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50

The place of my birth, fifty years ago.

I am 50 today.

FIFTY. HALF A CENTURY.

Shit.

I’ve covered the various anniversaries and big round numbers in other birthday posts. No need to rehash that. But 50 is very decidedly profound, and I don’t really know how to fully grok the celebration of half a hundred years since I popped out on a remote air force base in North Dakota.

Here’s a stupid memory, from 40 years ago. The last episode of the third season of Mork & Mindy was titled “Reflections and Regrets.” The b-story was about their downstairs neighbor Mr. Bickley turning 50. (He was played by character actor Tom Poston, who probably doesn’t ring any bells, but you’ve seen him on TV a million times.) Anyway, Mr. Bickley was turning 50, and was bummed out and talking about his regrets. The episode then unspooled in typical 80s sitcom fashion with everyone but Mindy talking about their regrets, and then the big season cliffhanger is that she kisses Mork. (If you really give a shit, here.) I have no idea why I remember this show, especially because I’ve never watch the reruns or bought the DVD or whatever.

Anyway, Bickley talks about his regrets and his sadness about being older. His three regrets he mentioned were never reading the entire bible, and never seeing the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. I don’t have much interest in reading the bible (I’ve written books longer than the King James), I found the Grand Canyon slightly unimpressive, and I guess I’ve driven over Niagara and bought some booze at the duty-free on the Canadian side, but didn’t stop and take the boat tour. Anyway, that got me thinking about two things: one is the regret thing, and second is that Mr. Bickley was allegedly fifty when I was a kid (to be fair, the actor was actually sixty in 1981) and in my head he was old, and now I’m old.

I think one of the reasons the big 5-0 messes with me is that it signifies the apex, the top of the hill. Statistically, my top of the hill probably passed a while ago, but looking at this big even number makes me think that everything in my life has been figured out, and there won’t be any big changes, just a coast downhill to retirement and then beyond. I’m not changing careers and becoming a plumber or a doctor. I’m probably not running any marathons. Having kids is probably out. If I went back to school, I’d be the weird old guy who retired and went to community college to learn about birds or whatever. It’s very defeatist, but that’s my first impression of all of this.

* * *

I don’t feel 50, is the thing. I know some days I joke about feeling 167, and I’ve got a collection of various minor problems that always annoy me. Despite my bad back and declining eyesight and trick knees, I still mentally feel the same as I did thirty years ago. I don’t feel like I ever magically became an adult, and I have this horrible imposter syndrome about that. I mean, I know things changed mentally over time. After reading through my old blog posts years ago, it amazed me how I used to give so much of a shit about things that I honestly do not care about at all. Like for some reason, I was borderline militant about Coca-Cola products, and now I can’t even remember the last time I drank an actual full-sugar Coke. I used to care a lot more about things like publishing and getting published, and I’m pretty much over that. So many corners have been rounded over time. But I do not feel like I’m an adult, and I strongly feel I should have squared this up a while ago.

I don’t think I look 50. It always surprises people when I tell them my age. I don’t dress old; I mean, it’s always jeans and a t-shirt, tennis shoes, leather jacket, pretty much the same gear I was wearing in 1994. I weigh more. The hair’s going fast. But other than weight fluctuations and different glasses and haircuts, I don’t look radically different. And while that’s a plus, it’s also weird to me because I would expect to look older in some way. Not aged, but more mature. Wearing shirts and ties and cardigans, maybe some dress shoes and a sweater. A pipe. I don’t know, but I feel like I’m not playing the part, and maybe that’s good or bad, who knows.

The bottom line is that I often feel out of time, out of place. Conversations that feel like they just happened were really 25 years ago. I smell a certain smell that reminds me of a restaurant I just went to, and I realize it closed decades ago, and it was scraped to the ground and replaced with a 40-story Amazon office. I feel like I have all the time in the world to figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up, and then I realize only ten seconds have passed since I was 40 and in ten more seconds, I’m going to be pushing 70. My oldest grandparent made it to 84. I’ve got to figure this out, fast.

* * *

I don’t really have any long-term plans. I always wanted to get out of debt, and I have. I wanted to save money and retire by the time I was 50, and that didn’t work. (Maybe 60.) I’ve always wanted to write, write more books, write better books, become known or famous or whatever for my writing. I keep writing, but I’m always chasing the One Big Book and it’s elusive. I have maybe a dozen people who read my books, so I’ve failed any mass popularity contest. Probably not a great goal to have tons of readers when people would rather watch ten-second videos of people getting punched in the nuts or whatever. One of my main regrets in life is becoming (somewhat) competent at an art form that involved writing thousand-page books right at the same time the national discourse was reduced to 140-character updates. I realize that chasing fame to achieve happiness is a futile exercise, and that people who I see as hugely famous haven’t achieved enough to fill that hole in their soul and then do bad things. So, I’ve tried to stop thinking about that. I still do, but I’m not as frantic about it as I was ten years ago when I thought I was going to become kindle famous if I somehow beat the algorithm or just found the right outlet to publish my short stories.

I guess my main complaint is that I’m burning a lot of cycles looking back. This whole mall nostalgia thing and whatever other mental illness I might have about looking at the past has severely limited my ability to think about the future. I have something wrong with me, something serotonin-related, where I spend forever googling for old pictures of long-gone haunts, trying to find people who were close friends in 1993 and are now either dead or busy with their grandkids in some far corner of a midwestern state. When I find a loose video of the Scottsdale Mall or an old picture of the Bloomington campus I’ve never seen before, I temporarily get a minor surge of chemicals in my head, but never enough to make me truly happy. So I have to keep digging, thinking that I’m just a google search away from finding a disposable camera’s pictures from thirty years ago that will completely flood my noggin with the neurotransmitters that will make it all better.

