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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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5th grade teacher sadist

Back in the fifth grade, I had this sadist sociopath of a homeroom teacher who, in the interest of not getting sued if his kids ever decide to google his name, I’ll simply call Mr. Cool. Mr. Cool was not, in fact, hip or neat or whatever; I chose the somewhat ironic name because his real surname is a phonetic synonym for cool. In reality, Mr. Cool was a high follower of one of those overly zealous splinter factions of Christianity like the Mennonites or Quakers or something, the kind of we-think-the-bible-is-a-literal-document idiots that people in New York cannot fathom actually exist when a discussion on gay marriage or posting the ten commandments in courtrooms.

Okay, Mr. Cool. He looked like Les Nesmond’s older brother, with a bad comb-over and a lot of generic clothes and everything but the bow-tie. He came from Kansas or Iowa or something, and like I said, was really religious, but also had a short fuse, and while Jesus may have said to turn the other cheek, this guy would rather put his foot in your ass when you crossed him, and that’s a talent that seldom works out in a fifth-grade classroom. Other than flooring the whole group of us in science class by pulling out a bible and reading Genesis when we got to the part of our book about how the world was created, he also had a bad habit of going completely apeshit when you fell short of the stature of, say, a military school’s ideal behavior model. So pretty much everybody in my class got yelled at or shook or smacked in the back of the head, and regular hellions like Gary Rink got beaten within inches of their lives on a daily basis. In the fifth grade, I was old enough to know that something was wrong with this guy, and it probably wasn’t right for him to be hitting kids in class. I mean, I couldn’t look up the exact law or rule or anything, but I knew the guy was whacked, and I dreaded every day of the fifth grade because of him.

Another reason the fifth grade sucked is that instead of sticking to the books (or his god damned bible), Mr. Cool used to have us do these asinine projects that were meant to broaden our horizons. The most corporal of these was the 50 states and capitals book, which was a thing where we had to draw a picture of each state with its capital and three or four major cities and all of the rivers and stuff, and then list its resources, populations, and other interesting and/or useless factoids. To a fifth grader, fifty pages is a damn book, so this took more than a Sunday night to prepare. And Mr. Cool knew what encyclopedia we had in the school library, and would bust your ass if you simply copied shit out of there. I’m sure he meant good by this sort of thing, and probably got the idea because some Jesus magazine like Reader’s Digest had a fear-inducing article about how kids couldn’t name more than five states or their major cities and the Russians would be using that to our advantage and killing us all Real Soon. And I guess it was better than the fact that my dad had to memorize all of the states and capitals, and could still rattle all of them off faster than I could currently name off a random list of, well, anything. (To be fair, there were only 13 of them when he was in school. Sorry dad, old joke.) Anyway, he was always coming up with dumb shit like this for us to do, little take-home projects which would have been great if we all had Beaver Cleaver families, which none of us did.

So one weekend, he came up with this great project: to prove to us that TV was warping our minds with Satan, we were to completely abstain from the glass teat for the next 48 hours. The project was to tune out and then see what we did with our time when we didn’t rot our minds with cartoons. And in some fit of stupidity, I actually mentioned this assignment to my mom when I got home, and she thought this was a real great fucking idea. So I had both parents lording over me about this stupid assignment, and instead of watching the usual cartoons, I went outside and tear-assed around the neighborhood on my BMX bike.

Granted, I watched a lot of TV back in the day. In fact, since we only got five channels and didn’t have a VCR, I watched pretty much every damn thing on, even if it totally didn’t appeal to me. I mean, I remember religiously watching Barney Miller for the plot, because I was too young to get any of the jokes in it and I needed a way to kill time until WKRP was on. (And it’s not like Johnny Fever’s dope addicts or Herb’s attempts to diddle Loni Anderson would have been that funny to a completely uninformed ten-year-old like myself.) BUT, I also spent a lot of time away from the tube, too. I had a regular gang of friends, and I rode my bike around a lot and killed bugs in jars and buried army men and played out Star Wars episodes two through ten with the unending amount of 3″ tall plastic figures I had and everything else. So I guess I could survive a lack of TV with no problem, except one:

Superman was premiering on TV that Sunday.

Fuck! This was the original Superman movie, with Christopher Reeve and Margo Kidder and live action and all of that shit. I never saw it in the theater because half the time when I asked to go to a flick, my parents would say “god damn it! That’s going to be on TV for free next year, why do you need two bucks to see it now?” And not only that, the network was going to show an extended version of the film, with all kinds of scenes showing Clark Kent growing up and pushing ten-ton locomotives on tracks and bending shit and using his heat vision and everything else. And my sisters were going to get to watch it, even though they didn’t give a fuck about Superman at all. I loved Superman! I had a paperback book of all of these old Superman comics, and I could tell you backwards and forwards every plot of every one. That January, I even had a superman CAKE for my birthday. And I couldn’t watch it because of that stupid Quaker Jesus freak motherfucker and his stupid assignment! I was so god damned pissed that Sunday night. And the next morning, when I got to class, every fucking person but me had completely forgotten about the assignment about an hour after they got home, except me.

