Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

Windows

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

Today I enjoyed a new French Toast sensation.

For some of you, this might seem pedestrian or mundane. French Toast. Sure, okay.

But there are others out there who know where I’m coming from. Life-long lovers of French Toast, with internal scoreboards, taste-histories, reminiscence of greatness. Thick-cut, thin, custard-dipped, encrusted, stuffed, baked, smothered, dry, fruited and nutted. There is a lot of love out there.

I don’t know if everyone takes it back to the roots. I know my French Toast origins. My grandma made it. Many, many times. And I don’t remember how it tasted. I know she had the cheap “maple” syrup (which never seemed cheap until years later, when I first tasted the real thing). I don’t know if she used cinnamon or any other spices. Don’t recall anything other than standard-issue bread, no fruit. But I do remember the windows. She would cut it into ninths, cut “windows” into our French Toast. That’s the detail. That’s the most important detail. She cut those windows, and, in the cutting, imbued the French Toast with love. Serious, pure love that was unique to her. When you have a loving grandma, a real grandma who lives to fill that role, her love is unique and essential.

She died quite some time ago. My life changed after that. Family started to drift like ice floes. Life itself became more complicated as I entered my twenties. And the love dissipated. Her love. There was no one else to fill that gap. Losing someone that important, it feels like those times when you stop drinking coffee. Within a day you notice just how profound of a dependency you had, how integral this was to your personality and well-being. The solution is often to just go back to the coffee, find a point of moderation. With grandma, I guess the solution was to try to find that love in other people. And that’s futile, and an unreasonable expectation. This isn’t a degree of love. This is a type of love, and when someone leaves you, you will never experience that exact type of love, so ingrained into that personality, ever again.

But I remember the windows. Eating French Toast brings me back to that simplicity. It is a pure experience, and a thread that runs through my life. I have never eaten French Toast without, at some point during that meal, thinking of my grandma. Thinking of that love. Missing her, of course, but still having that element of her. I don’t even reflect on it very deeply, don’t recognize that the love didn’t go away. It’s right there, dipped in custard and smothered with syrup, as simple as it was when I was a kid in her kitchen.

I guess that’s why I usually cut my French Toast completely before taking the first bite.

So yes, this food means a lot. Which is why a new experience, a novel and delicious re-presentation of it, reignites the love, refills my soul.

Today’s French Toast was this: Four segments of somewhat thick bread (on the full scale, I would say a medium cut), covered in finely-chopped strawberries, a few blueberries, drizzles of some sort of caramel sauce, and the standard little cup of pure maple syrup. Yes, very delicious, and a bit novel with the chopped strawberries and caramel drizzle. And a really big dish of butter. Disturbingly big, far too much butter for what was otherwise a very well-proportioned combination of culinary accoutrements.

That’s because this wasn’t butter.

It was fucking ice cream. Vanilla fucking ice cream.

What?! Vanilla ice cream with French Toast?

What!

Too indulgent? Too sugar-snack-attacky?

No. No, it was perfect. And I kept it in that side dish, mixed it, taste by taste, with each bite of the main entrée. And there it was, a new French Toast sensation for someone who has internally cataloged maybe a hundred variants.

A renewal of happiness. A cause to reflect on this, share it with those of you who love this meal, and share it with those of us who might wonder if we lost the love when we lost the person.

Well, we didn’t. We did not lose that love, and we never will. You know that.

The Riches of Embarrassment

Sunday, August 3rd, 2014

I’ve been time-traveling quite a bit. I think you have, too. It’s built into our humanity. We move forward through time, the linear path, conscious perception staying just a split-second behind the actual vanguard point of existence. And every so often we push a tack into the timeline. We don’t stop. We can’t stop, even when we wish with every fiber, every struggling neuron, that this Time thing could freeze.

But we do go back. The tack is node, a return point. It stays hard and fixed, and our fluid lives flow around it.

Here are a few tacks:

Backwards Day. I don’t remember how old I was. Eight? It was Backwards Day at school. Everyone shows up dressed “backwards”. I embraced it, went all-out. Backwards pants and shirt. Glasses. Inside-out socks. Straight-jacket approach to a backwards coat. My coat was brown. I remember that. When something becomes a tack, there are very specific visual details that remain flawless and sharp.

When I got to school, all backwards-jacked, one of the teachers came over, concerned, and let me know that it was not Backwards Day. I was the only person dressed like that. A black hole funnel opened beneath me, and I buried my face in a brick wall near the front doors, crying into my backwards brown coat.

I don’t remember switching my clothes forward. Don’t remember anything else of that day, that week. But I feel it, right now, immediately. The desperation. The embarrassment.

It was the embarrassment that created the tack. The tack is immobile. Hard. Cold. It is a fact. It is present, today, right now. I’m there, leaning into the brick, crying, hating the stupid coat. That moment has become autonomous, existing persistently, unaffected by time. I can travel there without effort. To a degree, I am always there.

The First Date. Yeah, I bet this is a tack for quite a few people. It was a good date, actually. I took her to see Rocky 3. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a particularly strategic date. Back then, there was a single theater, one movie, that’s your option if you want to stay close. And I wanted to see Rocky 3. Sue me.

We came back to the house, sat in my room and talked. Watched some television. Talked a little more. And when I dropped her off we kissed, made out a bit. On the whole, the date was a bit emotionless, not particularly awkward, just sort of present. Kissing changed that. That was the moment when emotion entered the picture. I was feeling good, full of something new. Something.

So I assumed that I was full of love. And I told her that I loved her. She backed up, wrinkled brow, and said, “But you just met me, we don’t even know each other.”

Tack!

I’m there, right now. I can’t even remember what I said, trying to explain myself. I was wearing my nicest clothes. She had long, dark hair. We were in front of her family’s townhouse, my car running and not even in Park – I had my foot on the brake the entire time. And the embarrassment materialized, fully-formed and metallic, and has remained present. Right out of the gate, I second-guessed what love might be, and have never really recovered from that.

We never went on a second date. I couldn’t bear to call her. This wasn’t a case of having my heart broken. That would come soon enough, with a different girl, a guitar and flowers waiting in my back seat while she decided that we weren’t working out, that we should be friends, blah blah blah. That’s vivid, too. But a broken heart is both a moment and a process, and, while elements weave through your soul, it remains within the flow of time. That’s how we heal, or just become different, from those few people who were able to get inside and change us forever. The heart is mutable.

An embarrassment becomes self-defining, impenetrable. It becomes distinct from the moments around it. You carry it like a Mind Stone, never to be passed.

But every now and then, something challenges that corporeal parasite. You see, the tacks of these moments do not encapsulate other people. They are reactions to reactions. And maybe those other people carried their own embarrassments from those very same moments. Or maybe they carried nothing.

I shared a tack with someone recently. Recalled a tack that involved this person, from quite some time ago. For me, it was present, alive and true. But for her- she couldn’t even remember it. It was nothing, washed away in the time-stream.

And now that tack is breaking apart. The moment remains, but now it has been attached to a new moment, this debrief, a bookend of realization that allows the embarrassment to exist as a normal part of my additive lifeline. And maybe it will fester every now and then, flare up, but I know that time will have its way with that moment. Now it’s just another story, another goofy part of the person I am always becoming.

A story about a lie

Monday, January 27th, 2014

I want to tell you about the time that I lied to my father. Now, I know that isn’t specific enough. We have all lied to our parents. That’s probably how we learned to lie. And there’s a sliding scale to that. The story I’m about to tell isn’t about the first time I lied to my dad. I don’t think it’s even about the worst lie I ever told him. I don’t recall a lie quite as deliberate as this, though. At least, not until that point in my life.

I was 16 years old. I had just obtained my driver’s license. I went the traditional route in learning to drive. Driver’s Ed on Saturday mornings with a guy I was sort-of friends with. It’s odd, those years when you phase through friendships, Venn diagrams of shifting alliances and connections. Tony was a tangential friend, but, for a brief window, he was part of the computer club, somewhere within the nerd core back when the nerd timeline was in a gutter of disrespect and invisibility. During our driving classes, though, Tony and I didn’t talk. I think he had already shifted into another tangent (he later became a lead artist for the Mortal Kombat games, which is pretty cool).

Anyway, prior to Driver’s Ed, my dad had taken the time to teach me the ropes. My father had started servicing and driving semi-trucks when he was in his early teens. Later, when I was a few years old, our family car was a ’69 Plymouth Roadrunner that he took onto the drag strip on weekends. The man knew how the drive. So he took me out in his pickup, onto the highway, and attempted to show me (a) steering, (b) acceleration and braking, (c) traffic navigation and highway merger, and (d) manual-transmission shifting, all in a single glorious composite. It didn’t work out so well (the truck remained unscathed).

After my “panic on the entrance ramp” moment, we down-shifted to a friendlier method. I drove the family 1977 Pontiac Grand Prix (two-door) around the cemetery. Slow turns, no traffic and, as my parents joked, everyone was already dead. There was some sort of “break, break, break!” moment, but, again, no actual vehicular damage.

Not yet.

My dad was pretty amazing at keeping his vehicles in great condition. In fact, I think he might have spent as much time teaching me how to wash and wax a car as teaching me how to drive it. He had his method of keeping the car always-wet while he soaped up various zones, so that this massive 1977 beast would be spotless and gleaming by the end. He also had his methods for mowing the lawn and shoveling the driveway. Washing the house. Cleaning the gutters. Wiping down the shower. Folding clothes. Kicking ass at Monopoly.