(Current events and politics are just like this. I find myself reading my home town newspaper not because I love my home town or because anything interesting is happening there, but because the commenters are so fucking off-base, my hatred for them causes a similar chemical surge in my brain, even though it angers me. I have absolutely no reason to read that newspaper. I honestly have no reason to ever step foot in that city again. But when I’m bored or down or whatever, I’ll click away. This has been the driving force of the grief and agony of the last four years, and I have no answers here, but I wish I did.)

There’s no end goal to this nostalgia madness. The memories in my head get more distant, and at the same time, more of this media falls out of the system, discussion boards vanishing, news sites getting paywalled and later bankrupted, google searches eroding. It’s a futile race to the bottom. Never mind that any nostalgia group or page is generally full of toxic people who fear the future and hate any kind of progress, because the distant memories of times that never existed bring them happiness, versus the panic of living in today’s world. And the more I descend into this, the more I realize I’m becoming this. And the bottom line is that I’m wasting tremendous amounts of time on this, when I could be doing almost anything else: learning a craft, studying something new, playing a game, taking a walk, doing anything.

And I think that’s really the key of this birthday. I need to make it a turning point, and stop wasting my time on this shit, and take advantage of the time I have to actually accomplish stuff. I don’t know what, and that’s the hard part. But something has to change.

* * *

This post has been such a downer, and I apologize. I need a way to land this, and as usual, I think it needs to be another big dumb list. So.

Here’s a list of 50 things I’ve accomplished so far in my first half-century:

  1. I made it to 50. Still have a pulse.
  2. I still have all of my limbs and digits.
  3. All of my teeth are still here (albeit with a lot of restoration, and minus the wisdom teeth).
  4. No surgeries, no long sicknesses, no major failures yet.
  5. I’ve avoided the C word, knock wood.
  6. No major legal trouble. No rap sheet.
  7. Happily married. Going on 14 years.
  8. Married only once.
  9. I’ve published 17 books. 1073852 words, 3649 pages.
  10. There’s at least that much written in this blog, and probably another two million in first drafts and uncollected nonsense. Maybe another million in almost thirty years of paper journals.
  11. Published elsewhere, all sorts of little zines and journals and whatnot. Nothing major but nothing too bad, either.
  12. I’ve kept this blog going for almost 25 years, from before the term blog was even invented.
  13. I’ve read a ridiculous amount over the years. I wish I had a way to track this. (No, not Goodreads.) I’ve probably read more during the pandemic than most people read in their lifetimes.
  14. Finished high school. Finished college.
  15. Won a scholarship that paid for a chunk of college, even though college was like 74 dollars when I went.
  16. I’ve more or less had a career for over 25 years. Moved from the most junior position possible making twelve bucks an hour to a position managing people and big things.
  17. I bought a house. (I’ve actually done that twice.) Also bought 40 acres of land I have no idea what I’ll ever do with.
  18. I’ve bought a new car twice. Nothing exciting – both Toyota compacts, and not the Corvettes and Camaros I imagined as a teen. If I bought a Corvette now, I’d probably spend all of my time worried about it getting stolen or doored.
  19. I’m out of debt except my mortgage. I think we owe about 20% of our house value, so that’s getting done.
  20. I’ve saved money. I wish I saved more, but I’m on the glide slope toward retirement, I think.
  21. Adopted two cats in 2007 which have been my stay-at-home coworkers and buddies and have changed my life for the better, even if they wake me up at three AM for breakfast.
  22. I’ve lived in seven states, ten cities. Never had to move back home, which is good. I know I bitch about the Seattle darkness and Denver altitude sickness and the New York garbage Augusts, but I’ve enjoyed different aspects of every place I’ve lived, and I’m glad for all of them.
  23. Visited 46 states. I love Hawaii. I (mostly) love Alaska. I’ve found something interesting about every state in between.
  24. I was on a rampage about going to Vegas two or three times a year, and did that forever. I don’t know how many times I’ve been, but I’ve seen a different Vegas each time over the last twenty years, enough to write a book about it and probably enough to write another (if that first book ever sold, which it didn’t. It’s in the UNLV library, though.)
  25. Drove across the country twice. Once I did the entire trip in 48 hours. The second time, I took two weeks.
  26. Including the US, I’ve been to seven countries. That’s a bit low, but I also didn’t get a passport until I was thirty-four.
  27. I stood on the ground exactly where the first atomic bomb was detonated.
  28. I’ve seen a lot of other cool stuff. Been in the USS Missouri. Top of the Empire State Building. Saw the Berlin Wall. Graceland. The Lincoln Monument. The original World Trade Center. 768 different malls. Etc.
  29. Threw my book into the Grand Canyon. (Take that, Mr. Bickley.)
  30. Jumped out of a plane.
  31. Flew a plane.
  32. Met various famous people and realized there’s nothing special to famous people. They’re just people. Even the Backstreet Boys.
  33. I’ve gone from my white-bread, fast-food past to eating a lot of great, weird, and amazing food. I still like a Taco Bell taco every now and again, but as a kid, I never imagined I’d be eating a boar’s tongue in an eighteen-course meal in Berlin.
  34. I’ve gotten to see a lot of the bands that I worshipped as a kid.
  35. Same with comedians.
  36. I wasn’t a sports fan for a long time, but I’m enough of a sports fan now that I’ll count things like going to Lambeau, going to a World Series, getting the seat right behind home plate, walking on the field at Dodger Stadium, and watching Brett Favre throw an 82-yard touchdown in overtime to defeat the Broncos in Denver. Taken a lot of sports pictures, and even had some of them published, so that was cool.
  37. I’ve formed giant collections of books and music and toys and electronics, but also realized that giant collections are more of a problem than a solution. (Or maybe a symptom.)
  38. I own a lot of signed books. But then around the time people started asking me to sign books, I realized how dumb it was.
  39. I think I’m at the point where if I wanted anything, as far as material things, I could get it, but I can’t think of anything I want. This is pretty good from a goal perspective, although it’s frustrating for people who need to shop for me for gifts. I think there’s an exception for boats and sports cars and such, but like I said, not sure what I’d do with either, and the Prius gets me to the store and back.
  40. I’ve completed a lot of short-term personal goals. In 2008, I lost a crazy amount of weight, going from like 250 to 168 or something. As of yesterday, I’ve meditated for a thousand days in a row. I’ve exercised every day for 1811 days. I’ve had long periods of writing every day, although I’ve been giving myself more time off on that every now and again.
  41. I survived a lot of bad things, like economic downturns, car crashes (just one, really), major blackouts, tornados, earthquakes, and 9/11. Maybe not mentally, but I physically made it okay.
  42. I logged into this big mainframe computer in 1989 which could send emails and messages and get files from this thing called the “internet” and have watched it grow and expand and get powerful and dumb and all-encompassing over the next thirty-some years.
  43. I also created a hyplan page on this thing called the WWW back in 1992, and got to ride the wave ever since.
  44. I’ve learned a lot about computers since first sitting down at an Apple II and doing the 10 PRINT “HELLO” thing. I always feel like I need to learn more, but I’ve been fortunate enough to see and experience a lot of key trends in computer history.
  45. I’ve met some great people along the way. I know I don’t see them as much as I’d like, but I have some great freands.
  46. I’ve also kept some very long friendships. I met my buddy Ray 36 years ago, and he still answers the phone half the time I call.
  47. I’ve had four nephews and a niece, and I’ve got to experience the oddity of holding a human being the size of a canned ham in your arms, and then two seconds later, they’re driving a car and are as old as you sometimes think you are.
  48. I don’t think losing relatives is a good thing, but I think knowing them up until the time you’ve lost them and having those experiences and feelings forever is keeping them alive in some way, and I’ve enjoyed doing that with every person who is now gone.
  49. A big of vaguebooking, but I’ve had a lot of various challenges physically or mentally, all of which seem stupid and distant now. At the time, none of them seemed stupid and were all incredibly all-encompassing and horrific. But I got past them and survived them.
  50. I’ve managed to think of fifty things for this list. This was harder than I thought, but I made it.