Anyway, I haven’t watched TV in a week now, and I’m back to being TV-less thanks to, not a Jesus freak, but a lack of cable TV. (OK, maybe the people who found out I had illegally had cable and cut it worship Jesus. Maybe it’s even Mr. Cool, fired from teaching and working a minimum-wage job at Time Warner. Who knows.) It hasn’t been that bad this time, though. It’s just a matter of not caring anymore about the regular shows. I will miss ER, but that’s about it. I also miss the background noise, like during a meal, but I have DVDs for that.

Fuck, I feel like there’s more to talk about, but I’m tired and want to do nothing but read for a while.

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There has to be a better way to wash dishes

Jesus, I hate washing dishes. There has to be a better way. And don’t tell me “a dishwasher,” because I had a dishwasher in Seattle, and I had to wait until I had a full sink of dishes before I ran it, and then it ran like as loud as a god damned Harley with straight pipes for an hour and a half straight, and I spent just as long rinsing off the dishes before I put them in, and then half the time I had to rinse them before I put them away because they reeked of lemony fresh calgon scent or whatever the shit was, and all of that water and energy was wasted and it would have been easier just to hand wash the god damned things. What I’m looking for is a machine where you just put the plates right in it, and it blasts away everything, like the kind of machine you use to take the paint off of car parts before you chrome or paint them.

Okay, here’s the deal. And don’t screw with me about this, because for six weeks, I washed the god damned dishes at Columbo’s in Elkhart, and I spent about a semester cleaning the shit off of dishes at the Collins lunchroom when I was in college. So I’m a professional here. Anyway, I only have one sink. And the usual procedure is that I stack up plates in the sink until I have completely run out of plates. At that point, because I have like 16 or 20 sets of Faberware, the stack of plates has like the Swamp Thing growing on it, with all sorts of slime trails and other growths that a god damned biologist could write a thesis on. Then I get out one of those little things with the sponge and the handle and the dish soap in the handle, and I wash like one or two plates when I get some delivery food, then throw them back on the pile when I get done eating. So it’s like a stack in computer programming jargon, which means the bottom plates are fused to each other like some sort of natural cement, like what some ancient Indian tribe would use to build a fort or a pyramid or something. Plus the stupid handle always leaks the soap all over the place between uses, so a bottle of Dawn washes like four plates total, and costs like $6.79. (I know it costs like a dollar out in Indiana at Kroger, but you have to realize that the stupid, tiny, piece of shit grocery stores here overcharge you on everything and only have the smallest size possible, and like no variety, so like out there you probably have 863 different flavors of Dawn with various antibacteria, antivirus, antigrease, antifood, anticarb, or whatever else, and we only have the old-school blue shit.) Also, the sponge tore off of the handle, and now I will have to buy a new handle and a new set of sponges, since there is no compatability between sponges and handles, because why would there be when we still have a little bit of room in landfills.

So here’s a system for washing dishes the old-school way. Sink A has the dirty dishes, with hot water and dish soap. Sink B is clean and is the “rinse” sink. Then there is a strainer, where you dry them. You soak and scrub the shit in A, then move it to B and queue up a bunch of stuff there. Then when A is done or B is full, you rinse off the items and put them in the strainer thing to dry. Easy enough, right? I used this method at the horrible Italian restaurant, and it worked fine (although sometimes on Saturday nights, me and the other guy John used to have contests to see who could go the longest without changing their water in sink A, because you’re continually adding new dishes to A, unlike your situation in a domestic environment, because unless you have a fuck of a lot of dishes, sink A is like a one-shot deal. Anyway, we’d go for hours, and sink A would look like the Exxon Valdez crashed in it, with oil slicks and chunks of pizza crust and pasta and cigarette butts and who knows what floating in it.)

Well, I DON’T HAVE TWO SINKS. So here is my system. Sink A: water, some dirty dishes, soap. Then a wash tub as sink B. I can stack stuff in there, but I can’t rinse into it, as it doesn’t have a sink or drain or whatever. So I stack everything in there that is cleaned but not rinsed. Then I take it all out, one at a time, and rinse it as I am overflowing sink A and water is going all over the floor and flooding my kitchen, unless I pull the plug and lower the water level and dilute the soap in A. So it works better with less shit in A, and all of those dishes stacked on the floor and the stove and the living room and whatever else. So I did this for a while, and it sort of worked, but I only got like three plates cleaned and then all of the bowls and silverware and stuff. Tomorrow, I will put away all of the shit, and then start over.

I bought a box of brandy cherries from the discount wholesaler store, which is right below where I work. They were horrific. They tasted like they were filled with kerosene. I ate one, and even the faint thought of it makes me want to go hurl chunks. I am never, ever eating another alcohol-based confection again in my life. I am also never drinking any hard liquor again in my life, as I overheard a completely stupid conversation today about the merits of hard liquor because of its lack of carbs. I realize I do not eat that healthy of a diet, but I am hoping to improve it to the point where in ten years, I will be fairly healthy at the same time that everyone who was preaching Atkins is on an organ donor wait list.

