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 an Asian 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.  The best gambling advice I can give you is not to count cards or look at what your neighbors are playing, but to be a homosexual, or at least find an ugly dealer, which you won’t on a Friday or Saturday night.  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!

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I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at widget.com/dontlookhere/dl/product.zip so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.

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Movie Review: Little Fockers

(NOTE: This review contains spoilers!)

Little Fockers is the latest chapter of the Meet the Parents torture-porn franchise, and is by far, the most interesting, especially if you follow the BSDM-inspired pedophilia themes as much as most fans of director Paul Weitz’s earlier works.  It’s no secret that for years, Weitz has relished in injecting mainstream comedies (such as American Pie) with pro-fascist themes disguised as masturbation jokes.  (There is an uncut extra from the original film where the Jason Biggs character performs sexual acts on a freshly-baked pie for 24 minutes, carefully choreographed to mimic the scene of Rudolf Hess announcing the start of the Reich Party Congress, from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.  The distorted-perspective shots alternate between close-ups of Biggs’ contorted face with telephoto shots of the Reichsarbeitsdienst in such a way that made the theme of supreme visualization of the Third Reich too obvious for teen flick audiences.)  When asked about this, in a 2002 press junket interview for the About a Boy film, Weitz responded by saying “I appreciated Ridley Scott’s bow to proto-fascism in Gladiator, but decided to appeal to the right-wing elements of the studio’s focus group mentality with a more concerted anti-gypsy approach, and less obvious homo-eroticism than simply having a 20-minute Russell Crowe/Joaquin Phoenix analingus scene.”  (Weitz was referring to a scene in a workprint version of the 2000 Scott film, which was shown to European audiences but eventually cut to achieve an MPAA R rating in the US.)

The film starts with Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) and his wife Pam, who now have five-year-old twins.  Gaylord has sunk into a depressive methamphetamine habit, a side effect of his years in the medical field, while Pam (reprised by Teri Polo) has resorted to stripping at a truck stop bump-and-grind club in rural Idaho in order to pay for his habit.  Early in the film, the children are abducted  by a crazed polygamist group, which is led by a former Mormon played by Bruce Dern.  Strangely enough, after this happens, a scant nine minutes into this two hour and 44 minute film, we do not see the children again, and their whereabouts are completely unexplained.  This is obviously confusing, as the trailers for the movie show numerous antics with the little twins throwing food, peeing on things, and tripping adults.  When I asked producer Jay Roach about this decision in an email, he replied “fuck all of those baby-crazy flyover state motherfuckers!  I really do not give a god damn about all of those Oprah-watching dumpy housewife pieces of living shit!  Every focus group I go to, it’s all ‘BABY BABY BABY BABY’ and I will be god damned if I bankroll a movie where we worship toddlers like they are nobel fucking prize winning scientists splitting atoms with a god damned supercollider!”

Robert De Niro’s character, former CIA agent Jack Byrnes, begins the film by being outed by a wikileaks-like web site (called “MyFaceLeak”, in an obvious “let’s change the name at the last second so we don’t get sued”, much like how in the 1996 action flick Eraser, the film was shot with the maker of the secret terrorist electro-magnetic pulse enema killing machine being Intel, because the director was not aware there was an actual company named Intel, requiring millions of dollars of dialogue relooping and digital logo editing to avoid litigation.)  De Niro is in a Thai forced labor camp, awaiting extradition to The Hague for war crimes; we find he was involved in a covert CIA campaign to aid the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party in the “white terror” systematic assassination campaign against members and sympathizers of the Dergue military junta.  There is a touching scene in which Panya, De Niro’s homosexual lover in the prison, asks him about his past, and De Niro goes into a weepy, 27-minute soliloquy describing the torment and sexual pleasure in killing and dismembering over 20,000 political activists in the mid-70s in the famine-stricken country.  “We used to, we used to fuckin’, fuckin’ – we used to fuck the bodies of them commie eggplants,” he said, “and then we used to leave the corpses hung from trees in the town square and beat the families who tried to mourn those fuckin’ fuckers.  It was fuckin’ beautiful.  You lookin’ at me?”

The film drifts into serious art-school pretentiousness by the second hour, in which the chariot race from Ben Hur is parodied and filmed with the entire cast of the Little People Big World TV show being pulled by small breed dogs around a makeshift track in a 1970s Times Square, filled with heroin addicts, pornographers, and transsexual prostitutes.  At the end of the race, when Jesus would appear, Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, again playing Gaylord’s parents, reveal that they have been taking large amounts of DMT and mescaline, and systematically kill, butcher, and then eat the corpses of all of the dogs and little people.  I’m not sure if this is some allegory for the Catholic church, or a criticism of it, but the entire fifteen-minute butchery/cannibalism scene is a musical number, with Streisand and Hoffman singing a Christmas-themed number called “It’s a dwarf-snuff, dog-eating, roman orgy winter wonderland.”  (You’ve probably heard the song in heavy rotation on FM radio and VH1 by the time this review is printed.)

By Act III, Gaylord has left on a sex tourist visit to Thailand, where he runs into the De Niro character at a brothel.  The two initially argue over the amount to tip an Asian boy for his virginity, and then a buddy-montage ensues, set to a remix of various American Negro spiritual songs as performed by T-Pain and Bristol Palin.  Shortly after this, Jack realizes the error of his ways, phones his one remaining friend in the CIA (a cameo appearance by Christopher Walken) and calls in an airstrike on the brothel’s coordinates.  The film suddenly cuts to black, and the ending credits roll over aerial footage of the jungle village being destroyed by napalm-dropping B-52 airstrikes and passes by AC-130 gunships.  Don’t forget to stay for the end of the credits, where they show the blooper reel, the highlight being 96 takes of Stiller trying to say “I didn’t start shooting meth into my balls to put up with this shit!” and bursting into laughter each time.

