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Hello from Mexico

IMG_1643I’m writing from a hotel room in Ixtapa, Mexico, where I’ve been hanging out for almost a week.  We flew down last Saturday, and fly back on Sunday.  This has been our first real vacation since our honeymoon in the Bahamas in 2007, except for long weekends, trips back to the Midwest for holidays, and the week I took off to move into our new place, and it’s been long overdue.

Mexico’s a strange place.  First, it’s strange that my didn’t-pay-attention-twenty-years-ago Spanish is somewhat functional here, and fragments of it have been coming back to me as we stumble through menus and tours.  Yes, most of the people here, especially those in the tourism-related industries (which is pretty much all of Ixtapa and Zihuantanejo) speak English.  But they also like it when you try to use Spanish, and they all seem to love trying to teach you a few words here and there en Espanol.

We’re in one of the poorest states in the country, and once you leave our hotel, you can see it.  Ixtapa’s not much more than a marina, a row of resorts, and a couple of golf courses, but Zihua is a pretty beat city.  Walking the rows of open markets and ramshackle properties, pretty much the only high tech things you will see are Coke or Corona signs.  Any feeling you may have about being the Ugly American here is quickly dissipated by the thought that at least the pesos you’re throwing out there are going to someone who needs them.

A dollar is worth 12 or almost 13 pesos.  Prices in pesos still use the dollar sign though, which first freaked me out when I picked up a room service menu and saw a can of Coke for $35.  I can’t really tell how much we’re spending or how good or bad of a deal it is, because we’re charging a lot of stuff back to the room, and there’s the whole ‘monopoly money’ factor.  Anything less than 20 pesos you get back in change will be in coins, and the paper money is very colorful with pictures of Indians and pyramids.  Also, the Banco De Mexico on the 100 peso bill is in a font that looks like the Iron Maiden logo, which is very metal.

Most days, we have been doing nothing but sitting on the beach, reading or writing.  I have crossed the 50,000 mark on this book, which means it is officially done as far as NaNoWriMo is concerned, but it’s really like 30% done, and that’s just a first draft, so don’t look for a pre-order any time soon.  We also took a long tour where we got to see a tilemaking operation in the countryside and wander through a town that had a big open market.  It was all centered around this one Catholic church that had a Jesus that looked tragic in a Faces of Death sort of way, bewildered and on his knees dragging a cross, bloodied and beaten.  Not exactly the airbrushed and toned Jesus I was used to seeing as a kid in Indiana.

We also went on a long tour yesterday on ATVs, which was a lot of fun.  It was mostly through woods and farmland, and most of the farms here grow coconuts, or raise cattle.  We also got to cruise at top speed across a wavy oceanfront.  ATVs are fun as hell, and it makes me want to buy a couple and tear up my land in Colorado to put in some kind of dirt obstacle course.

And the bad news.  First, there was an earthquake here last Sunday.  There were actually three, a 3.7, a 4.6, and a 4.2; I think we only felt the middle one.  It wasn’t much, a very quick shake that we thought was just someone next door or maybe below us, and we didn’t hear confirmation of it until the next day.

Second, we got sick.  We were both careful about what we ate and drank, and they purify everything here at the hotel, but something got us.  It was a horrible, flu-like thing where I was feverish and totally weak for about 24 hours, and then it went away.  So, Montezuma had his revenge, but a day later, I was for the most part better.

And also, on last Sunday, I was eating a piece of cake, and one of my crowns fell out.  It was my lower rear one, and it and the tooth appeared to have no damage, but there was some sensitivity, and immediately went ballistic.  “Mexican” and “Dentist” go together like “Turkish” and “Prison”.  I got an appointment the next morning with a dentist in Zihua who had an office about as clean and friendly as my last dentist in Astoria (which isn’t saying much, but it wasn’t like the dental scene in that Tom Hanks castaway movie.)  He shot me up with novacaine, cleaned everything, glued the crown back on, told me in broken English that I needed to get it redone as soon as possible (going back next week, in the US…) and then charged me roughly  $40.  No paperwork, no insurance hassles, no waivers to sign, nothing.  It was truly a “you are not in the US anymore” moment.

So here I am, the temperature outside double what it is back home, no rain or gloom.  No turkey yesterday, and the only football on the tube was the no-hands variety with the round ball.  Lots of pictures to upload when I get back on a real internet connection, so stay tuned.

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Back from Germany

I’m back. Pictures are on flickr (although I’m liking that site less and less the more I use it.) Not everything is captioned, and yes there are a lot of pictures that are blurry and fucked up. Museums with low light, no flash allowed, glass cases, and my piece of shit camera will do that.

I enjoyed the trip and seeing new things, but I’m so glad to be back. My main two problems were food and drink. I thought I liked German food, but it turns out that I like German food made with American ingredients. There are some real differences in the quality of food in Europe. The meat is much tougher, and the pork products are cured way more, so they have this horrid taste, like if you’ve ever had shelf-stabilized bacon in a can from a camping trip or an MRE. Vegetables are all non-GMO, non-big agra, and not that incredible. I’m sure the eurotrash contingent would disagree, but I like tomatoes that are bigger than a golf ball. What was frustrating was that there are many American chain places that use German ingredients. I went to a McDonald’s hoping for the same burger and fries I’d get back home, but the meat was tough and gamey, and the potatoes in the fries didn’t have the same magical starch composition as Idaho spuds back home, making them taste odd. If I lived in Germany, I would lose 50 pounds in the first three months, because I simply wouldn’t be able to eat fast food anymore. (In fact, I lost about five pounds since we left, but I’m sure most of that is dehydration from the plane ride.)