His truck, a 1976 Chevy, was in even better condition than the Grand Prix. Meticulously maintained, back in the days when a person could keep it all together without having to rely on a mysterious chip. By the time he graduated to modern models, with anti-lock brakes and computer-monitored everything, he stopped tweaking every little aspect, and actually took his cars to the shops for repairs and such. He still changed his own oil, though. Kept doing that until he got sick.

So my “panic” moment when he took that first stab at teaching me how to drive wasn’t purely rooted in stimuli-saturation. Beyond all of that, I didn’t want to scratch his cherry ride, grind his freaking immaculate gears or, really, appear incompetent in front of someone who could probably drive backwards-donuts while reclined into a full sleep. “Driving the truck” was secondary to all that shit floating through my head.

I obtained my license during the same period that I obtained some pretty serious friendships. There was a core group. We called ourselves “The Psycho 6.” Sometimes there were additional members, or splinter factions. At this point, a week or so after being an official driver, our group was solid. And we were starting to gender-diversify, sprinkling sexual tension across the entire dynamic. Okay, it was really pre-sexual tension. There was mixing and matching of who was holding who’s hand, test-driving crushes and nebulous attractions. I was never an advanced or rambunctious teenager, and still remain a bit of an oblivious idiot.

We had just started to gravitate to K’s house. It was going to be a landing pad for the next few months, watching cartoons and John Hughes movies and eating her family’s food as we shifted structure. I was one of the few with access to wheels, and I had a large enough car to fit all six of the Psychos (or suitable proxies).

We stopped by to pick her up.

For some reason I had decided to “drive crazy” as we waited for her to emerge from her front door. I don’t know why I flipped into that. We all have our goofy moods, right? Moments that we don’t recognize as “moments” until we are knee-deep in them. I have flushed into plenty of “temporary insanity” escapades throughout my life. Back when I was a teenager, it was just a way to show off or entertain or feel out the boundaries. Later, deep into adulthood, they became less temporary, I guess. Less communal.

So I drove backwards. No swerving, just pure technique. I had some of that inherited talent in my blood, and I’ve always felt very comfortable driving, in complete control. So I drove past the house, backwards. Turned around and returned, backwards. Whipped this way and that, backwards, and then scooted into her driveway (frontwards). She hopped into the car, and away we went.

That Grand Prix had a bench seat in the front, which meant that three people could sit up there with relative comfort (it also made for some exciting dates). Paul was squeezed into the middle, next to me, the driver. As we pulled away, we continued our “drive crazy” mission. Paul had a two-hand hold on his half of the steering wheel. I had the other half. We wrestled with each other as we rounded the corner, away from K’s house. As we whipped around, I let my grip give. Paul asserted, and we drove the car around the corner, up over the curb, and into a Stop-sign, all while I V8-accelerated with wanton abandon. We flattened the sign and stripped it from the post. It bounced off the hood and flew away into the grass, and, as Paul released his grip, I corrected the car back onto the road and got the hell out of there.

Sort of.

I stopped about a block away, heart exploding. Then I shifted and eased backwards, slowly, an odd counter-effect to the previous “drive crazy” demonstrations. We hopped out to survey the damage. I didn’t notice much about the car. A tiny ding on the hood, near the windshield (the bounce point). Oh, and there was the sign, some feet away. And there was the signpost, flat on the grass, straddled by tire tracks. I felt a little proud of those tracks. The flat post, the tracks, it was a clear visual story. A little sliver of vandal legend, really. I still feel proud of that image. Weird.

I grabbed the sign and threw it into the trunk, and we rendezvoused with the rest of the gang. Yes, I was officially “crazy” and goofy and funny and all that shit. We gave someone the sign to hide away, a trophy or albatross. Then K mentioned that her mom had been standing in the door the entire time, watching us.

I was never worried that her mom was going to report me. I was embarrassed. Yeah, I’m goofy and weird, but I don’t play with my friends’ lives. It was the worst way to make an impression. Some weeks later, I finally met her and she served me pie, didn’t talk about the car thing at all. I don’t remember what kind of pie it was. Don’t remember how it tasted. But it was the best pie. It was the pie of acceptance. The pie of forgiveness. That is the best kind of pie you can give someone, and I’m still thankful to K’s mom.

Thank you for giving me a chance to be better than that idiot.

The next day my dad washed the car. I came outside, and he said he wanted to show me something.

“Look at that on the hood.”

Hmm.

“Have any idea how that got there?”

Um, no.

“There’s a mark on the front bumper too.”

I took a look. He waited. My heart accelerated through its own “drive crazy” zig-zags. I didn’t know what to say, so I clammed up.

“Looks like someone hit it or something, maybe a baseball bat?”

I nodded. Sure. That seemed somewhat plausible. Still, he waited. At the time, I thought I was playing it cool. As cool as a deer in the headlights, I guess. And after his waiting, he just nodded and carried on with the day, touched up the hood (the man was always equipped with exact-matching touch-up paint for his vehicles).

But I didn’t see it for what it was. He was giving me a chance to come clean. He was weighing the options, probably thinking about some of the stupid things he had done when he first learned to drive. I’m not certain why he didn’t press it. Maybe he didn’t feel like being the punisher. I had already been through many phases of punishment, and I’m not sure how many of them really worked. I mean, yes, they worked to the degree that I was scared shitless. One time, when I had gotten caught, um, setting a fire (let’s save that story for another time), my dad was out of town, and I ended up worrying myself into such a frenzy over the idea of him finding out, of implied punishment and disappointment, that, in the end, my parents didn’t really do much about it. I think I freaked them out a bit, folding into a miserable fester of anxiety and panic.

I have a son now. There are plenty of times when I need to be firm, even apply some sort of discipline. Times when I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t want him to be afraid of me. I hate that idea. It sickens me. And I’ll bet that my dad was also sick of it, just tired of being that person in my life.

So time slipped forward. He never mentioned the mysterious blemishes, and I never drove crazy again. I ended up owning that car. His immaculate truck was totaled when the police chased a criminal into him in excess of 80 mph. He was okay. I think those cops watched the wrong movies.

As far as deliberate lies go, I know that this one is pretty low-end. It isn’t something that haunted me, really. I would think about it, every few years, if only for a moment. I would wonder if we were ever going to debrief each other, hopefully over a drink.

An interesting thing happens when you lose someone. Some little things turn into Unresolved Issues. These don’t all become REGRETS. Most of them, really, are just bittersweet nuggets that season your soul.

My dad was diagnosed with stage-4 lung cancer at the very start of 2005. By early 2006 we all knew that he wouldn’t make it. Then it got into his brain, and those last few months became all-encompassing. His personality, his memory, his reasoning – it all slipped away quite quickly. I had already blocked off time to take care of him, and I had imagined some sort of bonding period, maybe getting in a few final games of Monopoly, watching Star Trek together and bringing up a few things that we had never discussed. Instead, I was in the trenches, keeping myself together by a hair. We had very short moments of lucidity together. I was unprepared and couldn’t guide those moments into anything other than color snapshots of a world that no longer existed.

The car incident resurfaced in my mind. I wanted to talk with him. I wanted to clear the air in some way. I needed that, needed to give him a chance to properly react. He could get mad about it, if he wanted. I was already grown and independent. He wasn’t going to screw me up. I wanted to tell him that: He could tell me the things that he might have been holding back.

But he couldn’t. His brain had spoiled. He was full of pain killers, floating between twilight and a semi-lucid frustration of his situation.

He died. I was at work when it happened. Everything after that was a tornado, from the wake to burying him at the very cemetery where I learned to drive (“don’t worry, everyone is already dead”) to selling the house, picking through history and trying to hang on to the things that might have been important to him. Things that are in a few places in my house, mostly packed up and waiting. Things who’s significance was destroyed when his brain collapsed.

So I’m taken back to that moment when he showed me the damage on the car, giving me a chance to confess. He’s standing there, waiting. I don’t know what he’s thinking. Disappointment? Resignation? When he died, my memories of him fragmented and took on independent existences, frozen moments like holographic photographs. He’s waiting, and I’m there, too. Frozen.

There are other fragments, too:

He is telling a story to the family, getting up and pacing about the room like a duck, cracking everyone up.

He is planting flowers in front of the house on a warm Spring day.

He is standing at his dresser, full of cancer, wondering why he didn’t get dressed and go to work.

He is watching the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me, when it first aired, both of us really excited that the show is back on the air.

He is eating pizza, sweating.

He is helping me hand-feed raccoons near our campfire at the dunes.

He is lying on the hospice bed, eyes half-open. Dead.

For a good year after he died, that last one was the only thing I had in my head. I couldn’t see around it. Couldn’t remember his voice. Once I had a kid of my own, I found ways to mine the better memories. You can’t be so selective, though. The hard ones sometimes come up as you’re shaping and preserving the tender ones.

So: I’ll never be able to talk with him about the car. He will never have the chance to forgive me for that, as K’s mom had done with that pie. And I’m bringing this up to communicate something important.

It is never too late to have that conversation with someone, to take the time to clear the air. Well, it’s never too late to do that while you are all alive and thinking. I assumed that I would have the chance. Then I lost that chance, and a moment that needed closure has been left adrift. It is attempting to create its own closure, and sometimes, when I am really down on myself, I fill it in with negative extrapolations.