OK, all that writing really takes it out of an old guy. Apologies if this seemed too morose. Enjoy your January 20th, and hope there’s a lot more ahead from me.

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49

Another year, another one of these posts. Ugh.

My first thought with this crossing of the 1/20 birthday line is a fear/uneasiness about this being the last year of my forties. A year from today, I’m going to be in a serious funk about hitting the big five-oh, vacillating between “it’s just a number” and “we’re well beyond the halfway point now.” I’m not ready to be fifty, and I need to find a way around that.

I keep thinking about this because I just went to the optometrist, and they cannot figure out my eyesight. I now have three different pairs of glasses, four if you count my sunglasses. There’s the close-up reading glasses I only use when I’m reading books in bed. I just added a mid-range set of glasses, which work perfectly when I’m at my computer or a laptop, which is my chief complaint that they never could fix. And then there’s the distance pair, which is now also a progressive lens with close-up when I look down. They also add a weird dead space in my peripheral vision, which makes me not want to wear them driving, and they’ll probably end up in the garbage, except for the fact that the medium makes anything more than three feet away blurry. No, I can’t get lasik. No, contacts won’t fix it. No, those stupid eye vitamins don’t do anything. This is the new normal, I guess.

The flip side to this is I don’t want to dwell on the various things that may or may not be going wrong. I may have the power to fix some of them (i.e. not eating every fucking thing I see) but I also don’t want to worry about the inevitable. A large portion of my family is sick and falling apart, and it’s like after a certain point, people define themselves by their ailments. I want to avoid that. I’m not sure how, though.

Another thing – I’ve noticed I spend every day during the week wishing the week was over, trying to get through it as fast as possible. I do this 52 times in a row and then wonder where the year went. I think I already covered this in the inevitable stupid end-of-the-decade summary but it’s something I want to figure out how to balance. I need to travel more or something. Get out of my routine. Find a new hobby. Something.

I’m trying to focus on what I can get done in the next year. I have two very big writing projects in the queue, one that’s closer than the other. I’d really like to get one of them done in 2020. Ideally, they’d both go. I need to focus on that. I’ve been a bit obsessed with the writing process with both Rumored and Atmospheres, going back over old journals, trying to figure out how the process went, how I decided things were “done.”

Anyway. I think the plan next year has to be a big thing in Vegas. This year, I get the day off for a three-day weekend, and it’s another superfloat and a big lunch, then some walking and writing. And at least the last year of my 40s gets an extra day because of leap year, so I’ve got to make sure it counts, right?

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48

Today, I turn 48.

48 is a weird one, because it’s an even thirty years from when I turned eighteen. I’ve written about that birthday before, so I’ll spare you, but one thing is that it’s very vivid to me, and seems like it was a few years ago. And it was three decades ago. There are retired NFL quarterbacks who had full careers who were born after that date. (Current Eagles QB Nick Foles was born on my 18th birthday, to the day.) I think my primary care physician was born after that date. Taylor Swift was born almost a year after then. I’m old.

I imagine that the 1989 to 2019 nice-round-number nostalgia trap is going to catch me on a lot of events this year. It’s when I graduated high school, started college, and the summer between was — well, I wrote a book about it, which will never see the light of day, but a lot went on. And I’d like to not sit around and ruminate about that all year, especially because I’m also being hit with the heavy feeling that 50 is just around the corner, and there’s a lot that I haven’t done.

