving out these tiny metal replica license plates (no way they’d do that now; some kid would try to swallow one and every ambulance-chaser lawyer within fifty miles would jizz themselves) and if you got a special plate, that said “winner” (or maybe “bandit” or something like that) you would get a free bike. I did not win this contest, though; when I won, they had a book of various puzzles, maybe the sort that you scratch off with a coin like a lottery ticket, and the penultimate puzzle revealed if you won the bike or not, and I did. My mom did not believe me, and went over the entire puzzle book and read all of the fine print, trying to verify if I indeed won a bike, or simply “won” the 1 in 726,934,834 chance of winning a bike after mailing in the puzzle. But I did win, and we sent the thing via registered mail to where ever the Post Cereal corporation is (Battle Creek?) and a matter of time later (Weeks? Months?) a cardboard box showed up via UPS, and it contained this unassembled red and gold bike. I remember this was on a rainy Saturday, and I assembled the bike and rode it in the rain, and when I came home, the bottom parts of the bike were covered with fresh earthworms, which were out of the ground and all over the roads of my subdivision. Anyway, this was a huge stroke of luck, because I had a crappy non-BMX bike, the kind with a banana seat, and BMX bikes were huge — we’re talking Justin Bieber huge — and this made me a brief blip on the collective radar of the kids at my school. It was significantly less cool when I was still riding the same 20-inch BMX bike in my freshman year of high school, so I guess these things balance out.
  3. I won a $50 gift certificate to the Concord Mall. I think I wrote a short story about this, or a chapter within a book that will never see the light of day.  It was at some Saturday activity organized by our scared-straight Jesus freak vice principal, which Ray somehow talked me into going to, probably because he thought he had a long shot of getting his dick touched by some girl that talked to him in his social studies class, and of course nothing happened, but I did get the $50, and I spent it on a new walkman, the first Metallica album, and the first Queensryche album.
  4. I won a college scholarship from my dad’s work, based on my ACT test score. It paid $2000 a year for four years. I did not get the last semester of it because I fucked up so much academically, something which I think I discussed in my first book Summer Rain. (Actually, I think it happened a semester after that, but maybe I allude to it; I’m too lazy to go look.)
  5. My wife recently won a raffle prize of two round-trip tickets on Amtrak from Oakland to Reno, and we planned on using them to go to visit her uncle over Thanksgiving, but after we made all of the plans, we found out that Thanksgiving is a blackout holiday, so we drove and I think we gave away the tickets.  I think Amtrak tickets cost like ten dollars, so this was not that big of a deal.

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Dust mite collection

I just went digging through a box of old zines and other crap, looking for blank stationery. I always steal the paper at any given hotel, and I think when I left my place in Astoria, or maybe when we moved to Denver, I threw out this huge collection of yellowing stationery, mostly from Vegas casinos that have since been imploded. So I recently had to start over. I don’t know what I want to do with any of it, but I have a vague idea about doing some kind of chapbook, like a prose-poetry project, with each page being handwritten on a different piece of stationery. This doesn’t translate at all to the Kindle, and 99% of my book sales are now on the Kindle, but it’s still something I want to do at some point.

There are a few things I really miss about doing a zine, and the one big one is getting weird shit in the mail. I still buy a lot of zines, and I’m a sucker for anybody publishing something on indiegogo or kickstarter or any other place that takes PayPal, especially things that are hand-printed or letterpress printed or photocopied or in weird sizes. 90% of the time, I don’t even read the crap, I just hoard it. I like anything like that if it looks cool, if it’s an oddball size like a pocket book, or has a deckle edge binding or is a limited numbered edition, or anything like that. I have a big box that’s filled with nothing but old books and zines like that, half-digest sized things that were photocopied 50 at a time in a Kinko’s with a bootleg counter back in the early 90s.

(What I’m trying to say is that if you publish crap like that, you need to tell me. And at some point, somebody’s going to have to kick me in the ass and talk me into publishing a perzine about medical disorders. Maybe when Hobby Lobby goes bankrupt, I’ll get a printing press on the cheap and do this.)