And not all food was horrible. On our last night, we went to a more traditional German restaurant, and I had the best damn potato soup I’ve eaten in a long time. We also went to the fancy-schmancy restaurant in the hotel one night, and I got an eight-course dinner that was pretty incredible, if not a bit weird. The best dish was a cajun scampi that was lightly fried in spices, but was as tender as baby food inside, and served with a wasabi sorbet, which sounded odd, but was incredible. The main dish was three types of ox: tongue, shoulder, and breast, done up with some kind of reduction and cooked to the point where they were almost jelly. I also tried a lot of stuff I’d normally never eat, like duck liver, caviar, mackerel, and a few others. It was a strange meal, but very memorable.

Oh, the drink part – I think Germans don’t consume as much liquid as Americans. That eight glasses of water a day thing didn’t make it over there. I can understand the lack of fascination with large soda sizes; I went to a Burger King and got a super maxi size, and the soda was like 16 ounces, which is the child-size at an American fast food place. It’s hard to even find a 12-ounce Coke, let alone the 16 or 20-ounce big plastic bottles. The most popular size was a .2 liter or .33 liter. And that’s fine, but the water sizes are even more scant. Go to an American Safeway or Kroger, and you will find a million bottles of water that are a liter, if not more. (“Sport” sized.) I never, ever saw that. They don’t serve water with meals, they don’t have drinking fountains, and the water they do have is some kind of carbonated mineral water. No Dasani, no Evian, just the stuff that tastes like it will give you lead poisoning. And I drink like ten glasses of water a day, plus three or four American-sized Cokes. After a day or two of begging and pleading at restaurants to get a second four-ounce glass of water, things got old fast.

Nice things: the mass transit. There are two types of subway (S-bahn and U-bahn), plus streetcars, busses, light rail, longer rail, and the Eurail. The subway was a bit daunting at first, but it was also odd because there are no turnstiles to stop you from entering any station. There are just little paper tickets – you buy one, then stamp it in a validator machine to show you’re riding the train now. If you get caught without a validated ticket, there’s a fine, but nobody ever checked ours. If they did this in New York, there would be 40,000 people living in each station in a matter of seconds. The stations were clean, maybe as clean as a PATH train, so not sterile, but decent. Each station has digital signs telling you where the trains are going, and when the next train will arrive. (Same with bus stops.) Let me repeat that: THERE ARE SIGNS THAT TELL YOU WHEN THE NEXT TRAIN IS ARRIVING! Not “eventually,” not “at some point”, but “in two minutes.” They could never, ever, fucking ever do this in New York. And before you ask, yes the times were accurate. Trains regularly showed up a minute before the time. I never saw one run late. Another odd thing is that subway doors don’t open or close at each stop – you press a green button on the inside or the outside to open the door, and they close automatically as the train leaves. What’s weird is you can open a door as the train is slowing down for a stop. In New York, that feature would kill about 9 people a day. The trains were very nice; the S-bahn is more long-haul, above-ground stuff, while the U-bahn is underground, but more transfers to get from point to point than a NY train. But figure in that New York City hasn’t been divided and reunited and leveled by bombs over the course of the last 50 years, so their routes can be a bit more static.

In general, people in Berlin seem to be more trusting and self-policing than what I’m used to in New York. There were many times when I saw something and wondered “why doesn’t someone just steal that shit?” Like eating at a buffet restaurant, the German approach might be “just take some food, then tell us what you ate and pay for it,” where the New York version would be “Pay for the shit before you even touch it, then go through the metal detector, pick up the food, and get the fuck out of here because we’re not running a hotel.” There were many coin-op public toilets on the street (like the kind that clean themselves between uses) and it made me wonder if they could ever do that in NYC, or if people would just put in the 75 cents and move into the bathroom and never leave.

People were largely nice, and I never got called out for being an American, and didn’t have to pretend to be a Canadian or whatever. Not everyone speaks English well, but a lot do. The main problem is that we both look German enough that people assumed we were German and would start babbling away rapid-fire into conversations with us. The other problem is that German is alien enough to me that I can’t tell if a person talking in my peripheral vision is talking to a friend, talking on a cell phone, trying to get my attention, or frantically trying to tell me to stop what I’m doing because I’m about to massively fuck something up. I can tell people are talking, but I can’t tell if they are talking to me, or what the tone is. I don’t understand much Spanish, but I know enough that I can figure that out when I’m here. But it really started to make me paranoid, because I was always worried there was some small social thing that I was fucking up, like if I didn’t take off my jacket when I sat at a table, I was disgracing the owner of the restaurant and he would have to challenge me to a duel. Or whatever.

The big thing about Berlin is the wall, even though it’s largely gone. Every gift shop sells little pieces of the wall, which are probably just cinderblocks smashed up into little pieces, just like the Mt. St. Helens ashes you used to be able to buy in Washington. A lot of the former lines of the wall are now outlined by twin brick lines embedded in pavement and sidewalks. Most people envision a single, long wall, like a castle wall, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. The wall zig-zagged all over the place, and it was actually two walls: a taller one on the east side, a smaller one on the West, and a DMZ between the two. We went to the Checkpoint Charlie site, which is now a Disneyland for hucksters selling cheap shit to tourists. Want a picture with a fake army guard at the checkpoint? A bath towel? Snow globe with a piece of the wall in it? Former commie t-shirts and hats? Come on down, bring your Euros. We went to the museum there, and it was the most tacky and ghetto (no pun intended) museum I’ve seen since me and Larry went to that John Dillenger museum in Brown County a decade or so ago. So yeah, the wall is a big cottage industry. And I bought a fridge magnet, so I guess I’m just contributing to it.

