Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Adapting

Sunday, November 15th, 2015

For quite some time, I’ve considered myself to be adaptable, with a high threshold toward toxicity. I have ridden the waves of various cohorts, held on through tough times, teeth gritted, knuckles locked. I figure that’s a quality, some perseverance.

This was challenged by therapy, of all things. The therapy itself didn’t address what seemed to be an inner strength. No, the therapy helped me deconstruct a certain self-loathing, a trait that bonded me to some terrible people over time and some just plain inhospitable situations. So I realized that I wasn’t really letting the poison roll off my back. No, I was assuming that I deserved the poison. There was no point in dodging it. And I often hated myself enough to want even more of it.

This was never a situation of creating the toxicity as a punishment. This was not self-destruction. It was more a matter of assuming that I couldn’t fight back against a toxic paradigm because I was toxic myself, because I deserved it and didn’t have the power to do anything about it.

So, therapy: It took about a year or so of weekly sessions, amid turmoil both environmental and self-inflicted, to start to understand my levels of personal disrespect. To start to step away from my own toxicity.

I can’t say that I escaped it. I certainly fall back into the hole from time to time. But I’ve been learning to trust myself, parts of myself, trust my intellect and capacity for problem solving, even appreciate positive traits. I am still self-critical, but I don’t hate myself. Not anymore.

And that had an interesting effect on my ability to weather toxic situations. That is, I no longer assume that I deserve all that bullshit, and I have realized that I can probably do something about said bullshit.

So that’s where I am now. And it’s made me much less tolerant of a poison world, of people who thrive on being shitty to other people, illogical, somehow both intelligent and ignorant. I’m scared as all hell to do something about it. And I’m writing this because I think many people might be in similar situations. Toughing it out, riding the storm, when your gut tells you that the storm might be the system itself, Jupiter’s big red dot. So it’s a matter of problem solving. This is what I tell myself on a micro-level, to trust myself to take care of problems as they arise, and then move on. It’s much harder when you are within the problem, within the storm. But it can be done. Because you know, intuitively, logically, deep in your soul, that toxic systems do not inherently deserve tacit tolerance.

Interruption

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

I started typing a new story, sort of a therapy-story. That is, the story is weird and pointless, and I’m just playing with ideas and trying to give myself a break, using the act of writing as an act of therapy. It isn’t easy. I don’t give breaks. A part of my brain likes to watch myself fail, and even though that part has begrudgingly agreed to step back, it’s still there. Anyway, the story was therapeutic for a couple thousand words, and now it’s tedious and boring.

The winter is shifting away, finally. But it did manage to kill off quite a few things this time around.

A big theme this winter has been Depression. I’ve experienced a number of cycles in which depression has shifted to Depression. Right now, this exact moment, I am focusing on how to recognize the tipping point of a cycle. It seems that it should be the apex of that first roller coaster hill, the slow crawl over the top before dipping into hellish centrifugal extremes. It plays out differently than that, though. It’s a sort of muck swamp, a bog of eternal stench, and I don’t recognize it until I’ve stepped into it.

This is a case of not living in the exact moment. I am estimating the moment, but always from a perspective that is just past that moment. So it is always backwards reflection. Ah, yes, stepped in a bog, there. There’s no moment of “hey, there’s a bog right where I’m about to put my foot.” No, it’s retrospective at best, and at its worst it is so far removed from the moment and cause that I have no idea why I’m so Depressed, or no perspective that there is anything other than the bog.

So life has become an endless, relentless exercise in mindfulness. Awareness of the moment. Approaching the moment like a limit approaching zero. We are temporal creatures, of course. I don’t think we are capable of any cognition that isn’t retrospective. But that might just be something I would say from this bog world.

Anyway, awareness and retrospect aside, the tandem approach features engagements of interrupts. Step into the bog, but stop yourself before carrying forward with another step.

I’m trying to do that right now. This moment. I have a foot in the muck, another foot hovering. I don’t know if this is a true interrupt. I mean, if I relax, I’ll just bring that other foot down and that does it. This is frustrating. Pointless, actually. Is this how people leverage music to coax away the sadness, legitimize it and contain it? Just an interrupt.

There are times when I’m able to write little stories in this blog, stories that spiral out a bit to include bigger things, larger messages. Today, though, the message isn’t there. Hovering. Paralysis. Fear of putting the foot down, fear of looking away from the bog. This is Depression, in slow motion, that moment of tipping, ticking forward, or caught in between half-ticks.

An interruption, endless. No breaks.

A Game of Trombones

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

I am prone to snap judgements and unwarranted assumptions, all of it rooted in the recognition in others of my many personal flaws. Like an ex-smoker who lacks even a shard of tolerance for the outcast family he once embraced, I seek out the stupid and petty, my own innate tendencies, and I scoff. And the reality of everything around us, from people to animals to this Macbook, is that we are all beautifully flawed. It is the flaw that makes each of us unique, that sets us aside from a predictable conglomerate of genetic markers and environmental constraints. I push hard against my flaws, my mistakes, my stupidity, but, in that, I’m just pushing against the person who I really am: my pure, inner idiot.

So there’s the root of the rumbling, churning fear that underlies a life of cynicism. And the greatest fear is this: Someone will call me out as the fraud that I am. I mean, we are all frauds of a sort, right? Try to read that with a positive spin. We aspire to greatness and success. When I play Ms.Pac-Man, I want to be the greatest Ms. Pac-Man player ever. I want to destroy that game, crush those patterns into dust. Just as I want this blog entry to be the greatest, so erudite and absorbing and full of that whatever-the-hell magic that it sucks people in and keeps them riveted. But that brain within my brain, the Module of Judgement that gazes upon my actions with Eye-of-Sauron unwavering, unblinking truth, it knows that I’m just bullshitting. Because to aspire to succeed, to level-up in life or art or anything, you have to pretend that you’re better than you actually are. You have to role play as a “genius,” and fool yourself with conviction or abandon until the odds of you being an actual genius are slightly tweaked and, through persistence, work and luck, you might actually do it. But when you break from that zone, pause and notice that you might be riding the rails, but you haven’t actually arrived, well, then the Module of Judgement reminds you that you are a fraud. And you either listen to that voice as if it knows what it’s talking about, giving it far too much power than it deserves, or you ignore it and carry on and just push through it all. Even while “fraud” persists in whispers and snorts.

On any given day, my fraudulence is manifest in just about any activity, from driving the car to writing a report to pretending that I’m a good father. You carry on, though, and even get a little spiteful about all of it, a little mix of creativity and anger that somehow produces actual positivity (or, in the least, results). But there’s one aspect of my lifelong fraud that is just woven right into my dendrites. This is something I sucked at from the start, never improved, never realized any potential beyond an endless joke.

This is the trombone.

I play several instruments. Sort of. Piano, guitar, ukulele and trombone. Wow, yes, I’m a fucking one-man band. Please don’t assume that “talent” is anywhere in that mix, though. For instance, I took piano lessons, but never practiced. Or, well, yes, I practiced, once a week, in front of my instructor. Guitar was more of a personal choice, and I love that instrument, even if I probably know all of three actual songs, and have to be a bit loaded to even consider strumming in front of anyone other than Rachel and Simon. Know this: If you ever see me playing the guitar, live and in front of you, I am, will absolute certainty, drunk off my ass and probably immersed in obliviousness. That goes for the uke, as well. And the harmonica. Big time. Consider the harmonica a warbling breathalyzer.

But it all started with the trombone. Back in fifth grade, the students were told to line up for instrument auditions. I don’t recall having any sort of choice. They tell you to get in line, you get in line. So: At the head of this line is a table. A big guy in a white shirt and black tie is sitting there. He takes a moment to size you up. I’m a boy, so I probably won’t play a flute or a clarinet. Or maybe he already filled all the woodwinds. Anyway, it’s going to be brass.

“Buzz your lips.”

Mzzzz.

“No, like this, buzz them together. Bpbpbpbpbp.”

Fmbpfmbpfmbpfmbp.

“Trombone. Next.”

And that’s it. A legend is born.

My parents rent a trombone, and I’m in Band. In retrospect, I don’t think every fifth grader was in Band. Maybe some of them didn’t pass the buzz test. Or maybe their parents decided that their kids weren’t going to be Band Nerds. I don’t know if we really had nerds back in fifth grade. I think the clustering was starting around then, popularity and coolness and all that. But it wasn’t like there were school jocks in fifth grade. There were just kids who were better at Gym, and maybe had some outside thing going on with little league and all that crap. I never stood in line and buzzed for baseball, never had a shot at it.

To play the trombone you do, indeed, buzz your lips into the sucker. And you blow. A lot. I think just about anyone can do that. My three-year-old son can do it. My seven-year-old neighbor can do it rather well. So yes, right from the start, I could toot out sounds on the trombone. You move the slide around to increase the amount of tubing, the distance through which the buzzing air travels to then vibrate the bell and amplify out to the world at large, thus altering the pitch. If you just leave it at that, you can play only five or six notes. The trick to playing music on the trombone is to tighten your mouth muscles, to tweak the airflow and the tension in your lips, thus moving notes up and down into different registers and octaves. And the better you get at controlling those muscles and that air, the more you can focus on a sweet, sweet tone.

I have never had a sweet, sweet tone. I can play plenty of notes, and shimmy that slide all over the place, but my tone, hmm, well, I’m not sure how to describe it.

Take a cow. A very lonely and depressed cow. Most cows just stand in pastures and chew stuff, contemplating their own cow-ness (and don’t assume that this cow-ness might not contain the secrets to all life, to the fabric of the entire damned universe – just because cows are laid back and hanging out in the grass and chewing and tail-slapping, don’t assume that those creatures aren’t righteous or even silent geniuses). This cow is different, this sad, disconnected beast. This cow wanders over a barren, salted plane. Mud dried to rough earth, grass and shrubbery exhumed, sun-heat boring through an opaque canopy of grey clouds. The cow walks on, searching and glancing and wanting until it forgets quite what it’s supposed to do. Is it supposed to eat? If there were flies, would it shoo them with a swishing tail? It’s tail hangs, twitching slightly with each lumbering stride. The cow is loneliness. The cow is absurdity. The cow is juxtaposed against oblivion, which casts no measure of worth or purpose. And the day never ends.

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

“M-m-m-mooooo…”

And that, my friends, is me. On the damned trombone. Just a sad and existentially disenfranchised cow.

Now you would think that a few years of structured practice would help that cow, give it a little verve. I learned the scales and tooted along to whatever our band master handed out. Drove my parents mad, as all youth persecute their environs with the wails, flubs and squeaks of a novice. My first concert became a family legend.

March Winds.

That was the song that I practiced every other day, learning the notes, mastering the syncopation. March Winds was not a particularly complex song. As I recall, it was all quarter-notes, a low, drunken adagio (sort of a plodding death-march of a tempo). It could have been worse, I think. It could have, um, hmm. Well, okay. It could not have been worse. The trombone part was one note. Over and over and over, stumbling forward. And we must not forget the cow. Moo. Moo. Moooooooooo.

I tortured the fuck out of my parents with that relentless March Winds, teaching myself how to play the same mid-range quarter note until my lips numbed over and my lungs imploded. The song was just a single page, maybe with a coda or something (still all the same quarter note, moo moo moo). I think my parents hoped for the best. This was just a fractal component of a greater musical whole; it would all make sense in concert with my bandmates. The trombone was probably laying down the solid foundation. Some musical cornerstone that could support a lyrical blossoming.

Nope.

Everyone in the band played their quarter notes. Over and over and over. This was before the advent of the ubiquitous camcorder, so we have no hard record of the event. The only information I have is anecdotal. However, this became one of those anecdotes that my parents recalled, with miserable glee, for most of my life. Their suffering. The erosion of tolerance as they writhed under the dull heel of March Winds. Even the kids with talent, the ones who could somehow blow out pure notes with harmonics and beauty and depth, even those kids were diminished by March Winds. It was like a Solera vat of human fluids, each quarter-note stirring the swirl, blending those unmentionables together into a horrific preternatural stew.

Here’s another thing: Now, in my middle age, I have lived through many a March. I have experienced the winds of March. I have to say, those March winds are not plodding quarter notes. They are vibrant and disrupting gusts, overlapping packets of tumult pushed about by competing thermals and battling seasons. The winds of March signify fearful transition and change, and the imminent glory of Spring that unfolds from their vacant wake.

March Winds, that first piece of music, was a fraud, a joke. It taught me that I sucked at the trombone. I wasn’t even embarrassed. I just didn’t care, and no one expected anything more from me. My cow was the cow of apathy. And every performance, every toot I’ve blown throughout the last thirty-plus years, has just been a variation on March Winds. Even now, right now, March fucking Winds permeates my creativity.

One can only skirt accountability for so long, though, and my reckoning came in the form of my high school band conductor, Mister Cross.

Mr. Cross was a man of passion. He aimed high and hoped for the best. I suspect that he, too, was dodging fraudulence for a good part of his life. For example, he wrote our high school marching band fight song. Wrote it out by hand and distributed the copies. The man saw himself as a composer, a musician to the core. A few years out of high school, I heard the Notre Dame fight song and noticed some similarities. That is, I estimate about a 90% overlap between the fight songs of Rich East High School and the University of Notre Dame. All recreated meticulously on mimeographed half-sheets.

I still sounded like a bubonic cow as I tooted through the fight song. At one point, there were three of us trombonists, so, normally, my cow-tone would be absorbed by the general cacophony. However, Mr. Cross was, himself, a trombonist, and all of his passion and angst was channeled through that wah-ing instrument. Sometimes he would stand on his podium, trombone in hand, and play along, conducting the band with his slide. His demonstrable tone and beauty just might motivate us to escape that March Winds foundation. And Martin did it. Martin was the first-chair trombonist. He sounded great, and played a gleaming, quality instrument. Martin was in Jazz Band. Martin had chops. In fact, many times I could just sit there and pretend to play while Martin did all the work. Those were good times.

When I bothered to make the effort, I rarely looked up Mr. Cross as he conducted. I just needed to know the tempo, as defined by Martin and the rest of the band, and I could stare into the sheet music and play through it. Then I would glance up, maybe while playing a whole-note, and Mr. Cross would be staring at me, mouth a gaping “O” punched through his red face, a trembling fist thrust out as he worked so hard to squeeze the cow. But there was no hope. I was, truly, the worst trombonist ever.

And Mister Cross would flush and huff and whine and cry and go absolutely crazy. It didn’t seem fair, his targeting of the trombone. But I think he was just reacting to his own inner whispers of “fraud.” He saw, in me, all of his worst qualities. Crappy playing as channeled through apathetic lips, devoid of ambition or talent. Mr. Cross never seemed satisfied with his position, a musician trapped in high school, and struggled for personal expression. He stood up there and looked down upon an aspect of his former self, a toxic node that derailed him from the true path. Like a cyst upon the soul, I was the embodiment of his fraudulence.

I stuck it out for a few more years, culminating in the infamous Wizard of Oz half-time marching band medley. In spats and hats, we inched through our formations, spinning, swinging the gate, forming letters or rotating shapes or some shit (out on the field, I never benefited from the crowd view of our performance). Woodwinds sang out Over the Rainbow, trumpets and clarinets chirped If I Only Had a Brain, and then, as our marching resolved into some fixed holding pattern, low, soft notes hummed in expectation of the next glorious unfolding. Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. Just me and Joe, the two trombonists (Martin had abandoned the amateur antics of marching band). Joe was slightly better than me, but, really, he was just another sick cow. Normally, I was so apathetic that I had little idea of how bad I sounded. This time, though, it was clear. This was Roseanne Baar curdling the National Anthem. Joe and I looked at each other as we blew out, each note slightly detuned, murky, and lacking in any timbral qualities that signified human development beyond Neanderthaloid incoherence. I heard Joe, and he heard me, and, perhaps for the first time, with the rest of the band playing their single, sustained background note, we heard ourselves as a unit, as the “trombone section.” And we were so terrible, so horrific and sad and pathetic, even ghoulish, that we couldn’t hold back. We both started laughing, laughing right through our mouthpieces, choking out notes and stuttered melody. We laughed with madness and absurdity, with the satisfaction of finally scraping across the bottom of the bucket, with waves of taunt and torment broadcast to Mr. Cross, out there somewhere, probably chewing bone from knuckles and thrusting erect thumbs into his weeping eyes. The trumpet section dissolved into crunchy cackles and snorts, missed their cues and drifted out of formation. The flutes and clarinets scoffed, then laughed, and soon enough the entire band was thrown into mayhem, swept away like a house in a tornado.

I quit band some time after that. Quit it forever. This might have been the first thing I ever quit in any official capacity, casting the mold for a lifetime of abandoned endeavors.

However, I still have that trombone. I have played it drunk in the Chicago streets after basketball championships, staggering drunk in the waning hours of parties, half-drunk during low-key dinners and, a few times, stone cold sober while seeking placation for a wailing infant.

And here’s the weird thing: When it comes to the trombone, there is no inner voice that whispers “fraud.” From March Winds to Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, I stank so unequivocally that now, in my mid-life, I have nothing to prove. By embracing my incompetence, I am anything but a fraud. I am true to my self.

The trick, then, is to spread that over my soul, to rig the game. The fear of fraudulence is internal. It has to be. No one can actually accuse you of being a fraud, because we are all frauds, even while we are all true to our selves. It’s built into the physics of aspiration, the risks inherent to growth. And that’s a rich humus for fear, and that it’s that fear, that dread of failures both past and imminent, that drives me to cast judgement whenever I see those same elements in other people. The voice inside, the “fraud” voice, is such a coward that it insists on projecting fraudulence onto other people in order to justify its own inner accusations and false authority. I don’t know if there’s a way to kill that voice, but we don’t need to give it so much power by taking it seriously. The “fraud” voice is only pretending to be a bullshit detector, and the easiest way to disarm it is to stop fighting it. Yes, we are frauds and pretenders. Triers and hopers. And here, let me give you a little taste, fraud-voice. Let me blast you with a cow-sick, pestilent trombone, blast you right back to hell.