This film is obviously the big family hit for the holiday season, and I would heartily recommend it.  Four stars.

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When I am not posting here I am conducting Real Business

This TV is Real Business

If I don’t post here for a few days, it isn’t because I am a lazy fuck that it still playing Call of Duty five hours a day.  It’s because I don’t like you.  YOU.  Not them, but YOU. It could be because you sent me a capital-C Christmas card that mentions Jesus, and the only Jesus in my life is the guy who works for Carlos and cleans my house every two weeks.  It could be because Farmville does not give me an option to come to your farm and spray it with kerosene and burn it to the ground like I’m Sherman with a hard-on, pushing for the coast.  It could be because I care about seeing the pictures of your kids as much as you care about seeing the pictures of my bowel movements I reply back with.  Or it could be because when I’m not posting here, I’m working on Real Business.  The three iPads I mounted to the dashboard of my Toyota Yaris do not pay for themselves.

I flew to Ontario earlier this week to meet with esteemed producer Uwe Boll, who I am hoping will executive-produce my next reality TV idea.  It is called Grave Robbers – three teams of people will fly to different cities and have a timed period to dig up and pilfer as many graves as possible.  There is a whole science to grave robbing, and during the start of each episode, the teams will case the place, looking for old money versus recent graves, trying to make correlations between types of names and monument sizes and complexities to determine who was buried with the most valuable jewelry.  They won’t all be looking for just pawnable gold and diamonds, either; in the pilot episode I filmed (well, videotaped on Digital8 with a handycam – I want to shoot the whole thing in 70mm color reversal, and I am reaching out to Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Thin Red Line, Tropic Thunder) to DP it) I had three teams of three going through the graves at Holy Cross cemetery up in Colma.  One of the genius teams, a bunch of gang-bangers from some shithole Compton housing project, started looking for antebellum-era vintage jewelry, and spent 45 minutes trying to crack open the vault of Manson murder victim Abigail Folger before being disqualified on a technicality (they used an illegal air chisel).  The real winner was this team of former Stanford archaeology students who immediately sprinted to Joe DiMaggio’s grave, cracked open the tomb in record time, and managed to eBay his skull for a low-six figure win.

I met with Boll in a Tim Horton’s, which is where all Real Business is conducted in the Great White North.  He was busy reviewing dailies from some unnamed project on an iPad, while a dweeby assistant brushed all of the powdered sugar off of a jelly donut for him.

“What are you working on?” I asked.

“We’re doing a remake of ET,” he said.

“You got the rights from Spielberg to do a remake of the movie ET?” I said, dumbfounded.

“No.  We’re doing a film adaptation of the ET video game for the Atari 2600.”

“Wasn’t that game a total piece of shit?” I said.  “I thought it was the single cause of the entire billion-dollar crash of the US consumer video game market in 1983.  They took 100,000 copies of that game and four of the developers and sealed them in concrete in the bottom of a New Mexico landfill as a tax write-off.”

“Let me ask you this: what was the biggest film disaster of 2004?” he said, setting aside the iPad and grabbing a donut.

“I don’t know.  Was that the year Battlefield Earth came out?”

“Exactly,” he said, taking a bite and squirting strawberry jam all over his chin.

“Wait, it was, right?”

“No, it wasn’t.  And that’s my point – Americans can’t remember what happened last week, let alone what happened in 1983.  I could make a film that said Ronald Reagan killed all of those Iranian hostages and drank their blood to gain superpowers, and as long as I put some hot Angelina Jolie-looking chick’s ass in the trailer, people will still pay money to see it.  It’s the same reason my Fonzi porn just got greenlighted.”

“Fonzi porn?”

“You know, Fonzi, Arnold, ‘AAAAAY!’?  We’re making a series of Happy Days themed porno.  Jenna Jameson is going to play Joanie.  And you know that episode where the Fonzie jumps his chopper over the shark?  Well in this version, we’re going to have Fonzie FUCK a shark.”

“So it’s a pornographied vision of a 2010s idealized vision of a 70s TV show that was an idealized vision of the 50s??”

“And our first run is in Germany.  So it’s a pornographied vision of a German vision of a 2010s idealized vision of a 70s TV show that was an idealized vision of the AMERICAN 50s.  Germans in the 50s were still putting out fires and clearing rubble and dropping dead of typhus; we worshipped you fuckers with TVs and big-tittied wives baking pies all day,” he said.  “So this version, it’s working on at least five different levels to hit every key demo we can.”

“So is it internet only?  How do you mass-market hardcore porn?”

“It’s German TV.  We can show double penetration gang rape during the dinner hour on broadcast TV if we want to.  None of this prudish American bullshit over there.”

“So I came to talk to you about this Grave Robber show.”

“Can’t do it,” he said.  “51 Minds already has GraveBusta! with Busta Rhymes in production for VH1 for an early 2011 run.  I can’t get into a lawsuit with Endemol over some copycat production.  John de Mol has that Deal or No Deal money behind him – he could have every person in your hometown executed and buried in secret graves ten times over without even having to go to an ATM for cash first.  We can’t fuck with them.”

“Son of a bitch!  What about my competitive bowel movement TV show I told you about on the phone?”

So You Think You Can Shit? I like the idea, but there’s at least three similar shows on German TV already.  Maybe we could do an end-run on the whole thing, buy American rights of one of those shows, repackage it for the US market.  We can get Delta Burke or someone famous from the 80s to host.”

“I’m more into the creative side of things.  Production work like that sounds like… work.”

“Fair enough.  Keep sending me ideas on the twitters, we’ll get to work together some time.  And let me know when you finish a sequel to Rumored to Exist so we can do a movie version.  I’m still pissed you let Gus Van Sant take the movie rights for that.”

“He still hasn’t done shit.  Maybe in 2013 when they end, you can scoop them up.”

