Coke Zero, Hybrid Failure, SR2, Etc

They recently changed the formula of Coke Zero to make it “more like regular Coke.” It tastes like a mix of Listerine and cloves now. The only thing is has improved is my ability to quit soda, which hasn’t happened yet, but probably should.

I would normally be more upset about this, but I ultimately have no time to care. I drank a case of it and can’t tell the difference now, so on to the next problem/outrage. I used to be much more upset when a company made a lame decision like the discontinuation of Surge, the dropping of the Taco Bell Mexican Pizza, or the fact that I’ve eaten the same exact oatmeal every morning for twelve years and they decided to stop selling in packets. Life is too short.

* * *

After dumping all the money into my car over the last month, I had a fun experience with it. I was driving off to the mall a week ago, and after I got up to highway speed on the 580, every warning light in the dash came on, and the info panel said “HYBRID SYSTEM FAILURE – PULL OVER IMMEDIATELY.” The dynamic braking stopped working, and the EV system went completely offline. There was a Toyota dealership just past the next highway exit, so I swung in there and dropped it off. They said they’d get to it on Monday.

This began a weekend-long spiral into figuring out if I needed to buy a new car. The hybrid system is still under warranty, so if it needed a $5000 battery, that’s covered. But I figured the dealership would add a $4000 spine reticulation charge or whatever the hell, or take six months to fix it. The car’s probably worth about $7000 in good condition. When the Yaris reached the end of the line in 2014 and had unknown wiring problems only fixable by a dealer, I brought it to the sales counter and they made me a good deal on the trade-in, so I figured I’d do the same. They don’t make the Prius C anymore, and the Camry and Corolla hybrids are honestly better cars than the Prius, so I burned a lot of cycles pricing this stuff out, trying to figure out what I wanted to pay, what I wanted to finance, etc etc.

Monday morning, they ran the diagnostic and said it was just the ECC lost communication with the system and threw a few codes, so it shut down the entire hybrid system. (If you stumble across this in a search, the DTC codes were U0140, U0073, and U0126.) The only obvious culprit was that I have a ScanGauge II plugged into the ODBII port. I have since I got the car; it’s a holdover from when I had the largely-gaugeless Yaris. I don’t really use it anymore, and the tech theorized that maybe the cable got bumped, or something else happened. He cleared the codes, unplugged the ScanGauge, and no problems since. No charge on the scan, either. So I saved $200 plus another $25,000 on a new car.

* * *

I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting anything going writing-wise. In a fit of “do something completely different,” I did a Ctrl-C Ctrl-V on the project file for my first book, and started on page 1, taking notes and editing things. I’ve had this stupid idea to write a thirty-years-later sequel of the book, and I thought I came up with a good gimmick to get it going, but I needed to go through the old draft, partly to get it all back in my head, and partly to George Lucas in a few minor changes to get the two books to line up correctly.

It’s an …interesting experience to read writing I haven’t touched in over twenty years, especially when it’s a radical departure from what I’ve been writing ever since. There’s obviously some very wooden writing, and little bone-headed typos abound. The usual complaint about the book is that it’s too long, and generally plotless. I could see trimming the book slightly, tightening up things. But for every subplot I would think about trimming, I think there’s another that could have been explored more. And it surprises me now that there are so many characters, so many subplots. It also follows an overall arc more than I thought.

After I got about a third of the way through it, I got disinterested with the idea, though. I can’t go too into it without revealing the gimmick, but I wasn’t interested in writing that book. And it’s been a long time since I’ve put a lot of focused thought into Bloomington. I haven’t spent more than a few hours in town since 1999 when I stopped there for a few days on my move east. Writing a sequel would need some solid reason to be there, and not just the main character wandering around having regrets about every person he dated a million years ago, and being amazed at how all of the stores at the mall closed. Maybe at some point I will visit again and get the spark to write this, but who knows.

* * *

Speaking of, I’m still on for the Seattle trip in two weeks. I have been working on a list of what to do, but I haven’t done any heavy research yet. I just now started thinking about what camera or cameras to bring, or if it’s time for a new one, and I need to shut down that conversation before it starts.


Distant summers

rabbit1-smallI realized the other day that the summer I fictionalized for my first book Summer Rain was twenty-five years ago. This should make me feel very old, except that it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. I was twenty-one then, and in my mind, I’m the same person as I was then, but I realize I’m more than twice as old, and half a country away from Bloomington, and that’s depressing to me, that it’s an entire lifetime in the past for me.

When I’m not in the middle of writing something interesting, I often slip into this heavy, nostalgic, introspective thing, and burn a lot of cycles thinking about things that are long gone, like my time in Bloomington, the year I spent going to school in South Bend, even the time I was in Denver ten years ago, which seems like eons ago to me now. I try to remember the order things happened, the details of people and places I’d forgotten, and dwell entirely too much on things that happened, conversations I can’t fix, things I can’t take back. It’s unnerving that this stuff sticks with me, especially since I want to create things that aren’t my life, live in fictional worlds that don’t have to do with me. But the pull is so strong in old nostalgia, I can’t escape it.

There’s a certain draw to this near-era nostalgia that is completely addictive. Trying to find old images or articles or pictures of places I used to live or things I used to own is as compulsive as pornography, endlessly searching for the next thing to release some dopamine in the brain, give a tiny touch of satisfaction. I don’t know what I’ll find that will ever make things complete. And the draw of it is that so little of the early 90s, of my early 90s, is searchable or archived on the internet. Yes, I can go find a copy of that Nirvana album or the movie Singles or whatever, but try to find one picture of the IUSB lunch room where I spent every day of the 1990-1991 school year, and it’s impossible. I wrote some articles for that school’s newspapers that I will never find, unless I physically drive there and dig through their library. But I’ll still search, and maybe find a picture that reminds me of a computer lab where I used to work, a hint of what it used to look like, two renovations ago, when it still had PC-XTs and dot-matrix printers.