*Bonus Video Supplement:

2013 Resolution

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Like most of you, people in my life are pie-charted into Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Dipshits. There are family members who drift into the Friends category, and friends who are actually just Acquaintances. I don’t think there is any Venn Diagram overlap between friends and Dipshits, though. Anathema is simply incompatible with any degree of friendliness (single exception = Facebook).

So my Friends, the people who’s opinions MATTER, tend to be divided on this New Year’s Resolution business. I think everyone naturally reflects during this time of the year. Many of us are entering the colder months, hunkering down, taking inventory of both the physical and the psychic. Setting annual goals helps us invigorate an otherwise bleak period of post-holiday come-down and seasonal affective disorder. But the resolutions are often just bullshit. We know this. If my resolution was already important, then I would have already done something about it. The new year affords me the opportunity to pretend that I have been granted a reprieve on my previous failings and misfires. And I can call bullshit on all of that, if I want, but, really, I would rather play this game and be kind to myself, give myself an honest chance, than dig down so deep into cynicism that I don’t even bother.

So I’m making a resolution, right here in public (as “public” as this relatively unknown blog). A public declaration carries the weight of accountability. This is no longer a personal promise and, being posted on an archived forum, anyone can return to this blog in a year and instantly judge my goals as achieved or quixotic. Like any writer, I am leveraging the reader. I am using you.

And that brings me to the meat of the matter.

In 2013, I resolve to drink more coffee, write more fiction and journalism, and find a publisher for the novel that I wrote in 2011-12.

That’s it. I know that the “more” qualifiers are vague. I don’t want to pledge to numbers. However, I spent much of 2012 honing journalistic skills, all while nearly abandoning fiction. I think I’ve had a small degree of success with the journalism, and I’ll keep that momentum. Regarding fiction, the thing I notice about the biographies of writers and other artists is this: Those who succeed do not give up, do not falter. They stay on mission. That does not guarantee success, but drifting off and losing focus on your work, abandoning the mission, will certainly destroy the chances of success.

So perhaps that boils the 2013 resolution to this:

Stay on mission.

Or, for Star Wars fans, stay on target. This implies a definition of the mission or target, which I generally have, but we can all benefit from such reflection and honing of ambition. I think that’s a good resolution for any of us.

Nine years after 9/11

Saturday, September 11th, 2010

Every year now I wonder how to react to this new national day of remembrance. Of course I think back to the vivid events of the day, of where I was, the orange and yellow Las Vegas daylight filling the hotel room as we closed the curtains to get a better view of the unbelievable images on the television. I remember the sick recognition as the towers fell, noting how all of those modern CGI action and disaster movies actually got it right. It was unreal, a movie, an effect, a thing on the television. More so, though, I remember the absolute uncertainty of that day, intermixed with fear and a sudden erosion in a social trust that none of us realized had been so fragile.

Today, nine years later, I don’t remember what life was like on 9/10/01. I can recall events, people, feelings, but life, the intertwining of the personal and social, was abruptly redefined. It didn’t have to be. The fear did not have to persist. It was immediately leveraged by a government that was already failing just months into its first term. We were told to watch out, to beware of people who might be up to no good, to trust no one, to go shopping in the name of patriotism, to duct tape our windows. We went to war with an idea, even though we didn’t have any ideas of our own to battle that idea. Instead of taking the event as a slap in the face, as a moment to wake up and consider what it means to be an American citizen, to draft a vision statement for our society, instead of this we turned it into a fight, we gave in and defined ourselves through fear.

And we continue to do this.

Fear of those who are different. Fear of conservatives. Fear of liberals. Fear of an unknown future. Fear of strangers who are neighbors, our own citizens. Fear of the current definition of failure. Fear of ourselves.

This is not the lesson that I choose to take, not the way I choose to remember 9/11. Thousands of innocent people died that day, people who I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t know, working in offices. Those people had no choice in the matter. They were pure victims, and, honestly, they were no more patriotic than anyone else. In the midst of the disaster, though, there were other people who chose to risk and sacrifice their lives in order to help. They were in a profession defined by the will to help others. They were certainly patriots, as those jobs are focused on strengthening the fabric and infrastructure of our society. At the core, they were doing their jobs.

This is what those heroes did: they leveraged their own fear, accepted it, and moved ahead in order to do a job. Most of us do not have jobs that require the suspension of life-threatening fear. We do, however, live with other fears. Some fears are incredibly minor. I fear that I might be hit by a taxi as I cross the street. I do not simply stand at the corner, though, paralyzed. I work with that fear, contain it, use my better judgement, and get on with my task of walking. Other times, we fear the repercussions of confronting a person who holds some type of power over us. A boss or partner, a child or customer. For some people, we just don’t want to go there, don’t want to open the can of worms. That fear is not the same thing as respect. I respect some of my professional peers and superiors because they are smart and often have the ability to take control of situations, to think globally, to bring something new to the table. In return, I am treated with a similar respect. It doesn’t work that way when you fear someone. Fear is a form of disrespect, and it shows. It is an intoxicating invitation to power. Think of how you feel about someone who is, in some way, afraid of you. You either leverage that fear to manipulate that person, or you tolerate and never really take that person seriously.

The lesson that I choose to take from 9/11 is this: move past your fears and get to work. We all have a job to do. Yes, we have professions. But we also have a personal job, a mission, a reason for being in this society, on this planet. Maybe you are not in touch with that mission, but it is there, waiting for you, ready to connect with you. If I am to honor those who died on 9/11, I should learn from them, from the heroes who forged ahead and did a job. Of course I feel sadness for my fellow citizens who died. And I feel sadness for the erosion of our freedom (conducted under the new-speak moniker of “Freedom”). But I also think that I can make the effort to contain my daily fears, to put them in perspective, and to do what I am supposed to be doing. We all have great things to accomplish while we’re alive. Fear will always be there, but fear is not the mission.

My New Year’s Resolution

Monday, January 4th, 2010

is to be succinct.

Tricksy. False.

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Gollum and Smeagol

1: Not the books

As we inch through the winter, oscillating between brief spring-like meltings and harsh Midwestern arctic blasts, the extended darkness provides great cover for powering down the brain and viewing epic films. The winter, then, is naturally the time of the year when I think of The Lord of the Rings, and the great impact it has made upon my life.

Let me get this out of the way right now, as it’s certainly going to polarize all five of you readers: I was never a great fan of the books. For some folks, that’s like saying Han shot second, or Andrew Lloyd Weber trumps Sondheim, or the Bible is cute, fuzzy and harmless, or Steve Jobs won’t be doing Macworld. Instant polarization. I read The Hobbit, appropriately, during my pre-adolescence, and later attempted the first novel in the trilogy. It was rambling, with all of this fantasy history and questing and crap. It just didn’t have that zazz. I would later read plenty of giant novels, including Fantasy that definitely wouldn’t have been written if it wasn’t for Tolkien. I appreciate his imagination, the thoroughness of his vision, but I just never hopped on board that very long train. I think it’s a matter of hitting the right reader at the right time. Sometimes the derivative work hits you first, so that the original masterpiece seems like an embryonic version of the thing that you initially discovered. This tends to really irritate the people who love the original work. It’s probably irritating you at this very moment.

When it comes to Tolkien, it has always been easy to recognize the people who are Believers. They were often half-hippie, half-nerd, with stuck-in-the-70s hairstyles. There was a gentleness to them, so that even when they spoke of “battles” and swords and wizards, you knew that they were far too passive to ever go through with it. That’s because they were bound by poetry and imagination, by the comfort of an endless tale. They tended to appreciate the epic aspects of art, while allowing themselves to sometimes become completely absorbed into the things that entertained them. I have some of those tendencies, too (with the exception of my hairdo . . . I think . . . hmm). Just look at what happened with me and the computer (see previous Megablog post). I never quite got the organic nerd, though, so the idea of a Renaissance Fair, with the puffy shirts and speaking-in-tongues and boiled-cabbage-on-a-stick and prancing about with belly-dancer finger cymbals, never, ever appealed to me. Tolkien could wait.

I grew up during the first wave of Star Wars. I was nine years old when it was released, the optimal target. With a few exceptions, science fiction and fantasy was still squarely in the realm of the imagination. Most of the films required multi-layered suspension of disbelief, particularly regarding the ability of a ship to fly through space while dangling from slightly-visible fishing line, or some alien race marching about in construction-cone helmets and speaking the Queen’s English. After Star Wars, though, technology had enabled imagination to be somewhat accurately portrayed on the screen. That is, I didn’t have to imagine it any more. Star Wars became the template for the nine-year-old-boy target audience, validating my nerdy dream-life as a legitimate consumer demographic. Anything I could possibly imagine that was related to this Lucas universe was subsequently manufactured and sold to me. I didn’t have to bother making it myself, I just had to coerce my parents into buying it. In fact, the more money a family had, the more their children were surrounded with physical manifestations of the imagination. However, imagination was being dictated to us. It was constrained to marketable items. There was a Star Wars universe, with waves of action figures and molded-plastic environments, but few of us dared to venture beyond those boundaries, beyond anything that wasn’t simply derivative of Star Wars. And none of us were rewarded for inventing Star Wars variations. If you didn’t have the cash, you found ways to make your own toys out of Legos, model parts, and whatnot. I was somewhere in between, so the desire for the Star Wars toys that I couldn’t afford drove me and my closest friends to create our own toys, comic books and even funny little movies. Yes, we were very creative. But our creativity was generally contained within the paradigm of Star Wars. No one ever seriously came up with a viable template for Han Solo’s disenfranchised brother or any version of Princess Lea that didn’t have the twin-Cinnabon hairdo (or subsequent Lea-dos). Have you ever heard of a variant imaginary droid that didn’t use the (letter(most-likely “R”)/number)-(letter(good chance it might be “D”)/number) naming scheme? If you made a robot called Franklin, it was just so obviously not part of the Star Wars universe that there wasn’t much a point to having Franklin around in the first place. If you kept Franklin the Robot, then you would have to figure out who Franklin’s human buddy was going to be, along with Franklin’s nemesis, the Franklin manufacturer, a few planets or star ships where Franklin might hang out, along with some sort of overall plot or history or anything that might motivate Franklin to do anything other than sit there and blink and bleep. Take the same robot and call it X-3PO. Holy crap, you now have a ready-made universe where your evil protocol droid (don’t bother coming up with some other name for “robot”) can wield some saber and kick some ass, and you don’t need to waste your time tediously inventing all of that other minutiae. This is the same template that Lucas himself used for the prequels (and that’s why Darth Sidious and Darth Maul sound a lot more cool and Star Wars-believable than Count Dooku, with all respect to Christopher Lee).

Star Wars encouraged us to dream, yet dictated exactly what those dreams should be.

I really wasn’t an active reader until after I had been corrupted by Star Wars. So I was already expecting things to be ready-made. Books generally allow for much more imaginative expansion than movies, so, to a degree, they were more work for my little brain. I loved The Hobbit, and later spent plenty of time in other literary worlds. Still, any amazing book needed to be made into a movie, and the best books were those that were already structured like movies, with three to five simple acts and some very obvious climaxes and conclusions. I wanted the constraints upon that world of imagination, the comfort of structure. It felt incomplete until there was an accurate film version. It all had to be turned into Star Wars, with everything clearly explained and depicted. Without that, there never seemed to be closure to a story.

As I became older, this merged with our cultural DNA – consumerism. If imagination requires some ready-made object, then the only way we can personalize that imagination is through ownership. Normally, there is nothing you own more than your personal imagination. For any sentient being, its thoughts are its own (even if those thoughts are some amalgam of sensory-input interpolations). Yet storytelling has been so co-opted by Star Wars that I have been trained to have my imagination sold back to me in the form of derivative products. Toys. Action figures. Collectors cards. Plush stuffed animals. We surround ourselves with these objects, and the simple act of purchasing them becomes a statement of what we like. And what we like is a major part of the definition of who we are. Adults don’t buy toys, though. Okay, we do, but not with the same intentions that we had as children. Now, we go to see a movie, and as soon as we leave the theater we start to anticipate the DVD release. We can’t wait to buy it and absorb it into the collection that defines us. And back to Star Wars, the bastards have been pulling our strings, carefully wound strings that date back to 1977, with an endless array of re-releases, definitive versions, and re-packagings. There are many of us who are eagerly awaiting the HD releases of the original films. If you own something in HD, then it must be a purer reflection of your soul, of how dedicated you are to your own identity.

This is not how it’s been for the Tolkien lovers. In the late-1970s, there was a good animated movie, a derivative not-great animated movie, and a pretty weird rotoscope-enhanced freak out, and none of them managed to infiltrate the consumer culture of action figures and mega-publicity. Dungeons and Dragons (the game) probably came the closest to a Lord of the Rings cash-in, but role playing was only mildly consumer-driven (yet more of an identity statement than most consumer items), and actually required real work on the part of the participant. True imagination was still respected and rewarded. The reader was a partner with Tolkien, a friend who shared in the creative process. The books became a home, so that as life progresses, as people move about the country, move through careers and families and love and loss, that safe haven could never be compromised. Until this current decade.

Even as an obvious non-believer, I was still nervously wondering how terribly they were going to screw up the movies. It’s always a shame to watch a book get turned into a puke product through crappy film making, particularly when there are so many people who have a familial relationship with that book. Books are nearly invariably superior to their film counterparts. The exception tends to be a book that was already in the gutter, such as Hannibal, in which case the movie has no where to go but up (well, in the case of Hannibal, it went sideways, into some parallel crap-plane). That’s all part of the wicked nature of our hijacked imaginations. The best books seem like they would make great movies, but it’s usually the most simple, diluted, formulaic books that have any shot of movie verisimilitude (No Country For Old Men compared with Blood Meridian). I knew from my pre-adolescent attempt at The Fellowship of the Ring that the source material wasn’t going to be easy to adapt, and we were likely to end up with either a yawner or a Nicholas Cage soft action crapbuster. At best, they could throw in Bruce Willis and just make it into a Middle Earth Die Hard, which would at least have some fun one-liners and spectacular big-screen explosions. Yippie-ki-yay, all-seeing-eye motherfucker. And in that case, it would make more sense to just get Raimi to create a sequel to Army of Darkness (yippie-ki-yay, baby).

I was already a fan of Peter Jackson, so I assumed that we could very well end up with some cross between Army of Darkness and Dead Alive. Orcs being chewed up by giant lawn mowers. Very spectacular. Most of us have been burned by the anticipation game. The Matrix was awesome, and now they’re doing two more movies. Awesome! It’s going to be so awesome to see both of those awesome movies. They are going to blow my mind, dammit. So you shell out the $10.50 to see it at an overcrowded giganto-plex with the stoked masses, and by the end of the night the lines into the restrooms are at record length, and it’s hard to tell if people are crapping or puking, and even harder to discern the product of those craps and pukes from the lukewarm celluloid paste that has just smothered your Awesome. You go through a few good burns like that, and then it all becomes an elaborate mind game. Don’t get yourself too excited about a movie. Keep the expectations at a low bar. Don’t think about it. No, don’t even think about thinking about it (impossible). Stop worrying! Relax!!!

This reminds me of my piano teacher from college. As an undergrad, I went to a large state university. It was ultimately a fantastic experience, as there was a nook for anyone who really wanted to explore any facet of higher learning. Generally, you take your core classes, but then you can add a 1-hour class here and there. First it was a theater practicum (don’t be fooled – this was in no way glorious, as it amounted to volunteer ushering). Then there was my bowling class. Yes, I took bowling, and I aced it. And I still stink at it. The best 1-hour, though, was piano. I don’t know how I finagled this, but I ended up taking piano lessons as a class. I’ve never been very good at piano. I took lessons throughout my childhood, but I never bothered to practice. For me, “practice” involved the lesson itself, so it took me years to learn any piece of even moderate complexity. For my university-level piano practicum, I wanted to study with this extremely pleasant English gentleman-scholar. My friend Jason had been raving about a Music Appreciation class taught by the gentleman-scholar. I contacted the professor, had an extremely pleasant conversation, found that he was open to teaching non-music-major students, and decided that it was time to revisit my latent musicality. However, by the time I was able to schedule a 1-hour with him, the gentleman-scholar couldn’t teach for a semester or two, and he recommended one of his colleagues. This woman was not English, not gentle, and, while generally nice and even entertaining, I could never place her into the category of “pleasant”. We worked on a Mozart sonata, and I learned a great deal about my own style, musical phrasing, and piano technique. She had received a grant to study relaxation in her students. She would video record some of her students playing, and then replay the tapes, revealing the flaws in their technique, with particular attention paid to the fluidity of the arms and wrists. Dexterity on the piano is not just a matter of moving your fingers about as quickly as possible. If you freeze your wrists, tensing them up, your overall movement is restricted. The fingers, wrists and arms all need to be loose, gentle, flowing with the music. None of this Ray Charles solid-mass stiffness (even though it worked great for Ray). She would often test my wrists as I was playing, lifting them with her finger, letting me know when there was any resistance. It was all about the flow, just as Mozart is all about the phrasing. Of course, the more nervous I get while playing, the more tension swells throughout my body. Freezing up all of my joints can help me focus on getting that one finger to be in the right place, sort of like swinging a hammer at the head of a nail. Anticipation of accuracy trumped smoothness and flow. She didn’t even need to stick her finger under my wrist. I played as if I was Iron Man, or Humongous from The Road Warrior. That was when her geniality would erode. “Relax.” Oh, I was trying. But then I had to think about both the notes, the phrasing and the relaxing, all of those facets competing and clashing. “Relax!” Okay, okay. Screw the phrasing. Yikes, there was a mistake, but, well, what’s going on with my wrists? Keep them limp, dammit. Limp limp limp. “Relax!!!” Oh, sweet Jesus. “RELAX!!!” Ahhhhhhh!

And that’s what you get for being a pseudo-music-major with your 1-hour practicum. Antithetical mind games.