“Maybe.  I’ve got to dash.  I’m flying to California today to meet with Howard Warshaw,” he said.  “If this ET thing works out, there’s talk we will be able to do a Yar’s Revenge movie.”

Anyway, I am back in town, and watching two crazy Russian dudes install a set of Armorstruxx composite armor blast doors over the front of my office.  But that story’s gotta wait for another time, because I must finish eating this Taco Supreme, then I must return to Real Business.

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A cautionary tale of incompatible formats

In 1998, I got a new credit card in the mail and after thinking about how many photocopies I could make for $1500 or if that was enough to buy like one sixtyfourth of an acre in some deserted forest, enough to build some kind of treehouse-esque unabomber shack, I suddenly realized that I had the insane desire to buy a MiniDisc recorder.  So I rushed over to The Good Guys, this old Best Buy-esuqe electronics store, and bought a Sony MZ-R50 and rushed home and recorded Joe Satriani’s Crystal Planet onto a blank disc.

(Reasons significant: 1) Joe Satriani recorded his first album after receiving a credit card in the mail; 2) He was signed to Sony, and I think a song of his was in a MiniDisc commercial, not that there were tons of those in the US; 3) I had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and the reason I broke up with her, or the catalyst at least, was driving two hours to Portland with Ryan in his Miata to see Joe Satriani, listening to CP the whole way there, and both of us bitching about our respective girlfriends and vowing to somehow escape the situations, only I did and he did not.)

I did not have a good way to record digital to digital for a long time, and the MiniDisc required you to record stuff in real-time – you didn’t just download a bunch of MP3s and dump them to the disc.  You also had to carry around however many discs with you, and if you brought three and went to work, you were guaranteed to be sick of all of them by the time you got to the train station.  I vividly remember going on an awful first date with a lowtalker who produced feminist programming for cable access and still lived with her mom and wanted to go to dinner at a soup restaurant and then go to see this movie about white supremacists, and then I really fucked things up because the movie interviewed all of these white supremacists in Bloomington, Indiana, and while they’re talking to these guys about the evils of Jews, they’re all drinking out of Pizza Express cups and I’m like HOLY SHIT THOSE ARE PIZZA EXPRESS CUPS I HAVE LIKE 90 OF THOSE IN MY APARTMENT.  She was still somehow interested and kept calling and I eventually told her I was in love with someone who lived in LA, which was partially true anyway.  So after this first date, I had to walk her to her car at the cable access thing, and it was like eleventy billion blocks from the train station.  And the only MD I had with me was a best-of from Millions of Dead Cops, which is like 27 songs, a dozen of them being “John Wayne Was a Nazi” and the rest being entirely unintelligible 22-second long songs.  And I think I listened to it nine times on the walk back to the train.  And that’s why I got an iPod.

I have an 80GB iPod and it’s almost full, and it’s also lasted longer than any other, which means it will fail soon.  It is my damn lifeline for morning traffic though.  Is there something that will hold more music that I need to get?  Maybe I need to get a bunch of iPods and put them on a bandolier like Chewbacca.  If they made an iPhone that could fit 80 GB I would just do that.  Maybe when the drive dies in this (inevitable) I will find a way to hack it into a socket that I can hot-swap a bunch of different drives.  Maybe I will just wise up and say “why the fuck do I have all of these Charlie Parker albums and I only listen to two of the songs, so fuck it” and get the collection down so it will fit on my iPhone.

I’ve still got all of this MiniDisc crap in my storage locker.  I think if I had infinite time I would make some kind of art project out of it, like make a MiniDisc-based mellotron keyboard. Someone did a movie about the mellotron, a documentary, which I guess is a lot better than my last attempt at a documentary.  I got blindingly drunk in Laguardia airport, then had to fly to Pittsburg via Cincinnati Ohio (which is really in Kentucky, the airport I mean) and so I got to OH/KY and had a few more beers and decided I was going to make a concept movie about the moving walkways in the airport and started filming The Walkway is about to end, which is basically me sitting on the floor by the end of the walkway, and every ten seconds, a robot voice says “the walkway is about to end!” and every single person that walks past ignores it and stumbles when the moving ground becomes non-moving ground, and the whole thing is an important metaphor for something, but then I started to sober up and had to catch a plane to Pittsburgh and that’s the end of the story.  (The footage for that is in my storage locker, too.)

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Three stars in the sunset

Yesterday was my last day at my job at Samsung.  As per my usual policy here, I guess I haven’t mentioned that I actually worked at Samsung for the last year and a half, although a simple google search or look at LinkedIn would have told you that.  But I’ve been looking for new work since the start of the year or so, and got an offer at a new place two weeks ago.  So I gave notice, did two weeks of short-timer duty, and finished yesterday.

The big joke with some of my former coworkers is the length of the statute of limitations before I write a book about all of the crazy antics that ensued at the place.  I think everyone at every one of my jobs says this, and I have yet to write a sort of tell-all book about any one given workplace.  I guess Summer Rain hinted at that with my days at UCS.  But I never did the whole “working at a startup in Silicon Valley/Silicon Alley/Silicon Prairie” thing, and who knows if I will.  But it’s true that I do have conflicted feelings about cutting loose on my former workplace.  I mean, there’s some choice material there, but there’s also the issue that I would feel bad about striking out and getting catty about it.  And there’s also the fact that it might not be that interesting to people who weren’t there with me.

I thought I would have no second thoughts about leaving the place.  The truth is, when I got this job back in October of 08, I jumped in quick, and backed out of a potential offer situation with another tech company.  And after a week or two of the new job, I had serious reservations about continuing, because of the work and the culture and the hours and the commute.  And every day, about halfway through the hour-some drive down 101 to the office in San Jose, I’d pass the office of this other company, and kick myself that I could be working at a much more sane place and have half the commute every day.  And maybe the other place would have had its own brand of crazy, but it’s one of those grass is always greener things.