And none of this “bucket list” is a “bucket list” I could define, like I’m in a stupid Rom-Com movie. I’ve already seen the Grand Canyon and went skydiving and all that crap. And I’m never going to visit Mars or even fly in a supersonic plane. Other than retirement and survival, there isn’t anything on that list that’s quantifiable. All of the dread hanging over me on this one is in the form of qualitative things that are hard to measure or change: write, do more, get better, do something other than work, sleep, and eat. But it’s all a quality thing, not quantity. And it’s always hard to move in that direction. And sure, drink more water, be mindful, eat less, exercise, whatever. But there’s a struggle there, and it’s not something I’ve been able to crack.

Nothing too exciting going on today, which is good. Avoiding horrible events on 1/20 is pretty much all I ask these days. (I am writing this the day before, though, so there’s always a chance of a nuclear war or a dead relative on Sunday, which means I’ll have to edit this.) No Vegas this year, no renting of fast cars or jumping out of planes or buying new guitars. I am doing another superfloat in the sensory deprivation tank again, which has become a bit of an annual tradition now. I think the exact minute of my birth, I’ll be back in the womb again, and that’s always a nice reset. Nice dinner for the evening, and I get Monday off too, so maybe I can write.

Man, that Nick Foles thing is really bugging me. Now I need to root for the Eagles this year. I mean, if I even give a fuck about football, which I don’t. Anyway, 47 down, time to start 48.

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general

Tank, Oculus, food, more food

Pretty good birthday yesterday. After a bit of writing, I headed to the float tank place for a superfloat, which is what I did last year. A normal session there is 70 minutes, and this is like three sessions back-to-back. Last year, I had a float chamber, which is sort of like a big bathtub with a door on it; this time, I was back in an old-school tank.

The problem with a superfloat is there are logical considerations that prevent one from sitting in the tank for almost four hours, mainly dehydration, the need for mass amounts of drinking water, and then the disposal thereof. I took a quick lukewarm shower before the float, to trick my internal thermostat to settle in on the tank temperature – if you take a hot shower and then get in the hot tank, your body will think it’s cold, for some reason. (You also have to shower to get all the chemicals and perfumes and deodorants and whatnot off your skin.)

(And yeah, I should pee in the tank, haw haw. Enough. I’ve heard the joke too many times, it isn’t funny.)

Last time, the superfloat basically ended up being three back-to-back floats with bathroom/drink breaks. This time, I settled in fast during the first float, and went deep within a few minutes. A tank is more claustrophobic than a chamber, because the ceiling is much lower, and the temperature keeps at a constant body temperature a bit more. I mean, you’re senseless, so it doesn’t matter if you’re in a coffin or the middle of a limitless empty universe, but I feel like I can tell the difference. But I like small spaces like that. I don’t know if claustrophilia is a thing, but if it is, I probably have it.

When I got to the point where I thought I had to take a break, I thought about 45 minutes had gone by. I got out, dried, drank a liter of water, and checked the watch – it had been about two hours and fifteen minutes. Got back in, couldn’t really settle in that deep, but I got partly there, and the next hour and fifteen went past. But the first segment was deep enough that it made the whole experience worth it.

Then came the task of washing off the salt. I brought my own soap this time, and did a two-pass shower, since last time, I spent all day with that feeling like when you wear a pair of stone-washed jeans without washing them first. They have some special hippy disinfectant soap, so I used that head-to-toe first, then used real shower gel and scrub, and that seemed to be the trick.

Like last time, I was fucking ravenous when I got out. I walked over a block or so to this place called Clove and Hoof, which is a neighborhood butcher that does whole-animal butchering on local livestock, but also has a small cafe with really off-the-hook food. It’s always restaurant week on my birthday, and they had a special with four courses of stuff, but I just went in on a burger and fries. Their burgers are insanely good, a double patty with pimento cheese and pickle mayo, and I added bacon. The fries are also incredible, beef tallow fries with more of the pickle mayo. A total mess, and expensive, but totally worth it.

It was suddenly a beautiful day out, sunny and in the sixties, so I walked up and down 40th. It has suddenly become a weird hipster mecca on that street, lots of kids with chunky glasses and ironic hair packed onto the sidewalk, waiting in line for two hours for vegan macaroni and cheese. I went to check out Broken Guitars, which is a shop opened by Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day, who still lives in the area. It’s a little place, but the focus is guitar for players, not collectors. Went through the stuff on the wall, and they had some decent-priced strats and teles, some older stuff, but a good mix of daily drivers, and good value players. I need a new guitar like I need a hole in the head – I’ve got two perfectly good Strats, and I’m not even playing much these days. So I went and walked around a bit more, then headed back.

On the way home, I stopped to try out an Oculus Rift, which was cool. I started writing about this and realized it really needs its own post, so I’ll do that separately.

Home, nap, then Sarah took me to a new place called Copper Spoon, coincidentally a few doors down from where I ate lunch. It is in the same space as an old classic called Art’s Crab Shack, which I never tried, but it has a cool old-school sign outside, which they fortunately kept. (This was just in an episode of Modern Family, which I hate to admit I still watch, but they did a joke about a gentrified bad neighborhood where cupcake stores and poetry collectives kept the same names and signs as body shops and welding fabricators or whatever.) Got the restaurant week menu, which was a good mix of stuff, plus dessert, plus cupcakes when I got home.

A good haul of books and a new hooded sweatshirt in the mails – I still have a ton of Christmas gift reading to do, and I’ve been stuck on that new Paul Auster monstrosity since the holidays. Anyway, overall, a good birthday this year.

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47

Me, 46 years ago

So, today I turn 47.

I was trying to think of what numerological or nostalgic significance this number has, and I can’t think of any, really. 47 is such a weird number. It’s slightly dreadful to me, because it’s in the “almost 50” range, and I’m really not ready to go there yet. I still think of myself as a bit over 40, and I’m closing in on the half-century mark.