I’ve been very down lately. I am very conscious of using this experience of losing my parent to communicate some other thing, some other regret. Many of my closest friends have lost parents, and, to those people, I know that you’ve been through some of these thoughts, that some of you have dealt with extremes that are far beyond this, having to make decisions that no one else had the strength to make. We go through those times, and then settle into our new lives, for life is never anything close to the same after a parent is gone.

I suppose this story of a lie is a call to harness the moment. To assume that today is the last chance you’ll have to say something. It’s an existentialist cliché, I know. Live life as if you will die tomorrow. On a more granular level, I recognize that we would benefit by living life with the knowledge that nothing will stay the same, that these dependencies that you take for granted can and will shift or disappear. They have to.

Unwrinkled

Friday, August 10th, 2012

A funny thing happened last night. A can of worms was opened, somewhere deep inside my head. And the worms proceeded to slurp my brain matter through their linear digestive tracts until my entire head became filled with worm poop.

Explained:

In response to a Facebook post from Rachel, I mentioned my first favorite novel, A Wrinkle in Time. That took me back to sixth grade, with its simplicity and optimism, and my ongoing love for that story. It was a good memory, one of those warm places in your psyche, a little part of yourself that worked out all right.

Then, maybe a half hour later, someone else on Facebook posted that Ms. Priest, one of my seventh grade teachers, had passed away. Ms. Priest was the first and perhaps greatest embedded anti-establishmentarian I had known. She smoked and swore and forced students to use their brains, to look into their hearts. I added my very brief eulogy to a growing list of Facebook comments, noting that many of them had been permanently affected by this amazing person.

Then I thought about it a bit more. She had certainly made her mark. I used to have recurring dreams of visiting her class, being back in that class, back in seventh grade. Those dreams faded, and junior high became this nebulous transitional zone. I could cite many elements of grade school, and, of course, the high school triumphs and scars never dissolve. Junior high, though, was fuzzy. Chess club was in there, somewhere. And band. But not much else. My personal history tends to jump from a generally healthy sixth grade to some point in high school. A wrinkle in time.

The odes to Ms. Priest continued. Dead Poets Society type of stories. Each one served as a building block and brush stroke, recreating Ms. Priest, her classroom, the halls beyond that circulated through the school. I couldn’t retreat from the unfolding detail, and soon I felt that Jim I was back in seventh grade, sitting in that class with those people, with that teacher.

You see, I didn’t just remember faces or specific episodes. I remembered the exact feeling of what it was like to be me back in seventh grade.

And I realized that this was the first time I had felt truly inadequate, when I found that I couldn’t commit to any particular type. I couldn’t be a smart kid or a nerd, and lacked any equipment to be clever or beautiful or strong. Ms. Priest encouraged everyone to dig into themselves, but I resisted. I was shallow, dopey and shy, and I didn’t respond to her efforts. So she moved on to the others, the ones she could lift up. I puttered along, a failure and a disappointment. And that phase of inadequacy has stayed with me since then, even through today.

This isn’t some sort of indictment. I still have positive memories of this full-throttle teacher. But I also remember other students bonding into cliques that would evolve straight on into high school. And I remember loners, intellectuals and athletes— all of them not-me. I’m not sure how much identity one is supposed to grasp in seventh grade, but I didn’t have much.

This was also a period in which my mom was severing religious ties. I had grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, and some time around seventh grade we had stopped going, and she was ultimately disfellowshipped (for some really petty reasons). I don’t recall it bothering me much at the time (other than being concerned about her emotional ordeal), but it was a period of personal upheaval, a sharp shift away from lifelong de facto relationships.

I suppose that people who have spent time in therapeutic counseling have already navigated these epiphanies. I’m not used to unearthing the secrets of my past. It isn’t that I “don’t go there,” it just never comes up, and, apparently, this was was buried deep. Most people can reflect on their own souls and come up with a pretty good collection of traits and trends, historical arcs. It’s rare that you are able to pinpoint a defining moment that carries through your personality with such persistence. I’ve fought with the same problems we all have: depression, self-doubt, social awkwardness. However, I think I just uncovered the exact time period when it became real and anodized. The birth of a part of myself that I hate.

And I have to say: this isn’t particularly liberating. It feels like a sac of poison has been accidentally lanced. This social clumsiness and cluelessness is now measurable. I have been knee-deep in it for 32 years. The pain of this realization is extremely personal and isolating. Yet I think everyone has experienced that lonely pain, something you just can’t communicate to other people because it’s embedded into your core. Something you force yourself to carry.

I apologize for such a self-indulgent post. I’m not sure if I have a point, here, other than the fact that I never stood on a desk and pulled that “Oh captain my captain” shit. But I suppose there could be an upside. Time has become unwrinkled, flattened and exposed. I can take that forgotten memory as a cornerstone. I can build out into those two years of junior high and piece that history back together. And, if anything, pain and history feed art, so I suppose Ms. Priest will be making an appearance in some future story, manifest as either glorious or terrible. She probably would have liked that.

Hooky

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

It took too long this year for winter to kick in. Even though it was good for the general positive vibes, 50+ degree days in January, in Chicago, are not natural. I was starting to suspect that we were all going to pay a terrible price for those few weeks of temperate balminess. So when it snowed and froze and dipped down into the teens I felt a surge of winter warmth that I haven’t experienced in years. And now everything is coated in a fresh, white blanket, beautiful and muffled, the gas-powered snow blowers long finished, our boiler pumping heat through our domestic circulatory system. I’m looking outside, thinking of making snow angels, building igloos and marching across barren powder landscapes.

And it reminds me of the first time I played hooky.

I started school as a smart kid. Smart and angry. My parents told me that I topped off my kindergarten IQ, highest in the class, which is sort of impressive, even though I generally think that the IQ is half-hogwash. I think I was one of those young kids who became bored with things and decided to act out, so I assaulted both classmates and my teacher during that first year of schooling. It was my kindergarden teacher’s first year, and I was her first problem student. At one point, I kicked her and she attempted to chase me down as I crawled under all the tables. Another day, someone, perhaps the principal, dragged me out as I kicked and screamed. I don’t remember much, if any, of this, but the stories persist. So my mom would run into my kindergarten teacher every few years and, many decades later, she still remembers me, perhaps touching one of her kicked shins. It is always important to make a lasting impression upon your teachers.

My parents decided to keep me in the current track, and declined an offer for me to skip ahead into the second grade. I was still a wild child, still acting out, but, throughout those first couple years of elementary school, I was more or less disciplined into shape. This isn’t meant as an indictment against corporal punishment. I was rambunctious and prone to demonstrative rabble rousing, and the discipline generally worked. It didn’t take long for me to become a bit less vocal, more shy and mild mannered. I also became less ambitious, and I think my brain leveled out until I was generally average. By third grade, I was just another idiot. The mental growth spurt was over.

I believe that I was in third grade when I played hooky. It involved a test. I had either neglected to study, or I simply didn’t understand the material. Perhaps it was a spelling test, or maybe a little math. Whatever a typical eight-year-old in the mid-70s was supposed to know. I could handle some of the more creative aspects of school, but tests always messed with me. I had terrible recall, and couldn’t focus on studying enough to figure out how to embed that information into my brain. Really, tests troubled me all the way up into college, and then, mid-way through my undergraduate education, I somehow cracked the code and figured out how to ace just about anything. It was a very dramatic and empowering intellectual blossoming. But back in third grade, I was far from such self-actualization. I was lost in the murky woods, alone and confused and overall ill-equipped for the limitless array of escalating challenges and expectations. I just wanted to play with my Legos and Hot Wheels.

So I wasn’t ready for the test. And it wasn’t the first test I was about to bomb. I was already on the list, on the bump, treading over thin, opaque ice. This was essentially the same as a classic school nightmare. We all have them, even now. You have a test in a class that you didn’t even know you were taking. And everything is riding on that test, and you now have maybe five minutes to cram in a textbook full of material that you have no hope of ever comprehending. That was the exact feeling that pressed into my eight-year-old brain. So I came up with a plan.

Instead of focusing on whatever test material, I envisioned the general layout of my neighborhood. The bus stop was a block or so away from my house. About two blocks further was our local park. Beyond the grassy sprawl, a few suburban blocks led to a cluster of shops, including the drug store. There lies the perimeter of my hooky map.

That morning I dressed, ate breakfast, and headed out to school, just another day. As I approached the bus stop, I hid behind a hedge and waited. Once the bus had scooped up the waiting kids, I strolled over to the stop and surveyed my freedom. Yes, all I had to do was wander about the town, explore anything that struck my fancy, and return to the bus stop in the afternoon. Then I would hide in the bushes, wait for the return bus, and head on home. I didn’t consider that someone might call the house looking for me. People disappeared from class all the time, and the teacher never went to any great effort to single them out. I would simply release myself from the obligations of society, just for one day.

One thing to add: This happened to be one of the coldest days of the year.

Yes, this was in the middle of the winter. I was bundled up in my brown puffy coat, hood tied tight over my head, encumbered only by my Ranger Rick backpack and gigantic moon boots. And it was cold. Really freaking cold. I stood there at the bus stop for ten or fifteen minutes, ducking into a hedge with each approaching car. The cars tread slow over icy streets, so I could see them with enough warning. Standing there wasn’t going to work, as my body was starting to cool down, my spit cold within my mouth. So I waddled to the park. Stage One.