I can’t even begin to describe the museums we went to, although I took some photos. The German historical museum was my favorite, and did a good job of describing German history from before christ up to present. The up-to-WWI collection was an excellent primer on the early days of Romans and Huns and Emporers and Napoleon and everything else. The 20th century part was Nazi central, with a lot more than I’d expected. They had a lot of original third reich stuff, which was interesting for a bit, but after a few rows of it, it was like watching the History Channel’s WW2 marathon on repeat for days on end. It was odd that the Treaty of Versailles was called the “treaty of shame” in all of the exhibits. It was also eerie to see a display of an engine from a British bomber that was shot down over Berlin. I’m desensitized to seeing these “spoils of war” displays in museums; it was weird to see one from the other side.

We also went to a couple of art museums, which were interesting. I don’t know a lot about art or modern art, so when I see something I think is neat, I’m not thinking “wow, what does this represent?” but rather “wow, how did he do that?” I’m more interested in large-scale modern art from the welding/carpentry/stoneworking point of view than the actual art, so maybe that doesn’t make me the best critic. But the museums were great. I saw a lot of Andy Warhol at one, Picasso at the other, and Felix Gonzales-Torres had a huge showcase at one place. I also saw a Damien Hirst in there, “The Void,” the one with all the pills. That museum also had a huge display of video-based pieces, all of them incredibly odd and interesting. Like one guy was showing the movie Psycho over a 24-hour period. Maybe I should get a video projector and start filling out grant forms.

Oh, I also saw the world’s largest model train layout. There are a bunch of blurry pictures of that in there, too.

I am sure there’s more to talk about, but I need to either take a nap or try to get started on the day…

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Back from Milwaukee

[Before I begin, does anyone know anything about WiFi? I have a router next to my Mac, and when I’m in the next room on my laptop, I’m lucky to have it work for five minutes before the signal drops. When I have a signal, it’s 100% excellent, no problem, but then BAM it’s gone. This happens even if the laptop is physically touching the router. There are a lot of other routers in the building, and I’ve tried fucking with the channel settings a bit, but to no avail. This is extremely frustrating, because every page I’ve found on google says “well, have you tried moving into a cabin in the woods with no walls?” as like step one. I also don’t want to dump a lot of cash into repeaters or antennae just to find out it’s a fundamental problem of living in NYC with too many hotspots. Oh, and I mention all of this because I already wrote this entire entry, and on like the last word, the connection dropped, and then when I went to the other computer to fix it, it overwrote the backup file with a blank file. I was seriously on the verge of smashing my laptop into little tiny pieces with a hammer. I still might. Anyway.]

So I’m back from Milwaukee, and the trip went well. We spent a lot of time with Sarah’s family, and that was all good. We also went to the art museum (where Sarah’s dad works), Irish Fest, the public museum, a Brewers game, and did a lot of driving around and seeing all of the places where Sarah grew up. We also drove down to Kenosha to meet up with John Sheppard and his better half. It was a pretty packed 4-day weekend.

Milwaukee, to me, seems like a Chicago-lite. It’s smaller, and doesn’t have as many of the big things, but it’s also easier to get around, it’s cleaner, maybe a bit quieter, and more relaxed. But a lot of things remind me of the Chicago I knew as the kid, like the little corner bars with the giant Old Style signs out front, the giant, old brick factories and chimneys from the breweries, and the general feel of the place, the way houses are built and how stores are laid out. It really made me think back to my grandparents’ old neighborhood (which is Larry’s current neighborhood.)

The only time I’ve been to Milwaukee was for the metalfest, in ’93. We drove by the big Eagles lodge that was the venue for that show, and I saw the only things I experienced on that trip: the hall, the street where Ray parked and we tried to sleep, the McDonald’s next door, and the quick pick minimart across the street. The other indelible event that I associate with Milwaukee is Jeffrey Dahmer’s capture. I remember in 1991, reading all of the news magazines in the Osco drug at Concord Mall, going over all of the facts of the butchery that he ran in his apartment. Turns out his lair at the Oxford Apartments on 25th and Kilborn was maybe three blocks from the metalfest. Oddly enough, when Sarah was born, her parents lived in a house just a couple of blocks down Kilborn. When we were driving around one night, we tried to locate the spot of his old apartment, but they tore it down years ago, and now it’s just a vacant lot with some old chainlink around it. Driving in the neighborhood was weird though, because I always pictured the area as an ultra-urban slum, like maybe where I lived in Washington Heights. But the neighborhood looked more like the rougher parts of Elkhart, by the projects.

The other big surprise was that I really enjoyed the Brewers game. I haven’t followed baseball since I was a kid, and even then it was only half-heartedly. I’ve never seen a professional game before, and this was my first. It was against the Astros, which is funny because my peewee league team was the Astrobowl Astros, and because of that, I was vaguely an Astros fan when they had the stupid-looking bright orange jerseys, the AstroDome (with AstroTurf), and Nolan Ryan on the mound. Now that all of that has changed, not really a fan, for whatever stupid reason.

We went with Sarah’s sister, and her boyfriend and group of friends that all had season tickets. We first went to their place and did some indoor tailgating, and they had some bratwurst grilling away in a soup of onions and peppers. Those were pretty much the best damn brats I’ve ever had, especially with some sauerkraut and a good bun. We ended up eating and listening to everyone’s bitchfest about the Brewers, and before long, we were into the first inning, but not yet at the stadium. We took off in different cars, and we paid the $12 for “preferred” parking. Dan and the others parked illegally at the back of the VA hospital for free, and we ended up walking up to the gate at the same exact time.

Miller Park is a pretty decent place to see a game. It has a retractable roof, modern seats and shops and all of that (no pee trough in the bathroom), and they have a lot of new LCD screens and score things everywhere, so you can always see all of the stats, and also keep up on other MLB games in progress. Lots of people were there. Lots of mullets. Lots of beer. I think I was the only sober person there, but that only added to the energy. I was surprised at how close we were for $38 seats, and watching a game in person is nothing like TV. In fact, watching on TV really sucks in comparison.

