bones and memories

I visited Indiana recently – actually, it wasn’t that recent, but I meant to write about it at the time, and now two months have passed. It was an interesting quick trip, for a few good and bad reasons, so I wanted to play catch-up and get a few words down on it.

I booked a quick solo trip at the beginning of August, partly because of my sister’s birthday, and partly because I had to cancel a family trip to Florida in the spring and felt bad about that. I got an out-on-Wednesday, back-on-Monday long weekend, which seemed to work well for me. Time was at a bit of a premium, but it’s a bit like visiting Vegas; a week is overkill, but a weekend is not enough.

Not to dwell on the bad, but here goes: first, I screwed up my rental car reservation. Arrived in Chicago, and had a car waiting for me in South Bend, when I really needed a car in Chicago to drive to South Bend. Second, on Friday, at about 5:00, one of my crowns came off. After much panic and calling a bunch of phone numbers, I found a dentist nearby who opened back up and glued the crown back in, which was awesome. I still ate mostly liquid for the rest of the trip, until I could get back home and have my dentist permanently glue in the tooth. Also, on the last day of the trip, I lost my credit card, and while at the airport waiting for a very late flight, I found out and had to cancel it. So that’s the bad.

I stayed in an extended stay hotel in Mishawaka, right near the University Park mall. It was on Main and Douglas, which was mostly vacant when I left Indiana, but since, a second main drag of big box stores and restaurants has started there, one big street over from the Grape Road arterial of the same sorts of big boxes. It’s always odd and nostalgic and weird for me to stay right by the mall where I spent so much time as a teen, but it’s a newer hotel, close to everything, and that works for me.

Every time I go back, it’s amazing to me that the default routes and streets and terrain immediately pop back into my head. A lot of Indiana hasn’t changed, or at least the “bones” have not. If you asked me to drive from UP mall to the IUSB campus, I could do it without thinking, just on muscle memory. Never mind that the IUSB campus has basically doubled, and every store in UP mall has changed hands, but the roads and turns are still the same.

Indiana does change, but on a very slow scale. I think people find a certain comfort in that, and it’s understandable. There are changes, and things fade and vanish, plus simple economics dictate amendments and revisions. Some chains die, and some mom-and-pop businesses go away with time, but new ones pop up. Sometimes things are completely bulldozed, like the Scottsdale and Pierre Moran malls, which were both torn down and “de-malled” into plazas of freestanding stores. But other things still have the same “bones” for better or for worse. Old first-generation Taco Bells get painted blue and turned into Chinese buffets. The UP mall got additions and food courts and new Barnes and Noble grafted onto its front, with the concourses updated and the tenants being bumped up in scale and stature. (Like the tiny Software Etc. is long gone, but across the way, there’s a giant new Apple store.) I walked the mall and tried to think of what was where, back in the day, but I couldn’t spot any one store that was the same, aside from the big Sears and JC Penney anchor stores.

Driving, though – driving from Mishawaka to Edwardsburg, Elkhart to Millersburg, those things all looked almost identical. The amber waves of grain were still amber waves of grain. A few were turned into new industrial parks or large retirement communities, but for the most part, it looked like Indiana had aged two California years in the last 25. And normally, a twenty-something me would have found this disgusting, that all of the state should get off their ass and progress at a rapid rate. But like I said, part of me sees the comfort in this, the idea that things wouldn’t change. I’ve always thought that many people in that area feared change, and I think there’s some truth in that. When I was 18, that pissed me off beyond end. As a 44-year-old, I could see why someone might like that.

Some things, though, have atrophied beyond belief. I went to the Concord Mall, which was a mile from my house, my default mall as a kid. When I was a teenager and worked in that mall, I practically lived there. I would go to the store and hang out even on my days off. Now, it looks like nothing has been done to the mall at all since the last time I punched out at the time clock in 1993. The Wards store where I worked is gone, converted into a Hobby Lobby that has locked itself off from the rest of the mall with huge glass doors. Almost every store in the mall has closed; most are covered in plywood. The old Osco’s drug store was converted to a food court, and every stall is currently empty, except for a single, lonely Subway sandwich shop. Some shops have these weird, temporary businesses in them, like a vacant store with a bouncy castle set up inside it, or the horribly sad dollar stores with nothing worth a dollar in them. There are multiple churches in the mall now; it seems like every business in Elkhart that goes bust turns into a church or a Mexican bodega. There was even a “church” that just beamed in the services from a megachurch in Kansas or Nebraska, and of course took your money. The mall itself was almost abandoned, nobody in sight, like an empty shopping center in a zombie movie. After seeing that, I made it a point to not do anything else in Elkhart, dredge up any more memories or see the old subdivision or school or anything else.