The park was silent and abandoned, a featureless topography of white. I followed the hidden path as if I was a lunar explorer, each step massive and lugubrious. The park basin spanned several blocks, crossing a little frozen creek and lifeless tennis courts, from the kiddie playground up and around and over to the advanced playground, then, finally, off to the other end, to the street. It took forever, and even in the misery of the cold and desolation, I was satisfied that this crossing would consume a solid chunk of time. If I ran out of things to do, I could simply circumambulate the park until the afternoon. By the time I reached the exit, some of the streets had been plowed, so I was able to walk with relative ease and haste. I navigated the familiar path to the drug store, ready to move into Stage Two.

Much of my family lived close. My grandma and uncle were just a few blocks down, equidistant from the park and the drug store. Her home was open and active, with various aunts, uncles and friends dropping by throughout any given day. It was a safe haven for me and the rest of my cousins. Everyone loved her house, her dog Rocky and cat Bernie. It was the hub of our family. So I had to stay away from the conduits that fed into that node. Even though grandma was the type of person who might have played along and kept my secret, I couldn’t chance it, couldn’t drop by for a casual mid-winter hooky visit. Even if I knew she would certainly make me cocoa while I hunkered down with Rocky and read Dr. Seuss books.

I strolled into the drug store with a pocket full of lunch money. It would have made sense to spend that cash as it was intended, to find something half-way nutritious. It would also have made sense to just study for the damned test and get on the freaking bus. I ended up blowing most of it on candy. A Charleston Chew. Some Tootsie Rolls. Maybe some other chocolatey item like a Mars bar. I loitered as long as I could without attracting attention, then reduced my horde to loose change. I’m rather certain that this was the one drug store cashier who never charged tax. No one ever asked why she rang everything up at face value. We just assumed she wasn’t paying attention, as those older registers probably required an extra button to tally the tax. It was always a golden moment to stroll into the drug store and find her there, hunched behind the counter, knowing that we could get the most sugar-bang for our quarters and dimes.

It is only now, this very moment, that I realize, after accumulating a half-life of experience, that she was probably just pocketing that money, stealing from the till. Or maybe she wasn’t, maybe it was an honest mistake. Back in those days, my definitions of honesty were not yet distorted. These days, I’m not really certain what it means to be truly honest, or if it is even possible. Really, that day I played hooky marked my first overt divergence from honesty.

The no-tax lady never questioned my obvious hooky-playing. I was simply a paying customer, perhaps sent over by my grandma to pick up a few essential items. No-tax always minded her own business. She was the Ron Swanson of drug store cashiers.

I returned to the streets of Park Forest, Illinois with warm feet and candy in my pockets. The hooky was progressing exactly as planned, so it was time for Stage Three, the consuming of the loot. I returned to the park, but stopped myself before simply marching in. There were my footprints from the initial traversal, sharp and obvious against the otherwise unadulterated snowscape. It was cold enough that the snow had generally frozen over. On one hand, I was assured that no one else had entered the park. But I realized that I was essentially leaving a trail anywhere I went. This was a covert operation, and I needed to maintain some control over my discoverability. So I stepped into each of my footprints, backtracking across the park, one slow step at a time as my moon boots plunked into each waiting hole. The big-kid playground, with all the cool stuff, was right down there, visible from the road, but it took me another ten minutes just to move that hundred or so feet. Good. More time chewed up, inching toward the afternoon, when the bus would come and I could finally escape that cold.

I broke off from the path and into the playground. Then I situated myself in the metal box at the top of the corkscrew slide. It was the lookout tower, and a wind shield. I woofed down my stiffening Charleston Chew, masticating it into a warm putty. I chewed the Tootsie Rolls and stashed the Mars bar for later, rations that would surely be needed during the coming hours. Then I waited, imagining myself as a sentry, a spy, observing the random traffic, the wind through the barren trees, the snow-crusted playground and, off in the distance, that frozen creek. I slid down, over and over, pushing the snow away to expose the smooth, shiny metal surface of the slide. Sometimes you had to queue up to climb the steps and plunge down the corkscrew. It was immensely popular. It was rare that anyone had the chance to camp out in the lookout tower, and that usually involved some sort of battle or encroachment. That day, I could slide as much as I wanted to. The entire park was mine, from the tower to the yellow flying saucer to the swinging tire. The merry-go-round. The swings. I could do it all, and I did. And it was great.

Then it wasn’t. Most of the sugar had burned through, and I was growing colder. I counted my change, just a few cents, really, not enough to warrant a return trip to the warmth of the drug store. Then I realized that the change would give me away. I wasn’t supposed to come home with change. My lunch money was exact. I had to eliminate the evidence. So I sat at the bottom of the corkscrew slide and pitched pennies and dimes into the snow, each one to a different vector, noting the tiny pocks they created in the homogenous surface. When I finished, I was alone, no longer interested in my playground, generally finished with my stash and liberated of cash. There was nothing to do but freeze in silence. I waddled off into the park, stopping a few times to make perfect snow angels along my carefully retraced foot path.

By the time I made it back to the bus stop, I had warmed up a little from all of that exercise, but that was it. I had no place to go, and hours to wait. I folded into myself and sank into a hedge, sprouting up every now and then to rub my shivering mittens together. Cars cruised by, but none of them noticed me. I was the spy in the hedge, hiding in plain sight. Then a familiar vehicle came around the bend. It was my Aunt Kathy, certainly on her way to my grandma’s house. I loved my Aunt Kathy. She was boisterous and omnipresent, a fixture over at grandma’s. As she drove by, I succumbed to instinct. I waved. I didn’t jump up and down and flag down a rescue. This was just the standard one-handed wave, the flag of recognition. She drove on past, and I thought that maybe she saw me, maybe she waved back with the same uncontrollable reaction. I didn’t even feel stupid for waving. I felt happy. There was my Aunt Kathy, and I waved.

I felt stupid when she stopped down the street and backed up until her car was right near me, and she rolled down the passenger window with an astonished “Jimmy?” I didn’t run, didn’t even play it off. I just pushed my aching, frozen legs forward, toward her car, got in, and let her drive me back to my house while I wiped the accumulated snot from my face. The hooky was officially over, but I wasn’t scared. I didn’t care about the test or whatever trouble I was about to get into. I was about to be warm and safe. Maybe I could eat that Mars bar. And, ultimately, I think everyone was just so confused as to why I would subject myself to such a ridiculous excursion that I don’t recall any admonishment or even punishment. My own folly was punishment enough, I suppose.

So when I look out over the fresh snow and think of snow angels, I also think of that bleak isolation, of pitching pennies into the cold and poisoning the trust of my parents. I think of waving to Aunt Kathy and finally escaping my frigid hooky.

My Personal Encounter With Michael Jackson

Saturday, June 27th, 2009

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t like at least one Michael Jackson song. I mean, does anyone, anywhere, not like “ABC”?! You’d have to be a corpse to not be affected by that one. A corpse. He’s dead now. This is news I thought I’d be hearing decades from now, after MJ had drifted into some whatever-happened dimension (perhaps called “prison”). I would be in my own twilight, so the ultimate passing of such a pervasive mega-star would afford me the opportunity to take my entire life, from pre-adolescence clear through fatherhood and beyond, into full account. So now he’s dead, and we’re all caught off guard, totally unprepared to reflect upon the incomplete stack of our own personal inventories.

I have a personal connection with Michael Jackson. Sort of. I mean, we all do on some level. Music coalesces certain strands of the lifeline. I came of age during the 80s. Right about the time that we all bought Thriller, I was just blossoming into a self-awareness that would define my permanent personality. I wasn’t angry yet, or disillusioned. I owned a zipper jacket, the first of my many mismatched fashion statements (I later settled on aloha shirts – that one seemed to stick, so now most of my friends know me as a shirt guy). I was just on the cusp of being frustratingly interested in girls. Life was dangling over the precipice of adolescent turmoil, and somewhere in between Thriller and Bad it all crumbled to confusion and self-loathing. But I later had another connection with Jackson. Let’s call it a “personal encounter”.

I worked through the collegiate angst. It derailed my ambitions, but also guided me to discover art and creation. Today, it doesn’t matter that I don’t remember how to write a PL/1 or Fortran program. I still write fiction and create, and, surviving the conflagration of self-discovery, I’ve managed to forge true, life-long friendships. I came out of college with a somewhat useless degree, though. In 1991, a college degree was worth a lot less than in 1986. The “liberal arts degree” bubble had burst, and there was an influx of us over-educated, not-going-to-grad-school give-me-a-job-please semi-retired Professional Students. It was the first time someone told me I was “over-qualified”. I had no idea how to respond to that. Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that you’re getting a bargain by hiring me? I just couldn’t see things from the employer’s perspective. I mean, today I would never hire someone who was obviously going to jump ship for the first “real” job. So I settled for the first non-food-slinging place that would hire me: The John G. Shedd Aquarium.

When I tell someone that I used to work at the Shedd, the response is almost always positive. What a cool place! Working with fish! Educational! And it was a neat place. The job, though, was mind-warping. I guarded the fish. “Visitor Services”. Yet another rung on the downward-spiral staircase of my customer service career. I suppose it’s all related to that ridiculous psychology degree that took me nowhere fast (as in, really fast, as in: the moment I matriculated I was right there smack dab in the middle of nowhere . . . fast).