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Hobby shop nostalgia

It rained all weekend. Poured. It’s always good to have the two days off, but I get a bit restless when I can’t go to a store or a movie or whatever without dressing in a scuba suit. While I was dodging to get some lunch on Saturday, I decided to duck into this hobby store that’s about a block away from me. Like a lot of other businesses in Astoria, it’s run more like a hobby than a regular place with regular hours, and pretty much every time I walk past it, the gate is down and lights are off. But I saw the doors open for business, so I decided to duck in there.

I’m no stranger to hobby shops. As a kid, my interests ran from trains to planes to cars to pretty much anything else you put together with plastic cement and little glass jars of paint. I built military airplanes, 1/48 scale plastic kits with way too much detail, at an age much later than I’d probably like to admit. When most kids were off trying to chase after girls for the first time or sneak into their parents liquor cabinet, I was in my parents’ basement, sitting at an old card table, listening to a Rush cassette and painting each individual dial on the instrument panel of a 1/32 scale F-15. My room had two walls of shelves filled with planes, and I had a workbench in the basement filled with half-built kits, tools, and supplies. I don’t entirely remember when I stopped or why, although I’m sure a lot of it had to do with a driver’s license and the desire to fit in. I don’t regret the time I spent doing this, although there is a certain shame factor, thinking about the geekiness of it. I mean, working on a computer – at least that could eventually lead to a job and money. But model airplanes don’t have any analog.

Walking into the old shop was like a flashback to me. It was a narrow, run-down little spot, but the walls were filled with shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes of many different areas and scales. Even the toy stores have the typical stuff, the half-dozen Testor’s kits that are made for kids with little patience. But when you get to a REAL hobby shop, they have the Pacta paints and the Tamiya kits and the sheets of custom metal foil detail pieces that cost more than some models. And this place had all of this – some older, almost vintage kits, and all of the heavy duty planes: the 1:48 B-1 and B-52 models, the 1/32 MRC planes, the Hellers from France, the DML armor kits from Hong Kong, the Paula and Antares resin kits from the Czech republic. It was all there, and I spent an endless amount of time looking at all of the kits, looking at the revised versions that had been re-released in the almost 20 years I’d been away from the hobby, and the new kits with generations of improvements in details, and technology. It made me really think about a lot of things, about life.

I’ll admit – I don’t really know where I’m going with my life these days. I’m punching the clock, eating the meals, sleeping when I can, but that’s about it. I haven’t been writing, and I haven’t been thinking about other projects. But I’m always hit with the whole “what am I doing?” volley of simultaneous and confusing emotions. I look at the people around me, the people my age, and they’re married, with kids, working, saving, buying houses, and in the conventional sense, they are DOING something. And then I look at what I’ve accomplished (which isn’t NOTHING, but…) and I look at my apartment full of toys and computers and DVDs, and I think I am not a grownup. And I think that if I was grown up, I would buy a new suit instead of buying a Slayer box set, or something. That I’d get my priorities straight. And maybe that would start the domino effect, of respect in my career, and meeting new people, and settling down, and everything else.

But then I also think that all of this is bullshit. I can’t – I don’t know, I can’t get up on a building and shout THIS IS BULLSHIT! and really fly my freak flag and… whatever. It’s more like a soft decision. But the decision is that I don’t really care. I don’t want to be a “grown up,” whatever that means. I can’t write the sequel to Rumored while I’m changing diapers, or busily shopping at The Gap, or whatever else. I care about eventually meeting someone, but I don’t care enough to ignore the opportunities around me that I’d rather pursue. I’d rather travel alone, and buy lots of DVDs, and stay up late at night playing video games. I don’t need to defend that against any other standard.

So I bought a model airplane. It’s a B-25, in 1/32 scale, and it’s a balsa kit, which I’ve never tried before. You actually cut out all of these balsa pieces, strigners and keel pieces and formers and stuff, and pin them to this big blueprint and glue it all together, so you get a skeleton of balsa. Then it is covered with a tissue paper and glue, and plastic pieces like windows and engine nacelles are included. It’s designed to fly with engines or be a static model. I’d like to build an RC plane, but I decided this would be my “learn from my mistakes” model, before I sink any money into a bigger plane.

I bought glue and knives and sandpaper and some other small tools, and also got a big piece of foamboard to use as my “table.” While it poured outside, I sat on the couch with the board in my lap and pinned down my pieces, cut out rib holes for stringers, and had the TV on in the background. It reminded me of what I really missed about building models, which is the almost hypnotic effect of working with your hands, going through the steps, trimming and eyeballing and test-fitting and inspecting, and actually building something that passes the time in such a different and more fulfilling way than just sitting on the couch and watching SuperStation reruns.

So that was my weekend. I mean, I went to dinner at Kiev on Saturday night in a short break of the rain, but I came back and kept gluing and cutting. I mostly finished the fuselage frame, then took a long walk to Home Depot and bought a Dremel MotoTool so I could cut things up a bit faster. But it was a good weekend overall, despite the shitty weather.

[2020 update: never finished that model. And I still have the same internal conversation about being an adult.]