This paper collection, which also doubles as a dust mite collection and is one of the reasons I have to take an insufferable amount of allergy medication, also has a bunch of travel-related junk. Usually when I’m on a trip, I will grab whatever junk I see, like business cards and stickers and pamphlets and free newspapers and brochures, and shove them in my pockets or my camera bag. Then, when I get home, I will shove all of this stuff into a box, and forget about it for years. And then, when I’m looking for some tax paper for my accountant, I will waste three hours of an afternoon looking at German brochures for pathology museums in Berlin and wonder what the hell I could do with this stuff. I should start a scrapbook of it, but I don’t want to cut up the originals. I also don’t have a cricut machine, a spare room to hold scrapbooking supplies, or a vagina.

At some point, I need to scan in all of this stuff maybe, or create a tumblr of it.  What I really need to do is attach a scanner to our Roomba, so I can just throw all of the paper on the floor and have the robot vacuum cleaner automatically scan everything on the floor.  And it would need some kind of WiFi attachment to upload everything automatically.  I think even this might be too much work, though.

 

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Three and three quarter inch memories

So I had to go to storage the other day, to put away the box from my new bass, because if I just threw it in the recycling bin, the truss rod inside the bass neck would have exploded and I would have needed to mail the thing to Germany or Uganda or something for warranty repairs, and I’m pretty sure finding a cardboard box the size of a bass would be a month-long venture.  I didn’t want to dig through the unit, although I think I can now shred any files older than 2007, and there are boxes of tax papers going back to 2000 in there, but they’re in the very back of the unit, and that would involve unpacking everything to pull those boxes, so that can be left for some other time.

What I did find though, is something that I thought was lost: a good chunk of my Star Wars action figures from the late 70s/early 80s.

Check this out:

When I was a kid, Star Wars figures and Legos were the father, son, and holy spirit of my life.  I probably spent an entire year of my life in the toy aisle of K-Mart, memorizing the back cards of every action figure hanging from the displays, digging through every unit hanging from the metal pegs in hopes that some rare figure would be hidden in the very back.  (For example, at one point, the light sabers that extended from the arms of Luke, Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader were two-piece telescoping units; these were later replaced with solid one-piece units that didn’t extend as far.  All of my figures came with the later one-piece light sabers, but I was convinced that if I dug around enough, I would miraculously find a two-piece lightsabered figure at the store, which I of course never did.)

Various thoughts about these figures, in no particular order:

  • This isn’t my entire collection; I don’t know what happened to all of the rest of them.  Notably missing are my original R2-D2, Yoda, and Boba Fett.  Also missing are all of the guns and accessories, which are supposed to go in that little compartment with a door.
  • I also used to have a set of accessories that you got for mailing in a bunch of proofs of purchase, which included vinyl plastic astronaut-type life support backpacks, gas masks, and a backpack that would hold Yoda on Luke’s back.
  • I found this, coincidentally, on the same day I read in David S. Atkinson’s book Bones Buried in the Dirt about a similar Darth Vader case.
  • All of the figures I have with capes (Lando, Obi-wan, Vader) all have plastic capes.  Some of the first-generation characters had cloth capes, which I believe are much more rare.
  • The most predictable comment one would make while looking at this would be “oh man, imagine how much those would be worth in their packages.”
  • I had at least two Boba Fett figures.  They were also a mail-away, and I had enough points to get more than one.  The Boba Fett is best known for having a fixed missile on his back, which was supposed to be a spring-loaded firing missile, but some kid, who may or may not have been Mikey from the Life cereal commercial and/or eating Pop Rocks at the same time, fired the missile down his throat and died.  (That’s not what happened.)  Almost everyone I know who collected Star Wars figures as a kid claims they had one of the rocket-firing Boba Fetts.  They are all liars.  They never released one, although in 2010 they finally did.  (I guess kids are too obese to choke on rockets now.)
  • The original Han Solo figure I have has lost most of his hair-paint.  That’s because after Empire, I used to freeze him.  Lacking a carbonite chamber, I’d put him in a glass of water and put that in the freezer.  This would result in a Han Solo frozen in a round chunk of clear ice, but whatever.  This was before the internet, so my entertainment options were limited.
  • One of my Hoth Rebel soldiers has a weird looking head.  That’s because someone in my school broke the original head off.  My dad tapped a set of threads in the head and neck, and sunk a small allen-head bolt in there so the original head screwed back on.  This made the figure much cooler, as I could unscrew the head, leaving a bolt sticking out of the neck like a robotic spine.
  • My Chewbacca had a weird divot missing from the top of his head, right at the seam.  It looks like he was into self-trepannation.
  • The R5-D4 figure has only white, worn-off remnants of its original sticker.  After this happened, when I got the R2-D2 figure, I painted over the sticker with clear nail polish of my mom’s.  This preserved the label, but now it’s got this weird yellowish sheen to it.
  • Speaking of discoloration, my Hoth Han Solo appears to have jaundice from a bad case of hepatitis.
  • My favorite figures include the Hoth Luke Skywaker, the R2D2 with the extending antenna in his head, and the missing Boba Fett.
  • The figures that now seem stupid include Bossk and Lobot (who had a combined total of about 3 seconds of screen time), the Bespin Guard (who looks like a creepy guy with a waxed mustache and beret you’d find hanging out at a leather bar) and the FX-7 robot (which did not have moving legs, could not sit and therefore didn’t fit in any vehicles, and came with no guns or accessories.)