And then right after I started, the sky fell economy-wise, and pretty much everyone else in Silicon Valley got laid off, and there were absolutely no jobs available.  And my job was still paying, and still matching 401K, and still cutting bonus checks.  So I stuck with it, although I always hoped some magic startup would show up, looking for a doc wizard to head up their tech pubs department.

So a lot of things happened.  Nothing bad, I mean I wasn’t beaten and raped and left for dead in the desert.  But we weren’t changing the world or creating great things or helping society or anything like that.  And I was doing very little as far as technical writing.  And morale on my team went from bad to worse.  But the paychecks kept coming, and I paid off my land, and I paid off my car, and I bought a house, and I kept driving two or three hours a day and working on my TPS reports and hoping the dow would crack 10,000 again some day.

And it did.  And I got another job.  And I went through the ten thousand messages in my Outlook inbox, and hit the D key 10,000 times and realized that the last 18 months involved a lot of temporal bullshit and status reports on status reports reporting the status of reports that discussed what status reports we’d do next status report.  I spent most of the last two weeks deleting files and shredding paper like I was working for the Stasi in late 1989.  It’s not that I was working in a missile silo with tons of top secret blueprints; it’s just that even a doodle of a stick figure getting fucked by another stick figure drawn out of boredom in a meeting is still technically Eyes Only material at our R&D lab, and had to get cross-cut into dust.

My boss was on vacation for the first of my two weeks, and then had to miss 4 of the 5 days of the second week due to crazy scheduling and some family medical stuff.  And my boss’s boss, who used to be my boss and heads up the lab had a last-second appearance in Korea and was also gone when I had to leave.  There were a couple of lunches and goodbyes.  And I took some time to get some dental appointments squared away and get a stupid re-inspection by PG&E done on the condo (long story) and took my damn time getting to work and left at five and did a whole lot of nothing, since there wasn’t much for me to do.  At one time, I thought there was no way I could leave, I was so intertwined with so many projects, but when it came down to transitioning out, there was a lot of “well, they’ll figure it out, or they won’t.”

On my last day, the drive in was sunny and I actually made damn good time, listening to the Husker Du song “New Day Rising” a thousand times on repeat.  And then the sky turned grey and it started pouring rain.  And I walked through the halls of our R&D lab and realized I would miss the place in some strange way.  I mean, it was my first job in Silicon Valley, and I only worked there 18 months, but those were dog year months, lots of long hours, lots of late nights.  A year ago today, we had to work a 24-hour overnight shift to launch our first web site.  (And yeah, we didn’t need to be there, the same way the Egyptians could have built those pyramids a lot faster with a couple of bulldozers instead of ten million slaves.)  Our building was like this weird time capsule to late 70s/early 80s valley-chic, with this “high tech” look that resembled something you’d see on the old Apple campus circa the Apple II era, except it had never been updated.  And the rain and the gloom brought out the chipped paint and the moldy ceiling tiles and the stained carpets and the faded wood trim and made me realize I’d never work in a place that looked like this again.  I did my victory lap and said my goodbyes, handed in my laptop and gear, then went to HR to hand over my badge and get the last of my paperwork.  They asked me to sign some paper saying I wouldn’t tell anyone anything, but according to California law, you can’t be forced to sign one of those, and I didn’t.  (I won’t be spilling the beans about all of the intricacies of Windows Mobile 7, which was our biggest secret, but I don’t think anyone gives a shit.)

This place was a must-wear-badge-at-all-times place (they love their door locks), and it was strangely sad to hand over that piece of plastic that was forever tethered to my hip, with that digital snapshot of my face circa October 2008.  I guess part of it is that the picture, and in a greater sense the job, signified the end of the summer of 2008, and I’m now so nostalgic about that era: about living in Playa Del Rey; walking to Subway every day for lunch; the weight loss journey, the walks to the waterfront; the time spent bumming around Santa Monica; the days hacking away a living at home, looking at the palm trees and listening to the Rockies in their 08 freefall.  I miss Denver, and I miss LA, and when I took this job, it was one of those huge “I must set aside everything and turn and burn and get my shit straight and go whole-hog on this”.  And I did.  And now it’s done, and even if I hated many aspects of it, I’ll miss it.

But yeah, new job.  New people.  I will, as always, avoid mentioning this one here, to protect the innocent and keep that life-work barrier going strong.  But it looks good, and I’ll be getting back to my roots as a tech writer and doing some new cool stuff.  It’s still a drive, and it’s not sitting at home and listening to baseball games all day and chipping away at short stories, but it should be cool.

I got escorted out after the final exchange, and got to my car and the pouring rain not long after 2:00, to face a horrible sea of taillights on the 880.  I stopped at the bank, I stopped at a gas station, and I dropped in a Nordstrom’s to get Sarah’s birthday present.  And by the time I got back to Oakland, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and it was all over.  So now it’s a sunny Saturday, and here’s to whatever the next big era will bring.

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Konrath’s Law of social networking sites

I don’t know how many of you use twitter, or see the little box to the right (that I will probably remove in the near future.) Twitter started as a good idea, but it has already been rendered stupid for the following reason:

Konrath’s Law of social networking sites:
Any given social networking site will eventually be rendered inoperable by insufferable prick sociopaths jamming the entire system with drivel about how great their kids are.

Actually, the problem with twitter is that there are only three types of messages: “I’m bragging about something that makes me better than you”; “I’m whining and bitching about something”; and “I’m sending a reply to one specific person to my entire list of friends because I’m too much of a douchebag to just IM it directly to them, and not to n-1 people who don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.” That’s twitter in a nutshell, and if there’s anything more redeeming about it, I’d love to hear about it. (Don’t forget to send it to @jkonrath and your entire friends list, too.)