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Exploding Shuttles

So I woke up yesterday around noon, and was messing with Internet Explorer on this new Windows 2000 installation, trying to get the google toolbar installed. In the course of that, I ended up going to the google news page, and the top story was something like “A history of the Shuttle program.” I thought, “That’s pretty bizarre for a top news story – google’s sort algorithm must’ve gone completely sideways.” Then I looked at the link and it mentioned the crash of the Columbia, and I thought, “shit, what a glaring error – it was just the anniversary of the Challenger crash, not the Columbia. The Columbia is still operational – it’s landing today…”

Then I realized that something was wrong, and I turned on the news and saw the Shuttle was in bite-sized pieces all over East Texas. Holy shit.

When I was a kid, they used to gather us all in the library of our elementary school, or wheel in one of those A/V carts with a big, clunky, 1970s institutional-looking TV, so we could watch every Shuttle takeoff and landing. This was heady stuff in the height of the cold war; the demonstration of American might and technology. I ate this stuff up, too. I’d read every single book in the library about Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, Skylab. I knew every mission, every failure. I knew about Apollo 13 before Apollo 13 was a household word, when it was a seldom-mentioned blemish on our space program. Like many other ten-year-old kids of the era, I thought that in the million years it would take me to graduate high school and college, they would be running Shuttles to the moon and mars like Delta runs flights to Cancun, and in the distant future of 1998, I’d only need to make a quick trip via personal jetpack to the nearest spaceport for a Star Wars-like trip to the beyond. After I got bored of dinosaurs and before I found out about computers, space travel was a Big Deal.

One day we’re all watching a landing attempt, and this is a mission where they had some high winds and couldn’t land in California, so after a very tense one-day delay, (“Wow! Will they have enough air and Tang to last an extra day?”) they glided in to some other air force base, I think in Arizona or Nevada or something. I’d look this up, but I’m sure every Shuttle site on line is disconnected due to overload today. So just trust me on this one.

Anyway, the teachers are white-knuckling it, hoping the pride of the space fleet doesn’t have problems, while most of us are bored and wondering if we get to play kickball on recess today. And this one kid named Rick – maybe I should explain him. He looked like he could’ve made the final casting call to the movie Gummo, the kind of career hyperactive juvenile delinquent that spent so much time in the principal’s office, he had his own desk and phone in there. He lived in the trailer park white trash part of the school district, a small minority among the more typical whitebread, take-care-of-the-lawn-and-keep-up-with-the-Jonses folks that populated most of the subdivisions in the area. Rick was a prototypical headbanger, and the first kid I ever knew who was on Ritalin (although he chose to sell most of his dosage to other kids so they could cop a high while he ran rampant and caused chaos.) Coincidentally or not, Rick was also an amateur BMX racing star, the champion of his division in the state or maybe the world. It’s no surprise, considering they could put him in the chute on a stripped-down moly bike and have him punch the pedals like a motherfucker for two minutes of hyperactive rage.

Anyway, while the teachers are fearing the worst from this Shuttle problem, Rick jumps up and starts yelling “I HOPE IT CRASHES! I HOPE THE FUCKER BLOWS UP!” while he runs around the room in a Tasmanian Devil-like rage. The teachers had a fit at this act of total sacrelige and dragged him into a back room to beat him within inches of his life. (This was long before every square foot of elementary schools were wired with security cameras, and when teachers could still keep a rugby bat drilled with blood holes on their desk as a disciplinary aid.)

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m a high school freshman, sitting in a study hall and counting the minutes to lunch. In comes this dude who was much like Rick, the motorhead-type dude that was majoring in shop class and already had a mustache and two kids by the 9th grade. He came in and told me, “Dude! The fuckin’ Space Shuttle blew up! I just saw it on TV in the library!” Although partially amazed that he actually used his library pass to go to the library and not to go behind the school and inhale some glue, it also floored me that it could’ve happened. I thought maybe he was just pulling my leg, a prank concocted in a haze of cheap pot and model cement, an outburst like the one that Rick pulled years earlier. But by the time lunch started, there was more and more verification, and I knew it was real.

I feel strange about the whole thing. In terms of human life lost, it’s seven people; on 9/11 I personally knew four people, and way more people obviously died that day. Any time an army chopper goes down in Afghanistan, it’s about as many people; many more than seven test pilots have lost their lives in the construction of these craft over the last few decades. It’s not going to stop air travel, and it’s not going to (directly) cause major economic issues. We won’t go to war with someone over this loss, and we don’t have to rebuild or mourn some large metropolitan area because of it.

But of course, the space program is fucked. The ISS is doomed, the Shuttles may never fly again, and forget any sort of funding for any of the various Shuttle replacements that are on the drawing board. It will be years until we send people back into space, and the Russians are far too broke to do anything more than get back the three guys that are stuck in the ISS right now. Any hopes you may have had in seeing a man on Mars within your lifetime are now lost. And that’s too bad. Like I said, twenty years ago, I read every single book I could find on the subject, fact or fiction, and I’ve spent the last two decades following everything, reading everything, and hoping that ISS would be the first step to bigger and better things. This really sucks.

