You Can Never Go Back

I am home.  My last ten days: Oakland to Chicago to South Bend to North Liberty to South Bend to New Buffalo to South Bend to North Liberty to Elkhart to South Bend to Indianapolis to Bloomington to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Elkhart to South Bend to Milwaukee to Chicago to Oakland.  I did all of this except the Oakland-Chicago flight in a bright mustard yellow Ford Fiesta, fighting with Ford Sync to try and get the voice control to play songs on my phone, most of it in the rain.  But the driving and the subcompact and the junky Ford transmission were the least of my worries.  My big problem was the ghosts.

I don’t go home much anymore.  I don’t even know where ‘home’ is; I’ve spent more time out of Indiana than I lived there.  Home is probably where the mortgage is, and Elkhart is nothing but a distant memory.  And when I go there, that’s what always gets me: the nostalgia, the distant memories of the time I spent in that little town, when it was my entire world, and the coasts and cities and states outside of the 46516 were nothing but fictional entities on a TV screen.

This trip was particularly hard, for some reason.  I’ve been trying to foster stronger friendships with old friends and family, because I feel like my life’s been on autopilot, and if I don’t put in the effort to see people, it’s suddenly twenty years later and they are all strangers to me.  But when I went back, it seemed like everyone was in some kind of crisis or despair. Everyone’s getting older; everything’s falling apart.  People are unemployed and underemployed and oversubscribed and overextended.  Nobody’s happy.  Everyone’s unable to move, and tells me I’m lucky I escaped.  And I did escape; I do have a job.  I’m mostly healthy, I’ve got a house and a wife and two cars in the garage and food in the fridge and cash in the bank.  But that doesn’t make me happy.  I’ve struggled a lot in the last year or two with what I should be doing, the big picture stuff, and I haven’t always been happy with the results.  So it makes me uncomfortable when others look to me as a person who’s “made it”, and I have no business telling them what they need to do to get out of their own rut.

When I do return to Indiana, I find it amazing that I drive places without even thinking about directions or maps or GPSes.  I think about going somewhere, a mall or store, and find myself driving there on autopilot.  I drove a lot of my old routes: the IUSB to Elkhart path I took every day for year; the River Manor to Concord Mall trip I drove a million times in the 80s and 90s; the south-bound US-31 jump across the middle of the state to Indianapolis to Bloomington I drove every holiday I came back from school.  As a whole, the state’s in sad shape.  So many businesses are closed, homes foreclosed, factories shut down, strip malls empty, old malls bulldozed.  Roads are potholed and unkempt.  Of course, every other abandoned movie theater or grocery store has become some kind of evangelical church, and those continue to thrive.  But I felt such an overwhelming sadness driving those same old routes and seeing total devastation.

I went to my old hangout, the Concord Mall, to see how it was doing.  I spent my childhood going to this four-spoked shopping center, walking the concourses and buying toys and records and books.  I later worked there, at Montgomery Ward, mixing paint and selling lawn mowers and Christmas trees.  Concord Mall has been utterly decimated.  I went a couple of days before Christmas, and I’ve seen more people in the mall back in the Eighties two hours before opening.  My old Wards store died ten years ago, and has been split into pieces, now a hobby shop for scrapbookers and packrats, a discount appliance store, and a family dentist.  Most of the stores are now gone; the Osco drug where I used to spend hours at the newsstand reading magazines got turned into a food court; every single stall is currently shuttered except for a Subway.  The Walden books where I got every book that influenced my writing as a teen is now a bizarro used book store with old, beaten religion books.  The MCL cafeteria Ray dragged me to almost every week is boarded shut.  Both record stores are gone.  The only surviving store was the GNC where my first girlfriend worked.  I think it does brisk business in energy drinks and herbal stimulants for the few remaining factory workers.