47 reminds me of 17, which is that oddball birthday of your teens, the one of least significance. When you’re 16, you can drive; when you’re 18, you can vote and get married and join the Army and whatever else. At 17, you can… see NC-17 movies, I guess, although we didn’t have them back then. (They were added for the Henry and June movie, which came out when I was 19.) I don’t even remember what I did on my 17th birthday, if anything.

My birthday, even more than New Year’s, makes me look back at the last year and think about what I need to do in the next year. I can’t say much, good or bad, about year #46. I wrote a lot but didn’t get much published. I walked and hiked a lot, but didn’t lose any weight. I worked a lot, but don’t feel like I got a lot accomplished. Stasis, I guess. I didn’t have a bad year, but it has me thinking a lot about what I should be doing.

I’m actually cheating, writing this a few days before the actual day of my birthday. It’s a Saturday this year, so I don’t have to fight to get the day off work. I was going to do another superfloat in the sensory deprivation tank, but had to cancel, so it’s probably just another Saturday of writing and walking. No Vegas this year, unfortunately. No Denny’s, probably. No hospitals, no layoffs, no funerals. (I hope…)

So, I’ve outlived JFK. David Foster Wallace. Fatty Arbuckle. HP Lovecraft. It’s good to be alive, but then I also look at what I’ve done so far, and think there needs to be more. So I need to get to work on that.

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46

I turn 46 today.

I was thinking about a very vivid birthday memory I’ve probably written about several times. I turned 23 in college, in 1994, on the tail end of a bad case of pneumonia that had me out for the month of January. I was pretty much better by the 20th, but I remember going to the mall to spend some birthday money, and the walk from one side to the other was exhausting, after spending weeks in bed. I bought a boxed set of the Star Wars video tapes, the original VHS set without all the CGI remastering garbage. I probably went to Denny’s, too.

The thing that stuck with me, though: I remember getting out my birth certificate, this pink piece of paper from North Dakota, to look up my time of birth. And I realized that both of my parents were 23 when I was born, and I was now 23. And it depressed me that I was 23, and single, and living in a shared apartment and struggling to get through college. And I didn’t want to be married or have kids or anything else. But I guess turning 18 or turning 21 didn’t really make me feel like an adult, and turning 23 made me realize I needed to start acting like one, figure out an exit strategy, get something started. And within about 18 months, I did graduate, get a job, move across the country, and finish writing a draft of my first book.

Today, I realized that this moment of clarity at age 23 happened exactly 23 years ago, half my life ago. And I am not the same age (more or less) as my parents were when I was in college.

* * *

I did not want to deal with any of the obvious today. I needed complete isolation, which is exactly what I did.

There is this place in Oakland called Oakland Floats, which has sensory deprivation tanks. You go in this pod-like thing and everything shuts off. It’s 100% dark and quiet. You have in earplugs. And you get into a large tank of water, which has been saturated with hundreds of pounds of epsom salts and heated to body temperature. Every one of your senses is blocked. You float in the water, not touching anything, completely weightless. It looks the same if your eyes are opened or closed. It feels like the temperature of your body, both in the water and the air; you can’t really tell where one begins or ends.

I’ve done this before a few times, but I did hour-long sessions. This time, I did a “superfloat” — I paid to get three and a half hours of tank time. I didn’t know if I’d be able to do this, or if I’d get bored or fall asleep or what. But I figured I needed to do this, so I signed up a few weeks ago and locked in the entire morning.

When I got there, it was somewhat miserable out: dark, rainy, cold. I arrived a bit before my time started, and got shown to my room. There was a bathroom-like space with a shower and a shelf of various supplies, and a plate heater running so it felt like a sauna inside. My chamber was named Ringo — it looked almost like a shower with a door, but the door was not transparent, and inside was a large tub, maybe four by eight feet, and a foot deep, filled with hot salt water, and a blue glowing light so i could get in. I took a shower with antibacterial soap. Then, right before the government changed and facebook was exploding, I shut off my phone, put in the earplugs, slipped into the womb-like chamber, and turned off the light.

The first thing you notice when you start a session is that the sensation of floating is really weird. You’re programmed from childhood to know what a bath feels like, how your body sinks in the water. But in the chamber, you can’t sink — your body hovers in the briny water. After you stop yourself from drifting and become still, the only think you hear is your own breathing. For me, I became entirely too self-conscious of my breathing, because it’s the only thing I could do. I could not see anything, and couldn’t hear anything outside my body. And of course any and all external stimuli were gone. I could not look at my watch, or pull out my phone, or check my email. I’m not going to go into the neo-luddide “technology is bad” thing, but not having that instinctual tic is really abnormal.

I cheated a bit on the superfloat, although I guess most people do — I broke it into three sessions, so I could get out, use the bathroom, and drink water. The bathroom part, I probably could have made it, but soaking in epsom salt is extremely dehydrating, and I drank about a quart of water total during the quick breaks.

So, three sessions. The first went about 90 minutes. I probably spent ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the tank, and trying to relax my neck and back muscles to stay in a neutral position. Then I tried some basic meditation techniques: mindfulness, scanning my body from top to bottom, slowing my breathing, etc. This was good, but it got boring. I focused on a piece of music I’d listened to in the car on the way over (the new Brian Eno album, Reflection) and got lost in that for a bit.

After maybe thirty minutes in, I stopped thinking and went into a pure theta state. This is the state you’re in when you start to fall asleep, but aren’t unconscious and into the delta stage of deep sleep. If you abuse the snooze alarm on your clock, you probably experience brief drips of theta state when you get back in bed and almost black out, but dance through the halfway land between consciousness and sleep. The difference here is that it was sustained, timeless, and I had no connection to my body. I was just drifting in this sea of thought, memories I hadn’t touched in years. And I was there for about an hour.