The Oceanarium had just opened and was a massive success. They had money flowing, bursting their not-for-profit pockets, so they hired a team of young whippersnappers to stand at various stations throughout the aquarium, guiding visitors, tearing entry tickets and maintaining some semblance of order. We were a mix of museum-security lifers, aimless liberal arts graduates and recently-downsized middle-aged vagabonds. Most of what we did was stand around. That’s it. Often alone, but sometimes paired up with some other lost-soul coworker. I’m not sure which situation was worse for me. I often never know exactly what to say in a conversation, or have much of an idea how to keep a conversation flowing. This has resulted in the development of some nervous-babbling approaches (perhaps evident via the excruciatingly verbose Megablog entries), just to squelch the extremely uncomfortable and smothering silences. Back then, though, I hadn’t experimented much with babble. So, with the exception of a few people who I felt genuinely connected to, I would be paired up, for seven or more hours, with people who I couldn’t talk with. We would sometimes drift to opposite ends of the little zone we were meant to oversee, one person near the otter tank (aside: otters are infinitely more entertaining than seals – everyone wants to go see the seals, who just sit there like giant, glistening, sleeping cats, while at the other end of the facility those otters are like Cirque du Soleil, cranking out maximum entertainment like face-licking hyper sea-puppies), the other person fifteen feet away at the relatively-inanimate-yet-pretty tide pool. Those were the days when I was incessantly reminded that, for all of my flowering and development, my heightened awareness and creative energy, I still couldn’t have any kind of normal conversation with anyone. I was not normal. I was without rhythm.

There were other days, many other days, when I would be spared the spotlight embarrassment of having to work with a partner. Just stand alone at a podium or near a gallery entrance. All day. Nothing to do except recede into my mind, so starved for stimulation that I started to eat my own soul. Just me and my man-eating brain.

There were moments, of course. I learned to love the Giant Sea Bass. It was in a huge tank at the end of one of the dim galleries, in the old-school original aquarium (the Oceanarium is a massive extension, an architectural semi-circle that wraps around the old building, with a spectacular glass-walled horizon-vista of Lake Michigan). Fish are generally pretty stupid. They lack intelligence as we know it. One of the exceptions is the octopus, which is not only alien and beautifully, elegantly freakish, but also pretty smart. The days when I was posted near the octopus tank were pretty good. The Giant Sea Bass had its moments, though. If you stood still for a little while in front of its tank, it would drift over and stare at you, floating right in front of your head. Then you could dart to one side or the other, and it would follow you. And it wasn’t a jerky I’m-hungry-and-you-look-like-lunch following. It was smooth and metered. The Giant Sea Bass was a cool cat, as cool as a cucumber (not a sea cucumber – its nervous system, if it can even be called a “nervous system”, is insufficient for the exuding of coolness). To this day, I refuse to eat sea bass, regardless of the potential deliciousness.

The greatest creatures, though, were the dolphins*.

*(Okay, the actual greatest creatures were the pseudorcas (“sood-orca” – False Killer Whale). We had them on loan from Indianapolis, and kept them in a large side pool that was normally an extension of the beluga whale area. The belugas are super-cool, very friendly to the point of social. You could hang over the railing (“sir . . . sir . . . please don’t hang over the railing”) and a beluga would rise up from the water in a vertical column (called “spyhopping”) and smile or even spit a little water toward you in a soft arc, like a blubbery drinking fountain. Well-mannered and intelligent, they never spit at you. The pseudorcas, conversely, were bad-ass. They looked like huge, dark, pissed-off torpedos. They did not rise up to greet anyone. Instead, they exuded contempt with extreme marine-mammal malice, usually in the form of targeted breaching. You probably already know this: breaching is when a whale pops out of the water and slams back down, causing a freaking cool splash. They do this for a number of reasons, often just to scratch an itch. The pseudorcas were experts at breaching in such a way that they could direct the focused splash over the railing and onto the walkway. They wouldn’t just try to hit the walkway, though. They would actually target people. The public were used to the friendly belugas, so they would usually stand near the railing, waiting for a innocuous glimpse. Before they knew what was happening, the pseudorca would zip around the perimeter, lunge up and slam down, sending an arc of water straight into the gaping, stunned human. Their favorite target was anyone carrying a baby. Maybe this just presented a larger target. Who knows. I like to think that this was a natural attack move, to take out an opponent’s defenseless young. I just remember the awesome satisfaction of watching one of these beasts water-blast mommies and their yelping, writhing babies. Now that I have a baby on the way, of course, it’s a little less awesome. Still, the pseudorcas were bad-ass.)

Just after we herded the patrons out of the Oceanarium for the day, moments after closing time, I would go to the quiet underwater section of the gigantic dolphin tank. It was like hanging out in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus living room, after-hours, dim and calm, gazing into the blue-crystal oceanic depths. Sometimes a dolphin would swim up to the glass, hovering with a sort of Giant Sea Bass awareness. Dolphins are all energy and motion. They’re the Mary Lou Rettons of the sea (sans the Republicanism – but who knows, maybe there are some wife-cheating Toby Keith-loving cigar-chomping Grand Old Party dolphins out there), rarely satisfied with stillness. So I would stand there a moment to get the attention of a dolphin, and then sprint, full speed, 30 or so feet, along the length of the wall-sized glass panels. The dolphin would wave its powerful, smooth-muscle body up and down, swimming along my side like an organic missile, and then finally bank off into the depths just as I reached the far end of the stretch, laughing through my panting. Racing the dolphins. It was amazing, and nearly worth all of the soul-draining aspects of that job.

The piranhas, conversely, were incredibly boring. Motionlessly waiting for their next meal, doing absolutely nothing, not even swimming, just hanging there as if immortally frozen in a cube of lucite. So much expected of them, so little delivered. Can you see where I’m heading here?

I tried writing. I specifically remember standing at the Oceanarium Exit post. There was a podium there, so I could attempt to work out various story ideas on the blank areas of our daily schedules, stuffing notes into the podium when the Management Proximity Alarm would silently ring. Writing while standing guard, though, is like sleeping with one eye open. It isn’t really sleep, and it isn’t really writing. So not only did I have plenty of time to wonder why I went to college for five years in order to pick my nose in daily seven- or eight-hour stretches, I also lost much of my creative energy. Bleh.

Every now and then there would be a slight ripple in the pool of stillness. A celebrity guest appearance. I once sold a ticket to Daryl Hannah (skinny, skinny, skinny . . . but pretty and seemingly not-an-asshole). I walked alongside Dustin Hoffman (he’s a shortie). I even briefly met Christopher Lloyd: He was visiting the Oceanarium with his girlfriend, hovering outside the ladies’ restroom while she powdered. Four of us were perched at a post (the two of us who were supposed to be there, along with two others with Lloyd-dar). Lloyd, a generous soul, drifted over and we said hello. He was pretty low-key. All of the fish-visiting celebrities were low-key, sort of like the monosyllabic down-time Robert DeNiro of interviews. It didn’t take us long to reach the point of nothing-to-say, particularly since I wasn’t about to venture into fanboy territory. Unfortunately, one of my coworkers didn’t have such compunctions.

“I loved you in those Back to the Future movies, man!”

“Oh, thank you. Yeah.”

“That car was the best.”

“Yeah, well…”

“You still have that car? It was the best.”

“Well, that was in the movie-”

“The car was so cool, though! You have it, right?”

“Er, it was a movie. Um. The car.”

“But it’s YOUR car. I saw it. Man. That car was the bomb!”

“…”

Sometimes you are in the midst of a conversation with someone, and that person will blurt out some blatantly racist or homophobic comment, taking you so off guard that you can’t even formulate a response, agape with shock. That was our state as we watched our coworker grill Christopher Lloyd about a magic car. As we composed ourselves, trying to formulate a way to communicate to Mr. Lloyd that this guy’s warped misinterpretation of reality did not represent the views of our little group, Lloyd drifted backwards, an obviously practiced and honed maneuver from years of being a freak-magnet, finally rescued, moments later, by his re-emerging girlfriend. The only person with the guts to bid him farewell was our idiot coworker.

On a slow midweek afternoon Michael Jackson was in town, shooting a video with Michael Jordan (a meeting of the mega-stars, some sort of binary supernova). I was stationed in the old aquarium that day, at the Oceanarium Exit, at the soul-sucking podium, slow-churning through another day of nothing. Then my Motorola radio blurped a few fuzzy words.

“Pfft! Michael. Pfft!”

Huh? Whatever. Back to the zone-out.

Then I saw Harry, one of the middle-aged Visitor Services guys, emerge from a murky corner, hustling through a circuit of various posts and stations.

“Michael Jackson’s here.”

“What?!”

“I’m telling you. He just came in downstairs, at the Handicapped Entrance.”

“Holy . . .”

“Keep it quiet.”

Harry was gone before I could say anything else, a mere tracer image, moving the word on to other coworkers. There was a weird stillness, punctuated by indecipherable bursts of Motorola static. The galleries were empty, filled with a negative static. It was like being told that the missiles had just been launched and we had about three minutes until complete vaporization. It was the ion-infused temperature shift and green sky just before a tornado rips through, “to terrorize y’alls neighborhood.” No one knew exactly where he was. Somewhere in the building, or under it, or scaling the roof. Something.

Then I saw him. The shadow of a skinny figure in a jacket and fedora, face and hair sort of covered. He darted into the nearby dark gallery and stood for a few seconds, gazing into one of the tanks. Then he jerked over a few feet to the next tank. A couple people were with him, perhaps guarding or advising. No, it was four people. Five. After another 1.5 seconds he snapped to the next exhibit, the five people spontaneously becoming seven or eight. Now he was darting to each successive tank, people hovering about the previous tank like a cloud of gnats. His shifting became increasingly rapid, less than a second to gaze into each tank, to perceive the little worlds of each cluster of aquatic life. It took about 20 seconds for the crowd to reach the tipping point, and then Michael Jackson disappeared.