 

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Peter Gabriel at MSG

I saw Peter Gabriel last night at MSG, and it was… interesting. It was excellent in many ways but also really depressing in many other ways, and the whole thing really threw me by the time I got out of there. It’s strange to say that going to a show full of people and energy and music that I essentially enjoy would make me leave in a deep depression, but there were a few nerves to be pinched.

To first get this out of the way: I like Peter Gabriel’s music, but I don’t think I like people who like his music. I think it’s a very personal thing to me, and the songs of his that mean the most to me aren’t the ones that have supported his livelihood. So to go and have the guy sitting next to me yell “SHOCK THE MONKEY! SHOCK THE MONKEY!” after every other song really made me want to sell everything I own, put a unabomber-style shack on my property, and never talk to another human again.

The other thing that bothered me is that although I go to a lot of shows alone, I really don’t like doing it. And this is probably the first non-metal show I’ve ever attended. So not only was there no chance for me to talk to some other dude about the band, like I did when I went to see Rush or Fozzy or whatever else, but pretty much every guy there was with a woman, because this is the kind of show you bring your girlfriend to and hope they play “in your eyes” or whatever. And, not that I haven’t noticed this before, but I’m getting extremely depressed about being alone. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me, but then there are these breakthrough points where I suddenly realize that it’s been months and months since I’ve dated, and I’m currently sustaining no relationships, and I have nothing going on where I’d potentially meet people, and I have no energy to seek out people, and things won’t change themselves, and I have no energy to try to change things. And I can push this stuff away enough to get up every day, and go to my job every day, and maybe put in a little bit of writing on my books or whatever, but when I really think about it, it completely fucking demolishes me. And that happened.

So I’m sitting there for this whole show, essentially spending the whole thing not thinking “wow, I have all of his albums, he’s great,” but rather “I wish this show was over so I could go home and completely reinvent my horrible life.” And the thing is that a lot of Peter Gabriel songs mix happiness and depression in such a strange way that they totally pulled me further into this. When I’m alone, when I’m depressed, I listen to his music, and that helps me write and create. And that means I’m not a fan of “Sledgehammer,” but if you’re depressed and you listen to “Mercy Street” or “Red Rain,” it’s not going to snap you out of it. And my whole career of depression has bookmarks in it via his songs. Even the happy songs remind me of failed relationships, like when they played “Secret World” and it reminded me of the girl I dated back when that album was out, the girl that put “In Your Eyes” on a mix tape for me and now even the first two notes of that song practially exorcise her to me again.

The concert “ended” in a very strange way. They played the song “Signal to Noise” from the new album, and it’s very heavy and deep and dark and forbearing, but absolutely incredible. It’s primarily a more tribal drum sound and some symphonic synth. As the song approached the end, each instrument would finish playing their part and the person would just put down their stuff and walk off the stage, until finally it was just the drummer and a synth playing a sample on its own. Then he got to the end, and the lights went off, and that was it. It was such a heavy and strange ending, watching everyone just walk away, and it struck such a strong impression on me that it completely blew me away.

(Of course, they came out and played a couple of radio-friendly singles as an encore, which sort of ruined it for me, but still…)

So there it is. I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of plans, but mostly I just want to go home and sleep and sit in bed and read and just try to figure out what to do next. I have a hot idea for a new book and I’ve been letting it fester in my head. I think getting onto something real in the writing department would help, but it’s also one of those times where I know that writing isn’t the answer for me and I need to figure out what is.

On that note, I better go home.

Categories
general

a diesel ghost

I saw a ghost today. To me, a ghost isn’t a dead person dressed like a Klansman, making weird noises and scaring people. It’s when one or more of my senses receive input that matches some other point in my history enough to make me think I’m there again. It can be a perfume, a song, a place, a car, a picture, or anything else that strikes a chord and really tears into me. Smell is my strongest sense, but a combination can really freak me out. An example – I used to drive a silver 1980 VW Rabbit diesel, back in 90-91. The smell of diesel fumes, like when a bus goes by, reminds me of my old Rabbit. Now I drive a silver 1978 Rabbit with a gas engine, which sometimes reminds me of my old Rabbit, but there are enough differences and I’m used to it, that it’s a different car to me. But, one time I was driving and I stopped at a light behind a big construction truck, and the diesel exhaust huffed away that familiar smell. And I saw a ghost. For a few seconds, it totally made me think it was the summer of 1991 again, like I was working at NIBCO and dating Johanna down in Bloomington.

Maybe I shouldn’t call it a ghost – maybe it’s more like a wormhole, a way for me to peer back into the past that’s triggered by external events. Like deja vu, but that’s more of an unexpected thing, like you’ve been at the current event before, not like the current event is a weird shadow or afterimage of a past event you know you lived. I guess this happens to a lot of people, and it’s simply called nostalgia. But I think it’s more for me, because I have such a strong memory for the past. Sometimes, when I’m hanging out with friends and talking about old times, I’ll rattle off a story from 5, 10 years ago with such precision, and everyone else says “I totally didn’t remember that until now.” Other people forget the past, and think it’s a curse. I think remembering the past is the real curse. I can’t put ex-girlfriends out of my mind, or forget my stupid mistakes. I wish it all faded away, but I think some people and places will chase me to my grave.