I keep thinking about writing something about this era again, another book. I thought about this a lot when I was in Indiana in 2015, in August. I’d never spent any time back in Indiana during the summer months, only returning for winter holidays, when everything was frozen over. And that feeling of summer, the hot days and air conditioning, then the cool nights and the sounds of crickets and clear sky and stars overhead made me think so much of the summer of my teenaged years, and made me think, “I have to write another book about this.”

I’ve struggled a lot with a book about the summer between high school and college, a fictionalized version of that summer in 1989. I think there’s a lot to write about: first love, first betrayal, leaving home, the big unknown of what happens next, and the beginning of a little bug in my head that would later develop into a crippling depression. There were also many things I didn’t know about at the time — I sat in northern Indiana in this pivotal time, the end of the Eighties, when the American Dream was quietly being led to slaughter. I only knew of life in that industrial bubble, the conservative bible-belt-meets-rust-belt pocket. Indiana never fully recovered from the early 70s recession when the early 80s one hit, and I graduated just as an expansion was about to burst. I didn’t know any of this at the time, but in retrospect, it sets an interesting stage for all of my personal garbage going on then.

I’ve written bits of this in stories over the years, and my completed 2008 NaNoWriMo project was an attempt at this book, which was finished but scrapped. I don’t feel like I was really able to nail it, to capture the feelings or set up a compelling structure to fit to this backdrop. It’s something I’ve wanted to revisit, but there are a bunch of things stopping me.

First, I don’t know how feasible this creative nonfiction stuff is in the era of Facebook and Google. I don’t think I could write Summer Rain now, because of the fear that a fictionalized person would find themselves and be angry that I was being unflattering, even if what I wrote was changed or masked or altered so it wasn’t true. I think just the fear of that would make me self-censor myself enough that I couldn’t operate. This is also entirely true of family members. I can’t write a first-person fictional book and get into it about the protagonist’s family, for fear that my own family would read this and think it was about them. I think Bukowski said he had to wait until his old man was dead until he started working on Ham on Rye.

But there’s also the conflicting fear that the longer I wait to write this stuff, the more it will fall out of my head. I find my memories fading of this era, and like I said, the physical relics of it are lacking. I took more pictures of my food this week than I took of anything in 1992. I archive all of my email now, although I get maybe five messages a week that aren’t garbage; I have almost no email saved from back then. There is a very real chance that if I wait until I retire or whatever and then decide to write this book, there will be none of it left in my head whatsoever.

And the biggest fear is that all of this is worthless to anyone but me. Summer Rain was not a big seller. Looking back, I can name half a hundred things wrong with the structure, content, characters, cover, blah blah blah, but there’s a horrible truth in that people like a book when they can identify with the main character, and if the main character is me and I’m ultimately an unlikeable person, people won’t like the book. I sometimes thing the current wave of nineties nostalgia could make a book set in that era appealing to people, but there’s a certain confidence thing there that I have to wrestle with, and it’s easier to put it off and go write about zombies or coprophagia or whatever.

During that 2015 trip, I started thinking about a sequel to Summer Rain, slightly informed by the John Knowles book Peace Breaks Out, which was the not-as-successful follow-up to A Separate Peace. The idea was that I had to return to Indiana twenty-five years later for some reason — dead parent, old friend, whatever — and I would see the contrast in all the changes (and non-changes) in the post-industrial wasteland. And I’d revisit all the characters, and what happened to them over time. One of the big themes in SR was the fork-in-the-road things, trying to decide on which way to go in life while in college. And in that book, every character subconsciously has a direction they were aimed, and one could predict the endings: this guy’s never going to leave town; this girl is going to burn through three husbands in ten years; this guy’s going to be a CEO before he’s thirty; this guy’s going to be found dead in five years. And one of the things I wanted to do was show how the unexpected happened with all of them, for better or for worse. And some people I know are still hopelessly stuck in this old era, never having moved past their high school or college self (much worse than I have it, even) and some people probably never think about the past at all.  I don’t know where I’d go with a book like this, but it’s something stuck in my craw.

I probably won’t do any of this, and will probably come out with another book of twenty stories or a hundred fragments of flash fiction about UFOs and sodomy, and nobody will read it.

Anyway, twenty-five years. That is really screwing with my head.


The Cloud, the Book, the Pissing Contest

I’ve been bitching and moaning about how Adobe decided to move all of their software to the cloud, and make people pay per month forever to use their stuff.  I’ve also been bitching about how Apple decided to kill off Aperture, which happened about ten minutes after I imported and tagged 50,000 pictures, and would probably require me to spend six months of my life migrating to Lightroom.

Well, fuck it, I decided to give up and get a Creative Cloud membership, while Adobe is trying to court Aperture users and is quoting a lowball price.  I joined with the photographer’s membership, which is ten bucks a month, and includes Lightroom, Photoshop, and 2GB of cloud storage.  There’s some other junk that I don’t need or understand (Typekit?  Bridge?)  and there’s a ton of “try this!” links everywhere, to get you to upgrade to a full-blown membership.  But I don’t need Illustrator or InDesign this second, so I’m fine.

I have not used Photoshop in a long time.  I’ve been using Pixelmator for a while, to do book covers and whatnot.  (Here is my latest.)  And I make endless stupid things like the above drawing I re-captioned.  But I haven’t used Photoshop in forever.  It’s interesting to see how much it changed.