So you are ultimately awash in paradox, and, for something like Lord of the Rings, you spend a lot of energy convincing yourself that this is going to be a really cool movie that is also going to totally suck. Having little investment in the novels, though, meant that the suck aspect would be more of a train wreck. In the case of the Matrix sequels, I was in the train, probably lingering in the dining car, enjoying a nice Scotch or one of those heart-clogger choco-volcano brownies, when there was a massive shudder and jolt, scattering plates and hot toddies across the tables, then a split-second of back-to-normal smoothness, a flickering of the lights before all the windows simultaneously blow in (clouds of scintillated shards filling the air, much like the Geoff Darrow-designed break-into-the-federal-building sequence of the original Matrix), the floor buckling and roof flying away, exposing the ground and sky spinning about the disintegrating car before the tooth-scraping metal-on-metal noise of the crash just obliterated all further sensation. They weren’t pleasant movies. With Lord of the Rings, I could watch all of this from the safety of a far-off bridge. It would be a terrible and bloody catastrophe, and I might lose a few loved ones, but at least I wasn’t a passenger. At least, having no great care for the books, I could simply wash my hands of the whole affair. Relax!

I saw the first film (should I bother mentioning the title? are there any of you who haven’t seen these movies, who don’t already know the titles, the stars, the international box office intake? can I just assume that you don’t need to be reminded of the title, or, hmm, perhaps I should use clever one-word titles to represent each film, such as Fellowship, Towers and King, even though acronyms tend to get the job done with less characters, as in FotR, TT, RotK (even though the brain tends to spend extra time unpacking each acronym into its respective full-word title, forcing the reader to perform some level of subliminal translation simultaneous to the normal flow of sentence comprehension, which is a lot like walking up the “Quasimodo steps” that used to be at ISU (Illinois State University)(so termed by me and Jason when we would be in a hurry to get to the bowling alley, where I would show off my 1-hour bowling class moves), steps which were extra deep, tailored only to people who prefer to walk everywhere using the low-center-of-gravity Groucho Marx comically extended stride-gait, which is just not the way to go about making a name for yourself at a large state university (if not forcing everyone into Groucho walking, then it was more likely a form of crowd control, which was a central element to any state-university public-space architecture of the 60s and 70s)), which seems like a good idea, but, given the sneaky hidden additional brain processing, I might as well acronym the acronyms, enabling me, the writer, to be both excessively acronymous and parsimonious (as parsimony is one of this blog’s many middle names), so let’s just settle on F, T and K, okay?)* with my friend Lee. He was in town, having somewhat recently transplanted himself to California (NoCal), and this was one of my few chances to connect with him, perhaps to commiserate over the imminent train wreck of F (of which, unfortunately, he would be a passenger). It was the second time he was seeing the movie, though. He had lived through the wreck and wanted to do it again. Something was up. Lee is in no way a masochist, but he was also more forgiving of the Matrix sequels, so perhaps he was compartmentalizing the disappointment and employing rapid repeat-viewing to force his brain into a state of acceptance. Or maybe he just liked the damned movie.

*(extended hyper-nested parentheticals lovingly dedicated to the late DFW)

I was perfectly transfixed throughout that first viewing, but this wasn’t Smeagol’s soul-collapsing experience of first eyeing the ring. There was no instant obsession. This wasn’t Star Wars. It was deeper. There was plenty of battling and creatures and blasting tribal drums with brass fanfare. They didn’t blow up the Death Star, though, and there were no easy clues as to which characters were going to be available as action figures. There was a bit of poetry and song, and fake English accents, and greenery and countryside. There was story. A lot of story. I didn’t know exactly what to think. This also wasn’t fine art. All of the instructions were obvious, so there wasn’t a lot of work on the part of my brain, but, beyond the ready-made and the incessant you-should-feel-like-THIS score, there was underlying thoughtfulness and depth to the characters. The story was congruous with its own history, and had the richness of a novel. I had my first taste of that comfort, the homestead of so many lifelong Tolkien fans. And, really, they had me hooked in the first ten minutes, at that moment when Sauron is defeated, does the old implode/explode, and a 40-15 hertz seat-humming subsonic sweep moans from the speaker system and sets my spine and viscera into vibrational sync. Being an A/V Guy (more on this soon), that’s all it took.

2: Viewingses

That period of my life was wonderfully transformative. I had moved in with Web, my best friend.

I had a new job that was on the cusp of becoming a career, and I had finally moved back into the city, living with my best friend, Web. Our domestic arrangement couldn’t have been better. We lived in separate apartment units, on the second floor of his grandmother’s house in a rapidly up-scaling neighborhood. This combination of proximity and independence solidified our friendship, as most of our conversations and commiserations didn’t require planning of any sort. More importantly, they didn’t require telephony. Most of my friends know that I can’t stand the telephone. A few people also know that I have a phobia of telephone conversations, sometimes so severe that I will sit there with the undialed phone in my hand, paralyzed, completely unable to press the buttons as my heartbeat becomes irregular and my breathing spirals into shallow gasps. Blame it on technology, really. In 2001 I finally bought a cell phone. I was living with my parents, putting my life back together, so the phone was an easy way to secure a nugget of privacy in the midst of being in my 30s and living at home. By the time I accumulated enough capital to collect my things and move to Chicago, I decided to forgo a land line and use the cell as my primary telephone. If any of you have contemplated doing this, here’s a little warning: You might as well just cut off your ear! I say that partially out of concern for your own well being, but, really, the only people reading this blog already know me, so if one of you switches to a cell-only paradigm, all of our future conversations will suck (even though my telephonophobia will ultimately prevent me from talking with you on the phone in the first place). Cell-to-cell connections are often terrible. They certainly were in 2002. (In fact, during the last decade we have experienced a downward trajectory in general fidelity, from scrambled cell phone conversations to hyper-compressed MP3s to the all-or-nothing dropout reception of digital television – much of our popular technology has caused us to demand nothing above mediocrity, far below the capabilities of communications and sound reproduction of the 1980s and earlier, all for the sake of carrying it in your pocket.) As I staunchly stuck to my guns, neglecting the additional purchase of a land line, most of my conversations were permeated by noise, fuzz, digital crunch and dropped connections. Combined with my poor hearing, my phone talks were like jungle expeditions, hacking through twisted brush and trying to figure out if that was the roar of a predator or the laugh of a friend. Add to this my only-child need for privacy, and the general way that telephones are devices that are specifically designed to infiltrate and dissolve that privacy. Not only do I not want to receive a phone call, I also don’t want to risk that terrible nebula of cell-stunted conversation. I dread it all. Please, send email. Email is wonderful (except when you send a catty message to the wrong person, to the very person you were being catty about, and realize 1.5 seconds after clicking SEND that you have just flushed yourself down a dark and terrible toilet of despair . . . and I’ve done this twice, folks).

Anyway, our friendship was able to flourish simply because it wasn’t constrained by the usual things that force you to schedule time with different people, have beginning-middle-end conversations over the phone (or, in my case, beginning-what?-middle-what?-huh?-umm-what?-…-trailOfDespair…-end?), or really worrying about any attempt at complete conversation in any sense. We would take turns being each other’s Kramer, knocking quickly and bursting in, barking out a few oddities, and then zipping back into the world from whence we came. We certainly had long, meaningful talks, but, as neighbors, it was perfectly fine to revel in the micro-conversation, and that did wonders for our friendship. Another thing that quickened our intertwining was LotR. Web is a journalist and certainly a reader, but he also enjoys the immersion of solid audio-visual entertainment. He’s also a pagan, and how could any pagan not love F, with its wizards and trees and elves and stinking-reeking-supercool Ranger from the North? For Web, fantasy movies and novels are opportunities for familial bonding, as he elevates his best-uncle status by encouraging his nieces and nephews to read the books before seeing the films. As I gravitated toward an honorary-family type of position, I felt it was a good time to join in and read along. Again, though, I was only generally into the novel. It was better this time, and I had a different visual palate for characters and scenes (as corrupted by the film), but I’ve never been firmly into written fantasy (beyond Neil Gaiman, who is arguably a Jack of all trades, not anything near a hardcore fantasist . . . that sounds a bit x-rated . . . you know what I mean), so I ultimately couldn’t keep up.

Web’s general enthusiasm for entertainment tends to wax and wane, as he moves his spotlight to other topics (it’s one of the things that makes him a fantastic journalist). He does have one great weakness, though. Villains. From Erica Kane to Maleficent to Mother Bates, Web loves him some theatrical villains. By the time T was released, we were both frothing over the possibilities of Gollum. And, of course, the slimy little creep (Gollum, not Web, who is the absolute opposite of slimy and creepy, and, while skinny, isn’t little) came through. In fact, Gollum was the seed for the terrible sequence of events and misjudgments I’m about to describe. Gollum is the key. Gollum is the lesson. Remember that as you read on, precious.

Gollum hits all of the Web checks for an excellent villain. Theatricality. Machiavellian misanthropy. Coin-able phrases. Also, theatricality. Sometimes it just comes down to whether or not Web feels he can accurately impersonate a villain. So we both started adding superfluous “s”es to various plurals, spoken in that tight-throated chain-smoking-squirrel rasp. Jacketses. Breakfastses. CTA transit cardseses. It was always fun to whip out a little “precious”, dangle a bit of self-reflective third person. Beyond being the pacifier of the masses, entertainment can be the glue that bonds a friendship, that allows it to flourish. Rachel enjoys a regular movie night with her friends, a gathering that started as Buffy Night. My initial relationship with Web didn’t begin until we formed the Twin Peaks Society, and those society members are still my closest friends. Even back in the days of Star Wars, that film’s proscribed creative fodder solidified my earliest true friendship (Mark and Matt, the twins from the next block). Entertainment gives us a framework of common experience, common language that we can then employ to develop other aspects of friendship. Book clubs have become more widespread, but the primary catalyst tends to be audio-visual entertainment. So I have often reveled in many of the things that titillate Web, from Twin Peaks (FYI: Bob is not one of Web’s theatrical Machiavellian fun-to-impersonate villains . . . Bob is freaking creepy) to Survivor to All My Children and, finally, Gollum.

It never occurred to us that Gollum might have been truly evil, or that reveling in some manifestation of evil might negatively affect your karmic ballast.

We didn’t even see the first two films together, with each other, in the theater. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering many entertainment-as-social-bonding films that I initially saw with the bondees . We often arrive at these movies independently, blown away by the personal targeting, the way the film seems to be created explicitly for us alone, as if we are the only people who understand it in that special way. Yes, it’s all about feeling special, and the vibes of specialness require some degree of solitary entry. So you make that connection and allow this thing to shake hands with your soul. Then you meet someone else who has had a soul-shaking, and pretty soon you’re comparing imprints. That’s the point where you either become friends or competitors. It either becomes a pissing contest of who is the bigger fan, who has the deeper connection, or it plateaus your field of communication and provides the opportunity for simultaneous specialness. Once you’ve made that bond, though, you often strive for reaffirmation. Sequels thrive on the reaffirmation of personal specialness. You go to a sequel expecting it to whisper the same love song into your soul, to make you feel that particular blush of personal connection all over again. It’s a recipe for disappointment, really. It’s the junkie chasing that first high. In the rare case where a sequel meets or exceeds our expectations, what its actually doing is making us feel special in a different way than the primary film. The Empire Strikes Back is an excellent sequel, in many ways superior to Star Wars because it is not Star Wars. This is why the LotR films are so different. They really aren’t sequels, as they were shot all at once, and presented in such a way that they form a single, seamless story. They aren’t required to play by the rules of sequels, as the specialness that started with the first film doesn’t need to be transformed or rekindled. It simply carries over into the next two installments. So by the time you finish watching all three films, you’re feeling pretty damned special.

That bond of specialness can work against future co-viewings, though. Some films create such powerful bonds between people that tremendous pressure is placed on who you choose to take with you to the next initial viewing. People who supremely bonded over F had better make sure that neither of them sneaks off and watches T before the other has seen it. This is most evident inpre -spousal “serious” relationships. The couple assumes co-ownership of the upcoming film, so if a person decides to see it first with his/her friends, it is in violation of their imminent spousal agreement. It is, in effect, an act of adultery. This is particularly frustrating to the third party, the third wheel who just wants to go see the damned movie with his friend. “Sorry, that one’s reserved.” The obligation ultimately necessitates various degrees of film mediocrity, from “chick flicks” to “guy movies” to “lowest common low-brow denominator time-shifts” (such as anything in the Phase Three stage of Eddie Murphy, with the exception of Dreamgirls, which falls into that Universally Appealing No Committment Required category of films that I never actually get around to watching), all of which fill the void suddenly created when the first-tier film is targeted for exclusive reservation. So you end up seeing Die Hard 4 or some other half-baked package, trying to work up some excitement even as you hear the thunderous bass of T emanating through the wall from the next theater over, the palpable enthrallment of the T audience seeping through and effectively bitch-slapping the rudimentary Bruce Willis time-waster, bitch-slapping you and your friend for allowing yourselves to be curbed by pre-spousal duty, and bitch-slapping anyone in a two mile radius who isn’t currently and directly interfacing with THE movie. You ultimately skulk out the back door, praying that your crap surrogate doesn’t let out at the same time as T, just wanting to get out of there without seeing any of that smugly satisfied, overwhelmingly entertained T audience. It’s either that, or you blow off your friend and go see T by yourself (thus reinforcing the initial solo this-is-just-for-me specialness thing).

Even though we were in full Gollum mode with the release of T, Web, being a good uncle, had familial obligations and first saw it with his nieces and nephews. I did end up seeing the film with friends, but they weren’t bubbling out the Gollum speak (in fact, Tom is an old-school fan of the books, one of the people who made that literary connection long ago (scroll way up to paragraph three if you need a refresher)). Then I eventually fell into a rhythm of seeing Tseveral times at a local theater, usually alone, often blasted (that’s what happens when you live two blocks from a relatively cheap cinema). When a piece of entertainment becomes a way of life, your other ways of life, such as various intoxicating elements, tend to converge. Living next door to each other, Web and I continued to froth ourselves up over the films, increasing our Gollum-isms nearly daily. 2003 became a massive build-up to the final film, permeated by frequent visits to The One Ring. Web discovered the website while researching a Tribune article. He is one of those rare journalists who manages to write about all of the things that he loves, interviewing many of his heroes (one of the last ones left on the list is the brilliant Grant Morrison, who I predict will make that Web Connection some time this year), leveraging his enthusiasm and fanboy knowledge into excellently-written prose. His LotR research also gave him a heads up on Trilogy Tuesday.

Trilogy Tuesday. It seemed more like one of my goofy ideas that would present itself midway through whiskey-drenched viewing of T. The AMC theater downtown was going to show the extended editions of the first two films (they were both being temporarily released in the theaters as a build-up to K), back-to-back, and then, at 10pm, they would display the FIRST viewing of K.

I’m not sure that you’re grasping the incredibility of this momentousness. Many people know about the crazy midnight showings of new blockbusters. At midnight, it is officially the next calendar date, and the theater is then allowed the show the movie on its day of release. Midnight premieres are festival gatherings of superfans . When I was a kid, it was a huge deal to see a movie on release day, but, even then, the first showing wasn’t until the middle of the day or the evening. Currently, a midnight premiere is standard, and you aren’t considered a hardcore fan unless you’re there. Sort of like me not having voted for Obama unless I was in Grant Park for the big Obamapalooza hoopla on election evening (sorry, we just stayed home with a bottle of wine and our projector – next best thing, with the added bonus of Judy Baar Topinka ridiculously calling “Huxtable Factor” on Obama). The Harry Potter films were winding into full force by 2003, and the Star Wars prequel atrocities were marching to their own conclusive whimper. Hardcore superfans were used to camping out days in advance just to have the bragging rights of the midnight premiere (well, they were also just plain excited to see the movies, too). Web and I had already linked ourselves into obligatory midnight co-viewing for the final LotR film. However, Trilogy Tuesday changed everything. It shattered the rules of both space-time and midnight premieres. After watching the extended editions of the first two movies, Trilogy Tuesday viewers were going to view the final film at 10pm, the night BEFORE the actual release. This was a VIP-grade trump, and there would only be a handful of people in the Chicago area who would be gold-star super-exclusive members. It was our destiny to attend.

Ultimately, Web didn’t pull any journalist-privilege favors. It was really a matter of interviewing the right person at the right time, getting clued into the business as an extra block of tickets magically appeared, and somehow ending up with two legitimate, non-comp tickets. As hardcore fans go, we were never too far over the edge. We both clearly understood the veil separating entertainment from reality, so even as we revelled in Gollum and extensively quoted Gandalf, we knew that this was ultimately a bunch of smoke, mirrors, CGI and theatrical facial hair. Some of our fellow Trilogy Tuesday attendees, though, were in deep cover. The costume contest in between films didn’t clarify matters much for these ultra-fans. There were a few folks who did amazing jobs of looking and/or sounding like elves, wizards, hobbits and other sundry Middle Earth inhabitants, including someone in the lobby who’s Gollum voice was so dead-on creepy that I couldn’t even look at the guy. There were also a lot of people who just showed up in their standard Renaissance Faire costumes (which, I do admit, isn’t too far from Standard Eowyn, but a room full of Eowyns is like going to a Twin Peaks convention and finding a gaggle of Audreys – there will be one of them who is really spot-on, and the rest will just look like alternate universe wanna-be distortions, ranging from not-quite to pathetic to yikes . . . of course, Twin Peaks provided far more dress-up opportunities for female fans thanLotR, so I won’t get too carried away with my begrudging of the parade of Eowyn ), talking about two levels too loud in sloppy English accents, yammering inanities. For some of those folks, this seemed like just another stop on the festival circuit. Or perhaps it was the inevitable culmination of their life-long Tolkien obsessions, as it was probably the LotR novels that launched their Ren Faire personas years ago. This wasn’t just a movie premiere, it was a mini-con, and every person there had either plunged the depths of fandom or was about to fall in. Web and I didn’t participate in the costume contest, but we did show up in freshly-created custom shirts (see the Gollum-Smeagol Photoshop job at the top of this blog post, which I printed onto iron-on paper and then, well, ironed on).