The game itself was sedate – it got tied at 2 by the second inning, and went on scoreless until the bottom of the 9th, when the Brewers got one in. But all of the little stuff made it interesting. Bernie Brewer, the mascot, slides down this huge slide whenever there’s a run. He used to slide into a giant beer mug, but I’m sure some parental nazi group got that taken out. There’s also the sausage race, where a group of people dressed as various kinds of sausages race across the field. (Italian sausage won.) The place went nuts when the first home run went over the wall. And at the very end, when they were getting everyone really riled up, they did this whole “more cowbell” thing on the video screen, playing the SNL sketch intercut with various home runs hit during the season, which was pretty hilarious. There were only 30,000 there, with a lot of empty seats at the top, but the crowd had a lot of energy (and a lot of beer), so it was a lot of fun.

Coincidentally, we were shopping at Target (so good to be out of NYC…) and I found a “more cowbell” CD, which has a dozen or so tracks featuring cowbell. It was a good buy at $8.99, although I’m a little don’t-fear-the-reapered-out for now.

Irishfest was also a blast. It’s the biggest one in the country, and it’s held at these fest grounds that are used for a lot of other festivals. So there were the same food courts and concert venues and all, but also a ton of tents selling Irish crafts and shirts and whatnot. I’d like to say I got some incredible food, but the lines were so long, I used the shortest-wait approach and grabbed a hotdog and fries. We saw two musical groups, one that was more drum-oriented, and we had a front-row seat for the Billy Mitchell Scottish group. They were bagpipes and drums, plus some dancing too. The whole thing reminded me of Simms and all of the times we watched So I Married an Axe Murderer. This alumnus of the group, who was 150% Scottish, was sitting behind us and making comments to a friend in his thick-as-hell accent, and it greatly tempted me to ask him to call Simms on the phone and leave a message on his machine, like “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!”

In Kenosha, we met with John and Helen at The Brat Stop, which was also had a pretty good bratwurst. I also had some fried cheese curds, and I’m glad they aren’t available here, or I’d be pricing out bypass surgery by now. It was good to see John again, and also good to see tons of cheese and Green Bay Packers stuff available. We also stopped at the Mars Cheese Castle. Unfortunately, this was not a castle made out of cheese, but rather a store that sells a ton of cheese. Fortunately, there were free samples. We also stopped at the largest grocery store I’ve ever seen in my life. It had a beverage section bigger than most groceries in New York. And if you have been to a super-huge Kroger in the Midwest, well this place’s freezer section was bigger than this. It was truly awesome, except I couldn’t bring any of it back on the plane, so it wasn’t.

And that’s all. Well, we went to the museums, and the art museum has a pretty funky building, with these big spines that open and close, and no right angles in sight. And we had a lot of food, which was good. And now I’m back to the daily grind. And no, we’re not moving to Wisconsin. (I still can’t believe I can’t write about anything without someone mis-reading an ulterior motive into it.)

Anyway, pictures on flickr. Back to work.

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Amsterdam

I’m back from Amsterdam, and we had a good time there. Part of me wants to write a big trip report, but part of me wants to do a rm -rf ~/www/journal on a fairly constant basis, (and that might be coming soon), so no report. The basic synopsis is that the jetlag really fucked me, I got a bad cold and was not able to buy any medicine to get better, but we still got a lot in, and the trip was more than worth it. Pictures are posted, but I’m too lazy to add a link, so figure it out.

Although I’ve been to most of the 50 states, and I’ve been to Canada a half-dozen times, I’ve never left the country otherwise, so this was a cool trip. Ever since the first time I went to Canada in high school, bought a Coke can from a machine, and felt the slight difference, I have been fascinated by finding out the differences in places based on their consumer goods. I don’t land in Utah and seek out the Mormon people or find out why it’s called the Beehive state; I immediately find out if they have a Denny’s, an IHOP, a 7-Eleven, or where people go to buy their records. I enjoy travel to states that are test markets for new soft drinks, or that have odd hamburger chains I can’t find anywhere else. I know I should care more about the history or culture or climate or something else, but seriously, fuck that. I want to know about the things I consume, that I use.

In that sense, The Netherlands were very interesting, because EVERYTHING was different. Okay, this wasn’t like going to some third-world former Soviet shithole where people drink chlorinated rainwater and eat gamey horsemeat on important holidays. The Dutch speak English and enjoy many of the same foods as Americans. But the differences I look for were there in spades: .33L bottles of Coke; Fanta everywhere; bottled water in those plastic-impregnated cardboard boxes like soy milk; automats; coin-op bathrooms that were cleaner than hospital operating rooms; weird soaps; weird cell phones; weird cars. Everything was interesting. I wanted to buy one of everything just to open it, taste it, smell it, and decide if it was better or worse than what I’d become used to over the last 34 years. Even the money was weird; it took some time to get used to having a fistful of coins that was worth like forty bucks.

Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. I read that before I left, but I was very surprised at how well most people did. And I’m not talking “your total is ten Euros” sort of proficiency; I mean, I had conversations with people who spoke such unbroken English that I could have sworn they grew up back in the states. The bad news is that everything is in Dutch, with occasional English subtitles. Shopping in a grocery store was a little difficult; I almost walked out with a large bottle of drinking water that was in reality vinegar. The most odd aspect of the whole English-Dutch thing was the number of times a cashier started talking to me in Dutch instead of English. You’d think I would have a giant “American” sign above me, but I guess not.

I mentioned elsewhere that things were completely politically neutral, which was nice. I was at the very least expecting a huge fuck-george-bush display in a city square, or some hippies hassling the American tourists over their fascist leader. But nobody said shit, and furthermore, there was no real display of political strife or issue locally. I was very pleased to find a place to go where I didn’t have to hear someone drone on and on about it.