Today’s ghost was nothing tremendous. I walked to work and back, to time the distance (~40 min each way) and the clouds, the smell of the wind, the temperature, and the Rollins Band MD all made it feel like the fall of 1993 again. It wasn’t a total sensation – I was walking in downtown Seattle, not from Wrubel to Colonial Crest, the Rollins album in question came out in 94, and I didn’t have either the black leather jacket or the Aiwa walkman that were Konrath trademarks at the time. But it felt like time skipped for a second, and it lurched back five years.

That’s all I did today. I slept in, went for the walk, and by the time I got home, it was like 5:30. Then after I drank 2 gallons of ice water, passed out, and dealt with an incredible headache focused in the center of my left eye, I got my dinner, and here I am. I wish I had more stories for you about street festivals and shopping and contra dances and mountain climbing and running in the park with puppy dogs, but I don’t.

I should be working on the book…

Categories
general

A random trip to see the collapsing bridge

I loaded up the Escort with my cameras, MiniDisc, and an atlas and headed out yesterday, with the goal of taking a short to moderate roadtrip to somewhere I’ve never been before. So I got on I-5 south with a vague plan in mind, and pressed onward.

I do miss the Escort for some of these medium-length drives. I always complained about its road noise and vibrations, but compared to the Rabbit, it is whisper-quiet. The whole car feels so different now – newer, wider, and somewhat clunkier. Even though it has power steering, it drives less responsively than the VW – which isn’t all that bad. Also, it has air conditioning, which helped yesterday – it felt like it was above 80 for my trip. The MiniDisc was great for the road, too. That’s not a car-specific thing – mine is a Sony MZ-R50, a portable recorder about the size of a cassette tape box. I plug it into my tape player with a faux-cassette adapter, and it sounds fine. I listened to the new Pat Metheny album on the highway south. The perfect sound, small size, and nice little wired remote of the Minidisc made it a good companion for trips like this.

No, I didn’t drive to Longview, although I thought it would be a nice little drive, and it would be a real freakout to see that place again – it was bad enough when I zipped past there with Ryan Grant when we went to see Joe Satriani in Portland last March. Instead, I went down to Tacoma, and got on 16, which cuts to the west and up, into the peninsula on the other side of Puget Sound. After a bit of a haul, I got to the Tacoma Narrows bridge, another Pacific Northwest engineering tragedy story. Back in the 50s? the original Narrows bridge got destroyed in a windstorm. It was a gradual thing – the bridge gyrated all over for a day, and a bunch of people shot film and pictures of the thing before it broke apart and keeled into the water (I think some footage of it was recently in some Sony or Pioneer car stereo ad). The bridge seemed solid to me, but I still unloaded the rest of the b/w film in my still camera while driving across.

After the bridge, I saw a cemetery and decided to stop and look around. When I got out of the car and the AC, I realized it was pretty damn hot, and I was wearing a black t-shirt. Oh well. I have a morbid fascination with cemetaries – I’m not some kind of gothic zombie type, but I think cemetaries are a strange sociological phenomenon. We treat people like shit during their lifetimes, and ignore them until they die. Then we spend thousands of dollars to commemorate them with a piece of land and a chunk of stone. It’s the epitome of cookie-cutter ceremonies. Nobody is born the same way – there are so many stories of rushed trips to the hospital, prolonged labor, C-sections, kids born in the elevator, natural childbirth in swimming pools, and the whole deal. But (almost) everyone who dies gets the same ceremony, the same square of limestone.

This cemetary was a dud, in my opinion – all flat markers, and no real artwork or interesting history. It was a nice looking place though – there was a little newsletter I should’ve stolen, talking about how the staff was there to serve you and to stop by the office for cookies and icewater. It was a nice location, too – you could see a tributary of the sound, with some sailboats and homes built on the hills. There were no interesting graves, although I accidentally found a WWI vet that shared my birthday, so I loaded some color film and got a shot of that.

I continued north on 16, running out the Metheny MD and switching to some Henry Rollins spoken word. You might or might not know the story about how I claim Rollins turned my life around, but maybe I should recap since I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately:

The story starts in October 1993. I’d been in a relationship since March, and I thought it was pretty perfect. Things had settled down from the hyper-romantic “in love” period, to a more cosmopolitan “day-to-day love”, but I still thought it was the greatest relationship I was in. Famous last words – in October, she found out she had an ovarian cyst, and had to go in for surgery in December for it – really serious shit. She had doubts about the relationship, and she felt she couldn’t deal with both the relationship and the medical stuff, and she couldn’t get rid of the medical stuff, so she dumped me.

Of course this completely flattened me. But there’s more background. At that point in time, I was on this academic rollercoaster where I was barely hanging on. At IU, you go on probation for pulling your cumulative GPA below a 2, or doing something asinine in one semester, like getting all F’s. I’d spent more semesters on probation than off; my recent transcript was like: on probation, off probation, on probation, on probation, dismissal, reinstatement, off probation, on probation, and now I would’ve bet money against myself that I’d fuck up the rest of the semester and face another dismissal. I’d also given up on my original dream of finishing a computer science degree, since there were too many hurdles (calculus, foreign language) that I couldn’t finish.