I went to my old house in River Manor, which was absolutely heartbreaking.  It was foreclosed upon a couple of months ago, and was devastated.  The big TV antenna tower was bent at a 30 degree angle and falling over, and the roof was covered with a blue tarp, probably with some kind of wind or storm damage.  Several of the windows were broken and boarded over; the screen door was ripped off of the front, and the patio door in the back was broken and boarded shut.  The grass died; trees were missing or dead and the landscaping was entirely fucked.  Doors and windows were secured with impromptu padlocks and riddled with legal postings from sheriffs and maintenance services.  I looked in the windows, while trying to remember any of my old teenaged egress methods that could have been used to gain entry, and the inside was filled with garbage, old boxes and trash, and storm damage.

I have no love for Elkhart, and absolutely no desire to return.  But part of me wished some REO website had the house listed for ten grand, just so I could either restore it (which would probably cost more than the hundred grand it’s “worth”) or bulldoze it and put it out of its misery.  I walked the perimeter and thought of a million memories, all of the hot summer afternoons I paced every step of the lawn with a mower; all of the times me and my sisters set up our kiddie pool or played with the dog or built snow forts in the winter.  I thought about the year I returned in college and lived in the basement, stuck between a life of return and escape.  I went to all of the places in the yard where we buried childhood pets, under trees that were no longer there.  I spent a decade and a half calling this white tri-level home, and now it looked like one of the abandoned buildings outside of Chernobyl.  The entire visit completely gutted me.

One of the mixed positives about the trip was going to University Park Mall.  We first went on a Sunday night, at about 9:00, and the place was absolutely packed.  The mall looks like it has doubled in size, not even including all of the outlying big box stores that appeared on the perimeter.  I walked the concourse, and examined all of the stores, which have been replaced with more upscale items.  The place even has an Apple store now, which amazed me.  When I was a teenager and first got a license, I made the pilgrimage to this mall whenever I could, going with Tom Sample just to dig through the import records at Camelot and maybe see girls that didn’t go to our high school.  Almost every single store has changed, but the hallways are still the same, and I took a few laps, just looking for any reminder of my past, something that hadn’t changed.

I thought a lot about what would have happened if I never left Indiana, if I graduated from IUSB and got some middle management job at a bank or insurance company and stayed behind.  I think I would have descended into this world of retail therapy, buying a house with a giant basement and buying every Star Wars collector item I could find at the mall.  It seems like everyone in Indiana retreats into this kind of womb of consumerism, filling a house with big screens and bigger collections of media or whatever else.  The whole time I was in town, I wanted to buy something, and didn’t know what.  I felt this low-level depression, and my first response was either to eat something, or go to Best Buy and get something rack-mounted with lots of watts and inputs that would make me think of something other than life.

I’m home now.  I feel like throwing out everything I own, keeping the computer and maybe a dozen books.  It is so good to sleep in my own bed and use my own shower.  But I still feel strange and bad and conflicted with the trip, and I don’t know how to reconcile that.

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Extreme Hoarding

Yesterday I caught about an episode and a half of this show Extreme Couponing and felt maybe 10% intrigue and 90% anxiety and terror.  If you haven’t seen the show, the basic rundown: they follow maybe two families a show, with some alpha-mom type that has giant binders filled with coupons that makes an attack run on a big grocery store, filling multiple carts with whatever items are on sale, and strategically using coupon-doubling days along with store loyalty programs, store coupons, manufacturer rebates, and whatever else is needed to drive the cost of a thousand dollars of items to something like twenty dollars.

Each episode also does a profile on the family, and they always have a house that is filled entirely with stockpiles of canned goods, every closet and spare room containing stacks and stacks of cereal boxes and paper towels.  They always show the couponer with piles of newspaper circulars, clipping away and stuffing things in whatever anal-retentive organizational solution the person uses for keeping straight what packaged goods are on sale that week.  At the store, they bark orders at the poor cashier, intermixed with reaction shots of other Kroger customers amazed at this woman buying 150 bottles of Excedrin because the five dollars off the four dollar item offsets the cost of the twenty pounds of cheese and 38 packs of hot dogs in carts four and five.