Back in 1991 when I returned to Bloomington after a year at IUSB commuter college hell, they had a shit-ton of new computer gear, because they’d recently tacked on a technology fee to tuition and were in a mad rush to spend it. The Fine Arts college had this cluster of brand spanking new top-of-the-line Macs, which I think were the IIfx at that time.  Each one had a gigantic color monitor, probably 20 inches, but about a yard thick, plus a second paperwhite portrait screen, along with a scanner and a Jazz drive, which used those insanely expensive removable hard drives that could hold something like 100 Megs, which was pure science fiction at the time. Anyway, they had Photoshop 1.0. I recently found a color printout me and my buddy Ray did when he visited once, an Ann Geddes overhead shot of nine babies in a nursery, but we’d horribly mangled them all: one beheaded, another eating that head, one with a swastika on its forehead, one spitting blood, etc.

That was my first exposure to Photoshop, and the new version makes the 1.0 version look more primitive than MS Paint. I am absolutely amazed by all of the retouching and healing tools, and how you can do stuff like move parts of an image and it will automatically fix the background.  The $10 a month is well-spent on getting more book covers done.  (And of course, photoshopping dicks into the mouths of various Facebook friends.)

Speaking of books, I am almost done with the next one.  I’m in the last sprint of edits, and I have a roughed-in cover, and I’m maybe a week from entering production drudgery.  This book is so amazingly different from anything I’m written, I’m not sure what people will think.  It’s absurdist, but it has an incredibly plotted story, like Michael Bay plotted.  I think it will really show readers that I have the ability to do more than just stories about taking a dump at the county fair.  But, I’m anxious to get it done, so I can get back to writing stories about taking a dump at the county fair.   Anyway, stay tuned.

I wanted to write something about Amazon Unlimited, and about the huge pissing contest between Amazon and Hachette.  But I really do not have the energy to care.  It’s billionaires fighting billionaires, and every move Amazon makes to make you think they are on your side or they’re saving you money is really one they’re making to increase their monopoly.  Amazon Unlimited is nothing but a race to the bottom, creating the equivalent of a thousand-channel cable TV plan that will cause readers to read five pages of everything and enjoy nothing.  And Hachette charges too much for ebooks, but Amazon is only bringing that to your attention because they want more of your money.

It’s all bullshit.  I’m still selling on Amazon, but eventually, their monopoly will squeeze out small authors, and I’m waiting for the day when they start charging KDP writers insane prices to list their books, or drop their royalties, or start an inane approval process for self-pubbed books “to increase quality to customers” (i.e. make it impossible for anyone they don’t like to publish weird stuff.)  It will happen.  But I’ll still be here.  If I have to photocopy my books at the local Kinko’s and sell them out of the trunk of my car, I will.  If I have to memorize them and go town to town reciting them like one of those poor fuckers with The Iliad, fine.  If I was here to make millions, I would have started selling penny stocks back in 1997.

OK, back to editing.  What’s up with you?



The long walk to W384 Intensive Writing

I love it when it’s cool in the early morning after a hot day. There’s a certain charge in the air that’s unexplainable, not just the relief from the heat, but a somnolent, undisturbed feeling.  It was 83 yesterday, and I woke up to 55, and it was wonderful, even if it will be back to the high 70s in a bit.

In the summer of 1992, I had this 8AM writing class.  I was one of the only guys in the class and we talked about metaphor and Susan Sontag and I wrote a paper about the Pink Floyd song “Two Suns in the Sunset” that I’m glad I lost a long time ago.  (I wrote about this fictionally in Summer Rain.)  I used to stay up late every night, meeting people at midnight at Showalter Fountain, then wallowing in depression, sitting on computers or just walking around campus.  I’d maybe sleep a few hours in my pizza oven of a flophouse room, and wake up for the quick walk across campus to Ballantine for the writing class. During the day, the temperatures would hit the 90s, but in the early morning, the temps would sometimes drop into the 60s, and campus would be empty at that time of day. Those walks have permanently burned into my brain, and I think about them every time there’s a morning like this, and I feel that mixed state emotion of fulfillment and emptiness that a quiet, early morning can bring.

I think this work of progress is now paused.  Still not talking about it, except to say that I got a third of the way through the first draft and felt like the writing was too wooden and not me, and I needed a break to pick up some steam.  I think I need to watch a bunch of David Lynch movies in a row and get back to it later.  It’s still a good idea, and it’ll keep, but I need something else right now.

I’m still more or less writing daily stuff, automatic writing, brain dumps of whatever happens to hit at the time I sit down to write.  Sometimes, these are absurd and hilarious and end up in a book like Atmospheres, but they also become these nostalgic things that make me think about writing another book like Summer Rain, which I feel like I can’t do.  Maybe it will end up being a chapbook of some sort.

I was going to write more about nostalgic writing, but I should probably just go do some.



Blast from the past: Morgenstern’s

Here is a receipt I found recently:

Morgenstern’s was an interesting book store in Bloomington that came and went in the 90s, but was pretty central to my experience at IU.  I don’t remember exactly when they opened, but it must have been around 1991 or so.  There were no big box book stores then, aside from the Walden’s in the mall.  The town had no shortage of used book stores filled with old books dumped by students in need of ramen or beer money, and I spent many hours digging through them for anything interesting, but Morgenstern’s was where I went to score the latest new stuff.

I never read or collected that many books prior to becoming a writer, but I still went to Morgenstern’s to look at computer books.  They were the only place in town other than the IU bookstore with a solid collection of all of the latest O’Reilly stuff, so that’s where I went to ogle all of the C++ and Perl books.  They also had a full newsstand with a lot of obscure zines, so when the zine bubble was happening in the early 90s, that was the place to grab Factsheet 5 and all of the other rarities.