We did manage to participate in our own private festival-within-a-festival, packing our sacks with some very adult goodies. The magic brownies sustained us through the first film and well into the second. A flask of Scotch gave us that little boost during the assault on Helm’s Deep. Then, by the end of T, we had ingested the mushrooms. You generally need to be careful with hallucinogens. Unless you’re really used to them, it’s best to stay away from big public gatherings. If you really have to be mixing with the public, give yourself an out and don’t be forced to stay in place. Also, you should try to be around sort of “normal” people, or at least people who are dressed as people and not elves, hobbits, dwarfs, etc. So you can see that this was meticulously planned. Web said that his shrooms started to kick in during the costume contest (in between T and the mega-event premiere of K). I recall him getting happier, and then disappearing. No, I didn’t hallucinate the disappearance. He just took off*. At some point I noticed Bob, a friend from my movie-premiere past. Bob is one of those to-the-core Star Wars fans, the type that not only collects memorabilia, but creates his own domestic chain of memorabilia by naming various pets after Star Wars characters and creatures. It was no great surprise to find Bob at Trilogy Tuesday, as Bob had also been present at all of the second-generation Star Wars premiers. We used to work together at Starbucks, right around the time Lucas starting making the new batch of films. Bob said he was going to camp out for tickets and asked if I wanted to be included. Of course! He took a few days off work and actually set up a tent in front of McClurg Court (the late, great premiere movie theater of Chicago). Soon he started appearing on the radio, in the newspaper, and even on television, evidently the ultimate uber-superfan . He even talked with Ebert. It wasn’t enough to have tickets to the first showing of the new film, he had to be the first person in the city, number one, top of the mountain. In that respect, Bob, from that moment on, was a living legend. So it was natural to see him at Trilogy Tuesday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the organizers comped him into the event as a show of respect for his superfan celebrity (and to demonstrate the event’s VIP exclusivity).

Trilogy Tuesday Lanyard and Pass

*[Part of the phenomenal deal with Trilogy Tuesday, beyond the movies, some free gifts, pizza, a discount on concessions, having our seats saved for all three films, and the costume contest was that we were permitted to leave and come back, using the cool All-Day Pass pictured above, so we were able to have a real meal in between two of the films, and Web was able to disappear and then magically reappear in his seat just before the start of the epicly conclusive final film. The issuance of the above pass included my first exposure to the word lanyard. In fact, the organizers consistently referred to the passes as our “lanyards”, which I figured was some fancy old-world Ren Faire term for “re-entry pass”, and was more communication-ally efficient than “Ye Olde Re-admittance Certificate”. Web and I tossed the “lanyard” term around for a good year after that, both of us having been trained during our Children’s Television Workshop youth to respect and assimilate lexiconical additions (“lan” . . . “yard” . . . “Lanyard”).]

Fortunately, I was still relatively stable (relative to the Magic Brownies and Single Malt Scotch in my tummy). In fact, my shrooms didn’t really kick in until we were well into the third film.

I’m assuming you’ve all seen these movies. So you all know some of the great events of K. The lighting of the beacons is amazing, and I still feel the same wondrous chills from that first viewing. The battle of Minas Tirith is multi-staged and epic, including some absolutely over-the-top Legolas (“still the prettiest”) action. (Web and I were obsessed with a Legolas blog, depicting the elf as completely fey, vain and “still the prettiest”.) There was also the matter of the giant spider. I’ve always been a sucker for monster flicks, particularly the obviously not-human, unreasonable and destructive beasts who ravage cities, stomp and masticate screaming citizens and can only be brought down by an onslaught of army tanks and rocket launchers. You really don’t have pity for Reptilicus . He just keeps spitting acid venom and smashing Copenhagen to bits, and, even though its sad to see him blasted apart, he sort of had it coming. However, most of those beloved movies are from my youth. My very much non-hallucinogenic youth. Somewhere in the midst of Shelob’s lair, things started to get funky. There was suddenly a lot of 3D depth to the movie, and the sound became very distinct. The scattered bones moved a bit more than they should have (were they even moving at all?). Frodo was looking, um, weird, and his hair was . . . doing things. Emotionally, the entire scene had my heart firmly in my throat, but by the time Shelob (who, in my Shroom Cut, had a lot more than eight legs, folks) was in full-on eat-Frodo mode I was immersively sucked INTO the scene ala Videodrome. I was never a huge visual hallucinator , but I have had some interesting experiential hallucinations. The first hallucination I ever had, back in college, was while listening to XTC (Black Sea). I was in the band, up there on stage, making music with my idols. Today the kids do it with Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Back in the day, you needed acid. K is full of moments that we would have loved to truly experience. Wouldn’t it have been cool to be Elrond, whipping out that big-assed sword and handing it to the King of Gondor? Or maybe I could have been up there atop Minas Tirith , clonking the Steward on the head and shouting “prepare for battle.” Kick-ass. Or how about that cave with the giant, very not-human, very alive and squirming and hungry spider that really wants to stick you in the gut, wrap you up and eat you? Maybe not. The moments in life chose us, though, so I was stuck with it.

I not only survived the film, I had a great time. How do I know this? As the final-final credits were rolling and the house lights dimmed up, we yawned, stretched and slowly eyed our fellow superfan travellers. It was as if we had all personally battled and defeated Mordor. Little had I realized, filtered through the brownie-Scotch-shroom gauze, that there had been a guy sitting to my left for the past 13 hours. People started nodding to each other as brothers and survivors. This guy, though, had something he needed to get off his chest.

Dude: “Couldn’t you think of something more creative to say other than ‘wow’?!”

Baked Jim: “Huh?”

Dude: “That’s all you said all this time. ‘Wooooow.’ ‘Wooooow.'”

Baked Jim: “Um.”

It was one of those accostings that takes you so completely by surprise that even your monosyllabic response can’t be anything other than an unreal grunt of a word. If I hadn’t been in such a post-baked state, I would have had one of three typical reactions.

Possible Reaction 1 (35% probability): Aggression. Years before this, I had accompanied Web to a screening of Liar, Liar, that hideous Jim Carrey vehicle. We whispered comments to each other throughout the film. Eventually, a critic in our row leaned over and told me to be quiet (this was a screening for journalists, so everyone was either a critic or a plus-one). I laughed at him and said something about the “complex dialog” being important. He reiterated the fact that I should be quiet during a movie, so I told him that we should take it outside and into the parking lot. And that was the end of that conversation.

Possible Reaction 2 (60% probability): Shame. A feeling similar to when you make what seems to be a very obvious and neutrally observational joke about kittens in a blender or a gross puss-blister or some other thing that immediately disrupts all conversation with silence and exits. Or perhaps the feeling you get after your mother and grandmother have read the blog post where you casually mention public drug abuse.

Possible Reaction 3 (5% probability): Intellectual Discourse. You nervously babble and attempt a detached meta-analysis of the moment, adopting your enemy’s commentary in some statement of admission, such as “oh, this is a problem I’ve had for some time, you’re right, and I’m sure it was pretty annoying, but, well, it can be difficult to overcome these shortcomings, don’t you think . . . but I see your point, and I think I can work something out so this doesn’t happen again . . . how do you think I could work on this?”

As it was, I was vaguely irritated, yet amused. I honestly had no recollection of ever uttering a word, but it was nice to know that, externally, I was enjoying myself. And, of course, fifteen minutes later, down in the lobby, I cogently composed about four distinct and snappy replies to the grumpy dick.

The spirit of brotherhood prevailed, though. We left that theater somewhere around 2:30 am, after a full day and night of sitting, yet there were people everywhere, energy flickering in every corner, and instead of exhaustedly slouching toward the trains, we victoriously marched out onto the sidewalks. Web and I skated into the night amidst the Gothic and modern towers, glowing in the frosty atmosphere. The Great Eye had been destroyed and we were free. Web was so sufficiently charged that he moved on into the night, while I floated back to our home, lovingly stroking my lanyard.

That event was the gateway into a multi-year track of obsession that would culminate with a most terrible calamity involving my Hawaii wedding in 2008. Read on. You’ll see.

3: It becomes personal

Attending a big movie event and creating our commemorative shirts wasn’t exactly an act of obsession. The cookies, though, really crossed the line. Web and I (along with Seka and Monica) had previously coordinated our efforts in holiday cookie baking, collaborating for cookie parties. In 2003 we just couldn’t synchronize, so our various baking projects were independently executed. Just two days after Trilogy Tuesday, Web knocked on my door with a gift in hand. He had just returned from a family cookie-making event, and this is what he brought me:

Birth of the Gollum and Smeagol cookies

How cool! I love frosted cookies, particularly those in human shape. Who doesn’t enjoy methodically nibbling the limbs from a helpless gingerbread anthropomorph? Even the putrid-green of the frosting looked tasty. And such attention to detail. Web looked on, grinning, as I inspected the cookies, with their jelly eyes and sprinkle mouths and human hair . . . um. Wait, there’s a hair on my cookie. Oh. Oh no. The cookies had hair. Go ahead. Take a look. This is just the beginning, folks.

As Web cackled (he has a contagiously lovely cackle), I shook my head and immediately set to work formulating my path of revenge. It couldn’t be immediate, but it would have to involve these inedible twin creatures. During the next few years, I brought them with me on various trips, including grad school, the beach and, as seen in the following photo, the mountains of Tennessee.

Gollum and Smeagol in the Tennessee mountains

I framed that shot, taken at Web’s beloved Short Mountain Sanctuary (FYI: the video claims that SMS is a community of gay men, but there are certainly Radical Faerie residents of all sexes), and gave it to him for his 2004 birthday (an event that was quite Gollum-saturated, including all of us singing “Happy Birthday” in Gollum voices, while a Gollum figure held his candle). Not exactly “revenge”, but a fun project. Unfortunately, the cookies stayed in my car’s trunk for years, bouncing about, breaking limbs, and aging disgracefully. I suppose I should have treated them with more respect. Take a look at their original photograph, though. How many words float through your head that have little to do with “respect”? Yeah.

The rough aging that I thrust upon the cookies made them much more repulsive to Web, so, as time passed, the “revenge” factor was ultimately realized. All I had to do was include the cookies in some otherwise peaceful event, and a dark and disgusting shadow managed to instantly taint the moment. A year later, I brought them along to Web’s immersive birthday event, prominently displaying them in all their decrepitude. Their attendance was appropriate, though, as this was our great A/V moment, our personal screening of all three extended-edition films.

Within my circle of friends, I am generally known as the A/V Guy. This has been a natural progression from my computer guy persona of the 80s. A big distinction, and one that denotes an evolutionary preference, is that the A/V Guy is rarely placed in the uncomfortable and often excruciatingly tedious positions of diagnosis and service that befall the Computer Guy. The A/V Guy just has to set everything up. It’s simply a matter of knowing your stereo equipment, how to chain things together, and having the will and focus to rapidly assemble an entertainment environment. It also helps to have access to a projector, as I did during most of the 2000s. I had started working for the Galter Library in 2001. After a few years as a library assistant, I recognized the possibilities for personal growth and applied to a library science master’s program (and today I am a professional librarian). Meanwhile, I noticed that the library had a video projector that could be reserved and checked out for a full weekend. Soon I was bringing the projector to various Twin Peaks Society events, connecting it to a laserdisc player (hey, there was no other way to watch digital Twin Peaks) and Monica’s Bose Wave. Instant theater. A few years of these projections gave Web the idea that he could transform his apartment into an event-level personal theater, and I was absolutely up to the task. He was already doing a lot of upgrading and remodeling (Sunnyside Manor was Oma’s house (his grandmother), so all investments were still within the family), so he hired a few friends to paint the place, and made sure to leave a wall completely blank and white.

During that period of environmental transformation my life was rapidly changing. I had started library school in 2003, and in 2004 I met Rachel. Then, very early into 2005, my dad became sick. It started as unexplained heart trouble on New Year’s Day, but by mid-January it was confirmed as lung cancer. That confirmation had come to me the same weekend that Web and some Radical Faerie friends started to paint, when Kale started to cover Mother. Mother had been on the wall for a few years, an extreme decoration from Pumpkinfest, Web’s annual comprehensive Halloween costume/carving party. I had become quite entwined into the intricacies of Pumpkinfest planning and execution, starting with the year that I had been Mother in the basement, scaring the Bejesus out of just about everyone (or at least creeping out a good lot of them by uncomfortably staying in character). Future Pumpkinfests would evolve into various directions, but I don’t think we ever topped Mother. So as Kale covered her up and other friends worked their transformative magic, creating a friendlier space, I distinctly remember sitting there, with the same perspective as that photograph, telling everyone about my dad. Those distinctive snapshot memories are quite persistent, and we all have them, collected into our mental photostreams , reflecting the moments when we could clearly see the tributaries of our lives, the points to which we can never return. I recall sitting in Gordon, talking with my mom on my stupid cell phone, her telling me the results of the tests, the first revelation of the cancer. The moment in Web’s living room was the next vivid snapshot in that memory stream. This is how it is when someone becomes terminally ill.

Web’s birthday LotR viewing event spanned two days, including a sleep-over, first- and second-breakfasts. As the A/V Guy who had moved his full DTS surround system into Web’s, calibrating the entire wall-sized projection event, I had prime front-couch seating. As Girlfriend of A/V Guy, Rachel was granted equal privilege. Still in the shock of my dad’s diagnosis, this had inadvertently become my first therapeutic LotR viewing. When you’re in that state of emotional saturation, any level of emotional intensity embedded within entertainment can exponentially expand, triggering unexpected levels of response. Sometimes, you just want to plunge over the waterfall, so you knowingly watch something that would upset even a right-minded person (the Schindler’s List/Fried Green Steel Magnolia Beaches factor). Other times, the emotional triggers sneak their way into seemingly low-emotion works of straight-up entertainment. The same comfort-of-home familiarity that accompanies a beloved film provides a safety zone, relaxing your guard in a darkened room, allowing your brewing emotions to release themselves into your eyeballs and nasal cavity and general aura. The LotR films have something for everyone, including the emotionally shocked and bereaved. I wasn’t prepared for such an outpouring, but once it blossomed I wasn’t embarrassed. Web had been selective in his invitations, so this was a safe and loving environment. It was a good opportunity to connect my soul to these movies. By the time Frodo sailed off toward the Grey Havens, I was silently bawling. This journey had been the exhilarating victory of Trilogy Tuesday. During that initial public viewing, my spirit was more tied to Gandalf and Aragorn , mustering for battle, philosophizing on the greater impact of such a massive story, harnessing motivation (and still tweaked from the shrooms ). This time, the trilogy carried the satisfaction of productive exhaustion. I connected with the bittersweet accomplishment of Frodo and Sam, a connection that would comfort me throughout the duration of dad’s sickness.

My dad was sick from early 2005 until March 2006, during which I viewed the full trilogy several times, discovering different stories and angles with each screening. These films tend to be more immersive than most others due to their innate fractal nature. The expanding facets of character and story depth are not really based on acting or even the screenwriting. Rather, this fractal analysis originates with Tolkien’s exhaustive creativity and attention to historical depth (based on the real history of World War II, which is a living allegory of itself, pre-programmed into our national DNA, with archetypes so poignant that leaders still attempt to leverage them for their own means, even as the world has become much more muddy and difficult to categorize). You feel the immense history behind every scene, and you start to wonder if there are other types of wizards, what really went down between the nations of elves and men, how the hobbits might have settled into the Shire, and how they ever get anything done if they’re constantly smoking pipe-weed. However, this didn’t make me want to read the books. I’m satisfied with imagining this stuff on my own, digging deep into the template, but only employing hypothesis. This is similar to the pre-ordained imagination of Star Wars, but it is much more adult, much deeper, and less dependent on Joseph Conrad-approved archetypes. And whatever historical depth you can find in Star Wars is probably due to Lucas having read LotR at some point, absorbing plot while sacrificing subtlety.

Dad’s cancer progressed. There was never much positivity in the prognosis. You grasp at single-digit changes of prognosis percentage, like fantasizing over the odds on the back of a lottery ticket. Life absorbs this new facet, and you work around it, incorporating more visits, more interaction and communication. It’s a quick way to overcome telephonophobia. Pretty soon, though, I was no longer including Dad’s sickness as a part of an otherwise manageable life. It became the sea in which we were swimming, treading water in the center of a cold ocean. We savored all the moments together, attempting to make semi-immediate, achievable plans. I wanted to watch the trilogy with him. He had never seen the films, and I wasn’t certain that he would be able to sit through even one of them without nodding off. Still, we could just watch pieces of them, a bit at a time, and take it all in. He loved science fiction movies, was a Star Trek fan back before there was a franchise, and particularly liked Westerns. I would schedule some father-son LotR time, perhaps even bring the projector for an instant A/V Guy transformation. But I also wanted to have more games of Monopoly, the game we had played together since my childhood. And then there were the family movies, decades of material spread out over several VHS tapes, transferred from silent super-8 and unannotated. As his percentage slipped below the teens, I was forced to prioritize our time, yet I didn’t want him to feel doted upon, which could be a reminder of his weakness. Too much thought. Then, the sickness made the decisions for us. For a few weeks he was having some trouble concentrating, and then his mind just started imploding. We thought it could be the drugs, or his waning appetite, but, not even very deep inside of us, we knew that the cancer had reached his brain. I made it through about a half of one of the VHS tapes of old family movies, asking him questions about long-forgotten and distant uncles and cousins, places and homes from his childhood, before he simply lost the ability to perceive what he was watching. What followed was a very intense month, requiring constant supervision. The world collapsed into itself, and my dad became a shell, this void in the middle of everything. And then he died.

We took our time in planning the funeral. He was cremated, so there was no need to hurry. Death rites can be so infuriating to people who believe in the clarity of their own particular rituals. The cremation itself was a bucking of tradition, and the long wait for a ceremony put some people on edge. We were exhausted, though. And, with the immediate family being just me and my mother, with Rachel as an honorary core member, we called the shots. My grandmother and aunt came out from Hawaii. Web stopped by and played hearts with Rachel, me and Mom. Our house was silent, yet buzzing with well-wishers and the action of preparing the funeral (while I was taking care of Dad, I was ducking into the other room to review those video tapes, cataloging all of their contents, preparing an edit list for an inevitable tribute video). While Web was designing the program, I needed to find a good poem, something . . . meaningful. Dad wasn’t a big reader. As far as I knew, he didn’t have an outright favorite poem. I tried to think of some type of verse that wouldn’t be too generic, something that came close to describing the moment. Then I remembered the LotR soundtrack.