I have a bigger gripe about the whole thing: it’s killing communication. In the Civil War, soldiers wrote home these epic letters, very formal, and you can still tell the whole history of the conflict by these archived letters. I know when my dad was in Vietnam, they made reel-to-reel audio tapes, rambling stream-of-consciousness recordings they sent back home. 40 years later, nobody knows what the fuck a reel-to-reel is, and even if you did, the tapes would probably turn into flakes of dust if you tried to play them. Now in Iraq, Marines are probably twittering home, “SEND ME A PLAYSTATION 3”, which removes any content, and is also completely unarchived. It’s the same way in the internet world: I go back to my archives from the early and mid nineties, and people used to write thousand-word emails all the time, telling of their days, telling stories. Now, 90% of the internet population is a read-only audience, and the thought of writing like that is completely alien. And the other 10% turned to blogging, which got more impersonal, especially when the old late-nineties model of web journals got derailed by people writing two-line livejournal entries. And now twitter is going to derail that by replacing both IM and blogging with inane little 140-character messages about how their kid just took a shit.

So anyway, all of my twitters as of late have been sort of mocking this. If you’ve been seeing them and thinking I went off the deep end, don’t worry. Actually, you should still probably worry, but not about this.

I’ve been back on prednisone again, but a smaller dose. This means I have not been up all night or eating everything in the house, but I also haven’t had a manic snap that enabled me to write 100,000 words a day. The biggest thing this week is I am trying to get back on the diet bandwagon, and one of the major components has been eliminating caffeine and sweetened beverages. I don’t really eat that much, but I drink a six-pack of Coke a day, plus juice, gatorade, root beer, orange soda, and whatever else I have in the house. So that’s a couple thousand calories a day I can shed. Unfortunately, this week has been nothing but migranes and extreme cravings for a super double big gulp. And all things Splenda and Nutrasweet still have a weird taste to them. It’s hard to exercise with the gimped-up foot, but it’s mostly better, so I’ve been taking long walks after work every night.

I walked down to the ocean yesterday, which is always fun. If I walk over the ridge, to the water, down the shore a ways, and then back, the big square path takes me about an hour. Yesterday, I walked the shore portion in the sand, because it’s a little harder, and my theory is that it will strengthen my ankles more. (Maybe it will tear them up, too.) It is always so astounding to be on the sand, looking out over the water, thinking that there’s not something else out there, and that’s really the end of the continent. And all of the sand with the strategically spaced park buildings every half-mile or so always reminds me of the Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan, where I spent a lot of time as a kid. After I got home (and washed all of the sand off of my feet and out of my shoes) I looked up some stuff about Warren Dunes, and it’s bittersweet. It’s neat to see pictures of the place and remember driving there with my dad as a kid. But that giant mountain of sand – it’s only 250 feet tall. Worst of all, Google Maps doesn’t have a high-res image for the entire area. Oh well.

I’ve wasted over an hour writing this, because I keep googling the Warren Dunes. I should go get some more work done now.

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In Elkhart

I’m in a Perkins in Elkhart, and I’ve barely seen anything here, but it’s all very weird. Let me see how much I can explain before my food arrives.

I left Elkhart, or at least stopped calling it my home, when? 1989, when I graduated and went to college? 1991-ish, when I returned the second time and vowed to never come back? 1995, when I moved to Seattle? I don’t know. But I guess the 1991 date is when I stopped spending any regular amount of time here. And I haven’t set foot in Indiana since 2004, partly by coincidence, and partly by design. So it’s been long enough to make it seem like an alien experience when I return.

I got into O’Hare and got my rental car by about midnight last night, then pointed it east and headed toward the toll road, hoping I could still figure out my way around Chicago and to Indiana with no major incident. The toll road was eerie, driving with nobody around, counting the exits and wishing I could go to bed.

Right after the University Park Mall zipped past, I exited on 331, and took the route home I’d normally take from the UP mall, on Cleveland road. The second I pulled up to a railroad crossing, the gates went down and a 200-car train inched by. I joked about this in Summer Rain, but it really happens to me every time I get here.

I drove down this stretch of road with only farmland on either side, and remarkably it was still farm. I used to max out my car here late at night, because there are no intersections for miles. Then my friend Peter got killed there in 1991, so I stopped. The old drive-in movie theater – a gas station, and what looks like a Super Target or a Wal-Mart going in. The Pleasureland Museum – still there, but I couldn’t tell if it was closed or not.

Nothing really changes in Elkhart. A lot of the same businesses had the same signs that they did in 1985, the same displays, the same paintjobs. They build new subdivisions of prefab houses in the outlying areas: Goshen, Napanee, Granger, Simoton Lake. But they’re the same subdivisions they built in Dunlap in the 70s, just different trim and formica and sunroom options. And when they build a newer and more expensive and further out subdivision, it means the old ones won’t get updated and won’t get redone and essentially get trapped in time, to wear their 1970s aluminum siding forever.

Some stores go under. The old Templin’s music, where I bought many a pair of guitar strings in the day, is now a Mexican furniture store. The Taco Bell where I worked is now a crack Chinese place. I used to spend a lot of time at this Perkins, but back in 1989, it was a few blocks south, and the last-gen design of Perkins buildings. The new one is nice, but it isn’t the old one. (This one is currently filled with a gaggle of high school girls basketball players, which might be enticing to jailbait enthusiasts. As for myself, it sort of freaks me out that they were born after the last time I was in that other Perkins.)

I thought Denver was a bit conservative, but this place makes it look like a hippy ashram chanting in a drum circle. Two out of three cars have this Jesus license plate that you can tell was designed in spite when the JFreaks here lost that ACLU case about the ten commandments. There are are churches everywhere. The Concord Mall now has a sign that says “Great Deals, Family Values.” (Does that mean you can’t sodomize the girls working at Pretzel Time anymore?) This is the one place in the country where I feel Nicole Ritchie thin. When I walked out of the hotel, there were about two dozen people chain-smoking like you’d suck on a bottle of oxygen if your spacesuit exploded and you hadn’t breathed in five minutes. Lots of magnetic ribbons, and I haven’t seen a single Kerry/Edwards or anti-Bush sticker yet.