My academic goal at that point was to get a degree in general studies – a loophole provided by the school of continuing studies. I could finish a non-specific bachelor’s degree if I had 120 credit hours – no foreign language, and I got to pick and choose my classes a bit, although I had to have a certain number of social and behavioral, science, and humanities classes, and I had to take a speech class. No problem. I figured I’d never get a job as a hot-shit unix programmer, but maybe I’d get a job answering phones somewhere. I worked with computers then as a support consultant,had been for three years, and knew a fair amount. I knew people with English degrees and History degrees with no experience snagging good-paying computer jobs, and I was properly positioned at the very start of the whole WWW explosion, so maybe there was hope. But I still felt like I was drifting, like all of my mooring lines were being severed one by one. I was taking stupid, passionless classes in public management and business computing, and counting away my time until the real world kidnapped me, without really getting ready for it.

Ten days after the girlfriend left, my paternal grandmother died, and I rushed home for the funeral (I didn’t have a car – my sister drove down from Ball State, and then back up to Elkhart). We briefly lived with Grandma Konrath when my mom, dad, and I showed up in Edwardsburg, MI after he got done with the Air Force in North Dakota. We went to her house almost every weekend from age zero until I was 16, 17 and started running with my own car and friends. Even then, I’d get out there at least every month or so. My maternal grandparents lived in Chicago, and I only saw them on holidays; my paternal grandfather died when my dad was only 2 or 3, so I never met him. So my Grandma Konrath was probably my closest grandparent. I last saw her the day I picked up my truck from U-Haul to move to Bloomington for the fall, and didn’t think of it as a last goodbye, but I guess it works better that way sometimes. I don’t have problems with funerals – I don’t believe in heaven and hell, and that’s problematic when you’re surrrounded by crying people who are talking about that. I feel grief, but it usually doesn’t happen until weeks or months later. Call me weird. Anyway, the strangest part was seeing my dad – he mostly had it together, but there was this almost scared look on his face when we were at the graveyard. He’s the youngest kid in this huge family, and I suddenly realized both of his parents were gone, and it made my father, the person that I see as more of an icon or a figurehead, seem a lot more like me.

So where does Rollins fit into all of this? When I got back to school, I bought The Boxed Life, which is a hilarious spoken word album. Hank talks about travel, depression, the road, people, aggression, humility, strength, and much more. I lived about two miles away from campus, and although I had a bus pass, I’d rather walk home than wait two hours for a BT bus. So I’d strap on my trusty Aiwa walkman, put in one of the Rollins tapes (it was a 2-tape set, and I later bought up the back-catalog too) and hiked it home. His monologues made me think a lot more about my life, the depression, and reinventing myself. Pretty soon, I started hauling around a spiral notebook and writing down my observations and feelings during the lull between classes and work. I dug out my old 110 lb weight set at my mom’s house and brought it back to Bloomington, trying to get back into shape. I stole a bunch of paperback books from my mom’s – stuff like Catch-22 and Fear of Flying, and made a habit of reading an hour or two a night. Later, I started dropping more cash every payday at Morgenstern’s on stuff like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, and I devoured their stories of loneliness, romance, life, and living. I still thought about my ex every day, but I knew I’d need to reinvent myself if I wanted to live. And I guess the distraction of the writing, reading and the lifting got in my way, and kept me from jumping into a temporary, fucked up relationship, like the chain of them behind me. And within a few months, I was a writer. I filled the void title in my life by hacking out short stories, poems, and trying at a first novel. And here I am: Jon Konrath, writer.

About 80 pages ago, I was talking about my trip. I was headed up 16, which is a nice road, with a lot of evergreen trees on either side and some small hills in the distance. There are few stops, just the occasional Texaco station. It reminded me a lot of my time in upstate New York with my dad, the summer before my senior year of high school. The drive felt good, even though I didn’t know my destination.

I got to Bremerton, which is an old Navy shipyard town. I flew over the shipworks in a tiny Cessna plane with a coworker once – there’s a lot of old iron down there. When I pulled into town, I could see the old gray battleships right off the water – a bunch of them were pushed together, hull-to-hull,like they were in storage. I saw a sign for a naval museum, and I hoped there would be a place I could drop a 10-spot and walk onto a decommissioned destroyer. But it looked like the ships were in some fenced-off, official-looking facility, and I couldn’t even get to the water’s edge for a picture. Bummer.

I motored around Bremerton, which is a small town with a heavy naval influence to it. I can’t describe it much better than that, but maybe the smell of saltwater and presence of marinas remind me of being on the Oregon coast, or my walks around lake Union and Elliot bay. Small towns are weird, because they are always beat – worn out signs on little local stores, high school kids with nothing to do, lots of senior citizens. It’s always fucked up, but it’s fucked up out of ignorance more than corruption. In the big city, the problems are that everyone wants to make a buck – everything is a high rise or a parking lot or a no parking zone. Everything is covered with soot and neon signs and billboards for beer or Guess jeans. But in the small town, it’s all about atrophy. And the people like it – and, I guess from a lifetime of living in small towns, it’s nice for me to get a small dose of it here and there.