I had been given the CD of the final film some time in 2004. I tend to either completely embrace or reject soundtracks, with no middle ground. They always seem derivative of “real” symphonic music, such as the works of Prokofiev, Beethoven and Mozart. Still, I owned the soundtracks for Star Wars, Superman and many other films from my childhood, and I played the hell out of them. As an adult, my discrimination often pre-empted even considering listening to something, particularly music from modern blockbusters. It has been a contrarian ethic that has often worked against my better judgment and taste. In LotR, though, there was that little matter of the lighting of the beacons. That scene is a great visual experience, a great idea, with a single information packet traveling across an entire country, mountaintop dominoes of fire connecting humans over a vast distance. The music, though, drives it through the roof. I used to crank the beacon song every now and then, on select mornings, blasting it through the wall and into Web’s place, and by the end of the sequence we would be gathered in one of our apartments, concert-ballad saluting with raised lighters. It truly kick-started your day.

I wasn’t going to play the beacon fanfare at Dad’s funeral. I appreciate absurdity enough that I won’t discount the possibility, but this was for Mom and the rest of my family, and we were all emotionally destroyed. However, I remembered that Dad repeatedly mentioned how much he liked Annie Lennox. This is the guy who introduced me to Black Sabbath and ZZ Top, a man who’s family car was a ’69 Plymouth Road Runner that he drag raced at US 30 Drag Strip. A sailor and a truck driver. Yet he had a soft spot for the Eurythmics, and Annie’s solo work, and generally thought that she had one of the best voices in pop music. Lennox did Into the West, the final song in K, and the lyrics just seemed too appropriate. Go ahead and read them.

So even though neither of my parents had seen the movies or read the books, we included Into the West as a poem in the program. With that act, I have folded a part of my life into those movies, so the triumph, exhaustion and warm cascade of the final credits are also an ode to my father, a remembrance. That marked a new phase of LotR entwinement. It wasn’t enough to croak out the Gollum-speak or brandish the aging cookies. This work of entertainment was officially tied into my soul. As 2006 dragged on through a swamp of numbness, as we excavated and sold my parents house, upending my own history, the need to personally invest elements of my persona into those movies intensified. There are basically two ways to fanatically throw yourself into something, particularly when it comes to a film. Consumerism is the most immediate method. The simple purchase of a “very special” DVD set stimulates an intimate connection, baring this avatar of your soul on a bookshelf display. After that, the chain of intimacy demands continuity, so you buy the books, graphic novels, documentaries, figurines, posters and all sundry paraphernalia. You buy your connection of identity. Another approach, though, is less rooted in the ritual of purchase and consumption, and more a direct act of creativity. You find ways to infiltrate the narrative, to model your life after characters and scenarios. You pretend.

So now you’re expecting me to say that I finally gave in and stamped my passport to the Renaissance Faire. Not quite. There’s only one time of the year when I truly flip from introvert to extrovert. The time of Mother. Pumpkinfest.

Pumpkinfest plans were very ethereal in 2006. Just a month before Dad died, Web lost Oma. Neither of us had a lot of energy available for entertaining. Once we started the planning, though, it really started to work itself up. It started with the seed of a costume, the notion that I might be able to pull of an actual character (and not just a performance-based absurdity). It all started with the Staff of Saruman. I saw it on eBay for a somewhat reasonable price, and quickly fantasized about assembling the rest of the robes, beard and hair needed to become the White Wizard. I’ve never enjoyed Halloween. I grew up in a religion that refused to celebrate most holidays, and that included the fun one where everyone got to dress up and collect a vast booty of deliciousness. Without the history of annual costumes, the simple idea of having to pick something out, to transform myself, scared me to the bone. It was performance anxiety, along with pure fear of the inevitable judgment cast from fellow costumed citizens. Web’s Pumpkinfest , though, helped me look at the mandatory dress-up in a very different way. It was an opportunity for creativity that tapped into long-dormant elements of my personality.

When I was young I used to put on “funny shows” for my cousins. I would duck into a back room at our grandma’s house, spending 30 minutes to prepare my act. Once I had the crowd worked up, frothing with anticipation, the show would begin. This usually consisted of me hopping and flailing about, making strange sounds, balancing, cracking jokes, being an all-around lunatic. They ate it up. I eventually expanded this into installation pieces, such as haunted houses, where I would create Jimmy Doppelgangers within a room, and then attempt to scare the Bejesus out of my semi-expecting cousins.

Web’s idea of a Hitchcock-themed Pumpkinfest was the crank that set my mind into motion, and I was soon creating a full freak-out installation in his basement. This was also a carving party, and we provided the guests with pumpkins. The caveat was that they had to go into the basement and retrieve their pumpkins from the fruit cellar. Ah, the fruit cellar. I sat in that little closet for hours, covered in a shawl, donning a grey wig, slumped over in a rocking chair with my back to the door. Guests had to reach past me to get their pumpkins, muttering various defensive proclamations, waiting for me to breathe or move. They couldn’t see my face, though, and I was sufficiently covered so that I could have very well been a prop, a lifeless and strategically placed mannequin. About 60-70 percent of them jumped and yelped as I touched their arms, just as they were reaching for their pumpkins. Some of them screamed. One of them, dressed as a giant bird (giant – the guy is 6.5 feet tall), actually squawked and hopped about. Another person, a close friend, withered, crying out in an oscillating mewl, and slowly melted straight down into the floor. So, after that initial taste of power through performance, I was hooked.

However, this meant that I couldn’t just imagine a new costume every year. It had to be an installation and a performance. A “funny show”. So every year I would be quite lukewarm about the idea of Pumpkinfest until the moment when I would imagine a specific theme and costume. Then it was full throttle. In 2006 our souls had been shaken, with very little enthusiasm left for extroversion. The Staff of Saruman changed that. After ordering it, I convinced Web to revisit his “villains” theme from Pumpkinfest past. Everything eventually coalesced into the most complex costume I had ever assembled:

Saruman playing ominous low note

In the above picture I am partaking in one of my favorite occasional activities: the playing of an ominous, low note on my severely out-of-tune old piano.

In addition to the white wig, I had glued a theater-grade mustache and beard over my own facial hair, along with the eyebrows. As the evening progressed and I became increasingly sauced, the facial accoutrements independently repositioned themselves, so I looked less like the evil wizard and more like a stinking drunk dirty old man. Overall, the costume was complex enough that I didn’t even need to act or even talk. As I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I couldn’t see anyone at all, so it was better to just keep my mouth shut, as I never really knew who I was talking with. A few of the guests got it right away, and some others understood once I had brandished the staff. The rest of them thought I was Father Time.

Gollum and Saruman. Villains and deception. How long can one mock these manifestations of evil and accursedness before there is a cosmic balancing?

4: The Balancing

I welcomed 2007 as a year of orientation. From death to the personal deconstruction of depopulating and selling my parents’ home, 2006 had wiped me out. One very high note of 2006, though, was my engagement to Rachel. It probably would have happened earlier, if there weren’t all the other massive events. The decision to get married conversationally sprouted from logic, so there was no single moment where I popped the question. I did manage to surprise her with an heirloom ring that belonged to my grandma, officially cranking up the engine of matrimony. Various plans soon unfolded, including a beach ceremony in Hawaii with all of the Hawaiian family. 2007 became a year of planning, with Rachel attending to every possible detail, excelling at organizing our union. Typical of the event, most of the focus was on her (as it should be), from the dress to the bridal shower. There weren’t many man-specific details that I needed to authorize. Well, there was one big one.

It probably started as a joke. I needed a ring, so why not choose the Ring of Power? I knew from my Staff of Saruman experience that there were jeweler-grade One True Rings out there for the LotR prosumer. This included custom, hand-etched rings in all grades of solid gold, along with the “officially licensed” merchandise (such as my staff, leaning in the corner of our living room, emanating dark energy) found on the New Line Cinema website. “Precious” mockeries fluttered about our household, yet, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a rather cool phelangean accessory. Still, it was just peripheral comedy until Rachel said, “if you want it, you should get it.”

Really?!

So my wife-to-be actually thought that the Ring of Power was a good idea, that it could be a serious wedding band that would symbolize our lifelong commitment to each other. Holy crap, what an awesome woman! It wasn’t a case of me pretending that I’m a freaking hobbit. We weren’t going to exchange vows in the midst of a tandem sky dive, or riding horses through an ancient forest, or dressed as elves/Vulcans or anything that far into the freak scale. This was a small concession with great meaning. It was a pretty cool-looking item in and of itself, and Rachel was hip to the whole idea of my wedding band being something interesting and unique. Our love would be forged in the fiery pit of Mount Doom. How could that possibly be bad?

After quite a bit of shopping (I never make a purchase decision without flagrant and mind-numbing distillation), I finally decided that the official New Line Cinema website item looked the best. Yes, a mass-produced item. The machine etching was so much more elegant than most of the other independently produced rings. And it came in a little wooden box with a certificate of authenticity that would match my Staff of Saruman certificate. So we ordered it, and for months it sat on my dresser, in that little box, waiting, whispering to me in the night as my finger ached for the completion of The Precious.

I generally just wanted to show it off, to catch someone noticing it on the train, to brandish it before Web and mock his obsequious reverence. We held to the tradition, though, so it was not allowed on my finger. That didn’t stop me from occasionally opening the box and gazing upon its orbicular brilliance, lightly running my finger over the laser-etched Tengwarian script. Beyond the playful mockery, I soon found that I no longer thought of the ring in the films. I could only think of the ring in the box on my dresser, the One True Ring, as it waited to be brought to Hawaii for our union. We would finally be united. Forever.

Rachel and I were married at Kona Village Resort on the Big Island. My aunt had worked there for many years, and my mom’s half of the family all came from the Big Island (after sailing over from Portugal in the mid-1800s). Aunty Lani is half-Hawaiian (my Portuguese is the other half), and an educator and musician. Her knowledge of Hawaiian culture and lore is amazing, as is her singing. She is quite beloved at Kona Village. It had been nine years since I had been to that island. Back in 1999, I had quickly visited Kona Village during a family trip, spending only a few hours at the tranquil oasis. We had a front-row table during the luau and Lani’s performance (you can hear her as the singing emcee here, during the kids segment). This time, for the 2008 wedding, she would be singing and playing her ukulele during our ceremony down on the beach. As we checked into the resort, letting various staff know that I was Lani’s nephew, most of them would pause a moment, trying to calculate the genetic dissonance of what they knew (Lani is half-Hawaiian) and what they saw (Jimmy is a haole with a Chicago accent). I thought it was all cute, in good fun, until I started hearing other people refer to “Aunty Lani.” Evidently, during that nine years since I had last been there, she had graduated from Lani, a Kona Village presence, to Aunty Lani, a KV icon. I am her only nephew, so I’ve been used to being the only person that should be calling her Aunty . It was unsettling, as if I was visiting my mom at work and noticing that everyone was calling her both “mom” and “mother”. So as they looked at me askew, sizing up my ancestry and how a skinny white guy could possibly be related to a robust, dark-skinned Hawaiian, I skewed it right back at them, derailed every time someone referred to MY aunty as “Aunty Lani”. Still, Aunty Lani, with her ubiquitous “Aunty Lani” status, helped us upgrade to an amazing private beach-front hale.

If any of you are planning a wedding, I must stress the mind-settling ease of the resort package deal. We showed up, enjoyed ourselves, and eventually strolled to the beach and got married. Okay, it was more complicated. And I was more of a stroller, which Rachel spent proper Bride Time getting ready. Still, so much was provided for us and worked out ahead of time that we were really able to take in the moment. I’ve heard so many tales of the wedding day experience, and most people have said that the event is often a fantastic blur, almost like those drunken hours at a party where time overlaps upon itself and the only way you’re really able to piece things together later is by anecdote and photograph. This was absolutely not the case with our wedding. I remember every detail, and, even as it was happening, I was able to take it in and enjoy it. Some of our friends were there, including Web, my best man. Web and I spent the afternoon hanging out at the resort, eating, checking out the turtles and swimming in a very snorkel-friendly inlet at the north end of the beach. Kathy and Tom appeared, and the four of us had a little beach party, snorkeling about and soaking in the calm. Pretty soon Kathy disappeared to get ready, and it was up to us guys to get ourselves into ceremonial condition. We ended up cutting it pretty close, dashing to the recreation house and quickly rinsing off the sea water. Meanwhile, The Precious was wrapped up in my locker, waiting to be handed off to Web. The moment had arrived.

I knew that Web has plenty of Coyote Trickster in his soul, so I was prepared for some sort of last-minute Smeagol-Deagol ring battle. I guess you could say that I was ready to clutch my hands around his throat until he relinquished The Precious, if that’s what it took. No hitting him on the head with a rock, though, and I’m generally non-violent. It turned out that Web was far too nervous about his Best Man duties to bother with LotR hi-jinks, beyond a few strokings of the ring and the random Gollum-whisper “precioussss”. As we assembled on the beach platform, whales breaching in the sea behind us, Web prepared himself. So did The Precious.

By this point, this deep into my tale, I can assume that you all know the tale of The Ring. When the time was right, it left Gollum and was waiting to be discovered by Bilbo. The lore of the ring having sentience was always appealing, yet always one of the more fantastical elements of the story. Out there on the beach, though, it happened. One moment, Web was holding it, readying it for the ceremony. The next moment, it had slipped from his fingers and into the sand. It didn’t just land on top of the perfect white sand. It started to bore its way down into the sand, as if on a mission to disappear, or perhaps drag us all down into a terrible sinkhole. We both stood there for a beat, mouths agape, hardly believing what was playing out before us. The ring was attempting to leave. It was making a break for it. Cinematically sinking into an alternate world of sand.

Sweet Jesus, my damned wedding ring was sinking into the sand!

Protocol be damned, I crouched down, shot my hand into the sand, and plucked that sucker back into our dominion. There were random peripheral gasps, but, in general, I don’t think many of the guests knew what was really happening. As I handed the ring back to Web, we both laughed uneasily, not due to any folly on his part, but more in recognition of a certain reality of The Precious, the breaking through of an energy we had never considered to be real. How many other fantasies stitched throughout our lives might also be able to transcend the barriers of fiction? And if the ring really did possess some degree of sentience, just what was I getting myself into?

The ring did not attempt any other escapes, and the ceremony progressed beautifully. Aunty Lani sang and cried, the conch was blown, Rachel and I were united, and ring was mine. Mine, and mine alone.

The one ring

The next morning we awoke in our hale as a united couple. The Great Event had passed, our friends and relatives had gone on to their homes and independent travels, and we were free to enjoy our Big Island honeymoon. After padding about the hale, we changed into our swim suits and walked up to the north end of the beach. It was time for a little morning snorkeling, just a bit of it, before rinsing off and drifting over to drinks and brunch. One of the beautiful things about an all-inclusive resort is that when you feel like doing anything, from snorkeling to sailing to drifting into a swirl of Mai Tais , you just do it. Every item and service is spread out before you. So we stopped at the shack and grabbed the snorkel gear, then waded out into the same inlet where I had swam with Kathy, Tom and Web just 19 hours earlier.

I have only snorkeled a few times, so I’m certainly no expert. I understand a few basic principles, and, in general, know that the biggest thing to get past is just relaxing and breathing somewhat normally. I could see that Rachel was having a rough time getting into that state. She was forcing the experience, worried that she would take water into her lungs, worried about the mask being on right, and a bit panicky in general. I was treading water with her, having her look at me to steady her thoughts, but it wasn’t helping much. She would snorkel in brief spurts, but then pop back out of the water, half-panicked, her poor eyes darting about within the mask, trying to keep things together with a half-smile. I counseled her that snorkeling can be just a matter of figuring out what works best for you, and that if she just wanted to hold her breath, using the mask to look down into the water as she skimmed the surface, that was perfectly fine. Once she understood that she wasn’t expected to actually dive down into the ocean, that she could just swim up top in the regular way that she always knew, she started to relax. Soon she was able to keep her head down for 30 seconds, and then even a minute, as her paddling feet propelled her off toward a big batch of coral and sea life. Meanwhile, as I satisfactorily watched her moving away, I felt something funny on my finger.

Now, take a moment and watch this clip. Pay particular attention to the 33-second mark.

Yes, the ring betrayed me. It actually floated UP my finger. I felt it. When I ducked my head into the water, I saw it recede into the ocean EXACTLY as Isildur had watched it slip from his life. The damned thing had waited, knowing that I would be extra diligent during the ceremony. It waited until my focus turned to my other Precious, my wife, and her well being. Then it slipped into the depths. I gulped air into my lungs and plunged in after it, but, just as it had transfixed me and Web on the beach less than 24 hours before, it had stunned me into too much of a head start, and quickly disappeared into the sand some ten or fifteen feet down. I’m generally not a great swimmer. I can move, I can dive a little bit, but I’m still a Midwesterner, a haole , ill-prepared for moderate diving within the buoyancy of ocean salt water. I pushed my self down, darting my head all about, legs flailing, inadvertently disturbing the sandy ocean floor, pulling up swirls of soft golden clouds in the transparent water. When I popped back up to the surface, I yelled out to Rachel. She was still in the head-down position, exploring her reef, and, even if she could hear me, she probably thought that I was cheering her on. By the time she turned around and made it back over to my area, I had deteriorated into a full panic.

“I lost it! It came off my finger! It’s gone!”

What happened during the next few moments could only be a miracle. Are any of you fans of the old Incredible Hulk television show? Check it out. Now, try not to think of the infinitely sad walk-off-down-the-road-of-life piano theme at the end of every show. Instead, recall the motivation for David Banner’s gamma experiments. Remember? He was in a car accident with his honey, and he couldn’t get her out of the upturned and burning vehicle. He had heard that in situations of extreme panic, the body can sometimes generate enough adrenaline to enable super-human feats of strength and wonder, such as lifting a burning car so that your honey can escape. Well, neither Rachel nor I turned green and ruptured our swim suits. However, as I desperately dove back down, again and again, the ultimate alarm of the moment completely snapped Rachel out of her own diminishing panic. Less than a minute later, she was systematically swimming over a grid, correctly breathing, focusing on the ocean floor. She had become an instant snorkeler, ultimately leveraging my panic to discard her own. Soon enough, she had become a freaking fish, moving about with complete ease, calmly dividing our search into Cartesian sectors. She eventually grew tired and went back to the beach, walking out along the rocks to help me maintain my linearity. I stayed out there for an hour, struggling through a few leg cramps (a life-long plague of my swimming), finally too physically and spiritually exhausted to continue the search. The ring was lost.