Not all of the region was that destitute, though. The UP mall was filled with customers, even on a weeknight. And I went to Goshen one day, and it was actually transformed from what I remember. Most of the main street was art galleries, and small mom-and-pop businesses, a wave of hipsterization running through there. In 1990, I had a girlfriend who lived on Main Street, and at that time, it was largely abandoned, boarded up and done. Now, there are these brewpubs and artisanal butcher shops and groceries, almost like something I’d see in the hippest part of a college town like Bloomington.

The thing that struck me the most was the feeling, the weather, the atmosphere. I haven’t visited Indiana outside of Christmas in years, decades. I think in the late 90s, I made a trip or two in October, and I drove through Indiana in April of 99, during my Seattle to New York move. But I don’t remember an August in Indiana probably since 1994, the year before I left. I’m very sensitive to temperatures and weather and the feeling of a place at a certain time of year, much more than I could ever describe it. And when I was there, the air held the same feeling as the summer before I first left for college, in 1989.

I so distinctly remember that summer, because it would be hot in the day, maybe in the 80s, but then at night, it would cool to the 60s. I was working days in a department store, just started dating someone, and we’d meet up at 9:00 every night, when the mall closed, to drive around aimlessly, stay up all night, go from Perkins to Bob Evans to Big Boy’s, making the loop of the few 24-hour places in Elkhart at that time. And I’d come home late at night, or early in the morning, and feel the summer’s humidity converted to a light mist, to dew on the grass. The summer had a certain freedom, of the end of high school, a brief period where I almost thought I had my life together and was leaving behind the shroud of depression that blanketed me throughout my four years there. But there was also the uncertainty and excitement and fear of packing up my entire life and moving it off to campus in a few short weeks.

Each day of the visit, I did the family stuff during the day, and it was good to see all of them. But then I’d return to the hotel, and either drive around by the mall, or walk at night, and just feel that weather, the cool evenings and the dew on my sneakers. (That’s another thing – there were no sidewalks by the hotel, and everyone was staring at me for walking, like wondering what happened that resulted in me not having a car.) Or I would sit in the hotel writing, with the windows open, feeling the air outside.

I spent a lot of time wondering if I could ever go back. There’s a part of me, as I plummet into The Crisis that has hit at this age, that wishes I had a three-bedroom ranch and a garage and a lawn and everything else, working on an old car or a boat or something. I know I could never live in Indiana because of the politics and money and career. And the crippling nostalgia of being back there would consume me. But it was interesting to see it for a moment.

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recent dreams

  • I was eating pancakes from the floor of a McDonald’s bathroom. It was an old-school seventies McDonald’s in Elkhart, Indiana, and had the bright orange floor tiles. I somehow thought the little packets of syrup would kill germs.
  • It was my birthday. I was in Guam or the Philippines, on the set of a remake of the Chuck Norris Missing in Action movie. Months earlier, I’d deleted my birthday from Facebook, and I was now upset because zero people had remembered my birthday and posted on my wall. I tried turning back on my birthday, but the Facebook phone app was (is) shit, and every time I would click on something, it would press the thing next to it.
  • I was in a food court in the Midway airport in Chicago. I was with Richard Rhodes (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb) and we were having an argument about John Lennon’s misogyny, and how the Sweet Sixteen has ruined NCAA basketball. We were at the Taco Bell, waiting for them to change from the breakfast to lunch menu, and I was debating whether or not I should just get both.
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piano nostalgia

I recently reached the five-year mark at my day job, which is another topic entirely. But as a result of this, I was given an opportunity to order a bonus gift from a loyalty-type catalog online. These are usually a mixed bag, in my previous experience, SkyMall-style gadgets I don’t need like wine fridges and socket sets.

At Samsung, they did this at the end of every year, but the gifts were maybe four or five Samsung items that had dropped off the market, like the remaining stock of last year’s hot tablet. One year, I got a netbook that was sort of cute and decent for travel, but painfully slow and cheap. I took it apart to upgrade something, and ended up breaking it. The next year, I got a 40-inch TV, probably the last generation without the “smart” features, which is fine by me. They also had smaller gift things, like for merit-based recognition, and the gifts were much worse. I think once I got a fanny pack, and another time, I got some no-name bluetooth headphones that worked once.

Anyway, the work gifts were slightly better than that, but there wasn’t much I really needed or wanted. I didn’t really need another low-end point-shoot camera or a charcoal grill. I ended up ordering a Yamaha electric piano keyboard, and then sort of forgetting about it. It showed up yesterday, and I unboxed it and got into a strange nostalgia mode about the idea of piano.