I think my favorite thing was the botanical garden, which had three different big greenhouse climates with different temperatures and humidities, plus some smaller rooms and a lot of excellent landscaping and scenery. It was maybe in the fifties when we were there, but one of the big rooms was a jungle climate and so humid that my glasses and camera fogged over. They had some huge trees in there, and of course, this immediately made me wish I had a similar setup out on my Colorado land.

Anyway, that’s the basic story. Now I have to get over this cold, and start on my next project, which is learning Apple Pages, the new word processor/page layout program that’s part of iWork. It’s basically an Apple version of something like Adobe InDesign, and I think it might enable me to drop FrameMaker when I design my next book. I have only played with it for a few minutes, but it’s very fun.

But first, the evening’s Nyquil…

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Back to Indiana

I’m back in New York, and a lot went on over the last week, so I’ll see if I can lay down the bare-bones version of it as I eat my lunch.

On Thursday, I woke up early and caught a limo to LaGuardia. This is a pretty quick trip from my apartment, so I got to the airport about 90 minutes before the plane left. It only took me a few seconds to get through security, and I managed to skip the whole line of people by using Delta’s kiosk checkin. So I had some time to kill, and I read almost all of this biography of Henry Rollins I’ve been working on.

The plane didn’t board until about five minutes before we left, but it was a small shuttle flight on Comair, so that didn’t mean much. The plane, the usual Canadair, was sitting away from the terminal, so when we went down the stairs to the tarmac, a big, square airport bus was waiting there. After the dozen or so people got on, we rode about 30 feet to the jet. I once again missed the perfect photo op, a shot looking down the tubular body of the tiny jet and into the engine from the door. Maybe next time.

Nothing much to say about the flight in, except it was short – about 90 minutes. When I got to the airport and sprinted to the rental car counter, I thought everything looked completely different from the last time I was there, maybe five years ago. Most of this was new stores, new artwork, new signs, and so on. When I descended to the luggage area, I saw the airport was almost identical to the many times I was there in the past, which triggered the strange nostalgia in my head.

So after a few minutes at the Thrifty car counter and a quick shuttle over to their lot, I was in possession of a Kia Optima SE which I’d never heard of before. The thing looked a little off in its shape, and the fake wood and chrome trim inside looked butt-ugly. But it had a CD and cassette, a power moonroof, and a decent engine, so I couldn’t complain.

After I got the car, I went to pick up Alana. I’ve known Alana since 1990 or 1991, I think, when we were both in Bloomington and both on the computers constantly. We’ve been in and out of touch over the years, but she recently found me again and we got caught up a bit. I thought it would be cool to meet face to face, drive around a bit, and see some of the landmarks from Summer Rain again, especially considering it’s been ten years since all of that stuff happened.

It’s always weird to be doing this kind of shit, and it really hit some buttons to be driving on SR-37 again, stopping at the Flying J truck stop just south of Indy again like I used to, and pulling into town again. Of course, it was also cool to talk to Alana, who is both a cool person to hang out with and a strange connection to this past I don’t forget. On the way into town, we drove past all of the big landmarks: my old place in Colonial Crest, the downtown, Kirkwood, what used to be Garcia’s, and Tom’s CD store. We ate at a Tibetan place on 4th, then drove past 414 South Mitchell, the College Mall, and checked out Lake Monroe. It’s all there and very strange to see. The quiet college campus I described in my first book still exists, even though a few stores have changed. It really made me wish I was back in town, even if I did have to starve to stay there.

After a few laps around, we headed back and listened to some Bill Hicks, which is pretty much the default music for many of my roadtrips, and I’m always happy to find a new convert to his work. We headed back north, and after I dropped off Alana, I headed up 465 for the ride to Elkhart.

I’ve made the 465 to 31 to 20 trip so many times back in the day, I knew every damn piss-stop and fuel depot and restaurant on the way. So after a few years of mental rust and constant change, I enjoyed the quick whip north. I found a Hardee’s restaurant, which was a strange thing for me. I ate there a bajillion times back in high school, so it was cool to stop there for a cheeseburger on the way up. I also saw that Grissom AFB is now gone, and they chopped it up into some kind of industrial park. Otherwise, the drive felt just like it did back when I used to make it every other weekend. Of course, the hermetically sealed and highly engineered Kia felt much different than my lawnmower-powered and somewhat shaky VW, but I still enjoyed the ride.

I made it to Elkhart in good time, and pulled in to Ray Miller’s place, where I’d be staying. We went to Meijer to get my nephew a present for his birthday, and I marveled at this cavernous, 24-hour store bigger than many neighborhoods in New York. On the way back, we cruised my old neighborhood and looked at my old house, which was a bit strange. At Ray’s, we watched some Mr. Show episodes, and I had a minor freakout because the jacket I just had pressed for the wedding was wadded up inside my suitcase, and I was almost certain I’d be fucked on getting it straightened out before Saturday.

Because of the paranoia on the jacket, I woke up at about seven and immediately got showered and out the door. I found a cleaner with three-hour service in downtown Elkhart, which was cool except it basically meant I would have to kill three hours in Elkhart. (I couldn’t go back to Ray’s because he sleeps about 20 hours a day and that kept me locked out.) So I drove around pretty much every major road in Elkhart, and did a lot of nothing.

I never had any strong feeling for Elkhart, and never thought I’d miss it after I left. And I don’t really miss it, especially now that half of the stores there have failed and left a big chunk of the city a hollow shell. But way back when I first got a car, I drove around Elkhart a lot, cruising the strip, cutting across the city to go to the malls of South Bend, or hunting down comic books at various stores that are now long gone. Crossing through downtown and other main strips of Elkhart reminded me of my time in high school, or the year I spent going to IUSB. Circling down all of these roads made me realize I could still drive them in my sleep, even if many of the surroundings had changed.