Once I did start writing, all of my obsessions came out of this place.  Between 1993 and 1995, I bought pretty much every Orwell book; every major Henry Miller title; almost all of the Vonnegut books in one quick swoop; and I bought my first Bukowski there.  I got going on Douglas Coupland and Henry Rollins, too.  They had a punch card system, where you got I think a punch for every ten bucks, and if you got ten or twelve punches, you got a free book, so any time I had spare cash, I’d walk out there and try to do as much damage as possible to those little pink cards and earn some freebies.

Morgenstern’s was in this strip mall just east of the main College Mall, a place that also held a laundromat, a Service Merchandise, and a couple of other stores.  There was a cheap Chinese place there (Grasshoppers, maybe?) and many times, I’d buy a couple of magazines, and then get some fake Sweet and Sour chicken and sit down to read.  They also had a Long John Silver’s, which served a similar purpose.  Morgenstern’s had its own big comfy leather chairs and coffee bar, so you could also crash out there and page through books, which was somewhat of a novelty at the time.

I vaguely remember this 1995 trip to the store, although I vividly remember the weekend.  My friend Larry Falli had graduated, skipped town, and left me his apartment for the rest of the month, as a place to write or crash or whatever.  I bought those two books on Friday night, and stayed up all night reading Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland, and liked it enough that I wanted to go get a copy of Generation X.  I went to bed right before daylight, woke up at lunch, and jumped in my car to go back to the mall and grab a copy, but a few blocks away, my car inexplicably died.  I had to get it towed to this auto place out by the mall, and it turns out the timing belt had snapped, and they had to keep it a day or so to put a new one on.  So I walked over to Morgenstern’s, got a copy of Generation X, then went to Larry’s unfurnished and vacant apartment, and sat on the floor of the living room with a bag of takeout from somewhere, reading the Coupland book and writing in a notebook.  I then walked the three miles back to my place and got started on the Orwell I’d bought the night before.

A month and change later, I flew out to Seattle, got a job, then flew back, packed up a U-Haul, and left Bloomington.  Not long after that, Borders put in a store right next to Morgenstern’s, and Barnes and Noble built a megastore just across the street.  And not long after that, Morgenstern’s was having their big everything must go sale.  And now the Borders is gone, and I’m sure the B&N does slow business selling lap desks, bookmarks, and the occasional 50 shades book.

I still find these receipts tucked into books, though.  And I’ve got a few titles on the shelves that still have their dot matrix-printed UPC stickers on the back corners.  I even have a punch card with two punches on it, which will never get filled.  It’s a bittersweet end to this old place.


Another story from another kind of book

I’m still editing this book. It’s going to take a while, and I hate this part of the process more than anything, because it’s not the process of creating, of writing hundreds and thousands of words, and it’s not the process of holding a finished book in your hands, so it’s painstaking. And I have all of these crazy ideas popping in my head that don’t fit within this book, for the next one or the one after, and it’s a beast to try and write those down and not forget them while I’m doing the equivalent of removing cat hair from a mohair sweater. But it’s getting there.

I have a 115,000-word manuscript that’s a complete train wreck, something that’s a book like Summer Rain but covers the entire six years I was in Bloomington. I’ve all but written off Summer Rain, partly because that’s not what I write anymore, and partly because there’s a certain pain to nostalgic autobiographical fiction that I like a bit too much to spend all of my time with it. In many senses, I think of Summer Rain as a failure, and use that to justify never going back to that kind of writing. But since the book went to Kindle, a couple of people have read it and said it really resonated with them, which makes me wonder.

Anyway, here is part of a story, or rather an experience, that I outlined and forgot. It’s not a story story, it’s just some loose thoughts.

I used to have a bus pass at IU, when I was a freshman. I guess now the buses at IU are free, but back then, you had to pay some obscene amount to get a little sticker on your ID so you could ride them for free. You could also pay a fraction of that for a nights and weekends pass, which is what I did. I didn’t have a car, so I’d take the bus out to college mall all the time. It was a huge pain in the ass, but it beat walking.

I had a really good friend, V, this girl who was also on the computer all the time, and even though she was only about a year older than me, we had this almost big sister/little brother relationship, and she’d always listen to me pule about my various relationship problems. She wanted to be a shrink, and I was crazy, so this dynamic worked well, and we traded emails pretty much daily.

I used to call her dorm a lot, and she’d never be there, because computers cost more than cars, so nobody had them, and you’d go camp out in a computer cluster to get your fix. And I used to leave messages so much with her roommate L that we started asking each other about our days, and that led to conversations, and that led to me calling L knowing that V wasn’t there. We’d have these marathon phone sessions, even though we never met in person, maybe because we never met in person, these strange, protracted, intimate, three or four hour long confessionals where we talked about love and sex and partners and life and fears and hopes. And we’d flirt, and joke around, but it never became a “hey, let’s go grab a drink” or “let’s put a name to a face” – there was never an attempt at conversion, in crossing over to the other side. And we even had these insane talks about sex every once in a while, at two in the morning, where she’d confess that she could have twenty-minute orgasms or I’d talk about how I was certain my english teacher was trying to fuck me. But it was all in this strange phase, where we were more than friends, but never attempting to become more than friends.

I always say I never seriously became a writer until 1993, but there were always fits and spurts where I’d try to knock out a short story, or I’d do something for a class, and I’d want to get serious about it. And I took the freshman writing class that first semester, and read a lot of Vonnegut, and I was an insomniac, so I’d bang out these depressing science fiction stories, and email them to her, and she’d be incredibly interested in them. And I still have some of them, and they really suck, so who knows what she was smoking. But if you want to be a writer and you show someone a story you can’t even show your girlfriend or best friend and they completely swoon over it and ask you questions about it and are genuinely impressed by it, that’s like the biggest thing they could possibly do to push a latent infatuation over the edge.