I got back on 16 and banged north again. I thought about going to 3 and crossing the Kitsap bridge, and headeing west, on the north side of the Olympic State park, until I either got to the ocean or a nice outlook on the Juan de Fuca Strait. Realistically, I didn’t have time for this, and you can’t go all the way to the ocean because the prime real estate right on the tip there is an Indian reservation. So I stopped in Silverdale, with the intent of picking up some cash, hitting a restroom, and maybe getting a bite to eat. I found a Seafirst – while in line, a guy started talking to me about my Joe Satriani shirt. I guess he was up from the Bay Area for the weekend. He looked Navy, but I couldn’t tell. I stopped at the Target by the Kitsap mall – the whole place reminded me of a mall I saw during a stay in Corning, NY. I decided against Burger King, and got back on 16, heading south.

I got back into Bremerton and circled around again, looking for that museum. I saw what looked like Hyatt Regency or Days Inn towers in the distance, but there were a bunch of them – sort of modern-adobe looking, pinkish-sandstone colored, with bright terraces and modern-looking roofs. Why the fuck would they need so many hotels? I got a little lost, and ended up at the gate of the Navy base, so I turned and drove the length of the base, looking in the fence. Then I realized that those buildings weren’t hotels – they were barracks! I thought all barracks were required by law to be 50’s-looking quonset huts, but these were modern, high-rise apartments. I also saw a Subway on base, which looked a little out of place. Just outside of the base were a bunch of run-down bars that looked like they’d never served a drink to a person since the Korean War.

I couldn’t find the museum (I’m sure it’s a snap to find) and I was bored of driving, so I decided to drop $8 and take the ferry back to Seattle. I got there halfway through the lineup, and only had to wait 15 minutes. I grabbed all of my gear, and spent the ride taking still and video pictures of the birds, boats, and water. You can get excellent panning shots when you’re moving through the water – if the water is moving toward your angle, and you zoom in, it looks like you’re flying over the water. Also, the birds had a horrible headwind, and were trying to fly with the boat, so it looked like they were hovering right over us. I shot about 15 minutes of film, and got some great footage (but horrible audio – the wind!) of the approach to Seattle. I got back to the car early, and spooled out the rest of my tape on the approaching kingdome (Sony Hi8 tape is actually 122 minutes long, I found out). It felt good to sit in the Escort after the sound and the headwinds. That car still smells new – it’s amazing.

I got home tired, and sort of depressed. It was 7:30 on a Saturday night, and I was broke and with nothing to do. No messages, no calls, no email – I felt like I should’ve kept driving. Instead, I fell asleep, woke about 3 hours later and ate a TV dinner while watching the tape that was in the camcorder. It had the tail-end of my vacation last October to Indiana (which shows you how much I use the camcorder). My mom had a bunch of old slides from when I was a baby, so we rented a projector, aimed it at the wall, set up the camcorder, and I had her talk about each slide while I taped it. The picture quality is poor, but the commentary is great. I also faux-interviewed my friend Tom Sample in his apartment in Indy and got him to recall some great stories about our time together. After the tape, I spent part of the night, screwing with the new glossary system, and reading the Cliff Stoll book about the German hacker, The Cuckoo’s Egg.

Now I’ve spent forever typing all of that and yet I don’t feel like I’m really talking about what’s going on. I want to get out of the house though, and this will probably be more pedestrian, like a trip to safeway. More later.

06/07/98 21:48

I just re-read and edited what was above. I can ramble when I have nothing better to do with my time. My apologies to low-baud users.

I spent the day wandering in the Escort, wandering Northgate mall, wandering Mountlake Terrace, wandering University Village. It felt good to get out of the house, even though I didn’t have money to blow shopping. Malls have a certain cathartic appearance, and they’re a prime location for peoplewatching. It drives my friends nuts that I will spent so much time at malls without even going in stores, but hey – it’s exercise.

I was reading a book at a bookstore (Waldenbooks? It was someplace I don’t buy books) and it said that you can give your dendrons in your brain a workout by doing things you aren’t used to doing. So maybe I wouldn’t feel as atrophied if I started studying Sweedish or Russian or something. I think that’s true to an extent, because when I was suffering with physics or Spenser and Chaucer, I felt a lot more alert than when I was watching TV 19 hours a day.

I’ve declared Rumored to Exist officially stalled. I need to change gears again, and I have an idea for a third book that might work out well right now. Mum’s the word until I can get an outline hammered out.

Did you know Indiana University had a president with the first name of Elvis? Did you also know that Indiana University, defined by law on January 20, 1820, shares a birthday with me (1971), Bill Perry (1971), physicist Andre Ampere (1775), second man on the moon Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (1930), Deforest Kelley – Star Trek’s “Dr. Bones” (1920), mathematician and physicist Daniel Bernoulli (1700), creator of Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray (1894), Lorenzo Lamas (1958), Kiss guitarrist Paul Stanley (1949), novelist Johannes Jensen (1873), and Skeet Ulrich (1968)? That’s quite a lineup – I’m thinking a secret society is in the works.

I need to figure out dinner and then start outlining this book.