I went to the Concord Mall, which is now nothing more than a fragment of what it used to be. The Montgomery Ward store where I worked in high school is now boarded up and vacant, and the neighboring K-Mart has also vanished. The Osco drugs and Supersounds record store in the mall are gone, as well as many other small stores. But, I stopped in an Athlete’s Foot and found a bunch of plain, colored t-shirts that I could not find when I was in New York, and got 5 for $20. But other than that cool discovery, the mall was a very depressing site to see.

Cycling around, I went through my old subdivision a few more times, and saw that pretty much everybody I knew had moved away. Maybe some people had moved into newer parts of the area, with more updated subdivisions and fancier houses. Or maybe they just left the area. Most houses still looked the same as they used to; although a few had new paint or new trim, I could still cruise up the streets and remember the kids from my childhood that lived there. When I got bored of this, I drove over to Ox-Bow park, which is next to the subdivision and a place that I spent a lot of time as a kid, riding my bike, climbing the wooden tower, and digging around the woods and trails. The park looked pretty much the same, although it seemed smaller to me. And they replaced the old-fashioned green metal pumps on the artesian wells with generic electric-powered water fountains. That was a drag, because I always remember the fun of pumping the water pump and starting the water going, and then drinking this cool and pure water. It’s not as fun when you just flip a switch.

After a lot of driving, I ate at a Dairy Queen in Elkhart, and then got the jacket. It was only like $4.50 and when I tried to give the woman $7 including a tip, she absolutely wouldn’t take a tip. So that was both cool and strange. After I got the jacket, I called my sister and headed over to my mom’s place. She lives in Bristol, so the drive took a few minutes and I got a bit turned around on the way over. I got to her house before anyone else showed up, so I had a few minutes to kill, just standing around.

After a minute or two, my sister Angie showed up with my nephew Phillip. He’s going to turn five next week, and he’s in the stage of development where he’s fully mobile, cognitive, and aware of everything, yet he’s also young enough that the first feelers of real life haven’t reached him yet and his innocence and childhood are fully intact. I still remember that age well, and I’m envious of it, but it also makes it that much more fun to hang around him.

I gave Phillip his birthday presents, which consisted of a Spiderman puzzle, a Star Wars puzzle, and a Lego set that contained two pull-back type cars. I helped him build the Legos as my mom and her husband Jeff arrived. We hung out for a bit, but most of the time consisted of everyone else getting ready for the rehearsal dinner while I played with Phillip. After a bit, I suited up in my dress clothes for the dinner, and everyone split to go register at the hotel before then. I didn’t have a room, and I knew Ray would still be asleep, so I drove around for a while longer, and headed into South Bend.

I took the same way into South Bend that I took every day of the 1990-1991 school year. Once again, a few things were different, but I drove the stretch like I was on autopilot. I cruised through Mishawaka, into South Bend, and stopped at IUSB, mostly to use the restrooms but also just to see what was up there. The campus has changed pretty radically, with the old Coca-Cola bottler gone and a brand new building in its place. Also, the strip of pavement and parking that led up to the library as I knew it was now a grassy pedestrian mall. I stopped in the main administration building, which looked largely the same. I thought about walking around more, but the whole thing freaked me out enough that I had to get the hell out of there.

I don’t even remember where I went next, except that I had hours to kill and I was so damned bored, but I didn’t want to go to University Park Mall or the Notre Dame campus because, well I don’t know. I headed down 31 toward Plymouth and looked around for some place to kill some time, like a book store or something. No luck on that – the small Indiana main street didn’t have anything promising, so I went to a park and wrote in my paper journal for a bit. Then I cycled back to the place for the reception dinner and hung out for a bit. This was a small bed and breakfast where everyone looked at me like I was a drug dealer as I sat in the car for an hour playing games on my Palm Pilot.

Finally, everyone showed up, and we filed into the dining room of the place and sat down. I can’t say too much about the dinner, other than it was strange to see both my mom and my dad in the same room at once. Phillip was there and since he was in the wedding, he got a gift of a bunch of Star Wars Legos. I finally saw my sister Monica for the first time, and also finally met her fiancee Derek. I didn’t actually go to the rehearsal, so this dinner went by pretty quick.

After dinner, Monica needed a ride back to Walkerton, so we headed back there to her house. She bought a place a few years ago and I hadn’t seen it yet, so I wanted to check it out. When we got there, we met up with Angie and my cousin Cathy, Phillip, my sister’s friend and coworker Maggie, and Sheila, a friend of Monica’s from our old neighborhood that all of us have known forever. Her house is pretty decent, a hundred-year-old two bedroom with nice wood floors, high ceilings, and a very quiet neighborhood in a tiny Indiana town. I like it, but I also understand why she wants to eventually sell and get into a bigger place. Anyway, the bunch of us sat around and talked for a long time, mostly a bitch session about various families and relatives. Between the stories of past weddings, my grandfather’s thriftiness, and various people at Monica’s school, we were up for hours until everyone had to split. It was weird to be the last one there and tell my sister goodbye, knowing it was the last time she’d ever be a Konrath. But I got a good drive back with Henry Rollins in the player, and met up with Ray for a 7-Eleven run and some episodes of Mr. Show on DVD before I had to collapse.

I slept in, got dressed, and shot down to Plymouth again for a 3:00 call. They reserved a new convention hall at the Swan Lake PGA golf course, and by the time I got there, people already filled the place. I saw a lot of folks that I hadn’t seen in years; all five of my mom’s sisters were there, and a lot of my dad’s family was around, plus a bunch of Derek and Monica’s coworkers. My old Bloomington pal Julius Cooper, who previously worked with Derek, was there with his fiancee, so I sat with him and chatted in between rounds of hellos with other people. Once the food got started though, I sat between my dad and Phillip.