I came back, did a quick bio break, and checked the time. Then the second session started. I had a little more trouble getting back in, and spent about ten minutes trying to get my neck to pop or stretch or decompress. But then I fell into a weird… thing. I was looking into the darkness, and could see nothing, but then saw… I guess a pattern. It looked like a mandala, a geometric pattern, and I could only see a quarter of it, like it was four times bigger than my field of vision. It wasn’t a defined or religious symbol, like a Buddhist mandala, but just a vague, swirling of shape, like a zoetrope’s image, that was darker than the pitch-black darkness. And as I tried to focus on this, I felt like I could no longer tell I was laying down. It felt more like I was standing, looking down, like at the top of a place with no three-dimensional space, watching this swirling oil-like pattern below me, like the floor had melted and turned into this primordial stew. But it wasn’t a constant thing, like a strong vision or a hallucination. It was very intermittent, and would drift in and out. I know I was back into the theta state, and in that, nothing is real or connected. It’s like trying to explain a dream that has no start or finish or linear explanation, like describing a five-dimensional scene to a person in a three-dimensional world.

This slowly faded, and within a matter of moments, I realized it was time for a break. I got out, and about an hour had passed. After a quick fluid exchange, I got back in and finished the last hour. For whatever reason, I got hung up thinking about a conversation I had with someone in 1992, which either sounds pretty grudgy or stupid, but it was more like the essence of that moment I spent with the person was there. I didn’t go that deep in the last hour. My neck was starting to hurt, and I was starving. I drifted a bit, but then came back out. Coming back out of the tank was hard and weird. My internal thermostat was broken from soaking for so long in the heat. Also, my skin was covered in salt. And it felt weird to have a sense of feeling, and to hear again. Taking a shower again, the water was deafening to me.

I got dressed, and went to the front counter to settle up. It turned out while I was in the tank, there was a huge thunderstorm, tons of water dumping, high winds, black skies. I missed all of it. And I missed all of the other festivities of the day, which was excellent. I left, and walked to a nearby restaurant and butchery called Clove & Hoof, and ordered a fried chicken sandwich. The walk over seemed surreal to me. Everything outside, the light rain, the traffic on 40th Ave, the people waiting in line for lunch, it all seemed alien. I’d say there was a calm over me, but it was more than that. It’s like everything was shut off, or like I was watching a distant TV with the volume on 1.

Anyway. I’m back. The day’s almost over. I’ll have to go back and try this again.

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general

What I did on my birthday, 2001-2013

2001:

  • Went to Las Vegas
  • Rented a Corvette
  • Stayed up until 4:34AM playing casino war at the Circus Circus, won $250
  • Front row seat to see George Carlin at the MGM
  • Went to take a piss at a urinal, and standing next to me was Charles Barkley (no, I did not look)
2004:
  • Went to Las Vegas
  • Saw Mitch Hedberg, Dave Attell, and Lewis Black
  • Rented a gigantic suite at the Stardust
  • Shot 100 rounds of belt-fed ammunition through a full-auto M-249 machine gun
  • Jumped out of a plane at 16,000 feet.
2013:
  • Night before: got takeout from P.F. Chang’s.  Rented I Love You, Man.
  • Drank NyQuil.
  • Went to a Weight Watchers meeting.  Gained 1.4 pounds.
  • Got a six egg white omelet and fruit salad for lunch.
  • Went grocery shopping.
  • Practiced bass 90 minutes.
  • Slept through the football game.
  • Made vegetarian tacos for dinner.

Disclaimer: I will actually be going to LA next weekend for my birthday.  I hope I am not sick by then.

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general

42

Me, throwing Rumored to Exist into the Grand Canyon on my birthday in 2003.

I am 42 today.  Don’t feel a day over 72.

I’ve been going to Denny’s every year for my birthday, since I don’t know when.  I think it must have started when they used to give you free lunch for your birthday, but when I started hanging out with Bill and Scott, who both share the 1/20 birthday, they’d stopped the free meal deal, and we continued to go out of habit.  There must have been years that I didn’t do this, although it’s hard to remember when.  I think in 1994, I was deathly ill with pneumonia and didn’t go.  In 2007, I was in New York (which didn’t have Denny’s); I usually went to Vegas, but went in February that year, so I missed it.

Denny’s used to have a certain power over me, like it was a strange touchstone in my life.  I’d go there to write, scribbling in the notebooks late at night while a high-calorie breakfast for dinner congealed on the plate, lubricated with copious amounts of Coca-Cola caffeinated beverages.  I don’t know that I ever got much quality writing done there, other than journal entries bitching about the day or talking about the weirdo waitstaff and regulars.  Maybe I got some editing done, scanning over printouts of books with red pen in hand.  But it was mostly a ritual, like going to church or something.

I suppose there were enough late-night hijinks there when I was in college.  Whenever Ray was in town, that’s where we’d end up, or when me and Larry needed a place to eat at two in the morning.  Elkhart didn’t have a Denny’s, and Perkins was the 24-hour place of record.  But in Bloomington, Denny’s pulled me in.  I never went there to study, or read, but many a conversation started on a VAX computer was finished at one of the booths at that place over a cup of what purported to be coffee.

Denny’s also had a certain allure when I lived in New York because they didn’t have them. There are a thousand 24-hour diners in The Big Smear, not all of them the usual pancakes and bacon places.  There are Greek diners and places with Italian food and Falafel joints and Mexican diners and who knows what else.  (Every possible cuisine is available in New York, all cooked by Mexicans and Guatemalans in the back.  That fine Italian restaurant in Little Italy featuring the fine food they could only make in Italy?  Cooked by Guatemalans.)  But that strong association as being part of my writing culture, tempered by my time in Seattle hacking out these books over an All-American Slam, plus the grass-is-greener effect of the distance, made my pilgrimages to other cities that contained Denny’s seem that much more powerful to me.