I eventually met L, ran into her at a computer lab with V, not a big deal, but she was far more beautiful than I expected. It put me in this awkward situation because she confided in me, and we talked almost every day about incredibly intimate things, but that was facilitated by this physical disconnect. Now we knew what we looked like, and I found her absolutely stunning, and I couldn’t really do anything about it. And I would normally email with V about these things, but this was the one person I couldn’t talk to her about. (And I was in a relationship, albeit a bad one. And L had a boyfriend too, although he was a jerk and treated her like shit, of course.)

Anyway, the bus. I went to college mall one night, a Friday night right before the holiday break started, when me the loser had nothing to do but go to the mall and buy Christmas candy. I went out to wait for the bus, which only showed up every half hour or so, and the one person also waiting out there in the dark and cold was L. Even though our few in-person meetings normally consisted of a few dozen words while we sat at computers, we had a long time to talk, waiting for the goddamn bus to show up, and it ended up becoming another one of those long brain dumps, where we both bitched about the problems with our respective partners. I’d had a hellish Thanksgiving with my then-girlfriend, and seriously wanted to break things off with her, but instead I either invited her or got talked into inviting her to spend a week at my mom’s, which I dreaded even more than the prospect of spending the holidays at home. L had some similar turmoil going on, and we talked about that. It was back to our old pattern though, the deep dive through emotions, which felt strange while we were sitting right next to each other, but was just as immersive and familiar as when we used to do it in the middle of the night over the phone.

The bus came, and we got on board, grateful for the warmth, but because of the weird bus route, it had to go out away from the mall and then sit for 15 minutes behind the Kroger grocery while the driver took a break, before it started the loop again and went back to campus. I shared my Christmas candy with her, and we talked more, flirted, but mostly just enjoyed the time sitting next to each other, alone on this giant GMC bus. When you spend that much time in a relationship with someone, even this accelerated, half-friends half-whatever relationship, you develop your own shorthand and inside jokes and trills and forms of improv, and we had so much of that. We could finish each others’ sentences, and had a kind of intimacy that I didn’t have in my “real” relationship. It was like some Meg Ryan movie, like I was the Billy Crystal, like we were the just friends that were so much more, and at the end of Act 3, she’d meet me at the top of the Empire State Building and we’d have the happily ever after.

That never happened, of course. V went to Germany the next year, or maybe it was Austria, and when she came back, that was a lifetime later, five or six iterations of the college friendship cycle. I don’t know when or how I lost touch with L, but I did. This was 1990, and people didn’t check their email over the summer unless they were really wired in, and their parents had computers with modems, which was pretty much nobody.  We could have written letters, or made long-distance phone calls, but we didn’t.  And in college, sometimes you are closer to a person than you have been with anyone in your entire life, and then six months later, they’re yet another stranger among the 40,000 other strangers on that big ten campus, and you’re dumping your heart out to someone completely different.

In the fiction story version of the tale, something would have happened.  Our hands would have touched, met, joined, and we would have known what had to happen next.  Something illicit and unsaid would transpire after that bus ride, a quiet walk back to a dorm room where a roommate was out of town for the weekend, no exchange of words, a torrid exchange of pent-up energy in the darkness. And even if the happily ever after didn’t happen, there would be a long night where our real lives didn’t matter, even if would end with the heartbreak of her going back to her stupid boyfriend and me dealing with the girl I’d end up dumping a few months later.

In reality, I saw L maybe three years later. I was in the back of my favorite record store, and saw her enter. She looked like a junkie, completely different than the innocence mixed with sophistication of what I remembered, beaten by life and dreams unfulfilled. She was in the middle of a fight with some beardo guy, a boyfriend who followed her around like a trained lap dog, apologising profusely for everything and nothing while she spat insults and complained about the imaginary. I didn’t talk to her; I didn’t even want to acknowledge that it was her, for fear it would kill that perfect memory of what we had and didn’t have before.

And that was twenty years ago. All of those emails with V are lost; all of the memories of L are slowly fading from my brain. The record store is gone; its owner dead. I’m here, thousands of miles removed. And I’m writing this crazy book about a bizarre reality that’s a laugh a minute, and exactly what I want to write, but thinking about these distant episodes and revisiting them in my head makes me wonder not only what could have been, but what could end up being another story in another book that I might or might not someday finish.


A Hundred Years From That One Rush Album

I guess I haven’t written in here yet in 2012.  Oops.  I’ve been busy working on getting a new book released, another collection of short stories and flash, and that’s about done.  But it’s been hard to get started on something new, and I really need to.

Part of this is that I’m trying to quit caffeine, and that shit’s a wonder drug for my creative productivity.  I am tapering down, and I’m down to two cokes a day, but I used to drink about two cokes per thousand words, so that’s been a struggle.  I’m probably sleeping more and better, but sleep doesn’t write books.

One thing I forgot about – I used to use my own crappy  set of scripts to run this site, a bunch of cobbled-together duct tape and cardboard that generated the index sidebar out of a bunch of PHP and shell script.  And every year, the whole thing would break, and required me to move all of the files to a new directory and edit a script by hand and regenerate the index and whatever.  And one of two things would happen: either I’d stay up late on the morning of the first and fix everything and post an “okay, this works” message, or I’d procrastinate horribly, and not post anything for days.  Maybe it wasn’t days, but I remember the dread of not having anything to write about, not knowing what to write.  Every New Year’s, I’d have grandiose ideas of how I’d write a story a day or a thousand words per 24 hours, and how that year would be the year I’d write a dozen books and submit a million stories and blah blah blah blah, and sitting staring at that blank page always felt like if I resolved to lose a hundred pounds, and then found myself in line at McDonald’s.

The other big part of 2012 is that it marks the 20-year mark from when the events of Summer Rain happened in real life.  I have very conflicted thoughts about this, and there are two different things going on in my head.