Amazingly, all of these survived.  My GI Joes did not – for whatever reason, they were much more susceptible to damage.  One of them lost both of his thumbs because he had this bazooka that essentially worked as a large lever to fatigue and break the little plastic digits.  So I chopped off his hands, touched up the stumps with red paint, and he became “Can’t Read Text on a Claymore Mine Joe.”  When that got boring, I hit him with some aqua-net and a cig lighter, and he briefly became “Victim of a Friendly Fire Napalm Incident Joe” and then “Cannot Identify Remains Joe.”

 

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Fluticasone is not a transmission fluid

I don’t do new year resolutions, but one of my not-a-resolutions has been to write in this thing every day, hell or high water.  And of course, the big catch is what exactly to write.  I would write about life, except life pretty much just involves work, trying to write, and medical appointments.  When I dig to find some piece of life to write about from years ago, I find myself writing about a period of life in which, during that time, I thought things were insanely boring and I looked at some other part of my life as exciting, which is ironic.  And I don’t like to write pieces of what will end up being books here, because I think it’s a ripoff when people read this journal and then buy one of my books and find out they’ve read everything already.

I had this idea, a couple of years ago, for a project that involved an article a day in a giant interconnected wiki, similar to the Necrokonicon, that would tell the non-story of the decade from January 1, 1990 to December 31st, 1999, in thousand-word chunks.  It’s not that my life was incredibly interesting in that period; it’s just that “hey remember the 90s” nostalgia seems to be a thing, and I’m the guy that still uses the term Walkman to refer to a portable music machine, or “tape” to describe how to record a TV show.  I think I wrote maybe two or three of the articles before I lost wind on the thing.  I don’t know if this is a good idea, but it’s ideas like this that propel writing, and a concept like that is infinitely easier to pitch to a potential reader than “a bunch of weird stuff happens, and vomital buttsex with dead people” which is the synopsis of my last three or four books.

(When I said “medical appointments” above, that wasn’t foreshadowing that something horrible is going on, except that I always feel like shit, and it’s nothing that any doctor can explain, other than when a general practitioner says “maybe it’s allergies” and sends me to an allergist, who does $3700 of tests and wastes weeks of my time, only to give me a prescription for Allegra, which my insurance doesn’t cover, and tells me “maybe it’s a sinus thing” and sends me to an ear-nose-throat doctor.  Because no doctor wants to get sued, no doctor wants to be the one holding the bag, and will just send you somewhere else, meaning doctors are essentially worthless.  And yeah, diet and exercise, thanks in advance for telling me that.)

I’ve been stuck on this project, which is “write another Rumored”, i.e. come out with some follow-up to my book Rumored to Exist, which is my favorite of all of my books.  I don’t know how that book ever got done, or what makes it intrinsically better than any of my other books, but it was a bit of a seven-year perfect storm of writing, and up until the type was set, I was convinced it was the worst possible thing ever.  I think it’s how I found my voice, but it’s been very difficult to replicate, at least in long-form.  I think part of the success of it was its structure, because it had a certain “gimmick” to its form, and with that and a theme, it made it easy to glue in bits and pieces of almost any kind to fit into the work.  I don’t know if I should just use the same thing again, or wait until something magically appears, or force it.  I know that sitting around trying to make it happen won’t make it happen, but sitting around watching Pawn Stars marathons won’t make it happen, either.