The wedding was one of the best I can remember. The hall looked great, my sister had a great dress and both her and Derek looked pretty happy about the whole thing. I expected a lot more tension with both of my parents there, but everyone on both sides got along well, and people from opposing families who hadn’t seen each other in decades talked to each other, which was great. Phillip, Derek’s son Ethan, and the handful of other kids were running all around but were pretty well-behaved and entertaining. And everything in general fell into place without incident.

I felt very strange during the wedding, for a few different reasons that are hard to explain. Going to a wedding alone can be an uncomfortable experience, especially when the dancing starts, and it made me wish I had more people to hang out with during the whole thing. My family members were there, but sometimes talking to that many distant family members at once is more like a press junket than anything else. I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy talking to people, I just mean that I wished I talked to them more often so I had better topics of conversation than “so what’s been up the last three years?”. And the strange thing was that I actually enjoyed seeing a lot of family members, but I felt uncomfortable knowing that I wouldn’t see them again for a long time, and I didn’t know what the next occasion would be. Part of me thinks I should see my family more, but it’s difficult to simply climb in a plane and meet up with a hundred people on a whim. And of course, I hate to admit the slightest amount of jealousy. I mean, I am very happy that my sister is happy, but of course as a single person with no real prospects on the horizon, at least part of me wished I had a person I was happy with. These aren’t things I can simply dismiss, so they tugged at me a bit as the reception went on.

A small pet peeve: if you know someone who was in or near any of the attacks in 9/11, don’t ask them about it as a conversational icebreaker. I got really fucking sick and tired of telling the story over and over. Maybe some people are into it, but I’d rather not talk about it. So if you go to a family reunion and meet someone from New York or DC, ask them about baseball or something. The Yankees are a much more socially acceptable disaster to discuss.

The whole thing was over quick, even though I was there four or five hours. I stayed while everyone rounded up the last of their stuff, and made the drive back to Elkhart, where I met up with Ray and his girlfriend Maria and we went to Perkins for some dinner.

Next morning, I drove to Edwardsburg to see my Uncle Jim, who was not feeling well and didn’t make it to the wedding. He recently had angioplasty and a pacemaker, and he’s still fatigued from it. My Uncle Jim was a career Navy man, who returned to live with my grandma and take care of her until she passed away a few years ago. He was everybody’s favorite uncle and spent a lot of time with all of us kids. I always realized this, but really saw it when some of us grew up and had kids and he also nurtured them the same way. The positive experience of my Uncle Jim has really motivated me to be the same kind of role model for my nephew Phillip, and it makes me happy to see Phillip enjoy his time with me.

I talked to Uncle Jim in the kitchen at my grandma’s old house, where we spent so many Sunday afternoons with my parents and many of my other relatives, reading the comics pages and playing with the box of toys my Grandma kept there. The house is a Konrath museum of photos and other keepsakes, and it was great to be back after so many years and to talk about everything with Uncle Jim.

After about an hour, I took some pictures, then headed back to Walkerton. I drove past my old old house on Redfield Road, where I spent my time from infancy to the end of the first grade. The tiny pine tree my dad planted in the front yard now stood twice as high as the old house, and everything else looked close to the same. I drove down state line road and took the old route to the University Park mall. The strange thing is that on a spot on Cleveland Road, a good friend of mine from childhood, Peter Elias, was killed in a car accident in 1991. And on SR 23 just south of the mall, my grandfather was killed, also in a car wreck, long before I was born, when my dad was a kid. That only adds to the strangeness of this trip, the roads I drove on so many times ten years ago.

Back in Walkerton, I headed to Monica’s to watch Mr. and Mrs. Owens open gifts. She told me to be there at one, but everyone checked out of the hotel early, and by the time I got there, everyone was gone except her, Derek, and Maggie. So the four of us piled into Maggie’s car and drove to the Scottsdale Mall for lunch at Hacienda. It’s really weird being in that mall, given that I used to go to that Target all the time when I worked at IUSB. Service at the Hacienda SUCKED, and they took about three times as long to get us through lunch, finally culminating in us tracking down the server for the check and leaving in disgust. After a quick run through Target for some last-second vacation stuff and Maggie’s wedding party gift (a croquet set), we got back to Walkerton and said our goodbyes.

By the time I got back to Elkhart, I was hungry again for dinner, so Ray, Maria and I piled into the car and drove to Great Wall for some Chinese food. The food was so-so, but I like that restaurant because the big sign has been the same ever since I was a kid, and has that old-school Oriental restaurant look to it. Back at Ray’s, we watched some wrestling, then I collapsed so I could wake up early the next day.

My dad just bought a new boat – it’s a Ranger 16-foot aluminum bass boat. He’s a huge fisherman, and it’s a great size and setup for him to plunk around on some of the local lakes, or head up to Traverse City every year for some more involved ventures. He just had the boat in the shop to replace some decals, and he offered to take me out on a quick run. I jumped at the chance, because I absolutely love boats (and wish I could buy one), but also because it would let me spend some time with him. So despite the 9:00 meeting time in Millersburg, I was excited to get down there.

I met him at his place, and we took his truck out to Ligoneer to get the boat. I have many fond memories of driving around in my dad’s various GMC trucks over the years, including the time all of us went to the Catskills in upstate New York for two weeks. So it felt good to be back in the pickem-up truck and on the road. We went to the boat dealership, and I saw many ways to blow many dollars, like all-fiberglass bass boats with 3.1L, 220-horse engines. My dad’s boat is a meager 40-horse, but it’s set up for fishing, with swivel seats, live wells, a trawling motor, and a steering wheel, electric trim, and throttle for the outboard motor.