It ultimately wasn’t too big of a deal. Rachel really didn’t care about the ring itself, as long as I wasn’t too upset. I felt more stupid than anything else. I felt like an idiot tourist. I also felt that my finger really wasn’t a size-11, dammit. Still, as we continued our spectacular honeymoon, it troubled me less, and we fantasized about some kid snorkeling at Kona Village in another year or two, skimming along the ocean floor and discovering the One Ring, plucking it out just as Deagol had done centuries before. Inspecting it and freaking the hell out.

The ring was a consumer item, so it was easy to replace, and our insurance gave us a bit of money toward the repurchase. It didn’t take long for me to own my second One True Ring, the ring I’m wearing right now as I type this. I have tamed The Precious, and we have come to an understanding. I no longer mock the ring, or pretend to be Gollum, Saruman or any other manifestation of chaos or evil. The ring, size-10 and tight on my finger, reminds me to stay cognizant of my environment, to keep my mind in the moment. And, of course, it reminds me of my love for Rachel, my ongoing connectedness with Dad, and my life’s friendship with Web. Which brings us to the coda.

Remember the cookies?

The cookies make a fine Birthday Present

Yes, they’ve been lingering all this time. That photo was taken just a few weeks ago. Well, they did ultimately find their way back to their maker, presented to Web on his 40th birthday. What could be more precious than a birthday present? Well, Precious!?

Back to Daddy

Snatch : 1995-2009

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Snatch in the window

When I first met Snatch five years ago she seemed like yet another one of those fussy “don’t touch me” prissy-cats. Any attempt to pick her up was met with a long “yeowwwwwl” of protest, so I figured she was just window dressing. Then we got to know each other, and I found that it was okay to not pick her up, to let her have her space. She figured out that my lap was a nice, warm place to rest and purr, and soon enough we became friends. During the years that we lived together, I increasingly played the role of defender, threatening Tomas when he would get out of hand, making sure that Snatch had easy passage to her food, and maintaining some of her Tomas-inaccessible hiding spots. After Tomas was gone, though, I realized that the two of them, while certainly not friends, did often exist in some state of agreement. I think that was more due to Snatch’s easy nature than anything else. She was a charmer, a princess and a companion. I will miss her dearly.

The Most Terrible Thing I Have Ever Done

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

We’ve all had our periods of juvenile delinquency, ranging from relatively minor rebellion to life-changing acts of blind defiance. Sometimes these formative passages become the drunken tales of our adulthood, proof that there was a time when we were fearless. Other tales remain hidden, though, as the bravura is eclipsed by regretful stupidity. So now is the time for me to come clean and confess. Prepare yourself.

Date: Winter 1983/84
Event: My first personal computer

The first wave of the video game bubble was yet to implode. While I was busy exhausting the playability of the Atari 2600, one of my friends had acquired the infinitely superior ColecoVision. ColecoVision was truly the next evolutionary step for the home gaming system. It included a version of Donkey Kong that actually looked like an arcade game. Real graphics! Round dots! Mario in an actual outfit (vs. the beige roadkill Mario of the 2600)! Holy freaking crap!

Unfortunately, I didn’t live in a household where I could sweet-talk my parents into buying *another* game system. My 2600 had been my big Junior High graduation gift. I wasn’t about to get another system just a year or two later. But I was also being left behind, and there was no way I could wait until my next graduation in 1986. Something had to be done about this. I needed to formulate a plan of persuasion.

My first foray into programming was Basic Programming for the 2600. It was just another 2600 cartridge, but it did come with an archaic set of keypads for entry, forcing one to cycle through typing (just like texting on a cell phone). I wrote a classic depth-charge game. I think everyone who programmed during the 80s wrote this game at some point. The rectangular block moving across the bottom of the screen is a submarine. You are floating near the top of the screen, a battleship (another rectangular block). You drop a depth charge (a square block) and try to time it so that it strikes the moving submarine. That’s it. The crappy thing about this approach to programming was that there was no saved memory. I had to type in all the “code” for the game every time I turned on my Atari (all 9 lines of it, having only 128 bytes (not K, people, BYTES) to work with). These kids today really don’t know how good they have it.

Back in 1983, most of us gaming enthusiasts relied on magazines to discover all of the industry dirt. Coleco was sweeping the market at that point. One could no longer be the envy of the block with 2600 Pac-Man or Asteroids (I remember when both of them were released, running to a neighbor’s house just moments after the word blasted over the block that he had Pac-Man, was playing Pac-Man that very moment, and crowding into his living room with everyone else from the block, gazing onto one of the ugliest video games ever created, absolutely rapt – this was truly the bubonic plague phase of Pac-Man Fever. It was rumored that the rich kid who’s grandparents lived in the big yellow house on the corner owned a ColecoVision. This was the same kid who had Atari 2600 Asteroids back in the day, but no one had been invited to sit in his living room and gape. We would ride our bikes up to the corner and stop, staring at the yellow siding, wondering what kind of titillation was causing the curtains to glow in that phosphorescent rainbow. Lucky bastard.

The only people I personally knew who owned a ColecoVision were these brothers from church, who’s parents bought them one after their house burned down. Lucky bastards.

(Disclaimer: Yes, the theme of this entry is “confession of terrible juvenile acts.” No, I did not attempt to burn my house down in order to obtain a ColecoVision via the insurance settlement.)

By mid-1983, the magazines were touting a new add-on for ColecoVision – the ADAM computer. You just plugged this contraption into your ColecoVision and viola, a full computer system, complete with data storage, keyboard and a printer. Coleco was also offering a stand-alone version that would play all ColecoVision games. All of them, dammit. More amazing, though, were the ADAM-specific games. Donkey Kong with all the levels, including the intro animation. The real Zaxxon, with actual sharp diagonal lines of graphics and six colors instead of two. This was to the ColecoVision what the ColecoVision was to the 2600.

It became the object of my unremittent gaze.

It took six months of campaigning, showing off my stupid depth-charge game to demonstrate the possibilities of a “real” computer, before I was able to broker the loan/advance/co-operative payment necessary to bring the machine into our household. By early 1984 (after having to return a defective unit the day after Christmas, wading through the mobs of Cabbage Patch Freaks who were sucking the oxygen out of Toys R Us), I had the beige plastic metropolis sprawled out over my desk – gaming, computing and printing.

A word about the printer. The power supply ran through the printer, so you were married to this 20-pound behemoth. It used a daisy wheel, striking letters onto the page through a plastic ink ribbon, so it was effectively a massive typewriter. I wrote several high school papers using the ADAM, and they all looked beautifully and perfectly typed. The added “feature” of the printer, though, was that it was also an Immersive World War II Combat Simulator. Every time I printed as little as one page, it was the equivalent of storming Normandy, sloshing across the blood-soaked beach as the damned krauts fired, “chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk-a”, from their hillside barricades. It was war, dammit, and it wasn’t pretty. If you stayed in the room while it printed a three-page paper, you would definitely have a headache after that ten minutes. I remember one miserable evening when I was trying to print out a final paper while my dad, who worked nights, was sleeping just on the other side of the wall. Working nights meant that 8pm was actually about 4am in his circadian alternate universe, so most of my nights were both fatherless and silent. My desperate smothering of the printer, using a stack of pillows and blankets, was futile. Pillows are no defense against relentless Nazi air-cooled machine guns. The windows rattled, my head exploded and I spotted enough typos to necessitate three drafts/missions. My mother poked her head in at two-minute intervals to dose me with admonishment and guilt. It was the last time I would attempt to print after sundown.

The ADAM came with SmartBasic. It was essentially the same as AppleBasic, only with different memory addresses, so PEEKs and POKEs worked differently (there are three of you readers out there who are nodding right now – for the rest of you, I’ll explain this stuff in a little while). I eventually grew tired of Donkey Kong and Buck Rogers, demanding something more creative and interactive, something more like the LEGOs of my youth (okay, I still have the damned LEGOs). In one fateful weekend, I locked myself in my room and taught myself how to program in Basic, neglecting nourishment to the point where I had caught a cold by Monday. This wasn’t the lame pseudo-Basic of the Atari 2600 cart. This was the real deal, and I was soon printing my name across the screen in infinite loops that strobed through disco flashes. Next up was the almighty bubble sort.

The ADAM was ultimately a heap of marketing failure, dead just two years after its debut (as the entire video game industry went down the toilet, the wasteland calm before the Nintendo storm). I was not only the first and only person on my block with one of these machines, I was generally the only person in the south suburbs of Chicago. This marked my initial foray into the risky world of the Early Adopter. I would later invest in many other auto-tanked technologies, of which my living room is a power-sucking museum. DBX noise reduction (effectively creating audio cassette tapes that no one else could play . . . but they sounded awesome . . . in my bedroom). The Laserdisc. The Sega DreamCast. Most recently, an HD-DVD player (obviated just six weeks after purchase). Lots of money for formats that self-destructed. I also bought my first CD player in 1985, and my mother likes to recall that, even as she told me I was wasting my money, I lectured her that it was the format of the future. A year later I bought one of the first “portable” CD players, the Technics SL-XP7, so heavy that it required a shoulder strap. And I owned a DVD player before anyone on my block. Well, I was living in Chicago at that point and didn’t really know anyone on my block, but if everyone I knew lived on one big block, then I still would have owned the only DVD player on the block, dammit. So sometimes the early adopter strikes gold, and other times it’s just petrified crap.

My personal experience with the ADAM, though, transcended any obsolescence. I taught myself the basics of programming, and I became the first person in my high school to ever test out of a computer class. I was on my way to nerd royalty, which meant bad hair, questionable attire, no girlfriend, and great respect among ten other computer-savvy nerds. Back in 1984, it wasn’t cool to be a nerd. There was no actual romanticized-bullshit “revenge” of us nerds. It was all misery. The world pushed us into our gutter, where we thrived like bacteria in a Petri dish. But we were still bacteria. Unlike some other nerds, I wasn’t so self-obsessed as to not notice this. I was often an embarrassment to myself, going through my first couple years of high school generally friendless.

As I struggled through puberty, I struggled against the person I was becoming. I didn’t belong to the normals, yet shunned the nerds, rejecting both Band and German Club. During those first two or three years, I didn’t have much respect from the teachers, either. When you spend all of your energy wishing you were someone else, wishing you were the popular vote, you can forget to use your brain for anything else. I was a soft-spoken shimmer of unrealized potential, hardly worth the attention of my teachers and peers. Then I met Brian.

High school can be a self-esteem obstacle course, with enough pain and confusion to transcend all demographics. Brian didn’t really show it, though. He wasn’t one of the quiet nerds. He was friendly, sometimes even bubbly. His older brother was a super-cool jock/thespian who later turned me on to The Cure and the Dead Kennedys. Brian was one of those everyman smart nerds. Innocuous. Visible, yet not obnoxious. Easy to please. I’m sure he had the self-doubt, the wandering identity, but that didn’t seem to extrapolate into the typical self-loathing, all-consuming narcissistic myopia, or the general inability to communicate with other human beings, or the terrible disconnect from bathing and hygiene.

I’m not sure how Brian and I started our extracurricular friendship. It might have sprouted from a discussion of music, but before we met I generally listened to the Rolling Stones, Styx and REO Speedwagon. After we met, I started listening to Duran Duran, Howard Jones and Art of Noise. It was more likely that we bonded over one of the Shatner Star Trek movies. Star Trek is the time-honored glue of any given nerd community. In fact, I doubt that adolescent nerds as we know them really existed before the 1960s. The term sprouted out of the 1950s, but it was synonymous with “square”. Nerds were blank, boring, unhip people, devoid of personality. Post-Star Trek, they became a community. They formed clusters and yammered on about Trek, sci-fi, wizards, math/computers/science, and other embarrassing topics. They unfiltered themselves. So, basically, if it wasn’t for Star Trek I might have had a respectful, non-nerd, only semi-embarrassing high school career. Instead, I’m running around shaking my fist and yelling “Kahn!!!!”

I suspect that it was the ADAM that brought us together. Brian has always been a sucker for new tech, surrounding himself with blinking lights and Early Adopters. The nice thing about being the Friend To Early Adopters is that you can try out the cool gadgets, wait a bit to see if your friends got burned (sometimes literally), and then buy the stuff that survives. So I brought him home to marvel over the high-speed cassette drive, the typewriter-quality WWII-Simulator/printer, pseudo-AppleBasic programming on a non-Apple computer, and Donkey Kong with all the levels. Brian later brought me over to his house, where I witnessed multi-sibling dynamics, thumping and tangible bass in music, and my first blinking, bleeping modem via his superior Commodore 64. Soon enough we were going to movies, record stores and the mall, creating mix tapes and posting nerdy comments onto bulletin board systems from his cool C64.

I soon picked up a C64 of my own, reverting back to the same justification-of-purchase that resulted in the ADAM. It was a powerful tool, with a whopping 64K of memory, allowing for new levels of programming complexity and multimedia creativity . . . and it had cooler games. Better yet, it was my gateway into the world of piracy! These days, piracy is so rampant that it’s really a matter of how egregious you choose to be. It is a given that some programs can be simply copied (has anyone out there actually plunked down the $500+ for Photoshop?), and most people share music or video on some level. Digital objects are like daisies in a field. It doesn’t matter who owns the field, and plucking a few of them as you pass by has next to zero impact. Back in the mid-80s, piracy was a completely different beast. Most of us had started playing games on cartridge-based systems such as the Atari 2600. It was possible to copy those games onto EPROMs, but that could cost just as much as buying a new game, so that avenue was left to the electrical hobbyists. Everyone else was generally satisfied with shelling out $20-35 1982 bucks ($40-$70 in 2008 dollars) for a cartridge. However, you should remember the 2600 version of Pac-Man, as mentioned above. Remember? We all insisted on paying top dollar to pollute our lives with that crap. Most people were disappointed on some level, but we still played it. Unfortunately, that sent Atari the wrong message. They subsequently created some of the crappiest video games ever, assuming the stupid public (and yes, we were stupid) would gobble them up. E.T., notorious as one of the most frustrating and unplayable video games in history, is considered by some folks to be nearly single-handedly responsible for crashing the video game market in 1983. I think it did a lot more damage than that.

Even though Atari ended up burying millions of unsold E.T. cartridges, they initially sold the game at Pac-Man level prices. Millions of suckers were taken in by the hope of eating Reese’s Pieces and role playing the adventures of their beloved, hairless, animatronic, home-phoning space pal. Millions of earthlings were burned, many getting their first sour, metallic taste of paying $35 for a soul-sucking hunk of plastic. The burns of 1982 and 1983 stuck with us. We not only stopped buying games, we stopped trusting that any given game might actually be good. Worse yet, we witnessed the bottoming out of the market, with the very same cartridge selling for $4.99 in a K-Bee Toys bin just a few years later. It quickly became evident just how much profit was being made from the $35 games.

When gamers started using computers as their platforms, the software was truly soft. Floppy, in fact. The cost of making a copy of a game was minimal. A blank floppy might have cost two bucks, while that same floppy with a game written to it, and perhaps a colorful label, was in that $35 dollar range. The original pirates didn’t copy games just to steal them, though. They copied them as revenge for Atari’s gouging and burning. They copied them because E.T. had destroyed their trust. That damned little neck-extending, chest-glowing freak had forever soiled the relationship between gamer and producer, creator and consumer.

Piracy rapidly escalated, so the game producers had to create various tricks to make their games harder to dupe. One particularly fun copy-protection scheme was the deliberate writing of errors onto the floppy. Normally, a copy program will try to correct for any errors it encounters. Many games were programmed with specific disc errors, so the non-error copy would simply not run, as the games wouldn’t detect the magic key of their specific errors. Most of these errors caused the head on the disc drive to rapidly bounce back and forth between the position of the error and the “home” position, checking the floppy’s directory. It was as if the drive was constantly having to double-check the directory to make sure it was supposed to read that error part of the floppy, constantly verifying the madness of blatant disk errors. On a C64, this resulted in yet another loud Word War II Machine Gun Simulation, as the read/write head slammed back and forth. Pretty smart, yet it also made the game companies look like assholes, as they were endangering the integrity of our equipment just to stop us from copying their games. And, of course, it didn’t take long for someone to figure out how to write a copy program that would also copy the errors, machine gun beachhead storming and all.

Brian had one of those magic programs – Fast Hack’em. In 1985 and 1986, Fast Hack’em was the king of all C64 copiers. For the price of a $30 program, you could distribute copies of just about anything. This included Fast Hack’em itself, so most of us didn’t even bother paying the thirty bucks, snotty bastards that we were. While there was some online downloading, most of the time you just found someone who owned a game, or had a copy of a game, and then made your own copy. The distribution was very physical, which meant that nerds and gamers formed social clusters based solely on copying each others’ games. Brian and I formed the first public computer club in our home town of Park Forest. It essentially involved a bunch of C64 owners gathering in a dimly lit back room at the public library, chaining floppy drives together and mass-copying each others’ games, thumbing through gaming magazines and the latest issue of COMPUTE!’s Gazette while waiting for the data to machine-gun transfer. There was little discussion of programming or operating systems. In those days, people didn’t tweak their operating systems, as there were no hard drives – you turned the computer on, and that was it . . . the salad days of simplicity. Currently, tech-savvy people tend to be forced into “computer expert” roles by friends and family, suckered into rebuilding broken Windows, re-establishing friendly negotiations between the CPU and printers/scanners/cameras/etc, and deciphering the fractal abyss of over-the-phone troubleshooting. Back in 1985, I was definitely the “computer guy” of my extended family, but all that meant was me showing up at their houses with Fast Hack’em and dishing out free games wholesale. I was a connected guy, someone good to have around.