First, it’s been 11 years since that book came out.  I’m slowly moving to using nothing but CreateSpace and Kindle for publishing, and I feel like I should gather up all of my old stuff and push it to there, then unpublish it from iUniverse or lulu.  And I feel like I should get all of this old stuff on the Kindle.  So I loaded SR into Scrivener and started fixing all of the line breaks and indents and whatnot, thinking I’d eventually on some rainy day (no pun intended), I’d get the thing exported into .mobi format.  And of course, this degraded into this pulling-a-loose-thread-on-a-sweater thing of “maybe I need a new cover” and “maybe I need an new intro” and whatnot.  But it also made me stop and read the old writing, and I really don’t like it anymore.  I mean, there are the minor typos and things that could be reworked.  But I am no longer in love with those characters or what I did with the book.  Maybe this will change if I give it another serious read.  But I also did this same process with Rumored to Exist recently, and I really liked it.  It made me wish I could keep writing more stuff like that.  But the idea of revisiting Bloomington in 1992, or the thought of finishing this incomplete book of IU stories from 1989-1995 is somewhat boring to me.

And I just went to Bloomington, a couple of weeks ago.  It was the first time I’d touched foot in 47404 in ten years.  I only had a couple of hours, long enough to eat dinner with Simms and grab a quick drink with Bill, but I cruised around town for a few loops, taking it in.  And I was strangely unenthused.  Maybe I’d shut off that part of my brain, the part that usually swims in nostalgia trips like this, because the whole Indiana experience was so surreal to me.  But I didn’t experience the huge charge I used to get when I returned to town.  I swung past Mitchell Street, and around the fountain, and up and down Jordan, and to the library, but none of it caught me.  It seemed so long ago, so distant – and it was.

No real moral of the story here – I know what I’ve been writing best for the last couple of years is not the rehashing of this old college stuff, and that’s fine.  I’m still struggling with what exactly I call the stuff I do now, and how to sell it or tell people about it is the big question, but it’s slowly happening.

In other news, I bought a rowing machine the other day.  Not sure why.


The gaps of summer

I find myself thinking about Summer Rain a lot lately, which is ultimately dangerous, I think.  Next year will be 20 years since the Bloomington summer I fictionalized, and ten years since I actually last set foot in the college town.  I think about the book because it’s a default way of writing for me, fictionalizing my past, and I often wonder if I should write another similar book talking about the other pockets of time in Indiana, or Seattle, or whatever.  I actually wrote a good chunk of a novel that fictionalized the end of my high school experience, and the battle to get the hell out of my small town in Indiana, back in the late 80s.  It’s about 50,000 words, but ultimately plotless and would be difficult to spin into anything useful.

I pulled the original Summer Rain manuscript into Scrivener, with thoughts about cleaning it up and doing an ebook version, but it was absolutely painful for me to look at some of that old writing.  It screams “first book” and makes me want to dive into it and rewrite everything, which is the danger.  That’s a huge rabbit hole to fall into, and one without much reward.  I’ve often thought about going back to rewrite the whole thing from scratch, or maybe come back and rewrite it as a book told by a person twice as old as the original character, returning to the town he lived in half a life ago and comparing the pieces of that past with what really happened in his life.  The John Knowles book A Separate Peace was an unlikely inspiration for me, and he frames his book in a similar way.

One of the things that I ponder sometimes is all of the stuff I left out of the book.  There were a few story lines and characters that ultimately did not add anything to the book and were left out, and there are bits of that summer that I later recall that simply didn’t relate to the rest of it and never made the manuscript.  Sometimes I’ll see something that reminds me of the era, and I’ll then remember it never made the book, and is just a lost, unassimilated memory that I should probably catalog and use elsewhere.

One of those memories involves driving in a tornado.  I was at the College Mall, before a shift at the radio station, wandering the concourses and hallways with no real purpose except to kill a few hours until I went on the air.  It started pouring rain, which was no big surprise – one of the central themes of the original short story which morphed into the book was how it rained every single time I had a radio show, and I’d spend those lazy summer nights in this shithole college radio station, listening to death metal and watching the rain fall on the downtown in the darkness.  But while I was at the mall, the sirens went off, those air raid sirens that typically denote the start of a nuclear war or godzilla attack.  Someone came on the PA and said everyone had to go to the mall basement because a tornado had been spotted.  This amazed me, because I did not know the mall had a PA system or a basement.

As everyone shuffled into the basement of this mall, I thought for some stupid reason that it was my duty to get to the station and broadcast news about the tornado.  Never mind that nobody listened to the station, and I didn’t have a ticker tape or news feed or national weather service thingee to give me any data other than what I could see outside my window; I felt some need to get to the station, as opposed to being trapped in a basement with a bunch of strangers.  So I ran out to the parking lot, and drove.  And I got to the station, there was no news, no destruction, end of story.  But the experience of driving in this near-tornado weather was surreal, the darkness and the quiet of the two pressure fronts, punctuated with the sounds of rain dropping like pellets of stone onto my windshield, the low howl of the wind, and the feeling that my little toy car would go airborne at any given time.  It wasn’t enough of a story to become an actual story, but when I see a tornado on the news, that’s what entered my head.

There was also this entire subplot that I couldn’t get into words about this girl that I tutored who I had a horrible crush on, and who it turns out had a horrible crush on me, and of course nothing became of it, except I spent a summer trying to explain Motorola assembly code to someone who probably should have changed majors.  She also had this absolutely gorgeous roommate, who I never talked to, and then one night had an hour-long spontaneous conversation with her and found out she was a manic-depressive and we shared the same psychiatrist.  And she had broken up with her boyfriend the day before, and was going to Europe the next week, and it was one of those things where I thought if everything was different, I would have had a shot with her.