He didn’t disappear into the crowd. He was still ahead of them, separate, a jumping flea on a fast-track circuit, squeezing about nine exhibit tanks into 15 seconds. When he reached the darkness of the gallery corner he just jerked out of existence. There must have been a secret maintenance door. A human-sized, Wonka-esque vacuum tube in the floor or ceiling. Perhaps an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Who knows. Moments later, the crowd was reabsorbed from whence they came, and a post-storm calm smothered the galleries.

I can only assume that this was a ground-zero glimpse into Michael Jackson’s everyday world. There could be little to no possibility of him experiencing even one minute of a normal person’s existence. He was one of the most recognizable people on the planet, so anywhere he went, the gnat cloud would surface. Of course, showing up in perfect Michael Jackson Drag didn’t help. We all have our uniforms, though. If I was suddenly mega-popular, would I have to stop wearing my Aloha shirts? Would people blame my troubles with fame and identity on my refusal to not wear my recognizable uniform, for neglecting to lurk about the world incognito?

I survived my bubble-existence, eventually moving on to other fun realms of occupational humiliation (but never again the loneliness). Michael Jackson didn’t make it. He stayed in the bubble to the bitter and abrupt end. It was as if he was placed at the Oceanarium Exit podium for his entire life, folding into himself, sleeping with one eye open, derailed from the social cues that inform morality and human contact. And now we add his story to our personal inventories. And we move on.

Remembering

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

This afternoon I was working on a short story in one of my notebooks. I don’t journal much at all, particularly in these last few years of the Megablog. However, back in 2006, while I was taking care of my dad, I wrote an entry in the first couple pages of this notebook. It’s almost overwhelmingly sad, but, oddly, I enjoyed reading it, remembering that this all really did happen, and that life really has continued for me, and that I miss him, but still have love. Here’s the entry, unaltered:

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

“Where are we going?” He said this at 8:30 this morning, standing at his dresser and fishing through the sock drawer with slow insistence. Mom and I had just switched the cars so that I could keep the borrowed Camry with the “Brucker” plates in the garage. I had arrived the night before to begin my shift, and I wouldn’t be going anywhere until Saturday. I think it was the car swap which set him off. A couple weeks ago he was still getting ready in the mornings, still being driven out to his radiation. A week or so before that he was driving himself. So the short, sudden period during which his cognition became disconnected from his mind was riddled with treatments and office visits. It makes sense that our vehicular focus would set the gotta-get-ready gears grinding into his weak sense of morning routine. A few weeks ago we assumed that his “trouble with numbers” had sprouted from the triple-dilapidation of chemotherapy, severely waning appetite, and the growing menagerie of under the counter pain killers. It was easy to imagine, or at least approximate, that woozy discombobulation which could set in after days or weeks of starvation, exacerbated by months of destructive chemotherapy, red and white blood cells punished and diminished, all topped with narcotics – layers of narcotics. The chemo ended, though. We tried to make him eat. Coffee cake, orange juice, devil’s food cookies, steak soup – anything. The pain killers remained. As if they selectively kill pain and nothing else. His confusion rapidly evolved into dementia. It has to be in the brain by this point. I can’t think of any other explanation. His entire condition, the enormity of it, is impossible to explain. I think of the worst physical pains and conditions I’ve ever experienced and they all add up to a simplified facet of his being. Terrible pains and the destruction of viscera are so persistent that they must be the low hum against which his other layers and peaks of pain stand out. I can’t imagine. And I wonder who is being insulted by the dementia. Is it an insult to him if he can hardly perceive it? Should I take the insult as my own? We’re waiting for him to weaken. Hoping for it. If he’s weak enough, and far enough out of his mind, then maybe he won’t be aware of this final kick. The rest of us will always remember, but my grieving is currently relegated to profoundly sad moments – this morning he said that he wanted to know what we’re going to do . . . I said that he’ll take his pills, eat, go to the bathroom, change his arm bandage and pain patch. He said, “then I guess I’ll get dressed and do nothing.” That was the moment of insult. The old John Brucker, the real one, was frustrated as all hell that he was forced to do nothing. He’s been a worker his entire life, so to deny him the ability to work, on even the smallest level, is to deny the very definition of who he is. That made me very sad, and then, mercifully (to me), I became wrapped up in helping him do the things I had just outlined. And now, moments ago, I looked at his hand as he held his five evening pills. Open palm, fingers gently twitching, the tattoo bracelet around his wrist, five tiny pills again and again. The sadness is intense, and if it persisted it would be overwhelming. It would destroy me. But it doesn’t persist. It burns through me until all that’s left is love.

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

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.

The Great Concavity

Friday, September 26th, 2008

(WARNING: Extremely long memoir blog post ahead)

In the fall of 1998, having just turned 30, I decided to read Infinite Jest. Throughout that year I had developed a welt in my shoulder from carrying monolithic tomes in my half-slung backpack. I went from Gravity’s Rainbow to Mason & Dixon to Underworld, developing a thirst for epic, tree-shredding doorstops, each one attached to my hip, Basket Case-style, for months on end. It was a big year for big books by the big names – even Paul Auster cranked out a chunker. Meanwhile, 1998 was a big year for big shit in relationship-land, peaked and fried artistic drive, indulgence and occupational distress. It was obviously time to read Infinite Jest.

At the time this seemed like the beginning of my relationship with David Foster Wallace, and by “relationship” I refer to the typical angry young fanboy pedestal on which he has been placed by countless intellectuals, be them pseudo, closet or overt. In retrospect, though, I later realized that my introduction to Wallace’s writing marked a half-way point in my overall, frustrated relationship to the man, a relationship that was ultimately rooted in my own professional regrets.

Some time during my undergraduate education at Illinois State University, around 1987 or 1988, I started devoting more time to experiments with fiction. Please don’t confuse this with “experimental fiction”. Most of my work was extremely juvenile, with terrible, rambling, unstructured stories and poetry that could only be expected of a clinically depressed jackass who thought that “serious” writing involved creating a tortured character, torturing the character for a few more pages, and then killing him (always “him”) off. Fortunately, I started reading a lot more Vonnegut, so my characters and situations at least became more comic. In 1989 I took my first creative writing class, and then went on to write a weekly column for the school’s newspaper. Again, it was full of goofy, Angry Young Man (AYM) crap, but was also generally entertaining. By 1991 I was writing both my column and a number of feature articles for the paper, and, as an undergraduate, I was enrolled in a graduate level creative writing workshop.

The state of creative writing workshopping at Illinois State University in 1991 was somewhat embryonic. There were really only a handful of grad students who took it seriously, and, of those, it seemed that there were about four of us with any actual talent. This was my first real exposure to academia. Undergraduate students are typically not “academics”. Most of them, particularly at ISU, weren’t going to school in order to pursue a university career. My major was Psychology, not English. There was certainly an expectation of post-graduate study, but the goal was generally independence from academia. Those English folk acted quite differently, though. It seemed important to not only master your subject, but to build a political image within the department. The best writer in our group, a guy with pure talent, had this basketball-buddy relationship with our teacher, Dr. White, another talented guy who would really hit a publishing stride by the mid-90s. White was a post-modernist to the core (he also looked a lot like Morrissey, a bespectacled Hegel-obsessed Morrissey with a slightly reduced hair tower), and encouraged us to experiment, to write from both the heart and the intellect. Ricardo managed to do this, writing more from his pure talent than anything else, and, being the star pupil, White loved him. Hence, basketball buddies. The rest of that group always seemed to be in the shadow of Ricardo, and rightly so. What truly surprised me, though, were the students who didn’t have any business being in a graduate level creative writing course. Some of these people wrote about ten pages the entire semester. One of them was still struggling with a half-baked short story that I remember her presenting back in 1989, in my other class. The course was both a comfort zone and a grazing pasture. It was a support group that didn’t offer a particularly great amount of support to those who didn’t have the chops. I was witnessing the separation of wheat from chaff, but, in this case, those with lower aspirations were simply coasting through the rest of their graduate degrees. Creative writing was just one of the things they fiddled with while honing their analytic skills. None of them seemed to have the write-or-wither soul that I have come to expect of the serious writer. Well, there were about four of us who had it.

I wasn’t a particularly amazing or innovative writer. I was a first-and-only-draft writer. For me, writing was like parallel parking. You get into the zone and do it. If you’re not in the groove, you might as well not even attempt it. I generally had a good instinct for a well constructed paragraph, and my newspaper experience taught me how to crank out the copy. So I was prolific, and, as you can tell, pretty judgmental of people who weren’t. All of my writing was firmly absurd and humorous, generally well-written, but not particularly . . . profound. Unfortunately, this workshop felt a bit like the Academy Awards. No one was going to give an Oscar to the funny guy. Meanwhile, Ricardo was writing about The Shit. The Ghetto. The Drugs. The Slang. Language. Energy. He was a promising young black writer in 1991, and academia really loved that stuff. It was cool to be able to throw out a Public Enemy lyric every now and then while still knowing your Hegel (and looking quite a bit like Morrissey). It was all about deconstruction and thick language, and Irony hadn’t yet been piss-marked by marketing. I remember Dr. White saying that my last piece was well done, a good piece of writing, but also “comic book” (this was before it was academically cool to know anything about comic books).