I saw both “de-malled” malls, Pierre Moran and Scottsdale. Back in the old days, they turned strip malls into malls by enclosing them. For whatever random reason (*cough*Wal-Mart) malls have gone into the toilet, so someone got the wise idea to break apart the interior spaces, and turn them into a huge parking lot with a bunch of freestanding big-box stores. This makes it much easier to shop, because you have to either move your car six times, or carry a lot of stuff in the rain and snow. Both malls look even more deserted, but it’s obviously some liberal conspiracy and we all need to pray to Jesus to make sure the local Panera and Dress Barn keep in the black. (Wait, I mean they are making money, not that we want african-americans shopping there.)

The biggest change I see is that all of the trees have doubled and tripled in size. When I drive by an old dentist or insurance agent and see a giant oak stretching way into the sky, I remember when it used to be as tall as me. Driving past houses and streets, it seems like I have the angles and distances and setbacks burned into my brain. When I cross Prarie on Mishawaka, I know in my head exactly how far it is to the u-pick strawberry place, even if it was plowed under and turned into a medical clinic. The occasional bodega where a video store used to be throws me off but it’s usually in the same building, just a different sign.

I spent the day with my sister, nephew, and niece. It was the first time I’ve ever seen Belle, and she is already mobile and stealing her brother’s toys at any possible chance. I always think the kids are cute, until a few hours later when Wesley runs down a row of toy trucks in Target and presses the sound button on every single one two dozen times, producing this cacophony of sirens and explosions and jackhammers, and I realize there’s no way I could do it for five days, let alone 18 years.

Not making much progress on this food – I better shut down and go back to my little Holiday Inn Express and see if the TV channels are just as bad as they were 30 years ago.

P.S. The waitress handed me my check and it said, in giant, curvy, girly cursive, “God Bless!” at the bottom. I still gave her a tip.

P.P.S. Re my previous entry about thunderstorms – I am back at my hotel, and just saw the most monumental t-storm I’ve seen in a while. Very close strikes, loud as hell booms, and the kind of bolts that arc from sky to ground (okay, vice-versa) in such a way that make them look like scratches etched into a tinted window. There was even a five-second power outage that really reminded me I was in Indiana.

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Pee-Wee League

John Sheppard posted a nice Little League photo the other day, complete with 70s bright colors and high pants, which made me think a bit about my brief experience in Pee-Wee League back in the day. I forget when this was, but I’m guessing maybe third grade, and it was yet another one of those things where my parents really wanted me to experience different things besides the Apple II and/or determine if I was gay by forcing me to play sports. And given my lack of any hand-eye coordination or motor skills, I’m surprised they didn’t just give up and start buying me Cher albums and teaching me about flower arranging.

Pee Wee League was one of those things that not only made me feel bad about my inability to do something that so many other people could do easily, but I had kids making fun of me due to my inability to throw a ball long distances well into high school. I know parents think these things will toughen up their kids, and teach them about teamwork and discipline and how to oil a leather glove. I guess one of the other things was that I was supposed to learn all about the national past-time and develop a love for the game. Honestly, I couldn’t name more than five baseball teams back then, and at the time, I was far too preoccupied memorizing random statistics about Star Wars characters than infielders and outfielders. This is probably best proven by the fact that I had about a dozen baseball cards, but I had every single one of the first two series of the Topps Empire Strikes Back Cards. (Insert speech about how I wished I sealed that shit in a vacuum-packed safe so I could put them on eBay and finance the down payment on a beachfront house, instead of randomly losing them all or accidentally covering them with peanut butter.)

Each of our Pee-Wee League teams had a corporate sponsor (if you consider “corporate” to include local car washes and septic system pumping companies) and a name of a real major league team. My assigned team was the AstroBowl Astros, sponsored by a local bowling alley, with a nod to the Houston MLB team, and featured orange hats and t-shirts. We didn’t wear the pants or the cleats or any other gear. I think there was a concerned mother freakout about wearing a cup, which happened when this kid named Skip ended up sliding into home plate ball-first and doing some damage to the yet-functioning family production units. I distinctly remember my mom’s hysterics, leading to a hand-off to my dad, who spent his childhood in the protection-free fifties, when you could still buy Jarts, M-80s, and small-caliber firearms at the local soda stand. The closest thing he knew about protection was when he got a CB radio so he could protect himself from speeding tickets on the highway. My dad grudgingly took me to Sears, where we silently walked to the athletics department and found that all of the various supporters and protectors were, at the smallest range, made for kids roughly twice my age or size. I think I could have used the smallest cup in stock as a batting helmet. Dad basically mumbled, “Son, be careful, and don’t tell your mom,” and that was that.

Somehow, I got put on a team that made the Bad News Bears look like the Yankees with a two billion dollar salary cap. Every kid who could not play was on the Astros. Most of the kids at school got onto cool teams, like the Dodgers, the Yankees, or the Cubs. (Yes, the Cubs were a good team; we were 100 miles from Wrigley Field. Despite the fact that they were a horrible team, at least they were recognizable.) The only things I knew about the real Astros were Nolan Ryan, and the fact that they played on their namesake artificial turf. That wasn’t much to go by.

I ended up as the catcher. For those of you who know about the sport, the catcher is either the guy totally pumped with ‘roids to make him a home run king, at the expense that he can barely walk, or it’s the least experienced and most pathetic one on the team. Given that my performance enhancement regimen was limited to Flintstone’s Chewables, you can guess which category I was in. I could barely throw the ball back to the pitcher, who I believe was usually an adult coach, underhanding some graceful slowballs straight across the plate each time. I could not infield to any extent, but it usually didn’t matter. The best strategy for the opposing team was to hit it anywhere in the outfield, and run in every single person on base while I sat and watched them cross the plate, because it would take about 45 minutes for someone to retrieve the ball. I remember one game, against the faux Dodgers team, which had all of the jocko guys in it, when the score ended up being like 78 to 2. It was like a basketball game between the Harlem Globetrotters and a bunch of geriatrics who were off their meds.