There is some intrigue in this.  I remember way back when I first got to Seattle in 1995, and I used to try to shop for as little as possible.  I’d been lowballed a bit on my salary at my first job, and I got stuck with a huge car payment and even more on insurance, and I was living in an expensive city (or more expensive than Indiana, anyway) and living alone.  I dig back through my old journals and see entries where it was 10 days until payday and I had $7 and a full tank of gas to last me until then.  And I didn’t know how to cook and didn’t know how to budget or shop or any of that.  So I’d get the Safeway circular in the mail – this was long before the explosion of loyalty cards – and I’d only buy the things in the little newsprint booklet, only get the items with coupons or deals.  And there was nothing more exhilarating than getting ten bags of groceries for something like $40.  Of course this was countered with the realization that I’d have to eat rice-a-roni for my next ten meals.

I still try to exploit these deals as much as I can, without going overboard.  I mean, I use my Amazon Visa card to buy damn near anything I can find, just to get the points.  And I only buy Coke when either Target or Safeway has the big sale on it, and then I buy ten cases at a time.  But I don’t have one of those plastic accordion files that’s sorted and color-coded and organized by aisle and expiration date.  I don’t even know where to get paper coupons now – do they still print newspapers?  I think I remember looking at one about ten years ago.

So this show is obviously fake.  I did a quick search, and all of the people on the various coupon sites call bullshit on the whole production.  Stores are tightening the reins on these double coupon days, and many of the offers have transaction limits or limits per customer that would prevent you of clearing out the entire Albertson’s of shake-and-bake in one swoop.  They show some of that on the show, with the people dividing up the purchases into different transactions, dragging along friends and spouses to ring up items in batches.  They showed this one lady breaking up her purchase into 18 different transactions, taking up about an hour of this cashier’s time.  I don’t know what bizarro world this person lived in, but in any of the places I’ve lived, that shit would get you a beat down.  No cashier is going to let you break up your 244 boxes of Uncle Ben’s into however many under-$50 purchases you need to fly under the radar without pulling out a blackjack and beating you in the head until you leave and pay full price for everything from now on.  And if a cashier doesn’t do it, I’m sure the person behind you will.  (And every fucking time I go to Safeway, I swear this person is in front of me.)

And I’m sure they also pick the families that have the biggest crazy-factor to them, the ones that will make the best reality TV.  God forbid they find some quiet, slightly Asberger’s introvert who has no goofy soundbites and won’t lose their shit when they find out the manufacturer’s coupon is limit-5.  They’re going to go with the loud, obnoxious woman who loses her shit in the freezer aisle when she finds out the Pack-and-Save doesn’t keep twelve dozen boxes of Gorton’s fish sticks in stock at all times.

Another thing not addressed is that many of the people spent all day, 30 or 40 hours a week, clipping coupons and strategizing these mass purchases.  And then they spend three or four hours at the store, and maybe another couple of hours packing the stuff away.  I don’t know how much your time is worth, but if someone told me I could spend an entire work week getting paper cuts and newsprint dust-induced asthma and the payoff would be a savings of a few hundred bucks, I’d pass.

Also consider storage costs; you’ve got some 2000-ish square foot house in the Midwest, and let’s say you are paying a grand a month in mortgage.  Turning a third of your house into a Costco is going to effectively cost you $300 a month in lost square footage.  Yes, you can whittle that down by calculating the tax savings on a mortgage, and you pay off the house in 30 years, blah blah blah.  But the cost of turning your spare bedroom into the back room of a Wal-Mart is not free.  And that goes for any of this hoarding shit – there’s a cost, either financial or psychological, to playing the “die with the most toys” game.  That line from Fight Club about your stuff owning you is true.

And there’s the health risk issue.  Feeding your family high-fat cold cuts and having a million calories of potato chips on a rack in your living room has to be unhealthy from a BMI standpoint.  Maybe half of the people on the show are of the rotund midwestern category, and given that fresh vegetables don’t have manufacturer’s coupons or mail-in rebates, I’m guessing these people are eating nothing but pure sodium and nitrites in the form of packaged and processed meals.  In one of the episodes I saw, this woman was filling her cart with cases of Maalox bottles, and I was thinking, “you probably wouldn’t need to take that much antacid if you ate something other than stockpiled Frito-Lay products for five meals a day.”