Okay, speaking of.  I just took a shower (not sure why) and thought of a million ideas for a book outline, which I now need to capture.  I’m not a big outline person, but maybe I should be.  Maybe 2013 should be the year of the outline.  Or maybe I should write 50 shitty outlines and then scribble insane notes in the margins, and then bind all of that up and make it the book.  Stranger things have worked.

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Dreams of squatting

I have these frequent recurring dreams of living temporarily, squatting in hidden areas of public places, like crashing for a month in a forgotten storage area of a Vegas hotel, or a never used classroom in an old academic building.  The dreams are so vivid and frequent that I usually wake and think they’re based on some event that actually happened, which makes me cycle through every possible place I have lived to match up the psychological trope with the actual experience, and this exercise takes me twenty minutes, especially after just waking, and it’s maddening, because I don’t know what my brain is basing this on.  I can think of a few vague experiences that almost line up with this, but they’re so forgotten, it’s amazing my brain can pick them out and form dreams from them, especially the same brain that makes me forget something I just did two seconds ago.

In my freshman year of college, the dorms closed on a Friday, but you had until Sunday to move out. This makes no sense, because if you had the key, you could still get into your room, and they didn’t lock down the front doors or pump knockout gas into the vents, so for all intents and purposes, you could still stay there.  Yeah, your meal card ran out, and it turns out they shut off the heating system, and of course this was the one time that the first week of May saw the Indiana temperature drop to 39 or something.  They also posted all of these signs warning that the dorm was closed, like anyone ever reads signs.  I stayed anyway, along with my then-girlfriend, and no harm done.

The next night, after some shitty looks from the custodial staff and/or guilt on my part, we decided to stay with some friend of the girlfriend’s.  I forget the friend’s name, something generic like Michelle or Jenny, since every other girl I knew on that campus in the early 90s was named Michelle or Jenny or Jennifer or Jen or Jenn.  (I’m not saying that in a bad way.  All of the various Jen.*s I knew were great and interesting people.  I just find fascination in the phenomenon where everyone watches some TV show, and 18 years later, you know two dozen Phoebes or Brittanies or whatever.)  Anyway, she moved into a summer sublet with a bunch of dudes from Lebanon, and offered to let us sleep on her floor for a night.  So we went to this student ghetto house south of campus, and the whole time this girl Michelle was talking about how these Middle Eastern roommates were constantly trying to bone her, and she told them she was a virgin.  This was somewhat hilarious and ironic, because the first time I met her, she was going A-Z through her address book on a Friday night and leaving messages on every dude’s machine telling them she wanted to fuck them.  We slept on the floor while trying to tune out Lebanese TV and guys yelling half-English indecent proposals at this girl.  This was just hours before I was walking into a five-hour parental lecture on my failures as a human being on the long drive home, so I wasn’t entirely focused on the scenario at hand.

Four years and a half-dozen girlfriends later, I stayed in town for a summer and then moved into a new place in the fall.  This was always a problem in a college town like Bloomington, because there was a two-week dead zone between when leases in town ended and every lease started.  There were basically three ways around this problem:  sign an extension to an existing lease, fuck someone that just signed an extension to an existing lease, or put everything you own in your car and sleep in the main library on a study table and shower in the sink of a gas station restroom for two weeks.  I guess you could also buy a house or move all of your shit to a parent’s house and then move it back 14 days later.  There were also oddball edge cases of people renting houses from some random dude instead of from a subsidiary or branch of the two companies that ran 94% of the rental properties in the city.

This time around, one of my future roommates lived in a house with an extended lease and a couple of roommates bugging out, and we arranged it so I’d move out of my old apartment, put all of my furniture and crap in a single bedroom at his old place, and then move straight into our new house two weeks later.  This meant I spent half a month in this weird limbo scenario, with four rooms of furniture stacked like a demented 3-D tetris game, surrounding a mattress on the floor, where I’d sleep.

This may be the prototype for all of my future recurring dreams, because not only were all of my possessions in a transitional state, but my entire life was, too.  I remember reading East of Eden the whole time I was there; this was in my first year of “being a writer” and was madly trying to read all of the books a writer was “supposed to” read. I don’t remember much of the Steinbeck book, but I remember reading the book, and it affecting my perception of what a book should be.  Maybe that’s the repressed memory, the thoughts about what I should be writing triggering the false memory of living where I shouldn’t live.