When I was in high school and worked as a stagehand at the Performing Arts Center, I was around pianos constantly. I think we had like a dozen of them; there was a flawless Steinway concert grand, and a really nice Yamaha upright. But there were also other uprights of various manufacture in pretty much every practice room in the music department, along with other floaters that moved around everywhere. Some of these were decent. Some had survived elementary schools and were latex painted bright orange and barely stayed in tune. I never played piano, but I moved a lot of them, cleaned them, and spent a lot of time polishing the Steinway, like it was a sports car. The idea of piano intrigued me, especially after being around so many people who could play.

In my senior year, they started teaching a piano for non-music-majors class, and got a lab full of really nice Yamaha digital pianos. I took the class in my final semester, and about eight of us sat in the little room, plinking away and learning basic chords and how to use both of our hands at the same time. It was neat to me, because this was in 1989, the height of MIDI and pop music using Korg M1s and Yamaha DX7s in everything. The keyboards we used had very convincing sampled sound, maybe a dozen instruments, like a pipe organ and marimba, along with concert grand and electric pianos. They had weighted keys and felt very nice, at least to a person like me with no experience whatsoever.

They were also wired together in a network. We each had our own headphones to hear ourselves, but the teacher could share his audio to all of us, to play examples. He could also snoop on each of us during our free practice time. We had a similar setup in the new Apple II lab that I practically lived in. This was the very start of a networked world, which has now become unimaginably huge. Teachers can share and network and spy and monitor more than I could have ever dreamed in 1989. I’m not harping on the spying stuff; I just find it interesting that I lived most of high school in an era when there was no technology beyond overhead projectors with transparencies and ditto machines, and saw the very first edge of interconnected machines used in learning. I even helped perpetuate this – my first programming job ever was writing a schedule-maker program for sports teams, so a coach could enter all the home and away games and practices on a calendar, then save it to disk for later and print a handout for all the players’ families.

The piano class was fun. I mean, I took it because I’d finished all but one class before my last semester, and took all fuck-off classes for the most part: two study halls (one to work in the theater), a drafting class where I worked on whatever I wanted, a computer class where I did all the assignments in the first week and spent the rest of the year working on that schedule program or playing chess. I’d never played a musical instrument, and just getting to the point where I could play a chord and a melody in straight time and almost read music was an enjoyable challenge that made me use a different part of my brain. I also ended up meeting someone I briefly dated and went to prom with, so that’s another memory that came out of it.

I did buy a cheap Casio keyboard at the time, one with mid-sized plastic keys and a bunch of cheap sounds, but I never religiously practiced outside of school. There was some invisible wall for me, aside from my own brain issues. I’m not really that musically inclined, but also piano was never seriously “cool” to me. There are occasional bits and bobs of interesting keyboard music, like I remember buying a Journey songbook and trying to plink out the song “Faithfully,” but that was already five or six years behind the curve. I ended up starting bass guitar shortly after that, and then drifting away from that as college got underway.

At IU though, it seemed like everyone I knew had some degree of literacy with piano. I mean, it’s the biggest and best music school in the world, and you have to take keyboard proficiency as an undergrad. There were also pianos everywhere; I worked in the Musical Arts Center and was constantly moving pianos, plus every practice room had one; every dorm lounge had one or two; the basement of my dorm had its own practice rooms, too. It always amazed me when someone who wasn’t a music major, like some economics major friend, was suddenly presented with a piano, and would do the “oh, I had to take it as a kid” and then could belt out “The Entertainer” or some random Billy Joel riff ten times better than I ever could.

I would sometimes sneak into a practice room and mess around. This was fairly easy the year I was at IUSB, because I worked late and had keys and 24-hour access. It was both cathartic and frustrating, because I’d quickly run through the four or five stupid tunes I knew, Christmas songs and “Camptown Races” and whatever else, then drift into stupid experimental free-form garbage, just banging on keys until something sounded right for a second, and wishing I had the ability to do more.

So now I have this new keyboard in front of me. It’s got 41 full-sized keys, but they’re cheap plastic and not weighted, and not touch sensitive. It also has no MIDI or USB out, just a headphone jack, so no way to use it as a synth with my computer. It has the usual 300-some styles, some cheesy and some decent, and some built-in demo songs and drum patterns and other junk I’ll never use. It could be a fun toy to plink around with. But, I’ve got other musical instruments here I’m not learning well, and too many other things taking up my time. And I’ve got so much junk in the house lately. Maybe I will buy a dummies book and give it a month, see what I can learn. Maybe it will go to a more worthy home. We’ll see.

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