We went down to Oliver Lake in LaGrange county, backed the boat down a ramp, and got in. The first channel has vegetation on all sides and looks like something out of Apocalypse Now, but quickly opens into a decent-sized lake with almost no traffic, and lots of big houses on one side. Dad took the boat out and got it up to speed, which brought us up to about 30mph without too much strain. The boat isn’t built to be a demon on the open water, but 30 in an open boat seems faster than 70 in a convertible, so it’s still fun. We then went to the next lake over through a narrow channel, and dropped the throttle to almost no-wake speed. The next lake had no houses on it, just DNR property. They stocked the lake every year, and there was no bank fishing allowed, so there were some great fish to be found. My dad has a great bass hanging up in his house that he caught in this area, and there were probably many more, but the heat kept them to the bottom.

It’s unbelievable to spend so much time in a big city, fighting traffic and fighting noise and everything else, and then find yourself on an open lake with nothing but pure green on every side of you, no noise whatsoever except the occasional trout jumping out of the water. It could have been 1902 or even 1802 on that lake, and even though we weren’t fishing (well, my dad threw out a line a few times to see what was biting) I really liked it. Now, I just wish I could do something like it more often.

It was also good to see my dad in this element, talking about something that he really enjoyed and knew a lot about. I previously encountered something similar in 1990 when I worked for a summer in his factory. I never doubted that my dad worked hard for his money and that the people there liked him, but spending a summer on the factory floor with him really made me realize how true this was. This wasn’t something I could see when I was younger, but it’s interesting for me to watch because I know I have many personality traits of my father, and watching him makes me realize a lot of things about myself. I don’t know if this sounds sappy or stupid, but it is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon on a lake.

We went to the next lake through another big tunnel, then returned to the original lake and swapped places. I felt nervous getting behind the wheel, considering this was a boat so new, it was still on its first tank of gas. But I hit the throttle, and got the boat up to a decent clip. It’s a little weird steering a boat as opposed to a car – there’s a bit of drift or slop you need to take into consideration. But I figured it out in no time, and we circled around a bit more, looking at houses and parked boats. After a lap or so, we switched places, and took the boat back to the trailer. After some slight trouble getting back on the trailer with the semi-crooked ramp, we got back to Millersburg and hung out for a bit before I headed to Bristol to see my mom.

Oh, first I went to Goshen and ate at the Long John Silver’s, which I haven’t seen in many moons. I also circled back to SR15, which has a strange connotation because my first girlfriend lived down there, and 13 years ago, I used to make that drive often. I also used to work in Bristol at the Bristol Opera House, and took the same trip every night. I drove into Bristol and south to my mom’s place.

That afternoon, my mom had all four of her foster kids plus Phillip, and her husband Jeff was there. This meant I got to spend some time with Phillip and help him assemble his Star Wars Legos, but it also meant the other kids were nagging us the whole time. Angie showed up after a bit and took Phillip home, and I spent the rest of the time with my mom, as she herded around the kids. I don’t really want to get into the politics of the whole situation that much except to say that it’s a very rough load of work on my mom and it’s really a difficult battle. I hung out for a while until my mom was getting supper started for them, and then said my goodbyes and cruised back into Elkhart.

Back at Ray’s, Maria was cooking some chicken for us and Ray was preparing to watch wrestling. We ate (the food was great) and watched and made fun of the WWE Raw show. I’m not a wrestling fanatic, but I watch it enough to be able to keep up with Ray’s conversations and make fun of various wrestlers with inside jokes. After the show, I packed up my stuff and talked to Ray more while plotting the final leg of my trip back to New York. Since he would be going to bed about an hour before I’d be waking, we said our goodbyes, and I went to bed.

In the morning, I took a lightning-fast shower, chucked the luggage into the car, and hit the road by 7:15. Once again, this was a strange roadtrip that reminded me of many trips south, reminders mostly of the times I moved to Bloomington. I had to make it to Indy for a 11:55 flight though, so I kept my eyes on the clock more than anything else.

After a fast drive to Indy and the car rental place, I caught a shuttle back to the airport and got checked in with no problems whatsoever. I fell half-asleep waiting for the shuttle flight, then got aboard and drifted off during the 90-minute jump to Laguardia. When I woke up, I saw Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the now-misaligned New York skyline before we cycled back to the airport. After a $10 cab ride, I got back home, and unpacked to get ready for another day of work.

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general

From the IMU

Today’s journal is coming to you from the bowels of the Indiana Memorial Union. Although I’ve written paper journals in weird places (at 30,000 feet, in the middle of the golden gate bridge, at disneyland, at MIT, etc), I think this is the first online journal entry I’ve written outside of Washintgon.

Of course, I have much to write, and little energy. I’ve slept far too little, and done a year’s worth of walking in a day. I’m staying with my former roommate Simms, in my old house, on my old couch. He threw a massive Halloween party last night – more people than I’ve ever seen in that house before. He, Bennett, and Jason played his score to the classic silent vampire film, Nosferatu. The band was in the kitchen, and 3 TVs in various places in the house showed the laserdisc part of the show. Incredible stuff! I also saw many of my old cronies, and many people who knew of me that I didn’t know – Simms tells his Konrath stories to everyone he knows, and he knows many people. My costum- I went as Poison Ivy from the new Batman film. Don’t ask.

I managed to give away a shitload of zines last night – I set a stack of them on a table, and within an hour, a bunch of people were reading them or taking them. Cool.

Yesterday, I saw a lot of the town and realized how small it really is. I took the walk from the IMU to y old place in Mitchell Street. A lot of it looked the same, but it didn’t ring a bell anymore – it seemed distant. Most of my visit sofar has been like that. Things from my past are still here, but it doesn’t feel like it did before. Maybe my brain is telling me I should move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’ve got a shitload to do. Maybe I’ll try another entry while I’m still in Indiana…