One of the things that disturbs me the most is that most of these families are religious, some extreme form of right-wing christianity.  They don’t advertise this in the most blatant of terms, but it’s something you can pick up quickly.  When a blonde-haired  family of ten from Idaho shows up and the soccer mom uses “oh my gosh” all the time, my Mormon indicator is flashing bright red.  There is this weird intersection between the highly evangelical and the “I’m going to get mine” crowd that seems more than just causal, and probably wasn’t what the authors of the New Testament had in mind when they laid down that whole meek inheriting the earth thing.  Jesus didn’t do the whole fishes and loaves thing to bring it all back to his house and fill the shelves in his basement for himself.

I’d absolutely love it if one of the people on the show filled their minivan with five thousand dollars worth of stuff, drove over to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and said “merry christmas” and left everything.  Instead, we get “I’ve got three years’ worth of Dinty Moore stored under my toddler’s bed!”  Ugh.

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Surge, Vault

One of the 200-some odd reasons my writing throughput and/or quality has dropped considerably in recent years (and I’m talking reasons in my head, not real, quantifiable reasons) is that Coca-Cola stopped bottling Surge soda. For those of you who don’t remember or never experienced it, Surge is/was a citrus soda that originally was called Urge in Norway, and was bottled there to compete with Mountain Dew. (Some Coke bottlers compete with Mountain Dew with Mello Yello, which is available in some markets, but not others.) Anyway, Seattle was a test market for Surge when it showed up in 1997, and once I tried it, I was hooked. Surge basically reminded me of a carbonated version of the Hi-C Ekto-cooler drink. It was more lime than lemon, with an unnatural bright green color, carbonation, and caffeine. It had a very unique taste, and wasn’t anything like its nearest competitor, Mountain Dew. I really liked it.

This was right after the time I quit caffeine entirely, but was going back on it again. I wouldn’t drink any Coke or anything else all day, except maybe the occasional Sprite. But on the weekends, when I was busy slamming away at the text for Rumored to Exist, I would go to Safeway, buy a 2-liter of Surge, and put it in the fridge, as my fuel for the next few days. I drank a lot of the stuff as I worked on the text, and I absolutely loved it.

Of course, when I moved to New York, I couldn’t find the shit anywhere. You already know the rant about how New York grocery stores don’t stock anything of variety, so I won’t repeat it. But I could not find Surge anywhere. Sometimes on a vacation, I’d get a taste. And I think the girl I dated in Cornell back in 2000 found a few bottles at a gas station upstate somewhere once. But after that, it was gone. And that pissed me off, because writers can get really locked into habits or triggers that can set off the hard-to-channel zone of writing. Some people have strange rituals. I used to start writing at the same time every night; others need a certain chair or pillow or snack or drink. Some need certain music; others require quiet. And for whatever reason, I got myself into a situation where I needed a certain type of sugar-water that a corporation test-marketed and then decided not to make anymore.

Well, good news, maybe. Coke has decided to come out with a new drink called Vault. There were a few ads during the superbowl, and they hinted at nationwide distribution in February. Now, I interpreted that as “distribution in every place with real grocery stores that aren’t run by the mafia, so fuck you New York”, and also wondered if the stuff really tasted like Surge, and if I’d get a chance to try it the next time that I went on vacation to a place with real grocery stores. But today, when we were at K-Mart, Sarah found that they actually had the stuff! I bought a couple of 20-ounce bottles, and gave it a try. It’s similar to Surge, although maybe a little more tart, and without as distinct of a green color as the original. The bottle looks different, of course, and you’d be amazed at how much different something appears to taste when it’s in a different bottle. But it’s pretty close. I like it.

I don’t know if I’ll be stocking our fridge with the stuff or not. My writing schedule and situation have been pretty off lately, and I don’t know if the magic elixer will suddenly have me pouring out words or not. I am in that process of thinking about what I will do before I start doing anything, and that’s frustrating and takes time. But it’s getting there.

Okay, I have to figure out a movie and a dinner and make them hobbling distance from each other so it will work out okay…

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