Somewhat contrary to his criticisms, White seemed quite surprised that I wasn’t going to stay on for graduate school. My plan was to get the hell out of Normal, Illinois and find some sort of “real” job in Psychology, or at least try to find some use for that sketchy degree. My undergrad memories are generally a miasma of gists, but I still have an eidetic recollection of that moment when White asked me to consider graduate creative writing as ISU, even suggesting that I could commute from Chicago. I had been programmed to limit myself to strict definitions of “graduation” and “job market” during a period when a liberal arts education wasn’t doing much for those who weren’t professional students. I had gone from Computer Science to Philosophy to Psychology, and, after five years, I needed to prove to my parents that I could graduate (thus earning the first and, to this day, only bachelor degree of my extended family). The idea of ditching my hot-off-the-press Psychology degree and re-enlisting seemed like an insult to my parents’ hopes. That moment, in May of 1991, disappointment blossoming from Dr. White’s face, is still burning, still challenging the notion of what I was supposed to do with my life.

1991 was also the year when David Foster Wallace began working on Infinite Jest. He was already a published author, a rising star. After the novel was published in 1996, he became a literary sex symbol and superstar. Meanwhile, back in the fall of 1991, intellectually derailed after taking three GREs (General, Psychology and English), I found myself a job guarding fish at the Shedd Aquarium. I started reading comic books, and my writing became little more than pages of notes, ideas, sentence fragments. I was plodding through the tar pit of Generation X. As you stay with a job that expects nothing of your mind, your ambition begins to erode. I guarded the fish, moved to Chicago, and generally pretended that I still had an interest in writing. There was no real reason to write, though. I had no audience, no weekly newspaper column, no bespectacled Morrissey to please. And I was pretty immature, so those bootstraps went untouched. I lost that job about the same time Wallace finished his draft of Infinite Jest. Then I just didn’t bother finding another job for nearly a year, living on savings and credit cards*.

*(My father is groaning in his grave as I type that. Years later he told me that nothing frustrated him more than when I would live from my savings and not have a steady job. He was a work-a-holic to the end and, true to the irony of the cancer that killed him, was reduced to having to stay home from work and live from his insurance and disability salary. There were few insults that could be more profound than this blow to the core of his ethic.)

Some time in the middle of this year of early retirement I rediscovered a 50-page story I had written for my second undergraduate creative writing class. It was meant to be the beginning of a novel, written by an AYM Vonnegut-wanna-be. Pissing my savings away on comic books and pizza, I had nothing else to do, so I started working out the plot, spreading notes about the living room floor. Then I started turning that plot into pages of story. Soon I was writing every day, working first on a roommate’s Mac. The Mac was his family computer that eventually moved on to a college-bound brother, so then I switched to the electric typewriter from my first couple years of college (I entered college just before desktop publishing blossomed, so most of my early stories were written using Wordstar in DOS). Eventually the poor plastic Smith Corona fried itself out, so I finished the last 40 pages of the novel using an Underwood No. 5. The experience was exhilarating, months of living in the parallel parking sweet spot. The job I had just started at Starbucks seemed like a watering hole on my journey to artistic fulfillment.

I watered that hole for six more years. During that time, I shopped the novel around to some of my friends. A couple of them read it. Most didn’t. Imagine taking on the pet project of designing and building your own car. You live within those plans for a year, investing your mind, hand-shaping the chassis and body, sanding, painting, waxing and adjusting until you have finally created a working, tangible object that people can enjoy. You drive the car to a friend’s house and ask him if he wants to take a ride in this thing that you made from nothing, this entity of sole creativity. He says “great job” and then just sort of never bothers getting in the car. Maybe next time. I’m a little busy. I’m sure it’s great. Soon that just feels like “I’m sure you had fun writing it, but it’s not worth my time.” Then it moves on to “I’m afraid to tell you that you’re a crap writer so please don’t put me in that very awkward position.” If you can’t get your friends to read something, how could you possibly get a stranger, who has no buy-in to YOU, to even consider such a waste of time. So the book just sort of drifted off. I wrote a few more short stories over the years, some of which were okay, many of which were turkeys. I wrote more poetry, a bit more mature than the AYM junk of my youth. I poured coffee, watched television, and eventually regrouped with some new ideas for a second novel. I filled a couple sketch books with those fragments, but the ideas, never truly developed, began to dissolve like jet streaks fading into the blue sky.

The Starbucks was in a sort of mall, in a train station, a few stores down from the tiny branch of a bookstore. I remember when Infinite Jest first surfaced. A giant book with white clouds over a blue sky. I was feeling particularly anti-buzz during those waning years of the 90s. I wasn’t about to pick something up just because all the hipsters had Christened it as worthy. So I marked the arrival of another “it” author and let it all pass. Pour more coffee. Mark time. Jot down the fragments. The book store people weren’t beyond influence, though. I took some of their recommendations, particularly the ones that didn’t seem too influenced by momentary cultural fads. I started reading more DeLillo, drifting back to Pynchon, and, by 1998, decided to skip “crap” and only read works of challenge. I also started to turn some of those notebook fragments into sentences and paragraphs.

I considered my first novel to be on the level of a first short story. I used it to learn the form. Ultimately, it was a lost cause that no one cared to read, so I was going to use all of my neurons to write a “real” novel. A tome. A Piece of Work. By the fall of 1998 I had become much more vocal online, sharing some of my poetry and various snippets, and even took the time to explore the open mic fad at a few local bars and coffee shops. I was becoming less concerned with the opinions of my friends and more enamored with the idea of creating a thoughtful work of fiction, of being a part of a greater community. This wasn’t parallel parking, though. I wasn’t in the zone. I was in love with the idea of it all, which is a very different investment of energy.

By the end of the year I had become bold enough to enter a private writing workshop. This wasn’t anything near the level of the academic workshop. There was no screening. All I had to do was fork over some cash and show up. In that respect, it really didn’t feel like a workshop. My peers were all over the scales of talent, and there wasn’t much feedback from anyone beyond the instructor. This workshop was for people who wanted to see themselves as writers. It seemed pathetic, but it also motivated me to write. I was back in some sort of competitive situation, and I wanted to be better than everyone, regardless of how low the bar. I was also knee deep in Infinite Jest, absorbing the incredible and relentless energy of David Foster Wallace. His work is partially motivating, getting you to think and run your own wordy experiments. His work is also destructive. The man was an actual genius, thinking and creating on a very different level than anyone I had met. Yet he was young, savvy, into various elements of pop culture, somehow touchable. He wasn’t Pynchon, writing from a sequestered world, or DeLillo, writing from atop the marble steps of accolade. Wallace was your very cool, smart, sometimes completely annoying friend who you saw every now and then, who was busy making his mark on the world. And he was frighteningly prolific, able to sustain limitless energy for over 1000 pages.

My writing became more detailed, more indulgent. I didn’t go so far as to add footnotes to anything. This was motivation, not simple fanboy copying. I started to explore real pain within the context of humor. The goal was no longer to torture characters, but to bring them through a storm of fire, out to a new place. I gave my instructor one of the draft chapters. He eventually gave me some flattering feedback, encouraging me to continue on into his other classes, even suggesting to curb some of his fees. I was supercharged, of course, but I was also distrustful. I was paying him to say all of that. He was just a therapist, telling people what they wanted to hear. Even in the midst of this reinforcement, I returned to the memories of the friends who never bothered reading the first novel. Would I always have to pay people to read my work? Could nothing I created exist on its own merit? Was I good at anything beyond pouring coffee?

As I continued to read Infinite Jest, I became more fascinated with David Foster Wallace. That was the thing you did with DFW. Look at this pictures. Think of his giant brain. Wonder what it would be like to be his buddy. The book jacket mentioned his living in Illinois. That’s a potential buddy connection. With some pre-Google research I discovered that his residence was in Bloomington, and that he was faculty at Illinois State University. He had joined ISU about one year after I left it. Ricardo was there, too, having matriculated into his imminent position. I found Ricardo’s book, containing material we had workshopped back in 1991, and noticed one of his stories included in an anthology that also had a story by Vonnegut. The creative writing workshop was beginning to gel, and Dr. White had become a nationally recognized post-modern author. It had been nearly eight years since I had refused the invitation to invest myself into that fledgling program. My choice had taken me on a soft path to nowhere. However completely unrealistic it was, I convinced myself that I could have been David Foster Wallace’s actual academic buddy, but I had flushed it all away.

By the time I finished reading Infinite Jest, I had dive bombed into an all out depression. I stopped going to the writing class, never bothering to retrieve my critiqued work. Outside of work, I stopped talking with people. I unplugged my phone so as not to receive messages. For a couple months I was off the map, incommunicado in a world where communication had become ubiquitous. I didn’t abuse myself during that period. Infinite Jest had scared me off from that avenue. I was just convinced that I had absolutely nothing worthwhile to say, and the simple idea being in that position, even in a one-minute phone conversation, became terrifying. The writing disappeared, of course. Why bother? I had wiped my ass with destiny’s Jim page.

In the spring of 1999, as my Great Wane of the Psyche began to shift, I decided to continue an experiment from the preceding year. I had started writing “interactive letters” to my favorite authors. Each letter contained a series of conversational statements or small paragraphs, along with multiple-choice responses that the author could simply check off. This wasn’t a personality inventory. Rather, it was meant to simulate a barroom conversation, generally frivolous and designed to be goofily entertaining to the author. I included a SASE, enabling a harmless, fun opportunity for participation. Unfortunately, the first author I tried this on took the bait, checked off his multiple-choice answers, and mailed it back. This motivated me to try it on another author*, only the shit ticket I ended up giving him must have been both insulting to his intellect and such an obvious waste that he never bothered sending it back. I admit that I spent very little effort composing that second letter, and most of it consisted of ignorant quips comparing New York to Chicago. Still, I thought that perhaps I could ultimately compile these letters into a fun book. It would have been a great opportunity to be sued by all of my favorite authors.