Years later the tutor-ee converted to the Baha’i faith, and convinced me to come to a meeting with her.  I had little interest in converting to a new religion, but still had some kind of feelings for her, and agreed.  And I found the Baha’i religion fascinating, how they believe that all religions are essentially true, and believe in all of god’s messengers.  All of the people were friendly, and there was no heavy dogma or evangelical angle.  But there was still the whole belief in a god thing, which I couldn’t do.  Also, no premarital sex was a deal-breaker.

There’s something psychologically stopping me from writing about these things, and I don’t know how to quantify it, other than to say I don’t care about it anymore.  Bloomington seems so distant, and the present seems so dull, so I feel a need to write about something completely synthesized.  There are a lot of things like that, things that I no longer give a shit about that were once almost religious battles for me.  The Coke versus Pepsi sort of battles in life are things I just honestly do not care about anymore.  That’s not a problem in the sense that I don’t throw a fit when I go to a restaurant and they don’t have my brand of fizzy water.  But does it cause a problem in that all writing needs to be, in some way, about unresolved conflict?


The Busses of Perception

When I first visited New York in 1998, one of the things that struck me, an odd connection to the past, were the city busses.  I don’t even remember if I rode on one – I never really figured out the schedule, and it was usually easier to walk to a subway stop – but they looked exactly like the same busses we had in Bloomington when I went to school there.  It freaked me out at the time, because I couldn’t think of two more disparate worlds than the late-eighties IU campus, this few hundred acres of green grass and the occasional limestone castle of a classroom building, and the concrete jungle of Manhattan in the late nineties.

Both IU and the MTA had these busses, built by GMC, which upon further research were called the GMC Rapid Transit Series II. The RTS looked like a giant pack of gum, a squarish tube with a flat front end and a slightly futuristic look, in the same way a Disney monorail looks futuristic.  I grew up as a captive in those standard Blue Bird school busses, the kind that could be from 1997 or 1947, with the little square windows you could use to watch the suburbs scroll by on your way to and from your classroom of doom.  But the RTS had these giant rectangular tinted windows, and inside, almost every vertical surface was transparent to the outside.  Both IU and NYC’s busses were mostly white, with a small bit of accent color on them, a crimson stripe or an MTA blue bar, respectively.  I always remember that the difference reminded me of George Lucas’s treatment of the R2 droids in Star Wars; they were mostly white and chrome, but those little blue accent panels on the R2-D2 got swapped out for orange ones so it could look like a different droid.

I only really rode IU’s bus during the fall semester.  They ran a couple of bus lines, denoted by letter (and color) almost like the New York subway system, with the A bus making a loop around campus, and the C and E continuing out toward the campus mall.  When I first arrived in Bloomington, I was convinced it would take me hours to traverse the campus, and bought a bus pass.  They had two options: a full-time pass, which cost a few hundred dollars, and a night/weekend plan that cost something like $53, which is what I chose.  Two years of driving everywhere in rural Indiana reinforced the belief that you had to have a car to live in the Hoosier state, and I feared that first time I’d need to get to the mall to buy something important and I’d have to ride my rusted ten-speed the grueling 1.2 mile distance.  By the time I moved off-campus in 1991, I’d walk absolutely anywhere, in any weather, provided I had enough juice in my walkman to power a tape for the whole journey.

I have very distinct memories of riding that loop around campus.  There were these rubber pneumatic strips on the vertical pillars, and you pushed them to ding a bell and alert the driver you needed to exit at the next stop.  I’d look up at the glossy white ceiling and gaze at the emergency exit hatch worthy of a space capsule, wondering what kind of catastrophic failure would require egress if the bus never really got above ten miles an hour.  I’d sit in on the molded plastic seats, and I’d watch the green campus crawl by.  And I remember many a long wait at the mall, sitting at the corner in front of the Sears, waiting for one of the big white rectangles to cruise down the road and stop with a pneumatic hiss and open its doors for our return to campus.

The campus bus was also this connection back to my first visit alone to Bloomington.  I remember having a very different perception of the campus, before I started classes, before I really settled in.  I think it was my view of the institution of college in general, as seen from the eyes of a high schooler.  I didn’t spend decades planning on attending IU – I didn’t have any family members or friends who went there, and I thought I’d end up at Ball State, until maybe the January of my senior year, when I changed my focus.  I did that parent weekend visit, where you show up with your folks and the school tells you how great it is and how you should really give them your money (red carpet days?) and it all looked so hallowed and distant to me.  All of the students there looked a decade older, even though most of them were mere months ahead of me.  My perception of college life was formed by 80s movies like Breaking Away or Revenge of the Nerds, and I thought everyone was a rich jock or a supermodel-to-be, and it was all very intimidating to me.

But aside from the people, I had this perception of the campus as this hundreds-of-years-old institution, with the ivy-covered buildings and towering library and these bars and hangouts like Garcia’s Pizza and Nick’s and Kilroy’s.  And part of this perception was that the campus was immense.  When I visited that summer before my first semester, I drove down from Elkhart and stayed at Foster quad, which is on the north side of campus.  And they had some special shuttle bus set up to haul everyone from Foster down to the old crescent of campus, to Franklin Hall to meet with advisors and take placement tests and register for classes and do other things involving many scantron forms and number two pencils.  And I remember taking one of these RTS busses for the slow crawl around the campus, down Jordan and across the long stretch of Third Street filled with greek houses and old buildings, and then around the corner by the Law School and up Indiana to the division between the old original campus and the downtown.

I walked past all of these little stores, like the White Rabbit place where you got rugs and posters for your dorm room, and Discount Den, where they sold used CDs and everything imaginable with an IU logo on it.  That stroll around the Kirkwood Avenue buildings, eventually culminating with a lunch at Garcia’s Pizza, is where my perception started to change, from the campus being this distant Hollywood-formed entity to being my home for the next half-decade.  I didn’t know this change in perception had started, but that first glimpse of my new life is what I always remembered every time I got on one of those busses.