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Yards of trains

I keep looking out the window at the train yard that’s a few hundred yards away, across the highway.  You can’t tell it’s a train yard, because you just see the profile of it, and the occasional diesel locomotive tooling back and forth on the horizon.  I just looked at google maps, and it’s not really a train yard, maybe six tracks in parallel.  There’s a set of through tracks that belong to the Amtrak, the Capital Corridor line, the train that goes from Jack London square and points south, like San Jose, and connects to Emeryville and points north-northeast, like if you took the train on to Sacramento.  I think that freight trains switch off of this main thoroughfare and are broken apart, or maybe put together.  I don’t know any of the language or nomenclature involved; I’m sure there’s a railfan site that explains all of this in more detail.

I thought of this because as a little kid, I was infatuated with trains, and growing up in Elkhart, you always got stuck waiting for a hundred-car train to go by.  This became much less interesting when I actually got a driver’s license and had places to be, and a few hundred Conrail cars meant the difference between arriving before first bell or getting a tardy.  Elkhart has one of the largest freight yards in the world, although I didn’t know this at the time.  It’s dozens and dozens of tracks wide, something like 675 acres of switches and rail cars.  It’s a classification yard, which means trains are broken down into different types of cars and reassembled for long hauls across the country.  I’d heard that at one point, every rail car that went from east to west across the country or vice-versa would go through this station, which explains why we had to wait for trains so much.

You couldn’t tell this was a busy rail yard from a distance.  It ran along a highway, Lincolnway, and from the side, it looked like just a single track.  There were a few derricks or fuel hoses or whatnot, but without the magic of google maps or some info from a friend’s dad that worked there, you really couldn’t tell how big this was.  The one time I could tell something was up was during the first Gulf War, 1990, when I’d drive on that highway every day to get to classes at IUSB.  The AM General plant in Mishawaka was turning out Hummer jeeps at breakneck speeds to get out to the big war about to go down, and they’d drive them from the plant to the rail yard, to be shipped off by train to some big coastal cargo center, where they’d get put on ships or whatever and hauled out to the desert.  Every day, as I’d drive west to class, I’d see a long column of the boxy new vehicles, painted in tan camouflage, equipped with full military gear, driving East to the train station.  It looked like a scene from some Reagan-era “The Commies Have Invaded” urban combat movie.

Conrail, who once operated all of those blue and white trains, is no more.  Split in half, Norfolk Southern now operates the Elkhart yard.  The one lasting legacy is in the Elkhart water table; over the years, Conrail accidents spilled millions of gallons of toxins into the tracks, seeping into the water below.  Many houses in Elkhart still use well water, which means a series of high-profile EPA superfund shitstorms happened in the area in the 90s.  Huge plumes of trichloroethylene (TCE) and carbon tetachloride (CCl4) infected the water table, and hundreds of houses were forced to connect to the city water system.  It’s a common trope in the area: damn the regulations, damn the government oversight, get big brother out of our way so we can make money… oops.  See also the PCB-happy companies in Bloomington that all split for Mexico, taking the only high-paying, low-skill jobs in town and leaving behind toxins in the watershed.

It’s still interesting to me though, to see those boxy locomotives pushing around flatbeds.  It’s such a familiar shape, even in different colors and livery, like the toy trains I played with as a kid and the real-sized versions that blocked traffic every day in my old town.  It’s almost hypnotizing to watch them across the highway, wondering if any of the same boxcars rolled through that freightyard so far east.

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Various theories on Louie

One of the favorite parts of my recent vacation, aside from the 47 pounds of chocolate I ate, was watching Louie.  I’ve already seen all of them, but my brother-in-law hadn’t, and somehow stumbled upon them on the Roku box.  Part of the enjoyment of this was simply that we watched them after everyone else went to bed, and instead of hearing “The Wheels on the Bus” or “Itsy, Bitsy Spider” for the 4,000th time like some kind of psyops torture normally reserved for Gitmo detainees, we got to watch an Adult Show.  But part of it is that my brother-in-law M is an English professor, and we spent a lot of late night rambling poking at the edges of what the show Louie really meant.