Now, all of the old routines are dead.  I force myself to write when I write, and not when the rabbit’s foot is properly balanced next to the lucky pen and track 7 of the magic CD is playing and it’s exactly 9:12 at night.  And I don’t eat Denny’s anymore.  The healthiest thing on the menu there is like 47 weight watchers points.  And it doesn’t help that their owners are assholes.  The dream is dead.  I’ll skip Denny’s from now on.

But yeah, 42.  My head’s a mix of “you’ve got to be more than halfway through this by now” and “you need to put the past behind you and get shit done.”  I think the latter voice is what I need to listen to right now.

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general

41

I turn 41 today.

Five years ago, I ate dinner at Per Se in New York.  I had a twelve-course meal that cost something like $750.  Then I went home and watched the movie Idiocracy.  Then my iTunes library crashed, and I spent the next day restoring it, so a huge chunk of my songs say they were imported on 1/21/07.

Ten years ago, I went to Las Vegas with Bill (who shares my birthday), Lon, and Todd, starting a long tradition of going to Sin City for our birthdays. Todd took pictures of me sodomizing pretty much every statue on the strip.  While we were in town, I bought 40 acres of land in the mountains of Colorado, starting that whole obsession.  I also shot a full-auto M-16, bought this ridiculous Coke jacket, and made far too many references to Fear and Loathing over the weekend.

Fifteen years ago, my uncle died from brain cancer on my birthday.  I lived in Seattle then. I went out the weekend before, with a bunch of people from Spry (Bill, Todd, others) and I bought a new bed, but I spent the actual day of my birthday at work.  A somewhat boring and introspective day, but those are good too.

Twenty years ago, I turned 21 and could legally drink.  Me and Bill went to Kilroy’s, the dumb jock bar in Bloomington, to get our free drink.  I still have the glass.  Then I went to a liquor store to buy something with more octane than the fruity drink with ten drops of rum in it, and the fuckers didn’t even card me, which pissed me off.

Twenty five years ago, I turned 16 and hit the age when I could get my driver’s license.  I didn’t get it for a few months, but that was the first big step in escaping orbit.  I think my obsession at that time was Iron Maiden.

Thirty years ago, I think I had a Superman cake.

Forty years ago, I was in Edwardsburg, Michigan and I still have the picture of me putting my hands in the chocolate cake that pretty much everyone has from their first birthday.

It’s now 8:43, and at 8:53, I officially turn 41. I’m still in bed, plinking at the laptop, enjoying a day off.  Later, I will go to Denny’s.  Not really thinking about my own mortality or where the time went or any of that stuff.  Just thinking about pancakes.

Anyway, thanks to everyone for everything in the last year.  I hope the next one is even better.

 

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general

The City of Lights and Massages

Your blackjack losses subsidize this art.

I got in the cab after no line at all in front of McCarran airport, a first, even when I came out to Vegas a few weeks after 9/11, when people in rural Arkansas thought the Taliban would probably fly an Airbus into their grain silo Any Day Now.  The roller bag and new camera backpack went in the back of the minivan, and we headed off to the Planet Ho.

“Long flight?” the cabbie asked me.  He was one of those guys that was all belly and no neck, probably transplanted out to Nevada to avoid an alimony lawsuit.

“No, a couple hours, but they really cram you in there.”

“What you need is a good rub and tug,” he said.  “I know just the place.”

Ah, Las Vegas.  A city of subtleties.  How can I go a whole year in the land of fruits and nuts without time in a city where the number one occupation is handing out flyers for prostitutes?

So I turned 40.  I spent the morning fucking around with a radio-controlled helicopter whose battery would not hold a charge, then went to Denny’s for the annual cholesterol boost, got an allergy shot (not at Denny’s), and drove out to the former Oakland Naval Air Station, now known for cheap Southwest flights to all sorts of mid-sized towns across the country (provided you weigh less than Kevin Smith.)  Not a single TSA problem happened to me, although I did see them putting a beat-down on a tourist who did not understand the complexities of “liquids in a ziplock bag, you motherfucker”.  (I realize it is difficult for some people to remember if shampoo is a liquid, solid, or gas.  Certainly a valid reason for every single media outlet in the United States to spend roughly twenty trillion dollars of TV time lamenting over those jackboot thugs that won’t let you bring a machete in your carry-on luggage anymore.)  Did you know Amelia Earhart’s first attempt at her final flight took off from Oakland airport?  Also, did you know that Purdue paid for that plane?  And did you know her plane was taken by aliens and will re-appear in the middle of the shitty remake of Close Encounters that will probably come out in the next few years?  Actually, I don’t know that they’re remaking it, but they’re remaking everything else, so expect Will Smith to be building a giant Devil’s Tower in his living room any time now.

I used to know a bit about Vegas.  It was my default vacation, and I even wrote a book about it. But since I published that thing in 2004, damn near every thing I mentioned there has been imploded and replaced by a chrome and glass tower.  A big chunk of the strip used to be crappy t-shirt shops and places you could rent a high-test sports car from an Armenian illegal for cash on the barrelhead; now the whole stretch looks like some kind of futuristic spaceport in a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster.  Back in the day, I used to write these trip reports, bulleted lists of all the neato things I paid money to see.  Now I’m not into reports as much; I prefer manifestos, scathing diatribes on the cold burn of a multinational real estate project for the rich masquerading as an entertainment option by selling a $16 cocktail, especially the ones that won’t let me post a million to one bet on an earthquake or tsunami during the upcoming superbowl. Fuck all of them and their stupid corporate house rules – I want some real action, the kind I need to drive to some beaten whore casino and hardware store in the middle of the desert, the kind of place that sells dollar hot dogs and not at a loss, because the meat is from Costco.