And then, a decade later, I’m in the same exact bus, with a different color stripe.  Except instead of being the A bus lumbering past the Arboretum and toward a giant limestone library, it was the M60 going from Harlem, across the Triborough bridge and into Queens.  Even though the lush green lawns got replaced with block after block of graffiti-covered buildings climbing into the sky, I still remembered that July day in 1989 when one era ended and another one began.


Thoughts on a random picture: The Student Building

I went back to storage the other day and dug out two books of prints, most of which were unscanned.  There’s still at least one box of prints somewhere in there that I didn’t find, and I have no time to scan more of them, but here’s an interesting one I found.

This is the Student Building on the IU Bloomington campus.  I can easily date this as the summer of 1991, although that’s perplexing because I didn’t live in Bloomington that summer, and I didn’t own a camera then.  That means I must have been in town visiting the person Ray refers to as “the za chick” (long story) and I must have been using her camera.

The Student Building was a total shithole when I was a freshman.  I remember going there for a meeting with some alcohol counseling group.  I was a militant non-drinker as a freshman, which I now realize was stupid, and I probably just should have drank everything offered to me, if only to take the edge off of the unfurling mania that kept me awake for weeks at a time.  But I had some vague interest in finding out about this group that sponsored all of these non-drinking dances and whatnot, and I met with them once and then probably got bored of the whole thing and shifted obsessions to learning all of the bass lines from the first four Black Sabbath albums or whatever.

Anyway, the meeting was in the basement of the Student Building, and at that point in 1989, the place was practically on the verge of collapse, and looked like an East German department store in the mid-70s.  There were flickering fluorescent lights, dark passages, plywood over walls, wires hanging from ceilings, and cracking plaster everywhere.  I don’t remember thinking anything about whether or not the place should be restored or preserved; I’m sure I just thought “man all of these buildings are old… hey, there’s a new Steve Vai album I have to memorize….”

The renovations were underway on the 1905 building in late 1990 when there was an electrical fire that December and the place burned down.  I often say “electrical fire” because it was a strange coincidence that the iconic clocktower building was shut down and emptied and just happened to burn, probably collecting a huge insurance check and an even bigger inflow of contributions from alumni.  Even more amazing is the fact that it takes roughly 8 years to fix a pothole in Bloomington, but they had this thing from gutted and charred shell to completed construction in roughly nine months.

That summer, I lived in Elkhart, but started dating the aforementioned girl over the Memorial Day weekend (20 years ago – jesus christ) and I came down to visit pretty much every weekend I could.  I’d just bought this VW Rabbit diesel, which got something like 50 miles per gallon, and diesel was a dime a gallon cheaper than regular gas, so I could make the 500-mile round trip on ten bucks of gas.  I worked at this copper and brass pipe fitting factory on second shift, and would rush home at midnight on Friday, take a quick shower, then drive into the darkness, cutting across the state on US 31, pulling into Bloomington just as the sun rose.  I missed the Bloomington campus so much during my year of exile up north, and deeply cherished the brief 48-hour visits to see the old limestone buildings again.

By the time I returned to Bloomington in 1991, the Student Building was complete.  Most of the building belonged to the Anthropology department, but UCS outfitted most of the second floor with the latest computer toys, and I spent some time there when I couldn’t get a spot in the IMU or Lindley.  I didn’t work there much as a consultant (most of my shifts were in the Library the fall semester, and all of them were in the IMU that spring) but some of my friends like Bill did.  I always dug the interiors of that building: high ceilings, those giant curved windows, and massive wood trim everywhere.  They mixed that 1905 elegance with 1991 high-tech, with a whole room of NeXT workstations and color printers and flatbed scanners and dual-monitor Macs.

I remember spending a lot of time playing with this brand new program that just came out the year before, called Adobe Photoshop.  The 1.0 version was pretty rough, but let you take GIF images and alter them, changing colors and editing details and doing stuff that people used to do with razor blades and paint.  Today, every single picture we see online is photoshopped, but in 1991, this was still the stuff of science fiction.  Terminator 2 had just come out in theaters, and the idea of CGI and digital effects was brand spanking new, but here I was in the middle of Indiana, surrounded by machines that could do the same damn thing, free for me to use (provided some dork wasn’t parked there using a $10,o00 computer to chat on the VAXPhone to the person two rooms away.)

I spent a lot more time in the Student Building in the 1992-1993 school year.  I briefly had a second job with the UCS education department, helping teach the JumpStart classes, which were these free “WordPerfect in 60 minutes” sort of things.  They also taught these longer seminars on a fee basis to other departments, so if you needed all of your office workers in Parking Enforcement to learn DBase, you paid a few hundred bucks and sent everyone off to a three-hour class.  A lot of these were taught in the Student Building, probably because it was easier to reserve a block of computers for a half day.  I never taught these classes, but was always the assistant, meaning when someone fell behind during a lecture, I’d run up and guide them through the lesson.  I also did all of the pre-class stuff, like going around and wiping out and restarting Quattro Pro on 38 machines, or setting up template files from a server.  It wasn’t exactly my calling, but I was desperate for hours, and that gave me shifts.

The Student Building gradually lost that New Building Smell, and those cutting-edge NeXT machines quickly became boat anchors and eventually got replaced with a cluster of SGI workstations.  (“Wow!  These are the same computers they used to make Jurassic Park!”)  But that building, and all of the postcard-picture scenery in the old crescent of campus, always reminded me of that idealistic summer of 1991, when I so desperately wanted to be back, and the fall of 1991, when I finally made it.