*(I first became aware of Paul Auster through a reading at Illinois State University, arranged by Dr. White back in 1990. The lattice of coincidence expands.)

I’m sure there have been many people who have invented various realities around the idea of being DFW’s smartie pal. McSweeney’s clubhouse image didn’t help. In 1999, as I emerged from my post-IJ exile, DFW published his first collection of post-IJ fiction, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Working past my derailed destiny, I decided that I could still find a way to be his buddy by handing him one of my unique, wacky interactive letters at a reading/signing for the new book. It worked for Neil! So I hammered out a dopey collection of conversational tropes, including fun facts from my time in Normal, IL, found a shiny shirt that made me stand out about as much as this guy, and headed over to Borders. The reading was excellent. Wallace read his piece on “the asset”, using a comical Southern accent. Hey, he uses funny accents sometimes, just like me. I stood in line, rock star shirt a-shimmer, and talked with the woman in front of me who happened to be one of his ISU students. I was back in the groove of identifying myself as a writer, inching closer to one of my peers.

During any book signing there will always be at least one person that the author personally knows. I’m sure it provides a brief oasis from the parade of fawning strangers and wanna-be best friends. An honest face, a forgotten colleague, a touchstone of your normal life. Have you ever been the next person in line after such a reunion? It’s happened to me a few times. Usually the author is still busy talking with his or her True Friend, signing your book absently while all smiles are directed sideways. I can accept that as dumb luck. Things were a bit different with Wallace. He was so happy to see one of his students and briefly catch up, find out how she had moved on, wish her well. Then it was time for Shiny-Shirt Guy. Again, just look at this guy for a second. Yeah, watch out. I don’t remember much of our conversation leading up to my handing him the envelope, but as soon as I did it his expression turned dark. He hefted the thick letter up and down, eyed it with comical suspicion, and, as I assured him that it wasn’t at all what he thought it was (that is, it wasn’t a real letter, probably amounted to no more than a single page of content, and was padded out by the SASE), he rolled his eyes. The guy sighed annoyance and rolled his eyes and begrudgingly signed both the new book and my worn copy of IJ. Yes, I was yet another self-proclaimed smart guy who was attempting to inundate him with my own babbling, attempting to be his brain buddy. He was rude and dismissive, and I stumbled from the table as if I had been slammed in the solar plexus. I drifted over to my line-queue friend, who assured me that DFW was actually a nice guy, and then, still shimmering in my ridiculous blue shirt, I slouched off, back into the world of coffee and pointless, unrealized dreams.

You might think that this marked the end of my relationship with David Foster Wallace. Or perhaps it marked the moment when I decided to move to central Illinois and catalog his garbage. I’m only a stalker of the imagination, though, so, not long after the crash-and-burn signing, I hunkered down with Brief Interviews. It’s an incredible book. Somehow he had managed to compress all of the frightening energy of Infinite Jest into a bit over 300 pages. The intensity crushed me, but it didn’t throw me into another depression. How could it? The Depressed Person, one of the standout stories, goes into such nauseating detail of the persona of a hopelessly self-obsessed depression-addict that there was no way I could slip into depression without the buoyant reminder of how silly and absurd such a mindset can get. Also, this wasn’t my buddy Dave writing to me. This was DFW, genius writer who rolls his eyes at the feeble machinations of fanboys. The entire book was steeped in contempt. This wasn’t just a sustained negativity. This was true contempt for the reader. Somehow, I made it through all of this without being convinced that DFW was an asshole. He was complex enough to be both serious and funny, and smart enough to be intolerant of those who weren’t investing themselves into life. I would have rolled my eyes, too. Maybe.

The funny-letter project ended with Wallace, but so did some of my notions of the relationship between an artist and a consumer. Every work of his that I subsequently read was no longer steeped in his voice. His style remained, but it no longer felt personal. This wasn’t a guy who I could become friends with. He was a professional writer, and my role in that exchange was “the reader”. This was liberating, as I could enjoy his work without the nagging feeling that I was supposed to cross into his destiny. It didn’t matter if I was supposed to have stayed at ISU in 1991. It didn’t matter if I fancied myself a writer. Those failures had no impact on my role as a reader. I was able to let go of all of those expectations and simply enjoy his work, learn from it, allow it to flourish.

Later that summer I received the SASE. Even though I had found a positive role for DFW in my life, I still had that image of Dr. White’s disappointment over my rejection of graduate school. I still felt the presence of that unexplored path. What if DFW shared to stupid letter with Dr. White and Ricardo? It sealed my fate as a crackpot and a dropout. I had made a joke out of my own ambitions. The envelope contained nothing but a scrap of paper. “Thanks for the nice note – Dave.” It was handwritten. I’m not sure why he kept the letter. Perhaps he didn’t even read it. That little note, just a handful of words, brought with it a rush of closure. If he really thought I was a crackpot, he probably wouldn’t have bothered. The cordial relationship between author and reader was solidified. I had managed a personal connection on some level, worked through it, and came out of that cloud with clarity instead of coveting, energy instead of envy.

I finally stopped pouring coffee in December of 1999. Then I packed up the plantation and moved out to Baltimore for what amounted to an experiment in semi-informed decision making and a reactionary expression of free will. I worked on novel number two, ultimately writing some passages so dark that I was back on the edge of depression. The writing became a reflection of my deep disappointment in various life choices, an intellectualization of self-loathing. After my situation collapsed, I moved back to Chicago in 2001, truly starting life anew. In the fall of 2001 I noticed that Dr. White was doing a reading and signing at a bookstore near the University of Chicago. Still fragile from my soul-destroying Baltimore experience, still in the process of redefining who I was, I decided that it was time to confront my history. I needed a new image of Dr. White to replace the 1991 nucleus of regret. I needed 2001 to be the start of a new life, not a rehash of the old one.

When you obsess over something for years it invariably becomes warped and embellished. This is particularly true of failed relationships. Sometimes you forget that the reason you broke up with someone is because that person is an asshole. I’m not going to make such a grand statement about Dr. White, as he was always kind. Over the years, though, I had seen too many movies that corroded my memory. Trite crap such as Dead Poet’s Society and Good Will Hunting. Dr. White had become the gutsy, motivating champion. Oh captain, my captain, and all that shit. That was never his role, though. He was just post-modern Morrissey. Morrissey never sings a song just for you. He sings out to the world, to the girlfriends and the supermarkets. Folks, here’s the one nugget I want you to take away from this endless ramble-a-thon: Never confuse Morrissey with Robin Williams.

Dr. White recognized me, or, at least he recognized the beam of recognition that I was blasting at him. He asked how things were going, said that I looked exactly the same, and then signed my book. The conversation wasn’t any longer than the one in which DFW dangled the envelope and rolled his eyes. White had written “All Best” in my book. All best. That’s just about as impersonal as you can get. When DFW saw a former student, he lit up and asked her at length was she was doing, how her writing was going. Dr. White did his “All Best”, scrawled his signature, and moved on to the next fan (of the thirty or so of us who were there). We didn’t discuss DFW and the expansion of ISU’s writing program. We didn’t catch up as fellow artists. I was a non-academic, so there was no reason to discuss much of anything. The inviting, outstretched hand of 1991, beckoning me to join the ranks, had been rescinded, and the past had become encased in cement. I was on my own.

Obviously we can’t live in the past. What had been less obvious to me was the damage that can result from considering the past as a fluid entity. One can live in the present, but still be convinced that certain actions in the past were still in process. Pouring concrete over the past gave me something to stand on. I’m pretty embarrassed about the years I wasted doodling in notebooks, keeping my goals minute, living in a bubble. After 2001 I was able to move forward, to invest my talents into a professional career, never pouring another cup of coffee for anyone other than myself. I didn’t give up on my dreams, but I did give up on living in a dream state.

So lately I’ve been wanting to revisit the urge to write. The characters I’ve created haven’t gone away. Plots are still insistently remaining in my brain, churning about. I’ve been willing to make the attempt, even in a world where David Foster Wallace was out there, creating from the top tier. And I’ve been more serious about my role as The Reader, for you can’t be a writer without being a reader. Then, two weeks ago, just after I turned 40, David Foster Wallace killed himself. That’s what caused this tumescent self-centered upchuck of a blog entry. I assumed that I would always struggle with the challenge of writing in a David Foster Wallace world. That challenge kept me on my guard, forced me to sharpen my mind and never invite another eye-rolling. Creativity is a chain reaction, the ideas of one person building upon the ideas of someone else, and it feels as though the impetus of that reaction has ceased to exist. A part of my history, of what is yet to come, has been prematurely ended. His work is rich enough that I’ll be reading it repeatedly for the rest of my life, drawing inspiration and awe, but it is crushing and sad to think of his depression, his decision to kill himself, and the suddenly premature finality of his oeuvre (Wallace always insisted that, above all other intentions, Infinite Jest was a novel about sadness). I’ll bet that there are plenty of aspiring writers out there who have similar stories, who wanted to be DFW’s buddy, and now we’re left to live and create outside the terrible comfort of his shadow.