I got to the Planet Ho (aka the Planet Hollywood, which used to be the Aladdin, which went under a rename after they realized a giant arab with a sword between his teeth isn’t the best mascot for a casino when you need to pull in red-staters to make the nut) and Bill already checked in a dozen hours earlier, the victim of a horrible plane schedule that only left a crack-of-dawn flight or a near-redeye his only options for the long haul out from Indiana.  I usually bunk with him on these trips, partly to save us both money, and partly because when I stay by myself, I tend to do things like drink Singapore Slings with mezcal on the side until I black out and kick in a toilet in the middle of the night.  (You didn’t read the book, did you?)  We both turned 40 at the same time, or rather him about an hour before me, which is probably why he’s a foot taller than me.

Everyone asks me what the hell I do on these trips, and the simple answer is that instead of gambling, soliciting the service of whores, or drinking my body weight in grain alcohol, I usually eat.  And now that I have lost a ton of weight and spend all day and night obsessing over the stupid Weight Watchers online app, my only desire in a place like Vegas is to run train on thousands of calories of Oprah-sized portions of grub.  And there’s no shortage of it; every ten yards is yet another opportunity to get large vats of deep-fried everything to go with your huge tub of whatever drink you’re downing.  The best way to raise house advantage in any game of chance is by diabetic coma.  Ask anyone waddling down the strip, and they’ll tell you all about their fifth or sixth meal that day.

We did other stuff, too.  Marc came into town from Seattle a bit later that night, carrying a deck of loyalty cards, with complex arbitrage plans that I think involved somehow getting rated at casino play from dental work paid for at high altitude with a Costco Amex card and then refinanced through a platinum MasterCard and turned into airline miles then exchanged for mortgage-backed securities.  (I may have missed part of that procedure.  I barely manage to remember to use my Safeway Club Card four out of ten times.)  Tom also arrived much later from Chicago.  I ate an entire fish and chips at one Irish pub, swapping out the chips for beer-battered onion rings, and then we ended up at another Irish pub, where I ate a dozen different appetizers while Bill and Tom found a little game where if you drank a pint of beer in under seven seconds, you got the drink for free.  Now, I’ve seen Bill drink an entire yard of Guinness in under seven seconds after eating a five-gallon bucket full of shepherd’s pie, so it was no surprise they could easily do the limit of two beers each, each day we were in town.

Andrew got into town the next day.  We split a townhouse out at Colonial Crest back in 93-94, but I hadn’t seen him since.  Within twelve hours, we had him on a mechanical bull in an imitation rock bar, while Bill entered some kind of redneck regression and started drinking Bud Lite.  But before that, there was a many-hundred dollar brunch where I ate a progression of Kobe beef sliders and wedge salad, and I took a bunch of pictures of lions at the MGM, which is pretty boring, but it beats losing $300 at blackjack in fifteen minutes flat, which is what Bill managed to do.

That night, we all went to La Reve, which is hard to explain except it’s one of those freaky acrobat musical numbers, where people are contorting in weird ways and flying through the air on wires.  This particular one, up at the Wynn, involved a huge theater in the round, with the stage actually consisting of a deep swimming pool and a series of raising and lowering rings and platforms.  There was once a time when I worked at heights, hanging stage lights from catwalks dozens of feet in the air, taking long naps behind followspots while waiting for my cue to launch a few thousand watts and lumens at a performer.  Now, I sit through shows like this wondering what they used to generate snow these days, and how they always hit their marks on these flips and dives and swoops and twists, especially when we could never get three rehearsals and two performances of a school musical run without some idiot tripping on a cable and knocking over ten thousand 1980s dollars of lights.

Of course there was a Mexican dinner before the show, and another dinner after, along with another round of “let’s drink all of the beers at this pub for free”, of which I did not participate, but it’s always fun to watch the disbelief involved.

The waiter said “don’t worry, it’s all SlimFast food.”

On Saturday, we all went to the main event, calorie-wise: a giant dinner at Craftsteak.  I did this once before, but this time we got to meet up with Jeremy, who I also hadn’t seen for decades, since the UCS days of telling people that you spelled ezmail with a z, and god damn it, stop trying to telnet to easymail.  They sat us all down at a giant round table and brought out seven courses of Kobe steak, plus seven appetizers, and then finished it with nine different desserts.  Each of the 23 things I put on my plate (plus rolls) was easily a day’s worth of WW points.  Oh, and a diet Coke.

A last-second addition: we got tickets to Drew Carey’s improv thing, which was the cast of Who’s Line Is It Anyway, doing all of the usual improv exercises.  Our seats were pretty far back, plus they were taping the thing for TV, which involved these long camera booms randomly swooping across the line of sight, but it was a good comedy geek moment to see the now-obviously-does-not-eat-at-Craftsteak Carey leading the rest of the group.

I didn’t gamble much.  I blew about a hundred bucks on a Casino War table in the Pleasure Pit, which is Planet Ho’s evil little trick which involves distracting gamblers with  300cc bags of saline or silicone strategically placed at eye level. Very bad odds, very stingy on the drinks. That was the worst hundred dollar glass of ice and diet Coke you could possibly find, but at least I didn’t do as much damage as my colleagues.

Cap it all off with a run at the breakfast buffet: giant vats of bacon, pancakes, french toast, waffles, and 197 different desserts.  I got back on the plane as fast as I arrived, and bailed out the Toyota on a sunny Oakland Sunday afternoon that required no jacket.  We did not steal any of Mike Tyson’s tigers, and nobody got tazered, but it was still a pretty okay weekend. And by some god damned miracle, I ended up down a half pound at this week’s weigh-in.  A birthday miracle!