Back at school, I had become firmly entrenched into the nerd sphere. I saw myself as a pretty smart, capable person, yet, in the social web, I was trapped in the unnoticeable fringe. This was encapsulated in a single moment, in the locker room, after PE. No, I wasn’t attacked. I wasn’t that type of nerd. No one bullied me because there wasn’t much of a point to it – I didn’t make waves and I rarely spoke. Ron, one of the medium-popular guys (generally only popular because his dad was the Village President of Park Forest, so he had the resources to host awesome parties, or so I had heard), got into some sort of conversation with me. After a moment of contemplation, he said, “you know, Brucker, you’re pretty cool . . . I mean, for one of THOSE people . . . you’re the coolest one of those people.” He said this with such sincerity that, as insulting as it was, I was touched. The guy made an honest effort to say something nice, something accepting, but, well, the trouble was that I wasn’t really a human, so it came across as a gesture, petting the stupid dog that just licked your cheek. Right now, as I type this, I am noticing for the first time the irony that Ron, the objectifier, was also black.

As personally conflicted as I was, I did manage to stop being stupid. It began with testing out of the basic programming class, then cruising through the remaining computer classes, learning Pascal, finally developing an independent study class of my own and teaching myself FORTRAN. I know . . . why would anyone *want* to learn FORTRAN?

(FORTRAN was my first exposure to a strongly-typed programming language, which means that I had to declare and type every single freaking variable at the top of the code. Plus, it didn’t use the happy-go-lucky friendly syntax found in basic. For example:

if ( md <= 2 ) then itipv = 0 jwit = jwit0 do iip = 1, nip jwit = jwit+1 call idlctn ( ndp, xd, yd, nt, iwk(jwipt), nl, iwk(jwipl), & xi(iip), yi(iip), iwk(jwit), iwk(jwiwk), wk ) end do end if

Okay, I get it, yep, if this, then that, and do something, whatever that means, and call . . . call . . . what the hell is that?!)

(Sample code lifted from this via a Google search - I no longer have the little FORTRAN programs I wrote in high school, as they were on 8-inch floppies, using a CP/M OS . . . yes, to the three of you out there, I just heard your nerd-snorts of recognition.)

Basically, I wanted to conquer new territory, and I had outgrown my teacher. Simple assignments, such as "create a phonebook database," became "write the database app in half an hour and then spend a week creating a fun little graphic animation for a hit list." For every idea I learned, I quickly grew bored and insisted on building it into something else. My school persona was not that of the game-swapping Fast Hack'em Guy. I started exploring the role of Entertainer, just a step away from Rouser of Rabble.

Programming is a blend of logic and art. Sometimes you can take the LEGOs approach (LEGOs being the preferred childhood building-block of nearly all programmers). Build something for the sake of building. There is still creativity involved, and often a lot of intellect, but there is also this self-contained thought process. Those programs aren't written for real people. They are proofs of concept, just as Lego creations are things that you build for yourself, in your home, perhaps showing them off, but never actually giving them away to someone. When you start programming for an audience, though, it can transcend creativity and merge into art. It's not enough to read a database file and print a bunch of names. Why would anyone find that interesting? Why not play a little song, show some graphics, turn it into an actual interactive experience? Maybe someone would like to play a little game, or live in an imaginary world for a little while. Instead of just building a Thing, you could create a Connection.

Most of the things I shared with Brian were rudimentary text-adventure games along the lines of Zork. Walk through some mysterious house and try to find the exit, or treasure, or a person, or whatever-the-hell. I eventually became more interested in statistically-generated melee scenarios. Using the Apple IIe at school, I wrote a text-based game in which you fought an endless array of monsters, each with many facets and attributes, so that you would have to decide what types of attacks would be most effective. I created a small database with a bunch of goofy creatures. I allowed the player to summon familiars ("conjure a shrew"). It attracted the attention of nerd school-mates other than Brian, and it had an incredibly catchy title: "Doctor Destructo's Arena of Battle". Yes, my brain power was developing a bit faster than my maturity, and my nerdness was flourishing. I was embracing my identity of being one of THOSE people.

Brian was much more interested in configuration and general technology. He knew about all the latest neat-o programs, as well as how to get under the hood of most simple operating systems. There are some folks out there who have been able to be both programmers and systems people, but I have found that there is a general split between the two, similar to the split between graphic designers and programmers. I was never that good at the systems stuff. I just wanted my sandbox, and I didn't care where the sand came from, or what materials comprised the box, or how rectangular the box could be, or even what brand of scooper and pail to use, as I preferred the direct connection between brain and hands.

Meanwhile, the high school computer lab (a room with about 10 Apple IIe computers, along with a Trash-80 in the corner) was just becoming redefined into the current version of a lab. That is, students were coming in there to type out homework for low-level- and non-programming classes. The AppleBasic classes were becoming more popular, so there were more people to impress with the prowess of Doctor Destructo. However, those students weren't really nerds. They were taking programming as just another class, so the homework was just an extension of math, just busy-work problems to dispassionately work through. The division between the Normal and the Nerd had infiltrated my comfortable turf. Again, my identity slipped gears, and I felt like a stranger in my own home.

I promised a tale of juvenile delinquency. We have now arrived.

Brian and I used to play around with PEEKs and POKEs on both the Apple and the C64. Basically, these were commands you would use in Basic to take a look at specific memory locations and alter them. You PEEK at the value in the memory, receiving some weird number. You could then POKE that location with a different value, directly altering the memory. Sometimes the effect is nothing, while other times it can be like tickling the bottom of the computer's foot. People with enough knowledge of the memory structure of a computer system could do a lot of manipulation using PEEKs and POKEs. On the C64, I used this to "shake" the screen when someone walked into a wall in one of my text adventure games. On the Apple, you could make a variety of click and beep sounds, and then rapidly alter the number of these sounds to create frequencies, notes and actual music on a system that was built only for beeps. This was a boon to game designers, and resulted in the ultimate tweak of Apple sound, Castle Wolfenstein, which included actual speech (well, just the garbled "Sich Heil!" screaming of Nazis before you gunned them down . . . again with the Nazis).

One day, Brian discovered a particularly interesting POKE that allowed you to disable certain keys on the Apple. It was one of those snickering, "ha ha, look what I can make it do" things that generally doesn't have a practical use. Unless, of course, you discover that you have been slow-brewing a grudge against the rest of society.

In high school, back before social networking, "society" was generally limited to fellow students, teachers, parents, and a few of the stores and businesses one frequented. Every other facet of human existence was an abstraction. So, in society, I was one of THOSE people, and nothing else. But I didn't even like most of THEM. One pseudo-nerd who I particularly hated was Terry. He was a skinny little annoying big mouth, a gamer who lingered about the lab and pretended to know things he didn't. A general village idiot, he was only a nerd on the basis of being incredibly funny-looking. Being a big-mouth, he managed the tarnish whatever esteem was left to the nerd image. He was a divider and jackass, driving me further away from my only identifying group.

Being labeled and categorized forced me to consider everyone else according to their obvious roles. I was surrounded by jocks, thespians, cool people, and quiet folks who I probably wouldn't like anyway. I didn't really resent society. Or, I didn't think I resented it. But I also had such a tenuous grasp on my own identity that I quickly fell into the typical adolescent trap of defining yourself by the things that you abhor. I knew who I was only because I knew of all the groups where I didn't belong. Sort of like Religion, that other insulated micro-society.

Nearly every destructive technological advancement originated as a simple proof-of-concept. Think of the scientists of the Manhattan Project. I doubt that this was a band of evil misanthropes. These were just LEGO people, working out their complex ideas, giving birth to their creativity. Most high-tech weaponry, from ninth-century gunpowder to modern wire-tapping, started with this seed of I-wonder-if-I-can-do-it. Curiosity is fundamental to the scientific and creative mind.

So I started to think of an interesting use for that POKE. First, disable the CONTROL key. This key was essential to allowing a user to break out of any given program. Combinations of the CONTROL key and Escape or Reset would either break out of a program, or reboot the machine. It was quite common, when sitting down at an Apple IIe, to do a quick Ctrl-Apple-Escape to clear out any program that might be running, returning you to the operating system so that you could access whatever was on your floppy. If there was no CONTROL key, the user would be forced to physically shut the machine off in order to clear out the memory and restart.

I combined this with a little side project I had been playing around with: JimDOS. JimDOS was just a shell that I had written in AppleBasic, just a shorthand for common disk functions such as looking at the directory, deleting files, etc. It really wasn't any kind of improvement on the regular operating system. It was just a proof of concept, a way to screw around. And, being an adolescent, I added fun little witticisms that would accompany various commands, such as "screw you" or "ha ha". I eventually created some needless complexity to the shell, including the mimicking of AppleBasic. So, within this Basic program, you could write a simple, "Hello World" type of Basic program. Not much of a use for this, but it was a fun way to tinker.

I tinkered my way into combining the removal of the CONTROL key with JimDOS. Now you were stuck with JimDOS (unless you typed the special command that would cause JimDOS to end and return you to the normal world). Then I took it one more step, into the realm of Evil.

People use computers to do three types of things: Good, Evil and Gaming. I had started with Gaming, the general gateway into all computing. Then I flourished into the land of Good, learning programming languages, helping family, solving the programming problems of my classmates. Unfortunately, fueled by the relentless energy of youth, unrestricted by any care for my micro-society, I moved on to Evil. Wouldn't it be cool if JimDOS rearranged some of the expected behavior of an operating system? I know . . . many of those Manhattan Project scientists said "wouldn't it be cool" at one time or another. I had to see if it could be done. So I took some of the basic commands, such as PR#6, Run, Brun, Load, Bload, Save and Catalog, and made them do other things. Specifically, any disk-based command would be reinterpreted as an INIT command. You use INIT to format a floppy and turn it into a boot disk. The boot disk requires some sort of "hello" program that the INIT will write to the formatted disk. So I had it INIT any disk that was in the drive, writing its own JimDOS program to the disk. I also changed the name of JimDOS to "fun".

So let me clarify all of this. If this program was running on a machine, it would appear to be a normal computer, and you could even write a little Basic program within it. However, anything you normally did to access the floppy drive would result in the erasure and formatting of whatever non-write-protected disk that was in that drive, and then the writing of my program to that disk, so that the next time the system is booted from that disk (a typical activity back then), you would be stuck in the program that would then erase and write itself to whatever disk was next in the drive.

I had written a virus.

The evil part of this was that the formatting process was initially indistinguishable from any normal disk operation. The drive usually made a few funny sounds whenever you would look at the catalog, or run a program or whatever. And it only took a few seconds for the directory to be wiped from the disk, for the contents of the disk to effectively disappear, so by the time someone would realize that the catalog was not appearing, that something was amiss, it would be too late. Whatever was on the disk would be, in effect, gone.

Okay, that's more of an evil concept. What I did next was an actual act of Evil. My independent study took place during the last hour of the school day, so I was usually just hanging out in the lab, a wallflower in the corner, monkeying with my FORTRAN. There was usually a five or ten minute window after class ended, during which everyone else would leave, after which the Normals would start showing up with their homework. So one day, during this window, I rapidly installed and ran "fun" on all the Apple IIe computers, and then returned to my Trash-80 FORTRAN station. Students started to slowly trickle in, plopping down into their chairs, getting ready to headache their way through such terribly difficult homework as getting their names to display on the screen or printing out a sorted list of ten names.

This is a good time to queue up the song Iron Man. Are you familiar with Iron Man? My father introduced me to Black Sabbath, so Iron Man was a commonly played song in our household. Go ahead and read the lyrics. It's basically a tale of revenge. A superhero is persecuted ("nobody wants him"), and then, "planning his vengeance," returns to kick everyone's ass.

These people, as represented by Ron, had objectified me into one of THEM. My natural reaction was to return the objectification. These insiders, these Normals were nothing to me. My corner Trash-80 workstation was an observation booth, where, detached from any of their emotions or humanity, I could observe the fruits of my work. A floppy drive spun into action. Then another, and yet another. While the third and fourth people were typing in their Load and Catalog commands, the first one started to scratch his head, wondering why his homework wasn't appearing. My heart rate tripled, but I didn't dare stop typing or look away from my monitor. Soon, all of the drives were spinning, taking much too long. Something was terribly wrong. My "fun" program worked perfectly. Chaos reigned.

I should have been the obvious culprit. I was always there in the lab at the end of the day, and I knew more about this stuff that most people in the school, including the computer science teacher. I was also so disenfranchised and quiet that most of them didn't consider me a threat. I was the anonymous smart guy who was off cooking up his own experiments in some weird programming language that no one understood, much too absorbed in whatever smart-guy stuff I was doing to take the time to wreak havoc. Smart people were the Good Guys, and most people only knew of the Good and Gaming options for computers. This was their first taste of Evil.

It wouldn't have taken long for the teachers to put it all together, though. Once they really dissected my program, they would have realized that someone had to quickly install it on all those machines. My elation over the successful experiment quickly soured into dread of my imminent prosecution. This was the lesson of Evil, the inevitability of karma.

Then a funny thing happened. Remember Terry? Big-mouthed, bug-eyed, dumb-assed Terry. Within a few days, word had spread about "fun", and, even though it was Evil, it was also a terribly effective proof-of-concept. It was a programming coup. For some reason that I will never truly understand, Terry decided to claim credit. He didn't directly say that he wrote it, but he started acting like he knew who did. Maybe he wanted to suck up to teachers, lead them to believe that Smart Terry was on the case. The trouble was, no one else had any idea who did this (except Brian, of course, and he would remain my silent partner). When no one confessed, Terry started to change his language from knowing who did it, to knowing how to do it himself. He opened his big mouth just a little bit too much. The teachers weren't certain that Terry did this, but the students who lost all of their homework decided that Terry was their man. He was regularly pummeled for weeks. At one point, he was suspended for fighting. This was like catching a gangster by focusing on tax evasion. The teachers couldn't prove that Terry wrote the virus, but he was the only person acting like he did it, taking the credit, so they busted him on fighting, even though he was the one getting his ass kicked.

This had become the Tommy rock-opera version of Iron Man. It was epic. I had succeeded with a somewhat weird proof-of-concept. I was able to sit back and watch the terrible effects (modern virus hackers are rarely, if ever, able to witness their damage in person). The annoying big mouth destroyed himself in the process. The idea of Evil had radically changed. Karma was simply a matter of perspective. One could actually be rewarded for doing something terrible. Welcome to the 1980s.

I had completed the transition, years in the making, from the innocence of Donkey Kong and Asteroids, the kid who's t-shirts were emblazoned with Pac-Man and Doctor Who, to the borderline-psychopathic emotional detachment of electronic terrorism. I was at one of the great crossroads of life. Criminality could be rewarded, and a life of vengeance would extend the pulse-tripling rush. Would I continue my transformation into Iron Man?

Iron Man probably didn't have much of a social life. He probably couldn't go to a movie without shooting a bolt of lead through the screen. He certainly didn't hang out at the mall, except when he was there to boil his vilifiers in the public fountain. Unlike Iron Man, though, I had a friend in Brian. Through him, I met other close friends, and through them, I eventually had a few romantic relationships. Like a sugar rush, vengeance burned out in a hurry. Friendship, though, was stability.

Being a lot smarter than Terry, I decided that the safest way to proceed was to put an end to the experiment. I never wrote another virus, and I made sure that the only people who knew about this were Brian and myself. I advised the teacher to have all the students shut down and manually restart the computers to completely clear out the memory. It's what they should have been doing in the first place. Yes, I was an agent of Best Practice. A part of me was sympathetic to those people who lost their work. Yet I also considered them to be dabblers in something that, for me, was a passion. My limited sympathy did not trigger regret over my achievement.

The next year I went to college and burned myself out. I was exposed to a crappy computer science program, and lost all interest in programming. It took me another 15 years before I would actually want to creatively express myself in code, and by that point I had lost much of the relentless energy of adolescence. My juvenile delinquency taught me a valuable lesson, though. I was able to directly witness the effect of unrestrained proof-of-concept. I'm generally at ease with my inner misanthrope, but that angry bastard is an agent of intellect, not action. I do, in fact, have the morals to never seriously consider ever doing something so hurtful and destructive. In short, I grew up.

A Taste of Chicago (or Orange is the new Yellow)

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I’ve been riding my bike to work quite a bit lately. In general, it’s much better for my health (unless I’m stuck behind a bus, huffing diesel until I’m drifting through Candyland), and I get to work quicker than by bus or train. That’s the high road. The honest road betrays the true workings of my “reason”. First, I’m cheap. I would rather risk my life twice a day, dodging car doors and 9am stumbling drunks, than fork over $1.75 to ride a train that I enter a block and a half from my apartment. That’s $3.50 a day, folks. If I ate fast food, that would be a free lunch and then some. Of course, riding my bike in order to eat faux-flame-broiled cheeseburgers is basically Working For The Man, so I’m usually a brown bag biker. The other big motivator has been my co-worker Mark. Mark made the cycling commitment some time this spring, and the guy has not let up. He rides in just about every day. While I sit around yammering about the chance that I might ride my bike some time later next week, running the hamster wheel of perpetual pontification, Mark is living the dream, riding hard, packing away that $3.50 like a miser-god. I don’t know where he’s spending all that extra cash. Bike parts? Sweat bands? It’s all making me look like a chump, so I decided to use the damned bike and get some freaking exercise in the process.

I’m not alone in this motivation. Cheapness is essentially a coward’s form of greed. Greed and embarrassment are the prime movers of history. Really. Take Iraq as an example. Hot topic. Big news. The left-wing screwball opinion is that we invaded the country with motivations of greed. First it was all about oil. Then oil prices went up, not down, so it must have been about something else. Jobs? Blow apart the country and then employ some mega-corporations to rebuild it. Okay, I can buy that. Before all of that, though, the initial motivator was embarrassment. First, there was the unfinished read-my-lips business from 1991. Then some people attacked us on our own soil, destroying towers and killing innocent civilians who were just trying to make a buck. How embarrassing! How many times have you been so embarrassed over something that you flipped and yelled at someone? It’s easy for that embarrassment to escalate into taking a swing at some poor bastard. Or, in the case of our country, we decided to shoot someone in the face. Only it’s been more in the fashion of a drunk at a party. Someone throws a drink at your back. You don’t know who did it. You turn around, stammering, and shoot a few people you didn’t like anyway. Doesn’t that feel better?

So instead of shooting someone in the face, it’s better for everyone if I start riding my bike to work. And the added bonus is that by risking my life for a fixed quantity of savings ($3.50), I am adding to the value of my life every day. Currently, it looks like my life is worth around $80.50. In technical terms that’s somewhere between an iPod Shuffle and Nintendo Wii. I’ll make a special blog announcement when I surpass the value of a Playstation 3.