Point one: stand-up comedians have a shelf life.  When you hit it big, you have a certain hang time, usually a couple of years, and then you have to either reinvent yourself or do something different or hope for a second wind, or spend the rest of your life scraping together a career out of appearances with your most loyal fans.  (I would call that the “CMC syndrome”, after the record label that pulled a bunch of big has-ran bands from the 80s and resurrected their careers in the 90s with records that almost nobody bought and appearances at county fairs, ala Styx, Journey, Loverboy, etc.)  If you’re someone like Dane Cook, you have this peak where you’re selling out stadiums, and then when your single male fans get married and have kids, that goes away.  And maybe you start doing material about wives and kids, or maybe you do smaller shows, or maybe you get into movies or you get a talk show or a sitcom.  And the sitcom is the gold standard; it’s the big go-to for comedians who want to take it to the next level.

What’s interesting about Louie is how it isn’t a formulaic sitcom, because it’s not entirely a grab for career leveling.  CK took much more creative control of the show in exchange for much less pay and a spot at a less prestigious network.  This may be partially based on his previous experience with HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie, which was much more of a prototypical sitcom.  But it seems to be a move in doing something beyond stand-up and yet not the typical “crazy guy with the too-hot, too-young wife, couple of young kids, and the goofy neighbor” show that pretty much every other stand-up would have churned out.

CK is much more of a comedian’s comedian, the kind of person who does comedy that’s not swinging for the fences of general appeal, but is aimed more at the craft of the art form.  It’s like the prose of a Raymond Carver versus the volume sales of an EL James.  And the edge of a comedian’s art is always what gets lost in translation to a typical sitcom.  If you look at Tim Allen, George Lopez, or even the short-lived Andrew (not-)Dice Clay sitcom, it’s as if the edginess that makes their stand-up shine is what’s trimmed away to make a typical formulaic TV show that appeals to the Nielsen numbers.  Part of what Louie‘s charm is, is that he manages to keep the quirkiness of his stand-up in the show, and doesn’t compromise the humor in a need to cookie-cutter the writing for a test audience.

One of the things that M and I discussed is how CK often takes the same tropes that Seinfeld often used to form his episodes, but instead of polishing them into finely structured two-act plus closer, A/B-plot, 23-minute gems, he sometimes goes off into nothingness, not using conventional endings or structures.  Although Seinfeld is remembered as a show “about nothing”, look at any of the episodes and they are all highly structured.  Louie borrows some of the stock structure, like beginning and ending with a piece of standup in a club, but sometimes there’s not a B story; sometimes there’s no ending.  And I think this is very off-putting to some people who expect a specific structure to a TV show.  (My wife hates Louie, for example.)

This is analogous to my own inner conflict over plot in fiction.  If you go to any genre writing site, they beat to death the need to follow the three acts and 12 steps of the journey and five types of plots and two threads and rising and falling and all of that other shit that’s “required” to make a book work.  And a lot of people will freak the fuck out if you write a book that doesn’t do that, and that’s why “plotless” is seen as an insult and not a genre.  But take something like Infinite Jest – it breaks so many of the rules that you’d find in a typical Writer’s Digest “how to write a novel” book.  I don’t think fiction needs endings or plot structure, just like Louie doesn’t need the same structure as an episode of Matlock.  My hope is that the popularity of Louie would primer an audience for cutting-edge prose that also doesn’t need to follow the same convention as the same generic short stories everyone’s been writing for fifty years.  I wish I knew exactly what that would be, and that’s my struggle.

My other observation is how Louie seems to relish discomfort, and a theory of mine is that each episode of the show isn’t what is happening to CK, but rather is his inner monologue, or what he wishes was happening to him.  This was an observation that Richard Linklater made about his movie Slacker: that the structure allowed each character to essentially externalize their inner monologue, talking aloud about the thoughts that normally they would only think.  For example, in episode 7, “Double Date/Mom”, CK has lunch with his mother, and lashes out at her with an extended diatribe about how he doesn’t really love her, and just endures her.  Many of us might feel the same way during a parental visit, and would internally fantasize about going on a tear like CK does, but instead just sit silently and endure the visit.  And maybe CK would too, but what we see is actually his inner fantasy, of telling his mom what he really feels.

So yeah, Louie. I still haven’t seen season 3.  Maybe I need to pull the trigger and spend the $20 to get them on instant.  That will have to tide me over until 2014 when season 4 starts.

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