I think we did win one game, and it was against one of the best teams, maybe the Yankees. It was on a day of really shitty weather, where the temperature dropped to about 45 or 50, and it was raining on and off, and extremely dark. Because it was on and off, the officials kept deciding the game would go on, and then they would change their mind, and then it would be back. We only wore t-shirts, and maybe half of the team got the idea to put on jackets under their uniform shirts. But wet denim jeans are always horrible, and your hands would be absolutely freezing. The parents on our team were pulling all of this “toughen up!” bullshit, and pretty much every kid on both teams was crying or trying not to cry, but still streaming tears down their rain-soaked faces. The only parents there on average were the mothers, who were trying to act like the fathers and overcompensating with whatever macho bullshit they caught from TV. (This was in an era when the divorce rate was like 100%, and all of the dads were probably off either getting loaded or trying to fuck the non-baseball moms.) So for whatever reason, our team could withstand the bullshit way more than the fake Yankees could, because we had to put up with so much bullshit under normal operating conditions, we didn’t even care that our hands were turning blue. Even the spaz kids that couldn’t hold a bat were popping off doubles and triples, and we ended up pulling in a 12-4 win over the best team in the league.

One of the big things about Little League is that when you win (and it’s not practically snowing out), you go get ice cream. You’d think that since we had our asses handed to us on a regular basis, we’d never see any dessert action, but our coaches were sympathetic, or maybe in that “nobody’s a loser” parental mindset, so they usually found out where the other team was going, and we’d go to the other place for celebratory losing treats. There were two ice cream places in close proximity: a Dairy Queen, right next to the Taco Bell on 33 where I’d work when I was 16, and a Tastee Freeze, which was right in front of our corporate sponsor, Astrobowl.

I think I liked Dairy Queen better at the time, and we went there more, because the winning team usually went to Tastee Freeze, and I think we lost almost every single game. Dairy Queen was more of a restaurant, like McDonald’s, and it had a sit-down dining room with a solarium. It didn’t have as many ice cream types, but I always got the peanut buster parfait. Tastee Freeze didn’t have any seats, just a window where you ordered. Maybe it had some picnic benches, but I remember sitting on a curb when eating my ice cream most of the time, and I wasn’t into that as much. Looking back, I probably like the Tastee Freeze better, because the ice cream was a lot more “custom” and they added sprinkles and cremes and sauces and other toppings while you waited, instead of just pulling out plastic-wrapped, pre-extruded things made at the central office in Kansas or whatever. Tastee Freeze is more of a small-town memory to me, something I’ll never see again in the big city.

When I was in the 7th or maybe 8th grade, we had to go to AstroBowl for a couple of class periods of bowling. It was across the street from the Junior High, so this was built into the curriculum, since we all know that bowling is an important skill for finding a job and providing for your future. (It’s important to note that even to this day, you will get your name in the Elkhart newspaper if you roll a perfect 300. Bowling is a big deal in Indiana. Not as big as crystal meth or illegitimate children, but it’s probably in the top ten.) Anyway, when I went over there and made a fool of myself yet again in another sport-like activity, I saw that in the trophy case by the front door, there was a picture of my old Pee Wee League team in a frame, along with a couple of other baseball team pictures that the bowling alley apparently sponsored. I was probably eight or nine, maybe ten when I went through that experience, but even at the age of 13 or 14, it was like looking back into another world to see that picture. I don’t have a copy of said photo anymore, but whenever I think of it, I always wonder if it’s still in the trophy case, gathering dust..

Oddly enough, a quick google shows that AstroBowl is for sale. Take a look at those photos and you see that parts of Elkhart have changed absolutely zero in the 15 years since I have left. The bowling alley looked identical back in the day: 70s futuristic logo, Pepsi sign above the door, big double stripe on the side of the cinderblock building, and cracked up parking lot. I’m honestly surprised that the location hadn’t become a TGI Friday ten years ago. I don’t bowl, but it would be sad if the place got sold and became a Mexican bodega or something. Current price is $450K, if you want to relive that Ed TV show and move back to the small city.

My parents also made me play basketball in the 6th grade, which is an even bigger story. Maybe I’ll type that one up sometime.

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Xanadu House and 80s nostalgia

I sometimes have this weird nostalgia that’s much more complicated than just “remember the 80s”, but rather a deep nostalgia for what I saw as cutting edge or a glimpse of the future way back when. It’s hard to explain, but it’s that weird feeling I had twenty years ago when I looked at some futuristic computer or technology, and I had this premonition that in the year 2000, this would be “it”. And the feeling is stronger when there are a lot of other interconnected memories or feelings about it. And the other day, this totally happened in a way that is easily explained, but probably still doesn’t capture what the fuck I’m rambling on about.

Okay, Wikipedia had a featured article the other day about The Xanadu House. No, it has nothing to do with Olivia Newton-John or the Rush song from Farewell to Kings. It was a series of three houses built as demo/museum units by the architect as a showcase to “the home of tomorrow”. They were made of sprayed polyurethane foam and looked something like Yoda’s house or maybe something a Hobbit would live in. They were a very 70s-looking design, and I could totally see something like them in a Roger Dean-airbrushed Yes double gatefold album cover, or maybe done up on the side of a van with a wizard shooting lightning bolts that lit up along with the 8-track player.