Some factors have really been conspiring against my achievement of PS3 status, though. I recently moved to a more urban area of the city, so I no longer coast about the winding bucolic lake shore path during the morning commute. Instead, it’s all Tron Light Cycles in the gutter margins of city avenues, trying to pass the slow-poke three-speed cyclists while watching out for whisper-silent Tour de France maniacs who seem pretty exasperated that my chunky mountain bike can’t top 60 mph. The randomly opening doors of cars parked along the side of the street transforms the ride into a sort of Whac-a-Mole experience. I used to love Whac-a-Mole. My first job was at ShowBiz Pizza (Chuck E. Cheese), and it involved unjamming coins from video games and making some minor repairs. I would test all games from a technician’s crouch. Hence, I’m pretty good at Skeeball and really good at Whac-a-Mole, but only from a crouching position. Move me up the evolutionary scale to a semi-erect ball-tosser and I really start to suck. Anyway, I can now empathize with the Mole of Whac-a-Mole, even though bike riding relies on the reverse instinct of not hitting the car doors as they swing open.

The real trouble, though, has little to do with the serpentine vectors of wayward cyclists or the befuddlement of the common pedestrian citizenry. The dark heart of the matter is the growing fissure of festering mutual contempt separating bikers from drivers. The road, after all, wasn’t created for bicycles. It exists for Stupid Useless Vehicles, trucks, busses, cabs and a variety of contraptions powered by the black oil. They all own their little piece of the infrastructure. Many people quit riding bikes as soon as they were old enough to buy their first rust buckets. Bikes are for kids who chase ice cream trucks, dirty dirt-poor hippies, and chronic weirdoes. They belong on the sidewalk, even if there’s a “bike lane” painted in the area where one is supposed to parallel park. And they certainly aren’t allowed to break the law every chance they get, cruising through red lights, weaving in between stalled traffic, riding too far out into the road with that taunting blink-blink-blink little red taillight. And their butts are always sticking out.

The bikers generally hate the drivers, too. Everyone, each and every single person driving, is an idiot. That is a valid assumption proven on a daily basis. Each traffic-light intersection is a battle of wills, as cars inch into a no-turn-on-red infraction, cell phone babblers drift about the boundaries of lanes and curbs, and screaming SUVs have discovered Orange, the new signal color in between yellow and red, computed as the .7 second transition from a red light to the moment the other cars notice their switch from red to green to that heartbeat buffer of space during which gas pedals are engaging engines. Orange is the signal to turn your SUV into a cannonball and just blow your way through the intersection before anyone pops a clutch or mouths a reaction. No prisoners, dammit. Some drivers apparently see orange stop signs, too, so any side street can be a launching point for an anti-bike salvo. It keeps your muscles tense and your brain on edge, and after riding five blocks behind some moron with a blink-blink-blink going-around-the-world-to-the-right persistent turn signal you start imagining all sorts of anti-vehicular add-ons that could be welded to your handlebars, or at least you wish for a handy carton of not-so-fresh tossing eggs.

Enough pontification. Here’s an example.

A few weeks ago I was riding to work, pedaling like hell down my usual route. I take Milwaukee, a diagonal street, down to Chicago Ave, and then head due east on Chicago, straight into my office. Two straight vectors, relatively low-impact. Unfortunately, maps tend to deceive. In early 2006 Rachel and I visited the great city of Los Angeles. We meticulously planned all of our activities, including a day downtown to visit the gigantic public library. Yahoo Maps gave us everything we needed, and it was a quick walk from the train stop to the library. On the map. The X and Y axes were easy to follow, but Yahoo, Google and Mapquest didn’t bother to tell us much about that cantankerous old Z-axis. I grew up in the Midwest, and we generally don’t have a Z-axis in the Cartesian Shangri-La of the heartland. Our simple visit turned into a march up Golgotha. Then back up, back down, trying to figure out where the hell we were. A quarter-mile of travel required five miles of effort. Stupid Z-axis. It reminds me of the old spiritual I used to sing with a co-worker at Starbucks: “take the coffee up the mountain, coffee up the mountain; take the coffee down the mountain, the mountain, yeah” (repeat 8 times while cranking out lattes and stupid Frappuccinos). Sometimes both the map and the internal gyroscope betray the true magnitude of a given Z-axis. Note point ‘A’ on the map below. On bike, the incline of Chicago Ave as it approaches Halsted seems to be an innocuous 13 degrees or so. That’s about 100 feet before point ‘A’. Then it’s as if a tremendous ass-sucking vacuum has been engaged. Or perhaps it’s a high-gravity zone that no one told me about, some pocket of intense density deep within the earth, pulling down like a clawed hand from a grave. Pedaling becomes exponentially more difficult with each revolution. The delicate balance between sweat and headwind is shattered, as I can feel a glistening sheen transform into a slimy gush, all glands simultaneously demanding contract renegotiation. Meanwhile, the terrible green eye of the traffic light taunts me from the intersection ahead. It’s usually at point ‘A’, right where the ass-sucking and malignant g-force become partners in oppression, that the traffic signal changes from red to green. The road becomes some Wonka illusion, lengthening as the green light recedes like a Kenyan front-runner in the Chicago Marathon. Hope turns to sweat and even though I should be pedaling like a maniac toward the green light (for a green light is the biker’s orange), it is soon evident that I’m going to have to pound maniacally at this anvil just to make it through the next green. Gasping, dripping and creaking, I finally edge over to the curb at the intersection of Chicago and Halsted.

Bike Path

Then there’s the Chocolate Cloud (quite different than Chocolate Rain). Crossing over Halsted, crossing the zenith of that terrible hill, the air becomes a chocolate dream. No, this is not a blaxploitation fantasy bike ride. I’m talking about the Blommer chocolate factory, located just six or so blocks south of Chicago Ave. Some factories spew rancid sulphur, others crank billows of coal-powered cancer dust. Blommer fills the West Loop of Chicago with seemingly benign chocolate fumes. It would probably be a good idea for someone to invent a chocolitic converter or some such device that flavors auto emissions. If the EPA is going to allow our communal slow death, it might as well be olfactorily pleasant. Most people become involuntary mouth-breathers as the invisible flavor cascades over them. You can see the impact of these chocolate waves on the illustrated map just below. I generally stay away from the chocolate ground zero of the factory itself, in fear that I might be numbed into a flavor coma, never to leave that little opiate corner of the city again. Chocolate tends to have that paralyzed-with-pleasure effect upon me. Note how the river winds through the nucleus of this flavor bomb. I suppose that the Chicago novice might assume that the scent was coming from the river itself. It would make sense that the Wonka trial of the gravitationally-elongated passage through the Halsted intersection would lead to the decadent payoff of a chocolate river. And there are times when the river is indeed a rich cocoa brown. Our river is a bipolar beast, though, and one day’s brown may become the next day’s green. And some days it is a beautiful metalic rainbow of surface oils. We fear the river, approaching it only from high bridges and helicopters, living in symbiosis as with a twenty foot python that has gorged itself unto crapulence on an array of family pets and taken over your family room. It’s best to just let it do its thing. So if you’re true to the Wonka allegory, mind the terrible lesson of Augustus Gloop. Stay out of the damned river, lest you become just another lump in the bed of Bubbly Creek!

Olfactory radius of Blommer chocolate factory

With the chocolate scratch-n-sniff permeating the air, I joined two fellow bikers, crossing Halsted and cruising downhill, toward the bridge over the river (see Map, point ‘C’). One of these bikers was a bit slow, a woman wearing a red helmet of 2007 style (I sport a blue helmet of 1997 style). The other was a partner of sorts, with the two of us exchanging leads back on the southbound Milwaukee avenue. Both of these women had a head start on me, but I didn’t push to pass them, as it’s better to be single-file as you approach a giant steel bridge. The traffic squeezes from two lanes to one over that bridge, but almost all of the morning drivers are aware of this and start their merges well before the eleventh hour. There are some folks out there, though, who prefer to live in steel bubbles of ignorance. Around point ‘B’, we all witnessed an elongated SUV, something like a Suburban, slowly backing out from the right-side parking lot of the Chicago Tribune shipping facility. This is at point ‘*’ on the map. Readers of Kurt Vonnegut should recognize this symbol, and the rest of you can easily learn about it. As the SUV slowly backed out into the non-lane, the right lane that rapid disappears just before the bridge, the quick-bike woman zoomed around it, weaving between cars and off to the bridge. The SUV continued its 10 mph rear entry, moving across both lanes, slowly but steadily blocking the entire road just as 2007-stylish-red-helmet woman was trying to move away, off to the left, pushed nearly into the oncoming lanes. She slowed and angled and curved, the back corner of the SUV missing her by a single inch. This is typically the moment when your average commuting cyclist will give an errant driver a piece of her mind. It’s the horn-honk of the biker (not to be confused with an actual bike horn, which most people think is some vagabond clown or bitchy Tinkerbell), and it’s usually perceived by the driver as “whatthewaitforheywhowhatsthewatchout!” I was hanging back at point ‘B’ when I noticed that the SUV driver was hanging out of his window, yelling back, continuing to coast backwards into traffic. Then the SUV passed Red Helmet, a woman leaning out of the passenger window, screaming. As I slipped into the action, somewhere between ‘*’ and ‘C’, I yelled out at the SUV, just a show of biker solidarity. According to the spirit of this blog post, it should be evident that I’m not a Critical Mass freak or anything like that. In general I think that most people, if they aren’t actual idiots, just don’t pay enough attention to the things they do that make them look like idiots. That includes drivers, bikers, pedestrians and animals. Every now and then you have to stick together in some way, though, particularly when one massively idiotic act trumps any kind of resulting idiotic yammering. So I yelled a bit and rode on.

Bike Path

The traffic typically crosses the bridge and then quickly expands back into two lanes between points ‘C’ and ‘D’, where there is a traffic light. By the time we all made it over the bridge and down to ‘D’, quick-bike was long gone, Red Helmet was in front of the angry SUV, and I was forced to ride in the middle, between the two lanes, as the cars on the right side were too close to the curb for a bike to squeeze through. Red Helmet then broke the law and pedaled through the red light, the SUV people (the front vehicle of the stopped traffic) screaming at her. That light isn’t a quick one. It’s at one of those weird intersections where everyone gets their own signal, so traffic to the right will get a green, then, after a delay, traffic to the left will get their green. It’s a long light. I coasted to a stop right next to the SUV, the fuming driver about a foot from my face. The battle with the superhill, the waves of chocolate aroma, and the ensuing scene of absurdity had all gotten to me, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

“You got something to say to me?!” the driver said, elbow hanging over the open window, turning to look me in the eye.

He was a fairly large white man, short hair, perhaps wearing a white t-shirt, with a cloudy aura of pure trash. The t-shirt could have been stained, and he was possibly missing a few teeth, but those are the tricks of memory, and more an image of his inner child. Seated next to him was a skinny black woman sipping a cup of coffee. They both looked to be in their 30s-40s. I couldn’t tell if she was embarrassed about the situation. Don’t forget about what can happen when people are embarrassed.

“You cut us off back there!” I said, not really raising my voice, keeping my eyes fixed on his. “You have to watch out for people on bikes.”

“No, YOU have to watch out! It’s YOU who’s on the road, and you better be watching out, that’s what you have to do.”

“You just have to be-”

“I don’t have to do anything, and YOU have to watch out for ME.”

“And you can’t be cursing us,” the woman added. “We didn’t curse at you, so don’t be cursing at us.”

There’s usually a moment early on in an argument when you can either buy into someone’s Asshole Logic and escalate everything into the next level, or you can pause for a few seconds, take it all in, and just wait for everyone to run at a slightly lower temperature. This was a battle of clashing individuality, with both of us encroaching upon the other’s freedoms. The guy probably would have opened the door and turned it into a face-to-face screaming match with the right prompt, and his special lady-friend was right there to back him up. It wasn’t the threat of the situation that gave me pause, though. Sometimes yelling at some dipshit, even proving that person completely stupid, is just not a satisfying way to start your day. There is a tiny block of satisfaction, certainly, but it is usually followed by a droning darkening of the soul, and you feel that your humanity has been compromised, that you foolishly allowed yourself to wallow in the cesspool of Asshole Logic. So I just waited, looking at them both. Then I started bullshitting.

“Yeah, well, we do all need to be careful. I’ll admit that.”

“Yeah?!” the guy said, waiting for the other shoe, ready to show his woman some white-on-white action.

“And I’m sorry if I said anything offensive. You two just have a good morning, okay?”

Everything suddenly relaxed a bit. I was no longer the enemy. In less than a second, all venom was channeled back toward Red Helmet, still pedaling just a half-block ahead.

“It’s all because of that STUPID Biiiii-TCH!”

The guy started bellowing “BI-I-I-TCH” over and over, screaming at his windshield while his woman passenger nodded, yelling a string of countermelody. I doubt that he ever came away clean from calling his Special Lady-Friend a “BI-I-I-TCH”, so, now that he had official permission, he reveled in the moment as if he had Caught the Spirit. It was an explosion of vitriol, just inches from my face, but none of it directed toward me. Then she looked over to me and said it.

“Now at least someone has some sense. You have a blessed day.”

A blessed day. A god damned blessed day. I tried to stammer out some other comment, some sort of “you too” or “praise Jesus” or something, but the assault of absurdity was just too much. The light turned green. Praise the lord. I rode out in front of them, pedaling hard in order to avoid abusing our tenuous alliance, and moved up the block to the next light. Another red. The SUV screeched across the lanes, to the left, and blew through the red light, both of them screaming at Red Helmet, who was hung up at this other intersection. I coasted to her side, not sure what to say, particularly since I hadn’t done such a great job at defending her honor. Still, the SUV was gone, the situation had come to a close, and I absorbed the verbal confrontation, effectively diffusing it.

“Are you okay?”

“th-blm-bla-blat-me,” Red Helmet mumbled, riding with the opposite green light, crossing the intersection away from me.

“What?” I called out as she moved slowly away.

“They threw coffee at me.”

Then I could see it. Beads of tan liquid all over her backpack, on the back of her red helmet. The Special Lady-Friend wasn’t just leaning out of the window and yelling as they passed Red Helmet. She was dousing the poor woman with coffee. All because Red Helmet didn’t want to get hit by their vehicle. All because the Special Lady-Friend was embarrassed.

“Oh my god,” I called out to her.

I probably should have crossed over to her and really checked to see if she was okay, but she was already moving on, heading back onto her morning path. My light changed, so I slowly moved on, careful not to zip around too many cars, taking the lesson that any one of them could be some insane bastard ready to throw coffee at my head. I was stunned during the rest of my ride. In shock even as I settled into my office. The rest of the morning I intermittently thought of the largess of the SUV, the red of the helmet, and, most of all, that woman’s final morning salutation.

Have a blessed day.

And I had planned to end all of this with that hanging quote. The absurdity speaks for itself. A simple detail of this story has gone unattended, though. When I told the story to co-workers later that morning, I wanted to convey the sheer absurdity of the people in that SUV. Some crazy couple. Screaming. Throwing coffee. White guy and black woman. The interracial aspect was just part of the absurdity, but why would that ever be absurd? Is it racist of me to focus on that, to bring that detail out in order to paint a picture of the ridiculous? It wasn’t the interracial aspect of the two people, it was really the white-trash aura of the guy coupled with this woman who looked so much more refined. She wasn’t poorly dressed. She drank coffee from a sippy-lid. She wore her jewelry well. In all manners, it seemed that, until she actually opened her mouth, she was just a passenger, while the guy was some twisted bastard. Even by the end of our conversation, she seemed slightly more civilized, trying her best to wish me well. But then there was this “blessed” business, and I can’t seem to let go of that.

Violence and confrontation are common components of city life, but so is racism. I never notice white people instructing me to “have a blessed day.” The times that I’ve heard it, it came from a variety of black people. And it has rarely seemed genuine. It’s as if some people see it as their duty to go around blessing people, empowering their day with blessings like Ralph Fiennes “pardoning” people in Schindler’s List. It just seems like a cultural colloquialism. There are times when a person genuinely wants your day to be positively affected by such a wish. Most of the time, though, it’s both a greeting and a dismissal. I pass a guy who wants some change, look into his eyes and say “no”, and he tells me to have a blessed day. The train conductor announces the next subway stop, apologizes for the delays, and tells us to have a blessed day. This woman throws her coffee at a biker who did nothing to her, and then wishes me a blessed day.

I didn’t want to go into this because I was afraid, particularly after dissecting these online advertisements featuring dancing black women, that I was edging into some racist ranting. But how could I ignore this crap? I think that overt spirituality is much more integral to African American urban culture than white urban culture. Sure, there are church-going folk everywhere, but I usually don’t see white people bestowing blessings in the city. That seems to be more of a rural thing, where churches tend to have more of a neighborhood and social role. I envy the common solidarity of shared spirituality. I don’t take offense when someone is honestly trying to share that with me. But hypocrisy began with religion. And it continues with these people who bestow empty blessings. I’m taking a very extreme example and applying to situations that might not be nearly as extreme, and that’s a key component to racism. So I don’t claim this to be an issue to race, it’s an issue of the actions of a particular type of person. Hopefully I’m not being blessedly hypocritical. The blessing comes across as a curse, though, and ultimately just a simple device that someone can use to exorcise both shame and responsibility.

But I’m a responsible person, dammit. I ride my bike to work, crusing through a world that is sometimes crazy, often ridiculous and every now and then too absurd to even understand.

(A final note about this blog, about blogging in general. I recently started using a blog reader and it has made all of this Internet business so much easier. Instead of clicking to someone’s site and seeing if anything new has been posted, I just subscribe to the blogs I enjoy reading, and the blog-reading software tells me when a new entry has been posted. I encourage you to do the same with this blog. Look at how long it took me to post a new entry. Most of you abandoned the Megablog quite a while ago. Well, please try using Yahoo or Google Reader and subscribe to this blog by going to the bottom of the page (scroll way down) and clicking the “Entire (RSS)” link. Or just paste this into your blog reader: feed://megajim.com/blog/?feed=rss2. This makes it easier for all of us. Have a blessed day.)