Okay, the outside did look pretty borderline artschool-project, but the inside was the interesting stuff. There were computers everywhere: controlling the lights, monitoring the bitchin’ hot tub, cooking your food; measuring your calories and watching your weight; integrated into the Elvis-like wall of TVs, one tuned to each station (total: 3); and everywhere else. The house was a full-on wet dream of automation. Now you see why I was somewhat pulled into reading all about this house and scouring the web for more info. I’ve still got this land out in Colorado with nothing but cacti and prarie dogs on it, and the idea of building some huge, fucked up, unconventional structure like a geodesic dome or a decommissioned jet airliner or a giant tube made out of a million egg cartons and some nuclear-proof epoxy solution is pretty appealing. Add to that a slew of computers that I don’t really need and that’s damn near what-I’d-do-if-I-hit-the-Lotto material for me.

But as I dove deeper, I found a lot of threads that pulled me back to when they got this house built down in Florida, in 1983. These computers back in the day weren’t a bunch of IBM blade servers or anything; turns out the builders were using a slew of good old Commodore 64s in the styrofoam innards of this dream palace. The TVs weren’t giant plasmas like Bill Gates would have, but rather the old-school, silver, two-knob not-so-flat CRT sets like you’d find at your Aunt Barbara’s rec room back in ’80. The online shopping system wired into the food-processor kitchen used a 12″ analog laserdisc for its info. The “home gym” consists of the same non-resistance exercise bike your parents bought back in ’78 and used as a clothes rack for ten years before unloading it at a yard sale. This wasn’t a Jetsons home as much as it was my Christmas list from 1983.

And that’s when this unfamiliar house became a home I knew, at least in proxy, for some weird reason. I was IN Florida, in Orlando, in 1983. My parents loaded us up in the station wagon and drove south a thousand miles, first to Tampa, and then to the Disney kingdom. And we didn’t go to the Xanadu house, but it looks a lot like the kind of place we would have stopped. We hit a lot of roadside attractions that trip, and a lot of the gift shops and historical viewpoints, from Tarpon Springs to the Atlantic coast, had the same tacky yet “futuristic” sign that graced the front of the Xanadu house. Everything about the old pictures, the way they were framed, the style of the furniture, just rubs some weird brain cell deep in my head that makes me think of a million memories that have nothing to do with this house and everything to do with my own life.

For example, I remember, again on the trip, going to a Showbiz pizza with my family. For those who don’t remember, Showbiz was similar to Chuck E. Cheese, the pizza parlor where you bring the rugrats for birthdays and parties. But back in the day, Showbiz was very oriented toward arcade games, and had a fuckload of consoles, including duplicates of many popular games. And at that time, the big deal were laserdisc-based games like Dragon’s Lair. Nobody seems to remember this particular fad, but these machines had a big giant laser disc player in them, and when you jerked around the joystick, different scenes from this Disney-eque cartoon would play. The game totally sucked from a playability standpoint, but everyone was too busy circle-jerking over the fact that the output was basically like DVD-quality animation and sound, and this was at a time when most arcade heroes were 16 by 16 pixel sprites. I remember staring at people playing these games in amazement, thinking this was the future of arcade games. Of course, the future was that nobody wanted to pay 50 cents per game (this was one of the first two-coin titles), the laser players crapped out and took forever to load, and in another year, the entire coin-op arcade game industry would take a crap and completely implode, meaning nobody would be too interested in the progress of games for another five years. (About when Nintendo started slapping NES guts into consoles and charging people to play games on a console you could just buy and play at home on a TV – that is if you could find a NES, which you couldn’t, because Nintendo was in the middle of a price-fixing, fake-supply-problem war.)

And I went to Epcot on that trip, which was right when it opened and they had a lot of cool displays about the future and how science would win everything. (They’ve long since ripped all of this shit out and replaced it with “Bob the Builder’s Why Every Kid Should Buy More of My Garbage” exhibits.) And the exhibit showed electronic cars that we’d all drive to work in 1997, and ways to raise more food for the world through hydroponic greenhouses we’d all use when we went to Mars, and so on. Epcot was originally going to be a huge experiment in sustainable living, but when Disney realized there was no money in that, they had GE, GM, and AT&T drop these huge advertisements for life in the future. And the same thing is, in 1983, it all seemed so fucking feasible that in 20 years we’d all have video phones and TVs with smellovision and pod cars, and I remember that view of the future so vividly. And now that future is in the past, and none of it happened. I used to read in Compute magazine about how, maybe if we all tried hard, cars might have a single microprocessor in them, and it would be so cool to get so much blazing power out of an 8-bit 6510 wired into our engine. And now, I’ve got at least twenty processors sitting on my desk, in my watch, in my camera, in my mouse, and none of them are doing anything remotely as interesting as what I thought they would be. I have ten times the computing power of that Xanadu house sitting in the battery charger to my camera, and none of it is being used to automatically cook my food or turn on the jaccuzi when I get home from work. And that’s sad, in a way.

The house has a much more sad ending, though. It ran as a museum until the ’90s, then sat vacant, as Florida mold consumed the sterile white interior. Squatters broke in and tore up the interior, and eventually, last year, the owners bulldozed the place, and plan on putting in a condo on the land. There are a lot of pictures on line of the interior in disrepair, and then the dozer taking out the foam walls. Very sad stuff.

Anyway, I forgot what my point is, other than to somehow describe that feeling I get when I look at an old Amiga or something. I remember the summer of 85 when all of the computer magazines were abuzz about that thing like all of the glamour mags are currently abuzz about the Jessica Simpson divorce or something. I mowed lawns and babysat and applied at every McDonald’s and Hardees within 10-speed distance of my house to scrape up money for that A-1000, and never made it. Just looking at the magazine pictures was like a view into the future of computing, something that could draw multiple windows and 4096 simultaneous colors! Looking back at the old beige-platinum machines, I imagine this massive future, but then I realize that my old Palm Pilot is probably faster and with a better screen.

Ah well, enough rambling. I’m still reading this Neil Armstrong book and it’s going to take me forever to finish. Better invest some more time into it…

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